Review: The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God

the reformation and the irrepressible word of god

The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of Godedited by Scott M. Manetsch. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of eight papers on the vital role of scripture in Reformation thought and practice.

“Irrepressible.” What a great word to use in a title. Mirriam-Webster’s definition of the word is “impossible to repress, restrain, or control.” The Reformers often pointed to Hebrews 4:12 which says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV).

I suspect for many, “irrepressible” is far from the first word that might come to mind as they think of scripture. Some might consider it ancient, confusing, irrelevant, or even tedious. Yet many others (I would include myself here) have experienced the power of scripture to convict, to comfort, to open one’s eyes in wonder toward God, to assure in one’s hope in life and death, and to “equip for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). It is not so much a matter of understanding the Bible as discovering that I am understood by the Word of God, as God speaks through the words on the page, knowing me better than I know myself, facing me with those things of which I’ve been blind, deluded, and sometimes willfully oblivious.

Beginning with Martin Luther, it has been contended that the Reformation was driven by the study of and preaching of the scriptures as the Word of God for the people of God. This drove translation of the scriptures into the vernacular in countries where the Reformation took hold, particularly in Germany and England. In more contemporary scholarship, the power of the “scripture principle” has been eclipsed by other factors — economic, sociological, and political. However, recent scholarship has seen a resurgence of the Bible as a key factor in the Reformation, and this volume, consisting of eight papers plus an introduction by Scott Manetsch and an afterword by Timothy George, is a significant contribution to that scholarship. The papers were first presented at a conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2017 on the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.

The collection consists of four parts, each with two papers (complete table of contents at the publisher’s website):

  1. Biblical Interpretation in the Reformation
  2. Preaching and Pastoral Care in the Reformation
  3. Justification and the Reformation
  4. The Christian Life in the Reformation

Space does not permit discussing every paper, all of which were both accessible and rich in insight. David S. Dockery discussed Christological interpretation as central to the authority and interpretation of scripture. Scripture is not the final authority but Christ to whom all of scripture points and through which Christ speaks to us. Michael A. G. Haykin’s paper on Hugh Latimer highlighted his passion for the preaching of the Word of God. Latimer urged people to pray for both him and themselves that by God’s Spirit:

“…I may speak the word of God, and teach you to understand the same; unto you that you may be edified through it, and your lives reformed and amended; and that his honour and glory may increase daily amongst us.”

The following essay by Ronald K. Rittgers featured the devotional literature of the Reformation, which usually consisted of quoting one text of scripture after another, without commentary. It was believed that scripture read and meditated upon in this way was powerful to minister to hearts, a kind of “sacrament” as it were.

Michael S. Horton’s essay on justification makes a striking proposal that I could see as serving as the basis of a more extended research project. He observes that the idea of justification by faith was not discovered in the Reformation, but is evident in the church fathers. He focuses particularly on Chrysostom, who recognized Paul’s distinction of works of the law and faith, the difference between justification and sanctification and the idea of justification as the “great exchange” between Christ and sinner.

I also thought the last essay in the collection, by David Luy helpfully discussed both what is meant and not meant by the “priesthood of all believers,” a key Reformation tenet. He shows both that this was not meant to replace church offices or hierarchy, but rather that all Christians, having the Word of God, may share the grace of God in Christ with others.

Timothy George concludes by asking what we may learn from the Reformation, and particularly fleshes out how the Reformers ideas about scripture as the Word of God deepen and give substance to the four distinctives of evangelicalism noted by David Bebbington, without which evangelicalism is thin gruel, neither satisfying nor enduring.

It seems to me that George and the contributors to this volume have an important word to those who wish to move beyond the Reformation or are calling for a new one. In one sense, the church is to be semper reformanda, ever reforming. For some, what needs to be reformed is a “bibliolatry” that they perceive in the Reformation. No doubt, there are some that worship the Bible rather than the Lord to whom the Reformers pointed. But such bibliolatry is evident neither in the Reformers nor in this collection. What needs to be continually reformed is us–our hearts, our structures and practices, our tendencies to self-sufficiency and self-promotion, our indifference to God and other people. Only the alive and active, double-edged sword of God’s Word, illumined by God’s Spirit, pointing to God’s Son, can do this work. In this work, I was reminded afresh of the preciousness of this irrepressible Word for the people of God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Creation and New Creation

creation and new creation

Creation and New Creation, Sean M. McDonough. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017.

Summary: A work on the doctrine of creation with particular attention to the connection between the creation and the new creation in Christ, but also focusing on other aspects of creation including issues of time, space, Platonic ideas and their influence on the doctrine, in each case tracing relevant scripture, and the theological contributions of theologians from the fathers to the present day.

“Creation” over the past couple centuries has been treated more as a point of contention than as one of the significant doctrines of the church, explored for what it may reveal about God and God’s relation to his world, and humanity, our relationship to the rest of creation and why it, and we, exist. Yet, in recent years, theologians have been writing more and more about the connections between creation and the new creation in Christ.

Sean McDonough contends that this is, in fact, not a new development. He writes:

“The burden of the present volume is that this emphasis on creation and the new creation has been a feature of the doctrine since the beginning, whether it be in the eschatological reading of Genesis 1 that predominated at least until modern times, or the intertwining of the narratives of creation and redemption in thinkers from Irenaeus to Barth” (p. vii).

As promised, this volume, first a part of the Christian Doctrine in Historical Perspective series, and now published on its own, elaborates the connection between creation and the new creation in its first chapter, beginning with the New Testament connections back to creation from John 1 throughout the epistles and Revelation. McDonough then introduces us to the theologians from the fathers to the present who made this connection, and explores how the end will be like, and unlike, the beginning.

Building on this base, and having established the methodology of this volume, McDonough proceeds in subsequent chapters to explore often neglected matters such as who the God is who creates, why the creation, matters of time and space, Platonic ideas and how they relate to both process and structure of creation, the place of humanity in that creation, and finally beauty and the creation. McDonough reflects both upon biblical testimony and the wrestlings of theologians to articulate these aspects of the doctrine of creation.

We join these theologians in wrestling with some of the big questions of the ages. How do we understand the work of each person of the Trinity in creation in a way consonant with our Trinitarian theology? What does it mean that God created the world in freedom and did God create for redemption or did God redeem for his creation? How do we understand the when of creation with a God who is eternal and outside time. Similarly, where are we as creatures inhabiting space in relation to an infinite God who transcends that space? And where did the stuff of creation come from?

Platonism has had a big influence on the life of the church (for which I thought McDonough made a convincing case) and this is certainly the case as we discuss how ideas in the mind of God and the structure of creation correspond. Also, rather than creation being a once and for all event, we find revealed a process of continuous creation, “de-creation” and new creation in Christ. How does this process unfold in the material fabric of the universe? What is the role of human beings in all this, beginning with Adam (and what are we to think about a historic Adam)? What is our destiny as creatures in the image of God redeemed in Christ? Just how far are we warranted to take talk of “deification”? Finally, what does God the creator have to do with beauty? What does beauty have to do with the presence of ugliness in the world, and what can we learn from Christ’s redemptive work?

Part of the delight of this work is seeing contemporary theologians like C. S. Lewis, Karl Barth, and Colin Gunton in conversation with Athanasius and Irenaeus, Origin and Augustine, and down through the ages with Aquinas, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. We often wrestle with holding truths of Christ’s true humanity and full divinity in tension, or God’s sovereignty and free will. What this volume helped me see is how such things are rooted in creation, where the eternal God creates in time, where the God who is spirit speaks matter into existence, where God creates humans in God’s image, imparting a freedom that goes with that image while remaining sovereign creator. I realized afresh that as one human with a very puny brain, I am in the presence of things too wonderful for me, and yet to wrestle with such things, to listen to the conversation of others, is to think great thoughts of God, to stand in wonder afresh of God’s creative work, and to marvel that such a God would set his love and include in his purposes the likes of me! That is the value of reading good works of theology. That is what I found here.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Eschatology

eschatology

EschatologyD. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider (eds.). Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016.

Summary: A compendium of essays on the future hope of Christians reflecting a dispensational premillenialist perspective.

Craig A. Blaising is a biblical theologian whose roots are in the Baptist tradition. He has taught at three southern seminaries in the U.S. and is known for his work in what is called “progressive dispensationalism.” This volume of essays, a survey of scholarship around the “last things” was compiled in honor of his 65th birthday and certainly reflects this theological tradition at its best.

Discerning what theological persuasion the writers were coming from, I thought, “O.K. here we go, prophecy charts and predictions that our conflict with ISIS is the prelude to Armageddon.” There is none of that in this book. Instead, what I found was good scholarship seeking to be faithful to scripture and relatively wide-ranging in discussing the history of eschatology through church history and the implications of this all for the church, organized into a comprehensive survey that I would suggest reflects the best of dispensational premillenialism.

After introductory essays that include a biography and curriculum vita of Blaising, the book is organized into four sections:

  1. The Doctrine of the Future and Its Foundations
  2. The Doctrine of the Future in the Bible
  3. The Doctrine of the Future in the History of Christian Thought
  4. The Doctrine of the Future and Christian Ministry.

Hence, the collection moves from theological foundations to biblical theology, to historical theology, and to pastoral and practical theology.

The first section includes a fine essay by Stanley D. Toussaint on the concept of hope and the profound basis the prophetic passages offer for hope that sustains endurance and joy. Then Charles C. Ryrie and John D. and Stefana Dan Laing address the eclipse of attention to the prophetic scriptures having to do with our future hope and the impact this has in the life of the church.

The next section explores the doctrine of the future in each part of scripture, essentially doing the spade work to construct a biblical theology from the whole of scripture about our future hope. It was interesting to see the historical books in scripture discussed by Gregory Smith, exploring the implications of the Davidic covenant and its statements about David’s, and Israel’s, distant future hope. If you want to find arguments for a future hope for Israel as a national entity, you will find it among this and other articles in this section.

Section three turns to historical theology with articles beginning with the early fathers and concluding with contemporary European theology, capped off by David Dockery’s article on Millenialism in Contemporary Evangelical Theology, which gives one of the best explanations I have seen of a-, post-, and pre-millenial positions. It was interesting that while several essays concerned Reformed, Anabaptist, and Baptist theology, there was no treatment of eschatology in Wesleyan theology, and a mere subsection of the Contemporary European Theology devoted to Catholic theology.

The final section turns to pastoral and practical concerns. J. Denny Autry discusses the place of eschatological concerns in both preaching and pastoral care. For my money, the book should have ended with R. Albert Mohler’s essay of contemporary challenges. Stephen Blaising’s contribution on the doctrine of the future and the marketplace felt like an add-in to include Blaising’s son in the collection. Mohler concluded his essay with these words, that should have ended the book:

     “The rapid disappearance of cultural Christianity in our own time will mean that Christians may soon find themselves in a situation similar to that of the early church in Rome. Preaching the Lordship of Christ and biblical eschatology rooted in the arrival of God’s kingdom will be considered culturally and politically subversive. Proclaiming a biblical eschatology that heralds the message “Jesus Christ is Lord” will lead to direct confrontation with the culture.

“While the disappearance of cultural Christianity is a cultural disaster, it is also a theological gain. It is disastrous for society because it will destroy a worldview most conducive to human flourishing. A post-Christian culture will be a very inconvenient place to raise your children, minister the gospel, or speak in the public square. Yet, at the same time, the evaporation of cultural Christianity may prove a theological gain for the church. Our lives and beliefs will only make sense if indeed Jesus Christ is Lord and our hope is not bound up in the city of man, but in a city to come. From a gospel witness perspective, that is a very convenient place to be.”

This quibble with the order and selection of these last essays aside, I would commend this collection, along with Dr. Blaising’s own work if you seriously wish to take the measure of dispensational premillenialist eschatological thinking today. This probably could be used as a basic textbook, or at least supplemental text in theology courses in Christian colleges and seminaries sympathetic with the dispensational premillenialist position. Rather than being about prophecy charts and sensational predictions, it is about the substance of Christian hope concerning the future of every believer, the church, Israel, and the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.