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Posts Tagged ‘Reformed Theology’


These days it is pretty difficult to avoid conversations about homosexuality for very long. The question is more about what will be the tenor of those conversations. When we agree, we can unfortunately deride and denigrate people who are different (no matter what the difference is) since, by nature in Adam, we suffer many a prejudice. When we disagree, the tone can quickly become shrill and ugly, particularly in this day when people can’t seem to disagree agreeably. We can succumb to the need to be right (I must win this debate), or if we feel like we are losing or unable to respond our insecurity tempts us to attack the person.

This is why Joe Dallas wrote Speaking of Homosexuality: Discussing the Issues with Kindness & Clarity. Joe used to be “a staff member with a pro-gay church, an openly gay man, and an activist identifying as a gay Christian, arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality.” In the mid-80’s that all changed. Since then he has been defending a biblical perspective on sexuality. He understands the history of the revisionist arguments for homosexuality as well as the best way to address them.

“I’ve written this book with a twofold goal: to help the reader better understand arguments in favor of homosexuality, and to equip him or her to meet those arguments with responses that are accurate, biblical, and compassionate.”

Before he gets to the heart of the book, he talks about the context of these conversations. He talks about why they are hard for everyone involved. So much seems on the line- the personal happiness & existential worth of the homosexual, the perceived safety and happiness of a loved one, eternal life etc. We all bring baggage to the conversation which can blind us, and we’ll accept anything that may confirm our bias, however inaccurate it may be. There is also the political and social climate which makes these conversations difficult. It is a shibboleth creating a dividing line between “us and them”.

He moves into the various groups we can interact with: activists who take no quarter, millennials who grew up in a time when it was acceptable, friends and family. He then moves to the “rules of engagement” for this discussions.

  1. Speak clearly
  2. Speak appropriately
  3. Speak empathically
  4. Concede what is true
  5. Consider what is possible
  6. Watch the apologies
  7. Recognize and point out diversions

The heart of the book addresses a series of issues (born gay?, change, same sex marriage, homophobia, gay Christians, Sodom, Leviticus, what Jesus said, & Romans 1) following a similar pattern. He lays out the general dynamics of the issue, why it is important and summarizes the traditional position. Then Dallas works through a series of revisionist arguments and responses to those arguments from a traditional perspective. He seeks to prepare you for the arguments they are most likely to present to you, and some responses that address those arguments. Those responses come for the Bible, but also address medical and psychological studies, assumptions that may be incorrect etc.

Overall, Dallas does a good job. I think he models his approach by being clear and kind. There is lots of information here, more than most people can remember. But it can be a good resource, particularly in on-going discussions with people you know. If you are a person who ends up in these conversations frequently, you will become more familiar with use.

Dallas, like all authors, writes from a theological tradition or perspective. I also read from one. I am a confessional, Reformed Christian (conservative Presbyterian to be precise). He writes from an Arminian and non-covenantal perspective. If I may be so bold, this weakens his responses in a few key areas.

For instance, in the question of the “gay Christian” he talks about whether a Christian can lose their salvation or if “once saved always saved”. I found that argument rather weak, unconvincing and lacking any nuance. From the perspective of the preservation/perseverance of the saints, I find it more helpful and we can be more patient with people as this works out. We’re also more honest about the collateral damage in that person’s life even if they are a Christian living in disobedience for a time.

Another place this weakness appears is in discussing Leviticus. Tim Keller’s defense of the Christian view from a Reformed & covenantal perspective utilizing the 3 types of law is far more helpful (in my opinion) than the dispensational approach that Dallas takes. The issue is not whether a law is repeated, but what kind of law (and there are textual indications): moral, ceremonial & case law.

These particular responses, in my opinion, could be much stronger. But this is a very helpful book that I hope does find an audience among pastors, chaplains, and laypeople. Unless we live in a “Christian ghetto,” we all know and interact with homosexuals. We should do so with love, which includes speaking the truth with clarity and compassion.

[I received a free copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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This is a concept that has been debated at least since the 1970’s: can one be a “gay Christian”? It started with denominations for homosexuals who professed Christ. Recently it has “conquered” mainline denominations. The conversation is beginning to happen in conservative denominations, like the one I serve in. Okay, precisely the one I serve in. So far I’ve seen more heat than light in this debate. There is little thoughtfulness and plenty of knee jerk reactions.

As Joe Dallas notes in Speaking of Homosexuality, both terms in this phrase need to be identified so we know precisely what we are talking about.

“Gay can refer to someone sexually active, whether in a relationship or in more casual encounters. Or it can mean a person who’s not sexually active but it willing if and when the time seems right. It can also refer to a Christian who believes homosexuality is wrong but is tempted that direction and sometimes yields. Yet again, it could mean someone who’s homosexual in attraction only but chooses not to act on the attraction. Clearly the term’s meaning influences the question’s answer.

“Now, Christian, for some implied simply being “saved”; to others it implies both being saved and walking in rightness before God.

“Muddying the waters further is the question of salvation. Can it be lost, or is it a once-and-for-all status? How you view eternal security will likewise direct your answer to the gay Christian question.”

In addressing the second part of this question, Dallas writes as an Arminian. I am thinking this through in my own heritage, that of Reformed Theology. As such I ponder this in terms of the Preservation of the Saints and Assurance of Grace and Salvation. So, let’s work through the four ways “gay” can be understood.

Can a Christian be sexually active with the same sex?

The answer is yes. But before you either rejoice or want to stone me, let me explain. I do view homosexuality as a sin (like I would consider murder, theft, lying, gossip, adultery and other actions and predispositions to be sin or outside the boundaries established by God). Christians do sin. Sometimes we sin big too.

We should not simply say Christians persevere to the end because God preserves them in grace (by Christ’s merit & intercession as well as the indwelling Spirit). That is true, but not all that is true. We should reckon with the rest of what the Westminster Confession says about this, including:

3. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves. (WCF, XVII)

A Christian may, for a time, fall into the practice of homosexuality. This is disobedience, but Christians can and do disobey God. We see such sin a result of the remaining corruption within us (indwelling sin) which produces internal temptation, and the external temptations of Satan and the world which tells them it is okay, and “don’t knock it til you try it”. While they may feel “like themselves” in so doing, we see there are earthly consequences as they grieve the Spirit, harden their hearts and are deprived of a measure of graces and comforts from the gospel. Its hurts and scandalizes others as I know all too well from watching people I know fall into this sin and become entangled by it.

In the next chapter on Assurance of Grace and Salvation we see similar comments:

4. True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair. (WCF, XVIII)

The key is “for a time.” One who is truly regenerate and justified will eventually repent and acknowledge its sinfulness as well as apprehending the mercies of God in Christ and endeavoring to obey. But “for a time” is vague. No time limit is given such as having 1 year. People would probably abuse that as an opportunity to spend such time in full rebellion of their choosing and show up at the appointed time with a mea culpa like Amish teens returned from their experience in the world.

For instance, I had a friend who was promiscuous as a teen. While working with teens later, his past was known. One teen contemplated partaking of fornication and his justification was “you repented.” My friend wisely replied, “How do you know you will?”

In the meantime, a faithful church will admonish, rebuke, suspend and possibly excommunicate a member to guard the honor of Christ, reclaim the sinner and protect the church (not from the person but from believing such actions are acceptable and appropriate among God’s people). In this sense it is possible to be a Christian and gay, but not part of the visible church due to discipline so they may produce a later harvest of righteousness.

In terms of Dallas’ second category, we see it is also possible to be a “gay Christian” in the same sense. They would need to repent of their erroneous understanding of homosexuality even if they aren’t sexually active. In due time this should happen if the Spirit really dwells in them.

In both the 3rd and 4th categories, the Christian experiences same sex attraction but knows that to act on it is wrong. The attraction is a result of remaining corruption, and they experience that inward pull toward people of the same sex romantically and sexually. While they know this is not what God intended in creation, it is what they experience due to the Fall, and have not yet been relieved of it in redemption. That may, and often does, await glorification as it does for all Christians though the particular temptations differ.

Here is where it is tricky. While the temptation flows from remaining corruption (our sinful condition) is the temptation itself sinful? Here is were some of the debate lies as we try to parse temptation. It is different from the temptation Jesus experienced in that it is internal. Jesus was tempted from without. We should confess it flows from indwelling sin and that it is wrong, though we have not committed a sinful act. The person who acts on such temptations periodically should repent like any other Christians who sins does. While they are still a Christian, they have been disobedient. As I noted above, this desire may never go away (though not experienced in every waking moment), just as other sinful desires may never go away.

There is another question that arise, should such a Christian as we see in categories 3 and 4 self-identify as a “gay Christian”? It seems strange to those of us who are straight. I’m not a straight Christian. Nor would I identify myself with any of my habitual sins. People don’t say “I’m an alcoholic Christian” or “a deceitful Christian.” Should we, as an act of repentance or confession? I suspect it isn’t very helpful.

In her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield addresses this question over the course of two chapters. In the first, she focuses on self-identification and the roots of self-identifying as gay. She ought to know since she used to teach Queer Theory at Syracuse University. For years she was working toward the world we now live in here in America: acceptance of homosexuality and same sex marriage as normal. So she unpacks all that so you know what many (not all) gay people mean by that term. She explains why she does not like the term “gay Christian” nor advocate for its use. In typical Rosaria-style she can be quite blunt.

“Any category of personhood that reduces a saint to a sum total of his or her fallen sexual behavior is not a friend of Christ.”

“Because as Christians, we need to practice what we want to model: a call to use words honestly. A call to use words honestly, in ways that correspond to God’s truth.”

“The conservative Christian church bears some responsibility for driving brothers and sisters in Christ into this “gay Christian” ghetto with our blindness to the way that we have insensitively tried to fix or fix up all of the singles in our church.”

“New nature does not necessarily mean new feelings (although it may). … “New creature in Christ” means that we have a new mind that governs the old feelings and a new hope that we are part of Christ’s body.”

“Believers know that help does not come in destigmatizing the word gay, but in helping the boy and his family do what all believers must do: mortify sin and live in faithfulness to God.”

While she argues against using the term, in the next chapter she talks about when Christians disagree, particularly about that issue. She addresses her relationship with a friend named Rebecca who has a different viewpoint, and is a professing Christian too. While Rosaria sees the word gay as laden with Queer Theory, Rebecca says “For me the word gay is no different than saying, “I am deaf” or “I am quadriplegic.” It simply refers to the truth that I have an enduring affliction (whether based in biology or environment) that has not been healed despite many years of prayers.” We return to the idea that two people can use the same term in different ways, and that we should try to understand how they are using it because we love them.

We see this problem in social discourse all the time. For instance, in the 2016 election “the wall” has very different meanings for progressives and those who voted for Trump. Progressives hear xenophobia, racism and other ideas that make them angry or want to cry. They see his election as betraying their ideals and lament for America. Many of those who voted for him (and may like myself who didn’t) hear wise immigration policy, having a border like most other nations that means we have some measure of control over who enters our country not because we hate other people groups but for our national and economic security. It doesn’t mean you are against immigration reform, but that you believe we actually have a border that matters.

Rosaria counsels love in the midst of such disagreements. She’s only advocating what the Scriptures do, but in this gospel-deprived society this is seen as a novelty. We have to allow each other some space to own our ideas instead of mandating that they agree with us. After all, the Scripture doesn’t directly address this. We can treat the use of this phrase as one of indifference as long as we are using very different definitions of the term. She talked with her friend, listened to her friend, and found they were using the term in very different ways. They could choose to disagree and remain friends because they agreed on the basics of the gospel and its implications for homosexuality even if they disagreed on the use of a term. I think there needs to be more of this: listening, understanding, discerning and accepting one another as Christ accepts us when we do disagree on secondary issues.

“Friendship and neighborly proximity are necessary components to working through theological differences in Christian love. … Ideas that divide must travel on the back of Christian life practices that allow us to stand shoulder to shoulder as we submit before our holy and loving God. This is the Christian labor of real neighbors.”

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In the last few years there has been an explosion of books on the topic of grace. Some of been excellent. Some have been controversial. Some of those that have been controversial had some significant flaws. Not a fatal flaw, mind you. They were still within the bounds of Christianity but not necessarily within the bounds of the community to which the author belonged (how’s this for vague?).

So, it was with a measure of anticipation and trepidation that I read Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid. I had a sense of anticipation because I have found her husband Iain’s books very helpful. Additionally I saw that she was very dependent on John Newton from whom I’ve also benefited greatly. But I also had sanctification controversy PTSD.

Here is my bottom line: I loved the forest, but some of the particular trees may have issues.

Barbara has some obvious influences, and some that aren’t as obvious. In addition to John Newton, she has a certificate from CCEF, and holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith. When she sticks close to those the book is quite excellent and helpful. When she goes beyond them I found it less helpful and has some of the same issues that troubled me about Tullian Tchividjian’s books on grace. I try to remember what Dr. Pratt taught us: you can’t say everything any time you say anything. Yet a qualification or two saves a world of misunderstanding.

The Good

Throughout the book Barbara Duguid is quite honest about her own struggles, which essentially drive the book. This is nothing new. Many theologians have a doctrinal emphasis that reflects their own personal struggles. Think Luther and his emphasis on justification by faith alone. There is nothing wrong with this, particularly when we consider the providence of God in the matter. Yet we should recognize that we, as sinners saved by grace, can still run off into extremes. Her honesty, to get back to my point, is helpful. She is not writing theoretically, but has walked with God through these difficult places.

“God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin.”

This book is easy to read. It is not a technical book but intends to make theology practical. She does a good job of this. The first chapter, Welcome to Your Heart, easily introduces you to her heart and by extension yours through a story. She shows how pride lurks in our hearts, distorting our experience by trying to make us the center of … everything.

The next three chapters, leaning heavily on Newton, are about the three stages of Christian life: babes in Christ, maturing and grown-ups. Sadly, not many people talk about this. It is helpful to recognize the differences so a person has more accurate expectations. Babes often have few trials and lots of joy. God has merciful on them. There is often, in my experience, significant change almost immediately if one converts as an adult. But then life gets hard. God begins to work more deeply, and most often through hardship and failure. The focus is on developing deeper dependence on God, and the destruction of our pride.

“A mature believer studies all the aspects of a person’s struggle with sin and makes allowances. He never stops calling sin the ugly and evil thing that it is, but he understands how deeply rooted it is in human nature and how helpless every Christian is to stand against it.”

Her book offers hope to all of us who struggle with sin, which is every Christian. She reminds us of the providence of God, the preservation of the saints, and the doctrine of assurance (from the Westminster Confession of Faith) which instruct us that sometimes God does in fact bring us through periods of disobedience. The problem is most Christians don’t talk about with struggles (contrary to James 5) so when we struggle with sin we think we are the only one, or more messed up than everyone else in church.  We have to remember that God is up to something bigger than “sin management.”

Our struggles with sin should translate into greater patience with the sins of other Christians. When we consider how patient God is with us, and how sufficient His mercy is to us, we are able to be patient and extend mercy to our brothers and sisters even (particularly!) when they sin against us.

“The more I see myself as the biggest sinner and the worst transgressor, the more I will be able to step up to love others even when they sin against me time and time again.”

I can see Ed Welch’s (a professor at CCEF)  as well as Newton’s influence in the last chapter. Part of how we strive for holiness is in community and making use of the means of grace (Word and sacrament). We need each other profoundly. Her the individualism of Americans is anti-thetical to the gospel. We need help to see our sins. We need help through the prayers of others not only for our illnesses but our sins. We need to remember that the Lord’s Table is for us as saved sinners who still need grace along the pilgrim road.

Her audience is those who are depressed and overwhelmed by their on-going struggle with sin. These people need to know of God’s extravagant grace toward sinners saved by grace. There is plenty of truth to encourage them so they can strengthen their weak knees and keep moving by the grace of God.

“Although God did not create your struggle or tempt you to it, he has called you to walk with it. He has assigned it to you, and he loves you as he calls you to walk through it. He is not disgusted by you.”

The Questions the Reformed Community Needs to Address

There are some questions that are raised by this book, reflecting problems with other books on grace. The sanctification debates seemed largely focused on the third use of the law. These go deeper and are, I think, more important.

1. Is sanctification monergistic or synergistic? This book seems to give conflicting answers at times. Newton often refers to striving for holiness, and she echos that at times. But she is also critical of unnamed pastors who seem to focus on our responsibility. Philippians 2:13 has been one of the key verses for me to understand the relationship between gospel indicatives (facts) and gospel imperatives (commands). God works in me so I will and work according to His purpose. We can’t focus on only one part of that. Edwards noted that it is “all of God and all of me”. I can only work because He works in me (grace!!). But I actually work. He’s not working for me, believing for me, repenting for me. It is typically a hyper-Calvinist view to minimize the exercise of our wills. At times she comes really close to this.

2. What is the nature, or goal, of sanctification? She frequently criticizes the view that it is “sinning less and less.” This seems contrary to the way it is expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to which she holds as a member of the ARP.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

She doesn’t really qualify or explain what she means. She is correct if she is referring to simply external obedience. The truth is that our “obedience” is often driven by fear and pride instead of faith and love. When we obey out of fear (the fear of getting caught, what people will think etc.) or pride (having a reputation to uphold, a sense of entitlement) we are not really obeying. If this is what she means, I wholeheartedly agree. God is working to address the fear and pride behind so much “obedience.” God also won’t give us “victory” (I hate that term) if it will lead us to spiritual pride. Fear and pride are sins too, but sins that drive other sins as well as counterfeit obedience.

3. What is the Degree of Regeneration?

Our depravity is total, but not absolute. Every aspect of us is affected but we aren’t as bad as we could be. She notes that though saved, we are depraved, weak little sinners. Where is regeneration? To what degree have we changed? Thomas Boston, in the Human Nature in its Fourfold Estate, argues that our regeneration is total in the same way that depravity is. Every aspect of us is affected by regeneration, but not absolutely. While regenerate we still have indwelling sin. We want to be neither triumphalists nor fatalists. She rightly criticizes the former but sounds an awful lot like the later.

4. Does God get angry with us? Can He be pleased by our actions?

She hammers our position in Christ. Indeed there is cause for great rejoicing with regard to our position in Christ as perfectly righteous. This is our hope: union with Christ. But in sanctification does God only see us positionally or does He also see us personally?

She notes the Israelites in the wilderness as the pattern for us in many respects, particularly their failure (she overlooks how many times it does say they did everything the Lord commanded Moses in particular matters). If they were converted (which I think many/most of them were) they were then united to Christ (apart from whom there is no salvation). During the wilderness journey we often see God angry with Israel (with no differentiation between the elect and non-elect). In Hebrews 12 we see that God disciplines us so we bear the harvest of righteousness. He necessarily sees us as less than personally righteous and moves us toward greater personal righteousness. We have Christ’s imputed righteousness in justification, and He imparts Christ’s righteousness to us in sanctification. These distinctions seem to be missing here (and in other some books about grace). If we can’t please God personally, then why does Paul pray for this in Colossians 1.

Love is not contrary to anger, as she seems to argue. Anger is an important part of love to protect the beloved from danger, including the destructiveness of sin. I wonder how much her own anger issues (one of the sins she says she struggles with) influence her views on this. I don’t want God to be angry with me, but I need his fatherly anger at times, as Calvin notes.

“The Spirit of love was given to Christ alone, for the express purpose of conferring this Spirit upon his members; and there can be no doubt that the following words of Paul apply to the elect only: “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” (Rom. 5:5); namely, the love which begets that confidence in prayer to which I have above adverted. On the other hand, we see that God is mysteriously offended [wondrously angry] with his children, though he ceases not to love them. He certainly hates them not, but he alarms them with a sense of his anger, that he may humble the pride of the flesh, arouse them from lethargy, and urge them to repentance. Hence they, at the same instant, feel that he is angry with them for their sins, and also propitious to their persons.John Calvin (Institutes 3:2:12)

The Big Picture Problem?

When she moves away from Newton, CCEF and the Westminster Standards, I pick up an organizational principle for salvation that is more Lutheran than Reformed. Lutheran theology (after Luther’s death) made justification by faith alone the organizing principle so union with Christ and sanctification (and all the other benefits) flow out of justification. This, in my opinion, means that justification flattens the other doctrines, our understanding of Scripture and the dynamic rather than static relationship we have with God. This shows up in focusing on the positional almost exclusively.

The Reformed view sees union with Christ as the organizing principle (to borrow Lane Tipton’s terminology, see Calvin’s Institutes, book 3 and the WLC #65-69). Out of our union with Christ we receive all the (distinct) blessings of Christ. We receive the double grace of justification and sanctification at the same time, though they are distinct. We experience definitive or definite sanctification at that point. It focuses on us as positionally sanctified (see Hoekema’s Saved by Grace). Progressive sanctification necessarily focuses on our personal sanctification. He sees us as we are in ourselves (but doesn’t condemn us because of our position in Christ). Reformed Theology has historically held these two in a biblical tension that appears to be lacking here.

Yesterday I looked at some other reviews to make sure I wasn’t missing the boat, or seeing something that isn’t there. Both Mark Jones and Dane Ortland saw the same things or similar things.

Like Dane Ortland I recognize the many good things about this book which includes some things that are rarely taught which need to be heard. But I want to filter out the ways in which she departs from (my understanding of?) Reformed Theology. Enjoy the forest, even if some trees have thorns. Or to use a different metaphor: it is a good meal, but there is some bone and gristle to toss out.

Time for a little Double Cure.

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The final view of sanctification addressed in Christian Spirituality is that of the contemplatives. The Church has a long history with contemplatives, or mystics, that transcends geography and denominations. Some well-known names were contemplatives: Bernard of Clairvoux, St. John of the Cross, Teresa Avila, Thomas Merton and more. In my younger days as a Christian I read Brother Lawrence and The Great Cloud of Unknowing. How does E. Glenn Hinson describe contemplative Christianity?

Contemplatives try to balance the inner and outer life. They usually assert that being will result in doing (which is a far more biblical idea than doing will result in being). They do spend most of their time addressing the inner life: being. Its focus is on communicating, communing and contemplating with God internally. Like Wesleyian sanctification the focus is on one’s love for God. Instead of gaining this thru a second blessing, one pursues it, so to speak, through a series of activities that leads one thru the stages of increasing communion with God. I’m trying to do this justice on its own terms.

“Contemplation has to do with this loving attentiveness to God.”

In contemplation there is an assumption that God is immanent in the created order. He is inescapably near to us. There is no disputing this, the question is “how is He near?”.

In Hinson’s description, there is a “naturalness” to this pursuit of the Divine Lover. He does not clarify and it can sound awfully Pelagian to many ears. Since contemplatives typically eschew theological distinctions, lots of things are vague enough to be misunderstood. Or properly understood.

At the very best, it is typically Arminian. God is a gentleman who never knocks our door down but respects the freedom He gave us. There is a resistibleness to this “grace.” Let me clarify: in Reformed Theology God does not violate the will of the creature, but in regeneration changes the character/nature of the creature so the person’s will is changed. We cannot thwart God’s purposes and plan. In most contemplative theology we, not God, are in the driver’s seat.

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If you are like me your experience with and knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy is limited. I grew up Catholic so I understand Roman Catholicism. To many Protestants the Eastern Church is quite mysterious. Rare are the books by Protestants about Eastern Orthodoxy. Robert Letham has written a good book to help people like me understand our brothers and sisters from the East. In this day, with increased persecution in places like Iraq and Syria we hear more about Eastern Orthodoxy. The vast majority of them are not Protestant but either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, is not a polemical book. His purpose is not to expose the errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. He does compare and contrast its teaching on various doctrines with both Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology. Why just Reformed Theology (and a bit of Luthernism)? Like Roman Catholicism it is a confessional faith. Much of evangelicalism shuns creeds and confessions therefore exhibiting a wide variety of beliefs. Letham himself also comes from a Reformed perspective and therefore compares it to what he knows and loves best.

Letham structures the book in 3 sections: history, theology and evaluation. The third section is not very long. In it he seeks to point out areas where we could learn from them, where they could learn from us, gross misunderstanding and divergence.

The section on theology spends much of its pages dealing with the ecumenical councils. How they do theology is quite different than how we have done theology. Since the Scholastics and particularly since the Enlightenment theology in the West has been done in the universities, and not necessarily in the church. There have been numerous confessions and catechisms to lay out theology as well as many systematic theology books. Theology in the Eastern Church is grounded on the Councils (which we also affirm for the most part), communicated in their liturgy and is done mostly by church men: pastors and bishops. Their dependence on the creeds reflect their understanding of polity: there is no hierarchical structure. The Patriarchs do not function like archbishops or the Pope. How their theology developed is interesting, at least to me.

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Publishing is an odd thing. Some topics are flooded with titles and other topics are almost impossible to find. When a book like Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is published you have to take notice because books on this subject are exceedingly rare in this day and age. Think perhaps for any other title on this subject published in the last 50 years? You can think of plenty on the subject of legalism, but its mirror image antinomianism is quite rare.

Mark Jones doesn’t quite lay out the book as some people might hope. That can breed some minor frustration. For instance, he really doesn’t try to define antinomianism, or better the types of antinomianism until the end of the book.

“Antinomianism must not be confused with the etymological meaning of antinomian (i.e., “against the law”). There is some overlap, of course, but the historical debates focused on more specific areas of the Christian life.”

This is not a systematic theology, but a volume on  historical theology. The primary focus on his research is the antinomian movements in Puritan England and in 1640’s New England. The reason is two-fold. First, these were disputes among people laying claim to the Reformed heritage. Second, there is a revived dispute among those laying claim to the Reformed heritage in our day. Most people I would consider to have an antinomian theology deny having such a view, usually based on the etymological meaning of the term. But when you look at the strains of antinomianism you can begin to see more clearly that some who claim they aren’t really are.

Jones works through a variety of topics in which historically antinomians have departed from mainline Reformed thinking and formulations. Jones’ main point though is not that antinomians’ error comes primarily with regard to the law but their Christology. This is similar to how Sinclair Ferguson addressed these twin errors of legalism & antinomianism in lecturing on the Marrow Controversy. The answer to both errors is the gospel in its fulness.

“Discussions and writings on holiness often lack a strong Christological basis and center.”

Part of me is tempted to expand more fully on some of the topics that Jones works through. I may “think” through a few here. But for now I will be content to lay them out very briefly.

Jones begins with the imitation of Christ. Peter notes that Christ, in addition to being our Savior, is an example to us. Much of what is written in the gospels is there for our imitation. Jesus models for us how to live by faith as fully human. Jesus lived in the power of the Spirit as an example to us as well (here Jones is similar to Sinclair Ferguson in his series Who is the Holy Spirit?). The way of holiness, Jones notes, is that is pursued by faith and in the power of the Spirit. Many of the antinomians, as Jones and Packer in his brief but excellent forward assert, limited our activity in sanctification. They essentially make sanctification monergistic like justification is. As a result they talk about Christ not only obeying for us, but in us. They sound like some hyper-Calvinists I’ve talked with who limit the use of our will. Both groups don’t have much room for Philippians 2:12-13 in their theology. There we see God works so I will will and work resulting in obedience. Both God and I will and work: synergism! In other words, Christ does not act immediately but mediately. Jones is careful to guard the difference between Christ’s impretration (redemption accomplished) and impartation (redemption applied). We see here, and elsewhere that antinomians tend to conflate justification and sanctification.

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One of the free books I got at General Assembly was R.C. Sproul’s The Truth of the Cross. When I was a young Christian I discovered R.C. and his books and tapes (that’s how long ago it was) were an important part of my growth as a Christian. But I have not read much of his stuff in the last 15 years or so. So much to read, so little time.

“If anything has been lost from our culture, it is the idea that human beings are privately, personally, individually, ultimately, inexorably accountable to God for their lives.”

But I decided to read this one. I’d been wanting to read it, and now I owned it. This little book is typical R.C. Sproul, which is a good thing. A very good thing. My former professor has a knack for making theology easy to understand. Many of the recent books that have come out to defend the various attacks on the atonement have been excellent, but for the more theologically advanced audience. The reason R.C. was so instrumental to the resurgence of Reformed Theology is his ability to “put the cookies on the counter”. He’s accessible for all kinds of people.

“He is the One Who stands there, backing up our indebtedness, taking on Himself the requirement of what must be paid.”

As usual, R.C. brings the past into the present. We find Anselm, Augustine, Calvin, Luther and many more. That is another thing that makes his books great- introducing you to the great minds of the past.

He discusses the necessity of the atonement, the justice of God, the various aspects of the atonement (surety, ransom, redemption, freedom etc.), the place of the covenant and explaining particular, or limited, atonement. All this in his winsome, accessible style. But he is also clear about where the lines need to be drawn.

“If you take away the substitutionary atonement, you empty the cross of its meaning and drain all the significance out of the passion of our Lord Himself. If you do that, you take away Christianity itself.”

It is well worth reading for anyone who wants to better understand what Jesus was doing on the cross and why. And that should include every Christian.

Thank you to Ligonier Ministries for making this available to those of us at General Assembly. At least, I thought it was for free.

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