None Like Him (By Jen Wilkin)

none like him.jpgI have to admit, I have never aspired to become a “God-fearing woman.” I benefited, nonetheless, while reading Jen Wilkin’s new book None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different From Us (And Why That’s a Good Thing). In it, she issues a winsome, if bracing call for women to become wise, rock-solid, and whole by knowing what it is to “fear the Lord”—to respect, love, and trust their Creator and Maker. But if women are to become truly God-fearers, they must know just who their God is.

But how can they love him who they have not trusted? And how can they trust him who they have not known? How can they know him who they have not studied? Not very well.

So with biblical care, narrative, and a sharp, insightful wit, Wilkin begins the first half of a two part project in studying the “attributes of God.”

The Attributes

Traditionally, theologians have recognized that you can understand God according to two aspects. First, you can study his triune glory, recognizing God as Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit, with their distinctive properties, mutual relations, and saving works in history.

Second, you can study the attributes of the one, shared essence of the three persons—the characteristics and properties that we speak of him on the basis of what he has said and done for us—like God’s power, love, beauty, and wisdom.

Well, these attributes are also often split up into two categories: the incommunicable and communicable. The communicable attributes are those that we say that as image-bearers, we can “share” or imitate. Things like his love, grace, mercy, wisdom, and so forth. And second, the incommunicable attributes are those attributes which belong to God alone as the infinite Creator. These are attributes like his limitless power, his infinite knowledge, or his self-existence.

We Are Not Rivals

Wilkin’s driving insight in this work is that the incommunicable attributes give us our measure in light of the measureless God. We were created as finite, contingent creatures, made to enjoy communion with and the blessings of our infinitely good God. Our call as Image-bearers is not to rival God, but to reflect him in the world. But ever since the Fall, we have constantly been striving to somehow overtake, or compete with God’s limitless life. And that’s exactly when the trouble starts for us.

And when we think about it, how many of us can’t recognize the problem in our own lives? How many of us aren’t trying to live as if we were the only self-sustaining being in the universe? Never flagging, never resting, but simply pushing on from commitment to commitment, without regard for our human limits. How much better would our life be if we could rest in the fact that our self-existent God is the one sustaining our lives in existence? If we could “topple the myth” of our self-sufficiency and lean on the one who never slumbers nor sleeps because he is watching us?

In ten chapters, Wilkin goes down the line of God’s incommunicable attributes “toppling the myth” of our omniscience, sovereignty, knowledge, and so forth, in light of the beauty and glory of the infinite God we see in Scripture.

Reasons to Read The Book (For Everyone)

I have to say, I really loved this little book. For one thing, as I already mentioned, Wilkin is a good writer. She can turn a phrase, tell a story, all the while keeping your attention on the matter at hand: God and his greatness.

Oh, and for those who are worried about time—she also knows how to get to the point. The chapters are about 10 or so pages, but if you do want to go deeper, she’s provided extra Scriptural texts and questions to meditate on. Which actually makes it perfect for a Bible study group too.

Second, this is a fantastic example of what good theology and doctrine looks like applied practically. I am a strong believer in the proposition that theology is important, not just for having your heavenly GPA straight when you get there, but for the actual living we have do down on earth. Wilkin takes the truths of Scripture and some of the best insights of systematic theology and shows in practical, tangible ways, how they should impact our day to day life.

In a lot of ways, it’s like the old-school works of someone like Thomas Watson who would preach a very careful sermon on a doctrine, and then list about 10 “uses” for it in everyday life. Wilkin puts these attributes to work in the everyday world of work, parenting, marriage, and everywhere else we do our living.

For myself, I found this to be a personal benefit reading a chapter a day in the morning before having to go in and try to study German. Day by day I have been reminded of my very, very human limits. But day by day I was encouraged as I remembered that God has no limits and it is he who will sustain me in a thousand different ways during my studies.

Third, I love that Wilkin pitched this at women, because I get the sense that much of the devotional and theological literature that is on offer for ladies in our churches is sub-par (that thankfully seems to be changing). But I have to say, I don’t think this is just a book for women. It’s not “women’s theology” focused on (as Hannah Anderson puts it) the “pink passages.” It’s just good theology for everyone because it’s biblical, and it just happens to have women in view in terms of some of its application.

(For that reason, though, I think it may behoove a good many young, male preachers to pick up the book, simply to learn how to think outside your own experience to be able to apply the Word of God to your whole congregation.)

To conclude, Wilkin’s None Like Him is a great book. You should considering buying and reading it. Take the time this year to focus on resting in the beauty of the fact that God is God and we are not. And that’s just okay.

Soli Deo Gloria

Pictures At A Theological Exhibition by Kevin Vanhoozer

Pictures At a Theological ExhibitionIn 1874, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky created his famous, 10-piece suite of music Pictures at an Exhibition. The work was originally composed in honor of the work of his friend and creative compatriot, Viktor Hartmann, an architect and artist. When Hartmann died, a number of his friends organized a special exhibition of over 400 of his works as a tribute. Mussorgsky’s contribution was to composes this work, which was a soundtrack, of sorts, for the exhibition, based on 10 of Hartmann’s works.

Both Hartmann and Mussorgsky were committed to the idea of a distinctly Russian spirit in art as opposed to the excessive Westernization they feared would overwhelm it. And so while Hartmann’s art was devoted to capturing Russian scenes such as children playing, women gossiping, and so forth, Mussorgsky’s Pictures aims to capture that same feel, capturing the atmosphere of Russian folk songs, and so forth, that suffuses the whole. These “pictures” distill, not only Hartmann’s art, but the social and cultural message of Hartmann’s vision of a distinctly Russian spirit. They present a vision of an alternative culture, an alternative way of being, that helps counteract the spirit of Westernization, and helps Russians remain true to their identity.

It is from this composition that Kevin Vanhoozer draws the title for his recent collection of essays Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom. Much like the Russia of Mussorgsky’s day, Vanhoozer thinks the Church is called to resist the Westernization of her culture, “to the extent that it conflicts with the culture, as it were, of the kingdom of God.”

To that end, then, he argues that the Church must be steeped in the pictures, the metaphors given in the biblical exhibition, aimed at shaping the life of the holy nation of God’s people. To do so, the Evangelical church must recover a sense of the importance of rehabilitating a properly biblical imagination.

For too long, imagination has gotten a bad rap as another word for “fantasy”, “illusion”, “making things up”, or failing to come to grips with reality. Imagination, though, is a way of seeing meaningful connections, to perceive meaningful wholes with the mind’s eye, or the thoughts of the heart—sometimes in ways that are not always immediately apparent. This is not always a matter of making things up, then. In fact, the point Vanhoozer wants to make is that our imaginations can and must be shaped by these holy metaphors, these biblical images and parables that help us see the world through the eyes of the heart shaped by faith.  A biblically-formed imagination is what helps us live into the reality of what is “in Christ”, or the “theodrama” we’re inhabiting in the midst of our modern world, so to speak.

That’s why essays in this work aim to cultivate just such a biblical imagination, both by addressing specific images, or scenes from the church’s life (worship, the exposition of Scripture, etc), but also by articulating a way of doing theology that is aimed at the pastoral application of theology within the life of the Church.

Now, I won’t be so silly as to try and give some sort of “objective” review of the book. Vanhoozer is my advisor, I am a long-time reader, and I did type up the author index for the thing (while listening to Mussorgsky’s composition, of course). All the same, I figured I’d note a couple of features of the work that would give you a feel for what’s going on and why it’s probably worth your time.

First, this collection of essays is fairly unique from Vanhoozer precisely because a large number of them were delivered orally before they were printed here. There are a variety of lectures and sermons that, while still aiming high on the content level, retain their lively, spoken feel. (Yes, that means dozens and dozens of imaginative images and persuasive puns). They are “theology on the ground” and “snapshots” of ministerial theology at work in the local church setting. Also, an added bonus, since many of the sermons are expositions of Scripture, you get a feel for what Vanhoozer means when he’s talking about the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” For many, this might make this volume a perfect access point into Vanhoozer’s broader body of work.

Second, it’s true, Vanhoozer always seems to manage to comment on issues regarding method and prolegomena in theology. Even here, the whole thrust of the work is concerned with doing theology in a certain way. Heck, it has one of his best, short pieces on inerrancy that I’ve read (and I think I’ve read them all at this point).  That said, in this collection there’s plenty of “material” theology regarding pressing, everyday church issues.

For instance, his essay on inerrancy is actually aimed at helping pastors properly handle Scripture in the context of the church. Or again, there are a couple of essays on the theology of worship, song, beauty, and the arts for the local church. Towards the back end, he’s got a sermon on the pressing, contemporary issue of status anxiety and the way it’s addressed by the cross of Christ that’s simply good, pastoral theology. (I drew on some of its themes to preach to a group of college kids just the other day!) Probably the most interesting (because most distinct) essay in the whole bunch is the piece on the ethics of brain enhancing bio-technology. (But maybe that’s just because I’m in grad school and would be sorely tempted to use it as I take German this summer.)

All that to say, there are a number of reasons you may just want to take a stroll through Vanhoozer’s latest gallery of faith speaking understanding.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christian Dogmatics (In a Reformed Key)

Christian dogmaticsMichael Allen and Scott Swain are turning into the dynamic duo of Reformed theology. We might have to give them a combo name soon (Swaillen?). First they gave us a programmatic manifesto for the future of Reformed theology with their volume Reformed Catholicity, then they launched a series of edited volumes New Studies in Dogmatics with Zondervan, and now they’ve given us an edited work I’ve been looking forward to for a while now: Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology For the Church Catholic. Even though I’ve been knee-deep in papers and coursework, I’ll admit I tore into this volume as soon as it came in the mail. And it was worth it.

For Christian Dogmatics, Allen and Swain have drawn together some of the best names in contemporary, Reformed theology to offer up a work of dogmatics for the church catholic. Every part of that description matters. First, the work consists of essays on just about every major topic or loci usually treated in works of dogmatics (revelation, Trinity, anthropology, Christ, etc.). The essays are at the same time academic, introductory, nuanced, and constructive, making them ideal for use in the seminary classroom that’s willing to challenge its students (20-30 pages each).

Second, it is Reformed theology for the church catholic. Each of the authors take on a subject and work synthetically through Scripture, the broader catholic and Reformational tradition, as well as contemporary theology to expound it for the good of the whole church. It’s unabashedly Reformed, then, but it’s not narrowly Reformed. It is Christian theology in a Reformed key.

What’s more, the diversity of authors ensures variation within the Reformed tradition is on display as well. This is true both of mode and content. Some essays tilt towards biblical theology, or contemporary theology, others towards engagement with dogmaticians like Turretin, Bavinck, or Barth, while others pay a good deal of attention to the Patristics and Medievals. What’s more, I’m sure a number of the authors won’t agree with key segments of each other’s essays. All the same, though, as Allen and Swain note, the emphasis is on “retrieval for renewal.” All the essays share a thoroughly Trinitarian orientation, as well as attention to locating each dogmatic subject within the broader economy of God’s saving activity on our behalf.

In a nutshell, when someone asks me where they should go to find sophisticated, Reformed theology written by someone not currently dead, this is probably going to be my go-to volume to recommend. Honestly, it’s a fantastic collection.

I suppose with the broad comments out of the way, I’ll simply note some of the highlights within various essays in the volume, but given that there are 16 of them, I simply can’t go into major depth.

Mike Allen opens up the essays with a treatment of the “Knowledge of God” (chap 1), and gives a broad account of both revelation and the character of theology in the economy of grace. Most interesting for me was his explication of the principles of theology (ontological, external, internal), which manages to be “Christocentric”, without going full-Barthian, and hangs on to a Post-Reformation scholastic analogy of being, and doctrine of Scripture. This all sets up his creative treatment of the attributes of God (chap 3) which is something of a broader, architectonic essay since space precluded an exposition of them each individually.

Speaking of Scripture, Kevin Vanhoozer’s treatment of it is vintage Vanhoozer (chap 2), offering an account of it as “Triune Discourse.” He manages to draw on a number of familiar themes (the God-world relationship, speech-act theory, Barth, theo-drama), without it simply being a rehash, moving from economy, to revelation, to the ontology of Scripture and its role in the Triune God’s purposes, the relationship between Scripture, and tradition, and so forth. I know I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s clear why he was the obvious choice for articulating a contemporary, Reformed doctrine of Scripture.

Swain handles the chapters on both Trinity (chap 4) and the Covenant of Redemption (chap 5). Both are excellent, with the treatment of the Trinity laying a solid biblical, Patristic, Medieval, and Reformational doctrine oriented around the three persons as an exposition of the Divine Name (and names) of God. Beyond the excellent biblical discussion, his treatment of the language of ‘persons’ in the Trinity is helpful, since these things can get tricky.

Second, his treatment of the covenant of redemption includes a very helpful treatment of the divine decrees in general, especially their relation to God’s freedom, as well as attention to some of the criticisms of the doctrine from the area of Trinitarian theology. He ably shows the covenant of redemption to be an instance of “Trinitarian reasoning”, not an extraneous bit of “covenant overload” imposed on the text of Scripture—at least to my satisfaction. I may come back to engage these in a later post.

John Webster gives us two essays on Creation Ex Nihilo (chap 6) and Providence (chap 7), which also seem to hang together (I’ll likely visit these again as well). Some highlights include Webster’s clarification of the notion of speaking of God as a “cause”—which tends to have some goofy connotations in the modern period—as well as the doctrine of God itself, since Webster talking about anything is always Webster talking about God. In essence, he does this in different ways in both essays and does so magnificently.

Kelly M. Kapic constructs a Christian anthropology (chap 8) emphasizing the importance of understanding God’s purposes for loving communion with his Image-bearers, the eschatological orientation of the human existence, as well as the Christological character of the Image. It sort of belies the notion that all Reformed anthropology is “miserable worm” theology, which people often pick up from a mistake understanding of “total depravity.” Oh, and I have to say that my favorite piece of it was probably the orienting bit of John Owen up front, because, well, John Owen.

Next up, Oliver Crisp delivers one of the most unique essays in the volume on the subject of original sin (chap 9). It’s unique simply because it reads like he snuck an essay of Deviant Calvinism into the book, by arguing for a minority report, Reformed/Zwinglian understanding of original sin that shaves off original guilt. Carefully and judiciously argued, as always, but I’ll admit I’m curious what others will make of his critique of federalism and realism.

Daniel Treier’s chapter on the Incarnation is a nice, balanced blend of biblical and dogmatic reflection on a Reformed doctrine of Christ covering everything from the biblical-theology of the gospels on through the two natures, the three offices, and the extra-Calvinisticum (chap 10). One helpful tidbit was his suggestion dealing with the communication of attributes of speaking of activities or attributes of Christ that he possesses or exercises “in virtue of” a particular nature, since that particular idiom may better protect against any Nestorian tendencies.

Donald Macleod handled “The Work of Christ Accomplished”, or the atonement (chap 11), in essence giving a cliff-notes version of his recent book Christ Crucified. Which is to say it’s an admirable piece work, majoring on Scriptural exposition, that really preaches well, has a bit about the possibility of God that I’ll probably skirt past, but on the whole will likely return to as a reference, nonetheless.

Unsurprisingly, Richard B. Gaffin handled “The Work of Christ Applied” (chap 12), and drew on his history of helpful work on union with Christ and the relation between the ordo salutis and the historia salutis. One interesting emphasis was his decision to not simply treat this as the work of the Spirit—though the Spirit is everywhere here—but the work of Christ in his exaltation through the Spirit. A salutary move, in my opinion, in order to keep a properly Trinitarian trinitarianism in our soteriology, so to speak.

Paul T. Nimmo ably handled “The Law of God and Christian Ethics” (chap 13), jumping comfortably between the Reformed confessions and the biblical material here. The best section was the lengthy exposition of the various senses in which Christ is (and is not) the “end of the Law” in justification, the Christian life, redemptive history, and so forth.

Michael Horton’s first chapter on the Church (chap 14), is just classic Horton: a lot of solid biblical theology, atunement to the various dimensions and metaphors for the church that play into a multi-faceted ecclesiology, and an ability to keep his eye on the big picture. He ably expounds the advantages of a covenantal ecclesiology with everything from Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, Barthians, and Barna-style non-ecclesiologies in view. Also, a surprisingly specific, though condensed, polity section that reminded me why I’m a Presbyterian.

Todd Billings handles the sacraments (chap 15). Rich, explicitly Trinitarian, and pastoral, he expounds the logic of the sacraments as “material signs and seals” of the covenant God’s promises. Billings connects sacraments to the preaching of the gospel, the great good of union with Christ, and so forth. One particularly helpful section for me was his handling of the issue of distinguishing the logic of infant baptism from that of infant communion, from Scripture, which often gets raised as a consistency issue for the Reformed position.

Finally, Horton rounds things out again with a chapter on the Kingdom of God (chap 16). I’m really shocked at how much got covered here, as it really served as a treatment relating the kingdom of God to the church, the two-kingdoms issue, as well as eschatology both cosmic and personal. I greatly appreciated his section expounding the connection between the Spirit and the kingdom.

Well, that about wraps it up. One final thing you may have noted is that there is no chapter on the Holy Spirit—which sort of plays right into the caricature that the Reformed down-play the Spirit. Now, the fact is that each of the essays in themselves belie that since the Spirit is there all throughout. Nonetheless, it might help to know that upon asking, I learned they had the chapter commissioned twice, but both authors ended up having to back out.

As I said earlier, I can’t recommend the volume highly enough. Theology nerds, it’s a must. So what are you waiting for?

Soli Deo Gloria

What To Call a Christian (Or, Preaching The Whole Christ)

whole christTowards the early half of his new work The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance–Why the Marrow Controversy Still MattersSinclair Ferguson asks a pointed question that may initially seem trivial:

…what is my default way of describing a believer? Perhaps it is exactly that: “believer.” Or perhaps “disciple,” “born-again person,” or “saint” (more biblical but less common in Protestantism!). Most likely it is the term “Christian.”

Yet these descriptors, while true enough, occur relatively rarely in the pages of the New Testament. Indeed the most common of them today (“Christian”) is virtually nonexistent in the New Testament, and the contexts in which it occurs might suggest that it was  a pejorative term used of (rather than by) the early church.

“Okay”, you may think, “So what’s in a name? Why does it matter what our default term is if the reality is the same?” At it turns out, quite a bit.

Contrast these descriptors with the overwhelmingly dominant way the New Testament describes believers. It is that we are “in Christ.” The expression, in one form or another, occurs well over one hundred times in Paul’s thirteen letters.

Then draw the obvious conclusion: If this is not the overwhelmingly dominant way in which we think about ourselves, we are not thinking with the renewed mind of the gospel. But in addition, without this perspective it is highly likely that we will have a tendency to separate Christ from his benefits and abstract those benefits from him (in whom along they are to be found) as though we possessed them in ourselves. (45)

Ferguson goes on to link this problem to the main issue of his book, the 18th century controversy surrounding the theology of Edward Fisher’s little book on the gospel The Marrow of Modern Divinity and its implications for preaching the gospel.

I was struck by this section on not falsely separating Christ’s person and work in our thinking, preaching, and teaching of the gospel precisely because it’s so easy to do. Many of us know “the gospel” and how to clearly explain the nature of justification by faith, adoption, the free forgiveness of God, and so forth on their own, as atomized benefits, or gifts that God offers us.

The point Ferguson makes, which is central to the theology of the New Testament, Calvin, and the best of the Reformed tradition, is that all of these benefits only come to us in union with Christ. Paul didn’t go around preaching justification, or preaching adoption, or preaching sanctification. Paul went around preaching Christ and him crucified and risen, in union with whom we are justified, adopted, sanctified, and so forth.

Christ himself is the good news we are to preach. Ferguson notes, “while we can distinguish Christ’s person and his work in analytic theological categories, they are inseparable from each other” (46). As Thomas Boston, (one of the main heroes of Ferguson’s book), has it: “You must first have Christ himself, before you can partake of those benefits of him.” Or again, Kevin Vanhoozer has said that the declaration of the gospel is, “I now pronounce you man in Christ.”

Paul puts this message on blast in Ephesians 1:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14)

Every single one of the many blessings, privileges, and graces enumerated here given to us through Christ’s work and in conjunction with Christ’s person.

The question we might ask ourselves, though, is if we were to preach this passage, or do a study through it, where would our emphasis be? Would it be on understanding the various benefits, (which obvious ought to be considered and expounded) or would the dominant note be on the Christ who gives them? Ferguson asks:

It is obvious to me and of engrossing concern, that the chief focus, the dominant note in the sermons I preach (or hear), is “Jesus Christ and him crucified”? Or is the dominant emphasis (and perhaps the greatest energies of the preacher?) focused somewhere else, perhaps on how to overcome sin, or how to live the Christian life, or on the benefits to be received from the gospel? All are legitimate emphases in their place, but that place is never center stage (50).

Emphasis matters, then. Our focus is not to get people to try to be better adoptees or feel more justified, which leaves them looking to themselves, staring at their own, spiritual navels. Instead, we want them to look to Christ in whom they are assured of their justification and adoption, and in whom they now can live out the Christian life.

A Recommendation for Preachers

I  suppose I’ll conclude by  sharing a segment that cut me to the bone:

In the nature of the case there is a kind of psychological tendency for Christians to associate the character of God with the character of the preaching they hear–not only the substance and content of it but the spirit and atmosphere it conveys. After all, preaching is the way in which they publicly and frequently “hear the Word of God.” But what if there is a distortion in the understanding and heart of the preacher that subtly distorts his exposition of God’s character? What if his narrow heart pollutes the atmosphere in which he explains the heart of the Father? When people are broken by sin, full of shame, feeling weak, conscious of failure, ashamed of themselves, and in need of counsel, they do not want to listen to preaching that expounds the truth of discrete doctrines of their church’s confession of faith but fails to connect them with the marrow of gospel grace and the Father of infinite love for sinners. It is a gracious and loving Father they need to know. (73)

This only happens when we preach Christ, the Son, who reveals the Father’s heart, not simply abstracted benefits procured in an instrumental fashion.

Honestly, I wish someone had handed me this book six years ago when I started preaching to my college students. It would have been so helpful to avoid the some of the mild, pendulum-swinging of emphasis in my preaching that could creep in despite my stated theology. Instead, much of this I had to learn the hard way, slowly recognizing a number of these tendencies only with time.

All that to say, Ferguson’s careful exposition of the issues of grace, the law, legalism, and antinomianism, while in the context of an initially arcane historical discussion, have been very helpful for thinking through the issues of contemporary gospel preaching. Simply put, I would commend Ferguson’s little book to you as a whole, and especially to any present or potential preachers.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Reading This Book Will Not Change Your Life: Review of “You Are What You Love”

you are what you loveMy title’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it cuts to the heart of James K.A. Smith’s thesis in his new book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Over a number of works, especially his Cultural Liturgies series (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom), Smith has argued that modern, Western Christians (especially Evangelicals) have been held captive by a false picture of the human person as “thinking thing.”

On this view, you are what you think and there’s something of a simple correlation between what you believe and the way you live. Discipleship, then, is mostly a matter of proper spiritual data input.

But we’re not just thinking things. No, following Augustine (and the Scriptures), Smith argues that we’re worshipers. We’re desirers. We’re lovers who are shaped by those things we love most.

The hitch is that our deepest loves aren’t necessarily those things we consciously think we want most, but those drives that reside within us at an almost unconscious level. And they show up in our habits, our basic patterns of life.

If that’s the case, then, discipleship is not mostly a matter of data input, or simply reading the right book, but about the long, arduous path of having your desires transformed through the power of habit. Yes, our loves show up in our habits, but it’s also the case that our habits and practices give testimony to and shape our loves.

And so, we are constantly being shaped in one way or another by the various practices (liturgies) we’re engaged in, whether it’s checking our smart phones, visiting the local mall, eating fast food, or consuming varieties of ideologically-loaded pop cultural artifacts.

For this reason, the transformation of desire isn’t simply going to happen by rearranging some of our beliefs, but by adopting the sorts of practices that shape our loves to conform to the Kingdom of God. These liturgies train our hearts, sort of like batting practice trains our arms or training wheels our stabilizer muscles, in the way they should go.

Now, for those who have read Smith’s other works, much of this will be familiar. It’s an Augustinian call to virtue ethics. Indeed, it might seem so familiar that you’re wondering why Smith wrote the book. I’ll say that this work is different from the Cultural Liturgy series in a number of ways.

First, you’re not really wading through any of the French, continental philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, or the social theory of Pierre Bordeau. It’s full of all the wit, the basic insights, made in a more direct, concise fashion. For that reason alone, the work is far more accessible and user-friendly than the earlier iterations.

Second, Smith’s fleshing things out more practically on the ground than he does in the earlier works. I think this is what I loved most about the work. Smith’s vision of the habits that form us is worked out in some fairly pedestrian realities like church, marriage, educating your children, and your everyday vocation. This aspect makes it more immediately useful for both pastors and laity who might be intimidated to wade into the earlier works.

Third, because of that fleshing out, Smith does make plenty of new points. Some on the theoretical end, but the applied practice gets far more attention in this work in a number of helpful ways. Plus, there’s a load of new examples and fascinating little bits of cultural analysis (which are usually the most fun parts of Smith’s works, to be honest). I laughed multiple times throughout the work, tweeted out several segments, and flagged a number of pages as helpful preaching illustrations.

I think the most personally impacting section for me at this phase in my life was the bit on the liturgies of the home and the way a marriage is a formed through the various, liturgical practices we craft our life through. I’m in a Ph.D. program. I spend the vast majority of my day as a “thinking thing.” And as much as I think I’ve grown in theoretical knowledge and insight, the reality is that my choice to eat at the table with McKenna instead of in front of the TV shape is probably more important for shaping my understanding of the little kingdom God has given us in the world. How are the countless, daily rhythms we have adopted preparing us for life in the kingdom to come? Or for a life of discipleship and fidelity now?

Now, on a critical note, I must admit that as sympathetic as I am towards Smith’s advocating for more traditional, liturgical (in a modest, Reformed sense) worship, I did wonder if the critiques of contemporary worship services and styles was applied a bit too thickly. Or again, whether the critique of current youth groups obsessed with relevance at the expense of substance was representative of the healthy youth groups I’ve seen and the earnest youth pastors running them.

Also, Smith does open himself up to critique in that he’s over-exaggerated the power of habit and downplayed the properly cognitive dimension to the Spirit’s work of transformation through the preached Word and so forth. Now, while I can see it, I’m not sure Smith’s actually guilty of it. Especially if we take the work less as a total program or theology of sanctification (which I’m not sure Smith intends), than as a corrective of the lopsided one with which we’ve been operating. Taken in that sense, Smith’s work is a vital and timely work, full of much-need wisdom for the church, both gathered and scattered abroad in our homes and workplaces.

I suppose I’ll wrap up this brief review with a simple commendation: if you’ve already engaged Smith’s work as I have, I think you’ll find plenty that’s worth your time. If you’ve never read Smith’s work, this is probably the best place to start.

As I said in the title, reading this book won’t change your life. But it will point you to the practices that, graced by the Spirit, just might do the trick.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Jesus Saves the World From Us (Review)

I tend to read different theological authors for various reasons. Some excel at putting into words my deepest, unarticulated beliefs better than I ever could. Others inspire me and provoke us to wonder. While still others are just generally informative—they tell me what I don’t know. Finally, there’s a special category that I’d put my friend Morgan Guyton in—he’s the kind who keeps me honest.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, he’s a Methodist college minister in New Orleans and a blogger at Patheos Progressive channel who gets featured at Huffington Post, Red Letter Christians, and other such periodicals. In other words, we don’t hang out at The Gospel Coalition conferences. AHow-Jesus-Saves-the-World-from-Usll the same, we’ve been blogging, chatting, and arguing quite vociferously back and forth for the last few years in such a way that I’ve been challenged, provoked, and (I think) strengthened in the faith. And this is even with some very significant, theological disagreements.

All that to say, I was pretty excited when I got my copy of his new book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. As you might expect given the title, it can appropriately be put in the recent spate of “progressive Evangelical” manifestos. That said, I was anxious to read it because I know Morgan to be honest, typically trying to eschew some of the sensationalism and invective that infects some of these kinds of works. Indeed, I know for a fact that he got turned down from some publishers precisely because he didn’t want to write the slash-and-burn anti-Evangelical screeds they thought would sell.

Instead, in How Jesus Saves the World From Us, Morgan attempts to put forward a more positive vision of a Christianity stripped from what he sees to be toxic attitudes, behaviors, and corruptions of a beautiful gospel. Each chapter is organized around a fairly clear binary with titles like, “Worship, Not Performance: How We Love God” or “Servanthood not Leadership: How We Follow Our Shepherd”, with the goal of presenting us with two clear paths. The point, then, is a constructive criticism of some of the deficiencies and pathologies of American Christianity with an eye towards a transformed Church. His goal is to call back or give hope to the many who have been burned out or disgusted by the many failures and excesses they’ve experienced at the hands of religious leaders and communities.

As much as I disagreed with some key chapters or sub-points, Morgan had plenty to say that I needed to hear. One of the most gripping chapters was his approach to gaining a holy body, “Breath, not Meat”—his translation of “Spirit, not Flesh.” His imagery of life lived to the flesh as bodies being turned into mere “meat”—dead life—is powerful and pastorally attuned. While, I’m not an anti-capitalist, Morgan’s section on the way our market-economy can play into our subtle commodification of persons and bodies is worth serious consideration. Overall, it’s a helpful dimension to consider in our all-too-thin “spiritual” accounts of sanctification and sin.

Given my recent forays into the theology of Leviticus and the Temple, I was also drawn especially to his chapter on “Temple, Not Program.” I really resonated with his suggestion that churches begin to recover that sense of the sacredness of time and space. Over and over again we’ve heard that the Church is a “people not a place”, but in our hyper-mobile, post-religious culture, that simply plays into the vacuous sensibility that since we can worship God “anywhere” there’s no real use to gathering somewhere with some people to meet in a special way with the Lord. And because we’ve lost that sense of the sacred space of the local church, we’ve increasingly relied on the hyper-programization of a flawlessly-executed program to gin up a sense of the divine in our people.

And, I’ll also mention his chapter on “Servanthood, not Leadership.” While I’d probably nuance his end-point about pastors seeing themselves less as shepherds than as fellow-sheep (I mean, “under-shepherd” is a biblical idea), so much of this chapter was a breath of fresh air compared to more technical models of pastoral leadership built on business-school models of success and platform-building. The professionalization of the pastorate is one of the greater tragedies of the last half-century.

I could go on like this about a number of the other chapters. But though Morgan is my friend, I will register one critical comment that sums up the various sub-points I’d make as a whole. While the format is a useful heuristic tool (“eat this, not that”), unless taken critically, the binary format often leads us to miss a possible third way between the option that Morgan is (rightly) critiquing, and his proposed positive vision.

To take an example, his chapter on “Poetry, Not Math: How We Read the Bible” gives you a nice, clean split. Either we misunderstand the Bible by trying to treat it like a problem to be solved, mastered, used, as a weapon, etc, instead of poetry to be savored and accepted with all of its mysteries and complexities. Which is good as far as it goes. But then (leaning on types like Enns and Rollins) he forwards a functionalist understanding of the Scripture’s authority and a pragmatic notion of its truth in terms of usefulness, ignoring some of the real challenges the original fundamentalists have, or current inerrantists worry about. I suppose my point is that much of the time, yes, the Bible is like poetry, and yet, sometimes it’s a little closer to math.

That’s typically how I felt about the sections I disagreed with. Morgan almost always has his finger on the problem and frequently he identifies issues I never would have thought up about coming from my location. And I really need to hear those different perspectives. But the question is about the way forward or the way we read the need to revise our understandings of certain doctrines like penal substitution or something, to fix what’s wrong.

But again, this is why I say he keeps me honest and why I gained a lot from reading this book. And I think that’s probably fine with him. I don’t see Morgan needing conservatives to agree with all of his solutions. But forcing us to grapple with real issues, hurts, corruptions, and struggles within the Church faithfully from within our own frameworks? Getting us to hear the pained voices of the wounded so that we might strive present a more beautiful gospel and a more glorious Jesus to them? I think he’d be just fine with that. And that’s what Morgan’s done for me in this book.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

crucifixion rutledgeWhy the cross? Why this particular, bloody, grotesque means of execution? Why was this the necessary mode of the Savior’s redemption of the human race? Why not a life, leading into old age and peaceful death leading into resurrection? Why the seemingly Godforsaken horror of it all? This is the motivating question at the heart of Fleming Rutledge’s masterful tome The Crucifixion: It’s Meaning and Significance. After over twenty years study, research, and meditation, Rutledge has delivered a stunning piece of theological and pastoral reflection on the cross of Christ.

I originally intended to work through it for my Lenten readings every morning (being far too addicted and Protestant to give anything up for Lent), and found myself running far ahead of my intended, daily page-count. It’s really a beautiful piece of theology.

Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.

In what follows, I’ll simply highlight what I take to be some of the significant features (both positive and negative) of the work and hope that gives you something of a feel for the whole.

Sin and sins

One of Rutledge’s chief concerns is to get her audience to reckon with the reality of sin. Coming out of Episcopal mainline, this is unsurprising given the theological trajectory much of the church has taken over the last forty years or so. Rutledge is not dour, or morbid, but after years of preaching, teaching, advocating for justice (especially on social and racial fronts), she is not naïve about the pervasive wickedness and corruption of both human nature and human cultures. As one of the blurbs put it, she wants us to “get real” with ourselves, open our eyes and truly look at the world as it is, and reckon with our dire need for redemption. Her work is a bracing antidote to any last vestiges of cheap sentimentalism in our doctrine of humanity that would blind us to our need for the kind of salvation only a bloody cross can bring.

Connected to this, Rutledge doesn’t simply want us to recognize personal culpability and “sins”, but rather the Power of Sin. This is partially due to her heavy leaning on the “Apocalyptic” school associated with J.L Martyn, De Boer, and the Union School. For Rutledge, we need rescue from the Powers of Sin, Law (used by Sin), and Death. We are not only culpable, but captives, sold and bound under the dark dominion of evil that overwhelms us and keeps us oppressed in sin.

Deliverance AND Substitution

It is this sense that gives shape to Rutledge’s main argument, which I take to be the resituating of the “substitution” motif within an Apocalyptic understanding of the Christus Victor motif. Because she takes both sins and Sin seriously, she wants to take both of those master motifs and develop them as well.

When it comes to substitution, Rutledge does a fantastic job slowly, carefully, and piercingly drawing our attention to the problem of injustice in the world. Whether to apartheid in South Africa, the struggle for racial equality in the Civil Rights movement, child abuse scandals in the Catholic church, to the millions of petty, untold sins in our own lives, she forces us to deal with both the biblical and the theological need for satisfaction, for an atoning sacrifice, for a judgment that says no to a culture of impunity, to cheap grace, or the sort of “forgiveness” that makes a mockery of the victims of violence throughout history. What’s more, she does it in such a way that is appealing, not so much to theological conservatives, but to those with more progressive and liberal sensitivities. You might say that as someone who has taken the social gospel seriously, Rutledge knows that you need a more classic theology to undergird it.

But, of course, we need not just sacrifice but redemption. The Exodus is a good model here. In the Exodus, the Israelites received both atonement in the slaughter of the lambs at the Passover, but also redemption from the social, political, and yes, spiritual, powers of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Rutledge forcefully argues that the cross of Christ (and his resurrection) were at the heart of a liberation, a deliverance from the powers of Sin, the Law (as used by sin), Death, and the Devil. In him, we have a liberating “Lord”, who transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son, who frees us for his glorious service.

And these two halves point to the broader concept of righteousness and justification she embraces. Following much 20th Century scholarship, for Rutledge, God’s righteousness is his saving justice that is more than forensic, but also transformative and liberative. She translates “justification” as “rectification”—God’s justification of the ungodly, then, is not merely their forensic vindication, but their total deliverance from the Powers and their “setting right.”

This “rectification”, though, that comes by way of the cross and resurrection of Christ is not merely individualistic in nature. In this regard, she joins the choir of many other recent voices in proclaiming a “cosmic” salvation, in which God sets the whole world to rights through the Son in his cross, bringing about a New Creation, while the rectification of individual comes within that broader schema. Indeed, over and over again, Rutledge emphasizes the “cosmology” implied in Paul’s theology (because this is a heavily Pauline work), in regards to both the aim and the characters involved.

Multiple Motifs

Within those two broader motifs, Rutledge does a good job at trying to give voice to the broader range of New Testament motifs surrounding the death of Christ. Sacrifice, justification, ransom and redemption, Apocalyptic war, and the descent into Hell. In many ways, this is one of the chief strengths of the work. I would say, though, in comparing it to Jeremy Treat’s similar project The Crucified King, Rutledge’s treatment could have benefited from a more synthetic, redemptive-historically organized account.

While she is no Marcionite (she makes fantastic use of the Old Testament, connecting it to the New), there is something of an atomism, typical of much of the critical scholarship she draws on, at work in the treatment of the themes that could be integrated to greater effect. That seems to be something of a side-effect of her Apocalypticism which makes less use of unifying, covenantal themes, and places a greater emphasis on the disjunctive, in-breaking work of God. Again, though, overall, she’s got a very sensitive eye for the diversity of the New Testament witness to Christ’s work. There’s nothing reductionistic about it. And this, I think is probably because she’s not exclusively “Apocalyptic” in her orientation, but has a strong regard for certain traditional, Western exponents such as Anselm, Calvin, and others.  Still, I would probably add Treat’s work as a complementary one, in this regard.

The Problem of Theodicy

Given her concern with the necessity of the cross, justice, and sin, it’s no surprise that the question of theodicy is a running theme throughout the work. Indeed, much like the great theologian of “holy-love” P.T. Forsyth, Rutledge connects the cross with the issue of the “Justification of God.” There is much to commend in this regard. I will say, I had my qualms about this thread in her work, though, as it drinks quite deeply from the Dostoyevskian/Hart-style anti-theodicy. There seem to be some equivocations at work with respect to thinking about evil as “purposed” by God, or “part of God’s purposes” because of a failure to distinguish different senses of the will of God, the decree, and so forth.

Again, though, she does tap the breaks on the cheaper, hasty work of theodicy that we see all too often from the pulpit and the counselor’s office. So there is much benefit in the section.

Defending Substitution

One of the major sub-themes of Rutledge’s work is defending the substitutionary motif both against critics and misguided supporters. I have to say, her work here is simultaneously some of my favorite and least favorite segments. Connected to the themes of justice and God’s rejection of a culture of impunity, Rutledge has excellent discussions of the pastoral use of the doctrine of the wrath of God. She does fantastic work defending the different, mutually supporting elements of substitution and representation in Christ’s work. Also commendable is her repeated, careful emphasis on the perfectly and beautifully Trinitarian character of the Son’s cross-work. And I especially appreciated her exposition of Karl Barth’s contribution to the subject and the way his work can help us think more carefully about the notion of God’s agency in the cross, guarding against some of the more ham-handed expositions we’ve all heard.

That said, there were moments I thought she gave too much ground to the critics of “cruder” expositions of “penal substitution.” While there’s plenty right about those criticisms, I think there are not as many as Rutledge credits, or they don’t have quite the force she accords them. Also, her tendency to beat on the Post-Reformation Orthodoxy and their schematizing, propositionalizing, depersonalizing, etc. ways, grew a bit tiresome, but that’s probably just some of the Post-Barthian influence.

Overall, for those of us in more Reformed, Evangelical circles, it’s a very helpful exercise reading Rutledge’s defense of substitution within a church context that in many ways has left it by the wayside long ago.

Indeed, this could probably said about many of her discussions. Yes, there are tell-tale marks of the liberal tradition she’s engaged with that I just won’t agree with. For instance, Rutledge will follow Riceour on the nature of the Adam narrative (no historical Adam), and gesture towards either annihilationism or universalism in her discussion, all the while giving us a discussion of both radical evil and the realism of hell that’s still quite useful in pastoral conversations and preaching about the issues for those rejecting some of her premises. This is particularly relevant for more conservative readers since many of the theological tendencies Rutledge is speaking to are still with us and more widespread than simply the mainline.

Conclusion

Instead of wrapping up with my words, I figured I’d give you a taste of Rutledge’s own work drawn from her concluding summary:

The power of God to make right what has been wrong is what we see, by faith, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day. Unless God is the one who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, there cannot be serious talk of forgiveness for the worst of the worst—the mass murderers, torturers, and serial killings—or even the least of the worst—the quotidian offenses against our common humanity that cause marriages to fail, friendships to end, enterprises to collapse, and silent misery to be the common lot of millions. “All for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.” This is what is happening on Golgotha.

All the manifold biblical images with their richness, complexity, and depth come together as one to say this: the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross of Christ. The “precious blood” of the Son of God is perfect sacrifice for sin; the ransom is paid to deliver the captives; the gates of hell are stormed; the Red Sea is crossed and the enemy drowned; God’s judgment has been executed upon Sin; the disobedience of Adam is recapitulated in the obedience of Christ; a new creation is coming into being; those who put their trust in Christ are incorporated into his life; the kingdoms of “the present age” are passing away and the promised kingdom of God is manifest not in triumphalist crusades, but in the cruciform witness of the church. From within “Adam’s” (our) human flesh, the incarnate Son fought with and was victorious over Satan—on our behalf and in our place. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the kosmos to its rightful Creator. This is what the righteousness of God has achieved through the cross and resurrection, is now accomplishing by the power of the Spirit, and will complete in the day of Jesus Christ. (610-611)

That’ll preach.

Soli Deo Gloria