Earlier this year Paternoster released Steve Holmes’ new book The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life in the Christian Doctrine in Historical Perspective series edited by Alan Sell. Steve has been at work on the doctrine of God for some time now and this book, as Karen Kilby’s blurb on the back cover notes, can be viewed as both a textbook for historical theology and also an ‘intervention’ in recent debates about the doctrine of the Trinity. The volume certainly endeavors to canvas the historical and modern developments in a level-headed manner and yet, insofar as contemporary trinitarian doctrine must heed the wisdom of our theological forebears, it cannot help but call into question a number of the more recent proposals.
At the end of the book, there is a seven-point summary of patristic trinitarianism that includes, among other things, divine simplicity, the limitations of human speech about God, and the persons being distinguished by the relations of origin alone. Here is the provocative last paragraph of the book:
I don’t have any hard facts on when this tack became plausible or on how pervasive it is (no doubt the bifurcation of Jesus and Paul is somehow a factor), but it seems lately that the claim that Jesus himself did not overtly express concern about a particular spiritual or ethical issue in the Gospels constitutes an argument to the effect that Christian believers need not concern themselves with that issue. This can be (and has been) used in the case of homosexuality, for example: Jesus apparently did not feel the need to address the matter; therefore (so the logic runs), Christian believers are not obliged to take a hard line on whether such conduct is sinful.
Whether the issue at hand is homosexuality or something else, there are at least two significant problems with this approach to dealing with hot-button spiritual and ethical quandaries in our day. First, it proceeds on a warping of the analogy of Scripture, or the commitment to allowing clearer passages of Scripture to help in interpreting more difficult ones. The analogy of Scripture is useful when one text genuinely boggles the mind of even the most careful reader and other relevant texts can be invoked to establish parameters within which the difficult text should be understood. However, in the case of things like homosexuality, the importance of well-ordered doctrinal formulation, the importance of church polity (all things about which, allegedly, Jesus was not terribly concerned), there are texts that come at these topics in a reasonably straightforward fashion (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3 ; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Jude 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-5). Moreover, instead of employing particularly lucid texts in those cases to help in wrestling with difficult passages, the ‘Jesus said nothing about…’ argument actually attempts to use mere silence as the lens through which to view passages concerning homosexuality, etc. In other words, a move with some resemblance to the use of the analogia Scripturae actually lacks both of the conditions for using the analogy: unclear texts and clearer ones that shed light on those that are unclear.
I couldn’t resist highlighting this (half-serious) comment from Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the beginning of a message for a parachurch meeting including leaders of IVF:
I have been trying to find your organisations in the Bible, but you are not to be found in the New Testament. I did find you, however, in the Old – in the Book of Judges, chapter 17, verse 6, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes’ (Iain Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982], p. 366).
I have been slowly journeying through the first volume of Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 [Banner of Truth, 1982]) and have been at various points taken in by the Welsh preacher’s aversion to self-absorption and to ‘bells and whistles’ in ministry even in the midst of his apparent pastoral fervor and spiritual vitality. Indeed, in this aversion to anything like the personality-driven ministries that are so prevalent in our time, ‘the Doctor’ might have even resented this blog post, were he still alive. Nevertheless, certain dimensions of his story are, I think, remarkably suggestive for Christian ministry today and are worthy of our consideration.
A couple of the episodes recorded by Murray distill Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to getting himself out of the way in the proclamation of the gospel and to ensuring that the church was borne along by the power of God’s word and Spirit rather than by clever human devices. For Lloyd-Jones’s initial visit to preach at Aberavon, the site of his soon-to-be first pastorate, the church secretary (E. T. Rees) had put up a large poster to advertise the advent of the exciting prospective minister. Murray relates the Doctor’s response:
‘I don’t like that, don’t do it again,’ he told E. T. Rees in authoritative tones (p. 119).
Instructing the Corinthian church in the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul moves to expound the different functions of prophecy and tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. In preparing the readers for an Old Testament reference that sheds light on the matter, the apostle writes,
Brothers and sisters, do not be children in thinking, but be infants in evil, and be complete in thinking (1 Cor. 14:20).
Obviously, the point of chapter 14 concerns spiritual gifts more than it does being childlike with respect to evil, but I think the moral innocence piece here is worth pondering. On the one hand, it seems that becoming mature in one’s spiritual thinking entails knowing something about various evils and the perils they hold for the church and for believers. On the other hand, there is, apparently, a certain sense in which we ought to be rather unschooled in the way of ungodliness. I’d like to hear some thoughts on potential implications for Christian engagement of culture. Does the text in some way commend naivete as an appropriate modus operandi? Does the text in some way chastise the pursuit of relevance? What does it look like for the church and for believers to be appropriately unacquainted with evil?
In John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ the English Puritan unfurls a dizzying number of arguments against universal redemption (the Arminian teaching that Christ died for the sins of all persons and every person without exception, not to be confused with ‘universalism’ in current parlance) and for particular redemption. One of the arguments he includes is one that perhaps most theology students encounter fairly early in the study of Christian doctrine: Christ is said in Scripture to die specifically for his own people (e.g., Eph. 5:25; Titus 2:14). This argument can then be easily brushed aside when one observes that these texts do not explicitly say that Christ died for his own people only. However, Owen fills out the argument in such a way that makes things a bit more complicated for the Arminian respondent. He notes that throughout Scripture believers in Christ, the company of the saved, and unbelievers, alienated from God and from salvation in Christ, are clearly distinguished from one another. An obvious example is supplied by the parable of the sheep and the goats:
Before [the Son of Man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:32-34, 41).
Despite having to address several egregious problems in the church, Paul opens his first epistle to the Corinthians on a remarkably high note:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, because in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and knowledge – even as the testimony of Christ was established among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will establish you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:4-9).
If we are ever plagued by doubts as to whether we can persevere in faith, this should be a comforting text. Given that the gospel was established among even this band of unruly believers, Paul was confident that Christ would then establish them until the time of the parousia.
This is not a terribly elaborate defense of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, but it is significant that Paul hangs the final blamelessness of the Corinthians on the faithfulness of God. In a complementary text, Jesus announces, ‘It is the will of him who sent me that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me’ (John 6:39). Should we gather, then, that to deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is to call into question the faithfulness of God and the commitment of Christ to fulfill his Father’s will? Thoughts pastoral, polemical, or otherwise?