On Still Being a Protestant ‘From a Protestant Point of View’: Contra Hauerwas

Today is a special Reformation Day. On this day, Protestants everywhere celebrate the 500th anniversary of the “beginning” of the Reformation—Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. Or at least some of us do. Others seem to have trouble remembering what the whole thing was about.

hauerwasTake Stanley Hauerwas. Last week he wrote up something of a rambling rehash of his ambivalence over the whole affair, and a defense (of sorts) for why he remains a Protestant despite the fact he doesn’t, “see the gulf between us and our Catholic brothers and sisters as particularly pronounced.” He has reasons. Like the fact that his wife is ordained, and that he thinks his position as a Protestant allows him to keep Rome honest about its claim to be the “one true Catholic Church.” On his telling, though, most of the reforms the Reformers wanted were acted on and we don’t have much to “protest” anymore.  It’s sort of odd, then, that we haven’t all returned to “Mother Church,” since “from a Protestant point of view” it’s hard to understand why Protestantism still exists.

Now, I can appreciate a few of the points he makes. I’m happy to confess the Church didn’t wink into existence at the beginning of the Reformation after centuries of absence. Protestants ought to be happy to appreciate pre-Reformation theologians such as Aquinas and Anselm as part of our common, Christian inheritance. There are plenty of contemporary and post-Vatican II theologians I think are worth time learning from and engaging (Matthew Levering, Robert Sokolowski, Von Balthasar, etc.). It’s a good thing to think in “Mere Christian” terms much of the time, and in an increasingly secular, post-Christian West, an “ecumenism of the trenches” makes a healthy sort of sense.

All the same, Hauerwas’ piece is wrongheaded and misleading at a basic level.

In honor of the polemics that made the Reformation possible, then, I thought I’d pick at it a bit and try to offer a bit of a counter-explanation for why, 500 years on, there’s more reason for being Protestant from a “Protestant point of view” than this putatively Protestant theologian can recall.

First, let me quote what seems to be the most important paragraph, and we can roll from there. Here is Hauerwas’ summary view of the current situation:

Five hundred years after its inception, we are witnessing the end of the Reformation. The very name “Protestant” suggests a protest movement aimed at the reform of a church that now bears the name of Roman Catholicism. But the reality is that the Reformation worked. Most of the reforms Protestants wanted Catholics to make (indulgences are no longer sold, for instance) have been made. A few Protestant denominations might still be anti-Catholic (consider evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress’s claim, recently publicized, that Catholicism has Satanic origins ), but the original idea that Catholics adhere to a legalistic perversion of Christianity that does not admit the free grace of God is seldom seen, these days, as the Protestant difference from Catholicism. Over time, historians have helped us see that there was no one thing the Reformation was about, but that if there was a single characteristic at the heart of the Reformation, it was the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world. That emphasis turned out to be the overriding insight that shaped the work of Vatican II, meaning Catholics have overcome the major thrust of the Reformation.

This is a ball of yarn so tangled it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s try the meaning of the word “Protestant.” The term does not, in the first instance, mean “protestor”, but “confessor, or witness.” To be a Protestant in the Reformation was to be one who gave voice or testified to key truths. Indeed, originally they were simply called “evangelicals”, since their concern was to give witness to key truths about the Gospel they saw being denied. The “protest movement” that followed flowed from that basic instinct.

It’s true, then, that it was not primarily about being “anti-Catholic”, but rather reforming the catholic church’s Roman deviations and sectarian traditions. (Indeed, many called themselves “Reformed Catholicks.”) Sadly, though, the Roman church resisted much of that witness and formally condemned it in the canons of Trent, which still function as part of the authoritative dogma of the Church, no matter how much Vatican II “developed” the doctrines therein.

So what claims did they confess against the Roman, Magisterial hierarchy and the Popes? Hauerwas rightly says historians have shown there were many, not just one. But after shoving grace to the side as a possible area of dispute, he manages to reduce it back to the one main thing in order to suggest there isn’t a big problem, claiming it was “the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world.” And since Vatican II fixed that, what’s the problem? (Incidentally, Cardinal Müller recently described the Reformation as a “revolution against the Holy Spirit,” so I’m not sure he got the memo about the meaning of Vatican II.)

Now, this take might work if he were solely describing the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists. But it’s idiosyncratic to the point of dishonesty if that’s supposed to cover the various claims of Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, or the majority of the Reformers who led the Reformation.

Let’s concede for the sake of the argument the idea that the issue of the nature of grace or justification by faith wasn’t still a major issue of dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Are there not still significant issues at stake for those claiming any sort of continuity with the concerns of the original Reformers?

For instance, one might have thought the pattern of interpretive authority and the status of Scripture to be central. Does the Church create and authorize the Scripture (“creature of the Church”)? Or do the Scriptures authorize and create the Church (Luther’s “creature of the Word”)? Can the Spirit speaking in Scripture ever correct or trump the Roman Magisterium and Papal pronouncements ex cathedra, or does the final authority over matters of faith and doctrine lie in the Teaching Office of the institutional church?

Because unless Protestants have just ceded Sola Scriptura, then I’m not sure the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics have been smoothed over. As recently as 1950, Pius XII infallibly declared the Assumption of Mary a de fide dogma in Munificentissimus Deus despite its paper-tissue thin support in Scripture. On the Roman view, denial of it on the authority of God’s Word is now a condemnable heresy incurring “the wrath of almighty God.” For a Protestant who actually takes a Protestant view of the domain of Christ’s Lordship through the Word, this is still an outrageous overreach on the part of the institutional church to bind human consciences beyond God’s Word.

Incidentally, this also brings up the encroachment on Christ’s sole mediation by the entire practice of praying to and through the entire panoply of saints or venerating Mary as “Queen of Heaven.” If you’re still basically unconvinced by appeals to the distinction between latria and dulia, then the fact that this is still on the books (and a regular feature of parish life across the world) might ruffle your Protestant feathers.

Or again, what do we make of the priesthood of all believers? It’s true the concept has suffered degradation and drift in some quarters of Evangelicalism. All the same, the basic claim of the teaching remains at issue no matter how many times the Roman church attempts to engage the laity. If you actually hold to Protestant teaching here (instead of merely claiming Protestant lineage), the changes are basically window-dressing since the underlying ecclesiology and polity—the structure and mediatorial power of the priesthood, the sacraments, etc.—haven’t been reformed in that way. Romanism without the Medieval abuses is still Romanism.

Finally, you might also have thought the nature of the Mass and communion to have been a central dispute. It certainly was among the Reformers themselves, which tells you how important it was to them. And even there, despite their differences, all of them stood opposed to the doctrine of transubstantiation whereby there is change “of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood” (Trent). They had faith God could use ordinary matter to communicate grace, without God needing to destroy its nature by turning it into something else.

Disputes about the agency of Christ’s real presence aside, neither Luther, Calvin, or the rest of the Reformers thought the bread and wine had to become something else to convey the promises of God. But transubstantiation is still Roman doctrine and most Protestants still can’t stomach it, for many of the same, Biblical reasons. That seems like a big deal. And it’s still unresolved.

I could keep going here, and notice again that I haven’t even touched on justification by faith, which, no surprise, I think (and many with me) is still at issue. Especially since the dispute in the Reformation wasn’t whether God showed grace in salvation, but how he did so, whether it involved human merit, whether a Christian could have assurance of that grace in Christ…but again, I’ll leave it to the side for now.

In sum, if you hold to Protestant theology, there are still good reasons to be Protestant and to celebrate the Reformation’s reminder of these catholic Christian truths. Which brings me to one of the oddest paragraphs in the whole piece:

But I am still a Protestant, even though I remain unsure I know what I am saying when I say I am a Protestant. I can think of my life only as a living ecumenical movement — raised Methodist, taught for Lutherans (Augustana College), overwhelmed by the Catholic world, deeply influenced by the Mennonites and finally back with the Methodists at Duke. All of which, of course, means I have ended up worshiping at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, N.C. That I am a theologian more defined by where I went to graduate school than by any ecclesial tradition mirrors changes in the Protestant world — in particular, that the gulfs between the denominations seem only to feel smaller and smaller. And so does the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism.

It’s one thing to grow in your appreciation of a deeper unity between the various branches of Christianity as you see a fundamental overlap in the gospel, the confession of Christ, etc. But it is precisely as you grow in that appreciation that Rome’s wildly sectarian claim to the “one true Catholic Church” widens the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism. Ironically, the entire logic of this paragraph ought to have made Hauerwas’s reasons for confessing the name Protestant all the stronger and clearer.

As Fred Sanders notes, “We are Protestant specifically to be more catholic, to avoid the constriction and reduction that Rome requires.” Or Kevin Vanhoozer puts it this way: “the real conflict is not between Scripture and tradition but between catholicism and one particular tradition (Romanism).” If he wasn’t so interested in sighing his ambivalence and sounding more ecumenical-than-thou, Hauerwas might have been able to give testimony to that.

Remaining Protestant is not, then, a matter of being “anti-Catholic”, or keeping Catholics honest when they claim to be the one true Catholic Church (because if they actually are the true church, you’re just being spiritually disobedient and, as my Catholic friends say, you should “repent and submit to the Pope.”) Instead, it’s about giving testimony that the catholicity of the Church extends far beyond Rome to all of God’s people who worship their Lord according to his Word.

At least, from a “Protestant point of view.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Newsworthy with Norsworthy: BZ Review Podcasts and a few Clarifications

sinners in the hands picAlright, hopefully this is the last thing I write on this Brian Zahnd review. After the review went up, Luke Norsworthy at the “Newsworthy with Norsworthy” podcast asked me if I wanted to come on and chat about it as he was going to talk to Zahnd as well. I heard he was a good dude, so I did. And it turns out, he was good dude. I had a great time with him, which you can listen to here.

He also had Zahnd on, who responded to my review on this episode. Now, with that out, I just wanted to write up two or three clarifying explanations both to some general criticism I have received as well as in response to a couple points on podcast response.

Length and “Pop” theology.

First, on the length of my review. Yes, it was long. Probably a quarter of Zahnd’s book. Some (not Zahnd, but some) have suggested that the response was all out of proportion to a popular level book.

I have to say, first, the subject of Zahnd’s book is related to my research here at school and it’s about things I have already written about at length on this very blog. So, it’s not like I took a week obsessively writing this thing from scratch or something. This really wasn’t a personal animosity thing. Listening to him, I think I’d like to grab a beer and chat music and theology. What’s more, there are people I do actually dislike whom I wouldn’t respond to at length like this. It was really a function of the importance of the issues as well as my personal interest in them.

Second, I don’t think that just because a book is pop-level it doesn’t deserve careful attention or scrutiny. Zahnd may not be an academic theologian writing for an academic audience, but he is a pastor-theologian who has clearly thought about these issues at length and is writing for the Church—for people in both his pews and those of others—which is a role I take seriously. In which case, in many senses it matters not less, but more since it is a work of theology people will actually read.

I think there is often a dismissiveness with which some academics (or academicish bloggers) write off pop-level works as beneath their time or attention, which is not simply arrogant but short-sighted. As Zahnd said, he wrote a book for truck drivers, which is exactly what pastors should be doing. Maybe it’s because I still think of myself as a college pastor who snuck into grad school, but I don’t think that same audience is beneath my attention, and neither is the sort of book that they’ll be reading.

I don’t say that all grad students or professors should be reading and reviewing popular books. Some really do serve the kingdom best by focusing on academic-level works. I do think that more should consider wading into popular debates. We probably need more who consider themselves doctors of the church, not simply professors. Indeed, if some did that more often, I think we might see less of a disconnect between the “theology of the pews” and the “theology of the academy”, which sets up the sort of bad preaching in Evangelical circles which Zahnd’s book is reacting against.  Incidentally, that means we’ll have to be willing to critique our own tribe more in this regard as well.

Finally, I do think it’s important to engage the “best” versions of a certain kind of theology and not just pop-level versions (assuming academic works are able to handle things with greater precision and sensitivity). So the people popular authors quote, not just popular authors. That said, I don’t think the one activity rules out the other. For instance, reviewing Zahnd’s book doesn’t rule out later reviewing Gregory Boyd’s book, whose name has been brought up constantly as the real interlocutor (which I’m not sure is quite fair to Zahnd), nor vice versa. What I think is probably important is not reviewing Zahnd and then just wiping your hands and saying, “It’s basically the same thing, so dealing with popular, I have dealt with the academic.”

Jesus’ Parables, etc.

Turning to the podcast, Norsworthy brings up my point about Zahnd not addressing various of Jesus’ parables beyond the Prodigal Son, which assume or teach retributive justice. He mentions Matthew 25 and the sheep and the goats, which Zahnd points he deals with, and that’s why I didn’t fault him for ignoring that one in my review. That said, he dealt with it in his chapter on hell and so his treatment wasn’t pitched at the issue I was concerned with, but rather how he relates it to his view of the afterlife.

My point with the various other parables which didn’t get brought up is that there is a consistent teaching of retribution even in the parables of Jesus which fits with the OT portrait as well, not so much the view of the afterlife implied. It is that issue with which I was concerned, as I’m not particularly interested in using the parables as a Polaroid of the last judgment either. So, I guess I just wanted to clarify that.

Calvinism, etc.

As for the rest of his comments about the Reformed system, I’m happy to let the review sit as is. I don’t think it commits me to going everywhere Edwards does, nor to the “4-year-olds deserve torture” view of things. I’ll simply note, though, I mostly quoted non-Calvinists and focused my review on issues I would have had trouble with back when I was an Arminian who hissed at the name of Calvin. I’ve had several non-Calvinists say they agree on those things, with even an Eastern Orthodox chap or two among them. So, I probably fit the “polemical Calvinist” mold in writing the review, but I don’t think my concerns can simply be chalked up to being a polemical Calvinist.

“Neo-Marcionism” and the “Gospel”

Finally, Zahnd had two main complaints where he thought I was unfair or being overly harsh. First, he objected to the “Neo-Marcionism” label, as well as my one line about the “gospel and God” being at stake.

Now, I really didn’t want to be unfair. I hope I wasn’t. But I guess I’ll just reiterate that I am using the Neo-Marcionism with qualifiers to note a couple of important theological analogies with distinction. Mark Randall James engages that helpfully here in this article. That said, I’m not married to that term, so if there is a more neutral one available, I’m happy to use something less inflammatory. But I’ll just say that nearly every one I think of is going to probably be objected to as I am trying to flag something problematic about his hermeneutic.

As for the “gospel and God” being at stake, I’ll just repeat what I said on the podcast: Zahnd writes as if our understanding of God and the gospel is at issue. In that sense, I am just agreeing with him. I thought that in trying to correct bad, harmful portrayals of both God and the gospel he thinks distort both, he over-corrected and distorted both. I think that’s just a fundamental disagreement we’re going to have. Which is just life in the Church before Jesus comes back and corrects us both, I suppose.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Church Has Always Known Theological Controversy (A Bit on the Peterson Thing)

athanasisu“Not again.”

That was my first thought when Eugene Peterson’s comments on gay marriage came out.

Regardless of the retraction, I knew the next few days would be ugly online. Various think-pieces (good and bad) would come, as would the tweets, the aggressive partisans, and the aggrieved bystanders in the middle, wringing their hands.

I don’t have a ton to say about Peterson himself, his comments, or the various reactions. I was frustrated initially, glad for the retraction, and saddened by the whole mess.

What struck me during this round, though, was the sense of fatigue. Maybe life online accelerates and magnifies our sense of controversy, especially since most people aren’t on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re in a particularly stressful or conflicted moment in the church, and that this sort of thing will only become more common.

A friend of mine summed it up, asking, “Has it always felt so embattled to be in the Church?”

To which my response is, “Yes, actually. From the beginning, in fact.” It’s valuable to remember that for a moment.

You can read the rest of this piece over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

“God Is” by Mark Jones (Review)

God isJesus Christ testifies that eternal life is “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). With his latest book, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God, Mark Jones aims to help you attain a little more of that eternal life now in the present.

I know of no better way to summarize the thrust of the work than Jones’s own preface where he writes:

“The true and living God is too much for us to bear, to handle, to conceive, to adore, to know, to trust, to understand, and to worship. The Incomprehensible One is simply too much for us in every conceivable way.

However, that the Son became flesh makes our human nature appear lovely to God. But he also makes God appear lovely to us. Take away Christ, the God-man, and we are reprehensible to God and he to us. But in Christ, God is well pleased with us and we with him.

We look at God through Christ, who makes the attributes of God more delightful to us.” (11)

Here is the heart of the work. Our greatest good is to know God. But God is beyond us, so he comes to us in Christ and reveals himself to us. God Is, then, is an exposition and introduction to the attributes of God whose signal contribution is keeping them tied squarely to the person and work of Jesus.

In many ways, Jones is following up works like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, and giving them a Christological twist. But that’s not all. Unlike more recent, academic treatments, in the style of the great Puritan and Orthodox thinkers like Charnock, Watson, and Leigh, Jones has also made it his aim to connect each attribute or “doctrine” to applications or “uses” in our daily lives, loving God and our neighbors.

For instance, when Jones treats the patience of God, he turns to key Old Testament texts which testify to God’s forebearance, his willingness to restrain judgment so that sinners might be saved and his purposes would stand. But then, he turns to point out Christ’s death on the cross is the key to God’s patience. There God enacts his justice against all the sin formerly past over, saving sinners, but maintaining his holy nature. As application, Jones points us to the comfort of knowing God’s patience with us through Jesus, which then points us to the way we ought to be patient with others.

Or again, speaking of God’s glory, Jones points to the essential glory of God, the display and sum of his attributes in all of their beauty, as well as “glory” we ascribe to God in praise. But then, he turns to Christ and speaks to the way he displays the glory of God in human flesh. This, in turn, gives rise to a very careful discussion of the unique glories which Christ has as a composite person, the Godman, as well as his glory as the mediator who accomplishes salvation on our behalf.  By way of application, Jones points to our joy in worship of a great God, the beauty of being able to commune with this glorious God in Jesus, and our hope to experience this glory in person when Jesus returns in unveiled glory.

Jones goes on like this for some 26 chapters, touching on God’s independence, justice, love, holiness, immutability, and so forth, as well some surprising “attributes” like God’s name, his triunity, and his being “anthropomorphic.”

I’ll just be blunt and say it’s a good book that I think most should consider buying and reading. Jones is a friend, but I have worked my way through every page these last couple of weeks as devotional literature and found it very challenging and encouraging. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly whenever I want to think or write on a particular attribute of God. That said, I’ll add a couple more notes.

First, a word about style. The subtitle calls it a “devotional guide”, and I did use it as a sort of devotional, but you should know that’s a bit misleading. Indeed, I suspect Jones didn’t pick that subtitle. What I mean is that while the book is not an academic work, it’s not what passes for much popular, devotional literature, either.

The chapters are short, maybe 5-7 pages, but they are dense with theological instruction, biblical citation, and (fantastic) quotations from theologians like Watson, Charnock, Leigh, Pictet, and occasionally a “modern” like Bavinck. He’ll do little historical dives and let you know about debates regarding the necessity of satisfaction for atonement, or the way the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) play into our understanding of an attribute. Distinctions like ad extra and ad intra are sprinkled throughout.

Now, I think this is a very good and helpful thing. I really hope more popular theological literature moves in this direction. And if you find yourself intimidated at that thought, I would encourage you to read it anyways and allow yourself to be challenged. Still, I just figured I’d let you know.

Second, if you are a pastor who is struggling to think of ways to connect theology, and especially the nature of God, to your people in the pulpit and in your counsel, I think this is a good model to look at. You don’t have to follow Jones everywhere he goes either in application, or even in particular content points. But what he is doing is modeling a way of tracing the impact of how we think about God into every area of our worship and life.

We were made “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The aim of the gospel is God in Christ. He is our great end and our great joy. Reading God Is, is not a bad place to pursue more of him.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Immutable and Infinite Holiness of God

burning bushStephen Charnock’s treatment of the Holiness of God in The Existence and Attributes of God stands as the high watermark on the subject among Reformed Orthodox theologians of the period. Working my way through it, I’m struck by its comprehensive and seemingly exhaustive definition, defense, and exposition of the attribute. There’s much to dive into, but one particular section on the ontology of God’s holiness struck my attention.

To set it up, briefly, Charnock defines God’s holiness as:

Positively, It is the rectitude or integrity of the Divine nature, or that conformity of it, in affection and action, to the Divine will, as to his eternal law, whereby he works with a becomingness to his own excellency, and whereby he hath a delight and complacency in everything agreeable to his will, and an abhorrency of everything contrary thereunto.

God’s holiness is his utter purity of will, the love of the goodness which he has and is, as well as his opposition to everything opposed to that goodness which he is.

He goes on to clarify that this attribute is not a secondary, or ancillary perfection of God’s life, but one that is “essential and necessary” to his being. God would not be God without God being holy. God has been holy from eternity and will be holy forevermore.

Following this, he clarifies that “God only is absolutely holy: ‘There is none holy as the Lord’ (1 Sam 2:2).” This may strike some of us as odd because many things are spoke of in Scripture as holy besides God. In fact, isn’t holiness one of the communicable attributes which creatures can share with God? What could Charnock mean?

Well, he means that God’s holiness is qualitatively distinct and original to God. It’s not just that God is holy, he is, in fact, holiness itself. He only is originally holy and everything else is made holy as it is related to him (“by derivation”). Things set apart to the Lord become holy precisely because they are the Holy God’s. It’s borrowed holiness, in a sense, sort of like the light of the moon is borrowed from the Sun. And even then, their purity is just a dim reflection of the purity and holiness of God.

Charnock wants to drive home the qualitative difference between our holiness and God’s holiness. He compares God’s holiness with the holiness of the angels whom he has blessed with holiness and says their purity comes up short, causing them to cover their “feet out of shame in themselves” (Cf. Isa. 6). They know that:

…though they love God (which is a principle of holiness) as much as they can, yet, not so much as he deserves; they love him with the intensest degree, according to their power; but not with the intensest degree, according to his own amiableness; for they cannot infinitely love God, unless they were as infinite as God, and had an understanding of his perfections equal with himself, and as immense as his own knowledge. God, having an infinite knowledge of himself, can only have an infinite love to himself, and, consequently, an infinite holiness without any defect; because he loves himself according to the vastness of his own amiableness, which no finite being can.

Since love to God’s own perfection and goodness is the heart of holiness, only the perfection of God can muster it. Only the Triune God has the infinite capacity to love his infinite beauty properly, “according to the vastness of his own amiableness.” (I love that phrase.) And it’s precisely for that reason that his holiness is qualitatively distinct from all finite, creaturely holiness. What an astonishing and marvelous thought!

And it’s here we come to the fascinating passage that struck my eye.

Following off of this insight into the importance of God’s infinity for appreciating the distinctness of God’s holiness, he moves on to consider its immutability by comparison with changeableness of angelic and human nature. It’s a long quote, but worth it:

Holiness is a quality separable from them, but it is inseparable from God. Had they not at first a mutability in their nature, none of them could have sinned, there had been no devils; but because some of them sinned, the rest might have sinned. And though the standing angels shall never be changed, they are still changeable in their own nature, and their standing is due to grace, not to nature; and though they shall be for ever preserved, yet they are not, nor ever can be, immutable by nature, for then they should stand upon the same bottom with God himself; but they are supported by grace against that changeableness of nature which is essential to a creature; the Creator only hath immortality, that is, immutability (1 Tim. 3:16). It is as certain a truth, that no creature can be naturally immutable and impeccable, as that God cannot create any anything actually polluted and imperfect. It is as possible that the highest creature may sin, as it is possible that it may be annihilated; it may become not holy, as it may become not a creature, but nothing.

The holiness of a creature may be reduced into nothing, as well as his substance; but the holiness of the Creator cannot be diminished, dimmed, or overshadowed (James i. 17): “He is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness or shadow of turning.” It is as impossible his holiness should be blotted, as that his Deity should be extinguished: for whatsoever creature hath essentially such or such qualities, cannot be stripped of them, without being turned out of its essence… The sun is essentially luminous; if it should become dark in its own body, it would cease to be the sun. In regard to this absolute and only holiness of God, it is thrice repeated by the seraphim (Isa. 6:3)…the holiness of God is so absolutely peculiar to him, that it can no more be expressed in creatures, than his omnipotence, whereby they may be able to create a world; or his omniscience, whereby they may be capable of knowing all things, and knowing God as he knows himself.

Humans and angels are changeable (mutable) beings. We came into existence and can wink out of existence. Our natures can shift from good to evil and evil to God.  We have fallen, but thankfully we can be saved and sanctified to God once more (humans, at least). And we only stay holy by the mercy and sustaining perfection of God’s work in us.

And yet in the starkest contrast, God is unchangeable. He is immutable. There is no shadow of turning with him. And this holds true of his holiness as well. There isn’t the slightest chance that God could ever be less than the infinitely pure love of good. It is the distinct, sine qua non of the divine life. It is inseparable from him.

Besides the magnificence of this vision of God’s absolute holiness, what struck me about this was how thickly ontological this discussion was. It’s all too easy and common in some contemporary discussions to make clean distinctions between God’s “ethical” or “moral” attributes emphasized in Scripture and his more “metaphysical” or “ontological” ones derived from philosophical or “Greek” speculation. (Typically, the distinction is pressed by theologians looking to revise the ontological ones.) Charnock doesn’t play that game.

In fact, it is precisely the “metaphysical” or “ontological” qualities of God–his infinity and his immutability–that distinguish and characterize God’s holiness as his own. It is the limitless and unchangeable purity, rectitude, and love of all that is good and according to his own perfect will that makes God’s holiness what it is.

This is good news. For God’s holiness is a crowing attribute among the rest, giving them their distinct character:

As all would be weak, without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them…As sincerity is the lustre of every grace in a Christian, so is purity the splendor of every attribute in the Godhead. His justice is a holy justice; his wisdom a holy wisdom; his arm of power a holy arm (Ps. xcviii. 1); his truth or promise a holy promise (Ps. cv. 42). Holy and true go hand in hand (Rev. vi. 10). His name, which signifies all his attributes in conjunction, is holy (Ps. chi. 1); yea, he is “righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works” (Ps. cxlv. 17): it is the rule of all his acts, the source of all his punishments. If every attribute of the Deity were a distinct member, purity would be the form, the soul, the spirit to animate them. Without it, his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtilty. It is this gives a decorum to all.

Praise God, then, that it is this holiness which is unchanging and without end.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Love and Wrath, the Yes and No, of a Simple God (A Quick Response to Vreeland on Atonement)

wrath among the perfections of God's lifeI hate to ever criticize a fellow bearer of the most excellent name of “Derek” (especially if he spells it correctly), but I had a few thoughts on a recent post by Derek Vreeland over at Missio Alliance. Entitled, “Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary?“, Vreeland attempts to do some parsing around the difference between penal substitutionary atonement and propitiatory satisfactional atonement in the wake of the SBC resolution on the matter.  I won’t summarize the argument, as you should go read the piece and then come back.

Before I raise some complaints, I’ll say two positives. First, it’s a careful piece with an irenic tone. Vreeland goes out of his way to try to avoid caricaturing views he’s critiquing as positing a bloodthirsty, savage god. And, second, praise be to that God, he takes the time to interact with someone like Packer, noting agreements where possible, which is a good sign.

That said, I had some some quibbles, so I’ve sort of hastily written a few out since someone asked me about the piece online.

First, about the proper translation of hilasterion as “propitiation”, “mercy seat”, or “expiation.” I’ll simply note that the “mercy seat” reading, which was supposed to be the advance over propitiation or expiation, doesn’t obviously rule out a propitiatory dimension of the term, especially since that was the most common meaning in the Greek. You have to imagine the LXX writers used it to translate kapporeth for some reason. More importantly, even if the denotation is immediately expiation, that doesn’t necessarily remove the notion of turning away wrath. As Fleming Rutledge recently noted in The Crucifixion (p. 282), you could easily have a “propitiation via expiation” logic at work, since getting rid of sin would presumably turn away God’s wrath by removing the object of God’s wrath. (And while we’re on the subject, Rutledge is fantastic. Here’s my review.)

Second, we come to the status of wrath. I’ll just quote this paragraph:

Anger or wrath is not a literal attribute of God. As used by Paul in Romans, wrath is a metaphor for God’s eschatological judgement. God is not a mixture of love and wrath or love and anger. God is essentially a holy community of persons within whom there is no anger. God is pure love. God judges not from a place of judicial retributive anger, but from a heart of love.

This seems confused to me.

First, classically, God is not a mixture of anything, including his attributes. God is simple, not composed of parts. We might think of his attributes or perfections as simply the One God considered from a particular angle. Hence they are not in conflict with one another but in perfect harmony and, importantly, mutually-defining.

Now, there are all sorts of debates in Church history about how to think of God’s wrath. Whether it’s a primary attribute of God’s eternal nature (love, holiness, etc), or whether it’s something like a secondary attribute derivative of another kind of like mercy. Mercy is God’s goodness in action as it encounters an object of pity and in need of aid. God has always been good, but now in history we encounter his goodness in a new way in our state of need.

In the same way, we might think of God’s wrath as God’s inherent righteousness in the encounter with sin and sinners who violate God’s shalom and set themselves against him and their neighbors. The underlying reality of wrath, then, just is God’s eternal righteousness or justice, which is God himself. For a rich discussion on this point, I’d commend Jeremy Wynne’s monograph Wrath Among the Perfections of God’s Life. 

Connected to this, there is absolutely no reason to set up a false binary between “love” and “judicial retributive anger.” It is entirely possible to love someone and be angry with them. And not just in a petty way, but precisely out of love it is possible to absolutely be furious with someone’s self-destructive choices which hurt themselves and others. (On which, see this article by Tony Lane on the relationship between Wrath and Love.)

What’s more, it’s also entirely possible to love someone with a perfect love and recognize they have violated the law in a way that renders them liable to judgment and be angry at them for precisely that reason. Recall that since God is simple, God’s love is holy, pure, and righteous. In which case, God’s love is not the sort of love which lies about sin, failing to recognize it, name it as what it is, and treat it accordingly (which is precisely what is judicial, retributive anger does).

In which case, it’s manifestly not a matter of finding the right balance of wrath and love, which would indeed be a troubling and silly suggestion.

This brings me to the next point:

The problem Jesus came to address was not the problem of a “holy” God of justifiable wrath punishing a world of sinners. Jesus did not come to die for our sins to remove God’s hostility and turn God’s no towards us into a yes. God’s attitude towards us has always been yes. Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like (John 1:18). When God in Christ encountered sinful people, did he punish them? Did he express God’s no to them? Did he condemn them? Did he exhibit hostility towards them? No! God forgave them, healed them, and restored them. As a God of love, God certainly does not approve of sin. However God’s rejection of sin and evil doesn’t imply that God is personally offended by sin and needs to be “satisfied” in order to forgive.

Again, Vreeland builds on that false binary. God can love someone, have a fundamental stance of “yes” towards them, but still have a moral need and responsibility to say “no” towards their sin (and towards them insofar as they are the authors of their sins). In other words, the infinite God can have something approaching a multilayered volitional stance towards his creatures as created in his Image, but distorted through their sin.

Here’s one thing to keep straight about this: God’s “need” for satisfaction isn’t the “need” of a petty, insecure person. It is the moral “need” of the obligation of God as the perfectly righteous King, the Lord, the Judge and Guarantor of the order of the whole earth to maintain justice within it and keep his word of blessing and cursing according to the Law he has set forth. In which case, to sin against him isn’t just a matter of mere personal insult, but rather a legal violation of the justice and goodness of all creation. And so judgment is a serious condemnation, a “no” against it.

That being said, there would be something perverse about God if we couldn’t affirm that his judicial “no” to sin as the Lord, King, and Judge wasn’t still a very personal one. It’s not a matter of mere disapproval. Recall for a moment a brief catalogue of sin: idolatry, murder, adultery, rape, racism, war, robbery, child abuse, pride, sex trafficking, etc.. If God really is the loving King personally committed to the good of his creation, there is a sense in which he has to be personally offended by such atrocious violations of the shalom he desires. Anything less than a personal wrath, a personal, righteous opposition to sin that must be dealt with, robs us of a God of personal love.

Beyond that, I’d add that this still isn’t a simple matter of turning a “no” of judgment into the “yes” of forgiveness. Instead, it is saying a fundamental “yes” to humanity and forgiving us by executing the “no” against sin through the judgment of the cross. I’ve made this point at length before, but God being God means God forgives in a unique, Godlike way, which means doing away with sin and guilt to which he must stand opposed and treat as it deserves.

I mean, this has been clear (in the Reformed tradition) as far back as Calvin who stated it is precisely the Father’s love which motivates his sending of the Son in order to remove the obstacle of our sin and guilt which intervenes between us (“by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ”). Or to put it differently, God isn’t moved from wrath to love because of Christ’s death. He’s moved by love to satisfy his wrath against us by removing our guilt and enmity through the blood of his cross.

I would go on, but this is already too long, but I think you get the gist of my point. While I appreciate Vreeland’s work, I think it buys into too many false binaries about love and wrath as well as fails to appreciate the sort of need involved in the notion of satisfaction be ultimately helpful for us on this point.

If you’d like more along this line, I’ve got my big post on objections and answers to penal substitution. Also, since Vreeland cited it, I suppose I’ll link my review to Wright’s atonement book, whose exegesis of Romans 5 and 3 (and 8, for that matter) I found confused.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Experienced Pain, Truth, And Developing Doctrine

job and friendsI recently saw a discussion online about hell. In the course of things, one person noted their childhood trauma connected with teaching on this doctrine. Another (or possibly the same) went to suggest they couldn’t possibly see how growing up with a particular view of hell didn’t lead to childhood trauma. The doctrine itself was inherently trauma-causing and the implication was that this in itself counted strongly against its truth. Others chimed in, both for and against, either disagreeing or trying to defend the doctrine in question.

I didn’t have time to jump in at the moment, but I’ve been chewing on the issue for a bit. Not so much the doctrine of hell, but more generally what role considerations about a doctrine’s adverse psychological effects ought to play in doctrinal construction. So I wanted to test out a few tentative thoughts on the issue.

Words Matter. Let me begin by saying I am not doubting the experiences of trauma of those who were claiming it in that conversation. I don’t know some of them and I don’t have reason to doubt the ones I did know.

I will say, I do think there is a general tendency towards carelessness with words on this point, though. A friend of mine who is doing work in the area of trauma and theology has helpfully pointed out that words like “trauma”, “abuse”, “trigger”, and so forth, have specific, technical meanings related to qualitatively different sorts of psychological conditions and events. This is missed when we sloppily overuse them and apply them broadly to any generally unpleasant or disturbing experience (as is sadly common today).

This is unhelpful because it can illegitimately (even if unintentionally) be used to gain unfair and manipulative leverage in conversations by those who are not actually trauma sufferers. What’s more, in so doing, it actually minimizes and waters down the experiences of said, actual trauma sufferers.

Be Careful Not to Universalize Your Particular Experience. On that point, while I wouldn’t for a moment want to ignore or deny their experiences of dread and psychological distress connected to the doctrine, I would also caution we mustn’t deny the experience of those who did not have those same experiences. Because it seems empirically not the case that growing up with this particular view of hell is universally and necessarily traumatic, even if it sadly was so for some.

I’ll dangerously use myself as an example. I grew up being taught some version of that same doctrine from a very early age. It wasn’t something my parents or Sunday School teachers dwelt on obsessively, but they didn’t ignore it. And while I remember a short season in junior high being quite worried about judgment (I had been cursing at school and it haunted me at night), I eventually came to an assurance of the gospel and it passed. It’s not to say I don’t still find the reality of it troubling, or worth wrestling with—much the way I do many other awful realities. But it is not something that has left a lasting, psychic scar on me. And I know a great many of my friends and families and members of various churches who could say the same. What’s more, it’s entirely plausible that a larger survey would reveal the non-universality of this doctrinally-driven trauma far beyond my anecdotal evidence. Indeed, if we expand that survey across the globe and across the history of the Church, that seems manifestly obvious.

I suppose I am making a version of the argument against cultural imperialism in theology. One of the things that’s become clear over the years is that people from other times, cultures, and places read the Bible and experience Christian teaching in different ways than affluent, Post-Enlightenment Westerners. Go back a thousand years in church history. Or maybe a thousand miles across on an ocean. Texts we find shocking, they do not. Texts they find shocking, we do not. And it would be presumptuous to assume that our cultural-driven theological instincts automatically give us more insight. They don’t necessarily give us less insight, either. But considerations like that ought to give us pause.

My point is that we similarly shouldn’t be psychological or experiential imperialists, assuming the texts or doctrines which trouble us particularly, will trouble or shock others in the same way. There is a certain intellectual and empathetic myopia involved there—one which I have found myself guilty of on numerous occasions—which needs to be reckoned with. My experiences, my position, my place, my psychological make-up incline me in a particular direction theologically. But so do others. And it’s not that I need to always assume I’m wrong, but I need to acknowledge that. And this is true not only for positive experiences, but also negative ones and how we related them to our doctrine.

One example that comes to mind is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over suffering and evil. Some find the idea that God has a purpose (either immediate or mediate) behind allowing their pain and suffering—the loss of a child to early death—to be one of horror and disgust. Others find it absolutely necessary to maintain any sort of faith in God’s goodness in the face of the exact same tragedy. At that point, we have two instances of sufferers reacting to the very same teaching in diametrically opposed fashion. Whose psychological experience with that teaching should be weighted more strongly? Whose comfort is more trustworthy?

Truth Can Be Troubling. Following on this, we must keep in mind that the truth of an idea, may indeed be troubling—even traumatic. Growing up on a mountain, a child may be taught to take care not to shout too loudly in certain areas lest they trigger a rock slide, or an avalanche. They may then come dwell on that idea incessantly and obsessively. This is sad and possibly psychologically traumatic. Now, this may be a good reason to not live on that mountain, but it would not be a reason for rejecting the belief that avalanches are a liability in in their locale. The truth of the reality is fairly independent of whether it is potentially traumatic to believe it.

I would go on to point out, though, that even good truth, inappropriately introduced or dwelt on, could probably cause trauma, or at least have adverse psychological effects. Let’s be a bit Freudian and use sex as an example. That nearly every child has been begotten by an act of sexual love between a mother and a father is a good and beautiful truth. That God created sexual love as a pleasurable experience is as well. Both are good for people to know.

Yet we can all agree that exposure to pornography at a young age (or at all) would be a wrong, distorting, and harmful way to learn about them. Or, turning away from the immoral, it seems quite possibly traumatic to be introduced to these truths at the age of 7 by walking into your parent’s bedroom at the wrong moment, forcing a subsequent explanation. This could easily have adverse effects that, in the right sort of child, lead to sad, unhealthy fixations later on in life. But this being the case by no means counts as an argument against the good truth of the reality of sex. It is an argument for bedroom locks, discretion, and a game-plan for talking to your child about sex in an appropriate fashion.

A Diagnostic, Not a Criterion. But then is there any place someone’s psychological experience of a teaching should play in the way we think about it? I think there is. But we must not confuse what kind. I would suggest that it at least plays the role of a diagnostic light on your dashboard, warning you that something needs to be addressed.

Now, what needs to be addressed is not always immediately clear. Someone might experience great distress—unhealthy pain—at a doctrine for a few reasons. First, yes, the teaching itself is possibly flawed. I’m not saying that’s never a possibility. It definitely is. Second, it could also be that the teaching is not flawed but it is being taught and applied in a harmful and unhelpful fashion which needs to be addressed.

For instance, it’s possible to take doctrines and distort them—even wonderful doctrines about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace can be used abusively. Here the social and moral context of the teaching proves toxic and that toxicity affects how it is being received. Or, it could be that a doctrine is being taught not wrongly, or falsely, or “abusively”, but is being over-emphasized or without being properly set in the context of the rest of Christian truth.

One friend pointed out that doctrines like hell, or the fear of losing your salvation (or that you’ve never had it) can take on an extra psychological pressure in environments where much emphasis is laid on having a visible “conversion” experience, a second blessing, etc. The monastic context in which Luther struggled against the judgement of God might be another. Or one thinks of Kierkegaard’s testimony about the effect his father’s tumultuous personality paired with a pietistic focus on Christ’s sufferings hand on him as a young child. An individual doctrine isn’t doing the work here alone, but rather the way it functions alongside everything else.

All this to say, widespread experience of adverse psychological effects associated with a doctrine can definitely alert us of a problem we need to address. But it’s not immediately clear the solution is doctrinal revision. Often it is a call to greater pastoral discernment about the uses of doctrine, not the doctrines themselves. As the old maxim has it, “improper use does not nullify proper use“, but we can’t be so busy defending good doctrine we never stop to think about how to use it properly.

Avoiding Projection. To sort of round things out, I suppose one worry at the back of my mind is that an instinct to rewrite, or to tweak, Christian teachings in order to make sure it’s always psychologically affirming in some direct way, can turn our theology into a species of projection. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said all theology was basically our anthropology magnified to the Nth degree and then projected up onto the screen of heaven. Freud makes a version of the same argument: God as wish-fulfillment. Believing in God is the comfort of having an ideal earthly father, simply projected into eternity.

And the thing is—when it comes to a lot of theology—they have a point. Much modern theology explicitly buys the premise that we’re basically just coming up with revisable metaphors for God that work for us and contributing to “flourishing”—however Late Moderns have come to define the term. In other words, my worry is conceptual idolatry, despite the admirable motive of concerns for those in pain.

All of this comes around to how do theology for the Church. It’s an obvious truism that all theology is done by humans, from particular perspectives, who inevitably have their favored theological paradigms informed by their experiences. But are we at least trying to give priority to God’s self-revelation, his self-testimony in the Gospel and recorded in Scripture? Are we at least attempting to let God’s Word beyond our experiences speak a word of comfort about God into our experiences? Or do we explicitly make our variable, subjective, and relative experiences, cultures, and intuitions function as a normative authority or criterion?

Again, I’m not saying we never rethink doctrine, or how we’re teaching in light of people’s adverse psychological experiences. What I am saying is that we must make sure that these realities drive us to humble ourselves before Christ’s voice in Scripture—to hear what we may have missed, to have him clarify what we have muddled, or to have him reaffirm what we might be tempted to dispense with in our haste and pain. For ultimately it is his words–even those which initially confuse and confound us–which heal our deepest wounds.

Soli Deo Gloria