Zizek on the Traumatic Formation of the Human Being

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek responds to the claims that decoding of the genome enables us to reduce the human to the operation of chemical processes:

Here, however, one should be attentive to the formulation which repeatedly occurs in most of the reactions to the identification of the genome: “The old adage that every disease with the exception of trauma has a genetic component is really going to be true.” Although this statement is meant as the assertion of a triumph, one should nonetheless focus on the exception that it concedes, the impact of a trauma. How serious and extensive is this limitation? The first thing to bear in mind here is that “trauma” is NOT simply a shorthand term for the unpredictable chaotic wealth of environment influences, so that we are lead to the standard proposition according to which the identity of a human being results from the interaction between his/her genetic inheritance and the influence of his/her environment (“nature versus nurture”). It is also not sufficient to replace this standard proposition with the more refined notion of the “embodied mind” developed by Francisco Varela: a human being is not just the outcome of the interaction between genes and environment as the two opposed entities; s/he is rather the engaged embodied agent who, instead of “relating” to his/her environs, mediates-creates his/her life-world - a bird lives in a different environment than a fish or a man… However, “trauma” designates a shocking encounter which, precisely, DISTURBS this immersion into one’s life-world, a violent intrusion of something which doesn’t fit it. Of course, animals can also experience traumatic ruptures: say, is the ants’ universe not thrown off the rails when a human intervention totally subverts their environs? However, the difference between animals and men is crucial here: for animals, such traumatic ruptures are the exception, they are experienced as a catastrophe which ruins their way of life; for humans, on the contrary, the traumatic encounter is a universal condition, the intrusion which sets in motion the process of “becoming human.” Man is not simply overwhelmed by the impact of the traumatic encounter - as Hegel put it, s/he is able to “tarry with the negative,” to counteract its destabilizing impact by spinning out intricate symbolic cobwebs. This is the lesson of both psychoanalysis and the Jewish-Christian tradition: the specific human vocation does not rely on the development of man’s inherent potentials (on the awakening of the dormant spiritual forces OR of some genetic program); it is triggered by an external traumatic encounter, by the encounter of the Other’s desire in its impenetrability. In other words (and pace Steve Pinker), there is no inborn “language instinct”: there are, of course, genetic conditions that have to be met if a living being is to be able to speak; however, one actually starts to speak, one enters the symbolic universe, only in reacting to a traumatic jolt - and the mode of this reacting, i.e. the fact that, in order to cope with a trauma, we symbolize, is NOT “in our genes.”

From ‘No Sex, Please, We’re Post-Human!’

Thoughts on Rowling’s Revelation that Dumbledore is Gay

Albus Dumbledore

I can’t say that I am especially surprised by this revelation. I am, however, disappointed. Revealing such details about characters outside of the books cheapens the books themselves. The questions raised by a book should largely be left unanswered and the desire to settle all such ambiguities is characteristic of the excesses of fan fiction. It seems to me that Rowling’s willingness to pander to such speculation about characters lowers the value of her work. One of the things that I most love about a good book is the manner in which it creates a space within which our imaginations can play, the ambiguities giving us the option of reading the book in many different ways. When an author settles ambiguities like this I feel cheated. It is Rowling’s task to write and it is our task to read; I wish that she wouldn’t do our part for us.

In an important sense the books ceased to be Rowling’s on the day they were published. The printed books are the canon; we have no desire for an authoritative oral tradition interpreting the books for us. I preferred it when such issues as whether Neville Longbottom would get married or whether Dumbledore was ‘gay’ were open questions and we were left with ambiguities concerning which we could make up our own minds.

Regarding Dumbledore’s sexuality, I did wonder about it myself when reading the books. There were a few suggestive hints here and there. There is also the fact that there are clear parallels to homophobia and ‘coming out’ stories at various points in the books (and Dumbledore would hardly be the first homosexual English headmaster, would he?). For this reason the content of the revelation did not surprise me, even if the fact that Rowling would reveal such details outside of the books disappointed me.

I am convinced that homosexual practice is wrong, but I can’t say that I find it easy to identify entirely with either of the two predominant reactions that I have encountered to this revelation. On the one hand there are those who rejoice in this revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality as a triumph for ‘tolerance’. Rowling herself spoke of her books as a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’. This troubles me. I want the stories that I read to be driven by such things as character and plot, rather than by political or religious agendas. While I appreciate finding Christian symbolism in stories, I don’t like stories that are obviously thinly-veiled propaganda for the Christian faith. If I feel this way about propaganda for Christian faith, I will obviously feel uncomfortable with thinly-veiled propaganda for political correctness, a cause for which I have considerably less enthusiasm. By making such revelations about Dumbledore’s sexuality in the context of the claim that the books are a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’, I fear that Dumbledore is being made into a pawn in a political game. Something of the three-dimensionality of the character is lost in all of this. If Dumbledore is going to be gay I want Dumbledore to be gay because that is who the character is, not because the author wishes to be politically correct.

In addition to this, I feel uncomfortable about the outing of sexuality in general (not just homosexuality in particular) that is brought about by such revelations. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the authority figures of children to be thought of in a non-sexual way. I don’t want to be told that Dumbledore or McGonagall are straight or gay. Undoubtedly we are sexual beings, but our sexuality belongs, I believe, within bounds. There are parts of life that should be non-sexualized. This is part of what concerns me about many of the things associated with the ‘outing’ or ‘coming out’ of homosexuals. By defining the person too much in terms of their sexuality, sexuality in general is brought out of the contexts in which it belongs and starts to invade every area of life. I don’t like being called ‘heterosexual’ for a host of reasons, but one of these reasons is that, although I do possess a sexual nature, it is not something that I believe belongs in most contexts of discourse.

The outing of Dumbledore’s sexuality (no less than if we were told that McGonagall is ‘straight’ — and there is an important difference between knowing these things and being told them) risks sexualizing relationships that shouldn’t be sexualized, such as Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry, the teenager that he has long private conversations with and a special concern for. I also believe that this ‘outing’ of Dumbledore goes against the character himself. Although I can imagine a Dumbledore with feelings for Grindelwald, I cannot imagine a Dumbledore who would say: ‘I am gay’. While Dumbledore undoubtedly has a sexual nature, this sexual nature is generally quite marginal to the character as we encounter him in the books (in fact, there is still no claim — to my knowledge — that he ever engaged in homosexual activity).

On the other hand, there is the reaction of those who feel that the character of Dumbledore is now defiled. I also find it hard to identify with this reaction and fear that there may be an element of homophobia driving it. Although Rowling may have ‘outed’ him, Dumbledore did not come out about his sexuality in the books. In the books the character of Dumbledore is defined by far, far more than his sexuality. He comes across as a very human and a very noble person. As such a person, he is the sort of person who might truly wrestle with the complexities of human sexuality, without reducing himself to being defined by or purely driven by this sexuality. In fact, the Dumbledore that we encounter in the Harry Potter canon seems to be chaste and celibate. I see no reason why such a character should not appear in a book written for teens. There are many virtuous people who have struggled with homoerotic desire. Is a person defiled more than any other person simply because they have sinful desires? Is there any of us who doesn’t have sinful desires?

I am quite happy to think in terms of a Dumbledore who has homoerotic desires but refuses to be defined by them. In fact, we might end up with an even higher view of Dumbledore as we see his willingness to deny his desires for the sake of what is right (defeating the dark wizard). We might also begin to appreciate how Dumbledore’s personal struggle with such ‘abnormal’ desires enables him to become an even greater person than he would have been otherwise. It might be a good explanation for why Dumbledore is so attuned to the condition and so concerned for the wellbeing of the marginalized.

One of the strengths of Rowling’s characterization in the HP series is that she did not write ideal characters, but human ones. She presents us with a world in which the battle between good and evil occurs within each one of us and a world in which we must overcome certain desires, vices, character flaws and prejudices within our own selves. It is through the battle with our own selves that true and lasting character is formed. It is this account of human character and nature that enables us to understand how we might not allow ourselves to be defined by our desires (even, to some extent, our good desires), but might gain mastery over them. In such a world it is often the persons who have to wrestle most with the misleading desires of their own natures who emerge as the true people of virtue and character, rather than those who were so free from misdirected desire that they never had to wrestle with themselves in the first place.

As I believe that homoerotic desire is misdirected desire I do not believe that it should be portrayed as a good thing when we allow this desire to drive us. For this reason the idea of a ‘gay and proud’ Dumbledore saddens me. People who struggle with homoerotic desire are, I believe, struggling with a particular form of the compromised nature that afflicts us all as fallen human beings. I believe that true liberation for human beings with compromised natures (i.e. all of us) cannot be found in mere acceptance of the validity of our misdirected desires, but in the power to overcome our compromised natures, even though the struggle may never end here on earth. This is why any Christian refusal to justify homoerotic desire must be driven by the love for people made in God’s image that refuses to ‘tolerate’ these desires that lead to their being enslaved. How sad it is that Christians are often known for their homophobia, rather than for their strong affirmation of the one who struggles with homoerotic desire as a person made in the image of God, and for a love that refuses to stand idly by and see others being led astray by misdirected desires. For this reason I would be disappointed with a Dumbledore who was proud of his homoerotic desire, even though I like the idea of a Dumbledore who is able to recognize homosexual desire as part of his nature, but is enabled to wrestle with his nature in various ways. If anything, such a Dumbledore is more like the rest of us.


The Sermon on the Mount, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598

The following are some slightly edited comments that I made on another blog earlier today:

From time to time I hear people lamenting the current state of evangelicalism and particularly of the loss of an appreciation for preaching. I couldn’t agree more that there is a lot of bad preaching around. Fortunately, I don’t have to sit under such preaching too often, but the fruits of it are not hard to see.

However, although I see a big problem, I am not at all convinced that traditional evangelical preaching is the answer (perhaps people would appreciate preaching more if we only had it once a month, like the Lord’s Supper…). I believe that there are deep problems with many of the traditional paradigms for preaching in evangelicalism and elsewhere. Preaching has become the event of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, which seems to me to be a serious departure from the biblical pattern. Even when Paul speaks until midnight at Troas, the Eucharist is spoken of as the reason for gathering (Acts 20:7). In the context of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, preaching should essentially be ‘tabletalk’.

While the Scriptures certainly teach about the importance of preaching, they also say a lot about aspects of the service that evangelicals tend to downplay as a result of their emphasis on preaching. The Scripture says a lot more about the institution of the Eucharist than it does about Christ’s institution of the Sermon as an essential element of gathered worship.

Such a focus on preaching has created new concepts of the Church. The Church becomes defined primarily around ideas and ever more sharply defined theological positions, rather than around community, which is something that the Eucharist retains the centrality of. The Church has also become organized more and more around one man’s activity (and, as James Jordan comments, that man is not Jesus Christ). Evangelical congregations are often more passive in gathered worship than medieval ones were and this is a serious problem. The service becomes something that the preacher does, rather than the shared activity of the body of Christ.

Worship becomes a mere preface and epilogue to preaching. Scripture-rich liturgies are abandoned and in some churches the congregation only open their mouths for the singing. Pastors do not prepare the liturgy. The liturgy is an after-thought, hastily thrown together, while most of their effort is put into crafting the rhetorical masterpiece which is the Sermon.

The pastor becomes increasingly defined by his role as the ‘preacher’. Rather than letting the father-like leadership that the pastor exercises over the congregation condition our understanding of the role and practice of preaching, other dimensions of the pastor’s role have been forgotten as his preaching becomes all-important. In actual fact I am not at all sure that preaching is the most important task committed to the pastor. One does not have to look far in evangelicalism to find good examples of the way in which preaching can eclipse all else, reducing churches to preaching centres. Far from building up the Church, such preaching undermines it.

Scripture reading in the service is often reduced to the reading for the sermon. Contrast this with the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. For instance, Robert Letham lists the readings in the EO liturgy for Good Friday — John 13:31-18:1; John 18:1-28; Matthew 26:57-75; John 18:28-19:16; Matthew 27:3-32; Mark 15:16-32; Matthew 27:33-54; Luke 23:32-49; John 19:25-37; Mark 15:43-47; John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:62-66 and, quite literally, these are just starters. There are probably a couple of dozen more Scripture readings in addition to those already mentioned.

This brings to light one of the deepest problems with preaching as understood and practiced within conservative evangelicalism. This problem is the priority that it tends to give to our own words in worship, over God’s words. Our words gradually squeeze out God’s words. Rather than letting preaching be the handmaid of God’s Word, we will reduce the Scripture readings far sooner than we will cut down the length of the sermon.

The responsive and receptive character of Christian worship becomes downplayed and our words become less and less controlled by God’s Word. The Scripture content of the liturgy and prayers plummets, to be replaced by evangelical clichés. The texts for sermons become ever shorter. Some evangelical preachers pride themselves on preaching huge sermons on a couple of words in a text. This often has the effect of leaving preaching largely uncontrolled by the Scriptures. For many sermons the ‘text’ is merely a pretext or springboard to explore a dimension of systematic theology or the like.

Evangelical worship is full of the noise of our own voices. We continually speak at God but don’t take the necessary time to attend to and to digest what He might be saying to us. Having more times of silent response to readings of the Word of God, for instance, would be a huge step in the right direction, as would having more lengthy readings that are not preached on (throwing out the technology that eclipses the simplicity of worship would also be helpful). Sometimes we need to resist the urge to continually rush to say what the Scriptures mean and just allow them to work on us, practicing the art of listening to Scripture together (which means that we do NOT read along in our own Bibles). Contemporary evangelical worship, with all of its technological bells and whistles, provides us with dozens of distractions from the simplicity of the Word of God and from the terrifying silence that might actually lead to personal or theological epiphanies.

Preaching has come to be understood as a great rhetorical event. I believe that significant changes in popular evangelical preaching styles would have to take place in order to bring them more in line with Scripture. Calm Scriptural exposition should replace many of the impassioned rhetorical displays that one hears from evangelical pulpits (rhetorical displays that often disguise a depressing lack of content). The pastor should teach the congregation as a father teaches his children. This means that the ideal position is sitting, not standing, and that shouting and the raising of voice for rhetorical effect is generally unnecessary.

The pastor should also remember that he is like a father teaching children, something that many evangelical preachers forget. If unbelievers attend worship they are eavesdroppers; the gathered worship of the Church is not for their benefit, but is about the relationship between God and His people. The fact that preaching in the Church is for children means that preaching is for the converted. Sin and unbelief are still addressed, but they are addressed as issues in the lives of the children of God — the baptized.

The oratory model of preaching tends to place orator and audience at different poles. The model presumes an initial distance between orator and audience that needs to be overcome by rhetoric. Standing behind the lectern, the orator tries to win over his audience with clever rhetoric and artificially exaggerated emotion. Preaching becomes drama; preaching becomes an ‘act’ in which the preacher adopts an affected style of speech.

The pastor should address the congregation as one who already has a relationship with them. The father or the pastor should not have to ‘win over’ their hearers in the way that the orator does. They ‘win over’ their hearers differently, by powerful truths plainly and lovingly spoken and by teaching with a gracious authority. The pastor should teach the congregation entrusted to him much as Jesus taught His disciples. He speaks naturally to his hearers and does not employ an affected style. The passion and emotion that arise are natural and not exaggerated or affected.

Many of the problems of emotionalism and rationalism in evangelical circles arise from distorted models of preaching. If pastors were more concerned with plainly addressing the truths of the gospel to the consciences of the saints in the context of the gathered ‘family meal’ of the Eucharist I suspect that we would not have the same problem with the rationalism and intellectualism that arises from the rather silly idea that the intellect is primary, for instance.

On the Mode of Baptism

Mosaic, Neoniano Baptistery, Ravenna

The proper mode of Baptism is an issue that is much debated in the Church. While I don’t believe that most of these debates have any bearing on the validity of the sacrament, this does not mean that the debates are unimportant. Unlike many, I am not sure that etymology can help us that much in answering this question. I am not at all convinced by the Baptist arguments that full submersion is necessarily in view wherever the term ‘baptism’ is used. The ‘baptisms’ of the OT (cf. Hebrews 9:10) were not usually by full submersion, but were generally by partial dipping, pouring, sprinkling and bathing, etc. Generally a ‘baptism’ is a washing, without clearly stipulating the precise mode. Just as I can completely bathe my body in water without submersing my whole body in water, so the full body washings of the OT seldom if ever entail the submersion of the whole body.

In his book, The Priesthood of the Plebs, Peter Leithart has argued that the priestly baptism of Exodus 40:12-15 provides background that the NT draws upon when speaking about Christian Baptism (e.g. Luke 3:21-23; Galatians 3:27; Hebrews 10:19-22). However, this Baptism was clearly not by submersion, being performed at the ‘door of the tabernacle of meeting’ (Exodus 40:12). There was no water to go down into there, but there was the water of the raised bronze laver which would presumably have been sprinkled or poured on them for their initiation rite and would have been used to wash their hands and feet with thereafter (Exodus 30:17-21; 40:30-32). This provides possible background for John 13:10 — God bathes us in Baptism, and after Baptism He only needs to wash our feet and hands.

I believe that, when the NT speaks about Baptism, it does generally have a full body washing in view (Hebrews 10:22), rather than just a few drops of water on the forehead. Thus far I stand with the Baptists. However, it is not immediately clear that this full body washing was necessarily one of full body submersion, nor do I believe that full body washing precludes sprinkling. I am convinced that when the Bible speaks about ’sprinkling’ it refers to a far more liberal administration of water than a couple of drops: Scriptural ’sprinkling’ is more like a raining down of water from above, wetting the whole body. Nebuchadnezzar was ‘wet (bapto LXX) with the dew of heaven’ and the baptizand should be wet with the water of Baptism in much the same way. Sprinkling is a very biblical mode of Baptism, but it really should be a very liberal sprinkling to maintain the biblical symbolism. Water is poured over the head of the baptizand in much the same way as the clouds pour out the blessing of rain. The heavens are opened and the whole body is drenched with the baptismal rains.

On a number of occasions in the NT (e.g. Acts 10:47; 16:33) it seems most likely that water was brought to the baptizand and poured over him, rather than the baptizand being brought to a body of water deep enough to submerge himself in. When the NT clearly speaks of a mode of washing in connection with Baptism, it is of the Spirit’s being ‘poured out’ onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:17-18, 33; 10:44-45). In Titus 3:5-6 we see a connection between our washing of regeneration (i.e. Baptism) and the ‘pouring out’ of the Spirit.

If the point of a ‘baptism’ is merely the cleansing of the whole body with water then there are a number of different modes by which such a result could be achieved — pouring, liberal sprinkling, full submersion, the manual application of water to the body with a flannel, etc. Full submersion is probably not actually the most natural way in which to cleanse the whole body. When I wash my whole body, I usually do it by standing under a shower, which liberally sprinkles my whole body with water. On other occasions I might partially submerge myself in a bath and pour water over the upper half of my body and my head. When I do completely submerge my body in water it is not usually for the purpose of washing.

However, many Baptists (and some others) argue that the point of Baptism is not merely whole body washing, but whole body submersion. In support of their understanding they usually appeal to the meaning of the verb baptizo, which fails, to my mind, to prove their position. They also often fail to do justice to the symbolic connection between Baptism and the reception of the Spirit, and the fact that the gift of the Spirit is almost everywhere spoken of in terms of the modes of sprinkling or pouring (Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 36:25; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Zechariah 12:10; Acts 2:33; 10:44-45; Titus 3:5-6).

The appeal to the imagery of burial with Christ in Romans 6:3-6, upon which many Baptist arguments for the proper mode of Baptism rest is also problematic. Christ was laid in a tomb; He was not lowered into a grave. Besides, submerging the body in water does not look remotely like the act of laying a body on a slab in a tomb (or lowering a body into a tomb for that matter). If this imagery is fundamental to Baptism then it is surprising that water Baptism is the rite that Christ instituted, rather than some variety of symbolic burial rite. Some argue that full submersion is Baptism ‘in the likeness of [Christ’s] death’ (Romans 6:5). The problem with all such arguments is that they draw attention to the visual mode of Baptism, where the focus of the text of Romans 6 is elsewhere: on the union with Christ in His death that Baptism effects. The point of verse 5 is that if we have been united to the form of — ‘conformed to’ — Christ’s death, we can also expect to be united to the the form of — ‘conformed to’ — His resurrection (cf. Philippians 3:10-11). The point throughout is not that Baptism looks like burial, but that it really effects a union with Christ in His death.

When thinking about the proper mode of Baptism I think that most approaches leave much to be desired. Little attention is given to the rich biblical theology that should inform our doctrine of Baptism. If we are to begin to understand the meaning of and appropriate practice of Baptism we really have to do better than founding our arguments upon some rather wooden treatments of etymology and some tenuous readings of certain biblical prooftexts. Lest my Baptist readers think that I am trying to get at them, I will say in their favour that they have made an attempt to think seriously about the appropriate mode of Baptism, which is exactly what we ought to do. Furthermore, many Baptist approaches have a lot more biblical weight to them (as we shall soon see). The same cannot be said of most paedobaptists, for whom arguments about the mode of Baptism have more to do with maintaining the status quo, rather than with taking seriously the importance of biblical symbolism. At least Baptists do not treat the symbolism of the rite with such casual indifference.

There are two dimensions to the water symbolism in Baptism, corresponding to the two symbolic bodies of water in Genesis 1: the waters below and the waters above, the chaotic waters of the abyss and the heavenly waters. The waters below can represent death (e.g. Psalm 18:4-5; 42:7; 69:1-2, 14-15; Isaiah 43:2; Jonah 2), the Gentile nations, etc. In Genesis 1 God brings up the land out from the sea and, in much the same way, God brings up his people out from the (Red) Sea (Isaiah 63:11; cf. Hebrews 13:20).

The world is framed and formed by bodies of water (2 Peter 3:5). When the world is destroyed it returns to its basic state of undivided chaotic waters (Genesis 7; 2 Peter 3:6; cf. Genesis 1:2). We see the same imagery being appealed to when the Gentile nations (the seas) completely flood the land of Israel.

New worlds are formed by the division of waters, by deliverance through waters, etc. Examples of such world-forming events include the initial division of the two bodies of water in Genesis 1:6-8 and the bringing of the dry land up from the sea in 1:9-10, the deliverance of Noah through the waters of the Great Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), the deliverance of Moses through the waters of the Nile, the bringing of Israel through the Red Sea and the Jordan, and John the Baptist’s baptism in the Jordan. To be brought through or out of the waters is to be rescued through or from death.

It seems to me that it is the ‘coming out of’ or being ‘brought through’ the water that is the most significant aspect of our relationship to the waters below. Pharaoh and the evil men in the time of Noah all went under the water, but only the righteous were brought ‘through’ or ‘out of’ the water. Both the Ark and the Red Sea Crossing are types of NT Baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-2; 1 Peter 3:20-21). The righteous pass through the waters (Psalm 66:6) without being ultimately overwhelmed.

This is the important dimension of the symbolism that Baptists and others retain with their practice of full submersion. In full submersion we undergo a watery trial, going down into the symbolic realm of death, a realm from which we are then brought out in ‘resurrection’, sharing in the ‘baptism’ that Christ underwent in His death (Luke 12:50). In bringing Gentiles out of the waters God is also creating something new, ‘calling those things which do not exist as though they did’, overcoming the formlessness and emptiness of the world by establishing a new kingdom.

However, full submersionists can easily miss the other dimension of the symbolism that the NT draws our attention to. The other dimension of the symbolism is that God brings us through the firmament and into his heavenly realm. The waters from above are the waters of blessing. As these waters rain down upon us — or we pass through them — we have access to God’s very presence (Hebrews 10:19-22). The baptismal rain of the Spirit is the dimension of the symbolism that many paedobaptist churches have maintained. Post-Pentecost, this dimension of the symbolism is very important.

So there are two movements: we come up out of the water and the Spirit comes down upon us. We see this in Christ’s Baptism: He comes out of the water and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The connection between this and the account of Genesis 8:1-12 is significant, especially considering the fact that the NT connects the ark and Baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. The dove of the Spirit descends upon that which has come out of the water. Perhaps the same thing is in view in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 — there is a ‘bringing through’ or ‘bringing out of’ (Moses pre-capitulates the experience of Israel in Exodus 14 in Exodus 2:10) and then a coming ‘under’ the cloud (which represents the Spirit). Isaiah 63:11 also manifests this pattern to some extent.

The waters above are the waters of blessing. They are the waters of the cloud with the rainbow of God’s promise to bless and never to utterly destroy (Genesis 9:11-17). They are the waters of the cloud that lead the people of God to the Promised Land (Exodus 13:21-22; cf. Romans 8:14). They are the healing waters that rain down in blessing on the people of God (see Joel 2:23, which is connected with the promise of the Spirit in Joel 2:27-28, a passage alluded to in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2). They are the waters of the cloud through which we ascend to sit with Christ at God’s right hand (Ephesians 2:6; cf. Acts 1:9). They are the waters of the Spirit that descend upon the Church on the Day of Pentecost.

Ideally, Baptism should retain both dimensions of this symbolism. Eastern Orthodox Baptism (which follows a pattern not too dissimilar to that of Exodus 40) does it by having chrismation as part of the baptismal rite, following triple immersion in the divine name (the rite is thus called ‘Baptism’ by synecdoche, much as the Eucharist can be referred to as the ‘breaking of bread’). The symbolism could also be retained in other ways, for instance by having full or partial submersion coupled with the pouring or sprinkling of water from above.

Whatever mode we adopt, the point is that Baptism brings us through the realm of condemnation and death and washes us with the healing rain of the Spirit. In the waters of Baptism an old creation dies. The old Pharaoh is drowned and our flesh, once ravaged by the leprosy of sin, is cleansed as we become like newborn children (cf. 2 Kings 5:14). The old world perishes and we become new creations, created out of the waters, standing in the waters below and receiving the waters from above. We are those who have been brought through the waters into the Promised Land, under the cloud of God’s guidance, promise and blessing. As Marilynne Robinson observed, ‘water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing the wash.’ It is in the event of Baptism that this truth is seen most clearly.

On Delayed Baptism

While almost every case of Baptism recorded in the NT, from John the Baptist onwards, seems to immediately follow after conversion or the request for Baptism, subsequent Church practice has usually involved a delay of Baptism for months, or even years. I wonder whether this delaying of Baptism by the Church has led to a number of potential distortions in our understanding of the meaning of the rite.

I see no reason why we shouldn’t immediately baptize anyone who genuinely asks for it. By speaking of a ‘genuine’ request for Baptism I am not suggesting that we need to rigorously test every potential baptizand to work out whether they really have ‘genuine saving faith’. Rather, I am saying that we should baptize everyone who asks for Baptism for themselves or their children without disingenuity or serious misunderstanding of what the rite means or entails. Extensive catechesis should follow Baptism, but it need not precede it.

Baptism is the open door through which God invites us to come to eat with Him at His table. Anyone who accepts this invitation should be welcomed readily and admitted speedily. We should let such people come to Christ and not stop them. After all the Baptism is Christ’s, not ours.

By delaying Baptism, Baptism has become less of an invitation and more of an obstacle. Rather than being the open door through which God invites us, it becomes the closed door that stands between the convert and a seat at God’s Table. Baptism becomes a hurdle that we must jump in order to enter God’s presence. The convert must convince the leaders of the Church that his faith is really genuine. Baptism becomes less of an act of God’s sheer grace and more a sign of personal attainment.

Believers who are not yet baptized are not loved any less by God than those who are baptized are. The adoptive parents go through the adoption process, not because the adoptive child isn’t quite pleasing enough to them yet, but because the child means so much to them that they want to forge the deepest of all possible relationships with that child. In a similar manner, God gives us Baptism, not so that we can earn his favour or love, but because he wants to bring us as close to himself as possible.

Just as adoptive parents want as speedy an adoption process as possible, God wants speedy Baptisms. When the process of adoption into the family of God in Baptism is delayed because we are not sure that the potential baptizand has quite met the mark, what signal are we sending out? How are people being taught to think of their place in God’s family and of the way in which God loves them?

For all sorts of good reasons Baptism must precede participation in the Eucharist. However, Baptism is never to be presented as a barrier to the Eucharist, which is what it becomes when Baptism is delayed. God is not the sort of god who wants to bar people who love Him from eating with Him.

Back from Myanmar

Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon

I returned from Myanmar yesterday afternoon. I go back to university on Saturday. This blog should become active again over the next couple of weeks.

Of Boggarts

The Boggart Snape after Neville's Riddikulus Charm

Many Christians have claimed that the Harry Potter books are dangerous, encouraging children to get involved in witchcraft. We are called to exercise discernment and reject such literature completely. It is interesting to observe how much popular children’s literature escapes such judgment, for instance literature that presents disfunctional relationships between children and parents and broken families as the norm and encourages the reader to identify and empathize with promiscuous and morally twisted characters. It is quite heartening to observe just how robust the family values put forward in the Harry Potter books are. Marriage, faithful relationships and strong relationships between children and their elders are presented as the norm. Given that these are books written by a former single mother in a society where countless families are broken and disfunctional, this fact probably deserves more attention than it has generally received (one also wonders whether Rowling has her own experience in mind when she has Harry speak some strong words to a particular character about marital commitment in book 7).

The contrast between Harry Potter and the messages that many popular TV shows, movies and books are giving young people about relationships is quite startling. The fact that many Christian parents permit their children to sit in front of TV shows and films that subtly but determinedly corrupt morals and expect their children to be mature enough to deal with such influences whilst fearing that Harry Potter will lead them to dabble in the occult is quite bizarre.

When it comes to the accusation of witchcraft, I actually believe that Rowling can help us arrive at a more Christian view of witchcraft. The world that Rowling writes of is a world of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, self-shuffling cards, flying cars, wands hidden in umbrellas, bat bogey hexes, Whomping Willows, Quidditch, owls who deliver the mail, wizards who wear the most ridiculous garments to pass themselves off as Muggles, and the like. It is a delightfully humourous and playful portrayal of a magical world. It is not intended to be taken seriously. The fact that many Christians do take it seriously is a sign that something is badly wrong with us.

One of my favourite creatures found in Harry Potter’s world is the Boggart.

‘Now, then,’ said Lupin, beckoning the class toward the end of the room, where there was nothing but an old wardrobe where the teachers kept their spare robes. As Professor Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall.

‘Nothing to worry about,’ said Professor Lupin calmly because a few people had jumped backward in alarm. ‘There’s a Boggart in there.’

Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about. Neville gave Professor Lupin a look of pure terror, and Seamus Finnigan eyed the now rattling doorknob apprehensively.

‘Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces,’ said Professor Lupin. ‘Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks — I’ve even met one that had lodged itself in a grandfather clock. This one moved in yesterday afternoon, and I asked the headmaster if the staff would leave it to give my third years some practice.

‘So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a Boggart?’

Hermione put up her hand.

‘It’s a shape-shifter,’ she said. ‘It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.’

‘Couldn’t have put it better myself,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed. ‘So the Boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a Boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears.’

‘This means,’ said Professor Lupin, choosing to ignore Neville’s small sputter of terror, ‘that we have a huge advantage over the Boggart before we begin. Have you spotted it, Harry?’

Trying to answer a question with Hermione next to him, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet with her hand in the air, was very off-putting, but Harry had a go.

‘Er — because there are so many of us, it won’t know what shape it should be?’

‘Precisely,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione put her hand down, looking a little disappointed. ‘It’s always best to have company when you’re dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a Boggart make that very mistake — tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.

‘The charm that repels a Boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a Boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.

‘We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please … riddikulus!’

The pre-Christian world was full of dark, enclosed spaces for Boggarts to hide. People were plagued and tyrannized by fear, held in its bondage. Satan played with people’s imaginations, holding them in bondage as much (if not far more) by means of the fear within as by external demonic forces without. One of the effects of the gospel was to flood the world with light, driving the Boggarts out from their darkened lairs.

In the light of the gospel we can, like Harry and his classmates, learn to perform the riddikulus charm on our demonically-induced fears. After the gospel has taken effect we can mock things that once terrified us. This is one of the purposes of the celebration of Halloween. The gospel reveals that much of the fear that Satan excited in men prior to the advent of Christ resulted merely from the exaggerated shadows that he cast in the darkness. Now that light has come the shadows are removed and Satan is reduced to a far less terrifying stature. We can begin to laugh at the shapes that we once saw in the shadows.

Whilst there are undoubtedly evil forces at work in our world — Harry’s world contains Dementors and Death Eaters, not just Boggarts — we need to learn that many of the terrors that haunt us are merely products of our fearful imaginations. Satan loves to have the huge shadows that he tries to cast taken seriously. We will only truly defeat him when we learn to laugh at the shadows, walking through death’s shade while fearing no evil.

Good Christian fiction writers can help us to do this. Christian authors can and should tell stories of Greek and Norse gods, of dragons, giants, goblins, faeries, of witches on broomsticks, of pixies, gnomes, elves and dwarves. These stories are the chains in which defeated Boggarts are paraded in triumph before the Risen Christ. J.K. Rowling, by presenting us with a delightfully exaggerated magical world, has robbed real witchcraft of power, performing the riddikulus charm on many of its Boggarts. Much of the power of witchcraft derives from the huge aura that it builds up around itself and the irrational fears that it creates in us. Once these irrational fears and superstitions have been exorcized by humourous light fiction, witchcraft looks considerably less threatening (even though it never ceases to be real).

Many Christians operate in terms of a view of the world that is driven by fear and superstition. There is a terrible fascination with the morbid and the dangerous; such people see demons and witchcraft everywhere. The wonderful thing is that Christ died to set us free from such a paranoid fear of the demonic realm. There is witchcraft in our world and it is evil and dangerous and Christians should openly and strongly resist it. However, it is by no means as all-pervasive as some fevered imaginations might suggest.

Many of those who object to Rowling’s works are those who are still terrified by Boggarts. They continue in panic, hysteria and conspiracy theory-driven witchhunts. Thankfully, orthodox Christians have historically encouraged far greater scepticism towards such exaggerated myths of occult practices. This strong Christian scepticism towards many of the claims made for the occult has encouraged the rise of science and a more rational society. It is no accident that the sciences seldom prosper in superstitious societies. It is only as the old witch-hunts and superstitions end that our clearer vision enables us to come to a more scientific understanding of our world. This is one of the chief ways in which the clearer light of the gospel paves the way for science.

Occult practices undoubtedly exist, but viewed through eyes freed from fear and superstition through Christ’s victory we see a world where many of our former fears are revealed as mere creations of our own imaginations. Works like Harry Potter are a good way to start innoculating ourselves and our children against such fears.

Recent Garverization and my Rather Large Workload for the Next Few Months

A number of people have asked me about the reason for my dramatically decreased blogging output. There are a number of reasons. I have lacked any great desire to blog for weeks now. Rather than blog merely out of a sense of obligation I have put my blogging to one side and only blogged when I have felt like doing so. I needed to have some time away from blogging over the last month or two and the rest did me good. However, I don’t expect that I will feel inclined to resume regular service for the next few months at least. Guest posts are still welcome, though, if any are interested in submitting material on the subject of the atonement.

In September I will be spending two and a half weeks in South East Asia, where I have to deliver over 40 hours’ worth of lectures on the subject of Christian Ethics. I only discovered that I would be speaking so much a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have spent far more time working for my father’s business than I have in preparation. I have only read sections of a few books on the subject and nothing more. I have a vague idea of how I will approach the subject, but little more. I have never had to prepare anything like this before and only have a month in which to do so. I am the best man at a wedding this Saturday, which considerably limits my preparation time this week. I also have two Sundays in the next month when I will be preaching at churches in the locality, while the pastors are on holiday, not to mention occasional work for my father’s business.

I would greatly value people’s prayers and any ideas and recommendations from those who have done this sort of thing before. This is really a matter of being thrown in at the deep end for me and I am not at all sure that I am equipped for it. Please pray that I will have motivation, direction and clarity in my studies and preparation. Please also pray that the talks, when I deliver them, will be of blessing to the hearers.


Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsI finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last night. What a superb book! The dénouement was everything that I could have hoped for and more, wrapping up the whole series beautifully. It becomes apparent that Rowling had this ending clearly in her sights from the very start of the first book. Also, if there are any doubts in anyone’s mind that Rowling self-consciously writes as a Christian, this book should answer them. I can’t wait until the Christian Harry Potter experts start to comment on this book. If you have not yet read the book, go and do so right away! If you have, add Hogwarts Professor and Sword of Gryffindor to your feed aggregator and follow their post-book discussions. They should be very interesting. Even when you have already read the books, I have no doubt that these bloggers will bring to your attention the inner dynamics of the series and help you to appreciate many more subtle details that you might have missed.

[BEWARE: the comments of this post may contain spoilers!!]

The Primacy of the Imagination

MC Escher - Concave and Convex

Reformed Christians have traditionally tended to operate in terms of the primacy of the intellect. Even when we deny that we are doing so, our worship and the message that we preach are primarily directed at the mind. Much of our teaching and evangelism operates on the assumption that reality is primarily grasped with the mind. I have long regarded such assumptions and the forms of pedagogy that have resulted from it as fundamentally misguided.

If we are going to talk about the ‘primacy’ of anything in man’s grasping of his world, let us speak of the primacy of the imagination. The very act of perceiving our world necessarily involves the imagination. There is no such thing as mere perception. We do not merely ‘see’ our world; every act of perception is an act of ‘seeing as’. The imagination is that which governs our ‘seeing as’. The facts that the mind deals with are never ‘brute facts’, but facts that result from the imagination’s engagement with the world. The ‘reality’ that the mind thinks about is a reality that has already been processed by the imagination in the act of perception. The imagination provides the foundation upon which the mind and will build.

The imagination provides us with the lenses through which we view the world. Whether we are aware of its activity or not, it acts nonetheless. Those who underestimate the role played by the imagination will become its prisoners. People with incredibly sharp minds, trapped within a false picture and story of the world will often never get out, just digging themselves deeper into the hole that they are in. All of their thinking merely tightens their grip on a false perception of reality. There are few people more frustrating to debate with; not only are they often incredibly arrogant in their conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong, they are also unable to understand how anyone could really see things differently.

The great leaps in thought almost always result from the activity of the imagination. Many of us have experienced paradigm shifts in our own thinking. Such shifts are achieved by the imagination, enabling us to see everything in a new way. Our rational faculty then tightens our new grip on our reality. Training the imagination is very important if we are to arrive at a deeper apprehension of God’s truth. A trained imagination is better able to purposefully and consciously attempt to re-imagine the world. Those with a trained imagination will be better equipped to imaginatively see the world through the eyes of others and will be better able to come to an understanding of and overcome the limitations of their own vision. The ability to consciously re-imagine our world, to see things differently, is one of the most important abilities that we can develop.

The lack of an appreciation of the essential role played by the imagination and the lack of any training for the imagination seriously weakens theology. Even the sharpest mind can be of very limited use in the absence of a trained imagination. Mere logical consistency seldom solves much, as logic generally operates within the reality that the imagination grants us. Logic merely strengthens or slightly corrects our grip on a particular way of viewing the world; by itself it does not enable us to do what the imagination permits us to do: change our way of viewing completely.

By working in terms of an anthropology that presumes the primacy of the intellect, Reformed Christians have often failed to develop and harness the power of the imagination. We talk a lot about ‘worldviews’, but worldviews are generally understood in very ideological terms. A ‘worldview’ is seen as a set of propositions or a conceptual construct that shapes the way that we view reality. However, such ideological grids do not play anywhere near as much of a role in our vision of reality as Reformed people generally presume. Mere reflection on our day to day lives should expose the weakness of the notion that our engagement with reality is primarily mediated by ideological systems.

In reality, ideological systems only play a relatively limited role in our engagement with, and way of seeing reality. By thinking that practically everything can be reduced to thinking, we have made a huge error. The way that we see and engage with reality has far more to do with practices that we engage in unreflectively, the stories that we live in terms of, the symbols that are significant to us, the technologies that we use, the cultural artefacts that we produce, the communities that we belong to, the questions that we ask, etc. Our ‘worldview’ is, thus, a matter as broad as culture itself and is quite irreducible to mere ideology.

By failing to appreciate this, Reformed churches have often tended to produce a lot of ideologues with stunted imaginations and little in the way of a distinct culture. In addressing their message to the mind and failing to address the imagination, they have left Christians dangerously ill-equipped to engage with the world as Christians. In other Church traditions a rich liturgy, sacramental form of worship, use of the Church calendar and regular readings from the Gospels and OT narratives powerfully form people’s imaginations. Reformed Christians lack almost all of these things.

The Reformed faith centres on slogans (e.g. justification by faith alone, TULIP, the solas, etc.), rather than stories. We focus on a doctrine of justification, often at expense of a story of justification. Our worship does not convey a vision of the world, or even a powerful narrative so much as a mere disembodied set of ideas. Practically every part of Reformed worship is addressed to the mind. Even the sacraments are treated as if they were pictures of ideas. When the Eucharist is celebrated, great effort is often expended to ensure that people know what the rite means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. In most Reformed churches the congregant doesn’t participate much with their body. There is no kneeling, no kiss of peace, no walking, etc. The body is treated as if it were primarily a mind-container.

There is also little engagement with the narrative of Scripture. Bible readings are frequently subordinated to the sermon. The narrative is there to be analyzed from without. We also tend to downplay the biblical narrative in favour of the doctrines of the epistles, abstracting the latter from the former. Even when we do treat the narrative parts of Scripture we tend to focus on extracting the important ideas or moral lessons from the narrative. Seldom do we really encounter the narrative as narrative. In other parts of the Church the Church calendar, for instance, encourages people to read the story of Scripture from within. The sort of relationship that one develops with the narrative of Scripture in a liturgical church is very different from the sort of relationship that one develops in the ideological church, where everything is subordinated to preaching. In the latter type of church the narrative of Scripture tends to become obscured pretty quickly and the idea that the Scriptures narrate a world for us to inhabit seems quite bizarre.

The reason why all of this is so significant is due to the fact that liturgy, ritual and the narrative of Scripture are primarily directed, not to the mind, but to the imagination. Mark Searle expresses the purpose of liturgy and ritual well:

By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.

Kneeling, for example, is not an expression of our humanity: it is more an invitation to discover what reality looks like when we put ourselves in that position. The texts of Scripture and the images of the liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until, gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the “Reality” of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought (at least, not immediately), but to mediate encounter. As Heidegger said in another context: “The point is not to listen to a series of propositions, but to follow the movement of showing.”

So there is a discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating, and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning (the res) which they mediate.

Where such a liturgy is absent, we should not be surprised to find that a Christian imagination is also lacking.

As a result of our neglect of the imagination, when it comes to the arts, I think that Reformed Christians are in real danger of seriously underestimating their significance. The most powerful voices in any society are those prophetic voices that present us with new ways of viewing our world. The prophet or visionary presents people with a vision or picture of the world and people begin to live in terms of this new picture. The prophet tells stories and paints pictures, stories and pictures that reshape people’s ways of seeing their reality. This was one of the purposes of Jesus’ parables, for instance. It is not accidental that movements in philosophy are often deeply born out of movements in the arts. Postmodernism is a wonderful example of this. Movements in art and architecture in many ways prepared the ground for and presaged the later movements in ideas. As the artists developed new ways of seeing the world, the philosophers begin to articulate the inner logic of these new ways of viewing the world.

If I am right in my claim that a true ‘worldview’ is practically identical to ‘culture’, it is worth questioning to what extent we can speak of a Reformed worldview at all. Reformed Christians have an ideological system, but an ideological system is not sufficient to constitute a worldview. If we do have a worldview, it gives us a narrowly intellectual and insubstantial vision of reality. As one poet once claimed, Calvinism takes the Word made flesh and makes it word again. Rather than embodying a new culture, we proclaim a rather abstract doctrinal system. Our message is one of disincarnate ideas and our chief contribution to culture may well be capitalism, which despite all of its benefits, is hardly the product of a particularly rich vision of society.

Largely as a result of its neglect of liturgy, the Reformed faith has not really produced many great artists, poets and writers. Distinctly Reformed contributions to culture are few and far between. The great Christian imaginations tend to arise from Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communities. Those in Reformed circles who do possess deeply Christian imaginations and ways of looking at the world have generally spent formative years in one of these communions, or come from Reformed churches with richer liturgies. Despite the confused character of their faith in many respects, I must acknowledge the strong purchase that Christianity has on the imagination of many of the people I know who have been brought up in churches with rich liturgies. Even many of the great non-Christian writers owe much to the visions of the world given by medieval Christianity, for instance. In the Reformation Reformed Christians corrected dangerous errors in the medieval understanding of Christian truth, but lost much of its imagination and vision.

Not recognizing the full significance of the imagination in shaping us, evangelicals and Reformed Christians are at particular risk when it comes to films and literature. Lacking a deep Christian imagination and intuitive sense of the Christian story we are more vulnerable to being misled by the weak stories and visions that our society presents us with. The right ideas alone cannot protect us from the subtly persuasive power of such visions of reality. On the other hand, we are at risk of failing to appreciate the great benefit that can be gained from reading really good literature. A deep faith needs to draw upon far more than theology volumes and the incarnate truths that we encounter in godly visions of reality in literature and the arts are extremely important for us.

The Christian faith presents us with a beautiful story and a compelling vision of the world. Christianity’s hold on the Western imagination is great, even among those who try to reject the faith. The Christian message appeals to our imagination before it addresses our logic and reason. Unfortunately, the vision of the world that most Christians operate in terms of today is quite anaemic and lacks the fullness of classic Christian thought. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Christianity is becoming less and less of a force within our society. People regard Christians as ideologues rather than as people with a rich cultural vision and grasp of the ‘good life’. Christianity is seen as a set of disincarnate ideas, rather than as a world-encompassing story that we can truly be at home within, a form of renewed life and a fertile vision for culture and society. A Christian recovery of the arts and classic Christian literature is an important step toward reformation in this area.

I am convinced that only Christian faith is capable of sustaining a healthy and robust imagination. Only the Church presents us with a story that is truly big enough to inhabit and a story that fertile enough to enable us to grow. In a society that is losing its imagination, the Church has much to offer as an alternative culture. However, before we seek to reach the world we must first cultivate a new culture and vision of the world within the Church itself. We must recover our own imaginations by re-engaging with the Story of Scripture and immersing ourselves in the liturgy. As our imaginations are reformed and we begin to incarnate a rich vision of life and culture within the Church, people will see Christian faith as God intended it to be seen. In light of all of this proper engagement with the arts and cultivation of the imagination is probably one of the key tasks awaiting any Church concerned about mission. We need to recapture the imagination of our society and to do so we must regain our own and begin to understand the reasons why the imagination of the world around is failing.

Free Online Dating

Apparently I talk about death too much.

The Last Few Days

I am presently back in Stoke-on-Trent for the weekend. My brothers Jonathan and Mark stayed with me for the week and we returned, with most of my belongings, on Friday afternoon. I return to St. Andrews first thing tomorrow morning and will be spending most of the rest of this next week there.

At the Aquarium in St. AndrewsI had a great time with my brothers in St. Andrews. We ate a lot, played a number of card and boardgames and watched a few videos. On their first day up, we visited the castle and cathedral in St. Andrews. I had never been around the castle before and enjoyed looking around. We spent much of the afternoon in St. Andrews’ aquarium.

The next day, Wednesday, we went on a long walk along the coast. The rocks on the coast past the East Sands is one of my favourite places to walk in St. Andrews. MarkFortunately the weather was perfect all afternoon and we were able to enjoy a lot of climbing and walking. We even saw a dead seal. On a nice day there are few better places. You can walk for miles and hardly meet another person.

In the evening I was treated to a meal out for my birthday. We spent the rest of the evening playing card games, chatting and playing computer games. I was also treated to a big chocolate cake. I didn’t get to bed until well past 4:30am. On Thursday we took things easy for most of the day. In the evening we had some friends over for a meal, after which we played card games, chatted for a few hours and played Duck Hunt on an old NES.

Back in Stoke-on-Trent, everything is happening. Jonathan and Monika are about to leave for Tenerife, where they will be working for a year. Mark is about to leave to work as George Verwer’s assistant (or gopher) for a year. My good friends Elbert and Annewieke are preparing to return to the Netherlands. Peter was away at an open day in Oxford University when I first came back, but has since returned. I was treated to another wonderful birthday cake when I returned (thanks Henna!). Yesterday evening we had a party to celebrate the various birthdays (Jonathan, Mark and I) and departures (Jonathan & Monika, Elbert & Annewieke, Mark and Henna) that are about to take place. This afternoon we had a fellowship meal at the church.

The next week will probably be very quiet on the blogging front. I am not sure that I will have any access to a computer. I plan to take a couple of days off (one for some walking or a visit to Edinburgh and another to prepare a big Chinese meal with a friend), but the majority of my time will be occupied tidying up our house before we leave it and getting a lot of other odd jobs done. I will also do some studying. If I am lucky I might be able to fit in some reading of Harry Potter alongside everything else.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

This series of posts follows on from my post entitled ‘The Denominational Church’. My two previous posts can be read here and here. My original post and the two subsequent posts have sparked a number of interesting discussions in various parts of the blogosphere and in the comments. The comments of the posts in question have lengthy discussions of such issues as the content of the gospel, baptismal regeneration, apostolic succession and the primacy of the Roman See.


In such inter-denominational discussions we should always seek to be humble and patient. We have much left to learn from our siblings. However, there is a danger of a false humility in this area. True humility is not unwilling to rebuke a brother in love. There are occasions on which we must rebuke other denominations, for their compromising of the gospel. To fail to do so would constitute a betrayal of the love that we should have for them.

Furthermore, true humility will not deny the light that God has granted to the denominations that we belong to. We may have much still to learn, but God has taught us a lot already. We should not denigrate the work that God has done in us simply because it is still incomplete. We should keep faith with those who have gone before us and value the insights that they have bequeathed to us.


When we begin to appreciate that the Church is far broader than our particular denomination we should begin to appreciate that orthodoxy cannot merely be defined in terms of the particular theological tradition that we are heirs to in our small wing of the Church. If that becomes the touchstone of orthodoxy we are well on the way to becoming sectarians and heretics. Orthodoxy is far more catholic than that. Not only must we keep faith with those who went before us in the history of our particular theological tradition, we must also keep faith, in various ways, with the rest of the wider Church.

This involves, among other things, a recognition that the beliefs that distinguish us from all other denominations are probably not as central to the gospel message as we sometimes are tempted to believe. For instance, TULIP is not the gospel, and it never will be. One can strongly reject TULIP and still hold to the central truths of the gospel, albeit perhaps somewhat inconsistently. Keeping faith with the wider Church must also involve an attempt to confess our Christian faith in language that is recognizable to those outside our immediate communion. Ideally, we would like the rest of the Church to be able to join us in confessing our faith. We don’t expect the rest of the Church to agree with everything that we say, but we do want them to see that we are closely related in many ways.

Sadly, for many denominations orthodoxy is merely a matter of conformity with a particular interpretation of confessional documents from their narrow tradition, without any regard for the wider Church. In such cases we must resist the sectarian majority. Though we might be accused of being unorthodox sectarians, we are not, but simply hold to a bigger view of the Church.


Central to many of the differences between denominations are disagreements about the content of the gospel. In Reformed circles one comes across a number of people, for instance, who insist that those who deny doctrines such as the imputation of Christ’s active obedience are denying the gospel. The gospel is thought to be at stake in debates about such fine details as the correct use of the language of merit or the covenant of works. I humbly submit that these are sure signs that something is seriously wrong.

I believe that a careful examination of the biblical meaning of the term ‘gospel’ can help us considerably here. In the gospels the term ‘gospel’ is used to refer to the message of the coming kingdom. Such a usage is consistent with uses of the language in the LXX (where it is used to refer to the news of victories, or of Messianic restoration and glory) and elsewhere in ancient literature (where, for instance, it refers to the birth of Augustus and the new world order that his birth brought in). This meaning becomes refined as it becomes clear that the kingdom comes in the person of Jesus Christ, through His death, resurrection and ascension as Lord of all. ‘Gospel’ is the narrative of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in history, whether in extended or potted form.

The claim ‘Jesus is Lord/the Christ/the Son of God’ is a claim that sums up the truth that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. This is the central Christian confession; to make this confession is to believe the gospel (Matthew 16:16; Acts 8:37; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 5:1). In the OT the gospel message is the awaited message of God’s saving reign (Isaiah 52:7). The NT gospel is the message that this reign has come in Christ.

This claim should not be taken in abstraction from the gospel narrative, but as that which is designed to summarize it as succinctly as possible. It is the gospel narrative that clarifies exactly what is meant by this claim. For instance, it makes clear that the Jesus is always the crucified Lord and declares His rule to us as the forgiving Lord. This is the claim which draws together all of the various threads of the gospel narrative. In this sense this claim can be said to stand at the heart of the gospel.

There are a number of summaries of the gospel in the Scriptures, ranging from brief statements (e.g. Romans 1:1-5), to more lengthy summaries (e.g. Acts 10:36-43), to full length narratives of the Gospels themselves. Sometimes the gospel message focuses on the Lordship of Christ as a message of final judgment (e.g. Romans 2:16), on other occasions on Christ as the risen Davidic Messiah (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:8), on other occasions the death of Christ is central (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:17-18). The gospel is for Paul, clearly the gospel ‘of Christ’, even if this is less accented in the Synoptic Gospels.

From the various biblical usages we can see that the gospel message includes a number of regularly recurring elements. F.F. Bruce writes as follows:

The basic elements in the message were these: 1. the prophecies have been fulfilled and the new age inaugurated by the coming of Christ; 2. he was born into the family of David; 3. he died according to the Scriptures, to deliver his people from this evil age; 4. he was buried, and raised again the third day, according to the Scriptures; 5. he is exalted at God’s right hand as Son of God, Lord of living and dead; 6. he will come again, to judge the world and consummate his saving work.

I find this summary helpful. Speaking in terms of ‘deliverance from this evil age’ helps to clarify what is meant by the gospel declaration of the ‘forgiveness of sins’. The ‘forgiveness of sins’ is an eschatological and national blessing (cf. Jeremiah 31:34), without ceasing to be deeply personal. Bruce’s definition is also potentially weakened by failing to mention the Jew-Gentile dimension of the gospel message.

This definition of the gospel is more or less what we find in the ecumenical creeds. When a Roman Catholic believes what the Nicene Creed says, he is believing the gospel, even if nothing is said about imputed righteousness. Such doctrines, important though they are, are not central to what the Scriptures refer to as the ‘gospel’.


In much post-Reformation debate the word ‘gospel’ has taken on something of a life of its own. The word is used to speak of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (as articulated by the Reformers) and other such truths. The problem here is not that these doctrines are unbiblical, but that this is not what the word ‘gospel’ actually means. In Scripture the gospel is the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God and the gospel is summed up in the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’, the claim that the kingdom has actually come in Christ.

The nature of the kingdom that has come and the character of its Lord is, of course, deeply significant in Scripture. Used in the wrong way, the claim ‘Jesus is Lord’ could be quite misleading. For instance, Jesus is not Lord in the way that many among the Jews would have anticipated Him to be.

All of this said, the gospel is not primarily a message about how individuals can go to heaven when they die, but is the proclamation of the advent of God’s kingdom in history. Sadly many Protestants use the word ‘gospel’ to refer to the way of individual salvation and lose sight of the importance of the word’s connection with the kingdom of God. People are certainly saved within the kingdom of God, but the message that they are saved by believing is the message of the kingdom’s arrival in Christ, not a timeless message of how an individual can get right with a holy God by justification through faith.

Many post-Reformation uses of the word ‘gospel’ have been driven primarily by theological and pastoral concerns and have obscured the biblical usage of the term. While sympathizing with many of these theological and pastoral concerns, I believe that we need to be careful to use the word ‘gospel’ in the manner in which the Scriptures use it. Opposing ‘Gospel’ with ‘Law’, for instance, breeds confusion as the NT does not use the terms ‘Gospel’ and ‘Law’ in the same theological sense that Luther and his heirs do. This is not to deny the great value of Luther’s theological insight. It is simply an expression of my disappointment that he choose to frame many of his insights in the terms that he did. Many Protestant uses of the term ‘Gospel’, for all of their valid theological concerns, have allowed the term to diverge in meaning from that of the Scriptures. The gospel has become closer to a declaration about the ordo salutis than a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in history in and through Jesus the Messiah.


A simplistic distinction between believing the gospel and obeying the Law, for instance, can be deeply misleading. One is also called to believe the Law and to obey the Gospel. The gospel message is a message of the Lordship of Christ, which demands obedience (cf. 1 Peter 4:17; Luke 3:18). In proclaiming the Gospel of Christ we must call people to obey everything that He has commanded us (Matthew 28:20).

If the gospel is the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or the message that Christ is Lord and Judge of all, it is a message that calls for obedience, an obedience that we will one day be judged on. John the Baptist, for example, can ‘evangelize’ (Luke 3:18) people by proclaiming the coming kingdom and wrath of God and calling people to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’ if they are going to escape imminent judgment. If the biblical meaning of the term ‘Gospel’ were prominent in our mind this would appear entirely natural to us. However, as we tend to think in terms of categories that have become quite detached from those of Scripture, John’s preaching on such occasions strikes us as ‘Law’.


After my original post, a discussion arose on the Boar’s Head Tavern, helpfully summarized here. The discussion started with the distinction between a map and a territory as an analogy for the relationship between our theologies and God’s truth. This discussion, in turn, was discussed by Macht, on his blog Prosthesis.

I am not sure that I find the map metaphor the most best, although I think that it is not a bad one. Maps are spatializing and totalizing and the map-reader is not necessarily rooted in the territory. Perhaps it would be better to speak in terms of ‘itineraries’. In theology we don’t hold all of the terrain in our gaze from a great height, but navigate it on the ground, following particular paths and observing the details along the path.

We always follow itineraries, whether we intend to or not, although I for one do not generally travel with much of a map in my head. However, there are many ways of narrating the itinerary that will take us via one path, rather than others.

The gospel is the safe path that we must take. The various itineraries that we narrate must retain the simplicity of this path. Losing the traveller is the worst crime that such an itinerary can commit and, for this reason, nothing should be kept clearer and simpler than the path.

Nevertheless, such an itinerary ought also to draw the traveller’s gaze to the wonderful complexity of his surroundings, without focusing his attention too much on easy to miss or doubtful details that may result in his losing sight of his path. An itinerary should also not make the path any narrower than it needs to be. For instance, provided that you are on the right path, the side of the street on which you are walking is probably not a matter to be that concerned about.

Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.

The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.

Itineraries can become confusing when misleading details are included. In a number of the different narrations of the itinerary that we must follow to remain on the path of the gospel, details are included that are potentially vague or misleading. As these details are emphasized, we are in danger of ending up at a different destination altogether. Even if we remain on the right path we will be unsure of whether we are and will only able to proceed hesitantly.

In following the itinerary of the gospel we are not merely tracing a route on a map of the territory with our finger, but are actually on a journey through the territory, on a pilgrimage towards God. We have many fellow-travellers. Some walk on the other side of the street. Some are looking out for street names, others are counting the number of their steps, still others are paying attention to the names of the different shops along the way. Some look confused and perhaps a little bit lost, failing to see a particular landmark or feature that that they were trying to look for. Some decide to leave the main path to try to find an easier route through the side streets. Others are rejoining the path after having been lost for a while. In such a situation a good itinerary is invaluable if we want to travel confidently towards our destination. However, our particular itinerary is not the path. There are those who find the way to the destination, even though they are using very poor itineraries.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

Following on from my previous post.


Lesslie Newbigin writes:

The church, therefore, as it is in via, does not face the world as the exclusive possessor of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part, the answer to the questions they ask, or the open revelation of what they are anonymously. The church faces the world, rather, as arrabon of that salvation — as sign, firstfruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole. It can do so only because it lives by the Word and sacraments of the gospel by which it is again and again brought to judgment at the foot of the cross. And the bearer of that judgment may well be and often is a man or woman of another faith (cf. Luke 11:31-32). The church is in the world as the place where Jesus, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells, is present, but it is not itself that fullness. It is the place where the filling is taking place (Eph. 1:23). It must therefore live always in dialogue with the world, bearing its witness to Christ but always in such a way that it is open to receive the riches of God that belong properly to Christ but have to be brought to him. This dialogue, this life of continuous exchange with the world, means that the church itself is changing. It must change if “all that the Father has” is to be given to it as Christ’s own possession (John 16:14-15). It does change. Very obviously the church of the Hellenic world in the fourth century was different from the church that met in the upper room in Jerusalem. It will continue to change as it meets ever new cultures and lives in faithful dialogue with them.

God shapes and moulds His Church by bringing it into dialogue with the cultures that He places it among. God raises up enemies such as Islam; as the Church engages with such enemies it is matured and comes to a deeper understanding of herself. God also gives His Church the best of the wisdom of the Greeks and the insights of other cultures.

We are living in exciting times today, the gospel is making new breakthroughs in Africa, Asia and South America. Cultures that have been developing for millennia are suddenly brought into dialogue with the gospel for the first time. Who can say what new insights might emerge from the exciting new dialogues that are beginning? Who can say how African readings of the Scriptures might lead us to exciting new readings of Paul? Who can say what light Asian Christianity might be able to shed on the significance of biblical symbolism, for instance?


When God first created man He placed him in a garden surrounded by lands with great natural riches. Man was called to go out into the wider world and glorify the garden with the riches that he found. In the book of Revelation we see the glorified garden city that results from this process. The city is of pure gold, adorned with precious stones and with gates of pearl. All the riches of the world, the riches of the earth and the riches of the sea, have gone into its construction.

I believe that God is active in history, and that He is active in all of history. In the OT God was not merely providentially shaping Israel, but was providentially shaping tribes in the Amazon rainforest. The various cultures that God has shaped are analogous to the natural riches of the world of the world surrounding the garden of Eden. God has spent centuries or millennia moulding these cultures so that one day they may be glorified and may serve to enrich the great Temple that He is constructing in the Church.

Christ is Lord of all and all of the cultural riches scattered throughout the world belong to Him. He is gathering all of these riches into His Church. When the gospel goes into a new culture, we are not merely bringing God’s riches to a new place, but God is giving us new cultural riches with which to build the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the things that makes missionary work so significant and exciting. Missionary work can be like seeking buried treasure. We really do not know what insights God might have hidden for the building up of Christ’s body in some isolated people group in Polynesia, for instance.


It is incredibly sad to see the absence of cross-cultural theological dialogue in many parts of the Church when we have so much to gain from such dialogue. There are some who believe that missionary efforts merely involves transplanting our cultural forms of Christianity into foreign settings. The goal of missionary activity, for instance, becomes that of getting African Christians to think in terms of the Westminster Standards. The idea that our form of the Christian faith, deeply culturally conditioned as it is, might have a lot to learn from humble dialogue with more indigenous African forms of Christianity never seems to occur to us.

For instance, the Westminster Standards are the sort of documents that one would expect seventeenth century northern Europeans, trained in Western forms of logic and rhetoric (their Anglo-Saxon background muted by the academy), living in a culture where the Christian faith is pretty well established, to produce. They are deeply culturally conditioned. I imagine that if the Christian Church were faithfully to express its faith in terms of an African tribal culture, it would look surprisingly different, without ceasing to continue significant similarities. I firmly believe that God desires that we encourage the development of such indigenous declarations of faith and that we learn from each other as we engage in cross-cultural dialogue within the new culture that God is creating within the Church.


The Church does not yet have the fullness of that which God intends for it. The fullness belongs to Christ and He is gradually bringing it into the Church as the Church enters into dialogue with new cultures. However, this dialogue does not merely take place between the Church and the various cultures; it is also a conversation within the Church, between various denominations.

Within the various denominations we see many different perspectives on God’s truth. Different denominations have different emphases and insights on God’s truth. None of this is to suggest that all perspectives are in any way equally valid or significant. Nor is it to deny that there are occasions when certain faulty perspectives need to be opposed in the strongest possible manner. As in the case of dialogue between the Church and the cultures, there is a lot that must be rejected in other denominations, even where hidden treasures exist.


God is a god who separates in order to prepare the way for a more glorious union. God breaks the union of Adam’s body by removing a rib in order to make possible the union of marriage. God breaks the union between son and parents in order to form the union between man and wife. God breaks the union between the nations at Babel so that He might one day form a more glorious Nation. God separates Jew from Gentile in order that through the Jews He might bring salvation to the Gentiles and of the two form one new people. Christ’s body is broken and given to us so that a new body in which we are united to Him may be formed.

The separation, considered apart from the new union can seem like a loss and a tragedy. However, viewed as the precondition for a future more glorious union, God’s breaking of our premature unions is an act of grace. God takes apart that which is good so that we might one day enjoy that which is better still.

I believe that this is what God has done in His Church. God separated His Church into East and West. He separated His Church again in the Reformation. The rise of many denominations is a further split that He has brought about. This state of division is hardly the end that God intends. God did not take a rib from Adam so that Adam might lack a rib, but so that Adam might have a wife. In the same way, God split His Church so that the Church might one day enjoy a more glorious union. I am firmly convinced that the state of division that the Church currently experiences is not a state that will prevail throughout history.


In a prematurely united Church, the tendency would be to paper over certain theological cracks. We don’t like to admit that our great theological paradigms are incomplete and have serious problems. There are certain questions that we don’t want to ask ourselves, certain faults that we don’t wish to face. There are deep-rooted problems that have been masked for so long that we lack the power to see them ourselves and need others to identify them for us.

This is one reason why theological dialogue with one’s critics is so important. All of our theological systems are incomplete and faulty. None will endure forever. Our critics are often in a better position to identify the weaknesses of our positions, just as we are often in a better position to identify theirs. In His grace God has given us perceptive critics so that He might mature us and lead us deeper into His truth.

I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.


Some will protest that, in most of the debates between denominations, one party is straightforwardly right and the other party is straightforwardly wrong. For instance they will insist that, in the debates between Baptists and paedobaptists on the question of paedobaptism, both cannot be right and at least one party is quite wrong. Writing as someone who is convinced that the Baptism of infants is supported by Scripture in a number of ways, I think that this would be a good example to deal with. If paedobaptism is justified by Scripture what sort of lessons might God want to teach His Church through the witness of the Baptists within her on this particular issue?

I believe that such a question should not be viewed in abstraction from history. The Baptist position arises within a Church that has undergone a particular historical development and faces particular challenges in the future. The Church’s historical development was far from tidy and in certain areas the Church’s practice and theology developed like a crooked bone growth. In such a situation God breaks the bone in order to reset it. I believe that this might provide a helpful perspective on the development of the paedobaptist position that Baptist theology arose in response to. The following is a sketchy reading of Church history, designed to illustrate the corrective purpose that Baptist theology may be designed to perform in this area.


In the earliest Church most of the baptisms would be ‘convert’ baptisms of adult individuals and of households (some of which would, I believe, have included infants). However, as the Church became more settled one would expect to have more baptisms of infants by themselves. The book of Acts and the Pauline epistles generally address fairly young communities, where most of the baptisms that would have taken place would have been household or adult individual baptisms. However, later in the second and third centuries, infant baptisms began to become more common. Later in history they were to become the norm.

The shift in emphasis from adult Baptism to infant Baptism in Church history is not primarily a theological shift, but one that results from changing historical circumstances. Such a change is quite significant. In the case of household baptisms and the baptisms of adult individuals, personal faith is quite prominent. The head of the household or adult convert has personally come to faith. In the case of the head of the household, this change of allegiance is one to which his household would generally submit and be included within.

A situation in which each generation has only experienced baptism as infants is quite different and personal faith can often be eclipsed. The same could be said in the case of circumcision to some extent: the strong connection between circumcision and personal faith in the case of Abraham was in danger of being lost where circumcision became something that every Israelite boy received at the age of eight days. Moses and the prophets had to remind the people of this connection on a number of occasions.

In such a changed situation, the understanding of the meaning of Baptism and its connection with faith will most likely change somewhat as well. Root metaphors might shift; for example, Baptism as ‘death and resurrection’ seems a less obvious metaphor for the Baptism of infants.

In the earliest churches most baptisms would be baptisms of converts and their families. Infant baptisms would be less regular. Those baptized as infants in such a situation (second generation Christians) would grow up in a context where adult convert baptisms still predominated. Third, fourth and later generation Christians would begin to face a different situation, however. They would live in a Church where infant baptisms predominated. In the Middle Ages infant baptisms so predominated in some places that adult convert baptisms would have been very rare.

All of this results in a dramatic shift in the Church’s experience of Baptism. The NT and earliest Church texts were written into a context where adult Baptism (not understood as a theological position) predominated. The baptismal liturgies would have been designed for adult converts. When infant baptisms would have occurred they would generally have taken place in the context of adult conversions. As the situation developed, however, infant baptisms would increasingly take place by themselves as discrete events from the baptisms of adult converts. This would begin to raise problems as the Church’s theology of Baptism and baptismal liturgies had to cope with its changing experience of Baptism. Baptismal liturgies originally intended for adults would have to be altered to deal with situations in which no adults were being baptized.

The meaning of infant Baptism (more understandable in the case of household Baptism) would begin to become problematic. A theology of Baptism addressed primarily to a situation in which adult convert baptisms were being practiced would have to negotiate with a Church where such baptisms were uncommon. It seems to me that these problems would become increasingly acute among third and later generation Christians and, for this reason, it does not surprise me that we find the Church of the third and following couple of centuries struggling to marry its theology of Baptism and the predominating practice of infant Baptism.

Infant baptisms would not originally have been treated as a special case demanding particular justification, but would have been understood in relation to the convert baptisms that took place within the Church. As time went on the Church’s experience of Baptism changed as infant baptisms became more common, to the stage that they were the norm. This would exert pressure on the Church’s theology and liturgy, which were designed for a very different situation.

In this new situation, infant baptisms would come to be regarded in abstraction from adult convert baptisms and certain theological themes and liturgical practices that were prominent in the Church’s understanding and administration of Baptism would seem to be less applicable in the case of infants. This would lead to the raising of questions about the theological basis of the practice (not so much in order to justify the practice as in order to understand its necessity, which wasn’t properly illuminated by the Church’s existing theology of Baptism).

I think this is part of the reason why we find the historical record that we do. I also think that this helps us to appreciate that groups like the Anabaptists were largely raising tensions that hadn’t yet been truly resolved by the tradition. The pre-Reformation Church generally celebrated infant Baptism as a form of clinical Baptism and chrismation and first communion came to be deferred. It is hardly a sign of a healthy situation when Baptism is separated from itself and from the Eucharist like this and the baptized are only half initiated into the life of the Church. Whilst I disagree with the Anabaptists’ theology, I think that they helped to highlight problems that had never been completely addressed. The Church had never completely come to terms with the predominance of infant Baptism. I think that the Anabaptist movement, by raising the problem again, challenged the Church to do a better job than it did the first time around.


The earliest Jewish Church was also, to some extent, an ecclesiola in ecclesia. It was a new community within the larger community of Israel and for a number of years the ties between the Church and the more general worship of Israel persisted. Whilst the Church was clearly also a distinct community in its own right, this continued connection to the wider worship of Israel would have shaped its self-understanding in various ways. The Church inherited the role of the prophets, forming new communities within the larger community as a testimony to it, preparing the nucleus of the people of God that would be preserved through and established after divine judgment.

Many within the early Church were observant Jews and synagogue-worshippers, who would have continued in these practices as Christians. Their sense of being a community separate from and in opposition to other Jewish communities would have been less pronounced. In such settings the Church would have had a self-understanding of its community that differed somewhat from that which would develop when a complete split with the worship of the Jews had occurred. The Church would primarily be regarded as the nucleus of God’s restored people within the larger body of the people of God, not yet a completely distinct people. In such an understanding of the place and significance of the Church the role of confessing mature believers would be highlighted and infants, though seen as part of the community, would be more secondary, less the nucleus of God’s restored people as those who were being gathered around this new nucleus.

Much of the teaching of the gospel (the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) is addressed to such ‘prophetic communities’. These prophetic communities would have been formed of adult, predominantly male, disciples. These prophetic communities existed as the centre around which the new people of God were to be formed, the spearhead of the new movement that God was bringing about. A number of similar movements have developed within Church history. Communities arise, designed to play a prophetic role to the people of God as a whole, modelling a new form of faithful living that has been lacking within the wider Church. Monasticism is a good example of such a movement.

I believe that an ecclesiola in ecclesia can do immense good for the Church. These spearhead movements call the Church to mature forms of faithfulness and conformity to God’s Word. In a Church where everyone has been baptized as an infant, such movements are immensely important, calling for costly discipleship and voluntary personal commitment. Such prophetic communities serve as cities on a hill, modelling heroic faithfulness to the Church as a whole. In so doing they serve a purpose similar to that which the disciples of Jesus and John the Baptist played in relation to Israel.

The spiritual affinity between the Anabaptists and such movements as the Franciscans has been noted by a number of people. I believe that part of God’s purpose in raising up such movements is to ensure that His Church does not forget the message of such passages as the Sermon on the Mount. Whilst the community is larger than the nucleus, having a nucleus of mature and committed disciples in crucial for the health and growth of the Church. Baptists and Anabaptists, in reminding the Church of this fact, have done immense good. I believe that their testimony and example has borne fruit in many parts of the wider Church.


Of course, this entire process is not a one-way affair. Paedobaptists are also a means of teaching Baptists that, despite the importance of mature and committed discipleship as that which sets the tone for the rest of the Church, the Church is not merely composed of those who have arrived at a mature profession of faith. In God’s wisdom He has brought infants into His family. Infants remind us of our own impotence and strengthen the Church by means of the common concern that the Church has for their development in the faith. Just as the birth of a child transforms the new mother and father and is a means by which God greatly matures them (in every sense of the word!) and reforms them into a family, so it is with infants in the Church. God gives adult believers weak infants to humble them, remind them of their impotence and encourage them to grow. God gives weak infants strong adult believers in order to ensure that they are raised in the faith and one day become strong adult believers themselves.

A Church in which there are no weak infants and everyone is expected to manifest a heroic personal faith commitment can be unforgiving and tend towards rigorism. A Church in which there are no mature adult believers will soon become compromised in belief and practice and lack direction.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

Following on from my thoughts in the previous post, I have decided to write a few follow-up posts on the subject of denominations, Church union and reunion.


When Christ founded His Church, He founded it to be a growing and maturing, rather than a static and unchanging entity. Primitivist ecclesiologies are suspect for this reason. The NT pattern of the Church is normative in certain respects, but is designed to be outgrown in others. Christ wants His Church to become more glorious with age and a reversion to the more simple worship and structures of a past age can be a step in the wrong direction.


In the OT we see God directing the flow of history for the purpose of maturing His covenant people. He moulds and transforms His people through a number of powerful events and experiences. He builds up His people and then breaks them down, in order that they might be refashioned into something newer and more mature.

In the OT God takes a family group of nomadic shepherds and brings them into Egypt. In Egypt He breaks them down. In the Exodus He reforms the people under the leadership of Moses and elders and then later forms them into a priestly nation around the worship of the tabernacle. He settles them in the land as a group of tribes under the leadership of judges. Later He breaks apart this order in various ways. The tabernacle order is gradually dismantled and a united kingdom is formed under Saul and David. God later causes the kingdom to be split and begins to form new communities around the prophets. He then deconstructs the old order even further when Israel and then Judah are overcome and exiled. The reformed people that we see in Ezra and Nehemiah are no longer split into two groups as the old kingdom was, but have become one whole people.

Through this process the people of God changed radically and became something quite different from what they were at first. While the historical process by which the people were transformed may at first appear to be without specific direction or purpose, closer examination will reveal that God’s hand is within it all. In all of the fine details we can see the hand of a master Potter at work, shaping His creation into something fit for His glory.


When we think about God’s formation of His people we are in danger of focusing too much on the agency of direct revelation, particularly in the form of ideas, God moulding His people by revealing new doctrines and truths about Himself to them. However, if we truly believe that God governs the course of history we need to take seriously the fact that God forms, takes apart and reforms His people through His general governance of the flow of history. Our minds and characters are formed just as powerfully — probably far more powerfully — by the experiences and events that we undergo than they are by new ideas that we come in contact with. Certain experiences can attune us and make us receptive to ways of thinking that we would not otherwise have appreciated.

God raises up enemies for His people. God causes old orders to shatter and raises up leaders and visionaries who can bring in new ones. In 1 Kings 12:15 & 24, we see that God’s purpose and agency was behind the split of the kingdom of Israel. The split of the kingdom profoundly shaped the consciousness of the people of God in the years that followed. After this event they had to learn to think of themselves in a very different way. During the time of the united kingdom their identity may have been strongly rooted in having a Davidic king over a union of the twelve tribes. After the split of the kingdom they had to learn to think differently in a situation for which there was no obvious precedent. Such historical events reshape a people far more than mere ideas often can.


Within the new order formed by the split of the nation there would probably have been those who would have taken the old order as normative, insisting that only those under the Davidic king were the true people of God, and claiming that the nation would only know true unity when the northern kingdom ceased its rebellion and returned to its God-appointed ruler. The problem with such claims is that they fail to factor in the manner in which God’s agency was at work in the split. God took the kingdom away from the Davidic king because of the rebellion of his house (1 Kings 11:11). The primary rebellion was not the rebellion of the ten northern tribes, but of the Davidic king.

Furthermore, God continued to deal with both the northern and southern kingdoms as His people. In the way that He dealt with the two kingdoms He did not underwrite either of their claims to being His one true people.


God’s guidance of history in order to form His people did not cease in the first century AD. The Church has changed considerably since it was first founded and continues to do so. God continues to mature His people and the process is far from complete yet. We will continually face the temptation of regarding one era of history as normative and, in so doing, refuse to mature into the sort of people that God would have us be. Old wineskins that we have become quite attached to will have to be permitted to burst, in order that new wineskins might be given.

For instance, the maturation of the Church did not cease at Westminster in the 1640s. There will come a time (indeed, it may already have come) when we are called to allow the order of the Westminster Standards to break apart, so that something more glorious can come. Like old shoes, such orders in the Church serve well for a time, before they develop holes and start to hinder rather than encourage further growth, causing the Church to hobble in pain, when they should be enabling her to run with ease.


The sort of biblical analogies that I have briefly sketched above can help us in thinking about such events in Church history such as the Reformation. If we truly believe that God’s guidance of history hasn’t ceased and that He is still moulding and forming, breaking down and reforming, His people through historical events we will have new perspectives with which to view these sorts of events.

Through the Reformation God created a very new order within the Church. Whatever our convictions regarding the biblical character of the claims made by the Reformers, if we truly believe that God continues to form His people through His providential guidance of the course of history, we must wrestle with the question of why God saw fit to split His Church at the Reformation.

While many Protestants will claim that the split at the Reformation was purely a matter of God separating His true people from a false church and delivering them from a Babylonian captivity, I am not so sure that it is that simple. On the Roman Catholic side there are those who will insist that there has to be only one Church and that Protestants have left this Church by rejecting the authority of the pope over them. Once again, I think that the reality is more complex than this.


As in the case of the split of Israel, I don’t think that God straightforwardly supports either side’s ecclesial claims against the other. The subsequent history of Israel and Judah shows that splits in the government of the people of God do not necessarily destroy the oneness of the people of God in other respects. The people of God remain one by virtue of their covenant relationship with Him, even if they are scattered among many different church structures. Against Roman Catholic claims, the unity of the people of God is not ultimately dependent upon being under the Pope. The unity of the Church is found in its relationship to Christ.

None of this is to deny the desideratum of visible and even institutional unity. My point is rather that such institutional and governmental unity is not absolutely essential to the unity of the Church. Just as in the case of Israel and Judah, the essential unity of the people of God is found in their relationship to Him. The two nations continued to be related to each other by virtue of this fact.


Then John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is for us.” — Luke 9:49-50


As Peter Leithart has observed, the root cause of the split in the Church at the time of the Reformation was the Church’s tolerance of idolatrous practices and ways of thinking about salvation. This was also that which led to the split of Israel. God’s judgment upon the Davidic dynasty was not, however, a rejection of the Davidic dynasty from the purpose that God had mapped out for it. In the case of the Reformation, I believe that we can recognize the necessity of the split, without denying that God may have a future planned in which the Bishop of Rome has an important role to play. The Reformation was a judgment of God upon unfaithful Church leaders, but God did not leave the Roman Catholic churches entirely desolate, just as He left two tribes with Rehoboam.


The division between Roman Catholics and Protestants is not merely a judgment of God upon unfaithfulness, but also serves the purpose of quarantine. As long as idolatry in its various forms persists, reunion is forbidden as it is dangerous. Righteous kings of the southern kingdom of Judah were forbidden from close alliances with unrighteous kings from the northern kingdom for this reason. However, even though Judah could not reunite with Israel, God’s Spirit was quite active in the land of Israel, breaking apart and reforming a people for God.

Even in our own day and age, God is at work in places where He has forbidden us to go for our own safety. God is working in and with people in heretical churches, in compromised churches, in liberal churches. These are spiritual ‘hard-hat’ areas, which is why God forbids us to go there. However, we ought to recognize and be thankful for what God is doing in such places and pray for its increase.


God forms us personally through periods of illness. I grew more as Christian through long-term illness than I did through anything else. Many years of developing theological understanding has affected my faith less than a prolonged period of illness did. God uses such things to cause us to mature and I believe that He does the same in the life of His Church. The Church needs to develop a more robust theological immune system over time. God permits parts of His Church to succumb to the disease of error for a time. Bringing His people through the disease and through the lengthy subsequent convalescence is one of the ways in which God humbles and matures His people.

Not every illness is unto death. There are many of us who are thankful in many respects for having experienced prolonged illness. It alerts us to the value of the health that we had previously taken for granted, it occasions a reassessment of priorities, causes us to be more careful about preserving our health in the future and matures us as persons.

In the pride of our assumed orthodoxy we can rush to the task of writing ungracious obituaries in advance as soon as we see serious error in a church. I suggest that we need to be more cautious. In God’s providence He may choose to permit the errors of liberalism to ravage a denomination, before gradually restoring it to a new health. The disease may be the consequence of sin, but we should not presume that God desires the death of the sufferer.


We can often take a posture similar to that of Jonah in relation to Nineveh. We see the liberal church and delight to pronounce divine judgment upon it, not thinking that God may have a purpose of surprising grace in the situation. The story seldom ends in quite the same way as we think that it will do. Our God is a god who adds the twist to every tale.

It has been almost five hundred years since the Reformation began and yet, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise over the last centuries, the Roman Catholic church is still with us. In fact there are exciting signs of new life in many quarters. There has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship. Among the laity in many areas there has been an increased reading of the Bible. As Mark Noll has observed, with the new Catholic lectionary more Scripture is read in Catholic worship than is read in many Protestant congregations. Some of the finest theology of the last century has come from Roman Catholics. Undoubtedly many of the errors are still widespread. However, the story is far from over. I would not be surprised if God still has wonderful purposes for the Roman Catholic church.


As liberals and Roman Catholics return from the far country, our Father, who has wept over them and long desired their restoration, runs out to meet them with open arms and showers them with His gifts. What will we do? Will we rejoice in their restoration, or will we be more concerned that God acknowledge our superiority over them? Will we find ourselves left outside, while God uses the prodigals to accomplish His great works in the world? Will we be prepared to submit to God’s wisdom if it is through the work of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals and Baptists that He chooses to deepen the Church’s understanding of His Word over the next century and accomplish a new great reformation? For all of our trumpeting about the gospel of grace, are we at risk of forgetting that it has the uncanny habit of bringing unexpected endings to the stories that we find ourselves in?


I say then, have the Roman Catholics stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, God’s blessing has come to the Protestants. Now if the fall of the Catholics brings riches for us, and their failure blessings for the Protestants, how much more their fullness!

The Denominational Church

After the passing of the FV/NPP report at the recent PCA GA, Jim Cassidy counsels proponents of the FV:

Is there not, brothers, safety in a multitude of counselors? I’ve read some of the responses already by FVers. And quite frankly, I am surprised. They are disappointed, but there is no sign among them that perhaps they might be wrong. Brothers, the vast majority of the Reformed church in America has said that the FV is out of accord with the Westminster Standards. Does that not at least give you some pause? I mean, if my brothers spoke so loudly and in such unison to me about my views on a given issue, I would be trembling. Maybe I am weak in my nerves, but when the corporate body of Christ speaks with such unison, I am humbled. Yes, assemblies and counsels may err, but this is the Visible Church speaking here! Aren’t we to have a high regard for the Visible Church? Is she not our nursing mother to feed and nourish us spiritually? Has she not spoken a word of admonition to you? Do you not honor her? Do you not heed the voice of your spiritual mother?

The problem with all of this is that the PCA and OPC are not — and I know that some of you might find this hard to believe! — the ‘corporate body of Christ’ speaking in ‘unison’. I am not sure that it is appropriate to accord ecclesial status to such bodies, even on the local level. The same can be said of any denominational organization or local denominational church.

One of the problems that we have to face is that, in the age of denominations, we cannot simply take the ecclesiologies of previous generations and apply them directly to the local denominational congregations that we attend. The problem of denominations is not, as some suggest, something that originated primarily in the Reformation. There were divisions in the larger Church before the Reformation. However, there was not a proliferation of denominational churches on the local level. Even after the Reformation in a number of places this remained largely the case. Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed churches were not originally denominational churches in the quite the same way that Baptist, Methodist and other such churches were.

That situation has long since changed. However, it is important that we appreciate the type of ecclesiastical situation within which people like Calvin formed their ecclesiologies. The Reformed Church of Geneva was not quite the same sort of entity as a local PCA congregation. Its ecclesial status was far less questionable, as it was far closer to the biblical model of a local church. Our world, in which everyone chooses to belong to some denomination or other (where everyone is, technically speaking, a ‘heretic’), is far removed from the sort of world that the early Reformers thought within. Consequently, we must give serious attention to the disanalogy that exists between their situation and our own when reading their ecclesiologies.

The Church that we now belong to has changed radically since the age of the Reformation and we need to think theologically about the situation that now faces us. In particular, we need to question the ecclesial status of confessional churches. This is something that has been argued by a number of people, from the Orthodox John Zizioulas to the Presbyterian John Frame. The Church — whether local or universal — is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The same cannot be said of the local denominational congregation. There are countless denominations, so it is utterly inappropriate to speak of them as ‘one’. As John Frame observes:

The church is holy, not in that all Christians and congregations are morally perfect, but in that God has set his church apart from all other institutions in a special relationship to him. But Scripture gives us no reason to believe that God has placed any human denomination in such a special category, except insofar as it is part of the church as a whole. Among those denominations which are truly parts of the body of Christ, none is in this sense any more holy than the others.

The local denominational church is certainly not ‘catholic’. Even in addition to their exclusion of those of other denominations, local denominational congregations often have an attendance that is weighted strongly in favour of people from particular class, ethnic, linguistic and educational backgrounds. Different denominations tend to attract different kinds of people. For instance, you are often more likely to find the local evangelist attending a non-Reformed evangelical congregation. The local expository preacher and exegete is less likely to be within the charismatic congregation down the road.

The local Church that you belong to is not the local denominational congregation that you attend, important though that congregation is. Biblically speaking, the local Church that you belong to is defined more by geographical than denominational or confessional lines. The local denominational congregation that you attend might be more closely analogous to a Gentile Christian group in Antioch in the first century. Such a group is part of the local Church, but it is not the local Church. The local Church includes Jews and Greeks, male and female, slave and free. In our situations, the local Church will probably include Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals.

In light of this, we should beware of giving too much loyalty to denominations. The work of God in our areas far exceeds the work that He is doing through our particular denomination. We need to become more concerned about the progress of this larger work than we are about the progress of the cause of our denominations. We need to become more committed to the larger cause of God in our area than we are to preserving our particular denomination’s identity. We may be a Puritan of the Puritans — concerning the confessions, a Westministerian — but be called to count this identity as loss, so that we might better serve the Church of God in our locality. The fact that we often value such denominational and theological identities more than we value the local Church that God has placed us in is a tragedy.

In the situation of disunity that we find ourselves in, the task of working towards unity between denominations is a difficult one. Unity must always be in the truth. For this reason unity with ungodly groups is very dangerous and sectarian, tending away from the unity that God calls us to strive for. However, this doesn’t mean that we can write off unfaithful denominations altogether. Roman Catholics, for instance, are still Christians, just as the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were still the people of God (and treated as such by the prophets), despite their many idolatries. We should still work towards unity in such cases, even though full institutional unity is impossible as long as things remain as they are.

There are a number of important practical steps that we can take in the direction of unity. One of the things that saddens me is witnessing the manner in which many Reformed people will condemn those who do not hold to precise formulations of doctrines such as the imputation of the active obedience of Christ or the covenant of works. Such doctrines are not the gospel and are not of primary importance. They are ways in which many of our forefathers sought to protect the truth of the gospel, but they are not themselves the gospel. To make such doctrines essential to the gospel is a deeply sectarian move. Those who make such theological moves often see themselves to be protecting the purity of the Church, when they are actually isolating themselves from the rest of the Church.

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

Our theological dialect is merely one expression of the Christian faith (even supposing that it is a better expression than others). Such a degree of dissociation between these two things is important. We must remember that our dialect is not a language in its own right and that we need to ensure that we do not make ourselves incomprehensible to others who share that language with us. Many theologians do not engage with many beyond the small circles of their own theological traditions. Consequently, their regional dialect is very much in evidence. Should a visitor from a different theological land happen upon their writings, they would find it very hard to understand them.

In many of the current theological debates we face problems of dialects vs. the language. For instance, ‘baptismal regeneration’ is well-established language in the Christian tradition. Many Reformed Christians and evangelicals fiercely resist using such language to speak of their theological positions. I believe that in such instances we should go out of our way to try to find appropriate ways to use the common language. The fact that such language has become problematic in our theological dialects is probably a good sign that we need to bring our dialects back into greater conformity with the language of the rest of the Church, lest we become sectarian and incomprehensible to other Christians.

They are few things more frustrating than trying to speak to someone with a very strange dialect, with a very peculiar vocabulary and grammar, who blames you for not being able to understand him. Theological traditions that develop such peculiar vocabularies should do their best to keep them in check. There is nothing wrong with a theological dialect having some words that are peculiar to its vocabulary, provided that these words do not stand in the way of communication with others. Also, if at all possible, we should try to speak in ways that make us more comprehensible to people from other theological backgrounds. Most theological traditions are guilty of confusing others by their specialized vocabularies to some extent or other.

We should particularly beware of accusing people of not speaking the ‘language’, simply because they do not speak our dialect. Our dialect is not the standard of orthodoxy, even though it might be a better way of articulating the faith than others. Someone may resist including such expressions as ‘covenant of works’ and ‘imputation of active obedience’ in their theological vocabulary and still be perfectly orthodox.

Seeking union in the local Church despite the existence of denominations is not easy. There are different levels of unity that we can achieve in different situations. In my experience, it is when we seek to express our deepest convictions in our common language, and downplay our particular dialect’s peculiarities of expression, that we are most likely to begin to find true unity. There are situations where sin and error pose obstacles to unity, but there are numerous other situations where a far greater degree of unity could be enjoyed, if we only had the vision and determination to strive towards it.

What are some concrete ways in which we can work towards a greater degree of unitry between denominations. Here are a few brief suggestions:

1. Recognize the discipline of other congregations in your locality.
2. Recognize the ordination of people from other denominations and don’t force them to jump through too many hoops to serve within your denomination.
3. Recognize the baptisms of people from other denominations, including the infant ones.
4. Admit people from other denominations to the Table.
5. Read widely, beyond your own theological tradition. Seek to learn from other theological traditions and encourage crossfertilization of ideas.
6. Become friends with people from other denominations in your area.
7. Pray for the various churches in your locality and ask them to pray for you.
8. Seek to co-ordinate evangelistic efforts with other churches.
9. Try to get involved in other group projects with other congregations in your locality. Doug Wilson helpfully suggests that we rediscover the idea of ‘parish’. If we really started to think and act in terms of the concept of parish we would soon find ourselves enjoying more fellowship with other Christians in our communities.

As we start to relativize our denominational backgrounds and seek to actively work towards a future in which denominations feature less prominently, we should beware of a number of things. We need to be careful not to use a critique of denominations as a way to devalue Church discipline. We live in a situation where there are many rival courts that people can appeal to. In such a situation Church discipline can seem meaningless. I don’t think that it is, even though no single court has the final word. Seeking unity between congregations in recognizing and respecting each other’s judgments is important here.

I am firmly convinced that one of the reasons why the Church is often so impotent in our societies is our disunity. The disunity of the Church hinders our prayers. We do not pray with one voice and set ourselves up as rivals to each other. The Church’s authority to bind and to loose is thus hindered. Seeking unity in prayer with other denominations is very important if we are to enjoy the authority that Christ has given to His Church.

I do not doubt that the day will come when Christ will reunite the Church. God is in control of history and He has broken up His Church so that He might reunite it in a more glorious form. At the moment we live with denominations, but we look beyond these to the day when there will no longer be Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics, but one glorious united body of Christ. The present denominational stage, despite its problems, is, I believe, a necessary part of the growing process, like teething is for children. It is part of the way in which God is working towards a far better form of unity than we can currently imagine. For this reason we must not be impatient and force unity where it should not yet exist. Rather, we should work in hope, enjoying unity where it can be found, but looking beyond all present structures and organizations to Christ’s great purpose and promise for His Church.

Guest Post: The Doctrine of the Atonement in the Early Greek Fathers

The following post is a contribution to an ongoing conversation on the subject of the doctrine of the atonement. The goal of this conversation is not that of arguing for one single doctrine of atonement, but of having the chance to listen to a number of different sources and voices. Lord-willing, participation in this conversation will help us grow in appreciation and understanding of theological positions that we have not previously had the same opportunity to engage with. My role here is that of hosting a conversation. The substance of the posts in this conversation do not necessarily reflect my own convictions (except, of course, when I am the author!). The contributors do not write as my proxies, but as my guests. Discussion in the comments is encouraged. If you strongly disagree or dislike something that has been said, please leave a comment to say why; if you have found something helpful, please give some reasons why you have found it to be so.

The author of the following post is Andrew Wallace. Andrew was born and bred and lives in New Zealand. He was brought up Baptist, but has a general interest in academic theology and thinks that all denominations have something to learn from each other, so he would no longer really identify himself with any particular denomination. For the past year he has been co-authoring a book about the atonement theologies of the New Testament writers and Early Greek Fathers.

St. Athanasius

One of the reasons that I as a Protestant see great value in studying Eastern Orthodox thinking and writing is because their tradition has been so isolated from our own heritage due to historical and linguistic reasons. Due to the independence of their tradition from our own they tend to have very different ways of looking at things, and I find these can provide helpful insights which are useful in critically evaluating our own tradition. On the subject of the atonement, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has some quite different ideas to the Protestant tradition, and the whole paradigm of salvation tends to be very different. Many of the essential protestant concepts such as original sin, penal substitutionary atonement, and salvation by faith are not present, and instead other very different ideas tend to be utilized. The Eastern Orthodox church traces its tradition and teachings very strongly to the writings of the church fathers of the first millennia.

These church fathers are worth studying for other reasons. The Church Fathers that the Eastern Orthodox church originated out of were the Greek speaking ones, whereas our Western Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions historically were Latin-speaking. The New Testament was written in Greek and that was the main language spoken within the early Church. The subsequent generations of Greek speaking Christians both read the New Testament in their native language and were taught Christianity by the previous generation. It seems reasonable to think that the people who were in an ideal position to understand the writings of the apostles as clearly as possible were those who spoke the same language and lived around the same time and in the same culture and empire as the writers. Therefore, the early Greek Christians’ comments about New Testament passages and verses are valuable for exegetical reasons. But more than that, learning their theology itself is valuable. It is reasonable to presume that Christianity was not instantaneously forgotten worldwide the moment the New Testament was completed. Rather it seems reasonable to assume that the apostolic generation passed the essential truths of their faith onto the next generation, and that the variety of texts written around the world by different Greek-speaking Christians in the early church ought to contain theology substantially in agreement with apostolic Christianity. Therefore studying the writings of the Greek Christians in the period 100-400AD (these dates are relatively arbitrary, and altering them makes no difference) is worthwhile in order to gain an insight into their theology, given that in all probability their theology is going to be substantially similar to the theology of the apostles.

The Theology of the Greek Fathers 100-400AD
The theology of these Christian writers is substantially different to Protestant thought, so it can require some effort to wrap your head around. The ideas of atonement held by these writers can get complicated, so for simplicity’s sake let us start with the basic idea of salvation that is common to all the Fathers of this period. The basic paradigm of salvation universally held by these writers is as follows:

1. Humans have free will to engage in either vice or virtue, and the ability to become more or less virtuous over time.
2. God is virtuous and desires humans to be also. He is pleased with virtue and displeased by vice.
3. Christ taught virtue to mankind.
4. By following Christ’s teachings, and by the help of the Spirit, we can progress and improve in virtue if we make the effort.
5. All men have the ability to achieve a standard of virtue acceptable to God.
6. The Final Judgment will be decided based on our level of virtue.

Each of those points, and the paradigm as a whole, are common to all the Greek writers from the period 100-400AD. In addition to these common points, two main different theories about the work of Christ are reasonably common but not universally held:

1. Ransom From Satan & Christus Victor
Satan was seen as having some form of power over the world, precisely what power varies from writer to writer. In some cases he is seen as attempting to influence men towards vice, just as the serpent in Eden had. In other conceptions he is seen as ruling over the world like a lord, and having a deliberately evil influence on events in the world. Sometimes he is seen as having power in the afterlife over the souls of men, either due to him being the natural lord of sinners or due to him unjustly seizing human souls.

In these models of atonement, Christ is seen as performing some action appropriate to defeat or remove the power of the devil. This can vary depending on how the devil’s power and influence is conceived. Christ can be seen as overthrowing the devil as lord of the world, removing the devil’s power in a real battle in the spiritual realms. He can be seen as entering into Hades and by his spiritual power defeating and vanquishing the powers holding human souls captive. He can be seen as defeating the devil’s influence in this world by virtue of the explusion of evil spirits from people in his own ministry, and the power he gave to Christians to do the same in his name. Sometime he is depicted as offering his own soul to Satan as a ransom payment in return for Satan setting free all the souls of humanity - Satan accepts and takes Jesus’ soul in exchange, and then God resurrects Jesus back to life and Satan is left with nothing. The reasons given about why and how Satan has power over humanity, the world, or the souls of humans vary, as does the methods Jesus uses to defeat, trick or overthrow Satan.

2. Recapitulation
This, rather different, view of the atonement is concerned with the danger of the created order passing into non-existence. God in the act of creation infused his creation with existence. Created beings and substances do not possess self-existence but are dependent upon God for it. Humanity (or Satan and his angels) as rulers of the created order, in sinning broke away from God, and in doing so severed the flow of existence from God. Corruption set in and began to decay toward non-existence. Humans began dying physically, a symptom of the metaphysical decay that was taking place spiritually. The real problem was not that humans were merely dying physically, but rather their actual souls were decaying as well, so God simply creating new human bodies and stuffing the souls back in would not help as the entire creation would eventually decay completely and humanity with it.

The necessary solution was to recreate the connection between God and the created order, restoring the continual flow of existence from God into creation. To do this, the Word through which the creation had been made joined itself to the creation by becoming human. God himself in the person of Jesus Christ by living a fully human life from birth to death reunited God metaphysically with humanity and creation. Jesus’ resurrection appearances were to demonstrate the success of this endevour, showing that metaphysical death had been destroyed and the decay and ultimate annihilation of the created order averted.

Further Reflections
These concepts of the prevention of annihilation and the defeat of Satan vary immensely between authors. They can be both present at once, or neither present, or multiple forms of the defeat of Satan thinking can be present in a given author. What is worth noting is that neither of these ideas relate to whether humans pass the Final Judgment. The prevention of non-existence, and the freeing of souls from the control of Satan both make it possible for there to be an afterlife and a final judgment from God on individual human souls. But neither has any effect whatsoever on the outcome of that final judgment for individual souls. In Protestantism our focus of atonement on how we can achieve a positive final judgment. Noting that, we can make a conceptual distinction between “things Christ did that were worthwhile” and “things that cause us to pass God’s final judgment” and see that the two do not have to overlap. Recapitulation and Defeat-Of-Satan concepts apply only to the first category and not the second, whereas Penal Substitution links both. With that in mind, it can be observed that the connection that Greek Christians of this period make between Christ’s actions and us gaining a positive final judgment on the last day is solely one of Christ teaching virtue and bringing knowledge of holy living to the world and setting an example of holy conduct and a virtuous life pleasing to God. That is the system of salvation that I outlined earlier which is common to all the Greek Christians of this period and which is extremely well-attested in their writings.

So when it comes to answering the question of what the Greek Christians in this period thought about the “atonement”, some reflection is required about what we actually mean by “atonement”. If we are thinking of things that cause indirectly or directly the passing of the Final Judgment of God, then the answer is that they thought human virtue to be the deciding factor and that they saw human virtue as being brought about primarily through the teaching of God to the world, first in the Law, then in the Prophets and most clearly of all through the teachings and example of Jesus’ Christ, and that they believed in the influence and importance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans to reveal virtue and knowledge of God and strengthen humans in righteousness. But if the question is about the work of Christ and what they saw Christ as achieving, then the answer is they saw him primarily as a teacher of righteousness, but also had a wide variety of other ideas which tended to center around the ideas of Christ defeating the power of Satan and/or saving the created order from death and destruction.

Penal Substitution
Given where and why I am writing this, I feel I must add some comments on the relationship between Penal Substitution and the theology of these Christians. Penal Substitution as a systematic theological paradigm of salvation is not present in the writings of the Greek Christians of this period. A penal substitutionary paradigm conflicts fundamentally with two of the Greek Christian ideas - their views that (i) our virtue of character is what we are judged on at the final judgment, and (ii) that humans can be virtuous enough to please God. Thus the Greek Christians do not hold the two ideas of (a) human inability and (b) a final judgment based on our belief/acceptance of Christ’s work on our behalf, which are part of the penal substitutionary paradigm as we know it.

However the Greek Christians do occasionally make some usages of some penal substitutionary ideas in ways which do not relate to the deciding criteria for final judgment. For example when trying to answer the question of why Christians no longer perform sacrifices like the Jews did, Eusebius suggests Christ was a substitutionary sacrifice, and hence did away with the need for sacrificial practices. Jesus in this context is treated as a penal substitute, but this is not seen as part of any system of eternal salvation: Sacrifices are assumed by him as having this-worldly purposes; and no belief in or acceptance of Christ’s work is needed to obtain God’s positive verdict, only virtue. In this way, penal and substitutionary ideas can occur on occasion within the Greek Fathers but the paradigm of penal substitutionary atonement as we know it is never present, and is fundamentally inconsistent with their paradigm.


Over at Fragmenta, Matt writes:

Peter Leithart suggests that “linking intention to the literal [sic] sense, while acknowledging multiple senses, makes possible a proliferating richness of meaning while preventing what Eco calls hermeneutical drift.” But I don’t care about proliferating meaning. I want to know “what Saint Paul really said” — which may or may not be “literal”, a word fraught with over-simplistic dichotomies. The other, “multiple senses”, if they differ from the author’s sense, are misreadings, in both the Bloomian sense of the word, and in the simplest sense of the word: they are wrong, and if we rely upon them, we are building with straw, setting ourselves up for future refutation and exposure as fools. As I attempt to relate one text to another within the Bible, these other “multiple senses” will be hindrances or distractions. Worse, if we embrace other senses of the text than the ones intended by the author (and there may be more than one of these!), we are likely to become the future “Old Perspective” or the future “Law/Gospel hermeneutic,” fighting losing rear-guard actions against the tide of new scholarship that is, horrifyingly, armed with something much closer to the original authorial meaning. (That, in a nutshell, is the reason for the success of N.T. Wright and other NPP authors who pose such a threat to the old perspective.)

On this occasion I can’t quite agree with Matt, although I apprecaite and share many of his concerns with other approaches. Whilst the original meaning of the text is always important and should not be lost sight of, the meaning of the text is far greater than its original meaning. I appreciate the value and importance of such readings of Scripture that Matt speaks of. However, important as such readings of the Scriptures are, it was not the approach adopted by the apostles, who habitually interpreted the OT in a manner that placed the accent on the multiple senses that went beyond the original sense and occasionally even appeared to run contrary to it.

I am presently enjoying reading Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings in the SCM theological commentary series. In the series preface, R.R. Reno makes my point as follows:

Precisely as Scripture—a living, functioning text in the present life of faith—the Bible is not semantically fixed.

I suspect that Matt and I differ to some extent in our understanding of what the task of interpreting the Scriptures entails. However, many of his concerns are my own and I recommend that you read his post, even if you end up disagreeing with him on a number of points.

Peter Leithart has some great thoughts on Matthew 2. Among other things, he observes the presence of an exile-return inclusio in the gospel.
Jon seems to have caught the linking bug, poor fellow. Posting long lists of links is a sure sign that your blog has jumped the shark. He has also posted a copy of his recent article on the 1689 Baptist confession, which I am sure that a number of readers will enjoy reading, as I did.
Joel has been posting on the subject of the PCA report on the FV/NPP on his blog recently:

PCA report on NPP/FV: a summary
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 1
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 2
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 3
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 4
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 5
PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 6
PCA report on NPP/FV: conclusions

On the subject of the PCA report, I would also recommend this very interesting perspective on the report from the perspective of canon law, written by Jordan Siverd.
Time has an interview and a cover story on Archbishop Rowan Williams. There is also a lengthier MP3 version of the interview available here [HT: Thinking Anglicans].
Adrian Warnock has an interview with the authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions. Frustratingly, I am still waiting for Amazon to deliver the copy that I ordered well over a month ago.
Chris Tilling starts reviewing Chris VanLandingham’s provocative new book, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. If VanLandingham is right, then practically everyone else — whether from the New Perspective or traditional Protestant positions —is wrong. Chris also promises a forthcoming interview with VanLandingham, which is worth looking out for.
David Field posts some helpful comments from Joel Garver on the subject of baptismal regeneration.
A Lutheran enthuses about the relationship that NTW draws between Baptism and justification.
Michael Westmoreland-White lists some female theology bloggers. I already subscribe to a number of the blogs mentioned, Cynthia Nielsen’s Per Caritatem being a particular favourite.
Christianity Today has an interview with Richard Bauckham [HT: Dr Jim West].
John H suggests a new proposition (with apologies to Martyn Lloyd-Jones!):

If what you believe and teach concerning the Supper couldn’t be misinterpreted by some people as sounding like cannibalism, then your understanding and/or teaching of the Supper is deficient.

John also has some very interesting observations from David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham (part 1, part 2). John also has a very good post on the subject of Christian children.

R. Scott Clark on ‘Baptism, Election and the Covenant of Grace’. If nothing else, one has to be impressed with Clark’s chutzpah in distinguishing Lutherans from Protestants. Those terrible Lutherans, suggesting that Baptism actually does something!
John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright will probably be released in November.
There is a pre-publication special offer for Logos Bible Software’s electronic version of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
I am encouraged. I thought that I read too many blogs. However, I only have about 250 blog feeds on Bloglines; Macht has about 550. If you don’t already use a feed aggregator like Bloglines, I strongly suggest that you start. It makes blog reading so much quicker and easier.
Cooking for Engineers [HT: Peter Roberts]
John Barach discusses Alias, strong male figures in popular TV shows and the manner in which shows such as Alias and 24 can desensitize us to surveillance and torture. As a fan of LOST and 24 (although my faith in both shows has taken a bit of a beating over the last season) and someone who has watched most of the first couple of seasons of Alias, I find that I agree with many of John’s observations.
Please pray for the Presbyteer’s church.
Some helpful productivity advice [HT: Mark Horne]
From lifehacker:

101 New Uses for Everyday Things
Time is All We Have: 3 Ways to Increase Return on Investment
Determining the doneness of a steak

From the Evangelical Outpost:

A Virtual Tour of Dante’s Inferno
Knit Graffiti

The divine Prince Philip.
Finally, a few Youtube videos.

I will never understand Japanese gameshows

Another clever advertisement

Guest Post: The Doctrine of the Atonement in Reformed History 1

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I would be devoting much of my summer blogging to the subject of the atonement and that if people were interested in participating they should contact me with their suggested contributions. That offer still stands, if anyone would like to take part. The following is the first contribution from Mark Jones. Mark is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, currently working on his doctoral thesis on the Christology of Thomas Goodwin. He blogs at thomasgoodwin.wordpress.com.

John Calvin

Alastair and I go back many years as partners in crime on the Sermonaudio debate boards. Since then he has become somewhat of an authority on N.T. Wright (among others), for good or for bad depending on one’s theological proclivities, whereas I have remained firmly entrenched in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where I have tried to understand our rich theological heritage, for good or for bad depending …

The topic under discussion is the atonement, a subject that, to use Calvin’s phrase, “cannot be put into words” (ineffabili quodam modo). Yet, the importance of the subject at hand forces me to speak, despite my own trepidation. At Alastair’s suggestion, I have decided to use my knowledge in historical theology to give a descriptive-historical study of the atonement as it was understood by theological luminaries such as Luther, Calvin, Owen, and Goodwin. Tentatively, I will seek to show in two separate posts that the aforementioned men pioneered the doctrine we call penal substitution. While Calvin and Owen, for example, both held to penal substitution, the latter’s writings on the subject were no mere duplication of the former. Moreover, to the surprise of some perhaps, I will seek to show that the Christus Victor motif (Aulen would not call it a theory), is very much an integral part of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century atonement formulations. As sports enthusiasts can appreciate, when something is wrong with the team, a substitution is made in the hope that the substitute will facilitate a victory. Our Reformed forefathers have shown that in Christ we have the substitute par excellence who has brought about the victory over sin, a victory that only a penal substitutionary atonement could make possible.

Between Calvin and Owen stood the Unitarian Pelagian, Faustus Socinus, whose work De Jesu Christo Servatore, “Of Jesus Christ the Savior” (1578), gives us important clues into the content of Calvin’s and Owen’s writings. In this first post I want to spend the majority of my time in the sixteenth century looking at both Calvin and Luther whose writings led to Socinus’ hostile reaction. Socinus referred to the idea of Christ’s undergoing of vicarious punishment on behalf of sinners (i.e. as their substitute) as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. What was it about the Reformation doctrine of the atonement that caused Socinus to respond so negatively? That question will be central to our discussion. Moreover, towards the end I hope to contextualize Owen in order to provide a more significant treatment of his doctrine of the atonement in my second post.

It should be noted that Socinus was not alone in rejecting Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. With him were the Remonstrants who posited what has become known as the governmental theory (i.e. that Christ suffered for all men). What, then, were they rejecting? This point will serve to contextualize Owen in his seventeenth-century context as an opponent of both Socinianism and Arminianism. But before we discuss Owen’s response to those two groups it seems prudent to give a brief distillation of what fueled Socinian and Arminian polemics.

Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement might be understood as a refinement of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? To be sure, Anselm understood the atonement in satisfaction terms, but Calvin emphasized the vicarious punishment (poena) aspect of the atonement (space constraints limit me from detailing further differences between the two). “The priestly office belongs to Christ alone because by the sacrifice of his death he blotted out our guilt and made satisfaction for our sins [Heb. 9:22]” (Institutes. II.15.6). Furthermore, in his catechism (section 20, iv) he writes: “For because God was provoked to wrath by man’s disobedience, by Christ’s own obedience he wiped out ours, showing himself obedient to his Father, even unto death. And by his death he offered himself as a sacrifice to his Father, in order that his justice might once for all be appeased for all time, in order that believers might be eternally sanctified, in order that eternal satisfaction might be fulfilled. He poured out his sacred blood in payment for our redemption, in order that God’s anger, kindled against us, might be extinguished, and our iniquity might be cleansed.” Elsewhere, “[a]t every point he substituted himself in our place (in vicem nostram ubique se supposuerit) to pay the price of redemption” (Institutes. II.16.7).

The above only gives half the story however. T.H.L. Parker locates several different motifs in Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. They are: 1) sacrifice; 2) satisfaction; 3) obedience; 4) expiation; and 5) victory. The fifth is, of course, crucial to my stated intention; namely, that the doctrine of penal substitution cannot be divorced from that of Christus Victor. John F. Jansen speaks of the prominent place of the Christus Victor motif in Calvin’s theology: “the regal conquest of Christ over the devil, death, and sin … is Calvin’s most recurrent theme”. This is certainly true if we are speaking in terms of Christ as King. But as priest he is also the substitute, the one who expiates sin and satisfies the Father. The two elements of Christus Victor and penal substitution are well described in the following: “Our common nature with Christ is the pledge of our fellowship with the Son of God; and clothed with our flesh he vanquished sin and death together that the victory and triumph might be ours. He offered as a sacrifice the flesh he received from us, that he might wipe out our guilt by his act of expiation and appease the Father’s righteous wrath” (emphasis mine) (Institutes. II.12.3; cf. II.12.2; II.16.7). I have purposely refrained from dealing with the much-vexed issue of particular redemption, especially in relation to Calvin. For my own part, it was not an issue that Calvin, unlike Owen, saw the need to address.

Aulen’s famous study on the atonement has several shortcomings, especially with reference to Luther. He places Luther in the Christus Victor camp and there is some merit to this. But, he ignores the obvious presence of penal substitution. Luther’s comments on Gal. 3:13 will prove especially helpful in highlighting both penal substitution and Christus Victor. “[Christ] sustained the person of a sinner … [he] took our sins upon Himself …. This, no doubt, all the prophets foresaw in spirit, that Christ should be accounted the greatest transgressor that could be, having all sins imputed to Him …. The schoolmen spoil us of this knowledge of Christ, namely, that Christ was made a curse that he might deliver us from the curse of the law, when they separate Him from sins and sinners, and only set Him out to us as an example to be followed …” But mixed with the penal element is Christ the victor. “So in Christ all sin is vanquished, killed, and buried, and righteousness remains a conqueror and reigns forever …. The victory of Christ is most certain …” Pannenburg was therefore correct to say that “Luther was probably the first since Paul and his school to have seen with full clarity that Jesus’ death in its genuine sense is to be understood as vicarious penal suffering.”

As I have mentioned, Socinus saw these treatments as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. Three of his criticisms are worthy of attention: 1) Transferring the sins from the guilty to the guiltless (Christ) is not consistent with justice; 2) Christ’s temporary death is not a true substitute for the eternal death of many; and 3) a perfect substitutionary satisfaction would result in an unlimited permission to sin. The result led Socinus to promulgate a doctrine of the atonement that allowed God to forgive – based upon repentance - without requiring satisfaction. This element in Socinus’ thought played a significant role in Owen’s polemics on the necessity of Christ’s death. J I Packer was correct to suggest that Socinus’ work led Owen to adopt a defensive approach rather than doxological and kerygmatic. This approach is one I hope to lay out in more detail in the coming weeks.

Wright’s Theological Starting Point in his Doctrine of Justification

Bishop WrightOne of the main reasons why many of Wright’s critics misunderstand his doctrine of justification can be traced to the fact that the questions that he is answering with his doctrine of justification are slightly different from those which traditional Reformed doctrines of justification are designed to answer.

Reformed doctrines of justification tend to have an anthropological starting point. The big question that the doctrine generally addresses is that of how an individual can get right with a holy God. Wright’s doctrine, on the other hand, takes its starting point with God. He starts with God’s covenant-renewing action in the gospel, rather than with man’s attempt to get right with God. Justification is understood in the context of the question of how God sets men to rights, rather than primarily in the context of the question of how men can get right with God.

When Wright talks about the basis for God’s justifying declaration, he is not providing a direct answer to the question of what we must do to be saved. For Wright, God’s declaration that we are right with Him is not merely delivered on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness extra nos, but includes the work of the Spirit within the believer as part of its basis. Wright believes that God is righteous in justifying because (a) Christ has died for the sins of the world; (b) faith is the appropriate helpless response to the gospel; (c) faith is the true obedience that the Law called for but could never provide; (d) faith, as the first sign of the work of the Spirit, is the sign of a new life that is obedient by nature (‘God’s verdict in the present is righteous, because the basis on which it is made is sufficient grounds for confidence that it will correspond to the righteous verdict of the last day’).

Wright’s doctrine of justification relies heavily on the work of the Holy Spirit in the convert (both in present and final justification). If Wright’s doctrine were designed as a direct answer to the traditional Reformed questions of justification it would probably be dangerously misleading. We would be taught to depend at least in part on the work of the Spirit in ourselves, an incomplete and imperfect righteousness within, rather than on the completed work and person of Christ extra nos. Such a dependence on an incomplete righteousness would produce assurance problems, given the lack of a proper ground for our justification (the need for a perfect righteousness as the basis of our justification is the issue that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness seeks to deal with). However, Wright’s doctrine is not designed as an answer to the traditional questions that Reformed Christians have tended to use the doctrine of justification to answer. To understand Wright’s doctrine of justification you really have to put the traditional questions to one side, something which most of Wright’s critics haven’t really grasped yet.

When Wright speaks of faith in relation to his doctrine of justification one of the things that should really strike the reader is how passive man is characterized as being. From his treatments of faith in such contexts, one could be led to wonder whether he believes that faith is something that human beings ‘exercise’ at all. For instance, faith is spoken of as the ‘boundary marker’ or ‘badge’ of the true people of God. One does not generally think in terms of ‘exercising’ a badge.

‘Faith’, for Paul, is therefore not a substitute ‘work’ in a moralistic sense. It is not something one does in order to gain admittance into the covenant people. It is the badge that proclaims that one is already a member. [What St Paul Really Said, 132]

Such a statement is bound to confuse the Reformed reader who is used to approaching the doctrine of justification as the doctrine that answers the question of what an individual must do to get right with a holy God. Given Wright’s theological — rather than anthropological — starting point, his doctrine of justification provides at best a confusing answer to the question that Reformed Christians are answering.

As Wright addresses the issue of justification within the context of the question of how God sets humanity and His creation to rights, his doctrine can include things that a doctrine with an anthropological starting point would find it hard to include. If we adopt an anthropological starting point, certain of the distinctions between justification and sanctification are far more important than they are if we begin with a theological starting point. From an anthropological starting point justification speaks of the way in which I can come to be accepted as righteous in God’s sight and sanctification speaks of a more synergistic process, through which I grow in personal righteousness. Viewed from this perspective it is crucial to keep justification and sanctification distinct, as we do not want to say that we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight on the basis of our works. The distinction between justification and sanctification is essential if we are to preserve monergism.

Viewed from Wright’s more theological starting point, justification and what we call sanctification are not so distinct. From a theological starting point sanctification is not really viewed as an essentially synergistic process (although from other perspectives it can legitimately be regarded as such). In Wright’s understanding, God’s declaration of justification has ‘sanctification’ — both present and promised — in view to some extent. However — and this point is absolutely crucial — the sanctification that is in view is God’s action, rather than ours. It is God who gives the badge of faith and the life of the Spirit in the effectual call and it is God who commits Himself to bringing to completion that which He has begun in us. The condition for this justification is something provided by God, rather than by us.

This means that Wright can maintain a far less antithetical relationship between faith and faithfulness in his doctrine of justification. He writes:

Faith and obedience are not antithetical. They belong exactly together. Indeed, very often the word ‘faith’ itself could properly be translated as ‘faithfulness’, which makes the point just as well. Nor, of course, does this then compromise the gospel or justification, smuggling in ‘works’ by a back door. That would only be the case if the realignment I have been arguing for throughout were not grasped. Faith, even in this active sense, is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into God’s family or for staying there once in. It is the God-given badge of membership, neither more not less. [What St Paul Really Said, 160]

All of this should alert the reader to the fact that Wright is not approaching justification as the answer to the question of what one must do to be saved. If someone asked Wright what they must do to be saved, he would clearly direct them to Jesus Christ and away from any dependence upon their own moral efforts. He would call them to trust in God, His Word and His promises, and not to rest their assurance on their own imperfect works. There is no ambiguity on this point. However, this is not the question that Wright believes that the doctrine of justification is intended to answer. Few points could be more important for the proper interpretation of Wright.

Wine in Communion Redux

Almost three years ago now, I posted on the subject of the importance of using alcoholic wine in the celebration of the Eucharist. I argued that the use of grape juice was a serious departure from the scriptural teaching regarding the sacrament. Posts are generally forgotten about within a few days at most and are never read again. For some strange reason, however, there are times when old posts are revived and enjoy a second fifteen minutes of fame. Over the last few days a few people have asked me questions about my post on wine in communion. For this reason, I thought that it might be helpful to write a brief post responding to some of the questions that have been raised in response to my original post on the subject.

You take the use of particular elements far too seriously. What would you do, for example, in the case of a person with gluten intolerance?

There are occasions when it is perfectly appropriate to make exceptions. The problem comes when people use such valid exceptions to undermine or negate the rule. For example, the fact that some people might be physically incapable of kneeling does not excuse the rest of us from doing so.

What about people with allergies to wine or former alcoholics?

In the case of allergies to wine, it is worth pointing out that the allergy is generally to something other than the alcohol. In such instances I would suggest that it is probably best to serve an alcoholic, rather than a non-alcoholic, substitute. In the case of recovering alcoholics, much depends on the particular case. The vast majority of arguments against the use of wine in communion on account of alcoholism are utterly without foundation. Most former alcoholics can drink wine in communion without any problem. Even if a church chooses to provide a non-alcoholic substitute they should do so for that individual alone. Everyone else should be served alcoholic wine.

Those with scruples about the use of wine should not be catered for. If they won’t accept wine, then they will just have to go without. People with unscriptural scruples should not be encouraged in their errors. Unless there are strong individual reasons why a substitute is necessary, no choice should be offered. Those who unbiblical scruples should certainly not be permitted to hold the rest of the church hostage to their uninformed consciences. Besides, it really is not for the servant to decide what is served at his Master’s table.

The Scriptures are quite undogmatic about the type of bread that we use for the celebration of the Eucharist; doesn’t this suggest that we shouldn’t be that dogmatic about the use of wine?

The Scripture may be undogmatic about the type of bread that is used (although some would dispute that claim), but it makes clear that it must be bread. Likewise, we have considerable freedom in our choice of wine. We can celebrate according to the biblical pattern using red or white wine, sweet or dry wine, regular or fortified wine. It really is up to us. However, we are taught by Scripture to use wine, rather than anything else.

White wine?!

Why not? In a number of traditions, white wine has often been used for the celebration of the Eucharist. This is certainly not a novel or entirely unusual practice. The symbolism of the element does not rest primarily on the colour of the wine that is used. Many believe that the whole symbolism of the wine rests upon its being dark or reddish in colour, making it look like blood. On this basis they can justify replacing the wine with other dark or reddish liquids. I have attended churches where Ribena has been used in the celebration of the Supper. However, in Scripture the significance of the use of wine rests on details such as its being the fruit of the vine and being alcoholic.

Red wine is probably slightly to be preferred over white wine on account of its colour. However, this detail really is an adiaphoron. One benefit of using white wine would be that it would have the effect of shocking us out of unhelpful ways of viewing the sacrament. It is not there to be looked at, but to be drunk. The wine is not there to be a ‘picture’ of Christ’s blood; it is Christ’s blood.

Christ may have employed wine in His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. However, He also almost certainly used unleavened bread. Why make an issue about wine and not about the use of unleavened bread?

First, the type of leaven used in the ancient world was different from our yeast. Unless we use sourdough, our bread is technically unleavened.

Second, the Eucharist is not merely the fulfilment of the Passover ceremony, nor, in the NT, is it merely based on the Last Supper. Oscar Cullmann has argued, for example, that the Eucharist was seen by many within the earliest Church as some sort of continuation of the post-resurrection meals and was not merely based on the Last Supper.

Third, the use of leavened or unleavened bread has been a matter of heated debate in the past in Church history, principally between the Eastern and Western Church in the eleventh century. The Eastern Church used leavened bread, while the Western Church tended to use unleavened.

Fourth, leaven is not neutral in symbolism. The Scripture speaks of purging out old leaven to celebrate the feast, drawing on the pattern of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-20; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). On account of this and the negative symbolic sense that leaven tends to have within the NT (Matthew 16:6, 11-12; Luke 12:1; Galatians 5:9), many have insisted that the Supper must be celebrated without it.

However, leaven is not purely a symbol of evil. At the Feast of Pentecost new leaven was used (Leviticus 23:17). Old leaven is cut off; new leaven is introduced. Jesus uses leaven as a positive image in one of His parables of the kingdom (Luke 13:20-21). Leaven symbolizes the hidden spread of the kingdom of God and its message. At Pentecost the new leaven of the Spirit was introduced. We are to cut off the old leaven of malice and wickedness and introduce the new leaven of the Spirit. The use of leavened bread highlights one dimension of biblical imagery, the use of unleavened another. There may be good reasons for using leavened bread on one occasion and using unleavened on another.

The use of leaven is an adiaphoron for good theological reasons. Such reasons are not present in the case of wine.

Your argument from scriptural symbolism notwithstanding, the Scriptures that God have given us nowhere explicitly teach that alcoholic wine must be used. In light of this, how can you say that the use of grape juice — which is clearly the ‘fruit of the vine’ — is against God’s instructions?

God has not just given us the Scriptures; He has also given us intelligence. God does not insult the intelligence that He has given to us by spelling out explicitly that which is clear to any careful reader.

As James Jordan has remarked, a good servant is attentive to the slightest gesture of his master. Only a bad servant needs to have explicit commands in order to do his master’s bidding. Only an evil servant seeks loopholes in the explicit commands of his master in order to avoid doing that which he knows deep down is his master’s will. If we truly are good servants we will immediately pick up on the fact that God wants alcoholic wine on his table and will act accordingly.

Should a common cup be used? Should individual cups be avoided?

I don’t think that the Scripture presents us with as clear an argument for the use of a common cup as many believe. I suggest that this is another adiaphoron. I am not even sure that there was a common cup at the Last Supper (Matt?). There were a series of cups of wine drunk as part of the Passover celebration and it is possible that, rather than passing one cup around, the ‘cup’ referred to the particular serving of wine that they were about to drink as part of the celebration. The ‘cup’ would perhaps function like the way that a toast does in our celebrations. Each individual would have an individual cup. Passing around individual cups and drinking at the same time might therefore be closer to the original celebration.

What do you think about the practice of intinction?

The biblical pattern for the Eucharistic rite is really quite simple. Intinction is a practice that breaks with this biblical pattern. Intinction is also more unhygienic than the use of the common cup, a practice that many express health concerns about. The fact that high church Christians often follow this practice means nothing. High church Christians frequently get liturgy wrong and are not the pattern that we should be following.

What size should portions be?

Again this is an adiaphoron. However, I think that portions should ideally be a lot more substantial than they are in most churches. We are eating a meal. A larger hunk, rather than a miniscule morsel of bread would be nice. Also a larger glass of wine would help us to recognize that the Eucharist is not primarily about ideas, but about joy and celebration in the kingdom of God.

In your post you claimed that wine is a drink that is dangerous and that it takes maturity to partake in such a celebratory meal. How does this impact the arguments for paedocommunion?

Wine is dangerous and must be handled with maturity. This is a significant dimension of the symbolism. The Table of the Lord is a place of wisdom and not the table of fools (Proverbs 9:1-6). Young children are trained in wisdom by being taught to treat wine appropriately at the table of wisdom. The supervision of older and wiser persons ensures that young children do not learn to drink as fools drink. The wisdom and maturity that the table speaks of is not an individualistic matter, but something that is true of the congregation as a whole.

I am currently in a church that only serves grape juice. I am deeply troubled by this practice. What should I do?

Important as these things are, we need to beware of causing unnecessary division over them. God is gracious and does not judge us as harshly as we tend to judge each other. I can understand why this would be a difficult and sensitive issue for a pastor of a church to work through or a member of a church to live with. Even if you want to reform the church’s practice, you don’t want the sort of reform that tarries for no one. Reform needs to be taken slowly, in order to avoid unnecessarily alienating people. Reform is important and, if we are obedient we should be working towards it. However, there is a sort of unloving and impatient reform that actually causes great damage, despite its noble intentions. God gives us time to grow out of old practices and does not force us to change completely overnight (witness the significant overlap of the old and new covenants, for instance).

There are occasions when a strong line needs to be taken. Those who want the church to capitulate to their unscriptural scruples should not be pandered to. Although we must be patient and gracious in reform, we must also be persistent. We may reach a point where some people must be resisted, even if this results in their leaving for another church.

The reform that I primarily have in mind here is a gradually phasing out of the use of grape juice. In a church that resists the use of wine altogether, the issue may need to be addressed more forcefully. It is one thing to resist the use of wine for yourself. It is quite another to resist its being served to others.

The biblical teaching on the use of wine in communion fills my heart with a joy that I feel a deep-seated need to express. Can you recommend a good way for me to go about doing this?

Certainly. This would be a good place to start.


Links from the last few days:


According to Dr Scaer, the most common way people join the Church is that someone invited them. Guess what? If church sucks, people don’t invite others. They don’t think “Man, my friends have got to be here for this!” They think “Well, I might as well keep going here.” So here’s a fun list that can work for all denominations!

Read the Fearsome Pirate’s church growth tips here. He also gives a Lutheran perspective in outlining some of the things that he dislikes about the PCA worship that he has experienced.

An interesting post from Leithart here. He observes the way in which we are shaped by popular culture, beginning with a series of tests to see how easily we identify with certain popular slogans, characters and advertisements from our culture and then how easily we identify with Christian counterparts to these. I think that I got a near perfect mark on every part except for the advertising slogans, which probably has something to do with living in the UK. However, I admit that the references to popular culture were generally more familiar than the references to the traditional hymns and references from classic literature. I could probably quote near-verbatim the lyrics from a few dozen rock albums, but I probably know no more than a score of psalms by heart. I have a troublingly vast quantity of pointless pop trivia in my head, so Leithart’s post was a good one for me to read.

Leithart argues that the way that Christians often characterize our struggle with the world is deficient. We tend to think primarily in terms of a struggle of ideas. However, the battle is, more often than not, a struggle of desire. As René Girard has argued desire is mimetic, and the world is consistently tempting us to model our desires after its pattern.

This is where the church comes in. If the battle we face in the wider culture were merely a matter of ideas and thoughts, then we might be able to withstand the onslaught of bad ideas on our own. We might be able to fill our minds with good thoughts and ideas through reading and studying, and when a bad idea came up, we’d pounce. If we are cultural beings, whose habits and practices and desires are shaped by the habits and practices and desires of others around us – and we are – then we can’t really stand up to the cultural temptations in isolation, by ourselves. We cannot resist on our own. We need to be part of a resistant community, a resistant community that recognizes the way the world seeks to shape us into its image, and self-consciously resists the world.

And we can’t resist something with nothing. To the world’s desire-shaping, formative practices, Christians need to oppose a different set of desire-shaping practices. We can’t say: I won’t desire what the world wants me to desire. We have to have positive, godly desires in place of the world’s desires. And these desires and habits need to be nurtured, cultivated, shaped and formed in a particular community. The church has a culture, and must be a culture, if it is going to resist the forces that would conform you to worldly culture.

Leithart also has a post on consumerism that I found interesting.

Following on from his earlier post on Dawkins and Lacan, Macht observes the importance of un-clarity in argument if we are to truly communicate:

Being “unclear” in one’s writing, then, can perhaps be a way to get the reader to NOT translate what they are reading into familiar terms. A writer want the reader to think in ways they’ve never thought before and that may require unfamiliar terms. This will of course require more work on the part of the reader and may lead to misunderstandings, but that might be the price a writer needs to pay in order to get his point across.

This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why misunderstanding so often attends theological discourse. In theology our terms are generally given to us by Scripture. Our overfamiliarity with these terms can lead to misunderstanding when we read people like Barth and Wright, who use familiar terms in unfamiliar ways. It takes quite a conscious effort on our part to overcome the familiarity that we have with the terms and begin to appreciate the ‘otherness’ of the theology of such men, and not merely interpret them on our own terms.

John Milbank has also observed the importance of ‘making strange’: developing new language to replace overfamiliar terms, in order that the peculiarity and distinctive character of the Christian position might become more apparent. This, I suggest, is one argument in favour of those who are wary of a theological discourse that works almost entirely in terms of biblical terminology. Such a discourse is helpful among those who understand the positions being advanced, but it can provide an impediment to those who have not yet grasped them.

Joel Garver begins to articulate some of his concerns with the recent PCA report on the FV/NPP.
Paul Helm on biblical versus systematic theology. I believe that the way that we do systematic theology is overdue for a complete overhaul. I don’t believe that biblical theology is the answer to everything, but I would not be sad to witness the demise of the discipline of systematic theology as it is often currently practiced (something that I have commented on in the past). Much systematic theology is ‘timeless’ in a deeply unhealthy fashion. It tends to treat its subject matter as if it were timeless and it also teaches in a manner that abstracts the learner from the time-bound narrative.

Systematic theology often seems to aim to present us with a panoptic perspective on the biblical narrative. We look at the narrative from a great height, from without rather than from within. This ‘timeless’ perspective is very dangerous, I believe. A reform of systematic theology would reject this way of approaching the discipline and would approach its subject matter in a slightly different manner. We study theology from within time, as participants in God’s drama. Neither the subject matter nor the student of theology should be abstracted from time. Rather than dealing with ‘timeless’ truths, we should deal with truths that are ‘constant’ through time.

Peter Leithart has suggested that ideally systematic theology would play a role analogous to the role that a book entitled An Anthropology of Middle Earth would play relative to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Such a book would help the reader to understand the constant features of the narratives. However, its subject matter would never be detached from the narrative nor could it ever be substituted for the narrative itself. The narrative always retains the primacy.

Michael Bird writes [HT: Chris Tilling] on the importance of the study of NT Theology and Christian Origins. Here is a taster:

…when students (esp. evangelical students) talk about the message of the New Testament, they usually mean Paul. And when they mean Paul, what they mean is Romans and Galatians. Their understanding (or sometimes lack of undestanding) of these two epistles often becomes the centre of not only Paul, but of the entire New Testament. Hebrews, Matthew, Revelation, and Luke-Acts are all forced into a Pauline framework.

How is this corrected? First, Christian Origins shows us the real diversity of the early church. You only have to compare the Johannine literature, Luke-Acts, and Paul to see that the saving significance of Jesus was expressed in different (I did not say contradictory) concepts, categories, and terms. Approaches to the law were diverse and pluriform as Christians struggled (in every sense of the word) to understand how the law-covenant was to be understood and followed in light of the coming Jesus/faith (cf. Gal. 3.23). A study of Christian Origins opens our eyes to the reality and goodness of diversity, so that Christians can learn to differentiate between convictions and commands, and discern between the major and the minor doctrines of Christian belief. I would also add that, despite this theological breadth to the early church, there was still unity within diversity, a unity apparent in the common kerygma of the early church. While there was diversity and complexity in the early church, it was never a free for all, and the desire to discern between true and false expressions of belief were part of the Christian movement from the very beginning. That leads us to New Testament Theology and rather than priviledging Paul to supra-canonical status (and Romans and Galatians and hyper-canonical), we should listen to each corpra on its own terms and to the issues to which they speak. A study of this kind will indicate where the theological (and dare I say) spiritual centre of gravity lies in the New Testament.

The evangelical and Reformed tendency to force the whole of the NT into a Pauline framework is something that is becoming increasingly apparent to me. Over the last few weeks I have been studying the doctrine of atonement, for instance, in the NT. I have been struck by how muted the theme of penal substitution is in much of the extra-Pauline literature (or even, for that matter, in a number of the ’secondary’ Pauline epistles). If our ‘canon within the canon’ consisted of the Johannine literature or of Matthew and James, rather than Romans and Galatians, evangelical and Reformed theology would probably take a radically different form. Recogizing this fact has made me far more sympathetic to a number of traditions whose theology differs sharply from Reformed theology, largely because they operate in terms of a very different ‘canon within the canon’. Paul is only part of the picture and his voice is not necessarily any more important than others within the NT canon.

I suspect that a number of significant theological advances could be made if we were only to put our favourite sections of Romans and Galatians to one side for a while. For instance, we might begin to see the continuing role that the commandments of the Torah performed in shaping the life of the Church. We might begin to have a clearer sense of just how Jewish the thinking of the early Church was. An overemphasis on Paul’s more antithetical and abstract ways of formulating the relationship between the Law and the Gospel can blind us to how Paul and other NT authors generally continue to take the particularities of the Torah as normative for the life of the NT people of God. The way that the Torah operates has changed, but it is still operational in many respects as the Torah of the Spirit and the Torah of liberty.

We might also find ourselves called to more concrete forms of discipleship and begin to move towards a gospel that is more firmly rooted in praxis. We might also discover that the message of the gospel is not just concerned with the overcoming of sin and death, but also is about bringing humanity to the maturity that God had always intended for it. We might also find ourselves moving towards a more sacramental gospel.

John Barach ponders the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the ten statements of Genesis 1.
David Jones at la nouvelle théologie gives a list of links to material relevant to the recent Wilson-Hitchens debate on Christianity and atheism. There is also an interesting article in the Daily Mail, in which Peter Hitchens reviews his brother’s book [HT: Dawn Eden].
Al Kimel’s blog, Pontifications, has a new home [HT: Michael Liccione]. The RSS feed also seems to be better on this one.
June 2007 Wrightsaid list answers.
As someone who believes that the inerrancy debates are largely unhelpful, I found this post by John H quite insightful. The Scriptures are exactly as God wanted us to have them and fulfil the purposes for which they were given. They are trustworthy. In the comments to the post, it is observed that the Church would have been far better off fighting for the ground of Scriptural efficacy, rather than Scriptural inerrancy. The Scriptures perfectly achieve the goals for which they were given. A position centred on Scriptural efficacy also serves to remind us that fundamentalism is itself a threat to a truly Christian doctrine of the Word of God, generally denying or downplaying the saving efficacy of God’s Word in preaching, the sacraments and the liturgy. Thinking in such terms might also help to move us away from the overly formal doctrine of Scripture generally adopted by conservative evangelicalism.
Matthew gives some helpful clarifications in response to my comments on his recent post.
The Baptized Body, Peter Leithart’s latest book is released today. Buy your copy now!
David Peterson, from Oak Hill, gives an introduction to biblical theology in a series of audio lectures. I haven’t listened to these yet, but some of my readers might find them helpful.
Ben Witherington on Billy Graham.
R.P. Reeves on evangelicalism:

With Hochshild’s case, I was surprised to learn how bare-bones Wheaton’s doctrinal statement is, but as I’ve tried to think through the history of evangelicalism in a more comprehensive manner, I’m no longer surprised; rather, it’s exactly what I expect from evangelicalism. One of the characteristics of evangelicalism that I am working on developing is that it is first and foremost a renewalist, rather than ecclesiastical, movement. In 16th century Protestantism, the doctrinal heritage of the church (notably the ecumenical creeds) was explicitly reaffirmed, precisely because the Reformation sought to reform the church. By contrast, Evangelicalism seeks to renew the individual (and then, once a sufficient mass of individuals a renewed, this will renew the church, or society, or the state, etc.). Mixed with a primitivist suspicion of creeds and traditions, it’s not surprising that a basic affirmation of biblical inerrancy was believed to be sufficient boundary for evangelical theologians, nor is it surprising that this thin plank is proving to be a shaky foundation.

[HT: Paul Baxter]

A PCA pastor: “We wouldn’t ordain John Murray”. Sadly, this is only what one should expect when theological factionalism takes holds of a denomination.
Byron is right: this is a very good parable.
‘Begging the Question’ [HT: Paul Baxter]
From the evangelical outpost: How to Draw a Head and Assess your Brain Fitness.
The cubicle warrior’s guide to office jargon
The unveiling of the logo for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Seb Coe:

It will define the venues we build and the Games we hold and act as a reminder of our promise to use the Olympic spirit to inspire everyone and reach out to young people around the world.

Tony Blair:

When people see the new brand, we want them to be inspired to make a positive change in their life.

Tessa Jowell:

This is an iconic brand that sums up what London 2012 is all about - an inclusive, welcoming and diverse Games that involves the whole country.

It takes our values to the world beyond our shores, acting both as an invitation and an inspiration.

Ken Livingstone:

The new Olympic brand draws on what London has become - the world’s most forward-looking and international city.

And the brand itself:

London 2012

Finally, some Youtube videos:

The new Microsoft Surface:

Battle at Kruger:

I’m a Marvel … and I’m a DC:

New Skoda Ad:

NTW Letter

Bishop WrightN.T. Wright replies to someone involved in translating Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, who wrote to him, troubled by some of the libellous claims about Wright and his beliefs that he encountered online:

Dear —–

—– has passed on your message to me. I am distressed that you have been so misled about my views. I believe firmly and passionately in scripture, and even more firmly and passionately in Jesus himself. I have no idea where you get the notion that I don’t believe in the virginal conception, which I have never doubted and which I have defended in public, in person and in print several times. I have no idea why you think I deny the credibility of John’s gospel, or for that matter Ephesians and Colossians. Indeed, I have defended all of them. And where do you get the idea that I think that ‘men are being saved by baptism’ (unless, of course, it might be 1 Peter 3.21, of course)? All this is simply wicked and unpleasant libel. Who has made these accusations? Have they read anything I have ever written?

When it comes to Paul, I have spent my life trying to understand his letters in great detail. If you want to disagree with my interpretations, please disagree with what I say, and show where I am getting it wrong, rather than listening to people who tell you that I am saying (for instance) that my belief is some kind of new revelation. Of course it isn’t! I am teaching what Paul is teaching, and I am happily and gladly open to anyone showing me that my understanding of the text is wrong. But please read what I have said, and the reasons I have given for it, before you say things like ‘we don’t need God’s righteousness to stand before righteous God’. Read what I say about the meaning of ‘God’s righteousness’ in Paul. Weigh it with what the whole scripture says — the Psalms and Isaiah and so on as well as Paul himself. Do what the Beroeans did in Acts 17: search the scriptures to see whether these things are so, rather than assume, like the Jews in Thessalonica, that any interpretation of scripture which you haven’t met before must be angrily rejected.

This brings me to ‘heaven’. Yes, in the New Testament of course there is the hope for being ‘with Christ, which is far better’ (Philippians 1.26). But have you not noticed that the New Testament hardly ever talks about ‘going to heaven’, and certainly never as the ultimate destiny of God’s people. The ultimate destiny, as Revelation 21 makes abundantly clear, is the ‘new heavens and new earth’, for which we will need resurrection bodies. Please, please, study what the Bible actually says. When Jesus talks in John 14 of going to prepare a place for us, the word he uses is the Greek word mone, which isn’t a final dwelling place but a temporary place where you stay and are refreshed before continuing on your journey. The point about Jesus being our hope is that he will come again from heaven to change this world, and our bodies, so that the prayer he taught us to pray will come true at last: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. That is God’s will; that is why Jesus came; that is our final hope. Of course, Christians who die before that time go to be with him in heaven until the time when the whole creation is redeemed (Romans 8.18-27 — have you studied that recently?). That isn’t a ‘symbolic meaning’, and I confess I don’t know why you should think it does.

The problem is, I think, that there are some Christians who have not been taught what the Bible actually teaches about the redemption of the whole creation. The Bible doesn’t say that the creation — including earth — is wicked and that we have to be rescued from it. What is wicked, and what we need rescuing from, is sin, which brings death, which is the denial of the
good creation. When we say the creation is wicked we are colluding with death. Sadly, some Christians seem to think they have to say that.

I am particularly disturbed when you say that I am not much different from the gnostics I am attacking, and that I have no hope for the lost world. Hope for the lost world is precisely what I have in abundance, precisely because of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us not so that we could let death have our bodies for ever while our souls go off into a disembodied eternity — that was Plato’s mistake! — but so that we could be redeemed, rescued from sin and from the death it produces.

Dear —–, you have been deceived by what you have found on the internet. Of course I believe in Jesus. He is the centre of my life and, though I am a very imperfect disciple, I adore him and will preach him to my dying day. Of course I believe in his gospel. It is the good news that God so loved the world (not that God so hated the world). Yes, there is always a danger that all of us may distort the gospel, that we can be deceived, that we may need to inspect our hearts. But when you suggest I don’t believe in the whole scripture — well, I’m sorry, but exactly that belief is the rock on which the work of my whole life has been based.

I do hope that you will think again, continue to translate the book, and publish it in due course. But perhaps before you do that you might like to read one or two of my other books on the major subjects you have raised. Particularly The Resurrection of the Son of God, which has already been translated into various languages.

With greetings and good wishes in our Lord Jesus Christ

Tom Wright

N. T. Wright
Bishop of Durham

Judas and Ahithophel

In the course of his treatment of the use of the OT in John’s gospel, Steve Moyise describes M.J.J. Menken’s understanding of the background of Jesus’ statement in John 13:18. Menken suggests that John makes his own translation from the Hebrew of Psalm 41:9, but alters it slightly to bring it closer to the language of 2 Samuel 18:28. The context of this verse is Ahithophel’s betrayal of Jesus, an event in the life of David which Jewish tradition also associates with Psalm 41. Menken observes a number of parallels between the story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and David’s betrayal by Ahithophel that I hadn’t noticed before.

  • Judas and Ahithophel both hang themselves after the deed (2 Sam 17.23/Matt 27.5).
  • They both plan to do the deed at night (2 Sam 17.1/John 13.30).
  • David and Jesus both pray for deliverance on the Mount of Olives (2 Sam 15.31/Mark 14.26ff.).
  • David and Jesus both cross the Kidron (2 Sam 15.23/John 18.1).
  • It is claimed that the death of one man will bring peace to the people (2 Sam 17.3/John 11.50).

I had seen some of these before, but hadn’t noticed a few of the others.

Against the Youth-Driven Church

This video has been posted by a number of people in the blogosphere. Like most others, I strongly disagree with this guy in a number of areas and believe that his argument against the Emerging Church is riddled with problems. However, rather than mocking, I think that it might be helpful to try to see where he might just have a point.

There was a time when many Christians were very concerned to keep away from pop music and TV because they believed that they introduced dangerous ‘worldly’ ways of thinking and acting. As sophisticated and enlightened contemporary Christians we tend to look at such notions with amusement and see the preoccupation with avoiding such ‘worldliness’ as being largely a concern of a naive fundamentalism. We happily watch 18 (or R)-rated movies and provide clever reviews that show the Christian themes that are subtly interwoven with the sex and the violence. We listen to music that celebrates radically unchristian forms of sexuality or to Christian artists that often seek to ape such music. Perhaps we are justified in this; what really troubles me is that the concerns for godliness and a distinctly and transparently Christian way of living exemplified by many of an older generation really don’t seem to register with us to the same extent. For all of the naivete of their vision, they had a vision for such holiness and godliness, which is more than I can say for many of us. For all of our sophistication I sometimes wonder whether we could learn some basic lessons in being a godly and a holy people from an older generation.

We live in a youth-driven society. Whether in the media or on the web, older people are hardly visible. For instance, the very fact that most of our theological discussions occur online prevents most elderly people from having any active voice in the conversation. When older people appear in the media, they are often ridiculed. Their style, their tastes, their knowledge of the world, their ethics and their values are all out of date. The new and the young are to be celebrated and the old is to be sidelined and dismissed.

Many areas of the Church have bought into this way of thinking. They have glorified the ‘new’ and sit very loosely to the accumulated wisdom of older generations. The Emerging Church is one area where this can be observed. The concern to be hip and on the cutting edge often trumps the concern to be faithful and submissive to the wisdom of our fathers in the faith.

The Church should be one place where a radically different culture prevails. It should be a place where older generations are honoured and treated with respect, even when they are wrong. Biblical societies are generally ruled and led by elders, not by young turks. Many contemporary evangelicals have forgotten this and their churches are driven by the desires of their young people and the most influential leaders are under the age of 40 (ideally, it seems to me, churches should not be led by people under the age of 50).

One of the deepest sins of many of the youth-driven trends in the Church is their determined movement away from catholicity. Rejecting a catholic Church they opt for youth churches or stratify the Church into age groups in other ways. Rather than worshipping in a way that reflects the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition, their worship tends to be dominated by (generally sappy and biblically illiterate) songs written by young, popular and rich Western Christian evangelical artists who are within the contemporary Christian music industry. One of the great things about singing traditional Christian hymns is that we have the opportunity to sing words written by people from all over the world, from countless different backgrounds and generations, and with hugely varied vocations. We get to sing songs by laypeople and bishops, by monks and martyrs, by missionaries to pagan lands and travelling preachers, by Reformers and by Catholics. We sing songs written by people many centuries and countless miles removed from us. We sing songs written by people from cultures that are quite alien to our own, but with whom we share a citizenship in heaven. In the process the parochial nature of our own tastes is challenged and we learn to listen with appreciation and humility to people who differ radically from us. Of course, singing the psalms, we have something even better. We have the opportunity to sing words written by Moses and David.

Sadly, rather than express our respect for our older brothers and sisters in Christ by submitting to the wisdom of the Christian tradition of music and worship, we tend to start worship wars, causing tensions and splits in churches because of our (frankly) ‘worldly’ desire to sing songs that conform to our contemporary Western appetites. Generally the modern worship wars seem to be driven by our ever-changing tastes in music, rather than by real theological or biblical concerns. Where are the voices calling for increased use of the psalms? They are few and far between, largely because the psalms do not generally provide what we believe that the ‘worship experience’ should give us. Where are the deep theologies of worship? Much of the worship wars are about our love for ‘thrashing, bashing and crashing’, rather than about any sort of coherent theology of Church music. Although I am someone who believes that ‘thrashing, bashing and crashing’ music should not be ruled out of the Church, I have no desire to align myself with those for whom the introduction of such music is purely an attempt to accommodate the worship of the Church to their their personal tastes in music, rather than an attempt to discern how God would have us worship Him and what is fitting for the praise of the saints.

Our concern tends to be that we have a good ‘worship experience’, rather than that we worship God joyfully and appropriately. If a particular song or style of music doesn’t conform to our personally tastes, so be it. We are worshipping God, not ourselves. Fittingness for the task of worshipping God should always take priority over everything else.

Finally, I have commented in the past on the infantilization of many quarters of the Church. It is not surprising that this tendency is accelerated in churches where the younger generation sets the agenda. The comments that the man makes in this video about the ‘young and stupid’ are not without a degree of correspondence to reality.

All of this, and the biblical command to honour and respect our elders, makes me quite reluctant to poke fun at this man’s expression of his opinion. For all of his misunderstanding and prejudice, he does have some valid points to make and we would do well to pay heed.

Links and News, but not in that order

I returned from a few days back in Stoke-on-Trent on Tuesday evening. My time back home was full of activity, but very enjoyable. As there was a wedding on, I had the opportunity to meet a lot more friends than I would have met on another weekend. During the few days back home, I watched Spiderman III for the second time (I far prefer Spiderman II) and Pirates of the Caribbean III (none of the later films in the trilogy have lived up to the original). I helped out at a kid’s club, with preparation for the wedding celebration and had to preach at very short notice (I mainly reworked material that I had written and blogged about recently). I also enjoyed following the cricket when I had a few minutes to spare. The West Indies may not be the strongest opponents, but convincingly winning a Test match does provide welcome relief after the mauling of the latest Ashes series and our failure to make much of an impact at the World Cup.

Over the last few days I have read a number of books. On my way down to Stoke-on-Trent on the train, I finished reading L. Charles Jackson’s Faith of our Fathers: A Study of the Nicene Creed. I had the privilege of meeting Charles a couple of months ago and have enjoyed reading his book. It is a very helpful introduction to the Christian faith, following the statements of the Nicene Creed. Each chapter is relatively short and followed by some review questions. It would be a useful book for a study class and also provides the sort of clear and straightforward (but not simplistic) introduction to Christian doctrine that might be of use to a thinking teenager (Ralph Smith’s Trinity and Reality is another work that I would recommend for this).

On the train journey back I finished reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. A friend recommended the book to me when it first came out a few years ago, but I have only just got around to reading it (I bought a secondhand copy of the book from my housemate John a few months ago). Martel is a very gifted storyteller and the book is quite engrossing. Whilst I strongly disagree with the underlying message of the book (about the character of faith and its loose relationship with fact), I greatly enjoyed the book and may well revisit it on some occasion in the future.

I have also been reading a number of other works, including Courtney Anderson’s To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson, which a friend lent to me, in preparation for my visit to Myanmar in September. I am also reading Steve Moyise’s The Old Testament in the New, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Children of Hurin and I have been dipping into the second volume of John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology. On the commentary front, I have been using Goldingay’s recent work on Psalms 1-41 and Craig S. Keener’s commentary on John’s Gospel.

At the moment I am reading up on the subject of the atonement. I am particularly enjoying Hans Boersma’s work, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition. I am also reading Where Wrath & Mercy Meet: Proclaiming the Atonement Today, edited by Oak Hill’s David Peterson (I am still waiting for my copy of Pierced for Our Transgressions to be delivered), Joel Green and Mark Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross and revisiting Colin Gunton’s The Actuality of Atonement.

Since returning to St. Andrews I have done very little. I spent much of yesterday playing Half-Life 2 (which I am revisiting after a few years) and reading. Today I expect that I will be a little more productive.

The following are some of the sites, stories, posts and videos that have caught my eye over the last few days.

Matt Colvin has an interesting post on ‘Headcoverings as Visible Eschatology’. Within it he argues that Paul’s teaching on the matter in 1 Corinthians 11 was not culturally determined, but informed by redemptive history.

James Jordan has posted a series on the Biblical Horizons website: ‘How To Do Reformed Theology Nowadays’. As usual, JBJ has many useful and provocative observations. Here is one extended quotation:

The second problem is that since the academy is separated from the world, it is inevitably a gnostic institution. It is a place of ideas, not of life. For that reason it tends to become a haven for homosexuals (as it was in Greece, as Rosenstock-Huessy again points out in his lectures on Greek Philosophy). But apart from that problem, the separation of the academy from life means that the fundamental issues are seen as intellectual, which they in truth and fact are not. Clearly, conservative theological seminaries are not havens for homosexuals. But when what is protected is ideas and not women, then something is not right. Do academistic theologians protect the Bride of Christ, or do they protect a set of pet notions?

Consider: A man might say that when the Bible says that the waters of the “Red Sea” stood as walls and that the Israelites passed through, this is an exaggeration. What really happened is that a wind dried up an area of the “Swamp of Reeds” and the Israelites passed through. Now, this is a typical gnostic academistic way of approaching the text. The physical aspect of the situation is discounted. What is important is the theological idea of passing between waters. Human beings, for the academic gnostic, are not affected and changed by physical forces sent by God, but are changed by notions and ideas only.

The Bible shows us God changing human beings, bringing Adam forward toward maturity, very often by means of striking physical actions, such as floods, plagues, overwhelming sounds, and also warfare. It’s not just a matter of theology, or of “redemptive history” as a series of notions.

Now, some modern academics have indeed devoted themselves to social and economic history, and have seen that human beings are changed by physical forces that are brought upon them (though without saying that the Triune God brings these things upon them). This outlook, however, has not as yet had much impact on the theological academy.

The fact is that God smacks us around and that’s what changes history. Ideas sometimes smack us around, true enough. But the problem of the academy is that it is (rightly) separated from the world of smackings. From the academistic viewpoint, the actions of God in the Bible, His smacking around of Israel to bring them to maturity, are just not terribly important. What matters are the ideas.

This means the chronology is not important, and the events as described can be questioned. Did God really do those plagues in Egypt, smacking around the human race to bring the race forward in maturity? Maybe not. Maybe the stories in Exodus are “mythic enhancements” of what really happened. It’s the stories that matter, not the events. Maybe the Nile became red with algae, not really turned to blood. The blood idea is to remind us of all the Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile eighty years before.

Think about this. For the academistic, it is the idea that is important. Human beings are changed by ideas. And ideas only. Of course, it should be obvious that turning all the water in Egypt to blood (not just the Nile, Exodus 7:19) is a way of bringing back the murder of the Hebrew infants and of calling up the Avenger of Blood, the Angel of Death, because blood cries for vengeance. They had to dig up new water (Ex. 7:24) because all the old water was dead and bloody. An event like this changes people. The theological ideas are important. But the shock and awe of having all the water of the nation turn to blood is also important. It forces people to change.

Josh, the Fearsome Pirate, puts his finger on one of the reasons why I would find it hard to become a Lutheran and reminds me of one of the reasons I so appreciate the Reformed tradition: ‘The Bible & Lutheranism’.
Peter Leithart blogs on a subject that has long interested me: the necessity of the Incarnation. The question of the necessity of the Incarnation might strike some as needlessly speculative. However, our answer to this question does have a lot of practical import, not least in our understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption and the manner in which Christ relates to the cosmos. It raises teleological questions very similar to those raised in supra-infra debates, but does so in a far more biblical manner (supra-infra debates that are not grounded in Christology do strike me as unhelpfully speculative).
Leithart also blogs on the subject of Pentecost on the First Things blog, one of a number to do so over the last few days. NTW sermons on Ascension and Pentecost have also been posted on the N.T. Wright Page. Joel Garver also blogs on Pentecost here. Over the next few months I will be doing a lot of work on the subject of canonical background for the account of Acts 2 (something that I have blogged about in the past). I will probably blog on the subject in more detail in the future.
There have been a number of engagements with popular atheism in the blogosphere recently, particularly by Doug Wilson. Wilson’s recent debates with Christopher Hitchens can be found on the Christianity Today website: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. It is interesting to see how Hitchens consistently seems to fail to get Wilson’s point about warrant for moral obligation. Macht also has a helpful post in which he observes Richard Dawkins’ tendency to lightly dismiss positions (not just Christian ones) without ever taking the trouble to try to understand them first.
Joel Garver summarizes the recent PCA report on the NPP/FV and posts a letter raising some questions and concerns on the subject.
Ben posts an interesting list of recent and forthcoming must read theological books and Kim Fabricius loses all credibility.
A recent convert to Roman Catholicism argues that FV theology leads Romeward. A recent convert to Eastern Orthodoxy argues that Peter Leithart was instrumental in his conversion. The first post prompted a very lively and rather heated discussion in the comments (which I participated in).

Frankly, while I do not agree with such moves and do not find the slippery slope argument — much beloved of FV critics — at all convincing, I am not surprised that a number of people make such moves and credit the FV with moving them some way towards their current ecclesiatical home. Unlike many movements within the Reformed world, the FV is heading in a (small ‘c’) catholic and principled ecumenical direction. The journey to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism is far shorter from a catholic than a sectarian tradition. The FV is not generally given to overblown polemics against every theological tradition that differs from the Reformed and appreciates reading material produced by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox. It can open one’s eyes to the fact that there are actually some pretty fine Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians out there and that, despite a number of failings, they are often far better on certain issues than their Reformed counterparts. Differences remain, but they are put into a far more realistic perspective.

John H on what lies beneath debates about Mary. He also raises the issue of the presence of the Eucharist in John’s gospel for discussion.
The most blogged passages of Scripture [HT: The Evangelical Outpost].
Christianity Today has its 2007 book awards.
Encouraging signs from Dennis Hou’s blog.
Edward Cook watches LOST with Hebrew subtitles.
Best selling books of all time [HT: Kim Riddlebarger]
118 ways to save money in college
Learn a new language with a podcast
Learn the 8 essential tie knots

New music from The New Pornographers [HT: Macht]
A third of bloggers risk the sack
Life as a secret Christian convert
Global Peace Index Rankings (if you are looking for the US it is down at 96 between Yemen and Iran)
A wonderful new site where grandmothers share films of some of their favourite recipes.
Boy kills a ‘monster pig’ [HT: Jon Barlow]
Some Youtube videos.

George Lucas in Love

Five Hundred Years of Female Portraits in Western Art

Pete Doherty queues for an Oasis album. It is sad to see how messed up he has become since then.

Finally, from my fellow St. Andrews Divinity student, Jon Mackenzie, comes ‘The Barthman’s Deck-laration’

NTW Lecture on the Purpose and Use of Doctrines

On May 2nd I had the opportunity to hear N.T. Wright deliver a lecture on the subject ‘Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture’, here in St. Andrews. I am not the fastest note-taker, and so the following is a rough reconstruction of the basis gist of Wright’s lecture, based on my sketchy notes. For this reason they really should not be used as a point of reference for Wright’s thought.

Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture

NT WrightThe first half of the paper will be primarily methodical; the second half primarily exegetical. We currently face a puzzle of perception. There are those in the Church who are troubled by what they see as the hardening of theology into dry doctrine. Scripture, they believe, brings life, not ‘doctrine’. Scripture can often function like a favourite movie or symphony for them. For others, however, Scripture has become as dry as doctrine itself. Extended prayer and praise meetings are what they regard as important — the Spirit. In addition to such people there are those who love dogmatic theology and are bored by labyrinthine exegesis.

We need to recover an understanding of Scripture in the light of narrative. One can almost anticipate the sighs of some hearers of this lecture. Narrative theology is so passé. They are even giving it up in Yale! However, a narrative structure is very clearly present in Scripture. This stands in contrast to the Gnostic gospels. Lacking such a narrative they would quite likely function as a cuckoo in the nest of the canon. Genesis to Revelation is one massive narrative. The various writers of Scripture, particularly the earlier ones, can be compared to engineers from many different workshops producing the many nuts, bolts and cantilevers that would eventually come together to form the Forth Bridge, something far bigger than anything that they could have envisaged.

When we read Paul we need to read him as one who thinks Scripture. His mind is full of the Scriptural narrative (and the various subnarratives) and he regards himself as one who inhabits the big narrative that Scripture presents us with. As we read Paul we need to ask how he can function as Scripture for us. When we read Scripture are we really looking for Scripture itself, or are we merely looking for something else — such as doctrine or devotion — that we try to mould Scripture into.

As a suggested way forward for our thinking on this matter, perhaps we should start to think of doctrines as akin to ‘portable narratives’. Doctrines are like suitcases that enable us to transport longer narratives from A to B. However, like suitcases they need to be continually packed and unpacked. Sometimes we need to, in order to address important questions that the Church faces in the course of its mission, to speak about the meaning of Jesus’ death. On such occasions it is better to say ‘atonement’ than have to give a more long-winded statement.

However, as a note at this point, it is important to remember that, when Jesus wanted to teach His disciples about the meaning of His death, He didn’t give them a ‘doctrine of atonement’. Rather, He gave them a meal. When we think about the atonement we need to recognize that the Eucharist is the grid of interpretation that we have been given.

Creeds can be compared to portable stories. Although some have treated them as such, creeds are not like ‘checklists’, arranged in no particular order. Rather, they follow a clear narrative order, telling, in broad brush outline, a story that begins in creation and reaches its climax in Christ. They are telescoped narratives. If we leave our suitcases unpacked for long periods of time there is always a danger that the contents will become mildewed. The same is the case with the creeds. We must always be prepared to ‘unpack’ the narrative of the creeds.

One of the purposes that the creeds serve is that of enabling the narrative to function as a ‘symbol’, as something that we can subscribe to. Doctrines also enable us to more adequately defend the narratives from attacks at key points.

The packing and unpacking that we are here speaking of can be observed within the text of Scripture itself. Paul frequently packs and unpacks his narrative. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:56 we find the terse statement, ‘The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.’ This is a very closely-packed version of what Paul unpacks, expands and lays out in detail in Romans 7. We see much the same ending in Romans 7:25 as we do in 1 Corinthians 15:57. The packing and unpacking of doctrines, then, is not just something that the Church does; Scripture does it too.

It is possible to treat dogmas as items on a checklist in a way that detaches them from any narrative framework. It is also possible to place them into the wrong narrative. Dogmas are like the dots on a dot to dot puzzle. The dots by themselves are not enough; they must be joined up in the correct order. Implicit narrative is all-important. If we put our doctrines into the wrong narrative we can end up falsifying them. This is very significant when we come to the doctrine of the atonement. We must recognize that it is the story of Israel that drives the NT and Jesus himself. This is what Paul means by ‘according to the Scriptures’. The cross isn’t merely predicted by isolated proof-texts within the OT, but is the fulfillment of the entire OT narrative of Israel. This can be very hard for those who think in terms of a creation-fall-Jesus pattern to understand. However, if we miss out Israel we are in danger of becoming Marcionite in our thinking and losing out in such areas as ecclesiology.

Some understand the divinity of Christ in terms of a ‘Superman’ type narrative. Others understand the Second Coming in terms of the narrative of the rapture. These are examples of ways in which our implicit narratives can falsify or distort doctrines. The doctrine of atonement is a self-involving doctrine. Whilst all doctrines are to some extent self-involving, atonement is more so. It is about reconciliation with God and outside of the context of reconciliation with God it can never be properly understood. The atonement is not just an ‘involving’ doctrine in the sense of being something that we must mentally and emotionally commit ourselves to. The truth of the atonement is embodied in the practice of the Eucharist.

Unlike those who adopt the ‘checklist’ mentality, we need to recognize that not all ‘doctrines’ are the same sort of thing. For instance, ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ is not necessarily the same sort of thing as ‘the doctrine of the resurrection’. Particular doctrines are, to some extent, sui generis.

It is interesting to observe that, whilst Paul mentions the cross all the time, he never gives it any expanded treatment. This contrasts to the way in which Paul unpacks the doctrine of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The cross is woven deep into the fabric of 2 Corinthians, for instance, but it is always treated in connection with other doctrines.

The book of Romans is about the δικαιοσυνη θεου (righteousness of God). It is about God’s addressing the problem of humanity and of Israel to keep the covenant. The significance of Israel in this picture is that Abraham was going to be the one through whom God was going to set right that which went wrong in Adam. However, it seems that God’s purpose for Israel has failed. Traditional readings generally fail to see this and, as a result, marginalize sections like 9-11, 2:17-29 and 3:1-9. Subtly different questions than those of Paul are brought to the text.

In his approach to the cross in Romans, Paul seems to take traditional statements concerning the cross as the basis for his argument in such places as 3:21-26. In the early chapters of Romans Paul demonstrates the failure of Israel to be the light of the Gentiles and the reality of universal sin. God’s plan seems to have collapsed. In 3:21-26 Paul gives an exposition of the manner in which God has been faithful to His covenant in dealing with sin.

It is unfashionable to go to the book of Acts in order to discover Paul’s theology, but the parallel between the reference to passing over sins in Romans 3:25 and statements made by Paul in Acts 14 and 17, where Paul speaks of the times of ignorance of the Gentiles, are interesting. Romans 3:21-26 does not give us a generalized statement of atonement, but rather declares how, in the present time, God is dealing with Jews and Gentiles.

Has the traditional argument just taken a wise course of action, by cutting to what it has deemed to be the ‘heart of the matter’? The problem here is that we run the risk of forcing texts onto the Procrustean bed of our own assumptions. Our eagerness for ‘doctrine’ can result in the muting of the Jew/Gentile point that was so important for Paul.

Later in the epistle, Paul goes on to claim that the death of Jesus demonstrates the sovereign love of the Father. From this we can deduce the fact of final salvation. While we were weak, while we were sinners, while we were enemies, Christ died for us. Paul spells this out in terms of Christ’s obedience, a Pauline theme of which the Reformed emphasis on the active obedience of Christ turns out to be a parody. Whilst we can agree with the Reformed doctrine in what it is trying to say, it misses Paul’s point. We needn’t lose the idea of imputed righteousness, but we will get it back within a larger framework, which might threaten some pet assumptions.

In Romans 8:3 Paul speaks of God speaking sentence on Sin itself, not just sins, or sinners. This is the clearest statement of penal substitution in the epistle. God condemned Sin (not Christ); Christ has borne the sentence. What is the larger argument within which this is the turning point? The larger underlying argument is that of the role played by the God-given Torah in Romans 7. Sin does its worst in Israel and will be dealt with there. In the ινα of 5:20 and 7:13 we see that this was God’s purpose all the way along. God’s purpose was to make Israel the place to raise Sin to its height. Torah heightens, rather than alleviating, the problem, turning sins into transgression. God then passes sentence on Sin at the point at which it has been gathered together. The cross then brings into effect the larger purpose of God (Romans 5:21). The story that Paul is telling here is far bigger than the one that has been told by many of his interpreters.

How can this be relevant to the sinner on the street? The significance of this narrative is often implicit and assumed. When you are talking to a person on their deathbed you would not usually discuss the question of why God gave the Law in the first place (although you never know!). If you were going to mention the Israel dimension of the story you might focus more on the truth of God’s faithfulness through death, using Abraham and others as illustrations of God’s trustworthiness. It is worth noticing that, when Paul presents the gospel to pagan Gentiles, his message usually takes a different form to that which we see in the epistles.

In the rest of Romans we see that the cross is not mentioned in 9-11. However, it is implicit throughout. The cross is far wider in meaning than one particular account of how human individuals can be saved.

The frustration experienced by dogmaticians and exegetes when faced with each other’s objections is quite understandable (exegetes and dogmaticians may just be two different types of people). Rather than trying to get at supposedly Pauline ‘doctrines’, we should focus on his larger narrative arguments. ‘Atonement’ is not the primary thing that Paul is talking about. We must read Paul in the context of his implicit narratives. We should never protect Paul from this story. We need to rethink the way that we engage with Scripture. Scripture is not merely a peg to hook ‘doctrines’ on. We need to listen to Scripture when it disagrees with us or we don’t understand it. The faultline that so often exists between Scripture and doctrine can only be overcome by the authority of Scripture being exercised in such a way.


This morning I finished my last exam of the semester. It is a great relief to have finally completed this year at St. Andrews. It has been considerably less productive than the year before (I suspect that there has been a downward trend in my productivity for over three years now, which is rather depressing) and I look forward to really putting my back into the work for my final year. My results haven’t suffered that much, but I would like to have a bit more to show for my time.

In a few days’ time — possibly after I return to St. Andrews next Tuesday — I hope to start posting the subject of the atonement, a subject which will probably dominate this blog over the summer. However, it has been well over a month since I last posted a links post, and I thought that I would mark my return to regular service with a bumper collection of some of the things that have caught my attention over the last month or so.

Matt Colvin’s Fragmenta blog has always been a personal favourite. Matt has been posting some great material recently. Two posts in particular that I have enjoyed: ‘Baptism for Forgiveness in Acts 2:38′ (an analysis of the grammatical arguments put forward by some to avoid a close relationship between Baptism and forgiveness in that passage) and ‘Examine Yourselves: Testing in Corinth and Crete’ (in which Matt challenges the introspective understanding of ‘examine yourselves’ through a careful examination of the Greek). Both posts give a voice to texts that have all too often fallen prey to theological agendas.

I am not sure that I agree with all of Josh S’s propositions, but Proposition 5 (’If your theology makes you uncomfortable with biblical language, your theology needs to change’) is, in my experience, one of the most important principles that I have ever learned. I seem to remember that my father first taught me this principle over several years’ ago.
Stephen Carlson links to some helpful posts with advice for honing your academic writing. Such honing is long overdue in my case. Perhaps something to devote some time to over the summer.
As usual there is a wealth of quality posting on Peter Leithart’s blog. Over the last month Leithart has posted a number of things that may be of interest to NTW fans: ‘Five Points of NT Wright’, ‘Paul and Israel’, ‘Justification and Community’ and a lengthy PDF document: Jesus as Israel: The Typological Structure of Matthew’s Gospel.

Leithart also has a number of other helpful posts that address FV debates, including ‘Perichoretic Imagination’, ‘Theological Imagination’, ‘Grace’, ‘Denying the Gospel’ and a guest post by James Jordan, ‘Justification and Glorification’.

There are also a number of other interesting and thought-provoking posts, including ‘Faith and Grace’ (about different ways of conceiving of the relationship between faith and grace, with particular reference to the practice of infant Baptism), ‘Justification and Purity’ (in which he mentions Chris VanLandingham’s recent work and his argument that justification language has to do more with ’state of being’ than with ’status’ — perhaps a challenging case for the application of Josh’s fifth proposition) and ‘Rites Controversy’ (some thoughts on the relationship between traditional Chinese practices and the Christian faith in the 17th and 18th centuries).

Mark Goodacre posts on the subject of PhDs in the UK and US (something that is playing on my mind at the moment too). He also links to a Guardian article on recent trouble at Wycliffe Hall.
Jason Fout posts on the subject of living with questions.
NTW on Jerry Falwell. There are also a number of new audio lectures linked from the N.T. Wright Page:

Putting the World to Rights
God’s Restorative Program
Godpod 16
Godpod 17

James White links to a — presumably heavily critical — series on the NPP.
Mark posts a lengthy grand unifying Lost theory. I must confess to being cheered by recent developments on the show; for a while I was concerned that it may have jumped the shark.
On Ben Myers blog: ‘Ten Propositions on Being a Minister’ and a plug for Mike Bird’s new book on the NPP (which looks extremely helpful).
Ben also links to this lecture by Archbishop Rowan Williams, something that I really must read when I have the time.
Bill Kesatie asked me to respond to this post on the subject of sexual abuse of children within churches. Bill suggests that blogging Christians need to be more vocal about this matter. I suggest that the teaching of Ephesians 5:11-12 is important to keep in mind here:

And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret.

In our day and age there is virtually no sin so evil that it cannot be spoken of and discussed (almost literally) ad nauseum. There is a sort of unhealthy fascination with perversion that can develop in such a manner, a sort of urge to stoop and sniff the faeces. People who spend a lot of time talking and thinking about sin are in a very dangerous position for this reason. Even though they may condemn the sin in the strongest possible language, there is something about it that arouses their interest.

I am a firm believer in the importance of certain taboos. There are certain things that it is unfitting to talk about. Where sexual abuse of children takes place it is healthy to literally feel sick in the pit of your stomach. Our reaction should be one of deep revulsion. Wherever such sin occurs the Scriptures call us to expose it as a work of darkness. Such an approach of exposing sin has, tragically, not always been followed in Christian contexts. Sin has on occasions been covered up, something which is utterly inexcusable.

The biblical command to expose sin should not, however, be confused with the idea of having a public conversation about such sin. I am shocked by the idea that Christian bloggers should be expected to post condemnations of the sin of child abuse within churches; condemnations are the means by which people who fail to live lives of transparent godliness tend to assert their morality. The fact that we are called upon to condemn such appalling sins suggests that such sins are less than unspeakable and unthinkable to the people of God. Biblically, the Church exposes darkness, not chiefly by condemning it with public statements, but by living as the light of the world.

For this reason, rather than post a condemnation of unspeakable sin, I would prefer to post a challenge for us to be the sort of people for whom such sin truly is unspeakable and unthinkable, for us to be people whose utter rejection of such sin is so completely manifested by the way that we deal with it when it occurs that any further words would merely detract from the fulness of its condemnation.

Jon Barlow posts on Doug Wilson and Christopher Hitchens and their current debate. His thoughts on Doug Wilson are very close to my own.
A couple of weeks ago, Barbara tagged me in the seven things you didn’t know about me meme. Here goes:

1. In my first school play at the age of five I was an angel. Midway through the play the elastic on my trousers broke and the crowd were amused and distracted by my attempts to hide the fact and hold them up. My teacher was not too impressed.

2. I went on strike for a day in primary school, because I was annoyed that the supply teacher was a smoker. The primary school that I attended was a small Church of Ireland school, with four years to each room. My younger brother Jonathan was in the same room as me for a couple of years. As a rather absent-minded kid, he was constantly getting into trouble with the teacher. On one occasion when he was being lectured to (and pyschoanalyzed) by the teacher at the front of the class I felt so strongly that he was being treated unfairly that I wrote a letter of protest and handed it around my classmates. It was intercepted and my mind has long sought to suppress the memories of the resulting experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn my lesson on that occasion and, in secondary school I wrote another letter of protest to a teacher, which led to a session in the principal’s office.

3. The first album I ever bought was (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis. I still enjoy listening to it today, but at the time, I would have probably been better off had I not bought it as it was, to some extent, a means by which I could rebel against my parents.

4. I have never broken a bone, although I have sprained each of my ankles several times. When I injure myself it is usually playing football or riding my bike. The last time it was a badly sprained ankle. The time before, I slipped on dog doo and cracked my forehead on a brick wall. Unfortunately, the manner of my fall was so amusing that, looking up in my dazed state, all I saw were my friends looking down at me and laughing.

5. I have needle phobia. I feel rather annoyed at myself for having such an irrational fear. Whilst I have faced my fear on a number of occasions in having injections or in donating blood, I haven’t been able to shake the fear itself.

6. I started balding at the age of 16. I noticed about 10 years before some other people did. I guess that you don’t see what you don’t expect to see (and some people are not the most observant).

7. Growing up, I always wanted to be an artist, a soldier, a pilot, a missionary or a maths teacher. Frankly, I probably had a better idea then than I do now.

If you want to be tagged, consider yourself tagged.

Dr Jim West mentions a forthcoming book by Richard Bauckham, which looks very interesting, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John.
John H has two great posts with thoughts from Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh: ‘Surging, hopeful, joyful doubt’ and ‘The puzzling mystery of unbelief’. He also has a post, entitled ‘The gospel “under the papacy”‘, which he begins with the remark: ‘One irony of becoming a Lutheran was that it greatly improved my opinion of the Roman Catholic Church.’ Very interesting.
Kevin Bywater has a great series of posts on the subject of sinlessness in Second Temple Judaism:

Second Temple Judaism and Sinlessness (Prayer of Manasseh)
Second Temple Judaism and Sinlessness (2 - Gathercole’s Wise Words)
Second Temple Judaism and Sinlessness (3 - D. Falk on Prayer of Manasseh)
Second Temple Judaism and Sinlessness (4 - Other Texts)

Mercersberg Review articles available online.
Angie Brennan posts the ‘Screwtape E-mails’.
Some interesting things from lifehacker:

Top ten sites for free books
Learning the finer points of punctuation
Top 10 body hacks

A very interesting article on the Bible in the global South.
A new blog: The Reformed News. Looks interesting.
Finally, some gleanings from Youtube.

I got myself a copy of the Arcade Fire’s most recent album and have been listening to it incessantly over the last month. Here is a performance of the title track:

If you haven’t seen the Potter Pals before, this is a lot of fun (or you may find it incredibly annoying and stupid):

Finally, a powerful speech by Bono:

Almost Over

At the moment I am sitting in front of a desk with hundreds of Hebrew flashcards laid out in front of me. In three days’ time I will have finished my last exam of this semester. So far, I am satisfied with how things have gone. I received a paper back and took an exam on Johannine literature and was relatively pleased with how both went. Every time exams come around, I am a little less stressed about them. Even when I have been grossly underprepared I have never failed to fall on my feet. I just hope that I don’t get too complacent and trip up at the last moment.

I can’t wait until this exam is over. There are so many things that I am itching to do. My blogging has been sparse and uneven of late and I look forward to posting a bit more consistently over the summer. I am thinking of devoting particular attention to the subject of the atonement in the next few months, reviewing and interacting with a number of books and addressing the issues from a variety of differing perspectives. I intend to have a wide-ranging discussion on the subject. I will attempt to take a constructive approach, engaging with, but moving beyond some of the more familiar debates that we have on the subject, to explore new and potentially fertile territory. I also hope to have a number of participating guest posters, providing a number of differing perspectives on the issues. If anyone is interested, please feel free to e-mail me at 40bicycles-at-gmail-dot-com. I hope to have reviews of various lengths for at least a dozen or more books on the subject of the atonement and to have posts of various lengths discussing various dimensions of the subject.

Next Thursday I will be going to Stoke-on-Trent and spending a few days there, to visit family and attend a friend’s wedding. I will be back in St. Andrews for the entirety of June. I have a large pile of books that I want to get my teeth into and really can’t wait to get started. If the weather is good, I suspect that I will spend a lot of time studying down on the beach.

Anyway, I must return to my Hebrew revision. Lord-willing, I will post again on Tuesday.

In Which Theobloggers Engage in a Mutual Backslapping Fest and Alastair Invites his Readers to Join In

This Top Theology Blogs list has been doing the rounds over the last few days. Since I don’t have time to write anything worthwhile, as I am in the middle of my revision period for a Hebrew exam next week, I thought that I would post this. Enjoy!

Birth Pangs and New Birth as a Model for the Atonement and Resurrection

Matthias Grünewald - Isenheim Altar, Christ's birth and resurrection panels, 1515

Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. — John 16:20-22

In these verses Jesus employs the image of the birth pangs of a woman in labour, imagery that is common in the OT prophets, where it is also occasionally used to refer to a period of intense suffering preceding a new age (similar usage is also to be found in extracanonical Jewish literature). In the prophets the image of labour pains followed by birth is associated with resurrection (Isaiah 26:16-21) and with the restoration of the people of God (Isaiah 66:8-14).

The strong eschatological associations of such imagery are not accidental to the meaning of this passage. Nor should this passage be detached from the general theme of new birth that appears at various points of the gospel of John. The popular employment of the language of new birth and regeneration can blind us to the primary focus of the teaching of new birth in Scripture, which is not a spiritual transformation in the heart of the new convert but the death and resurrection of Christ.

The death and resurrection of Christ represent a watershed in history. The death of Christ was the definitive death of the old world order. Since then the old creation has been passing away and the new creation born in the resurrection has been advancing. The first person to born again was Jesus Christ, when He became the firstborn from the dead in His resurrection. The new birth experienced by the new convert is an entry into the new life of Christ’s resurrection.

In the OT no one was born again. From dust they were born and to dust they returned. Naked people came from their mother’s wombs and naked they returned there. The re-entry into the womb (the earth and the womb are habitually related together in the OT — Job 1:21; Psalm 139:13-15; Ecclesiastes 5:15) was by death and no one had come out again on the other side. The cursed womb of the earth seemed barren; the seed continually entered into its belly, but no fruit came forth (cf. Proverbs 30:15-16).

John employs the imagery of the woman in labour in the context of a broader inaugurated eschatology. For John the birth pangs begin in Jesus’ death; the birth itself is presumably the resurrection. A surface reading of the text might suggest that the birth pangs are undergone by the disciples; closer examination suggests a more complex picture.

Particularly significant are the words ‘because her hour has come’. Throughout the gospel of John the theme of Jesus’ coming hour is prominent, and no more so than in the chapters just prior to the crucifixion account. It is our conviction that the woman in John 16 represents Israel, undergoing the travail that will result in the birth of a new age. Her birth pangs are focused on the cross of Jesus, but are also experienced to some degree by the disciples.

Who is the new child that is born? It seems to me that the new child is Christ Himself. We find this position convincing in the light of the strong Johannine and NT connection between resurrection and new birth. In Revelation 1:5 Jesus is described as the firstborn of the dead. This understanding of the resurrection is also to be observed in Lucan (Acts 13:33) and Pauline (Romans 1:3-4; Colossians 1:18) thought. Such a teaching is not treated as if it were in tension with the fact that Jesus is truly the Son of God before the resurrection. Jesus is the both the one who precedes the creation as the eternally begotten of the Father and the one who leads the way into the new age as the firstborn of the dead. In Revelation 12 it also seems most likely that the birth referred to there takes place in the death and resurrection of Christ.

While the resurrected Christ is the most immediate referent of the newborn child, the image refers more broadly to the new birth of the people of God as a whole (cf. Isaiah 66:8; Revelation 12:17). It is through the birth pangs of the cross that the birth from above that Jesus speaks of in John 3 becomes a possibility.

This imagery is employed in a number of places in the NT outside of Johannine writings. In Romans 8, for instance, the imagery occurs within a context of inaugurated and awaited eschatology. The birth pangs are still taking place, but the manifestation of the sons of God is certain, as Jesus has already been declared to be the Son of God in His resurrection as the firstborn of the dead. Being sons of God is a matter of great eschatological significance for Paul. The fact that people are being set apart as the sons of God by the reception of the firstfruits of the Spirit is a sign that the last days have come upon us.

Understanding the death and resurrection of Christ in terms of birth pangs and new birth provides us with an illuminating perspective on the death of Christ, one that is present at a number of points in the NT, but has not received much attention. It is a model of atonement that focuses on the giving of new life. Within this model (which undoubtedly needs to be complemented by others) sin and death are overcome not by means of punishment, but by the bringing about of new life. Birth pangs may be an effect of the Fall, but the focus of this model is not on punishing man for sin or condemning sin, but on overcoming the death and the frustration of the creation that result from human sin.

Evangelical doctrines of the atonement often have the tendency of detaching the cross from the resurrection and becoming focused on the condemnation of the sins of the past, saying a lot less about how the cross and resurrection bring about new life. We are left merely as forgiven sinners, rather than as participants in a new creation. Such models — which should by no means be rejected — are generally backward looking, focusing on past transgressions. The model outlined above is more forward looking, placing a far greater accent on the resurrection.

This model also ties in very neatly with themes and motifs that are very prominent in the OT. I have already observed how it relates to imagery that is found in a number of places in the prophets. It relates to the common OT theme of God’s overcoming of barrenness to bring forth the seed. Even more significantly, it relates to the unravelling of the curse and the fulfilment of the protoevangelium far more closely than many other models. It relates to the curse on the woman’s womb, the curse on the ground and the overcoming of death.

Significantly, this theme does not merely show the cross and resurrection as the reversal of the curse. The curse stacks all the odds against new birth, but it is not the reason why new birth is necessary. New birth is necessary because the creation must mature. The heavenly must take the place of the earthly (1 Corinthians 15:35-54). The recent film Children of Men well illustrates the dystopic reality of a world of death without new birth. In such a world, all that remains is the agonizing cry of the woman who can bring forth nothing but wind. In the resurrection the world of the first creation is glorified. The natural body is sown and the spiritual body is raised and there is a future for the world once more.

The model outlined above presents us with a natural image — that of giving birth — in order to help us to understand what takes place at the cross. Even apart from the dimension of the overcoming of the curse and barrenness of the womb of the earth, such new birth of the Spirit would have been necessary even in a world apart from sin. Such a ‘natural’ image for what takes place at the cross also suggests how what takes place at the cross may be analogous to the eternal begetting of the Son, which provides the eternal condition of its possibility. Christ is the one who is eternally begotten by the Father through the Spirit and He is the one in whom new birth by the Father through the Spirit becomes a possibility for us in history. The death and resurrection thus mirror to some extent the eternal processions of the Trinity.

In Which Alastair selects Five Thinking Bloggers and is Disturbed to Discover that he has a Doppelganger

Byron has just tagged me in the thinking blogger meme. I thought that I would post my list and give myself this day off my month-long hiatus. It has been some time since I last posted anything worth reading.

So, without further ado, my selection for five thinking blogs (in no particular order):

1. Fragmenta — I love thought-provoking exegetical insights and Matt Colvin’s blog is one of the best places to go for these.

2. Leithart.com — As far as thinking blogs go, Peter Leithart’s is almost without peer.

3. Sacra Doctrina — Joel Garver, when he is not ‘going Garver’, is one the most stimulating and level-headed bloggers out there.

4. Faith and Theology — It would be hard to deny Ben Myers a place on any such list.

5. Smilax — Dennis Hou has been MIA for much of 2007, but when he is blogging, his posts are often the ones that I most look forward to reading.

Drawing up such a list has not been easy. There are many people who came close to inclusion: Cynthia Nielsen, Al Kimel, John H, John Barach, and the horror that is Chris Tilling.

On the subject of theology blogs, I had the most disturbing experience yesterday. Barbara Harvey drew my attention to this blog. The writer of this blog is named Alastair Roberts and lives in Edinburgh, little over an hour’s drive away from where I am in St. Andrews. He is a fan of N.T. Wright and has recently blogged on the way that Wright is being treated within the PCA and on his recent article on penal substitution. Having seen my doppelganger, I suddenly feel at least 15% less ‘Alastair’ than I did beforehand.

NTW on Penal Substitution Debates

The following is a brief intermission in my month-long hiatus…

N.T. Wright has just written an article that brilliantly captures many of my feelings about current evangelical debates about penal substitution, which is currently causing all sorts of splits and disagreements in evangelical circles in the UK. He also addresses critics of the doctrine and clarifies where he stands in relation to the work of Steve Chalke, for example.

There are few things that frustrate me more than evangelical debates about penal substitution. I am convinced, with Wright, that, whilst they capture something of the Scriptural teaching of the atonement, most evangelical penal substitution accounts are woefully sub-biblical. All too often they consist of some decontextualized prooftexts loosely strung together by a rather abstract theological theory and fall far short of the rich and multifaceted story that the Scriptures present us with. Although I am persuaded of the truth of penal substitution, I usually feel that such theories are not a whole lot better than many of the accounts given by those who deny penal substitution altogether. I have also come to realize that evangelical rhetoric often merely masks a lack of receptive engagement with Scripture. It may seem strange to some, but I am increasingly coming to the conviction that, if receptivity to the Scriptures is what I am looking for, I might be better off reading some good Roman Catholics as, somewhat ironically, they are often less invested in the perfect truth of their tradition than many evangelicals are.

The following are some quotes from Wright’s article. I highly recommend that you read the whole thing.

And I was put in mind of a characteristically gentle remark of Henry Chadwick, in his introductory lectures on doctrine which I attended my first year in Oxford. After carefully discussing all the various theories of atonement, Dr Chadwick allowed that there were of course some problems with the idea of penal substitution. But he said, ‘until something like this has been said, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the full story has not yet been told.’ For myself, I prefer to go with Henry Chadwick, and James Denney – and Wesley and Watts, and Cranmer and Hooker, and Athanasius and Augustine and Aquinas – and Paul, Peter, Mark, Luke, John – and, I believe Jesus himself. To throw away the reality because you don’t like the caricature is like cutting out the patient’s heart to stop a nosebleed. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and all because of the unstoppable love of the one creator God. There is ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ, because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh of the Son who, as the expression of his own self-giving love, had been sent for that very purpose. ‘He did not spare his very own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ That’s what Good Friday was, and is, all about.


What then do I mean by saying that Pierced for Our Transgressions is deeply unbiblical? Just this: it abstracts certain elements from what the Bible actually says, elements which are undoubtedly there and which undoubtedly matter, but then places them within a different framework, which admittedly has a lot in common with the biblical one, but which, when treated as though it were the biblical one, becomes systematically misleading. An illustration I have often used may make the point. When a child is faced with a follow-the-dots puzzle, she may grasp the first general idea – that the point is to draw a pencil line joining the dots together and so making a picture – without grasping the second – that the point is to draw the lines according to the sequence of the numbers that go with each dot. If you ignore the actual order of the numbers, you can still join up all the dots, but you may well end up drawing, shall we say, a donkey instead of an elephant. Or you may get part of the elephant, but you may get the trunk muddled up with the front legs. Or whatever. Even so, it is possible to join up all the dots of biblical doctrines, to go down a list of key dogmas and tick all the boxes, but still to join them up with a narrative which may well overlap with the one the Bible tells in some ways but which emphatically does not in other ways. And that is, visibly and demonstrably, what has happened in Pierced for Our Transgressions, at both large and small scale.


But the biggest, and most worrying, unbiblical feature of Pierced for Our Transgressions is the outright refusal to have anything seriously to do with the gospels. This is a massive problem, which I believe to be cognate with all kinds of other difficulties within today’s church, not least within today’s evangelicalism. There is no space here to open up this question more than a very little. Let me just tell it as I see it on reading this new book.

I was startled, to begin with, at the fact that the foundational chapter, entitled ‘Searching the Scriptures: The Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution’, has precisely six pages on the Gospel of Mark, a good bit of which consists of lengthy biblical quotations, and four on John. And that’s it for the gospels. I don’t disagree with most of those ten pages, but it is truly astonishing that a book like this, claiming to offer a fairly full-dress and biblically-rooted doctrine of the meaning of the cross, would not only omit Matthew and Luke, and truncate Mark and John so thoroughly (sifting them for prooftexts, alas), but would ignore entirely the massive and central question of Jesus’ own attitude to his own forthcoming death, on the one hand, and the way in which the stories the evangelists tell are themselves large-scale interpretations of the cross, on the other. One would not know, from this account, that there was anything to all this other than Mark 10.45 (‘the Son of Man came . . . to give his life a ransom for many’) and a few other key texts, such as the ‘cup’ which Jesus prayed might pass, but which he eventually drank.


I am forced to conclude that there is a substantial swathe of contemporary evangelicalism which actually doesn’t know what the gospels themselves are there for, and would rather elevate ‘Paul’ (inverted commas, because it is their reading of Paul, rather than the real thing, that they elevate) and treat Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as mere repositories of Jesus’ stories from which certain doctrinal and theological nuggets may be collected. And this, sadly, chimes in with other impressions I have received from elsewhere within the same theological stable – with, for instance, the suggestion that since Paul’s epistles give us ‘the gospel’ while ‘the Gospels’ simply give us stories about Jesus, we shouldn’t make the reading of the latter into the key moment in the first half of the Communion Serice. (In case anyone should rub their eyes in disbelief, I have actually heard this seriously argued more than once in the last year or two.)


There are large issues here of theological method and biblical content, all interacting with other large issues of contemporary hermeneutics: would I be totally wrong, for instance, to see some of the horrified reaction to Steve Chalke, and to some of the ‘Emerging Church’ reappropriation of the gospels, as a reaction, not so much against what is said about the atonement, but against the idea, which is powerfully present in the gospels, that God’s kingdom is coming, with Jesus, ‘on earth as in heaven’, and that if this is so we must rethink several cherished assumptions within the western tradition as a whole? Might it not be the case that the marginalisation of the four gospels as serious theological documents within Western Christianity, not least modern evangelicalism, is a fear that if we took them seriously we might have to admit that Jesus of Nazareth has a claim on our political life as well as our spiritual life and ‘eternal destiny’? And might there not be a fear, among those who are most shrill in their propagation of certain types of ‘penal substitution’, that there might be other types of the same doctrine which would integrate rather closely with the sense that on the cross God passed sentence on all the human powers and authorities that put Jesus there? John 18 and 19 as a whole (and not only in individual words and phrases), and 1 Corinthians 2 and Colossians 2 as wholes, have an enormous amount to say about the biblical meaning of the cross which you would never, ever guess from reading Pierced for Our Transgressions and other works like it.


Sadly, the debate I have reviewed – with the honourable and brief exception of Robert Jenson’s article which began this whole train of thought – shows every sign of the postmodern malaise of a failure to think, to read texts, to do business with what people actually write and say rather than (as is so much easier!) with the political labelling and dismissal of people on the basis of either flimsy evidence or ‘guilt by association’. We live in difficult times and it would be good to find evidence of people on all sides of all questions taking the attitude of the Beroeans in Acts 17, who ‘searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so’, instead of ‘knowing’ in advance what scripture is going to say, ought to say, could not possibly say, or must really have said (if only the authors hadn’t made it so obscure!).

As I have already suggested, read the whole article for yourself.

Alastair.Adversaria will return in a month’s time (perhaps)

Lenten Guest Post - Day 39 - A Humble King Crowned with Thorns

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’ — John 19:1-5

Have you ever wondered why the soldiers chose a crown of thorns? After all, they could have constructed the crown from a number of other materials. Yet, the crown of thorns seems purposed, that is, it draws us back to the Genesis and the series of curses that resulted when our first parents fell. “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Gen 3:17-18). As Jesus begins to walk the path that leads to his death by crucifixion, we have a glimpse here of how he, the true guiltless Man, will take the curse, our curse upon Himself. The scene is shot through with irony—Pilate, the image of a false and corrupt “king,” presenting the true King as a helpless prisoner and eventually condemning Him to die. Likewise, we see Jesus, the Lord of creation, the perfect image of God, who unlike Adam and Eve, listened the voice of the Father in humble obedience even to the point of death on a Cross—this Jesus, Pilate proclaims is the true man (talk about meanings going beyond the intention of the author/speaker), and indeed He is—the icon of God who makes the invisible God visible, who opens blind eyes, softens hard hearts and who gives life to the dead. Yet, the One through whom all things were made and who, came to His own, finds His own in rebellion against Him. In fact, they even weave together a crown of thorns and dress Him in a purple robe to mock Him. What is our Lord’s response to this? Does He lash out and call down legions of angels to wipe out the rebels? No. The innocent, yet true King, crowned with signs of creation’s curse, stands silent and walks the path that was both His destiny and our blessing. Behold the Man!

Cynthia Nielsen is graduate student at the University of Dallas and an adjunct philosophy instructor at Eastfield College. Her interests include jazz guitar and Russian language and literature. She blogs at Per Caritatem.


Believe it or not, I really meant it when I said (about a month and a half ago now) that I had no intention of reducing my input on this blog to that of posting long lists of links. I apologize for the continued lack of substantial posting. Hopefully this will change sometime soon. However, I won’t make any promises, as I have not the best track-record of keeping blogging promises. What do you, my reader, think of my link posts? Should I stop them or make them more occasional? Are they worth reading or would you prefer me to do something different with my blogging time? Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

The following are some of the things that have caught my eye online over the last couple of days:

Matt Colvin, whose Lenten reflection was posted on this blog yesterday, posts further thoughts on his blog on the Last Supper and on Gethsemane. He also has posted some posts that are relevant to the interminable FV debates: ‘Dead Orthodoxy’ and ‘Head on a Platter’.

The Fearsome Pirate has returned! He kicks off with a post on Lutheranism. Josh, we’ve missed you.
Leithart posts on the subject of the consumer revolution and gives us quite a Girardian insight from an eighteenth century writer.
On the subject of René Girard, Edward Oakes posts on Girard over on the First Things blog.
Macht links to audio from Calvin College’s Faith and Music weekend. It looks interesting: Sylia Keesmaat, Lauren Winner, and a number of other speakers.
If any of you are feeling like engaging in some extreme penance, Ben Myers links to a meme that might suit you. He also posts Kim Fabricius’s ‘Ten Propositions on Political Theology’, which Josh and Joel discuss over on the BHT.
Stephen at the Thinkery links to a post with a series of accounts of anti-LGBT encounters. Whilst I believe that lesbian, homosexual, bisexual and transgender behaviour is sinful, I have long maintained that homophobia is real and ought to be shown up in all of its ugliness by Christians. Some of the stories recounted should give us food for thought.
There are few examples of homophobia as extreme as that of the Westboro Baptist Church. The following is the first part of the BBC2 documentary, in which Louis Theroux meets the Phelps:

The other parts of the show are also available on Youtube — part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7.

The audiobook of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine is available for free download from Christian Audio this month [HT: Tim Challies]. Don’t miss out!
Why PowerPoint presentations don’t work [HT: David Field]. I feel vindicated: I have long viewed PowerPoint presentations with a mistrust bordering on antipathy.

According to recent studies, Britain has 4.2million CCTV cameras - one for every 14 people in the country - and 20 per cent of all cameras globally.

It has been calculated that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.

Read the whole article here [HT: David Field].

Tearfund has a new report on churchgoing in the UK. There is some comment on the report on the BBC website. Graham Weeks posts some figures from the survey here.
NTW’s Maundy Thursday sermon.
The Placebo Diet [HT: The Evangelical Outpost]. I just need to know how to turn this finding in my favour.
As usual the Evangelical Outpost has a number of other interesting links, which I thought that I would pass on:

100 aphorisms summarizing Calvin’s Institutes
Some classic insults
34 Reasons Why People Unsubscribe from your Blog (a quick scan confirms my suspicion that I have been guilty of the majority of these at some time or other)
The Internet weighs 2 ounces

Some British teachers drop teaching the Holocaust and the Crsuades to avoid offending Muslims and other schools are challenged to change their teaching on the Arab-Israeli conflict by some theologically confused Christians [HT: Tim Challies]
A skeptical ex-scientist describes the funding process for peer-reviewed research.
Some more useful links from lifehacker:

How to Read a Scientific Research Paper
How to make yourself happier within the next hour
Google launches My Maps
Ditto: A useful Windows clipboard extension

I am glad that I am not the only person who writes e-mails in this way:

Some of the other Youtube videos that have caught my attention over the last week include: LisaNova does 300!, Sand Castle Explosions Backwards v.1 and Sand Castle Explosions Backwards v.2.
Jeffrey Overstreet asks whether movies are increasing our capacity to see, and whether the narrative of film distracts us too much from the visual dimension [HT: John Barach].
And, on the topic of the poetry of cinema, I will conclude this links post with one of my favourite scenes from Spirited Away, which I watched yet again last night. It grows on me every time.