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.

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?

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.

Our Papers at the Upcoming L.A. Theology Conference


Matt and I both are both pleased to be presenting papers at the upcoming Los Angeles Theology Conference, which will convene January 15-16, 2015, at Biola University. The conference features a stellar lineup of plenary speakers (Michael Horton, Matthew Levering, Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, and Eleonore Stump), who will be presenting on the conference theme, “Locating Atonement.”

Matt and I will be presenting two of the nine breakout session papers.

Matt’s paper seeks to draw out the eschatological dimensions of the atonement implied by Christ’s descent to the dead.

My paper attempts to situate atonement in a dyothelitic (two-wills) understanding of the Incarnation.

One of the conference organizers, Fred Sanders, highlights all nine of the breakout session papers:

Matthew Emerson (California Baptist University): “He Descended to the Dead: The Burial of Christ and the Eschatological Character of the Atonement”

Joseph Jedwab (Kutztown University of Pennsylvania) and Daniel J. Hill (University of Liverpool): “Locating Atonement in Punishment and Retribution Theory”

David S. Koonce, L.C. (Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum), “Atonement in the Act of Faith”

T. Mark McConnell (Laidlaw College): “Atonement and Shame”

R. Lucas Stamps (California Baptist University): “Atonement in Gethsemane: The Necessity of Dyothelitism for the Atonement”

Kyle Strobel (Biola University) and Adam Johnson (Biola University): “Atoning Wisdom: The Wisdom of God in the Way of Salvation”

Jeremy Treat (Reality LA): “Atonement and Covenant”

Adonis Vidu (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary): “The Place of the Cross within Trinitarian Opera Ad Extra”

Eric Yang (Claremont McKenna College) and Stephen Davis (Claremont McKenna College): “Atonement and the Wrath of God”

We’re excited to be a part of this and hope to see some of you there.

For more information, check out the LATC website.

Summa contra Cartesians

I’m currently doing some research for a paper on the anthropological implications of Chalcedonian Christology. My working hypothesis is that Christian theology has often insufficiently applied the person-nature distinction (so vital to the church’s Trinitarian and Christological formulae) to the topic of theological anthropology. So, for example, while Chalcedon understands the soul as a part of human nature in which a person subsists (Christ’s human nature consisted of a “rational soul and body”), many Christian theologians continue to articulate an understanding of human personhood that equates “soul” with “person.”  On such a Cartesian understanding, the person “just is” the soul.  But Chalcedonian Christology seems to demand a distinction between person and soul in order to avoid the error of Apollinarianism.  The person of the Son assumed a human nature that was already equipped, so to speak, with a soul, no less than a body.  So the person must be distinguished from the soul, at least in the case of Christ.  I don’t have space to defend it here, but a strong case can be made that the next ecumenical council, Constantinople II, implies that the same is true for all human persons.

In any event, this Cartesian dualism isn’t the only kind of substance dualism on offer in the Christian tradition.  Thomas Aquinas, for instance, articulated a kind of hylomorphic dualism that equated the person neither with the soul nor the body.  Instead, on Thomas’ scheme, the soul is the substantial form of the material body that gives to it its rational configuration. The person is the individual thing (suppostium) that exists in and through the soul and the body as constitutive parts of human nature.  I have a lot more to read in Thomas (as well as in the secondary literature on him), but the following discussion from the Summa Theologiae (1.75.4) should suffice to demonstrate that Thomas clearly distinguished the person and the soul.  In response to the question, “Is the soul man?” Thomas cites Augustine:

On the contrary, Augustine (De Civ. Dei xix, 3) commends Varro as holding “that man is not a mere soul, nor a mere body; but both soul and body.”

Thomas argues that the soul cannot be equated with “man,” conceived of either as a species or as an individual. Instead, Thomas maintains that the soul is a part of man along with the body.  He concludes:

Not every particular substance is a hypostasis or a person, but that which has the complete nature of its species. Hence a hand, or a foot, is not called a hypostasis, or a person; nor, likewise, is the soul alone so called, since it is a part of the human species.

So the soul is a substance, distinct from the body, but it is not a subsistence; it is not a person.  A person has the “complete nature of its species,” which, in the case of a human being, ordinarily includes (bracketing out the question of the intermediate state) a body and a soul.  In sum, Thomas maintains the person-nature distinction even outside of its normal Trinitarian-Christological context and applies it consistently to ordinary human persons as well.

New Book on Reformed Catholicity

Since we’re pretty interested in retrieving a sort of Baptist Catholicity around here, I took notice when I saw this forthcoming book by Michael Allen and Scott Swain: Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation.  It’s due out in January 2015.  Here is the publisher’s summary and the table of contents:


Can Christians and churches be both catholic and Reformed? In this volume, two accomplished young theologians argue that to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity rather than away from it. Their manifesto for a catholic and Reformed approach to dogmatics seeks theological renewal through retrieval of the rich resources of the historic Christian tradition. The book provides a survey of recent approaches toward theological retrieval and offers a renewed exploration of the doctrine of sola scriptura. It includes a substantive afterword by J. Todd Billings.

Introduction: Renewal through Retrieval
1. Learning Theology in the School of Christ: The Principles of Theology and the Promise of Retrieval
2. Retrieving Sola Scriptura, Part One: The Catholic Context of Sola Scriptura
3. Retrieving Sola Scriptura, Part Two: Biblical Traditioning
4. A Ruled Reading Reformed: The Role of the Church’s Confession in Biblical Interpretation
5. In Defense of Proof Texting
Afterword: Rediscovering the Catholic-Reformed Tradition for Today: A Biblical Christ-Centered Vision for Church Renewal by J. Todd Billings

HT: Jonathan Pennington

Remember Steinmetz

It might be a good time to revisit David Steinmetz’ 1980 game-changer, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis” (Theology Today 37: 27-38). You don’t have to agree with all of his conclusions to appreciate his trenchant critique of the historical-critical method and his praise of patristic and medieval interpretation. Here’s the conclusion:

The defenders of the single meaning theory usually concede that the medieval approach to the Bible met the religious needs of the Christian community, but that it did so at the unacceptable price of doing violence to the biblical text. The fact that the historical-critical method after two hundred years is still struggling for more than a precarious foothold in that same religious community is generally blamed on the ignorance and conservatism of the Christian laity and the sloth or moral cowardice of its pastors.

I should like to suggest an alternative hypothesis. The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted-as it deserves to be-to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.

Christ and the Biblical Storyline

It is a boon to evangelicals that we have so many great books on biblical theology these days. In the ruins of modernism’s historical-critical method (and its evangelical cousin: a narrowly conceived grammatical-historical method), we are rediscovering the power of narrative and seeing afresh the world-shaping power of the biblical plotline. I would venture to say that there is hardly a theologically-minded evangelical around today who isn’t at least vaguely familiar with the common rubric biblical theologians use to describe the biblical storyline: creation, fall, redemption, and new creation (Perhaps more well-rounded is Bartholomew and Goheen’s description of the Bible as a six-act drama: creation, fall, redemption initiatied in Israel, redemption accomplished in Christ, the church, and the final consummation).

And yet there are some limitations to the storyline approach to Scripture. I am not suggesting something less than reading the Bible along its redemptive-historical plot movements, but I am suggesting that a storyline approach isn’t a panacea. It is possible to read Scripture in terms of “redemptive history” and an overarching “storyline” and still be insufficiently Christo-centric.

It happens when Christ is conspicously absent (or at least underemphasized) in our “biblical theology of _______” treatments. We can talk about, for instance, a biblical theology of the presence of God and move from Eden to the tabernacle to the temple to the church and ultimately to the new Jerusalem and totally miss the dominant Figure at the center of the biblical narrative whose “tabernacle-ing” and “temple-ing” presence holds all of the other pieces together (John 1:14; 2:21).

It happens when Jesus becomes just another event (even if the climactic event) in a story that is really about something else: Abraham or Israel or cosmic redemption or whatever. It happens when Jesus just shows up in our biblical theologies as a means to some other end. (Don’t misunderstand; we do need to understand Abraham, Israel, and God’s purposes for the cosmos, if we are to understand Christ aright. But the reciprocity between the OT and the NT—between promise and fulfillment—is asymmetrical. Christ is the interpretive key. Everything else services him hermeneutically.)

It happens when we fail to to see how every text is already, immediately related to Christ as the Savior who is overturning our Fall and Curse at every point in the story. It is precisely this immediacy of Christ that enables the NT authors to say things about the OT that would be lampooned as fanciful allegory were they not inscripturated (think, “and the Rock was Christ,” 1 Cor. 10:4). The NT authors don’t always feel the need to travel down a long and winding, redemptive-historical road to get to Christ. No matter where we go in the biblical narrative, Christ is already present. Like Aslan, he’s already on the move, and he isn’t waiting for us to map out a biblical-theolgical plotline for him to travel along. He’s already there.

Again, I am not suggesting that we should give up reading the Bible in terms of redemptive-history and its overarching storyline. But we should remember that Christ isn’t merely the climactic event of the biblical story; he is the story.

Baptists Accessing Catholicity

As Matt mentioned the other day, the ETS Baptist Studies Group is addressing the notae ecclesiae (marks of the church) at this year’s annual meeting.  Matt and I are presenting the paper on Baptists and the catholicity of the church.  When I linked to this topic the other day on Facebook, a good friend of mine issued a fair warning about how Baptists ought to access the church’s catholicity.  He suggested that Baptists should seek their catholicity via the Reformed tradition in order to avoid repeating the errors that necessitated the Reformation in the first place and in order to avoid theological confusion (especially on the doctrine of salvation) that could complicate our evangelistic efforts.


As I said, I think this is a fair warning. That’s why I think it’s hugely important that we retrieve the 17th-century Baptist reflections on the catholicity of the church. The General and Particular Baptist confessions of faith that emerged during this period either explicitly affirmed the ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Orthodox Creed) or else included clearly creedal language in their expositions of the Trinity and the person of Christ (e.g., the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith). Seventeenth-century Baptists also tended to have a more robust understanding of the sacraments, a greater willingness to engage Patristic thought, and a greater sense of spiritual connectionalism both within their own associations and in their broader evangelical context.  Baptists trended away from these catholic emphases in the next three centuries (for a host of interesting and disputed reasons), but their 17th-century beginnings were a far cry from the no-creed-but-the-Bible naiveté that would come to characterize the Baptist movement in some quarters.

Still, retrieval is not repristination. There may be some ways in which 21st-century Baptists can foster an even more open-minded and open-hearted approach to the whole church–both historic and contemporary. But clearly any efforts toward ecumenism among evangelical Baptists would need to be tethered to our Reformational commitments.  Rediscovering our 17th-century roots would go a long way in helping us strike this balance.

And Systematic: The Relation between Biblical and Systematic Theology, Part 1

Since Matt and Luke were gracious enough to let me join their online musings here, we have added an important modification to the subtitle of the blog. The aim here is to offer reflections on “biblical and systematic theology according to the scriptures.” To be sure, the other contributors were already doing systematic theology before I arrived—indeed, some pretty sophisticated systematic theology—in the sense that they were applying Scripture to Christian belief and practice. So hopefully the addition of a systematician to the blog will only continue the much-needed task of understanding Scripture on its own terms and then developing faithful ways of speaking and acting in light of this biblical framework. My first couple of posts here will explore the relationship between these two theological disciplines: biblical theology (BT), on the one hand, which attends to the storyline of Scripture in all of its unity and diversity, and systematic theology (ST), on the other, which seeks to articulate Christian doctrine on the basis of this biblical narrative in changing cultural contexts. In this first post, I explore the ways in which our ST influences our BT. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking here. My dependence upon the excellent work of others on this issue will be plain. These posts are simply an attempt to summarize some the most salient points, as I see them, about the bi-directional traffic between these two theological sub-disciplines.

The relation between BT and ST is a two-way street. Our ST informs and shapes our BT, and our BT in turn corrects and reshapes our ST. The relationship between BT and ST can be conceived of in terms of what hermeneutical philosophers call the “hermeneutic circle.” When we read any text, we bring certain assumptions about the text to the task of interpretation. As we read the parts of the text, we find our assumptions of the whole being reshaped—indeed, if we are reading rightly, we will find ourselves being reshaped by our interaction with the text. So there is a dialectical relationship between the parts and the whole and between the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader. This is not to say that readers change the meaning of the text; the text’s authorially intended meaning remains the stable variable in the hermeneutical equation. But we have no access to the author’s intention apart from our own personal and communal interaction with the text that the author has given us.

BT and ST relate in a similar fashion. Every interpreter of Scripture comes to the task of interpretation with a ST already in place. It may not be fully developed. It may not be consciously held or acknowledged. But no one comes to the text as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Instead, we come to the text with an already-formed understanding of God, humanity, sin, salvation, and so forth. Carl Henry once quipped that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. If this is the case, then the best course of action is to be honest about our presuppositions—to lay our theological cards on the table, so to speak—rather than accepting the modernist illusion that we can simply do exegesis in any kind of objective or neutral fashion.

This understanding of the intimate relation between BT and ST reveals the weaknesses of one common way of conceiving the two disciplines. Gerhardus Vos is well-known for his distinction between BT and ST:

There is no difference in that one [of the two disciplines] would be more closely bound to the Scriptures than the other. In this they are wholly alike. Nor does the difference lie in this that the one transforms the biblical material, whereas the other would leave it unmodified. Both equally make the truth deposited in the Bible undergo a transformation: but the difference arises from the fact that the principle by which the transformation is effected differs in each case. In biblical theology this principle is one of historical, in systematic theology it is one of logical construction. Biblical theology draws a line of development. Systematic theology draws a circle (Vos, Biblical Theology, 24-25).

In one sense, this way of distinguishing BT and ST is true enough. BT is more concerned with the plotline of Scripture and ST does ask more synthetic, topical questions. But in another sense, Vos’s taxonomy is lacking for two reasons. First, the distinction turns out to be a bit too neat. There is a sense in which BT can be topical. For example, we can consider the topic of the temple/presence of God across the storyline of Scripture. Furthermore, there is sense in which ST follows closely the storyline of Scripture. The traditional ordering of the loci of ST reveals this narrative character. We begin where Genesis does: with God. We then move to creation, humanity, the fall and its effects, the redemption accomplished by Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit, the formative role of the church, and we end where Revelation does: the consummation of all things at the end of the age. So it turns out biblical theologians can be quite adept at drawing circles and systematic theologians at drawing lines.

Second, Vos’s way of distinguishing the two disciplines fails to account for the ways in which the two relate to one another. Taken alone (in practice Vos was much better), Vos’s distinctions make it seem as if BT and ST are simply two parallel and legitimate ways of carving up the biblical text. These distinctions fail to account for how the two disciplines can talk to one another, as it were. When systematicians appeal to the Bible, they should be doing so in ways that respect the textual, redemptive-historical, and canonical contexts of the biblical texts. In other words, they should be doing biblical theology. Similarly, when biblical theologians draw theological conclusions from the text (and they should be doing so; the modern division of labor in the theological disciplines has made us too wary to cross disciplinary lines and has resulted in the atomization and fragmentation of what should be an integrated whole), they should do so respecting the complex set of historical, philosophical, cultural, and doctrinal issues that attends such a move. In other words, they should be doing systematic theology. So the two disciplines are not merely discrete ways of slicing the biblical pie. Instead, they should be seen as interdependent steps in the integrated task of doing theology as the people of God. We read Scripture according to its own redemptive-historical categories and then we apply this theological framework in the development of a theological vision of Christian faith and practice (for more in this vein, see Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology).

To return to the original point, ST influences BT in that it shapes the hermeneutical, exegetical, and theological assumptions we bring to the biblical text. This is not merely a hazard of the interpretive task, something to be acknowledged and then overcome in attempt to arrive at some kind of pristine objectivity. Theological presuppositions are not only unavoidable; they are indispensable. When they are being properly reformed according to Scripture (more on this in the next post), our theological presuppositions help guide and govern our readings of the biblical text. This truth was acknowledged early on in church history, as Christians recognized the need to read Scripture according to the regula fidei, the rule of faith. Heretics were quoting Scripture too. So there was (and is) a need to adjudicate which readings of Scripture were permissible and which were not. The rule of faith was simply a summary of the basic truths of the gospel (which were eventually summarized in the ecumenical creeds) in an attempt to regulate readings of the biblical revelation.

There is biblical precedent for such a regulated understanding of biblical interpretation. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” There is a hermeneutical and theological priority placed upon the good news of Christ’s saving death, burial and resurrection. Paul writes about many important things, but there is one thing that is of preeminent importance, and if we misunderstand this one thing, then we are in danger of abandoning the faith altogether (Gal. 1:6-9).

So the basic truths of the gospel shape, inform and regulate our readings of the biblical narrative. In other words, our ST rightly influences our BT. There are perhaps many other ways that we can describe the influence of ST on BT, but this evangelical (gospel-oriented) influence is preeminent.

In my next post, I will examine how we make the necessary but precarious move from BT to ST and how BT ought to shape the theological models of ST.