Whatever happened to the crucifixion?

“When the church fails to [speak the gospel], it fails to say the thing that it alone is capable of saying.” 

Fleming Rutledge’s book Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ aims to put death back at the center of the Christian faith. Not death in general, but the death of Christ. According to Rutledge, any number of inadequate (and occasionally untrue) themes have displaced the crucifixion at the center of the Christian faith. We say, “God is love.” That is well since the Scripture affirms it. It is a true, yet incomplete sentence. God does love you, yet we have to make sense of the God whose love involved the sacrificial death of his Son.

Making the love of God the totality of our proclamation means that rather than preaching the evangel (“good news”) we are preaching the proto-evangelion (“pre-good news”). God’s love is important, even foundational to the ways in which He interacts with his created order. Yet, God’s love must be paired with God’s wrath against sin, and other important dogmatic themes in order to actually preach the gospel.

In dealing with the death of Christ we acknowledge to the world that difficult things are normal–that far from being the exception, the cross is the rule. In a broken world we suffer, we lack easy answers and problems often seem (and actually are) intractable.

The church doesn’t exist to peddle easy answers for life’s most superficial problems. Such a church doesn’t have Christ–the dying God–for its head.

Jesus did not bring the church into being for the purpose of providing you a pleasing worship experience, a memorable and photographable vacation-like mission trip, or to simply baptize the American dream in either its leftist or right-wing manifestations.

The church introduces creation to reality–a reality that is deeper, older, vaster than the aggregate of our sense experiences. We see, in the words of Saint Paul, “through a glass and darkly.”

Instead in and through the church, Christ extends to the world the invitation to come and die–to come a meet the dying and rising Christ in the Word and in the Sacraments.

In the laying down of our lives we find the freedom that comes from returning God to the very center of reality, the place from which He never moved. In truth all creation is exerting massive energy in the vain attempt to suppress the truth and sustain the illusion that there is no God.

When the church fails to say this, it fails to say the thing that it alone is capable of saying.



The solas as insights into the gospel

The solas are not isolated doctrines; they are theological insights into the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the gospel.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel, 28

You may be familiar with the “five solas” of the Reformation–the “alone” affirmations, if you will. They are sometimes described as the rallying cry of Protestants in their fight against Medieval Catholicism. The solas are typically formulated as follows:

  1. sola gratia – grace alone
  2. sola fidei – faith alone
  3. sola scriptura – scripture alone
  4. solus christus – Christ alone
  5. soli deo gloria – To God alone the glory

In the introduction to his so-far excellent book Biblical Authority after Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer posits that the “solas” are more than a Protestant version of “Make America great again” or “Hope we can believe in.” Rather, he writes, “The solas are not isolated doctrines; they are theological insights into the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the gospel.”

In case its helpful, let’s define a couple of terms here.

Ontology is a word that refers to discussions about being (“God is eternal” is a statement about ontology).

Epistemology is a word that refers to how we know what we claim to know (“The Bible tells me so” is an epistemological statement).

Teleology is a word for the “ends” or “purposes” of a thing (“The chief end of man is glorify God and enjoy him forever” is a teleological statement).

What Vanhoozer is saying is that the five solas perform the function of communicating right belief (creedal orthodoxy) to everyday Christians like you and me.

He writes, “The solas summarize what the Father is doing in Christ through the Spirit to form a holy nation, and this summary–a rule of faith, hope, and love–functions as a hermeneutical [viz., interpretive] tool with which to arbitrate the conflict of interpretation” (29, brackets my insertion).

In other words, the five solas allow us to come up with a simple statement about God’s mission in the world (here in my words):

God is calling the universal church into being by means of his gift of irresistible grace that alone produces in us to saving faith. That faith is in Christ alone whom we know through the Scriptures alone, and all this is done for the glory of God. 

Later in the book Vanhoozer is going to unpack these solas and fit them together in a way that responds constructively to criticisms of the Reformation leveled by Catholic and Orthodox theologians as well as some Protestants.

Come, let us reason together

Krin Vantatenhove has issued “An Open Love Letter to My Presbyterian Family” (read it here). Since I’m a member of the family, and since what Krin names in his post is something I’m observing too, I’d like to respond.

Krin’s central point is that the real fault line within the Presbyterian Church (USA) isn’t between those who support or oppose the redefinition of marriage or the ordination of non-celibate people who identify as homosexual. The fault line is between those who hold “orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine” and those for whom that expression of faith has become empty or irrelevant: “…there’s a far deeper, more organic challenge for our denomination. Many of its leaders at both the local and national level are no longer in synch with any semblance of orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine.” 

It’s important to note that just as this blog post expresses my opinion–and mine alone–Krin’s post expresses his opinion alone. He is no more a representative of our denomination than I am. What he is expressing–and what I agree with him on–is that the words we use in our corner of the Christian church mean very different things to different people. What he is describing is also far from uncommon in our church. In other words, he’s not describing the fringe left but some very respectable leaders in our churches and our denomination.

The progressive position is something that is rarely explicitly expressed. It’s typically hinted at or implied by things that pastors fail to say rather than what is actually stated, as he notes:

What I’m about to lovingly share is not something I’ve kept “in the closet” during my career. It has been a part of my teaching for years. Further, I base it on discussions with many elders and clergy – women and men I respect. And I know it is only one aspect of our national discernment process.

Krin refers to himself and many of his colleagues as “universalists,” for lack of a better term and goes on to say:

We have not abandoned Jesus’ teachings. We are not neglecting the Good News of grace. We have not given up our pursuits of peace and justice. But we acknowledge that our Christian tradition – stories we tell based on one set of scriptures – are not the sole pathway to God. We respect the sanctity of other faiths. We recognize that human minds can only approach God’s presence through limited faculties. The innate human desire to experience the Divine finds expression in a richness of myths and cultures. Humanity, not religion, is our focus…

From my point of view, I take Krin at his word when he states that he hasn’t abandoned things like “Jesus’ teaching,” “the Good News of grace” or “the pursuit of peace and justice.”

From my point of view he hasn’t abandoned them; he has allowed these concepts or beliefs to evolve beyond the scope of what is recognized as the classical Christianity expressed in our Creeds and Confessions.

He provides an example:

We might say, “[Assent to essential tenets], on many levels, but let’s discuss what we now believe about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, virgin birth, atonement, the literal resurrection, salvation, or the authority of scripture. Let’s discuss the meaning of ecclesiastical power in a denomination where only ‘pastors’ can currently administer sacraments.”

Without wishing to put words in another’s mouth, the claim to “sincerely receive and adopt” something “on many levels” is a warning sign. I’ve taken other vows–one’s to my wife–and I didn’t assent to them “on many levels,” which is typically code for some deviation from classic Christian belief. Instead, I simply said “I do.” I assented to these vows in a manner consistent with the received tradition of Christian marriage.

Our church allows ministers to “scruple” parts of our Confessions. A scruple is simply a stated point of departure from a doctrinal formulation. One might scruple the observation of the Lord’s Day believing that it’s fine to eat out after church.

The thing about scruples is, however, as Krin admits, pastors don’t typically scruple of their own accord despite the fact that our Book of Order places an affirmative duty on pastors to do just thatThey keep their non-traditional views to themselves, perhaps for a variety of reasons some of which are understandable.

The existence of such a broad range of views in a single organization means that it is incredibly difficult for that organization to have focus or to collaborate on common projects. He notes,

…Why are these scruples critical at this juncture in our history? Because many of our members, clergy, and national leaders seem more attuned theologically to a Unitarian or Quaker perspective. If this is true at a deeper, fundamental level, it will continue to cause conflict. There’s no way around it.

It’s true. When I was in campus ministry I was significantly more likely to partner with Catholic Campus Ministries than with either my own denominational ministry or one of the other mainline groups. The reason? A profound variance in essential belief.

I recall going to presbytery meetings (I was in North Carolina at the time) and being asked to share bright spots of ministry. To a person, every bright spot was some service project or another. We celebrated hikers’ ministry, renting out a fellowship hall to a church youth group, food banks, you name it. There wasn’t a single example of someone having a saving encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ and being converted. There wasn’t a single example even of a new Bible study or some new evangelistic discussion group. The reason we didn’t celebrate these thing is that for many of the people at that meeting the idea of a saving encounter with Jesus was a totally foreign concept. People don’t get saved in presbyterian churches–if you want that, try the baptists.

If we, as a denomination, are going to move forward then it is necessary that we have the integrity to name what we believe and to stop hiding behind ambiguous language. If you’re a universalist then be one, openly. If you believe in definite redemption–say so. Trust cannot exist where there is always some suspicion that we’re not telling the truth or that we’re playing games with our theology to suite the crowd we’re in front of.

In the words of our Lord, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Mt. 5:37).

Concerning the true church


No visible Church has any right to say, “We are the only true Church. We are the men, and truth shall die with us.” No visible Church should ever dare to say, “We shall stand forever. The gates of hell will not overcome us.” This is that Church to which belong the Lord’s precious promises of preservation, continuance, protection, and final glory. “Whatever,” says Hooker, “we read in Scripture, concerning the endless love and saving mercy which God shows towards His Churches, the only proper subject is this Church, which we properly term the mystical body of Christ.” Small and despised as the true Church may be in this world, it is precious and honorable in the sight of God. The temple of Solomon in all its glory was nothing, in comparison with that Church which is built upon a rock.

J. C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches

Answers to 5 multi-site objections

I stumbled across a post by Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks offering a critique of multi-site churches. You can read the post here. He offers twenty-two objections to a multi-site approach. Some of his objections are reasonable, others fail. In many respects the validity of his argument depends on factors that are not established in the post itself and widely vary from church to church (more on this in a minute).


Here are his top five and my responses beneath:

1. There’s no clear example of a multi-site church in the New Testament, only supposition. “Well, surely, the Christians in a city could not have all met…” (but see Acts 2:465:126:2).

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the verses Leeman cites establish that the New Testament practice was for all of the believers in a city to gather for worship at a single location. I don’t think this requires a one-to-one correspondence in our practice today (i.e., its not a sin to gather in congregations). I’d suggest that these verses suggest more about the value of worshipping community (since our faith is covenantal, worship is first communal then individual) than it does about the internal organizational structure of the fellowship. 

2. If a church is constituted by the preaching of the Word and the distribution of the ordinances under the binding authority of the keys, every “campus” where those activities transpire is actually a church. “Multi-site church” is a misnomer. It’s a collection of churches under one administration.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, church and congregation are not the same thing. Here Leeman writes out of his baptist tradition with its emphasis on the autonomy of primacy of the individual congregation. For presbyterians these marks of the church are no less true. However, in presbyterian practice a congregation needs to be self-governing under the rule of a session (a council of elders). As long as an individual site has some degree of appropriate representation on the session of the sponsoring church, I see no problem. With Leeman I do see a second congregation (in function if not in polity), but I don’t see a problem with that.

3. For every additional multi-site campus out there, there’s one less preaching pastor being raised up for the next generation.

This is a concern, but not necessarily. At least, the same can be said of large individual churches–multi-site or not. It’s a generous preaching pastor who will share her pulpit with a junior colleague so that he can develop as a preacher-teacher.

4. What effectively unites the churches (campuses) of a multi-site church are a budget, a pastor’s charisma, and brand identity. Nowhere does the Bible speak of building church unity in budgets, charisma, and brand.

Here Leeman assumes that these factors–budget, pastor charisma, and brand identity–are the only things uniting a multi-site. I disagree. What unites a multi-site congregation is its theological vision and ministry expression. The other things are factors, but they’d be factors in a single-site church too.

5. To say that the unity of the church (i.e. the unity of the campuses) depends on the leaders is to say that that the life and work of the church depends that much more on the leaders. Members, in comparison to a single-site model, are demoted.

Leeman would need to say more in order for me to believe that this is more of a problem at a multi-site church than in a single-site. 

What do you think?