Wait, I Thought N.T. Wright Said That First?

New Creation WrightOne of my favorite things about reading the Reformers, or the Fathers for that matter, is finding that the best insights I’ve loved in modern scholars aren’t really that new at all. Take the concept of ‘new creation.’ For many of us, N.T. Wright is probably the modern scholar who brought our attention to the theology of new creation. At least for me he did. In his many works on Paul, the Resurrection, and Christian Origins, again and again, he calls us to hear the proclamation that in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection all things, the cosmos as a whole, have been renewed. God wasn’t simply concerned with saving souls off to an ethereal heaven, but rather faithfully rescuing the world from the decay into which it had fallen. Resurrection isn’t just for people, but the universe as a whole. This is bracing and beautifully good news.

As great as learning all of that is, however, one of the unfortunate side effects of reading Wright, and other modern scholars, is that we’re tempted to think that cosmic element to the Gospel had been entirely screened out and forgotten until about 20 years ago. And yet, here I ran across it in Calvin’s comments on the Christ-hymn in Colossians:

He is the beginning. As ἀρχὴ is sometimes made use of among the Greeks to denote the end, to which all things bear a relation, we might understand it as meaning, that Christ is in this sense (ἀρχὴ) the end. I prefer, however, to explain Paul’s words thus — that he is the beginning, because he is the first-born from the dead; for in the resurrection there is a restoration of all things, and in this manner the commencement of the second and new creation, for the former had fallen to pieces in the ruin of the first man. As, then, Christ in rising again had made a commencement of the kingdom of God, he is on good grounds called the beginning; for then do we truly begin to have a being in the sight of God, when we are renewed, so as to be new creatures. He is called the first-begotten from the dead, not merely because he was the first that rose again, but because he has also restored life to others, as he is elsewhere called the first-fruits of those that rise again. (1 Corinthians 15:20.)

Comment on Colossians 1:18

Calvin Said it FirstOf course, the concept was biblical first–he is commenting on Paul. In that sense it’s always been silly to think this was a new idea. Still, here we see Calvin, 500-something years ago, teaching us that Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of a ‘new creation.’ Way back when, in the hey-day of the Reformation, back when everybody was allegedly too pre-occupied with debates about justification and the salvation of the soul, one of its chief architects was preaching redemption as the act of the God who made all things and is now restoring them, indeed, bringing them to the completion he had always intended. Go figure.

As grateful as I am for scholars like Wright who highlight these themes, giving them new life, deeper connections to their 2nd Temple historical settings–I’m all for development and additional heft–it’s good to know that you can still go back to the greats of theological history and find most of the framework’s been in place for a long time. Indeed, the Reformers would probably say they’re only repeating what the Fathers taught us. And, of course, the Fathers would probably say they’re only repeating what the Apostles said, pointing us faithfully back to the Scriptures.

All that to say, don’t be scared to pick up a commentary published earlier than 1950, or even 1550 for that matter.

Soli Deo Gloria

Distorted Application Doesn’t Nullify Good Doctrine

Inevitably, something like this was going to be the picture.

Inevitably, something like this was going to be the picture.

In my online forays, I’ve observed that its increasingly common for someone to explicitly reject a doctrine, or the notion of orthodox teaching in general, on the basis of its abuse. You’ll quite often read something along the lines of, “I grew up in a church that had a heavy emphasis on doctrine X (depravity, judgment, sola scriptura, etc.). My pastors and elders used that to berate people, cow them into submission, or excuse horrible evils.” So, now, whenever they hear that, they can’t accept it because they know (feel) it’s a tool being used to control them, or some other harmful result. In fact, some will go further and turn into a principle of theological methodology to the point where, if a doctrine could be or has been used to hurt or damage someone, it’s to be rejected out of hand.

First off, I want to say: I get the impulse. For someone who’s been beat down with the Bible like it’s a weapon, or doctrines like they’re billy clubs, when they see someone pick them up, even as agents of healing, some PTSD is understandable. It can be hard to distance or differentiate a doctrine from its uses, especially if that’s all you’ve ever known. It doesn’t matter if someone’s trying to offer you an oxygen mask, if someone used one to choke you out in the first place, you’re going to flinch when you see it, even if it’s what you need most.

Everything Get’s Twisted
What I want to point is something very simple, though: just about any doctrine can be distorted or misused to harm others. Tim Keller makes this point in The Reason for God when speaking about the way Christianity has been distorted throughout church history. Many would look at the way Christianity’s been used to justify horrible evils as evidence of it’s inherently flawed character. Keller points out that even universally praised values like reason, freedom, and equality have been the battle-cry of unjust regimes like the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France. Instead of seeing the abuses of Christianity and Christian theology as evidence of their falsehood, it rather points to the fact that something is so wrong in the human heart that it can take anything, no matter how good and true, and use it for wicked ends.

This is true not only of the types of teachings we culturally are more apt to reject like judgment, original sin, or inerrancy, or the types that we typically find appealing.

For instance, we tend to like the idea of a gracious, nonjudgmental God. A deity who loves us and affirms us unconditionally, mess and all, seems kinder, gentler, and difficult to imagine as a tool of oppression or power. And yet, this is the kind of doctrine that criminals use to justify their own crimes. If God doesn’t judge, then how dare we? If God would never punish, then how can we punish oppressors? In the same vein, I’ve seen people excuse their glaring character defects like pride, narcissism, harshness, and insensitivity to the fact that “it’s just my personality; God made me the way I am.”

Or take classic teaching on forgiveness. Christians are told that God is a forgiving God, having forgiven all of our sins in Christ. We then are told to forgive those who sin against us as Christ has commanded. Now, the problem here is that people have taken this teaching on forgiveness and used it to force victims to ‘forgive’ their abusers in ways that basically brush over sin and ignore the reality of justice.

Again, pick almost any doctrine you can think of (creation, fall, grace, etc.) and there is some way it can be abused and applied improperly. Given this reality, if our main criterion for accepting or rejecting doctrine whether or not it can be used to harm others, we’ll be left with a two-word creed: “I believe…”

Abusus Non Tollit Usum
This is why one of the most important rules I’ve had to learn in my theological studies is abusus non tollit usum, or “abuse does not take away use.” The basic point is that just because fire can destroy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for cooking or keeping your home warm; an oxygen mask can still save your life, even if someone choked you with one; scalpels can still cut out cancer, even if someone was injured with one. In the same way, doctrines can still be good, true, beautiful, and helpful despite the ways they’ve been abused or misconstrued in the past.

As always, Jesus points the way forward in this regard. When correcting the Pharisees and Sadducees’ distortions of scriptural teaching, he didn’t do it by chucking Scripture, but by quoting it, and pointing them to its true meaning. (Matt. 9:12-13; 12:1-8; 19:4; 22:29, 41-45) In the Sabbath controversy, it wasn’t a denial of the Sabbath command that brought relief, but a renewed, deeper understanding of what the command was always about. Or again, when Paul wanted to correct the Judaizers who were saying the Gentiles weren’t full members of the covenant by faith alone, but needed the practice of Torah as well, he didn’t reject Torah. No, he went back to the Scriptures to make his argument (Gal. 3-5)

As difficult as it might be (and I get it, it’s really difficult sometimes) Jesus shows us how important it is to strive to distinguish the true doctrines of the Christian faith from their distorted applications and expositions. There will be things you might end up rejecting after the process. Often-times there is some bad theology that has to be rejected being taught along precious truths to be held firmly. I would encourage you to search the Scriptures, though, before rejecting something only on the basis of your negative experience with it. It may take some years of books, conversations, good churches, and maybe a good counselor, but it’s worth it to make sure you’re not rejecting some key truth of the Gospel because some wicked teacher ruined it for you.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Theses on God and Christian Theology

clear wordI’ve been doing lists of 5 recently. First there were 5 ingredients to being a good theologian, then 5 things my mom taught me about theology, and now I’ve got another 5. Where will it all end? Probably not here.

In any case, these come from Mark D. Thompson’s insightful defense of that oft-maligned and mostly misunderstood doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture. He lists 5 key points about theology that must be kept in mind if the teaching about scripture’s clarity isn’t to devolve into the “static”, abstract, and impersonal notion it is commonly caricatured as:

  1. “Christian theology, at its most basic, is talk about God.” (pg. 49) Note, theologians have been saying this long before Rob Bell got around to it. Etymology aside (theos = God, logia = words), the first distinctive feature of theology is that it is concerned primarily with God. While theologians might talk about politics, humanity, the nature of reality, and so forth, in so far as they are doing theology, they are speaking of these things with reference to God. If they’re not, then they’re engaged in some other discipline, which is fine, but we shouldn’t call it theology. 
  2. Christian theology is essentially and unavoidably trinitarian.” (pg. 50) The point is that when Christians talk about God, they’re talking about the God who is wonderfully Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all of eternity. That’s the God we see revealed in the history of Israel as it culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son Jesus Christ who came by the will of the Father, in the power of the Spirit for our salvation and God’s glory.
  3. Christian theology is talk about God made possible by God’s prior decision to be known.” (pg. 51) At its most basic level the doctrine of revelation means that you only know about God because of God. It on the basis of God’s free, loving decision to be known by creatures–creatures in rebellion no less–that we come to have anything to say about him. As I’ve noted elsewhere, all of our knowledge of God is had by God’s grace. Our very knowledge of God is God’s kindness, God’s condescension to take up our feeble language and use it in powerful ways to speak to us of his great love–even more, to take up our feeble humanity and walk amongst us. (John 1:14)
  4. Christian theology can only claim truth and authority in so far as it conforms to God’s self-revelation.” (pg. 52) God has acted and spoken in certain ways to authoritatively reveal himself to us in history–our goal in theology is to be faithful to that revelation.   Contradicting God is not an option. For that reason, theology cannot be merely creative speculation, but rather a careful exposition of God’s words and works in history for our salvation, as we find them in the Text that bears his divine imprimatur. This doesn’t mean we can’t be creative in our exposition, or ever engage in what might be called metaphysical speculation, but rather that both are carried on in service of and submission to God’s own words about himself. Any “theology” that carries us beyond, or against God’s own self-revelation loses the name ‘Christian.’
  5. Christian theology is talk about God that takes place in the presence of God and in the eyes of the world. (pg. 53) Finally, theology is not done in a vacuum. Thompson calls our attention to the fact that theology happens in the presence of the God who is active through his word. “We do not speak of God in his absence or behind his back.” When we write theology, we are speaking both about God, and, in a way, to him; Augustine addressed his Confessions to his most important hearer. And yet, God is not our only hearer. We do theology in the eyes of the watching world; it’s primary character is that of proclamation. God does not benefit from theology–he already knows who he is. It is the creation that needs to hear of the words and works of God for its redemption. For that reason, theology must be engaged with the world in which we find ourselves, not in a way that blunts or domesticates it, but enables it to accomplish its intended purpose–to confront and welcome the world with the saving news of the Gospel.

As with nearly all numbered lists, this one could easily be expanded. However, these 5 lines of thought are helpful to keep clear as we think about the theological task in general, and specifically on the dynamic reality of Scripture. What we say about Scripture is unavoidably tied in to what we say about the Triune God we find revealed in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

So Rob Bell Wrote Another Book About God — Some Thoughts Before Actually Reading It

Rob BellA couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a little book about Heaven, Hell, and all that God stuff. You might have heard of it. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it–he didn’t say anything new. (Or necessarily very good. I’ll be honest, even though I was a Bell fan in college, I was pretty disappointed with that last one.)  In any case, it kicked off a little bit of a crap-storm in the Evangelical world. Well, actually, it was the online theological storm of the century. There were pre-emptive tweets by Evangelical megastars, negative reviews, glowing recommendations, counter-reviews, charges of heresy, charges of heresy-hunting, gangs roaming the internet with clubs watching for signs of dissent or support, refugee camps, and basically all that is unholy in the blogosphere.

At the same time, some good conversations and decent theology got out too.

Now, thankfully this all went down before I had a blog up and running. Given the amount of Facebook conversations I was involved in during that whole imbroglio, I praise God that in his providence that he spared me from my own immaturity. It seems though, that Rob Bell has written another book. It’s about God, or at least, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Well, here’s the trailer:

Before I read it, or anybody else reads it, or writes a review, or tweets some 140-character gem and the whole blogging world explodes with outrage and applause, I have a few thoughts to offer up to the online world, both within my own Reformedish tribe, as well as those outside it:

1. Calm Down – First things first–calm down. Whoever you are, turn it down a notch. If you’re a Bell fan, slow your roll. No, he’s not going to unveil the secrets of the universe. It’s not revolutionary or visionary. He’s probably just written down something somebody else has written in a printed blog format

with

oddly-spaced lines that

emphasize some

point

that you’ve never heard of because you’re not reading

academically-hip

theological literature

like he

does.

If you’re a Bell critic, especially if you’re Reformed, calm down. Realize that if you really believe the confessions, none of what he writes means God isn’t actually sovereign, won’t take care of his church, or that the whole church will drift into heresy and death because of it. Yes, given the last book, you will probably not like a lot of this one. Yes, many people will read it and agree to propositions about and perceptions of God you find to be unworthy and un-scriptural. Yes, you might have plenty of correcting to do. But once again, this has been the situation of the Church for the last 2,000 years. It will survive one book.

In fact, just take a minute to recover by reading Romans 9 or some of the Institutes. There. Feel better?

Okay, let’s move on.

2. Read First, Shoot Later (Or, Don’t Shoot, Pray Before You Write) – This one’s mostly for critics–read the book before you say anything super-critical about it. Seriously. It doesn’t help to declaim something as full of heresy and beyond the pale if you’ve never read the dang thing. Also, when you do read it, do it with the spirit of generosity, trying your best to love your neighbor as yourself, reading as sympathetically as you’d like to be read. Don’t caricature or misquote, or uncharitably misrepresent. You might still find a whole bunch of stuff you don’t like–stuff that troubles and disturbs you so that you feel the need to correct in print. That’s fine. I believe firmly that any publicly-promulgated doctrine or false teaching needs to be corrected publicly for the health and life the church. Jesus and the apostles hated heresy, so if there is any, by all means, declaim away. That said, remember that it needs to be done in a spirit of love and with the integrity that flows from the Gospel. Our polemics may be passionate, but they should always be principled and never be putrid.  Truth cannot be championed by dishonesty, and especially if you’re a pastor, remember that you’re setting an example for your hearer/readers. The way you react often sets the tone for your people, as well as the watching world. As the old hymn goes, they will know us by our love. Love doesn’t exclude disagreement and confrontation, but it should change the way it goes down. Pray before you hit ‘publish’ on that blog.

3. Try to Understand the Other Team – I hate to call them teams, but yes, in issues like this, realistically the theological spectrum ends up splitting into opposing teams who drive the conversation, with some people trying to occupy the center but usually leaning one way more than the other. I’ll just say that both sides need to strive to understand the other’s concerns. For instance, if you read Love Wins and you didn’t for an instant sympathize with the criticisms that Bell was launching against some traditional doctrines, I’m just going hazard a guess that you’re probably not an effective evangelist, because he was hitting at legitimate (or at least common) theological and cultural concerns. I’m not saying he gave the right answers, but if you can’t understand why those answers resonated with so many in our culture, then you’re not going to be able to thoughtfully and compassionately provide the answers you deem to be the biblical ones with any kind of charity or grace to those without as clear of a theological vision as you. At the other end of things, if you were a Bell fan and you absolutely loved the book, and were unable to see the criticisms as anything more than insecure heresy-hunting conducted by narrow-minded gate-keepers, then I’d hazard a guess that you might be suffering from a sort of reverse-theological boundary keeping, which immediately privileges anything deemed to be “unorthodox” by the Evangelical majority. If you can’t see why more thoughtful, sensitive believers of a more “conservative” bent might have felt attacked or caricatured in that book, you probably won’t be someone who can graciously and thoughtfully correct them on what you deem to be their theological deficiencies.

4. Criticism Is Not Inherently Narrow-minded Oppression – Expanding on that last point, realize that we wouldn’t have half of the New Testament if the apostles like Paul, John, or Peter weren’t passionate about correcting errors both in doctrine and practice. Colossians is an attack on syncretistic theology of a Jewish-Hellenistic sort that threatened to lead the Colossian believers back into a beggarly superstition, trusting in various intermediaries instead of the supremacy of Christ. Galatians combats the Judaizing failure to recognize the eschatological shift in redemptive-history brought about by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection due to nationalistic self-righteousness, which threatened to split the community between Gentiles and Jews. John combats love-denying proto-Gnosticism that, again, tears at community. The list could easily go on. The NT authors pursued public false teaching with passion because they knew that there was a real link-up between sound doctrine and a life-giving love of God in their flocks. The point is, Bell fans need to realize that when he writes a book publicly expounding a theological position that sets itself in direct, or even tacit, opposition to a large portion of the theological populace, criticizing and writing it off, it is not unreasonable to expect some push-back–not because his theology is necessarily heretical. It might not be. But even if it is merely perceived as such, understand that it might be very real, pastoral concern that drives the criticism, not personal animosity or jealousy. Because he’s a teacher, even if he’s just “asking questions”, (there’s a way of “asking questions” that’s really answering them), every public word is held to account. (James 3) My point is, not every criticism is narrow-minded oppression of theological diversity, but might be real pastoral accountability being exercised, even if you think it’s mistaken.

5. Cling to What is Good, Hate What is Evil – Depending on which translation you use, Romans 12:9 might place the “hate what is evil” or the “cling to what is good” first. In this case, as a word to the initially apprehensive, I would say go in with an attitude that seeks to learn or discern whatever good you can from the book before you find the less-than-good. Of course, be like the Bereans and test everything against the scriptures. (Acts 17:11) If you find something in there that doesn’t line up, reject it. That’s a given. Still, it bears repeating that before you go hunting for everything that’s wrong with it, try to find the good you can affirm on the basis of God’s self-revelation in Christ and the scriptures. If for no other reason than to be able to have a fruitful conversation with someone who actually enjoyed the book, you need to be able to affirm the good before you move to critique the bad.

I don’t expect that this is the only thing I’ll say on the whole issue. I might even write one of those critical or, I wish, glowing reviews. (I’d love to love this book.) But for now, before I’ve read a single word, here’s what I’ve got to say. I pray it blesses God’s church, bringing more light than heat.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Jesus Who Quotes Himself

Jesus SpeakingBack in the day, liberal theologians liked to say Jesus never claimed any particularly extraordinary authority for himself; not to be the Messiah, the Son of God, or any of it, and that all of the church’s later teaching on it was an unjustified addition and corruption of Jesus’ originally pure, moral message about God’s Fatherhood, and the universal brotherhood of man. Usually this claim was advanced in order to forward a less doctrinally-“rigid” Christianity, more in keeping with the modern spirit, picturing Jesus as a teacher of universal moral truths and general wisdom suited to their post-Victorian sensibilities.

Actually, this kind of move still gets made today only we don’t use the “sexist” and gendered language of the “Fatherhood of God”, or the “brotherhood of man.” Typically we replace that with some talk about justice, equality, the end of oppression and such things. Don’t get me wrong, justice and ending oppression are good, biblical things. Still, it’s not uncommon to hear sentiments like, “If only we could forget all this business about Christ being ‘Lord’, or those abstruse Trinitarian controversies, or his atoning death with all of the silly theological disputes that go along with it, we could get down to the real business Jesus was about–you know, all that stuff in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount! That’s the real Jesus. That’s the Jesus we should be listening to, considering, and putting what he preaches into practice. The Sermon on the Mount is where you find what Jesus was really all about–not all of this silly dogma about him that mainstream Christianity has gotten hi-jacked with.”

MachenBasically, if we could get Jesus’ ethics, his moral teachings, without all the doctrine, then we’d be good.  When J. Gresham Machen encountered this line of thinking back in his own day he pointed out the flaw, at least from the New Testament standpoint, with it:

Even those parts of the Gospels which have been regarded as most purely ethical are found to be based altogether upon Jesus’ lofty claims….But even in the Sermon on the Mount there is far more than some men suppose. Men say that it contains no theology) in reality it contains theology of the most stupendous kind. In particular, it contains the loftiest possible presentation of Jesus’ own Person. That presentation appears in the strange note of authority which pervades the whole discourse; it appears in the recurrent words, “But I say unto you.” Jesus plainly puts His own words on an equality with what He certainly regarded as the divine words of Scripture; He claimed the right to legislate for the Kingdom of God. Let it not be objected that this note of authority involves merely a prophetic consciousness in  Jesus, a mere right to speak in God’s name as God’s Spirit might lead. For what prophet ever spoke in this way? The prophets said, “Thus saith the Lord,” but Jesus said, “I say.” We have no mere prophet here, no mere humble exponent of the will of God; but a stupendous Person speaking in a manner which for any other person would be abominable and absurd. –Christianity and Liberalism, pg. 31-32

In essence he said, “Fine, let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s see what kind of Jesus we find there: the Jesus who quotes himself.” What’s significant about that? Well, I mean, even in our modern context if you find a guy walking around quoting himself, you know he’s got a high opinion of himself. In the Bible this was a slightly bigger deal. See, a prophet of God would say, “Thus says the Lord”, but Jesus goes ahead and basically says, “Here’s what I say”–essentially elevating his word alongside the word of Lord. Actually, Machen goes on to point out that Jesus explicitly does that:

The same thing appears in the passage Matt. vii. 21-23: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many shall say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name cast out demons, and in thy name done many mighty works? And then I shall confess to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work lawlessness.”’ This passage is in some respects a favorite with modern liberal teachers; for it is interpreted − falsely, it is true, yet plausibly − as meaning that all that a man needs to attain standing with God is an approximately right performance of his duties to his fellow-men, and not any assent to a creed or even any direct relation to Jesus. But have those who quote the passage triumphantly in this way ever stopped to reflect upon the other side of the picture − upon the stupendous fact that in this same passage the eternal destinies of men are made dependent upon the word of Jesus?

Jesus here represents Himself as seated on the judgment-seat of all the earth, separating whom He will forever from the bliss that is involved in being present with Him. Could anything be further removed than such a Jesus from the humble teacher of righteousness appealed to by modern liberalism? Clearly it is impossible to escape from theology, even in the chosen precincts of the Sermon on the Mount. A stupendous theology, with Jesus’ own Person at the center of it, is the presupposition of the whole teaching. -ibid., pg 32

Basically, if you want the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, you can’t get away from that Jesus of “doctrine”. Inevitably Jesus himself points you to the Jesus of the creeds–the Messiah, dead, buried, risen, ascended, the ruling and reigning Lord, equal with the Father, and coming to judge the quick and the dead. There is no ethical Jesus without the doctrinal Jesus; eventually you have to deal with the Jesus who quotes himself.

Soli Deo Gloria