Chesterton Talks Demons

Chesterton described mythology as ‘day dreaming’. This was not in the sense of ‘fanciful lies’ but in the sense that they were imaginative ways of describing a world that can’t be reduced to natural processes. Mythology is a grasping at a spiritual reality. The flip side of day dreaming however, is nightmare. Moving on from God and the gods, Chesterton now treats ‘the demons’.

Underlying all of this rather innocent grasping at spirituality was the “weakness of original sin.” (11) “This disproportion dragged down the winged fancies and filled the end of paganism with a mere filth and litter of spawning gods.” (11). The problem with mythology is fundamentally rooted in a problem with human beings. Human beings have the curious habit of ruining good things.

The difference between mythology and this nightmarish alternative is that where mythology was about imagination; superstition is concerned with manipulation. The nightmare occurs when mythology is transformed by human sinfulness and selfish will to power. They moved from imaginative grasping to things of their own manipulative creation. “A South American idol was made as ugly as possible, as a Greek image was made as beautiful as possible. They were seeking the secret of power, by working backwards against their own nature and the nature of things.” (116).

With this Chesterton has noted a fundamental similarity between myth and its destruction and God’s good creation and its fall. The fundamental problem with the world isn’t God’s good creation, but human sin. The creation was originally good, but was corrupted by the sin of human beings. In the early chapters of Genesis we read, “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen. 6:5). The good news of Christianity is that God is seeking to restore all things to himself and make all things new. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus],  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1:19-20).



Tim’s Dissertation for Beginners

Recently I finished a massive 15,000 word dissertation for my MA degree in theology! Needless to say, it was a wordy, complex, and at times tedious process. But I chose the topic of my dissertation with a practical goal in mind. The best kind of theology is theology aimed at deepening our love for God and worship of him, as well as our knowledge of him. I wanted to reflect deeply on one of the key elements of the Christian story academically so I could better communicate the amazing good news of that story to the people around me. In the next few posts I want to explain what my dissertation is all about so that those ‘sitting in the pew’ might better appreciate what it means to say that Jesus really is ‘good news’.

A great place to begin to unpack this is by considering the Bible itself. The Bible is basically a story of rescue. It constantly speaks of a God who becomes involved in human history in order to save and deliver people. God is repeatedly described as a rescuer and refuge, a deliverer and savior. Theologians often sum up the Bible story using the phrase, ‘narrative of salvation’. Ultimately, the Bible isn’t a moral guide, or a history book (though both of those things are important, see 1 Corinthians 15), it is primarily a story of salvation. It describes and recounts the works of a God who doesn’t stand at a distance, set the machine going, and leave it at that, but a God who seeks relationship with people, gets involved in people’s lives, and seeks to save his people from harm.

Psalm 18 is a brilliant example,

“The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

All of this culminates in the arrival of Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ name means ‘God saves’ and Jesus speaks of himself as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s rescue mission (John 5:39). The apostle John (3:17) sums it up when he writes,

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

You might have experienced talk like this if you’ve ever been to a Church service. You may have heard Christians say, “Jesus saved me” or you might have seen cars sporting battered bumper stickers with the words ‘Jesus saves!’ printed in comic sans. My dissertation was all about what it means for someone to be ‘saved’. What are we saved from? Why are we saved and for what purpose? And how is it that God saves us?

SoteriologyThese kinds of questions are questions concerning what theologians call ‘soteriology’ taken from the Greek word for salvation. They’re basically questions of ‘salvation-ology’ and the answers to each have been rather controversial at decisive points in Christian history. Different answers to the question of how God saves us were influential at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. More recently, the original answers given to these questions by Protestants have been questioned by some Protestant theologians. I sought to defend the traditional answers against some of these recent objections. In order to explain my dissertation I’ll attempt to unpack these questions in order over the next few posts (for those who are still reading) with the hope that it will encourage us to worship God more deeply and seek him more wholeheartedly.


Chesterton on Mythology and Religion

Chesterton Painting

In the last post we saw how Chesterton took issue with comparative religion. In its place he provided a number of new headings within which to understand religious claims and worldviews. The basic gist of the argument under the first heading, ‘God’, was to suggest that monotheism is less a development of polytheistic theology and more likely its foundational idea. Over the course of history this simple idea was forgotten through cultural amalgamation and accommodation giving way to polytheistic religious pluralism. “…the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology.”

With this statement, Chesterton sets up his next move. He now begins to treat his second heading, ‘the gods’, which he discusses by trying to unpack the purpose of mythology. What is mythology? Why do we create mythologies? How directly does mythology relate to Christianity? Again, Chesterton’s treatment of myth anticipates the common jibes of the New Atheism. Many Christians are familiar with the Atheistic quip that belief in Santa Clause and Jesus are analogous. But Chesterton challenges this claim with a rather odd statement, “They [mythology and Christianity] are fundamentally different exactly where they are superficially similar; we might almost say they are not the same even when they are the same.” (109).

What does Chesterton mean by this? He begins by pointing us to aesthetics. A work of mythology should not be analysed scientifically, it is instead, a work of art and intended to be so. “We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy; but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science.” (95). This is a problem that doesn’t only apply to mythology. All manner of things are often evaluated against the wrong criteria. For example, the quality of a painting shouldn’t be judged by the amount of money it sells for. The problem with many treatments of myth is similar, they are often understood within the wrong framework. Myths are not to be understood scientifically but aesthetically. Mythologies are not attempts to provide scientific theory or mathematical axioms. They are not abstractions in the same way that we deduce a theory of gravity from a falling apple. Rather, mythology attempts to make sense of what is unknown, not by abstraction, but by use of the imagination.

When in fairy stories water or woodland are given a personality, the personality is not intended as an insignificant addition. “The point is that the personality perfects the water with significance.” (99). It captures something that can never really be captured by scientific theory; it reaches out to an aesthetic reality. The test of a good myth is not whether it meets the standards of scientific inquiry, the test is imaginative.

“Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test therefore is purely imaginative. But imaginative does not mean imaginary.” (99).

Mythology isn’t too dissimilar from painting a landscape. I often go and find a quiet spot with some watercolours and attempt to put what I see to paper. But even when I really like a painting it never really captures the place fully. It is an attempt at an image, not the thing itself. Even then though, I recognize that painting captures something that a cold description never could. “Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through a veil.” (99). “In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.” (99).

You will recall that Chesterton noted in earlier chapters that this tendency to create mythology is universal. This is an anthropological fact. It is this kind of spiritual sense that gives impetus to the creation of mythology; just as the beauty of a scene gives impetus for trying to describe it in oils. “The substance of all such paganism may be summarized thus. It is an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone; in its own field reason does not restrain it at all.” (105). For that very reason, paganism as such isn’t really defined in terms of creed or confession. It is in a very real sense only a kind of day-dreaming. It is not fixed in what it believes. “So the mythological imagination moves as it were in circles, hovering either to find a place or to return to it. In a word, mythology is a search; it is something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt, mixing the most hungry sincerity in the idea of a seeking for a place with a most dark and deep and mysterious levity about all the places found.” (107). It is a very sincere attempt at finding something in the dark, and yet it is not so sincere as to become thoroughly dogmatic, it was never intended to be.

This particular observation is found in the works of C. S. Lewis who read The Everlasting Man around the time of his conversion to Christianity. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, echoing Chesterton, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Paganism and mythology are a way of describing that desire and, as Chesterton said, such mythology, while produced from the imagination needn’t be imaginary. “A picture may look like a landscape; it may look in every detail exactly like a landscape. The only detail in which it differs is that it is not a landscape.” (108).

Myth isn’t functioning here as a kind of fanciful lie, it is an attempt to provide a worldview, an account of things, which looks beyond a reductionist rationalism. There are things in the world that rationalism can’t reach. The concept of myth wasn’t understood by Chesterton in the way we understand it today. Myth was understood as an imaginative way of describing things that are not reducible to rationalistic formulae.

And then we come to Christianity. Where myth was only ever intended as a kind of day dream or artistic reaching, we find in Christianity, not only something that makes aesthetic sense of the world, but that does so while claiming to be a description of the true reality of things.

Lewis explains, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.”

The difference between Paganism or pure mythology, is that in Paganism “…the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel [they] do not mingle until they meet in the sea of Christendom.” (106). Christianity was never intended to be a day dream, it is instead rooted in historical events. It is not simply a search in the dark, for it claims that when Jesus entered the world, the light was switched on. Jesus did say, after all, in John 8:12, ““I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The story of Jesus explains the sense of the numinous that we find so prevalent in humans throughout the world but, unlike other myths (here understood as imaginative attempts to explain a world that can’t be explicated in terms of pure reason), this one corresponds exactly to the reality of things in a way that is intended to be more than aesthetic.


Chesterton, God, and Comparative Religion


Chesterton smashed through common misconceptions regarding biological and social evolution with wit and common sense. Now he seeks to outline the history of religion. He begins by pointing out that the most common kind of religion we tend to see in our modern societies is the worship of self, or the worship of humanity as a whole.

“In the days of my youth the Religion of Humanity was a term commonly applied to Comtism, the theory of certain rationalists who worshipped corporate mankind as a Supreme Being. Even in the days of my youth, I remarked that there was something slightly odd about despising and dismissing the doctrine of the Trinity as a mystical and even maniacal contradiction; and then asking us to adore a deity who is a hundred million persons in one God, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.” (76-77)

But even prior to this Religion of Humanity there existed and continues to exist an almost universal Paganism arising out of what appears to be a universal religious sense inherent to humanity. And “When I am speaking of this thing, therefore, I am speaking of something that doubtless includes very wide differences; nevertheless I will here maintain that it is one thing.” (78). “This thing is Paganism; and I propose to show in these pages that it is the one real rival to the Church of Christ.” (78).

Chesterton goes on to say something about how to classify these religious points of view. The regular way of doing it is to compare them in terms of their holy books, or founder, or moral code. This is the kind of thing we see so ubiquitously in our current school system. Religions are compared under the assumption that they are all variations of the same thing. Stereophonics sang,

“You can find yourself a God
Believe in which one you want
Cause they love you all the same
They just go by different names”

But Chesterton, I think, quite rightly protests, “When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable.” (78) “We are accustomed to see the names of the great religious founders all in a row: Christ; Mahomet; Buddha; Confucius. But in truth this is only a trick; another of these optical illusions by which any objects may be put into a particular relation by shifting to a particular point of sight.” (78-79). Comparing worldviews is much more complex than is often realized, and to treat them all on the same plane tends to flatten them out beyond all recognition. Perhaps it is this attitude that underpins that false assumption that many have about Christianity, namely, the myth that you get to heaven on the basis of the good works you’ve done. Perhaps this is true of other religions, or at least those that posit heaven, but the Christian concept of grace renders this comparative interpretation of Christianity totally false.

This regular way of comparing religions, then, isn’t entirely adequate. In its place Chesterton proposes to compare religions, or at least, draw out their differences by using a different system of classification. “I shall here submit an alternative classification of religion or religions, which I believe would be found to cover all the facts and, what is quite important here, all the fancies.” (81). He treats religions under a number of different headings or themes; ‘God’, ‘the gods’, ‘the Demons’, and ‘the philosophers’ and begins with the first.

Belief in God, or monotheism, ‘the most simple and sublime’ of all the above, is primordial. A monotheistic God is entirely different from the created world and often underpins the polytheism of most pagan cultures. “There is a striking example in a tale taken down word for word from a Red Indian in California, which starts out with hearty legendary and literary relish: ‘The sun is the father and ruler of the heavens. He is the big chief. The moon is his wife and the stars are their children’; and so on through a most ingenious and complicated story, in the middle of which is a sudden parenthesis saying that the sun and moon have to do something because ‘It is ordered that way by the Great Spirit Who lives above the place of all.’ That is exactly the attitude of most paganism towards God. He is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident; a habit possibly not peculiar to pagans.” (82-83).

Belief in ‘the’ God, belief in the source of all things, so totally other that he created the world and is unbound by time and space is not an idea that gradually develops. It is a belief that is often assumed, and belief in a Being so discontinuous with the created order that it doesn’t so much evolve as it was always tacitly known. This one simple idea didn’t evolve, “The idea was concealed, was avoided, was almost forgotten, was even explained away; but it was never evolved.” (84). If anything polytheism is a development of this one simple idea. It is a kind of syncretism of a number of different monotheisms meeting with each other. “Gods and demigods and heroes breed like herrings before our very eyes, and suggest of themselves that the family may have had one founder; mythology grows more and more complicated, and the very complication suggests that at the beginning it was more simple.” (86). All of these pagan mythologies are attempts at reaching out to this initial simple idea. They sense that there is a religious reality that underpins all things, and this is perhaps motivated less by the presence of God and more by his absence. Something is missing.

This observation very much reminded me of that famous quote from the British columnist Bernard Levin,

“Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches.”

Why have people forgotten this one God, this simple and yet utterly beautiful idea? Chesterton again points us to polytheism. In meeting with other cultures and continents people amalgamated their God with the gods of others. “They admitted them to equal thrones with their own; sometimes they identified them with their own.” (88).

“And this point is very important in many controversies ancient and modern. It is regarded as a liberal and enlightened thing to say that the god of the stranger may be as good as our own; and doubtless the pagans thought themselves very liberal and enlightened when they agreed to add to the gods of the city or the hearth some wild and fantastic Dionysus coming down from the mountains or some shaggy and rustic Pan creeping out of the woods. But exactly what it lost by these larger ideas is the largest idea of all.” (89)

Very often the beautiful and the simple is associated with a bygone era and the new and novel associated with liberality and enlightenment. Those who cling stubbornly to the old religion are considered ‘superstitious’ or ‘savage’. And as Chesterton rightly points out, this has been the case with that people who have clung to this simple idea so obstinately, the Jews. “It is true in this sense, humanly speaking, that the world owes God to the Jews.” (89). They were totally against syncretism of every kind and as such preserved this simple idea.

As if responding to Dawkins almost a hundred years before the God Delusion Chesterton writes, “It is often said with a sneer that the God of Israel was only a God of Battles, ‘a mere barbaric Lord of Hosts’ pitted in rivalry against other gods only as their envious foe. Well it is for the world that he was a God of Battles. Well it is for us that he was to all the rest only a rival and a foe. In the ordinary way, it would have been only too easy for them to have achieved the desolate disaster of conceiving him as a friend. It would have been only too easy for them to have seen him stretching out his hands in love and reconciliation, embracing Baal and kissing the painted face of Astarte, feasting in fellowship with the gods; the last god to sell his crown of stars for the Soma of the Indian pantheon or the nectar of Olympus or the mead of Valhalla.” (90).

“As it was, while the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.” (91).


Chesterton and the Antiquity of Civilization

Ancient Egypt

Having begun with his reflections on caricatures of prehistoric man and biological evolution, Chesterton turns his attention to the development of civilization. Here again he takes our common understanding of civilization to task. Humanity isn’t quite what we expect it to be. Against a theory of gradual socio-political progress from barbarism to civilization Chesterton writes that “The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized.” (50). In other words, the first civilizations that we know of precede records of themselves. Ancient civilizations existed long before they began to record their own history.

This idea of change from the barbaric to the civilized is what Chesterton is seeking to challenge. The early civilizations of the earth are often characterized as barbaric dictatorships run by heartless despots. But given that our early records of these civilizations only give us a tiny glimpse of early history such pictures of early man are highly speculative. Given that such early history is so speculative, and given that early records arise out of civilized societies, we do well to understand such societies more cautiously in light of the history of politics and societies that we really do know of.  Instead, “If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic.” (53). And again, “According to the real records available, barbarism and civilization were not successive stages in the progress of the world. They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side.” (56).

That early history is open to such speculative theorizing also opens up the possibility of another danger. The danger I am referring to is ‘projection’. What is projection? Projection takes place when we ‘project’ our ideas onto things. A very current example would be the debate over Brexit. Brexit is a particularly vague term that generally refers to the UK’s leaving of the European Union. But precisely what that looks like isn’t laid out by the term Brexit itself and so many people read into the word what they’d like it to be.

With regard to the history of early civilization Chesterton writes, “…it may be noted that as soon as feminism became a fashionable cry, it was insisted that human civilization in its first stage had been a matriarchy. Apparently it was the cave-woman who carried the club. Anyhow all these ideas are little better than guesses; and they have a curious way of following the fortune of modern theories and fads.” (57).

Again, human beings are unique. We find them already civilized when we read the earliest records. We find that barbarism and civilization are not successive stages in a world history of gradual process but that they often coexist, and one leads to the other in all manner of orders. Chesterton finishes by drawing our attention to the Iliad. It is perhaps one of the oldest poems we know of but it is also one of the best. It is a poem likely to outlive all other poems, and yet it came from one of the earth’s early societies. Human beings were unique from their beginning.


A Wander Through History with Chesterton

ChestertonG. K. Chesterton has often been hailed the ‘apostle of common sense’. He has the uncanny ability to draw out the wonderful from the mundane and the religiously significant from that which hides in plain sight. It’s no different with The Everlasting Man, Chesterton’s history of the world with an emphasis on answering the age old question: “What makes human beings uniquely human.”

Chesterton offers such rich and rewarding insights that I’m going to sum up each chapter of the book in the hope that I might be able to distill his thinking in a way which makes them more accessible to those who have never thought about the question, or those who might want to know a bit more about Chesterton.

The Everlasting Man begins with a rather excellent chapter on prehistoric man. Here Chesterton begins his history and immediately engages the social Darwinist movement so popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. He notes that when we think of ‘the cave man’ we often imagine a rather ugly figure, perhaps named Og, who goes around beating people with a club and wondering why square wheels don’t work. But Chesterton makes the striking observation that this kind of caricature of stone age humanity finds itself ruined by one of the only enduring contributions of stone age human beings themselves, namely, cave paintings.

“When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.” (25)

“Yet we do know for a fact that the cave-man did these mild and innocent things; and we do not have the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things.” (25)

What such paintings indicate about human beings, is that for all their commonality with the animal kingdom there is something strikingly different about them. So striking that it produces art, reflection, and self-conscious appreciation for the natural world. The kind of characteristics that are found nowhere else in the animal world.

Such a striking, yet often overlooked observation has a direct impact on the way we view evolution in relation to the human being. There is something miraculous and unnatural about human beings. The time it takes for such unnatural and startling abilities to occur does nothing to take away their total discontinuity with what came before.

“There may be a broken trail of stone and bone faintly suggesting the development of the human body. There is nothing even faintly suggesting such a development of this human mind. It was not and it was; we know not in what instant or in what infinity of years.” (32-33).

For example, when Jesus turned water into wine in Galilee in John 2:1-11, it would have remained utterly miraculous even if it had been transformed drip by drip and not jar by jar. The time it takes for a miracle to happen has no impact on its being miraculous. “But this notion of something smooth and slow, like the ascent of a slope, is a great part of the illusion. It is an illogicality as well as an illusion; for slowness has really nothing to do with the question. An event is not any more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves. For a man who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one.” (19).

Chesterton also asks us to consider evolution itself. If evolution be considered as that biological theory that seeks to explain the natural diversity we see in living organisms, whether by adaption or mutation, it does nothing to explain the origin of that life in the first place, or even the origin of the conditions in which such life might arise. The conclusion of the first chapter, then, is that there is something totally unique about human beings that sets them apart from everything else and evolution acts more as a foil, instead of an explanation, as to why human beings are so distinct. Human beings remain remarkable whether evolution takes place or not.

A Tolkien Map of the Holy Land

Recently I’ve continued to work on a number of maps inspired by the artwork of Christopher Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. I’ve completed a map of the Lake District and recently finished a map of the Holy Land.


20180701_132510As part of that I bought a book called The Art of Lord of the Rings for visual reference. The book is a compendium of the various different art works, maps and calligraphy that Tolkien developed in the writing of his books. It’s a fantastic book, and is full of excellent pictures. I particularly like Christopher Tolkien’s map of the Shire. Taking my cue from Tolkien I’m considering drawing maps of the local area in Tolkien’s style and trying to sell them in local shops. It’s been therapeutic just sitting in front of the telly or listening to music and spending an hour or so drawing mountains.


A Review of Michael Allen’s “Sanctification”

No, this isn’t a critical assessment of Michael Allen’s faith journey, but it is a review of the most recent installment of the New Studies in Dogmatics series being produced by Zondervan. The series approaches the core elements of systematic theology from a Reformed perspective in the tradition of G. C. Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics. Drawing on the catholic heritage of the church and retrieving some of its most profound insights, the authors in the series present the riches of theological thinking to a modern evangelical audience.

Before 20180612_085040delving into the details of Allen’s specific volume on sanctification it’s worth spending some time praising the format of this series. The design of both the cover and the contents is top notch. Seeing all of the current volumes stood next to each other is rather satisfying. The pages are laid out in an easily readable font and the author’s notes and references are placed in the footnotes at the bottom of the page. Time and time again I’ve been frustrated by volumes of theology that leave all the references to the end notes, but here the line of thought and the sources are readily available. The indices are exhaustive too with subject, scripture and author indices. All of this is provided in a handy paperback format which makes the series surprisingly affordable.

Allen begins the volume by outlining his approach. What Allen is keen to do is to place sanctification canonically. He doesn’t just want to analyse the usual proof texts associated with sanctification but wants to approach the concept of holiness as it is revealed across the whole Bible, if not explicitly then implicitly. As such Allen begins with the doctrine of God, moves through the doctrine of creation, then covenant, eventually reflecting on how our relationship to Jesus impacts the doctrine of sanctification.

As part of this section Allen includes two really excellent chapters on what it means to be ‘in Christ’ and how justification relates to sanctification. What this allows Allen to do is to place the doctrine of sanctification within a broader soteriological context. This is particularly important since Reformed approaches to soteriology are so often caricatured as almost exclusively interested forensic justification. What Allen does so well here is in pointing out how Reformed soteriology is multifaceted and well rounded. I think it paves the way for Michael Horton’s two volume contribution to the series on justification since Allen sets the scene so well and helps us to see the big picture.

The breadth of the study and the depth of the content of Allen’s volume will repay frequent visits. I heartily recommend this volume to anyone interested in systematic and constructive theology in the Reformed tradition. I think that as a result of Allen’s work we’ll be better equipped to understand the Christ focused nature of sanctification. Since, “Sanctification by faith really does involve God’s setting apart your habits, practices, actions, and self. Such transformation springs first and foremost from a renewed sense of reliance, no longer upon self but in the Savior, yet it flows over into vital activity of all sorts.” (286).



Trinity Sunday


It’s that time of year again; Trinity Sunday. Or at least it was, last week. The date is one of the most dreaded in the liturgical year since, at first glance, the Trinity seems so complex as to be impossible to communicate without heresy or total confusion. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some thoughts that might help shape our thinking when preaching about the Trinity.

The first thing to note is that the good news of Jesus Christ just is trinitarian. Some think that the doctrine of the Trinity; the idea that God is one being in three persons is a totally abstract concept disconnected from the biblical narrative of salvation. But the gospel is fundamentally trinitarian in shape. The theologian Fred Sanders tells us that we might summarize the entire story of the Bible by saying that it is the story of God the Father, who sends God the Son, and pours out God the Holy Spirit. Each member of the Trinity is inseparably linked to what God was doing in Christ. The story of salvation reveals the trinitarian character of God. In other words, God doesn’t simply save us he also reveals to us who he is, namely, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Which, we might add, is to be expected from a God who seeks relationship with his people. Salvation doesn’t consist in the forgiveness of sins only, but in relationship with the living God. John writes, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (17:3).

In this case, an understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity will be of great value for preachers who seek to preach the gospel of Jesus in its fullness. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us to speak accurately and truly of what Jesus did through his life, death and resurrection. If preaching is the proclamation and communication of the good news of Jesus Christ it will be trinitarian either explicitly or implicitly.

But what of those who say that the Trinity is a fourth century invention of the church fathers? I think they do the church fathers a disservice. The church fathers came to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in reflection on the biblical data. They reflected on the story of salvation and the Father’s work in Christ through the Spirit. Such a doctrine could only develop through attention to divine revelation. This point is demonstrable by the fact that there appears to be a direct correlation between the rejection of biblical infallibility and the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. With the rise of naturalistic approaches to historical criticism following the enlightenment there was a similar rise in the rejection of an understanding of God that was essentially shaped by that revelation.

In preaching the Trinity then, we must pay close attention to God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. We must see that the gospel is Trinitarian in shape. And we must acknowledge that the gospel consists not simply in the forgiveness of sins, though that is essential, it also consists in the knowledge of God. And so the Trinity, “Though it can be stated propositionally and in the form of information, it was not given primarily as information. Rather, this knowledge came along with the carrying out of God’s work of salvation.” (Sanders, The Triune God, 239).

Is ‘covenantal nomism’ Protestant?


One of the interesting developments in Pauline scholarship over the past few decades has been the rise of what has been called the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ (NP). The NP has had a number of benefits, namely its call to take the Jewishness of scripture seriously, as well as unpacking what salvation entails more broadly, without reducing salvation to forensic justification. The main point of contention, however, focuses on the doctrine of justification that many advocates of NP put in the place of traditional Protestant accounts.

E. P. Sanders, who was the primary catalyst for NP exegesis, characterizes the soteriology that results as ‘covenantal nomism’. By that he means that the new covenant is continuous with the old one in significant respects to the extent that one enters into the new covenant that Jesus Christ has made by his blood, through faith, (as such the people of God is a multi-ethnic community) but remains in by works.

N. T. Wright puts it this way, “Finally, as is already clear from the above, this lawcourt verdict, implementing God’s covenant plan, and all based on Jesus Christ himself, is announced both in the present, with the verdict issued on the basis of faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already indwelt by the spirit. The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.” (Justification, Wright, 223).

Clearly, the NP doesn’t get rid of the idea of justification as a forensic judgement or pronouncement of acquittal or pardon. Wright is adamant that the language of justification is legal in this sense. As such both him and Dunn are quite happy to say that they are in fundamental continuity with the insights of the Reformers.

“As Dunn aptly notes, the “Judaism of what Sanders christened as ‘covenantal nomism’ can now be seen to preach good Protestant doctrine: that grace is always prior; that human effort is ever the response to divine initiative; that good works are the fruit and not the root of salvation.” (12-13).

Wright adds, “Everything Luther and Calvin wanted to achieve is within this glorious Pauline framework of thought.” (Wright, 224).

And yet, I’m not convinced that covenantal nomism is adequately continuous with the fundamental concerns and contours of Reformed theology. As to the scriptural faithfulness of covenantal nomism, I’ll leave that to the exegetes. But in terms of systematic theology I think a number of discontinuities are readily apparant. This can be helpfully drawn out by Alister McGrath’s summary of the key elements of Protestant theologies of justification.

“McGrath has helpfully noted three points that distinguish the mature Protestant doctrine of justification: (1) Justification involves a forensic declaration of righteousness that effects a change in legal status before God, as opposed to a process that actually makes one righteous. (2) There is a clear conceptual difference between justification (“the act by which God declares the sinner to be righteous”) and either regeneration or sanctification (the actual “internal process of renewal by the Holy Spirit”). (3) Justifying righteousness is understood as an external, “alien” righteousness, graciously imputed to the Christian through the act of faith. ” (Justification Five Views, 25).

So how does covenantal nomism measure up? Well, both Dunn and Wright are quite happy to agree that justification involves a forensic declaration. But we begin to meet discontinuity with both (2) and (3). The regenerative work of the Spirit is clearly integral for Wright in the final justification of the sinner, which will be on the basis of the whole life lived in the power of the Spirit. And as a result of the denial of (2) this also entails a denial of (3). If final justification is to some extent dependent on my inherent righteousness produced by the Spirit (even though it is produced by grace), then justifying righteousness cannot be wholly external. So two of the essential features of a mature Protestant theology of justification are denied by covenantal nomism. Additionally, given the recent work of John Barclay in Paul and the Gift it is clear that the priority of grace isn’t the only dimension of grace that needs to be taken into account when searching for a Protestant theology of justification. Things like non-circularity, superabundance, and gratuity, need to be taken into account as well.

So while N. T. Wright might be ‘Protestant’ in affirming the forensic nature of justification as a result of non-imputation (as per Wesley), he begins to be on much more fragile ground in providing a doctrine of justification that also requires the inherent righteousness of the believer produced by the Spirit. This is slightly odd because early on in his response to John Piper in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, Wright states,

“‘Righteousness’, within the lawcourt setting – and this is something that no good Lutheran or Reformed theologian ought ever to object to – denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favour. Notice, it does not denote, within that all important lawcourt context, ‘the moral character they are then assumed to have’, or ‘the moral behaviour they have demonstrated which has earned them the verdict’.” (Wright, Justification, 69).

And yet, as we have seen, the final verdict of justification will be on the basis of a moral character that they have, which we immediately add, is produced by the Spirit. So in actual fact, according to Wright, justification does depend on the inherent righteousness produced in the believer by the Spirit, not simply pardon alone. At this point, it is clear that there is a rather glaring tension in Wright’s system. Is justification on the basis of pardon alone or does it also require a positive righteousness (either inherent or external) of the believer? It can’t be both. If we opt for the former then we can happily join the likes of John Wesley and others. If we opt for the latter without affirming that righteousness as alien or external to us, then we join the great swathe of Catholic theologians from Augustine to the present.

On the other hand, if we opt for a traditional Reformed understanding of justification as entailing both the imputation of our sins to Christ, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us then we can continue to maintain that justification has been achieved in Christ as both pardon and the positive attribution of Christ’s righteousness to us. We are pronounced righteous on the alien or external righteousness of Christ in addition to the pardon that he achieves for us by the cross.

So is covenantal nomism Protestant? It is to the extent that it argues for justification as a forensic declaration, and inasmuch as a number of Protestants follow E. P. Sanders’ exegetical maneuvers. But it isn’t Protestant in terms of its rejection of two fundamental features of traditional Protestant justification theory.