Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

theology of religionI’ve been reading Gerald McDermott and Harold Netland’s new theology of religion A Trinitarian Theology of Religion: An Evangelical Proposal and it’s been quite stimulating. While I used to give the problem of other religions and the Christian faith more thought, I haven’t as of late. Still, McDermott and Nestland’s stimulating work have gotten the juices flowing again. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer 7 brief, tentative notes towards my current “theology” of other religions. What, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can we say is the truth about what we typically think of as other faith-systems?

1. Jesus Christ alone is the crucified and resurrected Lord over all creation. The confession of Christ’s preeminent, sole, unique, saving Lordship is baseline for any Christian theology of other religions.

2. Consistent with this, as the uniquely Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ alone is and reveals the ultimate fullness of truth about God, the world, and everything else. Jesus’ revelation is not one among many, or merely a slightly clearer revelation of a broader religious truth.

3. Jesus reveals the Triune God to to be ultimate spiritual reality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely the names we’ve given to our Christian experience of some deeper Real that every other faith is describing by some other name. Hard Pluralism about religious reality is inconsistent–well, just in general–and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than that of the Lord Jesus. This means at the very least that salvation comes by, in, and through the work and person of Jesus Christ alone. It is only by union with his obedient life, atoning death, and life-giving sacrifice that any can be redeemed from their sin and brought into a saving relationship with God. For that reason, other religions cannot be the mechanism or method for the salvation of any person. Salvation is solely by the grace of Jesus Christ, not the result of human works or merit.

5. Other religions, just as all other philosophical thought systems that do not flow from the truth of gospel, participate in idolatry. While they testify to the basic human need to worship, they do so in a disordered fashion, according some part of creation with the honor, dignity, and function that only God may rightfully occupy. Note though, this is true as much with Hinduism as it is with Marxism or Aristotelian philosophy.

6. The complementary reality is that within other religions there can be elements of truth found within them through God’s work of common grace. Note, this is not saving truth, or special grace. That said, some religions’ teachings may be the result of the Holy Spirit’s restraining work of mercy, though not likely his illumining work of salvation. That a Muslim knows there is one God and does not fall into the obvious idolatry of animism or ancestor worship, I take to be the restraining work of common grace. Also, it seems possible to see those aspects in Buddhism that teach compassion, or at least militate against socially-destructive forms of obvious selfishness, to be truths of common grace as well. Many of us would have no trouble affirming something like this about the truth of systems of thought we call “philosophy” such as Aristotelianism and Platonism. I take this to be as true for the systems of thought we typically designate “religious” in the West.

7. Finally, as to the very sensitive question of the salvation of members of other religions who have never had the opportunity to explicitly respond to the gospel, unsurprisingly, I suppose I hold decently conservative views on the subject. When I was younger I used to straight-forwardly affirm a C.S. Lewis-style inclusivism–God saves some on the basis of their response to the truth they could respond to, yet only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Lately though, in light of the types of concerns summarized by this excellent little article by Kevin DeYoung clarifying the case for exclusivism, I have become me much more cautious about affirming something speculative on this issue and wary about going that route.

My thought in this area has been rather unreconstructed since my shift Reformed, though, so I decided to do a little digging in Bavinck and I find this interesting section on the fate of unevangelized pagans and children who die in infancy. After discussing some historical positions–for instance, Augustine and others believed some pagans like Socrates were in a position similar to OT saints–he goes on to write this fascinating passage:

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation of pagans and that of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.

Thus, in the Second Helvetic Confession, article 1, we read: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power”…And the Westminster Confession states (in ch. X, §3) that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases”, and that this applies also to “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” Reuter, accordingly, after explaining Augustine’s teaching on this point, correctly states: “One could in fact defend the paradox that it is precisely the particularistic doctrine of predestination that makes possible those universalistic-sounding phrases.”

In fact, even the universalistic passages of Scripture cited above come most nearly and most beautifully into their own in Reformed theology. For these texts are certainly not intended universalistically in the sense that all humans or even all creatures are saved, nor are they so understood by any Christian church. All churches without exception confess that there is not only a heaven but also a hell. At most, therefore, there is a difference of opinion about the number of those who are saved and of those who are lost. But that is not something one can argue about inasmuch as that number is known only to God. When Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he only replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many … will try to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Directly important to us is only that we have no need to know the number of the elect.

In any case, it is a fact that in Reformed theology the number of the elect need not, for any reason or in any respect, be deemed smaller than in any other theology. In fact, at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession. It locates the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omnipotent and free. Aside from it, where could we find a firmer and broader foundation for the salvation of a sinful and lost human race? However troubling it may be that many fall away, still in Christ the believing community, the human race, the world, is saved. The organism of creation is restored. The wicked perish from the earth (Ps. 104:35); they are cast out (John 12:31; 15:6; Rev. 22:15). Still, all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ (Eph. 1:10). All things are created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pp. 726-727

Bavinck is about as orthodox Reformed as you get–rejecting pluralism, universalism, affirming predestination–and yet still he finds some space for the possibility of the regeneracy unevangelized. I find that interesting, even if I’d need to give it more thought. In any case, I’m quite sure whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross.

None of this is particularly astonishing, new, or controversial (I hope). Still, it seems profitable to be laid out for reflection and discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria

40 Days That Make Sense of the New Testament

Jesus talkingMany know that after he rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to his disciples to manifest his resurrected glory and commission them for ministry. What is often forgotten is that Luke tells us in Acts 1 that he spent 40 days with his disciples instructing them about the kingdom and preparing them. Because Luke only mentions this in the one verse, we often forget about this dimension of his earthly ministry.

Herman Bavinck makes the case, though, that we forget these 40 days at great peril to our ability to make sense of the shape of much of New Testament teaching and preaching:

After he had suffered, he not only presented himself alive with many compelling proofs for forty days but also spoke to them of the things pertaining to his kingdom (Acts 1:3; 10:40–42; 13:31). All too often this instruction that Christ gave to his disciples between his resurrection and ascension is ignored, but it fully deserves our attention. Those who do not take account of it create a large chasm between what Jesus himself taught before his death and what was later preached by his apostles. These men, certainly, linked up with the instruction given by Jesus to his disciples specifically in that forty-day period. Jesus did not appear to his disciples in order from that point on to leave them to their own reflection and reasoning, but in those forty days impressed upon them much more clearly than he could do earlier the significance of his death and resurrection, of his person and work. For before his death and  resurrection, his disciples did not understand him. Over and over they misconstrued his intentions. They would only understand them afterward. But after Jesus died and rose again, appeared to them in another form, and spoke with them about the kingdom of God, they learned more in those forty days than in the three years they had daily associated with him. Only then did they for the first time understand the words he had spoken to them earlier.

Of the greatest significance were the things in which Jesus now further instructed them. They concerned—briefly to mention the most important—the necessity and significance of his suffering (Luke 24:26–27), the explanation of the prophecies of the Old Testament in light of their fulfillment (Luke 24:27; 44–46), the glory and power to which he was now being raised (Matt. 28:18). Additionally, his enduring presence in his church (Matt. 28:20), the equipment of his apostles for the office of their ministry (Mark 16:17–18; Luke 24:48; John 20:21–23), the restoration of Peter (John 21:15–17), the proclamation of the gospel to all peoples (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8), the nature of faith in his name (Mark 16:16; John 20:29), the benefits to be obtained by it (Mark 16:16; Luke 24:27). Finally, the meaning and administration of baptism (Matt. 28:19), the future of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:7), the promise of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–5), his own deity (John 20:28), and the full revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit (Matt. 28:19).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pg. 444

Commenting on the apparent disparity between Jesus’ ministry and that of the apostles Alfred Loisy’s famously quipped, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” Now, while scholars like N.T. Wright have accounted for the apparent differences in emphasis between Jesus’ proclamation in the Gospels and that of the apostles (Kingdom –> Risen King),  when we begin to take seriously the account of Jesus’ post-Resurrection instruction, we can start to appreciate how much the apostles’ teaching was still rooted in the words of their Lord.

It’s not that after his Resurrection, the apostles all of a sudden, under the inspiration of the Spirit, had a burst of theological creativity. Jesus himself revealed to them truths they could not see before, and clarified for them the reality of what he had been instructing them in all along. The disciples didn’t just have to sit back and remember “Now what did Jesus mean when he said…” when they were writing the Gospels. Many of the interpretations of Jesus’ ministry as the fulfillment of prophecy were probably taken from Jesus’ own lips as he spent time teaching them about the kingdom of God.

I don’t know about you, but this offers me great encouragement to my faith in the authority of the rest of the New Testament witness. Even without bringing in the strong theology of inspiration I already have, the New Testament is not merely the disciples’ witness to the Risen Christ, but likely the Risen Christ’s own witness to himself.

And on that note, I think I’ll wrap this up and go crack open my Bible. Seems like the right application at this point.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Does Discussing the One God Before the Triune God Distort our View of God?

There's Thomas--he's probably  thinking about how to distort the doctrine of God right now.

There’s Thomas–he’s probably thinking about how to distort the doctrine of God right now.

In theology, everything is connected. One doctrine implies another and unless we’re careful, seemingly innocuous modifications in the order of arguments, or the way we proceed methodologically, can lead to surprising conclusions and unfortunate results. In the wake of Barth’s trinitarian revolution in mainstream theology, many 20th century theologians have argued that just such a process happened in classical theology when it comes to the doctrine of God.

Among others, Jurgen Moltmann and Colin Gunton gloomily point to Aquinas’ decision to order his discussion of the doctrine of God in such a way that he treats the divine attributes (simplicity, aseity, omnipotence, etc.) before he comes to the trinitarian persons. Because of this fateful decision, they say his discussion and the classical tradition following him comes up with a concept of God rooted less in the biblical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and more from generic categories of being drawn from Greek philosophy and human reason. From there, theologians are faced with the difficult task of trying to reconcile revelation and reason resulting in all sorts of theological puzzles plaguing the tradition ever since.

But is that necessarily the case? Does a decision to treat the divine nature or being prior to treating the doctrine of the Trinity necessarily result in a sub-trinitarian doctrine of God? Herman Bavinck actually faced that argument about 30 years before the Barthian revolution, answering the objection in the negative and defending the classical ordering in theology:

In the work of some theologians the locus of the Trinity precedes that of the attributes of God; and Frank even has serious objections to the reverse order. If treating the attributes of God before the doctrine of the Trinity implied a desire to gradually proceed from “natural” to “revealed” theology, from a natural to the Christian concept of God, then this procedure would undoubtedly be objectionable. But this is by no means the case. In the doctrine of the attributes of God the tradition includes the treatment of the divine nature as it is revealed us in Scripture, is confessed by the Christian faith, and exists–as will be evident in the locus of the Trinity–in a threefold manner. In order for us to understand in the locus of the Trinity that Father, Son, and Spirit share in the same divine nature, it is necessary for us to know what the divine nature comprises and in what ways it differs from every created nature.

And this is not merely a matter of logical ordering that classical theologians have come up because of their own prior methodological preferences. In this, they only follow Scripture:

In the matter of order, too, Scripture is our model. In Scripture, the nature of God is shown earlier and more clearly that his trinitarian existence. The Trinity is not clearly revealed until we get to the New Testament. The names of YHWH and Elohim precede those of Father, Son, and Spirit. The first thing Scripture teaches us concerning God is that he has a free, independent existence and life of his own that is distinct from all creatures. He has a being (“nature”, “substance”, “essence”) of his own, not in distinction from his attributes, but coming to the fore and disclosing itself in all his perfections and attributes.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, pp. 149-150

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

From there Bavinck goes on to substantiate and develop with extensive biblical argumentation the doctrine of the independence of God at the head of his discussion of the attributes.

Now, I won’t say that critics like Moltmann and Gunton haven’t had some real beefs worth looking at. I almost never want to play the Greek card, but I’ll admit there are times when I read a classical bit of theology and think there’s a bit of the gap between their doctrine of God and their doctrine of the Trinity. Nor will I necessarily fault any modern theologians who’ve chosen to reverse the order and treat the Trinity first. I’m a bit partial to the method myself.

My point here is that Bavinck has given us two solid reasons for thinking that ordering our discussions in the doctrine of God in the classical way is not simply an exercise in “natural” theology, or will necessarily result in a non-trinitarian conception of God’s being. In order to speak about the way that Father, Son, and Spirit all possess the one divine nature, it’s quite logical to want to know what the divine nature is. Beyond that, and more importantly, this order of study mirrors the order of God’s own revelation. Yes, it is true that there are hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament revelation, but the doctrine only comes into its own in the New Testament. It’s hard to fault a theologian for modeling himself explicitly on Scripture this way.

Bavinck himself stands as a counter-example to this whole charge. Read through his explorations of the divine attributes and you’ll see their clear and extensive grounding in Scripture and revelation, including God’s triunity, long before he engages in any sort of theological development or philosophical reasoning that could be accused of being “natural” theology. What’s more, his locus on the Trinity is stunning; I’d be hard-pressed to find any distortions there.

In other words, what I’m is that, it does no good to write off the classical tradition as sub-trinitarian and refuse to read anything before Barth or Rahner. Individual theologians might be, but then again that’s true of modern theologians. What’s more, if you’re looking to do some theology yourself, you may have an option open to you considered closed off before.

It wouldn’t surprise me that there’s probably more than one way to testify rightly to the glory of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is God a Pluralist? (TGC)

religious-symbolsIt was in my freshman composition class at the University of California, Irvine, that I first heard a professor say, “Well, you know, most of the differences in religion don’t matter. The main point is that God just wants all is just to love each other, right?” It’s a claim that’s become increasingly familiar to me ever since.

But is it true? Is God indifferent to religion? Does he care how he’s worshiped? In other words, is God a pluralist?

While it comes in myriad different forms, the kind of pluralism I’m talking about is a sort of relativism about religion, claiming either that all religions are equally salvific, or that outward forms don’t matter since all faiths share a common core, or that the divine is too grand and unknowable to be encompassed by some exclusive set of doctrines. Unless you adhere to a conservative religious confession—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and so forth—some kind of religious pluralism is the default mindset among the broader “spiritual but not religious” late-modern culture we live in. But why?

For one, it seems to reinforce political pluralism—the social accommodation of various religious beliefs. If there’s no big difference, then there’s not much to fight about. What’s more, and this is probably the most enticing reason to adopt it at the popular level, it seems more humble and open to other viewpoints. Everybody’s equally right (or equally wrong), so no one can claim religious superiority. It’s a more “tolerant” view since there’s no one correct religion against all the others, and thus the moral playing field is level.

At least, that’s how it appears at first.

You can go read about why this is a dubious assumption over at The Gospel Coalition.

No Miracles = No Christian Hope

resurrection jesusWhether it be Gnostic mysticism, or German Liberal Rationalism, throughout Christian history there have been numerous attempts to separate the effects, or “inner truth” Christianity from it’s concrete grounding in the narrative of God’s interaction with Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. In other words, we want the value of “loving your enemies” and “forgiveness” without grounding it in the Cross where the Godman concretely loved his enemies and forgave them with his own blood. We want the sense of gratitude and joy on a sunny day without grounding it in the Creator God who gives  it to us and currently sustains all things in things in being.

We have seen this in the 20th Century with various atheistic philosophies of hope that try and take their inspiration from Jewish-Christian eschatology, and transpose them into an immanent, or naturalist key, stripped of God and the miraculous. They want the hope without the “extras” of divine revelation that points beyond the limits of reason alone–they want the substance without the form.

In his Reformed Dogmatics, the great Herman Bavinck comments on the impossibility of such attempts by those rationalist theologians who tried to keep the content of revelation, without admitting the category of special revelation and miracle:

Accordingly, faith  in special revelation is ultimately one with faith in another and better world. If this world is the only world and the best world, then of course we have to be content with it. Then the laws of nature are identical with the decrees of God; then the world is the Son, the Logos, the true image of God; then the order of nature in which we live is already the full and exhaustive revelation of God’s wisdom, power, goodness, and holiness. But then what right do we have to expect that the “there” will one day become “here,” that the ideal will become reality, that the good will triumph over evil, that the “world of values” will one day prevail over the “world of reality”? Evolution will not take us there. Nothing comes out of nothing (nihil fit ex nihilo). This world will never turn into a paradise. Nothing can come forth from it that is not in it. If there is no beyond, no God who is above nature, no supernatural order, then sin, darkness, and death have the last word. The revelation of Scripture makes known to us another world, a world of holiness and glory. This other world descends into this fallen world, not just as a doctrine but also as a divine power (dynamis), as history, as reality, as a harmonious system of words and deeds in conjunction. It is work, no, as the work of God by which he lifts this world out of its fall and leads it out of the state of sin, through the state of grace, to the state of glory. Revelation is God’s coming to humankind to dwell with it forever.

-Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 376

In other words, if there is no miraculous intervention, if God is to be boxed away inside the laws of nature, restrained from acting beyond the patterns of the ordinary, if he is not allowed to decisively and supernaturally reveal himself as the redeemer of nature as he has in the narrative of Israel and Jesus, then we have no hope–not any that deserves the name “Christian”, at least. Nothing about the causes immanent to nature, or the history human nature lead us to expect more than a superficial, technical progress in the future–if we don’t destroy ourselves with it. No, Christian hope is grounded and sustained solely in the God beyond nature who can actually do something about the world because he is not limited by it.

On a slightly different note, the apostle Paul put it this way:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only,we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)

The form and the content of Christian hope go hand in hand. You cannot hope in God if that God is not the God of Resurrection and miracle.

Soli Deo Gloria

And This is Why I Read Bavinck: Jesus–the Miracle of History

Jesus 3Yesterday I posted a killer Gospel quote by Calvin that basically sums up the glory of Christ in the Gospel and simultaneously explains why I read him so much. I ran across a passage in Bavinck over the weekend that similarly serves to point us to Christ, and hopeful whets your appetite to read him:

The coming of Christ is the turning point of the ages. Grouped around his person is a new cycle of miracles. He himself is the absolute miracle, descended from above, and yet the true and complete human. In him, in principle, the creation has been restored, again raised from its fall to its pristine glory. His miracles are the signs (semeia) of the presence of God, proof of the messianic era (Matt. 11:3-5; 12:28; Luke 13:16), a part of his messianic labor. In Christ there appears a divine power (dynamis) that is stronger than all the corrupting and destructive power of sin. This latter power he attacks, not only peripherally by healing diseases and performing all kinds of miracles, but centrally, by penetrating the core, breaking and overcoming them. His incarnation and satisfaction, his resurrection and ascension are God’s great deeds of redemption. They are in principle the restoration of the kingdom of glory. These facts of salvation are not only means of revelation by are the revelation of God himself. Miracle here becomes history, and history itself is a miracle. The person and work of Christ is the central revelation of God; all other revelation is grouped around this center.

–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 339

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine–The Dead Guy Most Recommended by Other Dead Guys

StAugustineAugustine was the first true theologian I read in college. I took a class on early medieval philosophy entirely focused on it, and I must say, it was a deeply formative experience for me, spiritually and theologically. For a while now, I’ve wanted to offer an encouragement  to those who have never spent any time with Augustine to do so–an endorsement of sorts, about 1500 years late. Thankfully, Herman Bavinck has already done it for me:

Thus Augustine became a theologian of the greatest importance for later dogmatics, one who dominated the following centuries. Every reformation returns to him and to Paul. For every dogma he found a formula that was taken over and repeated by everyone else. His influence extends to all churches, schools of theology, and sects. Rome appeals to him for its doctrine of the church, sacraments, and authority, with the Reformation felt kinship with him in the doctrine of predestination and grace. Scholasticism, in constructing its conceptual framework, took advantage of his sharp observation, the acuteness of his intellect, the power of his speculation–Thomas, in fact, was called the best interpreter of St. Augustine. Mysticism, in turn, found inspiration in his neoplatonism and religious enthusiasm.  Both Catholic and Protestant piety buoy themselves up on his writings; asceticism and pietism find nourishment and support in his work. Augustine, therefore, does not belong to one church but to all churches together. He is the universal doctor (Doctor universalis). Even philosophy neglects him to its own detriment. And because of his elegant and fascinating style, his refined, precise, highly individual and nevertheless universally human way of expressing himself, he, more than any other church father, can still be appreciated today. He is the most Christian as well as the most modern of all the fathers; of all of them he is closest to us. He replaced the aesthetic worldview with an ethical one, the classical with the Christian. In dogmatics we owe our best, our deepest, our richest thought to him. Augustine has been and is the dogmatician of the Christian church.

–Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prolegomena, pg. 139

If that doesn’t encourage you to pick up some Augustine, I don’t know what will.

For those of you interested, I’d recommend starting with The Confessions, and digging around from there. Also, this biography by Peter Brown is supposed to be top-notch, and Justin Taylor has recommended Matthew Levering’s new book on The Theology of Augustine as an excellent introduction.

Soli Deo Gloria

Economic Shalom–Bolt’s Theology of the Market Beyond Biblicism

boltEconomics is complicated. Establishing a Christian approach to economics seems even more daunting a task, especially given the amount of ink that’s been spilled when it comes to a Christian approach to money and wealth. Trying to wade into the conversation without any sort of guide then, can be overwhelming. As someone who has only begun to stumble towards developing my own thought in this area, I was delighted to receive a copy of John Bolt’s new little volume in the Acton Institute’s series of primers on faith and work, Economic Shalom: A Reformed Primer on Faith, Work, and Human Flourishing.

Though the cover’s a bit drab and uninspiring, the writing is not. Bolt manages to deliver an accessible, lively introduction to basic economics in what amounts to an “unapologetic defense of a free market economy set within a democratic liberal polity” (pg. 171) from a Reformed theological perspective. I emphasize “a” Reformed perspective for two reasons. First, Bolt explicitly draws from a primarily from the Dutch Reformed tradition, most specifically from the thought Neo-Calvinists like Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper. Also, as is evident in his arguments against them, there are other Reformed voices who would probably disagree with his construal.

Now, while I don’t have the time give it the justice of a full review, I did want to highlight the couple of key strengths that make this a valuable resource for those looking to give deeper thought to the issues of faith and economics.

The primary strength of Bolt’s proposal is try to move us past the simple biblicism that tends to run rampant in these theological discussions. In the first chapter, he disposes of the idea that there is clearly one “biblical economics” that can be cleanly read off the surface of the text. He does so partially by surveying the economic thought of three major christian ethicists, Walter Rauschenbusch, Ronald Sider, and David Chilton, using essentially the same biblicistic assumptions, end up with a wide variety of contradictory economic proposals ranging from interventionist socialism to theonomic libertarianism.

Instead, he holds up the thought of Herman Bavinck, who put forward a more chastened reading of Scripture that takes into account it’s salvific purposes:

A Reformed approach to the Bible resists reading it in a flat manner as so many disparate bits and pieces of inspired, useful knowledge that can be picked up here and there as we have need of them. A Reformed handling of Scripture does not treat it as a manual for child-rearing one day and a textbook for financial management the next. It is a mistake to go to the Bible for scientific knowledge, a point John Calvin already made in his Genesis commentary when he observed that the words “let there be a firmament” (1:6) are meant not for the sophisticated mean of learning but “for all men without exception” and can be understood even by the “rude and unlearned.” Calvin then added: “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” Two important aspects of Reformed hermeneutics are illustrated here: The first is the perspecuity of Scripture, the conviction arising from the priesthood of all believers that Scripture’s essential message can be grasped by all who have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. Reformed people do not rely on a priestly caste of theologians to tell them how to read the Bible. Second, though the Bible is relevant for every dimension of human life, it has a very specific and well-defined purpose: “that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The Bible is a salvation book and not an economics textbook or social renewal manual. And it is with this particular focus on salvation that Bavinck addresses the question of the Bible’s relevance for economics. (pg. 15)

Instead of piling up a bunch of verses and trying to see which specific commands can be cleanly mapped onto the current political system, Bavinck proposes we recover the main spiritual purpose of the Scriptures–the restoration of fallen man to God through the Gospel. From there, humans begin to be restored to their proper relationships with each other and are enabled to begin taking up the form of life rooted in God’s creational norms. Where do we go to find those norms? Well, back to the Scriptures, but now, we don’t go looking for particular commands, but the general principles that underlie and inform them. For this reason, Bavinck won’t speak directly of a “biblical economics”, but rather an economic system that is consistent with Scripture.

While not slavishly following Bavinck at all points, Bolt’s approach is broadly consistent with it. He offers up a defense of the ordered liberty of free-market capitalism as consistent with a broad biblical theology we find in Scripture: creation bursting with potential awaiting cultivation; the freedom and vocation the of Imago Dei; the universal sinfulness of humanity after the Fall; our epistemic limitations as finite creatures; the providence and sovereignty of God in the allocation of resources; biblical principles of work and charity from the wisdom literature; a conception of justice as opportunity and the restraint of evil; the truth of our redemption through Christ; an amillenial eschatology that eschews over-reach or pessimism. It is in light of these principles that he draws on the work of economists to deal with the market, consumerism, ordered liberty, and social inequality.

I’ll be brief about the second strength, as it follows directly from the first: Bolt demonstrates a humble restraint in his judgments on a where rhetoric typically runs wild. Because of this, Bolt goes about explaining basic economic concepts, demonstrating their compatibility with Scriptural principles, and dealing with common Christian objections to a market economy with sanity and grace. While it’s easy to imagine a number of robust challenges to Bolt’s account, it won’t be on account of undue dogmatism or a lack of Christian charity.

All of that to say, I would warmly commend Economic Shalom to anyone tired of simplistic accounts, both on the Right and the Left, theologically and politically. Bolt has done the Church a service writing it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Naughty Systematic Theologians, Just Be ‘Biblical’!

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

A pet peeve of mine is the tendency of some historical scholars to act as if, unlike naughty dogmatic theologians, their own confessional commitments aren’t driving any of their exegetical work. Being biblical scholars, their conclusions aren’t beholden to anything but the text, unlike those theologians coming to Scripture as they do, armed to the teeth with distorting theological preconceptions.

Apparently this isn’t a new thing.

In the first volume of his tremendous Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck comments on the similar myopia of some of the ‘biblical theologians’ of his own day:

However, this school suffers from grave one-sidedness as well. While it thinks that it is completely unbiased in relating to Scripture and that it reproduces its content accurately and objectively, it forgets that every believer and every dogmatician first of all receives his religious convictions form his or her church. Accordingly, theologians never come to Scripture from the outside, without any prior knowledge or preconceived opinion, but bring with them from their background a certain understanding of the content of revelation and so look at Scripture with the aid of the glasses that their church have put on them. All dogmaticians, when they go to work, stand consciously or unconsciously in the tradition of the Christian faith in which they were born and nurtured and come to Scripture as Reformed, or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic Christians. In this respect as well, we cannot simply divest ourselves of our environment; we are always children of our time, the products of our background. The result, therefore, is what one would expect; all the dogmatic handbooks that have been published by members of the school of biblical theology faithfully reflect the personal and ecclesiastical viewpoint of their authors. They cannot, therefore, claim to be more objective than those of explicitly ecclesiastical dogmaticians. The “pure” gospel that Ritschl finds back in Luther and Jesus corresponds perfectly to the conception he himself formed of it. All these so-called biblical schools, accordingly, are continually being judged by history; for a time they serve their purpose and recall a forgotten truth, but they do not change the course of ecclesiastical life and have no durability of their own.

Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prologomena, pg. 82

While Bavinck goes on to fill this out a bit, there are a number of comments to be made on this fascinating text. First of all, long before any postmodern theorists came along to tell us so, Bavinck knew about the historical-situatedness of all of our interpretive efforts. I point this out simply to say this isn’t a new thing, and apparently this recognition can apparently fit comfortably within the structure of a classic, Reformed understanding of Scripture, objective revelation, and so forth.

Second, and this is really the point I’m interested in, biblical theologians are just as theologically and socially-invested in seeing the texts go a certain way. This isn’t to say that we can’t have conversations across traditions about the texts, or a denial that we can correct our theological confession in light of the study of Scripture. Some of the most confessionally-conservative theologians I know of still make interpretive moves that are different than their theological forebears in the tradition, even when confessing essentially the same creed. What’s more, people do convert and shift from one confessional tradition to another. I know I have.

Still, whenever I see a biblical scholar chastising the theologians of, oh say, the Reformed tradition, for their reliance on a certain text to establish their doctrines, because an ‘objective’ reading simply doesn’t yield that doctrine, it is probably an instructive exercise to look up his/her own church affiliation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Some Notes on Bavinck and the Relationship Between Christianity and Culture

After my post the other day, I did a little more digging on the great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. In the midst of my mini-research flurry I found a classic article by Bavinck on Calvin’s doctrine of common grace, which I highly recommend.  Not only is it a top-notch exposition of Calvin’s view of culture and common grace, it is also the work of one of the architects of that great and still influential movement of Dutch Neo-Calvinism. (Not Mark Driscoll and John Piper–think dead guys).

In the introduction to the article he gives his own brief sketch of “certain lines” which Scripture draws for us to understand how we should think about culture and cultural production:

It proceeds on the principle that for man God is the supreme good. Whatever material or ideal possessions the world may offer, all these taken together cannot outweigh or even be compared with this greatest of all treasures, communion with God; and hence, in case of conflict with this, they are to be unconditionally sacrificed. “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee.” This, however, does not hinder earthly possessions from retaining a relative value. Considered in themselves they are not sinful or unclean; so long as they do not interfere with man’s pursuit of the kingdom of heaven, they are to be enjoyed with thanksgiving. Scripture avoids, both extremes, no less that of asceticism on the one hand than that of libertinism on the other hand.

The recognition of this as a principle appears most clearly in its teaching that all things, the entire world with all its treasures, including matter and the body, marriage and labor, are created and ordained of God; and that Christ, although, when He assumed a true and perfect human nature, He renounced all these things in obedience to God’s command, yet through His resurrection too them all back as henceforth purified of all sin and consecrated through the Spirit. Creation, incarnation, and resurrection are the fundamental facts of Christianity and at the same time the bulwarks against all error in life and doctrine.

This quote doesn’t cover everything, of course.  Still, Bavinck calls our attention to four points Christians need to keep in mind when thinking about cultural life:

  1. pintGod is the good to which all other goods point and to whom none can compare. Focusing on or choosing any created reality over the Creator is spiritual insanity.
  2. At the same time earthly, material, and cultural goods have relative value as long as our enjoyment of them doesn’t descend into idolatry. After all, they are the creation of God. He made them to be enjoyed with gratitude as his gift.
  3. The Gospel should lead neither to ascetism, nor libertinism; not legalism or license. In other words, a pint’s fine, just don’t get plastered and run around with your pants on your head.
  4. Christ, though he sacrificed all human material and cultural goods, has redeemed all in his life, death, and resurrection.

Now, Bavinck goes on to take account for human sin, depravity, and our natural tendency towards idolatry. He points out that in the first few centuries of Christianity, the church had to take a very contrasting stance towards the broader culture because all the cultural institutions of the day were tangled up in explicit idolatry. This is a point we ought to remember as well. At times in our rush to “enjoy culture” we fail to discern the way culture has gone wrong and too easily accommodate ourselves to its prevailing consumerism and nihilistic self-indulgence. Still, any criticism or antithesis against the culture we engage in needs to be set within the broader context of affirming the God’s good creation. The problem isn’t having some stuff, it’s obsessing over stuff and denying justice to the poor in our acquisition of it; the problem isn’t sex, it’s the abuse and perversion of sex as a unitive act into a self-centered assertion of the ultimacy of my own wants and desires.

Boiling it down to one verse, we need to remember Paul’s admonition to Timothy that, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Tim 4:14) This keeps us both from gnostic rejection of what God has made and pagan idolatry of it. Instead, culture becomes an opportunity for joyful gratitude overflowing into the worship of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria