The Fall as Scrumping

ApplesIn one of my recent posts I spoke briefly about John Wesley’s use of forensic language in his sermon Justification by Faith. While noting the motivations and subtlety of the language of ‘non-imputation’ I also said that I disagreed with Wesley on this fundamental point. Our justification is the result, not simply of the non-imputation of our sins to us, but the imputation of our sins to Christ and his righteousness to us. There is a kind of exchange that takes place.

Recently the language of double imputation has been criticized by a variety of writers, perhaps the most prominent being N. T. Wright. Usually the objections are stated in such a way as to say that someone is counted righteous simply in virtue of non-imputation. Since someone is forgiven their sins, they can therefore be pronounced ‘justified’.

However, the persuasiveness of such a statement is largely dependent on some underlying assumptions regarding the nature of sin. If sin consists in the failure to pay a debt and we are then released from that debt by the work of Christ in forgiveness then any positive attribution of Christ’s righteousness to us seems superfluous. But what if sin isn’t like this? What if sin is less about human incapability and more about human rebellion. Or as C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

We might think of sin in these terms. Imagine you steal a ticket to some event in order to procure the benefit of the ticket but are caught in the act. The person who catches you, and who, coincidentally was the one supposed to be selling the tickets forgives you. But notice, simply being forgiven for stealing the ticket doesn’t give you the right to using the ticket or its benefits. If anything you’ll have to give the ticket back. You still need a means of rightfully procuring what you sought to steal.

If sin is more similar to this situation, and I think C. S. Lewis’s statement is instructive on this point, then our justification and all the benefits that are inherent to that will involve both forgiveness and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. By that righteousness (the ticket) we have the benefit of being justified in God’s sight. Essentially, then, the Fall doesn’t simply involve an inability to act righteously, but involves the conscious decision to try and procure something by illegitimate means. Our first parents’ sin was a kind of stealing, and since it was an apple, it was, in essence, a type of scrumping.

There are other problems with the language of non-imputation, namely its tendency to undermine theories of penal substitutionary atonement (though perhaps many would see this as a positive). For example, Wesley seems to think that God’s wrath is propitiated by Jesus’ death. However, since our justification is by non-imputation and not the imputation of our sins to Christ it seems very difficult to say that Jesus was punished for our sins when he wasn’t being held legally culpable. It is more likely that Wesley has a kind of Anselmian satisfaction theory in mind. The kind of satisfaction that provides satisfaction for sin in a propitiatory way without any element of punishment being involved. A kind of non-penal substitution. However, I haven’t read extensively enough to know how accurate a reading of Wesley this is. Despite this, the contours of a theology of non-imputation seem to lead to these conclusions.



A Review of Christopher Holmes’s ‘The Holy Spirit’

Dove depicting Holy Spirit pictured in stained-glass window in Georgia church

One of the more interesting theological series that is currently in development is New Studies in Dogmatics, following the tradition of G. C. Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics published in the mid twentieth century. The series provides “thoughtful, concise, and constructive treatments of major theological topics” and does so in the context of a thoroughly Reformed theological vision. One of the ways in which the series seeks to achieve this end is through a theology of retrieval, mining the riches of historical and classical Christian doctrine in order to make them available to a contemporary evangelical audience. The volumes in the series seek to find a middle ground “between introductory theology textbooks and advanced theological monographs.” (Series Preface)

That said, in this book (which is one of the first in the series), Christopher Holmes develops a theology of the Holy Spirit rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity which leans more towards the advanced theological monograph. The basic thesis of the book is to demonstrate how the role of the Spirit in the economy of salvation is rooted in the Spirit’s role in the Godhead as the one who ‘proceeds’ from the Father, through the Son. In the process of saving human beings God not only saves people but reveals who he is eternally. As Holmes puts it “It is the task of a theology of the Spirit to articulate, however haltingly, where this mission comes from. The question of the Spirit’s origin is indeed a matter of material consequence.” (212). Holmes develops his thesis in dialogue with Augustine, Aquinas, and Karl Barth, in reflection on passages of John’s Gospel, such as Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus on being born of the Spirit, and the promise of the Spirit of truth in John 14.

The major strength of the book is Holmes’s demonstration of how talk of the Spirit’s proceeding from the Father and the Son best explains the language of the New Testament, and how such a ‘relation of origin’ helps us to understand the working of the Spirit in salvation history. Having been rather suspicious of ‘relations of origin’ to begin with, I can now see how helpful such an understanding of the Trinity can be as a framework for understanding the work of God in the New Testament as well as in the world today. The implications of this trinitarian framework are drawn out more thoroughly in one of the final chapters of the book on ‘church and tradition’. In this chapter Holmes makes it clear that Pentecost was something permanent, that the church continues to live in the power of the Spirit, and that as such church tradition (the Rule of Faith) is Spirit led and is therefore a fantastic tool for pointing beyond itself to Jesus Christ, since the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son.

However, despite being a fairly slim volume, I found it rather ‘stodgy’. I think this was the result of three factors. Firstly, I found the language to be rather dense. Often it felt theological for the sake of being theological, rather than theological for the sake of clarification. And more often than not certain terms or phrases would be employed without immediate clarification or definition, which I found frustrating. For example, questions about the Holy Spirit existing as the relation of love between the Father and the Son preceded a clarification of what it meant for the Holy Spirit to be a ‘subsistent relation’ by 20 pages. And even when an explanation of subsistent relations was provided I still felt like it hadn’t been shown how a person could be identical with a relation. Holmes seemed to make a nod in this direction, but didn’t pursue it. “The Spirit is, put simply, equivalent to an originating relation. The person of the Spirit, if you want to use the language of person, is nothing but the being breathed by Father and Son. How does the Spirit originate? By the breathing of the Father and Son. “There is nothing here but relatings, no somewhats doing the relating. The language strains.”” (141).

Secondly, I think the density or stodginess of the work wasn’t helped by the choice of dialogue partners. No doubt each had something relevant to add to the development of Holmes’s thesis, and the development of a Reformed perspective on anything has to at least mention Karl Barth in passing. But I think that dialoguing with theologians like Barth often means that a theologian slips into using a kind of Barthianese. That isn’t to say that Barth doesn’t have helpful things to say. It’s just that his theology often assumes a language and framework rather alien to contemporary evangelicals which make understanding what he has to say rather difficult. I would have liked to see Holmes’s dialogue with Barth supplemented by the work of other Reformed theologians who are perhaps not as immediately inaccessible. For example, John Calvin, who has been described as a ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit’ only gets mentioned on three pages. I’m not a Calvinist, and I know that Reformed theology is much broader than ‘Calvinism’ as such, but I would have expected a greater engagement with such figures. On the other hand, you can’t dialogue with everyone, and as it stands Holmes’s choice of dialogue partners gets him where he wants to go. Nevertheless, in the development of his argument I think it would have been helpful to engage B. B. Warfield critically in his criticisms of ‘relations of origin’, or Jurgen Moltmann on ‘trinitarian hermeneutics’ and the reversibility of divine relating.

One final thing that I think contributed to the stodge is Holmes’s lack of reference to the practical reality of the Spirit in the life of the church. I’m thinking specifically of how the doctrine of the Holy Spirit relates to a church that exists in the wake of charismatic renewal. In seeking to provide a theology of the Spirit for a contemporary evangelical audience I was hoping for a constructive application of Holmes’s thesis to the fruits and gifts of the Spirit. However, not a single mention of charismatic renewal was made. On reflection a reader could make these applications in his own time, but I would have liked Holmes to address charisms specifically.

In conclusion, despite being rather stodgy, Holmes provides a theological vision of the Holy Spirit which seeks to explain the mission of the Spirit in relation to the Spirit’s origin in the Godhead. Doxologically, this leads to a worship of God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit. Anyone seeking to reflect theologically or write academically on the Holy Spirit will need to engage with this volume.Book Cover

You can purchase The Holy Spirit here: