Results tagged “Systematic Theology” from Reformation21 Blog

Borrowed Conviction

It has happened a few times before. It happened again recently. Someone without a good church gets in touch, referred by a mutual friend. Or someone drops an email asking for advice. Or there is a conversation at a conference with someone who has come looking for help, counsel, refuge. Somewhere along the way, I ask about their convictions. I ask about their home church, if they have one. It helps me. It helps them. If I am to walk carefully, act wisely, tread on no toes, be of any assistance, it is useful to know what they actually believe and where they belong. And so I ask.

The answer, too often, involves a list of names. Top dogs. Big cheeses. In many instances, men who have earned their spurs. I understand that sometimes a name or names attach to systems or principles. I would understand if someone identified themselves in terms of an Augustinian soteriology, or a Calvinistic view of God, or a Puritan approach to holiness. I accept that it sometimes helps us and others to situate ourselves by locating ourselves in relation to others whose doctrinal or practical position is fairly firmly fixed, at least in some regard: "I love Spurgeon, or Owen, or Bunyan, or M'Cheyne."

I appreciate that we sometimes use shorthand. "I am a Calvinist." "I believe in the doctrines of grace." "I hold to the Reformation solas." "I am a Westminster/Savoy/1689 man." That helps. Even then, to be honest, I would usually say, "That's great. Let's talk about what that actually means." But it is not what I often hear.

What I hear is a list of names. "I like Beeke, Washer, MacArthur." Or, "I would love to sit under the preaching of Piper, Keller, Carson." Or, "I really appreciate Dever, Sproul, Grudem." Or, "I listen to guys like DeYoung, Mohler, Chandler."

And this from someone who is often saying that they are looking for a church home, somewhere to put down roots. What's the problem? The problem is that these men do not believe the same things. To be sure, most of them would share some or many fundamental convictions. They would all set out to preach the Gospel. But their understanding of the intricacies of the gospel, their hermeneutics and exegesis, their sense of how soteriology feeds into and shapes ecclesiology, their view of ordinances and sacraments, their notions of duty and discipleship, their expectations in terms of authority and structure, their priorities and pursuits--all of those things--will have often significant variation.

And so I find myself explaining to the person in question that they now have a problem. The convictions that would bring you into membership in some of the congregations to which those men belong, or in which they find their home, would necessarily exclude you from membership in the congregation in which another serves. You could ask them questions, and in some cases you would get contradictory answers. Some of those contradictory answers would be of lesser importance, but most would have a significant impact in terms of principles and practices in regular church life. You are in danger of living on borrowed conviction, and therefore remaining a spiritual and ecclesiastical roamer.

The men they mention are, to them, not so much reference points in an organized system, or recognizable markers along a clearly-discerned path, so much as they are random notes heard without arrangement. However clear and convinced the particular figureheads might be themselves, to the person who is hearing them they might be no more than a voice on the wind. That person might think of those men as pastors and disciplers (and in their own context they might be), but they are - to this roving and unrooted listener - merely floating heads, disembodied preachers, often nothing more than voices from the internet or passing personalities at a conference.

A list of gurus is not the same as a developed set of theological convictions. Neither is it the same as having a spiritual home with true shepherds caring for your soul. And yet to find a church and to find pastors is no easy task, for the person in question typically does not know what they are looking for. There may be an expectation of profile and gift in the man under whose ministry they will sit, the man who effortlessly hits a home run in every sermon and whose sermonic hit counter regularly goes stratospheric. They are looking for a big personality or a 'proper ministry'--you know, one with a logo, and a strapline, and a reputation, and a staff. Often, the notion of finding a faithful man faithfully feeding faithful members, investing in each one so as to bring each to their potential as a servant of the Lord, is alien. Not only do they have no experience of it, they have no expectation of it. And so I urge the person in question to find a church and pastors. Generally, I explain, the two go together! Find a community of believers among whom you can live and serve with a clear and biblically instructed conscience. Read the Scriptures and pray and study and pray and ask and listen and pray until you know what that means. If you are coming to me, I can tell you and show you what I believe and why I believe it. I will try to persuade you, because these things are important. If you want to check out these things with someone else, that is your call. But don't come to the conclusion that these things are not important, or you will end up living in a spiritual landscape without definition, in a house without the roof and walls that provide order and security. You will need to think about your soteriology, your ecclesiology, your eschatology, your missiology - you will need to figure out a few 'ologies' in order to know where you can put down roots. You will need to be ready and willing to listen and to learn. You need to find a man or men of God whom you can trust and love and receive and, in some ready measure, follow, not from an adoring distance, but up close and personal. You need to find a place to call your spiritual home. You need a faithful company of saints who have covenanted together to love the Lord and one another, among whom you can stand and with whom you can serve. You need to get convinced and get committed.

If you are already in such a situation, thank God for what may seem like mundane realities. They are no small blessings. Keep learning, but be careful not to keep shifting. Settle the basics of comprehensive Christian believing and living and then get on with the substance of that convinced life. Listen more - much more - to the undershepherds God has given you that to the ones he has given someone else (and steer clear of the men who claim to be shepherds but have given up on or been legitimately rejected by sheep).

If you need to be in such a situation, determine not to live on borrowed conviction. Do not be one of those who, in these respects, are "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2Tim 3.7). Learn and embrace the fundamentals of Christian faith and living before God, among the saints, and under authority, and you will find--under God--that this is the place and this is the sphere to know and enjoy developing spiritual health and advancing biblical holiness and increasing Christian happiness.

The Hidden Omnipresence of the One Lord

In the first of this series, and last time, I set out to explore Professor Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God

Having established the meaning of the fundamental and perfect Oneness of God, she next turns to the Omnipresence of God. In successive chapters, she will explore the other 'omnis' - the Omnipotence, and then, the Omniscience of God. 

But the Omnipresence of God, as Sonderegger points out, is linked to his Hiddenness. God, the one God, is not represented by images, nor worshipped through idols that human beings can see. If there is one conviction that is basic to Israel's faith it is this. On the contrary: the God of Israel is hidden from view. He is invisible. He is certainly heard; but he is not seen. 

This does not mean a simple declaration of what God is not, as in the tradition of the via negativa. Rather, God's hiddenness is revealed to Israel. He is manifest precisely as hidden. 

Nevertheless, 'it is a striking fact that God cannot be seen in the cosmos' (p. 52). This may be seen as the ultimate image problem of course, if he is to be known by creatures who have been given eyes. But it is actually entirely consonant with his Omnipresence: 'He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One.' (p. 52)

Of course, the modern world demands that God be visible, and laughs rather bitterly when he is not displayed before it like some specimen. But Sonderegger offers in this place a rather nuanced argument: it is actually the fact that we can operate in the world by means of a 'methodological atheism' that testifies to God's invisible omnipresence: 'The hidden and free Lord is present to His cosmos in the worldliness and secularity of the intellect' (p. 57). It is only with our eyes opened by Holy Scripture that we can see God in his hiddenness. The failure of natural theology to discover him is not surprising, since he is not an object or a principle lurking in the structure of created things. In fact, this is his gift to us, claims Sonderegger - that our senses are immersed in the creation. 

Is this too negative about the possibility of a natural theology? In the current apologetic environment I don't want to concede as much to the atheist as this. David Bentley Hart's work has given me a great deal more courage on this front. However, what Sonderegger does is show how the hiddenness of God is not an embarrassment, but completely commensurate with who a God like him must be. If there is a singular God who is the fount of all being, and omnipresent to the creation, then he must be hidden in it - or, he is very close to being it. And that would be idolatry, or paganism. 

The secret and invisible aspect of God's deity is found through the Scriptures. At Sinai, God appears concealed in smoke and fire. The temple itself was a grand act of visible concealment, a gesture of invisible presence. God is in heaven - a place that our human eyes of flesh cannot see, except by being given a vision. 

Sonderegger's reading of those passages which turn our gaze to the heavens as the place where God dwells - in Isaiah, for example - is that by these we are not to understand God as being absent on earth and present only in heaven, but rather that in heaven his invisible presence with his creatures is made visible. 

Not as a critical reviewer, but as a worshipping Christian, I found these observations enriching. God's hiddenness does not equate either to his absence nor his unknowability. He is present, everywhere: as we read in Jeremiah:
Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. (Jer 23:23-24)

Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness as Foundational Perfection

Last time, I proposed to share with you my 'reading notes' on Katherine Sonderegger's new Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God

There are plenty of big books in the world to which one could commit cash and time. Why this one? Well, my answer to that is a bit of a hunch: I heard Prof Sonderegger present a paper at a conference and I was impressed by three things: her commitment to listening to the voice of Scripture, her elegant literary style (she really has an ear for English prose), and her determination to press theological ideas a very long way indeed. 

I haven't been disappointed in picking up this stout volume of her work, though I have been daunted at times. That is not because Sonderegger parades her learning, or attempts to intimidate by being opaque. On the contrary: in reading this theology, one feels as if one is experiencing theology as it really should be done. And that is hard but rewarding work. 

Having established her beginning point with the Oneness of God - a surprising challenge to the fashionable determination to start with the Three - Sonderegger subsequently turns to an examination of the Divine Oneness as the foundational perfection. That is a measure of how seriously she takes the divine unity - there is no gainsaying or surpassing it as a perfection of God. And that is, as she writes, something that 'beckons us into the mystery of God' - by which Sonderegger means it draws us into prayer, and to worship. Divine Oneness is 'contemplated on bended knee'. It is something that Israel heard when they encountered God at the foot of the mountain, and trembled. 

What is it for 'Oneness' to be a 'foundational predicate' of God? It means that all the other things we might validly say about God are 'governed and determined' by Oneness.  The corollary is naturally the strong prohibition throughout Scripture against idolatry. Not only does Scripture testify that God is supreme, and that he is not accompanied by a queen-god, but God does not look like anything. He is without likeness on the earth. He is not to be paired with any material, visible thing. But importantly, he is not a concept or an idea, either. 

This is pushing the notion of this divine Oneness a long way, and rightly: "We do not approach God's Holy Oneness any more powerfully by examining our general concepts and ideals than we do by examining trees, and human faces, and sunsets. God is One, this very One: God is concrete, superabundantly particular." (p. 27)

How do we then know God? It is enough at this stage for Sonderegger to state that, as we do know him, we are confronted by mystery. This is the immortal, invisible, God only wise, ineffably sublime. And yet, he is known, as he declares himself, through the Scriptures, where we hear his voice. 

In contemporary terms, we might say that God is free, and radically so. He is not constrained by comparison. He is not a member of a class, or a set. And, echoing Barth, Sondereggar notes that God's freedom has its impact in the world not to enslave but to free those who draw near to him. This is not then a meditation on a concept of God's freedom, but a reflection on what God's freedom actually achieves in the history of Israel, and in the history of Jesus Christ. 

That is: God is free, not constrained by some human plaything, some statute or item. He is not for us to imagine into being through our comparison of him with mute beasts, or with great human beings. There is not to be found, nor thought, his likeness in the earth. Yet, this is not simply a dissolving of God's reality into a vast blackness of negativity, where we say only what God is not and not what he is. For Sonderegger, negating the form, image, or likeness of God is merely what creatures must do to affirm the reality of the Divine Oneness and Freedom. 

I am not sure that I wish to carp at all with what Sondereggar has drawn out from this affirmation of the Divine Oneness as foundational predicate. Perhaps we could add some things that the Professor no doubt would also add: the Oneness means that all the other things we might say about God must be held together - he is not the Almighty God on Monday, and the Merciful God on Tuesday. Rather, might must modify mercy, and vice versa. The Oneness will also mean that the history of his actions is one single history, not a disconnected and arbitrary series of events. History itself, as creation too, emanates from the one source, and no other. 

But to affirm the Divine Oneness is to recognize that the divine being is so deep, so without parallel, so uncompromised and untainted, so holy, that it is probably time to quit these inadequate meditations and simply fall to praise, confession, and thanksgiving. 

Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology

Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness of God

I've been slowly working my way through Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Doctrine of God.  Released this year, it is the sort of book that pastor-theologians or theological students could make the focus of a reading group. It is beautifully written, fresh, biblical in method, and extremely stimulating. It is above all genuinely theological, and not as concerned with the political as much contemporary theological writing is. You can see some other comments I've made on Sonderegger here. This post represents the first of what might be called 'reading notes' on Sonderegger's text. 

'The Perfect Oneness of God' is the place that Sonderegger chooses to begin her doctrine of God. This is for a biblical reasons, she argues: the Shema is such a foundational truth for all of Scripture that it cannot be gainsaid. She notes that the New Testament is likewise insistent on the oneness of God as 'axiomatic', citing James 2:19: 'You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!'. For Jesus, the oneness of God is the theological principle from which he argues with the lawyer about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-30). 

So God is One. But what does that mean? Does it mean that God is to be worshipped alone among other gods? Or that in fact that there are no other gods? At this juncture, Sonderegger begins to address one of the concerns underlying her work: that the critique of a kind of theological conceptuality as being 'Greek metaphysics' in the name of a more 'biblical' or 'Hebraic' type of thinking has been a massive mistake in late twentieth century theology. For Robert Jenson, writing in the tradition of Karl Barth, the divine oneness needs to sweep away all thought of the 'one' of Greek metaphysics and instead consider the particular and distinctive contribution of the narrative of Holy Scripture, with its dramatic presentation of the threefold God. 

Sonderegger is not an anti-trinitarian! But she questions the almost universal trend to take the doctrine of the Trinity as the starting point for the doctrine of God. This was Aquinas's starting point, and that of many Reformed theologians, although not Peter Lombard's. Lombard began with the Three; Aquinas insisted on beginning with the One. 

So, what is Sonderegger's argument for beginning with the Oneness and not the Threeness? The Oneness of God is, she says, one of those principles so foundational that all other theological statements rest upon it. There are philosophical and traditional warrants for starting here, but most importantly: 'Divine Oneness is recommended principally by Holy Scripture itself' (p. 9). Sonderegger then argues that the principle form of the Old Testament is not narrative, but Torah. And the subject matter of Torah is the One God. In particular, we see the profound influence of the book of Deuteronomy in the gospels and in Paul. As Sonderegger says:
Indeed so central is Torah, and especially its representation in Deuteronomy to the authors of the New Testament, that we risk simply repeating these Gospels and Epistles when we set out the citations (p. 12). 
The law is framed in narrative, but it is after all not the narrative that Psalm 119 celebrates, but the 'precepts' 'commandments' 'laws' and 'statutes'. 

What this allows us to do is to go beyond God as an actor in a drama, as per Barth and Jenson, and to talk about metaphysics. The Oneness of God says something about his being. Even though Scripture is not a philosophical treatise, and it is certainly not a Greek philosophical treatise; but that is saying something about genre, not subject matter. This is an important principle to distinguish for a properly theological hermeneutics. The form of Holy Scripture is certainly not to be separated from its subject matter, but it surely can be distinguished from it, and definitely not reduced to it. 

In particular, the narratives and other literature of the Old Testament distinguish the One True God from the other gods by the fact of his invisibility. 'The nature of the One God is to have no image, form, or likeness' (p. 21). That is the opening principle for Israel's invitation to worship the One God. That is the tragic story of apostasy, as the chase after idols. The Oneness of God, and his Invisibility, are in opposition to the gods and idols of the nations that surround Israel. 

There are questions to ponder here. Is Sonderegger right in putting Torah in the central form of her reading of the Old Testament? Certainly, this move allows her to reintroduce the traditional metaphysical conceptuality of theology. The limp theism of a previous generation is now being seriously challenged (how did anyone ever think that Open Theism was a good idea?) But the warning, that a thicker version of metaphysics might do damage to the proper reading of Scripture, should be heeded, too. 

Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology

Dogmatics and doxology

I have the delightful day job of teaching systematic or dogmatic theology. The study and teaching of systematic theology is delightful because systematic theology is preeminently concerned with the Bible, the living and loving address of the Most High God to poor and miserable sinners in the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Systematic theology is especially concerned with the Bible as a whole."The whole counsel of God" (Acts 20.27) constitutes the scope of this discipline. Systematic theology does not pretend to exhaust the unsearchable riches of Christ as they are put on display in the Bible. But systematic theology is responsible to trace out the breadth and length and height and depth of those unsearchable riches, ignoring none, cherishing all. It may not pick and choose between biblical teaching about God and biblical teaching about creatures or between biblical teaching about grace and biblical teaching about gratitude. God and creatures, grace and gratitude belong to the whole counsel of God and so God and creatures, grace and gratitude command the attention of systematic theology.

Systematic theology is not only concerned with the Bible as a whole. It is also concerned with the relationships between various aspects of biblical teaching. It is one thing to know what the Bible teaches about law and gospel and quite another to know how the Bible relates those two topics to each other, and great systematic theological mistakes are made when we fail to rightly relate various aspects of biblical teaching. 

The most delightful dimension of systematic theology lies in its calling to relate every aspect of biblical teaching to the one who is the author and end of everything about which the Bible speaks: the blessed Trinity. "Of him and through him and to him are all things," Paul tells us (Rom 11.36). And that too sets an agenda for systematic theology. Not only must systematic theology rightly relate creation and fall, law and gospel, justification and sanctification. Systematic theology must also show how each of these subjects relate to God, the efficient, exemplary, and final cause of all creatures. Systematic theology is about God and all things in relation to God.

For this reason, systematic theology is through and through a doctrine of God. As Herman Bavinck well observes: "Dogmatics . . . describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end--God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull and arid science. It is a theodicy, a doxology to all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a 'glory to God in the highest' (Luke 2:14)."

If systematic theology is through and through a doctrine of God, then it is ultimately a doxological discipline, a field of study that arises from and terminates in wonder before the Lord our God. Systematic theology is a meditation on the glorious splendor of God's majesty, and on his wondrous works (Ps 145.5). It is an intellectual and affective engagement of the human person with the whole of biblical teaching that seeks to turn biblical understanding into a song of biblical praise to the Alpha and the Omega of all things, the first and the last, the Lord God Almighty. 

Justification and Ariel's Grotto

Systematic theology must make sure that each doctrine it teaches is biblical. It must also make sure that each doctrine it teaches reflects an appropriate proportion and order in relationship to other doctrines. This proportion and order is determined by the shape of biblical teaching--"the pattern of sound words" (2 Tim 1.13), not by the theologian's architectonic sensibilities. 

Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. But justification is not a stand-alone doctrine. The doctrine of justification only makes good Christian sense when rightly ordered and related to biblical teaching about other doctrines such as God and creation, sin and the law, grace and Christology, church and eschatology. Abstracted from this broader biblical and doctrinal context, even the most pristine doctrine of justification is susceptible to distortion and misuse, much like that poor fork in Ariel's Grotto.

Mike Allen devotes the first chapter of his fine book on justification to this precise issue. Where does the doctrine of justification fit in relation to other biblical doctrines? According to Allen, the doctrine of justification provides the legal "ground" of our sanctifying fellowship with the triune God, a fellowship enjoyed now under the ministry of the gospel within the church and not yet in the unmediated presence of the triune God within the new creation. This, in part, is what it means to say that the church "stands or falls" on the doctrine of justification. Furthermore, according to Allen, though justification is the "ground" of our sanctifying fellowship with God, this sanctifying fellowship--now in the church, not yet in the new creation--is the "goal" of justification. Within the broader economy of God's saving works on behalf of his elect children, justification is not an ultimate end. Justification is a wonderful and indispensable means to other (more) wonderful ends.

A quick glance at Romans 5.1-11 confirms this point. According to Paul, the blessing of justification is ordered to (at least) six other blessings. 

(1) As a consequence of justification, we have peace with God (Rom 5.1). The greatest consequence of sin is neither guilt nor misery. The greatest consequence of sin is that we have made ourselves "enemies" of God (Rom 5.10) and therefore that we abide under his "wrath" (Rom 1.18ff). God himself, the Holy One of Israel, is our problem. In an act of incomparable love (Rom 5.6-7), and through the obedience and death of his beloved Son (Rom 5.9, 18), God himself has addressed this problem. God has reconciled us to himself: "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 5.1).

(2) As a consequence of justification, we stand in the state of grace (Rom 5.2). If we limit ourselves to the Book of Romans, this state of grace includes several privileges: (i) the privilege of adoption, a privilege sealed by the Holy Spirit who has been poured out into our hearts (Rom 5.5; 8.12-17); (ii) the privilege of Christ's heavenly intercession on our behalf, wherein he preserves us in the state of grace and justification (Rom 5.10; 8.34); (iii) and the privilege of living unto God and of bearing fruit for the glory of God, i.e., the privilege of sanctification (Rom 6.1-23; 8.4-11, 29; 12.1-2).

(3) As a consequence of justification, we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom 5.2). The ultimate goal of human nature, and the supreme source of human bliss, lies in the beatific vision: beholding the unmediated glory of the triune God. Sin deprived us of fulfilling our true end and thus of realizing our true happiness. Through justification, our ultimate goal and our supreme happiness have been secured. We are at peace with God. We will see God. And we will be supremely happy in God (Ps 16.11; 1 John 3.2; Rev 22.4).

(4) As a consequence of justification, our suffering is now ordered to our benefit (Rom 5.3-4). Because we have been reconciled to God through the death of his Son, all of the suffering, sorrow, and loss that God sends our way in this "vale of tears" does not come to us as punishment for our sins (see Isa 54.14-17). Instead, suffering, sorrow, and loss are divinely ordered to our endurance, character, and maturity. Suffering, sorrow, and loss are ordered to our conformity to the image of God's beloved Son, our elder brother (Rom 8.29; Phil 3.10). Though often we cannot feel the reality of this privilege in the midst of suffering (Heb 12.11), this too is one of the blessed consequences of justification and a reason to rejoice.

(5) As a consequence of justification, we will be saved from God's eschatological wrath (Rom 5.9). According to Hebrews 9.27, "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment." However, for those who belong to Jesus Christ, and therefore who are united with him in his sin-bearing death, the second coming of Jesus Christ is not a reason to expect divine wrath and judgment. For us the second coming of Jesus Christ is reason to expect full and final salvation: "Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for  him" (Heb 9.28).

(6) As a consequence of justification, we rejoice in God (Rom 5.11). Matthew Henry observes that the doctrine of justification causes Exodus 15.2 to be fulfilled in us: "The Lord is my strength and my song; and he has become my salvation." Through justification, God becomes the "strength" of "weak" sinners (Rom 5.6). Through justification, God becomes the "salvation" of guilty sinners, who are the objects of his righteous wrath (Rom 5.9). And through justification, God becomes the "song" of the justified. We were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever, the catechism teaches us. Justification is a blessed means to realizing this blessed end here and now. Because of our justification, we no longer relate to God as an object of terror and fear. We relate to God as an object of love and delight: "we . . . rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Rom 5.11).

Why is it important to grasp the proper order and relations of justification to other biblical doctrines? The doctrine of justification is all too easily hijacked by the American "folk religion" that sociologists and theologians have labeled "Moral Therapeutic Deism" ("MTD") (see here  and here), a folk religion that plagues many of our Reformed and evangelical churches. Within the religious universe of MTD, the self lies at the center of the solar system and the affirmation of the self is the law that maintains all planets in their orbits. One of the most common errors related to justification in popular (as opposed to academic) Christianity does not involve revising the nature of justification. It involves making an otherwise pristine doctrine of justification the satellite of the therapeutic self. There is a kind of gospel teaching and preaching that does not challenge the basic tenets of MTD but (often unwittingly) appropriates the doctrine of justification to serve MTD's ends rather than Christian ends. In a universe where the chief end of man is his own affirmation, justification is easily employed in a manner which suggests that even God is ultimately ordered to the self's affirmation. 

I am not a sociologist. Nor am I the son of a sociologist. But I do suspect that the scenario described above is responsible in part for the high degree of moral and theological compromise and confusion that characterizes many Reformed and evangelical churches today. To the extent that this is the case, systematic theology, and particularly its office of articulating the order and interrelationship of biblical teaching, may yet have an important role to play in shaping an ecclesiastical culture in which justification makes good Christian sense: beyond the borders of Ariel's Grotto.

Law and Gospel


It seems increasingly to me that one of the challenges facing theologians and preachers in the Reformed tradition is to explicate the statement of the Westminster Confession of Faith that 'neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it' (19.7). Much contemporary evangelicalism so absolutises the principle 'not under law but under grace' that we have forgotten that the God who gave the law is none other than the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. One of the marks of grace in both Old and New Testaments is a love for God's law. The church needs that; and we need wisdom to highlight this without going down the road of legalism. I love the versification of Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) who says in one of his 'gospel sonnets':


Thus gospel-grace and law-commands

Both bind and loose each other's hands;

They can't agree on any terms,

Yet hug each other in their arms.


We need to divide the truth rightly in order to show the validity of this insight. Without law we cannot define sin or righteousness, and without the imputation of these objective realities there can be no atonement. Without an objective atonement, in which the sanctions of the law are met, there can be no Gospel.

Interview with David Wells

Roger Overton interviews David Wells (part 1, part 2) about his new book, The Courage to Be Protestant.