Category Archives: sound doctrine

On conditions in the covenant of grace

Are there conditions in the covenant of grace, "properly so called"?

The recent faith and works dust up has been reminiscent of last year’s Trinity debate for the amount of heat generated. But slowly a little light may be beginning to dawn.

Brad Mason agrees with Jones et al on the right/possession distinction, even though Mark Jones has written as though he doesn’t. Brad Mason accepts works are necessary for salvation. But he is still unhappy with Piper’s formulation. Why?

Now, I am not interested in debating Piper’s broader covenant theology. As he is a Baptist I am bound to disagree with him somewhere along the line. But I am yet to see any statements from Piper that cannot be understood (easily) in an orthodox fashion.

The key paragraph for me then in Mason’s recent useful post is the following:

It is one thing to say that works are necessary to salvation because faith always includes fruits, God having ordained the one to always accompany the other; it is quite another thing to say that no one will be saved without good works. The distinction may seem minute, but it is quite grand indeed. There is necessity that is not conditionality, and there is conditionality that is not causal.

The issue is that of conditionality. In what sense is it proper to speak of conditions with respect to the covenant of grace? Mason wants to say that works are necessary but not a condition, and that they are certainly not properly speaking a cause of salvation.

This brings the debate quite closely into conversation with the 17th century debate among the Reformed orthodox: In what sense is it proper to speak of conditions with respect to the covenant of grace? I think interrogating the answers of Witsius, Turretin and Owen may shed some light.

I

By way of summary, Owen says: it is possible to speak of conditions in the covenant of grace (though he would rather not), but it is not possible to speak of conditions of the covenant. What does this mean?

First, Witsius: "With respect to us, the covenant of grace has no conditions properly so called."

Witsius defines conditionality as having the "right" to a reward. But the new covenant is a primarily a testamentary covenant (like a will) – it therefore cannot be suspended upon a condition. There is "no condition of the whole covenant". However, the promises of the covenant are so arranged, that one must partake of the smaller things (ie evangelical obedience) before one partakes of the latter (glory).

Turretin agrees with Witsius: the blessings of the covenant are "suspended upon no condition". Any duties required by the covenant are in fact blessings. You can see the similarity with Witsius (whose work was published before Turretin’s I believe). However Turretin does think we should speak of conditions in the covenant. For Turretin, something causal, and even something non-causal, like a duty, can be properly spoken of as a condition. So faith is the instrumental, grace-empowered means of the cause of acceptance of the covenant, by embracing Christ and his benefits, and so the cause of justification. Behind his view lies a view of the covenant of grace that sees it more as a mutual pact than a testamentary will.

So two things are going on here:

  1. there is a different view of the covenant of grace. Is it a last supper/Hebrews style testamentary covenant, or is it a marriage/suzeriegnty-type treaty covenant? Both thinkers agree it is a mixture of both, but they place the emphasis differently.
  2. there is a different definition of "condition". The OED offers two definitions of covenant that might help clarify this:
  • a) "something demanded as a pre-requisite to the granting of something else"
  • b) "in a legal instrument, a provision on which its legal force or effect is made to depend"

Turretin is working with definition a) and Witsius is working with definition b). But here’s the critical point:

  • If Turretin was using definition b) he would agree with Witsius: there is no condition of the covenant of grace, because it does not depend on ("suspended upon") any conditions in us.
  • And if Witsius was forced to use definition a) then he would agree with Turretin that there is conditionality in the covenant of grace, because faith and works are pre-requisites ("one must partake of smaller things") to greater blessings.

This is not to deny that there are some differences between Turretin and Witisus. But it is obvious that much depends on one’s definition of condition. And so Witsius is careful in his denial: there are no conditions in the covenant of grace "properly so called". From memory, both Turretin and Witsius affirm that each others’ views are totally sound.

II

This brings us to Owen, who writes after the continental divines. He declares the whole debate to be "mere strife about words". He concludes that there are "no conditions properly so called of the whole grace of the covenant" but if anyone speaks of duties as "the condition of the covenant, it is not to be contended about, though properly it is not so". Owen’s reluctance to speak of conditions is based on a testamentary understanding of the New Covenant and, I think, a brilliant reading of Hebrews’ use of the new covenant promise in Jer 31-32. He argues that the whole covenant is being set out in these chapters. "If it were otherwise, it could not be proved from thence that this covenant was more excellent than the former." If there are genuine conditions tucked away behind Jeremiah 31-32 then you could not show that the New Covenant offers the spiritual security that the Old Covenant lacked. Hence it is best not to speak of conditions of or in the covenant.

III

It’s relatively easy, and possibly not very persuasive to whip out some Reformed orthodox distinctions. But I hope that thinking about the different ways conditional language might be used with respect to the covenant of grace is clarifying. With respect to Piper, I have certainly seen nothing to suggest that he thinks that the whole grace of the covenant is suspended upon either faith or works.

If anyone is very keen I could try and write a follow up showing how some of this could be grounded in Galatians.

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Engaging with Barth: Faith as Trust

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Barth begins his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed by unpacking what he understands by the phrase “I believe”. He’ll do this over the course of three chapters (which I think were probably 1.5 lectures originally) by exploring the nature of faith from 3 different perspectives:

  1. Faith as trust
  2. Faith as knowledge
  3. Faith as confession

And so in this second chapter of Dogmatics in Outline, Barth begins with faith as trust. Here’s Barth’s leading idea:

Christian faith is the gift of the meeting in which men become free to hear the word of grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ in such a way that, in spite of all that contradicts it, they may once for all, exclusively and entirely, hold to his promise and guidance.

There’s a lot packed into this statement, but perhaps the most eye-catching part is the description of faith as the gift of a meeting. Barth says “In Christian faith we are concerned quite decisively with a meeting”. The Bible is clear that faith is a gift (Ephesians 2), but what is this idea of a meeting?

For Barth, this encapsulates his concern that faith cannot be understood apart from what it is faith in: “‘I believe in’ – so the Confession says; and everything depends on this ‘in’.” He points out with approval that apart from this opening phrase, the Creed itself is silent on any human response, focusing instead on God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In doing so, Barth says, it “speaks at its best, deepest and completest about what happens to us men, about what we may be, do and experience.” It seems fair to say that Barth would not be a fan of the focus on subjective experience found in many churches today:

Nor was it a good time when Christians grew eloquent over their action, over the uplift and emotion of the experience of this thing, which took place in man, and when they became speechless as to what we may believe.

So by beginning with “I” but moving swiftly on to the object of faith, Barth believes the Creed is emphasising the objective side to the God-man relationship. But that doesn’t mean he is sidelining a relational Christianity in favour of something academic and dry. On the contrary, because the meeting is with the persons of the Trinity, it is highly relational: “what interests me is not myself with my faith, but He in whom I believe.”

For Barth, this meeting is one in which God makes us free to trust in his gracious word. On our part we simply make use of the gift in which God has given me Himself. In a beautiful phrase, Barth describes faith as a kind of joyful breathing. I think the idea of being made free to trust describes well the biblical pictures – think of Blind Bartimeus being made able to see.

I found Barth’s overall stress on the objective and relational largely very helpful. However, what is really the doctrine of regeneration does at times feel slightly crow-barred into this phrase ‘I believe’, and the actual human response of holding to God’s word is in danger of being forced out. It was only as I was composing that that I realised I’d initially mis-read Barth’s definition of faith to be saying that “faith is a gift which is a meeting”. I wonder if it could be clarified by saying “faith is the gift that comes when God encounters men in such a way that they become free to…”

Having completed this essential groundwork of God’s grace, in the second half of the chapter Barth proceeds to elaborate on the nature of trust, and we see how the focus on the gracious meeting with God in the first half of the chapter leads naturally on to trust in God. This section is brilliantly pastoral, and rather than analyse it I’ll give a flavour of it with some of my favourite quotes:

‘I believe’ means ‘I trust’. No more must I dream of trusting in myself, I no longer require to justify myself, to excuse myself, to attempt to save and preserve myself.

Faith delivers us from trust in such gods, and therefore also from the fear of them, from the disillusionments which they inevitably prepare for us again and again. We are given freedom to trust in Him who deserves our trust: freedom by holding on to Him who in distinction from all other authorities is and will remain faithful.

We ourselves will never be true to ourselves. Our human path is, as such, a path from one disloyalty to another; and it is the same with the ways of the gods of this world. They do not keep what they promise. So with them there is never any real peace and clarity. In God alone there is faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold on to Him, to his promise and to his guidance.

Barth develops the idea of guidance to include in this area of faith as trust a discussion of the law. For Barth obedience to the law flows directly out of the meeting with God that comes through the gospel: “The Creed is always at the same time the gospel, God’s glad tidings to man, the message of Immanuel, God with us, to us; and as such it is necessarily also the law… To hold to God thus always means that we receive everything wholly from God and so are wholly active for him.”

I’ll close by just flagging up one issue. In his discussion of the “in spite of everything” part of his definition of faith, Barth says this: “We never believe ‘on account of’, never ‘because of’; we awake to faith in spite of everything.”

There’s some truth here, but I think we’d want to say that Jesus did provide many proofs of his identity (Acts 1:3) – so while God does awaken us to faith as he opens blind eyes, it’s not quite true to say that it’s “in spite of everything.”

I found this to be a powerful and persuasive chapter. I particularly liked Barth’s language about God giving us the freedom to trust him and I think there’s a lot to learn from it.

Next time we’ll look at Barth’s discussion of faith as knowledge.

Engaging with Barth: Dogmatics in Outline

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If you’re anything like me, Karl Barth is the kind of theologian who you’ve heard lots about, but haven’t actually read. Often called the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, he sounds like he’s an interesting and provocative read. But his main work, Church Dogmatics, is a massive multivolume tome. Not only is it expensive (at least for an edition where the non-English phrases are translated), but you also risk missing the forest for the trees.

So when I first came across a slim volume of his called “Dogmatics in Outline”, I was intrigued. It’s Barth’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, delivered in the semi-ruins of Bonn University in 1946:

the hour seven a.m., always after we had sung a psalm or hymn to cheer us up. About eight o’clock the rebuilding in the quadrangle began to advertise itself in the rattle of an engine for breaking up the ruins.

Barth lectured with basically a post-it sized set of notes (“the primitive conditions I met with in Germany made it absolutely necessary for me to dispense with a manuscript”). According to Barth himself this has the effect of making his writing more accessible: “this looser form [might] serve to explain things which I had elsewhere expressed more strictly and compactly but, for that very reason perhaps, less noticeably and accessibly for all.”

So, for that reason, and because his ideas are rooted in an exposition of a classic text, the Apostles’ Creed, I thought this would be a sensible place to start reading Barth.

Each of the chapters in the book begins with a proposition expressed in a sentence or two which Barth then unpacks. My plan is to blog about each of these chapters, giving Barth’s proposition and then highlighting and discussing what seem to be the main features.

The first chapter is called the Task, and it’s Barth’s view of what he himself is doing in Dogmatics in Outline, so I’ll end this introductory post with an overview of this chapter.

Dogmatics is the science in which the Church, in accordance with the state of its knowledge at different times, takes account of the content of its proclamation critically, that is by the standard of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of its Confessions

In this opening chapter, Barth discusses his view of ‘dogmatics’. We might be surprised today at the use of the word science to describe the work of theology, but by that Barth means “an attempt at comprehension and exposition, at investigation and instruction, which is related to a definite object and sphere of activity.”

So Barth is not invoking the scientific method in a strict sense, but he is wanting to allude to both the rigour and provisional nature of human scientific investigation. He doesn’t see Christian dogmatics as something fallen from Heaven in a pristine state, but as the ongoing task of critically examining what the Church proclaims. In other words, he says the task of the science of dogmatics is to answer the question: “what as Christians do we really have to say?” I appreciated this emphasis on refining the Church’s proclamation – it means that the goal of dogmatics is inherently practical, missional and churchly. It ought to help keep us from descending into “meaningless talk”.

A related point that Barth stresses is that dogmatics is meant to be done by the Church. This might seem like an obvious point, but it serves to nicely begin to locate Barth for us. His background and early career was in the liberal university theology of early 20th Century German. Barth came to a place where he rejected that theology as empty and rethought nearly everything. Clearly in this opening chapter we can see how Scripture, proclamation and the Church are vital for him, but the fact that he has to stress these points shows just how different his context is to many of ours today: he is an ex-liberal (and who knows still how liberal) talking I imagine to liberals and ex-liberals. In his preface, Barth describes how he discovered in the rubbish of the University a bust of the ‘Father of liberal theology’ Friedrich Schleiermacher, which was “restored to honour again”. So when we read Barth we need to be aware that he may not be reacting to our debates, and that he has been coming from quite a different place.

Next time we’ll get into the Apostles’ Creed itself: Barth will begin to define faith, as he unpacks the first words of the Creed – “I believe…”

Review of “The Holy Trinity” by Stephen Holmes

It seems that, in the world of Trinitarian theology, Stephen Holmes’ 2012 overview of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity from the Old Testament through to the 20th Century has been, in the best sense, controversial. A theological journal recently devoted an entire issue to the discussion of Holmes’ work, and fellow-theologian Karen Kilby endorses it on the back cover as “a real intervention in a debate”. But strikingly, she also endorses it as being at the same time “a textbook for serious students”.

As someone with little formal theological training, I am not in a position to comment on its impact on the debate (of which more in a moment), and am not even a serious student. However, I am someone with a keen interest in speaking about God in a way that is faithful to his Word, as it’s been reflected on by his Church through the centuries, and so the “textbook” part of Kilby’s endorsement appealed to me. On top of which, who doesn’t like a good debate? I read the book to get an overview and introduction to Trinitarian doctrine, particularly to see whether I’d been falling into any obvious traps. It’s with that agenda in mind that I want to offer a review of it: given its controversial and serious nature, is “The Holy Trinity” the best place to start?

To answer that question, I’ll briefly summarise the book, evaluate it in light of that aim, and then raise some questions it prompted for me to illustrate the kind of thinking it provoked.

Holmes’ thesis is that the biggest divide in Trinitarian theology is not between Eastern and Western versions, but between the modern account of the doctrine and the teaching of the Church Fathers. Holmes contends that the modern version of the doctrine is essentially unrooted from, and at points explicitly at odds with, the traditional one. To substantiate this Holmes seeks to offer objective and careful readings of both modern and ancient Trinitarian theologies. He claims that a strong modern/traditional division “arises naturally out of such readings without very much need for further argument.” And so after an introductory chapter outlining the themes of recent Trinitarian theology, Holmes works through chapters on the Fathers’ exegesis of the Old and New Testaments, debates between the Fathers leading up to and following the Council of Nicea, the reception and development of the doctrine in through late antiquity and the medieval period and then the radical questioning of the doctrine in the 17th-18th centuries. In a final chapter, Holmes shows how the 20th century’s Trinitarian theology is at least as shaped by the questions (“how can we recover a Biblical doctrine of God free from the influence of Greek philosophy?”) and redefinitions (particularly of the word ‘person’) of the preceding two centuries as it is by the first 16 since Christ. Along the way, Holmes gives helpful summaries of his argument and his findings. In essence he claims that modern Trinitarianism:

  • speaks univocally about God and created things
  • defines ‘person’ as a centre of will/volition
  • rejects the doctrine of simplicity (that is, God is without parts) as being philosophical
  • has an inadequate construction of God’s unity
  • is willing to entangle God’s being, and especially the Son and the Spirit, with his creation through an over-emphasis on the work of the Trinity in creation and redemption as a source for understanding God’s eternal life

In contrast, the traditional doctrine:

  • is careful to describe all speech about God as analogical
  • thinks of God’s will as being undivided, and therefore his “personality” is a property of the one rather than the three
  • regards God’s simplicity as the central and necessary glue holding our thought about God together
  • constructs a doctrine of unity through a careful distinction between what can be said of the nature/essence/substance of God and the persons/hypostastes
  • maintains the Creator/creature distinction as central, while affirming God’s ability to act immediately in the world, resulting in the placement of the Son and the Spirit firmly on the side of being uncreated

The above is just a rough sketch from memory of Holmes’ concerns and conclusions – for Holmes’ own, typically clear and forthright, presentation of these, see the final page (p200) of the book.

So, how did this book serve as an introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity for someone without formal theological training? “The Holy Trinity” is a short book, and so Holmes is often condensed. I found that I had to read this book actively, with a pencil in hand. Some frequently used words such as “hypostasis” were initially confusing but became clearer as I cross-referenced (I take it to be a way of saying ‘person’ without bringing the modern connotations of that word into play). I was helped by Holmes’ regular eye to serve the reader with conclusions and well laid out arguments within and between the chapters. The fact that this work is one with a specific agenda did not for me detract from it: like the gospel writers, Holmes thinks his purpose is best served through a simple laying out of facts, and so the work can still function well as an introduction to the history of the doctrine. I certainly had the impression that Holmes was engaging with the most representative or important parts of the tradition, acknowledging where the evidence was not always precisely in line with his thesis. In fact, the presence of a clear argument made for what was, given the sometimes abstract subject matter, a gripping read (the American title “The Quest for the Trinity” bears witness to this dynamic). Coming away from it, I certainly feel like I have a surer grasp of Trinitarian doctrine, especially as taught by the Fathers but also the modern version. And importantly, I feel that Holmes has made me aware of the points at which he has presented controversial views.

How about those Trinitarian traps I was worried about? Reading this as someone from a classically Reformed/evangelical tradition, I wasn’t always finding myself on the receiving end of Holmes’ criticism: as described by Holmes, modern theologians like Robert Jenson really do go a long way towards entangling the life of God with the world, in a way that I haven’t heard being expressed in the evangelical circles I’ve been part of. However, reading the first chapter’s summary of modern Trinitarian doctrine, I recognised a number of themes that I would be sympathetic to: the centrality of personality and relationship in God’s own life, the possibility of speaking of God’s character in ways which are essentially overlapping with our own existence, the relevance of the doctrine for our community life, and the validity of reasoning from the revealed actions of the Trinity to the eternal life of God, often known as Rahner’s Rule (“the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity” e.g. the Son pours out the Spirit once he has returned to his Father as a reflection of the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son). In these areas, I think reading Holmes will help me to be more discriminating before speaking: I’ll certainly be wary, for example, of using the modern definition of the word person in reference to the Father, Son and Spirit.

Perhaps the best way to end this review is to give a list of questions I’ve jotted down for myself to look into as I seek understanding. These aren’t meant to imply criticisms. Instead, they show how this engaging book has stimulated my thinking on this vital doctrine. To anyone who is looking to be introduce to the topic and willing to work with Holmes through his argument, I recommend the book highly.

  1. God’s simplicity is “at the heart of Trinitarian doctrine” (p200). Can it be firmly grounded in revelation?
  2. What does it mean for God to be ‘personal’? Is ‘personality’ (modern def.) only a property of God’s one undivided nature/work, or can we say that each of the three are truly personal? (p200)
  3. The economy is determinative for Anselm (p149), Augustine and Aquinas (p157 n29) as well as Rahner (p10). But Holmes argues that consistent application of Rahner’s Rule has led to an entangling between God and creation (p24). What responsible rules are there for working from the economy to God’s eternal life?
  4. In sections on Eunomius (p98), Augustine (p136) and Calvin (p169-70), the issue of whether the Father’s ingenerateness can be said of the Son and the Spirit is raised. What does it mean to say that the Son is independent, yet begotten? Is the classical answer that begottenness is a personal property while independence is a property of the nature sustainable?
  5. Holmes refers repeatedly to “one God existing thrice over” (e.g. p109) and “three instantiations of the divine nature” (p200). Are these Holmes’ own formulations or traditional ones, and what do they mean?
  6. If ‘personality’ in the modern sense resides in the one rather than the three, what does it mean to have a relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit?

One true earthly church, or a heavenly assembly?

I’ve found this question keeps coming up. Essentially your thinking about how much should we work for visible unity between local churches depends on your answer to this question.

Some links I’ve found helpful:

The One, True Church – John Frame in ‘Evangelical Reunion’

We must first be assured that Jesus Christ established on earth one church, not many denominations. Further, the unity of the church is not merely “spiritual,” but also organizational.

The Church and Denominations – David Broughton Knox

The Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear that the assembly, or church, which Christ is building now is primarily a supernal heavenly assembly.

The Locus of the Church: Heaven or Earth? – David Peterson

Most seriously, I believe, Giles has played down or denied the heavenly locus of the church as it emerges from certain key passages in the New Testament. This is a failure to highlight the way the ascended and enthroned Christ is at the centre of the church, gathering people to himself on the basis of his redemptive work to form a community whose citizenship is in heaven. It is a failure to see how the inaugurated eschatology of the New Testament should be applied to the church concept to deliver us from the earth-bound and organizational focus of much contemporary ecclesiology.

Assembled in Heaven? – Andrew Errington

In the twentieth century, the notion that the basic reality of the church is “assembly” was articulated by Sydney Anglican evangelicals Donald Robinson and D. Broughton Knox in response to the world ecumenical movement. They, and others who have since followed, argued that church fundamentally involves actual gathering, such that the church finally exists in two basic ways in the present—as the one heavenly gathering around the ascended Lord Jesus, which is in “continuous assembly”, and in local assemblies of believers, which “come and go” (Robinson 1965, 14). The notion of the present heavenly gathering is, however, highly problematic, and I would like here to offer a critique.

Any others?

The glory of God in the face of Christ

We had a training session a couple of weeks ago where we were asked to think about what the most important roles Jesus has in God’s plan.

I ended up feeling like most of the topics could be helpfully expounded under two headings:

A. Christ the Image of God
B. Christ the Mediator of a New Covenant

I want to stress at this point that this arrangement is by no means “Doctrine” – it’s not the teaching of the church! There may well be some horrible errors that may come out of this arrangement of the topics.

That said, I think it’s worth presenting, because:
1. It could be pedagogically helpful in our culture to sidestep some of the ontological debates about the Person of Christ by tying up his human and divine aspects under the same headings
2. This arrangement emphasises links with the doctrines of Creation and New Creation (in Heading A) and Salvation (in Heading B), and the links between those doctrines.
3. Applications to the doctrines of humanity and Christian life are more obvious – we are the image of God, washed by Christ’s blood.

Of the two headings above, it is Christ as the Image of God that will be more controversial, since the second heading corresponds pretty well with the traditional heading of Priest in the Prophet/Priest/King triad.

Let me expand what is under each heading.

A. Christ the Image of God

  1. The Son of God
    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Col 1)
     
    In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things … He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb 1).
  2.  

  3. Revelation of God
    In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son … He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb 1).
     
    Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14)
  4.  

  5. Creator and Sustainer
    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1)
     
    He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb 1)
  6.  

  7. Better Adam
    Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. (Gen 1)
     
    Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit… Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor 15)

    By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Rom 5)

    Christ being a better Adam – a perfect humanity – implies the next two points.

  8.  

  9. Perfect King and Judge
    “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Gen 1).
     
    While the first Adam failed to rule creation and so disobeyed, the second Adam obeyed and received all rule and authority, being enthroned in his resurrection:

    The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
    Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession. (Ps 2)

    “Behold, with the clouds of heaven
    there came one like a son of man,
    and he came to the Ancient of Days
    and was presented before him.
    And to him was given dominion
    and glory and a kingdom,
    that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him (Dan 7)

    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col 1)

  10.  

  11. Goal for the Christian Life
    Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor 15)
     
    And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom 8)
     
    Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3)
     
    All these points combine to produce our final point, that Christ as the image of God is worthy of all praise and honour.
  12.  

  13. Object of Worship
    The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 4)

     

    He is the radiance of the glory of God …
    “Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Heb 1)

    The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Rev 21)

More briefly, our second heading – Christ as the Mediator of a New Covenant. While there are links between the headings, I’m not sure that this aspect of Christ’s work can be described as an aspect of Christ as the image of God.

B. Christ the Mediator of a New Covenant

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (Heb 9)

  1. Propitiatory Sacrifice
    Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood (Rom 3)
  2. Priest of the New Covenant
    When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Heb 9)

     

    Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4)

  3. Object of Worship
    And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

    “Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
    for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
    and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev 5)

Though there are links between the two topics (a mediatorial office is in some respects a prophetic or revalatory office), I am encouraged that two of the key passages on Christ seem to distinguish the ideas in these two headings, but discuss them in close proximity:

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Heb 1)

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1)

In both these passages, Christ’s pre-eminance and God-likeness are discussed in terms of his image, before discussing his mediatorial work as he reconciles us to God through the cross. This also seems to be the broad pattern in Hebrews, with chapters 1-2 establishing Christ as the supreme image of God, and the rest of the book examining the signficance of Christ’s redeeming work.

So this arrangement of ideas appears to be Biblical. Before I get too excited, what are the problems with it?

A couple of thoughts:

  • To my mind the distinction between image and Son is pretty blurred, and there may be good reasons for preferring sonship as a heading.
  • I haven’t got an obvious place to put the theme of Christ as defeater of Satan (aka Christus Victor).

Thoughts?

Before you respond, why not read over some of those verses again, and offer praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Because saying ‘no’ to a bacon sarnie isn’t sinful, apparently

Dave Bish has been considering the issue of women teaching in student Christian Unions. He says that where CUs are divided on this issue, the majority should lovingly submit to the minority. For example, in a CU where the majority hold to the complementarian position (they believe that women are equal in status but not in role, and believe it is exclusively a man’s role to lead through teaching), they should allow women to teach so that the minority don’t feel oppressed. Or vice versa, in a majority egalitarian CU, the majority should not impose women teachers on the complementarian minority.

Dave distinguishes between the position in a CU, which is an evangelistic organisation with a small shared doctrinal basis, and a church, where decisions have to be made about how to teach about marriage and whether to appoint female elders.

I want to make a couple of points in response.

Firstly, a lot of what Dave is saying seems to be an application of Romans 14, correct?

A quick sample:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

(ESV)

An egalitarian CU ought to welcome a complementarian person (whom they would judge weak in faith), by not putting the hinderance of a female speaker in front of the complementarian.

That’s fine, but when we looked at Romans 14 in our small groups earlier this year, we noted that Paul specifically talks to those who are ‘strong’ in faith – those who are happy to eat anything or drink anything. He tells those people not to destroy the work of God by what they eat or drink. So in essence, the strong should love the weak by being willing to give up their bacon sandwiches or their beer so that the weak people don’t feel that they are in sin or unwelcome.

What he doesn’t say is that the weak people should act like the strong to welcome the strong. So if the house church contained a majority of people who felt eating pork was not right, Paul’s not saying they should start serving bacon sandwiches before church just so the people who feel that eating them is ok feel welcome.

No, because for the person who thinks eating bacon sarnies is wrong, eating them really is a sin. Verse 23:

But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

But for the person who thinks it’s ok to eat bacon sandwiches, it is not a sin for them not to eat them. (NOTE: THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT ANYTHING YOU THINK IS ‘OK’ IS NOT A SIN!!)

So basically, as well as being loving, Christian communities should default to the “least sin” position. It is the strong who have an obligation to the weak.

I’d argue that in the complementarian/egalitarian debate in CUs, it is the complementarians who are more obviously weak. That’s because everyone agrees that male speakers are ok, it’s just whether female speakers are ok or not.

When a male speaker speaks, both complementarians and egalitarians are happy. No one is sinning. The egalitarians might be thinking it would be great to get that really excellent female speaker in sometime, but like missing out on bacon sandwiches, they’ll just have to put up with it for the sake of their weaker brothers and sisters.

However when a female speaker speaks, often complementarians are sinning. If they really are convinced it is wrong to sit under a woman’s teaching then they are sinning, and we’ve just mucked up our application of Romans 14.

An egalitarian CU leader might feel that he’s sinning by not allowing women to have their God-given right to teach, but I think we can agree that this is a less obvious sin than the complementarian’s.

Ok, that was point 1.

Point 2 is much more brief. Which is to consider how CUs and churches are different in this respect. I think they are, but possibly not for quite the same reason as Dave.

The “minimal doctrinal basis so we can have a shared mission” point is fair enough, but it’s quite a pragmatic argument that is prone to a ‘where do you draw the line?’ response.

I think the reason churches can be a bit more inflexible on this is that they have elders who have authority and responsibility for those decisions. If I’m not sure whether someone should or shouldn’t teach in my local church, I am happy to sit under that teaching regardless, because I defer to the authority of my elders, knowing their God given role is to make those kinds of decisions and to bear the responsibility for them. In a CU it’s not quite the same, because I’m not convinced that a CU leader has quite the same authority to make those kinds of decisions.

Additionally, I would think that a convinced egalitarian church leadership would probably be sinning if they didn’t appoint a woman they considered suitable to the eldership since the nature of church leadership is quite different to an occasional CU speaking engagement. So in a church the egalitarian/complementarian positions become a bit harder to classify into weak/strong.

It’s complicated stuff, and I haven’t had a coffee yet, so please don’t take this as anything other than tentative. If you think what I’ve said is wrong, or has dangerous implications let me know. With that, I’m off for a bacon sarnie!