Thursday, July 30, 2009

Providence, Permission, and Pastoral Care

John Calvin's thoughts on divine providence are not to be overlooked, regardless of one's evaluation of them. I continue to seek to gauge how the concept of divine permission fits into his scheme (as well as my own). Calvin judges that God decrees all things and within his decree allows certain things to happen but always with a view to working through them for his own good purposes. Yet often he gives the appearance of arguing that God always prods all agents to act in all the ways in which they act.

Here are two quotes from Calvin's section entitled "No Mere 'Permission!'" (Institutes, I, xviii, 1):

"[T]hat men can accomplish nothing except by God's secret command, that they cannot by deliberating accomplish anything except what he has already decreed with himself and determines by his secret direction, is proved by innumerable and clear testimonies (of Scripture)."

"[F]rom these (teachings of Scripture) it is more than evident that they babble and talk absurdly who, in place of God's providence, substitute bare permission - as if God sat in a watchtower awaiting chance events, and his judgments thus depended on human will."

It's quite a task to weigh these statements' implications for our view of God and the spiritual life, but let us mark well that Calvin himself parses them in his Institutes, commenting that without such a view of providence life would be simply unbearable. In short, he was a man whose theology was intensely practical and pastoral.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Calvin on the Bounds of Curiosity

It's interesting that in some circles Reformed theology has a reputation for aiming to pin down every detail of God's being, plans, and interaction with the world. John Calvin, the fountainhead of that tradition, incessantly reminds his readers that the Holy Spirit placed in Scripture all that we need for spiritual maturity. Beyond this, he says, we're meant to rein in our curiosity and steer clear of speculation. Here's a word to the theologian from Calvin's section on angelic beings:

"The theologian's task is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable."

Calvin, Institutes, I, xiv, 4

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Study Solo and Only Afterward Consult Commentaries?

"I have sometimes been encouraged by others, both as a preacher and as a Christian who reads Scripture for myself, only to turn to Bible commentaries as a very last resort, when, after much wrestling and searching for myself, I still could not make out the sense of a passage - or perhaps just to check that what I thought was its meaning was not entirely off-beam. There is certainly merit in not simply turning to learned books to find 'the answers,' as a lazy short-cut to avoid wrestling with Scripture for myself. Yet increasingly, when reading Scripture, I find myself wanting to turn to a good Bible commentary sooner rather than later. My reason is this: a good commentary will give me an insight into the consensus view on the meaning of each passage held by generations of believers who have come before me. Working within that framework seems to be a sensible, humble and faithful place to start." -Timothy Ward in Words of Life

I've already blogged about Ward's new book, Words of Life, but this is a statement with which I really resonate. For exegetical papers and sermon preparation many of us have been instructed along precisely the lines Ward describes. But why not embrace a more mentored approach to the study of Scripture? Why not allow the masters (both deceased exegetes and theologians and contemporary commentators) to prepare us and launch us out into the high seas of biblical exegesis with some reliable reference points?

It might be objected that such a methodology undermines the supreme authority of Scripture. But could it be that we are just gearing up more wisely to study the Holy Writ? Could it be that, if a quicker consultation of commentaries enriches our perspective on a passage, we end up better-positioned to turn around and by the light of the text evaluate those very same commentaries?

In addition, Ward goes on to say that the sermon is a critical means by which the congregation is exposed to the church's historical consensus on biblical texts. He believes that preachers should open themselves up to the process above in order to accomplish the task of conveying the church's heritage to today's saints.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Between Extremes

Sometimes setting up one's own perspective as the mediating or "holistic" one can be a rather cheap way to win an argument. Two examples. (1) If the options are framed as hardcore fatalism, Calvinism, and the utter loss of divine sovereignty, Calvinism might prematurely appear best (this is not to say that it couldn't appear that way after further thought!). However, Calvinism and Arminianism both are probably somewhere in the middle with hardcore fatalism and open theism on the edges. Let the curious scrupulously explore Holy Scripture and the Christian tradition to weigh Calvinism and Arminianism. (2) If the options are framed as chauvinism, complementarianism, and over-the-top feminism, complementarianism might prematurely appear best (as with Calvinism, this isn't meant to imply that it couldn't appear that way after further thought). However, complementarianism and egalitarianism both are probably somewhere in the middle with chauvinism and over-the-top feminism on the edges.

Having said all of this, as I'm reading through Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, I pick up that he regularly situates his work between two extremes in such a way that it pushes him to take extra care in his theological formulations. In other words, in his case, a between-extremes approach proves beneficial. On the matter of the authority of Scripture and the relationship between word and Spirit, Bavinck masterfully avoids Rome's desire to ground the authority of Scripture in the authentication of the church and also Radical Reformers' desire to bypass the constraints of the word and view the Spirit's speaking apart from Scripture as the supreme authority for Christian belief and praxis. On the doctrine of God, Bavinck continually presses on between the blunders of deism and pantheism, maintaining God's immanence and independence and transcendence. On the matter of ecclesial power, he again walks the line between Rome and the Radicals and ends up arguing that both in their own way ascribe the state's power to the church!

Thoughts on doing "between-extremes theology" for refinement rather than caricature?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Interviews at "Exiled Preacher"

If you've never linked from the blog list below to "Exiled Preacher," let me say that it's worth it for the informative, encouraging interviews alone. Thinkers and ministers who have graced the blog include Kevin Vanhoozer and Timothy Ward, to name but two. Guy Davies has just posted another interview, so check it out at

Monday, July 20, 2009

Must-Read Book about The Book

For thoughtful Christians, especially those called upon to preach, teach, and theologize with some facility, Timothy Ward's Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (IVP) is a must-read book. I try not to tout just any book in this way, but Ward's latest on Scripture is a gem. It endeavors to outline God's relationship to the Bible in a biblical, lucid manner and it opens up exciting windows into the nature of Scripture and the ministry of the word of God.

The book unfolds in four major sections. First, Ward embarks on an exegetical quest to uncover what Scripture says about its own relationship to God. Second, he treats the relationship of Scripture to God in systematic-theological mode, mapping out how each person of the Trinity involves himself with the Holy Writ. Third, Ward carefully sketches the traditional attributes of Scripture: necessity, sufficiency, clarity, and authority. Fourth, and finally, he connects the doctrine to the life of the church, not least to the pulpit.

Here are two highlights:

1) Ward proposes that God invests himself in his word, which is therefore a mode of his presence (what he calls God's "semantic presence"). Does this proposal forge a theological path through the Barthian-Carl Henrian fissure by retaining an emphasis on both revelation as God's own presence toward human beings and the Bible as a locus of revelation? See esp. pp. 66-67, 73.

2) Ward judiciously re-presents the doctrine of inerrancy, locating it under the scriptural attribute of authority. He cannot but call it a "natural implication" of verbal inspiration, but he places it within the context of more central themes, not least because it can pertain to just the Bible's propositions, which constitute just one facet of divine covenantal communication in and through Scripture. In addition, he agrees with John Woodbridge and others who deny that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture was first cooked up at Old Princeton. On the contrary, says Ward, it has been present materially throughout church history, though the terminology was popularized in the 19th century.

There is a taste. Comments welcome!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bavinck on Athanasius and the Importance of Trinitarianism

"Athanasius understood better than any of his contemporaries that Christianity stands or falls with the confession of the deity of Christ and the Trinity. He devoted his entire life and all his energies to the defense of this truth. He was not fighting for a philosophical problem, but for the Christian religion itself, for the revelation of God, the teaching of the apostles, the faith of the church. The Trinity is the heart and center of Christianity, differentiating it in principle from Judaism, which denies the distinctions within the divine being, and from paganism, which rejects the oneness of God."

Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 285

Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting Program Online

If you're interested in attending this year's meeting, visit There you'll find access to the schedule.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Meditation, Prayer, and the Impetus for Theological Reflection

"A necessary foundation to prayer is meditating and thinking on the great truths which God has revealed. We should be familiar with the mysteries of Jesus Christ and the truths of his gospel. Our souls should be colored by them and penetrated by them as wool is by dye. These truths should become so familiar to us that we acquire the habit of forming no judgment except in their light, that they may be our only guide in what we do, as the rays of the sun are our only light in what we see."

Francois Fenelon in Talking with God

Thursday, July 16, 2009

John Webster on Holy Scripture

In his 'The Dogmatic Location of the Canon' (published in his Word and Church) and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster unfolds some weighty thoughts on the doctrine of Scripture. Here are only a few of them:

1) The doctrines of God, revelation, and even salvation should inform our understanding of Holy Scripture. In other words, we need to affirm an overtly dogmatic (not merely historical or sociological) location for the Bible.

2) Even situating bibliology within ecclesiology won't get the job done for several reasons. (1) What God, not the church, is doing with the text is the central issue. (2) In ecclesiologically-driven descriptions of Scripture the church is often viewed from too sociological, too immanent an angle.

3) By speaking in Scripture God acts upon the church, making the process of canonization one of submission and recognition, not one of innovation.

4) 'Interpretation' might be a term too loaded down with psychological and philosophical freight to do justice to the activity of Christian reading of Scripture. Webster uses the term 'reading' to insist that, rather than generating meaning by interpreting the Bible, Christians are confronted by the meaning of the text and experience a conversion to its teaching.

Useful and provocative stuff!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Renewing the Evangelical Mission Conference

This conference that Gordon-Conwell is hosting in the fall (Oct 13-15) looks to be a promising one. Here's the lineup of speakers:

J. I. Packer
Michael Horton
Kevin Vanhoozer
Lauren Winner
Os Guinness
Miroslav Volf
Bruce McCormack
Cornelius Plantinga
Tite Tienou


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bavinck on the Attributes of God Pt. 2: Calling All Molinists!

The intensity of the debates about open theism may have died down, but questions about God's knowledge (especially his knowledge of the world) seem perennial.

Bavinck offers at least two grounds for confessing divine foreknowledge, but he also calls into question the very notion of it as a really distinct category of divine knowledge. First, he believes that all time is present to God, making it straightforward that God would know all things about the future. Second, Bavinck robustly articulates the doctrine of divine aseity (God has life in and of himself, independently of any created entities) and infers from this that, as one aspect of God, God's knowledge doesn't depend upon any happenings in the created order. God has knowledge of these before they come to pass. Yet, as mentioned, Bavinck makes us think twice about the very notion of divine foreknowledge. As with aseity, his confession of divine simplicity (essentially, God is not composed of parts) leads to an inference about God's knowledge, namely, that it is not composed of parts. In other words, we're not permitted to carve up God's knowledge as if it were composed of knowledge of the past, knowledge of the present, and knowledge of the future. Rather, God's singular knowledge includes these as aspects.

Important thoughts, I think, but the title of the post promised something about Molinism, a. k. a. middle knowledge, a perspective on divine foreknowledge traced to Roman Catholic thinker Luis de Molina and advocated today by the likes of William Lane Craig of Talbot. In order to uphold God's sovereignty over the details of his creation and his allowance for libertarian freewill, Molinists assert that God conceived of all possible events, persons, etc. and, knowing just how in all cases one thing would lead to another, chose to create such that he set in motion the course of history so that the best possible world results given the liabilities of libertarian freewill for human beings. (Please check me on this if it is a caricature.)

At the ETS conference last year Craig said middle knowledge is a versatile and useful doctrine, full of potential for answering difficult questions or objections to the Christian faith. In light of this, and in light of the fact that some of my most enjoyable theological conversations have been with a Molinist friend who might respond to this post (!), here goes Bavinck's critique of Molinism in a nutshell:

"God does not derive his knowledge of the free actions of human beings from his own being, his own decrees, but from the will of his creatures. God, accordingly, becomes dependent on the world, derives knowledge from the world that he did not have and could not obtain from himself, and hence, in his knowledge, ceases to be one, simple, and independent - that is, God."

(Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 201)

Is this one a softball for Molinists/middle knowledgers? What do you make of it?

P. S. If you are a Molinist and regard this as a softball, don't let it drive you away from Bavinck on the whole; his Dogmatics is magisterial.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Shout Out to Calvin at 500

The arrival of John Calvin's 500th birthday is getting quite a lot of press, but I too will dive into the fray and make a comment. Here it is: read Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion! Unfortunately, many Christians associate Calvin with just a particular take on the matters of providence, predestination, and election. To be sure, he has important things to say on these, but don't miss out on his treatment of the knowledge of God, God, the human person, Jesus Christ, the church, the role of the pastor, and the life of faith. His work is compelling and pastorally sensitive. Beyond this, have fun with his incredibly long titles for sections and subsections!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reading for the Justification Debates

I've blogged a few times on the debates about the "new perspective on Paul," debates which have some bearing on our understanding of salvation in Christ. Strictly speaking, I'm inclined to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, but Luther was right to devote considerable attention to the doctrine of justification. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some key resources:

Alister McGrath's Iustitia Dei. A standard work on the history of the doctrine.

James Dunn's The New Perspective on Paul. A compilation of essays written by the author as well as a new introductory essay.

N. T. Wright's What St. Paul Really Said. A good introduction to the author's reframing of Pauline soteriology.

Wright's Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Further work building on the previous volume.

Wright's Justification: God's Plan, Paul's Vision. A current analysis of the debates and an updating of Wright's exposition of Paul's doctrine of justification.

Stephen Westerholm's Perspectives Old and New on Paul. A thorough account of historic and recent perspectives on Paul along with the author's own response to the new perspectivists.

Simon Gathercole's Where Is Boasting? An analysis of Second Temple Judaism's understanding of justification, divine judgment, good works, and so on, combined with an exposition of Romans 1-5 centered around the theme of "boasting" as it relates to justification and the new perspective.

Michael Bird's The Saving Righteousness of God. An balanced evaluation of the debates. Packed with insightful commentary.

Mark Husbands and Daniel Treier (eds.) Justification: What's at Stake in the Current Debates. Various essays on the imputation of Christ's righteousness, historical perspectives, and so on.

Bruce McCormack (ed.) Justification in Perpsective. Various essays on historical perspectives, dogmatic challenges, and the new perspective.

D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, Mark Seifrid (eds.) Justification and Variegated Nomism, 2 vols. For the more ambitious, a large and crucial collection of essays unpacking the soteriologies of Second Temple Judaism and the apostle Paul. Designed to respond to the new perspective's rendition of Paul's doctrine of justification.

If I may lay my cards on the table, Westerholm, Gathercole, and Bird have been most persuasive for me when it comes to critically assessing the new perspective, acknowledging its insights, and addressing its problematic features.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Theological Commitment, Eclecticism, and the Soft Ecumenism of Denver Seminary

A recent blog post by R. Scott Clark of Westminster (see has prodded me to reflect on the ethos of Denver Seminary as a theological school that welcomes students of various traditions and denominations, urges students to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials, promotes a measure of tolerance within the bounds of the NAE statement of faith, and encourages respectful discussion (probably more than "debate") among faculty and students of differing ecclesiastical viewpoints.

Clark's post ("A Gentle Rebuke to Brother John") expresses concern about John Piper's affirmation of Doug Wilson, who is set to speak at the Desiring God conference this year. Wilson's name has been affiliated with Federal Vision theology, which, Clark relates, has been repudiated by Reformed leadership on the whole. Because Piper believes Wilson doesn't preach "another gospel" (see Gal. 1:6), Clark's post considers the question of what, in Paul's theology, constitutes another gospel. In short, he concludes that both Federal Vision theology and the new perspective on Paul have earned the label heteron euangelion. In the course of these musings, Clark avers that it is unwise to allow Piper to speak on behalf of the Reformed tradition (particularly with respect to the theology of Wilson) because, despite being at the heart of the publicity of the "new Calvinism," Piper is a Baptist and thus can't genuinely bear the moniker "Reformed." In addition, in some of the responses to the post, the interaction is critical of the cut-and-paste spirit of some evangelical theology (I don't recall specific examples, but, say, holding a Reformed view of the perseverance of saints while holding a Wesleyan view of sanctification).

The gears have been turning in my mind and I find myself feeling a bit torn. I appreciate the insistence on reaching ecclesial-theological conclusions within denominational leadership structures. I'm also in agreement that at certain points N. T. Wright's work on justification is muddy and (dare I be so blunt?!) incorrect. I think we need people who will straightforwardly address any shortcomings in his work, but I wouldn't say that he advocates a heterdox gospel.

More interesting to me are the questions all of this highlights concerning the theological posture of evangelicalism in general and my own theological school, Denver Seminary, in particular. What does it mean to be committed to a church tradition and one of its denominations? Does a school like Denver Seminary render someone non-committal and deprived of the breadth of a thick ecclesial-theological framework? What issues must we confront if we do imbibe some of the cut-and-paste or minimalist mentality of contemporary evangelicalism? (Cf. esp. Richard Lints' The Fabric of Theology wherein he calls out the evangelical tendency toward a theological minimalism that cares for just those doctrines deemed necessary for experiencing salvation.)

I wrestle with this concretely as someone influenced by the Reformed tradition but, for exegetical reasons, tied to post-conversion baptism. What Reformed theologians have written on the knowledge of God, theology proper, the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and a host of other issues has elicited my allegiance. Yet I'm not a paedobaptist and I prefer historic premillennialism to amillennialism. Should I consider myself Reformed or do these two items disqualify me? Should I consider myself a Baptist because of my beliefs about one or two dogmatic loci?

And what of the (occasional or epidemic, depending on whom you ask!) eclecticism and minimalism of evangelical theology? How can we balance the truth in eclecticism (all doctrine is subject to the scrutiny of Scripture and sometimes this requires adjustments to theological systems and fresh incorporation of insights from other traditions) and the importance of broad, integrative, systematic accounts of sacra doctrina within the fold of a given tradition? As far as theological minimalism goes, one Denver Seminary grad told me that when he and his friends were preparing to write and defend their doctrinal papers for MDiv oral exams some felt that they almost didn't know how to take a position on certain issues. I've heard others confess that they didn't really care to choose between, say, a Calvinistic conception of salvation and an Arminian conception of salvation. Many, however, have escaped the snares of theological apathy and been enriched in various ways by the push clearly to differentiate between essentials and non-essentials.

After a barrage of questions and little substantive reflection, a few brief thoughts:

1) Theological commitment is necessary even if (or partially because?) it often threatens our desire to appear nuanced to the point of intellectual elusiveness. Simplicistic attitudes and naive dogmatism should be confronted during the process of theological growth, but, after times of fine-tuning and/or jettisoning some old beliefs, we plant ourselves in the soil of particular exegetical conclusions and doctrinal frameworks. The significance of the truth of the gospel and the needs of people will allow for nothing less.

2) In the midst of wrestling with my sense of ecclesial identity, I've come to believe that it's a good thing to land in a particular church tradition and to be willing to live and move in one of its denominations. No church tradition is perfect, no denomination is perfect, and no local church is perfect. But we do well to situate ourselves in the richness of that strand of Christianity with which we most resonate and then move forward in our participation in the local church. For those of us (not least seminary students [me in particular!] in a strange time of life struggling to put down roots at a church) who need a reminder: the activity of the Father, Son, and Spirit in and through the local church, not the parachurch, remains the hope of the world.

3) Not only is a minimalist approach to theology impractical, it's also a hindrance to the formation of Christian minds and lives. On the impracticality, take the example of one friend in an Anglican church leading a small group whose members were conflicted about the use of tongues during prayer times. While differences on the charismata shouldn't preclude all Christian fellowship, not to know what he believed would have been painfully pastorally impractical for my friend. On the hindrance to forming Christian minds and lives, I take a cue from Matthew Levering (see his Scripture and Metaphysics) who says that theological contemplation is instrumental in the removal of idolatry and the generation of spiritual service.

4) I think we need to remind ourselves to think in concentric circles. There are some circles, or spheres, of the Christian life and Christian leadership in which (I think) we should adopt a soft ecumenism. (By "soft ecumenism" I mean a cooperative attitude inclusive of those committed to historic Christian orthodoxy, which, of course, has its various expressions.) In other spheres (e.g., whom do you want preaching at your church and influencing the people on a hotly debated doctrinal topic?) we do well to exercise more caution.

Time is fleeting, so I stop here! What do you think?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Herman Bavinck on the Attributes of God Pt. I

Bavinck's presentation of the doctrine of God is, in a word, masterful. In his section on the trustworthiness of God he discusses what we mean when we call God "the Truth." According to Bavinck's organisation, biblical teaching on this subject is threefold.

First, there is a metaphysical dimension to the truthfulness of God. That is, he is all that belongs to the divine nature, which is itself characterized according to God's own idea of divinity. Other "gods" do not conform to true divinity (which, again, is determined by God's own idea of divinity) and thus are deceptive, mere pretenders.

Second, there is what Bavinck calls an ethical dimension to the truthfulness of God. He is truthful in that his self-revelation corresponds to his being. His communication to us, while always accomodated to the finitude of the human mind, always accurately reflects his nature and actions. He speaks the truth about himself and always fulfills his promises.

Third, there is what Bavinck calls the logical (or epistemological) dimension of the truthfulness of God. That is, the content of God's thoughts corresponds to the way things are. In other words, his knowledge is just that: knowledge. "God's knowledge is dynamic, absolute, fully correspondent truth. It is not acquired by research and reflection but is inherent in the divine being (essential) and precedes the existence of things."

I'm thankful to God for his people's thick descriptions of him!

I wonder what it would look like to relate this three-pronged account of truthfulness to humanity. Are we, like Christ, living out all that belongs to true humanity as determined by God? Does our speech disclose only the truth about who we are and what we will do? Do we seek after authentic knowledge of God and his world?

An Englishman in the Pulpit on July 5th!

For those of us who are keen to clarify that the Christian faith and the U. S. are not correlative, I think it was a nice touch to have our English pastor of global outreach preaching this morning.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Who Sparked Your Interest in Things Theological?

Hopefully for each one of us our pastors were instrumental in convincing us of the importance of theological reflection. That said, I'd like to hear which scholars and authors really got the ball rolling for folks and why their work proved so influential.

Millard Erickson's Christian Theology was a major catalyst for my desire to seek out further theological study. Christian Theology has been a standard text in the world of evangelical theological education and I came to appreciate it for several reasons. First, I noticed that he works hard to exemplify level-headed treatment of difficult issues. In one of his more recent works (What Does God Know and When Does He Know it?) he analysed the open theism debate in (I think) an admirably even-handed manner even as he remained committed to a traditional perspective on divine foreknowledge. Second, as a result of his patient approach to perplexing and heated questions, Erickson's Christian Theology made me feel like I wasn't just naively buying into given theological positions. Third, to be frank, I remember liking his work because I agreed with most of his conclusions!

Who sparked your interest in things theological and why?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Denver Seminary Welcomes Its 7th President

I've yet to meet Dr. Mark Young, but from what I've heard it sounds like he will be a solid leader for the school. See

Another post with some thoughts on Denver Seminary is on the way.