Triune Justification

trinityFrom time to time I hear the charge that Protestant and Evangelical approaches to salvation are sub-trinitarian. By focusing so narrowly on the question of justification as a legal or forensic action, or Jesus’ cross-work as its grounding, Protestants have ignored the Father and crowded out the Spirit. While I must admit that may be true in some popular presentations, it’s certainly not the case of classic Reformed theology. Not only was God’s justification set within the context of a broader trinitarian theology of union with Christ, the completion of justification considered in itself can only be conceived of as the gracious work of the Triune One.

Herman Bavinck lays out the trinitarian shape of our justification in laying out the nature of God’s grace as the forgiving mercy of God as opposed to the more metaphysical conception of the medieval Roman church:

The establishment of the covenant of grace proceeds from God and from him alone. It is he and he alone who for his own sake blots out our transgressions and no longer remembers our sins (Isa. 43:25). We are justified by his grace as a gift (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 3:18; Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:5–7). More specifically, it is the Father from whom this benefit proceeds, for he is the lawgiver and judge (James 4:12), but also the merciful God, who abounds in steadfast love, and blots out transgressions for his name’s sake (Num. 14:18; Pss. 32:2; 103:3; 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Rom. 3:24; 4:6; 8:33; 2 Cor. 5:19). He himself paved a way in Christ to distribute this benefit, so that Christ, too, possessed the power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:2–6; John 5:22, 27), and himself sent the Holy Spirit to apply this benefit to the hearts of his children (John 14:26; Rom. 8:15–16; 1 Cor. 6:11). In the past, Reformed theologians put it as follows: The Father justifies effectively; the Son, meritoriously; the Holy Spirit, applicationally. And to complete the picture at once, let us add: faith apprehends, the sacraments seal, and works declare.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pg. 205

Here we see Augustine’s formula “Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt”, which translates “the works of the Trinity on the outside are indivisible.” In every act of creation and redemption, it is the Father working through, as Ireneaus classically put it, his “two hands” the Son and the Spirit.

So then, must a Protestant view of salvation be sub-trinitarian? While we must always keep in view the broad shape of salvation from election all the way through to glorification, even a laser-like focus on the article of justification cannot eradicate the Triune shape of our faith. It is God who justifies us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For those looking to go deeper into the trinitarian shape of our faith, I would again commend Fred Sanders’ excellent little book The Deep Things of God

Soli Deo Gloria

The Progressive Evangelical Package (Mere Orthodoxy)

It’s no secret that Reformed Christians have built their own wing of the internet where they spend their time chatting among themselves. They police certain key boundaries and dissent from some of these can (rightly or wrongly) bring about serious criticism. While there is more diversity among the Reformed than critics usually want to recognize, there can also be a heavy pressure to conform to the ‘standard’. Given the more consciously confessional (and I do use the term somewhat broadly) ethos among the Reformed, it’s rather unsurprising that this should be the case.

The progressive Evangelicals now have their own wing, though, ostensibly with an emphasis on diversity and a marked aversion to foreclosing conversations or policing boundaries. The idea that there is a strict standard, a party line you have to tow in order to be a part of the club, is supposed to be foreign to the Progressive internet’s ethos. That’s for the heresy-hunting, conservative builders of Evangelical empire, after all, rather than the “radically inclusive” prophets of a more Christ-like faith. Unlike their conservative counterparts, Progressives follow a Jesus who came to tear down the walls that divide, not put new doctrinal ones back up.

Those are the stereotypes, at least. But it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this picture if we take a look at the actual situation on the ground.

There may not be a Progressive Gospel(s) Federation with explicit standards we can look to, but there are certain tenets that are increasingly defining what I’ve dubbed the “Progressive Evangelical Package.” The theological scene is beginning to mirror the political two-party system such that if you hold one or two of these positions, or want to have a voice in the Progressive conversation, it’s likely there is heavy pressure on you to begin affirming all or most of them.

These tenets do not mark out a monolith. There are undoubtedly figures who don’t fit the description, just like there are figures who spend lots of time in the Reformed world who don’t fit the characterization above, either. I maintain that they signal a trend, though.

You can read the rest of the article at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Because I said so”: Epistemic Access, Our Current Moral Debates, and a Trustworthy God

My college philosophy program was a deeply formative time for me theologically. Many of the conclusions I came to in those classes are still with me and exercise a deep influence on the way I process certain divisive theological issues today. What’s more, looking back on things, I probably couldn’t have predicted at the time which insights would stick with me and which wouldn’t.

a fawnOne concept that’s been particularly important I picked up in my undergrad class on the problem of evil: CORNEA. Coined by Stephen J. Wykstra in, as you might have guessed, a piece of analytic philosophy, it’s an acronym for a very lengthy, nerdy term “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access”. Wykstra was arguing against a very famous reformulation by William Rowe of the problem of evil, specifically the evidential one.

The gist of Rowe’s argument is this: think about a baby fawn dying in a forest fire somewhere all alone suffering miserably in the process. This seems to be an instance of suffering and evil where there is no possible point this could serve–at least not one that we can see. Countless situations like this mar our world daily. History is replete with apparently pointless evil. Therefore, on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that God exists.

Now, there are numerous problems with this, but Wykstra put his finger on what is to my mind the key one: the issue of epistemic access. It is here that he proposes CORNEA (forgive the philosopher speak):

We are, I propose, here in the vicinity of a general condition – necessary rather than sufficient – for one’s being entitled, on the basis of some cognized situation s, to claim “it appears that p.” Since what is at issue is whether it is reasonable to think one has “epistemic access” to the truth of p through s, let us call this “the Condition Of Reasonable Epistemic Access,” or – for short – CORNEA: On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim “It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

– “The Humean Obstacle To Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding The Evils of Appearance

Think of it this way: say you walk into a room in a seminary and find a man speaking an indecipherable tongue. Now, also consider the fact that in this scenario you know nothing of other languages having spoken only English your whole life. Is it reasonable for you to walk out and claim “It appears to me that they’re teaching nothing but a load of gibberish in there”? It could be a course in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and yet, given your cognitive abilities–your total ignorance of other languages and such–you’re not really in a position to make that judgment. You have not, in Wykstra’s language, satisfied the “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.” So, the idea behind CORNEA is that you’re only allowed to say, “it appears that such and such” if you’re in an intellectual position to reasonably make that sort of call.

With respect to the problem of evil, Wykstra says we’re in a similar situation:

We must note here, first, that the outweighing good at issue is of a special sort: one purposed by the Creator of all that is, whose vision and wisdom are therefore somewhat greater than ours. How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.) If such goods as this exist, it might not be unlikely that we should discern some of them: even a one-month old infant can perhaps discern, in its inarticulate way, some of the purposes of his mother in her dealings with him. But if outweighing goods of the sort at issue exist in connection with instances of suffering, that we should discern most of them seems about as likely as that a one-month old should discern most of his parents’ purposes for those pains they allow him to suffer – which is to say, it is not likely at all. So for any selected instance of intense suffering, there is good reason to think that if there is an outweighing good of the sort at issue connected to it, we would not have epistemic access to this: our cognized situation would be just as Rowe says it is with respect to (say) the fawn’s suffering.

In other words, given the sort of suffering that fawn is going through, if God had a good enough reason for allowing it to suffer in the fashion, do you really think its the kind of thing you and I could possibly understand? Is it reasonable for a finite creature of limited wisdom to be able to rule out the possibility that the infinite God has a reason you in your present state couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around? Not really. You can barely wrap your mind around high school physics. In which case, mounting the sort of evidential case Rowe wants to is very problematic. In order to claim that omniscience couldn’t possibly have a good reason for something, you would have an awfully high opinion of your own ability to plumb the infinite depths of knowledge and truth. One that, honestly, it’s quite unreasonable to have. (Incidentally, this is an excellent example of someone using philosophical refinement to make an eminently biblical point. Compare Job 38-41.)

What does any of this have to do with today’s moral debates as I implied in the title? Well, the key comes in with this phrase asking about the difference between God’s knowledge as Creator and ours as creatures:

How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.)

In many of today’s moral debates, many of us think we’re a lot closer than that. The assumption many make is that unless God’s reasoning on a subject is absolutely transparent or immediately intuitive to postmoderns, it simply doesn’t exist or, or it is completely arbitrary. The most obvious example comes in the sexuality debates. Given our culture’s new presuppositions when it comes to sexuality and human identity construction, much of the biblical logic just seems opaque and incoherent. To attempt to appeal to a natural order  that doesn’t seem “natural” to us is arbitrary and obscurantist no matter that it’s revealed in Scripture.

infantvaccineWhile in the past there was probably greater comfort in appealing to God’s unfathomable wisdom, today we balk at the idea that there might be some things we just have to trust him on. Even now, I can hear critics objecting to the example Van Wykstra used above of a the difference between an infant and a parent. That’s an infantilizing cop-out! You have do better than a parent’s “Because I said so.”

But here’s the thing, is there an appropriate time for a parent to simply say “Because I said so”? When a  3-year-old child is too small to understand mom and dad’s logic for allowing them to get stuck in the arm with a needle, it makes sense for them to say “Because I said so” doesn’t it? They know that the child doesn’t have the cognitive capabilities of understanding germs, vaccinations, and so forth. This is not an act of arbitrary enforcement of an irrational will, but the reasonable response to the limits of their child’s reason. It is an appeal to something that the child ought to know and can trust: that loving character of the parent. It is “because said so and you know enough to know me.”

For Christians, there is an added dimension to this appeal. In those situations where the biblical logic seems unclear or arbitrary, when it appears to you that God is simply saying “Because I said so”, it pays to remember that the “I” who commands is the same God of whom Paul testifies:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

And again, of God’s wisdom he says:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)

This is the God whose deepest wisdom for the salvation of the world–the mystery of God’s good purposes for those who love him–was one that the wisest of the day couldn’t recognize. This is the God who at times says “Because said so”, or “Trust and one day you’ll understand my very good reasons.” He has proven himself ultimately trustworthy through subjecting in Jesus to the apparently pointless tragedy of the cross. This is the good God with good commands even if we can’t always understand them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Guilt Isn’t Just a ‘Religious’ Problem.

I’m pretty sure everyone’s had one of those conversations where days or months afterwards you think to yourself, “Man, that’s what I should have said to So-n-so!” After analyzing the problem with the heat turned down, you end up spotting the fatal flaw, or key unquestioned assumption that was driving it in the direction it was going. Unfortunately, I have those all the time, both because I overthink things, and because I’m not always as quick on my feet as I’d like to be.

One such conversation arose in one of my philosophy classes in my undergrad. We were talking about the ethics of belief, the sub-section of philosophy that deals with when it’s okay to believe something. Questions such as: Can you believe something just because you want to? Is evidence always necessary for every belief you hold? Is it ever okay to believe something you can’t prove? That kind of thing.

Well, we were discussing Pascal’s famous (and widely misunderstood) argument The Wager. Pascal was writing in Catholic France at a time when philosophical skepticism had made a comeback and the classic arguments for the existence of God were in doubt. As part of a broader apologetic, he proposed a little thought-experiment to show that even without evidence skepticism still wasn’t your best option.  

guiltyThe gist of it is this: you’ve got two things at stake when it comes to belief in God, the truth of the matter and your happiness in this life. What’s more, you’ve got two faculties you use to come to your belief, your reason and your will. He says, “Well, say the odds for and against the existence of God are 50/50–there are good arguments both ways, and so your reason can’t settle the issue and the truth is unverifiable. Then what? Well, you shouldn’t consider the issue settled. You still have your will and your happiness to think about.” In Pascal’s view, it makes sense that you should still go for belief in God because that’s the only way to achieve the joy of meaning, purpose, and so forth that comes with belief in God. For the purposes of the story we don’t need to go further. For a better explanation, consult Peter Kreeft’s excellent summary and retooling of the Wager.

Here’s the payout for the story. Pascal argued that believing in God had benefits and joys for this life like meaning, purpose, virtue, and so forth. As we discussed this, my professor–let’s call him Professor Jones–said something I’ll never forget. He asked, gently, but with a hint of sarcasm, “Oh, you mean the joy of going around feeling guilty all the time for your sins?”  In Professor Jones’ mind, the corollary of belief in God is an overwhelming and unrelievable sense of guilt for violating his rules. This clearly didn’t seem like a step up to him.

Now, at the time, I didn’t have conversational space, or wherewithal to respond adequately, but if I had, I would have said, “Oh, but Professor Jones, you already walk around struggling with guilt over failing your god.”

Now, what do I mean by that? Well, let me break it down in a few steps.

Everybody Has a God. The first step is understanding that everybody has a ‘god’ of some sort. The world we live in tends to split people up between “believers” and “non-believers.” The Bible has a different dividing line: worshipers of the true God, or worshipers of something else. See, everybody has something in their life that they treat as a functional god. Whatever you look to in order to give you a sense of self, meaning, worth, and value is a ‘god.’ Martin Luther put it this way:

A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. –Large Catechism

So whether you “believe” intellectually, in a deity or not, you still worship something. This is because we were created by God for worship, so if we won’t worship him something else rushes in to plays that role in your life, be it money,  career, status, relationships, and so forth. It’s either God, or an idol. There is no other option.

Everybody Follows and Fails that God’s Commands. Following off of this, every god has commands and demands worship. If make money your god, then you are under command (compulsion) in order to do whatever it takes to acquire it. You will work as hard as you need to (become a workaholic) and sacrifice whatever you have to (relationships, kids, ethics) in order to get it. When you have it, you feel secure. You’ve achieved and obeyed and so the god has blessed you. The flipside is, if you fail it, make a bad investment, lose your cash in a housing crash, then you feel the loss of security, but also the crushing sense of guilt that comes with failing your god. Wrath descends.

A few moment’s reflection You can see this everywhere: from the careerist who can’t forgive herself for blowing that promotion, to that bitter young scholar struggling to live up to his father’s expectations, to the mother who crushes herself because her child-god didn’t turn out picture perfect the way she needed her to. All of them struggle under the weight of the guilt brought on by their failure to please their functional gods. All of them suffer guilt and shame, even if we don’t call it that.

David Foster Wallace has a justly famous quote on the subject:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Only the Biblical God Offers Forgiveness and Grace.

Here’s where it all clicked for me, though. I was reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and I ran across this brilliant passage at the end of his chapter breaking down this idolatry dynamic:

Remember this— if you don’t live for Jesus you will live for something else. If you live for career and you don’t do well it may punish you all of your life, and you will feel like a failure. If you live for your children and they don’t turn out all right you could be absolutely in torment because you feel worthless as a person. If Jesus is your center and Lord and you fail him, he will forgive you. Your career can’t die for your sins. You might say, “If I were a Christian I’d be going around pursued by guilt all the time!” But we all are being pursued by guilt because we must have an identity and there must be some standard to live up to by which we get that identity. Whatever you base your life on— you have to live up to that. Jesus is the one Lord you can live for who died for you— who breathed his last breath for you. Does that sound oppressive?

..Everybody has to live for something. Whatever that something is becomes “Lord of your life,” whether you think of it that way or not. Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (pp. 170-171)

So to sum up: Everybody has a god. Every god has rules and everybody fails their god. Everybody walks around with guilt and shame. But only the God we find in Jesus Christ will forgive those sins so that we don’t have to walk around feeling guilty all the time. Ironically enough, believing in God isn’t the road to more guilt, but the road out from underneath the guilt you already struggle with.

This is really the answer I’d wish I’d given Professor Jones.

Soli Deo Gloria

Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

theology of religionI’ve been reading Gerald McDermott and Harold Nestland’s new theology of religion A Trinitarian Theology of Religion: An Evangelical Proposal and it’s been quite stimulating. While I used to give the problem of other religions and the Christian faith more thought, I haven’t as of late. Still, McDermott and Nestland’s stimulating work have gotten the juices flowing again. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer 7 brief, tentative notes towards my current “theology” of other religions. What, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can we say is the truth about what we typically think of as other faith-systems?

1. Jesus Christ alone is the crucified and resurrected Lord over all creation. The confession of Christ’s preeminent, sole, unique, saving Lordship is baseline for any Christian theology of other religions.

2. Consistent with this, as the uniquely Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ alone is and reveals the ultimate fullness of truth about God, the world, and everything else. Jesus’ revelation is not one among many, or merely a slightly clearer revelation of a broader religious truth.

3. Jesus reveals the Triune God to to be ultimate spiritual reality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely the names we’ve given to our Christian experience of some deeper Real that every other faith is describing by some other name. Hard Pluralism about religious reality is inconsistent–well, just in general–and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than that of the Lord Jesus. This means at the very least that salvation comes by, in, and through the work and person of Jesus Christ alone. It is only by union with his obedient life, atoning death, and life-giving sacrifice that any can be redeemed from their sin and brought into a saving relationship with God. For that reason, other religions cannot be the mechanism or method for the salvation of any person. Salvation is solely by the grace of Jesus Christ, not the result of human works or merit.

5. Other religions, just as all other philosophical thought systems that do not flow from the truth of gospel, participate in idolatry. While they testify to the basic human need to worship, they do so in a disordered fashion, according some part of creation with the honor, dignity, and function that only God may rightfully occupy. Note though, this is true as much with Hinduism as it is with Marxism or Aristotelian philosophy.

6. The complementary reality is that within other religions there can be elements of truth found within them through God’s work of common grace. Note, this is not saving truth, or special grace. That said, some religions’ teachings may be the result of the Holy Spirit’s restraining work of mercy, though not likely his illumining work of salvation. That a Muslim knows there is one God and does not fall into the obvious idolatry of animism or ancestor worship, I take to be the restraining work of common grace. Also, it seems possible to see those aspects in Buddhism that teach compassion, or at least militate against socially-destructive forms of obvious selfishness, to be truths of common grace as well. Many of us would have no trouble affirming something like this about the truth of systems of thought we call “philosophy” such as Aristotelianism and Platonism. I take this to be as true for the systems of thought we typically designate “religious” in the West.

7. Finally, as to the very sensitive question of the salvation of members of other religions who have never had the opportunity to explicitly respond to the gospel, unsurprisingly, I suppose I hold decently conservative views on the subject. When I was younger I used to straight-forwardly affirm a C.S. Lewis-style inclusivism–God saves some on the basis of their response to the truth they could respond to, yet only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Lately though, in light of the types of concerns summarized by this excellent little article by Kevin DeYoung clarifying the case for exclusivism, I have become me much more cautious about affirming something speculative on this issue and wary about going that route.

My thought in this area has been rather unreconstructed since my shift Reformed, though, so I decided to do a little digging in Bavinck and I find this interesting section on the fate of unevangelized pagans and children who die in infancy. After discussing some historical positions–for instance, Augustine and others believed some pagans like Socrates were in a position similar to OT saints–he goes on to write this fascinating passage:

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation of pagans and that of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.
Thus, in the Second Helvetic Confession, article 1, we read: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power”…And the Westminster Confession states (in ch. X, §3) that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases”, and that this applies also to “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” Reuter, accordingly, after explaining Augustine’s teaching on this point, correctly states: “One could in fact defend the paradox that it is precisely the particularistic doctrine of predestination that makes possible those universalistic-sounding phrases.”
In fact, even the universalistic passages of Scripture cited above come most nearly and most beautifully into their own in Reformed theology. For these texts are certainly not intended universalistically in the sense that all humans or even all creatures are saved, nor are they so understood by any Christian church. All churches without exception confess that there is not only a heaven but also a hell. At most, therefore, there is a difference of opinion about the number of those who are saved and of those who are lost. But that is not something one can argue about inasmuch as that number is known only to God. When Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he only replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many … will try to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Directly important to us is only that we have no need to know the number of the elect.
In any case, it is a fact that in Reformed theology the number of the elect need not, for any reason or in any respect, be deemed smaller than in any other theology. In fact, at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession. It locates the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omnipotent and free. Aside from it, where could we find a firmer and broader foundation for the salvation of a sinful and lost human race? However troubling it may be that many fall away, still in Christ the believing community, the human race, the world, is saved. The organism of creation is restored. The wicked perish from the earth (Ps. 104:35); they are cast out (John 12:31; 15:6; Rev. 22:15). Still, all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ (Eph. 1:10). All things are created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pp. 726-727

Bavinck is about as orthodox Reformed as you get–rejecting pluralism, universalism, affirming predestination–and yet still he finds some space for the possibility of the regeneracy unevangelized. I find that interesting, even if I’d need to give it more thought. In any case, I’m quite sure whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross.

None of this is particularly astonishing, new, or controversial (I hope). Still, it seems profitable to be laid out for reflection and discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anselm’s Individualist Account of Atonement? Nope.

NPG D23949; St Anselm after Unknown artistSt. Anselm of Canterbury is almost universally recognized as one of the greatest theological lights of the Western church. This also makes him, along with Augustine and a couple others, one of contemporary theology’s favorite whipping boys.  His theological legacy is most commonly linked to two subjects in popular mind: the ontological argument for the existence of God, and the so-called satisfaction “theory” of atonement.  Both run in for heavy fire. For instance, have a problem with the Western tradition when it comes to God? Blame Anselm for his attempt to formulate “perfect being” theology via logical argumentation in the Middle Ages. It’s that simple.

From my readings, though, he is far more commonly attacked for his satisfaction account of Christ’s work to atone for our sins and save us through the cross in his classic Cur Deus Homo  (Why God Became Man). For those unfamiliar with it, very roughly: humanity has through sin failed to render God the honor due him, have robbed him, violated his law, and thereby fallen under God’s judgment. As the Godman, Christ’s obedient life and death for sin are meritorious in such a way that they “satisfy”, or make up for the damage we have incurred. We are then set free from judgment to be reconciled to God. Incidentally, this is not the only thing Anselm thought about the cross or atonement. Witness early on in the work:

For, as death came upon the human race by the disobedience of man, it was fitting that by man’s obedience life should be restored. And, as sin, the cause of our condemnation, had its origin from a woman, so ought the author of our righteousness and salvation to be born of a woman. And so also was it proper that the devil, who, being man’s tempter, had conquered him in eating of the tree, should be vanquished by man in the suffering of the tree which man bore. Many other things also, if we carefully examine them, give a certain indescribable beauty to our redemption as thus procured. — Cur Deus Homo, Bk. 1.3

I mention this because people who have problems with satisfaction or its more Evangelical descendent, penal substitution account, blame it on Anselm’s logic-chopping and his mindset anchored in the feudal world for reducing the accomplishment of the cross to satisfaction and nothing else.

While there’s something to the charge that the feudal setting influenced Anselm’s formulation, one of the silliest charges I’ve seen crop up against him lately is to say that the account of this premodern medieval theologian is the root of individualistic accounts of sin. Now, I’ll agree that Anselm’s un-mooring of the Scriptural logic from its thicker narrative and cultural context can be problematic. But honestly, can anyone read this passage and tell me we’re dealing with an individualistic account of salvation and sin?

Anselm. It now remains to inquire whence and how God shall assume human nature. For he will either take it from Adam, or else he will make a new man, as he made Adam originally. But, if he makes a new man, not of Adam’s race, then this man will not belong to the human family, which descended from Adam, and therefore ought not to make atonement for it, because he never belonged to it. For, as it is right for man to make atonement for the sin of man, it is also necessary that he who makes the atonement should be the very being who has sinned, or else one of the same race. Otherwise, neither Adam nor his race would make satisfaction for themselves. Therefore, as through Adam and Eve sin was propagated among all men, so none but themselves, or one born of them, ought to make atonement for the sin of men. And, since they cannot, one born of them must fulfil this work. Moreover, as Adam and his whole race, had he not sinned, would have stood firm without the support of any other being, so, after the fall, the same race must rise and be exalted by means of itself. For, whoever restores the race to its place, it will certainly stand by that being who has made this restoration. Also, when God created human nature in Adam alone, and would only make woman out of man, that by the union of both sexes there might be increase, in this he showed plainly that he wished to produce all that he intended with regard to human nature from man alone. Wherefore, if the race of Adam be reinstated by any being not of the same race, it will not be restored to that dignity which it would have had, had not Adam sinned, and so will not be completely restored; and, besides, God will seem to have failed of his purpose, both which suppositions are incongruous: It is, therefore, necessary that the man by whom Adam’s race shall be restored be taken from Adam. –Cur Deus Homo, Bk. 2.8

Whatever else you make of it, Anselm’s entire logic depends on the fact that we are not discrete, atomized individuals, but rather members of a family, a corporate whole that is capable of being represented by either Adam or Christ. This is a robust notion of corporate sin and corporate salvation through corporate solidarity with the person of Jesus, our perfect, human brother. This is completely in line with the Old Testament with its notion of corporate representatives (1 Kings 12, Isaiah 53, Daniel 7). And though different in the details, it parallels and is clearly dependent on Paul’s corporate Adam-Christ logic in Romans 5:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21)

Heck, jump ahead and you’ll find this in Ireneaus and most of the other church Fathers who don’t get tagged with the “individualism” charge. What’s more, classic penal substitution theology follows him in this via refinements in covenant theology. Adam and Christ are covenant heads whose sin (in the case of the former) and redemptive, holy death (in the case of the latter) have corporate effects for those whom they represent. Read Calvin, or most of the other Reformers and you will not find some atomized theology of merely individual salvation. Yes, each individual is the object of God’s saving grace, but they are so through the union the Mediator of the New Covenant (a very corporate structure).

Now, given then way pop-Evangelicalism has individualized everything, sure, I can definitely see satisfaction and penal substitution accounts being taught in individualistic fashions. That said, there is nothing inherently hyper-individualistic about either of these approaches.

Again, while there’s probably plenty to critique about Anselm’s discussion of the satisfaction element in the atonement, individualism is one charge we should probably leave behind.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Evangelical Morality Really Solipsistic? A Friendly Defense of Psalm 51

King David, apparently being a solipsist.

King David, apparently being a solipsist.

I love my buddy Morgan. He’s progressive, a Methodist, given to flights of rhetorical overkill, and has a passion for people coming to know Jesus that I deeply admire. But, as you already can guess, we disagree a lot. Take for instance, his recent post on the “solipsism” of a lot of Evangelical Morality (side-note, anytime ‘Evangelical’ appears on his blog, something very, very bad is going to be corrected):

“Against you alone have I sinned.” These words from Psalm 51:4 are attributed to the Israelite king David speaking to God after he knocked up another man’s wife and had that man betrayed and murdered on the battlefield. Many evangelical pastors have praised this verse for how it names sin, but I consider it to be one of the most morally problematic verses in the Bible. It does do a very good job of encapsulating the solipsistic morality that I grew up with as an evangelical, in which sin had nothing to do with hurting other people and everything to do with whether or not I was displeasing God…

Jesus actually has a response to King David’s solipsistic sin confession. King David says to God, “Against you alone have I sinned,” as though he hadn’t done anything wrong to Bathsheba, the woman he raped and impregnated, or Urriah, her husband whom he had killed, or all the other soldiers whose lives were compromised because of the disastrous battle tactic by which Urriah needed to be killed. Centuries later, in Matthew 25, Jesus says back to David and every evangelical who thinks sin is strictly between me and God: “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.”

In other words, yes, you sinned against me as God because I stand with those you sinned against, not because of some stupid abstract “honor God” thing that you use to make other people’s humanity irrelevant to your morality. Matthew 25 is an utter repudiation of a solipsistic “theocentric” morality. God hates sin not because God’s holiness demands purity and rule-following for the sake of his “honor,” but because God’s holiness is his radical hospitality toward and solidarity with the least among us who are the greatest victims of our society’s sin. God demands our honor for the sake of the people who get hurt as the byproduct of our dishonor…

It’s not that God can’t handle our imperfection. He’s not allergic to our sin. He just wants to build a human community where the most vulnerable members will be perfectly safe. This can only happen among people who have put ourselves completely under the mercy of God by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, which makes us humble, teachable, and malleable in God’s hands. Yes, we need to honor God, but our honor for God is never abstracted from its impact on how we treat other people.

Alright, so there’s the gist of it. You can go read the rest here.

Now, I’ll say what I always say with Morgan: the problem’s usually not in what he affirms but what he denies. This situation is no different. I guess some people fall into the solipsism thing. If Morgan fell into it an Evangelical church, I suppose it happens. I don’t see it as a major trend, with many of the conversations about sin that I have with students having to do with the impact of their actions on others (and I’m still in an evangelical church). Still, if it is happening, it needs to stop. Morgan is absolutely right to say that our love and obedience to God simply cannot be separated from our love of our neighbors. Any morality that has us screening out the horizontal dimension entirely simply isn’t biblical.

As Jesus put it (Matt 22:36-40), the two great commands are to:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. AND…
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus lists them both together with the implication that neither can be separated from the other. That said–and this is key–neither can they be reduced to the other. God doesn’t just hate sin because it hurts people, though that is one reason. God also hates sin because he himself is one of the offended parties, if not the chief offended party in any sin. This is the case because as Creator, Lord, Judge, and Lover of creation there is no moral situation in which he isn’t a directly interested party.

This is what David’s confession acknowledges in a hyperbolic and poetic fashion on Psalm 51:4. (Incidentally, that’s another relevant point to remember, the Psalms are songs.) The force of the lyric comes from the fact that everybody knows this is a horizontally grievous sin, which is why it’s unnecessary to pit David against Jesus here. What David’s confession acknowledges is that underneath that, the deep reality is that all sin has a directly Godward orientation even when it has a horizontal one. This is in keeping with a broader biblical understanding that every sin against another is a sin against God (2 Sam 12:9, 10, 13; Gen 39:9; Prov 14:31; 17:5). As Bavinck notes, though not all sins are equal, every sin violates God’s laws and constitutes a rejection of God’s law–which is an expression of his good, loving will–in toto. What’s more, as such, every sin is a personal rejection of God. Every sin, then, is a declaration that at some level we have judged God is not good enough, righteous, beautiful, and everything else that he is. This is no “abstract” standard of honor we are offending against, but the personal justice and goodness of the Triune God.

Part of the problem with definition is that sin seems to be equated to its results construed primarily or solely in terms of harm. Sin is wrong because it harms someone. But because God isn’t “harmed” by our sin, that means he isn’t the offended party, or he can only be so in relation to us. But that’s manifestly false.

Consider a silly example: Say I have superpowers. Say I’m secretly Superman and I’m invulnerable to physical harm. Now say nobody knows that I’m Superman and a neighbor who hates me for no good reason takes out his gun and shoots me. Now, am I harmed? No. Am I still an offended party? Is there still not a situation that needs to be redressed? Has this person who shot me still committed a very grievous act against me even if the only harm he’s caused is put a hole a t-shirt? Yes. Relationally, even though I’m impervious to his assaults, he still stands in the wrong in a very serious way.

In the same way, simply because God is not “harmed”, or can “handle’ our various sins and so forth, that doesn’t mean that every act of hostility committed against his law isn’t a serious violation towards him that he has every right (indeed, as Rector of the universe, a possible duty) to deal with. Yes, God’s life is one of overflowing perfection that cannot be unseated or overwhelmed, and yet that doesn’t mean he can’t have claims related to his own person with respect to sin that extend beyond us. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Triune God has a proper, divine self-regard that we need to acknowledge if we are to have a fully biblical understanding of sin. The danger of forgetting this is actually its own form solipsism. It’s good for us to be reminded in our spiritual walk that not everything is secretly about us.

Again, I’m all for Christians not being solipsists, but false dichotomies are tired, unhelpful for our walk with God, and need to be dispensed with quickly.

Soli Deo Gloria