A Matter of Life or Death: Prayer

prayerThis year, my wife and I have committed to sharpening up our prayer life. Our church just went through a series on power and necessity of prayer, and the current season in our lives has been impressing upon us our greater need to be personally and jointly devoted to prayer. We’ve been praying together in the mornings, but we both had been sensing a desire and weight to pray. Plus, Tim Keller just came out with a new book on prayer, aptly entitled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God,, so I figured this could be a good reading project to help us out.

Well, right off the bat, Keller opens with a story that convicted us we needed to step out on this path with boldness and resolution. Here’s what I mean:

“In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to. In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks after 9/11, when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family the shadow was intensified as my wife Kathy struggled with the effects of Crohn’s disease. Finally, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

At one point during all this, my wife urged me to do something with her we had never had been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. Every night. She used and illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:

Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine–a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No–it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t just let it slip our minds.

Maybe it was the power of the illustration, maybe it was just the right moment, maybe it was the Spirit of God. Or, mostly likely of all, it was the Spirit of God using the moment and the clarity of the metaphor. For both of us, the penny dropped; we realized the seriousness of the issue, and we admitted that anything that was a truly no-nnegotiable necessity was something we could do.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, pp. 9-10

Reading that passage, the penny has ‘dropped’ for my wife and I as well, and we know that 2015 is going to be a year where we take prayer more seriously than we ever have before. Prayer is a matter of life or death; it is communication and communion with the Triune God who is the source of every breath in our lungs. What could be more important than that?

I would invite you to consider placing it at the center of your priorities this year as well. There are any number of prayer programs or approaches that can help you. Here’s one simple way to pray you can take up easily.

Also, I would encourage you to maybe take up Tim Keller’s book on prayer as well. Many of us don’t pray for various reasons. Some of us have theological reasons. We don’t understand what’s going on, or we have questions about God’s willingness to answer or how it all works. I’ve talked with enough students and friends to know that theology can actually be a significant roadblock for many.

Others have practical questions. We simply don’t know how to begin, or what even the most basic prayer life would look like. We start to pray, but we just end up fumbling about, wondering if we’re doing it right, or if we’ve simply been talking to ourselves.

Finally, some of us have been praying for a while, but we have hit stagnant stages in our walks. In that case, many of us need to be led down more complex paths because we’ve fallen into spiritual ruts.  Or, we need to simply be reminded of the beauty and glory of what’s actually happening in prayer.

Keller’s book is helpful in that he aims to tackle the various dimensions of the issue to prayer, whether theological, practical, or what-have-you. There’s something for everyone there, whether young or old in their walk with Christ.

Either way, whether with Keller’s book or through some other prayer plan, I’d encourage you to take up prayer with a renewed vigor this year. It could be a matter of life and death.

Soli Deo Gloria


Turretin, Mapping Out Theologies, and Spiritual Map-Making

I just wrote about my 2014 theology reading project through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. It was a formative experience that I still haven’t fully processed, but after a week or two out, I found I needed to begin my new endeavour: Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Throughout 2015, I aim to knock out Turretin’s masterpiece through a very imprecise reading program that will be likely of no use to anybody else but myself. I picked Turretin’s work on the recommendation of theologian type friends I trust, the fact that it was one of the standard Reformed textbooks in theology since its writing up until Hodge cranked out his magnum opus, and the itch to finally jump into one of the Post-Reformation Dogmaticians and see what all the fuss is about.

A few pages in, it seems the fuss is justified. I’ve only just begun, but I can tell this is going to be challenging, strenuous, but ultimately fruitful undertaking. Or so I hope. While the air is much different here in Turretinville than it was in Bavinck-land (denser and more Latin), it’s bracing in its own way. The elenctic method of question and answer and polemic edge should be a broadening change of pace.

But I didn’t write this post just to chat about my new project. So let’s talk theology. Or rather, types of theology.

Francis-TurretinA Typology of Theology

True to scholastic form, after some more effusive introductions, Turretin gets down to business asking about the nature of theology, whether we should even use the term, defining it, and so forth. In his second question on the subject, he asks whether there is such a thing as theology and, if so, what are its divisions. The first section is interesting simply because many of us would never even think to ask the question, much less argue for it. The part I want to talk about is his division of or mapping out of the types of theology there are, moving along in a logical order, whittling things down to the type of theology you and I participate in. In what follows I’ll try to briefly summarize and explain.

1. False. First, comes the division between false and true theology. Which, intuitively makes sense. If there is true theology, there’s bound to be false theology–theology that gets the truth of God wrong. But before moving on to discussing true theology, Turretin notes different types of false theology.

a. Gentile Myth.  While Turretin doesn’t give them these names, in the first type of false theology, he lumps things like pagan philosophies, mythologies, and cosmogonies recounting the birth of gods, and so forth. The pagans themselves have even subdivided their own theologies into categories like symbolic, mythical, and philosophical.  Whatever their source or mode, these are wholly divorced from the revealed truth of God.

b. Heresy. The second category is that of “infidels” and heretics. First are those who reject Christ, whether Jews or Muslims; they acknowledge one God, but not his Word. Or, there are those heretics who hold on to a great many Christian truths, but are so mixed in with error that in ruins the whole batch like Socinians, “papists” (Turretin’s words, not mine), and so forth.

2. True. Second, we come to true theology. As you might imagine, this can be broken down into categories. And actually, it turns out there are quite a few. 

a.  Archetypal, Or God’s Theology.  First, there is the distinction between “archetypal” and “ectypal” knowledge he inherited from Fransicus Junius. Archetypal knowledge consists of God’s own infinite, perfect, self-knowledge that he alone possesses. That’s right, even God has a theology. It is the “archetype”, the original copy of all knowledge of God.

b. Ectypal, or Creature Theology. From there, we get “ectypal” theology. This second category is finite, creaturely, analogical, derivative, yet true theology. It is “picture” knowledge, or “reflection” knowledge, in that it is drawn from God’s archetypal knowledge, and given to creatures on a level that they can receive it. It is a copy of the original, but a good copy nonetheless. Now, even this knowledge can be split up further in three types.

i.  Vision. First, is the knowledge of “vision.” This is is the kind of knowledge or theology of God that created beings have by direct sight of God. In other words, this is what angels and saints in heaven have, and we will have upon God’s return. It’s perfect, ectypal theology.

ii. Union. Second, there is a unique, middle kind of ectypal knowledge had by way of “union”, and it’s only possessor is the Godman, Jesus Christ. In other words, this is the theology that Jesus had in his human soul, by way of the hypostatic union of natures. Jesus was fully human, and yet, fully God, so it figures he’d have his own arrangement concerning knowledge of God going. Also, this is perfect, ectypal theology too. (And, just to be clear, on top of this, in his Divine nature, the Son continues to possess archetypal knowledge too.)

iii. Pilgrim or Revealed. Finally, we get to the kind of theology you and I as Christians have, which can be termed either “pilgrim” theology, or a theology of revelation. It’s a pilgrim theology because it’s the kind of theology, or knowledge of God, you pick up along the way. It is “revealed” theology because it’s the kind that you get by God revealing himself, showing you himself and you taking by faith. This is imperfect (but not inaccurate), ectypal theology. It’s a theology of promise, not fulfillment. We know in part, not in whole. Or, we may say that compared to the theology of “vision” had by sight, this is theology we have by faith or trust.

Now, as you may have begun to suspect, there are even further subdivisions.

1. Natural. Alright, next, there is what we can call “natural” theology. Note, even before I begin, this is still a subdivision of the theology of revelation. Even “natural” knowledge of God, is revealed to us by God himself. The question is the way God goes about revealing himself. This kind of theology comes about through an “innate” capacity to know and understand God, as well as process of receiving and acquiring it through experience and reason. This is the kind of theology is the kind that Adam had in the Garden before the fall. We currently can have this, but it’s extremely confused, and disordered through sin and idolatry. Think of it as light refracted through a broken mirror. It’s there, but it’s mangled.

2. Supernatural. Second, is “supernatural”, or special revelation. Somewhat obviously, this is the kind of theology and knowledge we come by through God’s supernatural means. It is beyond our natural grasp (reason, experience, etc.) and can come to us only through the special action of God via prophecy, inspiration of Scripture, theophanies, and so forth. This is the kind of knowledge that saints in the Old Testament had, Israel’s ‘revealed’ religion, as well as the special revelation of the New Testament. It is a “divine revelation strictly taken and made through the word, not through creatures.”

Turretin goes on from there to speak of even a couple further subdivisions of supernatural theology, the modes of acquiring theological knowledge, it’s nature as a science, and the overall unity of theology’s subject matter.

mapsTheology as Spiritual Mapmaking

Now, I summarized all of this, yes, because it’s kind of fun to lay everything out in a chart like that, but also because I think it’s helpful for us in our thinking about what exactly we’re doing when we’re writing and thinking through our theology. It helps clarify where we’re situated as theological thinkers and what we can and should expect of the process.

If we look at the whole chart, we’re reminded of a few realities. First, our theology is not God’s theology. There is a boundary between infinite and finite, Creator and creation, which ought to humble us in our endeavors to speak of God and his works. What’s more, of the created theology we do have, we have the theology suited to pilgrims. We do not yet see what we might, or what we will, but only what God gives us for the journey.

As I think of the idea of pilgrim theology, I’m reminded of the work of two thinkers who both suggested we ought to think of theology as a sort of map: C.S. Lewis and Kevin Vanhoozer. Lewis famously wrote of this metaphor in Mere Christianity. In response to the challenge that the science of theology seems like turning from something more real (God himself) to something less real (our ideas of God), he readily conceded some truth to it. Yet, the same thing is true when turning from the ocean, to a map of the ocean and continents. Undoubtedly, the ocean is more real than a piece of coloured paper. And yet the map is still quite valuable, as it is a guide to understanding, navigating, and moving about the ocean.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map.

In The Drama of Doctrine (pp. 295-297), Vanhoozer went a bit further and took the metaphor of “following maps” as a good one for thinking about thinking, especially about God. Very roughly, instead of picturing our knowledge as a series of bricks built one upon the other, we should think of it as maps of reality. Maps are a useful picture in that they have to correspond to reality, they retain the basic shape of things, they are coherent and consistent within themselves, but there is recognition that they’re situated, not extensive photographs of things. They are good, limited, representations of reality that function as guides, orient us to reality, and lead us where we need to go. The metaphor of the map, then seems quite suited to describe the character of our pilgrim theology.

Vanhoozer goes on to point out that God has, in Scripture, given us a divinely-authored collection of maps, an atlas of sorts, that directs us to a proper knowledge of God, salvation, and reality. The practice of systematic theology is our attempt to read the maps, and not only read them, follow their direction towards their proper end. Vanhoozer says, “To walk in the Christian way is to employ the biblical maps so that they direct one to Christ” (297). Theology, then, is spiritual map-making, and, more importantly, map-following. As Turretin will later point out, theology is a mixed discipline that is both theoretical and practical; our theoretical study of God pours forth in our practical worship of God.

May we continue to study the Scriptures, as pilgrims, with grateful humility, attempting, not only to become adequate map-readers and map-makers, but map-followers, as we journey towards Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why You Should Read Bavinck

Until recently, few Americans—even in Reformed circles—had heard of the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). With the publication of a beautiful translation of his masterpiece four-volume Reformed Dogmatics a few years ago, this colossal theologian is finally beginning to garner a greater reputation and increased attention in English-speaking theology. (A brief biography can be found here.)

This past January I embarked on a Saturday reading plan of the Dogmatics. Now roughly halfway through the fourth volume and on track to complete the set by the end of December, I can safely say this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my theological life. Bavinck’s accomplishment in the Dogmatics is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The expansive, nuanced, and deeply trinitarian theological vision is both intellectually challenging and spiritually nourishing. I anticipate turning to these volumes regularly in the years to come.

I’d like to offer up six reasons you ought to consider picking up the Dogmatics and working through them yourself.

You can go read the rest of the article here at The Gospel Coalition. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Christmas: Thus God and Man are United in Christ. Thus, in Christ, we Possess God.

christ childThe heart of the Christmas message is that there, lying in the manger, lies God in human flesh. In a word, then, Christmas is about the Chalcedonian Definition (451 A.D), or rather, the other way round. If you’ve never read it, here it is:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

As technically precise as it is, many have questioned and wondered whether in defining, or at least laying down some boundaries for how to think about Christ, the Fathers have departed from the simpler, or clearer language of Scripture. The worry is that in the process of parsing of things metaphysically, through the conceptualities of Greek philosophy and terminology, the Biblical Gospel has been lost.

Herman Bavinck answers this sort of charge at length, beautifully summarizing his findings in this brief passage:

Thus God and man are united in Christ. While Scripture does not speak the language of the later theology, materially it contains what the Christian church confesses in its doctrine of the two natures…For according to Scripture, the Word that was with God and was himself God became flesh (John 1:14). He who was the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being has become partaker in our flesh and blood and like us in all things (Heb. 1:3; 2:14). God sent his own Son into the world, who was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). Though existing in “the form of God,” he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7). From the fathers, according to the flesh (κατα σαρκα), comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever (Rom. 9:5). Though the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, he is nevertheless also the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:13–18); though son of David, he is simultaneously David’s Lord (Matt. 22:43); even though walking about on earth, he still continues to be “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18), “the one who is in heaven” (John 3:13), and existed before Abraham was (John 8:58); in a word, the fullness of deity dwells in him bodily (σωματικως, Col. 2:9). Every moment in Scripture, divine as well as human predicates are attributed to the same personal subject: divine and human existence, omnipresence and [geographical] limitation, eternity and time, creative omnipotence and creaturely weakness. What else is this but the church’s doctrine of the two natures united in one person?

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pg. 298-299

It must not be lost to sight that all of this theologizing is done to preserve the crucial Gospel truth: it is God who is with us, to save us in Christ. Calvin comments on Matthew 1:23:

The phrase, God is with us, is no doubt frequently employed in Scripture to denote, that he is present with us by his assistance and grace, and displays the power of his hand in our defense. But here we are instructed as to the manner in which God communicates with men. For out of Christ we are alienated from him; but through Christ we are not only received into his favor, but are made one with him. When Paul says, that the Jews under the law were nigh to God, (Ephesians 2:17,) and that a deadly enmity (Ephesians 2:15) subsisted between him and the Gentiles, he means only that, by shadows and figures, God then gave to the people whom he had adopted the tokens of his presence. That promise was still in force, “The Lord thy God is among you,” (Deuteronomy 7:21,) and, “This is my rest for ever,” (Psalm 132:14.) But while the familiar intercourse between God and the people depended on a Mediator, what had not yet fully taken place was shadowed out by symbols. His seat and residence is placed “between the Cherubim,” (Psalm 80:1,) because the ark was the figure and visible pledge of his glory.

But in Christ the actual presence of God with his people, and not, as before, his shadowy presence, has been exhibited. This is the reason, why Paul says, that “in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily,” (Colossians 2:9.) And certainly he would not be a properly qualified Mediator, if he did not unite both natures in his person, and thus bring men into an alliance with God…

For it cannot be denied, that this name, Immanuel, contains an implied contrast between the presence of God, as exhibited in Christ, with every other kind of presence, which was manifested to the ancient people before his coming. If the reason of this name began to be actually true, when Christ appeared in the flesh, it follows that it was not completely, but only in part, that God was formerly united with the Fathers.

Hence arises another proof, that Christ is God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16.) He discharged, indeed, the office of Mediator from the beginning of the world; but as this depended wholly on the latest revelation, he is justly called Immanuel at that time, when clothed, as it were, with a new character, he appears in public as a Priest, to atone for the sins of men by the sacrifice of his body, to reconcile them to the Father by the price of his blood, and, in a word, to fulfill every part of the salvation of men. The first thing which we ought to consider in this name is the divine majesty of Christ, so as to yield to him the reverence which is due to the only and eternal God. But we must not, at the same time, forget the fruit which God intended that we should collect and receive from this name. For whenever we contemplate the one person of Christ as God-man, we ought to hold it for certain that, if we are united to Christ by faith, we possess God.

This is a staggering and astonishing reality. If we are united to Christ, “by faith, we possess God.” This is the mystery, the miracle, and the grace of Christmas: in Christ, God truly gives himself to sinners for their salvation and joy.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Mere Fidelity: Christmas Cheer

This week’s Mere Fidelity finds Andrew, Matt, Alastair, and myself talking about the things that gave us cheer throughout the year. Apparently, that involves making fun of my driving skills, talking about books, laughing, and discovering Alastair has been knitting the whole time. Enjoy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Reformed Retrieval: The Theology of the Westminster Standards by J.V. Fesko

westminsterAfter two and half years of writing on basically Reformed theology, you’d think I would have moved on from “Reformed-ish” to just straight “Reformed”, right? That’s the joke a couple of online friends of mine have made. As I’ve said before, though, the “ish” on the end of “Reformed” isn’t about being a unique, theological snowflake, autonomously standing apart from the rest, in my wise aloofness. Rather, it’s intended to communicate a certain level of humility, an acknowledgment that I’m still in process, in via, on the way to being “Reformed.” I’m an avid novice, but a novice nonetheless.

That’s why I have a particular appreciation for works like J.V. Fesko’s new book The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological InsightsAfter writing a quick piece on the theology of Scripture and revelation according to the first chapter of the Westminster Confession, I was gifted a copy of Fesko’s work (w/ no obligation for favorable review, etc), and after a couple of months I got to work on it. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I jumped in, I was pleasantly surprised and I managed to blow through it in about a week even though it’s not a very small volume (roughly 400 pages). Aside from my interest in the subject matter, Fesko’s prose is clean and his arguments are strong and clear.

In this work, Fesko, academic dean and professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido California, attempts to give a historical grounding for understanding the theology of the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism). As the confessional standards for most Presbyterian churches for hundreds of years, and the foundation for particular Baptist confessions as well, they have formed something of a standard touchpoint for confessional Reformed theology since their adoption. The problem is that while they’ve been widely read and commented on, Fesko contends that there have been a number of confusions surrounding the theology espoused in the Standards due to the fact that they have typically been read with little attention paid to the historical and theological context. Fesko aims to fill that gap by drawing on recent historical studies and the wealth of new material made available to historical researchers through the digitizing of a plethora of historical sources, in order to shed new light on passages long buried under the weight of anachronism and assumption.

Without going through a full review, I’d like to just highlight a few things to note about this enjoyed.

First, this is not a straightforward commentary on the Confession or the Catechisms. While some chapters are devoted to key chapters in the Confession, often the chapters are on broader theological issues that affect multiple sections in the Confession. On that same note, this is not an introductory theology textbook. Fesko assumes that you have some familiarity with basic Christian theology and even Reformed theology in general. In other words, this is not meant to be handed out to some fresh, new Christian looking to learn the faith for the first time. This is for pastors, seminary students, and serious students of theology.

That said, I actually enjoyed Fesko’s organization because it allowed him to treat the documents in a more holistic fashion, going on at length in discussing some of the more disputed theological issues.

For instance, I appreciated his handling of the Confession’s relationship to the question of particular atonement, or hypothetical universalism. Often-times confused with Amyraldianism, some English theologians like John Davenant put forward a different construction of the decrees that affirmed both the particularity of election while maintaining the universality of the atonement in a way different than what is typically called Amyraldianism. I’m not saying I agree with it, nor that Fesko does, but he presents the disputes in a clear, fair-handed matter that gives the reader a better impression of the broadness of the theological climate at the Westminster Assembly. (For another recent treatment, Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism has a couple helpful chapters on it.)

He does the same thing for the issue of the way the Reformed divines understood the covenant of nature, covenant of grace, and the Mosaic dispensation. Fesko clearly and carefully sets out the variety of views on the subject (somewhere between 3-5 types), while indicating those views which were comfortably held by those who affirmed the documents, and those that were specifically ruled out.

On that note, one emphasis of Fesko’s that I appreciated was the theological diversity of the framers of the Westminster Standards. Reading the Confessions and Catechisms in light of recent theology, it’s easy to take a more narrow view of things, but upon inspection of the minutes of the Assembly, as well as the works of the various theologians cited and in attendance, you begin to appreciate just how diverse things really were, as well as the surprising latitude that was ensconced in the documents at key points.

Fesko also reminds us of the catholicity of the Westminster divines. Actually, one of the more interesting things he does is repeatedly list the various sources cited either in the minutes or the works of the various theologians. The Confession isn’t simply Calvin-redux. Though Calvin was important, the divines quote a bevy of contemporary Reformed, Lutheran, Patristic, and even Medieval and Catholic sources. Bullinger, Bucer, and Calvin feature in the footnotes alongside Aquinas and Ockham, Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine. To be Reformed according to the Standards is not to be parochial. Also, on this point, for those familiar with the arguments of T.F. Torrance and others in the “Calvin against the Calvinists” schools, nor is this a simple degradation or deviation from Calvin’s Christ-centered theology. Fesko’s section demonstrating that that ordo has not overwhelmed the importance of “union with Christ” was very helfpul on this point.

I could go on from there. But, it should be clear by now that this is a very helpful resource for studying and retrieving the theology of the Westminster Standards. Also, for anyone looking to do further digging, either in the secondary, or the primary literature, Fesko has included a very helpful annotated bibliography on top of his extensive footnotes.

Soli Deo Gloria

Top #Reformedish Posts of 2014

2014This was a big year for me in terms of writing. Or, at least it felt that way. Though I slowed down a bit this fall, I still think I had an overall average of about three pieces per week, most of the time pushing into the four- or five-per-week range. While most of this was for my own personal blog, a fair amount went to other sites. What I’d like to do here is simply list out my top articles of the year on my own site, the articles I think did best on others, as well as some of my own favorite to write. Sound good? Alright. (In any case, it wouldn’t matter because this is my blog and I’m going to do it anyways.)

Top Post of the Year

Far and away my most popular post of the year was a quick one I wrote for TGC:

Dating Advice You Actually Need.” At last count, it had been shared something like 19,000 times and my editor told me it passed 100,000 views a little bit ago. I tell you, it’s always the marriage and dating ones.

Top Posts on My Blog. These were the most popular things published on my blog.

1. “23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23” and Other Myths. This was response to that viral piece that went around earlier this year. Again, it took almost no time to write, but it was about dating and relationships, so it spread quickly.

2. A Few Words About Driscoll, William Wallace II, and Advice For Young Pastors. I wrote this after a couple of the Driscoll scandals, but before some of the later stuff came out and the implosion.

3. If Jesus is the Word of God, Can We Call the Bible the Word of God? This was a fun piece responding to a very annoying charge made against evangelical views of Scripture. I also found the creepiest image for it.

4. A Few Follow-Up Thoughts on Sneering Calvinists. I wrote a piece for TGC which will be linked below, and then I had to write this clarifying follow-up.

5. The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers to Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This is easily my favorite article of the year. It’s not really an article, but more of an essay. It’s probably the longest thing I’ve written since grad school and I love it.

Top Posts Elsewhere. These were the pieces I think were most popular written not on my blog. Also, my guesses here are just that: guesses. So the ranking does not matter.

1. Recovering an Engaging Doctrine of God. This was definitely not a top post in terms of page-views, but it’s probably the finest thing I’ve written all year. I kind of love this piece. It’s at the heart of what I care about most.

2. The Progressive Evangelical Package. I wrote this a few months back outlining what I took to be the “progressive Evangelical package” of positions and their underlying values. Needless to say, this proved controversial.

3. Sneering Calvinists. Lest it be said I merely troll the other side, this was a piece telling my Reformed brothers and sisters to calm down with their sneering and engage others with grace.

4. Should Evangelicals Care About Gungor’s Doubts? Michael Gungor said some things about doubt and faith and people reported on it. It was a controversy.

5. The Danger of ‘What This Really Means”. I don’t know if this is actually one of my most popular, but I think it was important on the danger interpretive suspicion in our current debates.

6.  Making the Case For Make-up: In Which Calvin Defends Lip-Gloss. Can’t be explained. Only read.

Random Favorites. And here are a few randoms I enjoyed writing that were also fairly popular.

A (Very) Brief, Gospel-Centered Defense Against the Problem of Evil

‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate

Love, Hate, and A Counter-Intuitive God

Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience

Sabbath Sticks, OT Morality, and the Jesus Tea Strainer

A Crash-Course in Revelation (Or, Reformedish Thoughts on Scripture According to Westminster)

Alright, that’s about it for now. Thanks for reading and making it a fun year, folks!

Soli Deo Gloria

“God Is My Hobby” Or, Salinger, Osteen, and Bonhoeffer Walk Into a Bar

osteenMy Franny and Zooey gleanings have been numerous. One fantastic paragraph comes in the middle of a conversation between Zooey and his mother Mrs. Glass with regards to his younger sister Franny. Mrs. Glass is worried over the apparent spiritual meltdown Franny’s having consisting of mumbling, crying, and losing appetite and sleep. After much badgering and antagonism, Zooey sets himself to enlighten his mother as to the problem with his sister and it’s connection to a little book she’s been carrying around with her. It’s a little book about the Jesus Prayer and the contemplative spiritual practice surrounding it, involving repeating the prayer “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me” over and over until it becomes a part of your heart, your breath, your very being.

The brilliant part comes in Zooey’s final response in this exchange:

Mrs. Glass took a deep drag on her cigarette, watching him, then crossed her legs
and asked, demanded, “Is that what Franny’s supposed to be doing? I mean is that what
she’s doing and all?”

“So I gather. Don’t ask me, ask her.”

There was a short pause, and a dubious one. Then Mrs. Glass abruptly and rather
pluckily asked, “How long do you have to do it?”

Zooey’s face lit up with pleasure. He turned to her. “How long?” he said. “Oh, not
long. Till the painters want to get in your room. Then a procession of saints and
bodhisattvas march in, carrying bowls of chicken broth. The Hall Johnson Choir starts up
in the background, and the cameras move in on a nice old gentleman in a loincloth
standing against a background of mountains and blue skies and white clouds, and a look
of peace comes over everybody’s—”

“All right, just stop that,” Mrs. Glass said.

“Well, Jesus. I’m only trying to help. Mercy. I don’t want you to go away with the impression that there’re any—you know—any incon-veniences involved in the religious life. I mean a lot of people don’t take it up just because they think it’s going to involve a certain amount of nasty application and perseverance—you know what I mean.” It was clear that the speaker, with patent relish, was now reaching the high point of his address. He wagged his orange stick solemnly at his mother. “As soon as we get out of the chapel here, I hope you’ll accept from me a little volume I’ve always admired. I believe it touches on some of the fine points we’ve discussed this morning. ‘God Is My Hobby.’ By Dr. Homer Vincent Claude Pierson, Jr. In this little book, I think you’ll find, Dr. Pierson tells us very clearly how when he was twenty-one years of age he started putting aside a little time each day—two minutes in the morning and two minutes at night, if I remember correctly—and at the end of the first year, just by these little informal visits with God, he increased his annual income seventy-four per cent. I believe I have an extra copy, and if you’ll be good enough—”

In the context of the broader story there’s much more going on. Still, in one paragraph, Zooey Glass’ amusingly damning little conceit about “God Is My Hobby” gets you a far better snapshot portrait of so much wrong with contemporary, American religion than any lengthy jeremiad about the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of the Gospel of Osteenism. Here you have it in nuce: the self-satisfied, oh-so-comfortable, non-transformative commercialism of it all. And this was written in 1955, pre-TBN in all of its gold-throne glory.

I am not sure I have “gospel” application here. I wish I could even say “See, even thoughtful unbelievers see through this, so who do you think you’re fooling? Who are you drawing in by lowering the asking price on the gospel for cut-rate prices?” Because while it’s true that thoughtful  non-believers will see through it, that’s not the problem here, now is it?

I suppose it’s another excuse to exhort preachers once again to heed the words of Bonhoeffer on cheap and costly grace.

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I suppose what I’m saying is that if Osteen, Bonhoeffer walked into a bar, I know which one would have Zooey’s, or rather, Salinger’s attention.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christmas is About The Eschaton

parousiaAdvent is about the coming of Jesus, the arrival of God in the flesh. This is the mystery we look back towards and celebrate with joy. The babe in the manger, come to reveal God, to be God with us: Emmanuel.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Christmas, though, isn’t a holiday that terminates in on itself. Yes, we rightly celebrate it in its own right, but it is a day that points forward to another day, one which has yet to arrive, and we await with a holy longing: the return of Christ. Christmas, at core, is about the Last Day of the Old Creation and the First Day of the New Creation.

I was reminded of this truth by Michael Allen in his recent piece over at Zondervan Academic on the recent trends and future prospects of eschatology in modern theology. He points out the positive movement of the last century in terms of the earthiness of Christian hope: we are waiting a New World, one with earth and sky, not merely clouds and harps. But he also says something has been lost to view that theologians like Bavinck managed to hold on to well:

I do not advocate a return to life prior to the remarkable witness of theologians like Bavinck. His biblical imagination, commitment to the full canonical scope of Scripture, and unswerving determination to let dogmatic eschatology shape Christian ethics are all to be commended and never to be forgotten. And yet it seems to me that one can (and many seem, unintentionally, to) herald something akin to Bavinck’s Augustinian vision without capturing the very center of Augustine’s eschatology (and that of the classical Christian consensus that marked at least the late patristic and medieval eras). There may be something approximating an “Augustinian naturalism” (unintentionally) where the focus and emphasis falls upon the New Jerusalem rather than her chief occupant, forgetting that the best news of Christian bliss is not newness but nearness: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). Hence the repetition of the promise: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20).

The good news of Second Coming and the New Creation is not simply the earthiness of it all. Yes, let’s rejoice and look forward to the resurrection of the body. Let us hope for the renewal of the cosmos. Let’s delight in the idea that every field and stream, every star and galaxy will be born anew, shining with the lustre of the glory of God. But let us not forget that it is the glory of God that makes all things shine. God is what makes the New Creation good news.

As Allen reminds us, Revelation 21 presents us with a vision of God dwelling with man:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21 is the consummation of the movement of God on John 1, and indeed, Genesis 1. God, the Triune Creator, the Eternal One whose glory makes the brightest supernova seem like a child’s night-light, has reunited Heaven and Earth, so that we might be near him without being consumed by the beauty of his holiness.

Christmas is about the eschaton.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Atonement

A few weeks ago Matt Anderson and I invited on Adam Johnson and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry to talk about atonement. Our qualifications? Well, on our end, Anderson runs the Mere Orthodoxy site and I wrote this super-long post about penal substitutionary atonement. Adam Johnson has actually written a couple of books on the subject and teaches at Biola’s Torrey Honors program. So he’s kind of an expert. Now, Pascal, well, he’s my favorite French Catholic writer/twitter-fiend/troll on the internet right now. We debate stuff like this all the time, so we figured why not on the podcast?

So, here it is:

For more show links that I don’t feel like hassling with, go to MereOrthodoxy. They’re actually very helpful.

Soli Deo Gloria