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Toward a Pentecostal Hermeneutics (Wheaton Theology Conference 5)

After hearing a detailed explanation of the 15 steps necessary for studying the Bible, a student noticed that the professor hadn’t said anything about the role of the Holy Spirit. Somewhat confused given that most Christians affirm the doctrine of illumination–the idea the the Spirit is somehow at work with Christians enabling them to hear and understand God’s Word properly–the student asked, ”Where is the Holy Spirit in all this?”

His response: “Everywhere.”

Was that a profound insight into the fact that reading the Bible properly is a necessarily Spirit-infused task, or was that just pietistic jargon designed to cover up the fact that the professor really doesn’t believe the Spirit has anything to do with exegesis?

Leggere alimenta la mente

That’s the question Kevin Vanhoozer used to introduce a fascinating paper on the role of the Spirit in hermeneutics at the recent Wheaton Theology Conference. And his real target was on developing greater clarity about what it means to say that the Spirit “illumines” us when we read the Bible. Does it really make a difference? If so, in what way?

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The Death and Recovery of Systematic Theology

It’s not unusual these days to find people questioning whether we should be doing systematic theology at all. Isn’t that an outmoded way of thinking, one that was effectively killed off by postmodern concerns about “metanarratives” and “totalizing discourses”?

god sexuality selfThat’s the issue Sarah Coakley tackles in the first chapter of her new book God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, 2013). Since this is the first volume in her projected new systematic theology, which promises to be one of the more interesting and creative systematic endeavors in quite some time, it makes sense for her to take some time to explain why she thinks that systematic theology is still worth doing. Along the way, she offers a fascinating overview of several objections to systematic theology, the state of systematic theology today, and why she thinks that a renewed emphasis on ascetic practice can and should lead systematic theology forward from here. 

Let’s see what she means.

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The Growth of Global Pentecostalism (Wheaton Theology Conference 4)

Conceptual composite arrowAfter a slight hiatus so I could slip some actual teaching in, we’re back to reviewing some of the sessions from the recent Wheaton Theology Conference. And this we’ll focus on a paper that took a slightly different approach. Rather than focusing on theological issues, Allan Anderson looked at facts and trends relative to the growth of pentecostalism around the world.

What’s a “Pentecostal”?

Before you can talk about the growth of pentecostalism, of course, you need some kind of definition about what qualifies as “pentecostal.” And Anderson started with a rather broad definition, including people in four categories:

  • The “classic Pentecostal” denominations (e.g. Assemblies of God)
  • Independent churches (i.e. church that are not affiliated with pentecostal denominations but that affirm key pentecostal doctrines and practices)
  • “Charismatic” churches (i.e. those that are part of non-pentecostal denominations but that affirm key pentecostal doctrines and practices)
  • Independent megachurches (this apparently received its own category because of the growth and global influence of such churches)

Anderson’s stats about global pentecostalism, then, summarize information about Christians in all four categories.

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A Reformed Theology of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton Theology Conference 3)

Vector doveWe’ve been taking a look at some of the papers presented at this year’s Wheaton Theology Conference (see the others below). And the third one I want to consider came from Oliver Crisp, who focused on presenting “a dogmatic sketch of the Holy Spirit that draws on the Reformed tradition.” Far from being a neglected doctrine, Crisp argued that the Reformed tradition has much to offer for theologies of the Holy Spirit today.

Does the Reformed Tradition Neglect the Spirit?

Many critique Reformed theology for paying insufficient attention to the Spirit, pointing out that chapters on the Spirit in Reformed theologies tend to be rather brief. So Crisp began his lecture by pointing out that counting chapters isn’t the best way to establish a doctrine’s relative importance. Reformed theologians tend to deal with the person of the Spirit under the doctrine of the Trinity and the work of the Spirit in sections on creation, providence, salvation, and Christology. This means that skimming the table of contents might give the impression that pneumatology is relatively unimportant, reading the text carefully would reveal that pneumatology impacts “almost every topic in Reformed theology.” Some might disagree with what Reformed theology has to say about the Spirit, of course, but that’s far different from claiming that it has little to say.

Is the Spirit a Full Member of the Trinity?

The second main section of Crisp’s paper focused on the person of the Spirit, setting out a clear summary of the church’s historic position that the Spirit is fully divine and the third person of the triune God. Taking us on a quick tour of creedal statements from Nicea to Westminster, Crisp demonstrated the consistency of the Reformed position on this point.

In one interesting section, though, Crisp addressed the arguments of some Reformed theologians (e.g. Hendrikus Berkhof) that the Spirit is not in fact a distinct, divine person. Appealing to biblical passages that seem to suggest that “spirit” language in the Bible is just a way of talking about God’s presence in creation (or sometimes more specifically Christ’s presence). And Crisp quickly dismissed such arguments by again pointing to the consistent witness of tradition and by suggesting that such theologians need to pay more attention to the biblical texts.

How Should We Understand the Work of the Spirit?

People looking for an extended discussion of spiritual gifts are going to be rather disappointed here as Crisp focused largely on providing the theological framework necessary for understanding the Spirit’s work. To that end, he offered two important principles:

The Trinitarian Appropriation Principle: This principle has two key pieces. First, it acknowledges that “the external works of the Trinity are indivisible.” In other words, everything that God does, all three of the persons do together. So, although we might talk about the act of creation as something that the Father does, we must recognize that the Son and the Spirit are both fully involved as well. It may be more fitting to emphasize the Father’s role, but we cannot separate the three as though any particular action is the act of one alone. Second, we must also recognize “the distinction and order of the persons” in each work. Although the three are inseparable in every act, that doesn’t mean we can’t identify some distinctions in role and order. For example, all three persons are involved in the incarnation (the Father in sending, the Spirit in conception, the Son in becoming incarnate), but clearly they play different roles in the one, indivisible action of the godhead.

Applied to the doctrine of the Spirit, then, Crisp contends that this principle gives us resources for maintaining his indissoluble unity with the Father and the Son as well as his distinctive role in every work of God:

the Spirit is at work everywhere, at all times, in all places, and in particular ways in the action of creation, conservation, redemption, and the consummation of all things. He is at work in this way as a member of the Godhead because all the divine persons are at work in this manner, though their particular roles in any given work may differ….However, one of the reasons why the universality of the Spirit’s work is sometimes overlooked is that the TAP is not taken with sufficient metaphysical seriousness. He is not merely at work in certain divine actions and not others. Necessarily, he is involved in every divine action in creation.

The Intention-Application Principle: Here Crisp focused his attention on the idea that “what is first in intention is last in application.” To explain what he means here, Crisp used the analogy of a journey. When you go on a trip, your destination is your ultimate goal (the destination) is your “first intention”–that is, you first decide that you’re going to go somewhere. But you only arrive at the destination after you do everything necessary to get there. So although the destination was first in intention, actually arriving comes last in the story of your journey.

Applied to pneumatology, Crisp argues that this principle helps us see the vital importance of the Spirit. The Spirit’s work is not something that comes tacked on to the story after all the important stuff has already been done by Christ on the cross. The real goal of the story comes at the end in the eschatological consummation of all things. And the Spirit has a very prominent role in regenerating human persons, uniting them to Christ, and transforming all of creation, all necessary aspects of the end of the story. Thus, if the end communicates God’s ultimate goal, then the work of the Spirit is fundamentally important for understanding what God has been about from the very beginning.

The Spirit and Union with Christ

In his final section, Crisp turned his attention to the Spirit’s particular role in uniting us to Christ, which Crisp sees as the full expression of God’s ultimate goal. And this is also where Crisp offered his own constructive proposal for pneumatology.

Crisp began this section by arguing for the importance of “union with Christ” in Reformed theology, pointing out that although it has always been a significant theme, it has received even more attention in recent years, with many Reformed theologians arguing that it is the fundamental motif that grounds every other aspect of salvation. And he further argued that the Spirit is so central to God’s ultimate goal of uniting creatures to himself that this would have been the Spirit’s work even if we had never fallen into sin. Creatures do not have any “natural” capacity for uniting themselves to God. Thus, even in an unfallen creation, we still would have needed the indwelling Spirit to draw us into the divine life and accomplish God’s ultimate purpose for creation.

But exactly how does the Spirit do this? That’s the question Crisp wants to wrestle with in his own constructive proposal. And he is clearly unsatisfied with fuzzy appeals to some kind of “mystical” union. Instead, Crisp called us to think about how the discrete pieces of a composite whole (like a tree or an armchair) are bonded together to form that whole. On that analogy, the Spirit is the “adhesive” that holds those various pieces together, turning us from isolated bits (e.g. wood, cloth, buttons) into one indentifiable whole (e.g. armchair). Just as the Spirit was the one who shaped Christ’s body in the incarnation, so he is the one who forms his Body in the church.


Although Crisp necessarily left much unaddressed, you can only do so much in one paper, he offered an interesting look at a Reformed pneumatology that aptly demonstrated that pneumatology is a central and fundamentally important aspect of Reformed theology. I’m sure it won’t stop people from claiming that Reformed theologians have something against the Spirit, but maybe it will help at least a bit.

Other Posts on the Wheaton Theology Conference:

Basil vs. Augustine: A Holy Spirit Smackdown (Wheaton Theology Conference 2)

Okay, so “smackdown” might be a bit of a stretch. But Gregory Lee‘s paper on the first day of the Wheaton Theology Conference addressed the common idea that eastern and western theologians have long had fundamentally different theologies of the Spirit. Taking Basil the Great and Augustine of Hippo as representative figures given the undeniable influence that each has exercised in their respective traditions, Lee argued that there is far more that unites the pneumatologies of these towering figures than divides them. Differences remain, but should be viewed in light of the overwhelming common ground.

human brains and war rope

Basil and the Holy Spirit

I won’t try to summarize everything that Lee did to explain the context and significance of these two pneumatologies. But Lee started with a useful explanation of the opponents that Basil faced in his day. The immediate occasion for Basil’s famous On the Holy Spirit was a controversy that broke out regarding the proper use of prepositions. (And we thought today’s grammar police were bad!) Two of Basil’s doxologies attributed equality to the Spirit in the Trinity, saying things like “Glory to the Father, with the Son, together with the Holy Spirit.” Instead, they thought it more appropriate to use “from whom” for the Father, ”through whom” for the Son, and “in whom” for the Spirit. Although this might sound like a minor grammatical point, it manifests radically different visions of who God is.

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Saturday Morning Fun…Every Analogy of the Trinity Is a Heresy

This would have been more appropriate around St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s still fun. Check out St. Patrick trying to explain the Trinity to a couple of “simple” Irishmen who raise a “few” questions about the adequacy of his trinitarian analogies.

The Most Important Question You Can Ask?

Question Mark Background BW

I hate plumbing. Dark spaces, pipes conveniently located just where they’re impossible to reach, and a body never intended to contort like that. But the worst part, the thing that makes me dread plumbing, is that sound. You know the one: the inevitable, excruciating, sanctification-challenging sound of water dripping from that just-fixed pipe. It doesn’t matter how minute the crack, water will find a way through. And its incessant dripping is impossible to ignore.

A good question functions much the same way. If I tell you something you don’t like, you can just dismiss it. We ignore inconvenient facts all the time, impervious behind our wall of preconceived beliefs. But powerful questions are like water, slowly working through the cracks and crevices before sending their incessant “drip, drip, drip” into the quite recesses of our minds. A good question is hard to ignore.

Jesus asked really good questions. Here are just a few:

That’s the beginning of my most recent post over at Pastors Today. Head over there and check it out.

3 Reasons We Should Stop Calling People Heretics…Unless They Are


“You’re a heretic.”

That’s a powerful claim, one with the ability to destroy. And like all weapons of mass destruction, it should be used with extreme caution.

A recent blog post highlighted 7 Heresies Inside the Church. As I read through the post, I noticed two things. Yes, the author correctly identified seven dangerous ideas that the church needs to watch closely today. But there isn’t a single heresy among them.

I think that’s a problem. Calling something a heresy when it isn’t contributes to other serious problems for the church today. To see why, let’s first take a look at what a “heresy” is. Then we can consider some reasons why it’s dangerous to label something as a heresy when it’s not.

This is the beginning of my most recent post over at Head over there and check it out.

What Is a Theological “Mystery”?

Human head silhouette with question mark concept

Most people appeal to mystery at some point in their theology. And that’s what we would expect given that we’re trying to understand the infinite, transcendent, and ultimately incomprehensible God of the universe. So we end up talking about things like the Trinity (three persons in one being) and the incarnation (divine and human in one person), fully aware that we are affirming truths that transcend our understanding, but unwilling to say that they are mere contradictions. So we call them mysteries.

But what exactly does it mean to say that something is a “mystery” in theology?

In their book, The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (Baker, 2012), Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall explain that “mystery” is actually a rather slippery term in theology. So they offer a helpful taxonomy of different kinds of mystery, arguing that only the last is really adequate to a God who both transcends knowledge and makes himself truly known.

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Some Advice on Studying Theology

all mixed up in the mind of a personStudying theology can be rather daunting given the depth and complexity of topics, the wealth of literature, and the many disparate opinions. Where do you start?

In this short video clip, Fred Sanders offers two pieces of great advice to his theology students. But it’s advice that I think would benefit anyone wanting to study theology more effectively.

  1. Pick a major doctrine to focus on.
  2. Master a classic text.

As he says, the “major doctrines of perennial importance” are daunting in their significance and the wealth of material devoted to them, but they’ll certainly stretch and challenge you. And every major doctrine connects in important ways with all the other ones as well. So having a specific doctrinal locus provides a nice focus for your studies while also giving an entry point into systematic theology as a whole. I stumbled onto theological anthropology early in my studies and have concentrated on that ever since. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, but having that focus has been amazingly helpful for me. (FYI – Eventually you will want to branch out form that primary focus, but you don’t need to worry about that at the beginning.)

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