Friday, February 20, 2009

Whose orthodoxy is it?

A recent issue of Christianity Today magazine examined the rise of Calvinism in an article titled, "Young, Restless, and Reformed." Rallying around the likes of John Piper and John MacArthur (at least as much as they can be considered confessionally Reformed), the theology of "Calvinism" has been growing in evangelical circles. But not everyone is pleased by this. Scot McKnight says this about the so-called "Neo-Reformed" in a few recent posts at the BeliefNet blog (part 1; part 2):

They think the only legitimate and the only faithful evangelicals are Reformed. Really Reformed. In other words, they are "confessing" evangelicals. The only true evangelical is a Reformed evangelical. They are more than happy to call into question the legitimacy and fidelity of any evangelical who doesn't believein classic Reformed doctrines, like double predestination.

Whether or not Reformed Protestants actually believe about "double predestination" what everyone else thinks they do--a gross caricature in my estimate--I find McKnight's criticisms a sharp rebuke to folks like me. You see, I would consider my theological understandings most in conformity with the Reformed tradition. What I think McKnight labels as "Reformed theology" is really the mislabeled "five points of Calvinism," better known as the "doctrines of grace." Granted, this has little to do with the meat of real Reformed theology, which is that all of God's dealings with humanity are subsumed under one of two overarching covenants: a covenant of works and a covenant of grace.

In trying to defend the gospel, though, do we really need the "doctrines of grace"? Are they themselves essential to the gospel--so much so that if someone doesn't adhere to them he has bastardized the message of Christ and is not a true "evangelical"?

In short--yes and no. For starters, it was Lutherans during the 16th-century Reformation who were first called "evangelical," coming from the Latin evangel, or "gospel." Oops. (Granted, Reformed theology during the 16th and 17th centuries looked a whole lot more like Lutheranism than it does now.) Without being too minimalist or vague, here is what I consider essential to the gospel. (I hope you will see that, unlike some versions that are merely propositions or "points," the gospel is really a story in history.)

  1. God created the world "very good" and man--Adam and Eve--in his image, for the goal of wholehearted fellowship with and enjoyment of God himself.

  2. Through the deceptive agency of Satan, Adam exercised distrust and rebellion and brought God's curse of death--both physical and spiritual--upon all his progeny, that is, all of mankind. All of humanity is covenantally represented "in Adam" and are therefore under sin's guilt, shame, and power. Though God still requires all persons to fully obey God's moral law, they cannot do so and under just condemnation.

  3. God graciously promised to provide a Redeemer in whom man would be rescued from sin, and through whom God would reign in righteousness to bring blessing and life to a world dead in sin. (*Addition: These blessings were originally pledged in Eden and then to Abraham and his offspring, later to be given to all persons who shared in Abraham's faith.)

  4. Because of man's inability to effect his own restoration through works, God himself lovingly and mercifully took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ to achieve the obedience he required from man and to become an unblemished substitute to bear in his own death God's holy and just punishment for man's sin. This loving sacrifice reconciled sinful man to God.

  5. Christ's was vindicated by God at his resurrection, and he now reigns from heaven to give his Spirit to all who would repent of their works, futility, and pride, and turn to him for salvation. Such persons are now, by the Spirit, given new birth "in" or "into Christ," are forgiven and declared righteous in him, and receive as a free gift the life Christ himself earned by his obedience.

  6. Spiritual fellowship with Christ now transforms believers into a truer image of God.

  7. Christ will return physically and visibly before the sight of all the world, and all persons will be raised bodily. Christ will condemn unbelievers to eternal torment and to welcome believers into eternal bliss in the kingdom of God--a new world which is again "very good" where we will honor and enjoy God unendingly.

The Reformed "doctrines of grace" do help to clarify these points and add depth and meaning. But this gospel goes a long way even without such beneficial clarifications. This message is our center. What I think the Heidelberg Catechism or Westminster Confession or Canons of Dordrecht do for us (and why they're ultimately necessary) is that they teach us to place saving agency--and thus all boasting and thanksgiving and honor and praise--squarely with God himself and God alone. They unpack more fully the message that "God saves sinners." We still have much the same gospel. It's just that without the Reformed lens on Scripture we wouldn't know how much praise and credit to really ascribe to God for the salvation we now have. We wouldn't know as well the security with which we lie in God's love and power.

In one sense, the Reformation's theology could be summed up as "Salvation belongs to the Lord; damnation belongs to man." It's a story of two cities, two mediators, two destinies, two ways to be human. So what the church really needs right now is not so much explicit, confessional Reformed orthodoxy, but finely tuned Law-Gospel sensors. We need pastors who are able to rightly able to expose how futile is our merit and how great and continual is our need for justification and life. And such pastors will also be able to lead us to the One in whom this justification and life is freely given.


Ezekiel said...

"So what the church really needs right now is not so much explicit, confessional Reformed orthodoxy, but finely tuned Law-Gospel sensors."

Whoa! They say even after Nietzsche went apostate he retained the Lutheran categories of his upbringing; Kant, too. In some small way, Drewski, I see that with you as well. ;)

Hey, I listened to a great discussion recently on Issues, Etc. with Kim Riddlebarger of White Horse Inn. Listen to it here. He pans the so-called up and coming Reformed, too.

On balance I like your narrative summary. But where's Israel?

Ted M. Gossard said...


Interesting thoughts and well stated. I don't think Scot is complaining about the rise of such, but how they exclude others as not really preaching the full gospel (of course D.L. Moody and Billy Graham would fit into this category, just for starters). The Calvinists from Calvin College indeed do not, yet do seek in all things to work from and retain their theological heritage from John Calvin.

I agree with Ezekiel that something about Israel could be on your list.

I see John Calvin would have trouble with this list, and would therefore not fit into what you're saying evangelical essentially is- according to his commentary on Genesis, quoted on this post. I'm referring to Calvin's view of death in the creation and fall. (by the way, this book on Calvin would be an interesting read, someone leaving that link after my comments on this post).

As to the doctrines of grace I find this a kind of conundrum. I believe there is something very mysterious about God's work of salvation, I mean when someone repents and comes to faith. It's a God-thing for sure.

Yet Scripture makes it clear that God holds people accountable not only for their works, but also for not repenting as you well point out, of them. As one passage says, God commands all people everywhere to repent. And there are numerous other related passages.

The only boasting we have, brother, is in Jesus and in his death for us. We have nothing at all to boast of in ourselves or of ourselves, nothing at all!

I can't accept the idea that humans are simply automatons who only act because God makes them do so. That does not fit the narrative of Scripture at all. And if true would render God's judgment over those who do not repent puzzling. Why should Sodom and Gomorrah be better off on the day of judgment than Capernaum or where Jesus was preaching and doing his mighty works?

Just my thoughts on a difficult subject to be sure. I really appreciate your work on this. You take theology very seriously and you read and think well. Keep it up, no matter where you continue to go in it.

Andrew said...

You're right: I sort of left Israel out, part intentionally, but mostly unintentionally. The entire series of redemptive-historical covenants is, I believe, essential to the biblical narrative. But it's complicated, and I don't think you need to have a seriously developed covenant theology to still grasp the core of the gospel of our reconcilation to God. I did, however, go back and make a few amendments.

Part of it gets tricky because I see the Sinaitic covenant as a republication of a covenant of works with Adam in the Garden. There are types which lead people to Christ, along with the Law's ways of revealing personal sin and infidelity to God. But Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Galatians all point to the Mosaic Law as a "do-this-entirely-and-you-shall-live" -- or else! -- type of covenant. Clearly a works-based suzerain-vassal treaty, though one entered by a gracious, one-sided act of deliverance by God in his faithfulness to Abraham.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I find what Peter Enns says in the NIV Application Commentary on Exodus 19 interesting (p 387):

"That Israel's faithfulness to the covenant is required should in no way be understood to mean that Israel worked for her salvation in the Old Testament. This entire scene at the mountain and the subsequent laws are predicated on verse 4, what God has done. The Israelites are not to keep the law in order for God to save them. They have already been saved; God has brought them out of Egypt. The law he now gives them is the subsequent stage in Israel's developing relationship with God. It is what is expected of a people already redeemed. It is law, but it is based on the prior establishment of the relationship between them by God's good pleasure. The people do not earn their salvation; but once saved, they are obligated to act in a manner worthy of their high calling. This is true in the New Testament as well (see Eph. 4:1; 2 Thess. 1:11)."

Looking at the Romans 10 passage and comparing that with Deteronomy 30, not easy. Looking at Moo and Witherington as well.

Faith as we all know has always by grace been how people were saved. But to remain in the covenant and live in that arrangement meant adherence to the law, including circumcision (really started of course with Abraham as a seal of the righteousness he had by faith before he was circumcised).

It must have been so emphasized by Paul in view of God's entire program. Israel served God's purpose unfolding in ways that needed to be understood in terms of law and grace in bringing humankind to find in the end that the LORD alone is indeed their righteousness.

But I'll quit rambling. You're much better read on this, and I'm rusty. But good to try to think it through. I'm sure there must be at least an error in each of my comments.

Andrew said...


I agree with you and Enns that the Sinai covenant was predicated upon God's prior, gracious redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt--really symbolic of freedom from the world powers. No, they didn't earn that; it was part of God's fidelity to his earlier promises to Abraham (Gen. 15).

But continuation in that status of grace was dependent upon their works. That is, they were able to continue in the land, living in shalom, based on their commitment to Yahweh's law stipulations. They were never "saved" in an eschatological sense by the Law, because the Law only served a temporal purpose for a temporary land. To say that persons in Israel were saved (justified eschatologically, entrance into heaven, etc.) by the Law would mean that for Jews, salvation only consisted in earthly promises of an earthly land and kingdom (a la Dispensationalism).

In a similar fashion, Adam was placed in Eden by grace--he didn't earn or merit his own creation and blessing--but remaining there was conditional upon obeying fully God's moral image and fulfilling the "creation mandate" of filling the earth with God's image.

Both Adam and Israel, entering the land by grace, were nonetheless required to keep their status and inherit greater blessing through their own obedience. Both failed; yet both were re-lived in Jesus Christ, the true Servant who fulfilled God's law. It's interesting how much the NT really shows Jesus not only as the "Second Adam" (1 Cor 15) but also as the true Israel.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good reply, Andrew. The dispensationalism today, I guess called progressive dispensationalism has been quite sharpened through past interchange with other theologians (who would stress more the continuity between the old and new covenant, so that thankfully, a dispensationalism coming from Darrell Bock, for example, would not ever see the Law as the means of eschatological salvation.

I'm thinking that in Adam's case, there was potential that just was never realized. This is following some early Christian theologians and the Eastern Orthodox today, as well as probably to some extent, John Calvin himself, who seemed to believe Adam was created mortal, and would die, apart from partaking of the tree of life which would take him into another life altogether, the life of God (but I'm adding much to Calvin here, I suppose).

Yes, Jesus as both the Second Adam, and the true Israel. I certainly fully agree. All is fulfilled in Jesus, in the end (and forever).

Ted M. Gossard said...

This is not to deny that Adam was created in the image of God, for indeed he was.

And I'm surprised, frankly, that Calvin thought God's image was obliterated in Adam at the fall. Cracked and broken, yes, but not nonexistent.

Ezekiel said...

"God's prior, gracious redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt--really symbolic of freedom from the world powers."


"But continuation in that status of grace was dependent upon their works. That is, they were able to continue in the land, living in shalom, based on their commitment to Yahweh's law stipulations.

"In a similar fashion, Adam was placed in Eden by grace--he didn't earn or merit his own creation and blessing--but remaining there was conditional upon obeying fully God's moral image and fulfilling the "creation mandate" of filling the earth with God's image."

Drew, I'm wondering how you conceive of "commitment to Yahweh's law stipulations," "obeying fully God's moral image" and finally "fulfilling the 'creation mandate' of filling the earth with God's image." (I'm assuming these are roughly synonymous phrases.) Is it not the obedience of faith? Indeed, obedience cannot be abstracted from faith.

As Lesslie Newbigin puts it (Proper Confidence, p.14), "Because ultimate reality is personal, God's address to us is a word conveying his purpose and promise, a word which may be heard or ignored, obeyed or disobeyed. Faith comes by hearing, and unbelief is disobedience." Then, quoting Bonhoeffer, "Only the obedient believe, and only those who believe are obedient."

In short, I think Luther in his explication of the 1st Commandment in the Large Catechism gets it right, and covenantal nomism (though it has its merits) gets it wrong. As Paul puts it in Romans 1, it's ek pisteos eis pistin: faith backwards and forwards, beginning to end. What condemns Israel again and again is not disobedience, per se, but idolatry--i.e., trusting in gods not Yahweh.

"Both Adam and Israel, entering the land by grace, were nonetheless required to keep their status and inherit greater blessing through their own obedience."

Yes..ish. There's just way too much semi-Pelagian moral bootstraps talk in there for me to be comfortable, though. Again, it's the obedience of faith.

Andrew said...

Hmm ... Ryan, you have a point. I need to go back and think about this some more, particularly the Newbigin quote.

As for Adam's "obedience," I think it was indeed by faith. His disobedience betrayed his lack of trust in God's goodness and word. Tempted by the serpent, he thought God was limiting him, doubted his goodness, and rebelled. His disobedience was disbelief.

More to come ... ?

Ted M. Gossard said...

I do believe from Genesis through Revelation it is always grace bringing faith and works following. I know I'm not so well read as either of you, but I do find the notion of working to maintain something after grace received, foreign. Grace-faith-obedience-works can never be separated. Not even pre-fall.

Perhaps what is addressed is a certain status or privilege, and not eshcatological. Hard to separate this, as idolatry is eschatological in its consequences. But not all those of Israel of old were really Israel, as Paul says, even as they remained within the stipulations of the covenant and thus remained on the land. But what God wanted went deeper, to the heart, as we read clearly in the prophets.