Faithful Heart

October 31, 2014


Let’s celebrate the power of grace for this Reformation Day. Austin Stone Community Church has collaborated with TGC to produce a number of videos illustrating how God is present in the lives of those who depend upon him. Below are two of my favorites.

The first is the story of a young mother diagnosed with a chronic heart problem that could kill her at any moment:

The project is called The Storyframes Collective. They are superbly produced. And here is the story of David and Marlena, overcoming adultery through the unconditional grace of God:

Of course, these are stories that all Christians can celebrate, not just Protestants.


Image: “Why We Love Nature” by Tenteri (now deactivated Deviant Art account)


Now it is time for some theological heavy-lifting, sort of. Trust me, this is fun stuff!

The “incarnational analogy” for Scripture is when the incarnation of the Son, in the hypostatic union of true man and true God, is used as a model for understanding the ontology of Scripture. Basically it goes like this: the humanity of Jesus is capable of union with the divine Word, therefore the humanity of the biblical texts is capable of union with the divine Word, and in neither case is the humanity’s constitutional integrity compromised. If the biblical texts were to be understood as something other than fully human, then you could be accused of being a “monophysite” in regard to the what-ness of the Bible.

This analogy sounds good at first, but I have my doubts. It is interesting to observe the contrary ways in which this analogy can be put to use. For example, we can look at Al Mohler and Peter Enns. In his contribution to Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013), Al Mohler uses this model:

The incarnational model of Scripture is, of course, genuinely helpful; it rightly recognizes the Bible to be both divine and a human book. But the truth of this model does not lead to the conclusion that Enns would have us draw. The incarnate Christ was fully God and fully human, but his humanity was without sin. Just as theologians have for centuries argued over whether Jesus could not sin or merely did not sin, theologians may argue whether the Bible cannot err or merely does not err. But the end result is the same in any event — Jesus did not sin and the Bible is without error. [p. 126]

You see how that works? Mohler slipped from “sin” to “error” without signaling a shift. For this to work, Mohler would have to argue that the humanity of Christ was without error, not just without sin. This is a scholastic-style debate, whether Christ could err during his earthly sojourn. Could Jesus get a math problem wrong? Mohler would seemingly have to say no. Otherwise, the analogical use of Christ’s humanity would fail when applied to Scripture, for those like Mohler who want to uphold that all error is precluded by the text’s divine nature.

By contrast, Peter Enns believes that the humanity of Christ was capable of error, which includes a wide range of matters, such as cosmology and cultural traditions and presumably math problems. Thus, following the analogy, the humanity of Scripture is likewise capable of error. For Mohler, we must uphold an exhaustively inerrant humanity for Christ, so that the analogy can support an inerrant Scripture. He believes that the perfection of Christ’s humanity as sinless is a basis for arguing for the perfection of the Bible’s humanity as without error. But, once again, this only works if “Jesus did not sin” is the same as “Jesus did not err.” That has to be proven first, in order for Mohler’s use of the analogy to work. Likewise for Enns, “Jesus did not sin” but “Jesus did err” has to be demonstrated first, before turning to its analogical use for Scripture.

In other words, the analogical use of the Incarnation for the nature(s) of Scripture is dependent upon and determined by one’s prior christology, as we would expect. For Mohler, a sinless Jesus needs to be an errorless Jesus in all respects, given Mohler’s commitment to an inerrancy that makes no allowances for “accidental” (non-essential) errors. For Enns, a sinless Jesus does not need to be an errorless Jesus in all respects.

As I see it, to err is not necessarily to sin. All sin is error, but not all error is sin. There may be another basis upon which we must claim that Jesus was errorless in all respects, so I will recuse myself from answering this question for now. But, prima facie, it should be evident that the incarnational analogy is not as helpful as may first appear, especially when figures as diverse as Mohler and Enns can use it for their purposes. But we should question fundamentally the legitimacy itself of using this analogy in respect to the Incarnation of the Son. Michael Bird, following John Webster, says it well:

…I categorically reject Enns’ proposal of an “incarnational model” for explaining Scripture as a divine-human book. I am aware that such a model is merely a starting point for explaining how the Bible is both a divine and human work. However, this incarnational model is, as John Webster calls it, “Christologically disastrous.” It’s disastrous because it threatens the uniqueness of the Christ event, since it assumes that hypostatic union is a general characteristic of divine self-disclosure in, through, or by a creaturely agent. Furthermore, it results in a divinizing of the Bible by claiming that divine ontological equality exists between God’s being and his communicative action. [Ibid., 131-132, quoting Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 22]

Thus, the doctrinal implications of the analogy are suspect, if you accept Webster’s argument. It is worth pondering.


Image: “Adoration of the Child,” by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst (1590-1656)

Beautiful War

October 28, 2014

I was transfixed while watching this:

“Beautiful War,” Kings of Leon, from the album, Mechanical Bull


Ref21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, has posted an interview with Oliver Crisp on his new book, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology.

“An Interview with Oliver Crisp,” Mark McDowell

UPDATE 10/23: Christianity Today has also published an interview with Professor Crisp.

One example of this broadening of Reformed theology (or, more accurately, recognizing its original breadth) has been the doctrine of “hypothetical universalism,” expressed by some prominent Reformed divines of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was considered a legitimate variant within Reformed orthodoxy of this period. Richard Muller’s historical work is best known in this regard. Now, J. V. Fesko at Westminster California has written a concurring report in his latest book, The Theology of the Westminster Standards.

David Ponter has been documenting these matters for quite some time. He has provided us with a large excerpt from Fesko’s book: “J.V. Fesko on Hypothetical Universalism and the Westminster Confession and Synod of Dort.” At the end of the excerpt, Ponter offers corrections to some of the details in Fesko’s account.

Peter Leithart has blogged about Crisp’s book, where he highlights the discussion of hypothetical universalism. Paul Helm has a helpful review, also at Ref21.


And while I’m providing links, I also want to point-out two excellent responses to Rachel Held Evans, to whom I wrote a brief response a couple days ago.

“Do Christians Still Sacrifice Their Children?: A Response to Rachel Held Evans” by Lee Wyatt

“Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience” by Derek Rishmawy

Thanks to Jon Coutts for directing me to Wyatt’s piece.

A brief response to RHE

October 20, 2014


I have been reflecting on Rachel Held Evans’ recent post, “I would fail Abraham’s test,” which includes the following:

While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love. If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. …

My point is this: It is intellectually dishonest to say Christians make moral judgment calls based on Scripture alone. Conscience, instinct, experience, culture, relationships—all of these things (and more) play important roles in how we assess right from wrong. …

My initial reaction after reading this was not as charitable as it could have been. To wit, Evans is obviously making God into her own image, despite her disclaimer to the contrary. If I were to ask one of my fellow millennials what sort of God shares our values, this would be it!

I don’t disagree with the substance of that initial criticism, but it also must be said that I make God into my own image. Last I checked, I am a sinner. I harbor a whole host of assumptions, moral and aesthetic categories, which I bring to my theology and which still predetermine my conception of God. This is why our theology is always a work-in-progress — “theology on one’s knees,” to use one of Balthasar’s favorite images.

My disagreement with Evans (and Enns obviously comes to mind) is how the biblical portrait of God no longer operates in its authoritative capacity for the church. A certain treatment of Christ, which is itself selective, is given the sole normative status for one’s theology. The rest of the Bible is relativized through its cultural framework, with the peculiar christology of one’s own cultural conditioning serving as the norma normans.

While I invariably bring moral and aesthetic categories to my theology — categories which have been predefined apart from the covenantal activity of God and the inscripturated witness to God — these categories have to be rigorously tested, modified, or perhaps rejected entirely. God does not conform to my philosophy; my philosophy conforms to God, using “philosophy” in both its narrow (modern) and broad (ancient) sense. This includes the God of the conquests, just to be clear.

Once again, I do not do this perfectly. Nobody does. But there is a significant theological difference when this “testing” is not even recognized — when God is assessed, as Evans avows, through other criteria and other norming norms. And that is why so many of us are passionate about this, with the unfortunate consequence that we are not always respectful, myself included.


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a man of his times — almost comically so. Yet the enthusiasm of his humanism is hard to resist, even for those of us who live on the other side of two World Wars and a few genocides. Emerson loves humanity (or is it himself?):

A man never gets acquainted with himself, but is always a surprise. We get news daily of the world within, as well as of the world outside, and not less of the central than of the surface facts. A new thought is awaiting him every morning. [Emerson on Man and God, p. 6]

You could put that on a coffee mug! While these sentiments are relatively harmless and, indeed, may inspire some healthy interest in the wonders of God through his creation — Emerson’s other musings and maxims are not so harmless. Like so:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. [Ibid., p. 6]

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it. [p. 8]

In other words, that which serves your well-being (“constitution”), as understood by your “private heart,” is right and right for all. Postmodernism will emerge to challenge the universalism here, but nothing substantially changes. Emerson captured, with his enormous literary gifts, the spirit of his age and our age. In the title of this small book, the order of words is instructive: Man and God. Man first; God second.

For Emerson, the spirit of man reveals the Spirit of God, not the other way around.


Image: Ralph Waldo Emerson (source: wiki commons)

The Girls from Texas

October 14, 2014


Based upon the sound testimony of every Texan that I have ever met, Texas is the greatest place on earth. Surely they cannot all be lying to me.

You should let Pat Green and Lyle Lovett speak the truth:



I trust that my readership is not tempted toward the prosperity heresy, its false god, and its routine pissing on the Bible. So, you do not need to be instructed otherwise. But, it is good to be reminded every once-in-a-while of this pestilential Baal-worship.

Here is Ross Douthat, after describing Bruce Wilkinson’s failed attempt to establish an orphanage / golf resort in Africa, then moving to the more insidious Osteen:

He seemed baffled, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that things hadn’t turned out better. “I asked hard enough,” he insisted, as if he were in a business partnership with the Almighty, and God hadn’t held up His end of the bargain.

There is innocence at work here, but not a holy innocence. God-and-Mammon Christianity often seems determined to veil the possibility that God might desire something less than perfect success for all His faithful, that He might want small churches as well as thriving congregations, people who fail by the world’s lights as well as those who succeed and thrive, Christians who embrace poverty as well as those who pay off the mortgage and live debt-free. Prosperity theology speaks a language of abundance and skates over the passages in the Bible that deal with the value of little things and hidden virtues — of salt in the earth and treasures buried in the field, of little flocks and narrow gates that few enter.

…Joel Osteen seemed particularly fixated on real estate as a sign of God’s favor. (Your Best Life Now opens with an anecdote about a Hawaiian vacationer who sees a beautiful home and thinks, “I can’t even imagine living in a place like that” — a sentiment that Osteen holds up as an example of a Christian giving in to “mediocrity.”) It’s still interesting to track the way mortgages and home ownership show up again and again in the stories and testimonies that crowd the rhetoric of prosperity preaching. …

“Right now God is showering down blessings, healing, promotions, good ideas,” Osteen promised his readers. “If you are not sharing in His favor, you might want to watch your words. Here’s the key: If you don’t unleash your words in the right direction, if you don’t call in a favor, you will not experience those blessings. Nothing happens unless we speak.” [It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor, p. 125]

…The book sold. The ratings rose. The tours continued. In March 2009, with the unemployment rate at 8.5 percent and rising, Osteen sold out Yankee Stadium.

[Bad Religion, pp. 206-210. For the sake of blog brevity, I cut-out the interesting/depressing anecdotes.]

One of the seminal figures who prepared the way for people like Osteen was Robert Schuller, whose Hour of Power broadcast was beloved by millions. Here is a partial transcript of an interview with Robert Schuller: Michael Horton Interviews Robert Schuller. It is fascinating to read Schuller’s responses, which are almost verbatim to interviews that I have seen with Osteen.

CALLER: Dr. Schuller, Paul called the gospel an offense. You seem to have a gospel that is a “kinder, gentler” kind of thing.

RS: Thank you. I try to make it that way.

You have to at least admire Schuller’s honesty.

The paradoxical Jesus

October 8, 2014


Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012) is a really good book. I actually was not expecting it to be as marvelous as it is. I have read Douthat’s NYT articles and have generally enjoyed them, but he really shines in this book. He is given the space to develop his ideas and ground his claims in the historical phenomena, far more than he can accomplish in an op-ed. He is fair to Reinhold Neibuhr and Karl Barth, whom he extols, while being justifiably critical of Harvey Cox and all of the other fashionable progressives who happily rode the optimistic wave of secularism, calmly and confidently assuring us of its ultimate compatibility with the iconoclasm of the Jewish and Christian faith. Oh my, how things never change.

While Douthat is a self-identified political conservative, he is rather severe in his criticisms of the religious right, whether under Reagan or Bush. This doesn’t mean that he occupies some idealist middle ground without any commitments one way or another — obviously not on life and family issues — but he recognizes the allure of political opportunism and the convenience of theological compromise under the stage lights. In this regard, he strives to be a genuine representative of the Catholic who discerns the good and the bad in all ideologies, while abjuring their utopian promises.

There is a lot that I would like to quote from the book, but I will just offer the following description of Christianity, perfectly stated:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peace makers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still — a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.

The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus. For the Marcionites in the second century, this meant a merciful Jesus with no connection to the vengeful Hebrew God; for their rivals the Ebionites, it meant a Jesus whose Judaism required would-be followers to become observant Jews themselves. For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology.

[Bad Religion, pp. 153-154]

Indeed, nothing has changed.


Roman Catholics have a curious word for evangelism — “evangelization,” as in the “new evangelization” advocated by Papa Benny and now by Francis. You see, Catholics have started to realize that the old state-supported, culturally-driven option for a viable Catholicism is no longer a viable option. The “new evangelization” is the Vatican’s attempt to get Catholics off their arses and tell people about Jesus, though it is purportedly more subtle and sophisticated than that. Francis is not very fond of proselytism, for example, which is one reason (among many) why conservative Catholics are less-than enamored by the current pontiff. Of course, Francis doesn’t define what he means by proselytism, since his goal is to be the most ambiguous pope in papal history.

For most of us, the only noun form of “to evangelize” is “evangelism.” A cursory glance at a Google search would indicate that evangelization is a Catholic term. The first search result for “evangelization” is the USCCB, and nearly all of the subsequent results are Catholic websites. However, the OED tells us that “evangelization” occurs as early as Hobbe’s Leviathan in 1651. But for all intents and purposes, it appears to be a new usage, if not coinage, by Roman Catholics in recent years.

I do not know if there is any difference between “evangelization” and “evangelism.” It seems to just be Catholic-speak for the same thing. However, their usage does appear to be different, given the different theologies and histories behind the two terms. For Catholic “evangelization,” the renewal of the culture is a big ingredient and, indeed, the telos of the whole initiative. For Protestant “evangelism,” the conversion of individuals is the primary connotation, whereas this appears to be secondary in Catholic discourse. Even among Protestants who embrace the “worldview” mentality of “every square inch,” the term “evangelism” is still mostly reserved for the act of witnessing to the gospel in its proclamation to the lost.

The term, “evangelization,” has become so widespread in Catholic circles that it has become a sure-fire way to identify a Catholic. They don’t say, “evangelism,” but “evangelization.”