Monday, March 27, 2017

The Creator-creature Distinction

The Creator-creature distinction (also known as the Infinite-qualitative distinction) is the theological teaching that God and creation are qualitatively different. The Creator-creature distinction is basic to the Bible view of God’s lordship in providence and grace, and indeed to all true thought about God and man. That is why, for example, it is in the Apostle's Creed. Its importance is at least threefold.

First, it stops misunderstanding of God. God made us in his image, but we tend to think of him in ours! (“Man made God in his own image” was a crack by Voltaire, rather too true to be good.) But the Creator-creature distinction reminds us that God does not depend on us as we depend on him, nor does he exist by our will and for our pleasure, nor may we think of his personal life as being just like ours. 

As creatures we are limited; we cannot know everything at once, nor be present everywhere, nor do all we should like to do, nor continue unchanged through the years. But the Creator is not limited in these ways. Therefore we find him incomprehensible—by which I mean, not making no sense, but exceeding our grasp. We can no more take his measure than our dogs and cats can take our measure. When Luther told Erasmus that his thoughts of God were too human, he was uprooting in principle all the rationalistic religion that has ever infected the church—and rightly too! We must learn to be self-critical in our thinking about God.

Second, this distinction stops misunderstanding of the world. The world exists in its present stable state by the will and power of its Maker. Since it is His world, we are not its owners, free to do as we like with it, but its stewards, answerable to him for the way we handle its resources. And since it is his world, we must not depreciate it. Much religion has built on the idea that the material order—reality as experienced through the body, along with the body that experiences it—is evil, and therefore to be refused and ignored as far as possible. This view, which dehumanizes its devotees, has sometimes called itself Christian, but it is really as un-Christian as can be. For matter, being made by God, was and is good in his eyes (Genesis 1:31), and so should be so in ours (1 Timothy 4:4). 

We serve God by using and enjoying temporal things gratefully, with a sense of their value to him, their Maker, and of his generosity in giving them to us. It is an ungodly and, indeed, inhuman super-spirituality which seeks to serve the Creator by depreciating any part of his creation.

Third, this distinction stops misunderstanding of ourselves. As man is not his own maker, so he may not think of himself as his own master. “God made me for himself, to serve him here.” God’s claim upon us is the first fact of life that we must face, and we need a healthy sense of our creaturehood to keep us facing it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

An Open Letter to President Barnes and Princeton Theological Seminary Regarding the 2017 Kuyper Prize

This morning, I sent the following open letter to Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary.

Dear President Barnes,

Several years ago I applied and was accepted as a candidate for the Master of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. After some time, I decided to quietly withdraw my application and seek other institutions in which to pursue my academic work because of the impression that PTS was not interested in supporting me: a conservative Reformed Christian, minister, and student within the academic environment at PTS. Recents events seem to bolster my decision to withdraw my commitment to PTS and rather than be quiet this time, I want to bring it to your attention. 

You see, once I did want to be a student at PTS, but as a preaching minister who served in New Jersey for four years, who was a regular fixture in the splendid Princeton Theological Seminary Library, and was an avid participant in the annual Karl Barth Conference and in reading groups on Barth within the confines of the wonderful Barth Center, I am disappointed and saddened by the news received in an e-mail early Wednesday in which you announced that PTS will not award its Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness to the Rev. Tim Keller. As you stated
...many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained. This conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And it is an important issue among the divided Reformed communions. 
I have also had helpful conversations about this with the Chair of the Kuyper Committee, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and Reverend Keller. In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year.
How deeply saddening and upsetting this is. Tim Keller is a complementarian, yes. He has taught what the Bible teaches regarding male leadership in the home and church, and he does not believe homosexual practice is faithful to Scripture. Despite these views - views shared by a large portion of Christians in Evangelical and Reformed parts of the tradition - many evangelical egalitarians have made it a point to still work with Keller despite disagreement on this matter; I am thankful for them. 

But now, Dr. Keller’s views on complementarity and homosexuality render him a target from illiberal voices. Do not miss this: Tim Keller, a gracious man if there ever was one, is being publicly shamed for holding what Scripture teaches, which is now, according to author and PTS alumnus Carol Howard Merritt (writing in a post at the website of the Christian Century), “toxic theology.” She writes,
“In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genitalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”
Ms. Merritt goes on to write that she was “literally shaking with grief,” before declaring (in boldface type, no less) that Keller’s “Complementarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.” (I’m guessing that Dr. Keller’s wife Kathy would have a different take on that matter, but I digress.) Rhetorical excesses notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that you, President Barnes, and the Kuyper Prize committee stepped into a hornet’s nest on this one.

But it's all a bit confusing really. 

In the past, it seems that the criteria for the award have been fairly broad. For example, in 2010 it was awarded to the UK’s leading rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. At first blush, one would think that someone like Dr. Keller, whose stance on the role of Christianity in relation to the broader culture meshes rather well with Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism, would be an appropriate choice. The decision this year to announce the award and then rescind it is bad form and doesn’t reflect well on the school and its leadership.

In response to all this you write,
I want to thank all who have communicated with the administration of the seminary as this important conversation has unfolded on campus. We have heard many heartfelt perspectives from both sides of the debate. It has been a hard conversation, but one that a theologically diverse community can handle.  
But it hasn't been handled fairly, has it? No, it has not. What it has been is so terribly predictable. In fact because of alumni, faculty, and student pressures this is what it has come to: one of the most influential Reformed preachers and authors in America today is not eligible to receive Princeton Theological Seminary’s annual award in Reformed theology and public witness, the 2017 Kuyper Prize.

Which brings me to the troubling fact, in light of these events, that PTS awards a Kuyper prize at all. If support for the ordination of “women and LGBTQ+ persons” is now a criteria for receiving the Kuyper Award, don’t you realize Kuyper was, to use the more recent term, a convinced complementarian with definite views on gender and sexuality as normatively defined by the order of creation? In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper wrote:
In creation itself the difference has been established between woman and man. . . . Modernism, which denies and abolishes every difference, cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and, putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity (Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism [Eerdmans, 1931], 26-27).
In fact, such was Kuyper’s programmatic distinction between men and women that he opposed women’s suffrage in the Netherlands. James D. Bratt, in his recent biography of Kuyper writes:
He so fundamentally assumed the patriarchy of separate gender spheres that he came to its overt defense only in late career, when the Netherlands began moving toward women’s suffrage. More broadly, he took the pattern of dichotomous thinking for granted; thus the long train of common grace and special grace, institute and organism, kernel and husk, everlasting principle and temporal application. . . . Kuyper’s solution was a justice of order more than of liberty or access. (James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat [Eerdmans, 2013], 247).
Later in the book, Bratt adds:
Feminism proper brought out his harsher tones. . . . God ordained males for strength, females for beauty, he said; man sinned as oppressor, woman as seductress. That contest was no contest, however; women won. There was a “magnetic power,” an “irresistible magnetic power,” in female charms that bent men to her will. So also there was a depth in her depravity quite below his: “The woman who sins sinks much deeper than does the man. She stands for nothing. Unrighteousness seizes her as a life-rule.” Not alone but also not least among the male commentators of his time, Kuyper was profoundly anxious about the power of female sexuality (Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 362-363).
I’m guessing that Dr. Keller's view of the role of women is rather more “open,” by modern standards, than that of Kuyper. According to your seminary, the award goes to “a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political, and cultural significance in one or more of the ‘spheres’ of society.”

My goodness, if you can't give an Abraham Kuyper award to Dr. Tim Keller, who can you give it to? So, the question is posed: What business does a school like Princeton Theological Seminary—an institution that is apparently committed to the feminist and LGBTQ+ social agenda—have for awarding a Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness?

In light of the debacle of this year's award the answer seems: no business at all. Speaking as a former student who saw a better path of academic inquiry outside the confines of the PTS community and made the decision to leave before it all began, thank you for confirming my suspicions that I would not, in the end, be welcome in your institution.

Sincerely,

Matthew Dowling

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Heading to Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary


I am very pleased to have been accepted to the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. I will begin ThM work in systematic theology this Fall and in approx. 1.5 years, PhD work in Historical Theology, Lord willing. My thesis work will focus upon the theology of the English Puritan, Stephen Charnock. I am thankful for the spiritual support of the elders at the Plymouth Church of Christ and for recommendation letters from my good friends and mentors, Rusty Tugman and Jim Dvorak. I am also deeply grateful for the ongoing and patient support of my wife Rachel and our children for the academic work and ministry. Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Heart Aflame: On Piety and the Glory of God

Few people enjoy being called pietistic today. The word piety has become a pejorative term today. Classifying someone as “pietistic” most often connotes excessive religiosity, self-righteousness, or a holier-than-thou attitude. The etymology of the word piety, however, is more positive. The Old Testament term for this word means “the fear of the Lord,” and its equivalent in the New Testament, eusebeia, means “reverence for God” and “godliness.” The Latin term for piety (pietas) indicates conscientiousness and scrupulousness with regard to one’s duty to God, to family, and to the fatherland (patria). As such, pietas is rooted in love and shows itself in loyalty, kindness, honesty, and compassion. The German word (fromm) signifies “godly and devout” or “gentle, harmless, and simple.” The English word implies pity and compassion.

We don't use the word piety very much today. Nowadays, the word spirituality is used far more often. This latter term originated from Roman Catholic sources during the seventeenth century, but has since become the dominant term for describing how people approach religious things. Pop culture figures as diverse as Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Oprah Winfrey talk about spirituality as a means of connecting with some "higher power," religious truth, or even themselves. 

But many in the Christian tradition, particularly Protestants, have preferred the term piety. Part of the reason for this is that piety often communicates "reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces" (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.2.1). But piety also stands for a whole realm of practices that shape our reverence and love for God. Practices such as worship, prayer, singing, and service help form and guide the way our reverence and love for God express themselves. These practices also remind us of Christ's benefits granted to us through faith in him; they thus become a means for inducing piety. As might now be obvious, a discussion on piety is also a discussion on how the Christian life should be lived. On piety, Calvin wrote, “The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness”—or, as the subtitle of the first edition of his Institutes states, “Embracing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever is necessary to know of the doctrine of salvation: A work most worthy to be read by all persons zealous for piety.” 

So, why is piety important? The goal of piety is to recognize and praise the glory of God—glory that shines in God’s attributes, in the structure of the world, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The desire to glorify God supersedes even the desire for personal salvation in every truly pious person. We were created that God might be glorified in us, and the Christian should yearn to live out this purpose. Furthermore, God redeems, adopts, and sanctifies His people that His glory would shine in them and deliver them from impious self-seeking. As a result, the pious person’s deepest concern is God Himself and the things of God—God’s Word, God’s authority, God’s gospel, God’s truth. A Christian yearns to know more of God and to commune more with Him. 

Much of what passes for the evangelical understanding of the Christian life separates knowledge about God (doctrine) from knowing God personally (life). But the Christian life is a way of life that is based on doctrine; or, to put it another way, our practices are based squarely on our beliefs. Whether it was sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin writing his Institutes as a manual of piety, nineteenth-century theologian Charles Hodge spelling out the basics of the Christian life in his The Way of Life, or twentieth-century theologian J. I. Packer leading people through a well-wrought discussion of the attributes of God in his Knowing God - many have stressed that the means for "experiencing God" in our lives is through a proper understanding of who God is, who we are, and what Christ has done for and in us. 

This dual emphasis of nurturing the mind and the soul is sorely needed today. On one hand, we confront the problem of dry, Christian orthodoxy, which correctly teaches doctrine but lacks emphasis on vibrant, godly living. The result is that people bow before the doctrine of God without yearning for a vital, spiritual union with the God of doctrine. On the other hand, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians propose emotionalism in protesting a formal, lifeless Christianity, but this emotionalism is not solidly rooted in Scripture. The result is that people put human feeling above the triune God as He reveals Himself in Scripture. What is needed is a marriage of theology and piety that marries head, heart, and hand to motivate one another to live for God’s glory and our neighbor’s well-being.

Piety understood in this sense is not something to be despised or shunned; rather, we are called to promote it in the Reformation teaching of holy, dependent, loving, and godly living. Being called “pious” or “pietistic” in its true sense is a compliment! If we think otherwise, we need  to reconsider our definition of piety. 

Does our definition stem from its proper use in Scripture or from its improper application in much of contemporary society? Godliness, spirituality, or piety is not a means to an end (i.e., eternal, felicitous life), but an expression of this life merited by Jesus Christ. For this reason, the cultivation of piety is preeminently connected to the means of grace. In short, piety means experiencing sanctification as a divine, gracious work of renewal expressed in repentance and righteousness, which progresses through conflict and adversity in a Christ-like manner for all of a believer’s life, anticipating the day when piety will be perfected in eternal sanctification in heaven.

Friday, March 17, 2017

God's Providence Manifested in Four General Ways


God exercises his role over every sphere of life. One of the ways we typically express this belief is through the idea of providence. The idea of God's Providence is addressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
We confess that God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his Sean Michael Lucas. On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, And Stories (Kindle Locations 283-285). Kindle Edition. most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. (WCF 5.1)
God's providence has to do with four types or categories of divine activity: upholding, directing, disposing, and governing

God the King is upholding "the universe by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:3) in such a way that, if he were to stop doing so, the world would cease to exist. Another way of putting ting this is that "in him all things hold together"; in a way that we don't really grasp, God in Christ is sustaining the world so that we live and move and have our being "in him" (Col. 1:17; Acts 17:28).

God the King is also directing the events of human history. Most importantly, God orchestrated human history so that "when the fullness ness of time had come, God sent forth his Son" (Gal. 4:4). All of ancient history led up to the moment of the incarnation of Jesus Christ: the preservation of the Messianic line, the administration of the old covenant and Jewish kingdom, the movement of world powers to return the Jews to Palestine, even the call for the worldwide census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem from their native Nazareth-each event was part of God's directing of human affairs. God the King continues to fit together his larger story of salvation with our smaller life-stories in such a way that it is a grand mosaic proclaiming his glory.

Further, God the King disposed events to turn out a certain way in line with his perfect and secret plan. God disposed that it would be Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Moses, not Aaron who would uniquely lead his people. God disposed that Pharaoh would react in certain ways so that God would demonstrate that he alone was the true God (Ex. 4:21). In ways that we cannot fully understand, God even disposed that Adam would sin in the garden of Eden and thus begin the entire story of redemption (WCF 5.4). 

Finally, God the King governs human beings and their actions. We can say this because we that no part of God's creation is exempt from God's providence. It is not as though Pharaoh was under God's control, but Adam was not; or Cyrus was under God's control, but Augustus Caesar was not. All of God's creatures are under his control. Even inanimate objects and forces are under God's control.