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.

 

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.

Are Evangelicals Too Soft on Modern-Day Heterodoxy?

Andy Stanley’s Marcion-like (or maybe hyper-dispensational?) view of the OT has resurfaced and the outcry has already been well worn. This is nothing new for Stanley—it has been a trend of his for years (and years). However, I don’t want to address him specifically here. The defense of his teachings from some corners of evangelicalism is more intriguing to me.

Some of the initial reactions on social media and blogs focused on the supposed lack of engagement from Stanley’s critics. Statements like, “If you’d just listen to the whole sermon, you may not disagree as much as you think” and, “Everyone who speaks publicly as much as Stanley is liable to slip up or be imprecise at times” ran amuck. Neither of these defenses holds much water. Indeed, many of us have been paying attention to Stanley for years, and we know that (1) this is certainly consistent with his theology of Scripture and the OT; and (2) he is one of the most precise and gifted communicators on the planet, so while he’s entitled to some imprecision or slip-ups, he has been very clear and articulate on this over the years (as we just noted).

Again, innumerable responses have already been written about why his view is Marcion-like and foreign to the writers of the NT. Collectively, these all say it better than I could. But the underlying theological assumptions that lead people to defend Stanley on this subject are problematic.

These assumptions lead to the minimization of the theology itself. Many folks rushed to his defense, arguing that Stanley is merely trying to reach a new generation of non-believers who are put off by the “angry God of the OT.” Others, similarly, argue that his view of the OT is simply a matter of preference—his view is one perspective of many, and thus some theological fundamentalists just need to take a chill pill. Here’s why both are problematic.

1. Reaching lost people is viewed as the primary goal of Christianity.

There is no doubt that evangelism is an important call for Christians. Indeed, the last thing Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended to the Father’s right hand is “go and make disciples of all nations.” Stanley’s remarks are defended on the basis that he’s just trying to get people to darken the doors of the church so they can hear the gospel message and be surrounded by believers. Great Commission!

First, this shortchanges the Great Commission, because Jesus also told them to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” and to baptize them in the name of the triune God. His commission was one of not only making disciples but also maturing them in the content of his teachings. The core teaching of the OT was the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4—teach your children God’s commandments from generation to generation. This was very much a doctrinal statement. Jesus consistently pointed back to the OT’s commands while explicating and fulfilling (not destroying or minimizing) their meanings doctrinally. Paul carried this on in several places, including his charge to Timothy to “guard the good deposit” (1 Tim. 1:13-14), which was certainly a statement about preserving right theology.

Second, this view teaches people that Scripture is not sufficient for salvation and sanctification. Stanley can claim the inspiration of Scripture all day, but if he thinks the Bible needs defending or even editing (his statement about “unhitching” the NT from the OT gives this impression), then he denies its sufficiency. Reaching lost people with a half-Bible and teaching them to ignore significant portions doesn’t build confidence in God’s Word, and it represents a posture on Stanley’s part that the whole of Scripture really isn’t fully sufficient to give someone “wisdom for salvation” and “training in righteousness” (1 Tim. 3:15). Of course, “Scripture” to the NT writers was primarily the OT.

So while helping people move from spiritual darkness to spiritual light is a core component of biblical Christianity, the old saying “what you win them with is what you win them to” is especially relevant here. The 20th-century megachurch mentality of filling seats has already proven to produce loads of false converts, and this mentality is part of the reason why. When they’re given milk but never move onto solid food, they remain (almost literally) spiritual babies who never grow up to determine for themselves good and bad theology (Eph. 4:14; Heb. 5:12-6:1).

2. Heterodoxy is overlooked as mere preference.

Matt Emerson has rightly pointed out that we can’t judge all theological error based on its consistency with Nicaea. Yet church culture has been infiltrated by the larger culture around it, buying into a version of universal truth where everyone has a right to their theological opinion and no one has the right to judge another’s hermeneutic.

While I’m thrilled that many Christians see early creeds and confessions as important doctrinal parameters (we need more of that actually!), it becomes as solid as theological Jell-O when we assume that a few lines from the creeds encompass the entirety of orthodoxy and theological correctness. We then allow heterodoxy to run rampant in the church, excusing any theological statement or biblical position as a matter of “agree to disagree” simply because it doesn’t violate the literal wording of a particular creed.

Of course, the early church themselves wouldn’t have done this. The creeds were in some ways bare minimum requirements for orthodoxy, but they were also in response to certain major currents of heresy in the church. The sexual revolution and hermeneutical sloppiness of the past 100 years (both of which Stanley has overlooked or directly advanced) would’ve almost certainly produced councils had they been significant movements in that era. But we know, of course, that these views are modern novelties.

While I could make the case that Stanley’s view on the OT is an affront to proper interpretation of creedal language, it is heterodoxy at best and therefore still falls well below the standards of both traditional orthodoxy and scriptural warrant.

I’m not sure how a fractured Protestantism handles these issues in any official manner, but it’s high time we believe and advance a thicker orthodoxy that’s creedally informed, but more importantly scripturally coherent.

The Trinity Debate (2016-2017): A Selected Bibliography

The-Holy-Trinity-in-Stained-GlassThe 2016-2017 Trinity debate over the eternal submission of the Son was covered thoroughly by this blog, other blogs, Christianity Today, podcasts, a panel at ETS, and most certainly in every theological group text in evangelicalism. In an attempt to try and boil the debate down for those who want to read up, reflect, or reference the debate, I created a bibliography on all of the published material I could find based on a list I’ve been accruing since late 2016.

That bibliography was 42 pages. Forty-two. 42.

Frankly, many of those sources were unhelpful, repetitive, and/or broken links. So I decided to whittle it down to the bare essentials — posts that defined the debate or appeared to be shared extensively — and it became an 11-page bibliography. That’ll have to do.

Download the bibliography here.*

 

*A reader brought to my attention the monster list over at Books at a Glance. This list has been updated with additions from their list and a few others I originally did not include from my own notes.

20th Century Theology and Classical Christian Theism

About eighteen months ago, in the summer of 2016, Wayne Grudem and others were put on trial via blog about their views on the Trinity. Grudem holds to ERAS, or Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission, wherein God the Son eternally, functionally (not ontologically) submits to the Father. This submission in the Godhead, for him and other ERAS proponents, grounds a complementarian view of gender roles. One of the primary accusations leveled at Grudem et al. is that they did not clearly and unequivocally hold to (at least) one aspect of classical Christian theism, the eternal relations of origin – and specifically ,the eternal generation of the Son – opting instead for ERAS to explain the distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead. (Grudem, as well as Bruce Ware, have since publicly affirmed the eternal relations of origin).

While I strongly disagree with  Grudem’s articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, what puzzled me at the time and still does is why Grudem and Bruce Ware particularly were singled out for questioning and/or revising Christian theism in some way. If you read twentieth century theology, much of it consists precisely of that kind of move, and via a similar theological method as e.g. Grudem’s. For instance, a year before the Trinity debate, Scot McKnight posted Roger Olson’s blogged critique of divine timelessness, presumably in support of the latter’s comments. The quoted portion of Olson’s post begin by questioning “classical theism” in general and its (according to him) over-speculative nature, but the key paragraph begins like this:

And yet…

Nowhere does the biblical story of God, the biblical narrative that identifies God for us, and upon which classical Christian theology claims to be based, say or even hint that God is “outside of time” or “timeless” or that all times are “simultaneously before the eyes of God.”

A year later McKnight was a vocal opponent of ERAS on Twitter and his blog, on the grounds that it departed from the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. (Now, perhaps in that year plus, McKnight came to appreciate the tradition more; I don’t know, that’s certainly possible. In any case I find the Olson post and the ERAS comments interesting in relation to one another.) Another example, this time in classical Christology: Nick Batzig recently posted about William Lane Craig’s attempt to argue that Christ did not possess a human soul but instead only a human body and a divine soul, even referring to his position as “Neo-Apollinarianism.” We could also mention Moltmann’s Trinitarian rupture at the cross, or Pinnock’s open theism, or, relatedly, process theology, or Balthasar’s view of the descent as it relates to (departs from?) inseparable operations, the extra Calvinisticum, and other important pieces of classical Christian theism more broadly and classical Trinitarianism and Christology more particularly.

The point is that Grudem and others are not and never have been the only twentieth century theologians to question or to attempt a revision of aspects of classical Christian theism. Much of twentieth century theology consists of just such questions and attempts. And they do so on the same kinds of methodological grounds. Notice again the Olson quote above. To paraphrase, “I personally cannot find a text in the biblical narrative that speaks of God’s timelessness.” This sounds like the same kind of biblicist argument used by e.g. Grudem, in an appendix of his Systematic Theology, where he says of eternal generation that he cannot find a text in support of the doctrine.

Again, we could multiply examples here of similar methodology in twentieth century theology, wherein a theologian’s own reading of the Bible, perhaps in conjunction with philosophical categories and methods (e.g. Craig on Christology), trumps the traditional understanding of an aspect of the doctrine of God or of Christology. James Dolelzal’s recent work, All That Is In God, does some of that work, but even he limits his analysis to what he calls “Reformed evangelicals,” which for him is mostly a euphemism for Bruce Ware. This doesn’t tell the whole story, just like the Trinity debate didn’t tell the whole story. Classical Christian theism was, to use Dolezal’s paradigm, rejected, revised, or ignored by much of twentieth century theology, not only in Reformed evangelicalism but in mainline Protestantism, other parts of evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy….you name the tradition and I’ll name you a major theologian who went the same route albeit on a different vehicle. (That includes confessional Reformed traditions).

All this is to say that I think evangelicals in particular could do with a revision of their understanding of tradition in general and of classical Christian theism in particular. It is my belief that many rejections of CCT arise from misunderstanding both the role of tradition within the evangelical commitment to sola Scriptura and of the biblical-theological and historical warrrant for holding CCT. We need to go back to the drawing board in evangelicalism in the way we teach theological method and how we relate our right and good commitment to the Bible’s ultimate authority to the faith once delivered to the saints, i.e. the Christian Tradition. To begin, we need to recognize that classical Christian theism, and the recovery of it and other traditional theological categories today, is not some supra-biblical scheme that we place onto the Bible, but rather is a way of talking about God that arises from the Bible in conjunction with dogmatic and philosophical reflection. Theological retrieval is not repristinizing the past or muting the Bible with theological jargon; instead, it’s a demonstration of the inherently biblical support for dogmatic terminology and categories. In other words, “going back to the drawing board” consists firstly of a shift in how we think about theological method, and particularly what makes a doctrine “biblical.”

Canonical Parameters for Talking about the Cry of Dereliction

Last week I posted about some dogmatic parameters for talking about the Cry of Dereliction. In this post I want to add to those parameters some boundaries given to us by the text of Scripture. Jesus’ guttural utterance from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) ought to be taken in its immediate, surrounding, and, ultimately, canonical contexts. Here I only want to outline some of these; as with the previous post, this one could be expanded into at least an article if not a monograph. And nobody has time for that in a blog post.

  1. Mark’s Gospel – The first contexts for the Cry of Dereliction are its immediate and surrounding contexts in Mark’s Gospel. He and Matthew (27:46) are the only Gospels that include it, and Mark includes no other sayings of Jesus from the cross in his Gospel. Regarding the immediate context, there are a few things to say. First, the Temple veil is torn in two (Mk. 15:38) and the Roman centurion confesses that “truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mk. 15:39) immediately after Jesus’ cry and subsequent death. Second, this cry stands as the culmination of “the hour,” spoken of repeatedly in Mark 13 and fulfilled in the events of Mark 14 (see on this Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). This “hour” is for “the Son of Man,” who will come riding on the clouds in glory” (Mk. 13:24-27).  Third, the cry from the cross is answered preliminarily in his royal, Jewish burial at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:42-47) and ultimately by the empty tomb (Mk. 16:1-8). Regarding the surrounding context (i.e. the context of the entire book), Jesus’ reference to Ps. 22:1 stands as the culmination of a long line of references to the Old Testament’s Suffering Servant in Mark’s Gospel. Most of these come from Isaiah, but in both the Psalms and Isaiah the Suffering Servant songs are intended to convey lament over present circumstances in the context of trust in God’s covenant promises, and specifically his promise to bring Israel’s New Exodus through the Suffering Servant. In other words, in Mark, the Cry of Dereliction, a cry of pain, anguish, suffering, and abandonment, is couched within the self-identification of Jesus as the divine and royal Son of Man, trust in God’s covenantal promises, the fulfillment of those promises in the penal substitutionary death of the Messiah, and the vindication of his death as a substitute for sinners in the Temple curtain’s tearing, the centurion’s exclamation, Jesus’ royal burial (rather than a criminal’s burial) at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately the empty tomb.
  2. The Fourfold Gospel Corpus – In addition to Mark’s context, we also need to pay attention to the canonical context of the four Gospels, and specifically to Jesus’ other sayings from the cross. I am here not so concerned about chronological order for the seven sayings as I am about how to read them together. Jesus cries “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” in the context of also saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), (to the thief) “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43), “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (John 19:26-27), “I thirst,” (John 19:28), “It is finished” (John 19:30), and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Notice a few things about these other sayings. First, the initial and final sayings are prayers to the Father. While Jesus experiences abandonment here, it is not in such a way that he believes that the Father will not hear his prayers. Second, whatever we say about abandonment needs to include not only Jesus’ continued prayers to the Father but also his continued speech to those around the cross. He cares for his mother and friend (John 19:26-27), and he speaks to the soldiers (“I thirst”). Third, and most importantly, these other sayings indicate that Jesus’ actions are intended as a propitiatory, acceptable sacrifice (John 19:28, John 19:30). Therefore at death, in anticipation of the ultimate vindication of the resurrection, Jesus’ righteous life and sacrificially satisfactory death will be vindicated when he enters the intermediate state in the righteous place of the dead, Paradise (Luke 23:46).
  3. Psalm 22 – A third canonical context for the Cry of Dereliction is Psalm 22. While we should affirm that Jesus quotes this in a moment of intense suffering, and therefore has the abandonment mentioned in 22:1 fully in view, the NT authors (and Jesus in his ministry) often quote Scripture metaleptically. That is, when they quote one verse they have the entire context of that one verse in view. Given both Mark’s use of the Suffering Servant motif and the other sayings from the cross, as well as a proper understanding of the lament genre, it is likely that Jesus has the entirety of Psalm 22 in view even though he only quotes v. 1. When we look at Psalm 22, we find that this righteous man who suffers unjustly is ultimately vindicated and that his feeling and experience of abandonment to death take place in the context of the covenant faithfulness of God.
  4. The Old Testament Story – Finally, we need to understand that Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction stands at the apex of the biblical story, which is Israel’s story. Israel is promised exile in the Old Testament. They are told that, on the Day of the Lord, God will send them out of the Promised Land. God departs from the Temple at the beginning of Ezekiel in anticipation of its and Israel’s destruction. In other words, exile is divine abandonment. It is judgment on sin. Israel deserves it because they have not repented and trusted in YHWH. But when we look at the narratives concerning exile, YHWH is not only the God who judges but also the God who saves. As he sends Israel’s enemies to crush them and to remove them from the land, he also remains with them. He abandons Israel in 1 Samuel 5, when the ark is taken by the Philistines. But he also in that story is working on their behalf, going into exile on their behalf and defeating their enemies for them in the midst of that self-imposed exile by knocking over the idol of Dagon. In Ezekiel, as he pronounces judgment on Israel by abandoning the Temple, his presence goes with Israel into exile. Exile is real, but so is the promise of return. And in God, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Return triumphs over exile. Resurrection triumphs over death. The judgment that takes place on the cross is real, but it is judgment in a covenant context that anticipates vindication through resurrection.

As I said in the previous post, I wholeheartedly affirm penal substitution. God pours out his wrath toward sinners on Jesus at the cross. Those who repent of their sins and believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9) receive death instead of life because Jesus took the curse that we deserve (Gal. 3:13). Jesus became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In all these ways I affirm penal substitution. But in describing this mystery we need to make sure we do not cross the dogmatic boundaries of Nicaea and Chalcedon or the canonical boundaries of Holy Scripture.

Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.

One example of this kind of holistic theological method is found in Maximus’ Ambiguum 7:

For it belongs to God alone to be the end and the completion and the impassible.

Maximus in this section is discussing God’s impassibility, and his foundational metaphysical principle is that, on the one hand, “Nothing that came into being is perfect in itself and complete,” and, on the other hand, “That which is perfect is uncaused . . . [and therefore] free of passions.” In the immediately prior paragraph he says this slightly differently:

. . . nothing that comes into being is its own end, since it is not self-caused. For if it were, it would be unbegotten, without beginning and unmoved since it has nothing toward which it can be moved in any way. For what is self-caused transcends what has come into being, because it exists for the sake of nothing [other than itself].

The logic here is simple – Anything that has a prior cause (namely creation) has a purpose – “an end” or “telos” to use Maximus’ language. And because it has an end, which it has not already reached, it moves, or is passible, until it reaches that end. That which is unmade (namely God) is necessarily immovable since it is the end in itself. To put it simply, God has no greater end to move toward. This is why Augustine can famously say, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” – he’s drawing on impassibility. God is immovable because he is uncaused and therefore the true end, or goal, toward which all creatures are designed to move. There is no greater goal toward which he moves. Impassibility is thus directly related to telos – God is already complete, has no telos (movement towards completion), and therefore is without movement (passions).

All that may not sound very “biblical” since I have yet to provide a prooftext or even a citation. But Maximus’ logic here is filled with biblical quotations, citations, and allusions. After the second block quote above, Maximus goes on to quote, cite, or allude to Gen. 2:9, 17; Deut. 12:9; Ps. 16:15; Ps. 42:2; Phil. 3:11; Heb. 4:10; and Heb. 11:39. The point in all of these texts is that human beings are created to move toward their rest, namely rest in God. And then the kicker passage comes with his citation of Matt 11:28 – “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Christ himself, as God incarnate, is the telos, the goal, the rest toward which all creatures move. And while Jesus in his human nature experiences sleep, hunger, temptation, and death, Maximus here draws on the classic hermeneutical move of early Christian writers, partitive exegesis. (Augustine calls this the “form of a servant” / “form of God” distinction.)

We could also go on to talk about how, for Maximus, Jesus is not only the center of Scripture but also the center of the universe (again, he backs this up repeatedly with biblical citations). It’s an important point in understanding why Maximus ends with Matt. 11:28 and not, say, OT texts that talk about YHWH as Israel’s rest. Nevertheless, the point here is merely that before evangelicals (including myself) knock the Great Tradition, either hermeneutically or theologically, we should recognize that in the last half century or so our own tradition is largely untrained in the history of interpretation and historical theology. There is a thoroughly biblical, metaphysical logic behind classical Christian theism and pre-Enlightenment Christian interpretation that should be understood on its own terms before we consider rejecting it. That means returning ad fontes, reading primary sources in full and not just proof-texting them, and doing the hard work of understanding how our own hermeneutical assumptions differ from theirs.

Four Myths About Christ’s Descent to the Dead

The doctrine of Christ’s descent to the dead, expressed by the clause “He descended to the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed, might be one of the most unpopular doctrines in evangelical churches today. I haven’t done a scientific poll to support that, but I’m pretty sure if I took one the descent would be down at the bottom with angelic metaphysics (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”). Instead of a biblically supported and Christologically important doctrine, many view the descent more like a medieval myth. But when I encounter opposition to the descent, the reasons given are more accurately called myths, since they don’t accurately describe the doctrine. Below I want to address four myths about the descent that are commonly (and incorrectly) employed to reject this doctrine.

1. The descent means Jesus was tormented in Hell.

Many evangelicals reject the descent because they believe it means that Jesus experienced torment and separation from the Father in Hell. This just isn’t true of the early Christian and medieval views of the doctrine. For the early Christians, Jesus’ descent to Hell (a term which was synonymous for them with “the place of the dead”) was victorious and the beginning of his exaltation. He was not tormented there, but rather went to the righteous place of the dead (Paradise) in his human soul. In other words, the doctrine first affirms that Jesus experienced death as all humans do: his body was buried in a grave, and his soul dwelt in the (righteous portion of the) place of the dead. But, second, by virtue of the hypostatic union, he descended as the God-Man, and so his descent is not just vicarious but also victorious. In experiencing death as the God-Man, he defeats it. Thus it is not a part of his humiliation, which culminated in the crucifixion, but is the beginning of his exaltation, which culminated in his ascension.

2. The descent entails either inclusivism or universalism.

A second reason evangelicals reject the descent is because they believe it necessarily supports a universal, or at least inclusivist, understanding of salvation. Some of this suspicion is, admittedly, warranted. The Eastern Orthodox view has developed along these lines, understanding the descent as the complete of Death and Hell and thus the completed rescue and healing of Adam’s race. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, came to view the descent as the inaugural event for the existence of Purgatory, so while they would deny universalism, they still see the descent as the means for their doctrine of inclusivism. We should acknowledge that these are problematic elements of the doctrine as held by Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. But the myth here is that the EO and RC understandings of the descent are equal to the early Christian understandings of it and the meaning of the creedal clause. On the contrary, while outliers like Origen saw the descent in universalist terms, giants like Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom are explicit that the descent’s effects (and Christ’s work generally) are only for the faithful. Neither inclusivism nor universalism are integral to the descent; they arose as aspects of the doctrine much later in the EO and RC traditions and are rightly rejected by the Reformers and now by (most) contemporary evangelicals. But rejection of aberrations of a doctrine doesn’t mean we have to reject the doctrine itself. In other words, don’t throw the descent baby out with the inclusivist/universalist bathwater.

3. The descent clause is a late addition to the Apostles’ Creed.

Often evangelicals cite the lack of attestation of the descent clause in the earliest version of the Apostles’ Creed in support of their rejection of it. Again, there’s a hint of truth to this objection; myths tend to have at least a tenuous connection to reality. But once again this objection distorts the historical facts. The descent clause is found as early as 390 AD in the confession of the Council of Sirmium, only nine years after the Council of Constantinople affirmed the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creed. There are a few other clear attestations in the textual history of the Apostles’ Creed, but many point to its inclusion in a 650 AD version as the clear demarcation of when it is clearly and finally inserted.

There are two ways to interpret this. First, we could argue, as this myth does, that the clause is just a later addition that was inserted as this doctrine was invented toward the end of the sixth century. The other option is that the early church did not dispute this doctrine or doctrines related to it and so felt no need to explicitly include it. We are not left without evidence in this regard. The famous quote of Rufinus, that “he descended to the dead” is synonymous with “he was buried,” clarifies the situation. Contrary to the misinterpretation of this Rufinian prooftext by Erasmus, Calvin, Schaff (great historian as he was), and Grudem, Rufinus does not mean here that the descent is just a reference to bodily burial. On the contrary, what he means is that the phrase “he was buried” was understood by the early church to contain within it not only an affirmation of bodily burial but also an affirmation of the descent doctrine.

The descent was ubiquitously affirmed from the second century. In other words, it is one of the earliest and least contested views of the ancient church. It didn’t need to be parsed out in a creed because it wasn’t contested, but it was also implicitly included in the Apostles’ Creed from its inception in the clause, “he was buried.” The probable reason for its explicit inclusion at the places where we see it further clarified (i.e. 390 AD, 650 AD) is that it is at precisely these moments that the church is combatting Apollinarianism. This heresy maintained that the Logos assumed only a human body, not a human soul, or mind. What better way to combat this doctrine than to bring out in an explicit clause an ancient belief of the church that necessitates that Christ have a human soul? Far from a situation in which the church gradually came to believe this doctrine, the history of the creedal clause is one in which an ubiquitous and ancient doctrine was implicitly affirmed in “he was buried” but then explicitly brought out in “he descended” in order to combat a persistent and pernicious heresy. [1]

4. The descent has no biblical support.

Of course, for evangelicals, the most important critique of the descent is that it has no biblical support. Many would point to Augustine’s rejection of 1 Pet. 3:18–22 as teaching the descent, and, assuming that this is the only text on which the descent stands, see it as warrant for rejecting it wholesale. The problem is, again, twofold. First, the descent does not stand or fall on 1 Pet. 3:18–22.[2] It wasn’t even cited in support of the doctrine until 200 AD, and at that point the descent was already being affirmed by the likes of Ignatius, Polycarp, Melito, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. These second century theologians, along with ones throughout the early Christian period, did not turn primarily to 1 Pet. 3:18–22 to understand and support the descent. Instead, they turned to texts like Matt. 12:40; Luke 23:53; Acts 2:27; Rom. 10:7; Eph. 4:9; and Rev. 1:18. 1 Pet. 3:18–22 certainly wasn’t ignored, but it also wasn’t the crux of the doctrine either.

It would take longer than we have space for here to exegete each of these texts. Suffice it to say that they all refer to Jesus going to the place of the dead. In Second Temple Judaism, this had a clear meaning – the place of the dead was a compartmentalized (at least two, righteous and unrighteous) place where all human souls went upon death, waiting for the universal judgment and general resurrection. When these texts talk about Jesus in Hades, the lower parts of the earth, the abyss, Paradise, and the like, they aren’t just references to the grave. They’re references to the place of the dead, where human souls reside. And in fact, at this point, we could add a biblical pattern in support – Christ in the incarnation assumed our entire human nature and experience, including our composition as body and soul and our experience of death. The descent affirms this and that, in doing so, Jesus defeated death. Praise God!

There are, of course, other topics to discuss with respect to the descent, such as what it would mean for Christ to “preach” to the dead, what it would mean for him to “release” Adam and Eve, how the descent is connected to other dogmatic loci, and why this doctrine matters for believers. I’m hoping to address those in my forthcoming book on the doctrine. In the meantime, Justin Bass’ The Battle for the Keys is an excellent resource for a biblical and historical explanation of Christ’s descent to the dead.

[1] The argument made in this section is in many ways a summary of an excellent article published last year, Jeffrey L. Hamm, Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists,” WTJ (2016): 93 – 116.

[2] The argument in this section is dependent upon Justin W. Bass, The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Wipf and Stock, 2014), especially 45–96.