The Peace of the Triune God

peaceI’ve written about this before, or rather I’ve quoted others writing about it, but time and again we must be reminded that all of God’s good gifts, especially those we receive in redemption, have a trinitarian shape to them. They come to us from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. Whether it be justification, adoption, or sanctification, the whole Trinity is displayed to be at work in the New Testament witness. Thomas Watson makes this point again with respect to the believer’s gift of peace, by asking,”Whence comes this Peace?”

His answer?:

It has the whole Trinity for its author. God the Father is ‘the God of peace.’ (I Thess 5:53.) God the Son is the ‘Prince of peace.’ (Isa 9:9.) Peace is said to be the ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ (Gal 5:52.)

(1.) God the Father is the God of peace. As he is the God of order, so he is the God of peace. (I Cor 14:43), and (Phil 4:4.) This was the form of the priest’s blessing upon the people. ‘The Lord give thee peace.’ (Numb 6:66.)

(2.) God the Son is the purchaser of peace. He made peace by his blood. ‘Having made peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Col 1:10.) The atonement Aaron made for the people, when he entered into the holy of holies, with blood, was a type of Christ our high priest, who by his sacrifice pacified his angry Father, and made atonement for us. Christ purchased our peace upon hard terms; for his soul was in an agony, while he was travailing to bring forth peace to the world.

(3.) Peace is a fruit of the Spirit. He seals up peace to the conscience. The Spirit clears up the work of grace in the heart, from whence arises peace. There was a well of water near Hagar, but she did not see it, therefore she wept. A Christian has grace, but does not see it, therefore he weeps. Now the Spirit discovers this well of water, it enables conscience to witness to a man that has the real work of grace, and so peace flows into the soul. Thus you see whence this peace comes – the Father decrees it, the Son purchases it, the Holy Ghost applies it.

I don’t care how many times I see that same basic structure, it still thrills me to see the workings of our Triune God traced out in the revelation of Scripture. It is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who is the source, sum, and goal of our peace.

To understand how God can be ou peace, though, we must push further and recognize that God himself is peace. I’ve shared this Webster quote before, but I can’t pass up sharing it again:

The peace of God — the peace which God himself is— passes all understanding; ‘neither we nor the angels can understand as God, the peace which God himself enjoys’ (Augustine, City of God, XXII.29). This peace of God’s own self may be considered under the aspects of harmony and repose. First, with respect to harmony; the outer acts of the Holy Trinity are indivisible, the work of the undivided divine essence in its threefold personal modification. By appropriation, specific works may be particularly or eminently assigned to one divine person (as redemption to the Son or sanctification to the Spirit). But each person participates in all, for each shares in the undivided dvine essence, and each work is to be attributed absolutely to that one divine essence. The outer works of the Trinity are, then, harmonious — not mere conjoint or cooperative or composite action, but action which is inseparable and coinherent, and so, in a deep sense, peaceful. This harmony in the missions of the three-in-one is grounded in and gives expression to to the infinite peace which God is. There is no disorder, disruption or contradiction in the works of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the making and perfecting of the world. And so, there is in God’s inner life nothing of divergence or discord, but infinite unity and therefore peace beyond measure.

Second, to this harmony is to be added the element of repose. The outer works of God are effortlessly accomplished, without strain or agitation, without interval between willing and effecting. God rests in his work. This rest corresponds to the inner repose of God in filiation and spiriation, there is no malign diversity, no coming together out of a condition of separation, no overcoming of division or conflict, but always an already-achieved perfection of peaceful life. God’s inner peace is the peace of his triune simplicity.

This inner divine peace is the principle of creaturely peace, that upon which all other peace is founded and by which it is preserved. This is so, however, only because divine peace is in itself complete and fully satisfied. In the repleteness of his life as Father, Son, and Spirit, God is beyond need or desire. His peace is neither enhanced by created peace nor diminished by its absence…it is the harmony and repose which, because it needs nothing, is capable of pure charity, giving life and righteous order in the works of creation and providence.

The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason, pp. 133-135

Well, that’s enough to praise him for today. May God’s peace be with you.

Soli Deo Gloria

Summarizing, Simplifying, and Expanding on the Atonement by Adam Johnson (Guest Post)

atonementAdam Johnson is a professor of theology in the Torrey Honors program at Biola University and excellent chap. He’s just put out a very helpful book–one of my new favorites on the subject–Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, which I’ve already written about here. What follows is an excerpted  section of one of my favorite passages in the work, reprinted with his permission. I hope it encourages you to follow up and pick the book. 

A thorough appreciation of the complexity of the atonement funds our delight and worship, while equipping the church to relate Christ’s work meaningfully to a host of other areas. An equally strong grasp of the simplicity of the doctrine yields a sense of the overall shape and structure of the doctrine, offering meaning and direction to our inquiries within its many elements. Just as in the doctrines of the Trinity and divine attributes (in fact, precisely because of them), the interplay between unity and diversity, simplicity and complexity, plays a vital role here as well. For that reason we must constantly live in the tension between seeking an expansive understanding, and concise definition of the work of Christ.

Summary I: An Exercise in Simplicity

The best summary statements about Christ’s atoning work in Scripture are the following two (closely related) verses:

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

“In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” (Col. 1:19-20)

In short:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

The beauty of this short statement is four-fold. First, the emphasis is first and foremost upon God, which is absolutely vital for the doctrine. The atonement is the work of God bringing God’s creation back to God. God is the origin, means and end of this act, and the role of theology proper is singularly and absolutely determinative for the shape of the doctrine and the coherence of our account of the atonement. Second, this is the work of God as man, as Jesus. That is to say, it is a fully human work, the work of God as one of us, one of our kind living out his life under the same realities and circumstances as we do. It is a work from within our life and experience, in which God makes our situation his own, rather than a work from the outside. Third, this is a work of reconciliation. One could say that God was in Christ, atoning (at-one-ing) all things to himself in Christ, though this does not communicate as readily in contemporary English. In principle, one could substitute “reconciling” for any of a number of soteriological synonyms, including “saving,” “redeeming,” “ransoming” or “sanctifying.” “Reconciliation” is preferable, however, for its positive (indicating salvation for just as much or more than it does salvation from) and comprehensive nature. In other words, it isn’t as readily reducible to merely marshal, judicial or commercial concerns as some of its peers.

The final reason which makes this summary the best single statement in Scripture concerning the work of Christ is its comprehensive scope: all things! Of course this must be unpacked, but such a comprehensive and indeed cosmic affirmation runs no risk whatsoever of leaving anything out. All things are involved and bound up in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is no mere matter of meeting some particular need or void in our lives—the death and resurrection of Christ are of much bigger scope than that. They gather up the identity, condition and fate of all of God’s creation, for in Christ all things are taken up and reconciled to the Father. Regardless of whether we recognize this to be the case, there is nothing in life that is not reconciled to God through the work of Christ (Col. 1:20).

In short, for a single statement that grasps the foundation of the doctrine of the atonement in the being and act of God, the means of the atonement in the man Jesus Christ, the positive and life-giving nature of atonement as a work of reconciliation, a restoring of relationships, and the scope of the atonement, which brings all things into their proper relationship and fellowship with God, there is no better statement than Paul’s claim that God was in Christ reconciling all things to himself.

Summary II – A Fuller Account

But the purpose of a summary statement is to bring clarity by highlighting the basic elements or structure of that which it summarizes. Accordingly, summary always plays its role as one part of the task of understanding its object, which is to say, summaries play a role within the dynamic movement necessary for understanding a complex reality, moving between a vision of the overall structure and interacting with the smaller parts of which the whole is composed. To honor this dynamic movement, we will briefly unpack the above summary, offering a slightly more complex rendition of the same basic statement:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

To affirm that God was in Christ, that this was the work of God and his presence in this act is what makes it what it is, what gives it its defining features, characteristics and significance, is to affirm first and foremost that this is the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are what they are because they are events in the life of God, willed by the Father, executed by the Son, in the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit. It is only because the atonement is the work of the triune God, bringing our humanity and sin into the relational dynamics of Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit, that this work is what it is. And it is because God does this work through his own life, that it simultaneously involves the fullness of the divine character. In this event, God enacts his love, wisdom, mercy, righteousness, holiness and presence, the fullness of the divine attributes, in his overcoming of sin and evil, and restoration of all things according to his purposes for them.

To affirm that Jesus was a man is to embrace the fact that he was not any man, but an Israelite: born of the line of David, realizing in himself the covenants, prophecies and laws of the Old Testament as the Messiah, the prophet, priest and king, the one who in himself was the faithful Israelite. As such, he is, of course, a human being just as we are, but one with a specific history, and with that history a specific identity and role. Salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and more concretely, from the Jew, Jesus, the son of Mary. And his work was a work of reconciliation, of atonement—of making one through restored relation to God and through him to all things. Relationally, he made things one by bringing about reconciliation or the restoration of fellowship. Cosmically, he made creation one by removing evil, conflict and decay. Judicially, he made us one by doing away with the crime, guilt and punishment. His work was a work of creating and sharing one-ness according to the many forms it takes in different contexts and relationships, bearing in himself and thereby doing away with all sin, evil and discord.

And his work touches on all things: angels and demons, Jews and Gentiles, dogs and cats, mountains and graveyards. And because the center of God’s election in Christ was for a people, for a relationship with humankind, his work relates to middle management and racial relations, body and soul, emotions and habits, families and friendships. Extending far beyond the guilty conscience, God became man in Jesus Christ to bring every aspect of creation, and every aspect of our human existence, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, with all the flourishing and mutual-exaltation that this entails for every aspect of our being (physical, spiritual, social, sexual, economic and otherwise) and that of the creation of which we are a part.

Definition as Springboard to Exploration

But we must be clear about the fact that this more expansive summary is but a springboard to fuller reflection on each these areas. But as we engage in this pursuit, for the sake of clarity and definition, it is helpful that we be able to pull back from detailed exploration of the sub-points of the doctrine, and also be able to affirm with brevity and understanding that:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

Or even more briefly, that:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Triune Justification, Again (Or, is a Reformed view of Salvation Sub-Trinitarian?)

trinityI’ve noted before the way that Protestant theologies of salvation, especially of the Reformed variety, are occasionally criticized as being sub-trinitarian due to their narrow focus on forensic or legal categories. Whether because of an allegedly blinkered view of the cross, or an “overly-individualistic” transaction model of justification by faith, Reformed theology apparently can’t compare to more Catholic, Orthodox, or some more metaphysically-inclined Anglican proposals flirting with Radical Orthodoxy. (To be honest, the critiques all sort of blur together.)

Triune Justification, Again

Again, while that may be true of some popular Reformed or general ‘Evangelical’ preaching, that’s certainly not the case with classical Reformed theology such as that of Bavinck who lays out a beautifully trinitarian conception of justification. But some may wonder if that’s simply because with Bavinck we are dealing with an exceptional Reformed theologian, a jewel in the tradition who is unrepresentative of the broader whole?

Well, actually no. Once again, I ran across this little gem in Thomas Watson’s commentary on the Westminster Catechism’s treatment of justification. Watson is dealing with the various “causes” of salvation, such as faith which receives it, Christ’s righteous life and death as its ground, and so on. He moves to ask about the “efficient cause” or author of our justification:

What is the efficient cause of our justification?

The whole Trinity. All the persons in the blessed Trinity have a hand in the justification of a sinner: opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. God the Father is said to justify. ‘It is God that justifieth.’ (Rom 8:83). God the Son is said to justify. ‘By him all that believe are justified.’ (Acts 13:39). God the Holy Ghost is said to justify. ‘But ye are justified by the Spirit of our God.’ (I Cor 6:61). God the Father justifies, as he pronounces us righteous; God the Son justifies, as he imputes his righteousness to us; and God the Holy Ghost justifies, as he clears up our justification, and seals us up to the day of redemption.

There you have it. Drawing on the classical trinitarian logic that all of the Trinity’s ad extra or “outward” works are undivided, Watson traces the triune shape of God’s one justifying action in Christ. There’s absolutely nothing “sub-trinitarian” about even the very clearly forensic or legal dimension to a Reformed account of God’s saving work.

But Even Beyond Justification

It also bears pointing out that much of the confusion comes when we miss the fact that a Reformed view of salvation is not limited to justification by faith. It gladly encompasses it, but free justification and the forgiveness of sins is not the sum total of the gospel, nor of the benefits that make up our salvation. No, arguably, the larger category to keep in view is the doctrine of union with Christ, whereby in faith we are united legally, spiritually, morally, mystically, and vitally with Jesus and all of his benefits, which ends up giving us far more than justification alone. It’s also the broader picture that completely destroys the sub-trinitarian charge.

Instead, union with Christ expands to include things like the effectual calling out of darkness into light which precedes justification. Then also come the gifts of adoption into Father’s family, with all of the spiritual privileges that come with being a child of God such as access in prayer, peace, and the assurance of the Spirit. We are also given the sanctification and growth in holiness which inevitably follows as we received the gift of the Holy Spirit in our union. Finally, we are promised glorification, or the perfection of our salvation when we are resurrected anew by the Spirit and the process of sanctification is complete as we are fully and finally conformed to the Image of the Son, the Resurrected Jesus, in order that we might look upon the face of God in glory.

Theologian Todd Billings had an excellent little article on this recently, articulating all this as an expression of what we might (carefully) call a Reformed doctrine of deification. I’ll quote Billings at length:

Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).

Calvin also speaks of a coming beatific vision, a “direct vision” of the Godhead, “when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is” (Institutes 2.14.3). This final, temporal end is in fact “the end of the gospel,” that is, “to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” (commentary on 2 Peter 1:4). For Calvin, the present and future scope of God’s work in salvation requires us to go beyond looking at how we receive salvation and what salvation saves us from. All of this takes place for the sake of union and communion with God. Salvation not only restores what is lost by the fall; it incorporates creatures into the glorious life of the Triune God.

I’d recommend going and reading the whole of the article and maybe picking up his book Union with Christor this free article on Calvin’s view of salvation focused on the way union with Christ organizes things along trinitarian, Christocentric, and non-reductive lines, if you’re curious about more along these lines.

At the end of all this, though, it should be enough to dispel the very misguided charge that a Reformed view of salvation is sub-trinitarian due to its legal flavor. Not only does that misconstrue what the Reformed actually say about justification, it misses the much broader trinitarian context of salvation in union with Christ that justification is set within. Honestly, if I wanted to, I could have gone through and shown the trinitarian shape of each of those gifts (calling, sanctification, etc) in detail from the Reformed sources. But this enough to reflect on for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

Don’t Underestimate the Scholastics (Or, Gleanings from Richard Muller’s PRRD)

MullerThis last year I embarked on a journey of reading through Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, much as I did with Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics last year. Some of you may have noticed that I’ve slowed down posting Turretin of late, though. There’s a few of reasons for that. First, I simply hit a wall. Turretin’s good, but dense. Sometimes you have to put a book down to pick it up again. Second, I’ve been prepping for Ph.D. work and other reading and studying has gotten in the way. Finally, though, I also sort of got distracted from Turretin when I acquired the four volumes of Richard Muller’s magisterial series Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725. 

The title describes the project clearly enough. While Muller is not canvassing all of the theology of that period, he does aim to set the record straight about the Reformed school theologians following the age of the Reformers on issues like theological method, Scripture, and the doctrine of God (Attributes, Trinity). He does so by an extensive review of primary sources, as well as setting them against their context of the prior medieval tradition, the Reformation, and the intellectual currents of their own day.

If I could sum up my gleanings from Muller’s volumes in one sentence, it would be: “Don’t underestimate the scholastics.” Which is something people have apparently done all too often. According to many theologians in the late 19th and 20th Century, especially under the later influence of Barth and the Neo-Orthodox, this was allegedly a period of relative darkness, where theology fell into “causal”, “rationalist” metaphysics and philosophical obscurity, after a brief period of pure gospel light shining from the pens of Calvin and Luther. According to Muller, that’s a rather neat “just-so” story that crumbles upon inspection of the actual sources. The Reformed Orthodox scholastics actually had a bit more going for them than that.

While I haven’t finished the four volumes (I’ve got about a third of volume 3 left and volume 4 to go), and it would be ridiculous to try to summarize even one, I figured I could list a few Mullerian points to keep in mind when encountering the scholastics themselves, or critical historiography on them. I’ll proceed in no particular order.

“Scholasticism.” The first point that Muller beats into your head is that “scholasticism” is a method of study and organization, not a theology on its own. Quite often you’ll see general references to the teaching of “scholastic” theology of the Reformed, Lutherans, or whoever as if simply in virtue of being scholastics they’re all saying the same thing. That’s not the case. To put it crudely, scholastic theology was “school” theology or theology done according to the methods of organization and argumentation and logic that was prevalent in the academies of the time.

That said, scholastic methodology was practiced by the Reformed, the Lutherans, the Roman Catholics, and even some of the Radical theologians of the time. But while they may have all used the same form of syllogistic argument, the quaestio form, or so forth, they often came to radically different conclusions on theological judgments about Scripture, justification, the will and knowledge of God, and any number of other issues. So, again, when someone talks about “scholasticism”, it makes sense to ask, “Whose scholasticism?”

Method/Genre Matters. There are a lot of different issues that could be shoved under the question of method and genre, but one is the way it shapes how we think of the piety and spirituality of the period. The theology of the Orthodox period has been accused of being “dry”, “arid”, and devoid of the vitality of earlier Reformation preaching. This is allegedly a result of its rationalism and divorce from the earlier spiritual concerns of its forebears. Muller points out that much of this is, in fact, an issue of style.

First off, much of the actual material is not dry and is quite concerned with the life of piety. Even in the most technical works, you’ll usually get a section on the pastoral “use” of even the most abstruse doctrines. All the same, in their systems, the Orthodox were often writing for the academy, in an institutional setting for the training of students, and so their systems are not always reflective of their popular works or preaching. Even today textbooks are very often more technical and boring than sermons.

Reading Turretin and Thomas Watson this year has been instructive for me in this regard. Watson’s work a Body of Practical Divinity is a work of “homiletical” theology, sermons commenting on the catechism. Turretin’s is an apologetic, technical work. While I’d be hard-pressed to find major theological differences between them–indeed, Watson’s distinctions can be quite scholastic–their styles can seem far apart. Watson sings and Turretin, with a few exceptions, lectures. One lively and pietistic, the other dry and academic, but the difference here is one of method and genre, not theology.

Exegetically-Focused. One of the major criticisms of the Scholastics is that much of their theology is just Aristotle or some other metaphysician baptized. It’s the “Greek” charge in a lot of ways, simply applied a thousand years later. Instead of the “biblical” theology of Calvin and Luther, the scholastics abandoned their principled, textual basis and returned to abstract speculation to construct their doctrines of God and the decree. The problem with that is the actual texts of the scholastics. While it’s true that many did return to retrieve certain categories from the medievals in order to sharpen up some doctrines that the Reformers didn’t do as much work with, it’s hardly the case that we’ve got just a bunch of metaphysical logic-chopping.

As Muller points out, before they wrote their systems, most of the Reformed scholastics taught Scripture, wrote commentaries, preached, and trained heavily in the humanistic study of languages and rhetoric. Read one of Turretin’s questions and you’ll see references to texts in their historic contexts, typology, Rabbinic exegesis, and knotty linguistic issues. Or on the issue of God’s attributes, it is true that there are a number that can be treated by some theologians in a more philosophical mode, but many are packed to the gills with careful discussions of Scripture references. Beyond that, most systems began with a discussion of the biblical “names” of God as the source of reflection on God’s nature before they even touched the more abstract “attributes.”

Philosophically-Eclectic. Muller has pointed out that while there was a generalized sort of “Aristotelianism” in the intellectual air at the time, that hardly means that the Reformed scholastics were a monolith in this area. In fact, it seems that the Reformed were “eclectic” in philosophical matters. This is true on a number of levels. Some, for instance, were far more skeptical than others of the place that philosophy could play in the formulation of Christian doctrine in subordination to Scripture.

On another level, different types of Reformed theologians drew on different theo-philosophical streams for their reflections. Some drew on Thomas, while others reflected certain emphases found in Duns Scotus or Ockham, and even later, some flirted with Cartesian philosophy. And it was hardly ever a matter of simply taking over distinctions uncritically, but adopting them and adapting them in line with their own reading of Scripture in order to expound the truth of the Scriptures.

Continuity and Discontinuity. Finally, there’s the big issue Muller is concerned to discuss, which is whether or not the Reformed Orthodox systems represented a radical break with the early Reformers or stand in essential continuity, and why that did or didn’t happen.  There are a number of factors that go into answering this question but the answer, in a nutshell, is yes and no.

First, we need to grapple with getting the past right. You have to get it clear in your head that Calvin isn’t the sole benchmark for pure, Reformation theology. He had plenty of colleagues like Musculus, Vermigli, Hyperius, Bucer, Viret, and others, who were also respected, Reformed theologians who played a role in laying the foundation for the Reformed tradition. So continuity can’t just be measured by “What did Calvin say? And did they say the same, exact thing in the same, exact style?” You need to take into account the broader, Reformed context.

Also, it helps to know where and how the Reformers themselves actually differed or didn’t differ from their Medieval forebears. On many questions, there’s a lot of overlap between the two, so they simply don’t address the issue at length. Then the Reformed Scholastics come along and say something that sounds kind of like the Medievals and they get accused of diverging from the Reformers, when it’s more simply a matter of saying louder when the Reformers had basically assumed.

Second, we need to take into account that history happens and new situations call for new responses that aren’t necessarily in opposition to what came before, but may represent a legitimate development. So, when Calvin and Luther were writing, you had the challenges of a new movement fighting for its life with all the vitality, fire, and eclecticism that goes with that. With the Post-Reformation period came the phase of institutionalization needed to preserve and protect the gains made in the Reformation. Hence the rise of the schools and the appropriateness of scholastic development of Reformation theology.

Not only that, many of the arguments shifted over time. In the Post-Reformation period you get a lot more distinctions in certain areas of theology that weren’t treated by the Reformers, mostly because they weren’t up for grabs. So when the Socinian heretics come along and start arguing for a finite God, limited knowledge, rationalist metaphysics and epistemology, and so forth, the Reformed scholastics find themselves with new challenges to be treated. The same thing is true with the growing sophistication of Roman Catholic counter-arguments, as well as certain areas of dispute with the Lutherans such as the sacraments. Things got more complicated, so the theology expanded to match it.

There’s more to get into here, but time and again Muller shows that in the early and high periods of Post-Reformation Orthodoxy the scholastics developed the theology of the Reformers in a new context in ways that are both continuous and discontinuous with what came before. Along the way, he shows that there are riches to be mined in the mountains of those dusty, old tomes. Over and over again, I keep thinking to myself that certain contemporary “advances” are only beginning to catch up to the clarity and sophistication of the old masters.

Soli Deo Gloria

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things (Or, Dim Reflections)

beautyI don’t know where I first heard it put this way, but one point that has stuck with me and that I regularly preach to my students is this: God is better than anything he’s made. Now, as soon as you say it, you’re struck with how utterly obvious that should be. Whatever produces something ought to have more beauty, intelligence, power, and so forth, than its production. As beautiful as a Monet is, Monet himself is the far more remarkable creature. But we don’t often think through the implications for our worship of God.

Whatever you love most–sunsets, the taste of your favorite burger, sides aching from laughter with your best friend, the lingering sense of fulfillment after a job well done, the feel of a crisp winter morning–takes its goodness from the goodness of the God who made it. He is the creative and sustaining current source of its being–how could he not surpass it? What’s more, how could that not impact the way you engage with the world around you, leading you to greater depths of worship and devotion?

Thomas Watson, in his section on God’s creation, reflects on the way we ought to makes use of this point:

Did God make this glorious world? Did he make everything good? Was there in the creature so much beauty and sweetness? Oh! then what sweetness is there in God? Quicquid efficit tale, illud est magis tale; ‘the cause is always more noble than the effect.’ Think with yourselves, is there so much excellence in house and lands? Then how much more is there in God, that made them! Is there beauty in a rose? What beauty then is there in Christ, the Rose of Sharon! Does oil make the face shine? Psa 104:15. How will the light of God’s countenance make it shine! Does wine cheer the heart? Oh! what virtue is there in the true vine! How does the blood of this grape cheer the heart! Is the fruit of the garden sweet? How delicious are the fruits of the Spirit! Is a gold mine so precious? How precious is he who founded this mine! What is Christ, in whom are hid all treasures? Col 2:3. We should ascend from the creature to the Creator. If there be any comfort below, how much more is there in God, who made all these things! How unreasonable is it that we should delight in the world, and not much more in him that made it! How should our hearts be set on God, and how should we long to be with God, who has infinitely more sweetness in him than any creature!

God created the world to display his glory. If you, then, find your worship of God weak, or desire for him failing, reflect on those things that you love most in this world. Now compare them to God and strive to understand the way that your enjoyment of that good–that rose, that old, well-worn path, that beloved friend–is just a dim reflection of it’s author. Look at the world, then, with new eyes, attuned to the infinitely greater beauty, delight, goodness, justice, and power of its Author and Sustainer.

Soli Deo Gloria

Lord, Have Mercy (12 Theses on the Mercy of God)

mercyA Christian cannot dwell too much on the mercy of God. God is infinite and as such, so is his mercy. We cannot come to an end of it. God is good and his goodness towards sinners in our misery, weakness, and rebellion takes the form of mercy. Mercy that forgives. Mercy that blesses. Mercy that treats us gently. Mercy that covers all–yes, even that unspeakable shame you dare not mention to the closest friend. Mercy that gives new life to sinners who have thrown theirs away, pursuing it in a million different broken cisterns instead of drawing from the freely-proffered fountain of life. The good news of the gospel is that the Triune God has shown us mercy in Christ. It doesn’t get more basic than that.

And yet, all too often in the practical Christian life, we don’t give it more than a passing thought. This might strike some as strange of me to say. Many of us can think of any number of Christians who regularly appeal to the mercy of God to excuse, or justify their sinful wanderings or lack of seriousness in the Christian life. But you have to see that’s not the same thing as “dwelling”, or giving serious thought to the mercy of God. That’s a juvenile confusion of mercy with careless license. Anyone who has given thought to the mercy of God cannot treat it lightly.

Considering the mercy of God with prayer and in the Spirit leads to repentance and deep, faithful, love. That’s precisely why Paul begs the Romans to offer their bodies as living sacrifices as a reasonable act of worship, “in view of God’s mercy.” After eleven chapters of outlining God’s mercy through the God’s faithfulness to his creation, his promises to Israel, and the whole world–including sinners under judgment–Paul thinks it’s eminently reasonable to call his readers to holy, faithful living, with no thought that this should provoke license or apathy.

With that in mind, then, it seems helpful to outline some thoughts on the mercy of God. And by “outline”, I mean “quote Thomas Watson” who very helpfully laid out twelve theses on mercy in his Body of Practical Divinity. (And if you’re wondering, yes, I am on a Watson kick because WHERE THE HECK HAVE PEOPLE BEEN HIDING HIM THIS IS AMAZING STUFF!!!!).

His theses will come in italics, then I’ll offer commentary. But honestly, you should go read it here, because Watson is just a preaching beast. I mean, he’s got one-liners for days like, “The sun is not so full of light as God is full of mercy.” Really, he’s just so good.

Alright, so the twelve theses.

[1] It is the great design of the Scripture to represent God as merciful.  For Watson, the whole narrative points up God the merciful redeemer. When God gives Moses his name in Exodus and recounted later on, God heaps up the merciful adjectives (slow to anger, compassionate, forgiving, etc), but only one or two concerned with judgment (by no means clearing the guilty).

[2] God is more inclinable to mercy than wrath. Luther called wrath God’s “alien work.” It’s foreign to him. He only punishes when his hand his forced. His mercy, though? It’s offered before we even think to ask for it. Get that through your head: God’s mercy towards you was God’s idea.

[3] There is no condition, but we may spy mercy in it. Even in our darkest moments, the roughest situations of persecution and misery, we are able to see God’s mercy at work to save and bless his children.

[4] Mercy sweetens all God’s other attributes. Holiness or justice without mercy is a threat. That’s judgment waiting to happen. But with mercy? They are sweet comforts.

[5] God’s mercy is one of the most orient pearls of his crown; it makes his Godhead appear amiable and lovely. Watson points out that when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God says he’s going to make his goodness pass before him and “show you my mercy” (Exod 33:19). Mercy is God’s glory.

[6] Even the worst taste God’s mercy; such as fight against God’s mercy, taste of it; the wicked have some crumbs from mercy’s table. God makes his sun shine on the good and the bad, gives oxygen to both those who praise him, as well as those who curse his name. Everyone has experienced God’s mercy.

[7] Mercy coming to us in a covenant is sweetest. Common mercy is great, but the specific mercy we receive through the work of Christ is the sweetest. Sunshine is fine, but forgiveness, adoption, and justification, are beautiful works of mercy surpassing all of the rest.

[8] One act of mercy engages God to another.  Some might think that God’s mercy is a one-time thing. But, in fact, God’s mercy is more like a domino set. Election leads to justification leads to holiness leads to glorification. A parent keeps giving.

[9] All the mercy in the creature is derived from God, and is but a drop of this ocean. Every act of mercy you’ve ever encountered is actually provoked by the God who is the source of all mercy. It is God working mercy through human servants. And it’s just the tiniest glimpse of the reservoirs of mercy he has ready to pour out.

[10] As God’s mercy makes the saints happy, so it should make them humble. Saints don’t swagger, they rejoice. Acknowledging your need for mercy should be a humbling reality. Plus, you should be too busy praising God for his mercy than to be bragging about your own non-existent awesomeness compared to others.

[11] Mercy stays the speedy execution of God’s justice. That people aren’t currently being punished is not a sign of God’s weakness, nor the inevitability of judgment for unrepentant sin. It’s God’s kindness and a sign of his willingness that we should repent.

[12] It is dreadful to have mercy as a witness against anyone. His final thesis is one of warning. When you’ve made an enemy, even of mercy, then you’re hosed. Mercy is your only hope. Don’t fight it.

Watson continues on with the various uses this doctrine has for those who consider it length. It draws us into greater love of God, confidence of our salvation, and works of mercy towards others which demonstrate the glory of God’s mercy in our own lives. I would urge you today: consider the mercies of God, rest in them, and praise him.

Soli Deo Gloria

God is a Spiritual Being. But What Does that Even Mean?

sinai

Israel never saw God’s form at Sinai, only smoke, fire, and lightning.

Q-4: What is God?

A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

-Westminster Shorter Catechism

I don’t think most of us give thought to the fact that God is a Spirit (John 4:24). I know I hadn’t much until I was forced to think through some of the metaphysics of spiritual beings in my class on medieval philosophy in college (Angels, Humans, and Evil, I think it was called). In any case, we discussed the differences between angels and humans (at least according to Aquinas) and one of the main ones was that angels are pure spirits, intelligences with no bodies. So what does it mean for God to be spiritual?

Thomas Watson, in his sermon commenting on this question in Body of Practical Divinity states:

By a spirit I mean, God is an immaterial substance, of a pure, subtile, unmixed essence, not compounded of body and soul, without all extension of parts.

God being spirit means that God is not material, not bodily, not made up of parts you can pull apart and put back together. Sounds simple enough.

Angels and Souls are Spiritual, though, too? Some Clarifications

Still, if this is what it means for God to be spiritual, then that raises the question that occurred to me in college. If God is an immaterial substance, and angels are immaterial substances, what distinguishes them? Is God just bigger? Do they run into each others? What’s the difference? Watson, again, anticipates the question:

The angels are spirits. We must distinguish spirits. The angels are created, God is a Spirit uncreated. The angels are finite, and capable of being annihilated; the same power which made them is able to reduce them to their first nothing; but God is an infinite Spirit. The angels are confined spirits, they cannot be duobus locis simul, but are confined to a place; but God is an immense Spirit, and in all places at once. The angels, though spirits, are but ministering spirits (Heb 1:14). Though they are spirits, they are servants. God is a super-excellent Spirit, the Father of spirits (Heb 12:2).

So, apparently, there are a few. First, and most important is that God is Creator and angels are created. For that reason, God infinite, without boundaries or limits to his power, location, or anything else. Angels are still created beings, finite in knowledge, power, and yes, even location. They are upheld in their existence by God at every moment and could wink out of existence should he decide to remove his hand. In Christian theology, you always have to reckon with the Creator/creature distinction. Mess with that, and just about everything else falls out of place.

Okay, well, what about human souls? Sure, humans are soul + body, but what if I’m feeling extra dualist today and I want to play up the spirituality of the soul? What distinguishes human spirits from God’s Spirit, especially since humans are God’s Image. Apparently heretics like Osiander and Servetus actually thought the soul was the essence of God communicated to human beings. Watson says that’s silly. We’re made in his “image and likeness.” God’s essence is incommunicable, but “When it is said the soul is a spirit, it means that God has made it intelligible, and stamped upon it his likeness, not his essence.”

But what about this whole “partakers of the divine nature” business in 2 Peter 1:4? Well, here Watson gives a standard Reformed response:

We are made partakers of the divine nature, not by identity or union with the divine essence, but by a transformation into the divine likeness.

Okay, that’s clear enough so far. But say I know my Old Testament pretty well. Do you know how often we read about people seeing God walking around, using his hands, sitting on a throne, and all kinds of corporeal, physical stuff? Well, yes, I do. And so does Watson. In response to that charge made by a party named the “Anthropomorphites” who believe that God has a physical body, he gives their exegesis and hermeneutics a little tune-up.

First, he lays out the clearer statements of Scripture about the nature of bodies and spirits according to Jesus and the rest of Scripture:

It is contrary to the nature of a spirit to have a corporeal substance. ‘Handle me, and see me: for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ (Luke 24:49)…Now that God is a Spirit, and is not capable of bodily shape or substance, is clear, for a body is visible, but God is invisible; therefore he is a Spirit. ‘Whom no man has seen, nor can see’ (I Tim 6:16.), not by an eye of sense. A body is terminated, can be but in one place at once, but God is everywhere, in all places at once; therefore he is a Spirit (Psa 139:9, 8.). God’s centre is everywhere, and his circumference is nowhere. A body being compounded of integral parts may be dissolved; quicquid divisibile est corruptibile: but the Godhead is not capable of dissolution, he can have no end from whom all things have their beginning. So that it clearly appears that God is a Spirit, which adds to the perfection of his nature.

If this is true, then what are we to do with the language of Scripture?

Bodily members are ascribed to God, not properly, but metaphorically, and in a borrowed sense. By the right hand of the Lord is meant his power; by the eyes of the Lord is meant his wisdom.

This is an example of allowing Scripture to clarify Scripture, using the direct statements on the nature of bodies and so forth, to then set the parameters for how we read other texts. On this reading, Scripture gives a clear directive to read these passages as communicating truth, but figuratively, not literally. Again, that seems simple enough.

But Why Does it Matter?

Okay, with all that said, who cares? Why is the “spirituality” of God an important point to understand? It doesn’t immediately seem to be emphasized in Scripture, even if it seems to be taught. Of what use is it for us to know and dwell on this reality?

Well, for starters, that’s one of those things that makes the Incarnation all that more amazing. The God who is immaterial, unbounded, and so forth, deigns, in Christ, to assume or add to himself a body, which is not natural to him. That’s just part of the glory of the Gospel–God becomes what is not God in order to reconcile us to himself.

But Watson presses beyond this to draw out a number of implications I can only briefly touch on.

First, Watson says that if God is spiritual, that means he’s impassible–not capable of being harmed, overcome, or anything human foes might think to do to him. What are you going to do? Chuck a spear at him? His essence is beyond all harm. That is grounds for worship and comfort.

Second, if God is Spirit, then Watson thinks that should put image-worship or veneration to bed. God is Spirit and no likeness of him can be made suitable to his perfection.

 ‘To whom then will ye liken God, or what likeness will ye compare unto him?’ (Isa 40:18)How can you paint the Deity? Can we make an image of that which we never saw? Ye saw no similitude. God is a Spirit.

How are we to worship and conceive of him, then? Here Watson gives a Christologically-focused answer:

We must conceive of him spiritually. In his attributes; his holiness, justice, and goodness, which are the beams by which his divine nature shines forth. We must conceive of him as he is in Christ. ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15). Set the eyes of your faith on Christ as God-man. In Christ we see some sparklings of the divine glory; in him there is the exact resemblance of all his Father’s excellencies. The wisdom, love, and holiness of God the Father, shine forth in Christ.‘He that has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:4).

Third, “If God be a Spirit, it shows us, that the more spiritual we grow, the more we grow like to God.” To turn your eyes to God and your desires to the heavens away from mere earthly concerns is to grow in the likeness of God.

Fourth, God’s being a Spirit means that our worship ought to spiritual too. For Watson that means a number of things. (1) Worship is without ceremonies, as the OT ceremonies have been abrogated, so why return to the shadows with man-made replacements? (2) It is to worship him with faith in the blood of the Messiah, with zeal, with prayer, with true consecration, without the vain pretenses of outward shows.

Fifth, this should move us to ask for the Spirit that we may become more spiritual:

The essence of God is incommunicable; but not the motions, the presence and influences of his Spirit. When the sun shines in a room, not the body of the sun is there, but the light, heat, and influence of the sun.

Sixth, Watson reminds us that if God is Spiritual, shouldn’t we expect his blessings to be spiritual?

This may comfort a Christian in all his labours and sufferings; he lays out himself for God, and has little or no reward here; but remember, God, who is a Spirit, will give spiritual rewards, a sight of his face in heaven, white robes, a weight of glory. Be not then weary of God’s service; think of the spiritual reward, a crown of glory which fadeth not away

We neglect the spiritual nature of God to our own detriment. We miss out on part of the glory of Jesus in the gospel, the nature of true worship, and so much more.

Watson’s meditations remind us, once again, that everything about God is worthy of worship. Nothing we learn about Father, Son, and Spirit can fail to contribute to our love of God or his glory if we think it through with care and prayer.

Soli Deo Gloria