Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mark Jones’s New Book

Tobias Crisp - (1600-1643)

Mark Jones is best known, I imagine, through his co-authorship with Joel Beeke of A Puritan Theology. His new book (Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? P & R, 2013) is in some respects unusual, very interesting and instructive. He has a pastoral concern over antinomianism and its tendencies, and uses his knowledge of and skill with the theology of seventeenth - century Reformed divines to identify the antinomian way (or ways) of thinking, and then to apply these, in a non-confrontational style, (a style which Owen or Rutherford might have said was 'unworthy of a theologian’),  to strands in contemporary evangelicalism, and to the pastoral ministry. He mentions in a footnote that ‘the impetus for writing this book on antinomianism came after I received a startling number of communications from professors, pastors, and laypersons in varied theological traditions who had read my earlier review of Jesus + Nothing = Everything’. (91)


‘Antinomianism’ in the seventeenth-century does not have a straightforward set of tenets, nor was it a concerted movement or party. Initially, we think of it as confined to the view that ‘the law’, the moral law embodied in the Decalogue, is not to be the ‘rule of life’ for the believer. Why is that? Well, because there is ‘in the air’ the thought that Christ is both our justification and our sanctification. He suffered for us, and so his character as well as his righteousness are imputed to us. As a consequence, and in contemporary jargon  the believer has to 'Remember, God loves you just as you are'. Surely God in Christ should be praised for the provision of such an expansive salvation! He has ‘done it all’. 

So one thing that Mark Jones detects here is a minimizing of human obligation and hence of activity in the Christian life. (Hence the fact that the antinomian mentality is closely allied the hyper-Calvinism). ‘Christ does all his work for him,  as well as in him....Christ does all for them, that Christ requires of them to be done’. (Tobias Crisp) (26) And Roger Brierley, ‘The whole Doctrine of the Gospel, is not what we should do to [serve] God, but what we should receive from him’. (46) In such language there is an over-emphasis on the ideas of substitution and imputation, as being the only relations which Christ bears to Christians. There is a good sense in which Christ has done it all, and loves us just as we are, but also a sense in which this is false. However, in the eyes of the antinomian, keeping the law as a rule of life must be a kind of disparagement of the work of Christ and of the grace of God,  perhaps the result of unbelief and of a legalistic frame of mind. Yet within the gospel there are threatenings and warnings addressed to the believer, which surely cannot be ignored. (47f.) 

But disregard of the law as a rule of life is only a proximate reason of analysis, Mark Jones claims, a symptom rather than a cause. The root difficulty in antinomianism lies in the Christology of such thinkers – Eaton, Crisp, Towne and so on. It was what they didn’t affirm about Christ that does the damage.  It strikes me that there was a good deal of individualism among preachers and writers who were ‘antinomian’, not a term they used of themselves, of course. 

Mark provides a valuable section on Christ’s life of faith, a life sustained and empowered by the Spirit, (22f.), showing us that the holiness of Jesus is the pattern for the life of faith. In antinomian Christology there is a neglect of the human nature of Christ. In taking on human nature as the Mediator Christ experienced growth (as he grew) in godliness, he encountered temptation, he engaged in prayer and especially recognized  the law as his rule of life.  So there is a central place, against which evangelical people have overreacted, of taking Christ as our model and example. It is noteworthy in this connection that after his treatment of sanctification in the Institutes  in ‘The Life of the Christian Man’ (III.6) John Calvin provides a discussion of the bearing of the cross. (III.9)

(It’s a puzzle to me that neither side in the debate seems to have given much attention, much less to have stressed, the New Testament emphasis on Christian graces or virtues, which are closely related to the law (as seen in Romans  13.8 f. Paul has much to say about walking in the Spirit (Gal.5.16), the fruit of the Spirit, (Gal.5. 22) ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’. And Peter also about the formation of virtue, and of other qualities. (2 Pet. 1.5-7), and Jesus's half-brother James refers to as the ‘wisdom from above’…. ‘peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.’ (Jas. 3 17-8)).

The two emphases

There are two emphases or principles at the foundation of Mark Jones’s analysis of the antinomian outlook. The first is Christological. In the Incarnation, the Logos has a human nature. He took that human nature for our redemption. Being a genuine human nature, Christ experienced its growth, and the conflicts and opportunities that this involved. So as a boy he was in the Temple, learning and teaching; he was subject to Mary and Joseph, his loving but flawed parents, he was tempted, he prayed, he resisted against blood, striving against sin; he subordinated the display of his own divine glory to doing his Father’s will and in doing this he became personally qualified to be his people’s perfect high priest. (Lk. 2.14, 40, 52)  

The character he came to have, not without striving against sin, is not imputed to us as our character. His righteousness  becomes ours by imputation, but not this character. The sanctification of God’s people is their change, it is not what is reckoned to them, not their change only, (because God by his Spirit is working in them to energise the change),  and the believer has to 'work out'. (Phil....) In this process Christ’s character is to be a source of inspiration and emulation in the course of the life of faith. What results is really our character, sculpted in our human nature by the grace of God and the empowering of Christ’s Spirit. Or not.  Jesus is ‘full of grace and truth’. 

So the adoption of the self-denying and faithful and obedient attitude of Christ is to be the basis of ‘working out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to do for his good pleasure.’ (Phil. 2.12-3). And note the Christological basis of self-discipline in Hebrews 12. We are to run with patience, looking to Jesus…Considering him…and heeding him who warns from heaven’ (12.25) And in I Peter. ‘Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example, so that you might follow in his steps’ (1Pet. 2 21-2). To be clear, or clearer, sanctification is the outworking of new life implanted in regeneration, and nurtured by God. Nevertheless, the activity involved in the life of faith is the believer's activity, as he takes up his cross and follows Jesus.

Behind this emphasis lies a distinction with which we are not too familiar, that between the love of God’s benevolence or mercy, and his love of complacence or delight. Why is this distinction unfamiliar to us? Is it because we think of God’s mercy, and the life of faith, of sanctification, as solely motivated by gratitude for what that mercy has procured? But there is more to it than this. God delights in his people. (Ps. 147.11, 149.4) How so? When there is evidence of their Christ-like renewal. So Christians are to ‘walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,’ following Christ who pleased his Father (2 Pet. 1.17, Col. 1.10; 3.20, I Thess. 2.4,  2 Thess. 1.11). God does not delight in his people 'just as they are' but insofar as they come, fitfully and imperfectly, to take on a Christian character. Are there conditions required to qualify people in coming to the Cross? Certainly not. The Lord receives us just as we are. Are there conditions for divine delight in his people? Most certainly. Is the pleasing of God the ambition of Christians today?

There's more....

There’s more in the book than I have discussed in this review – assurance, rewards, the need for a more nuanced  attitude of both-and rather than either-or, the need for care with language. This is a rich book for pastoral theology, showing how the many-sidedness of God’s love can reach a person’s needs and problems, and how Christ is to be our model. Living as a Christian is a serious business. 

But I wonder if they do pastoral theology like this any more?