Christian Dogmatics (In a Reformed Key)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul puts this message on blast in Ephesians 1:

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

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

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

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

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

A Recommendation for Preachers

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

How Jesus Saves the World From Us (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

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

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

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

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

Sin and sins

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

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

Deliverance AND Substitution

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple Motifs

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

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

The Problem of Theodicy

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

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

Defending Substitution

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

That’ll preach.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Uncontrolling Love of God, Part Deux (Causality, “Reformed Theology”, etc)

Uncontrolling loveI’ve already given something of a full review of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God over at Christianity Today. Oord has very charitably responded to it and I’ve responded briefly in the comments. I wanted to follow that up, though, because there were a number of important points that I couldn’t make given reasonable space and genre constraints at CT. I want to be clear, though, that this is not about ill-will or picking on Oord’s work. He seems like a fine man and who can fault his pastoral instinct? But the work of theology is often carried out through critical engagement–indeed, Oord himself is quite sharp in his critique of many theological traditions in order to forward his significant revision of the doctrine of God. It seems necessary and appropriate, then, to engage it in this fashion. In the rest of this, I’ll assume knowledge of my prior review and the thesis of the book. Also, this will be far more of a ramble.

Experience and Compatibilism

First, a small point. Oord makes great hay about the intuitive nature of our possession of a certain form of libertarian or “genuine” free will against determinism. He notes that free will is key to our general self-understanding as responsible agents able to choose right and wrong, and so forth (55-56, 60). We experience ourselves as free and make many judgments in the moral life on that basis, so why doubt it on the basis of faulty brain science and so forth?

All of this is fine as far as it goes. Actually, much of it is quite helpful. What I’d simply like to point out is that the arguments in these sections might work well as a defense of genuine freedom against physicalist conceptions of determinism, where biology, physics, and so forth, are in the metaphysical driver’s seat. That said, they’re not much in the way of evidence against a theologically compatibilistic understanding of genuine freedom. On that view, God’s foreordination of all that passes isn’t dependent on physicalist determinants.

Actually, if you really think through a compatibilist view of freedom, our experience of reality would feel pretty much the same. God’s sovereignty isn’t thought to be experienced as some outside compelling force, “pushing on us”, so to speak. So, the “powerful” argument from experience or the phenomenology of freedom doesn’t tell that strongly against theological determinism.

Mistaking Physics and Metaphysics

On that note, I’d also like to register a complaint about Oord’s fairly constant quick movement from physics to metaphysics. Though he affirms the distinction between the two disciplines, things can get slippery in the midst of the argument. For instance, after reviewing a number of lines of evidence for randomness and chance in the physical universe from chaos theory, etc. as a way of refuting the idea that it’s a closed, causal system (34-41), he says, “If dominant views in science and philosophy are correct in their affirmation of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin, and Sproul are wrong. God does not control all things; randomness is real.”

At that point, I just scratch my head and think, “You do realize that none of these classical theologians ever based their theological determinism on whether the universe was a closed, causal (in the physicalist sense) system, right?” That may have been the case with certain philosophers or theologians in the Modern period when Enlightenment rationalism began to creep in, but read any classic Augustinian theologian of the Medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation Scholastic period, and down into the contemporary period, and you’ll see that most are quick to deny any kind of physicalist necessity or Stoic fate. Providence has never been something you can put under a microscope or measure using computer models.

Oord’s description of most of these theologians, then, is guilty of a category mistake, treating God’s activity as if it were one cause among others, on par with natural causes, only bigger, and invisible. But on their view, God’s causality is not just one cause among the others. God’s causality is in its own category, non-competitive with ours. God is the logically and metaphysically prior, creating, maintaining, and sustaining cause of all of our activity. In other words, God isn’t on the same, metaphysical playing field with us. Many of those theologians would affirm randomness as a physicalist level, all the while denying it with respect to God’s decree. Failing to appreciate the way that the Creator/creature distinction informs the relationship between God’s activity and natural and human causality is like imagining Shakespeare’s pen-strokes and Hamlet’s sword-thrusts are occurring on the same plane of activity.

Bavinck, Turretin, and the “Reformed” Omnicausal View

Which brings me to a point about Oord’s explanation of the “Reformed” view of providence. He labels it “omnicausality” and says this is the view where: “Although humans may seem to act freely and other creaturely causes exist in the universe, in some unfathomable way, God totally causes every event” (84). Now, admittedly, the term “omnicausality” has been used, but Oord’s description is simply not the traditional Reformed view. Most classic Reformed theologians operate with a notion of primary and secondary causality, or concursus, which means that while God is a necessary sustaining cause of all acts, he is not the only necessary cause for all things. He does not, then, “totally cause” everything in every way. That would be to think of monocausality or sola causa. God exercises his causality through secondary causes like human free choices, natural laws, and so forth.

While this might not be as apparent in the less technical, but pastoral Heidelberg Catechism he cites, it’s explicitly articulated in the equally (if not more) prominent Westminster Confession 3.1:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

One may disagree with this, but not by caricaturing the Reformed view, for it is abundantly clear that the freedom, contingency, and secondary causes are all affirmed. This is not a crass, blatantly illogical “omnicausality” as Oord paints it. Again, you may find it illogical in the end, but I think you at least have to do a lot more work than Oord does to show it.

What’s more surprising about this is that he cites both Herman Bavinck and Francis Turretin as representatives of the “omnicausal” view (84) where other causes and humans only “seem to act freely” and have efficacy, but God really “totally causes” everything. In point of fact, they both clearly operate with careful distinctions of primary and secondary causality, permission, and complex, scholastic distinctions in the will of God and so forth. Bavinck, for one, goes on for pages distinguishing providence from the sort of physicalist, divine determinism taught by some of his liberal, theological contemporaries. Heck, even on the couple of pages Oord does cite, Bavinck is in the process of explicitly affirming secondary causes as “true and essential causes”, not “inanimate automata”, but with their own “nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working, and law of their own” (RD, Vol. 2, 614). In which case he’s saying something almost exactly the opposite of what Oord is citing him for. Passages like this could be multiplied ad nauseum in Bavinck, and Turretin does so as well, explicitly delineating the various senses in which contingency in creation and the human will could and should be rightly affirmed.

When Oord somewhat dismissively writes off the Reformed view as “making little if any sense” (85), then,  despite the citations, it appears he made little if any effort to make sense of it.

God of the Gaps 2.0: Just as “Mysterious”, but in a New, Pocket-Size

Continuing in this vein, when Oord does get around to discussing the primary and secondary causality distinction advocates by Barth and Aquinas (his representatives), he eventually writes it off as an elaborate appeal to mystery because, in the end, everybody who deploys it can’t give an adequate account of how God is at work in these causes. In response, I’d note two points of defense: First, some actually have recently tried to give an account of sorts along the communicative dimension. Second, trying to pin down the causal joint has been a problem for most of the theological tradition throughout the whole of church history. Again, at times, I think an appeal to mystery makes sense.

(Oh, and on this point, I’d like to clarify something about my comments on mystery. In his response, Oord has charged that I seem quite certain without an appeal to mystery on a number of things like the Trinity, miracles, etc. and so I am being inconsistent in my criticism of his allergy to mystery. But I have to say I think that largely misses my point. I believe that God has revealed those various truths I reference in Scripture, so I am confident in them–though not ruling out mystery around them. That said, I also think that God has actually revealed that his ways are mysterious in respect to the issue of providence and suffering. In that regard, I think Oord’s allergy to mystery is also a failure to pay attention to revelation. I see not inconsistency there, since both my confidence on some issues and my appeal to mystery on this issue is grounded in revelation. I think that Oord’s drive for one explanation to rule them all, causes him to reject the variety of answers, including some mystery, that the Scriptures give on this issue. )

But even coming back to causality, more positively, I’d point out that I think Oord’s own account of divine agency is just as fuzzy as that of the primary and secondary causality distinction. For instance, in his section on nature miracles, instances of God’s active power in the world, Oord speaks of God being present and introducing creative possibilities, new forms of creation, and so forth, in places where there are instances of quantum randomness, and so forth. Now that might seem promising and even “scientific” at first, but try as I might, searching high and low throughout the text, I couldn’t locate a clear explanation of how God does this introducing or what that even means. Those gestures I did find could easily be co-opted by advocates of a primary-secondary causality distinction. This is no advance over the earlier apophatic distinctions of Barth or Aquinas.

In other words, Oord’s account is just as “mysterious” as any primary and secondary causality account. Indeed, the only advantage it has is of reducing God’s agency so as to squish it into the randomness gaps that interrupt or coexist with the law-like regularities that God dare not cross or interrupt on pain of being labeled an “interventionist” in his own creation. I have to admit, this feels like something of a God of the gaps 2.0. Only here, if you find some cracks in the interstitial spaces of the universe and you just might find some room for God to work.

And while we’re on the subject of miracles, I’ll be honest, while a couple of his attempts to reconcile the big nature miracles with his non-interventionist God were helpful, others strain credulity as exegesis. For instance, take Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. That seems like a fairly big interruption of the natural order of things. An intervention, if you will. Oord will have none that, though. Instead, what he speculates that what possibly happened is that God—because he’s omnipresent and knows the natural flows of wind, waves, and so forth—knew that the sea was going to be parted at that time. Then, he, in a still small voice, whispered for Moses to lead the Israelites to the Red Sea at just the right time when it was naturally splitting open (210). God’s mighty act of deliverance of the Nation of Israel through the waters of Chaos through to the dry ground freedom is reduced to instance of God’s great timing and some quirky wind patterns.

Now, I have no doubt that sometimes God’s providence looks like a still small whisper at the right time, but that is simply not how Exodus 14-15 depict the event, both in prose and song (go ahead and read the account here).

Adventurous Non-Assurance

Finally, I briefly touched on this, but I really want to expand on the eschatological point. Oord touts his view as an “adventure model of providence” that “fits our world”, but this isn’t an assuring doctrine of providence. The God who is unable to fully and finally put his foot down and stop evil, stop rape, stop war, stop tyranny, and all the horrors of this world, cannot fulfill the visions of John the Revelator who promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes after he has made war on the Beasts who devour the saints. The God who has trouble healing cancer sometimes because our genomes are uncooperative, cannot usher in the New Jerusalem into a world that is as corrupt, non-responsive, and recalcitrant as ours. Biblical eschatology hangs or falls on the God who is the Lord of history, not one of its subjects. A God with enough metaphysical flex to intervene.

To put it another way, Pannenberg criticized certain forms of voluntary kenoticism as threatening our ultimate faith in God alone. What goes for voluntary kenoticism applies a fortiori to involuntary kenoticism. Because the limited God Oord proposes is not the only being or reality on which our hopes must lean. Instead, we have to hope in “God + the right set of cooperative circumstances for him to coordinate.”

Some Better Options

I could keep going, but I’ll just wrap-up by offering a couple of alternatives. First, on the problem of evil, suffering, and providence, I’d commend J. Todd Billings’ book Rejoicing in Lament. Written in the midst of his struggle with cancer, the work is at once more pastoral as well biblically-saturated and theologically-careful. He also has a very helpful discussion of a Reformed view of the doctrine of permission, which, contrary to some reports is compatible with Reformed theology. (Incidentally, I’m always nonplussed when I read criticisms of Reformed doctrines as immediately crumbling in the face of life. It’s as if they’re under the impression no Calvinist in history has ever suffered and been comforted by their doctrines, or even adopted them precisely because of suffering). In any case, I reviewed it here, but I can’t praise it enough.

Second, on the general issues of providence, the doctrine of God, and so forth, Kevin Vanhoozer’s big book Remythologizing Theology is very generous in his engagement with varieties of open theism, panentheism, and process theisms (and now in a cheaper paperback that is totally worth it). Actually, Vanhoozer critiqued related, nearly-identical versions of this sort of involuntary, relational, kenotic theism in the book some five years ago. What’s more, he engages the issue of the nature of love extensively, which I have not done, in a way that addresses some of Oord’s presuppositions and proposals.

I’ll wrap up by saying, even though I really do sympathize with Oord’s instincts and pastoral care, I remain unconvinced that this is a helpful way forward in the doctrine of providence.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

God’s Love Isn’t Neat and Tidy (The Uncontrolling Love of God, Review)

ocean vision

Evil—it’s a problem that asks, demands, cries out for explanation. The psalmist grasps the nettle when he asks, “How long, O Lord?” In the Western philosophical tradition, the question has been, “Why?” If there is a God who is all-powerful and all-loving, then presumably he’d make sure there is no evil. Yet a quick Google search shows you that evil is there all the same.

Of course, the sensible atheistic option is to admit there is no God. Historically, Christian thinkers have tried to reconcile these tensions by appealing to the existence of free will or divine wisdom, or clarifying the nature of goodness and power. Some, though, have opted to radically redefine the terms of debate.

That’s what theologian Thomas Jay Oord does in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Coming from the stream of recent theology called “open” or “relational” theism (which holds that God cannot predict or predetermine the choices we make), he’s not satisfied with traditional accounts of God’s providence. They don’t help him make sense out of life, especially the problem of “genuine” (purposeless, gratuitous) evil. At some point, they all have to appeal to mystery, and so they offer no “explanatory consistency.” In their place, Oord offers a winsome, clear, and charitable exposition of his own providential framework, drawing on philosophy, the sciences, and biblical wisdom to fill the gap.

You can read the rest of my review at Christianity Today.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Cross Between the World and Me

betweenAfter a number of months of having it on my to-do list, I finally got around to reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Written as an extended letter to his teenage son, Samori, it is part memoir, part manifesto, and part social history, giving voice to Coates’ experience growing up Black in America—with all the ironies, tragedies, dangers, and, yes, joys that affords.

I guess I read it for some familiar reasons. Like many, I’ve read Coates’ thoughtful and provocative pieces on race, justice, and public policy at The Atlantic. My curiosity was provoked by the wide variety of conflicting reviews of it, ranging from fawning praise to cynical rejection.

I’d like to say the biggest reason I read it was to try to and better understand my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fellow Image-bearers, who live, day to day, in a different set of skin than I have. At least, as much as reading a book can help with that. If I’m honest, I think it’s important to kids like me (having grown up in schools reading about the Civil Rights era) to remain aware of the conflicted reality of race in America. And I say this as someone not typically prone to liberal, white guilt, since I’m not liberal (being raised conservative), nor white (being Arab/Palestinian and Hispanic, a first-generation, somewhat Brown man born in the States).

The experience—because it’s something of an experience reading Coates—was challenging, nonetheless, both emotionally and intellectually. As a theology student, it’s become impossible to avoid reading texts like this in theological perspective and processing them in that fashion. But I don’t think I have to stretch things too much to see the work as a deeply theological one. Indeed, despite his avowed atheism, I found much of Coates’ analysis down-right Pauline.

In what follows, I’d simply like to note some the broadly theological points of contact with and criticism of Coates work and the Christian gospel. None of what I say will be ground-breaking or likely that eye-opening. All the same, I do feel the need to process this as best I know how, so here goes.

The Body

My first impression was related to the feature of the work that almost every commentator I’ve read has touched on: the viscerality and physicality of its anthropology. Coates’ writes constantly of the experience, the value, the suffering, the reality of living in the black body. Philosophically this flows in part from Coates’ materialism, but there’s more to it than that.

With story, with carefully chosen metaphor, and torrentially applied adjectives and verbs, Coates aims to communicate the experience, the consciousness of living as a black body who can be taken, dominated, used, threatened, destroyed, and plundered at all times with seeming impunity. The hardness, the constant fear, then, of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, is not merely psychological, but physiological, welling up in your bones, your muscles, tendons, and instincts too close, too raw, too ingrained by force of history, experience, and even birth to be a strictly philosophical reality.

In attempting to understand, we instinctively reach for analogous situations, even if they don’t quite fit. The closest I’ve come is thinking about life in post-9/11 as an Arab in the States with the last name Rishmawy. I remember getting called sand-nigger, dune-coon, and Taliban on the football field where I got speared in the back for being a “Palestinian.” I remember the chilly sweat that broke out on my skin at the airport, when the guard at the metal detector told me I’d “be in a world of hurt” if the detector went off again when I walked through. As I thought about rendition stories I’d read about, it didn’t matter that I had my cross necklace and Bible in my backpack and coming home from a mission trip—the threat to my young, Arab body coursed in every nerve of my soul. It was a reality bodily and yet more than simply bodily. But again, it’s only an analogy.

In any case, throughout the whole work, every time he spoke of bodies I kept thinking through the dynamic of flesh/body (or sarx/soma) in the New Testament. At times, these terms can simply refer to the physical, biological material of the person—flesh and bones. But most biblical scholars will point out that more often than not, these terms are more of a complex of the spiritual and historical forces that are located within our lived, physical reality. In Paul, the sarx can refer the corpse as the site of the created and fallen dimensions of human experience and nature apart from Christ, while the body is often referring to embodied, human experience in the renewed sphere of the Spirit in Christ.

As I noted, Coates’ viscerality is quite materialist—his description of the spirit and the soul as the charge flowing through his nerves is formally reductionistic in that the physics of the body are all there is. But in another way, his emphasis is quite biblical, even Pauline. Christians confess in their creed, not merely the immortality of the soul (though we affirm it), but the resurrection of the body in its fully physical, material, social, and historical dimensions. To certain forms of spirituality and philosophy, Christianity’s focus on resurrection can appear crassly materialistic. But for Paul, what we do in the body, not merely in our “spirits”, matters. We were created and redeemed, body and soul, at a price–so the body is an object of moral concern and a site of moral care (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Many of us can tend to lose sight of that, however, losing our understanding of the damning, bone-crushing, destructive, disembodying (quite literally) nature of sin, or the gloriously physical relief that the resurrection promises. Coates’ language, his emphasis, I think, has the salutary effect of reminding some of us Christians of the material dimensions of being created good as bodies in the world. As Christians, we surely believe there is more, but we must not believe there is any less.

Sin and “The Dream” as Kosmos

Coates is also a theologian of sin.  This is almost more obvious than the viscerality of his language. For Coates, to tell the story, the history, the experience of the black body is to tell the story of its plundering, its rape, enslavement, subjugation, and burial under the edifice of white society and persons who “think themselves white.” Narrating the black body means narrating the sins committed against it.

There isn’t a blind, Manicheanism in Coates’ telling, though, with pure martyrs and pure villains. I was struck throughout the whole at Coates’ self-analysis, his coming to self-consciousness and questioning of his own motives, his own narratives, his own ideas that he speaks of in response to his mother’s writing assignments. Coates operates with a heavy hermeneutic of suspicion, but one that’s aware of the pervasive nature of sin in the self–in all selves—especially his own. It’s downright Puritanical (not in the bad sense) in terms of its self-interrogation.

Connected to this theology of individual sin is his broader cosmology and theology of culture as expressed in his idea of “The Dream”, which he outlines for his son and constantly warns him against. For those acquainted with biblical cosmology, the Dream functions like “the World” or kosmos in John and Paul. The world is not simply the physical creation, but rather the cosmos including and especially human culture under the power of sin, hostile to God and his ways of peace. For the Christian, the world with its desires, pressures, systemic drives, and allure to conformity threaten to overwhelm the believer with its ways of thinking, behaving, and being. It presents us with visions of the good life (money, sex, power, success, etc) and the standard, often-times godless patterns of procuring it.

The Dream, for Coates, is that of living “white”, of acting white, sequestered away in the safe, suburban communities, built on the sweat, tears, blood, bones, and centuries of black bodies plundered for their wealth–separated from the hard streets of Baltimore where being black and a child could still get you robbed of your body. It is a dream upheld and made manifest in school systems, social practices ranging from slavery to redlining to arrest quotas to the common trope that because a young, black man won’t keep his pants up and shows the defiance to authority common to most 15-year old boys, he’s kind of asking to get shot. Indeed, when you look at it closely, it’s not just that the Dream functions as the World, in many ways it serves as an angled description of what Scripture is actually speaking to.

And so, every time Coates tells his son Samori to resist the deep-seated ways his culture will try to shape and form his affections, his assumptions, his own dreams, desires, and prejudices, I just keep hearing Paul say, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world…” (Rom. 12:1-2).

This, I think, is connected to that deep sense of sin as act and Sin as Power. That’s not how he’d put it, of course, but there is a very thick theology of universal, personal complicity, and at the same time of an external, systemic, supra-personal Power that enslaves, enlists, and overwhelms. It’s not just whites, but blacks striving to be white, who are co-opted and conformed to the Dream. Again, it’s sin as individual acts, but more than that, it is Sin as a power that works its way into corporate systems that have their own logic that, in some sense, can’t be overturned simply by the exercise of the will of one, good-hearted individual.

As a Christian, I’m tempted to have recourse to the language of the demonic. Christians have always known that despite God’s rule and Christ’s reign, there is some sense in which world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the god of this age who tends to blind and deceive the world about the truth, especially of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Why wouldn’t he work through social and political systems to lie and wreak death in the world now, if that’s what he’s been doing since the beginning (John 8:44)?

Religion, Truth, and the Crucifixion of the Body

Naturally, following a discussion of the “plight”, a theological read of the book might lend itself to a section on “The Gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates.” But, to be honest, I couldn’t find one. I don’t believe that’s the point, either. Coates isn’t offering his son a grand, universal hope, a solution. He’s trying to prepare him for reality in a world without a coming universal redemption, with people and systems that don’t know they need one. To carve out a life—one with love, tenderness, integrity, and a sense of honest pride—neither enslaved, nor blind to the world as it is. As one friend put it—he’s preparing him for life in this present, evil age when that’s the only one on the horizon.

And this is where I think about Coates’ atheism and honest confession that he’s always been alienated from the comforts of religion, having never been raised with them. There’s an understandable ambivalence (though, I don’t sense a hostility) towards religious faith in the book. On the one hand, there is his early incomprehension at those taken with its comforts—their willingness to endanger their sacred, fragile, and single-shot bodies against clubs, against dogs, against death. Religion seemed to cultivate a carelessness about the body. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body…”

What’s more, there’s the problem of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Coates has seen the quick rush to forgive in some churches and communities—calls that seem to glide quickly past the problem of Abel’s blood still wet on the pavement crying out for justice. Or the calls for non-violent suffering for black people from those watching the protests in the streets of Fergusson comfortably seated on their couches in the suburbs. Or reconciliation without any sense of restitution—or even an indictment. You can sense his realism, his history, his cosmic sense of injustice rise up much like protest atheism chronicled in Camus’s The Rebel.

How can religion of this sort not seem like a palliative?

All the same, Coates wonders if there’s something he’s missing out on. Something that he is alienated from in the faces and the souls of men and women he respects who believe differently on this score.

Wales WindowAnd this is where I think about the book I’m reading for Lent, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. The front-cover is an image of the “Wales Window” given to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was donated as a gift from the people of Wales after the 1963 Klan bombing that rocked the church and robbed the life of the four little, black girls in their Sunday best.

The stained glass is striking. In it, we see a Christ with brown skin, arms outstretched. Rutledge notes that the position of his head hangs at the same angle as that of an ikon called “Extreme Humiliation.” According to the artist, the two arms outstretched are doing different things. The one is thrust out, stiff-arming the powers of death and injustice, while the other reaches out, offering forgiveness for the world. Under him are the words “You do this to Me”, which come from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here Christ identifies himself with his people, declaring that whatever is done or not done unto them, for good or ill, for woe or weal, for blessing or curse, “you do this to me.” You do this unto me.

The central mystery of the Christian gospel is the Holy God who out of the fullness of his own, perfect life stooped, became incarnate, identifying himself with the whole of humanity, and, as the Creed has it, suffered under Pontius Pilate. The Savior is the Divine Son who knew no suffering, yet assumed human flesh, a Body in midst of a dominated people to suffer on our behalf and rise again. God became a gendered, embodied Jew in the 1st Century, heir to hundreds of years of political oppression at the hands of colonizing invaders (Babylonian, Persian, Greek), mostly recently of an empire, Rome, that stood as the chief political, economic, social, and religious power the world had ever seen. He grew up under the eye of the soldiers of a people who prided themselves as superior to every other people; a people who used subject nations and cultures to prop up their own; a people who threatened anyone who crossed that system with torture and death. And eventually it was under the administration of their laws, their justice, that his body hung naked, exposed, broken, shamed on a cross, tossed on the garbage heap of history, scorned even by the elite of his own people. In the particular sense that Coates speaks of being black, or at least, not white—that is the space that the Son of God entered in his body. That is the place that his body died.

I cannot do justice to the multifaceted character of Christ’s death, not with 3,000, nor 3,000,000 words, but the thing we must say is that the death he died, he died willingly for sin. He died in order to wipe us clean from the sins we commit as well as deliver us from the Sin we are enslaved to. He died in order to atone and liberate. He died to do justice, to ensure that forgiveness is not offered on the cheap. That reconciliation does not simply walk past restitution and truth, or support a culture of impunity.

Indeed, one the most powerful accomplishments of Christ in the visceral, flesh-ripping, godlessness of the cross is the way it tells the truth and opens our eyes to the violence of sin in the world. The hideousness of the cross, Rutledge notes, the crucifixion of this man who is God, puts to flight sentimental religion and forces us to face up to the malignant, persistent ugliness of sin. It unveils reality, much as Richard Wright writes in the poem from which Coates draws his title. To look upon “the sooty details of the scene” of our Savior upon the cross is to have them “thrust themselves between the world and me.”

And I think this moment in the Gospel is important for me to sit with when reading Coates. Obviously, a concern for the body and Coates’ totalizing fear of its loss, of his ultimate powerlessness and inability to secure it or that of his son, is crying for an answer in the good news of the Resurrection. For Christians, death is not the concluding word, and in his resurrection, Jesus actively and powerfully breaks the power of Sin, the World, the Dream, by showing that despite appearances to the contrary, it does not have the final say of things. This is what gives us hope, gives courage, gives the moral steel that accounts for the paradoxical attitude of Christians towards the body: it is precious, it is good, it is inviolable, and yet it’s loss is not our absolute terror. God’s promises do hold us up.

But the resurrection only comes as good news after we’ve sat in the shadow of the cross. Jesus is the Resurrected one only as the Crucified one. Hope for reconciliation, both personal and cultural, only comes after we’ve truly reckoned with the nature of the rupture, confessed, and repented. This is one of what I take to be the glories of the Christian gospel: it forces you to see the truth about the world, about yourself, about your neighbor—both the grime and the glory—and it is precisely there where the God with a broken body meets us.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

I have no conclusion, really. With a book like Coates’ there’s always more to say. I haven’t weighed in specifically on any particular charges, critiques, details of history, or political implications to be drawn with respect to things like reparations or #BlackLivesMatter. And I’m not really sure that’s the point.

I suppose at the end of Coates’ work–beyond a better, heavier understanding of the struggles of my neighbors–I can’t help but come away with a stronger desire to plumb the depth of the Christian gospel, to grasp the power of Christ and him crucified and speak it into the darkest reaches of the human condition without maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. A hope hell-bent on truth. A reconciliation forged through justice. A God who enters our life and then invites us into his, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift

TMere Fidelityhis last week, Alastair, Andrew, Matt, and I took up a discussion through John Barclay’s new book, Paul and the Gift. Three of us (Alastair, Andrew, and I) have already read and reviewed the book, but we wanted to delve deeper into what we found though-provoking, ground-breaking, unhelpful, and so forth. We touch on issues of Pauline theology, grace, Barclay’s thesis in particular, and theological method with a few sparks flying in the midst of it all. A very lively conversation, if I do say so myself. We hope you enjoy.

If you do, feel free to share:

Soli Deo Gloria

Top 5 Reformedish Books of 2015

We’ve hit that time of the year when bloggers run out of posts to write, so they come up with “top 10” lists of their favorite movies, albums, or what-have-you, of the year. Theology bloggers are no different. For the last few years, I’ve put up my Top 5 Reformedish Books of the year. This is a difficult category in some ways, not only because some years you happen to read a number of very good books, but also you often find that the best books you’ve read in a year, haven’t been published long before. In keeping with past years, though, I’ll simply keep to five books I have read from all years, with a bonus book. Oh, and, of course, these follow in no particular order.

The City of Godcity of god by St. Augustine. Yes, I know I’m a bit late on the game with this one, but I finally made it to Augustine’s classic defense of Christianity and polemic against the pagans earlier this year and was astonished. I think I wrote about four or five different pieces, but suffice it to say that it proved for me, once again, that time spent with Augustine at any point in your theological career is never wasted.

sondereggerSystematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1 by Katherine Sonderegger. I’ve already joined the choruses praising Sonderegger for her brilliant first volume on the doctrine of God in this promising project. I certainly don’t follow her in all of her conclusions, but the creativity, pastoral, literary, and theological mastery at work, make this a unique delight. More please!

MullerPost-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 Volumes by Richard A. Muller. I wrote about this before, but this year I made it through all four volumes of Muller’s treatment of the Post-Reformation dogmaticians on theological method, doctrine of God, Scripture, and Trinity. They were illuminating volumes, not only from a historical angle, but a theological one. I’ll be returning to these constantly in the future.

The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological ReasonDomain of the word by John Webster. This collection of essays by eminent theologian John Webster are a treasure trove of theological insight. While not necessarily a consistent, long-range argument, Webster’s treatments of everything from the nature of reason, Scriptural inspiration, principles of systematic theology, theology’s relation to the arts, and the intellectual virtues, are a must-have for students and practioners of the theological craft.

atonementAtonement: A Guide for the Perplexed by Adam Johnson. I’ve read a lot of atonement theology this year, but Johnson’s little volume stands out among them. It’s irenic, multi-faceted, and chocked full of theological insight and good sense. As I’ve said before, it’s not simply a book of atonement theology, but also an introduction to how to read and do atonement theology that both shows and tells. It’s a real gem that I can’t recommend highly enough.

Finally, a special category, I read a fantastic piece of nerdy, fantasy fiction this year: The Name of the Wind which is book one in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. Magic, mystery, humor, love, loss, and all that jazz. I can’t wait to jump into volume two once my studies abate over Christmas break.

So there you have it. My top five and a fiction bonus.

Soli Deo Gloria