Category Archives: J. Todd Billings

Picking at Calvin’s Wax Nose: Union with Christ or Forensic Salvation? An Impasse

Often here at The Evangelical Calvinist I refer to the language of union with Christ, and Calvin’s “mystical union” (unio mystica). This is the stuff that makes ‘EC’ go round; that is pressing this Pauline idea of ‘in Christ’ theology as the key of our soteriological framework. In line with Thomas Torrance, and through his development of Scottish Theology, in his book “Scottish Theology;” I often pick up on the way this was developed, contra the Westminster development of Calvin that takes hold of Calvin’s theology of the Law, and its relation to understanding salvation. J. Todd Billings says that either one of these streams misses Calvin’s theology as a whole, and thus distorts Calvin if we try to emphasize either his relational over and against his juridical (legal), or vice versa. Billings writes:

[T]here is an ‘Anti-Legal School’ in Calvin scholarship that tends to emphasize Calvin’s distance from scholasticism, his fluidity in the use of image and metaphor, and his rich Trinitarian theology. Language about forensic transaction is generally treated with suspicion, in preference for the more organic images of transformation. In reaction to this school, the ‘legal’ aspects of Calvin’s thought tend to be emphasized by others, particularly his distinctively Reformed concerns for the doctrines of justification and imputation. Accounts of one school of thought tend to either ignore or deny the other side. . . . I will argue that the place of the human is illuminated in Calvin’s theology of participation by seeing a Trinitarian account of the duplex gratia as the framework for participation. For Calvin, participation in Christ must emphasize the legal and the transformative language in the ‘double grace’ of justification and sanctification. In prayer, believers act in ascetic struggle to pray rightly, yet the foundation for their active struggle is a recognition of God’s free pardon. Likewise, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, believers act in response to God’s justifying act in a way that incorporates them into a Trinitarian soteriology: the Father is revealed as gracious and generous through his free pardon of believers in their union with Christ; this union also involves the activation of believers by the Spirit—toward a life of piety and love, requiring ascetic effort and activity. Believers are made active in the ecclesial and social community. A participatory, Trinitarian account of the duplex gratia plays an important role in Calvin’s theological account of the sacraments. ‘Participation’ in baptism is so real that it is almost biological. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper involves participating in Christ’s ascension to heaven to feed on his life giving flsh and blood. Calvin’s theology of prayer and the sacraments is a theology that is theocentric, but also participatory, activating believers in love of God and neighbour as the body of Christ. [J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105-06]

This serves instructive for noting a certain reality; one that Billings is not intending to address here, but one that I believe is constructively available through the present thesis that Billings will proceed to develop throughout the rest of his chapter. What I want to highlight is the fact that both lines of thought—union with Christ/relational and forensic—are present in Calvin. Consequently, all things being equal, both strands can be found developed and emphasized within the tradition that bears Calvin’s name. This is precisely what we seek to elucidate and alert folks to with our forthcoming book on Evangelical Calvinism, and what I, personally, have been doing here with my blog (at points). Calvin’s nose is very “waxy,” and thus it should be expected that given the various predispositions of people in general; that aspects of Calvin’s corpus will be developed over and against other aspects—and this shaped by various socio-cultural constraints present throughout Calvinism’s history and development.

Billings’ point is that to negate one aspect of Calvin from his other side is to misread and misunderstand Calvin’s full bodied theological thrust. Nevertheless, the reality is, is that Calvin has been read through various foci and lenses; the history bears this out. This takes us back to Richard Muller’s thesis that Calvin should not be seen as the touchstone of what it means to be a Calvinist. In some ways this is true, there is a difference between being Calvinian (which is what Billings is developing in his book—Calvin’s theology) and Calvinist; I would suggest though that a theologian could only ever be a Calvinist (Evangelical, Westminster, Spiritual Brethren, et al) if in fact she has a shred of Calvinian in her first. My point, Calvin’s nose is wax; and I would say that this is a good thing, precisely because we are as Reformed Christians, people who interpret and re-interpret Calvin and any teacher through Scripture. Those who appreciate Calvin, and try to appropriate him constructively through Scripture; will almost necessarily end up being a Calvinist (vs. Calvinian), and, of course, I would propose that the best of us will end up an Evangelical Calvinist! 😉

*repost (an old one)

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Theology and Cancer: Genuine Christian Theology and How it Comforts Through Revelation

Cancer and theology: my friend Todd Billings has written a book on the relationship between cancer and theology; motivated by his own diagnosis with an incurable cancer known as multiple myeloma. As many of you know I too, back in late 2009/2010, was diagnosed with an incurable/terminal (typically) cancer known as desmoplastic small round cell tumor (sarcoma), or DSRCT. Both Billings and I have miraculously survived our respective cancers, and by God’s grace carry on.

fallleavesThroughout the rest of the post I would like to reflect on cancer and theology, and how they relate and even can inform each other. I am prompted to write this post because of a mini Facebook discussion I had yesterday with my friend, Derrick Peterson. He had written a blog post himself on proofs for God’s existence. Eventually in the conversation I brought up cancer, and how God had worked through that in my own life to assuage and in fact rebuff serious doubts I’ve struggled with about God for many years. The type of doubts I had were not unhealthy doubts, but doubts I believe that God in Christ allowed to come upon me to push me deeper into Him. Nonetheless, I had them, and they were very strong; they caused depression and anxiety; and I just wanted them to go away, so I studied and prayed a lot (we are talking over a season of probably fifteen years). But I am starting to digress, let me move into the post now, and try to bring cancer and theology together.

Christian Theology

The first question, if we are going to talk about cancer and theology is to try and define what in fact the entailments of a genuinely Christian theology actually are. This will be an important step, because in order to understand how theology can inform and relate to cancer, we need to have a solid understanding of what Christian theology is. To help us develop what genuine Christian theology is Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance will have the honors as he is describing Karl Barth’s way of doing theology as well as his own:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[1]

This is the way I approach theology as well. It is to understand that Jesus Christ in a principled and even absolute way must be the center for knowing God for us; since as the Apostle John makes clear, that was a fundamental part of Jesus’ mission.[2] There are other ways of doing theology out there that don’t do theology this way; as we have noted elsewhere on this blog, classical ways for doing Reformed theology (and I am Reformed, so I will camp on this) are much more abstract and speculative—i.e. they don’t necessarily start with Jesus Christ in an intense way for doing theology. This is not to say that the piety of some of these practitioners does not attempt to make up the difference in some of these other ways of doing theology, but they are not directly given shape by starting with Jesus in the ways that Barth and Torrance do (as does Athanasius).  In other words, I would contend that starting theology with Jesus in a principled way starts with the triune idea that God is love; it does not work its way discursively towards that reality as some classical theologies might be wont to do.

At base then, at least for me (as an evangelical Calvinist, and student of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), theology is Jesus; theology is objective in the sense that God is God, but genuine Christian theology moves the object into the subject (without losing its objective character) in Jesus Christ. In other words, genuine Christian theology is by definition, personal and relational. It is both of these because theology is not an idea, or simply a discipline, but genuinely Christian theology is a personal subject, it is the triune God Self-revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. It is this type of revelation that makes theology so inextricable to something like cancer; cancer is personal. So it is fitting, if God who is wise in Himself, if He is going to reveal Himself to us in Christ, does so where we are; hidden in the midst of our squalor and various forms of human suffering brought on by the fall of humanity into the abyss of sin.

To drive this reality of a genuine Christian theology home even further, let’s hear from Karl Barth directly as he writes about what Martin Luther called a theology of the cross versus a theology of glory. This will serve as the bridge that brings my desire to talk about cancer and theology together. Barth writes at length:

[I]n contrast Luther tries to draw attention to the vacuum, to the fact that passion (suffering) stands at the heart of life and speaks of sin and folly, death and hell. These fearful visible thing of God, his strange work, the crucified Christ — these are the theme of true theology. A preaching of despair? No, of hope! For what does that break in the center mean? Who is the God hidden in the passion with his strange work, and what does he desire? Explaining Heidelberg Thesis 16, Luther pointed out that the strange work leads on to the proper work, that God makes us sinners in order to make us righteous. The gap in the horizontal line, the disaster of our own striving, is the point at which God’s vertical line intersects our lives, where God wills to be gracious. Here where our finitude is recognized is true contact with infinity. He who judges us is he who shows mercy to us, he who slays us is he who makes us live, he who leads us into hell is he who leads us into heaven. Only sinners are righteous, only the sad are blessed, only the dying live. But sinners are righteous, the sad are blessed, the dying do live. The God hidden in the passion is the living God who loves us, sinful, wicked, foolish, and weak as we are, in order to make us righteous, good, wise, and strong. It is because the strange work leads to the proper work that there can be no theology of glory, that we must halt at the sharply severed edges of the broken horizontal line where what we find is despair, humility, the fear of God. For despair is hope, humility is exaltation, fear of God is love of God, and nothing else. The center of this theology, then, is the demand for faith as naked trust that casts itself into the arms of God’s mercy; faith that is the last word that can be humanly said about the possibility of justification before God; a faith that is sure of its object — God — because here there is resolute renunciation of the given character of scholastic faith (infused, implicit, and formed) as an element of uncertainty; faith viewed not as itself a human work but as an integral part of God’s strange work, sharing in the whole paradox of it.[3]

For Barth, and now for me, genuine Christian theology, as the Apostle Paul so eloquently declares is the wisdom of the cross (see I Cor. 1.18-25). God in His ineffable wisdom humbles himself to not only become a man, but humbles himself to the point of death, the death of the cross (see Phil. 2.5-10). God reveals Godself, hidden in the manger, in the body (which was His own human body) of a growing boy, and finally in the public ministry of Jesus Christ culminating in his death, burial,  resurrection (see I Cor. 15.1-4), ascension (see Acts 1; Col. 1–2), and coming again (see I Thess. 4; Rev. 19–22). When theology starts with God’s life revealed in the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, it cannot but help but to be meaningfully personal and cruciform in shape, since this is the shape that is most fitting for God become man by His own free and gracious choice; and this concordant with His character (in His inner triune life in se).

Cancer

Cancer is one of the most visceral fearful things, it seems, in our society of which people hope they never have to face. The sad reality though is that statistically more than fifty percent of all North Americans will receive some sort of cancer diagnosis in their life time (probably most towards their aging years, but that is also unfortunately changing quickly). I had to face it, and many of you (God forbid it!) might well have to face it yourself; if not, someone you know closely will in their life time. So cancer, among other ills produced by living in a fallen world, is an inevitability (although I think through proper diet most of cancer could be eradicated) that we will face one way or the other.

As I described theology above, that was not an abstract exercise for me; that is real life. When I received my “terminal” incurable cancer diagnosis it was the God revealed in Jesus Christ, in the cross and resurrection where I found immediate hope, confidence, and comfort. I did not have to work through an abstract apparatus of theology in order to work my way to God; because of the theological moorings I already had I knew He was ever present in this real time of trouble. I already knew that the God who I desperately needed was a humble, but all powerful God, who is able to enter into the depths of death and sin, and overcome it because of the inner-strength of His triune life of love. I knew that God first loved me, because He wasn’t a God who just talked the talk but He walked the walk before I was ever born or thought of (at least humanly speaking). I knew that I had an immediate and direct access to God because He had made clear to me in His Self-revelation in Christ that He had already come to me by enfleshing Himself with humanity and entering into all my suffering and despair. I found comfort in knowing that not only was God all powerful, but that His almightiness was shaped by immediate and personal love. I knew that He had power over death, because while He might appear to be hidden in the cross, for those with eyes of faith it was there where I could see Him most brightly.

Conclusion

When I started this post I had mentioned that discussion I had had with my friend Derrick about God and doubt. God revealed Himself, and met me so strongly in the midst of cancer that many of the doubts I had dealt with prior (for around fifteen long years) were crushed. It was through encounter with the living God in Christ, as I woke up every morning only to remember that “oh yeah, I have an incurable cancer in my body,” that this God of the cross broke in quickly on that fearful thought and made clear that nothing could separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how good theology ought to work. It shouldn’t, at base, be an elaborate, even scholastic web of intellectualisms; instead it should be able to bring knowledge of God in the spaces of life where we would least expect to find Him.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

[2] See John 1.18.

[3] Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, 46.

 

Experiencing Resurrection Hope: A Reflection on the Feeling of Being Set Free from Cancer

Today was a long day coming; it represented a certain kind of landmark for me and my wife and kids! Today was the last time I had to have a CT scan to check if I had had a recurrence of my cancer; a rare and aggressive, and “incurable” cancer known as desmoplastic small round cell tumor (DSRCT), sarcoma. I was diagnosed with it in November 2009, and immediately started heavy resurrectionholechemotherapy. I had surgery May 6th, 2010, and some post-chemo which we ended early in late June 2010. Each year after that was a year where the goal was to remain cancer free, even though usually this kind of cancer comes back, and with a vengeance.

From the day I was told that I had a large mass by my right kidney, in October 2009 all the way through my treatment, the Lord impressed upon me many things with His still small voice as He spoke to my heart. One of the first things He spoke to my heart, before we ever knew exactly what this large mass was, was this:

“This sickness is not unto death, …”

When the Lord spoke this to me I didn’t realize, at first, that it was from John 11:4; but I did finally realize that these words came from that passage, and I gained encouragement from that. Not because I was afraid to die (although I surely didn’t want to), but because I looked at my young wife and young kids, and my heart broke to think that I could be leaving them; that was really a thought too much to bear. So I sought solace in these words from the Lord, and hoped against hope that I was really hearing from Him and not from my own self-talk. The Lord continued to speak to my heart along the way, and as He did each step of the way it was confirmed that I wasn’t hearing from my own self-talk but His still small voice.

Now we have come to a point as of today where that long road just hit a real landmark! What the Lord had spoken to me way back then was confirmed in a very striking way today. Even as the anxiety welled up in my heart the last couple of days, even as I began to psyche myself out and start thinking that every little tinge and inkling of nerviness that I felt in my abdomen might be the cancer returned, the Lord spoke to my heart, as He did in days past, and said: “when it’s gone, it’s gone … today will bring good news!” I had no reason to doubt that I was hearing from the Lord, because every time He had spoken to my heart like this in the past it was confirmed; over and over again!

My oncologist told me today that as far as someone can be cured from the type of cancer I had that I am cured! If you knew the demeanor of my oncologist you would understand even better how significant it is for him to say something like this.

But now I feel somewhat strange. I have never felt “guilty” before, and honestly to say that I feel guilty now is probably not the right language to describe how I feel. The right language is probably more like: “I feel deeply humbled!” But there is that tinge of “survivor’s guilt.” I’ve been following other people who have been diagnosed with DSRCT, even people years after my diagnosis, and they are no longer with us. Although I do know of a few who are doing well right now, which is very encouraging and hopeful; and I have great hope for them! All I can really do is put my hand over my mouth, and know that I stand before a Holy God! There is a tangible sense that I am alive only because the Lord wants me to be alive; that I live solely by the grace of God, and from His breath. This does not seem like an abstract or intellectual thing to me at the moment; it seems concrete and real, and it is!

As we faced today, as I woke up I had that feeling like I once had when I first realized that I had a terminal cancer. It is a feeling of darkness, and no future; as if each minute is the only future I have. It is a crazy sense to have this; it is the sense of my own mortality, and I don’t like it at all. Fellow cancer-brother Todd Billings describes this aspect of a cancer diagnosis well as he describes the impact his early cancer diagnosis had upon him:

… Less than a week earlier, the doctor spoke the diagnosis to me, about which he had no doubt: a cancer of the bone marrow, multiple myeloma—an incurable cancer, a fatal disease. I had been in a fog ever since. How was I to face each day when my future—which had seemed wide open—had suddenly narrowed? My “world” seemed to be caving in on itself with fog in each direction I turned, so that no light could shine in.[1]

I felt this way again today. But by God’s grace the fog blew out, and the “Sun of righteousness” came with “healing in His wings;” and the future opened up once again. But the future has opened up with a sense of soberness about it; where I know that I am not my own – that I have been bought with a price, with the blood of Jesus Christ. I know that someday, and most likely very soon, I will stand bodily before the very One who has seen fit to touch my body as He touched Lazarus’, and give account. The future holds that great day when I will meet the One who kept speaking to my heart over and again, even today; I know His voice, and I know for sure that one day soon I will see the lips that spoke to me today, and yesterday.

Thank you to each of you who have lifted me and my family up to the Lord, our Great High Priest through all of this! We still need prayer, and I covet it! Thank you, and thank you dear Lord for sparing my life for your own loving and gracious reasons! Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

[1] J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2015), 1. Todd Billings is doing well, and is in a state of “remission,” but I like to call that “cancer free.” He continues to teach theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan; and he continues to receive maintenance chemo. Please keep him in prayer, that the Lord would continue to sustain him and his young family, and that the cancer that has threatened him will understand that it is not lord, but that Todd’s Lord is lord, even over Todd’s unwieldy cancer. Pray the Lord puts Todd’s cancer in its place; the Lord has done that, may He continue to!

The Great Orientation: Reading the Bible in Light of the Primacy of Jesus

There is a whole new way (which is really an old way) of interpreting Scripture; it is the way of the New Testament authors jesuscollage(and Apostles) themselves. As an evangelical Christian, trained in the N. American evangelical ways of biblical interpretation (i.e. Literal, Grammatical, Historical given expression within a Dispensationalist hermeneutic) I have primarily learned how to interpret Scripture in ways that are inductive, self-focused, ethically principled, literalist, literary, and other ways; maybe this has been your experience too. But the “new” way, at least as I have discovered it takes its cue from the New Testament itself; if we pay close attention to the contours of the NT we will see a whole new world of biblical interpretation that has a deeply grounded theological, more pointedly, christological orientation. When John makes the claim of Jesus that Jesus is the ‘exegesis’ of God, it becomes quickly apparent that the whole of the New Testament composition believes this claim. Todd Billings communicates it this way:

The New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament in light of the event of Jesus Christ. In a sense, the whole of the Old Testament becomes a book of prophecy to New Testament writers. The New Testament does not merely indicate that passages that were clearly messianic at the time they were written point to Christ. It is not punctiliar, that is, a connect-the-dots kind of exercise between passages such as Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:18 (concerning the miraculous birth of Jesus). Rather, the New Testament appropriation of the Old Testament liberally applies nearly anything about the proper ends of Israel, even the proper ends of humanity itself, to the life of Christ. In appropriating the Hebrew Scriptures christologically, the New Testament writers did not restrict the meaning of the Old Testament to something like the author’s original intentions, or to how the Old Testament text would have originally been heard. Rather, they saw the event of Jesus Christ as itself shedding light on the Old Testament, revealing the “substance” of what were “shadows” in anticipation.[1]

Personal Reflection

This area continues to be an ongoing battle for me; my hope is to continue to develop in this area, and to better be able to read the whole Bible the way the New Testament authors did. One thing that does need to be mentioned, I think, is that we, as readers today, do not read the Old Testament (for example) the way the NT authors did; they gave us inspired scripture, the best we can do is to have illumined scripture. That said, this fact should not hinder us from the realization that the New Testament (or “New Covenant”) does supply us with an actual hermeneutic to follow (just as Billings underscores). Jesus is the point of creation in general, he is the point of Israel in particular, and the point of all humanity for all eternity; we ought to read all of Scripture as if this is the case.

 

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word Of God For The People Of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 19.

 

Book Review. Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings

billingsRejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings (2015)

ISBN. 978-1-58743-358-0 (201 pages)

Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He has become my friend (at least in electronic fashion) over these past many years, and someone I look up to in regard to cultivating my development as a budding theologian; and beyond that in my development as a person who loves Jesus deeply–Todd is a person that can be looked to for that, and more as a brother in Christ.

Todd and I share something in common: he and I both have been diagnosed with rare and typically terminal and aggressive cancers; as Todd labels them “incurable” (mine is in that category as well). In 2012, at the young age of thirty-nine Todd was diagnosed with what is called Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure. As a result he underwent immediate treatment involving chemo-therapy, and ultimately a stem cell transplant. By God’s grace Todd’s treatment protocol has put his cancer into remission; the prognosis remains open, and he continues to go through what they call a maintenance protocol to attempt to keep his cancer at bay (hopefully from coming back at all).

As a result and in response to his cancer diagnosis Todd set up a Carepages account–a blog format available particularly for those struggling through some sort of life crisis, usually health related–here he would reflect periodically about his treatments, his progress, and in particular about how he was processing all of this (as a Christian theologian) through the lens of Christ and within the matrix of that relationship that he has personally with the Triune God. As things developed, and the treatments have worked for Todd, he found the strength and time to take his Carepages blog posts to the next level and place them into a book format where he talks about the Christian concept of ‘Lament.’ The following will be a brief review of his book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ. I also wanted to say thank you to Trinity McFadden at Brazos Press for sending me a complimentary copy of Billings’ book at his request.

The first chapter–Walking in the Fog: A Narrowed Future or a Spacious Place?–Todd discusses how his future plans, in light of his cancer diagnosis, began to narrow. I would imagine–I know this was true for me when I received my diagnosis–that this experience is rather universal for those diagnosed with cancer. And yet Billings is clear that while his future plans became a future limited to living from day to day, he indeed still had and has a future hope that kept things open; indeed, it was lament itself where the future opened up as Todd’s gaze was able to turn from his immediate circumstances and upward to God in Christ. Billings writes:

In and through and by Jesus Christ, with whom Christians have been united by the Holy Spirit, we can praise, lament, petition, and discover that the story of our loss is not the only, or most important, story that encloses our lives. We discover that this spacious place–of living in Christ–is wide and deep enough for us to petition, rejoice, and also join are laments to those of Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf (see Rom. 8:24). Jesus is no stranger to lament…. (p. 15).

And with this frame Todd Billings proceeds into the rest of his book to develop his theme of lament within the context of his cancer diagnosis, and his way into it as he sought to process it through the lens of Christ’s life.

Chapter two–Sorting through the Questions: The Book of Job, the Problem of Evil, and the Limits of Human Wisdom–does exactly what the title suggests: it engages with the problem of evil, and in particular taps into the book of Job to ponder the exploratory wisdom that this literature provides for the sufferer. I think this paragraph captures the gist of what this chapter works through:

Job is a powerful book that pushes us to reframe our urgent questions–identifying which questions are dead ends and which ones we should keep asking. Reading Job as part of the biblical canon along with the book of Psalms, there is no doubt that we ought to bring both praise and protest, trust and grief, before our God. Job brings all of these before God–including his raw grief and protest in the face of suffering. He laments in grief and protest against God. Later in the book, God testifies that it is Job who has “spoken of me what is right” rather than his friends who refrain from lament (Job 42:7). In the end, after presenting his case to God that the Almighty has been unjust, Job hears God’s response and is brought to the point of recanting his case. But Job does not confess lament as a sin against God, for it is not. Rather he comes to recognize the limits of human wisdom before the awesome face of the sovereign Lord: “I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 NJPS). In his relenting, Job “admits that his own wisdom is limited; he bows to a God whose wisdom is limitless.” (p. 22)

Billings’ engagement with Job resonates with me, and my own cancer experience. I remember when I was in the thralls of my cancer, in the thralls of my chemo treatment that I had someone tell me (online) that I was in sin because I had expressed (online at my blog) that I was, at points, angry with my God and Father; that I didn’t understand why he was allowing this to happen to me, a thirty-five year old (at the time) young man with a wife and two young children. I didn’t understand why he would let me be diagnosed with an “incurable” cancer, and allow me to suffer in deep and unbelievable ways; painful ways, with fear of death crouching around the corner. This would-be counselor of mine told me that I was questioning the sovereignty of God when I expressed such ‘anger’ towards God–even though my “anger” was framed within the category of ‘lament’ and wonder at what God was doing; the reality was, was that I was still crying out to God, because I trusted him with my life. This is what so resonated with me about this particular chapter that Todd wrote in reference to his own struggle through these deep issues and types of wonderings. The conclusion that Todd comes to in this chapter, and the conclusion I came to was ultimately that God did not have to give me an exacting answer to my wonder, but he has given us something better: Himself!

You will have to read the rest of the book to experience the blessing of insight that it offers for cancer sufferers as they attempt to live in their cancer through Christ; you will realize that as you read it it is not just for cancer sufferers, but all sufferers (and thus all human beings). Just to keep things going, and to whet your appetite, here are the rest of the titles that make up the rest of the book:

  1. Lamenting in Trust: Praying with the Psalmist amid a Sea of Emotions 36
  2. Lamenting to the Almighty: Discerning the Mystery of the Divine Providence 55
  3. Joining the Resistance: Lament and Compassionate Witness to the Present and Future King 75
  4. Death in the Story of God and in the Church 93
  5. Praying for Healing and Praying for the Kingdom 111
  6. In the Valley: Toxins, Healing, and Strong Medicine for Sinners 131
  7. The Light of Perfect Love in the Darkness: God’s Impassible Love in Christ 149
  8. “I Am Not My Own”: Our Story Incorporated into Christ’s 169

As you can see, just by the chapter titles, this book engages with a host of rich issues in relation to lament and understanding how to suffer as a Christian in the everlasting arms of a faithful and loving God. On that note I would be remiss not to mention one of the driving frames of Todd’s whole book; it is something that he started his Carepages entries off with from early on in his cancer process, and it is something that I think captures best the gist of the whole book in tone and character. Todd, from early on in his process, Reformed and Confessional theologian that he is turned to one of the richest Reformed catechisms available: The Heidelberg Catechism. Todd turned to the reality that this catechism confesses as a source of comfort, and I think we can all benefit from it in the same way.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ;  who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins,  and delivered me from all the power of the devil;  and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head;  yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation,  and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life,  and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

The sentiment expressed in ‘Question 1. & Answer’ encapsulates the whole gist of what Todd Billings develops throughout the pages of his book. In fact as you finish the book you will see that the very last clause of the book is indeed Billings quoting the ‘Answer’ to ‘Question 1’ from the Heidelberg Catechism; it serves as his anthem and confession before God, that as he walks through the shadow of death he intends to do so with this as his deep down resolve in, before and from Christ–a resolve that we would all do well to ask the Lord to allow us to walk with, even when faced in intense ways with our mortality.

General Impression

As a fellow sojourner with Todd, one who has also walked in this particular shadowy valley, I can say that Billings’ book is what the soul thirsts for; even if it doesn’t know it, in the moment. When I was in the heat of my cancer, not knowing what the outcome was going to be, whether I was actually going to live or die, having Todd’s book at hand might not have had the impact that it has had upon me now (as someone who has currently survived my “incurable cancer”). In other words, as a sufferer, depending on what stage you are at, and what level of lucidity you have at the moment (because of your treatments, or even your fears), Billings’ book may or may not have the capacity to penetrate your heart. But even if it doesn’t now, it will later.

Nevertheless, if you are suffering with cancer, or are a family member or friend of someone who is, I would implore you to take Todd’s book up and read. It is a rich theological resource for those who are suffering, especially from the ills of cancer; and its pages are full of hooks where you can hang so many of your wandering questions in the season you are facing, personally, or as a family member or friend of someone who might be facing cancer (or other sufferings). As Todd made clear over and again, ultimately, when we suffer through things like cancer, and we are filled with questions, or even just voids where we are just groping, or just sitting there in absolute unbelief and shock with the reality of what is happening, we can cry out to God who might not answer us in the way we would like him to, but he will hear our cry and he will meet us in the cry.

The “Avoidance” of Death [Billings and McGill]

Tragically a recent acquaintance of mine, Fr. Matthew Baker, just died as he was driving his vehicle in the weather (in the East Coast of North America) and had an accident; he died, but his six children were spared (please keep his wife and kids in prayer). Death is a reality we all face, even in America. I was once again just recently reminded of my own mortality as I went in for my annual CT scan to make sure that I am still cancer free; free from a cancer (DSRCT) that is typically terminal, incurable, and aggressive (as many of you know, by God’s grace I have remained cancer free, and as I write this, for five years). I also just happen to be reading a book from another theologian friend, J. Todd Billings. Todd was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer (Multiple Myeloma) back in September, 2012; he has since undergone treatment (and continues to receive maintenance levels of chemo), a stem cell transplant, and as a result his cancer has gone into remission.

Death is an ever present reality that each and every person who draws breath on the face of earth must face it. Death is indiscriminate, and transcends racial, ethnic, geo-political, and all regional boundaries; death is an equal opportunity reality that we all must face. But living in the West, particularly in the United States (and/or Europe), we would rather not deal with reality; we would rather pretend, as much as possible that death has no reach into our personal lives and plans. In fact, we are so dedicated to avoiding the reality of death that we have created a whole society dedicated to not dealing with it; as much as possible. Todd Billings, in his recently released book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ has written this:

The Denial of Death in Western Culture, and Death in the Church

In contrast to God’s story, which includes and envelops death, the currents of consumerist, Western Culture move toward repressing dying and death. To come face-to-face with our mortality would be to encounter our frailty and limitations—showing the absurdity of our attempts to center the world on ourselves. But our consumerist culture would rather deny these limits. Western culture glorifies youth and spends billions of dollars annually to make the appearance of youth last longer and longer. The actual experience of dying and death is isolated to nursing homes, hospices, and the funeral industry, away from children and youth and the rest of the family. This cultural trend was exposed to me with particular potency while working in community development for six months in a rural area of Uganda. In that context, dying and death were thickly woven into everyday life. When I would meet a new family, I would often hear explanations like, “We have seven children, but only four are still living.” Ailing and dying members of the “extended” family were not institutionalized but lived in the same house as children and young people. And death itself was an everyday thing—not a rare incursion. I remember writing about it at the time, saying death was like “enya,” a staple food eaten at least twice a day. We should not romanticize this state of affairs in Uganda—this is not the way things are supposed to be. But we need to recognize that in the West today, we not only have better medical care but we also tend to put our elderly and sick out of sight. Intentionally or not, we isolate ourselves from the real-life dying and death of others, and we have a culture that is often so focused on positive self-esteem and accomplishing one personal “victory” after another that dying and death are pushed to the margins.[1]

In this exact same vein, Arthur C. McGill has written in his amazing little book Death and Life: An American Theology:

The Ethic of Avoidance 

As we observe our lives in this country, we cannot help but be struck by the effort Americans make to appear to be full of life. I believe this duty is ingrained deeply in everyone. Only if we can create around us a life apparently without failure, can we convince ourselves that death is indeed outside, is indeed accidental, is indeed the unthinkable enemy. In other words, the belief that death is outside of life is not a fact to be acknowledged; it is a condition to be attained. Consider the American commitment to nice appearances. We often speak of the suburbs in terms of near and flawless appearances. When we look at the lawns and the shrubs and the solid paint of those homes, who can believe the human misery that often goes on within them?… What about the people who do fail in America? And what about those who collapse of life? What about the sick and the aged and the deformed and the mentally retarded? Do they not remind us that the marks of death are always working within the fabric of life? No, because in the United States, deliberately and systematically, with the force of the law itself, we compel all such people to be sequestered where we cannot see them. You’ll find no beggars on the streets of America. You’ll visit few homes where a very aged person is present and where that person’s imminent dying is integrated into the rhythm of family life. As for the insane, they are hidden in such well-landscaped institutions, behind such beautiful lawns and trees, that when we drive by in our shiny automobiles we cannot imagine the suffering that goes on within those walls.[2]

This is heavy and serious stuff, and I think something that we can all recognize as true as those who inhabit (for the most part) the Western existence. It is true, we have not been designed by God to die, but live. But we can only live, if we are united to life itself in Jesus Christ, who is life. Through his death, burial, and resurrection, and our participation in that we can face the reality of death and life as dual realities in Christ for us. We don’t have to pretend like death isn’t happening to us; especially when it is. And when we are faced with tragic things like cancer diagnoses, or car accidents—like the one that just claimed the life of our dear brother, Matt Baker—or other terrible things, we can look to the One who raises the dead, as he raised himself for us. We do have a real and concrete hope for Matthew Baker; if I were to die from a recurrence of my cancer (God forbid it!) I have a real and living hope; if Todd Billings were to die from his cancer (God forbid it!) he has a real and tangible hope—and all of this because of Christ and the hope that his resurrection has provided for all of humanity.

But, as Billings and McGill have underscored for us, we continue to live in a Western society that will try and avoid the reality of death at all costs; this makes sense if for the ‘world’ there is no hope, if they have no hope of resurrection in Christ (personally). Life is a tragedy without a hero who can actually conquer death, and then give that victory to us as we participate in his victory, His life. But we live in a world, by definition, that will reject this even until its own death and destruction. We live in a world that will marginalize the plight of those types of people that most remind us of what we most fear, death; and so we will continue to build societies and buildings that hide what is happening all around us; death.

14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.[3]

[1] J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2015), 105.
[2] Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987 republished by Wipf and Stock Publishers), 18-19.
[3] NASB. Hebrews 2:14-15.

I. Open Theism and Cancer. J. Todd Billings and John Sanders

I was going to try and do this in one post, but it will be too long; so I am breaking these postings up into two installments (this one and creationthe next one forthcoming). In this first post I will try to give a brief and summative introduction to the Open Theism of theologian John Sanders, and then in the next installment we will engage with J. Todd Billings’ brief treatment and critique of John Sanders’ Open Theism and how we can or should think about human suffering and God without going to the extreme of positing an Open Theism.

I do not want to trivialize the book I am currently reading; it is a sober, reflective, and Christian theological engagement dealing with, in particular, an incurable cancer (like one that I had, but of a different species, although not genus). The book I am referring to is my friend’s (we have never met personally, but we have corresponded via Facebook and email), J. Todd Billings’ newly released book entitled Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015). I start out mentioning the fact that I don’t want to trivialize this important book because often academic debates (like this one can become) reduce to an abstract exercise that has no contact with real life realities, and further I wanted to broach something that Todd touches upon as he is writing about (and even arguing for) the place of ‘lament’ before God in the Christian’s life, especially, in Todd’s case (and mine) when involving an incurable or ‘terminal’ cancer for which there is no real lasting treatment. The issue that Todd touches upon, on one side of a discussion he is developing in regard to God’s providence and the so called problem of evil, is the theological paradigm which has come to be known as Open Theism. So for the rest of this post I will engage with what Billings has written on this, and engage with it in a way that hopefully illustrates the real life impact that academic theology (which often stays abstract in people’s minds) has when it interfaces with life and death in the lives of real life people.

As with any identified and intentional framework of belief or theological trajectory there is a variety of nuance among those who self-identify with said framework; this is the case with what has come to be known as ‘Open Theism.’ But since Todd Billings focuses on one prominent advocate of Open Theism, I will use this advocate’s understanding of what Open Theism is in general; I will quote from him voluminously throughout the beginning stages of this post. This advocate of Open Theism that Billings refers to is John Sanders. Sanders is an able and ardent defender of this position, and so I think we will gain a good and general understanding simply hearing from him on what he thinks constitutes Open Theism. Sanders writes this in regard to his personal explanation of what Open Theism actually entails (and in a general way):

Openness Theology (commonly referred to as Open Theism and Free Will Theism) connects with the spirituality of many Christians throughout the history of the church especially when it comes to prayer. Many Christians feel that our prayers or lack of them can make a difference as to what God does in history. The Openness of God is an attempt to think out more consistently what it means that God enters into personal relationships with humanity. We want to develop an understanding of the triune God and God’s relationship to the world that is Biblically faithful, finds consonance with the tradition, is theologically coherent and which enhances the way we live our Christian lives. On the core tenets of the Christian faith, we agree, but we believe that some aspects of the tradition need reforming, particularly when it comes to what is called “Classical Theism.” We believe that some aspects of this model of God have led Christians to misread certain Scriptures and develop some serious problems in our understanding of God which affect the way we live, pray and answer the problem of evil. (source)

As Sanders understands Open Theism it is a theological trajectory that sees itself within the ambit of historical Christian orthodoxy, but it at the same time wants to critique what it thinks has become a cumbersome understanding of an overly-deterministic God in relation to human agency and contingency in the world. In other words, Open Theists want to make room for what they believe is representative of a world where human beings can make ‘genuine’ human decisions that not only affect themselves and their own personal trajectories, but indeed affect God and his relation to creation. Sanders believes that God chose to create a world like this–where God’s knowledge of future events is not exhaustive, but instead is responsive to our choices–because he believes this ensures a real dynamism in who God is in a God-world relation such that human freedom and the contingencies of this world cannot or should not be attributed to God, per se, but instead to the real contingencies built into the fabric of this world. Sanders writes further:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does-God does not fake the story of human history. (source)

Sanders mentions ‘meticulous providence’ (what Sanders would see as the ‘Classical Theist’ position on Divine providence) versus a ‘general providence’ (which would be Sanders’ Open Theist view of God’s providential relation to history, and ‘dynamic’ relation); it is this type of meticulous providence or monocausality that Open Theists deplore with much vehemence. Open Theists, like Sanders, believe that the ostensible ‘classical’ view of providence reduces all of reality to God’s hyper-deterministic supervening over human and natural history such that there remains no space for genuine human story making, and even more negatively, Open Theists believe that this kind of ‘static’ supervening of God over history in deterministic ways ultimately can only lead us to conclude that God is the author of evil and human suffering (along with everything else in the world). We can see how the Open Theist is genuinely trying to, among other loci, engage with the purported philosophical problem of ‘God and evil’ (theodicy).

It is these issues and others (how to avoid the kind of meticulous providence, without falling into an Open Theist ‘solution’) that Todd Billings touches upon in his discussion on cancer, human suffering, and more broadly on God and evil in the world. We will get into Todd’s critique of Open Theism, and John Sanders in the next installment of this little mini-series on Open Theism and cancer.

Until then I hope this brief introduction to Open Theism has served somewhat informative. To get a the full meal deal, and John Sanders full (summative) articulation of what Open Theism entails (it is relatively short), click here.

“… it is not Scripture which is self-interpreting, but God who as Word interprets himself through the Spirit’s work.”

holy_bibleThe perspicuity of Holy Scripture is something quite central to the Protestant Reformation, in principle. In other words, for the
Protestant Reformers and reformed, the clarity of Scripture as to things having to do with who God is and what salvation entails is absolutely central to the capacity for all believers to fulfill the Reformed principle of the Priesthood of All Believers. Note what the Westminster Confession of Faith 1/VII & 1/IX communicates:

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

X. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

But as we look out on the horizon of present day Protestant exegesis of the Bible, it becomes quickly apparent that something has gone awry; that what sociologist Christian Smith calls Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism is surely pertinent to our current circumstances (i.e. the idea that there are as many interpretations of the text of Scripture as there are interpreters or communities of interpreters).

So is the WCF wrong in its view of the clarity of Scriputure? Were the Reformers wrong in pressing this idea of the perspicuity of Holy Writ? Not necessarily, but maybe we need to take some of those principles and hone them more sharply; maybe we need to identify a canon or standard by which we can identify what clarity actually looks like, and who controls that when we engage with Scripture. And maybe we need to consider the reality (as the WCF does) that sin still clouds things such that we must look even beyond Scripture, through Scripture, for the clarity that Scripture bears witness to. And maybe we should consider Scripture’s clarity as an eschatological and even apocalyptic reality that is not a static thing but a dynamic thing as we are all (as the church) growing more and more in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Todd Billings (with John Webster’s help) helps clarify my points further:

It is in this context that the notion of Scripture as “self-interpreting” is properly understood. Though this notion that Scripture is “self-interpreting” and “clear” is often criticized as naïve, it is better thought of as a way to understand the priority of God’s word by way of Scripture standing over the reader and all that the reader brings to the text. As John Webster says, “Scripture is self-interpreting and perspicuous by virtue of its relation to God; its clarity is inherent, not made, whether by magisterial authorities, the scholar-prince or the pious reader.” Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 93. This self-interpreting clarity is not a formal property of the biblical text; rather, “Scripture is clear because through the Spirit the text serves God’s self-presentation. Properly speaking, it is not Scripture which is self-interpreting, but God who as Word interprets himself through the Spirit’s work.” Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 94. In the triune economy of salvation, readers of Scripture enter into the Spirit’s work – which is God’s own “self-interpreting” of God’s incarnate Word. The Spirit does not need our advice or input to speak God’s Word.[1]

Is it wrong to believe in the Protestant idea of the clarity of Scripture? No. But it is better, I think, to constructively move beyond its original articulation by following Billings’ and Webster’s suggestions of grounding clarity in the nexus of our participation with the living, eternal Word of God by the Holy Spirit’s spiration as He illumines, from glory to glory, our relationship and knowledge of God and His Word in ever increasing ways as we are moving toward the reality and consummate form of the once and for all faith delivered to the saints. In other words, it is best to think of Scripture’s clarity as grounded in Jesus Christ, and understand that Scripture’s role is as an instrument or spectacles to allow us to look beyond it to its dynamic and ineffable reality who is, indeed, Jesus Christ. So clarity, by implication, then, should not suggest to us that we have come to possess something by understanding certain things about Scripture; instead the clarity of Scripture should make clear to us that we are now possessed by the One who ever anew and afresh gives Himself continuously to us by the Holy Spirit’s recreative work in our lives as we live from His, from Christ’s life for us.

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word Of God For The People Of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 142-43, n. 43.

The Church as the ‘Translated’ Faith, a Maasai Creed, and the Dominant ‘Faith of Christ’

The domination of Biblical exegesis and Theological development by White male Europeans in the church’s history continues to be a mantra chanted by many who are seeking to do exegesis and theology from a post-colonial, anti-empire hermeneutic; in other words, there are many who disagree with what they feel is the impingement of one perspective on Christian reality and expression over others. It is true, that the male species of the European variety has dominated the construction of theological grammar, and the conclusions in exegetical decisions for centuries; but this does not mean that what has been constructed, and what has been concluded is not valid or sound, it simply reflects the reality that all theology, and exegesis is contextually derived. And this, in and of itself fits well with the Christian reality of indigenizing the ‘faith’ into particular expressions relative to the panoply present in the human race. The problem, of course, comes in, when one expression, does indeed become the norming one simply because it is the dominant one. But really what needs to be considered within this kind of ‘dilemma’ is whether we need to “chuck” this kind of ‘dominating’ expression for other contextualized readings of the Bible, and other contextualized theological constructions? That seems to be how some people want to proceed; by elevating ‘their’ particular contextualized production of theological and exegetical flare for what has in the past been the dominant one. But this doesn’t seem very ‘Christian’ either, we are just exchanging one dominate form of theology for another one; it is all about who has the ‘power’ it seems.

maasai

What if, instead, we acknowledged that, yes, indeed, there has been a domination of the theological landscape for many years, but instead of replacing that, why not place that into conversation with other expressions of Christian reality from different regions of the world, and different socio contexts from the dominant one? I think that is the better way to proceed. Todd Billings writes of all of this in his book The Word Of God For The People Of God. He quotes a Christian creed given voice by the Maasai Tribe in Africa, and then he concludes the section he provides this quote from with a summary about how contextualized offerings of theology and exegesis are inevitable within the Christian community, and that this is a good thing to be cherished, not a bad thing to be repudiated.

First the creed from the Maasai, and then Billings summarizing thought:

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.[1]

Here is Todd Billings summarizing how powerful the contextualization of Christian thought is, and how and why we should appreciate it. The Masai creed helps to illustrate the beauty of all of this, and the freshness available in the Christian faith as we serve and worship the living, loving God in Jesus Christ for us (pro nobis):

In summary, the indigenizing of the Christian message – tied to contextual readings of Scripture – is a work of the Spirit that we should celebrate. In terms of our norm stated at the outset (“scriptural interpretation from diverse contexts can be received as mutual enrichment, gifts of the Spirit”) that indigenizing can be used by God to open new doors for the understanding of Scripture. Unlike the Enlightenment tendency embedded in some historical-critical approaches to see the cultural particularity of the reader as an obstacle to be overcome, cultural difference in scriptural interpretation can be a sign of the Spirit of Pentecost making the word of God penetrate the idiom, narratives, and practices of various cultures. The very act of translating the Bible into many languages implies the striking claim that Christianity is a religion of revelation “without a revealed language.” There is no such as an untranslated manifestation of Christianity. “The church anywhere and everywhere is situated … in a translated environment.”[2]

Christianity is a big thing, because it is grounded in its conditioned reality in Jesus Christ, from within the Triune life of God for all, not for some.

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word Of God For The People Of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 121.

[2] Ibid., 122.

How evangelicals, mainliners, and progressives share inerrancy

Inerrancy continues to maintain a rather elevated status among both evangelical Christians and mainline Christians (and progressive holyscriptureChristians) alike; for the former it is in the affirmative, for the latter grouping it is in the negative. But both ‘sides’ are operating from modernist assumptions that in the end, at least from a Dogmatic point of view ought to be repudiated for something more robust, something more richly Christian in orientation, from my perspective. Todd Billings helps to clarify how a certain view of ‘inspiration’ (for or against) has contributed to this un-Dogmatic approach to the topic of Biblical inerrancy. Billings writes:

… First, we should note that frequently the doctrine of inspiration is taken out of an explicitly Trinitarian context. Emerging from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, many Christians sought to determine the nature of inspiration in advance of hearing the content of Scripture about the saving work of the triune God. In other words, the heirs of fundamentalism tended to isolate the doctrine of inspiration from the material teaching of the church in order to have indubitable grounds on which to build doctrine; the heirs of modernism often relied on the appeal to universal human capacities rather than the particularity of Israel and Jesus Christ. As a result, both left behind the Trinitarian and soteriological context for the doctrine of inspiration.[1]

This rings true, doesn’t it? When I look out over the landscape of evangelical Christian, mainline Christian, and so called ‘progressive’ Christian discourse what I largely see underwriting the disjunction between them (on a continuum) all stems from how Scripture is conceived of at a hermeneutical level (the methodological commitments each group has in regard to interpreting things and constructing things like a doctrine and ontology of Scripture). The irony I see involved in much of this, is that while there is a different slant placed on the respective and disparate emphases, pace each tradition (i.e. evangelical, mainline, progressive, etc.), they all are working from the same modernist assumptions about how we know (i.e. the relation between ontology and epistemology).

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word Of God For The People Of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2010), 90-1.