Preaching Requires More than Biblical Theology Alone

I want to briefly follow up my earlier post on the fact that theology proper cannot subsist on biblical theology alone. Earlier this week I found out I was going to be preaching the temptation of Jesus out of Matthew 4 very shortly. And it hit me just how integrative, or multi-disciplinary you have to be (or could be) to preach this text in all of its fullness.

For instance, right off the bat, you’ve got grand-scale, Biblical theological themes. Jesus facing off against Satan in the wilderness gives us a portrait of Christ as the Second Adam, possibly New Moses, but also especially as the True Israel. Various textual features teach us to read this as a recapitulation of both the trial of Adam in the Garden, facing off against Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve through the distortion of God’s Word. Also, that this happened after the 40 days of fasting leads us to recall Israel’s sojourn and temptation for 40 years in the desert, which is only reinforced by the specific Scriptures Jesus cites against Satan from Deuteronomy.

With that in view, you could ask what this encounter means for Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. Well, it’s an initial, partial victory over the devil at the outset of his ministry, inaugurating the kingdom of God through his teaching, preaching, healing, and exorcisms, as well as a powerful confirmation of his vocation and identity as the Son with whom the Father is well-pleased.

Of course, this raises Christological issues. This is the Son who is not only human, but divine. What does it mean for the the Son to be tempted then? Did Jesus assume a “fallen” human nature? Could Jesus have sinned given his divine nature? Or how did his unique empowerment by the Spirit come into play?

These doctrinal questions are not besides the point, but have important implications for the text’s essential meaning, as well as soteriological and existential cash value.

For instance, they have an impact on how we understand this as part of the active obedience of Christ, the Second Adam, and the representative Israel’s work for us. In union with Christ, this victory, this righteousness becomes ours by faith. Or again, Jesus victory in this text becomes ours, but also so does his example. He has given us the same Spirit in whose power he overcame temptation. We have the same Word–indeed, even more Scripture–with which to resist the devil’s temptations. Both of these dimensions of reflection and application are impacted by the dogmatic conclusions we come to provoked by this text.

Beyond the biblical-theological and the dogmatic, there is much to reflect on here existentially and ethically: what are these temptations? Different ways we’re tempted to distrust God, to imagine him wrongly, and try to provide for ourselves. They are the desires of the flesh, the temptation to get God to prove himself to you, or to achieve victory, power, and the kingdom without the cross. And each of these could provoke extended ethical and ascetic reflection.

And I’m just scratching the surface here. The point is simply this: to preach and teach any text well, you need multiple tools in your toolkit. Neither systematics alone, nor biblical theology alone, nor ethical reflection alone is sufficient for unpacking the truth, the glory, and the beauty of God’s Word for God’s people. Indeed, it should be no surprise that preaching the Word in the congregation is precisely the ecclesial act that forces one to cut through the artificial divisions imposed by the specialization of the academy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Trueman Called It

trueman

This last couple of days I have been at the Paideia Center conference at RTS Orlando, where the main subject was the doctrine of the Trinity. The lectures and panels were all excellent, but I wanted to quickly highlight something Carl Trueman mentioned in passing (and I can’t remember if it was in a lecture or one of the panels). Back in 2002 he had an editorial in Themelios, “A Revolutionary Balancing Act,” in which he warned of the deleterious effects upon theology if the curriculum neglected the historic categories and simply fed students on a diet of pure ‘Biblical’ theology of the redemptive-historical sort.

While there is nothing wrong with it in and of itself, it has it’s limits:

My greatest concern with the biblical theology movement is that it places such an overwhelming emphasis upon the economy of salvation that it neglects these ontological aspects of theology. In doing so, it will, I believe, prove ultimately self-defeating: a divine economy without a divine ontology is unstable and will collapse. Trinitarianism will dissolve into modalism; the theological unity of the bible will be swallowed up and destroyed by its diversity because it has no foundation in the one God who speaks; and Christian exclusivism will be sacrificed to a meaningless pluralism as the church’s narrative is reduced to having significance only within the bounds of the Christian community. I suspect that ‘Openness theism’ is merely the most well known heresy to have been nurtured in the anti-doctrinal, anti-tradition world of contemporary evangelicalism; it will certainly not be the last. And my fear is that the overwhelming economic emphasis of the biblical theology trajectory effectively cuts the church off from probing the ontological questions which I believe are demanded by reflection upon the biblical text, by consideration of the church’s tradition, and by our Christian commitment to the notion of the existence of a God who has revealed himself yet whose existence is prior to that revelation.

You can (and should) read the rest here.

I want to note a few things. First, this was fourteen years before the Trinity Debate of 2016, so I think we can all agree that despite Trueman’s notorious (and endearing) pessimism, he wasn’t just whistling in the dark. All has not been well in contemporary Evangelicalism’s theology proper for a long while.

I’ll just pitch in for myself that the problems are not just seen in things like open theism or the Trinity debate. They have had repercussions down the line into other areas of dogmatics. Atonement doctrine, for one, is a place where I have become convinced that only a recovery and appreciation of some of the classic ontological categories and judgments can make sense of our account of the person and work of Jesus in the cross and resurrection.

Without thick accounts of things like the nature of the persons, relations of origin, unity of operations, the two natures of Christ, as well as attributes like divine simplicity, impassibility, we don’t have the proper grammar to explain what we mean when we say that the Son was handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification. And this has contributed to some of the blowback and problematic rejections of classic Protestant doctrine on this score.

Now, the encouraging thing is that this is changing (I think). A number of helpful retrieval projects are afoot among Protestant and Evangelical theologians and biblical scholars going to work today. Heck, the Trinity Debate itself was salutary on that score. (Which is a good reminder for those of us who tend to think all theological polemic is just divisive and unhelpful for the church.)

Still, it’s an uphill battle. I’ll only throw in my one cent of caution for the younger folks leading retrieval charge: don’t over-correct in the other direction. As one older pastor warned me, you need to do some of this overhaul work, but if you go too far in the other direction, you’ll just face the pendulum swing back in the next generation.

Soli Deo Gloria

If everything is sacramental, is anything a sacrament? (creation, disenchantment, and a tweet)

wanderer above sea fogLast week I was feeling puckish, so I tweeted out, “What if, and just go with me here, what if only the sacraments are sacramental?”

I think most people got that I was being somewhat playful.  Still, some folks were, well, they weren’t entirely pleased. So I wanted to quickly unpack some very rough, very semi-developed, in-transition thoughts on that, which also happen to dovetail with last week’s short post on “disenchantment” narratives.

First, let me clear the deck and just say I am very much pro-sacraments, value baptism, celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, and understanding them to be doing something more significant than mere memorialism. I went Reformed partly for Calvin’s strong doctrine of the sacraments. They have become central to my understanding of the Church, the preaching of the Gospel, and the practice of the faith in a way they never were before.

That said, I’ll admit I’ve been a bit suspicious of a certain sort of spirituality of “sacramentality” that’s hot in, well, semi-nerdy, theology circles. Of late it’s been hot to talk about “sacramental ontology” and how terrible it is that it’s been lost due to whatever cause (Protestantism, nominalism, univocity, etc.–though often not technology, which is probably the biggest culprit), and how we need to regain it, and so forth.

The problem is, most of the time I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by that phrase “sacramental ontology.” Nor am I entirely sure others do when they use it.  At least, people seem to be much potential for equivocation and confusion in the midst of all the excitement. To quote the great philosopher Chazz Michael Michaels, “nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative; it gets the people going.” And so, yes, I was poking fun at that. (Maybe that’s unfair, and not really academic, but it’s Twitter, so what do you expect?)

Still, I think I get why some were annoyed. For some of the folks who go in for it, it has to do with seeing in the sacraments an antidote towards modern disenchantment. Last week I talked about one thread, or version of the “disenchantment” narrative having to do with the loss of belief in the supernatural, spirits, fairies, God himself, etc. But another thread has to do with a sense that the universe becomes a different sort of space in the modern period. Creation becomes mere nature, organism becomes mechanism, and the sense of wonder one has at beholding the stars is reduced from being a functioning of the sensus divinitatus to mere physio-psychological epiphenomenon. If you take your eyes off your phone long enough to even look up at the stars.

How do the sacraments function against this? Well, for some the sacraments tell us that “matter matters”, or that the stuff of the material order can actually function as a medium of divine grace. God can use stuff to communicate truth to us about himself. The world, with its order and beauty, is not just dead nature, but the appointed, spatio-temporal medium of our encounter with our Creator.

Now, so far as that goes, I’m all fine with that. David hymns God for the way nature declares God’s glory in Psalm 19. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that the world testifies to God’s existence and power. And the seraphim remind us in their hymn the Lord in Isaiah 6 that the whole earth is full of his glory. So Calvin: “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Leaning into a solid, biblical doctrine of creation will push back on much of that sense of disenchantment.

And so, yes, from a certain angle, you can argue that one of the key advantages of the Protestant doctrine of the sacraments, precisely in its rejection of transubstantiation, is a defense of created bread and wine as actual elements wherein God meets his people. In doing so, it sort of assumes this anti-disenchantment portrait of creation having a communicative telos to it. 

Some of you may be thinking, “well, Derek, if you’re willing to concede all that, then what is the complaint about?” Well, a couple of things, both of which I will admit may be (probably are) anecdotal senses to things.

As I said, some folks don’t seem to be just saying that. They seem to be importing into all their talk about nature being sacramental something far more akin to a 19th century, mystical, nature-Romanticism under the guise of a properly Christian doctrine of creation and the sacraments. It’s not so much a communicative doctrine of creation, but a magical one. 

Second, maybe more importantly, is the sense that the sacraments themselves are being instrumentalized in a way that washes out and evacuates their own proper meaning. In other words, if I ask you the question, “What are the sacraments about?”, I truly hope your answer is not primarily, “it shows me matter matters,” “the world is an enchanted place,” etc. 

Those may indeed be corollaries down the line. But the primary meaning of the sacraments is the concrete, historical actions that comprise the story of the gospel which they are meant to communicate: dying and rising in union with Christ, sprinkling a clean conscience, being washed pure of your sins, the broken body and shed blood of the Godman given for you, the coming wedding feast of the Lamb, the Father feeding his children, Christ’s New Exodus Passover, communion and participation in Christ’s Body, and so forth. These realities are what the sacraments are about, what they are meant to communicate and effect in us. They are particular signs and seals of a particular gospel covenant.

But when your focus is on how the sacraments show us that everything is sacramental, well, you’ve lost the sacraments. Or, to quote The Incredibles, when Elastigirl tells Dash, “everybody is special, Dash,” he replies, “which is another way of saying nobody is.” My worry is that when we’re entranced with everything being sacramental, nothing will be a proper sacrament.

As I said, this is all too brief and not very carefully worked out, but there it is. I’d be happy to read folks follow-up, additional thoughts, clarifications, and so forth. But for now, I here tweet, and I can do no other.

Soli Deo Gloria

Finding Penalty Where None Should Be Found

Hilary poitier

For one reason or another, I’ve been digging around in the Church Fathers in my studies on holiness. Along the way, I’ve run across a couple of useful passages on the atonement in Cyril of Jerusalem and Hilary of Poitiers. The gist of it is this: even though we still commonly hear folks claim that nothing like a satisfaction, or a penal theory of Christ’s work on the cross was present in the Church Fathers, you can still find passages that prove otherwise.

Mind you, these are not exact reproductions of Anselm or Calvin. Doctrinal formulations develop with language and history. Still, it seems easy to see that they’re in the same, conceptual ballpark, insofar as they see part of Christ’s work answering the problem of God’s legal curse upon sin, with Christ voluntarily assuming responsibility for that curse, in order that God might not be made a liar in saving and forgiving us.

So, first, observe these two paragraphs in Cyril’s Catechetical lecture on the clause, “crucified and buried” in the Creed:

And wonder not that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf. Moreover one man’s sin, even Adam’s, had power to bring death to the world; but if by the trespass of the one death reigned over the world, how shall not life much rather reign by the righteousness of the One? And if because of the tree of food they were then cast out of paradise, shall not believers now more easily enter into paradise because of the Tree of Jesus? If the first man formed out of the earth brought in universal death, shall not He who formed him out of the earth bring in eternal life, being Himself the Life? If Phinees, when he waxed zealous and slew the evil-doer, staved the wrath of God, shall not Jesus, who slew not another, but gave up Himself for a ransom, put away the wrath which is against mankind?

We see here that at least part of what Jesus came to do was, in a manner similar to Phinehas the zealous priest did in Israel, put away the wrath of God which was against mankind. This he did, not by slaying the offending Israelite, but by offering himself up as a ransoming sacrifice.

Further, he says this:

These things the Saviour endured, and made peace through the Blood of His Cross, for things in heaven, and things in earth. For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness. Of no small account was He who died for us; He was not a literal sheep; He was not a mere man; He was more than an Angel; He was God made man. The transgression of sinners was not so great as the righteousness of Him who died for them; the sin which we committed was not so great as the righteousness which He wrought who laid down His life for us,—who laid it down when He pleased, and took it again when He pleased. And wouldest thou know that He laid not down His life by violence, nor yielded up the ghost against His will? He cried to the Father, saying, Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit; I commend it, that I may take it again. And having said these things, He gave up the ghost; but not for any long time, for He quickly rose again from the dead.

Here Cyril sets up a clear dilemma leading to the reconciling blood of the cross (Col. 1): either God could have destroyed us as the sinners we are, justly deserving of his threatened, legal punishment, OR he can cancel the sentence of death. Mind you, this is a clearly legal logic.

But how is the problem solved? God preserved both principles at work behind both options in the death of his Son, which prevents sinners from being destroyed and God’s sentence from being cancelled. The logic is very clearly one where God does not merely forgive and let the sentence go, nor does he simply destroy. He does both at one and the same time in the cross. And of course, the key is that he does this through the Son’s willing sacrifice in laying “down his life for us,” and then taking it up again.

Turning to the great Hilary of Poitiers, we see something similar in his Homily on Psalm 54. Here he offers a Christological reading that makes the Psalm a testimony to the coming work of Christ for our salvation. See what he says in these two paragraphs towards the end of the exposition:

Now in view of our repeated, nay our unbroken assertion both that it was the Only-begotten Son of God Who was uplifted on the cross, and that He was condemned to death Who is eternal by virtue of the origin which is His by the nature which He derives from the eternal Father, it must be clearly understood that He was subjected to suffering of no natural necessity, but to accomplish the mystery of man’s salvation; that He submitted to suffering of His own Will, and not under compulsion. And although this suffering did not belong to His nature as eternal Son, the immutability of God being proof against the assault of any derogatory disturbance, yet it was freely undertaken, and was intended to fulfil a penal function without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer: not that the suffering in question was not of a kind to cause pain, but because the divine Nature feels no pain. God suffered, then, by voluntarily submitting to suffering; but although He underwent the sufferings in all the fulness of their force, which necessarily causes pain to the sufferers, yet He never so abandoned the powers of His Nature as to feel pain.

Now, again, this isn’t Calvin straight up. Still, you see that Christ, the Eternal Son, was condemned to death on the cross. Yet, Hilary is at pains to confess that this was voluntarily accepted, not imposed upon him from without with respect to the agency of God the Father (presumably the action of the whole Godhead being appropriated to him). Still, what he submitted to was “intended to fuflil (sic) a penal function.”

The business about “without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer” can be tricky, though. At first it seems to deny the cross was penalty. But that makes no sense of the prior clause. The point Hilary seems to be getting at is that the divine Son did not have pain inflicted upon him unwillingly, nor did he suffer it in a servile way such that he “abandoned the powers of his Nature as to feel pain.” In other words, God submitted to suffering in Christ, but not in such a way that violated his impassible nature.

Continuing on, he says:

For next there follows: I will sacrifice unto Thee freely. The sacrifices of the Law, which consisted of whole burnt-offerings and oblations of goats and of bulls, did not involve an expression of free will, because the sentence of a curse was pronounced on all who broke the Law. Whoever failed to sacrifice laid himself open to the curse. And it was always necessary to go through the whole sacrificial action because the addition of a curse to the commandment forbad any trifling with the obligation of offering. It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when, as the Apostle says: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made curse for us, for it is written: cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the Law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed. Now of this sacrifice mention is made in another passage of the Psalms: Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared for Me; that is, by offering to God the Father, Who refused the legal sacrifices, the acceptable offering of the body which He received. Of which offering the holy Apostle thus speaks: For this He did once for all when He offered Himself up1401, securing complete salvation for the human race by the offering of this holy, perfect victim.

We see here how he is at pains to express the value of Christ’s voluntary offering in contrast to the offering of unwilling beasts. He also clearly notes the connection between the curse of death and the Law. The curse is legal in nature. And that is the curse from which Christ redeemed us, by offering himself as a holy, perfect victim to die the death of the accursed and break it’s hold upon us.

While we don’t have the exact language of Christ suffering the wrath of God as a substitute, or something like that, we do have Christ offering himself to God the Father to suffer the cursed death due sinners according to the Law. This puts us, as I said, in largely the same conceptual ballpark as both satisfaction and penal substitution accounts. And, arguably, it’s closer to penal substitution since there is no mention of satisfying God’s honor, but rather God’s requirement and curse in the Law.

There are more passages, of course. And obviously, none of this is an argument that there isn’t a wide breadth of thought on atonement in the Fathers, nor that this is the only way to think about atonement. All the same, it’s worth highlighting these today, if only to remind ourselves that the history of theology is a stranger, more complicated place than our typical, canned presentations can lead us to suspect.

Soli Deo Gloria

Justification by Michael Horton, 2 Volumes

justificationIt’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, but I had to break radio silence to write up a little notice about Michael Horton’s new, 2-volume work, Justification. It’s the fourth entry in the New Studies in Dogmatics series edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain, and it does the series proud. I won’t mince words, it’s in the top three books of the year for me, if not the top spot. (I’d have to check the notes to remember what else I read). I have read a lot of Horton, but this might be his magnum opus.

Being two large volumes (375 pp and 493 pp) I won’t attempt to give you a comprehensive summary of the work. Nor will I adjudicate some of the intra-Reformed debates that do poke out in certain chapters. I’ll leave it other reviewers to take up some of those important, critical questions. Instead, I’d rather just highlight a few strengths and commend it to you in general.

First, Horton’s just a good writer. It’s always worth noting when an academic knows how to write clean sentences that do not strain a reader’s patience. The years of popular writing alongside dogmatic exploration come in handy here, helping you along when you might be tempted to turn to the wayside in some of the denser pieces of analysis.

Second, I like that Allen and Swain gave him space to play. Two volumes sort of blows the proportion of the series out of the water. But justification is such a hotly disputed matter, with several, important movements in 20th Century scholarship, numerous reinterpretations, many, related historical and exegetical desiderata in need of comment, it’s wonderful to have something of a one-stop shop like this coming from him, so that’s great. (Oh, also, in case you’re wondering, all of this space does give him room to stretch his legs and distinguish these two volumes from his earlier work, Covenant and Salvation, so it’s not just redundant for those who have read it.)

Third, turning to the volumes proper, I have trouble deciding which I liked better. I think I probably benefited personally from the first more, though, simply because I was less familiar with the material. It’s essentially a history of the doctrine, exploring it from the patristic period through the Reformation, paying close attention to figures like the earliest fathers, Chrysostom, Origen, and Augustine, on to Medieval figures (Aquinas, Ockham, Biel, etc.) to the Magisterial Reformers. One quick benefit here worth noting, is that while the Fathers were diverse on justification in many respects, Horton shows that the Reformation doctrine is far from a novum, having a great many theological taproots into the first centuries of the church. It is not, however, a comprehensive account going deep into the early modern and modern periods, distinguishing between the continental Reformed, the Puritans, later Lutherans, Pietists, developments, post-Schleiermacher, etc. So, historians looking for more, will still have to look elsewhere on that score.

All the same, a lot of what Horton does is put on his Big Story Deconstructor hat, and through careful attention to mostly primary texts,  recent disputes about the Scotus Story, the nature and supernature distinction in Aquinas and other Medievals, etc. dismantles components of some of the prominent academic and popular narratives told by folks like Milbank, Gregory, etc. about how the Reformation is the result (and facilitator) of the rise of nominalism, individualism, and sundry other ills of modernity. In fact, Horton goes so far as to argue that the Council of Trent’s teaching on justification more proper represents the “triumph of nominalism,” besides showing at length how far the council varies from even Augustine’s or Aquinas’s account of the grace of justification (neither of whom even held the Reformation doctrine).

I have to say, Horton taking a hammer to so much of the bad, anti-Protestant polemics is satisfying to watch. It’s an irenic hammer, not given to spleen or invective, but a hammer, nevertheless. (Don’t miss the footnotes!) He also just dispels a lot of mythology around the Magisterial Reformer’s approach to the doctrine, rejecting any number of modern, false dichotomies, and spurious charges repeated even by some modern Protestants.

With volume two, though, Horton turns the corner from history into actually articulating a positive, dogmatic and biblical account of the doctrine, driven by properly exegetical and theological argumentation. And I’ll just say, this is an example of constructive doctrine done well. Here he doesn’t just repeat the Reformers, but engages at length with recent New Testament scholarship (largely in Paul, but also the Gospels), delving into Old Testament roots of the doctrine, Biblical theology of the covenants, 2nd Temple texts (Qumran, the Rabbis, etc.), and lexical and semantic examinations of key terms in Paul. Alongside a retrieval of the Reformers, you’ve got exegetical dives into key texts touching on disputed issues like ‘works of the Law” in Paul, imputation, union with Christ, the pistis Christou debate, the role of works in justification, the place of resurrection, and a surprisingly comprehensive, multi-faceted, false-dichotomy-busting account of atonement that’s worth the price of the volume.

In doing all this, he’s able to draw on and engage with the heavy-hitters and critics of the “Old Perspective” in Pauline studies (Wright, Dunn, Sanders, Campbell, Bates, Hays, Barclay etc.) there is still exegetical life in the bones of a fairly classic, Reformed account, that can hold its own against both New Perspective and Apocalyptic perspectives. Additionally, I was pleased to see Horton put Barclay’s and Sander’s recent work on 2nd Temple Jewish accounts of grace, to show just how closely the Reformation disputes between Catholics and Protestants around grace mirrored some of the differing accounts of grace on offer at the time of Paul in the 2nd Temple period.

I’ll also add that one of the advantages of having worked his way through the history of volume 1 first, Horton is able to show the way so many of recent, New Testament scholarship’s criticisms of Reformation accounts of the doctrine simply fail to make contact with their object, by dint of caricature and misunderstanding. What’s more, it enables you to see the way some of the biggest moves in Pauline interpretation by Biblical scholars have, themselves, been funded by modern, theological programs (Barthianism, etc.) every bit as dogmatic as the Reformation accounts they were trying to replace. In which case, it’s another good example of the way historical theology serves as an aid (indeed, a necessary ingredient) in the exegetical and dogmatic task.

I’ve said this before, but my original dive into Pauline studies was through New Perspective scholars (Dunn, Wright, etc.), and it’s been a slow process of unlearning so much of what I “knew” to be true of Reformation perspectives and their viability today. Here, again, the polemic is irenic, but necessary (and don’t miss the footnotes!). For anybody looking for an up-to-date, go-to volume that does that in conversation with recent developments, Horton’s volume 2 is now the place to look.

I’ll add a couple of notes here on who to read it: if you a student interested in justification, a scholar working on the issue, etc. no-brainer.

If you’re a pastor, and you think you don’t have time, or you feel you’ve dealt with the doctrine before (back in seminary, all those years ago…), you might be surprised at how much you can still gain with the engagement with contemporary scholarship and close exegesis of several passages. I got to preach out of Galatians this last week at my church and Horton’s work was reverberating in the background of my sermon at several points. There’s a lot of academic, heavy-lifting, but this is theology that preaches.

Finally, I’ll say that if you’re a Protestant who is thinking of swimming the Tiber for any reason (theological, historical, aesthetic), you should strongly consider digging into Horton’s work first.  (Also, if you’re a Roman Catholic who is genuinely interested in reading a strong, Protestant account of this crucial doctrine, it’s worth it for you too–you can say you’ve read one of the strongest accounts out there.) The matter of justification is one of key doctrinal issues dividing the two branches of Christianity and it is not something that can be brushed aside quickly, but ought to be faced squarely and wrestled with at length. Yes, the book is long, but it’s worth the time to think these things through carefully before making such a weighty and momentous decision.

I add this only because I find that often (not always!), folks who are thinking of leaving, or who reject Protestantism, have not actually read the best (or classic) accounts of the doctrine, and so are “leaving” the theology of their Protestant youth group, or the popular accounts of salvation you pick up in a pietistic, revival night. And by comparison, yes, they’re weak–you wonder how such a thing account of salvation could have ever fired the minds of the Reformers. But, of course, they’re not the real thing. This is.

Alright, I’ve left out much that could be said, but I think I’ve said enough for now. The work is excellent, worth your time and money, and should make an excellent Christmas present to any theological student in your life.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Divine Magistracy, Retributivism, and Inference

just vengeanceA few weeks ago, I touched on the matter of consequentialist logic in theology. One of my arguments was that we need to be wary about rejecting some theological premise just because we are used to seeing it attached to some inference, some conclusion we don’t like. That’s because folks can rightly or wrongly draw all sorts of conclusions from the very same premise, depending on what other premises they attach to it. Or how smart they are.

I ran across another good example of this in Timothy Gorringe’s volume God’s Just VengeanceIn a chapter on the atonement theology of the 18th century, he notes that it was the century of the “magistracy”, and if there was one universal across a variety of theological camps, it was the invocation of the image of God as the universal magistrate, the perfect, moral governor of the universe. But the theological conclusions of that shared premise when it came to atonement or the practice of justice were not always alike, depending on which other principles were invoked (is punishment rehabilitative, punitive, deterrent), or how analogous you took God’s magistracy to be with regular, human magistrates (very much, or not at all), or how highly you evaluated the ability of human justice to approximate divine justice.

The moral philosopher William Paley is a good example of the rather odd configurations you could get. Gorringe cites a long bit from his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (God’s Just Vengeance, 164):

A Being whose knowledge penetrates every concealment, from the
operation of whose will no art or flight can escape, and in whose hands
punishment is sure; such a Being may conduct the moral government of
his creation in the best and wisest manner, by pronouncing a law that
every crime shall finally receive a punishment proportioned to the guilt
which it contains … But when the care of the public safety is entrusted
to men, whose authority over their fellow creatures is limited by defects
of power and knowledge … a new rule of proceeding results from the
very imperfection of their faculties. In their hands, the uncertainty of
punishment must be compensated by severity. The ease with which
crimes are committed or concealed must be counteracted by additional
penalties and increased terrors.

Here we see that Paley believes God is a perfect judge and magistrate who is able (and willing) to administer perfect retributive judgment, giving every sinner his just judgment. So far, he’s got a basic retributivist outlook. Beyond that, God has entrusted the moral government of the world to those put in authority. Okay, makes sense.

The problem for Paley is that they are not perfect justices. They are finite, unable to discern the heart, the truth of a given case. And so, human justice must be carried out, not attempting perfect distributive or retributive justice, but rather with an eye towards either deterrence or rehabilitation. But since he thinks rehabilitation rarely works, precisely for that reason, punishment should err on the side of severity! Only by punishing crimes with great severity will you get folks to knock it off and promote peace. (This was during the years the Black Act under which something like 350 types of cases were liable to death penalty.)

While the logic is intuitive enough at one level, there are a couple of ironies to the position.

First, the common assumption is that his theological retributivism is what would make Paley more prone to harsh punishment. But the reality is the opposite. It seems that precisely because he did not take the retribution of God seriously enough, he did not take seriously the danger of facing the judgement of a God who equally hates convicting the innocent as well as acquitting the guilty (Prov. 17:15), or the punishment of a crime in a way that violates proportion.

(This is actually at the heart of C.S. Lewis’s famous defense of retributivism: all sorts of atrocities and infringement of liberty could be justified under the banner of deterrence or rehabilitation if nobody stops to ask the question of whether or not someone deserves such treatment.)

Second, the moral he draws from his epistemological judgment is suspect. One might just as well take the position that precisely because human judgment is fallible, weak, and imprecise, we must lean towards leniency in punishment.  If you don’t know if someone’s a murderer, don’t shoot ’em. But again, that only follows if you take retributivism seriously as a principle of judgment.

Again, though, a very different use of the image was made by others at the time. Socinians like Joseph Priestly agreed that God was a divine magistrate. What’s more, they agreed that his justice was perfect and different than that of finite human judges. But that precisely for that reason, he did not have to punish as they did. He could see human hearts and understand who was truly penitent and forgive them, unlike human judges who could not. So this theological leniency doesn’t necessarily cash out in practical, juridical leniency.

My point isn’t to settle the issue of which use of the image of the divine magistracy is the correct one (fwiw, neither of these two are good), but simply to illustrate again the fact that the very same images, principles, etc. can be used to come to very different conclusions. So we ought to be hasty in our evaluation that one necessarily causes damage or ought to be discarded.

Instead, what this variety reinforces for me once more is the need to let Scripture norm our concepts. To let God define for us, what it means to be King, Judge, and Father.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Problem with Consequentialism in Thelogy (for Mere-O)

mdoesl of godBeware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-20)

Thus our Lord Christ on how to spot false prophets. Apple trees bear apples, and orange trees bear oranges. And rotten trees bear rotten fruits of any kind. The same is true of teachers—their lives bear out their character. Perennial wisdom for the Church in any age.

Of late, though, this dictum has been transformed into a criterion for judging not only teachers, but teachings. Or perhaps I’m only noticing it now. In either case, it’s become quite common for people to argue that we need to abandon doctrines (whether it’s our sex ethic or our soteriology) upon the judgment that it “bears bad fruit”; it leads to negative consequences of varied sorts whether historical, social, or psychological. Does a doctrine lead to positive, human flourishing (however that’s defined)? Then it’s good. If not, chuck it. In other words, it’s been transformed into consequentialist criterion for evaluating the truth of doctrine.

As with most forms of consequentialism, there’s something intuitive, straightforward, and simple about this. Sound doctrine, truth, is life-giving in Scripture. In the long run, doctrine matters for how we live. As Eugene Peterson noted a while back, “A lie about God is a lie about life,” that leads to visibly deformed ways of living.

I think this simplicity forms some of the appeal of the consequentialist move–at least on the popular level. For those who have become skeptical either of clarity of Scripture (progressive circles), or impatient with the typical modes of theological argumentation (the blogosphere), looking to “fruits” can cut through red-tape, the obfuscation, the “ivory tower speculation” of traditional doctrinal and ethical reflection. “You poindexters can trade verses and quotes from the Fathers all day, but I can see the fallout of bad doctrine with my own two eyes in the pain of my fellow parishioners, or in the godless, racist, militaristic culture of the church I grew up in.”

On the seemingly opposite end, you can find sophisticated forms of the same argument in books filled with historical footnotes, tracing theological idea A to bad consequence B. The charm of these accounts is that you get the comparative clarity of a the fruits test, with the intellectual satisfaction of being able to tell a plausible “just-so” story that isn’t easily challenged, since most folks don’t have the historical training to spot any flaws.

You can see I think there’s something problematic about the “fruits” test–at least as a primary criterion of truth and the truth of theology. The main reason is that measuring the “fruits” or consequences of a doctrine in history can be a quite ambiguous affair.

You can read the rest of my article here at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria