The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

crucifixion rutledgeWhy the cross? Why this particular, bloody, grotesque means of execution? Why was this the necessary mode of the Savior’s redemption of the human race? Why not a life, leading into old age and peaceful death leading into resurrection? Why the seemingly Godforsaken horror of it all? This is the motivating question at the heart of Fleming Rutledge’s masterful tome The Crucifixion: It’s Meaning and Significance. After over twenty years study, research, and meditation, Rutledge has delivered a stunning piece of theological and pastoral reflection on the cross of Christ.

I originally intended to work through it for my Lenten readings every morning (being far too addicted and Protestant to give anything up for Lent), and found myself running far ahead of my intended, daily page-count. It’s really a beautiful piece of theology.

Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.

In what follows, I’ll simply highlight what I take to be some of the significant features (both positive and negative) of the work and hope that gives you something of a feel for the whole.

Sin and sins

One of Rutledge’s chief concerns is to get her audience to reckon with the reality of sin. Coming out of the Episcopal mainline, this is unsurprising given the theological trajectory much of the church has taken over the last forty years or so. Rutledge is not dour, or morbid, but after years of preaching, teaching, advocating for justice (especially on social and racial fronts), she is not naïve about the pervasive wickedness and corruption of both human nature and human cultures. As one of the blurbs put it, she wants us to “get real” with ourselves, open our eyes and truly look at the world as it is, and reckon with our dire need for redemption. Her work is a bracing antidote to any last vestiges of cheap sentimentalism in our doctrine of humanity that would blind us to our need for the kind of salvation only a bloody cross can bring.

Connected to this, Rutledge doesn’t simply want us to recognize personal culpability and “sins”, but rather the Power of Sin. This is partially due to her heavy leaning on the “Apocalyptic” school associated with J.L Martyn, De Boer, and the Union School. For Rutledge, we need rescue from the Powers of Sin, Law (used by Sin), and Death. We are not only culpable, but captives, sold and bound under the dark dominion of evil that overwhelms us and keeps us oppressed in sin.

Deliverance AND Substitution

It is this sense that gives shape to Rutledge’s main argument, which I take to be the resituating of the “substitution” motif within an Apocalyptic understanding of the Christus Victor motif. Because she takes both sins and Sin seriously, she wants to take both of those master motifs and develop them as well.

When it comes to substitution, Rutledge does a fantastic job slowly, carefully, and piercingly drawing our attention to the problem of injustice in the world. Whether to apartheid in South Africa, the struggle for racial equality in the Civil Rights movement, child abuse scandals in the Catholic church, to the millions of petty, untold sins in our own lives, she forces us to deal with both the biblical and the theological need for satisfaction, for an atoning sacrifice, for a judgment that says no to a culture of impunity, to cheap grace, or the sort of “forgiveness” that makes a mockery of the victims of violence throughout history. What’s more, she does it in such a way that is appealing, not so much to theological conservatives, but to those with more progressive and liberal sensitivities. You might say that as someone who has taken the social gospel seriously, Rutledge knows that you need a more classic theology to undergird it.

But, of course, we need not just sacrifice but redemption. The Exodus is a good model here. In the Exodus, the Israelites received both atonement in the slaughter of the lambs at the Passover, but also redemption from the social, political, and yes, spiritual, powers of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Rutledge forcefully argues that the cross of Christ (and his resurrection) were at the heart of a liberation, a deliverance from the powers of Sin, the Law (as used by sin), Death, and the Devil. In him, we have a liberating “Lord”, who transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son, who frees us for his glorious service.

And these two halves point to the broader concept of righteousness and justification she embraces. Following much 20th Century scholarship, for Rutledge, God’s righteousness is his saving justice that is more than forensic, but also transformative and liberative. She translates “justification” as “rectification”—God’s justification of the ungodly, then, is not merely their forensic vindication, but their total deliverance from the Powers and their “setting right.”

This “rectification”, though, that comes by way of the cross and resurrection of Christ is not merely individualistic in nature. In this regard, she joins the choir of many other recent voices in proclaiming a “cosmic” salvation, in which God sets the whole world to rights through the Son in his cross, bringing about a New Creation, while the rectification of individual comes within that broader schema. Indeed, over and over again, Rutledge emphasizes the “cosmology” implied in Paul’s theology (because this is a heavily Pauline work), in regards to both the aim and the characters involved.

Multiple Motifs

Within those two broader motifs, Rutledge does a good job at trying to give voice to the broader range of New Testament motifs surrounding the death of Christ. Sacrifice, justification, ransom and redemption, Apocalyptic war, and the descent into Hell. In many ways, this is one of the chief strengths of the work. I would say, though, in comparing it to Jeremy Treat’s similar project The Crucified King, Rutledge’s treatment could have benefited from a more synthetic, redemptive-historically organized account.

While she is no Marcionite (she makes fantastic use of the Old Testament, connecting it to the New), there is something of an atomism, typical of much of the critical scholarship she draws on, at work in the treatment of the themes that could be integrated to greater effect. That seems to be something of a side-effect of her Apocalypticism which makes less use of unifying, covenantal themes, and places a greater emphasis on the disjunctive, in-breaking work of God. Again, though, overall, she’s got a very sensitive eye for the diversity of the New Testament witness to Christ’s work. There’s nothing reductionistic about it. And this, I think is probably because she’s not exclusively “Apocalyptic” in her orientation, but has a strong regard for certain traditional, Western exponents such as Anselm, Calvin, and others.  Still, I would probably add Treat’s work as a complementary one, in this regard.

The Problem of Theodicy

Given her concern with the necessity of the cross, justice, and sin, it’s no surprise that the question of theodicy is a running theme throughout the work. Indeed, much like the great theologian of “holy-love” P.T. Forsyth, Rutledge connects the cross with the issue of the “Justification of God.” There is much to commend in this regard. I will say, I had my qualms about this thread in her work, though, as it drinks quite deeply from the Dostoyevskian/Hart-style anti-theodicy. There seem to be some equivocations at work with respect to thinking about evil as “purposed” by God, or “part of God’s purposes” because of a failure to distinguish different senses of the will of God, the decree, and so forth.

Again, though, she does tap the breaks on the cheaper, hasty work of theodicy that we see all too often from the pulpit and the counselor’s office. So there is much benefit in the section.

Defending Substitution

One of the major sub-themes of Rutledge’s work is defending the substitutionary motif both against critics and misguided supporters. I have to say, her work here is simultaneously some of my favorite and least favorite segments. Connected to the themes of justice and God’s rejection of a culture of impunity, Rutledge has excellent discussions of the pastoral use of the doctrine of the wrath of God. She does fantastic work defending the different, mutually supporting elements of substitution and representation in Christ’s work. Also commendable is her repeated, careful emphasis on the perfectly and beautifully Trinitarian character of the Son’s cross-work. And I especially appreciated her exposition of Karl Barth’s contribution to the subject and the way his work can help us think more carefully about the notion of God’s agency in the cross, guarding against some of the more ham-handed expositions we’ve all heard.

That said, there were moments I thought she gave too much ground to the critics of “cruder” expositions of “penal substitution.” While there’s plenty right about those criticisms, I think there are not as many as Rutledge credits, or they don’t have quite the force she accords them. Also, her tendency to beat on the Post-Reformation Orthodoxy and their schematizing, propositionalizing, depersonalizing, etc. ways, grew a bit tiresome, but that’s probably just some of the Post-Barthian influence.

Overall, for those of us in more Reformed, Evangelical circles, it’s a very helpful exercise reading Rutledge’s defense of substitution within a church context that in many ways has left it by the wayside long ago.

Indeed, this could probably said about many of her discussions. Yes, there are tell-tale marks of the liberal tradition she’s engaged with that I just won’t agree with. For instance, Rutledge will follow Riceour on the nature of the Adam narrative (no historical Adam), and gesture towards either annihilationism or universalism in her discussion, all the while giving us a discussion of both radical evil and the realism of hell that’s still quite useful in pastoral conversations and preaching about the issues for those rejecting some of her premises. This is particularly relevant for more conservative readers since many of the theological tendencies Rutledge is speaking to are still with us and more widespread than simply the mainline.

Conclusion

Instead of wrapping up with my words, I figured I’d give you a taste of Rutledge’s own work drawn from her concluding summary:

The power of God to make right what has been wrong is what we see, by faith, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day. Unless God is the one who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, there cannot be serious talk of forgiveness for the worst of the worst—the mass murderers, torturers, and serial killings—or even the least of the worst—the quotidian offenses against our common humanity that cause marriages to fail, friendships to end, enterprises to collapse, and silent misery to be the common lot of millions. “All for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.” This is what is happening on Golgotha.

All the manifold biblical images with their richness, complexity, and depth come together as one to say this: the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross of Christ. The “precious blood” of the Son of God is perfect sacrifice for sin; the ransom is paid to deliver the captives; the gates of hell are stormed; the Red Sea is crossed and the enemy drowned; God’s judgment has been executed upon Sin; the disobedience of Adam is recapitulated in the obedience of Christ; a new creation is coming into being; those who put their trust in Christ are incorporated into his life; the kingdoms of “the present age” are passing away and the promised kingdom of God is manifest not in triumphalist crusades, but in the cruciform witness of the church. From within “Adam’s” (our) human flesh, the incarnate Son fought with and was victorious over Satan—on our behalf and in our place. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the kosmos to its rightful Creator. This is what the righteousness of God has achieved through the cross and resurrection, is now accomplishing by the power of the Spirit, and will complete in the day of Jesus Christ. (610-611)

That’ll preach.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Uncontrolling Love of God, Part Deux (Causality, “Reformed Theology”, etc)

Uncontrolling loveI’ve already given something of a full review of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God over at Christianity Today. Oord has very charitably responded to it and I’ve responded briefly in the comments. I wanted to follow that up, though, because there were a number of important points that I couldn’t make given reasonable space and genre constraints at CT. I want to be clear, though, that this is not about ill-will or picking on Oord’s work. He seems like a fine man and who can fault his pastoral instinct? But the work of theology is often carried out through critical engagement–indeed, Oord himself is quite sharp in his critique of many theological traditions in order to forward his significant revision of the doctrine of God. It seems necessary and appropriate, then, to engage it in this fashion. In the rest of this, I’ll assume knowledge of my prior review and the thesis of the book. Also, this will be far more of a ramble.

Experience and Compatibilism

First, a small point. Oord makes great hay about the intuitive nature of our possession of a certain form of libertarian or “genuine” free will against determinism. He notes that free will is key to our general self-understanding as responsible agents able to choose right and wrong, and so forth (55-56, 60). We experience ourselves as free and make many judgments in the moral life on that basis, so why doubt it on the basis of faulty brain science and so forth?

All of this is fine as far as it goes. Actually, much of it is quite helpful. What I’d simply like to point out is that the arguments in these sections might work well as a defense of genuine freedom against physicalist conceptions of determinism, where biology, physics, and so forth, are in the metaphysical driver’s seat. That said, they’re not much in the way of evidence against a theologically compatibilistic understanding of genuine freedom. On that view, God’s foreordination of all that passes isn’t dependent on physicalist determinants.

Actually, if you really think through a compatibilist view of freedom, our experience of reality would feel pretty much the same. God’s sovereignty isn’t thought to be experienced as some outside compelling force, “pushing on us”, so to speak. So, the “powerful” argument from experience or the phenomenology of freedom doesn’t tell that strongly against theological determinism.

Mistaking Physics and Metaphysics

On that note, I’d also like to register a complaint about Oord’s fairly constant quick movement from physics to metaphysics. Though he affirms the distinction between the two disciplines, things can get slippery in the midst of the argument. For instance, after reviewing a number of lines of evidence for randomness and chance in the physical universe from chaos theory, etc. as a way of refuting the idea that it’s a closed, causal system (34-41), he says, “If dominant views in science and philosophy are correct in their affirmation of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin, and Sproul are wrong. God does not control all things; randomness is real.”

At that point, I just scratch my head and think, “You do realize that none of these classical theologians ever based their theological determinism on whether the universe was a closed, causal (in the physicalist sense) system, right?” That may have been the case with certain philosophers or theologians in the Modern period when Enlightenment rationalism began to creep in, but read any classic Augustinian theologian of the Medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation Scholastic period, and down into the contemporary period, and you’ll see that most are quick to deny any kind of physicalist necessity or Stoic fate. Providence has never been something you can put under a microscope or measure using computer models.

Oord’s description of most of these theologians, then, is guilty of a category mistake, treating God’s activity as if it were one cause among others, on par with natural causes, only bigger, and invisible. But on their view, God’s causality is not just one cause among the others. God’s causality is in its own category, non-competitive with ours. God is the logically and metaphysically prior, creating, maintaining, and sustaining cause of all of our activity. In other words, God isn’t on the same, metaphysical playing field with us. Many of those theologians would affirm randomness as a physicalist level, all the while denying it with respect to God’s decree. Failing to appreciate the way that the Creator/creature distinction informs the relationship between God’s activity and natural and human causality is like imagining Shakespeare’s pen-strokes and Hamlet’s sword-thrusts are occurring on the same plane of activity.

Bavinck, Turretin, and the “Reformed” Omnicausal View

Which brings me to a point about Oord’s explanation of the “Reformed” view of providence. He labels it “omnicausality” and says this is the view where: “Although humans may seem to act freely and other creaturely causes exist in the universe, in some unfathomable way, God totally causes every event” (84). Now, admittedly, the term “omnicausality” has been used, but Oord’s description is simply not the traditional Reformed view. Most classic Reformed theologians operate with a notion of primary and secondary causality, or concursus, which means that while God is a necessary sustaining cause of all acts, he is not the only necessary cause for all things. He does not, then, “totally cause” everything in every way. That would be to think of monocausality or sola causa. God exercises his causality through secondary causes like human free choices, natural laws, and so forth.

While this might not be as apparent in the less technical, but pastoral Heidelberg Catechism he cites, it’s explicitly articulated in the equally (if not more) prominent Westminster Confession 3.1:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

One may disagree with this, but not by caricaturing the Reformed view, for it is abundantly clear that the freedom, contingency, and secondary causes are all affirmed. This is not a crass, blatantly illogical “omnicausality” as Oord paints it. Again, you may find it illogical in the end, but I think you at least have to do a lot more work than Oord does to show it.

What’s more surprising about this is that he cites both Herman Bavinck and Francis Turretin as representatives of the “omnicausal” view (84) where other causes and humans only “seem to act freely” and have efficacy, but God really “totally causes” everything. In point of fact, they both clearly operate with careful distinctions of primary and secondary causality, permission, and complex, scholastic distinctions in the will of God and so forth. Bavinck, for one, goes on for pages distinguishing providence from the sort of physicalist, divine determinism taught by some of his liberal, theological contemporaries. Heck, even on the couple of pages Oord does cite, Bavinck is in the process of explicitly affirming secondary causes as “true and essential causes”, not “inanimate automata”, but with their own “nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working, and law of their own” (RD, Vol. 2, 614). In which case he’s saying something almost exactly the opposite of what Oord is citing him for. Passages like this could be multiplied ad nauseum in Bavinck, and Turretin does so as well, explicitly delineating the various senses in which contingency in creation and the human will could and should be rightly affirmed.

When Oord somewhat dismissively writes off the Reformed view as “making little if any sense” (85), then,  despite the citations, it appears he made little if any effort to make sense of it.

God of the Gaps 2.0: Just as “Mysterious”, but in a New, Pocket-Size

Continuing in this vein, when Oord does get around to discussing the primary and secondary causality distinction advocates by Barth and Aquinas (his representatives), he eventually writes it off as an elaborate appeal to mystery because, in the end, everybody who deploys it can’t give an adequate account of how God is at work in these causes. In response, I’d note two points of defense: First, some actually have recently tried to give an account of sorts along the communicative dimension. Second, trying to pin down the causal joint has been a problem for most of the theological tradition throughout the whole of church history. Again, at times, I think an appeal to mystery makes sense.

(Oh, and on this point, I’d like to clarify something about my comments on mystery. In his response, Oord has charged that I seem quite certain without an appeal to mystery on a number of things like the Trinity, miracles, etc. and so I am being inconsistent in my criticism of his allergy to mystery. But I have to say I think that largely misses my point. I believe that God has revealed those various truths I reference in Scripture, so I am confident in them–though not ruling out mystery around them. That said, I also think that God has actually revealed that his ways are mysterious in respect to the issue of providence and suffering. In that regard, I think Oord’s allergy to mystery is also a failure to pay attention to revelation. I see not inconsistency there, since both my confidence on some issues and my appeal to mystery on this issue is grounded in revelation. I think that Oord’s drive for one explanation to rule them all, causes him to reject the variety of answers, including some mystery, that the Scriptures give on this issue. )

But even coming back to causality, more positively, I’d point out that I think Oord’s own account of divine agency is just as fuzzy as that of the primary and secondary causality distinction. For instance, in his section on nature miracles, instances of God’s active power in the world, Oord speaks of God being present and introducing creative possibilities, new forms of creation, and so forth, in places where there are instances of quantum randomness, and so forth. Now that might seem promising and even “scientific” at first, but try as I might, searching high and low throughout the text, I couldn’t locate a clear explanation of how God does this introducing or what that even means. Those gestures I did find could easily be co-opted by advocates of a primary-secondary causality distinction. This is no advance over the earlier apophatic distinctions of Barth or Aquinas.

In other words, Oord’s account is just as “mysterious” as any primary and secondary causality account. Indeed, the only advantage it has is of reducing God’s agency so as to squish it into the randomness gaps that interrupt or coexist with the law-like regularities that God dare not cross or interrupt on pain of being labeled an “interventionist” in his own creation. I have to admit, this feels like something of a God of the gaps 2.0. Only here, if you find some cracks in the interstitial spaces of the universe and you just might find some room for God to work.

And while we’re on the subject of miracles, I’ll be honest, while a couple of his attempts to reconcile the big nature miracles with his non-interventionist God were helpful, others strain credulity as exegesis. For instance, take Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. That seems like a fairly big interruption of the natural order of things. An intervention, if you will. Oord will have none that, though. Instead, what he speculates that what possibly happened is that God—because he’s omnipresent and knows the natural flows of wind, waves, and so forth—knew that the sea was going to be parted at that time. Then, he, in a still small voice, whispered for Moses to lead the Israelites to the Red Sea at just the right time when it was naturally splitting open (210). God’s mighty act of deliverance of the Nation of Israel through the waters of Chaos through to the dry ground freedom is reduced to instance of God’s great timing and some quirky wind patterns.

Now, I have no doubt that sometimes God’s providence looks like a still small whisper at the right time, but that is simply not how Exodus 14-15 depict the event, both in prose and song (go ahead and read the account here).

Adventurous Non-Assurance

Finally, I briefly touched on this, but I really want to expand on the eschatological point. Oord touts his view as an “adventure model of providence” that “fits our world”, but this isn’t an assuring doctrine of providence. The God who is unable to fully and finally put his foot down and stop evil, stop rape, stop war, stop tyranny, and all the horrors of this world, cannot fulfill the visions of John the Revelator who promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes after he has made war on the Beasts who devour the saints. The God who has trouble healing cancer sometimes because our genomes are uncooperative, cannot usher in the New Jerusalem into a world that is as corrupt, non-responsive, and recalcitrant as ours. Biblical eschatology hangs or falls on the God who is the Lord of history, not one of its subjects. A God with enough metaphysical flex to intervene.

To put it another way, Pannenberg criticized certain forms of voluntary kenoticism as threatening our ultimate faith in God alone. What goes for voluntary kenoticism applies a fortiori to involuntary kenoticism. Because the limited God Oord proposes is not the only being or reality on which our hopes must lean. Instead, we have to hope in “God + the right set of cooperative circumstances for him to coordinate.”

Some Better Options

I could keep going, but I’ll just wrap-up by offering a couple of alternatives. First, on the problem of evil, suffering, and providence, I’d commend J. Todd Billings’ book Rejoicing in Lament. Written in the midst of his struggle with cancer, the work is at once more pastoral as well biblically-saturated and theologically-careful. He also has a very helpful discussion of a Reformed view of the doctrine of permission, which, contrary to some reports is compatible with Reformed theology. (Incidentally, I’m always nonplussed when I read criticisms of Reformed doctrines as immediately crumbling in the face of life. It’s as if they’re under the impression no Calvinist in history has ever suffered and been comforted by their doctrines, or even adopted them precisely because of suffering). In any case, I reviewed it here, but I can’t praise it enough.

Second, on the general issues of providence, the doctrine of God, and so forth, Kevin Vanhoozer’s big book Remythologizing Theology is very generous in his engagement with varieties of open theism, panentheism, and process theisms (and now in a cheaper paperback that is totally worth it). Actually, Vanhoozer critiqued related, nearly-identical versions of this sort of involuntary, relational, kenotic theism in the book some five years ago. What’s more, he engages the issue of the nature of love extensively, which I have not done, in a way that addresses some of Oord’s presuppositions and proposals.

I’ll wrap up by saying, even though I really do sympathize with Oord’s instincts and pastoral care, I remain unconvinced that this is a helpful way forward in the doctrine of providence.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Final Review: Assorted Thoughts on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift

paul and the giftI’ve already written once about John M.G. Barclay’s phenomenal new work Paul and the Gift. We also plan on taking up the issue on the Mere Fidelity podcast soon. All the same, having just finished the work, I wanted to address a few themes and offer a few assorted and incomplete judgments about the work. If you’re interested in the thesis of the, Barclay’s own summary of his work that I excerpted here ought to fill you in as he basically delivered on what he promised. And more.

First, an evaluative point: the book really is ground-breaking and it’s set to light up the field of Pauline studies. I don’t think all the rave reviews from other scholars are just an exercise in academic back-scratching, at this point. If you’re at all interested in discussions around the New Perspective or Old Perspective on Paul, Judaism, and justification, this should be on your list along with the other major recent works by Wright, Dunn, and so forth.

Beyond that, I simply wanted to note some thematic takeaways, quibbles, and comments.

Vindication of the Reformers. From a theological and historical perspective, the first thing I noticed was the way Barclay’s work offers at least a partial vindication of the Reformer’s use of Paul in the medieval debates over justification. Recall that Barclay makes a couple of key points.

First, yes, Judaism in general had a very present theology of grace. On that point, E.P. Sanders was correct. Second, “grace” didn’t mean the same thing for all of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries. “Grace is everywhere in Judaism, but it is not everywhere the same.” For many, grace meant the “priority” or “super-abundance” or “singularity” of God’s favor, but for Paul it particularly meant the “incongruity”–the unfittingness–of God’s grace to the undeserving. Second, writing after Augustine and Luther left their mark on the interpretation of grace, when Sanders saw someone affirming the priority of “grace”, he also read into it the “incongruity” of grace because he assumed that everywhere the word is used, it must have that resonance. Not so.

Now, this offers a partial vindication of the Reformers in that, theologically, whatever else you might say about a possible individualism, or misreading of the nature of “works-righteousness”, they were affirming the incongruity of grace against the medieval theology of grace that had managed to sneak “congruity” or worth back into the picture. By conceiving God as “graciously” accepting the merit of the saints which could be procured by good works, penance, “doing what is in us”, and so forth, there is still an element of God accepting or rewarding on the basis of achieved worth or “fittingness”, that’s not dependent on the grace of Christ alone. And this conception of “congruent” grace seems to mirror some of the theology found in 2nd Temple Jewish texts, against which Paul’s teaching stands out starkly.

I did say “partial” for a reason, though. Two related points of difference to note are Barclay’s criticism of Lutheran “non-circularity” and his position on works at the final judgment. Barclay points out that it’s only with Luther that we first find a prominent emphasis on the “non-circularity” of grace, or it’s “unconditional” character in which God’s gift of grace expects no “return” of any kind. It’s a “pure” gift in the modern sense. That’s not something Barclay finds in Paul. For Paul, grace is unconditioned by any notion of worth, but it is not unconditional; Paul expects a change in the life of the believer that issues in good work that will be approved of at the eschaton.

Even with those points made, Barclay’s very careful and sensitive survey of both the 2nd Temple literature and the reception history of Paul does end up highlighting significant parallels between the Reformation debates and Paul’s 2nd Temple context that are illuminating.

Sociology. Second, Barclay, like so many current interpreters of Paul, stresses the sociological dimension to Paul’s theology. Thankfully, Barclay doesn’t use that to screen out or kick to the side classic concerns about individual salvation and such. Still, Barclay is very clear that Paul’s main aim is to create a community of Jew and Gentile upon the joint recognition that both have been received without respect to worth, not according to the old values systems of the world, or according to Torah, but only because of the incongruous grace of God through Christ in the New Age.

Barclay goes into all sorts of helpful social dynamics that Paul’s moral instruction cuts off or addresses, setting things in Jewish and Greco-Roman social context. This angle is a real gain from recent, New Perspective and social science emphases. I found especially illuminating the way Barclay draws on Pierre Bordieu’s notion of practice, habitus, and the body as the site of sanctification.

That said, Barclay can maybe go too far along the sociological angle for my taste. Consider his paraphrase of Galatians 2:15-21:

You and I, Peter, are Jews, used to thinking of ourselves as categorically distinct from “Gentile sinners.” But we know (though conviction and experience) that a person (whether Gentile or Jew) is not considered of worth (“righteous”) by God through Torah-observance (“living Jewishly”), but through faith in (what God has done in) Christ. We look to God to consider us valuable (“righteous”) in Christ, not through obeying the Torah, and this is so even if (in situations like Antioch’s) our resulting behaviour makes us look like “sinners” (“living in a Gentile fashion”). Does that mean that Christ has led us into sin? No way! Only if one were to reinstate the Torah as the arbiter of worth (“righteousness”) would “living like a Gentile” in Christ be classified as “transgression”. In fact (taking myself as a paradigm), I have died to the Torah – it is no longer what constitutes my standard of value – because I have been reconstituted in Christ. My old existence came to an end with the crucified Christ; my new life has arisen from the Christ-event and is therefore shaped by faith in the death of Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. This divine gift I will by no means reject: if “righteousness” were measured by the Torah, the death of Christ would be without effect.

While there’s much that’s clarifying in this reading, the translation of “righteousness” into the language of “worth”, or the way he focuses in other places on the “transgression” of Torah as a cultural framework of evaluation, or the “recalibration of social norms”, seems more appropriate as a preacherly contextualization for late-modern, Westerners than a straightforward, historical reading of Paul.

Apocalyptic-Augustinian-Lutheran. Barclay says that depending on how you look at it, he might be an Augustinian-Lutheran appropriating New Perspective themes, or vice-versa. So, a strong theology of the incongruity of grace, meets social context and a more fine-grained, positive evaluation of Judaism.

What’s more, Barclay has his eye on drawing on the focus of recent “apocalyptic” readings of Paul highlighting Jesus as divine activity that ruptures history and which avoids presenting salvation as the smooth development of potentialities inherent within it. At the same time, unlike some other apocalyptic readings, he acknowledges that in Galatians and especially Romans, salvation happens in fulfillment of the promises to Israel that came before.

All the same, I’ll just put my cards on the table and say that the Augustinian-Lutheran-Apocalyptic Paul still needs more Calvin and the Reformed emphasis on redemptive-history. (Which is interesting because I thought his treatment of Calvin to be very helpful, historically). This is one of those places where Wright, though he can get a bit carried away, is right to give us “big story” readings of Paul’s letters. Also, I don’t think Barclay has done quite enough justice to the positive, continued place of the Law as instruction in Paul’s thought, even though he does give positive place to the growth of holiness and practice of good works in the life of the believer.

Is Paul’s Grace Real Grace? One of the brilliant points Barclay makes about the whole discussion around whether Judaism was gracious or not, is that people have been coming into the discussion with a master concept of grace that doesn’t recognize its various shades and “perfections”, which don’t always have to come together as a package. This is why Sanders was right to think Judaism had grace in it and wrong to think that Paul disagreed with various of his contemporaries about the issue of God’s grace. In other words, it wasn’t only that they disagree as to whether or not Jesus was the only mediator of it, but it truly was about its nature.

At this point, this is where I put my theologian-in-training hat back on (if I ever happen to take it off). The question I’m toying around with is whether “grace in Paul” simply is grace for the confessional theologian.

In other words, it makes sense for a religious historian to be somewhat neutral about which 2nd Temple Jewish theologian had a “better” conception of grace in order to not prejudge the sources from a Christian standpoint. What’s more, we shouldn’t be anachronistic or slanderous, saying that all Jewish religion at the time was legalistic, graceless, and so forth. It wasn’t.

But the time comes when we must speak dogmatically and make normative statements about other conceptions of grace on the basis of Scripture. If we follow Barclay’s case out to its dogmatic conclusions, according to Paul, according to Scripture, to speak of God’s grace without recognizing (and maybe even denying) that it is not according to merit or worth–even though you see that it’s abundant, prevenient, and so forth–is to speak wrongly of grace. This is no attempt to denigrate Judaism, or certain forms of it, but if we take Paul’s letters as revelation—then where Paul disagrees with his contemporaries about grace on the basis of the “Christ-event”, they are wrong.

Now, this might cut against the grain of Barclay’s methodological aims, but at the end of the day, that’s what I think his exhaustive study of grace in Paul has shown us.

Concluding

To wrap up, none of my quibbles disqualifies anything I’ve said about the book as a must-read bit of Pauline scholarship. Its top-rate and I’ve benefitted from it immensely. Even though it’s not a full-dress commentary, there’s no way I’m going to preach or teach in Galatians or Romans without consulting the passage references, since it’s chocked full of exegetical insights waiting to be applied.

So, yes, if you’re wondering, right about now would be a good time to start adding it to your Christmas list.

Soli Deo Gloria

Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Review)

locating atonementFred Sanders and Oliver Crisp sure know how throw a party. Or “theology conference.” This past year’s LA Theology Conference was focused on the idea of “locating atonement” and they pulled out all the stops, drawing in names like Bruce McCormack, Matthew Levering, Michael Horton, and a host of others. Their stated aim was to take us beyond the important, yet typical questions plaguing atonement discussions over the last 70 years such as: How many typologies or “theories” of atonement are there? Which one is right? How do we relate them? and so forth. Instead, they tasked their presenters with examining the subject of atonement in light of its relations to other doctrines. Ten months later, they’ve delivered an exciting new volume on atonement theology Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics.

As a general comment on the collection of essays as a whole, it’s important to note that they’re not presented as one, unified work. There is a diversity among the contributors with respect to issues like impassibility, penal substitution, how much “ontology” plays a role in our accounts of atonement, and so forth. That said, a few characteristics come through. First, they’re all top-notch. Second, they demonstrate a broadly catholic, if predominantly Western orientation, attuned to the theological tradition that comes before it. Finally, as technically erudite as these essays can get, all of them have their eye on the preaching and teaching of the Church, not merely the formulations of the academy.

Though all the essays were worth engaging–so I will–my comments on each will vary because, well, this review got away from me. That said, length of summary should not be necessarily read as an indication of the relative value of each essay.

After Sanders and Crisp’s intro, Adonis Vidu opens up the constructive essays by taking up a thread in his work in Atonement, Law, and Justice on simplicity and divine action (one of my favorites of 2014). Specifically, he sets about trying to set the atonement in the context of the trinitarian principle that the external works of the Trinity are undivided. In other words, there are no works that the Son does in which the Father and the Spirit are not intimately and also equally involved since they have one shared nature, will, and mind even though possessed their own particular way. So, while it is the Son who becomes incarnate, he does so in the power of the Spirit and in accordance with the will of the Father and so forth. Using this classic principle and a strongly Thomistic account of simplicity and pure being, Vidu tries to help smooth out some of the less helpful ways we popularly think about atonement, specifically with the idea that the Father is somehow acting on or against the Son in a way that threatens the unity of the Godhead. In doing so, Vidu raises some important and salutary concerns, trying to direct our attention to the classic tradition which formed the theological context in which our atonement doctrines were originally formulated and outside of which, it can likely only suffer distortion. My only concern is that while he has forcefully and rightly protected the undivided unity of action, I’d love to see him fill out the distinctness within that unity a bit more.

Matthew Levering’s delightful essay relates the doctrine of creation and atonement by engaging Nicholas Wolterstorff on the issue. Wolterstorff recently challenged the “reciprocity principle” at the heart of satisfaction accounts of atonement, essentially by appealing to Jesus’ rejection of the principle in the Sermon on the Mount. This, in turn, shapes his objections to classic satisfaction accounts. In response, first, Levering counters by showing that Wolterstorff’s reading of Jesus and the New Testament is simply wrong on its own terms. Jesus actually reaffirms the reciprocity principle in a number of places as do the apostles. Second, he grounds this reading theologically by expounding Aquinas’ account of God’s gift of distributive justice with the gift of creation. But I won’t blow that for you. Suffice it to say that this is a quintessentially careful piece of theological reasoning from Levering that you won’t want to ignore.

In his piece, Jeremy Treat argues that covenant is an integrative doctrine for atonement theology, which allows us to cut through a number of false dichotomies plaguing us in the contemporary discussion. In a sense, he strives to give a broadly covenantal approach, situating Jesus’ work as the recapitulation and fulfillment of the story of Adam and Israel, attempting to appeal even to the non-Reformed. Using covenant as the key grid for organizing our understanding of atonement, Treat argues that atonement can be both legal and relational, individual and corporate, retributive and restorative, as well as make sense of the unity of Christ’s atoning life, death, and resurrection. These twenty pages would save us all a lot of grief if they were broadly digested within the church. Also, if you haven’t picked up Treat’s The Crucified King–which you should have–this ought to whet your appetite for it.

Benjamin Myers offers up a piece relating atonement and incarnation by expositing the “patristic model” of atonement. In doing so, he’s trying to move us past Gustaf Aulen’s rather skewed “classical” ransom account of atonement offered up in Christus Victor, which tended to obscure things a bit. In past times, writers like J.N.D. Kelly had referred to this stream of thought as something of a physicalist account because it hinges on the Son becoming man, joining his immortal deity to our mortal natures, passing through life, and overcoming death by filling our mortality with his unconquerable life through resurrection. And that’s a horrible summary of Myers’ careful 12-step case. Myers has done us all a favor in highlighting and recapturing a stream of Patristic thought often lost to us in the post-Aulen discussion–a 12-step program, if you will. My one argument is with his treatment of Athanasius that, for my money, tries a little too hard to screen out the penal and forensic elements within it. Indeed, it’s rather instructive to compare his essay at this point to Levering’s earlier appeal to those same passages in conjunction with Thomas. All the same, strong showing from the Australian contingent.

Kyle Strobel and Adam Johnson have a rather unique essay on the relationships between wisdom and atonement. It’s a rather phenomenal little piece that treats the atonement as a work of God’s Wisdom, rescuing the world from its folly through the foolishness of the cross. I’m temped to say it’s almost a way of retelling the whole economy of redemption from the angle of wisdom.  It’s a treasure trove of theological insight (might have been the most surprising essay at the conference for me) and word on the street is Johnson is following it up with a little work on atonement that should be smashing.

Luke Stamps treats the often-forgotten yet crucial doctrine of dyothelitism (that Christ had two wills, a human and a divine one according to each nature) with respect to the atonement.  This is one of those places where clear, systematic thinking is most helpful with exegesis. There are number of key insights here, but for me, the bit that finally clicked was the way monothelitic accounts of Christ’s will, of necessity, require a social trinity doctrine. Without understanding that Christ has two wills–one human and one divine will shared with Father and Spirit–the only way Christ can pray “Not my will but yours”, is if the Son as God has a will distinct from that of the Father and the Spirit. Some might want to go there, but Stamps shows why this reading might have some costs to our doctrine of the Trinity we should not be willing to pay.

Daniel J. Hill and Joseph Jedwab’s essay focuses on relating atonement and the very concept of punishment. Without actually arguing for its justness, they present an argument for the conceptual coherence of the idea of the Son being punished for or assuming responsibility for the sins of others. It’s a fairly analytic essay and, for what it aims to do, fairly helpful. That said, it’s necessarily quite limited.

Eric T. Yang and Stephen Davis offer up a piece analyzing the link between wrath and atonement. They present a somewhat standard defense of the notion of the appropriateness of affirming wrath as an affection or emotion in God, with a disappointing but typical rejection of impassibility. What’s more, they argue that not simply penal substitutionary accounts, but other forms ought to consider incorporating a robust notion of divine wrath in their readings of the atonement.

T. Mark McConnell relates the doctrine of atonement with the much-neglected issue of shame as distinct from guilt. Guilt says, “I have done wrong”, while shame says, “I am wrong.” According to McConnell, not only are we living in a society that is awash in shame, even if it’s lost its sense of guilt, at the heart of the Scriptures is a story about God overcoming Adam’s nakedness and shame in the Garden. Drawing on Ireneaus and the theology of the vicarious humanity of Christ from T.F. Torrance, McConnell lays out the way that understanding atonement as recapitulation allows us to see Christ reconstituting and remaking us as overcoming of our alienating shame in his reconciling life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the one who bears our shame away, killing it on the cross, and clothing us once more. Overall, this is a very important pastoral dimension to the atonement that ought to be regained where it has been lost. That said, I would definitely shy away from adopting the “fallen humanity” view which McConnell has forwarded–I think something like his model can and must be constructed without it–nor would I necessarily foreground shame as prior and deeper to the problem of guilt as McConnell has. Bracing essay, nonetheless.

Alongside Vidu’s, Bruce McCormack’s essay on atonement and human suffering is the densest of the various pieces, defying easy summary. It’s also one of the most conflicted for me. In order to treat the problem of suffering and the will of God, McCormack develops a theological account of the death of Jesus as the will of God. First, he treats it in terms of the Gospel accounts where Jesus’ death is seen as the apocalyptic outpouring of the wrath of God upon the Son. McCormack then turns to deepening the New Testament witness through H.U. Von Balthasar’s profound theology of the cross and his account of the judgment of hell and being with the dead. Though, of course, with his own Christological corrections. With this account in place he argues for the uniquely redemptive nature of Jesus’ death as an answer, not to mere physical death, but as the foundation for the resurrection. It is a condemnation of the old order, paving a way for the new. For myself, I couldn’t go with this tinkering with impassibility, view of synthetic construction of the gospels, and a couple other Barthian themes related to God’s being and history. All in all, though, a stimulating and moving read.

I’ll be blunt and say that Elenore Stump’s was the most frustrating for me. Of course, it was sharp work. It is Stump; she’s brilliant. But theologically, her attempt to offer a cut-rate account of the atonement’s relation to the Eucharist thinly-conceived, had some some rather semi-Pelagian tendencies. That said, her discussion of second-person experiences and the role of story in our spiritual formation was illuminating.

Michael Horton rounds out the books with his chapter on Ascension and atonement. He provocatively sets out to answer H.U. Von Balthasar’s charge that Protestantism can’t encompass or reckon with Ireneaus’ basic attitude in theology. He does so in tracing out two streams of thought on ascent and descent, salvation, and metaphysics. One is an Irenaean stream and another Origenist, with Origen the less congenial of the two. It’s a tale of two ascensions, two deifications, two Eucharists, and two metaphysics. Unsurprisingly, Calvin and the Reformed tradition a la Bavinck are clearly the heroes here. And I agree with that point. But Horton does his best to show them in continuity with a broader “catholic” tradition, as well. Again, this one defies simple explanation, but it’s really a first-rate piece to close down the house.

Well, that about wraps it up. If you haven’t picked up on it, yet, I highly recommend the volume. Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders have done a bang-up job pulling this all together.

Soli Deo Gloria

Gratitude: Leithart’s History of Western Philosophy According to Grandma’s Tureen

gratitudeI love a good intellectual history when I can get my hands on one. Intellectual histories, if done right, give you a solid blend of philosophical (theological, etc) engagement, history, and joy of a well-told story. That’s exactly what Peter Leithart delivers in his recent (2014) offering Gratitude: An Intellectual History. Many will know that the idea of “the Gift” has gotten a lot of attention over the 20th Century in philosophy, anthropology, and related fields. When anthropologist Marcel Mauss “rediscovered” the reciprocity involved in the process of gift-giving in the tribal culture of Polynesia and Melanesia, he kicked off a chain of reflection on the conditions and reality of the gift. What goes into making a gift a gift? What are the ties implied in the giving of the gift? Contemporaries tend to think of gifts as, of necessity, having “no strings attached.” But if every gift implies an obligation, a “debt” of gratitude, can there every truly be such a thing as a gift?

Leithart noticed a gap in the literature. While there’s no end of resources on the gift, there’s little that’s focused on the corresponding category: gratitude. Gifts and gratitude go together. But just exactly what that means, it turns out, has been a matter of debate and controversy over the centuries in the West. Gratitude hasn’t always been simply an issue of thank you cards after your wedding—indeed, it probably never has been simply an issue of anything. The circle of gifts and gratitude have made the world go round, encompassing everything from the deepest questions of political theory, interpersonal ethics, and the nature of the divine-human relationship itself. Paul, lest we forget, says ingratitude–not acknowledging God’s gifts for what they are–is at the heart of human rebellion against God (Romans 1).

Taking an expansive view, Leithart, then, aims to tell the story of the Western history’s various political, philosophical, theological, and cultural orientations towards the nature of gift and the corresponding enactment of gratitude. Guided by Leithart’s steady hands, we are led through a movement from circles of honor in ancient Greece and Rome, to the ingratitude of Jesus, on to the patron(age) saints of the Middle Ages, the disruptive ingratitude of the Reformers, an attempt to bend the circles into straight lines in modernity, and up through the methodological ingratitude of postmodernity. Summarizing this engagement is beyond me. That said, it’s not beyond Leithart to summarize himself. And that’s exactly what he does at the end of the work, using a delightful thought experiment: Grandma’s gift soup tureen.

Leithart asks us at the beginning of the book to enter into the dilemmas of gift of gratitude by imagining this situation:

Imagine that your beloved grandmother gave you a rather ugly soup tureen as a wedding gift. Seeing as you have no use for the tureen, how ought you respond? You would, of course, write an appropriately deceptive note of thanks, but what then? Would you box the tureen away and never use it? Would you use it to feed the cat? What if Grandma were coming for dinner? Would you let her see you using her gift to feed the cat?…Variations on the hypothetical can be spun out further…but the point is clear enough. Gifts, especially from a respected giver, carry something of the giver with them. (16-17)

Gifts carry a responsibility, then, of showing proper gratitude and an ethic that is associated with it.

With this in mind, Leithart decides to summarize his story by playfully imagining what a variety (though not the totality!) of the figures treated in his narrative would tell you about how to respond to Grandma’s ugly, gift tureen:

  • Aristotle would warn you that receiving the tureen puts you in a position of inferiority and that, if you want to be a virtuous and independent person, you should pay Grandma back with a bigger gift as soon as possible. Then forget you ever received the gift in the first place.
  • Cicero would tell you to follow accepted custom, take the gift, look for a chance to reciprocate, and expect that your good offices will advance your political career.
  • Seneca would encourage you to exaggerate the quality and beauty of the gift, to appear at Grandma’s door every morning to accompany her on her way to the grocery store, loudly celebrating her generosity at every stoplight. He would encourage you to look for the right time and way to repay her.
  • Jesus and Paul would tell you to honor and love Grandma, thank God with sincerity, and move on.
  • The Beowulf poet would encourage you to pass out soup tureens to your employees to display your largesse.
  • Calvin and Luther would tell you to thank God, while recognizing you do not deserve the tureen or your grandmother’s love. They would remind you that grace is a gift that can never be repaid.
  • Hobbes would tell you that you should receive the tureen in such a way that Grandma will never regret having given it to you, which means, do not use it to feed the cat.
  • Locke would say that you should thank her and show esteem for her, so long as her gift was not an attempt to influence your decision to vote Democrat.
  • Adam Smith would tell you that gratitude is a proper sentiment in response to something that give pleasure, like a tureen.
  • Kant would tell you that since Grandma gave first, you are obligated to her by a sacred duty, a debt that can never be repaid.
  • Kierkegaard would remind you that we are to thank God even in suffering.
  • Nietzsche would urge you to show gratitude especially if the tureen is ugly, to show Grandma how powerless she is to harm you.
  • Heidegger would mumble something incomprehensible in German, hike up his lederhosen, and leave with Nazi salute.
  • Mauss would be at the head of a gaggle of anthropologists warning you that there is no such thing as a free gift, that Grandma might return later to reclaim her property, and that her display of generosity is likely a power play intended to put you in her debt.
  • Derrida would say that you soiled the gift as soon as you said thank you.
  • Marion would strip the tureen to its essence of pure givability, and you and Grandma would both disappear into phenomenological vapor. (217-128)

And there you have it: the history of Western thought on gratitude, served up in Grandma’s tureen. If this hasn’t whet your appetite, I’m not sure what else I can say. I suppose I’ll say this: Peter Leithart has written first-rate book. It’s a gift for which I’m very grateful. (To God, of course.)

Soli Deo Gloria

“What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality?” by Kevin DeYoung (Book Review)

deyoungObviously, one of the most contested and painful issues in the church and in the world today is the moral status of same-sex relationships. Within the publishing world, there’s been a blitz of blogs, books, conferences, and symposia on the subject, with no signs of abatement any time soon. In the middle of all of this muddle, faithful Christians are understandably confused.

Many are wondering where to look for resources. They’re thinking about that heavily-footnoted blog their friend shared that made them question what they’d believed before, or pastors are wondering which of the recent spate of works will be helpful to hand to the questioning college student, or the new elder, looking to shepherd that that student faithfully.

If that’s you, I’d like to commend to you Kevin DeYoung’s helpful, new book on the subject, What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?

Now, I’ll be upfront and say I’m a Kevin DeYoung fan. I read his blog and I’ve read a number of books, my favorite being his work on the Heidelberg catechism, which was pretty significant for my move over into the Reformedish direction. So I’m obviously predisposed to be sympathetic to his work. With that in mind, take this post as you like. Also, know I got a free copy of the book, though I wasn’t required to say anything nice about it.

That confession aside, I’ll say it’s DeYoung doing what he does best: taking a complicated subject, and with clear, straightforward prose, reviewing significant biblical and theological material, asking the important questions, explaining it, and applying it.  In this case, DeYoung is very clear about his aim, which is to treat the specific question of “What does the Bible really say about homosexuality, or same-sex, sexual activity? Is it healthy, approved of by God in the appropriate situations, or is it sin to be avoided as the Church has said for about 2000 years?”  Unsurprisingly, DeYoung answers in favor of the latter. As he says, it’s a defense of the traditional understanding of marriage.

DeYoung’s structure is really rather basic. He doesn’t really get into sociological, psychological, or political questions (except for an appendix or two at the end). Instead, the first section focuses specifically on explaining the logic of the Biblical narrative and relevant texts (Gen 1, Leviticus, Rom. 1, etc), and the second half is devoted to answering key questions and challenges like the inconsistency of the church (what about gluttony?), the disputed nature of the same-sex activities in the NT times, and other popular, understandable questions.

So what are some of the highlights?

Well, first, this is not really aimed at specialized blogger debates, or niche scholarship. When DeYoung cites his sources, it’s clear he’s done his homework and read the big names on both sides, as well as the source material carefully. He tackles the main, exegetical, historical, and contextual challenges that need to be addressed. It’s solid work. That said, it’s meant for everybody. It’s a clear book for college students with questions, educated people in the pews, pastors, elders, and small group leaders. Which is so needed. I’ve read Robert Gagnon’s big book on the subject, and I think most pastors should, but there’s no way I’m handing my kids 500 pages of footnotes.

Next, it’s pretty calm. That’s kind of an odd thing to praise, but I get tired of the histrionic tones of some the people defending a classical position on the subject. It just gets shrill, depressing, and kind of unhelpful, especially if you’re going to be sensitive and pastoral towards those for whom the issue is a source of personal pain and struggle. DeYoung manages to stay away from the bluster, all the while driving home the weighty issues of sin, salvation, and the holiness of the church that are caught up in the question. For that, I’m grateful.

DeYoung also manages to set the stage well. I think my favorite section in the whole book was the intro chapter where he sets up the question of what the Bible says about homosexuality by talking about what the Bible says about everything; he basically goes through the story-line of creation, fall, redemption through Christ, and the goal God has for everything in the consummation of the ages. One of things I’ve told my students before is that there are some answers that Christianity gives that only make sense if you’ve understood its place within the whole. Yes, you need to tackle Greek words, Roman context, exegetical twists, but he says:

…before we get up close to the trees, we should step back and make sure we are gazing upon the same forest. As is so often the case with controversial matters, we will never agree on the smaller subplots if it turns out we aren’t even telling the same story. (9-10)

The most important part of that story, of course, is Jesus’ saving life, death, and resurrection. And that’s at the center of DeYoung’s little work. Pastors, small group leaders, and just Christians, realize that you cannot simply charge into conversations about these issues armed with a knowledge of key texts. You really need to soak in and connect these to the broader gospel realities, or the medicine simply will not go down.

A final plus, it’s only maybe 150 (shortish) pages. For those familiar with the arguments, it takes maybe an hour, hour and a half, and probably not a lot more if you’re not, which is surprising given the important ground it covers. I take this to be a strength. If you’re “not a reader”, I think you can make it through this book, and, at this point, most Christians really need to have read something solid on the subject.

One word, though: the book’s title really is what the book is about. It’s a book for people for whom the Bible is the sine qua non of spiritual authority. DeYoung’s polemic is mostly about answering revisionist reinterpretations of the texts that try to get around traditional interpretations. He also spends time defending what the Bible says in the objections section, but for those who have to wrestle with more complex questions of hermeneutics, the authority of Scripture, and so forth, you’re probably going to need a more heavy work. Which is probably why DeYoung included a helpful annotated bibliography at the end.

Well, there you have it. Some of my posts are just encouragements to pick up helpful resources. This is one on a key subject that most of us are wrestling with. I hope you find it as helpful as I did.

Soli Deo Gloria 

 

Faith, Form, and Fashion by Paul Helm (TGC Review)

Paul Helm. Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classic Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. 284 pp. $32.00.

Paul Helm is worried about the state of Reformed theology. The dangers that trouble him, though, are not the enemies at the gate but the dangerous friends unwittingly doing damage from within. In his latest, forceful offering—Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classic Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics (henceforth FFF)—Helm takes aim at recent strands in Reformed theology he thinks are drinking too deeply from the well of postmodernity, endangering the well-established methods of “Classic Reformed Theology” (which Helm calls CRT) in order to accommodate the intellectual fashions of the age. More specifically, he singles out Kevin Vanhoozer’s theodramatic theological proposal, as well as the work of John Franke, as the chief exemplars of this drift.

We want to be clear at the outset that students of Reformed theology and philosophy owe Helm, teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, a debt of gratitude for his generally excellent work in the field. What’s more, conversations about the issues he raises need to be engaged. Regrettably, FFF is not the book to constructively carry it forward. While there is much value in his introductory comments, Helm’s portrait and criticism of his interlocutors is beset by a lack of interpretive charity so as to be deeply misleading, and at times simply factually mistaken.

Since we are better acquainted with Vanhoozer’s corpus, and the bulk of Helm’s critique is aimed at him (Franke gets a chapter-and-a-half, compared with Vanhoozer’s five-and-a-half chapters), we will focus our analysis on his critique of Vanhoozer.

You can go read the rest of this review over at The Gospel Coalition. If you’re at all interested in Vanhoozer, or the criticism of him, I highly advise it.

Soli Deo Gloria