Giving Jesus Credit Where Credit is Due (Or, Soteriological Maximalism & Atonement Accounts)

There’s a principle in theology that some have named have the “principle of perfection”, or what we might term “theological maximalism”, that says our thinking about God should aim to do justice to God’s maximally great being.  In other words, when trying to do construct your doctrine of God, if you have an option between two ways of looking at God, unless you have some very good reason for thinking otherwise, whichever option is greater ought to be preferred. So, for instance, if choosing between the view that God’s omniscience, his all-knowingness, includes a knowledge of the future as well as the present and the past, or only the present and the past, we should probably prefer the former option. Unless we have some very good scriptural evidence to the contrary, theological maximalism will lead us to expect that God’s perfect knowledge will contain perfect knowledge of the future.

Now, to my mind that makes intuitive and even biblical sense. The Scriptures declare God’s greatness and glory is beyond human comprehension, which likely means that if we could come up with attribute that would make him better, stronger, and more glorious, then he probably has it. The big qualification that comes in, though, is that we need to make sure our reasoning and logic about what would make God “great” is itself formed and normed by what God has said about himself in Scripture. Your “great” and the Bible’s “great” might not always match up in all the details.

From Big God to Big Salvation

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I've ever seen.

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I’ve ever seen.

I go into all of this to set up what I think should be a similar principle in our theology of salvation–a “soteriological maximalism”, if you will. What do I mean? And where am I going with this? Well, essentially, whichever position presents us with a greater, more complex, and comprehensive view of salvation wrought through Christ ought to be preferred. In other words, whichever view of salvation gives Father, Son, and Spirit more credit for getting more done through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, all other considerations being equal, we should opt for that one.

For instance, for a long time now I’ve been annoyed at what I see as reductionistic views of the atonement, (ie, how Christ’s death reconciles us to God). Ever since Gustav Aulen’s treatment of the atonement back in the 30s in Christus Victor, theologians have been talking about three different models, types, or “theories” of atonement: moral influence, penal satisfaction, and Christus Victor. J.I. Packer explains the three quite nicely in his classic essay, The Logic of Penal Substitution so I’ll let him expand at length:

1. There is first, the type of account which sees the cross as having its effect entirely on men, whether by revealing God’s love to us, or by bringing home to us how much God hates our sins, or by setting us a supreme example of godliness, or by blazing a trail to God which we may now follow, or by so involving mankind in his redemptive obedience that the life of God now flows into us, or by all these modes together. It is assumed that our basic need is lack of motivation Godward and of openness to the inflow of divine life; all that is needed to set, us in a right relationship with God is a change in us at these two points, and this Christ’s death brings about. The forgiveness of our sins is not a separate problem; as soon as we are changed we become forgivable, and are then forgiven at once. This view has little or no room for any thought of substitution, since it goes so far in equating what Christ did for us with what he does to us.

2. A second type of account sees Christ’s death as having its effect primarily on hostile spiritual forces external to us which are held to be imprisoning us in a captivity of which our inveterate moral twistedness is one sign and symptom. The cross is seen as the work of God going forth to battle as our champion, just as David went forth as Israel’s champion to fight Goliath. Through the cross these hostile forces, however conceived — whether as sin and death, Satan and his hosts, the demonic in society and its structures, the powers of God’s wrath and curse, or anything else — are overcome and nullified, so that Christians are not in bondage to them, but share Christ’s triumph over them. The assumption here is that man’s plight is created entirely by hostile cosmic forces distinct from God; yet, seeing Jesus as our champion, exponents of this view could still properly call him our substitute, just as all the Israelites who declined Goliath’s challenge in 1 Samuel 17:8-11 could properly call David their substitute. Just as a substitute who involves others in the consequences of his action as if they had done it themselves is their representative, so a representative discharging the obligations of those whom he represents is their substitute. What this type of account of the cross affirms (though it is not usually put in these terms) is that the conquering Christ, whose victory secured our release, was our representative substitute.

3. The third type of account denies nothing asserted by the other two views save their assumption that they are complete. It that there is biblical support for all they say, but it goes further. It grounds man’s plight as a victim of sin and Satan in the fact that, for all God’s daily goodness to him, as a sinner he stands under divine judgment, and his bondage to evil is the start of his sentence, and unless God’s rejection of him is turned into acceptance he is lost for ever. On this view, Christ’s death had its effect first on God, who was hereby propitiated (or, better, who hereby propitiated himself), and only because it had this effect did it become an overthrowing of the powers of darkness and a revealing of God’s seeking and saving love. The thought here is that by dying Christ offered to God what the West has called satisfaction for sins, satisfaction which God’s own character dictated as the only means whereby his ‘no’ to us could become a ‘yes’, Whether this Godward satisfaction is understood as the homage of death itself, or death as the perfecting of holy obedience, or an undergoing of the God-forsakenness of hell, which is God’s final judgment on sin, or a perfect confession of man’s sins combined with entry into their bitterness by sympathetic identification, or all these things together (and nothing stops us combining them together), the shape of this view remains the same — that by undergoing the cross Jesus expiated our sins, propitiated our Maker, turned God’s ‘no’ to us into a ‘yes’, and so saved us. All forms of this view see Jesus as our representative substitute in fact, whether or not they call him that, but only certain versions of it represent his substitution as penal.

So here you see the three types. You can probably also see where this is going with respect to “soteriological maximalism.” It has been an lamentable reality that in the West, and especially in contemporary theology, the three forms have been pitted against each other as rival models that we must choose between, because they’re apparently totally incompatible. I think this is an unfortunate, and quite unnecessary move. Indeed, Packer goes on to say as much:

…it should be noted that though the two former views regularly set themselves in antithesis to the third, the third takes up into itself all the positive assertions that they make; which raises the question whether any more is at issue here than the impropriety of treating half-truth as the whole truth, and of rejecting a more comprehensive account on the basis of speculative negations about what God’s holiness requires as a basis for forgiving sins. Were it allowed that the first two views might be misunderstanding and distorting themselves in this way, the much-disputed claim that a broadly substitutionary view of the cross has always been the mainstream Christian opinion might be seen to have substance in it after all. It is a pity that books on the atonement so often take it for granted that accounts of the cross which have appeared as rivals in historical debate must be treated as intrinsically exclusive. This is always arbitrary, and sometimes quite perverse.

In a sense, accepting some form of penal representation allows you to affirm the truth of the other two models, while accounting for more biblical material that can’t be easily folded into those accounts. Indeed, as some theologians like Hans Boersma, Graham Cole, Henri Blocher, and Robert Sherman have pointed out in their different accounts, accepting it actually gives us a coherent grounding for the other two realities. Following a principle of soteriological maximalism, then, we will strive to affirm it because allows us to give Jesus more credit for his work on the cross, not less.

This comes in handy when, for instance, coming to a text like Colossians 2:13-15:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Here we see very clearly both legal/penal concerns (v. 14), as well as the theme of victory over powers and principalities. Instead of trying to subsume or screen out either theme, instead we can clearly preach both at once, seeing the way they are seamlessly combined in Scripture, and even begin to trace the way they are organically combined together.

A Note on Girard

Incidentally, this should probably be our approach towards newer atonement accounts of a Girardian “scapegoat” type. Basically, innocent Jesus’ obviously unjust death on the cross at the hands of the powers (government, religion, the mob) exposes the violent, scapegoating mechanism at the heart of sinful society, bringing about repentance, or something like that. You can dig through these resources for more details.  I’ll be honest, on its own, it’s an abysmal account of the atonement that can’t really deal with the biblical material, and usually operates with Girard’s own neo-Marcionite reading of the Old Testament. As Scot McKnight has pointed out, it’s basically a new-style Abelarian/moral influence type, only in this set-up, we’re tempted to forget that we’re the ones who put him up on the Cross. (Also, the above works by Boersma, Sherman, and this one by Horton, all ably critique Girardian atonement types.) Still, it is possible to take some of Girard’s insights about the scapegoating process in general and fold them into Christ’s work of exposing the powers of evil on the Cross.

Also, Girardian types remind us of the boundary measure we mentioned with theological maximalism. As I said, Girardian types usually have to screen out, or hold up as false, most of the Old Testament sacrificial system, as well as reject any image of God dealing out judgment upon sin as punishment. And yet the acknowledgement that the Creator God is the just judge who punishes sin stands clearly at the center of the story of Israel’s dealings with him. In putting forward a view of the atonement that’s allegedly consistent with a glorious ‘non-violent’ God, not only do these accounts deny the accomplishments that penal accounts affirm, they have to do so contrary to the witness of Scripture as well.

Objections and Conclusions

I can, at this point, anticipate a couple of objections at this point along the lines of “Well, what about universalism? That seems to make Jesus a more able Savior, wouldn’t it? Saving all is better than saving only some?” Or again, “What about theosis, or Eastern Orthodox forms of deification? Shouldn’t we then try and figure out a way to affirm those? ‘Deifying’ people seems like an extra step up, doesn’t it?” Well, honestly, I don’t have time to address both adequately, but I’d simply say this is where we need to make sure our ideas about what is ‘maximal’ is being normed and formed by Scripture. In the case of universalism, the numeric ‘more’ that seems more maximal must be submitted to the scriptural judgments we have on the subject that apparently imply otherwise.

On deification, actually I’d say that this ought to motivate us to re-examine our hesitancy to reject any notion of deification as entirely out of bounds for a Reformed, or simply biblical, account of Christ’s work for us. J. Todd Billings has done some excellent work to make a case for a Calvinistic doctrine of ‘deification’ through union with Christ that doesn’t violate biblical teaching on the Creator/creature distinction. A number of other Reformed theologians (Michael Horton, Robert Letham) have been affirming something similar as well.

At the end of this (already too long) post, all I’ll say is that our instinct in reading Scripture and preaching Christ should be to give him as much credit as possible for “so great a salvation.”

Soli Deo Gloria

 

That Time Bavinck Said Edwards Helped the Pelagians

edwards 3Reading Bavinck for the last 6 months has been illuminating on several levels. Not only was he a top-notch constructive theologian and biblical thinker in his own right, but he was also an eminently historical thinker, steeped in the broad tradition from the patristic, medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern periods. For that reason, novice that I am in these sorts of things, Bavinck has been instructive to me both in the conclusions that he comes to, but also in his historical judgments and discussions, and overall humbly critical approach to the tradition (including the Reformed) as a whole.

I was reminded of this just this last week as I was reading through his chapter on the spread of  sin, original sin, and total depravity. Right in the middle of it all, he has a little paragraph on Jonathan Edwards’ that is fascinating for it’s actual theological content, but also because of the broader point it illustrates about the Reformed tradition in general:

When we are taught that as a result of sin that humans are incapable of any good and this inability is called “natural,” this does not refer to a physical necessity or fatalistic coercion. Humans have not, as a result of sin, lost their will and their increated freedom: the will, in virtue of its nature, rules out all coercion and can only will freely. What humans have lost is the free inclination of the will toward the good. They now no longer want to do good; thy now voluntarily, by a natural inclination, do evil. The inclination, the direction, of the will has changed. “This will in us is always free but it is not always good.” In this sense the incapacity for good is not physical but ethical in nature; it is a kind of impotence of the will. Some theologians therefore preferred to speak of a moral rather than a natural impotence–Amyraut, Testard, Venema, and especially Jonathan Edwards among them.

Edwards in his day, one must remember, had to defend the moral impotence of humans against Whitby and Taylor, who denied original sin and deemed humans able to keep God’s law. They argued, against Edwards, that if humans could not keep God’s law, they did not have to, and if they did not keep it, they were not guilty. To defend himself, Edwards made a distinction between natural and moral impotence, saying that fallen humans did have the natural but not the moral power to do good. And he added that only natural impotence was real impotence, but moral impotence could only be figuratively so called. For sin is not a physical defect in nature or in the powers of the will; but it is an ethical defect, a lack of inclination towards or love for the good. Now Edwards did say that human beings could not give themselves this inclination toward the good nor change their will. In this respect he was completely on the side of Augustine and Calvin. But by his refusal to call this disinclination toward the good “natural impotence.” he fostered a lot of misunderstanding and actually aided the cause of Pelagianism.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 121-122

Again, this is a fascinating discussion on a number of levels. First, it begins to clear up a number of misconceptions about the Reformed approach to total depravity and natural inclination towards sin.

Beyond that, growing up as an American Evangelical, after Calvin you’re kind of trained to think of Jonathan Edwards as the other name when it comes to Reformed, or more likely, Calvinistic theology. In fact, it’s very easy to find a number of young, Reformed theological types who’ve never read Calvin, but have jumped head-first into Edwards’ sermons, treatises, and so forth. And I’m not really knocking that. I’ve benefited from a number of his sermons, not just Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (although, fun fact, I briefly dated a girl in college who said her father read that to her and her sisters one Halloween), as well as his fabulous treatise on The End For Which God Created the World. Still, it’s fascinating to realize that in many wings of the Reformed family, Edwards is considered, not a bastion of classic Reformed orthodoxy, but a theological innovator who made some serious mistakes.

This also illustrates that very important point that often gets lost in popular discussions of Reformed theology, which is that the Reformed tradition is a tradition, not simply a set of standardized, universal answers. Now, by the word ‘tradition’ I’m invoking, or at least trying to invoke, the sense given by Alasdair MacIntyre, who says that “a tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined.” In that sense, while the broad Reformed tradition has some baseline agreements and shared assumptions that distinguish it from Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions, that doesn’t mean that on every single issue you’re going to get all Reformed theologians speaking with one voice, or simply parroting what Calvin said. There is debate, discussion, disagreement, refinement, and redefinition. Which is why it is often-times very important recognize that simply because Calvin, or Edwards, or Bavinck, or name your favorite contemporary figure (Piper, Keller, Horton, etc.) says “this is what Reformed theology teaches”, it may be important to qualify it still further with “Puritan Reformed theology”, “Continental Reformed theology”, and so forth. And even that can be too simplistic. This is part of why I’m looking forward to Oliver Crisp’s forthcoming Deviant Calvinism, which should be illuminating on that score.

Following this point, I would hasten to add that we probably should be more careful to be so quick to rule out someone out of the Reformed tradition. I have to say, I love the way Bavinck handles Edwards’ here. While being critical, and even to the point of saying his theology ended up confusing rather than helping, Bavinck still acknowledges Edwards’ efforts here positively, and reads as charitably and contextually as possible. (The engagement between N.T. Wright and his Reformed critics come to mind here as well.) For those of us, then, still “on the way” in our theological journey, we have in Bavinck a model for how to carry on that conversation, that “argument extended through time”, with our Reformed, and yes, even non-Reformed brothers and sisters in the broader tradition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

What follows is the introduction to a short essay for Canon and Culture. For regular readers, I’ll say that I consider this one of the most important things I’ve written–it’s a message that weighs on my heart, so I hope you’ll take the time to read carefully. Also, I’d like to thank Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who graciously offered comments on it. The smart parts are his. 

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

doctrineofgodA.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But it’s not only it’s not just that need to choose whether or not we believe that’s the problem, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualites being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Love, Pray. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the warmed-over leavings of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God get’s the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology:Divine Action, Passon, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem for the Church’s public, moral witness.

You can read the rest of my essay over at Canon and Culture

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

greekMost of the time a solid translation, good reading skills, and a solid grasp of the story-line of the Bible is good enough for constructing the rough outlines of a good doctrine of God. I mean, you can at least come up with a solid handle on the Creator/creature distinction, God’s power, righteousness, love, and so forth mostly by cruising through the text with a sharp eye and a keen mind. That said, sometimes a knowledge of the way Greek or Hebrew works can come in handy, especially when your doctrine is being challenged at that level. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance.

John 1:1-3 is one of the key explicitly texts (though far from the only one) used to establish the basic outlines of trinitarian doctrine, especially the equality, eternity, and so forth of the Son. It reads like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. It clearly says that the Word, later explicitly identified as the one who becomes flesh in Jesus (1:14), was with God in the beginning, that is, before the creation, and is the agent of creation. In the biblical storyline, there are only two main categories of reality: God and all the stuff God made. The Word is clearly identified as being on the “God” side of the line.

Also, there is the explicit identification, “the Word was God.” That seems pretty obvious too. But, thing is, that’s where a dispute can arise. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deniers of trinitarian doctrine will often point out that in the Greek, the word “God” (theos) is missing the definite article in the phrase “the Word was God”, meaning it should be read as “the Word was a God” not “The Word was the God“, the sense implied by the typical English translations. In which case, it’s not really teaching he is fully God in the same sense as the Father, but that he is divine in some modified, lesser sense.

But does that follow? What’s going on here? John Frame gives us 7 reasons to think that the absence of the definite article in verse 1:1 is simply a grammatical quirk and not a theologically significant absence throwing our trinitarian doctrine in disarray (which, in any case, it wouldn’t, since the doctrine doesn’t only hang on this verse). Also, just so you know, for this discussion, he’s broken the verse up into three clauses:

  1. In the beginning was the Word,
  2. and the Word was with God,
  3. and the Word was God.

With that in mind, here is Frame’s reasons:

  1. The absence of the article may be a “purely grammatical phenomenon.” When, as here, a Greek sentence uses “to be” to connect a subject and a predicate noun, the predicate noun normally lacks the article, even when it is definite. So the absence of an article implies nothing about the precise sense of theos.
  2. This argument is even stronger in passages like ours, where the predicate precedes the subject. The “Colwell Rule” states that in such a sentence, the predicate noun usually lacks an article, even though it is definite, but that the subject of the sentence, if definite, will employ the definite article. So again the phenomenon has a grammatical explanation and does not presuppose any change of meaning between “God” in clause two and “God” in clause three.
  3. As we have seen, in such constructions the predicate noun usually or normally lacks the article. Following that normal practice here may have also served the author’s purpose to draw additional attention to the term God, the center of the chiasm [Frame identified a chiasm earlier in the text]. Dropping the article focuses on the noun itself, and it brings the two occurrences of theos closer together in the chiasm. This consideration weakens further  the need for further explanation.
  4. In similar verses, where theos is a predicate noun lacking the definite article, a reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable (see Mark 12:27; Luk 20:38; John 8:54; Rom. 8:33; Phil. 2:13; Heb. 11:16).
  5. There are many other verses, some in the same first chapter of John, in which theos lacks a definite article, but in which the reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable. Nobody would claim a reduced meaning of theos, for example, in 1:6, 13, or 18.
  6. Even if we grant that theos without the definite article puts some emphasis on the qualities of God rather than his person, this supposition does not entail that theos is the third clause has a reduced sense. To prove otherwise, one must show that the qualities in view are something other than the essential attributes of God. If the qualities are essential qualities, then the third clause identifies the Word with God in the highest sense.
  7. A very strong argument is needed to prove that the meaning of theos changes between clause two and clause three. That burden of prove has certainly not been met.

-John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pp 665-66

This is the kind of text and objection that has been used to mislead hundreds of thousands of, largely well-meaning people like Jehovah’s Witnesses into denying one of the most sacred truths of God revealed through Christ. Still, we see here the both the rules of Greek grammar and close attention to the use of the definite article in similar texts throughout both John and the rest of the NT reveals this objection to be a very weak one indeed.

As I said before, I think that other features of the text, the context surrounding it, and a good grasp of biblical theology are probably good enough to ward off challenges to most doctrine. The average churchgoer probably doesn’t need to know Greek in order to be confident of the truth classic, trinitarian doctrine. Every once in a while, though, it can come in handy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: N.T. Wright and his Reformed Critics

So, this is the week you’ve all been waiting for: N.T. Wright and his Reformed critics. On this episode the boys and I chat about the sort of criticisms lodged by American Reformed and confessional Reformed against Wright’s theology, discussing their merits and shortcomings. As always, we think this is a pretty lively discussion.

Also, we throw out a lot of article references in this show. You can go get those at the show links over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

8 Ways For God to Be Simple

untamed godOne of the most complicated to understand of the attributes traditionally used by the classical and medieval tradition of God is his “simplicity”, or non-compositeness. I remember when I first read someone say that God is “simple” I immediately balked thinking to myself “What nonsense. How could the Christian God be simple? He’s so utterly beyond us, that there’s nothing ‘simple’ about him. I mean, God is the Trinity, for crying out loud!” Of course, like most I was confused as to what the traditional theologians of the Church had actually been claiming when it came to the doctrine of simplicity, and so, like many contemporary theologians, especially the revisionist ones I was reading at the time, I rejected it as philosophical nonsense. However, since then I’ve come around to thinking that some form of it probably ought to be retained.

Some of you may even right now be thinking, “Well, that’s nice for you, but I’m still in the dark about it, so what is it?” Well, that’s where things get tricky. You see, even among theologians who currently affirm it, there’s some debate as to what the doctrine of simplicity actually holds. At it’s most simple–see what I did there, eh?–the doctrine teaches that God is not made up of any parts or components. He is simple in that he is not “composite”–you can’t pull him apart and then put him back together.

Still, based on the way a theologian comes to hold simplicity, whether through biblical arguments, philosophical reasoning of various sorts, etc. they tend to end up offering different formulations of the teaching, some of which tend to generate more questions or objections than others, which can tend to make things difficult to evaluate. So, for instance, some will say it only means God isn’t composite–God isn’t part love and part holy, with the possibility that you could separate out the bits. Or, it isn’t that case that his love part wins sometimes and his holiness at others, but that he is always fully holy and loving in all that he does. Others, though, will go further and say that means that God’s holiness and his love simply are the same thing and that the only distinctions there are between the two are conceptual ones related to our minds. Still others will take it even further than that. The result is that one argument seems to be quite persuasive against one formulation, yet tends to have very little effect on another more modest one.

It’s for that reason that I found the section on it in  Jay Wesley Richards’ The Untamed God to be particularly helpful for getting a lay of the land. Before moving to give his own formulation, in good analytic fashion Richards lays out the various possible senses for the term ‘simplicity’. While I’m not sure I follow his conclusions, this section is worth quoting in full:

As with immutability, so with simplicity we may consider whether God is simple in all respects, in some respects or in no respects. Any purported defense of simplicity will conclude that God is simple in at least some respects, so we will ignore the last option. Now obviously God is not simple in just any sense. One meaning of “simple,” after all is “unintelligent.” It should then become clear that there are several crucial senses in which we should say that God is simple and a few sense in which we should deny it.

  1. All divine properties are possessed by the same self-identical God.
  2. God is not composite, in the sense that he is made up of elements or properties more fundamental than he is. He has no external cause(s) such as Platonic form.
  3. God’s essence is “identical with” his act of existing. (Or perhaps: God’s existence is not extrinsic to his essence.)
  4. All of God’s essential properties are coextensive.
  5. All God’s perfections are identical.
  6. All God’s properties are coextensive.
  7. God’s essential properties and essence are (strictly) identical with God himself.
  8. All God’s properties are (strictly) identical with God himself.

Of these, 1 is the easiest to accommodate;it 8 is the most difficult. In fact, of these eight possibilities, we can defend plausible renderings of 1, 2, 3, 4, and perhaps 5. But it should become clear that the Christian must deny senses 6, 7, and 8, at least on certain contemporary interpretations…Interestingly, there seems to be an asymmetrical entailment relations between these theses going from 8 to 1. So, for instance, 8 entails 7, but 7 does not entail 8, and so on.  If this is correct, then 8 is clearly the strongest form of simplicity and 1 is the weakest. We should not mistake the strongest version of the doctrine, however, with the most traditional. It may be that the strongest versions of the doctrine have resulted from misinterpreting certain traditional claims. In fact, I suspect that sense 2 is the primary burden of the traditional doctrine, rightly interpreted.

The Untamed God: A Philosophical Exploration of Divine Perfection, Simplicity, and Immutability, pp. 216-218

So, there you have it–clear as mud, right? But honestly, this little breakdown before he moves on to his defense of a modest version of the doctrine is very helpful in distinguishing the various different types of simplicity that are often forwarded in theological discussion. While not all readers will want to follow his distinctions between essential and contingent properties (Richards distinguishes between properties God has essentially, apart from all relations, and those which he has in light of having freely created and related himself to a world), you can see that it’s not just a simple matter of accepting or rejecting the doctrine. Some will hesitate about the more strict forms but have less issues with the more modest forms. What’s more, as Richards points out, it’s not necessarily the case that accepting the more modest forms while rejecting the stronger forms is a “revisionist” take as it seems that the initial few senses may even be the most traditional senses. As for myself, I’d say I currently do affirm it probably at least the first 5 senses. The rest are still up for grabs until I do a little more digging.

  1. For those looking to dig deeper into the issue, Gavin Ortlund has this excellent little introductory post on it.
  2. For those looking for interesting modern discussion with an emphasis on the practical importance of the doctrine, there’s a great one in Tom McCall’s great little book Forsaken.
  3. For a traditional discussion, I’d also highly recommend Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2 on the Doctrine of God.
  4. Finally, though I haven’t read it yet, James Dolezal’s God Without Parts is supposed to be one of the best, robust, modern articulations to date.

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Quick Thoughts on America, the 4th, and The Gospel

This was originally going to be a few quick thoughts on Facebook, but apparently that’s impossible for me. So, here are a four quickish thoughts on America, the 4th, patriotism, and so forth.

1. I love America. It’s my home and I know I’m blessed to live here for a number of reasons whether historical, political, economic, and so forth. The freedoms granted and the high ideals (however poorly executed at times) bound up with the American idea stirs the heart. I’ll admit, I pledge to the flag and still stand when I hear the national anthem. I don’t think loving Jesus, confessing him as Lord of all creation, means I have to hate or disavow my country, or refuse to celebrate it in any way shape, or form. In fact, to refuse to do so entirely may be a form of gross ingratitude towards God. Nor do I think it rules out being a good citizen, praying for my nation, voting, and so forth. In fact, it probably requires those things as part of my duty to love my neighbor through promoting the common good.

2. America is a gift from God, not God. Think that through. God is eternal, self-existent, holy, loving, righteous, pure, omnipotent, gracious and my sole hope, strength, savior, final end, and source of all good. America is not. It is a finite, created, thing and needs to be evaluated as such. It is a “power” that participates both in the common grace blessings of God as well as the fallenness common to both human and non-human reality this side of the 2nd Coming. Those who can’t see the good, glory, and blessing in America’s history and structure have an overly pronounced Nietzschian squint. Those who can’t see the sin, the shame, and darkness in it probably need to take off their Red, White, and Blue colored glasses.

leithart3. America is not “God’s New Israel”, nor is it in any sense analogous to the Church. Without delving too deeply in on the subject, I’ll just say that the only options for orthodox Christians looking to be faithful to God’s word is to see Israel as Israel, or, as I hold, the transnational, universal Church as the Jew + Gentile reality of the new Israel brought together in the body of the Messiah, the True Israel. I’m sorry, but the US figures nowhere in biblical eschatology. Any attempt to paint America’s redemptive-historical place in world history as anything more positive than a modern-day Persian Empire (think Cyrus), used like any other nation in God’s providential ordering of history, is false to the Bible and possibly an ecclesiological heresy Peter Leithart has termed “Americanism.” If this is something you’re tempted towards–especially on American Holy Days where we celebrate our creation myths, laud our national saints, and participate in American liturgical ceremonies–I’d recommend you pick up his book Between Babel and Beast and get to repenting, right quickish. While I don’t follow Leithart everywhere he goes, but it’s edifying and eye-opening read.

4. America is not who we worship at Church. I’ll admit, like a lot of other young Evangelicals, I’m a bit allergic to patriotic services. At an old church of mine, I had to walk out of one in an attempt to hold on to my breakfast because “America! America! All the America!” was the gist of the whole thing. I’ve also got a strong sense that having an American flag up on stage next to the Cross of Christ borders on sacrilege. Still, I’m not opposed to a prayer for the nation (which is biblical, cf. 1 Timothy 2:2), and maybe a song of gratitude or something. That said, if you’re a pastor planning on having a patriotic service, please slow down and consider at least 3 questions before you proceed on Sunday:

  1. Do your parishioners know the theological difference between the Kingdom and the Nation, and the proper ordering of their loyalties?
  2. Would Christians of other nations feel utterly bewildered and unwelcome in your service?
  3. Would people be tempted to conclude that God’s election of America as a nation is the greatest saving event in history, or the life, death, and resurrection of the Son is?

What, then, is the end of the matter? Go ahead and have fun tomorrow. Be grateful. Light off fireworks. Eat good food. But in the middle of the BBQs, parades, and fanfare, remember that God is God, Christ is Lord, and America is a finite, temporal gift to be grateful for, but never worshipped or set apart in the heart as a final end in itself.

In other words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:23)

Soli Deo Gloria

Luther’s Very Scholastic Reformation

Luther hammerI’ve been enjoying working my way through William Jan Van Asselt’s edited volume on Reformed Scholasticism lately. One of the main points the various contributors have been underscoring is that far from being a specific body of content, scholastic theology ought to be seen rather as a method of approach that could be used by various theological perspectives. Indeed, nowhere is this highlighted best than when we consider what is usually painted as the explosive, revolutionary act that kicked off the Reformation:

When, as tradition has it, Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his theses on indulgences to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg in 1517, the hammer blows appeared to usher in a new era for the church. Luther’s act is often considered the beginning of the Reformation. However, a close look at the theses will make it clear that they do not condemn indulgences as such, but only the misuse of them. When it comes to content, Luther’s first act of reform was therefore more medieval than has commonly been assumed.

But the form of this important act in the history of the church also must be seen against a medieval background. Nailing theses to a door was not an unusual thing to do, since theological disputations were regularly held on theses that previously had been made known. When Luther nailed those famous theses to the door, his intention was to enter into a theological disputation. The disputation genre had developed in the medieval schools and formed an important part of the scholastic method. Luther’s hammer blows may have drawn the curtains on the Middle Ages and heralded a new era in church history, but as such his first act of reformation was entirely medieval.

Added to this paradox is the fact that Luther engaged in disputes against scholastic theology only shortly before nailing the ninety-five to the door. In his attack on scholastic theology, Luther thus used an element from scholastic method, the disputation. This was because Luther understood the concept of scholasticism in terms of content, as representing the teaching of Aristotle and William of Ockham. Luther’s Galatians commentary (1519), whose contents identify it as a Reformed commentary, was similarly the fruit of a medieval pedagogical method, the lectio (reading), in which a (biblical) book was read and commented on by the master during his lectures.

–Pieter L. Rouwiendal, “The Method of the Schools: Medieval Scholasticism.” in Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Willem J. Van Asselt. Ed. (Kindle Locations 1140-1152). Reformation Heritage Books.

Far from being a great anti-scholastic revolt, Luther’s initial reformatory foray was scholastic, both in content and in method. It was somewhat of an unintentional revolution initiated by professor thoroughly shaped and formed from within a tradition, not the work of an outsider rebel disrupting the system from without.

At the expense of moralizing an interesting historical tidbit, there might be a bit of cautioning, or at least chastening, word for would-be theological revolutionaries. Luther, Calvin, and the other great Reformers were all, for the most part, trained and schooled in the classic texts, sources, methods, and theology, which is what allowed them to be so devastatingly effective, both in retaining the best of the catholic tradition, as well as criticizing its excesses. There is likely more value in learning and submitting to the tradition, doing the hard work of study and so forth, than hot-blooded young types looking to reshape the Church want to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Transgender Question

Well, on this week’s Mere Fidelity cast, Alastair, Matt, and I continue our conversation through O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? by wading into the transgender issue that’s been on everyone’s mind of late.

Mere FidelityHere’s the big quote we read at the beginning:

The sex into which we have been born (assuming that it is physiologically unambiguous) is given to us to be welcomed as a gift of God. The task of psychological maturity–for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire–involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems.  Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations.  

Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic (though I suppose that no human being alive has been without some sexual problems) are in no position to pronounce any judgment on those for whom accepting their sex has been a task so difficult that they have fled from it into denial.  No one can say with any confidence what factors have made these pressures so severe.  

Nevertheless, we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits.  Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature–to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given. And that implies that we must make the necessary distinction between the good of the bodily form as such and the various problems that it poses to us personally in our individual experience.  This is a comment that applies not only to this very striking and unusually distressing problem, but to a whole range of other sexual problems too. 

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Soli Deo Gloria