Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vanhoozer V - Don't Forget the Oneliners

Besides other things, we’ve been asking if the Bible itself is a theological book, or simply raw data to which we come with our theory-laden agendas. Both in The Drama of Doctrine, and now in Remythologizing Theology, Vanhoozer strongly conveys the impression that is characteristic of the modern theological mood, that in regard to the theologian’s relation to Scripture, the theologian always has the initiative. In The Drama of Doctrine, there are various proposals, the Hodge-Henry hypothesis, of Christian doctrine as exclusively cognitive, the George Lindbeck alternative of doctrine as the establishing of the identity of the Christian community, and Vanhoozer’s own proposal, somewhere in between, of doctrine as dramatic direction. In the new book there is modern panentheism, in which what God does is indistinct from what he is, there is the perichoretic, symmetrical Trinitarian model of divine human relations, and there is Vanhoozer’s own proposal, somewhere in between, of God as communicative agent.

But we have seen that it is impossible for the modern theologian to retain the initiative in a fully consistent fashion. For example, according to Vanhoozer what we need is an account of God as engaging in triune communicative agency. But how has that small word ‘triune’ slipped in? Triune, trinitarian? The trinity, is that a theory too? Or is the teaching of Scripture clearly and indelibly Trinitarian? Does the Bible teach the trinity, or not? The answer is obvious. The theologian cannot start from scratch not only because there is a history of theology that we inherit, but also because the Bible itself presents us with a theology.

At one place (footnote 488) Vanhoozer notes that he has not said much in his proposals about God as the creator and sustainer of the universe, citing 1 Cor.8.6. This may suggest that his remythologizing project is based on somewhat selective biblical data. But it is not so much the question of being selective. It is that by focussing on God’s communication by conversational speech he skews its importance. The biblical data which I have called ‘one-liners’ is not more of the same, but quite different in how it informs of who God is and what he is like. The omission from his list of communicative acts – poetry, song, parable, apocalyptic, story and argument - of statement, or assertion, is significant, as is his omission of the dominical and apostolic discourse which takes the form of doctrine+application.

In The Drama of Doctrine, though Vanhoozer inveighs against de-dramatized theology, he also acknowledges the presence in Scripture of what he calls creedal language. In my view, one reason why the later book is an advance on the earlier one is that more recognition is given to the creedal language of Scripture than earlier. But still not enough. His present proposal is meant to provide a theological framework in which doctrine as dramatical direction is understood, but it still goes nowhere near enough to acknowledging and giving importance to the fact that the Bible is full of what I have called‘one liners’. One liners are short statements about God, or even parenthetical clauses,that, although they first occur on some particular occasion, in some context, nevertheless transcend that occasion and context. They are statements which, even when they are de-dramatised, express permanent truths about God, truths which transcend both actions of the divine drama and conversations between God and man.

A sample of one-liners

Here is a sample of twenty-one of these one-liners about God himself, taken at random from the scores that are to be found in Scripture.

Deut 32.40 – ‘As I live forever….’

Rev. 1.8 - ‘I am the Alpha and Omega…who is and who was and who is to come the Almighty’.

I Tim 6.15 – ‘The blessed and only sovereign, the King of kings, and Lord of lords’.

Job 11. 7 – ‘Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?’

Is. 40.13 – ‘Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel?’

Eph. 3.10 – ‘the manifold wisdom of God’

Job 28.24 – ‘He looks to the ends of the each and sees everything under the heavens’

Acts 15.17 – ‘The Lord makes these things known of old’

I Sam. 16.7 – ‘The Lord looks on the heart’

Ps. 94.10-11 – ‘He who teaches man knowledge – the Lord – knows the thoughts of man, that they are a breath’.

Rom. 3.30 - ‘God is one’

Heb 13.8 – ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’

Ps. 16.2 – ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you’.

Matt. 5.48 – ‘Your heavenly Father is perfect’

II Pet. 3.8 – ‘With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’

Rom. 16.27 – ‘the only wise God’

I Sam 2.2. – ‘there is none holy as the Lord’

I Thess. 1.9 - ‘the living and true God’

I John.5.20 – ‘that we may know him who is true, and we are in him who is true’

John 5.26 – ‘The Father has life in himself’

John 4. 24 – ‘God is spirit’

Only twenty-one, out of many hundreds, taken at random. These have to do mainly with the life, and power, and steadfastness, and energy and uniqueness of God. They are by no means generalisations drawn from the mighty acts of God, but many record what God is in himself. They tell us about the being or nature or essence of God. Of course, others could be added to our list, having to do with his Trinitarian nature. All these ‘one liners’ are creedal statements, or statements that have creedal implications, which though they first occur in part of what Vanhoozer calls the mythos, may be abstracted from that context and re-issued, time and again, in other contexts. For they are permanent, permanently true statements about God, as God himself is permanent. They help to provide us with the biblical doctrine of God, and so to provide the permanent theological context in which a Christian theologian must work, which he must emphasise, and which he must not infringe.

Not only that, the one-liners also provide the theological scaffolding of the mighty acts of God, reminding us, by their frequent and also incidental occurrence in Scripture, of the character of the so-called ‘director’ of the drama.

The Pastorals

Let us look at this in a different way. One of the most significant groups of writings in the New Testament are Paul’s pastoral epistles. One might think, on Vanhoozer’s schema, that coming towards the end of the NT canon they would provide guidance for all those ministers whose function it is, according to Vanhoozer, to portray the drama of redemption and to initiate new players into how to be participants in it. But not a bit of it.

For our purposes here, two features of these writings stand out. First, what is said about the job of ministers. The letters express Paul’s expectations for the rising generation of ministers of the Gospel. They are to be primarily and principally, teachers. (I Tim. 1.3-8,3.3, 3.9, 4.2, 4.10, 4.13, 4.16, 5.17, 6.3 . 2 Tim. 1.13, 2.2, 2.14, 2.23, 2.28, 3.10, 3.14, 4.2-3. Titus 1.9, 2.1, 2.7, 2.15, 3.8.)

Second, the letters also contain their own share of one liners:

I Timothy

‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1.15)

‘To the king of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever’ (1.17)

‘God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved’ (2. 3-4)

‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (2.5)

‘For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving’. (4.4)

‘…the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe’ (4.10)

‘…God, who gives life to all things’ (6.13)

‘..the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in inapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see’ (6.16)

II Timothy

‘….the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace. (1.8-9)

‘But God’s firm foundation…(2.19}

‘All Scripture is breathed out by God….’(3.16)

‘…of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead…’ (4.1)

‘…the Lord stood by me and strengthened me…’(4.17)


‘….God, who never lies, promised before the ages began’ (1.2)

And in addition there is this beautiful epitome of the gospel so admired by John Newton:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, teaching us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and so purify for himself a people for his own possession, who are zealous of good works. (2.11-12)

While there is movement in this direction in some of the assertions of Remythologizing Theology, a movement in a creedal direction, I am still not convinced that Vanhoozer has got it.

The Covenant of Redemption and Tritheism

‘The full reality of God and God’s work are not adequately grasped till the Covenant of Redemption – the specific covenantal agreement between Father and Son on which the Covenant of Grace rests – occupies its proper place in our minds’.

- J.I.Packer

Bob Letham has suggested in a couple of places that the Reformed idea of a pre-temporal covenant of redemption between the persons of the Trinity, which is present in nuce (if not in express terms) in the Westminster Confession of Faith, opens the door to the heresy of tritheism. Although the phrase ‘covenant of redemption’ is not to be found in the Westminster Confession, the idea is, in the Chapter on Christ the mediator, where it is stated that Christ is called to the office of a mediator by the Father. (The Westminster Assembly 235-70)

Without doubt here is a pre-temporal plan of redemption, but (Bob Letham claims) it is wrong or misleading (and potentially dangerous), to describe the relation of the persons of the Trinity, and particular the relation of the Word to the Father, as covenantal. This is because the idea of a covenant is a legal or quasi legal notion, one that it is highly inappropriate to suppose exists between the members of the Trinity who are united, as one God, in intimate, perichoretic relations of love. But more basically, perhaps, the idea of a covenant is objectionable because it requires there to be different parties, and to suppose that the persons of the Trinity are or could be parties to such an arrangement among themselves threatens the idea that the Trinity is one God, and that its works are indivisible.

I certainly agree that we should avoid mental pictures of the Trinity as if they are three people sitting around a boardroom table deciding who does what. Such imagery can at best be an accommodation. Also, the idea of a covenant being necessarily legal can be sidestepped. A covenant is an agreement between two or more persons. It may or may not be legal. ‘The word is used in great variety, and what is intended by it must be learned from the subject-matter treated of, seeing there is no precept or promise of God but my be so called.’ (John Owen,Commentary on Hebrews, Exercitation XXVIII, ‘Federal Transactions between the Father and the Son’, II.81) There may be many different kinds of agreement, depending on the status and the roles of the parties, and the provision of various stipulations or conditions. So in what follows we shall concentrate upon the problem of the parties.

It is a widely-held tenet of Christian orthodoxy that there are distinctions between the persons of the Trinity, but no division.s For the Lord our God is one Lord, in three persons. The oneness of God is not simply the idea that divinity is a common property which the three persons share, like Tom, Dick and Harry share the property of being human, nor is it the union of a society of individuals, like a bowling club or a Masonic Lodge. So it would be wrong to suppose that the three persons are three parts of the one divine nature, or three members of one society. For each person is wholly God, each is God’s indivisible essence. To think in terms of parts would be to divide the godhead, and each person would then preside over a different segment or division of the divine nature. To avoid this (in the case of the Father and the Son, for example) it is necessary to maintain that being God, both Father and Son are wholly and indivisibly in harmony in their work together. So how are to understand the covenant of redemption? Is it a legitimate idea, consistent with such triunity?

Let us approach this question first from the economy of redemption, and work backwards, or upwards. It is an aspect of the economy that the Father gives the Son a ‘work’ to do (John 17.4) and it is the Son’s food to accomplish it. (John 4.34) It is clear from this that the giving by the Father was (as it must have been) also a receiving by the Son in a Father-Son union of love and grace. So such a relation is not merely that of direction or delegation, nor is it a legally binding covenant or bargain. Rather, the Son delights in the Father’swill, (Ps.40.8/Heb.10.5-9) and vice versa. Whatever the doctrine of the Trinity is, this economic arrangement must also be consistent with it.

If the relations between the persons of the Trinity in the economy are in harmony with the mutuality of the persons of the Trinity, then it is hard to see how the eternal covenant of redemption could fail to be an expression of the same sort of relationship. If there is an agreement between the Father and the Son that is revealed in the redeeming of the race, then it is hard to see how there could not be an agreement between the persons prior to the economy.Of course there is a voluntary humility of the Son, his taking on of human nature, but he remains the person of the Son in doing so, fully divine, and so he remains in mutual love and harmony with the other persons, despite the fact that neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit are incarnate. It is not the Father who is incarnate, but God in the person of the Son.

What of the pre-temporal situation? We may say this: if the economic relations between the persons are compatible with full Trinitarianism, then so must the pre-temporal arrangements be. Let us try to spell this out.

If the persons of the Father and the Spirit mutually indwell the person of the Son in his becoming incarnate, then if in the eternal counsel there is a covenant between the persons then this must also be perichoretic, an expression of the mutual indwelling or interpenetration of each person in the other, while at the same time not destroying the distinctions of the persons. So, if we suppose a council of redemption, then given the unity of the Trinity, what the Father wills for the Son must also be what the Son wills for himself, together with his further willing that this be the Father’s will for him, and that it be the will of the Spirit for the him, and so on.There is complete coinherence. If at this point we use the language of covenant, then the covenanting between the persons must be coinherent in this fashion. Why may it not be? At what point has the door been opened to tri-theism?

And there is complete unity. As Owen expresses it:

The will of God as to the peculiar actings on the Father in this matter [that is, the eternal Trinitarian covenant] is the will of the Father, and the will of God with regard unto the peculiar acts of the Son is the will of the Son; not by a distinction of sundry wills, but by the distinct application of the same will unto its distinct acts in the persons of the Father and the Son. And in this respect the covenant whereof we treat differeth from a pure decree; for from these distinct actions of the will of God in the Father and the Son there doth arise a new habitude or relation which is not natural or necessary unto them, but freely taken on them. (Commentary on Hebrews, II.88)

We may stiffen up the relation between the economy and the pre-temporal arrangement but observing that it is hard to see how the Son’s obedience in the economy in Incarnation and redemption can fail to have a pre-temporal anticipation, a prolepsis, an eternal willingness thus to obey. For his being given the work of his Father does not date from a time after the Incarnation, but (as we have seen) it expresses a pre-temporal determination to give the Son a work, and a similar determination of the Son to be willing to do that work, prior to its actually being undertaken in the humbling of Incarnation. The willing of the work, and the doing of the work, must presuppose the same trinitarianism.

There is also concern that in traditional statements of the eternal Council of Redemption the agreement is between the Father and Son. Where is the Spirit, it is said? Maybe we could call this the bi-theistic question. Perhaps two things can be said. Since it is God the Son. incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, who is redeemer of God’s elect, it is appropriate that the covenant is principally between the Father and the Son. But this, once again, must be understood in terms of the divine Triunity. Is the Spirit absent, a bystander? By no means. For he is indivisibly God, together with the Father and the Son.

To say that the idea of an eternal covenant of redemption ‘tends towards, or borders on, tritheism’, means that it starts a line of thought that may lead to tritheism, though there is no suggestion, I think, that it actually did lead in this direction, that certain people became tritheists as a result of adhering to the covenant of redemption.(Though note what Bob Letham says, 236) In fact, rather ironically, the tendency was entirely the other way, the expunging of the mystery of the Trinity in rationalistic Unitarianism. Nevertheless, were some tempted to push at the door of tritheism it can most certainly be kept closed by careful statements and the use of appropriate qualifications that are characteristic of sound theology.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

An English Assembly

Bob Letham’s new book (The Westminster Assembly, Reading its Theology in Historical Context, P & R, 2009)) is full of facts and of insights about the Assembly. What I particularly like about it (as an Englishman, you’ll understand) is that he begins the book by plotting the English historical setting of the Westminster Assembly, the influence of the 39 Articles (minimised by Warfield) and of the Irish Articles of Archbishop Ussher (who came to be Bishop of Carlisle, something I had not known before). So we have the following sequence:

The 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England, 1571

The Irish Articles, 1615

The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647

The project that lay behind the Westminster Confession, that of a Reformed Church of England, may have ‘failed’ in England, in the political sense. But its theological substance was nevertheless carried forward into the post-Revolutionary situation in England. (108) In the period between 1647 and (say) 1680 the Presbyterian majority of the Assembly sinks without trace: the divines die out, or become rationalistic and Unitarian. Nevertheless, a strong endorsement of the Confession is to be found in the way that the Baptist and Independent documents shamelessly take over large swathes of the Confession verbatim, the differences almost all being made to reflect ecclesiastical distinctives and a changed historical setting. These direct confessional descendents, the children of Westminster, were authorised by the churches of English Dissent. So those who wish to continue the English confessional trajectory could legitimately add that after the failure of the Confession in England its theological outlook continued to be upheld by

The Savoy Declaration 1658, and

The Baptist Confession of Faith, 1677, 1689

These are also English documents, of course. So Baptists or Congregationalists who presently adhere to these respective confessions can trace their line, through Westminster, to the Articles of Religion of the Church of England and to their patristic and conciliar background. Is this recognised as it should be by those who presently adhere to these Confessions, I wonder?

The Westminster Confession is English in another sense, in that it was the product of the Assembly which was called into being by the English Parliament, to whom it reported. Its first task was the revision of the 39 Articles. So whatever it came to confess on the church-state relationship, it was itself the child of an Erastian ecclesiology, and not of the assembly of any church. The Scots Commissioners (Rutherford and co.) were not members of the Assembly, and so had no voting rights. This is not to say that the Scots did not exercise a (disproportionate?) influence on the proceedings, partly due, Bob Letham seems to imply, to the political importance of keeping the Scots onside. (41-2) Most of the members of the Assembly were ordained ministers of the Church of England. But it failed to become the Confession of Faith of the Church of England. Its proposals were ‘dead in the water as soon as the Assembly made them’. (299 fn.16. Though according to Gerald Bray the Confession was legally enforced in England until the Restoration in 1660. (Documents of the English Reformation, (Cambridge, James Clarke, 1994, 486)) The Presbyterians were outmanoeuvred by Oliver Cromwell. The Scots appropriated the Westminster standards for the Church of Scotland, as did the emigrant Scots and Irish for their Presbyterian churches in the American colonies and elsewhere, the wording of the Confession being later modified for the new world of the American Constitution.

Bob then introduces the reader to the working methods of the Assembly, both in its preparation of the Confession and the Catechisms, and in the earlier revision of the 39 Articles. He quotes extensively from the debate on justification in that earlier revision, the moving force of which was not a fear of Romish accounts of justification but of the rise of antinomianism in Commonwealth England, especially in London. The result of some of the debates that took place on the revision were carried forward to the construction of the Confession.

In giving his account of the working of the Assembly, Bob particularly focuses on the fact that the members viewed their theological work with the background belief in the importance of the church catholic, citing patristic, medieval and Roman Catholic as well as other Reformed authorities as necessary, and of course, an abundance of Scriptural data. These reports of the debates also help to dispel romantic views of the working of the Assembly, as if the deliberations took place in a surreal atmosphere of unity and agreement. It seems that the Assembly had its share of windbags and bores, as well as the occasional wit, and there was much disagreement, and sometime serious confusion. Here the author relies on material that will form part of the monumental Minutes of the Assembly, (amounting to c. 850, 000 words), enlarged from the earlier published versions through the brilliant work of textual recovery of Chad Van Dixhoorn. These are to be published by the Oxford University Press in the not too distant future.

On the aforementioned, lengthy debates on justification, I think Bob is being a bit easy on the participants. Viewed from this distance, they got themselves into the most enormous tangle because of their fondness for the distinction between the active and passive obedience of Jesus Christ. Some (fearing antinomianism) argued that we are redeemed only by Christ’s passive obedience, the passion and cross, others that we are saved also by the active obedience, his personal righteousness seen in his keeping of the law. Some said that we are justified by both. The Confession, when it came to be drawn up, in referring (in the chapter on justification) to Christ’s ‘obedience and death’, (XI.3) may have fudged the issue, or come down for the third option, depending on your point of view.

But the distinction itself seems to be highly artificial, one distinction too far. For granted that the life and ministry of Christ is an expression of active obedience, who can seriously assert that his passion and death were passive? It is true that he was delivered into the hands of wicked men, but Christ went limp only when he gave up the ghost. Before that point, his entire ministry, culminating in that suffering, was a resistance unto blood, a striving against sin, an overcoming of the powers of darkness by his determination to do the will of his Father and to bring many sons to glory. To be an acceptable sacrifice, the victim must be spotless - holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, implying an active course of law-keeping. So that the so-called active obedience is a necessary condition of the passive obedience, and so a necessary condition of that righteousness which is imputed to sinners. While there is a conceptual distinction to be made, I cannot see the wisdom of tying a theological issue to it, as the divines obviously did.

This brings us from the procedures and debates of the Assembly to the heart of the book, the author’s treatment of the finished theology of the Assembly, summarising the position on the Confession and the Catechisms, and entering into discussion with various revisionary proposals. In his exposition of the debates, besides his use of Warfield, he relies on the Van Dixhoorn material, and in offering his theological opinions on various matters he makes good use of two scholars of whom I had not heard, Edward D. Morris, Theology of the Westminster Symbols (1900), and Robert Norris’s 1977 University of St. Andrews doctorate. There are several excursuses which go into considerable historical detail.

Bob Letham’s discussion of the theology of the Westminster documents is all well worth reading. He upholds the teaching of the Confession clearly and vigorously. He draws out the differing emphases to be found respectively in the Confession and in the Larger Catechism. Included in his remarks are criticisms of the Confession’s neglect of the love of God, his concern over divine impassibility, of the treatment of the Trinity, and of the person of Christ.Most though not all of his own criticisms of the Confession and the Larger Catechism have a pattern: the Assembly was not sufficiently sensitive to the ancient creeds and the doctrine of the Trinity. His rejection, in turn, of other criticisms, or readings, of the Confession, also have a basic pattern: they are the product of Vossian biblical theology, Kline (on the covenant of works), and Gaffin and others (on the ordo salutis), or of Torrancian misreadings. And though I don’t see eye to eye with all of these strictures, they are certainly correct both in their broad outlines and many of their particular emphases. They are to be applauded.

The chief exception to this is Bob’s concern over the idea of the eternal pactum salutis, or covenant of redemption, which he thinks might easily subvert the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and lead to tri-theism. But I think I’ll reserve my remarks on this for a future post.

As one can glean from some of his other writings, Under Western Eyes (2007) and The Holy Trinity (2004), Bob is very exercised over the need to maintain the connection between Westminster and the historic creeds and the conciliar pronouncements of the undivided church.This is in order to counter sectarian tendencies, by maintaining the ideological ties with the primitive church, and so preserving the scaffolding of Christian unity, however scant the expressions of that unity presently may be. Perhaps occasionally he worries unnecessarily, as in the dim view he takes of the Assembly’s discussion of creeds (154-8) and the pains he takes to argue that the Confession upheld the begottenness of the Son. It certainly did. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, before the Confession, Calvin was unhappy about the Nicene expressions ‘Light from Light, God from God’, as implying a qualifying of the full deity of the Son, as were some later Reformed theologians.

For instance, in his ‘The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity’, B.B.Warfield is distinctly cool on the idea of eternal begottennes and subordination. After noting that ‘Sonship’ is expressive of likeness rather than begottenness, he remarks ‘To be the Son of God is any sense was to be like God in that sense; to be God’s own Son was to be exactly like God’, and ‘Here [I Cor. II. 10-11] the Spirit appears as the substrate of Divine self-consciousness, the principle of God’s knowledge of Himself: He is, in a word, just God Himself in the innermost essence of his being….How can He be supposed then, to be subordinate to God, or to derive His Being from God? If however, the subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father in modes of subsistence and their derivation from the Father are not implicates of their designation as Son and Spirit, it will be hard to find in the New Testament compelling evidence of their subordination and derivation’. (‘The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity’ in Biblical Doctrines, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1929, 164-5. The whole section 163-9 is worth consulting)

And when all is said and done, however hallowed they are, the ancient creeds, as the Confession itself, mist be subordinate, corrigible theological authorities. The Westminster delegates had the healthy concern not to make it appear that such documents had parity with Scripture itself.

As for the debates on baptism, any Baptist who is otherwise in sympathy with the theology of the Confession may be excused a wry smile or two: dipping or sprinkling? Or either? Regeneration with baptism, or not? In what sense are the children of believers ‘holy’? The baptism of children of ungodly parents, yet in the line of the covenant: valid or invalid? Here were knots that the delegates manifestly failed to untie.

You may already have gathered from all of this that Dr Letham’s new book is a most welcome addition to the literature on the Confession, and on Reformed theology more generally, being both instructive and thought-provoking.

Both Letham kindly read a draft of this review. As a result I have had a go at expressing his thought and my comments more clearly.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The MP for Banbury

Tom Baldry, MP for Banbury

Tom Baldry, MP for Banbury, is the go-between in the House of Commons for the Church of England and the Government. It is part of his role, as a church estates commissioner, to help to steer any needed legislation through Parliament that directly concerns the Church of England.

We have recently been entertained by two more Church of England cliffhangers. Will Jeffrey John, the homosexual Dean of St. Albans, (at last) be made a bishop, or won’t he? Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear that he was supportive of the proposal. In the event, Jeffrey John wasn’t recommended for promotion as the Bishop of Southwark after (it was said) the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘lost his temper’ at a meeting of the Crown Nominations Committee that rejected Dr John’s nomination. (Daily Telegraph, 4 July, The Times 9 July) Next: Will there be women bishops? Yes. Next: Will such bishops have full parity with the male variety? Yes or No?

This is where Tom Baldry comes in. Following the compromise proposals tabled by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to provide safeguards to ‘traditionalists’, which were voted down by Convocation on July 10, the Sunday Times of the next day reported that Mr Baldry said that the ‘equality agenda’ had strong support in Parliament. The report concluded

He said that task he would face of steering legislation through parliament to make provision for traditionalists who oppose women bishops could become ‘impossible’ if there is ‘any scintilla of suggestion that women bishops were in some way to be second-class bishops’.

There it is, in a nutshell or two. The Church of England is these days vestigially Erastian. She no longer has to please the king, but she still has to please Parliament when legislation affecting that church is required in order to legalise any proposed changes. A generation or so ago the Church could count on the membership of the Commons having a soft centre of loyal Anglicans, but this has largely disappeared. Furthermore, out in the constituencies there is nothing that can be identified as ‘The Church of England vote’. In political terms, there is nothing to be gained by siding with ‘the traditionalists’. Given its present make up, Parliament is not going to tolerate what it sees as the marginalisation or women in the Church of England, whatever the theological arguments. And similarly with gay bishops or archbishops. Sooner or later , probably sooner, there will an openly homosexual bishop. Over the issue of women bishops, it is not beyond the wit of man to devise another set of compromises aimed at easing the consciences of the ‘traditionalists’, which would succeed in getting through Convocation. But in ensuring the success of such a compromise, no amount of fulmination in the name of the Apostle Paul is going to count. Eventually, the cliffhanger will be decided by the operation ofthe secular ratchet. The changes will be made in one direction only. There won’t be any more re-runs, and no more compromises.

The Church of England by law established must follow the culture, as she has done (in effect) since the nineteenth century, usually after a gap of a generation or so. Edward Norman was Mrs Thatcher’s favourite theologians. I believe that the short list did not contain very many names. In his Church and Society in Modern England (1976) Norman showed the clock-like way in which the gap operated in the 19th century.

By now the gap has shortened a bit. In view of the success of the ‘equality agenda’ it is unthinkable that the Church of England could succeed in making herself a special case, an exception, while remaining as an integral part of the political and cultural establishment of England. On the other hand, in the face of the inevitable, it is hard to see Church of England evangelical congregations, together with their clergy, forsaking their buildings and other ties, and seceding from their Church, though some may. One reason for this is that those loyally evangelical ministers of the gospel presently in the Church of England may be able to continue in good conscience, in virtue of the positions they already occupy. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how those with principles about women bishops or homosexual bishops, contemplating entering the ministry of the Church of England, or training for it, could do so without the sacrifice of principles which until very recently have been regarded as non-negotiable.

What is true of the Church of England is not true in the same way of the Anglican Communion worldwide. For these Anglican churches are ‘free’, non-established churches. They are post-Erastian. There may be crises in these churches also, as in fact there are already, but they must be handled differently. In Canada, for example, ways have had to be found, and have been found, though at some cost, for evangelical congregations to align with segments of Anglicanism who oppose the present position of the Church of England, and of some likely future position, or the present stance of their own national church managers. Here the mechanisms of change are not ratchet-like, but more complex, as it becomes increasingly clear that, outside England, ‘Anglicanism’ is in fact the collective term for an array of Protestant denominations (with a common history) alongside the myriad others. Perhaps the only difference between such Anglicanism, fully post-Erastian Anglicanism, and a run of the mill Protestant denomination, is that Anglican expresses itself transnationally, and has elements of transnational governance. It has this in common with Orthodoxy, but not with the usual denominations or looser groupings of congregations.

However, as far as the parliamentary interests of the Church of England are concerned Mr Baldry, the MP for Banbury, will play the part of the ratchet – man. He will have to manage the levering up (or down, depending on your point of view), of the structure and management of the Church of England for the next phase of the implementation of the ‘equality agenda’.

Vanhoozer IV - The Personal and the Mechanical

If the positions taken up by the modern theologians that Kevin Vanhoozer cites and discusses in Remythologizing Theology are where the bar is set, then he has certainly succeeded in clearing it. But he is still enmeshed in that culture, particularly in the idea that the language of remythologized Christian theology must be personal in a sense that is (if not the expression of a symmetrical relationship) then certainly conversational, dialogical. (see Ch.6 esp.) He gives prominence to Abraham’s prayer for Sodom, and the Lord speaking with Moses face to face. Vanhoozer shows a praiseworthy concern to safeguard God’s sovereignty (491) and recognises and emphasises that the Creator-creature relationship is asymmetrical. All this is to be welcomed. But it remains unclear (as we saw from the discussion of effectual calling in the last post) what asymmetry comes to, how God retains hi authorial agency while nevertheless in dialogue. Whatever the phenomenology of conversion, it is essential to the Augustinian and Reformed view of divine grace that in regeneration the soul is passive. So there has to be a way of thinking about this in which the choices are more than ‘either communicative or manipulative’. (494) However described, there is a passive moment, one in which the soul, being helpless to produce its own life, is acted upon. You must be born again.

Personal Communication

No sane Christian theologian doubts that the language of the faith, the language of the Bible, is that of the personal creator and redeemer, who has revealed himself in Christ. God speaks, as Vanhoozer emphasises. But he is not simply a talker. He also acts in ways other than speaking. And the speaking tells us the significance of the non-verbal action. Whoever thought that the primary cause of all that happens was impersonal? After all, it is God himself who is the primary cause of all that comes about in his creation. As we saw, a sign that Vanhoozer has not shaken himself free of the hyper-personal character of modern theology is that, along with the current theological culture that he cites, he presents us with the same false dilemma: either personal relationship or impersonal, mechanical causality. He thinks that personal language must supplant the language of impersonal and mechanical causality. But the alternative that is presented, the idea that God deals with persons in an impersonal or mechanical manner, is a figment. There is no dilemma to be faced, for there is a third alternative, and the resulting trilemma can be handled. But this is not a piece of abstract reasoning. For we noted in an earlier post that (to put the point gently) it is also unclear that by stressing the personal character of divine action (as he understands this) Vanhoozer can really aid our understanding of effectual calling, without also invoking causal notions of a distinctly asymmetrical kind.

We have looked at Vanhoozer’s treatment of effectual calling and noted its inadequacies as a statement of the Reformed doctrine. While he claims that remythologizing ‘scrutinizes language about causality in order to bring out a communicative sense to which the church has not sufficiently attended’ (28), the reverse is the case. So long as he restricts God’s relation to the world to primarily that of communicative agency of a conversational kind he cannot do justice to the passivity of the soul in regeneration. It is impossible to do so. The church has noted this, but Vanhoozer is in danger of forgetting it. This failure arises because his account ignores non-conversational elements of divine communication given to us in the Biblical revelation.


In the previous post we noted the language of Thomas Aquinas. But no significant theologian employs the idea of divine communication and the word ‘communicate’ more than does Jonathan Edwards. It is everywhere in his writings. As for example, here, taken from his Observations on the Trinity:

God’s determining to glorify and communicate Himself must be conceived of as flowing from God’s nature; or we must look upon God from the infinite fullness and goodness of His nature as naturally disposed to cause the beams of His glory to shine forth.

Does this suggest impersonality, mere mechanism? Clearly not. The Edwardsean idea of communication is much broader than Vanhoozer’s, including creating, sustaining and redeeming of the world, and God’s revealing of himself in diverse ways. Nevertheless, this variety of communication is personal through and through.

Besides thinking of important theologians, we can think of basic theological matters. The creation itself, for example. Does Vanhoozer think that unformed and eternal matter is eternally present, ready to cooperate with the Creator? Clearly not. In creation, was there any cooperation from the human race? ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding’. (Job 38.4) However, there was, Vanhoozer thinks, a struggle, so that creation is a drama too, though this seems dubious, a Greek idea playing a cameo part in the divine drama. (36-7) Think of other events, such as God’s covenant with Abram. Was this bilateral, a done deal between partners? Did Abram negotiate its terms? Certainly, by faith, he cooperated. He acquiesced and obeyed. By faith he obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.

Or let us think of the pivotal act of the Christian drama, the Incarnation. Any reader of the biblical narrative is struck by the sensitive and gracious way in which Mary is addressed by the Angel Gabriel, who speaks to her as the highly favoured one, words which caused her perplexity at what the greeting might imply. This perplexity and fear were no doubt both calmed and then further aroused by Gabriel’s words of reassurance. But in regard to the momentous event that was to take place, the conception of the Mediator in her womb, Gabriel did not seek her cooperation. Mary was not pregnant because she consented to be. Note the unconditional language: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called ‘holy’ – the Son of God’. (Lk 1. 30f.) Was she caused to be pregnant? Obviously so. Was this mechanical, impersonal causation? Obviously not. Was it rape? The question answers itself.

Was her consent sought? Not in any obvious way. Nevertheless Mary was the divine choice, the one who was highly favoured. As a result, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Matt.1.18) Her soul magnified the Lord and she rejoiced in God her Saviour, noting his might, and his holiness, and mercy, and strength, his scattering of the proud, his bringing down of the mighty, his exalting of the humble, his filling of the hungry, his sending away of the rich and his helping Israel, keeping faith with his covenant with Abraham. It makes little sense to suppose that Mary’s words ‘let it be to me according to your word’ expressed her free acceptance of the angel’s word (as Vanhoozer suggests (335)). Rather it was her submission to the unconditional purpose of the Lord that had just then been announced to her by the angel.

Even if we restrict our attention to the divine spoken word, there is more to it than ‘diverse forms of discourse that not only report the action but also carry it forward’. (29) Vanhoozer here refers to the Lord’s spoken commentary on his mighty acts, communicating their significance to us, and his speech acts, where his speaking is his acting in some particular way. Just as Vanhoozer’s theological net misses important cases of communication that are not verbal, so it also misses cases of divine verbal communication which tell us not so much what God does in the theodrama, as what God is and is like. I refer to these as ‘one-liners’. The Vanhoozer net misses the one liners. I shall try to show the significance of this in the final post.