[Common Places] Sanctification: Interview

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places on July 6th, 2017. Tagged under ,,.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places

Our current series, Sanctification, looks at elements of the forthcoming volume by Michael Allen in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.

sanctification

  1. Your treatment of sanctification is itself a whole dogmatics in miniature. What led you to take this approach?

Two things have been formative here.

First, I’ve been increasingly alert to the way in which Christian moral teaching falls on deaf ears, it seems, not only in our wider culture but even within churches. It seems to me that we not only struggle with what we might call biblical and theological illiteracy, that is, unfamiliarity with the material, but perhaps more subtly with a complete misperception of its meaning. Words like “holy” are assumed to carry mainstream social meaning and, perhaps, Christ is taken to be the one who provides it.

There’s a serious spiritual problem here. Christians not only affirm that all good things come from God, but also that the nature of the good is defined by God. So holiness isn’t just an obvious moral goal to which we only find an answer in the gospel of Jesus. No, the kind of characteristic described in the process of sanctification (which we call “holiness”) must itself be distinguished from churchly social mores or the existential aspirations of consumeristic religion. To appreciate the distinctly Christian nature of sanctification, then, we need to see how it is interwoven with fundamental tenets of the faith.

Second, too many theological projects struggle over the issue of being Christ-centered either by failing to maintain constant reference to the grace of Christ or by reducing that grace to one tense or one blessing (whether justification or transformation or vocation). It seems to me that Christ can easily become a cipher for some cause or a symbol for a specific benefit as opposed to a divine person who brings humanity to God and fulfills human nature in so doing. To be thoroughly Christ-centered in thinking about sanctification, I believe we need to show the importance of proceeding in a canonical manner by showing that Christ makes sense only within the broader prophetic and apostolic witness that he himself has commissioned. So my approach here is meant to prompt a hermeneutical and theological guide to what it might mean to be Christ-centered. (I touched on this in an earlier post where I sought to commend lessons learned from Augustine’s teaching “This is to preach Christ.”)

  1. What biblical texts are most central to your arguments in the book?

The book does not linger over a particular corpus or genre but ranges rather broadly across the canon. Indeed, I think the wholeness of the biblical witness needs to be attended to lest we somehow develop a myopic or malformed notion of what it means to be holy unto the Lord. There are lengthy discussions of portions of scripture, ranging from Paul’s teaching on the law to the transfiguration of Christ in the New Testament and from the cultic legislation of Leviticus to the praises of the Psalms in the Old Testament. Some passages do appear on multiple occasions (e.g. Jeremiah 31), but I think much of the book’s success will depend on its ability to offer a reading of the breadth of the Scriptures.

  1. What other resources play a critical role in the arguments of your book?

I’ve been shaped by comments from John Calvin in the beginning of his discussion regarding the Christian life (Institutes, III.vi.1) where he notes that patristic authors helpfully taught much regarding the nature of discipleship though they failed to attend to its regulation by Scripture alone and its basis in justification wholly found in Christ. I remain transfixed by the way in which Calvin and other reformers have offered a thoroughly Christological and gracious account of sanctification. But I have increasingly sensed that these concerns—solus Christus and the other solas are crucial here too—must be contextualized in the broader teaching of early Christianity regarding the calling of discipleship. Too often those who commend grace feel that doing so demands them to go rather quiet regarding the call to self-denial, the pattern of imitation, and the delightful instruction found in God’s law. But the God of grace is so generous as to not only forgive but also to form, not only to summon us unto holiness but also to provide the means thereunto.

  1. Did you run into any surprises while working on this volume?

I was struck by the way in which ascetical theology—calls to Godward and heavenly contemplation, on the one hand, and toward self-denial, on the other hand—was woven throughout the totality of patristic and later Puritan theology as well as the earliest Protestant theology (so powerfully expressed in Luther and Calvin). This has appeared in various slivers of this text and spawned another small book on the side (entitled Living Hope). I suspect that retrieving discipleship as a topic for dogmatic theology will be important for those of us seeking to evangelize and resource Christians in what is an increasingly consumerist culture.

In this regard I’ve been prompted to a fairly complex reading of Herman Bavinck’s teaching on nature and grace, seeing some conflict within his own account of the issues. Nature and grace are opposed with regard to salvation’s material cause (for grace alone, not nature, saves), and yet nature and grace are not mutually exclusive when we speak of salvation’s final end (for grace perfects nature). Too often neo-Calvinists have affirmed one strand without continuing to affirm the paired strand. Similar nuance is needed when adopting the famous line from Irenaeus about “the glory of God [being] man fully alive.” This beautiful truth can itself become idolatrous if we fall silent in saying with Irenaeus also that “the living man is the vision of God.” God does not simply bring flourishing any which way we might desire, but he gives us nothing less than himself. The gospel brings strange news that is good for us: it is strange and different and thus unsettling to our nature, and yet it is for us and thus restores and perfects us in our very own nature.

  1. How have life experiences over the past couple of years, including major health struggles, shaped your thinking about sanctification?

Holiness is more than mere cleanliness or, put otherwise, not just the absence of evil. Holiness involves not only cleanliness but also sacrality (Lev. 10:10). Facing some medical struggles, serious hospitalization and surgery, and a chronic condition have prompted me to realize that we not only want to see problems removed by God’s grace but greater aspirations given. It would be so simple but far too trite to desire Christ to answer my felt yearnings and to keep me from going astray. All this is well and good. But Christ wants to do something far more radical, namely, to call me away from feeble and frail aspirations unto deep and profound longings that can only be matched by heavenly bliss. So when sitting in a hospital bed, I’ve seen that I don’t primarily pray for the good of physical healing (though I do so) but that I’m prompted to long for and pray unto glory. Pain does have a way of focusing the affections and can serve as a means of ordering our loves. I have found that I’ve needed the counsel of Augustine in this regard to help me know how to revere and delight in God for his own sake and in other joys only in as much as they are enjoyed in him. In many ways, sanctification involves the ordering of loves and suffering can prove to be the crucible of charity’s reorientation.

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Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is the author of numerous books and articles and serves as a Presbyterian teaching elder. With Scott Swain, he serves as general editor for the New Studies in Dogmatics series published by Zondervan Academic.

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Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Sanctification, looks at elements of the forthcoming volume by Michael Allen in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

 

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