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.



John Wesley & ‘non-Imputation’ Revisited


Over the last couple of months I’ve posted a few times on imputation and non-imputation in relationship to the doctrine of justification. As part of that I was trying to understand how Wesley’s theology of non-imputation influenced his view of the atonement.

Just to recap, instead of adopting the language of imputation, where Jesus becomes legally culpable for our sin without being inherently sinful (see Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21), Wesley opted for the language of non-imputation. In other words our sins are no longer held against us on the basis of Christ’s work of atonement. Justification is proclaimed on the basis of pardon alone.

I postulated that since Wesley preferred to understand justification in terms of non-imputation then he would have to reject a theory of penal substitution. How could it be just for God to punish someone who wasn’t legally culpable for sins (which can only take place through imputation)? I took this to mean that Wesley would adopt an Anselmian satisfaction theory of atonement whereby Jesus life of righteousness and obedient death acted to propitiate God’s wrath and satisfy the demands of divine justice.

But this isn’t entirely accurate. Neither is it entirely accurate to say that Wesley adopted a theory of non-penal substitution. It isn’t totally false, but it’s not totally true either. Wesley agrees that sin demands punishment, but this punishment isn’t wholly averted on the basis of Christ’s righteous life, or life of merit (a la Anselm). Instead, Wesley would seem to say that God’s justice is satisfied, not by punishing Christ in our place, but by Christ suffering the penalty that we deserved. There is a distinction to be made between punishment and penalty. For example, someone deserves to be punished for stealing, perhaps the penalty is that they have to pay a fine. Someone who didn’t steal offers to pay the penalty in the thief’s place. That doesn’t mean that they are punished for stealing, rather they pay the penalty that is the thief’s punishment.

In this way, Wesley’s account of atonement wouldn’t be totally non-penal, in contrast to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Rather, we deserve punishment and that punishment is averted justly by Jesus’ payment of the penalty that we would have had to pay. In this way Wesley can retain a form of penal substitution while using the language of non-imputation.

It also wasn’t entirely accurate to say that Wesley rejects the language of imputation or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In actual fact, on a number of occasions Wesley refers positively to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, but with some subtle caveats. Collins in Justification: What’s at Stake in Current Debates writes,

“…in his sermon “The Lord Our Righteousness,” produced in 1765, Wesley contends that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers in the sense that they are now accepted by God not for the sake of anything that they have done, whether it be works of charity, mercy or the like, but solely because of what Christ has accomplished through his life and death on their behalf.” (187).

Collins sums up Wesley’s view of positive imputation in the following,

“2. Justification includes the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to sinners with the result that they are declared righteous. Imputation, however, must never be viewed as a “cloak” for ongoing unrighteousness.” (194-195).

Clearly Wesley was critical of the traditional understanding of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, fearing that this doctrine would lead to antinomianism. But he still retained the ‘imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ language while changing its definition. Instead of the phrase referring to a positive righteousness in addition to pardon, the ‘imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ simply indicates the fact that we are justified on the basis of a work external to us. We are justified by Christ alone.

In sum then, Wesley seems to hold to a view of the atonement that falls in between a traditional account of penal substitution and an Anselmian satisfaction theory while rejecting the traditional understanding of double imputation.


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: