Three Concepts You’ll Need To Settle the Domain of the Word

Domain of the wordMost Christian doctrines don’t make sense unless you’re thinking properly about a whole bunch of other doctrines. The recent LA Theology Conference made that point about atonement. Unless you’ve got a good handle on the nature of Jesus’ incarnation or the creation, you probably won’t be able to keep Christ’s atonement in its proper biblical shape. Things go wonky without them (not to mention a few others).

John Webster argues the same thing is true of the doctrine of Scripture in his fairly recent and highly-praised work The Domain of the Word and his earlier, excellent little offering Holy Scripture. Unless you have certain elements in the doctrine of God, the church, and providence in proper order–who God is, how he acts, and what he happens to want to do with the texts–our reflections on what the Bible actually is will inevitably fall short. You have to approach the Bible “indirectly”, as it were, by appreciating its place in the broader scope of the Triune God’s creative and saving communicative activity in history.

While I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of Webster’s rich, subtle reflections on this point, I thought it would be worth roughly and very inelegantly summarizing a small segment early on in the first chapter of The Domain of the Word (pp. 13-17), where he elaborates on the importance of thinking of Scripture with three central concepts in mind: providence, sanctification, and inspiration.

The Word and the Word 

To begin, though, he sets up a bit of a contrast. For about as long as there’s been doctrinal reflection on the nature of Scripture, people have tried to think of it along the lines of an incarnational analogy. Just as Jesus is the Godman, comprised of both Divine and human natures, so the Scriptures are something of a lesser incarnation. The divine Word or words, are given to us in fleshly, human form. Hebrew, Greek, human linguistic structures and mediums are the housing for a message that transcends far beyond that.

Now, this analogy can go in all sorts of directions. Classically, it has been used as a helpful way of understanding the simultaneous humanity and perfection of the Scriptures. Just as Jesus was both human and yet perfect because divine, so God’s written Word is given through human means, yet nonetheless perfect as having come from the mouth of God. More recently, others have used it to talk about Scripture’s usefulness as a divine text that, nonetheless, exhibits the limitations and, in some constructions, errors and sins of all humanity (much to the chagrin of anybody who’s paying attention to the Christological implications).

In order to avoid undue divinizing of Scripture, creating an unfortunate blurring of the Creator/creature distinction, as well as a host of other difficulties, Webster points us in a different direction, and suggest that we locate our idea within the three concepts we already mentioned. In this way, Webster wants to capture the way Scripture fits in God’s various workings, beginning from the most general (providence) to the most specific (inspiration).

Three Key Terms

First, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the doctrine of providence reminds us that the various words, passages, texts, and books of the Bible were written in the midst of the history over which God is Lord. A sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without the Father’s consent, how much more the Scriptures which form his self-testimony? In other words, we need to desecularize our view of the processes of culture and history which produced these texts (and all other texts for that matter). This isn’t to deny the human, cultural and historical influences on the way Scripture came to be the way it is, but it is to remember that all of history’s movements come together under God’s hands. When you look at the historical process, you need to realize you’re not seeing all the action when you’ve accounted for human psychological, political, and even theological motivations. Father, Son, and Spirit rule over history governing, preserving, and upholding all its activities–even that of the production of Scripture. God’s providence doesn’t compete or deny the natural and the human, but sustains and underlies it.

Second, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the idea of sanctification reminds us of the important work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and histories of the writers of Scripture. Humans can be sanctified by the Spirit, set apart as holy, in order to serve as God’s ambassadors and mouthpieces. So can the human words of those apostles and prophets that God called and commissioned to proclaim his words to the nations. For Webster, the Spirit’s work of sanctification is the middle term between providence and inspiration, and speaks of the Spirit’s preparation and setting apart of the particular persons and processes of the production of Scripture (events, literary elements, redaction, reception, etc). The Spirit set apart the prophets (Jeremiah, Paul), cleanses their lips (Isaiah), and specifically teaches them how to speak his words (Peter). He does this, not by denying their humanity, but calling it, redeeming it, and perfecting it by way of purification. Scripture is Holy because of the Spirit’s work in consecrating these instruments (humans and their histories) for his own.

Third, we come to the final term of ‘inspiration.’ This is the final and most specific term which refers, not to God’s broader process, or some generic notion of inspiredness that all literature falls under. Instead, it is this specific superintendence and supervenience of God in and through his human servants who speak specific words as the Spirit moves them. Webster says we must be careful not to separate this from either providence or sanctification as if God’s inspiration is some intrusive overturning of human, creaturely processes. It’s not a detached miracle that competitively suspends the human dimension, resulting in a mechanical activity, but an organic movement by the Spirit to heal particular authors, Paul, or Peter, so their specific word given in Scripture can be those through which the Spirit addresses us.

Webster concludes this section by noting that the resulting words provided by the Spirit are not some arbitrary deposit of ‘inspiredness’ that does its work all by itself apart from God’s continuing use of it. Instead, they are a settlement of the Word. After God has breathed out these words of Holy Scripture, we have reached a definitive stage in the publication, or revelation of God’s Word that determines all future hearing and receiving of the Word. After this, we don’t need more inspiration, or a more comprehensive supplement that goes further on beyond what the apostles have written. Rather, we need the renewal of heart that leads to listening and receiving the Word that has already been spoken for what it is.

Of course, in looking at this inadequate little summary, the key doctrine underlying all three of these terms is thinking through the nature of divine activity. God is the ultimate root of all Christian doctrine. Human epistemic limitations due to finitude and sin, social formation of language, history, and so forth, are not the final, determining factors here. It’s not that we ought not consider these realities, but as we do, we dare not forget that it is the Triune God sets the limits to the Domain of the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings (Reformation21 Review)

rejoicingJ. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. $14.99/£11.99
Much of life in a fallen world consists of navigating through the fog of tragedy and suffering. Any pastor who has spent more than a month or two in any given parish will come up against the broken gears of the cycle of life. Illness strikes the healthy, death comes to take the young, and all too often it seems that curse falls upon the way of the righteous. At times like these, in a church culture that has all-but-lost the Psalmic language of lament, it can be difficult to avoid falling into trite speech more hollow than even explicit silence. And sometimes temporary silence is initially the best path. Yet the hearts and the minds of the afflicted need answers. They need a comfort grounded in the deep, glorious truth of the gospel.
That’s what Todd Billings has given us in his recent offering Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. At the age of 39, Billings was happily married, father of two young children, and beginning a promising career as young Reformed theologian turning heads with rich, careful theological scholarship (Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, The Word of God for the People of God, Union with Christ). Then he was diagnosed with advanced, incurable blood cancer, and the bottom dropped out. The future that once looked so clear–marriage, watching his children graduate, scholarship–immediately fogged over with the pronouncement that he could no longer look forward to the “median” life-span that that most of us blithely assume we’re owed (p.7).
In the midst of his own struggles with pain, suffering, and the agony of uncertainty, Billings has produced a profound meditation on the hope of the Christian life in light of the realities of the gospel. Rejoicing in Lament is rather unique in that it occupies a middle range in terms of its approach and appeal. It is not a strictly academic work, and yet Billings is a top-shelf theologian, so it’s not just a pop-book either. It is top-shelf theology that has been lived in and communicated with an eye toward the sufferer in the pew, with Billings interspersing the story of his cancer battle–diagnosis, treatment, future prospects–within the broader story of God’s saving action in Christ.
I hope you’ll read the rest of my review at Reformation21. This is an important and helpful book.
Soli Deo Gloria

“Does God Care if Your Favorite Football Team Wins?” and Other Theological Concerns

footballTheology is everywhere; even football players venture on theological territory. Witness Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ response to a fan question after the Packers’ recent loss:

I always find it a little off-putting when athletes, actors and anybody says, “This is what God wanted,” or “I want to thank God for helping us win today,” anything along those lines when a game or award is won. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist. Personally, with all the chaos in the world, I’m not sure God really cares about the outcome of a game or an awards show. What do you think of statements such as these? You’ve obviously got your faith. Does what happens on Sunday impact your relationship with God or your faith at all?

Rodgers’ response:

I agree with her. I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.

Of course, the puckish reply is, “Well, he did just lose.” At a deeper level, though, it’s fascinating to consider how sports reveals our theology of God’s will, providence, pleasure, and even the problem of evil. How we answer the question, “Does God care a whole lot about the outcome of football games?” reveals much about how we understand God’s love, sovereignty, and care for the world.

I don’t want to pick on Aaron Rodgers because, let’s be honest, he wasn’t trying to write a theological treatise on the subject. Also, he’s a professional football player, not a trained theologian. Still, I think it would be useful to think through in just what senses we might say that God does, or does not, care about who wins a football game.

You can read the rest of my analysis at Christ and Pop Culture.

Soli Deo Gloria

Death By Living by N.D. Wilson (The Gospel Coalition Review)

death by livingN.D. Wilson. Death By Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013. 208 pp. $19.99.

The first thing I’ll note about Death By Living, N.D. Wilson’s follow-up to his celebrated Notes From the Tilt a Whirl, is that I couldn’t give you a book report if I tried. Much like Notes, Wilson’s direct, yet roundabout, tilt-a-whirling style puckishly mocks the straight-laced summary-reviewer for even thinking to attempt the mighty feat.

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond imagining Author of the ridiculously unexpected universe in which we find ourselves. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation, in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

“Death by Living, life is meant to be spent. ” That’s Wilson’s thesis and philosophy of family life (xi); scuffed knees are apparently as much an evidence of life as a pulse in the Wilson household. In many ways it’s a quirky entry into the venerable devotio moderna genre, along with A Kempis’ De Imitatione Christi; only in this one, we’re encouraged to follow our Covenant Head, take up our swords, fight the dragon, and live hard until it kills us like Jesus, the Image of humanity done right (62, 79). That might involve a little dirt. Don’t worry though, resurrection should take the stains right out.

As the book defies summary, being somewhat unruly and misbehaved, I’m simply going to highlight a couple of content points, and make one note on style for pastors.

You can read the rest of the review over at The Gospel Coalition.

7 Reasons God Might Not Heal Somebody

healingFor about two and half years now, I’ve had something wrong with my joints and muscles. It started with tendon pain in my knees, then later I had abdominal/hip issues, which then shifted to a shoulder condition, eventually leading to chest muscle pain, and recently to pelvic alignment problems. I’m not quite 27 yet, but the running joke among my college students is that I’m a broken old man. I’ve had five different physical therapists and chiropractors over the last two years and a number of other doctors treat me. Fun stuff.

Now, I’ve prayed, I’ve gone to doctors, changed up my practices, and for some reason it just seems like one thing after another keeps coming up. I know this isn’t the greatest tragedy in the world; we have members in our congregation and friend in our lives who have struggled through much worse. Still, there have been times when I’ve wondered, “God, what are you doing? Why haven’t you healed me yet? I know you can.” For some reason I have hope and confidence that this is not a permanent thing (even though for many it is), but there have been times that I’ve just struggled with the question of why God continues to leave me unhealed–or, for as long as he has, at least.*

That’s why I was particularly interested in reading Sam Storm’s chapter “Why Doesn’t God Always Heal the Sick?” in his new book Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions. I had my own range of responses to the issue, but I wanted to see what someone who had actually devoted some research to the question had to say.

7 (Possible) Reasons
Storms is quick to recognize that there is some level of mystery involved in the issue of healing, and certainly with respect to God’s will for individual lives. He makes a point of saying that not every case where you know who remains unhealed can be quickly chalked up to one of these reasons. That said, Storms gives 7 possible reasons someone might not be healed.

  1. Faith – As much as this reason has been abused, “we must be willing to acknowledge that occasionally healing does not occur because of the absence of that sort of faith God delights to honor.” (pg. 304) Faith as small as a mustard-seed can be sufficient, but there are a number of cases in the NT seem to suggest that lack of faith can be a factor. (Matthew 9:22, 28-29; 15:28; Mark 2:5, 11; Luke 17:19; Acts 3:16)
  2. Sin - Again, not everyone who isn’t healed is being punished for some specific sin. Jesus rebuts too simple a one-to-one relationship between particular sickness and particular sin (John 9). And yet, as Storms notes, “James 5:15-16 clearly instructs us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed.” (pg. 305) Sometimes it is the case that unconfessed sin might be holding back God’s hand of healing.
  3. Desire - This is an odd one, but Storms notes that sometimes people actually don’t want to be healed. They have lived with their illness and the lifestyle associated with it for so long, it’s terrifying to think of life without it. A person’s identity can be so wrapped up in it, fearful that the love and care they receive as someone who is ill will suddenly disappear, that healing actually sounds threatening. (pg. 305)
  4. Ask Not – James 4:2 says, “you do not have, because you do not ask.” Storms writes, “The simple fact is that some are not healed because they do not pray.” (pg. 306) Sometimes we really just don’t ask and so God doesn’t give.
  5. Oppression - Healing is often-times blocked because “the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed.” (pg. 306) Though not every sickness is attributable to demonic influence, according to the NT some is (Luke 13:16), and when that cause is not attended to, healing may be prevented.
  6. Providence – It would be a serious oversight not to consider the fact that God has plans for history, many of which we simply have no access to, nor could we understand if we did. Storms reminds us that we shouldn’t think healing and sickness is only area where God’s will for our lives must be utterly transparent. To claim that we know what God always does in a particular type of situation, like sickness, is arrogantly claiming knowledge we couldn’t possibly have.
  7. Something Better – “…healing the sick is a good thing (and we should never cease to pray for it), but often there is a better thing that can be attained only by means of physical weakness.” (pg. 307) In our health-obsessed culture, this might sound ridiculous, but God is often more concerned with healing our spiritual infirmities than our physical ones. Sometimes he does so through illnesses which humble us, force us to rely on him, and conform us to the image of Christ. (2 Cor. 4:16-18) For those who think it contrary to God’s goodness to let any of his children suffer in sickness, they ought to consider their response to the fact that God’s goodness allows his saints to suffer persecution, and indeed, ordained the suffering of his own Son for the salvation of the world. (1 Peter 4)

Summing Up
Again, all of these points can be expanded upon and nuanced–as they were in the book. It also might be noted that all of these reasons could only extend for a certain amount of time. Oppression need not last and spiritual lessons might eventually be learned. None of these reasons should be taken as an excuse for prayerlessness, or used to insensitively condemn those already suffering; they should be used (with wisdom) to encourage and comfort.

For myself, I have been challenged and comforted by a number of those reasons in my own walk–or lack of walking, at times–through illness. Few things have led me to embrace God’s Fatherly hand as the source of all things, working them for my good and his glory, than my illnesses. I have never had to rely on him, pray to him, and see him as my deepest strength as I did during those times when it hurt to stand, walk, or even sit for more than 5 minutes. I don’t know when this will “end”, if it ever will, how much it has to do with spiritual attack, spiritual formation, or just a providence beyond my ken. I know I’ll keep praying, asking him to grow me through this, increase my strength, cleanse my heart, protect me from attack, and (imperfectly) trusting that God has his good reasons. I pray that for those of you suffering with illnesses, these meditations would encourage you to the same.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Just to make it clear, there has been some improvement of late with certain treatments, but no radical healing. I’m not languishing here, immobilized for those who might be concerned. Prayers are appreciated, though!

Job, Providence, and Multiple Intentionality

JobIf anybody knows anything about Calvin, it is that he believes God to be the ultimate author of history, good or bad, with all of its twists and turns. Though not obsessed with it as some might think, he does devote a significant section of Book I of the Institutes to the doctrine of providence, defends it in a number of special treatises, and addresses it all throughout the commentaries. One particular passage grabbed my attention when I first read through the Institutes, though, when I was yet early on in developing my Reformedish tendencies.

Theologians, especially those concerned that God not be considered the author of evil, tend to make the distinction between God causing a thing to come to pass directly, or merely “permitting” it to come to pass. While elsewhere Calvin seems affirm a proper place for this distinction, he’s not too keen on those who would try to rob God of his sovereign governorship over all things by using the doctrine of permission to get God off the hook for human wickedness. Although they are fully responsible for their choices (Institutes I.17.2-3), not being compelled by some Stoic fate (ibid, I.16.8), men and women make the choices they make according to the “secret plan of God.” Calvin’s beef is with a permission that teaches “that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence.” God’s providence does not admit of a passive permission in which he simply lets things happen, but rather it is active permission according to his own secret plan, for his own good will.

Calvin backs this up with a battery of scriptural examples and texts, but he opens with the story of Job:

From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:2 ]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments.

-Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.18.1

The reason this passage was so fascinating to me was that it called my attention to a single instance where three wills were at work, each a key component in the action, and all for different purposes. At the human level we see the Sabaeans out of a simple human lust and wickedness pillaging and looting in order to satisfy their own desires. Satan was at work as well, goading the Sabaeans in order to afflict Job and cause him to curse God, thereby proving him wrong. God actively permitted Satan to goad the Sabaeans in order to, well, we don’t have the full reasons, but at the very least, prove Satan’s accusations wrong and vindicate the righteousness of his servant Job. The same event is the result of God’s good divine will and the two wicked wills, demonic and human. God is just in his determinations, and yet Satan and the Sabaeans are utterly wicked in theirs.

This is not the way we’re used to thinking about things. Regularly we’d try and figure out, “Well, who’s really responsible here? Who caused it? It’s either God, or the devil, or humans, so which is it?” Or we’d try and parse it out and say that this part was God, this part was Satan, and this part was humans. That’s not what we see in the text, though. Instead, it seems to point us to God working out his own will through wicked demonic and human wills at the very same time.

Calvin moves on to cite the stories of the lying spirit and King Ahab (1 Kings 22:20-22), Jesus’ death at the hands of Pilate and wicked men by the plan of God (Acts 2:23,  4:28), Jeremiah’s declaration that the Chaldean’s cruel invasion was God’s own work (Jeremiah 1:15; 7:14; 50:25), and a half-dozen other instances where human wickedness is also credited to God’s good purposes in history. As Calvin says, “Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies.”

I’ve wrestled myself for a number of years as to just how God’s sovereignty and our real, human freedom play out. Of course, the Scriptures don’t resolve this tension for us, nor does Calvin; they just let the it hang there. The conclusion I’ve come to is that both are in the Bible and any solution that too heavily pits the one against the other–either minimizing or limiting God’s control, foreknowledge, & so forth, or those hyper-Calvinists who would call all human freedom a chimera–are reading against the grain of the text. None of this is an answer, of course. I still go back and forth between a more deterministic conception of compatibilism, Molinism, and something I don’t think I really have a name for.

What Calvin does is ensure that whatever our answer, it must be one that reckons with the fact that there are no runaway wills in God’s world; his “permission” is an active one, and he does not stand idly by, wringing his hands in distress, or waiting with baited breath to see what happens next. Again, this is the God of the Gospel who didn’t just stand by and let his Son be crucified by wicked men, but purposed according to his own plan and foreknowledge to save the world through these things.

Soli Deo Gloria

I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake (My Christ and Pop Culture Feature)

Illustration by the amazing Seth T. Hahn. Pretty stoked.

Illustration by the amazing Seth T. Hahne Pretty stoked.

9/11 was a weird day for me. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh God, I hope it wasn’t Arabs”, as soon as I heard that a plane had been crashed into the first tower. I’m 3/4 Palestinian and at times have a distinctly Arab cast to me. My last name is Rishmawy. Admittedly it was a selfish thought, but I just didn’t see that going well for me in high school. And I was right.

That afternoon in football practice, upon discovering that I was of Arab descent, a “Palestilian” according to one educated linguist on the team, a team-mate of mine took it upon himself to spear me in the back–twice. For those of you who’ve never played, that sort of thing hurts. Thankfully my coach caught on quickly and put an end to that. Still, for the next few years I was lovingly called “dune-coon”, “sand-nigger”, “Taliban”, “Osama”, etc. by a good chunk of my team-mates and friends. And yes, I do mean lovingly. It was wrong, and I don’t really get it, but for some reason racial slurs were a way of bonding in the locker-room. Still, it grated on me at times.

As frustrating and awkward as being an Arab high-schooler in post-9/11 America could be at times, given garden-variety prejudices, fears, and ignorance–none of those slurs frustrated me as much as what some of my well-meaning, Evangelical brothers and sisters ignorantly implied: that I and my entire ethnic heritage were an unfortunate mistake–Abraham’s mistake to be exact.

Please go read the rest of this piece at the Christ and Pop Culture blog at patheos.com.