“Another Ecumenical Love-Crazed-God Evangelical”: Responding to My Critic Who is in Love with John MacArthur, but Not Me

Critiquing someone, another Christian, particularly someone who has a personality cult behind them never produces the kind of light one would hope for; not usually anyway. My last two posts, obviously, have offered up lineaments towards a critique of John MacArthur. They do not represent full court critiques, or fully developed critiques; instead they presuppose, for one thing, that my readers have been reading me for a long time. If you haven’t been reading me for a long time then you’d be unaware of my history with the Pyromaniacs, and critique of the MacArthurite donkeywork“theology” that they put forward (they are mostly retired now as bloggers). The newer reader would also be unaware of the countless hours I have spent offering critique, particularly historical theological and constructive theological critique of the theology and metaphysics that funds John MacArthur’s style of 5 Point Calvinist soteriology and his exegetical conclusions.

Like I just noted, offering critique of someone like John MacArthur really never produces any type of good fruit. What posting like this typically does is attract folks who are die-hard defenders say of someone like John MacArthur, and in their responses they will typically attempt to besmirch anything you have written that is contrary to how they think of someone like John MacArthur. Just as I could have predicted I’ve had one such type of respondent. He didn’t use his real name (which I really don’t like), but went by the handle Edingess (maybe his name is Ed Ingess). He charged me as a slanderer of John MacArthur&co., unscholarly, disingenuous, and a host of other things. He wants me to write him an essay critique of John MacArthur and to critically prove all of my claims directed toward MacArthur et al. (as if I haven’t already done all that work over the years here at the blog and my other blogs over the years — since 2005). I ended up banning Edingess from my blog, because his comments were of a badgering nature, and did not represent the kind of responses I deem acceptable here at my blog. Here’s one of his last comments to me; this comment is responding to some prior exchange we were already having:

I never asked you to write an exegetical paper of Gal. 1:6-8. I assumed you had done so. You are just as sectarian as MacArthur unless you are a complete syncretist which is logically impossible because even syncretism excludes those who are opposed to it. If your definition of sectarianism is to exclude false teachers from the church and false churches from the Church, then you will have to show why you have found a better way. You strike me as just another ecumenical love-crazed-God evangelical at this point. What I wanted to see was a post you had done on Gal. 1:6-8 so that I could evaluate your methodology. I am not sure if your typical reader knows much about exegesis and I know an awful lot of bloggers tossing that term around a lot these days but rarely do I ever see it practiced with skill. And the comments you are making are certainly leading me to question whether or not you are as skilled as your credentials would imply. That is why I am looking for a sample. I have heard Phil Johnson on Gal. 1:6-8 and many other topics as well. I am well-trained in biblical exegesis. I can say there is NOTHING wrong with how Phil or John handle that text. If you disagree, you need to show your readers why and provide a clear demonstration. My guess is there will be a lot more personal philosophy mixed in with your exegesis but I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Prove me wrong. What I am accusing you of is slander and being unfair and unkind and unloving in your criticism of these men, not to mention, unscholarly.

Let me respond point by point to Edingess’s claims, and charges.

His charge of syncretism is very unusual. My primary critique of MacArthur et al. in both of my posts is that he and they do not make a critical distinction between the prefabricated theology they bring to the Text, and the exegetical conclusions they come to as a result of that. In other words, the issue isn’t “syncretism,” the issue is a kind of sleight-of-hand by MacArthur et al. in regard to not informing their people that they are using an interpretive tradition (i.e. classical Calvinism) to come to their exegetical conclusions (this is not just a problem that MacArthur et al. has, it is quite pervasive, particularly among evangelical and some Reformed scholarship wherein informing theological conclusions are simply read into the text as if those conclusions represent the true and orthodox faith without question). The consequence of not doing this, is that when someone like me comes along, people like Edingess become perturbed because they seem to think that MacArthur et al. are just engaging in sound exegetical practice. But that’s petitio principii, or question begging. Edingess actually illustrates the problem by his emotional attachment to MacArthur and the belief that MacArthur is just teaching the plain and simple Gospel truth.

My definition of sectarianism is simply that when one tradition, or another, adopts the attitude that their ecclesial location and interpretations are at a level of orthodoxy over against every other tradition or denomination in the church catholic, which then leads them to ostracize every other tradition or denomination. In other words, sectarianism is when a denomination, tradition, or even an individual comes to believe that they alone have the corner on orthodox Christian Gospel reality, and nobody else does.

Edingess wants me to show how I have found a better way. Edingess, you have a couple options: 1) You can spend the time necessary perusing my blog in order to familiarize yourself with how I think I have found a better ‘way’, or you can read our Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church and then our forthcoming Vol.2 Evangelical Calvinism: Dogmatics&Devotion. I have put in the time and work necessary to express how I think I have found a more viable way in regard to approaching the Gospel revealed in God in Jesus Christ; I am not going to do extra work for someone just because they are Johnny-Come-Lately.

Edingess wrote: “You strike me as just another ecumenical love-crazed-God evangelical at this point.” I will take most of that as a compliment; but since I know Edingess used that in a pejorative sense, let me respond. Yes, I actually do believe in a love-God (call me crazy!), and happen to be quite ‘ecumenical’ in the best sense of that word; let me explain. I am “ecumenical” in the sense that the creeds (i.e. Niceno-Constantinopolitano) are ecumenical in regard to their catholic and orthodox reach. I am also “ecumenical” because the implications of the Incarnation itself require that. Jesus Christ assumed humanity, all of it, in himself; as such, there is an inclusivity in the asumptio carnis, precisely because of its particularity, which for my money, requires a view not only towards the church, but towards all of humanity, that sees all of humanity as dearly beloved by God in Jesus Christ. So yes, I am “ecumenical.”

My credentials? I have two earned degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology, one at the graduate level. I have written and defended an exegetically based Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1, and have published two academic theological books on the issues pertaining to the very issue under consideration: i.e. Calvinism. I have spent the last fifteen years, in particular, focused on historical theology, constructive theology, with a particular intensity orbiting around the issues of Reformed theology in its development in the history of ideas and intellectual heritage of the church. If I must speak like a fool, then so be it.

You are well trained in biblical exegesis? Well why didn’t you say so, Edingless? I suppose you want me to take your magisterial endorsement of MacArthur just as you want me take you as an authority on what constitutes sound biblical exegesis or not. Petitio principii.

I have shown my readers why I disagree, and have done so by engaging with the most up to date research on the development of Reformed theology and soteriology. Just because you haven’t read what I have written on the topic doesn’t mean I haven’t demonstrated it; it just means you haven’t exposed yourself to it yet. What are you waiting for?!

Your accusations are baseless and presumptuous. Like I noted, I have already spent years and years providing the demonstration you assert I need to provide. And you say I am slandering these guys in unfounded ways. It’s not slander when the critique is not at the man, but instead at the ideas that the man is putting forward. It is time for you to put in the donkey work, put your money where your mouth is, and get busy reading how I have made the demonstrations you say I still need to make.

John MacArthur’s and The Shepherd’s Conference’s Ironic De-elevation of the Bible: When the Bible Becomes Bigger than God

biblebiggerthangod

Credit, David Hayward

Since the Shepherd’s Conference Summit 2017 at John MacArthur’s church just ended I thought I would continue to take this opportunity to highlight something about the type of biblicism that characterizes what we find present there. It is ironic, really, because the staff pastors at Grace Community Church I have had interaction with (some very recently) would make you think that anything but a simple and pure approach to the Bible is nothing else but idolatry. Yet if you listen to many of the speakers they have at their conference it quickly becomes evident that they are not being consistent in their stated or presumed approach. I think the real issue is that they have so uncritically received a particularly styled form of Reformed theology, in highly baptistic and rationalistic form, that they can make no distinction between that and what the Bible may or may not be saying.

In light of this continued inability to make a critical distinction between their interpretive tradition and what the Bible might or might not say itself, I thought I would commend to them the way John Calvin approached this issue. Here Angus Paddison explicates for us how Calvin approached the relationship of the Bible with interpretive tradition:

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scripturaapproach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … [i]f anyone, then, finds fault with the novelty of words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant regard for the ling and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant Biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind, and – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of the so-called “historical critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[1]

It is very unfortunate that John MacArthur et al. continue to forge forward with this idea that they alone have somehow cornered what the Bible is actually saying versus the rest of the Christian world, so to speak. They ought to follow the advice of John Calvin, and at least admit with more humility that they like every other Christian ought to approach the Word of God with trembling. That’s the irony of this, MacArthur et al. in their singular pursuit of elevating Holy Scripture have really only marginalized it by their belief that they alone have conquered it through methodological exegesis and exposition; as if the language and words themselves are ends in themselves, they are not.

 

[1] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2009).

The Gospel According to John MacArthur at The Shepherd’s Conference Summit 2017

When I first started blogging in 2005 one of the first blogs I ran across was, at that point, Phil Johnson’s blog: Pyromaniac. Later, in 2006, Phil Johnson expanded his efforts and turned his blog into a team blog, renamed: Pyromaniacs. This new and improved team blog was staffed by, of course, Phil, but also with his primary compadres: Frank Turk and Dan Phillips. They doubled down on their efforts and produced a blog tour-de-force. If you don’t know, Phil is Executive Director of Grace To You Ministries, and primary editor of all of John MacArthur’s books and publications; johnny-mache is also a staff pastor at MacArthur’s church Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA (Los Angeles County).

I was a recent graduate of Seminary, and Bible College not too long before that. My background is North American evangelical on the “conservative” side of that spectrum; and my formal training and education was steeped in that tradition. But the thing is, for me, I was never a 5 point Calvinist, and in fact I was quite antagonistic towards 5 point Calvinism; particularly of the MacArthurite kind. You see, I also grew up in Southern California (Long Beach, CA), and while MacArthur’s reach is international, the intensity of his reach in Southern California is very deep. I knew people who sat under MacArthur (at his church), or I knew of churches that were impacted by MacArthur’s teaching in heavy ways. More close to home, our home church, for awhile, was split (in 2004) by a Master’s Seminary graduate who we think intentionally came to split our Conservative Baptist church with the “truth” he had recently received from sitting under MacArthur’s teaching and his proxy professors at his seminary. Like I said, I was a recent graduate of seminary, and I found the theoblogosphere. My training, particularly in seminary, had me steeped in historical theology (and NT studies), and so I understood the history of ideas and the church history that funded the theology that MacArthur was pushing; even if he was pushing it in a watered down way.[1]

All of this made me rife for an encounter with these guys, and it ended up happening over and over again; they didn’t like me. I challenged them, primarily on their inability to admit that they read the Bible through interpretive tradition; like we all do! I informed them of what that tradition was, and where many of its themes came from, from within the development of Post Reformed Orthodox theology. They didn’t like that, and would never admit to any of that; that’s because they believe that they approach Scripture on Scripture’s terms alone; that they simply follow what the Bible teaches at the most basest of levels. This type of encounter went on with them for years and years; if you don’t believe me go peruse their comment metas from years past on various posts and you’ll see our exchanges and how they went down.

I supply all of this background information simply to note something that has not changed, not at all. If you’re unaware, MacArthur’s church puts on what they call The Shepherd’s Conference Summit annually; this year’s just kicked off today. It is a conference for pastors of churches from all around the country intended to provide a type of retreat and edification for these pastors; and I would say more negatively, intended to keep many of these pastors indoctrinated with the mood and teaching of John MacArthur. The conference is made up of plenary sessions, break-out sessions, so on and so forth.

Today, guess who?, but Phil Johnson spoke at one of the plenary sessions, he was assigned Galatians 1:6–7, titled No Other Gospel: The True Gospel of Christ. This is right in the wheelhouse of Johnson; he loves this type of passage.[2] I actually listened to his whole talk (in front of 4,500 pastors/men), but I didn’t really have to. You see, Johnson, on his blog, and his cohorts, on their team blog, bandied this passage about as if it was their life proof-text.[3] Basically, the way Johnson&co. use passages like this, particularly Galatians, is justification for being sectarian and calling everyone else out for not actually teaching The Gospel According to Jesus. Remember earlier I noted that they believe they have a singular and simple hold on the genuine teaching of Holy Scripture; that they have the genuine approach and mood that should be associated with presenting the Gospel? Well, to no surprise of mine, Phil stuck to the usual marching orders and called out everyone under the sun—i.e. if they don’t follow the Gospel according to MacArthur&co.—for not necessarily teaching and proclaiming the genuine Gospel of Jesus Christ. He called out the hipsters, the academics, the progressives, corporate styled evangelicalism, etc., and asserted, essentially, no one but he and his styled cohorts actually teach the Gospel; in fact he said anyone who does not teach the Gospel the way he does, and MacArthur&co. does, be damned! In other words, he took the mantle of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1 and anathematized every other Christian in the church catholic who does not comport and conform to the 5-point Calvinist Gospel (in idiosyncratic MacArthurite drag) as proclaimed and articulated by the magisterium in Sun Valley, CA. Phil and his cohorts have used passages like we find in Galatians as justification for being sectarian bullies in attitude and act towards fellow believers world-wide for a very long time.

I wanted to note this, not because I haven’t over and over before, but because I haven’t for a long time. You would hope that after some time there might be some sort of enlightenment for folks like MacArthur and Johnson et al., but the reality is there hasn’t been (and me saying this would prove to them that I ought to be damned). They are slavishly and egotistically committed to their idiosyncratic form of Christianity, and they will go down swinging and bludgeoning as many people as possible as they live their ecclesial lives at Grace Community Church. They are intent on indoctrinating as many pastors as they can to ensure this process and self-styled Christianity continues on long after MacArthur moves on; that’s what the Shepherd’s Conference represents to me.

With all of the above said, am I saying that we should not be critical theological thinkers? No, just the opposite! We need to admit that we are all theological, that we all approach Scripture through interpretive tradition, and constantly be willing to test and re-test our exegesis and theological conclusions as we encounter the reality of Scripture, the living Word of God in Christ. This is precisely what you will NOT find in the mood and attitude at any and all of MacArthur’s venues of influence; and unfortunately this Gospel of Sectarianism is being spread far and wide through MacArthur’s reach and exposure. I realize some think it’s minimal, but it really isn’t. The fact that MacArthur has 4,500 pastors at a conference, from all over the country and world should demonstrate otherwise; that’s not to mention the viewing audience online. His impact is actually quite ubiquitous.

Since I believe what MacArthur et al. is communicating is ultimately damaging, I will continue to stand against it, as I can. Not in the ways I used to, but here and there I will post blog posts like this one, just to remind people of who MacArthur&co. are, and to challenge their theological foundations at the core.

 

[1] In other words, MacArthur pushes his “Lordship Salvation,” which is really nothing other than a baptistic styled 5-point Calvinism. His approach, really, is rather idiosyncratic, since he is also a hardcore classical pre-trib dispensationalist. So his approach isn’t even really rooted in the historic confessional Baptist tradition. Nonetheless, he pushes 5-point Calvinism and classical Reformed theology-lite towards his parishioners. Culturally, MacArthur is just a step above, maybe, Independent Baptists; in other words, the culture he has created through his church, seminary, college, and teachings is legalistic and a performance focused Christianity, with a commitment to a nuda Scriptura or solo Scriptura focus on Scripture; versus actual and historical sola Scriptura.

[2] His pastor after all did write a book entitled The Gospel According to Jesus.

[3] Which makes me wonder if Phil was really “assigned” this passage, as he made it sound (like it was random).

From “evangelical” Salvation to Evangelical Salvation

[T]he real advance has obviously been made when we come to the INSTITUTIO of 1559, in which unio cum Christo [union with Christ] has become the common denominator under which Calvin tried to range his whole doctrine of the appropriation of the salvation achieved and revealed in Christ. For now in the Third Book, before he can speak of faith, of conversion and renewal, of the vita hominis christiani, of abnegatio nostri as its sum, of the necessary bearing of the cross, of the relation between this and the future life, then — and only then — of justification, of Christian freedom and prayer, of eternal election as the ultimate presupposition of the whole, and finally of the future resurrection, according to the view attained in 1559 he has first to make it plain how it can come about at all that what God has done for us in Christ, as declared in the Second Book, can apply to us and be effective for us. The answer given in the noteworthy opening chapter of the Third Book is to the effect that it comes about through the arcana operatio Spiritus, which consists in the fact that Christ Himself, instead of being extra nos, outside the man separated from Him and therefore irrelevant to us, becomes ours and takes up His abode in us, we for our part being implanted into Him (Rom. 11:17) and putting Him on (Gal. 3:27).[1]

How much of “Evangelical” theology has missed this point? By “only” viewing Christ as the instrument of salvation; what’s missed is the fact that God in Christ through the Spirit is salvation! Union with Christ becomes the center which all other soteriological concerns should find their orbit. If we hope to be “saved” at all, it will only be because we participate with God through Christ by the Spirit. In this way salvation is understood in personal, relational, trinitarian terms versus the usual “Evangelical” instrumentalist, substantialist, qualitative terms. There is a huge difference between the two approaches. I wonder if you too appreciate the significant weight in this difference of approach and understanding?

[1] Karl Barth CD 4.3.2, 550-51 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 195.

Barth to the Hungarian Youth of 1948: On Human Freedom

Freedom is such a misunderstood concept, by believers and non-believers alike. To be sure, in the Bible, when human freedom is referred to it is not in reference to some sort of abstract, philosophically conceived idea of ‘free-will’ or some such nonsense; no it is in reference to what it means to truly and genuinely live before God. In our modern/post-modern 21st century we have barthsoldierall become mired down by being so “free” that we haven’t stopped to notice that we actually live in bondage to ourselves. This is precisely what Barth was attacking as he finished up his talk with some Hungarian youth back in the Spring of 1948. He said:

I have almost finished. If your freedom is to be strong and genuine it will have to have a foundation. What was called freedom in the European age now passed collapsed, and was bound to collapse, because for a long time and at an amazingly deep level it had degenerated into a freedom for godlessness and inhumanity—not merely in its secular and evil form but in its religious and moral form too. Do not hesitate to describe and treat anyone as a ‘reactionary’ who attempts to commend this kind of freedom to you under whatever name. Freedom means freedom for God and one’s neighbor. Wherever it is something different from that it is not freedom for responsibility. In the freedom for God and one’s neighbour you will find the right words and instinctively take the right steps and grow into defiance against the idols of yesterday and those of today. You will not become doctrinaires! The New Testament calls this freedom the freedom of the children of God, our freedom in Jesus Christ. Why? Because as true God and true man Jesus Christ has brought God and man together. ‘If the Son shall make you free ye shall be free indeed.’ This Word was also spoken to our generation. We did not understand it very well. Will it be granted to your generation to understand it a little better? May it be granted to you! What is certain is that we the old and you the  youth of today, are members one of another as we listen to the Word.[1]

[1] Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946–52 (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954), 61.

Barth’s Admonition to the Millennials and All of Us in the Information-Age: The Danger of ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’

Karl Barth shared this at some talks he gave in both Sarospatak and Budapest in March and April of 1948; some talks to the youth of that day. I was struck by how relevant what he is exhorting the youth (the “millennials”) of his day with; he might as well be talking to our youth—if not all of us in our information age. Barth said:

barthipodA younger generation confronted by so much emptiness will inevitably be tempted to yield to certain fears remote from freedom and responsibility. I should not be advising you well if I did not implore you to resist them. One of them might consist in trying to drown the miseries of the time with as much technics, sport and aesthetic amusement as possible, with all the worldly pleasures that are still available. No one will begrudge you for wanting to make up for long years of darkness by indulging in one or two pastimes of that kind. But see that you do not repeat the error which the younger generation before you certainly made. By over-indulging itself in technics, sport, and aesthetic amusements it developed a state of mind or rather mindlessness in which, through neglecting its responsibilities, it also lost its freedom and fell an easy prey to the slogans and catchwords of the charlatans and dictators.[1]

While Barth is speaking to the “youth” he might as well be speaking to all of us in our techno/info age. The point is to stay vigilant, particularly and especially in light of all the distractions we have before us. Neil Postman wrote his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Barth anticipates that line of thought here in his talk to the Hungarian youth.

[1] Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946–52 (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954), 58.

The Name of God in Exodus 3:14: How Revelation Trumps Speculative ‘Being’ Theology. Richard Muller and Emil Brunner in Critical Conference

Who is God? How can we know God? These are some of the most profound questions humanity can engage with. In the history of Christian ideas there has, of course, been an attempt to answer these types of questions as faithfully as possible. Because of the nature of God, and his ineffability, there is almost a grasping by many in an attempt to un-pack who God is in an articulate and maimonidesintelligible way. This is what we see taking place not just in the early church Patristic theology, but also in the spirit of that, in the Medieval church as well. The problem with being pushed up against an ultimate, like the living God, is that, again, people will take desperate measures in an attempt to talk God.

More forcefully, I will contend that in the medieval and post reformed orthodox theologian’s zeal to talk God they adopted philosophical talk about God and forcefully linked that talk with what we are provided with by Holy Scripture. One prime example of this is described by Richard Muller as he attempts to (artificially) argue that in fact the philosophical substance metaphysics of the medievalists and post reformed orthodox was not really a philosophical imposition upon God—when they attempted to talk about God’s inner-life, his being (ousia)—but instead there was an exegetical/biblical correlation which was driving their metaphysical thinking in regard to the inner-reality of who God is in himself. Muller identifies Exodus 3:14, where we encounter the tetragrammaton, and self naming of God as the touchstone passage appealed to in order to establish this exegetical linkage: “14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” As Muller notes it is here where we are confronted with a correlation between the philosophers conceiving of God as ‘being’, and God’s revelation of himself and his self-being. Muller writes:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayah denotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

But is this really the case? Does Exodus 3:14 provide focus on the ‘being’ of God in such a way that it opens God up to being correlated with the concept of ‘being’ that the philosophers developed by their own wits? This is what Muller is attempting to argue in a smoke-and-mirrors fashion.

Contrariwise and rightfully so, almost as if Emil Brunner was responding directly to Muller, Brunner writes this in 1946:

The idea of the “Name of God” plays almost no part in the theology of the Early Church, or of the Mediaevil Church, in the Biblical sense of the word. On the other hand, it plays a very dubious part, since the Name which was made known on Sinai, especially the interpretation given in (Exodus 3:14) of the Name “I AM ThAT I AM”, was adopted by speculative theology and made the foundation of its identification of speculative ontology with the Biblical Idea of God. There are possibly few passages in the Scriptures which have been quoted and expounded more often in mediaeval theology than this phrase. Even the Fathers of the Church used it: for instance, Athanasius (Epistula de synodis, 35); Hilary (De Trin. L, I, nr. 5); Gregory Nazianzen (Orationes, 30, 18), and many others. … The real trouble, however, only started with the penetration of the Neo-Platonic idea of the identification of the summum esse and the summum bonum, that is through Augustine … (De Trin. 7, 5, 10). Augustine believes that he has found the point at which the Bible and Plato say the same thing: “Vehementer hoc Plato tenuit et diligentissime commendavit.” No one ever said this before Plato save in this passage in the Book of Exodus (De Civ. Dei, VIII, II). Maritain, indeed, is right when—speaking of this text, understood in this sense, he says: “Such passages contain virtually the whole Thomist doctrine of the Divine Names and of the analogy” (La sagesse augustinienne, p. 405).

In reality the Biblical text does not say this at all. Quite apart from the fact that the interpretation of the Name of Yahweh in the sense of E plays no part in the whole of the Old Testament, and “the honour given to the Name of Yahweh is completely independent of its etymology” (Grether, op. cit., p. 15), even the interpretation given in the E is quite different from that of “the One who IS”, or even “Being”. (In addition to Grether, see also Eichrodt, op. cit., I, pp. 91ff.). Even the Septuagint rendering contains a hint of philosophical suggestion which is entirely absent from the Hebrew text. “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus” (Grether, p. 7). The mediaeval use of the general interpretation of the Name of Yahweh (in the sense of E) has led to quite disastrous misunderstanding. The chapters in this book which deal with the Being of God and His Attributes, in their opposition to the mediaeval ontology, will show on what my opinion is based. It would be well worth while to write a critical historical account of the exposition of Exodus 3:14.

It is not only the Name of Yahweh, however, expounded in a speculative manner, which plays an important—though essentially negative—part in mediaeval scholastic theology, but also the notion of the Divine Names. Here, too, the “Areopagite” was a pioneer. His work, De Divinis  nominibus, founded a school of thought. But what he discusses (in this book) under the title of the “Names of God”, has nothing to do with what the Bible says about the Name of God. In this book the author is dealing with the question: To what extent are the ideas with which we, by means of thought, can try to conceive the Divine Being, adequate for the task? Naturally the answer is entirely negative: God is the One who cannot be named; all our ideas are inadequate. The Divine Nature is unspeakable. Certainly, just as the Divine Being is “nameless”, so also it can be described by all kinds of names, just as the One who transcends all existence is also the All-existing (I, 6). We can therefore say everything about God as well as nothing.

Thomas Aquinas (Summa theol., I, 13) introduced this doctrine of the Name of God into his system. By the “Name of God” he, too, understands the ideas by means of which we can “think” God: he, too, has nothing to say about the Biblical understanding of the Name of God. He has eliminated the pantheistic element in the Neo-Platonic teaching of his master, it is true, because at every vital point, by means of the idea of causality, he introduces the thought of Creation, which plays no part in the thought of the Areopagite. Through the fact that to him (Aquianas) the creaturely, as God’s creation, is analogous, the creaturely ideas also acquire the validity of analogical truths. But all this remains within the sphere of the speculative theologia naturalis and is therefore diametrically opposed to all that is meant by the Biblical idea of the “Name of God”.[2]

I just provided a lot of context, especially for a blog post, but it is important for the reader to see how Muller is countered. One of the most important aspects of what Brunner just communicated contra, Muller&co., was this clause, “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus.” The rest of what Brunner has developed is intended to support this one clause; it is the absolute opposite of what Muller is attempting to argue. What we have in Exodus 3:14 with the “I am”, according to Brunner et al., has to do with God revealing Himself in precisely personal terms; as the God who freely encounters his people by Name. The point was not a metaphysical one, but it is a personal one; one made in the context of God’s covenant with his forthcoming covenant people in the seed of Moses.

If Brunner is correct, and I believe he is!, what Muller is arguing through his appeal to Aquinas, Maimonides, et al. is false. It is a non-starter to impose speculative metaphysical language upon the text of Scripture, and suggest that the inverse is true. In other words, it is a false start to argue that the text of Scripture is what provided for the substance metaphysics of some of the Patristics, Mediaevals, and Post Reformed Orthodox; indeed it is petitio principii, or to beg the question. What we have provided for in Exodus 3:14 is the God who reveals himself by his Name; that’s what we can get from that passage, and we continue to find that type of disclosure over and again throughout the Old Testament finally climaxing in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Who Cares?

Why is this so important? Why have I written a blog post that is twice as long as the longest blog post should be (according to reader’s attention spans)? Because if we get God wrong everything else subsequent is wrong. I contend that Muller and the Post Reformed Orthodox have gotten God wrong, and those who seek to repristinate that theology (such as evangelical and classically Reformed theologians of today) are also getting God wrong. They are emphasizing speculative things about God, about God’s inner life (in se) by appealing to speculative theological categories through the via negativa (‘negative way’), and emphasizing things about God’s being, and his relation to the world in a God/world relation that are false. They have depersonalized God at the very point in Holy Scripture where God seeks to personalize himself by naming himself for his covenant people as Yahweh. They have replaced positive revelation (kataphysic) with speculative inferences about God based upon philosophical speculation that turns God into some sort of ‘Pure Being’ rather than the God who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; i.e. again they have depersonalized God and his ways at the very point in Scripture where God has made himself known in personal ‘naming’ ways.

If we get God wrong, everything else following is wrong. That’s why this is so important, and should not be papered over. Martin Luther, in particular, understood all of this very well. His theologia crucis, theology of the Cross, is right in line with the observations provided by Brunner. And yet the Post-Reformed Orthodox ‘still-birthed’ (h/t Ron Frost) that whole Luther[an] trajectory by retrieving the type of speculative mediaeval theology that Luther repented of.

If you want to continue to follow this ground swell among young (and some more senior) evangelical and classically Reformed theologians, then that’s your choice; I won’t be there with you. There’s a better way, it’s the way that Brunner describes; it’s the way Luther went (which Brunner develops later); and it’s the way us evangelical Calvinists go.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 128-30.

The Gospel According to a Works-Righteousness Jesus: A Common Thread Between Puritan Precisianism and Lordship Salvation

Here is a post I probably wrote around ten years ago, way before I was ever the evangelical Calvinist, or had read Barth or Torrance et al. These were the types of posts that represented my way into blogging, and what I was attempting to address, theologically, for the church online. I used to joust all the time with the Pyromaniacs, a team blog started by executive manager of Grace To You, and editor for all of John MacArthur’s books and writings, Phil Johnson. Needless to say they didn’t really like me that much, and a post like what I am going to share here is why. Just yesterday I came into contact with one of their tribe, someone I knew from years ago, someone who had gone through The Master’s Seminary system, and then went on to get his PhD from Dallas johnny-macTheological Seminary. He reminded me that they are the same people, and their theology is just as legalistic and ruinous as ever! Indeed, this interlocutor of mine, now a missionary in the Czech Republic just a few days ago actually had Paul Washer out to teach his people at a Bible conference they held; this should tell you something about what we are dealing with. Anyway because of that I am reposting this now ten year old post just to once again highlight how dangerous their theology actually is.

One other aspect that makes it all so dangerous is that they are literally unable to critically come to the text of Scripture and make a distinction between the theology they are bringing to the text and the text itself. The result is that if you disagree with them you aren’t disagreeing, in a critical way, with their theology, but instead with the pure unadulterated Bible teaching and Gospel itself. This is why the last words (before he blocked me on FaceBook) my interlocutor said to me were: “Bobby … I only hope your infatuation with the academy will one day be replaced by a love and devotion to God’s Word.” He presumes that because I want to think critically theologically, and Christian Dogmatically, that this means I am in love with the academy and despise the reality of the Word of God. This is the type of rubbish conclusion the MacArthur and that way in general leads to. Anyway, here is that post (I might, every now and then try to write more posts about the historical background that lays behind the legalism that you will find in the theologies of folks like MacArthur, Washer, et al. in our current day).

Below I am going to provide two quotes, the first will be from Theodore Dwight Bozeman discussing the emergence and factors that shaped the thinking of the yet to come English Puritans; and the second will be from John MacArthur, and his discussion on the role that changed behavior and moral values have in a genuinely “saved life.” What I am highlighting, and want you all to see, is the striking correlation of thought and practice that both camps share, relative to emphasizing the importance of outward moral behavior in the “elects” life. Here is Theodore Bozeman discussing the early factors that led to English Puritanism:

English penitential teaching expressly echoed and bolstered moral priorities. In contrast, again, to Luther, whose penitential teaching stressed the rueful sinner’s attainment of peace through acknowledgment of fault and trust in unconditional pardon, several of the English included a moment of moral renewal. In harmony with Reformed tendencies on the Continent and in unmistakable continuity with historic Catholic doctrine that tied “contrition, by definition, to the intention to amend,” they required an actual change in penitent. For them, a renewal of moral resolve was integral to the penitential experience, and a few included the manifest alteration of behavior. They agreed that moral will or effort cannot merit forgiveness, yet rang variations on the theme that repentance is “an inward . . . sorrow . . . whereunto is also added a . . . desire . . . to frame our life in all points according to the holy will of God expressed in the divine scriptures.” However qualified by reference to the divine initiative and by denial of efficacy to human works, such teaching underscored moral responsibility; it also adumbrated Puritan penitential and preparationist teaching of later decades.[1]

It is important to keep in mind that Bozeman is not even discussing actual English Puritanism yet, rather he is highlighting the streams and emphases, present within England just prior to the full-fledged emergence of Puritanism, that actually brought shape and form to the disciplinary “religion” known as Puritanism. Notice the correlation he makes between this kind of Protestantism with Roman Catholic spirituality.

Conversely, John MacArthur sounds very much like this incipient Puritanism described above by Bozeman. You will notice this similarity as MacArthur, like these early penitentialists, emphasizes the function and necessity of moral reformation in the life of the “truly saved” individual; notice:

. . . They’ve been told [Christians in the typical evangelical church in the West] that the only criterion for salvation is knowing and believing some basic facts about Christ. They hear from the beginning that obedience is optional. It follows logically, then, that a person’s one-time profession of faith is more valid than the ongoing testimony of his life-style in determining whether to embrace him as a true-believer. The character of the visible church reveals the detestable consequence of this theology. As a pastor I have rebaptized countless people who once “made a decision,” were baptized, yet experienced no change. They came later to true conversion and sought baptism again as an expression of genuine salvation.[2]

Striking is it not? Both English Penitentialism (early and full blossomed English Puritanism), and MacArthur’s approach are intended to curb moral laxity, by emphasizing the moral conduct and “performance” of the truly “saved.” As MacArthur underscores, as a good follower of the “English Puritan” (and for that matter Roman Catholic) ethic and spirituality, genuine salvation is only noticeable and discernible via an “. . . an ongoing testimony of his life-style.” Bozeman speaking of the moral laxity within England (in the 16th century and onward) notes how this affected the “Reforming spirit” of that locale, he says: “. . . There the Reformation emerged in a period of deeply felt concern about social order. . . . (Bozeman, 13) This motivation similarly, and unabashedly, motivates MacArthur’s emphasis on performance, duty, and obedience, as he states: “. . . Why should we assume that people who live in an unbroken pattern of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, deceit, and every conceivable kind of flagrant excess are truly born again? . . .” (MacArthur, 16-17) In other words, the remedy for both camps (i.e. between the 16th and 17th cent. and 20th and 21st cent.) is to hang people over hell in order to foster an supposed environment of holiness and moral uprightness, this is by way of EMPHASIS. Both of these camps spoke and speak of solifidian (faith alone), but this is not enough, external moral transformation needs to accompany “faith alone,” otherwise there was never any faith to begin with (i.e. later on we will discuss how this thought came to be tied to concepts like “preparationism” and “temporary faith”).

 

[1] [italics mine] Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain,  20-21.

[2] [brackets mine] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus,  17.

 

I Don’t Think God, Neither Do You: God Speaks For and Names Himself

Emil Brunner and Karl Barth famously had a serious quarrel, even fall-out, over Barth’s perception of ‘natural theology’ in Brunner’s approach. While it is true that Brunner affirmed something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, he also has some very strong points of convergence with both Barth and Thomas Torrance for that matter. I’m inclined to go with Barth on all things contra-natural theology, but I actually think Brunner is much closer to Barth than say even Calvin or any of the Post Reformed orthodox in the 16th and 17th centuries. Note what Brunner writes, if I hadn’t told deusdixityou beforehand you might have thought this was Barth instead (well maybe):

(2) Secondly, the concept, the “Name” of God, suggests further that God is Person: He is not an “IT”; He is our primary “Thou”. That which we can think and know by our own efforts is always an object of thought and knowledge, some thing which has been thought, some thing which has been known, therefore it is never “Person”. Even the human person is never truly “person” to us so long as we merely “think” it; the human being only becomes “person” to us when he speaks to us himself, when he manifests the mystery of his being as a “thou”, in the very act of addressing us.[1]

Let’s stop here for just a moment before we pick up again. In some ways this functional understanding of what constitutes personhood is problematic; not just for reasons that implicate say the ethics of something like abortion and establishing personhood, but also because Brunner is using this as an analogue, a social analogue for determining the personhood of God (someone might want to call this a type of analogia entis or ‘analogy of being’). That notwithstanding, what he writes following still is insightful; Brunner continues:

It is true of course, that to a certain extent we can know the human “thou” by our own efforts, because, and in so far as it is “also an I”, a fellow-human being. The mystery of human personality is not absolute; it is only relative, because it is not only “other than I” but “the same as I”. It can be placed under the same general heading “Man” along with me; it is not and unconditioned “Thou” because it is at the same time a “co-I”. There is no general heading for God. God in particular has no “I” alongside of Himself. He is the “Thou” which is absolutely over against everything else, the “Thou” who cannot at the same time be on the same  level with “me”, “over-against” whom He stands.

Therefore I cannot myself unconditionally think God as this unconditioned “Thou”, but I can only know Him in so far as He Himself, by His own action, makes Himself known to me. It is, of course, true that man can think out a God for himself—the history of philosophy makes this quite plain. In extreme cases a man can “think” a personal God; theistic philosophy is a genuine, even if an extreme possibility. But this personal God who has been conceived by man remains some-thing which has been thought, the object of our thought-world, acting, speaking, manifesting Himself—He does not meet me as a “Thou”, and is therefore not a real “Thou”. He is, as something which I have thought, my function, my positing: He is not the One who addresses me, and in this “address” reveals Himself to me as the One who is quite independent of me.

The God who is merely thought to be personal is not truly personal; the “Living God” who enters my sphere of thought and experience from beyond my thought, in the act of making Himself known to me, by Himself naming His Name—He alone is truly personal.[2]

Karl Barth in his Göttingen Dogmatics has a whole chapter entitled Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken.’ This is language that Barth appropriated from Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, and now we see it as a theme in Brunner’s theology as well. The social analogy notwithstanding, the important aspect to highlight here is that for the Christian we don’t think up God, we don’t think a God concept, we instead are confronted by the living voice of God revealed in Jesus Christ; and it is here where our conception of God comes from.

Implication

So what’s the “practical” implication of this? I would say that, if Brunner et al. is right, Christians are dependent upon revelation in order to think God. We are dependent upon hearing his voice through the voice of the eternal Son incarnate in Jesus Christ. This means, I would contend, that Christian theologians should not try to discover a concept of God as a prius to the God revealed; we should not attempt to synthesize the god discovered by the philosopohers with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. At most, as the patristic theologians did, we might be able to ‘evangelize a metaphysic’ and use the grammar present therein in order to help us talk about God; but only with the qualification that said metaphysic has been retexted in a non-correlationist way under the pressure of the triune God revealed in Christ.

That didn’t sound very practical, did it? Practically speaking I think Christians should not be afraid of the so called ‘scandal of particularity.’ We serve a peculiar and particular God, he is sui generis, unique, and special. He is only knowable because he graciously wanted to be known, and so he became us in Christ that we might become him (so says Irenaneus). The Gospel is the power of God, as such we shouldn’t be afraid to speak after and from this particular God revealed in Jesus Christ. The world may not like it, other Christians might not even like it, but we must insist that the God we speak of and to is the One who first spoke to us in his Son.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 121-22.

[2] Ibid., 121-22.

The Bible is not the End, Jesus Is: Reflections on a Distinction Between Paper, Papal, and Jesus

Jesus is the reality. Everything else is in service to him, particularly Holy Scripture. Karl Barth famously had Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece above his desk in his study; this illustrates well what genuinely Christian theology should be all about: Jesus. As Thomas Torrance often highlights Jesus is the res (reality) while Scripture is the signa (symbol), or witness bearer. Indeed each of us as ambassadors of Jesus Christ function, in proclamation, much as Scripture does (although even subordinate to that, in a qualified way), as those who bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ.[1]

mattiasgrunewaldUnfortunately what has often happened is that what was supposed to be witness to Jesus instead confused themselves with the reality (of Jesus) himself, and absolutized themselves as an end (even if only relatively construed) rather than a means or symbol or witness bearer to the end, Jesus Christ. A fundamental aspect of the Protestant Reformation was to correct this overplay by the Roman Catholic Church, by developing a theology of the Word. Indeed this became known as the ‘Scripture principle,’ and serves as a hallmark of the Protestant-turn as it were. As should be, Scripture, relative to a theory of authority, ascended to its rightful place within Protestantism, but as with all things human, this turn went too far, and replaced  papal with paper; Protestantism, particularly the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the theology that seeks to repristinate that contemporaneously, began to identify Scripture as an absolute end—in other words the ontology of Scripture lost its rightful place, relative to God, and ascended to heights that really only should belong to the reality of all things, Jesus Christ. Emil Brunner explains it this way:

Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which they eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the “finger”, to the interpretative doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity. The Reformers were right when they rejected the unconditional authority of ecclesiastical doctrine as such; but when the theologians of the Reformation began to believe in a doctrine about Jesus Christ, instead of in Jesus Christ Himself, they lost the best fruit of the Reformation. Reformation theology was right in setting up the Biblical doctrinal authority above the ecclesiastical authority as their norm; but they were wrong, when they made the Biblical doctrine their final unassailable authority, by identifying the Word of God with the word of the Bible. When they did this, in principle, they relapsed into Catholic error; the Protestant faith also became a doctrinal faith, belief in dogma, only now the Biblical dogma took the place of the doctrine of the Church. Protestant orthodoxy arrested the development of the Reformation as a religious awakening.

This distinction between “Jesus Christ Himself” and the doctrine about Him, as final authority, must not, however, be misunderstood in the sense of separation. We do not possess “Jesus Christ Himself” otherwise than in and with the doctrine about Him. But it is precisely this doctrine, without which we cannot have “Him Himself”, which is not Himself, and therefore has only a relative authority. This authority increases the more plainly and clearly as it is connected with Jesus Christ Himself. Thus it is precisely the duty of a genuinely religious—which means, also, a genuinely critical—system of dogmatics to undertake a careful examination of this necessary, obvious connexion between Jesus Christ and the doctrine concerning Him.[2]

There is this constant struggle, well for some, between getting stuck in doctrine and making it to a point where we get beyond the doctrine to its reality in Jesus Christ. As Brunner rightfully leaves off, there is an inextricable linkage between the reality (as absolute) and the witness/doctrine (as relative); but if we are not careful we will fall prey to majoring on the minors, and failing to realize that in the end it has really always already been about a personal encounter with the personal and living God revealed afresh in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Think of Barth’s three-fold form of the Word.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Vol. I (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 54.