Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
Peter Leithart opens his recent book, Delivered From the Elements of the World, with the following observation:
No purely secular society exists or has ever existed. Define religion how you will: As a matter of ultimate concern, as belief in something transcendent, as the organizing master narrative for history and human lives, as a set of practices. However religion is defined, all institutions, structures and patterns of behavior have religious features. All cultures are infused with values and actions that have religious dimensions and overtones. Whether they name the name of a known God or not, societies and cultures are always patterned by some ultimate inspiration and aspiration.
By the same token, all religions have social aspects; they are all embedded in and rely on patterns of interaction among persons. Even the retreat of a solitary ascetic into the desert is a social act, since it is a retreat from social relation. And all religions deal with artifacts, symbols and rituals that might as well be called “cultural.”
Religion is not the “soul” of culture, nor culture the “body” of religion. Religions have bodies, and cultures have souls. It is rather the case that in dealing with any group of human beings, we are always dealing with socio-religious or religio-cultural entities. The common contemporary rhetoric of conflicts between religion and politics obscures the reality. Conflicts are never between politics and religion. Conflicts are always between rivals that are both religious and both political.
Islamic terrorists kill themselves and innocent bystanders for overtly religious reasons. In response, the United States sends troops to the Middle East to make the world safe from terrorism, but also to sacrifice themselves to preserve and advance America’s values, freedom and democracy. To say that the terrorist and the Marine are both motivated by religious values is not to make a moral equivalence. But we misread the times unless we recognize that the war on terror is a religious war on both sides.
We think ourselves all secular, all grown-up, but we have our taboos, our pollution avoidances, our instincts of recoil and disgust. Not so long ago, many found homosexual sodomy disgusting. In a matter of decades, the disgust has turned inside out, and now those who consider homosexual conduct sinful and unnatural are outcasts, treated with contempt. The freedom to engage in any form of consensual sex is now considered a right, and a sacred one, as inviolable as the sacred precincts of an ancient temple. (Delivered From the Elements of the World, 11-12)
I recently finished reading Sinclair Ferguson’s new book The Whole Christ, and appreciated it much. I had previously listened to his lectures on the Marrow controversy, and this book fleshes out his thoughts on the controversy and related issues at greater length.
In the introduction, Tim Keller summarizes one of Ferguson’s key ideas:
. . . the root of both legalism and antinomianism is the same. . . . It is a fatal pastoral mistake to think of legalism and antinomianism as complete opposites. Sinclair says that, rather, they are “nonidentical twins from the same womb.” He traces both of them back to the “lie of Satan” in the garden of Eden, namely, that you can’t trust the goodness of God or his commitment to our happiness and well-being and that, therefore, if we obey God fully, we’ll miss out and be miserable.
Because both mind-sets refuse to believe in the love and graciousness of God, they assume that any commands given to us are evidence that he is unwilling to bless us. They both fail to see obedience as the way to give the gracious God delight as well as the way to become our true selves, the people we were created to be. They participate in the same incomprehension of the joy of obedience—they see obedience as something imposed on us by a God whose love is conditional and who is unwilling to give us blessing unless we do quite a lot of work. The only difference is that the legalist wearily assumes the burden, while the antinomian refuses it and casts it off by insisting that if God is really loving, he wouldn’t ask for it. In order to salvage an idea of a gracious God, antinomians find ways to argue that God doesn’t require obedience.
Neither legalism nor antinomianism can account for the sentiments of Psalm 119, which are godly, Christian sentiments. Neither the legalist nor the antinomian can agree with Calvin’s statement that the third use of the law is its “principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end.”
Ferguson captures the Christian attitude well in a footnote where he makes analogy between God’s law and the laws of golf:
. . . the Rules of Gold, authoritatively issued by the United States Golf Association and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, are never regarded as “legalistic” by those who play golf. And to be an “antinomian” golfer and ignore the rules leads to disqualification. Fascinatingly, the governing bodies of golf publish a surprisingly large book giving guidance on the details of the application of the rules to every conceivable situation on a golf course—and to some that are virtually inconceivable! The rules, and their detailed application, are intended to enhance the enjoyment of the game. My edition (2010-2011) extends to 578 pages with a further 131 pages of index. The person who loves the game of golf finds great interest and pleasure, even delight, in browsing through these applications of the Rules of Golf. It should therefore not greatly stretch the imagination that the Old Testament believer took far greater pleasure at a higher level in meditating on and walking in the ways of God’s law. It is passing strange that there should be so often among Christians a sense of heart irritation against the idea that God’s law should remain our delight. Our forefathers from Luther onward grasped this principle, and, as a result, through the generations those who made use of the standard catechisms learned how to apply God’s Word and law to the daily details of life. It is a mysterious paradox that Christians who are so fascinated by rules and principles that are necessary or required in their professions or avocations respond to God’s ten basic principles with a testy spirit. Better, surely, to say, “Oh how I love your law!” It should be no surprise that there appears to be a correlation between the demise of the law of God in evangelicalism and the rise of a plethora of mystical ways of pursuing guidance, detaching the knowledge of God’s will from knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word.
Ferguson’s other key idea is that we must not separate the benefits of our salvation from the savior himself:
The benefits of the gospel (justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption) were [in that day] being separated from Christ, who is himself the gospel. The benefits of the gospel are in Christ. They do not exist apart from him. They are ours only in him. They cannot be abstracted from him as if we ourselves could possess them independently of him.
. . . A major indication that such a separation has taken place is that one of the most prominent emphases in the New Testament becomes marginalized, namely, union with Christ. . . . If [being in Christ] is not the overwhelmingly dominant way in which we think about ourselves . . . it is highly likely that we will have a tendency to separate Christ from his benefits and abstract those benefits from him (in whom alone they are to be found) as though we possessed them in ourselves.
While I greatly appreciated the book, there are a few very minor areas where I felt it could have been improved.
First, Ferguson makes an interesting side remark about the so-called “covenant of redemption,” suggesting that Boston was concerned the notion would lead people to the wrong conclusion that the Father was less enthusiastic than the Son in pursuing our salvation. But this remark is so brief that it feels like a play to the cheap seats in recent controversies in the reformed world. Boston’s concerns as briefly stated by Ferguson could apply equally to traditional penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory, and Ferguson makes no immediate effort either to recognize that there are possible ways to address Boston’s concerns among those who hold to a covenant of redemption, or to show how PSA theory can adequately guard against this accusation (which I fully believe that it can).
Similarly, Ferguson treats the new perspective on Paul (NPP) with an overly broad brush. While I haven’t read primary sources, the folks I have read who are cautiously appreciative of the NPP would agree fully with Ferguson’s positive assertions, and yet he does not leave room for a kind of cautious reading of the NPP that might learn something new and helpful. I do not get the sense, contra Ferguson, that many are trying to vindicate either the first-century Pharisees or the Tridentine Catholic church; only trying to better understand the nature of their very real and obvious falls from grace. In other words, most on all sides would agree that the Pharisees were guilty of a kind of deadly spiritual pride (c.f., Rom. 11). The question is only whether the species of that pride was merit legalism or something subtly different. But that is not at all to deny that merit legalism is a genuine species of spiritual pride, only to recognize that such pride comes in many subtle forms, including both legalism and antinomianism, but extending beyond them as well. It is even possible to take sinful pride in possessing the true doctrine of grace.
I find it interesting that Ferguson does not treat another area of recent controversy, namely the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (IAOC). This is particularly surprising given that he is treating on both the topics of union with Jesus and legalism. As I understand it, those who differ with the language of IAOC do so precisely because (1) they believe that the language of union with Jesus much more comprehensively expresses what we positively receive from Jesus in our justification and how this takes place, and (2) they believe that IAOC can tend to a subtle erosion of the positive place of the law because it views it primarily as a measure of merit rather than a rule of life. Ferguson missed a great opportunity both to express appreciation and agreement with these concerns, but also to positively defend IAOC in light of them. Certainly Ferguson does argue forcefully both that righteousness and merit are not “things” that we possess apart from Jesus, and that the law is not intended as a source or measure of merit even as we approach it in Jesus: “Neither the Old Testament believer nor the Savior severed the law of God from his gracious person. It was not legalism for Jesus to do everything his Father commanded him. Nor is it for us.”
Finally, I have a couple of reflections on practical ways this might impact the ordinary life of the church. First, it seems to me that incorporating corporate confession and absolution into the church’s liturgy would serve as a strong defense against both the errors of legalism and antinomianism: it would both affirm the ongoing validity of the law for the believer, while at the same time utterly denying its power to conduct a ministry of death to those who are alive in Jesus; it would regularly arm and re-arm the church with a kind of “gutsy guilt.” Second, it seems to me that requiring our children to produce intellectual expressions of faith before their participation in baptism or the Lord’s supper is sending a subtly legalistic message about the nature of the gospel, in just the same way that the Auchterarder creed and Marrow were trying to guard against. Jesus does not require our children to get either their moral or intellectual ducks in a row before they may appear before him.
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)
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)
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!
Consider Nathan Wilson’s Empire of Bones, a fun and swashbuckling young adult novel (part of a series, not yet complete) that has a major character singing Psalm 22, singing it joyously—for the joy set before him, as he gives his life in the hope of saving others. With a small quote it’s impossible to capture the intense build-up that has brought the book and series to this point, but here is the bittersweet moment:
Surrounded completely, the Captain’s blade was still fast enough to keep the ring from closing. He laughed as he fought, and his smile was as grim as any reaper’s. And then he began to sing. His accent and his effort slurred his words, but Diana recognized the song. Her own mother sang it in the kitchen, and her happiness in the singing always belied the sorrow of the words.
The Captain sang and he danced and he slashed the ring around him. He sang even when Radu’s chain found his legs and lightning forked from the links and felled him. He sang as the transmortals tore the blade from his hand, grabbed his wrists, and stretched his shaking oak-strong arms out from his sides.
He was singing as they tore off his breastplate, and singing as Rupert pulled Diana back from the rail, away from what was about to happen.
“You are no immortal,” Radu spat. “You are a beggar with a scrap of Odyssean Cloak hidden beneath your skin.”
“Their mouths they opened wide on me,” the Captain sang. “Upon me gape did they, like to a lion ravening and roaring for his prey. For dogs have compassed me about; they pierced my—”
The Captain’s voice broke into a shout of pain, and then he sang on, louder still, filling the vaults with what sounded like triumph, like joy.
John Smith was ready to sail.
Diana shook as Rupert pulled her away. But she heard the beastly snarl as the scrap of Odyssean Cloak was taken from inside the Captain’s chest. She heard a blade sing. The snarling stopped. Mocking laughter began.
He is even strung out in the shape of a cross.