Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

The Calvinist International

My friends Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante have created a new web presence which I want to direct our readers to. I can’t really summarize the purpose of the site as well as Escalante himself has done here (do read it), except to say that it’s about fostering a kind of Calvinism that is learned and very much “in the real world”, intentionally avoiding escapist mentalities. In other words, it’s trying to bring back the old school.


(As a post-script, I want to note that I discussed the concept that the title of their site expresses, some time ago.)

Patrick’s Day

In honour of the day, I wanted to post an old essay I wrote about Saint Patrick’s confession, but I couldn’t find it. So, in lieu of that, here are some links relevant in some way to the day:

Patrick’s Confession — this is thought to be an authentic document written by Patrick. It is interesting how little has changed in terms of “church politics” since his day. I guess that just proves we’re all sinners after all. And his renowned trinitarianism shows through very clearly as well. There’s also a detectable typology throughout: he continually depicts himself as a new apostle Paul. An interesting read.

An assortment of legends about Saint Patrick — these are basically discounted by critical scholars. This is perhaps with good reason. I have not studied them closely. However, I would note that critical scholars often approach such stories with naturalistic assumptions. In recent days Craig Keener has published two massive volumes defending the historicity and reality of New Testament miracles, including providing many examples throughout history of testimony to miraculous events. Thus, as always, interested readers should keep their own critical faculties intact.

The biology behind getting drunk.

Shepherds we shall be… — just because (language warning).


The Consensus – An Interlude

There are a number of posts from my old blog, RearViewMirror, that I would like to keep in circulation, so I will repost them here. This is an interlude to the series I did on the Reformed history of interpreting Genesis 1. It’s quite an eye-opening series.

The last number of posts have dealt with the question of Charles Spurgeon’s old-earth theology, and how he doesn’t break with the Reformed mainstream by holding it, because there was no consensus among the Reformed on the issue. In fact, there has been no consensus on the issue of creation days at all in church history. I have one more post about this, that will account for the rise of young earth creationism in evangelical circles, but before I post it, I wanted to share a number of quotes by noteworthy Reformed and conservative evangelical theologians on this issue. You’ll notice that I include voices from past and present, and across disciplines–so you’ve got historians, biblical theologians (Old and New Testament), and systematicians. You also see the various views represented, like the framework, day age, day of unspecified duration, and analogical days view. It’s not exhaustive, there are a number of theologians who have written major works on this, that I’ve left out. I title this as a consensus, and do so facetiously for obvious reasons. Be warned, this post is very long!

So, here’s the list (I particularly recommend those by James Montgomery Boice, Ernest Kevan, Graeme Goldsworthy, Bob Godfrey, and R. C. Sproul):

T. Desmond Alexander (Union Theological Seminary, Belfast), from his “Introduction to Genesis” in the ESV Study Bible (pp. 43-44): “Faithful interpreters have offered arguments for taking the creation week of Genesis 1 as a regular week with ordinary days (the “calendar day” reading); or as a sequence of geological ages (the “day-age” reading); or as God’s “workdays,” analogous to a human workweek (the “analogical days” view); or as a literary device to portray the creation week as if it were a workweek, but without concern for temporal sequence (the “literary framework” view). Some have suggested that Genesis 1:2, “the earth was without form and void,” describes a condition that resulted from Satan’s primeval rebellion, which preceded the creation week (the “gap theory”). There have been other readings as well, but these five are the most common. None of these views requires denying that Genesis 1 is historical, so long as the discussion in the section on Genesis and History is kept in mind. Each of these readings can be squared with other biblical passages that reflect on creation.”

Oswald T. Allis (former founding OT professor of Westminster Seminary) from his God Spake By Moses (pp. 159): “We may well hesitate to assert that the days of Genesis i must be taken literally as days of twenty-four hours. But we should not hesitate to assert that infinite time and endless process are no adequate substitute for or explanation of that fiat creation by an omnipotent God of which this sublime chapter speaks so clearly and emphatically. It is equally true that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years” and that “a thousand years are as one day.”

Edgar Andrews, is Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London, apologist who debated Richard Dawkins, and author of Who Made God? published by Evangelical Press. This quote comes from an interview he did with Tim Challies after the book came out: “I really don’t like terms such as “young earth”, “old earth” and “Intelligent Design” (with ID in capitals!) because when you look more closely they are actually very ill-defined. I therefore don’t apply any of these labels to myself. My own non-negotiable position is that (1) the early chapters of Genesis are historical not mythological; they describe things that actually happened; and (2) the universe and all that it contains was created ex nihilo by God, who continues to sustain it. Beyond that I have my own theories (for example, that ‘Big Bang’ cosmology is consistent with a historical view of Genesis One) but respect the views of those who differ from me.”

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), important medieval theologian, indicates a “framework” pattern in his Summa Theologiae: “The first part, then, is distinguished on the first day, and adorned on the fourth, the middle part distinguished on the middle day, and adorned on the fifth, and the third part distinguished on the third day, and adorned on the sixth. (Q 74, Ar. 1).”


What Is Faith?

Some challenging words from John Piper:

Princeton’s Theological Commons

Princeton Theological Seminary has kindly made available a veritable Kuwaiti oil-field of online theological resources with their “Theological Commons.” Huzzah has become so cliche, but I’ll go with it anyway.

HT: Justin Taylor

John Piper And The Meaning Of Tornadoes

Here we go again:

“We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.”

With this affirmation of God’s sovereignty, John Piper launches into another round of attempting to explain disasters and why God would do/allow such things. This in turn reminds me of a quote I posted here a while ago:

“After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities. When God finally appears, he affirms Job’s position against the theological defenders of the faith.”

Piper, as well as some of critics who offer alternate explanations, is playing the role of the “theological friend” trying to find meaning in this cruel and seemingly random event. At least one observer points out that Piper is trying to offer completely contradictory reasons at the same time.

There’s a great temptation to go into all kinds of abstract discussion about why disasters befall us – especially in the YouTube age where we all have front row seats to every awful event. Is this type of thing profitable? Should we look at a massive impersonal event as divine punishment and/or testing when it chews up hundreds or thousands of lives in an indifferent fashion?

What happened when Jesus was asked questions along these lines? Asked about a blind man and whether he or his parents sinned, we all know Jesus said,

“[T]his happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.”

That’s all the “meaning” there is in disaster. If Job says suffering is meaningless, and Ecclesiastes says pretty much everything short of obeying God is meaningless, here Jesus ascribes meaning only in the sense that suffering is an opportunity to do good – i.e.: it has no meaning in the category that most people want it to have meaning (ethical behaviour of victim).

To John Piper’s credit, the end of his tornado post does have a link to a Christian relief organization and suggestion that readers could help out, the problem is that almost everything he wrote before that was superfluous.

What Is Anabaptism, Really?

Scot McKnight has an interesting post up today on what an Anabaptist is. He takes his definition from Harold Bender, who along with other figures like Ebehard Arnold, sparked what we might call today the truly neo-Anabaptist movement. I want to quickly discuss the three main aspects of the Anabaptist vision, to show what I think are some problems with using these as distinctive marks of Anabaptist churches.

Bender is famous for three features of the Anabaptist Vision:

1. The essence of Christianity, or the Christian life, is discipleship — a committed following of Christ in all areas of life. The word on the street in the 16th Century, and this word repeated often enough by bitter enemies of the Anabaptists, was that they were consistent and devout Christians. If Luther’s word was “faith,” the word for the Anabaptists was “follow.” The inner conversion was to lead to external transformation.

2. A new conception of the church as a brotherhood of fellowship. The ruling image of a church among the Catholics and Reformers was more national and institutional and sacramental, while the ruling image for the Anabaptists was fellowship or family. Joining was voluntary; the requirement was conversion; the commitment was to holy living and fellowship with one another. Thus, the Anabaptist separated from the “world” to form a society of the faithful. This view of the church led to economic availability and liability for one another.

3. A new ethic of love and peaceful nonresistance. Apart from rare exceptions like Balthasar Hubmaier and the nutcases around Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptists lived a life shaped by love and nonviolence. They refused to coerce anyone.

Thus, for Bender, the focus was on discipleship not sacraments or the inner enjoyment of justification. The church was not an institution or a place for Word-proclamation in emphasis but instead a brotherhood of love. In addition, against Catholics and Calvinists who believed in social reform, like the Lutherans the Anabaptists were less optimistic about social transformation. But, unlike the Lutherans who split life into the secular and sacred, the Anabaptists wanted a radical commitment that meant the creation of an alternative Christian society.

I’d like to juxtapose these summaries with some excerpts from Calvin’s commentaries, to suggest that, perhaps, these are not really distinctly Anabaptist sentiments. (more…)

On Being An Individual

In Christian circles, one could be forgiven for thinking, being an individual has fallen on hard times. Or at least, anything that might be stuck with the label “individualism” is seen as axiomatically negative.

For me, this is somewhat troubling. I am an introvert, and so appreciate times of solitude to be able to work through personal and theological issues, and just exist in God’s presence. Of course, I am also a social animal, and so need time with others. But I don’t think I would be lying if I said a substantial amount of my personality has been forged in decisions I have made alone, at a desk, reading a book. I don’t deny the massive influences that parents and friends (and other media) have had on me, and truthfully, reading books is just another way of communicating with people. But, nevertheless, I don’t think I would be wrong to say that much of my character has been formed in moments of solitude, either in prayer or in study.

There are many complaints that could be made about our present socio-cultural order, and perhaps it is true that it is afflicted by a negative kind of individualism. Certainly there is something of an epidemic of loneliness. And no doubt that has something to do with our political and economic order, which prizes what people are in themselves, what they can contribute as skilled individuals to the marketplace of trade, and not what their hereditary connections are, or who they spend their leisure time with. Nevertheless, I have a hard time thinking that this economic and political order, itself, is a negative thing. I am obviously laying my political cards on the table here, but that is where I stand at the moment.

It seems to me what our society (and the church, which is not really something totally separate from society) needs is not anti-individualism, but an individualism coram deo. What it needs are spiritual practices that allow people to strip away all their secondary layers before their Creator, and truly wrestle, in the light of the Word, with their weakness, their doubts, and their sins, and then through that struggle, bring something of value back to the world. What our culture does not need is more “community”, where community is a way to hide from our selves in the pleasantries of potlucks, board games, and church programs, or for those not Christian, in clubs, bars, and the types of activities that go on there.

These are not formalized or well-refined thoughts, and I offer them in the spirit of a suggestion, not a proclamation per se. I would be curious to hear what others think here.

The Christ Of “Commitment”

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante have an excellent essay placing the Reformed tradition’s teaching on Christology in the context of historical and contemporary debates, and along the way make some (in my opinion) insightful comments about the larger cultural forces at work in the contemporary issues especially. For example:

William Bartley, in his Retreat to Commitment, acutely analyzed the retreat from objective truth claims by mainstream Protestant theologians in the twentieth century, and their replacement by metaphorical “meaningfulness” and sincere “commitment.”14 This wasn’t simply an openly “liberal” move; a number of well-intentioned neo-orthodox went down this road too. By accepting a Kantian division between the objective, the world said to be only really knowable by scientism, and the subjective, the world of unverifiable values, these theologians would come to speak by preference of the “narrative” of the “faith community,” rather than the objective history of the acts of God and His elect people, and objective order of creation. This move makes the data of revelation “meaningful” (as opposed to objectively true)15 symbols of the faith community’s experience of the world. Modern academic theology mostly presumes this; hence, the constant attempts to make classical doctrine “relevant” or “meaningful” in every way other than the fundamental way in which it really is relevant. Notable examples are “social Trinitarianism” and certain modern neo-Patristic Christologies,16 which are used, in the place of reason, to symbolically solve social problems or epistemological anxieties, matters which properly belong to politics and philosophy, but which the new theologians think can only be resolved through new speculative syntheses.

Some Reformed theologians have even been a little swept up in this, dismissing the sacred rationality of their predecessors as “Enlightenment rationalism,” a move which is really Bulverism on the one hand, and old-fashioned (and postmodern!) irrationalism on the other, and using undefined terms from the new Christologies in equivocal or mystifying ways, which are privileged by an appeal to mystery or their supposed transcendence of logic and rhetoric when challenged, but then do in fact get used to mean and do some very unmysterious and specific things. And too often, we find in these supposed correctives no close engagement with the classic Reformed tradition, the tradition purportedly in need of being urgently“reformed” in the direction of neo-patristic systems.

They also place the modern in the context of ancient debates:

16. One wonders whether the liberal beginnings of some of the neo-patristic Lutheran theologians haven’t played a role in inclining them toward a metaphysical rather than Biblical-historical Christology, and toward the allegorizing exegesis of the Alexandrians, as opposed to the more rigorous Antiochene tradition, which reaches full flower in the historical-grammatical method of the Reformers. Much of this theologizing is an antiquarian and theosophically inclined imaginary supplement to scientism, justifying itself over against scientism as legitimate subjectivity- irreducible meaning, faith-knowledge looking to trump science because, as is certainly true, natural science isn’t enough. But the problem is in accepting the postmodernist retreat from objectivity, and from history, in the first place. The neo-patristic Christologies are not really historically patristic; the “neo” really makes a difference. What they do have in common with certain Alexandrian-minded ancients is the aversion to history; but they do not actually share the thought-world of those people, since the goal of the moderns is to get human life back. They are inevitably Antiochene, so to speak, in that way; the lost object they’re after is creation. But since they have surrendered it to scientism, all they can get back is the “discarded image,” but without the ancient supposition that the image corresponds to an order of things, and thus, the “discarded image” is retrieved unnaturally detached from an order of things (which perhaps accounts for the appeal of “theological aesthetics,” a la von Balthasar)And metaphysical Christology, and its corollary versions of ecclesiology, are put to work in the service of that project, as the palette of tropes with which the picture will be painted. Nonfalsifiable, as data of “faith”, they thus make for a privileged imaginal supplement to the world of scientism and modernity, a supplement which does not challenge scientism nor redefines modernity. Nonfalfisiable and hypermeaningful- “infallible but not inerrant,” one might even say. In any case, the flight from history is the retreat to commitment, to subjectivism.

Protestant Art And Literature

Continuing with our off-and-on discussion about Christianity and art, I felt like sharing some remarks Peter Escalante made in a private setting on the relation between Protestantism (and Catholicism) and art. When I asked him permission to post these thoughts, he added that he might like to be more nuanced in some places, but that he stands by what he wrote here. In that spirit I share them with you. Also, n.b.: I will add some links to help fill in the background for those who are not familiar with the concepts he mentions off-hand in the course of his discussion. I’d love to hear what some of our readers think of this perspective. I posted it partly because I’ve never heard this opinion, at least not stated so clearly, before.

There are certain blunders of mind which, like the quasi-supernatural serial killers of American slasher films, reappear just when you were sure they were dead for good.

The “Catholic aesthetic” question is a complicated one, but in short, the problem as posed here is founded on a mistake. Catholics do not produce better art- they do, however, commission religious art more than we do, and have more reason, when doing so, to stick to certain traditional lines when doing so.

But art is not exclusively or even primarily religious in the Catholic sense. Catholics like to think so, because such a view mirrors, in the poetic realm, the Catholic construction of a fantasy “supernatural” over and above the created order. Hence they would rather paint faux-angels or conjectural images of saints than landscapes. But the iconoclasm of Protestantism actually freed art. Having broken the “iconic”, the fake-representation of the non-representable or not-to-be-represented, liberated the God-given human instinct of mimetic poiesis to turn to the real, God-given theater of His glory: the creation. Thus, all modern “secular” art, from the Reformation on, is really Protestant art- though you have to be able to think in two-kingdoms to be able to see that.

Modern art, which departs from mimetic representation, is actually an attempt at a secular iconic: supposedly venerable or transfigurative representation of the non-representable.

In reply to the above comment, I asked this question: “I guess my question is: Mark Twain might have been a great American artist, but can we really say he produced Protestant art, being an explicit atheist? For example.”

Escalante replied:

Yes, because the personal disposition of the artist has little to do with the templates with which he works, and also, because one need not be a believer to rationally/imaginatively observe natural and social realities. But the frames and templates, the tools and habits he presupposes, are religious in origin. Twain, in fact, is Protestant art not only in the general way I just outlined, but even specifically- the tone of incisive critique is distinctively Protestant. … I’d go so far as to say that historically, *all* humorous critique of monastic or clerical folly was proto-Protestant, and moreover, that the RCC at the time of the Reformation thought just that- as Luther said to Erasmus: hey, if you weren’t so useful against me, they’d kill you first, Mr Humanist. There are some uncharacteristic 20th c semi-exceptions, but almost exclusively in the Anglophone world.