Faith, Form, and Fashion by Paul Helm (TGC Review)

Paul Helm. Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classic Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. 284 pp. $32.00.

Paul Helm is worried about the state of Reformed theology. The dangers that trouble him, though, are not the enemies at the gate but the dangerous friends unwittingly doing damage from within. In his latest, forceful offering—Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classic Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics (henceforth FFF)—Helm takes aim at recent strands in Reformed theology he thinks are drinking too deeply from the well of postmodernity, endangering the well-established methods of “Classic Reformed Theology” (which Helm calls CRT) in order to accommodate the intellectual fashions of the age. More specifically, he singles out Kevin Vanhoozer’s theodramatic theological proposal, as well as the work of John Franke, as the chief exemplars of this drift.

We want to be clear at the outset that students of Reformed theology and philosophy owe Helm, teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, a debt of gratitude for his generally excellent work in the field. What’s more, conversations about the issues he raises need to be engaged. Regrettably, FFF is not the book to constructively carry it forward. While there is much value in his introductory comments, Helm’s portrait and criticism of his interlocutors is beset by a lack of interpretive charity so as to be deeply misleading, and at times simply factually mistaken.

Since we are better acquainted with Vanhoozer’s corpus, and the bulk of Helm’s critique is aimed at him (Franke gets a chapter-and-a-half, compared with Vanhoozer’s five-and-a-half chapters), we will focus our analysis on his critique of Vanhoozer.

You can go read the rest of this review over at The Gospel Coalition. If you’re at all interested in Vanhoozer, or the criticism of him, I highly advise it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine, Friends Who Are Enemies, and Hope in the Middle of History

StAugustineA little less than 100 years after Christ triumphed over the old Roman gods, the Goths under the Arian-Christian King Alaric followed suit and sacked Rome–mostly just to show they could. The physical impact was relatively minimal but, as historians are quick to point out, the political and psychological impact was cataclysmic. Among varied responses to the sack were those of the pagans who laid Rome’s historic defeat at the feet of the Christians and their new God. By abandoning the sacrifices of the old gods, they had provoked them, lost their protection, and had been left defenseless against the assault.

It was in response to this reality that Augustine of Hippo penned one of his crowning theological achievements The City of God. His basic point was to answer the charges of the pagans, but in the process he lays out a broad vision of God, his purposes in history, politics, philosophy, and dozens, if not hundreds of other issues.

To my shame, I must say that despite good intentions for many years, I have only just begun to read it this week and it’s already repaying with insights relevant to the present moment. One passage in particular in Chapter 35 of Book 1 is worth meditating on for a bit:

But let this city bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hidden those who are destined to be fellow citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theatres with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are predestined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation.

The line that really grabbed me was that bit about “among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are predestined to become our friends.” According to Augustine there are Two Cities in the world, the City of God and the City of Man, and until the future judgment, her citizenry are mixed up and jumbled together–hidden, as it were, in plain sight.

History is not immediately transparent before our eyes. Eschatological judgment and the course of history under the guidance of God’s providence will contain surprises that unsettle our too-confident sense that we have a read on things as they are. From this truth, Augustine deduces that Christians are not to despair in the face of even the most virulent opposition.

Why? Because in the sovereign grace of God, it may be that our bitterest enemies may end up our staunchest friends. It is very easy when looking out at the headlines today to embrace a narrative of decline–which may be more or less correct–and then conclude we must settle for a defeatist attitude, bunker up in our churches, and wait out the storm. Or, more personally, it’s possible to look out at our Facebook feeds, Twitter threads, and look at some whom we see to be most hostile, vocal, and critical towards Christian faith and its moral vision, and simply write people off. In our arrogance and finitude, we freeze them as they are, passing judgment before the time (1 Cor. 4),

Augustine has a far different view. God is not bound by the exigencies of history. Trajectories exist, it is true, but God is the God who is Lord over history, both cosmic and personal. What’s more, he is the God of mysterious grace. This is why Augustine can urge hope for our “enemies”–the grace of God overcomes the opposition of those who hate him, through the good news of the gospel. Augustine knew this personally because of his own story of conversion from scoffer to Bishop. But also because of the Apostle whose letters exerted such a magnificent influence on his own theology: Paul, the chief persecutor of the Church whom God called to be her greatest missionary and theologian.

In other words, it is a betrayal of the gospel to lose hope for our enemies, our communities, or even a culture that seems dead-set to gut whatever is left of its philosophical underpinnings inherited from the gospel.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Augustine if he didn’t also highlight the inverse truth: some of our current friends may turn out to be ultimately false believers who end up abandoning and betraying the gospel. We can all think of any number of friends or pastors who seemed to start out so strong, but before the end, turn away and–even worse–drag a number with them. This is the Augustinian limit and caution on hope: set it on the right object.

Our hope for the world, for our neighbor, even our enemies, is ultimately not in human teachers, political programs, or the right method of “engagement.” Our hope is in the God who speaks the world out of nothing, light out of darkness, and a word of justification in the midst of the most damnable moment in history–the cross of his own Son.

We have reason for hope–his name is Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

Pursuing Power, Pursuing Education

students_in_classroomIn Christianity power is not a zero-sum game. Not fundamentally at least.

I was recently in a conversation with some friends about this reality recently. We were mulling over the issue of whether or not Christians ought to pursue positions of power or cultural influence in order to change things from above, or work for the common good in positions of authority.

Of course, while the concept will seem intuitive to some, even mentioning the idea immediately (legitimately) raises the suspicion of others. Nowadays in certain Christian circles there is a lot of talk about “embracing powerlessness” and giving power away as a more fundamentally Christ approach to power and authority. And there’s something to the notion when we look at Jesus. Jesus seemed to intentionally operate on the margins, using poor fishermen, (with a Zealot and a tax collector thrown in), staying in cultural backwaters, and eschewing the crowds seeking to crown him. Finally, there is a form of powerlessness in embracing the Cross, handing yourself over to be crucified, to have the will of others exercised upon you.

Moving to Christian history, it’s always important to remember that the Christian movement began at the margins of society and, even without embracing a full-throated “Constantinian” fall narrative, it’s easy to see some of the negative consequences of the Church gaining political and social authority.

With considerations like these (and a great many more) it is easy to become suspicious of the call to pursue positions of influence. The City of Man’s siren song of the lust to dominate calls powerfully and finds hearts in the Church all-too-willing to listen and be seduced by it. It seems safer (in some ways), wiser, and more Christlike to walk away from positions of power, to distrust political and social authority, and work in a more ground-up, power-relinquishing fashion. When possible, hand over as much as you can, to the powerless, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Again, there’s something to that. But I also want to say there’s something else too. I suppose what I’m saying is that we can’t begin our reflections on the use of power only after Genesis 3. Genesis 1 and 2 have a role to play. The doctrines of God and doctrine of creation are fundamental to our conception of the way the redemption of Jesus Christ changes our ideas and attitudes towards power.

Beginning with the Triune God, we must remember that from all eternity Father, Son, and Spirit has infinite power and glory. What’s more, in his creation, he gifts a measure of power and authority to his image-bearers at no detriment to his own. His gift of authority to humans is no threat to his own. In fact, their power and authority ontologically funds and morally authorizes theirs. In other words, he loses no power, no strength, no sovereignty, even as he exercises authority through his Image-bearers–with, or even (in light of sin) contrary to their own will.

Ideally, human power would function like this in an analogical fashion (our power being finite and dependent). In Genesis 1 and 2, God gives humanity power so that they would then exercise the kind of dominion and ordering of creation that would cultivate and empower it to produce and even greater yield than it could apart from humanity’s guidance. Of course, sin twists that as is obvious and apparent. Power and authority are distorted and perverted–dominion becomes domination.

But when God redeems, he does not move us to a space or a stage that is totally contrary to, or radically different from his original created intention. The redemption of humanity and the cosmos means the redemption of the use of power. By the power of the Spirit of God, whether in common or special grace, humans can use power in order to bless and benefit others. This is one of the majors themes in the OT literature about the righteousness and holiness of the kings and princes of Israel–their godly use of authority and power for the sake of the powerless and the oppressed. Their exercise of power enables the poor to achieve a stable social position in which they are empowered to live without fear and pursue a whole life. Though there is an asymmetry, it is not a vicious, or idolatrous one, but one ordained for human flourishing.

Indeed, if I had time, I think I could even show this theme at work in the New Testament, both in the life of Jesus, the acts of the Apostles, and even the epistles. Not to mention Church history. It’s quite common to remember Christendom’s woes, even while we continue live in the historical wake of its social benefits.

What does this look like in practice, though? Well, this is a brief blog post, but the best example that comes to mind, the paradigmatic example, of a Christian approach towards acquiring and using power in order to empower others in a non-zero-sum fashion is that of education.

Think about the educational process. It is entirely dependent on an asymmetry in knowledge/power between educator and student. It’s precisely because the educator knows more than and has a certain measure of authority over the student that she can teach the student. What’s more, in the process of educating and exercising power, the educator is actually empowering the student, elevating them through the communication of knowledge. This is an example of giving away power that leads to no loss on the part of the educator. The student’s gain in knowledge does not diminish the educator’s in the slightest, but only raises the student.

Of course, in order for this kind of empowerment to happen, what does the educator have to do? They have to pursue knowledge and become an authority on a given subject matter. In order to give power away in a non-zero-sum fashion, they have to pursue that power through years of study, training, and so forth. Of course, there is a selfish way of pursuing education, knowledge, and authority–one that keeps the educator in possession of knowledge to the exclusion of others. Absolutely, they can use it to control, to elevate themselves at the cost of others. But we have to see that this is not inherently the case. And for any of the good of education to happen, we must run the risk of pursuing intellectual power.

Obviously, not all exercises of authority and power are exactly like this. Certain resources are more limited and there are certain “zero-sum” limitations to its exercise. But the fundamental principle of using power in order to empower others is still a creational and, I would say, redemptive reality that cannot be ignored or downplayed without detriment to our witness and our basic love of neighbor.

Soli Deo Gloria

“What Season Was Adam Created in?” And Other Questions That Make Us Giggle

lego-adam-and-eveIt’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged in Turretin, so I figured I’d get back at it before Scott Swain loses heart. To be honest, I was working my way through his section on the decrees and predestination of God. Apart from the usual density of Turretin’s prose, mucking about with God’s eternal decrees which are actually one decrees and will, only multiply distinguished according to our own conceptions…Well, you get the picture. My hubris in theological writing only extends so far.

In any case, I’ve begun Turretin’s section on Creation and things have predictably smoothed out a bit. Given that much of the heavy lifting has been done earlier, Turretin is mercifully clear, and there is quite a bit of interesting biblical exegesis. Actually, I really found a few sections of his examination of the days of creation to be beautiful. What’s more, I’m continually shocked at the broadness of Turretin’s learning as well as the sources he’s willing to draw on. In one paragraph alone, he appeals to the Targum Onkelos, another rabbi, Rashi’s commentary, and caps it off with a quotation from Augustine.

What’s really struck me in this section, though, is the oddness of some of his discussion questions. For instance, there are a number of the discussions on subjects you’d expect. He has a longish question on whether creation is eternal or not, or whether it could theoretically have been eternal as Aquinas argued. Not only is that a famous debate in the middle ages, for those paying attention to current discussions around creation, that debate is still live. For people exploring panentheist theologies, or versions where God is something like the emergent property of the universe, Turretin’s discussion of whether anything besides God could be eternal can easily become relevant.

On the other hand, there are times when four hundred years distance in terms of culture and scientific cosmology show their colors.

How many of you would think to ask the question and argue at length over the question of “What season was the world created?” I mean, really, was it spring, fall, winter, or summer when Adam popped up in the Garden of Eden? Were the leaves just turning red, gold, and brown, or were they newly in flower? Was it harvest time, or were the flowers just blooming? Would Adam have to knit a sweater soon, or were things nice and balmy? Or maybe Eden was just perpetually living in summer–kind of like Orange County?

I’m going to assume that if you’re like me, this question simply never occurred to you. But apparently this was a lively enough debate for Turretin to devote four pages of dense prose to the matter.

Another section that made me giggle a bit, was his segment on the nature of the waters above in the heavens. This is the 1600s so they’re not working with our modern cosmology, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have learned discussions based on the best observation and scientific theories of the day–theories that we might still find plausible and with sufficient explanatory power to convince us if we didn’t have computers connected to telescopes floating about in space.

What’s interesting is how these paradigms played a role in their theological disputation. For instance, the “waters of the heaven” debated became relevant in Turretin’s debate with the Lutherans because apparently some Lutherans were asserting that a layer of water would interfere with the type ascension of Christ and believers the Reformed asserted. They then used that premise to strengthen their arguments for their views of the Lord’s Supper which depends on the omnipresence of Christ’s physical body. See how quickly that goes from bizarre preoccupation to important sacramental debate? (For the record, Turretin believed that they referred the clouds on the basis of scientific theories and exegesis.)

Or again, among other reasons, Turretin reasoned that Adam was created in a part of the world that was in Autumn at the time because it was the most hospitable season for man. This is important because it gives testimony to the benevolent care of God for his human Image-bearers. It also points us to the fact that humanity is the crown of creation–the world was made for man, not the other way around. In other words, in the middle of this rather odd discussion–to our minds–there’s a profound humanism at work that still speaks a biblical word to us today.

Of course, all of these raises the question: which debates and discussions will give our spiritual and theological descendants a bit of a giggle? Which of the hot topic issues that currently exercise us, or fascinate us will pass entirely out of the theological discussion in the coming decades and centuries? We need to remember that our own age is not the summit of theological development. Being farther down the timeline doesn’t necessarily mean we’re farther along in the discussion. At times contemporary concerns can end up being little more than distractions in the long run. Distinctions can be discarded and lost for a time as unnecessary or out-moded, only to be discovered as crucial after the damage of their loss has been made painfully apparent by the failure of theological discussion without them.

Only time will tell, of course. May God give us the grace to struggle faithfully for the truth in all of our discussions and the humility to know the provisional, time-bound nature of all our creaturely labors.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Look At How Jesus Worked For Me!” (A Reflection on Testimony and Gospel Preaching)

There is a bit of irony of the preaching and spread of the gospel after the dispersion of the Church in Acts 8.

And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:1-4)

peter preachingWhat was this preaching like? Whatever it was, it must be something a bit different than what we often hear in churches and pulpits when it comes to evangelism. Often we’re told that all we must do to share the gospel is share our own story. All we need to do is share of the marvelous things God has done in our lives to change our circumstances, our families, our jobs, and our general outlook on life.

In a sense, we’re told to share a story whose essential core is: “Sign up with Jesus! Look at how it worked for me!”  Some of this is due to our Evangelical history of sharing our testimonies of faith. Beyond that, though, it is reinforced by with our culture’s current emphasis on the power of personal stories and truth something we arrive at through our own narratives.

But how does that work for those who were “scattered” after Paul was “ravaging the church” in the midst of the persecution in Jerusalem? What about those devout men who buried Stephen and made a great lamentation over him? It’s hard to imagine them heading out into the hillsides and cities of Samaria and Judea saying, “Sign up with Jesus! Look at how it worked for me!” Losing your home, your job, your family, any and all social standing you might have had, freedom, security, or even physical health doesn’t really look like Jesus “worked” to most people.

No, there had to have been something more compelling than that. And indeed, if you look at the preaching in the book of Acts, there is. Take, for instance, Peter’s speech to the crowds in Acts 2 is paradigmatic:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:22-41)

What do we see here? A personal reflection on the way Jesus has changed Peter’s life? A recounting of Jesus’ personal forgiveness on the shores of Galilee? A narrative about Peter’s own relief and growing sense of personal confidence because of his encounter with Jesus? No. What we find is a recitation of the good news of Jesus’ story. Over and over again we see this discernable core message that God has kept his promises to save the world. He has done so by sending the Messiah, the King of Israel who is indeed the King of the Whole World. And this king has lived, taught, died a death for sin, risen again to new life, and is even now seated on the throne of heaven offering forgiveness for their rebellion and salvation to all who believe in him. This is the gospel message that comes with power even when the messenger seems outwardly weak, and their story doesn’t seem to “work” according to most outward, human principles.

This is the message that Luke talks about when he says that Philip went about after the dispersion:

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.  For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:5-8)

And later, in his encounter with the Eunuch, we see him preach to him on the basis of Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40).

Where am I going with all of this? I don’t want to ignore, or deny the power that sharing our personal testimony has in leading someone to faith, or in encouraging the faith of other believers. Peter’s story (besides establishing his renewed apostolicity and place in the church) is a personal comfort and a demonstration of the gospel at work to transform an individual’s life. There is a proper place for our stories.

But what I want us to remember that there is another, deeper story that forms the heart of the gospel. Peter’s story only matters because it’s based on a prior story about God and God’s Messiah, Jesus, the Crucified and Resurrected Lord who is bringing the kingdom, making all things new and inviting sinners to be forgiven and participate in the process. That is the invitation that underlies all of our stories and the one that should be the focus of all of our sharing and evangelism.

In other words, the story that ultimately changes us is the one that says not, “Look at how Jesus has worked for me!”, but “Look at Jesus’ work for me!”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Public Shaming on the Internet

We have a growing culture of public shaming.  Or at least that’s one possible conclusion from an interesting NY Times essay on the phenomenon.  We decided that we should take up the question of what such public shaming means for us as Christians.  So we did.

As always, if you found this helpful, feel free to share with others.

Soli Deo Gloria