Life Is In His Hands, An Appeal to Brittany Maynard

October 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

I was diagnosed with what is typically a terminal cancer in November, 2009; the cancer is called, Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (DSRCT) sarcoma. The survival rate when diagnosed with this cancer is dismal; it is a mere 10% (up to 5 years). There is no protocol or treatment for this cancer, and typically when it is found it has spread so rapidly through the body, that surgery is out of the question.

By God’s grace, and after enduring grueling chemotherapy (apparently the most difficult protocol to endure – they used a related cancer’s protocol, the Ewing’s sarcoma protocol to treat mine) I had resection surgery on May 6th, 2010, and then more cycles of chemo after that through June right up to July, I was declared cancer free in August 2010, and I have remained cancer free since then. I survived this cancer, through all of this treatment (which almost killed me), but only miraculously.

I am opening this post this way not to talk about what I went through any further, but to join in on a conversation that has already been started by Brittany Maynard, and Kara Tippetts, and now a respondent to Kara, Jessica Kelly. Brittany is suffering from a terminal brain tumor, she is 29 years old, just recently married, and was just getting started with life; but this brain tumor has brought things to a screeching halt! Brittany has decided to take her own life through utilizing the state of Oregon’s assisted suicide law (her and her husband moved to Oregon, recently, to allow for this possibility). Brittany plans on ending her life through assisted suicide, potentially on November 1st, 2014. Kara Tippetts, is a 38 year old woman who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her pastor husband, and four kids. She too is fighting with terminal cancer, but hers is terminal breast cancer. She wrote an open letter to Brittany challenging Brittany not to take her life through assisted suicide, but instead to let the natural (according to the terms of her cancer) order of things take their course, and allow the cancer itself to take Brittany’s life – this is what Kara plan’s on doing with her cancer (i.e. allow the cancer to take her life whenever that happens). Jessica Kelly, in her own right, is a mother, a Christian mother who just recently lost her young little boy to terminal brain cancer. Jessica has responded to Kara’s open letter to Brittany, and encouraged Brittany with the thought (contrary to Kara’s advice) that it is proper and right for Brittany, if she so chooses, to end her life through the means of assisted suicide.

Here is a sample of what Kara originally wrote to Brittany, encouraging her not to take her life through assisted suicide:

Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known.

In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with the [sic] such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths. (source)

Kara is obviously appealing to the wisdom of the cross, the cross of Jesus Christ where suffering, of the most heinous kind resulted in bringing eternal life and beauty out of ashes to the many. But Jessica responded to this, she disagrees with Kara; here is how Jessica responded as she reflects upon the death and suffering of her own little boy:

The suffering that led to his death was not beautiful.  That is not to say that there were never tender moments, but the overall experience was not one of beauty.  And I find our experience is completely consistent with my Christian faith.  The Bible does not say that death is beautiful.  Scripture describes Satan as one who holds the power of death (Heb. 2:14).  It is Satan who comes to kill and destroy, Jesus is the giver of abundant life (John 10:10).  The Bible does not associate death with God’s beauty. (source)

This represents an honest disagreement between two sisters in Christ, and both of them, Kara and Jessica have presented themselves, either to Brittany (i.e. Kara), or to Kara (i.e. Jessica), in the most gracious of ways. My intention is not to muddy this up, then, but to continue within this same theme of gracious conversation.

What is under consideration, really only has ethical import from a Christian perspective. If I were not a Christian, I would say assisted suicide, without a doubt, is the way to go. If I believed that this was it, and that my personal comfort was the ultimate that determined the way that I lived, and provided the value to what life means and is ultimately about, then I would choose assisted suicide; no questions! But this is not the reality. The reality is that Jesus Christ is alive, He is risen, and we live in world where his life and death, and resurrection has provided all of the value and purpose that we need. We know what God thinks about life, we understand who holds the power of life and death in his hands. We understand, as Christians that we are not our own, that we have been bought with a price (I Corinthians 6:18-19), and that our days are in His hands and not our own. It is knowing all of this, knowing the living Lord, that problematizes this situation; the situation of assisted suicide.

I believe Kara’s sentiment is right, and Jessica’s is wrong. We are not on a slippery slope when it comes to this end of life and death question, there is a difference between alleviating suffering through various medications, and life support systems, and deciding to finally take one’s own life (no matter how great the suffering). God controls the “natural” order of things, which includes the number of our days (Psalm 139); “The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up” (I Samuel 2:6). His grace was sufficient enough for His own Son to endure death by the “natural order of things” (which was according to God’s gracious plan), and not to allow His life to be taken prematurely – remember in the Gospel of Luke when the people wanted to take Him and throw Him over a cliff and kill Him (that would have short circuited God’s plan for His Son, even if it would have been the gracious thing to do in light of the terminal suffering Jesus was going to suffer at the cross).

I cannot ultimately counsel Brittany Maynard on what to do on November 1st. I can encourage her not to take her life though (along with Kara). I can pray for her, that if she has not given her life to Christ that she would. I can pray that the Lord will give her wisdom. I can pray that the Lord would miraculously heal her body. And I can use myself as an example. I was diagnosed with a cancer, that is just as terminal as Brittany’s (DSRCT) – look it up (Wikipedia has a good description of it, actually). What if, in light of the dismal diagnosis that I had, what if I had decided to take my life before the suffering got too bad? I wouldn’t be sitting here almost 5 years later writing this letter and reflection of sorts for the world to see on the internet. If nothing else, this should be reason enough for Brittany to forego her apparent decision to commit suicide, and take her life. How do you know Brittany (if you read this) that you are going to die from your cancer? You do not know that, for sure. Look at me. But even more so, look to Jesus! I am praying for you dear sister!

Let me end this with the first part of the Heidelberg Catechism (The Lord’s Day):

Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven;
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

And here is a video of Brittany Maynard:

Christian Theology is only For Christians, That’s What My Homey Schleiermacher Says

October 9, 2014 § 23 Comments

There seems to be an ascendancy, once again, of philosophical theology [and I apologize, this post, or at least this point of this schleiermacher (1)post is going to have to remain rather general and abstract without any concrete examples at the moment]. The way I understand philosophical theology is pretty close to home; it is a form (it might be THE form) of evangelical theology that I sat under while in undergrad at Bible College (things changed a bit for me in my seminary experience because of two profs in particular). Philosophical theology, as I understand it, and have experienced it, in a nutshell, is what has come to be called: analytical theology. Analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers as they reflected upon creation as the categories through which the Christian God was synthesized and casted.

So even with the scant sketch above of how I understand philosophical or analytical theology what should begin to emerge is how there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers. And yet what happens in the analytical theology tradition is that a foundation, of sorts, is constructed so that these two disparate approaches of thinking about metaphysical things can be brought into mutually supporting beams such that God’s life ends up being founded upon our capacity to think God (from reflecting upon creation) instead of being confronted by God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is how I see analytical theology functioning, and it is because of this that I must reject it, and search for an approach (and I believe that I have found one years ago now) that does not depend upon my ability as a philosopher and theologian to conceive of God, categorically, apart from his Self-revelation.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian from the 18th and 19th centuries, who became known as the ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!) offers an alternative to the analytical tradition–when critically received–that I believe is quite refreshing; and that I believe moves us away from attempting to work out correlationist theologies that seek to synthesize Christian theology with classical philosophical categories (Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous for attempting to do this … I should say though, that I can learn a lot from Aquinas, still, just not uncritically).

I believe, along with Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance, et al) that Christian theology cannot and must not depend upon any attempted correlations between natural reflection upon nature (the analytical philosophers), and then syntheses of these reflections with Christian theology.[1] I do not believe, along with someone as Scottish as Thomas Torrance, that there are any natural analogies for God become man (i.e. the Incarnation); do you? Schleiermacher writes it this way:

Our dogmatic theology will not, however, stand on its own proper ground and soil with the same assurance with which philosophy has long stood on its own, until the separation of the two types of proposition is so complete that, e.g., so extraordinary a question as whether the same proposition can be true in philosophy and false in Christian theology, and *vice versa*, will no longer be asked, for the simple reason that a proposition cannot appear in the one context precisely as it appears in the other; however similar it sounds, a difference must always be assumed.[2]

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

It is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianty, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any higher form than this.[3]

For Schleiermacher, then, and many others after him (like Barth, Torrance, and a whole host of more ‘liberal’ theologians), Christian Theology is for Christians! It is exclusive to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; as the Revelator has written: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”[4]

The ascendancy of philosophical or analytical theology that I referred to to open this brief piece up continues to make new in-roads into the evangelical heart-land. I think we ought to repent of that, and engage in theological endeavor that ironically comes from someone like Schleiermacher. We want to really be able to hear from the Lord, and attempt to repeat what we hear in a genuine way as Christians. We want to genuinely walk in the way that comes after we come to recognize that Deus dixit, that ‘God has spoken;’ and only after that and from that speech can we truly theologize and in a way that contradicts our words, and our lives instead of flowing from them (which I contend analytical theology does at its base in the methodological form that it flows from).

The end.

[1] If you have not spotted the undercurrent of what I am getting at yet let me help: What this cuts against, what I am about to write about, is natural theology. Natural theology believes that there are analogies in creation (because of an interconnected chain of being between creation and Creator) that can be used as foundation stones for us to build our knowledge of God upon (i.e. analogia entis, ‘analogy of being’). So this is part of the critique, and part of what is going on here. But the deeper concern I have is the impact that analytical theology can possibly have upon a Christian’s spirituality. I believe Christian theology, by definition, is for Christian eyes and ears, and so from this touchstone, of sorts, we proceed onward with Schleiermacher and Barth.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §16 postscript in Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2008), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.

Union[s] with Christ According to evangelical Calvinism

September 29, 2014 Comments Off

The following is a post I put up at the very inception of this blog The Evangelical Calvinist, when I started it in 2009 (after I had already been blogging elsewhere since 2005). It is an essay that Myk Habets provided for me as a guest post here at the blog. I want to repost this for various reasons, reasons I cannot elaborate on at the moment, but will become apparent in the days to come.

Union with Christ is a very important aspect of the evangelical Calvinist project, so failure to understand how EC is nuancing that can result in a failure to actually offer a critique that is ultimately substantial and satisfying. In light of that then, I want to share this essay by Myk, with hopes of gesturing and making clear how EC conceives of ‘union with Christ’ (unio cum Christo).

T.F. Torrance and Union with Christ in Scottish Theology

Myk Habets

Without exploring the entire history of Scottish theology as read through the eyes of Torrance, we may note a few key influences on his thinking about union with Christ from this context. Torrance believes that ‘Union with Christ probably had a more important place in [Robert] Leighton’s theology than that given to it in the thought of any other Scottish theologian.’ Torrance gives Leighton (1611-1684) praise for not considering union with Christ simply as a ‘judicial union’ but as a ‘real union’ which occupies the centre of the whole redemptive activity mediated through Christ as saving grace. Utilised in this way union with Christ is fundamentally related to both election in Christ and the concept of saving exchange whereby Christ gives to humanity what is his – his righteousness and filial status – and takes to himself what is not his own – our sin and alienation. In James Fraser of Brea (1639-1698) Torrance identifies the same emphasis placed upon union with Christ, ‘It is through union and communion with [Christ], grounded in the “personal union” of his divine and human natures, that we come out of ourselves and partake of his fullness; we approach him empty to find all our salvation in the all-sufficient Lord Jesus.’ Thomas Boston (1676-1732) viewed union with Christ not merely as a legal union but a ‘real and proper union with ‘the whole Christ’ transformed through his death and resurrection, that is, a union of an ontological kind.’ Boston often spoke of this as a ‘mystical union’ in which all the benefits of the covenant of grace are given to the elect. Torrance traces these ideas back directly through Robert Bruce (c1554-1631), John Knox (1505-1572), John Calvin, and many others.

Of special interest to Torrance is H.R. Mackintosh (1870-1936). Torrance shows how Mackintosh in continuity with Calvin and the Scottish Reformed tradition, also made the concept of the unio mystica central to his soteriology. For Mackintosh, the concept of the unio mystica was merely a dogmatic restatement of the biblically rich material on the believer’s participatio Christi found throughout the New Testament, particularly in the ‘in/with Christ’ language of Paul and in the organic relationship between Christ and believers depicted in Johannine theology.

According to Mackintosh, mystical union effects a change in the believer’s identity. Through participating in Christ there is an ‘importation of another’s personality into him; the life, the will of Christ has taken over what once was in sheer antagonism to it, and replaced the power of sin by the forces of a divine life.’ There is a twofold objectivity about union with Christ: on the one hand, there is a ‘Christ-in-you’ relationship, and on the other there is a ‘you-in-Christ’ aspect. The former has to do with Christ being present within the believer as the source of new life, while the latter points to the foundation of this new life as lying outside of the believer in Christ. The union is mediated by the Holy Spirit. Torrance adopts these two aspects of participation in Christ into his own theology.

Mackintosh was attempting to postulate a union with Christ Jesus that went beyond the merely moral or ethical. Like Torrance, Mackintosh had reservations over using the term ‘mystical union’ (despite teaching its substance), but chose to define what he meant by unio mystica more willingly than discard the term altogether. By ‘mystical’ Mackintosh means, according to Redman, ‘that the believer’s relationship to Christ transcends human relationships and human experiences of solidarity and union.’ In place of a mere moral union Mackintosh presents a spiritual union that, while rational, is beyond human comprehension. By ‘union’ Mackintosh does not mean a complete identification in which Christ and the believer become indistinguishable; this would be an essential union, something found in the writings of some of the medieval mystics. Mackintosh was aware of the risk of pantheism and avoided this in his christology. Through participatio Christi, Mackintosh argues, one has communion with God as a human being because it is through union with the incarnate Christ that we come to commune with God. By defining union with Christ in such a way Mackintosh is in basic agreement with Calvin’s three senses of the term – incarnational, mystical, and spiritual. One can clearly see why Torrance is so attracted to Mackintosh’s theology.

In his critique of Mackintosh’s doctrine of the unio mystica Redman comments on his use of language. He argues that Mackintosh should have ceased using the language of mystical union and instead used concepts more akin to the essential logic of his theology, such as spiritual communion. Torrance perhaps agrees with Redman’s critique for he does not use the term ‘mystical union’ either, but retains the basic three-fold sense of union with Christ. Despite differences of terminology, Torrance considers his use of theōsis, both in terminology and in substance, conforms to a consistent theme of Reformed theology going back to Calvin and found particularly within the Scottish tradition.

Within this very specific trajectory of Reformed theology Torrance posits his own soteriology. Torrance articulates the dimensions of union with Christ in various ways but consistently he sees three realities involved. Firstly, there is union with Christ made possible objectively through the homoousion of the incarnate Son (Calvin’s ‘incarnational union’ ). Secondly, there is the hypostatic union, and its significance for the reconciling exchange wrought by Christ in his life, death, and resurrection (Calvin’s unio mystica). Finally, these two aspects of union with Christ are fulfilled or brought to completion in the communion that exists between believers and the triune God (broadly corresponding to Calvin’s ‘spiritual union’).

In a paraphrase of Torrance’s theology, Hunsinger presents three aspects which correlate approximately to our outline. Firstly, reception, a past event which involves what Christ has done for us. This is received by grace through faith alone. Secondly, participation, a present event, in which believers are clothed with Christ’s righteousness through partaking of Christ by virtue of his vicarious humanity. Thirdly, communion, the future or eschatological aspect which equates to eternal life itself in which believers enjoy communion in reciprocal love and knowledge of the triune God.

According to Torrance, union with Christ is not a ‘judicial union’ but a ‘real union’ which lies at the heart of the whole redemptive activity mediated through Christ as an act of saving grace. Torrance uses three words to elaborate what union with Christ means in his essay ‘The Mystery of the Kingdom’: divine purpose (prothesis), mystery (mystērion), and fellowship/communion (koinōnia). This triadic structure reflects the trinitarian action of the triune God: prothesis – the Father, mystērion – the Son, and koinōnia – the Holy Spirit. Prothesis refers to divine election whereby the Father purposed or ‘set forth’ the union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. Divine e
lection is a free, sovereign decision, a contingent act of God’s love; as such it is neither arbitrary nor necessary. Torrance thus holds to the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election, one which represents a strictly theonomous way of thinking, from a centre in God and not in ourselves. Torrance draws on certain aspects of Barth’s doctrine of election for he equates the incarnation as the counterpart to the doctrine of election so that ‘the incarnation, therefore, may be regarded as the eternal decision or election of God in his Love…’ Calling upon Calvin’s analogy, Torrance insists that ‘Christ himself is the ‘mirror of election,’ for it takes place in him in such a way that he is the Origin and the End, the Agent and the Substance of election…’

The second key expression Torrance uses is mystērion; the term is applied to Christ, and specifically to the mystery of his hypostatic union. In relation to God this means that the consubstantial union of the Trinity upholds the hypostatic union so that God does not merely come in man but as man. In this union of God and man a complete henosis between the two is effected, and they are ‘perfectly at one’.

He had come, Son of God incarnate as son of man, in order to get to grips with the powers of darkness and defeat them, but he had been sent to do that not through the manipulation of social, political or economic power-structures, but by striking beneath them all into the ontological depths of Israel’s existence where man, and Israel representing all mankind, had become estranged from God, and there within those ontological depths of human being to forge a bond of union and communion between man and God in himself which can never be undone.

Hence the hypostatic union is also a ‘reconciling union’ in which estrangement between God and humanity is bridged, conflict is eradicated, and human nature is ‘brought into perfect sanctifying union with divine nature in Jesus Christ.’

This atoning union is not merely external or juridical but actual, and points to the higher reality of communion. Hence Torrance can assert that:

it is not atonement that constitutes the goal and end of that integrated movement of reconciliation but union with God in and through Jesus Christ in whom our human nature is not only saved, healed and renewed but lifted up to participate in the very light, life and love of the Holy Trinity.

Union with Christ must be understood within Torrance’s doctrine of reconciliation to refer to the real participation of believers in the divine nature made possible by the dynamic atoning union of Christ. Torrance contends this is atonement in effect. As a result of the incarnation, humanity is united to divinity in the hypostatic union so that:

In the Church of Christ all who are redeemed through the atoning union embodied in him are made to share in his resurrection and are incorporated into Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit as living members of his Body…Thus it may be said that the ‘objective’ union which we have with Christ through his incarnational assumption of our humanity into himself is ‘subjectively’ actualised in us through his indwelling Spirit, ‘we in Christ’ and ‘Christ in us’ thus complementing and interpenetrating each other.

In addition to the hypostatic union Torrance applies the concept of mystērion to the mystery of the one-and-the-many, or Christ and his body the church. Torrance thus understands union with Christ to be largely corporate in nature but applicable to each individual member of his body who is ingrafted into Christ by Baptism and continue to live in union with him as they feed upon his body and blood in Holy Communion. Understanding the church as the body of Christ is thus another way of asserting an ontological union between the community of believers and Christ the Head.

The third term Torrance uses is koinōnia, and it too has a double reference. First, vertically, it represents our participation through the Spirit in the mystery of Christ’s union with us. Second, horizontally, it is applied to our fellowship or communion with one another in the body of Christ. At the intersection of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of koinōnia is the church, the community of believers united to Christ, who is himself united to humanity through the incarnation. Torrance asserts that ‘in and through koinonia the divine prothesis enshrining the eternal mysterion embodies itself horizontally in a community of those who are one with God through the reconciliation of Christ.’ It is this theology of union with Christ by means of fellowship or participation in God which links Torrance’s doctrines of soteriology and ecclesiology; both are aspects of his christology, as we shall see in more detail in the next chapter.

In summarising Torrance’s use of these three concepts Lee’s study helpfully concludes that ‘the cause (causa) of ‘union with Christ’ is prothesis, the election of God. Its substance (materia) is mysterion, the hypostatic union in Jesus Christ, and its fulfilment (effectus) is koinonia, the communion of the Holy Spirit.’ This outline focuses on the trinitarian foundation inherent throughout Torrance’s work which reminds readers not to see the work of reconciliation as exclusively that of the Son, or the Son and the Spirit, but as the work of the triune God.

Repenting of my Criticism of classical Calvinist Theology

September 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

I need to repent again: Over the years I feel as if I have been too antagonistic towards classical Calvinist theology in general. My sense of repentance isn’t coming from a lack of passion and zeal for what we have been doing with evangelical Calvinist theology, instead my sense of repentance is coming from a certain projection I fear that I have projected in some cases–because of my zeal–towards classical Calvinist theology.

I materially reject much of the classical Calvinist conclusion in regard to theology, but formally I accept much of it. That said, what we are doing with evangelical Calvinism is attempting to do ressourcement, retrieval, constructive theology; and we are attempting to do so as Protestant Reformed thinkers. The fact that we still appeal to people like Calvin, Knox, and many other post-Reformed orthodox theologians illustrates our desire to engage with that tradition of Christian thought and development. The fact that we still use the conceptual hangars offered by classical Calvinist theology like elect/reprobate etc. only illustrates our desire to constructively engage with the classical Calvinist tradition, and not to ultimately dump it, or dump on it.

So my sense of repentance comes in because I do believe that I have dumped on it–the classical Calvinist tradition–more than I mean to, or at least ought to have. It is true, we as evangelical Calvinists, are not uncritical of the classical Calvinist tradition (we are!), but only within the mode of semper Reformanda ‘always reforming,’ and within and from this spirit of the Reformed faith. soli Deo gloria

The Christian Imagination is a Terrible Thing to Waste: From Vanhoozer

September 19, 2014 § 2 Comments

Imagination is the spice of life, and yet within the Christian Narnia-Aslansubculture it has been suppressed; often out of fear. Fear that books that traffic in fantasy might open up the mind to worlds that are unsanctified and impervious to the holy heavy hand of God (or so it might go); indeed sometimes this might very well happen, but not necessarily so. But before I begin to digress into a flow of thought on fantasy literature, what I want to stay to course on with this little project is to focus on the power and fruitfulness that imagination can have for the Christian’s life and walk with Jesus Christ.

Much too often we, as Christians get caught in the trap of thinking through polarities, I know I do! Where we pit Biblical Studies, for example, against so called, Systematic Theology; the former, in the non-confessional world that we inhabit, focusing on the naturalist/historist development of the text, and the latter focusing on the philosophical/metaphysical presuppositions behind the text – or something like that! But we oughtin’ not get caught up in this transgression of fear, instead we ought to enjoy the imagination, and to do so as both biblical studies and systematic theology peoples. Imagination allows for each age of the church to re-think, along with the past, what it means to be in relation to God; what it means to sit at his banqueting table along with our forbears who sat there  before us. Being imaginative theological thinkers allows us, in fact, to be in dialogue with the past in a way that fear of imagination shuts down; fear of imagination shuts down dialogical theology and biblical interpretive development because it believes imagination allows for too free of thought, untethered, as it were, from a static orthodoxy, that such adherents believe has been handed down in an absolute static form – much like these adherent’s view of God (i.e. static and monadic), I might add!

Kevin Vanhoozer writes in this vein:

Instrumental reason results in the atrophy of the cultural imagination and a loss of contact with ultimate reality. Our modern and postmodern lives are suffering from spiritual malnutrition. We need more imagination, not less, for the best imaginative literature does not removes us from the real but allows it to take residence in it: “The play’s the thing.” Dorothy Sayers laments the amount of “slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment” that has taken the place of the divine drama and calls the church to “set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.[1]

We would do well to cultivate imagination back into the foreground of our theological and biblical considerations. Ultimately there is either good imagination or there is bad imagination (or no imagination to say it idiomatically).

[1] Kevin Vahoozer cited by Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 244.

The Atonement Debate (Zahnd and Brown): Some Historical Background and an Alternative to the Whole Thing

September 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

The International House of Prayer-University just hosted a debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown, the debate was on differing views of the atonement. Zahnd essentially christcenteredargued against the so called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA, hereafter) theory, while Brown argued for it. Maybe you weren’t aware that there were differing views out there on this, or maybe instead you are well versed in this area, and were pounding your fist one way or the other as you watched this debate.

Zahnd’s basic premise is that PSA represents divine child abuse; that the Father sent the Son to die for our sins, that he tortured him on a cross, and once he got every last ounce of his wrath out of him, as he beat on his Son, at this point God was able to love the elect. Brown argued, from a biblical theological approach, that to the contrary, PSA represents the most biblical view of the atonement, and fits well with the Day of Atonement motif (cf. Lev. 16), as well as New Testament passages where Jesus is called the ‘Lamb of God’ (Jn. 1.29), or the ‘Passover’ (I Cor. 5.7). Without getting into further detail, throughout the rest of this post I will take this debate as a jumping off point, and get further into the history of the development of PSA theology, and then offer the evangelical Calvinist (not Zahnd’s, but evangelical Calvinism’s) alternative to PSA, which by the way, does not fully disavow the penal substitutionary atonement model, it just doesn’t see it as the central frame for an atonement theory.

To begin with let me provide a little history on how the PSA developed in early Protestant Reformed theology. Jan Rohls does an excellent job of developing the history of PSA theology by weaving many of the Reformed confessions and catechisms together that in fact made it central to the scholastically Reformed church. As Rohls comments on the French, Belgic, and Geneva Confession[s], and how these confessions engage with the earlier Apostles’ Creed on the theme of atonement he writes of what we call PSA theology today:

All other events of Jesus’ life are placed in functional relation to his death. With regard to the content of Christian preaching the Synodical Declaration of Berne states that “the beginning must be made with Christ’s death and resurrection” (M 37, 7). But that raises the question, “If one must begin and end with Christ’s death and resurrection, what is the purpose of the evangelists, who describe his birth and his life?” (M 37, 38–40). According to the Geneva Catechism, the Apostle’s Creed immediately proceeds to Christ’s suffering, so that the question arises, “Why do you go immediately from His birth to His death, passing over the whole history of His life?” (T 13). The Catechism’s answer to this question is revealing: “Because nothing is said here about what belongs properly to the substance of our redemption” (ibid.). The event that constitutes the essence of redemption is Jesus’ suffering and death, insofar as they are penalties that Christ takes upon himself for us in a substitutionary way. “He dies to suffer the punishment due to us, and thus to deliver us from it” (T 14). His substitution for us lies not just in the fact that he died for us. To highlight the penal character of the death that we have earned as sinners, he was condemned to death. “Because we were guilty before the judgment of God as evil-doers, in order to represent us in person He was pleased to appear before the tribunal of an earthly judge, and to be condemned by his mouth, that we might be acquitted before the throne of the celestial Judge” (ibid.).[1]

As I listened to the first half of the aforementioned debate I did not hear any of this background context provided, which is troubling. It is troubling because in order to offer a fair critique (Zahnd), or at least a relatively thick one, the development of PSA theology needs to be given its proper layering and reasoning. As becomes apparent through Rohls’ development, what we see is that the ‘penal character’ of the atonement comes from a particular background; what Rohls’ did not develop in the section that I quoted is that the background for PSA is what Reformed theology calls Covenant or Federal Theology, in particular the Covenant of Works. Because of space constraints, I am not going to be able to develop that either; suffice it to say there is much more to the background of PSA than Zahnd alluded to. If he had delved into that a little more further his own critique of divine child abuse would have been weakened somewhat, primarily because of the covenantal nature that PSA is couched in.

Unfortunately, this post is going to run too long if I attempt to provide the evangelical Calvinist alternative to PSA and classical Covenantal theology, I will have to make this a two part post and offer that next time or so. Let me conclude this way; the evangelical Calvinist critique of PSA, in particular has more to do with its broader covenantal framework, with election, the extent of the atonement, and most pointedly with the efficacious nature, or lack thereof, of penal substitutionary atonement. Evangelical Calvinism’s basic critique goes something like this: to frame the substitution as a juridical thing, a forensic thing, a legal thing does not deal with the depth dimension, the problem that needs to really be dealt with. The penalty view deals with the symptoms and consequences of sin, it does not deal with the cause and source of sin which is the heart. So as an alternative, evangelical Calvinism riffs off of TF Torrance’s ontological theory of the atonement that finds rootage in Patristic theology.

In my view the debate that happened did not really deal with the source issues, nor with a source alternative like the ontological theory of the atonement offers. More to come. Actually if you click here you can read the evangelical Calvinist alternative.

[1] Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen. Columbia Series In Reformed Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 94-5.

Turning to Ourselves Instead of God: The Evangelicals and Herman Bavinck

September 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

Victoria Osteen’s recent faux pas (well some think it was a faux pas, I do) about God being happy when we are happy is a helpful illustrator of what I want to address in this mini-albrechtritschlessay. For many North American evangelical Christians God has become our buddy in the sky, the God who snuggles up with us in our quiet times away from the hustle and bustle of everyday real life. For many evangelicals, God is more at our whim, he is meant to meet our psychological needs, and intended (by us) to make us feel normal in an otherwise abnormal world. For many an evangelical God is at our behest, and becomes who we make him to be rather than the other way around.

Theologian, J. Todd Billings, after sociologist, Christian Smith has labeled this type of movement, and evangelical making of God as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD, hereafter). Here is how Smith defines the lineaments of MTD:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.[1]

My guess is that this sounds very familiar to you, in fact it might hit closer to him than you would like to admit. Truth be told, this inclination has been around for centuries, but it is modern man and woman who have been plagued with this style of pedestrian religion, in the name of Christ, probably more than any other age. We are conditioned by an understanding of God that suits us, that is fits well with being an American, or living with the relative creature comforts the Western world has to offer us. But there is a history behind this.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed theologian who lived and wrote during the latter half of the 19th century (in Amsterdam) gets into the theological history that has led to what Christian Smith and Todd Billings have labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism. Bavinck was working in the period just after much of the theology behind MTD was being developed by certain German theologians like Fredrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Hermann, et al. What he has written on the topic sounds eerily close to what we have now come to call MTD. Here Bavinck is commenting on how some of the theologians of his day were articulating this early form of what has now more popularly been labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism:

Revelation, he says [he is referring to one of these theologians, i.e. Ritschl], is not an external thing, but “man receives the revelation, which is the ground of his religion, because the depths of his own being are opened to him.” Religion is a new life, and rests upon an experience of the power of moral good, as Jesus has shown us. To trust in that power is to believe, to live, to be saved. And because religion is thus “the complete quickening of a man, there is no general religion, the same for every one, but there are only individuals in religion.” So we see that from the standpoint of religious psychology there is no longer a place for metaphysics, theology, or dogmatics, nor even for an “ethics of the religious personality.” For every standard fails here; there is no single law or rule; the individual  man is the measure of all things, also of religion; God does not say how he will be served, but man decides how he will serve him.[2]

I think Bavinck’s insight, from the late 19th century is penetrating and pertinent to our own 21st century context as North American evangelicals in particular. What becomes difficult for us, as evangelicals, to identify this type of self-serving religion in our midst, in our personal lives is that we have no real critical space to distinguish between this type of moralistic religion and the real Christian religion that we claim to inhabit; because we have conflated the two. As I have written elsewhere in regard to this very issue, and drawing off of Swiss theologian Karl Barth and his critique of the 20th century German Christianity that he was a part of during World War I and II: “It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal.” And so we end up worshipping a projection of God that looks more like ourselves, our better morally good self, than the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I know this little essay has probably come off like something that makes you feel like you have been beaten around the head, but isn’t that what we need sometimes? I think the most dangerous thing about living the way we do, as moralistic therapeutic Deists who have absolutized ourselves, and adopted a morally good Gospel (as Bavinck described it) is that we really have no space to actually hear from God. We have no capacity to see that God is truly Lord who contradicts us at our every step, but who at the same time graciously nurtures us even as he rebukes us in our sinful mode of being. There is hope, just not in ourselves.



[1] Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 162-63 cited by J. Todd Billings in Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, 22.

[2] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc. 2853, 2862 kindle.

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