Posts tagged Theology
Apostolic Witness and Christian Theology

Stott on 1 John 2:24:

"Christian theology is anchored not only to certain historical events, culminating in the saving career of Jesus, but to the authoritative apostolic witness to, and interpretation of, these events. The Christian can never weigh anchor and launch out into the deep of speculative thought. Nor can he forsake the primitive teaching of the apostles for subsequent human traditions" (emphasis mine).

— John Stott, The Letters of John (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 116.

Who am I to be a Theologian?

"No one can become and remain a theologian unless he is compelled again and again to be astonished at himself. . .[he must ask] 'Who am I to be a theologian?'" —  Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 71.

The Untamable Lion

Spurgeon once wrote:

See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.

I used to love this quote. There’s something exhilarating in thinking about the Word of God as a wild and ravaging lion, striking fear in the heart of its enemies with a thunderous roar that demands reverence. Recently, however, this quote began to trouble me.

Why was the lion in a cage to begin with? After trouncing its enemies, do the guardians escort it back into the cage? I know, if you squeeze an orange too hard the seed may pop out and hit you in the eye, I get it. But hear me out.

We search the Scriptures, study them, assuming the law of noncontradiction, we then piece them together to formulate a theological grid of sorts –a lens through which we will analyze and comprehend the comprehensive whole. Kantzer posits that the goal of the systematic theologian is “to systematize and present as a unified whole the truth concerning God and His relationships to men and the universe as this is authoritatively revealed in the Holy Scriptures and to relate this truth to human thought and life.”

Again, assuming the law of noncontradiction, this synthesized grid should, ideally, fit seamlessly on the texts from which it was constructed. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Bible isn’t as neat as we synthesizers would like it to be. Sometimes the i’s I wish were dotted, and the t’s I wish were crossed are not. Sometimes, no matter how many times I run the experiment, the results don’t affirm my original hypothesis.

I loved Spurgeon’s quote because I never imagined the beast in the illustration as a timid domesticated cat, until I put it back in its cage…

What happens when you realize that the cage you constructed is not large enough, nor strong enough to contain your massive, untamed lion? Fear begins to register as your lion crushes any illusion you had of it ever being your lion, and reminds you that you are its prey.

Wednesday Funny

While doing research for a paper on Trinitarian heresies I came across this gem. trinity_stuff_133025

It is said that a candidate for ministry, appearing before presbytery, was asked about the doctrine of the Trinity.

"Well," the candidate said, "The Father...[mumble, mumble]. The Son...[mumble]. And the Holy Spirit...[mumble]. The three ...[mumble, mumble] one."

"Would you please repeat that?" asked one of the commissioners.

"Certainly, sir. "The Father...[mumble, mumble]. The Son...[mumble]. And the Holy Spirit...[mumble]. The three ...[mumble, mumble] one."

"I still can't understand you!"

"You are not supposed to, sir. It is a mystery!"

- Justo L. Gonzalez and Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, Heretics for Armchair Theologians, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 77.

What is General Revelation?

What is General Revelation? General Revelation is "God's communication of himself to all persons at all times and in all places."[1] Through the created order, the human conscience, and human longing, God reveals to humanity His invisible attributes, their sin, their need for Him, and His disposition toward them. Although this revelation is intended to bring humanity to repentance, the results of the fall leave them unable to rightly perceive that which He has made known. While this knowledge robs all people of the excuse of ignorance, it does not reveal the truth of Christ's incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection. If God's saving work is to be known, there must be another form of revelation that does not rely on the moral ability of the agent to discover truth.

What does it reveal?

Through the created order there is much one can learn about God. In nature, one can observe that God is a God of order, beauty, and kindness. It has been said, "I think no one who lives by the sea, or by a little river, can be an atheist."[2]In the arts and music, one can learn that God is a God of splendor. In their conscience, one can learn that there is an absolute law that they know innately, and not just this, but can't help but to break. And in their desires, they can learn that there is something in them longing for something outside of them; that thing, however, is not a something but a someone. On this, C.S. Lewis wrote: “If I find in myself desires which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[3]

What is man to do with all this knowledge of God? Paul answers this exact question: "[T]hey should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27). Earlier in this passage, Paul observes that the people of Athens are very religious. When one searches the annals of history, they will see that all peoples, at all times and in all places have, in some way, ingrained religion into their culture. Religion is the fruit of a yearning heart. Perhaps the myths of the Babylonians, Greeks, and the Norse, are historical evidence of the nations reaching out for God; and though they did not find Him, they found shards of truth concerning Him.

General Revelation means that God has ensured that all peoples, in all places, at all times, possess some knowledge of Him. Not only do all peoples have a knowledge of God, but all have forsaken the law He has written on their hearts, and have substituted right worship of the Creator for worship of the created. What was meant as a window into heaven, because of the depravity of man, now serves as a mirror for humanity to marvel at itself. As one author notes: "The love of nature, when rightly understood, is thus a pathway to God; when wrongly understood, it is an impediment to the discovery of God."[4]

Why do we have this revelation?

God has graced humanity with General Revelation so that they might know Him, for they have the natural ability to do so and it is, therefore, their duty to do so. Sin, however, has left them with the moral inability to abide by God's law.[5]The resounding song of the whole of General Revelation is this: repent and believe. The Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, writes: "Every time the sun riseth upon thee, it really calleth thee to turn."[6]This call to repentance, however, because of the effects of sin, cannot be heard unless God, through the illumination of the Holy Ghost, opens ears to recognize the tune through the cacophony of a fallen world. It may be concluded that human reason, conscience, and desires are impotent in coming to a true understanding of God and His disposition toward humanity. Hence, humanity is in need of another form of revelation that can help them make out that which has been obscured, marred, and ultimately hidden by sin.


[1]Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.:Baker Book House, 1998), 153.

[2]Peter Kreeft, “Twelve Ways to Know God,” http://peterkreeft.com/topics/12-ways.htm, (accessed September, 2013).

[3]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 136-7.

[4]Alister E McGrath, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 114.

[5]For more on this, see Andrew Fuller, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation [in The Complete Works of The Rev. Andrew Fuller, ed. Andrew Gunton Fuller, revised Joseph Belcher (1845 ed.; repr. Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), II:328, 343, 345-6.

[6]Richard Baxter, A Call To The Unconverted, Kindle ed., n.d., Kindle Locations 2193-4.

ON THE FOUR APPROACHES TO JOHN CALVIN’S INTERPRETIVE METHOD: Polemical Approach
This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for Dr. Puckett at SBTS for his class, John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. I will continue to post my paper in installments over the course of the next week.

men_debate_calvinismThe Institutes were written to teach students of theology how to study the Scriptures better.  Countless letters were penned to encourage persecuted Christians all over Europe. Commentaries were composed for the spiritual edification of his readers.  But one common thread was woven into much of Calvin’s writings: his polemic.  From just a small sampling of the commentary on the gospel of John, he writes against the Anabaptists, Servetus, Erasmus, Papists, and other 'barking dogs.'  Because the majority of his writing was done in the midst of an active public ministry, Calvin witnessed the effects of the dissenting arguments first hand. Seeming desperate to refute these points, Calvin sometimes leans too heavily on a passage to make a rhetorical retort, even when his argument is not supported by the plain reading of the text. These instances epitomize Calvin’s polemical nature bleeding into his interpretive method. One doctrine Calvin consistently disputes is the nature of the sacraments.  In general, Protestants had rejected the Catholic view of transubstantiation.  Nevertheless, Calvin found little common ground with the Lutheran and Zwinglian beliefs on the sacraments.  Although Calvin encourages expositors to be responsible in their utilization of allegorical interpretation, there are times when he does not heed his own advice.

When discussing the nature of the coal that the seraphim removed from the altar and administered to Isaiah, Calvin likens this to the use of sacraments strengthening the believer in proportion to their ignorance.[1] He goes on to extemporize, showing “that the confirmation which was obtained by the sign was not without effect, but that the blessings signified by it was at the same time bestowed, so that Isaiah knew that he had not been deceived."[2] He implies that in the sacraments the reality is given along with the sign. Calvin explains why this is worth noting: "And this ought to be the more carefully observed, because there are few persons in the present day who understand the true use of sacraments, and because many godly and learned men are engaged in frequent disputes respecting them."[3] Calvin interprets this as allegory solely for polemical purposes.


[1] Calvin, Isa 6:7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

ON THE FOUR APPROACHES TO JOHN CALVIN’S INTERPRETIVE METHOD: INTRODUCTION
This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for Dr. Puckett at SBTS for his class, John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. I will continue to post my paper in installments over the course of the next week. 
John_Calvin_and_Thomas_Hobbes_by_spacecoyote

Theology is forged in the context of life.  John Calvin is no exception to this rule.  The Genevan reformer believed his calling was to serve the church through writing.  He unquestionably fulfilled this purpose, but did so through the pains of an active public ministry.  Though much of Calvin’s interpretive method was determined by his humanist and theological training, it was his pastoral experience and polemical nature which greatly influenced his hermeneutic. In 1559, just five years before his death, John Calvin wrote, “[T]here is no one who is assailed, bitten, and wounded by more false accusations than I.”[1]While this forthright candor was meant to be a commentary on his lifetime, these words proved to be prophetic.[2]  Calvin received a myriad of dissenting titles, both in his lifetime and posthumously: “Dictator of Geneva”, “Pope of Protestantism”, and “Murderer,” to name a few.  Twice Calvin was compelled by a curse to take a pastorate.  He was exiled from his home.  Geneva, the city that first received him as pastor, expelled him.  Certainly, a man shrouded in this much controversy must have preached a bold message.  John Piper aptly said, “[Calvin] has never left people indifferent—either you follow him or you turn against his teaching.”[3]

A quote often attributed to Winston Churchill states, “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  If this quip is true then one can assume that, at least at some point in his lifetime, John Calvin stood up for something.  What he stood for, however, was not a something but a someone.  Calvin’s monomaniacal aim was that all would truly see Christ, not the Christ depicted in traditions or Christ the slave master, but the Christ of Scripture.  For Calvin, anything less than the Christ of Scripture was not Christ at all: "Whoever wishes to have the half of Christ, loses the whole."[4] Calvin emphasized that the whole of Christ is not found in the annals of church history, but wholly engrained in God’s disclosure of Himself: the Bible.

Calvin acknowledges that even without the assistance of Scripture one can still learn a great deal about God in His created work, what he called this “glorious theater.”[5] But the knowledge gained therein is lacking.  He taught that God, through natural revelation, gives man enough light to see his own filthiness.  In seeing his filthiness, man understands his need for God. But nature cannot show man how to be made right with God.  For this reason, Calvin relegates nature to a "mute teacher."[6] Nature is meant to be a sign that proclaims God's character, order, greatness, and beauty to man.  This knowledge, however, is not salvific.  Instead it stands to accuse anyone who attempts a plea of ignorance.[7] After coming to a knowledge of God as Creator, a person needs to know Him as Redeemer.  Calvin rightly shows that this redemptive knowledge cannot be attained without the tutelage of Scripture.[8]

Like other Reformers, Calvin “desired to move toward Scripture and away from church tradition as the basis for faith.”[9] This mentality birthed the idea termed sola Scriptura.  Since all that needs to be known about God is found in Scripture, it is of the upmost importance to study His Word.  Calvin’s intention is to help his readers learn to understand Scripture better for themselves.  In the preface to the reader in the, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes, "My purpose in this labor is to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word…"[10] But his work was not reserved solely for the students of theology. Calvin writes in both French and Latin, so middle-class, nobility, and any other literate person could read and learn.

The Institutes are presented as a guide for laity and students alike in their study of the Bible and as a companion to his commentaries. The Institutes were never meant to stand alone. Not wanting to enter into polemics in his commentaries, Calvin addresses many disputes of doctrine in his Institutes.  Because of this delineation, he tries to avoid taking up large expositions of Scripture in his Institutes. He had already done so in his commentaries.  Because of these differences, the point where Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes overlap is the best vantage point for studying Calvin’s exegetical method.

INTERPRETIVE APPROACHES

Calvin utilizes four different approaches in his interpretation of the Word.  At times, he takes the purely humanist approach: focusing mostly on historical-grammatical context and philology.  At other times, Calvin approaches Scripture as a theologian, looking beyond the literal meaning to the spiritual purpose and application of the text.  He does so by nuancing the symbiotic nature of the dual authorship of Scripture.  There are other instances where Calvin’s rhetorical temperament seems to dictate his exposition, leading his interpretation amiss.  There are also times Calvin takes an approach marked by personal experiences and concern for how the message might be received by his audience.


[1]John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, 2 vols., Paperback (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.

[2] Anthony. N. S. Lane, A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 13.

[3] John Piper, John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God, Kindle ed. (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2009), Kindle Location 73.

[4] See John Calvin’s Commentary on Gal 5:2.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.5.8.

[6] Ibid., 1.6.1.

[7] Ibid., 1.5.14.

[8] Ibid., 1.7.1.

[9] Edward J. Herrelko III, "History of Biblical Theology," in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz (Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

[10] Calvin, Institutes, 4.

Calvin: On the Natural Man and God
calvin

As you may know, I have been reading John Calvin’s tome, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vol. I've had a few people ask me why, to which I quickly point them to CSL’s introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. In that introduction Lewis writes, “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” This has definitely proved to be true concerning my time in Calvin. It’s amazing to see the difference of what was actually said (in context, no-less) compared to what has often been misquoted, misunderstood, or wrongly attributed. With that, I hope to accurately put forth Calvin’s position on the natural man and God.

The question has been posed: How much can the unregenerate know of spiritual things? This inquiry has been a source of much contention over the years. One heavy hitter typically enlisted in this squabble is the somewhat infamous John Calvin. Sadly, in the same way that many call themselves Christians without reading God’s Word, many gladly parade the pews as self-professed Calvinists without even attempting to discover what he himself wrote.

For Calvin, “man’s soul is so illumined by the brightness of God’s light as never to be without some slight flame or at least a spark of it; but that even with this illumination it does not comprehend God...man’s keenness of mind is mere blindness as far as the knowledge of God is concerned.”

Naturally, my first question was, how can we who are dead in our trespasses see, feel, or hear anything? Calvin retorts, “the Lord indeed gave them a slight taste of his divinity that they might not hide their impiety under a cloak of ignorance.” Ultimately, man’s knowledge of God is still God’s own work.

Calvin explains his position further with this illustration:

“They (unregenerate) are like a traveler passing through a field at night who in a momentary lightning flash sees far and wide, but the sight vanishes so swiftly that he is plunged again into the darkness of the night before he can take even a step–let alone be directed on his way by its help.”

To be sure, Calvin rightly deems human reason impotent in coming to an understanding of God. “Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim at, this truth: to understand who the true God is or what sort of God he wished to be toward us.” But I found it interesting that Calvin, when discussing the unregenerate’s natural disposition toward God, describes his condition as blind and not dead.

Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vol. vol. 1. 2.2.18-19, pp. 277-278.

March Breakdown
Books-06

“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Proverbs 25:2, ESV).

After a month of Big Brother, Fangs of Dang, and a brood of Wingfeathers I’m hard-pressed to go back to the monotony of monochromatic nonfiction. Like I said, fiction is fun. Fiction is especially fun because it serves as a mental vacation. The extraordinary is just that, because it is not ordinary. Said differently: if every day was a holiday, holidays would be called days. With that, let’s put on our thinking caps and drown in some philosophy. I wanted to do write: “Let’s get philosophical...philosophical,” like that song. But felt it might be weird, so I didn’t.

This month’s theme is ‘read over your head.’ To know that certain philosophies are right or wrong is good. To know WHY said philosophies are right or wrong is better. As the puritan pastor Cotton Mather once said, "Ignorance is the mother not of devotion but of heresy." It is no coincidence that Evangelicalism is on the decline while anti-intellectualism in the church is on the rise. Loving the Lord with all of one’s mind is not a helpful suggestion but an essential part of the greatest commandment. The church, in which I include myself, has been retreating from the public square for far too long. On hearing the imperative to be prepared to give an answer, instead of obedience, we opt to take our ball and go home. We have confused the call for childlike faith with childish thinking. This month we will storm the keep of the ivory tower, and touch profundity with our own hands. Oftentimes before reading something I fear to be over my head, I read CSL’s introduction to Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’ to pump myself up.

If you need more motivation, Kevin DeYoung recently shared five benefits of reading over your head.

He wrote:

  1. Reading over your head keeps you learning and learning keeps you fresh.
  2. Reading over your head keeps you humble.
  3. Reading over your head keeps you hungry.
  4. Reading over your head keeps you balanced.
  5. Reading over your head keeps you edified.

With that, let me introduce you to what I’ll be reading over the next month. I hope that you’ll join me!

MARCH:

HOW WE WILL DO IT:

By now, I realize that I am likely traveling alone on this read-venture. That’s fine, I don’t need you– I’m lying. I’m so lonely. Last month was hefty, I know, but this month we will be reading half of last month’s total.

Like we did last month, let’s rationalize this fear by crunching some numbers. Not counting Calvin’s tome and reader’s guide, there are approximately 697 pg. to read this month. Again, say we only wanted to read on weekdays: there are 21 weekdays in the month of March.

697 pg./21 wkd.= 33.2 pg./wkd.

If you follow my guide, you will have read another 5 BOOKS THIS MONTH! Listen, if I can do it, you can too!

Full disclosure: In January I snuck in Gospel-Centered Discipleship. In February I added Catcher in the Rye to the list. If you want to see my progress and ratings, click here. If you would like to see the master checklist, click here.

*I should mention that Calvin’s Institutes (as well as the Reader’s Guide) will be read over the course of the year. Ergo, you will see it on every month’s breakdown. I put the link for the reading schedule alongside the book.

//

A Month Later: Thoughts of a Grieving Father

[For those unaware, my wife Ashley recently miscarried our third child.] The last month has been incredibly trying. I have experienced this excruciating transformation from a dispassionate robot with the emotional aptitude of a brick, into a blubbering sack of sentiment. I’ve learned a few valuable lessons along the way. Mainly, crying in public is always awkward, no matter what (sorry, to all the patrons of carpe diem).

Truthfully, I started to type out a list of things that I wish people would(n’t) have said to us, but I would much rather you read this post on How to Help Bereaved Parents in Your Church  instead.

Over the course of the last month I have been asked some difficult questions:

  • Where is God in the midst of suffering?
  • Why would God allow this to happen?
  • Why did this happen to your family?
  • Do babies go to heaven?

I could paint in broad biblical strokes, but the response to these questions (at least for me) can be briefly stated in three words: I don’t know.

Typically the answer I don’t know exhibits either ignorance or weakness in one's argument. But, for the believer, ‘I don’t know’ can also be indicative of truth beyond our scope of reasoning. I’ve learned (the hard way) that if there is an infinite God large enough to be mad at for the suffering in the world, then there is also an infinite God big enough to have reasons for it that I cannot think of.[1]

The question therein is this: how can one have peace when the remedy for these crisis questions is ‘I don’t know’? If you’ll allow me, this is a bit from Calvin’s Institutes (1.2.2) that brought me great comfort this morning:

It [the mind of the believer] thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him. Because it understands him to be the Author of every good, if anything oppresses, if anything is lacking, immediately it betakes itself to his protection, waiting for help from him. Because it is persuaded that he is good and merciful, it reposes in him with perfect trust, and doubts not that in his loving-kindness a remedy will be provided for all its ills.

I thank the Lord who in His infinite wisdom saw fit to gift John Calvin with the eloquence to succinctly articulate what I've been incapable of putting into words.

Simply put: even when I don't know, I know, because I trust Him and He is good.

[1] Timothy Keller, “The Faith to Doubt Christianity” http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/08/27/the-faith-to-doubt-christianity/, Accessed 9/3/2012.