A Critique I Should Have Written of Rachel Held Evans’ ‘Abraham and Isaac’

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

A couple of days ago I attempted to critique a blog post written by Rachel Held Evans, famous Christian blogger par excellence. In particular I was abrahamattempting to critique her seeming suggestions about how we ought to read the Old Testament, in particular, those troubling passages of Scripture that make it seem like God commanded his covenant people, Israel, to slaughter the Canaanite people groups that Israel was supposed to subdue and dispossess of their land. This part of Rachel’s post is the part that is most interesting and revealing to me, even though it is situated within a broader appeal, by Rachel, to the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the sacrifice of Isaac that God was requiring of Abraham (the story can be found in Genesis 22). The reason that the issue of the Canaanites is more interesting to me is because this is where Rachel really begins to discuss the way she believes she must interpret these admittedly hard passages to deal with, ethically. And so for the rest of this post I am going to attempt to offer a material engagement with what Rachel wrote in her post, and attempt to offer some perspective on where, maybe, her apparent interpretive approach has come from, historically. Furthermore, I also will be addressing, briefly, Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns, and the impact that he has had upon Rachel Held Evans (even recently) through the publishing of his new book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Because I will be engaging with quite a bit of material, and some profound stuff in regard to biblical interpretation and theology (i.e. heremeneutics), this post is going to run long; hopefully it will be interesting enough to you to finish through to the end.

The God of Genocide Who Is Love

As I mentioned, Rachel Held Evans, among many others, is troubled with passages in the Bible (like what we might find in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, etc.) where we see God commanding his covenant people Israel to go into these Canaanite nations and wipe them out; for Rachel (and not just Rachel) this sounds like ethnic cleansing and genocide, she writes:

In the story in question, God leads the Israelites on a years-long conquest of Canaan, with instructions to kill every man, woman, and child of Canaanite ethnicity.  “When you enter Canaan,” God tells Joshua, “the land I am giving you, as I promised to Abraham long ago, do not offer terms of peace, but kill everything that breathes—including women, children, and livestock. Leave nothing alive.”[1]

She writes further,

Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.”

According to this view, God is glorified in seeing swords driven through the chests of curly-haired toddlers, in pregnant women being stabbed in the belly before being murdered themselves, and in old men and women begging for mercy but being denied it—just as God was glorified in the death of all the firstborn Egyptian males (Exodus) and in the taking of twelve and thirteen year old girls as spoils of war (Numbers).

An endorsement of such actions raises about a million questions, the most pressing of which is: if God ordained ethnic cleansing in the past, might God ordain it in the present or future?[2] 

What we see Rachel doing, is the same thing that we all must do when confronted with texts in Holy Scripture; we must try and understand to make sense of this, and what appears to be a very brutal and bloody version of God, and how that jives with Jesus Christ, and his revelation of God as love (cf. I Jn. 4:8). We need to honestly work at bringing what seems to be an ethical dilemma in God’s own life into some sort of comportability with this picture of God as gentle like a Shepherd, but aggressive like a Warrior.

Getting a better grasp on the gravity of the biblical scenario that Rachel is attempting to get her head around is important as we move forward in critically engaging with Rachel’s article. Now, there are some alternatives that we have available to us, as we attempt to bring some sort of resolution to this grunewald_crucifixion_phixr-2.jpg‘apparent’ dilemma with who God is. Here are some alternatives off the top:

1) We could posit that God is God (as Rachel has already interacted with this approach herself), and thus what he says goes, no matter what (a la John Piper).

2) We could offer a view that I have heard over the years that: the Canaanite people were so miserably immoral, that wiping them out was actually an act of mercy (like putting a wild, diseased animal out of its misery).

3) We might want to not frame this as an ethical conundrum primarily, and instead focus on the covenantal and canonical reality of these ‘harsh’ stories by emphasizing God’s plan of redemption in action as forging a way for his ultimate salvation for the nations that he was mediating with particular focus through the nation of Israel. We might want to understand that God’s action in these “genocidal” stories through the lens of the salvation that he was bringing not just for future nations, but maybe even for these Canaanite people themselves (which would be an interesting way to understand this).

4) Or, we might want to posit, as many biblical interpreters of the late 18th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries have offered through a higher critical, historist, history of religions lens (in Peter Enns’ words):

“God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.”  … “is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time….The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” … These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time,” … “but not for all of time—and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up ‘explanations’ to ease our stress. For Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read—which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word.”[3]

There are other ways to try and understand what God is doing (or not doing, as it may be according to Enns, and potentially Evans, insofar as she is willing to endorse Enn’s solution), but these, above, will have to suffice for now.

This is where things are interesting, and maybe even telling, in regard to Evans’ own approach, she writes in regard to the Joshua passage:

Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.[4]

It sounds as if Rachel is not of those “who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions….” It sounds like she is choosing, along with Peter Enns, to see these stories as not ‘historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions,’ but instead as a story[s] that “looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.”[5] Evans makes her reliance upon Enns opaquely clear when she writes,

As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, one of my favorite guides on this journey has been Old Testament scholar (and friend) Peter Enns. Pete’s books, blogs and articles just make sense to me—as a skeptic, as a literature lover, and as a Christian. The guy speaks my language, and he consistently writes with unusual wit, clarity and honesty.[6]


I’m not sure how else to describe this book [The Bible Tells Me So] except to say that reading it is an experience. Never have I encountered a book on biblical interpretation that manages to be as simultaneously challenging and funny, uncomfortable and liberating, intellectually rigorous and accessible, culturally significant and deeply personal. It’s a book that invites the reader to really wrestle with Scripture, and it’s not for the faint of heart.[7] 

Does this praise of Enns’ work mean, without a doubt, that Evans takes Enns’ solution to the dilemma of “God as love and genocide” as gospel truth for herself? No, not necessarily, but it does suggest it. Especially when Evans, in her article on Abraham and Isaac (the one I have been referencing throughout this little critique), takes this tact in response to all of this; she writes:

While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. We have no moral justification for opposing Joseph Kony’s army of children, for example, because Joseph Kony claims God is giving him direction. If this is the sort of thing God does, who are we to question it?

This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition.   I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me. Once you are convinced that the deity you were taught to worship does evil things, it’s easier to question the deity’s very existence than it is to set aside your moral objections and worship anyway.[8]

It sounds like Evans needs a way out, or better, a way around the events recorded, for example, in our biblical book of Joshua. And it ‘sounds’ like, for Evans, Enns has provided a plausible alternative for Rachel, an alternative that allows the Bible to remain the Bible, but one that is compatible with Evans’ modern ethical sensibilities juxtaposed with who she believes God to be. My colleague, Kevin Davis has responded to this “apparent” mood at work in the hermeneutic of Evans in this way (at length):

I don’t disagree with the substance of that initial criticism [the one being made by both Evans and Enns], but it also must be said that I make God into my own image. Last I checked, I am a sinner. I harbor a whole host of assumptions, moral and aesthetic categories, which I bring to my theology and which still predetermine my conception of God. This is why our theology is always a work-in-progress — “theology on one’s knees,” to use one of Balthasar’s favorite images.

My disagreement with Evans (and Enns obviously comes to mind) is how the biblical portrait of God no longer operates in its authoritative capacity for the church. A certain treatment of Christ, which is itself selective, is given the sole normative status for one’s theology. The rest of the Bible is relativized through its cultural framework, with the peculiar christology of one’s own cultural conditioning serving as the norma normans.

While I invariably bring moral and aesthetic categories to my theology — categories which have been predefined apart from the covenantal activity of God and the inscripturated witness to God — these categories have to be rigorously tested, modified, or perhaps rejected entirely. God does not conform to my philosophy; my philosophy conforms to God, using “philosophy” in both its narrow (modern) and broad (ancient) sense. This includes the God of the conquests, just to be clear.[9]

Davis brings up the way, if I had space, that I would like to proceed further in offering a more pin-pointed critique of Evans’ apparent hermeneutic (reliant upon Enns, as the case may be). But I am going to have to leave the heft of that critique with Davis’ insightful words, and move on, in conclusion to suggesting where, in the history of biblical interpretation, Enns’ and maybe Evans’ approach to interpreting these Old Testament stories come from (and the desire to figure out how to still salvage the God of the Old Testament, in essence, as the Christian God of love that he is, without totally throwing the Old Testament into the garbage can). To this suggestion we now turn, and with this we will close (we are currently at 2200 words in this now mini-essay of mine).


History of Interpretation

This is where this critique must go, not just to the ethical concerns (that Davis kantimhas now helpfully alerted us to what is at stake in that regard), but what the antecedents are to the way that Enns’ (and Evans, insofar as she might rely upon Enns in her own thinking) ‘novel’ (but not novel) approach has developed in modern history.

Immanuel Kant signaled a paradigmatical shift into the ‘modern’ period (among other thinkers) in providing the building blocks for how people think (in general) about reality; inclusive of biblical reality and its ostensible historical accounts. It is interesting to consider the kind of impact Kant had when we apply that to the development of modern biblical studies and interpretation, and then how that impact gets played out in people like Enns (who was trained in the discipline of modern biblical exegesis at Harvard Divinity School). Murray Rae helps us understand what kind of impact Kant had, and interestingly, and to our point, how we can see this impact in the types of questions that Evans is asking, and in the kind of ‘solution’ that Enns is offering (pace a ‘Kantian’ turn). Rae writes in regard to Kant and biblical interpretation:

Kant proceeded to explain that there are two forms of theology, the revealed or biblical theology of the church containing all the historical and symbolic material upon which Christian theology has been constructed, and the rational theology which Kant himself presumed to develop in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). These two forms of theology are related as two concentric circles: the outer being revealed theology, the inner being rational theology. The rational theologian, Kant argued, must “waive consideration of all experiences,” which is to say, the rational theologian must proceed without reliance upon the historical material of the Bible. There is, in revealed theology, a timeless essence with which the rational theologian is concerned, but it is discoverable in principle without recourse to the historical testimonies that attend Christian theology, as also the theology of other faiths. The essence of all faiths, allegedly, is their moral significance, which is derivable a priori from reason alone[10].

Remember when Evans wrote this previously in this essay?: “This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition….” And remember, Enns’ ‘solution’ (that Evans appears to resonate with)?: “The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” And now consider that, with what we just witnessed in regard to the impact that Kant (according to Rae) had upon modern biblical exegesis, and the desire for a ‘rational’ theology. What is interesting about Kant in relation to Enns’ ‘solution’ is the willingness, the necessity even, in order to be rational and in accord with modern sensibilities (ethically and epistemically), to discard the ‘husk’ of historical reality, in order to get to the ‘kernel’ and essence of the ethical reality of who the God of the Bible is. For Enns, thinking from a Kantian (among many others later) type of trajectory, it is perfectly acceptable to discard the historical event-ual reality of the biblical text as a faithful representative of who God is (because it does not comport with modern ethical sensibilities – remember Davis’ critique previously), in fact it is demanded by the rational among us, in order to be able to still affirm the gentle Shepherd God who is love that we find particularly revealed in the man from Nazareth, in Jesus Christ.



We have covered a lot of ground, and too quickly. This has turned into a mini-essay of sorts (of about 3000 words), way too long for a blog post, but if you stuck it out, thanks.

I have made lots of suggestions, and attempted to draw some connections that still wait to be connected through further development. But I hope that through this engagement, you can at least see some pitfalls that I believe are attendant with Evans’ probing in her post (that I have referenced throughout), and where that trajectory has come from in modern history. I also hope that the role that Enns is playing in all of this has become clear. For many of you that might be a good thing, but in a later post I would like to suggest (and somewhat argue) that reading the Bible through ‘rational’ categories (like those provided by Kant and others, and now deployed constructively by folks like Enns & co.) is not really ‘principled’ Christian or confessional way of reading Scripture. I will further suggest in that later post that this way of reading Scripture (‘rationally’) is not new, nor principally owned by Enns (he just has his own creative way of engaging it), but in fact serves as the basis for almost all of what counts as biblical studies today.

Stay tuned.












[1] Source

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, cited by Rachel Held Evans here.

[4] Rachel Held Evans, Source.

[5] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, cited by Evans.

[6] Evans, Source.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rachel Held Evans, Source.

[9] Kevin Davis, A Brief Response to RHE, accessed 10/21/14.

[10] Murray Rae, “Salvation in Community: The Tentative Universalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

What is the Bible and How Should it be Interpreted?

October 20, 2014 § 4 Comments

The Bible is part of God’s domain in Jesus Christ; it speaks God’s lively voice over, and often, against us. When I encounter approaches to Scripture that are Bible Pagepremised upon a posture of sitting over Scripture through some platform ostensibly offered them by some sort of ‘pure nature’ that gives them critical space to question Scripture’s veracity as God’s deposited words to humanity, I am deeply saddened! When I come across modes of engagement with Scripture that think Scripture finds its orientation, again, from a ‘pure nature’ (meaning a non-contingent independent understanding of nature that is abstract from God’s upholding Word, and thus self-sufficient and self-possessed in itself), I am troubled.

John Webster:

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction. To speak of the historia Scripturae is to say that Scripture is what human persons author, and that its interpretation is what human persons do to get at the meaning so authored. In describing authoring or interpreting, language about God is superfluous, or merely ornamental, or invoked only as the remotest background condition for human communication. Further, priority is given to the generic features of the biblical writings and their interpretation – the features which they share with other texts and acts of interpretation – over the particular situation in which they function – over the particular situation in which they function – the situation, that is, of divine instruction. That situation is epiphenomenal: most basically, the ontology of the Bible and that of its readers is that of pure nature. Thus, for example, the category of ‘text’, with its linguistic, semantic and literary properties, comes to play a different role in modern study of the Bible from that which it plays in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana. For Augustine, the text’s linguistic, semantic and literary properties are signa mediating divine instruction, whereas for moderns they are not underlain by anything other than the processes of authorship or the history of religion. Even when the category of ‘text’ is supplemented by those of ‘scripture’ or ‘canon’, these refer largely to the use of and ascription of value to texts, and carry no metaphysical weight. Running parallel to the naturalization of the text there is the ‘deregionalization’ of practices of interpretation, a standardization of its operations and ends which takes its rise in a natural anthropology of the interpreter and interpretive reason. Nor are matters helped much by supplementary talk of ‘God’s “use” of the church’s use of scripture’, for here God’s agency remains consequent rather than initiatory.

Countering the hegemony of pure nature in bibliology and hermeneutics requires, appeal to the Christian doctrine of God, and thus of God’s providential ordering of human speech and reason. Within the divine economy, the value of the natural properties of texts, and of the skills and operations of readers, does not consist in their self-sufficiency but in their appointment as creaturely auxiliaries through which God administers healing to wasted and ignorant sinners. What more may be said of this economy of revelation and redemption of which Scripture is a function?[1]

What Webster is communicating would be in line with what Brevard Childs has written here, in regard to a posture toward developing an approach and standing within a mode of humility toward the text of Scripture, and its reality in Jesus Christ: “… The true expositor of the Christian scriptures is the one who waits in anticipation toward becoming interpreted rather than interpreter. The very divine reality which the interpreter strives to grasp, is the very One who grasps the interpreter. The Christian doctrine of the role of the Holy Spirit is not a hermeneutical principle, but that divine reality itself who makes understanding of God possible.”[2]

There is an dogmatic order to Scripture’s placement relative to God in Christ. Scripture comes from within a proper and Christian doctrine of creation; and a proper Christian doctrine of creation comes from a proper doctrine of God in Christ, Christ as creation’s telos or purpose (cf. Col. 1.15ff). There is no abstract intellect that is embedded within a sanitized (from God) natural history that has the capacity to construct an alien (from God) criteria (like positivism, or empiricism, etc.) that God must submit to in order to be heard. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, He knows the number of the hairs of our head, he feeds the birds of the air, he clothes the lily of the pond, and He is the content of His written Word.

If the above is true, the Bible is God’s Bible nor our’s, not the historian’s, not the higher critic’s and not the pew-sitter’s. In order to best appreciate what the Bible is we need to appreciate its order in relationship to the God who gave it to us. If we do this, this will do all kinds of wonderful things to the way we interpret it and understand it. We will understand that in it, because of Christ as Scripture’s purpose and context, that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and continues to speak!

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

[2] Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 86-7.

The Primacy of Christ

October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

*Since I have had the flu (and I am just now barely recovering), along with my wife since New Year’s Eve I haven’t been able to post much, or anything since then. And since I still don’t feel like posting anything new yet, here is one of my personal favorites reposted once again. I think this post is fitting giving the Advent season we are still in and now our anticipation of new creation in the next few months to come.

In some of my posts, especially of late, we have been thinking about the Christian doctrine of Creation; as corollary, we have also been considering our relation to creation in and through Christ. The first step we ought to engage, in our pantocrator7consideration of such things, is to wonder about the God-world relation and what purpose he has always already intended for creation as the counterpoint to his gracious life of love, from which he created. It becomes quickly obvious, as we read the New Testament, and work out the theo-logical implications of Trintarian and Christo-logical assumptions, therein; that creation was created with Christ in mind, and us in Christ. So that God’s original intent, was in and through Christ, to bring all of creation (and humanity as the pinnacle of his creation) into his life of perichoretic (interpenetrating) love (self-giving, subject-in-distinction=Trinity). Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, helps us understand how all of this has played out in the history of interpretation:

The notion of ‘wisdom’ provides further evidence of the integration of creation and salvation in the Old Testament. As the creative agency of God, wisdom is celebrated in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the deutero-canonical works. In some places, such as Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a divine agent. The divine wisdom by which the world is created is also apparent in the regularity of nature, the divine law, and human affairs. This notion of ‘wisdom’ is later fused with the Greek concept of ‘Logos’ and becomes vital for expressing the linking of creation and Christology in the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born. This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94). [David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance]

In the history what David Fergusson is describing is known as the Scotist Thesis; viz. that the plan was always for Jesus to incarnate to bring humanity and creation into the divine dialogue and life of communion through union with the Son. The ‘Fall’ intensified the Incarnation in a way that is tragic, but rife with the redemptive hope of the resurrection and advent life! I follow the Scotist thesis on this front. My friend, brother in Christ, Evangelical Calvinist co-conspirator, Myk Habets has written this to open up his essay entitled On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ (©The author 2008. Journal compilation ©The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA DOI:10.1111/j.1741-2005.2008.00240.x):

According to Christian tradition Jesus Christ is pre-eminent over all creation as the Alpha and the Omega, the ‘beginning and the end’ (Rev 1.8, 21.6; 22.13). This belief, when theologically considered, is known as the primacy of Christ.1 The specific issue this doctrine addresses is the question: Was sin the efficient or the primary cause of the incarnation? This essay seeks to model the practice of modal logic in relation to the primacy of Christ, not to satisfy the cravings of speculative theologians but to reverently penetrate the evangelical mystery of the incarnation, specifically, the two alternatives: either ‘God became man independently of sin,’ or its contradiction, ‘God became man because of sin’. . . .

Wouldn’t you agree that ‘the world was made so that Christ might be born’?

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. ~Colossians 1:15-23


Assurance of Salvation: William Perkins

October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am currently reading Richard Muller’s newish book Calvin and the
jesuscollageReformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation.
I have skipped ahead to read the last chapter first which is titled: Calvin, Beza, and the Later Reformed on Assurance of Salvation. I am going to be writing a chapter in our next Evangelical Calvinist book (which we are under contract for) on the doctrine of Assurance of Salvation. So this chapter by Muller is very apropos, and will definitely make some impact (at some level) on what I end up writing for my chapter.

That said, what I want to focus on throughout the remainder of this post is a discussion that Muller has on William Perkins and his doctrine of assurance of salvation (which he is quite famous for, Perkins that is). The context I am taking the quote from is where Muller transitions from a long discussion on how he believes that Theodore Beza and John Calvin are univocal in their respective doctrines on assurance of salvation for the elect. Not getting into that, as I noted, I want to focus on William Perkins, which Muller does as well. Muller highlights the fact that Perkins fits the charge better (than Beza) of promoting an idea of moving from sanctification to justification, as if the fruit of sanctification is the ground upon which assurance for the elect is based (but of course, Muller wants to caution us from accusing Perkins of too much failure as well). Perkins, as are many of the English Puritans, is known for his Golden Chaine of salvation, which is a series of steps that he uses (from Romans 8) to demonstrate that someone is one of the elect for whom Christ most definitely died; this was also known as the practical syllogism. Here is what Muller writes in regard to William Perkins (he also introduces us to another Puritan who he engages with later, Johannes Wollebius):

William Perkins and Johannes Wollebius are among the later Reformed writers who used one or another forms of the syllogismus practicus in their discussions of assurance of salvation. In Perkins’ case, the syllogism is both named and presented in short syllogistic form. As is clear, however, from the initial argumentation of his Treatise of Conscience, the syllogisms are all designed to direct the attention of the believer to aspects or elements of the model of Romans 8:30, where the focus of assurance as previously presented by the apostle was union with Christ and Christ’s work as the mediator of God’s eternally willed salvation. In other words, as Beeke has noted, Perkins draws on links–calling, justification, and sanctification–in what he had elsewhere referenced as the “golden chaine” of salvation. Thus, Perkins writes, “to beleeve in Christ, is not confusedly to beleeve that he is a Redeemer of mankind, but withall to beleeve that he is my Saviour, and that I am elected, justified, sanctified, & shall be glorified by him.” Perkins’ syllogisms will be variants on this theme.

In addition, Perkins does not so much advocate the repetition of syllogisms as argue the impact of the gospel on the mind of the believer, as wrought by the Holy Spirit. Speaking of the certainty that one is pardoned of sin, Perkins writes,

The principall agent and beginner thereof, is the holy Ghost, inlightning the mindand conscience with spirituall and divine light: and the instrument in this action, is the ministrie of the Gospell, whereby the word of life is applied in the name of God to the person of every hearer. And this certaintie is by little and little conceived in a forme of reasoning or practicall syllogism framed in the minde by the holy Ghost on this manner:

Every one that believes is the childe of God:

But I doe beleeve:

Therefore I am a childe of God.

What is more, Perkins identifies faith as a bond, “knitting Christ and his members together,” commenting that “this apprehending of Christ [is done] … spiritually by assurance, which is, when the elect are persuaded in their hearts by the holy Ghost, of the forgiveness of their owne sinnes, and of Gods infinite mercy towards them in Iesus Christ.”[1]

Notice what this understanding of assurance of salvation turns on; on a particular conception of election, so called: ‘unconditional election’. If Christ died for only the elect (i.e. particular redemption, limited atonement, definite atonement), then psychological angst could (and should) be produced for the recipient of salvation; the recipient of salvation (or hopeful recipient) should wonder if they are one of the elect for whom Christ died (?). It was this scenario that Perkins, in his English Puritan context sought to remedy by producing his form of the so called practical syllogism.

What is concerning about Perkins’ approach is the mechanical-logistical nature that salvation takes on, and the unhealthy focus on the individual person’s attempt to discern whether they are elect or not. There clearly is a piety charging Perkins’ approach, but the approach, even with piety intact, is unnecessary if his doctrine of election can be reified in a way that does not ground it in the individual’s capacity to discern whether they have genuine belief or not (therefore making them one of the elect for whom Christ died). If Christ died for all of humanity (i.e. universal atonement), the framework Perkins offers never needs to be offered, and a doctrine of assurance of salvation need not be articulated in the way that Perkins et al. attempts to do that.

I would want to argue that the doctrine of assurance of salvation is not a truly biblical category, and that it, categorically and materially has come to us as a result of the salvation-psychology created for us in our English-American Puritan heritage. It is natural to want to know if we are saved (John thought so in his first epistle), but we are not the ones who determine that, God in Christ is. He is the ground of life, and in him we have life. I think a better category, instead of assurance, is hope. We have a genuine hope of salvation in Christ, because he is salvation, and he is both for us and with us by the Holy Spirit. We know this simply because he has said this is so, he is the last and first Word on salvation; he is salvation.



[1] Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 268-69.


Christianity From the Culturally Infused

October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

There are so many perceptions of what Christianity represents, and folks out there, in the “world” often attempt to understand what Christianity is, as a religion, from whatever their personal encounters with it has been. In newsweekfact today, I had an experience like this, an experience with a new co-worker who is realizing that I am different; different not because I am a weirdo, per se (although my wife thinks I am), but because I don’t run with the crowd, and I have a certain morality that is at odds with the one adopted by so many in the world (like hedonism). And so this represents one example of how a person “out there” might perceive Christianity; i.e. by reducing it to a certain moralistic position that he has built up based upon his own past experiences with Christianity.

Beyond these kinds of somewhat simplistic perceptions of Christianity as a religion, there have been more sophisticated constructions, or deconstructions of Christianity based upon certain types of criteria that Christianity’s critics have developed based upon their commitments to naturalism, or a certain kind of Kantian dualism, expressed, even still, through positivism. It is this kind of approach to understanding what Christianity is that I want to engage with throughout the remainder of this post; and yet as I engage with this (maybe somewhat outdated approach to Christianity, although I don’t really think it is), what should emerge is how in fact people’s perceptions of Christianity, even simplistic ones, have developed from a certain understanding of what ‘faith’ and ‘pietism’ entails.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed (and I mean a genuine Dutchman) theologian from the late 19th century has this to say about some of the critics of his day, in regard to developing critiques of Christianity, as well as demonstrating just how Christianity has come to be understood (especially in North America) as a privatized-subjectivized thing. Here Bavinck writes how “experience” was understood among the critics that he himself is criticizing:

But in this way the word “experience” is made to play an ambiguous role. When used in religion and theology, it has a wholly different significance from that which it bears in empirical science. In the latter what is meant is, that, by consistent application of the empirical method, personal interest in the inquiry is to be excluded as much as possible, and that the phenomena are observed and explained in their purity and impartially; empiricism even calls to its help the experimental proof. But when men speak of experience in religion, they mean it to be understood, on the other hand, that religion is, or at any rate must become, a personal matter through and through. Religion is, according to this interpretation, no doctrine, no precept, no history, no worship, in a word, not a belief on authority, nor a consent to truth, but arises from within, when the heart is touched and a personal fellowship established between God and our soul….[1]

It is really easy to see how what Bavinck is describing above has played out in North American evangelical Christianity; how a piety and in-ward individualistic religion has developed that no longer has the capacity to contradict and shape it by the Word of God. Christianity for so many has become whatever the particular North American evangelical wants it to be for them; if that means a legalistic Christianity, then so be it!; if that means an antinomian loosely lived Christianity, so be it; etc.

I wonder, honestly, if North American evangelical Christianity has the theological resource to repent of such sordid inwardness and self-centeredness, and come back to her first love?! My friend at work has every right to read Christianity the way that he does; it has been modeled for him, in spades, all over our American society.

The critics of Bavinck’s day helped to develop the intellectual space for pietistic Christianity to develop; unfortunately, so many Christians (myself included, at points) have helped to concretize this space into a foundational cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian. And not just for the Christian who lives this way (i.e. a personalized Christianity), but for those who we live with, day in, day out; we have the extra burden at points, of educating folks about such things.
[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc 2786 kindle.


An Open Apology to Rachel Held Evans

October 20, 2014 § 7 Comments

This is an apology ‘letter’ (post) to Rachel Held Evans, in regard to the tone that I used in a post of mine that I regret writing now (this one); not because I think there are not some material theological considerations that Evans and I, and a host of others could discuss, but because the way I presented my reflection on her post about ‘Abraham and Isaac’ was indeed patronizing and presumptuous on my part. So Rachel, please accept this apology from me; will you? I never should have attempted to engage with you the way that I did. Please forgive me?

Rachel, some people in the comments have asserted that my opening clause to that post of mine was misogynistic, because I used the word ‘girl’ in reference to you. I can assure you that I as the author of that phrase and word had no intention of using it misogynistically; that never even crossed my mind when I wrote that. I simply thought it was a clever sounding turn of a phrase (at the time) that I was opening my post up with. I am not misogynistic (just ask anyone who knows me), and again, never intended to use that phrase in that way. I also apologize for that, if indeed it came off that way to you.

Anyway, Rachel, again, I am sorry for the tone of my post, and the way that I construed it. I do not know you personally (of course!), and so for me to make the leaps in judgment that I did about you personally, were unwarranted and uncalled for. I should have left any response I might have had to your post at the material theological and ‘critical’ level, and allow the merits of such a response to speak for themselves (if any). I realize that many of your readers (who have been commenting here at the blog, or just visiting it because of that post of mine) will probably think this apology is too little, too late; but I hope you don’t.

I am a passionate guy, and sometimes I type before I think enough. I have been blogging consistently since 2005 on primarily academic theological themes, but I have had moments where I have gotten caught up in the moment too quickly, and made blunders of posts that I have had to ask forgiveness for as well (this is not a common practice of mine J).

I have no doubt that you love Jesus Christ, Rachel, it is just that we have some fundamental methodological differences in our disparate approaches toward understanding what that looks like. My usage of hyperbole and melodramatic speech in my post, again were uncalled for, and should never have been made. Again I apologize.

The peace of Christ and His Strength,

Bobby Grow

PS. I have tabled that original post because I think it causes more distraction than good, and so I think it is better to simply remove that post.

A Theology of the Ascension of Christ is Desperately Important for Our Moment in Time

October 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

As Christians we often think about the theology of cross, and the hope of the resurrection (as we should!); but often what gets lost is a theology of the Ascension, and what that means for both now, and the future. Colossians 2, and the language of pleroma, or the plenitude of God’s fullness embodied in Christ dovetails with this, and the primacy of Christ’s life for creation as we are lead into chapter two from chapter one of Colossians, starting in verse 15. Without the ascension we would have no hope of salvation, no assurance of salvation, no High Priestly praying for us by Jesus, and no hope for final and bodily consummation. So the ascension, beyond just signifying that Jesus is above all, and beyond being the means by which he left this earth for the eyewitnesses to see, provides for us a multitude of other hopes and assurances; that without which, we would be a pitiable mass. Here is how Thomas Torrance makes this significant in a discussion he is providing for how ascension functioned in the theology of Scottish reformer, John Knox:


Knox laid unusually strong emphasis on the ascension of Jesus Christ in the self-same body which was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified, dead and buried and which rose again, and very rightly. It is one of the most neglected doctrines of the Faith. Ascension is not just an addendum to the story of Jesus, a ringing down of the curtain on his earthly life, but it is one of the great essential salvation events. The ascension of the Lord Jesus is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God over the whole creation, but as centred in Christ it is the Kingdom of Christ. What did the ascension do?

(1) It was the completion of the Incarnation event. He who descended also ascended. The very same body which had been born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, and died and was buried, ascended into heaven, for the accomplishment of all things. Thus the saving work of Christ reaches up into eternity, into the ultimate mystery of God.

(2) The union of God and man in Christ was assumed into the immediate presence of God the Father on his throne — there Christ wears our human life, and it is in our name that he is there at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, standing in for us.

(3) In our name and for our comfort he ascended to take possession of his Kingdom, to inaugurate it and enlarge it. There he is given and receives all power in heaven and on earth — there the crucified Christ sits at the right hand of power and glory.

(4) The Heavenly Session of Christ speaks of the fact that he ever lives to make intercession for us as our Advocate and High Priest and only Mediator, and prays and intercedes for us. This is the teaching of the Epistle of Hebrews, and plays a central role in Knox’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

(5) In his ascension Christ opened the heavens into which we may appear in him before the throne of the Father’s mercy. Christ’s ascension is the ground of our comfort and assurance. It is the ascended Christ who sends us his Spirit, the Comforter. Thus the full meaning of the ascension is to be discerned in relation to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. It is in this light that the Church of Christ is to be understood, as ‘the blessed society which we the members have with our Head and only Mediator Christ Jesus, whom we confess and avow to be the Messiah promised, the only Head of his Kirk, our just Lawgiver, our only High Priest, Advocate and Mediator.

Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 21-2.

We need this perspective more than ever! We need to know that Jesus is Lord, that history is his-story, and that the chaos of this world has already been reordered (I say by faith) by the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is Lord, that is what his session at the right hand of the Father asserts, in a loud trumpeting way; in such a way that we ought to be quiet before Him as he sits upon his throne.

I am really burdened right now about what is going on in the Christian church, and in culture at large. My guess is that Jesus is about to step off of his throne only to finally come and announce, by sight, that he indeed is King of kings and Lord of lords; and to set to rights what the world has set to wrongs.


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