Jesus, the Greater Daniel

daniel-in-the-lions-den-briton-riviereI’m a sucker for biblical typology. I’m not an expert at it, but seeing the way every story, trope, theme, or event either directly, or as part of a broader whole, points to Jesus Christ as the center of Scripture is one of my greatest joys in reading biblical theology. This is why, despite the many merits of James Hamilton’s book-length study on the biblical theology of Daniel With the Clouds of Heaven, this little chunk might be my favorite:

Daniel, who was righteous, was accused by those jealous of him on a trumped-up charge (Dan. 6:4-13). The king recognized the injustice of Daniel’s condemnation and sought to deliver him (6:14). Nevertheless, Daniel was condemned, given over to certain death; then placed in a pit with a stone laid on the opening and sealed by the king (6:15-17). At daybreak those who lamented the way Daniel was treated came and found that his God had delivered him (6:19-23).

Jesus was also declar4ed innocent (Matt. 27:24; cf. Luke 23:4, 14-15, 22, 41) but accused by those jealous of him (Matt. 27:18) on trumped-up charges (26:59-61; 27:15-19). Pilate recognized the injustice and sought to release Jesus (27:15-19). Nevertheless, Jesus was condemned to death (27:26), and after they crucified him he was put in a new tomb, with a stone rolled over the entrance (27:60), which was later sealed (27:66). At daybreak on the first day of the week those who lamented the way Jesus was treated came and found that God had raised him from the dead (28:1-10).

These points of historical correspondence, and the obvious escalation from Daniel to Jesus, constitute grounds for considering Daniel as a type of Christ.

-With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, pg. 191

This is the sort of passage that enables to see the deeper dimensions of Scriptural fulfillment when Paul says that  “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Christ dies and rises again, not only in fulfillment of specific prophecies, but as the culmination of every thread and storyline of Scripture.

Jesus truly is the greater Daniel. He was thrown into the pit, not only because of his great faithfulness to God, but for the salvation of his people from the lions of sin, death, and hell. He not only risked death, but was consumed by and still emerged victorious.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Skeletons in God’s Closet (TGC Book Review)

skeletonsJoshua Ryan Butler. The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Holy of Holy War. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2014. 384 pp. $15.99.

Hell. Judgment. Holy war.

For many critics and struggling Christians, these aspects of biblical teaching represent all that is darkest about religion. They give rise to the questions that haunt them at night and linger in the back of their prayers, causing them to doubt they can pray to a merciful God. They are the secret skeletons in God’s closet that have to be denied, or at least hidden away, if we are still to believe him at all. A loving God cannot condemn people to eternal torment, or exclusively judge those in other religions, or send one nation to invade and conquer another. Many of us simply sense in our gut that either God is not like this or God is not real.

In The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War, Joshua Ryan Butler argues the provocative thesis that these are teachings not skeletons in God’s closet—indeed, they are evidence that he is goodness all the way down to his bones. The pastor of global outreach at Imago Dei Church in Portland, Oregon, Butler writes as one who came to faith in Christ and found hope but was then faced with the shock of a Bible that didn’t fit his initial ideas of love, goodness, and justice. But in the course of looking at the bigger story of Scripture, wrestling with theology, working against global oppression, serving on missions to rescue girls stuck in sex trafficking, and spending time in Native American reservations, he began to find in doctrines like divine judgment both hope and healing for creation’s brokenness and human evil.

Taking these biblical, theological, and practical dimensions and using persuasive, clear, and even poetic arguments, Butler weaves them into one seamless tapestry. His ability to exposit Scripture in light of scholarship and everyday personal and political realities—and to do so with theological depth—allows him to cut through so many damaging and damnable caricatures that hold people back from trusting in the fundamental goodness of God.

So what exactly does Butler say about hell, judgment, and holy war?

You can read the rest of my review at The Gospel Coalition. And really, go buy the book. It’s that good and that important.

Soli Deo Gloria

Do Not Forget, Above All Else, It is the *Lord’s* Supper

Christ at the SupperThough almost every doctrine in Christianity has been hotly disputed at some point, the debates concerning the Lord’s Supper, or Communion have been among the most heated. Despite the fact that, at its core, it is about the unity of Christians, it is the issue that kept the Lutherans and the Reformed from coming together in the midst of the Reformation. In the disputes over differing theologies of the Supper can be seen some of the central disputes between Catholics and Protestants; what is the nature of grace and its mediation?; what authority does the Church have in distributing it?; how ought we consider those aspects of Jesus’ work that are final and which are continuing? On and on the questions can go.

And for those tempted to write them off as needless nitpicking, I’d say they’re rightly important debates for they cut to the heart of the gospel. We may rightly lament them, and yet acknowledge they are necessary nonetheless.

For those of us concerned with parsing these issues, studying, arguing, and eventually administering the Supper, Herman Bavinck has an important word of caution that cannot be lost sight of, no matter where we eventually come down on the issue: do not forget that it is a meal of the Lord’s:

But it is a meal of the Lord (δειπνον κυριακον, deipnon kyriakon). Jesus was the inaugurator of it and in this regard also fulfilled his Father’s will, which it was his food to do [John 4:34]. The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is and has to be of divine origin to be a sacrament, for God alone is the distributor of grace, and he alone can bind its distribution to the means ordained by him. Jesus specifically instituted this Supper in his capacity as mediator. In it he acts as prophet, who proclaims and interprets his death; in it he acts as priest, who gave himself up to the cross on behalf of his own; in it he also acts as king, who freely makes available the grace secured and gives it to his disciples to enjoy under the signs of bread and wine. Besides being the inaugurator of the Supper, he is also its host and administrator. He himself takes the bread and wine, blesses them, and distributes them to his disciples. Nor was he only host and administrator when he physically sat at table with his disciples, but he also is and remains the host and administrator of it always and wherever his meal is celebrated. Every Supper, administered according to his institution, is a Supper of the Lord (δειπνον κυριακον). For Christ is not only its inaugurator as an example but also its inaugurator by precept. It is a meal in remembrance of him (1 Cor. 11:24), to proclaim his death (11:26), as a participation in his body and blood (10:16, 21; 11:27). In the Lord’s Supper Christ comes together with his church, and the church comes together with Christ, thereby testifying to their spiritual communion (cf. Rev. 3:20).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pg. 562

Yes, we are the ones fed. Yes, ours are the human hands that parcel out the bread and pass the wine. Yes, ours are the mouths the chew, and the souls that are nourished. But Christ is the great Lord of the Banquet. He is the prophet, priest, and king. He is the Son providing a feast for his younger brothers at the behest of his Father through the mediation of the Spirit.

At the center of the Lord’s Supper is the Lord Himself.

Let us not miss his invitation to the table.

Soli Deo Gloria

“I Don’t Deserve to Read the Bible…”: Three Attitudes for Christian Preachers and Scholars

with the cloudsJames Hamilton opens the preface to his new book on the theology of Daniel in this surprising and refreshing way:

I don’t deserve to read the Bible, much less write about it. What a privilege to have God reveal himself to us in his word. What a great God, keeping covenant and steadfast love, forgiving iniquity transgression and sin, and everywhere manifesting his power and love. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, and yet he also speaks so tenderly that the bruised reed doesn’t break. I join the ranks of the heavenly hosts, the saints across space and time, and everything in this cosmic temple to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. Would that I could do so in a way worthy of him. I thank God the Father through Christ the Son by the power of the Spirit for his merciful salvation, full and complete revelation, and gracious provision.

With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, pg. 15

Every Sunday when my pastor finishes reading the text of Scripture he’s going to preach from he says, “This is the Word of the Lord”, and the congregation responds “Thanks be to God.” There’s a beautiful reminder of the nature of God’s revelation as a gift to us. God didn’t have to say anything. He doesn’t owe us any truth beyond what we’ve already heard and suppressed in our ungodliness (Rom. 1), and yet in Scriptures, he gives us his sure word of promise for us to cling to, rely on, by comforted with, and use as a means of communion with Him.  This is surely a cause for rejoicing.

I know this in general, but when I read these words, I had to stop ask myself, “How many times have I thought  ‘I don’t deserve to read the words on these pages’?” How many times have you? It might have occurred to me once or twice, but there’s something bracing and beautiful about reading it put so bluntly. Even more so, it struck me that these words were penned by a biblical scholar who has written hundreds, thousands of pages, even, about the Scriptures. And here he is opening up his (very careful) work of biblical theology with the admission that he is unfit to the task.

This got me thinking about how I approach the Scriptures, especially as one trained to do so for the ministry of the Church. All of this has been said before, of course, much better, wiser, and likely clearer than I will. Still, in Hamilton’s little intro paragraph, I see him modelling three qualities any scholar or preacher of the text ought to aspire to in their study and instruction of God’s Word.

1. Humility.  The first, obviously, is humility. There is no doubt that Hamilton is deeply humbled before the text in front of him. As a word from God, the text has priority and authority in the relationship, as it is a mediation and form of God’s own personal address. I listen attentively to the Scriptures because I want to listen attentively to God’s voice in them. Now one of the corollaries of this reality is that I don’t assume a relation of dominance to the text. The Scriptures are not there for me to pick up and use for my own ends and devices; God has his own purposes to accomplish through his word and so I endeavor to bend my study to his agenda, not the other way around. Also, and I’ve written about this before, I am not the judge before which Scripture is proved true or false. Scripture is true and I am judged true or false in light of it. An attitude of humility before the text will not squelch intellectual struggle and striving, but, in fact, it will drive me further into intellectual striving so that I might be able to understand God’s truth as fully as he allows given then means I have available to me.

2. Piety – The second attitude is piety, by which I mean the recognition of the fact that the Bible is not just some text to be studied like any other. Yes, we use all the means available to us including philological, literary, historical, and philosophical exegesis when attempting to understand God’s word, but we do that in order to understand it as a personal, spiritual, transformative word. Kierkegaard has compared it to a lover receiving a letter from a loved one in a foreign tongue. The work is not over once the linguistics are done and words are translated on the page. To truly hear it, we must then accept it as a word from the great Lover and Author of our salvation. Scholarship is great, but grasping the meaning of the text through these means is ultimately only a means to being grasped by God himself through the text.

3. Gratitude – Finally, there is a clear sense of gratitude. As we already noted, revelation is a free act of condescension. God didn’t have to give us more of the truth we had already rejected.  This is why approaching the text with anything less than a profound sense gratitude to God constitutes a failure to recognize its connection to the free gift of the gospel. Union with Christ comes through faith, and faith comes by hearing the word of the Lord now given to us chiefly in Scripture. The Scriptures, then, are not just a record of God’s saving acts, but are themselves a key means by which the Father accomplishes his work through the Son and the Spirit.

As always, more can be said, but this will do for now. May we aspired to read the Scriptures with a heart that says, “I don’t deserve to read this book, but by the grace of my Father in Christ, I can.”

Soli Deo Gloria

The ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

Matthew Levering makes a point I’ve seen confirmed time and again in my own preaching and teaching with college students and young adults:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

–Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

Bold Theologian.

Bold Theologian.

Just the other night in Bible study with a group of young adults, working our way through Gospel of John, we had to stop and begin to parse doctrine of the Trinity in some detail. This wasn’t my own theological orientation jumping at the opportunity to explain eternal generation. We were forced by the logic of Jesus’ own words to attend to the trinitarian grammar of what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Without a proper doctrine of the Trinity, or a working Christology, I don’t believe you can make it through half of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, or dialogues with the disciples in that Gospel.

I mean, think about it. You can’t even make it past the most bottom-of-the-barrel proclamation represented by that guy holding up the poster of John 3:16 at the football game without encountering “the technical stuff”:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Well, okay. But what does it mean that God “gave his only Son”? God has kids? How? Where is His Wife? Why does Mrs. God get no headlines?

You see where this goes?

All that to say, at some point, for everyone, the “technical details” matter. It doesn’t matter that all you want to do, young pastor, is “preach the gospel” or “just love people.” If any of that involves more than the most shallow truisms and generalities, you’re going to have to do some theological digging. What’s more, for those who think you had all that handled in seminary, aside from the fact that there’s no way you covered all that questions you’re going to face in ministry, or that arise when worshipping an infinite God, just realize that while our basic theology may stay the same, the popular landscape is always shifting. More study is always required.

So roll up your sleeves and get to reading. We’ve got some work to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Miracle of Christmas, or On the Incarnation (Advent Readings)

nativityChristmas is coming. Advent is upon us. In the rush and bluster of the season, it’s all too easy to still our hearts, to stop, wait, and prepare ourselves to receive the Savior in the manger. A few years ago I noticed my heart somewhat dry around this time and so I took up the project of listening to Christmas hymns and carols. While that can connect many of us to the spiritual reality we are celebrating, reading key texts on the theological reality we are approaching: the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, the Creator humbling assuming creation in order to redeem us from the condition of alienation, oppression, and damnation.

For those looking to dive into some soul-stirring meditations on the miracle of Christmas, I would recommend two works: Athanasius and Karl Barth.

On the Incarnation

Athanasius wrote his classic treatise, “On the Incarnation of the Word” as a follow-up to his apologetic work, “Against the Heathen.” Building upon his critique of the various pagan philosophies of the time, Athanasius undertook to explain and defend the heart of the Christian gospel, the Son’s assumption of human nature in order to redeem his fallen creation. In 9 very brief chapters, he lays out the logic of creation, the dilemma of sin, the accomplishment of the cross, the Resurrection, and answers various objections from all directions (Jews, Pagans, etc.). It remains a standard work of orthodoxy Christology and Trinitarian faith. What’s more, it’s rigorous as well as beautiful.

You can purchase it, or read it for free online here. For those put off by the idea of reading an old book, either because of its difficulty, or irrelevance, I’ll merely quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to the work upon its republication:

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence.

As any reader of Athanasius will tell you, this little book is worth libraries of modern volumes.

The Miracle of Christmas

That said, sometimes the moderns have something to say. Karl Barth is one of them. Now, while I can’t endorse everything in this following recommendation, for the theological student, Barth’s reflection in the Church Dogmatics (vol. 1 part 2, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 172-202), is essential reading. The whole section is typical Barth: long, winding, extensive delving into the tradition, the narratives, and ultimately into the Christological heart of the event. No summary will do it justice, but this little quote in which he speaks of the Virgin Birth forming the corresponding limit to that of the Resurrection ought to whet your appetite:

The virgin birth denotes particularly the mystery of revelation. it denotes the fact that God stands at the start where real revelation takes place–God and not the arbitrary cleverness, capability, or piety of man. In Jesus Christ God comes forth out of the profound hiddenness of His divinity in order to act as God among us and upon us. That is revealed and made visible to us in the sign of the resurrection of the dead, but it is grounded  upno the fact signified by the Virgin Birth, that here is this Jesus God Himself has really come down and concealed Himself in humanity. It is because He was veiled here that He could and had to unveil Himself as He did at Easter. The empty tomb, on the other hand, denotes particular the revelation of the mystery. It denotes that it is not for nothing that God stands at the beginning, but that it is as such that He become active and knowable. He has no need of human pwoer and is free from all human caprice. Therefore even the ultimate extremities of human existence, as He submits too them and abandons Himself to death, offer no hindrance to His being and work. That God Himself in His complete majesty was one with us, as the Virgin birth indicates, is verified in what the empty tomb indicates, that here in this Jesus the living God has spoken to us men in accents we cannot fail to hear. Because He has unveiled Himself here as the One Heis, we may and must say what the Christmas message says, that unto you is born this day the Saviour. The mystery at the beginning is the basis of the mystery at the end; and by that mystery of the end the mystery of the beginning becomes active and knowable.  — CD 1/2, pp 182-183

That’s just a paragraph, but in that short excerpt, you see the way Barth masterfully develops the miracle of the Virgin birth in light of the doctrine of revelation and Resurrection of Christ. This is just one small part of the way Barth shows that the proclamation of Christ, born of a Virgin, is actually integral to understanding the mystery of the Gospel and Christ himself. Obviously, this chapter is probably not for everyone, but again, theological students and pastors only ignore it at the risk of their own spiritual and theological impoverishment. If you don’t own the Dogmatics, which is very possible, get to a seminary or theological library nearby, photocopy the section, and take it with you. The section stands alone quite nicely.

Well, those are my two recommendations for reading during the season. I hope they offer you some encouragement. If you all have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two New(er) Atonement Books You Should Read

Atonement theology is one of my passions. The cross of Jesus Christ is at the heart of our faith and the task explaining and displaying it’s ironic beauty the glorious means of our salvation is an unavoidable call for any preacher of the gospel. For that reason, atonement is one of the subjects I spent a good amount of time (and money) reading about in seminary. While I thought I had most of my ducks in a row, I’ve recently dipped back into exploring some recent work in atonement theology that’s been very helpful in sharpening up my thinking in these areas. I wanted to briefly commend two excellent works to you, my readers, for your attention and edification. Hopefully, you read this in time to update your Christmas list!

crucified kingFirst, is Jeremy Treat’s offering The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Systematic Theology. In one sense, I found it to be a gravely disappointing book. It’s disappointing because Treat has written the book I wanted to write on the subject. Giving equal attention to biblical theology and systematic categories, Treat reunites what never should have been divorced in much modern theology: kingdom and cross as well as Christus Victor and penal substitution accounts of the atonement.

One of the key strengths of his biblical theology section is his ability to go beyond key proof-texts to showing the broader, redemptive-historical framework in which the kingdom and cross fit beginning with Genesis through Torah, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, and into Revelation. From there he examines the important concept of the threefold office of Christ, and argues that for too long we have failed to recognize the way Christ’s kingly work is central to his cross-work and vice versa. Christ brings the kingdom through the cross; Christ conquers his enemies and saves his people by dying a penal death in their place. Beyond that there are some excellent sections engaging Wright’s conception of the ministry of Jesus, Moltmann’s account of the kingdom, and challenging reflections on the cross-shaped kingdom Christ invites us into.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that this is the work future theologians and biblical scholars will need to reckon with when writing on the relationship between kingdom and cross. In my opinion, it also definitively puts a nail in the coffin of any attempt to bifurcate or oppose Christus Victor accounts and penal substitution. This can only be done by ignoring both the broader sweep of the biblical narrative, and key texts linking the two firmly together.

For a good preview of what this all looks like, check out this short article by Treat over at the Gospel Coalition. If all this isn’t enough to persuade you, just know two things: this is basically Treat’s dissertation written under Kevin Vanhoozer’s direction. Also, I met him at ETS and he’s a smashing chap.

viduSecond, in a very different register, Adonis Vidu has delivered an important contribution in the ongoing conversation about cross in his sophisticated Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural ContextsTheology happens in complex social, intellectual, and philosophical contexts. Oftentimes we fail to appreciate the thrust and shape of historical theological positions because we do not attend the way dominant intellectual frameworks shape the language used and intellectual and moral concerns of the time. This is eminently true of historic and contemporary atonement theology.

Vidu aims to provide an account of the history of atonement theology down into the present that presents theologians against the background of the various legal and political theories dominant at the time. In this way, we can begin to appreciate better the way these theological concepts shaped and were shaped by their native settings. Five judicious, careful, and lucid chapters are devoted to the descriptive task, focusing on Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, modern, and contemporary periods. (All of the chapters are well worth the time, but he chapter on contemporary atonement theologies is very helpful for navigating the complicated and less accessible literature.) What’s more, along the way, he corrects a number of common misunderstandings and caricatures of historic positions.

For instance, in the first chapter, Vidu corrects the oft asserted charge that the newness Christian theology was its assertion of the gratuity of forgiveness as the mere release of debt without the need for repayment. On the contrary, given Hellenic conceptions of justice as order, positive law, and the maintenance of relations, there was no “cold legality” being overturned here. Indeed, he shows the way these ideas influence patristic accounts for understanding the nature of God’s law and their tendency to attribute the retributive function of the law to the accuser, instead of considering it a necessary expression of his just will. In this, then, certain Christus Victor accounts rest on common, Hellenic intuitions about justice.

At the heart of the book lies the contention that all the shifting paradigms for relating law, justice, and atonement are, at bottom, debates about God’s nature and agency in the death of Jesus. For this reason, Vidu’s last chapter argues for the importance of not neglecting the doctrine of God’s simplicity in our account of God’s atoning action in Christ. Though there are currently some heavy objections being lodged against it, Vidu forcefully makes the case that abandoning simplicity will have serious, deleterious effects for our ability to understand the unified, non-conflicted, saving activity of God through Christ’s cross. Instead, he delivers a nuanced, modified account that is able to preserve penal atonement accounts from the sort of mistakes and caricatures it is often saddled with by both detractors and proponents. While I’m reticent about a couple of the moves Vidu makes with respect to relating the agency of Father and Son on the cross, this is an overall salutary contribution on the subject.

I have not even begun to do either of these works any justice. I do hope that some of this whets your appetite and inspires you to check out either one or both of these timely and edifying works. For more, you can check out my larger post on 19 Objections to Penal Substitutionary Atonement, in which I tackle related issues and point you to more resources.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If you’re interested in atonement, check out the line-up for the January 2015 LA Theology Conference all about atonement: Ben Myers, Elenore Stumpe, Michael Horton,  Bruce McCormack, and a whole lot more. Sign-ups are still going here.