May 27, 2010

The Calvinism of James Arminius

Here's an interesting quote from James Luther Adams from his essay "Arminius and the Structure of Society" in Man's Faith and Freedom: the Theological Influence of Jacobus Arminius.
"We should not forget, however, that in attempting this reformation Arminius remained in certain fundamental respects a Calvinist.  He retained the conviction of the sovereignty of God, the sense of man's ultimate dependence upon God in Christ, the protest against the idolatry that gives to the creature the devotion that belongs to God alone, the strong moral passion, and the demand for social order."
He goes on to say:
"At the same time he was vividly sensitive to the power of God which manifests itself in compassion and tenderness, to the power that gives new liberty in the gospel.  Arminius took seriously the promise, 'And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.'  We may say that affection, attraction, or love, rather than will was the fundamental pathos of his life-view.  Through providence and love man has freedom to accept or reject the power unto salvation in Jesus Christ."
Arminius is sometimes portrayed as being a significant divergence from the Reformed tradition.  Adams indicates, rather, that it was an in-house debate.

May 25, 2010

What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert

Ever wonder what the big deal with the gospel is?  Do you find yourself curious about the good news these Christians keep going on about?  Perhaps you already think of yourself as a Christian, but no one ever really explained the gospel to you.  If any of these questions reflect your experience, then present book is for you.  Taking it as the title of his new book, Greg Gilbert tackles the big question: What is the Gospel?  Writing with biblical integrity and clarity, Gilbert has produced a brief and highly readable volume that will certainly prove valuable to the Church by answering its central question.  

Gilbert, who is an assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC, introduces the book by contrasting competing accounts of the Christian gospel.  This highlights the central problem his book aims to address, namely that those who would consider themselves "evangelical" do not agree on the content of the gospel, the evangel.  Gilbert makes it his goal, then, to provide a biblical account of the gospel with the aim of clearing away confusion brought on by competing interpretations of the good news.  

Taking the Bible to be the authoritative and trustworthy Word of God, Gilbert proceeds to outline "Four Crucial Questions" that the biblical authors see answered in the gospel: (1) Who made us, and to whom are we accountable; (2) What is our problem; (3) What is God's solution to that problem or how does God save us; and (4) How do I come to be included in that salvation?  Gilbert draws heavily on Romans 1-4 in articulating these crucial questions.  He then proceeds briefly to demonstrate that these questions appear throughout the New Testament.  The four questions can be abbreviated in the framework of God-man-Christ-response.  Gilbert takes the following four chapters (2-5) to explore each question in depth concluding that the gospel addresses the problem that though every human being is made in the image of God, we have all sinned against God and are thus accountable to him and liable to judgment and condemnation.  But God in his great mercy came to us in Christ, who offered himself as the substitutionary sacrifice for our sinful rebellion against God and in so doing took God's wrath against us upon himself in the cross.  His perfect innocence was vindicated by God through his bodily resurrection and exaltation to the highest place in all creation, and he now promises the hope of forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life to all who repent and believe in his name.

Gilbert goes on to devote a chapter (6) to the question of the kingdom.  This is a very helpful chapter given the current climate in much of evangelicalism to sometimes focus more on the kingdom than the king.  Gilbert reminds us that the kingdom will not be consummated until Christ returns and that without relying completely on King Jesus, no one can find a place in his kingdom. 

Chapter 7 interacts specifically with three insufficient takes on the gospel.  Gilbert takes on the claim popularized by N. T. Wright that the gospel is "Jesus is Lord."  Gilbert rightly responds that the message of Jesus' lordship is essential to the gospel message, but it is not the "whole sum and substance of the good news" (104).  A partial gospel is not the true gospel.  He also argues that the motif of "creation-fall-redemption-consummation" is not the gospel.  It is, of course, a good way of summarizing the overall story of the Bible.  But the gospel focuses precisely on what God has done in Christ to bring this great story to its conclusion.  Last, Gilbert argues that "cultural transformation" is not the gospel.  The gospel may result in some culture transformation, but we must not confuse the resulting effects of the gospel with the message itself.

The final chapter (8) provides a fitting conclusion to the book by considering "The Power of the Gospel."  The gospel brings us to repentance and belief.  It provides rest and joy.  It leads us in loving the people of God who have been rescued through it, and it motivates and energizes the Church's mission to the world.  Ultimately, the gospel increases our longing for our Lord and the realization of his kingdom.

Why is this book important?  Because the gospel is of first importance (1 Cor 15:1-4) and because the gospel is the power of God for salvation for all who believe (Rom 1:16-17).  Without a clear understanding of the gospel, we cannot faithfully proclaim the message through which God has sovereignly determined to save the world.  That is big enough and important enough to take the time to get it right.  This book will greatly aid us in that responsibility.

May 24, 2010

The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by McDermott

In his well-known introduction to Athansius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis remarked on the importance of “having the clean sea-breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” in order to avoid the narrow-mindedness that results from the reading of modern books alone (St. Vladimir’s, 2000). Gerald McDermott’s The Great Theologians is, of course, a modern book, but it is one aimed at making the important ideas of the great Christian thinkers of earlier centuries accessible to non-specialist readers. With Lewis’ reflection in mind, McDermott summarizes the theology of eleven highly influential historical figures aiming to pique the interest of his readers such that they are inclined to further study in the primary sources. The Jordan-Drexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, McDermott has written widely and extensively in the areas of church history, theology, philosophy, and religion, and, as a result, is highly qualified to provide this guide to some of history’s most important theologians.

McDermott indicates that the book comes in response to Christian laypersons who have asked for a “handy introduction” to Christianity’s important theologians (11). Thus, the present volume is written with those in mind who have not had a basic theological education and would be intimidated by highly technical textbooks. There is, though, a twofold danger for any such endeavor. On the one hand, such an introductory work might do too little by oversimplifying the complex theology of great thinkers leaving readers with only caricatures of each person’s thought. On the other hand, the guide might attempt to do too much by chasing too many nonessential lines of thought resulting in a text burdened with excessive secondary issues and notes. McDermott elegantly balances his way through this twin danger providing a clear introduction to the basic thought of each theologian.

The format of the book is well-done. Each chapter opens with a biographical sketch that places each theologian in his historical context and sometimes even provides some humorous detail from the life the figure. The biographical material is followed by a brief survey of the major elements of that person’s thinking. Next, and most importantly for McDermott, is a section which looks in more detail at a distinctive element of that thinker. Here McDermott is not looking for the main cause for the theologian’s fame. Rather, he is focusing on that aspect of the subject’s thinking which has had a particularly important impact on succeeding generations of Christians. McDermott then includes a series of lessons that can be learned from the particular theologian. The next two features of each chapter will be of particular aid to new students of theology. The author includes a brief excerpt from the theologian’s writings which illustrates an important theme from the chapters and then provides bibliographic material for students wishing to do further study. The bibliography for each chapter contains at least one primary source entry and one or more secondary source entries. Each chapter concludes with questions intended to facilitate use in group study or Sunday school. While this is an introductory work, some of it may be too technical for the average Sunday school class. Specifically, McDermott’s interaction with more recent theologians in the latter chapters of the book is sometimes more technical. The book is certainly not beyond the reach of the non-specialist, but it would be suitable for study in a small group of lay persons more interested and motivated than, perhaps, the typical Sunday school class.

The opening chapter is titled “Why Study Theology?” and makes the case that theology is not only for ivory tower seminary professors and students. Pointing out that “theology” is simply thinking or speaking about God, and that anyone who reads the Bible, listens to a sermon, or prays is doing theology, McDermott argues that “there is no faith without theology” (12). Every time anyone hears a sermon, it is their theology that analyzes the sermon and is simultaneously modified by the sermon. The question, then, is not whether a person has a theology but whether their theology, that is their view of God, is correct. How do we know which theology is best? McDermott suggests that the best way to get at an answer to this question “is to study the theologies of the greatest minds of the church,” which is precisely what the present book aims to do (13).

The bulk of the book introduces the reader to eleven of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity including: Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth, and von Balthasar. Readers with a little theological training will quickly see that the book covers a range of thinkers across the theological spectrum from ancient to modern, Roman Catholic to Protestant, and modern liberal to neo-orthodox. McDermott is not interested in treating only those figures that support a particular strain of Christian thinking. Instead, he wants readers to see how these giants shaped history through the interchange of ideas, varied emphases, and sometimes vigorous disagreement.

McDermott’s treatment of each thinker is even-handed. He clearly writes from a position of historic Christian orthodoxy, and is sympathetic to a wide range of ideas that fit within the breadth of creedal Christianity. The book is no exercise in hagiography. McDermott is honest about the weaknesses and faults of his subjects, such as the sometimes excessive anger of Calvin or the pastoral weaknesses of Edwards. His treatment of Schleiermacher is worth special note. McDermott is fair but much more negative towards Schleiermacher’s theological liberalism arguing that his dependence on experience as the primary source of authority is a good example of how not do theology (145).

The final chapter makes seven observations on “What These Theologians Teach Us About Theology.” McDermott does not here rehearse the insights from earlier chapters. Rather, he makes more general observations about the nature of theological study itself. Key insights include the observation that all theologizing is done in a particular social and historical context and is, thus, limited in some way by that context. Limits and errors do not mean, though, that we have nothing to learn from a particular thinker. Everyone has cultural limitations, but these limitations do not prohibit a person articulating truth and providing insight and clarity for the church. McDermott sees the Holy Spirit at work in what he calls the Great Tradition to bring a development of understanding as history proceeds. Very important to McDermott’s approach is the reality that development is not always linear. When historical theologians are neglected or forgotten, we can learn and improve our thinking by studying the insights of those before us. “Therefore,” concludes McDermott, “we can say, somewhat ironically, that the way for us to move ahead in theology is to move back—to the greats of the past” (208). For McDermott, it is all-important that competing traditions be evaluated through the lens of the Great Tradition. He concludes in the spirit of Lewis by urging readers not only to read about these great theologians but to read the actual writings of these thinkers as well.

In short, this book is an excellent example of how history should be done. McDermott is not interested in simply recounting random facts about dates and dead people. Rather, he would have his readers learn from the successes and mistakes of these great thinkers in order to better understand the world that they have shaped, the world in which we now live. The present volume is heartily recommended as an accessible introduction to the insights and weaknesses of these great theologians.

May 23, 2010

The Importance of Impracticality

I came across an article today by J. D. Walt called "Pragmatic Impracticality: An Open Letter on Seminary Education."  Walt is Dean of the Chapel and VP for Community Life at Asbury Theological Seminary.  Here's an excerpt:
How does this happen? It begins with a commitment to being impractical. Forget grades and resumes because ultimately they will not matter. Avoid studying subjects that can be learned in weekend continuing education seminars. Present yourself as a living sacrifice on the altar of the Almighty to be shaped by the Word and filled by the Spirit. Embrace Greek and Hebrew exegesis with the ludicrous idea you may one day be called on to make a translation of the Bible. Approach Bible study assignments as quests for buried treasure rather than the indiscriminate and hurried deadline-driven digging. Extract the rich grounds from Bengel's sage dictum, "Apply the whole of yourself to the text; apply the whole of the text to yourself." Confront each course with at least one question that penetrates the superficiality of the syllabus, lest you arrive at the end with a pile of notes and a series of responses to someone else's questions. Allow yourself to soak in the ancient depths of theological truth. Engage the literary roundtable dialogue of the Communion of Saints. Take contemplative walks, permitting yourself the luxury of wide open spaces with the Father. Proclaim a season of prayer and fasting, inviting the Spirit to cut new channels of grace through the hardened bedrock of your innermost being. Resist the temptation to be practical. If for only a few years, master the discipline of impracticality.
The whole thing is worth a read.

May 16, 2010

Edwards, Assurance, and the Beauty of God

I've never really read Jonathan Edwards (I know, I know, shame on me), but I'm presently reading Gerald McDermott's brief guide to The Great Theologians (IVP), and he includes a chapter introducing several major points in Edwards' thought.  One issue struck me particularly.  According to McDermott,
"Edwards said that what distinguishes the regenerate from the unregenerate is that the former see the beauty of holiness.  The latter see only God's holiness.  This is why the devils in hell see that God is holy, but remain in hell.  The regenerate love that holiness because they see its beauty.  So it is aesthetic vision that separates the saved from the unsaved" (120).
As I first read this, it occurred to me that this statement has huge implications for Christian assurance of salvation.  All Christians long for certainty of their right standing before God.  Most (if not all) have at one time or another wondered whether their experience of salvation was indeed authentic.  The question is often answered in terms of obedience.  After all, Jesus said that those who love him will obey him.  And while that is of course true, indwelling sin remains even after we are justified.  So, if our obedience is not an infallible indicator of Christian assurance, what are we to do? 

McDermott's reading of Edwards suggests that the regenerate see God's holiness as beautiful, and that this is precisely what separates them from the unregenerate.  If correct, this should mean that the Christian can find some measure of assurance by considering whether he finds God's holiness to be beautiful or attractive.  I find this to be greatly comforting because, even when I stumble, I know that I have loved and longed for the holiness of godly character.  Nothing is more desirable than the altogether perfect and pure holiness of the triune God.  Indeed, the beauty of his holiness is unspeakable.  Even when we find ourselves grieving over indwelling sin, this aesthetic approach to assurance means that assurance can be maintained because grief over sin comes from a failure to reflect that which we find supremely beautiful, namely divine holiness.  I suspect this is part of what it means for God's Spirit to testify with our spirits that we are his children.

So, Christian, when you find yourself asking how you know that the regenerating Spirit of God dwells in you, consider whether you find God's holiness beautiful.  Does your heart long to properly reflect God's great glory?  Do you desire to see the beauty of God's holiness?  If so, then you may be sure that you belong to him!

May 14, 2010

Calvin on Preaching

Here's a quote on Calvin and preaching from Gerald McDermott's The Great Theologians: a Brief Introduction (IVP, 2010):
"Despite his enormous reputation as a theologian, Calvin seems to have considered his preaching to have been more important than his formal theological works.  He preached, on average, 170 sermons per year, which is more than three a week.  When he was recollecting his accomplishments on his deathbed, he mentioned his sermons ahead of his theological work" (98).
This is a good word for all pastors, especially those of us who enjoy academic theological engagement.

May 8, 2010

New Name for This Old Blog

I've never really considered myself all that good at coming up with good names for things like bands, blogs, or even sermons, which is why this blog just had my name at the top of it for the first couple of years.  I thought I had a good one when I lifted the title of John Wesley's sermon called "Free Grace."  It was biblical and Wesleyan, and I thought it couldn't be beat.  Not original, but hey.  What are you gonna do?  So, I named my blog after Wesley's sermon and stuck a JW quote at the top of the page to give credit where credit is due. 

Well, I recently realized that "free grace" is a term used to indicate one side of the debate as to whether one can know Jesus as savior without knowing him as lord.  The "free grace" folks argue that one comes to know Christ as savior through faith and that subsequent good works only have to do with heavenly rewards.  The other side, commonly known as "lordship salvation," holds that justification is necessarily followed by good works which demonstrate the authenticity of the justifying faith.  Thus, one can be said to be saved according to works but not on the basis of them, because the works are the fruit that demonstrates that one is indeed rightly related to God through Christ.  Let me say two things about all this:

First, I don't think that Wesley's use of the term "free grace" indicated the same thing as the current free gracers mean.  Wesley was big on good works.  Sometimes to an even worrisome extent, in my view.  I can't imagine him ever saying that one could know Christ as savior without following him obediently as lord.  But some of my scholarly Wesley buddies can correct me if I'm wrong on that.

Second, whatever Wesley meant by the term, I don't want to be associated with the current "free grace" club as explained above.  I fall solidly in the lordship salvation camp holding that obedience to Christ is absolutely necessary as evidence of authentic faith.  If you have the Spirit, you will also have the fruit of the Spirit.

So, I've changed the name of this blog once again.  The new name is "Incarnatio," which, of course, is the Latin word from which we get "incarnation."  If you've read this blog lately, you'll know I've been reading Athanasius and have incarnation on the brain.  Also, I've been having a friendly debate on incarnation with some Jehovah's Witnesses.  So, I'm all the more resolved on the absolute necessity of the Incarnation.  It seemed like a good name for two reasons.  First, the incarnation is at the heart of Christianity proclaiming that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  That claim is basic and central and there is no Christianity without it.  Second, it also hints at the idea of the church embodying Christ and reflecting his great glory into the world, which is no small thing. 

So, here it is...a new name for this old blog.  Perhaps this one will last longer than than its predecessor. 

May 5, 2010

PTR Review of Why Johnny Can't Preach

The Fall 2009 issue of the Princeton Theological Review is online and contains my review of T. David Gordon's Why Johnny Can't Preach: the Media Have Shaped the Messengers (P&R, 2009).  Scroll down to pp. 96-98 for the review.  Gordon applies the discipline of media ecology to homiletics by asking two main questions: (1) how has the move from language-based media to image-based and electronic media shaped our sensibilities and (2) how has this change of sensibilities changed today's preaching?  The book is a must read for every preacher.

May 4, 2010

Resurrection and the Reading of Old Books

I can't tell you how many so-called Christian funerals I've attended in which the distinctly Christian hope of bodily resurrection has not been preached.  This always saddens me, and I seldom now expect to find a funeral sermon which looks expectantly for the resurrection.  The message is usually one extolling the wonder of how the deceased has "gone home" to a place "beyond the veil."  The emphasis is usually on departure from the body rather than bodily resurrection.  Let me say that I absolutely affirm that when a Christian brother or sister dies, he or she is presently with the Lord, which, as Paul says, is far better (Phil 1:23; cf. 2 Cor 5:8).  But the biblical writers never propose this disembodied and post-mortem state as the ultimate Christian hope.  Rather, the post-mortem state with Christ is a temporary holding place where the believer awaits the post-post-mortem state of resurrection with Christ.  The one who is in union with the resurrected Christ ought always look forward to the ultimate realization of that union, namely sharing the bodily resurrection.  The all-important emphasis on resurrection seems to be finding its way back into much of American Evangelicalism, but the fact that resurrection has not yet become pervasive in our corporate thinking is lamentable.

In light of the current state of things, old books that strongly emphasize important (and presently neglected)doctrines can become quite refreshing.  One such book is Athanasius' On the Incarnation, which I recently reread for the first time in several years.  As I read, I was overcome by the pervasiveness of resurrection in Athanasius' thought on the incarnation of God in Christ.  The doctrine shows up on nearly every page.  To show that I'm not overstating the importance Athanasius attributes to the doctrine, he says, "The supreme object of His (Christ's) coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body" (22, italics mine).  For Athanasius, the resurrection of Christ and of his people is the great goal of the work of the Son of God. 

The importance of resurrection for the fourth century Alexandrian bishop makes sense if one understands the supreme human problem as Athanasius did.  He articulates the human problem as corruption leading to death, "Instead of remaining in the state in which God created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion" (4).  The curse is epitomized in God's declaration to Adam that should he eat of the forbidden tree, "[He] shall surely die" (Gen 2:16).  For Athanasius, this is an ongoing state of corruption and death.  So because it is "monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption," the only solution is resurrection (6).

The work of Christ can only be understood in light of the human problem.  Christ offered himself on the cross in place of sinful humanity to rescue them from corruption.  He was raised bodily from the dead to defeat death, overturn the original curse, and extend the everlasting life of resurrection to all who have been joined to him through faith.  The cross is the means to the end of resurrection.  Thus, Athanasius can say, "The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body."

Modern Christians (and preachers in particular) would do well to read through some ancient texts like On the Incarnation.  This will help us to avoid the narrow-mindedness which is inevitable if we only read modern books.  As C. S. Lewis says in his introduction to On the Incarnation, "The only palliative (to such modern narrowness) is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can only be done by reading old books" (5).  Athanasius' old book provides a refreshing reminder that the ultimate Christian hope is to share in Christ's bodily resurrection.  If we are to be Christian, this axiom must shape our preaching.