Preaching Requires More than Biblical Theology Alone

I want to briefly following up my earlier post on the fact that theology proper cannot subsist on biblical theology alone. Earlier this week I found out I was going to be preaching the temptation of Jesus out of Matthew 4 very shortly. And it hit me just how integrative, or multi-disciplinary you have to be (or could be) to preach this text in all of its fullness.

For instance, right off the bat, you’ve got grand-scale, Biblical theological themes. Jesus facing off against Satan in the wilderness gives us a portrait of Christ as the Second Adam, possibly New Moses, but also especially as the True Israel. Various textual features teach us to read this as a recapitulation of both the trial of Adam in the Garden, facing off against Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve through the distortion of God’s Word. Also, that this happened after the 40 days of fasting leads us to recall Israel’s sojourn and temptation for 40 years in the desert, which is only reinforced by the specific Scriptures Jesus cites against Satan from Deuteronomy.

With that in view, you could ask what this encounter means for Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. Well, it’s an initial, partial victory over the devil at the outset of his ministry, inaugurating the kingdom of God through his teaching, preaching, healing, and exorcisms, as well as a powerful confirmation of his vocation and identity as the Son with whom the Father is well-pleased.

Of course, this raises Christological issues. This is the Son who is not only human, but divine. What does it mean for the the Son to be tempted then? Did Jesus assume a “fallen” human nature? Could Jesus have sinned given his divine nature? Or how did his unique empowerment by the Spirit come into play?

These doctrinal questions are not besides the point, but have important implications for the text’s essential meaning, as well as soteriological and existential cash value.

For instance, they have an impact on how we understand this as part of the active obedience of Christ, the Second Adam, and the representative Israel’s work for us. In union with Christ, this victory, this righteousness becomes ours by faith. Or again, Jesus victory in this text becomes ours, but also so does his example. He has given us the same Spirit in whose power he overcame temptation. We have the same Word–indeed, even more Scripture–with which to resist the devil’s temptations. Both of these dimensions of reflection and application are impacted by the dogmatic conclusions we come to provoked by this text.

Beyond the biblical-theological and the dogmatic, there is much to reflect on here existentially and ethically: what are these temptations? Different ways we’re tempted to distrust God, to imagine him wrongly, and try to provide for ourselves. They are the desires of the flesh, the temptation to get God to prove himself to you, or to achieve victory, power, and the kingdom without the cross. And each of these could provoke extended ethical and ascetic reflection.

And I’m just scratching the surface here. The point is simply this: to preach and teach any text well, you need multiple tools in your toolkit. Neither systematics alone, nor biblical theology alone, nor ethical reflection alone is sufficient for unpacking the truth, the glory, and the beauty of God’s Word for God’s people. Indeed, it should be no surprise that preaching the Word in the congregation is precisely the ecclesial act that forces one to cut through the artificial divisions imposed by the specialization of the academy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Revisiting the Progressive Evangelical Package (Mere-O)

A few years ago I wrote a piece for Mere O called, “The Progressive Evangelical Package.” It probably helps to read it before proceeding. Simply put, though, before the language of “tribes” and “tribal thinking” became lingua franca, I tried to point out  that Progressive Evangelicals had a developing orthodoxy of key doctrines just as much as conservative Calvinists did. I did that by identifying seven of them, trying to pinpoint some of the underlying, causal roots funding this cluster as a whole, and inviting folks to recognize that social pressure was being exerted on them to conform to it.

My thought was that folks were starting to find each other due to certain overlapping critiques, or a couple of shared positions, and build friendships and informal coalitions. As that happened, the folks who only affirmed three or four planks would be pushed to affirm all seven or so to belong in much the same way that folks in more conservative wings did. It wasn’t meant as an out-and-out critique (indeed, I said as much), but more as a descriptive project. In a sense, I just wanted to analyze and name something I saw that I didn’t see anybody really owning.

In this post I want to briefly revisit the package and chart some points where I think I got it right, some where I got it wrong, and note some developments that have occurred in the meantime. Mostly for my own analytical benefit, I suppose, but hopefully it can also be of use to those who spend any amount of time trying to understand one corner of the ever-shifting, Evangelical public landscape.

You can read the rest at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Trueman Called It

trueman

This last couple of days I have been at the Paideia Center conference at RTS Orlando, where the main subject was the doctrine of the Trinity. The lectures and panels were all excellent, but I wanted to quickly highlight something Carl Trueman mentioned in passing (and I can’t remember if it was in a lecture or one of the panels). Back in 2002 he had an editorial in Themelios, “A Revolutionary Balancing Act,” in which he warned of the deleterious effects upon theology if the curriculum neglected the historic categories and simply fed students on a diet of pure ‘Biblical’ theology of the redemptive-historical sort.

While there is nothing wrong with it in and of itself, it has it’s limits:

My greatest concern with the biblical theology movement is that it places such an overwhelming emphasis upon the economy of salvation that it neglects these ontological aspects of theology. In doing so, it will, I believe, prove ultimately self-defeating: a divine economy without a divine ontology is unstable and will collapse. Trinitarianism will dissolve into modalism; the theological unity of the bible will be swallowed up and destroyed by its diversity because it has no foundation in the one God who speaks; and Christian exclusivism will be sacrificed to a meaningless pluralism as the church’s narrative is reduced to having significance only within the bounds of the Christian community. I suspect that ‘Openness theism’ is merely the most well known heresy to have been nurtured in the anti-doctrinal, anti-tradition world of contemporary evangelicalism; it will certainly not be the last. And my fear is that the overwhelming economic emphasis of the biblical theology trajectory effectively cuts the church off from probing the ontological questions which I believe are demanded by reflection upon the biblical text, by consideration of the church’s tradition, and by our Christian commitment to the notion of the existence of a God who has revealed himself yet whose existence is prior to that revelation.

You can (and should) read the rest here.

I want to note a few things. First, this was fourteen years before the Trinity Debate of 2016, so I think we can all agree that despite Trueman’s notorious (and endearing) pessimism, he wasn’t just whistling in the dark. All has not been well in contemporary Evangelicalism’s theology proper for a long while.

I’ll just pitch in for myself that the problems are not just seen in things like open theism or the Trinity debate. They have had repercussions down the line into other areas of dogmatics. Atonement doctrine, for one, is a place where I have become convinced that only a recovery and appreciation of some of the classic ontological categories and judgments can make sense of our account of the person and work of Jesus in the cross and resurrection.

Without thick accounts of things like the nature of the persons, relations of origin, unity of operations, the two natures of Christ, as well as attributes like divine simplicity, impassibility, we don’t have the proper grammar to explain what we mean when we say that the Son was handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification. And this has contributed to some of the blowback and problematic rejections of classic Protestant doctrine on this score.

Now, the encouraging thing is that this is changing (I think). A number of helpful retrieval projects are afoot among Protestant and Evangelical theologians and biblical scholars going to work today. Heck, the Trinity Debate itself was salutary on that score. (Which is a good reminder for those of us who tend to think all theological polemic is just divisive and unhelpful for the church.)

Still, it’s an uphill battle. I’ll only throw in my one cent of caution for the younger folks leading retrieval charge: don’t over-correct in the other direction. As one older pastor warned me, you need to do some of this overhaul work, but if you go too far in the other direction, you’ll just face the pendulum swing back in the next generation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes Judgment is Mercy

disturbing

At one point in his work Disturbing Divine Behavior, Eric Seibert presses his readers with a choice, “God either is or is not merciful” (173). If we decide God is merciful, then we should recognize that all texts involving violent judgment sit uncomfortably with that basic axiom.

At which point, we might realize it is wise to make a distinction as Seibert does between the “textual God” given in these violent narratives and the “actual God” who is merciful. You can have a coherent God or try to affirm all the contrasting portraits of God in Scripture, but you can’t do both.

W. Derek Suderman raises a number to telling criticisms of Seibert’s work (“Wrestling with Violent Depictions of God: A Response to Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior” Direction 40/2 [2011]), but the one I want to focus on is his complication of the matter of God’s mercy. He does so by pointing out the apparent contrast between the prophetic portrayals of God’s relationship to Nineveh in Nahum and Jonah.

The book of Jonah famously tells the story of God’s forgiveness–at least temporarily–of Nineveh in the face of their repentance. God threatens judgment, but then relents. Nahum, on the other hand, prophesies the Lord raining down judgment, fury, and violent destruction upon Nineveh for its iniquities, sins, and gross wickedness.

What’s funny is that both Jonah and Nahum appeal to God’s self-definition in Exodus 34:6-7. Jonah highlights the fact that he is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger” (Jonah 4:2), while Nahum notes that while he is “slow to anger”, he is “great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (Nahum 1:3). Both prophets are wrestling with what it looks like for the fullness of God’s character to be exercised and revealed in history.

Now, Suderman points out that against Seibert’s suggestion that we allow historical-critical criteria help us to discern the textual God versus the actual God, things don’t work out cleanly for him here. We know Nineveh and the Assyrians did actually have the hammer laid on them by the Babylonians. But that’s violent. Meanwhile, on a historical-critical read (which I’m not endorsing), Jonah is the historically more dubious prophecy–but it’s the nice, merciful God Seibert wants.

More than that, though, Suderman points out that the situation itself reveals how facile the choice between a God who either is or is not merciful is when posed with respect to God’s historical dealings. For one thing, mercy conceptually assumes the propriety of judgment. Second, consider the context of Nahum’s prophecy of judgment against the Assyrians: it is one of comfort and mercy for Israel!

This is what the Lord says:

“Although they have allies and are numerous,
they will be destroyed and pass away.
Although I have afflicted you, Judah,
I will afflict you no more.
Now I will break their yoke from your neck
and tear your shackles away.” (Nahum 1:12-13)

If God’s punishment upon Israel is the exile and judgment executed by the Assyrians, then the judgment of God upon Assyria is actually the exercise of mercy towards Israel. Judging Assyria is God’s way of breaking the yoke from their neck. The same thing can be seen in God’s mercy towards Judah after the Babylonian exile. Babylon had to be judged, to fall at the hands of Persia, for Israel’s salvation and rescue to come. Conversely, if God were to show mercy to Assyria and Babylon forever, he would never show mercy to the people of Israel who live under their boot.

The same tension is at work in many other texts in the Prophets and the Psalms. Consider Psalm 6, David cries out for God to have mercy upon him (v. 1), to save him from his afflictions, and by the end of the psalm we see that means turning back his enemies and putting them to shame (v. 10). God’s mercy upon David, hearing his cries and pleas, means working against his enemies.

In God’s dealings with Israel and the nations, then, it is not a simple matter of God being merciful or exercising punitive justice. Rather, the questions of whom, why, when, and how to show mercy all enter into the portrait. This is the work of merciful judgment. And at times, that merciful judgment looks like exercising punishment against oppressors.

Soli Deo Gloria

If everything is sacramental, is anything a sacrament? (creation, disenchantment, and a tweet)

wanderer above sea fogLast week I was feeling puckish, so I tweeted out, “What if, and just go with me here, what if only the sacraments are sacramental?”

I think most people got that I was being somewhat playful.  Still, some folks were, well, they weren’t entirely pleased. So I wanted to quickly unpack some very rough, very semi-developed, in-transition thoughts on that, which also happen to dovetail with last week’s short post on “disenchantment” narratives.

First, let me clear the deck and just say I am very much pro-sacraments, value baptism, celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, and understanding them to be doing something more significant than mere memorialism. I went Reformed partly for Calvin’s strong doctrine of the sacraments. They have become central to my understanding of the Church, the preaching of the Gospel, and the practice of the faith in a way they never were before.

That said, I’ll admit I’ve been a bit suspicious of a certain sort of spirituality of “sacramentality” that’s hot in, well, semi-nerdy, theology circles. Of late it’s been hot to talk about “sacramental ontology” and how terrible it is that it’s been lost due to whatever cause (Protestantism, nominalism, univocity, etc.–though often not technology, which is probably the biggest culprit), and how we need to regain it, and so forth.

The problem is, most of the time I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by that phrase “sacramental ontology.” Nor am I entirely sure others do when they use it.  At least, people seem to be much potential for equivocation and confusion in the midst of all the excitement. To quote the great philosopher Chazz Michael Michaels, “nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative; it gets the people going.” And so, yes, I was poking fun at that. (Maybe that’s unfair, and not really academic, but it’s Twitter, so what do you expect?)

Still, I think I get why some were annoyed. For some of the folks who go in for it, it has to do with seeing in the sacraments an antidote towards modern disenchantment. Last week I talked about one thread, or version of the “disenchantment” narrative having to do with the loss of belief in the supernatural, spirits, fairies, God himself, etc. But another thread has to do with a sense that the universe becomes a different sort of space in the modern period. Creation becomes mere nature, organism becomes mechanism, and the sense of wonder one has at beholding the stars is reduced from being a functioning of the sensus divinitatus to mere physio-psychological epiphenomenon. If you take your eyes off your phone long enough to even look up at the stars.

How do the sacraments function against this? Well, for some the sacraments tell us that “matter matters”, or that the stuff of the material order can actually function as a medium of divine grace. God can use stuff to communicate truth to us about himself. The world, with its order and beauty, is not just dead nature, but the appointed, spatio-temporal medium of our encounter with our Creator.

Now, so far as that goes, I’m all fine with that. David hymns God for the way nature declares God’s glory in Psalm 19. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that the world testifies to God’s existence and power. And the seraphim remind us in their hymn the Lord in Isaiah 6 that the whole earth is full of his glory. So Calvin: “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Leaning into a solid, biblical doctrine of creation will push back on much of that sense of disenchantment.

And so, yes, from a certain angle, you can argue that one of the key advantages of the Protestant doctrine of the sacraments, precisely in its rejection of transubstantiation, is a defense of created bread and wine as actual elements wherein God meets his people. In doing so, it sort of assumes this anti-disenchantment portrait of creation having a communicative telos to it. 

Some of you may be thinking, “well, Derek, if you’re willing to concede all that, then what is the complaint about?” Well, a couple of things, both of which I will admit may be (probably are) anecdotal senses to things.

As I said, some folks don’t seem to be just saying that. They seem to be importing into all their talk about nature being sacramental something far more akin to a 19th century, mystical, nature-Romanticism under the guise of a properly Christian doctrine of creation and the sacraments. It’s not so much a communicative doctrine of creation, but a magical one. 

Second, maybe more importantly, is the sense that the sacraments themselves are being instrumentalized in a way that washes out and evacuates their own proper meaning. In other words, if I ask you the question, “What are the sacraments about?”, I truly hope your answer is not primarily, “it shows me matter matters,” “the world is an enchanted place,” etc. 

Those may indeed be corollaries down the line. But the primary meaning of the sacraments is the concrete, historical actions that comprise the story of the gospel which they are meant to communicate: dying and rising in union with Christ, sprinkling a clean conscience, being washed pure of your sins, the broken body and shed blood of the Godman given for you, the coming wedding feast of the Lamb, the Father feeding his children, Christ’s New Exodus Passover, communion and participation in Christ’s Body, and so forth. These realities are what the sacraments are about, what they are meant to communicate and effect in us. They are particular signs and seals of a particular gospel covenant.

But when your focus is on how the sacraments show us that everything is sacramental, well, you’ve lost the sacraments. Or, to quote The Incredibles, when Elastigirl tells Dash, “everybody is special, Dash,” he replies, “which is another way of saying nobody is.” My worry is that when we’re entranced with everything being sacramental, nothing will be a proper sacrament.

As I said, this is all too brief and not very carefully worked out, but there it is. I’d be happy to read folks follow-up, additional thoughts, clarifications, and so forth. But for now, I here tweet, and I can do no other.

Soli Deo Gloria