Justification by Michael Horton, 2 Volumes

justificationIt’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, but I had to break radio silence to write up a little notice about Michael Horton’s new, 2-volume work, Justification. It’s the fourth entry in the New Studies in Dogmatics series edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain, and it does the series proud. I won’t mince words, it’s in the top three books of the year for me, if not the top spot. (I’d have to check the notes to remember what else I read). I have read a lot of Horton, but this might be his magnum opus.

Being two large volumes (375 pp and 493 pp) I won’t attempt to give you a comprehensive summary of the work. Nor will I adjudicate some of the intra-Reformed debates that do poke out in certain chapters. I’ll leave it other reviewers to take up some of those important, critical questions. Instead, I’d rather just highlight a few strengths and commend it to you in general.

First, Horton’s just a good writer. It’s always worth noting when an academic knows how to write clean sentences that do not strain a reader’s patience. The years of popular writing alongside dogmatic exploration come in handy here, helping you along when you might be tempted to turn to the wayside in some of the denser pieces of analysis.

Second, I like that Allen and Swain gave him space to play. Two volumes sort of blows the proportion of the series out of the water. But justification is such a hotly disputed matter, with several, important movements in 20th Century scholarship, numerous reinterpretations, many, related historical and exegetical desiderata in need of comment, it’s wonderful to have something of a one-stop shop like this coming from him, so that’s great. (Oh, also, in case you’re wondering, all of this space does give him room to stretch his legs and distinguish these two volumes from his earlier work, Covenant and Salvation, so it’s not just redundant for those who have read it.)

Third, turning to the volumes proper, I have trouble deciding which I liked better. I think I probably benefited personally from the first more, though, simply because I was less familiar with the material. It’s essentially a history of the doctrine, exploring it from the patristic period through the Reformation, paying close attention to figures like the earliest fathers, Chrysostom, Origen, and Augustine, on to Medieval figures (Aquinas, Ockham, Biel, etc.) to the Magisterial Reformers. One quick benefit here worth noting, is that while the Fathers were diverse on justification in many respects, Horton shows that the Reformation doctrine is far from a novum, having a great many theological taproots into the first centuries of the church. It is not, however, a comprehensive account going deep into the early modern and modern periods, distinguishing between the continental Reformed, the Puritans, later Lutherans, Pietists, developments, post-Schleiermacher, etc. So, historians looking for more, will still have to look elsewhere on that score.

All the same, a lot of what Horton does is put on his Big Story Deconstructor hat, and through careful attention to mostly primary texts,  recent disputes about the Scotus Story, the nature and supernature distinction in Aquinas and other Medievals, etc. dismantles components of some of the prominent academic and popular narratives told by folks like Milbank, Gregory, etc. about how the Reformation is the result (and facilitator) of the rise of nominalism, individualism, and sundry other ills of modernity. In fact, Horton goes so far as to argue that the Council of Trent’s teaching on justification more proper represents the “triumph of nominalism,” besides showing at length how far the council varies from even Augustine’s or Aquinas’s account of the grace of justification (neither of whom even held the Reformation doctrine).

I have to say, Horton taking a hammer to so much of the bad, anti-Protestant polemics is satisfying to watch. It’s an irenic hammer, not given to spleen or invective, but a hammer, nevertheless. (Don’t miss the footnotes!) He also just dispels a lot of mythology around the Magisterial Reformer’s approach to the doctrine, rejecting any number of modern, false dichotomies, and spurious charges repeated even by some modern Protestants.

With volume two, though, Horton turns the corner from history into actually articulating a positive, dogmatic and biblical account of the doctrine, driven by properly exegetical and theological argumentation. And I’ll just say, this is an example of constructive doctrine done well. Here he doesn’t just repeat the Reformers, but engages at length with recent New Testament scholarship (largely in Paul, but also the Gospels), delving into Old Testament roots of the doctrine, Biblical theology of the covenants, 2nd Temple texts (Qumran, the Rabbis, etc.), and lexical and semantic examinations of key terms in Paul. Alongside a retrieval of the Reformers, you’ve got exegetical dives into key texts touching on disputed issues like ‘works of the Law” in Paul, imputation, union with Christ, the pistis Christou debate, the role of works in justification, the place of resurrection, and a surprisingly comprehensive, multi-faceted, false-dichotomy-busting account of atonement that’s worth the price of the volume.

In doing all this, he’s able to draw on and engage with the heavy-hitters and critics of the “Old Perspective” in Pauline studies (Wright, Dunn, Sanders, Campbell, Bates, Hays, Barclay etc.) there is still exegetical life in the bones of a fairly classic, Reformed account, that can hold its own against both New Perspective and Apocalyptic perspectives. Additionally, I was pleased to see Horton put Barclay’s and Sander’s recent work on 2nd Temple Jewish accounts of grace, to show just how closely the Reformation disputes between Catholics and Protestants around grace mirrored some of the differing accounts of grace on offer at the time of Paul in the 2nd Temple period.

I’ll also add that one of the advantages of having worked his way through the history of volume 1 first, Horton is able to show the way so many of recent, New Testament scholarship’s criticisms of Reformation accounts of the doctrine simply fail to make contact with their object, by dint of caricature and misunderstanding. What’s more, it enables you to see the way some of the biggest moves in Pauline interpretation by Biblical scholars have, themselves, been funded by modern, theological programs (Barthianism, etc.) every bit as dogmatic as the Reformation accounts they were trying to replace. In which case, it’s another good example of the way historical theology serves as an aid (indeed, a necessary ingredient) in the exegetical and dogmatic task.

I’ve said this before, but my original dive into Pauline studies was through New Perspective scholars (Dunn, Wright, etc.), and it’s been a slow process of unlearning so much of what I “knew” to be true of Reformation perspectives and their viability today. Here, again, the polemic is irenic, but necessary (and don’t miss the footnotes!). For anybody looking for an up-to-date, go-to volume that does that in conversation with recent developments, Horton’s volume 2 is now the place to look.

I’ll add a couple of notes here on who to read it: if you a student interested in justification, a scholar working on the issue, etc. no-brainer.

If you’re a pastor, and you think you don’t have time, or you feel you’ve dealt with the doctrine before (back in seminary, all those years ago…), you might be surprised at how much you can still gain with the engagement with contemporary scholarship and close exegesis of several passages. I got to preach out of Galatians this last week at my church and Horton’s work was reverberating in the background of my sermon at several points. There’s a lot of academic, heavy-lifting, but this is theology that preaches.

Finally, I’ll say that if you’re a Protestant who is thinking of swimming the Tiber for any reason (theological, historical, aesthetic), you should strongly consider digging into Horton’s work first.  (Also, if you’re a Roman Catholic who is genuinely interested in reading a strong, Protestant account of this crucial doctrine, it’s worth it for you too–you can say you’ve read one of the strongest accounts out there.) The matter of justification is one of key doctrinal issues dividing the two branches of Christianity and it is not something that can be brushed aside quickly, but ought to be faced squarely and wrestled with at length. Yes, the book is long, but it’s worth the time to think these things through carefully before making such a weighty and momentous decision.

I add this only because I find that often (not always!), folks who are thinking of leaving, or who reject Protestantism, have not actually read the best (or classic) accounts of the doctrine, and so are “leaving” the theology of their Protestant youth group, or the popular accounts of salvation you pick up in a pietistic, revival night. And by comparison, yes, they’re weak–you wonder how such a thing account of salvation could have ever fired the minds of the Reformers. But, of course, they’re not the real thing. This is.

Alright, I’ve left out much that could be said, but I think I’ve said enough for now. The work is excellent, worth your time and money, and should make an excellent Christmas present to any theological student in your life.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Divine Magistracy, Retributivism, and Inference

just vengeanceA few weeks ago, I touched on the matter of consequentialist logic in theology. One of my arguments was that we need to be wary about rejecting some theological premise just because we are used to seeing it attached to some inference, some conclusion we don’t like. That’s because folks can rightly or wrongly draw all sorts of conclusions from the very same premise, depending on what other premises they attach to it. Or how smart they are.

I ran across another good example of this in Timothy Gorringe’s volume God’s Just VengeanceIn a chapter on the atonement theology of the 18th century, he notes that it was the century of the “magistracy”, and if there was one universal across a variety of theological camps, it was the invocation of the image of God as the universal magistrate, the perfect, moral governor of the universe. But the theological conclusions of that shared premise when it came to atonement or the practice of justice were not always alike, depending on which other principles were invoked (is punishment rehabilitative, punitive, deterrent), or how analogous you took God’s magistracy to be with regular, human magistrates (very much, or not at all), or how highly you evaluated the ability of human justice to approximate divine justice.

The moral philosopher William Paley is a good example of the rather odd configurations you could get. Gorringe cites a long bit from his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (God’s Just Vengeance, 164):

A Being whose knowledge penetrates every concealment, from the
operation of whose will no art or flight can escape, and in whose hands
punishment is sure; such a Being may conduct the moral government of
his creation in the best and wisest manner, by pronouncing a law that
every crime shall finally receive a punishment proportioned to the guilt
which it contains … But when the care of the public safety is entrusted
to men, whose authority over their fellow creatures is limited by defects
of power and knowledge … a new rule of proceeding results from the
very imperfection of their faculties. In their hands, the uncertainty of
punishment must be compensated by severity. The ease with which
crimes are committed or concealed must be counteracted by additional
penalties and increased terrors.

Here we see that Paley believes God is a perfect judge and magistrate who is able (and willing) to administer perfect retributive judgment, giving every sinner his just judgment. So far, he’s got a basic retributivist outlook. Beyond that, God has entrusted the moral government of the world to those put in authority. Okay, makes sense.

The problem for Paley is that they are not perfect justices. They are finite, unable to discern the heart, the truth of a given case. And so, human justice must be carried out, not attempting perfect distributive or retributive justice, but rather with an eye towards either deterrence or rehabilitation. But since he thinks rehabilitation rarely works, precisely for that reason, punishment should err on the side of severity! Only by punishing crimes with great severity will you get folks to knock it off and promote peace. (This was during the years the Black Act under which something like 350 types of cases were liable to death penalty.)

While the logic is intuitive enough at one level, there are a couple of ironies to the position.

First, the common assumption is that his theological retributivism is what would make Paley more prone to harsh punishment. But the reality is the opposite. It seems that precisely because he did not take the retribution of God seriously enough, he did not take seriously the danger of facing the judgement of a God who equally hates convicting the innocent as well as acquitting the guilty (Prov. 17:15), or the punishment of a crime in a way that violates proportion.

(This is actually at the heart of C.S. Lewis’s famous defense of retributivism: all sorts of atrocities and infringement of liberty could be justified under the banner of deterrence or rehabilitation if nobody stops to ask the question of whether or not someone deserves such treatment.)

Second, the moral he draws from his epistemological judgment is suspect. One might just as well take the position that precisely because human judgment is fallible, weak, and imprecise, we must lean towards leniency in punishment.  If you don’t know if someone’s a murderer, don’t shoot ’em. But again, that only follows if you take retributivism seriously as a principle of judgment.

Again, though, a very different use of the image was made by others at the time. Socinians like Joseph Priestly agreed that God was a divine magistrate. What’s more, they agreed that his justice was perfect and different than that of finite human judges. But that precisely for that reason, he did not have to punish as they did. He could see human hearts and understand who was truly penitent and forgive them, unlike human judges who could not. So this theological leniency doesn’t necessarily cash out in practical, juridical leniency.

My point isn’t to settle the issue of which use of the image of the divine magistracy is the correct one (fwiw, neither of these two are good), but simply to illustrate again the fact that the very same images, principles, etc. can be used to come to very different conclusions. So we ought to be hasty in our evaluation that one necessarily causes damage or ought to be discarded.

Instead, what this variety reinforces for me once more is the need to let Scripture norm our concepts. To let God define for us, what it means to be King, Judge, and Father.

Soli Deo Gloria

Correct Error Without Radicalizing Doubt

The first time I got called a heretic, I think I was about 19. I had just started getting into theology, biblical studies, N.T. Wright, that sort of thing, and was slowly walking away from the default dispensationalism of Orange County Evangelicalism. Well, at the time I also happened to be in a Bible study at a Calvary Chapel church in Southern California and I told the guys, “Well, I actually don’t think I believe in the Rapture anymore.” Judging by the reactions, I might as well have questioned the Second Coming itself.

Things became very strained between myself and some of the guys. They started to doubt my “soundness,” and I started to wear the air of a sort of knowing, theological rebel. “Maybe I am a heretic. Maybe we are all heretics to some degree. Maybe a little heresy was necessary now and again.” No doubt, we were all being kind of dumb.

I was reminded about this by Thomas Schreiner’s piece over at TGC this morning on “Beware of Theological Dangers on both Left and Right.” After arguing against the Left on behalf of the propriety of warning against heresy and guarding the good deposit, he tacks to the Right. On that side, the issue is not doctrinal laxity, but doctrinal maximalism, that “draws lines on virtually everything.” Divergence on any issue from the age of the Earth, to the processions of the Trinity, to election, to the finer points of the ordo salutis are heightened the threat level to Defcon 1.

It’s tempting to charge someone we disagree with of being unbiblical and unfaithful when the debate we’re having is actually within the circle of evangelicalism—whether the matter is spiritual gifts, the doctrine of the Trinity, or counseling. All of us, of course, are unbiblical and unfaithful to some extent, unless we want to say that our doctrine is perfect. Beware of charging that someone is outside the bounds of orthodoxy when in fact the only issue is that they disagree with you.

In other words, we need to have a sense of doctrinal proportion. Al Mohler talks about “Theological Triage,” while Kevin Vanhoozer speaks of “dogmatic rank.” All this is sort of basic when you start studying the shape of Christian truth.

The couple of paragraphs that I found important to highlight, though, come right after this, and speak to the negative fallout of not having a sense of proportion. Many of us in conservative circles know that not combating heresy can lead to heresy, but we often forget the possibility that wrongly combating heresy can have the counter-productive effect of pushing people towards heresy:

Such zeal on the right can actually drive people away from the truth, because if we charge them with being unorthodox (when they aren’t), they may begin to find friends on the left who don’t caricature their views. Or, they might begin to think, Well, if that’s orthodoxy, then I guess I’m not orthodox. If the lines are drawn too rigidly, we might unwittingly throw friends into the arms of those who are truly unorthodox.

Now, we may want to say, “Well, that shouldn’t be their reaction. They should take things issue by issue to the Word of God, study church history, get a proper proportion for things and not just react their way into a theological position.” And that is all well and good, but that’s not always how people work. People tend to go where they are welcomed. They listen to those who listen to them. They are sympathetic to those who are sympathetic. And vice versa. All of this shades the way they think, often leading into error.

I’ve said it before, a few years ago when Gungor started to do some of his open questioning that provoked a lot of conservative furor:

I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if, at this point, Gungor continued to head down a more liberal trajectory. It’s something I’ve seen before, but it still deserves comment. I’ve often wondered how much the conservative (over)reaction adds to the advanced radicalization of questioners. Opening with “Hey, heretic, you’re the worst” probably isn’t a good way to draw someone back. How much of the theological drift by questioners, notable figures included, is fueled by a sense of rejection from the conservative theological community? “Well, I’m already a ‘heretic’ in their eyes, so why not be bold and keep exploring?” or something on that order. What’s more, creating martyrs of doubt doesn’t seem to do much to shore up the faith of the faltering.

Now, with Gungor, some folks might say, “Well, obviously he was already going down that road.” Maybe. Probably. But maybe not? That’s the thing with trajectory-thinking. When you react to the perceived trajectory of a decision and then treat someone according to the “logical” endpoint of where it can go, you can end up turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So instead of considering that your harsh, over-reaction to an error, a dispute, or disagreement is part of what contributed to someone’s liberalization, you just end up patting yourself on the back and saying, “See, I saw this coming.” This is especially the case if you like to consider yourself a courageous, culture-warrior, willing to “say the hard things that need to be said.”

Where am I going with this?

Well, for one thing, I’m not saying don’t correct error and heresy. Anybody who has read my blog for long knows that I’m not above polemics or a critical review or two. And I’ve offered my own defense of the proper place for defending against error and heresy, as well as naming some disputed questions real violations of orthodoxy and catholicity.

That said, I’ll just emphasize a few things.

First, just as some folks need to remember that there is such a thing as dangerous theological error, some folks need to recognize that a failure to correct error isn’t the only danger out there, or that there are relative rankings off errors.

Second, even when it comes to serious errors, it is good to have an eye on the way you react and correct. Especially for pastors. It is necessary to correct false teaching and false teachers. But it’s important to be mindful that you communicate to your folks in the pews that they can struggle with doubts about these issues nonetheless. They need to know that you are a safe person to come talk to about their problems with this or that doctrine.  There is a way of saying, “I get why someone might be tempted to believe this, but nevertheless, here’s why that’s wrong and harmful…”

This even applies to how we correct public errors online. I’m not saying we don’t call things out as foolishness when it ought to be, but it’s just worth considering what sort of person your congregants see online.

Third,  Schreiner makes a good point about “crying wolf.”

Also, if we regularly condemn as unorthodox those who are orthodox, we’re in danger of crying “wolf!” When the real wolf comes, no one pays attention to us anymore, because we’ve so often criticized others. If we’re negative about everything except our own views, people will begin to think we’re cranky and will ignore us when there’s a real problem.

To paraphrase the Incredibles, “when everything is a heresy, then nothing is.” If your folks get used to you sounding the alarm bell every week, they’re not going to know the difference between a drill and a real fire.

I suppose I’ll just end by suggesting some time spent reflecting on this wise counsel from Paul:

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:22-26)

Soli Deo Gloria

The Problem with Consequentialism in Thelogy (for Mere-O)

mdoesl of godBeware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-20)

Thus our Lord Christ on how to spot false prophets. Apple trees bear apples, and orange trees bear oranges. And rotten trees bear rotten fruits of any kind. The same is true of teachers—their lives bear out their character. Perennial wisdom for the Church in any age.

Of late, though, this dictum has been transformed into a criterion for judging not only teachers, but teachings. Or perhaps I’m only noticing it now. In either case, it’s become quite common for people to argue that we need to abandon doctrines (whether it’s our sex ethic or our soteriology) upon the judgment that it “bears bad fruit”; it leads to negative consequences of varied sorts whether historical, social, or psychological. Does a doctrine lead to positive, human flourishing (however that’s defined)? Then it’s good. If not, chuck it. In other words, it’s been transformed into consequentialist criterion for evaluating the truth of doctrine.

As with most forms of consequentialism, there’s something intuitive, straightforward, and simple about this. Sound doctrine, truth, is life-giving in Scripture. In the long run, doctrine matters for how we live. As Eugene Peterson noted a while back, “A lie about God is a lie about life,” that leads to visibly deformed ways of living.

I think this simplicity forms some of the appeal of the consequentialist move–at least on the popular level. For those who have become skeptical either of clarity of Scripture (progressive circles), or impatient with the typical modes of theological argumentation (the blogosphere), looking to “fruits” can cut through red-tape, the obfuscation, the “ivory tower speculation” of traditional doctrinal and ethical reflection. “You poindexters can trade verses and quotes from the Fathers all day, but I can see the fallout of bad doctrine with my own two eyes in the pain of my fellow parishioners, or in the godless, racist, militaristic culture of the church I grew up in.”

On the seemingly opposite end, you can find sophisticated forms of the same argument in books filled with historical footnotes, tracing theological idea A to bad consequence B. The charm of these accounts is that you get the comparative clarity of a the fruits test, with the intellectual satisfaction of being able to tell a plausible “just-so” story that isn’t easily challenged, since most folks don’t have the historical training to spot any flaws.

You can see I think there’s something problematic about the “fruits” test–at least as a primary criterion of truth and the truth of theology. The main reason is that measuring the “fruits” or consequences of a doctrine in history can be a quite ambiguous affair.

You can read the rest of my article here at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

“It’s Only a Metaphor”

“None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable , you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition.”

Thus Neil Gaiman opens one of the latter chapters in the novel, American Gods (p. 551). It’s clever as an ironic bit of storytelling in that it plays with a typical, modern approach to belief in the gods, as only so much metaphor, right before it launches into the rest of a narrative about a battle of the gods.

Of course, much of our popular view of metaphor and religious belief is confused as well. You find this both in popular and academic contexts. Often when someone says something like, “It’s a metaphor, don’t take it literally,” they don’t mean, “well, be careful misinterpreting that particular figure of speech.” What they end up meaning is something like, “it’s only a metaphor, don’t take it too seriously, or as reality.” To call something a metaphor is to say it is only a florid way of saying something that, if we really wanted to understand as it is, we ought to express in a more straightforward, literal fashion. Like, say that of the sciences.

LewisNow, the problem with that view is one C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” when dealing with the charge that much Christian Theology is only so much un-purified metaphor.

We are invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol. The reason we don’t is that we can’t. We can, if you like, say “God entered history” instead of saying “God came down to earth.” But, of course, “entered” is just as metaphorical as “came down.” You have only substituted horizontal or undefined movement for vertical movement. We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial.

Nor are we Christians alone in this disability. Here is a sentence from a celebrated anti-Christian writer, Dr. I. A. Richards.

“Only that part of the cause of a mental event which takes effect through incoming (sensory) impulses or through effects of past sensory impulses can be said to be thereby known. The reservation no doubt involves complications.”

Dr. Richards does not mean that the part of the cause “takes” effect in the literal sense of the word takes, nor that it does so through a sensory impulse as you could take a parcel through a doorway. In the second sentence “The reservation involves complications,” he does not mean that an act of defending, or a seat booked in a train, or an American park, really sets about rolling or folding or curling up a set of coilings or rollings up. In other words, all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.

We could dispute some of Lewis’s parsing, but the fact of the matter is the language of science is typically shot through with metaphor. Any good science writer who is paying attention to what’s going on will admit as much metaphor and analogy is involved in the models used to describe the more theoretical reaches of physics (think of the now-defunct String Theory) as there is in the doctrine of Eternal Generation.

What’s more, much of our “literal” language is littered with the detritus of metaphor that has died and been forgotten. For example, we speak straightforwardly about the “leg” of a chair on analogy with the “leg” on an animal or a human. What was once a notable metaphor has become “literal” by being lexicalized through regular use. Again, this happens in science: think of the language of an electrical “current” that “flows.”

This brings us to one of more important points Janet Martin Soskice makes in her work Metaphor and Religious Language. The use of metaphors has an important role to play in extending language, as one of the ways where we supply terms where one is lacking in our vocabulary. Metaphors can extend, not only our vocabulary, but our way of conceiving reality by suggesting “new categories of interpretation” which lead us to think of “new entities, states of affairs, and causal relations.” This is why metaphors are so useful, not only in the hard sciences, but in conceiving social, political, and, yes, even theological realities.

I’m barely scratching the surface of the discussion of metaphor, but my point has simply been to note that labeling some bit of language “metaphorical” is not say it is “less real,” or, “not referring to anything out there.” Yes, they can be terms of art, literary dressing, and so forth. But all the same, metaphors are useful in everyday language, the language of science, and in theology insofar as they are reality-depicting. Metaphors are not a distraction from clear thinking about a matter, or a way of distancing us from understanding the truth of the world. Instead, they can be a way of perceiving and understanding them in a more adequate way than we could otherwise.

In which case, when we hear the phrase, “God is our father,” it’s not so much a choice between deciding whether or not its true or only a metaphor. Rather, it’s about deciding whether the metaphor is a true and good one, and if it is, in just what way. And for Christians, this is where Scripture is our guide. Reading the Bible attentively allows us to see God’s own deployment of metaphorical language for himself, attuning us to the ways he wills to be understood and known.

Soli Deo Gloria

You Want a God of Judgment (TGC)

gavelWill not a righteous God visit for these things?

Frederick Douglass asks this question in his autobiography after recounting the tragedy of his grandmother’s death. After a lifetime of bondage and servitude to her masters, when she was too old to be of use to them, they callously sent her off to die alone, apart from her family.

Douglass could’ve asked the question, though, at nearly any point in his harrowing story of hope and fortitude amid inhumanity and cruelty. The beatings. The murders. The calculated theft of time, family, and dignity. Since I read his story, that question has been reverberating in my mind.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

It continues to echo, though, for more than just the past injustices of American slavery. The crimes and atrocities reported by the 24-hour news cycle—the cycle that threatens to churn up our souls most days—lead me to turn this question over and over again in my mind.

Every headline I read about yet another sexual abuse victim coming forward, testifying to abuse by a major Hollywood mogul. Or worse, by the victim’s famous youth pastor and the church who covered it up.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every victim of political injustice who makes the nightly news, both abroad and at home.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every report of a child who has been abused and traumatized in an immigration detention center for the last few years (despite the fact most of us are only hearing about it now).

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every day abortion mills are open in America, legally ending the lives of thousands of unborn children—children never held, never loved, never even given the dignity of a name. Children we never think about because their lives are snuffed out behind closed doors in sterilized rooms with white-gloved hands. Children known only to the all-seeing God.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

You know I could go on because you know the crimes, the depredations you can’t think on too long without shutting down for the day. One person captured this feeling well when he tweeted, “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.”

But while the strain of our anger-inducing media culture affects us all, there is at least one small benefit. We’re finally in a place where we can see the goodness of David’s praise: “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11).

You can read the rest of my post at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Hiding in Plain Sight

mullerSometimes things are too obvious to notice at first glance. Whether it’s your keys, or a key feature of a film you’ve watched a half-dozen times, we’ve all had moments where we finally notice something that was hiding in plain sight.

The same thing happens in theology from time to time.

In his short article, “The Myth of Decretal Theology,” Richard Muller sets about doing what he’s known for–exploding myths about the nature and development of the theology of the Reformation tradition. In this piece, among other points, he tackles the notion that the Reformed Orthodox ‘systems’ of theology begin with the “decree” as an architectonic principle and then “rather than follow a biblical, historical order of doctrine or a cognitive order, ‘abstract decretalism’ moves deductively through the topics of theological system from God, to Creation, human nature, sin, covenant, Christ, salvation, the church, and the last things.”

Muller first shows that, in point of fact, the systems never actually began with the decree as an architectonic or fundamental cognitive principle. In which point, it might be wondered,  “why the Reformed systems follow a ‘deductive’ rather than a ‘biblical’ order.”

The answer to this query is quite simple: The order of system that runs from God and creation, to human nature and sin, promise and covenant, law and gospel, Christ and salvation, church and last things, looks suspiciously like the order of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation [my emphasis]. If there are deductive elements to this order, the predominant model is the biblical and historical order. Indeed, those sixteenth-century theologians who discussed the order of theology, notably Melanchthon and Hyperius, emphasized the historical order of the theological topics. This order, by the way, is also mirrored to a certain extent in the Apostles’ Creed — which also accounts for the shape of theological systems like Lombard’s Sentences and Calvin’s Institutes in which there are variations away from a strictly historical order. In other words, not only is the order of orthodox Reformed theological system not governed by a process of deduction from the decree, in addition, it is not an order devised by the Reformed orthodox. It is a traditional order of theological system, basic to Western Christianity and followed in fact by monergist and synergist alike. The Reformed system is biblical and historical not purely deductive.

Muller is exactly right. There are various possible ways to order and organize one’s exposition of doctrine, but there’s nothing particularly surprising (or deficient) about the way the theological tradition has typically done so. The reason has been hiding in plain sight between the pages of Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria