The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures ed. D.A. Carson

enduring authorityD.A. Carson has spent his career studying and teaching the Bible, with work spanning across a wide range of commentaries, monographs, and articles. He has also been defending its authority as Christian Scripture, God’s Word, for the whole of that time, with multiple individual works and co-edited monographs like Scripture and Truth Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon.

Well, he’s apparently not done, as earlier this year witnessed the release of his massive edited volume (1240 pages!) entitled The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. Which makes sense given the reality that controversy surrounding the subject continues unabated. Indeed, it seems to only progress in the level of sophistication and the scope of issues involved.

To get the job done, Carson enlisted the talents of 37 different Evangelical scholars across a wide range of disciplines and competencies in order to critically examine and defend the “formal principle” of Evangelical Protestantism. Within its pages, you’ll find essays on key historical figures and periods (Calvin to Roman Catholicism), theological principles (accommodation and inerrancy), specific textual challenges (OT history & myth), and sundry other questions you may never have thought to ask. It’s really a stunning piece of work.

Now, I have to admit, I’m writing this quasi-review having only read a couple hundred pages of the work, as I have been slowly picking at it essay by essay. But since I wanted to make notice of it this year, I figure I’ll note some high points, how the volume can be used, and one gap I would have liked to see filled.

Fun Essays

I have to say, given my own interests of late, I’ve had a fun time cruising through the historical essays featured in this volume. This is especially the case since it’s so common nowadays to have criticisms of Evangelical views of Scripture’s authority, inerrancy, and so forth come in some version of the form, “Well, you know that the (Fathers, Medievals, X other communion) doesn’t look at Y (inerrancy, accommodation, authority) that way. It’s just those modernist Evangelicals (ie. your Sunday School teacher).”

For that reason, I found Charles Hill’s essay “‘The Truth Above All Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine” well worth the time. He helpfully charts the views of authors East and West on various issues like inspiration, authority, and inerrancy, providing large quotes and contextualized discussions that hew away from simple cherry-picking.

Another gem in the historical section is Tony Lane’s essay on “Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present.” What was so illuminating about the work was his demonstration of the clear doctrinal development that’s taken place over the last couple hundred years. While current, Post-Vatican II views are much more fluid, open to historical criticism, and so forth, statements from Trent, Vatican I, and earlier documents paint a different story. Pope Leo’s statement in Providentissimus Deus 1893 basically out-Warfields Warfield on inspiration and inerrancy, giving the lie that this is some uniquely Evangelical doctrine.

Of course, Kevin Vanhoozer’s got an essay in the mix, this time dealing with the controversial issue of doctrinal development. “May We Go Beyond What is Written After All?” This is a perennially relevant issue for Protestants who must think through what it means to be “biblical” in our theology, even while we acknowledge that key doctrines (Trinity, Chalcedonian two natures, etc.) are conceptual developments of biblical material, rather than direct quotes from Scripture. Plus, it’s Vanhoozer, so he always makes it fun.

I would go on, but I’ll just emphasize again that there are solid bunch of scholars covering a wide range of issues. Henri Blocher has an essay on dual authorship, both human and divine. Graham Cole reflects on the nature and arrangement of the canon. Bruce Waltke has an essay on myth and history (which should maybe be read in tandem with Glenn Sunshine’s essay on accommodation). Mark Thompson covers the clarity of Scripture. Craig Blomberg tackles Jesus’ use of the Old Testament. James Beilby has an essay on religious epistemology (and there are more in this section). The list just keeps going.

One Thing I’d Have Liked To Have Seen

When it comes to ecumenical discussions, Evangelicals have been typically concerned with two groups: liberals and Roman Catholics. And this book seems to have the issues raised by both covered fairly well. What we haven’t concerned ourselves with enough (in my humble opinion) is Eastern Orthodoxy. This is partly because of the little contact we have typically had with the tradition due to simple geography as well as formation of the Reformation tradition in the West.

Understandable as that is, I think this is a gap because Orthodoxy, first of all, is still a major theological tradition. Second, it has been slowly but surely been exerting greater theological influence worldwide and in the North American academy. It even seems to have a unique appeal for a certain type of younger Evangelical, especially once they encounter their somewhat distinct, non-Roman Catholic, yet non-Protestant position and critique of Protestant views of Sola Scriptura. A survey and analysis of Eastern Orthodox views of Scriptural authority, especially in relation to tradition, would have been helpful for remit of defending the “formal principle” of Evangelicalism as well as in filling out the already broad range of engagement.

That said, on the defensive end, a judicious study of the patristic essay, understanding the actual positions of the Reformers, the clarity of Scripture, doctrinal development, and so forth covers a good many of the issues.

How to Use the Book

Let’s be honest, the odds are that you’re not going to read the book cover to cover. This is so just because of the length as well as because some of the essays probably won’t strike you as immediately interesting. What I would recommend, then, is one of two things.

First, if you kind of already know some issues you’re interested in (say, Karl Barth’s view of Scripture), just cruise through the table of contents and read whatever you like.

If you’re not quite as sure, though, read Carson’s introductory essay (you should probably read it anyways), and then jump to the back. There you’ll find an article by Carson which basically summarizes a great deal of the content of the various essays in short responses to frequently asked questions and challenges. This is so helpful because (a) it’s a bit of a preview of what you’re getting, (b) you start to get a feel for where and when this sort of information is useful, and (c) they’re just good summaries that are immediately useful.

In sum, this is a magnificent piece of scholarship that I’m sure will be a great resource for pastors and scholars in the coming years.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Theology As Discipleship by Keith Johnson (Themelios)

theology as discipleshipThere are few laments more frequently raised in the evangelical academy than the divorce between the academy and the church, or between the life of piety and that of theological scholarship. Indeed, it is not uncommon for pastors to admit that seminary was one of the most spiritually difficult times in their lives, precisely because the pursuit of academic rigor in theology, by its very nature, seemed to choke out the spiritual life. Moreover, the relevance of the theological task seems distant from the life of faith for the average congregant.

Drawing on years teaching theology to undergraduates, in Theology as Discipleship, Wheaton College professor Keith L. Johnson attempts to articulate a vision for the theological task as “integrally related” to the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ (p. 12). Aimed at introductory theology courses, pastors, and interested lay-people, the result is an elegant, biblically-attuned, classically-oriented, yet uncluttered text inviting the novice (as well as the seasoned initiate) to view theology in the sweep of God’s saving economy to renew all things through Christ and the Spirit.

You can read the rest of this review online in the latest issues of Themelios.

Soli Deo Gloria

Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne

rankinThe heart of the New Testament gospel is the idea of union with Christ. All of the benefits of salvation (justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification) we only receive as we are “in Christ.” It is the doctrine without which all these other truths is not good news.  Unsurprisingly, then, you can’t read Paul, John, Peter, or even the words of Jesus himself without tripping over these references.

And more and more, theologians and biblical scholars are recognizing this and putting it at the center of their expositions of Scripture and biblical truth, with a number of helpful volumes on the subject having been written in the last few years. For instance, just this year, Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ was an excellent entry into putting “union with Christ” back at the center.

Sadly, though, it seems to have been a very slow trickle-down effect for this glorious recovery reaching the practical preaching of the pulpit and the life of the pews. The books are aimed at either other theologians, or at pastors who might grasp the value, but struggle to work the riches of this biblical truth into their regular preaching.

It is at just this point that Rankin Wilbourne wants to step in with his new book Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God. His aim is to take the doctrine of union with Christ out of the murky shadows and place it front and center, not only of the discussions of academics and theologians, but everyday Christians wanting to learn how to close the gap between what they read about the Christian life in the New Testament and the reality they experience in their regular walk with Jesus.

(Now, you may be wondering, “who is Rankin Wilbourne?” Wilbourne’s a pastor at Pacific Crossroads Church in LA whom I only know about because my pastor used to work with him and because of his awesome cowboy name. In any case, when my pastor handed me his book and told me to read it, I gave it a shot since I figure he knows I don’t have too much time to waste on cruddy books during my summer of learning German.)

I have to say, I’m very grateful that he did. Wilbourne’s book was a great read for me and came at just the right time. I mostly read it in the mornings before studying and, like with Jen Wilkin’s book, it proved to be a real source of spiritual assurance and up-building during that time.

What’s in the book, then? Well, a little bit of everything to be honest. Wilbourne covers a wide range of topics, precisely because he (rightly) knows that union with Christ touches just about everything.

So, of course, there’s chapters on union with Christ in the Bible, and chapters on union with Christ in church history (turns out its all over it), and a couple of chapters on why we struggle with the concept (very helpful for cultural observers, by the way). But the bulk of the book is how union with Christ affects your real life, covering everything from your identity, to your approach to spiritual practices, to suffering, and even the way you look at the Church.

With that terrible summary out of the way, I’ll give you a few highlights or reasons you should give it a shot.

First, Wilbourne knows the importance of the imagination for spiritual life. Right of the bat, actually, Wilbourne shows you that he knows we think, we feel, we live out of the depths of our imaginations—our ability to piece together the world, or whatever reality we’re thinking of, into synthetic wholes. Which is why, he notes, the New Testament gives us so many metaphors, so many pictures, for our salvation in union with Christ.

Wilbourne leans full tilt into that reality by spending time unpacking biblical metaphors, creating and deploying helpful, lively new pictures of his own to drive home and inhabit these spiritual truths. I’ve never heard him preach, but I think I have a fair idea of what it would look like now.

And actually, preachers, this is something you ought to pay attention to (especially if you’re a youngster like I am)—learn the art of the key illustration that helps your congregation actually grasp the truths of Scripture in a vital, living manner. This book is full of good examples of how to do that.

Also, this means that this is a book you can put in someone’s hands without worrying if it’s going to be too over their heads, or jargon-filled, or technical.

Second, Wilbourne is a pastor. To be honest, I don’t think he says much “new” when it comes to the doctrine itself. He’s basing it on a lot of the most recent scholarship (Billings, Campbell, Letham, etc) as well as what the classic teachers of history (Calvin, Owen, Scougal, etc) have said. What he does do that’s “new” is the application of these broad truths to our late modern culture.

I know I keep beating this horse from different angles, but the ability to take and apply this deeply Biblical truth to a broad variety of questions and struggles that actual members of our churches are working through is a great gift. Wilbourne has that gift in spades.

To sum up, if you want to understand the good news of union with Christ, to walk into the heart of enjoying God through Christ, Wilbourne’s Union with Christ is a good place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

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