There’s been a fair bit of discussion following my articles last week, the first a lengthy overview of growing concerns I’ve had with the Biblical Horizons-Through New Eyes paradigm and my own apology and retraction for my part in it for many years, the second a short follow up noting that despite the articles on Theopolis addressing problems with the “gay celibate movement,” Peter Leithart still hasn’t explained or retracted his endorsement of Wes Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship, nor has Jeff Meyers addressed the problems with calling his Missouri Presbytery Revoice Committee “balanced.”
I want to follow up here zeroing in on the regeneration issue and why it is so significant for our foundational theology as well as our current cultural moment fighting the LGBT Gestapo.
Reviewing Jordan’s Thesis
So first off, the argument from James Jordan is that “nature” does not exist. There is no substance or being that exists apart from God (which is true enough), but he reasons from this that the only thing “there” is the sum of relations. The nature of any given thing is merely the cumulative total of specific ways in which a being exists in relationship to God. This may seem overly esoteric, but it really does matter on at least two levels. First, as I noted in my previous post, this effects whether there is any substantial, rudimentary change that occurs when an individual is born again. And by substantial/rudimentary, I mean has the thorn tree become a fruit tree? Has the bitter stream become a sweet well of living water? Has the wolf become a lamb? These are all images that Jesus uses to describe the problem with unregenerate man. He cannot do other than whathe is. He needs to be made into a fundamentally different kind of human being. Jesus told a good, intelligent Jewish Pharisee that he needed to be born again (Jn. 3). Despite having all his covenantal paperwork in order, Jesus said Nicodemus needed a new nature. The Jordan view of regeneration says that being born again is merely entering a covenantal relationship with God. Since baptism is the formal entrance into the covenant, regeneration is collapsed into covenantal categories. And therefore, this sort of regeneration can be lost, forfeited, and a thorn bush may become a fig tree and then revert to thorn bushness, which definitely creates problems for assurance of salvation.
Objectivity of the Covenant
As I noted in my previous post, I believe that this muddle really does create a confusing hash of traditional Reformed categories. On the one hand, I do believe that some in the Federal Vision conversation were merely wanting to point out that some passages that refer to covenant realities have sometimes been given short shrift. John 10, Romans 11, 1 Corinthians 10, and Hebrews 10 would all be good places to start. And let me offer that standard Presbyterian warning that these passages have been known to cause Baptists to become Paedobaptists in the State of California, so caveat lector and all that. But the basic gist is that these passages clearly teach that there is a category of person who has *some* kind of true connection to Christ that is not ultimately saving. Look for yourself: Jesus is the vine, disciples are the branches, and some are cut out that do not bear fruit. Certain Jews were cut out of the old covenantal vine, so that Roman Christians might be grafted in – but watch out, you too can be cut out. Likewise, Paul warns the Corinthians who have been baptized and are eating spiritual food that they too can fall just as the Israelites did in the desert – “these things were written for us.” And finally, Hebrews 10 says that some people may even trample the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified. Baptists who want a stainless steel New Covenant really do have problems with these apostasy passages. But a robust category of “covenant membership” or the “objectivity of the covenant” does justice to these passages (people are really falling from something, being cut out of the covenant). But that something is not a true, saving relationship to Christ – from which no one can fall. As a Calvinist, I believe those who are truly regenerated are given a stainless steel new nature or new heart that can never be lost or taken away. Or to put it another way: no one with a new nature, born again, filled with the Spirit of promise will become fruitless in the end. They will persevere to the end by the grace of God. I don’t believe any problems are caused by this covenantal formulation.
The Problems Caused
But problems are caused by collapsing regeneration into baptism/covenant categories. Now what are people falling from? Well, there’s a sense in which they are losing their regeneration, if regeneration is merely understood as covenant relationship. But it keeps going. What about justification? If there’s a “covenantal justification” that is practically indistinguishable from soteriological justification, then there’s also a de facto sense in which you can lose your justification. And it really is difficult to see how this does not make justification in some sense dependent on works, even if you’re saying “through grace by faith” all day long until you’re blue in the face. Or, if there’s a covenantal election that is indistinguishable from soteriological election, then there’s a sense in which you can lose your election. Now, I happen to believe that “election” is used in the Bible covenantally sometimes, but this is why careful distinctions must constantly be made. But if the category of “nature” has been abandoned, what exactly is being justified, sanctified, elected, or glorified? A relationship? Can a relationship be justified? Can a relationship be sanctified? I think one possible answer would be to say that a particular person is justified, sanctified, etc., and one does not need the category of “nature” to say that. But that leads me to my last point.
And What About Chalcedon?
It seems to me that this whole thesis implicitly denies the Council of Chalcedon, which explicitly confessed that Christ is one person “recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence…” If there is no such thing as “nature,” how do we describe the incarnation? And it is heretical (strictly speaking) to say that the Eternal Word took on a person named Jesus. There were not two persons in one body. There was one person, Jesus of Nazareth, who was the Eternal Word in human flesh. The name of this union of natures is the hypostatic union. So again, I ask, to what did the Eternal Word unite Himself to? The historic Christian answer is “human nature.” But if there is no such thing as “nature,” what did the Word become in the incarnation?
And while the hypostatic union is completely unique in the incarnation, the early fathers were very comfortable saying that conversion/regeneration was analogous to that union, in that the Divine nature via the Holy Spirit came to dwell inside believers, completely renewing our human nature. What Christ was by nature – the Eternal Son and became through the hypostatic union in the incarnation, God grants to believers by grace by the working of the Holy Spirit. In this way, Peter may even say that we have become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). And just as the hypostatic union is permanent, fixed, and forever, so too our saving union with Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is permanent, fixed, and forever by virtue of our regeneration, our fallen nature being born again to newness of life.
In other words, you can’t pull at this thread and not start unraveling the whole Christian faith. It’s not a little thing to be questioning whether “nature” exists or not. Is Jesus one man with two natures? And what are we? Do we have fallen human nature inherited from our fathers from Adam, and when we are saved and born again, what are we given? Is it merely a new relationship or status, or are we granted a new way of being human? And just to be entirely clear, this runs directly into our conversations about what it means to be male and female, whether there is any such thing as “sexual orientation,” and to what extent we may expect to progress in sanctification this side of glory. If there is not some underlying, fixed human nature, we cannot really insist that a biological man cannot become a woman. And why couldn’t a biological man be inherently sexually-oriented to other men? And even if we recognize that this is part of the fallen state (nature?) of a man, should we expect those deepest feelings to be eradicated or healed in this life? What is the nature of regeneration? What is the nature of being born again?
We live in a world full of confusion, but we have been given the words of life. We have been given a clear word in the midst of a muddled world. And this is the clear word: God saves sinners. God took on human nature in order to stand in our place as the fully obedient One, the Righteous One, our perfect sacrifice, so that we might be made new, born again from above, and given an entirely new nature — eternal life that can never be taken away. As the early fathers would put it: God fully assumed our human nature without sin so that our human nature might be fully healed and restored.