3 Feb

To renounce the world

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/03/16

James K. A. Smith on baptism’s rebuke of disordered cultural life

“[B]aptism is a moment when Christian worship articulates an antithesis with respect to the world. In constituting a people, God constitutes a peculiar people — a called-out people who are marked as strange because they are a community that desires the kingdom of God, and thus they reflect the cruciform shape exemplified by Christ. Since the early church, baptismal rites have included a series of ‘renunciations’ or even exorcisms that renounce Satan and the world. . . .

“Clearly the meaning of world in Scripture is not univocal; it can refer to various phenomena and realities. I suggest that the most helpful distinction to make when encountering reference to ‘the world’ is . . .  between ‘structure’ and ‘direction.’ . . . [O]n the one hand, the Scriptures affirm that the world as structure (as a given reality) is created by God and, as such, is fundamentally good. On the other hand, world is sometimes a sort of name given to human society that has taken the world (as structure) in the wrong direction. In that case, the world names fallen, broken systems, idolatrous configurations, the Garden of Eden remade as Babylon. In other words, in passages like Romans 12:2 and I John 2:15, world is the name for disordered creation, often with a specific emphasis on the misdirected cultural formations of human society, but also including the ‘principalities and powers’ (Eph. 6:12 KJV). It is in this sense that the world is to be spurned and renounced. Thus the baptismal formulas are rejecting not temporal material existence per se, nor cultural life as such, but rather the perversions and distortions of both that characterize fallen humanity. . . .

“The baptismal renunciations are clear echoes of biblical language that asserts a radical, even ontological, change that takes place when one becomes a member of the body of Christ, a citizen in this new configuration of the polis. ‘For once you were in the darkness,’ Paul says, ‘but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light’ (Eph. 5:8). This transformation and demarcation is a radical turning akin to resurrection, again calling to mind the image of resurrection pictured in baptism (cf. Rom. 6:12–13). As Paul elsewhere exhorts, ‘Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly. . . . These are the ways you once followed, when you were living that life. . . . Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self’ (Col. 3:5, 7, 9–10). Our baptism signals that we are new creatures, with new desires, a new passion for a very different kingdom; thus we renounce and keep renouncing our former desires.

“Unfortunately, in the Reformed tradition, because we are rightly concerned not to accede to the modern gnosticism that would denigrate the goodness of creation, we can also be prone to blur Scripture’s marked distinction between the world and the new creation (of which the church is a part). We even get a little embarrassed about the New Testament’s stark claims about the people of God. In short, in the name of defending the goodness of creation, we paper over the distinction between structure and direction; thus our affirmation of creation slides into an affirmation of the world, which then slides toward an affirmation of ‘the world’ even in its distorted, misdirected configuration. In the name of the goodness of creation, we bend over backwards to affirm common grace and are embarrassed by the language of antithesis, which feels dualistic and otherworldly. In short, we forget the renunciations that attend our baptism.”

—James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (BakerAcademic, 2009)

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