Thoughts on Lectures

This morning, while I was working, I listened to a couple of lectures. The first was a lecture by James Jordan, entitled ‘Rethinking Evangelism’. It was helpful, even though the points that he made are quite familiar to me by now. One of the important points that Jordan makes on this subject is that we tend to limit our understanding of the gospel when we focus primarily on the problems of sin, guilt and condemnation. Such concerns are no longer central in the minds of most people in our society.

Jordan suggests that we highlight different elements of the good news in primary evangelism. He is not saying that the gospel has changed, just that we need to emphasize different aspects of it if we are to address the issues that are most pressing in our current context. He draws attention to the fact that the underlying problem that the gospel addresses is that of death. The problem of death has, for most Protestants, been understood primarily in terms of sin, guilt and condemnation. However, the problem of death meets us in many forms. The problem of death confronts us in the form of the separation of loneliness and alienation. It faces us as a fear that holds us in bondage. It faces us in the form of anarchy and societal breakdown and it faces us in the form of tyranny and its power.

The gospel is the message of resurrection, of the defeat of death. For some it will be the knowledge that there is no more condemnation that will strike them most strongly. For others it will be the overcoming of alienation and restoration of community and fellowship. For others it will be the defeat of death as the great tyrannical power that keeps us in fear and bondage. Jordan draws attention to the prominent attention given to many of the themes in Scripture and in certain eras of Church history. There is no need to give one of these elements primacy over the others. People who respond to the gospel as the message of the restoration of community in an age of loneliness and alienation will find about other dimensions of the gospel in due course.

I also listened to the first of Alan Strange’s critiques of the FV. Whilst Strange’s treatment is considerably better than a number of the FV critiques out there, it seems to me that it fails on a number of grounds. Strange’s characterization of the FV as a response to ‘easy believism’ seems to be off-target to me. Regular opponents of ‘easy believism’ do not write books entitled Paedofaith. When I first encountered FV it struck me to be more of a response to neo-Puritan ‘hard believism’ than anything else. James Jordan’s assessment of the debate in The Sociology of the Church, seems to me to be one that most FV people would largely share. He writes:—

The neo-Puritan movement reacted strongly against “easy believism.” From my experience, ‘they tended to substitute “hard believism” for it. The neo-Puritans complained that the campus conversion experience is too superficial: People aren’t warned about hell, about the suffering that Christians will face, about predestination, etc. My problem with the neo-Puritan critique of campus conversion experiences is the same as my problem with campus conversionism. Both groups act as if some big crisis or decision were necessary to come into the faith. Both groups ignore the reality of the faith of young children. (In fact, both groups are heavily Baptist, thus typically American, in orientation; the neo-Puritans being almost to a man Reformed Baptists. ) Both groups put too much stress on an initial conversion experience. The neo-Puritans don’t like the soft-sell “easy” conversion; they want a hard-sell gospel with all the hard facts brought out first. They seem to want to manipulate “true conversions,” and eliminate “stony ground and thorny ground” conversions. This, however, I do not think is Biblical. The Sower sowed the stony and the thorny ground, and did not object to the plants that sprang up from his “easy and free” sowing. Not all persevered, however, a fact that the Sower also recognized (Matt, 13:4-9, 18-23). Perseverance is the real issue here. There is no need to react against simple evangelistic methods, such as the “Four Spiritual Laws.” The issue is not initial conversion. Rather, the issue is perseverance. Once people are brought into the faith, they need to be shepherded into maturity.

FV proponents are often mistaken for moralists, because they believe that ethics cannot be marginalized in our understanding of the gospel and faithfulness cannot be tidily separated from faith. As Peter Leithart points out, the gospel is about transformation of life. The problem that many critics of the FV have is that they have not appreciated the reality of gospel ethics — a form of ethics that is truly good news, rather than condemning legalism. Consequently they are doomed to perennial debates about ‘nomianism’ and ‘antinomianism’. As Oliver O’Donovan observes at the start of his Resurrection and Moral Order, moralism and antinomianism are two sides of the same coin; both positions operate within the realm of the flesh. He writes:—

Every way of life not lived by the Spirit of God is lived by ‘the flesh’, by man taking responsibility for himself whether in libertarian or legalistic ways, without the good news that God has taken responsibility for him. Consequently we cannot admit the suggestion that Christian ethics should pick its way between the two poles of law and licence in search of middle ground. Such an approach could end up by being only what it was from the start, an oscillation between two sub-Christian forms of life. A consistent Christianity must take a different path altogether, the path of an integrally evangelical ethics which rejoices the heart and gives light to the eyes because it springs from God’s gift to mankind in Jesus Christ.

I also believe that the suggestion that the FV is a reaction against judicial theology is without genuine foundation. I have yet to see any of the key FV proponents attacking judicial theology. What they have attacked is the failure to think in relational categories. However, there need not be any either-or.

The supposed antagonism that FV proponents create between systematic and biblical theology also seems to be largely a figment of the imaginations of the critics of the FV. What FV proponents are reacting against is a certain way of doing systematics, which is indeed at odds with the best of biblical theology; they are not rejecting systematics per se. It seems to me that many of the problems that FV people have with Reformed systematic theology arises from the fact that much classic Reformed theology operates according to an overly spatial ordering system. Such systems cannot adequately account for temporal development, which is central to biblical theology. I have no problem imagining forms of systematic theology in which temporal categories could have fuller expression.

Much Reformed theology is written in the form of the theological map, with different ‘loci’ (or places) detailed. There are, however, other ways of writing theology. Theology written as itinerary, rather than as map, is a way of writing theology in which the time element can be more adequately dealt with. Such forms of theology have far more room for analogical ways of thinking and can also easily hold things together that appear contradictory to a purely spatially-ordered system.

It seems to me that many of the charges of ‘monocovenantalism’, for example, that one hears today arise in part from an overly spatial ordering of theology. Documents such as the Westminster Confession do not have very developed understandings of eschatology and of the covenant as something that is continuingly developing throughout history. Understanding the character of the Church and the reality of apostasy is difficult without robust temporal categories, let alone the relationship between the old and new covenants.

The transformation of the old covenant order in the resurrection of Christ is something that Reformed theology has often struggled to understand in terms of its familiar spatial categories. For example, the idea that Leviticus might still regulate new covenant worship in an analogical fashion is hard to process within a spatial understanding of theology, where Leviticus is hermetically sealed in its own ‘place’ within redemptive history. Within a form of theology that has ‘space’ (the ubiquitous metaphor again!) for temporal development and transformation, however, it makes a lot of sense.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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7 Responses to Thoughts on Lectures

  1. Tim Enloe says:

    “Theology written as itinerary, rather than as map, is a way of writing theology in which the time element can be more adequately dealt with.”

    That is a very intriguing idea, Alastair. Have you any further thoughts on how such a thing could be done? Maybe you’ll be the trailblazer for it!

  2. Al says:

    Tim,

    The suggestion is not original to me. The book to read — one that I am sure that you would greatly enjoy — is Peter M. Candler Jr.’s Theology, Rhetoric, Manuduction, or Reading Scripture Together on the Path to God.

  3. Byron says:

    Thanks for this useful summary.

  4. Tim Enloe says:

    Thanks Al, just what I needed–another book to read! 🙂

    I’ve added it to my list.

  5. Pingback: Movement and Repose » Theology and Power

  6. Christopher Witmer says:

    Al, you are a glutton for punishment to sit through those lectures by Strange. I listened to the first one for more than 20 minutes and finally gave up because he said virtually NOTHING of any substance whatsoever during that whole time. What is the opposite of “pithy?” I have heard excellent sermons that were shorter than Strange’s content-free introduction, which still showed no signs of abating when I finally decided I had had enough. Thanks for sitting through it all!

  7. Hello.This article was extremely motivating, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last Thursday.

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