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When the Stars Disappear – Mark Talbot

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

What do we do when, sailing out on the open sea, the world goes dark and the stars that we use to guide us disappear? It’s a powerful image of suffering (based on Acts 27:20). How are we to cope when that which orients us is gone? This is the question Talbot addresses in When the Stars Disappear.

Each of our lives is an unfolding narrative, interweaving with other people’s narratives all the time. In fact, we are all involved in a greater narrative – the larger story of God’s people. In this light, Talbot wants to put our suffering in the context of the wider biblical narrative and uses individual biblical stories and characters to do so. He primarily focuses on Naomi, Jeremiah, and Job.

Considering the suffering of these great saints gives us a framework with which to view our own suffering. Indeed, our suffering is not ‘new’; people have suffered like us before. We are not alone. And God is not surprised by our suffering; He has seen it all. In Naomi, where famine drives her to Moab where she loses her husbands and her two sons; in Jeremiah who is rejected and beaten, and Job who loses everything he has and then his friends come to tell him that it’s all his fault. We suffer just as God’s people have always suffered, and their suffering is recorded for our benefit.

Just as the suffering of Naomi, Job, and Jeremiah had a purpose, so does ours. In fact, the Bible does not acknowledge the category of ‘meaningless suffering’. If our materialistic, secular culture has lied to us about anything, it’s the lie that our life, in general, and our suffering, in particular, is meaningless and purposeless. The biblical figures never thought that way, and neither does God.

Talbot looks at using the biblical idea of lament as a focus of our suffering. He helpfully argues that, in lament, the idea of God’s loving-kindness (chesed) is the point at which our lament turns from complaint and anguish at our situation to praise and trust in the very character of God. We must remember in suffering that His loving-kindness is basic to His character, appeal to His loving-kindness for reassurance of His unceasing care for us, and that God is able to do all His loving-kindness intends for us.

Talbot’s style is strongly exegetical and he really works at specific biblical passages on suffering. In doing so, he is not afraid to confront the difficulties in the way the biblical authors approach their suffering. How often are we tempted to sand-down the edges of biblical sorrow and lament, to make it more palatable to our ears? Specifically, Jeremiah says some things many of us would not feel comfortable saying in prayer, but yet that was his reaction to his suffering, recorded by the Holy Spirit. Talbot does a good job in helping present things in an honest light. Sometimes, he leaves issues in the text open – ended as to how to best interpret them. This seems useful to the interested biblical student to wrestle with these challenges, but I am not sure how helpful it is to those reading in the midst of suffering.

For all that is helpful in the book, I came away with the impression that the book is incomplete. Often, Talbot references the three future volumes of this series and, for my mind, is a curious way of presenting his work, since this first ‘volume’ is less than 100 pages. I feel two 250 page books would have been more helpful than four sub-100 page books. There were many small chunks of good insight that never really got developed. This made the book slightly too prosaic and dry, in my mind, for what it was attempting to be.

Above all, however, When the Stars Disappear helps orient our suffering around biblical stories and ground us in the inexhaustible loving-kindness of God. To that end, it is a useful book.

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Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul – John Eldredge

Rating: 1 out of 5 starts

What does it mean to be a man? What is the heart of a man, specifically, a Christian man? These are the questions that Wild at Heart seeks to answer. They are important questions. Very important questions, in fact, for our time. Though the book was written 20 years ago, the questions it raises are all the more relevant in a day and age where gender is arguably the key issue.

Eldredge’s view is that recapturing the heart of true masculinity will not only help a lost, confused, and spiritually wounded generation of men but also the women with whom those men relate (whether as wives, daughters, or mothers). With this, I wholeheartedly agree with him. The questions he raises and the implications he draws from such questions are vital.

Throughout the book, Eldredge does well to highlight some issues that particularly face men. In particular, he talks about the damaging effects of pornography, the worrying trend of growing fatherlessness, confusion between the genders, and moralism in the Church (i.e. that men feel ‘doing good’ and ‘being nice’ is the heart of the Christian faith). They are all issues and questions men must face.

Unfortunately, however, my praise and agreement with Eldredge ends there. Eldredge’s book is a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. His answers to the above questions are just as damaging as the problems he addresses. The issues with what Eldredge presents in Wild at Heart is treated accurately and thoroughly in Garry Gilley’s review (part one here, and part two here) which I highly recommend. However, I want to offer a critique of the major issues in Wild at Heart.

Rigid Definitions of Male and Female

As mentioned above, the main focus of Wild at Heart is discovering and recovering the heart of true masculinity. Eldredge’s initial claim is that in the heart of every man and boy are three fundamental desires: a battle to fight, an adventure to love, and a beauty to rescue.

These desires, says Eldredge, are in the heart of every man as he states multiple times “I gaze into boyhood, I search the pages of literature, I listen carefully to many, many men, and I am convinced these desires are universal, a clue into masculinity itself.” (p. 7, pdf version).

Firstly, this imposes a uniformity on masculinity that, frankly, isn’t present. More disconcerting, however, is the application of these desires that Eldredge brings forth.

In explaining the male desire for “a battle to fight”, Eldredge says “Aggression is part of the masculine design; we are hardwired for it…Little girls do not invent games where large numbers of people die, where bloodshed is a prerequisite for having fun.” (p. 7). This is a rather disturbing view of the male psyche which is extrapolated, if anything, from the innate sinfulness of the human heart. This may indeed be a particular sinful inclination, that of violence, that men are prone to more than women. However, Eldredge lauds this thirst for bloodshed in boys as a virtue.

Not content to acknowledge such a desire in the heart of boys and young men, Eldredge takes steps to actually encourage this desire in his own sons as they grow up. He recounts that “As [his sons have] gotten older, they love to start punching matches with me…Luke senses the opportunity, and he sneaks downstairs and silently stalks me; when he’s in range, he lets loose a wallop…I’ll never forget the day when Sam gave me a bloody lip, quite by accident, when we were wrestling. At first he drew back in fear, waiting, I’m sorry to admit, for my anger. Thankfully, on this occasion I just wiped the blood away, smiled, and said, “Whoa . . . nice shot.” he beamed; no, he strutted.” (p. 35). This is not just a particular dynamic Eldredge happens to have with his sons but is, in fact, meant to show the healthy approach for all boys and their fathers.

Not only is there the masculine desire for a fight, but also the second universal principle of manhood: a desire for adventure. Now, this particular desire would be less objectionable if it were not for the incredibly narrow definition of ‘adventure’ that Eldredge supplies. Generally, ‘adventure’ is synonymous with ‘outdoors activities’. Eldredge regales the reader of tales of hiking in arctic conditions, hunting, camping, rock – climbing, and so forth. Exploring is the key to masculine heart. Indeed, Eldredge states that men have an “innate love of maps” (p. 4) which is quite the claim.

Adventure and challenge cannot be interpreted outside of Eldredge’s narrow definition, however, which he presents as follows:

“Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, on-line, microwavable. Where there are no deadlines, cell phones, or committee meetings. Where there is room for the soul. Where, finally, the geography around us corresponds to the geography of our heart.” (p. 5)

In fact, men who are not enthralled with the same things that Eldredge are simply denying and suppressing their nature. Those who are naturally more bookish or artistic are simply not as inherently masculine as the canoeist.

Finally, there is the “desire for a beauty to rescue”. After all, “What would Robin Hood or King Arthur be without the woman they love? Lonely men fighting lonely battles.” (p. 10) Not only does Eldredge implicitly dismiss the idea of singleness as compatible with his model of masculinity (bad luck to Paul and Jesus, I suppose, who weren’t true men after all) but he gets dangerously close to viewing women in a very unhealthy object-to-be-saved light. I say “close” because I do not believe that is Eldredge’s actual view of women, but the lines of his argumentation stray close to those waters on occasion.

Ultimately, the view of the male heart provided by Eldredge is full of stereotypical macho-image outdoor explorer types with a sinful lust for aggression paraded as a virtue. In fact, I would suggest Eldredge actually argues for a kind of asceticism for men. Instead of men becoming monks to live in monasteries separate from the profane influence of society, they become adventurers living in the wilderness separate from the profane influence of society.

Use of Scripture

Underpinning Wild at Heart is Eldredge’s poor use of Scripture. Firstly, Scripture is not used at the primary source for Eldredge’s ideas about male and female. I was expecting the ideal, archetypal man to whom Eldredge would point as an example would be Jesus Christ. Alas, I was disappointed. Who does Eldredge point to? William Wallace, from the film Braveheart. A running theme of the book is that we are to look to films (and sometimes novels) for our understanding of human nature rather than Christ and His Word.

When Scripture is used, however, verses are shoehorned in wildly, with little care for context or original meaning. Of particular note, and one of the only times in the book Eldredge’s spends more than a sentence explaining a Biblical text, is his exposition of the book of Ruth.

According to Eldredge, the book of the Ruth is primarily about Ruth using her femininity to seduce Boaz into acting like a man. Moreover, Eldredge holds Ruth the Seductress as a model for all women to follow. I will let Eldredge speak for himself:

“Boaz is a good man, this we know. He offers her some protection and some food. But Boaz is not giving Ruth what she really needs–a ring.

So what does Ruth do? She seduces him. Here’s the scene: The men have been working dawn till dusk to bring in the barley harvest; they’ve just finished and now it’s party time. Ruth takes a bubble bath and puts on a knockout dress; then she waits for the right moment. That moment happens to be late in the evening after Boaz has had a little too much to drink: “When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits …” (Ruth 3:7). “Good spirits” is in there for the more conservative readers. The man is drunk, which is evident from what he does next: pass out. “… He went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile” (3:7). What happens next is simply scandalous; the verse continues, “Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down.”


There is no possible reading of this passage that is “safe” or “nice.” This is seduction pure and simple–and God holds it up for all women to follow when he not only gives Ruth her own book in the Bible but also names her in the genealogy.”
(p. 91)

Dangerous Theology

Finally, scattered throughout the book are some very bizarre theological ideas that are used to support his argument. Of these, I note three.

First is that Eldredge’s view is essentially that of Open Theism (that God does not know future events). Now, Eldredge explicitly denies this claim, but when you say things like “God is a person who takes immense risk” (p. 17) and “It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases” (p. 18) and “It’s not just a battle or two God takes his chances with, either.” (p. 18) such statements are meaningless unless God does not know future events. How does an all – powerful, sovereign, and all – knowing God “take risks” or “take his chances”? The good news of the gospel is the sure foundation of God’s promises, not His apparent risk-taking.

Second is the shaming of the servant hearted. One of the saddest portions of the book was when Eldredge says “I’m telling you that the church has really crippled women when it tells them that their beauty is vain and they are at their feminine best when they are ‘serving others.'” (p. 91). This view is explicitly denied by the Lord Jesus, who not only instructed His followers to be servants of all (Mark 9:35) but modelled servitude in a humility we could never hope to replicate (Mark 10:45). In fact, the whole idea of service and sacrifice which is central to the Biblical idea of masculinity (Ephesians 5 is but one example) is never once mentioned. In its place is a self – serving view of masculinity; of adventure and pleasure – seeking.

Thirdly, Eldredge claims in a number of places that God verbally and audibly speaks to him. Whilst I am able to charitably disagree with brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to a different view of spiritual gifts than myself, there is a limit that both sides of the debate (who wish to deal honestly with the Bible) do not cross. In my opinion, Eldredge crosses this line in what he claims God has audibly told him. 4 or 5 times Eldredge records God’s audible words, including God telling him “You are Henry V after Agincourt … the man in the arena, whose face is covered with blood and sweat and dust, who strove valiantly … a great warrior … yes, even Maximus.” (p. 66, ellipses are original and not abridgements).

There are many other things I could have mentioned about this book, but this review must end at some point. The few good observations Eldredge makes are entirely obscured by his narrow and unbiblical view of gender roles, his wild and irreverent use of Scripture, and his poor theology. Wild at Heart should be read with great discernment or, preferably, not at all.

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy – Mark Vroegop

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a book that revolves around a idea little mentioned in many churches and by many Christians: lament. Whilst a third of all the Psalms focus on lament, it is curiously absent in contemporary worship – in prayer, song, and preaching. Lament isn’t only confined to the Psalter. You can find lament scattered throughout the Old Testament books of Job, Ezra, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Habakkuk. There is a book devoted to lament – Lamentations. In the New Testament, Jesus laments (Matthew 26:36 – 46 in the garden of Gethsemane; Matthew 27:46 on the cross), and so do Apostles Paul (2 Corinthians 12) and John (Revelation 6).

The concept of lament is foreign to us 21st century Christians. As Vroegop highlights in this book, Christians in the contemporary Western culture tend to lean one of two ways when confronted with suffering brothers and sisters. On the one hand, there is a false positivity, a “look on the bright side” type response. On the other is a encouragement of anger towards God. The characterisation of the Psalms, in particular, as allowing us to “shout and scream” at God in anger is ubiquitous. Vroegop helpfully guides the reader between these paths; neither denying or softening the difficulty of pain and suffering with therapeutic platitudes nor excusing sinful acts of anger towards God.

Lament, and Vroegop explains through analysis of 4 lament Psalms and sections of Lamentations, constitutes in:

  1. Turning to God in prayer. Addressing God and coming before Him; not letting our suffering lead us to prayerlessness and silence.
  2. Complaint. To bear one’s hurt and complaint before God; to express our experience as we understand them. To tell God how and why we find them difficult.
  3. Asking. Making a request of God that would honour Him and relieve our suffering. To make a heartfelt plea of what we desire.
  4. Trusting. Choosing to place our faith and our trust in God despite our circumstances. Reiterating what we know to be true about God, His nature and His character, and trusting that our suffering has a meaning that is decided by His sovereign decree.

Each step of lament can be drawn from examples in the Psalter and give a valid expression to our suffering in a God-honouring way. The framework that Vroegop provides is immensely helpful in applying Biblical passages of lamentation. There are even appendices to the book that help identify lament Psalms and phrases from the Bible to help a lamenting Christian express their sorrow, grief, and pain in prayer to God.

Vroegop is writing for those in need of lament, or those who are helping others to lament through suffering. The tone of his writing reflects this. It is the work of a pastor who has known and seen suffering first-hand, but has also helped others lament in their suffering. He helps the reader learn how to lament, how to learn from lament, and how to live with lament.

Yet lament isn’t just confined to those in deep suffering and pain. The whole Christian life, as Vroegop instructively notes, is to be lived in the “minor-key” of lament. We should not only lament for personal tragedy but also over sin – even others’ sin and injustice. There are injustices (such as abortion, as Vroegop mentions) that should prompt us to lament. In fact, our personal sin should prompt us to lament daily. The Christian life is a life of lamentation. We need to spend time in the “house of mourning”. In a very real sense, to neglect lament is to have an incomplete response to our own sin and the sin in the world.

As an introduction to lament, this is a concise, encouraging, and practical book. Whether you are in the midst of personal suffering, helping someone who is, or feel convicted to develop lament as a spiritual discipline as a response to sin and brokenness in the world, Vroegop’s excellent book would be my place to start.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution – Carl Trueman

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The culture in which we live in the West is the product of a revolution. Statements such as “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” would have seemed meaningless (or at least the symptom of a serious medical condition) but now is an accepted, and protected, phrase.

We can be tempted to reason that recent discourse and debate around gender and sexuality has instigated this cultural revolution, but Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self takes a different view. Trueman argues that today’s gender and sexual revolution is merely a symptom of a greater, slower revolution; a revolution that can be traced back in history. Whilst, as Trueman notes in the book, no historical event is the cause of itself, Trueman looks at the roots of today’s revolutionised culture from the thinking and writings of Jean – Jacques Rousseau through to the modern day. As a concise summary, Trueman explains the overarching historical narrative that he examines in the following way:

To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. To follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity – and therefore sex – political.

The work is exceptional, scholarly without being difficult to read, and provides the reader with a critical framework with which to better gain wisdom and understanding for the current culture. One of the hallmarks of this book is that, by the end, you begin to be able to analyse the cultural phenomenon through the framework Trueman provides in the book before he does. In a way, this book is profoundly instructive in how we view ideas, and even legislation, in our immediate social context.

There are three fundamental, incisive concepts to Trueman’s analysis.

Human Identity is Made Psychological

A basic paradigm in which Trueman works is that, in the past, man in the West has derived identity from external virtues and influences. Political, religious, and economic institutions and affairs gave rise to the identity of an individual. Trueman notes the modern shift, however, to a psychological man. Identity is now an internal construct, not derived from higher ideals or values. An individual’s value come from her own self-consciousness.

A couple of important things that are familiar to us have arisen from this monumental reorientation of cultural understanding. First is that institutions now become servants of the individual and their own sense of inner well-being. A big shift can be seen church life. Instead of the Church giving meaning and individuals deriving identity from her teaching on the Gospel and its related ethics, churches have seen a surge of “seeker sensitive” movements to appease and serve the inner well-being of the individual. One must only browse the social media of an “affirming” church to see the validity of such perception.

Second is that things like oppression become predominantly psychological (and therefore subjective) categories. In a world of psychologised identity, the greatest crime becomes verbal assaults and challenging of one’s ideas and constructions about themselves. This, Trueman explains, as a key contributing factor about modern societies penchant to police speech, with ‘hate speech’ being considered violence and ‘misgendering’ an individual being a reprehensible act of bigotry.

Contemporary Culture is an Anticulture

Another framework with which Trueman uses to analyse today’s culture is the “three worlds” paradigm. Essentially, first world cultures derive their morality and code of ethics from pagan myths and/or legends (think Ancient Greek or Roman traditions), whereas second world cultures have foundations more in faith than in fate, yet still derive their morality from an objective source, apart from nature (the obvious example being Christianity). However, third world cultures have a morality that is not derived from a sacred order, like the first and second worlds. The third world exists to remove and overthrow the enshrined cultural norms and morality. Thus, in a very real sense, they are anticultures because, offering no new transcendent ideals, they exists only to remove and overthrow.

One such example Trueman mentions is that of modesty. First and second world cultures may disagree on what is and is not modest, and will disagree on their reasons for their conclusions, but will both agree in modesty as a concept. The third world culture seeks to abolish modesty as an inherently oppressive construct (usually toward women).

A particular outlet of these anticultural tendencies manifests through art. In a second world, art reflects the culture of which it is a part. Yet in a third world anticulture, artwork becomes deathwork in that it portrays that which was sacred and upheld in the culture as ridiculous, distasteful, disgusting, and maybe even childish. Deathworks seek to overturn the moral fabric of the society and divorce something upheld in culture from any moral content. This is quintessentially seen in the widespread manufacturing and distribution of pornography. As one of the central artifacts of the second world culture, sex was always given a meaning and context beyond itself. Pornography makes sex and end in itself, divorcing it from any cultural or moral significance and is therefore a powerful (as well as pervasive) deathwork.

Morality is Therapeutic

Another consequence of the psychologising of identity is a profound sense of emotivism as the basics of morality. Moral judgements become the expression of taste and of preference. One’s feelings about an ethical question becomes an ethical stance. The phrase “it just feels right” is the quintessential emotivist sentiment.

This ultimately means that morality becomes a therapeutic exercise, as the feelings of the individual are the final (indeed, in some cases, only) authority. What becomes important is that the internal, psychological self – defined identity of the individual be satiated – even the at the expense of verifiable, scientific fact. Trueman notices this initial shift in Charles Darwin. For Trueman’s analysis, Dawin’s evolutionary metaphysics, rather than his evolutionary biology, is the key conceptual change. The central point, Trueman notes, is that Darwin rejected the idea of teleology – that there is purpose, or an end, to the existence of humanity.

Once these three key strands are understood, Trueman makes a number of applications to contemporary society towards the end of the book, most notably that of the LGBTQ+ ideology, and more specifically of transgenderism. Once one accepts identity as a primarily psychological category, and, following Freud and subsequent critical theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, that psychological identity is primarily sexual, then the issues such as transgenderism become logical progressions.

Trueman insightfully captures the essence of our therapeutic society in the following way:

The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence.

Throughout the book, Trueman writes evenhandedly and does not tip his hat towards his Christian beliefs, until perhaps the last chapter. The point, as he reiterates, is not to lament or offer a polemic, but merely to explain how our current culture has come to be what it now is. In this, Trueman sees that we are all products of this environment in which we find ourselves and must be mindful in our own disapproval. He notes, pithily:

Criticism of “snowflakes” by those who themselves live and breathe the atmosphere of expressive individualism is therefore a cause for all of us to engage in self – examination.

Trueman aptly chronicles the decline of culture in the West to the contemporary anticulture full of deathworks; a ticking time bomb ready to implode upon its own insatiable desire to destroy. Trueman gets to the heart of the cultural disease and, once its rotten nature is seen clearly, will prompt the reader to cry Maranatha!

Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The enormity of this book cannot be overstated. I’m not just talking about its size, although at nearly 1800 pages in total, it is rather large. Rather, the impact this book has had on Western thought, in general, and theology (particularly in the Protestant and Reformed tradition) in particular, is enormous. It is a book often alluded to, often cited, and often referenced. The format and organisation of modern systematic theology is heavily influenced by Calvin’s magnum opus.

Ultimately, this work does function as a systematic theology (although, interestingly, there is no section of eschatology). Calvin starts with the knowledge of God, the foundation of Calvin’s theology, and works all the way through his theological thought in a logical order, until he finishes with the relationship between Church and state – the final practical out working of Calvin’s theology into society. As a guide, Calvin uses the Apostle’s Creed to work out his thought.

The Institutes is arranged into 4 books. The first book is entitled Of the Knowledge of God the Creator. The book is split into two main sections: knowledge of God, and knowledge of man in relation to God. Calvin’s position is that the knowledge of God is not to be found in man or in the frame of this world, but in Scripture, whereby His highest revelation to us is His Triune nature. In relation to man, in the second section, Calvin considers the general government of human behaviour. Although God uses the wicked as instruments for His divine plan, He Himself is pure and free of any taint of sin.

The subject of second book is The Knowledge of God the Redeemer and looks at the person and work of Christ. First, through the lens of the law, and second through the lens of the Gospel. It is interesting to note the early development of the law/gospel distinction that is so prevalent in later Reformed theology.

Calvin first considers the reason for our redemption by looking at the fall of Adam, original sin, free will, and all the consequences this has on the human condition. Calvin advocates a high view of the depravity of man as a consequence of Adam’s sin, following in the footsteps of Augustine. His lengthy rebuttal of the concept of free will (as defined in the Roman Catholic sense) is incisive. After outlining, through the fall, the need for a saviour, Calvin enters into a discourse on the act of redemption itself.

He starts with the Law. Showing how the Law cannot save, but points to hope in salvation in its fulfilment, including an exposition of the ten commandments. Yet what was hidden in the Law is made manifest in the Gospel through Jesus Christ. Calvin shows in what way Christ is the fulfilment of the Law as our saviour, principally by considering Christ’s three offices as a mediator between God and man: prophet, priest, and king.

If book 2 is primarily about the God the Son, then book three is primarily about God the Holy Spirit. Whilst books 1 & 2 contained discussions on the objective work of God as both creator and redeemer, book 3 looks at the subjective work God to the individual believer; God as sanctifier. The book has three sections, encapsulated in its title: The Mode of Obtaining the Grace of Christ, the Benefits it Confers, and the Effects Resulting From It. Ultimately, this is Calvin’s main treatise on faith.

The mode of obtaining the grace of Christ is by faith; a special work of the Holy Spirit of God in the believer. Its benefits and effect are seen in our repentance and subsequent justification. The principal exercise of faith, Calvin argues, is prayer, which he treats in this section. He also goes on to look at the distinction between common grace (that which is given to all mankind) and special grace (that which is given to the elect only). From this distinction, Calvin propounds his doctrine of divine election.

Though his views on election is what Calvin is most known for, the subject takes up relatively little room (4 chapters, out of 25 in book 3) in this mammoth work, and is given no special status. Election is not a starting point for Calvin (it comes at the end of book 3, about 980 pages into the work) but is simply one among many orthodox teachings in the Institutes.

The (abbreviated) title of book 4 is: The External Means. This is the focus of the communion of the saints and is divided into three parts: the Church, the sacraments, and civil government.

Calvin explains the Biblical marks of a Church, its rule and government (such as different offices in the Church – presbyter, elder, and deacon), and the power of the Church in doctrine, law, and jurisdiction. He then specifically focuses in on the sacraments, and what is meant by baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Calvin we see an almost full Covenant Theology in comparing the sacraments in the Old Testament with the sacraments in the New. Finally, Calvin finishes off the Institutes with a discussion on civil government, and the Church’s relationship to it.

It is easy to think of Calvin’s work as a book that only academics should be interested in (or weird non – academic nerds like me, I suppose), but Calvin did not write the Institutes for an academic use. He writes like a pastor. And, as all pastors should, he has two voices: one for the sheep, and one for the wolves. One thing I was not expecting in the Institutes was the amount of times Calvin defended his position against that of the Roman Catholics, or attacks the Roman Catholic position. Calvin, growing up and writing in a Roman Catholic world, was writing for those who would come up against Roman Catholic teaching all the time. He equipped them to reject the Roman Catholic position and also defend the Reformed, Protestant one. Yet it isn’t just the Papists that get the voice to the wolves. Anabaptists, “sophists”, “Schoolmen”, and individual heretics (such as Osiander, Servetus etc.) all get the treatment. Some of these views may be of little interest to the contemporary reader, but a great number are very similar to arguments one might hear today.

Yet, Calvin also has his voice to the sheep, too. He gives great encouragement to struggling Christians and offers many reasons to put hope in Christ, and to see the beauty of the Christian faith. Calvin was a pastor and it show in his work.

Finally, Calvin never sets up his system of Christian doctrine as a new invention. He is always quoting not only the Scripture to prove his point, but also early Church fathers, as well as medaeival theologians. He interacts most often with Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, Peter Lombard, and even Popes Leo, Gregory, and Innocent, among many others. Calvin is always keen to impress upon readers that the Reformation was just that – a Reformation, and not a Reinvention or even a Novel Invention. He also frequently interacts with ancient philosophical writers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, especially in book 1. The real genius of Calvin’s work, in my opinion, is how he is able to succinctly articulate profound Biblical truths within the framework of the theology and piety that the historic Church (minus Roman corruption) had already established.

Quite simply, this is a phenomenal achievement of theological thought. So much can be gleaned from reading the Institutes – I managed to fill out 4 books worth of notes and reflections, as well as 270 highlighted quotations. I would highly recommend a read through the Institutes; it is a wonderfully beneficial exercise.


You can download H. H. Beveridge’s 1845 English translation of the Institutes in three different e-reader formats entirely for free here (courtesy of Monergism).

God Became A Baby

I love Christmas carols. Some more so than others, but Christmas carols are a favourite of mine. I have a large playlist of carols that gets thorough usage every year. Yet there are some notable absentees to my Christmas carol playlist. Some so – called carols have nothing substantially to do with the birth of Christ beside some token lyrics (think The Holly and the Ivy), but some traditional numbers are omitted for more nefarious reasons. The most obvious one of these is the ever popular Away in a Manger. I don’t sing this particular carol (and it is blacklisted from my playlist) because of the following line:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

This line looks and sounds innocent enough. Babies don’t always cry when awoken, after all. But I think it a fairly superfluous inclusion if the hymnwriter is merely telling us whether Jesus cried or not on a particular occasion. The hymnwriter wasn’t there, after all. How did he know Jesus did not cry? It think it fairly obvious that this is a theological inclusion, meant to tell us something about character of Jesus.

All too often, we have a view of Jesus’s infancy as a serene, peaceful, and heavenly paradise. This is the idea behind Silent Night, where the chaos of a full – to – bursting Bethlehem is ignored to perpetuate the idea, as well as in the “no crying he makes” lyric. How often do we think of Mary as heavily pregnant and then, in the next moment, a tranquil nativity scene. In characterising Jesus’s birth in this way, we deify Jesus’s human experience. Jesus crying is seen as too dependent. Too vulnerable. Too fragile. Too weak.

Yet the truth is that human babies are dependent on their parents. Jesus was truly human and so He was dependent on Mary to survive. Jesus’s humanity was a real humanity. He would have soiled Himself and screamed for milk. Jesus would have sicked up His food and dribbled over Joseph. He would have fallen over when trying to walk, and cried incessantly when He was teething. I sometimes ponder some of the moments of Jesus’s infancy; about whether Mary had trouble breastfeeding the baby Jesus, how she must have felt singing Him to sleep when He awoke in the night, and how Jesus would sound as He first started to learn how to talk.

Too often, we are so committed to preserving Jesus’s deity and holiness that it seems irreverent to us to think of Jesus in this way – as truly human. But the wonder and the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus is that He experienced the same vulnerability and weakness as us all.

Our tendency as contemporary evangelical, or even Reformed, Christians to deify Christ’s nature is not a new phenomenon. Back in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, there was a popular movement in the Church that sought to try and understand how the human and divine were related in the person of Christ. This teaching was a form of monophysitism (from the Greek mono meaning ‘one’ and physis meaning ‘nature’) that understood Jesus as having a single nature; a divine – human nature. It became popular through the teaching of Eutyches of Constantinople, and is thus named Eutychianism. The Eutychian teaching about Christ’s nature is that it is a blending of both human nature and divine nature into a third type, a theanthropic, nature, that is a mixture of both.

Eutyches taught that the divine nature “swallows up” the human nature, just as the ocean would consume a single drop of vinegar. Essentially, the human nature of Christ is deified. This leads to two major problems.

First, a Euytchian view of Jesus finds the very real and human experiences of Jesus problematic. As the lyric in Away in a Manger demonstrates, deifying Christ’s human nature leads to a stumbling block around the non – sinful limitations and experiences of humanity. Jesus is said to have only pretended to sleep on the boat (Matthew 8:24), since God does not grow weary. Jesus, by the same token, did not cry as a child dependent on its mother, as God is self – sufficient (Acts 17:25).

Second, if this view of Christ’s humanity is true, then He is not qualified to be our saviour. Christ is called the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45-49) because He represented sinful humanity on the cross. It is humanity, as represented by the first Adam, that owes the debt to God. Without Christ being truly human, with a truly human nature, He cannot represent us to make atonement before God. Moreover, He cannot serve as mediator between God and man, since He has neither true divine nature nor true human nature. By blending the two natures together, this view of Jesus disqualifies Him for the role as our saviour and High Priest.

Christ’s true humanity must be embraced, and it is rightly considered one of the most wondrous acts of God. He became a real baby in the uterus of an ordinary woman. He was born, and grew up as a human child, learning to talk and walk, and how to read. He ate and drank and slept and sweated and went to the toilet. But He didn’t just do those things as a show or facade. He needed to do those things.

It is worth heeding the sage advice of C. S. Lewis, however, who said:

“The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”

The opposite error to Eutychianism is found in Nestorianism. Named after the Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius (thought there is significant historical debate about whether Nestorius was in fact a Nestorian!), Nestorianism does not teach a mixture or blending of the divine and human natures, but rather a radical separation between them.

According to Nestorianism, the two natures of Christ are divided as two separate persons. The human person Jesus of Nazareth and the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, were united in purpose and will, but not in their nature. Nestorians taught that when Christ died, the human person died, but when Christ performed a miracle, it was the divine person of God the Son performing the miracle, independent of the human person.

The fire of controversy was ignited over Nestorians refusing to us the term theotokos (Greek, literally meaning “God-bearer”) to describe Mary. They believed that the child whom Mary bore was human but not divine. The human son of Mary may have been indwelt by the Son of God, but his nature was fundamentally separate from the divine nature.

As we said about Eutychianism, Nestorianism has a number of problems regarding the atonement. One such problem can be highlighted using another controversial song lyric. This time it is Charles Wesley’s hymn And Can It Be? that comes under scrutiny with the line:

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Some Christians have called for this lyric to be changed or removed because, they reason, God cannot die. Unfortunately, just as the lyric in Away in a Manger displayed (unconsciously) a spirit of Eutychianism, so calls to change this lyric of And Can It Be? (again, unconsciously, I am sure) display a spirit of Nestorianism. Under the Nestorian view of Christ, the divine person cannot die on the cross, since God cannot die or suffer. Therefore, the human person must have died on the cross. But think of the implications. If it were simply a human who died on the cross with one, finite human nature, then how could his death accomplish salvation for others? How could a simple, finite human nature withstand the wrath of God and rise again on the third day? Like Eutychianism, Nestorianism leaves us with no atonement and no salvation.

As 21st century Christians, we should feel ourselves incredibly privileged and blessed to have so much Church history behind us. We do not have to wrestle through such difficult and challenging subjects unaided. By God’s providence, the Church has been able explain how to understand the divine and human natures of Jesus.

In the middle of the 5th century, Christianity was embroiled in a battle between Eutychianism on the one hand, and Nestorianism on the other hand. The Church convened a great council, consisting of over 500 members, in Chalcedon, modern – day Turkey. The main fruit of the council was to settle this debate about the natures of Christ. Eventually, the council produced what it known as the Chalcedonian Definition (given in full at the bottom).

The five key points of the Definition can be summarised as follows:

1. Jesus Christ is one person
A repeated phrase in the Definition is “one and the same”, indicating that the human Son of Mary is “one and the same” as the divine Son of God. There are not two persons and two Sons, but one and the same Son.

2. Jesus has true human nature and a true divine nature
Jesus is said to be “co-essential” with the Father, meaning that He has the same (divine) nature as does the Father. Yet Jesus is also said to be “co-essential” with us, meaning that He has the same (human) nature as we do, sin apart. The council also affirmed the use of the title theotokos being applied to Mary, as it is a way of declaring that the child in her womb was indeed God incarnate.

3. Eutychianism is rejected
The council teaches that the natures of Christ are united “unconfusedly” and “unchangeably”, rejecting the Eutychian idea of a nature that is a mixture of human and divine.

4. Nestorianism is rejected
The council also teaches that the natures of Christ are united “indivisibly” and “inseparably”, rejecting the Nestorian idea of a separation between the divine and human natures. There are two natures, united in one Person.

5. Each nature retains its own attributes
This important detail was taught to makes sense of the union between the human and divine natures. To understand what the council meant by saying that each nature preserves its own properties, we can boil it down to saying that whatever can be said of one nature can be said of the Person but not of the other nature. So, for example, we can say the following:

The human nature needs to be sustained by food, therefore the person of Jesus needs to be sustained by food, but the divine nature does not need to be sustained by food.

Conversely, the divine nature is all – powerful, therefore the person of Jesus is all – powerful, but the human nature is not all – powerful.

This helps to give us a Biblically sound framework of talking accurately, and without confusion, about the incarnate Christ.

The incarnation of the Son of God is a wondrous mystery; how God the Son condescended to us and took upon Himself a human nature. He became a vulnerable baby, a real human baby, and grew to ultimately live a perfect life under the Law, and a sacrificial death of atonement for His people. He was able to secure our redemption because He was both truly human and also truly divine, able to represent man and bear the wrath of God laid upon Him. Though, touching His human nature, He has ascended into Heaven, nevertheless He, touching His divine nature, is never absent from us.

When we rejoice at the birth of our Lord Jesus, we ought to wonder at the true divinity and the true humanity of the God – man, united unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.


The Chalcedonian Definition (451 AD):

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He was parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers has handed down to us.

Christianity, Critical Theory, and Social Justice

Critical theory is one of the biggest threats to the Church. That may seem like a surprising statement, especially as many people haven’t ever heard of critical theory.

Yet, whether we know what to call it or not, the ideas that critical theory teach are destructive, divisive, and dangerous. This post started as a simple review to Engaging with Critical Theory and Social Justice by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer.

To explore critical theory’s relationship with Christianity, Shenvi and Sawyer cover four main areas.

1. A history of the critical theory movement; specifically the branch of the wide movement of critical race theory (CRT) that is most influential in contemporary critical theory.

2. History of racism and racial injustice to provide context for the claims of the CRTheorists.

3. In what ways is Christianity incompatible the worldview presented by CRT.

4. How to engage and best share the Gospel with those holding a CRT worldview.

I will be using these four sections as a format for this post but I have written this as more of an introduction to critical theory and its interaction with Christianity as an extended summary of their work. You can read the short book for free here.

History of CRT

CRT was founded in Frankfurt school, 1920s, by Marxist philosophers and sociologists who were dissatisfied with the spread of Communism. Contemporary CRT (CCRT) also draws from other sources such as postmodern writers of the mid-twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, the fundamental CCRT ideology rests on the oppressor (or ‘privileged’) / oppressed distinction as applied to a number of “identity marker groups” such as race, gender, etc.

CCRT goes even further than the basic Marxist distinction of oppressor/oppressed and “intersects” group oppression based on a combination of these markers. For instance, a white woman is both an oppressor (with respect to race) and oppressed (with respect to gender). Shenvi and Sawyer show how such reasoning is only compatible with radically redefining your terms. What one quickly realises is that terms like “oppression” and “privilege” and “racism” etc. are being fundamentally redefined so as to lose all conventional meaning. For example, the dictionary definition of the term “oppression” is something like “unjust or cruel exercise of authority and power”. However, CCRT scholars and popular authors redefine “oppression” to mean “the ability of a particular group to impose its norms, values, and expectations on the rest of society” (p. 4). Under this definition, not only are actions such as sexual harassment viewed as oppression, but also assumed colour preferences for children’s clothing based on gender.

This aspect of CCRT leads to the idea of “social justice”. Since, under the CCRT paradigm, it is group based on identity that fall into the oppressor/oppression framework, all members of an oppressor group are oppressors, regardless of the actions of individual members of that group (and vice versa for the oppressed group).

Shenvi and Sawyer devote some time to CCRT epistemology. Interestingly, they show how CCRT, despite being influenced by postmodernism, isn’t strictly postmodern in nature. Truth (of some form, at least) seems to exist in the mind of CCRT authors, but one’s ability to perceive it is affected one’s adherence to an oppressor/oppressed group.

“Conversely, contemporary critical theorists maintain that an oppressed person’s perception of reality and apprehension of truth is enhanced by her social location.” (p. 9)

This is CCRT phenomenon often referred to as “stand point epistemology”. Oppressed people, therefore, have an advantage over the oppressor group because they can construct counter – narratives to the oppressor norm from their “lived experience”. This enhances their ability to see the truth and they are considered “woke” as they are now awake to the truth of the world.

Although CCRT is in line with the Bible when the Bible calls oppression a sin, the Bible’s definition of oppression is about violence, cruelty, enslavement, and theft. Furthermore, CCRT and the Bible also agree about the corruption of power on the and the moral blindness it causes. Yet the Bible says that sin, not privilege, is the cause of such blindness.

History of Race, Racism, and Racial Injustice

The history of the USA including the slave trade and the Jim Crow laws are often drawn upon as the justification behind the CCRT narratives, particularly about race. Although the history of other nations is different, little (if any) difference between cultures is assumed in the application of CCRT. The history of America is chosen to be the lens through which CCRT advocates view race relations in particular.

Nevertheless, such history should not, and cannot, be avoided or changed. Admitting the realities of history, which is very briefly summarised in section 2, must be done to provide context for the claims of CCRT advocates. What makes CCRT such a pernicious worldview is that the problem to which it claims it is the solution, is not only verifiably true, but is also morally repugnant. Seeing the wickedness of the trans – Atlantic slave trade and the discriminatory laws evoke as sense of deep injustice to which CCRT activists will manipulate to the point where their ideology becomes inextricably linked with fighting racial injustice. To deny the CCRT narrative of racial injustice, is to not only deny that racial injustice has existed, or does exist, but to actively promote racial injustice. Accepting history need to mean we must accept the CCRT lens through which that history is interpreted.

A Critique of Contemporary Critical Theory from a Christian Worldview

The fundamental thesis of this section is that Christianity and CCRT have fundamentally different worldviews. The basic worldview in Christianity answers several fundamental questions:

– What are human beings?
Human beings are made in the image of our Creator.
– What is wrong with the world?
In rebellion, we brought sin and suffering into the world, yet Christ died was raised to rescue us from sin.
– What is our ultimate purpose?
Our purpose in life to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
– How should we live?
We wait expectantly for God to renew all things in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

In contrast to this metanarrative, the basic worldview of CCRT answers the same questions in the following way:

– What are human beings?
Human beings are members of a social group locked in a power struggle. Our identity comes from our relationship to other groups.
– What is wrong with the world?
There is human suffering caused by systems of oppression.
– What is our ultimate purpose?
Our purpose in life is to fight against the subjugation by dominant groups.
– How should we live?
We should strive to live a state of equity.

These two metanarratives are simply incompatible with one another. The fundamental distinction between these two worldviews are most clearly seen when applied to four areas: epistemology, identity, hegemony, and morality.

Epistemology

Shenvi and Sawyer compare the two worldviews of CCRT and Christianity by first looking the approach each worldview takes to how one obtains truth. As mentioned before, the authors argue that CCRT, though influenced by postmodernism, isn’t fundamentally postmodern in nature. CCRT holds to form of objective truth, but how one obtains truth is radically different from a Biblical worldview.

The Christian worldview seeks the truth by using our reason to obtain knowledge that God has revealed to us through two sources: nature and Scripture.

“When we study science or economics or philosophy, we are using reason to understand the works of God in the universe he created. When we study Scripture, we are using reason to understand the words of God in the Bible he inspired.” (p. 15 – 16)

Since we are sinful in our nature, our knowledge and faculties of reason will be fallible. We must be open to correction, but that correction must be ultimately grounded in the source of truth – God’s revelation to us. We interpret His revelation through our reason and not our own experiences or an appeal to mystical insight. Scripture is the lens through which we are to interpret our “lived experience”.

As Shenvi and Sawyer go on to imply, the epistemology of CCRT is more akin to Gnosticism than it is to Christianity. The early Church wrestled with a type of Gnosticism that taught a “special knowledge” (Greek ‘gnosis’ = ‘knowledge’) was need to understand the world. Those in the Gnostic sect may learn this esoteric knowledge, but it was not freely known outside of the sect. The contemporary Church must battle with the same spirit of Gnosticism is CCRT. In the CCRT worldview, truth claims are made on the basis of an individual’s own ‘lived experience’ rather than upon any other objective basis. Those in oppressor groups are blinded by their own privilege and cannot challenge the claims made by those in the oppressed group, as their lived experience grants them special access to truth.

“Consequently, if a privileged person disagrees with the claims of the critical theorist, the critical theorist need not appeal to objective evidence or to Scripture. He can insist that the privileged person’s social location has twisted their understanding and that they need to listen to and accept the claims of marginalized groups (as represented by the critical theorist).” (p. 16)

Identity

The Christian worldview views the identity of the human individual on a primarily “vertical” axis. That is, our identity is derived from God.

“All human beings are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27) and therefore bear inestimable value and dignity (Ex. 20:13; Ps. 139:13-14). All human beings are fallen in sin (Rom 3:23; 5:12, 18a) and are therefore in need of mercy (Titus 3:5). And all human beings need the redemption and restoration that is only offered in Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). These three core identity markers unite all people across lines of race, class, and gender and form a basis for solidarity.” (p. 17)

In stark contrast, CCRT defines human identity exclusively on the “horizontal” axis. That is our relationship with our group demographic, and our group demographic’s relationship with another group.

These concepts will, by necessity, sow seeds of enmity and fracture in the Church. If a Church adopts the rhetoric of critical theory, the congregation will split along lines of gender, race, class, etc. with no possible route for reconciliation. If the defining feature of a person’s identity in the Church is whether they belong to an oppressed or oppressor group then the possibility of Christian unity is destroyed.

In direct contrast to this view, Paul insists “there is no longer Jew
or Greek, slave or free, male or female
for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Paul does not mean, of course, that there are no such things as ‘males’ or ‘females’, but that these demographic markers no longer define an individual once they become a Christian. Salvation in Christ is not a tiered system. Our primary identity is in Christ, not in our social standing or any demographic marker.

There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, oppressor nor oppressed, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. We are single body, united in Christ. Any person who seeks to sow a seed of disunity in Christ’s Church on the basis of group identity should be disciplined by their church.

Hegemony

Hegemonic discourses are, as define in critical theory, narratives a ruling class tell to justify its power. The narrative, norms, and standard of morality as dictated and taught by the hegemonic discourse is inherently oppressive and therefore evil.

Christianity is perhaps the ultimate hegemonic discourse. In the Christian worldview, God, through the Bible, tells one singular narrative about Himself, primarily, and creation secondarily. Christianity provides on singular narrative and standard of morality by which all other nations, cultures, and people will be judged. As Shenvi and Sawyer highlight

“[The Bible] offers us one true story about gender, one true story about sexuality, and one true story about religion. Moreover, it unashamedly declares that God has all the power in the universe, is completely sovereign over our lives, and answers to no one. To critical theorists, these totalizing, comprehensive, exclusive claims are utterly unacceptable. From the perspective of contemporary critical theory, God is the Ultimate Oppressor.” (p. 18)

Morality

According to the Bible and the Christian worldview, God’s standard of morality is absolute. It is not dependent on your social group demographic or your level of oppression. Everyone is held to the same standard of holiness and righteous. Shenvi and Swayer do highlight that verse such as 1 Timothy 5:20 and James 3:1 imply that sins of Christian leaders are more serious sins than those of their congregants. This, they helpfully explain, is a level of accountability, rather than a difference in the standards applied. What Christianity denies is that something may be explicitly sinful for one groups, and less sinful (or perhaps not sinful at all) for another.

On the other hand, CCRT advocates often engage in, and condone, behaviour from a member of an oppressed group that would be deemed unacceptable if committed by a member of an oppressor group. The very fact that, irrespective of personal behaviour all white people are prejudicial granted “oppressor” statement is testament to this. Whilst one racial group should not be prejudicially stereotyped and judged as morally inferior, another racial group should be.

One particular application of this moral asymmetry is how CCRT view the person of Jesus. On the one hand, Christianity teaches the sinless perfection of Jesus Christ. In fact, Christianity teaches that unless Jesus Christ truly is and was perfectly sinless, we have no salvation, since only a sinless sacrifice could propitiate the wrath of God. However, Jesus was male, and therefore part of an oppressor group in the eyes of CCRT. The Bible clearly calls oppression sin, as CCRT affirms, in a certain sense. So, either CCRT denies the sinlessness of Christ (and therefore have no salvation) or the membership to an oppressor actually brings with it no moral implications, in contradiction to their own worldview.

Implications

Shenvi and Sawyer explore the implications of the differences between these worldviews. The common thread through all the examples they give of how CCRT can infect the Church and Christian communities is that they are often taken in by soundbites or slogans that seem to accomplish laudable aims.

Popular slogans often supported by Christians, such as “we should never challenge someone’s lived experience”, “Christian theology needs to divest from privileged groups”, “we need to dismantle forms of systematic oppression”, or “our theology must be de-colonised” are all statements when defined in a certain way may be useful and true. However, what Christians are often failing to realise, is that such slogans are by – products of the CCRT worldview and the words being used are defined using the CCRT worldview, and not the Christian worldview.

In light of this, the Christian’s ability to exercise discernment becomes of paramount importance.

“In all of these cases, clear thinking and discernment is strongly needed. We
can affirm the good in these various ideas. Yet we must also recognize that if we
follow them to their logical conclusions, they are fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.”
(p. 20)

How to Engage Critical Theorists

Shenvi and Sawyer devote the final section of their work to strategies to engage those caught up in critical theory; both non – Christians and those who profess to be Christians. Briefly, they consider four areas for potential engagement.

Truth

Whilst CCRT believes in a form of objective truth, appeals to “reason” and “evidence” to determine such truth are seen by critical theorists as tools of oppression and is therefore likely only to shut down conversation, rather than open it. Shenvi and Sawyer suggest two alternatives.

– First, is a form of teleological argument, by asking whether human beings have a purpose.

“If there is no God and human beings have no purpose, then true freedom might be found in throwing off all constraints to live as our impulses dictate. But if God exists and created us to truly flourish only when we know him, then rejecting his authority over us will bring us death rather than life, and slavery rather than freedom.” (p. 21)

– Second, is to use basic logic to show the contradiction in the fundamental claims of critical theory. For example, saying “all truth-claims are bids for power which can therefore be rejected” is itself a truth claim. Also, “hegemonic discourses should be rejected as narratives to justify a group’s own power” is itself a hegemonic narrative being used by a group to assert their standards and authority. Thus, by their own logic, CCRT should be likewise rejected.

Morality and Justice

Once again, CCRT is not a postmodern relativist system of belief. Shenvi and Sawyer propose using this very fact to form a basis of an apologetic argument.

CCRT advocates often use moral imperatives, such as “we ought to dismantle racist structures” or “we must oppose systematic oppression”. This insistence on moral imperatives serves to evaluate societies standards by some objective metric. A moral law then raises the question of a moral law – giver, and then the critical theorist is face – to – face with the classic moral argument:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Justification

One of the appeals to those embroiled in critical theory is its promise that we can achieve a right moral standing on the basis of our works. Granted, that mission is easier to accomplish if we are naturally born into an oppressed group, but even as woke ‘allies’, we can support marginalised groups, vote for the right candidates, and post the right content on social media to be seen as a “good” ally.

Yet Christianity offers salvation based on grace, not on works. The Gospel, and particularly the doctrine of justification by grace alone, can free someone from the soul – crushing bondage of the works righteousness that CCRT demands. Ultimately, there is not reconciliation or forgiveness in CCRT, but there is in Christ.

The Church

Finally, the example of a flourishing a loving church community is a great appeal to an apologist. Since the CCRT worldview sees hegemonic power as inherently oppressive, the Christian church community provides a perfect antidote to this vision of reality. Instead of oppressing, power is used in the Church to edify and serve, united around a common saviour, in spite of our differences along the lines of race, gender, etc.

Pointing to a church community, though flawed, fulfilling Jesus’ command to love their neighbour as themselves and being involved in caring for the vulnerable (be that adoption and foster care, or giving to the poor, or any other ministry to those in the community) will undermine the CCRT worldview of hegemonic oppression.


Whilst critical theory may seem like a simply academic philosophy to some, the reality is that its worldview, whether subtly or openly, is infecting the Church. Some denominations have almost completely collapsed under the weight of its schismatic and divisive ideology.

For further reading and study on critical theory and its incompatibility with Christianity visit Neil Shenvi’s compilation of resources:

The Five Points of Grace

A couple of months ago during the Coronavirus pandemic I had a conversation with the Pastor of my church. Among other things, we spoke of salvation and of the so – called “5 Points of Calvinism”. Like almost every other Calvinist I have ever read or heard speak on the subject, I have issues with the “5 Points” and their English acronym “TULIP”.

For starters, “Calvinism” was a historical pejorative used initially by Lutherans, and then later by Arminians, against the established Reformed view of theology. It has nothing substantially to do with the man John Calvin at all, who would not understand, or appreciate, the term. Moreover, “Calvinism” in the original sense, was a whole system of theology: from epistemology to eschatology. Calvinism never had “5 Points”, but simply five answers to the five objections of Arminianism as put forth in the Canons of Dordt.

This inaccuracy notwithstanding, the “5 Points of Calvinism” have shifted from the precise and confessional document of the Canons of Dordt to a 20th Century English slogan under the acronym TULIP. So successful has this been that when you talk about the “5 Points of Calvinism”, people will often think of TULIP, rather than the Canons of Dordt. The problem is that TULIP as an acronym is problematic. Whilst it may be serviceable for what it is, the words used to fit difficult theology into a pronounceable English acronym often do more harm than good. TULIP stands for:

Total depravity

Unconditional election

Limited atonement

Irresistible grace

Perseverance of the saints

Many people have an aversion to Calvinism because of some of the misleading terminology expressed in the five points. The caricature to which Calvinism is often subject is usually founded the language used in TULIP. For example, “irresistible grace” seems to give an impression that God drags people, kicking and screaming, against their will. Similarly, “limited atonement” is interpreted to mean that some people who are seeking salvation in Christ are refused it.

In our conversation, my Pastor challenged me to come up with a better summary that better emphasised the centrality of God’s grace in salvation. After all, an alternative (and much superior) nickname for the 5 points of Calvinism is the “Doctrines of Grace”, due to how God’s grace is the true foundation of what they teach. This is my attempt to explain the 5 Points of Grace.

Regenerating Grace

The first of the five points of grace confronts the reality of our sinful human nature. We are not sinners because we sin. Rather, we sin because we are sinners. Our corrupt nature, inherited from Adam (Romans 5:12) is the cause, and not the result, of the sins we commit. The Bible makes it clear that we are born in this condition when it calls us “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), and that the “intention of man’s heart is evil from His youth” (Genesis 8:21). This condition extends to the heart of every human, as the Psalmist says

“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one.”
(Psalm 14:3)

Yet not only do we have a sinful nature that affects us and keeps us from perfection, the Biblical reality is that it has corrupted us to the very heart. That is not to say that we are as bad or as evil as we could possibly be. God extends to us common grace by way of laws that restrict the evil in men’s hearts, as well as moral consciences. God, by His mercy and grace, restrains all of us – believer or no. He could leave us to our depraved hearts and desires that the Bible says are “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9), since we are slaves to our sinful nature (Romans 6:20), but out of His grace upholds us even in our sin.

The effect this has on us as people is that we reject God. We “loved the darkness rather than the light because [our] works were evil” (John 3:19) and are, in our nature, hostile to God. As Paul explains succinctly

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7 – 8)

Since we, due to our sinful humanity cannot please God, there is no way for us to come to Him of our own accord. We are, therefore, dependent upon God’s grace for salvation. Not only do we need God to help us, we need God to save us. We are dependent upon His grace to act first to reconcile us to Himself. Without His grace, we remain dead. With His grace, we are regenerated; born again. Only then, as people with new hearts and desires, may we come to the Father. Jesus was clear on this point when He said

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)

When God regenerates us, transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), we have the spiritual ability to put our faith in Christ. He has no obligation to give us new life. God is free to leave us in our sin. It is only through the free grace of God that He choses to change our hearts our corrupt nature begins its restoration.

Adopting Grace

A consequence of our corrupt nature is that we are, by birth, children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). That is, since our very natures are slaves to sin, God’s judgement rests upon all of us. Yet, God does not leave everyone in that state of condemnation. Out of His free grace, He adopts a people in His family as co – heirs of Christ (Romans 8:17).

It is a human temptation, as old as the church itself, to believe that we have made ourselves worthy of God’s adoption. Whether that means that we have to be a particular type of person, or have attained some level of obedience to God’s law, it amounts to the same central idea. It is our natural tendency to think that we have to earn God’s adopting love. It is the very reasoning that Paul often combats in his epistles, and no clearer does he rebut it than in Ephesians

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:4 – 9)

God uses the image of adoption for a reason. Adopted children do not earn the acceptance of their adopting parents. There are no works they must be able to perform beforehand. The adoption is based only on the free gracious provision of the adopting parents.

Our adoption as children of God is not based upon anything that we do, or anything that we are. The is no condition we must first meet. He has no obligation to adopt us as His children. We have done nothing to deserve the adoption as a co – heir with Christ; in fact, our thoughts and actions have left us in greater condemnation. Yet by God’s free grace, He sets His love upon us, in eternity past, to be united to Him by the sacrifice of Christ.

We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:10), as underserving and wretched as we are, and has chosen out of the overflowing of His grace to look upon us as holy, forgiven sons and daughters.

Effectual Grace

The incarnate Son of God has many names given to Him in Scripture. From Old Testament titles such as “Prince of Peace” and “Son of Man” to other titles in the New Testament, such as “Christ” and “Lord”. However, the most common name He is given is the name “Jesus”. As we are told in the Bible, the name Jesus means “God saves” and He was named Jesus because “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

There is no doubt from that Gospels (not to mention the prophecies of the Old Testament) that this was Jesus’s main purpose is His incarnation on Earth 2000 years ago. He came to save His people from their sins. This tells us two things about God’s grace for the salvation of His people.

First, is that He came to save a specific people. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis mine). Jesus has a people He can call His own. Nobody is saved accidentally or randomly. No Christian is adopted into God’s covenant family mistakenly. God’s grace in seeking to save the lost (Luke 19:10) was, and is, purposeful. His plan of salvation is for a particular purpose, for a particular people. Out of His mere grace, we, as a Church, have the right to call Christ our own, just as He calls us His own.

The New Testament frequently references the Church as Christ’s bride. The marriage relationship was made and designed to point to the reality of Christ and His Church. It is an illustration of our relationship with Jesus. So, just as all married people have one wife, or husband, to whom they are married, so too Christ has one people, the Church. Just as a man or woman knows whom they will marry and has set their love upon them before they consummate the marriage in the wedding ceremony, so too does Christ know His people, the Church, before our Heavenly wedding in glory. There is no guesswork or uncertainty. God, out of nothing but grace, has given us confidence and surety, that we have been chosen as His from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and that Christ has set His gracious love upon us, before we even knew Him (1 John 4:10,19)!

Secondly, God’s grace in saving us will be effective. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis mine). Not only are we told that God has assured us that we are saved as a specific people for Christ, but that our salvation is secured as a certainty. In other words, God has not merely made it possible for us to be saved in Christ’s Church; He has actually and really delivered us! God’s grace is an effectual grace. It has not left the job of our salvation unfinished so that we have to make the finishing touches ourselves by our own efforts (including faith that we exercise). Our justification before God was complete on the cross. Whilst we may not experience it until later in time, Christ has already achieved our salvation!

Let Paul explain more fully from the book of Romans,

“[B]ut God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:8-10)

Paul shows us here that God saved us while we were yet sinners. Before we had even exercised faith in Him, our salvation was already secure! The language of reconciliation is in the past tense. ‘We were reconciled by the death of His Son’ (v. 10, emphasis). It is not conditional in us in any sense; God’s grace is effective in truly saving us by the blood of Christ.

Sufficient Grace

The first point in this summary of the 5 points of grace established that grace was necessary for our salvation. We are dependent upon God’s grace in order for us to have our natures changed from one that rejects and hates God, to one that is spiritually able to respond to Him and appropriate the benefits of Christ’s blood. The point to be made here, building on the last two points, is that grace is not only necessary, but it is sufficient. That is, not only do we all need grace, but grace is all we need.

We’ve already seen how the Bible shows that man’s nature is corrupt and cannot please or accept God. We are naturally hostile to God. Any effort ours will only serve to further our separation and hostility. In order to come to God for forgiveness and reconciliation, God must be the one initiate a change in our nature and regenerate our hearts. But not simply is God the initiator of our regeneration, He is the author and finisher. He does it all. There is no further work or act that contributes to our regeneration except the Spirit of God who regenerates us by His grace.

The work of the Spirit in the regeneration of man encompasses a complete renovation. Consider what the Bible says that the Holy Spirit does in us, out of grace:

  1. A New Birth

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12 – 13)

“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5 – 8)

2. A New Heart

“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)

“‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. ‘I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

3. A New Creation

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)

4. A Resurrection

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5a)

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:13)

God’s work in the renewal of our nature is comprehensive. In all the above Scripture quotations, God is identified as the one working our regeneration. The stress is always upon what He does in us; we contribute nothing. All can be summed up by Paul’s pithy summary in Titus,

“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)

The exercise of faith in the experience of the believer, therefore, is reactionary of what the Spirit has done already for us. He draws us to the Father (John 6:44), He convinces and convicts us of our sin (John 16:8), He teaches us of Christ by His Word (Romans 10:17), regenerates and renews us, making us able to accept and trust in Christ and His work for us. It is entirely of His all-powerful and sufficient grace!

Victorious Grace

As Christians, we are involved in a spiritual battle. Though are natures are renewed by the Holy Spirit, that does not mean that we are free from sin in our life. Paul grieves over his continued sin in Romans 7, saying

“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15 – 19)

Although this is our experience as believers, it is only temporary. God has not only secured our salvation from the penalty of sin (justification), He will one day deliver us from the presence of sin (glorification). God has promised us that as surely as we are justified before Him, so too will we be glorified in Heaven. The spiritual battle in which we are engaged will be successful. We cannot lose. God has secured our salvation and will not allow us to be defeated. The grace that He gives in salvation is victorious over sin, death, and the Devil.

A true believer will never be finally lost. Eternal life is our possession now, even if it is not our reality now (John 6:47). God’s grace not only saves us, but it keeps us. He is not only patient and gracious to us when we were rebellious sinners, but He extends that mercy and grace to us as believers, too. Though we may sin, and sin seriously, God will not cast us away. The Holy Spirit that dwells within us is God’s promise to keep us. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he says

“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:21 – 22)

The word translated as ‘guarantee’ in the ESV is also translated ‘deposit’, ‘down – payment’, or sometimes ‘earnest’. The image that Paul is using is that of real estate, and other significant financial transactions. Buying a house, for example, often requires a deposit that acts as a guarantee from those which wish the purchase the house. They pay part of the final price immediately to signify their committal to buy the property later. Moreover, if they pull out on their commitment, their deposit is forfeited. It marks a point of ‘no return’ for the buyers.

Paul uses this image of the Spirit of God. He is our deposit, or guarantee, given to us. The gift of the Spirit is the immediate gift He has given us as a sign that He is committed on our complete salvation from sin in eternity. We have a foretaste of that final glorification, even though it is not yet a full reality. Furthermore, the Spirit as our deposit guarantees that God will keep us. As a deposit, the Spirit is making a promise for our final salvation. If that promise is broken, God forfeits His Holy Spirit. For this to happen, there would be rift in the Trinity; God would cease to be God.

In other words, what God is saying us in giving the Holy Spirit as a seal and guarantee is that for God to abandon you and renege on His promise of salvation, He would cease to be God. That is a sure a promise and guarantee that could exist.

Although, at times our spiritual battle seems to be going poorly and sin is threatening to overwhelm us, God has guaranteed our victory. Nothing can possibly remove us from His hand,

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38 – 39)

He came to save us, and He will not let us go. He is a good shepherd who will not abandon His sheep. Even as redeemed people, we do not deserve with unending patience and mercy that God shows us in keep us in love. It is only by His all-conquering grace will we win final victory over sin.


Whilst this summary of the 5 points of grace is neither comprehensive, nor perfect, they serve to point to the reality that salvation is the Lord’s. He has won it for us, and we may boast in none of it.

“The doctrines of grace stand or fall together, and together they point to one central truth: salvation is all of grace because it is all of God; and because it is all of God, it is all for His glory”

James Montgomery Boice

5 things I have learnt from the book of Isaiah

As a part of my Bible reading throughout 2020, I am highlighting 5 things from the books of the Bible that have stood out to me and taught me.

Here are 5 things I have learnt from the book of Isaiah.

The Holiness of God

God has revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures. That is an important truth that we hold on to in the Christian faith. We also hold that the whole of Scripture is profitable to reveal who God is (2 Timothy 3:16-17). However, what is also true is that God has not revealed Himself with equal lucidity in all places in Scripture. There are some places in Scripture where the knowledge of God’s nature is more obscure than others. Whatever Scripture tells us about God is true, but it is not all equally clear.

The late R. C. Sproul used to compare the revelation of God’s character in the Scriptures like a panoramic view of a landscape from different vantage points. Some places will not enable us to see very well or very far (if we are in the middle of a forest, for example), whereas other viewing points (such as a mountain top) will give us a much clearer view.

What we find in chapter 6 of Isaiah is a mountain peak of God’s revelation. Perhaps there is no place in the Old Testament where we see God’s nature more clearly. There is so much contained in chapter 6 that whole sermon series and books can (and have) been written in exploring its content.

The central theme, however, of Isaiah 6 is the holiness of God. Nowhere in the Old Testament, and arguably in the whole of Scripture, do we see the revelation of God’s holiness so clearly.

In verse 1, Isaiah sees “the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of His robe filled the temple.” The ‘train of His robe’ is euphemistic of God’s glory; a glory so encompassing that Isaiah sees it completely envelope His surroundings. Isaiah recounts how he saw the Seraphim, terrifying angelic beings, covering themselves with their wings. They called out a song before God, saying

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”
(Isaiah 6:3)

They sang of God’s holiness in voices so commanding and powerful that they shook the whole temple. It is significant that the Seraphim repeated the term ‘holy’. The Hebrew literary tradition used repetition as a means of emphasis. Sometimes, words are written twice to convey their importance. However, the song of the Seraphim has a threefold proclamation of the Divine attribute of holiness. No other attribute is repeated thrice in the Bible. The Bible does not say that God is ‘love, love, love’ or ‘just, just, just’ but that He is ‘holy, holy, holy’.

God’s holiness is His fundamental separation between us (as His creatures) and Him (our Creator); both onotologically (His self – existent Being, and our existence entirely dependent on, and derived from Him) and morally (as His moral perfection and our moral destitution). Well did Isaiah cry “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:4). This is the greatest proclamation of God’s holy nature in all the Old Testament as He revealed Himself in awe and glory to Isaiah.

Incredibly, however, this vision of Isaiah serves an even more amazing, and perhaps unexpected, purpose: to reveal to us who Christ is. There is absolutely no doubt that Isaiah saw God on the throne in the temple. He even uses the covenant name of God, Yahweh, in verse 4, as do the Seraphim in verse 3. If you asked Isaiah who he saw in the temple, he would easily reply “Yahweh, the Lord God.”

However, this is not the only place that this incident in the temple is referenced. In John 12, John quotes a passage of Isaiah 6 as being fulfilled by Jesus, before saying

“Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him.” (John 12:41)

So, if you were to ask the apostle John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who Isaiah saw in the temple vision, he would say “Jesus”.

Not only is this clear Biblical evidence of the deity of Jesus, but also that it was Jesus whom Isaiah saw in a pre – incarnate form. The glory referred to in Isaiah 6 is Jesus’s glory. The train of His robe filling the temple is Jesus’s robe. The holiness is Jesus’s holiness. Jesus is the Lord God Almighty.

The Substitution of Christ

Like Isaiah 6 above, Isaiah 53 is another mountain peak in the revelation that is the Old Testament. Few, if any, other places in the works of the Old Testament prophets describe with such vivid and powerful detail the person and works of Christ. It’s easy to see how those reading the words of Isaiah 53 in Old Testament Israel would have been bemused by their content. However, from our position of privilege, having known to revelation of the New Testament, we can see so clearly to that which Isaiah was pointing.

Two major aspects of this chapter particularly stood out to me in my reading of Isaiah this year. First is the inconspicuousness of Jesus’s figure. In verse 2, Isaiah writes

“He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him,
    and no beauty that we should desire Him.”
(Isaiah 53:2)

Almost everything we know about the appearance of Jesus (about whom the entire chapter is prophesying) is contained in this verse, and even then it is in the negative – what Jesus was not like, rather than what His appearance was. This is surely by design and has impressed upon me two things. One is that the contemporary culture’s association between outward beauty and inner worth is utterly false. We often see those who are considered attractive by the standards of the culture raised to some pedestal because of their beauty (and vice versa) but such an economy of worth is entirely foreign to the kingdom of God. Secondly, the depictions of Jesus in images, art, and film unilaterally fail to fulfill the single criterion of Jesus’s appearance as described in the Bible. Representations of Jesus are made to be striking, to grab our attention, and in doing so, conflate the attractiveness of His Person with the attractiveness of His form.

The second aspect of Isaiah 53 is recurring theme of substitution.

“Surely He has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows”
(Isaiah 53:4)

But He was wounded for our transgressions;
    He was crushed for our iniquities
(Isaiah 53:5)

“The Lord has laid on Him
    the iniquity of us all
(Isaiah 53:6)

“Who considered
that He was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?”
(Isaiah 53:8)

Isaiah impresses upon us most strongly how Christ’s suffering was in place of His people. This presupposes that we are deserving of grief, sorrow, wounding, crushing, being cut off and stricken for our sin. Yet it was Christ who took those things upon Himself on the cross. Though Isaiah makes it also perfectly plain that there was no sin to be found in Christ for which He was due such wrath and suffering, He took it upon Himself entirely willingly.

This motif, however, concludes with a proclamation of the intention and plan behind the substitutionary suffering of Christ.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him;
    he has put Him to grief”
(Isaiah 53:10)

Whilst it is true that Jesus went to the cross and all His suffering willingly (John 10), it is also true that it was the purpose and plan of God from all eternity. In God’s perfect plan of redemption, mapped out from eternity past, it was always the divine will for Christ to willingly lay His life down for His people.

God Is Not Like Us

One of God’s often recurring messages to His people is that He is not like them. In some ways, of course, God is like us. We are, after all, made in His image. There is a ‘point of contact’, so to speak, between the divine nature and the human nature. For example, God is a rational being and so are we. God can love, as can we. While it is true that the reality of God’s love is much different, and far greater, than any love that we as humans can know, it is still true that all our love is derivative of the love of God. Our attributes as humans are but pale shadows of the perfections of God, but they are still true reflections.

However, God possesses attributes in His being that have no reflection in humanity. For example, we have not human concept of the divine attribute of immutability – never changing. As humans, we are continually subject to change, but God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

God is a holy being, separate from us in a radical way, yet has endowed us with a reflection of some of His attributes. In the words of Isaiah

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are My ways higher than your ways
    and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
(Isaiah 55:8 – 9)

Though we have the faculties of reason, we do not reason like God. Though we have the ability to think, as God does in some sense, we do not think like God. The rationality of God is much higher than ours. Although to us God’s actions often seem irrational, they are in fact super-rational. That is, above our reason.

God is not merely saying He is more intelligent, wise, knowledgeable, and rational than humans (though of course He is those things). The point that Isaiah is making is that God’s faculties are quantitatively different. God reveals Himself to us in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic fashion and we ascribe human terms to God. Yet, in a more fundamental sense, it is the other way around. God’s intelligence and reason ascribed, in a certain sense and at a different level, to us so we have a way in which to talk about Him. Our rationality mirrors and is derivative of His, not the other way around.

God, in His very nature, and by His very Being, is so different from us that we cannot comprehend Him except by His condescension to us.

The Inclusivity of the Old Covenant

The centre of the Old Covenant revolved around Israel. They were God’s chosen people and to them was given the Law and the Prophets. The body of God’s revelation was deposited to them. To become a member of God’s people, you had to follow the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws of national Israel.

With this in mind, a common caricature of the Old Covenant is that it is an exclusive covenant and was only for natural born Israelites. However, there are a number of exceptions to this, not least of which is the example of Ruth the Moabite.

Whilst the focus of the Old Covenant was indeed national Israel, it was never mandated that non – Israelites could not be initiated into the covenant. God lays out this principle to Isaiah

“For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
    and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.””
(Isaiah 56:4 – 7)

The Old Covenant was far more inclusive that is often portrayed. God has always only had one plan of salvation. And whilst it is true that, in His wisdom and grace, the administration of His covenant with His people and His deposit of revelation is no longer contained within one nation, the Old Covenant does not exclude those willing to come to Him and to adopt themselves into His people.

God’s Patience with His People

An overarching motif of the Old Testament is the rebellion of the Israelite people and their constant rejection of God’s law. Every Old Testament book addresses this in some form or another. In fact, the more you read of the Old Testament, to more you wonder at why God has kept persevering with these people. Even more incredible, is the future promises that God makes to His people; promises of blessing.

Chapter 65 of Isaiah shows this tension as much as anywhere else. The first half of the chapter (verses 1 – 16) are God’s words of judgement to those who have rejected Him. He describes Israel as “a rebellious people” (v. 2), a people who “provoke [God] continually” (v. 3). The Lord decries the sins of His people, the most heinous and unclean of acts: eating pig’s flesh (v. 4), sacrificing in inappropriate places and on inappropriate altars (v. 3). God lays out the judgement He will bring on such a people in verses 11 – 16. They are “destined to the sword” (v. 12), be hungry and thirsty and put to shame (v. 13). They will ultimately be put to death for their blasphemy (v. 15)

Yet in verses 17 – 25, God provides a view of the gracious provision that He will grant His people. A promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth (v. 17) with no more, weeping, calamity, or death. This is the reality that God promises His people.

“I will rejoice in Jerusalem
    and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
    and the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
    an infant who lives but a few days,
    or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
    and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.”
(Isaiah 65:19 – 20)

Although tempting, we ought not interpret this passage as if the people under the curse of verses 1 – 16 were a separate entity to those given the promises of verses 17 – 25. Whilst from an eternal point of view, these two groups are distinct, in a temporal sense those who will reap the benefits of the New Heaven and Earth were those for, for at least a time, were under a curse.

We were all born under a curse as children of God’s wrath (Ephesians 1) and we, in our natural state, are all guilty of the charges that God lays upon us in their most fundamental sense. He was patient with Israel when they rebelled against Him and He is patient with us whilst we rebelled against Him.


Of course, there is much more to the book of Isaiah than just these 5 points, but they are the ones that stood out to me as I read through Isaiah in 2020. Enjoy reading them for yourself!

Recovering the Reformed Confessions – R. Scott Clark

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The main argument of this book manifests in two complementary threads; one broad and one narrow.

The broad thread of the book addresses the practice of the American Reformed Churches: their theology, piety, and practice. Specifically, how their theology, piety, and practice has deviated away from the Reformed confessions to which they purportedly hold. This particular thread of the book was difficult for me to follow and relate to, in practice, since I do not live in America, much less attend a Reformed church there. RSC distinguishes broadly between three types of churches. There is the ‘borderline’ group of conservatively evangelical churches that sit between the liberal ‘mainline’ and the confessionally Reformed ‘sideline’. It is this latter group of churches that form the focus of the book, yet insight can still be gleaned on confessionalism from this side of the pond, as someone who would personally sit in the ‘sideline’ camp but whose church would be in the ‘borderline’ camp.

The narrow thread of the book is the call for the Church (specifically the American sideline churches, but I think the author would extend this more generally) to recover the means of grace as the modus vivendi for the Christian. In particular, RSC argues the case for the confessional theology, piety, and practice.

Against the Reformed theology, piety, and practice of the confessions (essentially defined as the so-called “6 Forms of Unity” – Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, Larger Catechism, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dordt), RSC posits that the contemporary church has fallen prey to two major errors.

On the one hand, contemporary Christians suffer from a Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC). RSC argues that this is symptomatic of a type of fundamentalism, that leads to improper boundary markers for orthodoxy. Clark uses 6/24 creation (in the literalistic sense of 24hr periods), theonomic reconstruction, and a faulty view of justification (in particular, the Federal Vision/New Perspective-type covenant moralism) as examples of this theme.

On the other hand, there is the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) focussing on ways to circumvent God’s prescribed means of Word and sacrament. Specifically, RSC focuses on the experientialism of the Pentecostal movement within Reformed churches. Not necessarily in charismatic gifts (though they must be included), but also in aberrant ways of discerning God’s moral will. RSC digs deeper, and looks at pietism and revivalism as more foundational causes for the rejection of confessional piety. RSC makes a particular example of Jonathan Edwards’ pietism and makes a good case that such pietism is a return to medieval mysticism. Personally, I found this section the most relatable of the book, since the QIRE that RSC refers to is the dominant error that I encounter within my own context.

RSC seeks to recover a confessional Reformed approach to theology by first propounding the correct meaning of the analogical nature of our language about God, maintaining the Creator/creature distinction, and the categories of archetypal and echtypal theology.

To do this, if we are to retain the label “Reformed” at any rate, must be done within the public and, RSC argues, binding confession of the Reformed faith as expressed in the ecclesiastically sanctioned consensus documents of the confessions.

But how should we use the Confessions to this end? Three historic positions are discussed: “systematic” subscription, “full” subscription, and “good faith” subscription. Ultimately, the first leads to liberalism (since any specifics eventually are lost general themes) and the last is really no subscription at all.

In terms of the confessions themselves, RSC supports the idea of Churches revising the confessions to speak on heresies that have subsequently arisen since the 17th century. He argues this is was the heart of the divines who wrote them, and I agree with him. The confessions are written with anti-heterodox language throughout; specifically against the Papist views but also, of course, the Arminian views in the Canons of Dordt. The confessions then, must also be in some sense polemic rejections of what the Bible does not teach as well as apologetic summaries of what it does. Since, of course, many errors and controversies have arisen and have become prevalent since the 17th century, it would seem prudent to address these confessionally.

RSC goes on to defend the Reformed tradition more broadly, arguing from the classic Reformed theologians themselves, and the confessional documents, that the Reformed faith is:

1. Biblical
2. Catholic
3. Vital (i.e. living and life-giving)
4. Evangelical
5. Churchly

The final sections essentially address two major areas of contention when it comes to the application in the lives of churches and individual believers of the Reformed confession.

First is a section on the regulative principle of worship (RPW): its definition, and application. A main crux point is about the singing of uninspired songs and RSC claims that the singing of uninspired hymns is not consistent with any historical understanding of the RPW. However, RSC also offers a number of arguments as to why other canonical songs, other than the Psalms, may also be sung a capella.

Within this section, RSC offers an interesting interpretation of “in spirit and truth” from Jesus’s words from John 4. I confess, the interpretation I would have held would be along the lines of Calvin: “worship the true God correctly”. But Clark argues (and I think convincingly) that the verse should be rendered “in the Spirit and the Truth”, pointing to Trinitarian worship in the Holy Spirit and Jesus Himself.

Final section on the Sabbath and its continued place in Christian worship. The Sabbath as a one-day-in-seven rest from labour for the purpose of the worship of God and the attend of Word and sacrament was defended – both historically and exegetically.

These final sections were the most challenging to read for me. As RSC notes, adherence to both the RPW (in its historic sense) and Sabbatarianism is extremely counter – cultural. However, we should always be testing our practices against the Scriptures, not the culture (even church culture). RSC is surely correct that our attitudes to worship must change from the QIRE that dominates the contemporary Church, and instead restore the means of grace to their rightful place as the primary Christian experience.