Mere Fidelity Podcast: The Trinity and the Bible w/ Fred Sanders!

fred sandersThis week’s podcast we had the honor of having Fred Sanders on the show. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s one of my favorite people and an excellent trinitarian theologian working over at the Biola Torrey Honors program. We talked with Fred about what goes into developing the doctrine of the tradition based on the Bible, tradition, and so forth. As usual, Fred’s great. If you like the discussion and are interested in Fred’s work, you can check him blogging at Scriptorium Daily or his excellent book on the Trinity The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.

A couple of things to note, though. First, the sound quality on my end is a bit shoddy. It’s mostly fine, but the first minute there is rough. We’re working on it.

Second, please do take time if you can to rate and if possible review the podcast over at our iTunes RSS feed. Also, feel free to subscribe.

Soli Deo Gloria

Death Without Hope in Japan’s Valley of the Dolls (Think Christian)

Japan-valley-of-dolls-150x101There’s a village in Japan where there are more dolls than people. Fritz Schumann’s short documentary Valley of Dolls, embedded below, tells the story.

Nagoro, a small town situated in the Shikoku valleys, once was prosperous and lively, thriving off of the local industry connected to the nearby dam. Hundreds dwelt there. When Ayano Tsukimi returned to her home village 11 years ago, though, she found it dwindling, as older residents had passed away and the young had moved out to the cities in search of work.

In order to fill time on her return, Tsukimi decided to make a life-size scarecrow based on her father. Now, 10 years later, she’s made more than 350 of these beautiful and haunting dolls to replace the people who have died or moved away. The figures fill the town.

You can read my reflections on this town over at Think Christian.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Fiery Breath of Pentecost

pentecostToday we celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the Church at the feast of Pentecost. Luke gives us the account in Acts:

The Coming of the Holy Spirit When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

While there’s much to draw our attention here, the connection with the feast of Pentecost, the giving of the Law, the divided tongues connecting to the preaching of the Gospel in diverse languages, one feature in particular deserves our attention today: fire.

Why is it that the Spirit’s gift appears in the form of flaming tongues? As usual, Calvin’s comments are wise and instructive:

Without all doubt, it was a token of the (force and) efficacy which should be exercised in the voice of the apostles. Otherwise, although their sound had gone out into the uttermost parts of the world, they should only have beat the air, without doing any good at all. Therefore, the Lord doth show that their voice shall be fiery, that it may inflame the hearts of men; that the vanity of the world being burnt and consumed, it may purge and renew all things. Otherwise they durst never have taken upon them so hard a function, unless the Lord had assured them of the power of their preaching. Hereby it came to pass that the doctrine of the gospel did not only sound in the air, but pierce into the minds of men, and did fill them with an heavenly heat (and burning.) Neither was this force showed only in the mouth of the apostles, but it appeareth daily. And, therefore, we must beware lest, when the fire burneth, we be as stubble. Furthermore, the Lord did once give the Holy Ghost under a visible shape, that we may assure ourselves that his invisible and hidden grace shall never be wanting to the Church.

Commentary on Acts 2:4

Without going into the biblical-theological appropriateness of associating the work of the Spirit with fire in the OT and so forth, Calvin cuts to the heart of the matter: “the Lord doth show that their voice shall be fiery, that it may inflame the hearts of men.”

The giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is what gives life to the preaching of the Gospel through the church. Without the efficacious work of God’s own Spirit, we should have no confidence in our own faulty and paltry voices. Yet now, because of Pentecost, we are called to preach the Gospel boldly, with great power because through it, God is working to “purge and renew all things.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity is Finally on iTunes

Mere FidelityHey everybody, I’m pleased to announce that our podcast has finally been approved by iTunes and is now up for streaming, downloading, and so forth, with the four previous episodes up for grabs. You can go here to do so:

This is the link to click on. I am being very, very explicit with this so that you will actually click on it.

Also, if you’ve already listened to it, or once you’ve listened to it, please go ahead and rate it for us and maybe give it a review. We think the conversations we’re having are really valuable for the church and for our culture, so we want to get the word out. A podcast with actual reviews and (good) ratings is more likely to get noticed beyond the circle of reach of the four of us participating.

Finally, if wouldn’t mind share the podcast feed, please do so.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Brief Definition of ‘Theology’ a la Plantinga

See, even Snoopy does theology.

See, even Snoopy does theology.

What is theology?

At first blush, that sounds like a grand, magnificent, heavy, and “meta” question. And it can be. For those who love it, the practice, discipline, and joy that is the study of theology requires and calls forth numerous complementary (and contradictory) explanations of just what we think we’re doing when we study and write “theology”–which is valid, and none of which could possibly be the last word on the subject. I myself have spent a decent bit of my time thinking and reading about over the last few years and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. It’s kind of like philosophy that way.

That said, in another sense, the practice of theology is quite straightforward and it’s a shame that so many people feel intimidated away from engaging it just at the sound of the word. It’s my conviction that because all of life has to do with God, to some degree every Christian should be trying to think theologically about life at some level.

What I want to put forward very simple (and hopefully helpful) definition of theology for those who seem to be scared off by the very thought of engaging in such an “exalted” task. To do so, I’d like to rip off Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga opens his very short, but landmark work God, Freedom, and Evil thus:

This book discusses and exemplifies the philosophy of religion, or philosophical reflection on central themes of religion. Philosophical reflection (which is not much different from just thinking hard) on these themes has a long history: it dates back at least as far as the fifth century B.C. when some of the Greeks thought long and hard about the religion they had received from their ancestors. In the Christian era such philosophical reflection begins in the first or second century with the early church fathers, or “Patristics” as they are often called; it has continued ever since.

God, Freedom, and Evil, pg. 1

Did you catch that? Plantinga defines philosophical reflection as “not much different from just thinking hard” about some theme. And honestly, that seems about right.

What I want to propose is that the practice of theology, and especially Christian theology, could be very simply defined as:

“Just thinking hard about what God has said about himself.”

This isn’t overly technical. Nor do I think it’s very scary. But in a pinch it gets to the heart of what theology is all about.

Now, while I think it serves pretty well on its own, let me spell out a few basic implications of the definition:

  1. First, Christian theology is clearly a human practice. Even though we’re thinking about God, thinking hard is still something people do. There’s no escaping the human character of theology.
  2. Second, and this should be obvious, it’s a matter of thinking hard. While theology should involve prayer and practice, you inevitably have to use the mind God gave you to engage in theology. What’s more, you have to really use it. So, while I do think everybody should try to think theologically, don’t take that to mean that it’s obvious, or easy all the time. It’s not. But then again, what is there that’s truly worth doing that doesn’t involve some effort?
  3. Finally, and most importantly, Christian theology is rooted in divine revelation. The main thing that separates Christian theology from pure philosophy is that the Christian theologian doesn’t just think hard about “God” in general, or based on their own experiences, perceptions, and so forth. Christian theologians think hard about what the Triune God of the covenant has already told us about himself. The good news is that God has spoken, so we don’t have to figure everything out on our own. Now, different Christian traditions will then argue about the priority of the Bible in that revelation, the teaching of the Church, or how much principles of human thought drawn from outside ought to contribute to our theological reflection. As a Protestant, I’m going to do my best to give primacy and finality to the Bible. Still, at the end of the day, if a theology is going to properly claim the name ‘Christian’, it’s going to start with revelation and then work from there. The main test of theology is not how it makes us feel, nor how hip, interesting, or relevant it is to modern concerns, but how well it matches up with what God has revealed.

So there you go. At core, for everybody who’s too scared to start studying theology because it sounds so esoteric, scary, and abstract, remember theology is just “thinking really hard about what God has said about himself.”

So what are you waiting for? Grab your Bible, get to reading, and get to thinking.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Discussing the One God Before the Triune God Distort our View of God?

There's Thomas--he's probably  thinking about how to distort the doctrine of God right now.

There’s Thomas–he’s probably thinking about how to distort the doctrine of God right now.

In theology, everything is connected. One doctrine implies another and unless we’re careful, seemingly innocuous modifications in the order of arguments, or the way we proceed methodologically, can lead to surprising conclusions and unfortunate results. In the wake of Barth’s trinitarian revolution in mainstream theology, many 20th century theologians have argued that just such a process happened in classical theology when it comes to the doctrine of God.

Among others, Jurgen Moltmann and Colin Gunton gloomily point to Aquinas’ decision to order his discussion of the doctrine of God in such a way that he treats the divine attributes (simplicity, aseity, omnipotence, etc.) before he comes to the trinitarian persons. Because of this fateful decision, they say his discussion and the classical tradition following him comes up with a concept of God rooted less in the biblical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and more from generic categories of being drawn from Greek philosophy and human reason. From there, theologians are faced with the difficult task of trying to reconcile revelation and reason resulting in all sorts of theological puzzles plaguing the tradition ever since.

But is that necessarily the case? Does a decision to treat the divine nature or being prior to treating the doctrine of the Trinity necessarily result in a sub-trinitarian doctrine of God? Herman Bavinck actually faced that argument about 30 years before the Barthian revolution, answering the objection in the negative and defending the classical ordering in theology:

In the work of some theologians the locus of the Trinity precedes that of the attributes of God; and Frank even has serious objections to the reverse order. If treating the attributes of God before the doctrine of the Trinity implied a desire to gradually proceed from “natural” to “revealed” theology, from a natural to the Christian concept of God, then this procedure would undoubtedly be objectionable. But this is by no means the case. In the doctrine of the attributes of God the tradition includes the treatment of the divine nature as it is revealed us in Scripture, is confessed by the Christian faith, and exists–as will be evident in the locus of the Trinity–in a threefold manner. In order for us to understand in the locus of the Trinity that Father, Son, and Spirit share in the same divine nature, it is necessary for us to know what the divine nature comprises and in what ways it differs from every created nature.

And this is not merely a matter of logical ordering that classical theologians have come up because of their own prior methodological preferences. In this, they only follow Scripture:

In the matter of order, too, Scripture is our model. In Scripture, the nature of God is shown earlier and more clearly that his trinitarian existence. The Trinity is not clearly revealed until we get to the New Testament. The names of YHWH and Elohim precede those of Father, Son, and Spirit. The first thing Scripture teaches us concerning God is that he has a free, independent existence and life of his own that is distinct from all creatures. He has a being (“nature”, “substance”, “essence”) of his own, not in distinction from his attributes, but coming to the fore and disclosing itself in all his perfections and attributes.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, pp. 149-150

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

From there Bavinck goes on to substantiate and develop with extensive biblical argumentation the doctrine of the independence of God at the head of his discussion of the attributes.

Now, I won’t say that critics like Moltmann and Gunton haven’t had some real beefs worth looking at. I almost never want to play the Greek card, but I’ll admit there are times when I read a classical bit of theology and think there’s a bit of the gap between their doctrine of God and their doctrine of the Trinity. Nor will I necessarily fault any modern theologians who’ve chosen to reverse the order and treat the Trinity first. I’m a bit partial to the method myself.

My point here is that Bavinck has given us two solid reasons for thinking that ordering our discussions in the doctrine of God in the classical way is not simply an exercise in “natural” theology, or will necessarily result in a non-trinitarian conception of God’s being. In order to speak about the way that Father, Son, and Spirit all possess the one divine nature, it’s quite logical to want to know what the divine nature is. Beyond that, and more importantly, this order of study mirrors the order of God’s own revelation. Yes, it is true that there are hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament revelation, but the doctrine only comes into its own in the New Testament. It’s hard to fault a theologian for modeling himself explicitly on Scripture this way.

Bavinck himself stands as a counter-example to this whole charge. Read through his explorations of the divine attributes and you’ll see their clear and extensive grounding in Scripture and revelation, including God’s triunity, long before he engages in any sort of theological development or philosophical reasoning that could be accused of being “natural” theology. What’s more, his locus on the Trinity is stunning; I’d be hard-pressed to find any distortions there.

In other words, what I’m is that, it does no good to write off the classical tradition as sub-trinitarian and refuse to read anything before Barth or Rahner. Individual theologians might be, but then again that’s true of modern theologians. What’s more, if you’re looking to do some theology yourself, you may have an option open to you considered closed off before.

It wouldn’t surprise me that there’s probably more than one way to testify rightly to the glory of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity Podcast: On Sanctification

Mere FidelityRecently there’s been a big dustup over the issue of Law, works, and sanctification. This week on Mere Fidelity, the boys (Andrew, Alastair, Matt) and I talk about why it’s become such a controversy, the nature of repentance, joyless sanctification preachers, and so forth. Good times were had by all. You can listen here:

Also, as a heads-up, we’re going to be begin reading and discussing ethicist Oliver O’Donovan’s classic essay Begotten Or Made. I’m told it’s the finest treatment of various bio-ethical issues like transgenderism and so forth, written in the last 30 years. Here’s what I’ll say: we plan on reading and discussing it in such a way that even if you haven’t read it, you’ll get a ton out of the discussion–well, at least as much as normal. That said, feel free to pick up a copy and read along with us.

Finally, we’re prepping for the podcast feed. If the Soundcloud option doesn’t work within a couple of days, we’ll get something going by next week.

As always, feel free share if you like what you hear.

Soli Deo Gloria

That One Time I Was On the White Horse Inn: Sustainable Discipleship

Michael Horton and I are #besties.

Michael Horton and I are #besties.

True Story: I had the privilege of sitting in with the great Dr. Michael Horton on the White Horse Inn radio show a little while back. They’ve been going through a series on the state of youth ministry in the church and so they invited me to join with pastor Brian Thomas to chat about the challenges and promise reaching out and ministering to young adults in our context. Here’s the WHI description:

How should we disciple young adults? Though some are aware of the problems with entertainment based youth ministry, many are fearful that content based or catechetical approaches will leave kids bored and disengaged. Is this actually true, or should we challenge these assumptions? I’ll be discussing these important questions with Derek Rishmawy and Brian Thomas. –

So there you go. You can listen to the full audio of that program here:

Or go to their website for the audio and a list of helpful resources.

Soli Deo Gloria