STAHP Confusing Physics with Metaphysics

remthologizing“Well, according to quantum physics we now know that God’s activity in the world must be…”

“Biology has taught us about the human anatomy so our Christology needs to reckon with…”

“In light of our knowledge of emergent properties…”

Ever hear something like this in a conversation, or on a blog somewhere? Statements of this sort are among my least favorite to run across in a modern or contemporary text in theology. In our contemporary context, many are concerned to participate in the growing dialogue between the physical sciences and the science of theology, trying to figure out how to relate the two properly. Given that the reality of God speaks to every dimension of reality, spiritual as well as material, I can appreciate the intent. The problem is that many attempt the task without the proper philosophical, biblical, or theological categories in place, which leads to a confused view of God’s activity in the world.

One common place where this occurs is in conversations with some sorts of relational theists, panentheists, process theists who argue that God restrains himself from too much intervention in the world, or restricts it to a limited “persuasive” sort. One given reason is that for God to intervene too much in the physical world, that would disrupt the natural order, rendering his action coercive and, therefore, unloving. While there are numerous mistakes involved in this sort of view, Kevin Vanhoozer points out that there is one basic mistake underlying them all:

Underlying this categorial confusion of Creator and creation stands a metaphysical postulate that reduces what is logically possible for God to what is physically possible in the natural order. It is precisely this metaphysical postulate that leads some panentheists to dismiss divine interventionism  on the grounds that such divine action competes with and, at the limit, negates the natural order: “The category mistake is thus a confusion between natural causality and divine action.”  When it comes to the God–world relation, however,  there is no competition,  for the relation is enveloped by an even greater Creator–creation distinction: “For no similarity can be asserted between creature and creator unless an even greater dissimilarity is included.”  –Remythologizing Theology, pg 168

At core, it is a failure to properly reckon with Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” As the Creator of all reality besides himself, God is the transcendent Lord of all reality besides himself. He is not in competition with it, but upholds it by his very word. He is not on an even playing field with the rest of reality, but sustains the playing field in existence.

I was reminded of this point by several passages in Turretin’s discussion of the nature of theology in the first subject of his Institutes. In several places, he makes salient points that ought to be kept in mind as well attempt to think of reality in light of God and vice versa.

First, we have to understand the way that theology studies the reality of the world and God. Each science or area of study takes its cues for how it knows on the basis of what its object is, but also on the way it approaches the object.

Although physics, ethics, and medicine treat of the subject, they do not cease to be distinct sciences because they consider man in different relations: physics as a species of natural body; ethics as capacious of virtue and happiness; medicine as curable from diseases and restorable to health. Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics, and ethics, yet the mode of considering is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature, but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation. It treats of creatures not as things of nature, but of God (i.e., as holding a relation and order to God as their Creator, preserver, and Redeemer). (Topic 1., Qu.5, V.)

Theological approaches to the relationship between theology and science need to remember their own particular mode of study.

Next, theological approaches to the problem need to remember the limits of reason with respect to God’s power. Turretin affirms the place of reason, and even the judgment of contradiction in the theology, especially since Scripture itself authorizes that. Nonetheless:

Although the judgment of contradiction is allowed to reason in matters of faith, it does not follow that the human intellect becomes the rule of divine power (as if God could not do more things than human reason can conceive). God’s being able to do something above nature and human conception (which is said with truth in Eph. 3:30) is different from his being able to do something contrary to nature and the principles of natural religion (which is most false). Nor is the power of God in this manner limited by the rule of our intellect, but our mind judges from the word what (according to the nature of a thing established by God ) may be called possible and impossible. (Topic 1, Qu.XI, XIV)

Human reason’s reach can only go so far, but we must remember that the power of God can extend much farther. He is the author of our reason and so is transcendent of it, as are his works. That said, it’s not simply the case that what theology teaches simply contradicts what is in the sciences or philosophy and we mustn’t worry about the relation between the two. It is a matter of thinking clearly about which order or of reality we’re speaking of.

Although theology teaches many things which philosophy knows not, it does not follow that a thing may be false in philosophy which is true in theology because truth is not at variance with truth, nor is light opposed with light. But care must be taken that philosophical truths be not extended beyond their own sphere and the ordinary powers of nature to those things which are supernatural revelation and power; that the physical be not confounded with the hyperphysical or human with divine things. For example, it is true in philosophy that a virgin cannot bring forth, that a heavy body is carried downwards, that fire burns matter placed in contact with it, that from nothing, nothing can come–the contraries of which theology maintains. But they are not on this account opposed to each others because these things are spoken of in different relations. In philosophy, they are denied with reference to the laws of nature, but in theology they are affirmed with reference to divine omnipotence and supernaturally. -(Topic 1, Qu. XIII, XII)

In other words, we have to let the Creator/creation divide properly frame our thought on God and the sciences. As always, whenever the Creator and the creature are confused, mixed, or held under the same category, the darkening of reason follows (Romans 1).

Soli Deo Gloria

Turretin, Mapping Out Theologies, and Spiritual Map-Making

I just wrote about my 2014 theology reading project through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. It was a formative experience that I still haven’t fully processed, but after a week or two out, I found I needed to begin my new endeavour: Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Throughout 2015, I aim to knock out Turretin’s masterpiece through a very imprecise reading program that will be likely of no use to anybody else but myself. I picked Turretin’s work on the recommendation of theologian type friends I trust, the fact that it was one of the standard Reformed textbooks in theology since its writing up until Hodge cranked out his magnum opus, and the itch to finally jump into one of the Post-Reformation Dogmaticians and see what all the fuss is about.

A few pages in, it seems the fuss is justified. I’ve only just begun, but I can tell this is going to be challenging, strenuous, but ultimately fruitful undertaking. Or so I hope. While the air is much different here in Turretinville than it was in Bavinck-land (denser and more Latin), it’s bracing in its own way. The elenctic method of question and answer and polemic edge should be a broadening change of pace.

But I didn’t write this post just to chat about my new project. So let’s talk theology. Or rather, types of theology.

Francis-TurretinA Typology of Theology

True to scholastic form, after some more effusive introductions, Turretin gets down to business asking about the nature of theology, whether we should even use the term, defining it, and so forth. In his second question on the subject, he asks whether there is such a thing as theology and, if so, what are its divisions. The first section is interesting simply because many of us would never even think to ask the question, much less argue for it. The part I want to talk about is his division of or mapping out of the types of theology there are, moving along in a logical order, whittling things down to the type of theology you and I participate in. In what follows I’ll try to briefly summarize and explain.

1. False. First, comes the division between false and true theology. Which, intuitively makes sense. If there is true theology, there’s bound to be false theology–theology that gets the truth of God wrong. But before moving on to discussing true theology, Turretin notes different types of false theology.

a. Gentile Myth.  While Turretin doesn’t give them these names, in the first type of false theology, he lumps things like pagan philosophies, mythologies, and cosmogonies recounting the birth of gods, and so forth. The pagans themselves have even subdivided their own theologies into categories like symbolic, mythical, and philosophical.  Whatever their source or mode, these are wholly divorced from the revealed truth of God.

b. Heresy. The second category is that of “infidels” and heretics. First are those who reject Christ, whether Jews or Muslims; they acknowledge one God, but not his Word. Or, there are those heretics who hold on to a great many Christian truths, but are so mixed in with error that in ruins the whole batch like Socinians, “papists” (Turretin’s words, not mine), and so forth.

2. True. Second, we come to true theology. As you might imagine, this can be broken down into categories. And actually, it turns out there are quite a few. 

a.  Archetypal, Or God’s Theology.  First, there is the distinction between “archetypal” and “ectypal” knowledge he inherited from Fransicus Junius. Archetypal knowledge consists of God’s own infinite, perfect, self-knowledge that he alone possesses. That’s right, even God has a theology. It is the “archetype”, the original copy of all knowledge of God.

b. Ectypal, or Creature Theology. From there, we get “ectypal” theology. This second category is finite, creaturely, analogical, derivative, yet true theology. It is “picture” knowledge, or “reflection” knowledge, in that it is drawn from God’s archetypal knowledge, and given to creatures on a level that they can receive it. It is a copy of the original, but a good copy nonetheless. Now, even this knowledge can be split up further in three types.

i.  Vision. First, is the knowledge of “vision.” This is is the kind of knowledge or theology of God that created beings have by direct sight of God. In other words, this is what angels and saints in heaven have, and we will have upon God’s return. It’s perfect, ectypal theology.

ii. Union. Second, there is a unique, middle kind of ectypal knowledge had by way of “union”, and it’s only possessor is the Godman, Jesus Christ. In other words, this is the theology that Jesus had in his human soul, by way of the hypostatic union of natures. Jesus was fully human, and yet, fully God, so it figures he’d have his own arrangement concerning knowledge of God going. Also, this is perfect, ectypal theology too. (And, just to be clear, on top of this, in his Divine nature, the Son continues to possess archetypal knowledge too.)

iii. Pilgrim or Revealed. Finally, we get to the kind of theology you and I as Christians have, which can be termed either “pilgrim” theology, or a theology of revelation. It’s a pilgrim theology because it’s the kind of theology, or knowledge of God, you pick up along the way. It is “revealed” theology because it’s the kind that you get by God revealing himself, showing you himself and you taking by faith. This is imperfect (but not inaccurate), ectypal theology. It’s a theology of promise, not fulfillment. We know in part, not in whole. Or, we may say that compared to the theology of “vision” had by sight, this is theology we have by faith or trust.

Now, as you may have begun to suspect, there are even further subdivisions.

1. Natural. Alright, next, there is what we can call “natural” theology. Note, even before I begin, this is still a subdivision of the theology of revelation. Even “natural” knowledge of God, is revealed to us by God himself. The question is the way God goes about revealing himself. This kind of theology comes about through an “innate” capacity to know and understand God, as well as process of receiving and acquiring it through experience and reason. This is the kind of theology is the kind that Adam had in the Garden before the fall. We currently can have this, but it’s extremely confused, and disordered through sin and idolatry. Think of it as light refracted through a broken mirror. It’s there, but it’s mangled.

2. Supernatural. Second, is “supernatural”, or special revelation. Somewhat obviously, this is the kind of theology and knowledge we come by through God’s supernatural means. It is beyond our natural grasp (reason, experience, etc.) and can come to us only through the special action of God via prophecy, inspiration of Scripture, theophanies, and so forth. This is the kind of knowledge that saints in the Old Testament had, Israel’s ‘revealed’ religion, as well as the special revelation of the New Testament. It is a “divine revelation strictly taken and made through the word, not through creatures.”

Turretin goes on from there to speak of even a couple further subdivisions of supernatural theology, the modes of acquiring theological knowledge, it’s nature as a science, and the overall unity of theology’s subject matter.

mapsTheology as Spiritual Mapmaking

Now, I summarized all of this, yes, because it’s kind of fun to lay everything out in a chart like that, but also because I think it’s helpful for us in our thinking about what exactly we’re doing when we’re writing and thinking through our theology. It helps clarify where we’re situated as theological thinkers and what we can and should expect of the process.

If we look at the whole chart, we’re reminded of a few realities. First, our theology is not God’s theology. There is a boundary between infinite and finite, Creator and creation, which ought to humble us in our endeavors to speak of God and his works. What’s more, of the created theology we do have, we have the theology suited to pilgrims. We do not yet see what we might, or what we will, but only what God gives us for the journey.

As I think of the idea of pilgrim theology, I’m reminded of the work of two thinkers who both suggested we ought to think of theology as a sort of map: C.S. Lewis and Kevin Vanhoozer. Lewis famously wrote of this metaphor in Mere Christianity. In response to the challenge that the science of theology seems like turning from something more real (God himself) to something less real (our ideas of God), he readily conceded some truth to it. Yet, the same thing is true when turning from the ocean, to a map of the ocean and continents. Undoubtedly, the ocean is more real than a piece of coloured paper. And yet the map is still quite valuable, as it is a guide to understanding, navigating, and moving about the ocean.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map.

In The Drama of Doctrine (pp. 295-297), Vanhoozer went a bit further and took the metaphor of “following maps” as a good one for thinking about thinking, especially about God. Very roughly, instead of picturing our knowledge as a series of bricks built one upon the other, we should think of it as maps of reality. Maps are a useful picture in that they have to correspond to reality, they retain the basic shape of things, they are coherent and consistent within themselves, but there is recognition that they’re situated, not extensive photographs of things. They are good, limited, representations of reality that function as guides, orient us to reality, and lead us where we need to go. The metaphor of the map, then seems quite suited to describe the character of our pilgrim theology.

Vanhoozer goes on to point out that God has, in Scripture, given us a divinely-authored collection of maps, an atlas of sorts, that directs us to a proper knowledge of God, salvation, and reality. The practice of systematic theology is our attempt to read the maps, and not only read them, follow their direction towards their proper end. Vanhoozer says, “To walk in the Christian way is to employ the biblical maps so that they direct one to Christ” (297). Theology, then, is spiritual map-making, and, more importantly, map-following. As Turretin will later point out, theology is a mixed discipline that is both theoretical and practical; our theoretical study of God pours forth in our practical worship of God.

May we continue to study the Scriptures, as pilgrims, with grateful humility, attempting, not only to become adequate map-readers and map-makers, but map-followers, as we journey towards Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Reformed Retrieval: The Theology of the Westminster Standards by J.V. Fesko

westminsterAfter two and half years of writing on basically Reformed theology, you’d think I would have moved on from “Reformed-ish” to just straight “Reformed”, right? That’s the joke a couple of online friends of mine have made. As I’ve said before, though, the “ish” on the end of “Reformed” isn’t about being a unique, theological snowflake, autonomously standing apart from the rest, in my wise aloofness. Rather, it’s intended to communicate a certain level of humility, an acknowledgment that I’m still in process, in via, on the way to being “Reformed.” I’m an avid novice, but a novice nonetheless.

That’s why I have a particular appreciation for works like J.V. Fesko’s new book The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological InsightsAfter writing a quick piece on the theology of Scripture and revelation according to the first chapter of the Westminster Confession, I was gifted a copy of Fesko’s work (w/ no obligation for favorable review, etc), and after a couple of months I got to work on it. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I jumped in, I was pleasantly surprised and I managed to blow through it in about a week even though it’s not a very small volume (roughly 400 pages). Aside from my interest in the subject matter, Fesko’s prose is clean and his arguments are strong and clear.

In this work, Fesko, academic dean and professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido California, attempts to give a historical grounding for understanding the theology of the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism). As the confessional standards for most Presbyterian churches for hundreds of years, and the foundation for particular Baptist confessions as well, they have formed something of a standard touchpoint for confessional Reformed theology since their adoption. The problem is that while they’ve been widely read and commented on, Fesko contends that there have been a number of confusions surrounding the theology espoused in the Standards due to the fact that they have typically been read with little attention paid to the historical and theological context. Fesko aims to fill that gap by drawing on recent historical studies and the wealth of new material made available to historical researchers through the digitizing of a plethora of historical sources, in order to shed new light on passages long buried under the weight of anachronism and assumption.

Without going through a full review, I’d like to just highlight a few things to note about this enjoyed.

First, this is not a straightforward commentary on the Confession or the Catechisms. While some chapters are devoted to key chapters in the Confession, often the chapters are on broader theological issues that affect multiple sections in the Confession. On that same note, this is not an introductory theology textbook. Fesko assumes that you have some familiarity with basic Christian theology and even Reformed theology in general. In other words, this is not meant to be handed out to some fresh, new Christian looking to learn the faith for the first time. This is for pastors, seminary students, and serious students of theology.

That said, I actually enjoyed Fesko’s organization because it allowed him to treat the documents in a more holistic fashion, going on at length in discussing some of the more disputed theological issues.

For instance, I appreciated his handling of the Confession’s relationship to the question of particular atonement, or hypothetical universalism. Often-times confused with Amyraldianism, some English theologians like John Davenant put forward a different construction of the decrees that affirmed both the particularity of election while maintaining the universality of the atonement in a way different than what is typically called Amyraldianism. I’m not saying I agree with it, nor that Fesko does, but he presents the disputes in a clear, fair-handed matter that gives the reader a better impression of the broadness of the theological climate at the Westminster Assembly. (For another recent treatment, Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism has a couple helpful chapters on it.)

He does the same thing for the issue of the way the Reformed divines understood the covenant of nature, covenant of grace, and the Mosaic dispensation. Fesko clearly and carefully sets out the variety of views on the subject (somewhere between 3-5 types), while indicating those views which were comfortably held by those who affirmed the documents, and those that were specifically ruled out.

On that note, one emphasis of Fesko’s that I appreciated was the theological diversity of the framers of the Westminster Standards. Reading the Confessions and Catechisms in light of recent theology, it’s easy to take a more narrow view of things, but upon inspection of the minutes of the Assembly, as well as the works of the various theologians cited and in attendance, you begin to appreciate just how diverse things really were, as well as the surprising latitude that was ensconced in the documents at key points.

Fesko also reminds us of the catholicity of the Westminster divines. Actually, one of the more interesting things he does is repeatedly list the various sources cited either in the minutes or the works of the various theologians. The Confession isn’t simply Calvin-redux. Though Calvin was important, the divines quote a bevy of contemporary Reformed, Lutheran, Patristic, and even Medieval and Catholic sources. Bullinger, Bucer, and Calvin feature in the footnotes alongside Aquinas and Ockham, Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine. To be Reformed according to the Standards is not to be parochial. Also, on this point, for those familiar with the arguments of T.F. Torrance and others in the “Calvin against the Calvinists” schools, nor is this a simple degradation or deviation from Calvin’s Christ-centered theology. Fesko’s section demonstrating that that ordo has not overwhelmed the importance of “union with Christ” was very helfpul on this point.

I could go on from there. But, it should be clear by now that this is a very helpful resource for studying and retrieving the theology of the Westminster Standards. Also, for anyone looking to do further digging, either in the secondary, or the primary literature, Fesko has included a very helpful annotated bibliography on top of his extensive footnotes.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Theologian and the “Section Man” (Or, Franny and Zooey Go to Seminary)

franny and zooeyContinuing my foray in literature, I’ve begun reading Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, mostly because it’s on the shelf and Alan Noble is a Salinger fan and I don’t feel like picking up Cormac McCarthy, yet. Of course, this is a huge change of pace from Austen. It’s a different air we’re breathing–much smokier and angst-ridden. As a college pastor only a few years out of school myself, in some ways this is all a bit too familiar. All the same, I’ve found it illuminating and enjoyable. But not in phony way.

One particular interchange early on between the young couple, Franny and Kane, got me thinking about the nature of theology, or rather, the character of theology student. Kane is telling Franny about some critical lit paper he’s thinking of getting published. He’s obviously very proud of it, while at the same time trying to act cool, detached, and dismissive about the whole thing, and it provokes Franny’s ire. Later on in the chapter we learn that Franny’s become sick of all the “ego”, all the self-aggrandizing attached to the pursuit of a name through petty accomplishments in the world she knows. Upon seeing Kane caught up in the same sort of preening, ecocentric concerns, she responds by saying that he’s acting just like a “section man.”

When pressed on it, she explains further:

“Well, I don’t know what they are around here, but where I come from, a section man’s a person that takes over a class when the professor isn’t there or is busy having a nervous breakdown or is at the dentist or something. He’s usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it’s a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie, and starts knocking Tur-genev for about a half hour. Then, when he’s finished, when he’s completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis for his M.A. on. Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they’re all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths—pardon the contradiction. I mean if you get into an argument with them, all they do is get this terribly benign expression on their—” -Franny and Zooey, pg. 14

Anyone who has spent enough time in the right sort of breakout discussion section run by a fresh grad student, or TA, can probably recognize the picture. Or been to seminary for that matter. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved my philosophy TAs and my time in seminary, but this sort of thing can happen. It’s a particularly good picture of the way that “knowledge puffs up.”

Which brings me straight to the point. As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but reflect on the practice of theology and think to myself, “Theologians, we are not to be ‘section men.'”

You see, while everyone is a theologian of sorts, there are others–pastors, and theology students, usually–who become “theologians” in the technical sense. They set aside time in their lives, to study, grow, and become experts, knowledgable in their fields. They become familiar with the names, the history of theological discussion, the important categories, and so forth, that go along with that. As you might expect, in the course of things they develop opinions, convictions, passions, likes, and dislikes just as other men and women do. Expertise in any field will produce that and that’s fine.

We must be sure, though, that we do not turn in a “section men”, or “section women.” Theology students pursue these activities and specialized knowledge in order to know, love, serve and worship God, as well as to equip and prepare the church to know, love, serve, and worship God.

This is not for our own name or prestige as an expert. It’s all too tempting to enjoy being consulted as the expert in a given area. We may seek to derive our justification by approval as an “expert” or a theologian rather than simply as a child of God. Or on the more negative side, it’s also tempting to taking pleasure in being “in the know” about these things, the inner circle of the wise, and quashing the opinions of the theologically unwashed. There is a certain type of individual who loves crushing pop theology, not because of a love of truth, or because its destructive of souls, but because they love crushing things and this is the way they know how. This is not being a theologian, but rather a “section man.”

It’s not for nothing the old theologians used to say theology was impossible without prayer. Attempting to study theology without prayer is a contradictory endeavor. It’s attempting to learn and say something about the God upon whom all existence depends, all the while acting like you’ve arrived on your own steam. This can only lead to pride, self-justification, and other such folly.

Pastors, theology students, and others of the general species homo theologicus, heed that counsel. Theology is only to be studied with prayer, otherwise, you may just look up from your textbooks one of these days and see a section man staring back at you in the mirror.

Soli Deo Gloria


The ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

Matthew Levering makes a point I’ve seen confirmed time and again in my own preaching and teaching with college students and young adults:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

–Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

Bold Theologian.

Bold Theologian.

Just the other night in Bible study with a group of young adults, working our way through Gospel of John, we had to stop and begin to parse doctrine of the Trinity in some detail. This wasn’t my own theological orientation jumping at the opportunity to explain eternal generation. We were forced by the logic of Jesus’ own words to attend to the trinitarian grammar of what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Without a proper doctrine of the Trinity, or a working Christology, I don’t believe you can make it through half of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, or dialogues with the disciples in that Gospel.

I mean, think about it. You can’t even make it past the most bottom-of-the-barrel proclamation represented by that guy holding up the poster of John 3:16 at the football game without encountering “the technical stuff”:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Well, okay. But what does it mean that God “gave his only Son”? God has kids? How? Where is His Wife? Why does Mrs. God get no headlines?

You see where this goes?

All that to say, at some point, for everyone, the “technical details” matter. It doesn’t matter that all you want to do, young pastor, is “preach the gospel” or “just love people.” If any of that involves more than the most shallow truisms and generalities, you’re going to have to do some theological digging. What’s more, for those who think you had all that handled in seminary, aside from the fact that there’s no way you covered all that questions you’re going to face in ministry, or that arise when worshipping an infinite God, just realize that while our basic theology may stay the same, the popular landscape is always shifting. More study is always required.

So roll up your sleeves and get to reading. We’ve got some work to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Miracle of Christmas, or On the Incarnation (Advent Readings)

nativityChristmas is coming. Advent is upon us. In the rush and bluster of the season, it’s all too easy to still our hearts, to stop, wait, and prepare ourselves to receive the Savior in the manger. A few years ago I noticed my heart somewhat dry around this time and so I took up the project of listening to Christmas hymns and carols. While that can connect many of us to the spiritual reality we are celebrating, reading key texts on the theological reality we are approaching: the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, the Creator humbling assuming creation in order to redeem us from the condition of alienation, oppression, and damnation.

For those looking to dive into some soul-stirring meditations on the miracle of Christmas, I would recommend two works: Athanasius and Karl Barth.

On the Incarnation

Athanasius wrote his classic treatise, “On the Incarnation of the Word” as a follow-up to his apologetic work, “Against the Heathen.” Building upon his critique of the various pagan philosophies of the time, Athanasius undertook to explain and defend the heart of the Christian gospel, the Son’s assumption of human nature in order to redeem his fallen creation. In 9 very brief chapters, he lays out the logic of creation, the dilemma of sin, the accomplishment of the cross, the Resurrection, and answers various objections from all directions (Jews, Pagans, etc.). It remains a standard work of orthodoxy Christology and Trinitarian faith. What’s more, it’s rigorous as well as beautiful.

You can purchase it, or read it for free online here. For those put off by the idea of reading an old book, either because of its difficulty, or irrelevance, I’ll merely quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to the work upon its republication:

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence.

As any reader of Athanasius will tell you, this little book is worth libraries of modern volumes.

The Miracle of Christmas

That said, sometimes the moderns have something to say. Karl Barth is one of them. Now, while I can’t endorse everything in this following recommendation, for the theological student, Barth’s reflection in the Church Dogmatics (vol. 1 part 2, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 172-202), is essential reading. The whole section is typical Barth: long, winding, extensive delving into the tradition, the narratives, and ultimately into the Christological heart of the event. No summary will do it justice, but this little quote in which he speaks of the Virgin Birth forming the corresponding limit to that of the Resurrection ought to whet your appetite:

The virgin birth denotes particularly the mystery of revelation. it denotes the fact that God stands at the start where real revelation takes place–God and not the arbitrary cleverness, capability, or piety of man. In Jesus Christ God comes forth out of the profound hiddenness of His divinity in order to act as God among us and upon us. That is revealed and made visible to us in the sign of the resurrection of the dead, but it is grounded  upno the fact signified by the Virgin Birth, that here is this Jesus God Himself has really come down and concealed Himself in humanity. It is because He was veiled here that He could and had to unveil Himself as He did at Easter. The empty tomb, on the other hand, denotes particular the revelation of the mystery. It denotes that it is not for nothing that God stands at the beginning, but that it is as such that He become active and knowable. He has no need of human pwoer and is free from all human caprice. Therefore even the ultimate extremities of human existence, as He submits too them and abandons Himself to death, offer no hindrance to His being and work. That God Himself in His complete majesty was one with us, as the Virgin birth indicates, is verified in what the empty tomb indicates, that here in this Jesus the living God has spoken to us men in accents we cannot fail to hear. Because He has unveiled Himself here as the One Heis, we may and must say what the Christmas message says, that unto you is born this day the Saviour. The mystery at the beginning is the basis of the mystery at the end; and by that mystery of the end the mystery of the beginning becomes active and knowable.  — CD 1/2, pp 182-183

That’s just a paragraph, but in that short excerpt, you see the way Barth masterfully develops the miracle of the Virgin birth in light of the doctrine of revelation and Resurrection of Christ. This is just one small part of the way Barth shows that the proclamation of Christ, born of a Virgin, is actually integral to understanding the mystery of the Gospel and Christ himself. Obviously, this chapter is probably not for everyone, but again, theological students and pastors only ignore it at the risk of their own spiritual and theological impoverishment. If you don’t own the Dogmatics, which is very possible, get to a seminary or theological library nearby, photocopy the section, and take it with you. The section stands alone quite nicely.

Well, those are my two recommendations for reading during the season. I hope they offer you some encouragement. If you all have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two New(er) Atonement Books You Should Read

Atonement theology is one of my passions. The cross of Jesus Christ is at the heart of our faith and the task explaining and displaying it’s ironic beauty the glorious means of our salvation is an unavoidable call for any preacher of the gospel. For that reason, atonement is one of the subjects I spent a good amount of time (and money) reading about in seminary. While I thought I had most of my ducks in a row, I’ve recently dipped back into exploring some recent work in atonement theology that’s been very helpful in sharpening up my thinking in these areas. I wanted to briefly commend two excellent works to you, my readers, for your attention and edification. Hopefully, you read this in time to update your Christmas list!

crucified kingFirst, is Jeremy Treat’s offering The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Systematic Theology. In one sense, I found it to be a gravely disappointing book. It’s disappointing because Treat has written the book I wanted to write on the subject. Giving equal attention to biblical theology and systematic categories, Treat reunites what never should have been divorced in much modern theology: kingdom and cross as well as Christus Victor and penal substitution accounts of the atonement.

One of the key strengths of his biblical theology section is his ability to go beyond key proof-texts to showing the broader, redemptive-historical framework in which the kingdom and cross fit beginning with Genesis through Torah, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, and into Revelation. From there he examines the important concept of the threefold office of Christ, and argues that for too long we have failed to recognize the way Christ’s kingly work is central to his cross-work and vice versa. Christ brings the kingdom through the cross; Christ conquers his enemies and saves his people by dying a penal death in their place. Beyond that there are some excellent sections engaging Wright’s conception of the ministry of Jesus, Moltmann’s account of the kingdom, and challenging reflections on the cross-shaped kingdom Christ invites us into.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that this is the work future theologians and biblical scholars will need to reckon with when writing on the relationship between kingdom and cross. In my opinion, it also definitively puts a nail in the coffin of any attempt to bifurcate or oppose Christus Victor accounts and penal substitution. This can only be done by ignoring both the broader sweep of the biblical narrative, and key texts linking the two firmly together.

For a good preview of what this all looks like, check out this short article by Treat over at the Gospel Coalition. If all this isn’t enough to persuade you, just know two things: this is basically Treat’s dissertation written under Kevin Vanhoozer’s direction. Also, I met him at ETS and he’s a smashing chap.

viduSecond, in a very different register, Adonis Vidu has delivered an important contribution in the ongoing conversation about cross in his sophisticated Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural ContextsTheology happens in complex social, intellectual, and philosophical contexts. Oftentimes we fail to appreciate the thrust and shape of historical theological positions because we do not attend the way dominant intellectual frameworks shape the language used and intellectual and moral concerns of the time. This is eminently true of historic and contemporary atonement theology.

Vidu aims to provide an account of the history of atonement theology down into the present that presents theologians against the background of the various legal and political theories dominant at the time. In this way, we can begin to appreciate better the way these theological concepts shaped and were shaped by their native settings. Five judicious, careful, and lucid chapters are devoted to the descriptive task, focusing on Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, modern, and contemporary periods. (All of the chapters are well worth the time, but he chapter on contemporary atonement theologies is very helpful for navigating the complicated and less accessible literature.) What’s more, along the way, he corrects a number of common misunderstandings and caricatures of historic positions.

For instance, in the first chapter, Vidu corrects the oft asserted charge that the newness Christian theology was its assertion of the gratuity of forgiveness as the mere release of debt without the need for repayment. On the contrary, given Hellenic conceptions of justice as order, positive law, and the maintenance of relations, there was no “cold legality” being overturned here. Indeed, he shows the way these ideas influence patristic accounts for understanding the nature of God’s law and their tendency to attribute the retributive function of the law to the accuser, instead of considering it a necessary expression of his just will. In this, then, certain Christus Victor accounts rest on common, Hellenic intuitions about justice.

At the heart of the book lies the contention that all the shifting paradigms for relating law, justice, and atonement are, at bottom, debates about God’s nature and agency in the death of Jesus. For this reason, Vidu’s last chapter argues for the importance of not neglecting the doctrine of God’s simplicity in our account of God’s atoning action in Christ. Though there are currently some heavy objections being lodged against it, Vidu forcefully makes the case that abandoning simplicity will have serious, deleterious effects for our ability to understand the unified, non-conflicted, saving activity of God through Christ’s cross. Instead, he delivers a nuanced, modified account that is able to preserve penal atonement accounts from the sort of mistakes and caricatures it is often saddled with by both detractors and proponents. While I’m reticent about a couple of the moves Vidu makes with respect to relating the agency of Father and Son on the cross, this is an overall salutary contribution on the subject.

I have not even begun to do either of these works any justice. I do hope that some of this whets your appetite and inspires you to check out either one or both of these timely and edifying works. For more, you can check out my larger post on 19 Objections to Penal Substitutionary Atonement, in which I tackle related issues and point you to more resources.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If you’re interested in atonement, check out the line-up for the January 2015 LA Theology Conference all about atonement: Ben Myers, Elenore Stumpe, Michael Horton,  Bruce McCormack, and a whole lot more. Sign-ups are still going here.