To Dance, or not to Dance with the Trinity?

kermit-to-self

Me: Read for your paper. Other Me: Write about that Dancing with the Trinity thing for an hour. Nothing bad can happen.

Fred Sanders critiqued a new book by Richard Rohr on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, yesterday at TGC. As with most of Sanders’ writing, it was playful, with puckish humor. It was also atypically forceful for the ever-genial Sanders, condemning the work as crossing the bounds of Nicene and general Orthodoxy at various points. (FWIW, the location surprised some, as well, because Sanders is a quite openly Wesleyan theologian, quite uninterested in defending Calvinism. Apparently, they asked him because he is a well-respected, expert on trinitarian theology in general.)

In any case, it provoked dismay and chagrin among Rohr’s fans and even some more neutral onlookers. I’ll touch on that below, but one interesting question it raised for me was the issue of whether or not we should use the very popular image of the Trinity as a “Divine Dance” in our preaching and teaching.

Dancing with Lewis and Keller

If you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity in an Evangelical church in the last 50 years, I would not be surprised if you’ve seen the pastor appeal to a very famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where he appeals to the image to explain the dynamic, inner life of the Triune God. I mean, I know I’ve used it. In any case, here it is:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

So we see that Lewis is in the middle of a discussion of what it means for God to be love. In the middle of it, he appeals to the image of a dance to begin to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as the loving union of Father and Son (per Augustine, ‘the bond of love’).

Beyond the fact that people suck down anything Lewis writes (yours truly included), I don’t know how many books on the Trinity in the last 50 years have simultaneously appealed to the Greek word perichoresis used by some of the Fathers (Gregory, Maximus, later John of Damascus). Originally, the term was used to describe the interpenetration of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. Later, the term was expanded to speak of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity a la the Johannine discourses (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”).

Now, the word’s etymology can be linked to the idea of movement and aroundness, and so somewhere along the line, the link between perichoresis and dance was born.  In the 20th Century, it’s been used by a number of Trinitarian theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and others as a key way of speaking about the unity of the persons of the Trinity, the God/world relationship, and sundry other uses that extend beyond the original purposes of the term. We’ve experienced something of a perichoretic overload. The dance has gotten out of hand.  (BTW, we had a Mere Fidelity episode on it here.)

In any case, Sanders’ critique may have left the impression that to use the image at all was heretical in itself. Mike Morell, Rohr’s co-author/transcriber, responded to Sanders’ criticism by pointing out that if the image is off-limits, that’s quite awkward since one of TGC’s co-founders, Tim Keller, has appealed to the image himself in places like The Reason for God. Here is the quote:

The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ is within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

Awkward, right? So do Keller and Lewis fall afoul of Sanders’ critique? How about the likely dozens and hundreds of other authors who have used it? Are they immediately to be considered heretics? Should we ditch the dance? What’s going on here?!

To Dance or Not To Dance

Well, given that I’ve gone back and forth about the image myself, I’ve got a few thoughts on the subject.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between perichoresis and the dance image. The two are different things and you can appeal to perichoresis without invoking the dance. Perichoresis has gotten a bit buzzwordy and goofy, but that’s no reason to ditch the classic terminology. Just use it properly.

Second, there are at least two different uses of the dance image. It can be deployed in an illustrative and modest way, or an intensive and extensive way. In other words, it’s the difference between an image and a model.

I think Lewis is a good example of the illustrative image use. He spends a good deal of time in the book trying to explain things like the eternal generation of the Son, differences in between divine and human personality, and establishing a fairly standard, Nicene view of the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. And then he casually deploys the dance as an image of the livingness and movement of the divine life without trying to figure out if the dance is a mambo, or a waltz, or something else. It’s quick, it’s illustrative, and it’s done. (Given that he basically uses it briefly in a couple books, I tend to think that this is where Keller fits, too, even if he may fall afoul of the common etymological fallacy Sanders’ mentions in his footnote of the review.)

Others seem to take it as something more of a full-blown model, especially when linking it to a view called social trinitarianism, which takes the persons of the Trinity to be more like modern individuals, with three distinct, centers of consciousness, will, and so forth, who are united in being, but tend to look something more like a family. When the dance image gets invoked, at that point it starts to take on a whole different level of meaning, and we have all sorts of psychological and relational dynamics worked out and so forth. It can become far more intensive and extensive.

Finally, as an extreme version of this, you might do what Sanders says Rohr does: make the image central, set it within a relational metaphysic that has shades of pantheism and panentheism, gesture at a fuzziness in the Creator/creature distinction, downplay Scriptural language for the Trinity, openly disdain hundreds of years of reflection on the issue, talk about femininity within the interstitial spaces between the persons of the Trinity, start suggesting humans belong within it, and, on top of that, suggest we should “ignore the dancers” we were talking about in the first place. (Now, I admit I haven’t read the book, but Sanders has provided direct quotes, and since he has sneezed more Trinitarian theology than I have read, I tend to take his word for it.) If that’s what’s going on, then at that point the problem isn’t the dance image, but this whole, relational, “flow” metaphysic that has started to do all sorts of heterodox things with the rest of our theology.

With these differences in view, I think it’s possible to say that the dance image itself, if used modestly, quickly, and as just that—an image, not a model—is still kosher. I do think it’s good to be careful with these things, though. If you’re preaching, we need to connect to our people, and speak to them about the dynamic, living God. But we also need to remember that the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has given us the best image of himself in his works in history as the Son comes from the Father in the power of the Spirit to live, die, rise again, and bring us new life in the gospel.

What God has shown and said about himself needs to be our touchstone for everything we eventually say about him. Use the image as and only if you can reinforce something revealed, but be careful you don’t build an entire world around it.

Theology and Idolatry

And this brings me to a final point I want to make. It came up over the summer when this whole Trinity debate happened as well. Some people were shocked yesterday that someone would come out so forcefully to debate about the Trinity (also, there was probably a difference in interpretation of Sanders’ tone).

Still, I think there’s this thought in broader Evangelicalism, both conservative and progressive, that beyond the mere affirmation of it, it’s super esoteric, difficult, and not the sort of thing to get crazy about, because if you do, you’re probably just an academic protecting your turf, or someone who just likes being right for the sake of being right.The order and nature of the persons, the single being of God, and so forth–that’s no reason to write off a person’s work is it?

I have to admit that, in the abstract, there’s part of me that sympathizes.

But this has not been the attitude of the church for most of its history. What’s more, the Bible contains very strong language about idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandment is to not worship other gods, while the second is to avoid making up images of God out of your own head. Don’t picture God as he hasn’t pictured himself. Because when we do, we inevitably get it wrong, and start to shrink God down to our size, distort him, and remold him in our image. All throughout the Scriptures the warnings against falsely worshipping him resound, especially in the prophets. It’s not a minor theme.

That matters because, (a) God is holy and majestic and glorious and we shouldn’t distort that, but also because (b) God wants us to know him, relate to him, love him, and receive love from him in truth. And wrong, distorted, heretical thoughts about him hurts that. Eugene Peterson says “a lie about God is a lie about life.” This is not about logic-chopping but about worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4). God gives himself to be known and loved by us, but not in whichever way we want or find congenial, or fires our creativity. He wants to be loved as he is. If anybody is going to accommodate God to our knowledge, it is God himself.

Listen, I get that the Trinity is hard to think and write about. I have struggled to get my own trinitarian theology straight for so long. And if you’re struggling with it, that’s fine. Especially if you’re someone in the pew who is not ordained, or going around teaching people about it.  Or maybe writing entire books on it.

But if people do go writing entire books on it, teaching on it with authority, and then if they get it severely wrong in a way that threatens to mislead many, many people, this seems like the kind of thing it seems worth having a go around about.

Soli Deo Gloria

Justification by Faith and the Theologian in History

barthFor all the revolutionary claims made about his program, Karl Barth was a historically-minded dogmatician. In section after section of small print paragraphs, Barth will frequently canvas sources from a broad swathe of church history, from the Fathers, through the Medievals, Reformers, down on into the present of his contemporary interlocutors. What’s more, while he makes no bones about disagreeing (strongly) with them when he sees fit, he’s generally quite respectful, quite careful, quite measured in his judgments about his historical forebears.

Some of the working theology behind that approach can be found in another of the small print paragraphs in his discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity (CD 1/1 &9, 377-378). I thought reviewing it in chunks might be helpful for those of us doing theological work today.

First, Barth notes the importance of recognizing the Church has always done its theology as a human institution, that is to say, in the middle of the muddle of sinful history, including the history of the trinitarian controversies:

In the dogmatic and theological history of every age, not excluding that of Protestantism, secular factors have played a part which tends to cover over all else. For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints.

Often-times, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we tell church history. All too often it has been a story of white hats and black hats, with the white hats always managing to defend the Orthodoxy we know and love, never fighting dirty to get there. The danger in this is that we set ourselves up to base our attitude toward the tradition on its utter purity.

In other words, Barth says that it’s good for us to understand that Athanasius’ disputes with the anti-Nicenes weren’t simple theological debates carried on with only the cleanest, lily-white gloves. He may not be the brawler and bully more recent, cynical skeptics would like to portray, but there was plenty of political struggle, maneuvering, and wrangling involved.

Indeed, he says that for us to be dismayed and thereby write him off for that reason wouldn’t be very Protestant:

Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every king, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of an in this worldliness.

Here Barth deploys the doctrine of justification by faith against what we might call a perfectionist, over-realized eschatology.

There’s a very common tendency nowadays that when we start to find out that our theological heroes in the faith were human–dreadfully human, at times–we write them off in toto as possible sources of instruction in the faith. Or, the flip-side of this attitude, of course, is to deny that what these people did was really, truly sinful.

Yes, we’ll admit that all are sinners saved by grace, and so every theologian is necessarily a sinner, but really, if there were politics involved, or theologian X really was a mean cuss, or a sexist, or a racist, or ended up an adulterer, or…then, no, we can’t really expect them to have insight into the Scriptures, or the faith.

Barth’s invocation of the doctrine of justification by faith, though, is a reminder that salvation in union with Christ is a dynamic reality encompassing the now and not-yet of the Kingdom of God. Every theologian and every age of theology is simul iustus et peccator–the object of God’s saving work in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, but at the same time subject to the corruption of the flesh and indwelling sin.

Of course, there is a to be a link-up between life and doctrine, standards for teachers within the Church, and so forth. But Barth’s realism sounds a salutary note for us to pump the brakes on our perfectionism that would prevent us from recognizing the gracious work of illumination even in the lives of God’s flawed saints (and seasons within the Church). If sinners couldn’t learn or mediate truth from the Scriptures, theology would be dead.

Barth then turns a corner and expands the point further with respect to the way we evaluate previous Church interaction with the intellectual and philosophical culture surrounding it. Prior to this section, Barth was engaging the sort of objection to Trinitarian doctrine that makes great hay out of the fact that the Fathers used terminology, concepts, etc. from drawn Plotinian or Aristotelian sources. The “Greek charge“, if you will.

The same may be said about the indisputable connexion of the dogma with the philosophy of the age. By proving philosophical involvement we can reject the confessions and theology of any age and school, and we can do this the more effectively the less we see the beam in our own eye. For lingustically theologians have always depended on some philosophy and linguistically they always will. But instead of getting Pharisaically indignant about this and consigning whole periods to the limbo of a philosophy that is supposed to deny the Gospel–simply because our own philosophy is different–it is better to stick strictly to the one question what the theologians of earlier periods were really trying to say in the vocabulary of their philosophy.

Barth exhibits a humble wisdom here. His point is very simple. Yes, you can probably find a connection between the theology of any period and the philosophy of its time. People have to speak using the language of their time, the intellectual milieu, and so forth.

But this is true of every period–including Barth’s own (and our own). In which case, simply noting that the Fathers or the Medievals used the language and concepts of Aristotle to exposit the faith, doesn’t thereby disqualify them. Nobody can simply carry out a pure, biblical dogmatics, simply sticking to Scriptural conceptualities and language unless they’re simply repeating the text of Scripture (in the original languages, mind you).

In fact, our ability to spot the non-Biblical “philosophy” poking out in the works of earlier ages is likely the result of our own philosophical tendencies drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from our own milieu. We can spot the Aristotelianism so glaringly likely because of our post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, etc. lenses. (And for the record, I have never understood why I am supposed to prefer Hegel over Aristotle).

Instead, we should take these ages and thinkers seriously on their own terms,  figure out as best we can what Biblical issues they were grappling with, and accord them the same respect and care we would hope others would take with our own age and thought. And then critique them on the merits, if we must. But we ought not simply assume that just because a certain philosophical conceptuality is used, the Spirit could not be at work to illumine the work of the Church to stumble onto an essential dogmatic truth. Must we not consider the simul iustus et peccator here as well?

A final caution in this section.

Caution is especially demanded when we insist the differences in the so-called piety of different periods and therefore claim that the piety out of which the dogma of the Trinity arose was completely different from our own piety with its sober focus, as they said some years ago, on “worldview and morality.” What right have we to regard our own piety, even if its agreement with the Reformation and the New Testament seem ever so impeccable, as the only piety that is possible in the Church, and therefore to exalt it as a standard by which to measure the insights of past ages? Let us be sure of our own cause as far as we can. But the antithetical rigidity especially in evaluating the subjective religion of others is something against which we can only issue a warning.

Here Barth is clearly speaking to the temptations of theologians in his own day, who were tempted to moralize doctrine and therefore have little time for “metaphysical” doctrines like the Trinity. But the material caution is relevant.

There is a dangerous tendency to separate our age, our values, our spirituality, our theological concerns and contexts out from the rest of history as the standard of relevance to which all other ages must be held up and measured. As if our age’s questions were the most important, as if our emphases are the right emphases, as if in our day we have reached a sort of eschatological moment that has decisive influence for the way all theology afterwards must be pursued.

Yes, history happens, and so there is a sense in which we cannot simply reverse the flow of history to an earlier period in order to completely ignore questions that have been raised since that time. But we should not cultivate the sense that the Enlightenment (or postmodernity, etc.) is some Rubicon beyond after which the “old answers” simply won’t or can’t do the job anymore. Or more positively, that “after theologian X” (maybe even Barth himself?), if we are truly aware of their epochal significance, we must recognize that we live in an absolutely new theological age. Barth cautions us against this myopia.

Though we strive for fidelity to God in the particular challenges of the contemporary age–its spirituality, its dialogue partners–the contemporary theologian, just as that of every other age of the church, is simul iustus et peccator, is still justified by faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

What I Can’t Know If I Don’t Know the Trinity

the trinityI’ve already written of the recent controversy over the Trinity and my hope that solid, theological and spiritual reinvigoration would come from it. All the same, I ran across a fantastic passage in the great divine Herman Witsius’ treatment of the Trinity in his Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed (a remarkably careful and pastoral work).

In his comment on the Trinitarian shape of the Apostle’s Creed, he has a short segment arguing for the importance of our knowledge of this chief point of Christian doctrine. It’s not only that a proper understanding of the Trinity is some sort of arid proposition we need to check off a list of “need to know” facts to be “good Christians.” Rather, it’s that without a knowledge of the Trinity, we are simply robbed of all of the chief comforts of Christian faith:

When the Trinity is not known, the necessary consequence is, that the principal foundation of our faith and comfort, are unknown. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.

In order to explain this, he goes on to expound the importance of recognizing the work of each person individually, beginning with the Father:

I cannot know how God can show mercy to a sinner in a manner worthy of himself, unless I know he has a Son whom he could send to make satisfaction for sin, and a Spirit who can apply to me the merits of the Son.

Right off the bat, you see the Trinitarian shape of the heart of God’s atoning, justifying, and sanctifying work with the Father sending the Son in the economy of redemption and the Spirit’s application. Continuing on:

If I know not that the Father is God, I shall be ignorant that I am a Son of God,–which is the sum of our felicity.

Without a knowledge that God is eternally Father to the Son, we will not understand the marvel of that highest privilege of the gospel: the adoption unto Sonship into which are admitted in union with Christ by which we can cry “Abba, Father!”

But according to Witsius, that Fatherhood is only good news to us if we recognize God the Son:

If I know not that the Son is God, I shall not form a right estimate of the love of God the Father who has given him to me, nor of the grace of the Son, who, though possessing inconceivable majesty, humbled himself so wonderfully for my sake;

It’s fascinating to see how Witsius is at once trying to point out the importance of each of the persons in the work of salvation, but can only do so with reference to the other persons. (Indeed, earlier on, he spends a good deal of space explaining the unified activity of the whole Trinity in every act ad extra, the one will, mind, and operation of the Godhead and so forth.) But here we see that we can only understand the love of God the Father being magnified in the gift of the eternal Son, whom we can only recognize as majestic in his self-humbling in the working of salvation.

But he pushes on to point out further how the Son’s divinity is crucial to our soul’s peace:

 –nor shall I be able to place a firm dependence upon his satisfaction, which could not be sufficient unless it were of infinite value, or to rely securely on his power, which cannot save me unless it be evidently omnipotent;–it will be impossible for me, in short, to regard him as my Saviour and my Chief Good, because none excepting the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and Redeemer.

The Son’s divinity matters because otherwise, any satisfaction he makes would be merely finite, insufficient for the weighty work of a cosmic atonement. Second, we have strong enemies—sin, death, and the devil—how can I have assurance of the Son’s victory if he is not almighty God himself? Only the “the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and redeemer.”

Finally, he turns to the person of the Holy Spirit:

If…I am not sure that the Holy Spirit, to whose direction and government I ought to commit myself, is God, I shall not be able to esteem my subjection to him as true liberty, to maintain a holy acquiescence in his protecting care, or to rely on his testimony respecting my salvation as a most ample security.

If the Spirit is not God, then submitting to him isn’t the true freedom and dignity of serving the highest Lord. Nor is receiving the Holy Spirit as another counselor the great gift that Jesus says it is (John 16). And listening to his internal witness or testimony via Scripture isn’t hearing the voice of God himself assuring me of my salvation.

For Witsius, then, the Trinity isn’t the doctrine that you get to once you’ve built up all the rest of your faith and you sort of add it as the cherry on top. No, it’s foundation upon which everything is built, and if the foundation is weak, everything comes crumbling down:

Christian faith is of so delicate a character, that it can firmly acquiesce in none but the Most High God. It must, then, be of the first importance and necessity for us to know a doctrine, one which the knowledge of so many necessary points depends.

He concludes this point with a historical example:

This argument is confirmed by experience; for, as we see in the Socinians, the same men who deny the Trinity, deny, also, the satisfaction of Christ, the invincible power of the Spirit in our regeneration and conservation, the certainty of salvation, and the full assurance of faith. The mystery of our salvation through Christ is so intimately connected with the mystery of the Trinity, that when the latter is unknown or denied, the former cannot be known or acknowledged.

The Socinian heretics were remarkable in their day for having denied just about every chief point of doctrine from the deity of Christ, to the atonement, assurance of salvation, an everything else. Witsius says that their chief mistake was the loss of the Trinity. To miscontrue the nature of God is to inevitably misconstrue the nature of God’s salvation. When you lose the Trinity, you pull on the thread that unravels the seamless garment of Christian salvation and comfort.

The point is, when you don’t know God as Trinity, there’s not much you can know about the Gospel.

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

Triune Justification, Again (Or, is a Reformed view of Salvation Sub-Trinitarian?)

trinityI’ve noted before the way that Protestant theologies of salvation, especially of the Reformed variety, are occasionally criticized as being sub-trinitarian due to their narrow focus on forensic or legal categories. Whether because of an allegedly blinkered view of the cross, or an “overly-individualistic” transaction model of justification by faith, Reformed theology apparently can’t compare to more Catholic, Orthodox, or some more metaphysically-inclined Anglican proposals flirting with Radical Orthodoxy. (To be honest, the critiques all sort of blur together.)

Triune Justification, Again

Again, while that may be true of some popular Reformed or general ‘Evangelical’ preaching, that’s certainly not the case with classical Reformed theology such as that of Bavinck who lays out a beautifully trinitarian conception of justification. But some may wonder if that’s simply because with Bavinck we are dealing with an exceptional Reformed theologian, a jewel in the tradition who is unrepresentative of the broader whole?

Well, actually no. Once again, I ran across this little gem in Thomas Watson’s commentary on the Westminster Catechism’s treatment of justification. Watson is dealing with the various “causes” of salvation, such as faith which receives it, Christ’s righteous life and death as its ground, and so on. He moves to ask about the “efficient cause” or author of our justification:

What is the efficient cause of our justification?

The whole Trinity. All the persons in the blessed Trinity have a hand in the justification of a sinner: opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. God the Father is said to justify. ‘It is God that justifieth.’ (Rom 8:83). God the Son is said to justify. ‘By him all that believe are justified.’ (Acts 13:39). God the Holy Ghost is said to justify. ‘But ye are justified by the Spirit of our God.’ (I Cor 6:61). God the Father justifies, as he pronounces us righteous; God the Son justifies, as he imputes his righteousness to us; and God the Holy Ghost justifies, as he clears up our justification, and seals us up to the day of redemption.

There you have it. Drawing on the classical trinitarian logic that all of the Trinity’s ad extra or “outward” works are undivided, Watson traces the triune shape of God’s one justifying action in Christ. There’s absolutely nothing “sub-trinitarian” about even the very clearly forensic or legal dimension to a Reformed account of God’s saving work.

But Even Beyond Justification

It also bears pointing out that much of the confusion comes when we miss the fact that a Reformed view of salvation is not limited to justification by faith. It gladly encompasses it, but free justification and the forgiveness of sins is not the sum total of the gospel, nor of the benefits that make up our salvation. No, arguably, the larger category to keep in view is the doctrine of union with Christ, whereby in faith we are united legally, spiritually, morally, mystically, and vitally with Jesus and all of his benefits, which ends up giving us far more than justification alone. It’s also the broader picture that completely destroys the sub-trinitarian charge.

Instead, union with Christ expands to include things like the effectual calling out of darkness into light which precedes justification. Then also come the gifts of adoption into Father’s family, with all of the spiritual privileges that come with being a child of God such as access in prayer, peace, and the assurance of the Spirit. We are also given the sanctification and growth in holiness which inevitably follows as we received the gift of the Holy Spirit in our union. Finally, we are promised glorification, or the perfection of our salvation when we are resurrected anew by the Spirit and the process of sanctification is complete as we are fully and finally conformed to the Image of the Son, the Resurrected Jesus, in order that we might look upon the face of God in glory.

Theologian Todd Billings had an excellent little article on this recently, articulating all this as an expression of what we might (carefully) call a Reformed doctrine of deification. I’ll quote Billings at length:

Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).

Calvin also speaks of a coming beatific vision, a “direct vision” of the Godhead, “when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is” (Institutes 2.14.3). This final, temporal end is in fact “the end of the gospel,” that is, “to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” (commentary on 2 Peter 1:4). For Calvin, the present and future scope of God’s work in salvation requires us to go beyond looking at how we receive salvation and what salvation saves us from. All of this takes place for the sake of union and communion with God. Salvation not only restores what is lost by the fall; it incorporates creatures into the glorious life of the Triune God.

I’d recommend going and reading the whole of the article and maybe picking up his book Union with Christor this free article on Calvin’s view of salvation focused on the way union with Christ organizes things along trinitarian, Christocentric, and non-reductive lines, if you’re curious about more along these lines.

At the end of all this, though, it should be enough to dispel the very misguided charge that a Reformed view of salvation is sub-trinitarian due to its legal flavor. Not only does that misconstrue what the Reformed actually say about justification, it misses the much broader trinitarian context of salvation in union with Christ that justification is set within. Honestly, if I wanted to, I could have gone through and shown the trinitarian shape of each of those gifts (calling, sanctification, etc) in detail from the Reformed sources. But this enough to reflect on for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

15 Doctrines That Ought to Bring Comfort In Suffering

Pedro_Fernández_-_Christ_Suffering_-_WGA07807One of my fundamental convictions is that theology, while possessing theoretical aspects, is eminently practical. It’s the “doctrine of living unto God” as some of the older theologians used to put it. One of the greatest tests of that “practicality” is understanding the various ways that the doctrines of the Christian faith can serve as a comfort to us in the manifold sufferings and tragedies we encounter in this life this side of Eden and before the Second Coming.

In what follows, I’d like to simply (and briefly) point out some of the many ways the main doctrines of the Christian faith provide a comfort to the believer in times of struggle, suffering, and pain.

  1. Trinity.  Before moving to realities more directly oriented towards God’s actions on our behalf, it’s important to stop and remember the comfort of the fact that before all things, God has eternally been perfectly existent as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This God is holy, perfect, beautiful, righteous, loving, faithful, eternal, unchanging, impassible, all-powerful, all-present, blessed, and supremely good. In the midst of our suffering, it’s often crucial that we remember that there is a reality deeper and truer that grounds, funds, and surpasses the finite and fallen world we encounter. In that sense, God being God without me holds its own comfort for me.
  2. Creation. God created the world and blessed it by declaring it to be “very good.” In a very important sense, the world is something to be taken, received with gratitude, and enjoyed. Each and every breath in our lungs is a gift of the Creator who has provided us with every good thing, every tree in the Garden, so to speak, for our benefit. We are not souls trapped in prisons, alienated from and anxiously awaiting our natural home in the stars, but humans placed in the midst of beautiful habitat with deep purpose by a good God. Every blade of grass, tulip in the field, bright ray of sunshine, speaks of his power and goodness.
  3. Sin. Connected to this is the doctrine of sin. It’s a bit counterintuitive to think of the doctrine of sin as a comfort, but there is deep reassurance in knowing that the unease, the pain, the opposition we encounter in the world is not natural to it. The world is not meant to be this way and it is sin, not divine malevolence or weakness, that has resulted in the brokenness we experience in our bones and our souls. God hates the fractures in his handiwork and stands opposed to them as we do–indeed, even more than we do.
  4. Providence. God is not a hands-off deity who fell asleep at the wheel. Contrary to what we’re tempted to believe in our darkest moments, the world is not governed by a cold and cruel fate.  The doctrine of providence teaches us that the Triune God sovereignly causes, permits, and guides all things for the ultimate good of his creation and his children. Even the dark schemes of the Evil One will be turned on their head and used for the glorious blessing of creation.
  5. Christ. There are multiple comforts to be derived from meditating on the doctrine of Christ. John Owen gave us a few here. Still, at base, in whatever situation we find ourselves in, looking at Jesus we are given deep consolation in remembering that out of his unfathomable love, God has assumed my nature, experienced what I’ve experienced, suffered all that I have suffered, in order to redeem me, bring into proper relationship, and make me like himself.
  6. Cross. Meditating on the Cross yields comforts to carry us through a lifetime. Here are a few: First, God has damned all that opposes him. Evil cannot stand against him. Looking at the Cross reminds me of God’s utter righteous, holiness. Second, that damnation included my sin which has been punished, buried it, sent to hell. Beyond that, Christ has secured the ultimate victory against the Destructor who is ultimately behind all evil. Satan may still prowl about, but he is mortally-wounded and on the run. Because of this, I can look to the Cross and see my Crucified Savior, take up my own cross and follow him in this life.
  7. Resurrection. Christ’s resurrection teaches me many things. First, the truth is eventually vindicated. One of the great torments of life in this world is the falsification of reality, the lies we tell about each others, and God’s truth. The Resurrection is the great demonstration and unveiling of the Truth of the Son, teaching me that everything, every injustice will one day come to light. Second, death is not the end of the story because the Creator who declared the world to be very good decided to be its Redeemer who will not leave it to decay forever. Whatever threat comes against me, the worst it can do is kill me, and God can take care of that. Finally, nothing can separate me from the love of Christ. He’s already been killed once. What else could come against him?
  8. Ascension. The doctrine of the Ascension means that even now Christ on the throne of heaven, interceding for us. We have the king of the World as our advocate and High Priest. The ruler of the Universe knows what it is like to have walked through the dark vale of the world. He rules with compassion and mediates with sympathy, understanding our weakness.
  9. Holy Spirit. In the person of the Holy Spirit, God himself has come to indwell the believer. This is great comfort to us because we can know that wherever we are we are not alone in the world; not in the darkest dungeon of some authoritarian tyrant, nor the darkest recesses of our own despair. God is with us in all that we suffer and will give us whatever strength we need to face the trouble we encounter in the world.
  10. Union. By faith him, through the mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ. This means all of his benefits, all of his accomplishments are mine and secure. Every heavenly gift, all of his rights and privileges, are mine because I am his.
  11. Justification by Faith. Because of this union, I am justified entirely by faith. Christ’s death for sin on the Cross was my death, and his vindication through the resurrection as “righteous” is now mine. Because of that, I can know that none of the pain, or suffering I encounter in this life is God’s judgment or wrath against me, because that has been fully satisfied on the Cross and I’m righteous in Christ. I don’t have to fall into a pit of guilt or self-condemnation when pain or misfortune befalls me.
  12. Adoption. Also, we have been adopted in Christ. This means that God is our Father despite our sins, failures, and outward appearances. We have been fully and irrevocably been brought into the kind of relationship with God which allows me the privilege of bursting into the courtroom of the King, calling him “Abba” and making known my deepest needs, hurts, and pains with utter security and freedom.
  13. Sanctification.  Sanctification is comforting in a number of ways. I was listening to John Piper the other day talking about the joy of heaven and the end of earthly frustrations. He pointed out that the thing he’s most sick of in this life is his own sin. Sanctification is comforting in reminding us that we are not forever trapped in the sin that easily the greatest source of the daily suffering most of us face. Beyond that, the doctrine of sanctification teaches me that I have been set apart in such a way that I know that in all that befalls me, God is at work to make me holy, pure, and more like his Son.
  14. Church. The doctrine of the Church is a comfort, in that I don’t have to suffer alone in this life. The reality is that I am now part of a family, a body upon whom I can depend full of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers. Many of these have gone before me down this path and stand ready to counsel, support, uphold, encourage, and rescue in times of need.
  15. Last Things.  Finally, of course, there is an ultimate day when God will make himself all in all. He will do this through the Return of Christ who comes to judge the quick and the dead, punishing oppression, ending it, redeeming the world, rewarding the righteous, and ushering in a day of everlasting glory. Upon that day, we will behold our God and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This is the blessed hope and a vision to sustain us in the darkest of hours. The light shines just over the ridge, promising a weight of glory that overwhelms these light and momentary afflictions.

I could continue at length with each of these doctrines. Indeed, in the section on the doctrine of God, each of his attributes provides a particular comfort of its own, for those of us willing to stop and meditate on them. For now, there is enough to see that what we need in times of torment, is not bland platitudes handed to us from spiritual gurus, or pinterest memes, but a soul that has marinated the deep truths of God’s Word. I’ll end by simply quoting one of the most comforting paragraphs in the history of theology, Heidelberg Q & A 1:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Soli Deo Gloria

Pursuing Power, Pursuing Education

students_in_classroomIn Christianity power is not a zero-sum game. Not fundamentally at least.

I was recently in a conversation with some friends about this reality recently. We were mulling over the issue of whether or not Christians ought to pursue positions of power or cultural influence in order to change things from above, or work for the common good in positions of authority.

Of course, while the concept will seem intuitive to some, even mentioning the idea immediately (legitimately) raises the suspicion of others. Nowadays in certain Christian circles there is a lot of talk about “embracing powerlessness” and giving power away as a more fundamentally Christ approach to power and authority. And there’s something to the notion when we look at Jesus. Jesus seemed to intentionally operate on the margins, using poor fishermen, (with a Zealot and a tax collector thrown in), staying in cultural backwaters, and eschewing the crowds seeking to crown him. Finally, there is a form of powerlessness in embracing the Cross, handing yourself over to be crucified, to have the will of others exercised upon you.

Moving to Christian history, it’s always important to remember that the Christian movement began at the margins of society and, even without embracing a full-throated “Constantinian” fall narrative, it’s easy to see some of the negative consequences of the Church gaining political and social authority.

With considerations like these (and a great many more) it is easy to become suspicious of the call to pursue positions of influence. The City of Man’s siren song of the lust to dominate calls powerfully and finds hearts in the Church all-too-willing to listen and be seduced by it. It seems safer (in some ways), wiser, and more Christlike to walk away from positions of power, to distrust political and social authority, and work in a more ground-up, power-relinquishing fashion. When possible, hand over as much as you can, to the powerless, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Again, there’s something to that. But I also want to say there’s something else too. I suppose what I’m saying is that we can’t begin our reflections on the use of power only after Genesis 3. Genesis 1 and 2 have a role to play. The doctrines of God and doctrine of creation are fundamental to our conception of the way the redemption of Jesus Christ changes our ideas and attitudes towards power.

Beginning with the Triune God, we must remember that from all eternity Father, Son, and Spirit has infinite power and glory. What’s more, in his creation, he gifts a measure of power and authority to his image-bearers at no detriment to his own. His gift of authority to humans is no threat to his own. In fact, their power and authority ontologically funds and morally authorizes theirs. In other words, he loses no power, no strength, no sovereignty, even as he exercises authority through his Image-bearers–with, or even (in light of sin) contrary to their own will.

Ideally, human power would function like this in an analogical fashion (our power being finite and dependent). In Genesis 1 and 2, God gives humanity power so that they would then exercise the kind of dominion and ordering of creation that would cultivate and empower it to produce and even greater yield than it could apart from humanity’s guidance. Of course, sin twists that as is obvious and apparent. Power and authority are distorted and perverted–dominion becomes domination.

But when God redeems, he does not move us to a space or a stage that is totally contrary to, or radically different from his original created intention. The redemption of humanity and the cosmos means the redemption of the use of power. By the power of the Spirit of God, whether in common or special grace, humans can use power in order to bless and benefit others. This is one of the majors themes in the OT literature about the righteousness and holiness of the kings and princes of Israel–their godly use of authority and power for the sake of the powerless and the oppressed. Their exercise of power enables the poor to achieve a stable social position in which they are empowered to live without fear and pursue a whole life. Though there is an asymmetry, it is not a vicious, or idolatrous one, but one ordained for human flourishing.

Indeed, if I had time, I think I could even show this theme at work in the New Testament, both in the life of Jesus, the acts of the Apostles, and even the epistles. Not to mention Church history. It’s quite common to remember Christendom’s woes, even while we continue live in the historical wake of its social benefits.

What does this look like in practice, though? Well, this is a brief blog post, but the best example that comes to mind, the paradigmatic example, of a Christian approach towards acquiring and using power in order to empower others in a non-zero-sum fashion is that of education.

Think about the educational process. It is entirely dependent on an asymmetry in knowledge/power between educator and student. It’s precisely because the educator knows more than and has a certain measure of authority over the student that she can teach the student. What’s more, in the process of educating and exercising power, the educator is actually empowering the student, elevating them through the communication of knowledge. This is an example of giving away power that leads to no loss on the part of the educator. The student’s gain in knowledge does not diminish the educator’s in the slightest, but only raises the student.

Of course, in order for this kind of empowerment to happen, what does the educator have to do? They have to pursue knowledge and become an authority on a given subject matter. In order to give power away in a non-zero-sum fashion, they have to pursue that power through years of study, training, and so forth. Of course, there is a selfish way of pursuing education, knowledge, and authority–one that keeps the educator in possession of knowledge to the exclusion of others. Absolutely, they can use it to control, to elevate themselves at the cost of others. But we have to see that this is not inherently the case. And for any of the good of education to happen, we must run the risk of pursuing intellectual power.

Obviously, not all exercises of authority and power are exactly like this. Certain resources are more limited and there are certain “zero-sum” limitations to its exercise. But the fundamental principle of using power in order to empower others is still a creational and, I would say, redemptive reality that cannot be ignored or downplayed without detriment to our witness and our basic love of neighbor.

Soli Deo Gloria