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From Enlightenment to Liberal Theology: How the "Light" Led to the Dark Ages of Theology

These next two posts will be about how the Enlightenment, and reactions to it, eventually played a major causal role (among other causes) in the rise of liberal theology. Overviews of history always distort things; there is no escaping it. I will no doubt (as all do) oversimplify things. Experts on these subjects are welcome to correct me and help me better understand the nuances that my presentation may obscure, or challenge my thesis altogether. However, I am not alone in my opinions here. I am taking my queues from fallable experts:
Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology, 1750-1990, second edition (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005).
Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishers, 2007).

After the Darkness, There Were Competing Lights

“After the darkness, there was light.” At least that is how enlightenment thinkers conceived of the radical change that began to take place in the mid-seventeenth century and lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. Although it might be more accurately portrayed in the plural ‘Enlightenments’ to underscore the diversity of perspectives during this period, the popular icons of this period sought freedom from superstition and religious authority on the one hand, to reach terra nova through reason and science on the other. It is characterized as an age of optimism. Many from this period had become fed up with years of religious persecution when the church killed “heretics” (anyone who disagreed with the reigning religious persuasion), and were eager to overcome the age-old hostile debates between Catholics and Protestants through reason. This can be seen in the decline of authoritarian institutions such as the nobility and the church and the rise of the middle class and nationalism. Paralleling these more secular drifts of the Enlightenment was a series of evangelical “Awakenings” in

Britain, Jansenism in France, Pietism in Germany, and the Great Awakening in America. Both the Awakenings and the Enlightenments had incredible impacts on the culture, and would ultimately compete for the allegiance of the hearts and minds of Western Culture.
Alternatives to a Revelation-Dependant Epistemology Proposed
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the forerunner for the Enlightenment period. His obsession to find the one true method for settling all disputes about fact and truth would become typical of the enlightenment optimism. He argued for a revolution in the approach to knowledge. He inverted the method of his day, rationalism and deductive reasoning, and argued that one should arrive at the general maxims last, only after beginning anew and rebuilding the foundations of knowledge through an inductive method. Not long after Bacon published his popular book, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582/3-1648) proposed that religion should only accept what is rational. Such a sentiment would become the typical modus operandi for Deism.
John Locke (1632-1704) influenced the minds of many with his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) in which he tried to provide foundations for knowledge by arguing that ideas were not a priori but rather, each person is born with a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) and knowledge comes through sensation and reflection. Locke also pushed for certain political changes, most notably: 1) toleration for all religious persuasions except for Roman Catholics, rather than a state church that enforced its views and 2) democracy based on the consent of the governed. Although John Locke himself was somewhat of a Christian apologist, he gave reason and science the authority in his epistemological system. He denied John Calvin’s claim that a basic knowledge of God was a priori, rejected the doctrine of original sin, and saw education as the key to transformation.
If Reason Can’t Demonstrate it, It Aint So


As rationalism and science gained more authority, deism became more intellectually credible than traditional Christian faith. Although Sir Isaac Newton (1624-1727) himself believed in an open universe, his laws of motion were picked up and used in an ever-increasingly secular model of science in which belief in miracles and the supernatural were considered anti-science. In an attempt to demonstrate that nothing in Christianity was contrary or above reason, Deists like John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindal (1655-1733) bent over backwards to reduce the central teachings of Christianity to things that can be universally verifiable. This went beyond Locke, who allowed for adherence to truths which were “beyond” reason, and cultivated an attitude that rejected everything that could not be grasped by human reason. If humans cannot explain it, it must not be true—so much for doctrines about the incarnations of a deity, or substitutionary atonements, or miracles such as the rising of the dead. Reason alone will not lead to such notions, therefore, they must be rejected as a naiveté of the primitive thought.

Wipe Out the Imfamy! (trans-rational religion)

Voltaire (1694-78) was the leader in the French Enlightenment (along with other men, together known as the philosophes). They escalated the revolution one step further. Whereas the deists were trying to associate their views with traditional Christianity, Voltaire was willing to sever all ties to Christianity and attack every major Christian doctrine with great hostility, chanting, “Wipe out the infamy” (i.e. organized Christianity). Christianity was thought by these men to be antithetical to reason and natural religion, so they sought to break the anciene regime’s strong hold on French culture. The French revolution was radical, political, and bloody.


Taking the Rejection of Revelation to it’s Logical End
By the time David Hume (1711-76) appears on the scene, he represented the British Enlightenment’s most radical and skeptical form. He took the culture’s rejection of certainty through revelation to its logical conclusion. His Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) resulted in a reduction of what people thought of as firm “knowledge” down to habits of association of ideas united by the imagination and given names. He showed that there is no certainty that what we perceive with our senses actually directly corresponds with reality, and that the categories we put on our sense perceptions are also arbitrary habits that cannot be proven to be accurate. Perhaps nothing lies behind our sense perceptions; perhaps reason itself is just an arbitrary habit we humans have. Although Hume was skeptical, this did not stop him from making all sorts of arguments with his reasoning faculties. He gained notoriety for giving a conclusive argument against the possibility of miracles, establishing the empiricist maxim: Whatever books do not have experimental reasoning about matters of fact and existence, Commit them to the flames! He also was thought to have disproved the knowledge of self and God, along with knowledge of cause and effect that served as a basis for science.
Revelation, Reason, Science, and a Change in Light Posture


It must be pointed out that science and reason were not discovered during the Enlightenment, but they were developing disciplines long before they took center stage during the Enlightenment. Questions of human existence, the meaning of life, the destiny of man, the existence God, along with questions about metaphysics, ethics, and morality were largely settled by religious beliefs—Christianity in particular. The shift during the Enlightenment was a shift from thinking that the most ultimate questions about human existence were not clearly spelled out in scientific data and must be found in revelation, to a distrust in revelation (long years of religious wars may have helped that along) and an optimism on the ability of science to discover and unravel the ultimate questions of life. To say it another way, theology as the “queen” of science was dethroned by virtue of the dethroning of the king himself—revelation. Although science existed before the Enlightenment, science began to take the place of sole arbitrator of all truth.


Inasmuch as science was a form of human reason, some pointed out that science itself was dependant on reason and philosophy. This created a competition for the epistemological throne of all knowledge. Empiricism on the one hand championed the inductive method as supreme (as seen in John Locke) while rationalism (as seen in Descartian philosophy) on the other championed deductive reasoning as the only sure method for establishing the credibility of knowledge (even scientific knowledge). Without a great deal of exaggeration we might say that the Enlightenment witnessed a change in light posture. The “light” from science and reason before the Enlightenment was in a posture of humble submission to a divine revelation. After the Enlightenment, science and reason began lording it over divine revelation, forcing that revelation to submit to modern science and human reason—whether that meant an outright denial of revelation’s claims, or creative ways of interpreting that revelation so that it still fit what seemed “reasonable” to the modern mind. The most devestating shift for religion was when this came to mean that truth claims in religion not only had to be compatable with science and reason, but had to be verifiable by science and reason. This effectively placed science and reason as the only ultimate grounds for knowing anything for sure. If reason or science can’t demonstrate it—it probably aint so! (or at least you shouldn’t count your life on it) Note: One can see how easily this transitions to pluralism and the relativization of religious truth claims: We don’t really who’s right and who’s wrong unless science can arbitrate truth claims, yet we can’t say that these claims are not true, for they transcend verification principles of science and reason. Maybe they have truth in them which will one day be verified by science and reason, but sceince and reason are “where it’s at.”

Can’t Reason and Science “Get Along?”: Immanuel Kant
If the Enlightenment can be seen as in great part a struggle for an alternative epistemological foundation to the revelation-dependant framework of traditional Christianity, then it could also be seen as a virtual king-of-the-hill competition between a robust rationalism on the one hand, and a “see it to believe it” empiricism on the other. Following this oversimplification, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) might be seen as the man who broke up the fight and attempted to make peace between these two paradigms by taking the best from each and fusing them together into a system known as epistemological dualism or Rational Empiricism. Although in light of the debates of his contemporaries the genius in which he was able to pull this off is hard to follow for those who are not schooled in Enlightenment philosophy, his basic epistemological outlook is rather simple. He was a rationalist who tried to make room for scientific empiricism. His theory was that the rational mind imposes innate (a priori) categories on all empirical sense perception, thereby interpreting them and playing a more fundamental role with respect to knowledge construction, yet leaving room for meaningful knowledge construction by the scientific method. **If all one had was a series of sense perceptions without categories of the mind to interpret and relate the data, life would be a meaningless string of consecutive sense perceptions that bore zero relation to one another. On the other hand, if all one had were empty “filing” categories without sensory data to be “filed” in them, they remain completely blank. According to Kant, however, if we proceed as though these categories of the mind are legitimate, we can have constructive interpretation of the sensory data resulting in meaningful knowledge.
Did Kant Leave Us With With a Hole in the Epistemicological Boat?

It is important to notice that Kant’s basic approach involves a posture of skepticism with regard to the certainty of all knowledge. Only if the imposing categories of the mind can be trusted can we be sure our knowledge corresponds to reality. However, as Kant stressed, we cannot prove these categories to be precise. We cannot escape these categories so as to experience reality apart from the mediation of them. If we were able to somehow “cut out the middle man” of our mediating categories, this could be called direct knowledge or Noumena (knowledge apart from the construction of the mind). Unfortunately for Kant, all knowledge construction is based on Phenomena instead—reality as it appears to us by the mediation of our mental categories. As Kant understood it, then, hard science is a combination of sense experience and mental interpretation. However, when this paradigm is extended to Christian theology, Kant believed such theology is mere speculation because knowledge about metaphysics (beyond the physical, beyond matter) is by definition beyond our sense perception. We have never seen, tasted, heard, or felt God by mediation of our senses, thus our language about such things bears no correspondence to any immediate human experience, nor is God one of the 12 inborn categories (“filing cabinets”) of the human mind (at least according to Kant). With neither a fundamental a priori grounding, nor a fundamental empirical grounding, God-talk can only be justified from the standpoint of deduction or indirect reasoning (i.e. speculation).
So what does all this have to do with Christian theology? Everything. Although for Kant all knoweldge is phenomenalogical, and therefore it cannot be ultimately verified, even once one grants that our minds construe sense data with basic reliability, language about metaphysical realities go “beyond” sense perception and are not one of the twelve innate mental categories. God-talk, therefore, is on epistemologically slippery ground. If we adopt Kant’s paradigm for knowledge construction, religious language only becomes relevant inasmuch as it is able to capture something of direct human experience. Talk about God, anything beyond scientific verification or that which reason necessitates becomes passé and looked upon as mere speculation.
. .
The Enlightenment as the Leavening Effect of the Renaissance Era
If the Renaissance Era (1300’s-1600’s) saw the “rebirth” of classical texts, which texts began to provide a canon or dialogue point in the educational enterprise, then the Enlightenment might be seen as the fruit of this new canon in the hands of those fed up with religious authoritarianism and looking for an alternative authority for truth. Although initially the revival of classic texts aided the Reformation’s conservative views on Scripture, in the long run this revival led to a replacement in European culture of the biblical worldview. When more attention is given to Philosophy and science than the Bible, over time this has the effect, not only of eroding the authority of basic biblical presuppositions and produced radical forms of skepticism, but it also of initiating creative new ways of interpreting the Bible so that it fits with one’s pre-commitments to a certain philosophy (whether or not the authors of the Bible ever intended their writings to be interpreted in this way). Nowhere is this leavening effect more evident than in the epistemological revolution that took place in the period of the Enlightenment. It was during the Enlightenment that the Bible began to be interpreted by deists in a creative way that enabled them to stiff-arm the Bible actual teachings in favor of their own philosophy of deism. The supernatural aspects of the Bible are reinterpreted to have only a symbolic and/or ethical meaning, not a metaphysical “dogma.” It is this bold step of hermeneutical creativity which can be seen to have given rise to the Classical Liberal Theology in the latter days of the Enlightenment.
.. .

In my next post, I will discuss Romantacism as a reaction to the Enlightenment, and Schleiermacher as case in point of the causal connection between the Enlightenment and Liberal Theology, for he is considered the father of Classical Liberal Theology.

T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts, pt. 2

Before I make any remarks about my mixed feeling at T4G (a conference which is by now old news to most bloggers), I want to express a few words of gratitude.

I stand on the shoulders of men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Mark Dever, and John Piper especially. These men have been examples to me over the years of Christ-centered ministry, preaching, and teaching. Their teachings are invaluable to me. It would be a difficult task to attempt to measure the impact of their faithful ministries on my own life, let alone the hundreds of thousands. I’m agnostic about where I would be today if it weren’t for these men (certainly not at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY). These men have fed my mind and heart with the things of God for many years. I don’t want to become arrogantly ungrateful by biting these hands that have been feeding me without good reason. Nevertheless, it is also these men who have taught me discernment and frankness in the midst of controversy and disagreement. They model for me how to raise issues to those who you respect when you may disagree with them. These men speak out when they have genuine concerns about trends, practices, beliefs, or attitudes in evangelicalism they see as “not so edifying.” Following their example then, I also have developed some concerns over the years that won’t go away, and out of the concerns of my heart, my mind churns, my mouth speaks, my fingers type, and my blog post’s.

Together for the Gospel or Together for Calvinism?

In my last post, I talked about how deeply Mark Dever’s point about not confusing the gospel with non-essentials resonated with me personally. When I first became a Calvinist, I became acclimated to the Reformed flavor of preaching and teaching. I have been a member at churches that regularly bashed other Christian churches on a normal basis from the pulpit as a matter of habit. After attending for a while, I was infected myself and began to think of our Reformed communities as something like the only true remnant of uncompromised and reverent Christianity that took the Bible seriously. Everyone else was entertainment based, man-centered, and unbiblical; influenced either by liberalism or the world. Young Reformed types that come from Southern have a reputation for splitting churches over Calvinism. This is a fact. In disbelief I have listened to devastated church members tell me about how painful it was to see their once tight knit community divorce themselves from fellowship. It can be a whole lot like a family feud: ugly, painful, leaving scars, bitterness and disillusionment.

This is why I said in my last post that I think Dever’s words were most significant. It’s because the context I come from tends to major on the minors and allow non-gospel issues to be great points of contention, even to find their identity in the Reformed tradition rather than in the gospel. Once our affections become more exercised over our particular church’s or denomination’s traditions (yes, that includes Reformed teaching about Calvinism, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, the Regulative Principle, Church Membership, Tongues, Preaching Style [expositional preaching vs. topical, etc.], Worship Style [is drama ok? are multi-site churches ok? short sermons? alter calls? etc.], views about women in ministry [egalitarian vs. complementarian]—and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on—than over the gospel, our hearts are out of whack. Though many of these things can effect the nuances we add to the gospel, they cannot be confused with the gospel itself. Though important, they are not the dividing lines between those who believe the gospel and those who don’t.

Unfortunately, I thought T4G revealed a blind spot in this area. Though the banner of the conference is “Together for the Gospel,” John MacArthur’s message was all about total inability (i.e. Calvinism). Now, I would have been more comfortable if his message demonstrated sensitivity to this distinction. Perhaps his message could have been introduced something like this: “I strongly believe that the doctrine of total inability is a strong safeguard for the gospel. Therefore, although we have come together for this core belief, and although I love my brothers and sisters who do not believe in total inability, and recognize them as co-equals together in the gospel, I would nevertheless like to spend my time commending this doctrine because I think it helps protect our basic beliefs in the gospel.” But rather than anything even approaching this sort of sensitivity, I was disappointed to hear just the opposite. As he was waxing eloquent on total inability, he compared it to other “false gospels” as if he understood the doctrine of total inability to be the “true gospel.” To make matters worse, Mark Dever of all people (just before his message about not referring to non-gospel doctrines as “the gospel”), commends MacArthur’s message, referring to it as an wonderful exposition of “the gospel.” Surely I wasn’t the only one who noticed this apparent inconsistency.

I found Mohler’s message on substitutionary atonement, for example, more appropriate for the theme of the conference. Or take R.C.’s message about the theme of cursing—this is also at the heart of our gospel (Christ became a curse for us). Not everybody at T4G was, by my sensitivities, off key with respect to the common cause.

In a context when 1) Seminary students are splitting churches over Calvinism, 2) recent rumors spread about the SBC possibly splitting over Armenian vs. Calvinism issues just before the Calvinism debate between Mohler and Paige Patterson (who wisely spent much time in that debate demonstrating their unity in spite of their differences), 3) close friends of mine are finding it sadly curious that I would go to a church that wasn’t “on board” with all the stuff we are learning in seminary, 4) Pastors are finding their churches identity more in Calvinism than the gospel (speaking from my own experience here), the T4G seemed to me to be perpetuating this unfortunate confusion between Calvinism and the Gospel. Note: I’m not saying that John MacArthur would say he didn’t think Norman Geisler was a Christian, but it’s safe to say that he thinks Norman Geisler, in some sense, has a “false gospel.” I wonder how a guy like John Wesley would have felt if he were to enthusiastically volunteer his support of a “Together for the Gospel” conference, only to find the preachers more interested in propagating the younger ministers with Calvinism.

At another point during the conference, I was walking by the booths set up along the side of the bookstore. As I stumbled upon a booth with an eager man representing the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, I began to question him whether his organization was for all evangelicals. “Certainly,” he replied with great enthusiasm. But as I questioned further, he seemed to get a little tongue tied. “So …” I asked casually, ” … does your organization try to reach, encourage, and include Arminian churches also, or is this more for Reformed types?” My question seemed to catch the man off guard. He replied something like, “Well … you don’t have to agree with us about every point of doctrine to support our organization or give money to it.” (notice this does not really answer my question) As I looked at the back of the promotion magazine, I noticed that all the names of the council members I recognized were Reformed. I read one of the articles of faith that represented the alliance. It’s doctrinal statement exalted the Reformation and bashed the present day church at large for being worldly and having everything wrong. It summed up all these things like this: “The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable.” I wondered whether such an alliance was something like an “Alliance of the Confessing Reformed” moreso than an inclusive alliance of all those who confess the common gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (whether or not they are “Reformed”).

Relevant Truth: We should never call any church that believes the gospel “shallow” in its theology, unless we wish to imply that the gospel, which they hold to and teach, is itself shallow.

Unfortunate Casualties in the “Truth War”

There also seemed to be an agenda at the conference to stamp a WARNING label on what is known as The Emerging Church. What I have to say here will be briefer than what has come before.

Several attempts have been made to distinguish between different streams of the Emerging Church, so as the distinguish the Reformed and conservative types (like Mark Driscol, Darren Patrick, and others) from those who are apparently (and I stress ‘apparently’ because even Driscol, who is friends with Doug Paggit, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and all the big wig names [with the exception of Rob Bell], isn’t sure what their official stance is on certain controversial doctrines) taking liberal stances on issues thought to set the boundaries for historic Christianity. The former are called “Emerging,” and the latter “Emergent.” Nevertheless, some evangelicals who are eager to warn Christians of the liberal streams of this movement have not taken care to protect the faithful gospel ministry of the conservative gospel-centered streams of this movement. Harsh things are said about the “Emerging” movement. They are still lumping them all together under the label without taking note of the features of this complex movement. At T4G, if my memory fails me not, Dr. Mohler quoted one of the authors who supposedly represents the “Emergent” crowd (the apparently liberal crowd) on their teaching about the atonement. Steve Chalk, I think, was his name. Chalk apparently called the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, “divine child abuse.” After quoting this author, Mohler, if I’m not mistaking, made a comment about how this is the kind of theology coming from the “Emerging” church, and that the “Emerging church” was a threat to the very central tenants of the Christian gospel.

When John Piper invited Mark Driscol to speak at his Desiring God conference a few years ago, Piper testified to receiving harsh criticism over it. It attracted hostility and spawned a bit of controversy. After Mohler’s comments, those not up on the debates and distinctions would have left the T4G conference with the impression that the Emerging Church was basically liberal theology on the comeback. Since, however, faithful gospel ministers also labor under the Emerging tag, such comments will be sure to perpetuate the hostility against their ministries that is due to precisely the kind of stereotype comments about how the “Emerging Church” is bad news.

I think we should not only point out bad theology, but also, in light of a T4G banner, to go out of our way to protect from malignment our faithful brothers in Christ who labor for the same gospel we do—and perhaps are laboring harder than us (given the growth spurts of the movement).

Thoughts not limited to but of a similar nature as these caused me to leave T4G wondering whether our “Gospel” is too exclusive; whether we Reformed types are further isolating ourselves from non-Reformed gospel-believing evangelicals (whether intentionally or unintentionally). I left wishing evangelicalism wasn’t so polarized, and wishing our T4G conference did not, in addition to its strongly edifying potential, consciously or unconsciously contribute to the polarization effect between different “camps” of evangelicalism. I left with mixed feelings.

T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts

Prescript: I really didn’t want to post about T4G until I had plenty of time to go back and quote from the actual words spoken at the conference. Because of major time restraints, I’ve decided to just post based on my memory instead. I have taken the liberty to paraphrase and loose quote, but if my account is off, feel free to let me know.

Helpful in Many Ways

The Celebrity Mystique – Never has a conference held so many of my own hero’s who have shaped me as I have listened to their messages and/or interviews and/or lectures: John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul. My own convictions have been shaped more by these men than by all my college and seminary professors over the years. T4G was intended to draw a large crowd by it’s “celebrity” impact. Mark Dever joked about this at the beginning of the conference. He said they knew they could draw a large crowd this way even though they disagree with the whole “celebrity” mentality. (I won’t take the time to speculate on what he means by that)

Dr. Mohler brought the heat by defending substitutionary atonement against certain recent attacks. His message was probably more fitting for a classroom lecture than a conference message (based on the responses I heard from some friends of mine who were not able to follow him, and based on C.J.’s comments afterward during the panel discussion). Nevertheless, I was able to follow and enjoy his critiques of modern attacks against this doctrine. His defense was timely and wholly appropriate to the theme of the conference, for Paul considered it among those things which are “of first importance” in the passing on of apostolic gospel proclamation, along with the resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-4ff).

John MacArthur basically walked us through the proof texts for a doctrine of “total inability.” I’m an 8 point Calvinist, so I nodded my head a great deal of the time, but this was nothing new.

Thabiti Anyabwile (pronounced by my own phonetic conventions as: thuh.bee.tee ahn.yah.bwee.leh). He challenged us to think of the whole category of “race” as both unhelpful and unbiblical. His definition for “race,” however, seemed to be one that most people do not at all intend by the use of the term. As he was speaking, I looked in my back-of-the-Bible concordance to see if the word “race” was used in the Bible. Sure enough, it occurs in the Bible several times. I thought it was unfortunate, since the Bible is our final and ultimate authority, that Thabiti did not address this apparent tension with his call for us to think of the category of “race” as unbiblical. Have the translators got it wrong all these years?

Dictionary.com shows that the most common definition for “race” is this: a group of persons related by common descent or heredity. According to the same source, the most common understanding of “heredity” is the following: the transmission of genetic characters from parents to offspring. These genetic differences might be as superficial as skin and hair color, as bothersome as unattractive physical traits, or as serious as trends of certain health problems.

Although one might quibble with the way Thabiti defined “race,” I heartily agreed with the spirit of the message. “Blacks” and “Whites” are not different species with biological categories of their own. There are more commonalities (“like me’s”) between all races within the humanity than there are differences. Or, if you like, we are all one race: the human race. I can walk into a group of people from India or Africa or wherever and still say, “Sinner, like me.” “Needs Christ, like me.” “Bear’s God’s image, like me.” “Human, like me.” We all descend from Adam.

Within the human race, there are ethnic cultures which defy any of the superficial “race” categories. Therefore, I agree with Thabiti that the category of ethnicity, which is a more fluid idea, is more helpful than “race,” for most people. I used to hate being told that I was “trying to be black,” just because all my closest friends were black and because I was immersed in the thug-hip-hop culture (baggy pants, Ebonics with slang words for everything, twisted caps, etc.). I was no more trying to be black than I was trying to be purple. It wasn’t about skin color. It was about culture. Thabiti has done us all a favor by helping us see that the category of ethnicity goes deeper, by reminding us that humans are more like each other than we are different from each other (we all bear God’s image), and finally, by reminding us that racism can show up in subtle ways (like where you sit and who you decide to talk to in a room full of people). His admonition for us to go out of our way to show unity across cultures was edifying and enriching to the atmosphere of T4G.

Note: I thought it was one of the more ironically humorous moments when just after Thabiti’s message about why “race” is not a helpful category, we sang a hymn that went something like this: “Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race….” I wish I could’ve seen Thabiti’s face and lips during that hymn (did he sing along?). lol!

John Piper gave a vintage message about how our ministry should be radical and sacrificial. He based this message on the passage in Hebrews, which he basically said was like the punch line of the whole book: “So, let us go out to [Jesus] outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb 13:13). The panel discussion following his message brought out a pleasant surprise (for me anyway). When asked what this radical sacrifice looks like for pastors who “aren’t going anywhere” (as C.J. put it) because of long-term commitments to their churches, Piper talked about normal day to day stuff. He didn’t talk about being sawed in half or being beaten to death in some Muslim country. He talked about enduring mistreatment as a pastor, suffering yourself to be confrontational with your kids, and other related areas of common obedience. This was unusually helpful for me. When I hear Piper preach, I often get the sense that he has something much greater in mind by “sacrifice” and “suffering” than the day-to-day stuff I experience. Sometimes I walk away from hearing Piper speak with a sense that I haven’t even begun to suffer or sacrifice the way he calls for in his messages. But after his clarification of what his exhortation “looks like” for a normal pastor, my eyes began to twinkle. Maybe I understand him after all.

I actually thought Mark Dever’s message was most significant. He encouraged us to make a distinction between the gospel on the one hand, and what we think are the implications of the gospel on the other. Much of his comments regarding this distinction encouraged us to be more gracious to our brothers and sisters in Christ who might have different opinions than we do on things not related directly to the gospel itself. Although he realized that some would criticize him as though he were trying to be reductionistic, he rightfully grounded his distinction as a way to actually protect the gospel. This distinction has the potential to overcome divisiveness in the church by fostering unity among all Christians who believe a common gospel. It’s easy to get caught up in our differing opinions about what we think the implications of the gospel are. Dever’s message was refreshing because of it’s potential for greater unity among Christians who believe in the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection and messiahship/lordship of Jesus Christ and yet, unfortunately, differ on almost everything else. Skizmatics are the worst of heretics, as Augustine liked to say.

Postscript: In this post, I have discussed only some of the ways in which T4G was very helpful. In my next post, I will share the grounds for some mixed feelings I experienced at the conference.

Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship (Part 2)

Bonhoeffer’s book on Discipleship is basically an attack against cheap grace using unqualified contradictions, eisegesis, a literal hermeneutic, legalistic standards and unhelpful advise. In my last post, I began my critique with a look at his doctrine of the situational precondition, and noted that it was an unqualified contradiction. In this unusually long post (at least, unusually long for me), I will attempt to ground my bold criticism of Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship. Although I agree that grace is not cheap, and that discipleship should be radical, I don’t think Bonhoeffer has led us in the right direction. Rather than giving us a dependable paradigm of costly grace, I’m afraid Bonhoeffer bamboozles his readers with confusing rhetoric.

Hermeneutical Creativity: Convenient Eisegesis

Because Bonhoeffer is so eager to denounce cheap grace (which he associates with mere confessional Christianity and abstract principles) he finds a way to link almost every passage to this topic. At several points he simply reads too much into the text in order to create an occasion to scorn his arch enemy: cheap grace. He believes the solution to cheap grace is his doctrine of the situational precondition (see previous post). He sees support for this doctrine in many of the texts. In other places his motives are not clear, but the fact that he sees something in the text which is not there is obvious enough.

For example, Bonhoeffer believes that one of the main points of Mark 2.14 is that the disciples followed Jesus without having any previous relationship with him (57). He believes Mark intended to underscore this very point. According to Bonhoeffer, these disciples followed Jesus before they really had “faith” in Him as the Christ: “The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus” (57). He makes the following conclusion from this misinterpretation: “It was not as though they first recognized him as the Christ and then received his command. They believed his word and command [for them to follow] and [then] recognized him as the Christ—in that order” (226, emphasis mine).

While it is true that this text itself does not give an account of any such “confession,” (Levi does not recite the Chalcedonian or Nicene creed as the climax of the encounter) this observation should not lead us to any of Bonhoeffer’s brash conclusions. Both the horizontal and vertical contexts to Levi’s following not only imply that Levi, at that moment, put his faith in Christ—but it demands it. The disciples did not follow Jesus out of ignorance but confident expectation. It is true that some followed for the wrong reasons, but such is not the context in this passage.

The similar accounts in John’s gospel reveal that the following of the earliest disciples is based on their understanding of the identity of Jesus. It was when the disciples “heard” John the Baptist’s message about Jesus that they began to follow him (Jn 1.37). Though it is not made explicit in verse 36 that the disciples followed because they believed Jesus to be the Messiah (the text only emphasizes John’s proclamation of him being “the Lamb of God”), verse 40-41 reveals that this is exactly why they followed him. “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah‘” (Jn 1.40-41, emphasis mine).

The same connection is made with respect to Phillip. In the account of Phillip’s initial following, there is not necessarily a “confession of faith in Jesus,” but the next verse reveals that Phillip followed precisely because he believed Jesus to be “Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1.45). The confessions seem to become more explicit in each account of Jesus’ first followers. Just a few lines later, Nathanael confesses, “You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (Jn 1.49). Perhaps Levi had never met Jesus in person before, but there is no reason to believe he had not heard of the testimony of John the Baptist.

There is no reason to believe that Levi—in contrast to all the other accounts— followed out of something other than faith in Jesus as the Christ. The way Bonhoeffer camps out on his point that Levi followed merely “for the sake of the call” is misleading in this regard (58). He makes this same mistake when he notes concerning Mathew 10.1-4 that “it is not a word or a doctrine they receive, but effective power, without which the work could not be done” (204). He fails to comment, however, that in the following verses Christ indeed gives the disciples commands to preach doctrine: even the word of the kingdom (Matt 10.7, 14, 20). It is not either/or (either word or power) but both/and (they receive both the word of the kingdom and the power to demonstrate its authority).

Moreover, confessions of faith have a place of prominence in the scriptures (Mt 10.32, 16.13-20, Jn 20.31, Phil 2.11, 1 Jn 4.3). Our “confession” of Jesus as Lord goes hand in hand with our believing in him in our hearts (Rom 10.9). Our “confession” of Christ cannot be separated from and pitted against “acts of obedience.” Confessions can be a means of proclaiming the gospel and thus a vital part of fulfilling our commission. Not only is Bonhoeffer’s downplay of confessions and abstract principles reactionary and unhelpful in this regard, but his commentary proves to be the result of eisegesis rather than exegesis. Wanting to remedy cheap grace with his doctrine of situational precondition (ironically, itself an abstract doctrine), he sees things in the gospels which are far from the original intention of the authors who wrote them.

The “Literal” Hermeneutic

Not only is he hermeneutically creative in his approach to the text, but in addition to this, Bonhoeffer’s “literal” hermeneutic is exceedingly crass. He believes that Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell all his goods must be applied to all Christians. He calls this the “literal interpretation” (84). Any other interpretation does violence to the scriptures “by interpreting them in terms of an abstract principle” (84). His best textual support is to suggest that this is an implication of the disciples question, “Who then can be saved?” (85).

The author’s crass approach to interpretation especially sticks out in his comment on Luke 10.29. He concludes that asking questions is wrong (77-78). Why? Because that is what the lawyer did who was trying to justify himself. He interprets Jesus’ parable as Jesus’ way of saying “You must not ask questions—get on with the job!” (78). He gives further unqualified application to the reader: “Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions” (78). This position hardly seems to be the point of the parable.

This crass approach is common to all the author’s interpretations.

He thinks Christ condemns anger without qualification: all anger is wrong (127). What about Jesus’ anger when he drove the people out of the temple? What about Ephesians 4.26?

He also takes “literally” the command of Jesus in Matthew 5.29-30 to tear out our eyes and cut off our hands if ever we find ourselves using them to lust (132).

He believes it is wrong for a Christian to participate in any governmental retribution because of Jesus’ commands to resist evil (143). What about Paul’s endorsement of the government’s God-given right to execute precisely this kind of retributive justice (Rom 13.1-7)? Bonhoeffer lands contrary to the New Testament when he argues “there is no inner discord between private and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all” (148).

Also, according to Bonhoeffer, we are not to rejoice in any of God’s “good gifts” to us if they are not spiritual “because the world and its goods make a bid for our hearts” (176). In addition, he argues that anytime we use our possessions “as an insurance against the morrow we are dethroning God and presuming to rule the world ourselves” (178-79). What about the example of Paul who sold tents so that he might have money to live without being a burden to the Corinthians?

The author does not seem eager to test his conclusions by the analogy of faith.

In short, Bonhoeffer ultimately gives a serious indictment against all whose approach to the scriptures do not apply the call of Christ given to people in the New Testament in this literal way (225). If one does not see all Christ’s imperatives—regardless of context—as imperatives for every Christian, then Bonhoeffer beleives such a person actually denies that Christ is still alive (225). For him, there is no such thing as discerning which commandments were contextually specific. As far as the author is concerned, all such hermeneutical principles are based on “a complete misunderstanding of the situation of the disciples” (227). However, through and through, Bonhoeffer’s approach lacks clear bridges from the text to his specific interpretations—from which come all his confident conclusions. His “literal” interpretations and creative insights help him to preach against cheap grace, but they do little to help the reader get a grasp on the actual intent of the biblical author. To summarize, one might coin his approach as contextually insensitive, systematically uninformed, and implausibly crass.

Legalistic Standards and Unhelpful Advice

The author is also often guilty of his own harsh criticisms. For example, he tells us that the “third would-be-disciple” in Luke 9.57-62 thought that “certain conditions” must be fulfilled in order to be a disciple—as when people say “first you must do this and then you must do that” (61). He criticizes this as a way of reducing “discipleship to the level of the human understanding” (61). Ironically, he insists on the very next page that “if we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps”! (62). He then proceeds to give us the first step and tells us how we might make discipleship possible! In another place he criticizes anyone who would place a chronological gap between faith and obedience: “If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other,” yet he does precisely this with his doctrine of the situational precondition (64)! The only difference is that he reverses the chronological order, making obedience a chronological prerequisite to learning faith (63,75).

These unqualified contradictions abound throughout the book.

Men are called to “decide” to follow Christ “willy-nilly,” “and that decision can only be made by themselves” (94). Yet, somehow this “willy-nilly” choice which they must make only “by themselves” is at the same time “no arbitrary choice” nor is it a “choice of their own” (94-95). Huh?

He is not concerned with “ideals, duties or values,” but he is, on the other hand, concerned with the “virtue of discipleship” and the “quality” of being “extraordinary,” (96, 153, 159, 190).

Obedience to God and obedience to the OT law were never meant to be “divorced from one another,” yet following God in the person of Christ might demand the neglect of obedience to the law since Christ emerges as an opponent of the law (61, cf. 60, 121-22, 125).

Bonhoeffer expresses his pre-meditated plan of action for true discipleship—which is nothing more than that all his actions be “un-premeditated” (159-60)! All our prayers are to be unpremeditated and entirely spontaneous, yet he helps us pre-mediate the very words which we are to pray, namely the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer (163, 165)!

It would be “pseudo-theology,” not to take Jesus’ imperative for the rich young ruler as “literally” applying to all who wish to follow Christ, but at the same time “Jesus does not forbid the possession of property in itself” (84, 174). Can someone say Hermeneutical schizophrenia?

In addition to incoherency and bad hermeneutics, much of Bonhoeffer’s teaching and advice are unhelpful. He creates many false-dichotomies. For example, Bonhoeffer defines self-denial as “to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us” (88). Though we are to make it a priority to follow Christ down a certain road, we can never focus our attention on that road. Though disciples are to make it a priority to be “extraordinary” people, the moment one would try to reflect on what all this extraordinary lifestyle might include, Bonhoeffer’s says “he would no longer be following Christ” (159). This is because “if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path” (190-91).

On the contrary, it would seem that where a certain “road” or lifestyle (such as an “extraordinary” one) overlaps with following Christ (since he is the one who commanded such roads and lifestyles) it is not only helpful to focus on such particulars, but it indeed becomes necessary. Bonhoeffer seems unaware at this point that his whole book has just this aim: to help us focus on what discipleship really is, and what specific things it might entail! Even his doctrine of the situational precondition for faith is an in-depth analysis of the initial stage or “road” of discipleship. His advice to follow the road but never look at it, or to be “extraordinary” but never focusing on the “extraordinary” is unhelpful because it is impractical and impossible. If we are not to focus on the “extraordinary” why does he set apart so much of his book to get us thinking about it? I could imagine how Bonhoeffer would feel if he were to find me pitting his focus on “discipleship” itself as only a distraction from focus on Jesus and his will alone.

In a similar fallacy, Bonhoeffer teaches what I would call the doctrine of oblivious discipleship. What Christ means by our making sure we do not display our righteousness “before men, to be seen of them” is that we are to hide our good works from ourselves (158). In fact, this includes our being unaware of our good deeds: “We must be unaware of our own righteousness” (158). All of our good deeds must be “entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated” (159, emphasis mine). We are to be “unreflective” in all our actions (160). For Bonhoeffer, just the concept of faith “excludes all reflection and premeditation” (163, emphasis mine). Bonhoeffer seems unaware that his doctrine of oblivious discipleship is self-contradictory, for in the very act of teaching us that all our works must be done in this specifically defined way (in a state of oblivion) he has caused us to pre-meditate a grand plan for discipleship! It seems obvious that he has spent an unusual amount of energy thinking, reflecting, and pre-meditating about this himself, as he gives much of his book to this theme of oblivious discipleship.

Bonhoeffer also continually juxtaposes all standards of Christian living and patterns of righteousness against single-minded obedience to Christ. There is no “standard of living that separates a follower of Christ from the unbeliever” (184). The Christian duty is “not some eccentric pattern of Christian living, but simple, unreflecting obedience to the will of Christ” (153). Similarly, he forbids us to interpret or apply any texts of Scripture because we should rather do and obey them (197). “If we start…offering interpretations, we are not doing his word” (197). In this manner, he sets interpretation along with any textual reflection against obedience: “The word we had was not Christ’s, but a word we had wrested from him and made our own by reflecting on it instead of doing it” (197, cf. 225-226).

The author remarks that people are not converted through “unquenchable longing for a new life of freedom,” but rather by that which was affected by the cross and is affected by Christ (231). However, it is my conviction that part of repentance (which is necessary for conversion) is a longing for Christ and a longing to be delivered from bondage to our sin. Our conversion is part of that which was affected by the cross and is affected by Christ—and this would include our faith and repentance. This is an important truth which his false dichotomy undermines.


In conclusion, though I sympathize with his desire to present a radical paradigm for the Christian life, I found Bonhoeffer’s five pronged attack on cheap grace to be unhelpful. There were two reminders in Bonhoeffer’s book which stand out to me as worth reading. The first was a reminder that suffering is part of the Christian life—even of the essence of Christianity (90-92). The other was his description of conversion as a relinquishing of all our assumed rights (95-96, 141-42). Apart from these two reminders and several miscellaneous one-liners, Bonhoeffer’s book was frustrating. Most of his book is full of self-contradiction, hermeneutical hyper-crassism, legalistic standards and unhelpful exhortation. In general, though his book presents a challenging and radical paradigm for the Christian life, it was surprisingly disappointing.

Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Translated by Chr. Kaiser Verlag Munchen and R.H. Fuller, Revision by Irmagard Booth, New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995. 316 pp. $13.00.


One does not need to read between the lines in order to see the chief concern of Bonhoeffer’s popular book, The Cost of Discipleship. He is transparently determined to convince the reader to abandon the cheap grace mindset and to embrace the more radical paradigm of costly grace. The message of the first chapter, “Costly Grace,” sets the tone for the entire book. All that comes after this chapter is in a sense an echo of or a working out of this main thesis: grace is costly.

The Chief Concern: To Attack Cheap Grace

Cheap grace is discipleship-less, cross-less, and Christ-less grace (43). Cheap grace is justification of sin rather than justification of the sinner, but costly grace is a grace which causes men to commit themselves unreservedly to a life of cross-bearing discipleship. His discussion and summary of church history is basically a lament of the church’s abandonment of costly grace for cheap grace (46-53). He gives away the overall intent of his book in this brief treaties of church history and the Lutheran tradition: “To put it quite simply, we must undertake this task [of regaining costly grace] because we are now ready to admit that we no longer stand in the path of true discipleship…although our church is orthodox. … We must therefore attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship” (55). To this end he labors in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, attempting to show that grace includes a
radical commitment of obedience to Christ and is not merely an abstract belief which has no demands on the life of the believer.

His fivefold method of defacing cheap grace is a combination of his doctrine of the situational precondition, eisegesis, a “literal” hermeneutic, legalistic standards and unhelpful exhortation. All of these chosen weapons are given exclamation since the author couches them in sharp rhetoric.

The Chief Weapon of Attack: The Situational Precondition for Faith

Bonhoeffer sees a dichotomy between doctrine and discipleship. Discipleship and abstract doctrine are mutually exclusive: “An abstract Christology…[and] religious knowledge…render discipleship superfluous…[and] exclude any idea of discipleship whatever” (59 cf. 62, 248). His pessimism with regard to abstract doctrine helps set the stage for his paradigm of the situational precondition for faith. Bonhoeffer hopes to convince the reader that he or she must simply obey the commands of Jesus—whether they have “faith” or not.

The author finds in his exegesis a unique paradigm for conversion. This paradigm is based on his distinction of a situation in which faith is possible verses a situation in which faith is not possible. The call of discipleship, he teaches, is a call for one to “go out of his situation in which he cannot believe” and “into the situation in which…faith is possible” (62). This is the call of discipleship (or at least it is the first phase of the call). He calls this situation “the road to faith” because only through this situation can one learn to believe (63). He says of one whom Christ commanded to follow, “If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe” (62). This is why he must follow Christ: to learn how to believe by means of this “situation.” I have referred to this “road” of followship as the situational precondition for faith, since, according to Bonhoeffer it is a “situation” (in which faith is possible) and a necessary precondition for faith (if he does not follow, he will never even enter the possibility of learning faith). The situation he speaks of is that situation in which the person is following Christ. One must be obedient to the call of Christ to follow because without obedience to this command one never enters into this necessary situation in which faith is possible.

This first step of obedience is not faith, however, but “the road to faith” (63). This step “can never be more than, a purely external act and a dead work of the law,” and it does not have “any intrinsic worth or merit,” though the call of Jesus justifies it (65, 63). “Last, but not least, the situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith” (63). From this “last” description of the situation comes Bonhoeffer’s well-known summary of this doctrine, “only the one who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes” (63). As I will show, this paradigm which he sets up early in his book works as the primary hermeneutical filter in Bonhoeffer’s exegetical attempts throughout the book.

Critical Evaluation Part I

The Situational Precondition Is An Unqualified Contradiction

It must be said at the outset of my evaluation that Bonhoeffer’s chief doctrine of the situational precondition for faith is self-contradictory. Bonhoeffer’s paradigm collapses logically due to a serious violation of the law of non-contradiction. To the question “How do we get faith?” he would answer, “By first obeying the voice of Christ to follow Him so that you might find yourself in the situation in which faith is possible.” This is why he says to the reader, “If you don’t believe, take the first step all the same, for you are bidden to take it” (67). Elsewhere, however, he tells us that one cannot take the first step without faith because the “situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith” (63, emphasis mine). “In the end, the first step of obedience proves to be an act of faith in the word of Christ…unless he obeys, a man cannot believe” (66).

Here it seems to me that he falls into a fallacious line of reasoning. One must obey with action in order to then learn how to believe—but he can only do this with faith. His exhortation is like counseling a man with no means of transportation to drive to the Honda dealership and buy a car. This reasoning seems similar to the circular reasoning of the scientific theory of spontaneous generation: the world exists before it exists in order to create itself. Only with this author, faith exists before the possibility of faith exists because faith is the necessary means to achieving the situational possibility.

Thus Bonhoeffer’s famed summary statement of this doctrine of the situational precondition is actually a self-contradiction when interpreted in light of the context in which he originally expressed it, for what he means is this: only the one who first believes has the ability to then obey, and only the one who first obeys will ever believe. In a nut shell he is arguing that one must first have faith before he is able to obtain it. His chief doctrine and famous saying is thus an unqualified contradiction which teaches that the one who does not have faith obtains faith by means of faith before he or she ever has faith. This discovery thoroughly frustrated me and made me wary of his whole book. I was especially frustrated as I progressed through the book with this caution, finding that many of his arguments fell victim to similar logical incoherency. This discrepancy made much of his book unhelpful to me in regard to the purpose for which it was written. For Bonhoeffer discipleship is costly, but for me, Bonhoeffer made discipleship confusing.


More to Come…

My next post will be entitled “Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer, Part II” and will look at more of Bonhoeffer’s 1) hermeneutical creativity, 2) literal hermeneutic, 3) legalistic standards, and 4) unhelpful advice. It would be good for the reader to bear in mind that I am by no means critical of Bonhoeffer himself; only his attempt to articulate a biblical and helpful theology. I happen to greatly admire Bonhoeffer, and I would recommend biographies on his life more than his own writings. Whatever I might say about his book, his life would put my petty picking at his ideas to shame.

Trust: priceless, but fragile…

When a little girl jumps into the open hands of her father, she gives us a picture of trust. She doesn’t even think about falling on her face; she smiles and leaps without hesitation, enjoying the thrill of the jump. Her father has never dropped her or failed to catch her; she doesn’t think twice.

But what would she think if her father dropped her, and she slipped from his hands onto the floor and split her precious little face? How would her child’s mind cope with the blood running down her tender face, and the anxious look in her fathers eyes when he sees the injury inflicted by means of his own hands? Panic. Fear. Confusion. Pain. In a rush to the hospital, how would her father cope with himself? What could the father say to her as she lay there bleeding profusely in the car and he speeds her to the emergency room? Would any words; any of her toys; any of the happy songs her and her father usually sing in the car be of any use at such a time? And though her child’s heart still longs for her daddy’s embrace, would she be able to jump for his arms again? How many times getting dropped and hurt would it take before a poor little child’s heart stops trusting in her well-meaning fathers arms? Would the father stay with her in the hospital? Should he stay with her in the hospital, holding her hand? Would he feel bad? Should he feel bad?

The good intentions of the hands of love that reach out for a trusting heart: well intentionioned, but still capable of letting a naive heart plunge into a pool of pain. Trust. Intentions can’t fully earn it, yet perfection cannot be the doorway into it. Trust. When it’s there, hope is always fresh. When it’s gone, the thrill of life is gone; the thrill of the jump is not worth the risk of the splitting of soft baby skin, and the inevitable pool of blood that awaits after the fall. Trust. Priceless, but fragile.

……….She’s Got Phillips Eyes!!!!!!!!!

Sin is Complicated: A Review of Plantinga’s Book on the Doctrine of Sin

Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. 202 pp. $13.99.

A Captivating and Balanced Perspective

There is a reason why Cornelius Plantinga’s treatment of the doctrine of sin has, after more than a decade since it won Christianity Today‘s Book of the Year Award back in 98, continued to be a standard book in college and seminary classrooms. Using vivid imagery, ample illustrations that captivate the reader, balanced perspective and witty logic, all within a Christian worldview, Plantinga’s treatment of the subject of sin is as entertaining as it is enlightening. One finds it easy to agree with the author’s opinion that the subject of sin needs “constant sharpening” due to a widespread dumbing-down of the notion in contemporary culture. In popular magazines, for example, over indulging in food, as in a “Peanut Butter Binge” or “Chocolate Challenge,” is considered sinful while “lying is not” (x).

“Know Thyself,” said Socrates – Even Christians—many who have a biblical awareness of the doctrine of the fall and even total depravity—tend to be more aware that they are desperate sinners in need of God’s grace than they are of their own particular sin-chemistry and how it might be working itself out in various areas of their own lives. We Christians all too often mistake our abstract theological understanding of sin in general for knowledge of the particular forms that nature takes in our day to day lives and the lives of loved ones; like a pastor who finds his escape from the pressures of family responsibilities in long hours of preparation for a sermon series on sin. Christians tend to have more expertise when it comes to dealing with the sins of their unbelieving culture than in knowing their own sin chemistry and how best to overcome it; like a Christian lawyer who becomes so critical of the corruptions in the legal field that she becomes vulnerable to apathy and irritability which in turn takes a toll on her marriage.

The author helps all to see the contours of that most deceitful and often most subtle enemy that reaps destruction without giving a news flash that it has come and gone, leaving the sinner hung out to dry. Therefore, just about anyone will benefit from reading Plantinga’s breviary of sin. Unbelievers will be likely to get a smack in the face as the reality of sin becomes unavoidably clearer with every chapter. Believers will benefit, among other ways, by recognizing the sins Plantinga so vividly describes in their own lives with every new lens the author uses to sharpen our vision from a different angle.

Note: Although Plantiga’s approach is to treat sin from a different angle in each chapter, I will only comment on three of his chapters: chapters 1, 2, and 8. His ten “angles” which correspond to the ten chapters are as follows: 1) Sin as Vandalism of Shalom, 2) Sin as Spiritual Hygiene and Corruption, 3) Sin as Perversion, Pollution, and Disintegration, 4) Sin as The Progress of Corruption, 5) Sin as a Parasite, 6) Sin as a Masquerade, 7) Sin as Folly, 8) Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction, 9) Sin as Attack, 10) Sin as Flight [from God and fellow man].

Sin as Vandalism of Shalom: Why it gatta be like diss?

With his pithy maxim, “God is for shalom and therefore against sin,” Plantinga manages at once to be both simple yet profound (14). This is the basic idea of his first chapter and rightly so. It is the perfect place to start. Unless one is able to recognize that God is not a kill-joy; that he is not out to make rules against sin arbitrarily, but that he actually has the good of his entire creation in mind—how will one properly appreciate the motives for divine imperatives? To understand God’s motives behind his rigid imperatives is to better identify with his more ultimate concern. This axiom may be the most profound statement in Plantinga’s entire book.

Perhaps this truism is profound precisely because it is thoroughly biblical. The principle is made glaringly obvious when Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Salvation is described as “eternal life” not “eternal obedience,” because obedience gives true life while sin destroys it (Jn 3:16; 10:10). Although following Jesus may involve hardship and self-discipline, he appeals to his listeners by tapping into their desire for finding true fulfillment in life (Lk 17:33; Jn 4:10). By highlighting that God is against sin because he is for shalom, the author speaks to the ultimate concern of every human being for having a complete, whole, and fulfilling life. Individuals, as well as societies, all have the ultimate desire to enjoy life to the fullest. Shalom, as the author defines it, includes this fullest sense of life. Desire for this shalom should fuel evangelism because evangelism is the catalyst for shalom. The spread of the gospel begins the process of restoring all of creation back to its maker (2 Cor 5:12-20). The ultimate future for all believers is a restored creation (Isa 2:2-4; 11:1-9; 32:14-20; 42:1-12; 60; 65:17-25; Joel 2:24-29; 3:17-18) and one is to understand that this new creation has already begun in those who are reconciled, for they are reconciled to become an agent of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).

Because this element of the doctrine of sin is so often underscored in Scripture, every pastor should make constant appeal to the desire of the congregation to have abundant individual and communal life, to establish peace in their communities so far as they can, to play a role in the restoring of God’s creation to its proper ends. Comprehending the shalomic state as the chief and proper end that most glorifies God also makes it easier for one to trust and obey the God who gives life as a reward for such obedience (Rom 2:6-11). This careful clarification about the nature of sin—it is vandalism to the shalom that all humans crave—strikes at the heart of human motivation and is a mighty weapon for mobilizing laity for just about any just cause.

Sin as Corruption: Spiritual AIDS

Defining corruption as “an unhappy cluster of spiritual perversion, pollution, and disintegration,” the author appropriately describes the process of corruption as something similar to the process of the AIDS virus, a “progressive attack on our spiritual immune system that eventually breaks it down and opens the way for hordes of opportunistic sins” (33). In keeping with his thought in the previous chapter, Plantinga also recognizes that these corruptions make life “progressively more miserable” so that the very sin of corruption, as St. Augustine once put it, “‘becomes the punishment of sin'” (33). Certainly this is the biblical teaching. God gives sinners over to their sin as punishment (Rom 1:24-28). The “great law of returns” (68-72) promises that sin will reap destruction (Gal 6:7). General revelation quickly yields specific cases in which one sin or set of sins leads to many more vices—like a spiral of death—and these vices in turn produce various undesired side effects (cf. 130, 134).

The author also gives satisfying attention to the inward nature of sin. The opposite of corruption is “spiritual hygiene” defined as “wholeness of spirit” that fits “the universal design” (34). Basic to such hygiene is internal longing for such hygiene (34). The ideal person, though she may fluctuate in her passion levels for holiness and go through dry spells, “longs to long again” during her wait in the wilderness (34). Furthermore, such a person overflows with gratitude and “passed-on-kindness” (35). Coming to grips with the emotional nature of spiritual hygiene helps one to see that “sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshipping, and serving the wrong thing.”[1]

If this is true, mortal combat with the “diseased root” (33) will involve first and foremost a battle for the affections. If, as Plantinga suggests, sanctification is the cure for corruption, then true gospel ministry must primarily target the human heart in preaching, counseling, small groups, and all other means to life transformation. Holiness must not be thought of primarily in terms of “dos and don’ts,” as though holiness is to be equated with action. Rather, both mortification and sanctification must focus on the human heart above all else. Given the great law of returns and the nature of sin as spiritual AIDS, sin should be presented in the church as something awful and destructive. Testimonies should underscore this aspect of sin; the preacher should look for examples of drastic consequences in the local newspaper; counselors should look for ways to present a horrible picture of the alternative to faithfulness; Christians in general should not be afraid to “scare” people about sin, since such a scare would be appropriate to the nature of sin itself and consistent with the biblical language about sin and its consequences.

Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction: Goin’ for what you Know

The densest of all Plantinga’s chapters has to be the chapter on Addiction. Within the span of about twenty pages, Plantinga tackles some of the toughest questions while critiquing some of the most prevalent thought about addiction (129-149). The category of addiction is certainly biblical. Deacons are not to be “addicted” to much wine, for example. The offered definition of addiction as “a complex…attachment to a substance or behavior in which a person compulsively seeks a change of mood” seems fair enough (130). However, the author seeks to wrestle with the more practical questions about the nature of culpability in relation to addiction. He concludes that one oversimplifies the nature of addiction by thinking of it as either “simple sin” or “inculpable disease” because of the actual complexity of the interplay between external influences and internal culpability. This contention does justice to the complexity of reality and is therefore worthy of acceptance (140). On the other hand, the author certainly takes this principle too far when he suggests that a depressed person who slides into substance abuse may not be culpable for her addiction (144).[2] Certainly external circumstances may reduce the degree of culpability, but they do not erase culpability.

With that caveat, certainly Plantinga is right to think of addiction as not merely a moral malevolence but also a true tragedy. Thinking of it this way greatly promotes pastoral compassion in the local church for those suffering with addictions. As the author himself points out, as a result of this paradigm, “We therefore want to accuse him and also to sympathize with him” (140, emphasis mine). Addiction should be presented in the local church with sensitivity to the suffering of the addicted, the complexity of the causes and degrees of addiction, as well as the culpability of the addict. Furthermore, where possible, pastors should seek to remove the addict from environments and circumstances that tend to feed the addiction.


The reader of Not the Way its Supposed to Be will come away from this book with a greater appreciation for the complexity of questions revolving around the nature of culpability as well as a keener ability to discern the subtlety of sin and how it might easily get a foothold in one’s life while in stealth mode. The preacher will find plenty of juicy illustrations for sermons on sin. All in all, Plantinga’s writing style and taste for relevant questions and interesting illustrations make his book the best I have ever read on the subject.


[1] Paul David Tripp, Instruments In the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002), 67.

[2] Here the author seems to assume that depression is a mere physical evil, not a spiritual one, for he says: “Cases of intrauterine addiction, for example, belong in the former category, as do any other chemical or process addictions innocently contracted…. Perhaps some addictions in these cases qualify as physical evils rather than as moral evils” (44).

The Heart is the Target: A Review of Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemers Hands

The Heart is the Target

Although there are many mini-principles that flow out of Tripp’s paradigm, there are a few meta-principles that guide his book. The most important of these meta-principles, and perhaps the principle that all the other principles in his book are intended to carry out is the principle of the centrality of the heart to life-transformation. Tripp believes that the heart of the matter is the heart and that the heart matters more than anything else. He continually drives home that the goal of counseling is heart change. This primary principle can be seen from several angles in his book. Tripp adopts a distinctively Edwardsian view of the heart, for he sees it as a fount of competing desires (79-80). It includes the entire scope of the inner person—spirit, soul, mind, will, and emotions (59).

Tripp’s Language About Worship Underscores A Heart-Centered Approach

Tripp’s language about worship is an attempt to underscore the centrality of the heart in any pursuit of holiness and sanctification. Everyone has certain objects she values more than anything else in life and around which she orders her life; therefore, everyone is a worshipper at heart (44). Since worship is inescapable, the real question is: What will we worship—God’s glory or some “pseudo glory” (98)? Because worship of God is the aim, “The Heart Is The Target” (57). The primary battle in spiritual warfare, for Tripp, is the battle over the human heart (4). Heart-worship directs behavior and is the principle element in motivation (58). The author not only sees the heart as central to the pursuit of holiness but also to the nature of sin. “Sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshipping, and serving the wrong thing” (67). Because the heart is like the steering wheel and gas pedal of a car, directing it where to go and supplying the power to get there, whatever we worship will have an “inescapable influence” over the rest of our lives, whether this influence is direct or indirect (68). This “fundamental biblical principle” explains why some people irritate us and others do not, why some situations press our buttons and make others happy, why some respond one way in a situation and others respond just the opposite—our hearts are different (77-78).
The “Crumbs of Externalism” Won’t Do
After one recognizes the key role the heart plays in both righteousness and sin, it becomes very easy to see why Tripp would loath the “crumbs of externalism” that only address behavior (70). He compares such a grossly limited focus to stapling apples to the branches of trees that do not naturally grow them (63). This fruit-stapling imagery highlights the absurdity of addressing someone’s behavior without addressing the heart issues (63). This basic understanding of human nature will need to be assumed and taught to those to whom we minister because “when most people seek change, they seldom have their hearts in view” (109). The first step in Tripp’s game plan for being an instrument in the hand of the redeemer is to get to know people in need, but getting to know people essentially means “knowing their heart,” and true friendship is the connection of hearts (111). Thus, not only does Tripp keep the heart central to the goal of change but also to the means of change—starting with the first step.
Love Makes the World Go-Round
Tripp’s second most important principle, which is the natural outflow of keeping the heart central to ministry, is the principle of love. This is a result of keeping the heart central because love is first and foremost a heart attitude. Although Tripp never explicitly argues this, we might say he seems to take it for granted based on the wording of the first and second most important commandments (88, 93). Since Tripp defines the heart as including the entire inner person, the heart is also central to the concept of love. When speaking of the importance of loving those to whom one ministers, Tripp often makes statements that might make a Reformed Baptist’s hair stand up on the back of his neck. For example, he says, “The foundation for people-transforming ministry is not sound theology; it is love” (117). The author is aware of the tendency for us as Christians to “lob grenades of truth into people’s lives rather than lay down our lives for them” (118). Sure, counseling involves problem solving, but it must be people focused (126, cf. 116, 134, 137). A woman whose husband has just left her does not need a recap on the Bible’s teaching about marriage and divorce. If that is all a minister can do, he will likely lose his opportunity to help (127). Christians must “mediate God’s presence”(129) by being marked by compassion rather than merely being “theological answering machines” (152, cf. 131).
Emotional Connections are Fundamental To Ministry
There are many other angles from which Tripp keeps the heart central to godliness and sin, and therefore central to ministry and life transformation. He advises his readers to focus first on making an emotional connection to the person who needs help (132). Questions such as “What are you feeling?” are basic to the process of understanding how to help them (133). Whereas some might say, “Your emotions are irrelevant; what really matters is what God says is true,” Tripp does not fall for this trap. He sees emotions as indicators of our interpretations of life—whether they are biblical or unbiblical (196). The key to personal ministry is not always about knowing exactly what to say (184), but those who love will speak when they see a sin problem that needs to be addressed (202). Love is the only right motivation for rebuking and confronting others (220).
Some Disagreements

Situations Don’t Have Causal Powers? – The ingredient of Tripp’s book which most commonly strikes me as unhelpful is his insensitivity to the complex interplay between life circumstances and heart chemistry. After telling a long story about his getting angry when his hopes for a nice Cuban meal were spoiled, he concludes: “My anger was not caused by the people and situations I encountered. My anger was caused by completely legitimate desires that came, wrongly, to rule me” (82). Tripp seems to assume that since his heart had a key role to play in determining whether he allowed the circumstances to make him angry, therefore the circumstances did not play a key role in making him angry. He thus perpetuates the false dichotomy common in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) between external causation and internal causation. One’s sin, according to typical BCM mantra, is not caused by external circumstances. Rather, it is caused by internal dispositions of the heart. Although Tripp effectively demonstrates that external circumstances are not always a sufficient cause and explanation for why we do what we do in a given situation, and that “any attempt to examine the causes of conflict must begin with the heart” (78), he does so by denying external circumstances a key role in determining human behavior (77, 82-83).

Situations & Heart-Chemestry Both Determine Action – In contrast to this false dichotomy, situations, as well as heart-chemistry, both play a vital role in determining our actions. I have never seen the need to affirm one to the exclusion of the other. While it is true that, on the one hand, two different people in the same situation may react differently, it is equally true that two people with the same values will respond differently when faced with different situations. A man is more likely to desire unlawful revenge under circumstances in which his wife and children are kidnapped, raped, tortured and burned alive than under circumstances in which they remain safe and unharmed. If he were to seek unlawful revenge under the former conditions, external circumstances would play a key role in explaining what caused his vengeful actions. Giving such circumstances a significant power of causation does not necessarily relieve the man of his culpability.
Furthermore, in contrast to Tripp’s oversimplification, external circumstances have a role in shaping our spiritual chemistry (i.e. our heart) over the years. Explaining a twenty-year-old’s lesbianism merely by recourse to her sinful heart begs the question about whether her life circumstances up to that point have greatly shaped the dispositions of her heart. What if she was molested from the age of 12 by lesbians? Would this not greatly pervert her heart and sexual longings? Because such life circumstances greatly influence the heart, restricting explanations for human behavior to present dispositions without due attention to one’s history and life circumstances is a remarkable oversimplification.[1] Extreme secularists have excused culpability in the sinful behaviors of others on the basis of hard circumstances. Radical fundamentalists have responded by ruling out circumstances from playing a key role in causing certain behavior and the development of human character. This is where I think the BCM has swung the pendulum too far. One does not need to deny external circumstances their power of causation in order to establish culpability.
Unintended Side-Effects: “It’s Not My Fault” – This reactionary error also unwittingly creates a new opportunity for denying culpability. A mother who abuses and neglects her children should take a great deal of responsibility for how bad they turn out. She should not be allowed the excuse, “But circumstances do not determine who we are, and you cannot blame me for how my children turn out. Their circumstances have not caused them to turn out to be rotten, it is a result of their sinful nature.” While a BCM proponent would seem to lack the appropriate paradigm to combat this sort of reasoning and thus be in need of revising its position, a dual explanation theory of human disposition and behavior would automatically render such an excuse as preposterous, irrational, and inconsistent with both Scripture and common sense (Mt 18:6). Although it seems that the concern of those within the BCM has been to keep the anti-responsibility models of secularists from attributing people’s problems merely to circumstance, I am afraid they have in the process allowed for parents who abuse and neglect their children to deny their responsibility in playing a key role in determining how bad their children turn out. In their concern for defending responsibility in one area, ironically, the BCM paradigm has left gaping holes in other areas. Furthermore, although secularists tend to be way off the mark about the answer to the human problem by virtue of their God-less theories, they rightly see that strategies for fixing the human problem are largely circumstantial (cf. 9). Once converted to a Christ-centered worldview through the power of the gospel, a new believer will be forced by way of obedience to Christ into a significant circumstantial repair that may take years of hard and holy sweat.

[1] Some might say, “Well, certainly circumstances play a role, but they do not cause a person to sin.” Language of causation is too tricky for a detailed philosophical inquiry into the nature and language of causation in this brief book review. However, it is worth considering the fact that Christ threatens those who “cause” (skandalise) the little one’s to sin (Mt 18:6).

Reasons to Believe in a Limited Atonement

It All Comes Back to Limited Atonement

There is a running joke between me and a friend of mine. When in the midst of deep theological conversations, we will say jokingly as a way of comic relief, “It all comes back to limited atonement!” It’s a way of poking fun at Calvinists who place too much importance on this doctrine as if it were at the heart of the gospel itself.

NEWS FLASH: Calvinism is not the gospel. The basic message of the gospel is not dependant on Calvinism. However, for some reason, the doctrines of Calvinism are always a hot topic no matter where you go (except where people have not been exposed to the different positions). Calvinists get passionate about it because their view is so often misunderstood. Arminians get passionate about it because they see Calvinism as a system which undermines the free love of God for everyone, and nowhere is this undermining clearer to them than in the “L” in TULIP–Limited Atonement.

Did Christ die for everyone or just the elect?

Of all the points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the hardest to demonstrate biblically. For this reason, four-point Calvinists are a common phenomenon. I was a NOEL (no “L”) Calvinist for about 3 or 6 months (back in like 02) while wrestling with the biblical issues involved. I was convinced that Limited Atonement was more of a philosophical or logical extension of the other four points of Calvinism than it was a biblical teaching. Therefore, I rejected it. I have since changed my mind.

Actual Atonement

I now hold to a view which I prefer to call Actual Atonement, although it is virtually the same as what has misleadingly come to be called the limited view of the atonement,[1] also known as effectual redemption and particular redemption. There are at least five good reasons to hold to an actual view of the atonement. First, it is more consistent with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement. Second, the logic (not merely the words) of certain biblical passages seems to make the effectual view of the atonement necessary. Third, many passages affirm a limited group of people as the intended benefactors of the atonement. Forth, most biblical objections to the limited view of the atonement are easily answered by a closer examination of the range of meanings for words like “all” and “world” along with a closer look at the context in which these words are found. Once one sees the alternative interpretation for these verses to be consistent with the meaning of words and the context of the passages, such texts fit quite comfortably with a doctrine of Actual Atonement. Finally, philosophical objections to limited atonement, such as the objection that it ruins the sincerity of a universal offer of salvation, are based on clumsy logic and are easily answered.

First, What Does “Atonement” Even Mean?

First, the Actual Atonement position is more consistent with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement than the general view of the atonement. Unfortunately, general and limited views often speak past one another over the extent of the atonement on account of a failure to first agree on the nature of the atonement itself. Before I can make this claim, I should first clarify my understanding of the two most popular views. The general view holds to a dual intentionality in the atonement: “Christ’s sacrifice was intended both to provide salvation for all and to procure salvation for all who believe”[2] (i.e. the elect). The so-called limited view of the atonement holds that “Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only [all those who believe] and actually secured salvation for them.”[3] One should notice that the latter view of the atonement does not contradict the former, but rather affirms the second intention contained in it: “to procure salvation for all who believe.” Therefore, the real question is whether the language of the atonement in Scripture includes both the idea of appeasing wrath as well as the idea of provision, or whether it has a narrower meaning that only includes the appeasing of wrath. In other words, does the atonement language include the notion of “providing salvation for all” or as Geisler puts it, the notion that “everyone is potentially justifiable, not actually justified” by the atonement?[4] Since this is the real issue, the two views might be best understood as differences over the actual nature of the atonement itself—whether it includes possibility or whether it only includes actuality.

Since the Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement is an actual satisfying of God’s wrath (hilastērion,[5] Rom 3:21-26), it is difficult to understand how the accomplishment of a theoretical possibility would be included in such a propitiatory sacrifice. What is more, one finds not a single verse that teaches that atonement was made possible, provided for, or made available, through the death of Christ. Instead, all passages which address the nature of the atonement itself either explicitly teach or take for granted an actual atonement that secures salvation and redemption.[6] In short, Christ came to actually save sinners (i.e. actually appease the wrath of God), not make this salvation possible, provide for atonement, or make atonement available. For this reason, Geisler’s assertion that “the issue is not whether everyone is actually saved but whether the sacrifice of Jesus made salvation available to all,” is unperceptive as a response to this contention.[7] The Dual Intention view (Geisler and others argue for) that understands God to be providing the possibility of atonement for the sins of all but only applying it to some must also have a dual definition of atonement. When Geisler says “the Atonement is both unlimited in its extent and limited in its application,” he commits the fallacy of equivocation by changing the meaning of the word “Atonement” mid-sentence. The first meaning is a theoretical atonement (atonement made possible) and the latter actual (atonement made actual).

Therefore, those who hold to a dual intentionality must redefine the meaning of the atonement in unbiblical categories if it is to escape the equivocation fallacy. Atonement cannot mean the satisfaction of God’s wrath and yet not mean the satisfaction of God’s wrath at the same time and in the same sense. As John Murray put it, “The doctrine of the atonement must be radically revised if, as atonement, it applies to those who finally perish as well as to those who are the heirs of eternal life. In that event we should have to dilute the grand categories in terms of which the Scripture defines the atonement.”[8] Since the biblical teaching is clearly that the death of Christ satisfied God’s wrath, and since there is not a single verse which speaks of a theoretical atonement which makes redemption “possible,” the Actual Atonement view is to be preferred to the General and/or Dual Intentionality view on the basis of having greater accord with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement.

Second, Certain Texts Force a Limited View on the Atonement

Second, certain passages make a limited view of the atonement necessary. For example, Paul guarantees the future security of all those for whom Christ has died on the basis of Christ’s accomplished atonement (Rom 5:8-10). On Paul’s logic, if the atonement was made for all people without exception, Paul’s promise of eternal security necessarily applies also to all people without exception. A limited view of the atonement seems to be the only way to escape vindication of a universalist hermeneutic. In another passage, Paul guarantees eternal security and glorification (“all things”) for everyone for whom God did not spare his own Son (Rom 8:32-34). On Paul’s logic, if God gave his own Son up for everyone, then everyone is sure to receive “all things” (i.e. universalism). Perhaps those holding to the general view of the atonement could appeal that Paul has in mind only one of the two intentions in this passage (the intention of securing salvation for all those who believe), but this is precisely the point made in my first reason for believing in an actual view of the atonement. Paul seems to have this effectual intention in mind as “the” meaning of Christ’s death.

Third, Many Texts Seem To Affirm A Limited Atonement Outright

Third, many texts simply affirm that Christ died for a limited group of people.[9] The doctrine of unconditional election provides secondary affirmation so long as one understands that God has atonement in view as the means for saving the elect (Rom 8:29-32; 9:17-23; Eph 1:4-6; 1 Thess 5:9;1 Tim 1:9). If only a limited number of people are intended to be eternally saved—the elect—we should naturally expect that only the sins of a limited number people—the elect—should be eternally satisfied by Christ’s atonement.
Fourth, What About John 3:16 and Other Passages?

Fourth, passages which seem to contradict a limited view of the atonement do not actually contradict it. Some of these passages do just the opposite. For example, consider the classic proof text for a general atonement: John 3:16. This passage teaches that God gave Christ to the world so that believers might be saved. All believers are elect and all the elect eventually believe. Therefore, even John 3:16 teaches a limited intention for sending Christ into the world—to save the elect (i.e. all who believe). One does not need to interpret “for God so loved the world,” to mean “for God so loved the elect,” for this to hold true. The purpose clause “so that” is limited to the elect regardless of how broad the scope of meaning for the term “world.”

John Owen notes that the meaning and usage of those terms which are universal in form—such as “world” and “all”—must be weighed very carefully for this reason: “Upon these expressions hangs the whole weight of the opposite cause, the chief if not the only argument for the universality of redemption.”[10] Once the full range of meaning for these words is closely examined, however, the biblical objections to limited atonement are less convincing. The word “world” (ho kosmos) in Scripture does not always refer to every person in the world without exception. There are many passages where kosmos simply cannot mean every individual human being (Jn 7:7; Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 4:9; 11:32). If one is to believe that Christ died for everyone without exception on the grounds that the Bible says he died for the sins of the kosmos, she unwittingly gives good reason to think that everyone alive in the first century was a follower of Jesus, since the Pharisees exclaimed, “Look, the world [ho kosmos] has gone after Him” (Jn 12:19).

Even more important, kosmos often refers only to those who believe. For example, Paul taught that Israel’s sin of rejecting Christ means “riches for the world” (ploutos kosmou, Rom 11:12). Can we say then, that every person in the world without exception has received the ploutos Paul has in mind? It seems clear that Paul is using the word “world” to distinguish between Jew and Gentile, and that he would intend us to understand only those who believe in Christ as the recipients of the riches Paul has in mind in this context. Such an interpretation, however, leads us to conclude that kosmos actually refers to a minority group among the people in the world—the few that find the ploutos in Christ (i.e. the elect). When the apostle John admonishes his readers not to think of Christ’s death as for them only but for the “whole world” (1 Jn 2:2), the grammatical structure is strikingly similar to statements found in his gospel (Jn 11:51-52). On the basis of this parallel one might conclude that “whole world” in his epistle simply refers to God’s people, the elect, scattered throughout the whole world.[11]

Although many passages describe the death of Christ as being for “all” (pas, Rom 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:14-15; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Heb 2:9; 2 Pt 3:9), like the word “world,” the word “all” in Scripture does not always refer to everyone, but it must be determined by context. Sometimes the word “all” simply refers to all those within a certain group defined by the context. For example, Romans 5:18 teaches that just as one sins led to condemnation for “all,” so one act of righteousness results in justification for “all.” Here, even within the very same context, one must interpret the former reference to “all” as virtually universal, and the latter as limited only to believers. Without allowing for such fair distinctions based on context, the interpreter has no way to object to the conclusion that all people without exception are justified before God. Paul’s statement in 1 Tim 2:6 that Christ was given as a ransom for all can simply mean “all kinds,” (indiscriminately with respect to Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free). In fact, Paul’s usage of the word “all” is best understood this way based on the way he uses it in the context (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2). “All” in Titus 2:11 can be taken in a similar way based on context (cf. Tit 2:2-4, 6, 9).

Finally, The Philosophical Opposition Tends to Be Weak

Finally, philosophical objections to Actual Atonement are sloppy mistakes in logic. Perhaps the most common is the objection that a limited view of the atonement makes the universal offer of the gospel insincere. First, we might say that if the Bible teaches on the one hand that God only intends to eternally redeem the elect, and on the other hand that we should offer salvation to all, we should conclude that God’s offer must be genuine even if our pre-conceived philosophical understanding makes the legitimacy of such an offer a genuine mystery. Second, this objection misunderstands the nature of the offer. The universal offer of salvation is always contingent. The offer is not intended to benefit everyone, only those who repent and believe. Thus, the nature of the offer itself astronomically limits the scope of its intended benefactors by virtue of its built-in conditionality. The offer, therefore, is just as genuine as the offer “Whosoever meets the requirements for enrollment to SBTS, as well as the requirements for discounts on tuition, will be able to receive such benefits.” The offer is intended for, and voiced to, all seminary students indiscriminately, but the benefit is only intended for a select group. This contingency does not ruin the genuine nature of the offer.

Many of the other objections leveled against an actual view of the atonement are really objections against Calvinism as a whole—that it contradicts the concept of a loving God, that it is unfair, that it prohibits people who sincerely desire to be saved from actually being saved. These objections impose philosophical definitions of love, justice, and grace that are foreign to the Bible. They also misunderstand the nature of responsible Calvinism.


[1] Limiting the atonement sounds negative. Most Calvinists do not limit the worth of the atonement as the language often suggests to some. Furthermore, everyone who is not a universalist limits the atonement in some way (whether its absolute efficacy or its extent), thus the designation does not strike at the heart of the differences in views of the atonement.

[2] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume Three, Sin and Salvation (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), 379.

[3] David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963), 17.

[4] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 352.

[5] For a summary of the controversy over the meaning of hilastērion, along with the conclusion that it employ’s propitiatory cultic terminology of blood sacrifices see Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1998), 191-195. Schreiner points out that expiation and propitiation are not mutually exclusive categories. I might add that the presence of expiation in the passage would seem to depend ultimately on the grounds of the concept of propitiation. Schreiner says “The death of Jesus removed sin and satisfied God’s holy anger.” It seems this is true only because the death of Jesus removed sin by satisfying God’s holy anger.

[6] Mt 1:21; 20:21; Rom 3:24-25; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:12, 15, 26; 1 Jn 4:10; Rev 5:9, cf. Lk 19:10; Jn 19:30; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:30; 6:20; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Gal 1:3; 3:13; Eph 1:7, 14; 2:15-16; Col 1:13-14, 20-22; 1 Tim 1:15; 3:5-7; Heb 13:12; 1 Pt 2:24; 3:18).

[7] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 350.

[8] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 63-64. [emphasis mine]

[9] E.g. Mt 26:28; Jn 10:11, 15; 11:50-52; Acts 20:28; Rom 8:32-34; Eph 5:25-26; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:15, 28; Rev 5:9.

[10] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1999), 190.

[11] I owe this insight to John Piper. John Piper, Tulip: The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Salvation (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Desiring God Ministries), 31.

Human Emotions are of Supreme Importance to the Imago Dei

If the brightest colors in the biblical picture of God are painted with the brush strokes of emotional language, we might expect human emotions to be central in the biblical picture of mankind since humans are the most God-like of all creatures. Furthermore, if God’s perfect holiness, raging wrath, and passionate love are to be understood in terms of his emotions, we might expect that the holiness, virtue, and love of those made in the imago Dei are also to be understood primarily in terms of emotions—and this is exactly what we find. Not only are fear, contrition, joy, gratitude and love commanded, they are central to biblical ethics and receive an unparalleled place in glorifying God. If this is true, central to redemption is the redemption of human affection from centering on sin to centering on God, and central to the restoration of the image of God in people is the restoration of God-centered emotions. 

Ways to Distort the Biblical Teaching about Emotions – The numbers of angles through which this truth can be supported are so overwhelming that a denial of it can only be respectively achieved by running the emotive language in the Bible through a foreign philosophical grid. Such philosophical intrusion takes place on at least three accounts. First, as we have already seen, Thomistic theism creates unnecessary stumbling blocks to the importance of emotion by denying their existence—and therefore importance—within God himself. Second, non-cognitive views of emotion in philosophers such as Plato (who contrasts emotion with the intellect), René Descartes and Schleiermacher (who equate emotion with the physical effects of emotion), David Hume (who understands emotions as animal like), Immanuel Kant (who argues that emotions have no role in ethics), in evolutionary scientists who follow the non-cognitive theories of Charles Darwin (who argues that emotion developed before cognition as an adaptive survival behavior independent of the will), and especially the James-Lange theory of emotion in psychology (which reduces emotions down to changes in physiology) have made great headway in confusing the masses about the nature of emotion itself. This confusion has resulted in an unnecessary dichotomy between ethics and emotion, and has greatly influenced New Testament interpretation.

Third, certain popular philosophical notions of culpability make adherents uncomfortable with the idea that God would command an emotion. Such conceptions of culpability rely on the premise that God can only command that which the subject of that command is actually able to do. By extension, it is assumed that God would not make demands of humans with respect to realms over which they have no immediate control. Attempts to come to terms with culpability paradigms have caused many interpreters to exclude the possibility that emotions are commanded in the New Testament since humans are unable to have direct control over them. According to this culpability model, then, love, which is the central virtue and fountainhead of all ethics, cannot be an emotion since God commands it repeatedly. There are many other reasons why interpreters have a vested interest in de-emotionalizing the biblical language of human emotion. Although by no means do these three philosophical trespasses exhaust the complexities of anti-emotion bias in handling the biblical text on human emotion, I have offered a brief critique of the first of these three philosophical disorientations and will also offer a brief critique of the second and third.

Non-Cognitive Theories of Emotion Don’t Cut It – Several cases could be made which would be sufficient in themselves to doubt whether non-cognitive theories of emotion do justice to either the human experience or the biblical texts. These cases could be grouped into at least three categories: cases made from philosophy, the sciences and the biblical text. Arguments from philosophy and science might be summed up with this brief affirmation: cognitive theories of emotion excel in philosophical explanation and scientific research where non-cognitive theories are woefully deficient. Elliot points out further that 1) “there has been no definitive success in differentiating the emotions on the basis of physiology,” 2) “even if each emotion were linked to different physical reactions it would not prove that the non-cognitive approach was correct. This would only show that different cognitions have different physiological reactions,” and 3) “from our knowledge of neuroscience, the brain structures used for emotion and cognition cannot be readily separated.”

Let Philosophy Bow Down to God’s Utterance – There at least three ways of handling the objection that emotions cannot be commanded if the subject has no immediate control over them. The first is authoritarian. If the Scriptures are the ultimate authority and they everywhere command emotion, we must bow down to the mouth of God and conform our petty philosophical construals to fit more comfortably with God’s flawless utterance. The second rebuttal is both philosophical and theological in the sense of being a philosophical argument that fits comfortably within a Calvinistic theological framework. If faith and repentance are emotional in nature (and they are), then God’s holding people responsible for coming to Christ in faith and repentance—even though they are not able without the effectual drawing of the Holy Spirit—demonstrates that capability is not a necessary condition of culpability. The third refutation is more philosophical and is based on a cognitive view of emotion. Simply put, the argument is this: “If emotion is cognitive, love is about something, can be commanded and is emotional.” In other words, if emotions are cognitive, they reflect our belief system. Consequently, our emotions are indicators of our value system—what we believe to be most valuable. Inasmuch as we are responsible for our belief system and our value system, we can likewise be responsible for our emotional dispositions that necessarily result from them. These are only a few of the arguments that demonstrate that emotions can happily fit within the category of imperatives without biblical, theological, or philosophical strain.

Let Words Mean What They Mean: A Call Back to Sober Linguistics – Arguments from the biblical text are less complicated, yet more authoritative. Since the stumbling block has consisted mainly in the error of reading philosophical ideas onto the biblical language, one might push the burden of proof on those who interpret passages in such a way by challenging them to demonstrate whether or not their philosophical ideas about emotion are either explicitly in the text or likely to be inherent in the meaning of the emotive language of the Bible. An evenhanded search for such foreign concepts, however, will inevitably leave the seeker disappointed. In New Testament studies, for example, there were both cognitive and non-cognitive views in the Greco-Roman world, the latter “stresses the unreliable nature of emotion and the need for it to be controlled by reason,” while the former “underscores the need to change harmful emotions by correcting false beliefs.” While non-cognitive Greek ideas about emotion can be seen alongside Jewish ideas about emotion in the writings of Second Temple Judaism, even the most Hellenistic of these writers still rejected the stoic idea of emotional extirpation. Furthermore, some of these same writers found Old Testament views of emotion in tension with Greek Philosophy. The writings of the New Testament are in sharp contrast with more developed ideas about the “passions” from Greek writings that explicitly stress the use of reason and use emotional language pejoratively. Simply put, neither a study of the original languages, contemporary backgrounds, or the context in which emotive terms are used provide sufficient warrant for depleting the emotional words in the original text of their controversially emotive content. On the contrary, they afford merit to do just the opposite.

Conclusion: We Should Not Be Surprised

Although starting as far back as the church fathers, the emotions of God have been seen as metaphorical by many, such erroneous ideas about divine emotions ultimately have their roots in Platonic philosophy, not the sacred Scriptures. “We have been told that God’s emotions were ‘anthropomorphisms’, described like those of humans. In reality, human emotions are in the image of God himself.” From the prophets of the Old Testament whose prophetic lifeblood resided in provocative metaphors to get emotional responses from the people through “shock value,” to the emotional letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament—even down to the pervasive emotive language about God and from the lips of God himself—the Bible is unabashedly emotional. Even more important, if one desires to take the humble path to discerning what most glorifies God and most impressively reflects his image, one cannot find a more sure route than the commandments of God himself. When Jesus boils the whole law down to love for God and love for people, he virtually places all worship, all obedience, all attempts to glorify God, and all social ethics in an all-encompassing God-like emotion (Mt 22:36-40, cf. Mk 12:28-31, Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13:1-3, 13; 16:14; 1 Pt 1:8; 4:8; Js 2:8; Heb 13:1; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:10-24; 4:7-5:4). Since God is in nature a spirit, one should not be surprised that emotions—which are attributed to the spiritual realm—are the most customary characteristics of God and take center stage in the biblical cinematics of redemptive history. Since mankind is in the image of God, it should not be surprising, then, that the most important of the God-like features of creatures in his image should be their participation in those vigorous exercises of the heart that everywhere define their obedience, holiness, and relationship to God—namely, their emotions.


As far as making a case for the centrality of human emotions to the biblical picture of godliness and spirituality, Jonathan Edwards’ treatise, The Religious Affections, has not been significantly improved. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001 Edition). The only exception to this might be the developments made by John Piper in the ethical nature of pleasure and its relation to obedience. Piper, Desiring God. It would be laborious to rehash the multitudes of texts and arguments for this position in this brief paper. Sam Storms has attempted to make Edwards’ work of the affections more accessible to modern readers in Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007).

Edwards concludes “they who would deny that much of true religion lies in the affections, and maintain the contrary, must throw away what we have been wont to own for our Bible, and get some other rule by which to judge of the nature of religion.” Edwards, Religious Affections, 35.

Non-cognitive theories either define emotion exclusively in terms of the following three elements or put greater emphasis on one of the following three elements: 1) conscious experience, 2) emotional behavior, 3) physiological events. Non-cognitive theories create sharp dichotomies between cognition and emotion. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 20.

Here I follow the summary given by Matthew A. Elliott in his chapter “What is Emotion?” where he gives an overview of the history of theories on emotion with specific attention to the inadequacies of non-cognitive views of emotion in ethics and psychology. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 16-55.

The noncognitivist metaphysical view is philosophically responsible for denying that moral judgments had any meaningful reference to actual properties of actions, persons, policies and other objects of moral assessment and at best only expressed one’s personal attitudes toward something. Decognizers understand moral judgments to be incapable of being either true or false. David O. Brink, “Emotivism,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, gen. ed. Robert Audi (New York, New York: Cambridge Press, 2006 Printing), 260.

Elliot’s book to a large extent is a cataloging of these errors and the beginning of a new explicitly cognitive approach to interpreting emotions in the New Testament. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 124-235.

From ancient times the so-called “passions,” have been understood as passive from the perspective of the one who experiences them—that is, that emotions happen to a person. They are not something a person consciously chooses. The emotional pain, for example, that may result from an insult, might be compared to the nose bleed that may result from a punch in the nose. People do not make a conscious decision about whether to have a nose bleed when punched, it is demanded by the nature of physical chemistry. Likewise, our emotional responses are like necessary effects of our spiritual chemistry. In either case, emotions are, in a significant sense, out of the subject’s control. Robert M. Gordon, “Emotion,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 260.

“Many others have agreed by defining love in non-emotional terms. This has often been in response to trying to answer the question of how love can be commanded. … This is also a prevalent misconception on Old Testament studies.” Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 138. Elliot’s work goes a long way in exposing the prevalence of these errors.

Elliot lists the following philosophical problems with the James-Lange theory: 1) The problem of naming specific emotion without reference to cognition: “Whereas the James-Lange theory implied that each emotion must have a unique physical manifestation, experimental evidence points to the fact that there are identical physical responses for different emotions,” 2) the James-Lange theory is woefully deficient in providing a framework in which motivational theory makes sense, 3) the same physical sensations can be interpreted as different emotions in different circumstances, leaving the means for differentiating different emotions in the James-Lange theory inadequate, 4) the failure of the non-cognitive framework to provide evaluation of emotion, that is, to provide a framework for judging whether an emotion is appropriate or inappropriate, right or wrong. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 23, 27-28.

This would include argument like these: Aristotle, who understood human emotion as the result of intellectual realization, had a better understanding of emotion than Plato, 2) Descartes created a false dichotomy by holding that emotion was not caused by cognition but was first felt and then interpreted (or labeled) in cognitive categories, since both are quite capable of coexisting as different stages of the emotional experience, 3) Darwin’s theory of macro-evolution from which he posits a theory of the development of human emotion is vulnerable to critical scientific cross-examination and should not be taken as “pure” and authoritative science, 4) William James’ comment that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble,” flies in the face human experience of emotive causality, 5) the James-Lange theory of emotion is laden with anomaly where cognitive views of emotion excel in providing coherent explanation, 6) although the James-Lange theory of emotion held sway in the beginning of the 20th century, more recent work done by Cannon, Schachter and Singer have proven many of the details of the James-Lange theory false and represent a shift toward a more cognitive view of emotions in recent psychology. A close look at philosophy and the sciences actually demands for a cognitive theory of emotions and thereby takes the rug from underneath all philosophical theories relying on non-cognitive views of emotion (William James’ comment is quoted by Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 22).

Arguments against non-cognitive theories of emotion abound also in physiological evidence as set forth by Antonio Damasio:

1. Even when logical facilities are completely intact (as measured in numerous tests) an unfeeling person is unable to function normally or make good practical decisions. People who function as almost a logical computer, having a pronounced lack of emotion in normally emotional circumstances, are unable to function rationally;
2. It is beyond doubt that many different parts of the brain, both higher and lower brain sections, play an indispensable role in emotion;
3. It is probable, based on empirical evidence, that specific emotional responses are learned and not innate [Ibid, 29-30].

Ibid., 29.

As Elliot puts it: “The fact that these things are commanded is not disputed. What is at issue is: (1) are emotions actually commanded in these passages, and; (2) what do these commands mean in practice? The burden of proof is upon those who would argue that these are not commands of emotion. The meaning seems very straightforward. Whether or not we believe it is logical to command emotion, the simplest interpretation of these passages is that the biblical writers do, in fact, command emotion. … There is no evidence from the texts themselves that these terms have been redefined by the writers as theological concepts that do not contain an emotional core. On the contrary, the evidence points to these words retaining their usual meanings of simple emotions. The arguments of those who deny that emotion can be commanded seem to come from a desire to be consistent with their own philosophical understanding of emotion and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of the writers of the New Testament. We must challenge the tenability of this position.” Ibid., 141.

See Piper, “Conversion,” in Desiring God, 53-74. Beyond Piper’s demonstration, it might be added that repentance must be defined in terms of the changing of one’s heart with respect to the law of God, which law might be summarized by the most important commandments to “love” God and people (Mt 22:36-40). Repentance might be seen, then, as primarily an emotional change in the heart of the individual who goes from loving sin (idolatry) to loving God and people in his image (reconciliation). This understanding is impressively confirmed, among other texts, by Ezekiel’s description of New Covenant conversion (Ezek 11:19-21, 38:24-27).

Ibid., 141.

Roberts, being influenced by Solomon’s proposal to redefine emotions as judgments, uses similar language define emotions as “concerned-based construals … they are states in which the subject grasps, with a kind of perceptual immediacy, a significance of his or her situation.” Roberts, “Emotions and Christian Teaching,” Spiritual Emotions, 11. For his argument on how this helps understand why emotions can be commanded see his chapter entitled, “Emotions and Christian Character,” Ibid., 22-31. Defining an emotion as a “judgment” or “construal,” however, seems to take the cognitive position too far. Rather, it seems more helpful to understand emotions as intense internal experiences based on one’s judgments/construals. With this sort of definition, one has the ability to maintain the distinction between the judgment itself and the emotion which results. Appreciation of this causality is lost when an emotion is understood as cognition (judgment or construal) rather than an experience based on cognition.

Eric L. Johnson teases out this thought briefly when he writes about emotions as “signs,” which “signify people’s deepest drives, understandings and values, often with greater accuracy than their thoughts about such things,” in his groundbreaking work Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 300-303. 

Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 79.

I have in mind Philo, Josephus, and the author of 4 Maccabees. Ibid., 117-121.

Ibid., 111.

Sandy believes that shock value was the prophetic strategy of metaphorical language because “metaphors speak with more emotion.” D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 70-73. The emotive and translucent nature of Old Testament judgment and blessing language leads Sandy to conclude that prophetic utterance was not mainly to inform the people concerning the future, but to provoke an emotional response that would arouse their hardened hearts.

The different positions typically discussed under the imago dei such as the substantive views (the image of God resides in a quality of combination of qualities), the relational views (the image of God is primarily having to do with mans experience of a relationship with God and fellow human beings), and the functional views (the image of God primarily consists in something someone does) easily overlap in fundamental ways and none of them do justice to all the ways in which we are like God if considered to the exclusion of the others. It seems better to accept each as a different angle on the imago dei rather than pitting them against one another. After all, Christians largely agree that our relationship with God is what is most important and that this relationship works itself out both through human capacities and human action. No matter how one slices the anthropological cake, growing in our heart-felt love for God and our sincere love for others is the surest way to the restoration of the image of God in us. However, since any action of the body is void of moral virtue unless it is attended by love (1 Cor 13:1-3), we must admit that moral action derives its ethical value from God-centered emotions. Not only is emotion the ultimate ethical priority, but also that which gives any and all action its ethical dimension. In this sense, while it is harder to see any of the imago dei views as the most God-like characteristic in degree, we can certainly affirm that emotions are the most prominent of the God-like characteristics in importance. Since all people are in relation to God whether they like it or not (either good relations or bad ones), reciprocating love between God and man is more basic to the image of God than mere relation. For a concise summary of the three major views see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006 Printing), 520-529. For a lengthier treatment of the doctrine see Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapdis, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994 Printing).

Although Elliot’s work may anticipate a resurgence of the Edwardsian paradigm for the importance of emotions to true spirituality, it is long overdue. Elliot’s work demonstrates that much work and thought is desperately needed in the study of emotions. He understands his work as only the beginning of a basic outline. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 237. This work includes further untangling kinks in biblical exegesis, biblical and systematic theology, Christian philosophy, church history, historical theology, and most importantly, practical theology. For example, although writers in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) have progressed in the amount of importance they place on emotion, I am convinced that their writings are still plagued with misunderstandings and false dichotomies with respect to the role of emotion in obedience in the Christian life. For example, the false dichotomy which is reflected in the approach which asks the question, “Are one’s sinful habits a result of one’s past or sin nature?” fails to grapple with the role of our past in shaping our emotional dispositions (including our sinful dispositions). The most prolific writer for BCM, David Powlison, however, still operates with this false dichotomy. Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes, 155. In spite of such errors, however, Powlison cannot avoid basing his whole motivational theory on the emotion of desire. His chapters entitled, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire,” and “What Do You Feel?” show how central emotion is in a practical approach to Christian counseling. Ibid., 145-62, 211-23. It is also my perception that much of the tension between secular psychology and biblical teaching that creates strong dichotomies in the counseling wars could be smoothed out with a mature development of emotion theory from a biblical perspective.

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