Thursday, December 02, 2010

I Have Moved

As is evident from the date of the preceding post, I don't live here anymore. But I thought it best to come back and turn the lights off, and let you know that I now post regularly on the SAET blog.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Raising Purity Book Give-Away

06920055442I'm pleased to announce the re-release of my book Raising Purity: Helping Parents Understand the Bible's Perspective on Sex, Dating, and Relationships. This is a revised and expanded version of the original, and, I think, is significantly improved in a few key areas. To give you a sense of what the book is about, here's the copy from the back cover:
"Do they know? Do you? Many young people today are confused about the Bible’s perspective on sex, dating and relationships. Should they give dating a chance or kiss it goodbye? What exactly is sexual purity, and how far is too far, anyway? Perhaps our children don’t know the answers to these questions because we as parents are uncertain ourselves.

In this ground-breaking book, Gerald Hiestand provides objective, biblical answers to these vital questions, and unfolds a paradigm-shifting view of relationships and purity that challenges the basic assumptions of our Christian sub-culture. Touching on a wide range of subjects, Raising Purity is sure to help parents and children think clearly, biblically and practically about the God-ordained purpose of human sexuality."
If you're a parent or youth pastor, this book is for you. I'm convinced our children will not have clarity on this issue until we as parents and pastors have clarity on this issue. And given the statistics, I think it's pretty clear we lack clarity.

This topic is not necessarily my hot button. As a pastor striving to write robust eccleisal theology, a book on dating seems a bit off topic. But it's precisely at this point that the whole "social location" thing kicks in. Early on in my ministry I did some time as a youth pastor and had to address the age old question "How far is too far?" It's not a question most serious thoelogians in the academy have to deal with, but it's a very live question for pastors. As I grappled with the issue and read the popular literature, I became increasingly convinced that most of our collective wisdom on this subject is simply wrong. We just haven't grasped the Bible's central message on purity. So I did some thinking on the issue and wrote a book. At the risk of sounding like a hubritic, I'm certain I've got some new things to say about purity, dating, and relationships - things that aren't being said anywhere else. In writing the book, I've tried to be richly theological and eminently practical. I've field tested this at my home church with both parents and singles and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

For those interested, here are a few links you might find useful.
Free Books
And now about that "free book" thing. . . since I'm self-publishing, I could use a little help with the marketing. So here's my, "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" proposal: I'll send a free copy of the book to the first twenty people who send me an e-mail at ghiestand[at] (include your address). But here's the catch. You have to be a regular blogger (not a blogger whose last post was May 1, 2009), and you have to be willing to write a short review (doesn't have to be a positive review) by Dec 31, 2009, linking back to

I truly believe this is an important book for the church today - a life-changing book. If you're a parent or a pastor, I hope you'll read it. If you have read it, and have any thoughts, feel free to leave a comment. I welcome your thoughts.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Reformation 21 Article

ref21-pic1The kind folks over at Reformation 21 have posted my article, "Ecclesial Theology and Academic Theology: Why We Need More of the Former."

The article briefly recounts the founding of the SAET, and is my latest attempt to flesh out a distinction between academic theology and ecclesial theology. If you read it and have thoughts, I'm interested to hear them.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Review of the Piper/Carson Lectures on the Pastor-Scholar

In April, John Piper and Don Carson gave twin lectures entitled, "The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor."

For those interested, I've written a few thoughts on their talk and posted them on the SAET blog.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Some Thoughts on James and Paul and Justification

Regarding Definition of dikiaow
The term dikiaow is forensic. And while dikaiow often involves a declaration of who is in the right, the meaning is broader than a mere declaration. More broadly, the term has the basic meaning of “vindicate’ (in relation to all sorts of contexts—legal, social, relational).

There are two aspects to justification/vindication. The first is the actual declaring/proving of who is in the right. The second aspect has to do with the rewarding of the one in the right. In a judicial context, the judge not only declares person A to be in the right, but then actually grants person A the commiserate reward of one who is in the right. Both judicial actions fall under the rubric of justification.

Regarding Paul
Paul frames the soteriological dilemma in two parts. The first soteriological hurdle to overcome is ontological corruption. How can we overcome the Adamic effects of sin? How can we be delivered from its enslaving power and penalty? Paul’s use of dikiaow is primarily concerned with this aspect of sin (both in the present and eschatologically). Further, Paul’s use of dikaiow is focused more on the reward of the righteous person—the second aspect of justification. For Paul, dikiaow speaks about how one is vindicated on the basis of faith, thus accounted a righteous person, and thereby granted the reward of a righteous person—i.e., forgiveness and ontological renewal in relation to sin. In short, participation in the New Covenant. There is an already/not yet aspect to this. Because of faith, we have now a deposit of the complete renewal promised at the resurrection. This aspect of salvation is decidedly accomplished without works and is by faith alone, and is why Paul insists we are not justified/vindicated by works.

Secondly, Paul sees the final assize as a hurdle to overcome. On what basis will someone stand at the judgment? On what basis will a person be shown to be a true child of God—one who is in right relation with God? Paul’s answer is works. The fruit of one’s life demonstrates the reality of one’s relationship with God through Christ. No good works—no vindication at the judgment. But in this, works are not securing salvation, but rather demonstrate one’s relationship with God. For the most part, Paul does not deploy dikaiow language toward this vindication, thus we never find him affirming the axiom “justified by works.”

The connection between these two aspects of Paul’s soteriology is as follows. If one has been truly vindicated by faith in the present, the inevitable result is ontological renewal and a life of good works, which inevitably leads to vindication at the judgment.

Regarding James
James, on the other hand, is not primarily concerned with overcoming ontological corruption, but about living morally in light of the coming judgment (One might infer a whisper of ontological salvation in James 1:21. Maybe.). Will I be found to be a true child of God? Will I be found a true son of Abraham? Secondly, he is less concerned about what the right person gets (so Paul), and more concerned about who is right. He largely skips right past Paul’s ontological angst. Thus when James employs dikaiow language, he is doing so in light of the one soteriological hurdle most on his radar—the final judgment. This is why he can say we are justified/vindicated by works.

Paul’s soteriology is more sophisticated than James’. Certainly Paul would agree with James that one’s vindication at the judgment is based in large measure on one’s works. “It’s not the hearers of the law, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Yet Paul’s soteriology drives deeper than James, and he is concerned to locate the source of those good works in the ontological renewal (i.e. circumcision of the heart, etc.) secured through union with Christ and the vindication of faith. And it is at this more fundamental point that Paul deploys his dikaiow language.

When we synthesize these two, we come away with the following: a person is vindicated in light of sin and spiritual death by faith alone. Having thus partaken of union with Christ and the subsequent ontological renewal, a person is vindicated at the final judgment by works. The first vindication gives rise to the second.

Note: I'm not using "vindicated" and "saved" as complete synonyms.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Schreiner, Vickers, and Seifrid on Wright

I just finished listening to this podcast. It's a good discussion by able NT scholars regarding Tom Wright's new book on justification. Wright's book is, in many ways, a response to Piper's The Future of Justification. Michael Bird has a good review post on the panel discussion that's worth checking out. Here are my two cents as well...

I haven't read a ton of Wright, but I have read a good deal of his work as it relates to justification. And generally, I think much of the criticism leveled against him misses the mark, chiefly because his critics fail to deal with him on his own semantic terms. Simply put, Wright doesn't use the term "justified" in the same way that more traditional Protestants do. For Wright, justification is not about getting saved, but about declaring who is already saved. So when Wright says that we are justified at the judgment on the basis of spirit-wrought works, he doesn't mean that we are saved at the final judgment by such works. He means that our position within the covenant (already previously determined) is made evident at the judgment based upon God's work in our life. Substantively, I don't find this any different than Piper or Calvin or any other theologian who ascribes to works a vindicating, rather than instrumental, role at the judgment. If you listen to the panel discussion, you'll see that this issue in particular--a final justification according to works--is a real sticking point for Seifrid and Schreiner.

Now it's necessary at some point to have a discussion about the way the term "justified" is used in Scripture (and thus the best way to use it theologically), but that's not the same thing as having a discussion regarding the substance of one's position. Just because Wright is not using the term "justified" in the traditional sense, does not mean that he is necessarily jettisoning the substance of Reformation soteriology. Two sides of a debate can largely agree in substance, yet strongly disagree in semantics. Or they may both disagree in substance and semantics. But until each side takes the other on their own semantic terms, they will never be able to get to the substance of the other's position. A brief example from church history to illustrate my point...

During the great Arian controversy, the term homousia (one substance) was used by Athanasius and the (largely Western) pro-Nicene party to defend the full deity of Christ. But for many of the eastern Fathers, the term homousia had a different nuance, one that did not readily allow for a real distinction between persons. Thus to deploy the term homousia in the Eastern context was to till the soil for Sabellianism, a heresy they were particularly leery of. Consequently, as the Arian controversy ebbed and flowed many of the eastern Fathers were lumped in with the Arians because of their refusal to adopt the (then) controversial term. But the differences between the pro-Nicene party and these "semi-Arians" were only semantics. Both sides meant the same thing, they just couldn't agree on how to say it. Wisely, Athanasius saw that the semi-Arians were substantively correct, even if reticent to adopt the Nicene formula (given their Eastern context). Athanasius worked toward reconciliation, arguing that the substance of one's position was more important than any particular terms that were used. Holding out an olive branch, Athanasius insisted that the semi-Arians be regarded as orthodox. He then bent over backward to show the semi-Arians that the Nicene deployment of homousia was the best way to dispel the Arian threat. Eventually, the semi-Arians were brought into the Nicene fold.

But imagined what would have happened if both sides had insisted on retaining their respective understandings of homousia. Athanasius and the pro-Nicene party would have continued to issue anathemas against the substantively orthodox, yet semantically hertrodox, Eastern Fathers. And for their part, the Eastern Fathers would have continued to view Nicaea as a largely western/Latin capitulation to Sabellianism. But Athanasius' ability to see beyond the semantics enabled both sides to stop anathematizing the other and come to a real place of understanding, and ultimately, reconciliation.

In many ways, I feel like something similar needs to happen between Wright and his critics. I'm not suggesting the differences between Wright and his critics are merely semantics. But I'm increasingly convinced that many of Wright's critics have an inability to deal with him beyond the semantic level. Consequently, they are unable to deal with the real substance of his position. I'm no disciple of Wright. I tend to follow Seifrid on these things. But I am fairly certain, given what I've read of Wright thus far, that he is not as substantively different from traditional Reformation thought as his critics make him out to be. I've written at length about that here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

U R B A N G L O R Y Podcast

My friend Bradley Chocran of U R B A N G L O R Y just posted a podcast of an interview he and I did regarding the SAET. It's a quick listen -- maybe four minutes, and it gives a pretty good introduction into what the SAET is all about.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review of My WTJ Article

Eric Redmond has a nice review of my recent Westminster Theological Journal article. In the article, I argue that the eighteenth-century transition in North America from pastor-scholar to professor-scholar has resulted in the loss of a distinctly ecclesial voice in North American evangelical theology. There is, I contend, a need to return theological reflection and articulation back to the domain of the local church. Not every scholar needs to be a pastor, nor does every pastor need to be a scholar. But many are gifted and called to both pursuits, and we do the church a disservice when we separate the two.

Those of you interested in combining theology and pastoral ministry may find the article interesting.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New SAET Blog

Just a quick word to let you know about the new Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology (SAET) blog. We've done a complete overhaul of the SAET site. It's not quite done, but I'm really pleased with it (thanks for the pro bono Todd). I'll be moving some of my blogging over to there; anything related to ecclesial theology, pastor-theologians, etc. Would love it if you would check out the site and add it to your feeds.

And I'm still blogging over at Straight Up--mostly Christian living, devotional, ministry sort of topics. Everything else will end up here on iustificare.

All of that to say this--my already sporadic output here on iustificare won't be improving any time soon.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Differences between Ecclesial Theology and Academic Theology

My article, "Pastor-Scholar to Professor-Scholar: Exploring the Theological Disconnect between the Academy and the Local Church" is now out in the current issue of Westminster Theological Journal (vol 70, 2008). In the article, I argue that the eighteenth-century transition from pastor-scholar to professor-scholar has had significant implications for North American evangelical theology, namely that evangelical theology has become too apologetically focused and has lost sight of distinctly ecclesial concerns. In the paper I argue for a resurrection of the pastor-scholar.

But "pastors writing academic scholarship" is not my vision of a pastor-scholar. Instead, I'm calling for a return to the sort of theological reflection done by past pastor-scholars such as Augustine, Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, etc.--theologians who wrote from within the social location of the Church, whose reflection was driven by ecclesial concerns, and who were unashamedly Christian and prophetic. As Luther has said, theologians who are willing to "assert".

I've been continuing to work along these basic lines in light of my role as the executive director of the SAET, and the most challenging obstacle that we've come across is distinguishing ecclesial theology from academic theology. Ecclesial theology isn't simply Christian Living books on steroids (though ecclesial theology would include this genre, i.e., Bonhoeffer's Cost of Disciplership, Augustine's Confessions, etc.) The terms "theology" and "scholar" have become so identified with the academy, that most of us lack a capacity to conceive of scholarship outside the academic genre. In an attempt to provide some clarity by what I mean by the term "eccleisal theology", I offer the following compare and contrast (note, in an attempt to make my point clear, I've caricatured academic theology a bit.)
  1. The depth of academic scholarship is too often measured by its mastery of secondary literature. The depth of ecclesial scholarship is measured by its mastery of primary literature.
  2. Academic scholarship is written to the wider academic community, much of which lacks any commitment to historic orthodoxy. This in turns gives much of evangelical academic scholarship an apologetic slant. Ecclesial scholarship, in contrast, is written to the believing community, and builds upon and assumes—rather than defends—the basic commitments of historic orthodoxy.
  3. The success of academic scholarship is determined by its acceptance and influence in the academic community. The success of ecclesial scholarship is determined by its ability to renew the church.
  4. Academic scholarship is informative. Ecclesial scholarship is informative and prophetic (i.e., it makes moral assertions and calls the church to action).
  5. The power of academic theology arises out of the success of the professor-scholar as a scholar. The power of ecclesial theology arises—in large measure—out of the success of the pastor-scholar as a pastor. In other words, the influence of a pastor-scholar as a scholar is related to his success as a pastor.
  6. Academic scholarship tends to be narrow and guild-specific. Ecclesial theology is a cross-guild project, working within and attempting to construct a coherent theological system/worldview.
  7. The academic scholar tends to be more of a scholar and less of a theologian. The pastor-scholar tends to be more of a theologian and less of a scholar. Here I'm distinguishing between scholarship (mining new data) and theology (arranging the data into a synthetic whole).
I'd be interested in any of your thoughts on this, as I am preparing an article for Reformation 21. Would you add anything to the list? Do you disagree with anything on the list?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

When the Earth is Young, Soteriology

“You said that you knew the stranger—I mean the man I was looking for,” Matthew said. “He’s not…Is he…is he Jesus?” Matthew’s heart skipped a beat.

“No, he is not,” the old man said. “Though it is a high compliment to both that you ask. It is a chief goal of the Father that all his children be conformed to the image of his Son. The man you seek is indeed a son of God, but he is not the Son of God. He is by adoption what the Son is by generation.”

“Exactly what do you mean by that?” Matthew asked.

“Perhaps overstated,” the old man replied. “Yet not by much. Are you aware of the great Christological creeds?”

“I’m afraid not,” Matthew replied.

“Well, much could be said. But for now it’s sufficient to note the early church was concerned to maintain both the complete deity and complete humanity of the Son. Jesus isn’t a hybrid—part God and part man. He’s fully both; the theanthropos, both God and man. The implications of this are far reaching in Christian theology, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. The early fathers—Athanasius, Augustine, the two Gregorys, and others—laid a road that the modern church still walks. But the reason I mention it at all is because the dual nature of Christ has relevance to the Christian understanding of salvation, the very thing that accounts for the amazing similarity between Christ and the man you met. Are you interested?”

“I am,” Matthew said truthfully.

The old man continued, “The Son, the fathers taught, is eternally generated from the Father. But the idea that the Son is generated should not lead us to conclude he has a beginning. Just as the light of the sun is generated by the sun and exists simultaneously with it, so too the Son exists in temporal unity with the Father. The sun cannot exist without giving forth its light, and the Father cannot exist without generating the Son. In other words, there never was a time when the Son was not, for the Son is eternally generated from the eternal Father. Are you with me so far?” the old man asked.

Matthew nodded slowly. “I think so,” he said.

The old man went on, “Since the Son’s existence is by eternal generation from the Father, the divine nature belongs to the Son naturally. It is not a gift from the Father, but belongs to the Son by right. It is this eternal uncreated Word of the Father—begotten, not made—that took upon himself flesh and bone, and became as us. And this incarnation of the Son was for the sake of humanity—whatever other benefit it might have for the Son, independent of our salvation; but that’s a different story.

The reason for the Son’s becoming as us—and here I quote the fathers loosely—was so that we could become as him. It’s not for nothing St. Peter tells us we become partakers of the divine nature. The Son came to share himself with humanity. He doesn’t just bring salvation; he is salvation. He is the living branch into which the dead branches are grafted. He is the head that gives life to the body. He is the bread of life, the spring of living water. Christianity is not merely belief—though it is that. It is not merely a religion—though it is that too. But it is first and foremost a relationship, a bringing together of humanity with divinity. Indeed, the primary relationship the apostles used to illustrate the relationship between Christ and his Church is that of a marriage. There is a oneness, a shared life—a perichoresis—that results from the union of Christ with the Christian. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Christian comes to participate in the divine nature. The Son possesses a divine nature by generation, a human nature by adoption. What belongs to the Son by adoption belongs to us by generation, and what belongs to the Son by generation belongs to us by adoption. The fathers never meant to suggest—nor did Peter—that redeemed humanity somehow becomes ontologically equivalent to God. The finite creature can never equal the infinite creator. Yet through the incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Creator and the creature have come to share in the other, such that the life lived in the flesh—for both Christ and the Christian—is lived in union with, and under the power and guidance of the Godhead.”

“And now,” the old man said at last, “I return to my original statement—what the Son posses by generation we posses by adoption. We are finite creatures wed to an infinite divine nature. He is an infinite creator wed to a finite human nature. In this union, the redeemed human becomes a little incarnation—a reverse picture of Christ’s own dual ontology.”

Matthew eyes widened and then narrowed. He pulled his head back. “It’s a bit much, don’t you think?” he asked incredulously.

“Indeed,” the old man said. “More than we have the right to ask, and more than we could ever could have hoped for.”

Matthew said nothing, and the old man continued after a while. “It shouldn’t surprise us, really. How else could the vast gulf between creator and creature be bridged if not through mutual participation in the other? And it is in this dual becoming—he as us, and we as him—that God has intimacy with his creatures in a way that would not be possible otherwise.”

“I’m not sure I’ve every really appreciated the dilemma,” Matthew said. “I’ve always just assumed that God and man could relate well enough.”

“That’s because you’ve never really appreciated the complete ‘otherness’ of God. He is not like us. And by this I do not mean that he is not like us simply in that he is perfect and we are sinful. Or that he is not like us in that he is merely greater than us. No. The gulf between God and humanity is that of the finite to the infinite. He is immaterial, we are material. He is incorruptible, we are corruptible. He is immutable, we are mutable. He has life in himself, is self sustaining. Tell me,” the old man said, leaning toward Matthew, “did you not sense the ‘otherness’ when you spoke with the stranger? The divine nature saturates him like water in a sponge, like fire in a glowing iron.”

“I did,” Matthew said, awed at the thought. “And it terrified me.”

“Well it should have,” the old man said, leaning back. “Well it should have. And even then much of his glory was hidden from you. He said so himself. Imagine what it would have been like to stare upon him without the veil. He would have consumed you, simply by his presence. Do you see the dilemma now? It's a dilemma of ontology.”

Matthew nodded slowly, his mind lost in thoughts of the stranger’s terror. The old man’s eyes still looked toward Matthew, but his mind seemed somewhere else, perhaps chasing down memories of his own. Neither man spoke for a long time.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

New Ministry Blog

Hey everyone, just wanted to let you all know about a new pastor's blog I'll be contributing to called Straight Up. The blog is hosted by the Harvest Bible Fellowship, and the main contributor is James MacDonald, senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel (my church). James is the founding pastor of Harvest (now over 11,000 people) and his teaching can be heard daily via his radio ministry Walk in the Word. Without question, James is one of the most remarkable and capable men I've met. He's been at Harvest for over twenty years now, and has an immense amount of wisdom to offer, particularly as it relates to preaching, ministry vision and leadership. If you're a pastor or ministry leader I encourage you to stop by. We'll be covering leadership issues, theological issues, and everything in between. See you there.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Athanasius and the Cross as a Means of Ontological Renewal

Athanasius’ understanding of the cross is in harmony with the later Protestant/Reformational emphasis on penal substitution. Athanasius views Christ’s death as a vicarious sacrifice whereby the legal debt of sin is satisfied. This concept of penal substitution is woven throughout Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. “He is the Life of all, and he it is that as a sheep yielded his body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all.” Frequently, Athanasius speaks of Christ dying “in our place,” “in our stead,” “on our behalf,” and of Christ “paying our debt.”

For Athanasius, Christ’s death is necessary in as much as God, having promised that death would be the result of sin, could not go back on his word. The divine prohibition, once spoken, could not simply be revoked without impugning the veracity of God. What was to be done? Being incapable of rescinding the curse, God took upon himself true humanity through the incarnation of the Word and died in our stead. “For by the sacrifice of his own body, he both put an end to the law which was against us, and made a new beginning of life for us, by the hope of the resurrection which he has given us.” And again, Christ died in order that “the law involving the ruin of men might be undone, (in as much as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding ground against men, his peers).” In the death of Christ, the legal hold over humanity is broken; the curse is defeated. Christ, through his sacrifice, has banished “death from [humanity] like straw from the fire.”

Yet more needs to be said. Athanasius’ view of the cross moves beyond legal satisfaction, and is ultimately concerned with ontological renewal. What is important to observe here is that Athanasius’ understanding of the cross is centered on resolving the fundamental issue of man’s condition—his deficient ontology. While Christ dies to satisfy humanity’s legal debt, the satisfaction of the debt is only a necessary first step in addressing the deeper issue of ontological corruption.
For the Word, perceiving that not otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end he takes to himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the grace of the resurrection. Whence by offering unto death the body he himself had taken as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway he put away death from all his peers by the offering of an equivalent. For being over all, The Word of God naturally by offering his own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by his death. And thus he, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection (On the Incarnation, 9)
This passage captures the essence of Athanasius understanding of the cross. For Athanasius, Christ’s death has an ontological—rather than legal—payout. To be sure, Athanasius understand the need for the legal debt to be satisfied, but the satisfaction of the legal debt is only significant in that it clears the way for the resolution of humanity’s more fundamental problem. For Athanasius, the “fruit of [Christ’s] . . . cross . . . is the resurrection and incorruption,” not primarily the legal forgiveness of sins. In fact, Athanasius makes virtually no reference to the forgiveness/remission of sins throughout the vast majority of his writings. And tellingly, at the single point in On the Incarnation where Athanasius does mention the “remission” of sins, he equates/conflates it with spiritual regeneration. Athanasius’ soteriological paradigm isn’t concerned about clearing a legal debt, but rather about securing ontological renewal—a renewal typified by bodily and spiritual resurrection. This is not an insignificant observation. It is this facet of Athanasius’ paradigm that, more than any other, moves the resurrection theme toward the center of his soteriology.

Further adding to the emphasis of ontology over legal concerns is Athanasius’ soft voluntarism. For Athanasius, Christ’s death as a legal substitute is only required in as much as God freely chose to connect disobedience with corruption and death; there is nothing inherent within the nature of God that requires legal payment for sin. But the ontological barrier between God and humanity is not a matter of the divine choice; rather it flows of necessity from the very nature of God and humanity. God is infinite and immutable; man is finite and mutable (and now fallen). It is this necessary ontological barrier, not primarily the contingent legal barrier, that represents the greatest soteriological challenge. For Athanasius, the curse is broken most fundamentally, not in the sense that a legal debt has been paid, but in that the effects of the curse—ontological corruption toward non-being—have been abrogated by cross. It is the removal of the corruption of sin itself—not just its guilt—that drives Athanasius understanding of the cross.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Athanasius and Sin as a Legal Curse

For Athanasius, the corruption due to sin is the forewarned expression of wrath for failure to adhere to the divine prohibition. The consequences were clearly detailed at the outset: eat from the tree and “dying ye shall die.” Had our first parents remained good, they would have kept “the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven.” But humanity chose poorly, “incurring the corruption in death which was theirs by nature.” Because of sin, humanity forfeited the opportunity to be freed from the limitations of mutability and corruptibility inherent with human nature. In choosing to turn away from the contemplation of the divine and chase after carnal, earthly knowledge, man was punitively “released” to that which he chose—carnality and corruptibility. God would no longer stand in the way of humanity’s ontological proclivity toward corruption and non-being. As a result, death, “gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because of the transgression.”

In our discussion of the curse of sin as a “legal hold” over humanity, it will be helpful to note that Athanasius’ overall theology anticipates (and assumes) the later voluntarism of medieval soteriology. For Athanasius, the divine curse on sin does not flow of necessity from the nature of God; God’s nature as “just” does not require him to punish humanity for its act(s) of disobedience. Instead, the necessity of the curse flows out of God’s inability to lie. God said death would follow sin, and so it must come to pass. For Athanasius, sin has a legal hold over humanity only in as much as God has chosen to deal with humanity in this way. Had God not invoked the curse prior to Adam’s disobedience, there would have been no absolute legal necessity that Adam die.

More needs to be said on this, but the salient point to be made here is that Athanasius’ focus on “sin as curse” is not primarily about the judicial necessity of the curse, as much as it is about the ontological effects of the curse. Consequently, Athanasius’ understanding of Christ’s death—and the atonement at large—is more concerned with overcoming the corruption of the curse, than with balancing the scales of divine justice. As we will see below, both judicial release and ontological healing are accomplished through Christ’s death; but the emphasis is on the latter.

(All quotes are from Athanasius' On the Incarnation)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Shack and the Transcedence of God

I recently read William Young’s The Shack. For a book with an initial marketing budget of only $300, its success has been nothing short of remarkable. It’s currently number one on the New York Times best seller’s list, and has gained a wide readership in the evangelical community. It’s endorsed by Michael W. Smith, and Eugene Peterson, among others.

The story opens with the abduction and brutal murder of “Mac’s” seven year old daughter. Four years later, Mac is invited by God to join him at the shack where his daughter’s murder was discovered. Mac accepts the invitation, and the remainder of the book is Mac’s experience with God at the shack. The book is essentially Young’s theodicy wrapped in a narrative. Young (consciously or not) follows Dostoevsky in tackling perhaps one of the greatest questions in theodicy—the suffering of children.

Young’s book has not been without controversy. Perhaps most immediately jarring is his portrayal of God the Father as a large African American woman, and the Holy Spirit as an ethereal and diminutive Asian woman. (Jesus, mercifully, remains a Jewish handyman.) I’ve already made comments elsewhere about gender and the nature of God, so I need not belabor that point here.

Young’s decision to portray God in mostly feminine categories has relevance to a wider “anti-power” motif woven throughout the book. Young, in casting God in female terms, distances God from a sense of tyranny and dominance—a sense more often associated with males than females. Young’s agenda is not unique. Those toward the theological left tend to be suspicious of power, viewing it as oppressive and brutalizing. The emergence of egalitarianism within the church and home, and the movement toward decentralized church leadership structures are symptomatic of this shift. Hierarchy, we are often told, leads to oppression. At one point, Mac asks God which of the three members of the Trinity is in charge of the others. The three are aghast at the thought. “What you are seeing here,” the Holy Spirit informs him, “is a relationship without any overlay of power….Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong uses to make others conform to what they want.” Power, Young argues at various points, is inherently corrupting and oppressive.

The net result is a God who rejects—indeed is repulsed by—the use of power. (In one scene God picks up a gun between two fingers, holding it at arms lengths as though it were a dead mouse). Young’s God never coerces, never forces; He believes the best in everyone, is enduringly patient, and invincibly good-natured. For Young, love cannot be love if it is not freely offered and freely received. Power equals dominance, and if God dominates us he cannot love us, nor can we freely love him.

There are two fundamental difficulties I have with Young’s “anti-power” motif. First, Young’s portrayal of God is out of step with much of the way God is portrayed in Scripture. It’s difficult to square Young’s pacifistic Trinitarian portrayal with the God of Genesis 6, the Christ of Revelation 19, and the Holy Spirit of Acts 5. And it’s at this point that Young’s theodicy falls short. The Scripture doesn’t allow us to distance God from violence and coercion. The deeper question of theodicy is not simply how a good God can allow death and destruction, but how a good God can cause death and destruction. Young’s book assumes the happiness of humanity is the highest good. The Bible does not affirm this. Simply put, God is not “for” everyone to the same degree, or in the same way. (Aquinas called this the “principle of predilection—the idea that “no created being would be better than another unless it were loved more by God.”) Those committed to the biblical narrative must wrestle with the (unsettling) reality of a God who does not love everyone equally, and who has personally brought about the death of women and children. On this question, Young’s book is silent.

Secondly, Young’s conflation of power and abuse is not accurate. The former does not automatically equate to the latter. The answer to the abuse of power is not the elimination of power, but rather the proper use of power. God is unquestionably a God of power. Young would agree with this, I’m sure, but Young seems to chafe against any idea that God would actually use his power to bring about his ends. But God does, and often. Further, the love of God is only as meaningful as the power that animates it. A God neutered of power is a God who lacks the capacity to love. Or again, the warmth of God’s imminence is only as meaningful as the height of his transcendence. Young’s portrayal of God, unlike the God of the whirlwind, lacks any sense of transcendence.

Young comes closest to a biblical theodicy toward the end of the book. In a scene reminiscent of Job, Mac is offered the chance to sit as judge over both God and the world. With appropriate terror, Mac realizes just how little qualified he is to take God’s place as sovereign judge. This is perhaps the strongest part of Young’s book, but unfortunately, it remains largely out of step with much that is written elsewhere. The difference between the theodicy of Job and the theodicy found in Young is typical of the Calvinist/Arminian divide. Job comes to peace in the midst of his pain when he finally submits to God’s sovereign right to act as God in whatever way he deems, even if that means the destruction of Job’s livelihood and family. Conversely, Mac comes to peace when he realizes that God really is a nice guy after all, and that all that stuff about him being angry and wrathful was a gross mischaracterization. The latter is perhaps the quickest and most palatable pathway to peace; but in the end, it sugarcoats the harder issues and lacks a true biblical foundation.

So how should we as pastors respond to this book? It’s obvious Young’s book has struck a chord with the culture at large, and the evangelical culture not least. It’s clear the people in our churches crave an immanent God—one who understands our needs, our weaknesses, and who is able to identify with us in our fragile human existence. And indeed the Word Incarnate is the Father’s way of whispering tenderly in our ear. In Christ, the transcendent God draws near to us in flesh and bone. He walks our paths and feels our pain. The desire for a God of compassion and tenderness is legitimate, and we do well to ask why such a deficit might exist in our churches. Have we failed to communicate properly the deep love that God has for his children? Perhaps. But if we have, Young’s book is not the best corrective. Young, in an attempt to wipe the blood off of God’s hands, ends up diminishing the transcendence and power of God. The best way to correct an unbalanced view of God is not by introducing an opposing unbalanced view of God.

Yet at the same time, we need to be sensitive to the ways in which God is working in the lives of those who have profited by reading Young’s book. I spoke with a man at my church whose view of God was positively corrected by reading The Shack. Prior to reading the book, the man had viewed God as a stern and uncompromising task-master—a God impossible to please, a God who told you he loved you with a scowl on his face. For this man, Young’s over-compensated portrayal of God’s imminence brought a necessary corrective, allowing him to believe in a God who cared about the needs of his children, and whose love was genuine. God, in his sovereign mercy, often chooses to use less than ideal means (such as myself!) to communicate his truth. So there’s wisdom in being sensitive and tactful in our criticism when talking to those who have read the book with profit. God may have used the unbalanced portrayal found in Young’s book to bring about a balanced portrayal in the life of those who read it. The net effect is a balanced view of God that does not truly reflect Young’s unbalanced portrayal. If we are not tactful in our criticism, we can be misunderstood as critiquing this new-found view of God, rather than critiquing Young’s unbalanced portrayal. Without endorsing the book, perhaps it is best in such instances to simply affirm the positive ways in which God has used it, while gently pointing out its deficits.

At the end of the day, this is not a book I will recommend. For those who need a theodicy wrapped in a narrative, a work such as Lewis’ Till We Have Faces is the better, even if more difficult, way forward.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Raising Purity for Singles

I've been pleasantly surprised at the extent to which my book, Raising Purity: Nurturing the Image of God in the Heart of Your Child, has resonated with singles. As the title suggests, it's marketed toward parents. But at it's core, the book is really a theological, biblical, and practical look at the issue of purity, so the application is pretty broad. I've used it as the primary text for a number of workshops I've done for single adults, and the response has been strongly positive. A few chapters discuss the ways in which our contemporary dating/courting practices have potential to bypass some of the assumed ethical norms of the New Testament understanding of purity, and I think these chapters in particular have struck a chord with single adults.

If you're single and you've read the book, I'd be interested in your feedback.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Postmodern or Hyper-modern?

"The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that's not postmodernism; that's modernism! That's just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can't prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist."

William Lane Craig, Christianity Today, July 2008

Good word, Mr. Craig.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Few Thoughts on Athanasius and Culpability

Athanasius frames the narrative of culpability in much the same manner as Paul does in Romans 2; God has given over humanity to its sinful desires, the result of which is a depraved soul that is now culpable before God precisely because it is depraved. Man was created in the image of God in order that he might know and dwell in union with the Godhead. Yet Adam’s rebellion introduced death into the world of men, the result being the steady yet inevitable destruction of the image of God within humanity. Like a flower that has been cut from its root, decay and corruption are the inevitable result of a life lived outside the orbit of God’s presence. Regarding the ontological corruption of sin, Athanasius writes, “For this cause, then, death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution.” And again, discussing the necessity of Christ’s intervention, he writes, “it were unseemly that creatures once made rational, and having partaken of the Word, should go to ruin, and turn again toward nonexistence by the way of corruption.” For Athanasius, the corruption of sin is the corruption of the image of God within humanity, and more precisely, the movement toward non-being.

This ontological unfitness—the result of having been severed from the immortal life of God—is precisely the thing that humanity most needs to be saved from. Athanasius’ comments regarding the futility of repentance make this plain. Repentance, Athanasius argues, is not sufficient for salvation, for repentance does not address the more fundamental problem of corruption. He writes,
Repentance [does not] call men back from what is their nature—it merely stays them from acts of sin. Now if there were merely a misdemeanor in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed?
Athanasius views the corruption of sin as a curse that, in turn, invites the ultimate curse. Apart from divine intervention, whereby the source of life is once again restored to humanity, eternal decay must necessarily be the inevitable outcome. Eternal judgment then, upon sinful humanity, is the complete giving over of sinners to the corruption of their sin—a final and irrevocable severing from the divine light. Thus for the Athanasius, the ontological corruption due to sin is both the punishment upon humanity for Adam’s first act of disobedience, as well as the ground of culpability for his future posterity.

How then, is sinful man to be delivered? If for Athanasius culpability is grounded in ontological corruption, then it will not surprise us that his soteriology focuses on ontological renewal. For Athanasius, salvation is about the refashioning of the image of God within humanity through the believer’s participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Athanasius’ doctrine of atonement has a strong participationist element. The sinner participates in Christ’s death and resurrection in such a way that Christ’s death and resurrection becomes his own. This dying and rising with Christ is not merely positional/representative, but through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the benefits of Christ’s dying and rising are communicated to the Christian in such a way that the believer can truly be said to have died and risen (and will rise) with Christ.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Subordination, Christology and the Gender Debates

I recently gave a lecture at my church on the complementarian/egalitarian debate. The debate is broad and multi-layered (exegetical, theological, practical, historical) and I only had a little over an hour to speak, so I focused primarily on the typological relationship between gender and the image of God. A major text in this debate is 1 Corinthians 11:3, where Paul notes a parallel relationship between God and Christ, and the relationship between the husband/man and the wife/woman; just as God is the “head” of Christ, so too the man is the “head” of the woman (the parallel is there irrespective of what one concludes about the meaning of the Greek word kephale).

Generally, complementarians believe that Scripture teaches (in this verse and elsewhere) a kind of functional (not ontological) subordination of Christ to God. While the Father and the Son are equal in essence (pertaining to ontology), the Son voluntarily submits his will to that of the Father (i.e., the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father). This functional subordination between Father and Son is then seen as the anti-type of the functional (not ontological) subordination of the wife to her husband. Or to state it again, the voluntary submission of the wife to the husband is seen as an expression/image/type of the intra-Trinitarian relationships. Of course, the whole complementarian position in this regard hangs on the idea that Christ is indeed functionally subordinate to God. Egalitarians (naturally) don’t agree, and have accused complementarians of espousing a neo-Arian Christology. Consequently, both sides have sought to recruit the church fathers to their side. Did the church fathers recognize a functional subordination between the members of the Godhead (Christ to God, and the Holy Spirit to both God and Christ)? Or is any form of subordination beyond the pale of Trinitarian orthodoxy?

It seemed to me that a profitable way of determining the Church father’s position on this subject (beyond reading the secondary literature) was to examine the ways in which the fathers handled the key texts of the current debate, most notably 1 Corinthians 11:3, John 14:6, 1 Corinthians 15:28-29, and the various passages which speak about the Father sending the Son. Key to this whole discussion is the extent to which the Son as God submits to the Father. Everyone agrees that the Son voluntarily subordinated himself to the Father during his brief sojourn on earth. But egalitarians insists that this subordination was a mere thirty-three year ordeal, and that upon Christ’s ascension he returned to “equal footing” with the Father, so to speak. What do the fathers say? I read the Trinitarian writings of Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory of Nanzianus, and Gregory of Nyssa—arguably the four most important early Church fathers regarding Trinitarian theology. Generally speaking, here’s how they handled the passages noted above. . .

When the Scriptures speak of Christ submitting to the Father, we should understand this to be a submission of Christ’s humanity. Gregory of Nazianzus writes:
What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that nature in him which is superior to suffering and incorporeal: but all that is lowly to the composite condition of him whofor your sakes made himself of no reputation and was incarnate—yes, for it is no worse thing to say—was made man, and afterwards was also exalted (Theological Orations, 18).
And Augustine writes,
But because, on account of the incarnation of the Word of God for the working out of our salvation, that the man Christ Jesus might be the Mediator between God and men, many things are so said in the sacred books as to signify, or even most expressly declare, the Father to be greater that the son.
This is their general interpretive rule of thumb for handling the texts that seem to suggest a subordination of the Son to the Father. The Son does not submit to the Father as the divine Son per se, but rather submits to the Father as the incarnate God-man—the theanthropos. This is seen pretty clearly in the way the fathers handle 1 Corinthians 15:28-29. In this passage, Paul states that Christ will subject himself to God in order that God may be all in all (the time frame of this passage is clearly eschatological). Augustine interprets this to mean that Christ as theanthropos submits his himself as anthropos—and thus all of humanity with him—to God the Father (of whom the Son as theos is an equal). Further, in as much as the incarnation is an eternal reality, a perpetual inequality of nature (indeed ontology!) is present in the relationship between God and Christ. While the Son remains ontologically equal to the Father in his divinity (he is eternally God of very God, begotten not made, etc.), the Son as theanthropos—in as much as he is now also fully human—is at the same time ontologically inferior to the Father and thus in proper subjection to the Father. In short, the Son is ontologically equal to God in his divine nature, and ontologically inferior to God in his human nature. Which is to say that the Son is both equal to, and less then, himself!

At first pass, this reading of the fathers may seem to support the egalitarian position. The Son doesn’t submit to the Father as the divine Son, but only as man. But hold on. The egalitarian position depends on a finite incarnation—it doesn’t deal with the fact that the incarnation is not a mere thirty-three year sojourn. Christ remains eternally theanthropos. Thus even is if the Son as Son does not subordinate himself to the Father, the Son as theanthropos does voluntarily submit himself to the Father—and eternally so. The Son is now and forever theanthropos, and thus in some fashion he is in perpetual subjection to the Father. The egalitarian logic would require that somehow the resurrection of the Son renders the Son’s finite human nature of equal ontology to that of his infinite divine nature. But such is impossible; the created can never ascend to the uncreated.

So the complementarian typology holds. But in as much as it wants to be in harmony with the fathers, it needs to be adjusted slightly. Rather than the man/woman relationship serving as a reflection of the eternal Father/Son relationship, it is perhaps more proper to speak of said relationship serving as a reflection of the God/Christ relationship—specifically of God the Father being the head of Christ as theanthropos. The logic could run thus: God, foreseeing the necessity of the incarnation, ordained the physical and cultural disparity between the man and the woman to be a reflection of Christ’s (as theanthropos) inequality with God as such. The man/woman relationship is a reflection of the relationship between God the father and his incarnate Son. In this way, the beauty of unconditional trust and love that exists perpetually within the Trinitarian relationship is expressed perpetually within humanity. Pragmatically speaking, the end result is still the same—submission and authority are viewed as everlasting elements of the Godhead, and as beautiful aspects of creation—and the complementarian typology is more adequately grounded in the fathers.

It should be pointed out that the fathers were battling against Arianism, and thus were very hesitant to in any way suggest that Son was subordinate to the Father. One wonders if they would have been more favorable to complementarian logic under less polemical circumstances. One can get this sense in that in at least two areas the fathers affirm at least some form of subordination (if that’s even the proper word) between Christ and God. In the first instance, God the Father sends God the Son as Son, not as theanthropos. It was fitting, Augustine says, that the Father would send the Son and not the Son send the Father. (This gets pretty convoluted in Augustine, and frankly, I’m not sure I follow his logic.) Augustine also seems to be working from the logic that the greater sends the lesser. Additionally, the fathers interpret John 14:6 as a reference to the Father’s generation of the Son as Son. The Father is “greater” than the Son in as much as the Father generates the Son and not vice versa.

Trinitarian theology is not my specialty, and I have no desire to be innovative. I may need to adjust the way I’m stating things, so if you see anything amiss, please speak up.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

More on Calvin, Augustine, and the Via Moderna

Or to say what I said below in another way...Augustine, Biel and Calvin all agree that ontological renewal is necessary, but all have different ways of getting there.

For Augustine, God observes our need and offers us a participation in Christ, resulting in a reverse incarnation. He became as us so that we could become as him. This is justification for Augustine.

For Biel, God observes our need and establishes an agreement wherein if we do all that is within us to perform a true act of love toward God, he will grant us the grace of ontological renewal. This is justification for Biel (Pelagian, to be sure).

But for Calvin, God's justice stands in the way of him granting the grace of ontological renewal outright. God must first be propitiated in relation to his justice. God sends Christ to pay the just penalty for our sins, removing the legal barrier between God's justice and God's desire to be gracious. This is justification for Calvin.

Calvin's doctrine of justification adds a layer to his soteriology not present in Augustine and Biel. For Augustine and Biel, there is no need for God to be propitiated prior to his offering us the grace of ontological renewal. God's justice does not stand in the way of his mercy. But for Calvin, God's desire to be gracious and his ability to be gracious are at odds. Thus Christ's death is necessary in Calvin's system in ways not seen in Augustine and Biel. Herein lies a major difference in their respective soteriologies, and consequently their respective doctrines of justification.

I agree with Calvin that Christ's death was necessary. And I agree with Augustine that justification is primarily about ontological renewal. And I agree with Biel that God is not bound by human standards of justice. And I think that Athanasius charts a course wherein all three of these can be brought together.

Calvin, Augustine, and the Via Moderna

I've been thinking through Calvin's doctrine of justification in preparation for this symposium. Things are beginning to take shape. It is helpful, I think, to explore Calvin's doctrine of justification against the backdrop of the via moderna. For the theologians of the via moderna, the divine justice does not bind God in his relation to humanity. God simply grants the blessing of ontological renewal to whomever he chooses sans the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. God is so ontologically other in relation to humanity that strict justice cannot obtain. God is not bound by anyone or anything--neither sin nor righteousness requires him to respond in a fixed way. Theoretically, God could send a saint to hell and a sinner to heaven. Thus, in a very real sense, atonement is not necessary for the conceptual framework of the via moderna.

But Calvin rejects the medieval distinction between the "two powers" of God. For Calvin, God's nature is such that he is bound to honor that which is honorable and to condemn that which is condemnable. Man has sinned; justice must be served. This puts a gracious God in a bit of fix. He desires to be gracious, but it would not be fitting for God to grant the grace of ontological renewal to sinners. So how can God be both gracious and just? Enter the cross of Christ. Christ suffers the just consequences of our rebellion as our substitute and legal representative; justice is served. Now the way has been opened for God to grant us the grace of ontological renewal. Thus for Calvin, justification is not about how to become ontologically renewed, but about clearing the way for such renewal. Thus his doctrine of justification is focused on forgiveness of sins and legal status.

In many ways, it seems that Augustine anticipates the medieval distinction between the two powers of God. Like Ockham and Biel, Augustine's soteriology does not seem to require an atoning sacrifice as a prerequisite for God to act graciously toward us (he says something to this effect in his Enchridion, though I don't have the book in front of me). For Augustine, we are sick (ontologically corrupt) and in need of medicine (the divine life of Christ); nothing stands in the way of God freely offering us the needed remedy. Augustine's doctrine of justification skips right past legal categories and directly to ontological categories.

I'm of the mind that Augustine and the via moderna have it right when it comes to comes to God's utter transcendence. But unlike Calvin, neither Augustine nor the via moderna have a proper appreciation of the need for atonement. Is there a way to embrace the "two powers of God" distinction and yet have a robust atonement theology that makes ample use of Christ's death and resurrection? Yes there is, and I'll write more about that later.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Faith as a "Means" of Salvation (or not) in Wright

Wright is concerned that faith not be viewed as a means of “getting in” to the covenant. He writes, “Faith…is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into the God’s family or for staying there once in” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 160). For Wright, justification—the divine declaration regarding who is “in” the covenant—is not based upon works of the law, but rather upon faith. Faith, while indeed the “badge” of true covenant membership, is not the means of entering into the covenant; it is simply the sign that one is already in. Wright’s logic here regarding faith as a sign parallels that of Reformed thought regarding works. For the Reformed tradition, works are not the means of “getting right with God,” but are a sign that one is already right with God. Wright adopts the same logic, but applies it to faith.

One might wonder why Wright is so insistent that faith not be viewed as a means of appropriating the blessings of the covenant. I think the answer to this question lies in the parallel relationship between faith and works. The manner in which faith function in Paul's system, is parallel to the way in which "works of the Law" function in the system of Paul's opponents. Paul’s position that "justification is by faith" is in direct opposition to his interlocutors insistence that "justification is by works of the law." If Paul views faith as a means of getting into the covenant, then it naturally follows that Paul’s opponents viewed “works of the Law” as a means of getting into the covenant. And if the latter is true, this very much suggests that Paul was battling against some form of proto-Pelagiansim. Even if--as Dunn insists--"works of the Law" refers primarily to ceremonial works such as kosher laws and circumcision, it is easy to see how such a system would lead to legalism, if not outright Pelagianism.

For my part, it seems fairly evident that Paul views faith as a means of appropriating the blessings of God’s promise. Even granting Wright’s definition of justification (which I don’t), Paul’s wider soteriological language clearly links faith to salvation in an instrumental way (Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 10:10-14, Galatians 3:14, etc.). Faith is not merely a “sign” that accompanies one who is already saved, but is in fact the necessary precondition for one to be saved.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Justice for the Children

On Wednesday afternoon I sat down with Craig Steiner, our Student Ministries Pastor, as well as a couple of ladies from the community who are acutely aware of what parents—Christian and non—are up against in the public school system. While I’ve had a general awareness of some of the issues, I had not realized the extent of the difficulty facing those families who embrace a basically Judeo-Christian moral ethic. I graduated high school in ’93. Frankly, I never felt particularly challenged by an anti-Christian worldview. (About the closest it came was having to watch “The Freshman” in fourth year English. I survived.) But things have changed quite a bit since then, even in the school I graduated from—not only in terms of exposure to graphic content, but also in agenda.

One of the issues raised in the meeting was the persistent advocacy of a pro-homosexual orientation within the school system. Increasingly, homosexuality is portrayed as normative; viewpoints that take issue with this are characterized as bigoted. This is not a new reality. Yet the lengths to which some schools are willing to go in order to drive home this nail are astounding.

Take Deerfield High School, for example—a public school in the Chicago suburbs. DHS was recently immersed in a controversy regarding one of the books on its required reading list for AP English. The title in question—Angles in America—is a play that explores the issues of homosexuality, God, morality, etc. I don’t have much more to say about it than to link to a document which contains lines from the play. Be forewarned: the document contains explicit and graphic sexual content. If you struggle with same sex-desire, my pastoral advice is to refrain from viewing the document. To view the document, click here.

As you might imagine, parents complained and a letter was sent to the principal. The principal's response? “Angles in America is an honored piece of American theater and literature, having received numerous awards and accolades… etc., etc. If you wish to file a formal challenge to the inclusion of the book, please refer to the document accompanying….etc., etc.” A formal challenge was filed, but ultimately the school board won and the book stayed on the reading list.

Here's a few other quick bullet points regarding the homosexual agenda (some related to public education, others not):
An elementary school out east annually hosts a “Gay and Lesbian Pride Day” to help their students understand and affirm the gay lifestyle. This is not simply “gay awareness;” by the teachers’ own admission, this is an explicit and open attempt to indoctrinate children in a pro-gay agenda.

A doctor works with parents who want to change the sex of their young children, some as young as seven.

An Anglican Bishop was ordered by a court to undergo "equal opportunities training" and pay a fine of £47,345.00, the equivalent of $92,106.00 Cn., for refusing to hire an active homosexual for a position of trust with young people.

A Canadian pastor was found guilty of hate speech for sending a letter to the editor in which he protested the homosexual agenda in the schools.
So what does all of this mean for the church? Should we get out our picket signs and put on our angry eyebrows? What is the Christian response to this sort of thing? As Christians of a democracy we find ourselves in a unique place of tension. I’ve written about that before, so I won’t take the time to restate it except to say that we must constantly find the balance between our civic and ecclesial responsibilities. The two are connected, yet remain distinct. It is un-Christian of us to approach this issue sans love; the homosexual community is an object of God’s redemptive affection. I’d rather the church be known for her love, than for her anger.

Yet just as it is un-Christian of us to turn a blind eye toward poverty, racism and the AIDS crisis, it is also un-Christian of us to turn a blind eye to the homosexual agenda. Homosexuality is a fundamentally destructive lifestyle. We do a great injustice to our country’s children—whether Christian or not—when we tacitly endorse through our silence the homosexual agenda in the public schools. When we adopt a “live and let live” mentality toward homosexuality, we are not acting in love toward homosexuals or toward the children being influenced by their agenda. A heartfelt love for justice, and the well-being of homosexuals themselves should be the driving concern in our social and political engagement.

The way in which our church will get involved in this issue is unclear at this point. I don't enjoy conflict, and quite frankly, don't readily get excited about engaging in social issues. Yet both Craig and I came away with a strong sense that our church needs to be proactive here. We'll see where God leads.

One other thought… our country is raising a generation of children that are implicitly—at times explicitly—learning to view the Christian perspective regarding homosexuality as bigoted and oppressive. It is quite likely that we in the States will follow Europe, Great Britain, and Canada in their illegalization of anti-gay speech. The implications for preaching are obvious. It’s hard to guess how long this process will take. Twenty-five years? Less? Bible colleges will loose their accreditation. Churches will loose their tax-exempt status. And pastors committed to teaching God’s truth will be fined/arrested. This is very likely the world of our future. The church needs to begin to think now about how it will navigate those waters. Are we preparing our children well enough for such stormy seas? Are we preparing ourselves well enough?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wright and Calvin Again

In a comment to my previous post, Matt correctly pointed out that it’s insufficient to simply compare Wright’s and Calvin’s view of justification, in as much as they don’t mean the same thing by the term dikaioo. Part of the point of my last post was to assert that maybe they are substantively closer than many think, but Matt’s point is legitimate nonetheless, particularly as it relates to initial and final justification. I think a lot of the confusion regarding Wright is a failure to fully embrace the fact that he is using the term dikaioo differently. I fell into this a bit myself in the last post, and in reading Piper’s critique of Wright, I think he falls into it as well (not terribly, but occasionally). The same confusion arises when Reformed critics take Wright to task over his understanding of the term “gospel.” (I’m particularly sensitive to this sort of category mistake, because I think it happens frequently when Reformed thinkers appropriate Augustine’s doctrine of justification.) When trying to compare and contrast Wright and the Reformed paradigm I wonder if it wouldn’t be more productive to drop the terms “justification” and “gospel” altogether, and instead utilize neutral terms that gets to the substance of what each theologian means. So here goes.

When it comes to substance (not semantics), there are four questions that every soteriological system must address: 1) What is the ultimate ground of our initial acceptance before God, 2) What is the proper human response for appropriating this acceptance, 3) What is the basis of our final acceptance before God, and 4) What is the proper human response for securing this final acceptance. I’m better on Calvin than Wright, but here’s how I think they both would answer these questions.

1)What is the ultimate ground of our initial acceptance before God?

For Wright, the ground of our initial acceptance seems to be the atoning work of Christ—his death and resurrection. Wright’s covenantal focuses gives his view of the atonement a unique twist, but basically he affirms penal substitution. Christ died in our place—the curse is poured out on him and thus the way is cleared for all to participate in the blessings of the covenant (or something like that). He doesn’t affirm double imputation as understood by later Reformed theologians, but he does maintain that through Christ’s atoning work the believer has a righteous status before God.

For Calvin, the ground of our initial acceptance is the cross-work of Christ and the imputation of a righteous status based upon this cross-work. (Calvin does not really affirm the imputation of Christ’s legal obedience as understood by later Reformed theologians). From what I can tell, Wright and Calvin are pretty much in-line regarding the ground of acceptance—the cross work of Christ, and maybe even the imputation (perhaps not Wright’s word of choice) of a righteous status.

2)What is the proper human response for appropriating this initial acceptance—i.e., what must a person do to “get in,” as it were?
Here’s where I think Wright gets a bit murky. From what I’ve been able to piece together, Wright doesn’t seem to think that any human response at all is required for “getting in.” For Wright the royal proclamation of Christ’s death, resurrection and Lordship (what Wright means by “gospel”) is itself the means by which a person “gets in.” This royal proclamation contains within itself the power to “save” those who hear it. He writes, “The message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection…is announced to them; through this means God works by his Spirit upon their hearts; as a result, they come to believe the message; they join the Christian community through baptism, and begin to share in its common life…” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 116). And again, “The [announcement of Christ’s death, resurrection and Lordship] carries its own power to save people, and to dethrone the idols to which they have been bound….[this announcement] itself creates the Church (151).”

But for me, the question still remains as to what human response is required to move a person from outside to inside. One might be tempted to think Wright views “faith”—specifically faith in the royal proclamation—as the necessary human response for appropriating the blessings of the covenant, but not so. Wright is pretty clear that faith is not a means of “getting in.” He writes, “Faith…is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into the God’s family or for staying there once in” (160). For Wright, faith is not a means of “getting in” but rather is evidence that one is already in. So is there any response needed from the human side that is necessary for getting into God’s family? I haven’t yet found it in Wright. Wright’s articulation here seems radically monergistic—as though the royal proclamation is a magic dust that gets sprinkled over people and “poof!”—they are part of the people of God. There is an irony here, because Wright is often accused by Reformed theologians of opening the door to semi-Pelagianism. But given the above, I just can’t see it. If anything, I don’t think Wright gives enough attention to the human response. If anyone has a better understanding of Wright and can provide more clarity here, I would appreciate it.

For his part, Calvin is pretty clear that faith is the necessary human response for securing the blessings of salvation—i.e., “getting in.” So this seems like a pretty major difference between the Calvin and Wright, but one that, if anything, makes Wright more of a monergist than Calvin.

3)What is the ultimate ground of our final acceptance before God? (i.e., On what basis are we allowed in the Kingdom of Heaven at the resurrection?)
From what I can gather, both Calvin and Wright would argue that the basis of our final acceptance at the resurrection is the same as the basis of our initial acceptance at our conversion. Calvin does not distinguish between initial and final acceptance. The acceptance granted by God initially is the same acceptance whereby the believer is accepted by God at the judgment. If I read Wright correctly, he takes the same basic position. This will become clearer below.

4)What is the necessary human response for appropriating this final acceptance? (i.e., what must we do to get eternal life?)
Wright definitely believes that a life of good works is a necessary fruit of all who are true members of God’s family, just as faith is a necessary fruit of all who are true members of God family. But Wright wouldn’t suggest that works somehow “earn” or “secure” one’s possession of eternal life at the final judgment. Just as faith is not a means of “getting in,” in an initial sense, so too works are not a means of “getting in” an ultimate sense. Both faith and works are the fruit of being in, not the cause. Pointing out that Wright affirms a final justification by works misses the point. For Wright, justification is not about getting in, but about declaring who is in fact already in. Wright is comfortable talking about Spirit-wrought works "vindicating" the believer at the judgment see here. But the reason good works are are a source of vindication as such is because such works show that one is "in Christ." If I read Wright correctly, we are “in” at the final judgment because the royal proclamation has had its way with us. The result of this royal proclamation in us is a life of faith and good works. At the judgment, God publicly declares who is in fact already in, in part on the basis of the good works wrought by the effect of the “royal proclamation.” But the final judgment for Wright is not about works “getting us in” but about God declaring who is already in.

In this sense, I don’t think Wright is all that different than Calvin. For both Wright and Calvin, works don’t “earn” or “acquire” eternal life, but are rather the necessary fruit of all who are true members of God’s family—the membership badges, as Wright calls them. If anything, Calvin's discussion of judgment and works could be construed in slightly synergistic terms. Calvin is comfortable talking about eternal life as a “reward” given to works, but only in as much as one is already grafted into Christ.

If I’m reading Wright correctly, I don’t think substantively that he is all that different than Calvin when it comes to their basic soteriological framework. Semantically yes, but substantively no. But Wright definitely parts company with later Reformed theologians in as much as he rejects the Reformed notion of double imputation.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Continuity between Wright and Calvin

I just finished reading Tom Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said. Here’s a few thoughts regarding continuity between Wright and Calvin, and between Wright and Reformed soteriology:

Both Wright and Calvin agree that justification is a forensic pronouncement, not an executive act whereby God makes us ontologically righteous. Both Wright and Calvin agree that the “righteousness” of justification is a “status,” metaphorically comparable to the status a judge gives a defendant in a law court when the judge has decided in the defendant’s favor (Calvin does not articulate a doctrine of double imputation in the way later Reformed theologians do).

Here’s an additional point of continuity that I think is overlooked by both Wright and Reformed theologians: Wright works hard to distance himself from a view of justification (in his mind, the Reformation view) that makes it a doctrine of “how to get right with God.” Justification, Wright argues, is not about how to get right with God, but about who is already right with God; it is the divine pronouncement that so and so is in right standing with God. For Wright, this means justification is about ecclesiology—who is in the covenant; not about soteriology—how to get into the covenant. He hasn’t sold me on the ecclesiology/soteriology thing (see here), but at any rate, Wright’s view really isn’t all that different than how justification functions within Reformed thought.

For Calvin and the Reformed tradition, the declaration of justification is based upon the prior imputation of legal righteousness. God declares us righteous (i.e. justifies us) because we are in fact already legally righteous through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness via our union with Christ. Both Wright and the Reformed tradition agree that justification itself does not make anybody right with God, but rather is the declaration that one is already right with God based upon some prior reality. Thus the doctrine of justification proper within the Reformed tradition, as with Wright, is a doctrine that declares who is in right standing, not a doctrine that creates right standing. Technically, in Reformed thought, it is the doctrine of imputation—not justification—that makes one right with God. Many theologians (both Reformed and non) unhelpfully conflate imputation and justification, and this is probably the reason why Wright sees his position as so different than the Reformed paradigm. I suppose Reformed theologians could make the same ecclesiology/soteriology distinction, following Wright’s logic.

There are, of course, substantive differences between the Wright and the Reformed tradition, particularly relating to the ground of justification. For Calvin, God’s declaration in justification is based upon Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the forgiveness/non-imputation of sins (later Reformed theologians add the positive imputation of Christ’s legal obedience). Good works play no role in justification. But for Wright, God’s declaration is based upon Christ’s atoning work on the cross, the forgiveness/non-imputation of sins, and the whole life lived. Wright is comfortable importing a bit of merit theology into his doctrine of justification (though I’m not sure he’d use that term). For Wright, justification is the “in-breaking” of the final, eschatological pronouncement, which is in part, based upon the way we’ve lived. God declares now, in the present, based on faith, what he will declare of us in the future, based upon the whole life lived.

And of course Calvin thinks Paul is battling against proto-Pelagianism and Wright does not. And Wright’s understanding of justification is much more covenantally and eschatologically focused than Calvin’s. But when it comes to the forensic, declarative nature of justification, Wright and Calvin aren’t all that different.

Justification: Ecclesiology or Soteriology?

Wright works hard to distance himself from a view of justification (in his mind, the Reformation view) that makes it a doctrine of “how to get right with God.” Justification, Wright argues, is not about how to get right with God, but about who is already right with God—it is the divine pronouncement that so and so is in right standing with God. For Wright, this means justification is about ecclesiology—who is in the covenant; not about soteriology—how to get into the covenant.

Even granting Wright’s view of justification, I’m not certain his attempt to remove the doctrine of justification from soteriology really works. Ecclesiology cannot be so neatly divided from soteriology. When it comes to the doctrine of justification--even as Wright has defined it--ecclesiology is soteriology. A doctrine which defines the boundaries of the covenant, demarcating whose in and whose out, sounds pretty soteriological to me—particularly when one’s final salvation is directly related to being “in” the covenant.

The question of “who will be vindicated at/by the final resurrection” is fundamentally soteriological, with subsequent ecclesial implications, rather than fundamentally ecclesial with subsequent soteriological implications. It would seem to me that a discussion of justification framed in this way still provides plenty of soil for proto-Pelagianism to grow and flourish, despite Wright’s insistence to the contrary.

Monday, April 07, 2008

From Ontology to Status: The Effect of the Via Moderna on Calvin's Doctrine of Justification

It is worth noting the influence of William Ockham and the via moderna in setting the stage for Calvin’s articulation of justification—most notably the medieval distinction between the “two powers” of God. The theologians of the via moderna made full use of the medieval distinction between the potentia dei absoluta and the potentia dei ordinate, God’s “absolute” and “ordained” power, respectively. The potentia dei absoluta referred to God’s utter freedom in choosing whatever he desired (bound only by his own nature and the law of non-contradiction). The potentia dei absoluta was emphasized in an attempt to protect God’s free grace in justification. God need not have made the world, chosen to redeem it once it fell, or indeed, have done anything that actually occurred in human history. God is not bound by human justice, and there is nothing within humanity—even the perfect humanity of Christ—that can of necessity compel God to act graciously. Within the framework of the potentia dei absoluta, God is not bound to honor any created thing. His complete otherness, his utter transcendence, makes it impossible for any created thing to lay claim on him.

The capriciousness of God de potentia absoluta was countered by the potentia dei ordinate—that which God had chosen to actualize in human history. God, in his grace, had freely chosen to provide humanity with a way of salvation via a pactum, a graciously appointed covenant. In as much as the pactum was established by God and ratified with an oath, God—who cannot lie—was bound to honor it. Within the framework of this pactum, God freely agreed to grant the grace of justification to the one who “does all that is within him”—facere quod en se est—to love God with a pure act of love. (Notably this act of pure love could be performed quite apart from any divine enablement or infusion of grace. Augustine, of course, would have been horrified). Once one has done all that was within him, he received the divine acceptation—his deed was accepted by God as meeting the pre-established demands of the pactum—and was subsequently granted the grace of justification. Thus the focal point of justification in the via moderna moved away from ontology to status. The question was no longer, “How do I become ontologically righteous?” (per Augustine) but rather, “How do I secure the divine acceptation? (per Ockham).

Calvin does not speak in the language of the medieval synthesis; he deplores the medieval distinction between the “two powers” of God, and undoubtedly would have preferred Ockham turn his razor on himself. I’ll leave it to the specialists in medieval theology to charter a more direct path between Calvin and the via moderna, but it is apparent that Calvin’s employment of forensic language and its subsequent emphasis on legal status fits neatly within the framework already established by the via moderna. Calvin’s doctrine of justification, like the via moderna, is concerned with acceptance—for Calvin, specifically legal acceptance.

Recognizing the shift from ontology to status goes a long way towards explaining why Calvin and Augustine have substantive differences in their respective doctrines of justification, yet utilize similar semantics. Though both Augustine and Calvin affirmed the formula “justification by grace through faith apart from works,” they did not use the expression with the same meaning. Augustine saw justification as identical to spiritual regeneration; to be justified was to be born again—to be made ontologically righteous. Calvin however, was interested in justification as it related to legal acceptance; to be justified was to be made legally righteous.

Adding to the difficulty in distinguishing between Calvin and Augustine, is the eschatological focus of justification within their respective systems. For Augustine, justification—being born again—is not primarily about how to merit eternal life, but rather about how to become ontologically righteous. For Augustine, the righteousness secured in justification enables one to merit eternal life through subsequent good deeds. Consequently, Augustine’s merit theology adds a dimension to his thought that is absent in Calvin. Calvin, for his part, views justification itself (i.e., free acceptance) as the doctrine that addresses the question of eternal life. For Calvin, to be justified ultimately means to be made fit for eternal life. Calvin asks more from his doctrine of justification than does Augustine.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Prime Time America Interview

I just finished up an interview with Greg Wheatley of Prime Time America regarding my book Raising Purity. It was a great opportunity to talk briefly about the book. If you follow the PTA link above, you can listen to the interview. It starts at 30 minutes in.

Those interested in ordering a copy of the book can do so here.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

All Male Persons are Masculine, But not all Masculine Persons are Males (Or, God is not Male, but He is Masculine)

The obvious counter to my previous post would be that while Jesus and Paul are biologically male, thus making it inappropriate to refer to them with gender-neutral pronouns, God is spiritual and thus transcends biological categories. I agree that God transcends biological categories. But to state that God is biologically asexual is not the same as stating that God is gender-neutral. The feminist has wrongly conflated sexuality and gender, and therefore concluded that since God is not biologically male (which is granted by all) he must therefore not be masculine.

But what is masculinity and femininity? Is it strictly biological? Or does gender transcend biology? C. S. Lewis helpfully argues that while the terms “male” and “female” refer to biology, “masculine” and “feminine” are relational terms and can only be understood as such; one is only masculine in relation to another. Thus masculinity as a concept equates to dominance and autonomy, while femininity equates to deference and dependence. In other words, the masculine person is masculine precisely because he occupies a position of greater autonomy and power in relation to another. In as much as we—mere creatures—occupy a position of dependence in relation to God, it is appropriate for us to view him and speak of him in masculine categories.

But is it correct to equate masculinity with power and autonomy? Indeed. The obvious appeal is to the natural world. With a few exceptions, the males of a given species are more physically dominant than the females. In many instances, particularly in mammals, the female of a species is in large measure dependent upon the male for protection, both from other species, and from males of the same species. This has been no less true for humans throughout much of our history. Nor should it be lost on us that this disparity of power between males and females is the way God designed it (and for good reason). So creation itself teaches us to equate masculinity/maleness with power and autonomy and our natural tendency to do so is perfectly understandable. (It is worth stating here, however, that creation does not teach us how to use power and autonomy--for that we look to Christ.)

It is not without consequence therefore, that God, when wishing to convey who he is in relation to his creation referrers to himself using primarily male language and imagery. God is neither male nor female. But he is masculine, and has taken pains to reveal himself as such.