A Most Mischievous and Ill-Informed Half Truth

By Carl Trueman

Etienne Gilson once commented that to be a competent philosopher, one also needs to be a competent historian of philosophy.  Given some of the heterodox ideas currently being promoted by those who claim to be confessional Protestants, Gilson’s rule would seem to apply to theologians as well. 

 

In my recent lecture on the doctrine of God for the Paideia Center at Reformed Theological Seminary, I observed that one of the justifications for Protestants today revising and rejecting the classical theism of Nicaea and subsequent Nicene developments is the assertion that the Reformers did not subject the doctrine of God to the same rigorous examination in light of scripture as they did other doctrines, such as justification or the sacraments. 

 

Those who make such an assertion demonstrate an incompetent grasp of history. Yes, it is true that the Reformers did maintain the classical doctrine of God.  But we cannot conclude from this simple fact that this was because they did not subject it to their view of scripture as the norming norm.  We first need to take account of how and why the Reformers did reaffirm the classical position.  When this is done, the assertion that the Reformers held unreflectively to an unreformed doctrine of God appears at best to be only a half-truth — and a mischievous and ill-informed one at that. 

 

It is mischievous because the argument that the Reformers did not sufficiently reform the doctrine of God is typically deployed by someone who wants to justify their own significant revision of the classical position while yet seeming to be orthodox and Protestant.  The move is thus rhetorically very clever: It allows the one repudiating the content of the Reformers’ theology to present that repudiation as if it is simply a more faithful and consistent application of the Reformers‘ method.   In short, he claims to reject the Reformation doctrine because he honors the Reformation spirit.   

 

It is ill-informed because it appears to be ignorant of the pattern of doctrinal discussion in the Reformation.  The early Reformation writings of numerous Reformers – most notably Melanchthon and Calvin – do reveal significant hesitancy in deploying the fine-tooled technical language of classical Trinitarianism.   It would seem (not surprisingly) that they desired to set forth the Christian faith in terms as close to those of the Bible as possible.  But by the time we reach the late the late 1530s the traditional Trinitarian language is becoming once again prominent.  And the reason for this is simple.  The Reformers, including Melanchthon and Calvin, learned the hard way – through contemporary challenges to the biblical doctrine of God – that theologians had developed the technical language and concepts of classical Trinitarianism because these provided the best and most effective means of expounding, defending, and preserving the biblical faith.   The idea that somehow the Reformers merely assumed the classical doctrine without thoroughly testing it by scripture is therefore simply incorrect. And contemporary theological revisionism predicated on such a notion is therefore historically incompetent. 

 

Of course, there is a further obvious problem when anyone who subscribes to the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, or the 1689 Baptist Confession, claims that classical theism needs revision.  These confessions explicitly affirm classical theism as biblical and those who take ex animo vows to such are therefore committed to believing and maintaining the same. If they cannot do so with a good conscience, they should not take the vows.  It is simply dishonest to affirm at one’s ordination that which one then denies in one’s teaching. 

 

As I noted at the start, Gilson’s rule clearly applies as much to theologians as to philosophers.

 

Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.


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When Humpty Met Alice: Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation, Part Four

By Carl Trueman

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’  

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’  

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’  

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass 

 

 

In the first three posts, I highlighted what might be missed or overlooked in contemporary theological education when Systematic Theology is confused with, or even replaced by, Biblical Theology.  In this final part I want to highlight the fact that the issue of the ST-BT relationship is not just theological and pedagogical. For confessional Protestants, it is also ecclesiastical because ministers take vows to uphold the faith as summarized in the great confessions of the Reformation.  Since those confessions were forged through the kind of dialectical doctrinal process which I noted in Part Two, it is highly questionable whether one can subscribe to them wholeheartedly and uphold their teaching without all that such a background involves. 

 

Before addressing this directly, however, a couple of preliminary observations are in order. 

 

First, it is important to note the role of seminaries in shaping contemporary expressions of the Reformed faith.  The reason is simple: they train the men who fill the pulpits of Reformed churches; therefore their curricula play a decisive role in how the Reformed faith is understood, yet these are not driven simply by the content and the priorities of their confessional standards.  There are a number of reasons for this. Faculty interests inevitably shape classroom content.  Institutional narratives often ascribe to local heroes a significance in the history of the Christian faith which they may not intrinsically merit.  That too is often reflected in the curriculum.  We also live at time where the market has many seminaries ostensibly committed to the same confessional standards and yet compete for a diminishing pool of students and donor dollars.  In such a context, there can be a real temptation to market marginal local distinctives as if they are vital to the essence of the Reformed faith.  I cannot address these matters here — I intend to do so in the second of my forthcoming DenDulk Lectures at Westminster Seminary in California.  But in all that follows, it is important to bear in mind that the realities just described also play a significant part in the story of the relationship of Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. 

 

Second, we should also note that the Christian faith is a dogmatic faith, a faith of assertions.  And the Reformed branch of Christianity expresses those dogmas and assertions in its confessions.  To be a Reformed Christian is therefore to believe in the dogmas and assertions those confessions contain.  It is doctrine that defines, not commitment to a redemptivehistorical approach to exegesis or a particular approach to apologetics.  Those may be important, but they are at best secondary issues in terms of confessional subscription.   

 

Given this latter point, it should be clear from all that I have said in Parts 1-3 that Systematic Theology must play a central role in the theological curriculum and must never be confused with Biblical Theology. The historical and dialectical nature of the doctrinal formulations contained in the historic confessions which define the Reformed faith makes Systematic Theology and Historical Theology vital to understanding what they actually mean. 

 

Take the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) Chapter 2, ‘Of God, and of the Holy Trinity.’   This chapter has both historical roots – it expresses the classical doctrine of God as found in the Nicene Creed and the tradition of Trinitarianism which flows through the Middle Ages to the Reformation  – and a historical context – it is designed, among other things, to rule completely out of bounds Socinianism, a seventeenth century form of open theism.  As a result, it uses technical vocabulary whose meaning has been defined within that historic tradition.  For example, it states that God is ‘infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense’ and so on.   What is important to note is that these words are carefully chosen because they already have precise, established definitions.  They are not empty placeholders onto which the reader can impose any meaning he chooses.  The rather banal conclusion we can draw is this: if the Confession states that God is without parts, or passions, it cannot therefore be understood as teaching that God does contain parts and is passible.  

 

This is where the problem of subscription to the Westminster Confession becomes problematic for those who have sloughed off the exegetical and metaphysical contexts which gave rise to its doctrines and language.   If one abstracts the notion of simplicity or impassibility from the metaphysics of pre-modern Christianity, there is a very great danger that one will subsequently use the classical terminology to express theology that is inconsistent with, or even antithetical to, what the Confession was attempting to express and protect.  The moral onus, therefore, is upon those Reformed theologians and institutions who detach themselves from that wider tradition to demonstrate that they still maintain what the Westminster Confession teaches.

 

My friend and former colleague, Lane Tipton, provides one example.  He is much more passionately committed to Biblical Theology and persuaded by the thought of Cornelius Van Til than I am; he is therefore a good example of the theologian who might well dis-embed the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of God from its original exegetical, metaphysical and polemical matrix and thereby risk losing the meaning of technical terms. But in a recent review of Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics, he asserts (and expresses agreement with) Vos’s commitment to the notion of God’s immutability: 

 

That there is no change in God as he creates—which is what the language of “no real change” is designed to safeguard—is a deeply creedal and confessional strand of orthodoxy. God freely wills a “new relation” that introduces no change in God as he wills that “new relation.” Hence, while not introducing change in God, either ad intra or ad extra, the absolute God freely wills a bona fide “new relation” in the act of creation, yet undergoes no change himself. Hence, God relates to the world as the absolute, triune Creator.  

 

It is worth adding that Vos can do what Dr. Tipton describes precisely because he does not allow Biblical Theology to override classical categories.  Rather, he is a creedal and confessional theologian who applies a Reformed doctrine of an absolute God, the God of classical theism, to his understanding of scriptural language which might seem, on a superficial reading, to impute real change to God.  Vos is still connected to, and appreciative of, the older dogmatic work of true Systematic Theologians. 

 

To repeat: as the terms of the Confession possess specific meaning and connect Presbyterianism to the historic, catholic, biblical doctrine of God, the onus therefore lies on the Biblical Theologians and those who adopt post-confessional theological frameworks to demonstrate that they still maintain the actual teaching of the Confession that God does not change, that the relationship between God and creation is not some kind of mutualism or give-and-take.    

 

Now, creeds and confessions are, for Protestants at least, subordinate standards.  Scripture is the supreme norming authority, as the WCF itself makes clear.  One may therefore study the theological matrix of the Reformed confessions and come to the conclusion that what the WCF teaches about God is wrong.  In that case, Presbyterianism has a means of addressing the concern: the person concerned should be honest about what he is doing and, if no exception to the Standards is allowed on that point, demit the ministry. That iwould be a perfectly honorable and legitimate course of action. What is not acceptable, theologically or morally, is the propagation of views which the Confession was designed to exclude as if they are actually what it affirms.  That can only be done on the basis of historicizing what the Confession really means.  And if the conservative Protestant world finds such a move intolerable relative to the doctrine of scripture, as taught for example in WCF 1, it should also find it intolerable relative to WCF 2. God is surely no less important than scripture; and deviations on the orthodox doctrine of God have proved deadly to the faith over the centuries.  Indeed, to make the doctrine of scripture a touchstone of orthodoxy and to wink at deviations on the doctrine of God (which seems the default attitude in much of the evangelical world), is to reveal a debt not so much to the concerns of the Bible and of historic Christianity as to the priorities and tastes of modern American evangelicalism. 

 

To return to Humpty Dumpty, when it comes to the meaning of the classic vocabulary of Reformed theology, the question is: Which is to be master, that’s all — in this case, the Confession or the reader?  And in order to ensure that it is the former, not the latter, Systematic Theology must be properly taught and never confused with or replaced by Biblical Theology; and both ST and BT should be positively connected to Historical Theology.   If that does not happen, then sadly, as with Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not put the Faith back together again.

 

Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.


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Mortification of Spin is a casual conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Mortification of Spin and the mission of the Alliance.

Beyond the Lighted Stage: Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation, Part Three

By Carl Trueman

In Part Two of this four part series, I offered some thoughts on the nature of doctrinal development.  Now I want to turn to the discipline of Biblical Theology. 

 

Biblical Theology as a discipline emerges formally with the work of Johann Philipp Gabler in the late eighteenth century.  In his justly famous 1787 inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, he distinguished between the disciplines of Dogmatic Theology (what we today typically call Systematic Theology) and Biblical Theology.   Gabler saw the former as marked by a systematizing and philosophical bent and deeply shaped by the intellectual context of the individual theologian; the latter sought to set forth the ideas and beliefs of the biblical writers themselves, being always sensitive to the particular historical context of specific books of the Bible.  And Biblical Theology lacked the overriding desire to find the kind of greater doctrinal syntheses which distinguished its dogmatic counterpart. 

 

Gabler himself made it clear that he was no great fan of orthodox systematics, and his method proved popular and influential with others in the field of Biblical Studies who were uncomfortable with what they regarded as a Procustean bed of dogma.  In short, his approach essentially untethered analysis of the content of scripture from what he and his followers suspected were alien dogmatic structures that surreptitiously distorted how the Bible was read. 

 

Orthodox theologians had, of course, been aware of the historical dynamic of the biblical story before – the work of a covenant theologian such as Johannes Cocceius provides an obvious example – but the level of historical sensitivity that emerged in the late eighteenth century created an intellectual culture much more attuned to the development of historical consciousness.    

 

This is where Geehardus Vos, one of the fathers of modern conservative Biblical Theology, is significant.  His contribution was to baptize the Biblical Theology paradigm into an orthodox context, such that it became useful to conservative Christians. The post-Vos modern redemptive-historical method of interpretation is continuous with Gabler in taking the historical nature of scripture seriously, but orthodox in seeing the whole Bible as containing one, consistent story which has a unity.  This is because it is inspired by one divine author, God, and points towards and then culminates in the work of Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh. 

 

In reflecting on orthodox Biblical theology, it is therefore important to acknowledge with gratitude its obvious strengths.  The Bible does contain a dramatic story and there is such a thing as a progressive revelation of God and his purposes in the text.  Readers need to be aware of this and pay heed to it because that story is the narrative of how God has acted in history.  

 

Redemptive-historical preaching based upon such Biblical Theology is also an important tool: my own great love in the pulpit is preaching Old Testament narrative; and a redemptive-historical approach, if properly applied, helps to make sure that Old Testament sermons never lose sight of the overall Bible story, culminate in Christ, and avoid practical applications which are divorced from the gospel and therefore merely legalisms. 

 

I might add a further personal note — my own reading and understanding of the Bible is deeply indebted to the work of Biblical Theologians, most notably my former colleague and friend, Greg Beale, but also the distinguished Southern Baptist scholar, Tom Schreiner.  In helping me to understand the way in which the Bible’s storyline develops, these men have been exceptionally useful to me. 

 

But, even with all of these important contributions, we need to remember that a narrow focus on the storyline of scripture has its limits.  If the danger with Systematic Theology is that it can so emphasize conceptual unities that it misses the particularities of the biblical text, then the danger with Biblical Theology is that it so emphasizes the particularities that it misses those underlying unities. The answer to missing the trees for the wood is not to miss the wood for the trees.  

 

Further, there is a second danger: Biblical Theology, with its focus on the drama of the developing biblical storyline, is naturally tilted towards catching a very significant thread of biblical teaching (narrative action) and away from other important aspects of the Bible, such as the metaphysical realities to which scripture also points.  These might be explicit metaphysical statements as in Jn. 1:1, or the implicit but necessary ontological assumptions that lie behind the historical action in verses such as Gen. 1:1.  As New Testament scholar, C. Kavin Rowe, puts it: 

 

The New Testament and the early Church made claims about the human person Jesus of Nazareth and about the Spirit… that required specification in terms of ontology. 

 

Put simply: fidelity to the Bible’s teaching about Jesus and the Spirit – the scriptural narrative –demands that we press through the events and actions ascribed to them to discern who they actually are in terms of their very being.  In short, the Bible does not reduce God’s identity to his actions.  He is not cabined within the historical process.  It also points to a God who has a reality prior to, independent of, and thus foundational for, those same actions.  No account of the Bible’s teaching which omits those strands of biblical teaching can be described as complete. 

 

Kevin Vanhoozer expresses this point as follows: 

 

Descriptions of redemptive-history, while necessary, are theologically incomplete until one spells out their ontological implications (ie. their presuppositions about what is real), not least because history itself is a staging area for divine speech and action. 

 

In short, the ‘big story’ may be the whole story, but it is not the whole message.  God acts in a certain way in history because he is a certain kind of God in himself in eternity.  Any theological account of redemptive history which terminates simply on questions of economic action rather than divine being is therefore not false so much as it is inadequate.  This basic point lies at the heart, for example, of Matthew Levering’s respectful and appreciative but nonetheless penetrating critique of the New Testament scholars N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham in his book, Scripture and Metaphysics.   

 

And this brings me to the key issue now being faced in confessional circles.  As I argued in Part Two, the creeds and confessions to which we subscribe contain theological truth claims which were not originally based on narrowly redemptive-historical approaches to scripture. Indeed, they were formulated long before such approaches emerged in their modern form.  Nor were they constructed by those who pursued biblical exegesis and consequent doctrinal synthesis in isolation from ontological questions or from that history of controversy that drove the development of doctrinal formulation.   So here is the question: Can such doctrines as, for example, simplicity, impassibility, and the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity – in other words, the orthodox doctrine of God as confessed by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and confessional Protestant churches — be maintained on the basis of a Biblical Theology to which Systematic Theology is rendered nothing more than a poor relation or where Historical Theology plays little or no role?    

 

To put the matter in a more pointed ecclesiastical fashion: Can the classic confessions of Reformation Protestantism be faithfully upheld by those who have detached their own approach to scriptural exegesis and doctrinal synthesis from the theological, exegetical, and polemical concerns which led to such confessional formulations in the first place?   

 

That is a matter of great and urgent significance for churches, for ministers, and for the institutions who train them. And it is to this concern that I will turn in my fourth and final post.

Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, PA, and Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.

 


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Mortification of Spin is a casual conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Mortification of Spin and the mission of the Alliance.

Creeds, Confessions and the Development of Doctrine: Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation, Part Two

By Carl Trueman

Last week, I offered some preliminary thoughts on the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology.  This week, I want to consider why it is that theology demands more than just harvesting the immediate results of the exegesis of biblical texts. 

 

Proper Christian theology is always speculative, in the specific sense that it has to address matters not only of economy (how God acts in history) but also of ontology (who God is in eternity).  The great creeds of the ancient church, and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation which affirm their teachings, are the fruit of this speculative theology, addressing not just the acts of God but also his identity, something which requires more than just the construction of a redemptive-historical narrative culminating in Christ. To understand why this is so, we need to see how and why the church has come to confess Christ in the way she does – in other words, a knowledge of theological controversies.

 

Here is an example.   For many years, I taught a basic introductory course in patristic theology, the anticipation of which was typically not a cause of great excitement for students.  They (rightly) wanted to learn about the Bible.  And the Ancient Church Fathers seem too remote, historically and intellectually, to be of much use to their future ministries.  Given this, I started each course with a question designed to unsettle them.  I would randomly pick on a student in the first class and ask ‘How many wills does Christ have?’   I recall only one occasion when the student gave the correct answer.  Every other victim intuitively responded ‘One.’   At which point I offered the lethal follow-up: ‘So which does he lack, the human will or the divine?  Or perhaps his will is a fusion of the two into one, and therefore neither human nor divine?’

 

The students usually knew they had been trapped but tended to offer a defense along the lines of ‘But you don’t find the teaching that Christ has two wills anywhere in the New Testament!’  To which I would reply that that might be the case with reference to explicit texts, but it was nonetheless the only position that ultimately made sense of the New Testament’s witness to the identity of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Only a two-willed Christ could save; and to understand why, they needed a firm grasp of the development of theological arguments over time.

 

This is just one instance of what we might term the development of doctrine.  ‘Development’ terminology can disturb Protestants as it might imply that the truth of the gospel fundamentally changes over time.   But I am not using the terminology that way.  I am referring not to the essential change of truth but to the elaboration and clarification of doctrinal concepts in a manner which refines the theological grammar and metaphysical framework necessary for a correct understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God and Christ.  These concepts and the language in which they expressed do not operate as alien impositions on the Bible.  What they do is keep us alert to what the whole of scripture says even as we read particular passages.  In short, as Mike Allen – to from Mike Allen at RTS pit it to me recently, ‘theological jargon helps with reading canonically.’

 

The patristic debates about God and Christ provide excellent examples.   We all know that language of Trinity, hypostasis and substance is not there in scripture.  But Protestants use that terminology to set forth a grammar or metaphysical framework for understanding how the Bible names God.  And the reasons why those creeds and confessions speak the way they do is intimately connected to the history of debate within the church.

 

Numerous models for understanding this pattern of development have been offered over the years.  Perhaps the most famous example is that of Cardinal Newman who (while still a Protestant) wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.  A long and subtle work, his basic contention was that doctrine develops from the Bible as trees grow from seeds: the final product may not look like the original but is it continuous and consistent with it and its growth is also inevitable.

 

As attractive as it is, this approach is missing one important point: the role of controversy.  Theologian Bernard Lonergan, sympathetically critiquing Newman, points out that doctrinal development is rarely, if ever, linear but rather happens dialectically, through the clash of opposing ideas.  To put this in simple terms: one model for God and Christ is offered which is proved inadequate for dealing with the biblical testimony; and in the process by which it is found wanting, new models are proposed, and so on and so forth until there is some definitive resolution of the question at hand.  So the various modalist and subordinationist debates of the fourth century lead eventually to the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

 

The established theological grammar of 381 then sets the terms for future debates on related issues.  Yes, the grammar of divine naming in the Trinity is resolved; but that resolution itself raises questions for Christology and shapes how those can be answered. So we then have the debates of the early fifth century and the consequent resolutions of Ephesus in 431 and then Chalcedon in 451.  These in turn create questions which lead to the development of dyothelitism (that Christ has two wills, not one) and other superficially arcane but really very important concepts such as the anhypostatic nature of Christ’s human nature.

 

This point about the subsequent logic of theological debates after the Trinitarian question has been resolved at Constantinople in 381 has been made (critically) by Brian Daley in his recent volume, God Visible. Nicene orthodoxy sets the terms and provides the foundational concepts of later Christological discussion.  I made much the same argument, though more appreciatively and at a much more popular level, in my book, The Creedal Imperative. 

 

The same applies to other doctrines.  For example, those of divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility can seem abstruse and counter-intuitive in the light of a surface reading of scripture.  Yet far from being some kind of Greek philosophical intrusion onto the Christian faith, as the bogus bromides of a previous era held, in reality these concepts are vitally important to biblical, Christian, Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Reflecting on the patristic development of Trinitarianism, Rowan Williams states clearly what is at stake in his recent book, Christ the Heart of Creation, p. 69:

 

The logic of creation requires God to be God as much as it requires creation to be finite; without a clear assertion that God cannot be conceived as passive or divisible, we are left with various versions of a universe in which divine and finite being are in some sense understood as univocally related, in such a way that the divine self-subsistence and liberty are put in question.

 

And what Williams says here applies to the doctrine of God found in all churches and institutions which profess Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or most important from my own ecclesiastical perspective, Reformed.  Even a quick glance at the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, or the Second London Confession makes it abundantly clear that they each affirm that God is simple, immutable, and impassible. This Nicene faith is Protestant orthodoxy too. 

 

At this point, some may be tempted to ask, But isn’t this all a bit abstruse and irrelevant to everyday Christianity?   Well, whatever the subtlety of language and concepts developed in the course of these discussions about God, I would urge the reader never to forget that the basic motivation which drove creedal development and refinement was this: the church was striving to confess with both humility and precision a God in whose Trinitarian name we are all baptized and a Christ who is both Lord and who saves.  There is nothing more doxological or practical than that.  And (again a theme to which we shall return) it reminds us that the church worships God not only for what he has done for us but also for who he is in himself. 

 

In my next post I want to turn to the strengths and limitations of the discipline of Biblical Theology.

As a postscript, anyone concerned that the biblical doctrine of God is either unpreachable or unpastoral might want to see how pastor Liam Goligher preaches simplicity in this sermon and how theologian Todd Billings explains in this article how he has found divine impassibility to be vital in his own time of illness.


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Mortification of Spin is a casual conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Mortification of Spin and the mission of the Alliance.

Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation, Part One

By Carl Trueman

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Paideia Center Conference in Orlando, focused this year on the catholic, creedal understanding of God. I also sat on a discussion panel with Mike Allen, Scott Swain, Blair Smith and Liam Goligher, discussing the Trinity debate of 2016. Asked how it all started, Liam mentioned discussions he had had with my good friend and fellow podcaster Aimee Byrd who launched the debate by posting his writings on her blog; and my own mind went back somewhat earlier to an editorial I wrote in Themelios in the early 2000s.

 

Derek Rishmawy has since found the article and (in addition to using a pleasantly youthful and hirsute photograph of me) commented on it on his blog. The origin of that piece was my concern that Biblical Theology was developing in certain quarters in a manner that so emphasized economic considerations that it was marginalizing questions of ontology. Thus, in the long run it was potentially jeopardizing the categories and concepts of classic, catholic, creedal, confessional theology. Though at the time of writing I had assumed it was an Australian/British problem, in the years since it has become clear that what had alarmed me so long ago was actually part of a much wider problem.

 

In subsequent weeks, I want to offer some thoughts on the relationship of Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. But in this first post I want to note briefly some aspects of the culture of contemporary Christian theology which shape the discussion.

 

First, it is important to note that there is an interesting practical tendency in modern evangelical Protestantism to prioritize the doctrines of scripture and salvation over that of God. In part this is bound up with matters of identity, having historical roots in the relatively recent (I.e. last 150 years) Fundamentalist-Modernist debates and the subsequent role of the doctrine of scripture as a key boundary. The same applies with soteriology: the Reformation looms large in the imagination with its emphasis on justification by grace through faith as the defining characteristic of a life-giving Christianity.

 

Second, to these historical reasons, we might add the simple and intuitive nature of these two doctrines. To say the Bible contains errors sounds intuitively wrong even to the person untrained in theology, and this is also true to a large extent for the claim we are justified by works and not by faith does. Anyone deviating on these two points is likely to find themselves roundly condemned in evangelical circles because the issue is, at least on the surface, something that almost any Christian thinks that they can grasp with little or no intellectual reflection.

 

When we come to the doctrine of God, however, the defining controversies – those of the fourth and fifth centuries — seem long ago and far away. The issues they involved also seem somewhat arcane in their careful development of a theological grammar and vocabulary. The result (as the debates of 2016 showed) is that while Christians would of course say they affirm Nicaea, they may actually be clueless as to what Nicaea and subsequent Nicene developments really mean. The writings of the Cappadocians and then the later Christological work of men such as Cyril, the two Leontii, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus seem like so much obfuscatory jargon and pedantic hair-splitting. It is also profoundly counter-intuitive in a way that heresy on God typically is not. To say, for example, that God suffers has an apparent biblical simplicity to it in a way that to assert divine simplicity and its concomitants does not. To understand why the claim to divine passibility is deeply problematic requires a depth of reflection on theology and on the history of dogma with which the biblicism of much modern Protestantism has little or no patience and for which much Biblical Theology has little or no tolerance.

 

What is strange about this situation, of course, is that it is deviation on the doctrine of God, rather than on scripture, which has historically been the more common root of serious theological error in the church — a notion which we have noted is now profoundly counter-cultural. While today it might end one’s Reformed career if one denies inerrancy or signs an ECT document, it is clear from the Trinity Debate of 2016 that such a black-and-white protocol does not apply to matters of theology proper. Mess up on scripture or salvation and you are finished. Mess up on God and there will be few, if any, consequences, professional or ecclesiastical. As long as one affirms the words of the Creed or the Westminster Confession or the 1689, the meaning one applies to them is neither here nor there – a liberal idea which enjoys surprisingly great currency in conservative circles on this one issue. Sadly, the doctrine of God simply does not grip the cultural imagination of conservative evangelicalism in the way that other doctrinal loci do.

 

And at the heart of this problem from the perspective of theological education, at least as it manifests itself in Reformed circles, is the pedagogical (and thereby metaphysical) triumph of Biblical Theology over Systematic Theology as classically understood. It is to that issue I hope to turn in my post next week.


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Consider Me Triggered

By Aimee Byrd

I took a camping and backpacking class in college to fill in one of my extra electives. It’s one of the classes I remember the most. We had three trips where we were dropped off on different parts of the Appalachian Trail in groups on a Friday, carrying 1/3 of our weight in backpacks full of supplies and tent parts, and were left to make it to our pick-up destination on Sunday. We had to filter our own water, make our own food, deal with the whatever weather conditions we faced, find good spots to set camp for the night, and really hope you don’t run into any bears, skunks, or poisonous snakes. At least those were the three things I was most afraid of. 
 
Anyway, that class still has lasting value in my life over twenty years later. I live near several small, rewarding hikes on the Appalachian Trail, as well as some other beautiful spots like Sugarloaf Mountain, Cunningham Falls, Maryland Heights, etc. I love to hike. One of my favorite spots to climb is a mountain of boulders in the Catoctin Mountains. I am hesitant to return there though because I’ve encountered rattlesnakes twice. One I found sunning itself on a boulder I was about to step up to. I booked it down the mountain in fear. The other I did not see but heard its threatening rattle when I stepped on a rock it was under. I booked it down the mountain in fear—even though I learned in my class that snakes are pretty docile, and usually tolerant up to a third offense (so maybe a third hiker in line who steps on it) for the snake to strike. Who wants to test that?
 
This long introduction is an illustration of my thinking when I read this article On Getting and Keeping Masculine Men in the Church. It was the third offense in two days. This author of this article, a pastor, wants to give advice on how to attract “manly men” in your congregation “that will likely trigger the feminists among [his] readers.” The problem he is addressing is that too many churches—not his—have a ratio of significantly more women than men in the church. 
 
Consider me triggered. I’ve barely been on social media lately, and yet this is the stuff I have been seeing when perusing my news feed. I’ve been trying to chill safely under my rock, but this third crunch on my spine lured me out. This article is exactly why the first two bothered me (which I will get to in a minute). You see, this pastor identifies what he believes is causing this “problem” of so many women in the church—effeminate men in leadership. He warns pastors:
 
You can’t be effeminate, though. That’s a real turn off to masculine men. Effeminate guys give masculine guys the creeps. If you have a feminine voice, or an effeminate manner, sorry, Jack, but you are unlikely to get masculine men into church.
 
He goes on to his tips on being and attracting masculine men by saying it helps to have experience with a manly job like home improvement, give firm handshakes and look people in the eye (this is not advice for women, which he instructs never to show strength in a handshake because that is creepy—oh and he really doesn’t recommend shaking women’s hands anyway because they are other men’s property), reserve the use of the word love, spend your time seeking the manly men, stop using emotional stories in sermons, and do not touch women or children because they are some man’s property (“touching doesn’t communicate affection; it communicates ownership”). I would hope that most people who read this article would have the same, “Are you kidding me?” reaction. This used to be the sort of thing I would just ignore. But the mindset here is pervasive in the evangelical church. I was made aware of this article because Sam Powell has already written an excellent response to it, challenging the use of the word effeminate and the notion that many women in the church are a bad thing, and upholding the fact that pastors need to preach Christ, not manly masculinity. 
 
I could add to that, but what I want to do is connect the dots. Let’s go back to my hiking illustration with a different angle. This time I’ll be the hiker and I am not going to book it down the mountain in fear. You can be on the right trail and step on some very dangerous rocks. I read two articles yesterday from leading voices who are upset about the APA’s issuing guidelines for men and boys. I often am sharpened by these men, which makes it all the more troubling for me when I read these. Rod Dreher says that the APA has declared manhood a disorder. While I track with his critique over the APA’s stance and teaching on gender identity, the publication is not saying that manhood is a disorder. Here is the actual charge:
 
The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.
 
They don’t want to throw out manhood, they want to address unhealthy teaching on manhood, even while encouraging the positive aspects of the traditional teaching:
 
The clinician’s role, McDermott says, can be to encourage men to discard the harmful ideologies of traditional masculinity (violence, sexism) and find flexibility in the potentially positive aspects (courage, leadership). He and his team are working on a positive-masculinities scale to capture peoples’ adherence to the pro-social traits expected from men, something that has yet to be measured systematically.
 
Can’t we read this with better critical nuance? Can’t we acknowledge the truths in the article while also critiquing some of the other ideologies it promotes and contradictions within it? Do we really want to identify stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression as manliness? You see, while Dreher wants to warn against the path of LBGT propaganda, he doesn’t hear all the rattles of ungodly ancient misogynistic cultures that believed stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression are male virtues. Is that any better than the LBGT path? This is not manliness either. 
 
Trekking to the next article, Dreher recommends David French’s response to the APA, which equates the harmful stereotypes the APA is addressing to ways to shape “grown men.” Why are these men sinking their claws further into this brand of masculinity? Reading between the lines, I can easily see what they think about how women should be: non-risktakers, passive, emotional…hysterical. French’s conclusion which paints him as an alpha-male hero strikes me as ridiculous—as if women throughout history have not had to step in and save their children’s lives with their own strength (and might I add, like him, total dependence on the Lord’s providence). From the beginning, women need an enormous amount of strength in endurance to even give birth. I’m glad French is a good steward of his masculine body and that he could use that to save his son. But he even concedes to relying upon his wife’s corresponding strength to complete the mission.
 
I’m all for the logical and Christian critique that points out a contradiction in the APA’s findings. But let’s not keep the dirty bathwater with the baby. We should strip away harmful gender stereotypes and expectations and both men and women should pursue virtuous behavior. Then we can challenge the APA, asking why they encourage pandering to the LBGT community that capitalizes on people transforming their own images according to the other sex’s worst stereotypes. 
 
I’m all for upholding man and woman, created as sexual counterparts, and having different strengths to offer. While I am challenging what many say are essential differences and expressions of femininity and masculinity, I am not saying that we should not affirm biological and even gendered differences between the sexes. I agree with Mark Cortez that we can still affirm some cultural norms associated with gender without holding that these must be essential to our sexuality (Resourcing a Theological Anthropology, 208). However, while cultural norms may not be essential to our sexuality, men and women are both equal in dignity and distinctly differentiated by our sex. Based on the essential, hylomorphic understanding of the body and soul, a metaphysical understanding that has been developed throughout history since Aristotle that recognizes “the human being as a soul/body composite identity”, we understand that as the image of God, there are “two distinct ways of being a human being as a male and as a female” (Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman, Vol. 3, 494, 464). This is not something we have to force under an artificial ontological framework of authority and submission or under cultural stereotypes. Complementarity presupposes difference, but also communion through giving of the self in and through these differences. Whether we are talking about mutual self-giving in union in marriage, or self-giving reciprocity in communion of friendship, vocation, church service, or neighborly activity, men and women give “of the specific richness of their respective humanity” (Allen, 460). Let’s not reduce that out of fear that we may lose so-called power or gender wars.
 
Both men and women are to look to Jesus for Christian virtue. We are not directed to masculine manhood or feminine womanhood. We are not even directed to biblical manhood or biblical womanhood. We are men and women who are together directed to Christ, who called men and women blessed who were poor in Spirit, mourners, gentle, thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted for his sake.

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My Favorite Books (2018)

By Todd Pruitt

I read a lot of good books this year. There are also some books published this year that I have heard great things about which I have not yet read. But the following are the ones that rose to the top for me.

 

Book of the Year
Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition by Craig Carter
Originally intended to be a defense of classical theism, Dr. Carter took a detour into a defense of the hermeneutic of the church fathers. Of course there is no single hermeneutic to be found among the scholars and preachers of the first five centuries. But Carter examines the method of those best representatives of the early church and presents a compelling argument that they got it right far more often than they got it wrong. Could it be that otherwise conservative Bible scholars and preachers of our day have been unduly influenced by critical scholarship? Could it be that we have unwittingly embraced a hermeneutic which places the intent of the human writers above the supernatural hand of Scripture’s Divine Author? Every preacher needs to read this book.
 

Grounded in Heaven by Michael Allen
The latest from Michael Allen of RTS Orlando is well worth reading. Dr. Allen offers a needed critique of the many modern studies of the age to come which neglect a proper emphasis on the presence of the Divine as the central blessing of the eternal state. But far more than a critique, Grounded in Heaven is a reminder that eternal life in the presence of God is, for good reason, the foundation and substance of the Christian hope.
 

Jesus Becoming Jesus by Thomas Weinandy
Weinandy is a Roman Catholic Friar and systematic theologian. Years ago I benefitted greatly from his defense of the doctrine of divine impassibility, Does God Suffer? In Jesus Becoming Jesus, Weinandy offers a systematic theology of the synoptic gospels. One of the book’s great strengths is the seamless harmony of scholarship and devotion. Protestants will find very few things they cannot gladly affirm. My own preaching on the Lord’s Prayer and the incarnation have been enriched by this wonderful book.
 

The Devil’s Redemption (2 Volumes) by Michael McClymond
I must confess that I have not yet completed all 1200 pages of this scholarly work. But so far I have benefitted greatly from the author’s thorough critique of a system of belief which is probably quite widespread among evangelicals. This will probably be the standard go-to work on the subject of Christian universalism.
 

Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey
Miss Pearcy has given us once again a very helpful book. What makes Love Thy Body so important is the skillful way in which the author grounds the biblical teachings on human identity, gender, and sexual ethics in the doctrine of creation. The battle over human identity and sexuality that is currently raging is one that must be met with our best scholarship, our most careful arguments, and our most compassionate ethos. Miss Pearcey’s book is a worthy addition to the effort.
 

That Hideous Strength: How the West Was Lost by Melvin Tinker
I have enjoyed the work of Melvin Tinker for years. This little treatise on the influence of social Marxism on the church and society ought to be read by every American Christian. This is no conspiracy tract which sees a communist behind every call for generosity. Far from it. Rather it is a careful but appropriately urgent warning from one who has seen first-hand the ravages of cultural Marxism in Europe.
 

 


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Mortification of Spin is a casual conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Mortification of Spin and the mission of the Alliance.

A Response to Anthony Esolen Regarding Women and Hysteria

By Aimee Byrd

Anthony Esolen is an author whom I’ve enjoyed reading. I have respect for his work and his integrity to speak his convictions even when it costs him something. This is why I was so troubled to read his convictions in his latest article for the New English Review, Hysteria and the Need for Male Leadership. The title alone is disturbing. It reduces women to a term loaded with historical baggage. Based on the Greek word for uterus, hysteria refers to extreme irrationality and excessive emotion. The title portrays that since uteruses cause women to have “ungovernable emotional access,” women cannot lead. 
 
Esolen plays out this theme by addressing the hearing regarding the sexual allegations against Mr. Brett Kavanaugh, which he calls “the ghastly farce,” and his confirmation as Supreme Court Justice. The article goes on to describe how the whole ghastly farce happened because we are listening to women. He concludes:
 
Hysteria is not a new thing in the world. Think of Salem. The new thing here is that Abigail Williams and Mercy Lewis are sitting at the bench. What is to be done? The same as must be done for the colleges that the politics of hysteria has ruined. Men must build their brotherhoods again, from the ground up, and be once again, if unacknowledged, the legislators of our common life.
 
I couldn’t believe my eyes while I read through to this conclusion. Is he equating the two girl accusers from the Salem Witch Trials to women sitting on the Supreme Court bench? Is the problem with our society and the outrage between the tribes on the left and the right due to women?
 
Apparently the “hysteria” around the Kavanaugh hearing is a good picture of how our whole society is becoming feminized. Esolen first makes the point that citizens no longer care about the actual vocation of the Supreme Court, as we are ruled entirely by our emotions. He then describes how inept our senate is today saying, “Ours is like a football game with referees but no rules—better if you had no referees at all. A brawl in a barroom ends when the men’s arms grow tired. Our civic violence, because there are no rules but there are referees, never ends.” 
 
I agree with some of the critique Esolen offers. When charges are made, we need to care about actual corroborating evidence, not slander or gossip. The Kavanaugh hearing was a mess from the way it was handled by the politicians to the social media mob mentality and death threats on both Kavanaugh and Ford. It was sickening to see how it all played out in front of the public eye. Ultimately, Dr. Ford’s testimony could not be corroborated and Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. I agree that we cannot “ruin a man’s life” without evidence. Many men and women slandered both Kavanaugh and Ford during this process. 
 
The next point Esolen raises about the hearing is the need for a statute of limitations for accusations such as Dr. Ford’s:
 
People forget things. They invent and imagine things. They make artificial sense of things that were not related. This is especially true when no definite crime has been committed. 
 
Here Esolen moves from the argument of how accusations can ruin a man’s life to downplaying the nature of the charges. First he suggests that Dr. Ford is remembering it all wrong. Clearly Anthony Esolen has never been a victim of sexual assault. That is not something that you can easily forget. It is a definite crime against your very dignity as a human being made in the image of God. I may not remember what I said last week, but I certainly would remember if someone attempted to rape me when I was a teenager. I would remember if I was scared for my life as two drunken boys locked me in a room against my will and held me down trying to take my clothes off! While Brett Kavanaugh may be innocent of the charges, we must not pretend that they were no big deal. This kind of talk is exactly why women may wait 30 years to speak out.
 
And the message we send to sexual assault victims who are watching should never be “just get over it.” That is what Esolen says, adding that maybe the reason Dr. Ford can’t get over such a thing is because she is a woman and she is taking things too seriously:
 
Battles must end. In the jubilee year, slaves are set free, and that is that. When boys in the old days got into a scrap, they would often pick themselves up, more dusty than hurt, and become friends again. What’s done is done. If we are not talking about a serious crime that was committed and not just intended or imagined or, the agent in a drunken stupor, placed within the realm of possibility—an act such as murder, arson, kidnapping, or rape—it is destructive of the common good to hold people responsible for bad things done long ago. 
 
Esolen continues to lament that “If you are a drunken teenage boy and you grab a girl when she does not want it, that’s a hanging offense.” I agree that is not a hanging offense. But we don’t only have the two options of hanging groping punks or shrugging our shoulders. Let’s not send that message to our children. Esolen points out the hypocrisy of wanting to hang a man for groping while simultaneously fighting for the rights of fornication and adultery. Sure, there are many male and female hypocrites out there (none advocating for hanging, by the way). But in describing these hypocrites, he uses the language of a mother bear guarding her cubs to further perpetuate the uterus/hysteria message from the title. Christians should be speaking out about all sexual sin. In that case, I wonder how Esolen would feel if a man groped him in the privates and he was powerless to do anything about it? Is it no big deal? Of course not, it is a terrible violation. However, this is not even the point. I agree, “justice demands distinctions.” Again, the testimony against Kavanaugh is far more serious than unwanted groping! 
 
He rightly says that “we hate rape because it is vicious and violent, an offense against the vulnerability of woman,” but then adds, “not to mention subjecting her to the possibility of a life-altering pregnancy.” Unwanted pregnancy isn’t the only life-altering consequence rape victims have to bear for the rest of their lives. Here again, I see women reduced to their uteruses. We are more than bodies with sex organs that produce babies. Rape affects a woman’s soul, her mind, and her whole psyche. And for this, we don’t only hate rape, but attempted rape as well. I am not saying that is what Kavanaugh did. But that is the nature of the charges.
 
Next, Esolen begins to explain the differences between men and women in broad strokes. Men pride themselves in knowing when to bend the rules to fit the case. Women are incapable of this and cannot be objective with their own children, favoring them over others. He continues:
 
…the female of the species, which is, as Kipling says, “more deadly than the male.” The male can be fair to other men’s children against his own. That is not in the female nature. That great admirer of women, G. K. Chesterton, said that there are only three things that women do not understand: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. He meant, by all three together, the lively liberty that a brotherhood of men enjoys when they argue with one another in a club or a beer hall or a college dining room, and no argument is ruled out for its being put forward by a plumber and not a professor, and everyone tacitly agrees that you have a right neither to an opinion nor to any tender feelings regarding your opinion, but rather to an argument. Women in our universities have given notice that they will not abide that masculine punch and counter-punch. Hence the “safe space,” safe for a cancer.
 
Esolen continues to run nostalgic on the good ol’ days when were settled in the beer hall. For the sake of brevity, I will just fire off some concluding thoughts:
 
You cannot reduce men and women to Victorian stereotypes and call that an argument.
I’ve been around enough childhood sports events to see that men are not objective with their own children! 
Has Esolen EVER been in a barroom fight to settle an argument?
Sounds like men were ruled by ungoverned passion in the good ol’ days. Fueled by beer. I think those were the days that many of them returned home to their families in a violent stupor.
I know plenty of women who make good, sober arguments that are just ignored.
It is simply not true that there are no power dynamics of class and social status in the brotherhood.
He’s the one arguing for a safe space!
I know how to give a pretty darn good punch and counter punch, buddy.
 
Esolen concludes that women are despots who govern for their own interests. Listening to women these days is like listening to two girls who ignited the mob mentality hunting witches in the elate 17th century. After all, even with all the progress we’ve made in society, we still have uteruses.

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In the No: Freedom and Belonging Will Never Be Found in the Hookup Culture

By Aimee Byrd

Radiolab did a series of three podcasts called “In the No” in collaboration with radio maker Kaitlin Priest, whose “mini-series called ‘No’ about her personal struggle to understand and communicate about sexual consent” motivated Radiolab’s host Jad Abumrad to further discuss the difficulties of consent in sexual encounters. He introduces the series saying, “That show, which dives into the experience, moment by moment, of navigating sexual intimacy, struck a chord with many of us…Over the next three episodes, we’ll wander into rooms full of college students, hear from academics and activists, and sit in on classes about BDSM.”
 
Well, let me tell you, they successfully strike a chord. I wanted to hear what kinds of conversations were happening, so I listened to the series. I was extremely uncomfortable listening to parts of it because it was borderline pornographic—if there’s such a thing as pornography for the ears. To bring the listener to a better understanding of the difficulties of a woman being Illustration by Cara Turett ( Photo by Justine Camacho on Unsplash )able to communicate what she doesn’t want, Priest plays reenactments of her own personal sexual encounters (and live footage of another). This is very successful in portraying how men can be pushy, how difficult it can be to say no, all the reasons women may go along with sexual acts they don’t really want to do, and all the gray areas in between “Yes, I want this” and “No, please stop now.” 
 
I have mixed feelings about this podcast series. On one hand, I am glad that men and women are talking about all of the power dynamics around consent. This is an important conversation. Awareness is being raised. On the other hand, these people do not have a healthy view of freedom, sex, love, power, or friendship. So it is a very unsatisfying conversation.
 
The podcast is eye opening. But it is also pretty vulgar. Priest hosts an “artsy, feminist sex radio show” and her sexual language is offensive from the start. She claims that third wave sex positive feminism taught her to “adapt the same, ruthless sexual posturing as boys” and that “would allow her to wield some of their power…having slut pride would subvert the double standard and it would force the world to recognize that women’s sexual pleasure is real.” She pauses, and then reveals that the only problem is that she hates casual sex. Instead of investigating more of why that is, Priest tells the world all about her sexual life of masturbation on her radio show. She does say that what she is looking for is love, even though she knows it’s corny. She knows that the sexual revolution has sold her a lie. But she still uses its language. Why does Priest expect more from sex if she uses the “F” word to describe it?
 
Right away, we learn that even though she is supposedly looking for sex only within a love relationship, Priest is still very casual about her sexuality with male friends. She over-shares. She’s sexually intimate. She wants to cuddle under a blanket and have movie sleep over nights. But then she doesn’t quite know what to do when her friend takes this behavior as signs for more. She sends mixed messages. And yet, as they begin to mess around, she does communicate clearly what she doesn’t want to do—several times. Very clearly. At this point her friend betrays her, acting like so many other encounters she’s had, basically talking her into what she clearly communicated that she didn’t want. She wants to be liked. But she doesn’t want to be consumed.
 
She is tired of being a means to an end. The end is the man’s pleasure. 
 
But Priest does not understand how to escape this. Sure, a man should also be thinking about the woman’s pleasure.  But that is not the answer—that happens as a result of knowing the truth about sex. This view of sex, and even her life of masturbation, is all about consumption. She kind of knows this when she is the oppressed, but she just turns it around to making it be about her own pleasure in masturbation. She has settled. She wants good sex but has no sexual identity beyond pleasure. She thinks her standard for good sex is love—but why does she think this? That’s what I would love to ask her. And if this is so, why does she think she will ever find that in the hookup culture?
 
Sex is a uniting act where two flesh become one. It isn’t consuming; it’s giving. It’s sharing. It is such an intimate sharing that it is exclusive to marriage with one spouse.** You can’t look to the hookup culture for this kind of remarkable intimacy. Kaitlin Priest’s expectation for love and pleasure is too low! As she is busy seeking feminine power and pleasure, she is blind to the sacrificial, sanctifying love that builds in Christian marriage through the years. This absolutely beautiful and glorious love grows beyond the youthful, original attributes that attracted us to one another, to a mature appreciation of the scars that mark its progression. She will NEVER get this from the hookup culture or from masturbation. Within this covenantal, Christ centered love in Christian marriage, sex is an intimate opportunity for growing, sharing, pleasing, learning, teaching, and forgiveness.
 
Kaitlin Priest is only in her twenties. And although she sees the lie in the third wave feminist movement she is still falling for its premise that people are to be consumed for our own pleasure. That sex is a means to power. And yet she still wants to be that something beautiful that others will want. So she has reduced her own body as a means to get these things: belongingness, pleasure, and power. 
 
There’s a much bigger issue at stake. 
 
The hookup culture is supposedly about freedom and autonomy. Priest’s radio show reveals that the playing field is not really equal. But she doesn’t see that the whole premise of self-interest and self-pleasure in the hookup culture is enslaving. Richard Bauckham wasn’t talking about the hookup culture, but his wise words can be applied in this situation:
 
The contribution of the New Testament’s insights into the nature of real freedom as liberation from enslavement to self-interest and freedom to give oneself for others is also important in this context. The oppressed who long for freedom are not truly liberated from the system that oppresses them so long as the freedom they desire is only the freedom their oppressors have: freedom for themselves, no matter what this entails for others. In such circumstances the struggle for liberation is simply a mirror image of the system it opposes: it becomes ruthless in its self-interest, creates as many victims as it liberates, and produces a new kind of tyranny in place of the old. Outward liberation worthy of the name requires people who have been freed to live for others, and for all others, even for their oppressors. (Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom, 24-25).
 
In this case, freedom comes in serving our brothers and sisters by promoting their holiness, not by seducing them for our own pleasure. Priest looks for freedom in the hookup culture but cannot find it. She looks for autonomy in masturbation, but it’s unsatisfying because it’s terribly lonely. She too is enslaved by her own pleasure. “Belonging is necessary to true freedom, and freedom is necessary to true belonging.” They are “not exclusive opposites, but reciprocal factors. There is no human independence that is not rooted in a deeper dependence—on nature, on other people, and on God” (42).  Freedom and autonomy don’t go together.
 
What is more powerful, using our own sexuality to seduce someone, to impose oneself on someone, or in sacrifice to promote the good of our neighbor? This is also where the purest pleasure will be found. And you just might find love as well.
 
 
 
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. (C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)
 
** I don’t mean to convey that consent is not needed for sex within a Christian marriage. But as one of the interviewees noted, consent is all about what you will let someone else do to you. It’s terribly sad to reduce sex to this. And yet, there are plenty of Christian marriages with unhealthy sexual dynamics. I have tried to explain a healthy view of sex above. If sex is a giving and sharing of oneself, that certainly requires the volition of both parties. Without that, we enter into the same issues of violation, sexual assault, and abuse that the mini series was addressing.
 
Illustration by Cara Turett
( Photo by Justine Camacho on Unsplash )

 


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When Do We Use the Word Sin, and Why?

By Aimee Byrd

A couple days ago, I wrote about how even the world of Reformedish evangelicalism is contributing to the sad “State of Theology” that is evidenced in the Ligonier Ministries’ survey. Bad theology is perpetuated in our own circles when ethics is prioritized over our theology of God, his Word, man, and the gospel. 
 
And so I asked, why are we surprised by this? If we accept bad theology on the basics, our ethics are going to follow suit. Our updated survey is showing just that. And so we see that even the ethics that we held so dear are now falling apart:
 
An alarming 69% of people disagree that even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation, with 58% strongly disagreeing.
 
As the results reveal a low view of God and his Word, a high view of man, and a distorted gospel, it only follows suit that sin is no longer that big of a deal. I can’t tell you how many “Christian” books I’ve read by popular authors in our circles that don’t even use that word anymore. One of the most powerful books upholding the holiness of God and the evil of sin that I have ever read is Jeremiah Burroughs’, The Evil of Evils. If sin is a missing word in our vocabulary, evil is even more offensive. His premise is, “That it is a very evil choice for any soul under heaven to choose the least sin rather than the greatest affliction,” reasoning that, “There is more evil in sin than in outward trouble in the world; more evil in sin than in all the miseries and torments of hell itself” (2,3).
 
Think about it, when the youth in our midst look at the church they often see her on one hand carefully calculating to accept or modify obvious behavior that Scripture labels as sin, and on the other hand reserving the strong language to quibble over skirt lengths and education. The ultimate sin that a contemporary Christian seems to face is that of not being very nice. Maybe we need to spend some time talking more about what sin really is so that we are clear on why we are so desperate for Christ. Maybe the good news doesn’t sound all that radical to someone who is frustrated or merely broken and hoping for a makeover. But when you learn about the pure holiness of God, sin is seen as the evil of evils, something to abhor at all costs. And that leads us to think about what sin cost our Savior. Burroughs expounds:
 
Oh, you heavens!  How could you behold such a spectacle as this was?  How was the earth able to bear it?  Truly, neither heaven nor earth was able, for the Scripture says that the sun withdrew its light and was darkened so many hours. It was from twelve to three that the sun withdrew its light and did not shine, but there was dismal darkness in the world for it was unable to behold such a spectacle as this was. And the earth shook and trembled, and the graves opened and the rocks split in two, the very stones themselves were affected with such a work as this, and the vale of the Temple rent asunder. These things were done upon Christ’s bearing of the wrath of His Father for sin. Here you have the first fruits of God’s displeasure for sin, and in this you may see, surely, that sin must be a vile thing since it causes God the Father to deal thus with His Son when He had man’s sin upon Him. (102)
 
Surely we think of sin as too small a thing. The creation couldn’t even bear the sight of Christ carrying our sin, propitiating the Father’s wrath. Our holy Savior took on the greatest affliction of bearing our sin—every bit of it—as he faced his Father’s judgment instead of us. Could anything ever come close to showing us the evil of sin as God pouring His wrath for it on His Son? And not only are we able to turn to him for forgiveness, but his very righteousness is reckoned to us as well. Who else could be worthy of our praise and worship? How could we choose sin over any affliction when we have Christ’s Holy Spirit to apply his glorious work to us and give us his very strength to avoid the evil of sin? Even now, Jesus is at the right hand of the Father interceding for his people as we are being transformed into his own likeness.
 
Why would we ever want to soften this language? And what’s more perplexing, why is it often used instead for shaming on extra-biblical regulations like skirt lengths, current interpretations for biblical manhood and womanhood, political parties, food righteousness, and education choices? These extra-biblical regulations are not the power to holiness. Sin isn’t what’s “out there.” Sin saturates our hearts. This is why we so desperately need to know the Holy One who delivers us from the reign of sin and places us in the reign of grace, giving us the power by his very Spirit to obey. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). 
 
We need to love the One who gives us the freedom of holiness—who takes away our chains, declares us holy in him, and then begins the sanctifying work of transforming us into his likeness. In order to know what sin is, we need to know holiness. Then we need to know how we will have the transforming power for goodness. The beauty of freedom is that we can finally choose goodness!
 
Are we as a church clearly communicating to one another and the watching world what sin really is? 
 
 
*A section of this post is taken from an earlier article on the Evil of Evils that I wrote in 2014

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