The Biblical Basis for Christ’s Descent to the Dead

I’ve written a few times here, and last week at TGC, on the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended to the dead.” I also presented a paper on the topic at this year’s Los Angeles Theology Conference. In each of those venues, I’ve concluded similarly that 1) the phrase should continue to be used in the Creed and 2) the theological meaning of the phrase is that Christ experiences death with us and for us in his humanity. His burial is vicarious, victorious, and eschatological, in that in it he experiences death with us and for us, defeats death, and gives us hope for own intermediate state between our death and his second coming. While I believe these conclusions are biblically supported and grounded, my focus in those posts and essays has not been on demonstrating the biblical foundation for the doctrine but instead on articulating the meaning and importance of the creedal phrase. Here I want to address that lacuna and walk through the exegetical rationale for my understanding of what Jesus was doing during his time in the tomb.

First, let’s look at the key New Testament texts that discuss Jesus’ burial and/or death:

Matthew 12:40

40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Acts 2:25-32

this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
    for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
    my flesh also will dwell in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
    or let your Holy One see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

Romans 6:3-4

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 10:6-7

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Ephesians 4:8-10

Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
    and he gave gifts to men.”

9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Hebrews 2:14-15

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

1 Peter 3:18-22

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

I realize that 1 Peter 3:19 is usually dismissed by evangelicals today as not referring to Christ’s burial but instead to the pre-incarnate Son preaching through the Spirit to Noah. I find Grudem and Feinberg’s exegesis unconvincing on that point, but nevertheless for the sake of argument let’s move on and grant their point. What do these other texts teach about Christ’s death, and particularly his being dead/burial?

1. Christ goes to the place of the dead.

Christ’s human body is in the grave; on that all Christians agree. What is sometimes not articulated, though, is that Scripture indicates that Christ’s human spirit goes to the place where all human spirits go upon death – Sheol. This is taught particularly in Matt. 12:40; Eph. 4:8; and Rom. 10:6-7. In the Gospel text, Jesus compares his time in the tomb – “the heart of the earth” (cf. Ps. 71:20) – with Jonah’s 3 days in the belly of the great fish. In Jonah 2:1-2, the prophet explicitly links “the belly of the fish” (v. 1) with “the belly of Sheol” (v. 2). Jonah views his time in the fish’s belly as synonymous with being in Sheol. He is, in his piscene prison, experiencing what all humanity experiences in death. When Jesus in Matt. 12:40 says he will be in the “heart of the earth,” he is equating the grave with Jonah’s travel in the fish’s gut, just as Jonah did. To say it another way, Jonah equates the fish’s belly with Sheol, and Jesus, in comparing himself to Jonah, is saying he is going to Sheol.

Perhaps even more explicit are Eph. 4:8 and Rom. 10:6-7. These verses have been explained away as referring to the incarnation, but their allusions to the Old Testament make it clear that the “descent” language is a reference to a descent to the place of the dead (“Sheol”), not to the Son taking on flesh. Eph. 4:9 alludes to both Ps. 63:9 and Isa. 44:23, each of which use “the depths of the earth” as a synonym for the grave, or Sheol (remember Jesus’ “the heart of the earth” in Matt. 12:40?). Rom. 10:6-7 conflates “abyss” and “the place of the dead” – the latter of which ought to make the reference explicit enough! – and “abyss in the OT many times is synonymous with the Sheol.

Jesus goes to the place of the dead. By this the NT means that his body is in the grave and that, therefore, his human spirit also is in the place of the dead. Notice the twofold division of Acts 2:27-28 that supports this – Jesus’ soul is not abandoned, and his flesh does not see corruption.

I won’t get into the divisions of Sheol in this post. Suffice it to say that when Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43) I take it to be a reference to the side of Sheol that is for the righteous dead (e.g. Luke 16:19-31). Hades is typically used to refer to the side of Sheol that is for the unrighteous dead.

In any case, the point is that Jesus’ human body and spirit experience death in the same way that all human bodies and spirits experience it – the body goes to the grave, the soul goes to  Paradise (or Hades if one is not justified before God – which is not true of Jesus, obviously).

2. Christ conquers death by experiencing death.

This seems to be the clear point of Acts 2:24-25 and Heb. 2:14-15 (and Col. 2:14-15). Death and the devil are defeated by Christ, the second person of the Triune God in flesh, touching death and thereby swallowing it up in life.

3. Christians are united to Christ in his death.

This is the point of Rom. 6:3-4. Just as Jesus died and was buried, thereby putting to death Death, Satan, Sin, and the Grave, so we now are united to him in his death that we might put to death our own indwelling sin.

This is what I mean when I recite the Apostles’ Creed and affirm that “we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who…descended to the dead.”

The Benefits of Baptist Theology and Practice

A couple of weeks ago Luke and I wrote two posts on ways Baptists can learn from the larger Christian tradition in our worship practices, specifically through reciting the ecumenical creeds and through more frequent and intentional Scripture readings. These reflections, and more like them that we will write in the coming weeks, are in part a continuation of a paper we delivered together at last year’s ETS meeting and subsequently published in the Journal of Baptist Studies, “Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity.”

After delivering the paper, one of the questions we received, and one which we continue to be asked, went something like this: “While I appreciate what you’ve said, I find myself on the other side of the coin asking, ‘what can/should other Christians learn from Baptists?'” This is not a question I take lightly, and it is one that I believe we should ask. The reason that we started from the other direction, and continue to write on it, is because we think that it is that side of the coin – what can Baptists learn from other Christians? – that has been neglected in Baptist life. Nevertheless, we still do believe and wholeheartedly affirm that Baptists are theologically and liturgically distinct in some ways from other Christians, and that these distinctions can be sources of growth and reform in non-Baptist denominations. So then, what are some areas where non-Baptists can learn from this “people of the Book?”

1. That nickname, “people of the Book,” points to the first area where non-Baptists can learn from Baptists. We are doggedly biblical, in at least two ways. First, in our theology, we want first and foremost to be faithful to the biblical text. This means that creeds and confessions, while able to serve as hermeneutical guides, are never the last word. If a creed or confession can be shown to contradict or even to obfuscate biblical teaching, then we feel free to revise said creed or confession. We believe that the Baptist vision comes closest to semper reformanda (“always reforming”), simply because we are always willing to reform. Now, this commitment to be biblical has sometimes resulted in distortions of sola scriptura, namely “no creed but the Bible!” and a suspicion of virtually all creeds, confessions, and systematic conclusions. But that has not been the historic Baptist approach to historic theology; instead, Baptists throughout our history have been appreciative of and have learned from Christians in our past and present. But this has been coupled with a willingness unsurpassed by other denominations to depart from those we learn from when they are wrong.

This is particularly true in two areas – baptism and polity. Baptists, in our view, did not go beyond the Magisterial Reformers but instead completed the reform that they began and did not finish. We baptize only adults because we believe that this is the clear teaching of Scripture, rather than an implication of it and/or a practice handed down throughout church history. The same can be said for church polity, with respect to congregational government, regenerate church membership, and the balance of form and freedom in worship practices. This is not to say that implications of Scripture or church tradition are never important, but it is to say that when the Bible clearly teaches otherwise we are called to jettison them and hold on to what is explicit in the prophets and the apostles.

Baptists are also doggedly biblical is in our worship services. We, perhaps more so than any other Protestant tradition, insist on the primacy of the Word in worship, and especially of the preached word. This is of course not to say that other traditions do not emphasize the preached word – Presbyterians particularly come to mind as being similar in their liturgical focus. But it is to say that Baptists have a long history of great preaching and of seeing preaching as the culmination of the worship service.

2. Another way that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists is in our commitment to evangelism and missions. Baptists have a long history of urging hearers of the Word to respond to the message that has been preached. The Word of God calls for a response, both to believers and unbelievers, and so it is wholly appropriate to invite sinners to repent, believe, and be baptized if they have not trusted in Christ, or to repent, believe, and continue in their walk with God if they have trusted in Christ. There are ways to twist this practice into something that is not biblical, and Baptists in the past have fallen prey to these. But that is not to say that the heart of the matter – the call to respond to the Word of God as it is preached – is not biblical. That most certainly is.

Baptists have also been at the forefront of the modern missions movement at virtually every step. While other Christians certainly affirm the need to share the gospel with all nations, it is Baptists who have continued to place this front and center in their local and denominational life.

There are surely other ways that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists, but these are two that come immediately to mind.

The Benefits of Baptists Reading Scripture Publicly

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” -1 Timothy 4:13

Yesterday, Matt suggested some of the benefits that accrue to Baptists reading the creeds together in our worship services. Today, I want to follow up on that post by highlighting some of the benefits of the systematic, public reading of Scripture in our corporate worship gatherings. I see three main benefits to this practice:

It is biblical.

When the apostle Paul gave instructions to Timothy about what he should do in Paul’s absence, among his top priorities was “the public reading of Scripture” in the church’s worship gatherings (1 Tim. 4:13). The Greek wording used here is briefer than most English translations. Paul simply says, “Until I come, devote yourself to the reading (τῇ ἀναγνώσει). Because “exhortation” and “teaching” follow closely on the heels of this initial command in verse 13, it is fairly obvious that Paul has in mind here the reading of Scripture. And because these latter activities imply a public context, so also the first. Indeed, “reading” in an ancient context was “normally done aloud and thus involv[ed] verbalization” (Louw-Nida 33.68). This same word is used in 2 Corinthians 3:14, where it refers to the Scripture readings of the Jewish synagogues, and Paul also uses this word when he commands the churches to read his own writings publicly (Col. 4:16), implying that his apostolic teaching possessed an authority on par with the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).

It is historical.

So the early church apparently took up the synagogue practice of reading, explaining and applying Scripture in their corporate worship. This practice continued after the New Testament era as well, as evidenced by Justin Martyr’s description of a typical Christian worship service in the second century:

And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things (Apology, 1.67)

In short, it was the practice of the apostolic and patristic church to read Scripture publicly. Over time, lectionaries (lists of Scripture readings for each week) were developed to aid the church in the systematic reading of Scripture. These took shape around the developing church year, which framed the church’s life around the life of Christ. The typical pattern was to read from each section of Scripture every Lord’s Day: the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament epistles, and the Gospels. The practice of lectionary readings based on the church year continues to this day in more liturgical Christian traditions.

It is instructive.

Sadly, many Baptist and evangelical churches feature few if any Scripture readings in their services outside of the preacher’s sermon text. Many have noted the irony here: evangelicals, who are largely defined by their high view of Scripture, seem to give less attention to Scripture in their worship services than many mainline churches, who do not always share that same high view of Scripture. I’m persuaded that something needs to be done about this.

Evangelicals need more Scripture readings in their corporate worship services.

And I think we need to be more systematic about it than we sometimes are. We need more than a few verses scattered here or there. We need something more intentional, more deliberate, more comprehensive. In an age of astounding biblical illiteracy and increasing biblical infidelity, I am convinced that our churches desperately need to hear and read together the full range of the biblical narrative: the praises and laments of the Psalter, the stories of God’s faithfulness to Old Testament Israel, the exhortations of the epistles, the warnings and promises of the Apocalypse, and the glories of Christ in the Gospels. Reading Scripture together gives us the concepts and categories necessary for interpreting reality and our place within it. Without this conceptual apparatus provided by Scripture we often fall back on cliched expressions and simplistic ideas. Recounting the history of God’s redeeming acts is a practice with deep biblical and historical roots, but it is also a richly instructive practice. It gives shape to our corporate life together as a people called and commanded by God’s Word.

Reading Scripture publicly doesn’t have to look the same in every church. Not every church will seek to follow the church year with a companion lectionary. Some may opt for a more lectio continua approach: reading straight through books of the Bible week by week. We may include single readers, corporate readings, and responsive readings (why not all three?) But we need to do something to demonstrate corporately that we are indeed a people beholden to this book and that our lives are indeed shaped by its grand narrative and the glorious work of its Author and chief Protagonist.

The Benefits of Baptists (!) Reading the Creeds Together

“No creed but the Bible!”

This expression has, at times, been used by Baptists as a self-descriptor. Motivated by factors as diverse as anti-Catholicism and soul competency, and historically derived from Campbellites, this anti-creedal creed is not, in fact, expressive of Baptist identity or helpful in Baptist discipleship. Historically, the earliest Baptists affirmed the three ecumenical creeds (e.g. in the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed) and used language similar to historic creeds and confessions in their articulations of their faith. In subsequent centuries, explicit affirmation of the early Christian creeds has waned, but Baptists continue to use historic creedal and confessional language in their own doctrinal expressions, especially with respect to the doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

This historical perspective is a precursor to my main point here, namely that Baptists’ use of the creeds in worship is helpful for the transformation of a church’s members into Christ’s image. This practice is admittedly not widespread among Baptists today, and in my view this is for at least two reasons. First, the rise of “soul competency” as a Baptist distinctive under the influence of E. Y. Mullins has impacted the way we view creeds and confessions. The primacy of the individual, and especially of their free will, leads many to view creeds and confessions as unduly coercive. Second, Protestants, and especially Baptists, continue to shy away from anything that is “too Catholic,” by which we usually mean anything that feels like it fits in a Roman Catholic Mass.

While we certainly want to affirm the Baptist emphasis on religious liberty and individual responsibility before God, we also want to remember the biblical principle of “guarding the good deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) and “entrusting to faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2) what we have learned from our predecessors in the faith. These instructions from Paul to Timothy concern right belief – doctrine. Doctrine is to be passed down from generation to generation, according to Paul. From a theological perspective, as Alistair McGrath and Scott Swain and Michael Allen, among others, have argued, tradition can and should have authority in the Christian life, albeit one that is subordinate to the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice – the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Scriptures. The authority that the creeds have on the Christian faith is second to the Scriptures, to be sure, but to the extent that they are faithful to those Scriptures they are to be viewed as accurate, and therefore authoritative, articulations of the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

As far as the fear of Rome is concerned, one wonders what we would be left with if Protestants rejected everything tied to pope or council. From Augustine to Gregory to Anselm to Aquinas there are a whole host of doctrines and practices that Protestants preserved from Roman Catholic thought and life that ought not be jettisoned. In other words, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly if there are practices and doctrines that are antithetical to the the Reformation – namely those related to soteriology, bibliology, and ecclesiology – then we ought to avoid them. But in my mind knowing and saying the Creeds is not one of those, an opinion that is shared by many (most?) other Protestant denominations.

So, to the point, then. What are the benefits of reciting the Creeds on a regular basis in public worship? At least three come to my mind.

1. Catechetical – The Creeds are summaries of the Christian faith. They are a means, perhaps the primary means, of doing as Paul instructed and passing down the good deposit of apostolic teaching.

2. Hermeneutical – The Creeds help us to read Scripture rightly. They assist us in seeing both the nature of God and also the structure, or economy, of the salvation he accomplishes for us. These two – who God is and what he does – are crucial for a right reading of the Bible, and the Creeds in their structure and content teach us how to read well.

3. Catholicity – The Creeds, and particularly their public recitation in corporate worship, remind us that we as local churches and in particular denominations are not alone in following the Lord Jesus Christ. Five hundred years after the Reformation when visible fragmentation of the church exists on a denominational level, corporate recitation of the Creeds fosters visible catholicity, or unity, with other Christians.

In other words, public recitation of the Creeds is a means of discipleship. The Creeds are, as Swain and Allen put it, tools in the school of Christ, instruments that teach us how to believe, read, and love.

Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar 2015

Worldview and the Old Testament The Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, which has produced the 8-volume Scripture and Hermeneutics Series with Zondervan, as well the upcoming Manifesto for Theological Interpretation with Baker, will host its annual meeting this year in Atlanta, GA (in partnership with IBR) on the topic of Worldview and the Old Testament. Speakers include Al Wolters, Jamie Grant, Koert van Bekkum,  Raymond van Leeuwen, and David Beldman. I’m also honored to present (on apocalypse and OT worldview).

In my own life, both academic and devotional, the seminar has been and continues to be incredibly influential. Craig Bartholomew, the seminar’s founder, as well as Heath Thomas, the current committee chair, have made a point to show how rigorous scholarship can and should be wed to deep devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ, reliance on the Spirit, and to the aim of glorifying our heavenly Father. Of course, the seminar has produced scholarship that is beneficial even if one does not take such an approach to academic work, but for my part it has not just been the quality of the scholarship but also the spiritual depth of the seminar’s leadership that has been particularly influential for me.

I’d encourage you to register and attend.

You Don’t Have to Go

You don’t have to go. Increasingly, I hear of younger Southern Baptists leaving for the Anglican Church. Two of my friends (along with two acquaintances) in seminary and doctoral work made the shift from the SBC to the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). I have met others who have made the same jump, as one friend put it, “from Nashville to Canterbury.” In my conversations with these men, two factors were mentioned time and again: the aesthetic and theological beauty of the liturgy and the principled evangelical ecumenical spirit of the Anglican church planting movements in North America. More recently, Preston Yancey expressed much the same sentiments, as did Bart Gingerich over a year ago in an American Conservative article on millennials and liturgy.[1] As a younger Southern Baptist who is also drawn to liturgical worship forms, I have to ask – is this move necessary? Is the only option for SBCers who feel affinity with liturgy and principled ecumenism to leave, for Canterbury or Geneva or Wittenberg? I believe the answer is no. Younger Southern Baptists, if you are drawn to liturgical forms, if you find attractive the principled evangelical ecumenism of other manifestations of Christ’s body, you can have that in Nashville. You can stay in the SBC. You don’t have to go. One of my co-bloggers here, Luke Stamps, and I have written an article on how Baptists can appropriate and learn from the Christian tradition. I’d encourage you to read it. A few salient points that are fleshed out in the essay:

  1. Early Baptists held to a robust but principled ecumenism. An example is the Orthodox Creed, which affirms the Three Ecumenical Creeds. Moving to the present day, our denomination’s confession, the BF&M 2000, includes a positive statement on our relationship with other denominations.
  2. Liturgical forms and repeated patterns of worship are biblically appropriate and philosophically and theologically beneficial for spiritual formation. Every tradition recognizes this, including Baptists – the task is to think through the best worship practices and what spiritual benefit might be gained from incorporating more historic forms.
  3. A properly defined sacramentalism is not antithetical to Baptist history or theology.

I’d also encourage you to take a look at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY and Redeemer Fellowship (both the Kansas City and St. Charles, IL iterations). These provide real life examples of how confessing Baptists can draw on historic Christian worship. And finally, I’d encourage you to think about how the Baptist emphasis on the Word is coupled beautifully with the Word-centered liturgy (read, pray, sing, confess the truths of, preach, and show the Word). Content and form, Word and sacrament, do not need to be bifurcated, but instead the visual and auditory forms of worship help us to understand the Word, to see and to hear Christ, and to be transformed into his image. This is the goal of any worship service – to order and present the elements of the service in such a way that Christians are drawn closer to Christ through his Word and by his Spirit to the glory of the Father. Historic Christian worship, often referred to as “liturgy,” is a time-tested means of building such a service. And it has been and is able to be incorporated into Baptist life, thought, theology, and practice. You don’t have to go.   [1] I do not wish to insert myself in the various arguments of either post, but only wish to use them as an example of my point – some younger SBCers are drawn to Anglicanism because of a) liturgy and b) a principled evangelical ecumenism.

Gregorian Eclecticism

I ran across this interesting quote detailing the instructions Pope Gregory I gave to Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo) as he prepared to embark on his mission to England:

Your brotherhood is familiar with the usage of the Roman Church since you have very pleasant memories of being raised and nurtured in that usage. But it seems to me that you should carefully select for the English Church, which is still new to the faith and developing as a distinct community, whatever can best please Almighty God, whether you discover it in the Roman Church, or among the Gauls, or anywhere else. For customs are not to be revered for their place of origin; rather those places are to be respected for the good customs they produce. From each individual church, therefore, choose whatever is holy, whatever is awe-inspiring, whatever is right; then arrange what you have collected as if in a little bouquet according to the English disposition and thus establish them as custom.

There is much to appreciate here. A couple of things stand out to me. First, Gregory carefully avoids imposing an artificial uniformity in worship practices. Augustine was given the freedom to be discerning, even eclectic, in adapting Christian worship to an English context. And second, Gregory also provides several helpful tests for weighing the merits of various worship practices. Are they respectable and good? Are they holy, awe-inspiring, and right? And, most importantly, are they pleasing to God?

The Journal of Baptist Studies 7 (2015)

The latest edition of the Journal of Baptist Studies is out. You can read it here. As you can see from the table of contents listed below, this edition focused on the four marks of the church from a Baptist perspective. The essays were originally presented in the Baptist Studies session of the 2014 ETS annual meeting. I’d encourage you to take a look.

Editorial, p. 1

Contributors, p. 3

Articles

“Baptists and the Unity of the Church,” by Christopher W. Morgan, p. 4

“Baptists and the Holiness of the Church: Soundings in Baptist Thought,” by Ray Van Neste, p. 24

“Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity,” by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps, p. 42

“Baptists and the Apostolicity of the Church,” by James Patterson, p. 67

Book Reviews

Currid, John D. Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, reviewed by Kenneth J. Turner, p. 83

Freeman, Curtis W. Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists, reviewed by R. Lucas Stamps, p. 86

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers, rev. ed., reviewed by John Gill, p. 91

Hays, Christopher M. and Christopher B. Ansberry, eds. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, reviewed by Matthew Y. Emerson, p. 95

Holmes, Stephen R. The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity, reviewed by Michael A. G. Haykin, p. 99

Sanders, Fred. Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love, reviewed by Christopher Bosson, p. 101

In Defense of Evangelical Eclecticism

In a recent post at Reformation21, the inimitable Carl Trueman complains about the coming onslaught of evangelicals enjoining Lenten observance:

It’s that time of year again: the ancient tradition of Lent, kick-started by Ash Wednesday. It is also the time of year when us confessional types brace ourselves for the annual onslaught of a more recent tradition: that of evangelical pundits, with no affiliation to such branches of the church, writing articles extolling Lent’s virtues to their own eclectic constituency.

Trueman essentially argues that “Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals” have no business observing the church year because it is not a part of their history. It may be fine for Anglicans, whose liturgical life has been shaped by the church year, but it exhibits ignorance, or worse, consumeristic carnality for other evangelical traditions to incorporate these practices into their liturgical and devotional life.  “[J]ust as celebrating July the Fourth makes sense for Americans but not for the English, the Chinese or the Lapps, so Ash Wednesday and Lent really make no sense to those who are Presbyterians, Baptists, or free church evangelicals.” Trueman concludes,

When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history. Or maybe they are simply exhibiting the attitude of the world around: They consume the bits and pieces which catch their attention in any tradition they find appealing, while eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires. Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is so often a symbol of this present age’s ingrained consumerism.

Since Trueman extols the virtues of his own Presbyterian tradition and its sacramental and sabbatarian piety, one wonders if it is the last two groups (the pitiable Baptists and free church evangelicals) who are the real targets of Trueman’s critique. Presbyterians may be ignorant of their liturgical tradition, but do Baptists even have one?

Anglican pastor and professor James Merrick has written an insightful response to Trueman, also published at Reformation21, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts from my own evangelical Baptist perspective. Since I have previously commended the benefits of the church year on this blog, it should go without saying that I disagree with Trueman’s assessment of Lenten observance. But here are a few reasons why I think Trueman’s argument fails to convince.

First, the principle that Trueman sets forth here, if applied consistently, would threaten to cut off evangelicals from the broader Christian tradition. The Protestant traditions that emerged in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, and which would form the backbone of the coming Anglo-American evangelical movement, did not start from scratch. They were building on previous centuries of faith and practice. Renewal movements are by their very nature involved in a process of “picking an choosing.” The question was whether or not the doctrines and practices of previous centuries conformed to Scripture, advanced the cause of the gospel, and built up the church. Each generation must earnestly ask that same set of questions.

What if we applied Trueman’s principle not only to liturgical practices but also to doctrinal beliefs? Are free church evangelicals wrong, for example, to claim the Nicene trinitarian tradition as their own? I mean, Athanasius didn’t go to Wheaton or publish with Crossway or write for Christianity Today. Or should Baptists continue to affirm the doctrine of original sin? Augustine couldn’t teach in any of our Baptist seminaries; he approved of baptizing babies after all! Shouldn’t we just stick with those doctrines and practices which are a part of our own denominational histories? Someone may respond that trinitarianism is a part of evangelical history and the doctrine of sin is a part of the Baptist tradition.* But that is precisely my point. Somewhere along the way someone in these Protestant traditions decided that there were some things from the previous centuries of Christian history that were worth preserving. These traditions may have also jettisoned certain practices (the way that the Puritans threw out the liturgical calendar), but free church Protestants shouldn’t feel locked into the decisions of the seventeenth century (a point also made by Merrick). We are free once again to reconsider which practices might be consistent with Scripture and beneficial for the church’s spiritual well being.

Second, there is a sense in which liturgical eclecticism is the tradition of free church evangelicalism. This need not be interpreted in the most negative, consumeristic light. It can be interpreted in terms consistent with the principles of evangelicalism itself. Christians are free to pursue any and all liturgical and devotional practices which are consistent with Scripture and which provoke Christians to love and good deeds.  Those committed to a strict understanding of the regulative principle may disagree with the adaptability and openness of these evangelical traditions, but that in and of itself isn’t an argument against them. One could argue that theological and liturgical eclecticism actually puts Baptists and free church evangelicals in a better position to be corrected by Scripture than those committed to more rigid confessional traditions.

Finally, the Fourth of July analogy is unfortunate. Christian denominations are important for providing habitats within which Christians can live and grow and mature in a particular tradition. But denominations aren’t silos, or at least they shouldn’t be.  We should welcome the sharing of theological and liturgical “best practices” as we seek to learn and grow along with the larger body of Christ. Conceiving of denominations as analogous to discrete nation-states, with their own distinct and non-transferable traditions, runs the risk of sectarianism and forestalls a robust commitment to the church’s catholicity among Protestants.

In the end, I agree with Trueman that the church year should not be presented as “normative” for Christians, in the sense that Scripture demands its observance. But I disagree that its observance marks a fundamental rejection of evangelical tradition. Eclecticism can be a virtue if it leaves us open to correction from Scripture and encouragement from the broader Christian tradition.

P.S. Trueman has written a surrejoinder to Merrick’s post.


*Though it is interesting that as the General Baptists slid into unitarianism, some Baptists argued against the Trinity as a “Roman Catholic” doctrine.

The Transfiguration and the Passion

Two tools that you should have in your hermeneutical toolbox are the notions of intertextuality and intratextuality.  The former looks for textual connections between books of the Bible and the latter for textual connections within a single book of the Bible.  These tools are especially relevant for the study of the fourfold Gospel.  These verbal and thematic links help us to discern the theology of the evangelists.

In his helpful book, Studies in Matthew, Dale Allison lays out the intratextual links between Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration and his account of the Crucifixion of Christ. Check them out (pp. 228-29):

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Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.43.51 AMSo it seems fairly obvious that Matthew wants us to read these two stories together. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ transfigured glory with his humiliating death functions to highlight a major Christological theme for Matthew. Jesus is both the Danielic Son of Man and the Isaianic Suffering Servant. He is both the Lord of glory and the one who is crucified for the sake of his people. We can’t read either story without the other. We need both in order to understand the full theological significance of Christ’s identity and mission. If the dogma is the drama, as Dorothy Sayers concluded, then we could say something similar here: the grammar is the theology. We get at Matthew’s Christology precisely by attending to these kinds of verbal and thematic parallels.