Talk of the ‘new Calvinists’ or ‘new Calvinism’ abounds online these days, and the movement has elicited critiques in print in Austin Fischer’s book Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed and in portions of Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism. Yet, one new blog post on Calvin’s Institutes – cast in the form of a break-up letter – is the most immediate occasion for the reflections offered here. Here are some loosely connected musings: one concerning the approach to the issues, one concerning theological issues themselves, one suggesting some practical ways forward for the curious. Continue reading
For many the name of Logos calls to mind strictly linguistic resources for studying the Bible, but its repertoire of theological helps is broader than that. In particular, there will be two translations available in the near future that are cause for excitement among Reformed theology enthusiasts and historical theology enthusiasts in general.
One is a translation of Amandus Polanus’ (1561-1610) Syntagma Theologiae Christianae (see here). The early Reformed orthodox author’s system of Christian doctrine is an excellent pathway into the intellectual and spiritual riches of this period of Protestant thought. Though all scholastic theology strives to be orderly, Polanus’ work is very useful for its concise definitions and explanations of the divine attributes, for example. As it happens, in recent research in Christology I benefited from his sketch of the doctrine of the person of Christ and found it to be a nice complement to a work like Turretin’s, which is already available in English.
Polanus appears as a dialogue partner in Barth’s Church Dogmatics but, with a number of other Protestant scholastic writers, is sadly misunderstood at certain points. Translations like this will help to reinstate theologians like Polanus as thinkers that must be taken seriously today and will help us to practice theology in an ad fontes posture.
With the PhD thesis officially submitted, I’m hoping to eek out a few blog posts now. My wife recently gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional reflections. It has been a joy to read thus far for several different reasons.
Probably the most significant aspect of it for me is its way of reminding me of who God is and why it is such a blessing to have a place among the saints. Even when devoting oneself to the doctrine of God in systematics, one can never take in enough thoughtful pastoral statements about the goodness and wisdom of God. These nourish and stabilize our faith (certainly mine, at least).
The meaning of the name of the volume is glimpsed in the opening prayer:
You have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold your glory….Let me learn by paradox…that the valley is the place of vision….Let me find thy light in my darkness…thy glory in my valley.
The book is excellent not only for personal reading but also as a resource for crafting pastoral prayers to be used in corporate worship. Here is a longer portion of the prayer entitled “The Trinity”:
O Father, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have given me to Jesus, to be his sheep, jewel, portion; O Jesus, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have accepted, espoused, bound me; O Holy Spirit, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued my stubborn heart, made me one with him forever. O Father, you are enthroned to hear my prayers, O Jesus, your hand is outstreched to take my petitions, O Holy Spirit, you are willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication. O Triune God, who commands the universe, you have commanded me to ask for those things that concern your kingdom and my soul. Let me live and pray as one baptized into the threefold Name.
The book of course isn’t designed for the lenten season, but it does include a series of morning and evening daily prayers as well.
This piece at christianitytoday.com is full of good sense, and it brings back memories of ministering among and to college-age students some time back without this sort of wisdom. From the glitz and glam of youth ministry events and retreats to stadium-housed Passion conferences, young believers are often trained to live for the putatively big moments that come only annually (if that) and are subtly encouraged to conceive of their futures as epic series of great feats for the kingdom of God.
Whether the architects of the ‘radical’ mentality intend it to do so or not – and, to be fair, some of them may not – the language itself, it seems to me, exacerbates this problem. If the language helps to mitigate materialism and the like, then it is of course beneficial, but it also has the effect of engendering the expectation that one might just get free of the mundane patterns of life under which both believers and unbelievers must operate in order truly to ‘impact the world’, ‘transform the city’, or do something similar. Of course, it can engender guilt as well when (almost inevitably) it becomes clear that this is not to be. Just as few of us are given some great platform from which to rally the troops against the world’s ills, so are few of us able to divest ourselves of locality, home-making, material possessions, etc. in order to traverse the country or the globe to help wherever help is needed.
We need not content ourselves with the status quo where evil and injustice are present, but, for almost all of us, doing something about it will mean simply making daily decisions to be thoughtful and kind toward others as we come into contact with them and ensuring that we give a responsible (indeed, sacrificial) amount of our income to our churches and to those in need. For almost all of us, the lot we are given will appear to radicalizers as but a vapid middle ground, a space for taking care of many unremarkable things while also still learning godliness and demonstrating Christ’s love in loving our neighbors, be they city-dwellers, suburbanites, or country bumpkins. Perhaps, however, the God who esteems a ‘peaceful and quiet life’ of occupational diligence (1 Tim 2:2; 2 Thess 3:6-12) will not be so put off by all of this.
In the recent rumblings about marriage and attendant Facebook-picture campaigns for equality, it is intriguing to observe the lines of reasoning and rhetoric taken up. In the end, advocacy for the widening of the term ‘marriage’ seems to turn on the fact that certain individuals want to be able to do something or have access to something and therefore should have access to it. Perhaps the most forceful variation on this, though, is the insistence that some individuals simply do not, indeed cannot, prefer or choose or do otherwise than they do and ought then to be granted every opportunity of enjoying a happy (whatever that may mean) life in accord with their innate tendencies.
I’d like to make a comment on some of the pertinent doctrinal dynamics here, but in relation to the condition and conduct of the human person more than an official national position on the content of marriage. Interaction on the inner workings of doctrine and ethics at this nexus is welcome, though without the vitriol injected into so many blog threads that touch on this subject.
For those interested in maintaining a classical Christian sexual ethic, the contemporary discussions and debates are a forceful reminder that the perceived plausibility of such an ethic stands or falls with a willingness to make peace with the doctrines of Adamic headship and original sin. ‘Born-this-way’ Lady Gaga-ism wins the day unless one is able to assimilate the teaching that someone else (i.e., Adam) represented us and made a decision (i.e., rebelled against God in the Garden) whereby the rest of us incur guilt before our Maker, inherit a corrupted nature with all manner of spiritual, psychological, physiological, and moral maladies, and are still left responsible before God to resist certain innate tendencies (sexual or otherwise), repenting of sin, calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved, and seeking by the grace and power of the Spirit to grow in holiness. Continue reading
Having just characterized the two books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism as helpful introductions to the divergent perspectives on the doctrines of grace, I’ll add a caveat: one possible weakness in these volumes is that Horton is given more space for positive articulation and less for polemical jabs at Arminianism while Olson is given more space for polemical jabs and less for constructive exposition.
Perhaps, then, one more attempt to identify a problem in Olson’s case for Arminianism is permissible, this time with respect to the doctrine of the atonement. Olson naturally opposes the notion of particular redemption and then argues that general redemption or ‘unlimited atonement’ is compatible with the penal, substitutionary dimension of Christ’s death. He offers an illustration:
Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries. The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled. Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again. The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed. Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it. Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).
I’ve been reading through Zondervan’s two recent books by Michael Horton (For Calvinism) and Roger Olson (Against Calvinism), apt spokesmen for their respective views on the doctrines of grace. Both authors eschew attempts to find that (illusory) middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism and provide very helpful introductions to the issues at hand.
Olson ardently presses the question of how the God of Calvinism can be the one whom John characterizes as ‘love’ in his first epistle (1 Jn 4:8, 16). Under the doctrine of predestination, the real question for Olson is not so much whether God could be just in unconditionally electing some and reprobating others but whether God could be said to act in love in so doing: if God could just as easily have unconditionally elected more, or indeed all, fallen persons and effectually called them to salvation, how is he love in choosing not to do so? An Arminian account, Olson writes, with its doctrine of conditional election, is better-positioned to uphold God’s ‘reputation’ at this point.
This is certainly a pointed question for Reformed soteriology – and theology proper – but one that might be put to the Arminian view as well. In explicating the Arminian approach to divine sovereignty, Olson writes,
[L]et it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world, do not say that God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will. What God never does is cause evil. God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled. Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion. Even then, however, it was not that God tempted or manipulated individuals to sin. Rather, he knew what events, such as the triumphal entry, would result in the crucifixion (Against Calvinism, p. 99).
At the heart of the Christian confession lie a number of claims about the person of Christ, among which is the assertion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Acts 2:36; Rom. 10:9-10). N. T. Wright and others in NT scholarship and Christian theology have emphasized that, ‘if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not,’ and that the book of Revelation, for example, is designed partially to subvert the hubris of the Roman Empire.
In the wake of the election here in the US, it’s interesting to ponder whether, or in what sense, the declaration of Christ’s lordship is indeed a political statement. I’ll share my own (non-partisan) thoughts and would be glad to hear some others’.
Broadly speaking, it clearly can be called a political statement: the triune God reigns over all creation and is executing his purpose of the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10), according to which all the pomp and machinations of human rulers are relativized. This undoubtedly affords a precious solace and encouragement in the midst of the difficulties of this life, political or otherwise.
I don’t agree with everything that the late Colin Gunton said about the doctrine of God, but he makes a significant point about divine freedom in the immanent Trinity in relation to the integrity of the world as contingent order:
In face of both of these polemics against the doctrine of the ontological Trinity, and against any suggestion that it is only the freedom of God that is at stake here, it can be argued that on the contrary that doctrine serves as a foundation for the relative independence and so integrity of worldly reality also, and thus for human freedom. It is because God is a communion of love prior to and in independence of the creation that he can enable the creation to be itself (Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p. xviii).
Ultimately, Gunton writes, the elision of the immanent Trinity has a propensity to ‘the pantheism which results from any attempt to bring God and the world too close’. In other words (and to go a bit beyond Gunton’s own phrasing), the moment we negate the fullness of God’s being in its antecedence to the world, the world takes on a character that it was never meant to have and must bear the unfortunate burden of assisting in the project of God’s own self-realization.
What do you think about this point? What are some ways of drawing out the implications of the preservation (or forfeiture) of God’s freedom in se for our understanding of creation?
After a conversation earlier today in which this came up, I am reminded again of both the legitimate concern about ‘putting God in a box’ when we do theology and of the serious liabilities of this kind of suspicion toward theology. There is, of course, the ever-present peril of assuming that we have comprehended God and pinned him down or packaged him neatly in a box. Yet, though typically not meant to raze all possibility of doctrinal articulation and commitment, the attitude that is often beneath caution about ‘putting God in a box’ generally disparages serious and careful thinking about God and God’s works. I’d like to suggest that this attitude and its common expression in hesitation about confining God to our descriptions are misguided for at least three reasons and then hear some of your thoughts on this.
First, it fails to carry the incomprehensibility of God into the practice of theology. Indeed, it assumes that mystery, wonder, and reverence somehow simply cannot come with us into the realm of rational discourse and inform the way in which we operate there. In a sense, one could say even that this attitude stems from unbelief: God’s greatness will begin to disintegrate with our theological distinctions and discriminations and so needs to be protected from such intellectual activity. Perhaps, though, God’s awe-inspiring majesty and riches are never, and cannot be, in any real danger of being corroded even as we seek to speak carefully, even precisely, of him.
Second, this attitude misunderstands what theology is meant to do. It is not meant to dissolve the mystery of God but rather, in view of God’s gracious revelation, to elaborate on certain points and make helpful distinctions for the well-being of the church’s worship and witness and then to leave things there, to reflect and to formulate modestly without ever presuming to domesticate God.
Third, this kind of thinking can leave the believer with his or her own experience as the primary or even only platform from which to talk about the faith and commend it to others. If one resists confessional and rational articulation, one can get stuck in let-me-just-tell-you-how-Jesus-changed-my-life mode. Because of the objective work of God in history and because of the fact that God’s word addresses us from without, it will not do to have only our experience as a resource or vehicle for commending the gospel. God has worked and does work in the world and not just subjectively in our own hearts and it’s important that believers be able to give an account of that. Otherwise, we may even risk absolutizing our own (always limited) experience and unduly foisting it upon others as the normative pathway to knowing God.
Ultimately, as Bavinck puts it, ‘Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics’ (RD, 2:28). Yet, lest we appear to spurn God’s redemption of the human intellect, something is amiss if we resist thinking clearly about him as in the work of theology.
In Joseph Owens’ essay in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, the author emphasizes that Aquinas (with Aristotle) roots human knowledge in objects in the world impinging on our senses. With a nice turn of phrase, Owens marks how this is rather different from the subjectivism that one finds in Descartes and, generally, in ‘postmodern’ sensibilities:
[T]he postmodern approach is bound by its own historical antecedents in a way that stretches as far back as Descartes. It cannot take seriously the approach from things in themselves. It is incapable of understanding how things in themselves may be epistemologically prior to thoughts and words. Still conditioned by the Cartesian asceticism of turning one’s back upon the immaturity of sense cognition and taking one’s ideas as the starting points for philosophical thinking, it finds incomprehensible the stand that the thing signified can be epistemologically prior to the sign (p. 56).
In Bavinck’s narrative of this (in RD vol. 1), one finds that our true sense perception of the world serving as the foundation of human knowledge is a staple in the history of catholic Christian theology and philosophical thinking. Intriguingly, on this reading, infatuation with idealism or linguistic constructivism in recent Christian thinkers enamored of (so-called) postmodern thought represents a spurning of the catholic (small ‘c’) resources and trajectory.
Any thoughts on any of this?
I read here today that the NAE has developed a code of ethics for pastors. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with wanting to promote integrity and purity among pastors, but would this be necessary if evangelicals were properly rooted in ecclesial traditions and confessional frameworks that emphasized more than just Bebbington’s big four?
What do you make of the implications of this code? Is it an important corrective? A problematic development?
It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.). Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts. A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,
In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource. We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts. We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).
I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art. None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God. It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.