March 8, 2014
John Webster (St. Andrews) published The Domain of the Word a little over a year ago, and it has recently been released in paperback for the financially disadvantaged among us. It is the exciting culmination of Webster’s labor within the doctrine of Scripture, with prior installments including Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch and Word and Church.
Paul Dafydd Jones (Virginia) has written a review for the most recent issue of Modern Theology (30:1), and I thought it was worth posting here. Presumably I am not allowed to post the entire review, but here is a good size excerpt:
It is the virtue of studiousness, above all else, that The Domain of the Word seeks to commend. The cumulative effect of the assembled essays is akin to an instructional performance: a protracted attempt to remind scholars, and the church at large, that God provides a distinctive “space” in which scripture should be read and explored, and the rational capacities of the Christian can be put to work. This provision of space is, of course, an act of grace. To play on Webster’s own combination of figures: the Word’s domain is a divine address, spoken by the risen Christ and distributed by his Spirit, that activates and guides the response of those whom it locates and encloses; a temporal iteration of God’s own immensity, such that the historical body of Christ becomes a vocal witness to God’s creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive work. Negatively, the scholar qua exegete is hereby afforded the opportunity to move past an anti-theological naturalism that,Webster believes, frequently compromises the field of biblical studies. Positively, the scholar qua exegete is enabled to do what she should have been doing all along: offering a faithful response to the scriptural witness that honors God through the exercise of redeemed intelligence. Given the “unified saving action and presence of Word and Spirit, reason’s vocation is retrieved from the ruins: its sterile attempt at self-direction is set aside; its dynamism annexed to God’s self-manifesting presence; it regains its function in the ordered friendship between God and creatures” (p. 122).
The essays that comprise part one of this collection consider scripture’s role in the divine economy. Two treat of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, and give ample evidence of Webster’s renowned interpretative skills. The others are impressively programmatic. In “The domain of the Word,” Webster traces the shape of the Triune God’s self-communicative acts, identifying the canonical texts as discursive media that Christ commissions to speak on his behalf—the goal being a bibliology that integrates claims about providence, inspiration, and sanctification, and makes clear why and how scripture functions as “an instrument in the fellowship between the revelatory Word and its addressees” (p. 24). With “Resurrection and Scripture” and “Illumination,” Webster adds more detail. The Bible’s authoritative status is a function of it being the “creaturely auxiliary” (p. 38) that the risen Christ employs to make himself and his saving work known. Indeed, precisely because Christ is risen, all times and places are present to and for him, and all times and places are poised to receive the saving light that Christ communicates through the creaturely prism of scripture. The result, if God so wills, is the event of illumination: persons and communities who are corrected, re-formed, and “lit up” to enjoy ordered fellowship with God.
The essays in part two fall under the heading of “theological reason.” Generally, they show Webster’s longstanding interest in moral ontology—that is, an expansive account of the way that human beings can act, before God, in obedience and freedom— connecting with his more recent studies of scripture. In “Biblical reasoning,” Webster argues that exegesis succeeds insofar as it locates itself and scripture within God’s reconciling economy; in “Principles of systematic theology,” theological reflection is conceived as the reproduction of God’s antecedent self-knowing, mediated through God’s hallowing of creaturely media and sustained, despite the ongoing fact of sin, by God’s regenerative grace. In “Theology and the peace of the church” and “Regina artium: Theology and the humanities,” Webster develops his insights with reference to the church and modern university. In terms of the church,Webster insists that theological discourse make manifest the peace that God has established between sinners and himself. Precisely because “peace is the metaphysically basic and enduring condition of the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 159), theology should view conflict in general and intellectual dispute in particular as unseemly; only when there is a well-formed “passion for gospel truth” (p. 167) may controversy be joined. In terms of the university, Webster protests the tendency to construe theology as one more humanistic field of study. This amounts to a defection of reason—a perverse reluctance, on the part of Christian scholars, to inhabit and participate in the divine economy. Webster advances an alternative perspective by way of Bonaventure and Augustine: one that perceives “the encompassing context” (p. 191) of all intellectual labor, refuses an overdrawn distinction of “sacred” and “secular,” and affirms the theologian’s Spirit-led capacity to draw selectively on “the disarray of the arts of intelligence” (p. 190).
I have no hesitation in declaring The Domain of the Word an important, insightful, and often brilliant work. Of especial value is Webster’s willingness to articulate a consistently positive theological perspective—that is, his determination to promote a style of reflection that engages the complexities of a late modern context only occasionally, given the more urgent task of describing scripture’s role in the divine economy and, complementarily, providing an account of God’s invigoration of human intelligence. This does not mean that Webster’s ad hoc appraisals of the modern period as largely inimical to sound thinking about scripture and exegesis ought to go unquestioned. I myself favor a more mixed judgment—one that balances critique with an acclamation of the benefits that accompany an expansion of learning, democratic processes of inquiry, and a criticism of certain “traditional” mores. Yet the point still holds. Webster’s account of God’s gracious activity is such that one need not (and ought not) spend time bemoaning the temper of the times. One can simply get on with the more interesting business of doing theology.
“Doing theology”—but in conversation with whom? The Domain of the Word is particularly interesting on this front. Webster’s fascination with the work of Eberhard Jüngel, prominent in the early part of his career, is now in firmly in abeyance. His interest in Karl Barth continues, but is overarched by a strong commitment to “patristic and medieval authors and . . . their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology” (p. ix). What does this shift in conversation-partners portend? Webster’s critical asides about the modern condition notwithstanding, there is little point in framing an answer in terms of the binary of modernity = bad/pre-modernity = good. For once that is in play, sound judgments are hard to come by: sweeping historiographical claims bulk so large that dogmatic arguments easily become peripheral. More important here is Webster’s prefatory admission that an account of “God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life” (p. ix), developed in conversation with patristic, medieval, and scholastic authors, has become fundamental to his thinking. …
Jones continues with some modest criticisms/questions about whether the limitations of the finite and sinful creature are lost in Webster’s account, which would obviously be a question hailing from the biblical studies crowd as well. As you can see, it is an excellent review. I especially like his recognition of Webster’s current dialog partners in the church’s history. A fine example of his scholastic ressourcement can be found in his “Trinity and Creation” article from IJST 12:1 (Jan 2010), which pertains in part to the proper ordering of Trinity and incarnation, a heated debate in systematics for over a decade now.
You can also read Ashish Varma’s review of Domain from the Wheaton bloggers.
February 27, 2014
Not that I had plans to actually see the new ‘Son of God’ film, but I was curious to know what some of the initial reviews were. So far, they are mostly negative. My favorite is Kyle Smith’s review from the New York Post, with some nice doses of humor:
I’m pretty much without sin, so gimme some rocks: “Son of God” envisions a J.C. that’s strictly J.V. It’s a film inspired less by the Bible than by a somewhat lesser guide to Christian precepts: “Jesus for Dummies.”
A repurposed segment of last year’s History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” the film stars Diogo Morgado, a Portuguese actor billed as “the first Latin Jesus.” He makes for a sunny, can-do Portuguesus wandering the land with a miracles-on-demand service available to anyone who walks up to him. He seems oddly, disturbingly in love with himself as he dazzles the Israelites with his fluorescent, Brad Pitt smile.
It trivializes Christian thought to reduce the parables to one-liners and the miracles to magic tricks, but the film was made with the entirely unsurprising input of Joel Osteen, the charlatan self-help guru who has advised his followers that prayer can help you snag a good parking space.
“Son of God” is guilty of all the sins of the 1950s Bible epics, but without any of the majesty. The supporting characters lack depth, and the actors are blocky and silly, lugging around those half-British accents that supposedly indicate seriousness. The special effects aren’t good enough for the big screen — Jerusalem looks like it was created out of Legos — and the overbearing soundtrack turns what ought to be quietly transcendent moments into corn syrup. The Last Supper? Doesn’t need a lot of embellishment. It’s a profound moment. So why bury it under the rubble left by orchestral bombardment?
You can read the rest here. With Joel Osteen as a consultant, then that is about all I need to know! I have some old school Reformed friends who refuse to watch any Jesus movies — as all pictorial representations of Jesus are prohibited in the older Reformed theology — and this movie appears to justify their qualms!
February 25, 2014
Blogging will probably be minimal for the next month or so, because of other commitments. I did happen to read through a short biography of D. L. Moody, the influential preacher in 19th century Chicago. Here is an account of Moody, after hearing a sermon series from a young, untested evangelist from England:
[Moody speaking to his wife:] How do the people like him?
“They like him very much.”
Did you hear him?
Did you like him?
“Yes, very much. He has preached two sermons from John 3:16; and I think you will like him, although he preaches a little different from what you do.”
How is that?
“Well, he tells sinners God loves them.”
Well, said I, he is wrong.
She said: “I think you will agree with him when you hear him, because he backs up everything he says with the Word of God. You think if a man doesn’t preach as you do, he is wrong.”
I went down that night to church, and I noticed everyone brought his Bible. …
He preached a most extraordinary sermon from that verse. He did not divide the text into “secondly” and “thirdly” and “fourthly” — he just took it as a whole, and then went through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to prove that in all ages God loved the world; that He sent prophets and patriarchs and holy men to warn them, and last of all sent His Son. After they murdered Him, He sent the Holy Ghost.
I never knew up to that time that God loves us so much. This heart of mine began to thaw out, and I could not keep back the tears. It was like news from a far country. I just drank it in. …
I used to preach that God was behind the sinner with a double-edged sword, ready to hew him down. I have got done with that. I preach now that God is behind the sinner with love and he is running away from the God of love.
[The Life of D. L. Moody, pp. 66-68]
So, there you have it. Moody the proto-Barthian! Of course, other Christians have proclaimed the same truth. Unfortunately, I would say that most Christians today believe that personal faith is the hinge upon which God’s love turns (against Romans 5:8). Also, I appreciate the “far country” language, which Barth uses repeatedly in CD IV.1 (wherein our world is the far country into which the Son enters).
As for Moody’s trenchant Arminianism (which even caused the ire of Darby, an otherwise terrible theologian), I will ignore for now.
February 11, 2014
Jason Wallace (Samford University) has written a nice historical overview of the “worldview” concept within evangelical Christianity, which sparked some of my thoughts in this post:
His thesis is that “its usage presents interesting challenges for those who find older Protestant expressions of Christianity more appealing than either theological liberalism or evangelicalism. Specifically, worldview theology promotes the careless, and repeated, evangelical and liberal Protestant pattern of replacing confessions and ecclesiastical office with political and cultural ideology.” And the theological move that legitimated this shift:
Where earlier Protestantism struggled primarily, but not exclusively, with sin and redemption as an ontological category, that is, as a question of human nature and being, the new Calvinism focused more on sin and redemption as an epistemological problem, that is, a question of right and wrong kinds of knowing.
Wallace will further signal that he is comfortable with the older orthodoxy’s use of natural law, as the antidote to worldview Idealism. While I will disagree with the integrity of natural law for our theology (especially when an entire anthropology is constructed without reference to Christ), there is an undeniable advantage to the older natural law tradition versus the worldview apologetics of today. The older orthodoxy at least knew its limits. Nature has an intelligibility that can be discovered and theorized upon without the epistemological need for dubious “trinitarian” foundations (Van Til) or a “regenerate” mind. Even if a Christian knows that this intelligibility is because Christ is “through whom and for whom all things were made” (Col 1.16), this does not somehow enshroud nature as such, making it intelligible only to the pure of heart.
So, the older orthodoxy could respect the insights and learning of those pursuing knowledge other than theology. Thus, these theologians were not compelled to transpose this secular knowledge onto their dogmatic grid, in order to make it “coherent” upon the right “presuppositions.” They would find that rather odd. As do I.
Interestingly, even a “Barthian” like myself (albeit a decisively non-existential, non-apocalyptic Barthian) and the older dogmatics have a common foe today: worldview!
Christianity did indeed challenge the presuppositions about nature that handicapped its investigation within pagan societies. If nature participates in the eternal divine (gradations), then nature is something to be overcome spiritually. Nature is demythologized by the church, especially as the creation does not emerge from God but from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Thus, nature could come into its own, so to speak, as anticipated by Aristotle et al. Yet, the church did not arrogate to itself a privileged epistemology for the study of nature (minus the Galileo affair). Somehow that never occurred to them as a methodological axiom, until our worldview apologists of today have fixed all of that! Or not. The church’s insight into this truth (about nature) did not create this truth, as if the metaphysics depended upon the epistemology. More to the point, the metaphysical “preconditions” of nature are not the same for God’s self-revelation, which is to say that rocks and God are not the same. The latter is being-in-event and personal.
There is an obvious attraction to worldview thinking. It has the allure of comprehensive explanatory power (in all fields of knowledge!), while only doing the basic work of knowing your theological ABC’s and some apologetic maneuvers. Apparently, that is irresistible to whole swaths of our evangelical landscape. As a Protestant who is in agreement with most evangelical emphases, I find this rather disconcerting. But apologetics will come and go, while the glory of the Lord endures forever!
Image: Richard Hooker statue at Exeter Cathedral. Hooker could write about “redeemed reason” without the implications of Idealist philosophy.
February 7, 2014
This is rich:
The central issue last night was really not the age of the earth or the claims of modern science. The question was not really about the ark or sediment layers or fossils. It was about the central worldview clash of our times, and of any time: the clash between the worldview of the self-declared “reasonable man” and the worldview of the sinner saved by grace.
This is Mohler’s standard line, as I have discussed previously. Nature lies to us. Even the objective field of investigation is distorted, somehow connected to the Flood. But Mohler does not normally spend his energy here. More decisively for him, we cannot trust our sense experience because we are fallen, prone to distort any and every evidence, so that we can use it to subvert the Word of God. Everything is reduced to epistemology — namely, one’s presuppositions about where truth is found. Mohler, the tireless combatant of all things modern and postmodern, is actually a committed disciple of the subjective turn in philosophy, from the 17th century onward.
This actually makes Mohler a more extreme, and more insidious, proponent of Creationism than even Ken Ham. You see, Ham truly believes that the science is in his favor. That’s the main thrust, aside from the moralism, of Answers in Genesis, his ministry. By contrast, Mohler is truly indifferent to what science — including “creation science” — has to say. It does not matter. He’ll support AiG, of course, and the fake science it produces, but he really doesn’t care. The whole debate, not just this week’s Nye/Ham debate, is all about epistemology. This is the “worldview culprit.”
What this means is that evolutionists are not humble enough or Christian enough to recognize their fallen condition and, thereby, their utter dependence upon grace alone and God’s Word alone. If an evolutionist insists upon his fieldwork and peer-tested models, he has supplanted the Word of God for his own autonomous “word.”
Mohler is the truly humble Christian, unwilling to let any other authority assert itself. Mohler is humble enough to recognize his sin and distorted vision. Evolutionists are not.
That, my friends, is Mohler in a nutshell. It should make you angry.
February 5, 2014
Against my better judgment, I decided to watch part of the Nye/Ham debate last night. For the uninitiated, Ken Ham is an influential leader within the Young Earth Creationism (YEC) movement, for decades now, wherein science and history are selectively determined according to one’s prior commitments, not the objectivities of nature itself. It is eerily similar to traditional Mormon apologetics and historiography. Bill Nye is the beloved “Science Guy” from our childhood, teaching untold numbers of kids about the excitement and adventure of exploring our world. He is not a religious man, but he manages to uphold the intelligibility of creation better than his YEC adversaries.
There are many folks who opposed the debate for the simple reason that it gives legitimacy to YEC. There is some truth in that. YEC does not care about science and has no impact whatsoever upon scientific dialog today, so why treat it as a legitimate dialog partner? The answer must be practical — purely practical. If we ignore it, the insularity that fosters these cultic manipulative strategies, and credibility from within, will go unabated. This is not to say that Nye actually changed many YEC minds, but every little bit helps. (I surely speak for many other evangelical students on this.) I have some, perhaps small, hope that last night’s debate may have actually opened, however little, the door for some evangelicals — especially college students — who are struggling mightily for their faith, in an unnecessary struggle wherein cultural idols have merged with the gospel.
From the bit I observed of the debate, I was pleasantly surprised by Nye’s cogency and demeanor. YEC apologists have deftly honed their “skills” over decades of mastering misdirection and red herrings, so I was not sure if Nye would be prepared. If Tyler Francke’s review of the debate is accurate, as I have no reason to doubt, then Nye was prepared and handled himself well throughout the debate. This is a win for sense experience! I am not a Thomist, but we all need a little Aristotle.
Tyler’s description of Ham is a nice summary: “His presentation was childish and moralistic….” Ham’s success has little, if anything, to do with his “science.” Rather, he appeals to the moral and cultural values of his audience, manipulating their emotions in the process.
Image: “Einstein” by Rob Gonsalves
December 30, 2013
I am half-way through Terrance Tiessen’s 500-page tome, Who Can Be Saved? (IVP Academic, 2004). I was waiting to write a short review about it, until after completing it, but Kevin DeYoung published a post this morning defending exclusivism. This is the belief that a conscious, explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Those who were unfortunate enough to live before the reach of missionary expansion, the millions who have never heard the gospel, are out of luck. For a strict, old-school Calvinist, this is sometimes defended as evidence of their reprobation. Not kidding. Unless the unevangelized person receives a miraculous vision or communication of some sort, they are damned for eternity.
Given that this is such a momentous claim, I want more than just an inference from some proof texts, which are invariably directed at those who are confronted with the gospel (as in Jn 14.6, DeYoung’s proof text, or in Rom 10.14-21, the locus classicus). We need some rather explicit scriptural instruction. And if Tiessen’s work has demonstrated anything, this explicit scriptural teaching is far from forthcoming. A closer look at the biblical attestations about salvation are actually rather varied, and even exclusivists admit as much when they consider the Old Testament saints, both before the Abrahamic covenant and thereafter, and the righteous among the other nations.
Tiessen argues for a new taxonomy, beyond the standard categories of (1) exclusivist, (2) inclusivist, and (3) pluralist. Depending upon the theologian, inclusivism can be articulated as affirming other religions, viewed as God-ordained instruments in awakening the unevangelized to faith, even if Christianity is privileged (contra pluralism) as the only complete manifestation of God’s revelation. Other inclusivists would reject this approach, including Tiessen himself. So he argues instead for “accessibilism” — all persons in all times and all places have access to sufficient revelation, through which the Holy Spirit can utilize to quicken the hearts of man. I won’t give Tiessen’s manifold approach to defending this thesis — you will have to read the book.
Tiessen is himself a Calvinist, and he dedicates a whole chapter to defending monergism, which is a straightforward account of particular election and efficient grace that would make Sproul or Packer proud. (I really don’t have a problem with this, despite my Barthian leanings.) This has some strategic advantage, because the most zealous defenders of exclusivism today are among the “new Calvinists” such as Mohler, Piper, DeYoung, et al., though it is certainly widely held among other evangelicals. The revision of the Southern Baptist Faith & Message, in 2000, added the line, “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” This was directed, of course, at inclusivism of any sort.
My only quibble with Tiessen’s book is how it is organized. It follows a question-based format for each chapter: Who needs to be saved? Whom is God trying to save? To whom does God reveal himself? By what standard are people judged? Why should we send missionaries? and so forth. This gives the book the feel of an apologetics handbook, whereas I would much prefer a more linear progression through the appropriate dogmatic loci. As a result of Tiessen’s approach, you will find yourself needing to jump forward and backward for further elucidation of, say, certain biblical passages. However, this is a minor complaint on my part, and I am sure that many others will appreciate the question-based format.
This is an easy-to-read book, directed at a fairly broad audience of evangelicals. Technical terms are kept to a minimum or thoroughly defined (e.g., monergism), so it is a good book to recommend to your Christian friends who are struggling (as we should) with this question.
November 22, 2013
Union Presbyterian Seminary has recently published several audio lectures and sermons from John Leith, professor of theology at Richmond for three decades and a fine interpreter of the Reformed tradition. He loved the Reformed tradition in all of its breadth, whether Calvin or the Westminster Assembly or Karl Barth. The lectures can be found at the Foundation for Reformed Theology.
A good place to begin is his lecture at Columbia Theological Seminary’s Alumni Forum: “The Reformed Perspective,” from 1978. You can stream or download (right click).
As for books, his Introduction to the Reformed Tradition is still the best all-around introduction, serviceable to a broad audience. Your next stop should be his Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making.
November 20, 2013
I cannot adequately express how much I loved Mark Noll’s response to John Piper in the following video (HT: Justin Taylor). Piper is challenging Noll’s claim that Young Earth Creationism is “suicidal.” Piper affirms that the “two books” — Bible and nature — are in perfect harmony when interpreted in ways that are proper to their own respective spheres (“coming and seeing” in each case). Yet, he is not sure how that principle excludes Young Earth Creationism today! Umm, yeah. I have transcribed Noll’s response (beginning at the 47-minute mark):
I think that Young Earth is suicidal because the “coming and seeing” that has led the scientific establishment — to believe in an old universe for example — has not been quick, has not been for many people aimed in any way at taking away from the goodness and glory of God, has been reaffirmed by people in many cultures, through many experiments, through many different varieties of coming and seeing.
Now, there is a factor of reliance upon testimony, which has actually been written of quite well in the history of science. If you ask me to explain why looking at what physicists do or what molecular biologists do can justify talking about a long earth, I can’t do it. But I’ve talked to people who have trained, disciplined their seeing, checked their seeing by many other people, believers and nonbelievers, and shown why following what they have seen need not be destructive to Christian faith. They are persuasive to me.
On the opposite side, I have read, and have been reading since I was 9 years old, Creation Science literature which does almost none of those things. It’s very few people seeing. It’s not disciplined seeing. It’s not well-trained seeing. It’s not careful construction of what has been seen.
He then notes the difficulty of the question of human origins, exhorting theologians and pastors to take the matter seriously. Here is the video:
This is the Q&A that followed a lecture presentation by Noll. I commend Piper for recognizing, earlier in the Q&A, that his ministry has neglected the wider world of knowledge, failing to encourage students to pursue these fields of scientific research. He recognizes his culpability in this respect. Yet, he fails to recognize that it is precisely his highly restrictive view of biblical inerrancy — cloaked in pious expressions about “magnifying” God with a “high view” of the Bible — which is the problem. As such, it is not at all surprising that Piper and his followers are myopically focused on biblical exposition, with little care or interest in other intellectual pursuits. Piper’s view of nature study is dreamy and romantic.
November 17, 2013
Glad to know that I am not the only one to notice the strange, trendy phenomenon of using “love on” instead of, simply, “love.” Here is Addie Zierman in the Post:
Love on (e.g. “As youth group leaders, we’re just here to love on those kids.”)
In addition to sounding just plain creepy, this phrase also has troubling implications. We may understand that we need help, but we certainly don’t want to be anyone’s project or ministry.
It may just be semantics, but being loved on feels very different than being simply loved. The former connotes a sudden flash of contrived kindness; the latter is simpler…but deeper. It suggests that the relationship is the point, not the act of love itself.
Amen. As for the rest of Addie’s musings, I am more than a little sympathetic to Lydia McGrew’s take: “Ho hum, another day, another preachy, arrogant, self-important op-ed, from a millennial telling churches how to avoid scaring off the sensitive snowflakes born around the turn of the century.” Okay, I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but it takes a great deal of fortitude some days!
A preacher who follows Addie’s advice and routinely says, “This is where study and prayer have led me, but I could be wrong,” will make a horrible, horrible preacher. It is no better than its opposite caricature, the raging fundamentalist — both are rooted in insecurities and subjective preoccupations. By the way, when will these “post-evangelicals” read a little history and realize that they are just mainline Protestants, channeling Harry Fosdick?