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Jesu, Juva

The objectivity of the church

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Brad Littlejohn writes the following about the objective existence of the church in history:

The most crucial and insightful work on [the question of church history] to come out of Mercersburg was Philip Schaff’s What is Church History? published in 1846. . . . At the outset, unsurprisingly, he insists on the intimate connection between ecclesiology and Church history:

In proportion, however, as the Church is thus brought into prominent and principal view, her History must also become for theologians an object of attention and inquiry. Church and History altogether, since the introduction of Christianity, are so closely united, that respect and love towards the first, may be said to be essentially the same with a proper sense of what is comprised in the other. The Christian Church is itself the greatest fact in the history of the world, by which the ancient order of life both Jewish and heathen has been overturned, and the way opened for a new course of existence altogether. Almost nothing has since occurred that can be counted great and important, which is not found to stand in nearer or more remote, friendly or hostile, connexion with the Church, and to acquire its true historical significance precisely from this relation. History, on the other hand, is the bearer of the Church; by whose means this last is made to possess a real existence, whereas, under any other form it could be nothing better than a baseless, fantastic abstraction, which for us who are ourselves the product of history, and draw from it all the vigour of our lives, would have no meaning or value whatever. (Schaff, What is Church History? 25-26)

In this quote, Schaff argues that the Church is, by its nature, visible and historical, and comes to maturity in history. Moreover, history, by its nature, is oriented by the Church. Therefore, not only is a proper understanding of Church history essential to any true idea of the nature of the Church, but it is necessary to give meaning to the lives of Christians today. The study of Church history, then, is as important as any area of doctrine, and those who neglect or abuse it endanger the project of Christian theology as a whole.

The inseparable relationship between Church and history follows directly from the Mercersburg view of the visible/invisible church distinction, discussed above. For Nevin and Schaff, the visible, historical Church is inseparable from the invisible, timeless Church—it is indeed its necessary manifestation. There is no concept of a true Church existing in a transcendent realm beyond time and space, of which the Church we see is merely some vague corollary. No, if the Church is to have reality at all, it must be a reality which actualizes itself in space and time. And of course, we will remember that this is so because the Church springs out of the Incarnation, in which God declared that His saving power must be something which was actualized in space and time. But more importantly, the Church must be historical because God has a historical plan for His creation. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation—the whole order of the world’s life flows forward, first as a degeneration toward death and separation from God, then after the Incarnation and Resurrection, as an eternal regeneration towards life and union with God. God has willed neither that the glorification of mankind take place in an instant, nor that man be divorced from time and the world to be clothed with his glorified state. For it is not just man who is to be redeemed; the God-man came for the life of the world, and through His saving power in the Church, the whole world must be transformed into a new creation, to the glory of God the Father. This story of transformation is the story of History, and it is thus through history that the Church becomes the Church and accomplishes her God-given task to disciple the nations.

This idea comes out in Schaff’s fondness for the scriptural image of the Church as the “kingdom of Christ on earth.” Just as any kingdom, it has citizens, it has a history, and it accomplishes its conquests in history, until it completes those conquests and history as we know it shall cease: “The church is in part a pedagogic institution, to train men for heaven, and as such is destined to pass away in its present form, when the salvation shall be completed.” Moreover, the Church is “the continuation of the life and work of Christ upon earth.” Therefore, because it is alive, animated by the life of Christ, “the church is not to be viewed as a thing at once finished and perfect, but as a historical fact, as a human society, subject to the laws of history, to genesis, growth, development. Only the dead is done and stagnant. All created life . . . is essentially motion, process, constant change.” Again, however the distinction between ideal and actual plays a key role in this concept of development: “the church, in its idea, or viewed subjectively in Christ, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, is from the first complete and unchangeable.” However, he says, we must distinguish from the idea of the Church its “actual manifestation on earth; from the objective revelation itself we must discriminate the subjective apprehension and appropriation of it in the mind of humanity at a given time.” This latter is necessarily gradual and progressive; the Church slowly grows to maturity through history. (The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity, 77-79)

Written by Scott Moonen

February 13, 2015 at 1:11 pm

Posted in Books, Covenant, Quotations

Regeneration redux

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Last year I wrote that we should speak of regeneration as something that God progressively-continually accomplishes in us, and cited Calvin as saying that regeneration is something that occurs progressively.

Ian Hewitson makes a similar observation:

After a brief treatment of union with Christ in chapter 1 [of the Institutes, book 3], Calvin speaks of regeneration. Under the rubric of regeneration, Calvin was taking up the topic of sanctification. (At that point of theological development, “regeneration” had the broad significance of what we now understand by “sanctification”). Calvin, having completed that topic, then takes up the topic of justification. The polemic involved for Calvin was to demonstrate that the Protestant conception of justification did not militate against the moral integrity of the believer as Roman Catholic theology believed would inevitably be the case if a doctrine of justification was grounded in imputed righteousness. Calvin refutes such an understanding by taking up sanctification first, without calling into question the doctrine of justification as a forensic category grounded in the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Although the Westminster Confession of Faith (in chapter XIII) sees regeneration as the beginning of sanctification, I am not aware of any modern Reformed theologian who takes up the topic of sanctification before the topic of justification according to the same pattern as the Confession. Reformed theologians do take up the topic of regeneration, and regeneration is a category of transformation. In the course of theological development, the conception of regeneration was narrowed down to initial transformation that is wrought at the inception of the process of sanctification. In this way, regeneration is thought of as a transforming “act” of God that accounts for the emergence of faith in the believer. Attention is then turned to other “acts” of God that precede the “process” of sanctification. The movement is from regeneration to justification. Regeneration gives rise to the faith that justifies and precedes sanctification. Such a pattern is within the bounds of Reformed theology and not contrary to Calvin’s approach, but it remains the case that it is not the pattern found in Book III of the Institutes. (Trust and Obey, 25-26)

Written by Scott Moonen

February 11, 2015 at 12:21 am

Life in faith

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Ted Tripp writes of repentance and faith as a way of life rather than an event:

Repentance and faith are not rites of initiation to Christianity. Repentance and faith are the way to relate to God. Repentance and faith are not acts performed one time to become a Christian. They are attitudes of the heart toward ourselves and our sin. Faith is not just the way to get saved; it is the life-line of Christian living.

Your children . . . need to know the cleansing and refreshing forgiveness of God, not just once to get saved, but daily. They must understand the Christian life not simply as living according to a biblical code, but as life in faith, commitment and fellowship with the living God. (Shepherding a Child’s Heart, 55)

Written by Scott Moonen

December 25, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Posted in Books, Parenting, Quotations


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Awhile back, I wrote about seventy sevens and suggested that the figure of an evaluation period of 490 years might also have a connection with 430 years (as in the case of the sin of the Amorites), if you count as Sabbath not only Sabbath years but also jubilee years.

There is another evaluation period of 430 years in Ezekiel, broken into a 390 + 40:

“Then lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it. For the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their punishment. For I assign to you a number of days, 390 days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment. So long shall you bear the punishment of the house of Israel. And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah. Forty days I assign you, a day for each year. And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city. And behold, I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege. (Ezekiel 4:4-8)

430 years of evaluation plus 70 years of judgment makes for a nice round 500 years.

I think we still must take Daniel’s seventy sevens symbolically. There are more, not less, than 490 years to be made up between Cyrus and Jesus.

Written by Scott Moonen

December 24, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology


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Goodreads sent a note congratulating me for reading three books in 2014, which didn’t seem quite right even though it has been a very busy year! It turns out that I’d not marked a “date read” for many of the books, bringing the tally to 15, including some read-alouds with the kids.

My top three books for 2014 are:

  • Poetry: Beowulf
  • Fiction: Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger
  • Non-fiction: The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Capon

The Lord of the Rings earns an honorable mention; while it was not a new book for 2014, we really enjoyed listening to the Rob Inglis narration together as a family. Right now we are partway through reading The Yearling aloud, and plan to read N. D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur next.

For fun, I looked up some of my Goodreads stats. The date read vs. date published chart is fascinating. Augustine and Beowulf are my outliers. Some huge gaps to fill in there!

Written by Scott Moonen

December 20, 2014 at 9:38 am

Posted in Books, Personal


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Peter Leithart writes about one of the symbolic undertones of the ritual of circumcision:

This also highlights the fact that circumcision is the beginning of a pedagogy of weakness, of renunciation of fleshly achievement, of renunciation of the future. If circumcision is a symbolic sacrifice of a newborn son, it is a symbolic offering of the future of your name and family to Yahweh. If Yahweh chooses to raise your son from the dead, then you have a future. But the act entrusts the future into Yahweh hands, which is of course where the future always lies anyway.

The ritual of baptism is the reverse of this in some ways; it is actually our induction into a future that has already begun:

[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5)

In baptism we are joined to Jesus, who has completed the exodus into the new creation (Luke 9:31) and reigns seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Even now we reign with him (Ephesians 2:6). We must still suffer and sacrifice as we look towards the full arrival of this future, and we must still entrust it to God (Ephesians 2:7), but in baptism there is a much greater emphasis on the future’s present arrival in Jesus, and on the church’s participation with him in not just announcing, but actually living out, the kingdom of the new creation.

See also: In the regeneration

Written by Scott Moonen

December 15, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology


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Calvin Seerveld writes movingly on how to read the Bible:

The true story of God’s great deeds has been written down (John 20:31) so that we may believe Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and so believing have life in his name. The Holy Scriptures have been given us historically so that we might come to know the covenanting God and his way of doing things in creation and so that we might be able to obey him more maturely as adopted sons and daughters, who had lost their way in the world. That is crucial, I believe, for rightly understanding the Bible, this God-speaking literature. It must always be pulled back to its primary level of true story for believing children.

That’s a test I have always used when challenged in my confession: I recall the way I responded as a wide-eyed child to Mother reading me Bible stories before I was trundled off to bed. Adam and Eve were real people then . . . and now, quite unlike Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming. Balaam’s ass saw the angel and talked, and God had a whale swallow Jonah—it said so—because God loved the Israelites so much and all the people and cows around Ninevah; but Hansel and Gretel and the witch in the forest were not people in a true story. Somehow my believing parents gave me a lasting sense of how Genesis 3 and Romans 5, Exodus 20 and Matthew 5–7, Psalm 90, Isaiah 40 and Romans 8—all richly, literarily variegated—integrally told the true story of God’s saving presence on the earth, especially for those who took him at his Word, as my Dad would say (cf. I Timothy 4:10). I learned to use the Bible not so much as a book of special, extra, inside information (the way Thomas Aquinas conceived it, cf. Summe contra gentiles, 4, i) but as a source of knowledge-to-grow-on, the kind of vision (nouthesia) your father would give you as an inexperienced lad who was walking around in the world (Bible as “spectacles,” to use John Calvin’s phrase). And it is that kind of humbled, childlike, expectant hearing and fiducial reception (to use an early English Puritan expression) that I believe must be the first and last way one meets the God-speaking literature called the Bible.

So what am I after? Just this: (1) It is an insight of christian aesthetic theory that bona fide art presents reliable, specific knowledge for others to grasp; and that knowledge is of its own imaginative, suggestion-rich sort. (2) Literature is thoughtful writing that is characterized by such an artistic norming. (3) The Bible is God-speaking literature telling us a true story; that is its nature. Therefore, when faithful, childlike people read the Bible, they should read it literarily. One should not read the Bible literalistically (=”literally”?) and then figuratively when one gets stuck. One should always read it literarily, literaturely, the way it is written, to mine its special wisdom-making, true-storied knowledge for children.

The Bible is not a collection of atomic, bullet like proof-texts to be shot at people. It will take a trained person who subsumes verses within paragraphs, within chapter wholes, within total books, within the perspicuous true story connection I mentioned to interpret Scripture word for word. The Bible is not an anthology of lessons in piety which can be distributed, so to speak, like candy to whoever holds out his hand. The Bible does not give recipes, which when followed to the letter, make wonderful devotional soup. Only when the mighty, true story of civitas Dei vs. civitates mundi dominates the reading of the quiet pilgrim psalm 131 or jumps out at you from Genesis 32 when Jabbok becomes Peniel or overwhelms you seeking comfort in the letter to the Philippians: only then does one learn the God-fearing, quiet intensity (eusebeia) that is becoming to a child of God. The Bible is not like a telephone book where you can find God’s special number for emergency use, and all the heavenly office numbers to call for marriage, births and funerals, lonely hearts, potential suicides, earthquake-like disasters. People use the Bible that way, and God stoops to their weakness, but human weakness does not define the Holy Scriptures.

I am continually bowled over by the fact that this is the book where we hear God talking about what He is actually doing in the world; and its true story is so powerful, with cosmic, historic sweep and a tenderly passionate, apocalyptic temper that one says spontaneously with Paul (Romans 15:4), “All the things written earlier were put in writing for us to understand so that through the firming up and comforting power of the Scriptures we might have hope!” Part of what I am after, as a christian aesthetician, is greater recognition of the Bible as God-speaking literature that is telling a true story, so that the Bible not be so easily trivialized into a private, short-order, spiritual cookbook. That denatures the Holy Scriptures, no matter how infallible you claim the book to be. (Rainbows for the Fallen World, 90-92)

Written by Scott Moonen

December 14, 2014 at 12:12 pm


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