Author Archives: llwilmoth

Three Readings of Matthew 16:18’s “πυλαι αδου”

“on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of [hades / hell / sheol] will not [prevail against / overpower, overcome, overrun / dominate] it [the church].”

  1. The Defensive Church

As the phrase “gates of Hades” is used in Matt 16:18, it seems to include not just the city of the dead itself but also its inhabitants, especially its demonic rulers. […]The image in Matthew is of the rulers of the underworld bursting forward from the gates of their heavily guarded, walled city to attack God’s people on earth.

When we speak of demonic powers flooding the earth, we are speaking the language of Jewish apocalyptic. Jewish apocalyptists believed that, in the end-time, the powers of cosmic chaos, restrained since creation, would break forth from their restraint and bring unparalleled tribulation upon the world. [445]

[…] In the age inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the gates of the underworld will swing open and the horrors of the pit will erupt onto the earth with a roar, attacking everything on it—including the church—with unbridled fury. In the midst of this peril, however, Peter will be given the keys that unlock the gates of heaven. Those gates, too, will swing open, and the kingly power of God will break forth from heaven to enter the arena against the demons. Hades will not prevail against the church because God will be powerfully at work in it, revealing his purposes for it and imparting the heavenly power to fulfill those purposes, so that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. [455]

from Joel Marcus, “The Gates of Hades and the Keys of the Kingdom,” CBQ (1988).

2. The Offensive Church

For most people, I suspect, the church is pictured in their minds as a strong enclosure, a mighty fortress, that devotes most of its time and energy to defending itself against the assaults of wickedness and evil. The church, surrounded by thick walls, just sits there on a high mountain, while the powers of hell creep up form the murky valleys around it, trying to invade and destroy it. Most people imagine the church as the defender and evil as the aggressor. Evil is loose in the world and the church is scared to death.

That is backwards, according to this text. “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” Jesus says. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church. Think what that means. The church is the aggressor, according to Jesus, and hell is scared to death. Hell throws up enormous walls with strong gates to protect itself against the grace of God, but no walls or gates that hell can erect will ever keep the church out. The church’s assignment is to go to hell and attack it, and Jesus’ promise is that hell will eventually be defeated by the church and its Gospel.

from Ed Peterman, Practically Preaching: When Did We See You? Sermons for Year A Matthew, (2004), 210.

3. The Immortal Church

“The gates of Hades” is a metaphor for death. …The “gates” thus represent the imprisoning power of death: death will not be able to imprison and hold the church of the living God. …The imagery is rather of death being unable to swallow up the new community which Jesus is building. It will never be destroyed.”

from R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 2007), 624-5.

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Coordinating Language and Experience

How should we understand the relationship between the contents of human experience and their articulation in language? Must mastery of a language be taken for granted before any particular experience is even available as a possible object of consciousness? Or is it the case that the notion of a pre-linguistic experience is perfectly intelligible?

This first pass, from Joseph Sittler, draws a soft/moderate line. Sittler claims that language serves only as a sufficient condition for some experiences. Language can broaden our field of experience, but he remains silent as to whether some experiences might still remain available to us prior to our induction into language.

We sometimes suppose that people look upon the world and find it beautiful and then look for a language with which to adorn what they behold. I think that is true, but it also works the other way. Sometimes we are partly blinded toward this world, and then someone puts the beauty of which we had not been aware into a gorgeous line. Thereafter we behold it in a new way. We go not only from beholding to language, but we may go from the beauty of language to the enhancement of beholding.

from Gravity & Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsburg, 1986), 84.

In contrast, this second remark, from George Lindbeck, takes a harder line. Here language is a necessary condition for any experience.

There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. …In short, it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience.

from The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster Press, 1984), 34, 37.

It’s the categorical character of Lindbeck’s claim that makes it such a provocative one. But even if we don’t follow him all the way down that road, and leave open the door to the possibility of there being some pre-conceptual thoughts/pre-linguistic experiences, it’s still the case that a greater linguistic repertoire does expand one’s intellectual, emotional, and volitional capacities. That much should be uncontroversial. Either way, as Lindbeck has labored to demonstrate, this is a question of considerable theological consequence.

All that to say, the following clip offers a serviceable introduction to a version of this same question, though without an eye to its theological horizons. I wanted to share it here anyway because it’s still taking a crack at a question of interest across the humanities and beyond. It comes from the School of Life youtube channel. I won’t endorse all their productions, but I watched this one all the way through.

 

To take us back to theology. If this thesis has any traction, it should give us reason to reevaluate the (in)dispensability of our inherited theological lexicon whenever we come to asking whether any given term has lost all cultural currency, and therefore should be dropped from our active vocabulary, or whether it remains the best tool at our disposal for bringing to experience its intended referent. Can we really do without talk of, say, confession and absolution, or would our world be made hellishly smaller without them?

If this seems like a topic of interest to you, you can dive deeper into this line of inquiry with the help of Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, (Belknap, 2016).

Joseph Sittler on Community as a Problem

It is simply not true, as is widely affirmed these days, that the matrix of close human relationships is a theater within which fulfillment is guaranteed. Close relationships do provide an important resource—one of which we could probably use more. But there is a time when it simply will not do to declare such human bonds as the absolute, ultimate resource of the Christian gospel. There is, finally, a loneliness in every human life; I am simply not impressed with the promise that happiness in human existence will devolve from the mutuality of personal relationships. Such connections are not fulfilling; in fact, if I could push my thesis further, I would say that the community can actually get in the way by promising fulfillment. Fulfillment is finally not possible in human existence. That is why we have a gospel of divine redemption.

Because human relationships have a limit, and because even the most powerful of them leaves individual solitude uninvaded, the gospel of the divine redemption carries so astounding a promise. Is it not possible that this promise constitutes the allure of the phrase from the confessional prayer “…and from whom no secrets are hid”?

from Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Fortress, 1981), 100.

See also Rowan Williams on Solitude

Reinhold Niebuhr on moral motivation 

Preachers who are in danger of degenerating into common scolds might learn a great deal from H’s preaching style. I am not thinking now of the wealth of scholarship which enriches his utterances but of his technique in uniting religious emotion with aspiration rather than with duty. If he wants to convict Detroit of her sins he preaches a sermon on “the City of God,” and lets all the limitations of this get-rich-quick metropolis emerge by implication. If he wants to flay the denominationalism of the churches he speaks on some topic which gives him the chance to delineate the ideal and inclusive church.

On the whole, people do not achieve great moral heights out of a sense of duty. You may be able to compel them to maintain certain minimum standards by stressing duty, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language.

from Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929), 92.

Joseph Sittler on preaching beyond personal experience

It is only honest to say that I have never known fully that kind of life within the full, warm power of that faith for whose declaration I am an ordained minister. The very term “Christian experience” as generally understood, has small meaning for me. I have not seen any burning bushes. I have not pounded at the door of God’s grace with the passion of a Martin Luther. John Wesley’s “strangely warmed” heart at Aldersgate Street—this is not my street. I have not the possibility to say of the Christian faith what many honest persons have said about it. But I have come to see that to declare as a gift of God that which I do not fully possess is, nevertheless, a duty of obedience. Is the opulence of the grace of God to be measured by my inventory? Is the great catholic faith of nineteen centuries to be reduced to my interior dimensions? Are the arching lines of the gracious “possible” to be pulled down to the little spurts of my personal compass? Is the great heart of the reality of God to speak in only the broken accent that I can follow after? No. That ought not to be. Therefore, one is proper and right to sometimes talk of things one doesn’t know all about. In obedience to the bigness of the story which transcends personal apprehension, one may do this.

from Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Fortress, 1981), 50-51.

Rowan Williams on self-judgment

Bonhoeffer writes [in a poem on his imprisonment], “They often tell me / I would step from my cell’s confinement / calmly, cheerfully, firmly, / like a squire from his country-house.” … But the poem is about the great gulf between what “they” see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside: the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. “So which is me?” Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person they see, or the person I know when I’m on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: I haven’t got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don’t have to decide if I’m really brave or really cowardly, whether I’m really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am is in the hands of God. … It goes beyond the assumption that I am only what I see or know. It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill. It tells me to hope in “what is unseen”…, in the one who doesn’t need to be told about how human beings work because he knows the human heart.

From Being Disciples (Eerdmans, 2016), 29-30.

P.S. George Whitefield on reputation

I am content to wait till the Judgment Day for the clearing up of my reputation; and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, ‘Here lies G.W. What sort of man he was the Great Day will discover.’

QTD in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1990), 154.

Michael J. Buckley on Weakness

For there is a different question, one proper to any form of Christian ministry: Is this person weak enough to be a servant of the gospel of Christ? [81]

What is meant by weakness? Not the experience of sin. Indeed, almost its opposite. Weakness is the experience of a peculiar liability for suffering; a profound sense of inability both to do and to protect; an inability, even after great effort, to author or to perform as we should want, to effect what we had determined; an inability to succeed with the completeness that we might have hoped for. Weakness is the openness to the humiliations and sufferings that issue in the inability to secure one’s own future, to protect ourselves from any adversity, to live with easy clarity and assurance, or to ward off shame, pain, and even interior anguish. [84]

Weakness is the context for the epiphany of the Lord; it is the night in which he appears — not always as felt reassurance, but more often as a hidden power to continue, faithful even when one does not feel the strength, even when fidelity means simply putting one foot in front of the other. [88]

from What Do You Seek? The Questions of Jesus as Challenge and Promise (Eerdmans, 2016)