Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Solas

Keeping the solas together

Lionel Windsor

By Lionel Windsor

One of the aims of the Sola Panel is to go back to basics, to remind ourselves of the importance of the ‘solas’ (i.e. scripture alone, faith alone, Christ alone, grace alone, glory to God alone). This post will look at one way in which these solas all fit together.

I'm currently reading through Timothy Ward's very helpful book Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham, 2009). It's a good and highly accessible exposition of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, which avoids many of the petty caricatures that are sometimes thrown about, and deals well with a number of modern objections. I highly recommend it as a book to put near the top of your reading list this year.

Early on in the book, Ward seeks to ground our doctrine of Scripture in the even more fundamental doctrine of the ‘word of God’ (or the ‘speech of God’). Ward points out that God's speech is, and always has been, exceedingly powerful. This is seen especially when it comes to God's justification of the ungodly. In this very significant case, God's speech doesn't just inform us about God's salvation; it actually brings salvation to us:

God establishes, by his own declaration, a fundamental change in our standing before him, before he brings about, by the sending of the Holy Spirit, a real change to our sinful state… he spoke, making us by that declaration to be justified in our relationship with him… Thus a fundamental aspect of God's redemptive work occurs when he chooses to speak, and in so doing unilaterally brings us to share here and now in the right standing with him that Jesus Christ has. (pp. 27-28)

This is a pretty good exposition of some of the important connections between God's word/speech and our salvation. But it's important to remember that God's ‘speech-act’ of justification is only one part of the story of salvation.1

We must always remember that when the Bible talks about God justifying us, it never talks about this justification as a mere declaration that occurs all by itself. It's not the case that God simply says to us out of the blue, “I deem you to be justified”, and that act of speech alone brings about our salvation. Of course, God's speech is mightily powerful. But when it comes to our salvation, God's justifying speech-act is connected to other highly significant powerful actions of God.

The first aspect of God's saving work that we must always remember when we think about justification is the atonement. God's justification of sinners is based squarely on the death of Jesus Christ for our sins—that one supreme act of love and grace whereby Jesus paid for our sins and satisfied the wrath of God. Paul, who of all the biblical authors spells out the idea of justification most fully, never talks about justification in a vacuum. Paul brings the concepts of justification and atonement together. He tells us that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). The purpose of Jesus' atoning work (Rom 3:25) is to enable God to be ‘just’ and to be the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). Without the atonement, God could not remain true to his own just standards as creator and judge, and therefore could not justify us. You see the same thing in Galatians—Paul's strong defence in Galatians is that God's justification of sinners doesn't stand alone, but it is based on the fact that Jesus “gave himself for our sins” (Gal 1:4). Justification and the atonement go together; justification without atonement would be nothing and would mean nothing.

The second thing that must not be forgotten when it comes to justification is that those who are justified are united to Christ through faith. This isn't to say that our own faith is itself some wonderful meritorious action that secures a reward from God. What it means is that when God justifies us he's not issuing some arbitrary declaration that makes no sense of the reality of our own personal sin. It's not the case that God one day decides to say to us, “You are righteous”, when patently we are, in fact, miserable sinners. No, God's declaration of us as ‘righteous’ is based on the fact that he, by his Holy Spirit acting through his word which brings about faith, has actually united us to his righteous Son. This means that our own sins are truly cancelled by Jesus' death, and that we truly share in the righteousness that by rights only belongs to Christ. For example, Paul speaks about being “found in him [i.e. Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9).

In other words, the Reformation ‘solas’ all go together. God, through the supreme authority of Scripture alone, addresses us, speaks the gospel to us, declares that we are justified, and so brings salvation to us sinners. But this can only be true because Christ alone has performed that once-for-all atoning sacrifice for sins. By faith alone, the sacrifice of Christ is applied to our own reality. All of this is an act of God's grace alone—to the glory of God alone. You can only go so far talking about one or the other of the solas in isolation. They really are a package deal.

1 I'm not disagreeing with Timothy Ward here, just clarifying a possible misunderstanding. I'm pretty sure that he would agree with what I have to say here, since in the passage I've quoted, he cites Romans 5:8 (about Jesus' death), and goes on to discuss the “effectual calling” whereby God's word creates saving faith.

Moore Stuff from Mark Thompson

I have long wanted to write a serious piece on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Recently I was given the opportunity to do so through an invitation to contribute to a volume essays, The Bible and the Academy: Critical Scholarship and the Evangelical Understanding of Scripture in the 21st Century, edited by James Hoffmeier and Dennis Magary and to be published by Crossway in 2011. I do not intend to reproduce the article here but instead simply to outline its argument.

My goal was not to present a comprehensive exposition of the doctrine (which would have required about three times the space) but to explore the strictly theological dimensions of the doctrine. While critically biblical inerrancy is a doctrine about the Christian Bible (and not first and foremost about the biblical authors), it has profound connections with the doctrine of God and his involvement in the world he has made.

Here is the outline:

1. Introduction
An acknowledgement of current difficulties with the doctrine and the need for a theological account.

2. A doctrine both theologically robust and exegetically defensible
A response to the charge that the doctrine is itself unbiblical, a brief exploration of how the doctrine raises acutely the question of theological method, and an examination of some classic definitions (Warfield, The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, and Paul Feinberg) alongside Michael Horton's brief but decidedly theological definition.

3. The five theological pillars of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy
These are: (a) God's personal veracity; (b) God's concursive involvement in the created order; (c) God's willingness to accommodate himself for our sake; (d) God's creation and use of human speech and writing; and (e) God's gift of Scripture.

4. A perspective on the difficulties
A concluding comment that reflects on the way critiques of the doctrine routinely deal in caricature, the need to take difficulties with the text seriously without imposing a predetermined solution and recognising that we may not expect all answers to be known in the present, and a plea for maintaining perspective — inerrancy is not the only or perhaps even the most important characteristic of Scripture.

Here is an extract from the conclusion:
As we acknowledged at the beginning, there is much more that could be said. However, it is evident that the theological anchorage of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is both broad and deep. Our understanding of Scripture cannot be isolated from the person and character of the God who gave it to us, just as it may not bypass the genuine freedom and conscious involvement of the human authors of each particular text. What it means for this collection of texts to be the written word of God and what it means for it to be 'genuinely human' must be determined first and foremost with reference to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Yet what is involved is much more than a theological syllogism or a hasty and unqualified appeal to the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Christ. Larger theological themes are integrated with Scripture's self-attestation and with a sensitivity to the textures of what we have in fact been given in Scripture.

Biblical inerrancy has more often been engaged by critics in caricature than with serious attention to the best and most serious expositions of the doctrine. Contemporary assessments of the phenomena of Scripture have too often been given priority over the express biblical affirmations or the broader theological framework sketched above. On the one hand, a preoccupation with incidental details has not often been disciplined by sustained attention to the purposes for which Scripture has been given, while on the other, too little attention has been given to the way in which the central message of Scripture is inextricably bound to matters of history and observations about the world in which we live ...

I hope that the full article, when it is published, will answer any questions which might arise from this bare outline and quote from its conclusion. Suffice to say that my research and the process of writing the article strengthened rather than diminished my commitment to this important doctrine, though I remain opposed to using it as a Shibboleth.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Reformation of Anglican Communion

If the Anglican Communion is to be reformed again it needs to be hear and heed these crucial truths:
  1. It is impossible to take Jesus seriously without taking the teaching of Scripture seriously. Faith in Christ entails acknowledging Christ's Lordship. Submitting to Christ as Lord means being willing to conform our thinking and our behaviour to the words he has given us. Since he endorsed the Hebrew Old Testament (Lk 24:44) and appointed those whose mission produced the New Testament (Mtt 28:18–20; Acts 1:8), we cannot avoid the reality that faith in Christ manifests itself in obedience to the teaching of Scripture (Mtt. 7:24; Jms 1:22).
  2. The Spirit of God never leads people in ways contrary to the teaching of Scripture, which he has been instrumental in producing. Jesus' promise of the Spirit to his disciples was not that the Spirit will lead the churches on from Scripture into truth which somehow supersedes it, but that he will ensure that Jesus' words are heard until the end of the age (Jn 16:13–14). To pit the Spirit against the Scriptures is to fail to understand either.
  3. The most urgent and important need of every human being is to be reconciled to God. We are all naturally God's enemies (Rms 5:10) with the result that we stand under the wrath of the God who loves us (Rms 1:18; Eph. 2:1–3). Our natural disposition is to insist on our own autonomy, to repeat the folly of the Garden of Eden where the goal was to determine right and wrong without reference to God and the word he had given (Gen. 3:4–6). If we are to be reconciled to God, then the cconsequences of our rebellion against him — our guilt, corruption, enslavement to sinful thinking and behaviour, and death — must all be dealt with in their entirety. A gospel which does not explain this most basic need is no gospel at all.
  4. The gospel which the Christian church proclaims is that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried and was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3–8). Christ was delivered up for our transgressions and was raised for our justification (Rms 4:25). This is the provision of the triune God whose determined love for the men and women he has made causes him to bear all the consequences of their sin and exhaust them (Eph. 2:4–7).
  5. The embrace of this salvation is only possible by the work of the Spirit transforming human hearts, bringing new life and creating faith (Jn 3:5–6; Rms 8:9–17; 1 Cor 12:3). Without such a work we all remain lost. No human effort will bring us within the orbit of Christ's salvation, it is entirely a gift of grace to undeserving sinners (Eph. 2:8–9). We are justified by faith alone and this faith which is the instrument of our justification is produced in us by the Spirit (Rms 5:1; Gal. 5:5).
  6. To be forgiven, and so incorporated into the family of God, transforms the entirety of our lives. The gospel of Jesus Christ determines an entirely new set of priorities which shape life in the public square, in the workplace, in places of recreation and in our homes. There is no facet of life which stands beyond the claims of Christ's lordship (Phil. 1:27; Col. 2:6–4:6; Eph. 4:1–6:9).
  7. While each of us continues to struggle with various forms of temptation, the continuing dynamic of the Christian life is one of repentance and faith (Mk 1:15; Acts 20:21; Heb. 6:1). Our orientation to sin, in whichever form it is expressed in each of us, is not what defines us and should not be given expression in our thoughts, words or actions. Once again it is the Spirit who has been given to us who enables us in this struggle: 'the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do' (Gal. 5:17).
  8. We are not saved to a life of individualism, self-realisation, independence or autonomy. God has always been about saving a people for himself (Gen 12:2–3; Ex. 19:3–6; Jn 12:32; Rev. 5:9–10). Following Christ means serving others just as he has served us. This is why the local congregation is at the centre of God's purposes. Here the life of service and love is lived out in relationship with others who have been saved by Christ and reaching out to those who are still lost. After all, it is the church — and not just individual Christians — which Christ presents to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish' (Eph. 5:27).
  9. This is not to deny important responsibilities beyond the local congregation, responsibilities modelled at points even in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 15:1–35; 1 Cor. 16:1–4; 1 Thess. 1:6–8). Over the centuries, various institutional structures have been developed in order to support, resource and assist the faithful life and witness of the gathered people of God. Yet these must never become the focus of loyalty themselves nor must the unity of the Spirit be confused with a common institutional structure. The unity the Spirit brings is neither created nor preserved by institutional regulation. It arises out of a fellowship in the gospel (Phil. 1:5) which is maintained 'in the bond of peace' (Eph. 4:3). It is a unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:13) which cannot be separated from a unity of mind (Phil. 2:2; 1 Pet. 3:8). Denominations need to concerned with faithfulness to the gospel of Christ above any consideration of structural cohesion.
  10. Leadership amongst God's people is first and foremost about fidelity to the gospel and a transparent, humble submission to the teaching of Scripture. There should be a mutual accountability of those set apart to serve the churches and those who follow their lead in the churches (Mtt. 23:8). Leaders who abandon the biblical gospel in teaching or lifestyle (ie a lifestyle either lived by them or endorsed by them and contrary to the teaching of Scripture), should be held to account and if they will not repent, be removed for the sake of the people they are meant to be serving in truth and faithfulness (Acts 20:29–31; 1 Tim. 1:18–20; Jude 3).
  11. The mission of Christ is the priority of Christ's people. Amidst the myriad of demands made upon the resources of individual Christians, churches or denominations, those being conformed to the image of God's Son share his concern to save the lost. Preeminently concerned to see lost men and women come to faith in Christ and grow to maturity in him, they will not let evangelism and discipleship be overshadowed by other worthwhile activity.
  12. A longstanding temptation facing the churches has been a longing for acceptance, a sense of respectability, and an acknowledgement by those with power or influence that they have a legitimate place in contemporary society. Such a temptation has often led to an accommodation to elements of the contemporary secular agenda. In all of this the words of Jesus are easily forgotten: '... because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you' (Jn 15:19; 17:14). The church will always be a despised minority in a world arraigned against God. Nevertheless, despite such opposition, even the power of death will not prevail against the church that Christ is building (Mtt. 16:18). Though we ought not to seek the animosity of the world, or indeed provoke it by our own arrogance or folly, we need to remember that vindication and legitimization will only come on the day we are invited to 'enter the joy of our master' (Mtt. 25:21, 23).