Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On book reviews

Regular readers of will have noticed that I frequently post book reviews on this blog. Sometimes the reviews have been written for "proper" publications like Protestant Truth or Evangelical Times and also posted here, but mostly the reviews have been specially written for the blog. The thing with being commissioned to write a review is that you don't usually get to choose the book under consideration. That can be a good thing as you could end up reading a helpful book that might not otherwise have caught your attention. On the other hand, having to read a book that doesn't much interest you is a bit of a pain when reading time is precious and you'd prefer to be reading something more beneficial. I'm getting a little tired of being asked to review books on the Reformed faith that are structured around the "Five Points of Calvinism". Not because I disagree with the "Five Points", but because the approach is formulaic and makes it seem that Calvinism is little more than a reaction to Arminian error. I propose that such books should be given a category all of their own, "Totally Unimaginative Low Interest Publications".

A good review will offer information and assessment. A prospective reader of a book needs to know what the title is about and whether it is any good. The reviewer will try to be fair to the writer and not wilfully misrepresent his intentions and also fair to the potential reader so that if anyone should buy the book they know what they are getting. The reviewer will make it clear where he disagrees with the author without pedantic nitpicking. Serious omissions in the writer's handling of the subject should be flagged up. For example, I recently read and reviewed a book on biblical eschatology that did not give nearly enough attention to the resurrection of the body. This lacunae would give readers a distorted and underdeveloped picture of the Christian hope.

I tend to read quite quickly so there is a danger of books 'going down without touching the sides'. The discipline of posting reviews  helps me to think more carefully and critically about what I've been reading, which can't be a bad thing.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Catholic and Reformed by Anthony Milton

Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches
in English Protestant Thought 1600-1640
by Anthony Milton, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 599pp

I came across this book in a footnote in John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man by Carl Trueman (p. 18 n. 44 - reviewed here). Trueman commended Milton's detailed study of Protestant attitudes towards Roman Catholicism in the period before Owen's public ministry. When invited to give a paper on Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome at this year's Westminster Conference I thought I had better get hold of Catholic and Reformed for some background reading. Some background reading! Milton has carefully researched the voluminous anti-Roman writings published in England during 1600-1640. Part I of the book is devoted to the controversy with Rome.

Anti-Catholicism was not the preserve of hot headed Puritan radicals. There was a broad consensus amongst English Protestant divines that the Roman Catholic Church was a corrupt church and that the Pope was the Antichrist. Establishment figures such as Archbishop Abbot were as virulently anti-Catholic as Puritans like William Perkins. However there were differences of nuance amongst Protestant polemicists and some issues required careful handling. Was the Roman Catholic Church in any sense a true Church? What was the status of the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation? Was there enough residual truth in Roman Catholicism for at least some Catholics to be saved? Milton gives attention to all these matters and more.

The basic anti-Catholic consensus was shattered by Archbishop William Laud and those who agreed with his views. For Laud the main enemy was not so much Rome, as the 'enemy within' in the shape of the Puritans. Laudians acknowledged that there were serious errors in the Roman Catholic system, but they regarded Rome as a member of the true Catholic Church. Under Laud's tenure identification of the Pope as the Antichrist was discouraged and robust anti-Catholic polemics were suppressed in favour of a more irenic approach. Some Laudians such as Richard Montagu even hoped for reunion with Rome and worked towards that end.

In Part II Milton gives attention to the Reformed Churches, discussing the relationship between English and Continental Protestantism. While there was a good deal of confessional harmony between English Protestants and their European cousins, there were also tensions and difficulties. For a start Protestantism was divided between Lutherans and the Reformed, the two parties eyeing one another suspiciously. To make matters worse, Lutheran dislike of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination seemed suspiciously similar to the Arminianism that was vexing the Reformed Churches in the early 1600's. The Church of England was moderately Calvinistic rather than Lutheran in its confession, but it differed from the European Reformed Churches on the issue of Presbyterianism. An earlier generation of Anglican leaders regarded episcopalian church government as a 'thing indifferent' that should not be allowed to disrupt harmonious relations between English and European Calvinists. But when Laud and his followers began to assert the 'divine right' of episcopacy, casting doubt on the validity of Presbyterian orders, the fragile united front began to break down. The Laudian doctrine of "No bishop, no church!" was hardly calculated to further the cause of Protestant unity. Indeed, with his rigid episcopalianism and dislike of Calvinistic theology, Laud actively distanced the Church of England from the European Reformed Churches. European Presbyterians seemed too much like those pesky homegrown Puritans for his liking.

What might be the relevance of all this for Evangelicals today? For one thing, Milton's work helps to provide a welcome historical perspective on current Evangelical engagement with Roman Catholicism under the auspices of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Were our Protestant forefathers right to be so hostile to Roman Catholic teaching? Have the issues that divided Protestants and Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century such as papal authority, justification by faith alone, transubstantiation, and purgatory really been resolved? I think not. But that is not the only thing that strikes me. Another is the bitter divisions within Protestantism which left the movement badly fragmented and therefore weakened. Serious and irreconcilable differences emerged between Lutherans and the Reformed. The rise of Arminianism shattered the unity of the Reformed Churches. The divisive Laudian assertion of the 'divine right' of episcopacy is another case in point. Regrettably, even Protestants who were in basic agreement on theological issues managed to fall out over finer points of doctrine and church polity.

Now, I'm not trying to argue for the maintenance of pan-Evangelical Protestant unity at any price. The 'lowest common denominator' approach of modern day ecumenism is not one we should adopt at the expense of our Reformed confessional integrity. But still the challenge remains; how can we hold to our cherished distinctives as Reformed Baptists, Westminster Standard Presbyterians, Savoy Declaration Independents, or Calvinistic Episcopalians and yet give expression to our essential unity in the gospel? What more can be done to encourage confessionally Reformed Churches and Church groupings to affiliate and work together for the sake of the Kingdom? Yes, we still need to face up to enemies without such as Rome and theological liberalism. We also have to combat numerous enemies within what passes for Evangelicalism today. Take open theists and those who deny penal substitutionary atonement as a couple of examples. But in our tendency to fragment over secondary issues we don't exactly do ourselves any favours. We cantankerous Calvinists don't always have to be our own worst enemies, now do we?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Easter Expectations

We are approaching "Palm Sunday", the occcasion when Christians remember Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem. It all seemed to be going so well. Crowds hailed Jesus as the King of Israel. He appeared to be riding the crest of a wave of public acclimation and popularity. But by the Friday of that week the people turned against him and demanded that he be crucified. You might think that Christians would rather like to keep quiet about what happened on that first Good Friday. It appears sad and embarrassing that the founder of the Christian faith went from conquering hero to absolute zero in the space of six days. What went wrong? The answer is that nothing went wrong. The reason why Christians look forward to Easter with eager anticipation is that we believe that Jesus' death on the cross was not a tragic accident of history. We believe that he died for our sins so that those who trust in him might be forgiven and put right with God.

Also, death was not the end for Jesus. On Easter Sunday morning God raised him from the dead. Easter is worth celebrating because Jesus is alive! His death and resurrection brought new hope to the world. There isn’t a lot of hope around at the moment. News stories focus on our increasingly broken society, the current economic climate and gloomy predictions of environmental catastrophe. But the forces of selfishness, disorder and destruction will not be allowed to have the last word. In Jesus God’s last word is “love”. And where there is love there is hope. Easter means that all who follow Jesus have a lot to look forward to. How about you?
* Originally published in White Horse News and News & Views.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

And the mystery theologian is...

It was Richard Gaffin who said,

"The central soteriological reality is union with the exalted Christ by Spirit-created faith. That is the nub, the essence of the way or order of salvation for Paul. The center of Paul's soteriology, at the center of his theology as a whole, then, is neither justification by faith nor sanctification, neither the imputation of Christ's righteousness nor the renewing work of the Spirit."

By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, Paternoster, 2006, p. 43.

Gary Benfold was the first to give the correct answer to Name that theologian #3. However, in a dramatic twist Gary disqualified himself from the competition and deleted his comment on the grounds that he knew the answer rather than simply having a guess. Very honest of him I'm sure, but it isn't cheating to actually know the answer. So, I pronounce the learned Gary Benfold winner of Name that theologian #3, with Martin Downes and Mantovani close runners up.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Name that theologian #3

Who said this?
"The central soteriological reality is union with the exalted Christ by Spirit-created faith. That is the nub, the essence of the way or order of salvation for Paul. The center of Paul's soteriology, at the center of his theology as a whole, then, is neither justification by faith nor sanctification, neither the imputation of Christ's righteousness nor the renewing work of the Spirit."

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Edinburgh Bavinck Conference

I really enjoyed reading Volume One of Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics and I've just started to dip into Volume Two. It is a great blessing that his magnum opus is now available in English translation. Reformed systematic theology at its very best.
James Eglinton is organising a conference devoted to the Dutch dogmatician. Following the pattern of Bavinck’s work, the conference will first explore issues related to Bavinck’s theology before examining wider cultural and ethical applications of this doctrine.
The event will take place in New College 1-2nd September 2010.
Follow this link for more info.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Evangelical unity: 1966 and today

It is not often that one single address has the power to shape the direction of Evangelicalism for a generation. Such a distinction must go to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' 1966 message, Evangelical Unity: An Appeal. Much ink has been spilt in discussing exactly what Lloyd-Jones hoped to achieve in that address. What is certain is that his appeal for unity left the Evangelical movement more divided and fragmented than ever before. The issues he raised exacerbated divisions over how Evangelicals should relate to theologically mixed denominations. Lloyd-Jones argued that Evangelicals should separate from the denominations and come together in church-based affiliation. On the other hand John Stott, who chaired the Evangelical Alliance meeting at which Lloyd-Jones spoke feared his address would trigger a mass exodus of impressionable Evangelical Anglican clergy. Stott used his position to publicly dissociate himself from what the preacher had said. He favoured an integrationist stance where were Evangelicals were encouraged to be more actively involved in the Church of England. This policy was formally adopted by Evangelical Anglicans at the watershed Keele Conference in 1967.
Meanwhile in 1970 J. I. Packer co-authored Growing into Union together with Anglo-Catholic theologians, minimising doctrinal differences in order to make common cause against theological Liberalism. His actions led to the disbandment of the Puritan Conference in which Packer had played a prominent role along with Lloyd-Jones. A fissure had opened up between Lloyd-Jones and those who followed his his separatist line and integrationist Evangelical Anglicans like Stott and Packer.
It isn't always easy to separate issues from personalities when it comes from deciding who was right and wrong in church history. This is especially the case when it comes to considering very recent history. But our aim in discussing 1966 and its relevance for the contemporary scene should not be the vindication of Lloyd-Jones or the vilification of Stott/Packer, or visa versa. It is the issues not the personalities that matter.
In this case the nub of the matter is whether Evangelicals ought to withdraw from theologically mixed denominations and come together on a church-based level? Should loyalty to one's denomination be placed before ecclesal fellowship with other Evangelicals, especially when the possibility of reforming the denomination is remote? Should we opt for separation or integration? If, as I've argued elsewhere, Lloyd-Jones was basically right to urge Evangelicals to separate and come together, then we need to ask how we might apply this principle to today's situation? Here are some proposals:
1) Separation from the theologically mixed denominations is still a live issue that needs to be faced. Evangelicals cannot be content simply with being a tolerated "wing" of a denomination where serious heresy is allowed to remain unchecked. Such a stance relativises the gospel.
2) Evangelicals should endeavor to unite in church-based fellowship. Co-operation at the para-church level while remaining in mixed denominations won't do.
3) How Evangelical churches come together as an expression of unity in the gospel isn't easy to figure out given that Evangelicals differ over ecclesiology, baptism etc. We need a little dose of realpolitik, or realecclesiastik here. All Reformed Evangelicals are not suddenly going to become convinced Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Grace Baptists or Calvinistic Episcopalians. But this does not mean we should be indifferent to the biblical doctrine of the church. Evangelicals need to give fresh and urgent attention to this matter. For my money a form of interdependent independency would amount to a pretty good expression of the New Testament's teaching. But given the current lack of consensus amongst Reformed Evangelicals on church government and baptism, perhaps an affiliation of individual Evangelical churches and church groupings is the best we could hope right now. How can Affinity be made to fulfil this role more effectively?
4) Separated Evangelical Churches will want to support Evangelicals in the mixed denominations who are fighting for reform rather rather than seeking integration. (Gospel Partnerships anyone?)
5) Should the grouping of Evangelical churches (under the umbrella of Affinity or whatever) be distinctly Reformed or merely Evangelical? I think we should work towards a fellowship of confessional Reformed Churches that is generous enough to allow for differences on ecclesiology, baptism etc. This does not amount to "doctrinal indifferentism" as the affiliation would be clearly Reformed in its agreed confession.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI by Tracey Rowland

Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI,
Tracey Rowland, Oxford University Press, 2009, 214pp

Regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that I disagree with quite a few aspects of Ratzinger's theology. I mean, is the pope a Catholic? And hey, many members of the Roman Catholic Church aren't exactly enthusiastic about the stance taken by the current pope. He is often depicted as a brutalist reactionary bent on undoing the more 'enlightened and open' policies of Vatican II. When Ratzinger succeeded Pope John Paul II one American Roman Catholic complained, it "is like electing Rumsfeld after George Bush" (see here). With that in mind you might think that a sympathetic treatment of Ratzinger's theology would be hard to find. But this is exactly what Tracey Rowland attempts to offer in this book, where she gives an insightful account of some of the key themes in pope Benedict XVI's teaching.

She begins by situating Ratzinger among contemporary Roman Catholic theologians. According to one reading of the pope's theological trajectory he set out as something of a radical, but horrified by the changes instigated by Vatican II he became an increasingly reactionary and authoritarian figure. Rowland argues that this is an overly simplistic reading of Ratzinger's theological development. What he has sought is not in fact a return to the 'glory days' of pre-conciliar Catholicism. Ratzinger was critical of the 'Baroque Thomism' that characterised the thinking of many Roman Catholic theologians in the first half of the 20th century. He especially disliked their dualistic understanding of the relationship between nature and grace, arguing that they had bought into the Kantian dichotomy between the spiritual and the natural worlds. Influenced by Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger preferred a more more Augustinian model in which nature is perfected by grace. It is this basic Augustinian stance that separates him from radicals like Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. In Rahner's thought grace is virtually collapsed into nature to the extent that a person may be an 'anonymous Christian' simply by the light of nature without ever having encountered the gracious revelation of God in Christ.

Ratzinger has devoted the whole of his career to one main aim. Both in his previous role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now as pope he has sought to to stop the Roman Catholic Church accommodating itself to the modern world with its rationalistic mindset. This is what makes him wary of the changes implemented in the wake of Vatican II. He argues that adopting the agenda of the Enlightenment is destructive of the Christian faith, "if the Church were to accommodate herself to the world in any way that would entail a turning from the Cross, that would not lead to a renewal of the Church, but only to her death." His predecessor pope John Paul II endeavoured to forge points of contact with the modern world, attending pop concerts and investing the Enlightenment slogans like "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" with fresh Christian meaning. But Ratzinger is having none of it, preferring the purity of the Latin Mass over liturgical innovations in the name of 'relevance'.

This critique of Enlightenment rationalism does not entail a rejection of reason itself and the fruits of reason in the scientific process. But human reason on its own is not sufficient. Ratzinger argues that reason needs to be enlightened by the logos of God, Jesus Christ if it is not to descend into the nihilistic atheism and mindless consumerism that features so strongly in contemporary European society. Evangelical Protestant will agree with with many of the points made in the chapter on Modernity and the Politics of the West. Further thoughtful reflections on modernity and the Church are found in the two appendices with which the book concludes, The Subiaco Address and the infamous Regensburg Address, which sparked off riots in the Muslim world.

However, before we get too exited, Ratzinger's solution to the problem of rampant secularism in the West is not a recovery of biblical gospel. He commends the example of Benedict of Norcia who fled from the wicked world to found a monastery at Monte Casino (p. 165). So, the current pope's prescription for the church in the face of the challenge of modernity is akin to Hamlet's advice to Ophelia, "get thee to a nunnery". I can't see how that might help. The Church has been not been called to withdraw from the world but to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the nations. Doing so entails faithfulness to the gospel revealed in Holy Scripture and meaningful engagement with the contemporary world. Which is why the Reformers translated the Bible into the language of the people and worshipped God in the vernacular. At its best Evangelical Protestantism has succeeded in being both gospel-centred and missional. Also, Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shatesbury have been at the forefront of social reform, bringing Christian values to bear upon public life.

Rowland is more interested in placing Ratzinger's faith in the context of Roman Catholic teaching than in entering into dialogue with Evangelical Protestant theology. References to Protestant thought are brief and rather dismissive. The scholar is quick to distance Ratzinger's appreciation of Augustine from the Calvinistic understanding of the great Church Father. However, it seems that Ratzinger is sensitive to the Protestant charge that Roman Catholic theology is often far too philosophical and distanced from Holy Scripture. He offers a rich, trinitarian account of revelation in which revelation is not so much about information as the transformation of the person in the life of the Trinity (p. 51). So far so good. But this does not mean that the current pope has jettisoned papal infallibility for the sake of sola scriptura. Roman Catholic Tradition remains on a par with the Bible and the faithful are still subject to the authoritative Magisterium of the Church.

Once more along Augustinian lines, Ratzinger wishes to shift Roman Catholic piety away from an overwhelming emphasis on duty and meritorious good works. He rightly sees this as little more than Pelagian moralism. Instead he proposes a renewed focus on the grace of God communicated to the sinner in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Ratzinger insists that the antidote to 'Christian Pharisaism' is found in 1 John 4:16. This sounds like music to the Calvinist's ears, until we read that the Benedict XVI's prescription for moving beyond moralism to the love and grace of God is a rekindling of devotion to the cult of the Sacred Heart. Isn't this the problem with the Roman Catholic Church? We agree on so much, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, pro-marriage and pro-life biblical ethics, but where did all this other stuff come from? We cannot swallow the Roman Catholic additions to the biblical account of salvation in Christ that end up negating the gospel of sovereign grace. We reject Roman Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the sake of devotion to our risen Lord himself.

The current pope is intent on not allowing the Church he leads to sell its birthright for a mess of Enlightenment pottage. But what the Roman Catholic Church needs to do is not simply react against the modern world, but reform its doctrines and practices in the light of Scripture. Peter Jones of Westminster Seminary California met Ratzinger at the Vatican when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He gave him the gift of a specially bound copy of the Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (see here). Calvin was a consistent Augustinian in a way that Ratzinger is not. His was utterly gripped by the Church Father's biblical vision of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. I don't know whether Ratzinger has ever taken the time to read the Institutes, but if he did and took the Reformer's words to heart, it would have a powerful and transforming effect on his faith. In other words, Benedict XVI's theology could do with a good dose of Calvinism.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fearless Pilgrim: The life and times of John Bunyan by Faith Cook

Fearless Pilgrim: The life and times of John Bunyan,
by Faith Cook, Evangelical Press, 2008, 528pp
For many years I sensed that there was something missing in my Christian life. I had been converted and discovering Reformed Theology added new depth and stability to my faith. I had started reading some of the great works of the Reformed tradition, devouring Jonathan Edwards' The Religious Affections, dipping into the Works of John Owen and plodding through Berkhof's Systematic Theology. I'd even read lots of stuff by Lloyd-Jones, but still I had a sense that something was amiss. Training for the ministry at London Theological Seminary was immencely helpful, but the nagging ache at the back of my mind remained. "What's wrong with me?" I wondered. Then it struck me like a thunderbolt. I had been a Christian for many years, studied theology and always had a book or three on the go, but I hadn't yet read The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. What I fool I had been! I quickly got hold of a copy and was instantly captivated by the Bedford preacher's great allegory with its wonderfully vibrant heroes, Christian, Faithful, Evangelist and terrifying villains, Giant Despair, Lord Hategood and Apollyon. That is what I'd been missing, Bunyan's remarkably innovative repository of authentic Puritan spirituality, jam packed full with countless biblical allusions. Now I understood why Spurgeon said of the Puritan writer, "Wherever you prick him his blood is bibline". Of course I was well aware of The Pilgrim's Progress and its famous author, but was it one of those must read books that I'd never quite got around to reading.
When it comes to Bunyan's life, I had a smattering of knowledge from sources as diverse as the preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the old commie historian, Christopher Hill. The basic facts of his story are well known, his lowly social status and work as a "tinker", his dramatic conversion and imprisonment for refusing to stop preaching the gospel. Bunyan's autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is readily available online. But while the internet is good for skim reading stuff like blogs, its difficult (at least for me) to study a lengthy piece of work in that format. Therefore after a few attempts at getting to grips with Grace Abounding I gave up. However, I noticed that Faith Cook had written Fearless Pilgrim, a full-length biography of John Bunyan. I enjoyed her earlier work, William Grimshaw of Haworth, (Banner of Truth Trust, 1997) and had my eye on her latest title. A friend kindly bought it for me as a birthday present and I've just finished reading it.
Come Sunday evenings I usually feel a little tired and weary after a full days preaching. It's probably my age. In that state I couldn't read anything too heavy or hard going. Faith Cook's Bunyan biog was therefore just the thing for Sunday evening reading. She has written a fascinating account of the author and preacher, setting his life against the backdrop of the tumultuous years of the English Civil War. Cook is a discerning interpreter of Bunyan's spiritual experiences and a sympathetic analyst of his theology. She writes appreciatively, although not uncritically of of his literary output. Bunyan's family life, preaching labours and periods in prison are brought to life in this richly detailed study. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to get to know the fearless pilgrim who wrote The Pilgrim's Progress. Oh, and if you haven't yet read John Bunyan's greatest work, then tolle lege, take and read. It's probably what you've been missing all these years. Believe me, I speak from experience. Order from PTS Christian Bookshop - here.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Remythologizing Theology: An interview with Kevin Vanhoozer

GD: Hello Kevin Vanhoozer and welcome back to Exiled Preacher.

KV: Seems like I was just here. I like what you’ve done with the place.

GD: Thanks. Your new book is entitled Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2010, 560pp, UK here, US here). In personal correspondence you described Remythologizing Theology as your first real work of theology. What does that say about your earlier writings?

KV: It says that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with questions pertaining to theological method and hermeneutics. While it may have been necessary, that work was merely a warm-up: an overture to the real opera. I don’t want to exaggerate. I have written “real” theology here and there, though this is my first book to talk primarily about God rather than about talk of God.

GD: What is your main aim in this book?

KV: For years I’ve felt that the doctrine of God was a relatively weak spot in evangelical theology. Then open theism happened and my suspicions were confirmed. One major aim, then, is to provide a retooling of classical theism that takes into account the concerns of open theists – in particular, the integrity of God’s loving relationship to the world – while simultaneously maintaining what I take to be the correct Reformed emphasis on divine sovereignty. Another aim is to scrutinize the oft-heard claim in contemporary theology that God’s love entails divine suffering.

GD: What do you mean by "remythologizing theology"?’

KV: I don’t mean “mythologizing again”! “Remythologizing” pertains first and foremost not to myth but “mythos,” Aristotle’s term for dramatic plot. I’m using “remythologizing” as a contrast term to Bultmann’s demythologizing. Where Bultmann fails to take seriously either the Bible’s depictions of God’s acts or the Bible as the product of God’s authorship, remythologizing starts: with God as one who speaks and acts, the latter often by way of speaking.

Remythologizing is a proposal for “first theology,” a way of thinking God and Scripture together. Specifically, it views God’s being on the basis of God’s acts, especially his communicative acts. God is as God does, and God does as God says. Remythologizing theology is all about speaking well of God on the basis of God’s own speech. To remythologize theology is to set forth the ontology of the one who speaks in Scripture, the one whom Scripture is also about.

GD: What is the status of Holy Scripture in "remythologized" theology?

KV: My doctrine of Scripture remains much as it has been: the Bible is triune discourse, a product of divine authorship and hence a form of divine action. What sets remythologizing apart from some other approaches is that it seeks to take into account the significance of the Bible’s literary forms, each of which is a distinct form of God’s communicative action.

Think of remythologizing as a form of biblical reasoning, a way of thinking about the subject matter of Scripture along the grain of the various forms of biblical discourse that present it. This means attending not only to the content, but also to the way in which the divine author employs a number of different human voices and forms of discourse to communicate it.

GD: In some treatments of the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Trinity is tagged onto the end after extensive discussion of the divine being and attributes. What place does the doctrine of the Trinity have in the present work?

KV: The central place, both literally and symbolically. Chapter five is right in the middle of the book and is entitled “God in three persons: the one who lights and lives in love.” I argue that God is everywhere and at all times fully himself. The triune life – communicative activity oriented to communion – is fully realized in the immanent Trinity before it is actualized in the economic Trinity. God in time corresponds to who God is in eternity. I’m not, of course, the first to argue this. However, what is new is the focus on the Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct communicative agents who nevertheless share a common communicative agency.

GD: Barth famously taught that God's being is in his act. Here you set out the elements of a new "theodramatic metaphysic" where God's being is in his communicative act. Please explain.

KV: Theodramatic metaphysics is the attempt to formulate a comprehensive set of categories (i.e., metaphysics) for understanding what God has said and done (i.e., theodrama) to create and renew all things in Christ through the Spirit. Because God is real and not merely a story, biblical interpreters who would speak well of God must go beyond exegesis to ontology. If we are to understand who, and what, we are talking about when we use the term “God,” we have to say something about God’s being. For God is a real being. What is real makes a difference in the world because it can act on its own. Only God can act on his own for only God has life in himself; everything else depends upon God’s sustaining word and breath to remain in existence.

Remythologizing speaks of God on the basis of God’s own speech and action, the stuff of theodrama. What we can, and must, say of God is that he is the one who creates, commands, consoles, etc. by speaking. God makes himself known and shares his life largely through speech acts like promising, instructing, forgiving, and exhorting, as well as through his corporeal discourse – the Word made flesh – Jesus Christ. If we let Scripture guide our thinking, then we must say that God’s triune being is in his communicative activity. We derive our understanding of the divine attributes not by analyzing the idea of infinite perfection but by describing and detailing the predicates and perfections of God’s communicative activity.

GD: Traditional theism has often described God's relationship to the world in terms of causality, with God as the First Cause or the Unmoved Mover. However, you propose that God's interaction with the world is best understood in terms of divine communicative action. Why the shift in emphasis?

KV: At this point in our time and culture, modern science has pretty much co-opted the language of causality. Consequently, even theologians who should know better sometimes speak of God’s causality as if it were on the same level as other creaturely causes. This is not how Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, or others in the tradition would have understood it. Nevertheless, open theists and panentheists have used this confusion to their advantage to attack classical theism. How, they wonder, can God be in a genuine loving relationship with creatures if he causes all things, including the motions of people’s hearts? Further, if God causes all things, must he not be responsible for evil as well as good?

I use the term “communicate” in a very broad sense, not merely in the sense “to transmit information,” but “to make common” or “share.” The most important thing that God communicates is himself: his light (truth), life (energy), and love (relationship). Whereas the end of causation is coercion, the end of communication is communion. The category of communicative action opens up new possibilities for theism and adheres more closely to the categories of Scripture itself.

GD: Where does your theodramatic approach leave the oft discussed relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom?

KV: Von Balthasar depicts theodrama as the interaction of infinite and finite freedom. My contribution is to think through this interaction in communicative terms. God is not like other communicative agents, of course. For God is the “Author” of the world who retains his authorial rights even as he enters into the story as a character. God’s sovereign interventions are in fact often interjections – calls, for example – that are efficacious but nor coercive. Here the paradigm is Calvin’s notion of the effectual call: God does not manipulate but sovereignly – which is to say, authorially – consummates his characters without manipulating them. On the contrary, the divine Author works according to our natures, via word and Spirit.

God authors answerable agents. Divine authorship thus names an asymmetrical communicative relation: a dialogical (i.e., covenantal) unity within an even greater dialogical difference (i.e., creation ex nihilo). I devote an important section to reworking the doctrine of providence, and Austin Farrer’s idea of the “causal joint,” in properly communicative terms. God’s speech is efficacious and brings about change in the world precisely by non-coercively bringing about understandings in human hearts and minds. What happened to Lydia is paradigmatic: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

GD: What do the words of the subtitle, Divine Action, Passion and Authorship, say about your attitude towards the impassibility of God? Isn't he a being "without body, parts or passions"?

KV: The sub-title alone does not make a statement but announces a theme. The question of God’s suffering – that is, his ability to be affected by human creatures – is a red thread that runs throughout the book. If Nicholas Wolterstorff is right in comparing classical theism to a seamless garment where one loose thread spells the unraveling of the whole, then divine impassibility makes for an excellent case study.

Remytholgizing Theology is a minority opposition report on the “new orthodoxy” of divine suffering. While I want to take the biblical depictions of God’s dialogical interaction with human beings seriously, I don’t want to pull God down to the creaturely level. The challenge, then, is to specify to what the biblical descriptions of God’s emotions actually refer. There is not much on the meaning of divine emotions in the history of theology. Classical theists tend to take this language as anthropomorphic; open theists tend to take it literally. I had to resist the temptation simply to choose one side rather than the other. The prior question is: what is a divine emotion? I do provide an answer, but the water in that pool is a bit too deep to dive into here.

GD: In The Drama of Doctrine, you suggest that the task of the theologian is to act as a "dramaturge" who will help pastors to faithfully interpret and teach the biblical script to the people of God. How might pastors benefit from Remythologizing Theology?

KV: The first responsibility of pastors and theologians is to speak well of God. This means, minimally, avoiding idolatry. It also means speaking in a way that corresponds to Scripture and yields understanding, including understanding about God’s being, identity, and reality. My book helps answer the all-important question question: what must God be if God speaks and acts as the Bible depicts him as doing?

To understand God as a triune communicative agent has implications for understanding oneself, the Christian life, and the church as well. God calls us into being and communicates his light, life, and love so that we can communicate them to others. The pastor is a minister of God’s word – which means the whole panoply of God’s communicative acts – thereby helping the church to become answerable to God, able to communicate in all that we say and do what the Father is saying and doing in the Son through the Spirit. Theology assists pastors to know God so that they in turn may communicate the light, life, and love of God poured out for the world in Jesus Christ.

GD: Remythologizing Theology is published by Cambridge University Press and is currently only available in hardback. When will a more affordable paperback edition be published?

KV: I’m very sorry a paperback edition was not printed simultaneously. I did ask (and complain)! If all goes well – by which I mean, if enough people save their pennies and purchase the hardback – a paperback should appear in eighteen months, sometime in the summer of 2011. If I have indeed spoken well of God, it should still be worth reading even then.
GD: Thanks for dropping by for this conversation. I'm still saving my pennies!

Monday, March 08, 2010

Everybody's got something to hide except me and my monkey

I appreciate that more recent readers of this blog may find this a bit random and confusing, but every now and again I like to give a little update on the adventures of my pet monkey, failed theology blogger David Sky. Last time I reported on his daring escape from the Taffia don Dai Corleone (see here). But what has he been up to since then? The truth is nothing much. At least that's what I thought. I should have known that he'd been up to something because he's been smiling a bit lately and that's not normal for someone who has to spend most of his life in a dusty corner of my study. Anyway, it transpires that he's only gone and fallen in love. Yes, you did read that right. It wasn't a typo. David Sky has fallen in love. Here's how I got to find out:
GD: What are you looking so happy for?
DS: I'm not looking happy.
GD: Yes you are.
DS: Am I?
GD: Yes.
DS: Doesn't mean that I am.
GD: Something's up isn't it?
DS: Like what?
GD: I dunno, but you must be up to something.
DS: Who, me?
GD: Who else?
DS: I haven't been naughty, honest.
GD: Why else would you be so cheerful?
DS: Well, it isn't that.
GD: What is it then?
DS: Can't say.
GD: Got something to hide have you?
DS: Of course not.
GD: Tell me!
DS: No!
GD: I'm not interested anyway.
DS: Oh.
Five rather awkward and silent minutes later...
GD: C'mon, you can tell me. We're mates aren't we?
DS: Yes...but...
GD: But what?
DS: Well, it's like this. Promise not to laugh now.
GD: I'm a trained pastor. You know that whatever you tell me, however embarrassing, I promise not to laugh.
DS: I'm in love.
GD: What? You're "in love"? Ha, ha, ha, ha! Who's the unfortunate female?
DS: You said you wouldn't laugh!
GD: Yes, but I didn't know that you'd come up with something like that.
DS: No, really, I'm in love.
GD: OK. Who is she. How did you meet?
DS: Well, we kind of bumped into each other a few weeks ago when I was stocking up on tea bags at the local CO-OP shop. Now we contrive to meet in the tea aisle almost every day.
GD: I was wondering why we had so many packets of tea bags in the cupboard. What's her name?
DS: Bathsheba Earth
GD: Interesting name. I didn't know that there were any other talking monkeys around these parts, let alone a female.
DS: Nor did I. I couldn't believe my little monkey eyes when I first saw her. It was love at first sight.
GD: Does she feel the same?
DS: I think so.
GD: This could be serious. Hang on a minute. Did you really just say that it was love at first sight for her too.
DS: Yes, why?
GD: Looked at yourself in the mirror lately?
DS: What's that supposed to mean?
GD: Look, this might not be all that it seems. Bathsheba might be working for Dai Corleone. This could be a honey trap.
DS: What? You think she's going to lure me into the honey isle at CO-OP and pour that horrible sticky stuff all over me so that my fur will get glued to the floor?
GD: No. What I mean is that Dai Corleone could be using her to get to you. He wants you to follow her and then he'll nab you and you'll end up making tea for the Taffia again.
DS: That sounds a bit far fetched.
GD: And you think meeting up with a talking monkey girl who instantly falls in love with you is well within the realms of credibility?
DS: Stranger things have happened. Someone married you didn't they?
GD: Alright, alright. I hope you are right and this is genuine. But be careful, your girl could could be a Taffia femme fatale.
DS: What does that mean?
GD: It's French for "fatal female".
DS: But she isn't French.
GD: You're probably alright then.
But is he? You'll just have to wait and see....

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Carl Trueman responds to Iain Murray on Packer and Lloyd-Jones

In the March edition of the Banner Magazine Iain Murray takes Carl Trueman to task for his contribution to J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of his Life and Thought, (Baker Academic, 2009). Murray, Lloyd-Jones' official biographer charges Trueman with supporting slander against "the Doctor". Over at Reformation 21, Trueman responds to Murray's strictures, here.
Lloyd-Jones was one of the towering figures in 20th century Evangelicalism and his ministry did much to stimulate the recovery of Reformed doctrine in the UK and beyond. His writings had a massive effect on my own theological development. I believe that he was right to force Evangelicals to face up to the issue of ecumenical integration in 1966. But he was no infallible oracle whose every utterance may be quoted to end all argument almost 30 years after his death. One task that faces us is the critical appropriation of Lloyd-Jones' legacy. We need to learn what we can from him and press on to face the challenges of the present time. If the discussion between Murray and Trueman helps us to do that, all well and good.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

John Owen's anti-Roman writings

John Owen’s anti-Roman writings may be found in Volume 14 of his Works. The majority of that volume is taken up with Admanidversions on Fiat Lux and its sequel, Vindication of the Admanidversions on Fiat Lux. Also there is a shorter piece, The Church of Rome no Safe Guide. In the Admanidversions Owen engages in controversy with John Vincent Cane, a Franciscan Friar. In 1661 Cane published his Fiat Lux. It was an attempt to take advantage of the recent upheavals in Protestant Britain in order to try and win the country back to Rome. His argument ran something like this: “Just look at what has happened to your once peaceful land since leaving the Roman Catholic fold. Protestant Christians have divided into mutually hostile camps. The nation has been torn apart by religious unrest, civil war, revolution and regicide. Come back to Rome and all will be well. You know it makes sense.”

The restoration of the monarchy, with Charles II returning to England in 1660 did not succeed in healing old wounds. In the aftermath of the Civil War there were bitter recriminations for the Puritans whose political ambitions died with Oliver Cromwell. The newly installed pro-king, pro-Church of England authorities set about mercilessly persecuting their Puritan fellow Protestants. Cane chose his time well. The opportunity seemed right for his Roman propaganda.

In a sense, Cane’s Fiat Lux was the British equivalent to Cardinal Sadoleto’s Letter to Geneva. Sadoleto sought to exploit the troubles and tensions in Geneva that led to banishment of Calvin to woo the city back to Rome. Famously the exiled Calvin answered the Cardinal on behalf of Protestant Geneva (see here). But who was to answer John Vincent Cane? That is where John Owen comes in. Somewhat ironically the Restoration authorities appealed to a man from the vanquished Puritan Party to help combat the Franciscan Friar’s propaganda. Owen was leader of the Independents, chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University during the Commonwealth period. The virulently anti-Puritan Lord Chancellor Lord Clarendon sent Owen a copy of Cane’s Fiat Lux, requesting that he answer it on behalf of Protestant Britain.

Owen manfully rose to the challenge. Having said that, the veteran Puritan minister was no unthinking anti-Roman bigot. In his interaction with Cane, Owen does not adopt the stance of an angry "hot Prot" polemicist, gleefully exposing Romish errors almost for the fun of it. His tone is calm and reasoned as he scrutinises Roman doctrine in the light of Scripture. On occasion the great divine even permits himself a little ironic humour. Remarking on this William Goold, editor of Owen’s Works writes in a Prefatory Note to the Vindication, “he reminds us in his humour of the cumbrous gambols of the whale.” (p. 175).

If you will forgive the mixed metaphors, in his dealings with Cane, Owen resembles an indulgent cat toying with an overconfident mouse. But this “cat” has sharp teeth and pointed claws. When roused the old Puritan could be devastatingly incisive in dealing with his opponent’s weak arguments. For example, he mocks the claim that the Rome has always been doctrinally consistent, never once falling into error, summarising Cane as saying, "The Roman church did never at any time adhere to any opinion, but what the Roman church at the time adhered to". Well that's alright then!
Owen’s Admanidversions and the Vindication do not take the form of an orderly and systematic critique of Roman Catholic teaching. Rather, Owen let his opponent set the agenda and responded to Cane’s points as they occurred in the Fait Lux. But his works are no less valuable for all that. Contemporary Evangelical can sometimes be a little naive when it comes to dialogue with Roman Catholics. Witness the ground conceded in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together joint-declarations, (see here for the latest statement on Mary). We could benefit from Owen's acute theological analysis of the differences between Evangelical Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church.

Monday, March 01, 2010

And the mystery theologian is...

The prize (not that there is a prize) goes to Pastor Zach. As the man said, the "Name that theologian" quote was from Holiness (SCM Press) by John Webster.