On Literalist Bible Readings, Supersessionism and Replacement Theology: As Riposte to James Kaddis and Olivier Melnick

I just finished listening to someone I consider a friend, and someone who is definitely a brother in Christ: James Kaddis. He was having his weekly discussion with his friend, Olivier Melnick, on the nation of Israel; particularly as that pertains to biblical prophecy from the Dispensational framework. In this particular discussion the topic was what they call: Replacement Theology. Most people, in the “business” will know what this is referring to by its more common terminology of: Supersessionism. The idea is that the Church has become the new Israel, thus displacing Israel and all of the Old Testament promises made to her. James believes that anyone who holds to ‘replacement theology’ is ultimately evil, and probably not saved; Melnick seems to agree with that. The problem though, and this is what the rest of this post will engage with, is that both Kaddis and Melnick (and many in their tribe) are too reductionistic with refernce to the history of interpretation on this issue, thus leading them to construct a caricature of anyone who is not a Pretribulational, Premillennial Dispensationalist. Both Kaddis and Melnick maintain that if someone is operating with a proper biblical hermeneutic (meaning ‘literalistic’ V literalist), that they will arrive at the dispensational perspective (this is also what one of dispensationalism’s most prominent teachers, Charles Ryrie, maintained).

What I want to do in this post, in particular, is to engage with what in fact a ‘literal’ hermeneutic entails. Much of the body of this post will be in reference to a post I wrote some time ago dealing with the same issue. After we survey how ‘literal’ has developed in the history of interpretation I will close by applying that understanding to the question of so-called ‘replacement theology,’ and how much of what Kaddis and Melnick assert as entailing replacement theology reflects too facile of an understanding of the history of interpretation.

A Survey of ‘Literal’ vis-à-vis Biblical Hermeneutics

As theological exegetes of Holy Scripture, more so, we want to take the text as Literal. But what does this actually entail; what does it mean to be literal in our interpretation? Dispensationalists like Charles Ryrie assert that the sine qua non of the dispensational hermeneutic is to read the Bible literally; he asserts if the reader engages in this type of reading practice they will end up as a dispensationalist. Others, like Doug Hamp similarly assert that their method is of the literal type; but in Hamp’s et als. case he does not end up as a dispensationalist, instead he ends up focusing on a Jewish or Hebraic understanding of the text of Scripture—even in its New Testament iteration (e.g. rather than reading the Bible from an post-Nicene Christologically sourced tradition).

So what does it mean to read the Bible literally? Do we follow a wooden-literal approach, like the aforementioned, wherein what it means to be ‘literal’ actually entails being literalistic to the point that every word in the Bible is read without recognizing the various literary qualities inherent to the text (such as is presented by the types of narrative, poetry, or discourse inherent therein etc.)? I.e. that when figures of speech are used they are read as literal realities rather than figures symbolizing some greater reality that transcends its own figural reality. The Protestant Reformed, following their medieval forebears had an understanding of what interpreting Scripture ‘literally’ entailed, but it was much different than what we find in the modern-critical period wherein a rationalist positivism prevails. Note Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin sensus literalis:

sensus literalis: literal sense; the fundamental literal or grammatical sense of the text of Scripture, distinguished into (1) sensus literalis simplex, the simple literal sense, which lies immediately in the grammar and the meaning of individual words, and (2) sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate either the articuli fidei (q.v.) or the pracecepta caritatis (q.v.). See historicus; quadriga.1

As defined the previous adherents to ‘literal’ interpretation would want to affirm this definition (but they diverge radically from this premodern principle of biblical interpretation). We see, particularly in Muller’s notation on compositus, an allusion to what was called the analogia fidei (analogy of faith) or analogia scriptura (analogy of scripture); the principle where the clearer passages were deployed to shed light on the crux interpretums (the difficult passages to interpret). All of this presupposes a level of clarity or perspicuity inherent to the text that the Reformers held dear based upon their belief that Scripture was representative of the place where the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) could be encountered; undergirding this, further, was the belief that this God, in all of his graciously accommodating ways, intended to communicate exactly what he wanted within the providential unfolding of salvation history as disclosed in Holy Scripture. What is key to this, key for our purposes, is to recognize that in this sensus literalis it is largely funded by a very theological understanding of things. What it means to read the Bible literally is necessarily couched in and from the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus to read the Bible ‘literally’ means to read Scripture with attention to the centrality of God’s voice given its primary vocalization through his Self-revealed and explicated reality in his Son, Jesus Christ.

To help us expand on this notion of reading Scripture in a literal key, in the historic mode of the sensus literalis, Stephen Fowl helpfully develops this further; and with reference to what I would contend is Scripture’s primary referent (cf. Jn 5.39), Jesus Christ. Fowl shows how in the case of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a very ‘literal’ interpreter of Holy Scripture, what it meant to be a literal Bible interpreter wasn’t just to attend to the simplex, but more pointedly it was to recognize that the ‘simple’ (i.e. the grammatical, historical, literary contours) had a telos (purpose), that it had a res (reality) that it pointed to as its depth reality.

The foundation for Aquinas’s scriptural interpretation was the “literal sense” (sensus literalis) of Scripture. For Aquinas, the literal sense of Scripture is what the author intends. Thomas holds that the author of Scripture is God, or more precisely, the Holy Spirit. The human authors under the Spirit’s inspiration are significant though secondary in this respect. The Spirit is capable of understanding all things and intending more by the words of Scripture than humans could ever fully grasp. This means that believers should not be surprised to find that there may be many manifestations of the literal sense of a passage. Here is what Thomas says in the Summa Theologiae: “Since the literal sense is what the author intends, and since the author of Holy Scripture is God, Who by one act comprehends everything all at once in God’s understanding, it is not unfitting as Augustine says [Confessions XII], if many meanings are present even in the literal sense of a passage of Scripture” (Summa Theologiae 1.Q.1 art. 10). This notion of authorial intention, which is very different from the modern hermeneutical accounts of authors mentioned above, will allow someone to treat christological interpretations of Isaiah as the literal sense of that text without disallowing other more historical accounts of the literal sense of Isaiah. Moreover, such an approach will allow Christians to treat Psalm 139 in ways that do not invite Christians to pray for revenge on their enemies. Thus, such an approach will keep theological concerns primary in theological interpretation rather than making theological concerns subsidiary to hermeneutical concerns.2

For Thomas Aquinas, and the premodern world he inhabited, what it meant to read the Bible ‘literally’ had range; what was privileged was the theological over the “historical-critical.” This belief, about the primacy of the theological, was fueled by the further belief that the world was God’s, that it was providentially administered and sustained by his Word and for his Word; as such interpreters like Aquinas (Luther, Calvin, et al.) felt it warranted to simply read Scripture as if the world belonged to God, and the cattle on a thousand hills, and that the reality of Scripture had an elevation point that redounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. So to read the Bible literally from this vantage point was to see the Christ as the primary referent point wherein all else, all the historical proclivities and contingencies unfolded in the panorama of salvation-history, were hued by their canonizing reality in Jesus Christ. Unsurprisingly we see this in Martin Luther’s interpretive approach as well; note:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture.3

Here we have further elaboration of what Muller referenced for us as the simplex sensus literalis in Luther’s own approach to reading the Bible ‘literally.’ In flow with Fowl’s elucidation of Aquinas, Luther has literal-prophetic; this nuance between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘historical’ nicely illustrates, again, how in the premodern era of biblical interpretation there was an emphasis upon the theological, more pointedly the christological character of the text of Scripture and its reading. All of this is couched in the theological ideation that this is God’s world, and under his providential governance and giveness. Viz. that there is not an abstract autonomous world of history and artifacts wherein the biblical interpreter can stand within as a ‘critical’ interpreter of Scripture that keeps them sanitized or unimplicated by their own locatedness as creatures before a holy Creator.

I confess that this is the way I approach my reading of Holy Scripture. Does this mean that some of the relative gains garnished by the turn to the modern must be completely evacuated? No, it simply means that the theological ought to be given priority of place in the biblical interpretive process, and that the so called ‘critical’ is given due notice only within this sort of humiliating reality (i.e. humiliating in the sense that the critical reader of Scripture is not so critical after all; in the sense that they/we are sinners). Does reading the Bible theologically mean that we cannot pay attention to various historical vicissitudes present within the text that might not seem to have direct relation to the Messiah? No, it just means that when engaging with historical instances, or personages in the text of Scripture, that we will always be cognizant of the fact that they are part of a greater historical sweep wherein their place within the salvation-history unfolded and deposited in the text of Scripture only has telos, only has meaning in light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

Applying a Historical Biblical Literalism to Supersessionism

What the aforementioned survey reveals is that what it meant (and ought to mean currently) in the history of interpretation to be ‘literal,’ particularly as that is understood from within a medieval Catholic and Protestant frame, respectively, is that Christian biblical literalism, principially, finds its centrum and absolute focus on Jesus Christ. In other words, a historic understanding of a biblical literalism isn’t one that is grounded in a post-Enlightenment rationalism, such as we find that in the biblical theology movement and history of religions schools, which gets further distilled into something like we find in Ryrie’s and dispensationalism’s literalism; no, a historic Christian understanding of biblical literalism, again, sees Christ as the meaning and referent point of all the Old Testament promises (Jesus thought this too, see Jn 5.39 etc.). A historical biblical literalism sees Jesus Christ, not the nation of Israel, per se, as canonical regulator of how the Christian exegete arrives at their respective exegetical conclusions.

And this leads us into the question under consideration: has the whole Christian tradition and its history of interpretation suffered from a supersessionism or ‘replacement theology?’ If you’re a non-dispensational interpreter of Holy Scripture, as ALL Christians have been, up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as dispensationalism developed in the UK and the USA therein, does this mean you are an antisemite? The answer to that question is a loud NO! Have there been antisemites in the Church since its very inception? Yes, Marcion among others come to mind. But most in the history of interpretation, at least most who have been nuanced in this area, have outright rejected supersessionism as the Gnostic heresy of someone like Marcion and his so-called Marcionitism is. To hold to a biblical literalism, as our survey has helped to clarify, didn’t (and doesn’t) lead the exegete to be a ‘replacement theologian’ (so-called), but instead to see the promises made to the nation of Israel fulfilled in the person who served and serves as these promises’ reality; we are of course referring to the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

In my view, Jesus Christ is the Israel of God. He is ethnically Jewish, and scandalously so (according to the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 1.17-25); He was and is the One for the many; for the Jew first then the Gentile. He is the One new humanity of God (cf. Eph 2.12ff) wherein both Jew and Gentile alike are made one as they participate in Christ’s risen humanity. Christ is the ground that the root of Abraham and its olive tree finds its sustenance from. Jesus is God’s Israel, and all the promises have been and yet will be (now-and-not-yet) fulfilled in Him. Jesus made all of the promises to Israel, as actualized in Him, open for the whole world. He is the Jew first for the whole world; for the house of Israel, and for the Gentiles. Jesus will forevermore remain the Son of David, the seed of the woman referred to in the so-called proto-evangelium (cf. Gen. 3.15); He is forevermore the Jew from Nazareth. This is the historical Christian reading of biblical prophecy as that is realized in its reality in Jesus Christ. This reading has always already militated against heresy known as supersessionism and/or ‘replacement theology.’ Here is something I once wrote (circa 2007) back when I was still a dispensationalist. But I was attempting to offer a charitable reading of amillennialism (or any non-dispensational understanding of the Bible). You will notice how it militates against facile readings that renders anything other than a dispensational reading as an antisemite reading.

1) The non-dispensational reading of the Bible is highly Christocentric: it makes Christ the center of all the biblical covenants (even the “Land” covenant or Siniatic). 2) It notes the universal scope of the Abrahamic Covenant (as key) to interpreting the rest of the biblical covenants. 3) It sees salvation history oriented to a person (Christ), instead of a people (the nation of Israel). 4) It emphasizes continuity between the “people of God” (Israel and the Church are one in Christ Eph. 2:11ff). 5) It provides an ethic that is rooted in creation, and “re-creation” (continuity between God’s redemptive work now, carried over into the eternal state then) 6) It emphasizes a trinitarian view of God as it elevates the “person”, Christ Jesus, the second person of the trinity as the point and mediator of all history. 7) It flows from a hermeneutic that takes seriously the literary character of the Scriptures (esp. the book of Revelation).

It is not insignificant that a site like Monergismdotcom picked my description up, and used it (and continues to) as a summary of what the amillennial position entails.4 This shouldn’t be seen as insignificant because Monergismdotcom is a proponent of classically Reformed theology (which I am a well-known critic of online and in print), of the sort that Kaddis and Melnick would label as promoting ‘replacement theology.’

I would invite James Kaddis (who I love as a brother), and Olivier Melnick to dig deeper on these things, and push past the superficial caricatures that are often pervasive in the evangelical world. There are surely mainline Protestant traditions out there, such as the PCUSA et alia, that do operate with a supersessionism (which is illustrated by their support of the BDS movement etc.), but most Reformed and Lutheran people are not supersessionist; even if they aren’t dispensational, which they of course are not. Thus, I would ask my brothers to consider these things more carefully and with a more nuanced brush. We should want to accurately represent even those we consider our theological opponents; this is a sword that cuts both ways.

1 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 279. 

2 Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 49-50 kindle. 

3 Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80. Quote sourced from this post: The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis. 

4 Monergism.com.

 

The Father, First; The Son, Second; The Holy Spirit, Third: Against Subordinationisms

The Father is understood to be the first person in the Divine Monarxia (Godhead); the Son, second, and the Holy Spirit, third. This isn’t indicative of a latent subordinationism, but simply notes how an origin of relation works within the eternal relating (and procressions) of the Triune God. This is what Athanasius was pressing when he wrote Contra Arians 

  1. Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call HimUnoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.1 

When Athanasius refers to ‘Unoriginate’ he is working against the explicit subordinationism of someone like Arius, and his followers; and even against a softer form of that as seen in the homoiousios thinking of someone like Euseubius of Caeserea. In line with Athanasius, David Kelsey has recently penned the following: 

Most fundamentally, the one referred to in John as “Son” and “Word,” understood to have “become flesh” in the life-trajectory of Jesus of Nazareth, is understood to be the definitive self-expression of God in the economy. So, although placing the “Father” in the lead position in the formula for the Trinity’s relating in creative blessing underscores God the “Father’s” priority in the order of reality, adding that creative blessing comes through the “Son,” who, “taking on flesh,” is the Triune God’s definitive self-expression, underscores Jesus Christ’s priority in the order of human coming to understand and speak of God — to the extent that they can. Indeed, as variously narrated in the four canonical Gospels, it is the very structure of Jesus’ life-trajectory that warrants framing an account of what and who God is in Trinitarian terms. Thus, the Triune God’s relating in creative blessing involves God relating, not only ontologically transcendentally to all that is not God, but also relating self-expressively as one who can be one among many that are not God.2 

We see Kelsey going a step further, at least in this instance, and in step with TF Torrance’s appropriation of Athanasius, and the Nicene theology in general, by identifying the Christ as both the ontological and epistemic ground upon whom God-knowledge is obtained. It just so happens that when God-knowledge is grounded thusly we come to the realization that God is the Father of the Son, and the Son of the Father; and that this whole mysterion reality comes by the hovering over by the Holy Spirit. Not the reality of the Godhead, per se, but our knowledge of the Godhead as that is first given conception by the seed of the woman. Soli Deo Gloria 

 

1 Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34. 

2 David H. Kelsey, Human Anguish and God’s Power (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 90.  

Christology is the via for My Theological Existence

Christology is the via for my theological existence. If the Spirit’s ministry is to point to Jesus; if Jesus thinks Holy Scripture is all about Him; if the very beginning of the Bible has Jesus (‘seed of the woman’) as the protagonist of the whole thing; then it is Christology for me all the way down. I see no other way for actually coming to know the living God, if in fact the Word enfleshed (Logos ensarkos) has come exclusively for that very purpose. If the Son, the One who has always already been in the womb of the Father for us (Deus incarnandus) is said to be God’s ἐξήγησις (‘exegesis’) for us, then who am I, little ole’ Bobby Grow, to impose any other strictures on that. As a Christian, as one who says that Jesus is Lord by the Spirit, I have already acknowledged that I take God at His Word; and His Word, is of course the Father’s Son; it is He who is the res, the reality of the hidden God made visible pro me/nobis. I am willing to be naïve, and take God at His Word; to participate in His second objectivity in His economy for me as that is given ad extra in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. My life knows no other orbit than the one that keeps me in the pull of God’s Son. If He is the ‘firstborn from the dead,’ the ‘firstfruits’ of God, then I am bound to His life as the origin of it all. If Jesus is the reason for all of creation, if ‘the earth was made so that Christ might be born’ (Fergusson), and if I’m part of that creation, my reason for being is grounded in Christ.

My point is simply this: there is no theological theology outwith the Christology of God for us in Jesus Christ. He is the fundamentum of every molecule and atom, even proton, even the invisible elements; as such, I am eternally at his behest. He is Lord, and I am not. I am at His gracious mercy; indeed, I’d rather be a doorkeeper at His pearly gates than a wandering star for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever. When a theologian pontificates about grace perfecting nature all I can think is: no, God in Christ disrupts nature to the point of putting it to death, and re-creating. This must be the warp and woof of my theological way, or I have no way; I am like a wandering star at that point.

Solo Christo 

On the Emptiness of Theological Reading

I am a voracious reader, but I cannot simply read to just read. When I first started reading the Bible and theology in earnest it was because of my deep need for knowledge of God, and thus confidence in Him. This started to have the overflowing effect of pushing me to be a witness to the world and the Church that Jesus is Lord. Indeed, I was involved in evangelistic ministry, formally and informally (and still am in the latter) for many years. What pushed me to read was the questions and challenges I would receive in those sorts of evangelistic encounters. Often, I was challenged to the point that I would enter levels of existential crisis, and so I would read to assuage such crises. As a result of this I learned, and was refined. I came to know God in Christ in ways that were meaningful as a result of concrete experiences in my personal Christian existence.  

Similarly, when I entered Bible College and Seminary, I was challenged by the community therein to push deeper and further into a knowledge of God in Christ. There was a constant push of theological ideas that challenged me to read, and gain understanding in ways that outwith such community I wouldn’t have been pushed. The point I am driving at though is that I need to have direction for my reading. I cannot simply sit in the middle of a bunch of book stacks, which is exactly what my side of the bedroom looks like, and read read read with no telos in mind. This is why I’ve come to write so much. The blog hasn’t been a place for ‘theological activism,’ but a place that helps provide a meaningful rationale for my reading. Some would say, get a PhD then. Write a book then. Do something meaningful that way. And maybe I will yet do that. But the blog hits multiple notes all at once for me. It provides a place for public witness; it gives me a space to drop significant ideas I come across through my readings; and it works logistically given my lame-life schedule (I work graveyards).  

Currently, I am at a crossroads in a certain way though. I am starting to feel a bit burnt-out. I have probably fifteen books going right now, and I feel like I’m reading them simply to read them. I have no reason for reading them, per se. Part of that is my reading project of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, but even that is losing some luster (although I will finish). The problem, I think, is that I have no real meaningful reason for doing all the reading I do. I am at a point where the level I read at, theologically, only has a niche community that could potentially have interest in what I am learning; and I have somewhat alienated myself from that (academic) community for a variety of reasons (and that’s fine too).  

I am not looking for advice, not really. I am simply doing what I do: outletting. But I think it does highlight an important point. There must be an ethic and telos to our theology reading, other than serving as an occasion to promote ourselves to others; that is, by saying: “oh yeah, I read two hundred books last year, look at me!” Reading needs meaning, it needs an audience. For me, as a Christian, it needs to have points of contact with Church people. Writing for a CV has zero appeal to me. A CV does me no good. What will last is my witness to others in the Church. A CV can be rationalized as career-necessary, and that career can be rationalized as meaningful for the Church. But in reality, and at bottom, I think that is mostly just a rationalization. If people write essays and books that only ten people (tops) will ever read, and typically only see as a means to promote their own careers by, then what does such writing and living have to do with actually edifying the communio sanctorum 

I will keep reading, but I have to slow down and write as I read; because “I write to learn.” That’s about the extent of why I read at this point; it is to write. And I write with hopes of bearing witness to more than ten academics who are mostly only interested in promoting themselves and their respective careers. I’ve been in the academic game long enough to know that it isn’t ultimately a meaningful enterprise, at least not for me. The game that motivates me is the long-eternal game, and thinking about the meaningfulness of being a participant in the Church catholic. If I can keep that frame in mind, my reading gains traction and meaning insofar that I can imagine that what I am learning might in fact make contact with people in the churches.  

Thomas Torrance On American evangelical Churches Gone to Seed, Personality Cults, and the Worship of Pastors Rather than Jesus: With Reference to Mark Driscoll

I just listened to the Christianity Today podcast by Mike Cosper entitled The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (multiple episodes). I wrote the following post many years ago, and make some reference to Driscoll. I think it is timely to re-share it now.

This post will somewhat dovetail with my second to last post on The Great Implosion of North American Evangelicalism. Except in this post a theological critique will be made with appeal to Thomas Torrance’s critique of Protestant evangelicalism and its tendency toward personality cults, in regard to its leadership, and what he calls Protestant sacerdotalism.

Instead of following the kind of socio-cultural critique that my rant in that other post was somewhat following, here Torrance identifies a theological pathology deeply entrenched in the ecclesiology and pastoral polity that we find orienting Protestant leadership and church model. The critique has to do with the centrality that the pastor has taken for evangelicals; i.e. the elevation of the pastor as the end-all for the people in the church. So we see things like this in mega-churches and small non-denominational start-up churches alike; if the pastor of said church leaves, or something happens, that whole church collapses, or it becomes something totally different with totally different people, and so on.

The most recent example of this that I can think of is Mark Driscoll (and I don’t want this post to be about him). But his Mars church has fallen, it has folded, and he has moved on. He is now starting a new church, with new people, in a new city, and his reign continues. Not because Jesus is Lord, per se, but because Driscoll’s type of charisma and appeal resonates with evangelicals seeking their next mediator between God and man. What Driscoll is experiencing, in various ways on a continuum could be pointed up as an evangelical phenomenon that has swept all across the Protestant evangelical church; whether that be in North America, Western Europe, Canada, or everywhere.

Here is Torrance’s theological critique of what is going on with all of this:

But what has happened in Protestant worship and ministry? Is it not too often the case that the whole life and worship of the congregation revolves around the personality of the minister? He is the one who is in the centre; he offers the prayers of the congregation; he it is who mediates ‘truth’ through his personality, and he it is who mediates between the people and God through conducting the worship entirely on his own. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the popular minister where everything centres on him, and the whole life of the congregation is built around him. What is that but Protestant sacerdotalism, sacerdotalism which involves the displacement of the Humanity of Christ by the humanity of the minister, and the obscuring of the Person of Christ by the personality of the minister? How extraordinary that Protestantism should thus develop a new sacerdotalism, to be sure a psychological rather than a sacramental sacerdotalism, but a sacerdotalism nonetheless, in which it is the personality of the minister which both mediates the Word of God to man and mediates the worship of man to God! Protestant Churches are full of these ‘psychological priests’ and more and more they evolve a psychological cult and develop a form of psychological counseling which displaces the truly pastoral ministry of Christ. How frequently, for example, the minister’s prayers are so crammed with his own personality (with all its boring idiosyncrasies!) that the worshipper cannot get past him in order to worship God in the name of Christ—but is forced to worship God in the name of the minister! How frequently the sermon is not an exposition of the Word of God but an exposition of the minister’s own views on this or that subject! And how frequently the whole life of the congregation is so built up on the personality of the minister that when he goes the congregation all but collapses or dwindles away![1]

Torrance wrote this in 1965, and yet it sounds as if he is making commentary to a “T” on the Protestant evangelical church as it currently stands (and as it currently goes to seed). The theological critique, if you missed it, is that the humanity of the minister has displaced the humanity of Christ as the center of the church; as such, as the pastor goes, so goes the church.

I realize this post and the other one are quite critical, and really not that constructive. But sometimes there is a time to be such! The evangelical church is sinking in my view, and for the reasons that Torrance highlights for us here. Jesus is no longer the center (if He ever was) in evangelicalism; the turn to the self, and the subject has become the norming norm of how evangelical churches largely operate. Who cares if there are good intentions, those destroy people, usually! All that matters is, Jesus! And if he is not all that matters at a basic level for evangelical churches then they will indeed implode, and they ought to. The unfortunate thing, though, is that as evangelical churches implode they are taking real life people along with them. What did Jesus say about those who would make children stumble at His name … something about a mill-stone and water. I think that’s where most of the evangelical church is at!

[1] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 167-68.

The classical Calvinist God Behind the Back of Jesus: And the Barthian-Torrancean Return to Nicaea

Classical Calvinism has taken shape, by and large, by its appropriation of Aristotelian substance metaphysics. Their respective doctrine of God is based in the Hellenic actus purus tradition of philosophical conniving. Their understanding of a God-world relation is grounded in the decretum absolutum (‘absolute decree’ —double predestination). They think God, by and large, from an analogia entis (‘analogy of being’) speculative mode of reasoning that takes its seasoning not from God’s Self-revelation, as the preamble, but instead from the wily machinations of the philosophers. This produces a notion of godness that understands God in terms of a metaphysical jurist who engages with the created order, including with the apple of creation, human beings, via mechanistic and law-like precision. As a result, the classical Calvinists thinks salvation in terms of a Federal (covenantal) schema.

Here Paul Molnar explicates TF Torrance’s critique of Federal theology:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian dualism between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in the Scots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.1

Molnar, a Roman Catholic, ironically, but a TF Torrance scholar par excellence, offers a very nice precis of Torrance’s critique of what I call classical Calvinism. As Molnar intimates at the end of his sketch, Barth similar to Torrance sees Federal theology as an abstract framework thinking God, and a God-world relation, precisely because God’s ostensible relation to the world, in that system, is not thought from God’s second person in Jesus Christ, but instead from an ad hoc absolute decree that has nothing to do with God’s person. Instead, this ‘decree’ is purely formed out of a need to keep the classical Calvinist God of pure being impassible and immutable; in other words, it allows God to remain immovable, and at the same time ostensibly presents a way for this unmoved God to interact with the created order. This is why Torrance, in loud contest, makes his strong claim that ‘there is no God behind the back of Jesus.’ He is referring to the decretum absolutum of classical Calvinism. He is referring to the classical Calvinist nominalist like version of a potentia absoluta / potentia ordinata dualistic conception of God wherein there is no necessary correlation between the God of the economy ad extra, and the God of the ontology ad intra; that there is no necessary relation between the God of the eternal processions, and the temporal missions.

At the end of the day, classical Calvinism doesn’t offer a relational, and thus trinitarian notion of God. I contend that classical Calvinism has actually departed from the Nicene faith of someone like Athanasius, and instead has reverted back to an absolutely Hellenic conception of God like we might find with the some of the homoiousions like Eusebius of Caesarea. This is the fallout produced by redevising a philosophical conception of God rather than one that is principially grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the Son of the Father. Whey a system’s doctrine of God goes awry, when it strays from the reality of Holy Scripture, and imposes foreign categories upon Scripture’s res we end up with a less than desirable conception of God; not to mention how that impacts a doctrine of salvation, and the spirituality produced therefrom.

The classical Calvinists will continue on though; they are like a machine. They fear modernity, that is until it comes to socio-political theories; that’s another story for another day. But the irony is that modernity, for all the demon-possession classical Calvinists see therein, has, in the right hands, liberated scholasticism Reformed from its overly philosophical and Aristotelian romances, and allowed those with eyes to see and ears to here to return to Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. Solo Christo / Soli Deo Gloria

The Material Girl as Physicalism: And the Foolish Way of the Gospel

We are saturated with materialism (some call it physicalism). The Christian reality is a bodily/physical religion; we aren’t Gnostics. Nevertheless, Christians maintain that there is a spiritual realm; indeed, God is spirit. But He has freely chosen to be physical with us, which is how we come to know God, in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This represents some level of mystery. The Incarnation is the mystery of the eternal God, who is spirit, become human in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Christians, thus, live in a dialectic. We live in a physically affirming creation, our bodies included, and at the same time maintain that we are composed of spirit (some want to call this ‘consciousness’).

The secular, by-and-large, has reduced all of reality to a materialistic frame. It has immanentized the spirit realm of the eternal God into the physicalist realm of observable reality. In so doing it has come to imagine that God has really been humanity after all. As such the secular, or modern world has reduced all possible explanatory power, in regard to all phenomena to the physical; it allows for no appeal to a transcendent God who is spirit. Van der Kooi and van den Brink describe this sort of physicalism, particularly as it pertains to anthropology, this way:

This physicalism, is in fact, the anthropological side of the worldview that used to be known as materialism and is now often referred to as naturalism (or more specifically, metaphysical naturalism, as distinguished from the merely methodological naturalism that is the common basis for scientific research). The controlling premise in these views is reductionistic in nature: there is only matter. That is, there are only natural processes by which everything that needs explanation can be explained. Thus there is no God, and neither is there a human self or an “I.” This metaphysical naturalism plays relatively well in the media, but it is generally recognized to be plagued by some major problems. The question remains whether it can do full justice to such phenomena as human consciousness and the human longing for transcendence . . . and even to the human ability to know. On this latter front it has often been argued that our ability acquire knowledge can hardly be trustworthy it if has evolved in a purely naturalistic manner (see Beilby 2002 and Plantiga 2011, 307-50).1

This sort of mentality is not uncommon to come across out there in the public market of ideas; indeed, many of our fellow Christian believers operate with this sort of worldpicture at functional levels. That might sound counterintuitive to assert, but in my experience most Christians operate with a level of physicalism in their daily lives; alongside their pagan compatriots in the world at large.

To put a finer point on this here is how Charles Taylor describes the same phenomenon:

Science alone can explain why belief is no longer possible in the above sense. This is a view held by people on all levels; from the most sophisticated: “We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities,” to the most direct and simple: Madonna’s “material girl, living in a material world.”

Religion or spirituality involves substituting wrong and mythical explanations, explaining by “demons.” At bottom it’s just a matter of facing the obvious truth.

This doesn’t mean that moral issues don’t come into it. But they enter as accounts of why people frun away from reality, why they want to go on believing illusion. They do so because it’s comforting. The real world is utterly indifferent to us, and even to a certain degree dangerous, threatening. As children, we have to see ourselves as surrounded by love and concern, or we shrivel up. But in growing up, we have to learn to face the fact that this environment of concern can’t extend beyond the human sphere, and mostly doesn’t extend very far within it.

But this transition is hard. So we project a world which is providential, created by a benign God. Or at least, we see the world as meaningful in terms of the ultimate human good. The providential world is not only soothing, but it also takes the burden of evaluating things off our shoulders. The meanings of things are already given. As a well-known contemporary theorist put it:

I think that the notion that we are all in the bosom of Abraham or are in God’s embracing love is—look, it’s a tough life and if you can delude yourself into thinking that there’s all some warm fuzzy meaning to it all, it’s enormously comforting. But I do think it’s just a story we tell ourselves. [Stephen Jay Gould]

So religion emanates from a childish lack of courage. We need to stand up like men, and face reality.2

It is the above materialism that shapes the current nihilism our world labors under. It is ironic that the further advanced we become, technologically, the more oppressive and tyrannical the world becomes; not to mention immoral and hedonistic.

Indeed, the sort of physicalism we have been thinking about, at our post-secular time has been losing teeth among people in the know. Nevertheless, the brute god of materialism continues to reign unabated in the broader world out there. As such, Christians who uncritically inhabit this sort of world similarly labor under conditions of thought that cause them to doubt, or least soften some of the more embarrassing mythos we might encounter in Holy Scripture. At an even lesser or more innocent level, many Christians, the masses living unexamined lives, simply accommodate the materialistic culture they inhabit in ways that denude the Gospel of its power by remaking it into a material image. You see, and this is to the point, metaphysical or philosophical materialism works under the premise that humanity has the potential to rise above the material world and master it in such a way wherein the übermensch (‘supermen’) can overcome and manipulate the created order to meet whatever their singular or collective desires might be. This is the world we inhabit, and we can see it in full and living color through the current technocratic medical tyranny COVID has afforded the current ‘supermen’ of this world order.

And yet Christians function under the pressures provided for by this sort of artificial understanding of the created order. Christians, some anyway, become squeamish when talking about demons and the devil as if real spiritual entities. Many Christians believe that the demon-possession referred to in the New Testament was simply childish humanity attempting to explain a physical phenomenon they had no intellectual vocabulary to grasp at this impish stage in natural human development. Or, many Christians today have bowed the knee in to ‘science,’ which of course means to the metaphysical materialism we have been considering in this post. These sorts of Christians have neatly divided physicalism from the message of the Gospel in a dualistic way, such that they believe they can maintain a personal world order wherein they can have the hard sciences “over here,” and keep their Christianity and metaphysics “over there.” And yet the analogy of the incarnation itself defeats this sort of dualistic (or Nestorian) attempt at keeping the physical disentangled from the spiritual; the incarnation, in all of its sui generis glory, doesn’t allow this sort of nice and tidy to thinking the world; it doesn’t allow the Christian to hat-tip the physicalist world order from the safety of their Christin perch.

More to be said, but these are some thoughts toward considering physicalism and its implications for Christians. We need to do better at engaging this world with the power of God, the Gospel, without selling out to material world of Madonna and/or the likes of a Stephen Jay Gould. There is a better way; but it is considered both foolish and weak to this world order. Be a fool.

1 Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introductiontranslated by Reinder Bruinsma with James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 270.  

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 561 kindle edition.

The Golden Calf of Same Sex Attraction Among the Churches: And the Perspicuity of Holy Scripture

Same sex attraction (SSA) does not deserve special sin status; and yet many Christians, and their ecclesial denominations are giving it this status as I write. To even acknowledge this distorted order, this sin as a special sin is to give away the theological goose before we even get started. The New Testament doesn’t single out homosexual attraction in special ways. Indeed, the NT lists homosexuality among a bunch of other sins. Note I Corinthians 6:9-11: 

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 

If we were to visit Leviticus, we would see the same phenomenon. Homosexuality throughout the canon of Holy Scripture is understood to be an abomination before God as much as any other sin. James 2:8-13 says: 

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 

There is nothing complicated about this issue in the NT or OT witness of Holy Scripture. There is no need to make an elaborate argument. Someday, and I’d venture to say, sooner than later, pagans and Christians alike will come to recognize that a clairvoyant prophetic witness stood among them as found within the totality of the canon of Scripture. As Yahweh declares through Ezekiel about Ezekiel’s witness: 

30 “As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.’ 31 And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. 32 And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it. 33 When this comes—and come it will!—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” -Ezekiel 33:30-33 

God speaks clearly. God does not die the death of a thousand qualifications; that’s our interpretations and recontextualizations of Scripture that die such deaths.  

People who are struggling with same sex attraction-sin, or any other sin all have been given the same antidote; and this is to the point. The cross of Christ reduces sin to its logical conclusion; to death, or nothingness. We clearly live in sin-riddled bodies, and will until the eschaton (simul justus et peccator); but as Christians we fight! We reckon ourselves, and the members of our bodies dead to sin, and alive to Christ. This is God’s antidote for all sin, no matter what it is. Murder, rape, homosexuality, lying, thievery, the entertainment of impure thoughts, all of these and more have the same antidote: it is the death of death, the cross of Jesus Christ. The Christian has the power of Almighty (Pantocrator) God in Christ standing behind them; this is the power of the reckoning we have been called to. All of sin is reduced to the same level at the foot of the cross; there is no special sin thereat. And yet many churches, even doctrinally ‘orthodox’ ones like the Presbyterian Church of America, have capitulated to the culture and identified same sex attraction as an ontological status among people. They have thus rejected the clear teaching of Scripture on sin, and allowed cultural constructs to shape the way they think sin. Kyrie Eleison  

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 6:1-23 

 

 

 

Exvangelicals, as the New Evangelicals: Culture Wars and The Modern

There is a class of people that has been forming over the last decade or so, in earnest, known as the Exvangelicals. Exvangelicals, as the nomenclature suggests, are people who once identified as evangelical Christians, but who have since become disillusioned with a whole cluster of identifiers and doctrines associated with said evangelicalism. When you read what most of these exvangelicals are saying, in regard to their reasons for departing the “faith,” it has to do with their respective dissatisfaction with the evangelical subcultural entailments. In other words, exvangelicals are tired of “playing church”; of ‘purity culture,’ so-called; of being out of step with the broader culture in regard to sexual and sexuality mores; so on and so forth. I would argue, though, that these exvangelicals haven’t walked away from historic orthodox Christianity; one that is defined by its doxological understanding of the triune God. Instead, they have walked away (sort of) from what I take to be an American (or Western) folk religion; some, like sociologist, Christian Smith, have called this ‘religion’: moralistic therapeutic deism.

I want to suggest that exvangelicals have, in point of fact, not walked away from anything. Indeed, all they have really done is internalized the theological presuppositions of evangelicalism, and taken them to their logical conclusion. A. N. Wilson offers an apropos description of the sort of “presuppositions” that have funded “evangelicalism” for many decades; he writes:

The nineteenth century had created a climate for itself—philosophical, politico-sociological, literary, artistic, personal—in which God had become unknowable, His voice inaudible against the din of machines and the atonal banshee of the emerging egomania called The Modern. The cohesive social force which religion had once provided was broken up. The nature of society itself, urban, industrialized, materialistic, was the background for the godlessness which philosophy and science did not so much discover as ratify.1

For many dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals the above description will have no traction; they won’t recognize their religion in this. But that’s just it: the exvangelicals finally do recognize the fund of their religion, and simply take the final and logical step of living into the naturalistic materialism they have been weaned on all their days in the evangelical club.

Evangelicals currently caught up in the ‘culture wars,’ particularly as that unfolds online, need to start to appreciate what they are up against. They need to become self-critical about their own hive of theological ideation, and understand that the reason they are having such a hard time making in-roads with their apostate brothers and sisters is because they are still on the same ground as them. Evangelicalism is ‘The Modern’ that Wilson describes. It is based on modern Enlightenment turn-to-the-subject premises and anthropology. It seeks self-actualization in the name of Christ, and consumes the materials of this cultural-world-system as its Eucharist and means of grace. It appropriates concert and corporate culture as its liturgy, and sees pastors as executives. Exvangelicals see through the façade, and simply opt to live in its full-flaming reality.

Martin Luther, when he visited Rome, as an Augustinian monk, saw the merchandizing of his Roman Catholic faith. He didn’t become an ‘Excatholic’ at that point; instead, he sought to reform his faith from the inside out. The difference between Luther’s day, and ours, was that he had a historic dogamtic foundation to refer people back to; evangelicals don’t have this. Evangelicals have Protestant orthodoxy, but in fact, much of the developments therein only lead us back to the materialistic deism that has produced exvangelicals to begin with. The way forward for evangelicalism is to return to the Nicene faith of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. Doubling down on ‘back to the Bible’ is too simplistic. Evangelicals need to understand that we bring things to the Bible; that we have interpretive tradition (either good or bad); and that it is precisely because of what we often have brought to the Bible, and its reality, that we have arrived where we are today.

Exvangelicals haven’t walked away from evangelicalism. People like Josh Harris, Derek Webb, Paul Maxwell, Kevin Max et alia are simply living into their true evangelical selves. For them God has “become unknowable, His voice inaudible against the din of machines and the atonal banshee of the emerging egomania called The Modern.” Exvangelicals are evangelicals taken to its logical conclusion. They haven’t walked away from genuine orthodox Christianity, and the living God; instead, they have blossomed into the flowers that the seeds of evangelicalism have been cultivating into their lives for decades. They need to repent, and come to the risen Christ for the first time.

1 A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (London: Norton, 1999), 12 cited by Charles Taylor, Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 551 kindle edition.

Holy Communion: Remembering that Human Life is in Christ’s Blood

The late, John Webster, wasn’t just a Christian theologian par excellence; he was also a pastor. The following comes from part of a sermon he gave on Maundy Thursday. A major thrust of his sermon was to remind the parishioners that Holy Communion is not something that re-enacts or re-presents the death of Jesus Christ; indeed, as Webster presses, the Eucharist is a memorial event wherein we, as the Church, remember the already finished work (in the perfect tense: my insight) that Jesus alone accomplished once and for all in the givenness of His life for the world. As Webster presses this point, and rightfully so, he offers a beautiful description of what, in the history has been called: the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’). Here Webster is underscoring the idea that what God in Christ has done, has been done; indeed, what has been done God alone could accomplish on our behalf. I found Webster’s rendition of the ‘wonderful exchange’ edifying, and so I want to share it with you now. 

What was done there and then? What is it about the Lord’s death that the Eucharist proclaims or testifies? Isaiah, whose Servant Song provides the bass line of our thoughts this Holy Week, tells us that the wounding and bruising and chastising of the Servant is “for our transgressions” (53:5). The cross of Jesus, celebrated in Holy Communion, is the climactic event in which God acts to win the world back from the darkness and misery of sin. In some way, the death of this one changes the entire course of human history; it intercepts and breaks the whole course of human wickedness; henceforth, because of what this man does and suffers, nothing can be the same. Why not? Because in this little scrap of an event one Friday afternoon, this unremarkable bit of human evil, God takes our place. He enters without reserve into the reality of our situation—into our situation, that is, as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God. 

But God does not leave us in the hell we have made for ourselves. In the person of Jesus his Son and Servant, he comes to us; he takes on his own back the full weight of our alienation and estrangement; he freely submits to the whole curse of our sin. He takes our sin upon him, and in so doing he takes it away, fully, finally, and conclusively. And of all that—of that miracle of grace on Good Friday—this evening is a memorial, the memorial of that his precious death. 

That was what was done. It was done not by us, but by God himself in the person of his Servant and Son. And it was done by God alone. Because reconciliation is thus God’s work, God’s exclusive work, then this sacrament in which we remember the cross of Christ is also God’s work. Here, in this assembly at this table, God is at work. And God’s work here is to present to us, to make present to us, what took place on Good Friday. We don’t make Good Friday real by re-enacting it, or by thinking and feeling about it. God in this sacrament declares to us what Good Friday made true: that he is our reconciler; that sin is finished business; that we can repent because God has forgiven; that the promise acted out in the death of Jesus stands for all time and for each human person. In this memorial, God turns us backward; but he also makes present to us the limitless power of what the Son of God suffered. The God who was at work there and then is at work here and now, proclaiming to us his promise of cleansing, acceptance and peace.1 

The Apostle Paul describes the ‘wonderful exchange’ this way: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8.9). Webster brings out so many rich insights in his telling of what in fact unfolded in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The following clause, in particular stands out to me: “as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God.” This is the depth dimension of the Evangel. What it genuinely means to be human is to be human before (in and from) God. To declare that ‘we’ can be human devoid of God, devoid of a coram Deo life, is indeed: Hell!  

Holy Communion is to remind us, moment by moment, that we are not our own; and that if we persist, indeed, perdure in the lie that we can be our “own man or woman,” that we will only dissolve into an abyss of hell. But Christ has entered into that deep abyss, and by the life which is in His blood, we can truly experience what it means to be human before God; indeed, to be human is to be in union and fellowship with God. This is who Jesus is for us, and what the Eucharist is to continuously remind us of until it is finally consummated in the eschaton as that finally comes in the Eschatos of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Maranatha  

1 John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 61-2, Kindle Edition.