Receivers of the Word

 

What is crucial is that we recognize that we do not define the situation into which God is allowed to speak, and we do not set limits on what God is allowed to say. Instead, we come to realize our true situation only as we actually read the Scriptures and believe the Word of God. We are hearers, which places us in a subordinate position ready to receive what is given as gift.

Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2018, pp. 34–35.

What Kind of Book Is Revelation? Bauckham on Common Misconceptions

In his fantastic little theological commentary on Revelation, Richard Bauckham notes that “Misconceptions of Revelation often begin by misconceiving the kind of book it is” (1). No doubt Bauckham is right: many people think Revelation is a doomsday account of the last days of our planet. Revelation’s confusing symbols, strange characters, and rash of plagues also lead people to stay away from it altogether. This is understandable.

However, we should actually read Revelation as a hopeful book—one that centers on the triune God’s redemption of all things. Revelation 21-22 are some of the most encouraging and inspiring chapters in the Bible because they tell us that one day God will make all things new, eradicating sin and death once and for all.

Bauckham tries to help us understand that there’s much more to Revelation and its place in the Bible’s storyline, noting that it is a book that fits under multiple genres and serves multiple purposes.

1. Revelation Is a Christian Prophecy

John wrote Revelation with a clear self-indentification as a prophet in the line of other biblical prophets. Bauckham points out that John uses OT allusions and language similar to other prophets like Amos and Ezekiel. Also,

“John’s great oracle against Babylon (18:1-19:8) echoes every one of the oracles against Babylon in the Old Testament prophets, as well as the two major oracles against Tyre. It seems that John not only writes in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, but understands himself to be writing at the climax of the tradition, when all the eschatological oracles of the prophets are about to be finally fulfilled, and so he interprets and gathers them up in his own prophetic revelation.” (5)

So Revelation is not just a prophecy book about “end times,” but a book about God’s promises in the past being fulfilled in Christ now and into eternity. This is not dreadful news, but immensely good news, because we know that God has kept his promises.

2. Revelation Is an Apocalypse

When we hear the word “apocalypse,” many of us automatically think of meteors falling from the sky and entire cities being destroyed. Judgment of this sort is certainly a piece of ancient apocalyptic works, but it’s not all they represent. Quoting J.J. Collins, Bauckham says that apocalypses primarily act as disclosure of “a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (6).

In other words, apocalypses are a glimpse not simply into divine judgment, but also a look at final salvation. Yes, Revelation shows that Satan and his followers will be thrown into the “lake of fire” because of their evil. There’s no denying this aspect of the book. But it ultimately shows that good will conquer evil, and that those who follow Christ will be spared from this judgment.

Bauckham also reminds us that Revelation is slightly different than other apocalypses of its day, because it deals with the future and deals with the contemporary issues of its first audience. This makes sense, of course, given that Gods eschatological salvation and victory apply to us now, though they will be fully realized in the future at Christ’s return.

3. Revelation Is a Circular Letter

Flowing from the last point about the setting of the first audience of Revelation, Bauckham rightly says, “Many misreadings of Revelation, especially those which assume that much of the book was not addressed to its first-century readers and could only be understood by later generations, have resulted from neglecting the fact that it is a letter” (12).

When we overlook the fact that this book was written to seven churches in first-century Asia, we miss the situatedness of the letter. This is not to say that Revelation has no meaning for us today—Bauckham makes a good case that the number seven (completion) means that this letter is for all churches in Asia and in every age afterward. However, we cannot see symbols and numbers like 666, for example, and believe they’re only codes to be cracked in some future time. John even says that the original readers can understand some of these symbols in their day.

Revelation, then, isn’t a book about distant events that we can take or leave—it’s actually a book written to Christians in the first century and every other age, encouraging us to fight for right doctrine, stand firm against persecution, and look to the triune God’s mission to redeem all things. Revelation is more than a book about divine judgment and end-times destruction—it’s a book about eternal hope in Christ.

Gregory of Nyssa on Eternal Relations of Origin

As the early church began to formulate its language about the Trinity, they needed to explain how we can say that there is one God in three Persons and how those Persons relate within the Godhead. In order to fight against heresies like Arianism, the orthodox Christians established that there are eternal relations of origin: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. In other words, there is a fitting way to explain the order (“taxis”) within the Godhead that does not imply that any of the Persons are inferior to one another or different from one another in divine essence. In On Not Three Gods, Gregory of Nyssa explains how this doctrine works:

If, however, any one cavils at our argument, on the ground that by not admitting the difference of nature it leads to a mixture and confusion of the Persons, we shall make to such a charge this answer;—that while we confess the invariable character of the nature, we do not deny the difference in respect of cause, and that which is caused, by which alone we apprehend that one Person is distinguished from another;—by our belief, that is, that one is the Cause, and another is of the Cause; and again in that which is of the Cause we recognize another distinction. For one is directly from the first Cause, and another by that which is directly from the first Cause; so that the attribute of being Only-begotten abides without doubt in the Son, and the interposition of the Son, while it guards His attribute of being Only-begotten, does not shut out the Spirit from His relation by way of nature to the Father.

But in speaking of “cause,” and “of the cause,” we do not by these words denote nature (for no one would give the same definition of “cause” and of “nature”), but we indicate the difference in manner of existence. For when we say that one is “caused,” and that the other is “without cause,” we do not divide the nature by the word “cause1322”, but only indicate the fact that the Son does not exist without generation, nor the Father by generation: but we must needs in the first place believe that something exists, and then scrutinize the manner of existence of the object of our belief: thus the question of existence is one, and that of the mode of existence is another. To say that anything exists without generation sets forth the mode of its existence, but what exists is not indicated by this phrase. If one were to ask a husbandman about a tree, whether it were planted or had grown of itself, and he were to answer either that the tree had not been planted or that it was the result of planting, would he by that answer declare the nature of the tree? Surely not; but while saying how it exists he would leave the question of its nature obscure and unexplained. So, in the other case, when we learn that He is unbegotten, we are taught in what mode He exists, and how it is fit that we should conceive Him as existing, but what He is we do not hear in that phrase. When, therefore, we acknowledge such a distinction in the case of the Holy Trinity, as to believe that one Person is the Cause, and another is of the Cause, we can no longer be accused of confounding the definition of the Persons by the community of nature.

Thus, since on the one hand the idea of cause differentiates the Persons of the Holy Trinity, declaring that one exists without a Cause, and another is of the Cause; and since on the one hand the Divine nature is apprehended by every conception as unchangeable and undivided, for these reasons we properly declare the Godhead to be one, and God to be one, and employ in the singular all other names which express Divine attributes.


This will appear in the forthcoming CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible.

Book Notice: Trinitarian Theology

On Monday, October 1, B&H Academic will release Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Trinitarian Application, edited by Keith Whitfield (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). This the first volume in the B&H Theological Review series, a series based on topics discussed at the annual B&H SBC Professors’ Fellowship at ETS. In the book, Bruce Ware (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Malcolm Yarnell (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), and Luke Stamps (Anderson University) and I offer three separate chapters outlining our different theological methods and the different theologies of the Trinity they produce. Additionally, each author (or set of authors in my and Luke’s case) responds to the other chapters in an attempt to further clarify the terms of and stakes in the debate. This book thus addresses the methodological issues involved in the so-called “Trinity Debate” of 2016.

Here is an excerpt from my and Luke’s chapter, summarizing our aims and argument:

This essay contends there is a way to be thoroughly biblical without succumbing to the drawbacks of biblicism, and one of the primary test cases for this methodological distinction is the doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, we wish to articulate a canonical, confessional, and dogmatically informed evangelical theological method. We wish to retain the biblicist commitment to sola scriptura while at the same time operating with what might be called a “thick biblicism,” in which what counts as biblical encompasses something much more than simply collating “plain” readings of biblical texts. To put it simply, a canonical, confessional, and dogmatic theological method seeks to articulate Christian doctrine by understanding Scripture as a canonical whole, read in light of the Church’s consensual tradition, and with the aid of dogmatic reasoning. The method articulated below also situates the task of theology primarily in an ecclesial context in which the Spirit’s illuminating guidance is a nonnegotiable factor.

And regarding the Trinity and gender roles:

The relationship between a husband and wife is not univocally comparable to the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. We acknowledge that passages like 1 Cor 11:3 connect the doctrine of God to gender roles, but we want to insist that this connection is made between human relationships and the economic missions of the three persons of the one God. The Bible does not ever posit or suggest a straight line between complementarianism and God’s life ad intra. Rather, the submission of a wife to a husband is comparable to the submission of the Church to Christ (Eph 5:22–32) and to the submission of the incarnate Christ to the Father (1 Cor 11:3). Because the economic missions are fitting given the eternal processions, it is not as if there is no connection at all, but the connection that exists is not a direct one. Rather, gender roles mirror or reflect the roles seen in the economic missions. Those missions, in turn, reflect and proceed from the eternal relations of origin. But the latter do not contain any hint of subordination, since, as we have argued, that would be ruinous for trinitarian monotheism.

For those interested in the issues surrounding the Trinity debate, we hope you’ll pick this up and find it clarifying. Right now B&H Academic will only have it available in ebook format, with a print version coming early 2019. The link will be on Amazon on October 1.

 

Harassed and Helpless

sheep-agriculture-animals-countryside-87081I’ve been reading Matthew’s gospel recently, and one of the things that has stood out to me on this reading is Jesus’ compassion for people oppressed by sin. We often think about sin only in terms of our agency, that is, sin is something we do and are responsible for. Jesus certainly doesn’t diminish that understanding of sin and its consequences. He consistently calls people to repent of their sin and self-absorption and to believe the good news of the kingdom of God.

But Jesus also sees sin as a power that exerts itself over us and renders us helpless to rescue ourselves from its vice grip. He sees the crowds and has compassion on them “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). He has compassion on those living with the painful consequences of a fallen world by healing their diseases (14:14). He has compassion not only on Israel but also on those living in Gentile territory, feeding their hungry bodies and souls (15:32).

His exorcisms also demonstrate that he knows the demonic powers have their hooks in us. He describes his Satan-plundering work as one who binds the strongman (Satan) and takes his property from him (12:29). It is not so much that sin is either something we do or something that has a power over us. It is both.

This same idea is also communicated in the Old Testament. When God reveals his glory to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he also reveals the depths of his compassionate character:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7).

God is just and will punish the wicked. But he is also gracious and merciful and desires to pardon and deliver us from sin’s power.

The Psalms express the same truth. Consider just one passage that demonstrates the compassion of God for weak and helpless sinners. Psalm 103:8-14,

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

God’s mercy is not permissiveness. He doesn’t suspend his justice in order to extend forgiveness (that’s why the cross was necessary for salvation, Rom. 3:25-26). But God knows our weakness. He “knows our frame” and “remembers that we are dust.” God is not surprised that we stumble and fall, many times in the face of the same temptations. He is like a compassionate father, who sees his children struggling. He knows. He remembers. And he extends compassion and mercy.

The apostle Paul also sees sin not only as a choice we make (it is certainly that) but also as a force or power that has been unleashed on the human race, abetted by the demonic principalities and powers. Unbelievers are those who have been blinded by Satan, “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). Paul conceives of the cross of Christ not only cancelling our sin debt but also disarming the demonic rulers and authorities by triumphing over them (Col. 2:14).

To highlight sin as a power over us is not to obviate our responsibility or guilt—far from it. It is to highlight the depth of God’s mercy in Christ, who understands that sin, though our own doing, is not something we can free ourselves from. He stoops all the way into our darkness, taking on the powers himself, in order to lift us up into the light and liberate us from sin’s bondage. One of the key terms for salvation in the Scriptures is, after all, redemption—a concept rooted in the Exodus, when God bought back his people from slavery.

We need to apply this truth both to ourselves and to others. We need to know that God has this kind of mercy and compassion for us in our struggles with sin. God is not a slave master, waiting for us to mess up so that he can bring down his hand of vengeance. He is a Father, recall, who has compassion on his children and knows our weakness. But we also need to be the conduits of this kind of mercy to others. Rather than seeing those who offend us or those in rebellion against God as our enemies, we become children of our heavenly Father when we too remember and when we too know that humans are dust. They are weak. They are oppressed. They are blinded by Satan. They are like sheep without a shepherd. May we become the kind of people who bear witness to this merciful Good Shepherd, not by being moral scolds, but by being willing to bear with people in their helplessness and to show them the path to true liberation.

Origen: Athanasian or Arian?

It is obligatory to note upfront that Origen was and is a controversial figure. The debate over accepting his views as orthodox or useful is ongoing, including the veracity of the number of times he was anathematized, whether or not he actually taught some of the doctrines he was accused of teaching, the extent to which he influenced Arius, and whether one should be posthumously anathematized without the opportunity to recant. Some of these debates are discussed in following footnotes.

Despite this caveat, given his enormous (and positive) impact on early Trinitarianism, it is interesting to consider how his teachings influenced Trinitarian history. Most notably, he seemed to wrestle more fully than his predecessors with the ontological implications of the shared substance of the Father, Son, and Spirit that would later define the orthodox Trinitarian affirmations. This is not to say that Origen was ultimately as clear on ontology as the Nicenes or even in agreement with them—only that he wrestled with ontological implications more than his predecessors.

So, was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian?

Holmes asserts, “It is fair to say that, by the beginning of the fourth century, many or most theologians leaned to one or the other of Origen’s tendencies” in reference to Origen’s tendencies to discuss both the unity and difference between the Father and Son.[1] Anatolios notes similarly that Origen influenced the Alexandrians with his idea of eternal generation and the Arians with his idea of real distinctions within the Trinity.[2] Wellum says plainly, “in terms of Trinitarian and Christological thought, many later orthodox theologians were highly indebted to him, particularly Athanasius and the Cappadocians—Basil and the two Gregorys.”[3] Moreover, as Rebecca Lyman notes,

Origen’s attempt to explain the incarnation of the Logos in terms of a pre-existent human soul was one of the first constructive Christologies, and anticipated many problems in later theology regarding the proper union of divine and human nature.[4]

Ayres acknowledges this point, while contending: “Origen directly denies that that the Son can come from the Father’s ousia, as this would imply a material conception of the divine generation.”[5] However, Ayres also admits that Athanasius may have been influenced by Origen’s emphasis on “the closeness of Son to Father.”[6] Holmes agrees with the charge of subordinationism: “Origen … seemingly finds it impossible to speak of God’s activity in the creation without lapsing into subordinationist language.”[7]

Rutherford says that Origen believed Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all creatures” and “became incarnate while remaining God,” and that “the Holy Spirit is associated in dignity and honour with the Father and Son” and clearly not made or created.[8] For example, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, he considers the multitude titles given to Jesus. He challenges the idea that “Son of God” is special or unique in relation to all of Jesus’s biblical titles, and instead aims to consider how all of the biblical titles paint Jesus not merely as “an expression of the Father occurring in syllables” but in regard to “what manner he has essence.”[9] Though she appears to lean toward Origen believing that the Holy Spirit was divine in some sense, Rutherford is careful to show that there is a debate surrounding whether Origen thought the Spirit was actually a creature or, if not, whether he was subordinate to the Father. Holmes has been more forceful regarding the ambiguity: “[For Origen,] the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God.”[10]

While it is fair to question whether his Trinitarian thought was a form of subordinationism, his wrestling with divine essence and hierarchy of origin and function was in many ways ahead of his predecessors, as well as a precursor for his contemporaries and successors. This does not mean that he was not engaged in language contemporary with his time, such as the use of angelomorphic Christology. However, Origen seemed able to distinguish between the various ways “angel” or “messenger” is used in the Bible as a title or designation and the idea of Christ having an angelic nature stricto sensu.[11] Gieschen notes that Origen sometimes refers to angels in the Bible as Christ or the Holy Spirit, but Gieschen’s point does not require of Origen a belief in “angel Christology.”[12]

Was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian? Since he predated them, technically neither. However, due to his proto-Trinitarian wrestling with ontology and economy, both sides of the Nicene debate found a resource in him.

[1] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 83.

[2] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 17.

[3] Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 276.

[4]  Lyman, Christology and Cosmology, 69.

[5] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 24.

[6] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 47.

[7] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 80.

[8] Rutherford, “The Alexandrian Spirit: Clement and Origin in Context,” in The Holy Spirit in the Fathers of the Church, 41-43.

[9] Origen, Comm. Jn. 1.151.

[10] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 75.

[11] Bucur, Angelomorphic Pneumatology, xxvi-xxvii.

[12] Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology, 195-96.

Theological Wisdom

I’ve unintentionally but consistently been thinking and blogging about theological virtues the past few days. It occurred to me just now that the summation of what I’ve been trying to describe, whether it’s in relation to reading a source accurately, or to loving those with whom we disagree, or to refraining from pugilism in our theologizing, is wisdom. The question we need to ask ourselves methodologically is whether or not we are exercising wisdom as we do theology. Some distinctions that come to mind include:

The foolish theologian –

  • cannot discern between foolish myths and matters of utmost importance;
  • cannot discern between matters of friendly disagreement between Christian sisters and brothers and matters that threaten the integrity of the faith once delivered;
  • cannot discern when to speak softly and circumspectly and when to speak forcefully;
  • cannot discern between flattering language and arguments of substance;
  • cannot discern between proof-texting a source, whether historical or contemporary, and reading it rightly in context;
  • etc.

The wise theologian, on the other hand, exercises discernment in all these areas. They are slow to anger, quick to hear, slow to speak. They measure their words carefully. They know how to adjust the volume, so to speak, depending on the topic. They can distinguish between matters of utmost importance that require forceful argument and matters about which we can disagree and remain within the bounds of orthodoxy. They can refer to others’ arguments and positions without twisting their words or ideas.

May the Lord give us wisdom when we speak about him and his works.

“Not a Brawler”: Polemics v. Pugilism in Theology

Polemics – defined by Merriam-Webster as, alternatively, “ an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another,” or, “the art or practice of disputation or controversy . . .”   – is sometimes required in theology. There have been, since the Garden, theological opinions that deserve strong rebuke. When required, we should not shy away from that particular task, however reticent we may be to engage in it.

But there are plenty of examples today of self-styled theologians – many of whom you can find practicing their “craft” on Twitter threads or long Facebook comments or various corners of the blogosphere – who engage in nothing but refutation. For them, the theological task is nothing more or less than telling others why they are clearly and dangerously wrong. Theology is take down. To say it a bit more charitably, there are those who remember their task to “guard sound doctrine” but forget the more constructive instruction to “pass on to faithful men what you have learned also.”

This kind of theological engagement suffers in at least two ways. First, it produces theologies that are completely reactionary to whatever is happening in our current cultural moment. Rather than theology being a pillar and buttress of truth, it becomes shifting sand – ironically, sand that shifts in exactly the same direction that the supposedly dangerous culture does, even if it comes to different conclusions than that culture. Theology in Scripture is firm, sound, a trustworthy deposit. *Exclusively* polemical theology is, on the other hand, tossed about by the winds, even while it intends to straighten everyone else’s sails. It sniffs around for silly myths rather than avoiding them.

The other way that this theology-as-polemics suffers is by producing pugilists rather than peaceable ministers of sound doctrine. In 1 Tim. 3:3, Paul gives instructions regarding the qualification for an overseer (elder, pastor, bishop…). The penultimate characteristic listed in the first group (vv. 2-3) is “not quarrelsome.” In the KJV, it’s translated as “not a brawler.” Whether or not this particular qualification has physical confrontation or an intellectual disposition in mind (and, given the mention of “violence” in the immediately previous characteristic, one could choose either option, I think), the latter plausibly can be considered under it in terms of general application. A minister of the gospel should not be one disposed to quarreling, physically or intellectually. But theology-as-polemics produces bulldogs, not shepherds. It produces pugilism, not discernment. It produces violence, not love. And this pugilistic attitude leads, in turn, to viewing one’s interlocutor as an argument to be destroyed rather than a neighbor (and, often, a Christian sister or brother) to be loved.

 

Doctrinal Charity

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

A sermon of Matt Chandler’s has sparked a small fire in one corner of social media. In it, Chandler gives some examples of how the gift of prophecy might still operate today. Of course, his message assumes a continuationist position on gifts, a position that many American evangelicals view with suspicion. My concern in this post isn’t to argue for or against continuationism or Chandler’s application of it, but to address the negative reaction to it, a reaction that is, for me, emblematic of a larger problem within American evangelicalism – a lack of doctrinal charity toward those with whom we disagree.

In the last few days I’ve seen Chandler equated false teaching and false prophecy, and called a host of other unsavory things that I won’t repeat. Not to mention the potshots at his polity. The stated reason for these slanderous words is that Chandler is a continuationist and not a cessationist.

This kind of rhetoric reminds me of a few months ago when some Christians on social media essentially “farewelled” other Christians who voiced concerns about racial reconciliation in the Church. And that, in turn, reminds of the rhetoric used against Christians who feel that psychology and psychiatry can be used responsibly, even if subserviently, in Christian counseling as those who functionally deny the sufficiency of Scripture or who subvert biblical authority with secular authority. And all that reminds me of my Calvinist friends in seminary who were ready and willing to call Arminius a heretic, or my Arminian friends in seminary who were ready and willing to say that Calvin and the Calvinists believe in a different God because they affirm a particular view of election.

Brothers and sisters, this is not the way of Christ. This is not in accordance with Paul’s description of love for one another in 1 Corinthians 13, whether in the verses quoted at the beginning or in v. 7 – “ Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Doctrinal clarity is important, but so are doctrinal charity and doctrinal humility. I think we in American evangelicalism could do with a few reminders when we encounter beliefs with which we disagree.

  1. We are finite. Each of us who is not God is a creature, and as such we are finite in our physical and mental capacities. To say it like Paul in 1 Cor. 13:12, we can only see now in a mirror dimly, and that limited sight includes limitations regarding our abilities to formulate and assess doctrine. To be sure, we are called to guard the good deposit and pass on sound doctrine, but we need to recognize that one of the reasons the Reformers acknowledged sola Scriptura and cried semper reformanda is because they knew that each person is a creature. We need the Word of God to continually teach us because we are creatures who are finite in our knowledge and understanding, not omniscient and all-wise. Even if we think we’ve arrived at full doctrinal clarity and faithfulness, there’s still more to learn and understand. We’re creatures.
  2. We are fallen. Not only are our dogmatic abilities limited by our creatureliness, they are also tainted by our fallenness. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit of God to teach us and to correct us. Sometimes he does this through our own Bible reading, and at other times he does it through having us encounter people with which we (initially) disagree but who persuade us from the foundation of the Scriptures.
  3. We are in Christ. Those of us who have been born again by the Spirit of God through faith in the finished work of Christ are all part of one faith with one Lord signified by one baptism. We are a holy Temple being built up together by the Spirit of God. We are called to grow in our understanding of Christ together, rooted and grounded in love, so that we might be united to one another and to him in thought and in deed. When we disagree with other Christians, we are disagreeing with our brothers and sisters. Even if we think our brother or sister is wrong, we don’t kill them. That’s what Cain does. That’s what Saul does until the Damascus road. That’s what zeal without knowledge does. Instead, we love them and walk together towards unity by the power of the Spirit.
  4. We are part of Christ’s Church. The body of Christ is bigger than my or your tribe. It includes all who have trusted in Christ by the power of the Spirit throughout space and time. If my definition of orthodoxy excludes everyone but those who sign my denomination’s confession of faith, I’m a raging fundamentalist, not a bastion of orthodoxy.
  5. Sanctification isn’t immediate. When we trust Christ and receive a new heart from the Holy Spirit, we aren’t immediately perfect. We don’t immediately morph into the image of Christ. That kind of spontaneous transformation only occurs when Jesus comes back and we see him face to face. Sanctification takes time, and that includes doctrinal sanctification. When we disagree with someone, it may be that we need to exercise patience with them as we teach them all that Christ has commanded us. Or it may be that we are the ones who need teaching. In any case, love is patient and kind, including toward those who have different doctrinal positions than us.

Of course, all this assumes a taxonomy of error in which disagreements about tertiary issues can arise. I’m not talking about heresy, first-order issues that indicate one has not yet come to true faith in Christ and is a danger to the flock if teaching those errors. I’m talking about doctrines over which we can disagree but not eternally divide – Calvinism, counseling, and cessationism, to re-name but a few. When we disagree with someone over such tertiary issues, before giving them a hate-filled farewell, maybe we should pray for them instead, as our brother or sister in Christ, remember our own creatureliness and fallenness, and hope for unity in the bonds of peace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelicals and Historical Theology

For a few years now I’ve felt that evangelicals need to reevaluate our relationship with the Christian tradition. Some of this is related to my own experience with tradition, while other aspects of this impulse arise, I think, from seeing how evangelicals use the tradition in their own work, whether in service of their scholarship or of their understanding of liturgy. I am concerned that, for most evangelicals – including myself  – the tradition is at best, a blunt instrument to be (sparingly) used, or, at worst, something completely ancillary or even inimical to our commitments to sola Scriptura. I’ve written about the latter elsewhere; here I want to highlight a few ways in which I think we as evangelicals need to reconsider how we approach tradition as simply a tool to be used rather than as a gift to be received under the authority of Scripture.

A word before I do about why this is important – tradition, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is the living faith of the dead. When quoting someone we are not merely citing abstract ideas or sentences from thin air; we are attempting to receive and continue to pass down the faith once delivered in, by, and to the communion of the saints. Treating tradition rightly is a matter of loving one’s neighbor, both through receiving rightly – accurately and faithfully – what those before us have passed down and through ministering it to others. With that context set, how do many evangelicals (including myself) use tradition?

  1. Tradition is useful as a concept when I want it to be. We evangelicals often talk out of both sides of our mouth about tradition. On the one hand, we want to uphold sola Scriptura, often to the point that it effectively becomes nuda or solo Scriptura. This total rejection of tradition in service of (supposedly) proving and bolstering our commitment to Scripture’s final authority has resulted in a generation of Christians, lay and academic alike, who by and large haven’t thoroughly read the Fathers or the Medieval theologians, who don’t know enough about the intricacies of the historical development of Christian theology, and who haven’t been trained to read with the communion of the saints under the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, we want to claim tradition when it is useful. We pull it out of the closet in which we’ve shoved it when we need it, whether to spur on our hobby horses or to hammer our opponents. We say to tradition, “you should not be seen or heard unless spoken to,” and we only speak to it and call on it to speak when it is convenient for us. We use it as a blunt instrument, instead of seeing it as a gift from our brothers and sisters in Christ to be received and passed on in like-minded service.
  2. Tradition is useful for proof-texts. Because of our common lack of training in the tradition, the means by which tradition is useful to many of us can only be by proof-texting. Not many of us have read through the corpora of the Fathers or through Anselm or Aquinas (much less Ephrem or Bernard or the like). This leaves us with only one option when we need to call on the tradition – proof-texting. There are, of course, times when one verse from Scripture or one sentence from an historical figure has a meaning that is unequivocal and obvious. But more often than not, proof-texting leads to misinterpretation and misuse of texts, biblical and historical alike.
  3. Tradition is useful because it is malleable. Because we are not trained in the tradition, because we only need proof-texts, and because we see it as lacking in authority in any sense, tradition is continually subject to individual judgment in each generation. This means we can change it based on our own individual interpretive judgments – excising creedal clauses being the most obvious and egregious example.

So what are some ways to turn the tide on these problematic approaches to tradition? Here are some suggestions for moving from a utilitarian approach to tradition to what I hope is a more healthy view and appropriation of it.

  1. Read through the corpora of a few major historical figures. Take some time to read through all of the major works of Irenaeus and Augustine. Or all of Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius. &c. You’ll be challenged, surprised, encouraged, and convicted. You’ll also be confused sometimes, and even find yourself in disagreement. That’s fine – we all need to learn how to read charitably and critically at the same time. Most of the major works of major historical Christian figures are available for free at ccel.org.
  2. Read the recent scholarship on ancient Christian exegesis and the historical development of Christian theology. Because earlier generations of Christians, and particularly those in the Patristic and Medieval periods, do not share our cultural contexts, there are times where they are difficult to understand. There is much recent scholarship on the hermeneutical, philosophical, and theological commitments of early Christian theologians that will assist in accomplishing #1. You could find many resources for each theologian and for each period, but I’d start with John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, and Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. 
  3. Read with charity and humility. Neither of the above points matters if we aren’t reading primary and secondary sources in order to love our historical neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ, but instead are reading them to use and abuse them for our pet arguments and projects. These are men and women to be loved as image bearers of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means we need to treat them and their ideas with love and respect. Critique is necessary, because we’re all finite and fallen, but critique must come from within the confines of Christ’s Church, the unity we have in him by the Spirit, our common goal of bringing glory to the Father, our common table, and our common final biblical authority. Both reception and critique also must come with an acknowledgment that, again, we are all finite and fallen. When I read, I read as one who is not God, either in terms of my intellect or my authority. I do not know everything, and the things I know I only know by the grace of the one true God who reveals himself to me by his Word and Spirit and who made me in his image. This means that I must be circumspect when I critique, because I do not critique from a place of omniscience or ultimate sovereignty but as a fellow beggar trying to help another beggar know what good bread looks like. Of course all Protestants, including myself, will see places where we disagree with the tradition. But we need to do so having given our interlocutor, our brother or sister in Christ, a fair, generous, and full hearing before doing so.