Crossing the river in Pilgrim’s Progress

Among the songs our church sang on Easter Sunday was “Because He Lives.” The third verse reads:

And then one day, I’ll cross that river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns

The line about crossing the river reminds me of a late scene in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian & Hopeful must cross the river of death to reach the Celestial City. Bunyan’s depiction of the weakness of our flesh and our wavering faith in the face of death is arresting and somehow comforting. Until the day that it is destroyed, death remains an enemy that threatens us with fear and tempts us to despair (1Cor 15:26). We need not fear death when it comes (Heb 2:14-15), but who can say how we will fare in the heat of our last battle? On the heels of Easter Sunday I’m thankful that God’s promise of eternal life is certain even when I am not.

Now between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight of this river the pilgrims were stunned. Then the men who went with them said, “You must go through the river or you cannot enter the City at the gate.”

The pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate, to which they answered, “Yes, but there have been only two, Enoch and Elijah, permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world. And no one else will be permitted to go that way until the last trumpet shall sound. “

Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.

Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Then Christian cried out, “Ah, my friend! The sorrows of death have compassed me about. I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”

With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead.

It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage.

All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.

It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead.

Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”

But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”

And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.

Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin he has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.

Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men’ (Psa. 73:4, 5). These troubles and distresses you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”

Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole.

With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you’ (Isa. 43:2).”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those shall be the heirs of salvation.” Then they all went along together toward the gate.

Now though the city stood upon a mighty hill with its foundations higher than the clouds, the pilgrims went up with ease, agility, and speed because the ministering spirits supported their arms as they led them. Also they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river, for though they had gone in with them, they had come out without them.

-John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (ed. C. J. Lovik)

Andy Stanley’s new sola

if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

By now you’ve probably heard about Andy Stanley’s latest theological faux pas in which he deduces from Acts 15 that “Peter, James, and Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures.” This, he claims, is proof that Christianity is able to “stand alone” without being “propped up” by the Old Testament.

Considering that the NT has some sixteen hundred quotes from and allusions to the OT (a conservative estimate) some find this claim more than problematic. In fairness, Stanley would have everyone know that he hasn’t changed his views on inspiration and inerrancy but that he has changed the methods behind his messaging. His emphasis on Christ’s resurrection to the exclusion of the OT was a reaction to the success he believes the new atheists have enjoyed by riding a new wave of biblical criticism. On Stanley’s assessment, many people today stumble unnecessarily over something in or about the Bible–especially when they come to the OT. So while traditional Christians find his detachment from the OT disturbing, Stanley assures us that this disassociation is liberating for those who can’t get past the “dynamic, worldview, and value system depicted in the story of ancient Israel.” In short, Stanley believes that to reach future generations Christians need to trade in a culturally adulterated sola Scriptura for an apostolic sola anastasis.

What shall we say to these things?

1. People will always have reason to stumble over the Christian faith.
I appreciate Stanley’s desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to the faith but a singular focus on Christ’s death and resurrection (“Christianity is able to stand on its own two nail-scarred feet.”) is not the clean, simple solution he supposes. Stanley extols the good ol’ days of the early church when they preached an event rather than the Bible, failing to mention the offense of the cross and the dubious character of the resurrection in the first century (see Acts 17:18, 32; 1Cor 1:18, 23; 15:12). Christ’s resurrection had its own cultural baggage in the apostolic age as it does in today’s technological age.

More broadly, it’s not as if it’s only the OT that suffers from a credibility gap. The NT has similar problems in modernity’s public square. Has Stanley never heard of Bart Ehrman’s work? Will the people who object to the historicity and miraculous elements of the OT be more willing to affirm a virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, feeding five thousand, exorcisms, walking on water, a voice from heaven, bodily resurrection and a physical ascension through the clouds? (And we haven’t even gotten to the NT epistles and Revelation!) If Stanley can overcome the skeptic’s veto for the NT, he can certainly do the same for the OT. I’m all for keeping the focus on Christ but Stanley’s approach sounds more like capitulation than contextualization.

2. Both Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection by the OT. I honestly don’t know how Stanley can declare the Christian faith unhitched from the OT on a straight reading of Acts. Let’s start with the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 which he portrays as Christianity’s official break with the OT. In a shocking disregard for the risks associated with aggressive facepalming, Stanley quietly passes over the point at which James supposedly “unhitches” the church from the OT by appealing to the OT (Acts 15:15-19). He also neglects to mention the conspicuous presence of OT texts in the apostles’ resurrection proclamations  (Acts 2:25-28, 30-31, 34; 3:18, 22; 4:11; 10:43; 13:32-35; 17:2-3, 24-26; 24:14-15; 26:6-8, 22-23; 28:23ff).

And it’s not as if Peter and Paul kept returning to the OT because they just didn’t know any better. Their sermon template was set by Jesus himself in his post-resurrection appearances. As Luke makes abundantly clear, Jesus explained (see #3) his death and resurrection by utilizing every part of the OT–the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets (Lk 24:25-27, 32, 44-47). Even if we were to limit our critique to the biblical evidence that he draws upon, the biblical support for Stanley’s claim is non-existent. His is not even an argument from silence and to call it cherry picking might be too generous.

3. The resurrection needs an explanation. Christ and his apostles built their preaching around the OT because the resurrection was an event that required an interpretation. To claim that something happened is only the first step in declaring what happened. That is, even if everyone agreed that Christ was raised we must still explain what it means that Christ was raised (i.e. why is it significant?). Ironically, Stanley seems to assume the revelatory meaning of the resurrection even as he treats it as self-explanatory. But if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

Good intentions notwithstanding, there’s just no way to make sense of the resurrection without “hitching it” to the OT story. According to Paul, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” and he was buried and “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3-4). If Paul & Co. unhitched the Christian faith from the “Jewish Scriptures” as Stanley claims, to what Scriptures did the resurrection adhere? Jesus said that “these [OT Scriptures] testify about me” (Jn 5:39) and Paul makes it clear that the OT moves progressively toward the NT along a line of promise-fulfillment that culminates in Christ (Rom 1:1-2; Gal 3:8; Titus 1:2-3). These claims are in stark contrast to Stanley’s contention that the OT and NT stand as two covenants in conflict with each other. Any report of the OT’s theological expiration is greatly exaggerated (Gal 3:24; 1Tim 1:8ff; 2Tim 3:15).

Stanley is to be commended for his intention to “resist anything that makes faith in Jesus unnecessarily resistible. But following his counsel concerning the OT would be disastrous.

Statues come to life

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. {1Corinthians 15:42-44, ESV}

     In reality, the difference between Biological life and spiritual life is so important that I am going to give them two distinct names. The Biological sort which comes to us through nature, and which (like everything else in Nature) is always ending to run down and decay so that it can only be kept up by incessant subsidies from Nature in the form of air, water, food, etc., is Bios. The Spiritual life which is in God from all eternity and which made the whole natural universe, is Zoe. Bios has, to be sure, a certain shadowy or symbolic resemblance to Zoe: but only the sort of resemblance there is between a photo and place, or a statue and a man. A man who changed from having Bios to having Zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.

And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk 4. ch. I