Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ten things on Fundamentalism & the Reformed Faith

1. Fundamentalism began as a reaction against theological Liberalism. The Reformed faith started as an attempt to bring the Catholic Church back to the doctrine and practice of Scripture.
2. Fundamentalists tend not to respect tradition. The Reformed hold to the supreme authority of Scripture, but value what the church has taught about God's truth in the past.
3. Fundamentalism has a minimalist approach to creeds and confessions of faith. The movement can be suspicious of theological scholarship. The Reformed faith is expressed in elaborate, all-embracing documents such as The Westminster Confession, The Savoy Declaration and The 1689 Baptist Confession. Typically, Calvinists have a high regard for theological study.
4. Fundamentalism makes little distinction between secondary issues and foundational gospel truth. This can make the movement unnecessarily divisive and sectarian. The Reformed insist on the essential gospel truth of God's saving grace in Christ. But they allow for liberty of conscience on adiaphora (things indifferent).
5. Fundamentalism is often stridently dispensationalist and premillenialist in its eschatology. The Reformed faith teaches covenant theology and is usually amillenialist. But some prominent Reformed theologians are postmillenialists and even premillenialists. It should be noted that Calvin said of Chilialism (premillenialism) "This fiction is too puerile to need or deserve refutation." Institutes III:XXV:5. (Sorry, John "All self-respecting Calvinists are premill" MacAthur and followers, but there it is).
6. Fundamentalsim reads the Bible in a literalistic way. Reformed expositors hold that Scripture should be interpreted in the light of the analogy of faith, taking into account grammatical, literary and contextual concerns.
7. Fundamentalism tends to be legalistic, teaching that the Christian life is largely about keeping the rules. Reformed theology has sought to develop a Biblical doctrine of sanctification that is rooted in the believer's union with Christ and the work of the Spirit. The law is a guide to right conduct, but the dynamic of the Christian life is the Spirit of Christ in the life of the believer.
8. Fundamentalism often has a very negative view of culture and the arts. Reformed teaching recognises that all human life is affected by sin, but God, in his "common grace", blesses society with many good things. These good aspects of culture and the arts are to be valued and enjoyed to the glory of God.
9. Fundamentalism is usually allied to right-wing politics. Reformed believers may be found supporting many different political parties. Reformed Christians have campaigned against slavery and racial intolerance. They have worked for a better society, including improved conditions for workers and free education and healthcare for all. The Reformed theologian, Francis Schaeffer was an early advocate of ecological concerns.
10. Fundamentalists share many important truths in common with Reformed believers such as a commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture and salvation through Christ alone. Theological liberalism is a much greater danger to the church than fundamentalism. We may disagree with Fundamentalists, but we should respect and love them as fellow-Christians.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Barth poem

David Congdon has challenged theology bloggers to write a poem about Barth that is loosely based on Albert Piersma's excellent poem on John Calvin:
Make of me no Calvinist,
God of Calvin and of me,
Cause me not to follow him
Who would follow only Thee.
Make of me no Calvinist,
Swallowing each word he penned,
Make of me a thinker, God,
As was he, Thy intimate friend!
Make me, God, as Calvin was,
Now, while yet in days of youth,
Delving from the Depths of Thine,
Sovereign, soul-exalting truth.
Make me like the Christ,
O God, Give me not a Calvin's ire,
But withhold from me the spark
For a new Servetus-fire.
Make me like a Calvin, God,
Just as humble, just as brave,
Like a Calvin who refused
E'en a stone upon his grave.
--Albert Piersma
As readers of Exiled Preacher will know, I'm not really a Barth man, but here's my tongue-in-cheek entry, which, it's fair to say has divided the critics (here) :

Make of me no Barthian,
On some things he was quite wrong,
I don' t want to follow his lead,
Proper Calvinism's what I need.

Church Dogmatics don't make me read,
Those tomes will make my fingers bleed,
I haven't time to read that stuff,
Dogmatics in Outline is quite enough.

Like John Calvin I'd rather be,
He taught electing grace so free,
For sound doctrine he's the one,
Calvin's the better theologian.

Make me like Calvin, Lord,
A man who loves your holy Word,
I offer my whole heart to you,
Give me grace your work to do.
If you would like to contribute a poem, visit David's blog and send him an e-mail. The deadline is 4th July, after which voting will begin to decide the best Barth poem.

The angony of deceit with Mike Horton

Martin Downes continues his fascinating interview series in conversation with Professor Mike Horton of Westminster Theological Seminary, California. He reflects on the danger of being a theological reactionary and says,

'A lot of “new liberals” are former fundamentalists and evangelicals who have retained a reactionary and narrow-minded attitude'.
Part 1 here
Part 2 here
Part 3 here

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pet monkey's dramatic disaster

Something terrible has happened. My pet theological monkey, "David Sky" asked if he could borrow a book. I said, "Help yourself. Reading should keep you quiet for a bit." He was trying to get hold of John Calvin's Ideas by Paul Helm, when disaster struck. Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine caught his eye, "It's just so orange!" said the monkey. He reached for the mighty tome, lost his footing and the book landed right on top of him. "Help!" He cried, "I'm being crushed by The Drama of Doctrine!" I rushed to the scene, took the photo you can see above and then gently lifted the book. Luckily, it wasn't damaged. But the monkey was left dazed, confused and badly bruised. I don't know if he'll ever be able to blog again.
The strange thing is, that since being walloped by the D of D, he has been talking kind of weird. Instead of saying, "Let's have a chat over a cup of tea.", he'll say "Let's do some speech acts over a receptacle of postlactarian tea-leaf-based beverage." It's kind of freaking me out and I don't know what to do about it. I've tried nouthetic counseling, but he just says, "Don't get stroppy with me. It's not my fault I got compressed by your book." Oh dear! This event has pushed me beyond the limits of my pastoral training and experience. They simply don't prepare you for things like this at the London Theological Seminary.

John Murray on the task of Systematic Theology 7

Concluding Reflections
Biog by Iain Murray
(Updated from Life in Vol 3 of Collected Writings)
This is the last post in this series on John Murray's approach to systematic theology. I suggest that Murray's proposals have the potential to refresh contemporary Reformed Dogmatics. A more exegetical method that roots systematics in biblical theology will also make the discipline of greater benefit to pastors. Our task is to proclaim to Word of God to the people of God. To do that, we need a systematic theology that does not mainly consist of a restatement of Reformed orthodoxy appended by a string of proof texts. Pastors need to be helped to think theologically - to relate the witness of Scripture to contemporary concerns. Robert Reymond's A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith is an advance on Berkhof's Systematic Theology in this respect. Although I don't always agree with his exegetical decisions, Reymond does actually exegete key passages of Scripture. But his work fails to take into account recent theological developments and lacks generosity in disputed matters like church government and baptism. What we need is a contemporary Reformed Dogmatics that is modelled on Murray's careful methodology. Systematics should also take account of Kevin Vanhoozer's theodramatic proposals. One of the problems that I had with the latter's The Drama of Doctrine was that the work lacked exegetical rigour. A creative blend of the two approaches would be an interesting prospect.
Here is the complete series on John Murray and the task of Systematic Theology:
Murray's four volume Collected Writings are available from the Banner of Truth Trust here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pentecost

Spirit of God,
Spirit of his Son,
God with God,
loving and loved,
wind, fire, dove,
One in being with the three,
you are life and light eternally.

You brooded over
the waters of a
half-formed world,
waiting for the Word
to unleash your energy.
You acted with wisdom and skill,
all to do the Father's will.

Overshadowing the virgin,
you created from her the
humanity of the Son and
Word was made flesh.
By you, God and man became one.
Holy Spirit, you kept him true.
Through Jesus all will be made new.

Eternal Spirit, fire divine,
the spotless Lamb offered himself
to God through your power.
You sustained him on the cross
as he bore sin's weight for us.
The law's curse on him did rest,
that we with you might be blessed.

Spirit of life, you would not allow
the corpse of Christ to see decay.
You kept him fresh for the third day,
then justified the One made sin,
Last Adam raised to life again.
The Son of God with power appointed,
and then with oil of joy anointed.

As by the Father's promised word,
on the day of Pentecost you came,
to glorify the Son's great name.
Baptised with power from above,
the church went forth, constrained by love,
to preach the world's true King and Lord,
Jesus, by angels and men adored.

God the Father, shed your love
abroad in our hearts by your Spirit.
God the Son, may your Holy Spirit
produce in us the Christlike fruit.
God the Spirit, make our bodies
your living temple. Then,
raised by the Spirit we will see
our God in triune majesty.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ten things for Whit Sunday

1. Pentecost was an act of the risen, glorified Christ.
2. The Spirit came to replace Jesus' physical presence among his people. His task is to enlighten, teach, rebuke, sanctify and guide Christ's disciples.
3. The gift of tongues on the day of Pentecost was an indication that the language confusion of Babel will be overcome by the kingdom of God. The Spirit gives differing gifts to all believers for the building up of the body of Christ.
4. The Holy Spirit came as a witness to Christ and to enable the church to bear witness to him.
5. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies such as Joel 2:28-32. As Peter said, "This is that which is spoken by Joel". (Acts 2:16).
6. The Spirit has come to convict the world of sin so that people see their need of Jesus.
7. The Holy Spirit was active under the old covenant, but Pentecost represents an abundant intensification of his work.
8. Through the Holy Spirit, believers are given experiential assurance that they are God's children as the love of their Father is poured into their hearts.
9. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was a unique event that inaugurated the new age of spiritual blessing. But Pentecost is a model for all subsequent outpourings of the Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles shows that the early church was repeatedly filled with the Spirit subsequent to Pentecost. Believers today should pray for an outpouring of the Spirit that will revive the church and awaken the world.
10. The great task of the Spirit is to glorify Christ. It is by the Holy Spirit that Jesus is revealed as Saviour and Lord. The acid test of the presence of the Spirit is not unusual phenomenon, but the exaltation of Jesus by the ministry of the Word of God.

Baptist history ramble

Today we went on a Baptist local history ramble in Wiltshire. After a picnic at Upper Studley Baptist Chapel, we drove to Southwick Baptist Chapel for a talk by local historian, Andrew Jones. He introduced the history of Dissent in the county, pointing out that the area was known for Lollardy. The Lollards were inspired by the teaching of John Wycliffe "The Morning Star of the Reformation." It is not know how some Dissenters in the area became Baptists, but records of the Church in Southwick date back to the 1650's. The restoration of the monarchy in the 1660's meant persecution for Baptist Dissenters. The "Five Mile Act" forbade religious meeting within five miles of a town. As a result, Baptists met in Wych Pit Woods for worship. Back then, around 2000 people would meet in the woods at night to avoid detection.
We walked from Southwick, through country lanes and fields to Wych Pit for an open air meeting. Andrew Jones set the meeting in an historical context. We sang three hymns, I read from Acts 2:22-42 , David Auger, pastor of Southwick Baptist Church prayed and Ben Midgley preached the word of God.
All this was a reminder of how our Baptists forebears were willing to suffer for their convictions. That challenges us to stand for our beliefs today. Also, it was a reminder that the religious freedom that we enjoy today should be treasured and protected.
Wednesday's trailblazers
Southwick Baptist Chapel, from which over 20 other churches were planted


Andrew Jones, local Baptist historian & Ben Midgley, pastor of North Bradley Baptist Church

Southwick's old baptistry
Baptist ramblers
Congregation in the Wych Pit woods

Friday, May 25, 2007

John Murray on the task of Systematic Theology 6

Murray on Sanctification

John Murray did not write a complete systematic theology. But we can access his contribution to the discipline in his four volume Collected Writings, published by the Banner of Truth Trust (here). According to John Frame, who studied under Murray at the Westminster Theological Seminary, "His lectures were not, for the most part, reviews of Reformed traditions, but almost entirely exegetical". (Salvation Belongs to the Lord, P&R, 2006, p. 352).

An example of Murray's exegetical approach to theology can be seen in his treatment of the doctrine of sanctification in Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Systematic Theology. In standard works of Reformed dogmatics, sanctification is defined as the progressive transformation of the believer (Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof, Banner of Truth Trust, 1984, p. 532 and A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith by Robert Reymond, Thomas Nelson, 1998, p. 767). But Murray noted that,
"it is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms that refer to sanctification are used not of a process, but of a once-for-all definitive act." ( p. 277).
Murray then proceeds to exegete the key New Testament texts on sanctification. In Paul's epistles, sanctification is no less definitive than justification (1 Corinthians 6:11), Believers have been definitively sanctified by virtue of their union with Christ in his death and resurrection. The theologian devotes particular attention to Romans 6:1-7:6. Murray shows that this emphasis can also be found in the teaching of Peter and John.
In a second article on The Agency in Definitive Sanctification, (p. 285ff), Murray again devotes careful attention to Biblical exegesis before drawing his insightful dogmatic conclusions,
"We see, therefore, that the decisive and definitive breach with sin that occurs at the inception of the Christian life is one necessitated by the fact that the death of Christ was decisive and definitive. It is just because we cannot allow for any reversal of repetition of Christ's death on the tree that we cannot allow for any compromise on the doctrine that every believer has died to sin and no longer lives under its dominion. Sin no longer lords it over him. To equivocate here is to assail the definitiveness of Christ's death. Likewise the decisive and definitive entrance upon newness of life in the case of every believer is required by the fact that the resurrection of Christ was decisive and definitive. As we cannot allow for any reversal or repetition of the resurrection, so we cannot allow for any compromise on the doctrine, that the body of sin has been destroyed, and that as a new man in Christ Jesus, he serves God in the newness which is none other than that of the Holy Spirit of whom he has become the habitation and his body the temple." (p. 293)
Murray's account of sanctification has been refreshed and reinvigorated by his exegetical approach. He was not content simply to restate the traditional Reformed emphasis that focuses almost exclusively on progressive sanctification. He captured the New Testament's teaching that sanctification is rooted in the believer's union with the crucified and risen Christ. Murray also discussed Progressive Sanctification, The Pattern of Sanctification and The Goal of Sanctification (p. 294-317). The theologian made an important and and fresh contribution to the Reformed understanding of sanctification. Future dogmatics should take his insights into account and build upon them to develop a more Scriptural, Christ-centred doctrine of sanctification. This post is obviously a very brief summary of Murray's teaching, but I hope I have done enough to whet reader's appetites. David Peterson was influenced by John Murray's articles in his Possessed by God: A New Testament theology of sanctification and holiness, Apollos, 1995, 191pp.
Page references to Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Carl Trueman on the dangers of theology blogs

Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary had these cautionary words to say about the dangers of theology blogging. It is worth pointing out that they were said in a blog interview (here) and that Prof Trueman is a member of the Reformation 21 team (here), so the internet can't be all bad. But his wise words are worth considering:
"If a prideful desire to be a teacher, to be a somebody, is the fundamental problem, then one other aspect which is increasingly problematic is the whole phenomenon of the internet. Now anyone can put their views out for public consumption, without the usual processes of accountability, peer review, careful editing timely reflection etc. which is the norm in the scholarly world and has also been the tradition in the more theologically responsible parts of the Christian publishing industry. The internet has few quality controls and feeds narcissism. Again, I have a friend, a minister in a North American Presbyterian denomination who says that, as he reads many blogs, his overwhelming feeling is one of sadness as he sees men seriously undermining their future ministry through the venom they pour out on others. I think he is right.
Of course, all young theologians and aspiring church leaders say stupid and unpleasant things. I still blush about comments I made 15 or twenty years ago which now seem arrogant and offensive, and certainly unworthy of a Christian. But for those of us who are older, the sins of our youth are thankfully now long vanished from the public sphere; yet such sins committed today can live on indefinitely in cyberspace. I shudder for those who have not yet grasped this basic fact and who say some frightful things on the internet which will come back to haunt them the very first time a church googles their name as part of doing routine background checks on a potential ministerial candidate".
What can we do to avoid the worst features of theology blogging? Here are some suggestions:
1. Regard blogging as an aspect of your ministry. You are accountable to the Lord and the people you serve for what goes on your blog.
2. If you are a pastor, your church members will discover your blog. How can you expect them to treat you with respect if you show little respect for others in the blogosphere?
3. When being polemical, don't caricature the views of your theological opponents. If their views are erroneous, just state them fairly and show how they are unbiblical. That is the best approach.
4. Don't blog anonymously. Tell visitors who you are so they know where you are coming from. Once you have identified yourself, remember that you will meet people in 'real life' who have read your blog. What impression does your blog give of who and what you are?
5. Allow comments so that people can hold you to account for what you say.
6. Never be abusive. Some commenters may get under your skin, but always remember that you are a Christian blogger.
7. Lighten up a bit. Don't take yourself too seriously just becasue you get a few thousand hits a month. If you were any good at writing, you would be paid to do it properly.

The Man, Christ Jesus

The Man of joy
delighted to do
his Father's will.
His mind and heart
enraptured by every
command.
For the joy set before him,
Calvary's shame he endured.
Now the oil of gladness pours
from him and anoints the heads of
his once sin-sad people.

The Man of sorrows
was acquainted with
grief.
His and ours.
Ours the grief of
cursed existence.
His the pain of the
Father's momentary, infinite
absence. An eternity
of wrath propitiated
in due time by
the sacrifice of the Son.

The Man of peace
came to conquer
the serpent's seed.
His heel was wounded,
while the serpent's head
he mercilessly crushed.
Peace he gives,
by his blood-bought
justifying grace.

The Man of love,
moved with compassion
at the sight of a lost
humanity,
took the likeness of our
sinful flesh.
Greater love the world
has not seen.
He died,
Friend for friends,
Shepherd for sheep,
Sinless for sin.
But many waters could
not quench Love.
He rose to the Father's
loving embrace, lovingly
stirred to life by the gentle
Spirit.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Top evangelical theologians agree on inerrancy!

Inerrancy is just a bit unfashionable at the moment, even among those who call themselves evangelical. Earlier this month, the doctrine was voted the "Worst theological invention" (here), even worse than Arianism and Papal infallibility! But two prominent evangelical theologians from both sides of the Atlantic have recently affirmed Biblical inerrancy. Donald Macleod touched on the subject in his From Glory to Golgotha (here),
"I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Why? Not because I am unaware of current trends in Biblical studies or even because I can vindicate the Bible against all the objections adduced by historians, scientists and literary critics. My belief in inerrancy arises from loyalty to Christ. He said, 'The Scripture cannot be broken'. This position - the fundamentalist position, if you wish - is not bibliolatry. It is Christiolatry. It is an act of devotion to the One we regard as a teacher sent by God". (p. 153)
Having finished that book, I started on Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology by John Frame, P&R, 2006. In the chapter on The Authority of the Bible, Frame had this to say,
"Let us now discuss the inerrancy of Scripture, a fiercely debated topic in contemporary theology. The term simply means "no errors", that is, "truth", in the common garden-variety sense. What Scripture says, is true, never false. Therefore you can rely on it. There are no errors in it....
Now, some so-called obvious errors don't have obvious solutions, though for every problem of this sort, there are usually two or three solutions proposed in the literature. The problem here is that people who find supposed errors in Scripture actually have a misunderstanding of the Christian faith....How can we believe that God would forgive our sins through Christ? Think how many problems there are in believing that! But if we waited until all the problems were solved, we wouldn't believe in Christ at all." (From p. 68-69).
Macelod and Frame are two of the most creative contemporary Reformed theological thinkers. I was encouraged to see them speak out so clearly on this unpopular, yet vitally important Biblical doctrine.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Some interesting stuff

Martin Downes continues his blog interviews in conversation with Carl Trueman on Sin in High Places.

Part 1 (here)
Part 2 (here)
Part 3 (here)

Meanwhile, Dr. Andreas Köstenberger of Biblical Foundations has published an appreciative, but critical review of Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine to which KV has responded.

AK's Review (here)
KV's Respsonce (here)

John Murray on the task of Systematic Theology 5

Systematic & Biblical Theology

The relationship between systematic and Biblical theology is one of the defining issues that faces Reformed dogmatics at the moment. Some say that to breath new life into the discipline, systematics needs to integrate more closely with Biblical theology (ie. Don Carson & Kevin Vanhoozer). Others claim that such a reorientation would rob dogmatics of its distinctive value (ie. Paul Helm). John Murray was deeply influenced by Geerhardus Vos, the father of modern Reformed biblical theology. He has some very interesting things to say about this subject. Murray makes a careful distinction between the disciplines. Biblical theology deals with the process of the self-revelation of God in Scripture. Its task is to trace the progressive, historical development of revelation. Systematic theology reflects on Scripture as a finished product. Systematics is structured logically, while Biblical theology is structured historically. But, argues Murray "systematic theology must be concerned to be biblical not one whit less than biblical theology." (p. 9).

Murray discusses developments within the field of biblical theology. He insists that the discipline must focus on the revelatory acts and words of God. Attention given to the epochal character of revelation in biblical theology makes it "indispensable to the systematic theology that is faithful to the Bible." (p. 15). The professor was aware that, "Systematic theologies have too often betrayed a cold formalism that has been prejudicial to their proper aim and have not for that reason and to that extent promoted encounter with the living Word of the living God." (p. 15). Murray acknowledged that systematics sometimes has to deal with somewhat abstract subjects that can seem as dry as dust. But, he points out, "dust has its place, especially when it is gold dust." (p. 16). He also reminds us that Biblical studies is not exactly a dust free zone.

Kevin Vanhoozer voices a common complaint about the exegetical weakness of some systematic theology,

"One typically begins with a doctrinal confession and then sets off trawling through the Scriptures. One's exegetical 'catch' is then dumped indiscriminately into the parentheses irrespective of where these parts were found". (Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12 (1994). p. 104, cited in The Gagging of God by D.A. Carson, Zondervan/Apollos, 1996, p. 543.)

That sounds familiar! There must be more to systematics than a summary of Reformed doctrine followed by a string of proof texts. Murray's emphasis on the indispensability of biblical theology to the task of dogmatics helps to avoid this tendency.

"In biblical theology deals with the history of revelation it must follow the progression which this history dictates. This is to say it must study the data of revelation given in each period in terms of the stage to which God's self-revelation progressed at that particular time. To be concrete, we may not import into one period of the data of revelation which belong to a later period....Thus biblical theology is regulative of exegesis". (p. 19).

For John Murray, biblical exegesis is not incidental to dogmatics,

"Systematics becomes lifeless and fails in its mandate just to the extent to which it has become detached from exegesis. And the guarantee against at stereotyped dogmatics is that systematic theology be constantly enriched, deepened and expanded by the treasures increasingly drawn from the Word of God. Exegesis keeps systematics not only in direct contact with the Word but it ever imparts to systematics the power which is derived from the Word. The Word is living and powerful". (p. 17)

Furthermore,

"Systematic theology is tied to exegesis. It coordinates and synthesizes the whole witness of Scripture on the various topics with which it deals. But systematic theology will fail of its task to the extent to which it discards its rootage in biblical theology as properly conceived and developed." (p. 19)

John Murray concurs with Vanhoozer's strictures on proof texting in systematics. Rooting systematics in Biblical theology will help to avoid this stultifying tendency,

"Revelation is seen to be an organism and the discrete parts, or preferably phases, are perceived to be not sporadic, unrelated and disjointed oracles, far less heterogeneous and contradictory elements, but the multiform aspects of God's intervention and self-disclosure, organically knit together and compacted, expressive not only of his marvellous grace but of the order which supreme wisdom designed. Thus the various passages drawn from the whole compass of Scripture and woven into the texture of systematic theology are not cited as mere proof texts or wrested from the scriptural and historical context to which they belong, but, understood in a way appropriate to the place they occupy in the unfolding process, are applied with that particular relevance to the topic under consideration." (p. 21)

It is only when systematic theology is based on the exegesis of Scripture and informed by biblical theology that it can truly fulfil its task. The aim in systematics is not simply to abstract and isolate the propositional content of Scripture. Murray proposed a much richer, almost theodramatic theological vision,

"Since the Bible us the principal source of revelation and since the Bible is the Word of God, systematics is the discipline which more than any other aims to confront us men with God's own witness so that in its totality it may make that impact upon our hearts and minds by which we shall be conformed to his image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness of the truth". (p. 21)

Unless otherwise stated, page references are to Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 4: Studies in Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1982.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The divine nature

Father's beloved one,
his ever loving Son,
into the world you come,
Saviour and Light.

Bright with divinity,
God from eternity,
You took humanity
all for love's sake.

Blessed in the Trinity
posessed of infinity,
to bear our iniquity
you were made flesh.

You were exalted high,
Upon the cross to die,
Made sin for us you cry,
Oh my God, Why?

God raised you from the dead,
just as the Scripture said,
Last Adam, Church's head,
You reign on high.

We shall your image bear,
your divine nature share,
what glory we shall wear
when soon you come!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

From Glory to Golgotha by Donald Macleod


From Glory to Golgotha: Controversial Issues in the Life of Christ,
by Donald Macleod, Christian Focus, 2002, 167 pp.
This little book is the product of the author's magnificent "life-time obsession with Christology". Here we find Macleod at his best, probing the mysteries of Christ with penetrating insight and a warm heart. Christ was a controversial figure during his life on earth and he remains controversial until this day. In this work, Macleod turns his attention to some of the most hotly disputed aspects of Christology. 'Did Christ have a fallen human nature?', 'Why did God sacrifice his own Son', 'Did Paul call Jesus God?'. He also discusses the reality of Christ's temptation and penal substitutionary atonement. The writer deals with these questions from the standpoint of Biblical faith and Chalcedonian orthodoxy. He interacts with the views of Barth, C.H. Dodd and Moltmann among others as he discusses some of the great themes connected with the Person and work of Christ.
Macleod is unfailingly interesting and thought provoking. But he is also deeply moving. The chapter on The Crucified God sets before us something of the depth of Christ's redemptive suffering and challenges us to live in the light of the cross.
The theological significance resurrection of Christ is often neglected in Reformed Dogmatics. But Macleod devotes a helpful chapter to Jesus and the Resurrection, where he argues that 'the resurrection is central to the New Testament'. The book closes with reflection on Paul's challenging words, "For me to live is Christ".
In Chapter 7, the endnotes break down from note 10, so that valuable references to the work of John Owen and others are lost. But this is a minor quibble over a work that helps us to survey the wondrous life, cross and resurrection of the Lord of glory. (See here for a brief extract).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Christ, the mirror of our election

It is common in Reformed Dogmatics to say that we have been chosen in order that we might be united to Christ. In that sense, union with Christ is the goal of election. Louis Berkhof says explicitly that, "Christ as Mediator is not the impelling, moving, or meritorious cause of election". Christ is merely the "mediate cause of the realisation of election." (Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1984, p. 114). But the New Testament seems to imply that we are chosen in Christ, not simply chosen that we might be united to him. The elective decision of God is itself Christocentric. Consider these two Scriptures:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love" (Ephesians 1:3 & 4)
"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began" (2 Timothy 1:8 & 9).
Robert Letham points out that Reformed Theology was comfortable with the idea of the people of God being elected in Christ until the advent of the Arminian controversy in the 17th century. Jacobus Arminius taught that God elected those whom he foresaw would believe in Christ. Talk of Christ as the basis of election therefore sounded suspiciously Arminian to sensitive Calvinistic ears. Indeed, when Martinus of Breme proposed Christ as the foundation of election during the famous Synod of Dort, Gomarus, a conservative Calvinist challenged him to a duel! (See Robert Letham, The Work of Christ, IVP, 1996, p. 55).
The separation of Christ from election in later Reformed Theology is to be regretted. It has sometimes led to Christians having trouble with assurance of salvation. How can we know that we are elect if election is considered apart from Christ? Calvin had a much more Biblical and pastorally helpful account of the role of Christ in election. He establishes that we are chosen not in ourselves, with the goal of being united with Christ, but we are loved and elected in him,
"First, if we seek for the paternal mercy and favor of God, we must turn our eyes to Christ, in whom alone the Father is well pleased (Mt. 3:17). When we seek for salvation, life, and a blessed immortality, to him also must we retake ourselves, since he alone is the fountain of life and the anchor of salvation, and the heir of the kingdom of heaven. Then what is the end of election, but just that, being adopted as sons by the heavenly Father, we may by his favor obtain salvation and immortality? How much soever you may speculate and discuss you will perceive that in its ultimate object it goes no farther. Hence, those whom God has adopted as sons, he is said to have elected, not in themselves, but in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:4); because he could love them only in him, and only as being previously made partakers with him, honor them with the inheritance of his kingdom".
It is foolish, harmful and dangerous to contemplate election apart from Christ. He is the mirror of election. We know that we are elect by believing in him and contemplating him,
"But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life". The Institutes of the Christian Religion III:24:5 (here).
John Murray's exegetical approach to systematic theology alerted him to this aspect of election. According to him, "The people of God are not contemplated even in the purpose of grace apart from Christ (Ephesians 1:4)." (Redemption Accomplished and Applied Banner of Truth Trust, 1979, p. 93). He expands on this later in the book when commenting on the text to which he just referred,
"The Father elected from eternity, but he elected in Christ. We are not able to understand all that is involved, but the fact is plain enough that there was no election of the Father in eternity apart from Christ. And that means that those who will be saved were not even contemplated by the Father in the ultimate counsel of his predestinating love apart from Christ. As far back as we can go in tracing salvation to its fountain we find "union with Christ"; it is not something tacked on; it is there from the outset." (Op cit. p. 162).
If we would make our callling and election sure, we must not look to the elective decree in itself, but to Christ, the mirror of election.

Defence against the dark arts with R. Scott Clark



Martin Downes continues his series of blog interviews in conversation with R. Scott Clark, Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at WTS California.
Part 1 here
Part 2 here

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ by Cornelis P. Venema

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and New Perspective on Paul by Cornelis P. Venema, Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, 337pp (here).

The new perspective on Paul has thrown into question the way in which Reformation theologians interpreted the writings of the apostle. It is argued that the Reformers misunderstood Paul's teaching on justification by faith and the role of the law. Although new perspective scholars do not agree on everything, they unite on the principle that Paul is best understood against the background of Second Temple Judaism. The 16th century debates over justification between the Reformers and Roman Catholicism are really besides the point.

The problem is that some new perspective advocates (who tend to be specialist New Testament scholars), do not always have a firm grasp of the Reformers' understanding of Paul. Venema writes as a systematic theologian. He is able to set his discussion of the new perspective against a broad theological backdrop. The writer begins by setting out exactly what the Reformers had to say about justification by faith. He gives us a clear picture of Reformation teaching, basing his account on the confessions of the period and examples of Reformed interpretation of Paul's writings. He concludes that the Reformers taught that justification is God's declaration that a sinner is right with him on the basis of the finished work of Christ. This righteous status is received by faith alone, apart from human effort.

New perspective scholars such as Tom Wright often point out that Paul was not combating Pelagianism in his letters. But neither were the Reformers combating a form of "pull yourself up by your own boot straps" Pelagianism in Roman Catholic doctrine. Rome teaches that we are justified by grace. But the initial justification has to be supplemented by works. The problem is semi-Pelagianism - a system of grace plus works. Pelagianism teaches that salvation may be achieved simply on the basis of works. In a helpful chapter, Can a Lonely Faith Save, Venema reflects of what the Epistle of James has to say on the subject of the relationship between faith and works in justification. Genuine faith is made manifest in good works.

Having set out the Reformation's perspective, the writer seeks to describe the work of three leading new perspective writers: E. P. Saunders, J. D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright. Venema gives a clear, concise and fair analysis of the distinctive contributions of these three representative scholars. Saunders argued that Paul was not fighting against legalistic Pelagianism in his doctrine of justification. Palestinian Judaism did not teach salvation by works. They advocated a form of "covenant nomism" that stressed that Israel was God's covenant people by gracious election. But their covenant status had to be maintained by obedience to the law. The "works of the law" that Paul complained about in Romans and Galatians were "boundary markers" like circumcision that excluded Gentiles for membership of the people of God. The issue was not salvation by works. Dunn and Wright disagree with some aspects of Saunder's reconstruction of justification and the law, but they accept that Second Temple Judaism was not a legalistic, Pelagian religion. But as Venema points out - if Saunders is right then first century Judaism was, like Roman Catholicism, semi-Pelagian. It taught that people get into the covenant by grace but stay in by works. Perhaps the Reformation understanding of Judaism as proto-Roman Catholicism was not too wide of the mark?

According to the new perspective emphasis, justification is not primarily about the sinner's status before a holy God. It concerns the question, "Who are the people of God?" Faith in Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah is the boundary marker of the new covenant. Jewish nationalistic boasting in the works of the law was contrary to God's intention of gathering Jew and Gentile into one body in Christ. If the issue was nationalism as Saunders claims, then he may have absolved first century Jews of the charge of legalism, only to leave them saddled with the accusation of racist exclusivity.
Venema makes some shrewd observations about new perspective methodology. He agrees that Paul needs to be understood against his first century background. But he argues that historical reconstruction must not be allowed to prejudge Paul's meaning. His writings must be allowed to speak for themselves. Venema quotes Saunders' treatment of Jesus' denunciation of the legalism and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Saunders is reluctant to admit that Second Temple Judaism could have been guilty of those attitudes. Should historical reconstruction be allowed to have such a determinative role in Biblical exegesis?
The writer then goes on to reflect on the exegetical issues surrounding the "works of the law" and "the righteousness of God" in Paul's letters. Venema pays careful attention to the key Pauline texts and argues that the "works of the law" have a broader meaning than simply Jewish "boundary markers". In Romans especially, Paul was out to demonstrate that the law condemns all sinners because no-one has fulfilled the law's demands. What guilty sinners need is a saving righteousness from God apart from the works of the law.
Venema appreciates the new perspective insight that the "righteousness of God" is God's covenant faithfulness. But this does not exhaust Paul's meaning. In his covenant faithfulness God constitutes his people in a right relationship with himself by imputing to them the righteousness of Christ. A whole chapter is devoted to a defence of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. The basis of our justification is the obedient life and substitutionary death of Christ. Jesus' righteousness is put to the account of all who believe in him.
The issue of justification and final judgement according to works is discussed with particular reference to the views of Tom Wright. According to him, justification has a forensic element, but the primary focus is on membership of the people of God. At the last judgement professing Christians will be assessed on the basis of the whole life of faith. Their works as well as their initial justification will form the basis of God's judgement. Venema shows that this position undermines justification by faith alone. We will be judged according to our works, but works do not augment our initial gracious justification. They simply demonstrate that the believer has a genuine, living faith.
Throughout the book, Venema writes irenically and is respectful towards those with whom he disagrees. He does not claim to have said the last word on the new perspective controversy and is aware that more, detailed work needs to be done. He is grateful for some of the gains of the new perspective. But Venema has shown that the Reformers had a better overall grasp of Paul's teaching than they are sometimes given credit for. By looking at the issues from the standpoint of systematic theology, Venema has brought an interdisciplinary approach to a subject that is often seen as the preserve of historical revisionists and New Testament scholars. Those who simply tend to write off the older perspective will benefit from Venema's assessment of the Reformation and new perspective on Paul. Everyone interested in following the controversy over Paul's doctrine of justification will benefit from this constructive engagement with new perspective teaching.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Rain God

Here's a meditation on rain in the Bible. After a rather dry and sunny April (for the UK), May has been pretty rainy so far. The wet weather is forecast to last for the next week or so. April's mini drought left our lawn looking parched, withered and cracked. The recent showers have already begun to refresh the garden. The other day we read Psalm 65 in family worship. The Psalm praises God for sending rain on the earth. This, together with the present rainy spell got me thinking about rain in the Scriptures. What does the rain tell us about God? It's pouring down outside as I type!
Rain and the goodness of God
Rain is a gift of God the creator and life-giver. The Hebrews knew about the water cycle (Ecclesiastes 1:7). But they preferred to say that, "God sent the rain". The weather is beyond the control of human beings. But Yahweh, Israel's God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall. Psalm 65 delights in God's life-giving, creation beautifying rain.
You visit the earth and water it,
You greatly enrich it;
The river of God is full of water;
You provide their grain,
For so You have prepared it.
You water its ridges abundantly,
You settle its furrows;
You make it soft with showers,
You bless its growth.
(Psalm. 65:9 & 10)
Jesus taught that rain is a token of God's indiscriminate goodness towards human beings. The rain teaches us to love our enemies. Learn the lesson of the rain:
"But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust". (Matthew 5:44 & 45).
In Lystra, Paul healed a lame man. But the effect of this healing is not what the apostle would have wished. The idolatrous inhabitants mistook Paul and his companion Barnabas for the gods Hermes and Zeus. Paul prevented the people from offering sacrifices to them by proclaiming the true and living God who sends the rain,
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:15-17)
Every time it rains, we have an evident demonstration of the goodness of God. It might not seem like that when we are caught out in a rainstorm. But every drop that falls is a gift from God. Forsake your idols and thank God for the rain!
Rain and the judgement of God
God can use the rain to bring judgement upon the earth. The most cataclysmic example of this was the flood in Noah's day. God sent a flood to destroy all living creatures because of gross human wickedness. Noah was instructed to build an ark to preserve the life of himself, his family and the other creatures of the earth. God said,
"I will cause it to rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and I will destroy from the face of the earth all living things that I have made". (Genesis 7:4)
The Lord promised never to flood the earth again. The rainbow is the symbol of his covenant word. But the flood-judgement points us to the final, earth-melting judgement that is to come.
"For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men". (2 Peter 3:5-7)
In judgement, God may withhold the rain. The most famous example of this is the drought in the days of king Ahab. The king and his wife, Jezebel introduced Baal worship to the people of Israel and launched a murderous campaign against the prophets of the Lord. Baal was supposedly the god of fire, fertility and rain. Ever the great ironist, Yahweh sent the prophet Elijah to announce a drought. "He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord holds them in derision" (Psalm 2:4). The devastating drought only ended after Baal was exposed as an empty lie in the great fire contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). The people hailed the Lord as God as he sent fire from heaven and burnt up Elijah's sacrifice, "The Lord he is God! The Lord he is God!" Then Lord sent rain upon the earth, "the sky became black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy rain" (1 Kings 18:45). The gods of the nations are useless idols. Yahweh alone makes the rain fall.
Rain and the blessings of Messiah
Psalm 72 looks beyond the glories of Solomon's reign to one even greater than he. The blessings of the Messianic King are described in terms of rainfall. Christ is the bringer of new life, fruitfulness and everlasting peace.
He shall come down like rain upon the grass before mowing,
Like showers that water the earth.
In his days the righteous shall flourish,
And abundance of peace,
Until the moon is no more.
(Psalm 72:6 & 7)
In Ezekiel 34, the Lord pronounces judgement on Israel's shepherd-rulers. God himself will act as the shepherd of his flock,
"For thus says the Lord GOD: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day". (Ezekiel 34: 11 & 12)
The Lord will raise up a new David to be the shepherd-king of Israel,
I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. (Ezekiel 34: 23 & 24).
Jesus probably had this passage in mind (as well as Psalm 23) when he said, "I am the good shepherd, The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:11). As the good shepherd, Jesus has come to give "abundant life" (10:10) to his sheep.
The Ezekiel passage uses the metaphor of rain as a beautiful picture of the abundant life that the new David will bring,
"I will make them and the places all around My hill a blessing; and I will cause showers to come down in their season; there shall be showers of blessing. Then the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase". (Ezekiel 34: 26 & 27).
In Christ, there shall be showers of blessing!
There shall be showers of blessing:
This is the promise of love;
There shall be seasons refreshing,
Sent from the Savior above.
Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need:
Mercy-drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.
There shall be showers of blessing,
Precious reviving again;
Over the hills and the valleys,
Sound of abundance of rain.
There shall be showers of blessing;
Send them upon us, O Lord;
Grant to us now a refreshing,
Come, and now honor Thy Word.
There shall be showers of blessing:
Oh, that today they might fall,
Now as to God we’re confessing,
Now as on Jesus we call!
There shall be showers of blessing,
If we but trust and obey;
There shall be seasons refreshing,
If we let God have His way.
(James McGranahan)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Tony Blair - A Christian Assessment

Yesterday, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that he will stand down on the 27th of June after being in office for ten years. He is the first ever Labour leader to have won three consecutive general elections. I don't usually do politics at Exiled Preacher, but here's my assessment of the Blair years.
1997 election victory
The Leader
As Leader of the Opposition, Blair transformed the Labour Party. He abandoned outdated policies and imposed discipline on a historically fractious and divided party. Under Blair's 'New Labour', the party perfected the art of media manipulation and 'spin' to discredit the ailing Conservative government led by John Major. Blair was marketed as a man who the middle classes could trust to run the country. In opposition, he assured the people of Britain that he would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" and that his priority would be 'education, education, education'. In May 1997, the Labour Party won a landslide General Election victory. Blair has been a charismatic Prime Minister with a gift for the winning sound bite. He has re-shaped British politics during his time in power. Blair's postmodern suspicion of the old left/right ideologies made for a new, more pragmatic, centre-ground politics. Labour no longer demands the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. All parties have embraced the power of the markets. The Conservatives are wary of pledging tax cuts and emphasise that they will match Labour's pubic spending commitments. Pragmatism, rather than ideology now rules.
Alasdair Campbell, the Prime Minister's chief spokesman once told an inquisitive journalist, 'We don't do God.' But Blair often talked of how his Christian beliefs have affected his politics. He became a Christian Socialist while at University at about the same time he became interested in politics and joined the Labour Party. Many Christians greeted Blair's 1997 victory with a sense of hope and expectation.
Social Justice
Under Blair, the UK's economy has grown steadily. This has enabled the government to invest in social justice. Unemployment has dropped. The gap between the richest and poorest in society has widened. But Labour introduced a national minimum wage that has helped to lift many people out of poverty. Low income working families (including Pastor's households!) have benefited from the Working Families Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit systems. These credits aim to get poorer families off unemployment benefits by making work pay. The crime figures are down, although the prison population is at record levels.
There has been record investment in health and eduction, leading to improvements in these sectors. But opinions are divided over whether the money has been used as effectively as possible. In all, Britain is a better place to live for the low paid and the sick than prior to Labour coming to power. I welcome Blair's determination to help working families and his (yet unfulfilled) aim of abolishing child poverty in Britain.
Blair worked tirelessly to bring an end to the troubles in Northern Ireland. His efforts paid off on Tuesday of this week with the restoration of devolved government to the province.
Singing a hymn
Foreign Policy
Blair made alleviating poverty in Africa of of his main goals. Debts were written off and the Prime Minister identified himself with the Make Poverty History campaign. Britain's overseas aid budget has gown substantially over the last ten years. But he will be remembered above all for taking the UK into the Iraq war. The decision to go to war was opposed by many British people. Even those who supported the war initially became disillusioned when it was revealed that Parliament made the decision to invade Iraq on the basis of poor intelligence. This, together with the (thus far) disastrous aftermath of the invasion, led to a collapse of trust in Blair's leadership. The Blair-Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war pushed the just war criterion beyond breaking point. It seems that little thought was given to planning for peace once Saddam had been toppled from power. This has let to a catastrophic loss of civilian life in Iraq and the deaths of many US and British soldiers. In my opinion, we cannot simply abandon Iraq to spiralling sectarian violence. We must try to bring peace and order to the country that we invaded. But the Iraq campaign has discredited the neo-conservative doctrine of pre-emptive war. The UK/US 'special relationship' has been preserved, but at what cost?
Moral Fabric
Blair's use of media manipulation and spin, especially during his first term in office, has led to a breakdown in trust between politicians and the people. This has been made worse by indications of sleazy, corrupt practices that have led to ministerial resignations and the 'Cash for Peerages' investigation. Blair's claim that he was 'a pretty straight kind of guy' whose government would be 'whiter then white' now seem to ring pretty hollow.
Blair abandoned the symbolic married couples tax allowance that distinguished marriage from all other forms of relationship. His government initiated a raft of gay rights legislation. The age of consent for homosexuals was reduced from 18 to 16. A law that forbade the funding of gay propaganda in schools was repealed. Gay couples are now allowed to adopt children. Civil partnerships have been introduced for gay couples. Recently, the Sexual Orientations Regulations privileged gay rights over the rights of religious people. Blair's period in office has also seen an increase in gambling, with the introduction of American-style 'Super-Casinos' in some UK cities. Religious freedom was challenged with the failed Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill. I am fed up with having to write to my local MP to express concern about these issues.
From a Christian point of view, the State's duty is to reward good behavior and to discourage sin. Not all sin should be criminalised, but a good government will not encourage sinful behaviour. Many Christians hoped for better from Tony Blair, who has often made reference to his faith. In his valedictory speech, the Prime Minister said that he always did what he believed to be right. The problem is that sincerity does not guarantee that we act rightly. Politicians as much as everybody else need to be guided by the values and principles of God's Word.
Being Prime Minster of a country like Britain is a huge task that brings with it great expectations. Blair was unable to fulfill the hopes of the British people. The Blair years have not been an unmitigated disater from my point of view. Many good things have happened. But much harm has been done to the moral fabric of our country. I suppose that the lesson of the Blair Premiership is that we should pray earnestly for our leaders. They are but men at best, who need God's help. And beyond that we are reminded, "Do not put your trust in princes" (Psalm 146:3).

Valedicory speech (here)

Derek Thomas on error and the ministry

Our friend Martin Downes of Against Heresies continues his series of interviews in a conversation with Derek Thomas, Professor of Practical and Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.
Part 1 here
Part 2 here

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ten differences between Rome and the Reformation

1. The Roman Catholic Church believes that its traditions are as authoritative as Scripture. The Reformed value tradition, but accept the Bible alone as their authority.
2. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the pope, as bishop of Rome is head of the visible Church. The Reformed believe that Christ alone is head of the Church and that no man may claim universal primacy over the people of God.
3. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the Bible cannot be properly understood apart from the official interpretation of Rome (the Magisterium). The Reformed believe that the Bible can be rightly understood by all believers through responsible exegesis and the witness of the Spirit.
4. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we are justified at baptism and that justification must be supplemented and improved by works. The Reformed hold that the Bible teaches that justification is God's declaration that a sinner is righteous in his sight, on the basis of the finished work of Christ, apart from works. We are justified by faith alone. Baptism does not effect justification, it is a symbol that a person has been forgiven and put right with God.
5. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Lord's Supper is a re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ and that the bread and wine transubstantiate into the body and blood of the Saviour. The Reformed hold that that in Scripture, the Lord's Supper is a fellowship meal that reminds believers of the finished work of Christ. The bread and wine are symbols of Christ's body and blood. At the Lord's Supper, believers enjoy communion with the risen Christ, who is present at the Table by his Spirit.
6. The Roman Catholic Church regards its officers as priests. They re-offer the sacrifice of Christ at the Mass and act as mediators between God and the faithful. The Reformed teach that all Christians are priests, who offer a sacrifice of praise and worship to the Lord. Church officers, especially pastors are ministers of the Word. Their task is to give themselves to prayer, the preaching of the gospel and to care for the flock.
7. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that after death, the souls of departed believers go to purgatory to be purged from remaining sin prior to going to heaven. The living can affect how long the departed spend in purgatory by observing Mass and praying for the dead. The Reformed hold that purgatory is not taught in Scripture. The souls wicked dead are send to hell to be punished for their sins, awaiting the day of judgement and the resurrection of condemnation. At death, the souls of believers will depart from the body to be with Christ in heaven, awaiting the resurrection to life, glory and immortality.
8. The Roman Catholic Church believes that Mary is co-mediatrix with Christ and that the faithful should pray to Mary and offer worship to her. Rome also teaches that believers should pray to the saints for themselves and for the dead. The Reformed honour Mary as the mother of our Lord and see her as an example of obedience and love to God. But there is only one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. Prayer and worship is to be offered to God through Christ alone.
9. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are seven sacraments. These sacraments work ex opere operato. They effectively convey grace to those who receive them, so that baptism regenerates and justifies. The Reformed find only two sacraments or ordinances in Scripture; the Lord's Supper and baptism. These are means of grace that are only effective when received by faith.
10. The Roman Catholic Church regards herself as the true Church through the apostolic succession of her bishops. Non-Roman Catholic Christians are regarded as "separated brethren" who have schismatically divided the body of Christ. The Reformed define the Church not institutionally, but as a company of believing, godly people where the gospel is truly preached, baptism and the Lord's Supper rightly administered and Church discipline graciously applied.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

John Murray on the task of Systematic Theology 4

Provisionality and Progress

According to John Murray, "we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality." Systematic theology is an ongoing project and we need to beware of "stagnant traditionalism". (p. 7). Murray commends John Calvin's innovatory teaching on the Person of Christ. The Reformer did not allow his deference for tradition to stifle fresh thinking on Christology. He was unhappy with the creedal formula that Christ was "very God of very God". To Calvin, this suggested that the Son derived his deity from the Father. This notion is unacceptable. According to Calvin, the Son is autotheos. With respect to his deity he is self-existent. With this improvisation, Calvin challenged the subordinationism that is latent in Nicence Christology. The creed's insight that the Son is homoousion with the Father is brought to full expression in Calvin's trinitarian teaching.

This suggests that even the Church's revered ancient creeds are not beyond revision in the light of Scripture. "As it is true that ecclesia reformata reformanda est so also it is true that theologia reformata reformanda est". Reformed theology must not simply live on the riches of the past. Theological traditionalism will not guarantee faithfulness to the truth. Indeed such stagnation will lead only to a decline into heresy.

"When any generation is itself content to rely on its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already under way and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation. The powers of darkness are never idle and in combating error each generation must fight its own battle in exposing and correcting the same. It is light that dispels darkness and in this sphere light consists in the enrichment which each generation contributes to the stores of theological knowledge." (p. 8).

Here, Murray rallies Reformed Dogmatics to face the challenge of the contemporary world. Issues such as postmodernism, religious pluralism, Open Theism and the new perspective on Paul must be faced in works of Reformed systematic theology. Robert Reymond's New Systematic Theology was first published in 1998, yet his discussion of justification by faith does not interact at all with "new perspective" thinking. When that kind of thing happens, the argument is lost by default and theological darkness begins to encroach upon the church. In the previous post in this series, I reflected on Murray's emphasis on the value of historical theology. But he was no "head-in-the-sand" traditionalist,

"A theology that does not build upon the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by the past. A theology that relies upon the past evades the demands of the present." (p. 9).

John Murray made a number of key contributions to the field of systematic theology. For now I will focus on his refinement of the doctrine of justification. In Protestant teaching, justification is defined as as a God's forensic declaration that he accepts the believing sinner as righteous in his sight on the basis of Christ's finished work. Murray proposed that justification is not merely declarative, it is also constitutive. God "constitutes what he declares to be". (Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977). God effects what he declares. The constitutive aspect of justification is carefully defined,

"It is to be noted, however, that the constitutive act that must be posited in this case is the constituting of a new judicial relation. In other words, it must be a constitutive act that will be consonant with the forensic character of justification, a constitutive act that will supply a proper and adequate ground for the pronouncement which justification involves, namely, the pronouncement or declaration that the person concerned is reckoned in God's sight as free from guilt and sustains to law and justice a relation or status whereby he is accepted as righteous." (Writings Vol 2, p. 207).

Further,

"It is, in a word, the constituting of the judicial relation which is declared to be and is such by the imputation to us of the righteousness and obedience of Christ". (Writings Vol 2, p. 215)

Murray's reformulation of justification as a constitutive declaration, may be helpful to Reformed theologians as they grapple with Roman Catholic and new perspective critiques of the older Protestant teaching. Justification is no legal fiction. When God declares a person justified, he also constitutes a new relationship with the believing sinner. This is just one example of the theologian's helpful contribution to Reformed systematics.

John Murray's proposals on provisionality and progress help to keep us from thinking that our theological systems have fully plumbed the depths of Scriptural revelation. There is no room for theological complacency or arrogance. Although we benefit from the wisdom of the past, much work still remains to be done,

"In the orthodox tradition me may never forget that there is yet much land to be possessed, and this is both the encouragement and challenge to students of the wonderful works of God and particularly of his inscripturated Word to understand that all should address themselves to a deeper understanding of these unsearchable treasures of revelation to the ends that God's glory may be made more fully manifest and his praises declared to all the earth". (p. 9)

Unless otherwise stated, page references are to Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 4: Studies in Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1982.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

President of ETS returns to Rome

Francis Beckwith was President of the Evangelical Theological Society until he resigned from his position on 5th May (here). The reason for his resignation is that on April 29th he was received back into the Roman Catholic Church (here). He gives two main reasons for his conversion: First, he became convinced that the Roman view of justification by faith is more faithful to the teaching of Scripture and the early church than the Protestant view. Second, he wished to identify himself with the church's creeds that Protestants and Catholics alike regard as statements of Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy. I cannot discuss these points in detail just now and I certainly do not wish to speculate on Dr. Beckwith's motives. But here are some thoughts by way of response.
The Roman teaching on justification is that we are justified by grace at baptism. But this initial justification must be improved by our works. Does this understanding of justification really have greater 'explanatory power' than the Protestant view? Where in the New Testament is justification related to baptism? In the teaching of Paul, we are justified by faith apart from works. God's declaration that we are right with him in Christ cannot be improved upon. The Roman Catholic teaching is not straightforward justification by works, because it is held that we are graciously justified at baptism. But the notion that our justification by grace must be supplemented by works is at best semi-Pelagian. The Catholic teaching downplays the seriousness of sin and calls into question the the freeness of God's grace. Perhaps the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement (here) has had the effect of blurring the dividing lines between Rome and the Reformation over justification? The new perspective on Paul has had a similar effect.
As far as the creedal orthodoxy of Rome is concerned, it is anachronistic to suggest that Nicaea and Chalcedon were conducted under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. Those key ecumenical councils occurred prior to the East/West schism in 1054 and the Reformation. The ancient creeds belong to the whole Church, not just to Rome. Roman Catholicism as a distinct entity with its own defining doctrines did not come into being until the counter Reformation caused Rome to define herself against Protestant teaching. Dogmas such as the immaculate conception of Mary and the infallibility of the Pope are relatively recent innovations. The present-day Roman Catholic Church is much different from the Catholic Church that drew up the orthodox creedal statements.
It is sad that an eminent Evangelical leader like Dr Beckwith has decided to return to the church of his youth. His conversion represents a challenge to Evangelical world. Are we teaching justification by faith alone with sufficient Biblical clarity? Have we become so obsessed with present day issues that we have lost touch with the theological riches of the past?
See here for Carl Trueman's helpful response.
See here for Roman Catholic reaction to this post at Pontifications.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Geoff Thomas is against heresies

Martin Downes of Against Heresies has interviewed Geoff Thomas on The Christian Ministry and dealing with error. Geoff has some wise things to say on the subject. The interview comes in two parts:
Part 1 here
Part 2 here

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Paul Helm on propositions and speech acts

The Prof continues his Analysis series (here) with a discussion of the role of propositions and speech acts in theology (here). Theologians draw on speech-act theory to emphasise the importance of what God does with his words. He does not merely speak. By speaking God does something, like make a promise or enter into a covenant. These are God's illocutions - his speech-acts. By the Spirit, these speech-acts are made effective as the Word is understood, promises believed, commands obeyed. This is the perlocutionary effect of God's speech-acts.
Kevin Vanhoozer draws on speech-act theory in his The Drama of Doctrine (WJK, 2005 - my review series here). He does this to show that God incorporates his people into the drama of redemption by his communicative action in Scripture. Paul Helm, although sometimes critical of Vanhoozer's approach (here), acknowledges that speech-acts have a role in Biblical revelation.
"the whole of divine revelation in Scripture is confessed by the Christian church to be God’s speech. We might think of the whole of Scripture as being enclosed within speech marks, with other sets of speech marks occurring within Scripture".
The Prof helpfully points out that Calvin understood speech-act theory before it was formally proposed by J. L. Austen in the 1960's. But Helm's concern is that theologians may emphasise speech-acts over the propositional content on Scripture. He quotes Luther's dictum, 'Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity’. This is certainly true. Revealed religion is propositional, "God is", "Christ died for our sins", "Jesus is risen". Without such propositions the heart would be ripped out of the Christian faith.
But does it follow that the task of theology is to abstract the Biblical proportions from the drama of redemption? This, perhaps is what Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof tend to do in their approach to theology. Charles Hodge defined the task of systematic theology thus: "the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation". John Frame is critical of this proposal, saying, "Hodge didn't have a very clear idea of why we need theology." For him, "Theology is the application of the Word by persons to the world and to all areas of human life." (See here). When used properly, speech-act theory helps us to consider what God is doing with his Word. This is not at the expense of propositions, but Biblical propositions must not be abstracted from the drama of redemption.
Paul Helm makes reference to my post, Dedramatising Omnipresence? (here). In that post, I criticise Berkhof's handling of omnipresence in his Systematic Theology. Berkhof gives a perfectly good definition of omnipresence, but his discussion of the subject is pretty abstract in tone. Psalm 139 is listed as a proof text, but the communicative action intended by the Psalm is missing. Yes God's omnipresence is,
"That perfection of the Divine Being by which he transcends all spatial limitations, and yet is present in every point of space with his whole Being".
It is right that systematic theology offers a definition omnipresence in such terms. But is that all it should do? Theology should try to capture something of what God was communicating through Psalm 139: that his presence is inescapable and that he holds us in his hand. What I am arguing for is an approach to systematic theology that safeguards the crucial importance of propositions and is sensitive to the communicative action of Scripture. It is not that the Hodge/Berkhof method is fundamentally wrong or misconceived, but is it sufficient?
Vanhoozer's theo-dramatic approach embraces the propositional content of Scripture. He quotes Colin Gunton with approval that to deny the propositional aspect of theology "is an attack on revealed religion." (Drama of Doctrine p. 91). Every speech-act includes a proposition whether that be a promise, a question or even a joke. But when propositions are removed from the communicative action of Scripture, they are dedramatised. The task of theology is to enable the people of God to participate fittingly in the drama of redemption, not simply to exhibit the facts of Scripture in an orderly way.
Paul Helm's article on propositions and speech-acts shows the danger of polarisation. If speech-act theory is used to undermine the propositional content of Scripture, then effect will be to "fuzzy" the gospel. But when used properly in theology, an emphasis on speech-acts may help to remind us of what God is doing with and by his written Word.