Results tagged “theology” from Reformation21 Blog

Dogmatic Art


As I've been reading through G.K. Chesterton's book Heretics, I was interested to happen upon his treatment of dogmatism and the arts. Reflecting on his consideration of the life and work of Rudyard Kipling, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, Chesterton wrote:

"The fiercest dogmatists can make the best artists. In the fin de siecle atmosphere every one was crying out that literature should be free from all causes and all ethical creeds. Art was to produce only exquisite workmanship, and it was especially the note of those days to demand brilliant plays and brilliant short stories. And when they got them, they got them from a couple of moralists. The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism. The best plays were written by a man trying to preach Socialism. All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside the art which was a byproduct of propaganda.

The reason, indeed, is very simple. A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it."1

The simple profundity of this observation ought not be missed. While many of us have bought into a late-modern narrative that the art world is essentially subjective, visual and feeling-driven, we should remember that--as Chesterton noted--"the fiercest dogmatists" have made the best artists. There is something deeply philosophical, ethical and thought-provoking about the most renown art. Which, if I have understood the point correctly, means that when Christians engage in the world of artistic workmanship, there ought to be a transcendent excellence to what they produce. After all, theology is nothing other than divinely inspired philosophy--enabling us to rightly interpret and portray the world and its inhabitants as God intended. 

1. G.K. Chesterton Heretics (New York: John Lane Company, 1905) pp. 288-289

Rhyme Thee to Good


In the first post in this short series on the theology of the seventeenth Anglican poet, George Herbert, we considered the centrality of salvation by grace in the altar poem. It shows up throughout his other poems as well. But of course the Gospel is only good news if preceded by the bad news of sin, and Herbert has several striking poems that explore the nature and nurture of sin. One of them is "Sin's Round."

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am, 
That my offences course it in a ring. 
My thoughts are working like a busy flame, 
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring: 
And when they once have perfected their draughts, 
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts. 

My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts, 
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill. 
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults, 
And by their breathing ventilate the ill. 
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions: 
My hands do join to finish the inventions. 

My hands do join to finish the inventions: 
And so my sins ascend three stories high, 
As Babel grew, before there were dissentions. 
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply 
New thoughts of sinning:
wherefore, to my shame, 
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am. 

Keep in mind that the "round" suggests both a circle and a song with overlapping repeating parts (such as "Dona Nobis Pacem" or "Scotland's Burning"). The poem presents repetitions or circles in the first and last lines, at the beginning and ends of adjoining stanzas, and the "thoughts of sinning" that start in stanza one and restart in stanza three. Herbert has brilliantly pictured the vicious cycle, the hamster wheel of sin; and his picture implies that only God's grace can break us free.

"Sin's Round" and "The Altar" are good examples of Herbert's so-called "emblematic" poems, which develop a theme in terms of a simple, concrete image named in the title. Many of the titles bear playful senses; for instance, "The Collar" suggests God's yoke and vocation. And some of the emblematic poems are rather enigmatic ("Jordan," "The Pulley"), leaving the reader to puzzle out the exact meaning of the image. Near the middle of The Temple we find a sequence of these poems based on the parts of a church building: "Church-monuments," "Church-lock and key," "The Church-floor," "The Windows" (discussed below). Each of these poems uses a feature of the church as an allegory of some aspect of the sin and sanctification of the church's people. The poems put to rest the thought that Anglican Herbert might prefer neat externals to the grit of applied redemption.

One of the emblematic poems develops Herbert's most ingeniously subtle and thoroughly Reformed image of Sola Gratia. Here is the "The Holdfast":
I threaten'd to observe the strict decree
Of my dear God with all my power and might;
But I was told by one it could not be;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.
"Then will I trust," said I, "in Him alone."
"Nay, e'en to trust in Him was also His:
We must confess that nothing is our own."
"Then I confess that He my succour is."
"But to have nought is ours, not to confess
That we have nought." I stood amaz'd at this,
Much troubled, till I heard a friend express
That all things were more ours by being His;
What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.

Christ owns and takes credit for everything, including our confession that he owns everything. We might glimpse several biblical texts behind this poem. First Colossians 3:3, which was a favorite of Herbert: "Our life is hid with Christ in God." Then there is the more familiar Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." The poem is a wonderful expression of the way works righteousness creeps in the backdoor even of the good Protestant soul: the speaker gets backed down from his desperate attempts to do something, have some credit, for his salvation. But no, it's all grace, from first to last. (Ephesians 2, by the way, goes on to say "we are his workmanship," literally his "poems" [poiema], which take us back to the message of "The Altar" and might suggest a greater role for poetry in spiritual formation than we are used to allow.)

The Spiritual Life: Practicing What You Preach

A major emphasis of the Reformation was a concern for the holiness of the church in daily life, especially the holiness of her shepherds. Recall Luther's scandal at the pomp and licentiousness of the Roman Catholic clergy. Herbert picks up this emphasis on faithful living in a poem called "The Windows."

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word? 
He is a brittle crazy glass; 
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford 
This glorious and transcendent place, 
To be a window, through thy grace. 
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story, 
Making thy life to shine within 
The holy preachers', then the light and glory 
More reverend grows, and more doth win; 
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin. 
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one 
When they combine and mingle, bring 
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone 
Doth vanish like a flaring thing, 
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

The Christian life means we are to be scratched and broken windows, remade by Grace, through which others see God's life "annealed"-- that is, glazed or stained. With "doctrine and life" together, the Word preached takes shape and color, and the shapes and colors have meaning because the doctrine is sound. The image is provocative because it is Christ's "story" depicted in ours (the window) but also God's light that shines through us so that others may read the story. What, then, is the light? The Holy Spirit? Herbert is saying our lives are in a way sacraments that complete the Word.

But how do you become a "window"? Through the disciplines of the spiritual life--prayer, through Scripture reading and meditation, and through self-examination. Here Herbert celebrates the power and beauty of "Prayer":

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age, 
God's breath in man returning to his birth, 
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, 
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth 
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r, 
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, 
The six-days world transposing in an hour, 
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; 
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, 
Exalted manna, gladness of the best, 
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, 
The milky way, the bird of Paradise, 
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood, 
The land of spices; something understood. 

This poem, which partly inspired Tim Keller's book of the same name (see chapter two), illustrates how poetry can take something familiar and show us its poignancy, depths, and cosmic resonances. Every image here could bear fruit in meditation. Prayer, if accompanied by faith, is "reversed thunder;" but the poem ends with the whisper that prayer is "something understood." Herbert is saying, "let me remind you, after the fireworks, of the still, small, but amazing truth that your father listens."


When we think about the Reformation, we think mostly of institutions and doctrines and liturgy and famous theologians. However, doctrine shapes worship and worships shapes culture, which in some ways shapes doctrine. The Reformation also gave us Charles Dickens and John Milton and Jane Austen and Marilynne Robinson and George Herbert. These broken altars, these crazy windows, these things understood, were also, as Calvin put it, "theaters of God's glory." They too are the Reformation.

What's more, our interest in the literary legacy of the Reformation should go beyond mere historical concerns. We are not just concerned with acknowledging the "fruit" and thereby importance of the Reformation. Although the modern novel is a largely Protestant effect, and although most of the great English poets of the past four centuries years have been Protestant, the last century saw a sharp decline in Protestant letters from the richness of that tradition. C. S. Lewis put his finger one of the symptoms:

"The difficulty we are up against is this. We can [often] make people attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from the lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel, and textbook undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects--with their Christianity latent."

I think it is self-evident that today we have too many of these "little Christian books." Moralistic, platitudinous, sentimental, dry, clotted with the skim of a thousand proof-texts--these books pretend to inspire, pretend to feed our hearts, pretend to structure our minds; but when we close them much of that melts away, dissipates. Then our fancy returns to the charms and rage of pop culture, an allure that better imitates, tragically, the heavy fire God's kabod.

When we neglect the power of the imagination and the beauty of style, we are running with the world, and we but poorly worship the logos of John 1:1 and Hebrews 1:3. When we favor content over form and logic-chopping consistency over beauty, we not only disservice our Gospel and slight the Incarnation; we also depart from the best of our tradition.

Faced with this criticism and Lewis's call for an enchanted "mere Christianity," we could hardly find a better champion than George Herbert. Employing over a hundred different stanza forms, Herbert is inarguably the most structurally inventive of any English poet. What's more, he is a remarkably honest and subtle excavator of experience--of one's inner struggles with God and oneself over faith, doubt, the nature of redemption, the attractions of worldliness, and the hard road of sanctification. And yet, as mentioned earlier, we find consistent simplicity in his images and mindset, reflecting a childlike faith and anchorage to the Word. Herbert maintains some classic Reformed values--the importance of personal holiness, preaching, and the doctrines of Grace--but he can help enrich our currently impoverished theological imagination. For he shows that poetry can be emotionally honest and gripping, but also tightly and deeply biblical. Thus it plants truth in the heart and emotions as well as in the mind.         

You can, ironically, preach that doctrine must be completed by living, that faith without works is dead; but saying that can't draw the soul, inspire the heart, or sting the conscious the way the poem itself can. Let us, then, be willing to

Harken unto a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice." ("The Church Porch," st. 1)

Bret Saunders is Associate Professor of Humanities John Witherspoon College.

How Can We Know God?


In my first article on the topic of theology proper, I discussed why we must know the God who created us. I will now explain how we can know that God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) Christianity is a religion of revelation, and our God is a God who reveals himself. Perhaps you, like me, experience dark days when you feel that God is distant or even absent from your life, but it is a great comfort to know that God has not left us as ignorant orphans. He has condescended and spoken, authoritatively and finally, into our lives. Human history is the story of the revelation of God.

There are two ways that God has chosen to reveal himself to us. The first is typically called general revelation, or alternatively natural revelation. This is the basic knowledge of God we see expressed in his created works, which image God to us. We use the word "image" because no created thing is exactly like God. Rather, creation reflects something of who God is. (More on that in a moment.)

The second way God reveals himself is through special revelation. Here we should think primarily of the Word of God, but for the purposes of this article, I am going to break special revelation down into three sub-categories that highlight different aspects of God's condescension to man (in the sense of stooping to our level like a loving parent, not patronizing us like someone haughty). Throughout salvation history, God has revealed himself more directly and completely through his actions in history, his written Word, and the incarnation of the Son of God.

Keeping this in mind, here are the four ways that we can know God through his revelation.

  1. Creation

God's revelation of himself in his created works is his general or natural revelation. In one of the chief texts on the subject, the Apostle Paul wrote, "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." (Romans 1:20) This does not mean that everything necessary for salvation can be grasped through glancing at a poppy field. Rather, it means that the moral law of God is written on our hearts from birth, and creation itself provides a basic knowledge of God to us: namely, it points to his existence.

As the Psalmist wrote, "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; / And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands." (Psalm 19:1) The Belgic Confession also affirms that God is known, "First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God."[1]

How can creation do this? After all, plenty of people study the natural world and remain unconvinced of the existence of God. I think it is helpful to remember here that Paul speaks of a knowledge that is available to us in creation, placed there for the taking, but which many of us will ultimately reject because of the hardness of our hearts. It is through this basic knowledge of God and his moral law that every proposition we make, moral or otherwise, ultimately makes sense, for if there is no ultimate source of morality or truth, then the universe is simply a teeming chaos, and we cannot know anything for certain. Paul says we sense this instinctively, but many of us "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." (Romans 1:18)

The deeper reason that creation provides knowledge of God to us is because it is a reflection of God's character. Note: It does not contain God's character, duplicate it, or even provide exact and complete knowledge of it. It reflects God's character as an image is reflected in a mirror, or to use a better example, the way a photograph shows us its subject. If you think of an old, grainy photograph in particular, it is not a completely true likeness, but it tells you something about the subject. Human beings, more than any other created thing, are made specially in God's image, as scripture tells us.

"Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:26-27)

This concept of imaging is helpful to understanding God's revelation of himself to us. The Greek word we translate as "image" is eikόn, which is perhaps best defined as "a likeness or manifestation".[2] Another term that has often been used to describe the link between creation and the Creator is "analogy". I will write more about these terms in a later article and why different Christians may prefer one or the other.

  • Actions in history

I now move on to the first of three sub-categories of God's special revelation: his actions in history. There is obviously some overlap here with God's written Word and the Incarnation of Christ, for both have been granted to us in history. What I am choosing to focus on in this category is the way God's actions informed His people prior to and after being recorded.

Consider that the records of historical events contained in the Bible were written after the fact. Before that, many of them existed as oral narratives that those loyal to God would repeat to one another to recall the deeds and character of their Lord. They spoke of times that God had appeared to them in one way or another and made his character known.

A good example of this would be the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Though Moses recorded these events for us in scripture, he likely did not do so until well after they occurred, perhaps when the people were wandering in the wilderness. Before that, the narrative of the Exodus was repeated orally and celebrated during the Passover feast. This helped them remember the time when God acted on their behalf and revealed himself.

Immediately after the Israelites had been freed from their enslavement and the divine commands regarding the Passover were given, Moses told them, "Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the Lord brought you out from this place." (Exodus 13:3) When they arrived at Mount Sinai to enter into a covenant with the Lord, he identified himself by saying, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." (Exodus 20:2)

By smiting the Egyptians with plagues, God revealed himself as judge. By bringing Israel out of slavery, God revealed himself as deliverer. By sustaining them in the wilderness, God revealed himself as provider, a fact of which Moses reminded the people several years later. "He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 8:3)

These events were mentioned in the Psalms, prophets, Gospels, and epistles as proof of God's character. More than anything, they show him as a God who acts to save. They even pointed forward directly to Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote of the ancient Israelites, "they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ." (1 Corinthians 10:4)

These acts of God in history were necessary for his people to know him as Savior. He came down and entered into covenant with them, that they would know him and his character in a saving manner, as the Westminster Confession states.

"The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant."[3]

  • Written Word of God

The form of God's special revelation we have before us today is his written Word, the Bible. We would have no knowledge of many of God's actions in history were they not recorded for us, and in addition to relating those events, the scriptures contain prophecies and instruction that teach us even more about our Creator. The Word of God, by which I mean here the Bible, carries the authority of God himself, for it is his direct revelation to us. Again, the Westminster Confession explains that general or natural revelation alone could not provide us with saving knowledge of God: we need his inspired Word.

"Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased."[4]

Scripture reveals the character of God to us in so many ways, but to focus on just one, it speaks of Christ, who as Son of God is the supreme revelation of God's character. Jesus once told his opponents, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me..." (John 5:39) Shortly after his resurrection, when he appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus pointed out how the Old Testament (the part of the Bible in existence at that time) pointed forward to him. "Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures." (Luke 24:27)

Paul makes the extraordinary statement that when God told Abraham, "All the nations will be blessed in you," he was preaching the gospel to him beforehand and announcing that the Gentiles would be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:8) And in his epistle to the Romans, Paul brings together the gospel first revealed in the Scriptures, then finally accomplished in Christ.

 "Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen." (Romans 16:25-27)

It is to that final revelation of Christ that we now turn.

  • Incarnation

God has been revealing himself to creation since the beginning. His acts and his Word had already served as testaments to his character, but the supreme revelation occurred when the Son of God became incarnate as a man and, in the words of the Apostle John, dwelt among us. This was the crowning moment of God's special revelation.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being...And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-2, 14)

Christ was able to reveal God to man because he himself was the Son of God, possessing the fullness of God's essence in his divine nature, while also being united to a human nature in his person. This is a great mystery the entirety of which we cannot grasp, but Paul provides us with a helpful metaphor when he calls Jesus "the image of the invisible God". (Colossians 1:15) Remember that an image (Greek eikόn) has the likeness of the original, and thus reveals to us something of the original's character, even if we are not able to comprehend everything about it. Christ functioned in such a way through his human nature that was visible to us.

The author of Hebrews wrote, "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world." (Hebrews 1:1-2) Now, when he speaks of "these last days", he means that in Christ and the Scriptures, everything we need to know in regard to salvation has been revealed. What is written in God's Word is fully sufficient for the believer, because the work of redemption is completed and everything of necessity has been revealed.

We must still work through what the Bible says by the power of the Spirit and in concert with the Church, even as we must apply the words of scriptures to our lives in the present day. However, the special revelation of God is closed for the present age. We live in a privileged period when it comes to special revelation, looking back as we do upon the work of Christ.

Again, God has granted us 1) general revelation, and 2) special revelation. The special revelation can be thought of in terms of God's actions in history, his written Word, and the Incarnation of the Son of God. Next time, I will consider exactly what kind of knowledge about God is available to us through this revelation, and how our knowledge of God compares to his knowledge of himself.

All scripture references are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] The Belgic Confession, Article 2.

[2] Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament - Abridged in One Volume, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985) 205.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 7, Article 1

[4] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Article 1

A Horror of Theology


The noisy gongs of acerbic and judgmental discernment bloggers, podcasters, vloggers and conference speakers are scattered throughout our social media feeds...and they're here to stay. The uncharitableness with which such individuals speak online immediately ought to leave a bad taste in the mouth of Christ's true lambs. After all, the fruit of the Spirit in the life of believers is an inextricable constituent of doctrinal truth. No amount of insistence that one is speaking the truth in love (when, in fact, he is speaking the truth in anger) will mask the fact that he is actually speaking in loveless pride. As Jesus said, "A tree is known by its fruit." The bitter fruit of an acrimonious "truth speaker" will inevitably be the bringing forth of disciples more fractious than himself. Nevertheless, the root of the problem does not lie in a love of the truth and a desire to trumpet forth sound doctrine--it is rooted in pride and self-love.

In Scripture, God everywhere charges us to be lovers of biblical truth. The early believers "continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship" (Acts 2:42). The Apostle Paul teaches us to be lovers of truth and practicers of love when he wrote, "Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1:13). It is often, on account of a loveless defense of truth that many Christians succumb to the opposite error, namely, the embrace of the diminution of sound doctrine. One doesn't have to scroll through his or her social media feed for long to come across an influential pastor or teacher warning his followers about the dangers of an overemphasis on sound doctrine. It sounds quite pious to sophisticatedly downplay truth in order to up play love. Nothing, however, could be more fallacious and factitious. It is impossible to love the truth and to speak the truth too much or too often. In fact, where there is no truth, there is no love. Christians have been redeemed in love by the One who said, "I am the truth."

Of course, the danger of swinging from one error to another is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the fall. Though it comes in new sociological and philosophical packages, the human heart has always revolted against embracing, loving, propagating and defending the truth about God. Throughout the early decades of the 20th Century, J. Gresham Machen warned about the destructive dangers of the theological liberalism that had stealthily yet persistently crept into the church and the academy. The strength of the theological liberalism of Machen's day is that it downplayed doctrinal truth under the guise of up playing love--much as it seeks to do in our day. In his The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History, Machen wrote, 

"Many Christians today have a horror of theology; they suppose it must necessarily be a cold and lifeless thing. As a matter of fact, theology is merely thinking about God. Every Christian must think about God; every Christian to some degree must be a theologian. The only question is whether he is to be a bad theologian or a good theologian. If he contents himself with his own preconceived notions, or gives free scope to his own natural feelings, he will be a bad theologian; he will soon find himself cherishing a miserable, imperfect, unworthy conception of God which makes God a mere creature of man's fancy. If, on the other hand, he makes himself acquainted, through patient study, first with the teaching of the Bible about God, then with the mighty acts of God that the Bible records, then with the Bible's explanations about these acts, he will soon be in possession of a 'theology' which will give backbone to his who religious life. There need be nothing technical about such a theology; it may not even be called 'theology' at all; it may be expressed in language that a child can understand; but whatever it is called and however it is expressed, it is absolutely necessary for a genuine Christianity. Christianity is based, not upon the shifting sands of human feeling, but upon solid facts; and the apprehension and understanding of facts inevitably requires the use of the intellect."1

Christians today, no less than in Machen's day, desperately need to come to terms with the fact that we are all theologians--whether good ones or bad ones. While we must be zealous to guard our hearts against embracing the ethos of the vitriolic doctrinal voices around us, we must equally avoid giving ear to those who, under pretense of love and charity, have functionally encouraged "a horror of theology." As Machen rightly noted, "Every Christian must think about God; every Christian to some degree must be a theologian. The only question is whether he is to be a bad theologian or a good theologian." 

1. J. Gresham Machen The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth, 1976) pp. 374-375.

PCRT Anthology Giveaway

Since its inauguration in 1974, the Philadelphia Conference of Reformed Theology has hosted some of the most gifted and trustworthy pastors, theologians and speakers from around the world in order to teach God's word and sound doctrine. Among the celebrated speakers at PCRT have been James Boice, R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, J.I. Packer, Eric Alexander, Elizabeth Elliott, John Stott, Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Godfrey, Michael Horton, Ligon Duncan. Derek Thomas, Kevin DeYoung and Richard Phillips. The PCRT is the nation's oldest, continually operating, reformed conference. This year, we celebrate the 45th Anniversary of this beloved conference; therefore, we are giving away two PCRT Anthology flash drives. To enter the giveaway, sign up here. We will select a winner two weeks from today. 

Here are all of the conferences from 1974-2017--with links to the talks that are include in MP3 format on the flash drive:

1974: The Doctrines of Grace

1975: On Knowing God

1976: Our Sovereign God

1977: Man the Sinner, Man the Saint

1978: The Cross Our Glory: The Nature and Extent of the Atonement

1979: In Praise of Christ: The Biblical Name and Titles

1980: If God Be for Us

1981: How to Grow Your Faith

1982: Come, Change our World!

1983: Predestination

1984: Christ or "Big Brother"?  A Christian Vision for Today's Society

1985: The Church: God's New Society

1986: Our Blessed Hope: The Biblical Doctrine of Last Things

1987: How Great Thou Art

1988: How Firm a Foundation

1989: Whatever Happened to Sin?

1990: Redeemed! Redemption Accomplished

1991: Redeemed! Redemption Applied

1992: Our Wonderful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

1993: Walking in the Old Paths

1994: Desiring God: A Reformed Perspective on Worship

1995: Two Cities, Two Loves

1996: What the Church Needs Now is Reformation

1997: The Theology of the Cross

1998: Worship God!

1999: Amazing Grace

2000: Our Promise Keeping God

2001: Lord, Have Mercy

2002: The Promised Holy Spirit

2003: Christ and His Church

2004: Forgiven, Forgiving

2005: One Way: The Exclusive Claims of Christianity

2006: The Doctrines of Grace

2007: The Word: Above All Earthly Powers

2008: Precious Blood: The Atoning Work of Christ

2009: Right with God: The Doctrine of Justification

2010: These Last Days

2011: Children of God: Adopted into the Father's Love

2012: The Gospel: What? Why? How?

2013: In the Beginning: God, Adam and You

2014: Profaning the Sacred

2015: Holiness and Honor: A Reformed View of Sex and Marriage

2016: How Firm a Foundation: The Bible's Authority, Sufficiency and Clarity

2017: Reformation: Recovering the Essence of the Gospel

Ecclesial Theology


Throughout much of the history of the church, theological discourse was largely an in-house project. A broad house to be sure, but even during the upheaval and turmoil of the Reformation, both sides agreed with the basic tenants of historic Trinitarian Christianity. Scripture was viewed as authoritative. Miracles were possible. God was transcendent and worthy of worship. In short, the God of the Bible existed. These starting assumptions guided theological reflection--both East and West--for much of the Christian tradition. Even theologians as diverse as Augustine and Pelagius, Athanasius and Arius, and Luther and Erasmus, all worked within the same bibliocentric framework. Whether pastor (Augustine) or professor (Aquinas), theological reflection was, by its very nature, ecclesial. Even the heretics presumed to write in service to the church.

But the European enlightenment brought with it a fundamental shift in the theological landscape. The old assumptions were challenged, and the intellectual grip that Christianity held on the Western world began to weaken. The secular/non-orthodox theologian began to emerge in greater numbers. To be sure, modernity wasn't the first age to birth unorthodox theologians. But it was the first age (since the third century, anyway) to produce an entire generation of scholars and theologians whose primary intellectual pursuit involved consciously deconstructing the apostolic faith.

And of course, such thinkers did not seek professional occupation in the churches. Instead, they moved toward the academy. Likewise, as the academy in the West became the dominant center of intellectual life, orthodox theologians also shifted increasingly from the churches to the academy. Speaking broadly, the net effect was a divide between academic theologians who worked within the boundaries of historic Christianity, and academic theologians who did not. Intellectual warfare ensued. Orthodox Christianity, while not routed completely, certainly did not ascend to a place of supremacy. The dominant worldview in the wider academic community became increasingly hostile to the historic faith. Set back on their heels, orthodox theologians found themselves responding to an agenda set by secular/liberal theologians. Ours became a defensive posture, and it has largely remained so to this day.  

Consequently, believing academic theologians now live and move in a theological environment dominated by agendas and presuppositions that are consciously contra orthodox Christianity. To be sure, the deconstructive aspects of enlightenment and post-enlightenment thought demanded an appropriate response from those in the orthodox fold. But one wonders if orthodox theology as a whole has become too preoccupied defending against, and responding to, an agenda that is not directly related to the mission and glory of Christ. Orthodox theology, given its academic context, has taken on an apologetic bent not seen since the first centuries of the early church.  

Ecclesial Theology, Academic Theology

This is not to say that orthodox theologians have completely neglected ecclesial concerns. Not at all. Many today, particularly those in the evangelical tradition, write with explicit concern for the church. But broadly speaking, a division between ecclesial theology and academic theology has emerged. From where I sit, academic theology is theology written to the wider academic community, set within an academic context, and driven by academic concerns and presuppositions. Ecclesial theology, on the other hand, is theological reflection written to the believing community, for the good of the church catholic, and born out of pastoral/ecclesial concerns.

Perhaps a compare and contrast will help flesh out this distinction in greater detail. Speaking in perhaps over-exaggerated terms, ecclesial theology differs from academic theology in the following ways:


•    The depth of academic scholarship is often measured by its interaction with secondary literature. The depth of ecclesial scholarship is measured by its interaction with primary literature.

•    Academic scholarship is written to the wider academic community, much of which lacks any commitment to historic orthodoxy. Ecclesial scholarship is written to the believing community, and builds upon and assumes--rather than defends--the basic commitments of historic orthodoxy.

•    The success of academic scholarship is measured by its acceptance and influence in the academic community. The success of ecclesial scholarship is measured by its ability to renew the church.

•    Academic scholarship is informative. Ecclesial scholarship is informative and prophetic (i.e., it makes moral assertions and calls the church to action).

•    The power of academic theology arises out of the success of the academic-scholar as a scholar. The power of ecclesial theology arises--in large measure--out of the success of the pastor-theologian as a pastor. In other words, the influence of a pastor-theologian as a theologian is related to his success as a pastor.

•    Academic scholarship tends to be guild-specific. Ecclesial theology is a cross-guild project, working within and attempting to construct a coherent theological system/worldview. It is explicitly theological.

•    Related to the above, the academic-scholar functions more as a scholar (digging up new data) and less as a theologian (synthesizing that data in an ecclesial direction). In contrast, the ecclesial-theologian functions less as a scholar and more as a theologian.  

Definition by example might prove useful here. My conception of ecclesial theology, past and present, would include (thought not be limited to):

Athanasius--The Incarnation of the Word
Augustine--Confessions, On Grace and Free Will
Luther--Galatians, Bondage of the Will
Calvin--Institutes and commentaries
Baxter--The Reformed Pastor
Edwards--Freedom of the Will, etc.
Bonhoeffer--The Cost of Discipleship
Stott--The Cross of Christ
Piper--Desiring God

Ecclesial theology then, is rich, scriptural theology covering the entire Christian life; Christian living, ecclesiology, ministry, exposition of Scripture, church history, dogmatics, etc., --anything relevant to the mission and life of the church. And it addresses these issues not merely as an academic exercise--a raw quest for knowledge--but with the conscious and preeminent aim of building the church. It unapologetically purposes to advance the glory of Christ.

The Audience of Ecclesial Theology

But in our quest to identify ecclesial theology, something important needs to be said about its intended audience. As can be observed in the above examples, the works mentioned are not lower-shelf material. Too often the distinction between academic and ecclesial theology presents a false alternative. Academic theology is viewed as sophisticated, robust reflection written to the informed theological community. Ecclesial theology, on the other hand, is often viewed as lower-shelf, popular-level theology written to the lay believing community. Now I have no grievance with popular-level ecclesial theology; it's an important part of the life of the church. Much of my writing falls into this category. But we sell ecclesial theology short when we limit it to the lay community. Ecclesial theology--in its most robust form--is neither academic, nor popular. Ecclesial theology is theological reflection written to the thoughtful, theologically informed, historically aware, biblically literate, ecclesial community. It's as intellectually robust as sound academic theology, but is driven by ecclesial concerns.

Luther's Galatians commentary comes to mind here. Luther's work is quite a bit different than your average modern commentary. But it's not different because it's "lighter" or "easier to read" or "pitched to a less informed audience." It's different in that it doesn't feel such a need to plumb the nearly endless depths of secondary literature (there wasn't as much), because it's not afraid to be explicitly theological and confessional, because it interacts with the great thinkers of the past who have helped shape orthodox thought, and--most significantly--because it prophetically calls the church to take action. Luther didn't change the world because he was a successful academician. He changed the world because he wrote as a robust, theologically informed, intelligent, prophetic Christian.

Where to from Here?

Ecclesial theology, while present in the church today, is not the dominant genre of theological reflection. And given the nature of our current ecclesial and academic contexts, things are not likely to change overnight. Yet there are steps we can take that will help put ecclesial theology back on the map as a serious component of evangelical theology. In closing, I would like to offer a few thoughts on where we might go from here.  

The Return of the Pastor-Theologian

There is a need, I believe, to resurrect the pastor-theologian paradigm. Not because academic theologians are incapable of producing ecclesial theology (quite the contrary), but because the pastoral office uniquely positions one to think both theologically and ecclesially. If history is any guide, the relationship between the pastor-theologian and ecclesial theology is such that the success of each rises and falls with the other. And postmodernity--for all its weaknesses--properly reminds us of the connection between theological formation and social location. The situation on the ground greatly influences the starting assumptions and questions that a theologian brings to the theological task. Who better to articulate theology with a view to the church than those whose primary social location is the local church? [2]  There is a need to counter the sentiment that says, "Deep, penetrating commentaries and books on the atonement--that stuff is for the academy. Pastors should stick to writing pop theology and Christian living stuff." God forbid! Expounding God's Word and reflecting on the nature of the atonement, etc., needs to be brought back into the domain of the church. We need a return to the days when pastors wrote theology that was richly theological, deeply biblical, historically informed, culturally aware, prophetic, and intelligent--not so it would be accepted by the academy, but so it would renew the church. The ecclesial theologian has not gone entirely extinct but, it would seem, he has become an endangered species. Which leads to my second suggestion.

A Fresh Vision for Seminarians

Not every pastor is called to be a (writing) theologian. Nor is every theologian called to be a pastor. But many seminarians today feel the pull between the life of the mind and the life of the church. They love study, writing, reflection, and theology. But at the same time they have a deep heart and calling for pastoral ministry in the local church. Too often our current context compels young people to choose between these two callings. Yet this need not be--history has proven otherwise! Evangelical theology is crying out for individuals who are willing to unite the life of the mind and the mission of the church. The emerging generation of theologians should consider whether or not the Lord is directing them toward an ecclesial context. And the seminary would do well to hold out the local church as a legitimate context for robust theological engagement--not only for the benefit of their local congregations, but for the wider theological community as well.

Many evangelical theologians undoubtedly need to press forward with a robust academic agenda. But we must get past the notion that theology is solely an academic enterprise. Evangelical theologians, whether called to write ecclesial or academic theology, need to recognize that the church needs both.


The Church is God's vehicle for changing the world. While apologetically driven academic theology is legitimate, the bulk of evangelical reflection and writing needs to be written in service to the church, to the believing community. We won't change the world by reforming the academy. But we will--by God's grace--change the world by renewing the church. But such renewal will only come through the communication of deep, robust, biblical, historically informed, culturally aware, thoughtful, and prophetic truth. Frankly, the sort of theology that will advance the cause of Christ will likely not find much favor in the wider academy, given its current rules of engagement. But that's fine--our goal isn't to win the favor of a secular academy; our goal is to renew the church.

[1] This article builds off of, and attempts to expand, my recent WTJ article, "Pastor-scholar to Professor-Scholar: Exploring the Theological Disconnect between the Academy and the Local Church." WTJ 70 (2008).

[2] Ibid., 360-66. 

Gerald Hiestand is the Pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, IL.

*This is an adaptation of "Ecclesial Theology and Academic Theology", an article originally published at Reformation 21 in August 2009.

How One Book Changed My Life (Part 2)


In addition to modeling and teaching submission to the Word of God, Petrus van Mastricht--in the recently translated prolegomena of his Theoretical-Practical Theology--powerfully corrected my thinking on the relation of reason and theology.

Reason is incorporated into theology.

First and foremost, Mastricht taught me that reason is welcome in theology. He taught it by his example--his admirable order and logic, his careful distinctions, his steadfast refusal to reason in a circle (135, 160, 170, 173) or to presuppose anything not self-evident or proven elsewhere (81, 88, 99, 182), and his free use of arguments from nature and reason (68, 73-74, 117-119, etc.).

He taught it indirectly, in his explaining various points: for example, that the student of theology should master, in addition to biblical studies, the liberal arts, including languages, philosophy, and history (94). Or that natural theology, though limited, is real, that many true facts about the true God can be truly known by nature, the senses, and reason (77-78, 82-83). Or, moreover, that the truth and authority of Scripture can and should be confirmed by reason (131-137).

He also taught it directly, when he explained two proper uses of reason in theology. Reason, he said, may be an instrument, the use of which is "necessary in every inquiry of truth, even of that which is occupied with Scripture"; and it may be an argument, "so that the truth derived from Scripture, as from its own first and unique principle, we may also confirm with natural reasons" (155-156).

Mastricht's teaching on this point particularly changed my thinking. I had been laboring under the idea that no theology could be learned anywhere but the Bible. The heavens may declare God's glory (Ps. 19:1), and nature morality (Rom. 1:26), but, I thought, no one can hear the word of nature except through hearing the Word of Scripture. Indeed, in my mind nature was entirely mute without Scripture: the fundamental principle of all knowledge, all predication, all reasoning, was found only in the Word of God.

But Mastricht's vision of faith and reason, I discovered, was much more true and satisfying. In it the Bible is indeed the "perfect rule of living for God" (117), and absolutely necessary in order to know Christ for salvation (129-130), but even so, some truths taught supernaturally in Scripture are also taught naturally in nature (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15). Moreover, God has mercifully preserved the mind of sinful man so that even pagans recognize certain facts about him (Acts 17:28). Thus while Christ is indeed the light of men (John 1:4), even if man's reason does not recognize him as such, it is still able to learn natural truths naturally. And this is especially true outside the domain of theology: as Mastricht argues, though theology is helped by nature, its foundation is Scripture; but the foundation of all other disciplines is "nature and human investigation" (100).

Furthermore, Mastricht instructed me in the way that these truths practically inform our teaching and defending of the faith. Consider, for example, how in his defense of Scripture he appeals to commonly accepted rules of verification to establish the truth and trustworthiness of Scripture (132-133, 148-149, 118-119), and cites objective evidence to prove that the Bible is indeed the Word of God (133-137, 149-151), explaining that the Spirit's internal testimony to the Word is not itself an evidence, but rather the gift of power to see and to believe the evidence (183). Similarly, in next year's forthcoming volume 2, Mastricht masterfully calls heaven and earth, reason and logic to witness against atheism to the existence of God, and in arguing for God's attributes, not only proves them all from Scripture, but confirms them all from nature.

Thus Mastricht not only changed my thinking on an important, even foundational matter in Christian theology, but also changed my practice. Now that my doubts concerning the natural knowledge of God are gone, I find great joy in making use of it. Among other things, in my ministry I am now free in teaching certain doctrines to use natural and rational arguments, both to confirm the godly in the biblical faith, and to leave the wicked without excuse. And in this way I have the privilege to follow not only Mastricht (78, 12), but the apostles (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-29; Rom. 1:18-20, 26-27), and Christ himself (Matt. 5:45; 6:26-30).

Reason is subordinate in theology.

But in addition to the two proper uses of reason and theology, Mastricht presents a third use that he condemns, that is, reason "as a norm or principle of truth on account of which something is believed" (156). In that way, reason would no longer be the handmaiden of theology (78), but would either join or replace Scripture as its perfect principium. But this cannot be. As Mastricht explains, "Reason is blind (1 Cor. 2:14-15), darkened (John 1:5), deceptive and inconstant (Rom. 1:21ff.), and finally, imperfect (cf. Rom. 1:19 with 1 Cor. 2:12)," "The heads of religion transcend reason because they are mysteries (1 Tim. 3:15; Matt. 13:11; 1 Cor. 2:7; 4:1)," and "Christ, the prophets, and the apostles never refer us back to reason but always to Scripture (Isa. 8:20; 2 Peter 1:19; 2 Tim. 3:14)" (156). This is why Mastricht was a fierce opponent of Cartesianism (xxxv), but also why he at times used strong words against medieval scholastic theology (85), even though throughout his work he shows his debt to it. Though reason is necessary in theology, and there is true natural knowledge, neither can presume to replace Scripture as the perfect rule of living for God.1

So Mastricht taught me not only the goodness and necessity of reason in theology, but also its proper limits. I am hopeful that in the discussion of this important topic, Mastricht's balanced method will prove for many, as it did for me, a wholesome model.

1. On this topic see also the excellent digression in Pontanus's funeral oration for Mastricht, lxxxi-lxxxvii.

*This is the second post in a short series by Michael Spangler

Michael Spangler is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and assists with the editing of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. He lives with his wife and children in Greensboro, NC.

How One Book Changed My Life


Books are marvelously powerful. Thomas Aquinas is said to have feared the "man of one book," and no wonder: a great book has great power to transform the soul. And in my own life, the recently translated prolegomena volume of Petrus van Mastricht's late seventeeth-century Theoretical-Practical Theology has been such a book. I assisted with the editing, so I have carefully read and re-read this volume, as well as the next on the doctrine of God. And though I cannot claim that it has yet made me a man Aquinas would fear, I cannot deny that it has shaped me for the good.

There are three particular aspects of Mastricht's work that changed me, and my hope in describing them in these articles is that others might read the book and be similarly transformed. In this first part I will discuss his submission to the Word of God, in part two, his thinking about reason and theology, and in part three, his definition of theology as "the doctrine of living for God through Christ."

Mastricht models submission to the Word.

Jonathan Edwards called this book the best ever written after the Bible, and surely one reason is that it is thoroughly biblical. Consider, for example, the order of Mastricht's chapters: each begins with an "Exegetical Part," which carefully examines a particular text of Scripture in order to lay the foundation for the Dogmatic, Elenctic, and Practical Parts to follow. The very structure of his work shows that theology is rooted and grounded in the Word of God.

The same is shown in Mastricht's citations from Scripture, which are copious and carefully chosen to prove his theological points. Indeed, this is a book to be read with an open Bible. Moreover, he also makes abundant use of Scriptural language in quotation and paraphrase, especially in each Practical Part, where he marshals passage after passage to stir up his students to apply the truth that they have learned. Consider this excerpt (p. 111) in which he exhorts his readers with motivations to live for God:

(1) Because we are the children of the living God, should we not live also, and live for him, and for his glory, and by his precepts, since he is our Father (Mal. 1:6)? (2) We are members of Christ, united with him who lives in his people (Gal. 2:20). Will we not live in him? How can we be dead men in union with the living one? (3) We have in Christ the Spirit of life (Rom. 8:14). Should we therefore lie down like the dead? (4) We are, if true Christians, living members, living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5), trained in a living faith (James 2:17, 26). By this faith, then, should we not live? ... (5) We have God, who lives and gives life (Rom. 9:26; 1 Thess. 1:9). We have the Father, who grants life to us (Gen. 2:7), and that spiritual and immortal; the Son, who by his death acquired and restored life to us (Eph. 2:5); the Holy Spirit, who by regeneration confers the seeds of spiritual life (John 3:5-6), and that by a living seed (1 Peter 1:23). And why did the triune God do all these things, except that we might live for him, that we might render our life to him?

It is hard to read such sections and not be moved by the power of God's Word, and impressed by this teacher in whom that power was clearly at work. Mastricht's model in this way convicted and encouraged me, that I would be more faithful to demonstrate such submission to the Word in my own life and teaching.

Mastricht teaches submission to the Word.

It should be no surprise, then, that what Mastricht modeled he also he taught, that the Scriptures are the "perfect rule of living for God" (117). He begins his chapter on Scripture in the Exegetical Part (113-117) by explaining 2 Timothy 3:16-17, that all Scripture is divinely inspired, and given for the end "that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." In the Dogmatic Part (117-131) he explains this teaching in great depth, discussing among other things the properties of Scripture: its authority, truth, integrity, sanctity, perspicuity, perfection, necessity, and efficacy. In the Elenctic Part (131-181) he thoroughly defends the truth and divine authority of Scripture, and addresses at length the claims of Scripture's opponents, one after the other: Muslims, Jews, Socinians and Anabaptists, and Papists. And with these truths exposited, explained, and defended, in the Practical Part (182-201) he directs them in all their weight and power to the believer's heart and life. His ten applications include defending the Word, loving it, studying it, meditating on it, discussing it with others, and practicing it in our lives.

After reading his chapter on Scripture I was more convinced than ever that the Bible is God's perfect Word, and the perfect rule for living for God. And I was more convicted than ever that I must live in submission to the Word of God, and also that like Mastricht, as a minister I must teach that submission to God's people. Motivated by this chapter I recently preached 2 Timothy 3:16-17, explaining to the people that just as the Bible is the perfect rule for the minister of God, so it is for all men and women of God. And I exhorted them, as Mastricht exhorted me, to use the Bible for the end that God intended: that through Christ, they might live for him.

In the subsequent posts in this short series, we will consider the place of reason and the role of Christ in Mastricht's theological exposition.

Michael Spangler is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and assists with the editing of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. He lives with his wife and children in Greensboro, NC. 

Low Visibility

Quite a number of contemporary theologians have made the observation that J. Gesham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first released in 1923. Machen explained that he had written this work in order "to show that Christianity is not a 'life,' as distinguished from a doctrine. It is not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression. It is the other way around. It is a life founded on a doctrine." In the introductory section, Machen asserted that many of the modernist theologians "preferred to fight their intellectual battles in...a condition of low visibility." Explaining the dire need we have for clarity in definition, Machen wrote:

"The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a 'condition of low visibility.' Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding." 

There is no more pressing need that we have at present than the need to define our terms. As clarity is the vehicle of truth, so ambiguity is the vehicle of heresy. When someone plays fast and loose with theological terminology, the Gospel is lost or perverted. When individuals level charges against others on the basis of social constructs and accepted terminology--rather than on the basis of fact and clear-cut definition of terms--polarization and power structures abound.  

While modernism has morphed into postmodernity and postmodernity has provided a platform for intersectionality, the failure of so many--in both the world and the church--to clearly define terms has resulted in the widespread propagation of error. As a result of the cultural redefinition of terms and socially constructed agendas comes the need to defend and protect whatever narrative is being bandied about. Erica Jong takes all of these control structures back to their origin, namely, controlling words in order to control conversations. She writes:

"Language matters because whoever controls the words controls the conversation, because whoever controls the conversation controls its outcome, because whoever frames the debate has already won it, because telling the truth has become harder and harder to achieve in an America drowning in Orwellian Newspeak." 

Therefore, as we seek to navigate the waters of our often-times volatile cultural climate--desirous of seeking to advance the truth--we must be as clear as possible with our words. Let's make it our aim to clearly define what we mean when we use terms like "Gospel issue," "reparations," "rights," "love," "hate," "racist," "bigot," "homophobe," "nationalism," "patriarchalism," "white supremacist," "chauvinism," feminism," "cultural Marxism," "Social Justice Warriors," "Gay Christians," etc. Not to do so leaves us open to the criticism that we are merely seeking to "fight our intellectual battles in a condition of low visibility." 

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.