Different Dimensions, Not ‘Theories’ of Christ’s Death

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

It is very common in modern theology to talk about different ‘theories’ of what Christ’s death on the Cross accomplished. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I talked about the way this was really a mistake that leads us to miss the various angles or aspects of the one, grand work of atonement Christ accomplished on the Cross. Just as there are various, equally important dimensions to God’s character, so there are to Christ’s salvation.

Back in the day, Herman Bavinck was also dealing with a context where a proliferation of atonement ‘theories’ were being offered up to replace older conceptions. This often provoked a sort of agnostic response that the New Testament only provided some facts about the death of Christ upon which various conflicting interpretations could be easily offered and chosen. Bavinck, instead, responded that, “Holy Scripture does not relate to us the bare fact of the death of Christ in order then to base the interpretation and appraisal of it to everyone’s own taste but from all angles puts that fact in the light of the Word.” Essentially, all of the different theories of Christ’s death find their basis in the New Testament alongside each other and ought to be maintained side by side, mutually determining each other, not ruling the others out in our theology as well.

Bavinck then goes on to show us what he means but that, and what solid, biblical atonement theology ought to look like. (Yes, this is a longish quote, but worth every minute):

The first thing this study teaches, we may say, is that the Scriptures continually view the suffering and death of Christ from a different perspective and in each case illumine another aspect of it. Like the person, the work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula. In the different books of the New Testament, therefore, different meanings of the death of Christ are highlighted, and all of them together help to give us a deep impression and a clear sense of the riches and many-sidedness of the mediator’s work. In the Synoptics, Christ appears on the scene as a preacher and founder of the kingdom of God. That kingdom includes within itself the love of the Father, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life; and Jesus, in his capacity as Messiah, ascribes to himself the power to grant all these benefits to his disciples. Just as he has power to heal the sick, so he also has the authority to forgive sins. By this combination of powers, he proves that he is the complete Savior of his people. For that reason, too, there is no way of gaining admission into that kingdom and no participation in those benefits except by faith in his name. For it is he himself who gives his life as a ransom for many and who, in his death, breaks his body and sheds his blood to inaugurate and confirm the new covenant with all its blessings (Matt. 20:28; 26:28). In the Acts of the Apostles, the death of Christ is especially presented as an appalling crime that was inflicted on Christ by the hands of lawless men but was nevertheless from eternity included in the counsel of God (Acts 2:23; 4:28; 5:30). Therefore, God also raised him from the dead and exalted him as Lord and Christ, Ruler and Savior, in order, in his name, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:36; 4:12; 5:31).

For Paul, Christ’s death on the cross was originally the great offense, but when it pleased God to reveal his Son in it, that cross became for him the crown of Jesus’ messiahship and the only means of salvation. For on that cross God made him to be sin and a curse for us in order that in him we would have wisdom and righteousness, sanctification and redemption, salvation and eternal life (Rom. 3:24; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). The Letter to the Hebrews describes Christ especially as the perfect and eternal high priest who was not only himself sanctified (perfected) through suffering (2:10; 5:9) but by his one perfect sacrifice put away the sins of his people (7:27; 9:26; 10:12) and is still continually at work as high priest in heaven, continuing and completing the purification, sanctification, and perfecting of his own (7:3, 25; 8:1; 9:14; 10:12ff.). Peter pictures Christ’s suffering as that of a lamb without blemish or spot; and in that suffering he not only bore our sins and redeemed us from our futile way of life but left us an example that we might follow in his steps (1 Pet. 1:18f.; 2:21f.). And John makes Christ known to us both as the lamb and the lion, as the life and the light, as the bread and the water of life, as the grain of wheat that, dying, bears fruit, and as the good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, as the Savior who gives life to the world, and as the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, and so on.

So, indeed, one can find in the New Testament different appraisals of the person and work of Christ, which, however, do not exclude but rather supplement one another and enrich our knowledge. Just as in the old covenant there were diverse sacrifices and the promised Messiah was repeatedly presented under different names, so this many-sidedness in the description carries over into the New Testament and even markedly increases. The death of Christ is a paschal offering, a covenant offering, a praise offering as well as a sacrifice; a ransom and an example; suffering and action; a work and a ministry; a means of justification and sanctification, atonement and consecration, redemption and glorification; in a word, the cause of our whole redemption. Similarly, in theology various “theories” occur side by side, and in the preaching of the church, now one and now another aspect of the work of Christ is in the limelight. None of the above-mentioned mystical and ethical views, accordingly, are untrue as such; on the contrary, they are all based on data contained in Holy Scripture.

Christ, by his incarnation, in his person indeed brought about the union of God and humanity and is, as such, God’s representative to us and our representative to God: the Immanuel who as prophet makes God known to us and as priest consecrates himself on our behalf to the Father. He is the Son, the Word, the Image of God who shares with the Father in the same essence and attributes, and at the same time the Son of Man, the true human, the head of humankind, the second Adam who became like us in all respects, entered into our community of sin and death and bore our sorrows and diseases. He came on earth to fulfill a vocation, to found the kingdom of heaven, to confirm the new covenant in his blood; and in order to do that, he submitted to the will of the Father, became obedient unto death, and pronounced the “Amen” on the righteous judgment that God executed upon death in his suffering and dying. He became the faithful witness (Rev. 1:5), made the good confession before Pilate (1 Tim. 6:13), and became the high priest of our confession (Heb. 3:1). His suffering, therefore, was not only an atonement for our sins and a ransom for our redemption, but in his death the believing community was crucified with him, and in his resurrection this community itself arose from the grave. Christ was never alone; always he stood in fellowship with the humanity whose nature he had assumed. Just as all die in Adam, so they are again made alive in Christ and called to follow in his footsteps. All these elements, which come one-sidedly to the fore in the above-mentioned conceptions of Christ’s death, can be found in Scripture. What matters above all, now, is not to neglect any of them but to unite them into a single whole and to trace the unity that underlies them in Scripture. We can even say they are all inspired by the commendable ambition to link the suffering and death of Christ as closely as possible with his person. For this suffering and death were in fact not “something objective” that can be separated from his person and life and put in a category by itself. Christ’s suffering and death were not his “lot” but his deed. He had power to lay down his life as he did to take it up again (John 10:18). His death was the consummation of his obedience (Phil. 2:8).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 383-384

Of course, for those who know the atonement theology, even this still doesn’t exhaust what Scripture (or Bavinck himself) says about the death of Christ in terms of the defeat of Satan, the powers of sin, and so much more. All the same, you can see Bavinck drawing out dimension after dimension of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross on our behalf, laying them side-by-side in a beautiful, seamless whole.

After reading something like this, I wonder at our tendency to want to single out, separate, or deny part of Christ’s great work on our behalf. No, instead, we must strive in our preaching and teaching to maintain every thread of the marvelous tapestry given us in the New Testament so that the glory of Christ Crucified and Risen may be gloried in, experienced, and wondered at all the more.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are All Sins Really “Equal in the Eyes of God”?

Scales-of-justice-2One of the most common truisms you’ll hear as a kid growing up in Evangelical churches is that “in the eyes of God, all sins are equal.” If all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:20), and breaking one part of the Law means you’ve broken all of it (James 2:10), then there’s a sort of equalizing effect at work here, right? Whether you’re a murderer or a serial jay-walker, you’ve violated the law and so stand accused in the dock on the same charge as anyone else: sin.

Now, there are two main uses to which this doctrine is usually put. First, it’s often used as a way of curbing pride or discouraging judgmentalism. Since everyone is a sinner, including you, there’s no place for feeling better than your neighbor just because they seem to have sinned in a worse way. Second, since all sin is equal in God’s sight, there’s also no use in you thinking you can earn your way into God’s graces, or justify yourself because you haven’t committed any of the “really big” sins.

You may be able to tell, I have a big caveat to add here.

I have to admit, as a kid this idea never sat well with me. I mean, I wouldn’t deny that we’re all sinners in need of salvation, or that no one should feel better than others, or that all sin leads to judgment, but I remember very clearly arguing in Bible study that there’s definitely a distinction between greater and lesser sins. There’s got to be a difference between beating your child and sneaking a peek on a tough answer on your quiz; it seemed to me like utter nihilism to deny any sort of distinction like that.  If a human judge gave the thief 25-life along with the murderer, we’d say there’s something off with her ability to discern right from wrong, and subtle gradations of human justice.

But where does that leave our theology of judgment, sin, and salvation? If there are worse and lesser sins, it seems cruel to punish both with the same ultimate judgment. If treating the thief and the murderer equally seems unjust in this life, then how much more in the life/state to come?

As it turns out, there’s good biblical reasons to affirm both the fundamental equality of sinners before the dock of God, as well as the distinctions between sins that seem intuitive to our basic instincts. Bavinck has an excellent little section that will set the stage for us:

Aside from the difference between diabolical and human sins, there is also a great deal of difference among the latter…Granted, in principle sin and virtue are indivisible: those who have one have them all, and those who lack one lack them all. Between good and evil there is no gradual transition. A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.  The law of God is an organism that, when violated in one of its commandments, is violated in its totality, for God, who have the commandment that was violated, is the author of all the other commandments as well (James 2:10). But not all sins are for that reason equal. The different names for sin already bear this out. In Genesis 4, in connection with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, we learn that the inner disposition is of greater value than the gift. Though the law given to Israel contains a wide range of ceremonial commandments, the entire Old Testament makes clear that the value of the ethical conduct far surpasses that of cultic and ceremonial acts. Faith is reckoned as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22; Amos 2:6ff; 5:14, 21f; Hosea 4″1f; 12:6; Mic. 6:6, 8; Isa. 1:11f; 5:8f; Jer. 7:3; 22:3; Ezek. 16:49; 18:5f; 2 Cor. 12:20f; Gal. 5:19; etc.). The law itself moreover, makes a distinction between sins that are committed inadvertently, out of ignorance or weakness, do not break the covenant, and can be expiated within the covenant, and sins that are committed consciously and intentional (…”with a high hand”), place the perpetrator outside the covenant, and make him worthy of death (Lev. 4:5; 22:14; Num. 15:22f; 35:11f; Josh. 20:3, 9). Scripture never abandons the objective position that locates the standard of sin solely in the law of God. Yet the guilt of violation is greater or less to the degree the commandment was violated more or less intentionally.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 149-150

The whole section is worth perusing as Bavinck goes on to parse the biblical material even further. Still, we see both truths, that the law of God is one, and that all who violate it stand condemned, but that even so, God makes distinctions between types of sin. Murder really is a bigger deal than theft. Stealing because you’re poor and hungry is not the same thing as cheating your impoverished employees out of fair wages to pay for a lavish vacation. What’s more, those sins that we knowingly commit, thinking to ourselves “I know this is contrary to God’s demands, but I’m going to do it anyways” have a greater weight than the transgressions that we give ourselves over to in a foolish, unthinking moment. Our everyday, human instincts are not entirely wrong here, but are, in fact, confirmed by biblical material.

What then of the equality of sinners before the bar of God’s justice? Biblically, it’s not so much that all sins are flatly equal, but that any sin is a sign of violation of the greatest sin. “A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.” What Bavinck is saying is that even the “small” sins, flow from the deep, great, fundamental stance of lawlessness towards God. From another angle, Martin Luther said of the first commandment “where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow” (Larger Catechism). In other words, we only ever murder, or lie, or cheat, or steal, or commit any number of piddling little sins, because we are already caught up in the greatest, most flagrant violation of all: idolatry, worshiping something other than the true God as God.

This is the reason that Paul writes we all have fallen short of the glory of God. His indictment of human sin, debauchery and lawlessness begins with idolatry in Romans 1:18-23, and from there we see humanity given over as a consequence to the various sorts of sin listed in 1:24-32. Considered simply as “thief” and “murderer”, the murderer is clearly guilty of a far greater crime. That said, both thief and murderer stand before the bar under the far weightier charge of “idolater” and “cosmic traitor.”

Incidentally, this is part of the answer to the charge that no one has done anything merit the eternal judgment we are warned of in Scripture. I’ve discussed the inherent symmetry of handing the person who has spent a life-time pursuing everything but God, a future without God. Still, that aside, that many of us don’t observe our idolatry with the horror with which it is presented in Scripture is not an indication of the Bible’s over-scrupulosity, but our own comfortable we’ve become with our own sin. As Anselm famously put it, “you have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is.”

To sum up then, are all sins equally vile, condemnable, and is distinguishing between them a merely human way of looking at them? No. To say so is to go beyond Scripture and even to do violence to our righteous moral instincts about everyday human justice. But are all sinners “equally guilty” before God, in no place to merit their salvation, or boast and brag over others? Yes.And one more question: does God’s extend his abundant, overwhelming, and astonishing grace in Christ to all? Thankfully, we can say a bold “Yes, and Amen!”

Soli Deo Gloria

Giving Jesus Credit Where Credit is Due (Or, Soteriological Maximalism & Atonement Accounts)

There’s a principle in theology that some have named have the “principle of perfection”, or what we might term “theological maximalism”, that says our thinking about God should aim to do justice to God’s maximally great being.  In other words, when trying to do construct your doctrine of God, if you have an option between two ways of looking at God, unless you have some very good reason for thinking otherwise, whichever option is greater ought to be preferred. So, for instance, if choosing between the view that God’s omniscience, his all-knowingness, includes a knowledge of the future as well as the present and the past, or only the present and the past, we should probably prefer the former option. Unless we have some very good scriptural evidence to the contrary, theological maximalism will lead us to expect that God’s perfect knowledge will contain perfect knowledge of the future.

Now, to my mind that makes intuitive and even biblical sense. The Scriptures declare God’s greatness and glory is beyond human comprehension, which likely means that if we could come up with attribute that would make him better, stronger, and more glorious, then he probably has it. The big qualification that comes in, though, is that we need to make sure our reasoning and logic about what would make God “great” is itself formed and normed by what God has said about himself in Scripture. Your “great” and the Bible’s “great” might not always match up in all the details.

From Big God to Big Salvation

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I've ever seen.

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I’ve ever seen.

I go into all of this to set up what I think should be a similar principle in our theology of salvation–a “soteriological maximalism”, if you will. What do I mean? And where am I going with this? Well, essentially, whichever position presents us with a greater, more complex, and comprehensive view of salvation wrought through Christ ought to be preferred. In other words, whichever view of salvation gives Father, Son, and Spirit more credit for getting more done through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, all other considerations being equal, we should opt for that one.

For instance, for a long time now I’ve been annoyed at what I see as reductionistic views of the atonement, (ie, how Christ’s death reconciles us to God). Ever since Gustav Aulen’s treatment of the atonement back in the 30s in Christus Victor, theologians have been talking about three different models, types, or “theories” of atonement: moral influence, penal satisfaction, and Christus Victor. J.I. Packer explains the three quite nicely in his classic essay, The Logic of Penal Substitution so I’ll let him expand at length:

1. There is first, the type of account which sees the cross as having its effect entirely on men, whether by revealing God’s love to us, or by bringing home to us how much God hates our sins, or by setting us a supreme example of godliness, or by blazing a trail to God which we may now follow, or by so involving mankind in his redemptive obedience that the life of God now flows into us, or by all these modes together. It is assumed that our basic need is lack of motivation Godward and of openness to the inflow of divine life; all that is needed to set, us in a right relationship with God is a change in us at these two points, and this Christ’s death brings about. The forgiveness of our sins is not a separate problem; as soon as we are changed we become forgivable, and are then forgiven at once. This view has little or no room for any thought of substitution, since it goes so far in equating what Christ did for us with what he does to us.

2. A second type of account sees Christ’s death as having its effect primarily on hostile spiritual forces external to us which are held to be imprisoning us in a captivity of which our inveterate moral twistedness is one sign and symptom. The cross is seen as the work of God going forth to battle as our champion, just as David went forth as Israel’s champion to fight Goliath. Through the cross these hostile forces, however conceived — whether as sin and death, Satan and his hosts, the demonic in society and its structures, the powers of God’s wrath and curse, or anything else — are overcome and nullified, so that Christians are not in bondage to them, but share Christ’s triumph over them. The assumption here is that man’s plight is created entirely by hostile cosmic forces distinct from God; yet, seeing Jesus as our champion, exponents of this view could still properly call him our substitute, just as all the Israelites who declined Goliath’s challenge in 1 Samuel 17:8-11 could properly call David their substitute. Just as a substitute who involves others in the consequences of his action as if they had done it themselves is their representative, so a representative discharging the obligations of those whom he represents is their substitute. What this type of account of the cross affirms (though it is not usually put in these terms) is that the conquering Christ, whose victory secured our release, was our representative substitute.

3. The third type of account denies nothing asserted by the other two views save their assumption that they are complete. It that there is biblical support for all they say, but it goes further. It grounds man’s plight as a victim of sin and Satan in the fact that, for all God’s daily goodness to him, as a sinner he stands under divine judgment, and his bondage to evil is the start of his sentence, and unless God’s rejection of him is turned into acceptance he is lost for ever. On this view, Christ’s death had its effect first on God, who was hereby propitiated (or, better, who hereby propitiated himself), and only because it had this effect did it become an overthrowing of the powers of darkness and a revealing of God’s seeking and saving love. The thought here is that by dying Christ offered to God what the West has called satisfaction for sins, satisfaction which God’s own character dictated as the only means whereby his ‘no’ to us could become a ‘yes’, Whether this Godward satisfaction is understood as the homage of death itself, or death as the perfecting of holy obedience, or an undergoing of the God-forsakenness of hell, which is God’s final judgment on sin, or a perfect confession of man’s sins combined with entry into their bitterness by sympathetic identification, or all these things together (and nothing stops us combining them together), the shape of this view remains the same — that by undergoing the cross Jesus expiated our sins, propitiated our Maker, turned God’s ‘no’ to us into a ‘yes’, and so saved us. All forms of this view see Jesus as our representative substitute in fact, whether or not they call him that, but only certain versions of it represent his substitution as penal.

So here you see the three types. You can probably also see where this is going with respect to “soteriological maximalism.” It has been an lamentable reality that in the West, and especially in contemporary theology, the three forms have been pitted against each other as rival models that we must choose between, because they’re apparently totally incompatible. I think this is an unfortunate, and quite unnecessary move. Indeed, Packer goes on to say as much:

…it should be noted that though the two former views regularly set themselves in antithesis to the third, the third takes up into itself all the positive assertions that they make; which raises the question whether any more is at issue here than the impropriety of treating half-truth as the whole truth, and of rejecting a more comprehensive account on the basis of speculative negations about what God’s holiness requires as a basis for forgiving sins. Were it allowed that the first two views might be misunderstanding and distorting themselves in this way, the much-disputed claim that a broadly substitutionary view of the cross has always been the mainstream Christian opinion might be seen to have substance in it after all. It is a pity that books on the atonement so often take it for granted that accounts of the cross which have appeared as rivals in historical debate must be treated as intrinsically exclusive. This is always arbitrary, and sometimes quite perverse.

In a sense, accepting some form of penal representation allows you to affirm the truth of the other two models, while accounting for more biblical material that can’t be easily folded into those accounts. Indeed, as some theologians like Hans Boersma, Graham Cole, Henri Blocher, and Robert Sherman have pointed out in their different accounts, accepting it actually gives us a coherent grounding for the other two realities. Following a principle of soteriological maximalism, then, we will strive to affirm it because allows us to give Jesus more credit for his work on the cross, not less.

This comes in handy when, for instance, coming to a text like Colossians 2:13-15:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Here we see very clearly both legal/penal concerns (v. 14), as well as the theme of victory over powers and principalities. Instead of trying to subsume or screen out either theme, instead we can clearly preach both at once, seeing the way they are seamlessly combined in Scripture, and even begin to trace the way they are organically combined together.

A Note on Girard

Incidentally, this should probably be our approach towards newer atonement accounts of a Girardian “scapegoat” type. Basically, innocent Jesus’ obviously unjust death on the cross at the hands of the powers (government, religion, the mob) exposes the violent, scapegoating mechanism at the heart of sinful society, bringing about repentance, or something like that. You can dig through these resources for more details.  I’ll be honest, on its own, it’s an abysmal account of the atonement that can’t really deal with the biblical material, and usually operates with Girard’s own neo-Marcionite reading of the Old Testament. As Scot McKnight has pointed out, it’s basically a new-style Abelarian/moral influence type, only in this set-up, we’re tempted to forget that we’re the ones who put him up on the Cross. (Also, the above works by Boersma, Sherman, and this one by Horton, all ably critique Girardian atonement types.) Still, it is possible to take some of Girard’s insights about the scapegoating process in general and fold them into Christ’s work of exposing the powers of evil on the Cross.

Also, Girardian types remind us of the boundary measure we mentioned with theological maximalism. As I said, Girardian types usually have to screen out, or hold up as false, most of the Old Testament sacrificial system, as well as reject any image of God dealing out judgment upon sin as punishment. And yet the acknowledgement that the Creator God is the just judge who punishes sin stands clearly at the center of the story of Israel’s dealings with him. In putting forward a view of the atonement that’s allegedly consistent with a glorious ‘non-violent’ God, not only do these accounts deny the accomplishments that penal accounts affirm, they have to do so contrary to the witness of Scripture as well.

Objections and Conclusions

I can, at this point, anticipate a couple of objections at this point along the lines of “Well, what about universalism? That seems to make Jesus a more able Savior, wouldn’t it? Saving all is better than saving only some?” Or again, “What about theosis, or Eastern Orthodox forms of deification? Shouldn’t we then try and figure out a way to affirm those? ‘Deifying’ people seems like an extra step up, doesn’t it?” Well, honestly, I don’t have time to address both adequately, but I’d simply say this is where we need to make sure our ideas about what is ‘maximal’ is being normed and formed by Scripture. In the case of universalism, the numeric ‘more’ that seems more maximal must be submitted to the scriptural judgments we have on the subject that apparently imply otherwise.

On deification, actually I’d say that this ought to motivate us to re-examine our hesitancy to reject any notion of deification as entirely out of bounds for a Reformed, or simply biblical, account of Christ’s work for us. J. Todd Billings has done some excellent work to make a case for a Calvinistic doctrine of ‘deification’ through union with Christ that doesn’t violate biblical teaching on the Creator/creature distinction. A number of other Reformed theologians (Michael Horton, Robert Letham) have been affirming something similar as well.

At the end of this (already too long) post, all I’ll say is that our instinct in reading Scripture and preaching Christ should be to give him as much credit as possible for “so great a salvation.”

Soli Deo Gloria

 

That Time Bavinck Said Edwards Helped the Pelagians

edwards 3Reading Bavinck for the last 6 months has been illuminating on several levels. Not only was he a top-notch constructive theologian and biblical thinker in his own right, but he was also an eminently historical thinker, steeped in the broad tradition from the patristic, medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern periods. For that reason, novice that I am in these sorts of things, Bavinck has been instructive to me both in the conclusions that he comes to, but also in his historical judgments and discussions, and overall humbly critical approach to the tradition (including the Reformed) as a whole.

I was reminded of this just this last week as I was reading through his chapter on the spread of  sin, original sin, and total depravity. Right in the middle of it all, he has a little paragraph on Jonathan Edwards’ that is fascinating for it’s actual theological content, but also because of the broader point it illustrates about the Reformed tradition in general:

When we are taught that as a result of sin that humans are incapable of any good and this inability is called “natural,” this does not refer to a physical necessity or fatalistic coercion. Humans have not, as a result of sin, lost their will and their increated freedom: the will, in virtue of its nature, rules out all coercion and can only will freely. What humans have lost is the free inclination of the will toward the good. They now no longer want to do good; thy now voluntarily, by a natural inclination, do evil. The inclination, the direction, of the will has changed. “This will in us is always free but it is not always good.” In this sense the incapacity for good is not physical but ethical in nature; it is a kind of impotence of the will. Some theologians therefore preferred to speak of a moral rather than a natural impotence–Amyraut, Testard, Venema, and especially Jonathan Edwards among them.

Edwards in his day, one must remember, had to defend the moral impotence of humans against Whitby and Taylor, who denied original sin and deemed humans able to keep God’s law. They argued, against Edwards, that if humans could not keep God’s law, they did not have to, and if they did not keep it, they were not guilty. To defend himself, Edwards made a distinction between natural and moral impotence, saying that fallen humans did have the natural but not the moral power to do good. And he added that only natural impotence was real impotence, but moral impotence could only be figuratively so called. For sin is not a physical defect in nature or in the powers of the will; but it is an ethical defect, a lack of inclination towards or love for the good. Now Edwards did say that human beings could not give themselves this inclination toward the good nor change their will. In this respect he was completely on the side of Augustine and Calvin. But by his refusal to call this disinclination toward the good “natural impotence.” he fostered a lot of misunderstanding and actually aided the cause of Pelagianism.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 121-122

Again, this is a fascinating discussion on a number of levels. First, it begins to clear up a number of misconceptions about the Reformed approach to total depravity and natural inclination towards sin.

Beyond that, growing up as an American Evangelical, after Calvin you’re kind of trained to think of Jonathan Edwards as the other name when it comes to Reformed, or more likely, Calvinistic theology. In fact, it’s very easy to find a number of young, Reformed theological types who’ve never read Calvin, but have jumped head-first into Edwards’ sermons, treatises, and so forth. And I’m not really knocking that. I’ve benefited from a number of his sermons, not just Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (although, fun fact, I briefly dated a girl in college who said her father read that to her and her sisters one Halloween), as well as his fabulous treatise on The End For Which God Created the World. Still, it’s fascinating to realize that in many wings of the Reformed family, Edwards is considered, not a bastion of classic Reformed orthodoxy, but a theological innovator who made some serious mistakes.

This also illustrates that very important point that often gets lost in popular discussions of Reformed theology, which is that the Reformed tradition is a tradition, not simply a set of standardized, universal answers. Now, by the word ‘tradition’ I’m invoking, or at least trying to invoke, the sense given by Alasdair MacIntyre, who says that “a tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined.” In that sense, while the broad Reformed tradition has some baseline agreements and shared assumptions that distinguish it from Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions, that doesn’t mean that on every single issue you’re going to get all Reformed theologians speaking with one voice, or simply parroting what Calvin said. There is debate, discussion, disagreement, refinement, and redefinition. Which is why it is often-times very important recognize that simply because Calvin, or Edwards, or Bavinck, or name your favorite contemporary figure (Piper, Keller, Horton, etc.) says “this is what Reformed theology teaches”, it may be important to qualify it still further with “Puritan Reformed theology”, “Continental Reformed theology”, and so forth. And even that can be too simplistic. This is part of why I’m looking forward to Oliver Crisp’s forthcoming Deviant Calvinism, which should be illuminating on that score.

Following this point, I would hasten to add that we probably should be more careful to be so quick to rule out someone out of the Reformed tradition. I have to say, I love the way Bavinck handles Edwards’ here. While being critical, and even to the point of saying his theology ended up confusing rather than helping, Bavinck still acknowledges Edwards’ efforts here positively, and reads as charitably and contextually as possible. (The engagement between N.T. Wright and his Reformed critics come to mind here as well.) For those of us, then, still “on the way” in our theological journey, we have in Bavinck a model for how to carry on that conversation, that “argument extended through time”, with our Reformed, and yes, even non-Reformed brothers and sisters in the broader tradition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

greekMost of the time a solid translation, good reading skills, and a solid grasp of the story-line of the Bible is good enough for constructing the rough outlines of a good doctrine of God. I mean, you can at least come up with a solid handle on the Creator/creature distinction, God’s power, righteousness, love, and so forth mostly by cruising through the text with a sharp eye and a keen mind. That said, sometimes a knowledge of the way Greek or Hebrew works can come in handy, especially when your doctrine is being challenged at that level. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance.

John 1:1-3 is one of the key explicitly texts (though far from the only one) used to establish the basic outlines of trinitarian doctrine, especially the equality, eternity, and so forth of the Son. It reads like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. It clearly says that the Word, later explicitly identified as the one who becomes flesh in Jesus (1:14), was with God in the beginning, that is, before the creation, and is the agent of creation. In the biblical storyline, there are only two main categories of reality: God and all the stuff God made. The Word is clearly identified as being on the “God” side of the line.

Also, there is the explicit identification, “the Word was God.” That seems pretty obvious too. But, thing is, that’s where a dispute can arise. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deniers of trinitarian doctrine will often point out that in the Greek, the word “God” (theos) is missing the definite article in the phrase “the Word was God”, meaning it should be read as “the Word was a God” not “The Word was the God“, the sense implied by the typical English translations. In which case, it’s not really teaching he is fully God in the same sense as the Father, but that he is divine in some modified, lesser sense.

But does that follow? What’s going on here? John Frame gives us 7 reasons to think that the absence of the definite article in verse 1:1 is simply a grammatical quirk and not a theologically significant absence throwing our trinitarian doctrine in disarray (which, in any case, it wouldn’t, since the doctrine doesn’t only hang on this verse). Also, just so you know, for this discussion, he’s broken the verse up into three clauses:

  1. In the beginning was the Word,
  2. and the Word was with God,
  3. and the Word was God.

With that in mind, here is Frame’s reasons:

  1. The absence of the article may be a “purely grammatical phenomenon.” When, as here, a Greek sentence uses “to be” to connect a subject and a predicate noun, the predicate noun normally lacks the article, even when it is definite. So the absence of an article implies nothing about the precise sense of theos.
  2. This argument is even stronger in passages like ours, where the predicate precedes the subject. The “Colwell Rule” states that in such a sentence, the predicate noun usually lacks an article, even though it is definite, but that the subject of the sentence, if definite, will employ the definite article. So again the phenomenon has a grammatical explanation and does not presuppose any change of meaning between “God” in clause two and “God” in clause three.
  3. As we have seen, in such constructions the predicate noun usually or normally lacks the article. Following that normal practice here may have also served the author’s purpose to draw additional attention to the term God, the center of the chiasm [Frame identified a chiasm earlier in the text]. Dropping the article focuses on the noun itself, and it brings the two occurrences of theos closer together in the chiasm. This consideration weakens further  the need for further explanation.
  4. In similar verses, where theos is a predicate noun lacking the definite article, a reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable (see Mark 12:27; Luk 20:38; John 8:54; Rom. 8:33; Phil. 2:13; Heb. 11:16).
  5. There are many other verses, some in the same first chapter of John, in which theos lacks a definite article, but in which the reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable. Nobody would claim a reduced meaning of theos, for example, in 1:6, 13, or 18.
  6. Even if we grant that theos without the definite article puts some emphasis on the qualities of God rather than his person, this supposition does not entail that theos is the third clause has a reduced sense. To prove otherwise, one must show that the qualities in view are something other than the essential attributes of God. If the qualities are essential qualities, then the third clause identifies the Word with God in the highest sense.
  7. A very strong argument is needed to prove that the meaning of theos changes between clause two and clause three. That burden of prove has certainly not been met.

-John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pp 665-66

This is the kind of text and objection that has been used to mislead hundreds of thousands of, largely well-meaning people like Jehovah’s Witnesses into denying one of the most sacred truths of God revealed through Christ. Still, we see here the both the rules of Greek grammar and close attention to the use of the definite article in similar texts throughout both John and the rest of the NT reveals this objection to be a very weak one indeed.

As I said before, I think that other features of the text, the context surrounding it, and a good grasp of biblical theology are probably good enough to ward off challenges to most doctrine. The average churchgoer probably doesn’t need to know Greek in order to be confident of the truth classic, trinitarian doctrine. Every once in a while, though, it can come in handy.

Soli Deo Gloria

8 Ways For God to Be Simple

untamed godOne of the most complicated to understand of the attributes traditionally used by the classical and medieval tradition of God is his “simplicity”, or non-compositeness. I remember when I first read someone say that God is “simple” I immediately balked thinking to myself “What nonsense. How could the Christian God be simple? He’s so utterly beyond us, that there’s nothing ‘simple’ about him. I mean, God is the Trinity, for crying out loud!” Of course, like most I was confused as to what the traditional theologians of the Church had actually been claiming when it came to the doctrine of simplicity, and so, like many contemporary theologians, especially the revisionist ones I was reading at the time, I rejected it as philosophical nonsense. However, since then I’ve come around to thinking that some form of it probably ought to be retained.

Some of you may even right now be thinking, “Well, that’s nice for you, but I’m still in the dark about it, so what is it?” Well, that’s where things get tricky. You see, even among theologians who currently affirm it, there’s some debate as to what the doctrine of simplicity actually holds. At it’s most simple–see what I did there, eh?–the doctrine teaches that God is not made up of any parts or components. He is simple in that he is not “composite”–you can’t pull him apart and then put him back together.

Still, based on the way a theologian comes to hold simplicity, whether through biblical arguments, philosophical reasoning of various sorts, etc. they tend to end up offering different formulations of the teaching, some of which tend to generate more questions or objections than others, which can tend to make things difficult to evaluate. So, for instance, some will say it only means God isn’t composite–God isn’t part love and part holy, with the possibility that you could separate out the bits. Or, it isn’t that case that his love part wins sometimes and his holiness at others, but that he is always fully holy and loving in all that he does. Others, though, will go further and say that means that God’s holiness and his love simply are the same thing and that the only distinctions there are between the two are conceptual ones related to our minds. Still others will take it even further than that. The result is that one argument seems to be quite persuasive against one formulation, yet tends to have very little effect on another more modest one.

It’s for that reason that I found the section on it in  Jay Wesley Richards’ The Untamed God to be particularly helpful for getting a lay of the land. Before moving to give his own formulation, in good analytic fashion Richards lays out the various possible senses for the term ‘simplicity’. While I’m not sure I follow his conclusions, this section is worth quoting in full:

As with immutability, so with simplicity we may consider whether God is simple in all respects, in some respects or in no respects. Any purported defense of simplicity will conclude that God is simple in at least some respects, so we will ignore the last option. Now obviously God is not simple in just any sense. One meaning of “simple,” after all is “unintelligent.” It should then become clear that there are several crucial senses in which we should say that God is simple and a few sense in which we should deny it.

  1. All divine properties are possessed by the same self-identical God.
  2. God is not composite, in the sense that he is made up of elements or properties more fundamental than he is. He has no external cause(s) such as Platonic form.
  3. God’s essence is “identical with” his act of existing. (Or perhaps: God’s existence is not extrinsic to his essence.)
  4. All of God’s essential properties are coextensive.
  5. All God’s perfections are identical.
  6. All God’s properties are coextensive.
  7. God’s essential properties and essence are (strictly) identical with God himself.
  8. All God’s properties are (strictly) identical with God himself.

Of these, 1 is the easiest to accommodate;it 8 is the most difficult. In fact, of these eight possibilities, we can defend plausible renderings of 1, 2, 3, 4, and perhaps 5. But it should become clear that the Christian must deny senses 6, 7, and 8, at least on certain contemporary interpretations…Interestingly, there seems to be an asymmetrical entailment relations between these theses going from 8 to 1. So, for instance, 8 entails 7, but 7 does not entail 8, and so on.  If this is correct, then 8 is clearly the strongest form of simplicity and 1 is the weakest. We should not mistake the strongest version of the doctrine, however, with the most traditional. It may be that the strongest versions of the doctrine have resulted from misinterpreting certain traditional claims. In fact, I suspect that sense 2 is the primary burden of the traditional doctrine, rightly interpreted.

The Untamed God: A Philosophical Exploration of Divine Perfection, Simplicity, and Immutability, pp. 216-218

So, there you have it–clear as mud, right? But honestly, this little breakdown before he moves on to his defense of a modest version of the doctrine is very helpful in distinguishing the various different types of simplicity that are often forwarded in theological discussion. While not all readers will want to follow his distinctions between essential and contingent properties (Richards distinguishes between properties God has essentially, apart from all relations, and those which he has in light of having freely created and related himself to a world), you can see that it’s not just a simple matter of accepting or rejecting the doctrine. Some will hesitate about the more strict forms but have less issues with the more modest forms. What’s more, as Richards points out, it’s not necessarily the case that accepting the more modest forms while rejecting the stronger forms is a “revisionist” take as it seems that the initial few senses may even be the most traditional senses. As for myself, I’d say I currently do affirm it probably at least the first 5 senses. The rest are still up for grabs until I do a little more digging.

  1. For those looking to dig deeper into the issue, Gavin Ortlund has this excellent little introductory post on it.
  2. For those looking for interesting modern discussion with an emphasis on the practical importance of the doctrine, there’s a great one in Tom McCall’s great little book Forsaken.
  3. For a traditional discussion, I’d also highly recommend Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2 on the Doctrine of God.
  4. Finally, though I haven’t read it yet, James Dolezal’s God Without Parts is supposed to be one of the best, robust, modern articulations to date.

Soli Deo Gloria

God Doesn’t Play Soccer With You (TGC)

soccerLike most suburban kids my age, I played soccer as a child. It’s great, right? Good exercise for young bodies, lessons in sociability, the value of teamwork, sacrifice, frustration, and the joy of a game well-played. It’s also one of the earliest experiences in understanding human choice and action I can remember. Soccer is all about learning to coordinate your own body and mind through instinct and training, as well as that of your teammates and opponents. You pass the ball, they receive it, pass it back, and you shoot. Or they have the ball, you run up, slide-tackle, take the ball, hope the ref doesn’t see it, and you shoot. Such is human agency in little league.

I’ve recently noticed a popular tendency to think of our interactions with God in a similar fashion. Did God do that, or was that me? Did my doctor heal me, or did God? Did I decide to pray, or did God decide that I would pray? We imagine ourselves on a field of sorts, playing soccer with him—either God has the ball to pass, shoot, and dribble, or I do. God might be a much bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter player, and he may take the ball from me at times, or pass it to me depending on the situation. Essentially we’re on the same playing field.

With a version of the soccer-field-God in place, we see disputes flare up as to how God plays the game. Does he monopolize the ball all the time in order to ensure victory, or does he hang back sort of coaching us so we can make real passes and take real shots? Is God totally sovereign and in control of his creation, or does he give us real free will to make choices that matter? We’re then tempted to collapse the tension in one of the two directions depending on our other theological commitments, with disastrous results. Deny freedom and you cut the nerve of moral responsibility leading to apathetic disengagement, while downplaying sovereignty can lead either to panicked efforts or a Hamlet-like paralysis of the will.

I want to suggest, however, that this popular tendency is misguided. While it’s absurd to think we can solve the riddle of human responsibility and divine sovereignty in a short article, there are three classic theological concepts that we must keep in mind if we’re going to avoid the worst mistakes in our thinking on these matters.

You can read the rest of the article over at The Gospel Coalition.

Sol Deo Gloria