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The Fatherhood of God Is Primary, Unique, and Transcendent

As you may remember, back in May I wrote an article titled, “Why Evangelicals Struggle with Classical Theism.” One of my concluding observations was that evangelicals fail to appreciate the accommodated nature of Scriptural language. When we petition God to “make his face shine upon us” (Num. 6:25), we know better than to assume that God has a face. “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24), we say. God is not literally a “rock,” “fortress,” or “shield” (Ps. 18:2). Neither does he have feathers or wings (Ps. 91:4). Even though these two examples seem simple enough, we struggle to  make sense of those passages that attribute human emotions to God. Since God dwells in the bliss of his Triune life, he doesn’t experience emotional fluctuations like finite, sinful human beings. Yet we’re befuddled when we read that God “repents” (Gen. 6:6; Exod. 32:14), or that he “restrained his anger often” because he “remembered that they were but flesh” (Ps. 78:38–39). The classical understanding of this language is that while it communicates something true of God, it does not denote the way God is in his being or essence. Nothing outside of God activates his perfections. Nothing outside of God makes him loving, gracious, merciful, or wrathful. He is who he is (Exod. 3:14).

With some help from my former seminary professor Scott Swain, I’d like us to see what this means for the Fatherhood of God. Here’s why: In my conversations with well-meaning Christians, I have noticed that we often speak and think of God the Father as if he shares our limitations. We say or think things like, “We know what a good father is; therefore, if God is a good father, he must be like X,” or “he would do X.”

In the following quote, Scott Swain shows that since God’s fatherhood is primary, unique, and transcendent, we should exercise more caution in this regard.

First, the fatherhood of God is primary. The fatherhood of God is the first form of fatherhood, preexisting all other creaturely forms of fatherhood. Before the existence of creation, and thus before the existence of creaturely fathers and creaturely sons, the Father and his only begotten Son dwelled in eternal, mutual delight in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (John 1:1; 17:24–26). Moreover, just as God’s fatherhood is primary in the order of being, so also is it primary in the order of meaning. Every creaturely fatherhood in heaven and on earth is patterned after his divine fatherhood, not vice versa. He is “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14–15). All creaturely fatherhood is an image and likeness of his divine fatherhood (Gen. 5:1–3).

Second, therefore, the fatherhood of God is unique. The fatherhood of God is not modeled after the fatherhood of creatures. Nor does the fatherhood of God belong to a larger class of fatherhood of which divine fatherhood and creaturely fatherhood are members. God’s fatherhood is holy, set apart, and singular. It is the fatherhood of the one God. Its meaning, therefore, is not defined by the measure of creaturely forms of fatherhood or by some generic sense of fatherhood that might apply to both God and man. The meaning of God’s fatherhood is determined by God’s fatherhood alone. He is who he is (Ex. 3:14). His fatherhood is one (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6).

Third, therefore, the fatherhood of God is transcendent. Because the fatherhood of God is primary, first in the order of being and first in the order of meaning, and because the fatherhood of God is unique, determined by God’s fatherhood alone and not by an external standard of fatherhood, the fatherhood of God transcends all creaturely limitations. Unlike the fatherhood of creatures, the fatherhood of God is not dependent, not composite, not changing, not limited, and not temporal. It is self-existent, simple, immutable, infinite, and eternal. God’s radiant fatherhood is “above” all other forms of fatherhood; he is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

The preceding discussion helps us appreciate why there is a family resemblance between God’s fatherhood and creaturely forms of fatherhood—the latter are patterned after the former. It also helps us appreciate why there can be no one-to-one comparison between God’s fatherhood and creaturely forms of fatherhood—God’s fatherhood is unique and transcendent.

(The Trinity: An Introduction, 70–71)

The late Nicholas Lash (1934–2020) used to say that theology is the practice of learning to watch our words before God. Immersing ourselves in Scripture and church tradition will enable us to know and speak well of God and all things in relation to him.

On the journey with you . . .

Israel’s God and God’s Israel: A Sermon from Charles Spurgeon

Philip Yancey once said, “Writers are parasites, leeching life from other people.” Substitute the word writers with preachers and you’ve entered my world. I leech (spiritual) life off of those who, having dwelt with God on Mount Horeb, return to their fellow wayfarers, dropping consolations into bruised hearts. You could say I reap life from those who secured honey from the rock for saints in previous eras (see Psalm 81:16).

One spiritual giant who feeds me is Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892).

Reading Spurgeon’s sermons ushers us into a mind saturated with Scripture and a life permeated with prayer. Understandably, such devotion led to unparalleled power in the pulpit. His sermons were a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).They pulsed with spiritual vitality and heart-searching application. And though we are unable to see his facial expressions and hear his voice inflections, it is impossible to read them and not feel his earnest delivery. Spurgeon didn’t just preach the truth; he felt it deep in his bones.

In this blog, I am providing a link to Charles Spurgeon’s sermon “Israel’s God and God’s Israel.”

May God use the words of his servant Charles Spurgeon to shape and fashion us into the likeness of his beloved Son.

In Praise of Christian Dogmatics and Theological Retrieval

“So far as a man may be proud of a religion rooted in humility, I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds . . . for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated” ~ G. K. Chesterton

Introduction
As of late, I have been intrigued by the renewed interest in Christian dogmatics and theological retrieval. In this post, then, I’d like to (1) define these terms and then (2) share with you why I appreciate, support, and adopt dogmatics and theological retrieval as my method for doing theology and carrying out my work as a preacher and teacher of God’s Word.

Christian Dogmatics
The late theologian John Webster (1955–2016) laid out three different approaches to the discipline of theology—Christian doctrine, systematic theology, and dogmatics. According to Webster, Christian doctrine is a general term, describing an investigation into what Christianity teaches while making no judgments on its stated beliefs and morals.

Systematic theology, by contrast, is a comprehensive study involving normative judgments regarding not only what the Bible teaches on every major doctrine but of the whole of reality[1]: “All things are considered in the light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point.”[2]

Christian dogmatics differs from the above approaches by narrowing its focus to the exposition of the public, official, and authoritative pronouncements made by an official church body.[3] This mode of doing theology does not employ the term dogma in the same manner as the Roman Catholic Church, where it can refer to teachings not derived from the Bible. Rather, the Protestant deployment of the term envisions a summary or comprehensive statement of beliefs handed down from a competent church body based upon the teachings of Holy Scripture.[4]

Theological Retrieval
Humbly taking its seat in the classroom of the saints, theological retrieval is marked by a deference to the creedal tradition of the church, along with an embrace of the values and interpretive instincts of the patristic fathers, medieval doctors, and luminaries of the Protestant Reformation.[5]

With these thoughts in place, here are my reasons for embracing and practicing dogmatics and theological retrieval.

Why I Love Christian Dogmatics and Theological Retrieval
Christian dogmatics and theological retrieval unashamedly operate out of a Trinitarian worldview and a posture of Biblical faith. Since the modern period, conservative theologians have devoted their energies to defending the authority of Scripture and demonstrating the rationality of the Christian faith. While helpful in many ways, these efforts typically operate according to a specific understanding of human rationality known as foundationalism, which treats unaided human reason as an independent source and norm of Christian theology.[6] In my judgment, this construal of the human person and his or her cognitive abilities neglects to account for the effects of the fall on the human intellect as depicted in Romans 1:18–32 and 1 Corinthians 2:14, and is therefore not sufficiently chastened by God’s self-revelation.

Without discounting the role apologetics play in articulating and defending the Christian worldview, Christian dogmatics encourages theologians to presuppose the veracity of the Bible and enthusiastically ransack the premodern sources of theology. John Webster called this “theological theology.”[7] This is theology with muscle and grit, unapologetic about Scripture’s contents, unashamed of churchly grammar and ecclesial methods of reasoning.[8]

Since this dogmatic approach cleaves to the witness of the prophets and apostles, it is consequently unwilling to cede authority to the methods and procedures adopted by those hostile to, or suspicious of, the biblical text. Additionally, because its proponents embrace sacred Scripture and the creedal deliverances of the undivided church as their point of departure for all matters under consideration, they refuse to adopt a “naturalist metaphysics of inquiry”[9]—that is, they do not adopt a non-biblical, non-Trinitarian way of viewing the world even while they engage with those who hold different views.[10] After all, why would we? Those who repudiate our faith and worldview neither determine our first principles nor dictate what we are allowed to confess concerning God and all things in relation to him.

This leads me to my next point.

Operating out of a Trinitarian worldview and a posture of biblical faith entails reading the Bible from within the conceptual framework provided by the inspired authors. At least part of the reason conservative theologians assumed a defensive stance in their theological work was due to the rise of the historical-critical method. This approach to biblical studies begins with a posture of doubt and harbors an anti-supernaturalistic bias. In his rather clinical study of the topic, Edgar Krentz describes this method as “secular,” a “child of the Enlightenment,” and “modeled on experimental science.”[11] This kind of methodological naturalism precludes one from reading the Bible on its own terms.

Given the hostile environment in which conservatives did their work, they felt the need to meet their theological opponents on their own turf and show that the Bible could withstand intense scrutiny. Despite their valiant efforts, their foes still found the Bible wanting.

But if we back up just a minute, it is no wonder conservatives and liberals came to different conclusions regarding the authority of the Bible and the truthfulness of the events it records since their disagreements are at the presuppositional level.[12]

Liberal theologian Paul E. Capetz, for example, argues that employing the historical-critical method is central to undermining classical Christianity. Why? He answers: “[O]nly a fully historicized[13] approach both to the biblical authors and exegetes of the Bible allows us to raise the question of ideological biases reflecting their social and cultural locations.” Denying the truthfulness of Scripture, Capetz continues, allows readers to regard it as “a human document subject to all the possibilities of ideological distortion we detect in other ancient texts.”[14]

So there you have it. According to Capetz, reading the Bible on its own terms precludes one from raising “the question of ideological biases,” which is what Capetz and his ilk want to do. But note: The presuppositions that govern Capetz’s approach to the Bible are not shared by the biblical writers and therefore should not determine how evangelicals read the Bible.[15]

A Nonmanipulative Reading and Heeding of God’s Word
A biblically robust methodology entails approaching the Bible as created yet fallen and dependent beings. This means we are not permitted to reason from our presuppositions to the Bible. Why? Because when it comes to Holy Scripture fallen human reason is not directive, but directed.[16] Insofar as dogmatics is learning how to think and speak well of God, it is not free speech.[17] Dogmatics is thought and speech disciplined, chastened, and restrained by the Word of God and the Great Tradition. Doing this well involves intellectual and moral repentance, having our false presuppositions eviscerated, recalibrated, and properly catechized.

Intellectual and moral contrition are necessary in order to expunge unworthy and idolatrous thoughts of God. By nature we do not bow in humble submission and heartfelt thanks to God’s glorious and gracious self-disclosure, but opt for the prison of our self-constructed definitions of the good life, preferring self over the sinless Savior who, through his substitutionary life and death, has claimed us as his own. Living in perceptional darkness, we unwittingly choose self-destruction rather than self-denial, viewing any encroachment on our freedom as a summons to death, rather than the pathway to liberation. Our inward erosion ensures that we not only fail to have the right answers, but that we are often not even posing the right questions. Such is our blindness that, believing we see, we are unable to see: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains,” Jesus declared (Jn. 9:41).

Seeing well requires a new heart (Ezek. 36:25–27; cf. Deut. 30:6)—a transplant that we cannot bring about on our own, but is a consequence of the unilateral work of God whereby he overthrows our innate opposition to his kingly reign. As created, sustained, and redeemed image-bearers, then, the proper way to approach God is as listeners: “One of the great dangers we face in doing theology is our desire to do all the talking.”[18]

Given that God communicates with a view to communing with his creatures, and that the mission of his Son was to rescue and create a new humanity, we can safely conclude that the company of the redeemed is a company of readers (Eph. 2:19; 3:6). God calls his sanctified people to sit before him and ponder his sacred oracles (Ps. 119). This requires slow, quiet, attentive, and communal reading.

Reading the Bible with the Church
Christian dogmatics and theological retrieval adopts a ruled reading of Scripture. Merging together the corporate dimension to God’s revelation with the Son’s mission to rescue a people from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 7:9), means that he did not intend for us to meditate on his Word all by our lonesome. The Word of God creates the church. The people of God receive the Word and read the Word together. The history of the church informs us that doing this well requires following certain protocols.

After the ascension of Christ and the death of the apostles, the early church formulated summaries of Scripture with the aim of instructing baptismal candidates in the rudiments of the faith. Grouping together passages like the Shema (Deut. 6:4–5), and the “Christological elaboration”[19] of the Shema (1 Cor. 8:6), along with highlighting the threefold name into which Christians are baptized (Matt. 28:18–20) and through whom they are blessed (2 Cor. 13:14), disciples are provided with the requisite framework—or “Rule of Faith”—to properly interpret the Bible.

Not only did this Rule assist in catechizing new believers, but it also served as a standard against which to measure heretical groups like the Gnostics, Arians, and Nestorians. Unsurprisingly, each of these sects appealed to the apostolic writings in order to support their theological conclusions. The church fathers Irenaeus (130–202), Tertullian (155–240), Basil of Caesarea (330–379), and Gregory of Nazianzen (329–390)—to list only a few—countered, however, by insisting that while they quoted the apostles and employed Christian language, they reinterpreted their meanings in ways out of accord with the apostolic tradition.[20]

The church fathers realized that heresy was a result of reading the Bible the wrong way. In light of this, their conflicts with either the Gnostics, Arians, or Nestorians were hermeneutical (that is, interpretive) debates. Due to the multiplicity of ways one might misread the Bible, the Rule of Faith provided a “road map” for how to properly read Scripture.[21] With only a few minor differences, the Rule of Faith mirrors the Apostles’ Creed. As a result of the work of the pro-Nicene theologians, however, this eventually expanded to the Nicene Creed.[22]

Why should you care about this?

In my conversations with Christians throughout the years, some have stated that all one needs to interpret Scripture rightly is a Bible and the Holy Spirit. However, since all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture, doctrinal disputes are not resolved by simply regurgitating Bible verses. We have to assess hermeneutical approaches. We must determine doctrinal preunderstandings. We must uncover presuppositional lenses.[23]

The early church fathers said the Rule of Faith was to be a Christian’s presupposition and guide in theology.[24] With the Rule as our baseline, we can then move from Scriptural citation to dogmatic formulation more wisely and with an eye toward catholicity.

Conclusion
Christian dogmatics and theological retrieval operate out of a particular set of judgments. We receive the Bible as a gift from God, not merely an artifact of the ancient Near Eastern culture. We enlist the church’s creeds and confessions as a matter of first principle, elevating the church’s theological heritage, embracing its grammar, and affirming its judgments.

Since contemporary evangelicals often muddle the doctrine of God and conceptualize the person of Christ in unorthodox ways, sitting at the feet of those who have provided the church with its “linguistic-conceptual apparatus”[25] for these precious doctrines is its own reward.[26] In my view, the premodern sources of theology are a rich harvest waiting for evangelicals to both read and retrieve for our personal and communal lives.

______________________________________________________

[1] John Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook on Systematic Theology, eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1; Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 81.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 29, cf. 474.

[3] Glenn R. Kreider and Michael J. Svigel, A Practical Primer on Theological Method: Table Manners for Discussing God, His Works, and His Ways (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 81, insist that these official pronouncements should be in accord with the undivided church.

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 19.

[5] See further Gavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Wheaton: IL: Crossway, 2019), 71.

[6] Andrew Moore, “Reason,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 396.

[7] John Webster, “Theological Theology,” in Confessing God: Essays on Christian Dogmatics II 2nd ed. (New York: T&T Clark, 2016), 11–31.

[8] Language borrowed from Douglas Farrow, Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 172.

[9] Here I borrow another phrase from John Webster. On which see Michael Allen, “Toward Theological Theology: Tracing the Methodological Principles of John Webster,” Themelios 41:2 (2016): 217–237. See esp. 231.

[10] Lewis Ayers argues that pro-Nicene theology has a specific metaphysic, epistemology, and spirituality that brings with it a certain habitus. See his Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 244 et. al.

[11] Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1975), 48, 55, 58.

[12] For more on this line of thinking, I highly recommend reading Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Some Epistemological Reflections on 1 Cor 2:6–16,” Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995): 103–124.

[13] Historicism is a “restriction of reality to what can be demonstrated inside the closed continuum of cause and effect.” See Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method, 56n2.

[14] Paul E. Capetz, “Theology and the Historical-Critical Study of the Bible,” Harvard Theological Review 104:4 (2011): 469. For a helpful rebuttal to Capetz’s theological method, see Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy, Ch. 16, esp. 384–410, 414–424. Additionally, yes, I am aware that some evangelical theologians employ the historical-critical methods, albeit without adopting its presuppositions hook, line, and sinker. For a scholarly and nuanced treatment, see D. A. Carson, “Redaction Criticism: On the Legitimacy and Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool,” in Collected Writings on Scripture, comp. Andrew David Naselli (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), Ch. 4.

[15] See further Murray Rae, “Theological Interpretation and Historical Criticism,” in A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, eds. Craig C. Bartholomew and Heath A. Thomas (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 94–109; John M. Frame, “Inerrancy: A Place to Live,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57:1 (2014): 29–39. See esp. 37.

[16] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 61.

[17] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 2.

[18] Lints, Fabric of Theology, 82.

[19] Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 107.

[20] Bruce L. Shelley, By What Authority? The Standards of Truth in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 85–86.

[21] Paul Hartog, “The ‘Rule of Faith’ and Patristic Biblical Exegesis,” Trinity Journal 28:1 (Spring 2007): 65–86.

[22] R. R. Reno, “The Return of the Fathers,” First Things (November 2006): 17. Cf. Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy, 420.

[23] Rhyne R. Putman, When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 83.

[24] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 35, 36.

[25] Michael A. Wilkinson, “SBJT Forum,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 23:2 (2019): 152.

[26] On the Trinity, see Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy. On the person of Christ see Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016). To see the connection between classical Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, see Brian E. Daley, “‘One Thing and Another’: The Persons in God and the Person of Christ in Patristic Theology,” Pro Ecclesia 15 (2006): 17–46. For further development on the person of Christ, I highly recommend Dennis Michael Ferrara’s insightful article “‘Hypostatized in the Logos’: Leontius of Byzantium, Leontius of Jerusalem, and the Unfinished Business of the Council of Chalcedon,” Louvain Studies 22:4 (1997): 312–327.

Book Briefs Interspersed with Life Lessons: April–August (Part II)

Here’s Part Two of my book briefs, as promised.

John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? I’ll review this one differently. Follow along:

Background: Although sixty years ago they were singing a different tune, nowadays the majority of non-conservative OT scholars claim that there is nothing unique about Israelite religion. Building upon the work of Harvard Divinity School professor G. Ernest Wright, a previous generation of OT specialists argued that “the differences between the Israelite way of thinking about reality and the way in which Israel’s neighbors approached that topic were so significant that no evolutionary explanations could account for them” (11). Now they claim that Israel’s Scriptures are shot through with myth just like the nations that surrounded them.

Definition of myth: Nailing down a definition of myth is not an easy feat.[1] After surveying all the options on the table, Oswalt offer his own definition: “myth is best characterized by its common understanding of, and approach to, the world,” and labels this understanding of myth “continuity.” By this he means that everything in the world is connected (44–46). In contemporary jargon we might say that the countries surrounding Israel were either pantheistic or panentheistic (49). This led worshipers to believe that they could manipulate the deities by participating in certain rituals (55). In this respect, Israelite religion was different from that of its neighbors because the God of the Bible reveals himself as desiring mercy and not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6 et. al.). Worshipers could not manipulate God by going through the religious motions. Rather, the sacrifices one offered must be expressions of a worshiper’s heartfelt devotion to God.

Some OT scholars argue that while Israel employed myth in its early years, it eventually set this aside and opted to write more straightforward history (think Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles).[2] On this front Oswalt says OT scholars must ask why: If one assumes that Genesis and Exodus are myths—that is, not factual accounts of what actually happened—then why did Israel stop writing myths? And more to the point: Why did all the surrounding cultures continue to employ it? Oswalt insists that OT scholars cannot overlook this point. They must answer the following question: If Israel was not unique, then why did they change their methods while everyone else around them kept on with business as usual?

Similarities between Israel and other ANE Cultures: What about the similarities between OT religion and that of the surrounding nations? Here’s the short answer: Superficial similarities do not mean substantial agreement. True, Israel shared similar characteristics and practices with other ANE cultures—law codes, sacrifices, and ritual cleansings—but these similarities are not the main issue. As Oswalt asserts, “What is significant is the way in which the Israelites utilize these features in a belief system that is radically different from anything around them. . . . [W]hat is significant about Israelite religion is not that some unique idea appears, but that the whole way of thinking about reality is unique and that it is absolutely thoroughgoing in the Bible” (92).

Bottom Line: I found this book insightful in many ways, but I doubt it will change the minds of those convinced of the opposing position. As I already mentioned, sixty years ago OT scholars held that Israel’s religion was utterly unique, but now believe otherwise. What brought about the change? If you assume it was because new evidence was unearthed you’d be wrong (12ff.). Oswalt surmises that the shift in belief was due to the transformation in thinking that took place in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States of America, which brought with it a rejection of authority and a repudiation of revelation.

Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson’s book is a one-stop-shop introduction to the main issues swirling around the current transgender debate. In it he summarizes and rebuts the arguments advanced by transgender activists as well as provides first-hand testimony from those who have “de-transitioned”—that is, those who either started hormone treatment but opted to stop, or who underwent gender reassignment surgery but afterward regretted doing so. (For some reason, the media doesn’t share their stories.) Additionally, he also delves into what makes us men and women, explains why children should not receive puberty blockers or hormone therapy, and argues that society should not go along with the transgender revolution. As you might imagine, activists have trashed his book (especially Andrea Long Chu, albeit briefly.)

But their critiques are unjust. Contrary to their descriptions of Anderson’s tone, he writes with empathy throughout. Chu and others, however, interpret everything through the lens of power and therefore assert that Anderson and company are guilty of “peddling bigotry under the guise of concern” (apparently Chu and his coterie are gifted in clairvoyancy). The goal of the book isn’t to change the minds of transgender activists but to inform open-minded people of what’s at stake in the discussion of transgender rights. The crux of the issue is this: Since those on opposing sides in this debate inhabit two entirely different moral and epistemological universes, resolution will not be forthcoming. And therein lies a life lesson: Moral disagreements are irresolvable so long as participants in a given discussion do not share the same first principles.

Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. I offered an extended analysis on this book here.

 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation. I can’t say it better than Gayle Doornbos: Bavinck’s doctrine of God is like no other. Not in the sense that it’s a departure from the classical tradition, but in that it is far richer than most evangelical accounts. As with the other volumes in his dogmatics, the one word that best summarizes this work is comprehensive. To give you an idea, I took fifty-one pages of notes! The sheer magnitude of the book precludes any succinct summary. Instead, I’ll simply say this was the best book on the doctrine of God I have read and plan to revisit it frequently. By far, my favorite section of the book was Bavinck’s treatment of God’s omniscience, especially his engagement with Molinists and their theory of middle knowledge. According to Bavinck, the problem with proponents of middle knowledge is that they want to try to bring together two mutually exclusive views—libertarian freedom and exhaustive foreknowledge (202). They argue that a person’s decisions are entirely free, the human will is indifferent, and therefore in no sense determined. But if that’s true then God’s foreknowledge cannot be exhaustive. As Bavinck notes, humans receive their “being” and their “being able” from God. But according to the theory of middle knowledge, “It [the human will] sovereignly makes its own decisions and either accomplishes something or does not accomplish something apart from any preceding divine decree. Something can therefore come into being quite apart from God’s will. The creature is now creator, autonomous and sovereign; the entire history of the world is taken out of God’s controlling hands and placed into human hands. First, humans decide; then God responds with a plan that corresponds to that decision” (201). In light of the foregoing, Bavinck wonders, “What are we to think, then, of a God who forever awaits all those decisions and keeps in readiness a store of all possible plans for all possibilities? What then remains of even a sketch of the world plan when left to humans to flesh out? And of what value is a government whose chief executive is the slave of his own subordinates? . . . In the theory of middle knowledge, that is precisely the case with God. God looks on, while humans decide” (201). In sum, tolle lege!

Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Problem with Socialism. Currently serving as an economics professor at Loyola University, Maryland, DiLorenzo wrote this book in light of a 2015 yougov.org poll, which indicated that 43 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 to 24 had a favorable opinion of socialism—indeed, a higher opinion of socialism than they did capitalism. Given these approval ratings, DiLorenzo provides a basic introduction to socialism, along with brief snippets of its—how do I put this delicately?—less than stellar historical pedigree.

Briefly: While college students roar with approval when Bernie Sanders and others promise free education and healthcare, they should recall a rather important fact: nothing the government provides is free (3, 99). “Single-payer healthcare” means tax payer healthcare, which means higher taxes. True, these same crowds gesticulate gleefully when politicians vouch to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for these “entitlements,” but they should at least know that high income earners find ways around progressive income taxes, which means the tax burdens are placed on other earners (136). Additionally, these responses ignore decades of research demonstrating that government-run monopolies reduce the quality of goods and services, and are also less efficient (4, 44). Also, the fact that the ruling class in socialist countries are exempt from their own policies should be a sign that something isn’t right (104)! In all socialist countries, the common people live in poverty while elites enjoy privileged lives (7).

Speaking of elites, intellectuals and professors at leading universities tend not only to sing the praises of socialism, but also view it as their responsibility to help usher society into this state of utopian bliss (see Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society for a comprehensive analysis). DiLorenzo, for his part, argues that this explains why socialism attracts unethical leaders. It requires someone willing to impose his or her will on others, all the while promising, “Trust me, this will be good for you!” For the socialist, the ends justify the means. Hence, violence is permissible in order to get the job done.

And there’s no getting around the evidence. The body count in socialist regimes is staggering:

USSR: 20 million deaths.
China: 60 million deaths.
Vietnam: 1 million deaths.
North Korea: 2 million deaths.
Cambodia: 2 million deaths.
Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths.
Latin America: 150,000 deaths.
Africa: 1.7 million deaths.
Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths

(Numbers cited in The Black Book of Communism published by Harvard University Press)

George MacDonald, The Diary of An Old Soul. A year’s worth of mesmerizing poems sure to capture the heart’s longing for the transcendent. I loved it. Here’s a snippet:

How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to other a sinking heart;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some; to some the shaking dart.

To some thou giv’st a deep unrest—a scorn
Of all they are or see upon the earth;
A gaze, at dusky night and clearing morn,
As on a land of emptiness and dearth;
To some a bitter sorrow; to some the sting
Of love misprized—of sick abandoning;
To some a frozen heart, oh, worse than anything!

To some a mocking demon, that doth set
The poor foiled will to scoff at the ideal,
But loathsome makes to them their life of jar.
The messengers of Satan think to mar,
But make—driving the soul from false to feal—
To thee, the reconciler, the one real,
In whom alone the would be and the is are met.
 
Me thou hast given an infinite unrest,
A hunger—not at first after known good,
But something vague I knew not, and yet would—
The veiled Isis, they will not understood;
A conscience tossing ever in my breast’
And something deeper, that will not be expressed,
Save as the Spirit thinking in the Spirit’s brood.

Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. A helpful introduction to classical theism. Although promoted as being in the vein of an R. C. Sproul kind of book, I can’t say I agree. Barrett is helpful at many points, but he doesn’t write as clearly as Sproul did.

John Webster, The Culture of Theology. Edited by Ivor Davidson and Alden McCray, this volume consists of a series of reworked essays and unpublished lectures by Webster. While covering a range of topics, my favorites were his entries on the character and habits of a good theologian and the humility required for a right reading of Scripture. For Webster, the Christian theologian must pursue 1) the fear of God, 2) a teachable spirit, and 3) freedom from self-preoccupation (11). As for the appropriate way to read the Bible: Since Christian theology arises out of the “shock” of the gospel (43), discharging our task properly calls for roots in astonishment (60–61). And whereas the fallen intellect inclines toward Scriptural manipulation in order to undermine and domesticate the Bible, the believing heart adopts a hermeneutic of humility, and in turn, is accosted by God, and consequently slain and made alive by him.

Thomas Watson, All Things for Good. A theologically weighty and practically pungent meditation on Romans 8:28.

Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Similar to Murray’s book above, go here for a more in depth analysis.

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[1] Those genuinely interested in this topic should consult Bruce K. Waltke, “Myth, History, and the Bible,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), Ch. 18.

[2] Some OT scholars say there is nothing of historical value in the OT until the time of David and Solomon—hence the minimalist, medialist, and maximalist positions with respect to OT history. See C. Hassell Bullock, “History and Theology: The Tale of Two Histories,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, eds. David M. Howared Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2003), Ch. 4.

Review of Stephen Bronner’s Book on Critical Theory

Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

First, about the author: Bronner is Distinguished Professor of political science at Rutgers University. Second: Given his prescriptions about how to apply Critical Theory in the present cultural moment, he’s a full-throated supporter of this social philosophy. Third: In what follows, I lay out the hallmarks of Critical Theory by way of summarizing Bronner’s treatment and then conclude with my concerns.

Hallmarks of Critical Theory (CT):
SubversionBronner begins by linking the subversive element of CT with the origins of philosophy, dating back to Socrates (1). (Note: Bronner calls CT subversive, not me.) According to Bronner, subversion is necessary in order to undermine and upend the exploitation and repression “embedded” within Western civilization (1). Proponents of CT aim to empower victims of exploitation through “consciousness, education, and practical experience” (19).

MarxismCT was “conceived in the crucible of Marxism” (2), but since it is concerned with politics and culture rather than economics, it was eventually called “Western Marxism” (3). Karl Kosch and Georg Lukács provided the intellectual firepower behind what became known as the “Frankfurt School” (3).

SkepticismAdvocates of CT are deeply skeptical of tradition and claims to authority (1). (Again, these are not my words, but Bronner’s.) Given this entrenched skepticism, “Western Marxists were intent upon questioning hegemony” (18).

(Note: In contemporary culture, Critical Race Theory (an offshoot of CT) places white, heterosexual, cisgender, native born, able-bodied men at the top of the hegemony.)

Confronting society’s powerbrokers is necessary because they will always affirm the existing social order and resist its dismantling (20). For this reason, some forms of CT promote the use of violence in order to accomplish their objectives. I came across this view several months back as I read Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America. Meredith Talusan, a writer who identifies as a transgender author and intersectional journalist, argues that resorting to violence is necessary since “people in power have no motive to change their ways unless they feel threatened.”[1]

Capitalism = Alienation and Reification, which are the causes of human misery Alienation describes the psychological effects of exploitation, while reification is the process by which people become commodities. Exponents of CT argue that alienation and reification are the natural consequences of capitalism since it treats human beings instrumentally, that is, as means to an end—the end being financial profit (44). Additionally, the existence of an exploited class demonstrates that liberal republicanism has failed to achieve its Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity (43, 44, 54).

The only solution is to abolish capitalism: “The proletariat must now understand itself as the subject of historical action . . . whose purpose is the abolition of alienation and class society” (46).

LiberationThe need of the hour is revolution, which arises in the hearts of the disenfranchised. In classical Marxism this would be the working class. But for Western Marxists the disenfranchised would be “[w]omen, people of color, gays, and anti-imperialist movements at the periphery of the system” (90–93).

CosmopolitanismCosmopolitanism “views the world as a unitary global society in which the individual rights of people take precedence over the sovereign rights of territorial states.”[2] This view stands in contrast to communitarianism, which “views the world as a society of nation-states in which the primary responsibility of such states is to protect and enhance the rights and well-being of its own people while also caring for all people.”[3] Although he doesn’t use the language, Bronner makes plain that defenders of CT support an open border policy with respect to immigration. Hence, after appealing to Immanuel Kant’s definition of cosmopolitanism as the ability to feel at home everywhere, Bronner writes: “Today, the ethical imperative is to make the Other feel at home where we are” (121).

UtopianismBronner reports that all members of the Frankfurt School “showed an explicit interest in abolishing not merely social injustice but the psychological, cultural, and anthropological sources of unhappiness” (25). Whereas capitalism thrives on the concept of scarcity (which Herbert Marcuse believed was being “artificially maintained,” 72), “Utopia is the denial of this [scarcity]” (73). In the wake of the revolution envisioned by Marxists, scarcity will be overcome “and individuals [will] cease to view one another in instrumental terms. People are placed before profits, work turns into play, and a new sensibility takes shape that is almost biologically repulsed by cruelty, exploitation, and violence” (73).

Thankfully, Bronner admits that every attempt at implementing socialism has resulted in the exact opposite of its ideals. Usually the outcome was a bloody mess. One wonders, then: Why put forth this utopian ideal? Simply put, because it creates an avalanche of momentum: “The great movements were never inspired, and the barricades never mounted for purely pragmatic reasons. . . . Utopia has an existential component: it is the ideal for which countless individuals have proven willing to die” (77).

Concerns:
Religion is a problem – While he does not speak for all who champion CT, Bronner is quite clear: “religion remains the opium of the masses” (118). He continues: “the material critique of alienation is grounded in the critique of religion, and attempts to romanticize faith tend to reproduce the alienation that critical theory intended to overcome” (118, emphasis mine). Since the goal is revolution, competing allegiances must be sundered.

Additionally, for Bronner and other CT enthusiasts, religion is a no-no because it is authoritarian and thereby stifles individual autonomy (117).

Christians buying into CT should beware of this fact.

Utopia and Cosmic Justice – Whereas Christians look for cosmic justice in the age to come, CTers believe that if their policies are implemented rightly, we can start the parade now. Human misery will vanish, they maintain, once capitalism is crushed.

This explains Marx’s angst at the presence of the poor working class. In his mind, inequality of outcome is an indicator of systemic injustice. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer (44). Plus, he held that caring for the less fortunate superseded making profits.

As I’ve written elsewhere, humane treatment of all image bearers is a must. Further, caring for the poor is a biblical injunction. Still, while the Bible commands sacrificial love and casts a robust vision of human flourishing, it nowhere promises the end of all injustices before the eschaton. Given this reality, Marx’s assumption that the presence of the poor necessarily entailed injustice is unwarranted.

But beyond the biblical vision, economist Thomas Sowell has demonstrated in multiple publications that income disparities are multifactorial and not necessarily the result of wealthy people abusing the less fortunate.[4] Further, Sowell argues, “The all too familiar cliché about ‘the paradox of poverty in an affluent society’ is a paradox only to those who start with (1) a preconception of an egalitarian world, in defiance of history, and (2) a disregard of the arbitrary nature of the government-defined word ‘poverty.’”[5]

We might also ask how the poor have fared in socialist countries throughout history. Remember: Marx’s critique of liberal republicanism was that it failed to achieve its Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Fair enough.[6] But does anyone actually believe that socialist countries did? Again, let’s look at the numbers one more time:

USSR: 20 million deaths.
China: 60 million deaths.
Vietnam: 1 million deaths.
North Korea: 2 million deaths.
Cambodia: 2 million deaths.
Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths.
Latin America: 150,000 deaths.
Africa: 1.7 million deaths.
Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths

(Numbers cited in The Black Book of Communism published by Harvard University Press)

If you haven’t already, read Armando Valladares’s Against All Hope and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichthe latter of which Yevgeny Yevtushenko said “had the effect of a political bomb” for the Soviet Union.[7]

True, capitalism is imperfect. But the question we must ask is: Compared to what?

Sowell reminds readers:

“If the aversion of the intelligentsia to the level of inequality in the United States were shared by the poor in other countries, it would be hard to account for the long-standing, massive and sometimes desperate efforts of poor immigrants from around the world to reach America.”[8]

One final point: In order to usher all of humanity into a state of happiness, defenders of CT must assume that everyone shares their definition of happiness. But history does not bear this out. Actually, where it has been tried—the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cambodia, and Cuba, just to list a few—not only did mass executions numbering in the millions follow, but people fled the countries in droves.

But this is par for the course with cultural elites, as Thomas Sowell has documented extensively.[9] They write and speak as if they know better than the average person and view their calling as one of leading people toward liberation. Oddly enough, however, while they portray themselves as being “for the people,” they do not seek to preserve their autonomy.[10]

A sovereign state is required – Since purveyors of CT are convinced that their policies are good for society, Bronner says a sovereign state is required to enforce their ideas (118). Indeed, in light of the fact that all relationships are shot through with power dynamics, and power will always be a reality of life in this world, what is necessary is for the right group to be in power (122). In short, advancing the cause of CT is imperative if society is to reach a state of utopian bliss. The exercise of violence may be necessary in order to achieve the vision, but the end result is worth it: The powerful must finally be accountable to the powerless (114).

As Phillip E. Johnson observes:

“If one has as expansive a vision of what social justice requires as [Leon] Trotsky did, one has to be prepared to go the distance with thought reform, firing squads, concentration camps and other mechanisms of terror. . . . To a radical redistributionist it is the pain of the poor that counts, and to heed the protesting squeals of the exploiters is mere squeamishness that leads to more misery in the end.”[11]

Conclusion
As a worldview, Critical Theory provides a coherent lens through which to see and interpret reality. It checks all the boxes, furnishing devotees with a creation, fall, redemption, and consummation narrative. But despite its coherence, it departs from the biblical plotline on multiple fronts—from its profile of humanity, to its depiction of salvation, to its portrayal of the beatific vision.

For these reasons, I cannot embrace it and would advise my fellow Christians to read and listen to critical theorists with caution.

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Sources:

[1] Meredith Talusan, “We’ve Always Been Nasty: Why the Feminist Movement Needs Trans Women and Gender-Noncomforming Femmes,” in Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, eds. Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding (New York: Picador, 2017), 197.

[2] Mark R. Amstutz, Just Immigration: American Policy in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Sowell, Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 141.

[5] Ibid., 174.

[6] For America in particular, see Shelby Steele, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[7] Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Introduction to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, trans. Ralph Parker (New York: Signet Classics, 2008), xvii.

[8] Sowell, Wealth, Poverty and Politics, 194.

[9] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

[10] Ibid., 94, 105.

[11] Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 120, 121.