Results tagged “Theology” from Reformation21 Blog

I arrived on Faculty at Westminster in the summer of 2001. I had only been on campus for a couple of months before a group of students approached me one lunchtime and tried to recruit me to a most sinister and dangerous cult. `What?', I hear you cry, `Are the Moonies, the Children of God, and the Manson Family alive and well and operating out of a campus in Glenside, PA?' Well, no, not at all as far as I know. The offer I received was far more dangerous than anything such groups might have made to me. The request was simple: would I be willing to meet with a particular group of students every two weeks in a local bar or restaurant to talk theology? My answer was straightforward and immediate: no

I would, I said, be happy to meet for a drink or meal with any student to chat about theology; but I did not want to make it a regular or formal arrangement. My reason? That is how partisan thinking is born. That is how theological groupies emerge. That is how cults of personality are brought into being. I knew exactly where it would lead: I would try to impress students with my intellectual swagger; they would try to mimic me; and round and round it would go. Other professors, students, groups, etc. would be routinely dismissed, lampooned, and denigrated in a manner that made us feel good about ourselves, and Team Trueman would come to consider itself the best thing since sliced bread. I would give them a tidbit of theological gossip, make them feel they had the inside scoop on something or someone; they would reciprocate with suitable acts of obeisance and worship; and so on and on the merry dance would go. 

Well, so sorry, but I was not going to go there. I'd rather be at home with my wife and kids or out on my bike or off for a run, all of which would remind me of mortality and my more than obvious limitations; and which would ultimately be far better for my soul.

The cult of professor worship is perhaps the most dangerous and reprehensible cult in the theological world. It is no respecter of theological position, afflicting the left just as much as the right. It is no respecter of intellectual ability, as the psychology of leader-follower is predicated more on personality and relational qualities than brainpower. And it is no respecter of souls; nothing so destroys a Christian leader, or his followers, than the mutual flattery involved in the uncritical adulation of a fan-base for a professorial rock star (and I use that term advisedly). Hence, while every instinct in me told me that the offer was a great opportunity to start up Team Trueman on campus, I chose to go against my fallen desires and immediately declined the offer.

I had occasion to recall the incident some years later. By then, I had become something of an amateur student of the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and its various institutions. A strange occupation for a Presbyterian; but, when one remembers that the SBC has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last three decades, involving the overturning of a dominant liberal consensus in favour of more traditional evangelical orthodoxy, the story remains inspiring even to those outside the SBC. 

In this context, there are a couple of particularly helpful items in such study. One is the 1995 PBS documentary, "Battle for the Minds," an unremittingly hostile analysis of changes in the SBC, along with a veritable hatchet-job on Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., and the early days of his presidency at Southern Seminary. In order to tug at the viewers' heartstrings, the documentary plays the issue as one of the persecution of women, particularly one specific woman professor; but when interviewed in the film, the Vice Chair of Southern's board makes the point that the controversy was more about whether professors actually believed the Abstract of Principles (Southern's equivalent of a confession of faith) to which they were bound by voluntary vows; and that, as the woman professor featured in the documentary did not do so, she was, in effect, working, and taking money, under false pretences.

The other fascinating item is the memoir by Judge Paul Pressler, A Hill on which to Die (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002). Pressler was a layman and Sunday school teacher who became disturbed by the teaching and publications he saw emanating from SBC seminaries in the early sixties. He then spent the next four decades organizing a movement to reinstate Christian orthodoxy both in the SBC and in its educational institutions. It was a hard road for him to walk: the early years were lonely and frustrating, and he and his family were later the targets not only of national negative media campaigns, but even of death threats. Still, he persevered on the simple grounds that the garbage taught in seminaries today become the garbage preached in pulpits tomorrow.

One paragraph in particular caught my eye as I worked my way through his book. It reads as follows:

In some instances a student has gone to an institution and has been befriended by professors whom the student respected. The professors tell the student how bright he or she is and how the professors are willing to help the student escape the limited background from which he has sprung. In this way, some professors create a circle of students who follow them. They will train the students in what the professors believe. Such groups can be used to glorify the professor rather than the Savior and can become another source of liberalism. (p. 152)

What Pressler offers here is a brilliant insight into the dynamic of the relationship between some professors and students, and the unfortunate results which can then transpire. Indeed, it is worth unpacking in a little more detail.

First, there is the fact that the relationship is built on a mutually beneficial dynamic of basic vanity. The professor tells the students how clever they are, despite the limitations of their educational background so far; and the students reciprocate by allowing the professor, magus-like, to introduce them to the wonderful, liberating world of real thought. Everyone's a winner; everyone's ego gets stroked; everyone feels good about themselves and somewhat superior to those left outside the sacred circle of Gnostic knowledge.

Second, the focus of these groups becomes the professor and then the little group of acolytes, not the Gospel or, indeed, proper thinking, scholarship, or anything else for that matter. If they feature at all, they are merely fuel for driving the larger cult of personality. In fact, the decorum and moderation of style which typically mark careful thought and scholarship, and even normal friendships and associations, are signally absent from these groups. It is often the case that these little cabals become hyper-sensitive about even the slightest perceived criticism of themselves or their chosen leader; but, by way of contrast, they are often extremely free and colourful with the language they use to describe those with whom they disagree. He who is not with them is, by definition, against them. 

This violence of language is symptomatic of deeper issues, indicating that it is often, at root, the emotional connection to the professor which drives the subsequent theological conviction rather than the other way around. This exact point is made with some clarity by James Gordon in his intellectual biography of James Denney, the great Scottish theologian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Denney studied at Free Church College in Glasgow, during the years when the Free Church of Scotland was being torn asunder by the higher critical views of the brilliant young professor of Old Testament, William Robertson Smith. Gordon argues that it was as much the atmosphere surrounding the man, the liking of and sympathy for, his person that helped to shape Denney's own doctrine of scripture, particular in his positive reception of moderate higher critical approaches to the biblical text. [James Denney (1856-1917): An Intellectual and Contextual Biography (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006), 72-74]. Affection for the man as an engaging teacher, perhaps even the fact that he was `a good bloke' as the English would say, as opposed to one of the `grumpy old men' who opposed him, led the younger hot-shots in the Free Church to lend him their loyalty and to pattern their own theology after his. 

Of course, this is no monopoly of the left. I am reminded of the criticism of Francis Schaeffer as made by James Barr: he taught a whole generation of the evangelicals that they didn't have to read or think for themselves. This is not to say that either Robertson Smith or Schaeffer consciously cultivated mindless clones of themselves--or that their followers necessarily acted in the ignorant, immature, and ill-mannered way I have described above--but it is to say that this is a constant temptation and danger for the powerful intellect or alpha personality, one that needs to be guarded against at all costs.

Third, the long-term impact is that the views of the particular leader get transmitted to the spheres of influence in which the students themselves progress. This is where the little classroom cults become much more dangerous, where they start to harm people's lives, where they start to split churches. It is surely one of the most unsettling experiences to see one's own faults replicated in one's children. If I treat my wife with disrespect, lo and behold, my son does the same. And if I have an ounce of decency, I feel the pain and shame of my responsibility straight away. 

This is not simply the way biological children develop; it is the way in which intellectual and spiritual offspring grow as well. The throwaway comment that a professor makes in a lecture or a pastor makes in some context can come back to haunt the Church in unfortunate and unintended ways, as admiring students latch on to the words of the coolest profs in town and, in an attempt to get a little piece of the magic for themselves, repeat them, exaggerate them, and even misquote them out of context. This is bad enough when done unintentionally; how much more dangerous is it when swaggering professors go out of their way to cultivate acolytes, who then go out and do this sort of thing virtually for a living? 

Such fan bases, such personality cults, are nothing new. They afflicted the church in Corinth, and they have been an enduring malady ever since. Psychologists could no doubt have a field day here: 

Transposition of filial affection to a surrogate parent figure... 

A desperate need to belong to a group...

Both of these can offer plausible, second-level explanations for such commitment and surely contain important truths. At root, however, the problem is even more serious: the Christian, biblical perspective has to be that what we see in such relationships is idolatry. The Bible is clear that idol worshipers take on the characteristics of their idols. Worship a dumb statue, and you will become dumb (Ps. 115); we might add that, if you worship a professor or teacher or pastor, you will come to be like them, warts and all, and probably in an exaggerated way. That is why so many professorial disciples sound like cheap, lightweight versions of the original; they are basically idolaters, and what you see in their lives and language is the inevitable result of their idolatry.

What is worse than this, of course, is that such people negate the power of the cross of Christ. Paul makes the point with ruthless effect in 1 Corinthians 1. To indulge in a cult of personality is not simply to miss the point of the cross; it is also to empty the cross of its power. That is why it is not simply incumbent upon students to guard against being sucked in to such idolatry. How much more is it incumbent upon the professors to avoid becoming the objects of such a cult? 

It is often said that you cannot enter into a pulpit and make yourself look like a great preacher and Christ look like a great saviour at one and the same time. So it is in the classroom, on campus, at conferences: the professor, the theologian, cannot point to the power of the cross and simultaneously encourage a cult of personality. These things simply cannot stand together. Indeed, it is surely vital that the professor not only avoid creating such cults, but also actively opposes them as they start to arise around him. To do less than this is, I fear, to empty the cross of its power and to lead others into idol worship.

Carl Trueman is professor of humanities at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Born in Dudley, UK, he has previously been a faculty member at the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen (UK) and Westminster Theological Seminary (PA). He was also formerly Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Ambler, Pa. He enjoys running, listening to rock/classical music, and doing what his wife tells him.

This article was originally published on reformation21 in August of 2008. 

I was a junior in high school when the Roseanne episode featuring a lesbian kiss aired on network television, and I can remember well the controversy that surrounded that episode. Recent conversations surrounding the presence of a nine-year-old character named Mark on the Roseanne reboot -- a boy who, if not positively "gender fluid," at least exhibits the potential to arrive there -- have made me feel like I'm back in the eleventh grade (much to my immense discomfort). It seems that gender dysphoria represents the next (though probably not final) frontier in the entertainment industry's fairly blatant agenda to normalize whatever trendy effort to attack the givens and boundaries of creaturely existence (and so ultimately the Creator) is currently making the societal rounds.

Moral outrage at the latest crazy-making constitutes one potential response from evangelical Christians. Perhaps equipping ourselves with intelligent thoughts about freedom constitutes a better one. So much of the crazy-making, after all, advances beneath the banner of personal "freedom"--"freedom" conceived fundamentally if not exhaustively as the absence of any restraints upon my choices. So quickly, indeed, does the cause advance, that Barack Obama's grammatically and philosophically questionable comment that all Americans are now "more free" immediately following the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 now seems, three years on, somewhat passé. Establishing and perpetuating a gender (or race, or age) for myself on the basis of man's unalienable right of "self-identification," that intangible but all-powerful trump card in present-day discourse, now seems a far more provocative exercise of freedom than merely marrying someone of my own biological gender.

I'm convinced that a (perverted) concept of "freedom" lies at the heart of our present-day society's apparent determination to dive headlong into the pit of pure insanity. If we and our children and our children's children hope to maintain our own good sense in such context, or perhaps even serve as catchers in the rye-field on the edge of said pit, we need to (re)align our own concept of freedom with a biblical and theological understanding of the same rather than the concept of freedom that pervades western societies. Resources for re-conceiving freedom might be found, I think, both in a good theology proper and in a biblical anthropology/eschatology.

With respect to theology proper, for instance, it might do us some good to remember that God is simultaneously freer and more restrained than any being in our experience. The freedom and restraint that mutually characterize God find expression in numerous texts of Scripture; for example, Numbers 23:19, which reads: "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoke, and will he not fulfill it?" God's freedom is not generally questioned. God is the "ruler of all things" who possesses all "strength and power" (1 Chron. 29:12); thus, to put it simply, he does as he pleases. Talk of God being restrained may raise more eyebrows. But Scripture makes it absolutely clear that God cannot do anything at odds with his own character. This truth is reflected in Numbers 23:19, where the possibility of God not performing something he has promised to do is summarily dismissed. The author of Hebrews puts it even more bluntly: "it is impossible for God to lie" (Hebrews 6:18).

God's choices are not, of course, restrained by external forces. They are restrained, rather, by his own character. Indeed, God always acts "in character," so to speak, in a way that human beings do not. If, then, God exemplifies true freedom, we should conclude that true freedom consists in always acting according to one's nature, not in the freedom to make choices that may or may not be at odds with one's nature. Are we "freer" than God by virtue of our ability to either lie or tell the truth in any given set of circumstances? Surely not. God, it seems, is freer than us by virtue of actually being more restrained; by virtue, that is, of always acting in perfect harmony with who he is.

A consideration of man (in the generic sense) in what theologians have historically referred to as man's "fourfold state" likewise points to a notion of freedom that moves towards, rather than away from, restraint. Theologians typically assert that Adam and Eve possessed greater freedom in the state of integrity than we do either in the state of sin or the state of redemption. They likewise typically acknowledge that human beings will possess even greater freedom -- ultimate freedom -- in the state of glory. But human beings will simultaneously know greater restraint in the eschatological age. In the age to come, man will be, to steal Augustine's terms, non posse peccare (unable to sin). Thus he will become not only freer than he presently is by virtue of the fall, when he is non posse non peccare (unable not to sin), but also freer than he was/is in the states of creation or redemption, when he was/is (to varying degrees) posse peccare et posse non peccare (able to sin or not sin). In other words, ultimate freedom for human beings corresponds with ultimate restraint. In eternity, all our actions will conform to our nature. Superlative freedom and a superlative degree of divine similitude will be realized hand-in-hand. We will be most free when we are most like God, entirely unable to make choices that are at odds with our nature.

In sum, both God and man, properly considered, should prompt us to define freedom not as the absence of any restraints upon choices, but as the presence of proper restraint -- namely, one's nature -- upon choices. To put the matter more crudely, a fish is most free when it swims, not when it exercises some (hypothetical) capacity of choice to be a bird and fly. Redefining freedom along the theological and anthropological lines suggested above will immediately give the lie to much that passes for "freedom" in our day. Is gender reassignment, for instance, truly an exercise of "freedom," or an exercise in slavery?

It might also, however, challenge our own concept of freedom (or exercise of the same) at points that could make evangelical Christians uncomfortable. Can we rightly point the finger at those who advocate the kind of crazy-making noted above if we ourselves, when it is convenient to us, champion the (perverse) notion of freedom that informs such crazy-making?

Perhaps, in the end, gender fluidity and/or the next craze in self-identification will prove an opportunity for evangelical Christians to identity and forfeit a false god -- a false notion of freedom -- that has for far too long found safe haven in our ranks.

We looked at the most popular posts from across Alliance websites in 2017. Did you miss one of these last year? Do you want to read one your favorites again? Just click the article title! 

10Calvin's Life: The Servetus Affair by Jeffrey Stivason

Opponents of John Calvin are quick to blame him for the trial and execution of Michael Servetus. But is that fair? Jeffrey Stivason offers a brief history of the event and Calvin's involvement. 

9. Marital Love Must Be Sexual by Joel Beeke

This is the last in a series of posts about the Puritan view of marriage. The Puritans emphasized the romantic side of marriage, and considered monogamous sexual union in marriage as holy, necessary, and good. 

8. No Little Women: Know What We've Got Before She's Gone by Grant Van Leuven

Grant wrote this beautiful piece in February, reflecting on femininity and the value of womanhood after the passing of his wife only five months earlier.

7. Game of Dethroning Sexual Sin by Nick Batzig

Should Christians watch a show like Game of Thrones, which is widely-acclaimed yet filled with explicit and debauched sexuality? Nick Batzig offers some insight into this divisive issue. 

6. Words Matter: Recovering Godly Speech in a Culture of Profanity by Jon Payne

"So what does the Bible teach about our words?" Jon Payne asks this question in an age of obscenity. His answer: "God created our mouths to be fountains of blessing, not gutters of cursing."

5. Mike Pence, "Truth's Table" and Fencing the Law by Richard Phillips

2017 was a year of conversations (and battles) over sexuality and gender. In this article, Richard Phillips navigates some difficult issues, pointing out both problems in the culture and pitfalls we face in the Church. 

4. A Few Questions About the New CBMW Statement by Aimee Byrd

The Nashville Statement, published in late August, offers what many consider to be an orthodox and biblical understanding of human sexuality. Yet Aimee Byrd has a few reservations, particularly related to the CBMW's stance on gender roles and the Trinity. 

3. The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box by Richard Phillips

Some think it possible to flirt with liberal doctrines and still maintain orthodox faith in Christ. As the example of Fred Harrell shows, the slope towards heresy may be more slippery than they think. 

2. Sundays are for Babies by Megan Hill

Small children may disrupt your Sunday morning, but this day of rest is for them too! As Megan Hill remarks, "Sundays may mean disrupted naps and delayed meals, but our children are trading earthly provision for something far better for their undying souls." 

1. Pray for Your Church Leaders by Christina Fox

Church Leaders and their families carry heavy loads, beset on all sides with stress and temptation. Christiana Fox calls us to remember them in our prayers, knowing that "the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working" (James 5:16). 

That's all for now. We look forward to 2018, and to another year of proclaiming biblical truth!


A Theology of Vacationing


This summer has been no different than those which proceded it. At this time of year, you are possibly continuing to see references to the usual litany of 'Summer Reading recommendations for Pastors.' As end-of-summer vacations loom, men in the ministry feel the need to catch up on those weighty tomes of theology that have been gathering dust somewhere but which a guilty conscience tells them ought to be read. (Though their wife and children may have other ideas!)

Despite the title, these paragraphs are not intended to add to this ministerial guilt trip; but, rather, they are intended to relieve it! Instead of offering yet more theology to take on vacation, I wish to offer a theological justification for viewing a vacation as being a good thing - and this, not just at 'vacation times' when they happen to occur.

The rationale behind this comes partly from some well intentioned, but significantly misguided ideals I held in the early years of my ministry. Namely that it was somehow a mark of sanctification to not take my full allocation of annual leave. And it was only after some wise and gentle persuasion from my dear wife that this theological aberration was put right.

However, a more direct factor that made me think about the Bible's teaching on this issue came from a verse from the Gospels that seemed to find its way into my mind on an annual basis - always as the Summer holidays drew near. It was the verse in which Jesus says to his disciples, 'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest' (Mk 6.31).

It is one of those almost throwaway remarks that Mark includes in his record of our Lord. Not unlike the detail in Christ's calling of the Twelve, that he chose them in part in order that 'that they might be with him' (Mk 3.14) - to provide companionship for him. So even though this verse about rest may seem incidental, it actually has much more to teach than we might imagine.

At the most basic level it says a great deal about the genuineness of Christ's humanity. He was not, as many Christians subconsciously imagine, some kind of Superman in ancient Near Eastern garb. He was real flesh and blood with a real human psyche. He knew hunger, he had to expand his knowledge base, he could not be everywhere at once. But he also knew fatigue. The fact that a few chapters earlier Mark tells us that he was fast asleep in a boat that was taking in water during a storm says it all in terms of how exhausted he must have been (4.38). So here, having just welcomed the Twelve back from their first solo missions trip (6.6-13), he identifies with their weariness, because he himself shared it. In the words of the author of Hebrews, 'he has been tempted [tested] in every way just as we are' (He 4.15) - to the point of exhaustion.

Tied in with this, Jesus' invitation for his disciples to rest gives us a glimpse of his sympathy. What Jesus experienced in his humanity was not isolated in some hermetically sealed container for his own benefit, it shaped and colored how he relates to all whose humanity he came to share. That is why Hebrews also adds that he is not someone 'who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses' (He 4.15). He was not detached or protected from the everyday experiences of ordinary human beings. As he read his disciples that day, he saw the tell-tale signs of fatigue that were showing; but he did not brush them aside. There was no 'Once more into the breach for the sake of the Kingdom!' But, rather, 'Get some rest!' Too often, especially for pastors, we can subliminally regard Christ as a relentless taskmaster - always calling us to do more than we feel he can do. But that is not the case.

Another strand in this glimpse of Jesus in Mark is the way it displays him as the embodiment of the 'Wisdom' [hochma] found in Proverbs. It is the God-given 'skill for living' that goes far beyond the number of tertiary degrees we may have after our name to the sanctified common sense needed for daily life. (The sort of knowledge/wisdom many a pastor's family wished he had!) Jesus knew when to call time. He showed there is no shame in thinking, 'Now for something completely different!' Our functionality intellectually as humans is bound up with a life-balance that is somatic as well as psycho.

Flowing out of this we can't help but notice Jesus' appreciation of the rhythm of life. Built into the fabric of the created order, God has embedded the principle of Sabbath. It is the cycle of a 7-day week that cannot be explained by planetary or lunar alignment; only by the words of Genesis. (How astonishing that this has shaped the entire history of a humanity most of whom have never read it.) The Bible makes it clear that Sabbath matters (even those most evangelicals seem think it doesn't). But the ramifications of Sabbath go further than just the days that bookend our weeks. They spill over into the rest times and vacation times that are needed to provide the longer rest than a single day can give.

Perhaps a more tenuous, but nevertheless related dimension to what Mark is observing in this verse has to do with human responsibility. That is, our duty, in light of the sixth Commandment to look after our body with all its different needs. The disciples would do the cause of the Kingdom no good if they worked themselves into burnout before it had barely begun to get a foothold on earth. Yet, strangely, those involved in the ministry, missions and many other forms of Christian work, seem to think nothing of pushing themselves so far that they end up being able to go no further. How many would have spared themselves unnecessary angst and pain if they had listened to these words of Jesus?

The greatest of all elements in what Jesus says on this occasion has to do with salvation itself. Arguably the loveliest articulation of the gospel's invitation ever heard is when Jesus says, 'Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest' (Mt 11.28). His use of 'rest' as a synonym for 'salvation' is more than just a word picture. It is intimately bound up with the very heart of the Sabbath rest we mentioned already. Again it is in Hebrews we see this so clearly as the author interweaves the language of 'Sabbath', 'rest' and 'salvation' (4.1-11). All of which leads us to the eternal rest of salvation consummated in the world to come. The very real joy and pleasure of getting a break from the routine duties of life should not be disassociated from the joy of our salvation.

The final detail in this little glimpse of Jesus from a different angle has to do with our own humanity and how we are divinely wired to find the very best in life. It is the fact Jesus includes the words 'with me' in his invitation to take a break. Rest times and vacations are not meant to be an opportunity to get away from Christ - especially if we feel 'he is our work' day in and day out - but, rather, to enjoy him under different circumstances and in a different way. Pastors easily fall into the trap of relating to Jesus only on a professional basis. But he wants us to know him as our Friend - one who gives us theological warrant to enjoy our vacations!

Natural Law and the Public Square


Being fully committed to the Protestant Reformed tradition--especially as it is represented at Westminster Theological Seminary--I have developed a basic understanding of natural law theories over the years. If by "natural law" we mean a moral order that is (a) revealed by God in nature, (b) stands behind conscience, (c) obligates all people to worship and obey Him, and (d) is sufficient to leave all without excuse and liable to divine judgment for sin, then I affirm it. However, one standard theistic account of natural law (NL) as a moral theory goes further. This account claims that all people can not only apprehend certain moral truths by unaided reason - apart from biblical revelation - but that people can, in principle, espouse and properly act upon those truths, again, apart from saving grace. It's this feature of NL theory--perhaps the critical feature, it seems to me--that allegedly opens up "common ground" for Christians to cooperate with people of other faiths (or of no faith at all) on issues pertaining to the "common good."

Now, I have learned to leave the majority of negative assessments to my colleague and resident pessimist, Carl Trueman. But I must say that, from a Reformed perspective, this additional claim by many Natural Law theorists runs into a number of obstacles. I wish to briefly mention two.

I believe this aspect of the Natural Law theory in view--that people can reason their way to actionable truths apart from God's special revelation--is too optimistic about the powers of unaided reason after the fall. The general revelation of God in nature and beneath conscience must be "carefully distinguished from the reaction that sinful man makes to this revelation" (Van Til). The apostle Paul says that unbelievers "suppress the truth" that they know (including the truth of their moral obligation to God), that they are, at root, "hostile to God" (Rom 8:7); that they have become "futile in their thinking" (Rom 1:21). They are, Paul says elsewhere, "darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart" (Eph 4:18).

These are hard words, no doubt. But they point to one side of what has been called the "antithesis" between belief and unbelief, a moral and spiritual conflict of basic commitments that touch all that Christians and non-Christians think about and discuss. According to this Scriptural principle, fallen man is slavishly committed to his own moral autonomy, while Christians are to view all things under the Lordship of Christ and the light of His Word. This means that, at the deepest level, there is no mutually acknowledged common ground between Christian and non-Christian. And this, it seems to me, leaves NL proponents calling for peace when there is no peace.

This is not to deny that by God's common grace, many unbelievers are immensely gifted and do morally upright things--often outstripping many Christians in good deeds. But such acts do not spring from an essentially unfallen rational ability, in principle, to discern and apply precepts of natural law. Rather, it is God who mercifully restrains the unbeliever's hostility against Him, so that the unbeliever is led, to some degree, to live inconsistently with his moral depravity. So common grace may facilitate a kind of formal agreement between the Christian and non-Christian. But common grace remains just that--grace. God gives it when and where He wills. You can't count on it as a foundation for public policy. This is a second reason why, I think, the NL theory I have in mind is a non-starter for programmatically advancing public morality.

To close on a positive note, Christians should confidently reason from Scripture in all of life, including life in the public square--rather than appeal to fallen unaided reason. We should do it because failing to do it leads, at best, to what we could call various forms of "well-articulated pragmatism." We should do it because God designed for us to read His general and special revelation together, never to separate the two. But Christians should reason from Scripture, above all, because it is there that we meet the Christ in whom are hidden "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:3), including wisdom for the public square. Such a Christ-centered theology for the public square, I think, better comports with what God says to us, and does not depend on what we say to ourselves.

*This post is a slightly revised version of the opening remarks Dr. Wynne offered during a panel discussion on natural law at a "Faith in the Public Square" conference at Westminster Theological Seminary in October 2016.

The Need for a Ministerial Break Down

"We keep our preaching basic because we have so many new believers. If we give them too much doctrine, they won't be able to understand it." I can't remember how many times I've heard church planters and pastors say such things. Sadly, as their ministries begin to grow numerically, mature believers in the congregation are left to languish in spiritual malnourishment and discouragement. On the other hand, there are those churches (though significantly fewer in number) in which ministers seem to wear their academic interests on their sleeve in the pulpit. They burden the congregation with highly nuanced theological subjects or phraseology in the name of faithfulness. Whether it is compromising ministers diluting God's word to the spiritual malnourishment of the congregation or ivory tower pastors caring little about bringing along new believers, one of the great needs of our day is for preachers to learn how to break down, rather than water down, the truth of God's word.

We find this important principle at work in the ministry of John Calvin. On the whole, Calvin tended to reserve his more academic prowess for the institutes and his commentaries--rather than for his sermons. In his essay, "Calvin's Sermons on Ephesians: Expounding and Applying Scripture," Randall C. Zachman helpfully observes,

"[Calvin's] sermons differed from the commentaries both in terms of their audience and their objective. The commentaries have, as their audience, the future pastors...with the goal of revealing the mind of the author with lucid brevity. The sermons have, as their audience, ordinary Christians within a specific congregation with the goal of expounding the intention or meaning of the author, and of applying that meaning to their use, so that they might retain that meaning in their minds and hearts, and put it into practice in their lives."

Calvin sought to adjust himself in different ways to his readers and hearers--distinguishing between what he wrote for the academy and what he proclaimed from the pulpit. A brief comparison of his commentary on Genesis and his sermons on Genesis serve to demonstrate this difference of approach. To be sure, it is a task of no small difficulty.

In our day, when ministers water down God's word they almost always do so from behind a missiological smokescreen. Insisting that a robustly theological ministry is a detriment to reaching the unchurched, they introduce a number of serious problems. First, they--perhaps inadvertantly--give the impression that the ability to impart spiritual understanding lies within the power of the messenger rather than in the working of the Spirit and word of God. In essence, they suggest that the outcome of their teaching is commensurate with the supposed intellectual ability of the hearers. This not only denies the sovereign working of the Spirit of God through the word of God--it levels an intellectual insult at the people to whom they minister. Second, such reasoning carries with it the faulty presupposition that everyone grows at the same slow spiritual pace. Such ministers forget that most of the weighty Apostolic letters were written to new Gentile converts who lacked much, if any, familiarity with the Old Testament. Yet, the Apostle Paul wrote some of the deepest and most profound truths to new converts in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, etc. These letters included appeals to oftentimes less familiar verses of the Old Testament as well as to some of the most difficult and nuanced theological argumentation in all of the Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Those ministers who fail to break down God's word for His people usually do so from behind an ecclesiastical smokescreen. They treat each member of the congregation as if he or she should be at the same spiritual place in understanding by virtue of the fact that they are members of the church. This is often driven by unrealistic and undistinguished spiritual and intellectual expectations of every believer. They too have faulty presuppositions that everyone will grow at the same spiritual pace---failing to factor in the spiritual infancy of new believers.

Those who water down the truth will often appeal to 1 Corinthians 3:2--where the Apostle Paul wrote, "I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able;" and, ministers who fail to break down the truth will almost always point to Hebrews 5:12-14, where the writer rebukes the congregants for their spiritual immaturity when he says, "For though, by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." So, how can we reconcile these two truths of Scripture that seem to lay in stark contrast with one another?

Calvin's comments on 1 Corinthians 3:2 are exceedingly helpful. First, Calvin explained that the minister must learn to " the capacity of those he has undertake to instruct." He wrote:

"Christ is at once milk to babes, and strong meat to those that are of full age, (Hebrews 5:13, 14,) the same truth of the gospel is administered to both, but so as to suit their capacity. Hence it is the part of a wise teacher to accommodate himself to the capacity of those whom he has undertaken to instruct, so that in dealing with the weak and ignorant, he begins with first principles, and does not go higher than they are able to follow, (Mark 4:33,).

He then went on to warn ministers against watering down the truth in preaching:

"[We must] refute the specious pretext of some, who...present Christ at such a distance, and covered over, besides, with so many disguises, that they constantly keep their followers in destructive ignorance...their presenting Christ not simply in half, but torn to fragments...How unlike they are to Paul is sufficiently manifest; for milk is nourishment and not poison, and nourishment that is suitable and useful for bringing up children until they are farther advanced."

How important it is for ministers of the Gospel to, at one and the same time, avoid that theological dilution by which we fail to bring up children "until they are farther advanced" while rejecting that ecclesiastical elitism that refuses to "accommodate to the capacity" of those we are instructing. Rather, it must be the goal and aim of our ministries to be faithful to the call to break down God's word "until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ" (Eph. 4:13-15).
The details of Luther's mid-1520s tussle with Erasmus over the issue of sin's impact on human freedom are generally well known. Luther responded to Erasmus's 1524 De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio with his own 1525 De servo arbitrio [On the Bondage of the Will]. Erasmus, deeply offended when the faux charity and grace he displayed in his work weren't reciprocated by the German monk, responded in turn with a decidedly less magnanimous two-part effort titled Hyperaspistes (1526/27). Luther never bothered answering this later work, largely because he felt that Erasmus had done a fine job of hanging himself in it--clearly evidencing to all the Pelagian tenor of his thought. 

But Erasmus didn't completely fall off Luther's radar screen after 1527. In fact, as time went on, Luther became increasingly convinced that Erasmus was to blame for a considerable number of theological and social ills in Germany, not least the rising tide of Anabaptism. In 1534 Luther accordingly published an open letter to his friend Nicolaus von Amsdorf in which he expressed his distaste for Erasmus in no uncertain terms, calling him, for instance, a "palmerworm who [has] crept into the paradise of the Church, and filled every leaf with his maggots." Luther suggested that he himself had judged Erasmus too charitably in the past, finding him principally guilty of treating "the most sacred subjects" with too much "levity." He noted that his own effort to rouse Erasmus from his "snoring" -- presumably a reference to Luther's De servo arbitrio, which was addressed to Erasmus -- had only served to provoke Erasmus, like a deadly viper. Luther was now convinced, he confided to his friend (and anyone else who cared to tune in), that Erasmus's problem was "not simply levity, but [rather] malice and an entire ignorance of Christianity" (Henry Worsley, Life of Luther, 2:281). 

Compared to some of the shots Luther fired in his lifetime, his remarks on Erasmus in 1534 seem rather mild. But they were strident enough to elicit regret from Philip Melanchthon over Luther's "petulance," a "petulance" Melanchthon was quick to chalk up to "old age" rather than innate temperament. 

To be sure, Luther was quite capable of petulance, as any number of other exchanges might illustrate. But his concerns about Erasmus probably had more substance than Melanchthon realized. 

Luther's comments about Erasmus were premised on a brief review of several of Erasmus's notable writings, with observation of some flaws. Thus, for instance, he took stock of a catechism Erasmus had written for children some years before, and noted how the Humanist scholar had failed significantly in his effort to articulate very basic Christian doctrine to those in need of sound, straightforward teaching. Indeed, Erasmus's catechism, in Luther's judgment, even served to undermine orthodox Trinitarianism by raising rather unfortunate (and decidedly unnecessary) questions about traditional teaching on the relationship of the divine persons. "Why in the Apostles' Creed," Erasmus asked early modernity's youngsters, "is the Father called God; the Son, not God but Lord; the Spirit neither God nor Lord, but only Holy?" No matter what answer followed, Luther noted, the question itself could only serve to engender doubt in tender minds about the full divinity of Son and Spirit. 

In hindsight, Luther's concerns about Erasmus seem fairly well founded. The opening pages of Erasmus's Diatribe (for instance) do, it must be said, evidence a relative disinterest in, and disparaging of, fundamental doctrines such as the Trinity and Hypostatic Union in favor of (ostensibly) "clearer" biblical truths about how to behave one's self. Even Rome herself eventually turned on Erasmus, placing several of his works on the Index of Prohibited Books

In short, if Luther's concerns and criticisms of Erasmus -- driven by Luther's profound sense of the need for clarity and precision in articulating the basic truths of our Christian faith; driven too by sensitivity to the significance of what a basic catechetical text doesn't say about its purported subject in addition to what it does say -- constituted petulance (as Melanchthon charged), perhaps more petulance is precisely what's needed in our own day.

A Virtual Reality Check


Just a few weeks ago, the Oculus Rift started shipping out its Kickstarter units. These virtual reality (VR) headsets have been anticipated for years, especially since Facebook bought the parent company in 2014. At the risk of using a tired word, this new technology will likely become disruptive. So it behooves Christians to ready their minds for this revolution. How should we think about virtual reality?

Like any technology, virtual (or augmented) reality devices offer incredible benefits, yet pose dangerous risks if used wrongly - that is, without concern for real reality, other people, or holiness to the glory of God. In a fallen world, there are always tradeoffs, and since fallen image bearers will be the agents utilizing these headsets, as well as creating the digital content, platforms and experiences, there will be opportunities for both good and evil.

The good that VR devices offer is most apparent in the area of connection and communication. Mark Zuckerberg, announcing Facebook's purchase of Oculus VR, pointed in this direction: "This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures...Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home." Facetime is great - but what if I could feel like I was actually in the room with you? What if I could immerse myself in the world of those who had suffered, as the New York Times did with its video "Displaced," about three young girls forced from their homes by war? New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein suggests, "What is that connecting to characters, to individuals, is one of the real unique qualities of virtual reality." This technology can be used to increase our empathy, our knowledge of the past and the present, and our relationships with loved ones far away.

As Zuckerberg mentions, it seems virtual reality will also become a staple of education, entertainment, gaming, and medicine, not to mention news media information delivery, home buying, travel experiences, research, military training and battle, and whatever else the creativity of man can come up with. Virtual reality devices, then, are one more expression of our obedience to the cultural mandates to subdue and exercise dominion over the earth God created (Genesis 1:28).

Yet these devices must be used with care - not only because of the motion sickness they sometimes cause, but even more because of the spiritual threats they can pose to the unprepared. We will soon be able to communicate in new ways, to be sure. But at what cost? Ironically, the same technologies that connect can also isolate us from relationships. If you are concerned that the members of your family are all staring at their screens instead of engaging one another in conversation, how much more when they are all wearing their VR goggles immersing themselves in their own reality? A television can keep us from true communication, to be sure, but at least everyone often watches the same thing together. Perhaps the technology will advance to enable multiple goggles to share an experience, but it seems more likely at the current time to detract from family cohesiveness rather than contribute toward it.

Along these lines, the use of VR devices for video gaming will only amplify the struggle for those who are already inclined to idolize this hobby to the expense of their family and real reality. A husband who is addicted to an online universe on a screen for hours on end today will tomorrow be able to put on his goggles and be even more disengaged from his wife and children. Not all will succumb to this temptation, but it will be present.

One of the clear possibilities for temptation is in the area of sexuality. The New York Post has termed our day "the Golden Age of masturbation." VR devices will present all manner of opportunities to experience virtual sex, enjoying by yourself (or with an illicit partner) what God has created to be enjoyed with your spouse, and only with your spouse. Are our youth prepared for Satan's attacks through this new tool?

More foundational than even relationships and sexuality are the effects of virtual reality on core aspects of our humanity. As these devices become more accessible, real reality may become less appealing, and the temptation to avoid or escape the difficulties of this life will beset us. The 2009 movie "Surrogates," starring Bruce Willis, is a dystopian vision of how virtual reality can enable us to shut out the real reality of embodied life, living in the here and now in a particular place around particular people. Gnosticism is alive and well in 2016, and the desire to escape our finitude and our bodies is palpable. This is not to say that every desire to do the impossible is wrong. For someone to travel virtually to a place that they will never be able to see actually, or for someone who is wheelchair bound to be able to experience riding a roller coaster, is a rich blessing of human ingenuity and labor. Yet are we aware of the ways in which our technologies can lead us to forget that we are "frail children of dust, and feeble as frail"? That our Savior in the body could only be at one place at one time? That an embodied state is of the essence of our humanity, now and in the age to come?

As with all technologies, we must exercise self-control and sobriety. Paul's words in I Corinthians 6:12 apply well: "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything." May the Lord grant us wisdom to use virtual reality for His glory.


This is the fourth part of a multipart discussion of the importance of the event of the Transfiguration for Christian theology and biblical reflection. In my first three posts, I argued for the significance accorded to the Transfiguration by its location within the narrative structure of the gospel, I explored the manner in which it is cast in relation with the events of Sinai, and I argued that it implicitly presents Christ as the divine glory theophany that was partially witnessed in the old covenant. Within this post I will turn to the gospel of John which, despite not recording the event of the Transfiguration, manifests a robust appreciation of Jesus as divine glory theophany.

John 1:14-18 is another instance where the Exodus theophany to Moses on the mountain is alluded to within the gospels. Jesus is the glorious only begotten of the Father, 'full of grace and truth,' the Word that has become flesh and 'tabernacled' among us. God's presence in the world in Jesus Christ is comparable to his presence in the midst of his people in the Sinai tabernacle. In verse 32 of the chapter, John the Baptist bears witness to the Spirit descending and remaining upon Jesus, much as the Glory cloud descended and remained upon Sinai and the tabernacle (cf. Exodus 33:9; 34:5).

Within the biblical resonance chamber provided by the Exodus theophany to Moses, John identifies Jesus as the Glory-face of God. No one has seen God at any time (v.18, cf. Exodus 33:20), yet in Jesus Christ we behold the glory of God. While Moses saw the 'back' of God's glory presence, the Son is in the very 'bosom' of the Father. The Word made flesh is 'full of grace and truth' (v.14b), an expression deeply redolent of Exodus 34:6, where God describes himself as 'abounding in goodness and truth.' By such literary parallels, John reveals that the Glory-face of God is made known in Jesus Christ.

Moses, having witnessed the Glory-presence of God, was the mediator through whom the Law was delivered. Moses and the Law gave testimony to this glory, but neither of them were this glory. While the Law came through Moses, 'grace and truth'--the very theophanic presence of God--comes through Jesus Christ. Moses and the Law testified to the glory of God: Christ is that glory. In seeing Christ, we become like Moses, witnessing the very glory of God.

The claim in John 1:18--'no one has seen God at any time'--is a statement that needs to be qualified (cf. Exodus 24:10-11, which explicitly says that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel 'saw' the God of Israel). Exodus 33:20 helps us to clear up what might be meant here. No one can see God's 'face' and live, while Moses could see God's back. Ezekiel saw the figure of a 'likeness with the appearance of a man' (the accumulation of phenomenological terms is important here, serving as linguistic veils at points beyond which direct expression dare not tread) in Ezekiel 1:26-28. However, while the body is described both above and below the waist, no description of the face is given. Moses saw the pre-existent Son, but not as we see him. The face is the focal point of the person's identity--their countenance. By contrast with the theophanies of the OT, Jesus' face is central at the Transfiguration (this is also the case in Revelation 1, which shares with Matthew 17:2 the description of Jesus' face shining like the sun in its glory). In Jesus, God's face is finally seen.

This theme of Jesus as the Glory-face of God, the ultimate theophanic revelation, continues throughout the gospel of John. 1:14-18 and presents Jesus as the glorious revelation of God that Moses witnessed upon Mount Sinai. In 1:32-34, John the Baptist has a theophanic revelation of Jesus' identity as the Spirit descends and remains upon him. In 1:51, Jesus presents himself as Jacob's Ladder (cf. Genesis 28:12), the connection between heaven and earth. Perhaps we can see a progression here: the first theophany is of the descending Word; the second theophany is of the descending Spirit upon the descended Word; the third theophany is of the angels of God ascending and descending upon the descended Word upon whom the Spirit rests. In Jesus Christ, heaven is taking up residence on earth.

John's implicit identification of Christ as both the agent and glorious fulfilment of the great theophanies of the history of Israel establishes Christ's pre-existence and discloses the deep unity of covenant history. The glory that Jesus will be raised to is the glory that he enjoyed with the Father before the world was (17:5), the eschatological glory anticipated by the patriarch (8:58), the theophanic Glory-face of the Lord witnessed by the prophets (12:41). Christ is not a new actor in Israel's history, but the once veiled One who has been active all the time and has now, in the fullness of time, made himself known.

For a time this Glory is concealed. As Meredith Kline observes, the pattern of concealment followed by glorious revelation that we see within the Old Testament itself 'has its antitypical parallel in the successive states of humiliation and exaltation in the history of the incarnate Son, whose triumphant exodus entrance into the heavenly kingdom is marked by his investiture in the clouds of glory as the glorified Spirit-Lord.'[1] The pattern of concealment followed by manifest glory is both recapitulated and escalated within the New Testament, so that, even with the dramatic displays of glory of the Exodus and Sinai succeeding the concealment of the patriarchal theophanies, the Old Testament represents, relative to the New, a period of concealment. While John may not record the event of the Transfiguration, he shares the Synoptics' concern to show forth Jesus as the temporarily veiled but now revealed Glory-face of God.

Within the next post, I will turn to explore the theme of priesthood and tabernacle in the context of the Transfiguration, discussing some further respects in which it parallels the events on Mount Sinai.


[1] Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), p. 73

This is the second (and final) part to the report. One can read the first part here ~ the editor

...The 'nothingness' that enters into human experience through acts of sin is something of which Augustine was acutely aware when he meditated upon his own life in his Confessions. John Cavadini, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, tied the narrative of Augustine's life to his account of the seven days of creation in his paper "Where do Stories Come from? Augustine on Creatio ex nihilo". Ultimately, since it is something we have never experienced, CEN is a mystery dependent upon God's revelation. Recognizing the primacy of revelation, in the creation account itself we see in miniature a narrative of the Christian's life. At least this is how Augustine understood his own life. Take the moment right after creation (Gen 1:2): the world was "without form and void". According to Augustine, this is where sin takes us: to the brink of nothingness, to the place where we have no story or identity except that we are created beings. This formless, meaningless place - this 'neighbor of nothing' - is where the famous pear tree incident took Augustine in Book 2 of the Confessions. But where sin brings a formless chaos into our lives, God's redeeming hand shapes our lives into a story that 'ends' resting in God's eternal presence where there is no longer "evening and morning". The cosmos itself has a story God narrates in creation that ends in timeless rest on the seventh day. In telling his own 'creation story' whereby he sets up a model of Christian discipleship, Augustine teaches us that the meaning of life is learning to give thanks to God for taking us out of our disordered sin and progressively shaping our lives into something that is "very good". 

While uncontroversial, the conclusions reached in these two historical papers are important for articulating the distinct shape CEN took as it was emerging in the early Church. The 'work' CEN did within Athanasius and Augustine's writings holds promise for any coherent evangelical theology in highlighting how this doctrine supports an account of God's freedom, his goodness, and his ability to immediately meet us in his grace. It is hard to ignore the apologetical force of CEN within this historical period when many alternative accounts put 'something in the way' of the divine and creation. CEN 'cleared the air', as it were, in both clearly separating humanity from God (the 'Creator/creature distinction') while also putting human beings in a full and immediate relationship with their Creator. One gains a picture for how this happens in the life of and self-understanding of Augustine. Where the philosophical and cosmological accounts of the relationship between God and the world have shifted since the time of the early Church, certainly CEN continues to provide an arsenal of tools that enable compelling explanations for not only who God is but how he continues to act in the world. To understand our own spiritual lives as a 'mini-story' of creation where God is shaping us to spend eternity with him rightly places the Christian life within the highest register - as an act of God himself - while also tempering any measure of pride, since all we can do is give thanks for the beautiful narrative God's creates for each of his saints. 

And with that the lack of controversy ends. The last paper I will comment upon was delivered by the indefatigably brilliant David Bentley Hart. In "God, Creation, and Evil" Hart both pledged his theological troth to the universalistic legacy of Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa and mounted a highly sophisticated screed against the God most Christians have believed in, that is, One who sends some to hell either based on predestination or free-choice. In brief, while Hart claims Scriptural warrant for his position - after all, he asks, has the church known a more careful reader of the Bible than Origen? - his argument carries an overwhelming concern for philosophical coherence. In its simplest form it is this: the good God who freely created all things will safely return all those things to Christ. Hart's overall point is that when we talk about beginnings (protology) we are, at the same time, talking about ends (eschatology)--the end matches the beginning. If at the beginning a good God creates all things then in the end, by necessity of the character of the God who created them, all things must return to him. To posit an eternal place where things remain separated from God produces, in Hart's consideration, a logical hairball that must be heaved out. CEN cannot withstand in the future a total antithesis such as an eternal place of separation from God. The existence of evil in the world, in Hart's considered opinion, is ultimately an arrangement of God's goodness the purpose of which will only be revealed at the end of all things. 

This was just the beginning of Hart's talk. He went on to thrust his sword at all comers within the non-universalist Western Church, taking on original sin, traditional evangelism, and - most vociferously - the Reformed faith. Now, let me repeat, Hart is a brilliant intellect. He's also a very entertaining rhetorician. If he's written an essay out there, I've most likely read it and thoroughly enjoyed the brandishing of his theological and philosophical sword against the untrammeled nonsense of our day. But despite his commitment to Eastern Orthodoxy, he's too good of an intellect to fall prey to the polemics he engaged in within this talk. For a brief second he commended the Reformed tradition for taking the sovereignty of God to its logical conclusions. But then he took up the mantle of the old preacher who had written in the margins of his sermon, "Weak point...Yell louder!!!". The result for Hart was thinly veiled disgust informed by a simple inaccuracy. He started by claiming that John Calvin doesn't affirm love as an attribute of God, repeating twice "I'm not making this up!" Well, actually, he was. As E. J. Hutchinson over at The Calvinist International has demonstrated, this repeated canard is indeed a Hartian fabrication, one made all the more bewildering because Hart claims to be such a close reader of original texts. Hart went on to up the ante and claim not only Calvin but the entire Reformed tradition as not holding love as an attribute of God. To be honest, such a reckless and dishonest characterization could cause one to question all his judgments. Again, I say, Hart is too good for this. If he doesn't have the patience to give Calvin, Turretin, Bavinck, the Westminster divines, or Edwards (to name a few) an honest and nuanced read, at least he could 'pass over' the Reformed and leave us in our sins instead of actively damning us to his theological inferno. In the end, during the time for feedback, Hart was firmly interrogated both for his sweeping asides that seemed to simplify the teachings of those he opposed and for how his 'brief' for universalism matches up with the words of Jesus found in Matthew 25:31-46. 

This conference was very helpful. Even Hart's misguided paper was helpful in thinking through the internal logic of universalistic claims. Its greatest benefit for me, an evangelical and Reformed Protestant, was in considering the doctrine of creation within a proper theological context. In recent decades the theological and ecclesiastical world I inhabit has been consumed with questions attending the 'how' of creation. As important as these are, just as important are the questions of how a doctrine like CEN upholds a whole web of theological affirmations and practices--from God's presence in grace to the spiritual reality of prayer. We would do well to explore more deeply CEN's connections within our theological and spiritual architecture, for the result would be a richer and more confident confession of our faith. 

Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in early christian history and theology at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on twitter @dblairsmith

If I had my way regarding theological training, I'd attempt to help students master the basic theological distinctions from the era of Protestant scholasticism. Those who think "scholastic" is a bad word probably don't know much about scholasticism. Truth be told, we all need a little - perhaps a lot - of scholasticism in our lives. Indeed, we all use distinctions as a basic way of communicating.

Sinclair Ferguson makes a good point in his book, The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen (p. 47), regarding the helpfulness of distinctions: 

"Scholastic is often used as a theological slur intended to introduce a bad odor. Yet the people who use it thus are sometimes the very people who become hot under the collar if strangers refer to a fastball as a 'slider' (in baseball) or confuse an eagle with a double bogey (in golf) or, for that matter, describe someone living in the Carolinas as a 'Yankee' or a Scot as 'English'! Aren't these merely 'scholastic' distinctions? To ask the question is to answer it. Right understanding always involves making careful distinctions." 

During the Early Modern period, theological students were usually trained to make good and proper distinctions. The point of theological and philosophical distinctions is to disentangle ambiguous words and terms used in theological discourse as well as clarify what is meant or not meant when a phrase, term, or tweet is used (e.g., God's power or God's love). 

Ideally, the distinctions should help, not hinder, exegesis and theology. They need to have biblical support or at least clarify theological language. So, for example, consider the distinction between God's absolute power (de potentia absoluta Dei) and God's ordained power (de potentia ordinata Dei). God's absolute power is that power to do that which he will not necessarily effect (i.e., turning a stone into a child of Abraham). His ordained power involves his decree to do that which he has ordained to effect. Very simply, what God is able to do is not synonymous with what God has chosen to do.

This distinction has biblical support:

God's absolute power: "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Matt. 3:9).

In another place, Christ brings together the absolute power of God with his ordained power: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" (Matt. 26:53-54).

God could have sent more than twelve legions of angels to rescue Christ from his passion, but, according to his ordained power, he did not.

In the realm of justification, one must know the formal cause, material cause, instrumental cause, and final cause. One should know the difference between an "aestimatio" (Arminian view) and "secundum veritatem" (Reformed view) or the difference between the right versus the possession of life. 

Various traditions can agree that we're justified by the righteousness of Christ, but distinguishing what is meant by that is the difference between the truth and error. 

The seventeenth-century student of theology would likely know exactly what was meant by:

- justificatio activa et passiva
- habitus et actus fidei 
- unio mystica et unio foederalis
- justificatio ante fidem et post fidem
- impetratio et applicatio
- justificatio a priori et a posteriori
- justificatio in foro dei et in foro conscientiae

The act-habit distinction (see above, habitus et actus fidei) is pretty much the same concept as the act-power distinction. God grants the power, but we perform the act. So John Flavel: "though faith, which we call the condition on our part, be the gift of God, and the power of believing be derived from God; yet the act of believing is properly our act..."

This distinction preserves God's grace in salvation, but keeps us from being "mere blocks" in the scheme of salvation. 

In terms of the atonement, besides understanding the efficiency-sufficiency distinction, a theological student should ideally know the difference between "acceptatio" and "acceptilatio" and the difference between the means of procurement (medium impetrationis) and the means of application (medium applicationis). The application of justification depends on Christ's intercession, not on his resurrection. This helps us to understand the importance of Christ's intercession, which is regrettably overlooked a lot.

Christ's death was a work of impetration that could be understood either as a physical cause or a moral cause. According to John Owen: "physical causes produce their effects immediately," and the subject must exist in order to be acted upon.  Moral causes "never immediately actuate their own effects." Christ's death was a moral cause, not a physical cause. Thus, those for whom he died do not need to be alive at the time of his death in order to receive the benefits of his vicarious sacrifice. Physical causes do not require human acts, but moral causes do.

We also distinguish regarding God's love. The (outward) voluntary love of God has a threefold distinction: (1) God's universal love for all things, (2) God's love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and (3) God's special love for his people. God's voluntary love, understood as an affection, has three major components. Reformed divines have not always expressed these distinctions in the same way; but the following three categories relate to God's love for the elect: (1) God's love of benevolence (amor benevolentiae), understood in terms of God's election and predestination, (2) God's love of beneficence (amor beneficentiae), whereby he wills to redeem his people,and (3) God's love of delight or friendship (amor complacentiae vel amicitiae), whereby he rewards his people according to their holiness.

Theological distinctions also help us in our doctrine of sin. Thus Maccovius argues:

1. Sin is either original sin or actual sin.

Original sin, springing from Adam, is the sin in which and with which we are born and which begins at the moment that we become human beings. 

2. Original sin is either imputed or inherent sin. 

Imputed to us as if we ourselves had committed it. 

Inherent sin is a depravation of our nature, and thus an inclination to all bad.

3. Imputation is a moral act, not a physical act.

It is not required that the person is in existence, but only that the person will be in existence. 

Moreover, a distinction may be made between sin committed out of weakness and sin committed out of full desire. Only those who are Christians can sin out of weakness. 

1. True believers sin more seriously than unbelievers.

A) Because we have greater knowledge
B) Because we have powers to resist.

2. Unbelievers sin more seriously than believers.

A) Because they rush into sin with great desire; but believers with a broken will.
B) The faithful feel sadness (repentance) about their committed sins, but unbelievers do not (only the consequences). 

I've merely touched on a few distinctions from a few theological loci. The works, especially from Roman Catholic theologians, just on distinctions in the Early Modern period are massive (see here for one example). I think the Reformed theological world - not to mention the broader theological world - might be a lot better off today if we were able to make sound theological distinctions. 

As Francis Turretin said, "we distinguish". Ah, the good old days, when theological education was actually that! 

Two-Kingdoms Pastoring [part 3]

This is the third in a series exploring the theology of Two Kingdoms across a variety of topics. The first article can be found here, and the second here Editor

It's tough being a pastor. I know because I've never dared try, but I've watched others try. Sure, you can always avoid preaching on anything so concrete and close to home as to ruffle any feathers, and some ministers have perfected the art of doing so for years on end. But as soon as he takes seriously his task as a shepherd of souls, the minister is likely to hear howls of indignation raised--he is a legalist, a killjoy, binding consciences and trampling on Christian liberty. Or perhaps, depending on his congregation, he may find himself accused of being a softie or an antinomian, refusing to man up and speak uncompromisingly to our culture. In the privacy of one-on-one counseling, he may have a whole audience second-guessing him, but he will certainly second-guess himself: does this erring soul need to be comforted with the promises of the gospel, or jarred out of complacency with a reminder of God's judgment against sinners? One wrong move may be a matter of spiritual life and death. 

Faced with this dilemma, many pastors, in our circles at least, make it their aim to "say nothing but what the Bible says." In one sense this is not only laudable but necessary: the Bible is the authoritative guide for both faith and practice, and the final standard for adjudicating any doctrinal question. But obviously a pastor cannot get very far in the task of pastoring without going beyond Scripture--if not its spirit, certainly its letter. To preach and pastor effectively, the minister must be waist-deep in the stuff of everyday life, the myriad personal, social, political, and cultural challenges that confront his congregation, and that at every point draw them closer to or drag them further from the face of God. And Scripture, it must be said, does not address home mortgages or gay marriage or online pornography as such--obviously, it does address debt and sexuality and lust, but these specific challenges that confront us, in all their concrete particularity and novelty, are not in view in the biblical text.

"Saying nothing what the Bible says," then, can take two forms. Either the minister, fearing to bind consciences beyond the Word by any specific application, avoids as much as possible in the pulpit the pressing social and cultural concerns of the day with which his congregation wrestles the other six days of the week, and confines himself primarily to theological lectures in lieu of sermons, or to vague platitudes when it comes to ethical matters. Or else the minister, convinced that the Bible really does speak to everything, proceeds to read the concerns of the day--gun control, home mortgages, or healthcare policy--straight into the biblical text, closing with a thunderous "Thus saith the Lord!" (Presumably all those who disagree with the application are blinded by sin.)

In pastoral counseling, "the Bible only" has often come to mean something like the "nouthetic counseling" approach, in which the complexities of human psychology and the details of particular circumstances are all filtered out and the struggling soul is told only "confess and repent of your rebellion against God." All this in the name of protecting Christian liberty.

It should be clear at this point that the challenge here is not simply to police the boundary between the "church" as a "spiritual kingdom" and politics as the "civil kingdom." To be sure, great political and social questions add a whole new level of complexity which makes it difficult to bring Scripture directly to bear on them. But even if the pastor studiously avoids offering any guidance on political questions, the problem remains. For no man is an island, and our sins generally have a social and cultural dimension. In other words, they are the complex interplay of what flows from our wicked hearts and what we encounter in and imbibe from the world around us. This milieu, again, differs in key ways from ancient Israel or first-century Palestine, and the pastor will have to rely on a well-informed judgment of his context, and a well-developed sense of prudence, if he is to rightly apply the Word to the lives of his flock. If "Christian liberty" or the division of the "two kingdoms" restricts the pastor from ever speaking beyond the words of Scripture, then clearly it will restrict him from pastoring at all.

Perhaps the solution to this dilemma is to recognize that the pastor himself has a foot in both kingdoms, and I don't just mean in the sense that he has to pay his taxes, and is an officer at the local Rotary Club down the road (though these are significant enough points). Even as a pastor, he has a foot in both. For he speaks for God, but he also speaks as Joe Smith, white boy from rural Indiana who spent a few years in the Navy and then as a salesman before going to seminary. He speaks to each of his congregants as to a sanctified child of God being formed in the image of Christ, but he also speaks to them as mothers, as husbands, as daughters-in-law, as jobholders, voters, cinema-goers. At every point he is navigating the intersection of their vertical dimension--their life in God--and their horizontal dimension--their life in the world. If he tries to worry about only the latter, he becomes a social gospeller with nothing to offer but narrow-minded recommendations for how to make the world a better place. If he tries to worry about only the former, he risks leaving his flock with little concrete guidance in the trials of life.

Clearly, he must do both, and attempting to draw some artificial line between "spiritual" and "civil" areas of life will not help the problem much. But he must remember that while these two are never separate, they are always distinct. The minister may and indeed must make prudential application of Scripture to the real-world challenges of his flock, but he must make sure that both he and they know that there is probably a fair bit of Joe Smith's midwestern biases coloring that judgment, and they themselves must, like the Bereans, search the Scriptures to see whether these things be true. 

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at

Baptism: What's On My Bookshelves

When I first arrived at seminary, I was appalled that anyone claiming to be Protestant would baptize infants. In my limited understanding, only Roman Catholics conducted themselves in such an unbiblical manner. In my mind, infant baptism may have been as close to heresy as one could get without quite being labeled heresy. 

This shallow view of baptism sent me on a journey to study the sacrament. Since my journey began years ago, I have collected several books on this important topic. I have concluded that the sacrament of baptism is much more than simply placing water on someone's head (or immersion if you prefer). Baptism has direct implications for the way in which one reads the Bible (i.e., covenant theology, dispensationalism, etc.), the way one views the sacraments (i.e. sacramentology), the way one understands the church (i.e., ecclesiology), and the way one interacts with his or her child(ren) in the home.

While I am not endorsing all the information in the books listed, here are some of the books, along with the Bible, that are on my bookshelves. I have not included books on covenant theology nor dispensationalism, though these topics are approached in some of the books listed. If you are wondering which books I would recommend on either side of the debate, I have placed those books at the end of this post. Let me be clear, however. Simply because I am recommending these books--among the others--does not mean I am endorsing everything in the books nor I am necessarily endorsing the author's views on other topics not mentioned in the books.

A Baptist Perspective on Baptism:

1. Baptism in the New Testament by G. R. Beasley-Murray
2. Christian Baptism: A Fresh Attempt to Understand the Rite in terms of Scripture, History, and Theology edited by A. Gilmore
3. Antipaedobaptism in the Thought of John Tombes: An Untold Story from Puritan England by Mike Renihan
4. Pilgrim Pathways: Essays in Baptist History in Honour of B. R. White edited by Brackney and Fiddes
5. Lectures on Baptism by William Shirreff
6. A Decisive Argument Against Infant Baptism Furnished By One of its Own Proof-Texts by John L. Dagg
7. Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ edited by Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright
8. Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace by Paul K. Jewett
9. The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Verses Paedobaptism by Fred Malone
10. The Scripture Guide to Baptism: Containing A Faithful Citation of All the Passages by R. Pengilly
11. Baptism and Christian Unity by A. Gilmore
12. Should Babies Be Baptized? by T. E. Watson
13. Waters of Creation: A Biblical-Theological Study of Baptism by Douglas Van Dorn
14. Concerning Believers Baptism edited by F. C. Bryan
15. Baptism and the Baptists: Theology and Practice in Twentieth-Century Britain by Anthony Cross
16. From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism: A Critique of the Westminster Standards on the Subjects of Baptism by W. Gary Crampton
17. Biblical Baptism: A Reformed Defense of Believers Baptism by Samuel E. Waldron
18. Christian Baptism by Adoniram Judson
19. A Conversation About Baptism by R. L. Child
20. More Than a Symbol: The British Baptist Recovery of Baptismal Sacramentalism by Stanley K. Fowler
21. Baptist Sacramentalism by Anthony Cross and Philip E. Thompson
22. Baptism Sacramentalism 2 by Anthony Cross and Philip E. Thompson

A PaedoBaptist Perspective on Baptism:

1. Return to Grace: A Theology for Infant Baptism by Kurt Stasiak
2. To A Thousand Generations: Infant Baptism - Covenant Mercy for the People of God by Douglas Wilson
3. Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism by J. V. Fesko
4. The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism edited by Gregg Strawbridge
5. The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective by Ronald P. Byars
6. Christian Baptism by John Murray
7. Infant Baptism and the Silence of the New Testament by Bryan Holstrom
8. The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism by Peter Leithart
9. The Promise of Baptism: An Introduction to Baptism in Scripture and the Reformed Tradition by James Brownson
10. Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism by Robert Booth
11. A Christian's Pocket Guide to Baptism by Robert Letham
12. The Meaning and Mode of Baptism by Jay Adams
13. What Christian Parents Should Know About Infant Baptism by John Sartelle
14. Baptism by Francis Schaeffer
15. William the Baptist by James Chaney
16. Children of the Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants by Geoffrey Bromiley

An Historical Approach to Understanding Baptism:

1. The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: An Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church by Lewis Schenck
2. The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Study in Reply to Kurt Aland by Joachim Jeremias
3. Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries by Everett Ferguson
4. Baptism in the Early Church by Hendrick Stander and Johannes Louw
5. What Has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism? An Enquiry at the End of Christendom by David Wright
6. Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective - Collected Studies by David Wright
7. Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries by Joachim Jeremias

3 Views on Baptism:

1. Baptism: Three views edited by David Wright

If you are struggling through the issue--along with your Bible--here are some books on each side of the baptismal font/tub that may help as you study this important sacrament.

A Baptist Perspective on Baptism:

1. Baptism in the New Testament by Beasley-Murray
2. Waters of Creation: A Biblical-Theological Study of Baptism by Van Dorn
3. A Decisive Argument Against Infant Baptism Furnished By One of Its Own Proof-Texts by Dagg
4. Should Babies By Baptized? by Watson

A Paedobaptist Perspective on Baptism:

1. The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism edited by Strawbridge
2. Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism by Fesko
3. To A Thousand Generations: Infant Baptism - Covenant Mercy for the People of God by Wilson
4. A Christian's Pocket Guide to Baptism by Letham

Also, if you are interested, here are two debates on the matter, as well as a short, non-exhaustive series I wrote on the topic nearly two years ago.

1. Strimple and Malone
2. Shisko and White
3. Baptism: The Doctrine That Caused Tears

I have been involved in a friendly, and hopefully fruitful, discussion over at Green Baggins regarding Bible interpretation.  I have been encouraged to post here some of my comments there.  Because I am excerpting from a conversation, I will have to do so in the form of questions and answers.  The questions cited here may not always be actual ones from there, but attempt to sum up the path of the conversation.

First Question: Isn't the Bible itself insufficient for developing a method of Bible interpretation?  Don't we need to engage in critical studies, to include significant input from outside the Bible?

18 Words


Given the attention to Jim Packer's split with the Anglican Church of Canada, I wanted to draw some attention to one of his best writing projects, recently published in Scotland by Mentor under the title 18 Words: The Most Important Words you will ever Know. Originally published as a series of word studies in the magazine Inter-Varsity, Packer explores eighteen key concepts in theology, including 'Scripture', 'Sin', 'Reconciliation', 'Mortification', etc. It's great stuff: vintage Packer, as expressed in this quotation from the chapter on grace:


"... the moral law expresses the will of God for man as man. It was never meant as a method of salvation (and it is in any case useless for that purpose); it was given to guide men in the life of godliness. And grace, while it condemns self-righteousness, establishes the law as a rule of conduct ... So far from giving us liberty to break the law, grace sets us free from the dominion of sin that we might keep the law. This is the final answer to antinomianism: grace establishes the law" (p100).


What struck me most in reading these key words from the Bible is that they are not New Testament words. Part of the function of the Old Testament was to train us in the vocabulary of the New. The lexical categories in which we express the glorious Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ are drawn from an old stock.

Ends and means


I appreciated Ligon's reference to Derek's sermon on Ezra, and the need for us to match our personal performance with our pulpit ministry ('Study. Live. Preach', below).


That thought was on my own mind recently as I've been reading through John Allen's biography of Demond Tutu - Rabble-Rouser for Peace. On one occasion Tutu was preaching at a funeral in the East Rand township, following uprising and violence there. Tutu spoke to a crowd of thirty thousand, and lost the support of some when he said


'We have a cause that is just. We have a cause that is going to prevail. For goodness' sake, let us not spoil it by the kind of methods we use. And if we do this again, I must tell you that I am going to find it difficult to be able to speak up for liberation. I will find it difficult - it is already difficult in this country to talk the truth, but if we use methods such as the one that we saw in Duduza, then, my friends, I am going to collect my family and leave a country that I love very deeply, a country that I love passionately' (p226).


To which the biographer adds: 'Some in the crowd booed'. But Tutu was right: the rightness of the cause does not excuse every method used to secure it. For those of us who are in the ministry, there is a very pertinent point here: the justness of our cause, and the power of our Gospel, demands that our methodology accord with it. And our own personal behaviour, as well as the behaviour of our people, is part of that methodology.


Isn't that what Paul urges Titus - that we should model integrity, and that we should teach people to 'adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour' (Titus 2:10). Godly lives are the icing on the cake of all our theology.



A thought-provoking and "relevant" quotation from Horatius Bonar, quoted in "Christ is All": The Piety of Horatius Bonar, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin and Darrin R. Brooker (2007), 31-3:

Some well-meaning theological literateurs, or rather amateur theologians, who patronize religion in their own way, are fain to warn us of the danger of not "keeping abreast of the age," as if we were imperilling Christianity by not being quite so learned in modern speculations as they are. We should like, certainly, to "keep abreast" of all that is true and good, either in this age or any other; but as to doing more than that, or singling out this age as being pre-eminently worthy of being kept abreast of, we hesitate.

To be "up to" all the errors, fallacies, speculations, fancies, mis-criticisms of the age, would be an achievement of no mean kind; and to require us to be "up to" all this under threat of endangering Christianity, or betraying the Bible, is an exaction which could only be made by men who think that religion is much beholden to them for their condescending patronage; and will be accepted by men who are timid about the stability of the cross of Christ if left unpropped by human wisdom; and who, besides, happen to have three or four lifetimes to spare. We may be in a condition for believing, and even defending the Bible, without have mastered the whole deistical literature of the last century or the present...

In attempting to "keep abreast of the age," there is some danger of falling short of other ages; and we are not sure but that the object of those who shake this phrase so complacently in our faces, both as a taunt and a threat, is to draw us off from the past altogether, as if the greater bulk of its literature were rude lumber, a mere drag upon progress...Old theological terms and Scripture phraseology are set aside, or spoken in an undertone, or used in a loose sense. Sharp adhesion to old doctrines is imbecility; and yet defined expression of the new is avoided, the mind of the age being in a transition state, unable to bear the whole of what the exact and honest exhibition of "advanced" Christianity would require to utter.

Many of our young men are more afraid of being reckoned Calvinistic than Platonic; they shrink from bold and definite statements of Reformation doctrine, lest they should be pronounced "not abreast of the age"--stereotyped, if not imbecile. Indefinite language, mystical utterances, negative or defective statements, which will save the speaker's or writer's orthodoxy without compromising his reputation for "intellect" and "liberality"--these are becoming common. Manya re doing their best to serve to masters, to preach two gospels, to subscribe two confessions of faith, to worship two Gods, to combine to religions, to grasp two worlds; they would fain be neither very evangelical nor very heretical.