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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Kevin Vanhoozer on the Crucified King

I don’t do the random quote and link post but, in this case, I’ll break protocol. Last year I endorsed Jeremy Treat’s The Crucified King as one of my favorite books of the year. Well, now you don’t have to take only my word for it. Zondervan Academic’s excellent “Common Places” series edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain at their blog has asked senior scholars to endorse the words of young, up and coming scholars for the attention of the rest of us. Today’s post features the inimitable Kevin Vanhoozer’s summary and review of Treat’s work.

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
—William B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Yeats probably did not have the academy and church in mind when he penned these lines in 1919, but he could have, for theological things, and the gospel itself, have been coming apart for centuries. Theology itself has come apart: what God joined together—doctrine and life—has been cast asunder, into the academy and church respectively. And, within the academy, the disciplines of biblical theology and systematic theology go their separate ways, speaking different languages. Even worse, the story and logic of the gospel have come apart in both the church and the academy, with some Christians focusing on the significance of Jesus’ death with its promise of heaven (cross) and others on Jesus’ message about the reign of God with its promise of justice for earth (kingdom).

The Crucified KingBlessed are the peacemakers, for they seek to repair the center—and shall receive honorable mention in Christianity Today’s Book Awards list, as Jeremy R. Treat’s first book has done in 2015—no mean feat for a work that began life as a doctoral dissertation. Treat’s The Crucified King (Zondervan, 2014) works several important mediations: church and academy; biblical theology and systematic theology; penal substitution and Christus Victor theory of the atonement. His title signals his reconciling intent: rather than viewing the kingdom and the cross as themes that belong to different universes of discourse, Treat argues that they form a seamless whole, centered on the unabbreviated gospel. The subtitle provides further italicized fuel to the mediatorial fire: “Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology.”

Please do go read the rest of the review here. And then pick up the book if you haven’t already. It’s well worth your time.

Soli Deo Gloria

Retrieval–It’s What All The Hip Reformed Catholic Kids Do

reformed catholicityThe theological hills are alive with the sound of “retrieval”–the idea that theology can only go forward if it begins by looking backward to the tradition that maintained and fed the faith that came before it. Whether it’s looking back to the Fathers, or Thomas, or the early Reformed tradition, across the denomination divides, theologians are increasingly explicit about their necessary dependence on the theology of their forebears, whether in the Creed, Counsels, or Confessions. In his section arguing for the importance of recovering traditioned thought in The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer listed a number of reasons (Biblical, traditional, philosophical, inevitable, and spiritual), but among them was the fact that it was “fashionable” (pg. 158), by which he meant supported by contemporary movements in literary theory.

In other words, all the cool kids are doing it.

I was reminded of this point as I opened Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s little volume Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Part of their project is making the case for a Reformed iteration of this movement that appreciates the traditional shape of even Protestant practices like Sola Scriptura, which commonly is interpreted as precluding this sort of activity. In order to set the stage for their own project, though, they begin by compiling and briefly describing a fascinating list of recent movements in theology that have set the stage, or contributed to the revival of retrieval in theology (pp. 4-12). I thought it might be useful to briefly summarize their summary and comment on their summary list.

  1. Nouvelle Theologie. Earlier in the 20th Century a bunch of Roman Catholic theologians like De Lubac and Congar led the way in trying to reappropriate patristic and biblical theology for systematics, sacramental theology, and liturgical practice. Much of this theology set the stage for the developments of Vatican II.
  2. Karl Barth. Barth’s Church Dogmatics did many things, but one of the big long-term effects it had was reviving the discipline of dogmatics in theology, drawing heavily as it did on patristic and Reformational sources.
  3. Reception History. Plenty of Biblical scholars like working with the historical context of the text, but there’s a big movement to do work on compiling commentaries or studies on the historical reception of texts. In other words, not just asking “how ought we read it?”, but asking “how has it been read in the past?” in order answer the former.
  4. Donald Bloesch and “Consensual Christianity.” Bloesch was a UCC theologian who tried to develop a “consensual” Christianity based on the witness of Holy Scripture and the Church’s tradition as a cross-denominational resource for the Church
  5. Thomas Oden’s “Paleo-Orthodoxy.” Thomas Oden’s conversion from liberal, Protestantism to a sort of “paleo-orthodoxy”, a “pastiche” of patristic and Protestant theology is an approach towards a “consensual Christianity.” He has also headed up the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series in order to facilitate this sort of scholarship and spirituality as well.
  6. Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Christianity. Webber has written various works and developed a number of ministries devoted to helping Evangelicals tap in the Christian past for the sake of engaging postmodern culture in worship and evangelism.
  7. The Modern Hymn Movement. Reformed and Presbyterian churches and ministries like RUF, Indelible Grace, and Keith and Kristyn Getty have been retooling classic hymns and developing new ones for revived congregational worship.
  8. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson’s Evangelical Catholicism. From within the Lutheran tradition, Braaten and Jenson have been trying to focus the church on classical resources as a way forward for the ecumenical conversation and the strength of the church. To that end, they launched the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, begin the journal Pro Ecclesia, and published a number of influential volumes in that vein. Allen and Swain note, though, that while Bloesch and Oden’s retrieval ends up looking like pretty standard classical theism, Jenson and others have still engaged in quite a bit of theological reconstruction, showing the retrieval doesn’t only lead to repetition.
  9. Theological Interpretation of Scripture. One big movement afoot is the drive towards theological exegesis”, or reading Scripture to do theology and not just historical or textual criticism. To that end, a lot of theoretical ink has been spilled, but a number of good theological commentary series have begun as well.
  10. Radical Orthodoxy. The movement by theologians like Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, and John Milbank, to reappropriate a sort of Christian Platonism in order to combat the decline of the Church, leans heavily on the idea of retrieval, even if it has been often criticized for its idiosyncratic and problematic readings of the history it’s attempting to retrieve.
  11. Evangelical Ressourcement. Evangelicals are getting in on the fun too. D.H. Williams has been arguing for recovering the early church as a theological resource and Hans Boersma has been even more specific in advocating a particular sacramental ontology, mostly drawing on the Nouvelle Theologie of Roman Catholic theologians.
  12. The Emerging or Emergent Church(es). Whatever their problems have been, the emerging or emergent movement did have an emphasis on retrieving the various insights, texts, and practices of the Christian past to meet the postmodern future. Of course, this played out differently for various kinds of emerging or emergent churches.
  13. Ressourcement Thomism. Thomism is the gift that keeps on giving. At least, that’s what a number of recent Roman Catholic theologians like Matthew Levering, Gilles Emery, and Reinhard Hutter have been arguing. Engaging with movements in biblical studies, systematics, and philosophical movements, these theologians have been making the case that Thomas still has something to say to the modern church.

As I read Allen and Swain’s list, I was fascinated to note how many of the movement and theologians had their effects on my own journey. When I was young in theology, the emergent conversation was in full swing and so the talk of appealing to tradition was definitely in the air. Thankfully reading some Pelikan and Vanhoozer showed me early that it could be done while keeping your Orthodox and Evangelical wits about you. In philosophy, MacIntyre’s work in After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? had its effect as well. Oden and Bloesch are sitting on my shelf, duly marked up, as well as some Barth, Boersma, and Jenson. I suppose my early classes in the history of philosophy had their effect as well. It’s hard to take a whole class on Augustine’s thought and believe him irrelevant to any theological conversation. This is also largely the impulse behind my big reading projects.

Beyond this personal reflection, though, a few things are worth noting about this list.

First, retrieval is an ecumenical endeavor. Theologians across the major traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are well-represented. Although, one important absence ought to be noted and that is the names of any Eastern Orthodox theologians. The burgeoning awareness of Eastern Orthodox theology has definitely spurred on the movement towards engagement with the Fathers on the part of Western theologians.

Second, retrieval is not a monolith. As already noted with the case of Jenson and someone like Oden, two theologians may be committed to the project and yet their engagement may yield wildly diverging judgments on something like the doctrine of God. What’s more, since it is an ecumenical endeavor with a catholic spirit, it will inevitably bear diverse fruits as theologians approach the catholic tradition from within their own ecclesiastic locations.

Third, and connected to the second, retrieval theology need not yield theological sterility. Some of the most creative theological minds of the 20th Century are included in that brief summary. Indeed, when think of some of the work being done in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, some of the brightest of our own very young century are those looking back to the wisdom of yesteryear through figural and typological readings. Many have ended up breaking the modern, interpretive mold in the process.

Finally, retrieval can be quite practical. Indeed, most of the movements and theologians mentioned are quite heavily involved with the cause of church renewal within their respective communions. Looking to the past is not simply done for the sake of dry antiquarianism, but for the life of the Church in the world today. In other words, it’s not only done to preserve the memory of the victories of church triumphant, but for the battles the church militant is currently embroiled in.

Now the question is, what exactly will Allen and Swain contribute to the discussion? I suppose I’ll just have to keep reading to find out. I’d suggest that many of you consider doing the same. You can purchase the book here.

Soli Deo Gloria

STAHP Confusing Physics with Metaphysics

remthologizing“Well, according to quantum physics we now know that God’s activity in the world must be…”

“Biology has taught us about the human anatomy so our Christology needs to reckon with…”

“In light of our knowledge of emergent properties…”

Ever hear something like this in a conversation, or on a blog somewhere? Statements of this sort are among my least favorite to run across in a modern or contemporary text in theology. In our contemporary context, many are concerned to participate in the growing dialogue between the physical sciences and the science of theology, trying to figure out how to relate the two properly. Given that the reality of God speaks to every dimension of reality, spiritual as well as material, I can appreciate the intent. The problem is that many attempt the task without the proper philosophical, biblical, or theological categories in place, which leads to a confused view of God’s activity in the world.

One common place where this occurs is in conversations with some sorts of relational theists, panentheists, process theists who argue that God restrains himself from too much intervention in the world, or restricts it to a limited “persuasive” sort. One given reason is that for God to intervene too much in the physical world, that would disrupt the natural order, rendering his action coercive and, therefore, unloving. While there are numerous mistakes involved in this sort of view, Kevin Vanhoozer points out that there is one basic mistake underlying them all:

Underlying this categorial confusion of Creator and creation stands a metaphysical postulate that reduces what is logically possible for God to what is physically possible in the natural order. It is precisely this metaphysical postulate that leads some panentheists to dismiss divine interventionism  on the grounds that such divine action competes with and, at the limit, negates the natural order: “The category mistake is thus a confusion between natural causality and divine action.”  When it comes to the God–world relation, however,  there is no competition,  for the relation is enveloped by an even greater Creator–creation distinction: “For no similarity can be asserted between creature and creator unless an even greater dissimilarity is included.”  —Remythologizing Theology, pg 168

At core, it is a failure to properly reckon with Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” As the Creator of all reality besides himself, God is the transcendent Lord of all reality besides himself. He is not in competition with it, but upholds it by his very word. He is not on an even playing field with the rest of reality, but sustains the playing field in existence.

I was reminded of this point by several passages in Turretin’s discussion of the nature of theology in the first subject of his Institutes. In several places, he makes salient points that ought to be kept in mind as well attempt to think of reality in light of God and vice versa.

First, we have to understand the way that theology studies the reality of the world and God. Each science or area of study takes its cues for how it knows on the basis of what its object is, but also on the way it approaches the object.

Although physics, ethics, and medicine treat of the subject, they do not cease to be distinct sciences because they consider man in different relations: physics as a species of natural body; ethics as capacious of virtue and happiness; medicine as curable from diseases and restorable to health. Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics, and ethics, yet the mode of considering is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature, but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation. It treats of creatures not as things of nature, but of God (i.e., as holding a relation and order to God as their Creator, preserver, and Redeemer). (Topic 1., Qu.5, V.)

Theological approaches to the relationship between theology and science need to remember their own particular mode of study.

Next, theological approaches to the problem need to remember the limits of reason with respect to God’s power. Turretin affirms the place of reason, and even the judgment of contradiction in the theology, especially since Scripture itself authorizes that. Nonetheless:

Although the judgment of contradiction is allowed to reason in matters of faith, it does not follow that the human intellect becomes the rule of divine power (as if God could not do more things than human reason can conceive). God’s being able to do something above nature and human conception (which is said with truth in Eph. 3:30) is different from his being able to do something contrary to nature and the principles of natural religion (which is most false). Nor is the power of God in this manner limited by the rule of our intellect, but our mind judges from the word what (according to the nature of a thing established by God ) may be called possible and impossible. (Topic 1, Qu.XI, XIV)

Human reason’s reach can only go so far, but we must remember that the power of God can extend much farther. He is the author of our reason and so is transcendent of it, as are his works. That said, it’s not simply the case that what theology teaches simply contradicts what is in the sciences or philosophy and we mustn’t worry about the relation between the two. It is a matter of thinking clearly about which order or of reality we’re speaking of.

Although theology teaches many things which philosophy knows not, it does not follow that a thing may be false in philosophy which is true in theology because truth is not at variance with truth, nor is light opposed with light. But care must be taken that philosophical truths be not extended beyond their own sphere and the ordinary powers of nature to those things which are supernatural revelation and power; that the physical be not confounded with the hyperphysical or human with divine things. For example, it is true in philosophy that a virgin cannot bring forth, that a heavy body is carried downwards, that fire burns matter placed in contact with it, that from nothing, nothing can come–the contraries of which theology maintains. But they are not on this account opposed to each others because these things are spoken of in different relations. In philosophy, they are denied with reference to the laws of nature, but in theology they are affirmed with reference to divine omnipotence and supernaturally. -(Topic 1, Qu. XIII, XII)

In other words, we have to let the Creator/creation divide properly frame our thought on God and the sciences. As always, whenever the Creator and the creature are confused, mixed, or held under the same category, the darkening of reason follows (Romans 1).

Soli Deo Gloria

Peter Pan’s Shadow And the Promises of God

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:17)

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. (Hebrews 10:1)

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:5)

Clearly, one of the New Testament writers’ favorite images for relating the truth of the Gospel in the NT to the revelation of the Old Testament was that of “types” and “shadows.” The images are rich, intuitive, and quite helpful in explaining the issue of continuity between the Old Testament and the New. For that reason, Christian theologians of all ages and ecclesiastical persuasions have fastened on these two metaphors and methods of relating the truths of the two covenants, as well as the problem of progressive revelation. As we saw earlier, Turretin leaned on the idea heavily in his defense of the Old Testament’s authority.

The relationship between type and antitype is suggested by the roots of the terms with the idea of stamping or making an impression of an image on a coin or something. There is a correspondence between the stamp and the thing stamped. In the same way, an Old Testament type links up with its New Testament antitype by serving as a preview or advanced model of the coming reality.

peter's shadow 2Picking up the second image, everybody knows that a shadow is not the same thing as its object. It doesn’t have the same substance, weight, or reality. And yet, at the same time, it is dependent upon and similar to the thing that it is a shadow of. My shadow is similar, yet different from me. Its shape is determined, yes, by the light and the distance I am from the ground, but also, in a deciding sense, from my own shape.

So looking at some examples in the Old Testament, Hebrews indicates that the sacrificial system, with its various kinds of sacrifices for thanksgiving, atonement, cleansing, and so forth, all point forward to different dimensions of the ultimate sacrifice that Christ offered upon the cross. Moses was a type of Christ in the liberation and Exodus for the people of God he brought about, which prefigured the New Exodus Christ was to bring about. They are not the substance that is Christ, but they point forward in a way that is determinatively shaped by the substance that is Christ. They are the promises that are copies and shadows of heavenly and better things.

The history, practice, and theology of biblical typology is complex, storied, and well worth pursuing at length. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, so I am not going to do that. All I want to do is follow up and make one brief, particular point about how we should think of how these metaphors function for expressing continuity and discontinuity.

A Different Type of Type

In some recent discussions regarding issues like atonement or the doctrine of God, I have seen some more progressive theological types refer to the metaphor of types and shadows in order to justify a particular kind of overturning or undermining of the Old Testament revelation. Alongside what we’ve called the Jesus-Tea-strainer hermeneutic, some have argued that now that Christ has come he has revealed the true, hidden nature of these types and shadows. Instead of coming as their more straightforward fulfillment, though, he comes as their abolishment. Or, he comes to reveal how screwed up our understanding has truly been up until this point.

Peter's shadowAs an example, when it comes to the sacrificial system, some will say that Christ served as an antitype by being an altogether different kind of sacrifice. Israelites may have offered sacrifices in the OT as propitiatory, concerned with putting away wrath, but Christ as the antitype shows that the types were distorted refractions of the reality of a God beyond the economy of sacrifice and exchange. Yes, the OT pointed to God’s salvation and victory, but the antitype of Christ shows that all of those OT victories were just shadows pointing forward to the non-violent victory of a God who would never engage in tribal warfare.

On this view, the shadows and types actually distort the reality of the original. Instead of being proper shadows, they are more like Peter Pan’s shadow, running around, behaving in ways that give a false impression of the original. Types end up, less like helpful, advanced signposts, and more like funhouse mirror perversions.

A Promising God

Now, there are multiple problems with this hermeneutic, but the first is that it actually imputes falsehood and unintended deceptiveness about God to the Old Testament authors. Of course, humans are finite and liars, to boot, much of the time. The problem is, of course, that this turns into a functional denial of God’s proper inspiration and authorship of the Old Testament and its authority. Or at least a serious demotion of it. My concern here isn’t that we’re left with a less than perfect book on our shelves. My concern is that our view of inspiration is caught up in your view of God with respect to his trustworthiness as a communicator, as well as his faithfulness as a covenant-keeper. 

Classically, Christian theologians have seen God’s history with Israel, the signs, the symbols, Temple, Tabernacle, priesthood, kingship, and the whole of it, as the divinely-intended matrix of meaning prepared with care for Jesus’ entrance into the world. Jesus fulfills the promises and signs God has made to Israel, just as he said and predicted. It is God, so to speak, setting his own expectations for what he’s going to do to save Israel. As Kevin Vanhoozer says:

Yet Jesus’ story neither begins nor makes sense apart from the broader canvas of God’s prior speech and activity in the history of Israel. Who God reveals himself to be is the one who in Jesus keeps his word to Israel. God’s speech in Jesus Christ may be definitive, but it presupposes prior divine communicative action. The God whose nature is displayed in the history of Jesus Christ is the same as the God who declares his nature by his name in Exodus 3:14 and 34:6–7: merciful, gracious, steadfast love. –Remythologizing Theology, pg. 215

On this other view, though, we come to see Jesus’ story as the last step in a valiant attempt by God to get his message across, that finally (mostly) broke through, correcting all of his earlier communicative misfires. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets”, but apparently he was stuttering up until the time he said “Jesus Christ.” Not only does this rob us of the comfort of understanding God’s promise and fulfillment, it leaves us in the precarious position of having to make sense of which bits of the OT are revelatory or not, which we should discard as false or still hold as true, according to our own lights. We can’t see which promises God intends to keep, and which were simply the flights of fancy of an ancient tribal people.

Again, ultimately, what it robs us of is confidence in the communicative efficacy of our Promising God. For the life of me, I can’t see how that view of Scripture is supposed to sustain the kind of faith that Jesus spoke of when he said, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matt. 4:4).

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Best Reformedish Books of 2014

The year of our Lord 2014 has been a great year of reading for me. I can only think of a couple of duds in the pile of books I’ve had the fortune of getting my hands on and cruising through. This means one thing: picking this year’s Top Reformedish books of 2014 was a difficult task. There were a great number that I thought of and considered for this. As it happened, though, there were a few standouts I would like to highlight and commend to you for your reading pleasure and edification.

A couple of notes before I proceed, though.

First, I am not including Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics here simply because I have an article coming out on it later this month, and because it sits in a category all by itself. It is not a book of 2014. It is a work that transcends the years and decades.

Second, it just so happens that all of the books I’m highlighting I have actually already reviewed. Where relevant, I will simply note, excerpt, and forgo any more summary.

Finally, this list is not in any particular order. I am a notoriously bad ranker and decision-maker. Just ask my wife.

faith speaking understanding1. Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer. I’ve reviewed Vanhoozer’s book at The Gospel Coalition. This is some of what I said:

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 a 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).

Swagger it may have, but it’s swagger mediated through Vanhoozer’s inimitable style, irenic tone, and jovial spirit. Vanhoozer’s prose is a joy to read—a seamless movement between biblical and theological reflection (as evidenced by the extensive and helpful indexes of Scripture and theology) that is robustly catholic and winsomely evangelical.

calvin2. Calvin on the Christian Life by Michael Horton. I also reviewed this for The Gospel Coalition. Here’s what I said there:

In the history of the church, particularly its Western Protestant wing, few theological lights shine brighter than John Calvin’s. The Reformer par excellence, he stands out for his theological acumen, systematic comprehensiveness, and care as a biblical exegete. Beyond Calvin the theologian and biblical scholar, though, there was Calvin the pastor—the man passionately concerned that all of human life be lived before God (coram Deo) and in light of the gospel. Though it’s often presented this way in history textbooks, the Reformation wasn’t simply an academic theological debate about justification and the thoughts we think on a Sunday morning, but rather a total restructuring of Christian life and practice. It was about, as James K.A. Smith puts it, the “sanctification of ordinary life.” For that reason Calvin was concerned not only with teaching doctrine, but also with the life of piety flowing from that doctrine.

This is the Calvin that theologian and Westminster Seminary (California) professor Michael Horton introduces us to in his new volume on Calvin and the Christian Life. With an engaging blend of biography, theology, and commentary, and with copious reference to Calvin’s Institutes, commentaries, tracts, and key secondary literature, Horton takes us on a whirlwind tour through the Reformer’s thought as a whole.

age of atheists3. The Age of Atheists by Peter Watson. There’s a bit of a theme here in that I also reviewed this for The Gospel Coalition. Here’s what I said there:

In The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God Peter Watson hopes to change the narrative by pushing back on Taylor’s impoverishment thesis. In this massive and thoroughly entrancing work of intellectual and cultural history, the prolific London-based author aims to recount hitherto-untold drama of the multifarious and rather “thick” ways we’ve tried to “live without God” ever since we discovered his death about 120 years ago.

Beginning with Nietzsche himself, Watson focuses on the lives, stories, and theories of those who haven’t merely lamented the loss of God but pushed through to find meaning—or rather “meanings”—of a more humble sort on the other side. Jumping from Europe to America to the Isles, Watson presents us with a cascading torrent of names (the back cover alone is plastered with them)—whether poet, philosopher, novelist, dancer, psychiatrist, or theologian—all of whom offered visions of life beyond traditional religious belief. The overall effect is to overwhelm you with the wealth of non-theistic options to meaning and fulfillment. To put it bluntly, Watson wants to show us we have more options than glum Dawkinsism or Jesus.

skeletons4. The Skeletons in God’s Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler.  And again, this is one I reviewed at The Gospel Coalition. Here’s some of what I said there:

The Skeletons in God’s Closet has the potential to be a game-changer for a lot of struggling Christians and skeptics. Thoroughly orthodox, Butler also speaks in a language and with the sensibility of someone who can still step out of his Christian shoes to hear, think, and feel the tension from the outside. In a lot of ways, it’s the book Love Wins tried to be but failed due to doctrinal drift. Instead, by helping readers walk through the difficult texts in Scripture, Butler sets out for them a broader vision for the beautiful character of a God who doesn’t give a doctrinal inch. Is it perfect? No. Would I have hit a couple of themes harder, or connected a couple of dots differently? Probably.

Still, Butler has done the church a magnificent service by showing a postmodern world that doctrines like hell and holy war aren’t about a God whose malevolence has to be restrained. Instead, The Skeletons in God’s Closet shows us a God who is good down to his bones, and utterly committed to loving and saving his world in Christ.

crucified king5. Tie: The Crucified King by Jeremy Treat and Atonement, Law, and Justice by Adonis Vidu.  I did not review these two at The Gospel Coalition. Still, I have already talked briefly about these two works here:

On The Crucified King:

In one sense, I found it to be a gravely disappointing book. It’s disappointing because Treat has written the book I wanted to write on the subject. Giving equal attention to biblical theology and systematic categories, Treat reunites what never should have been divorced in much modern theology: kingdom and cross as well as Christus Victor and penal substitution accounts of the atonement.

viduOn Atonement, Law and Justice:

Vidu aims to provide an account of the history of atonement theology down into the present that presents theologians against the background of the various legal and political theories dominant at the time. In this way, we can begin to appreciate better the way these theological concepts shaped and were shaped by their native settings. Five judicious, careful, and lucid chapters are devoted to the descriptive task, focusing on Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, modern, and contemporary periods…What’s more, along the way, he corrects a number of common misunderstandings and caricatures of historic positions.

If I went on to cite runners-up and honorable mentions, we’d be here for a while. It’s been a good year for books. I hope this list finds you in time for you to update your Amazon.com wishlist for last-minute purchases. If not, it ought to give you an idea of how to use your spare gift cash.

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 Crash-Course in Revelation (Or, Reformedish Thoughts on Scripture According to Westminster)

The crew doing some "theologizing" at Westminster Abbey.

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

I’m a Bible guy. I got my M.A. in Biblical studies, so it ought to come as no surprise that not only the content, but the nature of Scripture itself (or rather, the complex of theology surrounding God, Scripture, and hermeneutics that Kevin Vanhoozer calls ‘First Theology’)  is frequently on my mind. This is especially the case since it’s constantly under dispute and the subject of great confusion in our current intellectual climate. One of the unfortunate things that I’ve found in the process of engagement with my peers, is how often modern criticisms of what are taken to be ‘classic’, or ‘traditional’ approaches to these things are really aimed at popularized bastardizations of more classic, nuanced accounts.

On Vanhoozer’s advice, I’ve found that one of the best ways of thinking through the nature of these things is by going back to some of the virtuoso performances in the history of theology–the great creeds and confessions–to see the way theologians of the past have articulated these issues. Though I’m no expert on the document, I thought it might be a profitable exercise to quote and offer brief, running commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith’s first chapter on Holy Scripture. While there are a lot of things I would like to say beyond what the Westminster Divines offered up, I think it’s still a remarkably clear, relevant treatment of the issue. And I don’t just say that because I’m a Presbyterian; I think many who’ve never been exposed to the document will feel similarly after encountering it. 

Before I begin though, I’d like to reiterate that I am not an expert on the document. This is going to be a kind of rough-shot commentary. I’ll do my best to avoid what I think are disputed areas among the Reformed, but I’m probably going to fall afoul of more expert analysis. For many of you it may even be beneficial to simply skip my commentary and read the text itself. If I get any of you to do even that, I’ll be happy. That said, let’s begin:

1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

Contrary to some popular pictures, the Reformed acknowledge some form of general revelation. In other words, Scripture is not the only place that God has spoken to us about himself. Following Romans 1, the Westminster Divines (pastors, theologians, etc.) said that God has revealed himself to the human heart in the light of nature and creation. The problem is that due to sin we take that revelation, if we recognize it at all, and fall into idolatry with it, worshiping creation rather than the Creator as divine. That revelation doesn’t serve to save, but only to condemn for our “suppression of the truth” in unrighteousness. Instead of a rope pulling us to salvation, we turn it into a noose to hang ourselves with.

This is key point, then: if we’re going to find out what we need to know for salvation, for being restored to right relationship with God–in other words, the Gospel–Scripture is God’s method for clarifying the truth about God that has been obscured in our hearts and minds through sin. So while we might experience God in nature, and find bits of common grace truth in the literature of non-Christian writers, the only place we can go to hear God’s final, ultimate truth about himself and the things concerning salvation is in the revelation given to us in Scripture; it is the only Word designed to pierce the fog-cloud of idolatry and sin.

2. Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments, which are these:

It’s a list of the traditional Protestant 66 book canon, here omitted for space. Consult the index of your Bible.

3. The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.

Protestants had a very clear logic for excluding the intertestamental writings as divinely-inspired, most of which I have forgotten except the fact that the Jews didn’t accept them as part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament).

4. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

These two sections go together. Essentially, contrary to Roman Catholic claims, the Westminster Divines said that Scripture’s authority does not rest on the judgment of the Church’s Magisterium or authority. Nor is it dependent on any particularly smart individuals, or any of the rational arguments that might be forwarded in its favor in terms of evidence. While these certainly can help confirm our judgment of it as witnesses, ultimately, though, we accept the Scriptures because we recognize their inherent authority as God’s own Word. In other words, the Church recognizes an authority already possessed by the Scriptures themselves–they don’t authorize them. God’s self-testimony is enough to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible and then illumine our hearts to recognize it. God’s Word is self-authenticating.

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

Alright, so there’s a lot going on here. First, everything you need to know to be saved, live a Christian life, and enter into glory is either directly stated in Scripture, or flows as a logical corollary of what is there stated. Which means that nobody can add doctrines that are not in Scripture, or don’t flow from Scripture into the number of things a Christian must affirm to be saved, or an obedient disciple. An example of what I’m talking about is the difference between the doctrine of the Trinity and mariological teachings. The doctrine of the Trinity can be derived as a necessary corollary of very explicit teaching about the unity of God and the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To reject the doctrine of the Trinity forces you to reject much of Scripture’s explicit teaching, even though there is no one silver-bullet verse laying out Nicene orthodoxy. On the other hand, pretty much nothing in Scripture necessitates a belief in Mary’s sinlessness, immaculate conception, and assumption into heaven although the Roman Catholic church has declared it to be a dogma. In fact, there’s a pretty solid case that the Scriptures point in the other direction on this issue.

Still, the Divines did say even though everything you need to know is in there, you still need the illumination of the Holy Spirit–God’s work of ‘lighting up’ the text, so to speak–to recognize that truth. Also, even though everything you need to know is there, that doesn’t mean everything you might want to know is there. In other words, there are some areas where you’re going to have to make some pragmatic decisions about the way you run the church, society, and so forth that–while they need to be consistent with the Bible–don’t have a straightforward blueprint in Leviticus or something.

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

This is probably the most interesting section to me. Often people take the doctrine of the perspicuity, or clarity of Scripture to mean that Reformed theologians think every text is “obvious” and “clear” on a straightforward reading. It’s then charged with a premodern naivete about the problem of “interpretive pluralism”–something we’ve apparently discovered in the last 10 years or so–and declared it to be the nefarious origin of silly, pop-Evangelical “me and my Bible” approaches that have left us with thousands of denominations, and so forth.

Now, it’s true that the doctrine has fallen on hard times. And certainly, in the hands of some it has been turned into a recipe for anti-intellectualism and radical individualism. But clearly we see that, as it is propounded by the Westminster Divines, this picture is simply not all there is to it. They acknowledge very clearly that there are some fuzzier passages in the text. It’s not all quite so obvious as anti-intellectual types might think.

What the Divines do assert, though is that the main outlines of the faith–Jesus, the cross, God, grace, and so forth–can be known by someone who takes the time study with the “use of the ordinary means.” By the “ordinary means”, from what I’ve read, this means something along the lines of attention to grammar, genre, logic, etc. In other words, you don’t have to have a specially authorized Magisterium, operating with a special, secret apostolic tradition accessible to no one, to plumb the secret depths of the Bible in order to understand the basic message of salvation. Yes, even the “unlearned” who take the time to carefully read can come to know the basics of what they need to know–a “sufficient” understanding–even if there’s plenty in the Scriptures that’s probably only accessible to the scholars. (Often, though, I find that not even pastors and teachers take the time to apply “the ordinary means” well enough. We live in an age of sloppy readers.)

8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.

God has preserved through providential means the Hebrew text of the OT and the Greek of the NT so that these texts might be the final court of appeal when it comes to disputes within the Church. But, since not everybody has the time, nor the opportunity to learn Greek and Hebrew, there should be vernacular translations in every language so that ordinary people might have the blessings and comfort available to us in the God’s Word. The promises of God in Scripture are not simply the province of the scholar, but the possession of the layman looking to know and love God through what he has revealed of himself.

9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

This is another important section when it comes to developing a hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, that is consistent with our beliefs about the nature of the Bible as God’s Word. Because we believe that all of Scripture is inspired by God, even though we recognize that there are difficult parts that require more special attention, we believe that Scripture is self-consistent because God is self-consistent; God is not a bumbler who contradicts himself. Because of that, our baseline principle of interpreting troubling sections of Scripture is to set them against the light of the clearer sections. If a certain unclear verse makes it appear that there might be more than one God, we stop and set it against the multitude of very clear verses that teach that there is only one Creator God.

Incidentally, one method that the early Church developed to do this well, is summarizing the clearest outlines of what Scripture teaches into creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, or the various summaries referred to by the Fathers as the Rule of Faith. These were by no means comprehensive statements of the Bible’s contents, but they were basic outlines drawn from Scripture that would keep you from going off the rails when it came to trouble. Note, the Rule of Faith was not some extraneous standard, or philosophical system imposed on the text, but really an outline drawn from Scripture itself. In a sense, it’s an instance of tradition being deployed as a support for maintaining biblical doctrine.

10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

All of this leads very naturally into a summary statement about the doctrine of sola scriptura about which there is much confusion. Often-times this principle is taken to mean that tradition, the writings of the Fathers, and the councils are to be ignored while we only focus on a “pure” reading of the Bible that isn’t influenced by any tradition. Not only is a traditionless reading of the Bible impossible, that’s actually not what it meant to the Reformers or how sola scriptura functioned in their hands. Instead, it meant that all of these other sources of theological wisdom and authorities are finally to be submitted and subject to the Scriptures. Councils, commentaries, and creeds are great–but they are finally to be tested against the light of Scripture. Yes, all of these things may be helpful, beneficial, and as a whole necessary, but ultimately they are ancillary. We should read the Fathers, but like Protestants.

As Kevin Vanhoozer says, tradition is an expert witness, but not the final judge–that role is reserved for the Holy Spirit speaking Scripture:

Sola Scriptura refers to the practice of attending the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final appeal in doctrinal disputes. How do we recognize the Spirit’s speaking? Church tradition enjoys the authority not of the judge but of the witness. Better: tradition enjoys the authority that attaches to the testimony of many witnesses. In this light, we many view the church fathers and church councils as expert witnesses as to the sense of Scripture in the courtroom drama of doctrine. Neither the Fathers nor the councils sit on the bench; the triune God has the final say. The task of theology is to cross-examine the witnesses in order to offer proximate judgments under the ultimate authority of the presiding judge: the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.

To practice sola scriptura  is to treat Scripture alone as the “norming norm” and tradition as the “normed norm.” A theology that practices sola scriptura recognizes the ministerial authority of tradition, namely, its ability to nurture individals in and to hand on the apostolic faith through the church’s corporate witness. Canon may be the cradle of the Christian doctrine, but tradition is its wet nurse.

The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Account of Doctrine, pg. 234

Well, at this point I’ve rambled long enough. I hope this has been even somewhat helpful for some of you. If you liked what you read in the Westminster Confession, I’d encourage you to read through the rest of the document and follow out its Scripture references. It’s a very edifying experience. For those looking for a more in-depth treatment and analysis of four historical approaches to relating Scripture and Tradition, I would point you to this article by Tony Lane on the subject “Scripture, Tradition, and Church: An Historical Survey.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

What follows is the introduction to a short essay for Canon and Culture. For regular readers, I’ll say that I consider this one of the most important things I’ve written–it’s a message that weighs on my heart, so I hope you’ll take the time to read carefully. Also, I’d like to thank Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who graciously offered comments on it. The smart parts are his. 

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

doctrineofgodA.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But it’s not only it’s not just that need to choose whether or not we believe that’s the problem, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualites being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Love, Pray. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the warmed-over leavings of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God get’s the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology:Divine Action, Passon, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem for the Church’s public, moral witness.

You can read the rest of my essay over at Canon and Culture

Soli Deo Gloria