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Assessing new theological ideas

This book looks at areas of theology which have recently come under scrutiny by scholars and, in the process, undergone some adjustments that many Christians have begun to take on board. It asks whether those adjustments are valid—and concludes, for the most part, that they are not.

The author begins one chapter with the statement: ‘Theology does not stand still’. In another he talks about the unfortunate Christian tendency to adopt a ‘siege mentality’ in the face of criticism. In spite of this, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he himself would love theology to stand still—preferably on a Calvinist platform—and that his book itself reflects a siege mentality.

The book is The Faith Once Entrusted To The Saints?: Engaging with issues and trends in evangelical theology by Geoffrey W. Grogan (IVP, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-84474-478-7). In it he deals with Open Theism, the retreat from penal substitution, justification (in the context of the New Perspective on Paul), the doctrine of Scripture, and hermeneutics. He makes some sound observations, and he is clearly a scholar of no mean ability but, in my view, seems too quick to adopt a stoutly defensive position as his default rather than being genuinely open to new theological developments. I hope I am not doing him an injustice in saying this; that is certainly not my intention.

I have grappled in recent years with the implications of all the changed ideas he looks at. Some I have found convincing (e.g. the infallibility but not the inerrancy of Scripture), others not (e.g. the rejection of penal substitution). More extreme teachings, like some of those associated with the likes of Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, I find so detached from any biblical moorings as to be unworthy of serious consideration. By contrast, the ones in this book are relatively mild and, in my view, deserve a more balanced consideration than the author here has given them.


To resist reform required by Scripture is totally inconsistent with conservative evangelicalism as understood in this book. (p15)

In this matter of biblical truth…evangelical Christians need to swim against the postmodern tide. We are committed to the fact that there is such a thing as objective truth and to the special importance of biblical truth. Doctrinal vagueness is not conducive to sound spiritual growth.  (p20)

Open Theism

In the current debate the immutability of God is the main issue. Other questions such as the possibility that his power and his knowledge are limited are related to this.  (p37)

We must recognize the radical nature of anthropomorphism, that the Bible is anthropomorphic, for example, in speaking not only about God’s wrath but also about his love, an important point which constantly passes unnoticed.  (p43)

Although there may be some differences of emphasis, open theists all regard love as God’s dominant character quality and see emphasis on it as the chief feature of their outlook. (p52)

Many older works on theology tend to regard holiness as God’s main moral attribute and to see some of his other qualities and activities like righteousness, justice and wrath as its manifestations, while many more recent works instead emphasize love and its manifestations in mercy, grace, compassion and so forth. In fact, as we learn from broad-based study of the whole Bible, from the revelation of God’s character in Christ and particularly from the cross, both qualities are ultimate and are perfectly united in his profoundly integrated character.  (p55)

Sometimes it is asked whether, if God knew what was going to happen, he could alter it, thus pitting God’s knowledge and his power against each other, but this is to contemplate an absurdity.  (p59)

Malcolm Maclean, in a personal communication, wrote, ‘It seems to me that open theism puts the future on the throne and takes God off it, and always has the future as greater than God since he does not know what it is.’  (p67)

Abraham’s God showed his great difference from the pagan gods…not at first by expressing his abhorrence of child sacrifice, but rather by calling Abraham to offer his son and then, by his dramatic intervention, showing clearly and once for all that this was not his will but rather that divinely provided substitutionary sacrifice was.  (p72)

The Old Testament supports the claim that God is a deeply, indeed perfectly emotional being, but we must reject the open theist contention that this involves change in him.  (p75)

Misinterpreting the Bible’s anthropomorphic language plus a libertarian view of human freedom have produced for many open theists a seriously defective view of God. This dishonours him and can affect many other beliefs, and in consequence our worship, our prayer, our daily life.  (p81)

Retreat from Penal Substitution

The affirmations ‘the punishment that brought us peace was upon him’ and ‘the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Is 53:5-6; cf. v10) could hardly be clearer as statements of penal substitution.  (p89)

Without doubt penal substitution should be carefully preached, and clumsy presentation of it can be offensive, but this is not to deny its essential truth.  (p96)

The translation of hilastērion in Romans 3:25 is important and Morris has argued cogently for ‘propitiation’.  (p100)

How, then, should we present the cross? As revelation of God’s love, as victory over Satan, as willing suffering because of faithfulness to God, as identification with the sufferings of the marginalized, the shamed, the excluded, and so on? Yes, in all these ways, for all are true. I am convinced, however, that penal substitution is most basic and that so many other views relate to its consequences.  (p105)

After examining Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:24-26 and 5:9-10, Travis says that Christ experienced divine judgment on our behalf, but that to say he underwent punishment for our sins is to go further than Paul himself goes. But are not judgment and punishment so closely linked that the one must imply the other?  (p110)

Three Greek prepositions occur in such a statement as ‘Christ died for us’ or Christ died for our sins’. Hyper and peri are less specific than anti and indicate that something is done in relation to or concerning something or someone. This can involve substitution, but not necessarily, whereas anti normally does. It is found in Mark 10:45 (cf. Matthew 20:28) and I Timothy 2:6.  (p114)

Penal substitution is sometimes presented at least by its critics, in such a way as to suggest that the Father forced his innocent Son to take the punishment of guilty sinners. Chalke and Mann describe this as ‘cosmic child abuse, a shocking description which would have a measure of truth if this presentation were to be accurate. If the atonement has ever been so presented in preaching (a good question!), its rejection is no surprise. In fact it must be rejected, for it is not the gospel and it grossly misrepresents the relationship of the Father and the Son.  (p117)

Justification and the New Perspective on Paul

What, then, is justification? In the Reformation doctrine it is essentially a declaration by God, seemingly incredible, but in fact the most wonderful god news, that by his grace a sinner is reckoned righteous and so is accepted in his sight. It is not the imparting of righteousness, changing our characters, but the imputing of it, changing our status with God.  (p131)

What keeps the Gentile from the Jew and both of them from God, in the New Perspective, is not self-righteousness but ethnocentricism. It is not simply that the religious exclusivism of the Jew excludes the Gentile from the people of God, it excludes the Jew as well, for justification, recognition of covenant membership, comes only through Christ.  (p139)

It is the work of Sanders on the Judaism of the New Testament period that the New Perspective rests on, so that a balanced judgment of his thesis is of vital importance. Our conclusion, then, is that although Sanders is partly right, he is wrong on matters of vital importance for understanding the background to Paul’s doctrine of justification.  (p147)

Wright, among others, holds that the phrase pisteōs Christou (literally ‘the faith of Christ’) and its cognates in Paul’s writings (Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16, 20; Eph. 3:12; Phil. 3:9) refers to Christ’s faithfulness to the covenant promises of God and that it should not be rendered ‘faith in Christ’ as in most English translations. This would not mean we would have to revise our view of Pau’s theology, but it would tend to increase the emphasis on the cross as a work of God in the context of his promises. It seems to me, therefore, that it is not a crucial issue in discussion of the two perspectives on Paul.  (p153)

[The New Perspective’s] revised understanding of the Pauline doctrine is unconvincing and this is serious in relation to such an important doctrine with crucial gospel relevance.  (p168)

The Doctrine of Scripture

Those who hold to annihilationism, for example, need to deal with Revelation 14:9-12, those who argue for the importance of a baptism in the Spirit subsequent to conversion with 1 Corinthians 12:13, and proponents of women’s ordination with 1 Timothy 2:9-15. It is not enough to say what the warning passages in the epistle to the Hebrews do not mean without at least asking wha they do.  (p179)

Important as a high doctrine of Scripture and its verbal inspiration is, we should never forget that God gave the Bible as his means to his end, which is not simply orthodox thinking (which is not unimportant) but sanctified living.  (p190)

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that what the Bible teaches about God and his Word makes it necessary for us not only to make assertions about what the Bible does but also about what it is, in other words to go beyond functional infallibilism to ontological inerrantism.   (p193)

Our belief in the deity of Jesus gives us strong theological and spiritual reasons for accepting his clear statements as to the authorship of Old Testament books.  (p204)

A scholar or theologian must be completely free to pursue truth and in accordance with this to wrestle with phenomena which do not seem to fit a high view of the Bible. To suggest otherwise is to advocate evangelical brainwashing and to surrender our integrity.  (p211)

Hermeneutics

The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, its clarity, does not mean that every passage is clear but rather that the overall message, consisting of ‘those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed, for salvation’, is clear. The need for diligent and prayerful study will always be real. (p220)

Seeing a particular passage in the light of biblical theology is recognition that the literary context, although starting with the particular Bible book in which the passage occurs, actually extends to the whole Bible. For evangelical Christians, of course, both the part and the whole are the work of the inspiring Spirit.   (p234)

How, then, do we relate exegesis and biblical theology? The greater the exegete’s grasp of biblical theology is, the better his or her exegesis will be, and the better the exegesis, the more it will confirm or challenge our understanding of biblical theology.  (p244)

Is so easy to be far more influenced by our upbringing, by the tradition of our church or even by certain historical positions on doctrine than we may imagine.  (p251)

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