‘Once Saved Always Saved’, or ‘Preservation and Perseverance in Christ’?

one-with-christ-an-evangelical-theology-of-salvation-199x300From time to time I’m asked by one of my students whether or not I think you can lose your salvation. Being that many of them come to me as default Arminians, a few of them are clearly expecting me to dispel the silly notion that ‘once saved, always saved’ no matter what else you do. The idea that you could pray a prayer when you’re five, then go live your life in whatever kind of debauchery appeals to you for the rest of your life, and still be saved is repugnant to them. And rightfully so. Yet, still others, having caught the drift of some of my talks on grace, security in Christ, and so forth, strongly push back that grace is a grace and so it’s all covered. The idea of someone being lost by God is repugnant to them. And rightfully so.

At that point, the challenge is to explain a doctrine of perseverance that gives both the full assurance that those “whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30), as well as the need to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Col. 1:23).

In his excellent new work One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of SalvationMarcus Johnson gives a little summary of the distinction between pop-level “once saved, always saved’ theology and a more classic understand of “preservation and perseverance in Christ” that ought to be helpful for anyone else struggling to explain this key truth. Prudently he begins with the words of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. 1. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Notice the careful wording of the catechism: the believer is able to express complete confidence that she will never be separated from Christ, but salvation has an ongoing content that includes willingness and readiness to live for Christ. This is why Reformed theology has always insisted that salvation includes “the perseverance of the saints.” This does not mean that believers are saved because they persevere in their faith— as if continually to merit God’s grace— but that they persevere as they are preserved by God’s grace in Christ. The saints indeed stumble in sin, and may sometimes even doubt that they truly belong to Christ, but they will never finally be overcome by sin or lose their assurance of God’s fatherly care. The saints experience in their lives the faithfulness of Christ as they grow into his manifold blessings.

This is why a doctrine of “eternal security” that asserts that believers are eternally saved irrespective of the carnality of their lives, including the act of apostasy, is to be rejected strenuously. Quite simply, this construal fails to take into account that the believer’s eternal security is grounded in his preservation in the living, crucified, resurrected Christ, who will never fail to nourish his body. It is also typically reductionistic in its understanding of salvation, emphasizing that we have been saved to the exclusion of the equally important truth that we are being saved. The content of salvation, according to this view, is reduced to, and is often synonymous with, what is referred to as the “gift of eternal life,” an abstraction that neglects the truth that Christ is himself eternal life. The inevitable result is a doctrine of “eternal security” that vitiates the good news that God continually imparts the very life of Christ to his children. When Christ promises us eternal life, he is promising more than a gift to be redeemed when we die— a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, as it were. He is promising us a life in and with him that begins when we receive him, manifests itself throughout our lives, and necessarily wells up into eternal blessedness (John 4: 14; 15: 1– 8; 1 John 5: 18– 20).

Contrary to the rather crass notion of “ once saved, always saved,” the doctrine of preservation in Christ insists that the one who is united to Christ (is saved) inevitably experiences the manifold benefits of that union (is being saved). Christ gives us himself in salvation, and because he is the crucified, resurrected, living Son of God, salvation means a participation in his death, resurrection, and life. This means we not only receive the benefit of justification through this union, we also receive the benefit of sanctification. Sanctification, as we have seen, means not only that we have been made holy in Christ , but that we are being made holy in him —and this because we have been crucified and resurrected with him. In fact, the very design of our predestination in Christ is that we will “be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8: 29). We are told, further, that we were created in Christ Jesus “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2: 10). God is in the process of sanctifying us “completely. . . . He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5: 23– 24).

–One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Kindle Locations 3548-3578). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

To be clear, it’s unthinkable that someone who has been truly united to Christ, placed in his unbreakable grip, to be lost. Johnson brings out the staggering implications if that were true:

When God joins us to Christ through faith, he is making real in our temporal lives what he has already decreed in his eternal will and accomplished in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son. To be severed from the Son would require that the Father rescind what he has already decreed and accomplished. Every benefit that we have received from being united to Christ would have to be undone. Having already justified us in Christ, God would have to re-condemn us and repeal our participation in Christ’s righteousness; having already sanctified us in Christ, God would have to reverse our baptism into Christ’s death, burial, and new resurrection life; having already adopted us in Christ, God would have to make us orphans; having already resurrected us with Christ and raised us in his ascension, God would have to lower us into death and cast us from the heavenly realms; and having already glorified us in Christ, God would have to terminate the end to which he appointed all of his blessings. In sum, having joined us to Christ, God would have to dismember the body of Christ.

–ibid, (Kindle Locations 3523-3530).

And yet, it’s also similarly unthinkable that someone truly united with Christ, filled with the Spirit and the gifts of justification, sanctification, adoption, and so forth, to turn aside and live in unrepentant sin. In a sense, yes, “once saved, always saved” is true, but what the doctrines of preservation and perseverance make clear is that a more accurate summary is “once saved, inevitably saved.

 Soli Deo Gloria

Abraham Kuyper Was a Heretic Too

kuyperOver the last few years I’ve been saddened to see a number of teachers and preachers of the word of God, along with friends in the pews, begin a sad doctrinal decline, wandering into either questionable teaching, or even outright heresy. (And believe me, though I’ve given the issue a bit of thought, I’m not one to quickly throw out the ‘h-word.’)  The narratives are diverse, and the motivations multifarious, but in all, there is a tragic departure that brings me to distress for their spiritual lives and sometimes, for the churches they serve.

What do we do in these cases? What should we think when someone we know departs from the truth of the faith “once for all delivered” and veers into what we believe to be serious, and dangerous, error? While I don’t have an exhaustive answer, I think one course of action we ought to rule out categorically is completely writing them off as lost and beyond hope.

G.C. Berkouwer tells this story of theological giant, Abraham Kuyper:

When Kuyper referred to Modernism as “bewitchingly beautiful,” he doubtlessly recalled the fascination which the modernism of Scholten had exerted on him as a student. He acknowledges in 1871 that he too had once dreamed the dream of Modernism. And when at the age of eighty he addressed the students of the Free University, he harked back to the “unspiritual presumption” which had caused him to slip. “At Leiden I joined, with great enthusiasm, in the applause given Professor Rauwenhoff when he, in his public lectures, broke with all belief in the Resurrection of Jesus.” “Now when I look back,” he writes, “my soul still shudders at times over the opprobrium I then loaded on my Savior.” Kuyper concludes his lecture with a reference to the Incarnation of the Word and points out the unfathomable cleavage between the church of Christ and Modernism. Now that endorsement of Rauwenhoff’s negation and criticism has given way to adoration of the Son of Man, Kuyper recognizes in Arianism the image of the Modernism of his own day. “One merely has to write other names and other dates into the history of the Arian heresy, and, provided one takes it in broad outline, the course of Modernism is repeated.” –The Person of Christ, pp. 9-10

Early in his theological career Kuyper flirted with Modernism of the worst sort, and could even applaud the rejection of that most central, pivotal of gospel truths: the Resurrection of Christ. Let’s remember what the apostle Paul tells us:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:16-19)

This is no ancillary, disputed, or adiaphora truth that Kuyper was fussing about with, then. This is the definition of denying the truth of the Gospel in the most pernicious way possible–much in the way some false teachers had in Corinth. And yet, in later years, we find this man at the center of one of the most powerful revivals of orthodox Reformed thought in Europe.

What this little story demonstrates, is that, while heresies need to be forcefully rejected, by the grace of God, even heretics can repent. To believe otherwise is to neglect two pertinent realities:

  1. Narrative – Persons are not static realities. We have storied identities full of development, regression, and plot turns galore. That’s what we see on display is the story of Kuyper. For all intents and purposes, Kuyper was a heretic. He ended a stalwart defender of the faith. Doubtless, countless others could be added to this list.
  2. Grace - No matter how grave the error, it seems that God can work in the lives of those who currently are turned against his gospel. Isn’t that what he did for you when you were in your unbelief?

Don’t get me wrong here. I think false doctrine needs to be confronted, rejected, and exposed. I also think that pastors who go off the rails and start preaching things contrary to the scriptures, especially central gospel issues, ought go through the proper disciplinary procedures instituted within their denominations or bylaws. The health of the flock and the truth of the gospel is too precious to be trifled with. What’s more, this isn’t even only for the good of the broader flock–it’s supremely unloving to allow the teacher who is in error to continue to propagate a false Gospel.

Still, what I would argue, is that beyond being confronted, in the economy of God, heretics, or those wandering into error ought also be forcefully prayed for. Let’s not forget that, “prayer enlists the help of him who can move heaven and earth” (Ryle) I don’t know what human means finally brought about Kuyper’s theological and spiritual renewal, but I do know that whatever it was, it came about through the grace of God who is sovereign over human hearts and minds. Who knows which of those walking in error today are being prepared for a mighty work for the Gospel tomorrow?

Soli Deo Gloria

Good Friday: The Active Passion of Christ

On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are confronted with the bloody reality of the passion of our savior. As my pastor pointed out this Sunday, we’re not talking about “passion” in the typical modern sense of “driving motive” or “overwhelming emotion”, but rather his trial, torture, and death on the cross. Christ’s passion is his passio, those events of which he is the patient, the one being acted on.

Sitting in service on Sunday, I reflected on how easily it is to see Jesus in his passion as pure victim. Many of us are tempted by centuries of paintings and passion plays to see a helpless Jesus hanging on the cross, bearing the sins of the world at the hands of sinful men. Or again,  at a theological level, some of us simply see him as a passive object of the Father’s overwhelming decree and action. While I don’t want to deny either human responsibility, or Jesus’ submission to the Father, I was once again struck by the fact that Jesus’ passion was an actively chosen one.

When confronted with Pilate’s claim to ultimate human authority, the very authority and power that would be used to subject him to the cross, Jesus responds with an assertion of divine sovereignty:

christ-carrying-the-crossSo Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10-11a)

According to Jesus, then, in submitting to the authority of Pilate and the hands of men, he is not ultimately at their disposal or mercy, but that of the One who reigns from a much higher throne.

Pushing even further back, Jesus goes on to clarify that this is not a will or authority imposed by his Father coercively, but one that the Divine Son himself actively chooses to obey:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18)

While the task of the cross was one given him by the Father, it nonetheless taken on by the Son in the power of the Spirit as an outflow of the perfect trinitarian unity of will to save.

Jesus’ passion, then, was an active one. Every blow received from the hands of mocking guards, he received by his own choice. Every false trial he was put through, he stood in the docket freely. Each stumbling step he took towards Golgotha, he walked willingly. Any hammer blow driving the nails deeper into the wood through his hands, was one he sovereignly allowed to pierce his flesh. And that final breath he breathed out from the Cross? He expired it at the time of his own determination.

In other words, as one of my favorite bands puts it:

…Jesus never fell in love,
With open eyes He walked directly to the cross,
He knew exactly what I cost,
and He still went.

-My Epic, “Childbodybride”

Today, then, let us praise and love the Son as the Father does, for truly, he “lays his life down of his own accord” for us and our salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria

No Miracles = No Christian Hope

resurrection jesusWhether it be Gnostic mysticism, or German Liberal Rationalism, throughout Christian history there have been numerous attempts to separate the effects, or “inner truth” Christianity from it’s concrete grounding in the narrative of God’s interaction with Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. In other words, we want the value of “loving your enemies” and “forgiveness” without grounding it in the Cross where the Godman concretely loved his enemies and forgave them with his own blood. We want the sense of gratitude and joy on a sunny day without grounding it in the Creator God who gives  it to us and currently sustains all things in things in being.

We have seen this in the 20th Century with various atheistic philosophies of hope that try and take their inspiration from Jewish-Christian eschatology, and transpose them into an immanent, or naturalist key, stripped of God and the miraculous. They want the hope without the “extras” of divine revelation that points beyond the limits of reason alone–they want the substance without the form.

In his Reformed Dogmatics, the great Herman Bavinck comments on the impossibility of such attempts by those rationalist theologians who tried to keep the content of revelation, without admitting the category of special revelation and miracle:

Accordingly, faith  in special revelation is ultimately one with faith in another and better world. If this world is the only world and the best world, then of course we have to be content with it. Then the laws of nature are identical with the decrees of God; then the world is the Son, the Logos, the true image of God; then the order of nature in which we live is already the full and exhaustive revelation of God’s wisdom, power, goodness, and holiness. But then what right do we have to expect that the “there” will one day become “here,” that the ideal will become reality, that the good will triumph over evil, that the “world of values” will one day prevail over the “world of reality”? Evolution will not take us there. Nothing comes out of nothing (nihil fit ex nihilo). This world will never turn into a paradise. Nothing can come forth from it that is not in it. If there is no beyond, no God who is above nature, no supernatural order, then sin, darkness, and death have the last word. The revelation of Scripture makes known to us another world, a world of holiness and glory. This other world descends into this fallen world, not just as a doctrine but also as a divine power (dynamis), as history, as reality, as a harmonious system of words and deeds in conjunction. It is work, no, as the work of God by which he lifts this world out of its fall and leads it out of the state of sin, through the state of grace, to the state of glory. Revelation is God’s coming to humankind to dwell with it forever.

-Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 376

In other words, if there is no miraculous intervention, if God is to be boxed away inside the laws of nature, restrained from acting beyond the patterns of the ordinary, if he is not allowed to decisively and supernaturally reveal himself as the redeemer of nature as he has in the narrative of Israel and Jesus, then we have no hope–not any that deserves the name “Christian”, at least. Nothing about the causes immanent to nature, or the history human nature lead us to expect more than a superficial, technical progress in the future–if we don’t destroy ourselves with it. No, Christian hope is grounded and sustained solely in the God beyond nature who can actually do something about the world because he is not limited by it.

On a slightly different note, the apostle Paul put it this way:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only,we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)

The form and the content of Christian hope go hand in hand. You cannot hope in God if that God is not the God of Resurrection and miracle.

Soli Deo Gloria

And This is Why I Read Bavinck: Jesus–the Miracle of History

Jesus 3Yesterday I posted a killer Gospel quote by Calvin that basically sums up the glory of Christ in the Gospel and simultaneously explains why I read him so much. I ran across a passage in Bavinck over the weekend that similarly serves to point us to Christ, and hopeful whets your appetite to read him:

The coming of Christ is the turning point of the ages. Grouped around his person is a new cycle of miracles. He himself is the absolute miracle, descended from above, and yet the true and complete human. In him, in principle, the creation has been restored, again raised from its fall to its pristine glory. His miracles are the signs (semeia) of the presence of God, proof of the messianic era (Matt. 11:3-5; 12:28; Luke 13:16), a part of his messianic labor. In Christ there appears a divine power (dynamis) that is stronger than all the corrupting and destructive power of sin. This latter power he attacks, not only peripherally by healing diseases and performing all kinds of miracles, but centrally, by penetrating the core, breaking and overcoming them. His incarnation and satisfaction, his resurrection and ascension are God’s great deeds of redemption. They are in principle the restoration of the kingdom of glory. These facts of salvation are not only means of revelation by are the revelation of God himself. Miracle here becomes history, and history itself is a miracle. The person and work of Christ is the central revelation of God; all other revelation is grouped around this center.

–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 339

Soli Deo Gloria

Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understanding the “Fearful Symmetry” of Judgment

KellerMy twitter-buddy Tony Reinke (content strategist for DG and prolific memer) had an interesting article about Tim Keller today. In the past (and apparently in the present), Keller has been criticized by the conservative Reformed for his apparent weakness on the issue of wrath. Based on The Reason for God, and a couple of other works, people have said he’s de-emphasized or sidelined the issue unbiblically. Now, as someone who has podcast a couple hundred of his sermons, I never really saw it. He talks about judgment, penalty, and wrath all over the place–certainly not with the raised and rumbling voice some might like, but it’s there nonetheless.

Well, now the proof is more than just anecdotal. I don’t know where he found the time, or how he pulled it off, but Tony went ahead and found, catalogued, and gave us some statistics on Keller’s sermons over the last 35 years of preaching, using Piper as a control on preaching on wrath. The stats:

The easiest way to search for this theme is to find every mention in a sermon to an explicit mention of “wrath” near the word “God.” No two terms, in such close proximity, better stress God’s activity in judgment, and in this particular search we find all the references to phrases like “wrath of God,” “God’s wrath,” even “wrathful God,” “God poured out his wrath,” etc.

I’ll start with a search of Piper’s manuscript archive (1980–2009). From this collection of 1,232 sermon manuscripts, 244 sermons appear in the search result — 19.8% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath.

Next, I use this identical search query in Keller’s sermon transcript archive (1989–2009). From this collection of 1,212 sermons, 159 sermons appear in the search result — 13.1% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath…

Second, the gap between Piper and Keller isn’t nearly as wide as I originally expected, and the gap between Spurgeon and Keller is much narrower than I would have guessed. The gap between Piper and Keller narrows even further in a search for references where “God” appears near words for “judge” (“judge,” “judgment,” etc). In this search it’s Piper 25.2%, Spurgeon 24.5%, Keller 22.1% (though for a variety of possible variants, this second search is less conclusive).

Now, again, I’ll admit, this is an odd search for Tony to conduct. But hey, a man with a lot of archived data and quick research skills can get a lot done, apparently.

On a more serious note, I get the concern. To some it might be odd to be so fixated on getting the stats on wrath-preaching, but the deeper concern is biblical-preaching. The desire, as I see it, is the desire to preach on things at least as much as the Bible talks about them, or as it is appropriate to understand the various themes connected to it. As Keller himself said the other day “the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice is diminished if you minimize the wrath of God.” If we want to hold up Christ’s humble, sacrificial work (among all the other things he does and is) as glorious, you inevitably have to address wrath.

(Interesting side-note: John Piper talks about wrath in only 1 out of 4 sermons. That’s actually low for what I thought it was going to be. I mean, not low overall or anything, but, ya, surprises everyday.)

Passive Wrath. Beyond that, the interesting thing that caught my eye was Tony’s observation that while Keller speaks to God’s active wrath decently often, he tends to focus on God’s passive wrath in his writing. As Reinke explains:

…the Reformed tradition has affirmed a fourth dimension of God’s judgment, a passive judgment, whereby God allows the sinner to self-harden and self-condemn (Romans 1:24–28). God, from his position of “righteous judge,” can choose to withdraw his sin-restraining power from sinners; thereby he “gives them over to their own lusts . . . whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves” (WCF 5.6). Keller knows this, too, and chooses to stress this “passive judgment” in his books.

In other words, you worship Money, a fitting judgment is for God to let you be consumed with greed. You worship Sex, then it is a fitting judgment for God to let you be consumed with lust. You worship Power and it is a fitting judgment for God to let you chase that down until it destroys you. In that sense, the judgment is self-imposed, organic, flowing from one’s own behavior, and yet still God’s active choice to give you over to it.

Now, that established, Tony says that his study of Keller’s sermons “still does not answer every question I have about why he prefers to stress God’s passive judgment in his books.”

Fearful Symmetry. I think I have a bit of an answer for Tony. Aside from the fact that it is Biblical as he affirms, I suspect that the reason Keller has spoken more often of God’s passive wrath, giving us over, more often is that it functions as a helpful heuristic tool for understanding the nature, justice, and reality of God’s wrath for postmoderns. Most people in contemporary culture function with a tacitly Zeus-like understanding of wrath and judgment. If they know God as a judge, he appears to be an arbitrary one, applying lightning bolt punishments that don’t fit the crime. Beyond that, it’s all very far-away and distant from our contemporary experience. The passive wrath of God, though, that we can begin to see.

a. It’s Terrifyingly Real.  We’ve seen addiction in our souls. We’ve seen friends become colder as they pursued career to the destruction of family, health, and friends. We’ve seen the misery of self-imposed obsessions with power and manipulation. We know the darkness of our own hearts that can seem so small, so hidden, but then is powerfully exposed at those terrible moments when it rears it’s ugly head and we say to ourselves “Oh, I wasn’t myself then.” But, thing is, deep down we know that it is our self–our deepest self. It is at that moment that we begin to fear what Edwards spoke of:

There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. –Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

To preach judgment this way isn’t to minimize it’s fearfulness for postmoderns. Instead, it’s actually probably the only way of conveying how truly terrifying it is.

b. It Fits. Beyond that, the passive judgment of God exposes the justness of all of God’s judgments. When you hear Keller tell it, you begin to see all of God’s judgments as more than the irrational outbursts of an angry tyrant, but as the fitting punishments of a Just God. What injustice is there about giving you what you’ve chosen? You choose idols, then receive the terrible dehumanizing degradation that idolatry leads to. Choose violence? Get war. Choose self-centeredness? Get the terrible loneliness, anger, and despair that narcissism leads to. Choose adultery? Get divorce.

When you begin to see this, then you begin to see that principle at work even in his active judgments. I believe Ray Ortlund Jr. has called this a “fearful symmetry.” So, for instance, when Israel decides to cheat on God with the idols, his active judgment through the nations is the historical manifestation of the spiritual reality they’ve chosen. All of the blessings of protection, life, beauty, and goodness are connected with relational wholeness with Yahweh. Reject Yahweh’s covenant and you’ve essentially rejected these things. When you reject God, he gives you not-God, and that is a terrifying, but just judgment. Roll that principle out into the rest of the Bible and you begin to see the way this helps us understand even those more active, seemingly-extrinsic moments of judgment in the Scriptures.

Final Word of Judgement- Let it be clear, I’m not a wrath-obsessed guy. I don’t think all Reformed Calvinists are wrath-obsessed either. The reason I’ve written about it as much as I have (which, honestly, isn’t much) is simply because I see it is a prominent theme in the text, it’s crucial for understanding much of the biblical story-line, it is currently down-played by many, and, most importantly, it is the necessary dark background against which much of the Glory of the Gospel shines.

That said, preachers need to be careful about how you handle this theme. Be careful how much you emphasize it. Be careful that your parishioners know that wrath is not the fundamental reality when it comes to God, but rather the loving holiness of the Triune one who reaches out beyond wrath with redeeming grace to restore and redeem his creation to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Crisp, Theological Rule of Thumb

Sadly, Dr. Crisp no longer has this beard. And yet, the aura of its former magnificence still confers authority upon his pronouncements.

Sadly, Dr. Crisp no longer has this beard. And yet, the aura of its former magnificence still confers authority upon his pronouncements.

Christology can be a tricky business. What does it mean for the Godman to have both a divine and a human nature? Is there a change involved? If so, of what kind? What about Christ’s human nature? Does Christ need a soul and body, or does the Divine Word function as the soul of Christ’s human body? And if he does need one, is it a soul like others, including a human will alongside the divine will of the Word, or is that nonsensical? These are the sort of questions Oliver Crisp sets about examining early in his work Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered

As anyone who has spent more than a little time reading theology knows, there are a number of methodological decisions to be made that impact the results we come to or the arguments we find compelling in Christology, and really, any other doctrinal matter. For those looking for a little guidance in these matters, Crisp offers, to my mind, a very sensible rule of thumb:

I think that a good theological rule of thumb is this: if a doctrine contradicts the teaching of Scripture, it is automatically outside orthodox Christian belief. If a doctrine contradicts the implicit teaching of Scripture and the explicit declaration of an ecumenical council — such as the denial of the Trinity — this is also outside orthodox Christian belief. However, if a doctrine is not excluded by Scripture and can find support  in the tradition, but contradicts the teaching of an ecumenical council, things are a little trickier. It seems to me that even here, one would have to show that the council in question endorsed some teaching that was itself contrary to Scripture — for what else can trump the authority of an ecumenical council of the Church, except Scripture?

Divinity and Humanity, pg. 70

With respect to the case he’s speaking of, there might be a number of views of Christ’s human nature that can fit with the Chalcedonian definition, are represented in the tradition, and are not obviously contradictory with Scripture–specifically monothelite views (the view that Christ had a single, divine will.) And yet, if for no other reason than the fact that an ecumenical council endorsed dyotheletism (Christ having both a divine and a human will) as the view most consistent with Scripture, it ought to be preferred. As Crisp says earlier “It seems to me that it is difficult to make sense of the human nature of Christ whichever one opts for, and at least dyothelitism has the advantage of being the view endorsed by an ecumenical council.” (63)

So then, when choosing between two doctrines that can be considered consistent with Scripture, if one has the weight of a council behind it, go with the council. Of course this doesn’t settle all of our theological or methodological questions, but it’s certainly a good place to start. It encourages a theological approach both humble, historical, and churchly in orientation, while still ultimately submitted to the Scripture as God’s Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine–The Dead Guy Most Recommended by Other Dead Guys

StAugustineAugustine was the first true theologian I read in college. I took a class on early medieval philosophy entirely focused on it, and I must say, it was a deeply formative experience for me, spiritually and theologically. For a while now, I’ve wanted to offer an encouragement  to those who have never spent any time with Augustine to do so–an endorsement of sorts, about 1500 years late. Thankfully, Herman Bavinck has already done it for me:

Thus Augustine became a theologian of the greatest importance for later dogmatics, one who dominated the following centuries. Every reformation returns to him and to Paul. For every dogma he found a formula that was taken over and repeated by everyone else. His influence extends to all churches, schools of theology, and sects. Rome appeals to him for its doctrine of the church, sacraments, and authority, with the Reformation felt kinship with him in the doctrine of predestination and grace. Scholasticism, in constructing its conceptual framework, took advantage of his sharp observation, the acuteness of his intellect, the power of his speculation–Thomas, in fact, was called the best interpreter of St. Augustine. Mysticism, in turn, found inspiration in his neoplatonism and religious enthusiasm.  Both Catholic and Protestant piety buoy themselves up on his writings; asceticism and pietism find nourishment and support in his work. Augustine, therefore, does not belong to one church but to all churches together. He is the universal doctor (Doctor universalis). Even philosophy neglects him to its own detriment. And because of his elegant and fascinating style, his refined, precise, highly individual and nevertheless universally human way of expressing himself, he, more than any other church father, can still be appreciated today. He is the most Christian as well as the most modern of all the fathers; of all of them he is closest to us. He replaced the aesthetic worldview with an ethical one, the classical with the Christian. In dogmatics we owe our best, our deepest, our richest thought to him. Augustine has been and is the dogmatician of the Christian church.

–Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prolegomena, pg. 139

If that doesn’t encourage you to pick up some Augustine, I don’t know what will.

For those of you interested, I’d recommend starting with The Confessions, and digging around from there. Also, this biography by Peter Brown is supposed to be top-notch, and Justin Taylor has recommended Matthew Levering’s new book on The Theology of Augustine as an excellent introduction.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can a God of Love Have Wrath?

bosnian gravesOne of the most common tropes in popular theology today is that a God of Love couldn’t be a God of Wrath. The two are completely and utterly opposed. The God of Jesus Christ, overflowing with love for the world in the Gospel, couldn’t possibly stand over against the world in wrath and judgement. Love affirms, while wrath condemns. Love embraces, while wrath rejects. Love is the unfathomable beauty of God, while wrath is everything dark about human hate projected onto God.

Miroslav Volf used to think that the too–until the Bosnian War, that is:

The apostle Paul ascribed to God actions and attitudes that stand in sharp contrast with how such a doting grandparent behaves. He spoke rather freely of God’s “judgment”, “condemnation”, even of God’s “wrath” (see Romans 1:18-3:20). Setting aside the litany of things that the Apostle believed merit God’s condemnation, let’s focus on the fact of it. In particular, let’s examine the appropriateness of God’s wrath, the strongest form of God’s censure….

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pp. 138-139

Wrath isn’t the opposite of love, then–indifference is. There are caveats on all of this, of course. It must be remembered wrath is not a primary attribute of God, but rather a relative one provoked by sin–much the way mercy are. What’s more, God is impassible and so his wrath must be conceived of within the parameters of the Creator/creature distinction, with the appropriate safeguards of analogical language in place, protecting us from some crude, explosive Zeus-like wrath. And yet, the bottom line is that it is still something properly, indeed, necessarily affirmed of the God who is the Lover of the world.

free of chargeOf course, there’s a danger that comes with a theoretical knowledge of God’s wrath–that we keep it at arm’s length and fail to relate it to our own sin:

    Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgment, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. I knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity. If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.

Also, once we affirm that God’s condemnation of wrongdoing is appropriate, we cannot reserve God’s condemnation for heinous crimes. Where would the line be drawn? On what grounds could it be drawn? Everything that deserves to be condemned should be condemned in proportion to its weight as an offense – from a single slight to a murder, from indolence to idolatry, from lust to rape. To condemn heinous offenses but not light ones would be manifestly unfair. An offense is an offense and deserves condemnation…

-ibid, pg. 139

And yet, thankfully that is not the whole of the story. God’s love is revealed not only in condemnation of sin, but chiefly in the salvation of sinners from that judgment in the death of his Son:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

Soli Deo Gloria

Naughty Systematic Theologians, Just Be ‘Biblical’!

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.

A pet peeve of mine is the tendency of some historical scholars to act as if, unlike naughty dogmatic theologians, their own confessional commitments aren’t driving any of their exegetical work. Being biblical scholars, their conclusions aren’t beholden to anything but the text, unlike those theologians coming to Scripture as they do, armed to the teeth with distorting theological preconceptions.

Apparently this isn’t a new thing.

In the first volume of his tremendous Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck comments on the similar myopia of some of the ‘biblical theologians’ of his own day:

However, this school suffers from grave one-sidedness as well. While it thinks that it is completely unbiased in relating to Scripture and that it reproduces its content accurately and objectively, it forgets that every believer and every dogmatician first of all receives his religious convictions form his or her church. Accordingly, theologians never come to Scripture from the outside, without any prior knowledge or preconceived opinion, but bring with them from their background a certain understanding of the content of revelation and so look at Scripture with the aid of the glasses that their church have put on them. All dogmaticians, when they go to work, stand consciously or unconsciously in the tradition of the Christian faith in which they were born and nurtured and come to Scripture as Reformed, or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic Christians. In this respect as well, we cannot simply divest ourselves of our environment; we are always children of our time, the products of our background. The result, therefore, is what one would expect; all the dogmatic handbooks that have been published by members of the school of biblical theology faithfully reflect the personal and ecclesiastical viewpoint of their authors. They cannot, therefore, claim to be more objective than those of explicitly ecclesiastical dogmaticians. The “pure” gospel that Ritschl finds back in Luther and Jesus corresponds perfectly to the conception he himself formed of it. All these so-called biblical schools, accordingly, are continually being judged by history; for a time they serve their purpose and recall a forgotten truth, but they do not change the course of ecclesiastical life and have no durability of their own.

Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prologomena, pg. 82

While Bavinck goes on to fill this out a bit, there are a number of comments to be made on this fascinating text. First of all, long before any postmodern theorists came along to tell us so, Bavinck knew about the historical-situatedness of all of our interpretive efforts. I point this out simply to say this isn’t a new thing, and apparently this recognition can apparently fit comfortably within the structure of a classic, Reformed understanding of Scripture, objective revelation, and so forth.

Second, and this is really the point I’m interested in, biblical theologians are just as theologically and socially-invested in seeing the texts go a certain way. This isn’t to say that we can’t have conversations across traditions about the texts, or a denial that we can correct our theological confession in light of the study of Scripture. Some of the most confessionally-conservative theologians I know of still make interpretive moves that are different than their theological forebears in the tradition, even when confessing essentially the same creed. What’s more, people do convert and shift from one confessional tradition to another. I know I have.

Still, whenever I see a biblical scholar chastising the theologians of, oh say, the Reformed tradition, for their reliance on a certain text to establish their doctrines, because an ‘objective’ reading simply doesn’t yield that doctrine, it is probably an instructive exercise to look up his/her own church affiliation.

Soli Deo Gloria