Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the category “Reviews”

“The Baptist Congregation” by Stanley Grenz

Introduction

The blurb to The Baptist Congregation[1] argues that the contemporary church exists in a period of upheaval and this book seeks to provide a clear foundation for the Baptist denomination to stand upon. The blurb is certainly not incorrect. Grenz has effectively provided a theological and practical tool to aid the Baptist denomination. He states that “the book seeks to build on the foundations of those emphases which have been significant throughout Baptist history, in order to provide a source book which may assist Baptist churches in their task.”[2] This essay provides an overview of the argument and structure of the book, followed by several critical reflections.[3]

The Baptist Congregation

Overview

Grenz begins with a discussion on the church. The word “Church” originates in the Hebrew qahal, connoting assembly, translated into the Greek ekklēsia and argues the Church is “neither a building nor an organization, but people.”[4] It is the “people” and “temple” of God, and the “Body of Christ;”[5] an assembly of people called out by God to reflect his nature to the world.[6] The purpose of the Church is to glorify God, as the created order was made to glorify him,[7] accomplished through worship, edification and outreach.[8] The Baptist church has generally rejected the high ecclesiology of apostolic succession and a heavy emphasis on word and sacrament, arguing instead that “the church is marked by believers standing in covenant with God and one another,”[9] leading to a congregationalism.

In the next section, on ordinances, Grenz discusses the words “sacrament,” connoting faithful obedience, and “ordinance,” referring to that which has been ordained, or initiated, by Jesus.[10] Of these, Baptists hold to two – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Neither mere symbols, nor simply “steps of obedience,” these are significant for several reasons, including affirmation or reaffirmation of faith and acting as visual sermons.[11] These ordinances must have evidence of being initiated by Jesus, evidence of their being practiced in the early church and must symbolically reveal the Gospel.[12] Baptism is “a public confession of personal faith on the part of the baptismal candidate,”[13] signifying three emphases: 1) entry into church, 2) union with Christ, and 3) the sealing of a covenant with God.[14] It impacts upon the individual, community and general public, requiring faith from the individual,[15] and pictures Jesus’ death and resurrection.[16] Where baptism is initiatory, the Lord’s Supper is repeated. It is Gospel proclamation, and recollection of Jesus’ death, a symbol of our faith in Christ and church unity, and a reminder of Christ’s return.[17] It acts as “the reaffirmation of personal faith in and loyalty to Jesus as Lord…Through participation in the Lord’s Supper the believer is strengthened by the Spirit as personal allegiance to Chris is reaffirmed.”[18] Rather than the Catholic transubstantiation, Lutheran consubstantiation and Calvin’s spiritual presence, Baptists have held to Zwingli’s memorialism, in which “Christ’s presence was not to be found in the elements at all, but rather in the believing community.”[19]

The third section discusses polity, beginning with membership. Only becoming a formal practice after the early church as a result of historical developments,[20] it recognizes the incorporation of an individual into the whole, requiring a profession of faith and baptism. This has a human, divine and corporate aspect, and is the final initiatory stage.[21] Church organization follows one of three structures: hierarchical, representative, or congregational. Baptists have generally followed the third.[22] Favoring congregationalism, Grenz states that “each local church is to be the church of Jesus Christ in miniature and as such is self-governing,”[23] following a democratic congregationalism in which the entire body is responsible in discerning God’s will.[24] Offices in the church are designated to provide organization; bishops, from the word episkopos, connoting supervision, and deacons, from diakonos, generally referring to someone who waits on, assists or ministers to another.[25] Other positions of authority include apostle, apostolic assistants and pastor/teachers.[26] Today, pastors and elders hold positions of authority, similar to these listed, plus church boards and committees.[27] Pastors are usually ordained in the Baptist church, a “recognition and confirmation by the corporate people of God of the presence of this special call to a particular individual.”[28] Ordination councils are formed to examine the candidate in terms of calling, doctrine and personal ministry. The ordination procedure includes leaders presenting a candidate to the congregation, a statement of faith from the candidate, receiving of committee recommendations, voting upon the ordination and, if successful, an ordination ceremony where the candidate receives a charge and prayer with the laying on of hands.[29]

The fourth section consists of an outline of the history of the Baptist denomination, particularly in America, and the progression of its distinctive emphases. Springing from the Puritans, the radical congregationalism saw John Smythe lead a separatist group in Amsterdam and in 1609 baptized himself and his followers as a renewal of their covenant. This is seen as the beginning of the Baptist church.[30] Another began on Rhode Island in America by Roger Williams.[31] The two major distinctive emphases are the primacy of scripture and individual competency. Regenerate church membership, congregational autonomy, the two ordinances, believer’s baptism, and separation of church and state, result from the two main emphases.[32] Of the 47 million members, the majority of Baptists reside in America (approximately 85%), but the Baptist World Alliance exists to link international Baptists.[33] Three main Baptist conventions exist in America: American Baptist Churches in the United States, Southern Baptist Convention, and National Baptist Convention. Though there are many other small conventions.[34] The book ends with an appendix consisting of a helpful sample constitution, organizational structure and selected dates in Baptist history.[35]

Critical Reflection

Though Grenz has written a good introduction to the Baptist church, there are some criticisms to be made. Firstly, he occasionally sidesteps major arguments. For example, while he is happy to go to great detail in outlining the procedure of ordination or attaining local congregation membership, little argument is provided against infant baptism or transubstantiation, consubstantiation or Calvin’s spiritual presence in his discussion of the two ordinances. Against paedobaptism; firstly, he simply argues that infants do not have the capability of professing faith, but has unsuccessfully argued for the need for a profession of faith from the individual in baptism.[36] Published eight years before this book, Bridge and Phypers published a book outlining arguments for paedobaptism,[37] arguments which are conveniently ignored by Grenz.[38]

Secondly, Grenz simply argues that believer’s baptism “is built on various considerations, including biblical precedent and the dangers inherent in infant baptism,”[39] but does not provide scriptural support[40] or list what these dangers actually are. He correctly places Baptist emphasis in the Lord’s Supper upon Zwingli’s memorialism, but, again, provides little argument for the validity of this position and jumps to the conclusion that “it is probable that first-century Christians did view the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal,”[41] with no scriptural or historical evidence. However, this small book is simply an introduction, and greater detail can be found in his Theology for the Community of God.

One other main criticism lies in his overemphasis on detailing Baptist movements in America. If his target audience was primarily American this would be fine, but it seems from his introduction that his purpose in writing the book is that it be a tool to all Baptists, not just American Baptists. However, considering that the vast majority of Baptists reside in America, it’s a fair assumption that the majority of his audience would be American, but it could have helped to outline in greater detail the movements of Baptist groups internationally.

Conclusion

Having discussed the essence and the ordinances of the church, focussing on the two that the Baptist denomination adheres to, the polity of the Baptist church, and its history and movement, Grenz has successfully provided a good introduction to the denomination. It is evident that the major distinctive element lies in organization and polity, and the major emphases flow out from these: the primacy of scripture and individual competency. Despite several criticisms, Grenz’ work is a valuable sourcebook for any Baptist minister or layperson.

Bibliography

D Bridge, D Phypers. “The Paedobaptist Approach.” In The Water That Divides. England: IVP, 1977.

Grenz, Stanley J. The Baptist Congregation. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1985.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 5 ed. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.


[1] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1985).

[2] Ibid. 9.

[3] Grenz’ Theology for the Community of God (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994).) follows a similar structure in its ecclesiological discussions, and provides greater detail in arguments. Hence, this essay utilizes Grenz’ arguments in Theology for the Community of God to further understand the themes discussed and Grenz’ general evangelical position, though it was published nine years later.

[4] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 15-16.

[5] Ibid. 16. Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 463-67 – “The use of the term ekklesia in the New Testament indicates that the early believers conceived of the church as a covenanting people. This conclusion is confirmed by several of the metaphors used by the New Testament writers to provide insight into the nature of their fellowship. Three are especially important, each of which is related to a member of the Trinity,” (465-66).

[6] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 18. Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 489 – “The church is the primary vehicle for mirroring the divine image.”

[7] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 19-20. Grenz cites Ps. 19:1-4, and Eph. 1:5-6, 11-14; 2:6-7 to argue that creation and salvation are to glorify God; “we are redeemed in order to glorify God and to be a showcase of the grace of the one who saved us in Christ,” (p. 20). Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 488-489 – “God’s glory is indeed the final goal of all God’s actions;” “God’s soteriological purposes arise out of the glorification of his own triune nature.”

[8] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 20-21.

[9] Ibid. 22.

[10] Ibid. 29-30. Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 515 – “As his obedient disciples, we naturally desire to continue those practices which Christ ordained for us to follow. We practice the ordinances, therefore, as the primary divinely ordained means for us to declare our loyalty to Jesus as Lord.”

[11] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 30-32.

[12] Ibid. 32. For these three reasons, “both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are without question ordinances of the church,” (p. 32).

[13] Ibid. 33.

[14] Ibid. 34. Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 522-523 – “Baptism symbolizes our spiritual union with Christ…the confirming of a covenant with God,” and “marks our initiation into the narrative of the Christian fellowship.”

[15] Hence, paedobaptism is to be rejected, based on “the meaning of the ordinance itself,” (Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 36).

[16] Ibid. 34-37. Due to its symbolic links with Jesus’ death and resurrection, baptism should be practiced as full immersion, rather than to sprinkle. This is further supported by the Greek baptizō (“to immerse”) as opposed to hrantizō (“to sprinkle”) and Acts 8:39 and Matt. 3:16, both implying going down into and coming up out of the water, (ibid. 37). Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 530-531 – “Sprinkling dominates among most Protestants and in the Roman Catholic Church, although immersion is often allowed. Certain Anabaptist groups use pouring. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church immerses babies, the Baptist tradition has been the strongest advocate of immersion…We may derive [immersion’s] superiority not only from New Testament evidence but also from the value of the rite as a sign of gospel truth. Immersion most clearly depicts what the ordinance of baptism is meant to signify, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus and the believer’s union with Christ.”

[17] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 39-41.

[18] Ibid. 41. Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 531 – “Our participation in the second act of commitment constitutes a repeated reaffirmation of what we initially declared in baptism – namely, our new identity in Christ.”

[19] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 43. Further, Grenz states that “it is probable that first-century Christians did view the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal, although one which is similar in intent to the Jewish Passover. As the Jewish Passover depicted the Exodus, so this ordinance depicts the great act of God in Christ. This act is symbolically reenacted so that the community may not only recall God’s action in the past but also be reminded of God’s continuing presence and God’s promises for the future,” (p. 44).

[20] Though letters of commendation, carried between groups were used, (ibid. 47).

[21] Ibid. 47-51. Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 546-47 – “Uniting with a local congregation (which is the visible expression of Christ’s church) forms the final step in the process of initiation into the company of the people of God. This process begins with personal faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord, is publicly expressed in water baptism, and culminates in formal church membership…The process of initiation into the church of Christ…comes about through the triad of inward faith, its outward expression in baptism, and formal membership in a local congregation. Faith marks our acceptance of the story of Jesus for us. Baptism symbolizes our transfer of loyalties. And church membership marks the public meshing of our personal story with the story of God’s people.”

[22] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 53-54.

[23] Ibid. 55. Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 550-51 – “According to the independent model…Christ’s authority functions immediately in each local fellowship (hence, the designation “congregational.”) Each church is directly accountable to its Lord and in this sense is autonomous (that is, responsible under Christ for its own affairs.)”

[24] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 57.

[25] Ibid. 61-62.

[26] Ibid. 63. According to Grenz, “In the first century apostles were responsible for the articulation, proclamation, and maintenance of foundational doctrine. Prophets and evangelists were carried on itinerant work, using churches established by apostles as a basis of ministry. Pastors and teachers, it appears, were those who worked within a specific locale for an extended period of time in order to edify the congregation by their ministry,” (p. 63).

[27] Ibid. 64-65.

[28] Ibid. 68. Cf. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 567 – “To enter into pastoral ministry a person must meet two conditions: a personal call from the Lord of the church through his Spirit and the confirmation of that call by the faith community…It is, as Luther suggested, an ecclesiastical ceremony through which the community ratifies the call and election of the minister.”

[29] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 69-72.

[30] Ibid. 75-77.

[31] Ibid. 78. Grenz argues that Williams’ “study of the New Testament solidified his rejection of that baptism, not just because it was performed by a false church, but also because it was performed on infants, in contrast to the believer’s baptism of the early church,” (p. 78).

[32] Ibid. 82-90. Grenz notes the acrostic of the seven convictions, forming BAPTIST: Believer’s baptism, Autonomy of local congregation, Primacy of scripture, True believers only, Individual competency, Separation of church and state, Two ordinances (p. 82).

[33] Ibid. 91-94.

[34] Ibid. 98-105.

[35] Ibid. 109-120.

[36] Ibid. 35-36.

[37] D. Bridge, D. Phypers, “The Paedobaptist Approach,” in The Water That Divides (England: IVP, 1977).

[38] It would be unfair to expect Grenz to have read every publication on the issue, but it is obvious that there were many arguments at the time of the publication of this book which Grenz did not elaborate upon. Cf. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5 ed. (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 411-423. McGrath provides brief, yet thorough, overviews of each sacramental position and arguments for each, arguments which Grenz could have profited from.

[39] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 36.

[40] There has been scriptural argument prior to this point, but most referring to either the need for baptism or the public ministry of baptism, not necessarily to the requirement of a profession of faith from the individual.

[41] Grenz, The Baptist Congregation. 44.

Church as a Missional Society

The Church is being-driven, in that “its purpose and activity flow forth from the church’s identity,”[1] (i.e. ‘being’) and “its being is identified as that which turns upward, outward, and downward in communion with God, its own members, and the world.”[2] The Church’s entire purpose is rooted in its identity with the Triune God, who is “communal and co-missional,”[3] who has named the church, and of whose Kingdom the Church belongs – not to the kingdom of this world. The basis of the Church’s mission is relationship, and, finding its identity in a relational God who desires the Good News to be spread to all nations and all people, the Church step beyond the comfortable and prioritize outreach, aiming to have a tangible impact upon today’s society.[4] As “God relocated from heaven to earth to reach a lost world…So too we must relocate, living among those who do not confess Christ.”[5]

One thing in particular that stands out in this chapter is how uncomfortable it makes me feel while reading it. The theology and argument is sound and passionate, but it presents a difficult lifestyle for the Church to follow. The Church must step beyond what is comfortable in order to reach out to those who do not know Christ. We should not expect them to come to us, but rather, we should we going to them. This is certainly not easy. To an extent, it is troubling that something that is absolutely rooted in our identity in the Triune God is so uncomfortable. It is not usual, however, for people to enjoy intentionally stepping out into the uncomfortable. Hence, it must only be through the power and love of the Spirit that the Gospel can be spread to all peoples.[6]

References

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Harper, Brad, and Paul Louis Metzger. Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009.


[1] Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009). 237.

[2] Ibid. 237.

[3] Ibid. 238.

[4] According to Grenz, “As those who have responded to the gospel call and acknowledge the lordship of Christ, we seek to model what it means to live under the guidelines of the divine reign. Kingdom principles include peace, justice, and righteousness. But above all, the divine reign is characterized by love. Consequently, by being a true community of believers, we indicate what the reign of God is like; it is the community of love.” (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 503).

[5] Harper and Metzger. 245. Further, we must recognize our sin before we can reach out to others. Harper and Metzger note, “Only when we see that apart from Christ we are as desperately lost as the prostitutes, demon-possessed, and tax collectors to whom Jesus ministered will we experience full redemption. Only then can we bear witness to Jesus as the good news so that others might experience redemption too.” (p.249).

[6] Harper and Metzger note, “May the coming kingdom of the nonhomogeneous and downwardly mobile God inspire us to hew out of those towering building programs of despair cornerstones of living hope to bear witness to God’s triune name.” (p.273).

Church as a Serving Community

This argument is summed up in the first two sentences of Harper and Metzger’s ninth chapter: “The life of the church in the world is always meant to be incarnational. As such, the church is to represent in its service to humanity the incarnation of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve.”[1] Philippians 2:5-11 serves this very point. They continue, quoting Galatians 6:10, to say that Christians must serve all people, especially each other and that service “builds community in its fullest sense.”[2]

Our attitude should be the same as that of Christ, who took on the nature of a servant and became obedient to the most gruelling of tasks. Honestly, the church does not look like a collection of people who have taken this Pauline command of humility seriously. But then again, only the one most deserving of glory can take on the most undeserving of punishment. By this I further mean that only the manifestation of the triune God could be so fully selfless. Sinful man could not possibly follow suit.

Yet, as human beings, we are still called, as a church, to this selfless servitude; “The service of the church flows out of the self-giving love of the Trinitarian God who gives himself as a servant to humanity…To be human in the image of the Trinitarian God means to love others with a love that is costly and self-sacrificing.”[3] Harper and Metzger’s chapter portrays a seemingly impossible idyllic example of the church. To live as a serving church seems remarkably difficult, and arguably impossible for sinful humans to attain, but yet we are still called to such humble service. We are called to this service, yet only Christ can fulfil it.

Funny how everything returns to our dependence on Christ![4]

References

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Harper, Brad, and Paul Louis Metzger. Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009.


[1] Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009). 155. I posed the idea of Christ coming not to be served, but to serve to a small group of teenagers I lead a bible study with, who were relatively confused by this notion, causing a hesitance in discussion – especially in regard to our imitation of it!

[2] Ibid. 155. While not disagreeing with this point, in his analysis of ecclesiology and service, Grenz notes that service is largely found in evangelism and outreach, and that this is at the root of the purpose of the church; “The mission of the church includes inviting others to make the “good confession” and thereby enter into the fellowship. Our task, however, is not limited to the expansion of the church’s boundaries. Rather, it includes sacrificial ministry to people in need. Outreach, therefore, entails service.” (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 505-506).

[3] Harper and Metzger. 156.

[4] Much, much more can be said, especially in regards to an incarnational ecclesiology and the use of the word ‘especially,’ referring to our service of other Christians. However, in my opinion, the more poignant question is how, and if, the church should attempt to imitate such humble service.

Church as an Eschatological Society

According to Harper and Metzger, “the church is a community both of fulfilment and of hope, realizing the blessings of the future while yet awaiting the fullness of these blessings to be revealed at Christ’s second coming.”[1] Essentially, the church is a vehicle of the blessings of the Kingdom to come, in the world today. The Kingdom of God is present within the church, a future reality in present time. The Kingdom is here and not here, now and not yet; “it has arrived, but has not yet brought this age to an end.”[2] Grenz notes that Jesus’ perception of the Kingdom “was both present and future – already and not yet – and it was both an event and a sphere of existence.”[3]

The church is a community waiting for the Kingdom to come in totality, yet is, paradoxically, the Kingdom on earth. The church, thus, is the doorway to the Kingdom, it bears witness to the Kingdom,[4] and the instrument of the Kingdom, bringing the blessings of the Kingdom into the world. The eschatological church is a community of restored relationships, a messianic community of the Holy Spirit, and a community of social righteousness which disarms Satan. The Church exists “with one foot in this world and one foot in the next,”[5] waiting for the coming Kingdom, but represents and seeks to implement the Kingdom values in the mean time.[6]

References

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Harper, Brad, and Paul Louis Metzger. Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009.


[1] Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009). 48.

[2] Ibid. 52.

[3] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 475. Grenz’s mention of “both an event and a sphere of existence” refers to the eschatological coming of Christ and the Kingdom involves all of creation. Not only will God’s people be redeemed, but the entire world and universe. Harper and Metzger refer to this in their fourth chapter, stating, “the Kingdom of God is about the redemption of not only the church, but also of the whole creation.” (Harper and Metzger. 80).

[4] They further note, “How the church understands its relationship to eschatology, to the Kingdom of God, has a significant effect on how it understands its relationship to the culture in which it exists. To depart from the dialectic of the scriptures and to opt instead for a view of the kingdom as either radically present or radically future will always affect negatively the church’s ability to bear witness faithfully the kingdom. When the church works to live in the tension of the dialectic of the now and not yet, it will always be a more faithful witness.” (Harper and Metzger. 63). In other words, to effectively bear witness to the Kingdom, the church must embrace the now and not yet nature of the Kingdom.

[5] Ibid. 77.

[6] Grenz succinctly states, “The kingdom of God comes as that order of peace, righteousness, justice, and love that God gives to the world. This gift arrives in an ultimate way only at the eschaton, at the renewal of the world brought by Jesus’ return. Nevertheless, the power of the kingdom is already at work, for it breaks into the present from the future. As a result, we can experience the divine reign in a partial yet real sense prior to the great eschatological day.” (Grenz. 477).

He further states that the church “is a foretaste of the eschatological reality that God will one day graciously give to his creation. In short, it is a sign of the kingdom.” (ibid. 479).

The Church as a Trinitarian Community

Harper and Metzger[1] essentially argue one point – that the church, in the image of a triune God, is entirely one body, the Body of Christ, made up of many individuals. Thus, the church is relational and communal at its very core.

They state, “the church is being-driven – driven into the world by the communal and co-missional God who reigns and dwells in its midst as the one to whom the church belongs.”[2] Man is lovingly made in the triune God’s nature, Christ is the ultimate image of this God, man bears God’s name, are children, the household and temple of this God, and the body and bride of Christ. Each of these images reveals that the Church is entirely dependent on others, and on God.[3] Furthermore, paradoxically, the church is righteous yet sinful, one yet many, now and not yet.[4] This is neatly summed up in their second chapter:

When Christianity places undue emphasis on the individual, it reduces the church to a group of believing individuals or, worse, sees Christian identity as separate from participation in Christian community. But the church is greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts do not stand alone. We are only who we are in relation to others.[5]

The Trinitarian community of the church is relational, and finds its being in communion with others.

 

References

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Harper, Brad, and Paul Louis Metzger. Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009.

Sarot, Marcel. “Trinity and Church: Trinitarian Perspectives on the Identity of the Christian Community.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 1 (2010): 33-45.


[1] Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009). 19-46.

[2] Ibid. 20.

[3] Cf. Marcel Sarot, “Trinity and Church: Trinitarian Perspectives on the Identity of the Christian Community,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 1 (2010). Sarot states, “The relationship between God and humanity is not a relationship between two individuals…but a relationship between a community and a Trinity: the triune God.” Sarot thus similarly asserts that the Church cannot exist in isolation, but needs communion.

[4] Stanley Grenz notes, “as Christ’s people we are to show forth the divine reality – to be the image of God. To be the people in covenant with God who serve as the sign of the kingdom means to reflect the very character of God. The church reflects God’s character in that it lives as a genuine community – lives in love – for as the community of love the church shows the nature of the triune God…God calls the church to mirror as far as possible in the midst of the brokenness of the present that eschatological ideal community of love which derives its meaning from the divine essence.” (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 483).

[5] Harper and Metzger. 42.

The Doctrine of God

Introduction

A reading of The Doctrine of God without its preface and introduction could invariably result with the reader feeling somewhat confused, as though the book was meant to be a systematic theology in itself. However, Bray says of the series, “the series offers a systematic presentation of most of the major doctrines in a way which complements the traditional textbooks but does not copy them,”[1]. Hence, his heavy emphasis on seemingly peculiar topics can only be made sense of in light of this book acting as a supplement to other systematic theologies, and presupposes a basic understanding of most theological doctrines. In light of this, The Doctrine of God, with a particular focus on Trinitarian theology, the rise of classical and contemporary theology and emphasis on Reformation theology is an excellent theological text book. This essay examines and reviews the book’s content and Bray’s theological position, with a critical eye to the theology presented, finishing with an analysis in light of other contemporary theologians.

The Doctrine of God

The book begins its doctrinal analysis by examining what it means to have knowledge of God, and know God personally. Bray argues that within his very nature, God is beyond human comprehension, and thus cannot be known without his self-revelation. Our knowledge of God is absolutely rooted in the fact that he has taken the initiative of revealing himself to us.

He further argues that Greek philosophical assumptions have had a large amount of influence of Christian theology, and vice versa. He focuses on Plato’s philosophy, which rejected the Christian tradition of examining God in mythological (or narratological) forms, and pushed for an objective analysis of the ‘Supreme Good’.[2] Christian theology arose out of Roman law and Greek philosophy, due to the need for a systematic theology of the complex doctrines within the New Testament.

In the second chapter, Bray argues that our knowledge of the nature of God can only be known as expressed through the Trinity, and explained through his acts. God is one in being, who surpasses everything in this world. He is completely indescribable and inconceivable, yet through his self-revelation we can have some understanding of his nature, which is primarily relational,[3] as expressed through the Trinity. There have been attempts to prove his existence, but inevitably, his nature cannot be proven in any way, as he is beyond human capacity. If, however, knowledge of God comes solely through his self-revelation, the question of who receives the revelation becomes apparent. Thus, the doctrine of predestination appears. The bible is evident that God is not responsible for our rejection of sin; “God’s plan is worked out by the persons of the Trinity, who have created the human race to share in personal freedom…freedom entails responsibility, which puts the blame for sin squarely on us, not on God.”[4]

Next, Bray expounds the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that the Trinity is what differentiates Christianity from the other great monotheistic religions. Further, Christians argue a relationship with God is possible, an impossibility in Judaism and Islam. The early church held onto a strict monotheism, but monotheism “could not fully capture the experience of God which they had in Christ,”[5] thus the need to adopt monotheism to include the Son became evident. Origen, Arius, Hegel, Sabellius and Macedonius each attempted to explain the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and while Unitarianism and Binitarianism held some supporters, they had little influence, as neither seemed to promote a theology that incorporated all the necessary attributes of God, as presented through the New Testament, such as Matthew 28.19, 2 Cor. 13.14, Rom. 15.16, 2 Cor. 1.21-22, and especially within the Johannine texts such as John 1, 14-16, and Revelation, which all support the Trinity.[6]

Chapters four and five asses the historical progression of the Trinitarian doctrine, beginning with the Cappadocians, who argued that both Son and Spirit proceed directly out of the Father, affirming that the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, with the Father naturally taking primacy. This stands in contrast to Augustine’s view, which placed the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, as the result of the love between the Father and the Son, the personification of holy love. Spirit and love became synonymous to him, after a study of John 4.24 and 1 John 4.16. He postulated the idea of a double procession of the Spirit, sparking the Filoque controversy.

Whereas classical formulations have often included one of the persons of the Trinity to have some form of superiority to the others – such as Origen’s stipulations that the Spirit came from the Son, who came from the Father, or the Cappadocian assertion that the Spirit and the Son emanated from the Father – the Reformers claimed that each person within the Godhead are equally God in their own individual natures. From this came the term, autotheos, meaning that “each of the persons is…God in his own right, and not merely divine by appointment.”[7] The Trinity as a whole was the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. According to Calvin, furthermore, the Father held priority, as being attributed to the beginning of action; the Son could only be understood in reference to the Father, attributed to the arrangement in this action; and the Spirit is attributed to the efficacy of this action.[8]

Bray concludes the book with an outline to constructing an evangelical theology for today. This theology must be a) rooted and grounded in living faith, with our understanding of evangelism influenced by our understanding of scripture, not vice versa; b) an interpretation of scripture as one whole theological unity, with no additions or removals depending on our preferences; c) challenging to society in light of the bible, rather than adopting the bible to suit society; d) God must be at the centre of any theological concern, with the basis being the Trinity. An understanding of time is also important, as God, who is above and beyond time as we know it, broke the barriers of time to reveal himself to us[9], in our understanding of time, in order that one day we can break this barrier ourselves as we break into God’s understanding of time.

After a thorough and comprehensive discussion on the doctrine of God, the book unfortunately seems to end somewhat abruptly. Chapters five and six are either lacking, or there is a chapter missing entirely. After a detailed account of the rise of classical trinitarianism, Bray’s account jumps to a discussion of reformation theology, with an exaggerated emphasis on Calvin. Bray greatly details Calvin’s understanding of the functions of the different persons, his refutations of procession theology, and even his understanding of the soul, yet there is no discussion of Luther’s understanding of any of this, nor of the Catholic understanding during that time. There is little to no discussion of the progression of scholasticism or of theology prevalent in the Middle Ages. Nor is there adequate discussion of the progression of theology since Calvin, albeit minor references to Karl Barth. Kaiser’s The Doctrine of God[10] includes such discussion, and is rather surprising that Bray seems to arbitrarily skip this, seeing that – according to Kaiser – Augustine was a particular influence during the Middle Ages. Kärkäinen also includes such discussion, as well as an exposition of Luther’s theology and of contemporary theology throughout the world.[11] Furthermore, Bray’s final chapter feels somewhat disjointed. It doesn’t sufficiently summarize the content of the book’s theology that could cause a need to outline the process of establishing a contemporary evangelical theology. Also his discussion of time seems unnecessary, nearly forced.[12]

Despite this, the content of this book is excellent and vastly resourced, and is helpful in understanding the vastly difficult topics of the Trinity and of predestination. As detailed through Grenz’s analysis of the Trinity, an understanding of the Trinity is essential when discussing any form of theological doctrine of God, who states that “the doctrine of the Trinity forms the foundation for the Christian conception of the essence of God.”[13] In light of this, Bray’s heavy emphasis on the Trinity is appreciated.

It is from an understanding of the triune nature of God that Bray draws out the relational implications, and the book – whilst remaining highly academic – is written in such a way that it centres on the love of God, and his desire to have a relationship with us. Amongst his discussion of God’s self-revelation, the incredible implications of such a theology have not been forgotten by Bray, who is constantly referring to God’s incredible grace, and highlights this in Christianity’s distinctiveness from other religions, found particularly in the Trinitarian and relational aspects of a doctrine of God. Furthermore, the book’s earlier chapters held to an obvious structure, but lost this sense of structure as it went on. However, this was not a bad thing, as it revealed Bray’s passion for the topic.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Bray has done a remarkable job of writing an academic theological text on the doctrine of God that is not a duplicate of other systematic theologies and has not lost the significance of what it means to actually have an understanding of who (and not what) God is. His appraisal of the rise of theology, in particular his heavy focus on the Trinity, is thorough and entirely appropriate for his purposes in writing the book. Perhaps a less of a focus on Reformation theology, and a greater explanation of theology between Augustine and the Reformation, and of theology since the Reformation, could have made the text wholly comprehensive. Despite this, Doctrine of God is an excellent, and perhaps necessary, resource for attaining a deeper understanding of who God really is.

Bibliography

Bray, Gerald. The Doctrine of God and the Work of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Callen, Barry L. Discerning the Divine: God in Christian Theology. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Kaiser, Christopher B. The Doctrine of God. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982.

Kärkäinen. The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.

Wright, D. F. “Platonism.” In New Dictionary of Theology, edited by David F. Wright Sinclair B. Ferguson, 517-519. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Yarnell, Malcolm B. The Formation of Christian Doctrine. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007.


[1] Ibid. 7.

[2] Wright further analyses Platonism in depth, detailing Plato’s belief that sense experience is fallible, and that ‘forms’ exist beyond the material world that are essentially copies of the Supreme Good. This Supreme Good imprinted perfection on chaotic matter, thus creating the material world. Concepts such as the soul are expressions of these forms, which cannot be experienced in a materialistic sense. Hence, God is only active in creation through intermediaries. Plotinus expanded this belief, detailing that from the Supreme Good emanate a hierarchy of forms, such as the soul, mind and intelligence. Anything below the One is lesser in perfection, and the material world we exist in is not necessarily evil, but a long way from the perfection that the Supreme Good holds. (D. F. Wright, “Platonism,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. David F. Wright Sinclair B. Ferguson(Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988). 518).

[3] Callen states, “knowing God is necessarily a participation in God’s revelation, the essence of which is Jesus Christ,” (Barry L. Callen, Discerning the Divine: God in Christian Theology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004). 95).

[4] Bray. 91-92. Yarnell notes that “freedom and slavery denote a state of locatable relationships: freedom in Christ is slavery to God; freedom from Christ is slavery to sin…true Christian freedom is Christian obedience,” (Malcolm B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007). 22).

[5] Bray. 125.

[6] Cf. Callen, pp. 172-191.

[7] Bray. 201.

[8] How this action works and what this action really is, is up to much debate, and again sparks the question of predestination. Bray argues that Calvin restored to solving this question of predestination by labelling his process of election as a paradox; all have the possibility of responding to grace, but God has already determined who respond positively. Furthermore, “Election is God’s choice of some people to share in his Trinitarian life by being adopted as sons (in the image of Christ) through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit,” (pp. 206-207). Thus, “the true heritage of the Reformation, and especially of Calvin, may therefore be defined as a theology of the divine persons, whose attributes express both their distinctiveness and their unity,” (p. 224).

[9] As Bray points out, the present essentially does not exist, at least in light of human comprehension, as the instant we understand the present, it’s already in the past. However, for God, time is eternally present. Also, “to conceive of [the present] is therefore to be aware of an eternal dimension which goes beyond the world of time; to want to dwell in it is a sign that human beings are made for eternity and will not be fulfilled until they attain to a knowledge and experience of it,” (pp. 232-33).

[10] Christopher B. Kaiser, The Doctrine of God (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982).

[11] Kärkäinen, The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004).

[12] Furthermore, his discussion on the non-existence of the present seems slightly naive. Despite being a common contemporary philosophy, the idea that the present doesn’t exist in this material world doesn’t hold up. The reason for this is that if there is no present, there can be no future or past. The present must exist, if not simply to mark the distinction between the future and the past. Arguably, human beings are living in the eternal present, simply for the fact that it is impossible to live in the future, and impossible to live in the past. Thus, Bray’s discussion on God’s existence as the eternal present is enlightening in some aspects, but rather naive overall. Perhaps a better term for God’s existence is not eternally present, but presently eternal, or the fulfilment of the present – that time where past, present and future are not separate dimensions.

[13] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 71.

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies

Whilst attacks against Christianity seem to be growing with increasing rapidity, the occasional Christian Apologist makes a stand. The Dawkins Delusion by Mcgrath[1] and Strobel’s The Case For Christ[2] are excellent responses to the contemporary New Atheism movement. Hart’s Atheist Delusions[3] is another excellent response; an argument formulated against misconceptions of Christianity’s history that are commonly used to discredit Christianity.

Present Lies and Past Truths

Hart’s analysis begins with an overview of contemporary misconceptions of Christian history. In Part One: Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present, he states that:

atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism. [4]

Contemporary atheism, he continues to argue, is completely ignorant of all the good that Christianity has caused, rather focusing on distorted pieces of evidence, painting Christianity as evil.

He first addresses a common misconception of Christianity hindering science and reason. According to the New Atheism movement, Christian towns established leprosy hospitals merely to clear their conscious; burnt down the Great Library of Alexandria, in a bid to stifle ‘heathen’ research; smothered Galileo’s scientific advancements, because they didn’t fit with what the Catholic church believed; persecuted heathens; and waged giant wars against anyone not conforming to Christian values.

Hart systematically dispels these myths, arguing that Christianity never once tried to stifle reason and science, but rather had a large part in its advancement. According to Hart, “Christianity has been the single most creative cultural, ethical, aesthetic, social, political, or spiritual force in the history of the West” [5] and has only ever had the best of intentions for all of mankind.

Christians were, according to Hart, the only people to care for Leprosy patients whilst any other culture merely killed the victims; the Great Library of Alexandria was not burnt down by Christians, but burnt down years before Christ, let alone in the fourth century[6]; Galileo was not hated by the church, nor did he hate the church[7], but historical records show he wasn’t exactly a pleasant man, was very arrogant and was often jealous of other people’s achievements – the church was merely demanding evidence of his claims, of which Galileo was slow to produce; the apparent persecution of anyone outside the church Hart dismisses as either (a) the result of the aftermath of Christian institutions, (b) politics[8], or (c) uncaring, blood lusting mercenaries recruited to fill the ranks of armies who originally had pure, Christian intentions.

 This section involved the bulk of Harts argument, dispelling historical inaccuracies of ignorant Atheistic claims. His third section addresses the issue of tolerance, arguing against claims that Christianity has been intolerant of other beliefs and cultures. According to New Atheists, Christians have historically forced Christianity onto other cultures. However, according to Hart, Pagans who became Christians did so out of their own free will. They willfully turned their back on their old beliefs and turned toward Christianity. Hart argues that “to renounce one’s bonds to these beings was an act of cosmic rebellion, a declaration that one had been emancipated,”[9] hence the phrase: Christian Revolution.

The Future

Hart seems to gain pace with his argument from this point on, seemingly growing in confidence and vigor. He addresses concerns of Christianity enslaving other cultures, but twists this perception to reveal Christianity as a form of emancipation. The Pagan cultures were, in fact, the aggressive ones, particularly early Roman culture. Christianity has always been seen as a peaceful institution offering freedom from the bondage of sin. Harts language becomes more and more evangelical as it culminates in a doxological analysis of Christ’s act of emancipation. He argues that Christianity is not a religion of intolerance and aggression, as presented by ignorant critics of today[10], but is the only truly human organization. To be human, he argues, is to be Christian.

He concludes with an outlook of the future. After assessing the history of Christianity, Hart nearly pleads with his audience to stand up and defend Christianity. There is a sense of desperation to his language, as he urges for a new Christian revolution, which stands against this New Atheism movement, which continues to enslave many more people at a growing rate. Harts argument pivots around the idea that Christianity brings emancipation, and anything other than Christianity enslaves the human mind from true reason; he states “when Christianity passes away from a culture, nihilism is the inevitable consequence”[11].

Strengths and Weaknesses in Hart’s Argument

The strengths of Hart’s argument are a long list. Nearly insomuch as a rebuttal to contemporary critics, his arguments and claims – sometimes of which are quite controversial – are drenched in evidence and historical analysis and support. His arguments don’t presuppose an answer, but rather begins with the objective data, thus resulting in a reliable answer. Furthermore, his arguments are incredibly thorough and detailed; it would be no easy task to respond to him.

What could be considered as both a strength and weakness is his language. Quite often his language reveals a sense of urgency and desperation, causing the reader to believe his claims and get gathered up in his motivational argument for reform. Furthermore, his language belies an intelligent wit and charm, infused with delicate artistry and masterful aesthetics. However, his language often bordered on the edge of sarcasm, mocking critics such as Hitchens and Dawkins in a style not dissimilar to Hitchens and Dawkins. His artful analogies and stories also at times caused the reader to lose track of the overall argument.

One other weakness – albeit a minor issue – is the fact that sometimes he tended to ramble and be repetitive. In an attempt to be thorough, including historical analysis impossible to fault, it was often difficult to follow his train of thought. However, Hart always returned to the point in glorious fashion, but often what was said in three pages could have been said in one[12].

Final Thoughts

Saying this, however, this is an excellent Apologetic book, and Hart has done an incredible job of what would initially have seemed an impossibly large task. His arguments are flawless and flow from chapter to chapter, building on one another gloriously. It must also be mentioned that Hart admits there have been times where the good name of Christianity has been abused, and people in the past have used the church as an excuse to further their own intentions. However, these are in a very small minority of instances – unlike the claims made by many ignorant critics of today. Hart and his book Atheist Delusions are above reproach, a timely and important argument in a turbulent period of Christian history.

Bibliography

Hart, David B. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and it’s Fashionable Enemies. New

Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

McGrath, Alister, and Joanna C. McGrath.  The  Dawkins  Delusion:  Atheist  Fundamentalism

            and the Denial of the Devine. London: SPCK, 2007.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.


[1] Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion (London: SPCK, 2007).

[2] Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

[3] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Hart, Atheist Delusions, 100.

[6] Hart argues that the myth of Christians burning the library down was caused by a misinterpretation and confusion of data. The supposed date of the library being burnt down by zealous mobs of Christians in 390 AD was simply a time of distress between Christians and Pagans, in a historically violent city. The library was in fact burnt down centuries earlier by the Roman Empire; a historical fact seemingly lost to Atheistic historians.

[7] According to Hart, one of Galileo’s closest friends went on to become Pope.

[8] Therefore, not the church itself, but rather the State, who persecuted non-Christian societies.

[9] Hart, Atheist Delusions, 113.

[10] These critics, he argues, are a disappointment, and are nothing like they used to be. In his opening chapters he claims earlier critics at least had the dignity to know about what they criticized. Today’s critics, ignorant of actual facts, label anything they don’t like as ‘religion’ and unashamedly attack these ideas blindly.

[11] Hart, Atheist Delusions, 229.

[12] This was particularly prevalent in his final chapters, when it seemed he was carried primarily by incredible enthusiasm and excitement, causing him to ramble. It could even be argued that perhaps what was said in his last several chapters could have been said in two or three.

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