Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

There’s a lot of debate at the moment around issues of hypergrace theology, sanctification and accusations of antinomianism. In America it has most recently surrounded the removal of Tullian Tchividjian’s blog from the Gospel Coalition website but there was already a lot of discussion prompted largely by Joseph Prince’s teaching. I’m aware that it is an issue in Uganda as well with one or two large city churches seeming to preach a message that ‘You’re saved so sin all you want’ or ‘You’ve died in Christ so you’re free from all responsibilities to this world’. Some groups seem to be linking this with the false teaching that ‘You are gods’, thus exponentially increasing the poison of the error.

Let’s be clear for a start, ‘Saved to sin’ is wrong and ‘Saved by works’ is wrong. ‘We no longer sin’ is wrong and ‘It doesn’t matter if we sin’ is wrong. Reading through 1 John (as I’m doing at the moment) makes that very clear. As the great African theologian Tertullian is credited with saying, just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so the doctrine of justification is constantly accompanied by two opposite errors. (It may be that Tertullian was originally referring to Christological controversies rather than justification and that the errors in question were of saying Jesus is the Father versus saying Jesus is only man, but his picture works well for legalism and license too.)

The problem is that in trying to refute one error you can very easily fall into the other one. As the Puritans used to say, you mustn’t correct an imbalance with an imbalance. How we argue these things matter. These are deep waters and I feel very ill-equipped to swim in them but these are also very important questions (e.g. is just preaching Christ enough? what do we mean by ‘just preaching Christ’? what is the place of the law? how do Christians change? is telling Christians to do things always moralism?) so we need to at least wade in a little way.

To start things off, here are a few posts from others that I’ve found very helpful:

  • Obedience: not a dirty word – “It’s true that there is a slavery on the near side of sonship and that is spiritual death.  But there’s a slavery on the far side of sonship and it is life and peace.”
  • Grace aint a carrot, sanctification aint a stick – commenting on the Tullian Tchividjian debate.
  • Gospel preaching: preaching to the converted – is the gospel ‘repent and believe’ or ‘what Christ has done’?
  • Gospel preaching: the third way – the options for progress in the Christian life are not simply 1) obedience / self-effort or 2) knowing our identity in Christ / remembrance of salvation / gratitude – there is a third option.
  • Gospel preaching: the third way (continued) – “If the gospel doesn’t transform a life, do you balance grace with effort?  Do you preach grace more boldly?  Or do you make sure your preaching of the gospel of grace goes beyond gratitude to the dynamic relational and spiritual union of being one with Christ?”
  • God sanctifies his people – very helpful message by Piper explaining from 1 Thess. 5:23-24 how sanctification is both something that is promised as the work of God and something commanded which we need to pursue.
  • Extravagant Grace – Dane Ortlund’s very helpful review in Themelios of Barbara Duguid’s important book building on John Newton’s understanding of sanctification.

This is all really challenging me to think things through more carefully…

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Luther resources

He wasn’t a perfect man or a perfect theologian but then that was his big point – Christianity is about twisted sinners looking to the perfect man and his perfect sacrifice and receiving him as food for beggars. If you haven’t read any Luther recently then you must. It’s totally gripping, explosive, pungent language that picks you up and gives you a shake and turns you to Christ alone. Here are some links:




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9781844744954-reeves-on-giants-shouldersREVIEW: Michael Reeves, On Giants’ Shoulders: Introducing great theologians from Luther to Barth, IVP: 2011.

He’s done it again. Following on from The Breeze of the Centuries, Mike Reeves goes on to look at Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Schleiermacher and Barth, and once again incredibly manages to condense their life and writings into 20 or 30 pages each. It’s worth clarifying that he doesn’t affirm everything they affirm – Schleiermacher in particular is the father of modern liberal theology – but he is presenting us with ‘giants’ of theology who we need to reckon with and engage with.

This is a brilliant introduction – an absolute must read – my copy is covered in underlinings and scribbles. A few things that particularly struck me:

  1. Luther’s great insight that justification (and the sacraments) are about a Word and a righteousness coming to us from outside – they are external, alien to us.
  2. The discussion of Calvin’s life and particularly his family, sorrows, terrible health, role in mission and in the execution of the heretic Servetus, and his emphasis on knowledge of God touching the feelings is very helpful in clearing away some of the caricatures of the man.
  3. The concern of all the theologians discussed (with the exception of Schleiermacher) to understand not just an abstract, philosophical ‘God’ but the LORD of Scripture, the distinctively Trinitarian God revealed only through Christ. “And those who in their worship or [prayer] attempt an approach to the divine nature as absolutely considered, without respect to… the distinct persons of the holy Trinity, do reject the mystery of the Gospel, and all benefit of it. So it is with many” (Owen, quoted on p. 77).
  4. All of these theologians (again with the exception of Schleiermacher) see Christ present throughout the OT, speaking, appearing, saving as well as in all sort of types and patterns. Luther goes so far as to call OT believers, “Christians” and Edwards says, “When we read in the [OT] what God did from time to time towards his church and people, and what he said to them, and how he revealed himself to them, we are to understand it especially of the second person of the Trinity. When we read after this of God’s appearing time after time in some visible form or outward symbol of his presence, we are ordinarily if not universally to understand it of the second person of the Trinity.” (quoted on p. 114)
  5. Feelings and affections are key to all of these theologians. But with Schleiermacher experience and feelings become everything. With Owen and Edwards revelation/Scripture gives rise to affections. With Schleiermacher the order is reversed and experience/feelings give rise to scripture/doctrine. History becomes irrelevant and faith becomes a personal, internal, subjective thing rather than (as Luther saw it) focussed on an external Word. The Cross is just inspirational and forgiveness is about not feeling guilty.
  6. While the first 1000 years of the church saw a gradual slide away from the Word as foundational and an increasing confidence in human reason and philosophy, with the Reformation (and with Barth) you see a return to the Word of God as the fountain of all our knowledge of God and ourselves and creation. In particular Barth’s brilliant move was to recover the 1 Cor. 1-2 doctrine of the unknowability of God through human reason and wisdom. “He wanted to reject all Pelagianism in our knowledge of God (i.e. actually contributing to it ourselves) to show that our knowledge of God is a divine gift… Thus Barth rejected all ‘natural theology'” (p. 154).

I’m worried that these theologians are not at all well known in our context here. Luther and Calvin everyone has heard of but few have read. In fact many of the sermons and statements of Luther, for example, if you were to preach them in a pulpit in Kenya would be thought of as a heretical new teaching. The others – John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth – have rarely even been heard of. Our ignorance of these guys (and I include myself in that ignorance) is dangerous – because we fail to learn both from their greatest insights and greatest mistakes.

Once again, Mike Reeves wants us more than anything to get back into the sources themselves – “That at least has been the aim of this utterly unoriginal book” – and fortunately a lot of this stuff is online:

And a final word from Owen:

Do any of us find decays of grace prevailing in us; deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? Do we find an unreadiness unto the exercise of grace in its proper season and the vigorous acting of it in duties of communion with God? And would we have our souls recovered from these dangerous diseases?

Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea no other way but this alone, namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory putting forth its transforming power unto revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case.

(Owen quoted on p. 85)

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reeves breeze 1REVIEW: Michael Reeves, The Breeze of the Centuries: Introducing great theologians from the Apostolic Fathers to Aquinas, IVP: 2010.

The title is taken from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’ (an absolutely classic essay you must read) where Lewis argues brilliantly that we are in great danger of getting stuck in the limited horizons of our age (what some might call paradigms or discourses) and:

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.

How Reeves has managed to read all the key primary and secondary sources related to these theologians from the second to the 13th centuries (including Aquinas, who, as he wonderful puts it, “seems to have spurted ink like a cuttlefish”) and then summarised it all into very readable introductions to each theologian of about 20 pages each, I have no idea. But he’s done it, and it’s a great service to us of smaller minds and lesser time.

There’s no point trying to summarise his summaries but a few things jumped out at me:

  • Some of the early church guys like Justin Martyr were brilliant. The way they handled the Bible, their focus on the gospel, the way they saw Christ all the way through the Scriptures, their understanding of the Trinity and the atonement, the way they answered the key apologetic questions was masterful. They had no Luther or Calvin or anyone to refer to – just the Bible – and yet they clearly articulated complex theology which was then virtually lost until the Reformation.
  • At the same time there were sections of the early church that drifted disturbingly quickly away from the gospel (as Paul warned the Galatians) into legalism and moralism – The Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas being sad examples of that.
  • I had always thought Anselm was a proto-Calvinist with a strong penal-substitution view of the atonement in contrast to the wishy-washy Abelard. But actually it turns out that his theological method was pretty terrible (‘faith seeking understanding’ really meant ‘reason seeking to prove theology without Scripture’), his view of the atonement was not penal substitution and his soteriology was more proto-Arminian, in contrast to Abelard who may actually have been quite good on atonement (the issues on Abelard are complex – see this academic paper on his commentary on Romans if you really want to go into it).
  • An important thread that runs through the different theologians Reeves looks at is their attitude to Scripture. From Ignatius to Athanasius Scripture is the Master. With Augustine you get Scripture plus Platonism. With Anselm you just get Plato. With Aquinas you get Aristotle. It’s the story of a steady slide away from the Scriptures and an increasing confidence in the ability of man to work out God by his own reason. It had to wait until the Reformation for the church to relearn 1 Corinthians 1-2 and the foolishness of wisdom.

What Reeves is really wanting to do is to calm our fears of approaching these theologians, to whet our appetites and actually get us reading the original texts (or at least English translations) for ourselves. So here they are:

And for articles and talks on historical theology from Reeves and others see the UCCF Theology Network’s section on Historical Theology.

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MTC Dec 13 a

Thanks to all those who were praying last week over the ministry training. Perhaps you were even following the Twitter-esque updates on Facebook. Praise God that we had a really good time together, noses in the Bible, chewing on some very meaty theology, wonderful singing (Salama Rohoni is new favourite for me), and a good atmosphere of fun and fellowship.

As promised to the apprentices, here are the notes and links:

And from the 2nd years programme:

And from the closing carol service:

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In this short but rich book, Mike Reeves raises the question ‘What is it that makes the Christian God distinct from any other god- say Allah?’ Our understanding of the Trinity is the key to unlocking this. This doctrine of Trinity has been neglected yet it is core to our Christian belief.

He says “What makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God. Which God we worship: that is the article of faith that stands before all others. I can believe in every other aspect of the gospel but if I don’t believe in the triune God, then simply put, I am not a Christian.”

I couldn’t agree more! In our own context, most of us would say we are Christians and we believe in God yet we actually don’t know the God we believe in. If we are to think Christian then we are to start by thinking Trinity! The temptation for us is to sculpt God in our own assumptions; we think He is a single-person God yet the God of the Bible is clearly a triune God- Father, Son and Spirit.

It’s only a clear understanding of the Trinity that will help us not to fall into doctrinal errors such as Arianism: thinking of the Son as being less of the Father and that there was a time when He never existed… or the error of Modalism: we think of God as a single person who takes on different modes or moods- sometimes as Father, other times as Son and still other times as Spirit. The H2O analogy we use is particularly not helpful; “the Father all icy until you warm Him up then He turns into the watery Son, who then vaporizes and becomes the steamy Spirit when you really crank up the heat!!”

What then would be the best way to describe God? Can’t we just say that He is Almighty? Or the Creator? Well, all these are the right attributes of God but in and of themselves are not sufficient. Mike points out that the very first feature is that our God is the Father. This is the God that Jesus, the Son reveals to us. As a Father, He has loved His Son before the creation of the world (John 17:24). This God is love (1 John 4:8). “Before anything else, for all eternity, this God was loving, giving life and delighting in the Son.”

Now, this is some profound truth; that the Father is never without the Son- the Son is the eternal Son, there was never a time when He didn’t exist. The Father loves the Son, the Son is the beloved of the Father and then the Son goes out to be the lover and the head of the Church. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” the Son says (John 15:9).


baptismThe Father’s love for the Son is clearly seen at Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit descends on Him like a dove and then we hear the Father’s voice “This is My Son whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). The Spirit stirs up the delight of the Father in the Son and the delight of the Son in the Father. In the very beginning, God creates by His Word (the Word that would later become flesh), and He does so by sending out His Word in the power of His Spirit or Breath.

John Calvin once wrote that if we try to think about God without thinking about the Father, Son and Spirit, then ‘only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.’

Functionally, this is how the Trinity operates:

  • In creation, we see the Father’s love overflowing. Richard Sibbes says, “It is not that God needed to create the world in order to satisfy Himself or become Himself… The Father, Son and Spirit ‘were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was’. But the Father so enjoyed fellowship with His Son that He wanted to have the goodness of it spread out and communicated or shared with others. The creation was a free choice borne out of nothing but love.”
  • In Salvation, we see the Son sharing what is His. “No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side has made Him known.” (John 1:18) The triune God gives us His very self, for the Son is the Word of God; God doesn’t just tell us about Himself, He gives us Himself.
  • The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life; He gives us new birth into new life. Not only that but He gives us Himself so that we might know and enjoy Him and so enjoy His fellowship with the Father and Son. The Spirit enlightens us to know the love of God by opening our eyes to see the glory of Christ. Thus, in the Christian life, we see the Spirit beautifying it. Though we are sinful creatures, the Spirit cultivates in us a deepening taste for Christ, the epitome of beauty, the Spirit polishes a new humanity who begin to shine with His likeness.

Our personal and relational God is such that the Son is distinct from the Father and yet is of the very being of the Father and is eternally one with Him in the Spirit.

The theologian Karl Barth wrote: “The tri-unity of God is the secret of His beauty. If we deny this, we at once have a God without radiance and without joy (and without humour!); a God without beauty. Losing the dignity and power of real divinity, He also loses His beauty. But if we keep to this… that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we cannot escape the fact either in general or in detail that apart from anything else God is also beautiful.”

The question now remains: which God will we have? Which God will we proclaim?

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I recently read an article critiquing one of the so-called ‘hypergrace’ preachers. It doesn’t really matter who it was. I don’t really want to get involved in defending or attacking the particular guy. The comment thread below the critique article was about a mile long as often happens when someone attacks a big name preacher – it all gets quite emotive. So I’ll call the preacher ‘X’ below. What I was interested in was the arguments of the article writer. He makes about 7 points and I thought it might be worth interacting with them in a few blog posts as they raise lots of important issues:

1.  X Makes Blanket Statements and Tries to Fit All Scripture Within His System

‘Blanket statements’ is a bit misleading – as the article writer explains it, P is not really coming up with his own blanket statements so much as privileging one part of Scripture (Paul’s letters) over against another (John’s letters). This is a fair criticism in the sense that we should be very careful to look at the whole testimony of Scripture and not teach one part so that it contradicts another part. But at the same time we’ve got to be honest that we all privilege some parts of Scripture above others. We have our favourite verses which act as something of a control over how we look at the whole Bible. And maybe that is a good thing so long as the verses that we think are key really are key.

  • So for example, when there are ‘whoever’/‘no one’/‘every’/‘no’/‘never’ statements like John 3:16; 10:29; 14:6; Romans 8:1, particularly when they come at key points in the argument of the book or letter in question and when the genre and context indicates this is not hyperbole or just a proverbial general truth or just for that point in the storyline or qualified in some way, then they are ‘blanket statements’. Everything else you read in the Bible has to be in harmony with them.
  • In particular there are a number of places where the Bible seems to be giving us pretty ‘blanket statements’ about the Bible itself. We’ve surely got to pay special attention to those bits. I’m thinking of Luke 24, John 5, 2 Tim. 3 and 1 Peter 1. They are going to affect the way we approach the whole Bible – looking for Christ crucified and how we can have life in him.
  • While all Scripture is God breathed it is quite obvious that it is uneven in importance and significance. So for example, Isaiah 53 is one of the highest summits in the mountain range of Scripture. (1) It has a key role in the book of Isaiah itself – just contrast it with chapter 1 (the deep problem of sin (v2-4), the metaphor of the bruised and battered man (v5-6), the question of how sins will be made white as snow (v18) ; (2) it has a key role in the OT, as the answer to Gen. 3:15 and the great hanging question of how God can be just (Gen. 18:25) and the justifier of the ungodly (Gen. 15:6) and in bringing together the rich themes of sacrifice, messiah, innocent suffering and peace; (3) in the NT, Isaiah 53 is quoted or alluded to than any other OT passage.
  • Of course if I just a rip a verse (e.g. 2 Sam. 22:26 NIV) out of context and forget about Christ and make that my lens for the Bible and the Christian life then it’s going to be a disaster. But if it really is a key verse then fair enough.

What about the idea of a ‘system’ though? “X Tries to Fit All Scripture Within His System”. X is not just privileging some Scripture he has got a System. This pits ‘good Scripture’ against ‘nasty System’. But again, we’ve got to be honest, we all come to the Bible with a theology or ‘framework’ or ‘system’ more or less clearly in our heads. If we come to the Bible as ‘God’s Word’ rather than a random collection of ancient writings, if we know that Jesus is God and that the Three are One etc. that is a theological system. And that’s not a bad thing in itself. In a very helpful article, ‘Theology & Bible Reading’ J.I. Packer argues that theology, among other things, a) shows us how to approach the Bible; b) sets out the substance and heart of the Bible; c) forearms us against heretical understandings of the Bible. The key thing is whether your theology has come from the Bible and is constantly being reshaped and reformed by the Bible.

theology as an activity, properly understood, is Bible reading as it ought to be, and Bible reading, properly understood, is theology as it out to be. (Packer, ‘Theology & Bible Reading’, p. 74)

If we pretend we have no system and just ‘read the Bible as it is’ we are deceiving ourselves. If I say, ‘I just open the Bible, read a verse, and the Spirit applies it to me’ – that is a system and one that can get you into a whole lot of trouble and leave you open to all manner of crazy interpretation. Furthermore, if I’m not aware I have a system I inevitably pour it into every text I read. In contrast, if you know you have a system that self-awareness means you can catch yourself pouring your framework into a text and say to yourself, hang on a minute maybe this text needs to challenge my framework.

Let’s be honest about where we’re coming from, let’s read through big chunks of the Bible, let’s listen to one another (the Spirit is given to the church not just me personally) and let’s think carefully how to read the Bible as Jesus would have us read it.

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