The Uncontrolling Love of God, Part Deux (Causality, “Reformed Theology”, etc)

Uncontrolling loveI’ve already given something of a full review of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God over at Christianity Today. Oord has very charitably responded to it and I’ve responded briefly in the comments. I wanted to follow that up, though, because there were a number of important points that I couldn’t make given reasonable space and genre constraints at CT. I want to be clear, though, that this is not about ill-will or picking on Oord’s work. He seems like a fine man and who can fault his pastoral instinct? But the work of theology is often carried out through critical engagement–indeed, Oord himself is quite sharp in his critique of many theological traditions in order to forward his significant revision of the doctrine of God. It seems necessary and appropriate, then, to engage it in this fashion. In the rest of this, I’ll assume knowledge of my prior review and the thesis of the book. Also, this will be far more of a ramble.

Experience and Compatibilism

First, a small point. Oord makes great hay about the intuitive nature of our possession of a certain form of libertarian or “genuine” free will against determinism. He notes that free will is key to our general self-understanding as responsible agents able to choose right and wrong, and so forth (55-56, 60). We experience ourselves as free and make many judgments in the moral life on that basis, so why doubt it on the basis of faulty brain science and so forth?

All of this is fine as far as it goes. Actually, much of it is quite helpful. What I’d simply like to point out is that the arguments in these sections might work well as a defense of genuine freedom against physicalist conceptions of determinism, where biology, physics, and so forth, are in the metaphysical driver’s seat. That said, they’re not much in the way of evidence against a theologically compatibilistic understanding of genuine freedom. On that view, God’s foreordination of all that passes isn’t dependent on physicalist determinants.

Actually, if you really think through a compatibilist view of freedom, our experience of reality would feel pretty much the same. God’s sovereignty isn’t thought to be experienced as some outside compelling force, “pushing on us”, so to speak. So, the “powerful” argument from experience or the phenomenology of freedom doesn’t tell that strongly against theological determinism.

Mistaking Physics and Metaphysics

On that note, I’d also like to register a complaint about Oord’s fairly constant quick movement from physics to metaphysics. Though he affirms the distinction between the two disciplines, things can get slippery in the midst of the argument. For instance, after reviewing a number of lines of evidence for randomness and chance in the physical universe from chaos theory, etc. as a way of refuting the idea that it’s a closed, causal system (34-41), he says, “If dominant views in science and philosophy are correct in their affirmation of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin, and Sproul are wrong. God does not control all things; randomness is real.”

At that point, I just scratch my head and think, “You do realize that none of these classical theologians ever based their theological determinism on whether the universe was a closed, causal (in the physicalist sense) system, right?” That may have been the case with certain philosophers or theologians in the Modern period when Enlightenment rationalism began to creep in, but read any classic Augustinian theologian of the Medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation Scholastic period, and down into the contemporary period, and you’ll see that most are quick to deny any kind of physicalist necessity or Stoic fate. Providence has never been something you can put under a microscope or measure using computer models.

Oord’s description of most of these theologians, then, is guilty of a category mistake, treating God’s activity as if it were one cause among others, on par with natural causes, only bigger, and invisible. But on their view, God’s causality is not just one cause among the others. God’s causality is in its own category, non-competitive with ours. God is the logically and metaphysically prior, creating, maintaining, and sustaining cause of all of our activity. In other words, God isn’t on the same, metaphysical playing field with us. Many of those theologians would affirm randomness as a physicalist level, all the while denying it with respect to God’s decree. Failing to appreciate the way that the Creator/creature distinction informs the relationship between God’s activity and natural and human causality is like imagining Shakespeare’s pen-strokes and Hamlet’s sword-thrusts are occurring on the same plane of activity.

Bavinck, Turretin, and the “Reformed” Omnicausal View

Which brings me to a point about Oord’s explanation of the “Reformed” view of providence. He labels it “omnicausality” and says this is the view where: “Although humans may seem to act freely and other creaturely causes exist in the universe, in some unfathomable way, God totally causes every event” (84). Now, admittedly, the term “omnicausality” has been used, but Oord’s description is simply not the traditional Reformed view. Most classic Reformed theologians operate with a notion of primary and secondary causality, or concursus, which means that while God is a necessary sustaining cause of all acts, he is not the only necessary cause for all things. He does not, then, “totally cause” everything in every way. That would be to think of monocausality or sola causa. God exercises his causality through secondary causes like human free choices, natural laws, and so forth.

While this might not be as apparent in the less technical, but pastoral Heidelberg Catechism he cites, it’s explicitly articulated in the equally (if not more) prominent Westminster Confession 3.1:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

One may disagree with this, but not by caricaturing the Reformed view, for it is abundantly clear that the freedom, contingency, and secondary causes are all affirmed. This is not a crass, blatantly illogical “omnicausality” as Oord paints it. Again, you may find it illogical in the end, but I think you at least have to do a lot more work than Oord does to show it.

What’s more surprising about this is that he cites both Herman Bavinck and Francis Turretin as representatives of the “omnicausal” view (84) where other causes and humans only “seem to act freely” and have efficacy, but God really “totally causes” everything. In point of fact, they both clearly operate with careful distinctions of primary and secondary causality, permission, and complex, scholastic distinctions in the will of God and so forth. Bavinck, for one, goes on for pages distinguishing providence from the sort of physicalist, divine determinism taught by some of his liberal, theological contemporaries. Heck, even on the couple of pages Oord does cite, Bavinck is in the process of explicitly affirming secondary causes as “true and essential causes”, not “inanimate automata”, but with their own “nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working, and law of their own” (RD, Vol. 2, 614). In which case he’s saying something almost exactly the opposite of what Oord is citing him for. Passages like this could be multiplied ad nauseum in Bavinck, and Turretin does so as well, explicitly delineating the various senses in which contingency in creation and the human will could and should be rightly affirmed.

When Oord somewhat dismissively writes off the Reformed view as “making little if any sense” (85), then,  despite the citations, it appears he made little if any effort to make sense of it.

God of the Gaps 2.0: Just as “Mysterious”, but in a New, Pocket-Size

Continuing in this vein, when Oord does get around to discussing the primary and secondary causality distinction advocates by Barth and Aquinas (his representatives), he eventually writes it off as an elaborate appeal to mystery because, in the end, everybody who deploys it can’t give an adequate account of how God is at work in these causes. In response, I’d note two points of defense: First, some actually have recently tried to give an account of sorts along the communicative dimension. Second, trying to pin down the causal joint has been a problem for most of the theological tradition throughout the whole of church history. Again, at times, I think an appeal to mystery makes sense.

(Oh, and on this point, I’d like to clarify something about my comments on mystery. In his response, Oord has charged that I seem quite certain without an appeal to mystery on a number of things like the Trinity, miracles, etc. and so I am being inconsistent in my criticism of his allergy to mystery. But I have to say I think that largely misses my point. I believe that God has revealed those various truths I reference in Scripture, so I am confident in them–though not ruling out mystery around them. That said, I also think that God has actually revealed that his ways are mysterious in respect to the issue of providence and suffering. In that regard, I think Oord’s allergy to mystery is also a failure to pay attention to revelation. I see not inconsistency there, since both my confidence on some issues and my appeal to mystery on this issue is grounded in revelation. I think that Oord’s drive for one explanation to rule them all, causes him to reject the variety of answers, including some mystery, that the Scriptures give on this issue. )

But even coming back to causality, more positively, I’d point out that I think Oord’s own account of divine agency is just as fuzzy as that of the primary and secondary causality distinction. For instance, in his section on nature miracles, instances of God’s active power in the world, Oord speaks of God being present and introducing creative possibilities, new forms of creation, and so forth, in places where there are instances of quantum randomness, and so forth. Now that might seem promising and even “scientific” at first, but try as I might, searching high and low throughout the text, I couldn’t locate a clear explanation of how God does this introducing or what that even means. Those gestures I did find could easily be co-opted by advocates of a primary-secondary causality distinction. This is no advance over the earlier apophatic distinctions of Barth or Aquinas.

In other words, Oord’s account is just as “mysterious” as any primary and secondary causality account. Indeed, the only advantage it has is of reducing God’s agency so as to squish it into the randomness gaps that interrupt or coexist with the law-like regularities that God dare not cross or interrupt on pain of being labeled an “interventionist” in his own creation. I have to admit, this feels like something of a God of the gaps 2.0. Only here, if you find some cracks in the interstitial spaces of the universe and you just might find some room for God to work.

And while we’re on the subject of miracles, I’ll be honest, while a couple of his attempts to reconcile the big nature miracles with his non-interventionist God were helpful, others strain credulity as exegesis. For instance, take Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. That seems like a fairly big interruption of the natural order of things. An intervention, if you will. Oord will have none that, though. Instead, what he speculates that what possibly happened is that God—because he’s omnipresent and knows the natural flows of wind, waves, and so forth—knew that the sea was going to be parted at that time. Then, he, in a still small voice, whispered for Moses to lead the Israelites to the Red Sea at just the right time when it was naturally splitting open (210). God’s mighty act of deliverance of the Nation of Israel through the waters of Chaos through to the dry ground freedom is reduced to instance of God’s great timing and some quirky wind patterns.

Now, I have no doubt that sometimes God’s providence looks like a still small whisper at the right time, but that is simply not how Exodus 14-15 depict the event, both in prose and song (go ahead and read the account here).

Adventurous Non-Assurance

Finally, I briefly touched on this, but I really want to expand on the eschatological point. Oord touts his view as an “adventure model of providence” that “fits our world”, but this isn’t an assuring doctrine of providence. The God who is unable to fully and finally put his foot down and stop evil, stop rape, stop war, stop tyranny, and all the horrors of this world, cannot fulfill the visions of John the Revelator who promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes after he has made war on the Beasts who devour the saints. The God who has trouble healing cancer sometimes because our genomes are uncooperative, cannot usher in the New Jerusalem into a world that is as corrupt, non-responsive, and recalcitrant as ours. Biblical eschatology hangs or falls on the God who is the Lord of history, not one of its subjects. A God with enough metaphysical flex to intervene.

To put it another way, Pannenberg criticized certain forms of voluntary kenoticism as threatening our ultimate faith in God alone. What goes for voluntary kenoticism applies a fortiori to involuntary kenoticism. Because the limited God Oord proposes is not the only being or reality on which our hopes must lean. Instead, we have to hope in “God + the right set of cooperative circumstances for him to coordinate.”

Some Better Options

I could keep going, but I’ll just wrap-up by offering a couple of alternatives. First, on the problem of evil, suffering, and providence, I’d commend J. Todd Billings’ book Rejoicing in Lament. Written in the midst of his struggle with cancer, the work is at once more pastoral as well biblically-saturated and theologically-careful. He also has a very helpful discussion of a Reformed view of the doctrine of permission, which, contrary to some reports is compatible with Reformed theology. (Incidentally, I’m always nonplussed when I read criticisms of Reformed doctrines as immediately crumbling in the face of life. It’s as if they’re under the impression no Calvinist in history has ever suffered and been comforted by their doctrines, or even adopted them precisely because of suffering). In any case, I reviewed it here, but I can’t praise it enough.

Second, on the general issues of providence, the doctrine of God, and so forth, Kevin Vanhoozer’s big book Remythologizing Theology is very generous in his engagement with varieties of open theism, panentheism, and process theisms (and now in a cheaper paperback that is totally worth it). Actually, Vanhoozer critiqued related, nearly-identical versions of this sort of involuntary, relational, kenotic theism in the book some five years ago. What’s more, he engages the issue of the nature of love extensively, which I have not done, in a way that addresses some of Oord’s presuppositions and proposals.

I’ll wrap up by saying, even though I really do sympathize with Oord’s instincts and pastoral care, I remain unconvinced that this is a helpful way forward in the doctrine of providence.

Soli Deo Gloria


God’s Love Isn’t Neat and Tidy (The Uncontrolling Love of God, Review)

ocean vision

Evil—it’s a problem that asks, demands, cries out for explanation. The psalmist grasps the nettle when he asks, “How long, O Lord?” In the Western philosophical tradition, the question has been, “Why?” If there is a God who is all-powerful and all-loving, then presumably he’d make sure there is no evil. Yet a quick Google search shows you that evil is there all the same.

Of course, the sensible atheistic option is to admit there is no God. Historically, Christian thinkers have tried to reconcile these tensions by appealing to the existence of free will or divine wisdom, or clarifying the nature of goodness and power. Some, though, have opted to radically redefine the terms of debate.

That’s what theologian Thomas Jay Oord does in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Coming from the stream of recent theology called “open” or “relational” theism (which holds that God cannot predict or predetermine the choices we make), he’s not satisfied with traditional accounts of God’s providence. They don’t help him make sense out of life, especially the problem of “genuine” (purposeless, gratuitous) evil. At some point, they all have to appeal to mystery, and so they offer no “explanatory consistency.” In their place, Oord offers a winsome, clear, and charitable exposition of his own providential framework, drawing on philosophy, the sciences, and biblical wisdom to fill the gap.

You can read the rest of my review at Christianity Today.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saying God Has a Reason for Something Doesn’t Mean You Know What It Is (And Other Concerns)

JobMost of Christian theology, one way or another, is caught up with the problem of evil–what it is, where it comes from, how will it be defeated, and how do we live with it in this world. God’s providence, though, is one of those doctrines that seems to uniquely impinge on the question of evil. How could a good, all-powerful God allow the amount and kinds of evil we see and experience in the world? Is it possible to speak of his control and sovereignty, his foreknowledge and wisdom, in a way that’s consistent with the world as we know it.

I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating that one of the key points made in recent, philosophy of religion (especially of the analytic sort) is that if God had a good enough reason, then it’s possible for a good, powerful God to allow evil to exist for a time. One of the key issues distinguishing different forms of Christian theology is which kinds of reasons are deemed to be sufficient to justify the sorts of evil we see in the world. Your overall theology of salvation and providence plays out in your view of the problem of evil.

Arminian and Wesleyan (and open or relational) theologies typically appeal to the good of libertarian free will (the ability to do otherwise in any decision, without being ultimately or finally determined by situation, disposition, or metaphysical constraint) at this point. On their account, it is supposed to be necessary to the nature of love, and the good of freely-chosen love, significant moral choices, etc. Because of that, it’s worth the risk, the possibility, and the actuality of evil in the world. More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.

Instead, Reformed theologians have offered a couple of different, interlocking considerations. Some, appealing to Romans 9, say that God’s deepest reason for allowing all that he does is the display of his own glory in human history (through his work of creation, judgment, redemption, etc). If some tragedy befalls, then, we can know that its direct purpose is to somehow glorify God.

Others, more modestly (I think), confess that while in the end all things will redound to the glory of God, we simply don’t know what his reason is for various, specific events or the way they fit into the broader tapestry of the Triune God’s purposes for history. We are finite, small, and too sinful to expect to have that kind of comprehensive knowledge. That said, we view all things in light of God’s work in the tragi-comedy of the cross and resurrection, wherein the Son came in the power of the Spirit at the behest of the Father to give himself up into the hands of sinful men on our behalf, so that one day we might be raised with him. Because of that we know that our good God is loving, powerful, and does have purposes in all of human history, even the darkest and most opaque of our trials. And these are purposes that, if we knew all that God knows, were as good as God is, and saw all that he sees, we would see that he is right to allow all that he has and redeem it in all the ways that he eventually will.

I bring all of this up because of a recent conversation about the problem of evil and what it means to assert that God has a good enough reason to justify and allow the evil that we see in the world.

Some see this sort of defense as a rationalizing system that calls evil good and good evil. Or it’s a cold comfort that alienates the truly broken-hearted with bland pieties about “God’s plan.” Or even more, a possible attempt to act as God’s spokesman, because if you’re the one who can say that God has purposes for all things, then you’re the mediator of God’s purposes. An appeal to God’s sovereignty over all things and inscrutable purposes puts you in danger of becoming one of Job’s friends, offering up proverbs of ashes and unwitting condemnation.

I simply want to make a few points by way of clarification and response here.

First, it should be obvious that to say that God has a purpose for all things is not to say that I have any clue what those specific purposes are from case to case. It’s simply to point out that a God of infinite goodness, wisdom, and love doesn’t simply let evil befall the world for no good reason, or only general ones. It is an affirmation that God is not careless, nor is he asleep at the wheel but is attentive to the plans he has for all of his creatures. If anyone is tempted to claim that kind of specific knowledge, they have missed the point of Job and are probably at the risk of coming under judgment themselves. It’s the difference between saying that you believe the Bible is inerrant and claiming that your own interpretations of it are also inerrant. It is by no means the case that the one follows logically from the others. It’s possible to have a very high view of God’s Word and little confidence of your own ability to work your way through it without making a mess of things.  In the same way, it’s quite possible to have a very high view of God’s wisdom in history and acknowledge your own blindness to what that wisdom is.

Second, to claim that God has specific purposes for what he permits is not to claim that evil isn’t really evil. That’s a very sloppy, unbiblical claim. It is only to say that God means something good to come out of the evil which he still calls evil. As with the situation of Joseph being sold into slavery, God still condemns the hatred and jealousy of his brothers and their sale of Joseph as evil, though God permitted and even decreed it so that one day he could save Jacob’s family and the birth-line of the Messiah through Joseph. Saying that God doesn’t allow the evil of cancer for no good reason, by no means commits me to saying that any case of cancer is a positive good. We have to have a space for the infinite, Creator God to view a single event or activity from a far more expanded, complex, unified perspective than you or I typically do. For more on this, see here.

Third, to say that God has purposes for all things in no way necessitates that God’s providence is the only doctrine we can appeal to in the context of pastoral comfort. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how little attention we give to the fact that not only is right doctrine a matter of chief importance, so is the proper use of doctrine. Just as having a high view of Scripture won’t save you from a misuse of Scripture, neither will having correct doctrine always mean you’re applying it properly. But this is of chief importance. Being a good doctor is not simply a matter of knowing varieties of good medicines, but the ability to prescribe the right medicine at the right time, because even good medicines misapplied can do harm. There are dozens of other glorious, comforting truths such as the resurrection, God’s atonement, his grace, etc, that you can apply to people in times of suffering and pain beyond the issue of the providence of God.

As always, there’s more to say, but hopefully these considerations offer some clarity as to what we are and are not saying when we claim that our sovereign God has a good reason for all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

Bavinck On Inequality: Culture or Sovereignty? Rousseau or Calvin?

Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait)In 1913 Herman Bavinck penned a little essay “On Inequality”, in which he directed his attention to the subject of social inequality, especially the tragic sort. The study begins by examining the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in the modern period, was the first person to really broach the question, and do so in such a way that his thought has reverberated throughout revolutions and societies ever since. After giving a sympathetic brief biography and exposition of his thought–especially his basic answer that the wicked development of human culture has corrupted natural human equity–in an arresting passage Bavinck unexpectedly turns his attention to set up a contrast between Rousseau and another intellectual titan of Geneva:

The name “citizen of Geneva,” as Rousseau liked to call himself after his second discourse, makes us think of another man who lived and worked in Geneva two centuries earlier: the powerful Reformed John Calvin. But what a tremendous contrast arises the moment these two names are mentioned together. Calvin, the classically formed humanist, a man distinguished in manners and appearance, with sharp mind and an iron will; over against Rousseau, the restless wanderer, who was often moody, whose thinking lacked logic, whose life was rudderless, who was a dreamer and a fanatic, and the first great romanticist of the eighteenth century! Both experienced a transformation in their lives, but with Calvin it consisted of turning away from the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and an embracing of the truth and the freedom of the gospel, which with Rousseau it was no more than a breaking with all culture and return to the instinctiveness of nature. Calvin had learned to see human nature as culpable and polluted in the light of Scripture, while Rousseau taught that nature, before it was contaminated by culture, was good and beautiful and without any corruption. Calvin sought the cause of all misery in sin, which was a personal act consisting of disobedience of God’s law. Rousseau blamed society and civilization, and he was moved to tears when he thought of his own goodness; no one had ever existed who was as good and compassionate as he! Calvin did not expect anything from nature but expected everything from God’s grace in Christ. In one word, Calvin cast man and all creatures in the dust before the overwhelming majesty of God. Rousseau, on the other hand, put man on the throne, himself first of all, at the expense of God’s holiness and justice.

–“On Inequality” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (pp. 155-156)

Clearly Bavinck had his preferences. But aside from the excuse to pen a bit of stunning prose, why bring up Calvin? Well, to set up a bit of a paradoxical contrast in their approaches to the issue of inequality.

Calvin, according to Bavinck, was also concerned with inequality, but contrary to the social leveler, Rousseau, it was religious inequality that bothered him most. Why do some respond to the gospel and others turn away in their sin and folly? Calvin, Luther, and others, after examining Scripture and all the other options, could ultimately only acknowledge God’s sovereign good pleasure.

Beyond establishing the certainty of faith, Bavinck says that this insight into the sovereignty of God as the deepest cause of all things gave Calvin foundation from which to build a theology of multiplicity, difference, and yes, even inequality. Nature, culture, and human choice do play their roles, but underlying them all is the sovereign good pleasure of God which sustains nature, culture, and even human choice.

Of course, Bavinck knows this isn’t an immediately palatable thought; only “a strong generation can accept” it. Still, Bavinck thinks it offers a number of blessings. First, it teaches peaceable acceptance, submission, and contentment in times of struggle and hardship. Rousseau stirred up rebellion and resentment in their hearts by blaming society and culture, which set people up for the disappointment that inequality still exists on the other side of the Revolution.

Second, Calvin’s teaching on sovereignty assures believers that no matter how opaque or inscrutable his purposes may be, they are where they are by the will of their loving Father, who cares for them and has provided a gracious salvation in Christ, not blind fate or pitiless nature. These are the comforts of the martyrs, the imprisoned, the simple suffering children of God, which Rousseau’s gospel could never offer.

At this point, Bavinck points up a third and initially surprising contrast between the two philosophies, or rather the two thinkers. Rousseau might have indeed complained, stirred the populace with his fiery writings, and turned people against their monarchs, but at the end of the day, he walked away from them. He ended up retreating to reclusion “without moving a finger to reform society.” Calvin, on the other hand? Well, he got down to business. While some might see predestination and sovereignty as cutting the nerve of social reform, it actually funded it:

If we steadfastly believe that the will of God is the cause of all things, then our reverence for that same will, which has been revealed in Scripture as the rule for our lives, must compel us to promote its dominion everywhere and as far as our influence reaches. If you believe, with Rousseau, that society is the cause of all evil, then you have pronounced its death sentence; you have given man the right to execute people, and you have legitimized the Revolution. But if you believe with Calvin that the will of God, his will of good pleasure, is the cause of all things, then that same will becomes his revealed will and the moving force and rule for our living. The words “Your will be done” encompass and provide not only the strength to acquiesce but also strength to act. (158)

A bit later he goes on to substantiate his point further by pointing out the substantial reforms initiated in Geneva and the admirable commonwealth to be found there. Indeed, in Bavinck’s opinion, Rousseau was proud to be a Genevan largely because of the ripple effect of the Reforms initiated by Calvin’s very different theology of culture, nature, and inequality.

Now, at this point, some of us may question Bavinck’s presentation of Rousseau. I suspect some of us–especially us Americans–might not understand his hostility to the Revolution, or understand the horror with which many Europeans regarded it. Still, it’s a remarkable essay and a paradoxical argument worth considering. A strong appreciation for the sovereignty of God can both keep us from the anxiety that causes us to revile the good gifts of God by identifying them with the source of evil (culture), comfort us in the midst of its difficulties, as well as the moral energy to work for its good.

Soli Deo Gloria


Three Concepts You’ll Need To Settle the Domain of the Word

Domain of the wordMost Christian doctrines don’t make sense unless you’re thinking properly about a whole bunch of other doctrines. The recent LA Theology Conference made that point about atonement. Unless you’ve got a good handle on the nature of Jesus’ incarnation or the creation, you probably won’t be able to keep Christ’s atonement in its proper biblical shape. Things go wonky without them (not to mention a few others).

John Webster argues the same thing is true of the doctrine of Scripture in his fairly recent and highly-praised work The Domain of the Word and his earlier, excellent little offering Holy Scripture. Unless you have certain elements in the doctrine of God, the church, and providence in proper order–who God is, how he acts, and what he happens to want to do with the texts–our reflections on what the Bible actually is will inevitably fall short. You have to approach the Bible “indirectly”, as it were, by appreciating its place in the broader scope of the Triune God’s creative and saving communicative activity in history.

While I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of Webster’s rich, subtle reflections on this point, I thought it would be worth roughly and very inelegantly summarizing a small segment early on in the first chapter of The Domain of the Word (pp. 13-17), where he elaborates on the importance of thinking of Scripture with three central concepts in mind: providence, sanctification, and inspiration.

The Word and the Word 

To begin, though, he sets up a bit of a contrast. For about as long as there’s been doctrinal reflection on the nature of Scripture, people have tried to think of it along the lines of an incarnational analogy. Just as Jesus is the Godman, comprised of both Divine and human natures, so the Scriptures are something of a lesser incarnation. The divine Word or words, are given to us in fleshly, human form. Hebrew, Greek, human linguistic structures and mediums are the housing for a message that transcends far beyond that.

Now, this analogy can go in all sorts of directions. Classically, it has been used as a helpful way of understanding the simultaneous humanity and perfection of the Scriptures. Just as Jesus was both human and yet perfect because divine, so God’s written Word is given through human means, yet nonetheless perfect as having come from the mouth of God. More recently, others have used it to talk about Scripture’s usefulness as a divine text that, nonetheless, exhibits the limitations and, in some constructions, errors and sins of all humanity (much to the chagrin of anybody who’s paying attention to the Christological implications).

In order to avoid undue divinizing of Scripture, creating an unfortunate blurring of the Creator/creature distinction, as well as a host of other difficulties, Webster points us in a different direction, and suggest that we locate our idea within the three concepts we already mentioned. In this way, Webster wants to capture the way Scripture fits in God’s various workings, beginning from the most general (providence) to the most specific (inspiration).

Three Key Terms

First, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the doctrine of providence reminds us that the various words, passages, texts, and books of the Bible were written in the midst of the history over which God is Lord. A sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without the Father’s consent, how much more the Scriptures which form his self-testimony? In other words, we need to desecularize our view of the processes of culture and history which produced these texts (and all other texts for that matter). This isn’t to deny the human, cultural and historical influences on the way Scripture came to be the way it is, but it is to remember that all of history’s movements come together under God’s hands. When you look at the historical process, you need to realize you’re not seeing all the action when you’ve accounted for human psychological, political, and even theological motivations. Father, Son, and Spirit rule over history governing, preserving, and upholding all its activities–even that of the production of Scripture. God’s providence doesn’t compete or deny the natural and the human, but sustains and underlies it.

Second, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the idea of sanctification reminds us of the important work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and histories of the writers of Scripture. Humans can be sanctified by the Spirit, set apart as holy, in order to serve as God’s ambassadors and mouthpieces. So can the human words of those apostles and prophets that God called and commissioned to proclaim his words to the nations. For Webster, the Spirit’s work of sanctification is the middle term between providence and inspiration, and speaks of the Spirit’s preparation and setting apart of the particular persons and processes of the production of Scripture (events, literary elements, redaction, reception, etc). The Spirit set apart the prophets (Jeremiah, Paul), cleanses their lips (Isaiah), and specifically teaches them how to speak his words (Peter). He does this, not by denying their humanity, but calling it, redeeming it, and perfecting it by way of purification. Scripture is Holy because of the Spirit’s work in consecrating these instruments (humans and their histories) for his own.

Third, we come to the final term of ‘inspiration.’ This is the final and most specific term which refers, not to God’s broader process, or some generic notion of inspiredness that all literature falls under. Instead, it is this specific superintendence and supervenience of God in and through his human servants who speak specific words as the Spirit moves them. Webster says we must be careful not to separate this from either providence or sanctification as if God’s inspiration is some intrusive overturning of human, creaturely processes. It’s not a detached miracle that competitively suspends the human dimension, resulting in a mechanical activity, but an organic movement by the Spirit to heal particular authors, Paul, or Peter, so their specific word given in Scripture can be those through which the Spirit addresses us.

Webster concludes this section by noting that the resulting words provided by the Spirit are not some arbitrary deposit of ‘inspiredness’ that does its work all by itself apart from God’s continuing use of it. Instead, they are a settlement of the Word. After God has breathed out these words of Holy Scripture, we have reached a definitive stage in the publication, or revelation of God’s Word that determines all future hearing and receiving of the Word. After this, we don’t need more inspiration, or a more comprehensive supplement that goes further on beyond what the apostles have written. Rather, we need the renewal of heart that leads to listening and receiving the Word that has already been spoken for what it is.

Of course, in looking at this inadequate little summary, the key doctrine underlying all three of these terms is thinking through the nature of divine activity. God is the ultimate root of all Christian doctrine. Human epistemic limitations due to finitude and sin, social formation of language, history, and so forth, are not the final, determining factors here. It’s not that we ought not consider these realities, but as we do, we dare not forget that it is the Triune God sets the limits to the Domain of the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings (Reformation21 Review)

rejoicingJ. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. $14.99/£11.99
Much of life in a fallen world consists of navigating through the fog of tragedy and suffering. Any pastor who has spent more than a month or two in any given parish will come up against the broken gears of the cycle of life. Illness strikes the healthy, death comes to take the young, and all too often it seems that curse falls upon the way of the righteous. At times like these, in a church culture that has all-but-lost the Psalmic language of lament, it can be difficult to avoid falling into trite speech more hollow than even explicit silence. And sometimes temporary silence is initially the best path. Yet the hearts and the minds of the afflicted need answers. They need a comfort grounded in the deep, glorious truth of the gospel.
That’s what Todd Billings has given us in his recent offering Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. At the age of 39, Billings was happily married, father of two young children, and beginning a promising career as young Reformed theologian turning heads with rich, careful theological scholarship (Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, The Word of God for the People of God, Union with Christ). Then he was diagnosed with advanced, incurable blood cancer, and the bottom dropped out. The future that once looked so clear–marriage, watching his children graduate, scholarship–immediately fogged over with the pronouncement that he could no longer look forward to the “median” life-span that that most of us blithely assume we’re owed (p.7).
In the midst of his own struggles with pain, suffering, and the agony of uncertainty, Billings has produced a profound meditation on the hope of the Christian life in light of the realities of the gospel. Rejoicing in Lament is rather unique in that it occupies a middle range in terms of its approach and appeal. It is not a strictly academic work, and yet Billings is a top-shelf theologian, so it’s not just a pop-book either. It is top-shelf theology that has been lived in and communicated with an eye toward the sufferer in the pew, with Billings interspersing the story of his cancer battle–diagnosis, treatment, future prospects–within the broader story of God’s saving action in Christ.
I hope you’ll read the rest of my review at Reformation21. This is an important and helpful book.
Soli Deo Gloria

“Does God Care if Your Favorite Football Team Wins?” and Other Theological Concerns

footballTheology is everywhere; even football players venture on theological territory. Witness Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ response to a fan question after the Packers’ recent loss:

I always find it a little off-putting when athletes, actors and anybody says, “This is what God wanted,” or “I want to thank God for helping us win today,” anything along those lines when a game or award is won. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist. Personally, with all the chaos in the world, I’m not sure God really cares about the outcome of a game or an awards show. What do you think of statements such as these? You’ve obviously got your faith. Does what happens on Sunday impact your relationship with God or your faith at all?

Rodgers’ response:

I agree with her. I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.

Of course, the puckish reply is, “Well, he did just lose.” At a deeper level, though, it’s fascinating to consider how sports reveals our theology of God’s will, providence, pleasure, and even the problem of evil. How we answer the question, “Does God care a whole lot about the outcome of football games?” reveals much about how we understand God’s love, sovereignty, and care for the world.

I don’t want to pick on Aaron Rodgers because, let’s be honest, he wasn’t trying to write a theological treatise on the subject. Also, he’s a professional football player, not a trained theologian. Still, I think it would be useful to think through in just what senses we might say that God does, or does not, care about who wins a football game.

You can read the rest of my analysis at Christ and Pop Culture.

Soli Deo Gloria