Theological Eschatology 5 - Heavenly-Mindedness

Theological Eschatology 5 - Heavenly-Mindedness

This is the fifth (and final) article in this series on theological eschatology. To read the other installments, one can find the introduction here, the second here, third here, and fourth here Mark McDowell, editor

Theological method follows its matter. In other words, sound theology does not merely imitate the scientific procedures of other disciplines, precisely because, unlike those other disciplines, theology seeks to know God, the holy and transcendent one of Israel, revealed as of late in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. While many common-sense protocols of intellectual endeavor may be shared between the student of divinity and the anthropologist, the deepest principles of each discipline will be quite distinct. 

In previous posts, we have considered several of these theological principles and observed how they affect one particular area of doctrinal reflection, namely, Christian hope or the study of last things (eschatology). In so doing we have sought to consider what a theological eschatology, that is, one defined by a properly theocentric approach, would involve. We have considered the way in which a theological approach will be centered upon those emphases found across the canon of Holy Scripture (in its varied testaments, genres, and authors). We have sought to think in an integrated or coherent fashion, asking how any topic must relate to or exist alongside others (for the same faithful God has spoken them all). And we have then traced the way in which a central focus does not preclude matters of secondary or tertiary significance being addressed as well, to which we do well to attend also (lest we lapse into myopia or unnuanced simplicity). 

To these basic principles we add one more: theological confession summons forth ethical command. To put it more bluntly in terms of our test case: eschatology shapes and summons ethics. In weeks past, we have considered how the development of eschatology in the modern Reformed tradition (this side of neo-Calvinism) has sometimes drifted into a mode that is parasitic upon basic Christian hope, and we have attempted to recalibrate that Kuyperian approach in a way that is productive (rather than parasitic) by viewing the reforms of Kuyper, Bavinck, and others within the classical confessions of the catholic church rather than antithetical to or apart from them. 

A similar danger arises in the world of theological ethics. Neo-Calvinism has reinvigorated the way in which we value the everyday and the mundane. The sanctification of the ordinary has flowed forth from the basic principle that, as Kuyper famously put it, Christ is Lord of every square inch of the cosmos. Neo-Calvinist ethical teaching has focused upon applying Christian theological principles - creation, fall, redemption, restoration - to various human enterprises: family, economics, education, etc. The result has been remarkable in its influence and, in its best forms, in its benefits to Christian faithfulness in a thoughtful, theologically fitting manner across a whole slew of facets of life. 

"Basically, all asceticism is nothing other than self-willed religion. It consists in the accomplishment of a series of counsels that have not been enjoined by God but were instituted by human and ecclesiastical consent" (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, p. 243). With these words, Herman Bavinck indicts the ascetical tradition in both material and formal ways. Materially, asceticism is "self-willed religion." Formally, and following from that material point, asceticism flows from the judgments of ecclesiastical custom rather than the word of the Lord. Without denying the reality that ascetical practice outside the church and, sadly, at times within the church has fallen prey to both errors, I want to suggest that biblical teaching compels us, nonetheless, to develop an ascetical practice to match our eschatological faith. Several biblical principles deserve our attention and pressure this call to an ascetical ethic: contentment, Sabbath, self-denial, prayer, spiritual-mindedness, and the like. 

Of course, these practices cannot be means of getting right with God or even deserving further blessing from God (so the threefold warning against improper approaches to religious practice in Matt. 6:1-4, 5-8, and 16-18). Denial of earthly goods or of personal delights in the here and now must always be premised upon the faithful reception of Christ's good and of his blessings whether here or in the hereafter. We put to death the deeds of the flesh and even set our minds on things above only as those already raised to the heavenly realms in him (so Col. 3:1-4). We need an evangelical asceticism, then, that locates our sanctified practice within the many-splendored gift of the Messiah. Still further, central to an ascetics that is marked principally and paradigmatically by faith is its guidance by a word from the outside, not from human custom or mere ecclesiastical counsel but from God above. Thus, Bavinck's formal concern must compel our attention as well, lest we somehow develop protocols of self-denial that do not flow from scriptural teaching. 

Those basic commitments in mind, I now wish to focus upon heavenly-mindedness as a broad concern. I do so aware that the modern era has seen the rise of an objection that one might be too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good. Indeed, heavenly-mindedness might be used as a tool to maintain the earthly status quo, especially when foisted upon those in positions of suffering by their perpetrators in power. Before we consider that objection, we might ask regarding the nature of heavenly-mindedness: why is it called for? what is it? why is it difficult? how does it arise?  

As Gregory the Great observed, "the mind becomes insensitive to heavenly desire through its preoccupation with early cares. When its preoccupation with the actions of the world hardens it, it cannot be softened for the things that pertain to God's love" ("Homily 19" on the Gospels). Jesus told us that one cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24), that worldly cares do not deserve our anxiety (Matt. 6:34), and that we ought to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt. 6:33). This principled hierarchy of cares finds expression in the prayer he teaches his disciples. While he does include the request for "daily bread" (Matt. 6:11), this matter follows entreaties regarding the kingdom first and is surrounded by spiritual concerns for forgiveness of sins and repentance (see the context of Matt. 6:9-13). 

Heavenly-mindedness involves meditation: scriptural reflection and prayerful conversation with the God to whom we are united in Christ. The most basic and widespread forms of ascetical practice are prayer and hearing the scriptures. In prayer, the believer turns away from worldly enterprise and turns toward divine communion. Time is no longer invested sowing unto a self-directed harvest. Time is given to seeking out the comfort and provision of the God who listens. In hearing the scriptures (whether spoken or read), the believer turns away from worldly imagination and turns toward divine instruction as to the way the world runs. Effort is not here given to strategizing in new methods to live more effectively. Effort is given to seeking out the wisdom and word of the God who speaks. In these basic Christian practices, whether exercised individually or corporately, we do participate in a heavenly-minded focus upon God. 

In meditating or being mindful of heavenly, spiritual reality, we experience the love of God in Christ through deeper communion. The Puritans pointed out that the love of God is not greater here, for that is constantly given to us in union with Christ; but they also noted that our experience or appropriation of that love does wax and wane, and they used the term communion (as distinct from union) to honor this lived reality. And how do we come to savor this heavenly communion and these spiritual realities? Augustine reminds us of the efficacy of God's grace, which is simply to say, the effectiveness of God's love for his own: "Just as impure love inflames the soul, and draws it toward earthly things that are desirable but are bound to die, and casts it down into the depths; so holy love raises the soul to heavenly things, and causes the soul to burn for eternal things, and stirs the soul toward that which will neither pass away nor die, and lifts it from the depths of hell to heaven" (en. Ps. 121.1; see also en. Ps. 127.15-16). By God's grace, through God's appointed means, we are called away from undue and improper fascination with lesser goods and are called unto that which is greater: communion with the triune God through Jesus Christ. 

We can then return to the question: is heavenly-mindedness of no earthly good? C. S. Lewis did not think a truly Christian heavenly-mindedness fell prey to this problem, as he put it: "Aim at Heaven and you will get earth 'thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither" (Mere Christianity, p. 119). Of course, other heavenly considerations may be quite different, and biblical heavenly-mindedness takes in communion with the triune God and prayerful, scriptural meditation upon all his glories. For promptings in this direction which show just how distinctive this kind of spiritual-mindedness is when compared to other ancient or contemporary religious or metaphysical worldviews, read John Owen's "The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded" (in vol. 7 of his works). Heavenly-mindedness involves meditation upon not only the truths of God revealed in all creation, but especially those characteristics and deeds shown forth in the covenant and personally in Jesus Christ. Communion with God in these truths sends one back to one's current situation transformed. Thus Owen says: "I aim not to take men out of their lawful earthly occasions, but to bring spiritual affections and thoughts into the management of them all" (p. 389).

By delighting in the glory of the heavenly as given to us in Jesus, those in power are freed from the utilitarian desire to get theirs now and, by extension, to view others as instruments unto that end. By reveling in the beauty of the heavenly as shared with us in Christ, those in positions of weakness are freed from the nihilistic impulse that they may never be loved and, by extension, to view themselves as objects of God's hatred. Faith in the good news of the gospel sustains and challenges all by pointing them away from themselves, from their cultural projects, from their heritage, from any and every marker located outside of the name of Jesus. And heavenly-mindedness fuels faith by directing our minds to him and growing our passion and desire for him. 

Michael Allen is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida