Thoughts on ‘The Brothers Karamazov’

Having finished Tony Reinke’s book Lit: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (which I highly recommend) I was inspired to begin reading a classic. I’d always thought about reading Dostoyevsky but had been intimidated by the size of his famous works and the darker mood of his stories. But this time, having heard the call to “tolle lege” (take up and read) I picked up a copy of The Brothers Karamazov and began to work my way through. It’s taken me about two months to finish. There are some incredible passages but I did find the bits in between those passages a bit of a slog, and at numerous points I struggled to understand what was going on.

After finishing it late last night I decided to read the translator’s introduction and I was slightly dissatisfied with his take on the work. The translator seemed to think that Dostoyevsky had painted The Elder Zosima and Alyosha (one of the brothers) in a fairly bad light (see p.xiv, xviii of David McDuff’s introduction). In contrast, I found both characters incredibly endearing (despite our theological differences). Indeed, the picture that Dostoyevsky painted reminded me of the portrayal of the monks in the brilliant film Of God’s and Men.

Ultimately, I think my problem with McDuff’s introduction was his approach. I’m no expert in Dosteyevsky, but to my untrained eye, McDuff seemed to dance around the main subject of the book; namely, God and the problem of evil. He darted from one major theme to the next, and from one interpretive school to another. I can’t claim to know where McDuff comes from religiously or philosophically, but his approach seemed reminiscent of what C. S. Lewis called ‘the doctrine of the unchanging human heart’.

“According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace of a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.”

Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, 62-63

As a result of his approach he seemed to only vaguely touch upon Dosteyevsky’s treatment of the problem of evil. In contrast, I think the 19th century critic Vasily Rozanov gets to the heart of the book. Rozanov argued that the chapter entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” and the surrounding sections form the heart of the book. It’s principle theme, again, is the problem of evil. “the Legend…constitutes as it were the soul of the entire work, which merely groups itself around it, like variations around their theme, in it is concealed the writer’s intimate thought, without which not only this novel, but also many other works of his would never have been written…”

The eminent theme then, appears to me to be the problem of evil, particularly its existential aspects. The brothers are Dostoyevsky’s chosen vehicle for unpacking the problem. To summarize how this works in a fairly simplistic way I read the Brothers Karamazov as follows: Ivan is the atheist who argues ‘that everything is permitted’ but finds such a worldview impossible to live by. Smerdyakov, the half-brother, is the sadist who takes Ivan’s atheism to its logical conclusion. Dmitry is the hedonist who finds that his hedonism is only destructive. Alyosha is the one who, despite all his mistakes, finds God and provides a concrete example of hope, joy and resurrection in the midst of a dark, dying, and broken world. Whether Dostoyevsky is successful in his response to the problem, I will leave the reader to decide.

If you’re interested in how Dostoyevsky addresses the problem of evil in more detail I recommend watching this video from Biola University:


Comparing Catechisms

Discipleship involves learning about what we believe and why, among other things. In the history of the Church “catechesis” has played a fundamental role in this discipleship task. Essentially, catechesis means religious instruction, and for many Church traditions one effective way of instructing believers in the key tenets of Christian faith has been to use “catechisms” (documents of religious instruction often arranged in a question and answer format). The Methodist Church has been no different in that respect. John Wesley put forward his own modified edition of the famous Westminster Shorter Catechism, and in our own day the Methodist Church publishes A catechism for the use of the people called Methodists (2013).

However, it might be surprising to learn that there are significant theological differences between John Wesley’s original edited version of the Westminster catechism and the catechism used (or at least published) by the Methodist Church today. These differences are not minor but concern the nature of Christ’s atoning work and God’s revelation to us in Scripture.

As an initial example, take question 25 from John Wesley’s revised Westminster Shorter Catechism focused on Jesus’ office as priest,

Q.25. How doth Christ exercise his office as priest?

A. Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us.

In this passage the focus is on the death of Christ on the cross for us, which satisfies divine justice, and renders God propitious (favourably disposed) to us.

Now compare this with two similarly themed questions in A Catechism for the use of the people called Methodists (these questions come closest to dealing with the material treated in the former),

Q13. What has Jesus done?

A. Jesus Christ came to reveal God to men and women and to offer them God’s grace. To achieve this he shared their human life and death, dying on the cross. God brought him back from death with great power and glory, thereby conquering death and sin, and opening the kingdom of God to all believers.

In this question Jesus’ work is more broadly outlined than in the narrower question from Westminster. The emphasis here is on Jesus’ revelation of God and his offer of grace. But notice, Jesus’ death on the cross doesn’t satisfy divine justice. Instead, the cross seems like the necessary forerunner to the resurrection. The resurrection bears all the soteriological weight here. It is the resurrection that is the principle means of conquering death and sin, not the cross. The nature of Jesus’ work is described in more detail in the following question,

Q14. How are we to understand Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection?

A. “Jesus Christ suffered death and was raised again for us, so that we might live for him. The Bible uses various expressions for this, of which the following are a few examples:

– he gave his life to redeem all people;

– he is compared with the Passover Lamb, sacrificed as a sign of God’s freeing of his people;

– he is also compared with the lamb sacrificed on the Day of Atonement;

– being joined to Christ is described as a new creation;

– by his death and resurrection Christ has defeated the powers of evil.

None of these is complete by itself: together they point to the fact that through the cross God acted decisively on behalf of the world he had created.”

Notice again, that the answer is ambiguous enough to avoid giving hefty soteriological weight to the cross. Moreover, among the biblical examples offered, the idea of Jesus’ death satisfying divine justice is subtly avoided. Jesus death is ‘compared with’ the sacrificial and Passover lamb but his death on the cross isn’t explicitly referred to as the means of atonement. Instead, the death of Christ is referred to as ‘a sign of God’s freeing of his people.’ Through his death and resurrection he defeats the powers of evil, but again the mechanism by which this takes place isn’t treated in detail. Any reference to propitiatory sacrifice is again ominously absent.

So much for the atonement. What about theological differences on Scripture? Again, there is a noticeable disparity in the views put forward. Here is Westminster,

Q.2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?

A. The word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him. Cf.2 Tim. 3:16, Eph. 2.:20, 1 Jn. 1:3, 4.

The Bible is the word of God and the only rule to direct us in this life. By ‘rule’ I take the catechism to mean that Scripture is the only normative standard by which the truth of a claim can be authoritatively measured. That’s not to say that God can’t communicate to us in other ways, but that Scripture is primary and privileged in a special way deriving it’s authority from God himself.

In comparison, take the relevant questions from A catechism for the use of the people called Methodists,

52. What is the Bible?

The Bible, comprising the Old and New Testaments, is the collection of books, gradually compiled, in which it is recorded how God has acted among, and spoken to and through, his people. The writers expressed themselves according to their own language, culture and point in history and in their different ways were all bearing witness to their faith in God. The Bible is the record of God’s self-revelation, supremely in Jesus Christ, and is a means through which he still reveals himself, by the Holy Spirit.”

The answer given here is right to speak of the Bible as progressive revelation (God has revealed more of himself through Scripture’s gradual assembly over time) and to point out that it hasn’t simply ‘dropped from heaven’ but was written within a particular historical context. On the other hand, the wording of the answer suggests that rather than being the authoritative word of God itself the bible is a witness or attestation to God’s revelation of himself in historical events, supremely in Jesus Christ. It is also notable that in its Scriptural support cited for this article the Methodist catechism makes no reference to that famous passage from 2 Timothy 3: 16, 17 found in Westminster, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Instead, the place or normative authority of Scripture is left untreated. As such, the answer is vague enough to allow for a rejection of the original Wesleyan and Protestant stance on Scripture. The same can be said for mentions of Scripture in other questions from the catechism, they are consistently vague with respect to Scripture or subtly sidestep commitments to historical Wesleyan views on divine revelation.

It should be apparent then that there are some substantive differences between the theology that Wesley put forward in his revised version of Westminster and the theology of the Methodist Church today as laid out in it’s catechism. This is strange since the Methodist Church UK Website seems decidedly more in favour of historical evangelical Wesleyan theology. Take this quote from as an example,

“The doctrines of the evangelical faith which Methodism has held from the beginning and still holds are based upon the divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The Methodist Church acknowledges this revelation as the supreme rule of faith and practice. These evangelical doctrines to which the preachers of the Methodist Church are pledged are contained in Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament and the first four volumes of his sermons.

The Notes on the New Testament and the 44 Sermons are not intended to impose a system of formal or speculative theology on Methodist preachers, but to set up standards of preaching and belief which should secure loyalty to the fundamental truths of the gospel of redemption and ensure the continued witness of the Church to the realities of the Christian experience of salvation.”

As a Methodist Local Preacher myself, we seem to be getting mixed messages. Is the Methodist Church committed to Wesleyan-Arminian (and thus evangelical) theology? Or are the works of Wesley “…More what you’d call guidelines?”

Image result for pirates of the caribbean just guidelines

For an excellent introduction to Wesleyan-Arminian theology see the ‘Remonstrance Podcast’ (a podcast supported by the Society of Evangelical Arminians) Link:

You can find Wesley’s edition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism here:

The Trinity

Recently I was asked if I’d make one of my essays on the Trinity available to those who are interested. This essay, which I completed last year for my MA discusses recent developments in the doctrine of the Trinity and some of the key topics of debate. Enjoy!

How has the doctrine of the Trinity developed over the last 30 years?

Over the last thirty years radical changes have taken place in trinitarian theology. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century seeds of trinitarian renaissance were being sown. Barth[1] marked a decisive recognition of the trinitarian character of revelation and in the 1970’s Rahner reemphasized the importance of understanding God as he is in himself in light of who he has revealed himself to be. ‘Rahner’s Rule’ stated that “…the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity.”[2] Given the immensity of trinitarian literature produced over the last thirty years, I will only be able to scrape the surface of the issues that have been central to debate and development. I will discuss four of these central issues; substance metaphysics, the validity of ‘Rahner’s Rule’, personhood, and perichoresis.

            Before going further, it would be wise to define ‘social trinitarianism’ since that movement has been influential over the last three decades[3]. It is worth making a distinction between two different types of social trinitarianism, strong social trinitarianism (SST) and weak social trinitarianism (WST). SST unites the divine persons ‘solely’ in virtue of perichoresis and argues that, as a result, it has socio-political implications. WST makes a more modest claim, that the persons of the Trinity are self-conscious agents. With the groundwork aside, let us begin our foray into contemporary trinitarian theology.

Substance Metaphysics

At the beginning of the 1980’s, given the emphasis on the importance of God as he has revealed himself to be in the economy, traditional substance metaphysics came to be viewed with a degree of suspicion. Jenson[4] writes of this traditional Hellenistic metaphysic that “Hellenistic theology was from the beginning an exact antagonist of biblical faith”. The God of substance metaphysics, argued Jenson and others, is a simple, immutable and impassible God, alien to the suffering God we see in Christ. Another common objection to substance metaphysics is summed up by Peters[5]. He argues that substance metaphysics is obsolete given “…the Kantian critique, which seems to forbid asserting any qualities of noumenal reality; second, the post-Kantian metaphysics, which seems to emphasize becoming over being and relationality over substance.”

Given their rejection of substance metaphysics, a new emphasis on the importance of relationality for trinitarian theology as well as a greater appreciation of salvation history over and against the perceived monadic tendencies of traditional trinitarian theology was required. The alternative to traditional unifying strategies, argued advocates of SST, is perichoretic unity[6].

However, not all writers were convinced that substance metaphysics is obsolete or incompatible with belief in the Christian God. Over the last decade or so these assumptions regarding substance metaphysics have been challenged by the likes of Alston[7], Plantinga[8] and Wolterstorff[9]. Alston[10] writes, “…there is absolutely no justification for saddling substance metaphysics as such with these commitments to timelessness, immutability, pure actuality with no potentiality, and being unaffected by relations to other beings.” In general, the idea that substance metaphysics entails this kind of distant, immutable deity was simply asserted by those who rejected it. As Alston[11] states, “Leaving aside the fine print, the basic idea is that an individual substance is that which has properties and stands in relations, rather than being itself a property or a relation of something(s) else.” In other words, substance metaphysics doesn’t commit one to divine simplicity, etc.

In consideration of the Kantian objection, Plantinga[12] replied that perhaps those who are criticized for not having read their Kant, actually have “…read him and remain unconvinced.” The philosophical community cannot be reduced into groups of pre-Kantians and Kantians. Wolterstorff[13] notes that we might be post-Kantian in acknowledging the value of his philosophy without agreeing with assumptions that make talk of God as he is in himself impossible. Further, given the responses made by the writers above, it is now no longer possible for one to dismiss a substantialist approach to trinitarian doctrine with a swift citation of Kant or brief assertions of substance metaphysics’ commitment to simplicity.

It is clear that the debate surrounding substance metaphysics has had and will continue to have an effect on trinitarian theology. Firstly there has been a greater appreciation of relationality across the field both as a resource for understanding the unity of the divine persons, but also persons in general. Secondly, it has brought about further clarity in the literature by noting the importance of defining one’s philosophical presuppositions, and again, greater clarity with regards to personhood and perichoresis. Thirdly, those theologians who reject substance metaphysics on the basis of revelation have also made it clear that in assessing philosophical frameworks we need to pay attention to the economy of salvation. It is to the relation between the immanent and economic Trinity that we now turn.

The Economic and the Immanent Trinity

One of the key issues in trinitarian theology over the last thirty years has been the economic/immanent distinction and a discussion of ‘Rahner’s Rule’. With the turn to a renewed appreciation of the role that salvation history plays in the formulation of a Christian theology, Rahner’s Rule became axiomatic for many theologians working in our period[14]. The debate centres on what one can derive about God in himself from how he has revealed himself in the economy. Which requires an evaluation of philosophical/theological factors that determine theological epistemology. Thomas F. Torrance, in his valuable volume The Christian Doctrine of God[15] summarised how crucial the matter is, “…Christianity stands for the fact that in Jesus Christ God has communicated to us his Word and has imparted to us his Spirit, so that we may really know him as he is in himself although not apart from his saving activity in history…”  Sanders[16] provides a chart for locating the various approaches theologians have taken regarding how much we can know about God in himself from what he has revealed.


The Kantian would fall to the far left of the chart, more traditional approaches will fall in the centre and some of the modern contributions to the debate fall to the right of the chart. Moltmann[17] is exemplary of trinitarian theologians who strictly adhere to the identity of the immanent and economic Trinity, and is representative of a trend in SST that veered away from construing the divine persons in terms of their relations of origin towards a communal understanding of the persons constituted by their mutual relations to each other. Moltmann goes further by arguing that God is only God insofar as he goes to the cross. The cross isn’t simply a feature of the economy but of God as he is in himself. “The pain of the cross determines the inner life of the triune God from eternity to eternity.”[18] Therefore Moltmann might best be placed in the ‘eternal cross’ section of the chart. In virtue of Moltmann’s insistence on the cross as an essential feature of God in his immanence, “Many commentators believe that Moltmann has taken Rahner’s Rule to its logical end…finally conflating the immanent Trinity with the economic.”[19] In a similar move, Jenson[20] suggested that the fact that God had revealed himself in the biblical narrative implies that God’s very being is constituted by that narrative.

            Although Moltmann, Jenson and others[21] enthusiastically adhered to Rahner’s Rule, towards the middle of the 90’s some writers became more apprehensive. Clearly, the idea that God has genuinely revealed who he is, is important, whether one advocates social trinitarianism or not[22].  LaCugna[23] writes, “…there is an essential connection between the threefold pattern of salvation history and the eternal being and identity of God.” At the same time however, LaCugna[24] is clear that knowledge of God is not exhausted by what we know from the economy. The only way that we know about God as he is in himself is as a result of the economy of salvation, but that is not to say that God has revealed everything of himself. Further, if Rahner’s Rule is taken in terms of strict identity, then the economy becomes a necessary feature of God in himself. If God is dependent on the economy for the constitution of his identity that would seem to threaten his aseity[25]. In addition, writers like Kilby[26] working within an apophatic context were especially keen to check those who had “…a tendency to wax enthusiastic when it comes to explaining how the three in the Trinity can also be one.”  Thus there was a need to properly justify the way in which one approached theological discourse with regard to how much could be inferred about God as he is in himself from the economy. In the last ten years ‘analytic theology’ has been particularly useful in articulating some of the problems and questions arising from too strict an identity between the economic and immanent Trinity, while at the same time recognising the importance of their inseparability[27].

However one approaches Rahner’s Rule, it is clear that unity between the economic and immanent Trinity is of the utmost importance. The fact that God reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a key feature of Christian soteriology, and as a result, to the doxology and life of the church. However, the results of debate about the extent to which Rahner’s Rule can be applied have meant that there is now broad consensus among theologians regarding the economic and immanent Trinity. Phan[28] concludes, “…the consensus seems to be that the economic Trinity must be granted epistemological priority…and that ontological priority must be given to the immanent Trinity to safeguard divine freedom and grace.” Even given the consensus however, the continuing usefulness of talk about the Trinity within an immanent/economic framework remains controversial[29].

Personhood: Latin and Cappadocian Approaches?

As a corollary of the rejection of substance metaphysics, and a re-examination of the immanence and economy of God, many theologians of our period were led to challenge traditional conceptions of personhood (as ‘individual substances of a rational nature’). This meant reemphasizing relationality and community as fundamental to personhood. With this emphasis on relationality, personhood came to be defined in terms of ‘I-Thou’ relationships. Persons, at least according to advocates of social trinitarianism, were distinct centres of consciousness, existing in relationship. Gunton[30] writes, “As persons we are only what we are in relation to other persons…” One of the key features of this frequent distinction was to parallel the two notions with patristic writers. The traditional substantive view of personhood was ascribed to Augustinian theology, and the relational view ascribed to the Cappadocians. The two views are split by a distinction between western and eastern patristic theology. Many social trinitarians, recognizing the usefulness of this paradigm for bolstering their trinitarianism, looked to the Cappadocians and their use of analogies to the Trinity found in human community. One particular patristic document that proved central to the social trinitarian appeal to the Cappadocians was Gregory of Nyssa’s On Not Three Gods[31]. The Trinity is compared to three human persons exemplifying a common humanity. The Cappadocians were seen as doing justice to the diversity of the persons in the Godhead. In contrast, Augustine placed such an emphasis on the divine unity that modalism was an almost inevitable result[32]. The belief that there was a major distinction between Augustinian and Cappadocian trinitarianism thus became a ubiquitous feature of social trinitarian theology in the 80’s and 90’s.

            In recent years, however, this significant distinction between Cappadocian and Latin trinitarianism has been challenged by the likes of Ayres[33], Barnes[34], and Coakley[35]. Where this distinction between eastern and western approaches had been simply asserted by many systematicians, the growing consensus is that the reality is much more complex than many early social trinitarians believed. In the 90’s Barnes[36] demonstrated that this distinction rested on a theory propounded in the work of 19th century scholar Theodore de Régnon. Barnes questioned the de Régnon paradigm and pointed out that, simply because different patristic writers used certain analogies, that doesn’t show that there existed a significant distinction between Latin and Cappadocian theology.  As with all good exegesis, in order to understand the patristic writers properly it is important to acknowledge how these analogies featured in their theology as a whole, rather than taking the analogies and reading them through the lens of modern theological presuppositions[37].

            Ayres, in his major work Nicaea and its Legacy highlighted a number of features common to pro-Nicene theologies, both Latin and Cappadocian. These features include a commitment to the doctrine of simplicity, inseparable operation, and the limits of trinitarian analogy. There is a shared concern for the unity of God. Given simplicity alone the kind of distinctions needed for a social model of the Trinity become untenable. Concerning analogy, Ayres and others emphasized the fact that the pro-Nicenes make use of a variety of analogies and acknowledge that those analogies have limits. “Different analogies are used together or are displayed side by side; analogies are also displayed only in order to demonstrate inadequacies of other analogies or to enable the reader to see where they themselves fail.”[38]

            Thus the common appeal to a distinction between Latin and Cappadocian theology to ground SST no longer holds much sway. Again, Ayres has been influential in calling systematic theologians to re-examine the intellectual culture of early trinitarian theologians as a means to furthering contemporary trinitarian theology. Summarising Ayres’ concluding chapter in Nicaea and it’s Legacy Anatolios[39] writes, “The only way forward is first to return to an integration of historical and systematic theology, based on a reappropriation of the basic tenets of pro-Nicene culture.” As a result of this concern to re-examine pro-Nicene culture, there have been numerous attempts to better understand and define personhood, the value of analogy, inseparable operation and perichoresis.

The Value of Perichoresis

Taking into account what has been said regarding substance metaphysics, relationality and early social trinitarian patristic exegesis, it is no surprise that many social trinitarians sought to unite the divine persons in virtue of their mutual relations to each other through perichoresis. Thus, in Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom of God we see perichoretic unity contrasted with God as ‘Supreme Substance’ and ‘Supreme Subject’ forming a central premise in his argument[40].  “If the unity of God is not perceived in the at-oneness of the triune God, and therefore as a perichoretic unity, then Arianism and Sabellianism remain inescapable threats to Christian theology.”[41] In addition to perichoresis acting as a strategy for making sense of the unity of God in the work of advocates of SST, perichoresis is also said to have socio-political implications.  “So the Trinity corresponds to a community in which people are defined through their relations with one another and in their significance for one another, not in opposition to one another, in terms of power and possession.”[42]

However, the consistent challenge that advocates of SST and WST have had to face from the very start is the charge of tritheism. Barth and Rahner thought tritheism an unavoidable consequence of attributing three ‘I’s’ to the Godhead[43]. In addition, Brown[44] in his defence of a ‘plurality model’ of the Trinity (SST), immediately notes that tritheism poses a challenge. The question is, then, can advocates of SST provide an account of perichoresis that grounds ontological unity? And can advocates of WST provide a model of the Trinity that adequately accounts for ontological unity while retaining a robust understanding of persons? Cornelius Plantinga[45] argued that, if one defines tritheism as belief in three autonomous persons then SST is in the clear since, on their view, the divine persons, “…are essentially and reciprocally dependent.” On the other hand, Moltmann[46] argues that perichoresis, construed as a kind of eternal love and mutual indwelling, exists within the Godhead to such a degree that they are one. However, if we are to understand perichoresis as analogous to loving relationships, yet to a superlative degree, then it is difficult to see how this provides a robust enough foundation for ontological unity. Rather than a difference in degree, a different kind of unifying strategy is required. These criticisms of perichoresis have appeared regularly over the last thirty years, ever since the publication of The Trinity and the Kingdom of God. McCall[47] highlights a number of early responses to Moltmann’s SST in the work of O’Donnell, Thompson, Hunsinger and Pannenberg, all concerned with the danger of tritheism. Further, with the renaissance of Christian philosophy that has taken place over recent decades[48] these criticisms of perichoresis have become all the more difficult to counter. A number of philosophical theologians have sought to clarify the problem by offering definitions of perichoresis. Craig and Moreland[49] define perichoresis as, a “…harmony of will and action, of mutual love, and full knowledge of one another with respect to the persons of the Godhead…” This would seem to provide the same account of perichoresis that Moltmann has in mind, and with it, the same problems. On the other hand, Crisp[50] defines perichoresis as the persons of the Trinity sharing “…all their properties in a common divine essence apart from those properties that serve to individuate each person of the Trinity, or express a relation between only two persons of the Trinity.” This definition doesn’t seem to be enough for ontological unity either. McCall[51] notes with reference to this definition of perichoresis, that if someone argued “…that Zeus and his brood were really one God just because they shared all the properties other than those “personal” properties that served to differentiate them, so also should we be suspicious of perichoresis as an account of divine unity in Christian theology.”

Kilby[52] raised a further crucial criticism of SST’s appeal to perichoresis at the turn of the millennium. Kilby argued that SST was prone to projection. She noted how advocates of SST took perichoresis as a unifying strategy for making sense of the ‘threeness/oneness problem’, defined it in a vague way so as to fill it out by drawing on particular experiences of human community and relationship, and then offered this insight as a resource for understanding how humans are to live in relationship and community. The result, argued Kilby, was a doctrine of the Trinity that tells us more about the socio-political views of the person espousing it than about the Trinity itself. In other words, perichoresis is an unreliable strategy for grounding the unity and applicability of the doctrine of the Trinity. Schwöbel[53] anticipated this criticism, “It would be theologically disastrous if one criticized the projection of certain views of the divine nature on the order of human society for its alienating effects, and then proceeded by projecting a view of desirable human relationships on the divine being.” It was as a result of this kind of criticism that emphasis was placed on defining perichoresis in the kind of terms we saw above.

This effort to better define perichoresis highlights the scope and limits of Kilby’s paper. Firstly, we can see that Kilby’s criticisms only apply to SST, i.e. those who use perichoresis as a kind of programmatic statement for how we are to live in community. The same criticisms wouldn’t apply to WST since its advocates are not committed to a dichotomy between substantive and perichoretic accounts of divine unity. Secondly, Kilby demonstrated that perichoresis didn’t have the kind of theological and practical mileage that advocates of SST thought it had. And yet, it is important to note that Kilby’s argument doesn’t entirely rule out the idea that the doctrine of the Trinity has socio-political implications. What it is to say is that these implications can’t be argued for reliably on the basis of perichoresis.

            As a result of the work done on perichoresis in the last thirty years its role in trinitarian theology has been placed in perspective. Perichoresis, rather than providing an exhaustive account of how the three divine persons are one gives us a glimpse of their interrelatedness. Perichoresis is now approached with greater caution as a strategy for unifying the divine persons. Similarly it is also viewed with a degree of suspicion if made a programmatic socio-political statement. That is not to say that perichoresis is an unhelpful or unfounded concept, but it is to say that it is important to recognise its limits[54].


In summary, the field of trinitarian theology has undergone radical changes over the last thirty years. As a result, it is now broadly recognized that trinitarian theology is fundamental to the Christian understanding of God. Lash[55] writes, “…the doctrine of the trinity simply is the Christian doctrine of God.” The lasting significance of the trinitarian theology of the 80’s and 90’s is its prophetic call to take God seriously as he has revealed himself in the economy of salvation, and the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity for ordering our theological discourse and as providing a foundation for Christian soteriology. The work of trinitarian theologians in those decades paved the way for a renewed interest in what we might learn from the Fathers of the church, the scope and usefulness of concepts such as perichoresis and distinctions between God as he is in himself and how he has revealed himself in history.  Even if it is now generally recognised that the assumptions and paradigms that were almost ubiquitous features of trinitarian theology in those decades have been challenged, criticised and changed over recent years, the truth of Father, Son and Holy Spirit remains central to contemporary Christian theology.

Word Count: 4394


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Crisp, Oliver. 2007. Divinity and Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grenz, Stanley J. 2005. Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.

Gunton, Colin E. 1991. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Hasker, William. 2014. Metaphysics and the tri-personal God. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenson, Robert W. 1995. “The Point of Trinitarian Theology.” In Trinitarian Theology Today, by Christoph Schwöbel, 31-43. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

—. 1982. The Triune Identity. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. 2011. “The trinitarian doctrines of Moltmann and Pannenberg.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, by Peter C Phan, 223-242. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kilby, Karen. 2000. “Perichoresis and Projection.” New Blackfriars 432-445.

LaCugna, Catherine M. 1992. God For Us. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Lash, Nicholas. 1986. “Considering the Trinity in Modern Theology.” Modern Theology 2 (3) 183-196.

McCall, Thomas H. 2010. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

McCall, Thomas, and Michael. eds. Rea. 2009. Philosophical and Theological Essays on the Trinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moltmann, Jürgen. 1981. The Trinity and the Kingdom of God. London: SCM Press Ltd.

Nyssa, Gregory of. 2005. On Not Three Gods. 13th July. Accessed May 10th, 2017.

Peters, Ted. 1993. God as Trinity. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Phan, Peter C. 2011. “Developments of the doctrine of the Trinity.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, by Peter C Phan, 3-12. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, Cornelius. 1989. “Social Trinity and Tritheism.” In Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement, by Ronald J Feenstra and Cornelius Jr Plantinga, 21-47. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Rahner, Karl. 1970. The Trinity. London: Burns and Oates.

Sanders, Fred. 2016. The Triune God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Sanders, Fred. 2014. “What Trinitarian Theology is For: Placing the Doctrine of the Trinity in Christian Theology and Life.” In Advancing Trinitarian Theology, by Oliver D Crisp and Fred Sanders, 21-41. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Schwöbel, Christoph. 1995. “The Renaissance of Trinitarian Theology: Reasons, Problems and Tasks.” In Trinitarian Theology Today, by Christoph Schwöbel, 1-30. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Smith, Quentin. 2001. “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism.” Philo 4 (2) 195-215.

Torrance, Thomas F. 1996. The Christian Doctrine of God. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark.

Webster, John. 2008. “Life in and of Himself: Reflections on God’s Aseity.” In Engaging the Doctrine of God, by Bruce L. McCormack, 107-124. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1998. “Is It Possible and Desirable for Theologians to Recover from Kant?” Modern Theology 2-18.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume 1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1 (2nd Ed). (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1975), 348.

[2] Karl Rahner, The Trinity. (London: Burns and Oates, 1970), 22.

[3] Karen Kilby, “Perichoresis and Projection.” New Blackfriars, (2000), 433.

[4] Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1982), 57.

[5] Ted Peters, God as Trinity. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 30-31.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God. (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1981), 10-20

[7] William P. Alston, “Substance and the Trinity.” In The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, by Stephen T Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 179-202.

[8] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[9] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Is It Possible and Desirable for Theologians to Recover from Kant?” (Modern Theology, 1998), 2-18.

[10] Alston, Substance and Trinity, 195.

[11] Alston, Substance and Trinity, 181.

[12] Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 30.

[13] Wolterstorff, Recover from Kant?, 2-18

[14] Cf. Stanley Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005), 70.

[15] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God. (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 1996), 3.

[16] Fred Sanders, “What Trinitarian Theology is For: Placing the Doctrine of the Trinity in Christian Theology and Life.” In Advancing Trinitarian Theology, ed. Oliver D Crisp and Fred Sanders, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 33.

[17] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 173.

[18] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 161.

[19]. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “The trinitarian doctrines of Moltmann and Pannenberg.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, ed. Peter C Phan, 223-242. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 237. Moltmann writes that he finds himself ‘bound’ to surrender the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity, (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 160).

[20] Robert W. Jenson, “The Point of Trinitarian Theology.” In Trinitarian Theology Today, ed. Christoph Schwöbel, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 37.

[21] Cf. Peters, God as Trinity, 20

[22] Cf. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God; Christoph Schwöbel, “The Renaissance of Trinitarian Theology: Reasons, Problems and Tasks.” In Trinitarian Theology Today, ed. Christoph Schwöbel, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 6.

[23] Catherine M. Lacugna, God For Us. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), 23.

[24] Lacugna, God For Us, 381.

[25] Cf. John Webster, “Life in and of Himself: Reflections on God’s Aseity.” In Engaging the Doctrine of God, ed. Bruce L. McCormack, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 107-108; Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 4.           

[26] Karen Kilby, “Perichoresis and Projection.” New Blackfriars, (2000), 433.

[27] Cf. Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? (Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010); William Hasker, Metaphysics and the tri-personal God. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Thomas H. McCall and Michael Rea eds. Philosophical and Theological Essays on the Trinity. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[28] Peter C. Phan, Phan, “Developments of the doctrine of the Trinity.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, ed. Peter C Phan, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 18.

[29] Fred Sanders, The Triune God. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 152.

[30] Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), 90.

[31] “Gregory of Nyssa, On Not Three Gods,” accessed May 10, 2017,

[32] Cf. Travis E. Ables, “The Decline and Fall of the West? Debates about the Trinity in Contemporary Christian Theology.” Religion Compass 6 (3) (2012): 163-173.

[33] Louis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

[34] Michel Rene Barnes, “De Régnon Reconsidered.” Augustinian Studies 26 (2) (1995): 51-79.

[35] Sarah Coakley, “‘Persons’ In the ‘Social’ Doctrine of the Trinity: A Critique of Current Analytic Discussion.” In The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, ed. Stephen T Davis, Daniel SJ Kendall and Gerald SJ O’Collins. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[36] Barnes, De Régnon Reconsidered; cf. Ables, The Decline and Fall of the West.

[37] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy.

[38] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 289.

[39] Khaled Anatolios, “Yes and No: Reflections on Louis Ayres’ ‘Nicaea and it’s Legacy’.” Harvard Theological Review, (2007): 154.

[40] Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, 10-20.

[41] Ibid, 150.

[42] Ibid, 198.

[43] Kilby, Perichoresis and Projection, 434.

[44]David Brown, The Divine Trinity. (La Selle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1985), 293.

[45] Cornelius Plantinga, “Social Trinity and Tritheism.” In Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement, ed. Ronald J Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga Jr, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 37; McCall, Whose Trinity?, 15.

[46] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 175.

[47] McCall, Whose Trinity?, 164.

[48] Cf. Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism.” Philo 4 (2) (2001): 195-215.

[49] William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 587.

[50] Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 31.

[51] Thomas H. McCall, Whose Trinity?, 166.

[52] Kilby, Perichoresis and Projection, 442.

[53] Schwöbel, The Renaissance, 11.

[54] Cf. McCall, Whose Trinity?, 250.

[55] Nicholas Lash, “Considering the Trinity in Modern Theology.” Modern Theology 2 (3) (1986): 183.

The Mission of the Spirit and the Function of Scripture

It’s been a busy month in the Stanyon household. Our newborn son Boaz, my new job with Friends International, and continuing library and tutoring work at St. John’s have been absorbing most of my attention. The irregularity of our new day to day existence has meant a slip in my regular reading of Scripture and so I keep reminding myself of its importance; recalling the words of the Psalmist, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105).

As I’ve reflected on the role of Scripture in my day to day life, I’ve also begun to see its essential connection to the work of the Spirit. Consider for a moment how the Bible describes the Spirit and his work, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (Jn. 15:26). In other words, the role of the Spirit is to point people to the Son. He is variously described as the ‘Spirit of Christ’ or the ‘Spirit of the Son’. In the passage we’ve just cited he is described as the Spirit of truth where only a chapter earlier Jesus described himself as the Truth.

Scripture’s purpose is remarkably similar. Note Jesus’ words in John 5:39-40, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,  yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” And recall his discussion with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Lk. 24:27).

So why does the role of Scripture parallel the role of the Spirit? The obvious answer is because Scripture is a result of the Spirit’s work. It is ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim. 3:16). Or as Peter puts it, “…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:20,21).

The impact for the importance of Scripture reading in daily life is obvious. Not only is Scripture an authoritative word from God; fundamentally, as the work of the Spirit, it points us to Christ.

Christian ‘Perfection’

One of the things that John Wesley is well known for is his doctrine of Christian perfection. Wesley’s doctrine argues for a particularly optimistic view of the transforming power of the Spirit in the lives of Christians now. Like most Protestants Wesley distinguishes between two dimensions of human salvation: justification and sanctification. The first refers to the legal acquittal of the Christian before God on the basis of Christ’s atoning work, the second refers to an ongoing process of transformation in the life of the Christian by the Spirit. In other words, ‘God not only wants to get people out of Hell, he wants to get the hell out of people’. Christian perfection refers to a moment in this process of sanctification. It is a kind of holiness. Wesley writes,

“Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance, or mistake, or infirmities, or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.” (44 Sermons, 461)

Of the two terms ‘holiness’ and ‘perfection’, perhaps the word ‘perfection’ wasn’t the best one to use since it required Wesley to offer such extensive clarification (he spends half his time describing what it is not). Those who seem to have imagined that perfection might refer to lack of ignorance, mistakes, infirmities or temptations cannot be blamed for mistaking what Wesley means; ‘perfection’ is a heavily loaded term. Thankfully, though, Wesley recognizes that the term needs unpacking.

Essentially, Wesley argues that for the people of God, who have been set free from the power of sin by the Son through the Spirit, it is possible to live in such a way as to sin no longer. Wesley, thinks that this holiness will most probably be manifest in mature Christians, but the possibility is available to all those ‘born of God’, since “He that is born of God sinneth not…” (468). He writes,

“No necessity of sinning was laid upon them [the Apostles]. The grace of God was surely sufficient for them. And it is sufficient for us at this day. With the temptation which fell on them, there was a way to escape; as there is to every soul of man in every temptation. So that whosoever is tempted to any sin, need not yield; for no man is tempted above that he is able to bear.” (468).

It is doubtful that when Wesley refers to ‘every soul of man’ being able to avoid giving in to temptation he has all human beings in mind (though charges of Pelagianism here are understandable; Wesley does himself no favours by using this phrase). He has already made it clear that he is primarily addressing mature Christians. Provided we recognize that Wesley is concerned here to clarify the nature of sanctifying grace in believers then the problematic elements of his doctrine of perfection are, for the most part, resolved. So Wesley writes,

“If we walk in the light, . . . we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.’ And again: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Now, it is evident, the Apostle here also speaks of a deliverance wrought in this world. For he saith not, The blood of Christ will cleanse at the hour of death, or in the day of judgement; but, it ‘cleanseth,’ at the time present, ‘us,’ living Christians, ‘from all sin.’ And it is equally evident, that if any sin remain, we are not cleansed from all sin; if any unrighteousness remain in the soul, it is not cleansed from all unrighteousness.” (475).

Here Wesley is clearly directing his words to “‘us’, living Christians”, and he makes it clear in the sentences following this extract that he is not identifying this new possibility of holiness with justification, because that would mean asserting justification by works. Instead, sanctification, this process of being made perfect begins now.

Wesley is right to assert that cleansing has already begun in the present (the kingdom of God is now and not yet), but the rest of his exegesis seems slightly contrived. There is no reason to think that the process of sanctification is completed in the present, only that the process has begun and will eventually be complete. The time of completion isn’t specified. Indeed, this seems to be the case with Wesley’s argument throughout. There is reason to think that Christians can overcome sin in this life, but no reason to think that holiness will ever be complete until “…the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality…” (1 Cor. 15:54).

I also wonder how much impact Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection has on the Christian life. If some are perfect how do we know? More than that, how will they know? What is the value of knowing if we have reached this point of holiness in the present life? C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The perfect church service,would be one we were almost unaware of. Our attention would have been on God.” I think the same can probably said of ‘perfect’ Christians; no one would notice, the attention would have been on God.

Pastoral Apologetics

A theological library is a great place for interesting conversations. The returns shelf is always prompting discussion. Being a library assistant at a theological library means that one of these conversations is never far away. In recent weeks Ellen Charry’s By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Doctrine, sparked an enjoyable exchange.

There is no doubt that theology is for equipping the church for its role in God’s mission. It has a protective, kerygmatic, and pastoral function (See Ephesians 4:14, 15). On this latter function (which can never be entirely separated from the others, nor should it be) Charry writes, ““I believe that the practice of medicine is sufficiently akin to the practice of classical theology, that it provides a basis for moderns to regain minimal respect for the possibility that it is as sensible to be grateful that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us as it is to thank the researcher who discovered lithium to control manic-depressive illness, for example.” (11) Doctrine has a healing, therapeutic, transformative role.

But there is, perhaps, a danger in heavily emphasizing doctrine as pastoral. The danger is that we totally sideline theological discourse that doesn’t have any particular application in terms of pastoral care proper. The problem is one of miscommunication, or generalization. When we hear the words ‘pastoral care’ we immediately think of things like counselling through grief or anxiety. But pastoral care seems to me to be broader.

The more I reflect on my own conversion the more I see that abstract theology can have a pastoral function all of its own. There are those that struggle not simply with grief or anxiety, but with intellectual doubts. Sometimes heavy theological work, with its myriad distinctions and technical terms can be just what a doubter needs. For me, apologetics was especially influential in my coming to Christ. To most of those around me apologetics, philosophy and theology were all fairly dry, but for me, they were therapeutic.

We can easily dismiss vast systems of doctrine as pastorally irrelevant. But when we view pastoral care in a holistic way that incorporates the entirety of the human person, including the intellect, distinctions between Calvinism and Arminianism, epistemology, and ontology take on their own pastoral significance. John Calvin seemed to point to this when he spoke of God’s revelation of himself to human beings as a kind of divine baby talk.

“For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accomodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.”

(Calvin, Institutes, 1, 13, 1).

Sometimes we need God to lisp to us theologically.

Scripture and the Faithfulness of God

This last year I became a student member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS). They do some wonderful work and provide the local church with apologetics resources whenever they run their annual conference. To be a member a commitment to the inerrancy of scripture and the doctrine of the Trinity is required.

The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the original manuscripts. God is a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.

Belief in the inerrancy of scripture has received persistent criticism ever since the enlightenment era but it has also had notable defenders during that time and throughout the last century including: J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, N. T. Wright, and Kevin Vanhoozer, to name only a few.

One common objection that the defender of inerrancy often encounters is framed like so, “That human beings were involved in the writing of Scripture makes the presence of error inevitable.” I heard a similar point made by one of my lecturers. The underlying idea seems to be that the humanity of the authors of Scripture and the human proclivity to err, frustrates God’s ability to use them effectively in saying what he wants to say.

There have been many responses to this kind of objection. While human beings often err, they do not err universally or necessarily. When I say “2+2=4” I have stated a truth without error. But I think there is even stronger biblical warrant to think that God’s will or communication to us through human authors cannot be frustrated in the way described above. Recently I read through Romans and this caught my attention,

“Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written. “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.””

Romans 3:1-4

The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God, but despite their unfaithfulness and their proclivity to sin God’s faithfulness was not nullified or made void. God used them in precisely the way he wanted to and achieved his ends even when the instruments of his purposes in the world were botched and damaged. God’s dealings with Israel throughout its history then, give us cause to acknowledge his faithfulness and ability to communicate his inerrant word to us through fallen human beings.

Substitutionary Atonement for All Ages

“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

Hebrews 9:22

The author to the Hebrews is keenly aware of how Jesus’ death fulfills Old Testament Law. Jesus is referred to as the new Moses (3:3), the Great High Priest (4:14-16), the Mediator of a new covenant long promised by the Prophet Jeremiah(8; 9:15). And, inasmuch as Jesus is preeminent in all things, so too is his sacrifice preeminent. Jesus’ sacrifice is the fulfillment and goal of the OT sacrificial system. Not only is he the Great High Priest of a new covenant, he is also the sacrificial offering on which this covenant is based. Through his sacrifice Jesus brings about the forgiveness of sins, and only when sins are forgiven can human beings begin to fully enjoy communion with God (Hebrews 8-9).

This was the basic gist of a sermon I preached for the completion of my Methodist Local Preacher training. The feedback, thankfully, was extremely positive, but I had been rather nervous about it. Not only was it my final assessed service, I’d also chosen to focus on substitutionary atonement as the mechanism by which this forgiveness takes place…in a moderately liberal Methodist church. Which is partly why the positive feedback surprised me. 

One comment that I didn’t entirely agree with was that ‘a sermon on substitutionary atonement might not have been appropriate for an all age service.’ While I admit that my preaching might not have been well tailored to all ages I think that teaching young people about substitutionary atonement is vital. Like most evangelicals I believe penal substitution to be a central facet of Jesus’ atoning work. Any victory over sin, death and Satan or moral influence that the cross might procure is ultimately dependent on Jesus’ substitutionary death.

If this is the case, and substitutionary atonement is central to the gospel, and we intentionally leave it out of our of preaching to young people, then we offer an impoverished gospel. If we avoid this subject then we simply reinforce religious trends that seem to be taking the younger generation of Christians by storm. In recent studies it was shown that many young Christians believe in a kind of ‘therapeutic, moralistic, deism’. They believe that Christianity is primarily a belief system that offers comforting experiences, a moral code, and a belief in some sort of God ‘out there’ but that he isn’t particularly involved in the world. Christ isn’t particularly important.

But when we place substitutionary atonement in its proper place, when we take sin seriously and locate Jesus’ death centrally, ‘therapeutic, moralistic, deism’ begins to fall apart. Since, in Jesus we see our sin challenged and dealt with, God intimately related and involved in his world, in a way that brings people into life giving communion with himself. Substitutionary atonement is central to the gospel, and the gospel is for all ages.

For more on moralistic therapeutic deism see:

A Methodist Defends Calvinism?

CalvinAnyone who’s read my blogs over the last few months will know that I’m a fan of G.K. Chesterton. And in fact, despite being deceased for almost a century, he’s a regular Twitter user. He Tweeted recently, “I strongly object to wrong arguments on the right side. I think I object to them more than to the wrong arguments on the wrong side.” Chesterton is totally right. As Christians we should be committed to the truth to such an extent that we are willing to condemn bad argumentation from our own ranks.

But as Reformation Day approached, Chesterton tweeted the following, “I think Calvinism has been a greater curse than leprosy.” What followed was a thread of comments that called for strong objection. While I’m not a Calvinist (coming from a Wesleyan evangelical tradition and having adopted a Molinist account of divine providence) Chesterton’s comment seemed to be an unjustifiable overstatement. Generally, my experience of Calvinists has been a good one as well as having read enough Calvinists to know that theological discussion and the church in general has benefited greatly from Calvinist thought and spirituality. Now, add to Chesterton’s rather provocative statement about Calvinism the anonymity of social media, and the possibility of bad argumentation on the right side is heightened acutely and was demonstrated in the comments section. I’m going to concentrate on one particularly bad argument against the Calvinist view of things.

One Tweeter Twitted the following Tweet,

“Every Calvinist I’ve ever spoken with has told me they were one of the ones predestined to be saved. I haven’t met one that said, “nah, he didn’t pick me.” Weird!”

“Calvinism is fueled by arrogance. Limited atonement is aristocratic thinking.”

The argument seems to be that if you think you’re part of a special ‘elect’ group then you’ve automatically entered arrogant territory. But the problem with this is twofold.

Firstly the election of people to eternal life in Christianity is based on grace. By grace we mean unconditional love. Someone is part of the elect not on account of what they’ve done but on the basis of what Jesus has done. There is nothing in them that merits their status as elect.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)

So one major factor mitigating any claims of arrogance in Christianity as a whole, let alone Calvinism, is that our election is based entirely on the grace of God.

Secondly, all Christians believe in some form of election. Of course, understandings of election differ (some allowing for libertarian accounts of free will and some opting for compatibilist accounts [and this I think is the main point of contention]), but because the Bible is so clear that election takes place in some form or another the existence of an ‘elect’ is incontrovertible (See Mk.13.20, 27; Lk. 18:7; Rom. 9:16, 2 Pet. 1:10, etc.).  In which case, the argument advanced by the commentator above would apply not simply to Calvinists but to Christians in general, which is something I think he’d want to avoid. It easily morphs into an argument against Christian exclusivism along the lines of, “…if only Christians are saved, or only Christians have the truth, then that is theologically arrogant.” The same principle is at work.

Alvin Plantinga sums up common accusations against exclusivism, “It is irrational, or egotistical and unjustified, or intellectually arrogant, or elitist, or a manifestation of harmful pride, or even oppressive and imperialist.” (Plantinga, A Defense of Religious Exclusivism, The claim seems to be that exclusivism involves moral failure because it is exclusive. But Plantinga responds insightfully, “These charges of arrogance are a philosophical tar baby: Get close enough to use them against the exclusivist and you are likely to find them stuck fast to yourself.” (Ibid, 193). To claim that the exclusivist is wrong morally or intellectually would run the pluralist into the same kind of problems they accuse exclusivists of.

What we see then, is that it is important to condemn bad argumentation even if it is used in support of the right side. I think this is especially true of the Twitter comment above, since his argument wasn’t simply a poor argument against Calvinism but would also lead to some rather unorthodox conclusions about Christianity in general.

Tips for Discussing Justification from John Owen

John Owen.jpg

John Owen is perhaps one of the greatest British theologians to have ever lived. At the same time he is also woefully overlooked. Most Christians have never heard of John Owen, let alone read any of his books. It’s time to give John Owen the attention he deserves so that we can learn at the feet of a theologian who does theology at its best.

The book that I’ve been reading most recently is his tome on ‘The Doctrine of Justification’ (it’s full title runs to about a paragraph so we’ll stick with the shortened version). I think Owen’s introduction is a brilliant example of excellent theology. It has been said before that the best kind of theology is done to equip the Church in its mission to the world, glorifying God in the process. What we see in Owen’s work is top notch, in-depth theology that doesn’t lose sight of the need to equip the Church on the ground; theology that speaks to people’s hearts and minds with a powerful vision of who God is and what he’s done in the gospel. For example, the very first sentence of the book indicates that Owen has this chiefly in mind. He writes,

“The first inquiry in this matter, in a way of duty, is after the proper relief of a conscience of a sinner pressed and perplexed by a sense of the guilt of sin.”

He goes on, “With respect unto this state and condition of men, or men in this state and condition, the inquiry is, What that is upon the account whereof God pardons all their sins, receives them into his favour, declares or pronounces them righteous and acquitted from all guilt, removes the curse, and turns away all his wrath from them, giving them right and title unto a blessed, immortality or life eternal?”

What is fascinating is Owen’s commitment to this vision of a practical gospel focused theology for the church at the expense of academic honour and reputation. In his treatment of this topic, “…it is the direction, satisfaction, and peace of the consciences of men, and not the curiosity of notions or subtlety of disputations, which it is our duty to design.” Owen is not a theologian for the sake of theology, but a theologian for the sake of the gospel and its proclamation. Owen knows that if the main thing is not kept the main thing and if the focus of theology moves from the good news of Jesus to some other area, then without a constant focus on Jesus, “…we shall quickly wander into curious and perplexed questions, wherein the consciences of guilty sinners are not concerned; and which, therefore, really belong not unto the substance or truth of this doctrine, nor are to be immixed therewith.”

Having prefaced his book with this vision of gospel theology for the church Owen can get straight to the point. If the good news is to truly be good news of Jesus for the relief of the consciences of guilty sinners, then any debate about justification will ask, “Whether it be anything in ourselves, as our faith and repentance, the renovation of our natures, inherent habits of grace, and actual works of righteousness which we have done or may do? Or whether it be the obedience, righteousness, satisfaction, and merit of the Son of God our mediator, and surety of the covenant, imputed unto us?” This is the main point of contention, are we justified by something that occurs in us, or something that occurs outside of us.

Having set this up as the main point of contention Owen has actually anticipated one of the key features of justification advocated by the New Perspective on Paul. His main concern isn’t primarily as to whether justification is a legal declaration of pardon (though it is that), but the cause of that declaration. Owen will contend that if justification is based on our own righteousness, “…whatever may be the influence of the grace of God unto it, or causality of it…” it simply won’t be Christ focused enough so proving insufficient to provide proper relief to sinful human beings.

So Owen, at least in these opening pages, gives us these key tips for discussing justification. We are to elucidate the doctrine in a way that will properly speak to the church in a way that truly communicates the good news and we can only do this if it is sufficiently centered on Christ Jesus. It is, after all, the good news of Jesus Christ.