John Webster on Mercy: Divine and Creaturely

God without measureJohn Webster is in the business of doing “theological theology”—theology that takes its beginning and end to be God and the works of God—and so, in one sense, there’s nothing surprising about finding rich, dogmatic reflection in the second volume of his stunning set of essays, God Without Measure. In another sense, it’s remarkable given that it’s a set of essays in moral theology—indeed, the subtitle is “Virtue and Intellect”, specifically those of human creatures.

For Webster, however, dogmatics considers the creature and the principles according to which it acts only in light God—his being and the order of reality brought into being and rescued from corruption in the economy of creation and redemption. In other words, to speak of creatures and our activities, we must always consider God and his works in and through the Son and the Spirit. As he expresses it in the first chapter, activity follows being. We act out of what we are and the very first thing we must recognize about ourselves is that we are God’s creatures (3).

Moral theology, then, is a grand exercise in the famous dictum of Pauline theology that imperatives follow indicatives. Taking his cue from a theological reading of the letter to the Colossians, Webster suggests that Christian ethics is a matter of “seeking” and discerning “where Christ is”, for ingrafted into his history and life, that is where our life is and the reality out of which we must act (Col. 3:1-4). Theology cannot separate Christology from ethics, then, nor displace the primacy of the “metaphysical…over the paraenetic”, nor must it conceive of the human vocation as one separated from Christ (26).

This structure comes out in the variety of essays ranging from human dignity, courage, to the nature of theology in the university. For myself, I was struck by it in particular by two insights in his essay on the work and virtue of mercy. One on the nature of divine mercy and the other on the limits of human mercy.

Saying Jesus is Saying Mercy

But to begin, Webster makes it clear that “Christian theology speaks about mercy by speaking about Jesus Christ” (49). Jesus Christ is the reality that gives our reflection weight—not because he’s some symbol or exemplar, nor because he’s prophet or legislator of a moral truth beyond him. No, he himself is the concrete, historical, embodiment of the Word of God who “makes manifest the metaphysical and moral order of the entire creation” (51). So to speak of the history of Jesus Christ is to speak of the ultimate good and final end of creation, who clarifies, corrects, displays, and gives shape to the world as it is and as its meant to be.

Two more points before moving on. Webster makes it clear that to speak of Christ means to look back into the depths of God’s Triune life as he is the eternal Word of God, come at the command of the Father, in the power of the Spirit—to speak of Christ’s mercy is to speak of God’s mercy (52). What’s more, speaking of Christ means also looking forward into the lives of the people of God, since Christ coming as the mercy of God is aimed at reconciling and transforming the life of creatures, rendering them able to render mercy towards others (53). And this brings me to the two points that struck me.

Divine Mercy

First, Webster notes that God is intrinsically and unfadingly good—he is perfect in and of himself. This perfect goodness in himself is the ground for his goodness towards others—the relative (relating) goodness and love of God are his will to communicate goodness towards his creatures. Now, “mercy is the directing of God’s majestic goodness to the relief of the creatures in misery and wretchedness” (54). God’s mercy is God’s goodness at work to give us respite and liberation in our miserable rebellion and evil. Aquinas says that mercy is proper to God because it “involves the giving from one’s abundance to others” and “relieving their needs, a function especially belonging to a superior.”

Following this insight, Webster stops to draw out what it means for mercy to be proper to God. He urges us not to think that creaturely need is the cause of God’s mercy. No, rather, it is the occasion that brings to light God’s goodness in this particular situation of our misery. In other words, mercy is free act of God, but it is not an arbitrary one. Here he appeals to the distinction between an affection and a passion. A passion is an “emotion” that is forced, or drawn out of one under compulsion and by distress. An affection is a rational, free response consistent with who God is in himself. The upshot of this is that “God is not reduced to misery by creaturely wretchedness, so that his mercy is a relief of God’s ow trouble as much as that of the creature” (55). Quoting Barth, “God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in his own free power, in his inmost being…his compassionate words are not grounded in a subsequent change…but are rooted in his heart…” (56).

God does not have to be convinced to be merciful. God, in his goodness, simply is merciful. This is the free, stable, unshaking ground of the gospel of God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ.

Human Mercy

Of course, this divine mercy is the source of God’s victorious conquest over our sin and rebellion, bringing us back into proper relations, or fellowship with him. This fellowship in the Son and Spirit transforms and renews us, bringing us into a new order—an order of mercy, in which we begin to understand ourselves as objects of God’s mercy. “God’s active merciful presence and rule establishes a creaturely kingdom of mercy” (59). Webster goes into detail about the relationship between God’s mercy and our mercy at this point because he says “we should remind ourselves that a great deal hangs on achieving a sufficiently fine-grained description of a theological account of human mercy, but also”—and this is the point that caught my eye—“the burden of expectation which we place on human mercy” (59).

Among other points that he makes, Webster struggles to capture the tension of our works of human mercy in the command, “Be merciful, even as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36). In the first place, they are the work of “God’s new creatures”, plucked up from misery, restored, renewed, and given a moral energy by the Spirit. They do not have to “strive to introduce grace into a world from which it is otherwise absent.”

That said, “because mercy is creaturely, it is limited.” Despite our new creation, we are still finite and we can only do what we can do, “no more.” This is important since it’s easy to become exasperated or hopeless at the limits to our efforts. Indeed, we can become merciless towards ourselves and others in our urgent drive to transcend the creaturely limits of our mercy. For this reason, it is so important that “creaturely mercy accept the restriction of its capacities without resentment or despair”, but instead, “venture its imperfect work cheerfully and hopefully, looking to God’s own encompassing mercy as its vindication” (61).

The work of mercy proceeds, then, because God is merciful and he is so towards his creatures in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Of the Father’s Love Begotten: The Virgin Birth as Image of the Trinity

holy spiritThere’s no way around it–the miracle of Christmas is a trinitarian event through and through. Contemplating the baby born of the virgin Mary, sleeping in the manger in 1st Century Bethlehem, eventually will draw you into eternity to worship the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As I was reading Christopher Holmes’ excellent new work on the Holy Spirit this week, I ran across a fantastic passage where he is draws out some of the implications of Augustine’s theology of the Trinity by illustrating them by way of the virgin birth:

Jesus is conceived in the power of the Holy Spirit. His earthly birth points to his heavenly birth; his mission reiterates his procession. He is born in the Spirit in time, conceived in the Spirit, who is the Father’s love for him, and throughout his life is filled with the Spirit, who enables him to be who he is even in death, the Son of God. Thus the Son’s mission of obedience reflects the Son’s generation from the Father, who in generating him gives him his Spirit, the same Spirit whom the Son pours out on all flesh and who is “proper” to the Son as one eternally born of the Father. This is the Father who eternally generates the Son in the Spirit. Accordingly, the Spirit is the love of the begetter for the begotten; and the begotten for the begetter.

– Christopher Holmes, The Holy Spirit (New Studies in Dogmatics), 77-78.*

Now, there are a number of fascinating threads to tease out in this dense passage.

First, we must remember that all of God’s acts are Triune acts, even the ones we typically associate with one of the persons. As the old principle has it, all of the Trinity’s works outside the Trinity (Creation, Redemption, and Consummation), are indivisibly those of the whole Trinity. How could it be otherwise if the three persons truly are the One God?  But it’s also important to note that there is a trinitarian unity displayed in the indivisible works in history such that we begin to see the outlines of God’s inward, eternal life as Father, Son, and Spirit. In fact, it’s God’s work in history as we have it in the New Testament that originally forced the Church to recognize that God is eternally triune.

Second comes the issue of the “processions.” Augustine (and I’d argue, the New Testament) teaches us that the persons of the Trinity, while being one God, are distinguished from one another by “relations of eternal origin.” In other words, in all eternity, God has been self-related as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit such that there are patterns of relations between the persons. The eternal “processions” of the Son and the Spirit (God does not become a Trinity) are the key realities distinguishing God’s internal life. Classically, it’s been said that the Son proceeds from or is “begotten” or “generated” by the Father (fathers beget sons), the Spirit is “breathed out” or proceeds from the Father and/through the Son, and the Father is the eternal source who proceeds from no one. This is who the persons are–their relations are their identities and so forth.

Third, as already noted, there is a close relationship between who God is in eternity and who he shows us he is in history. When God works in history, while we don’t see all that God is in his eternity, we do see truly who and what God is. To put it another way, when the Son and the Spirit are revealed to us in their “missions” in history (becoming incarnate, being sent by the Father and Son to the church, etc), these missions map onto or are indicative of the eternal processions. There is fit between them. There is something about who the Son is in relation to the Father in eternity that makes it suitable that he specifically is the person who becomes incarnate for our salvation.  The one who is eternally begotten by the Father above is now begotten below without a human father. So while God is not reducible to what he does in history, what he does in history reflects the glory of God’s eternally resplendent being.

Fourth, in the Western tradition, especially after Augustine, the Church has recognized that the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from the Father is not apart from the Son. In fact, the Nicene Creed teaches that he proceeds “from the Father and from the Son.” This is because in Scripture he is shown to be sent by both Father and Son (cf. John 14:16, 15:26; 16:7), and is often referred to as both the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son (Acts 16:7; Phil. 1:19). So if the Son also sends the Spirit in history and the Spirit is that of the Son, that points to the Spirit’s procession coming from the Son as well as from the Father, though in a unique, differentiated way.

Now, Augustine adds another dimension to this. He says that the Spirit is not only the Spirit of Son and Father, coequal with both, eternally one with them, God proceeding from God, but on the basis of some key texts, that the Spirit’s unique processions ought to be thought of as the love of Father and Son. All of this transcends human speech, of course, but the Spirit is the Love of God for God–he is the Love that God is, precisely as the love of the Father and the Son. 

In which case, there are multiple dimensions of depth to that classic hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The Son is eternally begotten in the love of the Father “ere the worlds began to be.” The Son is begotten in time, born of a virgin (“that birth forever blessed”) by the Father’s love for his wayward creation. But this happened, “by the Holy Ghost conceiving”, God’s own Love is the agent of Christ’s mysterious, miraculous appearing. Of the Father’s Love begotten, indeed.

In the virgin birth, we don’t simply have a neat trick, then, a cool miracle proving that Jesus is God, but rather a sign, a mirror refulgent with glory of the Holy Trinity.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For those curious about Holmes’ work, I commend this post to you whereby he introduces his project.

The Reformed Catholicity of Herman Bavinck

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.

Herman Bavinck is one of the, if not the, finest, confessionally-Reformed dogmaticians of the last two hundred years. Anyone who has encountered his work and knows the depth of his learning, his sound orthodoxy, and creatively faithful articulation of the Reformed faith in the face of his modern context.

Those same readers, though, could also testify to Bavinck’s credentials as a theologian of the Church catholic, despite his location at the small confessional school at Kampen. Indeed, George Puchinger notes, “History has its ironies but it cannot be denied: the most ecumenical protestant dogmatic theology in fact appeared in Kampen, the place where theology was practiced in the most isolationist manner” (cited in James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, pg. 93)

Bavinck’s method of developing doctrines historically and organically certainly played a role in this. In pretty much every locus in the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck takes the time to review each doctrine according to broader cultural material, as well as the Old and New Testament witness. A large bulk of his chapters, though, consist of an extensive historical survey that give an irenic account of each topic from the Fathers (East and West), to the Medievals, through the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern period across Roman, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical traditions.

But even Bavinck’s skill as a historian doesn’t cut to the heart of his Reformed Catholicity. References to Augustine, the Cappodocians, Hilary, and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Thomas, Scotus, and the medievals all play a role in his formation of doctrine now. That’s because Bavinck had a depth theology of the witness of the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the Church that speaks to his approach to dogmatics.

First, he notes that human knowledge, especially our theology and religion, is only and always grounded in our existence as humans in community. Long before Alasdair MacIntyre came on the scene, Bavinck knew that knowledge was traditioned:

Abstractions—universals—do not exist in reality. The tree, the human being, the science, the language, the religion, the theology are nowhere to be found. Only particular trees, human beings, sciences, languages, and religions exist. Just as a language is associated with a particular people, and science and philosophy are always pursued in a certain school and ideological context, so religion and theology can be found and nurtured only in a related community of faith.

Of course, that means that we come to knowledge of our faith on in the churches we inhabit–they are the “natural soil” of religion. There are limitations to this, of course. There isn’t one pure theology, or pure church, but many churches and many theologies. And it will be this way until the church reaches the maturity and the unity of the Son of God at the end of all things (Eph. 4). That said, the churches, for all their division, are not disqualified from the purposes of God with respect to our knowledge of the truth.

It is not apart from the existing churches but through them that Christ prepares for himself a holy, catholic church. Nor is it apart from the different ecclesiastical dogmas but through them that the unity of the knowledge of God is prepared and realized.

How can Bavinck affirm this in the face of all the division and doctrinal strife? Because he had a solid grasp of the now/not yet quality to the Church’s possession of doctrinal truth. What’s more, he knew that it is to the Church that God has promised the Holy Spirit:

This significance of the church for theology and dogmatics is grounded in the link that Christ himself forged between the two. He promised his church the Holy Spirit, who would guide it into all truth. This promise sheds a glorious light upon the history of dogma. It is the explication of Scripture, the exposition that the Holy Spirit has given, in the church, of the treasures of the Word.

It is this understanding that reveals the root of Bavinck’s own approach to the broader church tradition in which he stood as a confessional theologian of the Church catholic. Here’s how he conceived of the dogmatician’s job in this light:

Accordingly, the task of the dogmatician is not to draw the material for his dogmatics exclusively from the written confession of his own church but to view it in the total context of the unique faith and life of his church, and then again in the context of the history of the whole church of Christ. He therefore stands on the shoulders of previous generations. He knows he is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and lets his witness merge with the voice of these many waters. Every dogmatics ought to be in full accord with and a part of the doxology sung to God by the church of all ages. – Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 86

Bavinck sought to craft a dogmatics that blended its voices into the that of the broader choir of the church throughout the ages, even as he sung it in his own deep, Reformed baritone.

None of this, of course, threatens the Scripture principle. Though the dogmatician is a student of the tradition, learning from what has come before, grateful for that deep cloud of witnesses, Scripture not the Church, is still the self-authenticating norm of all theology. All the same, it is his commitment to Scripture, or rather, the Triune author of Scripture, that authorizes Bavinck’s aim to speak beyond the confines of his own Reformed tradition to speak to the broader Church over which Christ is Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 Things Hebrews Says About Jesus (Or, Condensed Christology)

christ pantokratorThe New Testament is chock-full of stunning passages on the nature of Christ. Arguably, chief among them stands the opening lines of the epistle to the Hebrews. While we don’t know who the author of Hebrews was, nor the exact time and setting of the letter, it’s very clear that he had one key purpose in writing to the churches: strengthen, secure, and refocus their faith in the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. In order to do so, he’ll engage in lengthy arguments about his supremacy to angels, Moses, the Priesthood, his better covenant, and more, at length. Unlike other authors, though, he doesn’t slowly work his way around to the conclusion. No, he hits them with both barrels in his opening shot:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)

Engaging in a full-blown exegesis of this text is far beyond me–at least in a short post–but I did want to highlight some of the key points of astonishingly comprehensive-yet-condensed Christology. Here are, then, seven things the author of Hebrews says about Christ.

  1. Son. The first thing that the author notes is Jesus is “his Son.” Now, in what exact sense Christ is the “Son” here will be filled out in, I think, a couple of the other things he will say about him. But whatever else he says, the title under which he possesses all these other categories and accomplishes all of his works is as the Son.
  2. Revealer. Secondly, the Son is the ultimate capstone of God’s self-revelation. In former times, God spoke in various ways, through prophets, through poets, historians, and the other authors of Scripture, inspired by God. But now God speaks–God communicates God’s will, God’s works, and God’s wisdom–in the person of the Son. He is the culmination–though, not the denial!–of all that God has spoken before.
  3. Heir of All Things. It is this Son, who has also been appointed the “heir of all things.” Now, what does that mean? Well, the Son is Son, in one sense, according to the flesh. As the Psalms testify (2, 110), he is the Royal Son of David, heir to the throne of Israel, the blessings of the covenant, and even more, the true Son of Adam, heir to the kingdom of the whole world.
  4. Creator. Next, this Son who has been appointed heir of all things according to his humanity seems to have a deeper claim on the world: he is the agent through whom God “created the world.” Here, the author of Hebrews says something fascinating. Just like the John (1:1-3) and Paul (Col. 1), he operates with the clear, Jewish delineation between the Creator and the creation, and just like them, he has the Son on the Creator side of the line. If the world was made through him, what is he not? Any other thing in the world. We might hear echoes here of Wisdom (Proverbs 8).
  5. Radiance of Glory and Imprint. The Son, we are told, is the radiance, the shining, the “refulgence”, of the glory of God. This is part of his role as Revealer. Of course, in Scripture, God’s glory and God’s person are irrefragably bound up together as a the sun is with the rays of light pouring forth from it. The Son reveals God’s glory precisely because he is the “exact imprint”, the one who has the very “form” and shares the “nature” of God (Phil. 2).
  6. Sustainer. In case you’re still a bit skeptical, we also learn that the Son is the one who “upholds the universe.” How? By “the word of his power.” The Son, then, is the one who sustains the world in existence at every moment. He is the source of its coherence, integrity, and continued being (again, cf. Col. 1:15-16). Hebrews has a Christologically-focused doctrine of providence.
  7. Purifier. Beyond the work of creation, providence, though, stands that of salvation. This condensed Christology turns out to be short-hand account of the entire economy of redemption. The Son is, in a way that will be filled out at length in the rest of the letter, the one who “makes purification for sins” for his brothers and sisters. He does this both through what he is (the true Priest and Mediator), but also in his work, presenting a better sacrifice to remove the stain of sins, as well as sealing a better covenant in his blood. All of this is confirmed in his being “seated at the right hand of Majesty on high” having completed his work once and for all.

All of these titles and works could be expounded for pages, filled out with multiple Scripture references, and derive multiple spiritual applications from each. For now, though, I simply want to note just how high a view of Christ we are given in these verses.

Jesus, the Son, is the agent of revelation, creation, providence, and salvation–all divine works. Alongside key passages in John, Paul, and Revelation, it’s quite easy to see how the Fathers at Nicaea and Chalcedon came to the conclusions about the person of Christ that they did. It wasn’t a matter of Greek, philosophic, metaphysicalisation (if that’s even a word) of the Gospel. Rather, it was simply an effort to expound and explain the already-dense, theologically-thick testimony to the glory of Christ given in the pages of the New Testament centuries earlier. 

Soli Deo Gloria

The Adamantine, Invincible, Invulnerable Love of God

sondereggerLove is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

At the current moment, the dominant attribute in our common talk of God is typically love. Love is also at the center of a number of recent academic treatments of the doctrine of God and especially a number of the revisions of that doctrine in the 20th Century. What’s more, that God is centrally and fundamentally love is taken by many to mean that God is relational.

And for Trinitarians, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. God is relational all the way down. But one of the great burdens of Kevin Vanhoozer’s work Remythologizing Theology is to show that the current model of a relational God meant to replace “classical theism” does what all onto-theologies do–take a metaphysical concept from without Scripture and read Scripture’s witness to God in that light. In this case, we take modern definitions of relationality as necessarily including mutuality, vulnerability, and so forth, and in that light, deliver us into the hands of a suffering and empathetic God. Here is much of the thrust behind various process, panentheist, and Open theist models on offer. 

The question we’re to ask, though, is whether or not this is the understanding of relationality and love we are given to understand as we read the broad sweep of the Scriptures as well as its individual pages. Here, of course, is not the place to understand such an examination. Still, I was reminded of this issue when I ran across this stunning exposition by Katherine Sonderegger of Paul’s “Love” hymn in 1 Corinthians 13. I’ll quote it at length:

This is Love. Now it seems to me that this passage lies so close to hand, remains so familiar from every wedding and so many burials, that we overlook one of its most striking features. The love praised here, the more excellent way, does not envision an object at all–how odd that we read it at weddings!–nor does it speak of mutuality, indeed of passibility, in any fashion. St. Paul’s love is supremely invulnerable, impervious to another we might dare say. Perfect love is invincibly objectless, immutual, perdurant. It never ends–it alone is eternal against all the gifts of the Spirit, prophecy, and tongues and knowledge. It is adamantine.

Paul picks out with two quick strokes the positive traits of love, patience and kindness. Surely a quiet evocation of hesed. God’s loving-kindness! Then the apostle turns to what we might think of as love’s negative predicates: it is not envious or proud or coarse; not ill-tempered, variable, stubborn; not immoral, sadistic, cruel, and petty; not weak. Love is recognized in its ready delight for the truth, the good; they are twins. In all its ways, love remains unflinching, undeterred. It is supremely confident, twinned with hope and trust. Love has been prised loose from all self-seeking, from the burdens, sometimes frightful, so often small and miserable, that infect our loving, from the anger and resentment that course through our most ardent loves, from the submission to what we call facts in this proudly “realistic” life of ours–ingratitude, unsuitability, meanness. Love, Paul tells us, simply withstands, endures, triumphs. It abides as the greatest, the uncontested, the supreme. Love is self-same, thoroughly itself, constant, unswerving, true.

Who cannot see, in all these things, that love, this perfect Love of the apostle Paul, is simply another Name for God? God alone is this Love, this more excellent way–we could hardly expect anything else. God’s passionate Love, Paul tells us, is invulnerable in just this particular way to us and to our loveless ways; supremely independent of us and our indifference; utterly triumphant over our blindness, instability, and infidelity; zealous for the right; eternal. This is Divine Nature, personal Passion, victorious Love. Wrath for the good. It is the One Love triumphant over every defilement, injustice, and cunning: it defends the orphan and the little one with fiery Mercy, raging Justice. This Divine Love waits on no one, needs nothing, bends to no condition or limit. Love that is God scorches through the infinite spheres, boundless, eternal Holiness. Love crowns the Divine Perfections; it abounds.

Systematic Theology, Volume 1, The Doctrine of Godpp. 495-497

Before commenting, for those interested, yes, this sort of tremendous, cavernous, doxological prose is lavishly scattered throughout the whole of her work. It’s a beautifully executed work, in that sense. Rigorous though it is, nothing could be further from the stereotype of a “dry” academic work than Sonderegger’s elegant volume.

Now, the context of this passage is Sonderegger’s challenge to the common claim that love requires an object. In the hands of most theologians looking to avoid a needy, co-dependent God, or the idea that God only becomes loving upon creating something other than himself, this leads us to the conclusion that in order to properly expound the love of God we must turn to the doctrine of the Trinity. Only the God who is perfectly, Father, Son, and Spirit can be Love in the fullest sense, with a life that is perfect, complete in itself and for itself before all of creation.

Sonderegger wants to claim that we can think of love monotheistically according to God’s oneness (though not contrary to His threeness). To this–as Sonderegger herself might put it–we must gently but firmly say, “No.” Ultimately, I do think the Love that God is, can only be properly thought through on trinitarian grounds. While Sonderegger speaks of the lack “mutuality” in the passage, that may be, but there is a certainly a directional “communicativity” that seems to imply an object. 

What’s more, Sonderegger also wants to affirm emotions or affections as something we can speak of God. Still, that shouldn’t be taken in the modern, passibilist sense. I think she’d want to sign off on something along these lines, in order to affirm much of what the tradition has held, while not running roughshod over the language of Scripture.  

All the same, Sonderegger has put her finger on something in this passage. Paul gives us this striking picture of love that is good news precisely because of its imperviousness. Love, here, is not trumpeted as the exposed, hyper-sensitive, vulnerability that our culture puts a premium on. It is fullness; an overflowing invulnerability that is unflappable in its will to communicate the good to those who have spurned it. In this passage we are presented with an analogue to the Love found in God’s sovereign determination to give his life, life, and very Self to his creatures, despite any obstacles to contrary. It is precisely this kind of adamantine love that can sustain the movement of the God in the flesh, in order to assume all that is changeable, passible, and vulnerable, in order to redeem it on our behalf. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Is God Bound By the Chains of His Own Justice? (Crisp on Retribution)

retrieving doctrineOliver Crisp has an illuminating article in his work Retrieving Doctrine examining the innovative, Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell’s atonement theology, quite accurately titled “John McLeod Campbell and Non-penal Substitution” (92-115). It’s illuminating, not only as it shines light on Campbell’s own theology–as helpful as that is–but as Crisp examines a number of broader issues related to retributive justice, freedom, and atonement theology.

In it, he takes up thinking about the relation of forgiveness and retributive justice. Crisp–as he is prone to do–is trying to see whether there is a way of advocating for a non-penal understanding of atonement all the while retaining a traditional, Reformed doctrine of God that understands God’s justice as containing a significant retributive elemement. (Note well: Crisp is not arguing for the position normatively. He doesn’t hold it. As I see it, he’s just trying to explore the concept to see if there’s a way of making it work.)

In any case, assuming retribution for the sake of the argument, in the sub-section I’m concerned with, Crisp makes two arguments I think worth highlighting.

A Better World?

First, he notes that we might think of two versions of retributive justice: a weak and a strong version. The strong version “does not permit forgiveness (without satisfaction)”, while the weak version “does not require forgiveness (without satisfaction)”(97). On one view, God’s justice demands reparation or satisfaction, either by the sinner or a substitute, while the other does not. (Also, “strong” and “weak” are not normative judgments, but indications of the strength of the form).

At this point, he stops to ask why most theologians who hold to retribution have defended the stronger view. Many would ask the same. Why not admit that God’s justice has a retributive element, but think that doesn’t necessarily entail reparations? Here Crisp comes to the first argument I was concerned with and points out that this position has some problematic consequences.

Crisp’s concerns are roughly this: if the weak view holds, then it seems like God could forgive any sin and any sinner without any reparations, by the sheer grace of a fiat. Well, if that’s the case, then why not just do that for all sins and sinners? On this view, God could be just as just to forgive, redeem, and save all, with none suffering judgment, or pain for sinners, or the pain of the cross for Christ. Now, if that’s the case, then it seems plausible to think that such a world in which that were true, would be an objectively better world, with less evil, pain, and suffering than the current world. But that is an “intolerable” conclusion (98), so he returns to the strong view of divine justice.

On this view of justice, “crime must be punished and the punishment must fit the crime.”  What’s more, God cannot act unjustly. It is not within him to be inconsistent on this point. God will repay all according to their deeds, as sin (and righteousness) deserve a proper, divine response. And here we come to the second argument.

Is God Bound in the Chains of His Own Justice?

Oftentimes, in these discussions of atonement theology, it is charged that to think God “cannot” forgive without reparation or satisfaction is a threat to God’s freedom. God, it is said, should not be thought of as bound in chains by his own law. If God has to punish sin in order to forgive, then this legalistic theology gives us a God who is not truly free to forgive and so his sovereignty is compromised.

Here Crisp replies that this sort of charge makes two mistakes (99). First, with respect to the nature of divine justice. The “freedom” charge assumes the weak view of divine justice at the outset. But if you already have reasons for setting it aside, then the charge misses the point.

Here I’ll quote him at length:

…it is no restriction on God that he has to act according to his nature (if he has a nature), anymore than it is a restriction upon a monkey that he has to act according to his nature as a monkey, and not according to the nature of some othe kind of creature. It would hardly make sense to say te monkey was not free if he has to act in a simian fashion, rather than in a human fashion. And in a similar way, it is hardly an objection agaisnt the strong version of divine retribution to say that if God has to act according to his nature, that is, in a way that is justice…then he is somehow un-free in so acting. One could object that divine justice is not essentially retributive. But the the objection would not be about divine freedom, but about the nature of divine justice, which is quite another matter. (99)

I think Crisp has it just right here. The “freedom” charge is not ultimately an objection that holds up when you’ve got a solid grasp of what it means to act in accordance with your nature and your character.

Think of Scripture. It is not a deficiency or lack of freedom that Paul is charging God with when he says “God cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 3:13). God’s inability to lie is the free expression of his essential nature as truthful in all of his ways. God is absolutely free to act in accordance with his fundamental nature as faithful and true. If the strong version of retributive justice is true, then God’s demand of reparation or satisfaction is not a lack of freedom, but an expression of his freedom to be fully himself, just in all his ways.

Of course, if you don’t think God’s justice includes (along with a number of other elements) retribution, which returns me to the earlier argument.

Reinforcing Retribution

While I’m on board with both of Crisp’s arguments outlined above, I do wonder about the first a bit more. In response to Crisp’s argument that the world in which God simply forgives all according to weak justice is a morally better world than that in which he doesn’t, it seems you could try to argue that there are other, outweighing goods present in the one which he doesn’t. To do that, you might try to outline which ones those were (though, I’d have a hard time seeing them), or you might more modestly appeal to epistemological limits and claim that there might be outweighing goods which are beyond our limits to know. Sort of like a skeptical theist argument.

In any case, it seems we might want to push harder here, or add further reinforcing arguments on this point. (And, knowing Dr. Crisp, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has already done that elsewhere.)

In addition to theological arguments, this is why I believe we are safer to add Scripture to the argument above as a firmer warrant and foundation for the claims of the strong view of divine retributive justice. Of course, this requires more argumentation than can be mounted here, since a number of serious critiques have been leveled against the idea that divine justice contains the element of retribution according to Scripture, or, at least, according to Jesus’ revelation of God’s justice in the New Testament.

For now, I’ll simply quote Bavinck on the matter as this selection gives us something of the prima facie warrant for suspecting retribution, and even the strong version, is the biblical view:

…retribution is the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture. There is no legislation in antiquity that so rigorously and repeatedly maintains the demand of justice as that of Israel. This comes out especially in the following three things: (1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23); (2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23); and (3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be upheld for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10). In general, justice must be pursued both in and outside the courts (Deut. 16:20). All this is grounded in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who by no means clears the guilty, yet is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 68:5; etc.). He, accordingly, threatens punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:15f.; Pss. 5:5; 11:5; 50:21; 94:10; Isa. 10:13–23; Rom. 1:18; 2:3; 6:21, 23; etc.) and determines the measure of the punishment by the nature of the offense. He repays everyone according to his or her deeds (Exod. 20:5–7; Deut. 7:9–10; 32:35; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Isa. 35:4; Jer. 51:56; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:1–13; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 22:12).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 162-163

Each of those references could be fruitfully tracked down, but for those with a hermeneutic oriented towards the New Testament, I would note those last few texts, especially the Gospel reference. As Henri Blocher comments: “Retribution belongs to the teaching of Jesus (Matt 16:27) and remains the principle of judgment (Heb 2:2; 10:30; Rev 18:6; 22:12)” (“The Justification of the Ungodly”, Justification and Variegated Nomism Vol. 2, p. 474-475).

Well, as always, there’s far more to say. Still, Crisp has given us some helpful distinctions and arguments for thinking more clearly about the notion of divine, retributive justice and the view of God’s freedom to forgive that it entails.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 Principles For Those Times When Theologians and Scientists Disagree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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