The Adamantine, Invincible, Invulnerable Love of God

sondereggerLove is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

At the current moment, the dominant attribute in our common talk of God is typically love. Love is also at the center of a number of recent academic treatments of the doctrine of God and especially a number of the revisions of that doctrine in the 20th Century. What’s more, that God is centrally and fundamentally love is taken by many to mean that God is relational.

And for Trinitarians, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. God is relational all the way down. But one of the great burdens of Kevin Vanhoozer’s work Remythologizing Theology is to show that the current model of a relational God meant to replace “classical theism” does what all onto-theologies do–take a metaphysical concept from without Scripture and read Scripture’s witness to God in that light. In this case, we take modern definitions of relationality as necessarily including mutuality, vulnerability, and so forth, and in that light, deliver us into the hands of a suffering and empathetic God. Here is much of the thrust behind various process, panentheist, and Open theist models on offer. 

The question we’re to ask, though, is whether or not this is the understanding of relationality and love we are given to understand as we read the broad sweep of the Scriptures as well as its individual pages. Here, of course, is not the place to understand such an examination. Still, I was reminded of this issue when I ran across this stunning exposition by Katherine Sonderegger of Paul’s “Love” hymn in 1 Corinthians 13. I’ll quote it at length:

This is Love. Now it seems to me that this passage lies so close to hand, remains so familiar from every wedding and so many burials, that we overlook one of its most striking features. The love praised here, the more excellent way, does not envision an object at all–how odd that we read it at weddings!–nor does it speak of mutuality, indeed of passibility, in any fashion. St. Paul’s love is supremely invulnerable, impervious to another we might dare say. Perfect love is invincibly objectless, immutual, perdurant. It never ends–it alone is eternal against all the gifts of the Spirit, prophecy, and tongues and knowledge. It is adamantine.

Paul picks out with two quick strokes the positive traits of love, patience and kindness. Surely a quiet evocation of hesed. God’s loving-kindness! Then the apostle turns to what we might think of as love’s negative predicates: it is not envious or proud or coarse; not ill-tempered, variable, stubborn; not immoral, sadistic, cruel, and petty; not weak. Love is recognized in its ready delight for the truth, the good; they are twins. In all its ways, love remains unflinching, undeterred. It is supremely confident, twinned with hope and trust. Love has been prised loose from all self-seeking, from the burdens, sometimes frightful, so often small and miserable, that infect our loving, from the anger and resentment that course through our most ardent loves, from the submission to what we call facts in this proudly “realistic” life of ours–ingratitude, unsuitability, meanness. Love, Paul tells us, simply withstands, endures, triumphs. It abides as the greatest, the uncontested, the supreme. Love is self-same, thoroughly itself, constant, unswerving, true.

Who cannot see, in all these things, that love, this perfect Love of the apostle Paul, is simply another Name for God? God alone is this Love, this more excellent way–we could hardly expect anything else. God’s passionate Love, Paul tells us, is invulnerable in just this particular way to us and to our loveless ways; supremely independent of us and our indifference; utterly triumphant over our blindness, instability, and infidelity; zealous for the right; eternal. This is Divine Nature, personal Passion, victorious Love. Wrath for the good. It is the One Love triumphant over every defilement, injustice, and cunning: it defends the orphan and the little one with fiery Mercy, raging Justice. This Divine Love waits on no one, needs nothing, bends to no condition or limit. Love that is God scorches through the infinite spheres, boundless, eternal Holiness. Love crowns the Divine Perfections; it abounds.

Systematic Theology, Volume 1, The Doctrine of Godpp. 495-497

Before commenting, for those interested, yes, this sort of tremendous, cavernous, doxological prose is lavishly scattered throughout the whole of her work. It’s a beautifully executed work, in that sense. Rigorous though it is, nothing could be further from the stereotype of a “dry” academic work than Sonderegger’s elegant volume.

Now, the context of this passage is Sonderegger’s challenge to the common claim that love requires an object. In the hands of most theologians looking to avoid a needy, co-dependent God, or the idea that God only becomes loving upon creating something other than himself, this leads us to the conclusion that in order to properly expound the love of God we must turn to the doctrine of the Trinity. Only the God who is perfectly, Father, Son, and Spirit can be Love in the fullest sense, with a life that is perfect, complete in itself and for itself before all of creation.

Sonderegger wants to claim that we can think of love monotheistically according to God’s oneness (though not contrary to His threeness). To this–as Sonderegger herself might put it–we must gently but firmly say, “No.” Ultimately, I do think the Love that God is, can only be properly thought through on trinitarian grounds. While Sonderegger speaks of the lack “mutuality” in the passage, that may be, but there is a certainly a directional “communicativity” that seems to imply an object. 

What’s more, Sonderegger also wants to affirm emotions or affections as something we can speak of God. Still, that shouldn’t be taken in the modern, passibilist sense. I think she’d want to sign off on something along these lines, in order to affirm much of what the tradition has held, while not running roughshod over the language of Scripture.  

All the same, Sonderegger has put her finger on something in this passage. Paul gives us this striking picture of love that is good news precisely because of its imperviousness. Love, here, is not trumpeted as the exposed, hyper-sensitive, vulnerability that our culture puts a premium on. It is fullness; an overflowing invulnerability that is unflappable in its will to communicate the good to those who have spurned it. In this passage we are presented with an analogue to the Love found in God’s sovereign determination to give his life, life, and very Self to his creatures, despite any obstacles to contrary. It is precisely this kind of adamantine love that can sustain the movement of the God in the flesh, in order to assume all that is changeable, passible, and vulnerable, in order to redeem it on our behalf. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Is God Bound By the Chains of His Own Justice? (Crisp on Retribution)

retrieving doctrineOliver Crisp has an illuminating article in his work Retrieving Doctrine examining the innovative, Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell’s atonement theology, quite accurately titled “John McLeod Campbell and Non-penal Substitution” (92-115). It’s illuminating, not only as it shines light on Campbell’s own theology–as helpful as that is–but as Crisp examines a number of broader issues related to retributive justice, freedom, and atonement theology.

In it, he takes up thinking about the relation of forgiveness and retributive justice. Crisp–as he is prone to do–is trying to see whether there is a way of advocating for a non-penal understanding of atonement all the while retaining a traditional, Reformed doctrine of God that understands God’s justice as containing a significant retributive elemement. (Note well: Crisp is not arguing for the position normatively. He doesn’t hold it. As I see it, he’s just trying to explore the concept to see if there’s a way of making it work.)

In any case, assuming retribution for the sake of the argument, in the sub-section I’m concerned with, Crisp makes two arguments I think worth highlighting.

A Better World?

First, he notes that we might think of two versions of retributive justice: a weak and a strong version. The strong version “does not permit forgiveness (without satisfaction)”, while the weak version “does not require forgiveness (without satisfaction)”(97). On one view, God’s justice demands reparation or satisfaction, either by the sinner or a substitute, while the other does not. (Also, “strong” and “weak” are not normative judgments, but indications of the strength of the form).

At this point, he stops to ask why most theologians who hold to retribution have defended the stronger view. Many would ask the same. Why not admit that God’s justice has a retributive element, but think that doesn’t necessarily entail reparations? Here Crisp comes to the first argument I was concerned with and points out that this position has some problematic consequences.

Crisp’s concerns are roughly this: if the weak view holds, then it seems like God could forgive any sin and any sinner without any reparations, by the sheer grace of a fiat. Well, if that’s the case, then why not just do that for all sins and sinners? On this view, God could be just as just to forgive, redeem, and save all, with none suffering judgment, or pain for sinners, or the pain of the cross for Christ. Now, if that’s the case, then it seems plausible to think that such a world in which that were true, would be an objectively better world, with less evil, pain, and suffering than the current world. But that is an “intolerable” conclusion (98), so he returns to the strong view of divine justice.

On this view of justice, “crime must be punished and the punishment must fit the crime.”  What’s more, God cannot act unjustly. It is not within him to be inconsistent on this point. God will repay all according to their deeds, as sin (and righteousness) deserve a proper, divine response. And here we come to the second argument.

Is God Bound in the Chains of His Own Justice?

Oftentimes, in these discussions of atonement theology, it is charged that to think God “cannot” forgive without reparation or satisfaction is a threat to God’s freedom. God, it is said, should not be thought of as bound in chains by his own law. If God has to punish sin in order to forgive, then this legalistic theology gives us a God who is not truly free to forgive and so his sovereignty is compromised.

Here Crisp replies that this sort of charge makes two mistakes (99). First, with respect to the nature of divine justice. The “freedom” charge assumes the weak view of divine justice at the outset. But if you already have reasons for setting it aside, then the charge misses the point.

Here I’ll quote him at length:

…it is no restriction on God that he has to act according to his nature (if he has a nature), anymore than it is a restriction upon a monkey that he has to act according to his nature as a monkey, and not according to the nature of some othe kind of creature. It would hardly make sense to say te monkey was not free if he has to act in a simian fashion, rather than in a human fashion. And in a similar way, it is hardly an objection agaisnt the strong version of divine retribution to say that if God has to act according to his nature, that is, in a way that is justice…then he is somehow un-free in so acting. One could object that divine justice is not essentially retributive. But the the objection would not be about divine freedom, but about the nature of divine justice, which is quite another matter. (99)

I think Crisp has it just right here. The “freedom” charge is not ultimately an objection that holds up when you’ve got a solid grasp of what it means to act in accordance with your nature and your character.

Think of Scripture. It is not a deficiency or lack of freedom that Paul is charging God with when he says “God cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 3:13). God’s inability to lie is the free expression of his essential nature as truthful in all of his ways. God is absolutely free to act in accordance with his fundamental nature as faithful and true. If the strong version of retributive justice is true, then God’s demand of reparation or satisfaction is not a lack of freedom, but an expression of his freedom to be fully himself, just in all his ways.

Of course, if you don’t think God’s justice includes (along with a number of other elements) retribution, which returns me to the earlier argument.

Reinforcing Retribution

While I’m on board with both of Crisp’s arguments outlined above, I do wonder about the first a bit more. In response to Crisp’s argument that the world in which God simply forgives all according to weak justice is a morally better world than that in which he doesn’t, it seems you could try to argue that there are other, outweighing goods present in the one which he doesn’t. To do that, you might try to outline which ones those were (though, I’d have a hard time seeing them), or you might more modestly appeal to epistemological limits and claim that there might be outweighing goods which are beyond our limits to know. Sort of like a skeptical theist argument.

In any case, it seems we might want to push harder here, or add further reinforcing arguments on this point. (And, knowing Dr. Crisp, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has already done that elsewhere.)

In addition to theological arguments, this is why I believe we are safer to add Scripture to the argument above as a firmer warrant and foundation for the claims of the strong view of divine retributive justice. Of course, this requires more argumentation than can be mounted here, since a number of serious critiques have been leveled against the idea that divine justice contains the element of retribution according to Scripture, or, at least, according to Jesus’ revelation of God’s justice in the New Testament.

For now, I’ll simply quote Bavinck on the matter as this selection gives us something of the prima facie warrant for suspecting retribution, and even the strong version, is the biblical view:

…retribution is the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture. There is no legislation in antiquity that so rigorously and repeatedly maintains the demand of justice as that of Israel. This comes out especially in the following three things: (1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23); (2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23); and (3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be upheld for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10). In general, justice must be pursued both in and outside the courts (Deut. 16:20). All this is grounded in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who by no means clears the guilty, yet is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 68:5; etc.). He, accordingly, threatens punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:15f.; Pss. 5:5; 11:5; 50:21; 94:10; Isa. 10:13–23; Rom. 1:18; 2:3; 6:21, 23; etc.) and determines the measure of the punishment by the nature of the offense. He repays everyone according to his or her deeds (Exod. 20:5–7; Deut. 7:9–10; 32:35; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Isa. 35:4; Jer. 51:56; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:1–13; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 22:12).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 162-163

Each of those references could be fruitfully tracked down, but for those with a hermeneutic oriented towards the New Testament, I would note those last few texts, especially the Gospel reference. As Henri Blocher comments: “Retribution belongs to the teaching of Jesus (Matt 16:27) and remains the principle of judgment (Heb 2:2; 10:30; Rev 18:6; 22:12)” (“The Justification of the Ungodly”, Justification and Variegated Nomism Vol. 2, p. 474-475).

Well, as always, there’s far more to say. Still, Crisp has given us some helpful distinctions and arguments for thinking more clearly about the notion of divine, retributive justice and the view of God’s freedom to forgive that it entails.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Truth Overruled (w/ Ryan T. Anderson)

Mere FidelityWith the Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage come a tide of social, legal, and political shifts in the American landscape. Ryan T. Anderson, alongside Robert George, is America’s chief, cheerful, public philosophical advocate for traditional marriage as well as religious freedom issues has written a book about what comes next, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious FreedomMatthew Lee Anderson, Alastair Roberts, and I had the privilege of having him on the show to talk through his book, Obergefell, Kim Davis, conscience, and other such lovely topics.

We hope you’ll enjoy the show and find it instructive, encouraging, and challenging.

Soli Deo Gloria

Luther’s Extra-Calvinisticum? (Updated)

martin-lutherStudying theology is largely a matter of learning nerdy, specialized jargon. Well, maybe not. Still, it feels that way sometimes. “Extra-Calvinisticum” (the Calvinistic extra) is one of those super-nerdy, theological terms.  (Pro-tip: learning these and throwing them out randomly at parties does not make you cooler–not even in seminary). It comes from the debates of the post-Reformation period where Reformed (Calvinist) theologians were going back and forth with the Lutherans over the nature of the Lord’s Supper and the Christology (view of Christ’s nature as the Godman) that shapes it.

The Lutherans came up with the term to describe what they took to be the distinctively Calvinist view of the union of Christ’s human and divine natures in one person. Richard Muller helpfully summarizes it for us:

extra calvinisticum: The Calvinistic extra; a term used by the Lutherans to refer to the Reformed insistence on the utter transcendence of the human nature of Christ by the Second Person of the Trinity in and during the incarnation. The Reformed argued that the Word is fully united to but never totally contained within the human nature and, therefore, even in the incarnation is to be conceived of as beyond or outside of (extra) the human nature.
In response to the Calvinistic extra, the Lutherans taught the maxim, Logos non extra carnem. It is clear that the so-called extra calvinisticum is not the invention of the Calvinists but is a christological concept, safeguarding both the transcendence of Christ’s divinity and the integrity of Christ’s humanity, known to and used by the fathers of the first five centuries, including Athanasius and Augustine.
It is also clear (1) that Reformed emphasis on the concept arose out of the tendency of Reformed christology to teach acommunicatio idiomatum in concreto over against the perceived Lutheran emphasis upon acommunicatio idiomatum in abstracto and (2) that the polarization of Lutheran and Reformed Christologies owed much to the debate over the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, in which the Lutherans emphasized the real but illocal presence of Christ’s body and blood by reason of the communicated omnipresence of the Logos and the Reformed emphasized the transcendence of the divine and the heavenly location of Christ’s body. Against the Lutherans, the Reformed interpreted the extra calvinisticum in terms of the maxim Finitum non capax infiniti, the finite is incapable of the infinite. In other words, the finite humanity of Christ is incapable of receiving or grasping infinite attributes such as omnipresence, omnipotence, or omniscience.”
Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 111.

So there you have it. The Calvinistic “extra” means that while the Son is really and truly present through his human nature–it is precisely his human nature–he is not limited or boxed in by it. He transcends beyond it as he always has. Now, again, I’d emphasize here that recent scholarship has shown this “extra” isn’t just a Calvinistic quirk. It can be found in Athanasius, Augustine, and others. As some scholars have noted, it might just as well have been called the extra-Patristicum.

Here’s the really funny bit, though. It seems like it wasn’t just something the Fathers or the Reformed taught, contra the Lutherans. It actually appears Luther himself might taught it–even though he came to different conclusions with respect to the communication of attributes and the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

I ran across this passage in my reading this last week and though I’m clearly not a Luther scholar this seems like clear statement of the “extra” nature of the Son’s divinity:

Now we revert to our text, which is easily understood on the basis of what we have said: “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven.” Here Christ is really pointing to His two natures, which dwell in one person. He indicates that His Father is God and that His mother is human, that both have the one and the same Son, our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as our Creed also teaches. Inasmuch as Christ is God, He is in heaven above from eternity, together with the Father. When He was born of the Virgin Mary, however, He descended from heaven; but at the same time He remained in heaven. He also ascended into heaven, but He was also in heaven before His ascension.

-Luther’s Works, Volume 22: Sermons on the Gospel of John, 1-4, p. 324-325 

Here we see that the unity of the divine and human natures in Christ in no way means that the divine nature is limited to the location of the human nature. So, though the eternal Son of God was born by the Virgin Mary and lay in a manger as an infant, walked around the Sea of Galilee, and was subject to all the regular constraints and limitations of human finitude, Luther says that in no ways means that he ceased being the omnipresent, eternal, infinite one according to his divine nature.

Why does this matter? Is this really just an excuse to learn a bit of history and a nerdy, theological term? Well, not only that. First, historically–if I’m not totally misreading things–there were even more similarities between Calvin and Luther than some might be tempted to believe.

Second, at the very least, it simply offers us another excuse to wonder at and worship the glorious person of Jesus. Jesus is the eternal Son, who, while he sustained the world, holding all things into being, is the one who was simultaneously humbled, taking upon himself human form, submitting to all the vicissitudes and tragedies of our existences, so that he might endure, overcome, and transform them for us and our salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria 

P.S. I am open to correction this from students/scholars of Luther. Just reporting what I read here.

Update: Kyle Drake, a Ph.D. student work on the development of the extra-Calvinisticum over at Saint Louis University very helpfully (and charitably) wrote me a counter-reading of the text in Luther I highlighted. Not being a Luther expert–or an expert of any sort, for that matter–I thought it worth sharing. I’m not sure I’m going to quickly decide against my own reading, but this is certainly an important dimension worth considering.

The quote that you have supplied from Luther is indeed interesting especially considering that the Sermon appears to be from 1538. However, it is not properly referring to the extra because of Luther’s understanding of the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature. He say “Inasmuch as Christ is God, He is in heaven above from eternity, together with the Father.” This is one component of the extra that Christ exists before the incarnation as the logos asarkos, this is one of the elements of the doctrine that Barth denied. However, how Luther continues things gets more unclear, “When He was born of the Virgin Mary, however, He descended from heaven; but at the same time He remained in heaven. He also ascended into heaven, but He was also in heaven before His ascension.” Luther gives no indication here how Christ “remains in heaven” or is “in heaven before His ascension.”  Because of his doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ, that the human body of Christ really partakes of the divine property of omnipresence, it is possibly that he holds that the human nature of Christ is in heaven as well from the moment of incarnation. This was actually a heated debate in later Lutheranism over the interpretation of Luther’s understanding of ubiquity. Johann Brenz argued that Luther intended to teach a necessary ubiquity of the humanity from the moment of incarnation. While Martin Chemnitz argued that the body became omnipresent after the glorification and then only when Christ willed it to be so. I think that this quote from Luther could be interpreted along either Brenzian or Chemnitzian lines.

When it Comes to the Bible, Sometimes It’s Best To Say, “I Don’t Know”

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named 'Luther.' Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named ‘Luther.’ Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

The Bible can be a hard book at times. And that’s so for a number of reasons. In the first place, we’re sinners and so we don’t always like listening to what God has to say through it. Kind of like when your mom would call you to take out the trash from up the hall–you manage not to “hear” the message.

Beyond that, sometimes even when you want to understand it’s just plain difficult. It’s a grown-up book, translated from a different language (two or three, actually), at a remove of thousands of years, across cultures, and shared histories. What’s more, this collection of narratives, poetry, visions, and letters concerns itself with the most sublime and transcendent Subject of all: God and his works.

Of course, that’s not to say we can’t understand it all. That would be rather extreme. No, much of the Bible can be read and understood by most, and there is enough that can be understood by all so that they may know what they need to be saved and live life with God. God has can and does reach us through his Word. That’s the classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture.

All the same, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not teach that no part of the Bible is difficult, or that it will always be equally obvious to all (2 Pet. 3:16). There will be much that is beyond us. And this is important for believers to admit, at times, for a number of reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

But first, I was reminded of this point as I was reading some Luther the other night. At this point, he’s preaching through the John 3 and he comes to the line about being born again of water and the Spirit and the difficulties of interpretation. Luther thinks that Munzer has badly misinterpreted the Scriptures here and he moves to correct him, but before doing so, he makes an important point:

But let these words stand, and do not indulge in subtle arguments, even though they appear foolish and strange to reason. Take them in their simple sense, just as they read, not as some have interpreted them. Munzer, for example, declared that water here symbolizes affliction and temptation. One must not be willful with the Word of God. It is better to say: “I do not understand the words,” than to alter them. It is better to leave my hands off and to commend it to God than to add to or detract from God’s words. Holy Writ must be treated with veneration and profound awe. In their impudence, however, the schismatic spirits do not do this; they are forward, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Epistle of St. Peter. They consider the Word of God nothing else than the word of man (2 Peter 2:10). But don’t meddle with God’s Word. If you do not understand it, accord it the honor to say: “I shall wait until I do understand it.”

Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, pg. 283

There is a wisdom in slowing down in your interpretation of Scripture. God’s Word is holy. It is the set apart of his apostles and prophets–heralds of the Holy One–for the divine purpose of drawing his people into fellowship with the Triune God. It is, therefore, as a Kingly proclamation, nothing to be trifled or meddled with. It must “be treated with veneration and profound awe.” In which case, Luther says there will come times when it’s entirely appropriate to say, “I do not understand the words.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I think it’s especially important for those of us called to teach the Bible–whether in the classroom or the pulpit–to give heed to Luther’s here.

There is a pressure for the pastor or the teacher to be the one who knows everything all the time. Now, of course, it’s quite reasonable for us to expect the pastor to know some things. Maybe even more things than most in the congregation. (Though, as any pastor knows, there are usually a number of saints who can give you a run for your seminary education sitting in the pews). Still, whether it’s self-imposed or put on them by others, the pressure to “know it all”; to have every verse down, ready to comment on, and every theological equation solved is there.

And so the temptation is to spout off an answer when we really don’t know what we’re talking about. Here are some reasons it’s better to just say “I don’t know,” sometimes.

First, as Luther says, we avoid dishonoring God’s Word that way. When we say God’s Word says something it doesn’t, we’re altering it. We’re changing what God’s written to us and that is no small thing. Now, to be sure, every preacher has done this at some point, even in their earnest desire to preach the Word. And I believe God understands and has mercy on these things. But to do so, not out of earnest conviction, but merely because one hasn’t given enough thought to the issue or simply in order to have something to say and prop up your pride is sinful. When faced with a passage too difficult, better to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Second, by doing so, not only do you honor God’s Word, but you teach your people to honor God’s Word. You teach them humility before God’s Word that they then take with them to their own study. What’s more, by admitting your own lack of knowledge at certain points, you give them permission to “not know” things and yet continue to study nonetheless. I think that was one of the more helpful things I did for my students. They all knew I read and studied like crazy, but I’d still have moments where I’d have to look at them and say, “You know, I have to go look that up more. I’m just not sure.”

Finally, it should help prevent you from discrediting God’s Word in the ears of your hearers. Unfortunately, your bad teaching that flows from your inability to just admit you’re beyond your depths can turn people off from the Bible because of the distortion you inject into it. Speculative, shallow, half-cocked answers to difficult questions don’t make you sound smarter, they only make the Bible sound worse. Being willing to simply admit you don’t know avoids that danger.

Obviously, none of this is an argument for simply shutting up and never preaching anything. As I said, I think there’s plenty that’s clear, and with some study, we are able to truly understand, preach, and teach the Bible. All the same, it’s okay to admit there are times it’s beyond us. It may be that in precisely that way we treat it as we ought: as God’s Holy Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anselm: “Taste the Goodness of Your Redeemer”

christ-on-the-cross-1587Anselm of Canterbury is credited with having invented with what is called the “satisfaction” theory of atonement in his classic work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In a severely condensed nutshell, humanity sins against its Creator, incurring an infinite debt of sin, having slighted the infinitely worthy Triune God’s honor and marring the beauty and order of his universe. This moral debt is owed to God and yet is unpayable twice over, not only because the debt is infinite, but because humanity has wounded itself and is now no longer even able to render the obedience it still owes, much less the outstanding debt. And yet, humanity is the one who owes the debt and so is the only one who ought to pay it.

God, though, being faithful to his creation and to his purposes for the good of his humanity aims to reconcile humanity to himself. To do so, the Son comes, assumes our human nature alongside his divine nature, lives a perfect life, dies a death he does not owe, and in virtue of his infinite goodness, offers it up as a good exceeding every debt in order to settle the debt of sin. He can do this on our behalf because he is true man. But the offering of this man can cover our debt because it is also the humble offering of the infinite God.

Now, there are a number of objections that have been lodged against it over the years–some of them which I myself share. One which I think has been quite unfair, though, is that Anselm’s logical presentation is of a “rationalist” sort, with one of the implications being that it’s connected to a rather cold sort of faith, narrowly concerned with ledgers and miserliness. That it’s the kind of faith that cuts the nerve of piety and true spiritual vitality.

I think it’s unfair because, first, it ignores the way the form of Anselm’s argument–the dialogue–shapes the presentation. Second, it ignores the deep beauty and grace which shapes his other works, many of which are written in the form of prayers to God, or spoken to the Christian soul.

We were given one such work in my seminar on atonement at Trinity, “A Meditation on Human Redemption” and I thought it worth sharing an excerpt we read in class the other day:

O Christian soul, soul raised up from grievous death, soul redeemed and freed by the blood of God from wretched bondage: arouse your mind, remember your resurrection, contemplate your redemption and liberation. Consider anew where and what the strength of your salvation is, spend time in meditating upon this strength, delight in reflecting upon it. Shake off your disinclination, constrain yourself, strive with your mind toward this end. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be aflame with love for your Savior, chew His words as a honey-comb, suck out their flavor, which is sweeter than honey, swallow their health-giving sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.

Where, then, and what is the strength and might of your salvation? Assuredly, Christ has resurrected you. That Good Samaritan has healed you, that Good Friend has redeemed and freed you by sacrificing His own soul life. Yes, it was Christ. Therefore, the strength of Christ is the strength of your salvation. Where is the strength of Christ? Surely horns are in His hands; there His strength is hidden. Strength is indeed in His hands because His hands were nailed to the arms of the cross. But what strength can there be in such weakness, what majesty in such humiliation, what worthy of reverence in such contempt? But surely because it is disguised in weakness it is something hidden, because veiled in humiliation it is something concealed, because covered with contempt it is something inaccessible. O hidden might! A man appended to a cross suspends the eternal death impending over the human race; a man fastened to a cross unfastens a world affixed to endless death! O concealed power! A man condemned with thieves saves men condemned with demons; a man stretched out on a cross draws all things unto Himself! O unseen strength! One soul yielded up in the torment [of crucifixion] draws countless souls from the torments of Hell; a man undergoes bodily death and abolishes spiritual death!

It’s been a while since I’ve read something that thick with spiritual vitality. The doctrinal content is rich, but this is not the language of detached doctrinal discussion, but that of prayer, praise, and adoration.

What’s funny, though, is that he continues from there in a similar mode of prayerful reasoning, to work through much of the same logic of salvation as he outlines in Cur Deus Homo. For example:

For the life of that man Jesus is more precious than everything that is not God, and it surpasses every debt owed by sinners as satisfaction. For if putting Him to death [is a sin which] surpasses the multitude and magnitude of all conceivable sins which are not against the person of God, clearly His life is a good greater than the evil of all those sins which are not against the person of God. To honor the Father, that man Jesus – who was not obliged to die, because not a sinner freely gave something of His own when He permitted His life to be taken from Him for the sake of justice. He permitted this in order to show to all others by example that they ought not to forsake the justice of God even because of death, which inevitably they are obliged to undergo at some time or other; for He who was not obliged to undergo death and who, having kept justice, could have avoided death, freely and for the sake of justice endured death, which was inflicted upon Him. Thus, in that man human nature freely and out of no obligation gave to God something its own, so that it might redeem itself in others in whom it did not have what it, as a result of indebtedness, was required to pay.

This same “logic” of satisfaction is what leads Anselm to comfort the believer with the beauty of their redemption given in Christ. No dry, detached piety here, but rich, spiritual truth.

I’ve nothing more to say except to close with one more excerpt which I hope encourages and comforts you today:

Behold, O Christian soul, this is the strength of your salvation, this is what has made possible your freedom, this is the cost of your redemption. You were in bondage, but through the cross you have been redeemed. You were a servant, but through the cross you have been set free. You are an exile who in this manner has been led back home, someone lost who has been found, someone dead who has been revived. O man, let your heart feed upon these thoughts. Let it chew continually upon them, let it suck upon them and swallow them whenever your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. In this life make these thoughts your daily bread, your nourishment, your provision. For through these thoughts and only through them will you remain in Christ and Christ in you; and only through them will your joy be full in the life to come.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Does Systematic Theology Add to Biblical Theology?

booksI’ve been on a bit of a Henri Blocher kick since his visit to Trinity this last week and I have to say it’s been paying off. For instance, I looked up an article of his, “The Justification of the Ungodly” in the second Paul volume, Justification and Variegated Nomism to thumb through this weekend. While most of it is caught up with the nature of justice and justification in relation to the New Perspective, Blocher opened up with some important insights on the nature of systematic theology as different from other disciplines.

Important, at least, to me. When people ask me what I’m studying and I say, “Systematic theology”, I can’t tell you how many times I get the question, “Okay, so what makes it ‘systematic’ theology?” Then when you try and explain that it’s systematic versus “biblical”–but not unbiblical!–you just get this funny stare until you sputter something about a logical ordering of topics and hope the subject changes. If you’ll pardon the comparison, I’m reminded of that famous line of Justice Potter Stewart on trying to define what counts as pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...”

(I leave it to others to decide whether there are any more comparisons between the two phenomena to be made.)

All the same, there have been a number of different approaches to distinguishing the two sub-disciplines of biblical and systematic theology–a couple of which I will probably return to in the future–but I think Blocher’s little section gets at some key insights worth laying out.

Blocher begins to get at the issue with this initial paragraph:

On the one hand, systematic theologians draw from Scripture the substance and light of their thinking. They are not seeking for another source or standard. In Berkouwer’s words: “Beyond the word of Scripture we dare not go, in speech or in theological reflection; for it is in this word that God’s love in Jesus Christ is revealed. There is nothing beyond that.” This dependence entails for them a major interest in the work of biblical scholars, through whom they receive knowledge of scriptural contents. On the other hand, they also make their own contribution to the joint enterprise of Bible study: as Heinrich Ott emphasized, Dogmatics should be included in the “hermeneutical circle.”

Protestant, Evangelical, and especially Reformed systematic theologians are–or ought to be–firmly committed to the normative status of the text of Scripture for doing theology. Sola Scriptura is not something we simply confess, but something we practice. Scripture alone is the final authority, and so faithful theologians will want to be attentive to what biblical studies has to say. We are concerned with and must draw the roots of our theologizing from solid exegesis.

But is theology anything more than exegesis? Blocher asks, “How distinctive is the contribution of systematic theology?” What do systematicians do beyond repeating the biblical scholars? Blocher’s brief answer begins, first, by dispelling the notion that or some sort of faith-interest or presupposition is what separates the two:

Theological interests motivate exegetes and historical critics as well; they cannot dispense with theological criteria to guide their search nor with a “fiduciary framework” (Polanyi’s phrase) to give meaning to their findings; they do think these findings “together.”

It’s not, then, that systematics’ only contribution is a theological bias–no matter what some biblical scholars might claim. No, what systematics does is deepen the reading.

Systematic (or dogmatic) theology only pushes a little further the effort at synthesis, representing the “whole” as opposed to the “parts” in the older construal of the hermeneutical circle; critical integration becomes its specific object; it establishes itself at a few more removes from textual ground level, in a more reflective mood. It does so in deliberate interaction with the history of Christian thought (and, in various degrees, with “human” thought, past and present). Systematic theology thus faces more openly or squarely the challenge of personal commitment: “What do you say. . . ?” (cf. Matt 16:15). It delineates and expounds for the use of the church the credendum: the focus is no longer on what Paul thought and believed – but nostra res agitur. The systematic concern for appropriation makes one vulnerable, exposing the person in the weakness of his or her faith. It corresponds to the other construal of the hermeneutical circle, the involvement of subject with object.

A few things are worth noting here.

First, Blocher is already assuming that biblical studies/theology is a “synthetic” task. Biblical scholars are trying to forward readings of biblical texts that bring together the various parts into a coherent, synthetic whole. Systematic theology shares that concern but pushes a bit further down the road. Or, to change the metaphor, a bit further back from the pages of Scripture, in order to take in the broader sweep.

Second, systematic theology typically does this in conversation with other historical-theological readings of Scripture. Biblical studies, as a discipline, is typically concerned with recent scholarship, Ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman backgrounds, and so forth, but not so much with Patristic, Medieval, or Reformation readings of those same texts. Though, that does seem to be changing in some circles. All the same, systematic theology typically takes the history of exegesis as a more obvious conversation partner, since systematics–or dogmatics, to introduce another term–is a churchly activity.

Which brings me to the third point Blocher makes–the subjectivity of systematics. Here, it seems that Blocher sees systematics more openly owning the subjective, confessional dimension to theology. As he says, it’s not so much a matter of only putting together “what Paul believed then”, as drawing conclusions about “what Paul believed then”, for “what we as the church believe now.” Theoretically, biblical studies can be done with some separation from personal confession. Obviously, it can’t be done entirely so. Believing Paul to be an inspired, authoritative writer does shape the way you come to the text. Believing in the possibility or reality of miracles will change how you construct the intention and theology of the Gospel writers. Still, it’s possible to have a brilliant Pauline scholar who can describe the apostle’s thought then, without actually subscribing to it. The systematic theologian cannot do that. The theologian puts forward claims as truths to be owned by the individual, the community they are a part of, and, ultimately, the world.

There is likely more to be said about the relationship and distinction between biblical and systematic theology, but this seems like an excellent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria