Sunday, May 30, 2004
…[N]atural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves. The metaphysical and existential projects to make a “place” for such a god cannot help but “prove” the existence of a god that is not worthy of worship. The Trinity is not a further specification of a more determinative reality called god, because there is no more determinative reality than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob exists then the world which we inhabit is inescapable personal. As Van Til points out, ‘God is man’s ultimate environment.’
It is within the Church that the Truth forces itself upon us as we are retuned to the wavelength of reality.
While there is evidently no way through mere logical analysis or logical construction to understand the ordered field of dynamic onto-relations with which we are concerned in Christian theology, we do have access to the set of conditions within which the distinctive order they embody spontaneously manifests itself, and by indwelling that order we can come up with the anticipatory conceptions or basic clues we need in developing our cognition of it. These conditions are found within the church of Jesus Christ, the worshipping community of God’s people. It is there in the midst of the church, its fellowship of love, its meditation upon God’s self-revelation through the Holy Scriptures, its Eucharistic life, and its worship of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit, that we become inwardly so adapted to God’s interaction with us that we learn, as Origen used to say, how to think worthily of God, that is, in a godly way appropriate to God. Just as a child by the age of five has learned an astonishing amount about the physical world to which he has become spontaneously adapted—far more than he could ever understand if he turned out to be the most brilliant of physicists—so we may learn far more than we can ever tell about God within the fellowship of the church, insofar as the church, of course, is genuinely committed to responsible participation in the gospel. It is as within the communion of the Spirit we learn obedience to God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ, and instead of being conformed to the cultural patterns of this world are inwardly transformed through a radical change of our mind, that we are able to discern the will of God and acquire the basic insights we need if we are really to develop our knowledge of him in a clear, articulate way. That is to say, within the interpersonal life of the church as the body of Christ and its actualization of corporate reciprocity with God in the space and time of this world, we find not only that we ourselves are personally assimilated into the onto-relational structures that arise, but that our minds becomes disposed to apprehend God through profoundly intelligible, although non-formalizable (or at least not completely formalizable) relations and structures of thought. We are spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of order that are beyond our powers to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth which steadily presses for increasing realization in our understanding. As far as I can see from the writings of the fathers, that is how classical patristic theology, such as we find coming to expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed and the conciliar theology that grew out of it, actually developed as it laid the foundation upon which all subsequent Christian theology rests.
It is, I believe, still within the matrix of the Eucharistic worship and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures, and evangelical experience in the fellowship and mission of the church, that the empirical and theoretical components in our knowledge of God are found fused together, in a kind of stereoscopic coordination of perceptual and auditive images, and thus provide us with the cognitive instruments we need for explicit theological understanding of God’s interaction with us.
Christ is the truth not because he is an epistemological principle which explains the universe, but because he is life and the universe of beings finds its meaning in its incorruptible existence in Christ, who takes up into Himself … the whole of creation and history. Being is inconceivable outside of life, and because of this the ontological nature of truth resides in the idea of life.By bringing together life and being, truth is seen to be both historical and ontological — both praxis and ‘being for ever’.
[T]heology is often conceived as a theoretical science, which can, at some secondary moment, be “applied” to practical life. Theology is theory, and the process of “application” serves as a bridge to connect it to the practical lives of Christians and the Church. Heidegger better captured the flavor of Christian teaching when he wrote that “every theological statement and concept addresses itself in its very content to the faith-full existence of the individual in the community.” When I teach that the persons of the Trinity live in eternal perichoretic unity, I am not merely making an ontological, first-order claim about the nature of reality—though I am doing that. I am not teaching a “timeless truth” that has to be “applied” to the ever shifting realities of an historical community. Rather, I teach about the Trinity as a way of regulating the language and practice of the Church, especially her language and practice in worship. Properly, all teaching is application.
Just as the gracious self-giving of God calls in question all forms of moral self-justification on our part, so it calls in question all forms of epistemic self-verification on our part. By the very act of putting us freely in the Right and Truth of God, justification tells us that we are in untruth. To seek verification on any other ground than that which God has freely provided for us is to falsify the gospel at its very basis, no less than to seek moral justification on any other ground than that which he has freely provided in the Righteousness of Christ. Hence justification or verification by the Grace of God’s Truth alone brings us with all our preconceptions and prior knowledge radically into question. By being put in the truth with God we are told that Jesus Christ is our Truth, that we have to look away from ourselves, our concepts and formulations, to him alone, and that therefore we dare not boast of a truth of our own. This applies, however, not only to all prior knowledge, for at every point in our ongoing theological thinking and speaking we have to let our knowledge, our theology, our doctrinal formulations, be called into question by the very Christ toward whom they point, for he alone is their proper Truth.
1 John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Volume One — Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) p.859. (return)
4 T.F. Torrance, Reality & Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999) pp.48-49 (return)
11 Notice that personhood is restored as constitutive of being. Were covenant subsequent to creation, as many Reformed theologians argue, the relationship between personhood and being would be ruptured. This issue may appear to be minor to many, but it is perhaps one of the most important questions facing the Reformed churches today. The answer given to this question will have a determinative effect for the whole of the rest of our theology. It does not surprise me that many strongly oppose the idea that creation never exists apart from covenant as the denial of this idea is hardwired into many Reformed theological methodologies. (return)
13 See my recent comments on Barth’s doctrine of election. (return)
Saturday, May 29, 2004
…for Barth, the doctrine of election is that which determines the theological definition of all men and women. Human existence is not some autonomous state determined by a man or woman’s own being and actions, it is rather determined by God’s gracious decision of election. Jesus Christ himself is both the electing God and the elected man. He himself has borne God’s rejection on behalf of all men and women and he himself is the elect of God: all who are elect are so exclusively in him and, since all men and women are defined ontologically as elect in him, there can be no other authentic definition of humanity…. For Barth, the true object of the doctrine of election is not some abstract concept of humanity in general, nor the totality of the human race, nor particular individuals; the true and sole object of election is Jesus Christ himself… Colwell maintains that, for Barth, the person who rejects God’s gracious election has chosen that possibility which God has, in Christ, determined to be impossible. How can this be maintained without going on to assert universalism? Colwell argues that ‘Barth’s concern is with a definition of being rather than with any assumption regarding the actual being of particular individuals, a concern for the ontological rather than for the ontic [147-8].’ Humanity has been declared elect in the ‘royal’ human — Jesus Christ. In the life of Christ the realization of God’s ordination for humanity occurred. Corresponding to God’s choice of mankind for Himself, was Christ’s choice of Himself for God. True humanity in us is realized on the basis of its prior realization in Christ. As we live in faith and obedience true humanity is actualized. [John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.107]. Those who choose against God’s ordination in Christ are falsifying the true meaning of their being and existence. They are choosing the ‘impossible possibility’. Although all men and women are ontologically defined as elect in Christ, this does not imply universalism. The actual election of men and women only occurs through the continuing activity of God. Colwell quotes Barth:—
It is always the concern of God to decide what is the world and the human totality for which the man Jesus Christ is elected, and which is itself elected in and with Him. It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which continually decides this. For the fact that Jesus Christ is the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards the whole world and every man is an enduring event which is continually fulfilled in new encounters and transactions, in which God the Father lives and works through the Son, in which the Son of God Himself, and the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son, lives and works at this or that place or time, in which He rouses and finds faith in this or that men, in which He is recognized and apprehended by this and that man in the promise and in their election — by one here and one there, and therefore by many men.Seemingly for Barth, election is not some past completed decision in ‘eternity past’. Rather election is something that is continually being actualized by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Colwell seeks to demonstrate how Barth’s view of election ties in with his understanding of God’s eternity. For Barth, God’s eternity is not ‘absolute otherness to time’. God’s eternity is rather His ‘freely chosen time’. God’s eternity is ‘pure simultaneity’; past, present and future are all equally and simultaneously present to God, without denying their distinctions. There is some analogy to be observed between God’s eternity and God’s omnipresence; just as God’s omnipresence does not negate space, so God’s eternity does not negate time. In the incarnation God takes our time to Himself, ‘permitting created time to become and be the form of His eternity.’ He becomes ‘present for us in the form of our own existence and our own world.’ God, however, is not trapped in the succession of time that we experience. God is not ruled over by time, but possesses time freely. Once we have understood Barth’s understanding of God’s eternity, his doctrine of election starts to take clearer shape. For Barth, God’s decision of election is a continual dynamic decision rather than a static decision of the past. God can never be trapped within His ‘primal decision’, because His decision is ‘authentically temporal’ and includes within it past, present and future. When Barth’s doctrine of election is considered in its relationship with his understanding of God’s eternity ‘the divine decision to elect is seen to be contemporaneous with the human history of those elected.’ Does this mean that election ceases to be a truly ‘divine’ decision? If all men are elect in Christ is the only thing that determines the actual inclusion or exclusion of individuals in this election a mere human decision? Barth has been accused of understanding the human act of faith primarily in noetic terms. Faith for Barth is the human act that identifies men and women as Christians. Barth argues that it is not creative but cognitive in character. Colwell argues that it is important to appreciate that, for Barth, ‘knowledge’ can never be the mere ‘acquisition of neutral information.’ In the process of biblical knowledge ‘that which is known confronts and totally transforms the knower.’ The human act of faith may only have a cognitive rather than a creative character, but it occurs as a result of the creative event of the Holy Spirit which transforms the being of the Christian. That which distinguishes the elect is the Holy Spirit’s effectual call. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that that which is already an actuality in the person of Jesus Christ is made actual in man. By the Holy Spirit, the ontological connection between Jesus Christ and men and women is made an existential reality. Consequently election is truly a divine decision. Those who have not been effectually called are not to be looked upon as unelect, but rather as only apparently rejected. This is, of course, not to deny the possibility of the ‘impossible possibility’ of final rejection.
SummaryPutting the pieces together. The doctrine of election ontologically defines all human beings. The whole human race is loved by God in Christ. The definition of humanity is determined by God’s love in Christ. To be truly human is to be elect in Christ. Those who reject this definition choose an ‘impossible possibility’ and deny the true meaning of their existence and being. This, however, is not the same as universalism. Humanity’s election in Christ is an ontological definition and not an ontic actualization. Human rejection of God’s electing love towards the whole humanity in Christ is a possibility, albeit an ‘impossible’ possibility. That it is an ‘impossible possibility’ is merely to say that it is made under the ‘non-willing’ of God. God’s will has not graced this choice with any validity. That which God does not positively will, however, is under the threat of His ‘unwillingness’ and wrath, which is nothing other than the jealousy of His love. The possibility of reprobation is therefore not denied but rather affirmed by the reality of the universality of God’s love. The ‘ontic actualization’ of the election that is already an actuality in Christ in individuals is achieved by the free work of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is that which distinguishes the elect from the apparently reprobate. The result of the work of the Holy Spirit is faith. Faith itself, however, has no creative character. For Barth election is a dynamic decision contemporaneous with human history. This is due to the fact that God’s eternity is understood as authentic temporality — His freely chosen time. Election is not a decision of ‘eternity past’, rather it includes within it past, present and future. This electing decision is decidedly Trinitarian. Colwell writes:
The work of the Holy Spirit is no more an addendum to the completed work of the Son than the work of the Son is an addendum to the eternal decision of the Father.The incarnated, crucified and resurrected Christ becomes the linchpin of the doctrine of election. In Him humanity is declared to be elect. Through the continued work of the Holy Spirit the electing decision in the Man Christ Jesus is made actual in the lives of men and women.
ReflectionsWhilst I still need to give a lot more consideration to Barth’s doctrine of election, I can certainly appreciate the appeal of this understanding. In my estimation, it has a number of key points in its favour. I. Election is far more rooted in the Triune God. The relationships that exist between the different Persons of the Trinity play a far more central role. The Spirit is not marginalized as He is in some forms of the doctrine of election. II. It seems to me that Barth’s doctrine of election is one that can be essentially constructed from the materials provided by Christology. Its Christocentric character (although perhaps occasionally at risk of the excesses of Christomonism) protects it from a depersonalized determinism. God’s election is always personal. The content of this decree has been revealed in the incarnate Christ in whom election is actualized and so the doctrine need not threaten us. Rather the doctrine of election directs our attention to Christ Himself. It is through a personal relationship with the Elect One by the Spirit that we can know our own election as a reality. III. Barth’s understanding of eternity can help to relieve some of the problems that attach themselves to the concept of election in ‘eternity past’. If God’s decree is an abstract decree in ‘eternity past’ determining all that will come to pass, one cannot help but feel threatened by it. Whether we are elect or not, it does seem to depersonalize us. Within such a decree human decision not only seems to be denied any ultimacy (which is a good thing), it also seems to be virtually negated altogether (which is not, in my opinion, a good thing). If everything has been predetermined in ‘eternity past’ does not history risk becoming a meaningless charade? I believe that Barth’s approach is suggestive of ways in which we can maintain the authenticity of human decisions, while still maintaining the absolute sovereignty of God. No longer does a prior decision of the Father in ‘eternity past’ make election appear to be a fait accompli to be ‘outworked’ within history. More weight can be placed on the reality of God’s sovereignty in history. The sovereign freedom of God’s work in the present can be maintained. God is not ‘imprisoned’ to merely acting out His prior decree. I believe that the very concept of ‘eternity past’ can risk threatening the freedom of God by suggesting that He is in some sense unfree in the succession of past, present and future. He would become bound by time just as we are. If God’s electing decision is dynamic and contemporaneous the reality of human freedom can be preserved without a denial of the absolute sovereignty of God. The human being that God elects is not an abstract conception in God’s own mind, but is a real concrete living person ‘other’ to God Himself. The man is certainly not autonomous, but this does not mean that he is a tabula rasa. Those elected by God in Christ are men who were created to bear His image. They are men in concrete situations and men who live in concrete relationships. They are not Cartesian individuals. The importance of the Church and the means of grace will not be threatened by such an understanding of election. The importance of the historical aspect of election can now be seen without condemning the doctrine to merely exist in history. Election never becomes a mere historical decision, nor does it become a decision pre-existing and determining history from afar: God’s elects in His ‘authentic temporality’. Redemptive history and eschatology can play a far more prominent role in such understanding of election. It is interesting that, in Scripture, election is related to eschatology in a manner that the traditional Reformed doctrine never seems to be entirely capable of adequately doing justice to, even in its more nuanced forms. IV. Barth’s doctrine explains how the universal offer of the gospel can be grounded in a universal love of God without subscribing to the doctrine of universalism. V. Barth seems to provide a far more compelling account of anthropology. Barth’s doctrine of election relates anthropology and Christology in a far more satisfying manner than the traditional doctrine. God is saving a ‘human totality’ and a ‘world’, not just individuals. This, however, does not demand universalism. By claiming that election in Christ ontologically defines all men and women as elect in Christ, Barth provides us with the materials by which we can relate the old humanity to the new humanity without confusing them. As Tim Gallant recently observed on his blog Adam was, in some sense, created ‘in the Son’. True ‘anthropology’ is determinatively revealed in the incarnate Son. As John Zizioulas observes, the ‘substratum of existence is not being but love’ — one might also say ‘not bare creation, but covenant — creation as covenant.’ Mankind was created by the loving will of God ‘in the Son’. All things were made with Christ in mind. God’s loving will is identifiable with the final consummation of creation in communion with God ‘in Christ’ (the incarnate Son). The incarnate Son is the personification of God’s loving will. The understanding of anthropology that this leads us to is beautifully Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological. The true being of humanity is with Christ in God. This true being is yet future but this future invades the present in the reality-filled anticipation of this future that is the Church as the Body of Christ — the gift of the future in the present. Exegesis of Colossians 3:1-11 should bear out most of these points beautifully. Much more could be said, but I will stop here. I was surprised to notice how much my own thoughts had converged with those of Barth on this issue, even prior to my reading him on the subject. If I have time in the next few months I might try to give more attention to the issue.
Friday, May 28, 2004
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
Monday, May 24, 2004
I am not about to shed any tears about this news. Unfortunately the reason behind the decline of the Unitarian Church is, ironically, its success. The article goes on to say:
One of the country’s oldest denominations, which counts the founder of the world wide web as an adherent, is in terminal decline and will be extinct within decades, one of its senior ministers has said.
The Unitarian movement, a dissenting church that grew out of the Reformation and denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, has fewer than 6,000 members in Britain; half of whom are aged over 65. Many of its chapels are struggling financially.
Senior figures in the organisation believe that, in terms of organisation and structure, the movement could disappear within a generation....
There are more than 180 Unitarian congregations in Britain. Unitarian ministers conduct naming ceremonies and most will perform same-sex blessings. They hold Sunday services with hymns and “worship of the divine”.
The doctrine of the Trinity has been so mauled by liberal and feminist theologians that we no longer need the Unitarians to do it for us. The Trinity in many evangelical churches has been sidelined in worship that is, to all intents and purposes, unitarian. Our worship is no longer entirely shaped by the Trinity but is often directed at a far vaguer conception of God. The Trinity is little more than a 'doctrine', an excuse for not being JWs or Mormons. We should not be surprised at the loss of assurance and the individualism that results when the Trinity loses its centrality. The more that I think about it, the more I am persuaded that many of the recent debates in Reformed circles over such 'movements' as Auburn Avenue and even the New Perspective, are essentially debates about the way that the Trinity functions in theology. Soteriology has often been detched from theology proper and it should not surprise us that our understanding of soteriology needs careful reworking as we begin to recapture the importance of the Trinity. A great place to start is with the work of Ralph Smith.
As a proponent of rational, scientific inquiry combined with belief in God, Unitarianism was a natural home for post-Enlightenment scientists, writers and philosophers who rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
But now that it is no longer illegal to embrace a non-Trinitarian belief, and many churches turn a blind eye to “believers” who have liberal views on traditional doctrines, there is not the demand for the Unitarian movement that there was.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Saturday, May 22, 2004
Both seeing and hearing are associated with authority, though in different ways. Scripturally, the eye is the organ of judgment; to look and see is to stand in authority over something. (It’s no accident that modern man gives priority to sight, “seeing is believing” is the credo of scientific man.) There are occasions when human beings are called to “see” and “judge,” even to “see” that the Lord is good. When the Lord speaks though, we should be in a posture of those under judgment. Scripturally, the ear is the organ of submission; when we “listen,” “give ear,” or “hear,” we are yielding authority to the speaker. Reading along with the eye while the Scripture is being read puts us in the wrong stance in relation to the Word. It is over us; we are not over it.We must also recognize that reading (not reading aloud) is a very private practice. However, the Bible is addressing us as the Body of Christ and not merely as a collection of isolated individuals. Furthermore, sound and speech, as many people have observed, is something peculiar to living beings. You may be able to see, touch, taste and smell a dead animal. However, generally it is only a living animal that makes any sound. By focusing upon looking at the Word on the page, rather than hearing it proclaimed, we become more inclined to be judges over the Word. The corpus of Scripture is not to be dissected by the detached exegete, for Scripture is the living voice of God that dissects us, ‘piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow,’ being ‘a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’ One dissects a corpse, one must respond in an utterly different manner to the living voice of the God who created you. The preached Word renders us naked and open in God’s sight, rather than presenting the Word naked and open in our sight. The Word always retains its power, vitality and mystery and can never be comprehended and spatialized as a detached collection of objects of knowledge by us. Herein lies part of my concern about images of Christ: images of Christ can all too easily eclipse the dynamism of the speaking voice. The Christ of many icons is ‘passive’, lying in His mother’s arms as an infant or dead body, or hanging upon the cross. The image or icon of Christ always has a strong tendency to idolatry (whether this tendency is followed or not). The idol is a ‘spatialization’ of God that enables us to exert control over Him. Rather than appreciating the transcendence of God, the image can be an attempt to render Him a manipulable object within our world, just as the ‘fetishization’ of the ‘lost original’ fails to recognize the continuous arriving of the transcendent source. I believe that this is related to the manner in which many evangelicals have made an idol out of the printed Scripture. The voice of the preached Word, however, is never lifeless. It is this voice which serves to animate us, by the breath of the Spirit. It is the Word of Christ that ‘dwells in us richly’. The living voice is far harder to depersonalize. The living voice always compels, confronts and quickens us. It is the living voice that cuts us up and presents us as lifeless in God’s presence. It is the living voice that brings bone together with bone, clothes us with sinews, flesh and skin and raises us to new life by the inbreathing of the Spirit. A further danger of ‘reading along’ with the pastor is that it gives the false impression that we are all engaged in the same act. However, the pastor stands as the symbol of Christ in His Church. Christ is the Man of the Spirit whose voice brings life. When we hear the pastor proclaiming Scripture we are to listen to His voice as that of Christ Himself. The pastor is the real symbol of Christ’s authority over His Church. If we confuse the pastor’s proclamation of the Word with our act of reading along we will gradually fall into an egalitarian form of ecclesiology, which fails to recognize the differentiated ministries within the Church. This, of course, leads to the feminization of the pulpit and many of the other errors that now afflict the evangelical churches.
Friday, May 21, 2004
…circumvent temporality and contingency and to spatialize time by gathering up the present moment with a view to offering it to an anonymous posterity, not for the sake of interpersonal benefit through time, but as a means to ensure lasting reputation, a reflexive “gift” which does not freely inhabit time, but seeks to reclaim identically the anterior moment of donation, thus transposing time into a spatial domain.The printed or written word is conceived of as inert and spatial and can often be employed as a means by which to permanently possess the lost ‘original event’ that it records. When the event is recorded on the page the original event is rescued from time and placed within an ‘undying space’. However, the written or printed word needs to confess that it is ‘a new and different performance in itself’ and not an ‘identical reproduction’ that ‘stems the flow of time’. Associated to this view of the printed word and the fetishization of origins is a desire for ‘discrete, unchanging, and circumscribable facts’. This desire leads to the practice of demythologization in order to uncover the truth that underlies all of our narratives. Most modern readers are inclined to assume ‘that an historical account is true only to the extent that it describes “what actually happened”.’
This, I believe, provides us with a helpful model for reading Scripture as an authoritative book. Were the Bible a mere true record of past events it would be hard to imagine the Bible acting as an authoritative book. In this model, however, the Church itself is the interpretative task. Inerrancy. I believe that it should caution us in the manner in which we relate the account of Scripture to ‘what actually happened’. Inerrancy is a doctrine that should be ‘fluid’ enough to permit the Scripture to challenge our preconceived notions of what truth looks like. Peter Enns writes:—
Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted 'authority' for the task in hand. That is, anyone could Bible, be properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This 'authority' of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.
The purpose of speaking of an inerrant Scripture is not to generate an abstract comment about the church’s sacred book, but to reflect on our doctrine of God, that is, that God does not err. But such a confession does not determine the manner in which the notion of an inerrant Scripture is articulated. It may very well be that the very in which God “does not err” is by participating in the cultural conventions of the time, in this case, first-century Palestine. The Bible is not inerrant because it conforms to some notion of how we think something worthy of the name “Scripture” should behave.The ‘truth’ of an account can exceed its historicity in a number of ways. Perhaps certain accounts in Scripture are not the historical accounts that we first took them to be (e.g. Job or Jonah).
4 Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Balckwell Publishers, 1998) pp.3ff. (return)
10 Although I would be cautious about denying the historicity of the events recorded in these books, I am certainly open to questioning whether they are intended to be read in the manner in which they are generally read. I do not believe that this needs to be seen as an assault on the truth of Scripture; it is just a recognition that what I deem to be ‘truth’ might not be what the Scripture regards as truth. I am still open to be challenged on this issue. (return)
11 However, I would readily acknowledge that there are many gifted biblical scholars who have done careful study on the factuality of certain scriptural accounts without losing sight of the importance of the narrative. See, for example, James Jordan’s Creation in Six Days: A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999). (return)
13 This analogy comes from Geerhardus Vos’ fantastic essay ‘The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline’ in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980). (return)
Thursday, May 20, 2004
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
James Jordan on the Nature of True FaithIn his stimulating article Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration, James Jordan questions the validity of the distinction between ‘temporary’ faith and ‘persevering’ faith. If we are speaking in terms of a diachronic distinction then it is true by definition. However, historically most Reformed people have sought to maintain a synchronic distinction between ‘temporary’ and ‘persevering’ faith (e.g. Canons of Dort: Canon 5, Rejection of Errors 7). Temporary faith is maintained to be qualitatively different to persevering faith. Jordan argues that this is going too far in trying to read the hearts of men. He looks at the Parable of the Sower, a parable that has often been brought up to prove this point. Jordan observes: (a) that the parable is not intended to give us a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’; (b) even assuming that it is a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’, the seed springs up on two types of the soil, implying that the faith was indeed real, albeit temporary; (c) the gift given (the seed) in each case is the same; the only difference lies in the soil; (d) the parable says nothing about the sower changing the soil before casting the seed on it; pressing the imagery of the parable to provide a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’ might lead us to unwarranted theological conclusions. Jordan argues in favour of seeing the four types of soil as four types of behaviour instead. He also, following N.T. Wright, favours a more redemptive historical reading of the soils; the soil is Israel and the seed is the ‘faithful word-bearing Remnant’. This seed was totally rejected in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. When the Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple the ‘Israel-Soil received the Remnant-Seed with joy’, but then fell away. During the Greek period the Remnant seed was choked out. ‘But in the New Creation, the New Soil will receive the True Remnant (Jesus Himself) and will flourish.’ Jordan goes on to reaffirm the applicability of the parable to the ‘different aspects and qualities of faith’ seen in the Church. However, he cautions against using the parable to teach four (or two) kinds of human nature as this is unwarranted by the text. I believe that what Jordan is saying makes a lot of sense. However, the frequent objection that I hear is that this destroys any foundation for assurance. This may initially sound counter-intuitive, but I believe that a belief in the reality of apostasy from true saving blessings is, in some sense at least, essential for true assurance. The problem, as I see it, is that such an understanding of the synchronic distinction between true faith and temporary faith has crippled the assurance of many Protestants.
The Problem of ApostasyWe all know people who have turned their back on the faith. One of the most zealous Christians I ever encountered became a Satanist. I was greatly blessed by this man when I was a young teenager on a Christian camp. He encouraged and deeply challenged me in my Christian walk. I remember praying at length with him and being struck by his fervency and love. When he fell away it hit me like a ton of bricks. How do you react to an apostasy as absolute as that? The answer given by most Calvinists is that what he fell away from was not really salvation. Closely related to this (although in my opinion to be carefully distinguished from it) is the claim, made by Calvin himself (see Institutes III.xxiv.6f.), that the person’s faith was never true faith. Most Calvinists seem to link these two answers far more closely together than Calvin does. For many, the person who does not have true faith does not have salvation in just about any sense of the word. Essentially no one really falls away, because those who do fall away don’t fall away from anything. Anyone who has read Calvin on Hebrews 6 will know that his position is more balanced than this. He also writes in his Sermons on Timothy and Titus (p.817):—
For we ought to have a zeal to have the Church of God enlarged, and increase rather than diminish. We ought to have a care also of our brethren, and to be sorry to see them perish: for it is no small matter to have the souls perish which were bought by the blood of Christ.The belief that even the apostate was in some sense bought with the blood of Christ is present in a number of different places in the writings of Calvin. Calvin also writes regarding the special call, in Institutes III.xxiv.8, that God
...deigns for the most part to give to the believers alone, while by the inward illumination of His Spirit He causes the preached Word to dwell in their hearts. Yet sometimes He also causes those whom He illumines only for a time to partake of it; then He justly forsakes them on account of their ingratitude and strikes them with even greater blindness. [emphasis added]Clearly, for Calvin, the apostate really falls away from something. However, even for Calvin’s position, due to its positing of a synchronic qualitative distinction between temporary and persevering faith, the question of how to distinguish between the two in practice rears its ugly head. As the difference is situated in the quality of the faith itself and not in the duration of the faith, we must be able to separate between the two somehow.
Faith in FaithIf you ever want to extinguish your assurance, read someone like John Owen on Hebrews 6. Great pains are taken to distinguish ‘sanctifying light and knowledge’ from mere ‘spiritual illumination’, ‘tasting’ from ‘spiritual eating and drinking’. Owen is replete with observations such as the following:—
There is a goodness and excellency in this heavenly gift, which may be tasted or experienced in some measure by such as never receive them, in their life, power, and efficacy. They may taste,— (1.) Of the word in its truth, not its power; (2.) Of the worship of the church in its outward order, not its inward beauty; (3.) Of the gifts of the church, not its graces.One begins to feel sorry for the believer who feels that he must examine every aspect of his faith with a magnifying glass and fine toothcomb before he can be sure that it is real. My fear is that such an approach leads to our putting faith in faith itself, rather than in Christ. Our assurance of salvation becomes founded upon the ‘infused’ quality of faith rather than upon Christ Himself. I believe that every Protestant should be readily able to identify the danger of such a position. This danger is further magnified by those who obscure the objectivity of God’s grace in the Word and sacraments and gradually make the reality of God’s grace dependent upon either the presence of faith (whether true or temporary) in our hearts or upon our eternal election. In both cases we are pressed into looking for assurance where none is to be found, or into seeing faith as some sort of leap in the dark. Ultimately, for all too many Protestants, their faith rests, to some degree at least, upon a highly suspect concept of the infusion of grace in the form of faith itself. Our faith grasps wildly at fleeting dispositions and inner feelings of hope because we no longer are entirely sure whether the grace presented in the Word and sacraments is not illusory in our case. We distrust the Word outside of us that we hear, eat, drink and are washed with and so seek to establish assurance on the ground of our internal affections, emotions and impressions — the Spirit’s inner whisperings. This leads to faith becoming a work and assurance is annihilated. One notices that, for many, the definitions of faith itself become so precise and detailed as to almost be legalistic. So much rests upon determining the reality of faith and its not having the quality of temporary faith. Groping in the Stygian pitch of our sinful hearts, we should not be surprised if we find only cause for despair. As the object of faith becomes increasingly intangible and internal and as the reality of the sacraments as objective means of grace is questioned, people begin to continually doubt whether they are saved and seek to work it out by studying their own faith to see if it differs from ‘temporary’ faith. Faith becomes solipsistic and preoccupied with itself. Losing themselves in morbid introspectionism and doubt, people fail to see that faith itself always struggles with unbelief and is often weak and can only gain strength from elsewhere. Faith soon becomes aware of its own nakedness when it loses its extrospective focus and becomes curved in on itself. The doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved’ (which, as I am sure that we are all aware, is not Reformed) tempts us to place our faith in the reality of our own conversions rather than in Christ. Those who believe this doctrine all too easily rely upon a past ‘conversion experience’ for assurance. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, coupled with this understanding of the distinction between true and temporary faith, can fall into the danger of looking for assurance to the quality of faith itself. ‘Once saved, always saved’ can lead to an error like the error of Israel. Israel trusted in the gift of circumcision, the Torah and the Temple and relied on these rather than upon the God who gave them. However, like an adulterous wife rattling the jewelry given to her by her husband, Israel only succeeded in provoking God to jealousy. How do we believe that we will escape the same fate? The qualitative distinction between true and temporary faith, alongside the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, can all too easily present us with our own faithfulness as the foundation for assurance, making us morbidly self-conscious and causing us to despair as soon as our lives fail to manifest the fullness of the fruit of the Spirit. Whilst generally preserving us from the presumption that is all too often caused by the doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved’, this doctrine leads us to doubt instead. My belief is that James Jordan’s questioning of the validity of the synchronic qualitative distinction between ‘temporary’ and ‘persevering’ faith is extremely helpful to alleviate the problem that I have just outlined. Jordan’s doctrine presents us clearly with Christ Himself brought near to us in the Word and the sacraments as the object of faith and not our eternal election, the reality of our faith or the reality of our conversion experiences.
Self-examinationBut, you may object, surely we are called to examine ourselves? Yes we are, but biblical self-examination takes a very different shape to the self-examination encouraged by the synchronic distinction between temporary and true, persevering faith. The self-examination encouraged by the endless distinctions between different types of faith is a self-examination that all too easily concentrates on the intrinsic qualities of faith itself (whether it is a fruitful faith, etc.), rather than upon faith in its relationship to Christ. As our salvation is found in Christ and not in faith abstracted from Christ we will always be faced with despair if we take the wrong approach to assurance. The infinite fine distinctions between different types of faith can cause us to succumb to a perfectionist view of faith. This, in turn, leads to an inability to speak truthfully and deal ruthlessly with the presence of unbelief in our hearts. If your assurance begins to rest upon the intrinsic quality of faith itself, you will either be plagued with doubt or you will train yourself in self-deception. It is my contention that the Christian should always be extremely suspicious of the deceitfulness of his own heart and should not trust it for a moment. Only an approach to self-examination that does not rest assurance upon the intrinsic quality of faith but challenges us to continually look to Christ will be properly equipped to address unbelief effectively. Many Christians, by seeking to trust their own hearts, become either deluded or despairing. We must remember that unbelief doesn’t happen overnight. Unbelief creeps up on us gradually, over a period of time. Asserting the possibility that people can truly fall away from salvation and renounce true faith should not lead us to continual doubt or despair regarding salvation, but should challenge us to distrust our hearts and trust Christ, being increasingly aware of the deceitfulness of sin and our own hearts. Our assurance is found in our continued relationship to Jesus Christ, and as we begin to look away from Christ our assurance falls away and is replaced by presumption or doubt. However, even the most feeble faith can be freed from any doubt as it continues to look to Christ. Of course, it is worth asking ourselves what ‘faith’ really is. Too many people have been deceived into thinking of faith as some sort of impersonal ‘stuff’. The manner in which we talk about faith does tempt us to conceive of it in such a manner and this conception has served to aggravate the problem I am speaking of, if not to create it in the first place. Is faith some substance? I do not believe that the Bible gives us any reason to think of ‘faith’ as a substance any more than ‘grace’ is to be thought of as a substance. Peter Leithart writes:—
“Faith” is spoken of as if it were an object, when in fact it is the thoroughly personal response of trust to the thoroughly personal revelation of God. Because faith describes a certain kind of personal relationship, it has all the variations and complexities and ups-and-downs of any personal relationship. Scripture confirms this, by speaking in terms of “weak” faith, “little” faith, temporary faith. (65)There are too many people who, conceiving of faith as an impersonal substance, believe that they can apostatize and sin willfully and the substance of ‘faith’ will still lurk somewhere in the recesses of their hearts, guaranteeing them final salvation. We could also question the tacit definition of ‘salvation’ employed by many. Some think of salvation as an object that we may or may not be able to mislay. Others think of salvation as some sort of abstract category that God puts us in so that we can get to heaven when we die. Others think of salvation as an internal reconfiguring of abstract individuals in an event called regeneration. Surely we must respond to all such notions, that the biblical understanding of salvation is that of a relationship established between us and Christ, rooted in the Church. As Leithart observes in Against Christianity, salvation is not a substance that can be either infused into people or an object given to them directly by God. Salvation, like grace or righteousness should be understood in terms of relationship, rather than in terms of substance. Theologically, ‘salvation’ functions as an adjective to refer to restored individuals, communities and relationships. A salvation that is purely individual is an incomplete salvation. It fails to save the man that actually exists, as no man is an autonomous individual. If individuals are to be saved, salvation must take a social form. Individuals are saved as part of the new community of the Church. Salvation brings us outside of ourselves and into communion. In conclusion some may question whether the claim that true believers can fall away overturns the sovereignty of God’s grace. I don’t believe that it does, for God is most certainly sovereign throughout, even when someone apostatizes. It only highlights the greatness of God’s grace in His persevering with us despite our unworthiness and should cause us to rely upon Him even more. All of those who God wills to receive the resurrection of life on the last day will undoubtedly receive it. Nevertheless, we are not called to pry into the hidden will of God concerning us (Deuteronomy 29:29) when the reality of His love for us has been made entirely clear to us in the Christ who meets us in the Gospel, speaking to us in His Word, cleansing and forgiving us in Baptism and feeding us on Himself in the Supper. Instead let exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of us be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. Let us look to Jesus, the author and finisher of faith and consider Him, lest we become discouraged in our souls.