Though Russell Moore is quite in favor of the motif,1 I continue to think that “exile” is not the most helpful term to describe the situation of the church, for the following reasons. (1) As one can see from the prefix ex in the word “exile,” the word carries with it the idea of “going out” (from the Latin exsul, with -sul from the root [probably] sal-, as in the verb salire, “to leap”; it is the same root as is found in words like consul). (2) Omitting the normal punitive connotations of the word for the sake of argument, (1) leaves two possibilities, it seems to me: (a) it refers to a temporary state of the church: we are “going out” from some kind of earthly order that used to be ours and no longer is. But, again, that is not the way in which many contemporary advocates of the motif mean it–Moore, for instance, makes it clear that he does not. The universal church is never identifiable with an earthly political order. A national church may be in certain respects, as a societas Christiana, but that is precisely the kind of idea Moore wants to avoid. Or (b) it refers to a permanent state of the church. But if the word has to do with “going out,” that would indicate that we were in our heavenly homeland to begin with before the present time. But that would require a sort of Origenist belief in the pre-existence of souls, which I don’t think anyone in this discussion holds to.2
Proposition (b) brings a related issue: just where is this heavenly homeland? Do we fly off there when we die,3 leaving behind the late, great Planet Earth forever? Scripture, together with the Reformed tradition, would seem to say no.4 Rather, it is this planet, the one on whose surface you are sitting, standing, or lying at this very moment, that we will inhabit, purged (both it and we) of sin and corruption.
The better analogy, then, is perhaps Abraham in the land of promise: it was his and his descendants’ according to God’s faithful word, but he and they had not yet come into the inheritance. He was not therefore an “exile” in it, but a sojourner. This would be fitting, for he is our father in the faith, so that we likewise are sojourners and pilgrims,5 those who are in via to a place we have never been–and yet, strangely, to a place we have been, but so marred by sin that we may scarcely recognize it in the new heaven and new earth. We may find, that is, that “the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/ and know the place for the first time.”
For next time: some reflections on the vocabulary of “exile” in the LXX Old Testament, and whether that vocabulary appears anywhere in the New Testament.
- I hasten to add that, though I disagree with him on this particular point, I think that he is doing heroic work regarding the most recent Planned Parenthood scandal, and that he is by no means a retreatist. I simply think that there are better ways to articulate non-retreatism.
- It is of course true that we have been “called out” of the world, but it is not immediately clear that (1) this is equivalent to “exile” and (2) that “world” in that case means sin and death, rather than politics and culture, as I have argued before and intend to do again in a future post. I can find no warrant for holding that Christians simply as such must always find themselves “exiled” in political and cultural terms, as a permanent state of affairs. Indeed, I think that Moore is quite seriously mistaken to see the demise of cultural Christianity as a good thing.
- In one sense, yes, but only for the time being.
- I have several posts on this topic in Calvin’s thought in the archives if one wishes to search for them.
- One might say that we are like Abraham spiritually, leaving our own spiritual Ur of the Chaldees to follow God’s call. This is perhaps more appropriate: but what of those who are born into the church, baptized and welcomed from their earliest days into their truest and most lasting family? They have been there all along, so how could they come to it from elsewhere?