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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Basil’s Doxological Spirit

holy spiritI’ve already written a little bit on Basil the Great’s idea of the work of the Spirit in the ministry of the Son. In that light, it’s very clear that Basil thinks of the Spirit economically, or historically. Much of On the Holy Spirit is caught up showing that the Spirit is active, along with the Son and the Father, sharing their one creative and salvific work, the same level of (undivided, divine) being, and names.

The pay-out for Basil, though, is that the Spirit is ranked with Father and Son,  In which case, he deserves to be glorified along with Father and Son.

Basil’s pneumatology is therefore doxological—and this is many ways.

First, in the straightforward sense that purpose of the treatise is to defend the worship of the Spirit in the doxology under attack by the Pneumatomachians (Spirit-fighters). Recall, the Pneumatomachians objected to Basil’s use of the two doxological forms, “to the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit” as well as “to the Father, with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” (1.3).

At one point, after recounting many of the Spirit’s divine works and titles, he asks, “In this matter, which should we fear, that we will overstep his dignity with excessive honor?” (19.49). Theologically and Scripturally, he has shown that it is entirely appropriate to give glory to the Spirit alongside the Son and Father. But more than that, at the rhetorical level, it is as if Basil is banking the fact that contemplating the work of the Spirit cannot but induce his readers to worship.

Another couple of doxological dimensions are suggested by a passage late in the text, where Basil’s explaining the propriety of using both formulas mentioned above. He says,

“Therefore, when we consider the Spirit’s rank, we think of Him as present with the Father and the Son, but when we consider the working of His grace on its recipients, we say that the Spirit is in us.”

Basil moves on to explain the two senses in which it is appropriate to think about the term “in the Holy Spirit.” First, when we say “in” the Spirit, we’re actually referring to our own weakness. Or rather, we’re speaking to the Spirit’s role as the sanctifier and illuminer—it is only because of the aid of the Spirit who indwells believers that they are able to offer sacrifices of praise to God, being insufficient to the task in themselves  (26.55).

Basil comes to a second sense in which we might take the phrase “in the Holy Spirit.” I’ll quote it at length:

We learn that just as the Father is made visible in the Son, so also the Son is recognized in the Spirit. To worship in the Spirit implies that our intelligence has been enlightened. Consider the words spoken to the Samaritan woman. She was deceived by local custom into believing that worship could only be offered in a specific place, but the Lord, attempting to correct her, said that worship ought to be offered in Spirit and in truth. By truth He clearly meant Himself. If we say that worship offered in the Son (the Truth) is worship offered in the Father’s Image, we can say the same about worship offered in the Spirit since the Spirit in Himself reveals the divinity of the Lord.

The Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship. If you remain outside the Spirit, you cannot worship at all, and if you are in Him you cannot separate Him from God. Light cannot he separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the Image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you. Once you see the Image, you cannot ignore the light; you see the Light and the Image simultaneously. It is fitting that when we see Christ, the Brightness of God’s glory, it is always through the illumination of the Spirit  (26.64).

When we speak of the Spirit as the illuminer, Basil wants us to think of him less as the One who turns on the light by which we see, and more as the Light himself in whom we see the Son who is the invisible image of the Father and are able to worship. This is why “the Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship.” For Basil, as for Paul, it’s only by the Holy Spirit that we confess ‘Christ is Lord’ (1 Cor. 12:3).

And so we can see that whatever else we might say about Basil’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit, it’s doxological through and through.

Soli Deo Gloria

Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

luther-and-calvinWith the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (marked by Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door) approaching, there’s an increasing amount of celebration going on in Evangelical circles.

But Carl Trueman is a bit skeptical (which, given my respect for him, I tend to take seriously). It seems to him this may be celebration with much zeal that is unfortunately “not according to knowledge.” He wonders, “Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?”

In other words, the question is whether doctrinally-relativistic Evangelicals haven’t whitewashed the Reformers (with their passion for hard-edged, doctrinal-ecclesial distinctions) and simply recast them in their own image. In other words, have all you smiling Baptists stopped to think about why Luther thought you were a bunch of enthusiasts, or have you sanitized him and made him safe for generic Evangelical consumption?

This is a problem because if we launch into these “Evangelical jamborees” as an exercise in self-affirmation, we lose the opportunity for historically-informed self-reflection.

Now, so far as it goes, I think Dr. Trueman’s point should be heeded. Evangelicals do often tend to “bowdlerize” its saints to make them comfortable members of the local small group. We ought to be attentive to history for more than hagiography and self-affirmation.

That said, foolish, young man that I am, I have a few quibbles with the piece. Or more positively, I’d like to suggest a few reasons to ground Dr. Trueman’s hope that next year’s round of Evangelical jamborees will be “much more than that.”

I suppose I’ll focus mostly on this paragraph:

The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.

One waggish initial response is to ask what the Fathers at Nicaea might make of the broader “priorities and concerns” of the local Presbytery meeting in Philadelphia 1500 years later, (which would presumably also want to cling tightly to Nicaea’s confession).

More seriously, though, while it’s wrong to collapse the distance of 500 years by simply remaking it in our image, its also seems easy to ignore the possibility that some of the differences between modern evangelical faith and that of the sixteenth century Reformation are a legitimate development of that faith in response to those 500 years. In which case, yes, there’s still much to be dismayed over in contemporary Evangelicalism. But I think we ought to be slower to find it wanting according to the standards of its 16th century forebears.

What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.

While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

Another way of putting it is that sola fide begins to imply the other five solas as a whole. In which case, that celebration may include the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth.

All of these are huge issues that even Evangelicals who disagree on some of the same issues the Reformers did (Lord’s Supper, Baptism), can still agree upon now, celebrate, and retrieve together. And this is even more so against a radical, secularizing culture, progressivism, or the inroads Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists are trying to make among younger Evangelicals.

And now I speculate a bit: I wonder if Dr. Trueman’s confession that he is a “Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin” doesn’t have more than a little to do with his skepticism?

I’ll gladly cede to Dr. Trueman’s historical expertise at this point, but it seems Luther’s ecumenical style was a bit more bullish, and far less concessive than Calvin’s. Calvin thought Luther a great man, a latter-day apostle even. But Calvin (and a decent number of other Reformers) did not seem to follow him as a model in ecumenical matters. Indeed, he seemed to overlook the great man’s faults there.

Rather, it was Calvin who signed Augsburg. It was Calvin who tried to mediate between the Zwinglians and the Lutherans on the Supper on their commonalities, in order to present a more unified, strengthened Evangelical front in mission and in the struggle against the papacy. As doctrinaire as he could be, he seemed to possess something of a tactical relativizing streak when needed. What’s more, his confessionalism had ecumenical aims–in the preface to the Geneva Catechism, one of his chief stated reasons for presenting doctrine clearly is so that other churches might approve of it.

Obviously, I would be committing the very error Dr. Trueman is warning against if I tried to suggest that, without question, Calvin would fit right in on the podium at the next TGC “jamboree” or something. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t rule out his showing up.

Dr. Trueman says that true ecumenism must begin with an honest statement of disagreement. I agree that an honest statement of disagreement has to happen. But surely prioritizing of an honest statement of agreement ought to come first, so that we can then properly move on to the areas of disagreement in the right attitude?

Yes, beginning with commonalities like justification by faith often can often be used to relativize differences in a bad way—the kind of way that thinks that just because we agree on justification, I should never tell my Zwinglian friend to allow Jesus to attend his own Supper.

Still, there does appear to be a proper “relativization” that confessing Nicaea, Chalcedon, and, yes, justification by faith, ought to have on that discussion—a relativization to its proper place within the whole structure of the faith. It is that sort of relativization without relegation makes recovering a proper appreciation for dogmatic rank such an important task. It’s that key tool in the toolkit that allows us to keep ecumenism properly confessional and confessionalism properly ecumenical.

There’s more to say than I can here. Obviously, I share his hope that Evangelicals will take this time to dig deep into Protestant history and do more than pat themselves on the back. I guess I’m just more sanguine about the prospects.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On this whole subject, Kevin Vanhoozer’s forthcoming Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestantism is relevant on a number of these issues.

Doctrine and Life Go Together–Mostly, but Sometimes Not

beliefs

Why Indiana Jones? Why not?

Paul’s injunction for Timothy to keep a close watch on his “life and doctrine” in order that he might save his hearers has rung in my ears ever since I realized I was called to the minsitry (1 Tim. 4:16). Life and doctrine go together–what the mind and heart believe, the hands perform. This is why sound doctrine leads to sound living. When we understand the truth of the world, ourselves, and God, how we live in the world will begin to be aligned and attuned to this realities.

Except when it doesn’t.

See, while I still believe that doctrine and life go together, I think there’s a bit of confusion more broadly about the connection between believing and living. People seem to have bought into a popular version of what economists call “rational actor theory”, where (on my dummy definition) people make their decisions in a goal-oriented, reflective, and maximizing way. In other words, there’s something of a clean link up between beliefs and behaviors. If you know one, you should be able to draw a straight line to the other.

This is the kind of folk theory you see at work in a lot of our conversations around politics, or in theology, and so forth. Joe believes in penal substitution, and he just punched Lou in the face, so clearly it’s his violent ideology at work. Jenny struggles with anxiety, so that must be her Arminian theology of providence crushing her with stress. Jake has been flirting with progressive theology lately, so we can expect him to acquire a harem soon. And so forth. Or, we’re shocked when someone who believes as we do acts in a manner we never would.

But the more I watch people, the less that seems correct. Beliefs matter, but humans aren’t consistent, believing machines. For one thing, not all of our beliefs are consistent with each other. Talk to the average person on the street (even the well-educated ones) for very long and it’s easy to find unresolved tensions and contradictions in their thought. In which case, they might act in such a way that deeply contradicts one belief they hold, because it is perfectly consistent with another, different belief and they just haven’t connected the dots.

What’s more, even when people do have consistent beliefs, they don’t always live them out consistently. This is the point of talking about weakness of will, or akrasia as Aristotle termed it. We just know that people often consciously act against their best or conscious beliefs under pressure, temptation, or desire. Or we rationalize and note the way we are exceptions to what we generally expect for others and so forth.

Or even further, we forget that there are usually a number of different conclusions you can draw from your collection of beliefs. Especially if you’re evaluating someone else’s position from the outside. I mean, if you can’t even keep all of your own beliefs straight (as is likely), it’s not surprising that you might have trouble with others’. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain that “no, point B is not what I believe, nor does it even plausibly follow from point A” to various non-Christian friends over the years on any number of issues.

Finally, (and we could keep going) we forget the way various psychological, emotional, social, and historical pressures influence us from moment to moment, in surprising ways. Traumas (or graces) from the way we were raised might create residual behavioral patterns at the level of habit in a way that isn’t simply dislodged by a good syllogism and a few propositions being switched around in your grey matter.

Theologically, a lot of this makes sense, right? Yes, we were created in the Image of God but that’s been broken such that all of our faculties (reason, will, etc) are damaged by sin. They don’t always function or connect up properly. Even after the grace of Christ comes into our lives, the Holy Spirit is at work to restore us progressively. In which case, there will be many times when our beliefs don’t match up with our living.

I mean, this is a lot of why Paul spends so much time reminding people of what they believe, but then also trying to connect the dots between that and how they live. Whether out of folly or rebellion, they weren’t drawing proper conclusions for living from the doctrine that they were intellectually believing.

More positively, this is part of why people will surprise us with how much better they live than we imagine their beliefs would lead them to. Tim Keller talks about the way the Holy Spirit’s work of common grace in the lives of unbelievers leads many to live more wisely and graciously in some respects than believers. Some of that happens, I think, by a happy disconnect between some of the more corrosive beliefs a person may hold and their instinctive behavior. Or, there are great behaviors produced by odious or harmful beliefs.

There are a number ways this can go.

One, I think, is to maybe slow us down from drawing too straight a line between the behaviors of our intellectual opponents and the beliefs of theirs we despise. Yes, again, I do think there is a connection between life and doctrine. There are beliefs that, held in the right way, change us for the better or for the worse in the long run. But in the mess of history, unless they come out and explicitly explain their behavior, it can be very difficult to interpret just what led someone do the dastardly thing they did. Or it could be that someone–under the pressure of desire, peers, etc.–actually betrayed their beliefs. I’m not saying we can’t draw the line between behaviors and beliefs–I am saying we need to be a lot slower and take more care with that argument.

Second, I think we need to be less surprised when large chunks of population don’t behave according to the model we think they should in our head. This is true when we’re thinking of the Evangelical electorate or any other group. We need to be careful about the kinds of causes or explanations we accept for behavior or the beliefs of people we disagree with. Single-cause/single-belief explanations are almost always wrong. People are complicated, so we need to slow down, weigh a variety of complementary or competing explanations for these sorts of things. So, give the other side the kind of charitable interpretation you’d love the to give you when people on your team are being terrible.

Third, on a personal ministry level–each person is their own person. You’re almost never dealing with a cookie-cutter version of the last person you talked to. Sure, you can begin to create “types”, or “patterns”. Stereotypes usually have some basis in fact. But as soon as you’re sitting across the table from one of those types, the mold will usually start to crack, so before you begin “dialoguing” with the robust arrogance of knowing “exactly who this guy is”, maybe slow down and listen to who he actually is.

There are more conclusions we could draw, but all this to say that doctrine and life are definitely connected, but it’s a complicated affair. Which is why the spiritual life and gospel ministry isn’t a simple matter of formulaic truth-dispensing. Preaching and teaching must take their place in the Church–a web of social and historical relationships in which the Spirit works on a person’s heart, mind, body, and soul over time.

Thankfully, the Spirit’s got plenty of it.

Soli Deo Gloria

15 Doctrines That Ought to Bring Comfort In Suffering

Pedro_Fernández_-_Christ_Suffering_-_WGA07807One of my fundamental convictions is that theology, while possessing theoretical aspects, is eminently practical. It’s the “doctrine of living unto God” as some of the older theologians used to put it. One of the greatest tests of that “practicality” is understanding the various ways that the doctrines of the Christian faith can serve as a comfort to us in the manifold sufferings and tragedies we encounter in this life this side of Eden and before the Second Coming.

In what follows, I’d like to simply (and briefly) point out some of the many ways the main doctrines of the Christian faith provide a comfort to the believer in times of struggle, suffering, and pain.

  1. Trinity.  Before moving to realities more directly oriented towards God’s actions on our behalf, it’s important to stop and remember the comfort of the fact that before all things, God has eternally been perfectly existent as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This God is holy, perfect, beautiful, righteous, loving, faithful, eternal, unchanging, impassible, all-powerful, all-present, blessed, and supremely good. In the midst of our suffering, it’s often crucial that we remember that there is a reality deeper and truer that grounds, funds, and surpasses the finite and fallen world we encounter. In that sense, God being God without me holds its own comfort for me.
  2. Creation. God created the world and blessed it by declaring it to be “very good.” In a very important sense, the world is something to be taken, received with gratitude, and enjoyed. Each and every breath in our lungs is a gift of the Creator who has provided us with every good thing, every tree in the Garden, so to speak, for our benefit. We are not souls trapped in prisons, alienated from and anxiously awaiting our natural home in the stars, but humans placed in the midst of beautiful habitat with deep purpose by a good God. Every blade of grass, tulip in the field, bright ray of sunshine, speaks of his power and goodness.
  3. Sin. Connected to this is the doctrine of sin. It’s a bit counterintuitive to think of the doctrine of sin as a comfort, but there is deep reassurance in knowing that the unease, the pain, the opposition we encounter in the world is not natural to it. The world is not meant to be this way and it is sin, not divine malevolence or weakness, that has resulted in the brokenness we experience in our bones and our souls. God hates the fractures in his handiwork and stands opposed to them as we do–indeed, even more than we do.
  4. Providence. God is not a hands-off deity who fell asleep at the wheel. Contrary to what we’re tempted to believe in our darkest moments, the world is not governed by a cold and cruel fate.  The doctrine of providence teaches us that the Triune God sovereignly causes, permits, and guides all things for the ultimate good of his creation and his children. Even the dark schemes of the Evil One will be turned on their head and used for the glorious blessing of creation.
  5. Christ. There are multiple comforts to be derived from meditating on the doctrine of Christ. John Owen gave us a few here. Still, at base, in whatever situation we find ourselves in, looking at Jesus we are given deep consolation in remembering that out of his unfathomable love, God has assumed my nature, experienced what I’ve experienced, suffered all that I have suffered, in order to redeem me, bring into proper relationship, and make me like himself.
  6. Cross. Meditating on the Cross yields comforts to carry us through a lifetime. Here are a few: First, God has damned all that opposes him. Evil cannot stand against him. Looking at the Cross reminds me of God’s utter righteous, holiness. Second, that damnation included my sin which has been punished, buried it, sent to hell. Beyond that, Christ has secured the ultimate victory against the Destructor who is ultimately behind all evil. Satan may still prowl about, but he is mortally-wounded and on the run. Because of this, I can look to the Cross and see my Crucified Savior, take up my own cross and follow him in this life.
  7. Resurrection. Christ’s resurrection teaches me many things. First, the truth is eventually vindicated. One of the great torments of life in this world is the falsification of reality, the lies we tell about each others, and God’s truth. The Resurrection is the great demonstration and unveiling of the Truth of the Son, teaching me that everything, every injustice will one day come to light. Second, death is not the end of the story because the Creator who declared the world to be very good decided to be its Redeemer who will not leave it to decay forever. Whatever threat comes against me, the worst it can do is kill me, and God can take care of that. Finally, nothing can separate me from the love of Christ. He’s already been killed once. What else could come against him?
  8. Ascension. The doctrine of the Ascension means that even now Christ on the throne of heaven, interceding for us. We have the king of the World as our advocate and High Priest. The ruler of the Universe knows what it is like to have walked through the dark vale of the world. He rules with compassion and mediates with sympathy, understanding our weakness.
  9. Holy Spirit. In the person of the Holy Spirit, God himself has come to indwell the believer. This is great comfort to us because we can know that wherever we are we are not alone in the world; not in the darkest dungeon of some authoritarian tyrant, nor the darkest recesses of our own despair. God is with us in all that we suffer and will give us whatever strength we need to face the trouble we encounter in the world.
  10. Union. By faith him, through the mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ. This means all of his benefits, all of his accomplishments are mine and secure. Every heavenly gift, all of his rights and privileges, are mine because I am his.
  11. Justification by Faith. Because of this union, I am justified entirely by faith. Christ’s death for sin on the Cross was my death, and his vindication through the resurrection as “righteous” is now mine. Because of that, I can know that none of the pain, or suffering I encounter in this life is God’s judgment or wrath against me, because that has been fully satisfied on the Cross and I’m righteous in Christ. I don’t have to fall into a pit of guilt or self-condemnation when pain or misfortune befalls me.
  12. Adoption. Also, we have been adopted in Christ. This means that God is our Father despite our sins, failures, and outward appearances. We have been fully and irrevocably been brought into the kind of relationship with God which allows me the privilege of bursting into the courtroom of the King, calling him “Abba” and making known my deepest needs, hurts, and pains with utter security and freedom.
  13. Sanctification.  Sanctification is comforting in a number of ways. I was listening to John Piper the other day talking about the joy of heaven and the end of earthly frustrations. He pointed out that the thing he’s most sick of in this life is his own sin. Sanctification is comforting in reminding us that we are not forever trapped in the sin that easily the greatest source of the daily suffering most of us face. Beyond that, the doctrine of sanctification teaches me that I have been set apart in such a way that I know that in all that befalls me, God is at work to make me holy, pure, and more like his Son.
  14. Church. The doctrine of the Church is a comfort, in that I don’t have to suffer alone in this life. The reality is that I am now part of a family, a body upon whom I can depend full of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers. Many of these have gone before me down this path and stand ready to counsel, support, uphold, encourage, and rescue in times of need.
  15. Last Things.  Finally, of course, there is an ultimate day when God will make himself all in all. He will do this through the Return of Christ who comes to judge the quick and the dead, punishing oppression, ending it, redeeming the world, rewarding the righteous, and ushering in a day of everlasting glory. Upon that day, we will behold our God and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This is the blessed hope and a vision to sustain us in the darkest of hours. The light shines just over the ridge, promising a weight of glory that overwhelms these light and momentary afflictions.

I could continue at length with each of these doctrines. Indeed, in the section on the doctrine of God, each of his attributes provides a particular comfort of its own, for those of us willing to stop and meditate on them. For now, there is enough to see that what we need in times of torment, is not bland platitudes handed to us from spiritual gurus, or pinterest memes, but a soul that has marinated the deep truths of God’s Word. I’ll end by simply quoting one of the most comforting paragraphs in the history of theology, Heidelberg Q & A 1:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Soli Deo Gloria

Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer (TGC Review)

Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014. 298 pp. $22.42.

“The drama is in the dogma,” Dorothy Sayers once said. It seems no evangelical theologian has more enthusiastically taken to heart her statement than Kevin Vanhoozer, research professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago.

Building on the foundation laid by H. U. Von Balthasar in his multi-volume series Theodrama, over the past 12 years Vanhoozer has put forward and developed his own “theatrical” approach to doctrine and theology.

Project Continues

Beginning with The Drama of Doctrine (Christianity Today’s 2006 book of the year in theology), Vanhoozer argued that the category of “drama” is well suited to conceptualizing a theology that takes its cues from the gospel. Doctrine, on this model, is the stage direction that enables disciples to participate rightly in the drama of the gospel. Doctrine does this by rightly identifying the dramatis personae (God, Christ, Israel, and so on), the shape of God’s (theos) actions (drao = to act, drama) that come before (creation, election, Jesus, church, consummation), and in that light, our role in local community performances as the company of the church on the stage of the world.

Vanhoozer followed that up a few years later in his groundbreaking Remythologizing Theology (2010), putting his theory into practice by engaging in some 500 pages of theology proper. Essentially it was a call for theology to reorient itself to speaking of God’s being on the basis of his dramatic doings revealed in Scripture.

Despite their wide acclaim, however, the size, complexity, and price tag of these works has prevented many pastors outside the academy from been exposed to Vanhoozer’s work. This is a shame because—and I know this is a bold statement—these are two of the most important works of evangelical theology written over the past 15 years. The Drama of Doctrine saved my theology of revelation and Scripture in the emergent years, and Remythologizing Theology did the same for my doctrine of God. If I could force every seminary student to closely read and digest those two books, the church would be saved a lot of theological grief.

Enter Vanhoozer’s newest work, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Let me put it this way: if Drama of Doctrine and Remythologizing Theology had a child, it would be Faith Speaking Understanding. Though intended as briefer, less intimidating introduction to and practical application of his theodramatic theology for pastors and serious students, it isn’t a mere rehash of the last two works. As Vanhoozer explains, Faith Speaking Understanding is “an upstart sibling with a swagger of its own, namely a full-fledged proposal for the role of theology in the church’s task of making disciples” (xv)

Please go read the rest of my review over at TGC and then go buy the book. It’s that good. 

Soli Deo Gloria

A Non-Scholastic, Personalistic Doctrine of Divine Simplicity?

dogFollowing up the discussion of the doctrine of divine simplicity from Monday, one of the most frequent criticisms of the doctrine, certainly of its harder forms, is that it is not something derived from biblical considerations, but almost wholly from non-biblical, or even un-biblical philosophical presuppositions drawn from Platonist, Aristotelian, and other philosophical traditions. This charge is particularly leveled against the forms found in accounts like Thomas’ and those following in the Aristotelian tradition of reflection. For a good example of one of these accounts, I’d point you to this short post by my friend Steven Nemes.  For a good, much longer example of this sort of criticism, see Paul Maxwell’s recent, serious ETS article on the subject.

While I’m not going to try and defend or answer objections to this kind of account, I did recently run across John Frames’ account of divine simplicity in his The Doctrine of God (pp. 225-230) in which he argues that some form (probably falling somewhere in the first 5 senses of the term we listed out recently) should be attributed to God. What makes his account worth highlighting is that he’s trying to make the argument from within a theological methodology that he himself describes as “something like biblicism”, with a somewhat unsympathetic take on medieval and Reformational scholastic metaphysics. In other words, he’s kind of a prime suspect for rejecting the doctrine, and yet here he tries to find a way of salvaging and affirming it according to a “more scriptural” logic.

How does the argument work? Well, it begins simple enough. Frame notes that Scripture uses the language of attributes to describe God as “spirit” (John 4:24), “love” (1 John 4:8, 16), and “light” (1 John 1:15). Scripture says not that God has these things, but that he is these things. These are three different ways of describing God that are perspectives on the whole divine essence. What’s more, he notes that the Lord swears by his own holiness (Psalm 89:5, Amos 4:2), with the insinuation that his holiness is nothing less than himself. The same sort of logic is at work when we consider God’s truth, which distinguishes him from false gods (Jeremiah 10:10), as well as Lordship and so forth. In the case of all of these attributes, Frame says that we can’t imagine God being God without being characterized by this quality.

Frame says that while we don’t find a clear passages showing that “all of God’s attributes are necessary to his being and thus perspectives on that being, but they do provide a pattern and a way of thinking about divine attributes to which it is hard to find plausible exception” (pg. 229). From there he asks “But does this pattern justify talk of simplicity?”

It’s here that things get interesting. Frame says that if we think that the different attributes are still perspectives or angles on the one reality of God, then we’ll have to admit at least a relative simplicity even while confessing some sort of complexity. The attributes are not separate in God and so therefore we begin to see that “attributes have attributes”: God’s love is holy, his righteousness is wise, his “mercy is eternal”, and so forth. Still that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that the attributes are simply synonymous. It’s not that his justice just is his power which just is his love and so forth. Though the attributes are all together and mutually determining they are also truly distinguishable. For those who know what to look for, it’s beginning to sound like a Scotist account of the sort Tom McCall writes about in Forsaken; it allows for formal distinctions between the attributes by which they are inseparable, but really distinguishable in themselves, not just phenomenologically (or, just in our heads).

Still, despite pushing for a recognition of real distinctions between the attributes, he invites us to remember that God is a person, and so when we speak of the “divine goodness”, for example, we’re really just “referring to everything that God is”, not some abstract property. “For everything God does is good, and everything he is is good. All his attributes are good. All his decrees are good. All his actions are good. There is nothing in good that is not good” (pg. 229). When we praise his goodness, or his justice, or his beauty, we’re not praising some external standard to which he conforms to, possesses, or participates in, but rather just what he is.

At the heart, then, of Frame’s account of simplicity is the recognition that the biblical God is a “personal God.” He is not a bundle of attributes, but rather a whole person that relates to his creation as such. “The attributes merely describe different things about him. They are a kind of shorthand for talking about that person. Everything he says and does is good, right, true, eternal, and so on” (pg. 230).

Leaving a treatment of the Trinity and simplicity until later, Frame concludes:

It seems to me therefore, that there is a legitimate biblical motive in the doctrine of simplicity. We may be surprised to find that it is not an abstract, obscure, philosophical motive, but a very practical one. Those emerging from the murky waters of scholastic speculation maybe surprised to find that the doctrine of simplicity is really fairly simple. It is a biblical way of reminding us that God’s relationship with us is fully personal.

So the simplicity of God, like all his attributes, sets forth his covenant lordship. It reminds us of the unity of our covenant Lord, and the unity that he brings into our live as we seek to honor him and him alone. The Christian is not devoted to some abstract philosophical goodness, but to the living Lord of heaven and earth. (pg. 230)

Now, for some this will sound great. “Woohoo! We don’t need the philosophical speculation, or need to decide whether Aristotelian distinctions between essence/existence, form/matter, etc. are relevant in order to proclaim a simple God!” On the flipside, I can imagine some people sitting back and thinking, “Well, I suppose we can go that far, but then again, how is that any different than a really aggressive doctrine of the unity of God?”

At that point I don’t really have an answer, but I figured the train of thought was worth pursuing, sharing, and inviting comments on.

Thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria