Why The Church Actually Needs Dogmatics

man-praying-in-churchSay whatever else you may about Karl Barth, the man was a fierce advocate for the indispensability of theology and dogmatics for the Church. For Barth, at the center of the Church’s work and being, it’s chief responsibility as the Church, is the call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is the derivative discipline of critiquing (analyzing, correcting, maintaining) the proper proclamation of the Church against deviation, weakness, and heresy. In which case, yes, Dogmatics is secondary and derivative of the regular proclamation of the Church, but it is vital nonetheless.

Barth has a smashing bit in one of his small-print paragraphs (CD 1.1, 76-77) where he takes to task the idea that the work of theology and dogmatics can be put to one side as the Church goes about its business doing all the other “important” work it must accomplish:

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretexts, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

It’s funny to read this paragraph written in 1932 now about eighty-five years later in 2016. Barth may as well have been writing about so much of the contemporary, North American church scene.

Oh yes, there are a great number of bright theological points on the horizon. I’ve had the privilege of spending my time around many of them (both as a member and on staff). All too often, though, we find churches, even whole denominations, who set about doing the “real” work that needs to be done—social programs, youth ministries, evangelistic crusades, political activism, and so forth (all good things!)—all the while simply assuming there is a theology in place to fund it (if even that).

He continues on:

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living “quite un-theologically” for the demands of the day (“love”). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

There’s a sort of pragmatic mindset that thinks of theology and dogmatics as the work of an educated few, so they don’t want to get caught up in all the fine logic-chopping and pouring over dusty tomes.

No, all too many of us are good Americans who simply want to roll up our sleeves to “get things done”—even if that means not stopping to consider whether the thing possibly should or shouldn’t be done. Or whether it’s being done under a false premise. Whether our attempts to “further the kingdom” rest on a faulty notion of the kingdom (or, Lord forbid, of the King himself). Or whether our attempts to unify the Church rest on an un-biblical notion of unity. Or whether the “tone” we have taken in our proclamation to reach our neighbors has actually falsified the actual content of the Gospel in our rush to be relevant.

Barth says that those who take this attitude are dangerously fooling themselves on this score.

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find not time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

What’s interesting here is the way Barth takes the regular rhetoric of urgency and turns it on its head. Regularly you might hear someone contend that we don’t have time to putter around arguing over the finer points of doctrine when the war is on. When there’s a global crisis of terror and refugees and economic disaster. Or when our kids are walking away in droves, disaffected and disillusioned. When there’s racial strife. When our churches and denominations are shrinking year by year.

Who has time for theology when we have to do something?!

But that’s precisely the point: it is precisely in the heart of crisis that the Church needs dogmatics. If proclamation is truly at the heart of the Church’s responsibility, if it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that funds, fuels, and forms all of our work in all of the great movements that threaten to overwhelm and assail the Church, then it is precisely in the midst of the storm of battle that we need dogmatics most.

How can we do without a proper theology of atonement and reconciliation if we’re to set about the great work of proclaiming and practicing the gospel of peace in nation torn by racial strife? What else do we need but a proper theology of the church if we’re going to set about reordering our worship and Christian education to address the exodus of our youth? Why do we think we can ignore the question of eschatology when we go about our work “for the kingdom” in the broader social order?

Barth closes this paragraph with a sober judgment:

Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.

If there is to be a corrective in the Church in this area, yes, it will be a matter of the preachers and teachers being more broadly awakened to the need to pay attention (and even participate) in serious (though not necessarily academic) theological spadework. But it will also need to be a matter of churches as a whole—elders, deacons, members—seriously desiring and calling for it.

This will only happen, of course, by the grace of God. And for this we must pray.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: On Plagiarism w/ Justin Taylor

Mere FiThis last couple of weeks (and even years) has seen a number of high-profile instances of plagiarism at both academic and popular levels among Evangelical writers and theologians. We thought it would be a good idea to have someone who knows the publishing industry both as a writer as well as a publisher, so we invited Justin Taylor, VP at Crossway books. So we had him on to chat about plagiarism, not only in publishing, but also in preaching too. Also, Matt gets into a fight with the rest of us about the issue of self-plagiarism. So that was fun.

We hope you enjoy the discussion, since we had a lot of fun in it.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures ed. D.A. Carson

enduring authorityD.A. Carson has spent his career studying and teaching the Bible, with work spanning across a wide range of commentaries, monographs, and articles. He has also been defending its authority as Christian Scripture, God’s Word, for the whole of that time, with multiple individual works and co-edited monographs like Scripture and Truth Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon.

Well, he’s apparently not done, as earlier this year witnessed the release of his massive edited volume (1240 pages!) entitled The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. Which makes sense given the reality that controversy surrounding the subject continues unabated. Indeed, it seems to only progress in the level of sophistication and the scope of issues involved.

To get the job done, Carson enlisted the talents of 37 different Evangelical scholars across a wide range of disciplines and competencies in order to critically examine and defend the “formal principle” of Evangelical Protestantism. Within its pages, you’ll find essays on key historical figures and periods (Calvin to Roman Catholicism), theological principles (accommodation and inerrancy), specific textual challenges (OT history & myth), and sundry other questions you may never have thought to ask. It’s really a stunning piece of work.

Now, I have to admit, I’m writing this quasi-review having only read a couple hundred pages of the work, as I have been slowly picking at it essay by essay. But since I wanted to make notice of it this year, I figure I’ll note some high points, how the volume can be used, and one gap I would have liked to see filled.

Fun Essays

I have to say, given my own interests of late, I’ve had a fun time cruising through the historical essays featured in this volume. This is especially the case since it’s so common nowadays to have criticisms of Evangelical views of Scripture’s authority, inerrancy, and so forth come in some version of the form, “Well, you know that the (Fathers, Medievals, X other communion) doesn’t look at Y (inerrancy, accommodation, authority) that way. It’s just those modernist Evangelicals (ie. your Sunday School teacher).”

For that reason, I found Charles Hill’s essay “‘The Truth Above All Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine” well worth the time. He helpfully charts the views of authors East and West on various issues like inspiration, authority, and inerrancy, providing large quotes and contextualized discussions that hew away from simple cherry-picking.

Another gem in the historical section is Tony Lane’s essay on “Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present.” What was so illuminating about the work was his demonstration of the clear doctrinal development that’s taken place over the last couple hundred years. While current, Post-Vatican II views are much more fluid, open to historical criticism, and so forth, statements from Trent, Vatican I, and earlier documents paint a different story. Pope Leo’s statement in Providentissimus Deus 1893 basically out-Warfields Warfield on inspiration and inerrancy, giving the lie that this is some uniquely Evangelical doctrine.

Of course, Kevin Vanhoozer’s got an essay in the mix, this time dealing with the controversial issue of doctrinal development. “May We Go Beyond What is Written After All?” This is a perennially relevant issue for Protestants who must think through what it means to be “biblical” in our theology, even while we acknowledge that key doctrines (Trinity, Chalcedonian two natures, etc.) are conceptual developments of biblical material, rather than direct quotes from Scripture. Plus, it’s Vanhoozer, so he always makes it fun.

I would go on, but I’ll just emphasize again that there are solid bunch of scholars covering a wide range of issues. Henri Blocher has an essay on dual authorship, both human and divine. Graham Cole reflects on the nature and arrangement of the canon. Bruce Waltke has an essay on myth and history (which should maybe be read in tandem with Glenn Sunshine’s essay on accommodation). Mark Thompson covers the clarity of Scripture. Craig Blomberg tackles Jesus’ use of the Old Testament. James Beilby has an essay on religious epistemology (and there are more in this section). The list just keeps going.

One Thing I’d Have Liked To Have Seen

When it comes to ecumenical discussions, Evangelicals have been typically concerned with two groups: liberals and Roman Catholics. And this book seems to have the issues raised by both covered fairly well. What we haven’t concerned ourselves with enough (in my humble opinion) is Eastern Orthodoxy. This is partly because of the little contact we have typically had with the tradition due to simple geography as well as formation of the Reformation tradition in the West.

Understandable as that is, I think this is a gap because Orthodoxy, first of all, is still a major theological tradition. Second, it has been slowly but surely been exerting greater theological influence worldwide and in the North American academy. It even seems to have a unique appeal for a certain type of younger Evangelical, especially once they encounter their somewhat distinct, non-Roman Catholic, yet non-Protestant position and critique of Protestant views of Sola Scriptura. A survey and analysis of Eastern Orthodox views of Scriptural authority, especially in relation to tradition, would have been helpful for remit of defending the “formal principle” of Evangelicalism as well as in filling out the already broad range of engagement.

That said, on the defensive end, a judicious study of the patristic essay, understanding the actual positions of the Reformers, the clarity of Scripture, doctrinal development, and so forth covers a good many of the issues.

How to Use the Book

Let’s be honest, the odds are that you’re not going to read the book cover to cover. This is so just because of the length as well as because some of the essays probably won’t strike you as immediately interesting. What I would recommend, then, is one of two things.

First, if you kind of already know some issues you’re interested in (say, Karl Barth’s view of Scripture), just cruise through the table of contents and read whatever you like.

If you’re not quite as sure, though, read Carson’s introductory essay (you should probably read it anyways), and then jump to the back. There you’ll find an article by Carson which basically summarizes a great deal of the content of the various essays in short responses to frequently asked questions and challenges. This is so helpful because (a) it’s a bit of a preview of what you’re getting, (b) you start to get a feel for where and when this sort of information is useful, and (c) they’re just good summaries that are immediately useful.

In sum, this is a magnificent piece of scholarship that I’m sure will be a great resource for pastors and scholars in the coming years.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Mere Fidelity: The Olympics and the Ethics of Watching Sports

Mere FiOn this episode of Mere Fidelity, Philosopher Michael Austin joins us to discuss the Olympics, sport, and whether we should watch any of it anyway. Austin is the editor of a variety of volumes on philosophy and sport, is a frequent writer at Psychology Today, and is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University.

The excerpt Alastair read is below, and is taken from this article:

In their beliefs, Coubertin and his followers were liberals in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. Deeply suspicious of conventional theistic religions, they promoted Olympism as a substitute for traditional faith. “For me,” Coubertin wrote in his Mémoires Olympiques, “sport is a religion with church, dogma, ritual.” In a radio address delivered in Berlin on August 4, 1935, he repeated his frequently expressed desire that the games be inspired by “religious sentiment transformed and enlarged by the internationalism and democracy that distinguish the modern age.” Nearly thirty years later, Coubertin’s most dedicated disciple, Avery Brundage, proclaimed to his colleagues on the International Olympic Committee that Olympism is a twentieth-century religion, “a religion with universal appeal which incorporates all the basic values of other religions, a modern, exciting, virile, dynamic religion” (pp. 2-3).

Here’s the show. We hope you enjoy:

Soli Deo Gloria

Theology As Discipleship by Keith Johnson (Themelios)

theology as discipleshipThere are few laments more frequently raised in the evangelical academy than the divorce between the academy and the church, or between the life of piety and that of theological scholarship. Indeed, it is not uncommon for pastors to admit that seminary was one of the most spiritually difficult times in their lives, precisely because the pursuit of academic rigor in theology, by its very nature, seemed to choke out the spiritual life. Moreover, the relevance of the theological task seems distant from the life of faith for the average congregant.

Drawing on years teaching theology to undergraduates, in Theology as Discipleship, Wheaton College professor Keith L. Johnson attempts to articulate a vision for the theological task as “integrally related” to the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ (p. 12). Aimed at introductory theology courses, pastors, and interested lay-people, the result is an elegant, biblically-attuned, classically-oriented, yet uncluttered text inviting the novice (as well as the seasoned initiate) to view theology in the sweep of God’s saving economy to renew all things through Christ and the Spirit.

You can read the rest of this review online in the latest issues of Themelios.

Soli Deo Gloria

Trueman on Why Engage Karl Barth Even If You Think He’s Weird

engaging Barth.jpgThis Fall I’ll be taking a semester reading course on the massively influential, 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. I’ll be focusing on his doctrine of God, with a particular emphasis on his treatment of the divine attributes or “perfections”, to use his terminology. My hope is that it will help me do some preparatory work in thinking through the structure and shape of the doctrine of God for my (hopefully) eventual dissertation on the attribute of God’s holiness.

Also, I’ve been wanting an excuse to take a deep dive into his Church Dogmatics for a while. So there’s that as well.

As a Reformed(ish) Evangelical, mentioning that you’re going to be spending time with Karl Barth may raise some eyebrows, though. Well, not in all circles. (Even here at Trinity, in the house that Carl Henry built, we’re regularly encouraged and expected to be able to read widely beyond traditionally Evangelical authors.)

Still, Barth’s kind of odd and difficult to understand on some key points of doctrine. And when even when you can understand him, he says some things about Scripture, God’s being, etc. that have left people predictably (and not unfairly) uncomfortable. Even (maybe especially) if you’ve never read him, you know to be cautious.

There’s a fear that once you dive in, you might get become disoriented in the haze of all that heavy dialectic and be lost, if not to Orthodoxy, then at least to the regular patterns of English language usage.

So what value is there for someone of fairly traditional theological instincts for spending so much time poring over his mountainous tomes and the mists of difficult secondary that enshroud them? Especially if you suspect you might spend a fair amount of time disagreeing with him?

Carl Trueman actually has one of the better answers for the skeptical.

In the foreword to a collection of essay by Evangelicals interacting with Karl Barth on a host of issues, Trueman sort of sets the scene for why Barth remains such a relevant figure for Evangelical theological interest. Towards the end he lists a few issues like the appeal of his dynamic doctrine of Scripture, some of the cross-appeal with developments in philosophy of language, and the focus on narrative in theology.

At this point he asks, “But is Barth the answer?”

On one level, I would most definitely say no. For myself, I believe Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian, offers a more helpful resource on each of these points; but, on another level, interacting with Barth as a great mind wrestling with serious issues is surely of tremendous value. I often tell my students that great theologians are most helpful at precisely those points where I disagree with them, for it is there I am forced to wrestle most passionately, and there that my own thought is clarified and strengthened.

Engaging With Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiquesed. David Gibson and Daniel Strange (15)

So, first off: Herman Bavinck, y’all. ‘Nuff said.

But more seriously, at the almost purely negative level, then, Trueman says that wrestling with a high-caliber thinker you know you disagree with can help you more fully grasp the logic of your own position, as well as strengthen your theological resolve.

I have seen that time and again, especially in my readings in atonement theology. Some of the most beneficial works I have read were the critiques, precisely because the strength and force of their objections forced me to clarify points at which my thought was too fuzzy. Or in other cases, I had to work to ground my logic even deeper in Scripture, studying passages more deeply in their context and so forth.

Put less negatively, with creative thinkers like Barth, the very “weirdness” of some of the moves they make stretch you and press you deeper into the logic of the issue.

For instance, reading about the way Barth has reordered and coordinated his reading of God’s attributes in distinction to the classical discussion has helped some blocks start to fall into place for me. Instead of treating the more “metaphysical” or incommunicable attributes of “freedom” like independence, omnipresence, and so forth first, as the tradition typically did, Barth flips the order and deals with attributes of “loving” like holiness, patience, and so forth. But why?

To overly-simplify, thought that starting out with the attributes that give you free, independent God tended to leave you with problems when you got around to thinking about that free God setting about actually loving anything outside himself. The metaphysical logic of independence seems to take over undermine our ability to talk about God’s love. In order to counterbalance that problem, Barth starts with the God who definitely loves, and then sets about thinking through how this God is free.

Of course, what’s fascinating is that when you start thinking through developments in 20th Century theology, much of looks like an exercise in making the opposite “mistake” (if you buy Barth’s critique). So much theology starts with an account God’s loving (process, panentheism, etc.) and then has all kinds of trouble talking about God’s freedom or independence. To engage in a bit of clarifying caricature, instead of a cold, self-contained, metaphysical box, you’ve got a warm, co-dependent, metaphysical mess.

In which case, you start begin see some of the appeal of the old logic a bit better in hindsight. But that sort of thing becomes clearer in light of the sort of transitional figure like Barth that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the (over-neat) camps.

And that’s just one example.

Now, given what I have read of Barth in the past, I’m hopeful reason to read Barth for the simple, positive reason that Barth was brilliant. So I’m thinking I’ll profit plenty beyond the weirdness and stretching.

Well, if after all that you’re still worried about me, just know I’m also taking a class on Calvin this Fall, so that ought to even things out.

Soli Deo Gloria 

 

 

Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne

rankinThe heart of the New Testament gospel is the idea of union with Christ. All of the benefits of salvation (justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification) we only receive as we are “in Christ.” It is the doctrine without which all these other truths is not good news.  Unsurprisingly, then, you can’t read Paul, John, Peter, or even the words of Jesus himself without tripping over these references.

And more and more, theologians and biblical scholars are recognizing this and putting it at the center of their expositions of Scripture and biblical truth, with a number of helpful volumes on the subject having been written in the last few years. For instance, just this year, Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ was an excellent entry into putting “union with Christ” back at the center.

Sadly, though, it seems to have been a very slow trickle-down effect for this glorious recovery reaching the practical preaching of the pulpit and the life of the pews. The books are aimed at either other theologians, or at pastors who might grasp the value, but struggle to work the riches of this biblical truth into their regular preaching.

It is at just this point that Rankin Wilbourne wants to step in with his new book Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God. His aim is to take the doctrine of union with Christ out of the murky shadows and place it front and center, not only of the discussions of academics and theologians, but everyday Christians wanting to learn how to close the gap between what they read about the Christian life in the New Testament and the reality they experience in their regular walk with Jesus.

(Now, you may be wondering, “who is Rankin Wilbourne?” Wilbourne’s a pastor at Pacific Crossroads Church in LA whom I only know about because my pastor used to work with him and because of his awesome cowboy name. In any case, when my pastor handed me his book and told me to read it, I gave it a shot since I figure he knows I don’t have too much time to waste on cruddy books during my summer of learning German.)

I have to say, I’m very grateful that he did. Wilbourne’s book was a great read for me and came at just the right time. I mostly read it in the mornings before studying and, like with Jen Wilkin’s book, it proved to be a real source of spiritual assurance and up-building during that time.

What’s in the book, then? Well, a little bit of everything to be honest. Wilbourne covers a wide range of topics, precisely because he (rightly) knows that union with Christ touches just about everything.

So, of course, there’s chapters on union with Christ in the Bible, and chapters on union with Christ in church history (turns out its all over it), and a couple of chapters on why we struggle with the concept (very helpful for cultural observers, by the way). But the bulk of the book is how union with Christ affects your real life, covering everything from your identity, to your approach to spiritual practices, to suffering, and even the way you look at the Church.

With that terrible summary out of the way, I’ll give you a few highlights or reasons you should give it a shot.

First, Wilbourne knows the importance of the imagination for spiritual life. Right of the bat, actually, Wilbourne shows you that he knows we think, we feel, we live out of the depths of our imaginations—our ability to piece together the world, or whatever reality we’re thinking of, into synthetic wholes. Which is why, he notes, the New Testament gives us so many metaphors, so many pictures, for our salvation in union with Christ.

Wilbourne leans full tilt into that reality by spending time unpacking biblical metaphors, creating and deploying helpful, lively new pictures of his own to drive home and inhabit these spiritual truths. I’ve never heard him preach, but I think I have a fair idea of what it would look like now.

And actually, preachers, this is something you ought to pay attention to (especially if you’re a youngster like I am)—learn the art of the key illustration that helps your congregation actually grasp the truths of Scripture in a vital, living manner. This book is full of good examples of how to do that.

Also, this means that this is a book you can put in someone’s hands without worrying if it’s going to be too over their heads, or jargon-filled, or technical.

Second, Wilbourne is a pastor. To be honest, I don’t think he says much “new” when it comes to the doctrine itself. He’s basing it on a lot of the most recent scholarship (Billings, Campbell, Letham, etc) as well as what the classic teachers of history (Calvin, Owen, Scougal, etc) have said. What he does do that’s “new” is the application of these broad truths to our late modern culture.

I know I keep beating this horse from different angles, but the ability to take and apply this deeply Biblical truth to a broad variety of questions and struggles that actual members of our churches are working through is a great gift. Wilbourne has that gift in spades.

To sum up, if you want to understand the good news of union with Christ, to walk into the heart of enjoying God through Christ, Wilbourne’s Union with Christ is a good place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria