Final Review: Assorted Thoughts on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift

paul and the giftI’ve already written once about John M.G. Barclay’s phenomenal new work Paul and the Gift. We also plan on taking up the issue on the Mere Fidelity podcast soon. All the same, having just finished the work, I wanted to address a few themes and offer a few assorted and incomplete judgments about the work. If you’re interested in the thesis of the, Barclay’s own summary of his work that I excerpted here ought to fill you in as he basically delivered on what he promised. And more.

First, an evaluative point: the book really is ground-breaking and it’s set to light up the field of Pauline studies. I don’t think all the rave reviews from other scholars are just an exercise in academic back-scratching, at this point. If you’re at all interested in discussions around the New Perspective or Old Perspective on Paul, Judaism, and justification, this should be on your list along with the other major recent works by Wright, Dunn, and so forth.

Beyond that, I simply wanted to note some thematic takeaways, quibbles, and comments.

Vindication of the Reformers. From a theological and historical perspective, the first thing I noticed was the way Barclay’s work offers at least a partial vindication of the Reformer’s use of Paul in the medieval debates over justification. Recall that Barclay makes a couple of key points.

First, yes, Judaism in general had a very present theology of grace. On that point, E.P. Sanders was correct. Second, “grace” didn’t mean the same thing for all of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries. “Grace is everywhere in Judaism, but it is not everywhere the same.” For many, grace meant the “priority” or “super-abundance” or “singularity” of God’s favor, but for Paul it particularly meant the “incongruity”–the unfittingness–of God’s grace to the undeserving. Second, writing after Augustine and Luther left their mark on the interpretation of grace, when Sanders saw someone affirming the priority of “grace”, he also read into it the “incongruity” of grace because he assumed that everywhere the word is used, it must have that resonance. Not so.

Now, this offers a partial vindication of the Reformers in that, theologically, whatever else you might say about a possible individualism, or misreading of the nature of “works-righteousness”, they were affirming the incongruity of grace against the medieval theology of grace that had managed to sneak “congruity” or worth back into the picture. By conceiving God as “graciously” accepting the merit of the saints which could be procured by good works, penance, “doing what is in us”, and so forth, there is still an element of God accepting or rewarding on the basis of achieved worth or “fittingness”, that’s not dependent on the grace of Christ alone. And this conception of “congruent” grace seems to mirror some of the theology found in 2nd Temple Jewish texts, against which Paul’s teaching stands out starkly.

I did say “partial” for a reason, though. Two related points of difference to note are Barclay’s criticism of Lutheran “non-circularity” and his position on works at the final judgment. Barclay points out that it’s only with Luther that we first find a prominent emphasis on the “non-circularity” of grace, or it’s “unconditional” character in which God’s gift of grace expects no “return” of any kind. It’s a “pure” gift in the modern sense. That’s not something Barclay finds in Paul. For Paul, grace is unconditioned by any notion of worth, but it is not unconditional; Paul expects a change in the life of the believer that issues in good work that will be approved of at the eschaton.

Even with those points made, Barclay’s very careful and sensitive survey of both the 2nd Temple literature and the reception history of Paul does end up highlighting significant parallels between the Reformation debates and Paul’s 2nd Temple context that are illuminating.

Sociology. Second, Barclay, like so many current interpreters of Paul, stresses the sociological dimension to Paul’s theology. Thankfully, Barclay doesn’t use that to screen out or kick to the side classic concerns about individual salvation and such. Still, Barclay is very clear that Paul’s main aim is to create a community of Jew and Gentile upon the joint recognition that both have been received without respect to worth, not according to the old values systems of the world, or according to Torah, but only because of the incongruous grace of God through Christ in the New Age.

Barclay goes into all sorts of helpful social dynamics that Paul’s moral instruction cuts off or addresses, setting things in Jewish and Greco-Roman social context. This angle is a real gain from recent, New Perspective and social science emphases. I found especially illuminating the way Barclay draws on Pierre Bordieu’s notion of practice, habitus, and the body as the site of sanctification.

That said, Barclay can maybe go too far along the sociological angle for my taste. Consider his paraphrase of Galatians 2:15-21:

You and I, Peter, are Jews, used to thinking of ourselves as categorically distinct from “Gentile sinners.” But we know (though conviction and experience) that a person (whether Gentile or Jew) is not considered of worth (“righteous”) by God through Torah-observance (“living Jewishly”), but through faith in (what God has done in) Christ. We look to God to consider us valuable (“righteous”) in Christ, not through obeying the Torah, and this is so even if (in situations like Antioch’s) our resulting behaviour makes us look like “sinners” (“living in a Gentile fashion”). Does that mean that Christ has led us into sin? No way! Only if one were to reinstate the Torah as the arbiter of worth (“righteousness”) would “living like a Gentile” in Christ be classified as “transgression”. In fact (taking myself as a paradigm), I have died to the Torah – it is no longer what constitutes my standard of value – because I have been reconstituted in Christ. My old existence came to an end with the crucified Christ; my new life has arisen from the Christ-event and is therefore shaped by faith in the death of Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. This divine gift I will by no means reject: if “righteousness” were measured by the Torah, the death of Christ would be without effect.

While there’s much that’s clarifying in this reading, the translation of “righteousness” into the language of “worth”, or the way he focuses in other places on the “transgression” of Torah as a cultural framework of evaluation, or the “recalibration of social norms”, seems more appropriate as a preacherly contextualization for late-modern, Westerners than a straightforward, historical reading of Paul.

Apocalyptic-Augustinian-Lutheran. Barclay says that depending on how you look at it, he might be an Augustinian-Lutheran appropriating New Perspective themes, or vice-versa. So, a strong theology of the incongruity of grace, meets social context and a more fine-grained, positive evaluation of Judaism.

What’s more, Barclay has his eye on drawing on the focus of recent “apocalyptic” readings of Paul highlighting Jesus as divine activity that ruptures history and which avoids presenting salvation as the smooth development of potentialities inherent within it. At the same time, unlike some other apocalyptic readings, he acknowledges that in Galatians and especially Romans, salvation happens in fulfillment of the promises to Israel that came before.

All the same, I’ll just put my cards on the table and say that the Augustinian-Lutheran-Apocalyptic Paul still needs more Calvin and the Reformed emphasis on redemptive-history. (Which is interesting because I thought his treatment of Calvin to be very helpful, historically). This is one of those places where Wright, though he can get a bit carried away, is right to give us “big story” readings of Paul’s letters. Also, I don’t think Barclay has done quite enough justice to the positive, continued place of the Law as instruction in Paul’s thought, even though he does give positive place to the growth of holiness and practice of good works in the life of the believer.

Is Paul’s Grace Real Grace? One of the brilliant points Barclay makes about the whole discussion around whether Judaism was gracious or not, is that people have been coming into the discussion with a master concept of grace that doesn’t recognize its various shades and “perfections”, which don’t always have to come together as a package. This is why Sanders was right to think Judaism had grace in it and wrong to think that Paul disagreed with various of his contemporaries about the issue of God’s grace. In other words, it wasn’t only that they disagree as to whether or not Jesus was the only mediator of it, but it truly was about its nature.

At this point, this is where I put my theologian-in-training hat back on (if I ever happen to take it off). The question I’m toying around with is whether “grace in Paul” simply is grace for the confessional theologian.

In other words, it makes sense for a religious historian to be somewhat neutral about which 2nd Temple Jewish theologian had a “better” conception of grace in order to not prejudge the sources from a Christian standpoint. What’s more, we shouldn’t be anachronistic or slanderous, saying that all Jewish religion at the time was legalistic, graceless, and so forth. It wasn’t.

But the time comes when we must speak dogmatically and make normative statements about other conceptions of grace on the basis of Scripture. If we follow Barclay’s case out to its dogmatic conclusions, according to Paul, according to Scripture, to speak of God’s grace without recognizing (and maybe even denying) that it is not according to merit or worth–even though you see that it’s abundant, prevenient, and so forth–is to speak wrongly of grace. This is no attempt to denigrate Judaism, or certain forms of it, but if we take Paul’s letters as revelation—then where Paul disagrees with his contemporaries about grace on the basis of the “Christ-event”, they are wrong.

Now, this might cut against the grain of Barclay’s methodological aims, but at the end of the day, that’s what I think his exhaustive study of grace in Paul has shown us.


To wrap up, none of my quibbles disqualifies anything I’ve said about the book as a must-read bit of Pauline scholarship. Its top-rate and I’ve benefitted from it immensely. Even though it’s not a full-dress commentary, there’s no way I’m going to preach or teach in Galatians or Romans without consulting the passage references, since it’s chocked full of exegetical insights waiting to be applied.

So, yes, if you’re wondering, right about now would be a good time to start adding it to your Christmas list.

Soli Deo Gloria

Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Review)

locating atonementFred Sanders and Oliver Crisp sure know how throw a party. Or “theology conference.” This past year’s LA Theology Conference was focused on the idea of “locating atonement” and they pulled out all the stops, drawing in names like Bruce McCormack, Matthew Levering, Michael Horton, and a host of others. Their stated aim was to take us beyond the important, yet typical questions plaguing atonement discussions over the last 70 years such as: How many typologies or “theories” of atonement are there? Which one is right? How do we relate them? and so forth. Instead, they tasked their presenters with examining the subject of atonement in light of its relations to other doctrines. Ten months later, they’ve delivered an exciting new volume on atonement theology Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics.

As a general comment on the collection of essays as a whole, it’s important to note that they’re not presented as one, unified work. There is a diversity among the contributors with respect to issues like impassibility, penal substitution, how much “ontology” plays a role in our accounts of atonement, and so forth. That said, a few characteristics come through. First, they’re all top-notch. Second, they demonstrate a broadly catholic, if predominantly Western orientation, attuned to the theological tradition that comes before it. Finally, as technically erudite as these essays can get, all of them have their eye on the preaching and teaching of the Church, not merely the formulations of the academy.

Though all the essays were worth engaging–so I will–my comments on each will vary because, well, this review got away from me. That said, length of summary should not be necessarily read as an indication of the relative value of each essay.

After Sanders and Crisp’s intro, Adonis Vidu opens up the constructive essays by taking up a thread in his work in Atonement, Law, and Justice on simplicity and divine action (one of my favorites of 2014). Specifically, he sets about trying to set the atonement in the context of the trinitarian principle that the external works of the Trinity are undivided. In other words, there are no works that the Son does in which the Father and the Spirit are not intimately and also equally involved since they have one shared nature, will, and mind even though possessed their own particular way. So, while it is the Son who becomes incarnate, he does so in the power of the Spirit and in accordance with the will of the Father and so forth. Using this classic principle and a strongly Thomistic account of simplicity and pure being, Vidu tries to help smooth out some of the less helpful ways we popularly think about atonement, specifically with the idea that the Father is somehow acting on or against the Son in a way that threatens the unity of the Godhead. In doing so, Vidu raises some important and salutary concerns, trying to direct our attention to the classic tradition which formed the theological context in which our atonement doctrines were originally formulated and outside of which, it can likely only suffer distortion. My only concern is that while he has forcefully and rightly protected the undivided unity of action, I’d love to see him fill out the distinctness within that unity a bit more.

Matthew Levering’s delightful essay relates the doctrine of creation and atonement by engaging Nicholas Wolterstorff on the issue. Wolterstorff recently challenged the “reciprocity principle” at the heart of satisfaction accounts of atonement, essentially by appealing to Jesus’ rejection of the principle in the Sermon on the Mount. This, in turn, shapes his objections to classic satisfaction accounts. In response, first, Levering counters by showing that Wolterstorff’s reading of Jesus and the New Testament is simply wrong on its own terms. Jesus actually reaffirms the reciprocity principle in a number of places as do the apostles. Second, he grounds this reading theologically by expounding Aquinas’ account of God’s gift of distributive justice with the gift of creation. But I won’t blow that for you. Suffice it to say that this is a quintessentially careful piece of theological reasoning from Levering that you won’t want to ignore.

In his piece, Jeremy Treat argues that covenant is an integrative doctrine for atonement theology, which allows us to cut through a number of false dichotomies plaguing us in the contemporary discussion. In a sense, he strives to give a broadly covenantal approach, situating Jesus’ work as the recapitulation and fulfillment of the story of Adam and Israel, attempting to appeal even to the non-Reformed. Using covenant as the key grid for organizing our understanding of atonement, Treat argues that atonement can be both legal and relational, individual and corporate, retributive and restorative, as well as make sense of the unity of Christ’s atoning life, death, and resurrection. These twenty pages would save us all a lot of grief if they were broadly digested within the church. Also, if you haven’t picked up Treat’s The Crucified King–which you should have–this ought to whet your appetite for it.

Benjamin Myers offers up a piece relating atonement and incarnation by expositing the “patristic model” of atonement. In doing so, he’s trying to move us past Gustaf Aulen’s rather skewed “classical” ransom account of atonement offered up in Christus Victor, which tended to obscure things a bit. In past times, writers like J.N.D. Kelly had referred to this stream of thought as something of a physicalist account because it hinges on the Son becoming man, joining his immortal deity to our mortal natures, passing through life, and overcoming death by filling our mortality with his unconquerable life through resurrection. And that’s a horrible summary of Myers’ careful 12-step case. Myers has done us all a favor in highlighting and recapturing a stream of Patristic thought often lost to us in the post-Aulen discussion–a 12-step program, if you will. My one argument is with his treatment of Athanasius that, for my money, tries a little too hard to screen out the penal and forensic elements within it. Indeed, it’s rather instructive to compare his essay at this point to Levering’s earlier appeal to those same passages in conjunction with Thomas. All the same, strong showing from the Australian contingent.

Kyle Strobel and Adam Johnson have a rather unique essay on the relationships between wisdom and atonement. It’s a rather phenomenal little piece that treats the atonement as a work of God’s Wisdom, rescuing the world from its folly through the foolishness of the cross. I’m temped to say it’s almost a way of retelling the whole economy of redemption from the angle of wisdom.  It’s a treasure trove of theological insight (might have been the most surprising essay at the conference for me) and word on the street is Johnson is following it up with a little work on atonement that should be smashing.

Luke Stamps treats the often-forgotten yet crucial doctrine of dyothelitism (that Christ had two wills, a human and a divine one according to each nature) with respect to the atonement.  This is one of those places where clear, systematic thinking is most helpful with exegesis. There are number of key insights here, but for me, the bit that finally clicked was the way monothelitic accounts of Christ’s will, of necessity, require a social trinity doctrine. Without understanding that Christ has two wills–one human and one divine will shared with Father and Spirit–the only way Christ can pray “Not my will but yours”, is if the Son as God has a will distinct from that of the Father and the Spirit. Some might want to go there, but Stamps shows why this reading might have some costs to our doctrine of the Trinity we should not be willing to pay.

Daniel J. Hill and Joseph Jedwab’s essay focuses on relating atonement and the very concept of punishment. Without actually arguing for its justness, they present an argument for the conceptual coherence of the idea of the Son being punished for or assuming responsibility for the sins of others. It’s a fairly analytic essay and, for what it aims to do, fairly helpful. That said, it’s necessarily quite limited.

Eric T. Yang and Stephen Davis offer up a piece analyzing the link between wrath and atonement. They present a somewhat standard defense of the notion of the appropriateness of affirming wrath as an affection or emotion in God, with a disappointing but typical rejection of impassibility. What’s more, they argue that not simply penal substitutionary accounts, but other forms ought to consider incorporating a robust notion of divine wrath in their readings of the atonement.

T. Mark McConnell relates the doctrine of atonement with the much-neglected issue of shame as distinct from guilt. Guilt says, “I have done wrong”, while shame says, “I am wrong.” According to McConnell, not only are we living in a society that is awash in shame, even if it’s lost its sense of guilt, at the heart of the Scriptures is a story about God overcoming Adam’s nakedness and shame in the Garden. Drawing on Ireneaus and the theology of the vicarious humanity of Christ from T.F. Torrance, McConnell lays out the way that understanding atonement as recapitulation allows us to see Christ reconstituting and remaking us as overcoming of our alienating shame in his reconciling life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the one who bears our shame away, killing it on the cross, and clothing us once more. Overall, this is a very important pastoral dimension to the atonement that ought to be regained where it has been lost. That said, I would definitely shy away from adopting the “fallen humanity” view which McConnell has forwarded–I think something like his model can and must be constructed without it–nor would I necessarily foreground shame as prior and deeper to the problem of guilt as McConnell has. Bracing essay, nonetheless.

Alongside Vidu’s, Bruce McCormack’s essay on atonement and human suffering is the densest of the various pieces, defying easy summary. It’s also one of the most conflicted for me. In order to treat the problem of suffering and the will of God, McCormack develops a theological account of the death of Jesus as the will of God. First, he treats it in terms of the Gospel accounts where Jesus’ death is seen as the apocalyptic outpouring of the wrath of God upon the Son. McCormack then turns to deepening the New Testament witness through H.U. Von Balthasar’s profound theology of the cross and his account of the judgment of hell and being with the dead. Though, of course, with his own Christological corrections. With this account in place he argues for the uniquely redemptive nature of Jesus’ death as an answer, not to mere physical death, but as the foundation for the resurrection. It is a condemnation of the old order, paving a way for the new. For myself, I couldn’t go with this tinkering with impassibility, view of synthetic construction of the gospels, and a couple other Barthian themes related to God’s being and history. All in all, though, a stimulating and moving read.

I’ll be blunt and say that Elenore Stump’s was the most frustrating for me. Of course, it was sharp work. It is Stump; she’s brilliant. But theologically, her attempt to offer a cut-rate account of the atonement’s relation to the Eucharist thinly-conceived, had some some rather semi-Pelagian tendencies. That said, her discussion of second-person experiences and the role of story in our spiritual formation was illuminating.

Michael Horton rounds out the books with his chapter on Ascension and atonement. He provocatively sets out to answer H.U. Von Balthasar’s charge that Protestantism can’t encompass or reckon with Ireneaus’ basic attitude in theology. He does so in tracing out two streams of thought on ascent and descent, salvation, and metaphysics. One is an Irenaean stream and another Origenist, with Origen the less congenial of the two. It’s a tale of two ascensions, two deifications, two Eucharists, and two metaphysics. Unsurprisingly, Calvin and the Reformed tradition a la Bavinck are clearly the heroes here. And I agree with that point. But Horton does his best to show them in continuity with a broader “catholic” tradition, as well. Again, this one defies simple explanation, but it’s really a first-rate piece to close down the house.

Well, that about wraps it up. If you haven’t picked up on it, yet, I highly recommend the volume. Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders have done a bang-up job pulling this all together.

Soli Deo Gloria

Gratitude: Leithart’s History of Western Philosophy According to Grandma’s Tureen

gratitudeI love a good intellectual history when I can get my hands on one. Intellectual histories, if done right, give you a solid blend of philosophical (theological, etc) engagement, history, and joy of a well-told story. That’s exactly what Peter Leithart delivers in his recent (2014) offering Gratitude: An Intellectual History. Many will know that the idea of “the Gift” has gotten a lot of attention over the 20th Century in philosophy, anthropology, and related fields. When anthropologist Marcel Mauss “rediscovered” the reciprocity involved in the process of gift-giving in the tribal culture of Polynesia and Melanesia, he kicked off a chain of reflection on the conditions and reality of the gift. What goes into making a gift a gift? What are the ties implied in the giving of the gift? Contemporaries tend to think of gifts as, of necessity, having “no strings attached.” But if every gift implies an obligation, a “debt” of gratitude, can there every truly be such a thing as a gift?

Leithart noticed a gap in the literature. While there’s no end of resources on the gift, there’s little that’s focused on the corresponding category: gratitude. Gifts and gratitude go together. But just exactly what that means, it turns out, has been a matter of debate and controversy over the centuries in the West. Gratitude hasn’t always been simply an issue of thank you cards after your wedding—indeed, it probably never has been simply an issue of anything. The circle of gifts and gratitude have made the world go round, encompassing everything from the deepest questions of political theory, interpersonal ethics, and the nature of the divine-human relationship itself. Paul, lest we forget, says ingratitude–not acknowledging God’s gifts for what they are–is at the heart of human rebellion against God (Romans 1).

Taking an expansive view, Leithart, then, aims to tell the story of the Western history’s various political, philosophical, theological, and cultural orientations towards the nature of gift and the corresponding enactment of gratitude. Guided by Leithart’s steady hands, we are led through a movement from circles of honor in ancient Greece and Rome, to the ingratitude of Jesus, on to the patron(age) saints of the Middle Ages, the disruptive ingratitude of the Reformers, an attempt to bend the circles into straight lines in modernity, and up through the methodological ingratitude of postmodernity. Summarizing this engagement is beyond me. That said, it’s not beyond Leithart to summarize himself. And that’s exactly what he does at the end of the work, using a delightful thought experiment: Grandma’s gift soup tureen.

Leithart asks us at the beginning of the book to enter into the dilemmas of gift of gratitude by imagining this situation:

Imagine that your beloved grandmother gave you a rather ugly soup tureen as a wedding gift. Seeing as you have no use for the tureen, how ought you respond? You would, of course, write an appropriately deceptive note of thanks, but what then? Would you box the tureen away and never use it? Would you use it to feed the cat? What if Grandma were coming for dinner? Would you let her see you using her gift to feed the cat?…Variations on the hypothetical can be spun out further…but the point is clear enough. Gifts, especially from a respected giver, carry something of the giver with them. (16-17)

Gifts carry a responsibility, then, of showing proper gratitude and an ethic that is associated with it.

With this in mind, Leithart decides to summarize his story by playfully imagining what a variety (though not the totality!) of the figures treated in his narrative would tell you about how to respond to Grandma’s ugly, gift tureen:

  • Aristotle would warn you that receiving the tureen puts you in a position of inferiority and that, if you want to be a virtuous and independent person, you should pay Grandma back with a bigger gift as soon as possible. Then forget you ever received the gift in the first place.
  • Cicero would tell you to follow accepted custom, take the gift, look for a chance to reciprocate, and expect that your good offices will advance your political career.
  • Seneca would encourage you to exaggerate the quality and beauty of the gift, to appear at Grandma’s door every morning to accompany her on her way to the grocery store, loudly celebrating her generosity at every stoplight. He would encourage you to look for the right time and way to repay her.
  • Jesus and Paul would tell you to honor and love Grandma, thank God with sincerity, and move on.
  • The Beowulf poet would encourage you to pass out soup tureens to your employees to display your largesse.
  • Calvin and Luther would tell you to thank God, while recognizing you do not deserve the tureen or your grandmother’s love. They would remind you that grace is a gift that can never be repaid.
  • Hobbes would tell you that you should receive the tureen in such a way that Grandma will never regret having given it to you, which means, do not use it to feed the cat.
  • Locke would say that you should thank her and show esteem for her, so long as her gift was not an attempt to influence your decision to vote Democrat.
  • Adam Smith would tell you that gratitude is a proper sentiment in response to something that give pleasure, like a tureen.
  • Kant would tell you that since Grandma gave first, you are obligated to her by a sacred duty, a debt that can never be repaid.
  • Kierkegaard would remind you that we are to thank God even in suffering.
  • Nietzsche would urge you to show gratitude especially if the tureen is ugly, to show Grandma how powerless she is to harm you.
  • Heidegger would mumble something incomprehensible in German, hike up his lederhosen, and leave with Nazi salute.
  • Mauss would be at the head of a gaggle of anthropologists warning you that there is no such thing as a free gift, that Grandma might return later to reclaim her property, and that her display of generosity is likely a power play intended to put you in her debt.
  • Derrida would say that you soiled the gift as soon as you said thank you.
  • Marion would strip the tureen to its essence of pure givability, and you and Grandma would both disappear into phenomenological vapor. (217-128)

And there you have it: the history of Western thought on gratitude, served up in Grandma’s tureen. If this hasn’t whet your appetite, I’m not sure what else I can say. I suppose I’ll say this: Peter Leithart has written first-rate book. It’s a gift for which I’m very grateful. (To God, of course.)

Soli Deo Gloria

Bavinck on the Christian Life by John Bolt

Bavinck on the Christian lifeCrossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series has been excellent so far. And it’s about to get even better. John Bolt has just delivered the latest volume Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service that’s the bees knees. I had the privilege of reading an early copy this spring and endorsing it.

Here’s what I wrote:

“Bolt’s portrait of Bavinck and his theology captures the man himself: clear, elegant, biblically saturated, theologically rich, philosophically nuanced, irenic, and aimed at the Christian life. Drawing on a diversity of sources, Bolt not only brings the riches of Bavinck’s mature theology into conversation with current theological concerns, but also applies it to the most practical elements of faith, marriage, family, work, and culture. He ably introduces readers to Bavinck’s vision of the Christian life as part of God’s movement of grace restoring nature and a cosmic redemption aimed at restoring and elevating creation to its intended goal. Most of all, it is a vision of following Jesus out into the world as the Father conforms his children into the image of the Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of his glorious name.”

If that’s not enough, here’s what a bunch of other smarter people wrote about it:

“To use the word timely for a book about a nineteenth-century Dutch theologian may seem inappropriate. But in this case the adjective is exactly right. Many of us have wanted to spread the word that Herman Bavinck’s theological perspective can contribute much to a renewal of the church’s life and mission today. Now in this book John Bolt has made the case in a concise and convincing manner!”
Richard J. Mouw, President, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary

“This obvious labor of love explores an important but insufficiently highlighted aspect of Bavinck’s thought. Leaving virtually no pertinent stone unturned throughout his life and published works, Bolt provides both a full presentation of Bavinck’s views and his own understanding of their continuing relevance for Christian discipleship today. Here is valuable instruction in Bavinck’s thought presented in a way that will also stimulate the reader’s own thinking on the issues raised.”
Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary

“Trinitarian, Christ-centered, and culturally engaged, Herman Bavinck immerses us into a vivid vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His rich theological imagination provides a compelling alternative to the many vapid, pragmatic approaches to faith today. John Bolt provides an accessible and illuminating guide to Bavinck’s theology of the Christian life in the most expansive sense: the Christian life of fellowship with God and others, in family, work, and politics. Bolt skillfully navigates these waters in order to open up the treasures of Bavinck for today’s church.”
J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan

“Perhaps every generation in the church age could claim a need for Bavinck’s perspective on the Christian life. We can’t let our salt lose its saltiness and our light lose its brilliance—not now. Bavinck encourages us in this regard even as we are in the world, not of the world, and sent into the world. In one seamless volume, Bolt shows how Bavinck’s contributions help correct our nearsightedness as we become tethered to his conviction that the Word of God is ever living and ever active in every day.”
Gloria Furman, Pastor’s wife, Redeemer Church of Dubai; mother of four; author, Glimpses of Grace and Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full  

“Not one square inch of nature, work, culture, or history escaped the reach of Herman Bavinck’s expansive Christ-centered worldview. Of the great Reformed theologians, Bavinck is the generous giant, with a heart as wide as his axiom ‘grace restores nature.’ Bavinck’s vision of a sovereign Savior at work in the world, carefully grounded in the gospel, suits him to speak authoritatively on the Christian’s place in this world. This book is a masterpiece from John Bolt, a man who knows Bavinck’s mind as well as anyone.”
Tony Reinke, Staff Writer and Researcher,; author, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books

“Never before have I read such a fine and stimulating overview of Herman Bavinck’s life and theology. John Bolt shows clearly why the study of Bavinck is growing worldwide and why this theology is a great help for today’s Christians. Bavinck and Bolt are a great team!”
Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University of Apeldoorn; Director, Refo500, The Netherlands

If you’ve been wanting to get into the Dutch giant, but you’ve been too intimidated by the size and scope of his Reformed Dogmatics to know where to start, this is an excellent introduction to his thought. Bolt gives pride of place to Bavinck’s own words and so you get a bunch of Bavinck himself, not only commentary on him. Though, if you have read him, it is excellent commentary that will help bring out dimensions you might have missed, especially since Bolt draws on works other works beyond the Dogmatics that have yet to be translated. Beyond that, it’s just an edifying work.

Soli Deo Gloria

“What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality?” by Kevin DeYoung (Book Review)

deyoungObviously, one of the most contested and painful issues in the church and in the world today is the moral status of same-sex relationships. Within the publishing world, there’s been a blitz of blogs, books, conferences, and symposia on the subject, with no signs of abatement any time soon. In the middle of all of this muddle, faithful Christians are understandably confused.

Many are wondering where to look for resources. They’re thinking about that heavily-footnoted blog their friend shared that made them question what they’d believed before, or pastors are wondering which of the recent spate of works will be helpful to hand to the questioning college student, or the new elder, looking to shepherd that that student faithfully.

If that’s you, I’d like to commend to you Kevin DeYoung’s helpful, new book on the subject, What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?

Now, I’ll be upfront and say I’m a Kevin DeYoung fan. I read his blog and I’ve read a number of books, my favorite being his work on the Heidelberg catechism, which was pretty significant for my move over into the Reformedish direction. So I’m obviously predisposed to be sympathetic to his work. With that in mind, take this post as you like. Also, know I got a free copy of the book, though I wasn’t required to say anything nice about it.

That confession aside, I’ll say it’s DeYoung doing what he does best: taking a complicated subject, and with clear, straightforward prose, reviewing significant biblical and theological material, asking the important questions, explaining it, and applying it.  In this case, DeYoung is very clear about his aim, which is to treat the specific question of “What does the Bible really say about homosexuality, or same-sex, sexual activity? Is it healthy, approved of by God in the appropriate situations, or is it sin to be avoided as the Church has said for about 2000 years?”  Unsurprisingly, DeYoung answers in favor of the latter. As he says, it’s a defense of the traditional understanding of marriage.

DeYoung’s structure is really rather basic. He doesn’t really get into sociological, psychological, or political questions (except for an appendix or two at the end). Instead, the first section focuses specifically on explaining the logic of the Biblical narrative and relevant texts (Gen 1, Leviticus, Rom. 1, etc), and the second half is devoted to answering key questions and challenges like the inconsistency of the church (what about gluttony?), the disputed nature of the same-sex activities in the NT times, and other popular, understandable questions.

So what are some of the highlights?

Well, first, this is not really aimed at specialized blogger debates, or niche scholarship. When DeYoung cites his sources, it’s clear he’s done his homework and read the big names on both sides, as well as the source material carefully. He tackles the main, exegetical, historical, and contextual challenges that need to be addressed. It’s solid work. That said, it’s meant for everybody. It’s a clear book for college students with questions, educated people in the pews, pastors, elders, and small group leaders. Which is so needed. I’ve read Robert Gagnon’s big book on the subject, and I think most pastors should, but there’s no way I’m handing my kids 500 pages of footnotes.

Next, it’s pretty calm. That’s kind of an odd thing to praise, but I get tired of the histrionic tones of some the people defending a classical position on the subject. It just gets shrill, depressing, and kind of unhelpful, especially if you’re going to be sensitive and pastoral towards those for whom the issue is a source of personal pain and struggle. DeYoung manages to stay away from the bluster, all the while driving home the weighty issues of sin, salvation, and the holiness of the church that are caught up in the question. For that, I’m grateful.

DeYoung also manages to set the stage well. I think my favorite section in the whole book was the intro chapter where he sets up the question of what the Bible says about homosexuality by talking about what the Bible says about everything; he basically goes through the story-line of creation, fall, redemption through Christ, and the goal God has for everything in the consummation of the ages. One of things I’ve told my students before is that there are some answers that Christianity gives that only make sense if you’ve understood its place within the whole. Yes, you need to tackle Greek words, Roman context, exegetical twists, but he says:

…before we get up close to the trees, we should step back and make sure we are gazing upon the same forest. As is so often the case with controversial matters, we will never agree on the smaller subplots if it turns out we aren’t even telling the same story. (9-10)

The most important part of that story, of course, is Jesus’ saving life, death, and resurrection. And that’s at the center of DeYoung’s little work. Pastors, small group leaders, and just Christians, realize that you cannot simply charge into conversations about these issues armed with a knowledge of key texts. You really need to soak in and connect these to the broader gospel realities, or the medicine simply will not go down.

A final plus, it’s only maybe 150 (shortish) pages. For those familiar with the arguments, it takes maybe an hour, hour and a half, and probably not a lot more if you’re not, which is surprising given the important ground it covers. I take this to be a strength. If you’re “not a reader”, I think you can make it through this book, and, at this point, most Christians really need to have read something solid on the subject.

One word, though: the book’s title really is what the book is about. It’s a book for people for whom the Bible is the sine qua non of spiritual authority. DeYoung’s polemic is mostly about answering revisionist reinterpretations of the texts that try to get around traditional interpretations. He also spends time defending what the Bible says in the objections section, but for those who have to wrestle with more complex questions of hermeneutics, the authority of Scripture, and so forth, you’re probably going to need a more heavy work. Which is probably why DeYoung included a helpful annotated bibliography at the end.

Well, there you have it. Some of my posts are just encouragements to pick up helpful resources. This is one on a key subject that most of us are wrestling with. I hope you find it as helpful as I did.

Soli Deo Gloria 


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

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings (Reformation21 Review)

rejoicingJ. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. $14.99/£11.99
Much of life in a fallen world consists of navigating through the fog of tragedy and suffering. Any pastor who has spent more than a month or two in any given parish will come up against the broken gears of the cycle of life. Illness strikes the healthy, death comes to take the young, and all too often it seems that curse falls upon the way of the righteous. At times like these, in a church culture that has all-but-lost the Psalmic language of lament, it can be difficult to avoid falling into trite speech more hollow than even explicit silence. And sometimes temporary silence is initially the best path. Yet the hearts and the minds of the afflicted need answers. They need a comfort grounded in the deep, glorious truth of the gospel.
That’s what Todd Billings has given us in his recent offering Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. At the age of 39, Billings was happily married, father of two young children, and beginning a promising career as young Reformed theologian turning heads with rich, careful theological scholarship (Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, The Word of God for the People of God, Union with Christ). Then he was diagnosed with advanced, incurable blood cancer, and the bottom dropped out. The future that once looked so clear–marriage, watching his children graduate, scholarship–immediately fogged over with the pronouncement that he could no longer look forward to the “median” life-span that that most of us blithely assume we’re owed (p.7).
In the midst of his own struggles with pain, suffering, and the agony of uncertainty, Billings has produced a profound meditation on the hope of the Christian life in light of the realities of the gospel. Rejoicing in Lament is rather unique in that it occupies a middle range in terms of its approach and appeal. It is not a strictly academic work, and yet Billings is a top-shelf theologian, so it’s not just a pop-book either. It is top-shelf theology that has been lived in and communicated with an eye toward the sufferer in the pew, with Billings interspersing the story of his cancer battle–diagnosis, treatment, future prospects–within the broader story of God’s saving action in Christ.
I hope you’ll read the rest of my review at Reformation21. This is an important and helpful book.
Soli Deo Gloria