“God Is” by Mark Jones (Review)

God isJesus Christ testifies that eternal life is “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). With his latest book, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God, Mark Jones aims to help you attain a little more of that eternal life now in the present.

I know of no better way to summarize the thrust of the work than Jones’s own preface where he writes:

“The true and living God is too much for us to bear, to handle, to conceive, to adore, to know, to trust, to understand, and to worship. The Incomprehensible One is simply too much for us in every conceivable way.

However, that the Son became flesh makes our human nature appear lovely to God. But he also makes God appear lovely to us. Take away Christ, the God-man, and we are reprehensible to God and he to us. But in Christ, God is well pleased with us and we with him.

We look at God through Christ, who makes the attributes of God more delightful to us.” (11)

Here is the heart of the work. Our greatest good is to know God. But God is beyond us, so he comes to us in Christ and reveals himself to us. God Is, then, is an exposition and introduction to the attributes of God whose signal contribution is keeping them tied squarely to the person and work of Jesus.

In many ways, Jones is following up works like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, and giving them a Christological twist. But that’s not all. Unlike more recent, academic treatments, in the style of the great Puritan and Orthodox thinkers like Charnock, Watson, and Leigh, Jones has also made it his aim to connect each attribute or “doctrine” to applications or “uses” in our daily lives, loving God and our neighbors.

For instance, when Jones treats the patience of God, he turns to key Old Testament texts which testify to God’s forebearance, his willingness to restrain judgment so that sinners might be saved and his purposes would stand. But then, he turns to point out Christ’s death on the cross is the key to God’s patience. There God enacts his justice against all the sin formerly past over, saving sinners, but maintaining his holy nature. As application, Jones points us to the comfort of knowing God’s patience with us through Jesus, which then points us to the way we ought to be patient with others.

Or again, speaking of God’s glory, Jones points to the essential glory of God, the display and sum of his attributes in all of their beauty, as well as “glory” we ascribe to God in praise. But then, he turns to Christ and speaks to the way he displays the glory of God in human flesh. This, in turn, gives rise to a very careful discussion of the unique glories which Christ has as a composite person, the Godman, as well as his glory as the mediator who accomplishes salvation on our behalf.  By way of application, Jones points to our joy in worship of a great God, the beauty of being able to commune with this glorious God in Jesus, and our hope to experience this glory in person when Jesus returns in unveiled glory.

Jones goes on like this for some 26 chapters, touching on God’s independence, justice, love, holiness, immutability, and so forth, as well some surprising “attributes” like God’s name, his triunity, and his being “anthropomorphic.”

I’ll just be blunt and say it’s a good book that I think most should consider buying and reading. Jones is a friend, but I have worked my way through every page these last couple of weeks as devotional literature and found it very challenging and encouraging. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly whenever I want to think or write on a particular attribute of God. That said, I’ll add a couple more notes.

First, a word about style. The subtitle calls it a “devotional guide”, and I did use it as a sort of devotional, but you should know that’s a bit misleading. Indeed, I suspect Jones didn’t pick that subtitle. What I mean is that while the book is not an academic work, it’s not what passes for much popular, devotional literature, either.

The chapters are short, maybe 5-7 pages, but they are dense with theological instruction, biblical citation, and (fantastic) quotations from theologians like Watson, Charnock, Leigh, Pictet, and occasionally a “modern” like Bavinck. He’ll do little historical dives and let you know about debates regarding the necessity of satisfaction for atonement, or the way the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) play into our understanding of an attribute. Distinctions like ad extra and ad intra are sprinkled throughout.

Now, I think this is a very good and helpful thing. I really hope more popular theological literature moves in this direction. And if you find yourself intimidated at that thought, I would encourage you to read it anyways and allow yourself to be challenged. Still, I just figured I’d let you know.

Second, if you are a pastor who is struggling to think of ways to connect theology, and especially the nature of God, to your people in the pulpit and in your counsel, I think this is a good model to look at. You don’t have to follow Jones everywhere he goes either in application, or even in particular content points. But what he is doing is modeling a way of tracing the impact of how we think about God into every area of our worship and life.

We were made “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The aim of the gospel is God in Christ. He is our great end and our great joy. Reading God Is, is not a bad place to pursue more of him.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

N.T. Wright’s Assault on Moralistic Platonic Paganism? (A Review)

the-day-the-revolution-beganI suppose I’ll begin with a bit of a confession: I’ve been a devoted N.T. Wright fan since I was 20, or about 10 years now, during which I’ve read all his major monographs and most of his popular works (excluding the commentaries, of which I do own the majority). Surprising as it may be for some, before I read Calvin, Bavinck, or even Vanhoozer, I was reading Wright. While I have become critical of certain elements, or tendencies in Wright’s work, I cannot stress how massive his (massive) works have been in shaping my broader Biblical and New Testament theology. This is especially the case with his atonement theology, which I have discussed and defended here).

When I heard he was coming out with a big book on the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began, I was very excited (as were half the theological nerds in the Western Hemisphere). Having read it now, I will say it’s vintage Wright in just about every sense of the word. Whether it’s the story-telling, the punchy language and style that grips you and carries you along (I read the 400 pages in about 2 days), the stimulating biblical insight, the pastoral application, and the passionate polemics—good and bad—it’s all there in spades.

Against MPP

I mentioned the polemics because they’re central to his project. Wright wants to explain how Jesus’ death at 6 on a Friday managed to launch the revolution of love which transformed the cosmos. But he thinks in the Western church that message has been overshadowed by another, cut-rate gospel. Instead of worrying about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), though, Wright is interested in correcting Moralistic Platonic Paganism (MPP). He says the church has all too often moralized our problem (making sin about bad behavior instead of its root, idolatry), we have platonized our eschatology (making it about going to heaven instead of resurrection and New Creation), therefore paganized our soteriology (making it mainly about an angry Father randomly punishing an innocent Jesus, instead of the loving self-offering of God).

This alternative set-up he calls the “works-contract.” It’s a cut-down story that sounds a lot like some 4 Spiritual Laws, or “Romans Road”, or Chick-Tract presentations of the gospel. Humans are supposed to be good, they fail, God is angry with them, but Jesus comes and obeys for us, suffers the wrath of God in our place, and so we get to go heaven with a much calmer God now. Against this, he sets a much more comprehensive story beginning with Adam, continuing on through Abraham, Israel, the Exodus, the Exile, and down on into Jesus as the culmination of all of God’s ways with us. For those familiar with Wright’s earlier works, the story is fairly familiar.

Before jumping in, I’ll say that I think Michael Horton has given a very fair-handed summary and review of the work. He touches on a number of issues I pass over and probably better worth your time than the lengthy business which follows.

That noted, I’ll first note a number of the positives of Wright’s work and then jump into a couple of lengthier engagement/critique sections.

The Goods

First off, this is a good distillation of Wright’s broader project of telling the story of Jesus in the New Testament in its many-splendored dimensions. Wright is at pains to keep the story of the gospel properly complicated because historically-situated. Or rather, he wants to make sure that we appreciate the fullest sense in which the death of Jesus makes sense “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15).

And so, Wright tells the big story about God’s creative purpose in Adam, and the winding plan of setting that purpose back on its course through the call of Abraham, the election of Israel, and so forth. His expansion (not correction) of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works as the “covenant of vocation” is fruitful (on this, see the Horton review). What’s more, his foray into the prophets, especially his examination of the prophecies of the Servant in Isaiah are also very insightful.

This is also important because there is a tendency in some recent works in atonement theology to emphasize that language about atonement (sacrifice, justification, ransom, etc.) is metaphorical. Which is true enough as far as it goes. But some take that so far as to suggest that the metaphors were chosen by the apostles in a joyfully, haphazard way (and therefore culturally-relative one) to communicate something great had happened. Wright firmly insists that the apostolic presentation, indeed that of Jesus himself, is not random, nor interchangeable, but must and can only be understood in relation to the story of Scripture—as the culmination of the God’s works and ways with Israel.

Beyond that, his chapters on the First Century context and the Gospels might be my favorites. In a sense, much of this isn’t new, since the seeds were present in his Jesus and the Victory of God. That said, his special focus on showing Jesus’ self-understanding to be the broader matrix of the Passover and New Exodus, the forgiveness of sins which establishes the Kingdom of God is crystalized here with a clarity and specificity with respect to the atonement that hadn’t always come through in earlier works.

Indeed, I took particular delight in the section on the atonement in the Gospel of Luke. I took a special reading class in my M.A. in which I had to write on the atonement in each of the Gospels. Given the state of much of the conversation, I had a difficult time of it especially since I was probably too fixated at the time on finding particular sayings like the so-called “ransom saying” of Mark. But Wright’s attentiveness to the narratival-theological construction allows him to draw out representation, substitution, and the victory of the king in the stories of Barabbas, the encounters with thieves on the cross, and Jesus’ own depictions of his own suffering on behalf of Israel (213-216).

Which brings me to a final point of appreciation: Wright never loses sight of the fact that all of Jesus’ work must be held together, especially the cross and the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the goal of the cross and the cross is the shape of the kingdom. What’s more, the threads weaving the two together have been there from the very beginning of the story until its grand denouement.

As such, there is much to be commended and plenty that will preach nicely throughout any Lenten season series any pastor reading this may be planning.

These things being said, I must turn to a couple of criticisms and critical questions. This will be lengthy, but please bear in mind that the book is 400 pages long, so to engage any of his multiple arguments with any coherence requires more space than usual.

On Caricature

Probably the most distracting and potentially misleading part of the work is Wright’s polemical engagement throughout with his “works-contract” construct. Funny enough, it’s reminiscent of Douglas Campbell’s “Justification Theory”—an amalgamated construct of errors cobbled together as a foil for his own reading of Paul—something Wright dinged him for in Paul and His Recent Interpreters. Now, Wright has a sense many will suggest that’s what he’s doing: “Some will no doubt accuse me of caricatures…” (147). So he clarifies that what he’s describing is quite real in much of the popular preaching and teaching in the church and the experiences of average lay-people.

That is something I think we need to be prepared to admit. And not just as a concession that is a set-up for a counter-argument. I think there is plenty of bad cross-preaching of all sorts and much of it verges into the works-contract kind. Conservatives, especially the Reformed sort, need to be careful to correct the sorts of mistakes (trinitarian, Christological, covenantal) which lead our people to “hear” the sort of Moralistic Platonic Paganism Wright talks about. Indeed, we shouldn’t just avoid it, but actively try to correct it. Insofar as Wright is correcting those accounts, there is much that is helpful in his reframing of the narrative. (Though, that said, I think at the popular level, Joshua Ryan Butler’s recent work The Pursuing God probably is more helpful still.)

The problem, though, is at times he lets on that it’s not just bad pop-accounts under his scalpel. Rather, he suggests even the more nuanced accounts of the older views that “theologians” (those sad, well-meaning blunderers), fall prey to many of his criticisms. This actually comes out heavily in his big chapter on Romans 3. He throws out about 15 reasons why the “old” reading of the text doesn’t work. Again, if he’s talking about a simple 4 Spiritual Laws reading, sure. But if he’s addressing the nuanced views of say a Greg Beale, John Stott, Michael Horton, Jeremy Treat, or even more older covenantal thinkers like a Herman Witsius (see his Economy of the Covenants), I think only about 2 or 3 of those points would receive pushback. More on this later.

This is part of the problem of mounting the sort of criticisms he makes in a popular-level book. It’s “popular” in that it has no footnotes or endnotes, which is no sin in itself. But he is making much more complicated arguments than typical “popular” treatments, like certain arguments going on within NT scholarship (such as his subtle digs at the Apocalyptic school, etc.).

It seems that if you’re going to be throwing around charges like that, it’s only fair to name the names. It’s not only that the accused have the right to face their accuser—they ought to know if they’re being accused.

Which brings me to the point about novelty and the rhetoric of newness I have raised before. I joked online earlier that a key point in Wright’s book is that he’s “not a specialist in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries” (32). Which is fine. We have other specialists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for just that sort of thing. (I’m not one to talk as I’m not a specialist in anything yet!) The only problem comes when you decide to set up your own construction by way of explicit contrast with what was taught in those centuries. In which case, not misrepresenting or bowdlerizing them becomes more important.

With Wright, you get this sense that between the 1st and the 21st Century some decent things happened, but, it’s now that we can really get things sorted out. Past theologians are there mostly to be patted on the head for those things they didn’t botch, then corrected, but not so much to be learned from currently.

Now, I’m all for sola Scriptura, subjecting our tradition to the word of God afresh and so forth. There are any number of places where I’m going to side with Wright’s exegesis over, say, Calvin’s. But this sort of approach of Wright’s tends to have the danger of reinforcing in younger Christians a curiosity which is intoxicated with the novel and the “fresh” for its own sake. It’s the sort that leads you to think reading Calvin’s or Aquinas’ or Irenaeus’ exegesis probably isn’t worth your time in the first place. In which case, in our attempt to get free of 16th century cultural presuppositions, we’re exposed to the greater danger of becoming ensnared with 21st century ones.

Or again, for the parishioner who reads the book and loves it, if their pastor manages not to frame things exactly as Wright does here—if they happen to use theological shorthand at times that resembles the “works-contract” because they don’t have space to recap the entire biblical narrative—well then they’re now guilty of peddling MPP. I don’t think that’s Wright’s intent, but given the rhetoric, it might be (and likely will be) what people hear.

Puzzles Over Punishment

Moving to issues more properly exegetical and theological, I’ll admit that the status of punishment and propitiation in Paul leaves me a bit confused. I think it’s the result of Wright not saying a great deal, before he gets around to saying what he does mean. But even then, things don’t come out so clearly. Of course, it could just be my poor reading skills, but Horton also noted some confusion at this point, and Dane Ortlund was quite…frustrated  about this section.

What is clear is Wright is very sure he doesn’t want to tell a story about an angry, vindictive deity who gets angry we’ve done bad things and just needs to punish (i.e. kill something) to blow off steam, so he can love us in heaven. Good. Nor should any of us.

That said, Wright also doesn’t fit the vibe of the non-violent, post-Girardian (J. Denny Weaver, Brian Zahnd), or Neo-Anabaptist (D. Snyder Belousek) paradigm. Much of his rhetoric does at points, but he still says very clearly God has wrath, that he punishes sin, that Exile is the punishment of sin, and that punishment can even be a part of the righteousness of God insofar as it is part of his faithfulness to his covenant (in which he threatened punishment as the result of idolatry).

In all of this, Wright’s very good aim seems to be to show that there is nothing arbitrary about the connection between sin and the punishment of death. Choose the God of life, you get life. Choose the non-gods, the idols, obviously that will pay out in death. Now, theologically, I think his account of divine agency is fuzzy there as well. Since on the one hand he admits God is at work in the process in order to rule out a simple, mechanic process of cause and effect (338), but then goes on to the next page to almost reduce punishment language to merely a way of talking about the natural consequences of sin (339). So he seems to take with his left what he gives with his right at times in a way that is confusing.

But beyond that, in dozens of places, Wright says Jesus suffers the punishment of exile, the consequences of Israel’s sins, the curse of Torah, and so forth as their representative and therefore their substitute. The forgiveness of sins, “comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole” (211; cf. 240, 337). So, again, this is quite explicitly not an anti-penal-substitution work per se.

Second, it is also clear he wants to make sure that nobody ever tells the story of Jesus and the atonement without setting it within and as the culmination of the story of Israel. That is precisely when the image of “punishment” can threaten to become central to the whole story, and turn things from a Biblical drama, to a pagan one (339). This is also an important thing to be avoided.

He affirms most of the component pieces of penal substitution, then, even if he rearranges some of them and modifies others, especially in the reading of key texts, especially in Paul. And it’s there in these modifications that many questions arise for me, and I think might confuse others.

Romans 8:1-4

In Romans 8:3, for instance, he repeats his long-standing claim that Paul God condemns “Sin in the flesh of Jesus”, but not Jesus himself. Okay. On one view, that might mean something like, “Jesus, enters the story of election as the True Israel, enters their accursed state, assumes responsibility for it, for all their sin and idolatry, and suffers the penal consequences in a representative, substitutionary way in his death. In that death, God condemns our sins, but we know what he really thinks about Jesus.”

Here’s one oddity about that view.

Right before that, Wright makes a point of saying that Romans 7 is telling us that the Law was given to Israel (at least in part) so that “Sin” could be drawn to one point, heaped up and shown for what it is, “so that it could be condemned there once and for all” (282). But “Sin” in the singular refers to “the powers unleashed by idolatry and wickedness”, a sort of short-hand personification of this, and maybe even “the satan” (284), who dominates and enslaves humans who have handed over their power to the powers in their idolatry; sins lead to and become and empower Sin (280). And so he says:

But the punishment is on Sin itself, the combined, accumulated, and personified force that has wreaked such havoc in the world and in human lives…Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus.  Now, to be sure, the crucifixion was no less terrible an event because, with theological hindsight, the apostle could see that what was being punished was Sin itself rather than Jesus himself… (287)

And so, he sees it as “penal” and even “substitutionary” since because of it “sinners who are ‘in the Messiah’ are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not” (287).

I have to be honest, I still don’t understand what it means that God condemns Sin personified in the flesh of Christ. Again, if you’re trying to parse the difference between condemning Jesus as a sinner loaded with guilt, or the one who assumes guilt for others, or the one who assumes liability to punishment, there are a number of scholastic distinctions that can help clarify this point. If that includes “the totality of what sin causes in the world and its nastiness”, sure.

But once you throw in condemning Sin as the powers, or even as the satan himself, there is a bewildering lack of clarity, as there seems to be no mechanism for metaphysical or moral identification in which Christ’s death equals the condemnation of the powers or Satan. Nor is it at all clear how this condemnation of the powers or Satan or the total situation deals with the guilt and liability of human punishment. So this is a coherence question I’m left with.  (If you have any suggestions as to where I’ve gone wrong, feel free to comment below.)

Romans 5:8-11

Another section I have questions about is Romans 5:8-11. Admittedly contradicting his own earlier reading in his commentaries and books (272), Wright rejects the view that Paul says Jesus saves us from God’s coming anger (5:9), by being a present propitiation, having wrath fall on himself instead (connecting it with Romans 3:24-26). He thinks that doesn’t make sense anymore, though, because being “being justified in by his blood” is supposed to save us “from the wrath or anger that is still to come.” But if wrath has been meted out in Christ in Romans 3:24-26, “why would Paul speak of it in chapter 5 as still future”, or as a store of wrath still to come (2:5)?

Now, on its own, I’m not convinced that argument is very strong. It seems easy to speak of a proleptic wrath executed now in the Messiah which counts for believers, which anticipates and corresponds to a judgment of wrath still to come in the future and would fall on them were they outside of Christ. Or it is at least analogous to speaking of a proleptic resurrection in Christ now, which corresponds to a resurrection still to come in the future. I suppose that we could be dealing with a proleptic declaration that no wrath is coming for you because of the event of the cross, but it’s not at all clear or necessary. Not enough to make me prefer Wright’s new exegesis over his old, at least.

Wright says again later on in his discussion of Rom 3:26-27, that if in 5:9 (which he takes to be summarizing the effects of 3:26-27) being “justified by his blood” just means “being saved from wrath”, 5:9 would be a tautology “(“being saved from wrath, we shall be saved from wrath”). To this, I’ll simply note that some repetitions, or pleonasms, can be clarifying since it’s really a way of speaking of the same reality from different aspects.

Second, it is not necessarily the case that if 5:9 is summarizing the effects of 3:26-27, we have a strict tautology. Rather, it could mean that “being justified by his blood” (being declared in the right in the court, etc. etc.), Paul is clarifying that one of the effects is being saved from wrath in the future.

These linguistic or exegetical points aside, I suppose my theological question is whether Wright believes Paul to be saying that wrath is something entirely future, which is staved off by an act which is definitely not the execution of wrath or propitiation in the present. Based on certain passages, that’s very fuzzy (see 330-331).

But then I wonder if Paul thinks “condemning Sin in the flesh of Jesus” in the present is an act of God’s wrath? In the Old Testament, wrath is not simply an emotion, but often is another way of speaking of God’s judgment, his condemnation in accordance with his law. Off the top of my head, Ezekiel 7 clusters wrath and anger with the punishment of idolatry together as largely the same thing (cf. also 2 Kings 17’s narrative of Israel’s deportation). Another way of saying it is that condemnation or punishment is wrath considered legally.

In which case, if Romans 8:3 does speak of the condemnation of Sin because of which those who are in the Messiah no longer face condemnation in the future (8:1), it seems that Paul does think that at least Sin has suffered the wrath of God upon himself in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, though there will be wrath meted out in the future against sinners as well.

On a similar note, jumping out of Paul (and I suppose that’s dangerously systematic), when Jesus speaks of drinking the cup of God’s wrath in connection to the cross (Mk. 14:36; Matt 26:39; p. 221 in Wright) does he drink it then? Because that would seem to be the natural reading (see Jeremy Treat’s examination of the removal of wrath through Jesus in the gospel of Mark in The Crucified King, 132-133).

And if so, does Paul disagree that is what’s happening there on the cross (that Jesus is experiencing God’s eschatological wrath then)? Or is it just that Wright thinks Paul is speaking of a different sacrificial logic in this passage? Or maybe it’s a different kind of wrath at the end-time? In which case, is Wright simply saying that in those verses (Romans 3:24-26, 5:9, 8:3) Paul isn’t talking about wrath being suffered by Jesus, even though if you asked him, he would of course affirm he had on an independent logic? But if so, does that deflate the argument that Paul pointing to the deflection of wrath in the future means he can’t be relating it to the suffering of wrath in the present by Jesus?

I get that Wright’s a biblical scholar who looks askance at certain systematic constructions for flattening out, or dehistoricizing too many edges of the various texts. At some point, though, the systematicians get to look back and ask whether those edges are too sharp that they’ve become a reading hazard.

Of course, on Wright’s older reading, the reading where Paul talks about Jesus propitiating God’s wrath against sin now in the cross, saving us from his eschatological wrath in the future, it appears there is an easier, or more straightforward fit with Jesus’ and within Paul on this point. In which case, for now I suppose I’ll retain that version of Wright.

Romans 3 and Purgation

Now, I should say something very brief about his argument in chapter 13 about Romans 3:21-26. In the first half of the chapter he drops anywhere between 10 to 15 arguments against taking it in a way that fits with a “works-contract” view, both the “bargain-basement” outline he sets up (301), as well as the more nuanced versions. Now, about 12 of them are great arguments against a very simplistic “Romans Road” presentation, but I think the points behind them can be easily incorporated in the “nuanced” versions as well (including Wright’s older view).

One point which doesn’t fit so easily concerns what he says about the redemption or Exodus that comes through putting Jesus forth as a hilasterion of Romans 3:25. Wright has changed his views from his commentaries and earlier books here. He still thinks the term refers to the lid of the ark, or the mercy seat in the Tabernacle or Temple. But Wright no longer connects it to the logic of covering (327), nor to propitiation as he used to, where in the past God over-looked sin, but now he punishes it in Christ. According to Wright, if that was the logic, then Paul shouldn’t have connected it with the Day of Atonement (330).

Instead, he has adopted a different view which connects the logic of the Day of Atonement with cleansing and purgation, not covering or punishment (though for that matter, he thinks covering didn’t imply punishment either). On this view, the death of the sacrifice is ancillary to the all-important releasing of the blood which the priest manipulates in the Day of Atonement ceremony. This blood symbolizes the power of life which cleanses. So death is necessary to the release blood, but isn’t central to its meaning in that sense (329).

The idea is that through idolatry, humans become sinful, their sins leads to and bring the pollution of death. But death is contrary to God who is the source of life and is a defilement of God’s holy Temple. This defilement accumulates throughout the year around the people, the land, and the sanctuary. In order to enter the Presence of God, then, “the sacrificial blood is the sign of God-given life, a life more powerful than death, a life therefore that purifies both sanctuary and worshipper. Cleansing thus enables meeting” (334). Jesus is the place where God and man, heaven and earth, meet, and this is enabled by his cleansing blood.

In the end, it seems he’s suggesting some sort of “propitiation via expiation” view whereby wrath is turned away by cleansing. Or in light of the way he connects it to the other texts above, a “future propitiation via present expiation/purgation” view. At least that’s the best I can come up with given the back and forth of affirmations and denials gives in the chapter.

Now, Wright has many things going for him. For one thing, he’s right that not every sacrifice in the OT has mainly to do with punishment and too often they have been treated as such in popular accounts. What’s more, there is definitely a clear element of purgation and cleansing in the Day of Atonement rituals as scholars as Jacob Milgrom and others following him have shown. Some of the more interesting bits of recent scholarship on sacrifice of late has been around pinning down just how that is supposed to work.

In response, though, I’d like to note a few things to complicate matters and suggest that death is significant as death for more than its life-blood releasing function.

First, I suppose I simply disagree about the blood. Leon Morris’ old linguistic work on the meaning of “blood” still has merit. Considering the wider use of the term blood in the Old and New Testaments, the dimension of life released by violent death within it cannot be entirely erased or reduced to life simpliciter.

Second, and this may be too broadly formulaic, but ever since Genesis 2-3, death just is the punishment for sin, the curse of the Law, the outworking of wrath, etc. in Scripture. While not all deaths are suffered as the direct judgment of God, theologically there is no death which is not the result of the curse and wrath of God. It seems very hard, then, to eliminate this meaning entirely from the Day of Atonement sacrifices.

Third, I am not sure Wright lets the Passover and the Day of Atonement interplay do enough work. At the Passover, though atonement isn’t the main point, the blood on the door acts as a covering protecting Israel from the angel of death, the judgment and wrath of God destroying the sinful flesh of the representative firstborn of every house. In the Passover, there is protection from the wrath of God against guilty sinners, yes through the covering of blood, but also through the death for death equation.

Finally, I can only note that Leithart’s recent account of sacrifice in Delivered from the Elements of the World (91-121) as a very helpful alternative. He takes into account all of the most recent developments in the very dense literature of sacrifice and comes up with a nuanced account of substitution and sacrifice, which includes all that Wright says and more. So he has purgation, but he also manages to retain the notion “covering” in kipper and kapporeth translated to hilasterion without reducing it strictly to purgation. What’s more, he also maintains the importance of the death of the sacrifice dealing with the problem of sinful flesh. Perhaps his attunement to the ubiquity of that problem accounts for much of their differences.

Or again, you could go back to Wright’s older reading.

I realize this last section on Romans 3 is my weakest in the subsection, but it’s gone far too long anyways, so let me make just one last criticism.

Disarming the Power of Prosecution

As I noted earlier, Wright is very helpful in not separating what God has joined together: kingdom and cross, the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of the powers. The quibble I have here is that I think he’s missed a key, linking element.

Take Colossians 2:13-15. Here Paul talks about the ironic stripping and defeat of the powers in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. For Wright, the powers are both the earthly principalities, rulers and authorities (Herod, Caesar, Caiaphas, etc.) as well as the “dark powers that stand behind them and operate through them”, or the demonic (259). How does the forgiveness of sins coming through the cross which “blots out the handwriting against us” (Torah which excluded Gentiles and condemned Jews), lead to victory over the powers?

Wright thinks that it happens because the powers gain power precisely in our idolatrous worship of them. We hand over power to them and they enslave and dominate us. But “when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power” (259). Because sin is defeated, the idols power is broken. Because I am dead to the Law, it’s divisions don’t divide, and the blessings of God can flow to the Gentiles. Now, this is all true, but I think it misses the fact that part of the power of the powers is that of accusation.

The Devil is the Accuser, and part of his power over sinners the judgment of the Law itself which rightly condemns them for sin, even if Satan a perverted prosecutor. We are guilty. We do stand condemned, exiled from God’s presence. So when the powers accuse, they have a point. That is, until they are stripped of that point. Verse 15 logically follows off of verse 14 because the forgiveness of sins comes in doing away with our guilt and sin in it condemnation in the cross of Christ.  This is how we are “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). It’s also why in John’s vision, in one of the great cosmic battle scenes, the saints are said to conquer over the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10) by way of “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

I’m not trying to be nit-picky, but since one of the strongest points of Wright’s work is to tie these two themes together, that this key bit of analysis remains murky is puzzling and weakens the argument as a whole.

(For more on all this, Jeremy Treat’s The Crucified King is the best work to date treating both biblical and systematic categories. On Colossians and Revelation, see 111-127)

Conclusion

I suppose I’ll cap this all off by saying, this I think Wright is eminently helpful on the atonement in general, but that he is even more so in his earlier works. There is plenty to take, digest, preach, and indeed, live in this volume. But I worry, though, if this is someone’s first or second volume on the atonement or the cross, especially someone without theological training, the heavy polemic as well as a couple of the material proposals would be confusing and misleading. Of course, no volume is without its flaws, so go ahead and take it up, just bear some of these things in mind.

That said, I will continue to read Wright with anticipation and delight, and continue to recommend his books, but on the subject of the atonement, I will likely be referring to his earlier works.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: If you’re looking to read or recommend accounts that avoid MPP, but don’t quite fall into these issues a few volumes come to mind. I’ve already mentioned Joshua Butler’s popular work as well as Jeremy Treat’s. Both are top notch. Also, Adam Johnson’s Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed is fantastic. Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker didn’t get a lot of attention, but I think that’s a mistake since it’s a very balanced, recent offering.

Finally, I have my big, long post on answering objections and correcting mistakes around Penal Substitution which has more recommendations at the bottom.

 

Called By Triune Grace by Jonathan Hoglund

called-by-triune-graceAt the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). And at his words, the dead man awakes again and walks out of the tomb. He is obedient to the call of the Lord. Indeed, the call of the Lord is what seems to enable the obedience, and even the hearing of the command!

Reformed theologians have historically taken as a picture of what happens in conversion. In God’s calling of sinners from death to life in the gospel (Eph. 2:1-10), those who were dead to God, hear the proclamation of the gospel and find themselves alive anew in Christ. This has traditionally been termed “the effectual call.”

And while this is a mainstay of Reformed theology, there have historically been numerous questions and controversies surrounding it, even down into the present day. For instance, who does the calling? And is the calling that awakens us to new life identical with the outward preaching of the Word? Or what is the semantic content of the call? What is God saying? Or is he even saying anything? Is the language of calling more symbolic or metaphorical? If he is saying something, how different is it than human speech? What about the relationship between calling and regeneration, or rebirth? Are they distinct things? If so, is there a logical order between them? Do you have to be reborn before you can hear God? Or do you have to hear God in order be reborn? Or what about illumination and testimony? The questions just keep coming.

While I’ve read a bit about it in the past, I haven’t been able to take a significant amount of time on the subject. Which is why I was pleased to see this new volume Called by Triune Grace: Divine Rhetoric and the Effectual Call by Jonathan Hoglund in the IVP series Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture. Written originally as doctoral dissertation, in this study Hoglund puts forward a carefully-constructed proposal for thinking about the effectual call in trinitarian perspective.

I won’t give a full-on review try to give a general impression of what you’ll find within.

Integrated. In Called by Triune Grace, Hoglund has given us a model of biblical, historical, and dogmatic reasoning at are fully-integrated. So, you’ll find plenty of sections engaging key biblical material in their historic context, in conversation with recent interpreters, lexical studies, and so forth. Specifically, Hoglund engages Paul’s theology of the call in letters like the Thessalonians, Romans, and others. He also tackles key material in the gospel of John with care and erudition. He wants to show that there is a solid grounding for thinking of the effectual call on multiple levels of biblical discourse, across the canon, and not mere “proof-texts” here and there.

You’ll also find careful examinations of historic contributors to the theology of the effectual call like Augustine, Calvin, Francis Turretin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Claude Pajon, Friedrich Schleiermacher, as well as the more recent proposals of Michael Horton, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Oswald Bayer. These expositions serve both to demonstrate the range of (primarily) Reformed theologians approaches to the issue, as well sharpen the theological questions we have to wrestle with in treating it properly.

But these sections aren’t hermetically-sealed. So the historical sections have an eye on exegesis and the exegetical sections freely consult both historic and contemporary interpreters of the text.  What’s more, all of this is done in a dogmatic key. Which is to say that Hoglund is reading Scripture and history in order to settle constructive, dogmatic questions about how the Church is supposed to confess the work of the Triune God in salvation today.

Triune Rhetoric. Materially, Hoglund is concerned to show that a proper dogmatic account has to take seriously the semantic content of the call–that in the effectual call, God doesn’t deal with us as blocks of stone and wood, but as communicative agents made in his image. That’s something the whole tradition has tried to be careful about, by the way. And yet Hoglund thinks that recent suggestions by Vanhoozer and Horton about the importance of the category of communication for the effectual call are helpful for developing our theology of the call.

He presses beyond them, though, in his deployment of the category of rhetoric as an appropriate analogy for thinking about the effectual call, especially once placed in Trinitarian perspective. To boil everything down into an inadequately distilled form, it’s about capturing the ethos, logos, and pathos of the Triune God’s summons of persons from death to life in Christ. After throwing in all the necessary caveats about the unified activity of the Trinity ad extra, appropriations, etc. Hoglund assigns these three components to the persons of the Trinity and works it out all very cleanly and suggestively.

I was about to try and summarize it all for you, but I realized it’s a bit ambitious to do so without doing damage to the proposal. I’ll simply note that Hoglund is careful to establish that: (a) the whole Trinity is at work in the act of divine persuasion; (b) this persuasion is communicative, not bypassing our intellect, and so is tied to our understanding of the actual content of the summons to trust Christ as our saving Lord; and (c) it is a divine persuasion, such that the Spirit’s work in illumining our mind, will, heart to find Christ beautiful is efficacious in a way that is beyond that of any other speaker, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively.

Honestly, I’m not doing the book justice. It’s a clear, but comprehensive piece of work and I highly commend to anyone interesting in the questions surrounding the effectual call and salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Top 5 Reformedish Books of 2016

This has been a busy year of reading for me. Most years are. But the difference with grad school (at least during courses) is that you don’t have quite the flex you had before in terms reading for pleasure, or randomly choosing what you wanted to take up at any given moment. You also have much less time for popular level works. With all that said, I managed to get in some very fun books this year, and so I figured I’d keep up my cliche tradition of giving you a list of my top 5 Reformedish books of the year.

As always, these come in no particular order. My criteria are pretty basic: was it theologically-stimulating and well-written? Did I enjoy it even when I was disagreeing with it? Etc.

Without further ado, then, here they are.

mountain of the LordWho Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus by L. Michael Morales.

Leviticus is a much-ignored book largely because it seems arcane and disconnected from the rest of the dynamic story of Scripture. Morales corrects both of those problems for readers, by setting Leviticus within the broader storyline of the Torah and the Scriptures as a whole, tying it to the basic movement of exile and entrance into the Presence of the LORD. The New Studies in Biblical Theology series is one of my favorites in general, but this volume in particular distinguished itself. I highly recommend it.

crucifixion rutledgeThe Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

I have already reviewed this work and I have to say it might be the most beautiful piece of theological writing I have read in a while. In my review, I said: “Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “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 the review, I note that it’s not without its theological problems, but worth the read all the same.

making-sense-of-godMaking Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Tim Keller

I have a recent write-up of this one too. Also, we had Keller on the Mere Fidelity podcast this week as well. Basically, you need to know that it’s classic Keller. It’s a bit of pre-evangelism aimed at provoking the apathetic to curiousity about Christ, less than defending Christ against the animosity of the skeptic. In the post-Christian culture we’re entering, believers who care about evangelism or explaining the relevance of their faith to their neighbors need to start thinking about how to do this better. Keller offers guide for the path.

triune-godThe Triune God by Fred Sanders

I also wrote a review for this one. Here’s a bit of what I said: “Yes, it’s a work of trinitarian doctrine, but it’s also a master class in how to constructtrinitarian doctrine. Sanders doesn’t just set about telling you how to think about the Trinity, but also how to think about thinking about the Trinity. In that sense, Sanders is concerned with trinitarian doctrine as a species of Theological Interpretation of Scripture; he wants to show us how to read the Bible to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity without misconstruing either the Bible, or even worse, the Trinity. And all of this for the sake of rightly praising our glorious God.”

Delivered from the elements coverDelivered From the Elements of the Universe: Atonement, Justification, and Mission by Peter Leithart

I also reviewed this one last week. Like Rutledge’s, this one had some moments of significant disagreement, but it was just such good book despite it. I described his work of atonement theology like this: “Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.””

Finally, I should note that Kevin Vanhoozer’s book that came out this year just won the CT Book of the Year for Theology and Ethics. I would have put it my list but he’s my advisor, so y’all might not believe me. I also did a write-up for that one.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Triune God by Fred Sanders

Triune God.jpgFred Sanders has written a book about the Trinity called The Triune God. Yes, he has already written one previously, The Deep Things of God (which you should have already read by now), and dissertation on it (which is too expensive for anyone to read), but this one is different. Coming as the second volume in Zondervan’s promising New Studies in Dogmatics series, Sanders isn’t interested in giving a serviceable, “here’s the Trinity in OT, the NT, then the Fathers, now the Medievals, and here’s how to not be a heretic today” structure. Instead, Sanders says,

The goal of this book is to secure our knowledge of the triune God by rightly ordering the theological language with which we praise the triune God. Its central contention is that the manner of the Trinity’s revelation dictates the shape of the doctrine: it draws its dogmatic conclusions about how the doctrine should be handled on the basis of the way the Trinity was revealed (19).

Yes, it’s a work of trinitarian doctrine, but it’s also a master class in how to construct trinitarian doctrine. Sanders doesn’t just set about telling you how to think about the Trinity, but also how to think about thinking about the Trinity. In that sense, Sanders is concerned with trinitarian doctrine as a species of Theological Interpretation of Scripture; he wants to show us how to read the Bible to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity without misconstruing either the Bible, or even worse, the Trinity. And all of this for the sake of rightly praising our glorious God.

I will just come out and say that if you are anything approaching a theology nerd, serious student, or professor, I would highly recommend this work. Treat yourself for Christmas or something. Sanders is already known for his acumen in all matters trinitarian, but this book ought to solidify that reputation. And rightly so. This is a serious, top-shelf entry within the academic and churchly conversation around the doctrine of the Trinity. Sanders’ writing is clear, lucid, with an astonishing command of the height, depth, and breadth of the Christian tradition (Patristic, Medieval, Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant) of reflection on the Triune God.

That said, if you’re looking for an intro book on the Trinity, I’ll go ahead and recommend you pick up The Deep Things of God instead (which is coming out in a second edition, I hear).

So what is his argument in this book? Well, it’s a rather complex one that I can’t fully cover here. But essentially its concerned that we go about doing trinitarian theology in a way that fits trinitarian revelation. How God has revealed himself as the One who is Three, ought to definitively govern the way we confess (in praise and print, and printed praise) God as the Three who are One. Theologians aren’t in the business of clarifying God’s muddle, but communicating God’s self-manifestation.

To do that, Sanders delves into issues like the nature of revelation. What does it mean for us to talk about the revelation of the Trinity, for instance? Well, it doesn’t just mean that God is incomprehensible and that he is beyond our understanding. That’s what the doctrine of incomprehensibility means. Instead, in keeping with the NT sense of “mystery”, the reality of the Trinity is of a truth temporarily “hidden, but now revealed” in history for us and our salvation.

But how is it revealed? Well, in the act of God sending God, in missions of the Son and Spirit, or the Incarnation and Pentecost. In these historical acts, God reveals himself as Triune. This means that strictly speaking, the New Testament isn’t the revelation of the Trinity. The New Testament is the inspired (and authoritative!) attestation of that revelation. The words of the apostles inspired by the Spirit are necessary to disambiguate the nature of the Word who comes in the power of the Spirit. There is a unity of word and act at that point.

Sanders touches on and attempts to untangle sundry other issues. For instance, the question of how to think about the relationship between God’s reality in himself and his revelation to us in history. In the 20th century it’s been popular to think of this in terms of the unity or identity of the economic Trinity (God seen in history-of-redemption) and immanent Trinity (God in himself apart from history). Sanders’ moves away from this formulation and, along with John Webster, champions the older formulation which speaks instead of God’s internal processions (the Father generating the Son, the Spirit being spirated by Father and Son), as the foundation of his historical missions (Incarnation and Pentecost). The latter reveals the former and the former is founded on the latter. (Incidentally, much of the hermeneutical muddle surrounding the Trinity debate this summer could be cleared up by working through this book).

When we think of the relationship between the Bible and the Trinity, Sanders helpfully covers a broad terrain. He forthrightly faces the problem of the fact that a good many classic proof-texts of the Trinity have been taken away by modern critical, or careful historical-grammatical exegesis. All the same, new reading strategies—which at times are the recovery of older reading strategies—has opened up new vistas for trinitarian exegesis.

For instance, looking at the Fathers and the New Testament authors, there has been a turn to recovering “retrospective prosoponic identification” or “prosopological exegesis”—the practice of rereading OT texts like the Psalms and identifying persons (prosopa) within them—as fruitful field within which we can toil. Think of Jesus appealing to Ps. 110 and asking the Pharisees who God is speaking to when David sings, “The LORD said to my Lord…” Texts like that are regularly appealed to in New Testament, and the Fathers deployed this mode of reading extensively. On that front the harvest is plentiful! But what about the workers?

Sanders covers all sorts of other ground, like what to make of so-called “Christophanies” (hint: something else), or how to go about spotting the trinitarian presupposition of Paul’s theology, and so forth. That said, you should know that Sanders doesn’t write a “definitive” work in this regard. He does plenty of Trinitarian theology and plenty of exegesis at key points, but often it is illustrative of a general point and not an exhaustive treatment of it.

This might seem like a drag at first. Part of you wants Sanders to work it all out across the Gospels, Paul, even Revelation. Or even though he touches on how to think of the Christophanies, it would be fun to see him work with a story like Abraham and the angel of YHWH at Mamre. But he doesn’t. Besides probably being limited by word-count, I suspect there’s something generous about Sanders’ reticence to give an exhaustive, run-down: it forms something of an invitation to others to discern the glory of the Triune God in Scripture alongside him.

So what are you waiting for?

Soli Deo Gloria

A More Elemental Atonement (A Review of Leithart)

Delivered from the elements coverThis review was originally written for Books and Culture before its unfortunate closing. Thanks to John Wilson for encouraging me to write it. 

One mark of a constructive theologian is to ask the perennial questions of Christian theology in a contemporary key. In Peter Leithart’s new work Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, and Mission, he reframes St. Anselm’s famous question, “Why did God become man?” as,

“How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and cross-roads for everything?”

To answer that question, Leithart believes we must reconstrue atonement theology as “as social theory”, making social and political questions and consequences central to our understanding of Christ’s work. In that sense, it must be a “theory of everything”, if it is to be a successful rendering of the events that changed everything.

Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.”

Cur Deus Homo?

The work defies simple description and summary. In brief, though, Leithart offers a “Pauline” reading of Scripture that takes its cues from the notion of the “elements of the world” or stoicheia tou kosmou in Galatians 4:1-7. Across cultures in time and space, the world has ordered itself according to the “elements”, the basic “socio-religious principles” and categories such as clean/unclean, sacred/profane, life/death, and so forth. These principles give rise to orders of ritual, sacrifice, and social stratification which, though they can be arranged in a bewildering variety of ways, are the same basic “physics” composing the old creation.

These elemental principles order life in the “flesh.” For Leithart, “flesh” is a master metaphor comprising everything from basic, human frailty all the way to the post-Fall, libido dominandi of phallic warfare, which mortal flesh uses to cover over the fear of death. Fleshly life under the elements is Adamic humanity’s lot: cast out of God’s Garden-house, flesh is divided from Spirit, living under the restrictive regimes of “taste not, touch not” aimed at (yet failing in) overcoming death and restoring communion with God.

On this scheme, Torah is God’s own redemptive set of rearranged “elements” (sacrifice, ritual, holiness codes) which God uses in his history-long war of justice to destroy flesh without destroying humanity. With Torah, God separates a new Adamic people, Israel, out of the rest of the divided world, and with a new set of pedagogical elements, taught them to enter into his presence through sacrifice and purity, though under the condition of flesh.

Of course, the Torah cannot work life, or overcome flesh. Indeed, under the condition of flesh, Torah became an instrument of injustice within and by Israel and worked the curse of death against Israel.

For that reason, the Son came in the flesh to be a new Israel—one who enacted all that Torah aimed at, living out the life of the Spirit. This life and ministry inevitably brought him into conflict with the fleshly authorities, both Jewish and Roman, leading to his crucifixion—a sacrificial (and penal) death on behalf of (substitutionary) Israel and the World in which the flesh was condemned. It also led to his subsequent vindication and justification by resurrection (a “deliverdict”), in which the flesh is raised to life in presence of God by the Spirit. (A similar construction is given by Fleming Rutledge in her notion of “rectification”, which makes sense, since they both draw on themes from the Union school of apocalyptic interpretation).

Baptism, faith, and union with Christ’s justifying life, death, and resurrection leads to the justification and deliverance of the individual (his “deliverdict”), as well as the formation of a new, “post-stoicheic” community animated by Jesus and the Spirit.  As one new man, a just community is made from Jew and Gentile, both now free from Torah and the “elements” of the world. As the of this new community around a new, ritual, and moral order eventually begins dismantling of the old socio-religious hierarchies that surround it, we can begin to grasp how Jesus’ atonement leads to the transformation of social life and human history as a whole.

Promise and Perils of Systematics

One can begin to see, then, that Leithart’s answer to the question is innovative, elegant, multi-faceted, and holistic. I have never read something quite like this.

For instance, in setting the stage for his nuanced, biblical account of Levitical sacrifice and Torah (a brilliant distillation of the complex, often-impenetrable specialist literature on the subject), Leithart offers a literary interlude, consisting of a first-person dialogue between the Apostle Paul and the priests of Egypt, Babylon, and Ancient Greece. It’s something of a crash course in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman comparative studies that manages to set Israel’s religious life firmly in the religious world, without falling into either parallelomania, nor forcing it into some Procrustean bed of a pre-existing theory of sacrifice or religion as so many recent accounts (such as those following Rene Girard) have done. What’s more, it has a literary flair, proving again that theology need not be aesthetically anodyne.

At this point, though, I’m reminded of a story Graham Cole tells about the plight of the systematic theologian. When reading the systematician’s work, a NT scholar will come along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did with the Old Testament, but a few of those bits on the New Testament weren’t so hot.” And the OT scholar comes along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did in the New Testament, but some of those bits from the Old Testament weren’t so hot.” And the historiand comes along and says, “Loved what he did with the Bible, but his historical work could use a tune-up.” The comprehensive holism which systematics demands often leaves exegetical or historical specialists a bit cold (or hot and bothered, depending on temperaments).

Speaking broadly, I’d say that in his attempt to make up for gaps often left unplugged in other accounts, Leithart leaves open a few of his own. For now, I leave it to others to deal with his rough handling of Reformation history, or the idiosyncrasies of his hybridized New Perspective, Apocalyptic, & typological reading of Paul and justification, or even the fuzzy metaphysical status of “nature” in his schema. Brad Littlejohn has explored some of those in his lengthy review, and in the future I may take up his critique of Reformation theology along the lines of the natural/supernatural distinction. For now, I’ll just comment on the pay-out and loss of having opted for his particular reading of Christ’s victory over the elements.

Stoicheia Without Satan 

Reading the stoicheia tou kosmou as the “elements of the world” and the “socio-religious principles” of clean and unclean, etc. has significant payouts in Leithart’s system. As we’ve seen, it allows him to connect Israel’s history to world religious history in its original setting, as well as ecclesiology and the social dimension of atonement. It also allows him to forward a current reading of the scene in which Christian mission happens; the way societies, ideologies, and even other religions like modern Hinduism and Buddhism which have been transformed in their encounter with the continuing impact of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

They also allow him to venture into the contested waters of secularization theory, contending that “we have never been secular.” Rather, modernity is a post-Christian, rationalized reordering of the categories of clean and unclean, sacred and profane, with its own priesthood, and social categories of “other.” It is not the same stoicheic order as the old, but it is a stoicheic order, nonetheless. (Incidentally, this is one of the most interesting parts of the work).

With all these benefits accrued, however, there is one conspicuous absence in Leithart’s story of atonement and his “theory of everything”: there is no Serpent in Leithart’s Garden. (Quite literally, there is no mention of him in the account of Adam and Eve’s Fall.)

In one way this is unsurprising. The other, recent popular interpretation for the phrase stoicheia tou kosmou is to see it as a reference to malevolent, spiritual forces. Opting for the reading “socio-religious principles”, Leithart seems to shelve the alternative almost entirely. With the exception of a few approving references to N.T. Wright’s suggestion that demonic powers or “tutelary deities” stand behind the “powers and principalities”, or a paragraph about Jesus’ exorcisms, the Tempter, the Accuser of the saints, the Dragon, the great opponent of YHWH and his people has gone missing from Leithart’s landscape. Interestingly, the Christus Victor theme is still there, but sublimated—YHWH is still at war, but not so much with demonic powers, but with flesh.

While seemingly unintentional, and while one cannot deal with everything in a single book, this transposition threatens to throw off not only our account of atonement, but our account of churchly mission as well. With respect to the atonement, John tells us that Christ came to utterly destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Paul says one of the great blessings of Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, is disarming the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:13-15). In so doing, Christ liberates us from the fleshy fear of death (Hebrews 2:14), at least in part, by freeing us from Satan’s accusation (Revelation 12:10-12).

Turning to mission, the sidelining of the demonic distorts our understanding of spiritual power at work, lurking behind the “socio-religious principles”, rendering their opposition so potent.  Ignoring this leaves us liable to forget that our struggle is against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), not only a recalcitrant sociology.

I don’t think the narrative he presents can’t be modified to include this line of Biblical theology, but as it stands, the modification is necessary all the same.

At the end of the day, though, even the gaps in Leithart’s exceptional work press us to continually expand the scope of our reflections upon Christ’s atonement to social, political, and cosmic proportions.

Soli Deo Gloria

The End of Protestant Denominationalism and the Beginning of Regionalism?

end-of-prot-2According to Peter Leithart, the history of God’s people is a process of being creatively torn apart and put back together again in new, complex, more holistic ways. With each stage in the LORD’s dealing with his people, beginning from Adam after the fall, Noah after the Flood, Moses after the Exodus, down on into the present, there are separations and reunions. These result in new forms of arrangement, liturgy, and worship according to God’s good pleasure. Single sacrifices become altars, altars become Tabernacle, Tabernacle becomes Temple, Temple becomes Christ, Christ becomes Church, and so forth. Biblical history moves from “glory to glory” in that regard.

In Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, he argues the time has come for American Protestants to recognize that we must move forward once again.  While we should gratefully acknowledge the role denominations have played in God’s good history, they could only ever have been a temporary configuration. Jesus prayed to his Father for unity, but denominations institutionalize division, even if it’s a friendly one, that fails to display the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. And so we know another form of the church—a more unified one—is still to come.

Against the backdrop of church history, biblical theology, and discussions of the global and contemporary church, Leithart wants to offer up an interim program for Protestants (since he knows Catholics and Orthodox probably aren’t listening). He calls them to abandon their tribalism and to pursue a program of reform and ecumenism at the national, international, and local levels to help lead towards the church of the future. His vision is of a “Reformational Catholicism” that calls us to live out now what we will one day surely be.

In some ways, this amounts to calling for an “end of Protestantism.” It is its end insofar as it calls Protestants to die to the identity of being “not Catholics” or “not Orthodox.” It’s also its end in that it may result in new reforms, reunifications, and configurations that aren’t exactly “Protestant” in the way we typically recognize the concept. Finally, it’s the “end” of Protestantism in that it would fulfill what Leithart takes to be the initial thrust of the Reformers—the reformation of the worship of the Church of God according to the Word of God.

Appreciating the End

As Stanley Hauerwas notes in his blurb, “Leithart simply cannot write a dull book.” I was going to work my way through slowly, but I consumed it quickly this week, as the argument was engaging, the language fecund, and the theology provocative.

Typically, theologians find a natural partner in philosophical analysis, but Leithart mixes things up. One of Leithart’s unique gifts is the way he creatively sets biblical-theology conversation with sociological and anthropological sources. Indeed, those prove to be some of his most interesting sections in the work.

Two sections in his critique of denominationalism stand out as particularly helpful. First, I found his retrieval of H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the “social sources of denominationalism” (along the lines of race, class, culture) to be quite illuminating. Especially since he picks up and summarizes some of the most important work along those lines since then.

Also trenchant is his critique of the way the system of American denominationalism has capitulated and simply gone along with the American system. It’s tendency to allow denominations to play nice while not actually grappling with doctrinal differences fosters a civic religion that (counter-intuitively), plays down doctrine, practice, and therefore witness in the world. There is much to heed in this analysis.

Leithart’s section canvassing developments in the global church is another section worth pondering. This involves a survey of the varying forms of Pentecostalism growing worldwide, not all of which fit neatly under the moniker of “Protestant.” More interesting still are some of the unique new Christian sects (and cults) coming out of the African and Asian contexts, which creatively hybrid liturgical elements, theologies of healing, new festivals, and authority structures. New churches are being born whose members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions that don’t easily map into our typical boxes of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

In a sense, Leithart is calling us to realize that ripping and tearing, the unpredictable reunifications of the future are already happening around us. In which case, not only do we need to start taking the global church seriously as a theological conversation partner, we ought to be prepared to think about Christianity beyond the paradigm of American denominationalism. Whether you buy Leithart’s prescription or not, he’s surely correct in drawing our attention to the ecclesial significance of what’s happening outside our too-narrow, American imaginations.

Beyond that, his sociologist’s (and pastor’s) eye for the local situation, leads to any number of important insights that pastors and theologians looking to preach and pastor their people well in the 21st Century would do well to heed.

A Fuzzy, Regional End?

With all that said, I have to admit, I left the book feeling a bit…fuzzy. Leithart’s very upfront about the fact that he’s prognosticating future not easily pictured. Unsurprisingly, his imagined vision of a “Reformed Church” can feel like a jumble of open paradoxes. It’s sort of like asking to help plan for the 50th anniversary of a confirmed bachelor.

Of course, Leithart is too smart to be a foolish utopian. He openly owns that many, if not most, of his suggestions for implementing his “interim” ethic may just make things a bit messier in the meantime. There’s no guarantee. Which renders Leithart’s proposal pre-emptively impervious to critique. He’s probably conceded that any number of my worries are indeed possible, but insists that we should try anyways.

All the same, I think it’s worth imagining our way through some of his suggestions to see some potential problems down the road.

Among his many proposals, Leithart advocates an ecumenical Reformational Catholicism for pastors that involves a number of moves on the local level. Let’s imagine it for a minute.

Caught up in Leithart’s vision, the pastors from a number of local churches in Milwaukee from different traditions (Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran) start to meet, pray, and read the Scriptures together. Because Leithart rightly insists that doctrine matters, they have face to face debate and dialogue about real theological difference ready to receive wisdom as they try to share joint projects, and so forth. These go well enough they even reach the point where they work towards a common confession of faith, recognizing each other’s baptisms, sharing communion. They even take up the suggestion to form a local council of “Nicene Churches” for shared ministry, discipline, local political witness, and so forth. Overcoming their antithetical institutional identities, they’ve formed a functioning “micro-Christendom” within the city.

Here’s where my questions start.

Now that you’ve got this metropolitan gathering of pastors established, presumably there’s a strong chance some pastors in the same neighborhood did not sign on. Maybe they don’t share the Reformational Catholic vision. Or, maybe they do to a degree. But because Leithart (rightly) insists these conversations around doctrine are happening in light of tradition, history, and Scripture, despite all the prayer, meetings, and readings, one chap happens to stay confessionally Presbyterian.

And this not because he can’t imagine life as a “not-Catholic.” Perhaps he has read all the literature, but he still doesn’t think that New Perspective has brought us all that much closer to the Roman church on justification. Or on papal authority. Or the Mass. Or the saints. In other words, it’s not because he’s been squinting when reading all of the awkward verses in James, but because he thinks his tradition read James properly.

And yet half the neighborhood’s pastors are joining the lovely, new Reformational-Anglo-Catholic-Pentecostal Presbytery of Milwaukee. Including a couple of his fellows in the local Presbyterian Presbytery (who are now very excited about being Reformational Catholics and not every much about being Presbyterians). What of their unity? Or I wonder what the other Presbyteries will think of these councils at the General Assembly? Why is the local, Reformational Catholic unity more important than local or national denominational unity? (Rinse and repeat for the Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and so forth.)

I also wonder what happens with those practicing the sort of Reformational Catholicity Leithart is advocating in a different city, with a different makeup of pastors? The group in Milwaukee trends more Anglo-Catholic due to presence of several Anglican rectors in attendence, but the one in Topeka starts to look very Pentecostal and Baptistic. And who knows what’s been going on in the Portland region? So now we have new “Reformational Catholic” churches coming to a regional unity that varies from region to region. How do they start to get along?

In other words, I suspect Leithart’s suggestion for local reunion can’t help but initiate and institutionalize series of different divisions across the board. As these new “Reformational Catholic” congregations unite together, they end up becoming divided from their sister churches within the denomination within the same city that don’t share the vision, as well as from their national bodies. On top of that, they’ve set themselves on course to fall into a nascent regionalism of “micro-Christendoms” developing, possibly at cross-trends.

And this is a serious thing. One of the goods of national and international denominations, despite the social sources that may have originally helped form them, is that they keep us in contact with people who do not share all of our same, local myopias, temptations, and tendencies towards shared, cultural drift. Ironically enough, the regional Reformational catholicity of local metropolitan groups, if carried out in this fashion, may end up making them more parochial in a way that national and international denominations and communions help push back against.

My point here is that even if a large portion of the Protestant church in America, and even globally, signs on to become Leithartian Reformational Catholics, you’ve basically created a big, shiny, new polyglot (linguistically, theologically, liturgically), regionalist denomination that will exist alongside of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the Anabaptists. Now, it might be the best, the most biblical, missionally-contextual, and deepest of all, but a new denomination it will be nonetheless.  And I only see things being exacerbated by the various global movements Leithart has charted.

I’m all for recognizing each other’s communions, being charitable, mutual prayer, and a host of the proposals Leithart makes. But I’m left wondering if this is really step ahead towards unity in comparison to the friendly relations between local ministries that often already exists in current denominationalism? Only this time, on top of denominational paperwork you have to do, you’ve got local, metropolitan paperwork as well.

I suppose my main impression is that many of his stimulating programmatic suggestions might work best if we had assumed a different, more classically Protestant sort of unity in the first place.And, of course, that would take rehabilitating and retrieving some of our Mere Protestant theological instincts.

Conclusion

While there is more to appreciatively explore as well as critique, I’ll leave things here and simply say that, as always, Leithart has offered up a stimulating meditation worth attending for all those who care about the future of the local and the global church.

Soli Deo Gloria