Calvin Summarizes Chalcedonian Christology in Two Paragraphs

chalcedonAfter much controversy and struggle in the Church, the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) put out a formal definition on person of Christ, regarding his full divinity, humanity, and the union of the two natures. While not exhausting the depth and beauty of the person of Christ, it lays down important boundaries within which theologians must stay if they are to properly teach the glory of the Son who took on flesh for our salvation.

Chalcedon has stood as the bulwark of orthodox-catholic Christology across traditions for a millenia and a half, and yet, while good expositions of it are available, it still takes some time digging to find a good, clean summary of what the Definition actually says. That’s why I was pleased to find this passage in Calvin’s comments on John 1:14, “and the Speech* (Word) became flesh, and dwelt among us”, in which he briefly and clearly expounds the scriptural truth that Chalcedon teaches:

The plain meaning therefore is, that the Speech begotten by God before all ages, and who always dwelt with the Father, was made man. On this article there are two things chiefly to be observed. The first is, that two natures were so united in one Person in Christ, that one and the same Christ is true God and true man. The second is, that the unity of person does not hinder the two natures from remaining distinct, so that his Divinity retains all that is peculiar to itself, and his humanity holds separately whatever belongs to it. And, therefore as Satan has made a variety of foolish attempts to overturn sound doctrine by heretics, he has always brought forward one or another of these two errors; either that he was the Son of God and the Son of man in so confused a manner, that neither his Divinity remained entire, nor did he wear the true nature of man; or that he was clothed with flesh, so as to be as it were double, and to have two separate persons. Thus Nestorius expressly acknowledged both natures, but imagined two Christs, one who was God, and another who was man. Eutyches, on the other hand, while he acknowledged that the one Christ is the Son of God and the Son of man, left him neither of the two natures, but imagined that they were mingled together. And in the present day, Servetus and the Anabaptists invent a Christ who is confusedly compounded of two natures, as if he were a Divine man. In words, indeed, he acknowledges that Christ is God; but if you admit his raving imaginations, the Divinity is at one time changed into human nature, and at another time, the nature of man is swallowed up by the Divinity.

The Evangelist says what is well adapted to refute both of these blasphemies. When he tells us that the Speech was made flesh, we clearly infer from this the unity of his Person; for it is impossible that he who is now a man could be any other than he who was always the true God, since it is said that God was made man. On the other hand, since he distinctly gives to the man Christ the name of the Speech, it follows that Christ, when he became man, did not cease to be what he formerly was, and that no change took place in that eternal essence of God which was clothed with flesh. In short, the Son of God began to be man in such a manner that he still continues to be that eternal Speech who had no beginning of time.

Commentary on John 1:14

The whole section is worth review as Calvin deftly comments on controversies both ancient and contemporary to his own day. Indeed, as challenges and confusions about just who Jesus is continue into our own, students and disciples of the Word would benefit from listening into the disputes of another age. While they’re framed in different ways, they are often-times structurally similar such that hearing the answer discussed in a context less immediate and personally-charged for us, can cast a clearer light for our own days.

Of course, the point of all this is not mere doctrinal correctness, but the life of doxology that follows. Christ is not properly worshipped and glorified, unless his magnificent person is properly taught and displayed according to Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria 

*Calvin follows Erasmus in rendering the word ‘logos‘ as ‘Speech’ instead of ‘Word’. For his explanation, see his comments here.

Mistaking a Stick for the Son

sunpaintingEver run across those verses with God kind of loudly declaring “I am God, acknowledge that” and so forth? You find them in Isaiah (43:11; 45:5), Ezekiel (12:15; 2044), and places like that. I remember when I first read them in my studies, I was kind of put off. I didn’t get it at first. God seemed awfully narcissistic and insecure to be going on about himself like that, kind of like the awkward guy who refers to himself in third person. (“Derek doesn’t like mayonnaise. Derek is the greatest.”)

Well, later on, I read a bit more, understood the context, and began to deeply love these declarations of God’s sovereign uniqueness. He truly is the LORD, and compared to him there is no other. I love the bold, forthright assertion of his His kingly ‘colossal self-regard’, to use Walter Brueggeman’s phrase. What’s really amazing about it is that there’s actually something very humble about God coming to us and declaring himself to a rebellious people. Given our willful blindness to the truth, why should a great and mighty Creator bother with us at all? Yet in these statements God invites us to relationship with a true and living God, not the false little idols we’ve made for ourselves.

Athanasius paints helpful picture for us when it comes to understanding these passages:

And this account of the meaning of such passages is satisfactory; for since those who are devoted to gods falsely so called, revolt from the True God, therefore God, being good and careful for mankind, recalling the wanderers, says, ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘I Am,’ and ‘Besides Me there is no God,’ and the like; that He may condemn things which are not, and may convert all men to Himself. And as, supposing in the daytime when the sun was shining, a man were rudely to paint a piece of wood, which had not even the appearance of light, and call that image the cause of light, and if the sun with regard to it were to say, ‘I alone am the light of the day, and there is no other light of the day but I,’ he would say this, with regard, not to his own radiance, but to the error arising from the wooden image and the dissimilitude of that vain representation; so it is with ‘I am,’ and ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘There is none other besides Me,’ viz. that He may make men renounce falsely called gods, and that they may recognise Him the true God instead…

Discourses Against the Arians 3.8

Our idols are like finger-paintings of the sun posted in our windows. There’s no comparison to the real thing. In his mercy, God reveals himself to us that we might turn from these darkening idols to the true light of God.

Now, Athanasius is dealing with this text in his disputes with the Arians.  They were contending that in light of these, it’s blasphemy to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father. Athanasius goes on to give the passage a Christological shape in order to expose their confusions:

Indeed when God said this, He said it through His own Word…For the Word of the Lord came to the Prophet, and this was what was heard; nor is there a thing which God says or does, but He says and does it in the Word. Not then with reference to Him is this said, O Christ’s enemies, but to things foreign to Him and not from Him. For according to the aforesaid illustration, if the sun had spoken those words, he would have been setting right the error and have so spoken, not as having his radiance without him, but in the radiance shewing his own light. Therefore not for the denial of the Son, nor with reference to Him, are such passages, but to the overthrow of falsehood.


Just as its ridiculous to think that the sun could shine a light without its own radiance, Athanasius says it’s a mistake to think of God saying “I am the LORD, apart from me there is no other” without His Word. The Son is not some thing external to the Father, but is of his own essence. From all of eternity God has been the Father of the Son. Which is why, when he wants to make himself  known, God declares himself to us through Jesus Christ, the Son. The Son is how God calls us away from the worship of false gods of our own making, speaking light into all of our darknesses.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Theological Importance of Knowing What ‘Time’ It Is

old-clockMost of us don’t think of knowing what time it is as a significant theological issue. Beyond showing up promptly out of respect for an acquaintance, or knowing when to get to church on Sunday, how could it be? According to Athanasius it could mean difference between heresy and orthodoxy. In his First Discourse Against the Arians he sets about answering objections to the Son’s deity from Scripture, showing that the Arians’ hermeneutics were hopelessly misguided and indeed, characterized by interpretive folly.

Bringing forward texts like Hebrews 1:4 “being made so much better to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs”, they argued from this that it is clear that the Son is made ‘better’ in which case he could not be eternal, uncreated, admitting of improvement. Athanasius says that this exegetical failure is rooted in their ignorance of time.

Appealing to the Eunuch’s question to the apostle Philip, “of whom does the Prophet speak, of himself, or of some other man?” (Acts 7:34), he expounds the very important interpretive rule that:

…it is right and necessary, as in all divine Scripture, so here, faithfully to expound the time of which the Apostle wrote, and the person, and the point; lest the reader, from ignorance missing either these or any similar particular, may be wide of the true sense… (7.54)

Athanasius notes how persistent the disciples were about understanding these particulars, especially the time, so that they would not fall into error:

…And the disciples, wishing to learn the time of what was foretold, besought the Lord, ‘Tell us,’ said they, ‘when shall these things be? and what is the sign of Thy coming?’ And again, hearing from the Saviour the events of the end, they desired to learn the time of it, that they might be kept from error themselves, and might be able to teach others; as, for instance, when they had learned, they set right the Thessalonians. who were going wrong. When then one knows properly these points, his understanding of the faith is right and healthy; but if he mistakes any such points, forthwith he falls into heresy… (ibid.)

Scripture also gives us the negative example of what happens when one is temporally disoriented:

…Thus Hymenæus and Alexander and their fellows were beside the time, when they said that the resurrection had already been; and the Galatians were after the time, in making much of circumcision now. And to miss the person was the lot of the Jews, and is still, who think that of one of themselves is said, ‘Behold, the Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which is being interpreted, God with us;’ and that, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you,’ is spoken of one of the Prophets; and who, as to the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter,’… (ibid)

Arius and his followers were making Hymenaeus and Alexander’s mistake, not noting the time with respect to the texts in dispute. If they had, they would have observed that the apostle is not referring to the Lord with respect to his pre-incarnate state, but within the economy of salvation with respect to his humanity. That is the time when God “spoke to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:2), and the Son obtained a more excellent name than the angels (Heb. 1:3, 4).  In other words, they didn’t understand the hermeneutical difference it makes that the story’s main character has a “history” that begins in eternity.

Christianity is a historical faith about things that took place in particular locations at precise times. Salvation is a dramatic reality which means that knowing which act we’re in can drastically impact the way we read the lines. While modern biblical studies have directed us to pay closer attention to the concrete socio-historical circumstances surrounding the texts, and recent narratival/canonical approaches have re-emphasized the redemptive-historical location of the text, Athanasius reminds us to keep an eye on the distinction between history and eternity.

Soli Deo Gloria

Director, Soul, and King: The Word

directorReading the early Fathers gives you a sense that they were smitten by the wonder of God’s creative glory. Ireneaus was one of the first and greatest theologians of the significance and grandeur of God’s works. Following on his heels comes Athanasius’, waxing eloquent on the subject in his work Contra Gentes. In his argument against the pagan gods, he points to the magnificent order of the universe as evidence that they could only be the result of a single, purposive God according to Wisdom–the Word Himself.

Master teacher that he is, Athanasius gives us three similes to explain how the Word gives order to the Universe:

  1. Director – “And for so great a matter to be understood by an example, let what we are describing be compared to a great chorus. As then the chorus is composed of different people, children, women again, and old men, and those who are still young, and, when one, namely the conductor, gives the sign, each utters sound according to his nature and power, the man as a man, the child as a child, the old man as an old man, and the young man as a young man, while all make up a single harmony…”
  2. Soul – “or as our soul at one time moves our several senses according to the proper function of each, so that when some one object is present all alike are put in motion, and the eye sees, the ear hears, the hand touches, the smell takes in odour, and the palate tastes,—and often the other parts of the body act too, as for instance if the feet walk..”
  3. King – “or, to make our meaning plain by yet a third example, it is as though a very great city were built, and administered under the presence of the ruler and king who has built it; for when he is present and gives orders, and has his eye upon everything, all obey; some busy themselves with agriculture, others hasten for water to the aqueducts, another goes forth to procure provisions,—one goes to senate, another enters the assembly, the judge goes to the bench, and the magistrate to his court. The workman likewise settles to his craft, the sailor goes down to the sea, the carpenter to his workshop, the physician to his treatment, the architect to his building; and while one is going to the country, another is returning from the country, and while some walk about the town others are going out of the town and returning to it again: but all this is going on and is organised by the presence of the one Ruler, and by his management…”

Against the Heathen, -§43

Of course Athanasius notes that these pictures are “inadequate”, and “yet with an enlarged idea” they serve to illumine the way God sustains the creative rhythm of reality through his Word–”For with the single impulse of a nod as it were of the Word of God, all things simultaneously fall into order, and each discharge their proper functions, and a single order is made up by them all together.”

In all this he is a student of  the Psalmist who proclaims to us:

1The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

Let us never cease to marvel at the works of the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Who Adopts Us in Salvation?

The FatherIt was in seminary that I began to appreciate the significance of adoption as a distinct moment in our salvation. Even greater than our justification, being declared and thereby rendered righteous with God the King, is being received by grace into his family as beloved children. It is as children that we call out ‘Abba, Father’ and approach the throne of grace with full confidence, knowing that the King of Glory delights to hear our prayers.

The question I had in seminary was, “Who exactly am I adopted by? Is it by the Father, or the whole Trinity?” I initially believed it to be the Father as I understood adoption to occur through union with Christ the Son into his relationship with the Father. Upon hearing me express this view, one of my professors quickly corrected me and warned against introducing a split in the Trinity. To him, it is only proper to attribute adoption to the whole Trinity.  Since that time I’ve gone back and forth, but have come to the conclusion that my initial instincts were correct.

Two principles of trinitarian theology have guided me:

  • First, that although the external acts of the Trinity are undivided, the persons are still to be distinguished. In other words, the Trinity acts in a trinitarian fashion. It’s not that the Father creates, the Son saves, and the Spirit does, whatever he does. Instead, the early church fathers would say that more properly the Father creates, redeems, and sanctifies through the Son and the Spirit. In every action, the whole Trinity is involved.
  • Second, the complementary doctrine of appropriations teaches that, although the work of the Trinity is undivided, it is still fitting to attribute certain graces and actions more properly to a particular person. So, for instance, although the Father and the Spirit are involved, only the Son is properly said to become incarnate. Only the Son is born of a virgin, dies, and rises again, and so forth, even though they happen at the command of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

With these two principles in place, we are in a position to appreciate John Murray’s biblical arguments in Redemption Accomplished and Applied for thinking it is the Father who adopts us, although he does this through the Son and the Spirit:

  1. The first and simplest is that the name “Father” belongs to the first person of the Trinity, just as “the Son” is the second, and the “Holy Spirit” is the third. Jesus directed his prayers to the Father, and he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (pg. 137)
  2. In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that he is not yet “ascended to the Father”, clearly referring to the first person, before going on “My Father and your Father, My God and your God.” (pp. 137-138)
  3. In a very similar point, Murray points out that Jesus’ frequent prayer to his “Father in heaven”, or some similar form of address. He also directs his disciples to pray to their Father in heaven, implying that the same divine person is in view. (pg. 138)
  4. In the New Testament, the term “Father” is personal name of the second person of the Trinity. The Father is often called “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Eph. 1:3; Col. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3). The phrase “God the Father” also must refer to him (Gal. 1:1; Eph. 6:23; Phil. 2:11; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Pet. 1:17; 2 John 3; Jude 1; Rev. 1:6) In almost all of these passages the Father is clearly not referring to the Son or the Spirit. From there Murray says that it is important to observe that “when God is called the Father of believers we have close similarity of expression” to the point where it is an unavoidable conclusion that the same person of the Trinity is being referred to. Again, in places like Romans 1:7 where the phrase “peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is used, both persons are mentioned and distinguished, while one is named “our Father.” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Philemon 3)

For these reasons it seems Biblically-appropriate to understand ourselves to have been adopted through the mediatorial work of the Son and the gift of the Spirit into the Father’s family by grace. This is good news. As Murray writes:

Could anything disclose the marvel of adoption or certify the security of its tenure and privilege more effectively than the fact that the Father himself, on account of whom are all things and through whom are all things, who made the captain of salvation perfect through suffering becomes by deed of grace the Father of the many sons whom he will bring to glory? (pg. 140)

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Dangers and One Hope for Pastors

parsonCalvin was nothing if not a theologian in service of the church. As much as he had to say about justification, faith, salvation in Christ, all of that was for the sake of the church and the right worship of God. To that end, he devoted a significant section to the proper calling and role of elders within the Christ’s Church, not only in the Institutes, but within the commentaries. As a careful student of the apostles though, he was not only concerned with right order but faithful pastoral care as we can see by his expansive comments on 1 Peter 5:1-4.

First he lays out the 3-fold structure of Peter’s instructions for pastors:

In exhorting pastors to their duty, he points out especially three vices which are found to prevail much, even sloth, desire of gain, and lust for power. In opposition to the first vice he sets alacrity or a willing attention; to the second, liberality; to the third, moderation and meekness, by which they are to keep themselves in their own rank or station.

-Commentary on Catholic Epistles, 1 Peter 5:1-4

He then goes on to comment on the three at length, notably devoting special attention to the issue of pride or power:

  1. Sloth – He then says that pastors ought not to exercise care over the flock of the Lord, as far only as they are constrained; for they who seek to do no more than what constraint compels them, do their work formally and negligently. Hence he would have them to do willingly what they do, as those who are really devoted to their work.
  2. Avarice – To correct avarice, he bids them to perform their office with a ready mind; for whosoever has not this end in view, to spend himself and his labor disinterestedly and gladly in behalf of the Church, is not a minister of Christ, but a slave to his own stomach and his purse.
  3. Lust for Power – The third vice which he condemns is a lust for exercising power or dominion. But it may be asked, what kind of power does he mean? This, as it seems to me, may be gathered from the opposite clause, in which he bids them to be examples to the flock. It is the same as though he had said that they are to preside for this end, to be eminent in holiness, which cannot be, except they humbly subject themselves and their life to the same common rule. What stands opposed to this virtue is tyrannical pride, when the pastor exempts himself from all subjection, and tyrannizes over the Church. It was for this that Ezekiel condemned the false prophets, that is, that . (Ezekiel 34:4.) Christ also condemned the Pharisees, because they laid intolerable burdens on the shoulders of the people which they would not touch, no, not with a finger. (Matthew 23:4.) This imperious rigour, then, which ungodly pastors exercise over the Church, cannot be corrected, except their authority be restrained, so that they may rule in such a way as to afford an example of a godly life.

-ibid., v. 1-3

Far from encouraging an overweening authoritarianism, Calvin exhorts pastors not to keep themselves above the flock. Spiritual leadership does not equal license, or an invitation to “tyrannical pride.” “Imperious rigor” is not what is needed, but the “example of a godly life” in which pastors are chief in pursuit of holiness before anything else. Then, he moves to impress them with the importance of following the Peter’s commands by acknowledging the real obstacles pastors face:

Except pastors retain this end in view, it can by no means be that they will in good earnest proceed in the course of their calling, but will, on the contrary, become often faint; for there are innumerable hindrances which are sufficient to discourage the most prudent. They have often to do with ungrateful men, from whom they receive an unworthy reward; long and great labors are often in vain; Satan sometimes prevails in his wicked devices.

-ibid. v. 4

In fact, there is only “one remedy” for the discouragement they face amidst their many labors:

…to turn his eyes to the coming of Christ. Thus it will be, that he, who seems to derive no encouragement from men, will assiduously go on in his labors, knowing that a great reward is prepared for him by the Lord. And further, lest a protracted expectation should produce languor, he at the same time sets forth the greatness of the reward, which is sufficient to compensate for all delay: An unfading crown of glory, he says, awaits you.

-ibid. v 4

Finally, he calls attention to the fact that in the end Peter “calls Christ the chief Pastor”:

for we are to rule the Church under him and in his name, in no other way but that he should be still really the Pastor. So the word chief here does not only mean the principal, but him whose power all others ought to submit to, as they do not represent him except according to his command and authority.

-ibid, v. 4

This is a warning and a comfort. All pastoral authority is exercised only under the authority of Christ–remembering this will keep us from that tyrannical pride and vice. The comfort comes in knowing that as we pastor and fail, we have an unfailing Pastor who is keeping care over our souls as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

God is Creatively Creative

creationMost believers in God, if they’ve given our world more than a cursory glance, must come to the conclusion that we serve a creative God. The Maker of heaven and earth filled it with everything from aphids to the Aurora Borealis. Canvas after canvas is filled with the glory of our God’s infinitely fecund imagination. What we don’t often give thought to is the creative way in which God is creative. Let me rephrase that: God is not simply creative as to his works, but also in the way that he works.

Robert Letham notes at least three ways that God works to shape the our world in the creation account in Genesis 1:

In particular, he forms the earth in a threefold manner. First, he issues direct fiats. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light (v.3). So, too, he brings into being with seemingly effortless command the expanse (v. 6), the dry ground (v. 9), the stars (vv. 14-15), the birds and the fish (vv. 20-21). Each time it is enough for God to speak, and his edict is fulfilled.

Second, he works. He separates the light from the darkness (v. 4), he makes the expanse and separates the waters (v. 7), he makes the two great lights, the sun and the moon (v.16), and sets them in the expanse to give light on the earth (v. 17), he creates the great creatures of the seas and various kinds of birds (v. 21), he makes the beasts of the earth and the reptiles (v. 25), and finally he creates man–male and female–in his own image (v. 26-27) The thought is of focused, purposive action by God, of divine labor accomplishing his ends.

But there is also a third way of formation, in which God uses the activity of the creatures themselves. God commands the earth to produce vegetation, plants, and trees (vv. 11-12). He commands the lights to govern the day and the night (vv. 14-16). Here the creatures follow God’s instructions and contribute to the eventual outcome.

–Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pp. 10-11

God might be described as a king, a craftsman, and a delegator in his threefold creation. He issues decrees that are immediately fulfilled, gets his hands dirty by getting the job done himself, and giving creation itself tasks to accomplish. There are a number of observations that can be made on this basis, but I’ll limit myself to three.

For one, it begins to set the stage for understanding God in a more fully-personal fashion. We see the Father acting by what Ireneaus called his two hands, the Word and the Spirit, to bring about a varied-but-united order. “This God loves order and variety together” (pg. 11), because he himself is the Triune one who is One and yet Three.

We also see in this threefold activity an incipient theology of multiple-levels of causality. Sometimes God’s action is a direct, creative word which needs to mediation. Sometimes, God acts through creaturely means in ways that can be properly ascribed both to God as primary cause, and creature as a secondary, but no less real, cause. It gives God no glory to ascribe to him strict mono-causality in an effort to secure his sovereignty. (Which good Reformed theologians shouldn’t do.)

Finally, something of the nature of redemption is prefigured here. First, God speaks by fiat a declarative word in justification that brings to life those who were dead. God also separates out a people, making them holy by his Word and Spirit. Finally, he uses creaturely means such as the preaching of the Word, water, bread, and wine to save and recreate his people. 

Our Triune God is not only creative, he is creatively creative.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Three-fold Work of the Spirit

people and placeWarning: This is a nerdy one.

I’ve long found the three-fold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King to be an extremely helpful and biblical way of organizing the complex fullness of his once-for-all reconciling work in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session at the right hand of the Father. What I’ve not found is a succinct piece linking the accomplishment of Christ’s final mediatorial with the present work of the Spirit in the community and the life of the believer–that is until I ran across this passage by Michael Horton:

From John 14-16 we also see that the Spirit brings about the…effect of the threefold office of Christ in these last days. As prophet, the Spirit bears the covenant word of judgment and justification, conviction of sin and faith-creating promise. This is what it means for the Spirit to be poured out on all flesh (Joel 2). As Barth famously put it, “The Lord of speech is also the Lord of our hearing.”

Furthermore, the Spirit is not merely a bonding agent between the Father and the Son, but an equal actor in the economy of grace. Although the external works of God are undivided, the agency of each person is distinct. The one Word is spoken by the Father and reaches its creaturely goal through the perfecting power of the Spirit. As the Spirit is different from the Son (“another Paraclete”), Pentecost is a genuinely new episode in the economy of grace. The Spirit “translates” for us and within us the intra-Trinitarian discourse concerning us (election, redemption, and renewal in Christ). The content of the Spirit’s teaching ministry is Christ (John 15:26b)–not another Word, but its inward effect in our hearts, provoking an “Amen!” AS one sent by the Father in the name of Christ, the Spirit preaches Christ, gives faith to hearers, and thereby unites them to Christ as members of his mystical body.

As “another Advocate,” the Spirit also ministers within us as that priestly office that Christ holds objectively outside of us. The Spirit is not our high priest, but applies the benefits of Christ’s completed work to us and unites us to Christ himself. Apart from the Spirit’s agency, we would remain “dead in trespasses and sins,” refusing the Gift, without any vital connection to Christ’s person and work (Eph. 2:1-5) We have already been reconciled to God in Christ “while we were still enemies” (Rom. 5:10), but the Spirit comes to make us friends and children of God (Rom. 8:1-27). As a covenant attorney, the Spirit makes more than a truce–a mere cessation of hostilities–and brings about a state of union.

Mediating Christ’s royal ministry, the Spirit subdues unbelief and the tyranny of sin in the lives of believers, creating a communion of saints as body ruled by its living head through prophets and apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers that Christ has poured out as the spoils of his victory (Eph. 4:11-16). The Spirit makes Christ’s rule effective in us and mong us by inspiring the scriptural canon and by creating a people who will be constituted by it. Jesus Christ had already appointed apostles as Spirit-inbreathed witnesses, but now at last through the ordinary ministry of pastors, teachers, and other officers in the church, Moses’ request in Numbers 11:29 (“Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”) will be fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams. Not only the seventy elder, but also the whole camp of Israel is made a Spirit-filled community of witnesses. The charismata bestowed on the whole body are orchestrated by the Spirit through the ordained office-bearers, who differ only in the graces (vocation), but in the grace (ontic status) of the Spirit. Thus, the mission of the Twelve in Luke 9:1-6 widens to the seventy in chpater 10. Yet this was but a prelude to the commissioning ceremony of Pentecost.

-People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, pp 24-25

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Theses on God and Christian Theology

clear wordI’ve been doing lists of 5 recently. First there were 5 ingredients to being a good theologian, then 5 things my mom taught me about theology, and now I’ve got another 5. Where will it all end? Probably not here.

In any case, these come from Mark D. Thompson’s insightful defense of that oft-maligned and mostly misunderstood doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture. He lists 5 key points about theology that must be kept in mind if the teaching about scripture’s clarity isn’t to devolve into the “static”, abstract, and impersonal notion it is commonly caricatured as:

  1. “Christian theology, at its most basic, is talk about God.” (pg. 49) Note, theologians have been saying this long before Rob Bell got around to it. Etymology aside (theos = God, logia = words), the first distinctive feature of theology is that it is concerned primarily with God. While theologians might talk about politics, humanity, the nature of reality, and so forth, in so far as they are doing theology, they are speaking of these things with reference to God. If they’re not, then they’re engaged in some other discipline, which is fine, but we shouldn’t call it theology. 
  2. Christian theology is essentially and unavoidably trinitarian.” (pg. 50) The point is that when Christians talk about God, they’re talking about the God who is wonderfully Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all of eternity. That’s the God we see revealed in the history of Israel as it culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son Jesus Christ who came by the will of the Father, in the power of the Spirit for our salvation and God’s glory.
  3. Christian theology is talk about God made possible by God’s prior decision to be known.” (pg. 51) At its most basic level the doctrine of revelation means that you only know about God because of God. It on the basis of God’s free, loving decision to be known by creatures–creatures in rebellion no less–that we come to have anything to say about him. As I’ve noted elsewhere, all of our knowledge of God is had by God’s grace. Our very knowledge of God is God’s kindness, God’s condescension to take up our feeble language and use it in powerful ways to speak to us of his great love–even more, to take up our feeble humanity and walk amongst us. (John 1:14)
  4. Christian theology can only claim truth and authority in so far as it conforms to God’s self-revelation.” (pg. 52) God has acted and spoken in certain ways to authoritatively reveal himself to us in history–our goal in theology is to be faithful to that revelation.   Contradicting God is not an option. For that reason, theology cannot be merely creative speculation, but rather a careful exposition of God’s words and works in history for our salvation, as we find them in the Text that bears his divine imprimatur. This doesn’t mean we can’t be creative in our exposition, or ever engage in what might be called metaphysical speculation, but rather that both are carried on in service of and submission to God’s own words about himself. Any “theology” that carries us beyond, or against God’s own self-revelation loses the name ‘Christian.’
  5. Christian theology is talk about God that takes place in the presence of God and in the eyes of the world. (pg. 53) Finally, theology is not done in a vacuum. Thompson calls our attention to the fact that theology happens in the presence of the God who is active through his word. “We do not speak of God in his absence or behind his back.” When we write theology, we are speaking both about God, and, in a way, to him; Augustine addressed his Confessions to his most important hearer. And yet, God is not our only hearer. We do theology in the eyes of the watching world; it’s primary character is that of proclamation. God does not benefit from theology–he already knows who he is. It is the creation that needs to hear of the words and works of God for its redemption. For that reason, theology must be engaged with the world in which we find ourselves, not in a way that blunts or domesticates it, but enables it to accomplish its intended purpose–to confront and welcome the world with the saving news of the Gospel.

As with nearly all numbered lists, this one could easily be expanded. However, these 5 lines of thought are helpful to keep clear as we think about the theological task in general, and specifically on the dynamic reality of Scripture. What we say about Scripture is unavoidably tied in to what we say about the Triune God we find revealed in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Trinitarian Wrath of God (Or, Why He’s Not Just an Angry Narcissist)

God has a funny way of reminding me of how blessed I am to be married to my McKenna. Recently he did it through a bit of an imbroglio I got into online. As happens from time to time, some mis-communications occurred in a conversation and, in my wife’s opinion, the other dude said some hurtful and unfair things about me—things that she thought were wrong and unrighteous. Although typically the one calming  me down, she was so bent out of shape about it she wanted to say something to the guy and was frustrated to the point of tears when I told her it’d be best to leave it to the Lord. (She is little, but fierce.) Her deep love for me and sense of justice led to great indignation at the perceived slight on my character and it moved her to want correct it, to right the wrong–essentially, it provoked her to wrath on my behalf.

Aside from feeling deeply loved and very humbled, this incident reminded me of an important, but little-considered insight into the problem of the wrath of God–the God of the Bible is gloriously triune. Before we see what light that sheds on things, we have to first consider the problem.

The Problem of Self-Regarding Wrath- To be perfectly blunt, the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God is one of the most troubling and confusing doctrines for contemporary Christians to deal with. Let’s be honest, it’s never really been a popular one, but in our modern times, there is a particular animosity towards the idea of God being some angry deity, a jealous God who says “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Ex 20:7); one whose wrath has anything to do with concern about his own glory, his own name, and not simply the good of his people (Ezek 20:13). The idea that God’s wrath might flow out of what Walter Brueggemann has called, “Yahweh’s colossal self-regard” is incomprehensible to many of us.

Of course, many of us can deal with the idea that God gets angry out of love for people. When we see Isaiah or Amos proclaiming God’s indignation at the oppression of the poor, and the violence against the weak, we understand that. That other-regarding kind of anger in God is acceptable to us because it is aimed at human good. We get that for God not to be wrathful against the human evil we perpetrate against each other would be wicked. God can’t look at racism, rape, genocide, and televangelists and just shrug his shoulders. In the face of such evil there ought to be real indignation, anger, and moral opposition–in a word, wrath.

Still, when it comes to indignation flowing from any kind of Divine self-regard, an offended holiness, or anything like that, the charge comes up that this is the picture of some primitive deity, an insecure, tyrannical, emotionally unstable character with obvious self-esteem issues. We read texts like “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name “(Mal 1:6), and we shudder. We ask, “I mean, shouldn’t God be above that sort of thing? Shouldn’t he be able to brush that off? I thought a God of love wouldn’t be that petty and narcissistic?”

Divine Self-Regard and Truth The first question that comes to my mind when I hear these sorts of objections is, “What kind of ‘love’ is it? Is God’s love the kind that’s concerned with truth?” If so, then it must be a love that hates lies (Rom 12:9). The God who is perfectly true loves truth and hates lies. For that reason he must hate the lies that we tell about him. He must hate blasphemy, idolatry, and all the different ways that we deny God his godness. In fact, that’s exactly what the Bible says he does (Rom 1:18-24). On the one hand, yes, he hates it because it distorts our understanding of him and hurts us, but the Bible is clear that he also hates it simply because it is a lie about Him, the Truth Himself.

Think about it, the reason self-regard is so putrid in humans is because it is usually based on a lie, an arrogant over-estimation of one’s value or characteristics. Self-regard in God is not a lie, though. It is truth. When he demands regard, it’s  because He himself is the ultimate in beauty, glory, majesty, love, compassion, strength, justice, holiness, and loving-kindness. For God to have great regard himself is just an accurate estimation of what is the case. It is righteous, holy, and ‘impartial’ , which is one of the many ways that God’s self-regard is unique and unlike ours.

Put it another way, one of the attitudes encouraged in the Scriptures is zeal for God’s Name—we should feel affronted when God’s Name is trampled, not just because it hurts people but because God is beautiful and righteous—He Himself is worth the indignation (Ps 69:9). Now, would it be wrong for God to command us to have zeal for his Name if he didn’t have it? Am I to love God, praise his name, be concerned for its trampling before people just for the sake of others or is it also right for God’s own sake? In that case, isn’t it appropriate for God to think he’s worth it?

Divine Self-Regard and the Trinity While these questions about self-regard and truth are necessary and important, often-times we stop there, and fail think through to the deeply Triune shape of God’s Divine self-regard. In Jesus’ high-priestly prayer we are given a small glimpse into the beautiful life of the Triune God:

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”

(Jn 17:1-5)

Since before the creation of the world, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have been in a perfect, harmonious love relationship of mutual love, admiration, and glorification. Here the Scriptures show this dynamic most clearly in the love relationship between the Father and the Son. From all eternity, the Son has been with the Father, and has always been the object of the Father’s delight and heart, the only-begotten, beloved Son in whom he is “well-pleased”(Jn 1:1, 17; 3:16; 17:23-24; Mk 1:11). The Son has always delighted in the infinite goodness, the righteousness, the holiness, and unimaginable beauty of his Father, and it his will to make his Father known (Jn 17:26). His deep love for his Abba (Mk 14:36), causes him to be obedient and do only what his Father is doing (Jn 5:19). Their mutual indwelling means an identification between the persons such that “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (Jn 14:7).

Trinitarian Self-Regarding Wrath At this point it becomes clear why my wife’s indignation reminded me of God’s own self-regarding indignation and wrath. When we love someone, we are absolutely opposed towards anything that wrongly brings shame on their name or dishonors them.  My wife’s love for me is such that any defamation of my character frustrates her, concerns her, is hateful to her. For it to be otherwise would imply a deficiency in her love for me. Here I’m tapping into a very Aristotelian point to say that virtue at times requires certain emotions and certain reactions, and the ability to feel them at the right time and the right place. The very best, most virtuous people are the people who know precisely why and when to be angry, or happy, or sad.

This holds true maximally of God. Now, again, we need to keep in mind God’s Impassibility, the fact that his emotions and judgments are in very important ways not like ours, subject to the limitations and defects  humans suffer. So any analogy between human love and wrath needs to be seriously qualified. Still, given the great, eternal, burning, over-flowing love that flows between the persons of the Trinity, should we think that the Father would have any less concern about the glory of his beautiful Son? Should the Son be angered at blasphemy and defiance of His gracious Father? Are the Father and the Son being narcissistic in their indignation at the distressing of the Holy Spirit?

In fact, when we look at the New Testament, at Jesus, God in the flesh, this is exactly what we see. Jesus’ most violent moment, when his indignation at sin and evil is most on display, is in his clearing of the Temple at the Passover (Jn 2). In overturning the vendors’ stalls and the money-changers’ tables he enacts a symbolic judgment on the sin that has corrupted the holiness of God’s house. Jesus’ actions in the Temple flow from his anger, his wrath that his Father’s house was being defiled, that his Name was being profaned by the money-lenders (Jn 2:16). In fact, at that point, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” (Jn 2:17)

We see clearly then that Jesus’ wrath has a Trinitarian shape—the Son is concerned with the great Name of his Father. When you put things in a Trinitarian perspective it all the more, shows that it is perfectly reasonable, right, and even biblical for God to be concerned about God’s Name–that his indignation, his wrath should be self-regarding in that way. It is precisely because of the perfection of God’s Triune love that God has self-regarding wrath, not any deficiency or lack in it. It is not narcissistic or petty, but beautiful and honorable for God to care about his Name; it is glorious for the Son to love the Father and the Spirit, and the Father to love the Son and the Spirit, and the Spirit to love the Son and the Father with such a great, burning passion that any affront, any lie, any blasphemy of any of the persons is a source of great indignation to the others, that it provokes wrath and anger, holy concern.

This is Good News To make it clear then, both in his other-regarding and his self-regarding indignation, God’s wrath is not opposed to his perfect love but flows from its perfect fullness. I want to make it clear that in no way am I denying God’s utter goodness towards humans, or his basic, self-giving concern and care for them in all that he does. I simply want to fill in the picture a bit to show the fittingness, the rightness, and beauty of God’s own self-regarding indignation. In fact, I think that when properly considered, God’s concern for his own Name should be a great comfort to believers when they reflect on the good news that through Jesus Christ, we are invited into that love, into the fullness of the life of the Triune God.

In his high-priestly prayer Jesus prayed to his Father, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Jn 17:26) Jesus made his Father’s name known so that through him, that same love with which the Father loves the Son is the love that is lavished upon us and poured out into our hearts through the Spirit. (Rom. 5:5) This means that through Christ the same concern with which God is concerned for his own Name, is the concern he places on you!

Ironically enough, it is precisely this passionate, holy, self-regarding love which enables Paul to proclaim with great assurance that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Rom 8:38-39)

Praise be to the great and glorious love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria