The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

against calvinism

One of Roger Olson’s main problems with Calvinism is the difficulty it presents when wrestling with the problem of evil. Along with several other arguments on the matter, he invokes what we might call the “Objection from Cretinous Comfort” leveled by David Bentley Hart:

In The Doors of the Sea theologian Hart tells of a large Sri Lankan man of enormous physical strength whose five children were killed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The man was featured in an article in the New York Times. He was unable to prevent his children from perishing and, as he recounted his futile attempts, he was “utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping.” Then Hart writes: “Only a moral cretin … would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history.” Of course, most Calvinists would advise their followers not to say such things in such moments to such people. However, Hart reflects that “if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” (Against Calvinism, 90)

Now, initially Hart’s rule seems like a plausible stricture on theological speech. In the long run, our theology is measured by the cross of Christ and so it ought to be able to withstand the fires of suffering, adversity, and trauma in a sin-stained world. Nevertheless, if Hart’s test of theological truth proves anything, it seems to prove too much.

Consider our grieving father. I imagine only a moral cretin would look at him and begin to console him by saying, “Yes, your grief is real, but we also ought to reflect on the glorious reality that at the heart of the universe is the God whose life is the Father eternally generating the Son, and along with the Son, spirating the Spirit.” I mean, it’s true. And in a deep sense, it is a beautiful truth that can eventually bring comfort about the course of history. But I think it would require a particularly gracious, supernatural work of illumination by the Holy Spirit to make it seem like anything more than an insensitive abstraction, utterly irrelevant to the man’s grief at the moment.

To put a finer point on it, it would be equally morally cretinous and shamefully cruel to say to that same father, “Well, sadly, that’s life in a world with the libertarian free will requisite for moral responsibility. And if God were to regularly and unpredictably intervene to prevent such utterly meaningless tragedies, well that wouldn’t work. See, for humans to make rational choices, they depend on the course of the world operating according to law-like regularities such as gravitational force, wind speeds, storm pressures, and so forth, which create the sorts of Tsunamis which just killed your children. But, you know, libertarian free will is worth it in the long run.” If you said that, I’d be surprised if the father didn’t slap you.

All the same, the cretinous nature of the comment in the moment doesn’t for a moment determine the truth of the matter one way or the other. Or rather, the reason it seems obviously cretinous to utter such a statement is not because of it is wrong, but because it is not the sort of speech that is appropriate to the moment. The matter is folly not falsehood.

Of course, Olson or Hart may object that nobody would state the position like that. Or at least, it need not be stated like that. To which the obvious reply is that neither does the advocate of a Calvinist or Augustinian account of providence need to state things as crudely, insensitively, or baldly as they have suggested they might.

Now, this little riposte doesn’t settle the broader issue. Still, I think it at least shows some of the problem with Hart’s sentimental “objection from cretinous comfort.” Just about any position stated baldly and unflinchingly can seem trite in the face of catastrophe. It is not a problem that only Calvinists must face, but one which ought give us all pause as we contemplate the weighty task of comforting the grieving amidst the tragedies of this life.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a lengthy engagement on the issue of free will and permission, see Guillaume Bignon’s new volume.

I have a longish post on providence, evil, and the will of God here.

Finally, a post on the various doctrines we have at our disposal when trying to comfort the grieving.

Addendum: It may be objected (and has been) that I have mistaken Hart’s (and Olson’s) point. Hart has a strong, material point about the theology being always and everywhere repugnant. And I know that. My response is simply that the rhetorical and intuitive force of this passage is derived from our sense at how out of place it sounds in a moment of grief, and that this same sort of intuitive force can be used against other positions.

Additionally, I suppose I’ll simply reaffirm what I’ve said elsewhere: at some level, these intuitive appeals are often a matter of incommensurate, aesthetic judgments we already have. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering the problem of evil, or you don’t.

That’s not to slide into relativism. I think Scripture, reason, tradition, and so forth have their role in theological argument. I switched from holding something like Hart and Olson’s position to holding the one I do now for reasons. Still, that subjective dimension is always there. And it is wise to acknowledge it in yourself (for humility’s sake) as well as your theological interlocutors (for patience’s sake).

Johnson on the Proper Shape of Atonement Doctrine

companion to atonement

With his various works on the subject, especially his Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Adam Johnson has become something of a go-to guru on the subject matter. Editing the recent T&T Clark Companion to Atonement cements the deal. While I plan on reviewing it more fully later on, I wanted to briefly draw attention to his valuable programmatic comments on the nature of atonement doctrine in his introductory essay in the volume:

The goal of this doctrine is to understand and expound: the sanctified intellect’s joyful act of worship, as the church and its members seek to understand the God who revealed himself in his saving act, by means of God’s chosen witness to that act, Holy Scripture. Developing this doctrine is thus first and foremost an act of submission, of learning, recognizing, and understanding the witness we have received, for its origin lies in the decision and act of God, who does not merely seek to save his creatures, but to be known and worshipped by them as he is, as the Savior.

Only in a secondary and derivative way does the doctrine of the atonement dwell upon and respond to the challenges and heresies of its day. Biblical, theological, philosophical, religious, ethical, and other critiques have their vital role to play in the development and formation of doctrine (not least holding it accountable to its true vocation). But as the church’s calling and freedom to develop doctrine stems from the being and act of God, such critiques and questions play at most a significant ministerial role in holding the church accountable to its primary calling: joyful and rigorous reflection upon and development of the scriptural testimony to the saving work of the Lord Jesus. This is all the more true, given that the church’s primary end endures beyond all conflict and error, joining the angels in their never-ending privilege of worship, singing “blessed is the lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:12) in ever new stanzas and choruses (Ps. 96:11).

–“Atonement: The Shape and State of the Doctrine”, 1-2

If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that I have spent a fair amount of time (more than I like really) engaged in theological polemic surrounding the atonement. Indeed, polemic writing seems to be the most common mode of discourse on the matter both online and in academic circles. And there’s really nothing surprising about that. The cross of Christ has always presented itself as a stone of stumbling offense to the heart and mind (1 Cor. 1-2). And we should always be prepared to grapple at that level.

Still, Johnson rightly reminds us that polemical engagement is not the point of reflection on Christ’s work. The point is proclamation leading to doxological expression; preaching that produces praise. Forgetting this can lead to important distortions in both our spirituality and in the doctrine itself.

When it comes to the doctrine, preoccupation with polemics can lead you to get a misshapen sense of the whole. For instance, being entirely fixated on rightly defending penal substitution (which I do frequently), can tend to push you to ignore the many other facets of Christ’s work which the New Testament expounds. Or, flipping it around, a desire to recover neglected aspects can lead you to unnecessarily downplay those you think get too much attention.

This is where Johnson’s emphasis on rigorous reflection and attention to the witness of Scripture is vital. When we’re attending to the text carefully, we allow the Word to exert a pressure on our sense of the whole in proportion to its own testimony. We learn to emphasize what God emphasizes through his prophets and apostles, and how to relate the parts to the whole in the way he has inspired them.

And this must be true in our preaching as well. Preaching must include apologetics and polemics at times. If you’re going to reach the world, you must be dealing with the world’s arguments. All the same, the priority must be to preach the truth of Christ’s work in the text and order our polemics and apologetics to that end.

Soli Deo Gloria

No “Mere” Anthropomorphism

damascusOne of the perennial problems for a theology that is trying to speak of God on the basis of God’s word is wrestling with the sense of the Bible’s anthropomorphic language. The Biblical authors have no problem speaking of God in very human terms, attributing to God emotions, activities, and even body parts, in ways that seem somewhat inappropriate if taken as straightforward descriptions of the transcendent and infinite Creator of material and temporal reality.

John of Damascus broaches the question and quickly forwards a classic solution in On the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, chapter 11, stating:

Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognise that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless.

The Damascene is very clear, then, that while many Biblical idioms seem to imply that God has a body, these are symbolic representations which God has taken to himself in order to reveal himself in ways that are more suited to our finite understanding. God is simple, without composition and bodily shape. As Jesus testifies in John, “God is spirit” (John 4:24).

But the question remains, if this language is symbolic, what is it symbolic of? The point of noticing that language is symbolic, or not straightforward, or “literal”, is not to deny it has cognitive content, or real revelatory value. It is only to point out that it is revealing and referring in a unique, accommodated way.

Thankfully, John goes on to explain just what he means through several examples that I think are worth quoting at length:

Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty.

By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously.

God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste.

And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance.

And God’s countenance is the demonstration and manifestation of Himself through His works, for our manifestation is through the countenance.

And God’s hands mean the effectual nature of His energy, for it is with our own hands that we accomplish our most useful and valuable work.

And His right hand is His aid in prosperity, for it is the right hand that we also use when making anything of beautiful shape or of great value, or where much strength is required. His handling is His power of accurate discrimination and exaction, even in the minutest and most secret details, for those whom we have handled cannot conceal from us aught within themselves.

His feet and walk are His advent and presence, either for the purpose of bringing succour to the needy, or vengeance against enemies, or to perform any other action, for it is by using our feet that we come to arrive at any place.

His oath is the unchangeableness of His counsel, for it is by oath that we confirm our compacts with one another.

His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat.

His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own.

This passage is illuminating for a variety to reasons.

First, I must stress again that John is not denying that these accommodated terms have any content to them. Many modern critics like to attack more classical approaches to predication, accommodation, and analogical language for God as robbing us of knowledge of God. For if this language is “merely” anthropomorphic or anthropopathic, then it’s not really God’s self-communication.

But John is not saying they are mere anthropomorphisms, as if the choice were anthropomorphic language or truly revelatory language. No, in each case, the Biblical idiom is communicating truth about God’s ways and works with us by way of the accommodated language. In God’s hands, anthropomorphisms *are* revelation. Nor are the meanings provided bizarre, foreign to the idiom itself, or very difficult to grasp once we have had our attention drawn to them. The point, though, is that if we don’t eventually recognize these are accommodations, we will end up thinking about God in ways that he has explicitly forbidden us from doing elsewhere in Scripture.

Second, and this follows from the last point, John’s little interpretive cheat-sheet is meant as an aid for reading and understanding Scripture. Theology is not meant correct the text, but is an aid meant to return us to the text, able to read it more competently, with less confusion and difficulty. Instead of getting caught up on how big God’s hands are, we can marvel at his works of power. Instead of wondering about God’s sense of smell, we can read the text in order to discern how we may please him. Instead of worrying about reconciling God’s immutability and impassibility with portraits of God which depict him “getting angry”, we should read Scripture and understand what sort of evil he has eternally set himself in opposition to and flee it.

Finally, John even has an answer to the contemporary charge that this approach to the Biblical language is insufficiently “Christocentric.” The idea here is that if Jesus is God, the fullest revelation of God, then we shouldn’t worry about “Greek” axioms like impassibility and so forth. Jesus shows us what God is like and so if Jesus experiences these things, then we should be fine attributing these qualities straightforwardly to God. To do otherwise is to subject God to Greek abstraction, or not to sufficiently evangelize our metaphysics.

Reading the Damascene, we see there is more than one way to be Christocentric. For John, to be properly Christocentric, one must be Chalcedonian:

And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions.

Note, then, there is one place where descriptions which were anthropomorphic, symbolic language become straightforward description: the life of Jesus, the Godman. Or, as John puts it, in “the bodily sojourn of the God-Word.”

But the Damascene does not want us to miss that while Jesus is the Eternal Word who reveals the divine character and power, he is revealing them under the conditions of human fleshly existence. The glory of the incarnation is that the Son makes what is ours his own—body and soul—even though such things are foreign to the divine life. Jesus does not come to reveal a God who is already embodied, already in anguish and pain, but one who freely adopted these things for us and for our salvation.

And it is just so that John of Damascus’s understanding is Christocentric, but properly Chalcedonian, the union of the divine and human natures occurring unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. (This, by the way, leads later on to the very careful and necessary discussions on the communication of idioms.)

More could be said, but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that John’s Chalcedonian Christocentrism is not without a certain historic depth. One might look at this and begin to suspect one of the reasons for the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament, alongside declarations of his absoluteness, would be to prepare Israel for the reality of God become flesh. The God who for our sake has always adopted a human language which falls far short of his glory, adopts human life for our sake in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Examining Stott’s Strife (Reflections on Correcting Our Theological Fathers)

cross of ChristJohn Stott’s work The Cross of Christ is one of my favorite books on the atonement. A modern classic, its overall balance of exegesis, theology, pastoral insight, and existential application makes it worth returning to regularly. Beyond his many worthy commentaries, this book alone could secure Stott’s reputation as a giant in 20th Century Evangelical theology and ministry.

Recently, though, Adonis Vidu’s work Atonement, Law, and Justice (257-258) called my attention to a rather dismaying line or two where Stott seems to go ahead and affirm a “strife” of the divine attributes at play in God’s work of atonement.

Now, to speak of “strife” within God is language which more classical theology–with its axioms of impassibility and simplicity–typically rules out as deficient, if not abhorrent. If God is simple, without parts or pieces, to speak of God’s attributes is simply to speak of the single, indivisible reality of God from a different angle. In which case, it doesn’t make sense to speak of them at odds with one another. What’s more, recent revisionist critics of penal substitution have latched onto the idea that the doctrine requires us to posit a conflicted, split-minded God who needs to conquer his own wrath, as it were. To find Stott discarding the wisdom of the tradition and playing into the hands of critics of the doctrine would be distressing indeed.

In this post, I wanted to engage Stott a bit and see what’s going on. Both because I think it’s inherently interesting, but also because it’s a helpful gateway into reflecting on the way young theological students should proceed in engaging with our “fathers”  and “grandfathers” in the faith when we find troubling spots.

Two recent, theological blow-ups come to mind. First, there was the Trinity debate a summer or two ago, and then most recently the semi-brouhaha between John Frame, and others over James Dolezal’s book All That is In God. Other recent, internet tribunals could easily be adduced. Since I don’t think these disputes are going away, it’s worth slowing down and taking measure of how to proceed.

Stott’s Strife

Turning to Stott, he has an important section titled “The holy love of God” (129-132) where he is rightly arguing that God’s atoning work must be carried out in a way that is consistent with the entirety of his character. God does not atone simply according to his generous, merciful love, but also his perfectly just holiness.

To that end, he takes up the question of whether it’s appropriate to speak of a conflict, or a “strife” of the attributes within God. Against P.T. Forsyth, who explicitly ruled it out, Stott thinks we shouldn’t be too troubled with it. Yes, the language is anthropomorphic, but isn’t Scripture anthropomorphic that way? Does not Hosea 11 present us with a God at odds with himself (“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?”), torn between love and wrath? Here Stott sees a presentation which highlights the costliness of the conflict between what God “ought to do because of his righteousness and what he cannot do because of his love.”

He goes on to point out various phrases in Scripture which highlight a “‘duality’ within God,” such as Exodus 34, or “the kindness and sternness of God”, or “grace and truth”—couplets where “two complementary truths about God are brought together” as if to hold them in explicit tension. Following Emil Brunner, he sees this as Scripture’s way of remembering God’s “dual nature” as both Love and Holiness and not simply collapsing the one into the other in a manner that simply reduces holiness into love or love into holiness without any conceptual distinction between the two attributes.

Instead, we should recognize that the self-substitution of God for sinners in the cross of Christ reveals a God who fully enacts both aspects of his character in our salvation. It is the cross which enacts “the Holy Love of God”, in the words of P.T. Forsyth.

What’s Else Is Going On?

Now, on the face of it, there seems to be a clear affirmation of the strife of the attributes for the understandable reason that Scripture seems to do something similar. But it turns out things are a bit more complicated than that. Especially when you consider this key paragraph towards the back half of the section:

At the same time, we must never think of this duality within God’s being as irreconcilable. For God is not at odds with himself however much it may appear to us that he is. He is ‘the God of peace’, of inner tranquility not turmoil. True, we find it difficult to hold in our minds simultaneously the images of God as the Judge who must punish evil-doers and of the Lover who must find a way to forgive them. Yet he is both, and at the same time. In the words of G. C. Berkouwer, ‘in the cross of Christ God’s justice and love are simultaneously revealed’, while Calvin, echoing Augustine, was even bolder. He wrote of God that ‘in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated US’. Indeed, the two are more than simultaneous, they are identical, or at least alternative expressions of the same reality. For ‘the wrath of God is the love of God’, Brunner wrote in a daring sentence ‘in the form in which the man who has turned away from God and turned against God experiences it’.

What’s fascinating about this passage is that—when you consider the fact that Stott admits the language of Hosea is anthropomorphic—it is very close to an expression and affirmation of the point that divine simplicity and impassibility express.

As Vidu has it, in recognizing the non-composition of the divine nature, simplicity is helpful in ruling “out any prioritization of any divine attribute, whether justice or love,” as well as any thought that God is some being who must choose between his love or justice, or any of his attributes. God is his attributes in such a way that God is all that he is in all that he does. In which case, God’s attributes are never actually at odds with each other. God’s holiness is loving, his justice is kind, his mercy is righteous, and so forth.

Now, I think Vidu is absolutely right to argue the traditional language is more helpful (necessary even), than Stott’s formulation. But it appears that without using the language of the tradition, Stott was nonetheless trying to affirm the heart of its teaching in this regard. God must present himself, his acts, his intentions in history in ways that are accommodated to our finite and situated being in such a way that we can best understand them. And this may involve apparent tension, paradox, and difficulty—but we must take care not to collapse it too quickly or write off some of the material. We must affirm both the “kindness and severity of God” without imagining that in God’s eternal being they are different realities, or that God must choose between different aspects of himself.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think Stott picked a fight with Forsyth (and the tradition) that he didn’t need to, since I’m fairly sure Forsyth would agree there’s a duality or strife in the historical presentation of God’s attributes despite the actual inner unity. But also, just for that reason, those more classically-inclined might ease their worries about Stott on this point.

Young Guns, Fathers, and Grandfathers

With that discussion in view, I’d like to turn to the issue of engaging our theological fathers and mothers.

Christopher Cleveland had an insightful article over at Mere Orthodoxy on the Trinity debate that frames the problem historically. Without summarizing the whole thing, he calls attention to the way an earlier generation of conservative, evangelical scholars were often trained by critical scholars who rejected the tradition, so they were less conversant and concerned with it. Instead, these Evangelical scholars focused on Biblical studies, exegesis, defending Scripture and basic orthodoxy against critical scholars, but in ways that tweaked some traditional doctrines in the process (e.g. upholding the Trinity, but using Eternal Subordination to distinguish the persons instead of traditional doctrines like Eternal Generation).

Well, along comes a younger generation of theological students are being trained in a way that is more familiar (and sympathetic) to the classical categories and modes of theology developed in the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed Orthodox periods (think the post-Muller Renaissance for scholastics). As they take advantage of the retrieval and ressourcement movements afoot, they take a look at some of their Evangelical “fathers” and find themselves frustrated at hasty dismissals of the tradition, or cringing at some of the newer formulations. They then begin engage in their “corrective”, or restorative project.

In which case, you end up having what looks like a bunch of young guns correcting respected, theological “fathers” on behalf of their “grandfathers.”

Since these sorts of debates and arguments seem increasingly inevitable, what ought we do? How should we proceed?

  1. Resist Name-Making Pride

Thinking of myself first, I think it’s important to simply sit with the fact that for many of us youngsters there is a deep temptation to prove and make a name for yourself early on. Whether or not you’re right on an issue, it is easy to give in to the urge to write that takedown demonstrating your knowledge, your exegetical skill, your mastery of the most recent studies which overturn the scholarship the prior generation was dependent on. But this is not honoring to God since it proceeds, not from a faith that wants to see the truth made known, but an insecurity that needs our name to be known.

Remember, in twenty years, the scholarship may again change. Different academic winds will blow, and a new crop of up-and-comers tempted to make a name for themselves on the back of the older crop of scholars and writers. And it may be it is “with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2).

I am not good at this, but polemical correction ought to proceed only with prayer and a humility before God and the Word. Many of the teachers that you are engaging are men and women who have poured out years into the local church, their seminary students, and their schools in order to further the name of the Lord. I think of John Stott’s work and ministry and pray that God would allow me to do 1% of the good for the kingdom that man accomplished through his preaching, writing, and ministry.

In which case, it is good to remember Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father… older women as mothers” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). I think this sort of consideration will help curb the odium theologicum motivated by pride that poisons debates at times.

  1. Undue Deference Is Not Necessarily Better

That said, Paul does encourage Timothy to encourage older men in the congregation—presumably indicating that Timothy is not absolved from a responsibility to instruct, correct, or encourage these older men and women towards holiness on the basis of God’s Word. Honoring our elders, respecting their service, and resisting the temptation to make a name for yourself at their expense does not mean remaining silent if you see error—especially serious error.

At times in Evangelical and Reformed circles, there is a default deference which treats certain figures (writers, pastor, professors) of certain standing as above all criticism. That is not proper either. We are bound to the Word of God.

In which case, I think we should be slow to see all critical engagement as necessarily disrespectful, dishonoring, or contentious. Indeed, as I mentioned above, often the motive in critiquing a “father” is defending a “grandfather.” Especially as we come to appreciate the formulations of a grandfather can end up cutting off some nasty problems that end up developing later on.

Again, Stott opts for affirming a “strife of the attributes” at the level of Biblical presentation in explicit disagreement with Forsyth. Is it disrespect or pride to think Forsyth has the better argument of the two? Or as Mark Jones asked recently, is it really arrogant to prefer and argue for the consensus of Westminster and most theologians prior to the 20th Century on a subject to that of some contemporary Evangelical theologians? It does not seem so.

  1. Confusing Language with Thoughts

In many ways, theology is a linguistic task. Minding your prepositions, keeping your terms straight, and even missing a single letter in a word can throw entire doctrines askew (homoousios v. homoiousios). But it’s also more than that. We need to keep our language about God straight because language keeps our thoughts about God straight. At least most of the time.

I bring this up because it’s worth slowing down in these debates to consider how often it is a matter of disputing over terminological and conceptual differences rather than actual differences of judgment (to invoke David Yeago’s distinction). Looking at Stott’s discussion again, it seems that he was trying to say close to the same thing that the tradition has when invoking the language of simplicity. In which case, what initially appears to be a large divergence is much smaller.

Given some of what Stott says elsewhere, I do think there is probably a material difference as well. Following Moltmann, along with many 20th Century theologians, Stott rejected impassibility. Now, I think that’s a mistake as well. But given his line about God being a God of inner tranquility and peace, I think an argument could be made that he was thankfully inconsistent in his passibilism.

This is important because recognizing that changes the way you approach a conversation. Instead of launching a broadside against grave error, we may find ourselves able to make a more persuasive plea to move closer to the tradition by explaining how close a person already is. This isn’t always the case, but I suspect it applies more often than we might expect.

  1. Preachers v. Scholastics

On a related note, I think considerations of genre and office ought to be considered in these conversations. For instance, the difference between a preacher and a scholastic. This cuts both ways, by the way. The Reformed scholastics were often criticized for having a dry, lifeless piety on the basis of their scholastic manuals. But as Richard Muller has pointed out, these were meant to be textbooks, not sermons or devotional guides. Precision and clarity are the goal, not devotional lyricism. But that doesn’t mean that doctrine can’t be preached with power. Just read Thomas Watson.

I think the reverse consideration holds true now. It is true that, as Barth said, dogma is the criticism of proclamation. But for types who have come to appreciate the beauty of fine distinctions and carefully delineated doctrines, we may be tempted to look at devotional writings, or listen to popular preaching with eyes and ears that are too critical. Preachers who could give you a textbook answer in a doctrinal exam, will nonetheless speak with a sort of looseness in the pulpit that so that their people will get the gist, or that Scriptural truth can land with emotional resonance. Trial by blog post may not be the best way to handle that.

Yes, preachers should strive for precision and for power. But even in a Puritan as careful as Watson, you can find gorgeous turns of phrase that warm your heart but that taken strictly may not make sense if you needed to defend them in a disputation. In which case, we have even greater reason to slow down in jumping all over a certain generation of preachers as well, for what may be a mere linguistic infelicity instead of a full-fledged heresy.

  1. Beware the Pendulum

Finally, I think it’s important we keep aware of the pendulum. A while back I was talking to an older, experienced preacher about some of these issues. He largely agreed with the doctrinal correction that was taking place, but he was also worried that if people weren’t careful, they’d end up over-correcting and provoking a corrective reaction of their own. I think that’s wise.

Some of us younger types who have been striving to recover classical categories, modes, etc. need to be careful we don’t do so simply by explaining the older view more plainly and leaving it at that. At times rejections are based on historical confusion, but at other times, we may find we need to re-situate older doctrines or break new ground to present them in a way that addresses contemporary concerns.

Recovering older patterns of exegesis may be part of the solution, but working constructively with the fruit of recent Biblical studies will also be necessary for showing that classical doctrines function to explain, not veil the text. Real gains have been made in Biblical studies and if there is one thing that absolutely admirable about the last generation of scholars is their commitment to the Biblical text. It’s something they share with the classical tradition.

At the popular level, we need to be careful our desire for doctrinally pure preaching does not kill our ability to apply that doctrine in ways that reach down deep into the lives of our people. It can be that your sermon on the cross has a quite clear, Christological underpinning, but the glory of the Godman’s suffering for me may be muted in the process.

I could go on further, but I’ll leave off here for now and simply end with a basic point: speaking of God is a difficult business to be undertaken with fear and trembling, joy and delight, humility, and finally, much prayer.

Soli Deo Gloria

Immanuel, The Holy One of Israel in Your Midst—in Your Flesh!

prophet_isaiah-cut-760x276“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has long been my favorite Advent hymn. It’s marriage of rich, biblical theology and pathos perfectly capture the pain, longing, and anticipated joy of this season of expectation.

I’ve noticed that each year I return to it, a different line or stanza captures my imagination. It was the third that hooked me this year:

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.

Now, on the face of it, this stanza is highlighting the “great Lord of Might”, or God Almighty. While that is appropriate, the text upon which it reflects (Exod. 19), can also fittingly be considered under the rubric of God’s majestic, terrifying holiness; here Israel meets the Lord who has sanctified and elected her to be his own (Exod. 19:4-6).

Yet encountering the Holy One has ever been a harrowing experience. Facing God at Sinai, the Israelites quailed before him as he descended in the smoke of his fiery purity, causing the mountain to tremble with a voice like thunder (Ex. 19:16-20). For all the (valid) criticisms which can be registered against his generalized account of religion, Rudolf Otto’s articulation of the mysterium tremendum in The Idea of the Holy captures something of the awful, overpowering majesty communicated in the Biblical narrative.

Confronted with the prospect of hearing Yahweh’s awful voice once more, with concomitant threat destruction that attends it, the Israelites are overwhelmed, begging Moses to mediate: “You speak to us, and we will listen: but do not let God speak to us, let we die” (Ex. 20:19).

Isaiah’s personal Sinai encounter with the holiness, the incomparable majesty of God in the Temple is similarly overpowering (Isa. 6). To the seraphim’s refrain, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (v. 3), Isaiah must reply, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes of seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (v. 5). He is a sinner who has fallen short of the Law given at Sinai. In the overwhelming perfection of the presence of Holy King Yahweh, prepared to execute judgment from his throne, Isaiah is undone.

And yet, our hymn-writer, says that Israel ought rejoice at his coming of the Holy Law-giver from the Mountain. How can this be? Is not the coming of the Holy One wrath, judgment, and terror? Does not Isaiah testify the Lord is exalted as holy in his judgments (Isa. 5:16)?

Yes, yes, he is all that and more. But Isaiah came to know the Lord as Holy One, not only in his judgments, but in his merciful salvation:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:6-7)

Isaiah experienced the mercy, the grace, the cleansing fire of God’s holy presence. For this reason, he could testify to Israel in her future affliction:

You shall rejoice in Yahweh, in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory. (41:16)

I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Deliverer. (43:3)

I am Yahweh, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. (43:15)

Precisely as the Holy One—the only, majestic, incomparable, electing Lord—he is the Redeemer of Israel. At Sinai he gave the Law, but he also bound his Name—his self—to them as their Redeemer. Therefore Yahweh testifies to the faithless house of Israel:

I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. (Hos. 11:9)

It is the holiness of God which sets him apart—he can restrain his anger against their betrayal, their violation of his holy Law, and come to redeem them. He can maintain relationship, purify them once more, and be the Holy One in their midst. Indeed, it is his will to be known has holy that moves him to save Israel from her enemies:

And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel. (Ezek. 39:7)

When the Lord redeems his people from their sins and their enemies in accordance with his perfect power and righteousness, he will be seen as the Holy One in Israel.

And this is the child for whom we rejoice and await in Advent.

Recall the Angel’s response to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). In the virgin-born, Christ-child, the Holy One comes into the midst of Israel, just as Isaiah foretold:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14)

The holy marvel of Christmas is that the Lord did not simply give a sign himself, he gave himself as the thing signified. Jesus is Immanuel, the Holy One of Israel, in your midst—in your flesh!

The One who appeared in “cloud and majesty and awe” upon Sinai, incarnate in a mewling, powerless child, come not to destroy, but redeem us from sin, death, and the devil!

It is for the first coming of this Holy One, we rejoice. And it is for the second coming of this Holy One, we wait, again.

Soli Deo Gloria


On Still Being a Protestant ‘From a Protestant Point of View’: Contra Hauerwas

Today is a special Reformation Day. On this day, Protestants everywhere celebrate the 500th anniversary of the “beginning” of the Reformation—Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. Or at least some of us do. Others seem to have trouble remembering what the whole thing was about.

hauerwasTake Stanley Hauerwas. Last week he wrote up something of a rambling rehash of his ambivalence over the whole affair, and a defense (of sorts) for why he remains a Protestant despite the fact he doesn’t, “see the gulf between us and our Catholic brothers and sisters as particularly pronounced.” He has reasons. Like the fact that his wife is ordained, and that he thinks his position as a Protestant allows him to keep Rome honest about its claim to be the “one true Catholic Church.” On his telling, though, most of the reforms the Reformers wanted were acted on and we don’t have much to “protest” anymore.  It’s sort of odd, then, that we haven’t all returned to “Mother Church,” since “from a Protestant point of view” it’s hard to understand why Protestantism still exists.

Now, I can appreciate a few of the points he makes. I’m happy to confess the Church didn’t wink into existence at the beginning of the Reformation after centuries of absence. Protestants ought to be happy to appreciate pre-Reformation theologians such as Aquinas and Anselm as part of our common, Christian inheritance. There are plenty of contemporary and post-Vatican II theologians I think are worth time learning from and engaging (Matthew Levering, Robert Sokolowski, Von Balthasar, etc.). It’s a good thing to think in “Mere Christian” terms much of the time, and in an increasingly secular, post-Christian West, an “ecumenism of the trenches” makes a healthy sort of sense.

All the same, Hauerwas’ piece is wrongheaded and misleading at a basic level.

In honor of the polemics that made the Reformation possible, then, I thought I’d pick at it a bit and try to offer a bit of a counter-explanation for why, 500 years on, there’s more reason for being Protestant from a “Protestant point of view” than this putatively Protestant theologian can recall.

First, let me quote what seems to be the most important paragraph, and we can roll from there. Here is Hauerwas’ summary view of the current situation:

Five hundred years after its inception, we are witnessing the end of the Reformation. The very name “Protestant” suggests a protest movement aimed at the reform of a church that now bears the name of Roman Catholicism. But the reality is that the Reformation worked. Most of the reforms Protestants wanted Catholics to make (indulgences are no longer sold, for instance) have been made. A few Protestant denominations might still be anti-Catholic (consider evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress’s claim, recently publicized, that Catholicism has Satanic origins ), but the original idea that Catholics adhere to a legalistic perversion of Christianity that does not admit the free grace of God is seldom seen, these days, as the Protestant difference from Catholicism. Over time, historians have helped us see that there was no one thing the Reformation was about, but that if there was a single characteristic at the heart of the Reformation, it was the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world. That emphasis turned out to be the overriding insight that shaped the work of Vatican II, meaning Catholics have overcome the major thrust of the Reformation.

This is a ball of yarn so tangled it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s try the meaning of the word “Protestant.” The term does not, in the first instance, mean “protestor”, but “confessor, or witness.” To be a Protestant in the Reformation was to be one who gave voice or testified to key truths. Indeed, originally they were simply called “evangelicals”, since their concern was to give witness to key truths about the Gospel they saw being denied. The “protest movement” that followed flowed from that basic instinct.

It’s true, then, that it was not primarily about being “anti-Catholic”, but rather reforming the catholic church’s Roman deviations and sectarian traditions. (Indeed, many called themselves “Reformed Catholicks.”) Sadly, though, the Roman church resisted much of that witness and formally condemned it in the canons of Trent, which still function as part of the authoritative dogma of the Church, no matter how much Vatican II “developed” the doctrines therein.

So what claims did they confess against the Roman, Magisterial hierarchy and the Popes? Hauerwas rightly says historians have shown there were many, not just one. But after shoving grace to the side as a possible area of dispute, he manages to reduce it back to the one main thing in order to suggest there isn’t a big problem, claiming it was “the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world.” And since Vatican II fixed that, what’s the problem? (Incidentally, Cardinal Müller recently described the Reformation as a “revolution against the Holy Spirit,” so I’m not sure he got the memo about the meaning of Vatican II.)

Now, this take might work if he were solely describing the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists. But it’s idiosyncratic to the point of dishonesty if that’s supposed to cover the various claims of Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, or the majority of the Reformers who led the Reformation.

Let’s concede for the sake of the argument the idea that the issue of the nature of grace or justification by faith wasn’t still a major issue of dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Are there not still significant issues at stake for those claiming any sort of continuity with the concerns of the original Reformers?

For instance, one might have thought the pattern of interpretive authority and the status of Scripture to be central. Does the Church create and authorize the Scripture (“creature of the Church”)? Or do the Scriptures authorize and create the Church (Luther’s “creature of the Word”)? Can the Spirit speaking in Scripture ever correct or trump the Roman Magisterium and Papal pronouncements ex cathedra, or does the final authority over matters of faith and doctrine lie in the Teaching Office of the institutional church?

Because unless Protestants have just ceded Sola Scriptura, then I’m not sure the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics have been smoothed over. As recently as 1950, Pius XII infallibly declared the Assumption of Mary a de fide dogma in Munificentissimus Deus despite its paper-tissue thin support in Scripture. On the Roman view, denial of it on the authority of God’s Word is now a condemnable heresy incurring “the wrath of almighty God.” For a Protestant who actually takes a Protestant view of the domain of Christ’s Lordship through the Word, this is still an outrageous overreach on the part of the institutional church to bind human consciences beyond God’s Word.

Incidentally, this also brings up the encroachment on Christ’s sole mediation by the entire practice of praying to and through the entire panoply of saints or venerating Mary as “Queen of Heaven.” If you’re still basically unconvinced by appeals to the distinction between latria and dulia, then the fact that this is still on the books (and a regular feature of parish life across the world) might ruffle your Protestant feathers.

Or again, what do we make of the priesthood of all believers? It’s true the concept has suffered degradation and drift in some quarters of Evangelicalism. All the same, the basic claim of the teaching remains at issue no matter how many times the Roman church attempts to engage the laity. If you actually hold to Protestant teaching here (instead of merely claiming Protestant lineage), the changes are basically window-dressing since the underlying ecclesiology and polity—the structure and mediatorial power of the priesthood, the sacraments, etc.—haven’t been reformed in that way. Romanism without the Medieval abuses is still Romanism.

Finally, you might also have thought the nature of the Mass and communion to have been a central dispute. It certainly was among the Reformers themselves, which tells you how important it was to them. And even there, despite their differences, all of them stood opposed to the doctrine of transubstantiation whereby there is change “of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood” (Trent). They had faith God could use ordinary matter to communicate grace, without God needing to destroy its nature by turning it into something else.

Disputes about the agency of Christ’s real presence aside, neither Luther, Calvin, or the rest of the Reformers thought the bread and wine had to become something else to convey the promises of God. But transubstantiation is still Roman doctrine and most Protestants still can’t stomach it, for many of the same, Biblical reasons. That seems like a big deal. And it’s still unresolved.

I could keep going here, and notice again that I haven’t even touched on justification by faith, which, no surprise, I think (and many with me) is still at issue. Especially since the dispute in the Reformation wasn’t whether God showed grace in salvation, but how he did so, whether it involved human merit, whether a Christian could have assurance of that grace in Christ…but again, I’ll leave it to the side for now.

In sum, if you hold to Protestant theology, there are still good reasons to be Protestant and to celebrate the Reformation’s reminder of these catholic Christian truths. Which brings me to one of the oddest paragraphs in the whole piece:

But I am still a Protestant, even though I remain unsure I know what I am saying when I say I am a Protestant. I can think of my life only as a living ecumenical movement — raised Methodist, taught for Lutherans (Augustana College), overwhelmed by the Catholic world, deeply influenced by the Mennonites and finally back with the Methodists at Duke. All of which, of course, means I have ended up worshiping at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, N.C. That I am a theologian more defined by where I went to graduate school than by any ecclesial tradition mirrors changes in the Protestant world — in particular, that the gulfs between the denominations seem only to feel smaller and smaller. And so does the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism.

It’s one thing to grow in your appreciation of a deeper unity between the various branches of Christianity as you see a fundamental overlap in the gospel, the confession of Christ, etc. But it is precisely as you grow in that appreciation that Rome’s wildly sectarian claim to the “one true Catholic Church” widens the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism. Ironically, the entire logic of this paragraph ought to have made Hauerwas’s reasons for confessing the name Protestant all the stronger and clearer.

As Fred Sanders notes, “We are Protestant specifically to be more catholic, to avoid the constriction and reduction that Rome requires.” Or Kevin Vanhoozer puts it this way: “the real conflict is not between Scripture and tradition but between catholicism and one particular tradition (Romanism).” If he wasn’t so interested in sighing his ambivalence and sounding more ecumenical-than-thou, Hauerwas might have been able to give testimony to that.

Remaining Protestant is not, then, a matter of being “anti-Catholic”, or keeping Catholics honest when they claim to be the one true Catholic Church (because if they actually are the true church, you’re just being spiritually disobedient and, as my Catholic friends say, you should “repent and submit to the Pope.”) Instead, it’s about giving testimony that the catholicity of the Church extends far beyond Rome to all of God’s people who worship their Lord according to his Word.

At least, from a “Protestant point of view.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Augustine’s Confessions, Book 1


Mere FiThis week Alastair, Derek, and Matt take up and read Book 1 of Augustine’s Confessions. If you’d like to read along–which we encourage you to do–Henry Chadwick’s translation is available widely at a reasonable price.

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Soli Deo Gloria