Death bathed in the fiery life of God

Death is always a scary thing to face; even as the author of the epistle to the Hebrews affirms the victory over death that we have in Christ, he also presupposes the reality that the ineluctable trajectory of death that all humanity faces is a constant burden born by all,

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

songbirdMore personally, my own mortality was something I was pressed up against with my “incurable” cancer diagnosis back in late 2009, early 2010. I tasted, palpably, what it feels like to face what we all unfeelingly live with everyday; the reality that we are all going to die. This reality plunged me into an array of emotions; primary of which was fear. I woke every morning to hear the morning birds singing, and forgetting for a moment that I was probably going to die from an invader into my body that didn’t want to leave, but then quickly being cast back into the abysmal realization that indeed as the birds sang I was dying (and sooner than I had ever dreamed)! Each of my days became dark cavernous things with a bleak hope that I might actually (miraculously) make it to the light (maybe survive) I could vaguely make out at the end of the hole I was in.

I bring my personal situation up to underscore a global reality; we are all going to die (lest the Lord return in Second Advent prior). Whatever the expression of our own personal demise, it is an inevitability that we all live with; ironically with every breath we take. This sounds all so bleak, indeed it is, save the fact that God in Christ in his love shaped power has entered into the depths of our humanity all the way down; and in so doing he has provided hope in and through who he is pro nobis (for us). Katherine Sonderegger writes beautifully of this reality as she opines upon God’s omnipotence and fire like life:

It is the most fundamental metaphysical claim of all, that that Dynamic Life exists, the primal fire burns. For just this reason, life after death, and even more, life in the face of death, is not a concept or a doctrine or a pious hope–not first or principally!–but rather the simple and profound acknowledgment of the creature standing before, and so bathed in, this Omnipotence, this fiery Life. It cannot be baulked, but everything in heaven and on the earth, all powers and principalities, even proud death, will bow the knee before this Living Lord. That is first and principally what the faithful mean when they scoff at death, and what Athanasius praises when he sees the Roman world freed from the feverish fear of death. Even more it was what the faithful intend when they affirm that they and the whole created order will rise again. The Force that is God’s very Being radiates outward, expands and explodes, never ceases or wearies, does not stand in reserve but is always, everywhere, Alive. To merely touch the hem of this garment is to be healed: the Power goes forth from Him, the Power that lives as Deity, the One God.[1]

There is hope oh beleaguered soul. What Sonderegger writes of is our hope; God is truly all powerfully Lord of all, Lord of life (not of the dead). But sometimes we must repose in the valley of the shadow of death in order to thirst for this unquenchable fire to burn away all of our fears with his immortal life.

 

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume One, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 2949, 2955 Kindle.

Kyrie Eleieson. the marriage picture distorted: it is spiritual

20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing marriageiconher with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Why is marriage so important? Why this apparent struggle to redefine what has been standard fare ever since the beginning? It is true that marriage isn’t really something that any State or government can confer, only God can. Nevertheless what the State does confer (i.e. a marriage license) has become the connotative symbol of what it means to be married in the United States of America (and the same holds true in various other States throughout the world as well). So for all intents and purposes SCOTUS’s decision to redefine what marriage has always been understood to be (i.e. a complementing union between a man and a woman) strikes at something core and fundamental of what has always underwrote what defines and creates flourishing societies; and this is the case because it reflects the rational and lovely order that God created in this world as the theater of his glory and as something that would ultimately, beyond all else, reflect his relationship to us in Christ.

And it is this to this point that I think is really under attack. I see what happened on Friday June 26th, 2015 as an attack by the Angel of Light. I see what is happening as spiritual; as reflective of an ongoing battle between the Kingdom of the Son of God’s love and the Kingdom of Darkness. It is a move of the Enemy to attempt to unravel everything that God has called good and very good, and an appeal to that original sin wherein he seduced Eve and Adam to eat of the forbidden fruit. He has not given up on that lie yet, and he will continue to seduce this ‘evil generation’ to plunge deeper into their darkened faculties unto the point where they are beyond feeling; beyond feeling the presence of God and his righteousness.

If marriage, according to St. Paul (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is a picture of God’s relationship to us as his bride in Christ; then it would make sense for the Enemy to go after the most beautiful picture of all. It would make sense that he would want to pervert and distort it to the point that its reality no longer has any real reality behind it except for the self-generated sort that finds its generation from within a ‘will’ that is dispossessed of God and possessed and driven by an insatiable desire to satisfy itself (as ‘god’). The Enemy continues on his quest to destroy what God has created for his glory, and he now continues to seduce not only the ‘world’ out there, but even the church of Christ itself. Kyrie Eleison!

 

 

It is Okay to be Shocked at SCOTUS’s Decision on Gay Marriage

SCOTUS’s (Supreme Court of the United States) decision to federally legalize gay marriage has radically changed everything. The response to it from Christians (evangelicals primarily, my tribe) has been mixed. The mixed response is somewhat understandable given the gravitas of this situation, and what it means for humankind (not an overstatement I don’t think). It is this response that I want to reflect on throughout the remainder of this post.

The primary response I have been seeing on social media, in particular, is somewhat disappointing to me. Personally I am an in an utter state of shock still; I think the ramifications of what just happened were a tipping point of biblical proportions. And yet the response I have seen from many evangelicals has been to simply take it in stride as if we all should have saw this coming. I find this response to be disappointing because it reflects an attitude of conditioning; conditioning by the culture in which we live, and it is this kind of attitude that I would say culturally has contributed to the culture we live in today in the USA. It is an attitude of indifference, defeatism, and really one, as I see it, of attempting to cope with the reality on the ground. So this is one response, and I think it is wrong!

Another response can be typified by Christianity Today’s response to it. Again, this is similar to the first response I just noted; there seems to be a desire to cope with the reality on the ground, but not a desire to confront it. What I gathered from the Christianity Today article on this was that they believe we live in a pluralistic society and so the best way for us to cope with that is to learn how to co-exist with others in a respectful manner. I do agree that we need to be respectful of others, and that we shouldn’t elevate homosexual sin to a level that makes it different than other sins (which was also part of the CT’s piece and point in their article). But I found CT’s response all too typical of the kind of bland vanilla response (in tone) that I have become all too used to as an evangelical Christian in North America.

I think the response should be one of shock! It is okay to be shocked at sin. I think we need to be that frog who jumped out of the kettle through looking to Jesus Christ and his Word, and understand that we are not of this world; we are for it in Christ, but indeed, in Christ. And I think this is really the problem; not the ‘in Christ’ part, but the part where the evangelical church has been conditioned so much, and learned how to cope so much, that things like the legalization of gay marriage simply become something we weren’t shocked by, or something that we need to learn how to co-exist with. Neither of these things are true! We are to be light in the world, exposing the darkness through our witness to Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4). True, we don’t want to elevate particular sins to an elevated level, but when a particular sin becomes a systemic reality (like homosexuality), then we ought to, as Christians, as light, articulate how and why this is incommensurate with the way the LORD ordered his reality, his creation.

The basic point I am wanting to get across is that it is okay to be shocked! Who cares if you saw this coming, who cares about coping with it; we don’t want to blunt God’s holiness, and when we simply nod our heads at stuff going on in society (like because we feel defeated), we are not reflecting the actual reality. The actual reality is that Jesus has overcome this world, he appeared to destroy the works of the flesh and the devil, and we must resist then these demonic attitudes that have us simply wanting to cope or coexist with the way of the culture. We are part of a Kingdom that is unmovable, unshakeable; if so, it is okay to be shocked at a culture that is on the move, and moving at a pace (away from God) that is quickly heading to destruction (or in fact is living from it).

Jürgen Moltmann on Karl Barth’s Predestination at Princeton

For Karl Barth the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel; he writes (in CD §32): ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that moltmannGod elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’. This is a beautiful thing, really. It stands in relief to what many an Augustinian believes about predestination; not that the Augustinian doesn’t try and persuade herself that (in its medieval expression) double predestination isn’t a beautiful thing. No. It stands in relief precisely because it does not have to tell itself that it is a beautiful thing; it simply is. The Augustinian assures themselves that because they are one of the elect for whom Christ died and gave his life, that they should be grateful to be counted as such. J.N.D. Kelly makes the Augustinian position clear:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented….[1]

Augustine’s position became the norming norm of how this doctrine continued to develop and be conceived. By time it got to Calvin, who adopted the basic gist of Augustine, it had developed into a full blown conception of double predestination where there were the elect and reprobate (for some this became a matter of active and passive action on God’s part, but nevertheless it was there). Understanding the problem, theologically, that this presented (insofar as it caused anxiety in a person’s self-perception relative to whether they were elect or reprobate) Barth critiqued Calvin’s view (and the whole company) this way:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

If you would like to hear more about this, about Barth’s view of predestination/election then you can watch Jürgen Moltmann deliver his paper on this topic at the Karl Barth Conference 2015 currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thanks to my friend Jason Goroncy for pointing us to this video of Moltmann.

 

 

 

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Franciso: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 368-69.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

 

David Congdon’s Description of Analogy of Being/Faith: And the Difference it Makes in evangelical Calvinism

Myk Habets’ and my book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church was published and released back in June 2012; time flies. He and I co-davidcongdonwrote a couple of chapters in that book (which was an edited book), and then I wrote a personal chapter of my own. The title of my chapter is Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature.” In it I attempt to creatively sketch Thomas Torrance’s approach to doing theology through the analogy of faith contrariwise to the classical approach of doing theology through the analogy of being; once I finish this sketch I apply these two disparate approaches to their outworkings into the composition of a variety of Reformed Confessions and a Catechism.

I just started reading David Congdon’s published PhD dissertation (which he obtained at Princeton Theological Seminary) entitled The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology. In a nutshell David attempts to reframe the normal approach of reading Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth at cross-grain against each other; David attempts, in other words to ‘demythologize’ how Bultmann and Barth have been read and seeks to bring constructive rapprochement to Bultmann/Barth reception. As I am getting started into the book Congdon offers up a description of what the analogia entis (analogy of being) and analogia fidei (analogy of faith) entail; he writes:

In order for a real encounter to take place, God must communicate Godself to humanity. For Barth, God’s gracious self-communication in Jesus Christ constitutes the only true presupposition of theology. All other purported presuppositions apart from the communicative actuality of God are false; they are, in fact, forms of human idolatry. Human beings are fundamentally incapable of speaking faithfully and authentically about God on the basis of some starting point in themselves (i.e., “natural theology”). For this reason Barth draws a basic distinction between the analogia entis and the analogia fidei: the analogy of being claims that language can grasp revelation, whereas the analogy of faith claims that revelation can grasp language. The analogia entis—which operates as an analogia nominum whereby God is linguistically grasped as a name (nomen)—is the “capture” or “conquest” (Eroberung) of revelation by language in the form of “logical construction.”[23] This is what Jüngel identifies as metaphysics or mythology, which is premised on the natural capacity of language to speak of God. By contrast, the analogia fidei, understood as language captured by revelation, presupposes the actuality of God’s speech as the basis for the possibility of language corresponding to God. And since God’s communicative action is the covenant of grace in Christ that forms the internal basis for all creation, the language-capturing event of God’s revelation is an event that “brings language to its essence,” and thus “language is brought to its essence where God brings Godself to speech.”[1]

After providing these distinctions David proceeds to discuss some technical things about how this all works in Barth’s theology vis-à-vis Bultmann’s. For our purposes I simply want to elaborate on how impactful and important this distinction between the ‘analogy of being’ and ‘analogy of faith’ are for what we are continuing to do within evangelical Calvinism. If you fail to grasp the distinction described by David then you will always fail to read what we are doing with evangelical Calvinism. You will read us the way Roger Olson and Kevin Vanhoozer do; as if we are incoherent in our theological method and conclusions. You will attempt to superimpose the analogy of being method of doing theology on top of the analogy of faith style that we actually do.

Beyond this, let me highlight something for you. The analogy of being works from one order and the analogy of faith from another. In a very simplistic way of elucidating this, what I mean is that the  analogy of faith way, in a principled manner, believes that for any communication about God to be intelligible that its only source for coherence and sensibility must be his own Self-interpreting Word in Jesus Christ; as such it is an exercise in faith. It attempts to deal with a problem, as Congdon notes, with the problem of human language being able to speak of God who is ineffable and unapproachable. It does not seek a solution by simply asserting that human language has an inherent capacity to capture revelation or to speak theologically about God (i.e. the analogy of being) in abstraction (like from purum naturum ‘pure nature’). Instead, as David notes, it presumes upon the theological reality of Covenant, and the Barthian idea that God in Christ is the inner reality of creation itself; thus creation’s ‘coherence’ only finds reality as it constantly and freshly by the Spirit is referred to Jesus Christ as its goal, ground and grammar.

I hope this makes some sense to you. This is where evangelical Calvinism, Barth, Torrance et. al. distinguish ourselves; it is a hermeneutical thing. And hermeneutics (i.e. the superstructure through which we interpret reality) shapes and determines all of our conclusions about everything: i.e. exegetical, ethical, theological, political, etc. This is why it will never be sufficient to simply try and read evangelical Calvinism through the analogy of being; because we are not interpreting reality through the suppositions that fuel the analogy of being, we instead have a different hermeneutic and theory of revelation.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 55 Scribd version.

Within the Limits: John Calvin on Positive Theology with Reference to Sonderegger and Webster

Back in the day there was what was called the via positiva or the positive way of doing theology, and attempting to think God. This f593a-calvinsladderway of doing theology was anti-speculative (which is what the so called via negativa or negative way was known for), and wanted to solely focus upon what was ‘revealed’. Now, I have often lifted up Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance as advocates of this style of theologizing, but someone else from the early Reformation period who was a strong advocate of this ‘way’ was John Calvin (which is one reason both Barth and Torrance were such fans of Calvin). Here is what Calvin has to say about all of this in his Institute:

… Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation; let us use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends. For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun’s body, though men’s eyes daily gaze upon it? Indeed, how can the mind by its own leading come to search out God’s essence when it cannot even get to its own? Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. For, as Hilary says, he is the one fit witness to himself, and is not known except through himself. But we shall be “leaving it to him” if we him to be as he reveals himself to us, without inquiring about him elsewhere than from his Word. On this question there are extant five homilies of Chrysostom Against the Anomoeans; yet not even these could restrain the presumptuous Sophists from giving their stuttering tongues free rein. For in this matter they have behaved no more modestly than they usually do everywhere. We ought to be warned by the unhappy outcome of this presumption so that we may take care to apply ourselves to this question with teachableness rather than with subtlety. And let us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word. But if some distinction does exist in the one divinity of Father, Son, and Spirit–something hard to grasp–and occasions to certain minds more difficulty and trouble than is expedient, let it be remembered that men’s minds, when they indulge their curiosity, enter into a labyrinth. And so let them yield themselves to be ruled by the heavenly oracles, even though they may fail to capture the height of the mystery.[1]

If you have never read any Barth or Torrance you might be surprised at how much Calvin sounds like them rather than the theologians post him; theologians who get deep into Aristotelian theology (Thomism).

This does bring up a question; I am currently reading Katherine Sonderegger’s new Systematic Theology (Vol. 1 Doctrine of God), and I have been a reader of John Webster (for some years now), and both of these theologians have moved back into a Thomist mode for doing theology and thinking God. There is aesthetic pleasure and poetics involved in reading both Sonderegger and Webster (and I am a major fan of Webster, and quickly becoming one of Sonderegger), but beyond the aesthetic pleasure and doxological value involved in the production of their respective theologies I would have to wonder how much of it Calvin would be willing to go along with?

The section of the Institute I quoted from above is a section where Calvin is discussing the doctrine of the Trinity; in that section Calvin quotes and brings up both Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus, both Patristic theologians who excelled at providing trinitarian grammar that appealed to philosophical grammar of their day, but in the end they seem to do quite well at ‘evangelizing’ it (the philosophical grammar), and avoid allowing it to dictate the terms of God’s Self-revelation. My guess is that if Calvin read Sonderegger and Webster, he would probably feel pretty good about appealing to them as well.

I am still in the air on this. But one thing I am grounded on is that along with Calvin, Barth, and Torrance I am a firm and even dogmatic advocate of the via positiva and the positive way of doing theology; revelational theology rather than philosophical; even confessional theology as Calvin has been noted for (by Charles Partee).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I, I/XIII.21, p. 145-46.

A Third Riposte to Kevin DeYoung on Assurance of Salvation in I John: An Alternative

I

This will be my third and final riposte to Kevin DeYoung. As you will recall I have been responding to DeYoung’s two blog posts in regard to a doctrine of assurance of salvation; in particular having to do with jesusthehealerthe way DeYoung understands that doctrine as taught in the epistle of I John.

In the first two ripostes or rejoinders from me, we covered, in suggestive and querying fashion, how the original context of I John might not correlate well with DeYoung’s “straightforward” reading of that text; this was the basic gist of my first post in response. In the second post I tried to get further into the role that the history of interpretation, interpretive tradition, hermeneutic, and metaphysic has; not just in informing DeYoung’s exegesis, but mine (and everyone’s) as well. In this post, I will attempt to introduce an alternative reading of I John that counters DeYoung’s reading of it. As part of this alternative reading, in an inchoate way, I hope to make clear my belief that “assurance of salvation,” as far as I can see, is not actually part of the positive teaching of Scripture as understood from its revealed reality in Jesus Christ.

II

Let’s start with the proposition, first off, that assurance of salvation is not part of the positive teaching of Scripture. Before I attempt to sketch what I mean we will need to have a little context in regard to what we mean by ‘positive.’ In medieval theology (where we get so many of our categories from) there were different via[s] or ways that people used in their respective approaches  to their doing of theology; the ‘positive way’ (via positiva) that I am referring to in this post contrasts with what was known as the ‘negative way’ (via negativa). The positive way (for purposes of brevity) is simply the way of doing theology that focuses on what is revealed (tied into kataphatic) rather than doing theology that is speculative (which is the negative way tied to what is called apophatic), and based upon inferential reasoning, and more than not contemplative and/or philosophical reflection. So when I refer to ‘positive’ in this discussion, this is what I mean.

If we delimit ourselves to the ‘positive way’ assurance of salvation, then, is not something that ever gets addressed. The emphasis in God’s Self-revelation in Christ is always on life eternal; it is not concerned with trying to assuage people about doubts in regard to whether they personally and individually are “saved,” or one of the “elect.” If we have a proper understanding of faith we will realize that it is not something that is self-generated or that is in us (think of Martin Luther’s iustia Christi aliena, ‘the alien righteousness of Christ’); instead we will understand that what faith looks like is that bond that is shared between the Father and the Son for us by the Holy Spirit. And so the focus, by definition, of eternal life and salvation is not something that we get, and thus must hold onto, or demonstrate as something that we possess; instead the focus is always on God’s life in Christ, and participation with him. As I John concludes it gives us this decisive word:

10 The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.11 And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. 13 These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence which we have[l]before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.[1]

Alongside of this:

23 This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.[2]

The focus in these passages is upon Christ, and not us. The differentiation, in context that John is making between those outside of Christ and those inside of Christ (so to speak) has to do with belief in Christ and keeping ‘His commandment’; which we see, in the context is that ‘we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another.’ Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ (and that he has come in the ‘flesh’ see chapter 2, which the Gnostics rejected i.e. that Christ was the Son of God come in the flesh), and those who do not genuinely love one another are outside of Christ (in a “saving” kind of way) because they are not of his ‘seed’ and thus not participating in His life. And so we know that we are not of the Gnostics (or any other aberrant understanding of Jesus Christ) because we genuinely know who Jesus is for us by the Holy Spirit. The focus positively is upon who Jesus is, not upon whether I am saved or not, per se. The distinction has to do with the identity of Jesus, the eternal Son; if someone is worshipping a false Jesus they will have to prove their salvation by what they do. The Christian, the one worshipping the eternal Son does not have to generate any type of morality, or anything else, they know they have eternal life based simply upon their relationship to Jesus Christ in and through who He is for them. As a result those of the ‘seed’ believe, and have love; and we understand that this is not something self-generated but God generated through Christ by the Holy Spirit’s testimony. Again, we are not in need of psychological assurance about our eternal destiny at this point; instead we are solely focused upon Christ and the reality of who He is (this seems to be the context of I John).

We only have a context of psychological angst about assurance of salvation issues if we think salvation is about us. The way Kevin DeYoung approaches things through his understanding of election, limited atonement, and individual salvation creates space for anxiety about ‘my’ salvation. It makes me wonder if I am one of the elect for whom Christ died, and thus I will come to passages like those found strewn throughout First John potentially looking for ways that I can be assured of my salvation, of my election; but this is all foreign to the actual context of I John and other texts of Scripture (at a supposition level).

III

As we were working through the section above you may have had a question (or two) still, and you should. Even if the ‘commandment’ is to ‘believe’ and to ‘love one another’ we still have a dilemma, especially if I am claiming that these are not intended to be “proofs” of my personal salvation and relationship to God. In fact, as I was sketching above you probably were thinking: “hmm, well this sounds exactly like what DeYoung has been arguing; that my personal belief and morality are two of three earmarks that are intended to provide me with assurance of salvation.” But as I have been suggesting this is to think errantly, per the context in I John, as well as theologically.

Theologically, if we start with a principled focus on Christ, as I have been contending that I John does, we will think about ‘belief’ and ‘loving one another’ from a theological anthropology generated from Christ; we will understand that the Word indeed has been made flesh, made human for us, and we will think about ‘belief’ and ‘love’ and salvation from this vantage point. If we do this, now our hermeneutic, our “metaphysic” is beginning to take shape; and it is this that we as evangelical Calvinists believe is fundamental to thinking about all of these things. The focus now is on Christ’s vicarious humanity, as such it is his ‘faith’, it is his ‘belief’, it is his ‘love for the other’ that grounds ours; so we believe from him, from his humanity for us by the Holy Spirit. Instead of working from ourselves to God, we understand, in a positive way, that God has worked from Himself to us in Christ. And so the focus, in I John, and elsewhere, is not on my faith, on my morality, on my belief, on my ethics, but on Christ’s for me. The focus is on His participation with us, and then our participation with Him in and through His mediatorial humanity for us. Do you see any focus, from this frame, on assurance of salvation? If Jesus is everything for us; if he is the elect humanity of God for us, do questions about assurance of salvation ever arise?

IV

In closing I think it is safe to conclude, if anything, that through this process we have at least come to see the power of theological commitments relative to biblical interpretation. The realization that we all do theological exegesis should be apparent.

When educating our brothers and sisters about this issue the best thing we can do, if we are having doubts about our salvation, is to reframe the whole discussion; we should not reinforce it the way that DeYoung and that whole tradition has done. If we follow positive theology these questions should never arise, at least not in a critically and objectively understood way. We are all human beings, indeed, part of that condition is weakness and vulnerability, the antidote to that is not to reinforce all of that, but instead it is to point the One who always lives to make intercession for those who will inherit eternal life; the antidote is to point people to their High Priest, and to the ground of their very life and being. The assurance will come when we have hope and confidence in who Jesus is for us, not who we are for Him.

 

[1] I John 5.10-14.

[2] I John 3.23-24.

The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and John Calvin

John Calvin

*I just found this post buried at another blog of mine. Which means that this will be like a new post since I wrote this one a few years ago, and it was, well, buried. The material in this post highlights the important role that the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ has both formally (hermeneutically) and materially (theologically) for evangelical Calvinism. And it also illustrates how Calvin can be read resourcefully and constructively. 

I just finished reading a really provocative and intriguing essay by Ho-Jin Ahn in the Scottish Journal of Theology. In it he takes Oliver Crisp to task (at least at the ground clearing level) on Crisp’s argument that Christ could not have assumed a fallen sinful humanity in the incarnation; since according to Crisp (and the scholastic [speculative] tradition from which he argues), if Christ truly took on a depraved humanity, then he would have needed a Savior himself. Ahn helpfully relocates Crisp’s placement of this discussion from the Augustinian “original sin,” and moves it into the realm of christology (which is where this dialogue ought to take place!). Ahn, in the process of relocating this discussion, develops John Calvin’s understanding on this issue; Ahn looks, in a dialectical way, at Calvin’s commentaries and his Institute. In a nutshell, what Ahn concludes is that Calvin might ‘appear’ to hold to something like Crisp (that Christ assumed an unfallen human nature), but in the final analysis, and at an interpretive/functional level, Calvin thinks from a view that sees Christ entering into the depths of our fallen humanity and redeeming us from the inside out through his vicarious humanity for us. Here is Ahn’s conclusion:

[I]t is unreasonable for some theologians to argue for Christ’s unfallen humanity in the context of the doctrine of original sin because Christ himself overcame the power of sin and death in his fallen humanity. In the case of Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s humanity, we see that there is a tension between the nature and the state of Christ’s person. Calvin believes that Christ assumed our true humanity, lived a perfect life, and was sinless according to the Chalcedonian Definition. Thus, Calvin denies the fallenness of Christ’s humanity in order to preserve the doctrine of Christ’s perfect innocence. However, unlike others who are in favour of Christ’s unfallen humanity, Calvin forcefully affirms the vicarious humanity of Christ in our corrupted state. Calvin affirms that Christ had to suffer from our existential problems according to the narratives of the Gospels. Moreover, the mortal human nature which Christ assumed shows solidarity with sinners and the vicarious humanity of Christ pro nobis. If Calvin were to accept the idea of the fallen nature of Christ, his thoughts on Christ’s humanity for us would be more persuasive. Yet it is noted that Calvin’s theological logic is ‘anti-speculative’ in that he focuses on what Christ has done for us in his true humanity.

Nevertheless, Calvin argues that the body of Christ himself is the temple of God through which we can come to the throne of God’s grace. Although Christ assumed our mortal body controlled by the power of sin and death after the Fall, Christ sanctified the body in his own person as the Mediator between God and all the fallen humanity and decaying creation. Furthermore, the reconciliation with God is not just attributed to the crucifixion of Christ in an external and forensic way but to the perfectly holy life of Christ who assumed our mortal body as a saviour in an internal and ontological perspective. Calvin’ s biblical views on the mortal body and its sanctification through the whole life fully describes the paradoxical character of Christ’s mystical incarnation in which Christ became a true human being like one of us without becoming a fallen sinner. I conclude that, according to Calvin, the vicarious humanity of Christ means that for the sake of our salvation Christ assumed a mortal body like ours and lived a perfect life in our miserable state. Therefore, Christ’s fallen humanity for us is the guarantee of reconciliation. [Ho-Jin AhnSJT 65(2): 145–158 (2012) C Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2012 doi:10.1017/S0036930612000026, Ahn’s bio/contact: Korean Central Presbyterian Church of Queens, Bayside, NY 11364, USA ho-jin.ahn@alum.ptsem.edu]

I concur with Ahn, and appreciate his insightful analysis on Calvin’s view of the vicarious humanity of Christ. Ahn would make a great Evangelical Calvinist; since the vicarious humanity of Christ is one of the touchstones of what it means to work within the mood of Evangelical Calvinism. It is this kind of Christ conditioned view of salvation that gets us into the trinitarian depth dimension of salvation that the classic forensic-juridical view of salvation simply cannot provide. Calvin is front and center for us, and shines brightest right here; that is when he emphasises the center of salvation in Christ.

The reality is, as Ahn develops in his essay, as Gregory of Nazianzus is oft quoted ‘the unredeemed is the unhealed'; and if Christ did not vicariously (participatorily-representatively) enter our fallen human state, then we are of all men most to be pitied. Alas, we remain in our sins, and we have no real hope or answer to our sin problem; which is a depraved heart toward God (who is salvation in his very life!). If Christ does not participate with us (fully), then we cannot participate with him fully in the divine plenitude of his shared life with the Father and Holy Spirit; in other words, we are not saved. This is why understanding and meditating on the vicarious humanity of Christ is so fundamental to the Christian’s life and spirituality; because it represents the very heart and deep caverns of the Gospel itself.

 

A Second Riposte to Kevin DeYoung on Assurance of Salvation in I John. There is a History

I

I wanted to continue to engage with Kevin DeYoung’s recent couplet of posts on the doctrine of ‘assurance of salvation.’ In my last post,
as you might recall, I tried to simply poke the exegetical basis upon which DeYoung feels (apparently) sure-footed relative to articulating a doctrine of assurance based upon his straightforward calvinwoodreading of I John. I intimated a few things in that post (in regard to further critique and alternative), and so in this post I would like to further elaborate upon a kind of critique of what DeYoung believes in regard to assurance of salvation, and its exegetical basis.

As we discussed previously (in my first post), as is typical, I believe it is really important to be cognizant and upfront with how we have come to our exegetical conclusions. In other words, instead of asserting that we just believe that this is what the Bible communicates (on whatever topic), I think it is of the upmost importance to be aware of the theological assumptions and tradition that we are committed to; DeYoung should be commended for this, on one hand. He is very open about his Calvinism, and does not try to hide that. But as we can see his Calvinism (of the variety that he follows) informs his exegetical conclusions in regard to first John. This is what I would like to highlight further in this post; i.e. the history of interpretation and the power it has not just for DeYoung, but for all of us, of course!

II

In DeYoung’s second post he wrote this:

There is nothing original about these points. Stott calls the three signs “belief” or “the doctrinal test,” “obedience” or “the moral test,” and “love” or “the social test.” As far as I can tell from the commentaries I consulted, my understanding of 1 John is thoroughly mainstream. I made clear that “These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us.” I also explained that looking for these signs was not an invitation to look for perfection. “Lest this standard make you despair,” I said at one point, “keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin (1:9-10).” In other words, the righteous life is a repentant life.

As DeYoung notes, he is in comfortable company; he has a lot of compatriots when it comes to his particular view of assurance as found, ostensibly, in I John. But even though DeYoung is in good company, does that make his view of I John and assurance true? No, of course not! And I am sure that DeYoung would agree with me; but then he most likely would go on (as he has) and continue to hold the view that he does and continue to claim that his view and understanding of I John is unremarkable when it comes to the history of Protestant Reformed interpretation. One problem I see with this is that it engages in ‘question begging’ (petitio principii). It presumes that the conclusions it has come to (the view that DeYoung holds on I John) is self-evident, almost tautologous , and that the burden of proof is on those who would question his conclusions about assurance in I John as I do. But why is that? I mean why is the burden of proof on those who disagree with DeYoung?

The form of Calvinism that DeYoung holds to, as I noted in post one, has a metaphysic; in other words, it has a way of viewing and presenting God (a view that doesn’t just fall off the pages the of Scripture). As a result of this view, we end up with a conception of God that elevates ‘performance’ before and for God, I would contend, to an unhealthy level. One prominent example of this is evidenced in the theology of one of the “founders” of the style of Calvinism that DeYoung is a proponent for; the example is provided by Puritan theologian William Perkins (of the 17th century). Indeed, it is this period where this kind of performance based style of thinking about God and salvation was introduced; at least for the Western, English speaking, west. And it is this style that, I contend, provides the theological (metaphysical) categories through which DeYoung, and much of the tradition DeYoung breathes from, gets their strength (as it were) from. Richard Muller describes what this style of theology looked like in Perkins’ theology, and in particular with reference to assurance of salvation:

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

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

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

Every one that believes is the childe of God:

But I doe beleeve:

Therefore I am a childe of God.

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

What this quote further helps to shed light on (beyond helping to establish my point about the history and theological categories behind DeYoung’s theological approach that have led to his exegetical conclusions) is the role that ‘election’ plays in all of this. A doctrine of assurance of salvation flows, quite naturally, from a view of election that is both unconditional and supported by definite or more popularly limited atonement; indeed this is the categorical history behind DeYoung’s style. In other words, DeYoung’s Calvinism, like Perkins’ (in this respect) holds that God, in eternity past, ‘elected’ that some people would necessarily become Christians, and in order for this to happen Christ then came and died for these elect people alone thus satisfying the requirement of God’s holiness, paying for the penalty of sin (for the elect). But this created a dilemma, Karl Barth explains this dilemma in his critique (yes) of Calvin’s view of election (which for all intents and purposes is very similar to Perkins’ and DeYoung’s); he writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

Here we see further how not only is someone’s psychology at play in this discussion, but also what this view of salvation, election, etc. has to do with the type of God behind it. This insight from Barth also takes us further than we want to go in this post; suffice it to say, as Barth insightfully notes, the kind of election behind DeYoung’s approach untethers Jesus as the basis and ground of election for humanity by placing that burden upon individual people. What this does is to thrust people upon themselves, and to somehow “prove” that they are indeed one of the elect for who Christ died (this used to be called in Perkins’ day experimental predestinarianism).

III

Lest we lose the forest for the trees let’s try to reign this rain-deer in by way of summarizing where we currently stand.

We have noted that Kevin DeYoung’s approach to assurance has a history, and that this history took shape under the pressures of a certain theological trajectory (primarily the one found in Puritan Calvinist theology). As a result of this history, DeYoung has come to the text of I John, in particular, with certain categories in place when it comes to thinking about the “elect’s” relationship to God in salvation. We have come to see (if ever so shadowy) that there is a certain conception of God driving the shaping of these categories, and as a result there is an emphasis upon ‘performance’ in salvation placed upon the elect individual; of the sort that will lead elect people to attempt discern if they are truly one of the elect for who Christ has died. We have also come to see (with the help of Barth’s critique of Calvin) that the framework that DeYoung is operating under, relative to God, places the emphasis upon God’s choice of individual people for salvation, instead of placing the emphasis upon God’s personal choice to be elect for all of humanity in his own humanity in Jesus Christ; with the result of forcing the elect to continuously attempt to prove their salvation (and thus find assurance) through “1) personal belief, 2) personal obedience, and 3) personal morality.” So the emphasis, if all of this is the case, is upon introspection and what some have called ‘reflexive faith’ (i.e. looking at our good works, etc., and then looking to Christ and being able to attribute those good works, belief, morality to Christ’s life in us – thus what Muller identified for as the practical syllogism).

DeYoung has a history. It causes him to read I John a certain way. I have a history, an informing theology, and it causes me to read I John much differently. In the next post or whenever I have the chance, I will try to elucidate what my theology is, and why I think it better makes sense of a passage like I John, and how it handles the claims put to I John that make it sound like it supports a Puritan like doctrine of assurance.

 

 

 

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

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

 

A Riposte to Kevin DeYoung on Assurance of Salvation in First John

Kevin DeYoung, Young, Restless, and Reformed, has written two posts now, on his blog sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, engaging assuranceofsalvationJesuswith the topic of Assurance of Salvation. Throughout the rest of this post I intend to interact with what DeYoung has written, and to offer a kind of critique and then alternative to what DeYoung has offered.

(Be warned, this is only an introductory post, I fully intend on offering a fuller scale and more detailed response to DeYoung, based upon the conclusions you will see at the end of this post)

I                

There are many ways into a discussion on what many call ‘pastoral theology’ revolving around the psychology of whether or not someone is genuinely saved; indeed, that is what is at bottom here: i.e. a kind of theologically induced psychology relative to how someone perceives their relationship to God in Jesus Christ (either in the affirmative or the negative). DeYoung chooses to go the ostensible exegetical route; choosing as his primary text (locus classicus) the epistle of I John. This little Johannine letter is probably the most appealed to book in the Bible for discussing and developing a doctrine on a so called assurance of salvation. In DeYoung’s post he identifies three classic points that are claimed to be (not just by DeYoung, but by many in the Reformed camp in particular) the defining components that frame the epistle of I John; at least when we are attempting to develop answers to our psychological questions in regard to our status as ‘saved’ or ‘unsaved’ (or we could say with the classical Reformed position: ‘elect’ or ‘reprobate’). Here are the three points that DeYoung lists as a kind loci (using identifiable theological and psychological and ethical points to interrogate and purportedly interpret I John):

The first sign is theological. You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (5:11-13).

The second sign is moral. You should have confidence if you live a righteous life (3:6-9).

The third sign is social. You should have confidence if you love other Christians (3:14). (source)

I would like to respond to these points in turn. Now because this is a blog post (and not a term paper), my responses can only be suggestive and general in trajectory, but hopefully made in such a way that these points provided by DeYoung will take on a more critical tone (and at least get problematized); such that a different hermeneutical background will be provided leading to the conclusion that what DeYoung (and much of the Reformed tradition has offered) is less straightforwardly “Biblical” as DeYoung would have us believe, and, well, more ‘hermeneutical’. In other words, I would at the very least like to illustrate that there is something deeper; something more metaphysical going on behind Kevin’s exegesis versus the straightforward and pastoral reading of the text that he contends is present in his reading of this epistle. This seems like too large of a task, really, to attempt to accomplish in about seven hundred and fifty words or so, but that is what we will attempt to do with the space remaining.

 

II

DeYoung, in his second post on this topic is responding to a critic of his posts (much as I am becoming now); a Lutheran interlocutor who challenges DeYoung’s understanding of assurance from his Lutheran convictions (which in part will be more closely aligned to my critique, at least in some respects). DeYoung writes in response to the Lutheran, this:

While it is never a good idea to “focus inside ourselves,” it is impossible to make sense of 1 John if looking for moral, social, and theological evidence is entirely inappropriate. For example, 1 John 2:5-6 says “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Likewise, 1 John 3:10 says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” We see similar “by this we know” language in 1 John 2:3; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:2-3; 4:13; 5:2. Clearly, we are meant to know something about the person by looking at what he believes, how he lives, and how he loves. One doesn’t have to be in favor of morbid introspection to understand that 1 John urges Christians to look for evidences of grace in themselves and in those who might be seeking to lead them astray. (source)

I think DeYoung’s response to the Lutheran, at face, sounds compelling, but I think it is more complex, even at a simple exegetical level, than DeYoung let’s on. I mean what if I John isn’t really answering the questions that DeYoung (and the Westminster Confession of Faith that he appeals to) is putting to it; what if I John was written to first century Roman/Graeco Christians who were being tempted by a prevailing philosophical system of the day known as Gnosticism (at this early stage this would have only been an incipient or proto form of Gnosticism) which, in general is a dualistic system of thought that sees the material world (inclusive of human bodies) as evil, and the spirit as pure and undefiled, albeit trapped within a fleshy world of evil and malevolence (which was seeking escape from this world of material back to the pure Spirit from whence it originally came; escaping through a series of graded levels of ‘secret’ knowledge that was intended for the elect, so to speak)? And so if this were the case, if I John is challenging these early Christians to look to Christ instead of a secret knowledge that turns inward instead of upward for release (so to speak) from themselves; then wouldn’t it be somewhat presumptuous to take I John captive as a text that is intended to answer questions about assurance of salvation that were formed most prominently in the 16th and 17th centuries in scholastically Reformed Western Europe, and then in a final and intense form in English and other Puritanism[s]?

DeYoung might respond to my first riposte here by querying “so what?” He might say that what I have suggested above is unnecessarily abstract, and even if true (the context I have suggested) does not really undercut his pastorally motivated development towards a doctrine on assurance of salvation. He might say: “that’s interesting, Bobby, but my points are simply attempting to identify universal principles present within the first letter of John, in such a way that transcends its original context, while at the same time seeking to honor it.” I might simply respond: how, Kevin, does your engagement of I John honor it when you are imposing questions upon it in a schematized way that does not fit into the questions it was originally seeking to address? I might ask: “if the conception of salvation present within I John fits well with the dogmatic conception of salvation that he reads it from as formed from 16th and 17th century Calvinist categories?” If the conception of God, based upon appeal to Aristotelian categories (primarily), the metaphysic used to shape the God of the Reformed theology that DeYoung follows, coalesces with the God revealed in Jesus Christ that is being referred to in John’s letter?

III

In conclusion, I obviously think things are more complicated in regard to reading the first epistle of John. I think it is too facile, and not apparent enough to attempt to read first John as if it readily answers questions put to it that were generated not by its original audience, but by a certain conception of God (and thus interpretive methodology or hermeneutic) that I contend is not similar (categorically) to the God revealed in Jesus Christ (if thought from Jesus Christ, first).

And so based upon my conclusion what is left is to explore what the alternative to DeYoung’s hermeneutic is. We have seen that there is a Lutheran alternative, but that’s not the only one; there of course are other ways to read first John based upon other metaphysics, or maybe no metaphysics. In other words, in a later post from this one, I will contend, in another response to DeYoung’s post, that what he is doing is, as we all do, is engaging in theological exegesis. Thus, under the guise of being “pastoral” or maybe “straightforward” DeYoung smuggles in certain interpretive suppositions that he is committed to, “theologically,” in an a priori way, as we all do, that has led him to his conclusions about assurance of salvation; and in particular in his reading of that doctrine in the epistle of I John.

More to come (as I have time). In the more to come I will attempt to sketch the role that our theological positions have upon our exegeses of the texts of Scripture, and in that sketch I will attempt to, as I noted, provide an alternative theological exegetical way that ultimately stands in contradistinction to DeYoung’s conclusions in regard to assurance in I John.