The Simplicity of God and the Diversity of Creation

compendiumI’ve been working my way through Aquinas’s late, brief summary of his system, Compendium Theologiae, and it’s been a dense, instructive dive so far.

Early in his series of questions on creation, he treats the matter of why there is plurality, or a diversity of things in creation. Why are there trees and monkeys and mountains and starfish, instead of only, say perfectly spiritual beings like angels? Why stars of various shapes, colors, and sizes, instead of one, perfect, massive orb? Why diversity instead of simple, orderly, uniformity?

Well, as with most things in Aquinas, he finds the answer in God who is their creating and sustaining cause. Even more than that, he roots this diversity in the simplicity of God.

How so?

Any active cause must produce its like, so far as this is possible. The things produced by God could not be endowed with a likeness of the divine goodness in the simplicity in which that goodness is found in God. Hence what is one and simple in God had to be represented in the produced things in a variety of dissimilar ways. There had to be diversity in the things produced by God, in order that the divine perfection might in some fashion be imitated in the variety found in things.

Furthermore, whatever is caused is finite, since only God’s essence is infinite, as was demonstrated above. The finite is rendered more perfect by the addition of other elements. Hence it was better to have diversity in created things, and thus to have good objects in greater number, than to have but a single kind of beings produced by God. For the best cause appropriately produces the best effects. Therefore it was fitting for God to produce variety in things. (1:72)


One might think that the indivisible, simple being of God would stifle diversity. Thomas reminds us, though, that the simple being of God is infinite. A mere repetition of the same finite effects will not do. In order to begin to communicate the fullness of his refulgent glory by way of finite creaturely reality will require a diversity of finite causes!

Despite it’s philosophical garb, I think this really functions as a metaphysical gloss on Scriptural teaching. Consider what the Psalmist tells us:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4)

Or again:

How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. (Ps. 104:24-25)

Thomas tells us that all this marvelous diversity is a reflection, a testimony to the wisdom, glory. and beauty of the simple God. In the creation of diverse effects, it is as if the pure, undivided brightness of the infinite divine light is refracted before our eyes as through a prism as broad and as wide as the universe itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

On the “Legal Influence” of the Latin West (A thought on culture and atonement)

iustitiaI wanted to follow up that last post on Anselm and the culturally-situated nature of our atonement accounts. As mentioned, a frequent objection is that his framing is rooted in feudal conceptions of Lord and vassal relationships, and the place of honor within them, which were quite different from other social arrangements throughout history.

A similar sort argument is often lodged against the Western tradition in general. Depending on the subject, it is charged that the Latin tradition has always tended towards a more forensic, legal conception of the salvation, the relationship between God and man, etc. Instead of blaming feudal social arrangements, here we meet the claim that the Roman legal tradition exerted undue force, through say, Tertullian, Ambrose, or that perennial (because undeniably influential) whipping boy, Augustine.

Sometimes this is done with an eye towards promoting a superior Eastern account of deification. Or it is used by contemporary theologians to try to supplant the account with some proposal of their own, more attuned to the cultural needs of the current moment. Because, you know, moderns have no concept of guilt and such.

Now, as Sonderegger demonstrated in that last post, simply noting that a point is contextually-rooted, or more appealing to someone in a different cultural context, does not mean it is not translatable or valid in our own.

But let’s go even further. Conceding that Anselm was influenced by feudalism, and the West in general by Latin legal tradition, isn’t it just possible that was a good thing at points? Isn’t it just possible that these cultural influences were not hindrances but providential helps in aiding the church recognize real truths within Scripture that, say, a more Eastern perspective focused on gnosis and ontology might tend to gloss over? Or from which our contemporary culture, possibly over-prone to therapeutic denials of guilt, might want to avert its gaze?

I mean, think about the narrative of Scripture. God is presented as Lord, king, and judge of the earth. He gives Israel a Law-covenant to order their relationship summed up in the 10 Commandments. This covenant is a legal-relational reality which, beyond cultic elements, has large sections of material concerned with the organization of Israel as a people, the administration of justice, courts, and so forth. Indeed, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have large chapters which include blessings and curses based on the legal-relational matter of obedience and fidelity God as the covenant-Lord.

We could press further, consider how much of the prophetic material presupposes this legal orientation. Israel is condemned on the basis of her violation of the Law of the Lord. Yes, it is a relational reality. But it is also one ordered by Law and prosecuted accordingly. Indeed, OT scholars will tell you that some prophets even modeled key prophecies on the legal form of a law-suit, a rib. 

In my devotional reading of Ezekiel this morning, I was struck by this passage:

Now the end is upon you, and I will send my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity, but I will punish you for your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 7:3-4)

The Lord God, the Judge of Israel, will punish her for her sins “according to your ways.” Why? For her abominations, both criminal and cultic. And in so doing, “you will know that I am the Lord.” God, apparently, is concerned with his Name being known in Israel and the world as a God who is just, who does not let oppression reign in his kingdom unchecked forever. Witness the confluence of themes of legality, honor, and the matter of punishment in this prophecy.

Clearly this is not all that could be said about Scripture, both Old and New (it would take little effort to find the NT riddled with legal terminology and conceptions), nor about the realities relevant to our reflection on atonement. Nor does it justify every move made by Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, or any other Western theologian who has made matters of honor, justice, and legal satisfaction central to their account of atonement.

Nonetheless, it should give pause to those of us tempted to appeal to neat “just-so” stories about cultural influence, which often amounts to no more than a sophisticated form of the genetic fallacy. The question can never merely be a matter of whether Calvin’s legal background pushed him towards a legal understanding of atonement. The question is whether that legal background blinded or enlightened him to something in the text.

What’s more, the question can never merely be whether our own culture resonates or connects with some theme or metaphor in the same way Anselm’s did. The question is whether there is Scriptural reason to hold on to that theme despite its counter-cultural intuition. While I have become skeptical over the years that our culture really has fully abandoned a sense of guilt, even if it had, that would not erase the fact that Scripture testifies to the problem of guilt, nor that it needs to make it into our proclamation.

Indeed, that’s why it is such a good thing to read widely in theology across time, space, and culture. It keeps us from being blinkered and beholden to our own.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Proper Use and Abuse of Hypocrisy-Checking

hypocrisy juking

Everybody’s an inconsistent hypocrite. At least, that’s the lesson the internet is teaching us in 2018. (In case we hadn’t learned it from Scripture already.) I’m referring, of course, to the ever-present (and much commented-on) practice of hypocrisy-juking and various forms of whataboutism.

I was struck by it once again yesterday, when a number of conservative friends began to (correctly) point out the relative silence of progressive Evangelical bloggers and commentators on the failure of Congress to pass the ban on elective abortions at 20-weeks, when the child in question can obviously feel pain.

Now, this shouldn’t have been hard to pass nor to condemn and lament. It’s not a radically pro-life position on the matter. Most progressive European countries don’t allow the practice to be elective that late; the US is in the company of only seven other countries with abortion regimes as permissive as ours, including China and North Korea.

What was striking to my conservative friends was that you’ll frequently find progressive Evangelicals loudly (and perhaps rightly) arguing for various other policy measures (single-payer, immigration reform) along the lines of being holistically, or truly Pro-Life, and then decrying Congressional failure to act on these policies, and Evangelicals for failing to support them.

And yet, when it comes to a policy that is directly and indisputably Pro-Life? Crickets. One wonders why.

Maybe everybody was just focused on other issues that day? Or perhaps, given the increasingly tribal way we engage in moral outrage, there was a fear on the part of newly Progressive Evangelicals at offending or alienating their new-found allies on other issues of great moral concern? Is it a desire to avoid being perceived as one of those Pro-Lifers? The kind they left behind with the rest of their small-minded bigotry? Most cynically, perhaps they don’t care about pro-life anymore at all and simply use the language to engage Evangelicals on their issues of real concern.

Maybe Richard Beck has a point in warning his own tribe of progressives about just turning into Democrats the way conservative Evangelicals became knee-jerk Republicans.

Now, if you’re a conservative Evangelical of a certain sort, these last few paragraphs may have given you a nice, warm sense of satisfaction inside. I could suggest many reasons for it, but one might be the sheer relief of seeing someone other than the conservative Evangelical leaders who have been beclowning themselves in a Carnivalesque fashion through series of attempts to justify President Trump’s various gaffes and sins being called out. The list of cynical justifications, hypocritical back-tracking, willful blindness, and cowardly silences is truly cringe-inducing. Volumes could be written on the failure of moral voices in 2017 alone.

The point is, we could play the, “If Obama had said…” and “If Bush had done…” and “If Clinton had been…” game until the cows come home and we could all be right about someone. And more importantly, someone could probably be right about us.

Which brings me back around again to the broader question of hypocrisy-juking. Why do we engage in it? Also, are there proper uses for it? If so, how? And how ought we respond to it?

On the first question, I can think of a few reasons.

First, it’s just satisfying to take your ideological enemies down a peg. This is especially the case if you see them as prone to a specific kind of preening self-righteousness and grandstanding, with little self-reflection or humility. Catching out their inconsistencies can assure you of their basic wrongness and your basic rightness.

Connected to this, it can be a way of assuaging your own conscience for your own inconsistencies. You may not state it this way, but the basic tu quoque can be a rationalization: everybody does it. Look! They do it too.

More nobly, you may actually be interested in issuing a moral warning. Some people are actually interested in dialoguing and arguing with a principled opposition. You may see someone you disagree with and respect generally, falling into the sort of self-justifying hypocrisy, or an inconsistency born of moral cowardice and a need to fit the tribe, and feel the need to reach out and warn them to avoid it. Now, this can turn into concern-trolling fairly quickly, but I have seen it done (and had it done to me) in good faith.

Finally, and this is an extension of the last point, you may actually be interested in persuasion. Instead of just pushing people down a peg, you may desire to convince them to change their mind on a particular issue given their historic stance, or their stated principles elsewhere. In which case, something like hypocrisy-juking may be in order. (One thinks of Jesus grilling the Pharisees for tithing mint and dill for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, despite adhering rigidly to the minor ones.)

I think we can already see that in these last two reasons, we some place for it. But in the case of persuasion and warning, the act of pointing out hypocrisy and inconsistency ceases to be an act of “juking.” The moral intention, the heart behind it, transforms the act into one of righteous and (in the end) loving exposure and correction.

The last two questions, I think, are caught up with one another and are answered in Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:3-5)

Only the person who is committed to removing the plank from their own eye, to rigorously pursuing intellectual and moral integrity in their own life and thought, will be suited to attempt to remove the speck from their brother’s. This, both because they are now seeing more clearly, and also because one of the things they see more clearly is their own sin, corruption, and guilt in the matter. This leads to a humble heart not set on vengeance or the vindication of their own name and tribe.

But, of course, in order to be this person, you must be prepared to accept your brother’s help in removing the plank from your eye as well!

All of which is to say, when tempted to point out the hypocrisy in an opponent’s position, check yourself in the matter first. You may quickly find the self-righteousness drained from your stinging remarks. Which, ironically enough, means you’ll be more likely to frame them in a way that people on the other side will hear them.

On the flipside, the wise accept rebuke and become wiser still (Prov. 9:8-9). And this, even from harsh or bad-faith critics. It may be that you know someone is critiquing you just to take you down a peg or to protect themselves. Before you write them off as a fool, ask yourself, “But do they have a point?” If so, correct it. If they have a point, they have a point.

Correct it because it is right, but also, the next time someone tries to critique you along those lines, you can actually be confident it is wrong. Indeed, you may even be able to share the way you have changed and that may be a model for your interlocutor.

Growth in grace here is difficult, and I don’t think for a moment I have this down. Still, given the toxicity of the cultural moment, one of the greatest ways to witness to the forgiveness, mercy, and transforming power of the gospel in our lives is to manifest it in our humble struggle for integrity.

Because the reality is, our greatest resource in any of this is in letting go of our sinful attempts at self-justification because we know by the witness of the Holy Spirit we have justified in Christ.

Maybe take some time now to log off and meditate on that.

Soli Deo Gloria

How to Keep Your Languages in Just 2 Minutes a Day

keep biblical greekI will let you in on a little secret today: I am not, by nature, a language guy. I know, I know. All ministry people, theologians, students of Scripture are supposed to be delighted at the intricacies of Greek and Hebrew and the wonders it can unlock. And, well, I am. Kind of. I do enjoy finding linguistic links in passages which can get obscured in translation, or puns, alliteration, or having a better handle on the way the particular construction of a verb might impact the sense of a Pauline injunction. There are reasons for pastors and theologians to know the original, Biblical languages.

But when it comes to it, languages are not something I naturally find myself wanting to practice or study on my own in the same way I study systematics, church history, or broad biblical theology.

Which is probably part of why I lost most of my languages after seminary. Not entirely, of course. Still, the reality is that once I got into ministry after my degree, week by week it was easier and easier to just let language study and practice fall by the wayside in the rush of day to day ministry, prep, meetings, etc. Especially since nobody was grading me anymore. And as every Greek or Hebrew teacher will tell you (repeatedly), if you don’t use it you lose it.

Well, of course, I had gain them back for studies here at TEDS (which can be pretty intense on the languages). Still, I have been looking for ways to make myself practice here so that I don’t lose them again in the midst of all my studies. So, imagine my delight when I ran across these new volumes by Hendrickson at this last ETS:

  1. Keep Up Your Biblical Hebrew in 2 Minutes a Day
  2. Keep Up Your Biblical Greek in 2 Minutes a Day

I have to say, I love these things and wish I’d have had them back when I finished seminary a few years ago.

They both are built and structured similarly. Each is a nice, hardback, leather volume about the size of a daily devotional. On each page, you’ll find:

  1. A verse from Scripture (OT or NT) in English
  2. A new vocabulary word with a few glosses you can either learn or remember. Which, after 365 days, ends up being a good chunk of the most common, repeated vocab.
  3. The verse in either Greek or Hebrew
  4. The same verse with glosses printed alongside each phrase

And that’s it. You basically work through the verse in three different ways, spending as much or as little time on it as you want (maybe 2 minutes), and then you put it down and come back the next day. The next day is basically the same, but they have picked a sentence which uses a new vocabulary word as well as the word you used the day previously, so that you’re constantly reinforcing vocabulary even as you learn (or recall) new words.

Now, it’s true, there is no parsing of conjugations, or anything in the way of grammatical tips. That said, this books are not meant to teach you Greek or Hebrew, but to retain and reinforce what you already have learned.

So, that is my plug. This is a good product. I like it. If you struggle with language study like me, and you really want to keep your languages (hint, hint, Seminarians), this is probably worth your investment.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. You can probably worth this into your devotional time if you study the verse and then read around it. Hot tip!





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

My October CT Column: The Cynics Guide to Sin

ctThis is an open link to an unlocked version to my column for October’s Christianity Today issue.  Here is an excerpt:

Wickedness should not surprise us. A robust view of sin prepares us for the reality that institutions grow corrupt, politicians fudge promises, and even within the church folks gossip, cheat, and lie. Pastors fall. None of this is new.

It’s important to maintain a healthy realism about humanity’s moral potential. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out after World War II in Creed or Chaos?, “The people who are most discouraged are those who cling to an optimistic belief in the civilizing influence of progress and enlightenment.” The brutality of the war, she said, was “the utter negation of everything they believed.” Meanwhile, those who held a doctrine of original sin were better prepared to cope—sinners acting like sinners was no crushing blow.

Still, much of the news in 2017 has threatened to push my realism in the direction of cynicism. Everywhere I look, I find myself tempted to offer the most cynical take on my neighbors. Their votes? Myopic self-preservation. Their social media posts? Virtue-signaling. Their silence? Cowardice. When they change their minds? It must be cultural capitulation.

Even within the church, there seems to be an increasing temptation to believe the worst of others. On edge and distrustful, we are tempted to wash our hands of each other altogether. Why risk the struggle for unity in the body when we’re just going to get burned?

Soli Deo Gloria