Alexander Campbell, Gratuitous Evil and Meticulous Providence

June 11, 2013

Yesterday I received my copy of J. Caleb Clanton’s new book entitled The Philosophy of Religion of Alexander Campbell (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013). I had previously read the manuscript in early 2012 and am pleased to see it in print.

Caleb taught philosophy at Pepperdine for several years but now teaches at Lipscomb.  I am grateful that Lipscomb has secured his services as a philosopher, and a philosopher who is interested in mining the resources of the Stone-Campbell tradition.

I deeply appreciate his engagement with the resources of the Stone-Campbell Movement, particularly Alexander Campbell, in the discipline of Philosophy of Religion. Of all the early Reformers, Campbell is the best—perhaps the only choice—for such a project.  However, my appreciation not only extends to the subject matter, but also for how Clanton brings Campbell’s philosophy of religion into dialogue with contemporary discussions. In the language of Vatican II’s aggiornamento, Clanton brings the Campbellian philosophical tradition “up to date.”

Clanton’s work is impressive. His analysis of Campbell’s ideas are fair, clear, and illuminating. His re-contextualization of Campbell’s thought is insightful. He demonstrates that Campbell squarely faced the questions that philosophy of religion raised in the early nineteenth century. Campbell was well-acquainted with the philosophical issues of his day. Not only does this demonstrate that the Stone-Campbell Movement has its own “philosopher,” but that the philosophic tradition Campbell represented may yet still provide some guidance in our current context. And, yet, I think it remains clear—as Clanton’s discussion of the Campbell’s ideation argument for the existence of God indicates—that Campbell, as a philosopher of ideas, is a deeply rooted empirical Biblicist who only ventures into metaphysical waters as a negative apologetic while always staying within sight of the empirical shore.

At the 2012 Christian Scholars Conference I offered a response to Caleb’s manuscript regarding Campbell’s understanding of Arminian-esque theodicy. Campbell’s theodicy, as Clanton unfolds it, is focused on the Free Will Defense, responds to the “Divine Hiddenness” problem, and articulates a high view of providence (even meticulous providence) that denies gratuitous evil.  My response to Clanton is available here.

“Miraculous Movements”: Muslims Coming to Jesus

May 9, 2012

My longtime good friend, John King, is engaged in training people around the world in Discovery Bible Studies as part of the CityTeam Ministries’ Disciple Making Movement or the Church Planting Movement (specifically the work of David Watson). I love what he is doing with the support of his wife Debra.

John recommended that I read Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims are Falling in Love with Jesus (Thomas Nelson, 2012) by Jerry Trousdale. Since John began telling me about his work I had wanted to read something substantial that tells the larger story. I am happy to report that this book does just that.

Is it possible that 200,000 Muslims have become Christians in West Africa since 2007? Is it possible that 6000 new churches have been planted? Is it possible that 45 new people groups have been reached? This book tells that story which includes more than 350 different ministries cooperating in these efforts. It is not so much a history of that development as it is a story that narrates the church-planting or disciple-making method that facilitated such Spirit-generated fruit. That method involves saturating prayer, finding a “person of peace,” focusing on groups rather than individuals and utilizing the Discovery Bible Study method.

Surveying the reports and analyzing his own experience, Trousdale notes seven “paradigm shifts” in his own approach to ministry (chapter 12):

  1. Make Intercessory Prayer the Highest Priority (or, nothing is more important than prayer…period!).
  2. Make Disciples Who Make Disciples (or, invest time in discipling a few who will themselves disciple others).
  3. Invest Time in the Right Person (or, instead of mass marketing invest in a “person of peace” who will “bridge the gospel into that community”).
  4. Don’t Tell People What to Believe and Do (or, give space for the Spirit to work through the Word as people discover Christianity for themselves).
  5. Never Settle for Revealing Just One Dimension of Jesus’ Life (or, follow the model of Jesus’ own ministry who demonstrated compassion rather than merely disseminating information).
  6. Never Substitute Knowledge About God for an Obedience-Based Relationship with God (or, information is good but obedience is better).
  7. Understand that Jesus Does Impossible Things Through the Most Ordinary People (or, professional ministers are helpful but not necessary).

This is not an academic book, and that is a good thing. Rather, Trousdale utilizes extensive oral reports from former Muslims and on-the-ground ministers who have seen and experienced this tremendous harvest. The stories from former Muslims are compelling.

The book is filled with stories of answered prayer, courageous believers, Muslim conversions, dramatic transformations, and God’s faithfulness to his witnesses.  Through these stories, we learn about Muslim dissatisfaction with their sense of assurance, their lack of knowledge about Jesus, the social pressure that hinders their own search, and the violence that follows converts. People are often martyred in Africa for their witness to Jesus.

The witness present in this book is a sobering encouragement for believers who live in the comfort of the United States. It is also a report of what God is doing and in reading it we should all give thanks for God’s marvelous movement among Muslim people-groups in Africa.

Reading these stories encourages us to look more simply at Christianity. Western modernism has complicated Christianity and academia has often subverted it. The movement of Christianity in West Africa among Muslims is simple, powerful and courageous. Meeting in small churches (an average of 32 disciples per congregation), these disciples are changing the landscape of West Africa by the power of God’s working among them.

I must admit that my Western skepticism is high (some of the stories are way outside my comfortable box), but I also recognize Western skepticism is often antithetical to what God is actually doing. I too easily limit God for the sake of my own rational, emotional and self-righteous comfort. So, I’m listening and hoping to learn more. May God help my unbelief.

Who is My Enemy? New Book from Lee C. Camp

November 11, 2011

My dear friend, as well as colleague, Lee C. Camp has recently released a new book entitled:  Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam–and Themselves. Lee is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville (TN) where I also teach.  

Lee uses a line from a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi as a hermeneutical principle:  “Grant that we may not so much seek…to be understood as to understand.” He focuses this principle in the light of Mirosalv Volf’s call for “double vision” in his book Exclusion and Embrace, that is, to look at any question from the other’s point of view, especially our enemies. To love our neighbors is to understand their point of view even if we might not agree with it.

Consequently, Lee attempts to understand Islam’s presumed orientation to war-making, and at the same time compare it with the Just War tradition in the history of Christianity. The results are stimulating and disconcerting.

The Jesus story, Lee claims, is nonviolent, and the leading theologians of the early church until the fourth century were also nonviolent. They opposed violence and war-making. Following his teacher and mentor John Howard Yoder, Lee suggests that a Jesus politic generates “a distinctive community that has its own particular, if sometimes peculiar, ways of life together” (p. 32). This community loves its enemies, seeks peace, rejects violence, and pursues justice. The Christian politic is a “politics of suffering, nonretaliatory love” (p. 37).

Interestingly, Lee suggests that Muhammad initially employed a similar hermeneutic. He “counseled nonretaliation” in his early years, but this changed due to excessive persecution in Mecca against his followers and the rise of his power in Medina. Muhammad now permitted his followers to defend themselves and even aggressively attack representatives of the persecuting power. Muhammad, at this time, was an advocate of self-defense.

This is the difference between the Jesus and Muhammad stories. Jesus rejected the use of violence but Muhammad employed violence and “war-making in his administration of justice” (p. 45). Muhammad sought a just society and used force to secure it. Jesus sought a just society and used suffering love to secure it.

Lee suggests that what developed in Islam after Muhammad was a classical tradition of war-making that is similar if not morally equivalent to the Just War tradition within historic Christendom.  The “criteria and limits upon war…paralleled in many ways the Christian Just War tradition” (p. 59). Islam, like Christianity (using Greco-Roman resources), developed the need for a just cause, declared intent, a legitimate authority, and limits for how to conduct war. The formal logic, Camp contends, of historic (e.g., Constantinian and Augustinian) Christian and Islamic war-making criteria is essentially the same.

But war is not always conducted on the basis of what are regarded as “just criteria.” Indeed, war-making in the European Christian tradition seems to arrogate to itself the right to transcend those criteria as needed. Whether it is the Crusades, or Puritan assaults on Native Americans in “New England,” or Sherman’s march to the sea, the Just War tradition failed to hinder unjust war-making. Lee recounts some of these stories; they are horrific. These ventures have at least one thing in common–violence against non-combatants or the redefinition of combatants so that it includes everyone living in the city (Jerusalem), village (Pequot), state (Georgia), or nation (Germany and Japan). As Lee states, the West likes the Just War tradition’s “formal logic–that war can be justified–but [it] does not like its constraints” (p. 95). These stories should be told in the West so that our national narratives might hear and take account of Western abuses of the Just War tradition.

The logic that extends transcends the constraints of just war-making in some situations in the West is the same logic that is utilized by Muslim terrorists. “Total war” in Western practice (whether “Christian” or the Enlightenment politics of liberal Western democracies) is similar to a terrorist “holy war”–they both violate “just war” criteria, particularly the death of non-combatants (including women and children). “Moral equivalency” is the contention and is thus the justification articulated by terrorists (whether some Muslims or some right-wing American militia). The logic that burned crops in Georgia in order to make the South “beg for mercy,” that firebombed German and Japanese cities in order to subvert civilian morale, and that nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force surrender is formally the same logic as Muslim or American (e.g., the Oklahoma City bombing) terrorism (p. 101). That is a chilling conclusion but one that Lee argues convincingly.

At this point in the book, Lee “takes stock” (chapter 14) and it is important to hear him carefully. First, “the founding narratives of Christianity and Islam are different.”  While Muhammad used the sword to end the conflicts on the Arabian peninsula, Jesus “employed the way of the cross to deal with” conflict (p. 105).

Second, “the mainstream of Christian tradition looks more like the Muhammad story than the Jesus story” as it has rejected the basic narrative of peace-making in the Jesus narrative.  He states this clearly: “I simply mean that the formal shape, the basic logic, of the church’s understanding of the employment of force on behalf of justice was more like the subsequent teaching of Muhammad than the teaching of Jesus” (p. 106).

Do we believe the peace-making ethic of Jesus is realistic? Jesus lived it; he is our model. He is a peacemaker, and they killed him. That is realistic. When we advocate peace-making, it will upset some…especially when we advocate it on Veterans Day. But it is, as Lee argues and I believe, the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, the ethic of Jesus.

Two New E-Journals

March 11, 2011

Two new electronic journals, one named Kingdom and the other named Missio Dei, have published their inaugural issues.

Kingdom is published by the Bible faculty of Freed-Hardeman University. Its masthead quotes Romans 14:17, “For the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”   Ralph Gilmore, Distinguished Professor of Bible and Philosophy at FHU, is the editor. The intent of the journal is to publish academic articles of theological and religious significance written by “FHU students, faculty and/or alumni, although not necessarily limited to them.”  Ralph, in his introductory editorial, hopes the journal will be “Christ-centered, kingdom-centered, text-centered and service-centered in academic environment designed for spiritual growth through critical thinking.”

Missio  Dei is edited by four young missional church-planters and scholars. They are Nathan Bills (ThD student at Duke University), Charles Kiser (church planter in Dallas, TX), Greg McKinzie (missionary in Arequipa, Peru), Danny Reese (Missionary in Huambo, Angola) and Jason Whaley (Missionary, Wollongong, Australia). They were are at one time or another students in some of my classes at Harding University Graduate School of Religion. The purpose of the journal is to “provide a medium for exploring the rich tradition and ongoing practice of pariticipation in the mission of God among the churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.”

I wish both of these journals great success and long life.

Meeting God at the Shack: An E-Book

December 3, 2009

Now available on Kindle.

I digress from my “salvation” posts to announce a new E-book. I will return to the salvation theme once my work load decreases a bit which is quite large at the moment as the semester comes to an end at Lipscomb University.

Over the past year or more, I have reflected on William Young’s book The Shack in the light of my own personal journey into the world of spiritual recovery.  I found much in Young’s novel that paralleled my own experience.

Last year I posted on some significant themes I found in the the book–both in terms of pastoral (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and theological assessment (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)–but I have now completed a brief book with short chapters on The Shack as a parable of spiritual recovery.

For those who have read my previous material on God, faith and suffering (such as Yet Will I Trust Him or Anchors for the Soul), this book is a continuation of my journey. I think it is more profound and more mature than my previous writings on the subject. It is, nevertheless, still ultimately inadequate as an “answer” to the struggle of life, faith and peace continues in human hearts, including my own. Nevertheless, God offers peace even when there are no “answer?

The first part of this book discusses spiritual recovery while the second part addresses some of the theological questions that concern many. But even in the second part I am much more interested in how this parable and the theological questions it raises offer an entrance into the substantial themes of divine love, forgiveness, healing and hope. These are the main concerns of the book.

I think the question the novel addresses is this:  How do wounded people come to believe that God really is “especially fond” of them?

Only after reading the book through this lens are we able to understand how Young uses some rather unconventional metaphors to deepen his point.

My interest is to unfold the story of recovery in The Shack as I experienced it through my own journey. So, I invite you to walk with me through the maze of grief, hurt, and pain as we, through experiencing Mackenzie’s shack, face our own “shacks.”

I offer the book with this dedication:

In the past eighteen months many have showered their love upon me….
my employment—Lipscomb University and Harding Graduate School
my counselors—I have learned much about myself through your help
my church—Woodmont Hills Family of God
my bible class—the Sonseekers of Woodmont Hills
my men’s groups—where I continue to learn and practice intimacy
my spiritual care team—God’s gift to Jennifer and myself
my small group—you are all such a joy to me
my brothers and sisters—Mack, Sue and Jack…and sis-in-law Melanie
my nieces and nephews—Allison, Brittney, Ian, Carson, Logan
my mom—you love me no matter what
my daughters—Ashley and Rachel, both faithful and loving
my wife, Jennifer, for whose steadfast love I am deeply
grateful and without whom I would not be able to
share my story in this book.

They have embraced me and through them God has loved me profoundly.
Thank you!

Wright on Justification

August 17, 2009

N. T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, is primarily a response to John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright though he engages others as well (e.g., Westerholm). For another extended review of Piper’s book, sympathetic to Wright, see Trevin Wax’s interaction with the book as well as his interview with Wright

Reformed theologians and scholars are disturbed by Wright’s defense of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and his, as they see it, rejection of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. Guy Waters, of Reformed Theological Seminary, has written a fair-minded and on point review of Wright’s new book.  If you want to read a good Reformed response to Wright, I think that is a good place to start.

I have no desire to pursue a point by point discussion in this post. Rather, I simply want to offer my thoughts on what I think is at issue in Wright’s book. I have not followed the “debate” over NPP and justification very closely in the past few years and consequently, to some extent, I am “out of the loop” on this one. But as one who has studied Refomed theology and read widely in Wright, I want to share what I think is significant about this particular contribution by N. T. Wright.

As I read Wright, his intent is to “go beyond the new perspective/old perspective divide” and appropriate from both perspectives since “both are necessary parts of what Paul is actually saying” (p. 212). The “emphases of the old and new perspectives belong…intimately together” (p. 200). Wright intends to present “Paul’s own majestic synthesis” where “old and new perspectives on Paul come together and, though tossed and tumbled about in the process, they are transformed and transcended, and together they give rise to prayer and praise” (p. 174-175). In many ways, the old and new perspectives “sit comfortably side by side” like a “parit of theological Siamese twins sharing a single heart” (p. 118).  For example, faith in Christ is both (1) our boundary marker rather than Torah works (NPP) and (2) the means of our justification before God (OPP).

I have shared this approach to the NPP and OPP for several years. I think the approaches can be complementary rather than antagonistic. But let me first point out where the NPP (as Wright presents it) would be problematic in terms of traditional Evangelical/Reformed/Lutheran theology. While there are many exegetical issues, my concern in this brief review is the theological points of contention–the soteriological questions. Here are a few:

  • Centrality of Justification. Is the central soteri0logical doctrine of the Christian faith  “justification by faith alone”? Protestants, based on Romans and Galatians, have generally thought so. But Wright thinks the emphasis on justification in Romans and Galatians is primarily about the question of Torah or faith in Jesus as boundary markers of the people of God. Justification is not so much about individual appropriation of the forgiveness of sins (though it includes that!), but the identification of the covenant people of God (pp. 75-76, 242). The overemphasis on Romans and Galatians–particularly a stress on justification–creates an imbalance within Paul’s own theology (e.g., what if Ephesians and Colossians had been the center of the Reformation movement?) as well as an imbalance in relation to the gospel of the kingdom in the Gospels (pp. 43, 176, 248). Justification–as traditionally explained– is one piece of soteriology, but it is not the whole of it.
  • Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness. Are we justificed by the forensic imputation of the moral righteousness of Christ? While Wright believes in a substitutionary atonement based on the representative faithfulness of Jesus who enacted the covenant for us, he does not believe it is necessary to read Paul as grounding this in the imputation of Christ’s moral efforts to our moral account (pp. 206-207, 217, 231-233). The faithfulness of Jesus is his “faithfulness unto death, the redeeming death, the dealing-with-sin death” which is the declaration that we are “in the right” (p. 203). Our present status (justification) derives from God’s righteousness faithfully enacted by Jesus and we claim this status through faith in Jesus.
  • Works” and Salvation. In what sense are we “judged by works” on the last day?  Evangelicals, Reformed, and Lutherans have generally relativized Paul’s language in Romans 2 (and other places) such that obedience (sanctification) does not function as a criterion of judgment. While recognizing the legitimate pastoral concerns about assurance, there is–acccording to Wright–a role for works in the eschatological judgment of God through love (not merit!) empowered by the Spirit (pp. 184-189).

Without reviewing Wright’s sustained argument in the book, his positive presentation which seeks to transcend the divide on the above three points looks something like this.

  • Union with Christ rather than Justification is Paul’s central soteriological theme.  Justification (our present righteous status before God) happens through incorporation rather than vice versa (pp. 142, 151).  We are justified because we are united with Christ. If union with Christ is the central point, then we can more appropriately see how salvation is both declaration (staus–the traditional theological category of “justification”) and participation (life–the traditional theological category of “sanctification”). Indeed, historic Reformed theology has stressed this point, which Wright recognizes (p. 72).
  • The righteousness of God is God’s faithfulness enacted through the faithfulness of Christ that gives those who trust in Christ a righteous status before God. The “righteousness of God” does not refer to God’s gift of the righteousness of Christ (p. 233) but rather to the God’s covenant faithfulness through Christ (p. 66-67). Justification is a forensic declaration in terms of status, and God’s declares his people justified (p. 69). It is a lawcourt verdict in terms of status which arises out of God’s righteousness–his faithfulness.
  • The living sign of our status is a holy life enabled by the Spirit of God. Righteousness (justification) is also a term used by Paul to talk about life (or, in traditional theological terminology, sanctification). Wright’s critics claim that he is moralistic at this point and ends up saving people by their works, but this misunderstands his point. There is no “Pauline doctrine of assurance” without a “Pauline doctrine of the Spirit,” that is, where there are no signs of holy living, “there is no sign of life” (p. 237). Together, our righteousness status through faith in Christ and the living signs of that status enacted in our life by the Spirit, anticipate the final judgment of justification on the last day (p. 239). The “verdict already announced is indeed a true anticipation of the verdict yet to be announced” (p. 225), and that final verdict “will truly reflect what people have actually done” by the power of the Spirit at work in their lives (p. 191-2).

One of Wright’s major concerns is the introduction of ecclesiology, pneumatology and eschatology into the discussion of the doctrine of justification which, he believes, is lacking in some discussions of Justification. We might say it something like this:

  • The sign of present justification is “membership in God’s people” (ecclesiology) “as the advance sign of soteriology (being saved on the last day)” (p. 147). This participation in the covenant community (church) is missional–”a people based on the work of the Servant and the work of the Spirit, who now carry God’s light, truth and teaching to the waiting nations” (p. 197). The gospel of the kingdom (which is missional ecclesiology), so prominent in the Gospels, must hearld that God has created in Jesus and by the Spirit a people who celebrate their status (forgiven) through extending God’s purposes in the world (p. 248).
  • The Spirit is the forgotten member of the Trinity in many versions of Justification where God forgives sins in Christ and this is the essence of soteriology. When we recognize that righteousness is also about sanctification and eschatological judgment, then we look to the role of the Spirit as the one who sanctifies us and empowers us for holy living as signs of the future eschatological judgment (pp. 236-240).
  • The present status of believers in Christ as justified is the already of an eschatological not-yet. It is an inaugurated reality that is only “partially realized” (p. 101). It will be progressively realized in us by the power of the Spirit and eschatologically verified on the day of judgment.  Faith in Christ “includes a trust in the Spirt, not least, a sure trust that” God will complete his work when the Lord comes again (p. 107).

If we are going to use “Justification” as a comprehensive soteriological idea, then it needs to include all the elements of soteriology–ecclesiology, Christology, eschatology, sanctification, pneumatology.  If we are going to use “Justification” as a narrow identification of the lawcourt declaration of status on the basis of Christ’s work, then we should not speak of “Justification” as the center (or even the most important aspect) of soteriology since it is only one part of the whole.

If we conceive it “broadly” (and this is one possible angle since “righteousness” is used to describe many dimensions of soteriology, including past, present and future–but there are also other angles as well), it seems to me that something like the following might find some common ground between the NPP and the OPP as well as represent Wright’s point in his book:

God’s covenant faithfulness justifies (declares righteous) those who are in the Messiah because he faithfully surrendered to God’s purposes and thus dealt with sin and death through his own death and resurrection. By faith we are incorporated into the Messiah and thus participate in God’s covenant community entrusted with God’s mission in the world. Empowered by the Spirit, this community anticipates the final verdict on the last day through heralding and embodying that verdict in the present as instruments of God’s kingdom purpose to renew the creation.

If both NPP and OPP can find agreement in such a statement, then perhaps the theological tempest might calm a bit and the mission pursued more vigorously. We can only hope, I suppose.

Struggle for the Soul of Churches of Christ (1897-1907)

June 25, 2009

When the division between Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches was recognized by the religious census of 1906, the theological perspectives among the Churches of Christ were fairly diverse. While there was an ecclesiological consensus to separate from the Christian Churches, there was considerable diversity between the three major representative “traditions” among Churches of Christ which threatened that formal unity.

In Kingdom Come Bobby Valentine and I identified this diversity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as (1) the Tennessee Tradition (or Nashville Bible School tradition, represented by the Gospel Advocate published in Nashville, Tennessee edited by David Lipscomb), (2) the Texas Tradition (represented by the Firm Foundation published in Austin, Texas edited by Austin McGary and others), and (3) the Sommer Tradition (represented by the Octographic Review published in Indianapolis, Indiana edited by Daniel Sommer). I continued the exploration of this typology in an essay honoring Michael Casey by looking at the decade when the Churches of Christ emerged as—to use David Lipscomb’s own 1907 language—a “distinct and separate” body from the Christian Churches and all other religious bodies. 

My essay “The Struggle for the Soul of Churches of Christ (1897-1907): Hoosiers, Volunteers, and Longhorns” was just published in And the WORD became Flesh: Studies in History, Communication and Scripture in Memory of Michael W. Casey, ed. Thomas H. Olbricht and David Fleer (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009), 54-71. I have uploaded an expanded version of this essay to my Academic Page.

1907 is my terminus ad quem. While the 1906 census symbolizes the division, the public discussions of this official recognition took place in 1907. 1897 is my terminus ad quo. Lipscomb, who hesitanted to sever relations with the Christian Church, opened 1897 with this observation: “I am fast reaching the conclusion that there is a radical and fundamental difference between the disciples of Christ and the society folks” (“The Churches Across the Mountains,” Gospel Advocate 39 [7 January 1897] 4). Between 1897 and 1907 the Churches of Christ became a distinct identifiable religious body in the United States.

Whatever differences Hoosiers, Volunteers, and Longhorns had, they were united against a common foe–the Christian Church. While there are obvious sociological and sectional dimensions, even causes, of the division between the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church, there were also significant hermeneutical and theological grounds as well. Editors at the beginning of the 20th century thought these were the primary reasons for separation. The primary hermenutical ground was a Reformed regulative principle discerned through the command, example and necessary inference. The primary theological grounds were the rise of higher criticism and a developing ecumenicism among many in the Christian Church.

Nostalgia easily recalls an ideal unity when it never existed. Though the Firm Foundation, Octographic Review, and Gospel Advocate were heremeneutically and ecclesiologically united in a common front against the Christian Church, there was significant theological diversity among the journals. Theological differences among Churches of Christ ranged from polity issues (e.g., number, qualification, selection, ordination and authority of elders) to materialism (e.g., soul sleep), from mutual edification to located evangelists, from the corporate practice of the right hand of fellowship to the necessity of confession before baptism, from a prescribed order of worship to legitimate uses of the contribution on Sunday, from women working outside the home to female participation in the assembly, from involvement in politics to institutionalism (including Sunday Schools and Bible Colleges), from debating the relation of the kingdom to the church to whether the Sermon on the Mount applies to Christians, from war-peace questions to social involvement in temperance movements, from the nature of special providence to reality of contemporary miracles, and from biblical names for the church to eschatology (millennialism, renewed earth theology).

My essay, available on this website in an expanded form than published in the book, focused on four significant issues that illustrate the different orientations of each of the three traditions: (1) Rebaptism; (2) Indwelling of the Holy Spirit; (3) Institutionalism; and (4) Sunday School.

In general, though not exclusively, the Tennessee Tradition embraced dynamic divine action in the world as the in-breaking kingdom of God, the Indiana Tradition stressed the non-institutional character of that kingdom, and the Texas Tradition rejected any semblance of dynamic divine action other than a cognitive understanding of the Bible which iteself resulted in divisive ecclesiological debates within the Texas Tradition. As the Tennessee Tradition stressed “divine dynamics” rather than “human mechanics,” in the language of the Nashville Bible School graduate R. C. Bell, this central “apocalyptic” vision shaped how almost every theological concept was appropriated. The Texas Tradition, relatively devoid of divine dynamics, embraced human cognition and ability as the critical factor in humanity’s relationship with God, understanding the law of God aright, and practicing it with precision. Though the Indiana Tradition shared some formal characteristics with Tennessee, it stressed non-institutional ecclesiology and opposition to worldly wisdom, wealth and power as the centerpiece of its agenda. The Tennessee Tradition is more dynamic than the other two traditions, and both Indiana and Texas tended to focus on ecclesiological form and function in ways that the Tennessee tradition transcended with an eschatologically-driven kingdom vision.

The critical turn in the story of this essay is the loss of a dynamic sanctifying presence of God in the hearts of believers through the personal indwelling of the Spirit as symbolic of the broader loss of “divine dynamics” within Churches of Christ as a whole. At an earlier point in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the movement had generally chosen Fanning’s Baconian rationalism over Robert Richardson’s openness to the work of the Spirit beyond the sacred page. The first decades of the 20th century were a similar turn. The Texas Tradition ultimately won the day on the nature of the indwelling Spirit among Churches of Christ. The loss of dynamic divine power in sanctification and the reduction of the Spirit’s work to an empirical epistemology of the word fostered debates over patterns and mechanics rather than an emphasis on the transforming, enabling and sanctifying life in the Spirit.


Recreating and Reading

June 15, 2009

My wife and I returned refreshed and renewed from our lengthy vacation. We visited family and then cruised the beautiful waters of the Caribbean. The generous folk of the Sycamore View Church of Christ had given us a travel voucher from AAA in appreciation for our ministry with the church in 2007. We finally used it, and it was truly renewing.

My favorite part of cruising, other than sharing time and places with my wife, was reading on the deck of the ship with the Atlantic in front of me, my wife beside me, and shaded sunlight beaming around us while feeling the gentle breeze of God’s creation. That setting could make even a bad book tolerable. :-)

So, what did I read? Here is one…and I will tell you about others in future posts.

Roger Olson, Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption. It is, of course, no substitute for reading The Shack, but it is a sympathetic reflection on the theological themes present in Paul Young’s modern parable. While I have already blogged at length on the novel (the first in my pastoral series is here and the first in my theological review is here), I read this book for several reasons. First, I am speaking on The Shack for three different venues in June and July (a bible class at Woodmont Hills [beginning this Sunday], a Wednesday night series at Harpeth Hills [beginning this Wednesday], and at the Lipscomb Summer Lectures on July 2-3). So, it was a way of reminding myself of some themes and hearing another perspective. Second, I respect Olson’s scholarship in historical theology (especially since he often cited my dissertation on Arminius in his recent book on Arminianism) and consequently I thought I would receive a balanced, thoughtful assessment of The Shack (which I did).

There was much I liked about the book, but I was also somewhat (mildly) disappointed.  Olson reviews The Shack positively. He does not think Young’s parable is heretical in relation to the Great Tradition of the church (the ecumenical councils), though he recognizes that many of its points would be heretical within some denominational traditions (e.g., Reformed theology)–and even Olson’s own writings have been regarded as heretical by some on some of the same points that The Shack would be condemend (e.g., human freedom).  If Olson is critical of The Shack‘s theology, it is on issues like prevenient grace, regeneration, ambiguous atonement theology and ecclesiology.   But his criticisms are rather mild.

My disappointment, however, was with the ahistorical reading of the novel, that is, there was no consideration of Young’s own purpose, background or metaphors for his journey. There was little recognition that the “shack” functions as a metaphor for the woundness of one’s life and the journey of recovery toward healing.

I understand that a novel may stand alone without an author’s background providing the hermeneutical frame for reading it, but this publication gives us hints and clear clues that we should read this novel within the frame of Young’s own life.  For example, it was written for his children so that they could understand how his vision of God had changed through his redemption as a fallen minister. The acknowledgements at the end reveal that the “shack” is a metaphor for the soul’s woundness. Indeed, in Young’s own life, the “shack” is his own murdered childhood (Missy).

If we don’t understand that, then we will misread the intent of the parable. While Olson recognizes that the novel is not a “systematic theology,” he does tend to read it through the lens of a discipleship manual or, as he put it, “trusting God, following Jesus and being transformed” (p. 123). But this misses the point, I think. The Shack is about Young’s recovery journey, about his own redemption, through an encounter with God that is telescoped into two-day dream. It is not a discipleship manual, nor an ecclesiology, nor a systematic theology. It is an expanded parable of a Jobian prodigal son who returns to discover the Father’s love. I think Olson misses the metaphor and thus the real impact of the redemptive story Young narrates, especially about Young’s own life.

Another example of this is how one perceives the ending. For some, as it was for Olson, it was “all sweetness and light” (pp. 129ff). Though recognizing the parallel with Job, the “happy ending” is off-putting because it is disconnected from the reality of Young’s own personal recovery. His children recognize their father’s “happy ending”–it is his real story. His vision (the way he thinks about God, relates to God and experiences God) changed his life and God recovered him for ministry through this novel. It is not everyone’s “ending,” but it is Young’s.

Despite this, however, Olson’s book is a light (too much so perhaps for my tastes) review of The Shack‘s theology in the light of biblical and historical concerns as well as existential realities. He reflects on the themes through Scripture but also in the light of historical theology. He recognizes the criticisms of the book–yields to a few of them (very few), but ultimately recommends the book as a way of walking through significant themes that daily challenge believers.  I would recommend Olson’s book as a healthy interaction with Young’s novel.

Arminius–Review of a Recent Book

April 23, 2009

Given some recent comments, I thought I would share my review of a recent book that will soon appear in Restoration Quarterly. The author, Keith Stanglin, is a friend and former student (indeed, he was my Graduate Assistant for several years) at Harding University Graduate School of Religion. He now teaches at Harding University in Searcy, AR, after receiving his Ph.D. in historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary (2006). Those interested in the Calvinism/Arminianism discussion might be interested to see his syllabus on that topic which has a significant number of helpful reading assignments and bibliography.

Keith D. Stanglin. Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603-1609. Brill’s Series in Church History, Volume 27. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. 285 pages.  Price? Don’t ask.  :-)

2009 is the 400th anniversary of the death of Jacobus Arminius. While many have identified themselves as “Arminian” since his death, few have pursued scholarly and technical examinations of Arminius’ context and theology. Keith Stanglin’s thorough and substantive analysis is a welcome reprieve from cursory and superficial conversations about “Arminianism.” Indeed, this is the first monograph wholly focused on Arminius’ soteriology with special reference to its epistemology (how do I know I am saved?).

Based on his dissertation at Calvin Theological Seminary, Stanglin—who is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Harding University—makes several significant contributions to the study of Arminius. He contextualizes Arminius’ theology in the framework of Reformed theology and the debates that consumed his Leiden professorship from 1603-1609. This contextualization includes a comparison with the soteriology of Arminius’ contemporaries (e.g., William Perkins, Franciscus Gomarus). Further, he utilizes Arminius’ full Latin corpus, including unpublished Leiden disputations, as the basis for his analysis. This enables Stanglin to interpret Arminius’ soteriology in the specific context of his Leiden controversies. This has a significant impact on how one reads and understands this oft misunderstood Dutch theologian.

Stanglin argues that Arminius, despite his detractors, proposed a doctrine of assurance that was suited to the pastoral needs of believers. Arminius’ understanding of election is conceived in such a way that it preserves the love of God as the fundamental ground of the believer’s assurance. On this basis he rejected both unconditional election and irresistible grace, which are the primary soteriological differences between Arminius and Gomarus. Since faith is a “resistible gift, then defection from faith also may happen by free choice” (p. 141). According to Stanglin, apostasy was possible in Arminius’ soteriology.

Given the possibility of apostasy, what does assurance mean to Arminius? This is the major burden of the book and Stanglin rigorously explores Arminius’ “epistemology of salvation” (pp. 143-235). Assurance, for Arminius, is fiducia (a trusting tranquility that rests in God’s love for us) that avoids the twin pitfalls of desperatio (despair) and securitas (from sine cura, meaning, without care or careless; a kind of presumption). Arminius’ pastoral experience in Amsterdam from 1588-1603 alerted him to these dangers. He witnessed some despair as they suffered from the plague but also saw others arrogantly presume their election. While his contemporaries agreed with his concern about disperatio, Arminius “was a lonely voice in the struggle against securitas” (p. 152).

Stanglin demonstrates that securitas was usually understood as a negative quality arising from pride (e.g., Augustine and Luther). While Calvin used securitas and fiducia interchangeably (loosening the securitas from its historic moorings), he hinged securitas on the attitude of “godly fear” and distinguished between “simple security” and “carnal security” (pp. 163-4). Stanglin argues that early Reformed Orthodoxy (e.g., Gomarus) equated fiducia and securitas while Arminius wanted to preserve the historic caution against securitas as the fruit of pride. This did not undermine certainty (certitudo) but it did exclude presumption (praesumptio). Unfortunately, for Arminius, his assault on presumption took place at the moment when securitas had become a “new normal” for the Reformed understanding of assurance (p. 175). While characterizing securitas negatively, Arminius did affirm that fiducia yields assurance and certainty.

Interestingly, it is precisely because Arminius wants to avoid despair and presumption that he opposes unconditional election. On the one hand, Reformed soteriology may produce despair because ultimately authentic faith is practically indistinguishable from “temporary” faith (p. 183) and the despair this creates is “focused” on the believers’ inability to discern whether they are included in “God’s immutable decree” (p. 187). On the other hand, Reformed soteriology may produce an unhealthy security that leads to presumption due to a lack of godly fear about salvation. Unconditional election provides no functional deliverance from these two hazards.

Precisely because he rejects unconditional election Arminius affirms that fides yields fiducia which yields certitudo. The evidence or testimony that yields this conclusion is both objective—which is primary—and subjective. The subjective includes faith, testimony of the Spirit, good works, and the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, which does not differ from his Reformed contemporaries (p. 204). The difference comes in the objective. For the Reformed the objective is God’s eternal decree. For Arminius it is the love of God.

Significantly, Stanglin argues, “Arminus views God’s love of humanity as something more than mere means (uti) towards the goal of his own glory (which is Reformed supralapsarianism, JMH), but as approaching enjoyment (frui), the beatitude of the creature as the end that God enjoys” (p. 220). In other words, the goal of God’s love is not his own glory as if God is egocentric but rather enjoying the communion of his creation. This is the fundamental ground of assurance—all believers know they are beloved. This belovedness, which Reformed believers cannot know absolutely since they cannot see into the divine decree, yields a present certainty without despair or presumption.

Stanglin has effectively and persuasively argued that assurance was not only significant for Arminius but it was his “principal” soteriological concern (p. 243). It was because the Reformed doctrine of predestination could not provide a “healthy doctrine of assurance” that Arminius dissented from the Reformed Orthodoxy of his colleagues. Assurance, then, was “both the point of departure and the conclusive goal of his system” (p. 244).

This is a significant book. It is one of only a few critical and substantial treatments of Arminius available. We can only hope that it will encourage others to follow Stanglin’s lead.

Facing Our Failures: A Review

January 12, 2009

Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who pioneered the scholastic method of theologizing, produced a volume entitled Sic et Non (or, “Yes and No”) for use in teaching through the dialectic method. It is a composition of quotes from earlier theologians and fathers on a variety of topics, but they are arranged oppositionally, that is, some theologians say “Yes” and others say “No.” He does suggest that some may be harmonized by understanding the semantic variation of key terms (thus the use of dialectics), but he does not attempt to harmonize them.

Todd Deaver–not to rank him with Abelard in the history of Christian thought (sorry, Todd)–has done something similar. He has given us the “Yes” and “No” to the questions of fellowship, boundaries and salvation among conservatives (traditionalists) with Churches of Christ in the past thirty years. His new, self-published book Facing Our Failures: The Fellowship Dilemma in Conservative Churches of Christ points out that the presupposition that “every practice considered to be unauthorized in the New Testament is grounds for breaking fellowship” is incoherently explained, inconsistently applied, and ambiguously stated among traditional Churches of Christ (p. 18).

It is ambiguous because many disagree about what is unauthorized and what is unauthorized (his list on pp. 52-56 is impressively documented; e.g., praying to Jesus in the assembly).  It is inconsistenly applied because fellowship still exists (or is claimed) between those who disagree about what is authorized and what is unauthorized (e.g., why is instrumental music in the assembly grounds for breaking fellowship when clapping during songs or singing during the Lord’s Supper is not?).  It is incoherent because the method by which this is discerned is unclear and inconsistent (e.g., what is the deciding factor or criterion? the assembly?).

Todd meticulously cites and details these problems.  Though the inconsistencies pointed out have been previously noted by others (there is a long history of this since the 1960s), what makes Todd’s book valuable is his thorough grounding of his argument in the writings of conservatives (traditionalists). We are able to see the problem unfold through the contrasting words of conservative writers themselves (thus, Sic et Non). And Todd does this without malice, sarcasm and with great appreciation for the faith and commitment of the traditionalists he cites.

Further, Todd does not simply contrast–unlike Abelard. Rather, he seeks to understand what is at the root of the contrary statements, explores possible harmonizations, and probes the inner logic of the conservative position. 

Todd concludes that the paradigm is the problem (chapter five:  “Our Paradigm is the Problem,” pp. 81-104).  If any doctrinal error (and if not any, then which ones, and how do we decide) excludes us from the fellowship of God as per the traditional interpretation of 2 John 9, and “persistence in any unauthorized practice warrants the breaking of fellowship,” and “our salvation depends on” identifying the correct “limits of fellowship,”  then Todd believes conservatives (including himself among conservatives) are in quite a pickle.  He asks:  “Who among us has the boundaries of fellowship figured out completely and with absolute certainty?” (p. 88).  No one, he concludes, and this entails that the paradigm itself is flawed and “extreme.”

Todd searches for consistency within the conservative position and he fails to find it. “We consistently withdraw from those who worship with the instrument because we believe such is without scriptural authority,” he writes, “yet we continually fellowship some who do other things we believe to be just as unauthorized” (p. 106).  And, at the same “we teach that we cannot fellowship those who bind where God has loosed, and we maintain fellowship with many brethren who oppose as sinful practices which we believe to be authorized” (p.  107; e.g., supporting children’s homes from the church treasury).

At root, Todd has deconstructed the ecclesiological perfectionism of the conservative (traditionalist) understanding of fellowship and authorized practices. Such perfectionism on fellowship and boundaries is unattainable (and, I would add, not intended by the authors of the New Testament). This was the “sole purpose” of his book (p. 108).

Todd does not offer a solution to the problem; that is not his purpose and there is no solution within the current paradigm. Rather, he suggests that what is needed is a “theological shift” (p. 110) whereby we turn to a different paradigm. 

I trust that this “shift” is partly a shift from ecclesiological perfectionism to Christological centrism. Many, including myself,  have suggested this as a way out of our incessant dividing and infighting (see my series on theological hermeneutics).  The value of Todd’s book is that is a fearless, fair and friendly demonstration that the current paradigm among conservative (traditionalist) Churches of Christ is a dead end–and, I would add, ultimately harmful and destructive.

Thanks, Todd, for your work.  I encourage those interested in the documentation and argumentation to purchase and read the book. The dialogue will continue at Todd’s new website “Bridging the Grace Divide.”