Triune Justification

trinityFrom time to time I hear the charge that Protestant and Evangelical approaches to salvation are sub-trinitarian. By focusing so narrowly on the question of justification as a legal or forensic action, or Jesus’ cross-work as its grounding, Protestants have ignored the Father and crowded out the Spirit. While I must admit that may be true in some popular presentations, it’s certainly not the case of classic Reformed theology. Not only was God’s justification set within the context of a broader trinitarian theology of union with Christ, the completion of justification considered in itself can only be conceived of as the gracious work of the Triune One.

Herman Bavinck lays out the trinitarian shape of our justification in laying out the nature of God’s grace as the forgiving mercy of God as opposed to the more metaphysical conception of the medieval Roman church:

The establishment of the covenant of grace proceeds from God and from him alone. It is he and he alone who for his own sake blots out our transgressions and no longer remembers our sins (Isa. 43:25). We are justified by his grace as a gift (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 3:18; Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:5–7). More specifically, it is the Father from whom this benefit proceeds, for he is the lawgiver and judge (James 4:12), but also the merciful God, who abounds in steadfast love, and blots out transgressions for his name’s sake (Num. 14:18; Pss. 32:2; 103:3; 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Rom. 3:24; 4:6; 8:33; 2 Cor. 5:19). He himself paved a way in Christ to distribute this benefit, so that Christ, too, possessed the power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:2–6; John 5:22, 27), and himself sent the Holy Spirit to apply this benefit to the hearts of his children (John 14:26; Rom. 8:15–16; 1 Cor. 6:11). In the past, Reformed theologians put it as follows: The Father justifies effectively; the Son, meritoriously; the Holy Spirit, applicationally. And to complete the picture at once, let us add: faith apprehends, the sacraments seal, and works declare.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pg. 205

Here we see Augustine’s formula “Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt”, which translates “the works of the Trinity on the outside are indivisible.” In every act of creation and redemption, it is the Father working through, as Ireneaus classically put it, his “two hands” the Son and the Spirit.

So then, must a Protestant view of salvation be sub-trinitarian? While we must always keep in view the broad shape of salvation from election all the way through to glorification, even a laser-like focus on the article of justification cannot eradicate the Triune shape of our faith. It is God who justifies us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For those looking to go deeper into the trinitarian shape of our faith, I would again commend Fred Sanders’ excellent little book The Deep Things of God

Soli Deo Gloria

Guilt Isn’t Just a ‘Religious’ Problem.

I’m pretty sure everyone’s had one of those conversations where days or months afterwards you think to yourself, “Man, that’s what I should have said to So-n-so!” After analyzing the problem with the heat turned down, you end up spotting the fatal flaw, or key unquestioned assumption that was driving it in the direction it was going. Unfortunately, I have those all the time, both because I overthink things, and because I’m not always as quick on my feet as I’d like to be.

One such conversation arose in one of my philosophy classes in my undergrad. We were talking about the ethics of belief, the sub-section of philosophy that deals with when it’s okay to believe something. Questions such as: Can you believe something just because you want to? Is evidence always necessary for every belief you hold? Is it ever okay to believe something you can’t prove? That kind of thing.

Well, we were discussing Pascal’s famous (and widely misunderstood) argument The Wager. Pascal was writing in Catholic France at a time when philosophical skepticism had made a comeback and the classic arguments for the existence of God were in doubt. As part of a broader apologetic, he proposed a little thought-experiment to show that even without evidence skepticism still wasn’t your best option.  

guiltyThe gist of it is this: you’ve got two things at stake when it comes to belief in God, the truth of the matter and your happiness in this life. What’s more, you’ve got two faculties you use to come to your belief, your reason and your will. He says, “Well, say the odds for and against the existence of God are 50/50–there are good arguments both ways, and so your reason can’t settle the issue and the truth is unverifiable. Then what? Well, you shouldn’t consider the issue settled. You still have your will and your happiness to think about.” In Pascal’s view, it makes sense that you should still go for belief in God because that’s the only way to achieve the joy of meaning, purpose, and so forth that comes with belief in God. For the purposes of the story we don’t need to go further. For a better explanation, consult Peter Kreeft’s excellent summary and retooling of the Wager.

Here’s the payout for the story. Pascal argued that believing in God had benefits and joys for this life like meaning, purpose, virtue, and so forth. As we discussed this, my professor–let’s call him Professor Jones–said something I’ll never forget. He asked, gently, but with a hint of sarcasm, “Oh, you mean the joy of going around feeling guilty all the time for your sins?”  In Professor Jones’ mind, the corollary of belief in God is an overwhelming and unrelievable sense of guilt for violating his rules. This clearly didn’t seem like a step up to him.

Now, at the time, I didn’t have conversational space, or wherewithal to respond adequately, but if I had, I would have said, “Oh, but Professor Jones, you already walk around struggling with guilt over failing your god.”

Now, what do I mean by that? Well, let me break it down in a few steps.

Everybody Has a God. The first step is understanding that everybody has a ‘god’ of some sort. The world we live in tends to split people up between “believers” and “non-believers.” The Bible has a different dividing line: worshipers of the true God, or worshipers of something else. See, everybody has something in their life that they treat as a functional god. Whatever you look to in order to give you a sense of self, meaning, worth, and value is a ‘god.’ Martin Luther put it this way:

A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. –Large Catechism

So whether you “believe” intellectually, in a deity or not, you still worship something. This is because we were created by God for worship, so if we won’t worship him something else rushes in to plays that role in your life, be it money,  career, status, relationships, and so forth. It’s either God, or an idol. There is no other option.

Everybody Follows and Fails that God’s Commands. Following off of this, every god has commands and demands worship. If make money your god, then you are under command (compulsion) in order to do whatever it takes to acquire it. You will work as hard as you need to (become a workaholic) and sacrifice whatever you have to (relationships, kids, ethics) in order to get it. When you have it, you feel secure. You’ve achieved and obeyed and so the god has blessed you. The flipside is, if you fail it, make a bad investment, lose your cash in a housing crash, then you feel the loss of security, but also the crushing sense of guilt that comes with failing your god. Wrath descends.

A few moment’s reflection You can see this everywhere: from the careerist who can’t forgive herself for blowing that promotion, to that bitter young scholar struggling to live up to his father’s expectations, to the mother who crushes herself because her child-god didn’t turn out picture perfect the way she needed her to. All of them struggle under the weight of the guilt brought on by their failure to please their functional gods. All of them suffer guilt and shame, even if we don’t call it that.

David Foster Wallace has a justly famous quote on the subject:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Only the Biblical God Offers Forgiveness and Grace.

Here’s where it all clicked for me, though. I was reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and I ran across this brilliant passage at the end of his chapter breaking down this idolatry dynamic:

Remember this— if you don’t live for Jesus you will live for something else. If you live for career and you don’t do well it may punish you all of your life, and you will feel like a failure. If you live for your children and they don’t turn out all right you could be absolutely in torment because you feel worthless as a person. If Jesus is your center and Lord and you fail him, he will forgive you. Your career can’t die for your sins. You might say, “If I were a Christian I’d be going around pursued by guilt all the time!” But we all are being pursued by guilt because we must have an identity and there must be some standard to live up to by which we get that identity. Whatever you base your life on— you have to live up to that. Jesus is the one Lord you can live for who died for you— who breathed his last breath for you. Does that sound oppressive?

..Everybody has to live for something. Whatever that something is becomes “Lord of your life,” whether you think of it that way or not. Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (pp. 170-171)

So to sum up: Everybody has a god. Every god has rules and everybody fails their god. Everybody walks around with guilt and shame. But only the God we find in Jesus Christ will forgive those sins so that we don’t have to walk around feeling guilty all the time. Ironically enough, believing in God isn’t the road to more guilt, but the road out from underneath the guilt you already struggle with.

This is really the answer I’d wish I’d given Professor Jones.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anselm’s Individualist Account of Atonement? Nope.

NPG D23949; St Anselm after Unknown artistSt. Anselm of Canterbury is almost universally recognized as one of the greatest theological lights of the Western church. This also makes him, along with Augustine and a couple others, one of contemporary theology’s favorite whipping boys.  His theological legacy is most commonly linked to two subjects in popular mind: the ontological argument for the existence of God, and the so-called satisfaction “theory” of atonement.  Both run in for heavy fire. For instance, have a problem with the Western tradition when it comes to God? Blame Anselm for his attempt to formulate “perfect being” theology via logical argumentation in the Middle Ages. It’s that simple.

From my readings, though, he is far more commonly attacked for his satisfaction account of Christ’s work to atone for our sins and save us through the cross in his classic Cur Deus Homo  (Why God Became Man). For those unfamiliar with it, very roughly: humanity has through sin failed to render God the honor due him, have robbed him, violated his law, and thereby fallen under God’s judgment. As the Godman, Christ’s obedient life and death for sin are meritorious in such a way that they “satisfy”, or make up for the damage we have incurred. We are then set free from judgment to be reconciled to God. Incidentally, this is not the only thing Anselm thought about the cross or atonement. Witness early on in the work:

For, as death came upon the human race by the disobedience of man, it was fitting that by man’s obedience life should be restored. And, as sin, the cause of our condemnation, had its origin from a woman, so ought the author of our righteousness and salvation to be born of a woman. And so also was it proper that the devil, who, being man’s tempter, had conquered him in eating of the tree, should be vanquished by man in the suffering of the tree which man bore. Many other things also, if we carefully examine them, give a certain indescribable beauty to our redemption as thus procured. — Cur Deus Homo, Bk. 1.3

I mention this because people who have problems with satisfaction or its more Evangelical descendent, penal substitution account, blame it on Anselm’s logic-chopping and his mindset anchored in the feudal world for reducing the accomplishment of the cross to satisfaction and nothing else.

While there’s something to the charge that the feudal setting influenced Anselm’s formulation, one of the silliest charges I’ve seen crop up against him lately is to say that the account of this premodern medieval theologian is the root of individualistic accounts of sin. Now, I’ll agree that Anselm’s un-mooring of the Scriptural logic from its thicker narrative and cultural context can be problematic. But honestly, can anyone read this passage and tell me we’re dealing with an individualistic account of salvation and sin?

Anselm. It now remains to inquire whence and how God shall assume human nature. For he will either take it from Adam, or else he will make a new man, as he made Adam originally. But, if he makes a new man, not of Adam’s race, then this man will not belong to the human family, which descended from Adam, and therefore ought not to make atonement for it, because he never belonged to it. For, as it is right for man to make atonement for the sin of man, it is also necessary that he who makes the atonement should be the very being who has sinned, or else one of the same race. Otherwise, neither Adam nor his race would make satisfaction for themselves. Therefore, as through Adam and Eve sin was propagated among all men, so none but themselves, or one born of them, ought to make atonement for the sin of men. And, since they cannot, one born of them must fulfil this work. Moreover, as Adam and his whole race, had he not sinned, would have stood firm without the support of any other being, so, after the fall, the same race must rise and be exalted by means of itself. For, whoever restores the race to its place, it will certainly stand by that being who has made this restoration. Also, when God created human nature in Adam alone, and would only make woman out of man, that by the union of both sexes there might be increase, in this he showed plainly that he wished to produce all that he intended with regard to human nature from man alone. Wherefore, if the race of Adam be reinstated by any being not of the same race, it will not be restored to that dignity which it would have had, had not Adam sinned, and so will not be completely restored; and, besides, God will seem to have failed of his purpose, both which suppositions are incongruous: It is, therefore, necessary that the man by whom Adam’s race shall be restored be taken from Adam. –Cur Deus Homo, Bk. 2.8

Whatever else you make of it, Anselm’s entire logic depends on the fact that we are not discrete, atomized individuals, but rather members of a family, a corporate whole that is capable of being represented by either Adam or Christ. This is a robust notion of corporate sin and corporate salvation through corporate solidarity with the person of Jesus, our perfect, human brother. This is completely in line with the Old Testament with its notion of corporate representatives (1 Kings 12, Isaiah 53, Daniel 7). And though different in the details, it parallels and is clearly dependent on Paul’s corporate Adam-Christ logic in Romans 5:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21)

Heck, jump ahead and you’ll find this in Ireneaus and most of the other church Fathers who don’t get tagged with the “individualism” charge. What’s more, classic penal substitution theology follows him in this via refinements in covenant theology. Adam and Christ are covenant heads whose sin (in the case of the former) and redemptive, holy death (in the case of the latter) have corporate effects for those whom they represent. Read Calvin, or most of the other Reformers and you will not find some atomized theology of merely individual salvation. Yes, each individual is the object of God’s saving grace, but they are so through the union the Mediator of the New Covenant (a very corporate structure).

Now, given then way pop-Evangelicalism has individualized everything, sure, I can definitely see satisfaction and penal substitution accounts being taught in individualistic fashions. That said, there is nothing inherently hyper-individualistic about either of these approaches.

Again, while there’s probably plenty to critique about Anselm’s discussion of the satisfaction element in the atonement, individualism is one charge we should probably leave behind.

Soli Deo Gloria

When Can We Stop Conversing and Believe Some Stuff? A Ramble on Intellectual Narcissism

landingI’ve written before about current failure of intellectual imagination that plagues our current, cultural conversations, especially around conversion narratives. If you used to believe something for stupid, sinful reasons, then that’s the only reason anybody could hold the position you used to hold. If people haven’t updated their beliefs along the lines you have, it’s because they haven’t read the arguments you have, so they simply need to be enlightened.

What follows is a ramble on another, related angle on the same problem.

Of late I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency to assume people are in our same intellectual position with respect to an issue that’s up for debate. For instance, if you’ve never really struggled with doubt, it’s very hard to put yourself in the position of someone who is wrestling with issues that just seem obvious and intuitive to you. In theological circles, it may be tempting to write it off as pure perversity and rebellion, rather than real intellectual and moral tension.

On the flipside, if you’ve got doubts, then it’s hard to deal with someone who doesn’t currently seem to be sharing them. Their certainty on the issue can be off-putting, or, even more, unthinkable. It’s difficult to imagine that someone has wrestled as hard as you have and then come out on the other side and still holds the beliefs you used to hold, or different beliefs, or indeed, any strong beliefs on this at all. This actually seems to be more than case nowadays, especially because our culture puts a premium on heroic doubt. I don’t remember where he said this, but Matthew Lee Anderson has pointed out that in the current intellectual climate, beliefs aren’t as valid, or true, unless we’ve passed through some period of angst, or torment over them, otherwise they appear as inauthentic expressions of bad faith.

I was thinking about all of this as I was reading Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics. While he probably pushes too hard in one direction, he talked about the fact that it’s fine to search while you haven’t found the truth, but once you found it, land and be content with the truth:

But at the outset I lay down (this position) that there is some one, and therefore definite, thing taught by Christ, which the Gentiles are by all means bound to believe, and for that purpose to “seek,” in order that they may be able, when they have “found” it, to believe. However, there can be no indefinite seeking for that which has been taught as one only definite thing. You must “seek” until you “find,” and believe when you have found; nor have you anything further to do but to keep what you have believed provided you believe this besides, that nothing else is to be believed, and therefore nothing else is to be sought, after you have found and believed what has been taught by Him who charges you to seek no other thing than that which He has taught.

I take him to be saying something like this: When you go seeking for a spouse, the point is to find one, right? Now, once you find one, you’re not supposed to keep searching are you? That’s not to say you’re not still learning, or exploring–but it’s of a different character now. Before I was looking for a land to settle in, but now I’m exploring the land I have. Before I was searching to find a wife. Now I’m “exploring” my wife, looking to grow and learn in the context of an already settled relationship. This is no less stimulating, adventurous, or somehow closed-minded–it’s just the way relationships work. Depth and love are not the result of constant foundation-testing and tinkering, but in building once those things have been tinkered, tested, and settled on.

Something similar is true about theological truth. I’ve searched a bit and have already landed on the Apostles Creed. That’s not up for grabs for me anymore–at least, not in a live way, really. Now, I suppose theoretically someone could provide me with defeater beliefs for it and I’d give it up, but not for now. For now I have cast my bet, rolled the dice, and landed on a basic outline of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord who reveals God as Triune, salvation by God’s grace, and so forth. The question now is learning to understand what I’ve come to believe in a deeper fashion.

Where’s all of this going? Well, I suppose it comes to a few questions. Are you okay with ever landing? Is your approach to faith one that dictates we should we continue doubting and testing the same things over and over? Or, when it comes to cultural conversations on hot-button issues, do we have to keep having the same conversation? Or rather, am I expected to constantly come into every conversation with the same level of hesitancy as you do, or be deemed inauthentic and totalitarian? Can I be confident of my beliefs even as I’m tender and understanding of yours?

In the other direction, do you enter every conversation with the expectation that people have reached the level of confidence and security that you have? In other words, is every expression of uncertainty and doubt an expression of rebellion and perversity, or do you give some space for those who are still piecing it through?

I don’t have a conclusion here other than something I try to remind myself of all of the time: when dealing with people you disagree with, try your best not to be an intellectual narcissist.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Do I Know I’m One of His Sheep? I Hear His Voice

lost sheepAssurance is hard to come by sometimes. For many of us, walking through the Christian life is less a matter of one triumphant stride after another, than a collection of bumps, bruises, stumbles, tumbles headlong down a hill like Wile E. Coyote, and an occasional sober step in the right direction. In our periods of lost meandering then, it becomes very easy to doubt yourself and your faith.

“Am I a Christian at all?”

“Do I really believe this?”

“Am I saved?”

“Is this going anywhere?”

In Bible study the other night, we were struck by surprising word of comfort amidst the heat of controversy. Jesus is once again arguing with this religious critics after healing a man born blind (John 9). He goes on to discuss the difference between the wicked shepherds of Israel and himself, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10). In the middle of it, he gives a reason for the very mixed reactions he’s receiving from the crowd:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me,is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:25-30)

Did you catch that? Why are they not accepting Jesus’ words, while others do? Because they’re not sheep. How do we know? Because sheep recognize their Shepherd’s voice.

After some discussion, my good brother and ministry partner Matt spoke of the great comfort of those words. He spoke of the struggle he has at times to trust, his self-doubt, and flaws. But then he said this, and this is golden, “I may be a lame, kind of mangled straggler at the back of the flock, but I know I hear his voice. That assures me I’m one of his sheep. Whatever else, I know I hear his voice.”

Some of us need to hear that today. We’re caught in sin, or tripped up in doubt. Maybe we’re depressed and prone to melancholy. We’re straggling along, wondering if the Shepherd knows us. Take heart, he’s calling your name and you are his. You will not be snatched from his hand.

Soli Deo Gloria

‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate

debateLast week Zondervan hosted a live-stream debate between some Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones) and some Non-Calvinists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). Now, while I was excited to watch, it just so happened that my internet was slow that day, so I only caught snippets and twitter commentary while it happened. Immediately afterwards I had a trip to get prepped on so I didn’t get to watch it until this week.

Still, because a few people in different theological wings have asked me to comment on the debate for some reason, I figured I’d give it a shot. I tried to keep this brief, failed, but even with its length, I’ve limited it to some focused observations and reflections on a few issues with the first section of the debate, because that’s all I really have time for. This is by no means exhaustive and I won’t even try to comment on all of the issues. Indeed, I’m sure many will find this utterly dissatisfying. If that’s you at the end of this, I have to say I entirely agree, which is probably why I won’t argue in the comments section under this. I’m far too busy this week in any case.

To begin, a word about the players.

The Players And Confirmation Bias

I’ll be honest, going into this, I already had some ideas about it. For one thing, I knew very little about Austin Fischer. I knew he wrote a book about no longer being Young, Restless, and Reformed, but not much else. I thought Kevin DeYoung had a pretty incisive review of it, but honestly, I haven’t had time to read it. As for Brian Zahnd, while I was blessed and challenged by his book on beauty (which I still highly recommend), I’ve criticized him heavily before on other issues. Based on his online writing, his rhetoric towards positions with which he disagrees, especially the Reformed, is honestly, kind of belligerent and prone to violent caricature. He’s a powerful preacher who’s got a way with words and a heart for Jesus, but I wasn’t expecting much of a fair shake there.

With Montgomery and Jones, I was predisposed to root for them. Not only do I find myself in their Reformedish camp in general, I’ve favorably reviewed their book PROOF, and have been impressed with them even in their handling of serious brotherly criticism. Though I’ve never met them, I consider them friends.

I go into all of this simply to make one point: I definitely had a side going in, and that affected the way I watched the debate. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case with anyone who was interested in the event, even if you didn’t know any of them. With the subject of Calvinism, like the subject of God, you’re never neutral about the arguments. One of the most perceptive comments on the whole thing came from Mike Cosper: “If you want to see some wonderful examples of confirmation bias, check out the hashtag.” A lot (most?) of us went in pumped to see Montgomery school Fischer, or Zahnd lay down his linguistic hammer on Jones.  We already knew the right answer, we just wanted to be publicly vindicated.

Debates

Which leads me to the format of debate. I’ll be honest, in my view public debates are pretty limited. Not enough space or time can be devoted to the various pertinent issues involved, so most of the time both sides come away thinking of the other side, “Is this the best you’ve got?” To which I’d respond, “No, of course it’s not.” I know for sure that’s not the best Montgomery and Jones have. I’ve read their book. What’s more, I’m sure it’s not the best that Zahnd or Fischer have. They hinted in the direction of some more serious arguments beyond the rhetorically-freighted, oneliners they were throwing out there. Indeed, Fischer actually did some serious, responsible, exegetical work in his response to Jones on Romans 9, which made me suspect there’s more where that came from.

Calvin and Calvinism

Next, I’m going to say something that may shock most non-Calvinists, and indeed, many Calvinists as well: Calvin did not invent ‘Calvinism’.

Whether you’re speaking solely of the doctrines concerning election and salvation as they were defended and codified at Dordt (which Calvin was already dead for), or the broader complex of thought with respect to covenant theology, ecclesiology, etc, referred to as the broader Reformed tradition, you have to know that it goes beyond him. There are many other stars in the Reformed sky such as Bucer, Vermigli, Ursinus, Knox, and a host of scholastics who delved into these issues at length. I love Calvin, but as Kenneth Stewart has demonstrated in his 10 Myths About Calvinism, his exposition of election is not the only standard or normative one for the confessionally Reformed. Indeed, most of these theologians could point back to a number of top medieval theologians including Thomas and Augustine as representatives, or precursors to their own expositions.

In other words, it’s okay to be Reformed and then think you may have to adjust your exposition of election according to Scripture with respect to double, or single predestination. Many have, even while remaining non-Remonstrant (Arminian), and so forth. So, trotting out a Calvin quote doesn’t mean that Montgomery isn’t really being a good Calvinist, even if he’s cutting things in a way that Calvin wouldn’t have agreed with. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone’s going to say Herman Bavinck isn’t a good Calvinist because he humbly pushes back on the fairly common claim that the decrees of election are definitely about the revelation of God’s glory.

As a side-note, speaking of “Calvin’s system” as “beginning with philosophical theism” is, to be blunt, a blatant absurdity to anyone who’s read the current secondary literature, and knows about Calvin’s humanistic and vocally anti-speculative approach to the doctrine of God. One of Calvin’s most common targets were the theologians of the Sorbonne who engage in abstractions instead of the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, unlike most modern systematics, the Institutes almost doesn’t have a doctrine of God philosophically considered, but instead treats the Trinity, and the nature of God as revealed in his works as Creator and Redeemer. To assert otherwise is only possible through ignorance of the subject, or in the face of the evidence.

Which brings me to the next point.

Jesus Rules and Philosophical Systems

Most Reformed are not intentionally twisting texts to get to a conclusion we’ve already decided on when it comes to the doctrines of grace. I certainly wasn’t. I still feel the weight of the arguments against it. I’ve said it before, but over the years I have only slowly inched closer to the Reformed side on this issue, quite reluctantly and usually through the side door of some alteration in my view of regeneration, providence, or something else that has a role to play here. Why? Because of a struggle to affirm all that Scripture affirms about God’s sovereignty, our choices, his decrees, our responsibility, his grace, and so forth.

See, despite ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’, most Calvinists don’t give ourselves the option of affirming an “internal conflict” within Scripture, as Zahnd talks about, and then using a very specific Jesus Hermenuetic to pick which parts of the Scriptures got it right. Because of the way we see Jesus approaching and affirming all of the Scriptures, we believe Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate affirmed and inspired the Scriptures as the Word of God written. All of it. So we’re trying to get it all in at once. I’ve made this point against Zahnd before, but if your so-called “Jesus-theology” causes you to shunt to the side texts that Jesus affirmed, or dismiss as ‘biblicistic’ efforts to incorporate all the texts to which Jesus constantly appealed, you might be doing it wrong. (Now, this isn’t to say that most Arminians do this, or even that Fischer would have done it, but still, coming back to my earlier point, this is the kind of important methodological dispute that a debate like this doesn’t give space to address.)

Plain Readings and Finding the Wright Escape Hatch

Easily the most commented on line of the night was Daniel Montgomery’s about a “plain reading” of Ephesians 1.  It was provoked by Zahnd’s earlier invitation to make sure we’re paying attention the “best” scholars, such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Karl Barth, and so forth when we make these theological judgments. Montgomery, in a response section, later said basically, “Yes, I understand we need to read Wright, Barth, and characters like that” but really, it’s hard to understand Ephesians 1 as speaking of anything else but unconditional election on a ‘plain reading’ of Paul, which is what we ought to get around to doing more often. To which Zahnd’s retort was, “Sure, it’s plain in your theologically-rigged ESV, with your horn-rimmed Calvinist lens, translation isn’t it?” At which point, I have to admit, I laughed. Touché, Zahnd.

Now, all of the twitter commentary about this was explosive and apoplectic. And to some degree I get it. Even though Zahnd kind of came in kind of waving his hands about “scholarship” and so forth, seemingly writing off scholarship like that and referring to Wright & Co. as a bunch of ‘characters’ rubs me the wrong way. Still, I suppose I heard it differently because, I mean, I’ve read their book. Of its 200 pages their were nearly 40 pages of endnotes showing their work in the Greek, the commentaries, and so forth (including a number of citations of Barth! in the German!). They did their exegetical and theological homework. Certainly Jones is no academic slouch. So maybe we should think Montgomery’s advocacy of a ‘plain reading’ isn’t quite what it initially sounded like. If it was, though, his practice is certainly a lot better than that.

Here’s the thing that struck me, though, with Zahnd’s earlier call for attending scholarship: Wright, McKnight, Hart, and Barth won’t necessarily save you from a Calvinist reading of Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 (or indeed, the rest of the Biblical witness to God’s sovereignty.) I mean, take myself. I’ve read D.B. Hart, and you know what? He’s mostly great, but I’ll be blunt and say he also seems to never know what he’s talking about when it comes to what Calvin or Reformed types actually say about things. When it comes to Barth, I’ll be upfront and say that I haven’t read his full doctrine of election in the Dogmatics. It’s several hundred page (600-700 at least), and it’s Barth so I haven’t had time. Indeed, I’d be surprised if Barth had the time. Still, I’ve read the Epistle to the Romans, as well as competent, sympathetic distillations of the Dogmatics, and so forth and, you know, I’m not convinced Paul is teaching us Christ is the only Elect or Reprobate one ruling out individual election. 

Beyond that, I’ve actually read McKnight on the warning passages in Hebrews, and pretty much everything what N.T. Wright has to say on the subject, including his big Paul book. I’m a huge Wright fan, in fact, and back when I was very hostile to Calvinism, I dug into Wright’s big Romans commentary, especially his stuff on Romans 9-11 hoping to find an escape hatch from election. I even dug into James Dunn’s commentaries, just about everything he’s written on the New Perspective, and waded through the readings like those offered by Walls and Dongell in Why I Am Not a Calvinist looking for a way out of my Reformed friend’s articulations.

Now, In the process I found a lot of good stuff. After that, I was much better able to set the passage in the broader framework of God’s purposes for Israel, Paul’s vindication of God’s name when it seemed that his promise to Israel had failed through their unbelief, and so forth. That said, none of these things rule out, or necessitate a non-predestinarian reading. In fact, I think they largely fit well with the older insights. And that’s a conviction I came to hold when I was fighting tooth and nail in my soul to write off more classically Reformed readings.

Finally, more positively I’ll just say there’s a lot of good, top scholarship out there that disagrees with Zahnd’s top scholarship on the issue. For every N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, you’ve got a G.K. Beale, or a Michael Bird. For every Barth, you’ve got a Bavinck. For every D.B Hart, there’s a Kevin VanHoozer whose trinitarian theology in Remythologizing Theology just as philosophically-sophisticated, aesthetically-appealing, and, I think, more Biblical than Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (although there’s much overlap). So inviting us to consider the great, “the best” scholars of our day, and then ripping off the names of top scholars who you think agree with you doesn’t really get you places–Calvinists have plenty of names too.

Job, Lewis, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

Finally, one of the big issues of the night was the challenge by Fischer and Zahnd to explain why God would intentionally pass over, or create someone in order to be passed over for salvation. Now, leaving aside the problem that unless you’re a Universalist or an Open Theist still faces a similar situation, I was fascinated by the response on twitter, as well as by Fischer to the appeal to Job and mystery.

Faced with that challenge, Montgomery recalled what happened when Job challenged the justice of God’s judgments, or his wisdom in allowing Satan to torment him. What is God’s answer there? Well, read Job 38-42 and you’ll see it’s basically a long way of saying, “I’m the infinite God. You are a very finite, sinful human. You don’t have a scale for the difference between us. I was fine-tuning the galaxies, hanging up the Milky Way in the vast reaches of space, before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye. Why would you ever think yourself competent to understand my secret judgments?”

Ironically enough, Lewis makes a helpful point in this direction arguing for God’s rationality in the risk of gifting humans with free will:

Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

-Mere Christianity, The Shocking Alternative

To some this sounds like a cop-out and I can get that. Still, I do find it interesting that Reformed theology gets dinged for being a too rationalist system, with a cold logic that leaves no room for mystery, and yet, when the Reformed do argue from Scripture that God himself says we ought not to expect to understand the mystery of his judgments, they’re charged with obscurantist irrationality.

This is why I’ve almost come to see this as sort of theological-aesthetic judgment. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering election, or you don’t.

Now, to this, Fischer may reply “I still can’t see how anyone could argue it’s beautiful.” Sure. But most of us don’t initially see the Cross as beautiful, or wise either, until our hearts have been shaped and conformed to the paradoxical logic of the gospel. I’m not saying you have to buy election to see the beauty of the Cross. I am saying it’s not surprising that things which initially seem puzzling, weird, or terrifying to us, could eventually become beautiful to a mind submitted to the logic of Scripture.

Which is why I’d have to say I found Zahnd’s little line about rebelling against a Calvinist God a la Ivan Karamazov–returning God’s ticket, so to speak–so unhelpful. Back when I was an anti-Calvinist, and even now, when I shudder to live in an Open Theist’s world, I have this thought: “Well, either God is that way or he isn’t. If he is, then that’s God and God is the standard of goodness.  In which case, I’m wrong about the nature of reality, and for me to refuse to worship, love, and acknowledge his goodness, to call him a devil, and so forth, is frightfully close to explicit blasphemy light of my own fallibility and sin.” Best to articulate the God of Scripture as faithfully as I can and leave hypothetical moral stands against the Creator to those atheists who have the time to fantasize about such things. My heart is rebellious enough without such a morally tempting exercise, despite its rhetorical force. (For more on the same topic, I’d suggest Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders piece here.)

At this point I’ve said far too much and yet not much at all. I hope I’ve not been too persnickety. I really do understand the trouble people have with these issues. What’s more, I have a terribly high amount of respect for the many thoughtful Christians who see this another way. At the end of the day, though, let me just say this: our basic posture here must be humility–to God and before the Scriptures which he has inspired by the Holy Spirit to testify to the saving Son who reveals the love the Father has decided to lavish on his children since before the world began.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Made for More (w/) Hannah Anderson

Mere FidelityIn my writing career i have only endorsed or ‘blurbed’ one book and that was Hannah Strickler Anderson’s Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image. This week Andrew, Alastair, and I got to sit down and chat with her about the doctrine of the Image of God, how that plays into how women ought to understand themselves, and the way our churches can cultivate the women in our congregations well.

Give it a listen, and I highly encourage you to go pick up her book.

 Soli Deo Gloria