Monday, March 27, 2017

In Christ Alone: Perspectives on Union with Christ edited by Stephen Clark & Matthew Evans

Affinity/Mentor, 2016, 283pp 

This volume gathers together the papers presented at the 2015 Affinity Theological Studies Conference. I was present for that event and very much appreciated reading the various papers and discussing the issues raised by them with fellow conference members. 

The doctrine of union with Christ has rightly received renewed attention in Evangelical circles in recent decades. Few themes are so central to our understanding and appreciation of the work of Jesus on our behalf and how we come to benefit from what he has done for us. 

The chapters explore union with Christ from a variety of perspectives, biblical, historical and theological. Welcome attention is given to the writings of John and Paul, where union with Christ is explored most fully in the New Testament. The Reformer John Calvin and the Puritan John Owen placed union with Christ at the core of their presentation of salvation accomplished and applied. Much may be learned from their insights as teased out by Robert Letham and John Fesko. Papers are also devoted to the relationship between union with Christ and justification and sanctification respectively. 

In a final chapter Stephen Clark endeavors sum things up the heading, 'Union with Christ': Towards a Biblical and Systematic Theological Framework for Practical Living. This essay was not one of the papers written for the 2015 conference. Clark seeks to make good some aspects of the doctrine not covered by the six papers, reflecting on union with Christ in the Old Testament and the Synoptic Gospels. Especially helpful is his discussion of the union and the ordo salutis. Christ was united to his people in eternity, before the foundation of the world. Historically speaking they were crucified and raised with him. But they were only united to Christ existentially when drawn to him by faith that they might enjoy the benefits of his saving work on their behalf. (See Ephesians 1:4, Romans 6:4, 16:7).

A certain order applies even when it comes to the existential aspect of union with Christ. Logically, the sinner needs to be made spiritually alive in order to believe and so be justified by faith. Yet regeneration is not the grounds of justification. Rather God justifies the ungodly simply on the basis of Christ's obedience, blood and resurrection. Those who have been united to Christ for justification have also been united to him for progressive sanctification, having died with Christ to the old life of sin and been raised with him to a new life of holiness. 

The Christian life is not about trying to conform to a bunch of arbitrary rules laid down by the church designed to suck as much pleasure out of life as possible. It's about living out of the fullness of our union with Christ as justified sinners whom God is conforming to the image of his Son by the power of the Spirit. It is in Christ we live, suffer and die. And it is in Christ we shall be raised to everlasting glory. 

Some of Clark's lengthy footnotes are worth reading, especially the ones on time and eternity, and the interpretation of the Song of Solomon. 

I'm glad that these essays are now available to a wider audience. The authors' attention to the biblical texts offer surprising (if not always convincing) exegetical insights. At least I wasn't convinced by Cornelis Benema on John 14:1-6. Robert Letham provocatively advocates Calvin's view of the Lord's Supper in relation to union with Christ. The chapter on John Owen reminds us that unlike Lutheranism, Reformed theology is not overly based on the teaching of a single Reformer. And a good thing too. 

Theology students, pastors and serious Christian readers will find much to help them here as we seek to understand that which is beyond full human comprehension; the believer's mystical union with Christ. This work serves as a good companion piece to the 2007 Affinity Theological Study Conference papers on the person of Christ, published under the title, The Forgotten Christ: exploring the mystery and majesty of God incarnate

Friday, March 24, 2017

Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (review part 2)

Brazos Press, 2016, 269pp 

As promised, we continue with this review series by considering what Vanhoozer has to say on the relationship between sola fide and biblical authority. At the Diet of Worms Martin Luther is famously reputed to have said, 
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen
One man with his 'conscience captive to the Word of God' in defiance of the authority of the pope and centuries of Roman Catholic tradition. Who on earth did Luther think he was? His monumental arrogance spawned a terrible horde of lonely individuals who insisted that their conscientious reading of the Bible was the only authority that mattered. A recipe for theological confusion and ecclesiastical division.  As Vanhoozer puts it, "Wittenberg, we have a problem." 

But it was never the intention of Luther to assert the authority of the individual believer over and against the church. Rather, he wished to place the church back under the critical authority of Holy Scripture. Vanhoozer's purpose in this work is to bring out the correlation of the Reformation battle cry, 'Scripture alone', and the other 'alones'; 'grace alone', 'faith alone' and so on. 

Flowing from his 'mere Protestant' account of solo gratia, Vanhoozer locates the principle of authority over the church not in the believer with Bible in hand, but in the Triune Lord of the gospel. God alone has rightful power over his people. And it is only in subjection to his authority that true freedom and human flourishing are found. 

Adam sought to usurp divine authority, thinking that it was only by defying God that he could be like God. How wrong he was, Genesis 3:7. Divine authority is restored by Jesus Christ who functions as prophet, priest and king in relation to God's people. The Father has bestowed all authority upon the risen and exalted Jesus that he might act as "head over all things for the church" (Matthew 28:18, Ephesians 1:20-21). The Lord Jesus granted the apostles delegated authority over the church. They were to teach whatever he had commanded them, Matthew 28:18-20, John 16:13. As Vanhoozer summarises,
The apostles are authorized interpreters of Jesus' person and work, inscribers of the meaning of the Christ event whose written discourse is part and parcel of the triune economy of communicative action. (p. 91) 
Protestantism is not the reassertion of Adamic epistemic autonomy, "I will decide for myself what to believe". Authentic Protestantism is the product of trust in the self-authenticating witness of Scripture as it discloses what Jonathan Edwards called "the great things of the gospel". This saving trust is the result of the internal testimony of the Spirit who works by and with the Word to give the gospel its faith-compelling power. As Luther put it, the church is a "creature of the Word" because by the Spirit "the Holy Scriptures..are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). 

Faith alone in Christ alone according to the witness of Scripture alone draws a person into the church over which Jesus rules by his Word. The church is an interpretive community that exists not to make of Scripture what it will, but to be shaped by the Bible according to God's will. Her calling is to attend to what the Holy Spirit is saying in the Scriptures concerning what is in Christ for his people. If God is our Father, the church is our mother whose role is to nurture the faithful to maturity in Christ. 

The Bible alone as God-breathed Scripture commands magisterial authority over the church, but the church as a holy nation and royal priesthood has ministerial authority to teach the Word. This involves thinking God's thoughts after him and talking God's talk after him. 'Faith alone' is not 'me and my Bible alone'. Rather it involves the community of those who have been justified by faith alone being summoned by the Spirit to "respond to the voice of the Triune God speaking in the Scriptures to present Christ." (p. 104). 

It takes the whole of the people of God even to begin to grasp the meaning of the whole Word of God as it speaks to us of what is in Christ, Ephesians 3:18-19. The church as an interpretive community does well to read Holy Scripture in the context of the catholic church, with an awareness of the way in which the Spirit has led the people of God in their journey of faith seeking understanding over the centuries.

The problem the Reformers had with the Roman Catholic Church was that she made herself the 'norming norm', usurping the authority of Jesus, and fatally compromising her place in the catholic church. Adding to what is in Christ as he comes to us clothed in Scripture leaves us with a Saviour who is less than a sufficient prophet, priest and king to his redeemed people. 

Placing biblical interpretation in the context of sola fide orientates the church towards the gospel promised by the prophets and announced by the apostles. It helps preserve the church from slavery to 'the assured results of modern scholarship', where human intellectual ability is asserted over and above the Word. It also acts as a safeguard against postmodern skepticism that despairs of finding any true meaning in the Bible. Rather than falling prey to these twin  idols, 'the tower' and 'the maze', the church is summoned to trust in the God who is there and is not silent. We recall the words of Paul, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17). As a royal priesthood and holy nation the people of God are called to attend to the Word with the expectant prayer, "Speak Lord, for your servants hear". To which our God responds, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!" 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (review part 1)

Brazos Press, 2016, 269pp 

With 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of beginning the Protestant Reformation now is a good time to reflect on that disruptive event in church history. Many view the Reformation as nothing less than a tragedy that rent Christendom asunder, leading to the fragmentation of the church into thousand denominational pieces. That is certainly the view of Rome-friendly commentators. Even among Protestants, the Reformation is often viewed as a decidedly mixed blessing. Alister McGrath charged the Reformation with unleashing Christianity's Dangerous Idea; the right of all believers to read the Bible for themselves and decide on its meaning. Gone was the magisterial authority of the Pope of Rome to declare what Scripture teaches. Now any believer's reading was as good as another's. Cue interpretive anarchy, doctrinal confusion and ecclesiastical division. That's the 'Babel', bit in Vanhoozer's title.

The Reformation's insistence on sola Scriptura meant that all controls on how the Bible was to be read had been thrown to the wind. From those days there was no kingly magisterium in Israel; everyone saw in Scripture what was right in his own eyes. What Vanhoozer attempts to do in this work is to show that sola Scriptura - Scripture Alone was never meant to be taken alone, but understood in the light of its companion Reformation solas. Namely, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus and soli Deo gloria. When taken together the solas place the Bible and the individual believer in the context of God's gracious action in Christ by which he draws his people into the church through faith the the gospel message revealed in Holy Scripture. 

As the subtitle suggests the author is intent on Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity.  He points out that "retrieval is not replication but a creative looking back for the sake of a faithful moving forward." (p. 37). Exploring what the Reformers meant by the solas in the context of their controversy with Rome provides the contemporary evangelical world with a valuable resource 'that encourages the church to hold fast to the gospel and to one another.' (p. 33)  By 'mere Protestant Christianity' Vanhoozer is not positing a lowest common denominator approach to evangelical belief and churchmanship. Rather, mere Protestant Christianity retrieves the solas as guidelines for faithful biblical interpretation. It also seeks to recover the royal priesthood of all believers, recognising the church as the community that is being led by the Spirit to understand and embody what is in Christ as disclosed in Holy Scripture. 

In giving careful attention to the solas, Vanhoozer is able to address some of the charges that are regularly leveled against Protestant Christianity besides interpretive individualism and ecclesiological fragmentation, were they not heinous enough theological crimes. One is that Protestantism begat secularism. Roman Catholic writer Charles Taylor alleges as much in his A Secular Age. Protest scholar Alister McGrath more or less says, 'It's a fair cop, gov' in Christianity's Dangerous Idea. Vanhoozer contests the charge that in ridding nature of its sacramental quality Protestantism was responsible for disenchanting the world, paving the way for a secular outlook. The writer responds that an important strand of Roman Catholic teaching postulated a realm of 'pure nature' that could exist autonomously and apart from the grace of God. How disenchanting is that? Another suggested that nature participates in grace and mediates grace, most especially through the sacraments. Yet if grace is pretty much intrinsic to nature, then grace has been disenchanted, the Creator/creature distinction is fatally compromised and the singularity of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh is undermined. Once more, the secularising trajectories are obvious. 

In retrieving sola gratia, Vanhoozer develops an ontology of Triune grace that avoids fusing grace and nature. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit was fully actualised in the free and loving communion of his own three-personed being. He had no need to create the universe in order to complete himself in any way. Creation was an act of free communication on the part of the Triune God. He did not owe the world its existence. Bringing the universe into being was an act of sheer grace on God's part, defined as, "the gift of God's beneficent presence and activity - that is, the communication of God's own light, life and love to those who have no right to them nor a claim on God...Put simply, grace is the Triune God - God sharing his Fatherly love for creation in the Son and through the Spirit". (p. 53). Nature has no autonomous existence apart from grace. Grace cannot be collapsed into nature. It is not a 'thing', but God's free and loving attitude towards that which is not God. 

Just how amazing is the grace of God is brought into sharper relief when we reflect on his grace towards fallen humanity. What sinners deserve from God is his wrath and judgement. Grace as the word is most often used in the New Testament is God's undeserved giving of himself to rebel sinners. "It is indeed wonderful to participate in being (creative grace), but it is something even more marvelous when fallen creatures participate in Christ (redemptive grace)." (p. 54). The goal of God's gracious purpose is to "unite all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). To that end the Trinity acted to redeem lost human beings and restore them to communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Scripture reveals the economy of God's saving work in the unfolding covenant of grace. While the external actions of the Trinity are undivided, each person of the Trinity had a special role to play in the great drama of redemption. The Father sent the Son, the Son is sent into the world as man to redeem us by his blood, the Holy Spirit is given to communicate the salvation accomplished by the Son to God's new humanity. 

Sola Scriptura must be seen in the context of the drama of redemption. It is not to be understood as the right of every Christian to say what they like about the Bible. Rather, it is that God uses his written Word to communicate salvation to his people, enlightening their minds by his Spirit so that they are made wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Grace does not simply perfect the believer's natural ability to read and understand the message of the Bible. It restores the sin-darkened mind by giving light and reorients the sin-twisted heart towards Christ. This is not so much the 'right of private interpretation', as the grace of right interpretation that enables the believing reader to perceive the light of the Living Word shining through the written Word. 

This light that proceeds from the Father through the Son and by the Spirit enables the believer to read God's 'Two Books' of Nature and Scripture with delight and relish. 'Mere Protestantism' offers no 'disenchanted' nature, devoid of the divine presence, but a God-entranced vision of all things. The Christian sees the universe as the gracious work of God, in which the heavens declare his glory and the earth is filled with his goodness. As the hymn writer put it, "Something lives in every hue/Christless eyes have never seen". Moreover, bringing sola gratia to bear upon sola Scriptura, Vanhoozer is able to say,
The Spirit illumines the faithful, opening eyes and ears to see and hear the light of the world, the Word of God dazzling in the canonical fabric of the text: God's unmerited favor towards us shining in the face of the biblical Jesus. (p. 69). 
If the formal principle of Reformation theology was sola Scriptura, the material principle was the gospel of salvation through faith alone. And it is to sola fide that Vanhoozer next turns his attention. But you'll have to wait until part 2 of this review series for that, and maybe a bit more besides. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

Affinity Theological Study Conference 2017

The 'Magnificent Seven' speakers'  panel
The theme of this year's conference was, 'The Christian Church: Its Mission in a Post-Christian Culture'. Timely, what with the church in the UK struggling to adjust its mission to a more secular climate. 

As is the practice with these events, the papers were circulated beforehand for delegates to study. Here are the titles/authors: 

1: ‘Light to the Nations and Aliens and Strangers: an Overview of the People of God in the Old Testament’ – David Green
2: ‘Light to the Nations and Aliens and Strangers: an Overview of the People of God in the New Testament’ – Chris Bennett
3: ‘When Society is Collapsing: Augustine and The City of God’ – Paul Helm
4: ‘The Church Militant and Martyred: The Reformation till Today’ – Lee Gatiss
5: ‘On Understanding our Times’ – John Stevens
6: ‘On Serving God in our Generation’ – David McKay

A session was devoted to discussing each paper in turn after a word of introduction by their authors. We then divided into small groups to chew the fat, before coming together to feed back to the whole conference. A speaker was delegated to each discussion group, meaning we all got to 'grill' one, which was nice. (Maybe not so much for the authors).

There were some points of disagreement. In his paper Chris Bennett argued for the Chris Wright view that the mission of the church should reflect the mission of God to restore and renew the whole universe. He questioned the distinction that is sometimes made between what may be done under the auspices of the organised church and what is a matter for individual believers. The distinction has its uses, however. Churches may organise things like Parent and Toddler Groups to foster links with the local community as well as run directly evangelistic activities, but it is down to individual believers to get involved in local politics, or help with urban redevelopment projects. They do so as members of the organic church and with the prayerful support of their local fellowship, but such activities are not in themselves an expression of the mission of the organised church. That's what I reckon, anyway.

Another thing was the extent to which we should make use of the diminishing heritage of Christendom. Most agreed that we should use our Christian heritage as a point of contact with the unbelieving world. But our primary purpose is not to preserve this at all costs. Contrary to Anglican friends (and some inconsistent Nonconformists) I don't believe we should retain Bishops as ex-officio members of the House of Lords, or the Monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Let Church and State be separate, each with its own sphere and mission. That does not entail a faith-free public square, but in Augustinian terms, the City of God should not be confused with the City of this world. 

The papers and discussion that arose from them were certainly thought provoking. A good mix of theological reflection and cultural analysis that helped us to apply biblical truth and lessons from church history to contemporary concerns. It is only as we do that will we be able to equip the church for its God-given mission in a secular world. The papers will eventually be published in book form, so I'm not going to provide a summary here. The 2015 set are available under the title, In Christ Alone: Perspectives on Union with Christ, and very good they were too.

One of the joys of a conference like this is the times of informal chat and discussion that spill over into coffee breaks and meal times. That's where you get into the practical nitty gritty of how to work out all this stuff in the context of church life. You may also find yourself engaging in discussion of whether holding that ensoulment is not from conception implies an Appolinarian moment in Christ's incarnate life. Or watching some of the most ineptly played games of Pool you're ever likely to witness. 

Despite me not being quite so active on the blogging front these days, some of the delegates were familiar with this here blog. More familiar than me it seems, as I had no recollection whatever of posting this in response to Ruth Palgrave's criticism of Affinity a few years ago. Must be getting old. 

The next Affinity Theological Study Conference will be in 2019, on the theme, 'Worship'.