Monday, June 27, 2011

New Blog Announcement!

I am pleased to announce the launch of a brand new blog that I am a part of. Four Aberdeen systematic theology PhD students, myself, Jon Coutts, Justin Stratis and Darren Sumner will be contributing to Out of Bounds: Theology in the Far Country, a blog seeking to generate healthy and probing theological conversations. Jon Coutts has written a fantastic opening post articulating the kind of "gospel conversation" we are seeking to foster. Check it out!

This new blog will now be my primary blogging home. Draw Nigh will still be here, but will remain basically inactive for the immediate future.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Though nothing has been going on here at Draw Nigh for several months, quite a bit has been going on for me and its time I post an update. First, my family and I have moved from Aberdeen, Scotland back to our dear old Santa Cruz, Ca. It was crazy trying to get all our stuff between countries, especially since I came back with WAY more books than I went with. It was also very bittersweet as we knew we were coming back to so many friends and family we love in Santa Cruz, but were also leaving friends we love that had become our family in Aberdeen.

Now settled back in, I'll be splitting my time here between finishing my dissertation and working in ministry at Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, Ca., the church I grew up in and love as my family.

As for blogging activity, I'm working on a group blog with some friends and fellow theo-bloggers from Aberdeen which will hopefully be launching this week.

I'm also working on a personal web site which will just be a place to host my CV online and post updates about conferences and publications I'll be a part of.

As for Draw Nigh, it has been close to totally inactive for several months and will likely remain that way for a while, but I'm hoping to come back to it before to long. My hope is to use it as a forum to extend conversations taking place in my church ministry, discussing biblical and theological questions coming from Christians without much or any academic theological training and seeking to address those questions without technical jargon - a theology blog for the Christian layperson if you will.

Updates will be coming!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Evangelical Calvinism Book

Here is what the table of contents to the Evangelical Calvinism book will look like.  I just submitted the final final draft yesterday for my chapter, which is entitled "The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism", and am pretty excited about it.  They are looking for a release date late 2011/early 2012.  Be on the lookout!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Original Autographs

So, I've been thinking.  As a person who desires to make a living pastoring and teaching in the Evangelical world, I might be incredibly stupid to bring this up, but I don't like statements of faith that talk about the Bible being inspired "in the original autographs".  So many churches and educational institutions have this line in their doctrinal statements, often as the first line of it.  This doesn't sit right with me.

What don't I like about it?  Well, I'll tell you.

I'm pretty sure this is what people mean by "original autograph".
First, the historical reality of something called an "original autograph" is entirely doubtable for many books of the Bible.  What was the "original" version of the Psalms?  Does "original autograph" refer to the first written version of each independent Psalm? The first time a collection of Psalms were brought together? The collection as we now have it in our Bibles?  Statements which limit the scope of inspiration to original autographs show a lack of appreciation for the processes involved in bringing much of the Old Testament into the form we have it.  Why limit the Spirit's inspiring work to a particular stage in the life of a text's production, especially when a term like 'original autograph' is so ill suited to specify which stage we have in mind?

Second, more importantly, and more in line with what Evangelicals really care about, explicitly limiting the inspiration of Scripture to a supposed "original autograph" calls into question the authority of Scripture as it is present in the church today.  It makes Scripture's authority in the church today definitively dependent on the human work of text criticism rather than the divine work of the Holy Spirit.  Our confessions need to be statements of faith in God in his work of revelation and reconciliation, while of course including his use of creaturely media to accomplish his will, among which Scripture is essential.  That is to say, our confessions need to be biblical!  Scripture speaks of no such things as original autographs, so why make them an object of confession? (If you say, "the Bible doesn't have the word 'Trinity' in it either", I'll seriously punch you.) New Testament writers appeal to the Old Testament as authoritative without ever grounding those appeals on a distinction between original autographs and anything else.  In fact, they freely cite the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, obviously not original autographs, yet there is no qualifying of its authority.  Likewise, if we are to confess the inspiration of Scripture, which we certainly must do, we need to define that inspiration in terms broad enough to see the Spirit's work include the whole range of processes by which the books of Scripture were composed, redacted, collected, and preserved through the ages. (Actually, we first need to see the composition of the biblical books in coordination with the redemptive acts God has done in the foundation and life of Israel and the church in which Scripture has its authority and is to be interpreted).

The questions brought up by the admission of stages of composition or redaction, questions such as "if there were several versions of a book along the way, which version is God's Word", make the mistake of thinking of divine revelation entirely in terms of the verbal form of Scripture rather than in terms of the living God continually speaking of himself through those verbal forms by his Spirit.  In other words, anxiety over such questions manifests a view of the Spirit's work in history so narrow and punctiliar as to be nearly deistic.  If the Spirit doesn't speak now through Scripture as he spoke through it as it was first received, then it is of no use to us.  If he does speak now through it, then our statements of faith out to reflect such a trust in Scripture in the unity of its original reception (if it even makes sense to speak of such a thing) and its present reception.

That being said, I am still willing to sign statements containing language about original autographs.  It is not that I hold suspicion about the inspiredness of Scripture in any earlier version than we have now, its just that I see no reason not just say that we believe Scripture to be inspired and authoritative for Christian thinking and living.  I see no benefit gained by the inclusion of "in the original autographs", only problems.  Am I missing something?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Some Worthwhile Rob Bell Reviews

Updated: 6:51 pm GMT, 3/19/2011
Well, if you follow this blog you'll notice I've tried to step back from all the hoopla surrounding Rob Bell's recently released church bonfire fuel, Love Wins.  But try to avoid it as I may, the onslaught of ridiculous things said about it on the web and the thoughtful things my friends in Aberdeen have said about it, especially since a few of them have now actually read it, has brought me to order it for myself: it'll be here on Tuesday and I'll read it by next weekend - expect some thoughts to follow, if I have any.  In the meantime, I've also been encouraged that some thoughtful and respectful reviews have finally started to appear.
  • Fuller President Richard Mouw has a good one here.
  • Steve Holmes, senior lecturer in systematic theology at the U. of St. Andrews, has a great review series of it .  So far there are three parts:
    • Part 1, arguing that though the book is flawed, it is nonetheless important and worth reading for its suggestions that what is wrong with what many Christians have been taught about salvation and life-after-death brings with it a quite unbiblical view of who God is, also that Bell is unambiguously not a Universalist.
    • Part 2, arguing that virtually all the pillars of Reformed Orthodoxy (Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, etc.) support Bell's contention that there will be vastly more people in heaven than in hell, though this is one of the most attacked claims in the book.
    • Part 3, arguing that Bell has taken an unfortunately reverted to the use of loaded questions, caricature, otherwise less than gracious tactics in this book, unlike his previous books.  This entry seems a bit cut off, like he was in the middle of developing a larger point and accidentally hit the "publish" button.
  • David Congdon has done an expansive  (over 13,000 words!) response to a review of Bell's book by Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today.  The review is broken into five parts; an index can be found here.  I've just begun reading this one myself; the stated intent is to challenge Galli's characterization of Bell as a liberal in opposition to orthodox Evangelicalism.
  • Finally, though Bell doesn't call himself a Universalist, Robin Parry calls himself one and has a helpful article in the Baptist Times making clear what Christian Universalism is and what it isn't.
Though all the controversy will certainly die down before too long, my fear is that its primary legacy will be that of having caused a massive increase of acceptance of conservative Reformed theologies that compromise on the love of God for the sake of a contractual system that fits with our preconceptions and asserts our privilege.  That is why I hope more thoughtful people actively engage the controversy so that the primary outcome might be one of growth in understanding rather than further entrenchment.  If any of you are aware of other worthy reviews of Bell's book (let the reader understand), let me know in the comments.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Is Theology Totally Irrelevant to the Church Today?

John Webster's editorial in the new issue of IJST has me a bit depressed.  In it he discusses the conditions in which theological intelligence is most likely to thrive.  His first point is that it is likely to flourish when it understands its vocation as "contemplative and apostolic", contemplative in that addresses itself to the deep things of God and apostolic because it commends these things to others - no problem there.  Second, the whole enterprise of Christian theology is enhanced when it attracts godly and intellectually gifted people to its pursuit - no problem there either.

Its in points three and four I get bummed out.

Third, Christian theology flourishes when in some measure it enjoys favourable
institutional circumstances: some particular academic or religious form of life which
is hospitable to a work of the mind with little apparent impact, some happy gathering
of minds with sufficient rapport and energy that their unique talents combine to form
something like a school. (Webster, "Editorial", International Journal of Systematic Theology, vol. 13, no. 2, p. 128)
Those of us who have made the sacrifice to leave our normal lives and go to a theological school are blessed (if it is a good school) to temporarily live in a situation that satisfies this condition.  I can attest that in Aberdeen we are abundantly blessed with a situation in which academic, spiritual and social life intertwine in an almost Edenic situation for theological pursuit.  We read and think and write and talk (some of us even pray) all the live-long day.  Those who have gone through this training for the spiritual life of the mind/intellectual life of the spirit and have returned to the real world have made, as Webster notes, "little apparent impact", no sales-record-breaking books, no mega-church ministries.  Usually guys like us go into rather humble academic teaching or church ministry jobs.  The question is whether we will be able to foster similar intellectual situations when we leave the academy and go back into the real world.  Those of us who get university jobs won't have this problem, but those of us who go back to our homes and churches have this question in front of us: Will the insights we have gained and the patterns of reflection we have developed in our theological study benefit the life of the church for whom we toil, or will it all be filtered through ears who only hear the potential for church growth or other practical impact.  This leads Webster's fourth point:
Fourth, Christian theology flourishes when it honours and is held in honour by the Christian community. Theology is ecclesial science, a work of reason pursued (whatever its precise institutional locale) within the community of election and faith. All its inquiries ought to hold that community in high esteem, as a servant glad to be about its tasks in such a company; and that company, too, should esteem this servant and expect good things of its service. ("Editorial", p. 128)
I've already alluded to my worry here: will the churches us theologians go to and serve, either as pastors or even on a volunteer lay level, welcome us as theologians, value our training and insights, be willing to hear and consider the sometimes difficult things we have to tell the church?  Have Evangelical churches in America become so focused on the tangible (cars in the parking lot, butts in the pews, hands in the air, testimony of changed lives - all good things by the way) that it simply does not value the other kinds of good things theologians' service has to offer?  Most of us love the church and want to serve it; the worry is that it doesn't love us and doesn't want our service.

Webster (who I should probably mention is my doctoral advisor, not that I otherwise wouldn't think he is right about everything, which he is), does go on to alleviate my depression in his fifth point which is that we get it wrong when we think these conditions are in fundamentally worse shape now than they were at some other point in history - "Theology is not exiled from its past but its future."  The present is not depressing in light of the past but in light of the future in which sin is removed as an obstacle and theology is fully united to He whom it considers.  The fifth condition is that we believe theology is actually possible, that in spite of the limitations imposed on us in our currently fallen context, we believe that "God is not hindered by our hindrances", that God speaks and enables us to hear and understand.  On that basis, no matter what intellectual climate I find myself in in the future, I will pray with Habakkuk "I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known" (Hab 3:2), not that God would restore some notion of the past but that he would reach into the present from the future and give the church a love for himself and for thinking on the gospel greater than its present love for spectacle and novelty in his name.  I pray this against my own fears that I make myself increasingly irrelevant to the church by pursuing disciplined thinking on the church's foundation.

(To get more people to be directed to this post from Google: Rob Bell, Hell, Universalism, Sex, Money, Murder - thank you).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Church and Gospel: Which determines which?

Reading the first pages of prolegomena in Robert Jensen's Systematic Theology is refreshingly brisk and painless work.  In situating the task of systematic theology within the self-understanding of the church, he gives a simple account of the church as the community formed by the expansion of the gospel from those who directly witnessed the risen Christ and who both recognized the universal import of what they witnessed and moreover were directly told by Christ to go and tell the nations, to the progressive expansion of people hearing that message and thereby becoming proclaimers of it to new hearers.

But fairly quickly he makes what I think is a problematic move:
It is the historically continuous community, which in this way began and perdures, that her own linguistic custom calls "the church."  "Church" and "gospel" therefore mutually determine each other.  Whether we are to say that God uses the gospel to gather the church for himself, or that God provides the church to carry the gospel to the world, depends entirely on the direction of thought in a context.  (Jensen, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 4-5).  
Is this right?  Does the church determine the gospel in the same way or even to the same degree that the gospel determines the church?  To say yes would seem to lead to all kinds of problems, most obviously the problem that since the church is a continuous community and therefore a community spanning generations, centuries, and even millennia of cultural change, as the church inescapably changes with the times we would have to say that the gospel itself changes.

Of course, if in reaction to this we decide that gospel and church must be conceived so that the gospel is entirely free vis-a-vis the church, able to promote itself through other means just as easily as through the church, then we would have to hold out the possibility of multiple churches, multiple communities that the gospel calls into being with no underlying unity obligating them to work toward making that unity visible.

It would seem that the solution is to hold gospel and church inseparably together but in a consistently ordered way so that the gospel is the determinant of the church and not the other way around.  What the gospel is is the message of Jesus Christ through which the Holy Spirit gathers a people together for God, while the church is the Spirit's servant chosen to continue that message, but always under a unilateral conditioning by the message, not mutually conditioning it.  The gospel and the Church are bound together in inseparable unity, but as a unity of master and servant, not substance and container.  The master has chosen this servant and carries out his work uniquely through this servant's service, but this service is always freely chosen by the master.  Conceived as a relation of substance and container, we would have to say that though it is the value of the substance that determines the need and worth of the container, the container is what actually gives shape to the substance.  However, conceived as master and servant, it is the master's command that determines the servants's service; the servant's service does not determine the master's command.