For my last (rather delayed) post on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence according to Darren Kennedy, I want to briefly address the way that heaven and, interestingly, the angels function in the whole structure. According to Kennedy, heaven and the angels are actually quite important to Barth’s providence. Why this would be the case might not be obvious at all to us, but once he explains it, the coherence is evident.
So, what do angels and heaven have to do with providence? Recall that in my last post on this I mentioned that Barth rejects the idea of miracles which violate natural order, but he understands the natural order in a broad way that allows for many things to take place which we might not be inclined to consider natural. This is where heaven and the angels come in. For Barth (and, basically, N. T. Wright of all people), the term “heaven” does not refer to the uncreated presence of God, but to the second sphere of creation, the other side from earth which is hidden from our perception. The angels belong to this created heavenly sphere, and thus strictly speaking are a part of natural creation. They are not properly supernatural, but simply belong to a different created habitat, the habitat of heaven rather than earth.
In his first brief explanation, Kennedy explains:
If God does not disrupt the causal nexus, how can one account for the specific ‘miracles’ in Scripture? Barth’s answer does not envision a violation of the causal nexus, but an expansion of it to include heaven. This explanation will help to clarify Barth’s interpretation of heaven and angels in III.3. While fully a part of the creation, heaven remains imperceptible to humanity. Nevertheless, as part of the cosmos, heavenly creatures can act and reveal in the earthly realm. Thus God directs angels—whose nature is to obey perfectly—to behave in ways that seem to disrupt creation, but violate no ontic laws of creation.1
So for Barth, then, there is nothing about miracles which necessarily violates the natural causal order. He does not overrule, bypass, undo, or contradict the “laws” by which He governs creation (since, after all, in double-agency they are His own doing, and He cannot contradict Himself). Instead, heaven and the angels are part of the natural, created world, and God from His presence in heaven sends the angels to do His will in ways which affect earthly realities. A blind man, for example, may receive sight not by earthly physical processes but by angelic action, which is nonetheless “natural” in the sense that angels are a part of the created order.
Thus Kennedy argues that the realm of heaven and the angels serve as a so-called “causal joint” in Barth’s theology of providence, the point where God’s action enters into the created world. Many theologians have traditionally had a very difficult time identifying this point, explaining how and where God’s providential action is effective in the natural world. Barth by no means overcomes the mystery altogether, which would be speculative and presumptuous, but he does point to this answer grounded in biblical stories and teachings.
To understand this better, we should see how Barth sees the difficulty in the relationship of the Wholly Other God to the created world. In his understanding, God only is able to act in our world through a particular created “midpoint,” the realm of heaven which He has made to dwell in and to unite with earth. Kennedy cites this from him:
Without this special place of God, and the distance therewith posited between Himself and man in his own place, there could obviously be no genuine intercourse between them. There could be no dialogue, but only a monologue on the part of God (or perhaps of man). There could be no drama, but either God or man could only live in isolation with no relationships to others or significance for them. If this is not the case; if the theme of Christian witness is neither the life of an isolated God nor isolated man, but the history enacted between them of isolation, estrangement, reconciliation and fellowship; and if this history is really enacted in our world, then this means that God as well as man has a distinctive sphere in this real world of ours.2
This is rather similar to N. T. Wright’s view, at least at the descriptive level, of heaven as “the control room for earth..the CEO’s office, the place from which instuctions are given.”3 Kennedy does not specify whether Barth thought God acts on the world through heaven only by the angels or also by other means, but in any case the point is a mediating realm between God and man’s world.
There are oddities to this account, though. For Barth, only God and humans are truly personal beings. Angels, although superficially similar to persons, are actually not. They have no free will (of any kind), and they are used by God similarly to simple tools. On this account, he also denies that demons are fallen angels, instead incorporating them into his doctrine of Nothingness (on which I have written here). If angels have no personal agency, then they cannot have sinned unless God caused them to do so, which of course is absurd. Thus demons are placed into their own category.
This last issue is odd, and I think compromises this apsect of Barth’s providential project on Biblical grounds. Could it be reworked without it? Perhaps. In any case, it is thought-provoking, and I think as a whole Barth’s doctrine of providence seems superior to the traditional Reformed formulations.
Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases—in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases—a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.17.10
In my last post about D. M. Kennedy’s thesis on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence, I overviewed the way Barth addressed the question of evil in the world and the divine will. God gives sin and evil space for existence in His opposition to it; His “No” to human evil defines it and gives it concrete existence as His enemy. Thus sin is included in God’s will negatively, as that which He hates and denies in order to love and create His positive will. In the end, through the Cross of Christ, all sin and evil have their intentions thwarted as their ends are subjected to the positive will of God in creation and reconciliation.
This account, as fun as it is, is not quite complete. To get the way all of this is supposed to work a little better, it is necessary to also understand Barth’s doctrine of double-agency, the way in which both God and the world act in everything which happens. For Barth, and many other theologians, it is necessary to affirm that God acts in all occurrences. Nothing happens in all of creation in which God is not actively doing something. Providence would not be providence, especially from a Reformed perspective, if not everything was in some way an act of God. So Barth would affirm, along with the Old Testament and many Christian thinkers, God’s omnicausality, His causing of all things which come to pass.
So what does Barth’s view of double-agency look like in his doctrine of providence? First, it must be seen that all events in all history are God’s act at least inasmuch as He creates and sustains all things. This applies on one level to mere matter, simple particles and such, as God chooses at every moment to cause their existence with their distinct natures and properties. Every quark and gluon, photon and graviton, “acts” out of its own nature under the conditions in which God has placed it, and God acts to give and sustain the nature and abilities of these particles. Thus for Barth “natural” processes or “laws” cannot be understood as some autonomous principle(s) which mechanistically force all things to work in a certain way, but rather they are simply the outplaying of the way God ever constitutes the elements and forces of nature.
Each day of creation marks the appearance of created beings with particular natures which serve the Creator’s intention. For example, light has a God given ‘nature’ corresponding to its function and purpose. Barth explains, ‘Giving it its nature, He sets it [light] with this nature in that antithesis [between God and darkness]’. This ‘nature’, however, is in relation to the living God. Acting naturally, it corresponds with its Creator:
…in its distinction from Himself He finds in it a correspondence (entsprechend) to the goodness of His creative will and acts. In this connexion only that can be called “good” which corresponds to God’s will and act as Creator, and for this reason and in this way in a positive relation to Himself’.…in its distinction from Himself He finds in it a correspondence (entsprechend) to the goodness of His creative will and acts. In this connexion only that can be called “good” which corresponds to God’s will and act as Creator, and for this reason and in this way in a positive relation to Himself’.
Barth goes on to contrast his view of the goodness of light in correspondence with the will and act of God to those who consider the ‘qualities and advantages of light’. In doing so, Barth sets his actualistic ontology and its stress on relationships in contrast with the traditional Aristotelian substantialism. Double-agency means that impersonal creatures ‘are’ in their natural existence precisely as God actively sustains them to be. Like Farrer, Barth suggests ‘two doings’, but only one meaning given by God, since the non-intelligent nature of light does not involve an intention from the side of the creature.
Barth accentuates the ‘limits’ (Grenzen) and ‘nature’ (Natur) of each creature. Every creature has a particular God-given nature allowing for varied praise and witness to its Creator. Thus the creation of plants signals the potential not for agency but for obedience nonetheless. Barth highlights the difference in the nature of plants and non-living creatures this way,
Light has only to become and be what it is. The firmament has only to divide. The waters have only to gather. The results of the activity of the action of these creatures do not extend beyond themselves to the existence of other creatures. But the earth…has a transitive character…It produces things that are different from itself….
Barth portrays creaturely life as both ‘produced by God’ and totally natural. As in Farrer’s lower levels of providential double-agency, Barth preserves the full integrity and relative individuality of the creature while affirming divine agency in each moment of existence. The Creator both creates the nature of the impersonal creature and personally acts in double-agency using ‘creaturely powers straight…’1
So for Barth, God is the “cause” of all physical occurrence by giving every physical part of creation its peculiar nature and function. All so-called “natural laws” are the result of God’s constant act of creatively ordering the world. Yet at the same time, this divine act makes the “independent” naturalness of the physical world properly real. God does, and so nature does, but nature does precisely as nature and not merely as a divine instrument
This conception of double-agency has two particularly notable results. First is that Barth thus rejects the concept of natural evil. Hurricanes, volcanoes, mosquitos, and carnivorous survival are not, for Barth, effects of sin or the curse but simply expressions of the way that objects and forces with different created natures may interact in abrasive ways. Just as without heat and friction between objects, there could be no motion, so without these various harsh aspects of creaturely existence, there could be no natural world. This reminds me of a section in The City of God where Augustine addresses natural evil by pointing out that just because certain created things are bad for humans does not mean they are inherently bad. Instead, they are good as they act out their God-given natures even when that is problematic for us.
A second result of Barth’s take on double-agency in creation is a rejection of any idea of miracles as breaking or bypassing the created order. If all natural occurrence is in fact already God’s omnipotent action, then Humean miracles would essentially be God bypassing or contradicting Himself. So Barth defines miracles by their meaning and relation to human perception. Miracles occur by natural processes, but they are so wielded by God’s providence as to participate in revelatory significance in key moments of God’s plan.
This rejection of Humean miracles does come with two important qualifications, though. On one hand, Barth defines creation’s natural order in a way that allows for many things we might not be inclined to consider “natural” as in fact perfectly natural. I’ll save the twist on this for my next post. The other qualification is the resurrection of Christ (and thus humanity in Christ), which is neither natural nor a simple violation of nature but in fact a new creation in the midst of the old, a sequel to the ex nihilo work of Genesis 1.
More closely related to the last post, though, and addressing the issue of human evil in providence, is Barth’s understanding of double-agency with respect to persons. Personal beings are more than the sum of their physical parts, after all, especially in that they have true, intentional agency. A particle simply exists and interacts without knowledge or motive, but human persons move autonomously and make choices. It is in this sphere, then, in which double-agency means the most.
As said before, Barth acknowledges the act of God in every occurrence, thus including human decisions, even evil ones. But Barth is no fool who simply treats humans like rocks and stones moved by God deterministically. To summarize Kennedy’s presentation of Barth’s view of double-agency in persons, I’ll offer three points which describe the act of God in human action.
First, God acts creatively to sustain the human’s being and willing as a creature. God has made man with certain volitional capacities which, while never intended to host sinfulness, have become inhabited by sin in such a way that God must allow sinful wills to play out their desires for a time or otherwise go back upon His creative will in unfaithfulness to Himself. While Barth probably would have objected to the term “free will” being applied here, what we are essentially faced with is a relocation of the doctrine of free will to Creator/creature distinction, suggesting that God mustn’t control in an overruling way human wills if He wishes to preserve the integrity of His creatures precisely as creatures. Thus God acts in human action by creating and sustaining human agency and volition which would otherwise not exist.
Second, God acts in all human action to determine it as positive or negative witness to election in Jesus Christ. This follows closely from what was discussed in the last post about Gods “Yes” or “No” to all human choice. As is well-known, for Barth election means God’s predetermination to be for all mankind in the mediation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man. Unlike Calvin, who considered the election and reprobation of men as part of the general doctrine of providence applied to salvation, Barth puts election before providence as its original ground. Providence follows from election so that God acts to determine all human acts as either a positive witness to election, humanity living in his truth as elected man, or negative witness to election, humanity living the lie as a rejected man who is nonetheless elected. Those who obey God do so as servants, friends, and willing participants in God’s electing purpose, whereas those who disobey God do so as deceived creatures thinking themselves independent of God when in fact they are elected for Him in Christ. The disobedient do not intent to glorify God or witness to His grace, but God overcomes their intention to instead use their disobedience as a sign of His electing grace. Thus Barth says of them, “The rejected as such has no independent existence in the presence of God. He is not determined by God merely to be rejected. He is determined to hear and say that a rejected man is elected.”2 Kennedy helpfully shows how Barth applied this thought to Judas:
The Lordship of God determined, determines and will determine all things as witnesses to election.
The example of Judas helps to demonstrate Barth’s understanding of providence under election. It also gives a particular example of the way Barth avoids both the charge of determinism and of making God the author of sin. At no point do Judas’ actions cease to be determined by God’s active electing will, but Judas is no puppet or chessman. He rebels against God and acts as if he were a godless person. Contrary to deterministic views, Judas’ betrayal was not ‘written’, required by God’s plan or specifically necessary for God’s salvific purposes. God determines the betrayal for the realization of God’s will, but Judas did not have to betray Jesus any more than the other disciples were inhibited from doing so by God. Barth states bluntly that the other disciples shared the same perverse ‘possibility’ of Judas,
To be sure, they have not actually done it or co-operated with [Judas]. But the point is that they obviously could have done it. The possibility of doing it was their possibility too… any of the others might equally well have been the one.
As ‘the great sinner of the New Testament’, Judas illustrates the perverse impossible possibility of the ‘rejected’. In his will and act of handing-over Jesus, Judas’ ‘disobedience was certainly not obedience. On the contrary, it was total disobedience.’ Nevertheless, Judas’ betrayal encounters the sovereign determination of God and therefore will witness to the grace of God…Barth has shown the omnipotence of God’s providential determination without any possibility of determinism in a mechanical or overpowering sense. God does not interfere in Judas’s actions, but determines them—‘against [Judas’] will and deserts (gegen seinen Willen und Verdienst)’—as a witness. Likewise, Judas’s sin remains Judas’s responsibility, though determined by God’s left hand. In such a view, God cannot be understood as either the ‘author of sin’ or as a monadic tyrant.3
This is a rather interesting conception in my opinion, and it works well as an account of how God can work all things to His glory without being the author, deviser, or even far remote cause of sin. God does not determine Judas to sin, but He determines Judas and his sin as involuntary, unwilling testimony to God’s grace toward sinners in Jesus. The depth of Judas’ depravity can only come to highlight the glorious love of Christ in choosing, coming, and dying for such a sinner. Rather than God glorifying Himself simply by damning the sinner (as is the case in most Calvinist conceptions of reprobation and providence), God is glorified by being the one who, even in and to the point of the sinner’s damnation, loves and mercies him, subjecting even all of his wickedness to this omnipotent benevolence.
Third, God acts in every human action by integrating it into a wider scope of providence that ultimately brings God glory and humanity grace, regardless of its intention. In Barth’s conception of double-agency, God’s sovereignty is exercised by the triumph of His intention over and against the contrary intention of the sinful creature. God does not properly cause, either directly or indirectly, the creature to do evil, but He overcomes and determines creaturely evil for His good by the power of Cross and Resurrection. Since God is in His eternity knows, wills, and acts before, during, and after all creaturely action, He may providentially incorporate all human action into a series of events into which the sinful man does not wish them to play any part, but which accomplishes the will of God. Before man acts, God sets His electing determination and His benevolent will into absolute place. When man acts, God acts alongside according to His own purpose and will determined in election. After man acts, God continues to have power to fulfill His intention even though the creature has lost power over his own intention to the unstoppable flow of time. Thus God is radically superior to human willing and doing, able by His free transcendence to act in relation to a single, limited human act from and in all of time and space. Man’s act and intention are finite, but God’s act and intention vis-a-vis man’s act are free of any limitation. And while I focus on how this relates to sin, it also has meaning for human obedience. God acts before, during, and after all human goodness so that He can confirm it and incorporate it into a greater purpose which fulfills its faithful intention beyond what the limited Christian is capable of accomplishing. Thus for Barth, all of our obedience can, by God’s providence, take on more duration and significance than we have an ability to give it.
Clearly, then, Barth affirms a strong doctrine of providential double-agency which portrays God as truly and utterly sovereign even while Barth ardently rejects and refuses the determinism or quasi-determinism of standard Reformed versions of providence. There is no hidden control of creaturely action in Barth, but there is a determination shaped by election which respects creaturely being and act even while confirming or contradicting the creaturely intention from a superior and eternal standpoint. While some questions and possible critiques remain, particularly in relation to miracles (though some of this will be covered in the next post), the overall strengths are again clear. Election in Christ is at the front, God does not in any way author sin, but God remains comprehensively sovereign, even to the being omnicausal.
I recently finished up the chess series of the Patrick Bowers books by Steven James (The Pawn through Checkmate; I’m not counting Opening Moves, which I’m still reading). For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a series of crime thrillers which tends to focus both on serial killers and on terrorist plots. That’s enough reason for it to occasionally be a bit outlandish, and too often you find yourself having to choke down some pretty horrific images (human depravity stands out, for sure), but there is gold as well. The relationship between the main character, an FBI agent named Patrick Bowers, and his stepdaughter Tessa Ellis is an interesting one, with plenty of stereotypes but also plenty to appreciate as they grow closer and mature following the death of their wife/mother (not a spoiler: she died before the first book). But even better, they and some other characters get into wonderfully interesting and somewhat deep conversations (both with each other and themselves) about theological and philosophical issues. These alone are worth the read if you can stomach the graphic content.
The theological question I found most engaging is the depravity of man (no, this isn’t a post about total depravity in TULIP). In a series like this, it’s hard to avoid if you think much at all, and Steven James doesn’t avoid it. Instead, he tackles head-on one of the most serious issues about evil: just who is capable of what? What makes serial killers, assassins, and terrorists different from the rest of it.
In the Patrick Bowers series, the only clear answer is, “Very little.”
The prime example of this is how the series frequently calls back a case in which, upon arresting and handcuffing a serial killer, the killer said something that set Bowers off, and he responded by breaking his jaw and preparing to cut him apart with a scalpel before stopping. He recounts over and over in the narration how it felt kind of good, how it frightened him, and how it plagued him with the thought that maybe he and the killers he tracks aren’t so different after all. Indeed, he couldn’t shake the idea that we’re really all this way.
Of course, as Christians we rightly ought to understand from our faith that this is a realistic issue. We are corrupt in our flesh, and easily corrupted even further. As Batman and the Joker have noticed, no one is really more than one bad day away from becoming something which would have horrified them the day before, from actualizing depravity. If you doubt this, consider the Holocaust. Most of the people who participated in the crimes that tortured and killed millions of people were not previously obvious monsters. Before World War II started, you would not have thought anything was wrong with them. In fact, it would be quite absurd and offensive to suggest that Germans were simply more evil than the other peoples at the time. They simply were given the right nudges and conditions to bring out the darkest depths of who they really are. One example of a conversation that highlights this:
“But serial killers always look like the rest of us. They never really look like what they are.”
“Or maybe they always do.”
That was a troubling thought.
She looked at me intently. “I’ve been thinking about it since we talked about how clever criminals can be in prison—how they could ever act so inhuman to each other. Do you know how to turn someone into a monster?”
“I’m not sure. No.”
“Let him be himself without restraint.”
Then she went to her room and left me to sort through what she’d just said.
We’d had discussions on this subject before, and she’d quoted to me the words of Dr. Werjonic: “The road to the unthinkable is not paved by slight departures from your heart, but by tentative forays into it.”
Being yourself without restraint.
Taking deeper forays into your own heart.
Two ways of saying the same thing.
The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.
The King, The Patrick Bowers Series, loc. 241-242 in EPUB version
If there is any moral to take from the Patrick Bowers books, it’s this: No one is more than a few steps away from becoming a killer. And no killer is more than a few steps away from becoming a serial killer. That’s how deep and pervasive human depravity is. It’s in us all, coloring everything we are and do.
Alas, even though the books do in fact touch on Jesus, God, and prayer on many occasions, the fact of Christ as the solution to the depravity in our flesh never really comes out (albeit in one or two places it is implied; e.g. a character notes that we can’t rise above who we are, to which Tessa responds, “Can someone else lift us?”). Instead, by the last book you are left with the vague impression that all we can do is try harder to combat the darkness, and if we’re lucky we might just keep it at bay.
Obviously, such a conclusion would be insufficient hope for anyone who is truly confronted with their own radical evil, the evil James makes so big a theme in his series. Maybe he didn’t intend it to end on that note, but in any case Paul has a better conclusion, the one for which the experiences of Patrick Bowers cry out, in Romans 7:24-8:2.
Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.
Amen! In a world of darkness, especially in our own hearts, may we look to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit for the only light.
I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.
Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):
Union In Christ: A Declaration
With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:
Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.
His coming transforms everything.
His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.
The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.
In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.
We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.
In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.
We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.
In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.
We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.
Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.
By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.
We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.
By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.
We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.
By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”
We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.
Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.
By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.
We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.
By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.
We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.
As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.
By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.
We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.
By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.
We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.
By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.
We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.
By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Quite a while ago, I mentioned a few books I thought might be good to share. If you missed that, you really should go back and read the suggestions. But now, over two years and many books later, I have some more to offer. The target audiences for these books might be somewhat diverse, so just go with it until you see something you like. So here’s what I got:
T. F. Torrance, once a student of Karl Barth, was a minister in the Church of Scotland for many years, and he became an excellent theologian. After his death, several of his lectures were collected and published in two major volumes which represent the essence of his theology. They are Incarnation and Atonement, which respectively cover Christ’s person and His work. I’ve unfortunately not been able to read Incarnation yet, but Atonement is absolutely excellent. It is a thoroughly Biblical, creatively theological, and Christ-centered look at the what Jesus did for us in His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and even Pentecost! He connects this to absolutely every area of theology, from the Trinity to the Church to millennial views. It is not the easiest read you would ever try, but it is very worth it. Here’s a quote:
Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgement: on the contrary he continued it, and as we have seen he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgement, but in Jesus that is subsidiary to—and only arises out of—the gospel of grace and vicarious suffering and atonement. In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgement on evil simply by smiting violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its indelible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin.
I apologize in advance for loading this list with two books by the same author so quickly, but putting the first one on here just reminded me of how good this one is. The Mediation of Christ is a somewhat earlier and much shorter work about the role of Jesus as the one Mediator between God and man and the role of Israel in mediating Jesus to the world. Both of these themes are very well discussed, and this book makes a helpful introduction to Torrance’s theology. It is not much of an easier read than Atonement, but as I mentioned it is nowhere near as long. If you do read this book, though, you will have a major head start in understanding Atonement. An epic quote:
God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.
N. T. Wright is a British historian and theologian, formerly a bishop in the Church of England. He is most well-known for his work on the historical Jesus and the Resurrection. Yet, having been a bishop for many years, he is also quite interested in getting across his thoughts to laypeople, which is basically the theme of Simply Jesus, a simple introduction to Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry. While he calls his vision “new,” this should not be taken as implying anything liberal or radical, but merely corrective against mistakes that have been made in Christian history. (And, to be honest, it’s not as new as he seems to imagine it is.) But it’s a great book, giving helpful perspective when reading the Gospels and understanding the theme of the kingdom of God. This is the easiest read of the bunch so far.
Here, then, is the message of Easter, or at least the beginning of that message. The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean, “It’s all right. We’re going to heaven now.” No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth. It doesn’t mean, “So there is a life after death.” Well, there is, but Easter says much, much more than that. It speaks of a life that is neither ghostly nor unreal, but solid and definite and practical. The Easter stories come at the end of the four gospels, but they are not about an “end.” They are about a beginning. The beginning of God’s new world. The beginning of the kingdom. God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven. And God’s “being-in-charge” is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord. The title on the cross was true after all. The resurrection proves it.
Okay, I’ll do one more author duplicate here. This is my favorite N. T. Wright book, and it is all about heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the Church, as its subtitle says. It, in a plain and readable style, argues vehemently against the quasi-gnostic views of life after death so popular in modern Christianity, instead emphasizing the reality of the coming physical new creation. Surprised by Hope is thoroughly Scriptural, offering a creative and exciting vision of what God has in store for us in the future, both life after death and, as Wright says, “life after life after death.” I don’t think any better work on this topic, at least at an ordinary reading level, exists. I’ll go straight to the quote:
I am putting up a signpost, not offering a photograph of what we will find once we get to where the signpost is pointing. I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there. I don’t know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that there will be in God’s recreated world, though I do remember Martin Luther’s words about the proper reaction to knowing the kingdom was coming the next day being to go out and plant a tree. I do not know how the painting an artist paints today in prayer and wisdom will find a place in God’s new world. I don’t know how our work for justice for the poor, for remission of global debts, will reappear in that new world. But I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and I know that he calls his followers to live in him and by the power of his Spirit and so to be new-creation people here and now, bringing signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.
Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel
Finally, we have something written by a Baptist, and this is the best Baptist reading I’ve ever found. In Onward Russel Moore examines how the American church is to move forward in light of everything that has happened to our culture (recently including Obergefell and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain). He covers the theology of the Church and its witness along with a host of issues related to our cultural warfare, and he urges us to embrace the “freakishness” of the Gospel. He believes and argues from Scripture and experience that the message and mission of the Church are necessarily radically different from and contradictory to all world systems and cultures, including both our present culture and the America of 60 years ago. He offers a devastating critique of the cultural Christianity we are losing, cheering its death and urging us to move on towards a new way of witness.
The problem was that…Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of “God and country” with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club.
I’m working on a cool reading list this year to help stimulate and diversify my reading. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt, with categories like “a book with the word ‘Gospel’ in the title” and “a book with an ugly cover.” I just checked off the first one, “a book on Christian living,” with John Calvin’s On the Christian Life. You can check it out on Amazon or for free on Monergism. Anyway, it was a pretty neat little book, and I decided on finishing it that I would post great bits and pieces from this book, as well as the others I will be reading this year, for everyone to enjoy. So here’s Calvin on the Christian life:
…The object of regeneration is to bring the life of believers into concord and harmony with the righteousness of God, and so confirm the adoption by which they have been received as sons.
For when we were scattered abroad like lost sheep, wandering through the labyrinth of this world, he brought us back again to his own fold. When mention is made of our union with God, let us remember that holiness must be the bond; not that by the merit of holiness we come into communion with him, (we ought rather first to cleave to him, in order that, pervaded with his holiness, we may follow whither he calls,) [emphasis mine] but because it greatly concerns his glory not to have any fellowship with wickedness and impurity.
Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart…To doctrine in which our religion is contained we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful.
But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course [toward holiness] with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. How little soever the success may correspond with our wish, our labour is not lost when to-day is better than yesterday, provided with true singleness of mind we keep our aim, and aspire to the goal, not speaking flattering things to ourselves, nor indulging our vices, but making it our constant endeavour to become better, until we attain to goodness itself. If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God.
The old saying is true, There is a world of iniquity treasured up in the human soul. Nor can you find any other remedy for this than to deny yourself, renounce your own reason, and direct your whole mind to the pursuit of those things which the Lord requires of you, and which you are to seek only because they are pleasing to Him.
For so blindly do we all rush in the direction of self-love, that every one thinks he has a good reason for exalting himself and despising all others in comparison. If God has bestowed on us something not to be repented of, trusting to it, we immediately become elated, and not only swell, but almost burst with pride. The vices with which we abound we both carefully conceal from others, and flatteringly represent to ourselves as minute and trivial, nay, sometimes hug them as virtues. When the same qualities which we admire in ourselves are seen in others, even though they should be superior, we, in order that we may not be forced to yield to them, maliciously lower and carp at them; in like manner, in the case of vices, not contented with severe and keen animadversion, we studiously exaggerate them. Hence the insolence with which each, as if exempted from the common lot, seeks to exalt himself above his neighbour, confidently and proudly despising others, or at least looking down upon them as his inferiors. The poor man yields to the rich, the plebeian to the noble, the servant to the master, the unlearned to the learned, and yet every one inwardly cherishes some idea of his own superiority.
Honestly, I could probably go on, but this should be enough for now. This last one in my opinion is particularly powerful. On the Christian Life is a great little book. If your appetite is whetted, check back at the top where I provided links. Deus benedicat!
I never want to be a heretic. Of course, if you ask some Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, and people from other groups, I already am one. Still, I profess Christ crucified, and I agree with the great ecumenical creeds of Christian history, so I dare to think that I am safe. Plus, I’m Baptist, and all Baptists go to Heaven (that’s in the Bible, right?).
Anyway, off of my babbling. Despite that I never want to be a heretic, nor do I particularly appreciate their presence in Christianity, I do find their existence useful. This is just another way that God works all things to the good of His people, even when false teachers arise to lead them astray. So, without further ado, I’ll briefly list the benefits of reading the writings of heretics:
Benefits of Reading Heretics
You gain a better understanding of where not to go. When you become familiar with the general patterns and philosophies of a heretic, you find yourself with better discernment on all sorts of doctrinal issues. If you know what heretics sound like, then you will more easily be able to spot one and refrain from taking him with the same trust you would someone else. Key words and phrases will stand out as danger signs. You will also be able to recognize better if you yourself begin slipping down a slope that could lead to heresy (and at some point or another, most people will).
You can learn why you believe what you do. When you read from someone who assures you that original sin or the Trinity is a false doctrine, then you will find the opportunity to research the issue and come out with a better understanding of why you should believe these truths. Investigating assaults on the truth often leads to knowing the truth more confidently.
You can refine and expand your understanding of your ownbeliefs. I have a really heretical friend who contradicts almost everything I believe except the Trinity and the state of the human will. Nevertheless, I find conversing with him very eye-opening to me because when he explains his radically different perspective of some issue, he actually sheds light on the weaknesses or blind spots in my own understanding while still leaving me convinced of what I believe. The end result is that my views gain depth and perspective, while I remain entirely orthodox.
You will gain the ability of helpful dialogue that can bring heretics back to the truth. If you read heretics and understand their thought processes, you can talk to them in such a way that they respect you and you don’t feel the need to verbally burn them at the stake. This opens doors to leading them back to the truth, which of course is a wonderful and excellent event.
All that said, you’re going to go read Love Wins now, right? Actually, if you’re going to read from a heretic, read someone better than Rob Bell. Choices of heretic aside, I should also point out the dangers of reading heretics, so as to keep you from making dire mistakes.
Dangers of Reading Heretics
You can loose your theological footing. If you spend too much time listening to heretics, you may drown out the voices of Scriptural truth and orthodoxy. This can put you on a slippery slope to becoming one of those heretics that someone else reads one day. So whenever you read heresy, make sure you counter the effects with Scripture reading and strong Biblical teaching from trusted leaders.
You can become a minimalist. A minimalist is someone who is unconcerned with all doctrine except, basically, “Jesus is Lord.” These people want every group of Christianity to get along equally without confrontation, and are likely to put doctrine down as divisive in favor of loving everyone. This can be a result of reading heretics if you grow to sympathize with them enough, or find their arguments equally valid to those for true doctrine. So remember to maintain a fight for what is right, and ground yourself with good reasons to believe what you do.
You can get distracted. If you spend too much time reading heretics, you’ll run out of time to read Scripture, and Scripture is the source of our strength and the final authority in our Christian walk. So, just like with any reading material, set your copy of The Shack to the side every once in a while to read God-breathed truth instead.
I like to read books. I think books are a great way to pass on wisdom, insight, and edification to people. So I’ve recently read these books and found them awesome, and thus I feel the need to share them. Here are some excellent books that you should read, if you so feel the desire.