“Divine Fate has decreed that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it would be the task of German theologians to write dogmatics and for Anglo-Saxons to translate them.”

That is the opening line from Francis Schüssler Fiorenza’s review of Helmut Thielicke’s The Evangelical Faith (vol. 3) and Otto Weber’s Foundations of Dogmatics (vol. 1). You can read it in the journal, Horizons, from the spring issue of 1985. It is a humorous line — because overstated but not far from the truth. This is not to say that during these two centuries the Anglophone world was bereft of quality work in systematic theology. The Scots in particular were active in the discipline and even doing the yeoman’s work in translating the Germans.

But now, in the twenty-first century, there seems to be a considerable revitalization of dogmatics in the Anglosphere. This is certainly true among American evangelicals, and it is a welcome redirection of attention away from an unhealthy obsession with epistemology and apologetics. (Is not Carl Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority basically a theology in the service of apologetics?) The latest example of this renewed interest in “constructive theology” or “revealed theology” is the new series from Zondervan Academic, aptly entitled, “New Studies in Dogmatics.” The title is meant to recall the now-classic “Studies in Dogmatics” series from G. C. Berkouwer.

According to the initial press release, it is a projected 15-volume series under the advisory supervision of John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, Katherine Sonderegger, and Henri Blocher. The editors are Michael Allen and Scott Swain, both at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. You can read their introduction to the series, including the list of volumes, at the Common Places blog. Unlike Berkouwer’s project, each volume in the new series will be written by a different theologian.

The first volume, The Holy Spirit, is by Christopher R. J. Holmes and is to be released tomorrow (Oct. 6).

Christopher Holmes - The Holy Spirit


The Evangelical Aesthetic

September 30, 2015

Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons.


As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

Protestants do preaching; Catholics do cathedrals. Both proclaim the gospel. It is only the small-minded Protestant who cannot admit the deficiency in the Protestant aesthetic; it is only the small-minded Catholic who cannot admit the deficiency in the Catholic aesthetic. But the purpose of this post is to highlight the Protestant — or evangelical Protestant — aesthetic in word and song. I only have one example. It is sufficient: “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

Vince Gill wrote the now-classic gospel song, “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which he recorded with Patty Loveless. It’s a stunning song, beautiful in a crippling sort of way. Most songwriters would die happy if they had only written, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Even for Vince, one of the all-time greats, this is special.

Vince Gill and Patty Loveless performed the song at George Jones’ memorial service at the Opry, a couple years ago. If this is not heaven on earth, I don’t want to go to heaven:

Let the tears flow. George Jones is crying tears of joy in heaven.

A Protestant could have never written The End of the Affair, but a Catholic could have never written “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

This is why Catholics and Protestants need each other.


Image: Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons. (source)

The Future of the Church

September 12, 2015


El Greco, “Pentecost” (1596)

This past Wednesday evening, I watched ‘The Future of the Church’ seminar from Biola, a successor to ‘The Future of Protestantism’ seminar last year. Peter Leithart’s FT article, “The End of Protestantism,” was the motivation for hosting these discussions.

Here it is, along with my musings below:

I respect everyone involved in both last year’s and this year’s discussion, and I greatly appreciate the work involved by the organizers. However, I have been underwhelmed by both seminars. This may have much to do with my own idiosyncrasies in theology. My biggest complaint, however, is formal and not material. The structure makes no sense to me. We have four talented theologians, invited to lecture and discuss the problems plaguing ecclesiology. So far, so good. But each theologian is given, as far as I can tell, no direction and no guidance on what precisely to evaluate and discuss. They do not know what each other is going to say, and each presentation is a stand-alone monologue — differing in character and content widely from one to the next. This was true of last year’s event, and the same format was chosen this year.

Likewise, the roundtable discussion after the lectures is similarly disjointed. For the most part, the questions are far too broad. Each theologian is speaking, naturally enough, out of his own experiences and peculiar context. If, instead, each was given a common set of questions, preferably with concrete problems and proposed solutions, prior to the seminar, then the results could have been far more fruitful. The dialog could have been far more constructive.

I would love some questions about Protestant iconoclasm, in its tireless pursuit of authentic ἐκκλησία and distrust of forms — to give one example. Maybe the organizers want to appeal to a broader audience, but I doubt the theological neophyte is gaining much under the current format.

Setting aside those complaints, you can still benefit from hearing the various perspectives in each presentation and in the discussion afterwards.

The Empire of Desire

July 3, 2015

White House

It has now been a week since the Supreme Court issued its fanciful decision on gay marriage — legally contrived and morally suspect. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice Kennedy wrote (or co-authored), “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is a good summary statement of postmodern nominalism. There is nothing higher, nothing to which we are accountable, except our own experience of “meaning” and “mystery.”

Justice Kennedy continued his romanticist jurisprudence in last week’s Obergefell v. Hodges case. He formulates the first premise on which the majority decided: “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” (p. 3). This is why, we are told, bans on interracial marriage were invalidated. He continues, “Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.” So, “personal choice” and “individual autonomy” are the founding principles upon which interracial marriage is a marriage? We are then given flimsy attempts to define marriage as “a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals” and “an intimate association.” Same-sex couples aspire to “the transcendent purposes of marriage” (p. 4), which are what exactly? Kennedy then finally proceeds to offer the only constitutional basis of the majority’s opinion: a highly dubious interpretation of the fourteenth amendment.

The subsequent media parade offered scarcely any attempt to digest and discuss the moral rationale. At this point, I suppose, Kennedy’s moral logic is self-evident to the culture. The corporate blitz to capitalize was unlike anything we’ve seen in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision, as seemingly every major corporation proudly displayed its support. Social media followed suit. The White House went technicolor. News anchors and reporters could scarcely contain their enthusiasm. This united front gave voice to our new era of social discourse. We emote and shame, whereas our forefathers reasoned and convinced. Twitter is more powerful than Aristotle.

If you have not done so already, I highly encourage you to read the SCOTUS decision, both the majority opinion and the dissents. Justice Scalia never holds back: “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic” (p. 75.) Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia, offers the most conservative dissent, insofar as he directly targets the redefinition of marriage away from its procreative ends and offers this sober warning:

It [the court’s decision] will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent. Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. [pp. 101-102]

Below, I have collated some of my favorite articles that have dared to wade through this torrent of powers, the potestatis publicae. I will begin with “The Empire of Desire” from R. R. Reno. Unlike most of the subsequent articles, this was not written in response to the Supreme Court decision. It was published in the June 2014 issue of First Things. This is one of Reno’s most incisive essays, more important now than then.


“The Empire of Desire,” R. R. Reno (First Things, June 2014):

Indirectly (and unknowingly) evoking the rich tradition of liberal Protestant theology, Vattimo suggests that this antinomian trajectory is “a transcription of the Christian message of the incarnation of God, which St. Paul also calls kenosis—that is, the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.” Here we find a wonderfully pure expression of the metaphysical dream of our era: God himself is an antinomian. Christ does not fulfill the law of Moses; instead, he undercuts Moses and evacuates the law of all normative power. Sinai becomes the Antichrist.

“The Benedict Option for Evangelicals,” Phillip Cary (First Things, June 30, 2015):

The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.

It’s a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They’ve adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today’s evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can’t the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?

“Can Evangelicals See Themselves in the LGBT Movement?,” Alastair Roberts (The Gospel Coalition, July 1, 2015):

While most persons receive their identity from without as society imposes its sexual and gendered identities, the LGBT person recognizes that true identity arises from within. The realization of an authentic subjectivity over against the formalism of imposed norms of gender and sexuality is recounted in the “personal testimonies” of coming-out stories and tales of transition. Given the understanding of the nature of true identity within LGBT communities, it shouldn’t surprise us that same-sex marriage has been pursued chiefly as an “expressive”—rather than a “formative” and “institutional”—reality.

…the LGBT community and the same-sex marriage cause are advanced in large measure through emotional personal testimony and stories of subjective self-realization. This is the language evangelicals were raised on, and it can resonate with us. Evangelicals, having placed so much store on the truth and immediacy of the personal narrative and the value of unfeigned emotion, will face particular difficulties in considering how to respond to these.

“After Obergefell: The Effects on Law, Culture, and Religion,” Sherif Girgis (Catholic World Report, June 29, 2015):

It’s not that the majority opinion offered bad interpretations of the Constitution’s guarantees; it hardly interpreted them at all. Huge swathes of it read less like a legal argument than the willful paradoxes and obscure profundities you might hear at a winetasting.

…now the most prestigious secular organ of American society—the Court that helped make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality—stands for the propositions that deep emotional union makes a marriage, and that mothers and fathers are perfectly replaceable; indeed, that it “demeans” and “stigmatizes” people to think otherwise.

“The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion,” David French (National Review, June 26, 2015):

This isn’t constitutional law, it’s theology — a secular theology of self-actualization — crafted in such a way that its adherents will no doubt ask, “What decent person can disagree?” This is about love, and the law can’t fight love. …

Christians who’ve not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can’t abide being called “hateful.” It creates a desperate, panicked response. “No, you don’t understand. I’m not like those people — the religious right.” Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.

“A Conversation With My Gay Friend,” Jennifer Fulwiler (July 9, 2012):

“Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”

[Andrew:] “So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”

“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”

…”If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”

“Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?,” Wesley Hill (Spiritual Friendship, June 27, 2015):

Yet I’m also a Christian, and according to historic Christian orthodoxy, marriage isn’t the only, or even the primary, place to find love. In the New Testament, as J. Louis Martyn once wrote, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” Marriage in Christian theology is, you might say, demythologized. With the coming of Christ, its necessity is taken away: gone is the notion that without it we are doomed to lovelessness.

“The Episcopal Church on Its Way Towards Adopting Gay Marriage,” George Conger (Anglican Ink, June 29, 2015):

“God has given us a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church,” the bishop said. “As such, we must proceed slowly and with generosity of spirit,” to ensure that the revelation given to the majority was not in error. The bishop said the history of the surrounding community, Mormon Salt Lake City, was an example of what not to do.

Apropos, the Episcopalians now have something in common with Mormons: new revelation. By the way, TEC officially voted — overwhelmingly — to adopt a new rite for the marriage of any gender configuration. The ACNA will continue to attract the remaining few evangelicals in TEC over the course of the next year.


Image: The White House in rainbow colors after the SCOTUS decision on June 26, 2015 (source)

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.


The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.


The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, unlike Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.


What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.


Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.


Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.


Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.

On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.

Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.

An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”

Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.

The Christian Doctrine of GodThe Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.


The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.

Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.

Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.

Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.

Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.


Notable Mentions

Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.

The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.

Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!


Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Evangelical Ecclesiology

The discussion elicited by the Pew study continues unabated. I offered one response, “What Baptists do right,” which is not at all contingent on the Pew study. It is what I have thought since college, basically with no substantial variation since then.

A couple days ago, Leah Libresco wrote an article for FiveThirtyEight: “Evangelical Protestants Are The Biggest Winners When People Change Faiths,” based upon some code that she wrote for processing the data. Leah Libresco is perhaps known to some of you as an atheist-to-Catholic convert blogger at Patheos. Her article is very interesting and worth reading, looking at the data for both religious transfers and the demographics of child-rearing. As Mary Eberstadt has argued, the decline of the family is a reliable indicator of a soon decline in religion.

Rod Dreher follows-up with his own reflections and questions: “The Evangelical Advantage.”

Ecclesiology in Evangelical Perspective

I would like to offer a further response, as indicated by the title of this blog post. Evangelical ecclesiology? Is there such a thing? That is in fact the central question for an edited volume by John Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (Baker Academic, 2003). As my faithful readers know, I have recently been looking hard at weaknesses in Protestant theology, especially ecclesiology. This is also nothing new, as I’ve been doing this off-and-on for several years now. But I am, hopefully, also capable of recognizing and commending the strengths of Protestantism and evangelicalism in particular. I am, after all, an evangelical.

The volume from Stackhouse has a variety of opinions, of mixed quality. Among those that I enjoyed the most is the chapter from Paul F. M. Zahl. For those of you who are evangelical Anglicans, Zahl needs no introduction. He has been a tireless defender of basic orthodoxy and evangelical clarity within The Episcopal Church for decades, though with few tangible results, as he would be the first to admit. His chapter is entitled, “Low-Church and Proud.” Oh yes, you know it’s gonna be good! Zahl begins:

As an evangelical and Protestant Episcopalian, I wonder about the attraction that high-church ecclesiologies have for many of my evangelical sisters and brothers on the free church side. [p. 213]

In fact, Zahl finds it “disturbing” when he witnesses evangelicals “fall for” the aesthetics and hierarchy of high-church bodies. “It seems like a reaction to something that was missing or kinked in childhood, a compensation to make up for an earlier loss.” And he continues, “I am just a little too skeptical of forms and (endlessly revised) prayer books and bishops and words such as unity and semper.” It is “form without substance, Schein without Sein” (ibid.).

Most intriguingly — for an Anglican no less! — Zahl even poses a contrast, an either/or, between Protestant and Catholic. He questions why his evangelical friends who are “compulsively attracted” to high-church form do not go all the way. “Pull a Cardinal Newman. Be consistent”:

For myself, both a systematic theologian by training and an Episcopal cathedral dean by day, I cannot be both. I cannot be Protestant and Catholic. I cannot be evangelical and ecclesiologically “high.” A house divided cannot stand. It has to fall. It always does. [p. 214]

He’s not holding back. You can tell that this is the voice of someone frustrated, with wisdom to share from battles hard fought. Agree or disagree, I like that. He commends Roger Olson’s essay in the same volume, where Olson subordinates ecclesiology to the gospel as a personally directed message of forgiveness and “new being in Christ.” As Zahl comments, “No one hears collectively. It just doesn’t happen. As a parish minister for thirty years, I have never met a person who actually hears collectively.” Naturally, in their “growing integration” of heart, mind, and will, Christians will “often come to appreciate social and political notes in the sound.” Rightly so. “But,” he continues, “given the pain and losses and crimes of the heart, people hear the Word as a word to them individually” (ibid.).

Evangelical Protestants should be proud of their low ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology is important, yes, It is certainly interesting. But it is not saving. If you think ecclesiology is saving, then become a Roman Catholic” (p. 215). This low ecclesiology is “consistent Protestantism,” quoting Olson. By contrast, now turning to the mainline, Zahl sees The Episcopal Church (and, I would add, most of mainline Protestantism) as trying to construct a “liberal catholicism” that “rarely satisfies, because it is a construct for people to have their cake and eat it too. Liberal views of authority and Scripture and cultural rapprochement do not finally cohere with a historic, catholic view of the church. …Bible-anchored evangelicals are bound to be disappointed. I can almost guarantee that” (p. 216).

Evangelicals Understand Community

Lastly, it is important to notice the comments to Rod Dreher’s post, “The Evangelical Advantage.” The comments are very mixed, as you would expect, but I was struck at the number of people who mentioned the friendliness of evangelicals — welcoming and inviting, literally. Evangelicals love to invite: neighbors to church, visitors to lunch, sinners to repentance. It’s what we do. Moreover, we actually foster community in our midst. I have been to a lot of Catholic masses, at several different parishes. It is striking that I have never been invited to lunch or to join a Bible study or to even come back! What planet are Catholics living on? Seriously, this is not hard stuff.

In closing, I will quote Dreher:

In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it.

If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people.

Evangelicals are routinely the butt of jokes, no less from other Christians. It is refreshing to see otherwise.

River Baptism - southernvisions.net


There has been a lot of discussion about the recent Pew study on the “US Religious Landscape.” The report from Christianity Today puts a wee bit of a positive spin on it for evangelicals, just as Jonathan Merritt puts his own spin on it for RNS. I will briefly respond to some of Merritt’s points at the end. But first, I was struck by the percentages of those who stay within their denominational family or tradition. The Baptists are the highest at 57%. The least likely are Congregationalists (31%), Holiness (32%), Reformed (34%), and Presbyterian (34%) — that includes three “Reformed” denominations (Holiness is Wesleyan).

The Baptist Difference

If I may be so bold, I think I know why the Baptists are at the top in this regard. I will have to be partly autobiographical in order to answer this. I was raised in a devout, loving evangelical Baptist home and church. My parents were not Christians when they began dating in the late 70’s, except in the sense that every Southerner at this time would still claim to be a Christian. They were indifferent to the church and not attending anywhere. But when another couple, friends of theirs, invited them to their large Baptist church in Florence, South Carolina, everything changed for my parents and, unknown at the time, their future sons. They were taught the gospel in a very Billy Graham-ish sort of way, for which I praise the Lord. It was this same gospel that they taught me.

Here is the point. When I was born, my parents did not see me as a Christian. My parents saw me as an object for evangelism! I may have been cute as a button, but I was still a rebellious sinner, separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ. What this meant for me and my brother, and all of my fellow Baptists, is that we were evangelized by our parents. I repeat, we were evangelized by our parents. This begins usually at four or five years old and continues long thereafter. I still vividly remember my mom telling me about the gospel in my bedroom when I was five. Did I have a full grasp of what it meant to be a sinner or that there is a God who intervened? Of course not. I still don’t. The important thing is that it was made real and personal for me, by those who I loved the most. The struggles, questions, doubts would come, but there was an anchor.

I am still amazed when I encounter other Protestants (and Catholics) who did not have this experience. Their parents assumed that they were Christian. They never had “the talk” — no, not the sex talk, but the gospel talk. And is it accidental that Baptists would never do such a stupid thing as forget the gospel talk? No, because Baptists reject infant baptism. With infant baptism came a lot of problems, like forgetting the gospel talk. I will not discuss baptism here, and I am a paedobaptist now. So, obviously, I think that paedobaptism is compatible with the above concept of evangelism, but it is not normative. That is a tragedy.

So, that is my proposal for why Baptists do a better job at keeping their kids. It is evangelical piety at its best and most necessary. I am fully aware — more aware than most — of the problems that come along: an overemphasis on the individual, emotional manipulation, doubts about salvation, re-baptisms and endless re-dedications. I get it. That’s where Reformed theology is a salve for so many, even with its own problems.

The Pew Survey

According to the Pew study, evangelicals have declined at 0.9%, the mainline at 3.4%, and Catholics at 3.1%. The time frame is only between 2007 and 2014. The new thing is the evangelical decline (or plateau-with-slight-decline), whereas the mainline decline is just compounding a decades long problem. If you look at page 21 of the full report, you can see the percentage breakdown for each denomination. The Southern Baptists are down from 6.7 to 5.3 percent of the total population, but the independent Baptists have remained the same as in 2007. Nondenominational evangelicals have increased from 3.4 to 4.9 percent. These are Baptists in all but name but without some of the restrictions that are found in the SBC, which frowns upon charismatic expressions and has a more tightly defined confessional basis (the Baptist Faith & Message).

So, as I mentioned above, the CT article has a fairly positive outlook for evangelicals, bolstered by Ed Setzer’s article for CT, “Nominals to Nones.” Jonathan Merritt has a sort of rebuttal, with four bullet points that you can read for yourself. I guess because evangelicals invest in proselytizing but are still struggling, that means something. In his second bullet point, he says that the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church in America “failed to grow at all,” which is not true. The PCA was 340,736 in 2007 but 367,033 in 2013 (the latest denominational report). The AG went from 2,863,265 in 2007 to 3,127,857 in 2013, not counting outside of the US.

Merritt notes, “The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC, is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.” True, but why? The UMC still has a strong evangelical contingent, whereas evangelicals in the other mainline denominations have largely fled, especially in the last tens years. The UMC gives voting privileges to its African bishops, which is a blessing for the evangelical minority in the UMC here, and this is why the UMC has not seen breakaway denominations like the NALC, ACNA, ECO, and more. Also, the SBC is a unique body for evangelicals. It was once the equivalent to the mainline in the South, and (prior to the 80’s) its seminaries were not much different from other mainline Protestant seminaries. Like the mainline, it suffers from demographic changes, as much of the population shifts from small factory towns to major urban metropolises.

But Merritt notes another demographic change: “population data has always indicated that the mainline decline was mostly attributable to birthrates.” Alright, let’s set aside whether “mostly” is warranted, I am happy to grant it as a big factor. But that’s a problem, not a neutral determinant, as Mary Eberstadt has persuasively argued.

Lastly, I have to challenge Merritt’s comment: “Roman Catholics — also theologically and politically conservative — are also declining significantly. This, despite these groups’ evangelistic zeal, orthodox theology, and conservative political stances.” Really? The RCC in America is a different beast entirely, and to say that it has “evangelistic zeal” is downright laughable. There is, of course, a vibrant contingent of evangelically-minded, Vatican-loving, conservative Roman Catholics in America. But you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an average Catholic and an average mainline Protestant. There are complicated historical and cultural reasons for this, which I am perfectly willing to discuss, not the least of which is the “mainline” mindset of Rome’s past cultural privilege.

A Proviso

In closing, we have to ask ourselves about the importance we attach to these surveys. Numbers matter, as any dying church can testify. I’ve heard enough of these testimonies from mainline Protestant congregations — where sometime in the ’80’s or ’90’s, they realized that they didn’t have any kids in the sanctuary. At that point, there was no turning back.

Yet, it is also the case that Christians should have a basic expectation of cultural marginalization, which may translate into a loss in numbers. I am not convinced (not in the slightest) that this is why the mainline has declined so precipitously. I think the mainline decline has much to do with lethargy, privilege, and an anemic theology. Even so, the evangelical churches may indeed experience an increased decline over the years, not because of their lack of gospel but precisely because of their gospel. I am not saying that we have lacked privilege or that evangelicals do not have our own self-inflicted wounds. We harbor a neo-fundamentalism that is scared and irresponsible and lacking in basic integrity. If this were to dominate and overwhelm us, then we deserve what we get. We are also responsible for a capitulation to American ideals and social expectations, though this is an enormously tricky thing to parse. Is this why the evangelicals have fared better, as my liberal Protestant friends think? To some extent, sure, but it does not have the exhaustive explanatory value that they think — far from it. But to the extent that this is true, it just means that evangelicals will return to the marginalization that we once enjoyed.

One More Thing that Baptists Do Right!

Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and many more — all Baptists.

Thank you, Baptists, for country music.

“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” Johnny Cash and the Carter Family


Image: A river baptism in Appalachia (source: Southern Visions)

A lovely performance from a talented couple:

Joey and Rory is a husband-wife country duo, with a devoted fan base. Joey (the wife) has a soft and supple voice. You can find this track, along with other gospel favorites, on their album, Inspiration.

You should also check-out their rendition of “Coat of Many Colors,” the Dolly Parton classic.

Joey and Rory

Joey (left) and Rory (right)



Brad S. Gregory

What has the Protestant Reformation wrought?

Brad Gregory is the Griffin Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Notre Dame. His book, The Unintended Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2012), has received a lot of attention and acclaim. I have not read it, but I have watched the lecture (below) a few times! You can consider this as a follow-up to a recent post of mine, “The Protestant desacralization of the West.” Both Professor Gregory and Professor Eire are doing Catholic apologetics at the highest level, which is technically not apologetics. They are tracing the Protestant influence on Western secularism, with scholarly rigor and peer accountability.

In the following lecture, Gregory offers a highly compressed presentation of his book. He moves very quickly through the material, so you have to pay attention.

There is a lot of good questions that can follow from this presentation. Can we really blame Protestantism for all of this? Was it not inevitable, based upon other (mostly secular) contingencies? I am sure that other folks can offer valuable push-back.

However, I think that Gregory makes an important contribution by focusing on theology (as does Professor Eire) and especially the Protestant doctrine of the Bible’s perspicuity. This is obviously a weakness in the Protestant position. Even if we agree that the gospel, however that is defined, is perspicuous, we still cannot agree on a myriad of other matters, like baptism, which continue to cause disunity. And this disunity invariably causes many to resort to their own subjective and private communication with the divine, where personal experience is the sole magisterium. When that happens, it is game over for Protestants.


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