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: A Journey Into Spiritual Recovery

December 3, 2009

Now available on Amazon.

Over the years 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.

Previously, I posted on some significant themes I found in the the book–both in terms of pastoral and theological assessment–but Leafwood has now published my 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.”

Spiritual Formation….By Way of the Furnace

October 24, 2008

Spiritual formation the hard way?

Spiritual formation–being formed into the image of Christ by the Father through the power of the Spirit so that Christ is formed in us from the inside out–comes in at least two ways. Neither are easy; both are difficult. Neither are instantaneous; both are processes.

There is a disciplined, habitual approach to spiritual formation. These are the historic practices of solitude, prayer, Scripture reading, and simplicity of life–those four are common to all traditions of spirituality (and the last one is the probably the most absent among American Christians). There is a growing renewal of these spiritual disciplines in the life of the church and among many Christ-followers.  Disciples are trained in the spiritual life through concentrated attention to practicing the presence of God. Any disciple who ignores them places their spiritual life in danger.

In this post, it is a second mode of spiritual formation that captures my attention.  I recently finished Gary Thomas’ Authentic Faith: The Power of a Fire-Tested Life.  Thomas, whose book Sacred Marriage was quite enriching to my wife and I, is a prolific writer about Christian spirituality. He is the founder of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality and, I might add, a favorite writer of our good friend Jim Martin. Authentic Faith is an exploration (he calls himself a “tour guide”) of spiritual formation through fiery trials.

Solitude, prayer, Scripture reading, and simplicity shape our inner life as intentional, daily habits. We set aside time and orient our lives through these practices.  But the fires of life erupt without warning; they come out of nowhere. We don’t see them coming.  They happen to us.  Our daily habits may prepare us for them–that is the value of the training, but we have no control over them.

These fires burn through our lives in many different ways.  Physical suffering–whether cancer, chronic illness, genetic disabilities–is one fire.  It is, as Thomas calls is, the “discipline of suffering.”  But there are other fires as well such as “the discipline of waiting,” “the discipline of mourning,” “the discipline of sacrifice,” “the discipline of contentment,” and “the discipline of social mercy.” 

One of the more helpful chapters for me was the “discipline of forgiveness.”  When we are betrayed, insulted, gossipped about–when we are sinned against, this is something that happens to us. We did not ask for it. In fact, we perhaps never imagined it.  It is a trial, a test. It is a burning fire that will either destroy us or refine us. It is a moment when we will reject God’s heart of forgiveness for others or we will embrace his mercy for ourselves as well as for others. It is an occasion for spiritual transformation.

Our circumstances are beyond our control.  “Stuff” happens!  It can be very ugly, horrid, evil stuff, or it can be seemingly minor frustrations and unmet expectations. Both, however, are opportunities for spiritual growth.

When “stuff” happens, God is present in ways that transcend our ability to grasp but is also present to lovingly refine and/or purge us. It becomes part of the process of transformation just as Jesus himself was formed spirituality through his suffering (he was made perfect by the things he suffered, Hebrews 5:9).

“Stuff” hurts.  But the hurt, by God’s grace and power, is a way forward into the Father’s heart, participation in the Son’s suffering, and communion with the groaning Spirit.  Living through and processing the “stuff” is part of becoming an image or icon of Christ in this world. 

I recommend Thomas’ book.  Though I think the chapters are rather uneven–as are the chapters in my own books (especially the chapters written by Bobby Valentine!)–the book will help you process how the “stuff” in your life, your “shack,” may actually become an occasion for spiritual transformation.

Recommended Books (September 2008)

August 31, 2008

Below are some books that I have recently read which I recommend.  I don’t recommend everything I read, of course.  🙂  But these are worth the time….

Devotional/Meditation.  Currently, my wife and I working through Kenneith Boa and John Alan Turner’s The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible.  The book is divided into Monday through Friday readings.  Each week is devoted to a different biblical story (e.g., creation in Genesis 1-2 for the first week).  Monday retells the narrative, Tuesday summarizes theology (Orthodoxy), Wednesday guides our affections/emotions (Orthopathy), Thursday guides our actions (Orthodpraxy), and Friday suggests four prayers related to each of the previous four days. My wife and I utilize the book like this:  we read a section of the biblical text containing the story, then we read the appropriate section for the day, and then pray the prayer tied to that section.  Each day we read a portion or all of the biblical text that contains the story for the week. So, we use the book Monday-Thursday.  We use other resources for Friday-Sunday.

The daily readings are brief (a page or two) which is managable for a daily meditation in conjunction with reading the Biblical text.  They are well-written, thoughtful, and generate discussion.  The theology is basic (which is good) and stated in a way that offers a helpful perspective in an interesting way. Sometimes the theological language may assume some background but it is generally explained in a way that most anyone can grasp.  My wife and l look forward to working through these readings in conjunction with reading the Biblical text.  It is basic, refreshing, and thought-provoking.

Marriage.  My wife and I have also read Boundaries in Marriage by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.  Their previous 1998 book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life was a wonderful book that I recently read as well.  They apply those priniciples to marriage in this more recent work.  It is filled with helfpul insights, and any marriage can benefit from working through it.

Recovery/Counseling/Men’s Groups.  Nate Larkin tells his story of sexual addiction in Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood.  Larkin is the founder of The Samson Society and this book is the story of his life and the society’s founding. But the book is about more than sexual addiction.  It describes how men can gather for mutual accountability toward the goal of spiritual formation and overcome any kind of addiction or sin in their life. The book also counsels how to begin and conduct a meeting of the Samson Society. I first learned about the society from a Christianity Today cover article on pornography addiction. Every male needs a male accountability group which can be a place to confess sin, receive support, and become a man after God’s own heart.

History.  Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayfower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.  This is a history of the Puritan migration to what we call “New England.”  It is a vivid telling of the Mayflower genesis, journey and founding community.  He takes the story into the wars between colonists and native Americans in the 1640s when the Puritans became permanently planted.  I have studied Puritan theology, but I enjoyed reading about them from this angle.  Their theology, of course, is part of this story, and we see some of its negative effects on relationships with the land and native inhabitants.  I found this book a fair treatment, pointing out the positives and negatives of the Mayflower community. The history is sobering, and reminds us how Christians be either salt or dung to their world.

I really enjoyed reading Fergus M. Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement.  From its beginnings in the Quaker communities of Philadelphia and North Carolina, the history of the Underground Railroad is told in wonderful style and with detailed information.  There were many interesting facets to this book as it gave both a sweeping picture of the story and detailed the lives of many involved, both black and white.  The deep south, for example, did not provide much opportunity for escape except–and rarely–by sea.  Rather, it was mainly the border states.  Tubman, for example, was from Maryland.  It was interesting to read about the legal as well as religious situation of African Americans–e.g., Frederick Douglas removed his membership from an integrated Boston church to an all Black church because they refused to serve the Lord’s Supper as seated but mandated that Whites eat/drink first, and how civil rights were denied to free blacks in the north (e.g., denial of the vote, inability to testify in court, etc.).  Bordewich clearly demonstrates how the Abolitionist movement in its origins and national prominence was clearly a Christian movement…though opposed not only by Christians in the south but also by almost all Christians in the north at first until after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published and popularized. The Abolitionist movement was itself primarily fueled by the revivalists of the burned over districts of New York. This was an extremely interesting book.

Theology/Ministry.  James Choung’s True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In has created quite a stir in Evangelical circles.  His book and the controversy surrounding it received attention from Christianity Today. The book provides a simple but faithful way of telling the gospel story on a napkin!  I think he succeeds admirably.  It is a huge improvement over the “four spiritual laws.” I recommend this book for those who want to present the gospel in a clear but basic way that takes into account the “big picture” of God’s story.  This is a gospel presentation that takes account of the larger insights that N. T. Wright and Brian McClaren write about–kingdom theology, social justice, community, mission, etc. Evangelicals who critique his work do so on the basis that he does not give enough attention to personal sin, penal substitutionary atonement, and the afterlife.  I think this is the strength of his book.  He does not deny these themes, of course, but gives the gospel a wider angel through the lens of the kingdom of God–which, I think, is the message of Jesus himself (see my post on Luke).

His diagram comes in four parts:  designed for good (creation), damaged by evil (fall), restored for better (redemption), and sent together to heal (mission of the church towards eschatological renewal).  This is a wonderful summary, and it takes into account multiple levels.  It is cosmic (how we relate to creation–part of the good for which we are designed is as stewards of nature), relational (relationships among human beings–prophetic relationship toward biogtry is part of the gospel message), and relationship with God (personal, individual as well as communal).  It is an evangelistic tool that moves, as Choung describes, from mere/single individual descision to life-long spiritual transformation and discipleship, from individualism (not merely a “personal” relationship with Jesus) to community (belonging to a community), and from preoccupation with afterflife (“going to heaven”) to missional life (kingdom of God in the here and now as well as the future). See Choung’s website for further discussions of his diagram, video examples, etc. I highly recommend this book as an effective summary of the gospel which is useful for evangelistic strategy.

Recommended Books

June 28, 2008

Thanks to everyone for their well-wishes by email and comments.  I appreciate them very much.  My wife and I had a wonderfully relaxing, peaceful and calm time in the mountains of Virginia as we camped together. It was a blessing to see God’s good creation, sit by the fire at night and spend lots of time simply talking.  Fasting from electronics has also been a blessing though I now–somewhat reluctantly–return to the virtual world of blogging.

During this season of rest I have been reading books in four major areas. I want to recommed a few from my reading list over the past monts that have been particularly helpful to me.


Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage (2000). “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” What a good question! This book suggests that marriage is a spiritual discipline designed to transform us into the image of God by relating to another person in an intimate way. This book is filled with helpful insights about the nature of marriage as a holy adventure whereby we become selves-in-relation rather than selves-in-isolation. It brings together many good theological themes (relationality, community, etc.) with effective psychological insights.

Tim Gardner, Sacred Sex (2002). Sex is a spiritual celebration of oneness.  That may seem like a truism for many but Gardner’s exploration of that theme is quite significant. This is not a manual about technique. Rather, it is about the spirituality of the sexual relationship itself.  Sex, in this context, is a spiritual discipline by which we explore, practice and experience communion. It is an act of worship in a committed relationship. Men–despite the common mantra–do not need sex (sex is optional; we can live without it!), but couples need a oneness that sexual relations express. Sexuality is more about oneness than orgasm.  I found the spiritual emphasis refreshing.

David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships (1998). This is a more explicit book about the sexual relationship. It uses the sexual relationship to look at the whole nature of love and intimacy in marriage. The premise of the book is about differentiation as a key to intimacy. Rather than co-dependency or emotional fusion, couples need a sense of self in order to be in relation with their partner. Healthy partners make for a healthy realtionship. When the relationship is unhealthy, both partners–not just one–is sick.  Both need a sense of self. They need a sense of being “separate” in order to be “together” in a healthy way. For example, he describes a technique called “hugging to relax.” Can you hug for more than five seconds without being uncomfortable? Hugging for a sustained time where centered-selves enjoyed the togetherness of the present moment rather than escaping into the future or resenting the past is a window into the nature of the intimacy a couple shares. I’m still in the process of reading this one, but with just a few chapters completed I can appreciate how it is already helping me.

Spiritual Disciplines

Joshua Choomin Kang, Deep-Rooted in Christ: The Way of Transformation (2007). This book came highly recommened by Terry Smith of Woodmont Hills church in Nashville. Jennifer and I use this in our nightly devotional time.  It is 52 chapters but we are using it on a daily basis.  It encourages the use of spiritual disciplines to root ourselves in Christ.  While not discounting spiritual experiences at all, he suggests that spiritual discipline (measured, consistent, deep, regular and focused) is the way of transformation.  I believe I have had many spiritual experiences but without spiritual discipline (which has sometimes–ok, oftent–been lacking in my life) I find my way of transformation can be shallow rather than rooted. We are enjoying discussing this book.

Gary Thomas, Devotions for a Sacred Marriage (2005).  Also 52 chapters, my wife and I use this in our devotions once a week. Against the background of his book, the specific devotional challenges and meditations are quite helpful as they generate discussions about our marriage between Jennifer and myself.

Trauma and Recovery

Tian Dayton, Trauma and Addiction: Ending the Cycle of Pain Through Emotional Literacy (2000). I enjoyed Dayton’s Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Grief on Relationships (see my post on the book) that I immediately when to this book to read in more depth about the connection between trauma and addiction. Whatever one’s addiction (alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, gambling, frenetic activity, eating, workaholism, etc.), it is linked to trauma in one’s life (whether childhood or adult). These addictions present themselves as solutions but they are actually symptoms of a deeper problem. Trauma–without effective coping strategies–creates emotional illiteracy. Rather than medicating the pain of the trauma through addictive substances or behavoirs, emotional literacy enables people to move through their trauma. Dayton suggests that we not only psychologically hold on to these traumas but also somatically so that when we experience renewed trauma our bodies as well as pysches react to the new trauma with all the power of the unresolved trauma in our past. This creates a need to medicate with whatever addiction has been our coping strategy. Part of the resolution to this need is to re-experience the trauma somatically as well as psychologically through psychodrama. This was an enlightening book to me.

For a long time I have been aware of 12-step programs, recommended them and even read some (but very little) of their literature.  But in the last three months I have read lots of their literature and have proceeded to work the 12-steps for myself. It is quite liberating. It is a simple, focused and supported program of recovery from any addiction (from alcoholism to workaholism). No one can appreciate the depth of spiritual development that can take place through the 12 steps if they are not familiar with them or worked them. I believe it is a deeply spiritual process that is rooted in the principles of spiritual transformation.  I recommed reading its literature on the 12 Steps (e.g., Tweleve Steps and Twelve Traditions).  Celebrate Recovery is a Christianized version of the 12 steps which I am also finding quite helpful. [And everyone needs recovery of some kind–we are all sinners, and we all seek transformation and recovery from sin, including pride, selfishness, etc.]

Specifically on this topic, I found Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps by Father Webber Meletios (trained in psychology and an Orthodox priest) wonderfully refreshing. Here is a book that combines the insights of 12 step programs with biblical text shaped by the spirituality of Orthodox theology. This is a rich combination filled with theological reflection on spiritual disciplines, spirituality and recovery.


Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2004). I love to read historical materials, especially biographies. This particular work is not a biography per se but rather examines Washington’s relationship to slavery. It argues that Washington was originally as morally and psychologically embedded in the slave culture of Virginia as any other gentleman planter in the eighteenth century. Washington even sponsored a Williamsburg raffle of slaves (including breaking up families) in order to secure payment for a debt owed to him in 1769.  However, through relationships with mullatoes from his own family tree (e.g., his stepson fathered a child, his wife had a stepbrother who lived at Mount Vernon, etc.), his experience with African Americans during the Revolutionary War (one fourth of his army at Yorktown in 1781 was black), and ultimately his repugnance toward breaking up families through sales, Washington began to see the immorality of slavery.  His Last Will and Testament freed the slaves in his possession rather than leaving them to his heirs to sell. If one is unacquainted with the development of slavery in eighteenth century Virginia, this is an illuminating read.

So, besides blogging, I’ve been spending my time immersed in these sorts of materials.  My journey continues….