Reformed Theology Meets Irenaeus

Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith articulates some classic Irenaean and Eastern themes within a Reformed, covenantal framework. The synthesis is invigorating:

The notions of covenant and eschatology are intertwined in biblical theology. Both are oriented toward promise and fulfillment. This promise-fulfillment pattern does not begin after the fall but with creation itself. Human identity was not finished at creation but was to be perfected by fulfilling the trial of the original covenant, winning the right to eat from the tree of everlasting life and blessedness. Hence, human beings are intrinsically future oriented. Though perverted by sin, this eschatological hope—a sense of a destiny to be fulfilled in history—animates human activity and ambition. Thus, even the commission given to Adam to lead creation in triumphant procession into God’s Sabbath rest (following God’s own pattern of creating and enthronement) is a historical movement from promise to fulfillment rather than an ascent of mind.

This eschatological perspective, in continuity with Irenaeus and the Capppadocians, also extends the logic of Reformed (covenant) theology. As Geerhardus Vos reminds us, the particular covenantal and eschatological orientation found in Scripture is thoroughly concerned with the ethical and personal sphere, not with abstract metaphysics and ontology. “The universe, as created, was only a beginning, the meaning of which was not perpetuation, but attainment” (emphasis added). Eschatology is prior to soteriology. Creation began with a greater destiny lying before it. Creation was the stage—the “beautiful theater”—for God’s drama, not an end in itself. Life in the garden was not intended to simply go on in perpetuity but was merely the point of departure for the great march of creation behind God’s vice-regent into the everlasting life of God’s own Sabbath-rest….

[A paragraph about immortality as the reward promised upon completion of the trial]

Thus, the emphasis of the Christian East on the attainment of immortality and that of Western theology on legal redemption can be integrated. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve lived between the two trees: between everlasting confirmation in blessing and everlasting confirmation in death. Eden was a trial. As human beings are by nature covenantal, they are also constitutionally prospective—even utopian, despite the distorted ways in which fallen humanity seeks to win its glorification apart from and even against God. They not only have the law written on their conscience but carry within themselves a sense of some great task of spreading God’s kingdom and glory to the ends of the earth. It is both of these senses, that of God’s command and that of the promise of glory, that become twisted by human rebellion, but we can discern even in that rebellion the remnants of the original commission. (386-7)

Published in: on April 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

The Process of Church Decline

Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith describes a fourfold theological movement: drama, doctrine, doxology, discipleship. Drama is the historical sweep of the Scriptures: creation, fall, promise, incarnation, church, consummation. From this drama arises Christian doctrine, the grammar of the Christian faith. Doctrine rightly grasped produces doxology, our joyful “Amen!” to God’s work. On the basis of the preceding three, we undergo discipleship, dying to sin and living anew in Christ.

This process is not merely for individuals, though. The Church as a whole either embraces or rejects this movement:

Typically, periods of reformation in both individuals and the church corporately arise from rediscovering this sweeping pattern from biblical drama to doctrine to doxology to discipleship. Periods of decline usually work their way in reverse.

First, we begin to question the reliability of the narrative. How can we find our own stories in the unfolding drama of God’s miraculous intervention in history for sinners when our world seems to be governed by nothing more than natural or humanly devised processes and causes? The doctrines may be true, but their historical narrative becomes questionable.

Second, the doctrines come under criticism as people recognize that the doctrines depend on the narrative. No one believes that Jesus rose from the dead because of any universal law of nature, reason, or morality. It is not a deliverance of universal religious experience. Therefore, if Christ was not actually raised bodily on the third day, then there is no basis for speculating about a “doctrine of resurrection.”

Third, worship loses its rationale. We may still express our inner experience or piety (at least for a while), but eventually this leads to burnout because it is self-referential. Our hearts are stirred by truth, not by vacuous exercises.

Finally, we become disciples more of the culture than of Christ. Instead of being transformed by the renewing of our minds, we become conformed to the pattern of our non-Christian neighbors (Ro 12:1-2). In a last gasp for religious authenticity, the church tries to defend Judeo-Christian morality (discipleship), but it is a desperate attempt. The battle has already been lost at the earlier stages. Without the creeds, the deeds surrender to vague moralism. (25-6)

Published in: on February 20, 2011 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment