Orderly Theology as Imitatio Dei

When someone has reservations about the value and legitimacy of systematic theology, it’s not uncommon to hear them say that it seems to entail ‘putting God in a box’ or imposing too stringent a framework on the faith and thought of God’s people.  At this point, it can frankly be tempting to wonder whether these sentiments might betray intellectual sloth, myopic disinterest in the church’s theological heritage, or a misunderstanding of the nature and responsibilities of systematic theology.

Although he wrote before the more developed fourfold theological curriculum emerged to prominence with its clearer distinction between biblical and systematic theology, Peter van Mastricht makes a helpful point about the importance of gathering up biblical teaching under the various heads of dogmatic reflection and providing an organized account of it.  He insists that those who undertake this task are not succumbing to unnecessary rigidity; instead

[s]e filios Dei probant, quippe ejus imitatores, qui ordinis est Deus, non confusionis (Theoretico-Practica Theologia, I, 8)(“They prove themselves sons of God, indeed imitators of him, who is a God of order, not of confusion.”)

Certainly, growth in the spiritual life and in theological understanding occurs often along a winding and convoluted road.  At the same time, Mastricht’s point is an important one and full of significance for, among other things, catechesis, which requires an orderly presentation of theology for the sake of apprehension and memory.

Any thoughts here?

Recasting Nicea

I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.

Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.’” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.

Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. Continue reading

Staring at the Sun

I recently came across these poignant comments from Stephen Charnock in his The Existence and Attributes of God:

Some think a curiosity of knowledge was the cause of the fall of devils; I am sure it was the fall of Adam, and is yet the crime of his posterity; had he been contented to know what God had furnished him with, neither he nor his posterity had smarted under the venom of the serpent’s breath.  All curious and bold inquiries into things not revealed are an attempt upon the throne of God, and are both sinful and pernicious, like to glaring upon the sun, where, instead of a greater acuteness, we meet with blindness, and too dearly buy our ignorance in attempting a superfluous knowledge.  As God’s knowledge is destined to the government of the world, so should ours be to the advantage of the world, and not degenerate into vain speculations.

Any thoughts on it?

New Issue of SBET

Hey everyone, the new issue of SBET is fresh off the presses. This issue has a particular focus on Bavinck, as you can see from the table of contents:

Guest Editorial
JAMES EGLINTON
1-3

Bavinck’s Use of Wisdom Literature in Systematic Theology
JOHN BOLT
4-23

Bavinck’s Use of Augustine as an Antidote to Ritschl
MARK W. ELLIOTT
24-40

Herman Bavinck and His Reformed Sources on the Call to Grace: A Shift in Emphasis towards the Internal Work of the Spirit
HENK VAN DEN BELT
41-59

The Religious Character of Modernism and the Modern Character of Religion: A Case Study of Herman Bavinck’s Engagement with Modern Culture
GEORGE HARINCK
60-77

Herman Bavinck on the Imitation of Christ
DIRK VAN KEULEN
78-91

Herman Bavinck and the Basis of Christian Certainty
DONALD MACLEOD
92-107

Bavinck, Barth, and the Uniqueness of the Eucharist
PAUL T. NIMMO
108-126 Continue reading

Theology Gone North, Or, Why Scotland is Cooler than England

There seems to be an interesting immigration trend in British theological circles. My own alma mater, the University of Aberdeen, has recently announced that Bernd Wannenwetsch is leaving the University of Oxford to take up the chair of theological ethics, and Tom Greggs is leaving Chester to join Abedeen’s department of divinity. This, of course, follows a similar trend as John Webster, who left the Lady Margaret Chair of Divinity at Oxford to come to Aberdeen. This is, it should be noted, not an isolated event, as if Aberdeen itself had a theologian tractor beam. N.T. Wright left his tiny residence in Durham to go to St. Andrews, and several years before, Oliver O’Donovan fled Oxford for a chance to teach at Edinburgh.

Therefore, let me be the first to offer Lewis Ayres a position at Aberdeen. It seems clear that everything is falling apart down in England, so flee for the border!!!

Rome, Evangelicalism, and the Regulative Principle

In his theology of worship, Calvin was quite keen on simplifying the church’s weekly services  and judged that Roman Catholicism’s elaborate ceremonies were a throwback to the old  covenant era, a continuation of things now out of place in the worship of God’s people on this  side of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.  With an eye to helping those less  acquainted with spiritual matters, he writes,

As a child (says Paul) is guided by his tutor according to the capacity of his age, and is restrained under his tutelage, so the Jews were under the custody of the law (Gal. 4:1-3).  But we are like adults, who, freed of tutelage and custody, have no need of childish rudiments….Therefore, if we wish to benefit the untutored [in this era of redemptive history], raising up a Judaism that has been abrogated by Christ is a stupid way to do it.  Christ also marked this dissimilarity between the old and new people in his own words when he said to the Samaritan woman that the time had come ‘when the true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4:23).  Indeed, this had always been done.  But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured and, so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply.  Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted and sanctioned by Christ (Institutes, 4.10.14).

Continue reading

Rubbishing the King James Version: Eugene Peterson and Translation

In light of the 400th anniversary of the King James, I thought it would be fruitful to bring up an interesting argument that Eugene Peterson makes in his book Eat This Book. Furthermore, Ben Myers has recently put up a blog post about his love for the King James so I thought this would stand as an interesting contrast. Myers provides something of a personal apologetic I first heard when I was in an undergraduate Bible class – that there is just something special about the King James. I never used the King James so I was intrigued by this line of logic. The person in my class talked about how the language of the King James was sufficiently “high” for the Bible, and how that language helped to push the Bible into a more spiritual register (my language, not his). In light of this argument, I would like to note some of Eugene Peterson’s reasons for thinking that the King James Version, for these very reasons, is an inadequate translation (I should note that I don’t have this book with me and I read it a year ago, so I will only outline the broad contours of his argument).

The first thing to note about Eugene Peterson’s argument is that he denies what tend to be two assumed premises. First, that the King James was written in an older form of English which was used in everyday conversation. Rather, Peterson argues, the language of the King James was never conversational in any age. It was, even in its own day, an attempt to spiritualize language to a higher order fitting for the Bible. As ink marked the page it was, at it were, “arcane,” or, better, “foreign.” Second, based on the Greek language of the New Testament, the King James fails to provide a proper translation of the language that the apostles used to convey the gospel. It was, in fact, common language that was invoked for the New Testament and not a higher-level spiritual grammar. Continue reading

A Theology of California? Call for Papers

Have you ever thought there might be such a thing as a theology of “place”? How about a theology of California? As Fred Sanders poses the question, “What should we say, theologically, about this West-coast entity?”

This question is being asked and answers are being attempted by a new project called Theological Engagement with California Culture, a multi-year conversation that will draw together theological resources for a series of consultations on the subject.

The Theological Engagement with California Culture project is developing a proposed session at the Evangelical Theological Society 2011 meeting on the theology of California. Visit the TECC website for details on the Call for Papers, but the main idea is simple: If you are a theologian with ideas about California as a cultural entity demanding a distinctively Christian understanding, send them your idea.

Anti-Heilsgeschichtianism?

I enjoy plodding through the occasional New Testament theology and recently I read through some portionsof Frank Thielman’s Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach.  In winding down his account of the theology of Luke-Acts, he writes about the original readers, ‘As a people whom Greco-Roman society had moved to the margins of its social map,  they needed to know where they were located in the scheme of God’s purposes in history, they needed assurance that their costly commitment to the things they had been taught was right, and they needed a strategy for coping with the difficult life that faced them because of their commitment to the gospel’ (p. 148).

Continue reading

Early Church Theology Month

Hey everyone, I am making January “early church theology month” and would like some recommendations. Here is what my reading entails thus far:

  • Anthanasius’s On the Incarnation (It has been too long since I’ve read this)
    • Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought by Khaled Anatolios
  • Basil the Great’s Asketikon and his On the Holy Spirit
  • Augustine’s The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love
    • I hope to get, but probably not yet read, Ayres newest volume on Augustine on the Trinity
  • Irenaeus of Lyons’ On the Apostilic Preaching
  • Cyprian of Carthage’s On the Unity of the Church
  • Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ
  • Gregory of Nazianzus’s On God and Christ
  • I will also be working through the four volumes of the “Sources of Early Christian Thought” series put out in the 80′s by Fortress for some shorter readings.

In terms of more secondary literature, I plan on reading Fairbairn’s Grace and Christology in the Early Church and Rowan William’s book Arius: Heresy and Tradition. Is there anything that is a must read that I should try to cover as well. I have a couple of books floating around that I’ve been meaning to read, but January is only so long! I would love some recommendations.

Fiction, Truth, and Sanity

I am staring at what seems an insurmountable stack of grading, and I am thinking about fiction.

Fiction is my sanity at the end of long semesters, but it has not always been so. Only in the last few years have I so exhausted of my analytic and pedagogical self and retreated to fiction. What I find is life, or maybe better said the creative retelling of life. To describe that life I can only say that it’s true.

There are ways for talking about fiction’s “truth” of course. Yann Martel’s character Henry from Beatrice and Virgil describes it this way:

Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn’t become story, it dies to everyone except the historian. Art is the suitcase of history, carrying the essentials. Art is the life buoy of history. Art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine (p. 16)

My habit has been to spend an entire year with an author and her work. It started with Shakespeare, then it was Dostoevsky, then Marilyn Robinson, then Yann Martel (I tried John Banville, but, despite his gorgeous prose, his melancholy was too much). When the end of this semester arrives where will I go next? I am thinking about Steinbeck, beginning with East of Eden.

I am quite open for other suggestions though. Into whose fiction do you run for sanity?

The Latest Affront to Catholicity

In People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, the final book of his four-volume series with Westminster John Knox Press, Michael Horton deals with the concept of catholicity in a particularly poignant manner.  In his mind, the most urgent threat to the catholicity of the church presently is the mindset of consumerism that has pervaded even the gathering of God’s people and given rise to ‘rival catholicities’:

The current phase of ecclesial division is actually welcomed in the name of mission.  It is not the catholicity of ethnic bonds or race.  Though closely related to socioeconomic status, it is not exactly the same.  Rather, it is the catholicity of the market.  Not only separate churches, but also separate ‘churches-within-churches’ are proliferating, each targeting its unique market (p. 206).

Put more sharply, ‘Ecclesial apartheid is expanding, as each generation and demographic market is treated to its own study Bibles and devotional materials, small groups, and ‘worship experiences’ (p. 205).  For Horton, the carving up of the church according to individuals’ cultural preferences, far from affirming diversity, ends up undermining the properly multigenerational and multiethnic character of the church and turning out discrete, homogeneous clusters of persons who operate in their own niches.  Recalling Paul’s condemnation of the Corinthians’ factious approach to the Lord’s Supper (‘For do you not have homes for eating and drinking?  Or do you despise the church of God?’), Horton discerns a parallel in our market-driven strategies: ‘Do we not have our own homes and social networks for pursuing our tastes in music, style, politics, fashion, and hobbies’ (p. 208)?  He is critical of the contemporary ‘incarnational’ ministerial impetus and advocates a recognition of the local church as a ‘strange assembly of spiritual relatives we may never have known, much less chosen, in our ordinary course of life’ (p. 212).

Do you think Horton is on target here?  If so, what are some of your thoughts on moving forward?

Latest issue of SBET

The latest issue of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology has appeared. Reviews of recent literature on Calvin, T.F. Torrance, and Scripture along with reviews of recent biblical studies appear; it features reviews by Kevin Vanhoozer, Darrell Bock, Craig Blomberg, I. Howard Marshall, Kelly Kapic, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Helm. The reveiws by fellow bloggers Davey Henreckson and Brad Littlejohn are very much worth a read. The articles discuss issues of globalization, Calvin, union in Luther and the possibility for an evangelical appropriation of Hans Frei. The full table of contents can be found here.

Here are some excerpts of Vanhoozer’s review of Peter Leithart’s book Deep Exegesis:

Deep exegesis is like getting a joke whose meaning is often a function of what is not explicitly stated. [...] Interestingly, Leithart does not read under the banner of theological interpretation of Scripture, but chooses instead to speak in more general terms about entering into the depths of the text. Some readers may thus regret Leithart’s decision not to define meaning. To these he would no doubt say, ‘Here’s spit in your eye’, preferring, like Jesus, to rub his hermeneutical clay-and-spittle on our mind’s eye, thus enabling/anointing us to see and hear all the riches of Christ in the music of the text.


 

An Ever-Increasing Attribute

For too long I’ve not posted on the theology of my favorite thinker, Herman Bavinck.  His bibliology is  among the most impressive features of the Reformed Dogmatics and it remains instructive for any of us  today who hold that theology is ultimately a matter of reflecting on and elaborating the divine teaching of  Holy Scripture.  Here I’ll sketch briefly his understanding of the necessity of Scripture in hopes of  generating some discussion.

In line with classic Protestant thinking about the Bible, Bavinck contends for its necessity over against  Roman Catholicism, mysticism, and rationalism.  Rome, says Bavinck, has abandoned the notion that  Scripture funds the being of the church and has propped up the church with its teaching office as autopistos (trustworthy in and of itself) and sufficient for norming doctrine and praxis.  Mysticism also disregards the necessity of Scripture but by undervaluing the external word and overemphasizing the importance of the internal word delivered to the heart of the individual believer in communion with God and by the Holy Spirit.  Rationalism too undermines the necessity of Scripture by identifying that internal teaching of the Spirit with the natural light of reason and suggesting that the latter provides all the furnishings for the content of faith.

However, on supposition of God’s decision to address his people in the canonical writ, we’re obliged to affirm the necessity of Scripture.  For Bavinck, the Bible itself is an instance of God’s self-revelation and, therefore, the church cannot be its author.  The church “may be older than the written word, but it is definitely younger than the spoken word” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:470).  In other words, absolutely, the word creates and governs the church, even if subsequently God organically (not mechanically) employs human agents to inscripturate the word for future generations.  With the passing of the first century, “the time-distance from the apostles grew greater, their writings became more important, and the necessity of these writings gradually intensified.  The necessity of Scripture, in fact, is not a stable but an ever-increasing attribute” (ibid.).  The Bible, then, is a divine gift for the transmission, preservation, and propagation of the word of God: “The sound of a voice passes away, but the written letter remains” (ibid., 1:471).

Intriguingly, the historical amplification of this attribute concerns not just the death of the apostles but also the phenomena of modern life:

To the degree that humankind becomes larger, life becomes shorter, the memory weaker, science more extensive, error more serious, and deception more brazen, the necessity of Holy Scripture increases.  Print and the press are gaining in significance in every area of life.  The invention of printing was a giant step to heaven and to hell….It is true that religious literature remains for many people the primary nourishment for their spiritual life.  Still, this proves nothing against the necessity of Holy Scripture.  Since directly or indirectly, all Christian truth is drawn from it.  The diverted stream also gets its water from the source (ibid., 1:472).

More could be said, but any thoughts on Bavinck’s theological moves or the implications for the proliferation of both skeptical and religious literature that we currently see?