A Tribute to my Dad, Ron Grow: His Legacy, A Witness Bearer to Jesus Christ

My dad just went from stage 3 to stage 4 squamous cell skin cancer on his head; this means it has penetrated his brain. This post will be written as tribute to my dad. My dad, Ron Grow, hails from Gardena and Lake Elsinore, California; currently residing in Wildomar, California. He is one of three siblings, my Aunt Sue, his older sister went to be with the risen Christ in 1985, and my Aunt Linda, his oldest sister, is still living in assisted living battling with dementia and other health issues. He is the son of Jacob “Buster” and Betty Grow, both in the presence of the living God where there are pleasures forevermore. My grandpa Buster was a hay dealer, starting in Gardena, and eventually moving out to the Lake Elsinore area back in the late 40s (as I recall). This is the household my dad grew up in; not a house where Christ was well known. My dad radically came to Christ out of drugs and alcohol just a few years out of high school in the late 60s (my dad’s household came to Christ as a result of his witness). He was mentored by a pastor at his Conservative Baptist church in Elsinore. From there my dad sensed the call to pastoral ministry, and entered Southwestern Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona in the early seventies. Here he met my mom, Bev, and here I came into existence; AFTER they married. Over the next four years my sister, Staci, and brother Jeff would come into the world as well.[1] My dad went on to pastor a variety of Baptist and Evangelical Free churches; he even started First Baptist Church of Tenino (Washington), being sent out from the mother church: Mt. View Baptist Church (in Centralia, Washington). He ended his pastoral career at Calvary Baptist Church in North Long Beach, CA; at this point I was in high school. He retired from formal pastoral ministry in and around 94. From that point on he went on to manage a Christian owned used car dealership in Bellflower, CA: i.e. Mike’s Auto Sales. In all of this ministry what characterized my dad’s approach was evangelism. Whether he was pastoring or operating as a hospital chaplain (which he did for a while), or as a car salesman, he has always been about proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom to all who would hear.

With the ups and downs that attend each and everyone of our lives in this rough and tumble world, my dad has gone onward and lived out his life in retirement with a host of health issues. It has been a struggle and continues to be for my dad; fiscally, health-wise, and in other ways. My parents divorced after thirty-six years of marriage some years ago now, and so my dad has been living a solitary life in these last many years. In the midst of it all, no matter where my dad has found himself, no matter what the tough circumstances, he has borne witness to Jesus Christ. He points people to Christ even in the midst of his own tough circumstances; and they have been tough!! particularly over these last many months. There has been a convergence of circumstances that have helped to only exacerbate my dad’s current plight; and yet I know he has continued to share Christ with those he comes into contact with—even in the midst of the “real.” He has never lost his resolve to share Christ with anyone who will hear; this of all things, I think, is my dad’s legacy. And it is the legacy of the Spirit’s ministry; indeed, this is the Spirit’s ministry, to bear witness to the work and voice of the risen Christ.

While imperfect, like us all, my dad has lived, and continues to live in the very grist of the broken yet now resurrected humanity of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. Here my dad finds the ground of all that he is all the way down. No matter what the swirls of this life bring my dad, he lives in the sweat and blood of the work of Jesus Christ for him. Here my dad gains his hope, and through the eternal Son becoming fallen human my dad finds his way eternal. Paul Hinlicky describes this work of Christ like this:

We are . . . to think that (per creedal belief) the man Jesus Christ rendered in the gospel narrative, qua this particular mortal being of manger and cross, is the coming to us of the Father’s Eternal Son; and we are to think (again a belief) that the Eternal Son, God from God and Light from Light, comes from the Father by the Spirit to seek and find us in this particular man’s journey to Golgotha. If we understand the exchanges of attributes entailed by this belief in the “one Lord, Jesus Christ” as the personal decision and various acts and passions of the Son in the Trinity’s love for us, we understand all that there is to be understood theologically about the Incarnation: we bend the knee, confess Jesus as the saving Lord, and give glory in the Spirit to the Father in anticipation of the redemption of our bodies by membership in His Body, harbinger of the Beloved Community.[2]

It is this ‘Beloved Community’ that my dad has been a contributing member to, and continues to be, for many many years. It is in communion with this man on the path to Golgotha whom my dad came into step with back those many years ago in Lake Elsinore, California. It is this Light from Light that my dad has seen and continues to see the Face of God in. It is in the ‘passions of the Son in the Trinity’s love for us’ that my dad has been swept up into the heights of God’s life, even as that very life continues to stoop down into the misery and suffering of this broken vessel if only to inject the power of resurrection into the life-blood of my dad’s aching body. My dad lives in this creed, and it is the Life of the creed that breathes His life into his, and springs forth an eternal well-spring of hope.

I love my dad, and always will for eternity. He has ultimately pointed me to Christ, and continues to, even in his besetting illness. My dad, even in the formation of many scars and bruises, has in his weakness, pointed me to the broken but raised body of Jesus Christ. As my dad has found his life in the living Christ, through the ministry of the Spirit therein, I too came to find my life in union with this same mysterious of God and humanity in the singular ‘face’ of this person from Nazareth. My dad’s legacy is that he has the Spirit of Christ at work in his life, and in that come-alongside ministry he has been able to point others to the ground of his life in Christ. This is my dad’s legacy, and it continues to build; his life is not over, and by God’s Grace and Mercy he might find many years of life and ministry as he lives with us ‘flatlanders’ together as we hasten the coming of Christ in love and good works to the praise of the everlasting Father.

In closing, and with reference to Hinlicky on Luther’s theology one more time: “To be truly human is to rise from the dead. Jesus Christ is this new, true Adam. In Him, we too, and we all, are becoming truly human.”[3] This is my dad’s hope, and all of humanity’s hope; it is the resurrection that brings the needed power into my dad’s life, alongside the rest of the Beloved Community. My dad is only human, as are we all, as he, and we participate in the indestructible life of the Lamb of God, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Jesus Christ. My dad knows the voice of the Lamb; I know this because along with my mom he introduced me to it, and the voice lives on through the Spirit’s breath. To God be the glory, and the peace of Christ be my dad’s bread of life in these travailing moments of trial and tribulation.

 

[1] My mom and dad also gave birth to Nathaniel Douglas Grow in the early eighties while my dad pastored an Evangelical Free Church in Green, OR (Roseburg area). Nathaniel survived thirty minutes outside the womb, and then entered the presence of the Triune God due to an inoperable (which is now operable in the 21st century) heart condition.

[2] Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 54-5.

[3] Ibid.

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Christian Universalism and an Evangelistic Heart

Let me offer some strafing thoughts on Christian Universalism; always a risky endeavor. As I look out at the unbelieving world it is very hard for me to think that most people I see on TV, Movies, on the Freeways and Bi-ways, etc. so on and so forth are going to end up eternally separated from God. I can see the character of that sort of life all around me all the time. But it really does become a dilemma for me when I contemplate the character of God. God’s Love as Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit came in Christ for the salvation of the world. He accomplished that as he incarnated and began the atoning process therein; only climaxing that in the cross, burial, resurrection, and ascension. But herein is the hope of humanity; herein is the hope of eternal life for all of humanity; God with us! I want everyone to come to Christ, and experience the power of the living of God; I want everyone to taste and see that God is very Good. But there is so much noise out in the world, trumped up by the minions of satan; that great deceiver and serpent of old. It is nothing but noise and static though; even so, it is a powerful delusion that sucks humanity into its loins and does not want them to see the light of the Gospel in the face of Jesus Christ. But this breaks my heart! We are all sick, in need of the Great Physician.

As I contemplate the beauty and majesty of the Triune God it is hard for me to imagine a world where all of His creation is not redeemed. It is hard to imagine the souls of the masses eternally burning in the hell fire imaged for us in Holy Scripture. Yes, we can imagine such things when we superimpose a particular version of God that has been promulgated as a classical theism. A version of God where His justice operates in division from who He first is as Son of the Father. A version of God who is Judge and Brute Creator rather than Father of the Son in eternal bond by the Holy Spirit. When I think of God in Christ as the Good Shepherd, or the Bridegroom, it becomes exceedingly difficult to imagine a world where God abandons any human being as an orphan.

Just being honest here. I am not necessarily presenting a view point on this, but instead just reflecting as my heart has been touched once again. It is hard to look out at people, and see how deceived they are, and then conclude that they will be eternally separated from the God who I know as Father. It is hard to imagine this particularly in view of my own sins, and daily unbelief (evinced in momentary actions and thoughts of sin and unholiness). If I have the capacity to look out at people in this world, and have a broken heart for them; I know this capacity does not come from me, but from the living God who loved this world to the point of shedding His own precious blood in the humanity of Christ for the whole-wide world.

People need Christ. The world is on fire, and people don’t even feel its heat; at least not in the right way. The world is broken, and people don’t know how to escape it on their own. The more thoughtful ones attempt to come up with ways and philosophies of overcoming the brokenness they know they live in and see all around them. But all that those attempts do is drive people further and deeper into themselves away from the liberating love of God in Christ. I’m just sad right now. People are broken, and don’t understand the real power of God. They look around at “Christianity” in America, and mostly see piss-poor examples of what the love of Christ is actually all about. This saddens and angers me. I’m just as much at fault as anyone else. But I repent.

I leave us with a quote from TF Torrance that fits well with the spirit of this post:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

More Explanation On My Developing Views; My Blog Name; and Academia

Let me clarify further on my last post. I am in a bit of flux at the moment. The work we have done with Evangelical Calvinism has left an indelible mark on my theological formation that will never go away. I have not abandoned anything that we have put forward with Evangelical Calvinism. But my theological identity and sensibilities are greater than, more complex than being reduced to ‘The Evangelical Calvinist.’ Again, I will always be grateful to Myk Habets for including me in the work of Evangelical Calvinism; most particularly the two books we co-edited together. But I think I want to shed, a bit, simply being known as the Evangelical Calvinist. I think the language of Calvinist can be misleading. As I noted in my last post, if we were to detail some very significant doctrinal loci in my own theological understanding, we wouldn’t probably come up with anything that is meaningfully Calvinist, per se. For me, the moniker Evangelical Calvinist, can be reduced to the theological impulses forwarded by Karl Barth; more than anyone else. What I don’t want to communicate, from my last post, is that I am a strident Anabaptist, say in the mold of someone like John Howard Yoder, or contemporary Anabaptists of today. I am broadly Reformed, and yet “Radically” so in the sense that Barth’s reformulation of the themes present in the ‘Reformed’ faith represent the reformulations I am happy to sign on with in the main. In this sense I am Radically Reformed; and insofar as the historic Radically Reformed (namely, the Anabaptists) imbibe this sort of ‘Barthian’ mood in a pre-chronistic way, we might say that I am Radically Reformed. It would though be a mistake to think of me as an Anabaptist writ large. I am not. I am broadly Reformed, some might call this Evangelical Calvinist ; indeed, I would still call this Evangelical Calvinism. But I want to be clear about this on a historical spectrum. If I was alive during the Reformer’s period, doctrinally, mostly because of my views on baptism and the Free church, I would have most likely been persecuted by the reformers. So, this makes for an interesting dilemma. In the passage of time we have of course have hindsight, and things have continued to develop doctrinally. But it is this that sort of pushed me, the other day, to bring up the whole Anabaptist trope. It is the reality that if I was alive during the magisterial reformation I very well could have been drowned as an Anabaptist; but then again, so could have Barth.

So, there is that. But my posts from the yesterday also were functioning occasionally and at a ‘sub’ level. In other words, I had just experienced more snubbing on FB in regard to a discussion on baptism. I provocatively stated that believer’s baptism is the biblical option, and all others are simply ‘hermeneutical.’ Of course this is going to garner some pushback, but what it illustrated for me is just how deep rooted reception of the Great Tradition of the Church has seeded itself into the psyches of many ‘evangelical’ Christians. But this I reject! As a Protestant Christian I am fully committed to the Scripture Principle in radical ways (thus my reference to Anabaptism). And this is the bigger issue here; i.e. how does (or ought) Church Tradition relate to the interpretation of the Bible? This is what has finally pushed me over the edge. This is why I made the radical move of claiming to be in sympathy with the spirit of Anabaptism (even I myself am not really Anabaptist in the way that has come to be understood in the contemporary). I think it is important to be ‘catholic,’ or in line with conciliar Christianity; but in a qualified way. As a Reformed Christian I am deeply and even radically committed to the intent of sola Scriptura, and here in a way that I do think fits better with the spirit of that as imbibed by the Anabaptists over against the Reformed, simpliciter. I think the Christological and Theological Proper ecumenical creeds are decisive and important, but even they are constantly confronted by the reality of Holy Scripture. In other words, I do not see the creeds as definitive in the same way as many of my evangelical theological contemporaries seem to see them. I do not give the Church’s Trad the power to be the concrete within which the reality of Holy Scripture must be fastened. I keep referring to the reality of Holy Scripture with the hopes that you, the reader, are seeing the way I see Scripture; that it is instrumental or as Calvin called Scripture the ‘spectacles’ by which we see God in Christ. But I want people to understand, that at least for me, the Tradition in the Church, and appealing to it, in my view, does not necessarily make someone ‘catholic,’ per se. It is Christ who is the regula fide, or ‘rule of faith,’ not the so called consensus fideilum located in the Church. Christ is God’s Free Grace for us who continuously afresh and anew has the capacity to confront us, and even challenge the creeds and confessions of the Church; as great and grammar-forming as those are. Bruce McCormack more succinctly and eloquently summarizes all of this as he describes Barth’s approach to the Tradition:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[1]

It is the eschatological character of all of theological discourse that marginalizes even the so called Great Tradition of the Church, and calls the consensus fidelium into question in regard to its ability to be ultimately definitive and thus authoritative. It is Christ alone, and the viva vox Dei therein, that is definitive and authoritative for the Christian. This means that authority in the Church, interpretive or otherwise, by definition cannot, and definitely should not be understood as reducible to the voice of the Church; no matter how “catholic” this is considered to be. Christ is God’s catholicity for the world, and it is our union and participation with Christ that makes the Christian pervasively catholic. So appealing to the Church, and her Church  Fathers as the ground upon which someone is considered to be catholic or not, in my view, is ultimately fallacious and question begging. To appeal to the Church’s consensus does not accomplish what I think its promoters hope for; all that appeal does, ironically, is result in a sectarian ‘in’ or ‘out.’ But for the Christian the in/out is whether someone is for Christ or against Him. How we understand Christ in an intelligible or ‘theological’ fashion, while highly important, does not in itself ground the Gospel; instead Christ the person (itself a theological grammarism, i.e. to use the language of person etc.) is definitive for what it means to be part of the Church catholic. Appeal to Christ alone, through Scripture alone, by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone is and ought to be the determinative ought of the Christian’s appeal; not Church Tradition, per se.

As far as my comments on academia in my last two posts: those still stand in the main. Although I would like to clarify: I am not referring to particular people, per se. I have great admiration for many academics, people who I have come to know via social media. But it is the complex of academia, and what it takes to be “accepted” therein that I find to be deleterious to the soul. I am done trying to “fit in” by rubbing shoulders with other people seeking the same sort of validation by their peers in regard to actually being a Christian scholar in the know or not. This is at odds with what I take to be a healthy Christian spirituality, and indeed, in my view, contributes to the continual divide between theological academia and the Church’s body life. There is a place for rigorous thought, and peer pushback, but when that becomes the sign of the Kingdom things have gone awry. When status is determined by how many publications one has, or what institutions they are associated with, there is going to be a corrosive built into that that is too hard to overcome; and shouldn’t need to be overcome. For me, I can no longer stomach this sort of “community”; one that is based on someone’s CV and achievements. Think about that, how does a community based on such characteristics cohere with the Gospel reality? It doesn’t!

I am simply going to go with my name as the title of my blog now. I think this better signifies what this whole process is about; for me it is about continuing to grow as a Christian in a way that is broader than anyone label can bear. While, in the main, I am a Reformed Christian; I am Radically Reformed in the sense that Barth and After Barth is radically Reformed. Not necessarily Anabaptist, but in a way that the spirit of Anabaptism is taken up along with the desire to be always reforming in the spirit provided for by the reality of Holy Scripture in Jesus Christ. If you want to think of this in terms of Evangelical Calvinism, as Myk and I have laid that out in our books (and here on my blog over the years), then yes, do that. But I am attempting to think even more expansively than that; to simply think of myself as radically Reformed under the terms already noted. Hopefully this post is more clarifying than my last two in regard to my aims. Peace out.

 

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

An Update on My Theological Identity: Radically Reformed

This is an update post on blog identity; theological identity; and social media activity. I will post something in explanation of my theological identity in order to help explicate the way I see myself within the theological landscape. My blog name change reflects that identity very well.

Over time it has become more apparent to me where my theological orientation is actually situated; it isn’t, classically Reformed, if you hadn’t noticed. My theological impulses aren’t in line with Reformed orientation, per se; instead, they are oriented in and from what is called Radically Reformed in the history. In other words, my orientation, even while being “The Evangelical Calvinist” has always been Anabaptist[ic]. I approach Scripture in the same mode as Anabaptists historically have, which is what I take to be a consistent form of sola Scriptura. I have the same view of theological guilds, and Christian academia as an industrial complex, as Anabaptists historically have. I have the same view of baptism as an Anabaptist. I hold to low Free Church to state and state to church views, and I see the Bible as genuinely normative over against the so called Great Tradition of the Church. I am not ecclesiocentric, but radically Christocentric. I am credobaptist, and stridently contra paedobaptist; and most definitely against baptismal regeneration, whether that be of the ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ types. I am for a non-violence ethic, although not fully pacifist. But if you add all of the above together what you get is a ‘Radically Reformed’ or Anabaptist theological perspective, rather than a historically Reformed one. So, this signals where I’m coming from these days. I think the idea that I am ‘Calvinist’ in anyway doesn’t really follow; my co-edited books notwithstanding.

As far as Christian scholarship, I think that as an ‘evil’ it is necessary, but not something I am happy with. I do enjoy research, reading, writing so on and so forth for the sake of the Church. But there are too many pitfalls built into the theological guild, to the point that it is more harmful than helpful to those associated with it; in my view. I can no longer participate in that realm, at least online, and be a healthy growing Christian person. And so I repudiate that whole realm. Does this mean that I can’t benefit from Christian scholarship? No. All it means is that I can benefit from it without also being associated with it. I am not interested in being accepted by the guild or those in it. They are not special before God or in God’s Kingdom; not more so than anyone else. Yet, for some reason they seem to think they are indeed special in a way that other less-educated Christians aren’t. But all I have mostly experienced in that sphere is self-acclamation, self-promoting, gate-keeping attitudes that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God in Christ. There are clearly people in that sphere who love Christ, and who believe that what they are doing is promoting God’s Kingdom. But I think the sphere itself has become so toxic, and driven by goals that are so self-glorifying that I want nothing to do with it. I have been patronized, belittled, ‘come at,’ so on and so forth merely for the fact that I don’t have a PhD; or that I don’t exactly fit into the sphere according to the sentimentalities and expectations that others have of you if you are going to be in-step with “them.” That is not me, nor has it ever been me. I am not open to any correction from anybody online, “period.” I could care less what some academic has to say or think about me, one way or the other. Like them I stand before God. Unlike them I don’t stand before my “peers.” I am simply a Christian attempting to live my life as a witness for Christ. This does not mean that there aren’t some Christian academics with the same aims. But what I am noting is that there is an inherent corrosive built into the complex of Christian academia. The very people who can ‘hear’ what I am writing, at the same time do not think this applies to them as academics; it might happen in certain realms, ‘but it could never happen to them.’

For me The Evangelical Calvinist project is over. I am happy to be have been able to collaborate with Myk Habets on the two books, but it isn’t my project anymore. I am not ‘Reformed,’ but Radically Reformed (from the historical trajectory that represents). Stuart Murray captures well the sentiment I am prone to when he writes of the Anabaptist trajectory and sentiment:

Anabaptists were seeking to be faithful to the Reformers’own principle of sola scriptura but were convinced that the Reformers were failing to implement it fully. Their approach was somewhat iconoclastic as they sought to topple theologians past and present from their pedestals; they appeared to be rather anti-intellectual as they questioned the efficacy of education and reason in hermeneutics; and they impugned the integrity of the Reformers, whom they regarded as putting their own interests above faithful obedience to Scripture. Whether their assertions were justified must be considered in the light of criticisms made of their position, but obviously their claims were substantive and a real challenge to the Reformers. Despite the sometimes naïve language, the Anabaptists’ claims were not just the slogans of enthusiasts. And, as their opponents were forced to concede, many Anabaptists lived out the implications of their approach.[1]

Murray clearly offers some critique even in his approval of the Anabaptist approach; and this is an important aspect of this for me as well. I am not uncritical of Anabaptism, nor am I fully on board with every last jot and tittle of Anabaptism. But if I am honest, on a grade, I am more Anabaptist in orientation that not. I think me openly recognizing this is just being more honest about things that I have been aware of in the past. Full disclosure: I was on the trajectory of recognizing all of this way back probably thirteen years ago. The Evangelical Calvinist project sort of arrested this for me, but it never went away; which would explain why Barth has always remained so important for me. I’d say Barth represents the mix of Radically Reformed that I most cohere with. He is a mix of various trajectories, but his desire to be ‘biblical’ and approach on a radical Christ-centeredness grounded in God’s free Grace, I think, fits very well with the Anabaptist trajectory in more ways than not. Barth, also, by the way, was not paedobaptist, but credobaptist; this is an important piece that needs to be appreciated. Baptism is a watershed (pun intended) between classically Reformed and radically Reformed; Barth fits the latter in more ways than one, I think.

So, there it is. My views will continue to develop, I’m sure, as the days go by. Hopefully all that this means is that I am growing deeper into the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is how this all started for me, by the way. I was confronted with deep and long-lasting crisis back in 95, and that pushed me into the Bible in deep and unceasing ways. It is that crisis that has led to the development of my theological mood today, and it is a mood as I have just been describing. I am okay with not being accepted by the theological guild, and do not look for their approval but God’s. That’s it. Peace.

 

[1] Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2000), 49-50.

Facebook and Twitter Accounts; And Academia

If you were wondering what happened, if you were ‘friends’ with me on FB, or followed me on Twitter; I deactivated both accounts. Much of my networking on those platforms orients around contact with theological academics and that whole world. What I have found, in the main, is that contact with that world, and aspiration to be accepted in that world (at some level) has been tarnishing to my soul and Christian spirituality. There are many people in that realm who see themselves as gatekeepers to God, and it is sickening to me. God shows no partiality, but academics do; no matter what they say to the contrary. It is an industry of pure self-promotion, and on social media one where one’s chops take center-stage; mostly by letting the world know how you have risen through the ranks through publishing feats, and career leaps. I have found myself aspiring to these things too, in a world of self-promotion; and it has done serious damage to my walk with Jesus Christ.

As a result it is most prudent at this time for me to walk away from that whole complex. I don’t really want anything to do with Christian academia, at least the industrial side of it, and so it is best for me to walk away from it. I once aspired to get the PhD in theology, but for what ultimate purpose I don’t really know; except maybe to be accepted into a guild that has already damaged me more than I can even realize. Are there some quality people in that realm? Yes, I know some. But it’s the industry itself that retards spiritual maturation, almost by insidious design, that I must repudiate at this point. And so removing myself from FB and Twitter is the best thing I can do at the moment; since this is where I have contact with that world most.

I will always keep blogging. Ironically, I will keep reading academic theology, and posting on it. But I will only do so for purposes I ever started doing that in the first place: to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. I am uninterested though in the opinions of academics on my life; how much “I know,” or don’t etc. These are all things that don’t matter before God; but things that are tantamount in the Christian academic world. No thank you. I might start a new FB account down the road, one that has contacts with friends which isn’t shaped by the academic world; we’ll see. Pax

My Objection to Baptismal Regeneration

These will simply represent some off the top reflections on the topic of baptism, in particular so-called baptismal regeneration. To be frank, I have almost no tolerance for even considering this doctrine. I see it as heretical with all the gravitas that word is supposed to convey. In fact, on both Twitter and Facebook I posted the following quick quip: “Baptismal regeneration is not biblical; it is hermeneutical QED.” I received a response from someone I respect, but who I also severely disagree with on this very significant point. I didn’t realize he maintained this position tell he made his comment; he wrote:

I’d argue that Romans 6-8 stands as a witness against this statement. But, of course, I’m sure you read it otherwise. So, it appears the debate itself is hermeneutical all the way down.

And further:

Bobby – It’s certainly a serious and important matter. Furthermore, one position on it is right (true, orthodox, and faithful to the witness of scripture) while the other position is wrong. I’m certainly not trying to trivialize it. My point is that there is no perspicuous witness of Scripture on this point. Everything hinges on the reader’s tradition of hermeneutics. Otherwise, there would be no disagreement or debate.

For the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches, your rejection of Baptismal Regeneration is a profound misreading of scripture (and heresy—insofar as your reading departs from the orthodoxy collectively affirmed by these communions and the consensus fidelium). But you, being formed and schooled in the Reformed Protestant tradition, have learned to read scripture differently on this point. So, based on your tradition’s hermeneutic, you are ready to declare the majority of your fellow Christians, as well as the long history of Christian witness from at least the Church Fathers to Luther and beyond, in heresy.

Now, you may be right. The majority of the present, as well as the majority of the past have no special claim on truth. Both sides of the debate will have to argue it out, as we have been doing since the Reformation, furnishing arguments rooted in scripture. But neither side can say, Scripture clearly and plainly bears witness to my position. Scripture’s witness on the matter just is the crux of the debate.[1]

I responded to my interlocutor:

but this isn’t ultimately a matter of biblical exegesis in your response, but ecclesiology and theory of authority. It is a matter of thinking grace and its givenness; again, bound up in dogmatic concerns, that are discernibly proximate to Scripture’s witness or not. If Scripture is not simply a wax nose of one’s tradition then it can speak for itself and on its own canonical terms. And it can do so in such a way that will be perspicacious to the point that it can divide through the bone and marrow of the Church’s tradition. That’s the basis upon which I argue that baptismal regeneration is false. Not to mention that the early church itself engaged in credobaptism. Ie credo in the sense that belief preceded baptism, it wasn’t instigated by it.

Sometimes it seems to me that folks seem to adopt a sort of biblical relativism and equate that with being charitable. Yes, I can recognize a pervasive interpretive pluralism as a sociological phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean the bible doesn’t teach something that is clearly greater than one’s location in whatever tradition. That seems to be the premise of your response, but I think that is wrong.

I want to expand even further. The seriousness of this is hard to overstate. Neither my son or daughter have been baptized yet, but they have professed and confessed Christ as their Lord and Savior for years. Because of a variety of life circumstances neither of my kids have been in an ecclesial situation where they could be baptized. According to my interlocutor’s tradition my kids are not ‘saved.’ But this is where things become exceedingly problematic for his tradition. Holy Scripture does not provide us with the pattern he asserts; when he asserts that the consensus fidelium has maintained for centuries of the Church. This is not the consensus fidelium, it is the consensus Catholicium; there’s a strident difference. He claims that this even bleeds into the trad of the Church all the way up and until Luther. Even so, many things, such as indulgences were present in the Church up and until Luther. Further, there are many things that have been present in the Western Church for millennia at this point; greatest of which is the doctrine of Apostolic Succession and the interpretive Magisterium of the Holy Roman Catholic church. None of these represent exegetical arguments from Scripture for baptismal regeneration, instead they present us with a fertile tradition wherein things like baptismal regeneration are allowed to be home-spun from layers of traditional fabrics that have been woven extra Scriptura.

Back to my point about pervasive interpretive pluralism. This is the sociological phenomenon Roman Catholic sociologist, Christian Smith, identified in his book Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. But forthrightly, so what! All this does is identify a superficial, but real phenomenon that will result the moment more than one person attempts to exegete Scripture (or anything else for that matter). This does nothing to subvert the reality that Scripture teaches something, and it does so per its own canonical and theological context. Indeed, Scripture, if it finds its reality in Christ alone, then this must be allowed to be regulative for determining the ultimate meaning of the Text; not some tradition in the Church, no matter how ancient or layered that tradition is. As C.S. Lewis noted, it is utter chronological snobbery to make arguments based simply upon a time-honored tradition; whether that be with reference to the past, present, or future. This is the basis of my interlocutor’s argument; which he obviously recognizes is an issue. Nevertheless, he still appeals to the “consensus” as if it ought to have some sort of interpretive weight simply because it is.

Like I noted previously, to make the appeal my interlocutor does is one that is grounded petitio principii in what yet needs to be proven. In other words, his appeal is to an ecclesial tradition that is itself subject to the reality of Scripture’s witness. Does it withstand that witness; a witness that comes loaded with its own categories and points of teaching? Is Scripture really so malleable that it is subject to a reader’s response interpretation that is in-formed by an alien tradition that may or may not have proximity to Scripture’s ‘Sacra Doctrina?’

The weightiness of this question cannot be overstated. My interlocutor ostensibly maintains that the Church alone has the capacity to dispense effectual or saving Grace; as if grace is a quantity or substance that has the capacity to be possessed and manhandled by the Church herself. But is this really what the reality of Scripture teaches? All throughout Scripture we see just the opposite. We see the Apostle Paul referring to his ‘in Christ’ theology, or what Calvin, or even Cyril would call unio cum Christo (union with Christ) soteriology. In other words, we don’t see the Church in the place or as the dispenser of salvation through the holy sacraments; instead we see Christ directly as the mediator of salvation himself for the many. We see teaching by the Apostle John that tells us to confess our sins directly to God in Christ, and here comes the te absolvo; not through the disbursements of the Church.

Baptism is clearly an important step in the salvific process, but in Scripture baptism does not save; instead it bears witness to the Savior’s work in the recipient’s life. Theologically it is Christ’s vicarious faith, his vicarious baptism for us in his vicarious humanity that has salvific weight. But it isn’t baptism that brings salvation, it is Christ himself and his vicarious identification with us. There are no conditions for salvation to inhere in someone’s life, other than saying yes by the Spirit in and through the Christ’s Yes for us as He serves as our Mediator and High Priest. This is the ground of salvation, not a watery immersion (or sprinkling). But we must attend to Scripture itself, and not allow the Church’s tradition to supervene in such a way that Scripture is not allowed to speak and even contradict the Church’s teaching. If we don’t attend to Scripture this way then there is no way for the voice of the living God to contradict aberrant teaching within the Church’s walls; there is no voice but an ad hoc voice presumed to be the Lord’s voice as it comes conflated with the Church’s.

The Pink Elephant

The seriousness of this issue is this: if what my interlocutor is claiming is true then I am not his brother in Christ, and he is not mine. From my perspective I can maintain that he is saved, as long as he sees salvation coming from the dispensary of Christ’s life itself rather than the treasury of merits in the Church. But from his perspective I cannot be saved unless I am in his Church, or in the traditional line of churches he believes represent the so-called consensus fideilum (the consensus of the faithful). This is as serious as things get. This is not merely an adiaphoric teaching that we can agree to disagree on. Nein, it is an issue that determines whether or not we believe someone will spend eternity with Christ or not. There is nothing more serious than this! In our time of glossing over things, in the age of the internet and social media, it seems like issues like this are often papered over; but this cannot be. If my interlocutor is right then I am not saved, and on my way to an eternal hell. If I am right, at best, his salvation is questionable. I can see him as a brother in Christ, but not with much assurance.

 

[1] Anonymous Facebook commenter, accessed 09–10–2019.

Adolf von Harnack’s Influence on Me and 20th Century Dogmatics: On Evangelizing Metaphysics in the Name of Christ

Adolf von Harnack, I think, has an underlying impact on me in ways that are greater than I’d like to admit. I came under this influence through my seminary training in an evangelical institution. I don’t think I’m the only one who has been subjected to this influence; indeed, most of the 20th century Anglophone (and of course Europhone) theological landscape has been shaped, one way or the other by this influence. The basic premise of Harnack is that the Gospel, early on in the Patristic period, was Hellenized, to the point that the canonical God of Hebrew orientation was syncretized and lost to the ‘god of the philosophers.’ I would say at some level two of my ‘favoritist’ theologians, Karl Barth and TF Torrance, have operated under this influence; i.e. the influence we see in the modern period in the ‘mediating theologians’ that gives us post or anti-metaphysical theologies. I am prone towards these sorts of theologies; the narratival theologies of Barth, and to a degree, even Robert Jenson.

Paul Hinlicky in his book Luther and the Beloved Community, as he is attempting to see how William James’s thought maps onto Martin Luther’s, has some insightful treatment on Harnack’s ‘Hellenization thesis.’ He writes:

One reason for James’s confusion about Luther might be traced to his dependence on the scholarship of the contemporary giant of German liberal Protestantism, Adolph von Harnack. Harnack, the eminent German Lutheran scholar of his times, proclaimed doctrine defunct: “The history of dogma comes to a close with Luther.” In seven probing volumes, Harnack argued the influential thesis that creedal dogma (such as Royce lifted up) is the historically contingent product of what he famously characterized as “the hellenization of the gospel.” Hellenization is understandable, Harnack explained; it was even inevitable. But this creedal theology formulated the gospel in the thought forms of Greek substance metaphysics; as such, these ideas are unintelligible to the modern mind and constitute an actual obstacle to faith. As indicated, Harnack argued that it was none other than Martin Luther who in principle if not yet to full effect overcame the intellectualizing and reifying theology of the old church. Luther recovered Jesus’ simple gospel of trust in the fatherly love of God. Couple this insight with the rise since Luther’s time of the modern scientific understanding of the world — which threatens to crush the human spirit with knowledge of its insignificance and impotence in the vast and ancient cosmos — and Jesus’ message of the fatherly God, rediscovered in principle by Luther’s idea of trust, fiducia, is surely the “essence of Christianity” and the gospel for our times. Theology as belief, theory, intellectual grasping of the divine with antiquated, reifying concepts like “nature” or “substance,” gives way to historically-critically founded preaching of existential trust in the world of Heraclitus.

Little in Harnack’s analysis has stood up to critical scrutiny. For example, Jaroslav Pelikan’s five-volume history of doctrine tells the countertale to Harnack of the evangelization of Hellenism: it is, he writes, a “distortion when the dogma formulated by the catholic tradition is described as ‘in its conception and development a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel’ [Harnack]. Indeed, in some ways it is more accurate to speak of dogma as the ‘dehellenization’ of the theology that had preceded it and to argue that ‘by its dogma the church threw up a wall against an alien metaphysic’” [Elert]. Step by painful step, Pelikan methodically dismantles Harnack’s construction of dogma as hellenization by means of a simple but crucial move: he takes dogma hermeneutically not theoretically, that is to say, as “what we believe, teach and confess on the basis of the Word of God” — an expression of the Lutheran Formulators which Pelikan borrowed to define the subject matter of his study. “Without setting rigid boundaries, we shall identify what is ‘believed’ as the form of Christian doctrine present in the modalities of devotion, spirituality, and worship; what is ‘taught’ as the content of the word of God extracted by exegesis from the witness of the Bible and communicated to the people of the church through proclamation, instruction and churchly theology; and what is ‘confessed’ as the testimony of the church both against false teaching from within and against attacks from without, articulated in polemics and apologetics, in creed and dogma.” When dogma is taken this way, as the complex act of the church’s interpretation of the gospel word of God in (continuing!) history, Harnack’s influential claim about Luther overcoming dogma turns out to be real sleight of hand.[1]

Ironically, I would contend, that even though Barth and Torrance, in particular, have been influenced heavily by Harnack’s thesis, they are not unself-critical. In other words, while seemingly in line with the mediating theologians in the modern, Barth and Torrance work into Pelikan’s thesis of ‘evangelizing metaphysics’; Torrance probably more than Barth, on this score.

What I still maintain, is that in the best of ecumenical creedal or conciliar theology we do indeed get what Pelikan counter-proposes vis-à-vis Harnack; we get metaphysics “evangelized.” But just like with ‘the Spirit and the flesh,’ there is an ongoing battle between sliding too much towards whatever the reifying philosophy might be. In other words: there are periods of theological development, I’d contend, where there has indeed been slippage back into an ontotheology of the sorts that Harnack was so concerned with. I think we see this in some of the substance metaphysics synthesized with Christian theology in the mediaeval period. But then we also get this slippage in the modern period with the synthesizing of Hegel, Kant et al. with Christian theology. It is the theologian’s burden to prayerfully translate and interpret the kerygma in their particular period in such a way that ‘evangelization’ is always at the fore. The reality is, is that it is inescapable for the theologian to transcend his or her periodized location, such that the reigning philosophies of the day won’t have impact on the way they attempt to articulate a theological grammar for their peers.

Maybe at the end of this I think Harnack, at least at his first impulses, had the right ‘spirit.’ But it is clear, at least to me (and others), that Harnack over-corrected; which is always the case in the organicism of the theological task. If anything, Harnack, alerts us to the real reality that the theologian can sublimate the Gospel to the spirit of the age rather than to the Spirit of the Christ; in this light, Harnack’s critique, ought to at least alert us all to be constantly vigilant in the way we attempt to think and speak God. Harnack, while overbaked, underscores our need to be prayerfully rigorous and in need of God’s discernment as we attempt to bear witness to the ongoing and living reality of the risen Christ with us.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 26-7.

Barth with Gerhard and Wollebius on Sola Scriptura Contra the Authority of Rome

The riposte from Roman Catholic and Orthodox apologists, maybe even some Anglican, is that the Bible’s canonicity is given to it in a causal way by the Church’s recognition. But the historic Protestant response is that as Calvin emphasizes, it is autopistis; or in other words, it is self-authenticating. Karl Barth, often chastised for being an enemy of Scripture, is actually one of Scripture’s most ardent warriors; particularly in regard to its Protestant iteration. Barth appeals to historic Protestant thinkers in his own articulation of a doctrine of Scripture. More pointedly, Barth appeals to John Gerhard and Johannes Wollebius as they counter Roman Catholics like, Sylvester Prierias and John Eck when they grant infallibility to the Pope and Roman Catholic Church over against Holy Scripture. Clearly this is an issue of authority; who has it? Does Scripture have it at a formal level, or does the Holy Roman See (this not to mention Orthodox conceptions of episcopacy vis-à-vis Scripture)?

Barth quotes Gerhard:

There is not a double authority of Scripture, but a single authority, and that is divine: it does not depend on the authority of the church, but on God alone. The authority of Scripture as far as we are concerned is nothing other than the manifestation and the knowledge of that single divine and supreme authority, which is internal and intrinsic to Scripture. Therefore, the church does not confer a new authority, as far as we are concerned, upon Scripture, but rather by its own testimony it leads us to the acknowledgement of that truth. We admit that of sacred Scripture the church is (1) the witness; (2) the guardian; (3) protector (4) the herald; (5) the interpreter. But let us not conclude from this that the authority of Scripture, whether in itself or in relation to us, depends on the church.[1]

And Wollebius:

The testimony of the church is prior in time, but the testimony of the Holy Spirit is prior in nature and causality. We believe that the testimony is of the church, not on account of the church. It is to be ascribed to the Holy Spirit on his own account. The testimony of the church demonstrates the fact ‘that’, but the testimony of the Holy Spirit demonstrates the ‘because’. The church advises, the Holy Spirit convinces. The testimony of the church provides opinion, but the testimony of the Holy Spirit provides knowledge and firm trustworthiness.[2]

Some Protestants, typically biblical studies folks it seems, want to signal the end of the Protestant Reformation. That in light of the New Paul Perspective[s] the soteriological reasons for the Protestant Reformation are no longer relevant; that Luther et al. were misguided. But these folks are moving too quickly. The Protestant Reformation, indeed had much to do with soteriology, but behind that there was a deeper issue of authority. This issue is ultimately an ecclesiological issue, and one that remains. What Gehard and Wollebius wrote in the 17th century is just as pertinent now as it was then; none of these issues have been resolved. Protestants still affirm the ‘Scripture Principle’ or sola Scriptura, whereas Roman Catholics (and Orthodox) do not. Indeed, at this level, the traditions are as far apart as ever. And this does have serious soteriological implications. If Rome or Constantinople have ‘the keys,’ then they decide who is genuinely ‘saved’ and who isn’t. There might be room for ecumenicism, such as we find with Thomas Torrance and the Orthodox focused on the doctrine of Trinity. But if we were to look to a doctrine of Scripture as the basis for ecumenical convergence between the traditions, it is not there.

 

[1] John Gerhard, Loci theolo., 1610 f., LI c. 3, 39, cited by Karl Barth, CD I/2 §19, 19.

[2] Johannes Wollebius, Comp. Christ. Theol., 1620, Praecogn. 9, cited by Karl Barth, CD I/2 §19, 19.

The Gospel is Greater Than the History it Comes To Us Within: On Being a Constructive or ‘Critical’ Theologian

As constructive theologians our primary aim is to provide edification for the Church by retrieving and constructively engaging with theological ideas from the past. This involves engagement with historical work, along with exegetical, and philosophical work; with a host of other engagements. One thing that the theologian will begin to encounter in this process, very often, is that the historian and biblical studies person they are working with will set up a dilemma wherein nothing really constructive can be engaged in. In other words, the historian becomes so focused on getting the “history right,” that any retrieval of it, in order to maintain the integrity of the history of ideas, must really only be an exercise in repristination. That is, the historian might say: ‘okay, you can have the history and its ideas, but you are restricted to re-presenting it in the way I as the historian have reconstructed it.’ In this vein there is no real way for the theologian to ‘constructively’ appropriate the past for the present. In other words, the theologian isn’t allowed to imaginatively redress certain historical ideas in con-versation with the Gospel for its new context in the 21st century. For the historian, or biblical studies person for that matter, they so objectify the material aspect of their respective disciplines that they essentially hermetically seal it off, and disallow its inchoate ideas to blossom any further than its original givenness. This should not be!

I have written on this in the introduction to our last book, and so was happy to find Paul Hinlicky opining on the same issue. Hinlicky writes:

Today biblical scholars routinely dismantle the text’s claim as canonical and then proceed as experts to opinionate on traditional dogmatic questions without method or rigor. Constructive theologians, so-called, build the kinds of metaphysical systems that Kant long ago demolished for philosophers with a conscience — or with great flourish and fanfare deconstruct systems long since fallen from power — in discourses that few outside their shrinking guilds read or understand. Historical theologians jealously guard the historical particularity of what once was, anointing themselves gatekeepers who effectively block the process of critical appropriation in traditional discourses like doctrinal theology. So the hard work of critical dogmatics in testing of the church’s practice of faith in light of the aforementioned doctrinal norms freshly grasped and interpreted in every new generation has by and large given way to other models.

But theology is not philosophy, and the Holy Spirit is no skeptic. As a critical retrieval and fresh assertion of definite meaning, the “new language of the Spirit” is a hermeneutical process of appropriation that cannot proceed, to put it provocatively, without a certain measure of violence against the past. Not only does it take up the past selectively and then put these pieces to work in new ways, but it does so, as the critical historian sees things, from the uncontrolled perspective of the retriever. Of course, for critical dogmatics that uncontrolled perspective might be the fresh movement of the Holy Spirit. One cannot say in advance. It will be in any case some spirit! That must be discerned. The issue is less whether the appropriation repristinates any particular formation of the past than whether the new formulations are faithful to the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ in His ongoing history in the world. Historians are rightly concerned to focus on the development of theological ideas and the precise exposition of their contextual meaning. Theologians depend on this work, since Christianity is a historical religion that can go forward only by coming to terms with its past. If at the end of the day, however, historians want to take their stand and object categorically — Das ist aber nicht [that is not] Jesus! Paulus! Luther! — they may do so, but it begs the question — of Jesus, Paul, and Luther — whether we have found help moving forward on our pilgrim way.[1]

The Gospel is greater than the history it comes to us within. The Gospel is greater than Scripture itself; indeed, the Gospel is the context that gives Scripture meaning and canon. The Gospel is what gives history, the Bible, and all of reality its raison d’etre. This is what we should not lose sight of, no matter what our discipline of study. As Christians when we operate, we do so out of the power of God, out of the Gospel; this ought to impinge upon the way we function as human persons in the great theater of what is real and beautiful before and in the living God.

If the above is so, then the historian, biblical studies person, philosopher et al. ought to approach their craft with the humility that the Great Evangel of God injects into all He touches. This means that history, biblical studies, so on and so forth are to be, or ought to be in the service of the Gospel; not vice versa. Surely, as Hinlicky notes, we want to be as rigorous as possible in the historical work, in the biblical exegetical work etc., but that only goes so far. The Gospel itself breaks open new horizons of imagination about the grandeur of Who God not only was, but is for us in Christ. It is this imagination in combination with listening to the past that the Christian can grow beyond the past into the future of God’s life; indeed as God’s future life breaks into our present moment and rings true what only He can as He bears witness with our spirit about Who in fact He was, is, and is to come.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), xvii–xviii.