Author: Bobby Grow

Job 19. Miscellaneous Personal Reflection. Death and Suffering, Incarnation and Resurrection

I am an avid Bible reader, and have been one since 1995; by the grace of God. Indeed, this is where it all started for me; i.e. where the love of theology has come from. But I’m afraid this reality about who I am doesn’t come through enough in my posts; so in an effort to remedy that I’m hoping to post reflective posts on wherever I’m at in my Bible reading at that point. I’m currently in the book of Job, and one of my favorite passages of Scripture is found in Job 19. Let me share the section I’m thinking of, and you’ll see the passages I particularly like emboldened. I will share more on the other side.

13 “He has alienated my family from me my acquaintances are completely estranged from me. 14 My relatives have gone away; my closest friends have forgotten me. 15 My guests and my female servants count me a foreigner; they look on me as on a stranger. 16 I summon my servant, but he does not answer, though I beg him with my own mouth. 17 My breath is offensive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. 18 Even the little boys scorn me; when I appear, they ridicule me. 19 All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me. 20 I am nothing but skin and bones; I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth. 21 “Have pity on me, my friends, have pity, for the hand of God has struck me. 22 Why do you pursue me as God does? Will you never get enough of my flesh? 23 “Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, 24 that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! 25 I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; 27 I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me![1]

I don’t really want to try and wax eloquent, but I do want to share from the heart as I reflect upon this passage.

Job obviously was no stranger to human suffering, indeed, we might call him a ‘type’ of the Suffering Servant; in fact I think we’d have exegetical (intertextual) warrant for that. But look at the depth of his suffering given poetic voice in the passage I’ve shared; like many of the Psalms Job moves from utter despair to utter hope. What I love the most about Job’s hope is the contrast we see between the God that he has come to know through his suffering with the God that his “friends” throughout the pages of Job presume to know as the true God. Indeed Job seems to have the same conception of God that his friends have, in the beginning, but as we progress through the book we see an intimacy forged, and knowledge of God gained in and through the suffering Job experiences. It’s as if everything else is torn away, and Job is shorn down to his bare bones; what he finds there is the hope of the Incarnate God (Deus incarnandus). This seems to be an inescapable observation, that is that Job had an idea of the ‘incarnation’ (maybe thinking back to the Genesis theme of God walking in the cool of the garden, and projecting that out proleptically as a real and coming hope). Job also seems to have an understanding of the resurrection; this is all amazing to me. Ostensibly Job is one of the earliest books of the Bible, at least the history it covers, and yet here we have a man who somehow knows the Covenant God, Yahweh, and somehow has an idea about incarnation and resurrection.

What I’m impressed with most is the idea that death and suffering, in God’s economy, within his covenant with humanity (typified in Israel) leads the submitted person to the reality that our only hope is the incarnation and the resurrection of God in Christ for all of us. I see this as the ‘depth dimension’ of what Job is about; that suffering and death only lead us deeper into God. As the Apostle Paul opined ‘he had the sentence of death written upon him so that he wouldn’t trust himself but in the One who raises the dead.’ Job had this same Pauline expectation and hope driven into him through the death and suffering he was pushed up against.

This reality, at least to me, is not the most comforting thing. I mean it does portend that we will and must go through all types of tribulation as we enter the kingdom of Christ, in the kingdom come who is Christ; but then there is this ultimate type of hope. And even in the immediate as Paul also knew, and Job came to know, God’s grace is sufficient and heightening even in the deepest depths; so elevating, in fact, that we get to see God’s face, his glory, in Christ in ways we never have before. For Job this meant that he got to know God in a personal and relational way, contrary to his friends who walked away from the experience only frustrated by the fact that all they were able to do was project a god from their own insecurities that in the end was found wanting by the true and living God.

There is something to be said for suffering before God. It isn’t that we can say it desirable, or easy; or even part of what God ultimately desires. The most we can say about human suffering is that it isn’t something that is absent in God; he is present with us in the deepest of ways because he freely and graciously elected the human predicament for himself to not be God without us but with us in Jesus Christ. In other words, human suffering (death), and all the angst and alienation we experience in our daily lives, to one degree or another, has come to have ultimate and immediate value because God has freely chosen that his life for us be cruciform in shape. He can sympathize with our weaknesses in ways that no one else can. I know that from experience, and I’m sure many of you do as well.

Job is one of the most Christ anticipating books in the canon of Scripture; at least I think so. And now you can see why I might think that.

[1] Job 19, NIV.


Jesus’s Death and Death

A thought on Jesus’ death:

Jesus’ death, moreover, is not a fateful fatality like the image of the automobile accident. It does not serve to show how humans, in spite of all their passion for life, can be wiped out in a moment’s notice. By his death Jesus does not represent the enormity of the power of death. On the contrary, he chooses to die. He lays down his life freely and deliberately, and he does so in accord with God’s own will. Jesus’ death is just the opposite of an unexpected, unforseen auto accident. For the New Testament there is absolutely nothing accidental at all about Jesus’ death. It belongs to his conscious purpose; it is grounded in God’s loving will. Far from proclaiming the mutilating power of death (as does a nuclear bomb), Jesus’ death takes death out of the demonic and makes it an event informed by the free decision of this man and by the graciousness of this God.

— Arthur McGill, Death and Life, 46.

Death is not in control, God is! Death is a relational concept, it is a cutting off from life (who alone is God). In other words, death, in the Bible has never been framed as non-existence; it’s always been understood in terms that are relative to life. So that to be dead is to be cut off from life itself. Death is to be in a state that asserts itself in a way that only God can; which is to say that life is always a “received” reality (for example the Son receives His life from the Father, the Father from the Son and the Father and Son from the Holy Spirit). To die, then, is to be “cut off” from this receiving (relationally) — to remain in this state is hell!

Just some random thoughts on death, and what Jesus’ death is all about. I think McGill does a great job with this.

*Something I originally posted back in 2010.

The Second Coming of Christ: Reorienting How We Think of That Through Eschatology and Apocalyptic

Like many evangelicals I grew up under the pale of Left Behind Theology (i.e. Premillennial, Pretribulational, Dispensational theology). Attendant with this type of approach is living with a kind of futurist ‘apocalyptic’ dread (yet at the same time excited anticipation). It is this mood that I would contend has largely created a lot of what we have been seeing Hollywood produce in their dystopian or ‘end of days’ zombie apocalypse types of thrillers; they do so because there’s a market for it. Living this way, the person interprets every hurricane, earthquake, massive tornado, geo-political kerfuffle, and war as portending of the rapture of Jesus Christ for his church. The focus of this mood only gets heightened when things appear to be kicking off in the nation of Israel; since Left Behind Theology believes world history, according to God’s prophetic timetable, is all about the nation of Israel. Proponents of this approach will often refer to Israel, and in particular, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, as God’s prophetic timepiece.

I thought writing a post on this issue would be timely given what’s currently going on in the world. Don’t get me wrong, my reading of Scripture, and Jesus’s teaching in particular, lends itself to the idea that things will only be getting worse (like birth pangs) right up until the end. And given my current belief (as an amillennial advocate) that we are in the tribulation Jesus spoke of, and the idea that right before he comes a second time there will be unparalleled tribulation (gk. thlipsis) worldwide, what is unfolding in the world as I write this does raise the antennae a bit. It is the intensity of it all; the convergence of seemingly a million points. Now, some of this sense of intensity could be because of our instant exposure to everything, as it is distilled for us via social media. But I think the conflagration of so many things at once—natural disasters, wars, global economic upheaval, genocide, moral rot, super-diseases—does or should suggest that this world, given to the unwilling futility that it is (cf. Rom. 8), is ready for the reality of the sons of God to be revealed in Jesus Christ; in other words, she seems ripe for the return of Jesus Christ.

With the above said, and in an attempt to bring sobriety to this issue, I thought I would try to give another twist on how we approach two key terms that are used to speak of ‘end times’; i.e. eschatology and apocalyptic. Neither term is all that easy to define, particularly because of how they have been used in various contexts. Both terms are Greek in origin, eschatology simply meaning: ‘the study of last times’ and apocalyptic meaning ‘the unveiling’ (in Greek this is the word we get ‘Revelation’ from, as in the biblical book Revelation). But there’s more to it than just these types of lexical or denotative definitions, and it is this range of meaning, per the Christian theological context I want to alert us to. In order to do that I will refer us to TF Torrance to help us get a fuller, more theologically attuned grasp for how the term eschatology and apocalyptic can be used. After we get more depth understanding on this terminology, we will then return to a discussion about the second coming of Christ, and hopefully be able to integrate this thickening measure (by appeal to Torrance) into our discussion. Admittedly, this is probably not what you were expecting when you clicked over to a post on the second coming of Christ, and after reading my first two paragraphs; but bear with me.[1]

Here Torrance gives us a kind of genealogy of how the language of eschatology and apocalyptic have been used; and how he thinks they have been co-opted in an unfortunate way by Left Behind Theology. Within his kind of bemoaning of how this language has come to be used in ill-advised ways, we will also see how he thinks the terminology has and should been used within the history of the church. It is this that I want to draw our attention to, primarily, and what I will respond to further as we pick this discussion back up on the other side of Torrance. Torrance writes (at length):

(a) The loss of mainstream eschatology and the divorce of apocalyptic from prophetic

The main teaching about the last things in the West (apart from isolated thinkers like Bengel) has largely been left to sects whose roots go back into the Anabaptist tradition. Although the extremes of those early Schwärmer have not been repeated to the same extent in modern times, it still remains true that their modern successors have developed an eschatological emphasis that is one sided in its divorce of the apocalyptic view of the kingdom as other-worldly, coming at the end of time, from the prophetic view of the kingdom as breaking into the midst of time and involving history, and therefore that is constantly on the brink of becoming fantastic. Against this apocalyptic eschatology divorced from actual history, the church will always be in revolt, for apocalypse can only have Christian meaning in the closest association with present history.

(b) The relegation of eschatology from the centre to the end of dogmatics

When the church came to formulate her teaching about such doctrines as death and judgement, the life everlasting and the return of Christ, she tended to append it to the end of dogmatics rather uncertainly, failing to grasp these doctrines aright in themselves, and failing to take up the New Testament stress upon eschatology as integral to the very heart of the gospel and to every doctrine of the faith. With a tradition such as this in the church, the words of H.R. Mackintosh have great relevance and point: ‘It is a just and illumining thought that every system of theology should be read backwards at least once, commencing with the last things, since it is in the conclusion that we find the truest index of the whole.’[2]

Okay, let’s try to rein this rather academic sounding stuff back into accessible discussion, and within a context about the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Let’s start with Torrance’s point b, and work into his point a from there. I am going to oversimplify all of this with the hope of making this more understandable for a broader audience; and also with the hope of bringing a broader audience back into a more sober thought process when it comes to “eschatological” or ‘end times’ discussions; a sobriety that I think is lacking in the broader North American evangelical church. In Torrance’s second paragraph (“b”), he is referring to the Apostle’s Creed,[3] he’s critiquing, through his former teacher, H.R. Mackintosh, how even early on ‘end times’ stuff (i.e. ‘the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’) is essentially annexed or appended to the end of the creed rather than foregrounding it. This, in Torrance’s mind, has the unintended effect of making it seem like creation has been moving in a linear/progressive march forward till we come to the end; but for Torrance, and really for much of the church’s history, this isn’t how end times stuff was thought of (at least not in an Athanasian stream of thought). What Torrance wants to re-emphasize is what another Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, says so well, “The world was made so that Christ might be born.” In other words, what most Christians, of today, think is coming at the “end” of history, in fact was what motivated the beginning of history to begin with; i.e. that creation’s purpose (telos) has always already been conditioned by and for the reality of God in Jesus Christ.[4]

This brings us to Torrance’s point a. Torrance is concerned, and so am I, that because ‘sects’ of Christians (like those who promote Dispensational inspired popularly called Left Behind Theology) have separated thinking about eschatology (in a dualist fashion) from this present [historical] reality, and relegated it to an apocalyptic understanding of things as we see it in the movies; and thus eschatology has more to do with an ‘unveiling’ or apocalypse that is solely futurist oriented (i.e. at the ‘end’ of history), and grounded in some sort of non-worldly (ethereal – Platonic) reality, when in fact an actual Christian understanding of eschatology is grounded in the idea that God in Christ has always already been breaking into the world apocalyptically (dramatically) from the moment he decided to create and give the world its purpose in and from and for his Son incarnate (incarnandus), Jesus Christ. In other words, from Torrance’s perspective, and from much of the church’s perspective in the history (although not as articulate and ‘modern’ as Torrance’s accounting), world history, ‘natural’ history, ‘creational’ reality has always been tensed and conditioned by the apocalyptic in-breaking reality of God’s freely elected life to be God Immanuel (‘with us’) in Christ. Torrance, as do I, sees all of history from an apocalyptic reality; meaning that it has always been grounded by and oriented for the unveiling of his life for the world in Jesus Christ.

This is apocalyptic (!), that the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Dan. 2) stands behind and indeed over the kingdoms of this world in such a way that as we read the book of Revelation, for instance, we ought to see all of that imagery, the imagery that finds its reality in God’s ineffable life for the world in Christ, as what this world has always already been up against.[5] Apocalypse, I would contend, along with Torrance, in a properly Christian eschatological accounting of things, understands that creation has always been about recreation in the resurrection of God in Christ; and recreation thus was the impetus for creation to begin with. I.e. the apocalyptic reality and idea that humanity would forever be and stand with and participate in and from the Triune life of God in and through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ.


I absolutely failed at making this accessible; it’s still quite academic and dealing with many theological themes, that unless you have the proper context, remains, I would imagine, rather inaccessible. But let me leave us with this: what I am hoping has come through is that as Christians the sensational and ‘fantastic’ reality that orients our whole existence as Christian persons before God is that creation has been infused (not pantheistically or panentheistically mind you) with the dramatic and apocalyptic reality that we were created to be recreated in Christ, in such a way, that we might behold the ‘face of God’ in and through Jesus Christ as the very ground of our lives; as such human history has always been suffused with the apocalyptic reality, in and from the eschatological hope that creation would eventually realize its ultimate purpose as she met her end as a new beginning in the recreation of all things made new in Jesus Christ.

What this should do, at least in my opinion, as far as posture in the world as Christians goes (think of II Peter 3), is that we should live in an expectant state; realizing that even as we see the world apparently unraveling at the seams, we understand that creation, on the analogy of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ always had to go through the rupture of creation to recreation in order to realize its actual purpose for living. The consequences of the Fall, the consequences that the Son of Man entered into for us in his assumption of a fallen humanity, have not left us, but we indeed live with the reality that the eschatology of God’s life in Christ has provided the kind of apocalyptic outlook that we need to maintain as we engage with a world that indeed has no hope but to make it through the next hurricane or big earthquake or threat of WW3. That is, we already, by faith, participate in and from the apocalyptic reality of God, as he entered the drama of human history, culminating in death, and then resurrecting to new life in the resurrection of Christ. As Christians, as an apocalyptic people, as we walk by faith, we need to bear witness to the world that eventually faith will give way to sight. This is the eschatology we live from; from the apocalypse of God’s life made known to the world in the face of Jesus Christ.


[1] I’m thinking you were hoping for something more sensational, something more “apocalyptic.” I’m hoping after you read this post you will come away with a new sense for the sensational and fantastic when it comes to thinking about eschatology and the apocalyptic; precisely because you’ll see how central Jesus Christ is to it all. Not just with reference to the ‘future’, but how that future reality has been shaping the beginning (protology cf. Gen. 1.1) from before the beginning; how Jesus has been the reason from time before “time” in regard to what this world was created for to begin with (just look at my little sidebar anecdote from David Fergusson).

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 303-04.

[3] I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

[4] This has to do with what is called in the Greek protology, or “the study of first things” (e.g. original creation).

[5] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, for further biblical theological context.

The 16th and 17th Century Reformed Covenantal Roots of the 21st Century evangelical and Reformed Theological Understanding of a ‘Legally Strained’ Gospel

When I can, I like to highlight where the legalistic character of the contemporary evangelical and Reformed faith came from. I realize that for many, maybe even most at this point, doctrine doesn’t really mean much these days for evangelicals; but there are still obviously large segments of evangelical Christians who actually do care about what they believe and why—so I write posts for folks
like that in mind. It would be difficult to detail a kind of ideational genealogy in regard to tracing how something like Covenant theology has made its way into 21st century evangelical and Reformed systems of theology. So for lack of doing such genealogical work I will write towards people who are enamored with the theology that The Gospel Coalition distills for the evangelical masses.

If one were to go to TGC’s website you could read up on their confessional or doctrinal statement, and you’d pick up almost immediately—if you were so tuned—the type of legal framework for understanding salvation that they promote. Like I noted, we won’t be able to draw the hard and fast lines between the forensic Gospel promoted by TGC with its predecessor theology found in historical Covenant theology (in a lineament[al] type of way); instead we will just have to leave such linkage at a suggestive and inchoate level.

With the ground cleared a bit, for the remainder of this post I wanted to survey, with M. Charles Bell’s help, the whence from where legally oriented, performance based conceptions of the Gospel came from; to do that we will look at an early Scottish proponent of what is called Federal or ‘Covenant’ theology. Maybe you have never heard of Covenant theology before, but at its base it is made up of two covenants (as a hermeneutical construct): the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Robert Rollock was a Scottish theologian who operated in the late 1500s in the Scottish Kirk; as Bell develops, Rollock was one of the first Scots to propose and advocate for a Covenant theology in the Scottish Reformed church. As we look at Rollock’s take on Federal theology, my hope is that the reader will organically ‘get’ what I’m suggesting in this post in regard to the antecedent theology that funds the mood we find being promoted in theology offered by associates of The Gospel Coalition. Without further ado, here is Bell’s sketch of Rollock’s understanding of Covenant theology (and as you read others Rollock’s view of Covenant theology is quite standard when it comes to the basic structure and emphases).

The Covenant of Works

Rollock states that the covenant of works is a ‘legal or natural covenant’ founded in nature, and God’s law. For when God created man, he engraved his law in man’s heart. After the fall of man it was necessary to republish this covenant, which was done at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the written tablets of stone containing God’s commandments for his people. The substance of this covenant of works is the promise of eternal life for those who fulfill the conditions of holiness and good works.

In grounding this covenant in nature and the law, and making the substance of the covenant a conditional promise of eternal life, Rollock denies any place to Christ in this legal covenant. Christ is not the ground of the covenant, its substance or its mediator, he states. In fact, this covenant has no need of a mediator. This is so because the covenant was first made between God and Adam before the fall. Therefore, asserts Rollock, this covenant does not involve Christ in any way. It is not faith in Christ that is needed, but knowledge of the law and obedience to it. The covenant of works relates to Christ only as a means of preparing the individual to receive Christ in the covenant of grace. Rollock stresses time and again that law precedes grace or the gospel. First the covenant of works or the law, is set before us, and only when this works in us a feeling of our miserable, sinful estate are we ready to proceed to the next step of embracing the covenant of grace. The doctrine of the gospel begins with the legal doctrine of works and of the law.’ Rollock insists that if this preparationist ordo is not followed then the preaching and the promises of the gospel are in vain.

The Covenant of Grace

Although the covenant of works is the major concern within the Old Testament, Rollock insists that the ‘mystery of Christ’ is to be found in the Scriptures from Adam to Christ, thought this covenant of grace is expounded ‘sparingly and darkly’ in shadows. This covenant of grace is not entirely a new agreement between God and man, but is actually a ‘reagreement, and a renewing of an old friendship betweene two that first were friends.’ However, because of the breach between God and man since the fall, this second covenant is grounded upon the blood of Christ, and God’s free mercy in Christ. Moreover, the promise of this second covenant is not only that of eternal life, but, because of the fall of man, must involve also a promise of imputed righteousness which comes to us by faith and the work of Christ’s Spirit. On the other hand, like the first covenant, Rollock insists that the covenant of grace is conditional. The condition, however, is not one of works, but faith, ‘which embraces God’s mercy in Christ and makes Christ effectual in us’. Furthermore, this condition is not fulfilled naturally by us, but the required faith is itself God’s gift to us.

Rollock does not, however, do away with the requirement of works in the covenant of grace. The natural works of man have no part in this covenant, since the works of unregenerate man are of no value, and the covenant of works is abolished as a means of salvation for all who are in Christ. However, works are required of the believer not as merits on our part, or as ‘meritorious causes’ of our eternal life, but rather, as tokens of our gratitude and thankfulness to God for his grace. They can also be considered as the means by which we progress from our initial regeneration to eternal life, and so, in a sense, may be deemed ‘causes’, but only when they are first understood as themselves caused ore effected by ‘the only merit of Jesus Christ, whereof they testify’. Rollock is clear that these works do not proceed naturally from us, in our own strength, Rather, these works proceed from us, in our own strength. Rather, these works proceed from, and are produced by ‘the grace of regeneration’. They are God’s doing and not man’s. They are, as well, not perfect works, but merely ‘good beginnings’. Their perfection ‘is supplied, and to be found in Christ Jesus’.

Rollock attempts to make a strong case for the objective ground and nature of salvation in Christ, and the covenant of grace. He states that God’s grace is the ‘sole efficient cause’ of faith, hope, and repentance. Although in the ministry of reconciliation there are two covenant partners involved, Rollock stresses that the initiative for healing lies with God and not us. God the Father seeks and saves us. It is his love manifested in our healing. His call in the gospel comes to us; we do not seek it. Echoing Calvin, Rollock writes that the cause of our salvation lies in God alone, and ‘na pairt in man quha is saved’. Nevertheless, it becomes clear in his writings that because of his conditional covenant schemed and his preparationist ordo salutis, in which law precedes grace, he is forced to return to a subjective basis within man for one’s final assurance of salvation.[1]

There is a lot in there. Rather than attempting to unpack it all, I want to essentially let it stand as is and simply be a kind of proof of where evangelical and Reformed theology’s ‘legally’ flavored conception comes from; as I read it, it is rather self-evident.

To be clear, I am not wanting to suggest that in every detail the Gospel preached by something like TGC is corollary, one-for-one. Instead what I’m hoping the reader can see, especially if you have never been exposed to this, is where the roots are for contemporary 21st century understandings of evangelical and Reformed soteriology; one could also think of the resurgence of Reformed theology we find in the so called Young, Restless and Reformed. I’m not wanting to suggest that all of this type of retrieval and resurgence among the conservative evangelical and Reformed wings of today is one wherein a full blown recovery of Covenant theology is taking place (although for some that’s exactly what is happening). Instead, I’m hoping that the reader will be able to see the framework, in a general type of way, wherein a ‘legal’ performance based understanding of salvation comes from. Many of those retrieving the historical Reformed faith are Baptists; they typically are not Covenantal like what we find in someone like Rollock, or later in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, the forensic way for conceiving of salvation, whether someone is a flaming Federal theologian or not, for the evangelical, comes from something like what we see evidenced in the theology of Robert Rollock. This is, I would submit, the mood of theology that gives us the idea that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the theory of the atonement that is the bedrock Gospel understanding of what the Gospel actually is; I contend that without Covenant theology PSA would never have come to have the prominence it does for evangelical and Reformed theories of the atonement and the Gospel itself.

One other point, before we go; I think of the work that someone like Brian Zahnd is doing. His most recent book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, is intended to offer an alternative conception of the Gospel wherein a Gospel of grace and love is presented; i.e. in contrast to the type of theology he is riffing on like what we might find in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Zahnd is all about critiquing the ‘legal strain’ sense of the Gospel we find say in the theology presented by TGC et al. But I really think that if he wants to offer a full blown critique he needs to engage with the antecedent theology informing the theology he is attempting to critique. He often attributes all of this to Calvin, as if Calvin was the founder of Calvinism. But that’s just not the case, and so his critiques often miss the target when he is attempting to critique a legal forensically styled Gospel. I think he would do better to engage with the type of Post Reformed orthodox theology (of the 16th and 17th centuries) that we are covering here in this post. It helps to provide more context for people in attempting to understand where this type of ‘legal’ quid pro quo Covenantal theology comes from. It also is more honest and truthful as it gets into the actual meat and development of theology that indeed does offer us the ‘legal’ categories for conceiving of salvation that we still work under today in the evangelical and Reformed world.


[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 53-4.

James B. Torrance on a Gracious Calvinism rather than a Legal Calvinism: How an Ecstatic Christology Corrects an Immanentized Christology

One of the benefits of reading published PhD dissertations is that often the doctoral supervisor, of whomever you happen to be reading, will write the preface to the publication. In the case of the book I’m just starting by M. Charles Bell—Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance, which is Bell’s published dissertation submitted to the University of Aberdeen in 1982—James B. Torrance, Bell’s supervisor offers a brilliant summation of the state of affairs present in the Reformed church in Scotland at the time of its writing. Torrance’s précis surveys the nature of Calvinism in Scotland, and how it developed a legalistic rather than gracious character. This is quite stunning, particularly as it aligns so well with a central impetus for our offering of Evangelical Calvinism. We of course took the language of Evangelical Calvinism from James’ brother Thomas, which we found in his book Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell. It encouraged me to read James’ foreword to Bell’s book, it is in keeping with the critique presented by his brother in his book: Scottish Theology. As such I thought I’d share it at length.

JB Torrance’s Preface is only about two pages in length, so I thought I would transcribe the whole thing. I will follow up on it with some of my own closing reflections. Torrance writes:

James Denny, the beloved Scottish theologian and New Testament scholar, used to say that in the ideal Church all our theologians would be evangelists and our evangelists theologians. He was echoing the langue of Plato’s Republic that in the ideal State all our politicians would be philosophers and our philosophers politicians.

This ideal is one to which our Scottish Church has often aspired but perhaps too seldom realised. Yet when one thinks of the names of churchmen studied in this book — John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, Fraser of Brea, Thomas Boston, the Erskine brothers, John McLeod Campbell and a host of others — we see that these men were preachers of the Gospel of grace and scholars who sought to use their minds to understand the meaning and the implications of grace and to be ready to give an answer to those who ask a reason for their faith.

In all ages, issues have emerged which have tended to obscure the meaning of grace, and Scotland is no exception. But in all ages, God has raised up faithful witnesses to call the Church back to her foundations in Christ. In the early eighteenth century, Thomas Boston, reflecting on ‘the legal strain’ in Scottish Calvinism, which he detected early in his ministry, wrote in his Memoirs, ‘I had no great fondness for the doctrine of the conditionality of the covenant of grace.’ He sensed that much of the ‘legal preaching’ of his day was far removed from the doctrine of the unconditional freeness of grace taught by Calvin and the first Reformers—from the twin doctrines of sola gratia, that ‘all parts of our salvation are complete in Christ’ and that faith means ‘union with Christ our Head’. Where had this ‘legal strain’ come from in a Calvinistic land like Scotland? The issue came out into the open in the so-called  ‘Marrow Controversy’ a few years later when the General Assembly, to the dismay of Boston and his evangelical friends, condemned the teachings of a Puritan work entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity by an Edward Fisher. Boston had come across this book in his parish ministry, and it had opened his eyes to the meaning of grace and the assurance of faith.

A century later, another Scottish preacher and theologian, John McLeod Campbell, wrote in his Reminiscences how as a young minister he was deeply disturbed by the introspective, joyless, legalistic religion of many in his day and in his own congregation in Rhu in Dunbartonshire, and tells us that he made it his early concern to give his people ‘ a ground for rejoicing in God’ by calling them back to the freeness and universality of God’s grace. He felt that the major reason for his people’s introspective lack of joyful assurance was the high Calvinistic doctrines of election and limited atonement, and the resultant calls for self examination for ‘evidences’ of election — not least in participation for coming to the Lord’s Table. His earliest concern was therefore to direct their faith away from themselves to the love of God in Christ in whom we are forgiven and who calls us to ‘joyful repentance’.

Dr Bell, in this excellent book, carefully examines the doctrines of atonement, faith and assurance in the teaching of Calvin and then of a long remarkable succession of Scottish preachers and theologians, to show how joyful assurance flows from an awareness of the universality and unconditional freeness of grace. This has too often been obscured by unfortunate elements in the development of Scottish Calvinism — the restriction of grace and the Headship of Christ as Mediator to the elect, by the doctrine of ‘a limited atonement’, by subordinating grace to law, by notions of ‘legal repentance’, by confusing the concept of ‘covenant’ with that of ‘contract’.

There is nothing our Church in Scotland more needs to recover in this pragmatic and restless age than this understanding of ‘the unconditional freeness of grace’ given to us in Christ. A proper doctrine of grace flows from a proper doctrine of God, who prime purpose for humanity is legal rather than filial, who needs to be conditioned into being gracious by human obedience and repentance? This call to a proper doctrine of God sounds out clearly in this masterly study of our Scottish inheritance. But it is relevant, not only for Scotland, but for all of our churches whose roots are in the Latin West.

James B. Torrance[1]

This could summarize what we have been attempting to do with our Evangelical Calvinism books. James and Thomas Torrance have both been taken to task by someone like Richard Muller; he claims their historiography in regard to this period is off, as such, as corollary, he wants argue that their theology, in general, is also off. I.e. that this “legal” reading of the history of Reformed theology is awry and destitute of actual reality when we carefully examine the theologians of this period. Interestingly, as Bell, it appears, and Thomas in his book on the period have demonstrated Muller is wrong. But the proponents of Muller would argue that what I just did there is circular; i.e. appeal to James Torrance’s endorsement of his doctoral student’s work on the period. Likewise, I could assert that their critique is circular based upon Muller’s own biased reading of the period.

But getting beyond such pedantic things what I really want to highlight is what James highlights in his précis; i.e. the idea that we need to recover the gracious evangel of God’s Triune life given for the world in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. This is what I continuously am hoping to accomplish through posts here at the blog, and through the books Myk and I have been producing (two more are slated). I am not interested in presenting a fluffy concept of grace, like an easy-believism or something, but a concept that isn’t a concept at all but instead a person, Jesus Christ.

As much as modern day proponents of the ‘legal’ Calvinism that James speaks of attempt to retrieve the past, what they are unfortunately doing is giving the church a Gospel that is No-Gospel; a concept of God’s relation to the world that is primarily based upon a legal set of decrees , and thus a spirituality that is performance based and too introspective. What I’m hoping to present to people, through engaging with the Torrances, Barth, something like Bell’s book, etc. is the idea that the Gospel is an ecstatic reality given to us in and through the objective reality of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. ‘Legal’ Calvinism cannot give you an ecstatic Jesus, at least not in its spirituality; this is because their doctrine of limited atonement does not allow for that. Their concept of limited atonement necessarily forces the individual to focus on themselves, on a daily basis. That’s what produced things like English Puritanism, and it’s why the Marrow Men arose (what JBT references in his précis) as a contravening voice; a voice that the ‘legal’ Calvinists knew they’d have to put down quickly.

Evangelical Calvinism is distinct from Federal, ‘Legal’ Calvinism precisely at the point that we think God in Christ. We think from God’s Self-revelation in personalist terms rather than legal terms; in genuinely covenantal terms (think of how Barth uses that), rather than quid pro quo contractual terms of the sort that you’ll get in the covenant of works and grace construct. Unfortunately this ‘legal’ type of Calvinism continues to pick up steam among the populace in the church through movements like The Gospel Coalition or the Young, Restless, and Reformed. This is too bad. They are creating a generation (beyond just craft beer drinking, cigar smoking, tat wearing) Christians who will be pressed up against a conception of God who is more a ‘Law-giver’ than he is a ‘Lover’; this precisely because of the type of underly-evangelized Aristotelian metaphysics they have retrieved in and through their engagement with the scholastic Reformed of the Post Reformed Orthodox period (16th and 17th centuries in particular).

But there is another way, even in the history. This is why JB Torrance was so excited by his student, Bell’s, work; and it’s something we should all be excited about. Any time we can understand God’s grace in personal, Triune, loving ways we should be shouting such news from the roof tops; and we should in the process be challenging other presentations that point people in the wrong direction.


[1] James B. Torrance, “Preface,” in M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 5-6.

My Always Reforming Podcast: Engaging with the Nashville Statement

Check out my newest podcast on my Always Reforming Podcast. If you want to hear what I sound like when I’m animated and upset about something, then you’ll want to listen to this podcast. It is about, of course, The Nashville StatementTo give it a listen click hereThe full podcast goes 45 minutes, and my animation gets going in and around 6 minutes in or so, and then it stays the rest of the way through.

Chalcedonian Logic and the Diminished Christology of The Nashville Statement

When we separate the work of Jesus Christ from his person, or vice versa we will necessarily end up with not only a deflated expression of the Gospel, but also attendant with that, a weakened sense of ethics and holiness. It is the Chalcedonian logic to keep these two realities inseparably related—the person and work of Jesus Christ—while not failing to continually recognize that there is a distinction between the human and divine natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. I just conflated two different things, but they too are related; I conflated a discussion about the two-natures/one person reality that Chalcedon sought to provide orthodox grammar for, with the idea that we should never separate the person and work and the work and person of Jesus Christ one from the other. The reason the conflation is present, I think, is by design. It’s the realization by the early church Fathers that any statement about God become man was one with deeply grounded soteriological impact. George Hunsinger, as he develops the Chalcedon logic, interacting with a pithy and elegant statement by George Herbert notes this:

“In Christ two natures met to be thy cure.” When George Herbert wrote these words, he captured the essence of Chalcedonian Christology, with all its strange complexity and simplicity, in a single elegant line. It is sometimes overlooked that the interest behind Chalcedonian Christology has always been largely soteriological. Herbert’s line, however, makes the point very well. It is the saving work of Christ—to be thy cure—which serves as the guiding intention behind the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s person, just as the definition of his person (following Herbert) — in Christ two natures met — serves as the crucial premise of Christ’s saving work. Change the definition of Christ’s person — make him less than fully God and fully human at the same time — and the saving cure Christ offers changes drastically as well. In other words, just as it makes no sense to have a high view of Christ’s person without an equally high view of his work, so a high view of Christ’s work — in particular, his saving death — cannot be sustained without a suitably high view of his person. The work presupposes the person just as the person conditions the work.[1]

Hunsinger in a following footnote comments further on the relationship between the person and work of Christ, and how, if diminished in any way, one from the other or vice versa, that diminishes one side of the equation or the other. Here, in particular, Hunsinger is offering elaboration in the last sentence we just read from him above:

This latter sentence, by the way, states a basic rule of all Christology, although as applied here it sheds light on a particular type, namely, the Chalcedonian. In any Christology, at least when internally coherent (which cannot always be presupposed), the person (p) and the work (w) of Christ mutually imply each other: if w, then p; and if p, then w. Insofar as modern Christology has typically abandoned a high view of Christ’s person, it has also abandoned the correspondingly high conception of Christ’s saving work that Chalcedonian Christology is meant to sustain. Only a high Christology can state without equivocation, for example, that Jesus Christ is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If Christ’s saving work consists in no more than his functioning as a spiritual teacher, a moral example, a symbol of religious experience, or even a unique bearer and transmitter of the Holy Spirit, a high or Chalcedonian view of Christ’s person is logically unnecessary. As modernist Christologies typically evidence (though not always forthrightly), such a saving figure need only be “fully human” without also being “fully God.”[2]


This discussion can be taken in a variety of ways, but I want to take it towards ethics; I actually prefer a discussion on holiness, but ethics is a related loci (at least for the Christian). I simply want to state that: insofar as Christians talk about what it means to be holy before God, and more generally how that works out in a theory of ethics, that this should never be done in abstraction from the person of Jesus Christ. I think this is a symptom of a faulty theological endeavor; i.e. to somehow think the church  could ever talk about holiness without in the same breath tying that concretely into Christology. Without the person of Jesus Christ there is no work of salvation, and without the work of salvation there is no way for Christians to participate in and from the holiness of God; and without that participation there is no way to develop a Christian ethic.

I am really trying to get past the Nashville Statement, but I think this is another reason I really really dislike it so much. It actually reflects a way of thinking that thinks about things in abstraction from Jesus Christ. Thomas Torrance would say that this is because of what he calls the ‘Latin Heresy,’ or a dualistic way of conceiving of God’s person and work in Jesus Christ. I see a lack of the Chalcedonian pattern and logic funding evangelical statements like the Nashville Statement, and maybe this all flows from my years and years long critique of evangelical and classical Reformed theology in general; indeed, I’m sure it does flow from this.

To attempt to speak about being holy before God is not possible without first speaking about the person and work of God in Jesus Christ. The picture is too flat, and Christologically speaking, too adoptionistic when Christians attempt to make statements about being holy (no matter what that entails: i.e. human sexuality, race issues, age issues, socio-economic issues etc.). If we sever, even in our speech, the work of Christ from the person of Christ, on the Chalcedonian logic we inevitably diminish the person of Christ. It’s interesting that many of those, or at least some of the more prominent signers of the Nashville Statement endorse the heretical view of the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father. I wonder if there is a tacit relationship between that, and the diminished Christology we see functioning in statements like the one from Nashville?

I clearly have more work to do in regard to tying many of the loose ends I’m leaving us with together, but such is a blog post. I am seriously going to make this the last post I write on the Nashville Statement.


[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 131.

[2] Ibid., 131-2 n.2.

*I stole the picture of the Chinese Jesus from Paul Metzger’s usage of it in his post.

The Vancouver Statement as an Alternative to The Nashville Statement


So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” –II Corinthians 5:17

Evangelical Christians in the beginning of the 21st century find themselves betwixt a world that is now and not now; a world that is in-between the first and second advents of Christ. In this period of radical upheaval, in the collision of cultures and societies, there is confusion about what it means to be human. Some look to male and female as definitive for exegeting what it means to be human before God, and yet others attempt to chart a more radical course. As such it is important for the Christian, and non-Christian alike, to know just exactly where to look for what it means to be human before the God who has Self-revealed and exegeted himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It would only add to the confusion to ask people to look at other people as the matrix through which we might discern what genuine humanity is, and so as confessional Christians we know of another way; another canon through which true humanity might be discerned.

The following articles are an attempt to point people, Christians and non-Christians alike, to the only One who really knows what it means to be human; the One who created and recreated humanity in his image, in the image of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, so that humanity might find its proper orientation within God’s good and holy purposes. This statement will point all people, in the church and outside, to the reality of what it means to be human before God; we will appeal to what has been called a doctrine of the primacy of Christ. It is the primacy of this life, of God’s humanity, as it were, wherein humans can find a concrete expression of what it really means to be human both for now and for time to come, for all eternity.

This Statement, The Vancouver Statement*, is a statement in response to the so called Nashville Statement. The signatory of The Vancouver Statement believes that The Nashville Statement has an improper emphasis, and speaks too abstractly in regard to what it actually means to be human before God. It mistakenly focuses on gender distinctions, and then leads with a series of not only affirmations, but denials in regard to what it means to be human, both male and female before God. Because of the imbalance in the Nashville Statement, meaning its lack of clarity in regard to grounding a discussion of what it means to be human, whether that be male or female, in the ground and grammar of all reality, the Triunity of God’s life, and in an from the primacy of Christ’s vicarious humanity, the signatory of The Vancouver Statement felt compelled to offer an alternative account; to offer another emphasis that he believes foregrounds the discussion about human sexuality on better footing.

Article 1.

I affirm that based on who God is as Triune love—meaning eternally: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that he has graciously and freely elected in Christ to be for all of humanity in and from his vicarious humanity for us. It is from this relationship in the hypostatic union of God and humanity, in Christ, that holy matrimony finds its reality; i.e. the marriage of God and humanity, in and with Christ. Human marriage is holy, because it finds its essential reality in and from its reality as it bears witness to the ultimate marriage of God and humanity in the dearly beloved Son.

Article 2.

I affirm that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity for God, and fidelity for God; but only as that is possible in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; only because Jesus is God’s fidelity for us.

Article 3.

I affirm that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, as images of the image [who is Christ, cf. Col. 1:15], equal in their being coram Deo. Their dignity as humans, in their twoness, comes as it is grounded first and foremost in the threeness and oneness of God’s life; their twoness makes sense, and has order because of its participation in the multiplicity of God’s life.

Article 4.

I affirm that the distinctions between male and female find their purpose and orientation in and from the purpose and orientation of God’s life in Christ for the world. Without creation’s telos found in Christ, what it means to be male and female would make no sense. There is an order to creation, and recreation, and what it means to be male and female can only be found in and from that order.

Article 5.

I affirm that sexual organs as they are physiologically situated among the sexes only make sense as they find their purpose in and from God’s good purpose in the recreation of humanity in the resurrection of God’s humanity in Christ. Sexual organs, as they are found in the male and female sexes, only find their proper orientation in God’s Kingdom in Christ.

Article 6.

I affirm that all humans have dignity because of Jesus Christ; because of his humanity for them.

Article 7.

I affirm that God is holy, and that what it means for human beings to be holy, whether male or female, is only found in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Article 8.

I affirm that all humans, whether Christian or pagan, are sexually dysfunctional and can only find their proper orientation in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That the only way a person can be sexually righted is if they live in a continuously repentant state before God, in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ and through his mediatorial life of intercession for them.

Article 9.

I affirm that Jesus, in the wonderful exchange, became the distortion of sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Article 10.

I affirm that it is sinful to presume that any person, whether Christian or pagan, has come to a place where they place themselves over against the other as if they have arrived somewhere the other has not. It is only by God’s grace in Jesus Christ that we stand; so each one ought to take heed if they think they stand lest they fall. Only Christ stands for us, and of all people Christians ought to bear witness to him alone as they have received his comfort, they ought to extend that comfort to the other.

Article 11.

I affirm our duty to speak the truth in love to one another, only as we first demonstrate that we have first spoken to God in Christ; borne witness to by our brokenness and humility before God and then others. It is as the church speaks to her Lord, realizing that he has first spoken to them in and from Christ that the world will see what God’s love and grace look like within the house of God. It is this testimony that will point people to the power of God; a power that looks like the cross of Jesus Christ.

Article 12.

I affirm that Jesus Christ is the power of God, and that all who desire to live holy lives before God can only do so as they participate in and from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Article 13.

I affirm that God’s grace in Christ, as both male and female participate in that through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, have the power to forsake their sins and live a repentant and resurrected life as that is oriented by God’s new creation in Christ.

Article 14.

I affirm “God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.”[1]

Initial Signatory.

Bobby Grow
Co-author /editor of Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 1: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church and Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion.


[1] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

*The signatory, me, Bobby Grow, lives in Vancouver, WA; thus: ‘The Vancouver Statement.’

*See my initial post on The Nashville Statement: here.

No More Social Commentary for the Evangelical Calvinist: Farewell ‘The Nashville Statement’

As a blogger you are always kind of interested in your blog stats; you always want to know how many people are reading your stuff. Well as the graphic below demonstrates for the dates August 29th, 30th, and the 31st my blog stats spiked; they spiked as corollary to my posts on The Nashville Statement. One of the posts produced some commenting, as you can see, but the real drama happened around that same post on Facebook. Someone I know on Facebook shared the link to that post, and it caused quite a bit of critical feedback. I spent almost all day, off and on, defending what I was actually getting at; since the critics seemed unable to actually engage with what I actually wrote. But what I have concluded is that engaging with things like this, online, are not worth it! Going forward don’t plan on any further posts engaging with The Nashville Statement, or with homosexuality in general. I might, at some point, in the future, I’m sure, talk about human sexuality so on and so forth; but I’ll try not to.

I have grown up my whole life in the evangelical sub-culture, and as far as I am concerned when it comes to anything substantive, theologically and thus socio-culturally it is pretty much bankrupt. It has failed me personally in more ways than I’d like to share here online, but I’ll just register that it has. Evangelicalism, as far as I’m concerned is imploding, and things like the Nashville Statement only continue to reinforce that to me. I am thoroughly exhausted by the posture of the whole movement; it is not about Jesus! And don’t get me wrong, when so many seem to, especially my critics from today, I take the trad view when it comes to homosexuality and human sexuality; I believe the Bible in its various books teaches against it, as does the tradition and chorus of the church. I just don’t think the Fundamentalist/Evangelical way of approaching this is the best way (and that’s what my last post was all about!).

So yeah, don’t come here for any cultural commentary; you won’t find it.

What Kind of Church Culture Can Produce a Declaration like the Nashville Statement? Bearing Witness to Ourselves Rather than to Jesus Christ

I have had a chance, as the day unfolded, to reflect further on the so called Nashville Statement; the statement that a hundred and fifty evangelical signatories signed their names to. It seems to be their attempt to draw a line in the sand in regard to what they see as a pressing problem for the church, and in particular, their evangelical church. The problem for them, of course, is the progression and in-roads of the LGBTQ, homosexual gay agenda, as they see it transforming not only the body politic of culture in general, but its pressing into the church itself.

But I have a problem with it. For me, the problem has more to do with these leaders’s conception of how the church ought to operate in regard to its witness to the Gospel in relation to the world at large. As I see it, they are presuming upon an us versus them dynamic that the Gospel itself does not presume; instead, the Gospel is an equalizing reality. The Gospel as the Word of God in Jesus Christ stands as judge not just over those guys and gals out there, but as judge of the church itself; as Peter notes: “17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”[1] In other words, the Nashville Statement places itself in the place of God’s Word, as if its signatories are the judges; it actually and ironically displaces the Word of God with its own word over against others. If these signatories were to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his admonition to the American churches, as he saw it back in the 30s, they may well not have penned such a statement. Bonhoeffer wrote:

American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of “criticism” by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s “criticism” touches every religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. . . . But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ, must for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.[2]

Do you see what Bonhoeffer is getting at, particularly when he references ‘natural theology?’ It is when churches displace her reality, founded in Jesus Christ alone, with a perception of herself as possessor of God’s absolute Word, and not just as possessor, but as dispenser, that she has presumed too much. She begins to elevate herself beyond the culture of which she is ensconced, and presumes that she has divined things, and thus has become able to pronounce things in absolute and damning ways, that in reality belongs to the Lord of the church alone; the living Word of God. Bonhoeffer’s point, is that when the church sees herself as coextensive with the Word of God itself, in an absolute way, that she actually loses her voice to bear witness to the living Word of God who not only stands in judgment of his church, but of the world at large.

Similarly, John Webster, as he comments on Barth’s critique of the liberal church in Germany is somewhat and ironically parallel with Bonhoeffer’s critique of the American church as he saw it. Here Webster, in line with Bonhoeffer points out how, in the thought of Barth, morality and ethics become too much aligned with the ‘moral and absolute self’ such that the Word of God loses its place for the Christian, and at the same time becomes coterminous with the Christian’s perception of the world at large and her pronouncements toward the world. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates. [3]

The Nashville Statement exudes this sense “of [the] absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness.” The Word of God has now been conflated with the Nashville Statement, as if a hundred and fifty signatories, backing fourteen theses on homosexuality are what God himself believes about the state of affairs in regard not just to homosexuality but other moral proclivities.

What concerns me most is the culture, in the evangelical church, that fosters the idea that such statements are healthy and good. In what way do such statements bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to the living Word of God? It ends up reducing the church to an organization of people who appear to be oriented around a cluster of ethical principles and mores instead of an organic reality who finds her sustenance in and from Christ. Whether or not homosexuality is contrariwise to the ethics of the Kingdom[4], the church herself should be more concerned with her own blights and inadequacies. The church should evidence humility before God wherein she is constantly crying out to him for his mercy and grace, such that this posture, before the world, bears witness to the reality of God in Christ. The church should avoid placing herself in positions where she appears to believe that she has become the absolute mouthpiece for God, in regard to perceived moral inequities, and instead submit to the personal reality of God herself. It is this repentant posture before God and the world wherein the power of God will be most on display. It is up to God in Christ to bring transformation into the lives of people; he alone justifies and sanctifies, the church does not!

Who do we think we are? Jesus is LORD, not the church!


[1] I Peter 4.17, NIV.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords, ed. Edwin H. Robertson (London: Fontana Library, 1970), 88-113 cited by George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 71-2.

[3] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

[4] Which personally I believe it is.

*Artwork of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Mark Summers.