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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Karen Swallow Prior talks Animals

Mere FidelityI couldn’t be there because of a scheduling conflict, but for this week’s Mere Fidelity episode, Matt Lee Anderson, Andrew Wilson, and Alastair Roberts are joined by our friend Karen Swallow Prior (the author of the recent biography of Hannah More, Fierce Convictions and Chief Executive Director of the Evangelical Intelligentsia). They discuss the recent evangelical statement on the welfare of animals by the Every Living Thing Campaign. Apparently Roberts goes a bit wild, citing poetry, defending cat videos, and who knows what else. It’s a real animal house.

As always, we hope you enjoy and are edified.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

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

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

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

A Better World?

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

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

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

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

Is God Bound in the Chains of His Own Justice?

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

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

Here I’ll quote him at length:

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

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

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

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

Reinforcing Retribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

3 Principles For Those Times When Theologians and Scientists Disagree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Prophecy, Just Prescription: Solid Theology (Patheos Future of Evangelicalism)

future of evangelicalismI got asked to participate in a panel of sorts over at Patheos on the Future of Religion in America in the next 5 years. There’s actually a great line-up you should go check out (esp, Trueman, Moore, Meador, Dyck, and Wedgeworth’s pieces). Anyway, here’s the beginning of my two cents. 

When I was asked to weigh in on what I judged to be the future of Evangelicalism, my first thought was, “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, I’m just a shepherd of college students.” Who am I to make such weighty prognostications? By nature I’m averse to engaging in any hard futurology — sounds a bit close to astrology. Beyond that, given the increasingly volatile nature of American discourse around religion and the rapidly changing theo-political scene (Obergefell and its rainbow penumbra), we’re dealing with shifting variables whose slopes are slipperier by the day, making mapping a trajectory with any certainty a perilous proposition.

All the same, I’ll hazard a few words about the future of Evangelicalism, not as predictions, but as prescriptions for facing the changes we see all around us and their fallout. From where I stand, I’d say there’s one main priority Evangelicalism needs to set itself, if it’s going to survive the next few years let alone be salt and light for the gospel: prioritizing solid theology.

You can read the rest of my specific article here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Summarizing, Simplifying, and Expanding on the Atonement by Adam Johnson (Guest Post)

atonementAdam Johnson is a professor of theology in the Torrey Honors program at Biola University and excellent chap. He’s just put out a very helpful book–one of my new favorites on the subject–Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, which I’ve already written about here. What follows is an excerpted  section of one of my favorite passages in the work, reprinted with his permission. I hope it encourages you to follow up and pick the book. 

A thorough appreciation of the complexity of the atonement funds our delight and worship, while equipping the church to relate Christ’s work meaningfully to a host of other areas. An equally strong grasp of the simplicity of the doctrine yields a sense of the overall shape and structure of the doctrine, offering meaning and direction to our inquiries within its many elements. Just as in the doctrines of the Trinity and divine attributes (in fact, precisely because of them), the interplay between unity and diversity, simplicity and complexity, plays a vital role here as well. For that reason we must constantly live in the tension between seeking an expansive understanding, and concise definition of the work of Christ.

Summary I: An Exercise in Simplicity

The best summary statements about Christ’s atoning work in Scripture are the following two (closely related) verses:

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

“In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” (Col. 1:19-20)

In short:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

The beauty of this short statement is four-fold. First, the emphasis is first and foremost upon God, which is absolutely vital for the doctrine. The atonement is the work of God bringing God’s creation back to God. God is the origin, means and end of this act, and the role of theology proper is singularly and absolutely determinative for the shape of the doctrine and the coherence of our account of the atonement. Second, this is the work of God as man, as Jesus. That is to say, it is a fully human work, the work of God as one of us, one of our kind living out his life under the same realities and circumstances as we do. It is a work from within our life and experience, in which God makes our situation his own, rather than a work from the outside. Third, this is a work of reconciliation. One could say that God was in Christ, atoning (at-one-ing) all things to himself in Christ, though this does not communicate as readily in contemporary English. In principle, one could substitute “reconciling” for any of a number of soteriological synonyms, including “saving,” “redeeming,” “ransoming” or “sanctifying.” “Reconciliation” is preferable, however, for its positive (indicating salvation for just as much or more than it does salvation from) and comprehensive nature. In other words, it isn’t as readily reducible to merely marshal, judicial or commercial concerns as some of its peers.

The final reason which makes this summary the best single statement in Scripture concerning the work of Christ is its comprehensive scope: all things! Of course this must be unpacked, but such a comprehensive and indeed cosmic affirmation runs no risk whatsoever of leaving anything out. All things are involved and bound up in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is no mere matter of meeting some particular need or void in our lives—the death and resurrection of Christ are of much bigger scope than that. They gather up the identity, condition and fate of all of God’s creation, for in Christ all things are taken up and reconciled to the Father. Regardless of whether we recognize this to be the case, there is nothing in life that is not reconciled to God through the work of Christ (Col. 1:20).

In short, for a single statement that grasps the foundation of the doctrine of the atonement in the being and act of God, the means of the atonement in the man Jesus Christ, the positive and life-giving nature of atonement as a work of reconciliation, a restoring of relationships, and the scope of the atonement, which brings all things into their proper relationship and fellowship with God, there is no better statement than Paul’s claim that God was in Christ reconciling all things to himself.

Summary II – A Fuller Account

But the purpose of a summary statement is to bring clarity by highlighting the basic elements or structure of that which it summarizes. Accordingly, summary always plays its role as one part of the task of understanding its object, which is to say, summaries play a role within the dynamic movement necessary for understanding a complex reality, moving between a vision of the overall structure and interacting with the smaller parts of which the whole is composed. To honor this dynamic movement, we will briefly unpack the above summary, offering a slightly more complex rendition of the same basic statement:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

To affirm that God was in Christ, that this was the work of God and his presence in this act is what makes it what it is, what gives it its defining features, characteristics and significance, is to affirm first and foremost that this is the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are what they are because they are events in the life of God, willed by the Father, executed by the Son, in the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit. It is only because the atonement is the work of the triune God, bringing our humanity and sin into the relational dynamics of Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit, that this work is what it is. And it is because God does this work through his own life, that it simultaneously involves the fullness of the divine character. In this event, God enacts his love, wisdom, mercy, righteousness, holiness and presence, the fullness of the divine attributes, in his overcoming of sin and evil, and restoration of all things according to his purposes for them.

To affirm that Jesus was a man is to embrace the fact that he was not any man, but an Israelite: born of the line of David, realizing in himself the covenants, prophecies and laws of the Old Testament as the Messiah, the prophet, priest and king, the one who in himself was the faithful Israelite. As such, he is, of course, a human being just as we are, but one with a specific history, and with that history a specific identity and role. Salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and more concretely, from the Jew, Jesus, the son of Mary. And his work was a work of reconciliation, of atonement—of making one through restored relation to God and through him to all things. Relationally, he made things one by bringing about reconciliation or the restoration of fellowship. Cosmically, he made creation one by removing evil, conflict and decay. Judicially, he made us one by doing away with the crime, guilt and punishment. His work was a work of creating and sharing one-ness according to the many forms it takes in different contexts and relationships, bearing in himself and thereby doing away with all sin, evil and discord.

And his work touches on all things: angels and demons, Jews and Gentiles, dogs and cats, mountains and graveyards. And because the center of God’s election in Christ was for a people, for a relationship with humankind, his work relates to middle management and racial relations, body and soul, emotions and habits, families and friendships. Extending far beyond the guilty conscience, God became man in Jesus Christ to bring every aspect of creation, and every aspect of our human existence, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, with all the flourishing and mutual-exaltation that this entails for every aspect of our being (physical, spiritual, social, sexual, economic and otherwise) and that of the creation of which we are a part.

Definition as Springboard to Exploration

But we must be clear about the fact that this more expansive summary is but a springboard to fuller reflection on each these areas. But as we engage in this pursuit, for the sake of clarity and definition, it is helpful that we be able to pull back from detailed exploration of the sub-points of the doctrine, and also be able to affirm with brevity and understanding that:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

Or even more briefly, that:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Triune Justification, Again (Or, is a Reformed view of Salvation Sub-Trinitarian?)

trinityI’ve noted before the way that Protestant theologies of salvation, especially of the Reformed variety, are occasionally criticized as being sub-trinitarian due to their narrow focus on forensic or legal categories. Whether because of an allegedly blinkered view of the cross, or an “overly-individualistic” transaction model of justification by faith, Reformed theology apparently can’t compare to more Catholic, Orthodox, or some more metaphysically-inclined Anglican proposals flirting with Radical Orthodoxy. (To be honest, the critiques all sort of blur together.)

Triune Justification, Again

Again, while that may be true of some popular Reformed or general ‘Evangelical’ preaching, that’s certainly not the case with classical Reformed theology such as that of Bavinck who lays out a beautifully trinitarian conception of justification. But some may wonder if that’s simply because with Bavinck we are dealing with an exceptional Reformed theologian, a jewel in the tradition who is unrepresentative of the broader whole?

Well, actually no. Once again, I ran across this little gem in Thomas Watson’s commentary on the Westminster Catechism’s treatment of justification. Watson is dealing with the various “causes” of salvation, such as faith which receives it, Christ’s righteous life and death as its ground, and so on. He moves to ask about the “efficient cause” or author of our justification:

What is the efficient cause of our justification?

The whole Trinity. All the persons in the blessed Trinity have a hand in the justification of a sinner: opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. God the Father is said to justify. ‘It is God that justifieth.’ (Rom 8:83). God the Son is said to justify. ‘By him all that believe are justified.’ (Acts 13:39). God the Holy Ghost is said to justify. ‘But ye are justified by the Spirit of our God.’ (I Cor 6:61). God the Father justifies, as he pronounces us righteous; God the Son justifies, as he imputes his righteousness to us; and God the Holy Ghost justifies, as he clears up our justification, and seals us up to the day of redemption.

There you have it. Drawing on the classical trinitarian logic that all of the Trinity’s ad extra or “outward” works are undivided, Watson traces the triune shape of God’s one justifying action in Christ. There’s absolutely nothing “sub-trinitarian” about even the very clearly forensic or legal dimension to a Reformed account of God’s saving work.

But Even Beyond Justification

It also bears pointing out that much of the confusion comes when we miss the fact that a Reformed view of salvation is not limited to justification by faith. It gladly encompasses it, but free justification and the forgiveness of sins is not the sum total of the gospel, nor of the benefits that make up our salvation. No, arguably, the larger category to keep in view is the doctrine of union with Christ, whereby in faith we are united legally, spiritually, morally, mystically, and vitally with Jesus and all of his benefits, which ends up giving us far more than justification alone. It’s also the broader picture that completely destroys the sub-trinitarian charge.

Instead, union with Christ expands to include things like the effectual calling out of darkness into light which precedes justification. Then also come the gifts of adoption into Father’s family, with all of the spiritual privileges that come with being a child of God such as access in prayer, peace, and the assurance of the Spirit. We are also given the sanctification and growth in holiness which inevitably follows as we received the gift of the Holy Spirit in our union. Finally, we are promised glorification, or the perfection of our salvation when we are resurrected anew by the Spirit and the process of sanctification is complete as we are fully and finally conformed to the Image of the Son, the Resurrected Jesus, in order that we might look upon the face of God in glory.

Theologian Todd Billings had an excellent little article on this recently, articulating all this as an expression of what we might (carefully) call a Reformed doctrine of deification. I’ll quote Billings at length:

Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).

Calvin also speaks of a coming beatific vision, a “direct vision” of the Godhead, “when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is” (Institutes 2.14.3). This final, temporal end is in fact “the end of the gospel,” that is, “to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” (commentary on 2 Peter 1:4). For Calvin, the present and future scope of God’s work in salvation requires us to go beyond looking at how we receive salvation and what salvation saves us from. All of this takes place for the sake of union and communion with God. Salvation not only restores what is lost by the fall; it incorporates creatures into the glorious life of the Triune God.

I’d recommend going and reading the whole of the article and maybe picking up his book Union with Christor this free article on Calvin’s view of salvation focused on the way union with Christ organizes things along trinitarian, Christocentric, and non-reductive lines, if you’re curious about more along these lines.

At the end of all this, though, it should be enough to dispel the very misguided charge that a Reformed view of salvation is sub-trinitarian due to its legal flavor. Not only does that misconstrue what the Reformed actually say about justification, it misses the much broader trinitarian context of salvation in union with Christ that justification is set within. Honestly, if I wanted to, I could have gone through and shown the trinitarian shape of each of those gifts (calling, sanctification, etc) in detail from the Reformed sources. But this enough to reflect on for now.

Soli Deo Gloria