When Were You Converted?

Here’s a helpful reminder of the objectivity of the gospel from James Torrance. The good news of the gospel is not, in the first instance, what God does in and through us but what he has done outside of us and for us in the work of Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth tells the story of an old lady who once went to the evangelist Kohlebrügge and asked him, ‘Tell me, sir, when you were converted?’ The evangelist, knowing well that she was interested in the details of his Christian experience, replied, ‘Madam, I was converted nineteen hundred years ago when Jesus Christ died on a cross for my sins and rose again.’ He was concerned to point away from himself and his own faith to Jesus Christ. The decisive point for him was not primarily anything in his own experience, important as that may be, but that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, buried…the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven.’ It was as though he said, ‘When Christ died long ago for me, I died, and when Christ rose again for me from the dead in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, I rose again. When Christ ascended for me into heaven, I ascended with him and now my life is hid with Christ in God.’ That is the true testimony of faith, the inner witness of the Spirit. In the words of the apostle, ‘We judge that if one died for all, then all died.’ Christ for us is prior to Christ in us.

Is Jesus Victorious Over Death? My thoughts on @FaithTheology at #LATC15

The Thursday night plenary address at the 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference was given by Ben Myers, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Charles Sturt University and blogger and tweeter extraordinaire. Myers spoke on “Atonement and the Image of God,” and in his paper he focused on the Patristic model of the atonement. Myers argued that, for the Fathers (and Mothers via Macrina), Christ’s experience of death is the mechanism of the atonement, and its primary accomplishment is the restoration of the image of God in human beings, which was lost in their collective fall into sin. This experience of death is not an action on Christ’s part but a passive experience of, as Myers referred to it, the point at which humanity is sliding into non-being (i.e. death). Because, via the hypostatic union, God the Son “touches” death by being united to the humanity of Jesus, the privation that is death is swallowed up in the essence of being that is God. Further, because God does via the hypostatic union, the second Adam, Jesus, represents all humanity in this act and therefore heals all of God’s image bearers.

This very brief summary does not do justice to the intricacies of Myers’ argument, nor do I wish to argue his main point. I think that he is correct in his portrayal of the Patristic model of the atonement, in the sense that the main point for the early church is Christ’s role as the last Adam and therefore his ability, through his vicarious death, to take on the consequence of sin, death, and render it null and void. He thus heals humanity through his death for all human beings.*

The one point of Myers’ argument that continues to nag at me is his contention that, because the Fathers’ metaphysical belief about sin and death is that it is privation (not an ontological something, but simply the absence of good), they cannot be taken as giving a model of the atonement when they speak of Christ’s death as “victory.” They were careful to avoid Gnostic dualism, and so language about Jesus wrangling with sin and death as if they were endowed with being would be contrary to this anti-Gnostic understanding of Christ’s work. Victory language cannot be anything but metaphorical for the Fathers. Gustav Aulen, among others, is therefore incorrect to assume that the Fathers taught a “victory” model of the atonement since this would require a dualistic concept of good and evil, with God in Christ wrestling with evil in the Passion.

Myers’ point is well taken that the early church theologians were careful to avoid Gnostic conceptions of cosmology and metaphysics and that their metaphysical understanding of sin and death is that they are privation of the good and of life. I still am not convinced, though, that this restricts us, or the Fathers, or the New Testament, from speaking of Christ’s death as victorious over death and sin. Below I will simply list some texts, both from the NT and from the early church, that seem to emphasize Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. I cannot see at this point how dismissing the word “victory” from our models of the atonement given these texts is plausible, even if I agree with Myers about the metaphysics of the early church (and Scripture) with respect to sin.

New Testament Texts

1 John 3:8 – “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

John 12:31 – “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”

Colossians 2:15 – “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”

Hebrews 2:14 – “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”

Acts 2:24 – “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it”

Romans 6:9 – “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

1 Corinthians 15:54-55 – “‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'”

2 Timothy 1:10 – “and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”

(Note also Revelation 19 and 20, where the Unholy Trinity, the Harlot, Death, and Hades are thrown into the Lake of Fire.)

Early Church Theologians

Cyril of Alexandria

Comm. Lk. 9:18-22 (Serm. 49) – “For that he utterly abolished death, and effaced destruction, and despoiled Hades, and overthrew the tyranny of the enemy, and took away the sin of the world, and opened the gates above to the dwellers upon earth, and united earth to heaven: these things proved him to be, as I said, in truth God.”

Odes of Solomon

Ode 42 – “Sheol saw me and was shattered / and Death ejected me and many with me.”

Melito of Sardis

On Pascha 102-3 – “I am the one,” says the Christ, “I am the one that destroyed death / and triumphed over the enemy / and trod down Hades / and bound the strong one / and carried off man to the heights of heaven; I am the one,” says the Christ.”

New Fragment III, 5 – “By the cross death is destroyed, and by the cross salvation shines; by the cross the gates of hell are burst, and by the cross the gates of paradise are opened”

Hippolytus of Rome

The Apostolic Tradition, 4, 4-13 – “Who fulfilling your will and gaining for you a holy people stretched out his hands when he was suffering, that he might release from suffering those who believed in you; who when he was being handed over to voluntary suffering, that he might destroy death and break the bonds of the devil, and tread down hell and illuminate the righteous, and fix a limit and manifest the resurrection, taking bread and giving thanks to you, he said/ “Take, eat, this is my body that will be broken for you.” Likewise also the cup, saying, “This is my blood that is shed for you””

Origen

Commentary on Romans, V, 1, 36 – “Thus by his own resurrection he has already destroyed the dominions of death”

Commentary on Romans, V, 10, 11-12 – “Then at the opportune time he binds the strong man (Mt 12:29) and despoils his powers and principalities (Col 2:15) and leads away the captives (Eph 4:8; Ps 68:18) which had been seized and were being held by the tyrant.
It was certainly in this way, then, that Christ also emptied himself voluntarily and took the form of a slave and entered the dominion of the tyrant, having become obedient unto death. Through that death he destroyed him who was holding the power of death, i.e., the devil (Heb 2:14r-15), so that he could liberate those who were being held fast by death. For when Christ had bound the strong man (Mt 12:29) and triumphed over him by means of his cross (Col 2:15), he even advanced into his house, the house of death in the underworld, and from there he plundered his possessions, that is, he led away the souls which the devil was keeping.”

I’ll stop here, but we could go on into the fourth century and beyond and continue to find such texts.

*I’m not saying  I agree with this model, but am only describing Ben’s description of it.

RBL and the Quality of Biblical Scholarship

Timothy Michael Law wants RBL to be great. By “great” he means that he wants RBL to reconsider its practices, in terms of both choosing books to review and choosing reviewers. I agree with Law’s basic point – book reviews are often one of the most egregious forms of scholarship in terms of misrepresentation and sloppy argumentation. I can definitely place my support behind a call for revising book review practices.

And yet, I am puzzled by the specifics of Law’s critique. He begins by saying, “there is no excuse for allowing reviewers who have not a single shred of evidence to show expertise in the book they are reviewing.” In principle I agree with this. RBL, and every other journal, ought to be careful in choosing who reviews which book. But then for an example he says this: “the RBL allowed a pastor who holds a D.Min. to write a review of Tom Bolin’s book,” and then goes on to say that he can’t possibly list all the reasons why the review is of poor quality.

Here’s the thing – this is not a careful critique of the review, but instead is a dismissal based on what Law deems to be inferior credentials. How does this fit into what Law is calling for, namely fair reviews? This is not fair to the reviewer, in that it does not engage the reviewer’s argument at all.* Instead, it simply dismisses the review based on the reviewer’s pedigree and vocation.

Further, if you read the description of the series in which Bolin’s book is published, one wonders why you wouldn’t ask a pastor to review it. Here’s Liturgical Press’ description:

Comprehensive and understandable, the New Collegeville Bible Commentary brings expert insight into the Old and New Testament to Bible study participants, teachers, students, preachers, and all readers of the Bible. Filled with fresh scholarship, the series provides vital background that helps bring the text alive.

These commentaries are intended for lay readers and preachers. Given the intended audience, shouldn’t the reviewer be able to analyze its success in speaking to said audience? And who better to assess whether or not a commentary can speak to the person in the pew than a pastor?

Again, I have no problem with Law and others calling for reform in reviewing practices. In principle I also don’t have any problem with Law critiquing this particular review, if he does so by actually engaging the review. But he doesn’t, and this example seems to me to undermine the entire point he is making. If you’re going to review something, then review the arguments and contents. That stands for reviewing books and for reviewing book reviews. Academic contributions shouldn’t be judged on your vocation or degree, but on the quality of your work. We shouldn’t resort to dismissal via credentials.

*Full disclosure here – I have not read Bolin’s book or the NICOT volume upon which Cook bases much of his critique. That’s beside the point, though. If there are problems with the review, then critique it, don’t just dismiss it because the reviewer is “a pastor with a D.Min.”

He Descended to the Dead

Recently a relatively neglected doctrine in Protestant thought, Christ’s descent to the dead, has received some renewed attention. There was an ETS paper devoted to this (Jeffrey L. Hamm, “Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists”), and Reformation21 has published three separate posts on the doctrine in the last 5 days. Rick Phillips, leaning on Nick Batzig’s articulation of Vos’ position, started the conversation by arguing for omitting “He descended to the dead/hell” from the Apostles’ Creed, to which both Mark Jones and Eric Hutchinson have responded by saying that the phrase should be retained. For my part, I am presenting a paper at the Los Angeles Theology Conference next week which in part seeks to demonstrate the eschatological implications of Christ’s vicarious burial.

The descent clause is tricky because there are so many options for how to interpret it. Greek Orthodox Christians confess this doctrine to say that Christ descended to Hell to liberate all of death’s captives by healing Adam’s sin and leading he and his progeny (all humanity) out of the grip of Death and Hades. Roman Catholics see a similar liberating motif in the doctrine, but instead of Christ leading out all humanity he leads out only those in the supposed limbus patrum, inhabited by virtuous pagans and faithful Jews who lived and died before Christ’s first advent. The Roman Catholic version, often referred to as the Harrowing of Hell, has a more substitutionary and legal basis than the Orthodox “healing” view. Christ suffers the pains of Hell, the final judgment, on behalf of those who repent and believe.

Protestants have by and large rejected both the implied universalism of the Orthodox view and the delineated stages of the afterlife in the RCC view, but they have not rejected the doctrine altogether. Calvin (and later, Barth) viewed this phrase as articulating Christ’s endurance of the Father’s judgment on behalf of those united to him, but for Calvin this occurs on the cross and not during Jesus’ time in the grave. Luther, on the other hand, believed that the phrase denoted Christ’s conquering of Hades after his resurrection but before he exited the tomb. His interpretation of the clause focuses solely on liberation, in that by his descent Jesus conquered Death, Hell, and the Grave.

More recently the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has attempted to synthesize the RCC view and the Calvinian position, arguing that Christ’s descent occurs on Holy Saturday and that in it Jesus in his hypostatically unified divinity and humanity experiences the final judgment, separation from the Father, on behalf of humanity. This has been met with serious opposition from many fronts, but has also been argued by at least one RCC theologian to be a legitimate interpretation of Catholic doctrine.

As an evangelical Baptist, what am I to do with this phrase?

Given my understanding of the atonement and of the afterlife, I do not see the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Balthasarian (new word!) views as compatible with the biblical data. Further, as much as I appreciate Calvin’s substitutionary emphasis and his distinction between the suffering Christ endured in his humanity and what he experienced in his divinity, I do not think that relegating the descent to the cross makes sense of the Creed’s order. Every other phrase in the Creed occurs in chronological order, so I don’t think it makes sense to go with Calvin here.

Luther’s interpretation seems the most appealing to me because I think it is the most biblical. Passages in the New Testament like Acts 2:24; Eph. 4:8, and Rom. 10:7 seem to refer to Christ’s descent as a descent to the place of the dead. Many Protestants prefer to interpret the Ephesians and Romans passages as referring to the incarnation, but in those texts Paul appears to be relying upon Old Testament texts that are clearly speaking of Sheol or the place of the dead (e.g. Job 28:22; Ps. 68:18; 71:20; 107:15-16). Additionally, Jesus’ statement about the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:40) is a clear reference to a descent to the place of the dead, and in Jonah 2 this place is called the abyss, or Sheol. You could also point to Jesus’ statement in Luke 23:43 about Paradise as an indication that upon his death he descends to the place of the righteous dead, i.e. Paradise, a view of the afterlife corroborated by Luke 16:19-31. Jesus in descending is not passive, but defeats Death through his own death (Heb. 2:14-15; cf. Col. 2:15). Christ’s burial is thus victorious, part of his atoning work that stretches from his birth to his second coming and that includes not just his crucifixion and resurrection but his life, teaching, ministry, burial, ascension, and gift of the Spirit.

Evangelicals and the Church Year

I grew up knowing almost nothing about the church year.  I say “almost nothing” because my childhood Southern Baptist church did celebrate Christmas and Easter. Unlike some other traditions, our church had no principled aversion to seasons of reflection on certain aspects of Christ’s life.  We just didn’t know about anything but Christmas and Easter. And these two seasons were so predominant in the broader culture that their legitimacy was never in question. I suspect this is a common story for many Baptists and low-church evangelicals.

In recent years, however, many evangelicals have started to expand their embrace of the church year.  Many churches are focusing more intentionally on the seasons leading up to Christmas and Easter: Advent and Lent, respectively.  But I think there is benefit in embracing the whole-kit-and-kaboodle (is that still a recognizable phrase?), that is, celebrating the whole year: from Advent and Christmas through Epiphany, Lent, and Easter all the way to Ordinary Time (also known as the season of Pentecost).

A couple years ago, Daniel Montgomery, pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote a helpful post titled, “Why We Observe the Christian Year at Sojourn.” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s an important bit:

In our narcissistic culture, we ignore the wisdom of the Ancients and the traditions of those who came before us. We act like we’ve invented the wheel and we’ve got this whole thing figured out.

You see this in contemporary church services. You see it in the “latest and greatest” songs we sing, in the haphazard way we order our services, in the easy-come, easy-go mentality of our people and the consumer-culture mentality of our service planners. And you see it in the way we’ve laid aside and then forgotten the wisdom of our church fathers, who devised the Christian Calendar.

Rightly understood, there is nothing mystical about the Christian year. There is nothing about it that requires us to treat the Christian year as if it were commanded in scripture, like baptism and communion are commanded. Yet there is nothing about it that requires us to steer away from it or regard it as an unbiblical intrusion on our services and our daily lives.

It is simply a practice of historic Christianity that continuously stirs reflection, anticipation and action in the hearts of God’s people for the whole, big story of the gospel. More and more Christians are rediscovering this historic practice, and growing in the truth and knowledge of Christ.

Let me pose some similar questions here that Montgomery poses at the end of his post:

  • Have you been a part of a church that celebrates part or all of the church year? If so, how have these patterns of worship and reflection helped you in your spiritual growth?
  • Do you see any danger in celebrating the church year?
  • If you are convinced that there is benefit in the church year, how might we encourage our churches to move in this direction?

Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Social Injustice Are Gospel Issues

I continue to hear and read comments like “race isn’t a gospel issue.” This could not be further from the truth.

Race is a gospel issue because our world, though one in Adam, is divided by ethnicity, nationality, tribal distinctions, and social classes. We are one people in our common parentage, but we are not one in the way we treat each other. We are not one when we plunder one another, fight one another, oppress one another, and destroy one another. Someone might say at this point, “yes but this is a matter of simply recognizing the image of God in each other. That’s not a gospel issue.” What gives you the eyes to see and ears to hear the image of God in your fellow man clearly and truly *other than* the gospel? Christ is the new and better Adam, and only by seeing his life can we see and understand true life and all the lives around us. Common grace is given by God, to be sure, but until our eyes are opened by the power of the Holy Spirit and the light of the gospel we only see one another through a glass darkly. Sin clouds our minds and our thoughts about one another. Race is a gospel issue because only by the light of the gospel can we truly understand our diversity and unity in Adam and, for those who are believers, in Christ.

Race is a gospel issue because the Old Testament says it is. God *makes a race* out of Abraham and Israel, his chosen people. Israel does not exist as an ethnic group or nationality *until God makes them*! God has chosen to redeem the world through one particular ethnicity, indeed through one man from that particular ethnicity, and through that one man to bless the nations. God, through one race, draws all races to himself. Every tribe, tongue, and nation. The good news of the gospel is through one race and for all races, so that at the coming of our Lord Jesus every knee from every race should bow and every tongue from every ethnicity should confess that Christ is King.

Race is a gospel issue because the New Testament says it is. Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the good news of his death and resurrection to *all nations,* to the *ends of the earth.* The gospel is for all people, which in the New Testament would be read as saying it is for all kinds of people, that is, all races, ethnicities, classes, etc. The book of Acts narrates this in dramatic form, with the gospel going first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians all explain the gospel *so that their readers will understand how both Jew and Gentile can be part of the one people of God.* Paul’s majestic explanation of the heighth and breadth and length and depth of Christ’s atoning work is set in the context of racial unity in the church! Galatians tells us that male, female, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free are one in Christ – these are socio-economic and racial distinctions. The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to the unity of a once disparate group of people. Ephesians 2:15 tells us the same – we are one new man in Christ Jesus. That’s one new man made from different racial groups. The gospel speaks to race. In fact, if race wasn’t affected by the gospel, most of us [Gentiles] would still be without God and without hope in the world (Eph. 2:12). Philemon’s uniqueness in the canon is, in part, the fact that it applies the gospel specifically to social and perhaps racial divides between believers. 1 Peter 2:9-10, again speaking to us Gentiles, tells us that we who were once not a people are now his people. Why? Because the gospel transcends and subverts racial divides.

Race is a gospel issue.

More Reflections on #EricGarner

Last night and this morning I have been mostly encouraged by the reactions I’ve seen to the Eric Garner case, and specifically by those from friends who are not people of color. I am especially grateful for the responses by leaders in my own denomination, including Russ Moore, Danny Akin, and Al Mohler, as well as by other evangelicals. I am perplexed and discouraged, though, by those who still want to argue that there’s “nothing to see here.” I have heard and seen people argue, for instance, that Garner had broken the law and was resisting arrest (and therefore police were justified in their actions), that the officers did nothing wrong in their handling of the situation, and/or that race wasn’t a factor.

This is troubling to me for a number of reasons. First, in watching the video (if you haven’t watched it we have nothing to talk about until you do), two things are readily apparent. In the first place, if we all have the right facts, Mr. Garner is being questioned about selling loose cigarettes illegally. If this is true, why are there at least 7 armed police officers at the scene, a scene which involves an unarmed man and a crime that has more to do with retailers smuggling thousands upon thousands of illegal cigarettes into the state than it does with a man selling a few loose sticks on the street? Granted, if Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, then there are consequences. But we need to ask ourselves whether or not one man selling a few loose cigarettes warrants the presence of 7 armed police officers. More importantly, in the video it is apparent that Mr. Garner is pleading for the officers to let him go his own way. Again, if there was evidence at the scene that Garner was selling cigarettes illegally, then he theoretically should be arrested. But I would ask you this: how many of you have, when caught for speeding or (if you’re going really fast) reckless driving, haven’t plead with an officer to let you go? How many of you, in requesting that the officer let you go, haven’t done so with gusto or emotion or even anger? Maybe you’re angry or sad or emotional because “everyone else gets way with it,” or maybe it’s because you know the ticket you’ll receive will break your family’s bank, or maybe it’s because you genuinely felt you weren’t doing anything wrong. Whatever the reason, calling that “resisting arrest”, as I’ve seen some people do in Garner’s case, is, in my mind, unfathomable. Garner was talking. Garner was pleading. Whether he did anything illegal or not, it’s highly questionable to me to call his pleading “resisting arrest.” And when the officer comes from behind, seemingly unbeknownst to Mr. Garner, it’s unprovoked and without warning. What is clear from the video, then, is that there appears to be an excessive amount of police presence (which would get anyone amped up) and that Mr. Garner was in pleading, not “resisting arrest.”

A second reason I am troubled by some reactions I’ve seen is because they assume that, in this instance, the police officers are completely justified in the way they handled the situation. This relates to the previous point, but there is more to it. Not only was Garner not resisting arrest or threatening the officers at hand, he was subdued using an illegal take down, one that has been outlawed since 1993 in NYC. We cannot with any certainty judge Officer Pantaleo’s motives, but by the video it appears we can say that his take down method was illegal and has been illegal for over 20 years. Furthermore, the coroner ruled it a homicide. Why, then, is there no grand jury indictment?

This brings me to the final issue, which is probably the largest in most people’s minds. I’ve thankfully heard many call for more conversation on race and social injustice in our country, but I have also seen and heard some say that race isn’t an issue in this case (or in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, etc.). There are two problems for me here. The first specifically concerns Eric Garner, and it is that Officer Pantaleo, an eight-year veteran of the NYPD, had previously been sued on two separate occasions for racially motivated actions while on duty. To say that race wasn’t an issue ignores Officer Pantaleo’s past and also the presence of 7 armed officers in the face of a minor crime by an unarmed man. (It also ignores the fact that a militarized police force showed up at peaceful protests in Ferguson.)

A second problem with the argument that denies the race element is that, whatever you think about specific cases, our African-American brothers and sisters, who bear the image of God and, if they are believers, are united with us by the Holy Spirit in Christ, are telling us that there is something wrong. How can we possibly ignore their cries of oppression and injustice? This is exactly what God calls us to do as the church – help the poor and oppressed as we seek to share Christ with the nations! This does not mean we have to buy into every narrative that the media or populist leaders give us, but it does mean, especially in the context of the body of Christ, that we need to *listen*. The gospel calls us “one new man in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:15), and this applies not only to Jews and Gentiles but to black and white, Hispanic and Asian, etc. We who have not had the same experiences in our upbringing should not be so ready to dismiss the cries of our brothers and sisters who have a (many times radically) different life experience than ours, and we should also not ignore the fact that the gospel speaks to issues of race and ethnicity.

May God give us the grace to be quick listen and slow to speak, so that when we do speak we speak with love, truth, and grace.

 

Some Gut Reactions to #EricGarner

It’s easy for me, given my background, to dismiss talk of systemic racism or social injustice. Frankly, I didn’t see it much growing up and I haven’t seen it much since (at least not in person). And yet that is most likely not the experience of many Americans, and especially Americans of color. I am nauseated and heartbroken by the ‪#‎EricGarner‬ video, and yet I am even more distraught over the fact that abuses like this, whether from police, business owners, educators, etc., happen every day. This isn’t a statement that every police officer, every white person, etc. is a racist or an oppressor. Of course I’m not saying that. But I am saying that I, as a white middle class male, have NO IDEA what it means to be “black in America.” My ancestors weren’t forcibly removed from their homes and treated like cattle. My great-great grandfather wasn’t treated as a slave even after slavery was outlawed through oppressive economic practices. My grandfather and grandmother weren’t attacked by dogs or broken against walls by fire hydrants in Birmingham, nor were they chased down, beaten, and killed by the Ku Klux Klan. They didn’t have to worry about the Dragon Master who was also the Mayor, or the racist Governor who wouldn’t let them attend the state university. My parents weren’t arrested, beaten, turned away from a business, etc. because of their skin color. And I have never experienced a sideways glance at a traffic stop or in a store because I’m white. And yet this is the family history and personal experience of many black men and women in America.

What is the answer? Of course it’s not riots, and of course it’s not more violence. It’s also not always suspecting the police or assuming every other white person is racist. (To be clear: I’m grateful for our law enforcement officers, and I know everyone isn’t a racist. Ok last time I need to say that.)

But for me and my house, the first step is to pray that the Holy Spirit would give me ears to hear and eyes to see the oppression of my fellow men and women and my fellow brothers and sisters. To grasp the deep justice that Jesus has already wrought for his creation through his death and resurrection and that will sweep over the cosmos like a flood at his return. And to pray to the Father that his name would be hallowed throughout the earth so that his will would be done *on earth* as it is in heaven. THEN after prayer to the Triune God to bring justice, it is the church’s job to model justice as they gather and work for it as they scatter.

I pray that God would give us grace to love him and love others.

#EricGarner

Some Observations about Hart’s The Experience of God

I’m currently 3 chapters into David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  Here are a few brief observations.

  • Hart offers here a timely and trenchant critique of the New Atheism.  He pulls no punches, referring to philosophical atheism as a kind of “superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.” Hart’s book is an extended version of a kind of transcendental argument against naturalism.  Being, consciousness, and bliss–all of which Hart identifies with the being of God–are necessary preconditions of our experience of the material world. Thus, Hart shows the irrationality of a purely physicalist understanding of reality.
  • Hart’s book also offers an able defense of classical theism and a critique of what Brian Davies calls “theistic personalism,” the latter of which understands God as simply one discrete (albeit maximally great) being among others. I agree with much of what Hart has to say here. His critique of these revisions to classical theism points up the limitations of analytic philosophical method as well as the dangers of rejecting the doctrine of divine simplicity.  If God is simply one logically possible being among others–even if the maximally great being–and if his being is composed of various, distinct properties, then how can God’s being remain unconditioned and independent? Wouldn’t God then be dependent upon some metaphysically prior reality and the properties that constitute his being? If the danger of affirming divine simplicity is reducing God to a property, as Alvin Plantinga has argued (a danger, in any event, only present given the self-imposed constraints of analytic method), then the danger of rejecting divine simplicity is positing causally inert properties as the ultimate reality, rather than God’s being itself.
  • Having said that, I am waiting (no doubt in vain, given Hart’s stated purpose for this book) for Hart to defend an explicitly Christian version of classical theism. The Christian tradition has simultaneously affirmed the classical conception of God that Hart is defending (a God who is infinite, a se, metaphysically simple, atemporal, immutable, impassible, etc.) and the biblical and creedal understanding of God as a tripersonal agent who loves, judges, and redeems his creation.  These latter affirmations aren’t merely metaphorical descriptions of the ultimately unknowable divine reality.  They are real (even if accommodated and analogous) self-revelations of the one true God, and are no less true of him than the philosophical affirmations of classical theism.  The need to show the consistency of this classical Christian understanding of God is especially pressing for Hart, who seems to conflate the theistic claims of all the major world religions, including Eastern pantheisms.

So far, I think The Experience of God is an important and helpful book in many ways, but one with some serious limitations from a Christian perspective. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.

The Four Gospels and the Rule of Faith

Steve Walton has helpfully summarized Simon Gathercole’s plenary address to the British New Testament Society here. Walton’s entire summary is worth reading, and I can only imagine how beneficial Gathercole’s actual paper is. Gathercole cleverly draws our attention to 1 Cor. 15:3-4, a text that many refer to as the first “rule of faith,” to show that the four canonical Gospels alone among their rivals give a full throated picture of Jesus that mirrors this early ecclesial confession. In other words, only the four canonical Gospels contain the following elements together:

  • the identity of Jesus as ‘the Christ’
  • Christ’s saving actions fulfil Scripture
  • the atoning death of Jesus
  • the resurrection of Jesus.

This is, to me, the most crucial and profitable argument one can make in demonstrating the uniqueness of the Fourfold Gospel corpus. When I lecture on the issue in my Jesus and the Gospels course, I hammer home one main point – the Gospel writers do not simply narrate the events of Jesus’ life, they also provide the Spirit-inspired (and therefore correct) interpretation of those events. Their interpretive lens is the OT, and they give four distinct but unified portraits of Christ. This is what distinguishes them from the non-canonical gospels – their use of the OT as an interpretive lens. (Or, in the lone case of the Gospel of Peter, which does refer to the OT, the particular conclusions about Jesus which the four Gospels draw when using the OT distinguish them from GPeter.)