Category Archives: Reformed spirituality
“The great danger is always to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of human apostasy [sin], as the villain in the drama of human life. Such an error is tantamount to reducing direction to structure, to conceiving of the good-evil dichotomy as intrinsic to the creation itself. The result is that something in the good creation is declared evil. We might call this tendency ‘Gnosticism’… In the course of history, this ‘something’ has been variously identified as marriage and certain kinds of foods (the Gnostic heresy Paul warns Timothy against in 1 Timothy 4), the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and much of Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (philosophical anarchism and much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul, among others), or any number of things. There seems to be an ingrained Gnostic streak in human thinking, a streak that causes people to blame some aspect of God’s handiwork for the ills and woes of the world we live in.”
—Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans, 2005) p. 61.
On October 31 many of us will celebrate Reformation Day, an annual reminder of a time when the sharp scalpel of biblical convictions smoothed and refined the church in many of Her priorities, associations, methods, preaching, and ordinances. Not much was left un-reformed during the period and we see this in the abundance of reformed creeds produced during the period.
To commemorate the date, Reformation Heritage Books is preparing to release the first of a three-volume series beginning with the first title, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523-1552 edited by James T. Dennison, Jr. (2008). It will be shipping by Reformation Day. In total, the large cloth covered volume contains 33 confessions. Flipping through the volume I’m reminded of the speed with which the flame of reformation spread from country to country and find it difficult to comprehend the tumult of the period.
Some snapshots of the new volume.
The confessions are chronologically organized, and several of them translated into English for the first time. A brief introduction is included for each of the 33 confessions. The first volume includes:
1. The Sixty-Seven Articles of Huldrych Zwingli (1523)
2. Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523)
3. The Ten Theses of Bern (1528)
4. Confession of the East Friesland Preachers (1528)
5. William Farel’s Summary (1529)
6. Zwingli, Fidei ratio (1530)
7. The Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
8. Waldensian Confession (1530)
9. Zwingli, Fidei Expositio (1531)
10. The Bern Synod (1532)
11. Waldensian Synod of Chanforan (1532)
12. The Waldensian Confession of Angrogna (1532)
13. The First Confession of Basel (1534)
14. The Bohemian Confession (1535)
15. The Lausanne Articles (1536)
16. The First Helvetic Confession (1536)
17. Calvin’s Catechism (1537)
18. Geneva Confession (1536/37)
19. Calvin’s Catechism (1538)
20. Waldensian Confession of Mérindol (1541)
21. Waldensian Confession of Provence (1543)
22. The Waldensian Confession of Mérindol (1543)
23. The Walloon Confession of Wesel (1544/45)
24. Calvin’s Catechism (1545)
25. Juan Diaz’s Sum of the Christian Religion (1546)
26. Valdés’s Catechism (1549)
27. Consensus Tigurinus (1549)
28. Anglican Catechism (1549)
29. London Confession of John à Lasco (1551)
30. Large Emden Catechism of the Strangers’ Church, London (1551)
31. Vallérandus Poullain: Confession of the Glastonbury Congregation (1551)
32. Rhaetian Confession (1552)
33. Consensus Genevensis: Calvin on Eternal Predestination (1552)
The motive of God, as displayed in Scripture, is central to Reformed theology (i.e. Calvinism). God acts for the sake of His own glory. Does this make God a narcissist?
Much of what is written on blogs sinks quietly into the electronic void (sometimes that’s a good thing). I think it’s worth our time to pause here to listen carefully to this contemporary debate.
It all started last Monday.
Ben Witherington initiates (11.20.07)
The recent discussion was ignited by Bible scholar Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary. Witherington was reading Schriener’s new book (New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ) and came across Schriener’s thesis: “God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.”
Witherington took offense and wrote a critical blog post on Nov. 20th (“For God so loved Himself?” Is God a Narcissist?). In part he writes,
“There were various nuances and amplifications to the discussion, but the more one read, the more it appeared clear that God was being presented as a self-centered, self-referential being, whose basic motivation for what he does, including his motivation for saving people, is so that he might receive more glory. Even the sending of the Son and the work of the Spirit is said to be but a means to an end of God’s self-adulation and praise.”
Witherington defended his view of God as one who acts out of self-sacrifice for the good of others. God’s glory stems from His selflessness and sacrifice not his self-centeredness.
And Witherington ended his critique with a left hook.
“I suppose we should not be surprised that in a culture and age of narcissism, we would recreate God in our own self-centered image, but it is surprising when we find orthodox Christians, and even careful scholars doing this.”
With this one post, Witherington challenged centuries of Reformed theology and especially Jonathan Edwards. But his rifle also took dead aim at contemporary ministries of men like John Piper and Sam Storms.
Especially given Witherington’s scant exegetical basis for his arguments there were responses to be expected. And it didn’t take long for them to begin.
Denny Burk responds (11.21.07)
Denny Burk, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, was the first to respond. His response was centered around two main points.
1. Scripture does not present God’s “love” as an end in itself. God’s love and redemption shown towards sinners is frequently used to show that God acts in these things for His own glory (Exodus 9:16; 2 Samuel 7:26; Psalm 79:9; Isaiah 42:8; 48:9; Ezekiel 36:22, 32; John 17:5; Romans 9:17; 11:36; Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14).
“God’s love (manifested supremely in Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners) is a means by which His glory is manifested to the world. This is the common Arminian error. They mistakenly regard God’s means (His love and redemptive acts) as ends in themselves. But the Bible simply does not bear this out. The ultimate end or purpose of everything is God’s glory.”
2. Calvinists do not call God “narcissistic” (an “inordinate fascination with oneself”). After citing Isaiah 42:8, Burk writes,
“When sinful humans exalt themselves, it is not loving because it is a distraction from the One who truly can meet the deepest needs of fallen humanity. It is a vice for sinful people to call others to admire them and so to distract them from admiring God. God is love. Therefore He must exalt Himself so as to draw people into worship. This is not narcissistic because it is no vice for Him to exalt the beauty of His own perfections for His creatures’ enjoyment and blessing. Witherington misses all of this, and like other Arminians, removes the firmest grounding that we have for God’s love — God’s own desire to exalt the glory of His own perfections.”
In other words, God acts in love towards sinner because He is motivated for His own glory. God magnifying His own glory is the foundation for the love given to me as a sinner.
Bottom line, Burk calls Witherington out on the simple fact that God’s love towards sinners in redemption is not at odds against God acting for His own glory. Sinners like myself enjoy God forever because God is most concerned about His eternal glory.
John Piper responds (11.24.07)
It was only a matter of time before Piper responded. Piper is John Piper is the Pastor for Preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and featured at desiringGod.org. Glorious and profound truths (like the motives of God!) are his lifelong study.
And his thoughts on Witherington’s critique? “Astonishing.”
As expected, Piper’s response was exegetical. Piper posted a list of passages under the title “Biblical Texts to Show God’s Zeal for His Own Glory.” These passages include Exodus 14:4; 1 Samuel 12:20-22; 2 Samuel 7:23; 2 Kings 19:34; Isaiah 43:6-7, 25; 48:9-11; 49:3; Jeremiah 13:11; Ezekiel 20:14; 36:22-23; Psalms 25:11; 106:7-8; Habakkuk 2:14; Matthew 5:16; John 5:44; 7:18; 12:27-28; 14:13; 16:14; 17:1, 24; Acts 12:23; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 1:22-23; 3:23-26; 9:22-23, 17; 11:36; 15:7; Ephesians 1:4-6; Philippians 1:9,11; 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 1 Peter 2:12; 4:11; Revelation 21:23.
In succinct bullet points, Piper adds the following.
“God’s exaltation of his own glory is not narcissistic but loving, because it directs our attention away from ourselves to the one glorious reality that can satisfy our souls forever.”
“God’s self-glorification is not the alternative to our glorification but the foundation and goal of it, as Schreiner will make plain.”
“The real cultural bondage today is not that too many people are making God radically God-centered, but that most people cannot conceive of his being loving unless he is man-centered.”
And then came the zinger.
“To suggest that Tom Schreiner is ‘creating God in our own self-centered image’ because he says, with the apostle Paul, that God saves us ‘for the praise of his glory’ (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14) is less an indictment of Tom than of Ben.”
Sam Storms responds (11.26.07)
For such an important topic of debate, Piper’s response seemed a bit short. With a new generation of blog readers interested in Reformed theology and these topics of debate, bloggers need to clearly and carefully articulate issues for them.
So I was thankful to hear Sam Storms (a long-winded blogger) jump into the discussion. Storms — a scholar of Jonathan Edwards, former professor and the man featured by Enjoying God Ministries — took time to more fully explain how we benefit from God seeking to glorify Himself.
Storm’s “brief response” was likely the longest of the three.
Because God is our greatest good, God’s seeking to magnify His glory does not impede our good. This is a fascinating argument Jonathan Edwards presented. It’s worth reading Storm’s argument at length:
“The question I most often hear in response to this is that if God loves himself pre-eminently, how can he love me at all? How can we say that God is for us and that he desires our happiness if he is primarily for himself and his own glory? I want to argue that it is precisely because God loves himself that he loves you. Here’s how.
I assume you will agree that your greatest good consists of enjoying the most excellent Being in the universe. That Being, of course, is God. Therefore, the most loving and kind thing that God can do for you is to devote all his energy and effort to elicit from your heart praise of himself. Why? Because praise is the consummation of enjoyment. All enjoyment tends towards praise and adoration as its appointed end. In this way, God’s seeking his own glory and God’s seeking your good converge.
Listen again. Your greatest good is in the enjoyment of God. God’s greatest glory is in being enjoyed. So, for God to seek his glory in your worship of him is the most loving thing he can do for you. Only by seeking his glory pre-eminently can God seek your good passionately.
For God to work for your enjoyment of him (that’s his love for you) and for his glory in being enjoyed (that’s his love for himself) are not properly distinct.
So, God comes to you in his Word and says: ‘Here I am in all my glory: incomparable, infinite, immeasurable, unsurpassed. See me! Be satisfied with me! Enjoy me! Celebrate who I am! Experience the height and depth and width and breadth of savoring and relishing me!’
Does that sound like God pursuing his own glory? Yes.
But it also sounds like God loving you and me perfectly and passionately. The only way it is not real love is if there is something for us better than God: something more beautiful than God that he can show us, something more pleasing and satisfying than God with which he can fill our hearts, something more glorious and majestic than God with which we can occupy ourselves for eternity. But there is no such thing! Anywhere! Ever!”
Very well stated.
Like cutting open the chest and uncovering a beating heart, to understand that our sovereign God acts in all things, and at all times, for His own glory gets at the very heart of God’s motivation. I simply cannot think of a truth more clearly presented throughout Scripture, nor can I think of a more radical worldview-changing truth.
God always acts for His own glory.
If we take our eyes off God’s magnifying of Himself in all things, we will be tempted. We’ll be tempted to downplay the demands of the Law (because we will no longer view the Law as God’s preservation of His glory). We will misunderstand the work of Christ on the Cross (that Christ met the high standards of the Father’s glory). We will misunderstand our life purpose (we do all things to bring glory to God as an act of union with God Himself). And we will misunderstand Scripture’s picture of eternal worship (we will find it odd that we circle around the throne of the Father, the throne of the Son, the river of the Spirit and sing worship forever).
Here’s the irony. To view God’s motives of grace and salvation as ends terminating in our good is to reinterpret the biblical God by our own narcissistic hermeneutics. Our greatest good and eternal joy both stand squarely on God’s motive of magnifying Himself.
In summary, if we take our eyes off God in his magnifying of Himself, we will fail to understand everything else. But most sadly, we will miss our greatest pleasure – to glorify God by enjoying Him forever!
Here is the center of Calvinism, what we call Reformed theology.
“… we need to realize that the Reformers saw nothing less than the gospel at stake. We sometimes forget what Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others risked in taking a stand for the gospel. They risked their very lives. Regarding the Reformers’ work as nothing more than sowing seeds of unfortunate division shows both little knowledge of and little respect for what they did. They were human, and they had their faults and shortcomings. They sinned, sometimes greatly. But they also, like the imperfect characters of the Bible, were used greatly by God. In other words, the church should be grateful for the Reformation. And in this age of religious pluralism, theological laxity, and biblical illiteracy, perhaps the Reformation is needed more than ever before.”
- Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a monk and a mallet changed the world (Crossway: 2007) p. 21
“In his struggles with penance and confession, he [Martin Luther the monk-scholar] wrestled with Psalm 19:12, ‘Clear thou me from hidden faults’ (ASV). Luther’s problem was never whether his sins were large ones or small ones, but whether in fact he had confessed every single one. What about the sins he could not remember? What about the sins committed in his sleep? Luther anticipated Freud by recognizing a depth-dimension to the human person and by refusing to limit the effects of sin to the conscious mind alone. Such a radical reading of the human situation could only be answered with an even more radical reading of divine grace. …
Luther’s new insight was that the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness was based, not on the gradual curing of sin, but rather on the complete victory of Christ on a cross. The once-for-allness of justification was emphasized: ‘If you believe, then you have it!’ Nor is there any direct correlation between the state of justification and one’s outward works, as Luther made clear in his sermon on the pharisee and the publican (1521): ‘And the Publican fulfills all the commandments of God on the spot. He was then and there made holy by grace alone. Who could have foreseen that, under this dirty fellow?’
Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merit and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself.”
- Timothy George essay on Luther in Reading Romans Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barth (Brazos Press: 2005) pp. 115-116.