Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

luther-and-calvinWith the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (marked by Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door) approaching, there’s an increasing amount of celebration going on in Evangelical circles.

But Carl Trueman is a bit skeptical (which, given my respect for him, I tend to take seriously). It seems to him this may be celebration with much zeal that is unfortunately “not according to knowledge.” He wonders, “Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?”

In other words, the question is whether doctrinally-relativistic Evangelicals haven’t whitewashed the Reformers (with their passion for hard-edged, doctrinal-ecclesial distinctions) and simply recast them in their own image. In other words, have all you smiling Baptists stopped to think about why Luther thought you were a bunch of enthusiasts, or have you sanitized him and made him safe for generic Evangelical consumption?

This is a problem because if we launch into these “Evangelical jamborees” as an exercise in self-affirmation, we lose the opportunity for historically-informed self-reflection.

Now, so far as it goes, I think Dr. Trueman’s point should be heeded. Evangelicals do often tend to “bowdlerize” its saints to make them comfortable members of the local small group. We ought to be attentive to history for more than hagiography and self-affirmation.

That said, foolish, young man that I am, I have a few quibbles with the piece. Or more positively, I’d like to suggest a few reasons to ground Dr. Trueman’s hope that next year’s round of Evangelical jamborees will be “much more than that.”

I suppose I’ll focus mostly on this paragraph:

The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.

One waggish initial response is to ask what the Fathers at Nicaea might make of the broader “priorities and concerns” of the local Presbytery meeting in Philadelphia 1500 years later, (which would presumably also want to cling tightly to Nicaea’s confession).

More seriously, though, while it’s wrong to collapse the distance of 500 years by simply remaking it in our image, its also seems easy to ignore the possibility that some of the differences between modern evangelical faith and that of the sixteenth century Reformation are a legitimate development of that faith in response to those 500 years. In which case, yes, there’s still much to be dismayed over in contemporary Evangelicalism. But I think we ought to be slower to find it wanting according to the standards of its 16th century forebears.

What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.

While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

Another way of putting it is that sola fide begins to imply the other five solas as a whole. In which case, that celebration may include the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth.

All of these are huge issues that even Evangelicals who disagree on some of the same issues the Reformers did (Lord’s Supper, Baptism), can still agree upon now, celebrate, and retrieve together. And this is even more so against a radical, secularizing culture, progressivism, or the inroads Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists are trying to make among younger Evangelicals.

And now I speculate a bit: I wonder if Dr. Trueman’s confession that he is a “Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin” doesn’t have more than a little to do with his skepticism?

I’ll gladly cede to Dr. Trueman’s historical expertise at this point, but it seems Luther’s ecumenical style was a bit more bullish, and far less concessive than Calvin’s. Calvin thought Luther a great man, a latter-day apostle even. But Calvin (and a decent number of other Reformers) did not seem to follow him as a model in ecumenical matters. Indeed, he seemed to overlook the great man’s faults there.

Rather, it was Calvin who signed Augsburg. It was Calvin who tried to mediate between the Zwinglians and the Lutherans on the Supper on their commonalities, in order to present a more unified, strengthened Evangelical front in mission and in the struggle against the papacy. As doctrinaire as he could be, he seemed to possess something of a tactical relativizing streak when needed. What’s more, his confessionalism had ecumenical aims–in the preface to the Geneva Catechism, one of his chief stated reasons for presenting doctrine clearly is so that other churches might approve of it.

Obviously, I would be committing the very error Dr. Trueman is warning against if I tried to suggest that, without question, Calvin would fit right in on the podium at the next TGC “jamboree” or something. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t rule out his showing up.

Dr. Trueman says that true ecumenism must begin with an honest statement of disagreement. I agree that an honest statement of disagreement has to happen. But surely prioritizing of an honest statement of agreement ought to come first, so that we can then properly move on to the areas of disagreement in the right attitude?

Yes, beginning with commonalities like justification by faith often can often be used to relativize differences in a bad way—the kind of way that thinks that just because we agree on justification, I should never tell my Zwinglian friend to allow Jesus to attend his own Supper.

Still, there does appear to be a proper “relativization” that confessing Nicaea, Chalcedon, and, yes, justification by faith, ought to have on that discussion—a relativization to its proper place within the whole structure of the faith. It is that sort of relativization without relegation makes recovering a proper appreciation for dogmatic rank such an important task. It’s that key tool in the toolkit that allows us to keep ecumenism properly confessional and confessionalism properly ecumenical.

There’s more to say than I can here. Obviously, I share his hope that Evangelicals will take this time to dig deep into Protestant history and do more than pat themselves on the back. I guess I’m just more sanguine about the prospects.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On this whole subject, Kevin Vanhoozer’s forthcoming Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestantism is relevant on a number of these issues.

Christian Dogmatics (In a Reformed Key)

Christian dogmaticsMichael Allen and Scott Swain are turning into the dynamic duo of Reformed theology. We might have to give them a combo name soon (Swaillen?). First they gave us a programmatic manifesto for the future of Reformed theology with their volume Reformed Catholicity, then they launched a series of edited volumes New Studies in Dogmatics with Zondervan, and now they’ve given us an edited work I’ve been looking forward to for a while now: Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology For the Church Catholic. Even though I’ve been knee-deep in papers and coursework, I’ll admit I tore into this volume as soon as it came in the mail. And it was worth it.

For Christian Dogmatics, Allen and Swain have drawn together some of the best names in contemporary, Reformed theology to offer up a work of dogmatics for the church catholic. Every part of that description matters. First, the work consists of essays on just about every major topic or loci usually treated in works of dogmatics (revelation, Trinity, anthropology, Christ, etc.). The essays are at the same time academic, introductory, nuanced, and constructive, making them ideal for use in the seminary classroom that’s willing to challenge its students (20-30 pages each).

Second, it is Reformed theology for the church catholic. Each of the authors take on a subject and work synthetically through Scripture, the broader catholic and Reformational tradition, as well as contemporary theology to expound it for the good of the whole church. It’s unabashedly Reformed, then, but it’s not narrowly Reformed. It is Christian theology in a Reformed key.

What’s more, the diversity of authors ensures variation within the Reformed tradition is on display as well. This is true both of mode and content. Some essays tilt towards biblical theology, or contemporary theology, others towards engagement with dogmaticians like Turretin, Bavinck, or Barth, while others pay a good deal of attention to the Patristics and Medievals. What’s more, I’m sure a number of the authors won’t agree with key segments of each other’s essays. All the same, though, as Allen and Swain note, the emphasis is on “retrieval for renewal.” All the essays share a thoroughly Trinitarian orientation, as well as attention to locating each dogmatic subject within the broader economy of God’s saving activity on our behalf.

In a nutshell, when someone asks me where they should go to find sophisticated, Reformed theology written by someone not currently dead, this is probably going to be my go-to volume to recommend. Honestly, it’s a fantastic collection.

I suppose with the broad comments out of the way, I’ll simply note some of the highlights within various essays in the volume, but given that there are 16 of them, I simply can’t go into major depth.

Mike Allen opens up the essays with a treatment of the “Knowledge of God” (chap 1), and gives a broad account of both revelation and the character of theology in the economy of grace. Most interesting for me was his explication of the principles of theology (ontological, external, internal), which manages to be “Christocentric”, without going full-Barthian, and hangs on to a Post-Reformation scholastic analogy of being, and doctrine of Scripture. This all sets up his creative treatment of the attributes of God (chap 3) which is something of a broader, architectonic essay since space precluded an exposition of them each individually.

Speaking of Scripture, Kevin Vanhoozer’s treatment of it is vintage Vanhoozer (chap 2), offering an account of it as “Triune Discourse.” He manages to draw on a number of familiar themes (the God-world relationship, speech-act theory, Barth, theo-drama), without it simply being a rehash, moving from economy, to revelation, to the ontology of Scripture and its role in the Triune God’s purposes, the relationship between Scripture, and tradition, and so forth. I know I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s clear why he was the obvious choice for articulating a contemporary, Reformed doctrine of Scripture.

Swain handles the chapters on both Trinity (chap 4) and the Covenant of Redemption (chap 5). Both are excellent, with the treatment of the Trinity laying a solid biblical, Patristic, Medieval, and Reformational doctrine oriented around the three persons as an exposition of the Divine Name (and names) of God. Beyond the excellent biblical discussion, his treatment of the language of ‘persons’ in the Trinity is helpful, since these things can get tricky.

Second, his treatment of the covenant of redemption includes a very helpful treatment of the divine decrees in general, especially their relation to God’s freedom, as well as attention to some of the criticisms of the doctrine from the area of Trinitarian theology. He ably shows the covenant of redemption to be an instance of “Trinitarian reasoning”, not an extraneous bit of “covenant overload” imposed on the text of Scripture—at least to my satisfaction. I may come back to engage these in a later post.

John Webster gives us two essays on Creation Ex Nihilo (chap 6) and Providence (chap 7), which also seem to hang together (I’ll likely visit these again as well). Some highlights include Webster’s clarification of the notion of speaking of God as a “cause”—which tends to have some goofy connotations in the modern period—as well as the doctrine of God itself, since Webster talking about anything is always Webster talking about God. In essence, he does this in different ways in both essays and does so magnificently.

Kelly M. Kapic constructs a Christian anthropology (chap 8) emphasizing the importance of understanding God’s purposes for loving communion with his Image-bearers, the eschatological orientation of the human existence, as well as the Christological character of the Image. It sort of belies the notion that all Reformed anthropology is “miserable worm” theology, which people often pick up from a mistake understanding of “total depravity.” Oh, and I have to say that my favorite piece of it was probably the orienting bit of John Owen up front, because, well, John Owen.

Next up, Oliver Crisp delivers one of the most unique essays in the volume on the subject of original sin (chap 9). It’s unique simply because it reads like he snuck an essay of Deviant Calvinism into the book, by arguing for a minority report, Reformed/Zwinglian understanding of original sin that shaves off original guilt. Carefully and judiciously argued, as always, but I’ll admit I’m curious what others will make of his critique of federalism and realism.

Daniel Treier’s chapter on the Incarnation is a nice, balanced blend of biblical and dogmatic reflection on a Reformed doctrine of Christ covering everything from the biblical-theology of the gospels on through the two natures, the three offices, and the extra-Calvinisticum (chap 10). One helpful tidbit was his suggestion dealing with the communication of attributes of speaking of activities or attributes of Christ that he possesses or exercises “in virtue of” a particular nature, since that particular idiom may better protect against any Nestorian tendencies.

Donald Macleod handled “The Work of Christ Accomplished”, or the atonement (chap 11), in essence giving a cliff-notes version of his recent book Christ Crucified. Which is to say it’s an admirable piece work, majoring on Scriptural exposition, that really preaches well, has a bit about the possibility of God that I’ll probably skirt past, but on the whole will likely return to as a reference, nonetheless.

Unsurprisingly, Richard B. Gaffin handled “The Work of Christ Applied” (chap 12), and drew on his history of helpful work on union with Christ and the relation between the ordo salutis and the historia salutis. One interesting emphasis was his decision to not simply treat this as the work of the Spirit—though the Spirit is everywhere here—but the work of Christ in his exaltation through the Spirit. A salutary move, in my opinion, in order to keep a properly Trinitarian trinitarianism in our soteriology, so to speak.

Paul T. Nimmo ably handled “The Law of God and Christian Ethics” (chap 13), jumping comfortably between the Reformed confessions and the biblical material here. The best section was the lengthy exposition of the various senses in which Christ is (and is not) the “end of the Law” in justification, the Christian life, redemptive history, and so forth.

Michael Horton’s first chapter on the Church (chap 14), is just classic Horton: a lot of solid biblical theology, atunement to the various dimensions and metaphors for the church that play into a multi-faceted ecclesiology, and an ability to keep his eye on the big picture. He ably expounds the advantages of a covenantal ecclesiology with everything from Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, Barthians, and Barna-style non-ecclesiologies in view. Also, a surprisingly specific, though condensed, polity section that reminded me why I’m a Presbyterian.

Todd Billings handles the sacraments (chap 15). Rich, explicitly Trinitarian, and pastoral, he expounds the logic of the sacraments as “material signs and seals” of the covenant God’s promises. Billings connects sacraments to the preaching of the gospel, the great good of union with Christ, and so forth. One particularly helpful section for me was his handling of the issue of distinguishing the logic of infant baptism from that of infant communion, from Scripture, which often gets raised as a consistency issue for the Reformed position.

Finally, Horton rounds things out again with a chapter on the Kingdom of God (chap 16). I’m really shocked at how much got covered here, as it really served as a treatment relating the kingdom of God to the church, the two-kingdoms issue, as well as eschatology both cosmic and personal. I greatly appreciated his section expounding the connection between the Spirit and the kingdom.

Well, that about wraps it up. One final thing you may have noted is that there is no chapter on the Holy Spirit—which sort of plays right into the caricature that the Reformed down-play the Spirit. Now, the fact is that each of the essays in themselves belie that since the Spirit is there all throughout. Nonetheless, it might help to know that upon asking, I learned they had the chapter commissioned twice, but both authors ended up having to back out.

As I said earlier, I can’t recommend the volume highly enough. Theology nerds, it’s a must. So what are you waiting for?

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Stages of “Being A Protestant” (On Not Feeling Guilty About the Reformation)

martin-lutherWhen I was a kid, you could say I had an ecumenical instinct in some respects. It was common at the time (I’m thinking 6th-12th grade) to ask, “Are you a Christian or a Catholic?” meaning something like, “Evangelical or Catholic?” or “Catholic or something else?” depending on who was asking it. This was true of the Roman Catholic kids too. I—being me—took special delight in pointing out that technically they we were all Christians and, really, it was a matter of sub-branches. Beyond that, I didn’t trouble myself too much. I knew we had the Bible and they had the Pope, so there wasn’t much to worry about.

Oh, those were the days.

Of course, things get more complicated as you age and especially as you begin studying doctrine and history. I got to thinking about this yesterday after a conversation with a friend, so I figured I’d briefly (and roughly) explore this a bit.

In my experience, there are something like three stages or modes of being a “consciously” Protestant—where you adopt your theological stance with a fair amount of awareness of other positions, traditions, etc. Or, at least, there have been three modes that I have inhabited.

Unreconstructed Triumphalism. The first is sort of the unreconstructed or un-conflicted joy of discovering you are the heir to the great Martin Luther with his hammer, who put the Papists in their place, rediscovering the gospel again after it had long been buried under Papal dogma. This is often accompanied by a general sense that there was no church between Augustine (maybe even Paul) and Luther. What’s more, Roman Catholics are obviously likely not saved (or maybe by the skin of their teeth). Luther was a hero, Calvin had no blemishes, and there was no blood on our hands in the whole affair. I’m painting with a broad brush here, but you kind of get the feel—the ethos—so to speak. There’s no guilt about it, but there’s also sort of arrogant myopia involved. Protest on, bro.

Begrudging Embarrassment. From there we pass to a second stage: a sort of bashful, apologetic Protestantism that’s fairly conflicted about the whole thing. This ambivalent stance can come from any number of sources. Sometimes it comes with studying a bit more of church history and theology and coming to appreciate the riches of the broader tradition. Start reading the Fathers and a little Anselm or Aquinas, or some spiritual masters, and you begin to realize the Holy Spirit might have been doing a few things during that gap between the Fathers and the Reformation. This new appreciation for history might occur while simultaneously looking at the worst excesses of pop-culture Evangelicalism and getting the sense that they’re the natural outworking of Reformation theology.

Some have drunk deeply from the wells of recent narratives of decline that lay all the blame at Protestantism’s feet (ie. Reformation –> Modernity and Bad, Bad Things). Sure, there may have been some excesses in the Medieval period, and Luther and Calvin had a point on justification, but…was it all worth it? I mean, are our beliefs that different? Are beliefs even the point? Was all the blood, the division, the dis-unity really the unalloyed victory for the truth it’s painted to be? Can the solas, especially sola Scriptura, be sustained in our day anyways? This is often accompanied by an unspoken (often unrecognized) premise that unity is supposed to be of a certain, more clearly chain-link, institutional sort and is scandalized by the thought of (30,000!) denominations the Reformation has apparently left in its wake. (BTW, that’s a myth that’s been debunked even by Roman Catholic apologists).

I don’t want to make light of this. There’s a real (and right) holy grief at this disunity for the sake of witness. And there’s something wise about the chastening of un-catholic pride.

Second Naïveté Protesting. Coming in third is what I’ll call (in a very snooty manner) Protesting with a “second naïveté.” The idea is that once you’ve kind of gone through this sort of chastening, self-critical phase, you push past it to something more constructive. In other words, you get tired of feeling guilty about being a Protestant, about some of ecclesial realities on the ground, and get on with the business of confessing the faith.

How this happens, I’m not entirely sure. I suppose for me it’s involved a few things.

First, there’s been a greater appreciation for just how muddled history can be. For instance, it comes with recognizing that the Reformation was, in many ways, dependent on the diversity already present within the pre-Reformation medieval scene. In which case, Luther with his hammer, and Calvin (with his…pointy beard?) weren’t coming out of nowhere, bursting in and overturning a serene unity that needed a tune-up. In many cases they were drawing on Medieval theologies and Patristic theologies to do the work of Reformation—because they did see themselves as Reformers of the church they loved.

This is where you appreciate their claim they didn’t leave the church, but they were left by it. In their view, they weren’t the arrogant ones, but it was Rome that had arrogated to itself an un-catholic and divisive authority over the whole of the church in contradiction to the Word of God. To see Luther and Co. as the dividers, the de-unifiers, is to concede the Roman Catholic point at the outset; it is to buy that story and buy their view of the doctrine of the church, sacraments, and salvation in general.

And this is at the heart of things. Did the Reformers have a point or not? Is Christ’s work alone the basis of the justification we receive by faith, not our meritorious works? Is there a right to assurance for the troubled conscience in the gospel or not? Is Scripture as the Word of God the ultimate authority (the norming norm) in matters of faith and practice for the church, or does the church rule over the Word? On and on down the line we can go (sacraments, worship, etc), but at the core of things is the question whether the Reformation made a recovery of a key dimension to the faith that threatened to be overshadowed or not.

In other words, is there something to “protest” or not? And I don’t mean protest in the modern sense of revolution—but in the original sense of making a confession of faith against abuse. If there is, then let’s get on with it. Because if we truly get on with confessing these things, not begrudgingly, or with a shamed face, then many of the anxieties that plague the bashful Protestant will begin to take care of themselves.

The heart of the Reformation-gospel is not sectarianism, pride, disunity, or the things that make for skepticism and dissolution, but (for the most part) the New Testament call to one faith in one Lord who has promised by his one Spirit to make us one body according to his Word. To confess this gospel, then, ought not leave us complacent with ourselves, nor dismissive of the history of the church, nor other branches of the Church, nor proud and boasting against others with a sectarian spirit, unwilling to learn, grow and submit to the Word of God anew. Why should it?

But neither should it leave us anxious, guilty, and laboring with a bad conscience about being a Protestant. Fundamentally it is a message of humility and joy: humility before God and joy in what Christ has done before me and apart from me, now given to me by grace, and worked within me by the Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

If Grace, Then Sin?

cough syrupGod saves us by sheer grace; we cannot earn it and none of our good works can procure it. God justifies us because we have trusted in and united to Christ’s work on our behalf, his sin-bearing death and his life-giving resurrection. That’s the gist of the Gospel of Paul according to the Reformation.

As we noted the other day, one of the great objections leveled against the Gospel of the Reformers was that it was an invitation to license: “If God saves us by grace, then why be good? Won’t people just keep sinning if they know they’re going to be forgiven?” This isn’t a crazy question either. Any pastor who has tried to preach the Gospel to his people will have had it come up. Paul apparently did.

In his letter to the Romans, he asks question of a hypothetical interlocutor:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1)

His answer?

“By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2)

John Calvin takes up Paul’s denunciation and briefly outlines the Reformed response to the charge against the Gospel of grace, both by critics, and by sinners who’d love to take advantage of it. Commenting on the Romans 6:2, and summarizing the argument to follow:

[It is] an argument derived from what is of an opposite character. “He who sins certainly lives to sin; we have died to sin through the grace of Christ; then it is false, that what abolishes sin gives vigor to it.” The state of the case is really this, — that the faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of regeneration; nay, we are for this end justified, — that we may afterwards serve God in holiness of life. Christ indeed does not cleanse us by his blood, nor render God propitious to us by his expiation, in any other way than by making us partakers of his Spirit, who renews us to a holy life. It would then be a most strange inversion of the work of God were sin to gather strength on account of the grace which is offered to us in Christ; for medicine is not a feeder of the disease, which it destroys. We must further bear in mind, what I have already referred to — that Paul does not state here what God finds us to be, when he calls us to an union with his Son, but what it behoves us to be, after he has had mercy on us, and has freely adopted us; for by an adverb, denoting a future time, he shows what kind of change ought to follow righteousness.

Comment on Romans 6:2

Once again we come back to the reality of double-gift we receive in union with Christ. There is no grace of justification and forgiveness that comes separated from the Holy Spirit’s work of cleansing regeneration. The “medicine” of grace doesn’t make sin stronger, but destroys it at the root. This is why, though we are saved not by our works, we are never saved without them. Though we are not accepted because of our obedience, the truly accepted will obey.

Paul’s solution to licentiousness is not to add more imperatives in bolder print. It is not making the indicatives dependent on the imperatives. It is preaching the indicatives with greater clarity and force that the imperatives naturally follow. Actually, it is through our teaching people clearly the truth of their saving union with Christ, the gift of forgiveness and free justification, and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit,  that the Holy Spirit actually increases their faith, thereby cutting the root of their sin: unbelief.

So, does preaching grace too strongly merely encourage sin? No, it’s our greatest weapon against it. The reality we have to continually keep in mind is that the medicine is working at the deepest core of our being. It’s the difference between an antibiotic that kills the bacteria and a cough medicine that simply deals with symptoms. Just looking at the symptoms, it might seem like it’s not having any effect. Underneath though, the deep reality is that it is eating away at the bacteria of sin in our lives, eradicating it from the inside out.

Soli Deo Gloria