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'. 

Monday, February 27, 2017


Some communities try to cut themselves off from the modern world. They prefer horse drawn carriages to cars, candles to light bulbs and opt for good old buttons in place of newfangled zips. Fair enough. Takes all sorts.

The modern world can be a bewildering place. But we can't choose our times and it's no good trying to turn the clock back. One feature of contemporary life is social media. Twitter, Facebook and other platforms have transformed the way people interact. It's now possible to keep up with the detailed goings on in people's lives who we rarely, if ever, see in the flesh.

At its best social media is an enjoyable and convenient way to maintain contact with friends and family. Much easier to upload a photo with a caption as a status update than going to the trouble of enclosing a holiday snap with a letter and putting it in the post.

But social media also has its dark side. It feeds our desire for the approval of others. Who doesn't like ‘likes’ when they’ve posted a witty remark, or whatever? It can cheapen the idea of friendship. How many of our Facebook ‘friends’ could we really count on in difficult times? Social media depersonalises communication. That can lead to users being more thoughtless and cruel in what they say to others than they would be when speaking face to face. Abusive trolling, and all that. People’s lives have been made a misery by what’s been posted on Facebook or Twitter. Especially younger people. 

It’s enough to make you sympathetic towards those who wish to drop out of our high tech society. But issue isn't with modern communication methods. It’s the human heart that’s at fault. The way we use social media is the problem, not the platform. What’s the answer? Yes, those who run Facebook and Twitter can do more to clamp down on abusive users. But above all we need a change of heart. What Jesus offers is not a new set of rules, but a fresh start in life. What's not to like?

* For White Horse News

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

"I can't hear you" prays Desmond Doss. The last time Andrew Garfield played a character struggling with God's silence, the heavens remained silent. But now God's voice is heard. "What do you want me to do?" persisted Doss. The heavens answered in the form of a wounded soldier crying for help. Strengthened by a sense of divine calling the army medic braved Japanese bullets and bayonets to rescue his injured comrades. In all Doss was said to have rescued 75 soldiers from Hacksaw Ridge. 

They thought he was a coward. But our medic hero didn't refuse to bear arms because he was a scaredy cat. He was a pacifist who wanted to do his bit for the war effort by saving rather than taking lives. Cue attempts by his fellow infantrymen to bully him into leaving the army. It didn't work. 

Eventually a military tribunal granted Doss his wish to enter the heat of battle unarmed. And off to war he went. 

Doss's company was charged with taking Hacksaw Ridge as part of the Battle of Okinawa. The ridge was heavily defended by well dug in Japanese soldiers. The battle scenes are a graphically depicted riot of fire, blood and guts. Like the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, only worse. 

The film muddies the reasons for Dross's pacifism. On the one hand it's related to his Seventh Day Adventist faith. On the other, a flashback sees Doss threaten his drunken father with a gun. Horrified by what he had done, Desmond swears never to touch a weapon again. Maybe regret over his actions led him to commit more deeply to his faith? I dunno. 

What's clear is that Doss took the biblical command 'you shall not kill' as an absolute prohibition of the taking of human life. While his pacifist exegesis might be questioned, his sincerely and courage could not. He was willing to brave the scorn and derision of his comrades and enemy fire to remain true to his beliefs. In the end Doss won the respect of his company and was awarded the Medal of Honour for his sacrificial bravery. 

In a Baptist Church of which I was once a member were two elderly men who served in WWII. One was a Desert Rat who fought with Monty to defeat Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein. The other, like Doss, was a 'conscientious collaborator' who served as a medic, risking his life and limb to save others. Brave men both. The film is a tribute to those who helped the war effort with bandages rather than bullets. 

It is noteworthy that Doss treated injured Japanese soldiers as well as Americans. He was a patriot, not an enemy-demonising nationalist. If that aspect of the film has resonance for the United States today, then well and good. 

Exhausted and alone, after rescuing each injured comrade Doss prayed, "Just one more". The secret of his resilience was revealed in the opening scenes of the film as Doss is heard reading the words of Isaiah 40:28-31. "Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength". 

In a nod to Band of Brothers, the closing credit sequence features contributions from the men behind the characters portrayed on screen. The real life Desmond Doss recalls the prayer just quoted, "Just one more" - 75 'one mores'. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Affinity Theological Study Conference March 1 - 3, 2017

The Christian Church: 
Its Mission in a Post-Christian Culture 
Looking forward to this. A hugely relevant theme. The conference format includes opportunities for in-depth discussion of papers that are circulated beforehand. See here for full conference details and booking information. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

La La Land

Think that was a chick flick. Boy meets girl. Singing and dancing. Be true to yourself. Pursue your dreams. No especially theological thoughts generated. One line hit home though, 'People love what other people are passionate about.' Can use that somehow. Are we passionate about the gospel? 

Sarah enjoyed it anyway.

Suppose I did a bit.

Maybe there is something in that line.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Christ and the Decree by Richard A. Muller

Baker Academic, 2008, 240pp 

Why should a busy pastor give time to studying a work of historical theology like this? Surely we'd be better off reading a how-to manual on sermon illustrations, counselling, leadership, or what have you. If we must read theology, let it be an entry level piece, or a nice little primer that won't overload our poor little minds. A work of in-depth scholarship about what people from hundreds of years ago used to think about stuff, what's the point in that?

Well, because we might learn something and gain valuable insights into God's word and ways. Also, those insights may provide us with resources to help resolve some of the theological controversies that are raging in contemporary evangelical circles. Arguments over the eternal submission of the Son, for example. 

It is sometimes claimed that the theologians who followed Calvin and the early Reformers regressed into scholasticism. Not quite arguing over angels on a pin head, but as near as. They moved away from the biblical simplicity of Calvin and Bucer and began to employ hair splitting theological definitions, and developed elaborate theological systems. Those systems used Calvin's teaching on predestination as the axiom from which they deduced their doctrines. 

As Muller demonstrates, however, Calvin was not averse to using the apparatus of scholastic theology in giving expression to his thought. Reformed orthodoxy that followed in his wake continued where he left off. Both in terms of methodology and as they developed key Reformation doctrines. When it came to predestination, it was not the axiom from which they deduced their doctrinal systems by logical extension. 

Predestination underlined the Reformed emphasis on salvation by grace alone. But the decree was discussed in relation to  higher order doctrines, with a concentration on trinitarian ground of decree and its Christological focus. Christ and the decree was the point where the infinite and finite, the eternal and historical met. Christ was seen in relation to the decree in three ways: he is the electing God together with the Father and Holy Spirit; the Elect One, chosen to become the divine/human mediator; and the one in whom sinners were chosen for salvation. 

When it comes to Christology, the Reformed were fully in line with the teaching of the Definition of Chalcedon in confessing that Christ was a divine person with a human nature. But their preoccupation was on Christ as mediator, acting as prophet, priest and king to redeem his people from sin. Close attention was given to Christ's mediatorial work in both his state of humiliation, from his incarnation to the cross, and exaltation, from his resurrection to eternity. That the incarnate Son was and remained fully God when he became man was safeguarded by the so-called extra Calvinisticum. He who was held in his mother's arms as a baby also upheld the universe by his power as the Son of God.

As I say, there has been a lot of rather heated discussion in recent days over whether we may rightly speak of the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. In a way the phrase sounds right because the New Testament bears witness to the fact that the Son was sent into the world by the Father. And that arrangement was made in eternity. In another way, we might feel a bit queasy over the idea that the Son stood in a relationship of eternal submission to the Father. Do we not confess that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are homoousios, of the same divine being? The fullness of that divine being is in all three persons, ruling out any notion of subordination.

Calvin taught that concerning his divine nature, Christ was God in himself, autotheos, but concerning his person he was of the Father. The Reformer acknowledged that there is an order of persons in the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but insisted that all three persons were equally God, with one divine being and will. Muller brings out that Calvin and his theological heirs successors grasped this point very well when it came to discussing predestination. They saw that Christ was not simply the Elect One, or the means by which the decree was executed. He was also, together with the Father and the Spirit, author of the decree to save. In that sense, the Son was self-designated to act as mediator, willingly submitting to be sent into the world by the Father. 

Reformed thinkers accepted the Partristic insight that in their external actions the three persons of the Trinity act as one, but not in the same way. All things are of the Father, by the Son and through the Spirit. This entails no hint of ontological subordination on the part of the Son as God, but recognises that it was singularly appropriate due to the order of persons that it was the Second Person of the Trinity who became incarnate. 

Talk of the eternal submission of Son to Father is therefore inappropriate. At least it needs to be highly qualified. Better to speak of the Son submitting to the will of God that he be sent into the world by the Father.  But it must be underlined that by 'God' we mean one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We may, indeed then say that the Son is the Electing God, the Elect one, and the one in whom we are elected for salvation. It is partly because we seem to have forgotten that the Son is himself the Electing God that we are having such trouble over the language of eternal submission with its subordinationist overtones. See here for more on Calvin, Beza on this theme. 

Muller expertly traces lines of development from Calvin through to Polanus and Perkins by way of Beza, Ursinus, Zanchi and others. He corrects the notion that Calvin was the gold standard of Reformed theology and that the slightest doctrinal development should be viewed as a deviation. The whole 'Calvin and the Calvinists' thing popularised by R. T. Kendall is shown to be baseless. 

Of Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf (1561-1610) and William Perkins (1558-1602) Muller writes,
In their thought we perceived at last the convergence of parallel lines of christological and predestinarian doctrinal development, the convergence of which can only occur in the infinite depth of the Trinity. And when the lines do converge in the realisation that the Son considered as God is the source, while considered as mediator in union with the human nature, self-determined executor of the decree, then on this infinite scale we also perceive the ultimate doctrinal "arch" of which not predestination but the trinitarian ground of all theology is the keystone. This structure had developed from Calvin, reaching fruition at the end of the century in the codification of early orthodoxy.
Muller's work also teases out the pastoral implications of the orthodox Reformed treatment of Christ and the decree. How are poor sinners meant to know whether they are among the elect? The decree in itself lies hidden in God. But the God who decrees is no deus nudus absconditus, an inaccessibly hidden deity. Muller explains, "There can be no deus nudus absconditus because the Christ who redeems is, according to his divinity, the God who decrees." The trinitarian foundation and Christological focus of the decree means that the believer can be sure they are elect because the Father has drawn them into saving union with Christ by the Spirit. We are in him by faith because we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. Christ, as Calvin put it is "the mirror of our election." 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Silence. The silence of God. How do you cope with that? Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) set out for Japan on search of their lost mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The last news of him suggested that he had renounced the Catholic faith and gone native, embracing Buddhism and a Japanese a wife. Surely not, think his acolytes. Unthinkable. And off they go. 

Wasn't easy being a Catholic in seventeenth century Japan. The authorities viciously persecuted missionary priests and their Japanese converts. They were doused with boiling water, burned alive, drowned.  This is all shown in wince-inducing detail. But nothing could induce Ferreira to renounce his faith. Right?

We'll see. The film is beautifully shot, with the glories of nature standing in contrast to the ugliness of human cruelty. The pace is slow moving and meditative. The main 'priest' parts are played well, as are the Japanese characters. Rodrigues has his own serial Judas iKichijiro; too cowardly to stick to his beliefs, yet racked with guilt over his frequent lapses from faith. The Inquisitor not a is not portrayed as stereotypical sadist 'baddie'. He seems almost kindly on occasion, visibly deflating when Rodrigues refuses to yield. But he will stop at nothing to stamp out the alien faith, using physical and psychological torture to achieve his aims.

The film explores some thought-provoking themes. When Garupe expresses disappointment with their flock of devout peasant villagers, Rodrigues reminds him, "Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt." In his suffering Rodrigues becomes increasingly identified with Christ. Before his arrest by the Japanese authorities, having been betrayed by Kichijiro, the priest stoops to drink from a stream. His face reflected in the water suddenly becomes that of Christ's. Paul wrote of the 'fellowship of Christ's sufferings' (Philippians 3:10). 

The Inquisitor explains to Rodrigues that Christianity will never take root in Japanese soil. It is a Buddhist country. What might be true for Europeans won't work in Japan. The priest counters that according to the Christian faith, truth is the same everywhere, or it's not truth at all. When Rodrigues finally encounters his mentor, Ferreira, his worst fears are realised. The Jesuit missionary had lapsed from the 'true faith' and conformed to Buddhism. How could he?

How could anyone? The renegade priest explains that Japanese believers who had turned their back on Roman Catholicism under the pressure of persecution had not really understood it. Under the influence of Buddhism the Japanese could not conceive of any reality beyond nature. Christianity had not been properly contextualised so that indigenous people could grasp the Creator/creature distinction. When they heard of the Son of God, they identified him not as the second person of the Trinity, but as the sun that shines in the sky. But a sense of the transcendent beyond nature is not that easy to eradicate. According to Paul, even idolatrous pagans know God, even though they would prefer not to, Romans 1:20-21.  

The Christianity under the spotlight in the film is decidedly Roman Catholic, replete with religious icons, symbols, masses and priestly absolution. Iconoclastic Protestants would not have had qualms over treading an image of Christ into the dirt as Roman Catholic believers are forced to do in the film. So what? But if such an act was seen as a repudiation of faith in Christ, that would be more tricky. 

One of the main things that hit home to me in watching the film was the great evil of religious persecution. No one should be forced to abandon their beliefs. The Inquisitor concocted a cruel dilemma for Rodrigues. Only if he denied his faith would his friends be spared untold suffering. Now he understands why Ferreira had gone native. The priest turned Buddhist suggests to the younger man that his apostasy would be an act of love; laying down his faith for his friends. What Rodrigues wrestles with throughout his trials is the silence of God in the face of such wretchedness.

It's nothing less than tragic that people are still persecuted for their faith in the 21st century. Organisations such as Open Doors campaign for an end of religious persecution and seek to channel aid to suffering believers. 

The final scene reveals whether Rodrigues had indeed lost his Roman Catholic faith as the heavens remained silent. When facing death, what did he have left to hold on to?

The silence has been shattered. The Cross is the grand announcement of God's love. Jesus suffered with us and for us that we may be rescued from sin and suffering though faith in him. He endured the awful silence of God, crying from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He did not die for the good and beautiful, but for the miserable and corrupt. Those who share in his suffering will also share in his glory.