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Addendum: Another Favorite Book from 2017

W. Jackson Watts

Usually I manage to read a book or two during the holidays. Recently I read one I had wanted to read for years, but finally had an excuse to read it due to its pertinence to a  current research project. It was Alister McGrath’s The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism. Though I had not read this book in time to be included in our Commission members’ recent post on our favorite books from 2017, I thought I would briefly comment on it since I found it incredibly stimulating and theologically significant.

McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. He has held numerous other notable professorships throughout the years, and has published voluminously in the fields of historical theology, and especially in the relationship between science and theology.

This volume is a project in “doctrinal criticism.” On its face this may sound threatening to some. But McGrath is not trying to pick apart Christian doctrine. He is not only a scholar, but a committed Anglican Christian. Doctrinal criticism here refers to an attempt to evaluate the nature of doctrine as a historical phenomenon. He wants to consider how doctrinal statements are developed, communicated, and what they presuppose. He is especially interested in how our understanding of the past and its authority comes to bear on contemporary views of doctrine.

To put McGrath’s project in his own words, “The discipline of doctrinal criticism seeks to evaluate the reliability and adequacy of the doctrinal formulations of the Christian tradition, by identifying what they purport to represent, clarifying the pressures and influences which led to their genesis, and suggesting criteria—historical and theological by which they may be evaluated, and if necessary, restated” (vii).  Let me try to add my gloss to the background against which McGrath is working, then return to his argument.

When we consider the nature of the biblical text, we recognize that it does not present itself in the form of a contemporary systematic theology textbook. Instead it is divinely given in the form of poetry and prophecy, wisdom and narrative, oracle and history. There are no doubt places in the New Testament that appear to be part of early creedal formulations. However, by and large the theological heritage we have has come to us by way of post-canonical interaction with the apostolic doctrine, and believers formulating those teachings in a contextually appropriate way.

These claims in no way diminish the truthfulness of Christian doctrine. But they do put our treatment of key doctrines such as justification by faith or the Trinity in a historical perspective. We know that there were early church councils which contributed significantly to how doctrines have been formulated, and then transmitted by way of witnesses throughout the ages. We know that theological errors, in part, are what required the church to clarify particular doctrinal views. Recognizing the historical and social context of doctrinal development then gives us a better understanding of how our statements came to be what they are, and helps us evaluate them afresh and anew in light of the biblical text.

McGrath is motivated in part by a desire to avoid reductionist accounts of doctrine. One of the main examples he uses of such reductionism is George Lindbeck, the very influential Yale theologian. Lindbeck’s seminal book on the subject is The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984). McGrath appreciates some of Lindbeck’s aims and concerns, but he spends the early portion of his book showing where Lindbeck himself fails to understand the complexity of Christian doctrine.

Lindbeck chided propositionalists for focusing merely on the truth claims of doctrine, and experientialists for focusing solely on the emotional or experiential aspects of doctrine. Yet Lindbeck offered his own reductionist account with his “cultural-linguistic” model of doctrine. McGrath’s critique is fair, but pointed.

McGrath’s alternative, which is an effort to help readers appreciate the breadth of Christian doctrine, includes four theses about doctrine. First, doctrine functions as a social demarcator. Second, doctrine is generated by, and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. Third, doctrine interprets experience. Fourth, doctrine makes truth claims (37).

Space does not permit me to explore or fully define each of these, but if one reads these theses carefully they can see that McGrath is trying to avoid reductionisms when it comes to defining what doctrine is and how it has functioned historically.

I suspect most Free Will Baptists will focus primarily on point number four. As important as this is, if we think carefully about the lived experience of the church today and in the past, we realize doctrine is even bigger and more significant than simply in what it affirms to be true or false.

What we believe does in fact set us apart from other groups (thesis 1). It helps distinguish our views from other, potentially harmful views, and provides social cohesion. We believe our doctrine does arise from the narrative of Scripture (thesis 2), yet it also enables us to reread Scripture in light of our doctrinal heritage (think here about the idea of “the hermeneutical spiral”). And we also believe that Christian doctrine makes sense of our experience. It gives us a language, concepts, and categories to make sense of what happens to us, and what is happening around us.

I can’t say enough about the depth and extent of McGrath’s work. I admit it is probably to be seen as more of a graduate-level treatment of doctrine, and so it probably isn’t the place to start for those looking to simply refresh themselves on Christian doctrine.

However, for those who may be wondering about how modern Christian thought has come to be what it is, and perhaps those interested in historical theology or philosophical hermeneutics, this may just be a book for you.

 

 

Our Favorite Books in 2017

by Theological Commission

Members of the Commission for Theological Integrity enjoy a good book as much as anyone. This year has afforded each of us the opportunity to read a number of titles, some published more recently and others published in prior years. This post features a couple of favorite books by each Commission member. Note that while our mention of these books doesn’t represent a blanket endorsement of their entire content, we felt they were significant, interesting, and/or enjoyable. We commend them accordingly unto our readers.

Kevin Hester

Since this year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I read several books on this topic. I reread two classics: Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers and Roland Bainton’s, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Of particular interest on this topic was Zondervan’s Five Solas Series: Christ Alone (Stephen Wellum), Faith Alone (Thomas Schreiner), God’s Glory Alone (David VanDrunen), God’s Word Alone (Mathew Barrett), and Grace Alone (Carl Trueman), all of which are to be commended for theological clarity and attention to the continued practical relevance of these Protestant principles.

One of the more interesting books I read related to the Protestant Reformation was Matthew Levering’s Was the Reformation a Mistake: Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbiblical (Zondervan, 2017). Unlike most Roman Catholic apologetics, this one was aimed squarely at Evangelical Protestants. Levering, in a rather irenic spirit, strives (unconvincingly) to demonstrate the biblical background of nine Roman Catholic doctrines including: justification, Mary, monasticism, purgatory, the Saints, and the papacy among others. Continue reading Our Favorite Books in 2017

Free Will Baptists and Evangelical Scholarship

by Theological Commission

Two years ago a post appeared on this blog that noted the relationship between Free Will Baptists and evangelical scholarship. This was specifically in reference to there being four presenters at the National Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society who serve Free Will Baptist churches and/or entities. This year’s meeting took place two weeks ago in Providence, Rhode Island. The theme was the Heritage of the Reformation, and as usual the meeting featured a range of interesting presentations, panel discussions, plenary addresses, and more.

This year five Free Will Baptists presented or moderated across five different sections of the program. The following are the presenters and their paper titles:

Dr. Matthew McAffee (Provost and Professor at Welch College): “Ugaritic Ditanu and  Greek Titans: An Appraisal of Etymological and Narrative Connections.”

Rev. Jesse Owens (Church Planter, Adjunct Professor; Doctoral Candidate) – “English General Baptists: the Arminian Anti-rationalists.”

Dr. Matt Pinson (President of Welch College; Commission Chairman) – “Are Predestination and Election Corporate or Individual? Toward a Reformed Arminian Account.”

Rev. W. Jackson Watts (Pastor, Commission member; Doctoral candidate) – “Cultural Analysis and the Dynamics of Leading Change in the Church.”

Dr. Jeff Cockrell, professor at Welch College, moderated a New Testament section on the Gospel of Mark, and Mr. Matthew Bracey, Vice Provost and Professor at Welch also attended.

Audio recordings of these presentations can be found and purchased at Word Mp3. Readers may also note that a few of these papers are adapted from presentations given at the 2017 Theological Symposium. For more information on ETS or these specific presentations, you may leave us a question on the blog’s comment thread.

 

Symposium Recap: Reflections on Arminius’s Doctrine of Individual Election

by Kevin L. Hester

In his presentation, “Reflections on Arminius’s Doctrine of Individual Election,” J. Matthew Pinson, president of Welch College, introduced his personal reflections on the nature of predestination and its placement in modern Arminian theological circles. At the heart of his discussion is the common misconception that Arminians reject predestination – the concept of the election of individual believers and the reprobation of individual unbelievers.

Far from rejecting individual election, Arminius taught that God

wills that single men should come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved, that is, all and each, rich and poor, noble and ignoble, male and female, &c. As the knowledge of the truth and salvation belong to single human beings, and is, in fact, prepared, by predestination, for the salvation of single individuals, not for classes, and is denied, by reprobation, to single individuals, not to classes, so, also, in the more general providence of God, antecedent, in the order of nature, to the decree of predestination and reprobation, the divine will has reference to single individuals of classes, not to classes of single individuals.[1]

Pinson argues that Arminius, Wesley, and other foundational Arminian theologians taught conditional, individual election. He asserts that this is a more biblical model than the concept of corporate election introduced to Arminianism by Shank and others.[2] The idea of corporate election has attracted numerous Arminian adherents because of its rejection of particular Calvinist themes and the growing popularity of corporate emphases on salvation expressed in N.T. Wright and other New Perspective authors.

In contrast, Arminius’s view of election as individual was characteristic of the Reformed theology of his time. He distinguished himself by offering a correction to a misplaced ordering of election that “inverts the order of the gospel” and diminished Jesus Christ’s office of mediator of the covenant of redemption.[3] He posited an ordo salutis that emphasized 1) God’s unconditional election of Christ as Mediator, 2) God’s unconditional decree to save those who repent and believe, 3) God’s unconditional decree to “administer the means of salvation,” 4) God’s unconditional decrees “to save and to damn certain particular persons according to his foreknowledge.”[4]

This foreknowledge is more than mere prescience of repentance and belief, but introduces an intimate relationship of love and grace. In predestination and election, we see “an eternal administration of what is taking place in the lives of the elect and reprobate in time.”[5] For Pinson this is a Biblical model and a theological expression of the “natural reading of the predestination and election passages in the New Testament.”[6]

Whereas traditional Reformed theology’s emphasis on unconditional election misplaces the centrality of Christ’s mediatorial role, new Arminian currents toward corporate election miss important themes that are scripturally related to individual piety. If election is corporate, then “election and predestination are abstract concepts that are not in themselves salvific… (but are rather) a vehicle through which God procures salvation for people.”[7]In this light, passages like Ephesians 1, which focuses on the benefits of individual believers as they are united to Christ against the backdrop of election and predestination, are wrested from a natural reading to become theological exposés rather than worshipful reflections on God’s redemption in the lives of individual believers.

We should be thankful for the balanced and pastoral approach that Pinson employs in this article. His approach to Scripture, like that of Arminius, is alive with a spirit of worship and awe of God’s grace. Too many evangelicals on both the Calvinist and the Arminian side of the election debate have abstracted the discussion without reference to the implications of the doctrine for individual piety. It is a mistake to subtract biblical terms and concepts from their biblical context. What then are some of these implications?

Implications

The doctrine of conditional, individual election allows us to trust in God as the author of our salvation. As we remain united to Christ through faith, we can rely on his enduring love. Belief in the gospel brings the seal of His promise and the “guarantee of our inheritance.”[8]

The doctrine of conditional, individual election assures us of both God’s redemptive desire for the salvation of all persons and His eternal affection for those whom He has foreknown. God’s eternal decrees manifest themselves in time in the context of real relationships with fallen human persons. God works to make these sinful, rebellious creatures like His Son.[9]

The doctrine of conditional, individual election should awaken our praise and worship. God lavishes us with the riches of His grace so that we might live “to the praise of his glory.”[10] May our theology be as rich as our inheritance in Him and may it drive us to our knees as it leads us to praise in the heavenly places.

Soli Deo Gloria.

__________________________

[1] Arminius, Works, 3:461, Examination of the Treatise of Perkins on the Order and Mode of Predestination. Bagnall edition. Quoted in Pinson, “Reflections on Arminius’s Doctrine of Individual Election,” paper presented at the Theological Symposium of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Gallatin, TN. October 23-24, 2017. p. 3.

[2] Robert Shank, Elect in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Election (Springfield, Missouri: Westcott, 1970); see also Paul Marston and Roger Foster, God’s Strategy in Human History (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2001; reprint).

[3] Arminius, Works, 1:632, Declaration of Sentiments. Bagnall edition. Quoted in Pinson, “Reflections on Arminius’s Doctrine of Individual Election,” paper presented at the Theological Symposium of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Gallatin, TN. October 23-24, 2017. p. 5.

[4] Arminius, Works, 1:653-4, Declaration of Sentiments. Quoted in Pinson, “Reflections on Arminius’s Doctrine of Individual Election,” paper presented at the Theological Symposium of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Gallatin, TN. October 23-24, 2017. p. 6. Italics his.

[5] Pinson, “Reflections on Arminius’s Doctrine of Individual Election,” paper presented at the Theological Symposium of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Gallatin, TN. October 23-24, 2017. p. 8.

[6] Quoted in Pinson, “Reflections on Arminius’s Doctrine of Individual Election,” paper presented at the Theological Symposium of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Gallatin, TN. October 23-24, 2017. p. 9.

[7] Pinson, “Reflections on Arminius’s Doctrine of Individual Election,” paper presented at the Theological Symposium of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Gallatin, TN. October 23-24, 2017. p. 10.

[8] See Ephesians 1:13-14.

[9] See Ephesians 1:4.

[10] See Ephesians 1:12.