Category Archives: Theology Proper

Carson and Keller on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and the Gospel.

Don Carson and Tim Keller posted an excellent piece today: Reflections on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and Discipline. The post wass written primarily to explain The Gospel Coalition position on disagreement and correction among board members. But, it’s really an excellent read for understanding how boundaries and confessions work in any movement.

You should go read the article, but I wanted to highlight a couple of things that I found particularly interesting.

First, they use the distinction between an “boundary-bounded set” and a “center-bounded set” to describe their movement. This language has been around for a while now, and it differentiates between groups that try to establish clear in/out boundaries (e.g. confessional churches), and those that build their commitments on some central agreement(s) but leave lots of fuzziness around the edges (e.g. evangelicalism as a whole). This distinction has been around for a while, so it’s not unique to Carson and Keller. Indeed, Roger Olson recently used the same distinction to argue that evangelicalism is a “centered set” movement. So, what’s interesting here is that although Olson has been rather critical of groups like the Gospel Coalition for having an overly narrow and closed-minded understanding of evangelicalism, it would seem that Carson and Keller actually view the movement in very similar ways.

I also appreciated the discussion toward the end on the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Gospel, in which they draw a distinction between whether the Trinity is essential to the Gospel and whether having an orthodox view of the Trinity is necessary for salvation. As they rightly point out, those are two different issues:

In some discussion or other, we might claim, rightly, that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is irrefragably tied up with the gospel. Someone might object, “Surely not! Is an orthodox view of the Trinity necessary for salvation?” In reality, these are two differentiable issues. To say that the doctrine of the Trinity is tied up with the gospel is to make a claim about the structure of the gospel, about what the gospel is, about its content.

Ignoring for a second that they actually used the word “irrefragably,” this is a great point. Doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation provide an essential shape and structure to the Gospel. Without them, the Gospel is undermined in critical ways. But, that doesn’t mean that someone who rejects them necessarily rejects the Gospel. It just means that they’re operating with an understanding of the Gospel that has some real weak spots. But, fortunately for us all, the standard of salvation is not how well we understand orthodox theology, as important as that might be.

Who is this God I worship?

Since I’m teaching on Augustine’s Confessions tomorrow, I thought I’d post one of my favorite pieces from Book 1. Confessions opens with Augustine praising this amazing God who has pursued him so graciously and transformed his life so completely. And, here is where he just breaks out in stunned admiration of God’s incomprehensible perfection.

“You, my God, are supreme, utmost in goodness, mightiest and all-powerful, most merciful and most just. You are the most hidden from us and yet the most present amongst us, the most beautiful and yet the most strong, ever enduring and yet we cannot comprehend you. You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you. You are the unseen power that brings decline upon the proud. You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them nourish them, and bring them to perfection. You seek to make them your own, though you lack for nothing. You love your creatures, but with a gentle love. You treasure them, but without apprehension. You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them. You are never in need yet are glad to gain, never covetous yet you exact a return for your gifts.” (Confessions 1.4).

God Knows Where Waldo Is

This will make a great slide for my lectures on the doctrine of God.

via 22 Words

Should we really try to understand the Trinity?

[This is a guest post by Daniel Fender. Daniel is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a pastor at The Gathering Community Church in Portland, OR. Daniel is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

Is the Trinity best left a Mystery? Is it foolish to consider the inner workings of the Eternal God? Many evangelicals believe it is at least a bit arrogant.  Mystery and Trinity go hand in hand in most peoples Christian experiences.  We can capture how the average evangelical understands the Trinity in a simple mathematic formula. The Trinity = A Mystery.  The contemporary trend is increasingly to leave Mysteries to fend for themselves. They fall out of our thinking because they are deemed out of our reach.

For Jonathan Edwards, the Trinity was far too valuable to leave as an unfathomable Mystery.  After all it is Edwards who says in Religious Affections, “If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart.”  And the Trinity for Edwards was arguably the greatest thing of religion. The Trinity provided the eternal foundation from which human nature and all of the created order derived its substance, form and purpose.  Because God is the greatest thing of religion understanding the nature of the Trinity should affect the heart.

At the same time we must acknowledge that when Edwards plunges head long into An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity, he is both a man of his own time and a man grappling with the unchangeable nature of God. Let us not forget that he spoke and wrote to a different generation. The entire essay begins with what in Edwards’ day was common:  “‘Tis common when speaking of the Divine happiness to say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself …” Yet today ‘tis not so common to think that way!  God’s enjoyment of God is not so quickly contemplated (let alone understood) today.

For Edwards however, the relationships and inner workings of the Trinity are wrapped up in God enjoying God. “In the perfectly beholding and infinitely loving and rejoicing in, His own essence and perfections, and accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself.” Throughout the entire essay Edwards pushes us to think on what is revealed concerning the Trinity.  The chief reason for this is that Scripture reveals not only the fact that the nature of God is triune but that this triune nature is worthy of our contemplation because God has chosen to communicate something about it in the Bible.

However to Edwards following the train of thought that the revelation of Scripture details does not remove all mystery.  Rather it focuses the wonder of the Mystery. As Edwards confesses toward the end of the Essay:

I think the Word of God teaches us more things concerning it to be believed by us than have been generally believed, and that it exhibits many things concerning it exceeding [i.e., more] glorious and wonderful than have been taken notice of; yea, that it reveals or exhibits many more wonderful mysteries than those which have been taken notice of; which mysteries that have been overvalued are incomprehensible things and yet have been exhibited in the Word of God tho they are an addition to the number of mysteries that are in it. No wonder that the more things we are told concerning that which is so infinitely above our reach, the number of visible mysteries increases. (Italics mine)

In other words, the more you see and understand about the nature of God the more amazed you will be and the more the mysteries will increase.  Edwards notes that it is this way also in the natural world when we use a microscope. “…[Y]et the number of things that are wonderful and mysterious in them that appear to him are much more than before, and, if he views them with a microscope, the number of the wonders that he sees will be increased still but yet the microscope gives him more a true knowledge concerning them.” Thus the more you look into the Trinity the more you will understand. And the more you understand the more your understanding will multiply the sense of wonder, awe and mystery.

by David Restivo (via Flickr)

This is a very different understanding to Mystery than many take today. We are far to easily satisfied with the quick (and lazy) label of Mystery. Yet as a form of literature a Mystery demands our attention and a constant organizing and reorganizing of the clues until the Mystery is solved. In fact, until it is solved we are troubled and distracted.  Yet when the Mystery is solved, even partially, we then enjoy each section of the story and clue with more appreciation and depth. In many ways the Trinity is a mystery; but a mystery that demands our enjoyment, and for that reason, demands our attention and thought. Yet as Edwards exhibits the thought demanded of us it is not speculative philosophical ponderings unfettered by any authority. No; the thoughts that we must think are derivative. We have a conception of the Trinity because the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. And the Son has sent his promised Spirit. And the Father, Son and Spirit seem to be enjoying one another more than we ever thought God would. God is really happy about God! And we are called into this joy!

After Edwards shows text after text of Scripture which inform his understanding he then briefly summarizes his conception of the Trinity:

And this I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the Holy Scriptures. The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, un-originated and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence. The Son is the Deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the Deity subsisting in act, or the Divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s Infinite love to and delight in Himself. And I believe the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct Persons.

Thus Edwards understood the Son to perfectly embody the Idea (or thoughts) of God and the Spirit to embody the Emotions of God (Or God’s enjoyment of God). If this seems like a rash or quick resolution to a great Mystery, understand that it is his conclusion and summary not his Scriptural reason or logic for getting to this point. (You’ll have to read An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity!)

Yet despite how conclusive all of this sounds, Edwards gladly admits:

But I don’t pretend fully to explain how these things are and I am sensible a hundred other objections may be made and puzzling doubts and questions raised that I can’t solve. I am far from pretending to explaining the Trinity so as to render it no longer a mystery. I think it to be the highest and deepest of all Divine mysteries still, notwithstanding anything that I have said or conceived about it. I don’t intend to explain the Trinity. But Scripture with reason may lead to say something further of it than has been wont to be said, tho there are still left many things pertaining to it incomprehensible.

How much can we understand about the Trinity? How much does the Word of God reveal? How much time and energy should we give to contemplating the Mystery of the Trinity?  What do you think? And why?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

A Rap on Trinitarianism

I am doing some research for my Th.M. thesis which will be on monarchianism and its impact on the development of the Trinity and I came across this video. Who knew they could make a rap song out of modalistic monarchianism.

Besides, what better way to celebrate Trinity Sunday than with a good rap song?

The Demoralizing Dogmas of Calvinism

In a letter that he wrote to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Thomas Jefferson offered a fabulous description of “Calvinism.” In contrast to the teachings of Jesus, which are “simple, and tend all to the happiness of man,” he offers the five “demoralizing dogmas of Calvinism.”

  1. That there are three Gods.
  2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
  3. That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
  4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
  5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.

I strongly recommend emailing this to any Calvinists you know. They will really appreciate it.

The Theology and God of Lady GaGa

She is one of the most interesting/disturbing pop culture figures today.  She is likened to other pop divas as Brittney Spears, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera, but has cut out a name for herself in her own right.  She wears dresses made of raw meat and has one of the most eclectic wardrobes of all time.  Every song she produces is a number one hit and I can guarantee that almost every person from the ages of 8-35 (respectively) knows of her or about her.

What you may not have known about Lady Gaga is that she is a theologian!  It may surprise some, but she has a view of God, informed by some type of sources, and she teaches a particular doctrine(s).  Her latest song, Born This Way, which has stood in the number one spot on iTunes since being released, is called the “Manifesto of Mother Monster,” making it a type of creed for people to live by.  The entire song has two goals: 1) To get people to love and accept themselves as they are, and 2) To get people to be love and accept others as they are.  The logical reasoning for this acceptance is found in the chorus:

I’m beautiful in my way,
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

Don’t hide yourself in regret,
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way
(Born this way)

Sounds like a decent message.  She brings God into the equation, and does make an appropriate and true statement about him, “God makes no mistakes.”  What Christian can argue with that message?  To argue anything other than that is to accuse God of making mistakes, being ignorant of what is going on in the world, and unable to govern his universe.  We know from Scripture, however, that God is infinite, wise, all-powerful, and accomplishes exactly what he wants.  He truly makes no mistakes.

She makes another partially true statement about “being born” the way you are.  If you’re white, black, brown, American, Chinese, or Lebanese God caused you to be born this way.  Again, true.  We know from Acts 17:26-27 that God established the boundaries of men, allotted them the periods of time they would live in, and what nationality they would be.  Who could argue that from the womb they got to plead a case for where they wanted to be born, or what nationality they wanted to be, or what language they wanted to speak.  No, God did that and according to Paul he did it in the hope that men would seek him.

Where Lady Gaga goes wrong is in saying that there is no distinction between nationality and sin.  If God makes no mistakes, and God is in control of your nationality and time of birth, then God also made you lesbian, gay, straight, or bisexual.  Our acceptance of one’s nationality or gender, should be no different from our acceptance of their sexuality.  What Lady Gaga fails to consider, however, is that although God makes no mistakes, man makes plenty of them and has been doing so since the Garden of Eden.  Is it a sin to be African American?  No.  Is it a sin to be a white male?  No.  Is it a sin to be a female from Argentina?  No.   Is it a sin to be lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or a sexually immoral heterosexual?  Yes.  When it comes to nationality or gender, you have no choice.  When it comes to your sexuality you do, and the Bible is clear when it comes to this issue.

Why does a pop song matter?  It matters because everyone is a theologian.  And the question is not whether or not a person has a theological grid for understanding who God is.  The question is whether or not the Bible and the person and work of Jesus Christ inform that theological grid.  Lady Gaga is training/discipling/preaching to culture and the people in your church, especially students, to grid their view of God and others through a particular lens, one of love and acceptance.  And that grid is extremely popular in our day!  That’s not necessarily a bad thing to call people to.  Christians should be calling each other to love people.  However, the danger is that this grid does not take into account the justice of God, the reality of sin, the brokenness of man, the wrath of God against sin, or the desire of God to forgive sinners in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  She’s mixing truth with the cyanide of lie, and great hosts of people are drinking the juice.

If Lady Gaga is right, then it is not sinful for a man to be an alcoholic who beats his wife.  After all, God made me to love alcohol and hate women.  I was born this way.  It’s not a sin to molest little children.  After all someone’s sexual preference for small children would be no different from the lesbian, gay, or heterosexual persons.  Just ask the North American Man/Boy Association.  They were born that way.  And if you’re really going to buy into the god of Gaga, then not only do you simply need to love and accept yourself for being this way, but all of us who disagree with your lifestyle simply need to be more accepting.  If Lady Gaga would disagree with me, that in fact pedophilia and spousal abuse is evil (sin?), then it would be appropriate to ask her on what authority she stands, and why we should believe her?   At this point, please spare me the argument about genetic DNA that shows certain propensities towards certain actions.  All I have to say to that is, welcome to the human race.  We all have those, and it doesn’t make one’s particular actions any more right/good, or them any less responsible for their choices.

According to Scripture however, we learn that God makes no mistakes, he is sovereignly ruling his creation, and that sin has entered and corrupted what was good.  What the creation hates is that the Creator God gets to define what sin is.  Since a rebellious creation does not like his definition, it attempts to redefine and write its own.  The good thing is that God will not stand for his creation rebelling against him and destroying itself, so he intervenes.  He models what love really is by sending his own Son to make right what was made wrong and restore relationship.  In this God shows his love and acceptance towards sinners (really horrible ones as well, just ask Paul), and his absolute hatred of sin.  There is such a thing as sin, God gets to say what it is, it will be accounted for, and everyone will have to deal with Jesus.  We were “born this way.”  This way is broken and needs redemption.  Thank God that we have a redeemer.  It is the height of arrogance, rebellion, and stupidity to rejoice in a sin sick state, when the remedy has been provided.   Praise God that although we were “born this way,” we don’t have to stay in it.

On the value of reading Thomas Aquinas

This past Fall semester I took an independent study class on Church History in the Middle Ages as both an overview of the period but also a chance to study one of the greatest theological minds in Thomas Aquinas. At this same time, I was taking a philosophy class and little did I know how much these two classes would be intertwined. This was also the first time I have ever studied Thomas Aquinas extensively so I was in for a treat.

Aquinas has become one of my favorite people to study in church history. One of the things I learned the most about Aquinas is that he had so much to say that helped theology. I valued his insight he gave to theology in his Summa Theologica. I wrote my paper on the development of the Trinity in his Summa. And one of the main points for Aquinas in differentiating between the Persons of the Trinity was his doctrine of Word and Love. I really liked his definition of the Son being Word and the Spirit being Love and how he used these to explain procession and relation in the Trinity.

Another key point that I learned from Aquinas was the interrelation of philosophy and theology. The whole first question of his Summa Theologica is used to defend the superiority of theology over philosophy but that philosophy does have a part to play in the discussion/interaction. This is where Aquinas develops his “handmaiden” view of philosophy. That theology is to be the topic that is to be studied but when needed philosophy can come beside and help theology say things it otherwise would be unable too.

For being a church history fan, I really enjoyed seeing how Aquinas used the early church fathers in his writings. He seemed to rely heavily on Augustine, especially in developing his Trinitarian theology. But Aquinas was not afraid to question and correct what he thought someone from before his time said. His basis for correcting was that there was more revealed information now then they had back then so it was proper for him to reinterpret them. He did this when he questioned Augustine’s understanding of essence but what was funny was he used Augustine to prove his point of reinterpretation. So he question Augustine, interpreted Augustine his way (that is Aquinas), then backed up his interpretation with Augustine.

Finally, and this goes for the study of church history as a whole I have truly come to value history as it pertains to my beliefs. I find it amazing to see where the beginnings of my beliefs came from and how they moved throughout church history. The development, questioning, and acceptance of different theological points throughout church history are fascinating. This is something that I feel is lacking in much of ministry. We fail to explain the history behind some of our beliefs. Yes, I understand not all people are fans of history but I have come to the belief that it is important for those in the church to understand where their beliefs came from. We are great at explaining and defining different theological terms but that is where it is left. There is no discussion of how we got to this point in our theological development. History is important to understand where we are today, especially church history for the church!

For those who feel Aquinas is beyond their understanding I would challenge them take up and read and see how easy Aquinas is to understand. His way of writing is very structured and thorough and thus easy to outline and read (again personal preference). I would recommend a little understanding of philosophy. I believe I would not have understood some of what I read if it was not for the philosophy class, I was taking. I would say to stop waiting and read Aquinas though; he is such a great read!

Monty Python on the Trinity

I’d never considered this particular quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the context if the Trinity before, but it’s quite apt.

“First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.”

That’s some good trinitarian theology there.

(Thanks to Philip Jenkins for the idea – The Jesus Wars, p. 64.)

Key characteristics of evangelical trinitarian theology

One of the papers that I attended at ETS today offered a helpful summary of Evangelical Trinitarian theology as it stands today. The last several decades have seen a significant resurgence of interest in Trinitarian theology among evangelicals. And, according to Jason Sexton, this resurgence is marked by a number of important characteristics.

  1. Patristic Attunement: Evangelicals have taken more interest in understanding the patristic sources. And, Sexton argues that this is somewhat unique in evangelical theology, since we are not currently demonstrating as much interest in other aspects of patristic thought.
  2. Residual Social Trinitarianism: Sexton notes that many prominent evangelical theologians have argued for a social model of the Trinity. But, he also points out that many have been sharply critical of this approach, and at least one, Stanley Grenz, began to move toward different models later in his life. So, he concludes that evangelical trinitarianism is still marked by social trinitarianism, but not to the same extent that it once was.
  3. Subordination Moratorium?: This was the part of his paper that seemed the least clear. I couldn’t tell if he was saying that there should be a moratorium on arguments regarding whether there is an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, or whether he thought that things had actually begun to move in that direction. Either way, he clearly argued that this would be a good development.
  4. Philosophical Interdisciplinarity: There has been more interest recently in philosophy, particularly analytic philosophy, as providing useful resources for developing and understanding the Trinity.
  5. Trinitarian biblical theology: Although evangelicals remain divided on whether the whole Bible should be read trinitarianly, there is growing support for the importance of developing a doctrine of the Trinity through biblical theology, and allowing our biblical theology to be guided by our understanding of the Trinity.
  6. Trinitarian theological interpretation of Scripture: I’m not entirely clear on how he was differentiating this one from the previous (partly because most people use the label “theological interpretation” ambiguously).
  7. Ecclesial Trinitarianism: Unfortunately he had to skip this part, but here is where he wanted to point out the importance of the Trinity for worship (including the sacraments), pastoral theology, and the mission of the church.
  8. Christ-centeredness: Evangelicals generally affirm that our understanding of the Trinity should be Christocentric, as long as this is not understood to be Christomonistic (i.e. everything reduced to Christology), and as long as our christocentrism is seen as serving rather than detracting from a robust appreciation of the Father and the Spirit as well.

Sexton concluded the paper by offering a couple of ways forward for evangelical theology:

  1. We must do a better job recognizing that understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is not an end in itself, but should serve the life and mission of the Church.
  2. Correspondingly, Trinitarian theology needs to be connected more clearly to pastoral theology. Sexton expressed concern in several places that we stop trying to move directly from the doctrine of the Trinity to specific issues in the human realm (e.g., women in ministry), but he does think that the Trinity can and must be intelligently and intentionally connected to such pastoral issues. “In short, the church needs a Trinitarian theology that moves toward being a public theology.”
  3. We need to be much more careful with the “heresy” label.