A Proper Christian Mysticism?

mysticismIs there a place for Christian “mysticism?” Thinking of the various incense-laden mysticisms of the East, some implying a denial of the Creator/creature distinction or a strong doctrine of Revelation, many Christians, especially Protestant ones, would vigorously reject the notion. Writing about the “intimacy of relation” we find in our Union with Christ, Reformed theologian John Murray does not shy away from suggesting properly Christian “mysticism”:

Here indeed is mysticism on the highest plane. It is not the mysticism of vague unintelligible feeling or rapture. It is the mysticism of communion with the one true and living God, and it is communion with the one true and living God because and only because it is communion with the three distinct persons of the Godhead in the strict particularity which belongs to each person in that grand economy of saving relationship to us. Believers know the Father and have fellowship with him in his own distinguishing character and operation as Father. They know the Son and have fellowship with him in his own distinguishing character and operation as the Son, the Saviour, the Redeemer, the exalted Lord. They know and have fellowship with the Holy Spirit in his own distinguishing character and operation as the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Sanctifier. It is not the blurred confusion of rapturous ecstasy. It is faith solidly founded on the revelation deposited for us in the Scripture and it is faith actively receiving that revelation by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. But it is also faith tha stirs the deepest springs of emotion in the raptures of love and joy. Believers enter into the holy of holies of communion with the triune God and they do so because they have been raised up together and made to sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6). Their life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). They draw nigh in full assurance of faith having their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and their bodies washed with pure water because Christ is not entered into holy places made with hands but into heaven itself now to appear in the presence of God for them (Heb. 9:24)

-Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, pp. 172-173

So is there a place for a properly Christian mysticism? Yes–within the coordinates of trinitarianly-conceived Union with Christ, the Scriptures teach us that we can rejoice and delight in communion with Father, Son, and Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

Who Adopts Us in Salvation?

The FatherIt was in seminary that I began to appreciate the significance of adoption as a distinct moment in our salvation. Even greater than our justification, being declared and thereby rendered righteous with God the King, is being received by grace into his family as beloved children. It is as children that we call out ‘Abba, Father’ and approach the throne of grace with full confidence, knowing that the King of Glory delights to hear our prayers.

The question I had in seminary was, “Who exactly am I adopted by? Is it by the Father, or the whole Trinity?” I initially believed it to be the Father as I understood adoption to occur through union with Christ the Son into his relationship with the Father. Upon hearing me express this view, one of my professors quickly corrected me and warned against introducing a split in the Trinity. To him, it is only proper to attribute adoption to the whole Trinity.  Since that time I’ve gone back and forth, but have come to the conclusion that my initial instincts were correct.

Two principles of trinitarian theology have guided me:

  • First, that although the external acts of the Trinity are undivided, the persons are still to be distinguished. In other words, the Trinity acts in a trinitarian fashion. It’s not that the Father creates, the Son saves, and the Spirit does, whatever he does. Instead, the early church fathers would say that more properly the Father creates, redeems, and sanctifies through the Son and the Spirit. In every action, the whole Trinity is involved.
  • Second, the complementary doctrine of appropriations teaches that, although the work of the Trinity is undivided, it is still fitting to attribute certain graces and actions more properly to a particular person. So, for instance, although the Father and the Spirit are involved, only the Son is properly said to become incarnate. Only the Son is born of a virgin, dies, and rises again, and so forth, even though they happen at the command of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

With these two principles in place, we are in a position to appreciate John Murray’s biblical arguments in Redemption Accomplished and Applied for thinking it is the Father who adopts us, although he does this through the Son and the Spirit:

  1. The first and simplest is that the name “Father” belongs to the first person of the Trinity, just as “the Son” is the second, and the “Holy Spirit” is the third. Jesus directed his prayers to the Father, and he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (pg. 137)
  2. In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that he is not yet “ascended to the Father”, clearly referring to the first person, before going on “My Father and your Father, My God and your God.” (pp. 137-138)
  3. In a very similar point, Murray points out that Jesus’ frequent prayer to his “Father in heaven”, or some similar form of address. He also directs his disciples to pray to their Father in heaven, implying that the same divine person is in view. (pg. 138)
  4. In the New Testament, the term “Father” is the personal name of the first person of the Trinity. The Father is often called “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Eph. 1:3; Col. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3). The phrase “God the Father” also must refer to him (Gal. 1:1; Eph. 6:23; Phil. 2:11; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Pet. 1:17; 2 John 3; Jude 1; Rev. 1:6) In almost all of these passages the Father is clearly not referring to the Son or the Spirit. From there Murray says that it is important to observe that “when God is called the Father of believers we have close similarity of expression” to the point where it is an unavoidable conclusion that the same person of the Trinity is being referred to. Again, in places like Romans 1:7 where the phrase “peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is used, both persons are mentioned and distinguished, while one is named “our Father.” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Philemon 3)

For these reasons it seems Biblically-appropriate to understand ourselves to have been adopted through the mediatorial work of the Son and the gift of the Spirit into the Father’s family by grace. This is good news. As Murray writes:

Could anything disclose the marvel of adoption or certify the security of its tenure and privilege more effectively than the fact that the Father himself, on account of whom are all things and through whom are all things, who made the captain of salvation perfect through suffering becomes by deed of grace the Father of the many sons whom he will bring to glory? (pg. 140)

Soli Deo Gloria

In What Sense Was The Atonement Necessary?

redemptionThat Christ died for our sins is beyond question. (1 Cor. 15:3; Rom. 5:8-11; 2 Cor. 5:21) In what sense was Jesus’s death for sin necessary, though? The issue of the necessity of atonement is a complex one involving many layers from various angles. John Murray sheds some light on at least one area by making a very helpful distinction in his work Redemption: Accomplish and Applied between two views of the necessity of Christ’s work on the Cross that have been held throughout the history of theology.

Hypothetical Necessity – First is the view that he terms “hypothetical necessity” (pg. 11), in which Jesus’ death is held to be not strictly necessary. Theoretically it is possible that God could have saved his church through some means other that Christ’s sin-bearing death, and victorious resurrection if he so chose. He is God for whom all things are possible. Apparently in his wisdom though, he found that this was the most fitting means in that it combines the greatest amount of blessings, virtues, and so forth. Murray cites Augustine and Aquinas as historical representatives of this view. Knowing what I know of them, it sounds like the sort of conclusion they might come to.

Consequent Absolute Necessity – The second view Murray calls “consequent absolute necessity” and it is apparently the historical Protestant position (Calvin, Institutes, II.16.5). It holds that, given God’s decision to save, Christ’s death for sin was absolutely necessary. So, to be clear, first, it affirms that strictly speaking, Christ’s death is unnecessary. God did not need Christ to die. He is perfect and complete in his own life before the creation or the redemption of the world without it. And yet, consequent, or logically-following his decision to save, it is absolutely necessary given the nature of sin and the nature of God that it should happen through Christ’s vicarious sacrifice. (pg. 12) So, if moved by love, God is going to save people in a way consistent with his own holy, just, and merciful character, the atonement is necessary. It is this view that Murray judges to be the correct one and to which I myself subscribe.

Support Some might find this to be ‘vain speculation’, but Murray points various texts to the effect that such a conclusion is warranted. (See pp. 13-18) One particular argument he forwards is connected to the fact that the Scriptures point to Christ’s death as greatest proof we have of the love of God (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:10) That God was willing to spare his own Son testifies to the costliness of his love. (Rom 8:32) Murray asks, “would the Cross be an extreme exhibition of love if there were no necessity for such costliness?” (pg. 17) Can’t we only draw that conclusion if there were no other options? If there wasn’t some extreme sense of necessity involved? I find that conclusion hard to escape. As another has pointed out, it makes no sense for your friend to tell you, “Look how much I love you!” and then jump into a lake and drown. If he jumps in front of a bus to push you out of the way, that’s another story.

Another theological objection is that this seems to put limits on God. Isn’t it arrogant to say what God can and can’t do? At one level yes, we ought to be careful about being too eager to say what God can’t or cannot do. That’s why Murray spends several pages showing that this is a judgment made on scriptural grounds; its safest to make judgments on what God has told us about himself. It must also be pointed out that there are several things it is perfectly fine to say God’s ‘cannot’ do which do not rob him of glory. God’s inability to lie, be wicked, or deny himself is no affront to his majesty. In fact, “such ‘cannots’ are his glory and for us to refrain from reckoning with such ‘impossibles’ would be to deny his glory and perfection.” (pg. 13)

So was Jesus’ death necessary? In one sense, no. Jesus didn’t need to die–he could have left us to our peril and woe. In another sense, once God decided (in some pre-temporal sense) to save us by grace, it could come in no other way than through the death of His Own Son.

Soli Deo Gloria