Gandalf, Job, and the Indignant Love of God

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 38:1–3)

gandalf-job-and-the-indignant-love-of-god_350_233_90Easily one of the most bracing passages in Scripture, God’s words to Job are exhilarating in their majestically aggressive grandeur. After 36 chapters of divine silence in the face of Job’s comforters and Job’s passionate self-defense—indeed, his prosecution of God’s justice and character—the Holy One opens his mouth and reduces Job to stunned, repentant silence.

At first glance, of course, it’s easy to see these speeches simply as magnificent assertions of the Lord’s raw power over human puniness. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements—surely you know! What were you doing when I was pinning up the stars like twinkle lights, little fella?” It sounds like an old man putting a young buck in his place: “I was working this job before you were in your mama’s womb.”

God seems downright salty here.

You can read the rest of the article here at The Gospel Coalition.

Pictures At A Theological Exhibition by Kevin Vanhoozer

Pictures At a Theological ExhibitionIn 1874, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky created his famous, 10-piece suite of music Pictures at an Exhibition. The work was originally composed in honor of the work of his friend and creative compatriot, Viktor Hartmann, an architect and artist. When Hartmann died, a number of his friends organized a special exhibition of over 400 of his works as a tribute. Mussorgsky’s contribution was to composes this work, which was a soundtrack, of sorts, for the exhibition, based on 10 of Hartmann’s works.

Both Hartmann and Mussorgsky were committed to the idea of a distinctly Russian spirit in art as opposed to the excessive Westernization they feared would overwhelm it. And so while Hartmann’s art was devoted to capturing Russian scenes such as children playing, women gossiping, and so forth, Mussorgsky’s Pictures aims to capture that same feel, capturing the atmosphere of Russian folk songs, and so forth, that suffuses the whole. These “pictures” distill, not only Hartmann’s art, but the social and cultural message of Hartmann’s vision of a distinctly Russian spirit. They present a vision of an alternative culture, an alternative way of being, that helps counteract the spirit of Westernization, and helps Russians remain true to their identity.

It is from this composition that Kevin Vanhoozer draws the title for his recent collection of essays Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom. Much like the Russia of Mussorgsky’s day, Vanhoozer thinks the Church is called to resist the Westernization of her culture, “to the extent that it conflicts with the culture, as it were, of the kingdom of God.”

To that end, then, he argues that the Church must be steeped in the pictures, the metaphors given in the biblical exhibition, aimed at shaping the life of the holy nation of God’s people. To do so, the Evangelical church must recover a sense of the importance of rehabilitating a properly biblical imagination.

For too long, imagination has gotten a bad rap as another word for “fantasy”, “illusion”, “making things up”, or failing to come to grips with reality. Imagination, though, is a way of seeing meaningful connections, to perceive meaningful wholes with the mind’s eye, or the thoughts of the heart—sometimes in ways that are not always immediately apparent. This is not always a matter of making things up, then. In fact, the point Vanhoozer wants to make is that our imaginations can and must be shaped by these holy metaphors, these biblical images and parables that help us see the world through the eyes of the heart shaped by faith.  A biblically-formed imagination is what helps us live into the reality of what is “in Christ”, or the “theodrama” we’re inhabiting in the midst of our modern world, so to speak.

That’s why essays in this work aim to cultivate just such a biblical imagination, both by addressing specific images, or scenes from the church’s life (worship, the exposition of Scripture, etc), but also by articulating a way of doing theology that is aimed at the pastoral application of theology within the life of the Church.

Now, I won’t be so silly as to try and give some sort of “objective” review of the book. Vanhoozer is my advisor, I am a long-time reader, and I did type up the author index for the thing (while listening to Mussorgsky’s composition, of course). All the same, I figured I’d note a couple of features of the work that would give you a feel for what’s going on and why it’s probably worth your time.

First, this collection of essays is fairly unique from Vanhoozer precisely because a large number of them were delivered orally before they were printed here. There are a variety of lectures and sermons that, while still aiming high on the content level, retain their lively, spoken feel. (Yes, that means dozens and dozens of imaginative images and persuasive puns). They are “theology on the ground” and “snapshots” of ministerial theology at work in the local church setting. Also, an added bonus, since many of the sermons are expositions of Scripture, you get a feel for what Vanhoozer means when he’s talking about the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” For many, this might make this volume a perfect access point into Vanhoozer’s broader body of work.

Second, it’s true, Vanhoozer always seems to manage to comment on issues regarding method and prolegomena in theology. Even here, the whole thrust of the work is concerned with doing theology in a certain way. Heck, it has one of his best, short pieces on inerrancy that I’ve read (and I think I’ve read them all at this point).  That said, in this collection there’s plenty of “material” theology regarding pressing, everyday church issues.

For instance, his essay on inerrancy is actually aimed at helping pastors properly handle Scripture in the context of the church. Or again, there are a couple of essays on the theology of worship, song, beauty, and the arts for the local church. Towards the back end, he’s got a sermon on the pressing, contemporary issue of status anxiety and the way it’s addressed by the cross of Christ that’s simply good, pastoral theology. (I drew on some of its themes to preach to a group of college kids just the other day!) Probably the most interesting (because most distinct) essay in the whole bunch is the piece on the ethics of brain enhancing bio-technology. (But maybe that’s just because I’m in grad school and would be sorely tempted to use it as I take German this summer.)

All that to say, there are a number of reasons you may just want to take a stroll through Vanhoozer’s latest gallery of faith speaking understanding.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

Everybody Wants to be Christocentric, But What Does that Even Mean?

christ pantokrator“Our theology ought to be truly Christocentric.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that phrase used, nodded along, and then had to stop and ask myself, “Okay, but what does that even mean?”

Apparently I’m not the only one.

In a short article entitled “A Note on ‘Christocentrism’ and the Imprudent Use of Such Terminology” [WTJ 68 (2006): 253-60], Richard A. Muller registers a number of prudent protests about the contemporary discussions about whether certain kinds of Reformed theology are “truly christocentric” enough. Mostly this has to do with in-house conversations that started in the 20th century about whether there was a major difference between Calvin’s “Christocentric” theology and that of later theologians like Beza and the Post-Reformation Orthodox who followed. Calvin was supposed to be a good, pre-Barthian Christocentric theologian, while the rest of the tradition unfortunately took a wrong turn and based all their theology around God’s predestinarian decree, making things lopsided and decidedly un-Christocentric.

Without getting into all the details of Muller’s article and the Reformational historiography (which has largely put the aforementioned myth to bed), one the main benefits of Muller’s discussion is calling attention to the rhetorical gamesmanship that gets played when people throw the term around as a trump card: “Well, I’m just being Christocentric in my theology.” As if anyone doesn’t want to be “Christocentric”? Indeed, if you cruised through history and asked any major theological figure, especially in the Reformed tradition, “Are you trying to be Christocentric or centered on something else?”, I’ll give you to ten to one that all of them will answer, “Of course, I’m Christocentric. Jesus is everything to me.”

What’s even more helpful, though, is the attention he calls to the equivocation and confusion around the term that muddles things. “Given that such diverse figures as Irenaeus, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Jerome Zanchi, Jacob Arminius, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ι. Α. Dorner, Gottfried Thomasius, E. V Gerhart, Henry B. Smith, William Adams Brown, and Karl Barth have been described as christocentric thinkers, some distinction is most surely necessary” (254).

And so, in order to clear the ground for a more helpful use of the term, Muller gives a taxonomy or typology of at least three kinds of christocentrism that scholars could be using to describe a theologian.

First, there’s what he calls “soteriological” christocentrism. Basically, on this view, a theologian or theology is Christocentric if it confesses that Jesus Christ is central to the process and work of salvation. At this point, unless you’re essentially a Pelagian, a radical liberal, or something on that order, most traditional, Christian theology qualifies as Christocentric at this foundational level.

Second, he says there is a kind of which places a “systematizing emphasis on the Adam-Christ typology and the priority of Christ over Adam.” He calls this “prototypical” christocentrism in that there is importance given beyond Christ as savior, to Christ as a logically and theologically prior to Adam in the plan of God for history. You can find this in the “incarnation-anyways” line of theology, or in the theology of Irenaeus or Scotus and Fransiscan order.

Third, he dubs “principial” christocentrism in that it makes Christ the “principle” of theology, building on the last two “still more speculatively, that the Christ-idea must be used as the interpretive key to understanding and elucidating all doctrinal topics.” Forms of this can be spotted in the liberal tradition from Schleiermacher onwards, which makes the Christ event a central, often corrective, interpretive grid over Scripture, and the rest of theology. In some cases, Christ is the only revelation. Barth, in a different way, is a chief representative of this type, though he has been (fairly or not) accused of more than christocentrism, but rather, christomonism (on which, I have little bit here).

Given these varieties of “christocentrisms”, it does seem wise to have some handy terms like this and be clear about what we mean when we use them. Especially since Muller notes that it is largely this last, historically-novel form that has been assumed in various discussions, and then used as the standard by which previous theologies have been judged, instead of taken on their own terms.

One more point that ought to be brought out is the way the issue of Scriptural interpretation plays a role in all of this. Muller brings out the various “christocentrisms” with respect to the structure of theological systems. And that’s good, but this also bleeds out into the issue of have a christocentric or “Christ-centered” hermeneutic. In other words, what do we mean when we say we read all of Scripture in light of Christ? How do these three types of christocentrism match up (if at all) with different approaches to typology and so forth? Can you only be christocentric in the first sense and still affirm a “Christ-centered” reading of Scripture, or do you have to buy into the second and third kinds as well?

Are we talking about seeing Christ as the fulfillment of all the prior history of revelation in a way that still acknowledges it as true revelation? Or about all prior revelation as somehow pointing to Christ and therefore legitimately read as testimony to Christ? Do we see all of Scripture pointing to Christ, then, because the eternal Son, through the Spirit, by the will of the Father is actually the active agent of revelation throughout all of redemptive history?

Or are we talking about Christ as a corrective revelation that sort of overlays prior revelation in a way that is disjunctive and discounts earlier portions as lesser, false, and in many ways misguided? Is the event of Christ, then, the only truly true revelation? In other words, we’re back the issue of the Jesus-Lens or the Jesus-Tea-Strainer and the theological presuppositions that go along with them.

Not that we’ve solved anything here, but I don’t think there’s enough clear thinking around this in popular writing on the issue.

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

Mere Fidelity: What is Apophatic Theology and Can It Work for You?

Mere FidelityThis week on Mere Fidelity we took up the ever-pressing issue of apophatic or negative theology (Don’t say “God is…”, say “God is not…”). To do so, we invited Dr. David Wilmington on to discuss the nature, the limits, and the proper uses of apophatic theology, especially some of the more contemporary forms drinking from the well of postmodern influences like Derrida and so forth. At core, we discuss the issue of language for God and knowledge of the God who transcends language, yet reveals himself in Scripture, nonetheless. This is an admittedly nerdy one, but we think it’s worth your time.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Have Evangelicals Become Too Obsessed With Politics?

Mere FidelityIt’s election season again, which means that politics is on our mind more than it usually is. But is it too much? This episode of Mere Fidelty, Matt, Alastair, and I discuss the problem of political engagement and obsession in the church. We take up issues like the disconnect between different political and theological classes, the work of James Davison Hunter & the culture war syndrome, the problem of loudest voice in the room, instrumentalizing the faith, and so forth. And we even give Alastair a fantastic new nickname. You won’t want to miss this one.

Soli Deo Gloria