Archive for the ‘Ecclesiology’ Category

Munster Bible College


I am only just recovering from a fabulous trip to Cork, Ireland, last week. I had the real privilege of getting to teach for a second time at Munster Bible College; my first trip in January was to teach apologetics, this trip dealt with biblical spirituality. Munster Bible College (see video) is just a small and awesome part of what is going on among the Baptists in Co. Cork. Started this year the college is run by seven local Baptist churches whose pastors are part of a board of governors (if that is how they put it, not sure). The school now has about 30 students, most of them from the county, but a number from outside in places like Gorey and Thurles. These are students who, though they range in age and location, share one thing: a hunger to learn about scripture and theology. It has been a tremendous blessing to get to know and teach them.

The larger work that is happening is a result of the strong missions mindset among the Baptist Union and particularly Baptist Missions in the Republic. The Cork-Kerry Project is really a thing to behold. One of the highlights of my trip (of which there were many!) was getting to attend the annual joint Lord’s Day service of the key churches in the area. Some thirty years ago there were a handful of churches each with a handful of members. Cork Baptist Church, where MBC meets for classes, and which is one of the oldest Baptist churches in Ireland, began to grow and train pastors to go out and plant churches. These pastors plant churches that have the mindset to plant further churches. So of the seven main churches in places like Bandon, Carrigaline, Midleton, and Youghal, there are bible studies and mission churches all looking to constitute their own independent congregations when the time comes. This is seen in places like Passage West and Kinsale. The Cork-Kerry Project is vigorous in its church planting and it strikes me as not overly concerned with methods. These Christians just go out and do hardcore evangelism, start bible studies, and watch them grow into churches. I know there is more to it than that, but it really does seem that simple.

Now that the churches are multiplying, there is the great need to train new believers, laypeople, and future pastors. Hence why the college is so important. This, coupled with various conferences, is becoming the means whereby the churches are served with in-depth teaching on a large scale. Munster Bible College flies professors such as myself and others from Southern Seminary and Toronto Baptist Seminary (and one native Irishman!) to teach core courses in OT and NT, systematic theology, church history, apologetics, and spirituality. Excluding myself, the group makes up a world-class faculty of leading scholars.

Please pray for Munster Bible College, the Cork-Kerry Project, the growing churches, and for the pastors and Christians who are a part of it all. This movement of God’s Spirit in Ireland is quite breathtaking. They need prayer, they need resources, they need spiritual protection. I am so glad to play even a small part in this if only to witness this great revival—there is no other word for it. Praise God!

Creeds, Confessions, and Compromise

Paul Helm makes an important observation about the need to keep in mind the historical circumstances of the drafting of a creed or confession:

One of the things that the recently-published volumes on the work of the Westminster Assembly has brought home is the adventitious or accidental aspect of the Confession, the way it was composed, what was put in and what left out. (Chad Van Dixhoorn (ed.) The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, (OUP, 2012)). The finished product was influenced by the pressure of time, the opinion of the majority of divines who on a particular day happened to be attending a committee or sub-committee, parliamentary pressure to get a particular job done, interruptions, and no doubt the mood of the meetings. Together with the clashes of personalities, the hobby-horses, and so forth. Cold print cannot convey this. In such circumstances, in the messiness of human life, the articles that resulted, chapters in the Confession, were a series of compromises, clause by clause in some cases, and we must remember that. As the debate on one matter was brought to an end, and a majority were content with some particular wording, a minority or minorities were not content, or not as content. In the nature of things confessions and creeds are forms of compromise draftings that attract a majority on a particular day.

Question: What About John Tombes?

For my paedobaptist friends who would argue that a Baptist cannot be “Reformed” based on our view of baptism, I am interested to know your thoughts on John Tombes (c. 1603-1676), whom Michael Renihan called an “Anglican Antipaedobaptist.” Should we think of Tombes as part of the Reformed tradition? He was an Anglican, yet he did not practice infant baptism. I’m not trying to be cheeky. I know how I would answer the question. I genuinely want to know how you would.

For Tombes’ writings against paedobaptism, see the collection at PRDL.



Some tasty links for a hot week in June:

Alan Jacobs sticks it to some oversimplistic thinking by Wendell Berry

Doug Wilson weighs in on the CJ Mahaney controversy with some wise words

Josh Harris addresses the Mahaney controversy from the pulpit and makes a startling statement

The lads at the Calvinist International interview Allan Carlson on what a genuine pro-family third way politics might look like

Partial Review Of …And We Will Become A Happy Ending


This project has been sitting on my desk for a while, wagging its finger at me, demanding to know when it would be finished. But for quite some time, I have tried my best to ignore it, simply because I didn’t know how to complete it. And really, I’m not sure if I do.

Friends of mine, and formerly co-students at Tyndale University College, wrote a book (now, unfortunately, a while back) about the unique church plant they began in Sarnia, Ontario. I must say at this point that I have never been to this plant in person, though I’ve heard much about it through my friends and other channels. Whether this aids or harms me in my ability to helpfully discuss the book, I will leave those people who have both visited the church and read the book to decide.

One of the reasons I struggled with this review was that, in many ways, the book reflects real people, and not only that, but real people I know. It’s a book about a vision of a growing congregation for its own common life. Therefore, to be critical of the book may in some ways be a critical of real people. Yet, the reader can’t do much else, given the nature of the book.

Composed of various forms of art, quotations from writers from the fields of biblical studies, theology, philosophy, autobiography, and pop culture (if one can call that a field), the book works more like a cascade of thoughts and images than a carefully reasoned manifesto or proclamation.

And no doubt that was intentional. The community of The Story has taken various streams of postmodern philosophy and theology as helpful and correct, and the work they’ve produced here reflects that. We live in an age captivated by images and sounds engineered to produce certain types of feeling; this contrasts with past ages, like those around and after the Reformation, where a congregation might on some occasions stand to listen to a 5 hour sermon, or expect their preacher’s exposition to follow a logically structured outline. There is of course a structure to this book, and the author explains it in the introduction. But beyond that larger structure, the smaller parts are linked, it seems to me, more in the way people in a crowd are, than dominoes in a row. All of this to say, the book often is more aesthetically experienced than logically followed.

My assignment as a co-contributor to this blog was for the sections “Intro”, “Happy Ending”, and “Out of Order”. The latter two titles reflect a clever way of referring to the eschaton, and the eschaton as inaugurated in the visible communities of Christians. Because of the structure of the book, and perhaps also because I lacked the artistic perception to recognize deeper links within the material, my reflections on these chapters will be more thematic than systematic. Three themes jumped out at me as constant undercurrents: compassionate practice, uncertainty, and unconditional divine acceptance. I certainly am willing to receive correction at this point, but it seems to me the kind of vision the story holds out for itself is one where (a) deep questions can remain unanswered in community, where (b) the people of Christ focus significantly on helping to resolve the material problems of others, and where (c) followers of this vision are convinced of the universality of God’s love. The format of the book itself highlights, perhaps, a fourth value of the community: (d) creativity.

I would be misleading if I suggested I agreed with the vision at every point. Treating the last value first: I can’t say I have a problem with the use of artistic expression per se. And there are indeed many fine examples of artistic craft depicted in the book. Returning to the other three values in the order I listed them, I don’t have much problem with trying to establish economic and political justice both in the community of the church and in the wider commonwealth. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to abandon the traditional evangelical calling of seeking for the conversion of individuals so as to save them from the wrath of God. I also recognize the importance of allowing space for people to be uncertain and ask questions; yet, I have seen individuals and communities twist this intention for open space into a cover for changing the direction of a community. “Doubt” can really become a code-word for certainty that the old beliefs of the community are wrong. (This is not to say the Story suffers from this problem; but it is a danger their vision is open to when applied by any community.) I agree that God’s call goes out to all people, but for me this is consistent with a historic Reformed view of God’s sovereignty and providence, and with a non-universalistic eschatology.

(I am conscious as I look at the previous paragraph that I may sound exactly like the kind of thing the Story is trying to get away from. I’m not sure that that’s the case, but I could see an outsider looking at me that way. I’m responding to what is clearly a deeply personal and emotional expression by evaluating whether that experience is correct. Nevertheless, I don’t think I ultimately respect the content of this book if I treat it as merely art for art’s sake. The book really does make claims about reality, and so to treat it as it asks to be treated, I must engage with its ideas as well as its format.)

I don’t have much else to say about the book, except that I believe it’s an excellent living expression of the kind of faith that seems to attract many of the Millennial generation. That’s worth pondering, whether one thinks that means other churches ultimately ought to follow their lead, or not.

“Until We Rest In Thee”: The Eschatological Nature of New Covenant Rest

This is cross-posted from my old blog, RearViewMirror (whose URL WordPress nicely wrecked). I originally wrote this as a paper for my MDiv at Toronto Baptist Seminary, so I won’t vouch for style or the total drawing of all logical points (!). I’m basically posting it because I wanted to send the link to a friend. The point of the paper was to argue for the ongoing validity of the Sabbath for the Christian church looking at Hebrews 3 & 4.


The following paper seeks to address the question of rest found in Hebrews 3:7-4:11. The purpose for this evaluation is to understand rest as a present reality that anticipates eschatological fulfillment. The result of this evaluation will have ecclesiastical application for an understanding of Sabbath rest as an indicative and imperative for the church. This essay will first briefly outline the theme of this section in Hebrews as it relates to the topic. An explanation of rest as it fits the structure of the passage will follow accompanied by an application for the New Covenant community.


Hebrews 3:7-4:11
Pervading this passage, and the entirety of the epistle, is a theme of exhortation (3:8, 12; 4:1, 11; cf. 13:22). Positively believers are exhorted to enter rest by obedience (4:2, 11); negatively they are warned that lack of obedience will prohibit such entrance (3:18-19; 4:2). Wilderness-Israel’s disobedience is frequently pointed to as the prime example of failure to enter rest (3:7b-11; 15-19; 4:8).
Typologically the comparison between believers and wilderness-Israel is significant. The already/not yet condition of the church is characterized by Israel’s wandering subsequent to their release from Egypt and before entrance into Canaan; theirs was a “between the times” condition. Likewise, the church is comprised of “wanderers” who have been released from sin yet are on the verge of entering into final rest.[1] Richard Gaffin illustrates this well by referring to the church as “the new and final wilderness community.”[2]
Three examples are given to show that true rest had not been attained in the epoch before the advent of Christ. In the case of Moses, Israel did not enter into rest because of disobedience (3:16-19); their “bodies fell in the wilderness” and they did not physically enter the land (v. 17; cf. Num. 14:29). In the case of Joshua, Israel physically entered Canaan although they did not enter true rest. That Joshua had not given them true rest reveals it was yet to come (4:8). David, the final example chronologically speaking, confirms that Israel did not have rest, though his kingdom was established in the promised land (3:7b-11, 15; 4:3, 5 and 7). This does not negate the promise of God to give Israel rest. The land functioned as a type, not the ultimate reality; it foreshadowed the rest to come at both advents of Christ. [3]
Present Rest
That these three Old Testament figures did not provide true rest is significant. Upon reading this, a Jew might have asked, “If Moses, Joshua and David failed to give us rest, who can?” Of course, the answer is found in Christ whom Moses, David and Joshua typified.[4] They could not provide true rest, but the one whom they foreshadowed did.
Verses such as Matthew 11:28, where Jesus claims to provide rest to the weary and heavy-laden, can be cited as evidence of present rest. This is what Robert Murray M’Cheyne, in his sermon Entering Into Rest, called “the gospel rest of a believing soul.”[5] It is a state of being that is the result of the Christian ceasing from his labours to rest in Christ for salvation.
Subtly, Hebrews 3:7-4:11 is Christocentric, as indicated both by its location between Hebrews 3:1-6 and 4:14-5:11, as well as the indicative in 3:14. In 3:1-6, the writer focuses on Jesus as greater than Moses; in 4:14-5:11 Jesus is honoured as the Great High Priest. It is no accident that a discussion of rest is couched between these two great passages. The indicative in 3:14 states that believers currently share in Christ provided that they hold fast their original confidence that same confidence spoken of in 3:6. This is further indication that Christ is the final rest anticipated by Moses, Joshua and David.
As well, the opening of this section explains that believers can obtain true rest at present. In 3:7b-8a the writer quotes Psalm 95, written by David, who says, “today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.” The adverb “today” (semeron) points to the current opportunity for rest for the readers of Hebrews, it is the “already” in the “already/not yet” paradigm. Again Gaffin is helpful,

It refers to the time, any time, in which “good news,” “the
word of hearing” is being proclaimed (4:2), in which “the promise of entering
his rest remains” (4:1). It is the time of summons to faith and obedience, when,
correlatively, unbelief and apostasy are present and very real threats (3:12,
13, 15; 4:6-7).[6] 

The point here is to show that rest is a current possibility and requires faith in Christ to be obtained.
The Christ-centred nature of this passage, coupled with the already indicative of the “between the times” tension, reveals that true rest is presently to be found in Christ. Does this mean that the rest believers now have in Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of rest?[7] The answer, found distinctly in this passage, is negative. To quote Hebrews 4:9, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.”


Future Rest
As essential as it is that believers have current “gospel rest” in Christ, the here-and-now is not the only facet of rest. Thus far we have argued that rest has an “already” component that is found soteriologically in Christ. Correspondingly, there is a “not yet” component that is found eschatologically in the return of Christ — the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth (2 Pet. 3:13). Therefore, there is still an ultimate and final rest to be looked forward to.
This “eschatological Sabbath” is rooted in two future perspectives in Hebrews 3:7-4:11. The first is the phrase “my rest” (katapausin mou) that indicates that rest is potential and future (3:11, 18; 4:1, 3, 5).[8] The second is the unique word used for rest (sabbatismos) in 4:9 that indicates an ongoing form of celebration.
First, in Psalm 95:11, quoted in Hebrews 3:11; 4:3 and 5, God calls the land of Canaan “my rest.” John Murray struggles with this characterization, arguing that it can’t merely refer to the provision of rest by God. Rather, as Murray argues, it is called God’s rest because Canaan is patterned after God’s own resting at creation, “it partook of the character of God’s rest.”[9]
One of the arguments proffered by challengers of a New Covenant Sabbath-keeping is that the Sabbath is not a “creation ordinance.”[10] Meaning, that unlike marriage or labour, Sabbath resting was not instituted at creation.[11]They argue that the Sabbath institution first appeared when Moses delivered the Law at Sinai. Yet the author of Hebrews has drawn a connection between God’s rest at creation and the rest yet to be entered into by believers (Heb. 4:4, 6 and 9; cf. Gen. 2:2). The Genesis account of creation that finds its only quotation in the New Testament in this passage is both prescriptive and descriptive. It is the support for 4:6 that says, “it remains for some to enter it.” Gaffin argues, “as the writer sees it, the fulfillment of the church’s hope…represents nothing less than the fulfillment of the original purpose of God in creation.”[12] Commenting on the eschatological character of the Sabbath found in the Decalogue, Geerhardus Vos says,

Man is reminded in this way that life is not an aimless
existence, that a goal lies beyond. This was true before, and apart from,
redemption. The eschatological is an older strand in revelation than the

The fact that “my rest” is intrinsically linked to creation speaks of its eschatological nature.[14] The intended aim of Adam’s test in Eden was to usher in the new heavens and new earth. Because he disobeyed, the adverse course of human history played out as it did. The new heavens and the new earth are now looked forward to by Christians, and will be ushered in by the Second Adam. Therefore, when thinking of “my rest” as creation rest, Christians are also to think in terms of the new creation that is entirely forthcoming.
As Richard Gaffin explains, “‘My rest,’ as rest, stands in pointed contrast to the believer’s present circumstances.”[15] Christians do not have complete rest from sin and will not until they enter the new heavens and new earth.
Secondly, The word for rest that has been used in this section is katapausin(3:11, 18; 4:1, 3, 5, 10 and 11). Yet in 4:9 the word used for rest is sabbatismosthat can be defined as “Sabbath keeping”;[16] it is the only New Testament occurrence of this word. The sudden use of sabbatismos has deliberate authorial intent.[17] It may be that a nuance was missing from katapausin thatsabbatismos better expressed.[18] That nuance is likely the difference between a state of being and a form of action.[19] Lane argues that “it appears to have been coined from the cognate verb sabbatizein, ‘to observe/to celebrate the Sabbath.’” As well, its usage in subsequent ancient literature contains the notion of active observance.[20]
The use of sabbatismos points not only to the coming new creation, but also to the current practice of weekly Sabbath observance. But in what sense?


Eschatological Sign
The relationship between the current character of “my rest,” the appeal to creation and the ongoing nature of Sabbath-keeping points to a connection between Sabbath observance and the anticipated Sabbath of the new heavens and new earth.[21] Gaffin has called it “a sign of hope.”[22] Robert Martin explains it as a pledge or promise of the final rest that Christians are currently awaiting.[23] Functioning eschatologically, it is anticipatory of the second coming of Christ. “The weekly Sabbath is the promise, token, and foretaste of the consummated rest; it is also the earnest.”[24]
Throughout the course of redemptive history, beginning at creation, the Sabbath functioned as a weekly sign. As a remembrance, it looked back to creation and redemption from Egypt. But it was also forward looking, anticipating the coming Messiah. The church, in similar existence to wilderness-Israel, still has a Sabbath to keep in anticipation of the rest that they await.
It is curious that the writer to the Hebrews does not mention the abrogation of the Sabbath if it had in fact been abrogated. Sabbath abrogation would deeply impact his argument that rest is eschatological. If Sabbath observance were no longer necessary under the New Covenant, it would be necessary for the author to provide a redemptive-historical reason for this. Rather, the Sabbath functioning as an eschatological sign fits nicely into the flow of the writer’s argument that links the Sabbath to creation and the new creation.
The great North African church father Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “O, Lord, thou has made us, and our spirits are restless until we rest in thee.” This is true regarding both the already and the not yet of Sabbath rest. As Christ is true rest, the tumult of a sinful soul will remain until the burden of sin is set before him. Yet, as Christians who are resting in Christ, there is still the destination of their sojourn to arrive at, like wilderness-Israel before Canaan. Until that great Day when Christ returns, final rest will not be found.
As a sign of both the rest currently possessed in Christ and the rest still looked forward to at his coming, the Christian has the weekly, one in seven Sabbath. However it may be celebrated, may it be done with Christ as the focus so that he might receive all the glory. Amen.

[1] Richard B. Gaffin Jr, “A Sabbath Rest Still Awaits the People of God,” in eds. Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, Pressing Toward The Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church(Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 37-39. William Lane explains that the church, like Israel, experiences “the tensions of an interim existence between redemption and rest, between promise and fulfillment,” in William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, WBC 47a (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 89.
[2] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Westminster and the Sabbath” in ed. Ligon Duncan,The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2004), 133.
[3] Philip Hughes argued, “[t]his land…was a visible and tangible token which, like a sacrament, pointed beyond itself to a far more wonderful reality…the eternal rest of God himself,” in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1990), 143.
[4] Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 104.
[5] Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Sermons on Hebrews ed. Michael D. McMullen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004), 20.
[6] Gaffin, “Sabbath Rest,” 38; cf., his “Westminster and the Sabbath,” 133.
[7] Various critics of the so-called “Christian Sabbath” argue persuasively for the “already” indicative, yet fail to do justice to the “not yet.” For instance, see Andrew T. Lincoln, “Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament,” in ed. D.A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 177-201. Also, Tom Wells and Fred C. Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense (Frederick, Maryland: New Covenant Media, 2002), 232-233.
[8] Gaffin, “Sabbath Rest,” 38. See also his “Westminster and the Sabbath”, 133.
[9] John Murray, “The Pattern of the Lord’s Day,” in Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 223. Fred Zaspel agrees, “This is in every sense God’s rest (Ps. 95:11), his delighted rest in his finished work. The creation narrative climaxes in God’s contentment,” in Zaspel and Wells, New Covenant Theology, 212.
[10] For an argument in favour of the Sabbath as a “creation ordinance,” see John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), 30-35.
[11] Zaspel and Wells, New Covenant Theology, 214 n. 292.
[12] Gaffin, “Westminster and the Sabbath,” 136.
[13] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 156-157.
[14] Lane observes, “[o]ver the course of time a distinctly eschatological concept of rest developed…An eschatological understanding of ‘my rest’ in Ps 95:11 is presupposed in v 1 and is fundamental to the exhortation to diligence to enter God’s rest in 4:1-11,” in Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 98.
[15] Gaffin, “Sabbath Rest,” 38.
[16] Robert P. Martin, “A Sabbath Remains: The Place of Hebrews 4:9 in the New Testament’s Witness to the Lord’s Day,” in Reformed Baptist Theological Review (July 2004): 1.2, 5-6.
[17] Lincoln, “Sabbath, Rest and Eschatology,” 213.
[18] Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 101.
[19] Martin, “A Sabbath Remains,” 5-6.
[20] Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 101; see also Hughes, Commentary, 162 n. 67. See also Joseph A. Pipa, The Lord’s Day (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2001), 115.
[21] Gaffin, “Sabbath Rest,” 41.
[22] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “A Sign of Hope,” available from New Horizons 3, Internet; accessed 02/12/04.
[23] Martin, “A Sabbath Remains,” 8.
[24] Murray, “Pattern of the Lord’s Day,” 223. See also Gaffin, “Sign of Hope,” 3 (of printout) and his “Westminster and the Sabbath,” 137.

Fraternities And The Fabric Of Faithfulness

During my undergrad years at Tyndale University College, our very wise Dean of Students required us to read Steven Garber’s The Fabric of Faithfulness. The gratitude I felt towards the Dean for this has not abated since then.

Garber contends, in sum, that three factors stand out in differentiating those Christians who stay faithful from those who abandon the faith along the way. Firstly, the faithful ones found answers to objections to their faith. They were able to hold their faith together with reason, and with honesty regarding the facts.  Secondly, they found mentors or teachers in the faith, who were able to model for them what it meant to live out Christianity as a mature human being.  Thirdly, they found a community, or friends, with whom they could live out their faith in mutual support.

Garber easily convinced me. Challenges to one’s trust in Jesus inevitably come to all believers in this life. How can they withstand them, if they must suppress their own nagging consciousness of problems, or if they have no examples of others who have survived the storm, or if they have no friends on whom they can depend while they endure it? Garber’s points compel agreement to anyone possessing common sense, I believe.

And so I think if churches want to train their members to persevere, they need to craft their ministry to provide these three things.  The pastoral ministry could surely help with the first and second factors (education and example). But even then, they cannot be the sole providers of these.  Members have to be encouraged to become self-educating, and to become examples to each other. And then of course the congregation functions as community.

Yet, congregations should not shoulder this burden by themselves.  A real weakness lurks beneath the recent push among groups like Evangelicals, Emergents, Missionals, Postliberals, etc., to subsume every part of the mission underneath the visible and institutional church (that is, insofar as they do indeed succumb to this attitude; I am sure there are many counterexamples that do not).  It is a mistake to think everything Christians do must be done as an official ministry of local congregations, or networks of congregations in what we call denominations.  The Reformational emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, and on the importance of vocation in the non-ecclesiastical realm, remains salutary for us today.

So, are there other ways, beyond the ministries of the institutional church, that Christians could provide these three faithfulness-producing causes for themselves? Here’s one idea I have been mulling over. I think Western believers ought to really consider reviving fraternities.

Fraternities, or clubs like them, have been around for centuries. In the Greco-Roman world, they at times became so powerful politically that the state outlawed all clubs except those which clearly demonstrated their fealty to the Emperor. And anyone can understand why they became powerful.  Close-knit, likeminded groups devoted to a common cause can accomplish incredible things.  (Though I don’t know the history, I would guess this is one reason why freedom of association has been enshrined in the constitutions of many Western democracies, to provide a check against governmental power.) Scholars such as Niall Ferguson have also noted the incredible importance of institutions of civil society for the preservation of civilization (see, e.g., here).

Unfortunately, Christians, especially men, most likely cannot conceive of a Christian fraternity as having this kind of power. And who could blame them? The Western Protestant churches, if they do not appear to be at the end of their life-span, usually appear like they are at the beginning. That is, we tend to have two options: (1) near-dead mainlines, or (2) infantile evangelicals. Would a fraternity made up of members of such churches instantiate anything other than the same tropes? Unlikely.

Yet despite my Calvinism, I’m not a fatalist. I think fraternities could intentionally seek to be different than this.

I think a club structured around the following three purposes, if its members actively intended to put them into action, could accomplish great things.

  1. Worship/Piety: members should regularly pray together.
  2. Fellowship: members should gather together regularly, both for the sheer joy of it, and also to encourage one another to growth in virtue and knowledge
  3. Service: members should actively plan, and carry out plans, to do good for the wider community/society/city

Doing these three things out of a conviction regarding the truth about God and the world would take care of the “dead” problem seen in mainline churches. And one more proposal would take care of the “infantile” issue: official meetings and proceedings of these fraternities ought to be conducted with  a sense of reverence and seriousness, based on an understanding of the importance of the work they are carrying out. (Of course, this wouldn’t prohibit less serious meetings from occurring as well. But these should not be the only kind, and the more formal should be common enough to have an influence on the souls of the people involved.)

This is just an idea, but I don’t think it’s a bad one. I hope some day I get to put it into practice, but even if I never do, maybe someone else will (or already has).


Luther and Wright, Justification and Ecclesiology

Continuing the theme of my TCI post on NT Wright, I would like to address another question many raise regarding the bishop’s new perspective. That is: what does it imply about the application Luther made of Paul’s thought to his own day?

I want to make the case, briefly, that Wright’s view of Paul doesn’t change much vis-à-vis the Reformation issues.

Wright’s critics have charged him with relocating the doctrine of justification from soteriology to ecclesiology. There is one line in What Saint Paul Really Said that certainly gives this impression, but in later works he has clarified his point, and affirmed that what he really means to affirm is a both/and. Justification is about salvation, but also about church.

Many have not noticed, though, that Wright’s affirmation consists with the Reformers. They too affirmed that justification was both about soteriology and ecclesiology (not to mention politics!). As Brad Littlejohn puts it in his summary of Luther’s view of the two kingdoms:

It flows, in short, from the doctrine of justification, with Luther’s famous concept of simul justus et peccator, his conviction that the realm of appearances is very different from the realm of spiritual realities.  Christ reigns mysteriously and invisibly over the kingdom of conscience, and no human authority may dare to interpose itself as the mediator of this rule; it is by faith alone that we participate in this kingdom, so we must not be deceived into identifying it with external works or rituals.  Perhaps better than the terminology of the “two kingdoms” then, the zwei Reiche, is that of the “two governments,” zwei Regimente.  The spiritual government is that by which Christ rules inwardly in the conscience by his Word and Spirit, the realm of grace; the temporal government (weltliche Regimente) is that by which Christ governs all external human affairs by law, in which he works not directly and immediately, but through the larvae, “masks,” of earthly governors and institutions.  Only the elect experience the former; the latter they share in common with the unregenerate.

Luther’s doctrine of justification severed the absolute link between any human institution and divine rule.  This meant, of course, that no ecclesial authority could claim the power to ultimately determine who was saved or lost.  No bishop or Pope could set a divinely authoritative boundary around the community, and include or exclude at his whim. Rather, God alone determined the ultimate shape of his church, and he did this through his Word, received by faith.

As I noted in my previous post, Wright would agree with all of this. But, further, his explanation of Paul’s logic in, e.g., Galatians, requires Luther’s practical conclusion for the Roman Catholic Church of his own day.

Wright explains in What Saint Paul Really Said (p. 122):

When two people share Christian faith, says Paul, they can share table-fellowship, no matter what their ancestry. And all this is based four-square, of course, on the theology of the cross. ‘I am crucified with Christ,’ he writes, ‘nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me’ (2:19-20). The cross has obliterated the privileged distinction that Saul of Tarsus supposed himself to enjoy; the new life he has as Paul the apostle is a life defined, not by his old existence, but solely by the crucified and risen Messiah.

The bishop emphasizes that in Paul’s day a major point of the doctrine was to build a united Jew-Gentile church; but it is just as clear that the logic of Paul’s teaching opposes other possible divisions, beyond those of race. That is, if the unity of the church is based on the new life Christians receive through their initial faith, a life defined solely by the crucified and risen Messiah, then clearly it is impossible for a new human institution to come along and create new rules that will again divide that family.  God has created one badge of membership: faith.  To add to that badge, whether with the Jewish law or a new manmade one, is to offend against the same divine work.

I’m not the first person to notice that something like Wright’s perspective still causes problems for institutions such as the RCC in Luther’s day. Donald Garlington, in his book Studies in the New Perspective on Paul (pp. 14-15) speaks of the implications of his NPP, which is similar to Wright’s:

If I may build upon and extrapolate from Dunn’s remarks, the difference between my version of the NPP and Roman Catholicism revolves just around the relation of tradition to final judgment (justification) by works. If my perception is correct, then what is stake in the latter’s doctrine of judgment is not “good works” in the most generic terms, but a commitment to the Tridentine standards, including such articles of faith as papal infallibility, the mass, the sacraments, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and prayer to the saints. By contrast, the obedience of faith in Paul bypasses all forms of tradition, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, and focuses fidelity solely and exclusively on Christ. The latter- day justification of the people of God hinges on union with Christ and the observance of all things that he has commanded the church (Matt 28:20), and nothing other than that. In short, what is required for a favorable verdict in the last day is allegiance to Jesus and his law (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). It is in this regard that the Reformers made a right application of Paul’s denial that justification is not by “works of the law.” That is to say, if justification is not by Jewish tradition, then it is not by church tradition either.

My way of putting the matter would be: insofar as the Roman Church conceived itself as having the power to determine who belonged in the community of God’s people, and who did not, based on its laws and canons in addition to the faith God requires, it was reproducing precisely the Judaizing heresy, though now without any possible claim to Mosaic sanction.

Some NT Wright Posts

Yesterday and today, the good folks at The Calvinist International have hosted two posts by yours truly touching on NT Wright. The first on a point picked up by Peter Leithart in his book Against Christianity, and the second a more sustained argument that Wright is within the stream of the classical (magisterial) Protestant vision. Steven Wedgeworth has this evening posted something of a reply to my second entry. For those interested in the the good bishop and related topics (soteriology, justification, ecclesiology, politics, the NPP, etc.), take a gander.

Bruce Winter On 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

I want to engage briefly with an argument regarding 1 Cor 7:17-24 Bruce Winter has put forward in Seek the Welfare of the City. In that text, Paul commends Christians to remain in the calling (Winter argues this should be translated “class”) they were in when they were converted. He then applies this to several specific cases: (1) removing circumcision; (2) becoming circumcised; (3) being released from slavery; and (4) becoming a slave.

Winter’s suggests that general reason Paul opposed changing classes in these cases was that the motive behind doing so was to increase social status. This would imply Paul did not approve of desiring increased social status.

To add a bit more detail to his case (see chapter 8 of the book, “Social Mobility”, for the full case) In the case of removing circumcision, being circumcised was often looked down on by Gentiles, and thus removing all traces of Jewish ancestry could indeed help one to be upwardly mobile. On the matter of becoming circumcised, Winter argues (more specifically in regard to Galatians 6:12, but says it applies here as well) that Gentile Christians could be tempted to do this in order to attain the status of religio licita, which would obviously be an improvement for someone who could not worship the emperor but had no legal exemption from doing so (the precarious position of many Gentile Christians). On being released from slavery, Winter emphasizes that this was a concession, and that Paul also that Christian slaves should not be anxious about their status. On becoming a slave, Winter notes that some forms of slavery available in the Roman empire could actually lead to improvements in status for some free people. He also notes that becoming a slave normally included an act of implicit idolatry, swearing by the genius of the paterfamilias. (more…)