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.

 

Riposte: The Apocalyptic Paul Against Scott Swain’s ‘god of the Philosophers’

I

I take special care of those who have publicly criticized our Evangelical Calvinism in published form, as Scott Swain has; especially when they promote mayonnaise as a worthy food product. As such, and on this mundane occasion (since this is a blog post), let me alert my readers to a short essay Swain has written for Pro Ecclesia. The title of his essay is: God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of TheologyThis locus has special place for me precisely because it has to do with a prolegomenological (totally made-up word) issue; as this has been of particular focus for me (even in published form). Here is Swain’s abstract:

Abstract 

In chapter 4 of his book, God in Himself, Steven Duby grounds theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in Scripture’s prior usage of such language and concepts. The following article seeks to fortify Duby’s argument by showing how the discourse of the gospel subversively fulfills the quest of Greco-Roman philosophy and religion to ground divine worship in a proper understanding of the divine nature.1

As we can see Swain’s method will be to engage with Steven Duby’s work (also a friend) on theology proper; with their shared focus on arguing for the classical—and Thomistic!—method of deploying and synthesizing the Greeks with Christian Dogmatic development. They both wholeheartedly maintain that the Hellenic grammar and categories are ‘fitting’ and ‘expedient’ for the Evangel’s promulgation. After describing the problem Duby seeks to engage, as that has ostensibly been presented by the ‘liberal’ (my word) theology of the 19th century moderns, in regard to a development of theology proper, Swain summarizes Duby’s thesis thusly:

In chapter 4 of his book, Duby engages modern Protestant theology’s claim that the discourses of theology and metaphysics are ultimately incompatible. Following precedents in Scripture and tradition, he attempts to show why and how theology may use the language and concepts of metaphysics faithfully and fruitfully in speaking of the gospel’s God while avoiding many of modern Protestant thoughts’ deepest worries.2

II

Swain, subsequent to this, parses out the various highpoint themes of Duby’s response in argument (we will not engage with that for space and time limits). As Swain’s Abstract underscores, his aim will be to ‘fortify’ the groundwork that Duby has laid out in his book length treatment of the matter. In nucethey both (Duby and Swain, respectively) maintain that Greek metaphysics ought to be deployed in helping the Ecclesia to think God. For Swain, in particular, this entails an argument from Scripture; with focused reference on Paul in the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17.22-34). But before we get to that, Swain is clear on one basic premise; this is not unique to him. As a preamble to all else that follows in Swain’s argument for the usefulness of Greek metaphysics towards an intelligible proclamation of the Gospel, he is clear that what makes the “two-books” of nature (general and special revelation) corollary is God’s providence. He rightfully makes a distinction between Divine Inspiration and Providence, but then allows the Divine qualification to bring a conselium between the two such that the former might be complemented by the latter. He writes (in extenso):

Evangelical discourse is a “third language” that “inherits two languages,” the primary language of Israel’s scriptures and the secondary language of Greek philosophy and religion. Evangelical discourse claims to fulfill the discourse of Israel’s scriptures and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion. But it claims to fulfill them in two different ways.

The language of Israel’s scriptures and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine inspiration. These two forms of discourse are authored by one God and proclaim one message of salvation. Israel’s scriptures proclaim this message in the mode of promise. The gospel proclaims this message in the mode of fulfillment. Evangelical discourse announces the surprising fulfillment of the promise of Israel’s scriptures, the revelation of a “mystery” once hidden but now revealed (Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) and, in so doing, often confounds the expectations of its hearers (Luke 24:25; 1 Cor. 1:23). Nevertheless, evangelical discourse also holds that the mystery it proclaims is hidden within the Old Testament writings themselves and therefore wholly continuous with them as their necessary fulfillment (Luke 24:26-27; John 5:39, 46; Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 5:32).

The language of Greek philosophy and religion and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine providence. Greek philosophy and religion are not the product of divine inspiration. They are not “pedagogues” (cf. Gal. 3:24) designed to lead the Gentles to Jesus Christ. Greek philosophy and religion are characterized by idolatry, error, and unrighteousness, and the gospel calls their adherents to repentance (Acts 17:30; Rom. 1:18). For this reason, Christian theology cannot hope to find a smooth fit, a hand and glove correlation between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. The gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23). Evangelical discourse subverts pagan discourse.

That said, there is no absolute metaphysical contrast between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. Although these two forms of discourse are not bound together by divine inspiration, they are bound together by divine providence. Although Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian do not share a common language, they do share a common human nature; both are objects of God’s providential goodness. The existence of Greek philosophy and religion presupposes the existence of God’s general revelation (Rom. 1:20-23). Idolatry is parasitic on religion, error is parasitic on truth, and unrighteousness is parasitic on righteousness. For this reason, in subverting the idolatry and error of pagan discourse, evangelical discourse may also claim to fulfill its deepest, albeit distorted, longings (Acts 17:26-27). The gospel can take up the language, concepts, and even the judgments of pagan discourse, make them its own, and proclaim in Jesus Christ their fulfillment. The word of the cross confounds the Greek quest for wisdom. But in doing so, it also answers that quest. For Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

In the gospel’s subversive fulfillment of pagan philosophy and religion, we find the evangelical logic for critically appropriating the language and concepts of metaphysics in the discourse of theology. As we will see more fully below, the discourse of the gospel and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion not only share common language and concepts. They also share a common judgment, namely, the conviction that divine worship should correspond to the divine being and nature. This shared judgment grounds the gospel’s claim to fulfill pagan philosophy and religion and warrants Christian theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in speaking of the gospel’s God.3

I shared this in full because I want my readers to understand exactly what Swain’s proposal is (and because by copying and pasting it saves me the time of summarizing his argument in my own words, and thus fulfills the blogger’s dream of covering lots of ground in short amounts of time). So, we can see that Swain presupposes as a basic a priori that a belief in God’s providence is essential in grounding an argument for deploying Greek metaphysics as the most fitting grammar, as a ‘handmaiden’ to the inspired witness of Scripture, in regard to the Gospel’s intelligible and thus kerygmatic proclamation.

Subsequent to this, in the next section of the essay (which you can read for yourself of course), Swain attempts to make his argument by developing an exegesis of Acts 17, and the means the Apostle Paul uses to ‘prove’ to the Greeks that Jesus is Lord; and that the ‘unknown’ god, is in fact the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as revealed in Christ. Whether or not Swain is successful in his argument here, the reader will have to discern (notice his reference to interpretatio). Swain sees what he calls a ‘subversive fulfillment’ in the fittingness of Greek metaphysics for articulating a Christian theological dogmatic. He maintains that while there isn’t a one-for-one correspondence between the Greek god of Pure Being, and the God revealed in Christ, at the same time, as the long quote above reinforces, for Swain, there is a ‘parasitic’ correlation between the Greek gods and the true God such that the latter, through the wisdom of the cross, can in-break and subvert the secular with the sacred; to the point that what the Greeks only grasped in part (by reflecting on nature simpliciter), they might now know in [ful]fill through the ultimate revelation of the God of nature in Jesus Christ.

III

In light of the above (hopefully I shared enough in order for you to get the gist) I only have one question: where does Swain get his understanding of Divine providence from? As noted previously, Swain needs this premise about the commonality that providence provides for shared spheres of knowledge between the Pagans and Christians, vis-à-vis God, in order to argue that Greek metaphysics provides the most fitting grammar necessary for articulating God. What if the concept of providence Swain is operating with itself is Hellenic? How does Swain know that God’s providence functions this way; ie as the ground of shared knowledge about God between the Greeks and the Christians (albeit in an asymmetrically corresponding way)?

Is the Apostle Paul’s intent to show the Aeropagites that Zeus or an ‘unknown god’ is in fact Yahweh? Or is it to show them that their longing for ultimacy can only be fulfilled as they place their faith in a God who is sui generis? Indeed, the Apostle Paul himself didn’t come to know God by means of Greek metaphysics; surely a man of his learnedness (and he was brilliant for his day, in general) would have had recourse to think God along with Philo et alia by way of Greek metaphysics. But that isn’t the correlation he makes in Galatians (1.11-17), instead he writes:

 “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”

Should we surmise from Paul that the Greeks provided a framework for thinking the revealed God, as that knowledge-frame is conditioned by a reflection on the natural order of things in the created sphere? Or should we rather conclude that Paul believed that who he encountered in Christ was solely based on a sui generis confrontation such that even his Jewish teachers could never have imagined (like the ones who crucified the Christ)? The Galatian Paul, the epistolary Paul, who by genre is intending to didact his readers and hearers, asserts that he didn’t receive his knowledge of the living God by even his Hebrew fathers, but instead through the revelation of the risen Christ himself. We don’t see Paul affirming the teachings of the Greeks as fitting in regard to coming to a genuine knowledge of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Instead, we see him discomfiting the fittingness of any ‘man’, whether Jew or Greek (see I Cor. 1.17-25), to furnish grounds for thinking the revealed God (Deus revelatus). If anything, according to the ‘apocalyptic Paul,’ as we find in Galatians, there is a discorrespondence between the Greek conception of God, and instead one that is purely grounded in the Hebraic understanding of a God revealed.

IV

In the end, really, I think Swain’s essay is funded by tautologous thinking, and remains petitio principii as far as his major premise on Divine providence. I think that if we are careful to focus on the intention provided for by the literary types found in Scripture, that what we actually get in the didactic (think discourse literature) Paul of the Galatian correspondence is what he wants the churches to understand as sacra doctrinaWhen an argument, such as Swain’s, is grounded in a narrative trope, as we find in the Lukan story of the Acts of the Apostles, it is hard to tell whether what is being communicated therein ought to be taken as prescriptive or descriptive; normative or non-normative. Typically, and I would say always, narrative literature, such as we find in Acts, is descriptive and non-normative. What this means for Swain’s biblical argument is that it doesn’t come with the same force we find in the discourse literature (ie Galatians), which is thus intended to be prescriptive and thus normative, for the Church’s understanding on doctrinal matters. In other words, it would have served Swain better, in an attempt to make a biblical argument on this matter, to do so from an Epistle of Paul’s rather than a narrative account that could be taken in a variety of ways. But then I would argue that the delimiter, in regard to the way that Paul is arguing in the Aeropagus, was purely a situational moment wherein he subverted (or negated) the whole edifice upon which Greek knowledge of the gods was built. Since Paul’s knowledge of God was clearly built on God’s Self-revelation, rather than on Greek metaphysics. That is, he was discarding the bases upon which the Greek’s ‘unknown god’ was built upon, and saying that what they were ultimately seeking for could not be found in the No-God they had left a placeholder for, and instead could only be found in the revealed God that no man had ever thought of prior to His showing up in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Scott R. Swain, “God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of Theology,” Pro Ecclesia (2021): 1.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 5-6.

The Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians: Juxtaposed with the Pauline Christ Relation

Douglas Campbell in his book The Triumph of God’s Love: Pauline Dogmatics offers a nice sketch of a theological continuum; what he identifies as ‘Hyper-Augustinianism’ and ‘Pelagianism.’ He concisely shows how both fail to do justice to Paul’s theology proper, and subsequently, his soteriology. But both of these loci have continued to plague the church from Augustine/Pelagius; Luther/Erasmus; Calvin/Pighius; Dort/Arminius; classical Calvinists/- Arminians; MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation/Hodges’ Free Grace; James White/Provisionists; so on and so forth. This frame of reference, or this binary is rather false when we examine, with a critical eye, what we find in the teaching of the New Testament in general, and the Pauline corpus in particular. It is from within this frame of reference that Campbell offers up the aforementioned sketches with reference to Augustinianism/Pelagianism. In this post we will work through Campbell’s sketch on Hyper-Augustianism, and in a post following we will visit what he has to say on Pelagianism juxtaposed with the Pauline theology. After we read Campbell’s sketch on Hyper-Augustinianism, I will attempt to tease out some further applications, and show how they might impinge on some current soteriological wanderings among the crowds ‘out there.’

Campbell writes at some length:

Hyper-Augustinianism

If election is understood mechanistically, someone might attach this notion to grace and argue that God has given us everything we need in the act of electing us. God simply acts decisively upon us, albeit generously. This gift would then operate in spite of anything we do, and anything we might do should be excluded. Indeed, if we had to act, we would to that degree undermine what God has given us. Grace and human activity operate here in a zero-sum relationship, so, if we take the side of God, we would go on to attack any endorsements of a need for human activity in the name of grace.

A particular reading of Augustine can cause readers of Paul trouble in this respect, so that the assertion of any need for agency or even learning in response to grace is dubbed “Pelagianism”! I don’t think this is a complete reading of Augustine, who was a complex thinker and shifted significantly in his thinking over time. But an extreme account of some of his positions can be advocated in this way and in his name, and at this moment his influence—however misrepresented—must be resisted. We can speak of a hyper-Augustinian view, then, that eliminates any role for human agency in discipleship, the long-term results of which are serious. The whole process of formation is neglected if not opposed by hyper-Augustinians, and the end result is a church without discipleship. How good is this church likely to be? And how Pauline will it look?

Fortunately, we have already exposed the error at work in this view and corrected it. God’s election is certainly unconditional, but in the sense that a covenantal relationship is. It will never be withdrawn and will ultimately prevail. In the meantime, however, it respects human agency carefully, as seen most clearly in God’s incarnation to meet us. Moreover, as we will see in much more detail shortly, among those who respond to it, it enhances human freedom. Those who learn actively and wholeheartedly to live out of their new location in Christ can grow dramatically in their capacity to act in good ways. Relational election nurtures human agency and freedom; it does not stifle it. It summons us to ongoing and deeper responsiveness, which is to say, to learning, and many of Augustine’s writings contain a great deal of wisdom about this process. Nevertheless, any exclusion of human activity in response to God’s initiative in his name, in a type of hyper-Augustinianism, must be vigilantly opposed and rejected. This type of unconditionality undermines the heart of the life of discipleship.

However, a further mistake is, as is often the case, a swing to the opposite and complementary error. Whereas hyper-Augustinians emphasize election and grace to the exclusion of human agency, misconceiving both divine and human agency in the process. Pelagians share the same basic misunderstanding but emphasize human agency on the other side of the supposed divide, and so go on to override divine election, with equally destructive results.[1]

If you are familiar with the history, you’ll agree that Campbell’s sketch captures the ground quite well; viz. in regard to understanding the binary, or divide between what we know today, and more popularly, as the ‘Calvinists versus the Arminians.’ What shouldn’t be lost, and often is when considering something like Campbell’s points, is the alternative he is working into this mix. That is the ‘relational election’ he mentions, and the covenantal relationship, as Campbell contends, that is central to Paul’s understanding of a God-world relation. What he doesn’t tease out so explicitly in his sketch, but that is because it implicitly underwrites what he is developing, is the objective/subjective status that the Pauline soteriology operates from, insofar that God acts, within a covenantal relationship, unilaterally for the world in Jesus Christ. This is his, or the Apostle Paul’s alternative to both Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism.

Hyper-Augustinianism and Pelagianism both operate, respectively, from an abstract non-relational-covenantal frame when they attempt to think salvation. That is to say, anyone who operates on this continuum, and they are legion, thinks salvation from an abstract humanity (rather than from Christ’s vicarious humanity), and think in terms of individualism insofar as the cosmic Christ does not ground the way they think God’s election for the world in Jesus Christ. In other words, both Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians, on a continuum, think salvation is contingent upon the elect’s response/decision to be for God. Paul’s alternative thinks salvation is contingent upon God’s election to be for humanity in Jesus Christ; that salvation is Christ-focused, and that within this as the inner-covenantal ground of the God-world relation, humanity comes to have the capaciousness to say Yes to God from God’s Yes and Amen for them in Jesus Christ. But you will notice that for the Apostle Paul, particularly as Campbell tells it, humanity comes to have this capacity from the elect and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is by this signification of God for humanity in Christ that humans come to have genuine liberty or freedom for God, ‘for where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.’ This undercuts the emphases that both the Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians give us in regard to their foreclosure of God’s grace by placing God into a competitive relationship with humanity; whether that be from the Augustinian side, which emphasizes God’s brute determination and sovereignty to be for the world through a series of decrees, particularly the decretum absolutum; or from the Pelagian side which emphasizes the freedom of an abstract human agency to respond to God, insofar as they posit that said freedom has been an inherent given from since the beginning of creation. Both fail to think from Paul’s relational conception of election, and the corresponding relational-covenantalism that funds the Pauline Christ concentrated conception of a God-world relation.

Contemporary examples of Hyper-Augustinians and Pelagians: Classical Calvinists, classical Arminians / John Piper, Leighton Flowers (and his Provisionism).


[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Triumph Of God’s Love: Pauline Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 180-81.

Jeremiah Contra the Intellectualist Priestcraft Beguiling the 21st Century Churches

9 Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of his holy words. 10 For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their course is evil, and their might is not right. 11 “Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their evil, declares the Lord. 12 Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness, into which they shall be driven and fall, for I will bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment, declares the Lord. 13 In the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. 14 But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.” 15 Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets: “Behold, I will feed them with bitter food and give them poisoned water to drink, for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has gone out into all the land.” 16 Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17 They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” 18 For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened? 19 Behold, the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. 20 The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart. In the latter days you will understand it clearly. 21 “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. 22 But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.

23 “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? 24 Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. 25 I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ 26 How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, 27 who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? 28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. 29 Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? 30 Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another. 31 Behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who use their tongues and declare, ‘declares the Lord.’ 32 Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.

33 “When one of this people, or a prophet or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of the Lord?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, declares the Lord.’ 34 And as for the prophet, priest, or one of the people who says, ‘The burden of the Lord,’ I will punish that man and his household. 35 Thus shall you say, every one to his neighbor and every one to his brother, ‘What has the Lord answered?’ or ‘What has the Lord spoken?’ 36 But ‘the burden of the Lord’ you shall mention no more, for the burden is every man’s own word, and you pervert the words of the living God, the Lord of hosts, our God. 37 Thus you shall say to the prophet, ‘What has the Lord answered you?’ or ‘What has the Lord spoken?’ 38 But if you say, ‘The burden of the Lord,’ thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have said these words, “The burden of the Lord,” when I sent to you, saying, “You shall not say, ‘The burden of the Lord,’” 39 therefore, behold, I will surely lift you up and cast you away from my presence, you and the city that I gave to you and your fathers. 40 And I will bring upon you everlasting reproach and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.’” Jeremiah 23:9–40

I wrote the following on another social media platform with reference to the above passage (although I focused on verse 10): ““Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their evil, declares the LORD.” –Jeremiah 23:11 It is as if Christians could never imagine this. What’s even stranger is that many Christian scholars cannot seemingly imagine this about experts in other fields. There is this pervasive hypermodernist notion that experts have achieved überman critical status. As if the “intellect” really wasn’t touched by the fall, thus allowing natural humanity to be reasonable and ethical in their daily praxis; and allowing them to be of pure intention in regard to their research in whatever fields they may be operating within. Most scholarship these days, whether it is Christian or other, operates off the premise furnished by an anthropological intellectualism. This keeps Christian scholars, pastors, and the laity in general operating with this notion that humanity can still be “good” in its intentions even though the cross of Christ reveals the exact opposite! Let me expand further on this below.

As we read Holy Scripture canonically what we see is that the above sentiment, voiced by Jeremiah as a mouthpiece for the living and triune God, is ubiquitous from the very beginning till now. As a Bible reader, whose spirituality has been formed by the contours of this canonical reality, it is hard to not be cynical about the sphere known as academia. Academia is where our postmodern day priests are cultivated. When they leave the monasteries of their training, they leave as experts in their field. Given the pervasive nature of scientism in our present (and evil) day, no matter what discipline said expert (or priest) inhabits they have been anointed with the imprimatur of the gods (their doktorvaters). In this immanentized world of holiness, the experts have been granted the authority to speak with ex cathedra pronouncements. By their demiurgical standing they can speak reality into existence as if ex nihilo. And all of this from the certitude they have achieved by simply operating from the intellectual capacity they have been born with, and cultivated into by the college of cardinals who hold the keys to the straight and crooked.

I mentioned ‘intellectualism’ in my original commentary. Theologically, particularly with reference to the Latin (Catholic and Protestant) tradition, Thomas Aquinas immediately comes to mind. He offered a theological anthropology, which Norman Fiering has identified as Thomist Intellectualism, wherein the fall of humanity suffered not from a noetic or intellectual impact. In other words:

So three things oppose virtue: sin (or misdeeds), evil (the opposite of goodness), and vice (disposition unbefitting to one’s nature). Whatever accords with reason is humanly good, whatever goes against reason is humanly bad. Human virtue that makes men and their deeds good befits human nature by befitting reason, whilst vice goes against man’s nature by going against reason. Man’s nature is twofold: he lives by his reason and he lives by his senses. It is through sensing that he learns to reason, but many men never mature beyond the level of sense. Vice and sin result from our following of sense-nature against our rational nature. And going against human rational nature is going against eternal law.[1]

This is only a sampling from Aquinas; this sentiment, in regard to the ‘rational nature’ can be enumerated at almost exponential levels. But this should suffice in illustrating the broader point being made: the intellect or ‘rational nature’ has held a primacy of place not only for the profane or pagan scholars among us, it is also primal in regard to the way Christian scholars think and operate. And it is this point of contact, based in natural law, and as a subsequent, a natural anthropology as understood, broadly, from within the Thomist intellectualist tradition (there are other intellectualist anthropologies that parse things from different angles, but typically end up with the same praxis), wherein intellectuals, and the experts in general find their common or ‘natural’ fellowship. But this is a dangerous ‘venture of faith.’

If God is to be trusted, along with His prophet Jeremiah, it is possible, more, it is likely that we all are susceptible to fancies of elevating our imaginations and ‘original and constructive thinking’ to the level of the Divine Word. The priests and prophets of Israel did it; what makes us any better or more ‘critical’ than them? But this doesn’t seem to stop the expert class, in particular, and in whatever field, to speak as if they are speaking for God (or the gods, as the case may be in our hypermodern times). There is this implicit belief that the intellect has the capaciousness to transcend the mundane ‘man,’ and reach into the heavenly certitudes thus transversing the antinomy between the altitudes and the vicissitudes of this fleshy and phenomenalistic world. It is by this transpositioning between the heights and depths vis-à-vis the critical component present within the expert class wherein they lose the capacity to see things as God does. This is the remainder of the serpentine seduction that elusively leads us all to the altar of an abstract human certitude to be slaughtered. It is here where the forbidden fruit continues to poison the gullets of the masses, whether it is the expert or ‘fleshy’ classes, and seduces us to think that we can think and speak as God does from our own intact intellectual capacities; all along under the beguilement that we are only bearing witness to God (or the gods as the case may be).

The cross of Jesus Christ indicts us and puts us to death every single minute of every single day. The resurrection of Christ justifies and makes us alive every single minute of every single day. This is the Christian’s ground, and anthropological basis for thinking the self. It is not to turn to the subject, but instead it is to turn to the new creation of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. The scholar is either confounded by the foolishness and weakness of the wisdom of the cross, or they only continue on as if they have a natural divinity within and from themselves. It is advisable for all Christians to live a life of ‘repentant living’ (a riff on TF Torrance’s repentant thinking), and only show deference for God and no one else. Herein there is an order and fruit of the Spirit that can genuinely bear witness to the living God. May the Lord have mercy to keep us from seeking the glory of others rather than the glory of God in Jesus Christ.    


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 270-71.

The Peace and Comfort of Christ in an Inconsolable and Wicked Generation

A common reality all human beings desire is to be comfortable and to experience peace and rest. And yet we are born into a fallen humanity that produces anything but comfort and rest. The prophet Isaiah aptly writes: “There is no peace,’says the Lord, ‘for the wicked.’” And this is the status of all of humanity outwith a spiritual union with Jesus Christ; because there is no one good, but God, according to Jesus. If we are going to experience the shalom, or peace of God it can only be as we are in union with Christ; ‘one spirit with Him.’ As the Apostle Peter writes:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. –I Peter 4:1-6

Here we can finally experience the rest that God has for us as we are participatio Christi. The author to Hebrews writes in a similar vein:

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. –Hebrews 4:1-11

Jesus Christ is God’s Sabbath rest for us. Interestingly, as the author underscores, even as Christians we can fail to enter God’s Sabbath rest. We can busy ourselves like Martha with too many things, and not simply sit at the feet of Jesus and sup with Him. This is part of the simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner) that the Christian must struggle through all the days of their lives. But the rest is there to be had in God’s rest for us in Jesus Christ. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” as Paul says to the church of Colossae. This is our rest, our peace; it is to recognize that the very ground of our lives is in Jesus Christ’s life for us (pro nobis). As we come to this realization as a Christian we can truly enjoy the peace of Christ, the Shalom of Yahweh even in the midst of the most harrowing storms this life will throw at us. Returning to the author of the Hebrews once more, he writes: “so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain,where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” This imagery ought to buoy our souls just as Peter’s gaze on Jesus’s face buoyed him in the tumultuous storm the great sea had thrown his way. It is as Jesus gazes at the Father’s face for us, as we are surrounded by great thlipis (tribulation) in this world system, that we can behold the glory of God and find the rest our bruised lives long for.

I am motivated to write this post because I feel weary along with the rest of the world right now. I have spent too much time on Twitter today, and my soul is worn down exceedingly so. The evil and wickedness afoot in the world gives a palpable experience of the Isianic declaration ‘that there is no rest for the wicked.’ And yet I see many Christians, myself included, getting caught up in the tumult caused by the devil and his hoards. This ought not to be so. Of all people Christians have a refuge, a shalom and rest that this world cannot know; save the eyes and ears of Christ’s faith for them. My mission, as a soldier and ambassador for Christ, is to bear witness to this shalom in the midst of this Beastly system’s paranoia and wickedness. This is the triumph that has made a public spectacle of the satan and his disgusting minions, and the world needs this hope. This is my charge as a Christian: to seek Jesus, His righteousness, and all these other things, including witness for Him, will be added unto me. Shalom

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:25-30

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” –John 16:33

Paul’s Doctrine of Sin from a Doctrine of Christ: With Reference to Douglas Campbell

Sin. A word that has various understandings within the church; particularly the church of the 21st century. I would imagine that most in the churches have a rather elementary grasp on what sin entails. For those who have thought about it more deeply, even they would have variance on the way they understand sin’s impact upon the human being. Some might think of its affect in terms of a disease that might need to be cured; others as utter death that leaves the human being in a totally incapacitated state left to themselves; and maybe for others, somewhere in between the two poles just mentioned. No matter what someone’s position on sin is it often seems that, even in the best of cases, they attempt to define what sin is in rather abstract, or I suppose, literary ways alone. Indeed, appealing to Scripture seems like the best way to come to an understanding of what sin entails, but literary studies, I would argue, will not give us the depth dimension of sin and its impact. We clearly must engage with Holy Scripture’s teaching on what sin is and does, but I would contest that if we simply attempt to define sin’s heft in that way alone, that we will not arrive at a proper understanding of sin’s reality. The Apostle Paul doesn’t actually think sin from abstraction; can you guess where he thinks it from?

Paul, as with everything, defines sin’s height and depth from, you guessed it: Jesus Christ.[1] If we think sin and σάρξ (transliterated: sarx), or Paul’s frequent usage of ‘flesh’ together, what we quickly come to realize is that sin has penetrated into the very depths of what it means to be human; it has devolved us from beings capable of having a right relationship and fellowship with the living God (which is what it means to be human for us), to a status that has become sub-human, or out of koinonia/fellowship with Yahweh, the triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we think sin, as Paul does, from what it took for God to re-concile us unto Himself, through the enfleshment of the Son, His death, burial and resurrection, then we will come to have a greater appreciation of what God has accomplished for us; and just how utterly wicked and evil our hearts actually are. Douglas Campbell explains it this way as he is describing how the Apostle Paul thinks on these things:

The seriousness of Paul’s account of human wrongdoing here needs to be noted. If sin is just a series of bad choices that proceed from a fundamentally healthy nature, then Jesus needs to provide only a clear example of how to behave, along with some additional teaching about right acting. That he had to die, executing our condition, then resurrecting human nature in a new form, suggests that there was something irredeemably corrupt and contaminated in the old one. As some scholars would put it, our problem is radical (from the Latin radix, meaning “root”), suggesting that our problem goes down into the very roots of our nature.[2]

In other words, sin does something ontological to human nature. As Athanasius and even Maximus the Confessor argue, human beings, apart from the redeemed humanity of Jesus Christ are sub-human. This does not mean that the mass of humanity has no value; it simply notes that without Christ for us we are not living out what it means to be creationally human. It presupposes that humanity has an anchor outside of itself; that it has an image it was originally created in, and then recreated in. To be human in the economy of God’s Kingdom in Christ is to be ‘lifted up’ and seated at the Right Hand of the Father in participation with the humanity of Jesus Christ.

As Campbell’s explanation should make clear: For the Apostle Paul, if it required God to become human, and be executed in our stead, then humanity apart from this gracious work is in a status that is inconceivably mal (bad) before God (coram Deo). We are in a place where our ontology is jacked up; which means that our epistemology is jacked up; which means that our practice and function as homo sapiens is going to be utterly jacked up all the way down. If nothing else, there is more empirical evidence for this truth, about sin and the human condition, than any other field of inquiry. True, from within this ‘fallen’ state humanity will attempt to say that the crooked is straight / the straight is crooked, but even in this state we can see how destructive (even by just looking at the stats) living this way actually is.

The cross of Jesus Christ executes this sinful status, and raises up a glorified Christ in whom God’s Kingdom is rightly framed. A Kingdom wherein “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”[3] Jesus Christ lives that Kingdom for us now, and He breaks into our lives moment by moment letting us know that His Kingdom has come, and is coming; a Kingdom that, at a root level, has reversed the human nature unto the status that the Living and Holy God has always envisioned for it; a status that finds its very lifeblood in Immanuel’s veins; a status, that is exalted and highly lifted up participating in the eternal and triune life of God; a status that this world system, left to its own fallen devices, has no place within—but Christ.

I will be writing more on this topic in days to come. I want to talk about how ‘sin’ impacts salvation theories (soteriology), and its related theme: theological-anthropology. There are, of course, constant debates about what is called total depravity and total inability, so on and so forth. But I think those debates are given orientation by too much of an abstract (from Christ) notion of what sin actually is and does. If we think sin from Christ, and all its organic lineaments, we will arrive, I think, at very different theological categories and ways of thinking than the so called classical discussions have given us in this regard. But we will visit this discussion later. In this post I simply wanted to clear my throat a bit, and let Campbell provide a brief and precise explanation of how sin functions in the theology of Paul the Apostle. This throat clearing exercise will be instructive for later discussions on sin.

[1] Karl Barth is famously known for thinking sin from Christ.

[2] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 116, n.7.

[3] Revelation 21:4, KJV.

Being ‘Lived-Out’ Rather than ‘Conference Christians’: Engaging with Douglas Campbell’s Apostle Paul

Is there a place for all the theological and pastoral conferences that happen annually? Sure, at some level I think they are healthy insofar as they bring people together for networking and fellowshipping purposes. But when that becomes the reduction of what the Christian life is, particularly for ‘professional’ Christians, there might be something wrong. I think this has become the case with much of what’s going on in evangelical Christianity. We might think of The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, Shepherd’s Conference, and a host of many others (inclusive of all the academic conferences). It is in these places that many find their Christian identity. Some of the ‘elite’ in these settings are elevated to rock-star status, with autographs and book signings as the hallmark. Indeed, some of these folks are on a conference tour almost year-round; to the point that if they are pastors, they pretty much become guest speakers in their home churches.

I just picked up Douglas Campbell’s new tome: Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love. I am just starting to dig in, and in the introduction he speaks to what we were just thinking about. He is starting to detail the way he thinks the Apostle Paul would operate, and how he would think of what characterizes much of Christianity in America today. He writes:

I sometimes wonder what Paul would make of the conferences at which scores of highly learned people sit around and debate for hours tiny semantic nuances preserved in his writings. I expect he might be patient with this exercise for a while, but then at some point I’m pretty sure that he would jump up—possibly wielding a whip—and shout: “For goodness sake! Haven’t you read what my writings actually say? You’re not meant to be sitting around debating them. You are meant to be out there doing what they tell you to do—meeting people and fostering Christian communities in service to our Lord. Get off your backsides and get moving!” Doubtless this challenge would be accompanied by the sounds of tables being overturned and piles of pristine books crashing to the floor.

There is such a thing as a scholar-activist, and I venture to suggest that scholars of Paul should by and large be scholar-activists. If we are not, then we are royally missing the point, and I suspect that our interpretations of Paul will suffer as well. . . .[1]

I remember being a fresh student at Multnomah Bible College, just off the streets of living out the faith in the workplace and elsewhere. By time I had arrived I’d read through the whole Bible four times, and the NT tens of times; having memorized three books of the NT as well. I was in the midst of spiritual warfare, and relying on Scripture not as an academic piece of literature to be debated, but the living Word of God burning as fire in my bones. I remember towards the end of my first semester we had a schoolwide barbeque on a beautiful Spring Pacific Northwest day. I’d learned that there was a group of guys (fellow students ahead of me by a year or two) who were really well versed in Scripture, and even learned. So, that day I thought I would at least go and stand by them, and attempt to participate in their discussion about the biblical text. What I quickly learned, sadly, was that the text, for them (at that point at least) was more about its critical and academic content more than it was the living bread by which a Christian might find daily sustenance and life. This discouraged, saddened, and angered me all at once.

I share this anecdote not to declare myself ‘holier than thou,’ but to illustrate how Holy Scripture can become one thing to this group of people, and something solely different to another. If we extrapolate out from my anecdote, I think we might recognize how my co-students’ attitude back then is indeed what Campbell is taking aim at now. This sort of attitude about Scripture, in general, and Paul’s epistles, in particular, is exactly the attitude that Scripture, and the Lord of Scripture desires to contradict. We do indeed, as Campbell rightly notes, see in certain heady circles that Scripture is only ‘talked about,’ as if the act itself is effectual in itself. Indeed, we do need to have understanding of Scripture, but at some point, it is time to act it out in the faith of Christ. We are called to be ‘living sacrifices’ by the Apostle, ‘smoked out like burnt offerings’ in the way we live before God. Conference Christianity does not foster this sort of ‘drink offering’ faith; instead it cultivates a posture of sitting back and talking in theoretical and abstract terms about what the Bible might be saying here or there. This is neither Pauline nor Dominical Christianity, as such I think Campbell is right about what Paul might have thought about the sort of conference Christianity we see dominating much of the Christian landscape in America. May we not be ‘conference Christians,’ but instead ‘lived-out Christians.’

 

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 4-5.

The King’s Wives and Theological Methodology: Just as There is One Will of God There is One Revelation

God works in accommodating ways. Not accommodating in the sense that He concedes to our desires and wants, but accommodating in the sense that He meets us where we are and, often through a process, takes us to where He is. It is on this analogy that I want to refer us to a theological methodology. In order to provide an example for this analogy, of the ways of God, I will appeal to the kings of Israel. This might sound rather strange, but bear with me. What I want to suggest, from the kings of Israel, is that God does not always immediately change our ways into His ways; instead He comes to our ways, and through a sanctification process, breaks down and builds up / breaks down and builds up until we are all finally delivered into the glorified image of God in Christ that God currently holds for us and in us in the mediatorial humanity of Christ.

My thesis is this: God works into various periods of time in order to accomplish His purposes and make them known in Christ. When we think of the kings of Israel, and their multitudes of wives and concubines, we have to wonder why God didn’t immediately and apocalyptically reveal that this is not His way or intention for marriage (which we understand from Gen. 2). Over time, in the fullness of time (cf. Gal. 4), it becomes clear that God’s ideal for marriage, as a witness to His relationship to His ‘bride’, is that it be between one man and one woman. This finally becomes clear, once again, in the revelation of Jesus Christ; and this becomes normative for the Church of Christ. On analogy: The Christ comes to this world, at Christmas time, during the Graeco-Roman period of world history. As such, and since the early Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church were ensconced in this period, they naturally used what was most native to them. That is, as the early Church attempted to work out their salvation, meaning as they attempted to explicate and come to terms with the reality of who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they deployed Hellenic philosophical categories in order to achieve their goal to think and speak God in intelligible ways. But just as with the kings of Israel and their wives, the admixture of Greek conceptions and Christian theology were never intended to stay wedded indefinitely. As God worked, even in definitive ways among the Church Fathers, in ways that perdure in basic ways into the present language of the Church, this work has pressed on.

I want to suggest (and maybe argue later) that just as the status of the kings of Israel and their wives did not / could not remain the status in God’s Kingdom; likewise, the over-emphasis upon Greek categories for thinking God could not / should not remain the status for us. It is not as if what I am suggesting is that there is a linear progressive nature to God’s revelation in Christ; to the contrary. What I am suggesting works off the premise that God’s life is eschatological, and His way: apocalyptic. His way is given up front and immediately, but because He is patient and long-suffering with His people, He will allow us to fumble around until we grow into His eschatological way. Just as Christians today have rejected polygamy, so to, I want to suggest that we ought to reject over-reliance upon so called ‘Pure Being’ categories when thinking God. Indeed, as Jaroslav Pelikan has keenly learned us to, even in the early Church, while the propensity to fall prey to the Greeks was always intensely present, even then the aim was to reify the Greek philosophical categories in such a way that God’s Self-revelation in Christ, as attested to in Holy Scripture, was given categorical preeminence in the way they sought to think and speak God to themselves and the world.

It seems to me that the Church has grown lazy. That she is in a rush, in order to distance herself from the modern mediating theologians, in the sense that the modern theologians are known for attempting to wash Christian theology of any relic of an over-reliance upon the Hellenic form in the theological endeavor. But I think the evangelical and Reformed Churches, or any ‘conservative’ (so called) theologian, have swung the pendulum back too far. There is wisdom in the thesis that the Greek category has been allowed too much shrift in the way the Christian thinks God. This is not to say that the Christian ought to simply abandon all forms of Greek or so called catholic categorical thinking when it comes to the Church’s theologizing. But it does mean, that just as the kings of Israel and their matrimonial framework could not remain the status quo, likewise, the reliance on Hellenic categories, insofar as those overly-intrude into God’s Self-revelation, cannot and must not remain the status. Yet, in the haste to remove herself from any residue of the modern mind, the conservative 21st century Church has devalued the insight of the modern Church that the Greek concubines ought to be abandoned insofar as they have spawned lines of thought about God that are not themselves corollary with the God revealed in Christ. Most will simply laugh my suggestion off, and continue on their merry way with their harems in tow; but they shouldn’t. The work of allowing God’s revelation to be the end all in the theological task of the Church needs to be engaged with in much more toilsome ways (cf. II Tim. 2:15). Instead of simply receiving what she takes to be the catholic and orthodox way, she needs to more critically wonder about how the Hellenic categories have been allowed to thwart the way we think God.

Of course the underwriting premise is this: Contra the ‘two-books’ theory of revelation, I am committed to the idea that just as there is one will of God, there is only one revelation of God; and that revelation is strictly limited to Jesus Christ alone. It is this theory of revelation that must be the driving commitment, or my suggestion about over-reliance on Greek forms will not be taken seriously. Yet we must ask: where does this commitment to natural and special theology come from? Where do proponents of two-books, even if they see special as greater than natural revelation, get their notion that God has revealed Himself in nature such that we have the capacity to find Him there? They often claim that Scripture itself gives them this theory. But this presumes that they would or could read Scripture itself outwith an already commitment and submission to the reality that Jesus is Lord; Lord within the revealed and relational framework that God is Father of the Son before He is the Creator.

Jesus is the New Israel

Much like you will find in the work of Thomas F. Torrance in his recently published New College, Edinburgh lectures (Incarnation & Atonement, edited by his nephew, Robert T. Walker), Karl Barth in his coverage on The Apostles’ Creed in his small and accessible book Dogmatics in Outline highlights the dialectic relationship that the covenant nation of Israel has with Jesus Christ. What is very rich about Barth’s coverage is that he makes something quite explicit, and it is something that some Covenant theologians get wrong; and it is something that most Dispensational exegetes caricature. That is, that the ‘Church’ replaces Israel, and thus the point of the nation of Israel, with all of her promises included, was finally realized by the Church; some dispensational proponents disparagingly call this ‘replacement theology.’ In some cases, this label might fit for some ‘classical covenant theology’ advocates, but even for many of these it does not fully fit. In other words, not even all covenant theologians argue that Israel is replaced by the Church; although many of them do.

The above notwithstanding, it is my belief that Israel is not ‘replaced’ by the Church, but that Jesus Christ is actually the ‘new Israel’ (i.e. not the Church). That Jesus himself, as the inner ground of the Covenant is the point and purpose for which Israel was called by God as the prefiguration of Yahweh’s meeting with humanity, with man. Their history is funded by God’s history to be Immanuel, God with us, including Israel; and out of this history is a reflection of God’s life becoming particularized in a specific people, in a specific time out of his own freedom and choice (which started in his original act to create, Genesis 1:1).

So my thesis is that: Jesus is the new Israel, the new humanity in his resurrection for us. If this is the case, then when we read the Old Testament and its promises to the nation of Israel, we ought to re-read and interpret those promises for whom they were ultimately intended; in Christ for and with us. Karl Barth agrees with this thesis when he writes:

But now we must turn the page. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment, is the consummation of Israel. We look again into the Old Testament and find continual traces, that these obstinate and lost men—astoundingly enough!—in certain situations even confirm their election. When this occurs, when there is a kind of godly, upright continuity, this does not arise from the nature of Israel, but is rather God’s ever renewed grace. But where there is grace, men are bound contre cæur to lift up their voice in praise of God, and bear witness that where God’s light falls upon their life, a reflection of this light in them is bound to respond. There is a grace of God in the midst of judgment. And of this the Old Testament also speaks, not as of a continuity of Israelite man, but as of a ‘nevertheless’ of God. Nevertheless, there are in the history of this nation recurrent testimonies which begin with the words, ‘Thus saith the Lord …’ They sound out as the answer of such hearers, as the echo therefore of the ‘nevertheless’ of God’s faithfulness. The Old Testament is aware of a ‘remnant’. Here it is not the question of better or more moral men, but of those who are distinguished by having been called. Sinners gripped by God’s grace, peccatores justi, are those who constitute the remnant.

Revelation culminates in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He comes out of Israel, born of Mary the Virgin, and yet from above, and so in His glory the Revealer and Consummator of the covenant. Israel is not a sick man who was allowed to recover, but One risen from the dead. By His appearing, over against the verdict that man pronounced on himself God’s verdict comes into view, to remove all human self-condemnation. God’s faithfulness triumphs in this sea of sin and misery. He has mercy on man. He shares with His inmost Being in this man. He has never ceased to lead by cords of love this people which to His face behaved like a whore. It remains true that this man of Israel belongs to God and again and again, not by nature but by the miracle of grace, may belong anew to God, be rescued from death, be exalted to God’s right hand.[1]

Rich! In this, not only do we see how God relates to Israel and humanity in general; but we also see glimmers of the ontological theory of the atonement etc. peeking their eyes out in the theology of Karl Barth (more on that later).

Can we make an exegetical case for the above dogmatic realities that Barth is developing for us? Indeed. But somewhere else, at another time. Be edified!

[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1949), 80.

The Temple of God’s Triune Life: Learning to Hear God’s Voice, With Samuel as the Case Study

Learning God’s voice is often a process, but Jesus taught that His Sheep would know His voice; we read in John 10.27: “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of young Samuel. It is a favorite, on one hand, because my own “conversion” story mimics Yahweh’s call to Samuel. The LORD called me out of my sleep in the middle of the night to Himself when I was three. I went and woke my parent’s up and they led me to Christ. On the other hand, this is a favorite story because it pictures how God comes to each of us, and calls us out of our childhood into the pathway of maturation and growth as we learn to distinguish His voice from all others. Let’s read this story, and follow up on the other side.

Now the boy Samuel was serving Yahweh in the presence of Eli. The word of Yahweh was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. And then one day when Eli was lying in his place (now his eyes had begun to grow weak so that he was not able to see) and the lamp of God had not yet gone out, Samuel was lying in the temple of Yahweh where the ark of God was. Then Yahweh called out to Samuel and he said, “Here I am!” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” But he said, “I did not call you. Go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down. And Yahweh called Samuel again, so Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” And he said, “I did not call you, my son. Go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know Yahweh, and the word of Yahweh had not yet been revealed to him. Again Yahweh called Samuel a third time, so he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” Then Eli realized that Yahweh was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel “Go lie down. If he calls to you, then you must say, ‘Speak Yahweh, because your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Then Yahweh came and stood there and called out as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, because your servant is listening.”[1]

Samuel didn’t immediately know God’s voice for him; instead he went to what was common to his experience, he went to Eli—a known and concrete quantity, so to speak. But Eli, based on his own experience of God knew that there was something deeper and more Holy about the voice confronting young Samuel. The LORD persisted that night with Samuel until Samuel went from not knowing God, to knowing and being able to recognize His voice from others.

God, likewise, persists with us. But it is required that we have eyes to see and ears to hear. He has given those for us in the mediatorial eyes and ears of Jesus Christ. We have the capacity to see and hear God, but it requires an obedient yielding to this work of God in our lives in order for us, each day, to move from not knowing God, to knowing God. Samuel, once this initial revelation came, persisted in this life of obedience, and it shaped his life for years to Kingdom come. This is an important realization: knowing God is a daily, moment by moment reality. We have the freedom in Christ by the Holy Spirit to say yes or no to God’s constant revealing of Himself to us, or not. There are clearly plenty of other voices that vie for our attention, typically not as sage as Eli’s was for Samuel. And yet God persists with and for us just as sure as He is and always will persist in the humanity of Jesus Christ for us. He always lives to make intercession for those who will inherit eternal life. Samuel came to know this voice at a young age, and he persisted in his pursuit to hear this voice each day of his life for the rest of his life. He didn’t have to do anything to prompt God’s voice for him. It is because of who God is for us that God pursues us, just as sure as He has put on flesh for us in the Son, and as such there is nothing we can do but humble ourselves to seek God’s pursuit of us.

This is so much simpler than we think. Like Samuel lying there in his bed doing nothing, we too, simply lay in the temple of the LORD, where the ark is, and herein we are constantly in touch with the living God. Indeed, we are the temple of the living God as we now participate in the vicarious humanity of Christ. He tabernacled (Jn 1.14) for us, that we might tabernacle with Him; just as He has tabernacled with the Father by the bond of the Holy Spirit for all of the eternity of their shared Triune life. Each step we take, every bed we lay in, every plane we fly in; wherever we are we are in God’s tabernacle, indeed we are God’s tabernacle. This, because of who God is for us, is the depth reality of our lives as Christians. We don’t have to do anything or go anywhere to hear God’s calling and penetrating voice. He has freely chosen to come to where we are, beset in our dusty frames, and fellowship with us here that we might fellowship with Him there in the temple of His Triune life. His voice is ever present. Just as young Samuel came to know, we too should come to know that God’s voice is always there; He is ready to succor and care for us in ways that we cannot begin to imagine. But it does require some work; it requires obedience. But even that is not from us, but comes to us by the energy of the resurrection life of Christ that we have been brought into by the Spirit; and that we are brought into afresh and anew moment by moment. Herein is God’s voice, the verbum Dei for us.

 

 

[1] Lexham English Bible.