Going on a Worship Strike

I come now to my second installment in replying to Roger Olson's recent diatribe against Calvinism. Here is how these things usually go, and I want to suggest another way for them to go. A Calvinist explains the doctrines he holds, at the end of which explanation, his Arminian friend exclaims, "I could never worship a God like that!" The normal Calvinist response is that "you really ought to be willing to worship a God like that," but the response ought rather to be "you do in fact already worship a God like that." However Roger Olson kicks it up to the next level. He in effect vows that he never would worship a God like that. Period. "I come back to my most basic question of all—to classical, high (i.e., 'TULIP' Calvinists): How do you distinguish God from the devil except with degrees of power? And what if it turned out that God is the devil in disguise? Would you still worship him? I would not; I hope you would not. But therein lies the secret to why I have said that IF it were revealed to me in a way I could not doubt that God is as high, classical (i.e., 'TULIP' Calvinism) claims I would not worship him. (I lose no sleep over this, by the way.) Because, in that case, … [Read more...]

Predestination in a Cheap Tux

A friend pointed me to this article by Roger Olson on the monster God of Calvinism, which, if logical demonstration were a verdant jungle in the Amazon, would be as bare as hell's back yard. There are enough non sequiturs here to roll out to an appropriate thickness, in order to cut them up to use for awnings. But it is important to note at the outset that I would rather dip a right hand covered with paper cuts into a basin of verjuice than to overheat my rhetoric on a point such as this. This issue is far too important to distract the reader with a verbal tapioca that has three eggs too many in it. So to speak. Okay, so if I had a gizzard, this line of argument would be down in it. But I don't have a gizzard and so I can say all this in a spirit of mild composure, and am gazing over the terrain of this argument with the equanimity and serenity of a somnambulant Buddha. The argument! What's the argument? There are a bunch of things here that I will likely address in a few additional installments, so let me begin with just one, the one with a "kick me" sign taped on its back. Actually, there is more than one like that, so let me be more specific. Let me start with a brief, but … [Read more...]

An Excessively Pious Mud Turtle

So admittedly I am a Calvinist yahoo, something of an Augustinian yob. If Calvinism were coffee, not only would I not take cream and sugar, or other foo-fooeries, but I would endeavor to make it a form of cowboy espresso, only without any steam. You take a tin can, put a horseshoe on the bottom of the can, cover it with the coffee grounds, fill it with water, and set it on the campfire. When the horseshoe floats, it is ready. To modify the metaphor, I believe what what the church needs today is more jet fuel Calvinism. Pastors today should cultivate a crawl-over-broken-glass Calvinism. No more preaching through Romans with the caution of an excessively pious mud turtle. Put yet another way, to reapply a phrase from Wodehouse, no longer should pastors ascend into the pulpit looking like a sheep with a secret sorrow. I say this, of course, in a manner free of all ecclesiastical partisanship, one-upmanship, or flag-waving. The exuberance I urge here must always, at all times, be kept within its appointed bounds, so long as those bounds are consistent with zeal for the Lord of hosts consuming us. I say this, not because Calvinism divides evangelical Christians, but because it … [Read more...]

One Kind of Baptism Means Two Kinds of Christian

In my stack of books being read, there are a handful of writers that are always in there somewhere. I make a constant point of always having a book by Chesterton, Bunyan, Lewis, Thomas Watson . . . and, to come to our point this morning, Jonathan Edwards. I am currently in Volume 12 of his Collected Works (no, I am not that far along -- I jump around), and therefore have recently begun reading his Humble Inquiry. This is the book Edwards wrote defending his attempts to walk back the communion standards established by his predecessor Solomon Stoddard (also his grandfather) at Northampton, and which eventually led to Edwards getting the sack. Stoddard believed that the Lord's Supper was a converting ordinance, and therefore did not want to limit access to the Table to those known to be "truly converted." Edwards was seeking to establish some kind of process that would enable the church to inquire as to the true heart condition of the person seeking to become a communicant. In his opening to Humble Inquiry, Edwards is his usual lucid self, and is quite formidable. He begins, as we all ought to, with Scripture. He demonstrates that the Bible uses the word saints, … [Read more...]

In Which Stephen Fry Steps In It

If you would be so kind, I would like to ask you to view this brief bit of blasphemous cheek. It'll just take a few minutes. Now then, all set? Let's break this down into two basic parts. The first part is that Stephen Fry is given a thought experiment, and we should take a moment to see how he thinks in thought experiments. He doesn't believe in God, but he is nevertheless asked a "what if." What if you were wrong, the questioner asks, and the whole thing turns out to be true, with you finding yourself in a conversation with God at the Pearly Gates. Fry takes that occasion to launch into his diatribe. Bone cancer in children? What's with that? But I want to note something really strange about this set up. When God and Fry take their places as these disputants, Fry undertakes to argue morality with Him. And in order to argue this way, he has to assume -- and most certainly does assume -- that there is a moral standard that overarches the two of them, and which is equally binding on both of them. But what is that standard? Where did it come from? How does it come to be binding on both of them? In order for the standard to be authoritative, there must be an authority, … [Read more...]

11 Theses on the Meaning of Scriptural Authority

1. Our starting point for all discussions of biblical authority should begin with an affirmation of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. More needs to said on this subject than was said there, but not less. Fruitful discussion can take place only among those who can honestly sign that statement. With those who cannot sign it, our duty is that of charitable debate and refutation. 2. Obedience is a key element in exegetical understanding. Obedience is the opener of eyes. Without obedient application, the text is not really being studied. 3. Affirmations of biblical authority are worthless unless we understand that the contemporary secular challenges to biblical authority create enormous pressure on those affirming inerrancy to develop interpretive workarounds, such that inerrancy can be formally affirmed while being practically denied. Examples of such pressures today would include biblical teaching on sexuality and human origins. 4. Scripture is given to us as seed, and is therefore intended to grow and flower down through history. The Word of God is living and active and this extends to more than just the personal conversion of individuals. The living Word is … [Read more...]

Lord of the Slippery Roads

We all enjoy talking about the sovereignty of God, and sometimes we even enjoy it too much when we are talking with those brothers who happen to disagree with us on it. But how much do we believe it? How strongly do we believe it? "Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, 'The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.' So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer" (Ezra 8:21-23). As Ezra's example makes dear, for eons the saints of God have been seeking His protection as they travel. We instinctively look to Him for our safety as we travel. But there is more to it than this—we also should seek His rest as we go. In order to do this properly, we must act upon the Word. Much more is involved than a little pious whitewash—"Don't worry. .. be happy." Okay. Why? We should seek … [Read more...]

Nothing Coming Down the Pike

The question of assurance is a subset of epistemology. And that means Christians today who struggle with assurance are dealing with an extra factor that previous generations of Christians (usually) did not have to deal with. We live in a skeptical postmodern age, and so the question of knowing that you are saved is related to the question of how you can know anything. This becomes even more challenging when we are talking about our own faith five years out. In Scripture, genuine faith in God now is necessarily related to faith in God in the future. Baptism binds the future. “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; And in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; Having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me” (Phil. 1:27–30). Paul says that when Christians … [Read more...]

21 Theses On Assurance and Apostasy

1. There are only two final destinations for human beings after the day of judgment, those two destinations being the final damnation of the old humanity in Adam, and the final salvation of the new humanity in Christ. 2. Throughout all history, God has kept a visible covenant people for Himself, intended to declare, model, test drive, instantiate, train for, grow toward, and otherwise approximate that final redeemed humanity. 3. Depending on location and era, that visible covenant people has ranged between a grotesque parody of that final redeemed humanity and a genuine approximation of it. As history grows toward its glorious consummation, the historical progress toward that final eschatological goal will be more and more unmistakeable. 4. But in either case this means that the rosters of names involved, those of the visible covenant people, and the final redeemed humanity, the elect, are not identical rosters. 5. God has always given His visible covenant people visible covenant markers. In our time of the new covenant, these markers are gospel and sacrament. God is sketching His preliminary drawing of His final redeemed humanity in charcoal -- Word and water, bread … [Read more...]

Down at the Pool Hall

Warfield's little book The Plan of Salvation is one of the few books that I have read three times. The first time was in 1988 when I was first becoming a Calvinist, and it was no doubt part of that bumpy but wonderful process. I read it again the next year. I read it a third time just a few years ago, and this leads to a needed retraction. I interact with that book in several of my own. The first book is "Reformed" Is Not Enough, published over a decade ago, and the second is Against the Church, published late in 2013. In RINE, my assessment of Warfield is fairly critical. "But I do want to argue that Warfield was being inconsistent here..." (pg. 86). And then a bit later I say this: "According to Warfield's definition, to have the covenant dispensed in ordinances and to have them be spiritually efficacious, is sacerdotalism. But this is the Westminster Confession, which he claims is anti-sacerdotalist. And so it is, but the inevitable conclusion is that there is something wrong with Warfield's definition" (pg. 88). When I first read this book by Warfield I really appreciated it. But a little over a decade later, when the Federal Vision controversy was heating up, I had … [Read more...]

Our Last Christening

A year or so ago, I read through Marilynn Robinson's novels, which was a treat for the most part. I read all of them except for Lila, but there I had the excellent excuse that it had not yet been released. But now it has been, so it comes to pass that I have now read it also. Robinson's descriptive powers remain as great as ever, and she does what every novelist dreams of, which is to hold your attention page to page. What she does not do, however, is provide a compelling case for universalism. Robinson specializes in exquisite descriptions of broken characters, but here her theology unwittingly becomes one of those broken characters, lame and blind, and with no one to help. In universalism, the human is constant. He or she does things, and those things can be good or bad. Universalism focuses on those things, and wonders whether God is so arbitrary or so irrational as to be unwilling to forgive such things. And it is also pointed out that someone else has been forgiven for those very same things, and if one person is forgiven, then why not all? Meanwhile, the perpetrator is standing off to the side, a constant subject whose role is to have done a list of bad things without … [Read more...]

Baby Oil on the Bowling Ball

If I may, I would like to ask your permission to go up the stairs three at a time here. Great. Glad that's all set. What I mean by that is that I want to assert a number of things together in order to indicate a pattern. The argument for some of these things has already been presented in this space, and the argument for others is likely coming up some other time. So bear with me. I take it as a given that orthodoxy requires an affirmation of the ontological equality of all three members of the Trinity. I also take it as a given that in the economic order of the Trinity, the subordination of the Son to the Father is the way it has to be -- otherwise, the Son is not eternally the Son. Given an Incarnation, which member of the Trinity was going to become incarnate was not up for grabs. So the issue here is an affirmation of the absolute equality of the Son with the Father, coupled with an affirmation of the economic subordination of the Son to the Father. In short, authority is an ultimate reality within the Godhead. Prior to the Incarnation, the Son was equal to the Father (Phil. 2:6), and in consenting to the Incarnation, the Son was obedient to the Father (Phil. 2:7). On a … [Read more...]

Future Grace

The evangelical hinge is not whether sacraments accomplish the blessings they speak of. The issue is whether they accomplish every blessing they speak of. The sacraments, like the Scriptures, like the gospel itself, like the very existence of the Church, are eschatological. The words of baptism are future-oriented -- from that moment forward, the baptized person is to be reckoned my brother or sister. The words of institution at the Supper are future words. “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). We baptize and we commune leaning forward. Every Lord's Day we break bread toward the end of the world. In the meantime, the Church is God's salvation community in the world, and there are two ways to come into this community. The first is real conversion. When someone is truly converted, and he comes into the Church, he receives all that the Church contains, or ever will contain (which is to say, Christ). Faith -- and only faith -- enables a person to inherit this complete future. Listen to Paul talking about this very thing when speaking of the riches of a true heir -- “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or … [Read more...]

New-fangled Christological Ideas

In this place my friend Tim Bayly takes my friend Peter Leithart to task for what he wrote here. What are we to take away from all this, besides "my, what interesting friends you have"? I read through Tim's piece a couple times, and did the same through Peter's, and here are a few preliminary thoughts on it all. Tim is pretty severe with Peter, but if Tim is correct in his reading of what Peter is saying, then the severity is not misplaced. If Peter really is saying Calvin's "maneuver" parallels Paul's "maneuver," and they are both equally suspect, then all Tim's subsequent criticism rightly follows. At a minimum, I think Peter is confusing and needs to clarify whether Paul is an advocate of what he identifies as a problematic "atonement theology." He also needs to clarify if the Pauline treatment of the events of Christ's life really is a second order narrative. In reading these posts, a possible defense of what Peter is writing occurred to me, and it is a defense that does rescue him from Tim's censures. But in order for that defense to work at all, Peter has to be seen as abandoning our long-shared project of letting the Bible teach us how to read the Bible. In other … [Read more...]

A Helicopter on the Front Lawn

This last week my friend Peter Leithart did some musing out loud about some problems that he identifies as resulting from an emphasis on the "legal status" of righteousness. One post, "How to Say, 'I Am Righteous'" is here, and another related post on Luther and imputation/infusion can be found here. In response I have some questions, some hesitations, some suggestions, some objections, and some exhortations. Here we go. Peter argues that we hesitate to speak the way the psalmist sometimes does because of unbelief. Peter says that to say that I am legally righteous and existentially sinful is dualism -- a dualism "fed and nurtured by Protestant preaching and teaching that treats the 'legal me' as righteous while consigning the 'real, existential me' or 'my nature' to the realm of sin." First, what is dualism exactly? I don't think we can say that it occurs just because we have distinct nouns for distinct things. Sun and moon are two, as are heaven and earth, but do not represent dualism, and to affirm that God created mankind as male and female is not dualism either. So it seems that dualism occurs when two distinct things are put into an unbiblical relation to one … [Read more...]