30 May 2004

pentecost sunday

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Come, thou Holy Spirit, come,
and from thy celestial home
shed a ray of light divine!
Come, thou Father of the poor!
Come, thou Source of all our store!
Come, within our bosoms shine!

Thou, of comforters the best;
thou, the soul's most welcome guest;
sweet refreshment here below;
in our labor, rest most sweet;
grateful coolness in the heat;
solace in the midst of woe.

O most blessèd Light divine,
shine within these hearts of thine,
and our inmost being fill!
Where thou art not, man hath naught,
nothing good in deed or thought,
nothing free from taint of ill.

Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
on our dryness pour thy dew;
wash the stains of guilt away;
bend the stubborn heart and will;
melt the frozen, warm the chill;
guide the steps that go astray.

On the faithful, who adore
and confess thee, evermore
in thy sevenfold gift descend;
give them virtue's sure reward
give them thy salvation, Lord;
give them joys that never end.

29 May 2004

binning on theosis

Below I mentioned that a theology of participation in God was very much woven into the Reformed tradition. This struck me again today as I was reading the Scots theologian, Hugh Binning (1627-1653), who had been a professor of philosophy at the University of Glasgow prior to being called as the parish minister at Govan. I was reading some excerpts from his great work, The Common Principles of the Christian Religion (published posthumously in 1667), in which wrote of "Union and Communion with God."

I scarcely know what to quote, but in one place Binning writes,

There is a mutual inhabitation which is wonderful. Persons that dwell one with another have much society and fellowship; but to dwell one in another is a strange thing,—'I in them, and they in me;' and therefore God is often said to dwell in us, and we to dwell in him. But that which makes it of all most wonderful and incomprehensible is that glorious unity and communion between the Father and the Son, which it is made an emblem of: 'As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.' Can you conceive that unity of the Trinity? Can you imagine that reciprocal inhabitation,—that mutual communion between the Father and the Son? No: it hath not entered into the heart to conceive it! Only thus much we know, that it is most perfect, it is most glorious; and so much we may apprehend of this unity of the saints with God. O! love is an uniting and transforming thing. 'God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.' He dwelleth in us by love; this makes him work in us, and shine upon us.

If you'd like to read the rest of this chapter, it is available online here.

26 May 2004

confession of sin

I've known some Presbyterian pastors who privately hear confessions of sin and speak God's absolution to the penitent. Some use a more formal rite, analogous to those found in Luther's "Small Catechism" or the Book of Common Prayer, along with the laying on of hands in blessing. For others, it is a far more informal matter, woven into wider practices of pastoral counseling and the care of souls.

I sometimes wonder if a more visible and regular availability of such confession, absolution, consolation, and counsel might not be a good thing and, perhaps, provide opportunity for counsel long before a person might otherwise seek out his or her pastor in desperation, having fallen into a serious and ongoing pattern of sin.

Such practices of confession, after all, are not foreign to the Reformed tradition or biblical outlook. In our tradition, the confession of sins (and the receiving of absolution) can be either public or private.

Public confession can involve either [a] the general confession of sins by the congregation within the context of the liturgy or [b] the confession of sins by a particular penitent who is being received by the church after notorious and scandalous wrongdoing.

Private confession can involve either [a] personal confession of sins to God on one's own, [b] confession of sins to a faithful friend or brother in Christ (particularly if he was the one offended), or [c] confession of sins to a Minister of the Gospel. Both [b] and [c], of course, are also confession to God, but in the context of a Christian witness who can speak God's word to us in consolation and counsel.

In the following, I'd like to meditate a bit more on private confession, particularly to a minister, as that has been taught and practiced within the Reformed tradition.

Going back to Calvin, he writes about all these various forms of confession in Institutes 3.4.10-14. After discussing public confession--whether regular, general confession in the liturgy or upon particular occasions of public, communal repentance--Calvin goes on to talk about private confession.

There Calvin writes that we should privately confess our sins to one another for the purposes of "mutual advice and consolation" and "to reconcile another to us, if we have done him any injury." Moreover, even though we may so confess (for advice and consolation) to any other Christian, Calvin exhorts us,

Let every believer, therefore, remember, that if in private he is so agonized and afflicted by a sense of his sins that he cannot obtain relief without the aid of others, it is his duty not to neglect the remedy which God provides for him, namely, to have recourse for relief to a private confession to his own pastor, and for consolation privately implore the assistance of him whose business it is, both in public and private, to solace the people of God with Gospel doctrine.

This 1539 addition to the Institutes was a significant revision of its 1536 original, which spoke only of private confession of the individual to God or to a brother in Christ.

By the final edition of the Institutes, Calvin's view of the ordained ministry had developed even further so that he rooted private confession to a pastor in the administration of the Gospel that is the special privilege of the Christian ministry, exercising the "keys of the kingdom," effectually giving counsel and applying the promises of the Gospel to troubled souls. Thus he goes on to say,

since Pastors must be considered more proper for this than others, we ought chiefly to make choice of them...ministers are constituted by God as witnesses and as it were sureties, to certify our consciences of the remission of sins; insomuch as they themselves are said to remit sin and loose souls.

Calvin continues by suggesting that, while such confession should be freely made and not due to some kind of externally imposed obligation, it is still such a good thing that he wishes that it would be "universally observed" that before partaking of the eucharist "the sheep should present themselves to their pastor" for confession, admonishment, and consolation.

According to Calvin, when confession is made, whether generally as a congregation in worship or privately to a pastor, the absolution which the pastor declares is "pronounced in the name of his Master and by his authority" and that "private absolution is no less efficacious or beneficial." Absolution is, therefore, part of the preaching of the Gospel to be received in faith from the mouth of God's ministers. By this means, "the grace of the Gospel is publicly and privately sealed on the minds of believers by means of those whom the Lord has appointed."

Or, as Calvin writes elsewhere, we should "not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven," because "pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation" so that we "must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust" (Commentary on John 20:23).

In saying this sort of thing, Calvin is in step with other reformational churches, for example, the teaching of Luther and the Lutherans regarding confession in, e.g., Luther's "Small" and "Large Catechisms," the Augsburg Confession XI and XII (of which, recall, Calvin was also a signatory), and Smalcald Articles III.8.

Similarly, the 1549 Anglican Book of Common Prayer provided an exhortation to private confession to a pastor (which also appears in the 1552 edition, in slightly revised form):

And if there be any of you, whose conscience is troubled and grieved in any thing, lacking comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confess and open his sin and grief secretly, that he may receive such ghostly counsel, advice, and comfort, that his conscience may be relieved, and that, by the ministry of God's word of us, as ministers of God and the church he may receive comfort and absolution to the satisfaction of his mind, and avoiding all scruple and doubtfulness.

For both Calvin, Luther, and the Anglicans, general confession in the liturgy and private confession alone to God were certainly sufficient for forgiveness of sins. Nevertheless, for reasons of pastoral concern and for bringing troubled consciences to rest in the promises of the Gospel, they all commended and encouraged private confession of sins to another Christian and, above all, a minister of the Gospel from whom one might find absolution, received in faith as a personal appropriation of the Gospel.

Such a perspective is echoed by the 1561 Second Helvetic Confession, penned by Bullinger. While it states that a "sincere confession which is made to God alone, either privately between God and the sinner, or publicly in the Church where the general confession of sins is said, is sufficient," it continues by adding that individuals "overwhelmed by the burden of their sins and by perplexing temptations" may rightly "seek counsel, instruction, and comfort privately, either from a minister of the Church or from any believer who is instructed in God's law" (Chapter 14).

Similarly, Amandus Polanus in his 1589 Partitiones Theologicae writes, "Private confession is that which is done privately by everyone...and that is either to God only, or also to a man. If to a man, either to the Minister of the Word or to some faithful friend."

And to this day, the ordination vows of the French Reformed Church require that a minister never reveal any sin confessed to him in private.

Thus, it seems, the possibility and offer of private confession of sins to a pastor was a real one in early Reformed theology, spoken about, made available, and even encouraged.

Some within the Presbyterian tradition, however, might object to such a practice on the grounds of the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith's (WCF) regarding confession of sin. WCF 15.6, "Of Repentance unto Life" reads:

As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof; upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or publick confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance unto those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

Nonetheless, the second mention of "private confession" ("a private...confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare repentance to those that are offended") is certainly private confession to another Christian, clearly from both the context and the prooftexts (James 5:16; Lk 17:3-5; etc.).

Such private confession to another Christian here seems to be countenanced by the WCF in two specific kinds of cases: [a] sins that scandalize a Christian brother and [b] sins that scandalize the church of Christ. Now, it would seem that the WCF implies that sins scandalizing a brother would naturally be dealt with by privately confessing to the person so sinned against, while sins scandalizing the church would be dealt with by public confession to the church. But it need not be the case that this distinction between private and public is quite so hard and fast.

Sin against the church, after all, might be dealt with by private confession to an appropriate representative of the church, especially a pastor. This is implied by a prooftext given to this section, Joshua 7:19:

And Joshua said unto Achan, "My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done and hide it not from me."

The sin here is primarily against God and against Israel as a whole, but it is confessed to Joshua as the representative and chief presbyter of Israel and of Israel's God (cf. WCF 30.2, "Of Church Censures" and prooftexts).

Now, if "private confession" can here include confession to a pastor and if such confession can also, at the same time be "confession to God" (as indicated by the prooftext from Joshua), then, it seems we cannot exclude the possibility of private confession to a pastor from the first mention of "private confession of his sins to God" in WCF 15.6, even if such private confession to a pastor is not required in that case of non-scandalous sin (as it appears to be in the case of scandalous sin).

And this would make very good sense against the background of Calvin, the Second Helvetic Confession, and Polanus, all of whom see private confession to a minister (or a fellow Christian) as one particular form that private confession to God can take.

This suggestion is further substantiated by the fact that Psalm 51 which is given as a prooftext for the first mention of "private confession" is also given as a prooftext for private or public confession "to those that are offended." Thus the prooftext does not indicate anything one way or another about the presence of a pastor for "private confession" and, indeed, would seem to allow for it given that it is subsequently appended to a discussion that includes such confession.

Indeed, the WCF itself states regarding ministers of the Gospel: "To these officers the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins" (30.2). And this would involve the private exercise of the keys by speaking the Gospel to penitent sinners, as well as public acts of discipline.

Thus it seems to me that it is entirely proper and confessional for Presbyterian pastors to continue in this specific ministry of reconciliation through the practice and encouragement of private confession of sin and Gospel absolution, especially within the larger context of the Reformed tradition.

Another question, perhaps more interesting, is why private confession of sins to a pastor fell into such disuse within Reformation churches, even quite early in their history. As a person who has myself, on more than one occasion, experienced the ministry of the Gospel in private confession to a pastor, I can attest to its salutary benefits and comforts.

But again, that particular historical question will have to await further time for study or the results of the study of others.

25 May 2004

polanus on regeneration

It is apparent from the usage of many early Reformed theologians that the terminology of "regeneration" is used both in a narrow sense (referring to the inception of salvation, coordinate with effectual calling) as well as in broader senses. The broader senses of "regeneration" can be both more objective (referring, for instance, to public incorporation into the church through baptism) and more subjective (referring, for instance, to an ongoing process of death to sin and newness of life).

The Basel professor of divinity, Amandus Polanus (1561-1610), provides comments in his 1589 Partitiones Theologicae (1595 English trans., The Substance of the Christian Religion) that are typical of early Reformed discussions of regeneration in the broad, more subjective sense.

Polanus begins, "Regeneration is a benefit of God, by which our corrupted nature is renewed to the image of God by the Holy Spirit," going on to equate regeneration with "sanctification," the "gift of grace," and "infused grace." He distinguishes between regeneration "begun" in this lifetime and regeneration "perfected" in the resurrection. Regeneration, begun or perfected, pertains to both body and soul.

With regard to the soul, regeneration for Polanus includes enlightening and repentance, corresponding to the understanding and the will. Thus, alluding to Paul, Polanus states that "in regeneration the image of God is renewed to the acknowledgement of the creator and to true righteousness and holiness," which he equates with the "anointing of the Holy Spirit."

Enlightenment, according to Polanus, includes both "spiritual wisdom," by which we have a "wholesome knowledge of faith and the mysteries of salvation, joined with confidence in Christ," as well as "prudence," by which we have a "wholesome knowledge of things commanded and forbidden" by God, joined with "a desire for the former and a shunning of the latter."

Repentance likewise has two parts, "the mortification of the old man" and "the quickening of the new man." The ongoing process of mortification is also called the "denying of ourselves" and "the putting off of the old man" and in it "sin...is abolished in us," as far as that can progress in this present life. The quickening of the new man is also called "our resurrection with Christ" and in it "a new spiritual life is raised up in us" involving both a good conscience before God and "spiritual government" by which the Spirit leads us into new obedience.

With regard to the regeneration of the body in this life, rendering it more and more "obedient to the Spirit," Polanus speaks of the "bridling of the affections" and the "ruling of the movable members."

In any case, whatever the details, it is clear that Polanus (as with a number of early Reformed divines) understands "regeneration" more broadly than later Reformed dogmatics defined it. Thus, this understanding of regeneration must be recalled when Polanus and others speak of baptism as "the washing of regeneration" by which the Spirit's regeneration is not only pledged and sealed to us, but also received by those who are baptized in faith.


This, by the way, is the proposal I had sent to the theosis conference. I suspect it was likely too philosophical for their tastes, but who really knows how these decisions get made?

"Participation, Postmodernism, and Radical Orthodoxy"

"Radical Orthodoxy" represents a recent development in theological and philosophical thought that attempts to address issues of concern to postmodernism from the standpoint of pre-modern and counter-modern traditions.

In particular, John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock have drawn upon traditions of Christian neo-platonism, both eastern and western, in order to retrieve the categories of participation in the divine and the deification of human nature. While often framing their project as a kind of postmodern critical Augustinianism, Radical Orthodoxy has also developed in sustained conversation with historical figures such as pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, Nicholas of Cusa, and, especially, a careful and nuanced reading of Thomas Aquinas.

From these resources they address postmodern concerns regarding "the gift," forgiveness, evil, time, and the like, rooting their response in Christian categories of atonement, knowledge, truth, sacraments, all within a participationist ontology of humanity in God through Christ. In such a perspective, for instance, a category such a Derrida’s differance may be reconceived in terms of created participatory disclosure of infinite transcendent depth beyond all naming, rather than merely in terms of an immanent plane of agonistic tension.

In this paper I intend to trace the broad outlines of Radical Orthodoxy’s proposal, particularly as expressed by Milbank and Pickstock, focusing on the topics of participation and deification as well as the ways in which they are deployed by Radical Orthodoxy in order to respond to postmodern concerns.

I'd be interested sometime in seeing what I would have to say on this topic (if anything!). But, alas, that will have to go on the backburner until some other projects are done.

24 May 2004

theosis conference

I returned Saturday from a conference held at Drew University on the topic of "theosis" or, as it is often called, "deification."

The specific doctrine that goes by that name is typically associated with Eastern Orthodox theology, particularly as that is rooted in the certain church Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nanzianzus, Maximus the Confessor, etc.) and comes to later expression in Byzantine theology in figures such as Nicholas Cabasilas and Gregory Palamas. As Gösta Hallonsten of Catholic University pointed out, the shape of the doctrine, as understood in the Christian east, presupposes a particular sort of theological anthropology, makes an exegetical distinction between "image" and "likeness" with regard to human participation in the divine, and functions as a comprehensive soteriology.

Nonetheless, the notion of "theosis" does show up in various ways within western theology (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc.)--in terms of themes and terminology--even if it lacks the comprehensive context of eastern Christian thought or if it situates the relevant concepts somewhat differently.

The opening talk of the conference was a very helpful exposition of the teachings of Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nanzianzus, given by Fr. John McGuckin of Union Theological Seminary, who is also an Orthodox priest. He presented the Gregory's as both disciples and critics of Origen, and their differing strategies and modes of thinking about human participation in the divine.

The session on ancient sources of the doctrine of theosis looked at classical philosophy and the New Testament Scriptures.

John Lenz, a classics professor at Drew University, outlined the main contours of "deification" in ancient philosophy as it moved beyond early mythical conceptions of the gods and developed ideas about the contemplative vision of the philosopher as a participation in the eternal and divine. It was clear to me, at least, that the biblical and patristic doctrine of theosis, though perhaps drawing upon some of the vocabulary of ancient philosophy, is a very different sort of outlook, rooted in distinctively Christian ideas about creation, incarnation, and Trinity.

The session continued with a helpful talk by Stephen Finlan (also of Drew) who discussed how the theme of theosis arises in Pauline texts, particularly human participation in God in Christ, the transformation of humanity from glory to glory, the movement from our present psychical ("of the soul") existence to pneumatic ("of the Spirit"), possessing the mind of Christ, and so on. While these themes in the New Testament have communal and ethical components, they also all seem to involve a kind of eschatological transformation on the level of human ontology in relation to God.

The ancient session concluded with a present by James M. Starr of Johannelund Seminary in Sweden, based on the contents of his book Sharers in the Divine Nature: 2 Peter 1:4 in Its Hellenistic Context (Almqvist and Wiksell, 2003). He pointed out that the cluster of terms used in 2 Peter seem to connect "partking of the divine nature" with righteousness, power, glory, virtue, knowledge, and incorruptible life. As such, they resonate with the parallel Pauline texts that Finlan had analyzed. There are also various echoes of both Greek (e.g., Plato, Theatetus 176a-b, Plutarch, Aristides 6.2-4) and Hellenistic Jewish (4 Maccabees 17:11-12; 18:3), which use many of the same distinctive terms in connection with participation in the divine or immortality. Starr, however, concludes that the particular context and use by Peter thoroughly resituaties such terminology in a distintively Christian, christological, and trinitarian way.

A later session dealt with some more contemporary discussion. Fr. Francis Caponi, an Augustinian, address Karl Rahner's theology of divinization, approaching the topic through Rahner's discussion of the "supernatural existential" (for a summary of Rahner's views, see my essay, "Rahner and de Lubac on Nature and Grace"). Though a nice clear summary, that talk didn't really go much beyond what I already knew (and have criticized) of Rahner's views.

A more challenging and spirited paper was by a friend of mine, Jeffrey Finch. It was drawn from his doctoral dissertation and was entitled, "Neo-Palamism, Divinizing Grace, Ressourcement, and the Breach between East and West." The paper raised some very pointed questions about the neo-palamist interpretation of Orthodox theology--emphasizing Gregory Palamas' distinction between essence and energies in God--particularly as that is expositing by modern Orthodox theologians such as Lossky and Meyendorff. For one thing, it isn't at all clear that such a theology truly follows out the trajectory of the post-Nicene eastern Fathers, despite attempts to root it in, for instance, the neo-Chalcedonian response of Maximus to monotheletism.

Sr. Nonna Verna Harrison, a professor of church history at the Saint Paul School of Theology and an Orthodox nun, gave a really terrific talk on the Greek patristic foundations of trinitarian anthropology. It has become a commonplace claim in Orthodox theology that the holy Trinity provides the model of which humanity is the image, thereby founding humanity as being in communion (Zizoulas is an obvious reference here). Since, for the Fathers, there is no imitation except through participation, this implies, in turn, that to be human persons existing in community is to participate in the life of the Trinity. Thus, theosis must be understood, first and foremost, not as the transfiguration of the individual or as a vision of the uncreated light, but rather as a sharing in the joyous interchange of love among the divine Persons.

That, at least, is an argument often made in contemporary Orthodox theology. This argument, however, faces several difficulties, outlined by Sr. Nonna: [a] the Cappadocians and Augustine both seem to equally emphasize that while God is Trinity, he acts as One in the world, [b] Gregory of Nyssa seems to lack any explicit theory of personhood in relation, and [c] patristic scholarship seems to show that the Fathers thought of the imago dei more in christological than trinitarian terms. Sr. Nonna, however, went on to document that things are not quite so simple as these difficulties seem to suggest, providing ample textual evidence from the Cappodocians in particular, that they held (at least incipiently) to a trinitarian anthropology (e.g., Basil's trinitarian interpretation of the "Let us make" with regard to human beings in distinction from the "Let there be" with regard to the rest of creation).

A couple of points she made particularly struck me. First, she suggested that a difference in emphasis between the Fathers and contemporary Orthodox theologians is that contemporary theologians tend to talk of the relations among the divine Persons as the model for their human image without taking note of the economic order among the Persons as informing that image. Second, she commented that, for the Fathers, the economic relations among the Persons reveal the immanent Trinity so that Gregory can say that it is because the Father and the Son are homoousion that the Son is both more obedient than any mere subordinate creature could be and, simultaneously, more free.

The other session I attended involved theosis as it occurs in Reformation thought. The Rev. Jonathan Linman, a Lutheran professor at General Theological Seminary, gave a presentation on Luther's doctrine of faith and the sacraments as means to theosis, building on the Finnish (re)interpretation of Luther. It was a good lecture, though I was puzzled that there was no mention made of the place of Lutheran christology as (analogically) relevant to the question of human theosis.

The other talk on Reformation thought as a thoroughly enjoyable discussion of Calvin on the question of deification, as rooted in his doctrine of union with Christ by the Spirit. This talk was given by Todd Billings of Harvard Divinity School who is completing his dissertation on the topic of Calvin and participation in the divine, interacting with figures associated with Radical Orthodoxy.

Todd began by noting that we need not allow the late Byzantine understanding of theosis to absolutely define the notion, thereby opening up the possibility that a western doctrine of theosis might be developed in continuity with (even the eastern) Fathers, without necessarily adopting the precise contours of the Orthodox doctrine. I thought he did a particularly good job capturing the nuances of Calvin's position on human sinfulness and human pre-lapsarian identity as participants in the divine light, quite rightly drawing upon Calvin's response to the Roman Catholic Pighius, where he deftly deploys scholastic terminology to relate his own teaching to that of the medievals.

Another strength of Todd's talk was to note the ways in which Calvin's doctrine of deification in Christ (and Calvin does in fact use the explicit terminology of "deification," "participation," and "vision of God") is rooted in Scripture (especially John 15 and 17 and Romans 6, 8, and 11), the Fathers (including Irenaeus, who is often seen as the ultimate doctrinal root of theosis among the Fathers), and his trinitarian theology, with a emphasis on pneumatology.

It seems to me that the doctrine of deification as it arises within the Reformed tradition remains a largely unexplored topic. Many later Reformed figures are quite explicit and even make the appropriate links to traditions of Christian neoplatonism (e.g., William Ames, who, along with other Puritans, engaged a great deal with the 17th century "Cambridge Platonists"). A number of Reformed theologians (e.g., John Forbes of Corse) deploy the language and terminology of theosis, drawing not only the early eastern Fathers, but also later Byzantine theologians, such as the 14th century Cabasilas.

In any case, that's a research project for another time.


I saw one of those huge-ass Hummers over the weekend on the New Jersey turnpike with a sticker on the back asserting: "Don't let my car fool you...my treasure is in heaven." There's something kinda sick about that, it seems to me.

23 May 2004

eternal sunshine

Last Thursday afternoon, Laurel and I got to go to a movie, which isn't something we often get to do with a toddler around. But with an inexpensive matinee and friends willing to watch Claire, a movie became possible.

We went and saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a wonderfully disjointed and unsettling romantic-comedy/sci-fi film. Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), after a sometimes strained relationship with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), employs the services of the Lacuna medical agency to have her boyfriend swiped clean from her memory. When Joel finds out, he decides to do the same with her, but begins to doubt his decision partway through the procedure, leading to a kind of mental chase sequence, flitting from memory to memory and even attempting to construct new ones in order to avoid the procedures clean sweep.

The film was written by Charlie Kaufman who is probably best know for his quirky Being John Malkovitch. This latest film is definitely worth seeing and, while entertaining and visually fascinating, raises all kinds of questions about the nature of memory, personal identity, relationships, and the presence of the past.

20 May 2004

weekend and next week

I'm looking forward to the "Partakers of the Divine Nature" conference at Drew University this weekend. I had submitted a paper proposal that wasn't accepted (sigh), but the papers that will be presented look good.

I'll report back about the conference at a later point, if I can find some spare moments.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week, however, will be taken up with faculty development workshops, a couple components of which I'm helping lead. The workshops are for faculty teaching in the "Doubles Program" in the Core Curriculum, as well as those leading "First Year Odyssey" sections for freshmen in the fall.

17 May 2004

the covenant of works: part three

In my previous two posts on this topic I addressed the issues of historical Reformed positions regarding the graciousness of the covenant of works and the non-meritorious nature of Adam's expected obedience. In this post I'll try to apply some of this discussion to the relationship between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

I know Tim Gallant is thinking about this topic too and hopefully my comments will complement his (which, just as I'm about to post this, I see are now up online).

the covenants of works and of grace

I'll begin this discussion by considering the opposition between "bi-covenantalism" and "mono-covenantalism." Then I'll turn to the question of how we name and speak of the covenant of works. I will conclude with a discussion of similarities and differences between the two covenants.

First, it is sometimes the case in current discussions that we find a "bi-covenantal" scheme opposed to a "mono-covenantal" one. I suppose, in certain contexts, such language can be helpful. But it seems to me that the way in which it is often deployed is not particularly helpful, but supposes a relationship between the covenant of works and covenant of grace that is purely contrastive and equivocal, rather than following the more traditional path of delineating those respects in which the two covenants agree and those respects in which they differ (see, e.g., the dicussion of Turretin, Institutes 12.4).

Such a way of delineating the relationship between the two covenants does not suppose that we must find a contrast at every point, but allows for various points of contact and continuity, thus establishing the relationship between the two covenants as analogical: involving similarities, even in a context of substantive differences, differences that establish a distinction between covenants not only in degree and accidental features, but in kind and substance.

Even the most ardent of "bi-covenantalists," however, usually (and rightly) see the covenant of grace as functioning within the wider context of the covenant of works, insofar as the covenant of grace involves Christ bringing the covenant of works to its intended fulfillment on our behalf, obeying where Adam rebelled. Thus, even on such a view, the connections between the two covenantal administrations are intrinsic and internal, even if the covenant of grace involves an intensification and elevation of grace in the context of sin and demerit by means of Christ's fulfilling of the covenant of works outside of us and for us.

Moreover, since both covenants reveal the one and the same God in his relationship to those creatures who bear his image, establishing the means by which they might be brought to their eschatological end, we would also expect a certain analogy or homology between these covenants, even if in application and outworking there are differences as to the character and nature of the two covenants.

Thus, I would suggest, a simplistic opposition of "bi-covenantalism" against "mono-covenantalism" is inadequate and potentially misleading for the purposes of describing various approaches to covenant theology. Both positions, taken to an extreme, become problematic. Kline and Shepherd come to mind here, each gravitating towards a respective extreme, often in a manner that is reactionary against the opposite tendency.

Second, some have objected to the terminology that designates the pre-lapsarian covenant with Adam as a "covenant of works" (others, of course, object to the notion of a covenant with Adam altogether, but that's a different argument and I'll not address it here). This objection (though raised even by some in the 17th century) is often rooted in an abstract opposition between "works" and "grace" or the supposition that a "works" principle must necessarily involve a principle of merit.

Historically, however, as we have seen, this is not the case, since the covenant of works has been typically seen in terms of grace, while merit is denied. The biblical opposition between "works" and "grace" is one that is operative from the standpoint of sin and human demerit where, apart from grace and the gift of faith without which no one can please God, even our best works are tainted with sin, are unacceptable to God, and merit the just wages of death. But this is not the situation prior to Adam's fall into sin and thus not applicable in the context of the covenant of works.

Moreover, the terminology of "works" is applied retrospectively and by way of eminence from the viewpoint of the covenant of grace. In the words of Hugh Binning that I quoted earlier, "if the Lord had continued that covenant [of works] with us, we ought to have called it grace, and would have been saved by grace as well as now" (The Common Principles of the Christian Religion). Patrick Gillespie expresses a similar viewpoint in his 1661 The Ark of the Testament Opened when he writes,

The moving cause in both [covenants] was mere Grace, although the last has the honour by way of eminency to be styled the Covenant of Grace (whereof in its place) yet even the Covenant of Works (howsoever the condition of it was obedience, and the reward of it was to works), even that Covenant was thus far a Covenant of Grace.

Thus, the covenant of works, considered in its original integrity could be construed as a covenant of grace. It is only from the vantage point of the superabundance of grace upon grace in the second covenant that the first one is said to be "of works."

It should also be kept in mind that "covenant of works" is not the only terminology historically used to describe God's original covenant with Adam. The covenant is also sometimes called a "covenant of life" (e.g., Westminster Catechisms; James Fisher) in virtue of the promised reward of eschatological life. It is sometimes called a "covenant of friendship" or "love" (e.g., Robert Rollock, William Strong, Fisher), referring to humanity's original relation to God in innocency in contrast with a covenant of "mercy" or "reconciliation" in light of human sin and corruption. It is quite often called a "covenant of nature" or "creation" (e.g., Rollock, James Cameron, Turretin) as it is rooted in God's relationship with humankind as originally created and graced with our original and natural integrity, gifts, and abilities.

Nonetheless, the terminology of "works" and "grace" came to prevail in discussions of Reformed covenant theology, though never to the complete exclusion of other terms. And I am happy enough to retain the traditional terms, so long as proper qualifications are made and possible misunderstandings are headed off.

Third, though the respects in which the covenants of works and of grace differ mark them out as fundamentally distinct, there are, nonetheless, various important respects in which the two covenants agree. The very same elements (grace, faith, works) can function both as points of difference as well as agreement, within their disparate contexts, relations, and so on.

The primary points of agreement and difference between the covenants of works and of grace can be outlined in the following fashion:

[1] The covenants agree insofar as the author of both is the Triune God who, as our Creator, has the sole authority to establish his creatures in covenant with himself. They differ insofar as in the covenant of works, God is the author in relation to us as Creator, while in the covenant of grace, God is the author in relation to us as Redeemer as well as Creator.

[2] The covenants agree insofar as the moving cause of both is the undeserved grace and favor of God as an overflow of divine love and benevolence. They differ insofar as in the covenant of works, the grace involved is that initial grace shown to innocent creatures in bringing them into existence with their gifts and abilities and a promise of reward, while in the covenant of grace, the grace involved is that superabundant grace upon grace shown to miserable sinners in rescuing them from corruption and death and bringing them to glory.

[3] The covenants agree insofar as the parties to the covenants are God and humanity, in the person of a federal head. The covenants differ insofar as the covenant of works was made in friendship with Adam as a human being and with his natural posterity in Adam as their federal head, while the covenant of grace was made in reconciliation in Jesus Christ as God incarnate and with his spiritual posterity in Christ, not only as their federal head, but also as their Mediator.

[4] The covenants agree insofar as they both promise eschatological life to humanity, in which they might more deeply participate in God as their blessedness and fruition. The covenants differ insofar as in the covenant of works, this eschatological life was promised only as a perfection and maturation of the state humanity already possessed, while in the covenant of grace salvation unto eschatological life was promised as a deliverance from sin, corruption, and death.

[5] The covenants agree insofar as the form of both required a fulfillment and restipulation of the covenant in order that it might be brought to fruition. The covenants differ insofar as the covenant of works was promised to humanity's own faithful obedience in virtue of the sufficient graces given to human nature, while the covenant of grace was promised to Christ and his faithful obedience on behalf of his people and received by them through faith.

[6] The covenants agree insofar as they both require that their promises be received in faith in order to enjoy their rewards. The covenants differ insofar as in the covenant of works, humanity possessed the grace of faith as part of our inherent righteousness in the natural and innocent relation of the human creature to God, who was trusted upon as Creator, while in the covenant of grace faith is exercised in the context of unbelief and terror as the means of receiving Christ's righteousness and as a new gift granted by God, who is trusted upon not only as Creator, but also as Redeemer (see, e.g., John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, Chapter 2, question 2; Turretin, Institutes 8.2 and 12.4.7).

[7] The covenants agree insofar as they both require that faith produce loving obedience as its fruit and evidence. The covenants differ insofar as in the covenant of works, the covenant promise was made to the faith and obedience that was part of the inherent righteousness of humanity as created and as an antecedent condition for the reception of eschatological life, while in the covenant of grace the covenant promise is made only to a faith that rests upon and receives the righteousness of Christ apart from any inherent righteousness and that produces obedience as a consequent condition as the fruit and effect of the eschatological life already received and begun in Christ.

[8] The covenants agree insofar as the final end of the covenants is to bring glory to God through the eschatological enjoyment of God by his creatures. The covenants differ insofar as the covenant of works would have brought glory to God in manifesting his initial favor and strict justice in terms of faithfulness to his original promise with no room for repentance or pardon, while the covenant of grace brings glory to God in manifesting his exceedingly great love and merciful justice in terms of his faithfulness to a new promise, bringing salvation to sinners even at cost to himself.

These observations sum up some of the primary points of agreement and difference between the two covenants. Of course, there are further obvious differences between the two covenants (differing times of institution, differing extents of application, differing modes of manifestation, etc.), but I'm not going to outline those in detail.

Hopefully this discussion has clarified the nature of the covenant of works as that has been historically confessed by the bulk of the Reformed tradition. God's original covenant with Adam was both gracious and non-meritorious and yet, for all of that, this does not in any way confuse that covenant with the subsequent covenant of grace nor ignore their important differences nor eliminate Christ's necessary and faithful obedience in meriting salvation on our behalf.

further resources

Of course, nothing beats going back to the original materials from the 16th and 17th centuries, but unless you have access to a solid theological library, that task will be difficult (I've got the blessing of having both Westminster and Princeton seminaries nearby here).

Nevertheless, in recent years a great deal of scholarship has been done on the historicaly development of covenantal (also sometimes called "federal") theology. Below is a list of some helpful resources, addressing both historical and contemporary questions:

Bierma, Lyle D., "Law and Grace in Ursinus' Doctrine of the Natural Covenant: A Reappraisal" in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. by C. Trueman and R.S. Clark (Paternoster Press, 1999) 96-110.

Bolt, John, ed., "Covenant Tradition in Reformed Theology," a special edition of Calvin Theological Journal 29 (April 1994).

Gallant, Tim, "Monocovenantalism? Multiple Covenants, No Adamic Merit" at his Biblical Studies Center (May 16, 2004).

Letham, Robert W., "The Foedus Operum: Some Factors Accounting for Its Development" in Sixteenth Century Journal 14:4 (Winter 1983) 457-467.

McGiffert, Michael, "From Moses to Adam: The Making of the Covenant of Works" in Sixteenth Century Journal 19:2 (Spring 1988) 131-155.

-----, "Grace and Works: The Rise and Division of Covenant Divinity in Elizabethan Puritanism" in Harvard Theological Review 75 (October 1982) 463-502.

McGowan, Andrew T.B., "Federal Theology as a Theology of Grace" in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 2 (1984) 41-50.

McWilliams, David B., "The Covenant Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Recent Criticism" in Westminster Theological Journal 53:1 (Spring 1991) 109-124.

Strehle, Stephen, Calvinism, Federalism, and Scholasticism: A Study of the Reformed Doctrine of Covenant (Peter Lang, 1988).

Torrance, Thomas F., Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (T&T Clark, 1996).

Wallace, Peter J., "Covenant and Inheritance," transcript of a lecture given at Westminster Theological Seminary (October 15, 2003).

-----, "The Doctrine of the Covenant in the Elenctic Theology of Francis Turretin," unpublished paper (1994).

Ward, Rowland S., God and Adam: Reformed Theology and the Creation Covenant (New Melbourne Press, 2003).

And I welcome any further interaction on these topics. While my concern here has been largely historical, I also want to discern how best to formulate these issues in light of contemporary questions and to further theological development and understanding of both Scripture and the Reformed tradition.

175th anniversary

Our church, Tenth Presbyterian (PCA) here in Philadelphia, is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Various events are planned.

This week's highlight will be a special free concert by our Tenth Church Choir, the Tenth Chamber Players, the Westminster Brass, and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. The concert will be held at Verizon Hall in the center city Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The concert will also include the premiere of a setting of Psalm 46 for choir and orchestra by award-winning Philadelphia composer Kile Smith, specially commissioned for our 175th. While all tickets to the Tuesday concert have been given away already, seating is still available for tonights 7pm dress rehearsal.

In gearing up for the concert, R.C. Sproul preached at our morning services yesterday. It's always a lot of fun to hear R.C. preach, with all his rhetorical flourish and sprinkled liberally with all kinds of stories--though after having seen the film Big Fish on Saturday evening it was difficult not to keep thinking of the older Edward Bloom as R.C. spun his tales.

Tenth Presbyterian was originally founded in 1829 with the Rev. Thomas McAuley as its first pastor and was located on the northeast corner of Twelfth and Walnut Streets. When first organized, the congregation was on the "New Light" side of American Presbyterianism, but under the leadership of the Rev. Henry Augustus Boardman (pastor from 1833 until his death in 1876), the church moved in a decisively "Old Light" direction.

It was under the ministry of Boardman that the congregation decided to plant a daughter church in the new neighborhoods to the west of Broad Street, on the southwest corner of Seventeenth and Spruce Street, under the ministry of the Rev. William Pratt Breed, who served the congregation until his death in 1889. Breed and Boardman regularly exchanged pulpits, as did Boardman's successor, the Rev. John de Witt. The Seventeenth and Spruce congregation was originally called "West Spruce Street Presbyterian Church" but since 1893 has retained the name of its mother congregation, with which it merged due to population shifts in center city.

The present church building was designed by eminent Philadelphia architect, John McArthur, Jr., who was a member and first deacon of the West Spruce Street church (more on the architecture can be read here). The interior of the church was originally done in an elaborate Italianate style. In 1893, however, the interior was entirely renovated by the designer Frank Miles Day, transforming it into its present Neo-Byzantine style.

In the 20th century, our pastors have included the the Rev. Donald Grey Barnhouse (pastor 1926-1960) and the Rev. James Montgomery Boice (pastor 1968-2000; a complete list of ministers is available online in PDF format here). The current senior pastor is the Rev. Philip Graham Ryken.

For more on the history of Tenth, which in many ways is a window into the wider currents of American Presbyterian church history, consult the newly revised history of Tenth, edited by pastor Ryken.

16 May 2004

atkins friendly

Those friends of mine who are on the Atkins diet are in for a real treat this year. It turns out that the 17-year cicada is the perfect Atkins food: lots of protein and no carbs!

Here are some recipes:

skewered shanghai cicadas

30 newly-emerged cicadas
2 tablespoons anise seed
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups of rice wine (or sherry)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
10 cloves of mashed garlic
celery and turnip greens to garnish

[1] Boil cicadas and anise in salted rice wine for 5 minutes, then remove cicadas.

[2] Saute mashed garlic and soy sauce, adding water (or rice wine) if necessary to make a thick paste.

[3] Deep fry the cicadas, then skewer on bamboo picks. Arrange on plate with turnip greens, celery, and garlic paste to appear like cicadas are emerging from mud onto green foliage.

(Yield: 4 servings as appetizer)

cicada stir-fry

1 minced onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
3/4 cup diagonal sliced carrots
3/4 cup chopped cauliflower/broccoli
1 small can water chestnuts
3/4 cup bean sprouts
3/4 snow peas
40 blanched cicadas

[1] Blanch newly-emerged cicadas for 1 minute in boiling water (can then be frozen for later use).

[2] Stir fry ingredients together in above order in wok or non-stick pan in peanut (or other) oil.

[3] Season with soy sauce to taste and serve over rice or, for the more Atkins-conscious, with fried tofu or bean thread.

(Yield: 4 servings)


15 May 2004

the covenant of works: part two

In my prior post on this topic, I provided a sketch of the mainstream Reformed understanding of the covenant of works as gracious. In this post I will discuss the relation of merit to the covenant of works.

the covenant of works as non-meritorious

The question here involves the nature of Adam's obedience to God under the covenant of works and its relation to the promised reward that would have been recieved, had Adam obeyed. This, in turn, raises further questions, in particular, whether obedience and disobedience ought to be regarded as strictly symmetrical (merit vs. demerit) and the implications of Adamic obedience for how we conceive of Christ's obediences and his merits. I'll touch on each of these in turn.

First, in light of the grace woven into the covenant of works, Reformed theologians have generally maintained that the reward that Adam would have received had he obeyed cannot be spoken of as "merited." Some divines denied that the concept of merit could be applied at all, while others allowed that the notion of merit could be used, but only in an "improper" and "broad" sense.

With regard to the general concept of merit, a Puritan as eminent as William Perkins (1558-1602) could write in his 1597 treatise, A Reformed Catholike, "We renounce all personal merits, that is, all merits within the person of any mere man." Moreover, he continues, "we renounce all merit of works, that is, all merit of any work done by any mere man whatsoever." Perkins goes on to specifically apply this to the pre-lapsarian Adam under the covenant of works, denying that Adam's "continual and perfect obedience" would have merited anything from God.

Returning to a theologian we considered earlier, the previous quotation John Ball indicates that merit is not his concern. In addition, he writes about Adam under the covenant of works

In this state and condition Adam's obedience should have been rewarded in justice, but he could not have merited that reward. Happiness should have been conferred upon him, or continued unto him for his works, but they had not deserved the continuance thereof: for it is impossible the creature should merit of the Creator, because when he hath done all that he can, he is an unprofitable servant, he hath done but his duty. (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace)

In a similar vein, Anthony Burgess (1608-1664), one of the delegates to the Westminster Assembly, states in his 1647 work, Vindiciae Legis, that "though it were a Covenant of Works, it cannot be said to be a covenant of merit. Adam, though in innocency, could not merit that happiness which God would bestow upon him." He goes on to explain his reasoning in terms of the grace of God granted to Adam both in his ability to obey and in terms of the sheer disproportion between Adam's abilities and the promised reward. Thus Burgess concludes, "if by the help of God Adam was strengthened to do the good he did, he was so far from meriting thereby, that indeed he was the more obliged to God."

Turning to Francis Turretin, while he does use the term "merit" he explicitly roots that in patristic usage--the grace-imbued sense of "merit" intended by Augustine when he says that "God crowns his own gifts." In this broad and improper sense of "merit" Turretin suggests that even our present works as Christians, as the fruit and evidence of faith, are meritorious with regard to the reward that they will receive (Institutes 17.5.5).

This usage must be kept in mind when Turretin writes, "Adam himself, if he had persevered, would not have merited life in strict justice, although (through a certain condescension) God promised him by a covenant life under the condition of perfect obedience (which is called meritorious from that covenant in a broader sense...)" (Institutes 17.5.7).

He also writes, "There was no debt (properly so called) from which man could derive a right, but only a debt of fidelity, arising out of the promise by which God demonstrated his infallible and immutable constancy and trust." Thus while there's a sense in which, had Adam obeyed, God would have "owed" Adam his reward, this is not conceived by Turretin in term of a debt to Adam, but in virtue of God's own faithfulness to his divine promise.

Still, Turretin maintains that Adam's entire ability to obey God and thereby receive what was promised was a matter of grace and that Adam possessed sufficient grace to obey. Moreover, he says that "merit" in the proper sense only refers to "strict merit" and that is entirely excluded in all relations between God and his creatures. Turretin and others will sometimes speak in terms of "strict justice," but in saying this they are referring the fact that the covenant of works does not, in itself, make any room for pardon and mercy if violated.

If Turretin allows that covenant merit is only a broad and improper use of the term, then surely it is a use of the term we can live without and still formulate theology appropriately, as many Reformed theologians have done.

Again turning to James Fisher, we find the following series of questions and answers in his Catechism:

Q. 30. Was there any proportion between Adam's obedience, though sinless, and the life that was promised?

A. There can be no proportion between the obedience of a finite creature, however perfect, and the enjoyment of the infinite God, Job 22:2, 3 -- "Can a man be profitable to God? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous? or, is it gain to him, that thou makest thy way perfect?"

Q. 31. Why could not Adam's perfect obedience be meritorious of eternal life?

A. Because perfect obedience was no more than what he was bound to, by virtue of his natural dependence on God, as a reasonable creature made after his image.

Q. 32. Could he have claimed the reward as a debt, in case he had continued in his obedience?

A. He could have claimed it only as a pactional debt, in virtue of the covenant promise, by which God became debtor to his own faithfulness, but not in virtue of any intrinsic merit of his obedience, Luke 17:10.

Again, merit is denied and anything owed is conceived in terms of God's own debt to himself as one who is faithful to his promises, rather than the creature putting the Creator into his debt.

As with the issue of grace, similar quotations could be multiplied from a variety of Reformed theologians over time and in a variety places, including Robert Rollock, William Ames, Patrick Gillespie, Johannes Cocceius, Herman Witsius, and many others.

Second, we need to think about the relationship between obedience and disobedience with regard to the covenant of works. One might object that if Adam's receiving his promised reward by means of obedience would have involved no merit on his part, then, by analogy, his disobedience would not have involved demerit. Or, to put it another way, if Adam's obedience would not have strictly deserved reward, then why would his disobedience have strictly deserved punishment?

This line of reasoning, however, supposes a symmetry between merit and demerit that cannot stand in the face of the distinction between Creator and creature. As creatures whose relationship to God as Lord is one of complete dependence for all we are and have, we owe complete and perfect obedience to God as a reflex of our relationship to him of dependence, trust, sonship, and life. If, in Adam, we had maintained that obedience, then there would have been no room for boasting since our whole ability to obey was itself a gift of divine grace and the reward given to that obedience would have been graciously disproportionate to the homage rendered.

On the other hand, this relationship of dependence of the creature upon the Creator renders disobedience an act of utter unbelief, ingratitude, betrayal, and rebellion--all the more so in light of the grace already lavished upon us in Adam. Such disobedience on our part is, therefore, most deserving of its consequences and can rightly be described in terms of demerit before the bar of divine justice.

Thus William Ames writes, "In this covenant [of works] the moral deed of the intelligent creature lead either to happiness as a reward or to unhappiness as a punishment. The latter is deserved; the former is not" (The Marrow of Theology, 1.10.11).

Third, even if we do not conceive of Adam's receiving a reward for his obedience in terms of merit, this has no direct bearing upon the nature of Christ's obedience and its value to us for salvation, for Christ was no mere man, but the Son of God incarnate. Thus his obedience to his Father unto the death of the cross possessed infinite intrinsic worth and can rightly be spoken of in terms of its "merits" for us, even apart from insisting that Christ strictly merited his reward with regard to himself.

And here we reach the broader question of the relationship and distinction between the covenant of works with Adam and the covenant of grace with us in Christ. I had hoped to deal with that in this post, but I've not had to time to type up my thoughts. Thus it will have to wait.

14 May 2004

calvin on the merits of christ

Calvin is happy to speak of the merits of Christ, as am I. After all, Christ is no mere man, but God the Son incarnate. But it is interesting how Calvin frames some of his discussion.

He writes:

God solely of his own good pleasure appointed him Mediator to obtain salvation for us. Hence it is absurd to set Christ’s merit against God’s mercy...Apart from God’s good pleasure Christ could not merit anything. To sum up: inasmuch as Christ’s merit depends upon God’s grace alone, which has ordained this manner of salvation for us, it is just as properly opposed to all human righteousness as God’s grace is. (Institutes 2.17.1)

The gracious character of redemption is in view here in that it was God himself who graciously undertook to accomplish our salvation. Apart from that "good pleasure" Christ could merit nothing on our behalf, Calvin suggests.

I'll have to think that through a bit in light of late medieval discussions regarding the necessity of the atonement in relation to God's covenants and his potentia absoluta et ordinata.

Whatever the case, Calvin also insists that whatever "merits" Christ had are not meritorious with regard to himself, but only on our behalf:

Hence, again, we infer that Christ had no regard to himself; and this he distinctly affirms, when he says, 'For their sakes I sanctify myself,' (John 17: 19). He who transfers the benefit of his holiness to others, testifies that he acquires nothing for himself. And surely it is most worthy of remark, that Christ, in devoting himself entirely to our salvation, in a manner forgot himself. It is absurd to wrest the testimony of Paul to a different effect: 'Wherefore God has highly exalted him, and graced him a name which is above every name,'(Phil. 2:9) (Institutes 2.17.6).

The notion of Christ's own self-forgetfulness is an intriguing one. Even Christ himself, on Calvin's view, would not have boasted of his achievements in obedience to his Father.

those scots guys

Since several people requested it, I've put my posts on the baptismal theology of the early Scots Reformed together into a single essay on my website under the title of "The Early Scots Reformed on Baptism."

13 May 2004

zoo visit

Laurel, Claire, and I went to the Philadelphia Zoo today (despite the 90 degree heat and high humidity) and met up with some friends from church.

Claire had a grand time seeing all the different animals, especially now that she can name so many of them and imitate their noises. And we did see quite the variety, ranging from the ordinary domesticity of a grinning goat in the children's petting zoo...

...to the purring of a languid elderly jaguar...

...to the powerful plated weightiness of a lunching rhino...

As we trekked about the zoo, Claire remained the ever curious and busy explorer, enjoying all the sights and sounds and, indeed, smells.

Her favorite, it seems, remains the peacock...

...that ostentatious and exotic fowl whom she knows from her storybooks and who's name she nevers seems to tire of saying.

As the Simon and Garfunkle song says, "Everything's happening at the zoo."

11 May 2004

the covenant of works: part one

I've not written much regarding the contours of Reformed covenantal theology here before, even though it is a matter of some debate and confusion today in Reformed circles. My silence is, in large part, because I accept the general outlines of that covenant theology as it has been classically expounded by many of its major proponents and as we find it in the confessional Standards of my own Presbyterian tradition.

While some today may speak of "reshaping" covenant theology, I am only happy with such reshaping if it is a matter of knocking things back into shape in light of recent deviations or if it involves softening off the occasional rough edge or infelicitous turn of phrase that has cropped up in the history of the tradition. With regard to the substance of classically Reformed covenant theology, I have no quarrel, even if I believe the tradition is open to development along its established tajectories.

One topic of discussion is with regard to the nature of the pre-lapsarian "covenant of works" with Adam as the representative of humanity, as well as the relation of that covenant to (and its distinction from) the post-lapsarian "covenant of grace." In particular, there have been concerns expressed over [a] seeing the covenant of works as gracious and [b] denying that the covenant of works is (strictly) meritorious. Moreover, some have suggested that giving way to either [a] or [b] slides us quickly into some kind of undifferentiated "mono-covenantalism."

It seems to me that these concerns are misplaced and lack historical perspective. A very common teaching of the Reformed tradition, rooted in Scripture, is that the covenant of works is both gracious and non-meritorious (at least with regard to any notion of strict merit).

These aspects of Reformed theology were not often seen as a problem or with suspicion until quite recently and, then, only in response to certain distortions (Barthianism, some aspects of Norman Shepherd's teaching) and under the influence of Meredith Kline (who himself has, in some respects, moved away from the bulk of the Reformed tradition).

In reacting to distortions of the sort we find, for example, in Barthianism, we need to exercise restraint so that we don't run headlong into the opposite extreme in over-reaction (nor miss out on any of the genuine insights that Barth may have offered). Part of that restraint will involve returning to Scripture and examining the teaching of Scripture in light of the historic Reformed faith. Unfortunately, I cannot presently undertake that task here, except in the barest sketch.

What I will do in the following is to provide a brief defense of the notion that, historically, many Reformed have taught that the covenant of works is both gracious and non-meritorious. I will also make a few gestures toward the wider basis for that teaching, biblically and theologically. Finally, I'll suggest why I don't think that such teaching blurs the substantive distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

the covenant of works as gracious

First, it should be noted that the term "grace" is not entirely univocal, but analogical. In contemporary Reformed thought, for instance, we often distinguish between "common grace" and "saving grace" or among the various "graces" that constitute salvation.

When we speak of the (saving) grace we find in Christ by which sinners are brought to salvation, we do not mean the same thing as the (common) grace God shows generally to his fallen creatures, even if we see that latter grace also as flowing from the cross of Christ. Yet there are analogies between these various uses of the term "grace" in that they all involve unmerited favor.

As fallen creatures, of course, our experience of God as gracious is always from the standpoint of human, sinful demerit before a just and holy God who, nonetheless, shows mercy and favor towards us. The question at hand is whether or not God's favor and goodness toward humanity in creation, prior to the fall, can also be understood in terms of "grace."

Such a use of the term "grace" would be a matter of analogically extending our understanding of grace from the perspective of fallen sinners to our pre-lapsarian condition under the covenant of works. But, with regard to analogical concepts, the epistemological order by which we come to know God as gracious does not necessarily follow the ontological order of grace itself, if creational grace is prior. It would be difficult, therefore, to argue that the notion of grace apart from the fall is, in principle, an incoherent notion so long at the term is understood analogically.

Second, Reformed divines have typically seen the covenant of works as gracious with regard to: [a] its establishment with humanity (whether that is held to have occurred in the act of creation or subsequently), [b] its promised reward (whether that is seen in terms of elevation to eschatological life or confirmation in the blessed condition already enjoyed), and [c] the gifts, abilities, and dispositions granted to Adam whereby he might have kept the covenant. These elements of grace were not always distinguished precisely as I have here (though they are so distinguished by Patrick Gillespie in his 1661 The Ark of the Testament Opened), but the witness to them in traditional Reformed covenant theology is clear and pervasive.

One of the earliest Reformed documents to speak of the "grace" in which Adam stood prior to the fall is the French Reformed La confession de foi (or Gallic Confession) in which we read, "We believe that man was created pure and perfect in the image of God and that by his own guilt he fell from the grace which he received..." (Article 9). This confession was first penned by Calvin, revised and expanded by his student, Antoine de la Roche Chandieu, and adopted in 1559 in Paris by the first National Synod of the Reformed Church of France.

Posthumously published in 1645 during the time of the Westmister Assembly, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace by English Presbyterian John Ball (1585-1640) states with regard to God's covenant with Adam:

The Covenant is of God, and that of his free grace and love: for although in some Covenant the good covenanted be promised in justice, and given in justice for our works: yet it was of grace that God was pleased to bind himself to his creature, and above the desert of the creature: and though the reward be of justice, it is also of favour. For after perfect obedience, performed according to the will of God, it had been no injustice in God, as he made the creature of nothing, so to have brought him unto nothing: it was then of grace that he was pleased to make that promise, and of the same grace his happiness should have been continued.

According to the Scots theologian and preacher, Hugh Binning (1627-1653), in the covenant of works

there were some outbreakings of the glorious grace and free condescendency of God; for it was no less free grace and undeserved favour to promise life to his obedience, than now to promise life to our faith. So that if the Lord had continued that covenant with us, we ought to have called it grace, and would have been saved by grace as well as now (The Common Principles of the Christian Religion, Lecture VI [1667])

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) states that "with respect to God, [the covenant of works] was gratuitous, as depending upon a pact or gratuitous promise (by which God was not bound to man, but to himself and to his own goodness, fidelity, and truth" (Institutes 8.3.15).

Among Scots Presbyterians James Fisher (1697-1775) is well known for his text, The Assembly's Shorter Catechism Explained, more popularly known as Fisher's Catechism. In it he writes, regarding the covenant of works as discussed in Question 12 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 33. What then was the grace and condescension of God that shined in the covenant of works?

A. In that he entered into a covenant, at all, with his own creature; and promised eternal life as a reward of his work, though he had nothing to work with, but what he received from God, 1 Cor. 4:7.

Like other Reformed divines before him, Fisher regard the covenant of works as gracious in establishmen and the promised reward in relation to the gifts Adam had received.

Similarly, in his 1869 Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 7), A.A. Hodge states, that while God's covenant with Adam "was a covenant of works and of law with respect to its demands and conditions," it was "also in its essence a covenant of grace, in that it graciously promised life in the society of God as the freely-granted reward of an obedience already unconditionally due." He grounds his understanding on the claim that "Creation itself, being a signal act of grace, cannot endow the beneficiary with a claim for more grace." Hodge makes similar remarks in his 1860 Outlines of Theology.

Explicit descriptions of the covenant of works in terms of divine grace are to be found in Reformed divines ranging from the 16th to the 20th centuries and as diverse as Zacharias Ursinus, William Bucanus, Francis Junius, Anthony Burgess, Patrick Gillespie, Thomas Blake, John Owen, Samuel Rutherford, William Bridge, Thomas Boston, John Brown of Haddington, Thomas Ridgeley, J. H. Thornwell, Robert L. Dabney, and Herman Bavinck. Many other Reformed theologians, while not employing the explicit language of "grace" nonetheless speak of the covenant of works as "voluntary condescension," God's "free gift," unmerited divine "favor," and so on.

Third, while some might plead that the term "grace" needs to be reserved for God's favor shown to sinners in the face of demerit, such pleading seems unwarranted in light of the analogical function of language, given the historic understanding of Reformed theology, and in virtue of Scripture's own willingness to speak of grace analogically and apart from sin (e.g., Luke 1:30; 2:52; Acts 2:47; Philippians 2:9).

The analogical concept of "grace" involved here, though not unrelated to divine "goodness" or "beneficence," nonetheless goes beyond those attributes and is, instead, rooted in the absolute distinction between Creator and creature in which God stands in no need of the creature to whom he owes nothing. From the perspective of the creature, the creature can make no demands upon God and, even if God makes promises to the creature, such promises bind God to himself as faithful, rather than to the creature over against the Creator. To purge the covenant of works of all "outbreakings of grace" would seem to set up a sphere of creaturely autonomy that is in tension with the basic tenets of Reformed theology.

In a later post, I'll make some similar remarks with regard to the role of merit in the covenant of works, as understood in historic Reformed theology, as well as discuss the various respects wherein the covenants of works and of grace agree and wherein they differ.

pay at the pump

I've been putting off filling the gas tank for a couple of days on our Saturn. It gets very good mileage for a station wagon, but I was hoping gas prices would drop back down a bit after the weekend.

With the help of PhillyGasPrices, I was able to fill the tank for $1.87 per gallon, which isn't so bad (especially by European standards). But spending nearly $20 to fill the tank is going to take some getting used to.

At least I don't drive the big-ass Cadillac Escalade that was at the pump behind me. I wonder if people will continue to be willing to pay a premium to maintain their status symbols?

I also wonder what the effect gas price websites will have on the local gasoline market? It has a tendency to make soften geographical considerations since, I'm betting, a lot of people like me are willing to drive a couple miles out of the way to save $.08 - .10 per gallon.

10 May 2004

new blogger interface

Yuck. For those of you who don't use blogger, they've completely redesigned the look of the interface by which you post, edit, and so on...and I don't care for it one bit.

Maybe it'll grow on me, but so far, it sux.

07 May 2004


It appears that the official magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is now (also?) a snazzy e-zine: byFaith online. Ch-ch-check it out.

answers to rob's questions

Rob asked some really great and difficult questions in the comments a few posts below. The following are the answers I would give to those questions, at least at the moment. There's considerable overlap between answers.


1. Who should I be reading that is currently influencing (or will influence) Christian philosophers, theologians, and exegetes (liberal or otherwise)?

In general answer to both this question and the one that follows, I think a major set of influences for both Christian and secular thinkers are those that have shaped much of contemporary thought: structuralism, phenomenology, existentialism, and post-modernism.

Figures here include Hegel, Nietzsche, Levi-Strauss, Levinas, Freud, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Foucault, to name a few. While most of these figures remain in continental traditions of philosophical thought, the fact is that continental philosophers tend to wield more influence outside of their discipline than do analytic ones, with some exceptions (W.V.O. Quine, J.L. Austin, and Wittgenstein come to mind).

With regard to Christian thought in particular, I would add figures such as Michael Polanyi, Bernard Lonergan, Thomas Oden, Karl Rahner, Jean-Luc Marion, Henri de Lubac, Robert Jenson, Carl Braaten, Stanley Grenz, George Lindbeck, Colin Gunton, and on and on.

While I don't really think most contemporary analytic philosophers of religion have much influence outside of their own discipline (and often don't make much of an effort to engage wider conversations), Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eleanor Stump, Norman Kretzmann, William Alston, Peter van Inwagen, Robert and Marilyn McCord Adams, Daniel Howard-Snyder, William Craig, and David Burrell come to mind, among others.

But we also live in an age of renewed interest in historical study. Many Christian thinkers of all stripes are returning to historical sources of theology and exploring the historical environments that shaped that theology. Thus we have all kinds of explorations of Second Temple Judaisms, socio-rhetorical analyses of the biblical text, studies of various church Fathers, renewed interest in retreiving medieval philosophy, reassessments of Reformational figures, how "the modern" has shaped recent theological development, and so on.

Important historical studies have been produced by scholars as diverse as Rowan Williams, Ben Witherington, Richard Horsley, Alister McGrath, Catherine Pickstock, and Jaroslav Pelikan. Again, one could list many important historians.

Another major movement is one that (re)evaluates our identity as "church" in a post-Christian west where ideas of "Christendom" are no longer viable. One thinks here of figures such as Leslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, the Radical Orthodoxy folks, the Emerging Church movement, and so on.

2. Who should I be reading that is currently influencing (or will influence) secular philosophers and intellectuals?

In addition to the list of figures above, various others could be included as influential on the wider intellectual stage. But contemporary philosophy is headed in a number of different directions with many different thinkers, making it hard to summarize and difficult to know when to stop listing folks. Many of the following thinkers are still living, though some are not, but still shaping contemporary discussions significantly.

Among post-modern thinkers: J-F Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigary, Richard Rorty, etc.

Among analytic philosophers: Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, Michael Dummett, Derek Parfit, etc.

Among more science-oriented philosophers: Daniel Dennett, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Nancy Cartwright, Bas van Frassen, etc.

Among moral philosophers: Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Rawls, Bernard Williams, Roger Scruton, Robert Solomon, Michael Stocker, etc.

Among critical theorists: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Jurgen Habermas, etc.

I'm sure there are other important categories (political philosophy, logic, etc.), but many of those lie beyond my expertise.

3. What philosophers have you found the most helpful in formulating your own worldview? What philosophers have been most helpful for you in supporting and nuancing your theological formulations?

I grew up and remain within traditional Reformed and Presbyterian circles. Thus holy Scripture as understood and applied within that tradition is probably the largest single influence on the shape of my worldview. I know that's not quite what you asked, but it is important nonetheless.

Additionally, in that theological context, Cornelius van Til was influential over me from a young age and probably rather formative of my own predilections, along with Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Francis Schaeffer. I wouldn't necessarily endorse everything any of these folks have to say (e.g., I think they all get Thomas Aquinas pretty dreadfully wrong), but they were extremely helpful along the way.

My thinking was also very much sharpened by Reformed scholastic theologians such as Louis Berkhof, Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, Herman Witsius, William Perkins, and Francis Turretin, in addition to Calvin's writings and the general hermeneutical discipline required for the exegesis of Scripture. I still find that heritage invaluable, even when I must reframe it in various ways or challenge some of its unspoken assumptions, implicit ontologies, and so on.

In later high school through graduate school, my thinking was honed and disciplined through reading many of the contemporary analytic philosophers of religion who I listed above. While I seldom entirely agree with them anymore and while I tend to think that they work uncritically within a narrow set of assumptions inherited from (largely British) Enlightenment thought, I found their writings challenging and they helped contribute to what I hope is my own intellectual rigor. But I also believe now that much of the methodological apparatus of analytic philosophy is far from a neutral toolbox, but that it substantively shapes the content and direction of the philosophy it is used to construct.

In terms of where I presently find myself with regard to my own "worldview" (though I'm not sure how felicitous that term is), I've probably been most influenced by my study of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, in the context of wider patterns of Christian neoplatonism. Among other important influences on my thinking (in order of descending importance), I would include the Book of Common Prayer, the Eastern Fathers, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, C.S. Lewis, John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver O'Donovan, Merold Westphal, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Foucault, and likely many others.

Invaluable, of course, is simply ongoing conversation with other thoughtful Christians at church, in Bible studies, at conferences, in email discussions, on this blog, and so on. The struggle to speak and write and express oneself in order to be heard and heard accurately is a rewarding struggle and I'm deeply in debt to all of my conversation partners over the years.


Other folks might have additional or better suggestions. You're welcome to add them in the comments.

05 May 2004

the doers of the law shall be justified

Romans 2:13 sometimes comes up with regard to the relationships among faith, the works that flow from faith, justification, and the final judgment. The Scriptures, of course, repeatedly speak of a final judgment that is "according to works" or "according to the deeds done in the body" (Eccl 12:14; Mt 12:36-37; Rom 2:5-6, 16; 14:10-12; 2 Cor 5:10; etc.; cf WCF 23.1). This judgment is one that results in either eternal life or condemnation. As Westminster Larger Catechism 90 states, in the final judgment believers will be "openly acknowledged and acquitted" by God.

One question is whether this open acquittal is to be thought of in terms of justification. As Mark Seifrid, Richard Gaffin, and others have noted, in Scripture resurrection unto eternal life is the very form that justification ultimately takes: first with regard to Christ's vindication by the Father in his resurrection and then by imputation to those who are united to Christ through faith--those who are said to be "raised with him" and thus share in the verdict of right-standing before the divine court that Christ himself enjoys. The final resurrection of believers unto eternal life is the ultimate outworking of that justification and, thereby, functions as their open acquittal and vindication.

A further question, then, is how this aspect of justification is related to a judgment which is "according to works" and then, in turn, how that relates to the affirmation in Romans 2:13 that "the doers of the law shall be justified" in the final judgment. The 68th OPC General Assembly has appended this verse to WLC 90 as a prooftext for the open acquittal of believers, bringing these different aspects of biblical eschatology together.

But, if the final judgment is part and parcel of the justification of believers--as the ultimate outworking and public manifestation of what is already reckoned true of us now in Christ--and this judgment is according to works, then how does that intersect with our Reformed affirmation that justification is only by faith, and not by works of the law? And, in that context, what is the meaning of Romans 2:13?

One possibility is that Romans 2:13 is hypothetical, stating what would have be true of us if we, in ourselves, wished to obtain final justification: we would have to be doers of the law. The point on such an interpretation is that we all fall miserably short of that goal and thus stand condemned, were it not for the faithful obedience of Christ in whom the law is fulfilled for our salvation.

All of that, naturally, is true, but some have questioned whether that is Paul's actual intent in Romans 2. The immediate context, it is suggested, is not so much the equal condemnation of Jews and Gentiles as lawbreakers, but the more puzzling suggestion that some Gentiles are, in fact, doers of the law even though they do not have the law (Ro 2:14-15). These are the law-fulfilling "uncircumcision" whom, Paul later suggests, will judge lawbreaking Jews (Ro 2:27). As such, these Gentile "doers of the law shall be justified," having the law on their hearts (a new covenant promise).

One way to take this, I suppose, would be to say that there are those Gentiles who, though not keeping the letter of the law, maintain its spirit, and somehow their spiritualized lawkeeping avails before God for their justification. But, taken in a straightforward sense--that these doers of the law have somehow worked hard enough to deserve salvation in God's sight--such an interpretation is simply impausible in light of Paul's wider teaching in Romans: that it is faith in Christ that justifies and, moreover, that justification is only by grace, whereas, for the one who does works, the reward is not reckoned by grace (Ro 4:4).

But there's at least one other possibility regarding Romans 2:13 that doesn't take it as merely hypothetical and yet attempts to not let go of the sole sufficiency of faith for justification (much of what follows is from a comment I made a while ago on another blog).

When Paul says that it is the "doers of the law" who will be justified on the last day, he may be somewhat cryptically and provocatively anticipating what he says later in Romans: that it is those who look to Christ in faith who are reckoned as righteous, as the true keepers of the law, having their hearts circumcised, and so on. Thus Paul can talk later on of "the law of faith" (3:27; and the "law of the Spirit of Christ", 8:2) and claim that faith doesn't void the law, but establishes it (3:31).

Here's how that picture could be filled out further:

This approach would operate in the context of Paul's whole argument that the law comes to fulfillment in Christian faith in Christ as the "telos" of the law (Ro 10:4). Christ is the law's telos both, positively, by fulfilling the law as its goal (its prophetic and typological anticipation, Ro 3:21, as well as Christ's own perfectly obedient faithfulness, Ro 3:21-26; 8:3-4) and, negatively, by bringing the law's condemnation to an end through his atoning and propiatory work (which was part of the law's "planned obsolescence" in exacerbating and then dealing with sin, Ro 4:15; 5:13-21).

Thus from the standpoint of faith in what God has accomplished in and through Christ for us, it is clear that the law cannot provide salvation whether as a badge of identity, meritorious works, or what have you.

And yet, in that same faith, everything for which the law had been given by God comes to completion. And so Paul can paradoxically and ironically speak of faith in Christ, apart from the law, as the "doing of the law."

Now, of course, for Paul this has the additional dimension that through faith and the forgiveness of sins, a right relationship between God and humanity is established so that, in the Spirit, the kind of life for which people were originally created begins to come alive (Ro 7:6; 8:4ff; 13:8-14). This plays itself out in the fruit of faith, which is the love that fulfills the law, not in the judaizing sense of "law-keeping" (in whatever manner one understands that), but in the free obedience of the Christian, which the law had anticipated, though was unable to provide since it was a ministration of death.

In this additional sense then, faith again counts as doing the law since, through faith, as its outworking, the law is freely fulfilled in love, apart from "law-keeping" (which includes Jewish boundary markers, particularly insofar as they become badges of ethnic pride, and thus encompassing all analogous manifestations of law-keeping, including meritorious works-righteousness; the fruit of faith is nothing like that since faith doesn't look to itself and its own outworking, but to Christ).

Thus, going back to Romans 2, when Paul says that is it "the doers of the law" who will be justified on the last day, it is possible that what he has in mind is, first and foremost, those (Gentile believers) who count as "doers of the law" by putting their faith in Christ. Inasmuch as that sort of faith is extraspective and looks away from itself and rests upon and receives Christ as the one in whom God's promises are fulfilled and to his faithfulness (and thus as the telos of the law), "doing the law" cannot be in any way interpreted in terms of obedience that avails before God for (even our final) justification.

And yet, on the other hand, such a faith produces fruit (as Rom 6 and 13, among other places, make clear). Justification, after all, involves a deliverance from the power of sin unto newness of life (Rom 6:7, where the term "justified" bleeds off in this direction), as the embodied and conjoined effect of God's judicial verdict over us in Christ (which is made based upon what Christ has already done apart from us, for us, imputed to us for the forgiveness of sins).

Thus it is also the "doers of the law" in this sense who are justified, not because they've somehow attained to a certain level of performance, but because the kind of life the law anticipated (but was unable to give) has begun to appear in God's people and this has happened as a fruit and effect of faith, by the power of the Spirit.

That is to say, the "doers of the law" are justified on the last day. This is the case insofar as: [a] truly "doing the law" is ultimately, for Paul, a matter of putting all your faith in Christ alone (and thereby receiving justification in him and his faithfulness) and [b] those who put their faith in Christ end up, moreover, fulfilling the law in love as a fruit of faith (and, thus, with no room for boasting).

In neither case are we talking about the grounds for final justification (which always remains Christ alone and his righteousness), but the means or instrument of final justification. And that means is only faith, yet the faith that is the only means, is not a lone faith, but a faith that also works in love. In both senses, then, it can be said that it is those who count as "doers of the law" who, on the last day, "will be justified."

That at least is one exegetical proposal for dealing with Romans 2:13.