Category Archives: Covenant theology

Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!


Four Essential Pictures

I’m currently reading Tim Challies’ book Visual Theology.  This book presents many theological basics not only with text, but also with infographics.  This kind of approach aims to help those who learn best with visual helps.  I’m appreciating the book in many respects and will probably write a review in the near future.

As good books do, this one got me to thinking, particularly about the place of pictures in Reformed theology.  While we don’t believe it’s lawful to make images of God, this doesn’t rule out diagrams or other visual helps.  In fact, embedded in our theology are several essential pictures.  Even apart from an actual picture, these doctrines come across to us via some particular image we’re to hold in our minds.  Let’s look at four important doctrines and the associated pictures.

Covenant

In Scripture, the covenant of grace is portrayed in terms of a relationship.  When you think “covenant of grace,” you should immediately picture a relationship.  In Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1 (and elsewhere), God speaks in terms of a marriage relationship with his people.  In the New Testament, this is taken over into the relationship of Christ (the groom) and his church (the bride).  While there may be contractual elements in the covenant of grace, the essence of it is a relationship.

Regeneration

The Bible gives several pictures of regeneration and one of those is a heart transplant.   When you think “regeneration,” you can picture someone receiving a new heart.  The Holy Spirit uses this picture in Ezekiel 11:19, “…I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…”  This one picture does not exhaust everything the Bible says about regeneration, but it is one helpful conceptual peg on which to hang the doctrine in your mind’s eye.

Justification

Whenever you think about justification, you need to think “courtroom.”  The courtroom image is essential to this doctrine.  One of the key ways that people often get justification wrong is by saying that it is God making us right with himself.  However, justification is, in its very nature, a judicial matter.  It involves a judge making a declaration, issuing a verdict.  This is why Romans 1-3 describes man’s condition before God as a judge.  For example, Romans 2:2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”  Starting at the end of Romans 3, the Spirit explains how a negative judgment can be averted through Jesus Christ.  After all that, we get Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Condemnation is what we would receive from the Judge if we did not have Christ.  In its essence, therefore, justification involves the picture of a courtroom.

Adoption

Adoption is a beautiful word that pictures family.  Having been purchased by Christ, having been justified by him, we are now included in God’s family as his dearly loved children.  God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we relate to him as such.  Nowhere is this stated more explicitly than Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”  We’ve gone from the courtroom (justification) to the family room (adoption), and that’s a wonderful place to be!

To summarize:

Covenant —> Relationship

Regeneration —> Heart transplant

Justification —> Courtroom

Adoption —> Family

Reformed theology has more pictures, but those four are crucial to understand.  When you get those, you grasp several basics of the Christian faith.


Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture — Some Notes

Way back in the day (I mean way back — even before university), I got it into my head to take a Dutch course.  The greatest part of my motivation was the desire to read famous Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder in the original.  So off I went, me and a good buddy, to study Dutch at an evening course offered by the adult education department of Edmonton Public Schools.  After finishing the course, I got my hands on some books by old KS.  One of them was a slim little volume entitled Christus en cultuur.  Unfortunately, my Dutch skills were not up to snuff.  I could make little sense of it.  I gave up soon after beginning.

A few years later, I managed to get my own copy of an English translation of this book.  Translated by Rev. G. VanRongen and Dr. W. Helder, it was published by Premier in 1976.  I got more out of the English translation than I did from the Dutch, but there were large swathes that remained impenetrable.  After reading some other stuff from Schilder, I reached the conclusion that either he was the most brilliantly flawed communicator in the world or I was one of the densest readers.  He could have moments of profound insight, but it was like wading through thick brambles to access that beautiful little trout stream.

I recently discovered a new edition of Christ and Culture.  It was published in 2016 by Lucerna, the publishing arm of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  It is a new and much-improved translation by William Helder (who was involved with the first English translation) and Albert H. Oosterhoff.  It also includes helpful explanatory notes, both from the translators and from a recent Dutch edition by Jochem Douma.  As a result, many of the literary brambles have been cleared away and the insights of Schilder are more accessible.

Having read through this new edition, let me make a few notes, both of appreciation and criticism.

It is well-known that Schilder was an outspoken critic of Abraham Kuyper.  Christ and Culture allows English readers access to some of his criticisms and their rationale.  For example, in chapter 4, he critiques Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty:

…Kuyper himself was not able to explain clearly what exactly those “sovereigns” in all those “spheres” might be.  One single Sovereign — that is something we can accept and understand.  But as soon as one begins to speak about “sovereigns” in the plural, each of them in his own sphere, things become vague.  (16)

Chapters 18 and 26 feature Schilder’s critique of Kuyper’s teaching on common grace.  When “the gifts of creation blossom and expand,” Schilder argues that it is not a matter of grace, but of nature.  Cultural activity in itself does not involve grace, but godly cultural activity does.  He agrees that there is a restraining of sin, but there is also a restraining of grace.  Schilder’s critique is worth considering.

In the last number of years, Schilder’s name has been bandied about in connection with the Federal Vision controversy.  In relation to that, it’s worth noting that chapter 14 finds Schilder affirming the active obedience of Christ.  In chapter 16, some might be surprised to find KS appear to be speaking of a pre-fall covenant as something distinct from the covenant of grace.  He even uses the common expression “covenant of works,” but places quotation marks around it — a device which indicates his discomfort with the “works” part of that expression.  Unfortunately, the annotation of Douma gives the impression here that Schilder regarded the “covenant of works” as something essentially distinct from the later covenant of grace.  In reality, Schilder elsewhere clearly regarded the covenant of grace as a continuation of the “covenant of works,” or another phase in the history of the one covenant (see here, for example).  While I wish Douma’s note was the whole story, we do have to honestly acknowledge the facts.

While generally appreciative, there are a number of places where I’ve placed question marks in this book.  In chapter 26, against Kuyper, KS argues that Calvinism should develop its own unique artistic style.  That we don’t do this is a sign of weakness, he insists.  What he means is that Dutch Calvinists should develop their own artistic style.  He has no conception of what it might look like for an African-American Calvinist to develop his own artistic style, or an Australian aboriginal, or a Calvinist from whatever other culture in the world.  This entire book, in fact, is quite insular — it was written for Dutch Reformed readers living in the 1950s who had no to little multicultural exposure.   The book is a product of its time and thus the author can’t be held too culpable for this.  When we think about Christ and culture today, however, we do need to reckon with a multicultural world.

Schilder appears to believe that the only worthwhile cultural endeavours result in educational outcomes.  So, for example, he is rather critical of movies (he’s writing in the 1950s!) because though they exhibit technical excellence, they do not educate people.  Hence, they are breaking down, rather than building up (page 119).  But why is a pedagogical purpose the defining feature of what builds up?  Why can’t a cleverly told story (whether on the screen or in a book) that’s written to delight not also be a worthwhile cultural endeavour?  Is there no place for simple delight and enjoyment in a Christian conception of culture, or must everything have an educational purpose? I’m not convinced by Schilder here.

Though easier than before, this book is still not accessible reading for average church-goers.  Sometimes I write about books and I get people asking me, “Should we buy this for our church library?”  Umm….no, sorry.  Even with all the helpful annotations, this remains rather thick theology.  As such it’s best-suited for pastors, theologians, and academics.  They’ll be challenged and enriched by its contents.  I’m glad that we have this new improved edition and I commend CRTS for getting behind it.


The Eve of the Reformation: Staupitz

As noted several times already on this blog, this year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Today I want to look at a figure from the period right before the Reformation:  Johann von Staupitz.  I first became interested in Staupitz because of his portrayal in the 2003 movie, Luther.  Bruno Ganz warmly played the part of Staupitz and gave the impression that he was influential in Luther’s life, but also flawed in some ways.  As it turns out, this is not far off the mark.

Johann von Staupitz (1460/69-1524) was Martin Luther’s spiritual father, his mentor.  Without a doubt, Staupitz left his mark on Luther.  While Staupitz himself never broke with the papal Catholic church, he surely did have a hand in the Reformation ignited by his spiritual son Martin Luther.

The Life of Staupitz

There is some uncertainty about his exact birth date — it was sometime between 1460 and 1469.  His family were German nobility and so study was within his reach.  He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1485 and then went on to a master’s degree right afterwards.  By 1500, he had obtained a doctorate from the university of Tubingen.  At some point in his university years, he took vows and became a member of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.  This was a highly educated Catholic order which emphasized many of the key teachings of Augustine.

Staupitz quickly distinguished himself as an Augustinian monk.  While serving as a prior in Tubingen, he preached 34 sermons on the book of Job.  While they were appreciated by those who heard (and have thus been preserved), Staupitz himself felt that “he had afflicted Job with a worse plague than boils.”  Despite his humble self-assessment, Staupitz was becoming recognized as a careful expositor of the Bible.

In 1502, he was appointed to be the first professor of biblical studies and the dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Wittenberg.  However, because of his growing responsibilities amongst the Augustinians, he spent limited time in Wittenberg and only lectured occasionally.  Much of his time was taken up with travelling and preaching in other places.  For example, in 1516, he was in Nuremburg where he preached a series of Advent sermons.  These became a little book on predestination, first published in Latin, and then later translated into German.

Staupitz and Luther knew each other already in 1511.  Luther was drawn to Staupitz — in fact, Staupitz became his father confessor.  As such, Staupitz tried to help Luther with his spiritual struggles.  In 1511, it was Staupitz who urged Luther to become a doctor and preacher of the Augustinians.  The following year, after Luther achieved that goal, Staupitz vacated his position at the University of Wittenberg and had Luther succeed him.

In 1518, he began hearing reports about his successor in Wittenberg.  Staupitz had mixed feelings about what Luther was saying, writing, and doing.  Some of Luther’s concerns resonated with him, but Luther also frightened him somewhat with his boldness.  When it became clear that Luther was in danger of being arrested, Staupitz made the strategic move of releasing him from his vows to the Augustinian order.  This gave Luther more freedom to speak and act.  After this, Staupitz and Luther would only meet one more time, but they continued to exchange letters.

The papal Church put enormous pressure on Staupitz to bring Luther to his senses.  The pressure was applied through the General of the Augustinian order.  Eventually, in 1520-21, Staupitz resigned his position within the order and even left it altogether.  He became a Benedictine monk instead, trying to retire to a peaceful life within a monastery.  When Luther heard of this, he wrote to Staupitz and rebuked him for his cowardice.  Staupitz replied with a letter in which he reaffirmed his love for Luther, but also insisted that he could not break with the papacy.

He became sick in the spring of 1524 and, after languishing throughout that year, died on December 28.  He died as a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church, but one always under suspicion.  In fact, in 1559, the writings of Staupitz were put on “the index,” the Roman Catholic list of banned books.  One might say that this makes Johann von Staupitz an honorary Protestant.

The Theology of Staupitz

When we look at his theology, we start to see that even in the late medieval period, there were theologians who were almost getting the gospel right.  Because of his work in biblical studies, Staupitz was on the right track, even if he still missed some key elements.  His theology was erroneous in maintaining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  He believed that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin.  He held to some unhealthy and unbiblical mysticism.  He still spoke of the mass as a sacrifice.  Yet he was getting closer to the truth than almost anyone before him.  I’ll briefly mention his doctrine of the covenant, his view of human nature, the doctrine of election, and justification.

Staupitz taught a doctrine of the covenant in which God not only establishes the conditions, but also meets those conditions.  God does that through Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.  Everything in this covenant is offered to the elect unconditionally.  Unlike many medieval theologians before him, Staupitz taught a covenant of grace where the faithfulness and grace of God were strongly emphasized.

When it came to human nature, Staupitz had a dim view.  He rejected the Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of other medieval theologians.  After the fall into sin, the will of man is in bondage.  Man is a prisoner of himself and of self-love.  Therefore, fallen man cannot do what is pleasing to God.  Staupitz wrote, “…man’s nature is incapable of knowing or wanting or doing good.  For this barren man God is sheer fear.”

The biblical doctrine of election also comes out in Staupitz’s theology.  Many medieval theologians taught that election is based on the foreseen behaviour of individual human beings.  Not Staupitz.  Rather, for him, election is based on God’s sovereign good pleasure.

On justification, Staupitz was almost there.  He did not see justification as a process, but as an event.  But whereas many medieval theologians confused justification and sanctification (hence describing it as a process), Staupitz confused the events of justification and regeneration.  In the event of justification, he said, God becomes pleasing and desirable to man.  It happens by the grace of God and through faith, but justification is not a legal event where God the Judge declares the sinner to be righteous.  Instead, Staupitz viewed justification in more relational terms.  Whereas fallen sinners are enslaved to self-love, through justification sinners are freed to love Christ.  In our Reformed theological terms, we would say that this happens in the event of initial regeneration.

Conclusion

There can be no question that Staupitz influenced Luther in his theology, perhaps more than any other individual.  But it’s also important to realize that God worked through Staupitz to put Luther right where he needed to be:  at the University of Wittenberg.  When Luther was under attack, Staupitz was one of the instrumental forces protecting him.  Luther therefore owed a lot to Staupitz, not only personally and theologically, but also academically and strategically.  This friend and ally was weak in some ways, but without him, there could have been no Reformation.  For this reason, the Lutheran Church honours him with his own day on their Calendar of Saints (November 8).  We Reformed do not follow such a calendar, but we can and still should praise God for what he did through this man.


Now Available: I Will Be Your God (Korean Edition)

i-will-be-your-god-korean

Thanks to translator Rev. Son Jungwon, “I Will Be Your God”: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace is now available in Korean.  You can find details here.   The original English edition can be found at the ILPB website here.