December 31, 2010

2010 Top Clicks

We have come to the end of yet another year, which means its time for all and sundry to post their top ten lists of this and that.  Below you will find the posts which have gotten the top clicks on this blog over the course of 2010.  The posts may have been written in previous years but are included in the list if they ranked high enough on page views during 2010.  Thanks for reading and for linking to Incarnatio

December 28, 2010

He Shall Reign Forever and Ever

I was happy to receive Sinclair Ferguson's In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life for Christmas.  Ferguson is a strong writer whose prose often stands as a model combination of style and content.  Here's a brief excerpt that is well-suited for Advent and Christmas devotions:
We do not see everything under man's feet - not yet. But we see Jesus already crowned with glory and honor (Heb. 2:5-9a) because He tasted death for us (Heb. 2:9). We see Him by faith, and we realize that His enthroned presence in heaven is the guarantee that he will return to consummate the kingdom He has already inaugurated. Then the last word will be spoken; then the final reversal will take place. The new order begun in the resurrection of our King will spread to everything that He claims for Himself: the fissures in the created order will be sealed and transformed; the groans of creation will be heard no longer (Rom. 8:19-22). Everywhere and in everything there will be reflections of His perfect glory. Then loud voices in heaven will be heard saying, "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever!" (Rev. 11:15).
But all of this lay in the future of the Little One wrapped in swaddling cloths in the Bethlehem manger (Luke 2:12). For the present, the One who "binds up the water in His thick clouds" (Job 26:8), the One who can "bind the cluster of the Pleiades" (Job 28:31), Himself lay bound in strips of cloth wrapped around Him under the illusion that otherwise His little limbs might become deformed in later life.
Here are wonders upon wonders: the Strong One is weak; the Infinite One lies in a manger; the Prince of Life dies; the Crucified One lives; the Humiliated One is glorified.
Meekness and majesty, indeed!
Behold, then, your newborn King! Come and Worship Him!
A refreshing meditation as the Christmas season winds down.  A refreshing reminder in the midst of holiday distractions that the Babe of Bethlehem has become the King of the Cosmos.

December 23, 2010

New Books Worth a Look

I wanted to point to a couple of books that I was pleased to see published as of late.  The first is Commentary on Selected Passages in the Four Gospels: Searching the Scriptures for Grace and Guidance; the second is Commentary on Selected Passages in Paul's Letters: Searching the Scriptures for Grace and Guidance; both are authored by Walter Albritton and will certainly be worth a look.  I'm pleased to see these books come out because Walter is to me not only a mentor, pastor, teacher, and colleague but a very dear friend.  I was privileged to sit under his preaching for 13 years, and to this day he is at the top of my call list when I'm in need of wise counsel.  In fact, I actually started this blog after some advice he gave me on becoming a better writer.  I'm excited about these books because I know that so much of his wisdom will fill their pages.  Indeed, these two books are the product of nearly 60 years of pastoral ministry and reflection.  Walter has always been able to draw insights from the scriptures and apply them to the life of the people of God in accessible and encouraging yet challenging and edifying ways.  All who read will benefit from these books.  I'm looking forward to reading them myself.  Keep an eye out for a review or two sometime in future.  If you'd like to get to know Walter a little better, you can check out his blog: Walter Rambling.

December 20, 2010

Gospel Priority

Peter T. O'Brien on Philippians 1:12-26 from The Epistle to the Philippians (NIGTC; Eerdmans, 1991):
For Paul the goal of the gospel's advance overrides all else; thus his personal inconveniences, sufferings, and imprisonment serve this end.  He knows of this surprising progress of the gospel because of the effects of his imprisonment upon those outside the Christian community (v. 13) and because others within the Christian fellowship have been given fresh courage for the work of evangelism (v. 14)...Paul knows of the progress of the gospel through these empirical results (vv. 13-14).  Their presence shows the gospel is making headway at Rome.  At the same time one can describe these results as the advance of the gospel itself, or at least significant elements of its progress (87, emphasis mine).
My guess is that most of us don't typically tend to think of our personal inconveniences and sufferings in light of how they serve the goal of the advance of the gospel.

Seven Pointers on Putting Pen to Paper

I enjoy writing.  If you read this blog, you probably already know that.  I also enjoy reading what other people write about writing.  I like to think I enjoy reading about writing because it is part of developing my own skill; however, it is more likely that I enjoy such reading because I can feel like I'm becoming a better writer without actually putting pen to paper (or digits to keys in this age of word processors).  One writer who has written on writing over the last year is Douglas Wilson.  He began by outlining "Seven Basic and Brief Pointers for Writers".  He then, it seems, decided to elaborate on those brief pointers in a series of posts which came out periodically from April to Novemeber.  I enjoy Doug's writing, and I've enjoyed this series on writing.  So, I thought I'd summarize and point the way to it here.  Each pointer is linked to the explanatory post.
  1. Know something about the world.
  2. Stretch before your routines.
  3. Learn other languages, preferably languages that are upstream from ours.
Each post brings the typical Dougish blend of humor and wisdom.  You'll have to click through to get all of that, though.  Enjoy.

December 18, 2010

The Leadership Dynamic: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders

Books on Christian leadership abound these days, and many take the approach of applying insights from the secular business world to the church in order to aid church leaders in building successful organizations.  This is not an altogether unhelpful approach.  I've read several of these books and have benefited from them in various ways.  On several occasions I've come away with ideas and initiatives that I've found to be truly helpful in leading a local church.  But each time I've been a bit cautious at the basic assumption that business leadership models should be taken as the primary way of thinking about developing the leaders of the church.  That's why I was hopeful when Harry Reeder's The Leadership Dynamic (Crossway 2008) was recommended to me.  The subtitle says it all: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders. 

Reeder is also wary of starting with the business leadership models of secular culture when thinking about cultivating leaders for the church.  Thus, instead of going outside the Christian tradition for insight, Reeder goes straight to scripture to see if a biblical model  for leadership development can be found; his answer: an emphatic yes.  Without going into the details of the book, Reeder's overall framework is what he calls "3-D Leadership": Defining, Developing, and Deploying Christian leaders.  The chapters of the book fall basically into these three categories to articulate a comprehensive plan for developing Christian leaders that is thoroughly biblical and rooted in historic Christian belief. 

Let me mention three features of Reeder's book that are particularly commendable.  First, when Reeder says he is giving a biblical model, he isn't kidding.  This book is scripture saturated.  Every leadership principle is grounded in or drawn from the biblical text.  The strength here is that we know we are not twisting an idea from a non-Christian context to try and make it fit church culture.  Instead, the result of Reeder's method is a model of leadership development that is shaped and refined through scriptural interaction.  Second, if Reeder's first calling is that of a pastor, his second is that of historian.  The book is chock full of historical vignettes that make Reeder's points vividly.  Many of the short but potent narratives are drawn from the lives of Christians who made leadership decisions based on their understanding of scripture, which clearly falls within Reeder's goals.  Third, Reeder is ridiculously good at coming up with short and punchy memorable maxims that help the reader follow and remember his main points.  This makes the book highly readable and easy to follow.  For these reasons and others, I highly recommend Harry Reeder's The Leadership Dynamic: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders.

December 17, 2010

Education Vouchers and So-called Private Schools: What's at Stake and What's the Solution?

New Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott is catching some heat for his suggestion that all Florida children receive vouchers which can be redeemed at public or private schools.  The plan is controversial because a mass exodus from public schools is feared were the government to give vouchers for students to attend schools of their parents choice, be they public or private.  The vouchers are expected to be worth $5,500 dollars, which is the amount it costs to educate a pupil in the state education system.   

At issue here is whether private schools ought to honor government vouchers.  I champion the view that they should not.  "Why?" you ask.  Good question.  Once private schools begin to accept government funding in any form, even vouchers, then they are basically ceasing to be private schools.  Seldom does the government pass out cash with no strings attached.  The recent government bailout of General Motors and the subsequent executive branch canning of that company's CEO make that point with clarity.  It's not hard to imagine the government putting educational and ideological stipulations on which so-called private schools can receive funding in the form of school vouchers.  Imagine this scenario:  Let's say a private school begins honoring government vouchers.  A couple of years later and after some law suits over the use of public funds to pay for private education, the government implements stipulations about what curriculum can be used in private schools if they want to keep the cash flow coming in the form of vouchers.  By this time, the school has increased its enrollment and hired on a lot of new teachers.  What do they do?  Decrease enrollment and lay off a bunch of teachers when they can't afford to pay them because they don't have the government funds?  Or just keep on taking the cash and adjust the curriculum (and eventually everything else) in line with government regulations?  Obviously, most will keep taking the cash.  And now the government is calling the shots in the private schools.  And the private schools aren't really private any more.  So, should private schools accept government vouchers?  Not if they want to stay private. 

What is the solution then?  I propose that instead of vouchers, states that truly desire to grant to parents the freedom to choose the way their children are educated should allow a tax credit to those families who elect to use private education.  This tax credit could be set to the tune of what it costs to educate a child in whatever state is in question, $5,500 in Florida.  This would free up money for children to attend private schools and avoid the problem of government checks being written to private schools.  Of course, the problem with this plan in Florida is that there are no state income taxes.  In this case, the government could just cut families who opt out of public education the $5,500 check.  I certainly don't expect to see this plan in legislation any time soon.  It's way too conservative; way too small government; way too hands-off my kids and their education.  It would, however, provide for a truly free parental choice in the education of their children, which is what Governor-elect Scott claims to advocating.  It would also guarantee that private schools stay private, which is very important. 

December 16, 2010

The Gift of Death

To say I am appalled at the news that Planned Parenthood of Indiana is selling gift certificates that can be redeemed for abortions would be an understatement.  This is depravity beyond words.  And I almost find it hard to believe that anyone, even a merchant-of-death company like Planned Parenthood, would stoop to such a level to peddle their evil services.  The leading provider of abortions in the United States says that the certificates are intended to encourage women not to forgo important heath care.  But Planned Parenthood is a for-profit company, and the reason for-profit companies sell things like gift certificates is, well, for profit.  Now profit is not bad in and of itself.  Profit is evil, though, when it is made by taking advantage of women who are emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically vulnerable and on the slaughtering of countless little ones robbed of life before having the opportunity to breath outside their mother's womb.

Beyond all that, what kind of person would give one of these things to another person anyway?  What a way to say you care.  You know; spread a little holiday cheer...with an abortion gift certificate.  I can see it now.  A teenage mom-to-be is getting up on a snowy white Christmas morning.  She has struggled with what to do and where to go for help.  She is looking for a little hope and maybe even some joy on this holy day, and what does she find stuffed in her Christmas stocking?  Not a lump of coal but a big fat book of gift certificates good for one abortion if used before the expiration date.  So, make your appointment and hurry on in.  Can't you just feel the last semblance of hope and joy sucked right out of the holiday?  What a ridiculously bad idea.  So, if you're looking for a last minute gift idea, there's always the gift of death.

Methodists and the Meaning of Membership

I was pleasantly surprised to see Bishop Will Willimon's recent  blog post on the importance of "Making Membership Mean Something."  I was excited because I have begun to think recently that the meaning of membership may be the issue facing United Methodists now and in the coming years.  Many of our denominational battles revolve around the meaning of membership; indeed, some have tried through various means to make membership absolutely meaningless.  In recent years these attempts have included legislation to General Conference and petitions to the Judicial Council calling for removal of the pastor's authority and responsibility to determine readiness for membership.  Others have fought to maintain biblical standards for church membership.  One thing we have not done is define the biblical meaning of church membership for United Methodists.  We should not be so blind as to think this will not be a difficult and even painful battle.  Indeed, it has been already.  The notion of increased expectations, accountability, and service as part of the meaning of United Methodist membership will be tough to swallow for some.  But if the denomination is going to make it, we must be willing to step up to the challenge.  If United Methodist's are to be faithful in our mission to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," we must first transform our understanding of membership and discipleship; we must get serious about the biblical meaning of church membership.

December 15, 2010

SBL Student Survey on Policy Changes

The Student Advisory Board of the SBL is conducting a survey of student members on their perceptions of the policy changes regarding student presentations at the annual meeting.  I found the survey through Michael Halcomb's website: Pisteuomen.  Here's what he says:
As many of you may know, there has been considerable conversation about new policies regarding students and student paper presentations at the SBL Annual Meetings. The Student Advisory Board (SAB) has been collecting feedback for a response to be sent to the SBL Executive Council. As part of this response, we would like to include the results of a short survey gauging your responses to these new policies. This will allow us who are on the SAB to present hard data alongside written feedback. If you can, please take just a couple of minutes and fill out this survey.
Here's the link to the survey.  I hope student members will make their voices heard.  Perhaps these policies will be changed.

Wednesday with Wesley: JW on Holiness & Resurrection

Here's a short exerpt from John Wesley on the manner in which the Christian should live in light of the future hope of bodily resurrection from the dead:
Be ye steadfast - In yourselves. Unmovable - By others; continually increasing in the work of faith and labour of love. Knowing your labour is not in vain in the Lord - Whatever ye do for his sake shall have its full reward in that day. Let us also endeavour, by cultivating holiness in all its branches, to maintain this hope in its full energy; longing for that glorious day, when, in the utmost extent of the expression, death shall be swallowed up for ever, and millions of voices, after the long silence of the grave, shall burst out at once into that triumphant song, O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory? (Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 1 Cor 15:58).

Scientific Evidence for Noah's Deluge?

I came across the Ugley Vicar's link to this story: Life may have survived 'Snowball Earth' in ocean pockets.  According to the article, "researchers in Britain and Australia claim to have found deposits in the remote Flinders Ranges in South Australia which bear the unmistakable mark of turbulent oceans."  Hmm...the unmistakable mark of turbulent oceans in the middle of a mountain range.  The Vicar indicates that he is quite tempted to call this evidence for the biblical flood during the time of Noah.  I think I'm a bit more than tempted.  It always makes me chuckle when the scientific guild provides evidence that suggests we can trust the scriptures.  I'll leave you with the citation from the biblical record which this geologic discovery would seem to corroborate: "The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mighly on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered (Genesis 6:17-19, ESV). 

SBL Restricts Student Participation

Along with other student members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), I recently received an email letter from John F. Kutsko, Executive Director of SBL, informing me of changes that have been made by the Council of SBL to the way in which student members may participate in the SBL Annual Meeting.  Here are those changes:
1. All students without a doctoral degree are required to submit to the Program Unit Chair the full text of the paper they will read. The paper will be submitted at the time of proposal. Student proposers will submit the paper they intend to read, not a full-length article intended for written distribution.
2. The number of sessions students can participate in will be limited to one. This policy pertains to participation as panelist, presenter, and respondent.
As a student member of SBL currently at work on my doctoral degree, I was extremely disappointed over these changes.  These restrictions put students at a disadvantage in the presentation proposal review process and, if maintained, will ultimately lead to reduced student participation in the Annual Meetings, a consequence of which will be less interaction with and feedback from other scholars which is so valuable to ongoing doctoral research.  Let me flesh a few of these points out in more detail.
  1. Student participation will be reduced.  If students are required to turn in their full paper at the time of proposal, then their time to conduct and complete their research is reduced by more than eight months.  Research that will not be presented until November is now due in February.  I finished the final draft of my 2010 paper presentation only days before the conference.  I had expected to get to work on some other ideas for 2011, submit them as proposals, and, if accepted, be able to conduct and finish the research over the course of the next year.  The idea of having all the research completed and written up by the first of March is crippling and near impossible given the responsibilities of my work and as a student.  This change in SBL policy is demoralizing and discourages me from attempting to put the work together in less than half the time to which I am accustomed.  This sadly means that it is unlikely that I will submit a proposal for next year.  From the looks of things circling on the blogs, my fellow student members feel the same way.  What is said to be an aid to students will ultimately strip us of previous opportunity and valuable experience.
  2. If student participation is reduced, students will have less opportunity to receive feedback on their work.  My first presentation at SBL was in 2008, while I was an M.Div. student at Asbury Theological Seminary.  It went very well, and I had some very interesting and helpful interaction during the Q & A time after my presentation.  Given the significantly increased difficulty in gaining acceptance at the Annual Meeting, I can kiss such feedback and interaction goodbye.  The SBL is supposed to be fostering biblical scholarship and the next generation of biblical scholars.  To implement restrictions that will inevitably decrease student participation is a contradiction to the stated mission and vision of the SBL. 
  3. In the past, the peer reviewers of the paper proposals did not know which proposals came from students and which came from senior scholars.  Now that students have to submit full manuscripts as opposed to titles and abstracts, it will be quite clear who the students are.  This will make it impossible to prevent biased decisions against student papers and in favor of those written by holders of the Ph.D. and places students at a distinct disadvantage in the review process.  This undermines the credibility of SBL as an unbiased organization that professes to value inclusiveness, collegiality, and scholarly integrity.
  4. These changes may qualify as a breach of contract.  I registered as a student member under the condition that I would "receive all the same benefits as a full member."  Now that student members are not granted all the benefits of full membership (e.g. reduced appearances and increased proposal requirements), it would seem that the SBL has violated the terms of our membership agreement and may be legally liable for that infringement.  It doesn't appear that they really thought this one through. 
For these reasons, the new restrictions to student involvement at SBL meetings are an insult to student members and a stain on the reputation of the Society of Biblical Literature. So much for fostering the future of biblical scholarship.

December 14, 2010

Will the NIV Lose its Base?

I summarized some of the controversy over the new NIV 2011 in a recent post.  This has prompted some thoughts on whether the primary readership of the NIV will change.  One friend has predicted a massive exodus on the part of Southern Baptists based on what may be percieved as some liberal tendency in the new translation of the NIV (see that previous post for more).  I suspect the NIV probably will lose some of its traditional readers, but I suspect most who use it in the larger evangelical world will probably stick with it for the sake of familiarity and sentimental reasons.  I tend to think the NIV 2011 may pick up some new readers as well, particularly if it seems less biased against women in positions of ministry leadership.  So, even if there are some who bail on the new edition, I suspect that things will probably balance out in the end.  It will likely be quite some time before the NIV is eclipsed as one of the most widely used translations.  What about you?  Will you try out the new NIV?  Or will you leave it behind? 

December 11, 2010

More on the Arminocalvinist Spectrum

Adrian Warnock has responded to my previous post on his discussion of the Arminocalvinist spectrum.  Here's what he says:
I do take your point about the Open Theists, but we have to put up with the Hypercalvinists who’s attachment to the doctrines of grace leaves them seeming graceless! I genuinely believe that is one of those debates where those closest to the middle, far from compromising, seem to be closest to the Bible. Truth be told, sometimes the Bible itself sounds quite Arminian, and at other times I would argue it definitely sounds quite Calvinist!
Likewise, I take your point on the Hypercalvinists.  I also agree that the points closer to the middle are probably better reflections of scripture.  I wanted to add that I think we agree that what really matters is one's love for Christ and the scriptures.  I can work with people who disagree with me on resistible grace, if they get excited about Jesus.  I also think that the more Calvinistic emphases on the transcendence, glory, and majesty of God should be absorbed by Arminians.  I have benefited greatly from many Calvinist preachers and writers.  We would all do well to see what we can learn from each other in an effort to honor our common Lord and grow in our understanding of the scriptures. Again, thanks for the interaction.  It has been fun and beneficial.

Spectrum or Divide? A Response to Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock has recently written on: An Arminocalvinist spectrum, or why it’s not so simple as Arminians vs Calvinists.  I would like to note a few items in response, but let me say first that I appreciate Adrian and the tone he has taken as a mediator in this debate.  Adrian has served Christ's church in many ways, especially with his book, Raised with Christ: How the Resurrection Changes Everything, which, as the title indicates, points to the centrality and importance of Christ's resurrection (and the believer's) for the Christian faith.  Let me say that I also appreciate the irenic tone that Adrian has taken in the Arminian/Calvinist debate.  I aim to take that same tone in my response.  Adrian is looking for ways to unite those with somewhat different views on how God accomplishes and applies his saving work in Christ to those who believe.  That is a noble and helpful endeavor that should be undertaken by more.  All too often, we Christians focus on what divides us rather than on that which unites.  These things said, here are a few thoughts in response to Adrian's "Arminocalvinist spectrum".

First, it is quite helpful to point out the differences (or spectrum of beliefs) within the larger Calvinist and Arminian groups.  There are things that Calvinists disagree on; the same is the case with Arminians as well.  Different people mean different things by these labels.  So, Adrian's taxonomy, which utilizes qualifiers like hard, moderate, or soft, is very helpful in that it provides nuance to differing views within each larger position.  This taxonomy also nicely highlights the fact that some brands of Arminianism are closer to Calvinism that others.  For example, I probably fall in the "Reformed Arminian" group, which would likely put me closer to Calvinism that it would an open theist.  This is a benefit of the taxonomy because while both myself and an open theist might be labeled Arminian, I would much prefer that others see me as closer to Calvinism than open theism. 

Second, while there are variations within the Calvinist and Arminian camps, we should remember that there are specific differences between them as well.  The divide comes down to whether or not God overcomes the wills of those whom he saves; that is, the divide is over the nature of grace, whether it is resistible or irresistible.  The spectrum of Calvinist views in Adrian's taxonomy are united by their belief that God acts in such a way upon his elect to overcome their resistance, and that he does not act in this way upon those who have not been chosen.  All the Arminian groups, on the other hand, believe that God doesn't act in such a way as to irresistibly overcome any person's will.  So, while there is a spectrum of belief, we shouldn't forget the divide in the midst of the spectrum.

Third, I'm very hesitant to grant the Arminian name to open theists, though many of them would want to adopt it.  My hesitancy stems from my readings of James Arminius and John Wesley.  Both saw God's foreknowledge of faith as essential to the doctrine of predestination.  God elects those whom he knows will one day believe.  If God does not have exhaustive foreknowledge and cannot foresee faith, then neither can he elect on the condition of faith.  The result is that the historical Arminian soteriology goes out the window and must be replaced with something else.  Is it is accurate to place two highly contrasting views of salvation in the same camp?  I tend to think not, though many on both sides of the debate would disagree in this case.

To close this post out, let me say again that I appreciate Adrian's work and think his post is quite helpful.  This debate needs more like him who will look for what unites us rather than bombard each other over what divides.  I hope this post contributes to just that.

December 10, 2010

Warring Worldviews

In a recent post, I highlighted some thoughts from John Oswalt's The Bible Among the Myths on the matter of science and the way that the Christian worldview undergirds it.  Here's another gem from the first chapter in which Oswalt reveals his agenda for this book.  I don't know about you, but when I read this I got excited.
In this book I want to examine the distinctive view of reality that is first found in the Old Testament as it presently stands and which provides the underlying assumptions for the New Testament.  I will show why current attempts to describe the Bible as one more of the world's great myths are incorrect.  I will argue that in the end there are only two worldviews: the biblical one and the other one.  I will demonstrate why the Christian faith cannot be other than exclusivist.  I will show how current trends in the United States in particular are the logical result of the loss of biblical faith.  In passing, I will ask whether any other explanation than the one the Bible claims (direct communication with the one God) can explain where this understanding of reality came from.  In the end I hope to have convinced younger readers especially of the necessity of standing absolutely firm on the biblical understanding of reality and of giving no quarter to what is, in the end, the enemy (28).
And somehow people have a hard time believing this guy is Methodist?

December 9, 2010

What About Imputation? More on N.T. Wright at ETS

In a recent post, I said that N.T. Wright's presentation at ETS surprised me with regard to two areas: his clarification regarding final justification and the role of works and his comments on imputation.  Here are my reflections on the role of works.  Now on to the matter of imputation.

Wright has often suggested that the Reformed doctrine of imputation makes righteousness out to be a gas-like substance that can be passed across the divine courtroom from judge to defendant.  I thought this was an interesting and, perhaps, valid objection; that is, until I read some Reformed writings on imputation.  I then discovered that Wright's portrayal of imputation was a caricature and that he was knocking down a straw man.  No serious Reformed thinker thinks of imputed righteousness as a substance that can be passed around like a gas.  It would seem that the debate was at an impasse.

I do think, though, that some of Wright's comments at ETS may provide room for some progress in the debate.  If I recall correctly, at the end of his talk he indicated that through faith the believer is united to Christ and, as a result, that which is true of Jesus becomes true of the believer as well, which may very well include Christ's righteousness, even though the Bible doesn't really speak that way of Christ.  Wright said that you could call that imputation, but that this is not what the Reformers meant by the word.  Wright is concerned about the idea of merit being acquired by Christ and shifted to the believer.  He charged that those were medieval categories that the Reformers took on board but shouldn't have, and that may or may not be the case.  I'm no historical theologian, so I'll avoid saying too much about what the Reformers said. 

I would suggest, though, that the concept of faith-union with Christ as the way in which that which is true of Christ becomes true of those in Christ is a good place to start an attempt to move forward.  I think Wright and the Reformed camp could agree on this.  If Christ has indeed been justified, that is declared righteous, because of his perfect obedience, and if those who are in Christ share with him all that is his, then it is right to say that the verdict that came to Christ because of his obedience (merit?) is reckoned to the believer because they are joined to Christ by faith.  The imputation of Christ's righteousness would be shorthand for that rather long sentence.  I think both sides could agree with this summary.  If not, someone out there help me out.

Science and the Creator

In the opening chapter of his recent book, The Bible Among the Myths, John Oswalt, of Asbury Theological Seminary, takes the opening chapter to describe the contrast between the Greek philosophers, who intuited a unifying principle behind the universe, and the Hebrews, who believed in the revelation of the one transcendent God.  The problem, he suggests, for the Greeks was that their philosophy had not been proven on the testing ground of life; it never took hold among the populous that was committed to myth and contradiction.  The problem for the Hebrews was that they had not worked out the logical and philosophical implications of their monotheism.  It the gospel of Jesus Christ, which presupposed the Hebrew worldview, that confronted the Greco-Roman world and brought about "the combination of the Greek and Hebrew worldviews in the distinctively Christian way" (25).  Oswalt goes on to draw some conclusions regarding the nature of the relationship between science and the biblical worldview:
One important conclusion that must be drawn from all this is that contrary to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century delusion, science and logic are not self-evident.  They cannot stand on their own. It was not until the biblical idea of one personal, transcendent, purposeful Creator was allowed to undergird them that science and logic were able to be fully developed and to come into their own.  Without that undergirding, they fall to the ground under a barrage of contrary data, just as Euripides' pale, rationalistic men fell under the knives of the vital, earthy women.  We in the last two centuries have shown the truth of this statement. We have tried to make logic and science stand on their own, and they have begun to destroy themselves (26-27).

December 8, 2010

Room in the Camp

Arminians are often characterized as believing that a true Christian can lose his salvation.  I suspect this is probably the reason that many non-Calvinistic Baptists refuse to be labeled as Arminians.  But according to Roger Olson, the matter is not so cut and dry: "Arminius himself never settled the matter. His strongest statement about it was that 'I should not readily dare to say that true and saving faith may finally and totally fall away.'" (Olson, Arminian Theology, 187). The Arminius quote is from his "Examination of Dr. Perkin's Pamphlet," which can be found in the London edition of The Works of Arminius (3:454).  Some of Arminius' followers went the way of believing that true Christians cannot fall from grace, while others went on to affirm that one's salvation can indeed be lost.  The point is this: Arminianism is a big enough camp for both prespectives to pitch their tents.  Critics of Arminianism should be more careful to acknowledge that some Arminians do indeed believe in the final perseverance of all true believers, and that the room for this position comes straight from the writings of Arminius himself.  Hopefully, those non-Calvinists who resist the Arminian label because of its "lose your salvation" associations will come to see that there is room in the camp for them as well.  As I've said before, a two-point Calvinist makes a fine classical Arminian.

December 7, 2010

Is the New NIV Going Liberal?

That appears to be the concern of some in the blogosphere concerning the translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 in the new edition of the NIV due out in 2011.  The original NIV translated this verse: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”  The NIV 2011 has announced a new translation which reads: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet."  Craig Blomberg and Douglas Moo, both of the NIV 2011 Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), have said that this translation was chosen because it was neutral and did not take a particular theological stance on the issue of women serving in pastoral ministry.  The accuracy of the new translation has seen some discussion at BibleGateway.com

Against the new translation, The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) has said that it cannot endorse the NIV 2011 because of problematic translations like that of 1 Timothy 2:12.  Other strong objections have been leveled against this translation move.  Denny Burk of Boyce College fears that "readers may very well conclude that women may exercise authority over men (i.e., serve as pastors) so long as they do not 'assume' that authority independently."  And Kevin DeYoung of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, believes that "At worst...the NIV makes it sound like Paul is against the inappropriate assumption of authority, not women-over-men authority in general."

What do you think?  Is the NIV 2011 providing a faithful translation that could be interpreted in either direction?  Or have the translators given into the pressure of Egalitarians?

December 5, 2010

The Role of Works: Further Reflection on N.T. Wright at ETS

Thanks very much to Revd. John P. Richardson for directing his readership to my post reflecting on Tom Wright's recent comments at ETS.  So many of you clicked through that I thought I would say a bit more regarding my brief comments in the previous post.  So, I'll take a post on the matter of the role of works and one on the matter of imputation language. 

As indicated previously, I was quite pleased with Wright's statement that he affirmed the language of final justification "according to works" over against "on the basis of works."  I was pleased with this move because I raised just this question at the IVP lecture at SBL in New Orleans last year.  I raised the question because Piper very clearly asked Wright for clarification in his book The Future of Justification (22).  Piper did not charge Wright with teaching justification on the basis of works but pointed out that he regularly spoke of final justification on the basis of the whole life lived; Piper carefully cited several places where Wright has said this or a slight variation of it.  To Piper, this came across as suggesting that our works were the basis of our justification.  So, Piper asked for clarification.  In my reading of Wright's response to Piper, I didn't find any real clarification on this point.  So, I asked for clarification at the IVP lecture: Is justification on the basis of the whole life or in accordance with the whole life?  Insofar as my memory is accurate, Wright indicated that he believed that to be a distinction that is not made in the Greek.  Very well; that is a response.  Given the opportunity, I would suggest that this may be the precise distinction made when Paul speaks of judgment as each being repaid according to his works (kata ta erga Rom 2.6) as opposed no man's inability to be justified from works of the law (ex erg┼Źn nomou Rom 3:20).  That would have to be worked out in a much longer discussion; I simply submit it here as a potential avenue of conversation. 

The main point I'm getting at is that I took Wright to have actually thought through this a bit more and made the clarification for which he was repeatedly asked.  Last year he didn't see a distinction between "basis" and "according to"; this year he has said that he agrees with judgment according to works over against judgment on the basis of works.  In my hearing of Wright and my reading of his clarification at The Ugley Vicar, I think he is saying that final justification is in accord with the works produced by the Spirit indwelling the believer.  I think Piper would agree with this as well. 

Given all that, I really think the talks at ETS provided an opportunity to make progress in the conversation on justification.  Tune in next time for some post-ETS reflections on imputation.

December 4, 2010

Belated ETS & SBL Reflections

I'm a bit behind most in the blogosphere who have already posted reflections on the recent annual gatherings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta.  Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts:

1. This was the first year I attended ETS.  I was struck by the charity and reverence throughout.  You might be surprised to hear that I was struck in this way, ETS being a confessional professional society composed of people who are supposed to be, well, evangelical.  Academic conferences are not always the most charitable gatherings with many eager to present their work and critique that of others.  But this was different.  There was a certain attitude about the place, a certain holiness; this was a gathering of people who typically seemed to love Christ and his church, a gathering of people who desire to serve Christ and his church.  That would not be typical of academic conferences, even in theology.

2. As many have written, one of the best things about these conferences is the opportunity to gather with old friends and make new ones.  I enjoyed catching up with many I've not seen since these conferences gathered last year.  Catching up with classmates and professors at the Asbury reception is always a highlight.

3. Speaking of Asbury, let me say that I was quite glad to see a number of Asbury Seminary people at ETS.  In the past, you might only find one or two Asbury profs present.  I was happy to see several of Asbury's doctoral students and hear a paper from Dr. John Oswalt, who is now in Wilmore once again.  Asbury's president, Dr. Tim Tennent, was slated to present as was Dr. Robert Coleman, who has also moved to Wilmore.  I'm not sure if he's teaching or not, though I imagine many would hope for it.  This is significant because Asbury has had a reputation for a bit of a leftward shift in recent years.  In light of that, I was very encouraged to see an increasing Asbury presence at ETS.  Wilmore seems to have gotten an evangelical influx in the last couple of years, for that we can be thankful.

4. I thought the plenary discussions on "Justification by Faith" at ETS were especially helpful and served to move forward what has, at times, become a stale conversation.  Thomas Schreiner's presentation was very clear and kind.  Frank Thielman's proposal that dikaiosune theou (righteousness of God) is polyvalent and includes the concept of "God's fairness" was highly stimulating, entirely fresh, well-argued, and carried significant potential for common ground in the justification debate, if, of course, he is right.  I'm not ready to pronounce a verdict; his proposal needs time to simmer.  I was a bit surprised at how close Thielman landed to Tom Wright, which brings me to his presentation.  Wright surprised me as well.  I somewhat expected him to dig his heels in and simply restate what he had said in the past; this, of course, is basically what he did in his last book on justification, which disappointed me.  If one is going to take the time to write a book, then he ought to be sure to move the discussion forward.  But Wright really answered some questions this time.  Two particularly surprising moves were his statements (1) that final justification would be in accordance with works rather than on the basis of works and (2) that he might be comfortable with imputation language depending on how carefully it was defined.  These are movements towards the middle of the debate for Wright.  If you want more see the summary post by Andrew Cowan and a clarification post by Wright himself.  To my Southern friends, let me apologize now, but it cracked me up when Wright suggested some neo-Catholicism lurking behind closed doors at Southern Seminary (UPDATE: more on Wright at ETS here). 

5. Last and most likely least, my paper presentation at SBL was largely uneventful.  It went smoothly, and no one challenged my thesis.  No one said anything actually, which means either that the paper was not all that significant or that it was so clear and precise that everyone was stunned silent.  I'll opt for the latter.  There was one senior scholar present who was nodding as I read the conclusion; so I'll take that as encouragement and roll with it. 

November 27, 2010

Across the Big Pond

I took my first trip to England earlier this fall to get started on my PhD in New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire.  I flew into London and was hosted by my friends, the Evans, for a night.  After worship at South Hanwell Baptist the next morning, I took a train to Cheltenham, where the University is based.  The train ride gave me a chance to see a lot of the picturesque west England countryside.  I spent a week in Cheltenham taking care of administrative details and doing some intensive supervision sessions with my teacher, Prof. Andrew Lincoln.  At the end of the week, I took the train back to London for one more stay at the Evans' home before flying out the next day.  I was able to get some sightseeing in that evening guided by my friend Allan.  London at night is quite impressive; I look forward to going back and spending more time there.  Here are a few pics from the trip.
 This is the view as you come through the main gate of the University's Francis Close Hall campus.

 And this is the chapel on the Francis Close Hall campus.

Here is the town hall of Cheltenham, which is well-known for its Regency style architecture.

November 14, 2010

Sermon Summary: The Mission of Christ

We like to have fun with Zacchaeus. We get a good laugh as we recount the story of the man who wanted to see Jesus but was too short to see past the crowds. As children we learned the Sunday school song that told of the wee little man who climbed the sycamore tree "for the Lord he wanted to see." It is a fun story and an amusing tune, but Luke intends to convey much more than a humorous tale about a vertically challenged tax collector. Luke intends to tell us something about Christ's mission of salvation to the world and what it means to become a follower of Christ. We would be wise to hear what he has to say.

If we are to understand Luke's point in the Zacchaeus account, we need to take a minute to take in the context. At least two features of the larger narrative are directly connected to the Zacchaeus story and form the grid in which we are intended to read about Zacchaeus' encounter with Jesus.

First is the narrative of the rich ruler in Luke 18:18-26. You know the story. Jesus is approached by this wealthy ruler who asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies by reminding him of the commandments. The ruler responds by affirming that he has kept these commandments since his youth. Jesus then replies by pointing out the one thing that the man lacks. He must sell all that he owns and give the money to the poor. This demand was too much for the man, though, and Luke tells us that he went away sad, because he was very rich. Jesus then makes the well-known statement that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God's kingdom. Those who hear him are astonished and reply, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus' answer makes the point that salvation is a matter of divine initiative: "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God."

Second is the story of Jesus' encounter with a blind man begging by the roadside. He hears that Jesus is passing by and calls out to him repeatedly for mercy. As Jesus draws near to the man he asks, "What is it that you want me to do for you?" The blind man asks for the restoration of his sight, and Jesus replies with the word of healing and says, "Your faith has saved you." So, from the context we learn that it is difficult for a wealthy person to be saved, and when salvation does happen, it is the work of God on the condition of faith.

Now we meet Zacchaeus as Jesus enters Jericho. We are told that Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector and immediately Luke draws a connection with the larger context. The same Greek word is used to describe Zacchaeus as is used to describe the rich man who approached Jesus in chapter 18. If that does not draw a clear enough connection, Luke adds that Zacchaeus was rich. As you know, tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews. They were seen as traitors who made good with the Romans to line their own pockets by taking advantage of their own countrymen. That Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector only indicates that he has progressed farther up the ladder of success. His was not an entry-level position. The connection drawn by Luke between these two narratives applies the universal principle to a particular individual so that we know from the start that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Zacchaeus to enter the kingdom of God.

Not only does Zacchaeus have commonality with the wealthy ruler, like the blind beggar he too is unable to see Jesus. His problem, though, is not physical blindness; rather, he is too short to see past the crowds. Luke has already made it clear that the problem of blindness is solved by faith, which, as we learn from Luke 18:8, is precisely what Jesus is looking for, because he asks: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

Now before we go further into this text, we need to jump to the end for a moment, because it is there that we learn the function of this text in Luke's gospel. After Zacchaeus responds to Jesus, Jesus declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus' house. He then goes on to say, "For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." That is a purpose statement. That tells us why Jesus has come. This is the big idea of this passage: Jesus is on a mission to seek and save the lost. That is what he is all about. So, as we see the rest of what Luke has to show us of Zacchaeus' encounter with Jesus, we want to see it through the lens of the mission of Christ. We want to consider how Christ brings salvation and what it looks like to follow him in faith, and we can make at least three observations regarding the mission of Christ to bring salvation to those who follow him in faith as disciples.

Jesus initiates the saving relationship.

Zacchaeus has a problem. He cannot get to Jesus; in fact, he cannot even see Jesus. So, he climbs a nearby tree. That should be a safe place to observe this Jesus. That should be a way to watch the action without getting too close. Zacchaeus does not seem intent on getting in close to Jesus. He is not looking to become a follower. Perhaps he has heard of Jesus' miracles and has come to see the show. Whatever his reason for being there, you do not become a close follower of Jesus by climbing up a tree.

But Jesus has other plans. Jesus walks straight up to the trunk of the sycamore tree and calls Zacchaeus by name. Jesus takes the initiative in his new relationship with Zacchaeus. If Jesus had not called Zacchaeus, then Zacchaeus would have never had the opportunity to enter into a relationship with Christ. Jesus initiates the saving relationship. To make the point further, if Jesus had not come to Jericho at all, then Zacchaeus would have never had opportunity to even lay eyes on the Christ. If there is to be a relationship, then Jesus must initiate it.

This is the way salvation always works for everyone. No one wakes up in the morning and just decides to go get saved or enter a saving relationship with Christ. If any of us are to know him and know his saving grace, then he must initiate the relationship. It's his mission after all. Jesus is the one who is on a mission to seek the lost and the first task in the mission is initiating this relationship. This is the biblical teaching of salvation by grace. Because we are sinners, we are estranged from God and our hearts are naturally inclined toward evil. We don't naturally seek God; so God must seek us. John Wesley put it this way in his sermon on "Original Sin": "No man loves God by nature, any more than he does a stone, or the earth he treads upon. What we love we delight in: But no man has naturally any delight in God. In our natural state we cannot conceive how any one should delight in him. We take no pleasure in him at all; he is utterly tasteless to us. To love God! it is far above, out of our sight. We cannot naturally, attain unto it." You see, Wesley knew that if is to be a relationship between us and God, then God has to initiate the relationship, because in our sinful state we do not naturally seek after him. Jesus has a mission to fulfill, and he begins by initiating a relationship with sinners.

The mission requires a response.

Luke has used the larger context to indicate just what kind of response Jesus is looking for. Luke 18:8: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" After Jesus heals the blind man he says in Luke 18:43, "Your faith has saved you." The response Jesus is seeking is always faith, and faith is not a work that earns God's favor. Faith is the renunciation of all work and effort as a means of getting right with God. Faith is a full confidence in Christ to do for me what I cannot do for myself. The blind man had no power to fix his own condition. He has to rely on someone else to do it for him. Faith is that full trust and reliance on Christ for our salvation. The mission requires a response, and that response is faith.

We also need to see that faith is precisely what the rich ruler did not have. The rich ruler didn't trust Jesus enough to let go of the things that gave him security. He did not value Jesus enough to release his valued possessions. The fact that he disobeyed Christ and held onto his riches is evidence that he had no faith. So when Zacchaeus says he'll give half his possessions to the poor and promises to pay back four times what he has defrauded, Luke wants us to see that this guy has faith in Christ, and his repentant act of restitution is the evidence – or the fruit – of that faith.

Now we need to be clear here. Salvation does not come to Zacchaeus because he made restitution. Salvation did not come to him because he did anything. Remember the question asked of Jesus in the last chapter. Jesus said that it's easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it is for a wealthy person to be saved. His hearers respond with amazement: "Then who can be saved?" Jesus tells them, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God." It is impossible for human beings to do something to save themselves. If we are to be saved, it must be because God has done something for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

What has he done? He has sent Christ to be the atoning sacrifice for Zacchaeus and for us. On the cross, Jesus took our place and suffered under the penalty of our sin so that we could be forgiven and pardoned and set free from the guilt and condemnation that is the just consequence of our sin. In the cross, Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. What is impossible for us is possible for God. All that is left to us is to renounce our ability and trust Christ completely to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is the response of faith.

Many of you may still be wondering: What about Zacchaeus' good works? Where do they fit in? That's a very good question that needs to be addressed. The answer is that good works are the fruit of a living faith. God in Christ initiates the saving relationship by grace. We receive that grace on the condition of faith. And the authenticity of that faith is demonstrated through good works. So the fact that Zacchaeus is going to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four times the amount he has defrauded anyone is evidence of authentic faith in Christ for salvation. Such a reading of this text is entirely consistent with what we believe as United Methodists. The Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church says this: "Good works…spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch as a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit." Apple trees produce apples; faith produces good works.

How often, though, we forget this biblical truth. How often people say with their lips that they believe in Christ but live as if they know nothing of him. I meet people all the time who, when they find out I'm a preacher, seem compelled to tell me that they believe in Christ, even though, they say, they don't live like it. I had a conversation with a man once in which he pointed out the importance of Easter and Christmas services because it was at those times in the year when so many people come to church who had at some time in the past had a salvation experience but do not presently live like it. My initial thought was: what makes us think they are Christians at all, if there is no fruit. When we profess faith in Christ and join his church, we promise to be faithful in our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness not because those things get us right with God but because prayer, church attendance, financial support of the mission of the church, serving Christ with our gifts and talents, and witnessing to his grace in word and deed are all evidences of a true and lively faith. The mission requires a response. Luke wants us to understand that the only appropriate response is faith in Christ and that the evidence of that response is good works.

Salvation is where Christ is.

This observation may seem a little more abstract than the other two, but it is, I am convinced, a point that Luke desires to make, and we must allow the intention of the text to shape our understanding of the text. When we talk about the mission of Christ to seek and save the lost, we need to understand that salvation is not merely something we get from Christ; rather, it is the actual gaining of Christ himself. It is a new living life in relationship with Jesus. Where he is, there is salvation. How does Luke make this point? Look with me at vv. 9-10. Jesus says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus' house today, because he is a true son of Abraham. Then he substantiates that point by saying, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." Do you hear the verbs there? Salvation has come, and the Son of Man has come. In Luke's Greek text, there are two verbs here, but they are synonyms. They have the same meaning in this context. The point is that salvation has come to this house only because Jesus has come to this house. Salvation comes because Jesus comes. Salvation is where Jesus is.

This is important because it helps us understand the nature of salvation by grace. We sometimes talk as if grace is something quantifiable, as if it is something that can be measured out. We talk as if there is this storehouse of grace that we can access if we need a little more for whatever may be happening. But grace is not a commodity. The language of salvation by grace is another way of saying that salvation is simply pure gift. The thing Luke wants us to understand is that the gift is not just some thing that you get. It is not an product or a commodity. The gift is Jesus. Where he is, there is salvation. Salvation only comes because Jesus comes.

Noted pastor and author Sinclair Ferguson made this very point by saying, "Grace is not some appendage to [Christ's] being. Nor is it some substance that flows from us: ‘Let me give you grace.’ All there is is the Lord Jesus Himself… Do not let us fail to understand that, at the end of the day, actually Christianity is Christ because there isn’t anything else; there is no atonement that somehow can be detached from who the Lord Jesus is; there is no grace that can be attached to you transferred from Him. All there is is Christ and your soul.” That is what Luke wants us to understand about Jesus. Jesus doesn't just send some grace over to Zacchaeus. Jesus doesn't just push some grace over our way. Grace is Jesus. Salvation is where Christ is. We need him. If we are to have his salvation, we must have him. Where he is, there is salvation. As we think this morning of the mission of Christ, we must see that his mission to seek and save the lost is accomplished by the giving of himself and nothing less. This, friends, is a deeply Wesleyan way to think about salvation. Salvation is not just a status; it's not just something that we get from God. It is the reception of a person. It is entrance into a relationship with the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. Jesus is salvation, and salvation is where Jesus is.

So, the story of Zacchaeus gives us a real life snapshot of what Christ desires for us in salvation. Here we meet a short man who wants to see Jesus but only from a safe distance. I can't help but imagine that we do that in our own way so often. You can go to church every week of the year and keep Jesus at arm's length. The question for us is this: When he comes to us and calls us to himself to enjoy the sweet fellowship of his presence, will we come down from whatever tree we've climbed? When he comes in his mission to initiate a new relationship or, for many of us, a deeper relationship, will we be people of faith? Will we be people who have confidence not in ourselves but in him alone to take us where he would have us go? Will our lives manifest the authenticity of our faith in testimony to his Lordship? Will we be rid of all the fluff and all the excess and have only him and the salvation that comes only in him? Christ is on a mission to seek and to save. How will we respond when he comes to us?

November 11, 2010

Why Do I Preach through Whole Books of Scripture?

The quickest answer is simply: because that's how I have received them.  The triune God has sovereignly chosen to preserve the scriptures as a collection of books.  It seems quite obvious then that he intended they be read as whole books which means they should be read and expounded publicly as whole books.  As a preacher, I am a man under authority.  It is my responsibility to pass on the deposit of truth which I have received.  I don't have the right or authority to mess with the content or the context.  And the context of any passage of scripture is the book in which it is found.  So, when I set my preaching schedule, the major determining factor is the fact that God inspired books.  So, it would seem, that's how he intended they be taught.  If I were to pick a text from one place and then a text from another place seemingly at random, then I would be sending the message that scripture is under my authority and that I can put it together as I please.  And that God may not have gotten it right when he put it together in books. Instead, I want to send the message that I am under the authority of scripture, and I pass it along as I have received it, which is in whole books.

Does this mean I never preach a series that does not proceed through a whole book?  No.  I am planning to preach a series on why we need the coming Savior during the upcoming Advent season.  Such a series, however, should not be the backbone of my preaching.  The backbone is the extended preaching of whole books.  Feasting on the Word of God as it has been prepared is the meal that nourishes the church.

November 9, 2010

The Monergism of John Wesley

In what sense was John Wesley a monergist?  Here's a quote from Ken Collins' The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007). The quote is lengthy but well highlights an element in Wesley's theology that is often overlooked or misunderstood. Collins writes:
Wesley maintained that the monergistic reading (that is, the work of God alone) in one sense is accurate. Recall the language cited earlier: "'Nay, but we affirm, that God alone does the whole work, without man's working at all'; in one sense, we allow this also. We allow, it is the work of God alone to justify, to sanctify, and to glorify; which three comprehend the whole of salvation." In other words, Wesley intentionally sought to avoid the contradiction of affirming the monergistic and synergistic paradigms simultaneously by offering a distinction, a carefully thought-out qualification that was so very typical of his "third way" theological style.  But this observation also means (and this is what has been missed by those who read Wesley utterly in a synergistic way) that Wesley did indeed think it appropriate to affirm the monergistic view at least in one sense because he recognized it carried meanings that are ever crucial to the proclamation of the gospel aright.

If, however, a nearly exclusive synergistic reading of Wesley's doctrine of salvation is offered (the "catholic" paradigm) and is drawn to tightly, neglecting the insights of the Protestant reformers, especially in terms of the sheer gratuity of grace, then the divine freedom itself will at least be misunderstood and possibly eclipsed. In this reckoning, once the initial or prevenient action of the Most High occurs, then God is virtually limited to responding merely to human response. But Wesley, as with Luther and Calvin, understood quite well that God is remarkably gracious and at times acts alone in the face of human impotence, for not only is justification not a human work but also the gift of grace is not given on the basis of a prior working.

So then, as noted earlier, the conjunctive style of Wesley's theology is not, after all, fully or aptly expressed in the divine and human roles found in an overarching synergistic paradigm even if the stress is on divine initiative (as in the model of responsible grace) for this is to privilege, once again, merely the "catholic" Wesley. On the contrary, more accurate readings suggest that a synergistic paradigm, which contains both divine and human acting, must itself be caught up in an even larger conjunction in which the protestant emphasis on the sole activity of God, apart from all human working, is equally factored in - not simply co-operant or responsible grace, but the conjunction of responsible and free grace, the union of both a catholic and protestant emphasis (163-4).

November 8, 2010

Did Wesley Deny Imputation?

It is commonly thought that John Wesley denied the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and, it might be thought, for good reason.  It would seem that Wesley said just as much.  The argument is usually made from his sermon: "Justification by Faith" in which he says:
"Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom he justifies; that he thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that he accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that he esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous. Surely no. The judgment of the all-wise God is always according to truth. Neither can it ever consist with his unerring wisdom, to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, because another is so. He can no more, in this manner, confound me with Christ, than with David or Abraham. Let any man to whom God hath given understanding, weigh this without prejudice; and he cannot but perceive, that such a notion of justification is neither reconcilable to reason nor Scripture" (II.4, emphasis mine).
The clearest rejection of imputation comes in the italicized portion of the paragraph.  Wesley, rather strongly, claims that God's inerrant wisdom is incapable of seeing a sinner as justified on the basis of someone else's righteousness.  This is where the term "legal fiction" is usually wielded against the doctrine of imputation.  If the righteousness of another is credited to me, then my righteousness is a sham, or so it is said (see this post for why this is not actually the case).  So, the short answer to our question as to whether Wesley denied imputation is clearly: "Yes."  The problem is that the short answer is insufficient and misleading.

The simple claim that Wesley denied imputation is insufficient because our question is an historical theological one, and historical theology requires the use of a certain methodology.  Wesley was not a systematician, and the above sermon was not his final word on either justification or imputation.  The careful historical theologian will understand that the best answer that can be given to our question is not merely, "Yes," but, "Yes, at the time he wrote his sermon on "Justification by Faith."  The careful historical theologian will also realize that this raises a further question:  Was there development in Wesley's view of imputation prior to or after the writing of this sermon?  And it is to that question we now turn.

Wesley's sermon on "Justification by Faith" is usually dated no earlier than 1739 and no later than 1746.  Those familiar with Wesley's life will immediately recognize that this is within one to seven years of his evangelical conversion on May 24, 1738.  The point is that this sermon was written early in Wesley's ministerial career and may not be his final word.  Indeed, it was not the final word for Wesley, because he later penned his sermon "The Lord our Righteousness", typically dated between 1758 and 1765, in which he wrote:
It was the least part of his external righteousness, that he did nothing amiss; that he knew no outward sin of any kind, neither was "guile found in his mouth;" that he never spoke one improper word, nor did one improper action. Thus far it is only a negative righteousness, though such an one as never did, nor ever can, belong to anyone that is born of a woman, save himself alone. But even his outward righteousness was positive too: He did all things well: In every word of his tongue, in every work of his hands, he did precisely the "will of Him that sent him." In the whole course of his life, he did the will of God on earth, as the angels do it in heaven. All he acted and spoke was exactly right in every circumstance. The whole and every part of his obedience was complete. "He fulfilled all righteousness."

But his obedience implied more than all this: It implied not only doing, but suffering; suffering the whole will of God, from the time he came into the world, till "he bore our sins in his own body upon the tree;" yea, till having made a full atonement for them, "he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost." This is usually termed the passive righteousness of Christ; the former, his active righteousness. But as the active and passive righteousness of Christ were never, in fact, separated from each other, so we never need separate them at all, either in speaking or even in thinking. And it is with regard to both these conjointly that Jesus is called "the Lord our righteousness" (I.3-4, emphasis mine).
Here Wesley describes the historic Reformed understanding of the active and passive obedience of Christ, that is, Christ's active lifelong fulfilling of the law and his passive suffering on the cross, both of which were done on behalf of sinners.  In answering the question as to what is the righteousness of Christ, Wesley affirms quite clearly that the active and passive righteousness of Christ is what is meant by the phrase: "the Lord our Righteousness."

But did Wesley believe this righteousness is imputed to believers?  In the second part of that sermon he takes up the question: When is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us?  There he says, "To all believers the righteousness of Christ is imputed; to unbelievers it is not" (II.1).  He answers the question further by saying: 
But when is it imputed? When they believe. In that very hour the righteousness of Christ is theirs. It is imputed to every one that believes, as soon as he believes: Faith and the righteousness of Christ are inseparable. For if he believes according to Scripture, he believes in the righteousness of Christ. There is no true faith, that is, justifying faith, which hath not the righteousness of Christ for its object (II.1).
This evidence clearly indicates that Wesley's view of imputation and justification developed between the writing of these two sermons.  At some point in the twenty or so years between these sermons Wesley changed his mind with regard to his denial of imputation. He went from saying that the righteousness of another could not count in the place of sinners to affirming that both the active and passive righteousness of Christ are imputed to the believer at moment of faith.  It should be noted that Wesley's later view is entirely consistent with the Reformed view of imputation.  Wesley even goes so far as to quote Calvin later in the sermon making certain his readers are not mistaken as to where he stands on the matter. Wesley writes: 
So Calvin: (Institut. 1.2, c.17) `Christ by his obedience, procured and merited for us grace or favour with God the Father.' Again: `Christ, by his obedience, procured or purchased righteousness for us.' And yet again: `All such expressions as these, -- that we are justified by the grace of God, that Christ is our righteousness, that righteousness was procured for us by the death and resurrection of Christ, import the same thing; namely, that the righteousness of Christ, both his active and passive righteousness, is the meritorious cause of our justification, and has procured for us at God's hand, that, upon our believing, we should be accounted righteous by him'" (II.9).
Now some of my Wesley scholar friends may come along and scold me for missing some other crucial piece of evidence elsewhere in Wesley's writings, and they are most welcome to do so.  But as far as I can tell from these sermons, Wesley changed his mind.  So, our historical theological question as to whether Wesley maintained his denial of imputation sheds much more light on the issue than the bare question as to whether Wesley denied imputation.  Indeed, Wesley may have denied imputation earlier in life, but he later on firmly stated his agreement with Calvin and the Reformed understanding of the doctrine.*  Did Wesley believe in the imputation of the righteousness of Christ?  At the time of his sermon "The Lord our Righteousness," he most certainly did.

Let me finish by saying that Wesley's journey on this is important to me because it parallels my own.  I struggled rather deeply in earlier years to understand the doctrine of imputation.  I was influenced by the apparent denial of imputation in Wesley's sermon on "Justification by Faith" and Wesleyan teachers who also denied the Reformed doctrine.  As I studied the doctrine of imputation more carefully and over an extended period of time, I found myself being persuaded of its veracity.  This, of course, may be cause for concern among some of my Methodist brothers and sisters.  As a result, I am deeply comforted and reassured that Wesley himself came to affirm wholeheartedly and with conviction the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness.
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* I say Wesley may have denied imputation because he actually claims that his later view as articulated in "The Lord our Righteousness" was consistent with what he wrote earlier in "Justification by Faith" (see "The Lord our Righteousness" II.8).  This raises more issues than can be dealt with in a post that is already too long.