Theologians

Interview with Ashley Null

Interview with Ashley Null

Ashley Null is one of the world’s foremost experts on Thomas Cranmer. He is canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas, visiting fellow at Cambridge, visiting research fellow at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview him.

 

What are you currently working on?

I am preparing a critical edition of Cranmer’s private theological notebooks for Oxford University Press—a five-volume project. The first volume, The Efficacious Word of God, should be available in print this time next year.

 

What can you tell us about what you are finding and why this is so important?

As part of this project, I have located Cranmer’s massive research notes on the Eucharist during the time he was preparing the prayer books. They shed much more light on his understanding of the Eucharist, including the importance of Eastern sources in his thought. These papers should forever close the debate on whether Cranmer was a “mere memoralist.” He clearly believed the Eucharist was fundamentally a fresh, supernatural encounter with Christ which promoted sanctification in the believer.

 

How is a better understanding of Cranmer, his influence and his theology, fuel for a more robust focus on evangelism and mission?

Firstly, Cranmer’s commitment to the transforming power of Scripture is the only solid hope any church has for a fruitful mission program. Unless our efforts are built on God’s Word, we have no truth or hope to offer folks. Remembering that this was the foundational truth of our first Anglican formularies can help guide our contemporary sense of what it means to be Episcopalian.

Secondly, Cranmer’s understanding of human nature and the importance of the affections can help us have a much better understanding of those we are trying to reach with the Gospel. According to Cranmer, “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” As shrewd observers of human nature, the Reformers realized that there were forces that drive people, often without them realizing it. Real change can only happen when those sub-conscious needs are addressed, and the greatest need is to be loved. Only when we know we are loved can we gain the power to love others. Until then, all our efforts, whether we be aware of it or not, are directed at making ourselves feel loved. Until then, the role of reason is simply to justify our efforts at self-love, often in the form of self-gratification. Since many people think they have to be good enough first before God can love them, they avoid church, since they fear going there will make them feel unloved. Therefore, any effective evangelistic strategy must begin with proclaiming the unconditional love of God for sinners.

Thirdly, we live in a culture where we are defined by what we do, rather than by whom we are loved. That was the issue that Cranmer faced in his day, and his presentation of the Gospel was tailored to meet that cultural challenge in the light of human nature. We can learn so much from his notion of divine allurement as summarized in the Comfortable Words. Step by step, Cranmer’s gospel sentences begin with felt human needs and gradually lead people to see the glory of God as revealed in his unconditional love for the unworthy in the cross of Christ.

Fourthly, Cranmer was the originator of the Anglican concept of the difference between biblically determined essentials and church-determined non-essentials. In a time when there is so much confusion between these two categories, it is helpful to remember their original meaning in the Anglican context. Cranmer thought Jesus came to proclaim a message that had the power to create a community. How that message was proclaimed would depend on the cultural context of the audience. Just as his gospel of divine allurement was thoroughly biblical but still shaped to address contemporary needs and issues, Cranmer believed that the church in every generation needed to rethink its liturgy and institutional life to make sure it expressed the unchanging Gospel in terms understandable to ever evolving contemporary culture. The great advantage of this understanding of mission is its sensitivity to the great diversity of human flourishing. The church will not be expected to look the same amongst different people groups, although they believe the same truths. Of course, the great danger of this understanding of mission is that cultural accommodation can lead to cultural capitulation, i.e., cultural truths can replace biblical truths in the name of contextualization.

Lastly, we can still learn from Cranmer’s understanding of the relationship between good theology and a great society. According to Cranmer, grace leads to gratitude, gratitude births love, love leads to repentance, repentance produces good works, good works make for a better society. What better mission strategy could a church follow?

 

Books by Ashley

 

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Want a free bonus chapter from my book Know the Creeds and Councils? At the bottom of this post, there is link to download a PDF of a chapter on Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses that includes discussion questions and further reading.

Historical Background

If people know only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, it is the famous event when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Chapel in protest against the Catholic Church. Within a few years of this event, the church had splintered into not just the church’s camp or Luther’s camp but also the camps of churches led by theologians of all different stripes.

Luther is known mostly for his teachings about scripture and justification. Regarding scripture, Luther argued that scripture alone (sola scriptura) is our ultimate authority for faith and practice. About justification, Luther taught that we are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our good works. Additionally, we need to fully trust in God to save us from our sins, rather than partly relying on our own self-improvement. 

Indulgences

These teachings were radical departures from the Catholic orthodoxy of Luther’s day. But you might be surprised to learn that the Ninety-Five Theses, even though it was the document that sparked the Reformation, was not about these issues. Instead, Luther objected to the fact that the Catholic Church was offering to sell certificates of forgiveness, and that by doing so, it was substituting a false hope—that forgiveness can be earned or purchased—for the true hope of the gospel—that we receive forgiveness according to the riches of God’s grace.

The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it had been placed in charge of a “treasury of merits” of all of the good deeds that saints had done (not to mention the deeds of Christ, who made the treasury infinitely deep). For those who were trapped by their own sinfulness, the church could write a certificate transferring some of the merits of the saints to the sinner. The catch? These “indulgences” had a price tag.

This much needs to be understood to make sense of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: the selling of indulgences for full remission of sins intersected perfectly with the intense struggle Martin Luther had experienced regarding salvation and assurance for many years. And it is at this point of collision between one man’s hope in the gospel and the Catholic Church’s denial of that hope that the Ninety-Five Theses can be properly understood.

Content of the Ninety-Five Theses

Luther’s official response to indulgences came in the form of an academic document that he addressed to the local archbishop, who happened to be the same Albert of Mainz who had authorized the campaign. Significantly, Luther penned his grievance—titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but known to posterity as the Ninety-Five Theses—in Latin rather than in the common vernacular. That fact combined with the intended audience and the largely academic tone of the writing indicates that Luther did not write his document for mass consumption. Rather, he intended it to spark a scholarly debate. Regardless, the document was translated into the common Germanic language of Saxony and was reportedly posted on the door of the Schlosskirche (the Castle Church of Wittenberg) on October 31, 1517.

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses focuses on three main issues: selling forgiveness (via indulgences) to build a cathedral, the pope’s claimed power to distribute forgiveness, and the damage indulgences caused to grieving sinners. That his concern was pastoral (rather than trying to push a private agenda) is apparent from the document. He did not believe (at this point) that indulgences were altogether a bad idea; rather, he believed that they were misleading Christians regarding their spiritual state:

 41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

 As well as their duty to others:

 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

 44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties. [Notice that Luther is not yet wholly against the theology of indulgences.]

 And even financial well-being:

46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

 Luther’s attitude toward the pope in this document is also surprisingly ambivalent. In later years, he called the pope “the Antichrist” and burned his writings, but here his tone is merely cautionary, hoping the pope will come to his senses. For instance, in this passage he appears to be defending the pope against detractors, albeit in a backhanded way:

51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

Obviously, since Leo X had begun the indulgences campaign in order to build the basilica, he did not “wish to give of his own money” to Tetzel’s victims. However, Luther phrased his criticism to suggest that the pope might be ignorant of the abuses and at any rate should be given the benefit of the doubt. It provided Leo a graceful exit from the indulgences campaign if he wished to take it.

So what made this document so controversial? Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church. Luther was calling the pope and those in power to repent—on no authority but the convictions he had gained from Scripture—and urged the leaders of the indulgences movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one who is able to pay the penalty due for sin.

Of all the portions of the document, Luther’s closing is perhaps the most memorable for its exhortation to look to Christ rather than to the power of the church:

92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.

93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.

95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

In the years following his initial posting of the Theses, Luther became emboldened in his resolve, strengthening his arguments with Scripture. At the same time, the church became more and more uncomfortable with the radical Luther, and in the following decades, the spark that he made grew into a flame of reformation that spread across Europe. Luther was ordered by the church to recant in 1520 and was eventually exiled in 1521.

Relevance

Although the Ninety-Five Theses does not explicitly lay out a Protestant theology or agenda, it contains the seeds of the most important beliefs of the movement, especially the priority of understanding and applying the gospel. Luther developed his critique of the Catholic Church out of his struggle with doubt and guilt as well as his pastoral concern for his parishioners. Luther longed for the hope and security that only the gospel can bring, and he was frustrated with the structures that were using Christ to take advantage of people and prevent them from union with God. Furthermore, Luther’s focus on the teaching of the Bible is significant, because it provided the foundation upon which the great doctrines of the Reformation found their origin.

Indeed, Luther developed a robust notion of justification by faith and rejected even the notion of purgatory as unbiblical; he argued that indulgences and even hierarchical penance cannot lead to salvation; and perhaps most notable, he rebelled against the authority of the pope. All of these critiques were driven by Luther’s commitment, above all else, to Christ and the Scriptures that testify about him.

The courage and outspokenness that Luther demonstrated in writing and publishing the Ninety-Five Theses also spread to other influential leaders of the young Protestant Reformation.

Today, the Ninety-Five Theses may stand as the most well-known document from the Reformation era. Luther’s courage and his willingness to confront what he deemed to be clear error is just as important today as it was then. One of the greatest ways in which Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses affect us today—in addition to the wonderful inheritance of the five Reformation solas—is that it calls us to thoroughly examine the inherited practices of the church against the standard set forth in the Scriptures. Luther saw an abuse, was not afraid to address it, and was exiled as a result of his faithfulness to the Bible in the midst of harsh opposition.

 

For more on Ninety-Five These, download this free bonus chapter from Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Zondervan, 2014).

Free Leader’s Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics

Free Leader’s Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics

Here are two FREE Leaders’ Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics.

 

Many Christians don’t know about the history of their faith, but they want to learn more. That is why I wrote these two books: Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils.

These accessible overviews walk readers through the most important expressions (and denials!) of the Christian tradition–not with dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living traditions of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today. They are ideal for group uses and study.

C. F. W. Walther: Applying Law & Gospel

C. F. W. Walther: Applying Law & Gospel

C. F. W. Walther is a household name to some, but an unknown figure to many. He is largely responsible for bringing Lutheranism to the United States. According to theologian Robert Kolb, Walther “shaped his epoch by adapting Luther’s teachings to the needs of nineteenth-century German immigrants on the American frontier.” What is especially unique about Walther is his work in applying Martin Luther’s doctrine of Law and Gospel. The scholar Victor Veith writes, “Perhaps more than any other theologian, C. F. W. Walther applied himself to understanding the application of law and gospel. Indeed, Walther’s exhaustive analysis of this issue was unparalleled in his time and has not been equaled in our era.” Because of Walther’s concern to carry on the Reformation that had begun with Luther, his life and thought deserves attention.

Walther’s Background

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in 1811 in Saxony, Germany, the eighth of twelve children. Ferdinand, as his family called him, received his initial education from his father, a pastor. While studying theology at Leipzig, Walther spent much time reading Luther’s works and became convinced of confessional Lutheran doctrine. After passing his exams, Ferdinand was ordained as a pastor in 1837.

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in 1811 in Saxony, Germany, the eighth of twelve children. Ferdinand, as his family called him, received his initial education from his father, a pastor. While studying theology at Leipzig, Walther spent much time reading Luther’s works and became convinced of confessional Lutheran doctrine. After passing his exams, Ferdinand was ordained as a pastor in 1837.

The congregation Walther inherited gave him little hope that the Gospel could be proclaimed effectively in such an environment. The rationalist Christians of his day opposed the orthodox Christian faith, and sermons of the day focused on topics such as “Profitableness of Potato-raising,” “Importance of Genuine Sanitation,” and “Tree-planting a Necessity” instead of the Gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.

In search of greater religious freedom, Walther and a group of Lutheran immigrants set out for the United States in 1838, ultimately settling in Missouri. Walther began to pastor a church in St. Louis, where he served until his death in 1887. Walther and his wife had six children. During his ministry, he served as the president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as the first president of Concordia Seminary, and as the head pastor of four Lutheran congregations in St. Louis.

Walther’s Theological Distinctives

Theologically, Walther was an orthodox Lutheran as well as a Pietist. However, he criticized the Pietists for their focus on human experience at the expense of the Word of God. Their focus on works, for Walther, distracted from the Gospel and justification. As an orthodox Lutheran, he worried that the union of the Lutherans and the Reformed in the Kingdom of Prussia was misguided “because it glossed over the errors of Reformed theology.”

Law and Gospel

What Walther is best known for his is persuasive, passionate, and powerful teaching about how to understand the Law and the Gospel. The distinction between Law and Gospel is one to which Luther gave great weight, writing, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Walther’s theological significance lay in working out the application of this crucial distinction, and he found at least twenty-one ways Christians and Christian teachers tend to misapply and confuse Law and Gospel.

In Walther’s most influential work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, he showed how the one word of grace depends on the two words of God—Law and Gospel (alternatively, judgment and love, or threat and promise)—being related and reconciled in the crucifixion of Christ. His first three “theses” on Law and Gospel provide an important foundation for how to read and teach the Bible:

Thesis 1: “The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.”

Thesis 2: “Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.”

Thesis 3: “Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.”

Walther explains that both Law and Gospel are equally necessary for salvation, but the Law cannot lead us to salvation; it can only prepare us for the Gospel. The Law has nothing to say about grace, but only contains commands and threats, which reveal to us our need for the Gospel. The Gospel, in contrast, offers only grace, peace, and salvation.

The Law tells us what to do, but it does not enable us to obey; the Gospel gives salvation freely and empowers joyful obedience in response. Walther was adamant that no Gospel element should ever be combined with the Law; instead, the Law should be proclaimed first, and then the Gospel should follow. The Law says “Do!” and the Gospel follows and says “Done.” It is also necessary to recognize the context when preaching, because “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.”

Justification

Walther’s robust doctrine of justification set him apart from the other theologians of his day, as well as many today. Theologian Franz Pieper writes, “After Luther and Chemnitz no other teacher of our church has attested the doctrine of justification so impressively as did Walther.” Walther spoke of justification as the characteristic mark of the Christian religion, and declared that any error in the doctrine of justification necessarily meant an error in every other Christian doctrine. Thus Walther argued, “If anyone would not rightly know and believe this doctrine [justification], it would not do him any good if he knew correctly all other doctrines as, for instance, those of the Holy Trinity, of the person of Christ, and the like.”

The doctrine of justification was the foundation of pastoral ministry for Walther, and he urged preachers to focus on the Gospel, because “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.” He declared that he would rather the church be filled with uneducated pastors who knew the doctrine of justification well than with eloquent scholars who wavered on justification. For Walther, to assert that faith is anything other than trust in the grace offered by the Gospel would pervert justification.

Carrying Luther’s Legacy

Some worried that Walther merely wanted to return to the scholastic theology of the seventeenth-century Lutherans, but Walther wanted to return to Luther and to historic Lutheranism as set forth in the Book of Concord. For him, Luther was “the man whom God chose as the Moses of his church of the New Covenant, to lead his church, which had fallen into slavery to the Antichrist, out of that slavery. He is the column of smoke and fire of the Word of God, clear and pure as gold as it is.” However, Walther insisted that Luther was not to be idolized, for his accomplishments were to be viewed as God’s accomplishments.

As a pastor, Walther believed that theology was a practical rather than academic discipline at its core and that orthodox belief should always produce living faith.

Along with this conviction came the belief that the Scriptures were central to the revival of the church. Walther believed that a culture in which the Scriptures could flourish had to be created. As such, under his leadership, the church body founded schools, hospitals, churches, and other institutions.

Walther’s Scholarship

Through both preaching and writing Walther communicated his vision to his congregation. He wrote mostly periodical articles in the two journals he started. His scholarly journal was called Lehre und Wehre (1855), and his popular journal was Der Lutheraner (1844). Both journals were distinctly Lutheran and aimed to communicate Luther’s thought and heritage to both scholars and laypersons. His longer works were comprised almost solely of ecclesiological writings.

Because of his admiration for Luther, Walther wanted him also to be read by his church. He spent much time in translating Luther’s works into English, and eventually backed a project for the complete American edition. He also published a guide for reading Luther.

Walther’s most influential work remains The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, which was originally a collection of lectures to seminary students. Kolb argues that Walther’s entire ministry can be summed up in this title. Other noteworthy works by Walther are listed at the end of this post.

Walther’s Legacy                 

C. F. W. Walther remains a figure to be admired. He wanted the church to rediscover the Gospel in the face of a prevailing culture that made it difficult to do so. While he did not produce a major systematic theology text to carry on his legacy, Walther’s emphasis on the distinction between Law and Gospel remains extremely relevant today. As one religious historian writes, “Walther’s influence was especially significant in that he stood almost alone in the nineteenth-century American theological scene as one fully aware of the crucial importance of the problems of Law and Gospel.”

Walther’s Major Writings              

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest, was one of my favorite authors and theologians.  He died last night.

I first read Capon when I was studying for my PhD at Emory.  My advisor, Walt Lowe, turned me on to Capon and assigned him in numerous courses, for which I was his teaching assistant, at Candler School of Theology. Now that I teach my own classes, I assign Capon’s work.

Capon wrote about the radical grace of God in a way that kept me sane while I was deep in academic theological studies.

Here are a list of some of his books. Below are quotes and excerpts.

Books

Quotes & Excerpts

“The cross is a sign of the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems.” -Robert Capon

 

“The church’s job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it.” -Robert Capon

 

“The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” -Robert Capon

 

“Jesus came to raise the dead. He didn’t come to teach the teachable, improve the improvable, or reform the reformable.” -Robert Capon

 

“The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands. The world is drowning in religion. It is lying full fathom forty in the cults of spiritual growth, physical health, psychological self-improvement, and ethical probity—not to mention the religions of money, success, upward mobility, sin prevention, and cooking without animal fats. But it is scared out of its wits by any mention of the grace that takes the world home gratis.” –Robert Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 105

 

“Christianity is not a religion; it is the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however—the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over—period.” – Robert Capon, The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It, page 62

 

“The reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two hundred proof grace—of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly.  The word of the Gospel—after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps—suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started.  Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale, neither goodness, nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.” –Robert Capon

 

“We are in a war between dullness and astonishment. The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into ‘nice people’.”Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 120

 

“Marginality, in short, leaves the church free, if it is faithful, to cherish its absurdity; establishment just makes it fall in love all over again with the irrelevant respectability of the world’s wisdom and power.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 64

 

“Just remember that what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the cancer cell, the liver fluke, the killer whale, and the loan shark–that if God is holding all things in being right now, he’s got some explaining to do if he hopes to maintain his reputation as the original Good Guy. Or, more accurately (since God steadfastly refuses to show up and explain anything, except by announcing mysteries and paradoxes), we’ve got a lot of explaining to do if we are to go on thinking of him in terms of his reputation. The point is this: if God seems to be in no hurry to make the problem of evil go away, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. Maybe our compulsion to wash God’s hands for him is a service he doesn’t appreciate. Maybe — all theodicies and nearly all theologians to the contrary — evil is where we meet God. Maybe he isn’t bothered by showing up dirty for his dates with creation. Maybe—just maybe—if we ever solved the problem, we’d have talked ourselves out of a lover.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word

 

“Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things – new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff Why don’t 1 go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific! I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place, and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers – and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing: “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov meod!” and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum, Amen.

It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word

 

“Let me tell you how God redeemed the world. On the eve of the Big Bang, over single-malt scotch and cigars, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were making a final run-through of their plans for the event. The Son was enthusiastic. ‘I think we’ve nailed it,’ he said to the Father. ‘I’m going to speak everything into being as your Word, and the Spirit here is going to breathe life into it. Then the two of us toss it back to you, and the cosmic party dances itself right into our Trinitarian lap. Elegant! Tov meod! Kala lian! Valde bona, and all that!’

‘I have a problem, though,’ the Spirit says. ‘I’m the one responsible for the PR in all this, especially when it comes to the fail-safe gambit of the Incarnation we’ve planned to cover both creation and redemption. The Son really does make the world, right? But with the human race locked into time and space, it’s going to look as if we haven’t seriously tried to redeem the mess they’ve made until Jesus shows up late in history. The fact that we’ve had the Son in there tidying things up from the beginning is the last thing they’ll think of. How do I convince them that the Incarnation isn’t just an afterthought?’

‘Easy,’ says the Father. ‘Sure, it will look as if the Incarnation of my Word is simply a response to sin. But since all three of us will have been intimately present to everything from square one, all you have to do is give them images that show both creation and redemption going on full force from the start. From before the beginning, in fact, since we’re talking about it right now. What’s the problem with that?’

‘The problem,’ the Spirit explains, ‘is precisely with the images. However many mysterious, right-brain images of the Word’s age-long presence I give them, they’re going to dream up transactional, left-brain ones and view him as something you inserted late in the day. Think of the damage they can do to your reputation as the Father who creates or even to the Son’s, as the one who redeems if they decide to think of you as the coach in a football game and the Son as the quarterback. Since you’re not going to reveal the Word’s Incarnation until some two-thirds of history has gone by, how do I stop them from thinking you kept him in the locker room until the fourth quarter? We three may know he’s been in there right from the first possession, but no one else will. Even your biggest fans are going to be hard put to sell that as brilliant management.’

‘Listen,’ the Father says. ‘I decide what’s brilliant management, not the fans. And as for my reputation, that’s your department, not mine. Besides, haven’t we talked about this practically forever? You know the drill. All through the process of revealing my Son in history, you keep slipping them images of the hiddenness of his Incarnation – of the mystery of the Word’s activity in the world even before you arrange for him to be born of Mary. You’re going to hang images like the Paschal Lamb and the Rock in the Wilderness in their minds. After that, all you’ll have to do is get somebody like Paul to say that those things were presences of Christ before Christ – that the Lamb and the Rock are in fact my Incarnate Word anticipating himself. What’s so hard about that?’

‘Plenty,’ the Spirit answers. ‘I’ve been doing simulations of human thought in my mind. I think we’ve underestimated the effects of cooping people up in four dimensions. Look at it from my point of view. You plunk Jesus into the world at one spot in history, and then you expect me to convince them he’s present as your Word in all of history – before, during, and after Jesus?’

The Son interrupts him. ‘But I really am going to be present. Or to put it their way, I really will have been all along. So I don’t see…’

The Spirit’s patience is wearing thin. ‘Give me a break! Since I’m the one who has to take everything that’s yours and get it across to them, I’m trying to solve your problems here too. Just think about what they’ll do with a Jesus who stays in history for only thirty-three years. Even if I get John to say that he’s the Word who made everything from the beginning, they’ll probably imagine him as a pot of holy soup we delivered too late for a good many of our customers. And after they’ve jumped to the conclusion that the Word wasn’t present to anyone who lived before Jesus, they’ll leap to the even more dreadful notion that nobody who lived after him can have his benefits until their assorted churches get him canned, marketed, and distributed to them.’

The Father tries to break in. ‘But what about the Pentecost party we’ve planned to get the church going? Won’t that…?’

‘I’m sorry,’ the Spirit insists, ‘but I’m afraid Pentecost will be just one more thing for them to misread. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally on board with both of you. But suppose I do give you the rushing mighty wind and the party hats made out of fire. Even suppose I throw in the mystery of speaking in different languages in order to get the universality of the Son’s work into the picture. They’re still going to think the church is in the world to sell clam chowder to customers who never had it before. I mean, think of the possibilities for ecclesiastical arrogance. Jesus takes away the sins of the world, right? In him, everyone who ever lived gets free forgiveness for whatever went wrong in full, in advance, and all in one cosmic shot, no strings attached. I’m even going to get the church to include ‘one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ in the Nicene Creed so they’ll see that the Baptism of Jesus himself does the whole job, even if no one else ever gets baptized. But do you know what they’re going to do with that? They’re going to paint themselves into a corner and say that the unbaptized go to hell or even that sins after Baptism make forgiveness flake off like a bad paint job, and that unless Christians go to confession for a second coat before they die, they’ll go to hell too. Oh, sure. We’ve also agreed on this Reformation business where I convince them that nobody has to do anything to be forgiven except trust the grace that Jesus has already given everybody. But give them a hundred years after that and they’ll manage to turn faith itself into a requirement for grace: no faith, no forgiveness. Out the window again goes the free gift we’ve given them once and for all; and back in comes forgiveness as a deal that’s good only as long as they behave themselves.’

‘But why on earth,’ the Son wonders, ‘would they balk at getting something for nothing like that? Free grace and dying love isn’t enough for them? Would they rather we dealt with them on the basis of accountability?’

The Spirit just keeps pressing his point. ‘I don’t understand it any better than you do; all I know is what my simulations tell me. Human beings aren’t afraid of accountability; they’re crazy about it. If they can’t get credit for themselves or dish out blame to others, they cry “Unfair!” That’s why I pleaded with you to let me include something less subtle in the revelation. Remember? I suggested an image of the Son hiding a box of chocolates in every person’s house: the gift would be there whether they know it or not, like it or not, believe it or not. Maybe then they’d see that their faith doesn’t do anything to get them the chocolates of forgiveness; it simply enables them to enjoy what they already have. If they don’t trust the gift, of course, it won’t mean a thing to them. But the chocolates will always be there. I was even willing to make them miraculous, just to keep the element of mystery in the mix: no matter how many pieces anyone ate, the box would always be full. I still think it would have been a good idea.’

Finally, though, the Father has had enough. ‘I understand your difficulties,’ he says; ‘but after all, somebody’s got to be in charge here. In my mind, we’ve come up with a revelation that does the work of your chocolates without making us look like candy-pushers. The Son and I have every confidence in you. If you want to inspire the odd Christian apologist here or there to come up with images like that, be our guest. As I said, it’s your department. But we’re coming down to the wire here, so let’s call this a wrap. We have a big day tomorrow’.” –Robert Capon, The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images, pages 1-4

“Gratuitous” Grace

“Gratuitous” Grace

The following is an excerpt from On the Grace of God on John Calvin’s understanding of “gratuitous” grace.

In the Christian tradition, there are many adjectives that have accompanied the word grace: amazing, free, scandalous, surprising, special, inexhaustible, incalculable, wondrous, mysterious, overflow- ing, abundant, irresistible, costly, extravagant, and more. My favorite is from John Calvin—”gratuitous” grace. Gratuitous is the idea of something being unwarranted or uncalled for. Though we yearn des- perately for grace, the beautiful extravagance of God’s love in Christ is utterly uncalled for. Gratuitous. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes: “We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists. . . . Faith begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it” (Institutes 3.2.24).

In Calvin’s theology, the knowledge of God the redeemer focuses on the “gratuitous promise” as the main theme of Scripture. The gratuitous promise in Christ is the substance of Scripture. The various terms denoting the gratuitous promise of God exist throughout Calvin’s writings in countless variations: “gratuitous mercy,” “gratuitous favor,” “gratuitous goodness,” “mere good pleasure,” and “gratuitous love” (Institutes 2.7.4; 2.16.2; 2.17.1; 3.21.5; 3.21.7; 3.31.7)  These expressions are also found throughout his commentaries, especially his Commentary on Romans and Commentary on Genesis.

God loves you with gratuitous grace, the only kind there is. God’s grace is unconditioned and unconditional.

Abraham Kuyper: Hero To A Nation

Abraham Kuyper: Hero To A Nation

Theologian for a nation

Have you ever heard of a theologian being so well-known that his birthday was a national holiday? The 19th-century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper had such a great impact in the Netherlands that the entire nation celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1907.

Kuyper was a man of many hats: statesman, politician, educator, preacher, churchman, theologian, and philosopher. He was a modern-day Renaissance man who participated in the cultural conversation of his day.

While Kuyper’s influence has been felt throughout the 20th century in the Dutch Calvinist branch of the Reformed church, his influence has been expanding as scholars continue to mine his writings for resources to deal with the challenges of a public theology for the contemporary world.

 

Kuyper’s life

Abraham Kuyper was born to a middle-class pastor’s family in the remote fishing village of Maasluis, Netherlands, on October 29, 1837.

As a young boy, Abraham was thought to be a dull student. He began his early education from home. However, he went on to graduate with the highest honors from the University of Leiden, and he did his doctoral work in theology. Leiden, at the time, was a bastion of theological liberalism, with professors who questioned the resurrection of Christ and the existence of the supernatural and embraced a historical-critical view of Scripture.

Kuyper was captivated by this liberal stream of thought but was not content with its answers to all of his questions. After writing an award-winning treatise (in Latin!) on Calvin’s view of the church, Kuyper found himself overworked and exhausted. On a six-week vacation to Germany, he read Charlotte Yonge’s novel The Heir of Redclyffe, and “In the arrogant hero he recognized himself and his spiritual poverty.” He realized the church could console his weary soul in ways his studies could not. Kuyper had seen a vision of what the church could be in his study of Calvin’s writings, but he had not seen that church existing in the Netherlands. As a result, he pledged his life to reforming that church.

Ordained in 1863, Kuyper began to pastor a small church in the village of Beesd. There he found himself pulled in two different directions, both from his orthodox Reformed heritage and from the liberal theology he discovered at Leiden.

After meeting with members of his congregation in their homes, Kuyper found himself at a crisis. De Jong writes, “The choice lay between what he had learned at the university and what these simple folk so firmly believed.” This led him to the conviction that what was wrong with the Reformed church in the Netherlands was that it cared little for its membership, who had no voice in the church and even less a voice in the state and society.

Kuyper moved on to pastor in Utrecht and then, in 1870, he moved to pastor the Reformed Church in Amsterdam, the largest and most influential church in the Netherlands. He pastored there until he was elected to the Dutch parliament in 1874.

 

Kuyper’s career       

During the course of his 57-year career, Abraham Kuyper started two newspapers, founded an influential political party, helped create a new denomination, started a university, was elected as his nation’s prime minister, and authored numerous important books. He spent ten years as a preacher, twenty years as a professor, forty-two years as a newspaper editor and chairman of his political party, ten years as a member of the Dutch parliament, and four years as the prime minister.

Kuyper’s ideas and academic works emerged from his grass-roots effort to urge his constituency into action, and most of his writings first appeared as newspaper editorials and pamphlets.

In 1898, Kuyper visited the United States to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. These were compiled into what is perhaps the most well-known work of Kuyper, his Lectures on Calvinism, which offer a biblical and systematic view of life and the world. Kuyper also published his own edition of Calvin’s Institutes, since he believed the widely available Dutch translation at the time was insufficient.

Kuyper was a man of action as well as ideas. As scholar James Bratt points out, “For every hour [Kuyper] spent studying great books, he spent two more hours plotting the tactics of church reform, wheeling and dealing with university trustees, meeting with party representatives…Kuyper was a movement leader, an institution builder, as well as an intellectual.” Kuyper spurred church, social, cultural, and political change through the advancement of his Reformed views of education, the church, and the state.

 

Kuyper’s theological distinctives  

There are two theological concepts for which Kuyper is most famous: sphere sovereignty and common grace.

Kuyper is known for his famous phrase, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!’” Indeed, this concept of “sphere sovereignty” is one of Kuyper’s most original ideas. Theologian Richard Mouw describes this concept:

God, [Kuyper] insisted, built into the creation a variety of cultural spheres, such as the family, economics, politics, art, and intellectual inquiry. Each of these spheres has its own proper ‘business’ and needs its own unique pattern of authority. When we confuse spheres, by violating the proper boundaries of church and state, for instance, or reducing the academic life to a business enterprise, we trangress the patterns that God has set.

Kuyper believed that these God-given structures of creation were important for maintaining order and justice in society.

For Kuyper, though sin has pervasively corrupted the world, the glory of God’s created order is not completely obliterated by the Fall, and therefore the various spheres and structures of the earth still reveal glimpses of God’s goodness and power.

 

Kuyper’s legacy 

Abraham Kuyper has been called “a churchman who aroused many to their high calling in a society which had drifted far from its historical Christian moorings.” Kuyper’s ideas have important ramifications for Christians as we think through our place in a secular society and culture, and for that reason it is worth learning from this 19th-century Dutch Reformed theologian today.

 

Kuyper’s major writings:

Herman Bavinck: Vast Learning, Ageless Wisdom

Herman Bavinck: Vast Learning, Ageless Wisdom

In recent years, study of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has exploded, due in large part to the complete translation of his major systematic theology, Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek), from Dutch into English. In 2011, for instance, a full issue of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology was devoted to essays about different elements of Bavinck’s theology.

For a name that, until recently, would be unrecognized by most people even within the church, it may be surprising that J. I. Packer would say the following about Herman Bavinck: “Like Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards, Bavinck was a man of giant mind, vast learning, ageless wisdom, and great expository skill.” Any name put on a short list with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards certainly deserves attention. But theologian Richard Gaffin goes a step further than Packer, saying that Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is “Arguably the most important systematic theology ever produced in the Reformed tradition.”

These are high praises, and to understand why they are not simply hyperbolic statements made to sell books, we need to examine the life and thought of Herman Bavinck.

 

Bavinck’s Background                    

Bavinck was born on December 13, 1854, in Hoogeveen, in the Netherlands, and he died in July of 1921. He was the son of Jan Bavinck, the pastor of a church that had seceded from the state church of the Netherlands because of its theological liberalism. As a young boy, Herman was fortunate to study at the Hasselman Institute—a highly esteemed private school—from age seven to sixteen. He first studied theology in the city of Kampen at the theological school of the Christian Reformed Church (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk). From there, Bavinck moved on to complete his doctoral work on the ethics of Ulrich Zwingli at the University of Leiden, under the supervision of several of the leading liberal scholars of the day at one of the most liberal universities of the time. He chose Leiden over Kampen because “he wanted ‘a more academic theological education’ in which ‘he could engage the new modern theology directly.’” This liberal education solidified in him the desire to engage with the most theologically pressing ideas of the academy in a way that took seriously the authority of God’s revelation in Scripture.

After he completed his doctorate, Bavinck served briefly as a pastor for eighteen months at a church in Franeker before, at the age of 28, he was appointed by the Synod to be a professor in systematic theology and ethics at the Theological School in Kampen, where he worked from 1883–1902. His short time as a pastor gave him a chance to speak theological truth in a scholarly manner while at the same time being made aware of the pressing needs and issues faced by the average parishioner. After Abraham Kuyper was named the prime minister of the Netherlands, Bavinck filled his place as the chair of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902, and he remained a professor there until his death in 1921.

 

Bavinck’s Contributions to Theology                   

Bavinck is most famous for his magnum opus, a four-volume, 3,000-page work entitled Reformed Dogmatics. Even though it was written more than a hundred years ago, the theological discussions in the Reformed Dogmatics are timeless, because they quite frequently discuss the history and development of both orthodox and heretical theological positions. The four volumes that compose the Reformed Dogmatics are: Prolegomena; God and Creation; Sin and Salvation in Christ; and Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation.

Like other Dutch theologians, Bavinck was not just concerned with ivory-tower theological discussion but also dealt with issues of culture and the church’s relation to it, such as politics, education, evolution, psychology, war, the role of women in society, economics, and international relations. Bavinck delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1908, and these lectures later composed the book The Philosophy of Revelation. Perhaps his most popular and accessible work, Our Reasonable Faith is a relatively “short” (576 pages!) one-volume summary of the Reformed Dogmatics.

Bavinck’s work was shared with the English-speaking world through the writings of Louis Berkhof (a post on him will be coming later), but he also had a significant impact on other Reformed theologians such as Herman Ridderbos, Anthony Hoekema, and Cornelius van Til.

 

Bavinck’s Theological Distinctives                       

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Bavinck’s theological work was his unflinching devotion to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, at a time when such views were unfashionable. Many theologians in Bavinck’s day sectioned off religious knowledge as a purely subjective matter not to be confused with the “hard facts” of science and other forms of genuine, objective human knowledge. Rather than let modern scholarship barrel over the truth of Scripture, Bavinck held that the Bible was foundational truth upon which all theology and religious experience rests. He genuinely believed that the Bible could speak authoritatively to issues pressing on modern people.

At the same time, Bavinck did not entirely reject the subjective elements of Christianity. He produced a theology that took seriously the objectivity of the Scriptures and the church’s confessions, as well as the subjectivity of Christian consciousness and religious experience. Rather than allow his theology to be dominated by trite biblicism or blind adherence to church dogma, Bavinck allowed room for the Holy Spirit to work subjectively in the lives of believers without undermining the objective revelation found in Scripture.

In addition, because of his situation in the fractured Reformed church in the Netherlands, Bavinck expressed a broad Reformed theology that emphasized the unity and beauty of the one church in Christ and aimed to heal the divisions that he saw dividing the church.

 

Bavinck’s Legacy     

Carl Trueman suggests that the work of Bavinck is relevant for evangelicals today for five reasons: 1) it is done in the context of faith and under the assumption that the Bible is God’s revelation; 2) it is grounded upon biblical exegesis; 3) it articulately and charitably interacts with differing views; 4) it delicately balances the history of theology and the contemporary social situation; and 5) it is filled with personal devotion.

John Bolt sees a sort of duality that existed in Bavinck between the “academic theologian” on the one hand and the “churchly dogmatician” on the other. His academic tendencies led to him engage modern culture and science, and his churchly concerns drove him to strive for unity in the fragmented Reformed Church in the Netherlands. As Bolt puts it, “Bavinck’s life and thought reflect a serious effort to be pious, orthodox, and thoroughly contemporary.” While certainly not as prestigious as figures like Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, the work of Herman Bavinck is worth the attention of those exploring the Reformed tradition.

 

Bavinck’s Major Writings  

Louis Berkhof: Pillar of Faith in an Innovative Age

Louis Berkhof: Pillar of Faith in an Innovative Age

Not all theologians are innovative, groundbreaking, or revolutionary. Some just faithfully serve God. Some just love the church. And some just teach theology to eager students. Louis Berkhof—not innovative, groundbreaking, or revolutionary—did all three. Yet, as Henry Zwaanstra writes, “No theologian or churchman has made a greater impact on the Christian Reformed Church than Professor Berkhof.” Because of this, the life and work of Louis Berkhof deserves attention.

 

Berkhof’s Background

Louis Berkhof was born in Emmen, in the Netherlands, in 1873. His parents, Jan and Gessje, were members of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination that came into existence out of a split from the Netherlands Reformed Church in 1834. In 1882, the Berkhof family emigrated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Louis was 8 years old.

While a teenager, Louis was the secretary of the Reformed Young Men’s Society in Grand Rapids, an organization whose purpose was “to study Reformed doctrine and the principles of Calvinism for all areas of human life.” Through Berkhof’s influence in this local society, it was organized on a denominational scale and became known as the American Federation of Reformed Young Men’s Societies.

Berkhof professed faith in Christ in 1893. This same year, at age 19, he enrolled in the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church, which included a four-year literary course of study and a three-year theological course. The literary program was expanded into Calvin College, and the theological department became Calvin Theological Seminary. There Berkhof studied dogmatics with Hendericus Beuker, an admirer of the work of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

In 1900, Berkhof was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in Allendale, Michigan, and he served there until 1902. After the Christian Reformed Church Synod chose to appoint a student with a PhD instead of Berkhof to the chair in exegetical theology, he decided to pursue more formal education. So he went to Princeton and studied under Benjamin Warfield and Geerhardus Vos from 1902 to 1904.

In 1904, Berkhof became the pastor of Oakdale Park Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While pastoring this church he took correspondence courses in philosophy from the University of Chicago.

In 1906, Berkhof was appointed to the chair of exegetical theology at Calvin Seminary. From 1906 to 1914, Berkhof taught all of the Old and New Testament courses at Calvin. However, in 1914 the OT and NT departments were divided, which allowed Berkhof more time to research and write. In 1924, he was given the opportunity to take a position as a professor of dogmatics, which paved the way for the writing of his Systematic Theology.

First offered the presidency of Calvin College in 1919, Berkhof declined and later became the president of Calvin Theological Seminary in 1931.

After 38 years of being a professor, Berkhof retired in 1944. He continued to write articles for church periodicals until his death on May 18, 1957.

 

Berkhof’s Contributions to Theology 

While Berkhof was a gifted public speaker, professor, and pastor, his greatest influence and most enduring contribution was in his writings. While his theological works are the most widely known, he also wrote books addressing social issues, modern trends of thought, and Christian education, evangelism, missions, and life. Throughout the course of his career he wrote twenty-two books on a variety of subjects.

Berkhof was convinced that the church had a role to play in social reform and ought not to be separatistic toward culture. As Zwaanstra puts it, for Berkhof, “The church was God’s chosen instrument not only to save individuals and to prepare them for eternal life, but also to implement as much as possible the Kingdom of God on earth.”

Most of Berkhof’s theological writings were written for his lectures as a professor. In 1911 he wrote a basic hermeneutics textbook in Dutch, published in English in 1937 as Principles of Biblical Interpretation. During the course of his career, he wrote works on the New Testament, Joshua, biblical archaeology, work and faith, assurance, systematic theology, the history of doctrine, the atonement, liberalism, the kingdom of God, and the second coming of Christ.

Berkhof’s magnum opus was his Systematic Theology, compiled and published as one volume in 1941.

 

Berkhof’s Theological Distinctives

Little of what Berkhof wrote was an innovation of his own thinking. However, he was a master at organizing and explaining Reformed theology, especially in the tradition of Herman Bavinck. As Zwaanstra writes, “Berkhof’s theology was essentially the theology of Herman Bavinck.”

This steadfast adherence to the Reformed tradition flowed out of Berkhof’s belief that it best captured the meaning of Scripture. During his career, Berkhof was thrown into a variety of denominational struggles and issues, such as the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. On each of these issues he stood his ground against the popular theological liberalism of the day. Against those in the liberal tradition who questioned the reliability of certain elements of Scripture, Berkhof asserted time and time again the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible.

 

Berkhof’s Legacy

While Berkhof’s theological work is not particularly groundbreaking or original, he faithfully held firm to the teachings of Scripture throughout his entire life and sought to pass on those teachings to those entrusted to him. He wrote much, trained many, and was a faithful servant of God’s kingdom.

 

Berkhof’s Major Writings: