Malcolm Yarnell’s God the Trinity [Updated: Chs. 1 and 2 Reviewed]


This is an ongoing chapter-by-chapter review that will be periodically updated and moved to the top of the site as new chapter reviews are added.

Chapter 2 (reviewed on May 28, 2016)

Dr. Yarnell’s primary text in chapter 2 is 2 Corinthians 13:14.  In keeping with his art metaphor, Yarnell sees 2 Corinthians 13:14 as a Pauline miniature.  He does not mean by this, however, that it is of miniature significance.  Rather, this verse is a priceless miniature in the grand Trinitarian gallery of scripture and a crucial text for our understanding of the Trinity.

Here are a few different English translations of this text from

New International Version
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

New Living Translation
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

English Standard Version
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

New American Standard Bible
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

King James Bible
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.

Yarnell’s impressive exegesis of this verse fleshes out the many ways in which it contributes to biblical Trinitarianism.  He writes of the immanent and economic Trinity though gives a qualified nod to Karl Rahner’s contention that the former is the latter and vice versa (telling us that he will explain his qualification in a later chapter).  Yarnell also tantalizingly writes that “human salvation is from beginning to end purely a work of God’s grace” (“tantalizingly,” I say, because of some of Yarnell’s earlier interactions with Reformed folk within the SBC) but then moves on to quote Conzelmann approvingly to the effect that the Pauline conception of grace is rooted in the historical work of Christ and it is therefore there, and not to the divine decrees, that theologians should look for their theology of grace.  Yarnell further argues that grace, before it is manifested outwardly towards us, is an internal reality within the triune God.

He makes a persuasive argument regarding the significance of the conjunction kai (and) and how Paul’s use of this conjunction links it with Matthew 28:19 both structurally and theologically.  The use of kai in both cases undergirds the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and “is perhaps the strongest indication of equality among the three.  These three are treated as one God” (44-45).  Perhaps one might say that Matthew 28:19 alludes to the immanent Trinity and 2 Corinthians 13-14 to the economic, if one were to use the old categories?

Yarnell’s discussion of the final phrase, “and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” was fascinating.  He explains that there is controversy over whether or not this third genitive is a subjective genitive (in which case it should be interpreted to mean that fellowship comes from the Holy Spirit just as the grace of Jesus and love of God comes from them) or an objective genitive (“we enter fellowship with God through communion with the Holy Spirit” (50)).  Yarnell (if I understand him rightly) argues that both are, in a sense, true.  As a result, we are drawn by the Spirit into fellowship with the triune God.  In this sense, we participate in the Trinitarian community while maintaining our status as creatures.  I appreciated this section since it is one of the few Baptist interactions I’ve seen with the patristic (and primarily Eastern) concept of “deification,” the idea of our participation in the fellowship of the Trinity.

Yarnell concludes that the doctrine of the Trinity is no mere exercise in speculation but has instead very concrete implications for the whole of the Christian life, both individually and corporately.  His primary thrust in this chapter regarding its applicability relates to worship and how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should alone be the objects of our worship.  But the Trinity has implications for every aspect of the Christian’s life, Yarnell writes, including “ethics, mission, and Christian unity, as on all of our thoughts, attitudes, and actions) (55).  This is true, and Yarnell’s work in this volume appears to be an invaluable contribution toward a greater understanding of that fact.

This is a very interesting and very helpful chapter.

Chapter 1 (reviewed on April 15, 2016)

The esteemed and justly revered Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. shared with me recently that he believes this new book by Dr. Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary may be the best book on the Trinity ever written by a Baptist theologian.  That, to put it mildly, does arrest one’s attention.  That is not to say that the appearance of this monograph was not significant on its own merits without such a telling endorsement.

Dr. Yarnell is a very smart guy with a keen, sharp mind and an evangelist’s heart. He is also a disciplined thinker, an adept observer and miner of various fields of study, an astute and wide reader, and a person with an undeniable sense of genuine passion for biblical truth, the gospel of Christ, and sound doctrine.  He occupies the chair once occupied by Dr. Garrett (if I’m not mistaken) and is proving to be worthy of that honor.  God the Trinity is the kind of serious and significant work that strengthens an institution’s reputation, that solidifies a theologian’s reputation, and that furthers Trinitarian conversations within Evangelicalism.

Not, I hasten to add, that Yarnell had any of those in mind as primary motivations when he wrote this book.  On the contrary, Yarnell appears to be driven by a sincere conviction that the idiom of scripture is itself Trinitarian, that post-enlightment propositional rationalism has been so elevated as to obscure the multiform flora of the Bible’s diverse means of communication, and that the assumption that the absence of meticulous propositional doctrinal formulae in the scriptures is synonymous with the absence of the realities to which such formulae point have all combined to prejudice modern readers against Trinitarian idiomatic dynamics in scripture that are present in both “micro and macro” ways and in both biblical testaments.  Yarnell is attempting to show in this book that the absence of such propositional formulae concerning the Trinity is neither surprising nor in any way deleterious to the assertion that the Bible teaches the Trinity.

In order to illustrate how the various New Testament writers approach truth through various idioms, Yarnell draws from the world of art and parallels the writers to various artists.  So, for instance, John is somewhat akin to Claude Monet, and just as Monet’s impressionistic experiments with light were mocked as so much artistic degeneracy by painters with more classical tastes, so some critics miss the point of the biblical writers’ intentions and, most tragically, of the ideational content of much of their writing by misunderstanding the idioms which constituted their art.

In the first chapter, Yarnell considers the Trinitarianism inherent in the Great Commission:  “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  He pronounces this the locus classicus of biblical Trinitarianism and then offers a helpful exegesis of the passage.  He points to the singular form of “name” and argues that this form “appears to indicate a singularly identity for the three” (20).  Furthermore, he argues that “and” “most often indicates ‘a marker of coordinate relations'” (20).  Thus, the text suggests unity and coordinate relations.  This is not a creedal propositional Trinitarian formula, but it is blatantly Trinitarian.  We simply need to appreciate the theological assertions of scripture in the ways in which they are presented to us.

The Trinity, Yarnell tells us, is present “in word and deed.”  This was helpful to me recently when I preached on Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus.  I mentioned Yarnell’s point and noted that the baptism of Jesus is an example of Trinitarianism “in deed.”

This chapter represents a strong start to the book.  I do get what Yarnell is trying to do with paralleling the biblical writers with artists, though I will say the artistic sections in the first chapter felt a bit clunky and disruptive to the flow of Yarnell’s prose.  For some reason it struck me the way that Steve Harmon’s Ecumenism Means You Too did, structurally speaking, that is.  That is to say, both authors have a unique artistic parallel, an illustrative hook we might say, but it really can be difficult to integrate such seamlessly into works of theology.  As one who appreciates art, however, I do so applaud the effort and appreciate it.  The problem may be with my having to adjust to a unique approach to theological writing.  I’m sure I’ll get in sync with Yarnell’s stylistic approach as I continue through this.

This is an exciting and significant work of theology and one that I am very much looking forward to continuing to read and from which I know I will continue to benefit.

I’ll be blogging this review one chapter at a time.

An Interview with Arminius Scholar Dr. Keith Stanglin

Dr. Keith Stanglin is the Associate Professor of Scripture and Historical Theology at Austin Graduate School of Theology in Austin, TX.  He and Tom McCall are the authors of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace that will be out next month from Oxford University Press.

I have become aware of Dr. Stanglin’s work on the often-misunderstood and often-neglected theologian Jacob Arminius and was thrilled when he agreed to answer a few questions.

Dr. Stanglin, let me begin with an odd question, but one I think you might appreciate:  was Arminius an “Arminian”?  (I ask this in the same sense that people often ask, “Was Calvin a Calvinist?”)

            If “Arminian” means a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian who believes we somehow earn salvation by making the first move toward God, then Jacob Arminius was not an Arminian.  Arminius’s rejection of Pelagianism and his affirmation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone could not be clearer in his writings.  In fact, John Calvin was more of a Calvinist than some modern theologians presume, and he was more of a Calvinist than Arminius was an Arminian.  The Arminianism of the Remonstrants (Arminius’s followers in The Netherlands) and that of the Wesleyans have continuities with Arminius, but the discontinuities are also significant.

Calvin would have been comfortable as a delegate at the Synod of Dordt, and probably as a Westminster divine, too.  But when one hears of “Arminian” doctrines of grace, predestination, perfection, atonement, sin, free will, and human reason, these accounts often owe very little to Arminius himself.

I have heard even a Reformed stalwart like R.C. Sproul bemoan the fact that seemingly nobody reads Arminius.  Why do you think so few people, especially those who profess to disagree with Arminius, actually read his works?

Most people don’t read Arminius for the same reason most people don’t sit down and read Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth.  Arminius was a Protestant scholastic, and he wrote academic works not intended for laypeople.  Besides the academic disputations, he did not write anything for publication; his works were published posthumously.  He has no magnum opus with the appeal of John Calvin’sInstitutes.  Although he preached for fifteen years as a pastor in Amsterdam, we do not have a single transcript of a sermon.  Whoever reads Arminius must be prepared to wade through Aristotelian causality, Ramist bifurcations, and many lists.  Of course, I think the reward is worth the effort.

It could be that opponents in particular don’t read him because it’s easier to refute a caricature and tear down a straw man.  I remember hearing Reformed M.Div. students at Calvin Theological Seminary say that, once they read Arminius, they really found out he wasn’t so bad after all.  Some, in fact, were inclined to his position.

Do you believe that publishers and Arminian scholars have not done a sufficient job of making Arminius’ works available in more user-friendly and accessible formats, or is the absence of such formats attributable to a lack of market demand for such?

Luther, Calvin, and Arminius are the three most important and enduring figures of the Reformation, each lending his name to a distinct theological trajectory.  But if one compares the status of the works of Luther and Calvin with those of Arminius, the Arminians should be embarrassed.

There has never been a modern critical edition of Arminius’s works, and the editions that we have are incomplete.  Many of his works have never been translated, and many letters have never been transcribed.  The translations that do exist at present are in stilted, nineteenth-century English.  A new, readable, and accurate translation would go a long way in making Arminius accessible.  Some of us are making plans to remedy these shortcomings, but doing these transcriptions, critical editions, and translations takes time and funding.  If you know any interested donors, let me know!

Scholars have definitely dropped the ball.  Arminius has often been dismissed as an anti-Calvinist who only had one important thing to say.  Scholars are rediscovering the breadth and virtuosity of his theological system, but I can count on one hand the Arminians who are currently doing technical work on Arminius, and still have a couple of fingers left over.  There is no denomination, seminary, research or study group, or institute that bears the name of Arminius; but this is incongruous with the extent of his impact.  If the scholars, churches, and seminaries most influenced by Arminius do not promote within their own circles the importance of claiming their heritage, then the market will never demand what it doesn’t know about.

There is some demand, though, despite the neglect.  The Nichols and Nichols edition of Arminius’s works was last reprinted in 1986, and it’s still selling online for at least $70.  Never-before-published works and new translations would be a real shot in the arm.  Completing Arminius’s works and making them accessible should be one of the top priorities of a Protestant and evangelical ressourcement.

What do you think Arminius would make of the modern American Christian landscape were he dropped into our country today?

I have often thought of how historical figures would react to life today.  Remember that Arminius is closer in time and in worldview to Aquinas than he is to us.  He would be absolutely disoriented by American Christianity.  His head would spin when he learns how the Enlightenment and the modern nation state have undermined Christianity in the West and what historical criticism has done to the church’s Scripture.  Because he despised dissension among Christians, Arminius would probably be quite disappointed with the ecclesiastical fragmentation that has happened among Protestants over the last four centuries.

Once his eyes got used to the scenery, Arminius would see some positive aspects that continue his legacy.  He would appreciate the ecumenical spirit and the overall openness of churches to cooperate across denominational lines.  He would be pleased to see that, in general, Americans need not fear persecution or harassment for their beliefs.  He would feel a little satisfaction to know that many (or most?) “Reformed/Calvinist” Christians don’t really believe in unconditional predestination.  He would love the practical emphasis on good deeds and social justice that permeates American churches.

Arminius would be happy to find that we do not spend so much time fighting about doctrinal intricacies and opinions, but sad to learn of our biblical illiteracy and loss of theological grammar.  He—along with any of his contemporaries who happen to time travel with him—would wonder why mainline churches don’t seem to believe the Bible, and why evangelical churches have loud bands and sing kids songs in worship.  Arminius and his friends would be astonished at the secularization and lack of piety in the church.  But, above all, these time travelers would be alarmed to discover television and how much time we waste in front of it.

You are not a Baptist, but do you have any thoughts or perspectives on the current controversies surrounding Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention? 

Both Calvinism and Arminianism are present in Anglo-American Baptist history.  What I find interesting about the SBC is that many non-Calvinists do not want to self-identify as Arminians, and many non-Arminians do not want to self-identify as Calvinists.  Efforts to transcend the categories of these debates are generally well-intentioned but usually not well-informed.  I have my doubts whether Arminianism is accurately understood.  Most so-called “Calminians” are probably unwitting Arminians.

Can both groups get along in the same denomination and congregation?  They have in many places for a long time.  The practical similarities between Calvinism and Arminianism—especially their milder forms—make close ecclesial fellowship and cooperation possible.  Both groups will evangelize; both will admonish Christians to repent of sin; both will acknowledge God’s grace and love in their lives. On the theological level, however, there are significant differences in the doctrine of God and the extent of his salvific intent.  Baptists will simply have to ignore these differences or agree to disagree.

I would add that, of the two, Arminianism seems to cohere better with believer’s baptism than does Reformed theology.  Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin understood this point in their polemic against the Anabaptists, and the Anabaptists understood this well in their affirmation of free will in salvation and their voluntary submission to baptism and membership in the church.  This is not to say that Reformed theology and believer’s baptism are absolutely incompatible, or that Arminius couldn’t be a paedobaptist (which he was!).  There just seems to be more tension with those combinations.  Like his Reformed predecessors, Arminius opposed Anabaptism; unlike his predecessors, he did not oppose their doctrine of free choice.

Where would you direct a modern reader to go if he or she wanted to begin studying Arminius and his thought?

The Declaration of Sentiments is the best place to start.  And skip his introductory account about attempts to have his hearing.  In the main body, Arminius addressed the principal controversies of his day one year before he died.  It represents his mature thought on these issues, though it is by no means his whole theology.  He directed this speech to laymen, so it is less burdened than other writings by scholastic categories, and therefore more accessible to beginners.

What do you see as Arminius’ greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Tenacious perseverance was one of his strengths.  He could pursue a theological question with unbridled energy and with little concern for whether his contemporaries would approve of the outcome. Arminius comes across as someone who was not easily intimidated.  He was on a faculty filled with the strictest “Calvinists” in the land.  He was well aware that his words and deeds were always being scrutinized.  When he died at about 50 years of age, his sympathizers all seemed to realize that they lost someone irreplaceable.  He had the right balance of humility and confidence.  Arminius promoted Christian piety and practiced what he preached.  He was a dedicated minister and family man, a popular teacher, and an indefatigable polemicist.  He could see through the arguments of his opponents and communicate his ideas effectively.  And it helps that he was, as his theological opponents also acknowledged, wicked smart.

It’s hard to say what Arminius’s weaknesses were.  In some ways, we don’t know enough about his personal life to note any vices.  His opponents accused him of teaching things in private that he wouldn’t say in public.  He denied such charges, though he readily admitted that he didn’t always say everything he privately believed.  In so doing, he was merely being prudent with his words, something that most pastors and theologians have found to be a good practice.  Otherwise, I think that most “weaknesses” we could come up with would simply show that he was a child of his age.

Why do you believe the legacy of Arminius is worth safeguarding today?

            Arminius’s legacy includes an emphasis on Christian unity and toleration within limits, the priority of Scripture above confessional documents, and the role of good works in the Christian life.  These issues are still important in the church today.

Above all, he dealt with the relationship between God and humanity, and this is where he made a lasting contribution in the history of theology.  The doctrines of God, humanity, and their mutual relationship are fraught with notorious difficulties.  Arminius articulated a system that resolves most of those difficulties in a historically orthodox, balanced, and coherent way.  The questions related to these doctrines are also perennial issues in the church.  When the church wrestles with God’s love, foreknowledge, grace, human freedom, sin, providence, predestination, sanctification, and assurance, but fails to consult older brothers such as Arminius, we do ourselves a great disservice.


Akers, Armstong, and Woodbridge’s (eds.) This We Believe

“Of the making of books there is no end.” This is true enough, but we might also say, “Of the making of doctrinal statements there is no end.” There has been a rash of Protestant and ostensibly Evangelical doctrinal statements published recently. However, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration” is one of the more ambitious efforts out there today. Its list of signees is impressive and its marketing scheme (cheap mass-market editions and pastors’ edititions) has obviously been well thought out.

This We Believe includes the statement as well as chapters by noted Evangelical authors speaking in further detail to divided portions of it. While the chapters are by and large very good, the statement itself, presented in its entirety in an appendix, is the best part of the book.

I believe this is a very good statement. It is broadly Evangelical without being excessively latitudinarian. It speaks with conviction but not an undue harshness. It has obviously been prayed over and labored over for some time.

One hopes that this statement will receive a wide hearing and acceptance. The list of signees should guarantee the former. We may hope that a committment to biblical fidelity and cautious ecumenism will guarantee the latter. You will enjoy this book.

John Stott’s Basic Christianity

As a boy, I remember seeing certain titles on my dad’s bookshelf:  C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, a boxed set of Calvin Miller’s Singer trilogy, a hardbound Francis Schaeffer trilogy including Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, and John Stott’s Basic Christianity.  There were more, but these were the ones I remember most, probably because, largely through my father’s influence, each of these books came to have quite an impact on my own life.

I should clarify:  the writings of John Stott have had an impact on my life for some time, but I have only recently come to experience John Stott’s seminal Basic Christianity.  “Seminal” is not a word that should be used lightly, but it justly applies to this amazing little work from the pen of one of Evangelicalism’s most prolific lives and ministries.  I turned to this book after the recent death of Stott, and I regret now that it has taken me so long to do so.

Part introduction, part summary, part apologetic, Basic Christianity has achieved the unlikely goal of being both an illuminating explanation of the faith suitable for nonbelievers and an inspiring reminder of the faith suitable for long-time believers.  The book is written in a style that is deceptively simple.  I say “deceptively,” because, in truth, Stott has handled a number of profoundly deep truths in this little work in a style that is conversational and easily accessible.  Part of Stott’s genius was his ability to communicate through clear explanation and deft illustration fundamental biblical verities that are, to steal from Luther, “shallow enough to wade through but deep enough to drown in.”

Stott covers aptly the nature of God, man’s sin nature and need for a Savior, the person, work, and ministry of Jesus, how one comes into the Christian life, and the privileges and responsibilities of one who has come into the Christian life.  He writes convincingly, carefully, and with great erudition and learning.  His apologetic for the resurrection is particularly noteworthy.  Furthermore, his handling of the truths of justification and sanctification is tremendous and, for this believer, very helpful and thought-provoking.

If you would like a wonderful primer to give to a person with whom you are sharing the faith, I would highly encourage Basic Christianity.  If you would like a compelling and, frankly, enjoyable refresher on the faith, I would highly encourage this book again.

Basic Christianity is wonderfully lucid, helpful little book that you will not regret reading or giving to a friend or loved one.

Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Note: I wrote this review nine years ago. Since that time, for a number of reasons, I have changed much of my opinion of Metaxas’ book. I’ve decided to leave this review up but link to my recent (2020) review of Stephen R. Haynes’ The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump that, I think, will explain some of my own shifting views on Metaxas’ book and Metaxas himself. It probably won’t explain it to anybody’s real liking, but I think the general idea comes through. Anyway, here’s my earlier review, unedited, but please follow the link for a more updated opinion. There is much I’d change about this review with almost a decade of reflection between then and now.


Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy has already achieved the status of a modern biography classic.  Having just finished it (technically, having just finished listening to my Kindle read it to me over a few very long drives), I would say that this status is justly deserved.  Metaxas has produced a work that is illuminating, inspiring and informative.  A towering figure like Bonhoeffer is deserving of a worthy chronicler, and Metaxas does not disappoint.

Metaxas handles the nuances and complexities of the early-twentieth century theological landscape with erudition and finesse.  Without lapsing into Evangelical hagiography, he depicts Bonhoeffer as a sincere believer in the Lord Jesus who had a high regard for scripture truth, for the Christian life, and for Christlikeness.  His handling of Bonhoeffer’s activities in the resistance, as well as his demonstration of how Bonhoeffer’s mind and convictions developed, leading him into the resistance, was most interesting and helpful.

Bonhoeffer was a complex figure who has been claimed by various camps over the years.  He does not fit neatly into any camp, however.  This means that various Christian subcultures will have no problem finding things about Bonhoeffer that trouble them as well as things that delight them.  This being said, Metaxas has, in my opinion, driven a stake through the heart of the supposed “liberal Bonhoeffer” by showing him to be a man with a healthy distrust of the siren songs of theological modernity and its erstwhile discontents.  He demonstrates Bonhoeffer’s tenacious hold on the gospel of Christ, his desire for biblical preaching (his frustration at the liberal preaching he encountered in New York and his preference for conservative, Bible-based preaching is most telling), his rejection of empty, cultural, nominal Christianity, and his desire not to remove the scandal of the cross.

Metaxas nimbly, judiciously, and impressively reveals the heart and mind of his subject in ways that will deeply affect the reader.  About the highest compliment one can pay a biography is to say, upon finishing it, “I feel that I know the man.”  I daresay you will most likely say this after finishing this wonderful work.

I was deeply moved by Metaxas’ handling of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria, his fiance.  His treatment of Bonhoeffer’s developing thought leading up to his participation in the resistance was extremely helpful and insightful.  In particular, I was struck by the sheer doggedness of Bonhoeffer’s moral vision as he looked in horror at who Hitler was and what He was about.

It is a fascinating tale of the collision between Christian conviction and evil.  Like many people, I was generally familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story as I approached this biography.  I have been caught up (again, like so many others) in an interest in and admiration of Bonhoeffer ever since I read The Cost of Discipleship in college, an experience that ranks right up there (almost) with my first reading of Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  Even so, this biography deepened both my understanding of Bonhoeffer and my appreciation for him.

One or two sections of Metaxas’ book may be a bit much for some in terms of the difficulty of the subject matter.  I’m speaking mainly of his discussion of the theological controversies and the overall theological milieu surrounding Bonhoeffer in his school days.  But I would think that most people would find even these sections very interesting.

This truly is a worthwhile, significant book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.


Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir

Over the years I’ve come to love reading Christian biographies and memoirs more and more.  When I saw that Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist theologian and professor at Duke Divinity School, had published his memoir I knew that I would eventually have to get it.  Having just finished it, I wanted to share some thoughts about the work here.

Bottom line:  what we have here is a fascinating but ultimately frustrating and disappointing book.

I came to know Hauerwas (probably like many evangelicals) through his frankly amazing book, Resident Aliens.  I was assigned that book as a seminary student at Southwestern Seminary and I have never forgotten the impact it had/has on my life.  In it, Hauerwas and Will Willimon issue a clarion call for the church’s liberation from Constantinianism and conformity.  They call on the church to be a polis within thepolis and to offer a radical, counter-cultural community in the midst of the fallen world.

I soaked up their message like a sponge, believing it then, and now, to be a faithful articulation of New Testament ecclesiology.  This shot of Anbaptist ecclesiology mediated through a Methodist absolutely rocked my world and I feel that, in many ways, it helped me understand the New Testament concept of the church in ways I previously had not.  I am, and will remain, forever grateful for Hauerwas’ work here.

Since I was first introduced to Hauerwas, I’ve known him to be an eclectic, unique, and, at times, infuriating writer.  For instance, Hauerwas is a pacifist and I am not…but I don’t think I can ever think about war in quite the same way as I did before reading him.  Oddly enough, I even used Hauerwas’ work in my little book on church discipline, Walking Together (that I found helpful material in Hauerwas on this issue is yet another indication of his appreciation for Mennonite John Howard Yoder’s work and ecclesiology).

The additional works of his that I have digested have never failed to stimulate my mind and heart and I do try to read Hauerwas whenever given the chance.

This memoir has certainly explained Stanley Hauerwas.  A few themes occur again and again:  Hauerwas’ humble and hard-working roots, his sense of being an outsider, his growing awareness of God and Christian truth, and, above them all, his utterly disastrous relationship with his mentally-ill wife (now deceased), Anne.

I was particularly struck and inspired by Hauerwas’ work ethic:

“I am often asked how I get done all I get  done. The answer is simple – I work. I get up at five every morning  and I work till six every evening. I do not waste time. If I have fifteen  minutes, I can read this or that. It is the same principle as never going  to the keg without carrying back some block [a reference to the bricklaying of Hauerwas’ youth]. To be so determined can  be oppressive for others, as well as for me, at times. Thanks to Paula I  have learned to rest – a little. But I work because I love the work I have  been given to do.”

Hauerwas is a natural born storyteller, and he does not disappoint in painting a picture of his life.  If you are interested in the inner workings of academia and the running of academic departments, you will find Hauerwas’ often dramatic retellings of the ins and outs of institutional life at places like Notre Dame and Duke absolutely enthralling.

And yet, I was disappointed with this memoir in certain very important ways, primarily in how it reveals Hauerwas as holding a vision of himself as anti-establishment while simultaneously revealing the same old tired liberal cliches.  I found one of his anecdotes to be particularly ironic:

For several years we lived next  door to Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins. We liked them both. Stanley  is one of the most competitive and kind people I know. I loved to run with Stanley. Once, as we ran the neighborhood, I told him I knew his  secret. In spite of his criticism of liberals, he cannot help but be one. He  stopped, looked at me, and said, “Don’t you tell anyone.”

This is ironic because as I read the book I came slowly to believe this very thing about Hauerwas:  “In spite of his criticism of liberals, he cannot help but be one.”  Hauerwas would chafe at such an idea.  He is, after all, quick (and repetitive) in painting himself as a maverick:

The  challenge I have mounted against the accommodation of the church to  the ethos of modernity is my attempt to help us recover our ability to  pray to God, and to imagine what it might mean to be Christian in a  world we do not control.

And, of course, his writing in many ways bears this out.  Even so, he does so sound like one of the ever-shrinking number of mainline liberals (shrinking because their churches are shrinking) when he tells us, for instance, that he “does not like Southern Baptists” or that publishing with IVP really was a bold thing for an academic to do.  He plays his cards most clearly when he discusses the question of gay unions:

Paula often has to help me “get” what a friend is trying to tell me.  David Jenkins tried to tell me he was gay. He told me he had been invited   to live with a young man who often came to church with him. I  told him I thought that would be a good idea, because I worried that  he might be lonely. He told me he was going to march in a parade supporting   the mayor of Durham, who had signed a law against sexual  discrimination in city hiring practices. Since I thought that such a law  would be just, I commended his involvement. Paula finally had to tell  me David was gay.
I remain unsure if we can call the relationship between gay people  “marriage,” but I know that David’s friendship enriches Paula’s and  my marriage. I hope and pray for the day when Christians can be so  confident in their understanding of marriage that we can welcome gay  relationships for their promise of building up the body of Christ. That  I have such a hope and that I pray such a prayer has everything to do  with my and Paula’s friendship with David. I think, moreover, that this  is the way it should work.

Ah, yes!  How very prophetically counter-cultural of you, Stanley.  My how you’ve freed yourself from accommodationist liberalism.  One cannot help but be struck at this point in the memoir how a man who has seemingly read everything, who understands complex theological, philosophical, and ethical arguments, who wields nuance and qualification like a surgeon’s scalpel could sound so very much like the American leftist establishment in weighing in on the issue of gay marriage.  “David’s friendship enriches Paula’s and my marriage”?  There you go!  Case closed.

Let me propose a truly radical and brave position for an academic to take:  to demonstrate, like Robert Gagnon at Pittsburgh Seminary has, that the biblical witness clearly speaks against homosexual activity as sinful.

At the end of the day, I will likely continue to find Hauerwas’ ecclesiology to be radically refreshing and truly prophetic…but I have indeed lost some respect for him as a biblical thinker (something he would likely claim not to be anyway).

Finally this:  by Hauerwas’ own admission, his grasp of theological and ethical texts is much stronger than his grasp of scripture.  I do so wonder whether or not Hauerwas might not benefit from at least some expressions of the (gasp!) evangelical biblical scholarship from which he would no doubt want to distance himself.

It pains me to write this.  I’ve considered myself a fan, but, at the end of the day, it just so happens that the entity known as (in the words of Hauerwas’ late friend Richard John Neuhaus) “the rheumatoid left” is more of Hauerwas’ home than I previously wanted to believe.

What a shame.

As an aside, I find that I agree very strongly with Craig Carter’s review of the book here.  Having written my review, I note that my take on it mirrors his own in many ways.  All I can say is I apparently had very much the same journey as Carter did in reading the book, though he says what he says in a much more articulate way than I do here.  Check it out.


Baptist Theology with Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr.

The following interview with Dr. Garrett took place on March 2, 2009.  The occasion for the interview was the publication of his Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study in January of 2009.


Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. has been a Baptist theological educator for over fifty years.  He has taught primarily in three Baptist institutions: Southwestern Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University.  He was at Southwestern Seminary from 1949 to 1959 and from 1979 to 1997 with post-retirement teaching until 2003. 

We really do appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today, Dr. Garrett.

Thank you, sir.

Dr. Garrett, I hope you will indulge me for just a moment.  I wanted to share just a brief word of appreciation for you as a former student, if that is ok.  I thought I might do so by sharing just a small paragraph from Paul Basden’s chapter on you in the 2001 edition of Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (Broadman & Holman).  Paul Basden wrote this:

“For five decades now James Leo Garrett, Jr. has taught and written about Baptist theology.  Given the size of the schools which he has served, one can only begin to estimate the number of students whom he has influenced to think biblically, historically, and theologically about the Christian faith.  Who knows how many young seminarians had their minds broadened in his introductory theology courses or received flashes of inspiration in his famous ‘after-lecture’ discussions, or first encountered the mystery of the Trinity in his beloved patristics elective, or learned to grapple with Luther or Augustine in one of his doctoral seminars?  Who knows how many times he invited classes into his home for a meal or recommended former students for church positions or faculty appointments or counseled confused young ministers about their calling or career?  He has had an enormous influence on Southern Baptists during the past half century.  Beloved by students and fellow professors alike, Garrett is recognized by many of his peers as the most knowledgeable Baptist theologian living today.” (p.298)

Dr. Garrett, I just wanted to say here at the beginning that I share in those words of Paul Basden and just want to thank you here at the outset for your life, your ministry, and your work.  As a former student, I owe you a great debt of gratitude as do so many others.  So, thank you very much.

Well, Pastor Wyman, those words, I am sure, are vastly exaggerated, but I am grateful to have had you as one of my students.  Thank you very much.

The occasion of this interview is the publication in January of this year, two months ago, of Dr. Garrett’s new book, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, which was published by Mercer University Press.  I have only recently finished reading the book and it is a kind of education in and of itself.  So let me begin, Dr. Garrett, by asking this question:  “Why this book?”

Well, Pastor Wyman, I will answer it in two ways.

First of all, I will give a more personal answer.  In 1950, when I was a very young instructor at Southwestern Seminary, the faculty allowed me to introduce a new elective course in the curriculum called “The History of Baptist Theology.”  I taught that course at Southwestern during the 50’s and again, later, in the 80’s and 90’s and at Southern Seminary during the 60’s and early 1970’s.  That course involved having students write papers on many subjects.  Then, after my 2nd retirement from teaching in 2003, I began an intensive reading of all of these sources and a research project which eventuated in this book.

Now, why this book?  No book of this kind, of this nature and scope, on this subject, had ever been written in the history of the Baptists so far as I knew.  I did not know when I started that William Brackney would write A Genetic History of Baptist Thought and that it would be published in 2004.  I did not know that when I began my book and I’m sure he did not know, when he was writing his, that I would be writing mine.

So these are the only two books that have attempted to cover comprehensively Baptist confessions of faith, Baptist theologians, and theological movements and controversies.  There have been books on each of those three areas, many books, but only these two on the whole field.

It is a massive book, well over 720 pages of text, not including the index of names, and I imagine when you sit down to begin to write a Baptist theology covering four hundred years that you have really got to think through your methodology and your approach.  What was your methodology in writing this book?

As I just said, it sought to cover in an integrated, not a segregated, interpretation, the major confessions of faith adopted by Baptists, the major theologians among the Baptists, and the major theological movements and controversies that have affected Baptist life.

Now, I tried to do this by using both what we call “primary sources” and “secondary sources,” that is, the original writings of the people we are discussing and then what’s been written about them.  Take two examples:  one is John Gill, back in the 17th century, the other, E.Y. Mullins, at the beginning of the 20th century.  Both of those were very influential Baptist theologians and it’s important to read, study, and interpret their own writings.  But because of their importance, there have been many things written about them, both favorable and unfavorable, both positive and negative.  So it is important to look at those assessments as well as what I would say in interpreting these.

Then we tried to let the authors speak for themselves before I attempted to make any assessment of their work.  Then, too, I operated on the basis of a five-continent or a six-continent view of Baptist history.  It depends on whether you include Australia and New Zealand in Asia as to whether you have five or six continents.  When I was a very young seminary student, I bought Latourette’s seven-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity, which was the first comprehensive missionary history of the world from a Christian viewpoint.  It greatly influenced my life.  Then, working with the Baptist World Alliance, as I have since 1965, I was intent on having a book that would include more than Britain and North America.  Dr. Brackney confines his work to Britain and North America, and Dr. McBeth, in his history of the Baptist movement, included North America, Britain, and continental Europe, but not the other continents of the world.

So that’s what I would say about methodology.

It is an interesting look at Baptist theology over the last four hundred years, and I am just curious to know why the world would need such a book on Baptists appearing in January of 2009?  Why Baptists in 2009?

We need the book, first of all, because we haven’t had this kind of thing before.  Dr. Brackney and I have, in that sense, been breaking new ground.  We needed an overview.  We need to rise above the particulars.  Some people would understand the 17th century and some might understand the 19th century, but we need a view of Baptist theology that is comprehensive.  That is why the effort was made.

Now, Baptists need that for their own self-understanding.  This is a great need today in our churches:  that people understand what the Baptist identity is.  What are the distinctives and what are the beliefs that Baptists share with other Christians?  So there was a need for the book for Baptists and, then, for others to know what theology Baptists have had.

At one time there were people saying we did not have any Baptist theology.  Theology was only written by Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Anglicans or Presbyterians or somebody else.  But this book is, I think, quite clear evidence that that is not true.  So, the Baptist movement with its distinctives- -its religious freedom, separation of church and state, the supremacy of Scripture over tradition without rejecting all tradition,  the tendency to want to go back to the New Testament to recover apostolic or primitive Christianity,  the baptism of believers only by immersion and, with that, the goal of a regenerate church membership, the priesthood of all believers, congregational polity, and a strong emphasis on evangelism and missions; these are some of the things that are important for Baptists.  Sometimes these distinctives have been taken by other groups.  They are not altogether distinctive of Baptists today, but the mix of these distinctives is what has made the Baptist movement distinctive.

You mentioned regenerate church membership, and you have written on regenerate church membership.  I know of at least one article you have written specifically devoted to the issue of regenerate church membership and, of course, you have published on the issue of church discipline as well.  Let me just ask you about your thoughts concerning the recent discussions that have taken place in the Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings concerning an effort to see a resolution passed, that was ultimately passed last year, to call churches back to a regenerate church membership.  Do you think this is a favorable development?

Yes, I do.  I think that the Convention cannot mandate that, of course, because that is a decision that the local churches have to make, but to advise and counsel and encourage is certainly in order.  I am very grateful for the good work that you have done in the field of church discipline.  I think what you have written is the most practical set of helps that we have out there, available today, to help existing churches recover some sense of church discipline and positive discipleship.

So, yes, I think the regenerate church membership goal is a worthy one and it means, of course, that in the last century or so, many Baptist churches have been very loose in terms of their membership rolls and this is what they are trying to address today.  It is at the front end, in terms of members being received, and then it is a continual problem of authentic membership in the years that follow.

Let me ask you to generalize just a little bit.  You are a historical theologian, and you cover, obviously, a very long period of time, four hundred years, in your study of Baptist theology and much longer, of course, in your two-volume Systematic Theology.  But I am curious to know, as you look at four hundred years of Baptist history, who you would see as the top three or four Baptist figures, from any time period, whose work, in your opinion, ought to be carefully studied by Baptist pastors and laypeople today?

Well, Pastor Wyman, I have a hard time limiting my answer to your requested three or four.  I tend to want to identify more.  Initially, in responding to you, I might be prone to say, “Oh, we have so many of the older works of Baptist theologians that are not in print.”  But then I have to reckon what the electronic revolution has done.  I have been told, on good authority, that almost all the works of Baptist theologians that are more than seventy-five years old are now available electronically.  And through Google search, most of them are free, and there are other places where you have to pay for the text to be produced.  So the availability will not be a big issue in my answer.

I would say, if we’re going back to the 17th century, that John Bunyan is the one who, above all, should be read.  Not because he is necessarily right on all points, but here was a man who, with limited formal education, but with a passion for God and for the Bible, was able in rather remarkable literary form to write on many theological themes, not only in his famous Pilgrim’s Progress.  We have today a wonderful thirteen-volume edition from Oxford if you want to buy the whole thing, but I believe you can get it free electronically.  So I would say, from that early century, John Bunyan.

From the next century, I would take John Gill and Andrew Fuller, especially Andrew Fuller.  His works have been republished in recent years.  He was a very practical theologian, a pastor.

From the 19th century, I might want to mention John L. Dagg, whose work is in print.  He was a Southern theologian.  Then the sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon are still filled with theological content and can be read widely because they were preached from a pulpit in Spurgeon’s day.

In the 20th century, I would speak of people like Carl Henry, Bernard Ramm and Millard Erickson.  Most of these works are still in print.

And then, of course, in my book I have a group of baby boom theologians that certainly have works in print.  So I’ve given you a broader answer, but these are some of the ones that I think would be worthy of attention.  Now, that is not to say there are not others.

This may overlap a little bit, but let me ask you more personally, for yourself, who the Baptist figures are who have had the greatest impact on your own thinking and work?  Let me put it another way:  do you have favorite Baptist authors that you return to time and time again?

Pastor Wyman, as you may know, I was a student of W.T. Conner, the theologian at Southwestern for thirty-nine years, and my own teacher during the last days of his teaching career.  When I began as a young teacher, of course, he had shaped my own thinking.  I had read his works.  I wrote my dissertation on his theology.  So it would be important for me to list him as the number one influence in the early formation of my own theology.

In the 1950’s we did not have many evangelical theologians writing at that time.  Non-Baptists like Emil Brunner, for example, were greatly helpful to me as I struggled with the teaching of theology.

But then we had to deal with Landmarkism, which was alive and well at that time in Baptist life, still exerting quite an influence.  So I had to read J.R. Graves even though I didn’t always agree with Graves.  I had to interact with him.

And later on, as I began to be more mature in my theology, I had to rely on people like A.H. Strong as well.  Then I was colleague to Dale Moody at Southern Seminary, and nobody who lives with Dale Moody could be unaffected by Dale Moody.  And then, of course, Carl Henry was very active.  When I came to write my own theology, beginning at the age of 63, I had to deal with Millard Erickson, who had already written his Christian Theology.

So these were some of the people who were very formative.  Now, I read others.  I read P.T. Forsyth.  I read E. Y. Mullins.   I read Luther.  I read Augustine. I read Calvin. I read Schleiermacher.  I taught Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, in seminars. But for Baptist theologians, these would be the first.  And then I would say, as far as biblical theologians, I think I was more greatly influenced by H.H. Rowley, as an Old Testament theologian.  In the New Testament field, Ray Summers, my teacher, was very influential on my views of last things, or the doctrine of eschatology.

This is likewise a bit of a personal question, along the same lines, but I am just curious about your own reading habits.  Do you read daily, every day?

I usually read something, yes, every day.  There will be days I do not because of schedule.  Right now I am reading the festschrift honoring my colleague Leon McBeth, which was published late last year, called Turning Points in Baptist History.  I am reading that and will be finishing that shortly.  That is a book that has theological as well as historical significance.

I know you are retired, but do you have any other writing projects in the wings?

I cannot answer that with a clear affirmative.  For some years, Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and I have contemplated co-editing a history of the doctrine of the priesthood of all Christians.  I do not know if we will ever get that done.  He has done considerable writing on the Reformation period, and I have done some writing on the patristic period.  If we can ever get the medieval and modern sections done, we may be able to have a book.  There is no comprehensive, good, reliable history of that doctrine.  But Yarnell has other priorities, and I am not as well as I used to be; so we do not promise anything in that area.

There might be some things I wish I had done in the past.

Well, that raises another question:  are there any books that you have not been able to write that you wish you would have written?  I guess, perhaps, that would be one, to this point, that you would like to see done.

There are two others I will mention.  When I was at Southern Seminary, I gave an inaugural address on the methodology for the history of Christian doctrine, or historical theology, in which address I proposed that the best way to do this today would be to have an international, interdenominational team of scholars to do a comprehensive history of Christian doctrine.  No sooner had I given that address and it was published in the journal Review & Expositor that I received a letter from Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale University telling me that he was launching a big five-volume history of Christian doctrine and, by implication, he was saying that my project was not needed.  My later move to Baylor with different duties meant that I was not teaching the history of Christian doctrine for a while.  After coming back to Southwestern and resuming that teaching in 1980, although I gave some serious consideration to doing something myself, I gave up the project because there is so little market out there since most seminaries require systematic theology but not  historical theology.  So I did not attempt that big project which I originally had proposed as a massive cooperative effort.

As for the other, for many years I taught a course at Southwestern on the theology of the American cults.  We treated Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unification Church, the Ba’hai World Faith, and various other movements that have been deviations from either Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.  I, at one time, contemplated a textbook in that area.  But, you know, each one of those religious movements is a field of specialization itself.  You can be very good on the Mormons and you may be much less competent on Jehovah’s Witnesses at the same time.  One needs to be competent on all of these in order to  write a first-rate text, I felt that I never got to the point where I could do that like I wanted to do it.  So I retired, after many years of teaching, without producing a book in that area.  We still do not have a very good textbook in that field after all of these years.

Let me go back for just a minute to this letter you received from Jaroslav Pelikan.  I know he passed away just a couple of years ago.  Is that customary scholarly habit to receive a letter saying that your proposed writings are not necessary because it is being done?

I do not think the letter was quite that specific.  I think it was more of an indirect statement.  I must say, of course, I have never received another letter like that.  I did not feel any resentment about it at the time.  My wife seems to remember the incident more than I do.  I do not know how common that is, because I never experienced it in any other setting.  But evidently he was wanting to be a little protective of his own interests.  He produced a very important five-volume set, which is very topical rather than chronological.  Therefore, it was not the method that I used in teaching.  Mine was more chronological than topical.  So I never did use his book in my classes, but certainly I have used the volumes.  They are a very important contribution to the literature.  There was never any ill-will between Dr. Pelikan and me.

Dr. Garrett, I really do appreciate, and I know that readers of this interview will appreciate, your taking the time to answer some questions and, God willing, if you will   allow it, when the next book comes out, we will talk again.

Well, let me say in closing, Pastor Wyman, that I appreciate talking with you and having these questions from you.   I would like to say to you as pastor of your congregation there in Dawson, GA, and other church people who should read or ponder these words, that I think one of our greatest challenges today is in the local Baptist church: to recover a sense of Baptist identity, to teach our heritage, to share with our people our stories, our heroes, our heroines, our triumphs and our tragedies, and to make being a Baptist Christian a much clearer and more responsible thing in today’s world.  I believe every local Baptist church has that challenge today, and I know if anybody can meet that challenge, you can do it there in Dawson, GA.

I appreciate that so much.  Thank you so much.  Let me just encourage, in closing, readers of this interview to consider purchasing Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study.  It is a great resource and would be a great help in the teaching of our distinctives and our identity and heritage in the local church, wherever you are.  I encourage all of you to get this book.

R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God

This coming Thursday through Sunday, my brother David and I will be attending the 2009 Ligonier conference in Orlando, FL, on “The Holiness of God.”  In preparation for this conference, I just finished reading R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God.  I’m ashamed to admit that I have never read this great work before.

I’ve read and listened to Sproul before, and I’ve long been aware of the status of this book as a “modern classic,” but until now I’ve never been able to speak personally about this book.

I sincerely regret my delay in reading this.  It is, in a word, tremendous.  Sproul looks at God’s holiness in a compelling and easy-to-read way that leaves the reader awestruck at the greatness of our God and the wonder of His holiness.

His opening chapter on how God called him into His presence out of a deep sleep was powerful and set the right tone for this book.  His discussion of how creation declares God’s power and holiness was really well done and I daresay it will challenge most readers (as it did me) to think rightly about the grand wonder of creation.

His handling of the “hard sayings” of the Old Testament was well done, but I daresay it remains insufficient to answer the critics’ questions.  Of course, one of the points of Sproul’s argument is that, like Job, our questions mask our own pride and God’s answer is, in the end, His own being.

I thought the sections on Luther and Edwards were particularly good, especially the latter.  His discussion of imputed righteousness was helpful and his illustrations were quite useful, I thought.

All in all, a wonderful discussion of God’s holiness in an accessible format that is well deserving of the admittedly much overused “modern classic” label.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church

Try as I might, I simply cannot believe that a young man in his twenties could write such a mind-boggling, thought-provoking, and insightful masterpiece as Sanctorum Communio.  I feel that I will never think of “church” in quite the same way again.  In fact, I feel like I’ve just been given a view of a mountain that I know I must go back and climb again, but the overall sensation of its height is so startling that I’m not quite sure how to begin.  (Maybe, in a weird way, a kind of awed despair is the mark of all truly great books?)  They say that Barth’s commentary on Romans fell on the playground of the liberal theologians like an atom bomb.  Well, Sanctorum Communio has fallen into the playground of this Baptist pastor in just the same way.

Originally published in 1930, three years after it initially appeared as Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation (and 15 years before Bonhoeffer would be put to death), Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church represents a staggering achievement.  Karl Barth would later say of this work, “I openly confess that I have misgivings whether I can even maintain the high level reached by Bonhoeffer, saying no less in my own words and context, and saying it no less forcefully, than did this young man so many years ago” (2).  He would also call this book “a miracle.”

It is steeped in sociological categories that many readers might find offputting.  I do not claim to have followed some of the more technical aspects of the social philosophy sections, but struggling through these parts is reward enough in and of itself to warrant the effort.  Even so, I daresay that the work is accessible enough to anybody who cares deeply about the church.  I found it to be so anyway.  (In a strange way this book reminds of Moby Dick.  I had to sludge through some of the sailing history and terminology that was, frankly, foreign to me.  But the story, and, on hindsight, the foundation that the denser parts of that book lend to the story, was overwhelming.)

I had certain disagreements with Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology.  His approach to church discipline is, in my opinion, hopelessly muddled and amazingly oversimplified.  But I do recall seeing a more biblical handling of it in his Finkenwalde guide, Life Together, so I want to reserve passing too harsh a judgment on him in this regard.  Furthermore, I (obviously) have reservations about his handling of infant baptism.  I thought it was pretty par-for-the-course as far as such arguments go.  There was nothing terribly new about it.  But, in truth, I remain, to date, firmly unconvinced, though a bit more appreciative than I would have been ten years ago.

Bonhoeffer begins by describing the fundamental sociality of existence.  He does this by showing the necessity for one person to acknowledge the other as a genuine person.  Only when this happens can we speak of the “individual” existing:

“When the concrete ethical barrier of the other person is acknowledged or, alternatively, when the person is compelled to acknowledge it, we have made a fundamental step that allows us to grasp the social ontic ethical basic-relations of persons…Thus, the individual exists only in relation to an ‘other’; individual does not mean solitary.  On the contrary, for the individual to exist, ‘others’ must necessarily be there” (50-51).

But this understanding of “I” and “You” (which Bonhoeffer calls “the social basic category…the I-You-relation) is itself a work of God.

“God or the Holy Spirit joins the concrete You; only through God’s active working does the other become a You to me from whom my I arises.  In other words, every human You is an image of the divine You” (54-55)

What strikes me about Bonhoeffer’s argument is how it aims a blow directly at the fragmented, isolationist understanding of the person that has overwhelmed not only our basic relational assumptions but also, in evangelicalism, our ecclesiology.  We have become a people of the lone individual, or so we like to think.  But relationality is fundamentally necessary and also God-enabled.  In a footnote, Bonhoeffer praises his doctoral supervisor (or whatever he was called at the time), Dr. Reinhold Seeberg, for presenting “the idea of sociality as an inherent component of original human nature.  He thereby brought back into theology an important doctrine without which the ideas of original sin and especially the church could not be fully understood” (64).

I do not know about the truthfulness of this statement from a historical-theological perspective (whether or not it was Seeberg who brought this understanding back), but I do believe that the sentiment is true.  In fact, I believe that our rejection of this sentiment (whether explicitly or implicitly) has led to the weakening of the church in profound and tragic ways.

Bonhoeffer goes even further in this direction:

“It is our view that there would be no self-consciousness without community – or better, that self-consciousness arises concurrently with the consciousness of existing in community.  Second, we assert that will is by its nature oriented toward other wills” (70).

Yes, but does this destroy the reality of the individual?  To be sure, we are individuals-run-amuck, but can we not speak of “the individual”?  Bonhoeffer’s answer is telling and, I believe, quite profound:

“The universal person of God does not think of people as isolated individual beings, but in a natural state of communication with other human beings.  Furthermore, in relations with others, I do not merely satisfy one side of my structurally closed being as spirit; rather, only here do I discover my reality, i.e., my I-ness.  God created man and woman directed to one another.  God does not desire a history of individual human beings, but the history of the human community.  However, God does not want a community that absorbs the individual into itself, but a community of human beings.  In God’s eyes, community and individual exist in the same moment and rest in one another.  The collective unit and the individual unit have the same structure in God’s eyes.  On these basic-relations rest the concepts of the religious community and the church” (80).

Bonhoeffer also points to the potential benefits of conflict in communities:  “Genuine life arises only in the conflict of wills; strength unfolds only in strife.  This is an old insight” (85).  This is a welcome word for those who wrongly think that all conflict is inherently bad or injurious to the body of Christ.

He then moves to the issue of sin and human culpability.  He argues for an individual and corporate understanding of sin, whereby, in a very real sense, my sins represent the sins of the whole world.  This opens up the very real possibility for corporate repentance.

When Bonhoeffer moves into a more specific discussion of the church, he sees these sociological realities as reaching their apex in the body of Christ:  “There is in fact only one religion in which the idea of community is an integral element of its nature, and that is Christianity” (130-131).  Furthermore, Christ is present in the church:  “The church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God” (138).  And He is poignantly present because of “the paradoxical reality of a community-of-the-cross, which contains within itself the contradiction of simultaneously representing utmost solitude and closest community.  And this is the specifically Christian church-community” (151).

Here is one of the great strengths of Sanctorum Communio:  it’s argument that the church is an inherently necessary definitional reality.  How badly do Southern Baptists, among others, need to return to this kind of understanding of the church?  The church is not a voluntary association of separated, isolated, “saved” individuals.  The church is the necessary definition and identity of the community of the cross which is comprised of all of those who are in Christ.

Bonhoeffer goes on to some very helpful discussions of forgiveness of sin, the Lord’s Supper, the need for confession, and the interchange of wills within the body of Christ.  I found all of this illuminating, even when I disagreed.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the book in this review, but I do hope it has given a picture of the kind of thinking and wisdom you’ll find in Sanctorum Communio.  This book is a masterpiece and a treasure.  Every pastor should read this and drink long and deep from this well.

Alister McGrath’s What Was God Doing on the Cross?

What Was God Doing on the Cross? was originally presented as a lecture, in a shorter form, at the Princeton Theological Seminary on October 22, 1990. Perhaps owing to this fact, what we have in this book is a highly conversational, “nuts and bolts” approach to the cross. While this keeps the book from becoming highly technical, it makes it an ideal introduction to the issues surrounding the cross of Christ.

The first two chapters of the book are presented from the perspective of an onlooker at Calvary. This is an interesting approach which allows McGrath to take the reader into the mind and possible thoughts of an original witness to the cross. These chapters serve as a foundation to the rest of the book which presents McGrath’s own perspective on the cross.

A rather refreshing aspect of this book is McGrath’s criticism of the tendency of many theologians to lose touch with the common person. McGrath (himself one of the most influential evangelical theologians in the world today) reminds us all that if our theological concepts cannot be communicated to the common man, then they are essentially worthless. He then goes on to back up what he says by presenting his discussion of the cross in terms that are highly readable and highly effective.

The book covers a wide range of topics: the act of crucifixion, the nature of Jesus, the idea of sin, the atonement, and the resurrection. McGrath does not fear to posit these traditional Christian concepts in new language, and, in fact, he seems intent on doing so. The result is that both Christians and non-Christians alike will be challenged to rethink what they know or think they know about traditional Chritian categories.

I would more than heartily recommend this book as I would more than heartily recommend anything Alister McGrath writes. There is a sincerity that comes through these pages that the reader will not miss. His aim is to have his audience grapple anew with the cross. In this, he succeeds wonderfully.