If Jesus Died for Our Sins, Why Do We Still Die? A Response to Farris and Hamilton

crossJoshua Farris and S. Mark Hamilton have raised an interesting objection to penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement in their recent article, “The Logic of Reparative Substitution: Contemporary Restitution Models of Atonement, Divine Justice, and Somatic Death” (Irish Theological Quarterly, 2018, Vol. 83 (1): 62-77). As part of a much broader, sophisticated case to establish their own “reparative substitution model” (a development of an Anselmic satisfaction model), they argue that penal substitution theorists have a bit problem with their theory: despite Christ’s atonement, people still die.

If “somatic” or bodily death is truly part of the legal penalty for sin, and in his death on the cross Jesus does actually pay the debt of punishment we owe to God’s Law, then “why is it that human persons still die a somatic death?” (73) This is not a bad question. Farris and Hamilton are relying on the intuition central to the “double-payment” objection made famous by John Owen in his defense of a particular or limited atonement: namely that it is wrong for sin to be punished twice. Again, if Christ suffered a penal death in humanity’s place, then why do we still die? Wouldn’t that be unjust?

How might one go about answering this objection? I’ll leave to the side Farris and Hamilton’s own proposal, for now, though it is worthy of careful engagement in its own right. In what follows, I’d like to give three possible avenues of response for advocates of penal substitution, which may be taken individually, or as a cumulative set of considerations for why believers still die despite the efficacy of Christ’s penal death.

Rejecting the Double-Payment Principle

Farris and Hamilton consider several possible answers, but I’d like to start by outlining one possibility that they never really consider: relying on the insights underlying hypothetical universalism of the sort espoused by divines such as James Ussher, John Davenant, and more lately, Oliver Crisp (Deviant Calvinism) in order to reject the double-payment premise.

Recently, Michael Lynch has written helpfully on this option and I’d like to draw on his excellent historical work here in his article “Quid Pro Quo Satisfaction? An Analysis and Response to Garry Williams on Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Definite Atonement”, (EQ 89.1, 51-70). Without getting into the weeds of the whole thing (which is definitely worth reading), he makes a few points relevant to our question.

First, not every modern Reformed theologian held Owen’s “idem” (exact same) punishment model of PSA, whereby Christ suffers the exact same punishment the elect deserve or would suffer. Several held something like a “tantundem” (a just equivalent) view, which held that Christ suffered an equivalent punishment satisfying the debt. In which case, the atonement is not clued in, so to speak, on each sinner’s particular sins meriting death, even though they are covered by it. Second, several (though not all) of those who held this view also held that this equivalent punishment was universal in sufficiency, if not in efficiency. And this would require them to deny the double-payment thesis.

How do they answer this objection?

In answering the question for those who do not believe in Christ, Aquinas points out they are simply not united to Christ and therefore have not availed themselves of the remedy of his satisfactory suffering on their behalf (Summa Contra Gentiles, 4.55). Lest we think this is only a Roman Catholic response, Zachary Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, also agreed.

Second, in answering the question with respect to believers in Christ, Lynch calls attention to R.L. Dabney’s response to the argument. I’ll quote Lynch at length here:

The structure of the double payment argument looks like this:

Major Premise: If Christ was punished for any person’s sins, then that person cannot be punished for their sin.

Minor Premise: Christ was punished for the elect’s sins.

Therefore: The elect cannot be punished for their sins.

Dabney challenges the major premise, but affirms the minor. Dabney questions the major premise, asking, if justice forbids the same sin to be punished once in Christ and then in a sinner, how can God ‘justly hold elect unbelievers subject to wrath till they believe’ (cf. Eph. 2:l-3)? In other words, according to Dabney, both experience and Scripture teach that the elect are punished for the sins for which Christ made satisfaction. The wrath that rests upon all unbelievers, whether elect or non-elect, is on account of sin. If it is granted…that the elect are under God’s wrath until they believe, how is such wrath not a punishment for the same sin twice over? In other words, would not the double-payment argument also forbid God to punish the unbelieving elect for their sins on the grounds that their sins have been punished in Christ? (66)

Now, I’m not actually here affirming hypothetical universalism, but it seems that a Penal Substitution defender might appropriate this logic in order to duck Farris and Hamilton’s objection.

If God is just in punishing the elect before they avail themselves of Christ’s atoning work on their behalf, then perhaps this double-payment intuition is not as rock-solid as all that. Indeed, Scripture seems to still speak of God’s hand of punishment or chastisement still falling on believers in this life, despite having trusted in Christ (Heb. 12:5-10; 1 Cor. 10-11; 1 Thess. 4:6). Most Penal Substitution advocates would readily affirm that and so it seems that some might try to walk down that avenue to answer Farris and Hamilton.

Transforming the Penalty of Death

But say some respond that the punishments believers face are not the execution of judicial wrath, but a different kind of punishment, say, a “fatherly chastisement”, which is the character of all of God’s punishments upon his children. Well, this starts to point us in the direction of another possible avenue of response. It is possible that our changed relationship to the Judge, our status as sinners, and our relationship to sin may yield a change in the nature of his judgments upon sin–or those things that once were considered to be such.

A couple of analogies might prepare our minds for the argument. First, consider the way relationships change the meaning of actions. A man and a woman having sex on Tuesday may be engaged in an act of fornication, but after their wedding ceremony on Saturday, that same activity is an act of lawful sexual union. Their new relation, the new status of the participants, changes the meaning and character of the exact same activity.

Take another common example in these matters: a man taking a knife and stabbing it into the chest of another man. In a bar, in the middle of a fight between two men who hate each other, it is a vicious attack and at least attempted murder. In a hospital, when the knife is in the hands of a trained doctor whose intent is to operate on another, it is called surgery. Again, the status, the relation, or intention of the actors matters for determining the character of the act.

Here we turn to what Farris and Hamilton call a recent, “awkward tactic” to answer the question. Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach have appealed to Philippians 1:21 where Paul declares that “to live is Christ, to die is gain” to argue that for Christians, bodily death is no longer penal in nature (Pierced for Our Transgressions, 262). They argue that death for believers is transformed by the death of Christ, which has atoned for their sin, given them a new status, and brought them into a new relation to God. Farris and Hamilton are not convinced, arguing that this is an exegetical stretch beyond Paul’s main point, which was to encourage the Philippians in life and death. The text is not designed to answer the question of whether death remains a penalty.

In response, I’ll briefly note that in theology, the relation between exegesis and dogmatics is not a clean one. Often texts answer theological questions directly. Other times, however, texts can offer us theological answers by way of implication or corollary, especially when set in relation to other texts, or a broader theological framework (“good and necessary consequence” WCF 1.6). The text may not “mean” that, or teach it directly, but it follows from it. Half of our doctrine of the Trinity works that way. It’s plausible to see something like that working here.

Second, it’s important to realize this not only a recent tactic, but can be found in the work of Herman Witsius where, in answering a similar question, he says, “By the death of Christ, death hath ceased to be what it was before, the punishment inflicted by an offended judge, and the entrance into the second death, and is become the extermination of sin and the way to eternal life; and at the last day it shall be altogether abolished” (Economy of the Covenants, Bk. II. VI. XLV, pg. 230-231).

In fact, Witsius isn’t being very original here. As he points out, this is just the answer the Heidelberg Catechism gives:

Q. Since Christ has died for us,
why do we still have to die?

A. Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. (Ps. 49.7)
Rather, it puts an end to our sinning
and is our entrance into eternal life. (John 5:24; Phil. 1:21-23; 1 Thess. 5:9-10)

Heidelberg sees our death transformed by the death of Christ into our pathway to eternal life and the final resurrection. For as Witsius says in this, “there is no wrath and curse of God, and the formal nature of punishment” is absent.

Lest we think this is just a Continental answer, the Westminster Divines answered similarly in the Larger Catechism:

Q. 85. Death being the wages of sin, why are not the righteous delivered from death, seeing all their sins are forgiven in Christ?

A. The righteous shall be delivered from death itself at the last day, and even in death are delivered from the sting and curse of it; so that, although they die, yet it is out of God’s love, to free them perfectly from sin and misery, and to make them capable of further communion with Christ in glory, which they then enter upon.

The death of believers is no longer a penal death to be feared now that the sting of death, sin and the law, has been removed (1 Cor. 15:56). Instead, it is a gentle falling asleep from which we will awake in glory (1 Thess. 4:16). In the death of believers, God is demonstrating his mercy and his love by drawing them to himself, setting them free from the last vestiges of sin, which dwells in their mortal members (Romans 7). In that sense, we can see how now that we do not face God as an avenging judge, we meet death, not as his punishing sword, but as his gracious scalpel performing an operation that ends in our eventual, immortal glory.

Again, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this theological judgment about the nature of the death of believers is not an innovation, hastily thrown up as a rearguard defense in recent times. Instead, this is broadly seen to be consistent with the obviously penal satisfaction accounts in the Reformed Confessions that happens to be binding on several Reformed communions.

Weird Eschatology, God’s Patience, and God’s Purposes

A third line of reflection we ought to pursue relates to God’s discretion over life and death in relation to his providential purposes. What do I mean?

Well, think for a minute about weird it would be if all of a sudden, right in the middle of history, everybody who believed in Jesus just stopped dying. The Apostle John exiled to Patmos? He just kept living while all of his island neighbors kept dying. Christians all over the Mediterranean and Middle East, converting and then continuing to live 200, 300, 400 years past their Pagan and Jewish neighbors. Yes, I know the Resurrection and the gift of the Spirit means we have an already/not yet eschatology, but this would seem to tilt the balance a bit much, wouldn’t it?  And would this also require not just longevity and the cessation of death by natural causes? Invulnerability to disease? Sort of like the Elves of Middle-earth, I suppose. But death by war, persecution, or murder also would seem to fall afoul of death as penalty, if all death just is penalty. Wouldn’t we need to be invincible as well? Would we need some sort of glorification before the eschaton? Semi-glorification?

Without necessarily jumping into the deep end of our theology of belief, it would be safe to say that would mess with the epistemic conditions involved in calling people to faith and hope in Christ, wouldn’t it? You sort of wonder what missions would look like when all you have to do is send an immortal or two to a new country to get the whole nation to convert.

Beyond that, you do wonder how terrible that sort of longevity might be. Imagine immortality before the general resurrection and the closing of this evil age? It’s the stuff of tragic fantasy fiction novels: immortals cursed to unending life in this vail of tears.  Imagine seeing non-Christian friends and family continue to die, not just for the 80-90 years most of us have on this earth, but for 200? 300? That kind of pain and heartache would accumulate in a way that I don’t think an un-resurrected, un-glorified body and soul could take. Yes, we would have the hope, even the possession of a semi-glory of sorts, but at least for a while we would be subject to so many other increasing miseries. In a situation like this, death may easily be understood as a mercy.

Another example may illustrate the way the same condition might be mercy or judgment depending on the context and intention of its application. Say you have a prisoner who has been convicted of a vicious murder and is serving time in prison. New evidence comes out to exonerate him and the judge pronounces him innocent. All the same, it is widely believed in the community that he is guilty, and it will take some time for the fact of his innocence to become widely established. If he were simply released, it is likely that he would be gravely harmed or even killed by the general populace. And so, in his care and wisdom, the judge orders that the now exonerated prisoner remains in a sort of protective custody until it is safe for him to be released. The prisoner’s condition remains roughly the same—he is incarcerated, possibly against his will. But now it is no longer restraint being imposed as an act of punishment, but restraint as an act of mercy and protection.

Returning again to our eschatological considerations, it does seem that if you press this logic to its ultimate conclusion, it would require an immediate glorification of each individual Christian, or the immediate closing of the Age, which would cut off the gathering in of the saints across time and space.

It is worth recalling here, then, what Turretin says about God’s justice and forbearance in punishing sin. He argues that while the necessity of the punishment of sin is an absolute principle, it does not follow by natural or physical necessity like lightning follows thunder, but of moral necessity which is consistent with the “positive and free” right of God the Judge to determine its time and mode of infliction. And so, consistent with his own perfect will and counsel, God showed forbearance and exercise a relaxation so as to not execute his judgment on sin immediately, but delayed and executed it in Christ, the Surety, so that his providential purposes could be furthered (Institutes, Vol. 2, 14.10.10, 16).

In a similar way, we might see the death of believers as God’s invitation of believers into a participation in the exercise of his forbearance (2 Peter 3:3-9). His patience with sinners might require the temporary death of his saints until they can be raised again to new life. Or from another angle, in his positive and free right as the Lordly dispenser of the gracious goods of life, both spiritual and physical, he may choose when and where to dispense his gifts as well.

It seems, then, that we have another set of considerations for why God might in his sovereignty, wisdom, and grace, take believers home to himself in death even though they no longer owe their death as a penalty. At this point, it becomes a wise, discretionary measure for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, its spread to every tribe, tongue, and nation through the sort of historical progress we have seen throughout Church history.

In conclusion, then, it seems there are three possible avenues for a defender of penal substitution to pursue in dealing with the problem of somatic death. Even more, we have reason to reflect upon the Lord’s mercy and wisdom, the unfathomable love and grace made manifest in the death of Christ, the benefits of which we enjoy even in our own deaths in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Scripture Says More Than You Think: Edwards’s Exegesis of Mutual Love

If you scan the literature, there’s been a recent boom in scholarship on Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of the Trinity. If there’s something everyone agrees on nowadays is that whatever else Edwards is, he’s a trinitarian. One other takeaway, though, is that his trinitarianism is at once traditional and innovative.

In his context, pressured by Deists, Subordinationists, and other varieties of anti-trinitarian theologians, he sought to defend and deliver the doctrine of the Trinity to his people. He aimed to show both that it was fitting with the best speculative, idealistic philosophy of the day, but more importantly that it was the plain teaching of Scripture. (Though, it’s good to note Edwards’ readiness to blend the two is somewhat unique since most Reformed Scholastics shied away from the speculative moves developed by some of the Fathers and the Medievals, preferring to focus on exegetical defenses of the doctrine.)

This comes out clearly in his originally unpublished Discourse on the Trinity. While a good chunk of it is dedicated to parsing theological and philosophical analysis of persons, ideas, and so forth, the bulk is concerned with demonstrating the Scriptural foundations of his view. Edwards opines, “I think the Scripture reveals a great deal more about it than is ordinarily taken notice of.”

One place this comes out is in his treatment of the Holy Spirit. Edwards could be considered a broadly Augustinian theologian of the Trinity here. Augustine famously developed a number of psychological triads in De Trinitate. Taking his cue from man being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), he takes the rational soul as the closest (dark) mirror of the Godhead in the world (7:12; 12.6-7). Augustine then proposes three mental triads on the basis of God being love (1 John 4:8). First, he posits that love needs a lover, beloved, and love itself (8:12-14). Second, in the activities of the mind remembering, understanding, and loving itself (10:17-18). Third, and this was his favored analogy, the mind’s ascent in wisdom to remembering, understanding, and loving God (14:15, 25).

Edwards’ formulation most closely resembles the triad of Book 9, but with modifications due to his different metaphysics and context. The thing to note, though, is that in both Augustine and Edwards, the Holy Spirit is identified with the love of God, especially as its understood as the mutual love of the Father and the Son. In their work The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (106), Steven Studebaker and Robert Caldwell identify key components of the model:

Five elements tend to characterize the Augustinian mutual love tradition in its various historical expressions. These characteristics form a fivefold gestalt. These are: 1.) the use of mental triads or the operations of the rational soul to illustrate the Trinity, 2.) the Father as the unbegotten, 3.) the generation of the Son as the Word, 4.) the procession of the Holy Spirit as the mutual love of the Father and the Son, and 5.) the reciprocity between the economic missions and the immanent processions of the divine persons.

Here’s Edwards stating the doctrine positively:

The Godhead being thus begotten by God’s having an idea of himself and standing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and infinitely holy and sweet energy arises between the Father and the Son: for their love and joy is mutual, in mutually loving and delighting in each other. Prov. 8:30, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before [him].” This is the eternal and most perfect and essential act of the divine nature, wherein the Godhead acts to an infinite degree and in the most perfect manner possible. The Deity becomes all act; the divine essence itself flows out and is as it were breathed forth in love and joy. So that the Godhead therein stands forth in yet another manner of subsistence, and there proceeds the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, viz. the Deity in act: for there is no other act by the act of the will.

Now, we can’t get into all the details about how Edwards’ idealism has inflected the whole account, but you see the basic elements in play here: the psychological analogy, the Father unbegotten, the generation of the Word, the Spirit as mutual love of Father and Son, and so forth.

Whether consciously or not, Edwards also follows some of Augustine’s key, exegetical moves, including his focus on 1 John 4. (On which, see Matthew Levering, “The Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian Communion: ‘Love’ and ‘Gift’?” IJST Volume 16 Number 2 April 2014, 126-142.) Edwards suggests the “Godhead or the divine nature and essence does subsist in love” is confirmed in the statement of 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”

But he argues that verses 12-13 in the same chapter “plainly” suggest to us that love is the Holy Spirit, since they read, “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby we know that we dwell in him, because he hath given us the Spirit.” For Edwards, it is clear that the apostle John has identified the love of God in us as God’s dwelling with us, which happens by the Spirit’s dwelling within us. This “confirms not only that the divine nature subsists in love, but also that this love is the Spirit; for it is the Spirit of God by which God dwells in his saints.”

Edwards finds this logic confirmed in dozens of texts (Rom. 5:5; Phil 2:1; 2 Cor. 6:6; Col. 1:8), the name of the Spirit, the work of the Spirit in sanctification, types of the Spirit (oil), symbols of the Spirit (dove), metaphors and similitudes (water, fire, breath, wind, a spring, a river, etc), and so on.

Returning to the Spirit’s work in sanctification, Edwards says that communion with God is to participate in the Holy Spirit:

Communion is a common partaking of good, either of excellency or happiness, so that when it is said the saints have communion or fellowship with the Father and with the Son, the meaning of it is that they partake with the Father and the Son of their good, which is either their excellency and glory, (2 Pet. 1:4, “ye are made partakers of the divine nature;” Heb. 12:10, “that we might be partakers of his holiness;” John 17:22–23, “and the glory which thou hast given me I have given them that they may be one even as we are one I in them and thou in me”); or of their joy and happiness: John 17:13, “that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” But the Holy Ghost, being the love and joy of God, is his beauty and happiness, and it is in our partaking of the same Holy Spirit that our communion with God consists…

Here Edwards moves on to make a very interesting observation that demonstrates how attentive he is to Scripture in these matters. He supposes that this notion that the Spirit is the mutual love of the Father and the Son which is given to believers is the only good account for the fact that Paul (13x!) wishes grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, without ever mentioning the Holy Spirit by name. This only makes sense if, “the Holy Ghost is himself love and grace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Or again, in places like John 14:21 and 23, Christ mentions the love of Father and Son for believers, “but no mention is made of the Holy Ghost” or “never any mention of the Holy Ghost’s love.”

Even more strikingly, Edwards notes how Scripture seems to be silent about the love of the Spirit within the Godhead itself:

I suppose to be the reason why we have never any account of the Holy Ghost’s loving either the Father or the Son, or of the Son’s or the Father’s loving the Holy Ghost, or of the Holy Ghost’s loving the saints, though these things are so often predicated of both the other persons.

The only account Edwards can give for Scripture’s silence regarding the Spirit’s mutual love for Father and Son is rooted in the abundance Scripture’s witness regarding the Spirit mutual love of Father and Son.

This isn’t even close to a full account of either Edwards’s exegesis, pneumatology, or his trinitarian theology.  What’s more recent works by Kyle Strobel, Oliver Crisp, and others have pointed out, Edwards’s account of the Trinity has some very serious, conceptual oddities. Still, even if one does not follow Edwards in all of his theological maneuvers, it’s clear articulation serves as a model for theologians who believe careful, committed exegesis need not be pitted against speculative, metaphysical reasoning in theology.

More importantly, on the material question of the Spirit as the mutual bond of love, he shows the plausibility and seriousness that should be given it on Scriptural grounds. Recognizing the Spirit as the, “infinitely holy and sweet energy [which] arises between the Father and the Son” need not be a matter of philosophical fancy after all, but rather of God’s own Self-Witness in his Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Review)

locating atonementFred Sanders and Oliver Crisp sure know how throw a party. Or “theology conference.” This past year’s LA Theology Conference was focused on the idea of “locating atonement” and they pulled out all the stops, drawing in names like Bruce McCormack, Matthew Levering, Michael Horton, and a host of others. Their stated aim was to take us beyond the important, yet typical questions plaguing atonement discussions over the last 70 years such as: How many typologies or “theories” of atonement are there? Which one is right? How do we relate them? and so forth. Instead, they tasked their presenters with examining the subject of atonement in light of its relations to other doctrines. Ten months later, they’ve delivered an exciting new volume on atonement theology Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics.

As a general comment on the collection of essays as a whole, it’s important to note that they’re not presented as one, unified work. There is a diversity among the contributors with respect to issues like impassibility, penal substitution, how much “ontology” plays a role in our accounts of atonement, and so forth. That said, a few characteristics come through. First, they’re all top-notch. Second, they demonstrate a broadly catholic, if predominantly Western orientation, attuned to the theological tradition that comes before it. Finally, as technically erudite as these essays can get, all of them have their eye on the preaching and teaching of the Church, not merely the formulations of the academy.

Though all the essays were worth engaging–so I will–my comments on each will vary because, well, this review got away from me. That said, length of summary should not be necessarily read as an indication of the relative value of each essay.

After Sanders and Crisp’s intro, Adonis Vidu opens up the constructive essays by taking up a thread in his work in Atonement, Law, and Justice on simplicity and divine action (one of my favorites of 2014). Specifically, he sets about trying to set the atonement in the context of the trinitarian principle that the external works of the Trinity are undivided. In other words, there are no works that the Son does in which the Father and the Spirit are not intimately and also equally involved since they have one shared nature, will, and mind even though possessed their own particular way. So, while it is the Son who becomes incarnate, he does so in the power of the Spirit and in accordance with the will of the Father and so forth. Using this classic principle and a strongly Thomistic account of simplicity and pure being, Vidu tries to help smooth out some of the less helpful ways we popularly think about atonement, specifically with the idea that the Father is somehow acting on or against the Son in a way that threatens the unity of the Godhead. In doing so, Vidu raises some important and salutary concerns, trying to direct our attention to the classic tradition which formed the theological context in which our atonement doctrines were originally formulated and outside of which, it can likely only suffer distortion. My only concern is that while he has forcefully and rightly protected the undivided unity of action, I’d love to see him fill out the distinctness within that unity a bit more.

Matthew Levering’s delightful essay relates the doctrine of creation and atonement by engaging Nicholas Wolterstorff on the issue. Wolterstorff recently challenged the “reciprocity principle” at the heart of satisfaction accounts of atonement, essentially by appealing to Jesus’ rejection of the principle in the Sermon on the Mount. This, in turn, shapes his objections to classic satisfaction accounts. In response, first, Levering counters by showing that Wolterstorff’s reading of Jesus and the New Testament is simply wrong on its own terms. Jesus actually reaffirms the reciprocity principle in a number of places as do the apostles. Second, he grounds this reading theologically by expounding Aquinas’ account of God’s gift of distributive justice with the gift of creation. But I won’t blow that for you. Suffice it to say that this is a quintessentially careful piece of theological reasoning from Levering that you won’t want to ignore.

In his piece, Jeremy Treat argues that covenant is an integrative doctrine for atonement theology, which allows us to cut through a number of false dichotomies plaguing us in the contemporary discussion. In a sense, he strives to give a broadly covenantal approach, situating Jesus’ work as the recapitulation and fulfillment of the story of Adam and Israel, attempting to appeal even to the non-Reformed. Using covenant as the key grid for organizing our understanding of atonement, Treat argues that atonement can be both legal and relational, individual and corporate, retributive and restorative, as well as make sense of the unity of Christ’s atoning life, death, and resurrection. These twenty pages would save us all a lot of grief if they were broadly digested within the church. Also, if you haven’t picked up Treat’s The Crucified King–which you should have–this ought to whet your appetite for it.

Benjamin Myers offers up a piece relating atonement and incarnation by expositing the “patristic model” of atonement. In doing so, he’s trying to move us past Gustaf Aulen’s rather skewed “classical” ransom account of atonement offered up in Christus Victor, which tended to obscure things a bit. In past times, writers like J.N.D. Kelly had referred to this stream of thought as something of a physicalist account because it hinges on the Son becoming man, joining his immortal deity to our mortal natures, passing through life, and overcoming death by filling our mortality with his unconquerable life through resurrection. And that’s a horrible summary of Myers’ careful 12-step case. Myers has done us all a favor in highlighting and recapturing a stream of Patristic thought often lost to us in the post-Aulen discussion–a 12-step program, if you will. My one argument is with his treatment of Athanasius that, for my money, tries a little too hard to screen out the penal and forensic elements within it. Indeed, it’s rather instructive to compare his essay at this point to Levering’s earlier appeal to those same passages in conjunction with Thomas. All the same, strong showing from the Australian contingent.

Kyle Strobel and Adam Johnson have a rather unique essay on the relationships between wisdom and atonement. It’s a rather phenomenal little piece that treats the atonement as a work of God’s Wisdom, rescuing the world from its folly through the foolishness of the cross. I’m temped to say it’s almost a way of retelling the whole economy of redemption from the angle of wisdom.  It’s a treasure trove of theological insight (might have been the most surprising essay at the conference for me) and word on the street is Johnson is following it up with a little work on atonement that should be smashing.

Luke Stamps treats the often-forgotten yet crucial doctrine of dyothelitism (that Christ had two wills, a human and a divine one according to each nature) with respect to the atonement.  This is one of those places where clear, systematic thinking is most helpful with exegesis. There are number of key insights here, but for me, the bit that finally clicked was the way monothelitic accounts of Christ’s will, of necessity, require a social trinity doctrine. Without understanding that Christ has two wills–one human and one divine will shared with Father and Spirit–the only way Christ can pray “Not my will but yours”, is if the Son as God has a will distinct from that of the Father and the Spirit. Some might want to go there, but Stamps shows why this reading might have some costs to our doctrine of the Trinity we should not be willing to pay.

Daniel J. Hill and Joseph Jedwab’s essay focuses on relating atonement and the very concept of punishment. Without actually arguing for its justness, they present an argument for the conceptual coherence of the idea of the Son being punished for or assuming responsibility for the sins of others. It’s a fairly analytic essay and, for what it aims to do, fairly helpful. That said, it’s necessarily quite limited.

Eric T. Yang and Stephen Davis offer up a piece analyzing the link between wrath and atonement. They present a somewhat standard defense of the notion of the appropriateness of affirming wrath as an affection or emotion in God, with a disappointing but typical rejection of impassibility. What’s more, they argue that not simply penal substitutionary accounts, but other forms ought to consider incorporating a robust notion of divine wrath in their readings of the atonement.

T. Mark McConnell relates the doctrine of atonement with the much-neglected issue of shame as distinct from guilt. Guilt says, “I have done wrong”, while shame says, “I am wrong.” According to McConnell, not only are we living in a society that is awash in shame, even if it’s lost its sense of guilt, at the heart of the Scriptures is a story about God overcoming Adam’s nakedness and shame in the Garden. Drawing on Ireneaus and the theology of the vicarious humanity of Christ from T.F. Torrance, McConnell lays out the way that understanding atonement as recapitulation allows us to see Christ reconstituting and remaking us as overcoming of our alienating shame in his reconciling life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the one who bears our shame away, killing it on the cross, and clothing us once more. Overall, this is a very important pastoral dimension to the atonement that ought to be regained where it has been lost. That said, I would definitely shy away from adopting the “fallen humanity” view which McConnell has forwarded–I think something like his model can and must be constructed without it–nor would I necessarily foreground shame as prior and deeper to the problem of guilt as McConnell has. Bracing essay, nonetheless.

Alongside Vidu’s, Bruce McCormack’s essay on atonement and human suffering is the densest of the various pieces, defying easy summary. It’s also one of the most conflicted for me. In order to treat the problem of suffering and the will of God, McCormack develops a theological account of the death of Jesus as the will of God. First, he treats it in terms of the Gospel accounts where Jesus’ death is seen as the apocalyptic outpouring of the wrath of God upon the Son. McCormack then turns to deepening the New Testament witness through H.U. Von Balthasar’s profound theology of the cross and his account of the judgment of hell and being with the dead. Though, of course, with his own Christological corrections. With this account in place he argues for the uniquely redemptive nature of Jesus’ death as an answer, not to mere physical death, but as the foundation for the resurrection. It is a condemnation of the old order, paving a way for the new. For myself, I couldn’t go with this tinkering with impassibility, view of synthetic construction of the gospels, and a couple other Barthian themes related to God’s being and history. All in all, though, a stimulating and moving read.

I’ll be blunt and say that Elenore Stump’s was the most frustrating for me. Of course, it was sharp work. It is Stump; she’s brilliant. But theologically, her attempt to offer a cut-rate account of the atonement’s relation to the Eucharist thinly-conceived, had some some rather semi-Pelagian tendencies. That said, her discussion of second-person experiences and the role of story in our spiritual formation was illuminating.

Michael Horton rounds out the books with his chapter on Ascension and atonement. He provocatively sets out to answer H.U. Von Balthasar’s charge that Protestantism can’t encompass or reckon with Ireneaus’ basic attitude in theology. He does so in tracing out two streams of thought on ascent and descent, salvation, and metaphysics. One is an Irenaean stream and another Origenist, with Origen the less congenial of the two. It’s a tale of two ascensions, two deifications, two Eucharists, and two metaphysics. Unsurprisingly, Calvin and the Reformed tradition a la Bavinck are clearly the heroes here. And I agree with that point. But Horton does his best to show them in continuity with a broader “catholic” tradition, as well. Again, this one defies simple explanation, but it’s really a first-rate piece to close down the house.

Well, that about wraps it up. If you haven’t picked up on it, yet, I highly recommend the volume. Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders have done a bang-up job pulling this all together.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is God Bound By the Chains of His Own Justice? (Crisp on Retribution)

retrieving doctrineOliver Crisp has an illuminating article in his work Retrieving Doctrine examining the innovative, Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell’s atonement theology, quite accurately titled “John McLeod Campbell and Non-penal Substitution” (92-115). It’s illuminating, not only as it shines light on Campbell’s own theology–as helpful as that is–but as Crisp examines a number of broader issues related to retributive justice, freedom, and atonement theology.

In it, he takes up thinking about the relation of forgiveness and retributive justice. Crisp–as he is prone to do–is trying to see whether there is a way of advocating for a non-penal understanding of atonement all the while retaining a traditional, Reformed doctrine of God that understands God’s justice as containing a significant retributive elemement. (Note well: Crisp is not arguing for the position normatively. He doesn’t hold it. As I see it, he’s just trying to explore the concept to see if there’s a way of making it work.)

In any case, assuming retribution for the sake of the argument, in the sub-section I’m concerned with, Crisp makes two arguments I think worth highlighting.

A Better World?

First, he notes that we might think of two versions of retributive justice: a weak and a strong version. The strong version “does not permit forgiveness (without satisfaction)”, while the weak version “does not require forgiveness (without satisfaction)”(97). On one view, God’s justice demands reparation or satisfaction, either by the sinner or a substitute, while the other does not. (Also, “strong” and “weak” are not normative judgments, but indications of the strength of the form).

At this point, he stops to ask why most theologians who hold to retribution have defended the stronger view. Many would ask the same. Why not admit that God’s justice has a retributive element, but think that doesn’t necessarily entail reparations? Here Crisp comes to the first argument I was concerned with and points out that this position has some problematic consequences.

Crisp’s concerns are roughly this: if the weak view holds, then it seems like God could forgive any sin and any sinner without any reparations, by the sheer grace of a fiat. Well, if that’s the case, then why not just do that for all sins and sinners? On this view, God could be just as just to forgive, redeem, and save all, with none suffering judgment, or pain for sinners, or the pain of the cross for Christ. Now, if that’s the case, then it seems plausible to think that such a world in which that were true, would be an objectively better world, with less evil, pain, and suffering than the current world. But that is an “intolerable” conclusion (98), so he returns to the strong view of divine justice.

On this view of justice, “crime must be punished and the punishment must fit the crime.”  What’s more, God cannot act unjustly. It is not within him to be inconsistent on this point. God will repay all according to their deeds, as sin (and righteousness) deserve a proper, divine response. And here we come to the second argument.

Is God Bound in the Chains of His Own Justice?

Oftentimes, in these discussions of atonement theology, it is charged that to think God “cannot” forgive without reparation or satisfaction is a threat to God’s freedom. God, it is said, should not be thought of as bound in chains by his own law. If God has to punish sin in order to forgive, then this legalistic theology gives us a God who is not truly free to forgive and so his sovereignty is compromised.

Here Crisp replies that this sort of charge makes two mistakes (99). First, with respect to the nature of divine justice. The “freedom” charge assumes the weak view of divine justice at the outset. But if you already have reasons for setting it aside, then the charge misses the point.

Here I’ll quote him at length:

…it is no restriction on God that he has to act according to his nature (if he has a nature), anymore than it is a restriction upon a monkey that he has to act according to his nature as a monkey, and not according to the nature of some othe kind of creature. It would hardly make sense to say te monkey was not free if he has to act in a simian fashion, rather than in a human fashion. And in a similar way, it is hardly an objection agaisnt the strong version of divine retribution to say that if God has to act according to his nature, that is, in a way that is justice…then he is somehow un-free in so acting. One could object that divine justice is not essentially retributive. But the the objection would not be about divine freedom, but about the nature of divine justice, which is quite another matter. (99)

I think Crisp has it just right here. The “freedom” charge is not ultimately an objection that holds up when you’ve got a solid grasp of what it means to act in accordance with your nature and your character.

Think of Scripture. It is not a deficiency or lack of freedom that Paul is charging God with when he says “God cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 3:13). God’s inability to lie is the free expression of his essential nature as truthful in all of his ways. God is absolutely free to act in accordance with his fundamental nature as faithful and true. If the strong version of retributive justice is true, then God’s demand of reparation or satisfaction is not a lack of freedom, but an expression of his freedom to be fully himself, just in all his ways.

Of course, if you don’t think God’s justice includes (along with a number of other elements) retribution, which returns me to the earlier argument.

Reinforcing Retribution

While I’m on board with both of Crisp’s arguments outlined above, I do wonder about the first a bit more. In response to Crisp’s argument that the world in which God simply forgives all according to weak justice is a morally better world than that in which he doesn’t, it seems you could try to argue that there are other, outweighing goods present in the one which he doesn’t. To do that, you might try to outline which ones those were (though, I’d have a hard time seeing them), or you might more modestly appeal to epistemological limits and claim that there might be outweighing goods which are beyond our limits to know. Sort of like a skeptical theist argument.

In any case, it seems we might want to push harder here, or add further reinforcing arguments on this point. (And, knowing Dr. Crisp, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has already done that elsewhere.)

In addition to theological arguments, this is why I believe we are safer to add Scripture to the argument above as a firmer warrant and foundation for the claims of the strong view of divine retributive justice. Of course, this requires more argumentation than can be mounted here, since a number of serious critiques have been leveled against the idea that divine justice contains the element of retribution according to Scripture, or, at least, according to Jesus’ revelation of God’s justice in the New Testament.

For now, I’ll simply quote Bavinck on the matter as this selection gives us something of the prima facie warrant for suspecting retribution, and even the strong version, is the biblical view:

…retribution is the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture. There is no legislation in antiquity that so rigorously and repeatedly maintains the demand of justice as that of Israel. This comes out especially in the following three things: (1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23); (2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23); and (3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be upheld for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10). In general, justice must be pursued both in and outside the courts (Deut. 16:20). All this is grounded in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who by no means clears the guilty, yet is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 68:5; etc.). He, accordingly, threatens punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:15f.; Pss. 5:5; 11:5; 50:21; 94:10; Isa. 10:13–23; Rom. 1:18; 2:3; 6:21, 23; etc.) and determines the measure of the punishment by the nature of the offense. He repays everyone according to his or her deeds (Exod. 20:5–7; Deut. 7:9–10; 32:35; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Isa. 35:4; Jer. 51:56; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:1–13; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 22:12).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 162-163

Each of those references could be fruitfully tracked down, but for those with a hermeneutic oriented towards the New Testament, I would note those last few texts, especially the Gospel reference. As Henri Blocher comments: “Retribution belongs to the teaching of Jesus (Matt 16:27) and remains the principle of judgment (Heb 2:2; 10:30; Rev 18:6; 22:12)” (“The Justification of the Ungodly”, Justification and Variegated Nomism Vol. 2, p. 474-475).

Well, as always, there’s far more to say. Still, Crisp has given us some helpful distinctions and arguments for thinking more clearly about the notion of divine, retributive justice and the view of God’s freedom to forgive that it entails.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Argue For a Position You Don’t Hold? Clarifying Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism

deviantI’ve already written about it once before, but one of the more interesting books I read last year was Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism. As I said there, Crisp aims to show that, contrary to popular perception, the Reformed tradition has been much broader and contained greater theological diversity than is commonly thought. This broadness was not a bad thing either. It’s not that we just hadn’t figured things out yet in the past, but rather that this diversity is a healthy, important feature of the Reformed tradition that needs to be recovered for its well-being and vitality.  In a sense, he wants us to remember that “always reforming” is a necessary part of the Calvinist theological ethos. In order to do so, Crisp engages in a number of studies of retrieval theology, examining marginal or “deviant” positions within the tradition.

I’ve been happy to see the way the book has sparked quite a bit of interest online through posts and reviews, some critical (apparently Roger Olson is miffed that Crisp sounds too much like a Calvinist…) and others quite positive. One issue though, that merits a bit of explanation or clarification is that of Crisp’s intention and method, as I think there has been some confusion on this point.

Crisp engages in a mode of theology that has been gaining in popularity recently, which has been termed “analytic theology.” Essentially, some theologians and philosophers of religion have been appropriating the insights of Anglophone analytic philosophy and applying them to mainstream theological discussion. So, whether it’s a matter of using more precise, contemporary modal logic, or using some of the epistemological insights of Alvin Plantinga for the purposes of theodicy, analytic theology chooses different philosophical conversation partners. It also adopts a mode of argumentation that prizes clear, conceptual definition, extended analysis of just what issue is up for grabs in any given argument, and logical rigor. Contrary to some rumors, from what I know of analytical theological types this isn’t out of some “rationalistic” impulse to systematize the faith into some easily graspable construct either. Many simply want to get back to the days when theology actually tried to ask and answer questions with care and clarity.

Given my undergraduate background in philosophy at a school that’s got a bit of an analytic bent, reading Crisp’s work took me back to the old days. I suppose that’s why I was unfazed by the one feature of Crisp’s work that has been causing readers some trouble: his tendency to argue for a number of positions that he apparently doesn’t hold, or at least gives no indication that he holds.

For instance, in one chapter he argues that the Westminster Confession is somewhat metaphysically underdetermined and so it is possible to believe in a form of Libertarian freedom consistent with Calvinist soteriology. Or again, he argues that views like eternal justification or justification in eternity don’t necessarily have the antinomian tendencies or corollaries that many have accused it of, and on that score it more consistent with mainstream Calvinist orthodoxy than is supposed. To my knowledge, Crisp doesn’t actually hold any of these positions. He’s simply clearing some elbow room in the tradition to say that these aren’t necessarily heterodox opinions to hold.

Now, to many, this might seem like an odd, counter-intuitive, and quite distracting theological endeavor to engage in. Why argue in favor of positions you don’t hold? Why defend what you may end up ultimately discarding?

I see two motives, one stemming from his analytic bent, and a second from basic Christian theological conviction.

1. Clarity. In the first place, I see this as a feature of his analytic pursuit of clarity bleeding through. I recall one important article on the problem of evil by Stephen Wykstra taking a significant amount of time to defend a position against two critical articles, only to then turn around and offer a third argument against that very same position. Taking the time to rule out bad arguments against positions you don’t like, or even ruling out bad arguments for positions you do like, clarifies the discussion at hand. Clearing out bad arguments narrows the field of discussion and un-muddies the waters so real dispute can take place. Alvin Plantinga does this sort of thing all the time.

For instance, some have rejected Calvinism or Augustinianism, because they have been turned off by the very common argument made by many Calvinists that the sole, or chief end of God in election or reprobation is the glory of God in the public display of attributes. Crisp argues, as Bavinck did before him, that if that argument proves anything, it proves too much and works much better for Universalism. Now, that may seem like a blow for many Calvinists looking to uphold Reformed theology. Instead, it can be seen as an opportunity to drive us back to clearer scriptural and exegetical arguments. In other words, getting rid of an argument that doesn’t work actually helps your case by not allowing your interlocutor to be distracted by the bad argument and forces them to face your better ones. Or, again, dispensing with bad arguments against positions you don’t hold allows you to focus on the arguments that actually do work.

2. Charity. The second reason is a bit more straightforward. Christian charity ought to motivate us to fairly represent the positions of those we disagree with in the best light possible, before disagreeing with them. It is a form of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves in the intellectual life. If we love someone, we don’t lie about them. We try our best to tell the truth about them in all areas. Showing that a position wrongly advocated by a brother does not necessarily entail or lead to antinomianism or something of that sort, is a form of truth-telling.

As always, there’s more to say here, but I think a couple of these concerns are at play in Crisp’s work. So yes, while it may seem a bit counter-intuitive and confusing to devote lengthy pieces of work to defending positions you don’t actually hold, I think there is an important place for them in public theology because there ought to be a place for clarity and charity in our work of elucidating the truth of God for the sake of the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

Crisp’s Deviant Green Lantern (Libertarian) Calvinism

Note, becoming a Libertarian Calvinist does not result in acquiring Green Lantern powers.

Note, becoming a Libertarian Calvinist does not result in acquiring Green Lantern powers.

Oliver Crisp wants to broaden Reformed theology.

In his most recent book Deviant Calvinism Crisp aims to show that, contrary to popular perception, the Reformed tradition has been much broader and contained greater theological diversity than is commonly thought. This broadness was not a bad thing either. It’s not that we just hadn’t figured things out yet in the past, but rather that this diversity is a healthy, important feature of the Reformed tradition that needs to be recovered for its health and vitality.  In a sense, he wants us to remember that “always reforming” is a necessary part of the Calvinist theological ethos.

In order to do so, Crisp engages in a number of studies of retrieval theology, examining marginal, or “deviant” positions (eternal justification, Augustinian Universalism, Barthian election, hypothetical universalism) in Reformed thought on salvation to either show their plausibility, or legitimacy as species of Reformed thought. Although, note to the reader, be very careful in assuming Crisp affirms any or all of the positions he spends time arguing for; part of the time he’s simply creating space.

While I’ve found the whole thing quite instructive, among the most interesting studies so far has been his exposition of what he calls “Libertarian Calvinism.” Typically Calvinism is seen as a form of determinism according to both contemporary defenders and opponents. To be a Calvinist is to be a determinist, and therefore some sort of compatibilist when it comes to freedom of the will. In other words, under Calvinism, any “freedom” you have is only the sort that is compatible with God’s foreordination and determination of it. You’re free because you aren’t acting according to external coercion, because you’re doing what you most want to do–even though that’s been determined, in some sense, by God. God’s sovereignty in election and salvation and a compatibilist view of freedom go hand in hand.

Against this is usually set Arminianism with its “libertarian” view of freedom, which posits that the human will is free in the sense that it can choose between different options, and that choice was not determined in advance whether by God or any other cause. The buck stops with me in every sense of the term. Now, typically Calvinists are supposed to oppose this on various grounds, but especially because of the biblical witness when it comes to the bondage of the will–our inability to choose the good of salvation without God’s supernatural regeneration. Also, because of the fact that predestination and election to salvation seems to imply predestination and a sort of determinism in all things.

Crisp argues that, in fact, when we come to the Westminster Confession–kind of a standard document for international Calvinism–it affirms very clearly that God is sovereign in election, salvation, and that only those who are regenerated according to God’s eternal plan come to faith, and yet, it is metaphysically underdetermined when it comes to the question of freedom in general. In other words, the Confession lays down some parameters about God’s decree, salvation, as well as affirms the truth of human freedom without necessarily delineating how they all work together in detail. So theoretically one may affirm the Confession, affirm Calvinist soteriology, and yet hold that for the most part humans exercise freedom in a libertarian sense in areas other than those concerned with choosing the good of salvation.

Now for many that seems impossible, but a number of contemporary Reformed scholars have actually been making the case that, speaking historically, there have been Calvinists who affirmed precisely that kind of human freedom and contingency in history, all the while maintaining God’s sovereignty in election. But how would that work?

Here’s where Crisp gains +50 theologian points. He uses Green Lantern in an analogy to help us think this possibility through. Yes–that Green Lantern:

An analogy may help make this clear. Consider Hal Jordan. He is a normal human being who is able to make all sorts of free choices in his life that require the ability to do otherwise, consistent with libertarianism. However, he is unable to make choices that would require him to have the superpower of actualizing his thoughts immediately in concrete ways. As John Locke famously quipped, we cannot really choose to fly, because we are incapable of flying: in which case arguing that being unable to freely choose to fly is evidence that I lack the free will to fly is idle. Jordan is like this. He may want to fly, but he cannot: he has no superpowers. That is, until one day, when they are bestowed upon him by a dying alien who gives him a ring powered by a green lantern that acts as a catalyst by means of which he is able to transform his desire to fly into action. It gives him the superpower of being able to actualize his thoughts (with certain important limitations and qualifications that need not trouble us here). Because he has the ring, he can now fly, where before he could only dream of flying.

Now, Hal Jordan (a.k.a. the Green Lantern) is like a fallen human being on the libertarian Calvinist account of human free will in this important respect: like the Green Lantern, fallen human beings are incapable of freely choosing to perform certain actions absent intervention from an external agency. In the case of the Green Lantern, this agency is an alien with a power ring. In the case of the fallen human being, this agency is divine. In both cases, there is a class of actions that the agent cannot perform without the interposition of an external agent who brings this class of actions within reach: for the Green Lantern, this class includes actions that actualize thoughts about flying; for the fallen human being, this class includes choosing salvation.

Deviant Calvinism: Broadening the Reformed Tradition, pp. 86-87

Let’s pause a moment to note a few key points:

First, a respected analytic theologian just used the Green Lantern in an extended analogy to discuss Calvinism. Let’s just pause and sit with that reality.

Also, just to be clear for those who may be confused, Crisp later says that in libertarian Calvinism there is no denial that God ordains all that comes to pass, merely that he determines or causes whatever comes to pass. He determines and causes some, and merely permits and foresees others as part of his overall sovereign plan (pg. 87).

Finally, none of this settles whether we do, in fact, have libertarian freedom in most cases. That actually requires far more argumentation, biblical study, and discussion on the doctrine of God, concurrence, and providence. Still, and this is Crisp’s point, it seems that there is a plausible way of construing human freedom that is quite consistent with basic Reformed soteriology with respect to election, regeneration, the calling of the Holy Spirit, particular redemption, perseverance, and so forth.

It seems, then, that libertarian, or rather, “Green Lantern” Calvinism isn’t the philosophical absurdity that many have might have initially surmised.

“Broadening Reformed theology” indeed.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Crisp, Theological Rule of Thumb

Sadly, Dr. Crisp no longer has this beard. And yet, the aura of its former magnificence still confers authority upon his pronouncements.

Sadly, Dr. Crisp no longer has this beard. And yet, the aura of its former magnificence still confers authority upon his pronouncements.

Christology can be a tricky business. What does it mean for the Godman to have both a divine and a human nature? Is there a change involved? If so, of what kind? What about Christ’s human nature? Does Christ need a soul and body, or does the Divine Word function as the soul of Christ’s human body? And if he does need one, is it a soul like others, including a human will alongside the divine will of the Word, or is that nonsensical? These are the sort of questions Oliver Crisp sets about examining early in his work Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered

As anyone who has spent more than a little time reading theology knows, there are a number of methodological decisions to be made that impact the results we come to or the arguments we find compelling in Christology, and really, any other doctrinal matter. For those looking for a little guidance in these matters, Crisp offers, to my mind, a very sensible rule of thumb:

I think that a good theological rule of thumb is this: if a doctrine contradicts the teaching of Scripture, it is automatically outside orthodox Christian belief. If a doctrine contradicts the implicit teaching of Scripture and the explicit declaration of an ecumenical council — such as the denial of the Trinity — this is also outside orthodox Christian belief. However, if a doctrine is not excluded by Scripture and can find support  in the tradition, but contradicts the teaching of an ecumenical council, things are a little trickier. It seems to me that even here, one would have to show that the council in question endorsed some teaching that was itself contrary to Scripture — for what else can trump the authority of an ecumenical council of the Church, except Scripture?

Divinity and Humanity, pg. 70

With respect to the case he’s speaking of, there might be a number of views of Christ’s human nature that can fit with the Chalcedonian definition, are represented in the tradition, and are not obviously contradictory with Scripture–specifically monothelite views (the view that Christ had a single, divine will.) And yet, if for no other reason than the fact that an ecumenical council endorsed dyotheletism (Christ having both a divine and a human will) as the view most consistent with Scripture, it ought to be preferred. As Crisp says earlier “It seems to me that it is difficult to make sense of the human nature of Christ whichever one opts for, and at least dyothelitism has the advantage of being the view endorsed by an ecumenical council.” (63)

So then, when choosing between two doctrines that can be considered consistent with Scripture, if one has the weight of a council behind it, go with the council. Of course this doesn’t settle all of our theological or methodological questions, but it’s certainly a good place to start. It encourages a theological approach both humble, historical, and churchly in orientation, while still ultimately submitted to the Scripture as God’s Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Vanhoozer Still a 5-Point Alvinist? (Engaging KJV Pt. 3)

This is the third entry in my series “Engaging Kevin J. Vanhoozer”, devoted to Kevin Vanhoozer’s work Remythologizing Theology by working through the essays devoted to it in a recent volume of the Southeastern Theological Review. You can read part 1, and part 2.

Fabulous beard. Horrible philosophy.

Fabulous beard. Horrible philosophy.

Oliver Crisp’s entry “Remythologizing, Projection, and Belief: A Reply to Vanhoozer,” is almost entirely focused with the methodological component of Vanhoozer’s project. Leaving aside the material proposals about the doctrine of God, Crisp analyzes what he sees to be a major gap in Vanhoozer’s armor, threatening to undercut his whole project: namely, his epistemology.

Projection Issues – One of Vanhoozer’s main foils in Remythologizing Theology is Ludwig Feuerbach, whose main claim was that all of Christian theology is just anthropology, or our best thoughts about ourselves projected onto the screen of eternity. Crisp summarizes:

Belief in God, on this view, is simply the reification of certain notions we have about ourselves, the projection onto the clouds of a father-like entity that is no more real than any other figment of human imagination. (pg. 32)

He then formalizes it in good analytic fashion, into what he calls the “Problem of Projection (PP)”:

(PP) Christian theological language about God is disguised language about the needs of human beings: such language reifies cherished human religious thought, values, beliefs. (pg. 33)

Vanhoozer’s remythologizing approach (which I’ve summarized here) is proposed as an answer to the problem by returning to the text as God’s own self-presentation, or Divine self-projection through Word and Spirit, as given us in God’s speech to us in Scripture. Theology in this view is a responsive, dialogical reality, attending to the story (mythos) of the Theo-Drama, not a monological mythology of our own making.

Crisp Anxieties – All that’s fine and well says Crisp, but there’s a hitch. Who’s to say all of this isn’t just another story? (pg. 33) Why should the Feuerbachian or the modern theologian buy this account? In other words, where’s the epistemology to to match it? All of this just seems to assume a view about God and Scripture, without an account of why we should accept scripture as God’s speech. Crisp takes us through a brief tour of Vanhoozer’s epistemological comments in other works, especially The Drama of Doctrine (DoD), to set up his problem (and solution.)

When it comes to epistemology, Vanhoozer has described himself as a postfoundationalist and an aspectival realist. Instead of coherentism’s metaphor of an interconnecting web of knowledge and foundationalism’s structure metaphor, with certain core, stable beliefs holding up the whole, Vanhoozer’s aspectival realism offers us a map. It is a framework of interpretation through which we see the world; it must be coherent, as well as have some connection to reality if it is to work, is admittedly limited, and yet it is testable, refinable, and correctable on the basis of new insights and information.

And yet, Crisp says, Vanhoozer’s a bit of a “theological magpie”, taking bits and pieces of various frameworks and piecing them together as they fit his own project. So, along with the map, in DoD Vanhoozer seems to adopt some of Alvin Plantinga’s reliablist account of knowledge even though it is a moderate form of foundationalism.

plantinga 4

Your thought has been judged and found wanting.

For those without knowledge of Plantinga’s account (which I favor heavily) Crisp explains:

On this way of thinking, what we believe is innocent until proven guilty. Such beliefs are formed by epistemic mechanisms that function according to a design plan aimed at truth. In his earlier work Vanhoozer even flirts with the Plantinga-inspired notion of properly basic beliefs.10 These are beliefs that are (a) noninferential, that is, not held on the basis of other beliefs from which they are inferred, and (b) justified or warranted, that is, formed in an epistemically responsible manner. (pg. 36)

Here’s where things get interesting. Crisp says this would be great, except that it seems Vanhoozer has dropped this line of thinking in RT because “proper basicality is embedded in a foundational epistemology” that he likely rejects as a postfoundationalist. In any case, he doesn’t mention it in the later work.

This becomes problematic in RT because, well, let me just let Crisp explain again:

Much of the work in this most recent volume involves the spinning out of his particular peroration on the claim that Scripture is the vehicle for divine discourse. But with so much riding on this claim, it is strange that he does not do more to shore up its apparent vulnerability. For, absent the notion of properly basic beliefs, it is not clear (to this reader, at least!) how he can ground the assertion that his hermeneutical framework, and his theological myth, is more likely to be closer to the truth of the matter than the frameworks and myths of his interlocutors. He has not provided an adequate means by which we can adjudicate whether his canon-linguistic approach to doctrine, or his more recent remythologizing approach to theology, is closer to the truth than either Bultmann or Feuerbach. (pg. 37)

In other words, Vanhoozer hasn’t given us a compelling epistemological reason to accept his picture over the others on offer. For someone who doesn’t accept fideism, the truth, or justification question is still up in the air. Along with another proposal derived from the material content of the faith, Crisp suggest that Vanhoozer’s Projection Problem could be cleared up with a heavy dose of Plantinga’s modest foundationalist epistemology, properly basic beliefs and all. It’s a good epistemology, it fits with the project, and Crisp even helpfully tells a little story about how all of this can work together:

What he can say is this. Although we cannot guarantee that we have the absolute truth of the matter, we can be sure that our hermeneutical framework, that is, the framework of canon-linguistic remythologized theology, provides some purchase on the truth, sufficient for us to be confident that it provides a theological myth or story more complete and more accurate than that of Bultmann or Feuerbach. Granted there is no “view from nowhere”—not even the canonical-linguistic view—from which to survey the epistemological landscape and make judgments about it. Nevertheless, what Vanhoozer provides is both internally coherent and a good fit with the biblical material, wherein (as he puts it) we find the mighty speech acts of God. Because our cognitive and linguistic faculties work according to a design-plan aimed at truth, we can move beyond perspectivalism to aspectivalism. That is, we can have some confidence that our theologically attuned hermeneutical frameworks give us the truth of the matter, or near enough, at least some (most?) of the time. Furthermore, because we are fashioned according to a design plan we can know certain things about God because he has designed us to be receptive to him. (pg. 36)

So what does Vanhoozer have to say about all of this?

Vanhoozer’s Confession – As it turns out, it’s all been a happy confusion since he basically agrees. Says Vanhoozer:

Crisp has to ask if I am still a “five-point Alvinist,” because Alvin Plantinga is an epistemological foundationalist while I appear to hold to some kind of postfoundationalism. The problem here is semantic, and can be fairly easily cleared up (I take full responsibility for any misunderstanding). The simple explanation is that I accepted Plantinga’s objections to classical foundationalism, and his proposed positive alternative. Plantinga argues that it is rationally acceptable (warranted) to believe in the existence of God without evidence, proof, or even argument (because belief in God is “properly basic”). Initially, this seemed to be a kind of Calvinist post-foundationalism. In retrospect, however, I acknowledge that Plantinga prefers to describe his Reformed epistemology as a version of foundationalism. Understood in Plantinga’s way, then, I too am happy to call myself a “modest” or “chastened” foundationalist. And I am therefore delighted to accept Crisp’s proposal that belief in Scripture as normative is a properly basic belief (I say as much in Is There a Meaning in this Text?), especially if this lets me escape, Houdini-like, from the Problem of Projection.  (pg. 78)

As you can imagine, I’m grateful to Crisp for squeezing this clear confession of Plantingan faith out of Vanhoozer. I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a Plantinga fan, so I read Crisp’s account with great interest as I’d had thoughts along the same line.  I’d actually always sort of blended Plantinga and Vanhoozer together in my head hoping that it made sense, so it’s nice to get confirmation and a little constructive clarity from Crisp and Vanhoozer himself.

So, for those who are wondering, yes, one can be Vanhoozerian and a Five-Point Alvinist. All is right in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria