Pure dogmatic truth.
As a theologian, I regularly hear scary things. Of course there is plenty of scary theology going around, but I’m not talking about that in this short post. I get scared other ways, too!
Scary thing the first: People ask me what I do, and when I tell them, they ask me what I teach. After I say theology, they will frequently ask, “Oh. Does that have to do with the Old Testament or the New?” It’s scary that many Christians don’t know that there’s a thing called “theology” or anything to learn about our faith besides the Bible.
Scary thing the second, related to the previous scary thing: As before, I give the answer, “theology.” Once a woman immediately replied, “Be careful with that, or you’ll miss the Kingdom of God!” She must have had a scary idea of what theology is!
Scary thing the third: I’ll admit that, when called upon to preach, I will frequently “sermonize” a theology lesson. I change the presentation and delivery, remove jargon, and build up the practical application part. Believe it or not, usually it’s very well received. After the message, people will tell me, “Brother, I enjoyed that very much!” That’s the nice part; here comes the scary part: “I’ve never heard anything like that before!”
So many people and churches are thirsting for good, sound theology, but they are not getting it. Frankly, it’s a scary situation!
My reading has slacked off this month due to travel and several writing projects (unfortunately not ones directly related to my theological publishing ambitions, but the work has to be done). It being Christmas, however, I did acquire some nice new volumes.
This month, on the same day in fact, I finished reading both Wright’s The resurrection of the Son of God and the second volume of Bavinck’s Reformed dogmatics. Wright I had read before and enjoyed it, so I wanted to go through it again before tackling his next volume, Paul and the faithfulness of God. Resurrection is a wonderful work on what I consider to be the true doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. On the second reading I found portions of it somewhat tedious; Wright’s review of the relevant ancient literature is almost exhaustive. On the other hand, his discussion of the Gospels’ account is exhilarating; by the end of it I’m wanting to give a fist-pump “Yeah!” The biggest thing I learned from this reading was how deeply gnosticism has permeated certain wings of contemporary critical scholarship. Wright’s whole aim is to show (1) that by “resurrection,” the church meant the Jesus rose bodily from the grave; (2) that they really believed that it had happened; and (3) that it is the best explanation for the existence of the Christian church. I had not realized that (1) was so widely disputed today. Too many try to explain Easter as “Jesus dying and going to heaven,” by which they mean a “spiritual” resurrection, by which they ultimately mean “nothing really happened.” Wright does a tremendous job of destroying that whole line of thought.
Moving on, I like Bavinck, though not quite as much as a thought I would. His second volume added further weight to a hypothesis of mine: once you’ve read one classic reformed systematic theology, you’ve read them all. While Bavinck is certainly more readable than Hodge and much deeper than Berkhof, I can’t say that I have seen anything that’s really different in this particular volume. The main topic of interest in it is the “decrees” of predestination, and Bavinck takes the standard reformed path; there really isn’t any other one available to him. I still cannot accept the idea that “predestination and foreknowledge are really the same thing.” If that were so, there’d be one word used, not two. A simple substitution in a verse like Rom. 8.29 shows how silly this idea is: “For those whom he predestined he also predestined.” Bavinck tends to lump, well, everyone who’s not a Calvinist into the category of “Pelagian.” Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Also, he tries to do too much with natural theology. Along with his biblical and theological discussion, he’ll quote ancient Greek philosophers as if that proves something; I find this jarring in a reformation perspective. Still, it’s a valuable work of systematics, and I’m sure I’ll refer to it frequently. I plunging right ahead into the third volume; I want to see it through.
For light reading, on my phone I’m going through Immortality and the future by H. R. Mackintosh. It’s part of a large bundle of public domain eschatology books from logos.com I got through community pricing. Eschatology is always interesting, but I haven’t read any for quite a while.
I mentioned this earlier, but from Logos’s Black Friday sale I got a complete set of Schaff’s edition of the Church fathers. This was a bit of an indulgence; these are available for free online, but they are a pain to navigate. As a very long term goal, I’ve decided to attempt to read through the entire set, though I’m not pushing myself to keep any particular schedule and might skip boring parts. The Logos edition is really nice. I’ve got a layout set up where, if I click on a Bible reference in the Fathers, it opens an English translation of the Septuagint (the version they used) as well as other versions for comparison.
And finally, yesterday I purchased Michael F. Bird’s Evangelical theology on Kindle for $5.99. Logos had this in prepub for several times the amount so I passed on it then, but for $6 I’ll give any systematics a whirl. (I’m a little concerned about this development. I’ve got a lot invested in Logos and will always prefer it, but it really needs to do something about its high prices considering the competition it’s getting from Amazon now.) It’s around 800 pages; it will be nice to see if it supports or undermines my other hypothesis, that a good systematics cannot be done in under 1,000 pages. What’s interesting about this one is that the author is a New Testament scholar, not a theologian. (I’m not sure when I’ll start it; I’ve got quite a few other works in the queue first.)
A few days ago I came across a quote from Billy Graham I wanted to comment on:
The very purpose of Christ’s coming into the world was that He might offer up His life as a sacrifice for the sins of men. He came to die. This is the heart of Christmas.
With all due respect to the great evangelist, this is not very good theology. There is so much more to the incarnation of our Lord and his saving work than just his death, important as it is. This is a major problem in Western (i.e., Latin, both Roman catholic and protestant) theology and its interpretation of the cross: it simply does not know what to do with Christ’s life and ministry and thus assigns it little significance–Jesus could have just come to earth on Thursday night at Gethsemane and been done with it. Another quote, from Adolf von Harnack of all people, gets straight to the heart of the problem of this theological tradition:
[It] holds it as superfluous to accentuate any one personal feature in the picture of Christ; the sinless man with the infinitely valuable life is enough. The death of Christ is entirely severed from His life-work on earth, and isolated. This God-man need not have preached, and founded a kingdom, and gathered disciples; he only required to die.
My doctoral thesis, available from the link in the header above, primarily concerns addressing this deficiency in Western theology. I encourage you (of course!) to go through it if you are interested further. Here I’ll just mention a few points about why Christmas is as important as Good Friday:
First, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, which is what Christmas is really all about, is God’s resounding “Yes!” to humanity. God loves us and accepts us enough to become one of us in order rescues us from our fallen and pitiable state.
The incarnation is, in the words of the Athanasian creed, the “taking of humanity into God.” In Christ, God has taken on human nature by lifting it up and uniting it with himself. Theologians don’t like to say things like this, but it is not wrong to say that at Christmas God changed: he now is, and will be throughout eternity, both God and man in Jesus Christ. (That says a lot about he feels about humanity.)
This union, moreover, is with humanity as a whole. There is one human nature shared by all human beings, and this is what Christ took on himself. Thus, humanity is also changed by the incarnation, which is the beginning point of our salvation for all who receive him (John 1.12). (Significantly, this is why, besides its flat contradiction by scriptures such as John 3.16 and 1 John 2.2, the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement cannot possibly be correct. Jesus was united with all human beings, not just the elect, and he did not become disunited with them on the cross.)
All of Christ’s life was a saving work. From his birth onwards, he began the recapitulation, or summing up, of humanity as the second Adam (Rom. 5.12-21). Where Adam had sinned, Christ obeyed, and each step of the way along his life he worked towards the restoration and healing of Adam’s line.
Finally, the incarnation ensures the efficacy of Christ’s saving work on the cross and in the resurrection. Again, it is by our union with him that he could bear our sins away into death and that his rising from the dead communicates eternal life to us.
Much more could be said about this subject—a whole book, in fact. I’ll close with Rom. 5.10:
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
Christmas is important too!
Hours before taking delivery of my electronic copy of N. T. Wright’s latest addition to his series, Christian origins and the question of God, I finished reading the first three volumes! As stated before, I had read the third volume, The Resurrection of the Son of God, before, but I wanted to read it again 1) in the light of the two previous volumes and 2) because it is so good. (More on this at a later date.) I’m not sure how long it will take me to burrow through all 1,700 pages of volume four, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I’m not in a hurry; this will (probably) be my next “phone book.” Unlike the resurrection, and unlike most who discuss Wright, Pauline theology is not an area of huge interest for me. I’ll have to wait till I examine the text to determine how high to prioritize it.
NB: This is not an N. T. Wright blog, and I am not a fanboi. (Okay, I am a big fan of his third volume and very envious of how he writes.) Nor am I a detractor. I just happen to be reading through his works now. Just be grateful I wasn’t blogging when I was going through Barth’s Church dogmatics. (Yes, I have read the entire thing, and yes, I am a fanboi.)
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all music is but three parts vied
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
I got me flowers to straw thy way:
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.
The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.
Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.
I came across this while rereading N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. I normally am not fond of poetry, but I like this one.
And a happy Thanksgiving to all who are celebrating it!
I’m not a huge fan of the whole “Black Friday” concept; it’s devolved into a consumerist orgy and is a sure sign of cultural decadence. Nevertheless–I’m going to take advantage of it when it helps me out. After all, the internet never takes a holiday.
Logos has posted its sale for the weekend. There’s not much that’s too terribly exciting here, at least so far (they’re keeping a few items back as a teaser). They based this on their loyal customers’ wishlists. (I am aghast that Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology came in at #2!) The only I thing from mine is The Early Church Fathers, which they’re giving for $50 off (about 20%) the normal price. As this is absolutely vital for historical theology studies, I went ahead and got it as an early Christmas (and probably New Year’s and birthday) present. This is the old late C19 edition of Schaff et al. (They have a newer edition in the works but it’s almost 10 times the price.) I’m not very fond of spending real money on public domain works that are available for free all over the internet, like here. However, I’ve used these web editions for serious work, and they are a pain to navigate. The Logos edition should be vastly superior. I’m paying primarily for convenience, ’tis true, but convenience for the rest of my life.
Barth’s Dogmatics is also on sale (technically); I got it on pre-pub for much less. It is another resource where having it in electronic format is much better than print. CBD has the print edition on sale at a much better price.
Anyway, if you’re interested, give Logos a click. Apparently some of the books are reduced even further once you proceed to checkout, so you might need to click through that far to get the final price.