The ‘Eternal Indicative’, Christian Grace: Torrance is Jammin’

I wasn’t sure I really wanted to post this; not because it isn’t stupendous, but because it is rather lengthy, and I am tired. But for you my dear readers I will sacrifice some sleep, and expose you to something that ought to make your day, or life (the reality of what is being communicated). I won’t provide any of my own commentary on this one, it speaks well enough for itself. I will say though, at the outset, that what is communicated here pretty much contradicts most conceptions of Grace that I have ever come across. Most conceptions of grace that I have come across (from a Christian perspective) speak of it as a thing and quality; something that God gives us that we don’t deserve. I suppose to an extent that part is true (i.e. the part about it being a reality we don’t deserve), but it is much more; and the round perspective of Grace, of course understands its actuality grounded personally in Jesus Christ and God’s action for us in Him by the creative and generative power of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the day—if you haven’t figured this out yet—it is either all Jesus, or it ain’t Christianity simpliciter. Here we go; Torrance lays it down here, he is flowing big time (which is why this is a little long, at least for me to transcribe … but it is worth it!).

[T]o sum up: Grace in the New Testament is the basic and the most characteristic element of the Christian Gospel. It is the breaking into the world of the ineffable love of God in a deed of absolutely decisive significance which cuts across the whole of human life and sets it on a new basis. That is actualized in the person of Jesus Christ, with which grace is inseparably associated, and supremely exhibited on the Cross by which the believer is once and for all put in the right with God. This intervention of God in the world and its sin, out of sheer love, and His personal presence to men through Jesus Christ are held together in the one thought of grace. As such grace is the all-comprehensive and constant presupposition of faith, which, while giving rise to an intensely personal life in the Spirit, necessarily assumes a charismatic and eschatological character. Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. The other side of faith is grace, the immediate act of God in Christ, and because He is the persistent Subject of all Christian life and thought, faith stands  necessarily on the threshold of the new world, with the intense consciousness of the advent of Christ. The charismatic and the eschatological aspects of faith are really one. In Christ the Eternal God has entered into this present evil world which shall in due course pass away before the full unveiling of the glory of God. That is the reason for the double consciousness of faith in the New Testament. By the Cross the believer has been put in the right with God once for all—Christ is his righteousness. He is already in Christ what he will be—to that no striving will add one iota. But faith is conscious of the essential imminence of that day, because of the intense nearness of Christ, when it shall know even as it is known, when it shall be what it already is. And so what fills the forward view is not some ideal yet to be attained, but the Christian’s position already attained in Christ and about to be revealed. The pressure of this imminence may be so great upon the mind as to turn the thin veil of sense and time into apocalyptic imagery behind which faith sees the consummation of all things. Throughout all this the predominating thought is grace, the presence of the amazing love of God in Christ, which has unaccountably overtaken the believer and set him in a completely new world which is also the eternal Kingdom of God. [Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 34-5.]

And you wonder why I read Torrance so much! Ha, I partake liberally of his writings, and the above is an example why! If this does not charge you, then you best be checking for a Christian pulse. I don’t really know what else to say, other than I have a kink in my back now from writing this out, but I think you are now blessed because of the cause of said kink (i.e. transcribing this). Why doesn’t this stuff get preached from pulpits all across the land? Oh yeah, pastors aren’t reading Torrance, and if they do they aren’t quoting him in large doses! I think I might just have to buy my own pulpit and start preaching or something; at least that’s what I feel like doing after contemplating the depths that Torrance has just helped plumb for us. If you are a pastor, I challenge you to quote some if not all of this in a future sermon; and quote it with the passion this deserves (pound the pulpit or stomp the floor a few times [if you don’t have a pulpit anymore] if you have too).

I am going to bed now; I think I will dream of grace (i.e. sweet Jesus)!

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A Boring Post: Are Evangelical Calvinists more ‘Scholastic’ than the Scholastics of Today?

This post will probably be a little boring for most; but hey, I’m boring (I guess you’ll have to read it to find out).

Jon Hoglund (a PhD student at Wheaton College) recently wrote a review of Richard Muller’s newly released book Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (which now I must read). westminsterassemblyIf you have read me for more than a few years, you will quickly recognize Muller’s name; I have engaged with  him quite frequently in the past—here is the Muller category (from my blog) to prove it, and this post (Let Historians be Historians, & Theologians be Theologians) in particular anticipates the gist of this current post (which illustrates that I have been thinking about this error of Muller and others for awhile). Also in line with all of this; I used to engage with R. Scott Clark (a faculty member at Westminster Theological Seminary california), when he had his blog (before the elders of his church apparently made him take it down—at least that’s what I heard happen). I used to challenge Clark on the grounds that I will be speaking of in this current post; that is, that simply reconstructing the history of the Reformed period (i.e. doing genetic and genealogical work in the area of history of ideas and Reformed theology in particular) does not materially undercut contemporary theologies of retrieval that seek to constructively appropriate various themes, motifs, and foci presented by said period of theological development. 

Getting back to Hoglund’s review of Muller’s book; what really makes it interesting, is that he actually references me and Myk and our book (and the ‘mood’ that Myk and I, and the authors who make up our edited work are advocating for), and Evangelical Calvinism (in a somewhat derisive way (I say this because as you will read there seems to be a negative underlying presupposition behind Hoglund’s rhetoric implying that we haven’t actually engaged Calvin or the Reformed tradition on its own material and even formal grounds), relative, again, to this notion that because Muller has written a work of history that anyone who appeals to Calvin must only appeal to Calvin’s theology through Muller’s authoritative reconstruction of him … i.e. story over, Hoglund and others think). Here is what Hoglund wrote:

The great contribution of this book [Muller’s] is to refocus study of Reformed orthodoxy on the exegesis from which dogmatic formulations sprung. Muller’s use of example expostions [sic] of biblical texts presents a fruitful approach to understanding these early modern theologians. Muller’s reading of the early Reformed presents a direct challenge to contemporary movements like Evangelical Calvinism that appeal to a particular narrative of Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy in order to explain their own position. Anyone who makes claim to the 16th century Reformed traditon [sic] for a doctrine of salvation needs to be familiar with this book.

Myk registered a great comment in response to Hoglund’s review, and critique of us (and also in defense, somewhat, of both Charles Partee and Julie Canlis, who Muller apparently goes after as Calvin scholars who don’t really “get” Calvin [not like Muller & co. do]—both Partee and Canlis are contributors to our book!); and then I followed suit. Myk threw it down in his comment (which was very nice to see!), and challenged Muller & co. the way Muller and family ought to be challenged; that is, if you want actually challenge Evangelical Calvinism, and people who Myk and I would associate with that; then you are going to have to do more than historical work. You see, Myk and I are more concerned with CONSTRUCTIVELY retrieving and engaging with the Reformed voices of the past (inclusive of Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and many others), THEOLOGICALLY. As I noted above, it won’t do to simply do historical work (like Muller, Clark, et al), and then believe that you have undercut or engaged with the material proposals we are putting forward, working from within the Reformed mood as we are.

Ironically, I have just picked up a book I have engaged previously; it is entitled Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt (of which Muller and Carl Trueman are contributors—of course!). I was just reading the first chapter this morning written by Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier, entitled Teaching Reformed Scholasticism In The Contemporary Classroom (exciting stuff, eh). I say ironically, because as they outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms, they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. They highlight, interestingly, that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much so like ours (as far as methodology, not conceptually, ultimately) (and not like Mullers, Trueman’s, Clark’s et al). That the concern, more than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development; was to engage the concepts of said voices by appropriating themes and motifs that fit their broader concerns to forward the cause of theological truth. In other words, the greater concern was to organically move within the trajectory and mood set out by the past in order to constructively engage the present and future by developing the ideas of these past voices by placing them within the burgeoning and developing movement of Reformed theology (hey, that’s what we are about “Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church” semper reformanda). Here is what they wrote in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called ‘reverential exposition’:

[R]eformed theologians did not read their sources of Scripture and tradition in a historical sense, i.e., as part of an ongoing tradition, but rather as ‘authorities’ of truth. Until the breakdown of scholasticism and the historical revolution, sources were not quoted in a historical way, be they the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. A quotation did not indicate a correct historical understanding of what its original author had meant, but was read systematically as bearer of truth. From this it follows that contradictions among authorities were solved logically rather than hermeneutically. (p. 39)

I find it highly ironic that people like Muller (Hoglund), and others, would critique Myk, myself, and Evangelical Calvinism (and others who could be so associated) for imbibing the ‘spirit’ of even the post-Reformed orthodox faith (methodologically) more than their apparent heirs (Muller & co.). Although, I would not go as far as to say that we are not sensitive to the importance of getting history right; but we are even more concerned with the ‘truth’ and ideas that were presented by various voices of the past (esp. Calvin’s). If there are themes and motifs present in Calvin (like his union with Christ theology) that are open for further development; then what is wrong with seeking to develop that motif in a way that situates it within a continuing development of this theme from within a Reformed trajectory?

Here is one more example of how these authors, Bac and Pleizier, develop this idea of reverent exposition:

[T]herefore, these texts had to be explained with reverence (exponere reverenter), that is, not in historical conformity with a tradition or with the author’s expressed intention but in conformity with truth, i.e., reverently denoted in correspondence with established theological and philosophical truth. This method of reverent exposition involved a hermeneutical procedure that went back to the patristic period. To be sure, there was room for some exegesis but, as de Rijk has noted, the scholastics used the hermeneutical norm of objective truth (of the debated subjects: veritas rerum) in addition to a kind of philological exegesis employing semantic criteria for interpretation. This resulted in an incorporation of the authoritative text into one’s own conceptual framework. [Scholasticism Reformed, p. 40]

So the scholastic methodology was not about repristinating and absolutizing a period as the norming norm, but it felt the freedom to fluidly engage with the past in a way that had relevance for the present; and in a way that organically built from the trajectory provided for in the past. Or, as Barth would argue (in  his ‘The Theology of the Reformed Confessions’) to operate within the ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith (subordinate to Scripture and thus always reforming), and not the ‘letter’, which is to appeal to a sort of repristinated procrustean bed of perceived static truth that can simply be inherited but not developed in any kind of new or meaningful way.

In summary, I would simply want to suggest that Evangelical Calvinism is actually imbibing the spirit of the Reformed faith even more so than those who are most visibly associated with the Reformed faith today (Muller & co., and others). And our mode is to primarily engage the past (Calvin and the crew) constructively with the goal of engaging the truth which transcends (but does not elide) the historical situadedness of particular people, simpliciter); but at the same time, doing so in a way that is seeking dialogical engagement with the past in order to provoke the present with themes that most magnify the name of Jesus. If Muller and company want to critique Evangelical Calvinism (and those of like mind), then they will need to be truly scholastic in form, and not just historians.

Silly Rabbit, Trix are for Kids: The Mythology of the Salvation-Atonement Distinction, ‘Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect’

Amongst the classically Reformed amongst us, it is common parlance to refer to a distinction, relative to the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ (i.e. for whom did he die?, etc.), which goes like this: Christ’s death on the cross was sufficient to save and redeem the whole world, but in reality it is only efficient to save the elect; those whom God gratuitously chose to be saved from before the foundations of the world. So there is recognition of the fact that God’s life in Christ for us has the potential capacity and power to save all, but it only has the actual reach to affect salvation in those whom God particularly chose to reach. There is a somewhat devious (I think) conception of God, and his wills or acts that stands behind this kind of distinction between the ‘sufficiency’ of the atonement Versus its ‘efficiency’; maybe we will get into that at a later date.

TrixAreForKids

Following is part of an argument and description of this ‘distinction’ provided by R. Scott Clark of Westminster Theological Seminary California’s faculty; he writes of this sufficient/efficient dichotomy:

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.23 [full argument available here]

So as we can see, this distinction is a reality in theological parlance, first articulated by the seminal Roman Catholic theologian, Peter Lombard, in his infamous Sentences (which were the basis for subsequent Medieval and Protestant Reformed theologies to follow); and as observed, continue to have conceptual force for contemporary classically Reformed historians and theologians like Scott Clark. I thought of highlighting this distinction because I came across a rebuttal of it by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bently Hart as I have been reading (10 pages from completion now) Matthew Levering’s book Predestination. Reference is made to this ‘rebuttal’ of Hart by Levering in a footnote on the first page of the last chapter of the book. Let me share that now, and we will see what you think:

Hart, ‘Providence and Causality’, 47. Hart explains further: “This entire issue, of course, becomes far less involved if one does not presume real differentiations within God’s intention towards his creatures. For, surely, scripture is quite explicit on this point: God positively “wills” the salvation of “all human beings” (1 Tim. 2.4). That is, he does not merely generically desire that salvation, or formally allow it as a logical possibility, or will it antecedently but not consequently, or (most ridiculous of all) enable it “sufficiently” but not “efficaciously”. If God were really to supply saving grace sufficient for all, but to refuse to supply most persons with the necessary natural means of attaining that grace, it would mean that God does not will the salvation of all. If God’s will to save is truly universal, as the epistle proclaims, one simply cannot start from the assumption that God causes some to rise while willingly permitting others to fall; even if one dreads the spectre of universalism, one cat at most affirm that God causes all to rise, and permits all to fall, and imparts to all—the ability to consent to or to resist grace he extends while providentially ordering all things according to his universal will to salvation. Or, rather, perhaps one should say that God causes all to rise, but the nature of that cause necessarily involves a permission of the will’. [Cited by Matthew Levering, Predestination, 177-78 n. 2.]

I would like to elaborate further, especially on what Clark refers to as God’s antecedent and consequent will and how that relates to this soteriological distinction of ‘sufficient/efficient’. Hart, as you read his quotable, also refers to this supposed distinction between God’s ‘antecedent’ and ‘consequent’ will; apparently, and to be sure, it is this prior distinction, made by theologians, in God’s life that funds the conceptual hangers upon which these ‘theologians’ hang the ‘sufficient/efficient’ distinction relative to the extent of the atonement. Suffice it to say for now, to appeal to this sufficient/efficient distinction introduces a rupture or break into God’s life, into his will for us (I don’t like appealing to the language of ‘Will’, but I will for sake of discussion). The important thing, and this is what we as Evangelical Calvinists do, is to maintain a unity in God’s Triune life; so following Rahner, Barth, Torrance & co. the ontological Trinity is the economic Trinity (and vice versa)— or, there is a unity to God’s life. The ‘antecedent’ life of God is the ‘consequent’ life of God Self revealed in Jesus Christ—so then there is ‘no God behind the back of Jesus’! If we dispose of these ‘two-wills’ in God, then we dispose of the foundation upon which the sufficient/efficient distinction is built, where it lives, moves, and has its breath. And, if we follow Hart’s rebuttal of this distinction it is even more simply stated than I just did; i.e. it cannot be said that God genuinely wills the salvation of all, and at the same time hold that God only provides the means for some to be saved (unless you want to affirm prior to this discussion by logical priority, that God has such a thing as an ‘antecedent’ will and a ‘consequent’ wherein the former is somehow distinct from the latter—this has terrible problems, doctrine of God-wise for you–so I can understand why you want to fall back into a strict apophaticism and mystery at this point, but God’s Self-revelation in Christ won’t let you retreat so fast!). He either truly desires all to be saved or he doesn’t (pace the modal law of logic: e.g. the law of non-contradiction).

We should discuss, at a later date, this idea and impact of God’s singular will, and the fact that who he is, how he acts in his inner (some would use the language of eternal) life, is exactly, univocally the same way he acts in Christ and the Holy Spirit in his outer life revealed in salvation history for us. We will talk about this soon, I have written on this in the past; but I will revisit it in the near future. Suffice it to say, ‘you don’t really believe that the atonement is sufficient for all, but only efficient for the elect’, do you? Silly rabbit, trix are for kids.

§3. Matt Chandler’s and John Piper’s ‘two-willed god’: There is a history!

*To catch up read my first and second installments, 1) here and 2) here.

II

This is my second installment (well third really) on Matt Chandler’s and John Piper’s ‘two-wills in God theology’. My last post on this sought to introduce us to the way that John Piper, in particular, and Chandler otherwise, understand a concept that they both articulate as ‘The TwoWills of God’. I registered my concern in that last post about where this approach leads, because of where it comes from; and because of what it implies about God’s nature, and how he relates to his creation (us) in what has been called salvation history. This post will briefly sketch the aspect of where  two wills in God theology came from; my next and last post in this mini-series will detail what the implications are of this approach (for Christology, soteriology [study of salvation], etc.), and in this detailing I will offer what I think is a corrective—which of course is what we advocate for as Evangelical Calvinists.

The history of two-wills in God theology can be seen given definition through the thought processes of a medieval theologian named William of Ockham. He believed, in a nutshell, that God was one way in eternity (God’s so called ‘absolute will’), and another way in time-space salvation history (God’s so called ‘ordained will’). What this does is introduce a wedge between the God of eternity and the God of spacio-temporal time; meaning that the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ could potentially be different than the God behind Jesus back up in eternity (understand that I am speaking in oversimplified ways and rather crudely)—or, there is no necessary link between how God acts in eternity, and how God acts in time. The result of this is to place a rupture into the very being of God. Here is how Steven Ozment summarizes Ockham’s view (and he also quotes a bit of Ockham for us); we will quote this at some length:

Ockham’s reputation as a revolutionary theological thinker has resulted from the extremes to which he went to establish the contingent character of churches, priests, sacraments, and habits of grace. He drew on two traditional sources. The first was Augustine’s teaching that the church on earth was permixta, that is, that some who appear to be saints may not be, and some who appear not to be saints may in fact be so, for what is primary and crucial in salvation is never present grace and righteousness, but the gift of perseverance, which God gives only the elect known to him. Ockham’s second source was the distinction between the absolute and ordained powers of God, the most basic of Ockham’s theological tools. Ockham understood this critical distinction as follows:

Sometimes we mean by God’s power those things which he does according to laws he himself has ordained and instituted. These things he is said to do by ordained power [de potential ordinata]. But sometimes God’s power is taken to mean his ability to do anything that does not involve a contradiction, regardless of whether or not he has ordained that he would do it. For God can do many things that he does not choose to do. . . . The things he is said to be able to do by his absolute power [de potential absoluta]. [Quodlibeta VI, q. 1, cited by Dettloff, Die Entwicklung der Akzeptations- unde Verdienstlehre, p. 282, and Courtenay, “Nominalism and Late Medieval Religion,” p. 40.]

Ockham seemed to delight in demonstrating the contingency of God’s ordained power—what God had actually chosen to do in time—by contrasting it with his absolute power, the infinite possibilities open to him in eternity. According to his absolute power, God could have chosen to save people in ways that seem absurd and even blasphemous. For example, he could have incarnated himself in a stone or an ass rather than in a man, or could have required that he be hated rather than loved as the condition of salvation. . . .[1]

In order to keep this brief enough I will not elaborate too much, but let me give some reasons why I think this is important to know; and also for whom I am presenting this in the main:

1)      I am introducing this for folks who have never had a Reformation Theology class in seminary, for example. So this is intended to provide exposure for all of those who have been unexposed heretofore.

2)      My hope is that because of said exposure, the reader will understand that there is something more going on when they hear Piper and Chandler articulate two wills in God theology. In other words, the way that both Piper and Chandler present this, to the uninformed; the parishioner will walk away thinking that what Chandler just said about two wills in God is simply Gospel biblical truth without reservation or anyway to critically consider this. So my goal is rather minimal by reproducing Ozment’s thought for you; my goal is simply to alert the attentive reader and thinker that there is something more than ‘biblical truth’ going on in the in-formation of Piper’s and Chandler’s view on this particular topic.

3)      I want the read to understand that there is a particular problem associated with thinking in these kind of Nominalist ways (which is what the philosophy is called that Ockham articulates) about the nature of God. As I noted earlier, it creates a potential schism (indeed necessary) between the God of eternity and the God of time revealed in Jesus Christ; so as my favorite theologian says (along with Barth before him), we end up ‘with a god behind the back of Jesus’ who is not necessarily the same God we see revealed in Jesus (so when Jesus says in John 14 that ‘when you see me you see the Father’, that may or may not be true according to the implications and logic associated with a two-wills in God theology).

Conclusion

My next and final post in this series will expand on the problems associated with this approach; elaborating upon my parenthetical point in point three in the aforementioned. I will notice how this approach, which is purported by both Piper and Chandler to resolve some apparent tensions in scripture; instead exacerbate things in scripture by undercutting the most important point and touchstone we work from as Christians—that is what has been called a Theology Proper or Doctrine of God. If we get this point wrong—e.g. who God is—then the rest of our theological thinking and biblical interpreting will be found to be built on sandy beaches and not the rocky jetty that will stand under the most tumultuous theological storm waves one could fathom.


[1] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual And Religious History Of Late Medieval And Reformation Europe, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 18.

Expectations: What You Should Expect From My Obervations of ‘The Young, Restless, Reformed’

I just wanted to do a little ground clearing on what you all can expect in regards to some future posts I am going to be doing on Matt Chandler’s and John Piper’s & the whole gang’s Calvinism:

  1. My intended audience is the lay and pastoral thinking person (academics can read and respond too, but I suspect you will be already aware of most things I will be highlighting).
  2. I don’t have any silver bullets, so I don’t want you to be underwhelmed by my observations. Most of what I will say is not original to me, and is already available elsewhere if you know where to look (of course that’s why some might be interested in what I have to say, because you might not know where to look).
  3. My tone will be to be as charitable as possible. I never have looked at this ‘divide’ (doctrinally) as one that questions anyone’s salvation or ultimate Christianity; my concern, while deathly serious, has to do with folk’s Christian spirituality and daily walk with Jesus. So I don’t want anyone to think that I am questioning any of these guys’ salvation—that notwithstanding, I am questioning the Christian moorings that 5 point Calvinism (esp. North American flavor) in the church/pulpit culture actually provides (or does not!).
  4. With the latter point noted, I will be passionate about what I write; I don’t believe in dispassionate scholarship or teaching, and so this passion of mine ought to be evident (even now!). That said, I do believe that we can and should be sober-passionate; meaning that I will seek to be fair and Christian in my characterizations and observations (that’s the benefit, for me, from doing this online … I have you all to keep me honest … of course I reserve the right to keep you honest too 😉 ).
  5. I will end this with a fifth point 😉 … The need I see for doing an observational project like this on the blog; is that there are still much needed voices who will sound off about what in fact is wrong in Evangelicalism, in general, and the impact that movements (within Evangelicalism) like The Gospel Coalition and Together For the Gospel (and to a lesser extent The Shepherd’s Conferences) are having upon my brethren and sistren in relation to the doctrinal trajectory that these movements are charting for all who are participating (whether directly or indirectly). This is my motivation, to simply notice the impact; and then to identify an alternative way to consider how we ought to think about God and the Church and Salvation for Evangelicalism in particular—and to do all of this in accessible, churchy level ways.

I Love You! I Disdain [westminster] Calvinism!

Why? Why? Why do I disdain classic Calvinism and Arminianism so much? Do I think it’s a game, and I just like to play “I’ll joust you games on the internet;” does this make my world go round? NO! I disdain classic Calvinism and Arminianism (classical theism for short, and through the rest of the post labeled CT) because it places people in bondage; people I love, YOU! My close family members! My family members in the church (even our local church, and we attend a Calvary Chapel of all places)! Some people must think I have a vendetta against CT; I do! Why? Am I disgruntled with it? Yes! Why? Because there are people I love (both known and unknown) who are trying to live through the strictures that the God of CT (Calvinism & Arminianism) has placed them in; a yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:1), and they’ve been conditioned to think that this is God’s freedom. These people I love live in a matrix that has conditioned them to think that their Calvinist-Arminian God (or maybe just their ‘Evangelical’ God) is a God who is defined by his ‘power’ and by his ‘Law’; and further, they have been cajoled into thinking that God is a navel gazer, or more explicitly that ‘God is for God’—or that God is inward curved, and that this inward curvature (or inward fixation) defines God’s glory. People I love and care for deeply have submitted themselves to this God, and, for some it is costing them their lives, their sanity, their hope. This is why I disdain Calvinism and Arminianism. It’s because I love YOU!

What Did Jesus Teach About Hell? Is it eternal, conscious, torment?

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; . . . 46. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25.41, 46 (NRSV)

 Craig S. Keener comments on this pericope in his New Testament Background Commentary in this way:

25:41-45. Some Jewish traditions (like Qumran War Scroll) report that Belial (Satan) was created for the pit; destruction was not God’s original purpose for people (4 Ezra 8:59-60). In many Jewish traditions, the demons were fallen angels (cf. comment on 2 Pet. 2:4). Jewish tradition was divided on the duration of hell; this passage’s description of it as “eternal” was certainly not merely a concession to a universal image in Judaism.

25:46. Eternal life was promised to the righteous after their resurrection at the end of the age (Dan. 12:2). Some Jewish teachers believed that hell was temporary and that at the end some people would be burned up and others released; other Jewish teachers spoke as if hell were eternal. Jesus here sides with the latter group.[1]

This begs the question; what did Jesus believe about what has been labeled the eternal conscious torment doctrine of hell (the Traditional teaching)? According to Keener, and in this particular dominical teaching of Jesus; Jesus held to the belief that hell (or the after-life separated from participation with God through Christ [my gloss]) does indeed articulate that there is a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. As the quote from Keener also illustrates, the Jewish context in which Jesus taught as a Rabbi was not monolithic on this doctrine; it is just that Jesus appropriated and taught the strand that articulated that hell fits with what today would be called the traditional view.

In concert with this assessment, none other than The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry) holds that the dominical (Jesus’) teaching is consistent with Keener’s perspective; that is that Jesus taught that hell was eternal conscious torment. Note MacDonald,

[G]ehenna was a place of punishment and fire but beyond that was generally left unexplained. When we find Jesus drawing on the idea of Gehenna, we must remember that it was not a clearly worked out concept. Beyond its being a place of fiery punishment for the wicked, the details, if anyone wanted to fill them in, were up for grabs. That said, I think that it is quite clear that Jesus’ contemporaries would not have thought the he was a universalist of any variety. To the traditionalist this settles the case, but I think that there is more to be said. I want to argue, first of all, that none of Jesus’ recorded teachings about Gehenna explicitly affirm the notion that it was everlasting; and nothing Jesus is recorded to have said rules out the possibility that some or all of its inhabitants may at some point come to salvation. I am not trying to show that Jesus taught universalism nor that he taught that those in Gehenna could or would be saved, for he did neither. My aim is the much more modest one of showing that what he did teach does not formally contradict universalist claims. This, of course, does not provide any reason to suppose that a universalist interpretation of Gehenna is biblical without substantive additional reasons for embracing such an interpretation. My second task is to show that we do have such reasons.[2]

MacDonald helps reinforce Keener’s commentary, that indeed Jesus taught the Jewish tradition (amongst the many available, just as there are many available today for Christians—but not viable for most Christians) that there is a literal place in the life after life (to borrow Wright’s quip) known as hell; and that this will be a place that is characterized by final eternal conscious torment.

So this represents the dominical teaching; the teaching that Jesus taught. But this does not serve as a death knell for ‘Evangelical Universalists’; as MacDonald notes. For Jesus, in his context, the teaching that hell was eternal could very well have been “just” for his particular context. In other words, as MacDonald later contends, Jesus’ pronouncement on this topic could have been  to reinforce the severity of God’s judgment; and yet at the same time, not intending to be the last word on it. MacDonald writes:

[W]e should not suppose that, because Jesus did not explicitly teach universal salvation or explicitly repudiate the idea that many people would never experience salvation, universalism is an un-Christian idea incompatible with Jesus’ ministry. If later revelation leads in universalist directions, as I have argued it does, then we need to understand the ministry of Christ in that light. It is the whole canonical story that we examined in Chapters Two to Four that forms the broader theological context within which we must understand Jesus’ teachings about Gehenna, and it is that very context that serves to modify some of the understandings of it common in Jesus’ own day.[3]

For MacDonald, for Jesus not to teach universalism does not mitigate the fact that the whole scope and sweep of the canonical teaching does in fact teach a Christian universalism. We will have to redress this at another time.

Conclusion

The question that I have been seeking to answer through this short piece has been “What did Jesus believe and teach about the view of hell that involves eternal conscious torment; did he teach this view or not?” The result of some cursory (yet I think substantial) musing has been to conclude that Jesus did indeed teach that there is a literal place that has become known as ‘Hell’, and that hell is unfortunately characterized by eternal conscious torment.

This is an important point to establish because it places the burden on those who disagree to disagree with Jesus. Are there ways to do that, and still honor Jesus’ own teaching, and even his person? MacDonald believes that there are, and in fact he thinks he has (found the way).

There are other prominent foci (or focal points) to consider towards helping us understand how to place Jesus’ teaching, in the book of Matthew for example. In other words, there is a strong theological case to be made for a Christian universalism that attends to who God is as Triune Love, full of grace. If God is Love (and he is), then we have to interpret Jesus’ views and teaching on hell through that lens (the lens of the cross, the penultimate expression of his love … the ultimate being his resurrection). MacDonald’s contention to annex Jesus’ teaching to a particular situation he was addressing might have teeth in light of the theological argument; it might leave the door open for a Christian theological reification or classification of hell in ways that might favor something like MacDonald’s Evangelical Universalism. There might be hope. Maybe Jesus didn’t intend his teaching to offer the last word after all; on hell that is.

No matter what, in the end, the conclusion must be that Jesus did teach what some would call the Traditional view of hell as ‘eternal conscious torment’. How one places that, in its ‘universal scope’ is what still needs to be contended with (MacDonald has, I’m still working on it).

My personal conclusion, at the moment, is that Jesus’ teaching on hell should serve as the standard; I see it with ‘universal force’ and thus am not willing, as of yet, to annex it, or particularize it to his specific audience in the 1st century (which would be what MacDonald does, amongst others). I continue to hold to the trad teaching, but I also am willing to hold out that once we are present with the LORD in the consummation that he could surprise us in keeping with his life of grace and love.


[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 118-19.

[2] Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 144-45.

[3] Ibid, 149-50.

The ‘Beast’ in the Book of Revelation, He’s Here

I have been reading Richard Bauckham’s The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation; I was spurned to read this because I read his smaller book The Theology of the Book of Revelation a few months ago, which was excellent and a must read. In fact I would say that if you haven’t read either of these books you haven’t really ever studied the book of Revelation. What I want to highlight is a bit of Bauckham’s discussion and identification of the Beast in the book of Revelation. Now, if your reading this as a dispensationalist you will be challenged (to say the least); but I think if you read Bauckham’s development in full you would be hard pressed to refute what he has to say. He looks at the internal structure of the book, and really presses the ‘Epistle’ genre of the book (then also the ‘Apocalyptic’ and ‘Prophetic’); resulting in taking seriously that John was writing for the seven churches he is speaking to in 1st century Graeco-Rome. Bauckham is at his best as he situates the apocalyptic genre of Revelation in its proper literary context. Meaning that he identifies how all of the picteresque and emotive language of Revelation was understood within its historical context, and what the prophetic significance would have been for these 1st century Christians; and then what it means for us today (by way of application). I uphold what Bauckham here communicates about the ‘Beast’, and I want to commend it to you for your consideration. What he brings out on the Beast and Empire presents a paradigm shifting proposition in the way that most Evangelical Christians have understood this amazing book. I am going to share this quote on the Beast and Empire from Bauckham, and then I will close with a few parting comments.

[T]he images of the beast will probably become most easily accessible to us as we realise that it was primarily in developing the theme of christological parody that John found the Nero legend useful. It enabled him to construct a history of the beast as paralleling the death, the resurrection and the parousia of Jesus Christ. Some interpretation of Revelation has made the theme of christological parody seem a mere creative fantasy which John projects onto the Roman Empire, which of course had no intention of aping the Christian story of Jesus. In fact, as we have seen, the christological parody corresponds to real features of history of the empire, to the character of the imperial cult, and to contemporary expectations of the future of the empire. It is a profound prophetic interpretation of the contemporary religio-political image of the empire, both in Rome’s own propaganda and in its subjects’ profoundest responses to Roman rule. This religio-political ideology, which John sees as a parody of the Christian claims about Christ, was no mere cover for the hard political realities: it entered deeply into the contemporary dynamics of power as they affected the lives of John’s contemporaries. He sees it as a deification of power. The empire’s success is founded on military might and people’s adulation of military might. By these standards Christ and the martyrs are the unsuccessful victims of the empire. Instead of worshipping the risen Christ who has won his victory by suffering witness to the truth, the world worships the beast whose ‘resurrection’ is the proof that this military might is invincible. The parallel between the ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ of the beast and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ poses the issue of what is truly divine. Is it the beast’s apparent success which is worthy of religious trust and worship? Or is the apparent failure of Christ and the martyrs the true witness to the God who can be ultimately trusted and may alone be worshipped?

The ambiguity of the period of the beast’s reign, in which to earthly appearances the beast’s ‘resurrection’ has established his eternal kingdom, while those who acknowledge God’s rule are slaughtered by the beast, cannot be permanent. God’s kingdom must come. The parallel between the beast’s ‘parousia’ and Christ’s poses the issue of what will turn out ultimately to be divine, whose kingdom will prevail in the end. The cult of military power contains its own contradiction: the city which lived by military conquest will fall by military conquest. But beyond that, military power which aims only at its own absolute supremacy must prove a false messiah. It overreaches itself because it is the merely human grasping for what is truly only divine. It is only the parousia of Christ that can establish an eternal kingdom, because it is truly the coming of the eternal God who alone can be trusted with absolute supremacy.

The riddle of the number of the beast pointed specifically to Nero as the figure whose history and legend displayed, to those who had wisdom, the nature of the Roman Empire’s attempt to rival God. Any contemporary reappropriation of Revelation’s images that aims to expose the dynamics of power in the contemporary world in the light of the Gospel would also have to be specific. [Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 451-52]

Theological Implications

The first thing I want to draw our attention to is Bauckham’s last paragraph. What he is doing with this is delimiting the application of the book of Revelation to a particular set of boundaries. In other words, he is using its original audience and shape as determinative for how we can appropriate and apply it to our own context and situation today (just as in principle we should interpret the so called Minor Prophets or Book of the Twelve). What this does, by implication, is that it disallows the Dispensationalist interpretation of the book of Revelation. It won’t allow for providing the kind of the nitty-gritty detail that Dispensational exegesis of this book is known for. There is a general understanding of end time events revealed in this book (as it pertains to the end of the current world system), and only a more particular understanding of the consummate age or heaven. In other words, to read stuff into Revelation (like identifying the European union as the ten headed beast, or taking the “Mark of the Beast” as a literal mark or bar code embedded on your hand or forehead) will not work; and this is convincingly revealed as the exegete studies the background context and Jewish-Christian apocalyptic tradition from which John wrote and received the revelation of Jesus.

Bauckham’s prior development, to the quote above, has highlighted how the history in the 1st century (second Temple Judaism) supplies all the historical referents for which John’s apocalyptic language finds a referent. In other words, the language of “Beast” was common moniker for the Roman Empire, and its gone wild military power. The ‘Mark of the Beast’ was required in order to buy and sell in the Roman Empire (or allegiance to Nero and the Caesars). So as Bauckham notes, if true, then the application of this (prophetically for the future) is that the power of the Beast (represented by empires who have their strength through military might and power) will not last (which was immediately realized in the Roman context as ultimately the Roman empire collapsed, but this kind of “power” has continued to persist into the present). Also there is an interesting note, historically in regards to the language of the Beast receiving a fatal blow to the head, and then his resurrection (which was also common apocalyptic language directed toward the Roman empire and the Nero legend by other apocalyptic writings during this period like the Ascension of Isaiah etc.); Bauckham identifies how this was something that had already happened in reference to the Beast (in particular Nero legend, whom the number 666 through Gematria [the common usage of Greek letters that have numeric value to identify people or places, in this instance, the Greek letters for Nero add up to 666]); that after Nero committed suicide, it appeared that the Roman empire was doomed, but at the time of 70 AD Titus Vespasian resurrected and coalesced the empire through the sacking of Jerusalem and the military might of the Rome. It appeared that the Beast had died, but within a short period of time he rose again to excessive power. These are just a few examples of how Bauckham reorientates the book of Revelation through providing a thick account of the context in which the book of Revelation was written. The exegete, if genuine, cannot simply over-look what Bauckham has provided if he or she is going to honestly engage the book of Revelation. Which leads to my last implication.

For all too long, personally, folks I have been around who want to continue holding onto their particular interpretive schema of things (especially dispensationalists) will caricature other interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation in particular. There usually is a sketch of the other positions (like historist, idealist, preterist), but then this is only used to relativize the interpretive situation (or confuse); at which point the dispensationalist steps in and offers his clarity of interpreting the book of Revelation through a futurist lens alone. This is not good practice, and it ultimately turns people like me off. True, each one of us has to make our own decisions when it comes to principles of interpretation; but I would like to think that that involves being honest, and taking all the evidence (we are aware of) into account. That we are not so locked into particular denominations and their distinctives that we are afraid to change our minds, and allow our preunderstandings that we bring to the text to change in accordance with the relative weight of the evidence on the ground that we are confronted with through the kind of rigorous study that Paul admonishes us to (cf. II Tim. 2.15). [I am of course not talking about essential things here, I am talking about so called secondary things like this issue entails]

One more implication. If what Bauckham writes is true, then this has paradigmatic consequences for how we view our current situation, especially as Westerners and Americans in particular. We should not conflate being a Christian with being a Patriot, a Republican-Democrat-Independent, or simply with being an American. In fact insofar as America’s strength is rooted in her military might, then she exemplifies the features of the ‘Beast’ and not the City on the Hill that Ronald Reagan attributed to her. What the book of Revelation does is that it places any empire (like, really the emerging Global Empire we inhabit) on notice; that its time is short, and that all of its wanton desires are coming to an end. You can kill the Christians (and the ‘Beast’ has, statistically more so in the 20th century by itself than the previous 19 added together), but it is through the martyrs blood that the Beast only proves his own demise; the blood of the martyrs cries out, and signals that the Lion-Lamb’s kingdom has come and will finally come at the last trumpet. What Bauckham’s insights implies is that the Beast (or Anti-Christ) is not necessarily embodied in a single person; instead Nero and the Roman empire exemplifies or symbolizes the kind of power that is embodied by empires or empire in the world. There will be, according to the unfolding of the judgments in Revelation (the Seal, Trumpet, Bowl) an intensification of the Beast and empire just prior to the return of Christ (where the Danielic ‘Stone’ will crush the kingdoms of this world cf. Daniel 2). In other words, Jesus could come at any moment!

Dispensational ‘Pre-Tribulationism’: An “American Theology”

A caveat: The following post is not intended to slam or deface Evangelical Christians who are ‘Classic’ or ‘Progressive’ Dispensational, Premillennial; and as the focal point of this post, Pre-Tribulational. Instead, this post is intended to throw out somewhat suggestive reasons for why I have come to disavow the Pre-Tribulational view in particular, and the Dispensational framework in general. I attend a church where this kind of teaching is taught; I attended a Bible College and Seminary where (for the most part) this kind of thought was communicated; and I grew up as the son of a Baptist pastor where I was weened on this kind of theology as sure as I suckled on my mother’s milk (TMI 😉 ). Thus I am no foreigner to the sub-culture and theological and exegetical assumptions that go into developing and cultivating this kind of thinking; I, in fact, up and until probably the last 6 years was as ardent of a defender of this kind of theological tap that you might ever hope to cross-paths with. I provide all of this back-story in order to let you know, the reader, that my intention is not to be one of those kind of guys who once was this, and now that I am no longer this (and instead am that); that my goal is to destroy, belittle, and beat-up my former belief (and thus all those who still hold to it) in order to make my new belief more stable and secure — and also to make my new belief more credible, while making my old belief incredible and part of my immature theological years. This is not my intention with this post; you know, like someone who grew up as a Fundamentalist Christian, who ended up attending university, becoming an atheist professor, now bent on destroying any and all Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christians who might happen upon their cross-hairs . . . you get my point by now, I gather? Good! Let’s proceed.

Today I had a great time of fellowship and discussion with my pastor, and a fellow (and awesome) brother in Christ at our local Star Bucks (where else? we live in the Pac NW). One of the topics of discussion, brief as it may have been (on this particular issue), had to do with my proclamation that I am no longer a “Pre-Tribber” (or Dispensationalist for that matter). All along, as I made this known, I am well aware that both my pastor (and I believe brother in Christ) are both dispensational and pre-trib in orientation. I simply want to expand upon ‘why’ I am no longer pre-trib . . . (for those who don’t know ‘Pre-Tribulational’ has to do with the belief that certain Christians believe that we are facing a 7 year period [Jacob’s Trouble] that will come upon this earth that will involve upheaval and global “tribulation” that the earth has never known before [cf. Mt. 24] — in particular this is tied into the dispensational teaching on Daniel’s 70th Week found in Daniel 9 — this is where the 7 year number comes from. This period is one where God’s Wrath [as ‘The Day of the LORD’] will be focused in particularly on the Jewish nation for their rejection of the Messiah — while this “wrath” is pin-pointed on the nation of Israel, it will have global implications in which the nations of the world will rise up to destroy Israel [and they will get close], ultimately seeking battle with the God of the Bible. Since according to Pre-Tribbers, this period has to do with God’s Wrath being poured out on an unbelieving world [to the Jew first, see this principle in Rom. 2.11 for example], and since Christians have not been appointed to wrath but salvation in Christ [cf. I Thess. 5.9]; the pre-tribber argues that there is no reason for us [as the Church, part of the Church-Age] to be here. It is at this point that God’s focus is turned back onto His original prophetic plan [and that has to do with the nation of Israel, the Church—according to Dispensationalists—is simply a parenthesis in God’s original prophetic plan, which was to save Israel]. And so this, then, serves as another argument for why pre-tribbers believe that we won’t be here—it serves as an alleviation of a pressure valve of sorts—the pre-trib rapture [which says that Jesus will secretly remove His Church from this earth prior to the 7 year Tribulation period] serves as a necessary mechanism which removes the Church [a ‘Mystery Kingdom’ of sorts pace Charles Ryrie] from the scene [as a subsidiary story line in the larger plot line of God’s salvation story—again, according to pre-tribbers, as having to do originally with the nation of Israel] so that God can get back to the business of dealing with Israel—sorry for this aside, but I thought I should include this for someone who might not know what Pre-Tribulationism is about.).

. . . I am no longer pre-trib because I reject the hard and fast distinction between Israel and the Church (as does the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2.11ff). Thus, I no longer need to have a mechanism in place that needs to somehow have the Church out of the picture so that God can supposedly deal with His real aim in salvation history; that is to save the nation of Israel. 2) I am no longer pre-trib because I believe that Paul argues against the idea—in first and second Thessalonians—that there will be a removal of the Church prior to the Lawless one, being revealed (Dispies take the ‘Lawless one’ to be the Anti-Christ); he hadn’t been revealed in the first century, and as I gather he hasn’t as of yet been revealed in our context either. This is a significant point. According to the pre-trib understanding, we will be off the scene prior to the Anti-Christ revealing himself to be someone who ought to be venerated (like God). Yet, according to Paul’s argument, in II Thessalonians (if we take all of his referents to be correlative to how pre-tribbers take them) the man of Lawlessness (or the ‘Anti-Christ’) will be revealed while the Church is present. According to pre-tribbers, the Anti-Christ will not reveal himself in the way that II Thessalonians 2 says, until the middle of the Tribulation period (at the start of the last 3.5 years of ‘Jacob’s Trouble’); this is a fatal blow (in my opinion) to the pre-trib chronology and basic argumentation (and this, granting their supposition that the Church will not experience the ‘Great Tribulation’ since they make this synonymous with ‘God’s/Lamb’s Wrath). 3) I am no longer a pre-tribber because I believe that it represents a privileged understanding of reality; or, that it is an American-exceptionalist theology. What I mean is that the pre-trib position fits well with a society who has been, relatively, pampered in her ‘American’ (Western) experience; it fits well with a society that is escapist and shaped by amusement in orientation. Go and preach pre-trib theology in the Sudan, Indonesia, or any other place in the world where Christians have been suffering ‘Great Tribulation’ on the kind of scale that one would imagine the book of Revelation to be describing. This point is not so much of an argument, but more of a call to pause and think about what ‘Tribulation’ might mean within various contexts throughout the globe—Pre-Tribulationism, in light of this, could only have taken shape in a society that, at all costs, wants to avoid any persecution, suffering, or martyrdom (this all makes sense psychologically). 4) I am no longer pre-trib because I believe the exegesis, especially the exegesis of the pre-tribber’s locus classicus—I Thessalonians 4 and I Corinthians 15—to be artificial and contrived (I could never make sense of this, even as a trained pre-tribber who understood ‘how’ they were ‘trying’ to make this work). 5) I am no longer a pre-tribber because I do not believe that either Jesus or the Apostle Paul or Peter (amongst others) presupposed this kind of theology as part of their theological oeuvre’s. 6) I am no longer pre-trib because I reject the hermeneutics that one must presuppose in order to get all the way to the pre-trib position (through dispensationalism).

I have other reasons, and concerns; but ultimately I believe that the pre-trib position, in particular, is reflective of an American Theology. While I do not believe that chronological arguments are good ones; I do think that the absence of both dispensationalism and thus pre-tribism in church history is a significant point. I could say much more, with more detail; but this post is already approx. 1500 words, and so I will close. This is obviously more of a vent, and off the top, and so take it as such.