White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

W. H. Auden on the Crucifixion

Regular Modern Reformation contributor Rick Ritchie who blogs at Daylight sent over the following thought-provoking quote from the poet W. H. Auden:

Just as we are all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight – three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, ‘It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute people humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?’ Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

WHI-960 | The Experience Economy

There is a new trend in the business world. Offer your customers rich experiences, and they’ll keep coming back. But is this a good model for churches to adopt? On this edition of the White Horse Inn Michael Horton talks with business writer James Gilmore about his books, The Experience Economy, and Authenticity.

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Artist: Doug Powell, www.dougpowell.com

On the Nature of Faith

One of the most difficult things about Christianity is that it completely contradicts the natural order of things. Consider, for instance, what we think about winning, success, and life: they all go together in our minds! Sadly, too many “talks” masquerading as Christian sermons in even Reformation-minded churches confirm us in our innate desire for what Luther termed, “a theology of glory.” But true gospel-centered, “theology of the cross”-focused Christianity says that life comes after death, that glory comes through suffering, that losing our lives is the only means of finding them, and that God is most active when he seemed most remote.

This is bread and butter for White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation (often to the consternation of our critics who want us to talk about life-change and progress). Reading this week in Ed Clowney’s The Message of First Peter (published by IVP in 1988), I was reminded of the pastoral comfort that this message (not the one focused on success and betterment) gives:

Peter has reminded us that the testings do not destroy our faith, but purify it. Since the peculiar nature of faith is its looking, not to oneself, but to the Lord, it is most strongly grounded when it is most dependent. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So the Lord said to Paul, and Paul could therefore say: ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ In order to resist the devil we draw near to God. (216, emphasis mine)

Our prayer is that you would find yourself in churches and surrounded by communities of faith this Sunday that emphasize this great truth and encourage you by pointing you to the strength of the Lord, the God of all grace.

Horton at Gordon-Conwell This October

Mike Horton will give a plenary address, “Rediscovering the Church after Evangelicalism,” at the Renewing the Evangelical Mission conference honoring David Wells this October at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston.

The conference will be October 13-15 (Horton to speak the afternoon of the 15th). Early registration ends September 4th.  Other speakers include Os Guiness, Bruce McCormack, Mark Noll, J. I. Packer, Cornelius Plantinga, Tite Tienou, Kevin Vanhoozer, Miroslav Volf, and Lauren Winner.

Wright Wednesdays: part 2

[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N. T. Wright's Justification.]

Justification and God’s Single Plan: The Covenant and History

According to Wright, “Paul’s doctrine of justification is the place where four themes meet, which Piper, and others like him, have managed to ignore or sideline.”  “First, Paul’s doctrine of justification is about the work of Jesus the Messiah of Israel.”  The story of Israel too often functions “merely as a backdrop, a source of prooftexts and types, rather than as itself the story of God’s saving purposes” (11).

Second, Paul’s doctrine of justification is therefore about what we may call the covenant—the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized…For Piper, and many like him, the very idea of a covenant of this kind remains strangely foreign and alien…Despite the strong covenantal theology of John Calvin himself, and his positive reading of the story of Israel as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, many who claim Calvinist or Reformed heritage today resist applying it in the way that, as I argue in this book, Paul himself does, in line with the solid biblical foundation for the ‘continuing exile’ theme.  Third, Paul’s doctrine of justification is focused on the divine law-court…For John Piper and others who share his perspective, the lawcourt imagery is read differently, with attention shifting rather to the supposed moral achievement of Jesus to gaining, through his perfect obedience, a righteousness which can then be passed on to his faithful people…Fourth, Paul’s doctrine of justification is bound up with eschatology, that is, his vision of God’s future for the whole world and for his people.

This eschatological perspective not only brings into view the wider purposes of God for creation but also highlights “…two moments, the final justification when God puts the whole world right and raises his people from the dead, and the present justification in which that moment is anticipated” (12).

Wright argues that the “old perspective” obsesses over personal salvation to the exclusion of that wider horizon of history and eschatological redemption: “the theological equivalent” of a heliocentric universe.  “But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us.  We are circling around him” (23).  “If the Reformation had treated the Gospels as equally important as the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened,” he suggests (24).  Aside from the apparent concession (viz., that the Epistles are concerned with the question, “How can I be saved?”), it is difficult to square his interpretation of Reformation theology as human-centered rather than God-centered.  After all, there is a wide consensus among historians as well as theologians that the Reformation was obsessed with shifting the focus from us back to God.  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” according to the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Furthermore, all of the major Reformers wrote volumes on the Gospels (as well as the Old Testament) and it is clear from these commentaries and sermons that they read Scripture as an unfolding plot with Christ as the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel.  They wrote at great length on the kingdom of God, the reversals in the plot as it thickens around Jesus, his signs, and his teachings.  I will refrain from repeating myself throughout this review and leave the point at this: Wright has clearly not read widely in the sources that he criticizes and this creates a straw opponent against which his views may be easily contrasted.

As Wright scanned the biblical and theological dictionaries on justification, he said, “Again and again, even where the authors appeared to be paying close attention to the biblical texts, several of the key elements in Paul’s doctrine were simply missing: Abraham and the promises God made to him, incorporation into Christ, resurrection and new creation, the coming together of Jews and Gentiles, eschatology in the sense of God’s purpose-driven plan through history, and, not least, the Holy Spirit and the formation of Christian character” (32).  This may well be the case especially among those New Testament scholars who regard the covenant as a Reformed concept.  It is no wonder, then, that he singles out Reformed theologian J. I. Packer as an exception in his entry on justification for the New Bible Dictionary (32).

Surprising to anyone who has read the Reformers and especially the covenant theologians in the Reformed tradition who followed in their wake, Wright seems to paint the “old perspective” as if it were a dispensationalist scheme.  “It is central to Paul,” he says, “but almost entirely ignored in perspectives old, new and otherwise, that God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah” (35).  After all, the Westminster Larger Catechism (#191) encourages us to pray (with the Lord’s Prayer), “that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in…that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.”

Next week, we’ll look a how Wright pairs soteriology with ecclesiology.

3 Events / 3 Cities / 3 Opportunities

We have 3 events, 3 cities, and 3 opportunities for you to join the conversation to “know what you believe and why you believe it.” Please visit the links provided for more detailed information, or to register for the specific event.

2009 Ligonier Seattle Conference and Pacific Northwest Cruise
Mike Horton will be joining R. C.  Sproul, and Alistair Begg in Seattle on September 25 – 26 for the Is There Life After Death? conference.

In addition – there is also a cruise following the conference at which both Mike and R. C. will address the topic:  The Importance of the Church.  The cruise sets sail on September 28 from Seattle and returns to the port on October 2.

[Note – the conference and the cruise are separate events.]

2010 Ligonier West Coast Conference in Los Angeles
Mike Horton will be joining R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and Peter Jones on March 26 and 27 for the Are We Practicing Christless Christianity? conference. We will examine many of the popular misunderstandings of the gospel in our day and seek to equip evangelicals to stand firm with the good news delivered once for all to the saints.

2010 Ligonier National Conference in Orlando
Mike Horton will join Alistair Begg, Steven Lawson, Al Mohler, Burk Parsons, John Piper, R. C. Sproul, R. C. Sproul Jr., and Derek Thomas June 17-19 for Ligonier Ministries’ 2010 National Conference in Orlando, FL. We will address some of the toughest questions Christians face. Our goal is to equip you to answer questions that all Christians and non-Christians find perplexing.

We hope that you will be able to join us at one (or all) of these upcoming events.  If you are planning on attending please inform our Director of Development, Chuck Tedrick, so we can personally greet you.

WHI-959 | The Future of Anglicanism

On this edition of the White Horse Inn, Michael Horton talks with Dr. David Virtue about his efforts to promote a new Global Orthodox Anglicanism in the midst of widespread liberalism. Later in the broadcast, Dr. Horton talks with retired Episcopal Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison about the problem of Pelagianism and the crucial importance of recovering the doctrines of justification and imputation in our time.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Homosexuality
David Virtue
The Cruelty of Heresy, C. FitzSimons Allison
The Rise of Moralism, C. FitzSimons Allison

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Andrew Osenga
Song: O Help My Unbelief
Web: http://www.igracemusic.com/ig5/

The Tyranny of the Church

Commenting on 1 Peter 5:3, where the apostle Peter charges the elders to exercise their ministry by “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock,” Ed Clowney writes,

The elder has authority; he is called to exercise a shepherd’s oversight. Christ the Chief Shepherd (5:4) has called him to exercise a shepherd’s care. But the undershepherd is not a stand-in for the Lord. He presents the word of the Lord, not his own decree; he enforces the revealed will of the Lord, not his own wishes. For that reason, any undermining of the authority of Scripture turns church government into spiritual tyranny. If church governors add to or subtract from the word of God, they make themselves lords over the consciences of others. (The Message of First Peter, 202)

Clowney’s words are not only applicable to the Reformers’ grievances against the Roman Catholic Church (a point he makes in the footnote to that paragraph in his commentary) but also to some current expressions of church government.

Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a resolution to allow for the ordination of those “in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”  What is this but the exaltation of one’s own decree above the word of the Lord, the elevation of one’s own wishes before the revealed will of the Lord?

Sadly, the tyranny of the church over the consciences of others is not limited to those traditions that seem to be most cavalier in their treatment of Holy Scripture.  Even traditional and conservative denominations are apt to find ways to speak beyond what the Bible speaks and thereby become “lords over the consciences of others.”

  • The Southern Baptist Convention is reviewing motions made at this summer’s assembly to sever all ties with Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 church planting network he began. The reasons? According to an article in Christianity Today, its Driscoll’s “history of using risqué language, and the fact that he drinks alcohol and talks about sex.” A separate motion would ban “any speaker who cusses or drinks.”
  • Among conservative Presbyterians, the general assemblies of both the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have taken up the issue of women in military combat with the PCA receiving the study committee report as advice and the OPC adopting the resolution against women in combat.

From the Left, the church tyrannizes the sheep by neglecting the revealed word for their own misguided sense of social justice.  From the Right, the church tyrannizes the sheep by going beyond what Scripture says to uphold their own social conventions.  One side subtracts from the word and the other adds to it, but both are guilty of exercising authority beyond that with which they have been entrusted.

Another Two Kingdoms Perspective

We’re grateful to Kevin DeYoung for interacting a bit with our responses to his recent webpost comparing and contrasting the Two Kingdoms’ approach to church and politics with that of the neo-Kuyperians.

Just to show that this Two Kingdoms stuff isn’t merely the domain of Reformation types, we thought the following report today from the Wall Street Journal was worth reposting:

[President Obama recently held a conference call with some of the nation's top Jewish rabbis.] Josh Yuter, a rabbi and blogger who participated in the conference call, notes that the president urged the rabbis “to address the health care controversy in their upcoming High Holiday sermons”–an idea Yuter finds troubling:

To be sure, most of the Rabbis on the call probably would advocate for substantial health care reform anyway, and I do not know to what extent the President sought out religious leaders or the religious leaders proposed the audience with the President. In either case, I find the blurring of church and state to be disconcerting not only on political grounds (and legal/tax purposes), but also for competency. Rabbis have enough difficulty understanding the nuances and intricacies of their own religion to be promoting specific policies in areas for which they have no expertise.

It seems that no matter what party is in power, the temptation to speak beyond our areas of expertise is strong. We should be grateful for those even in other faiths who recognize this temptation and remind our ministers of their rightful calling.

Wright Wednesdays

[Over the next several weeks we'll be posting Mike Horton's unpublished review/critique of N. T. Wright's new book, Justification. Today, part 1, is an introduction.]

For nearly three decades now, N. T. Wright has been stirring things up in New Testament studies.  Despite the persona of the champion of the New Perspective on Paul, Wright is often as critical of (and criticized by) colleagues in this loosely affiliated circle as by advocates of the “old perspective.”  His wide-ranging scholarship has been put to remarkable use in his New Testament studies for Fortress Press (Christian Origins and the Question of God, three volumes published from 1992 to 2003).  I recall his lectures at Yale Divinity School’s homecoming: the basic stuff of his forthcoming resurrection book.  Going about the task in his characteristically business-like yet occasionally humorous manner, Wright’s case for the bodily resurrection of Christ aroused two standing ovations.  Did I mention it was Yale?

As a covenant theologian, I have been following Tom Wright’s explorations in a covenantal approach to justification (and much else) with great interest since my time in Oxford when I had the privilege of interacting with him as I was reading his first salvo, Climax of the Covenant (1993).  There were concerns raised among evangelicals, especially as Tom regularly lectured on the relationship between justification and covenant in Paul.  On one hand, I had growing concerns about the New Perspective in general and Wright’s version of it in particular.  On the other hand, I often cringed at the Oxford Intercollegiate Christian Union (OICU) events—especially the missions (a week of evangelistic talks)—when the gospel was sometimes reduced to “inviting-Jesus-into-your-heart-so-you-can-go-to-heaven-when-you-die.”  The popularity of the tract, “Two Ways to Live” (similar to “The Four Spiritual Laws”), buttressed this way of presenting the gospel.

So along came Tom Wright, saying that the gospel is the Jesus Christ is Lord, proved and in fact achieved by his resurrection from the dead, as the first-fruits of the age to come right in the middle of our history.  While the Greeks (and many other religions) treat salvation as the escape of the soul from its prison-house of flesh, the world, and history, biblical faith anticipates the resurrection of the body and life everlasting in a new heavens and earth.  Much of this has been put together for a wider audience in his book, Surprised by Hope (2007). Amazingly, the secular media treated this book as a radical departure: the sort of thing one expects from an English bishop.

Part of this reaction is no doubt due a shallow form of popular Christianity that is insufficiently grounded in its own biblical story.  Part of it can be explained also by the enthusiasm with which Bishop Wright presents his views, sometimes conveying the impression that he is introducing a completely new understanding of the Christian faith.

Justification is no different.  After writing several scholarly monographs on the subject (as well as a couple of brief popular treatments), the latest was provoked by the critique, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (2007), written by John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.  I won’t be interacting with the specific charges and counter-charges between these esteemed pastors, but will focus on Wright’s book.  In many respects, this is the best of Wright’s treatments of this subject.  Besides its accessibility to a wide audience, its polemic is sharp and to-the-point, clustering his arguments into a narrative of Paul’s gospel as the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 with sweeping exegetical vistas.

Since this book is a rejoinder, Wright’s polemics are at times rather sharp, comparing critics like Piper to flat-earthers (19), even Pharisees (20).  Though critical of the reformers for having cast themselves as “Paul” and the medieval church as “Pharisees,” Wright has no trouble playing Paul’s part against his “old perspective” agitators: “Someone in my position, in fact, is bound to have a certain fellow-feeling with Paul in Galatia.  He is, after all, under attack from his own right wing” (112).   But let’s focus on substance.  Over the coming weeks, I’ll summarize his argument under my own subheadings and at the end of each will offer an evaluation.

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