How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison, Free for CAPC Members
David Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then lays the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth.
In the ever-lucrative market for party games, a recent addition has become a new staple, across the country and in my own home: Timeline. First released a few years ago, Timeline’s basic premise is as intriguing as it is simple. The game consists of a deck of cards, each with a historical event illustrated on both sides. One side lists only the event, while the other includes the year when that event occurred. Players are dealt four cards, and their task is to place the cards in the proper chronological sequence. Players who fail to do so on their turns must then draw again, and the winner is the player who runs out of cards first.Timeline is easy to learn, quick to play, and satisfies the human love of trivia.
Timeline has proved popular, spawning several different expansions or variations since its first release. It is easy to learn, quick to play, and satisfies the human love of trivia. The artwork is cartoonish but well-drawn, and the events included in the original game are a nice combination of well-known historical moments alongside more unusual landmarks. The subsequent spinoffs—which can also be combined with the original game—focus on various themes: Inventions, Americana, Music and Cinema, and so on.
On the one hand, I don’t want to overanalyze Timeline or make of it more than its due. It is, primarily, an enjoyable party game and a pleasant way to pass fifteen minutes or so. But spending even that much time struggling to recall the ordering of historical events can lead one to think about the nature of history itself. “Watch out,” the game’s description warns, “if you’re not careful, you might even learn something!” And I certainly learned some new dates from playing. More importantly, I was reminded about a key Christian truth: the fact of the timeless God who sanctified time by entering into it.
Over the past century, there has been a general movement in primary and secondary education away from emphasizing rote memorization of facts and toward more organic or holistic understandings—at least as far as the study of history is concerned. Such a movement is doubtless a corrective against a potential problematic overemphasis on raw information. We want students to be interested in history, to understand these people and processes on a grand level, to “fall in love” as it were with the “story” part of history.
And to a degree, I appreciate this movement. History represents more than a series of events isolated and cleanly date-stamped, neat and linear and sequential. History is messy and complex, and its reliability is only as good as its (often conflicted) eyewitnesses or chroniclers.
Still, the drive toward holistic history—or indeed a similar approach to other realms of knowledge—is doomed if it disregards established facts. Because the conclusions we draw—however grand and fascinating and thought-provoking and controversial—are meaningless if they are not based in reality. In a brief, brilliant (and sadly little-regarded) essay titled “The Parthenon and the Optative,” C. S. Lewis tackles precisely this disjunction. The optative here refers to a mood in classical Greek grammar that is particularly difficult for English speakers, while the Parthenon is the grand ancient edifice that dominates the Athens skyline. Lewis writes,
I have tended to use the Parthenon and the Optative as the symbols of two types of education. The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The other begins in “Appreciation” and ends in gush. When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it. But the other kind fails most disastrously when it most succeeds. It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can’t construe. It qualifies him to review books he does not understand, and to be intellectual without intellect. It plays havoc with the very distinction between truth and error. (109)
On Lewis’s terms, true appreciation must be grounded in the hard work of memorizing and learning individual facts and skills. He applies this principle to liberal arts learning generally, though it is no less true of biblical studies specifically. Of course, at its core, the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ is simple. Saint Peter does not stand outside the pearly gates with a pop quiz to test our knowledge of biblical trivia as a condition of entrance into heaven. To affirm any such notion would be to fly in the face of Scripture’s radically egalitarian offer of the Good News.
Still, the Bible is not an eight-page cartoon tract. It is a massive compilation, hundreds of pages written across thousands of years by dozens of writers in multiple languages. Its richness is inexhaustible, and there is always more about that simple gospel for us to discover. Moreover, we affirm the proposition that the Bible’s claims, rightly understood, are true—true in a spiritual sense, yes, but at those points that claim historicity, true in a factual sense as well. So while we needn’t be linguists or archaeologists ourselves to do our quiet times, we must necessarily rely on linguists and archaeologists for access to the very Bible we hope to read.
Because the Bible’s authors were real people writing about real occurrences, that tedious raw data of dates and events should matter to us. Haggai and Zechariah were written after Isaiah, and that is important, for we cannot as Christians fully understand those works without understanding their relationship to the culture and eras in which they were written and embedded. To believe otherwise is no celebration of folksy old-time religion but sheer arrogance. It becomes an odd Christian variant of Lewis’s gushy “Appreciation.” As a professor at a Baptist college, I would of course love everyone to take whole courses on biblical history. That, of course, will not happen. But while God can certainly reward the individual believer in his or her “quiet time” alone with Scripture, the practice of Bible study apart from real, solid resources ironically becomes a peculiar sort of arrogance. We can proclaim the priesthood of all believers and assume therefore that we can jump into any Bible passage and truly appreciate it, without regard to context or complexity—without regard to fact.
And this is why I appreciate Timeline. Of course, like any treatment of history, it is not without its biases and idiosyncrasies. Some of its events are well-documented beyond contestation, while others use precise years in situations where more ambiguity might be called for. It selection of which dates to include is a mixture of well-known events and less expected choices (though this is doubtless intentional).Christianity is above all a faith that testifies to the sacral nature of history.
Still, the end result is a game that can quickly teach its players a thing or two about how history works. As a game’s timeline expands, it also begins to become greater than the sum of its parts, even as history itself does. The astute players can start to see the ebbs and flows of historical processes, to see how one event in ancient Roman history occupies a similar time frame to one in Chinese history. More enterprising participants might want to look up some of the game’s more obscure references to deepen their understandings further.
And all of this is important because Christianity is above all a faith that testifies to the sacral nature of history. Whereas many other religions and their texts proclaim history as a distraction from which to escape, the Christian experiences it as the vessel into which its creator poured himself. “In the beginning was the Word,” proclaims the apostle John. He knows full well that his term for Christ, Word (Logos), was the classic philosophical designation for the principle that rationally organized the cosmos, and in using it, he asserts that God the Son exists outside of time. Yet John 1 also deliberately evokes the language of Genesis 1, of the point at which God establishes his “good” creation—through his word. To the New Testament writers, creation is good, but more than that, its creator sanctifies by entering into it: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
This is the mystery we celebrate at Christmas, the mystery of Incarnation, which is why I find it singularly appropriate that I received Timeline as a Christmas gift. Because Christmas marks the entrance of God the Son into history alongside us, to live and to die and to rise at “just the right time” (Romans 5:6 NIV). Dates and events, seconds and centuries, all matter because of the Nativity, because the eternal God humbled himself by entering time at a very specific and particular historical moment. As Augustine reminded his congregation during one of his Christmas sermons, “For your sakes has the Maker of time been made in time. For your sakes has the Maker of the world appeared in flesh. For your sakes has the Creator been born” (112, translated by Lawler).
By itself, Timeline will hardly revolutionize the world or transform a Christian’s spiritual walk. It can, however, move us one baby step away from sentimental Appreciation toward real knowledge, and it can do so in a slightly less tedious way than the average rote learning methods (even if there is a place for those methods too). And in the process, it can remind us of the miracle of the Incarnation, that time itself is good, sanctified by the God who made it and poured himself into it. Not bad for a ten-minute card game.
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