3 Principles For Those Times When Theologians and Scientists Disagree

every square inchOne of my favorite clips from pretty much any movie ever comes from the cinematic masterpiece Nacho Libre. When Nacho encourages his luchador partner Eskeleto to pray to the Lord for strength, much to everyone’s surprise, he says, “I don’t believe in God—I believe in science.” It’s hilariously simplistic, but it’s reflective of one of the silly dichotomies too many of our students in the church as well as the broader culture still buy into on a regular basis.

Many of us intuitively feel there’s something wrong with that. Still, when it comes to wrestling with the many apparent conflicts between what we were taught in Sunday School and what we learned in our freshman biology class, we’re often at a loss for how to think of these conflicts. Is it really a matter of science versus faith? Blind faith or intellectual honesty? Obviously I don’t think that’s the case, or I wouldn’t still be a Christian.

Over the years of study, I’ve read enough good apologetics and works of philosophy to feel satisfied knowing that whatever new challenges are proposed, there’s eventually going to be some answer forthcoming. Indeed, I believe we’ve got a number of reasons for thinking that the practice of science is best supported on something like a Christian worldview, with its belief in a regular, orderly universe, created by God to be intelligible to the human intellect. Indeed, ultimately there can be no conflict between the truths of theology and the truths of the hard sciences, as God is the author of their shared reality.

That said, it’s always good to have some basic principles in mind when thinking about those moments when it seems that our best scientist and our best theologians do conflict.

Bruce Riley Ashford provides us with a few such principles in his excellent little introduction to a Reformed theology of culture Every Square Inch. (Check out Trevin Wax’s interview with him here.) Towards the end of his chapter on the Christian motivation to engage the sciences (pp. 84-86), he reminds us of three pertinent facts to keep in mind.

  1. “Either group (theologians or scientists) can err; for that reason, either group should be open to correction.” Theologians and biblical commentators have been wrong in their interpretations before. Mistaking metaphorical language for literalistic descriptions of reality and vice versa, there have certainly been cases of over-interpretation of biblical texts, taking them to teach something far more specific than they were intended to. On the flipside, all you have to do is read a short history of science to see how many different scientific paradigms we’ve gone through to explain gravitational force, the orbit of the planets, and so forth to know that we’ve gotten things wrong before.
  1. “The Bible is not a science book.” I know this is rather obvious to many, but the Bible was not written as a biology text book. There are areas where it makes claims about the physical universe and so forth, but by and large, we’re missing the point if we’re reading it as a guide to physics, chemistry, and so forth. It’s God’s covenant document revealing his character, doings, aims, and intentions towards his people in Christ. This is why we need to be rather careful about over-determining our interpretation of the text in the direction of any particular scientific theory. That’s not what the book is for, so using it for that end leaves it liable to abuse and an unfortunate discreditation in the eyes of those who know the shape of the science it allegedly contradicts.
  1. “Science is constantly changing.” As we already said, scientists have changed their minds about all sorts of things. Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Planck, Einstein. Just run down the list of astronomers and early scientists who modified, tweaked, or overturned each other’s pictures of the universe and you see this to be true. Thomas Kuhn’s famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions probably overstates his thesis about the new worlds that scientists inhabit when they change their models of understanding the world, but it’s instructive on this point. Even the most secure science—models that are fairly unquestioned in their respective fields for decades—are susceptible to revision. For that reason, Christians need to make sure they’re not too hasty revising their interpretations of Scripture or fundamental doctrines to fit some study that emerged only in the last 5 years and could be overturned next Tuesday.

Obviously, these principles aren’t some easy formula that we plug every problem into and get a clean, easy answer. But we shouldn’t really expect that, should we? Theology and the sciences both deal with reality and reality isn’t clean and easy. That said, these are the sort of broad, wise principles that allow us to proceed in our analysis with care, wisdom, and fidelity to God’s Word and without ignoring what we find in our study of God’s good world.

Are You a Curious or a Studious Theology Student?

Domain of the wordIn the Christian tradition, curiosity has always been considered a vice. That’s surprising to most of us used to the more modern sense of the term. For many of us it tends to mean something like inquisitiveness or a thirst for knowledge. To call curiosity a vice would seem like another line of argument for seeing the Christian tradition as fundamentally anti-intellectual and hostile to questions. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding, however.

In his essay ‘Curiosity’, John Webster–the theologian’s theologian–claims that, “Christian theological intelligence is exercised in the conflict between studiousness and the vice of curiosity” (The Domain of the Word, pg. 193).

Curiosity, then, has a positive counterpart in the form of the virtue of “studiousness.” Indeed, Webster says we can only know what curiosity is as a deviation or perversion of studiousness since vices have no positive reality of their own. To condemn curiosity, then, is not to condemn reason or thought wholesale, but its perversion by sin and idolatry.

But how should we understand these twinned realities? What is it that relates the two and what separates them? As I begin my Ph.D. courses, I’ve been giving some thought to the point of my studies. Just why exactly am I doing what I’m doing and how should I be doing it? And also, how should I not be approaching them? Webster’s reflections in this essay have been stimulating and helpful to me, so I figured I’d summarize and highlight some quickish thoughts for the benefit of other theological students, whether in school or not, pastoral or lay.

Studiousness

According to Webster, studiousness and curiosity are related in that they are both movements of our intelligence to “come to know” that which we don’t know. But the motive and the means of these relationships to unknown knowledge are what distinguishes them.

So what is studiousness? Well, it “is a strenuous application of the power of the creaturely intellect” to figure something out for the first time, or understand something better than you did before. Studiousness is a virtue particular to created beings who can come to know as opposed to God who just knows because he knows. Our way of knowing requires effort, energy, and time–as do all the activities of finite, embodied beings. “God, in short, knows as the uncreated one, creatures know as creatures” (194).

Furthermore, studiousness is the way the “well-ordered creaturely intellect” comes to know things. According to Webster, that involves at least two things. First, it means “earnest, arduous application of the mind.” It is an activity in the fullest sense of the word. Studiousness recognizes that knowledge doesn’t simply happen to you. Second, “it is a reflective” activity that can be judged according to standards of excellence that are intellectual and moral. Intellectually it is an activity that must treat the object of study with respect and integrity, coming to its conclusions, its representations, without undue haste or carelessness (195).

Morally, we come to the fact that studiousness is related to the very natural desire to come to know. And this is where Webster says “an element of ambivalence” can enter in.

Curiosity

Using the language of Aristotle and Aquinas, Webster states: “Curiosity results from the corruption of intellectual appetite”(195). Indeed, he quotes Aquinas who says, “curiosity does not lie in the knowing precisely but in the appetite and hankering to find out.”

From here, Webster gives us four of the “elements” of curiosity, which I can only briefly touch on.

First, curiosity is a corruption in that it aims at improper objects of new knowledge. It strains to know what it is not appropriate for it to know. It refuses to acknowledge the creaturely limit and wants to know “as God knows”, or to focus on those things which God has given it to know. Curiosity sits in the garden devising ways always to snag the one fruit that’s off-limits (195-196).

Second, it’s a way of learning about the world, to created realities, without referring them to their Creator. It’s a sort of “lust of the flesh” (1 Jn. 2:16) applied to knowledge; it is a desire to know things without pushing on to see their relation to God and his glory (196). It is a Romans 1 reality, in that sense.

Third, curiosity “is a deformation of the manner or mode of intelligence, when the movement of coming-to-know takes place inordinately, indiscriminately, and pridefully” (196). In other words, wanting to know can become an addiction to the rush of learning new things so that you end up neglecting other goods, crossing lines, and so forth. Intellectual greed also leads you to get caught up less in the truth or goodness than the “novelty of the object of new knowledge.” Or, again, curiosity leads to self-satisfied pride in our exceptional intelligence the more we come to find out.

Fourth, related to the last, curiosity chases knowledge for wrong ends. Either to puff yourself up, to use it for your own gain or power, or other unrighteous ends. Even good study can fall under “curiosity” if aimed at your own pride.

What Does Curiosity Look Like in Theology?

Next Webster examines the ways and reasons that curiosity can enter into the spiritual work of theological study.

First, curiosity creeps into theology when we forget the “location and situation” of our work. “Theology takes place in a sphere in which God the teacher is lovingly present to reconciled creatures, summoning the intellect to attentiveness and learning” (198). Curiosity forgets this and leads us to study, not in response to God’s prior direction, but as an independent exercise of intellectual acquisition (198).

Second, curiosity in theology leads to a certain restlessness that gives pride of place to the novel, the “creative”, and cannot follow the particular course theology should take. In a word, faddishness (198).

Third, curiosity “stops short at surfaces.” There are a lot of disciplines to master in theology (text-based, historical, etc). Webster says that all of these phenomena, though, serve to point beyond themselves as signs towards God. Curiosity can get caught up in the signs for their own sake instead of pushing onwards towards the theological end, which is to know God. In other words, it’s the kind of study of the Bible that gets caught up in historical minutiae of the text, trying on novel interpretations and grammatical innovations, all the while forgetting that the point of studying Scripture is to hear the voice of God (198).

Fourth, curiosity corrupts the character of theological work by leading us into pride, or the drive towards individualistic advancement, or a separation of theological study from the “common life of the church”(199).

Fifth, curiosity forgets the chief goals of theology which are “contemplative and apostolic.” Theology aims at delight in God. As such, it is apostolic because this truth is lovingly spoken to others that they might be built up and not fall into error. Curiosity aims only at itself and so curves inwards.

How to Avoid Curiosity in Theology?

Well, Webster is very clear that avoiding curiosity requires the work of the Holy Spirit who gives the gift of temperance, restraint, only with the new birth as a person is remade in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). The Holy Spirit redeems, perfects, and redirects created minds, bringing them out of their prideful, lusting alienation from the life of God by the gift of a new, regenerated nature conformed to the image of the Son (Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10; 199-200).

According to Webster:

Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification. (200)

Theology is the only discipline where the object study is your only, ultimate hope in doing it well. Webster notes three dimensions to this.

First, “immoderate desire” for novelty in coming to know can only be curbed if theological students come to recognize their place in the “pedagogy of divine grace.” In other words, “The grace of God has appeared…training us” (Tit. 2:11). We need to understand our study as a work taking place in the space of grace opened up by the grace of God in Christ and the work of the Spirit which sanctifies our reason. This is why:

The saints lack curiosity; but they are eagerly studious, devoted to acquiring the knowledge proffered by divine revelation. In theology, the affections, will and intellect are ‘fixed’ on the ‘ways’ of God (Ps. 119.15), ‘delighting in’ and ‘cleaving to’ the divine testimonies (Ps. 119.24), turned from ‘vanities’ (Ps. 119.37) in order to ‘meditate’ on the divine law (Ps. 119.48), eager to be taught knowledge (Ps. 119.66). Such is the studious theological intellect sanctified and schooled by divine grace. (201)

Second, curiosity fades when theologians devote themselves “to a singular matter with a definite interest.” It’s not so much that theology restricts itself to a few subjects, but that it learns to relate all subjects to the one subject it’s supposed to be directing everything towards: God and his works in the history of redemption. This maintains its focus as a “single science” instead of a disconnected study of whatever happens to interest us at the moment (201).

Third, directing theology towards its ultimate goal, the love of God, “mortifies” curiosity. Focusing on the self-communicating love of God cuts at the natural selfishness of curiosity, as it continually draws us out beyond ourselves into the love of God and our neighbor (202).

To cap it off, Webster closes with a prayer from Aquinas, “Ante Studium” (HT: David Bunce):

Ineffable Creator . . . You are proclaimed the true font of light and wisdom, and the primal origin raised high beyond all things. Pour forth a ray of your brightness into the darkened places of our minds; disperse from our souls the twofold darkness of sin and ignorance. You make eloquent the tongues of infants: refi ne our speech and pour forth upon our lips he goodness of your blessing. Grant to us keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech. May you guide the beginning of our work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion, for you are true God and true Man, who live and reign, world without end.

Soli Deo Gloria

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