Review: Delivered From the Elements of the World

delivered from the elements of the world

Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: An exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history, because it is the “delivering verdict” of God against human systems to control sinful human flesh, hence an act with socio-political significance for all peoples.

Anselm posed the question, “Cur Deus Homo?” or “why the God Man?” Peter J. Leithart thinks the more significant question that must be asked is, “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”

Leithart’s big question leads to a sweeping exploration of pagan and secular culture, Levitical foundations, and Pauline teaching. This is not a book for the faint of heart or one narrowly focused on atonement theories, but rather one that attempts to explain how our understanding of the atonement makes sense of everything and addresses not only the individual but our social and political structures.

Leithart begins with exploring what he calls the “physics of the old creation.” We are creatures of flesh, originally good but bent in the fall. Every society subsequently creates “elemental” or stoicheic systems (cf. Galatians 4:1-10) recognizing the pollution of human flesh and creating systems of “do not taste, do not touch” rules that lead to striving for purity. Leithart does an imaginative tour by a Jew of various ancient civilizations describing how these work, whether focused around the fear of death, around phallic displays and fertility, or around violence, honor, and vengeance. These resulted in classes, political structures, and injustices.

God chose Israel for something different. Beginning with Abraham, the cutting of circumcision was an anti-flesh campaign that expanded with Torah and served as a teacher or pedagogue of how to approach God. Yet Torah was co-opted in using purity rules to reinforce ideas of racial superiority over Gentiles and divisions between elite and “sinner” Jews. It became yet another stoicheic system.

Leithart understands that it is the full life of Jesus enacting all that Torah intended, the unjust death in the flesh in which judgment is passed upon human flesh in Christ (Leithart here argues for a carefully defined version of penal substitution), and the bodily resurrection of Jesus by the Father in the Spirit, that together constitute atonement and justification. Leithart elaborates justification as God’s “delivering verdict” or “deliverdict” liberating not only from sin and the flesh, but the elemental, stoicheic principles of the world, whether those of other religious systems, Torah, or what Leithart sees as the post-stoicheic systems of secularism which are a kind of relapse from the Christian era’s understanding of a Spirit indwelt life. Those united with Christ by faith enter a new epoch, a new humanity breaking down the sociopolitical divisions of the old order, and live according to a new animating principle.

I’ve offered here only a bare bones summary of a breathtakingly rich argument. I believe he makes several important contributions to our understanding of the work of Christ. One is his discussion of stoicheic elements as a social theory elaborating the ways various societies attempt to deal with the flesh, and the sociopolitical consequences of these systems. While carefully arguing for penal substitution, a doctrine that has fallen out of favor, he contends for a broader understanding of atonement and justification that encompasses the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and centers justification in the objective “delivering verdict” of these events rather than our subjective experience. Along with N.T. Wright, he argues that we are justified by the faith of Jesus, in whom we trust, but he also draws out further what this new status means in terms of a new Spirit-empowered life in the flesh and a new social order contrary to stoicheic systems that has radical implications for Christian mission that crosses social barriers and breaks them down. His analysis of modernity in “Galatian Church, Galatian Age” serves as a rich complement to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Leithart’s book covers familiar territory but forces you out of familiar patterns of thinking. I’m still weighing how well “stoicheic systems” can serve as a kind of “social theory of everything.” I’m challenged by how often we separate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and how Leithart brings these together as a seamless whole. The idea of a “delivering verdict,” that performs what it declares and powerfully transfers us into a Spirit empowered community speaks of the power of the gospel to effect what it promises. This book stays on my shelves, worthy of further reflection and re-reading.

Review: Getting the Gospel Right

getting the gospel right

Getting the Gospel RightR. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017 (repackaged edition, originally published 1999).

Summary: A critical discussion of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement “The Gift of Salvation” (1997) centering on what it sees as an inadequate understanding of justification by faith alone, accompanied by a discussion of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” a statement by evangelicals in response.

“…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)

Many Christians, surveying the landscape of a church riven through history by schism and division, believe this is a scandal that undermines witness to an unbelieving world. They find support for this idea in the prayer of Jesus for his followers, connecting their oneness to the world believing that the Father sent the Son. And this has moved some to come together with other believers from other parts of the church to see if they might articulate a common basis for a shared witness to the one Lord they believe in. In 1994, Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson convened a group of evangelical and Catholic leaders to see if this might be possible. Over the years this group has released a series of statements on various, often controverted, issues including justification, Scripture, the communion of the saints, Mary, the sanctity of life, religious freedom, and in 2015, a statement of marriage. The statements have explored both what might be affirmed in common, and what differences remain, while focusing on common witness to the risen Lord.

Needless to say, such efforts have come in for harsh criticism from evangelicals and Catholics alike. R.C. Sproul’s book, recently released in “repackaged” form represents an example of the criticism these statements have faced, focused here around the second of the statements, released in 1997, “The Gift of Salvation,” that addresses the matter of justification and the Reformers’ commitment to sola fide (justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), a major fault line between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic church.

On its face, Sproul contends that “The Gift of Salvation” appears to be a statement evangelicals could embrace and a breakthrough affirmation by Catholics. In particular the statement affirms:

  1. Justification is received through faith,
  2. Justification is not earned by good works or merits of our own,
  3. Justification is entirely God’s gift,
  4. In justification God declares us to be his friends on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, and
  5. Faith is not mere intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, issuing in a changed life.

(Summary quoted from “An Appeal to Evangelicals” but essentially the same as Sproul).

Sproul finds that while, in the words of the statement “this agrees with sola fide,” it fails to affirm key ideas of what the Reformers meant by sola fide. In particular, these statements fail to deal with a crucial difference in how Christians are declared righteous friends of God. For Reformed believers, this has involved the believe in imputation–that our sins were imputed to Christ on the Christ and his righteousness imputed to us, apart from any work or merit on our part. The Catholic understands that while we are saved by grace through faith, this is assisted by God’s infusing of a person with a saving righteousness, with which it is important to cooperate in order to be justified. These and other differences are, in fact acknowledged in the statement as matters for further study and dialogue. For Sproul, the lack of agreement at this point undermines common witness, and in fact he contends that these are in fact different gospels.

The first part of the book discusses “The Gift of Salvation” with a statement by statement critical review. Sproul concedes the evangelical bona fides of the evangelicals who signed the statement and the good will of the signers but believes that the infelicities (at very least) or worse, the “studied ambiguities” that conveyed an apparent unity through the use of imprecise language that could be understood differently by each party are dangerous because they reflect a dangerous departure from sola fide.

The second part of the book begins with a statement drafted in response to “The Gift of Salvation” titled “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This statement summarizes a Reformed understanding and also includes a series of affirmations and denials to clearly delineate both what evangelicals do and do not believe. Sproul then expands upon each of these affirmations and denials. Signers of the statement include evangelical signers of “The Gift of Salvation” and evangelicals who disagreed with the statement–an effort to mend the rift within evangelicalism caused by the statement. The book concludes with appendices that contain the complete text of both statements, and lists of their signers.

Sproul could have been a great lawyer! Lawyers scrutinize language for any ambiguities that could lead to disagreement between contracting parties. He realizes that fuzziness of ideas or “studied ambiguities” generally end badly through misunderstandings or doctrinal drift. Both Catholic and Evangelical commentators on this statement have noted this concern. Sproul’s concerns and careful work cannot be lightly dismissed in an age that is careless with words and increasingly inured to a culture of deceit.

What troubled me was an attitude that seemed satisfied with affirming orthodox evangelical belief and differentiating it from Catholic belief, without any further effort to propose how the divide might be healed. Sproul certainly acknowledges there are genuine Catholic believers, but in contrast to Colson and Neuhaus, does not seem to have any sense of urgency for common witness amid the pressing challenges of our day, nor for efforts to root that witness in a shared theological understanding. Likewise, the book does not address more recent discussions around justification within the evangelical community resulting from New Perspective scholarship.

What I find myself wrestling with, while appreciating Sproul’s theological precision, is what seems an unspoken assumption that the Reformed tradition reached a terminus with statements like the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Confession, and likewise Catholicism in the Council of Trent. While each of these reflected a developing understanding, albeit contrasting, of the testimony of our shared scriptures, is no advance in understanding possible in our day? Is there no possibility of development of doctrine (such as occurred as the church sought to articulate its understanding of the Trinity and Incarnation in earlier centuries)? Have we concluded that no further understanding is possible of the authoritative testimony of scripture that could lead to agreements that are not exercises in “studied ambiguity”? And is there no value in proximate shared understandings along the way, that honestly acknowledge differences while affirming ways, and bases by which we might stand together in a secularizing age?

R. C. Sproul, and the signers of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” may well have gotten that gospel “right.” I found nothing with which I took exception. Yet my reading left me with questions of how we might be one, not merely “invisibly” as Sproul discusses in the beginning of this book, but in visible ways that the world may see, and thus believe.


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.

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic Theology

Remembering the Reformation

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic TheologyDeclan Marmion, Salvador Ryan, Gesa E. Thiessen (eds.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers exploring Martin Luther in historical context and his roots in the medieval tradition and what might be learned by Catholics and Lutherans from him and how that may contribute to rapprochement.

This year marks the 500th year since Martin Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses. It is an anniversary that may be celebrated with mixed feelings–the birth of the Reformation on one hand, and yet a sharp schism in the Church that has lasted to this day–a schism Lutherans and Catholics may especially feel poignant on this anniversary. In the last fifty years there has been an ecumenical movement, now quieter perhaps than in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Yet 1999 marked a key development as Catholic and Lutheran theologians signed the  Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, articulating a common understanding of justification and that sixteenth century condemnations of each other no longer apply (with qualifications, and not without controversy on both sides). In 2015, Lutherans and Catholics took a further step in the release of “Declaration on the Way,” consisting of 32 statements of agreement on the church, ministry, and the Eucharist.

This collection of papers presented by Catholic and Protestant scholars is in a similar vein, exploring what may be learned from Luther, particularly for Catholic theology, but truly what Catholic and Lutheran may learn from each other. It might be noted that the engagement is with Luther rather than his successors, who, who like those of Calvin, often took his thought further than he would.

The papers are group into four sections. The first deals with historical foundations. Heinz Schilling sets Luther’s reformation in the broader context of church reform movements. Peter Marshall then looks at the treatment of Luther at the hands of Catholics over the last five centuries, noting that the invective often reflected particular national or local contexts that need to be understood.

The second section focuses on how Luther interacted with the medieval tradition. Philip Cary contributes what I thought a particularly fine essay exploring the influence of Augustine upon Luther in the question of law and gospel. Cary actually finds Luther more sacramental that Augustine, describing the difference between the two as a prayer for grace by Augustine, and the promise of grace realized in “the external word that gives what it signifies.” Theodore Dieter explores the relation of Luther’s thought to scholasticism. Then Charlotte Methuen concludes the section with how Scholasticism shaped Luther’s view of women and how his own married state and household experience modified those views.

The third section shifts to the interaction between Luther and Catholic theology. Peter de Mey considers some of the key documents of Vatican II, and the change in wording in the Decree on Ecumenism from the idea that Protestants “find God in the Scriptures” to “they seek God in the scriptures” — a more subjective notion that reinforces some divides. James Corkery, S.J. explores the role of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, often thought to slow ecumenical efforts, particularly in behind the scenes work that facilitated the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The section concludes with a paper on Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, and how both Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar interacted with the phrase. The essay, by Pieter de Witte, explores the differing grammars of faith of Lutherans and Catholics and the mutual learning that has taken place between parties.

This sets up the final section exploring more of what Catholics may learn from Luther. Gesa E. Thiessen explores Luther’s treatment of images in the church. He was hardly an iconoclast with his allowance for the freedom of the Christian in these matters. Risto Saarinen argues for the distinctive nature of Luther’s reading of scripture allowing for the subjective involvement of the believer, not unlike the Spiritual Exercises of Loyola. He describes him neither as a fundamentalist nor a humanist. Finally Christine Helmer explores the idea of the common priesthood, and how post-Luther, it morphed into the “priesthood of all believers” idea, due more to Spener than Luther, in her contention. She contends that the “common priesthood” of Luther was not set up as an alternative to the authority of the Catholic priesthood.

What this collection of papers does is help us understand both some of the contributing factors to schism and the landscape that needs to be negotiated in healing the rifts. Justification is huge, and here working through the different “grammars of faith” is critical. Likewise, the view of scripture is important, and thankfully Lutherans and Catholics are closer to each other on these matters. The papers point out that there are substantive theological concerns that must be addressed before shared communion, as well as an often tendentious history. Real unity is not at the expense of truth or the muting of differences and has always taken sustained effort. Let’s hope and pray that this continues!


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

Review: Paul’s New Perspective



Paul’s New Perspective, Garwood P. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016

Summary: Argues that both the traditional Protestant perspective and the New Perspective on Paul are each partly right, based on the idea that Paul’s ideas on salvation developed as he wrote over a period of time and addressed different circumstances.

If you follow the discussions in biblical theology at all closely (something of a personal idiosyncrisy), you may be aware that since the work of E. P. Sanders over thirty years ago (and followed by contributions and modifications by James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, among others), there has been what is called the “New Perspective on Paul (NPP),” It argues that the Traditional Protestant Perspective (TPP), traced back to Luther with its focus on justification not by works of the law but by grace through faith, is a mistaken reading of Paul. Beginning often with the book of Galatians, these proponents argue that “works of the law” are the defining boundary markers of God’s covenant with the Jews that kept Gentiles outside the covenant promises of God. These proponents contend that Paul’s emphasis is that by  faith (or the faithfulness of God through Christ), Gentiles are included in God’s covenant and part of God’s family apart from the boundary markers defined by the Jewish law. Those from the TPP fire back that this ignores the argument of Romans as well as passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 that focus on works more broadly, and for a forensic idea of justification where the righteousness of Christ is imputed by faith to those who believe.

Paul’s New Perspective could be a game-changer in this discussion. Garwood P. Anderson argues that the “contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are both right, just not at the same time.” What Anderson contends against advocates of these contrary schools is that a static understanding of Paul’s thought is not the best way to understand the Pauline corpus as a whole, but that Paul’s thought developed over time and that a developmental understanding (not that Paul changed his mind) best explains the aspects of the Pauline corpus that each perspective has difficulties explaining.

The book divides into three parts. Chapters 1-3 explore the landscape of the discussion between the two perspectives as well as more recent post-NPP contributors. As part of this, in chapter 2 he considers three key passages in which Paul is seemingly uncooperative with either perspective: Philippians 3:1-11, Romans 3:21-4:8, and Ephesians 2:1-22.

In chapters 4 and 5, Anderson then contends for a particular itinerary of Paul’s ministry and the writing of his letters that lends itself to his thesis. He would contend for both an early date, and southern setting for the letter to the Galatians, next the Thessalonian and Corinthian correspondence, followed by Romans. He believes Romans is not Paul’s last work but that Philippians as well as the contested letters to Philemon, Colossians, Ephesus, and the Pastorals followed and are genuinely Pauline. While a number of critics would dissent, there is critical support for this chronology and Pauline authorship and Anderson briefly outlines the basis for these judgments, which are critical to his contention that a significant enough period of time elapsed in the writing of the Pauline corpus for Paul’s understanding of the salvation wrought by Christ to develop toward the vision of cosmic reconciliation (carefully delineated by Anderson) apparent in Colossians and Ephesians.

Chapters 6 through 8 then turn to an exegesis of the relevant passages following this developmental chronology, followed by a concluding chapter summarizing his argument. In these he shows particularly how the New Perspective gets Galatians more or less right on “works of the law” but that Paul’s use of “works” in later letters is not equivalent but reflects a developing understanding of the grace of God apart from human effort. He also argues that, while important, justification is not the center of Paul’s understanding of salvation, that the language of reconciliation informs this, and that perhaps most central is the idea of union with Christ.

I’ve tried to summarize in several hundred words a detailed argument that runs to nearly 400 pages in Anderson’s book and thousands of pages of writing over the years. No doubt I’ve glossed over many matters in both his and others’ scholarship. What I appreciated in this work is an effort to listen to the whole canonical Pauline corpus rather than to force it onto the Procrustean beds of either the old or new perspectives, either by ignoring uncooperative passages or dismissing books as pseudo-Pauline. What he proposes is not a compromise between the two perspectives, a via media, but rather a different way of conceptualizing Paul’s emerging perspective on salvation that allows for the intellectual growth of core convictions in a coherent and non-contradictory fashion.

Anderson speaks of having “friends” in both “camps.” I hope that his effort to articulate a “third way” will not result in “unfriendly fire” from both sides but rather promote the kind of theological reconciliation that would seem to be the fruit of the reconciliatory work of Christ, of which he writes, that enriches for all our grasp of the great salvation that is ours in Christ. I found that true for myself in the reading of this work, and trust it will be so for others.


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.

Review: Covenant and Commandment

covenant and commandment

Covenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life.

The Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith has been a doctrine of joyful liberation for so many who have despaired of ever being good enough for God. At the same time, it has been a point of contention, particularly when it is framed in a way that denies any role for works in the subsequent Christian life. Bradley G. Green argues in this installment (#33) of the New Studies in Biblical Theology that the traditional Reformation doctrine in fact supports a vibrant expression of works, obedience, and faithfulness, not as the basis of justification, but as the inevitable outgrowth of union with Christ and the transforming and empowering work of God’s Spirit.

He begins this study with a survey of relevant New Testament texts under fourteen categories demonstrating the reality and necessity of works, obedience and faithfulness. Then chapter 2 turns to the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel to show how the anticipate a wide outpouring of the Spirit and obedience from the heart and how the New Testament sees these prophetic words fulfilled in the first century new covenant people. Chapter 3 goes on to explore the relationship of law and grace and the relation of Old and New Covenants and argues that while we need not argue a radical contrast between law and grace between the two covenants and that believers under both were saved by grace, there is a qualitative and quantitative difference in the experience of New Testament believers of that grace.

Chapter 4 works out the relationship between Christ’s atoning work and the works of the believer. Green argues that the cross is not only outside and for us but works transformation in us, the death of the bridegroom to purify and prepare his bride for her wedding day. Chapter 5 then explores our union with Christ and how it is both we who obey and Christ who is obeying through us. Chapter 6 engages contemporary discussions about the future aspects of justification, the place of works, and the judgment. Green argues, against N.T Wright, that our understanding of justification does not need updating by appealing to the Reformers who in fact argue for the place of works in our ultimate justification.

The concluding chapter seems to tie up a number of loose ends and reiterate some themes demonstrating the contribution of the Reformers in the whole discussion. The epilogue then summarizes the argument of the book.

The great contribution of this book is to highlight how clearly the scriptures affirm that justification by grace and the life of works, obedience and faithfulness are not contradictory. Green’s survey of Reformers from Calvin to Henri Blocher is a valuable contribution. Yet I thought the brief engagement with N. T. Wright’s work was inadequate to demonstrate the superiority of his argument to that of Wright (but he wasn’t writing an 800 page tome but a 170 page monograph!).

A valuable study that demonstrates the richness of the biblical material and the Reformers theological work on the transformation worked in the life of the believer through union with Christ and the work of the Spirit.