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 consideration 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
October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
I am currently reading Richard Muller’s newish book Calvin and the
Reformed 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.”
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.
 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.
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 fact 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….
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.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc 2786 kindle.
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,
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.
October 19, 2014 § 78 Comments
[addendum: for anyone still reading this post I have written an apology post to Rachel for the tone and aggressive nature of this post, here is the link: click here]
Rachel Held Evans, continues to write herself away from the historic Christian faith, and into the arms of something even beyond so called ‘liberal Christianity;’ she seems to almost be at the doors of atheism. She has recently written this in regard to the ‘test’ that God gave to Abraham in Genesis 22:
It’s a test I’m certain I would have failed:
Get your son. Get a knife. Slit his throat and set him on fire.
I’d like to think that even if those demands thundered from the heavens in a voice that sounded like God’s, I’d have sooner been struck dead than obeyed them.
Regardless of one’s interpretation of this much-debated and reimagined text (which makes a bit more sense in its ancient Near Eastern context), the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac should unsettle every parent and every person with a conscience. Yes, God provided a lamb, but only after Abraham gathered the wood, loaded up the donkey, made the journey, arranged the altar, tied his son to the stake, and raised the knife in the air.
Be honest. Would you have even gathered the wood?
I think I would have failed Abraham’s test. And I think you would have too.
And I’m beginning to think that maybe that’s okay….
There might be some wiggle room here (as far as trying to understand where Rachel is coming from, but it is a hypothetical that none of us has ever been faced with, so it is a question, a hypothetical failure that remains in silence … except for Rachel, apparently), but she continues on in this same trajectory in the rest of her article (at length). Let me highlight what I think summarizes the gist of her whole post, well, through sharing a few more quotes from Rachel, and then I will respond further:
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?
My point is this: It is intellectually dishonest to say Christians make moral judgment calls based on Scripture alone. Conscience, instinct, experience, culture, relationships—all of these things (and more) play important roles in how we assess right from wrong.
I’ve long been fascinated by the stories of people who defied—or “worked around”—their religion in the name of love, and these stories are plentiful among parents…. These are people of conviction, people whose faith is important to them and who long for the approval of their religious leaders and the favor of God. And yet they risked all of that for love…. I am not yet a mother, and still I know, deep in my gut, that I would sooner turn my back on everything I know to be true than sacrifice my child on the altar of religion. (read the full article here)
As one of my professors in seminary wisely counseled us in regard to what he called ‘methodological skepticism’ (he was speaking of Rene Descartes), he said: ‘skepticism of this kind is like unconstrained acid, once it is released it is virtually impossible to contain.’ This I would suggest is where Rachel Held Evans has been living for the last many years, especially in the years of her notoriety. She began questioning things, trying to be ‘critical’ towards her evangelical (maybe even Fundamentalist) heritage–which can be a healthy project with the right parameters in place–but has ended up where she is now; essentially rejecting the God of Bible.
One of the more unfortunate things about Rachel Held Evans’ notoriety is, I would contend, is that it has catapulted her, in exponential ways, to maintain her identity as such. What I mean is that RHE and her whole online career has surrounded her with people who are corrupting and corrosive to her soul; Peter Enns comes to mind more recently. She was never mature enough (as far as theological training) to tread the waters she started treading, and now she is drowning in a tempestuous sea of doubt; not doubt about what she believes, but doubt about the God of historic Christian faith.
Is it wrong to attempt to be self-critical as an evangelical Christian (or as any type of Christian)? I don’t think so, I have been on that course myself (in some ways) over the last many years. But when someone isn’t willing or able to do the hard and rigorous work of theological contemplation, and when someone isn’t surrounded by good and edifying counselors, that someone might very well (and likely) end up where Rachel has apparently ended up; i.e. rejecting the God of the Bible, and reshaping him in a cultural and consensual image that looks like modern humanity’s ethical and “moral” trajectory rather than the God of the historic Christian faith and ‘holy writ.’
October 14, 2014 Comments Off
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.
October 12, 2014 § 5 Comments
I am totally confused about what is going on in North American evangelicalism! I am a son of evangelicalism, and it is in absolute disarray; it is unbelievable. It seems as if the confusion ranges from trying to hearken back to a Fundamentalist past, attempt to live in a neutral and vanilla holding pattern, or appropriate full on Progressive Christian patterns; really it seems as if all of the above is on tap on a continuum found in any given North American evangelical church.
I believe that evangelicalism’s turn to the navel, introverted individualistic premises have come to roost. Which has positioned evangelicalism in such a way that the cultural sensibilities have more voice than the Lord’s voice. That a normative relativism and political correctness has so overcome the mood of the evangelical church that it is more loving to affirm the crooked rather than to point out the straight.
I see no sense, in general, among evangelicals of God’s real presence in the life of the evangelical church. There is no fear of God left, only fear of what others think. The wisdom of the cross seems to be absolutely foolish and weak to the evangelical church, such that the way of the world has more sway resulting in the worshipping of our self fulfillment rather than the fulfillment of God’s life and promises for us in Jesus Christ!
It is heart wrenching to watch this and be a part of this!