Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Purchased grace

A summary of John Owen's Communion with God, part 2, chap. VII

Christ, by his death and resurrection, has purchased for us:

  1. Acceptance with God
    1. by removing that which set us at enmity with God, namely sin and guilt, which he does by his death; and
    2. by giving us that for which we are accepted, namely the obedience of his perfect life, imputed to us.
  2. Sanctification (by which he "makes us not only accepted, but also acceptable"), consisting of
    1. the removal of defilements, meaning
      1. the cleansing of our nature of its sinful habit;
      2. the removal of the pollutions accompanying our actual sins; and
      3. the removal of the defilement accompanying even our best deeds ("so that the saints' good works shall meet them one day with a changed countenance, that they shall scarce know them: that which seemed to them to be black, deformed, defiled, shall appear beautiful and glorious; they shall not be afraid of them, but rejoice to see and follow them").
    2. the bestowal of cleanness and purity by
      1. giving the Spirit of holiness to indwell us;
      2. giving habitual grace ("a principle of grace, opposed to the principle of lust that is in us by nature"); and
      3. actually influencing us in particular cases for the performance of every spiritual duty.
  3. Privileges to stand before God, being:
    1. primarily, adoption as sons; and
    2. consequentially, all the favours of the gospel which attend this adoption.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (1)

I'm going to attempt to turn Monday posts into a slightly more detailed and reflective look at part of a book I'm reading.  (This also means I am going to attempt to write regular Monday posts!)  Since I've waxed lyrical about it a few times on here, I thought I'd start with a re-read of Bonhoeffer's Ethics.  A word of introduction about the book: it was never completed, and so we don't know exactly how Bonhoeffer would have presented it.  The edition in his Works presents a plausible reconstruction, but it has to be acknowledged that there could be gaps, and there certainly isn't as much of a conclusion as we might like.  In this edition, Ethics is presented as a series of relatively discreet manuscripts, since this is all we have - but that in itself makes it easier to read, like a collection of related but not quite joined essays.  The reason it is unfinished, of course, is the author's imprisonment and subsequent execution by the Nazis.  That knowledge in itself provides key background for understanding the book: it is a theologian wrestling with the question of the future for the world, and the church, given the Nazi tyranny (and it's hoped-for demise).

So without further ado - manuscript one: Christ, Reality, and Good.

The title captures the key concern of this section perfectly, which is to show the relationship between reality and goodness, and moreover to show that this relationship exists in Christ.  Ethics is about ontology.  "When the ethical problem presents itself essentially as the question of my own being good and doing good, the decision has already been made that the self and the world are the ultimate realities" (47).  If ethics is about my good will, I have already decided that I myself represent the ultimate reality; if it is about my ability to have a good effect on the world, then the world is my ultimate reality.  The question of Christian ethics is instead: what is God's will?  This must be so, because God is in fact the ultimate reality.  To consider any ethical question apart from him is to make a dangerous abstraction.  The best moral laws, considered apart from God, are abstractions; so, to, is the idea of the good will.

But the concept of God can itself be an abstraction - so we must be very clear that we are talking about the God revealed in Christ, and therefore the one who has (in Christ) reconciled the world to himself.  "The subject matter of a Christian ethic is God's reality revealed in Christ becoming real among God's creatures" (49).  Doctrinal theology describes God's revelation in Christ; ethical theology describes how that revelation comes to take shape here and now in creation.  The distinction between is and ought in moral philosophy equates in Christian ethics to the names of Christ and the Holy Spirit (50) - which is interesting, because of course there is often a seeming gulf between is and ought, but there can be none between Jesus and his Spirit.

God is not just interested in our motives, nor is he only interested in the works which flow from them.  "Human beings are indivisible wholes", not only in themselves but also in relation to the world and specifically the human communities of which they are a part.  It is this whole reality with which the ethical question is concerned - the whole which is called, in reference to its origin, 'creation', and in reference to its goal 'the kingdom of God'.  "Both (creation and kingdom) are equally far from us and yet near to us, because God's creation and God's kingdom are present to us only in God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ" (53).  In Christ, we see God and the world reconciled; in him there can be no living for God which is not also living for the world, and vice versa.  "What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today" (55).  This is a very this-worldly ethic, and yet absolutely grounded in the being and will of God, because in Christ we see that one cannot really have God without the world, or the world without God.

This leads into a discussion of the unity of reality, so important in Bonhoeffer's immediate context.  It will not do to divide reality, as twentieth century Lutheranism did, into two spheres, two kingdoms.  The world is not an autonomous kingdom set up against Christ - no matter what it might think about itself!  Neither is the church to be regarded as an especially Christian sphere, set over against the reality of the world.  We must resist the teaching that these "two realms bump up against each other" (56).  There can be no question of the church just letting the world be the world (which in Bonhoeffer's context meant letting the Nazis get on with it so long as they left the church in peace); neither can the church wish to be imperially exalted above the world.  Both routes are a denial of reality as it is in Christ.  Both deny the reconciliation which has really occurred in him.   As an alternative to this sort of 'two realms' thinking, Bonhoeffer expounds his own doctrine of mandates, deriving from God and decisively shaped by his revelation in Christ - family, work, state, church: each has a different role to play, but they are united in their derivation from and relation to Christ.  This also means that they are united in the individual Christian, who of course exercises these different mandates concurrently in life, thus relating all of life back to Christ.

I find this all quite compelling, but I can see a big theological point which my fellow evangelicals are likely to struggle with.  For Bonhoeffer, the world is only to be viewed through Christ, and therefore cannot be seen as unreconciled to God.  Reconciliation is really accomplished in Jesus.  There is a sort of universalism here, although it does not of necessity lead to universalism proper, understood to mean the salvation of all.  It is a powerful relativising of all opposition between world and church - even the kingdom of the devil, in the end, is not an absolute sphere.  "For it is just the 'evil world' which is reconciled to God in Christ and has its ultimate and true reality, not in the devil, but again in Christ" (65).  There is no room for any dualism in Bonhoeffer's thinking, and therefore no ethical room to concede to the devil: everything is united in Christ.  That's much more radical than the average evangelical view; but does it conform to Scripture?  I'd need to do some more thinking here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The difficulty of common prayer

To expand on something I wrote fairly recently, here are some of the reasons I think we really struggle with congregational prayer:

1.  We don't really view ourselves as being really one with other Christians.  Rather than seeing ourselves as a body, when we gather we see ourselves as individuals in a room who happen to share an individual relationship with Christ.  We are all on our own journey, rather than being those who are defined decisively by the journey of Christ (from heaven to death and back!) because we are united to him.  That makes the idea of a common prayer life very difficult.

2.  We value spontaneity and self-expression more than discipline and mutual submission.  A common prayer life requires that often we join in prayers which do not flow directly from the way we're feeling.  We pray common prayers of thankfulness, including for things we have not personally enjoyed.  We pray laments, suffering together even when we have not personally suffered.  Because we are culturally inclined to value authenticity above all things (and that is not an entirely bad thing by any means), we tend to feel that common prayer involves some sort of hypocrisy.

3.  We don't tend to pray in a way which reflects gospel blessings.  We are far more likely to give thanks for particular blessings in God's providential direction of our daily lives than for his eternal blessings in Christ.  That means that our prayers tend not to be about the things we have in common with one another, which makes joining in common prayer difficult.

4.  Practically, common prayer usually requires a degree of formality, and we live in an informal age when formality often comes across as pomposity.  We tend to think the person leading in prayer is grand-standing, even when they're not.  And for people preparing to lead in prayer, the awareness that we could come across this way inhibits our praying.

5.  We don't appreciate the mediation of Christ enough.  We imagine we can just pick up the telephone to God at any point, and he will always be glad to hear us.  We forget that we can only pray because Christ prays for us, and in so doing we also lose the corporate aspect: Christ intercedes for the church, and for us insofar as we belong to her.  So as critical as individual prayer undoubtedly is, common prayer comes first - if we could only remember it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A catalogue of congregational prayer


A prayer that God would come and do something here and now, in the gathered church.  For example, at the beginning of the service, we ask God to come and be with us as we draw near to him; at the preaching of the word, we ask him to speak; at the beginning of Holy Communion, we ask him to feed us on Christ.  The invocation is solemn and humble (God is not at our beck and call!), but bold (because it responds to and claims God's own promise).

Praise and Adoration

Technically distinguishable, in worship the one must flow into the other.  Praise is the acknowledgement before God of his glorious nature and character; adoration is the lifting of our hearts to bask in the same.  Here we take our eyes completely off our own needs and situations and focus on God in prayer.


As sinners in the presence of a holy God, and as beneficiaries of gospel forgiveness, we confess to God that we have sinned against him.  The Christian confession of sin is not a grovelling, but a humble acknowledgement in God's presence that we have failed and need both his forgiveness and his help to change.  The prayer of confession is traditionally sandwiched between biddings, which explain God's delight in forgiving confessed sin and invite us to come, and words of assurance, which remind us that confessed sin truly is taken away through the gospel.


Focusing on particular things that we have received from God, we give him thanks.  This could be for particular answers to prayer, or for gospel blessings received through Christ.  In a sense, this a prayer of praise and adoration that particularly views God's character and nature as it has affected us.


This means both the church as a whole interceding with God for its own members who are in particular need - for example, the sick - and also the church interceding for those outside its particular membership.  The church prays together for the church worldwide, and for the world outside the church.  This is a key part of what it means to be a kingdom of priests.


A short prayer of praise which might be appended at various parts of the service - for example, the Gloria Patri.


Only implicitly a prayer.  The speaker pronounces a blessing over God's people, and in that way stands in the place of God; but of course, they can't really stand in the place of God (they cannot of themselves make the blessing anything more than a pious wish), and so the implicit prayer is that God would make the blessing effective.  If we are pronouncing gospel blessings, though, we do know that they are in accordance with God's will for his people, and so they can be pronounced with authority.

Two questions:
1.  Have I missed any?
2.  How do we ensure that the richness of Christian prayer is reflected in our worship services?

Monday, April 11, 2016

On disliking John Frame

Periodically, I return to the writings of John Frame, even though I know they will frustrate me.  Partly that's because there are people I seriously respect who have a high regard for him as a theologian, and I am trying to understand just why that is.  Partly it's because he is the foremost representative, to my knowledge, of a particular way of doing theology, a way which claims to represent continuity with historic Reformed Orthodoxy.  But I just can't get on with him, and I think I've worked out why.

Most recently I've been reading Frame's Doctrine of the Word of God, and it has really brought to the fore where I think things go wrong.  For Frame, everything is revelatory of God; everything is a medium of God's word.  "Clearly, everything that God has made, and every event that takes place, reveals God in some way" (p. 76).  Now, this does not seem ever so clear to me.  The logic behind it is that since the word of God is God (this identification is important), and since God is providentially in control of everything, everything is a medium of the word of God.  Note that he is absolutely not saying that all things and events, being subject to God's providence, are potentially bearers of God's word; he is saying that in actual fact all things and events are media of God's revelatory word.

This means that Scripture is "one word of God among many" (p. 410), albeit a word which in some way corrects and refines our understanding of the other divine words.  Frame is keen on Calvin's analogy - Scripture is like spectacles.  Without it, we do not see clearly what is being revealed of God through nature and history; with Scripture, our blurry vision comes into focus and we can see God in all things.  Note that "this is not to say that Scripture is more authoritative than the words of God in creation" (p. 411) - this cannot be said, because the word of God is God, and therefore speaks with equal authority wherever it is spoken (and it is spoken everywhere and in everything!)  But Scripture does have the role of correcting our understanding and interpretation of God's word spoken in creation and history.

What does this mean for Jesus Christ, whom Frame acknowledges to be the living Word of God, as per John 1?  Well, explicit discussion of this doesn't kick in until chapter 42 (on page 304!), because Frame follows a schema of creation-word, verbal-word, person-word.  In the end, all that he seems to do with the idea of Christ as Word is to say that he is the mediator of all revelation - because he is the creator God and the Lord of Providence, as well as the teacher par excellence.  It is particularly telling that in the next chapter Frame goes on to say that all humans are revelatory of God; Jesus seems to me on this scheme to be just the best of us.

What I really miss here is any sense of the cross in Frame's epistemology.  Everything seems to sail on in smooth continuity: God in creation, God in history, God in Jesus, God in Scripture...  There is no sense of Jesus as the light shining in the darkness; no sense of the revelation of God as that which decisively contradicts and overturns human wisdom.  God is never hidden, he never veils himself.  In fact, he is so clearly revealed in everything that Frame maintains not only that people can know about God from creation, but that each and every individual actually does know God.  He bases this on an exegesis of Romans 1 which I reject.  In Frame, I think it just serves as a powerplay.

And here's the heart of it: I think that what has happened in Frame is that the divine sovereignty has taken over from every other attribute of God.  Everything collapses into providence: God's authority and control.  It's no coincidence that Frame's multi-volume work is A Theology of Lordship, nor that he makes a slightly bizarre attempt to read concepts of lordship back into the divine name YHWH.  It seems to me that for Frame all theology boils down to this: God is in charge.  Now that's a truth, but unless it's read through the cross I think it's a truth which is hugely distorted.  And I see this not only in Frame but in many of the neo-Reformed across the pond.  In the end, it's a theology of glory, and not of the cross.

Oh, also, he says lots of nasty things about Karl Barth, which I understood much better after I read a bit about Van Til and how ridiculous he was.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, d.9th April 1945

I first properly encountered Bonhoeffer during my quest for a doctrine of creation (which, perhaps not coincidentally, also led me to Barth).  His Creation and Fall helped hugely with that, albeit primarily with the 'fall' part, teaching me to re-read Genesis 2-3 not as some sort of test of humanity, but as the bizarre and inexplicable turn away from God's grace.

Since then I've read a fair amount of Bonhoeffer, and have found it by turns hugely challenging (Discipleship), helpful (Life Together), wrong (Sanctorum Communio), and comforting (Prayerbook of the Bible).  But I mostly love his Ethics.  Writing at arguably the most difficult time for the church since Nero, Bonhoeffer grappled with the questions of what the church should do and say.  Ethics in those circumstances is far from an academic pursuit!  It ought not to be for us, either - like Bonhoeffer, we see the church in a storm.

For Bonhoeffer, ethics is about listening to God and doing what he commands.  To be clear, this is absolutely not a divine command theory; I may have said this before, but I strongly suspect that whoever came up with the idea of a divine command theory had never encountered a divine command.  This is not a system of principles.  It is hearing and obeying.  That is why Bonhoeffer could campaign for the churches to push a pacifist line in the run up to war, and yet join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler in the 1940s.  Far from being inconsistent, he is consistently seeking to listen and to discern God's will.  (Which, incidentally, is why he should indeed be remembered as a martyr).

Perhaps the biggest thing we need to learn from Bonhoeffer is that the church has to act, and has to take a stand.  That was the failure of so much German Protestantism around Bonhoeffer - either a complete theological collapse in the face of Nazism (leading to a failure to take any sort of doctrinal stand), or a moral collapse (leading to a failure to act on the doctrine they believed).  The question for us really is: where will we draw the line?  And having drawn it, will we stand on it?