James Fowler has released what I predict will be a very helpful book in leading people to understand the objective and subjective truths of the gospel. The Extent and Efficacy of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ particularly meets a real need in the grace community in that regard.
For nearly eight years I’ve been teaching about the objective side of salvation in comparison to the subjective side. Objective truth is that which is true whether we know it, receive it, or personally experience it. It is truth that is valid whether we believe it or not. Subjective truth is that which we personally recognize and embrace. Objective truth is factual while subjective truth is that which becomes actual to us personally. Objective truth is eternal while subjective truth is experiential.
In his new book, Fowler explains the nuance between these two views of salvation. The primary strength of the book is the simple and easily understandable way that the objective and subjective truth of the gospel are presented. While many other books appear to be directed toward the scholar, this book has a popular reading style that will make it easily accessible for the average reader.
In the modern climate of the church where charges of unorthodoxy at the least and heresy at the worst are being hurled, Fowler does a good job in showing the value and importance of both sides of the “gospel coin.” He writes:
“The dialectics of Christian thought involve two seemingly contradictory or opposing ideas that are both biblical tenets and must be held in tensioned balance one to the other. The contrasts do not pose a polarized either/or dichotomy, but rather a both/and tension in which the two tenets may appear to be in conflict, but must always be maintained in a complimentary balance.”
It is from that starting place that Fowler sets forth with clarity the meaning of the gospel in a way that disarms those who accuse others who stress one side of the gospel over the other of missing the mark. The book is well organized in that it sets forth the objective side of the work of Christ, which Fowler calls “objective universal” and then presents the subjective aspect that he calls the “subjective particular.”
In the third chapter he shows the danger of minimizing the objective-universal tenets of the gospel by explaining the fallacy of “paricularism,” the viewpoint that overemphasizes the responsibility of man in salvation. The ditch that one may fall into with this error is Calvinism, a view that places such a distorted emphasis on God’s sovereignty that it diminishes the place of human response to the gospel.
In chapter four, Fowler does an admirable job in showing how that Universalism is the other aberrant extreme that comes when the subjective-particular aspect of the gospel is understated. He clearly shows that our faith in Christ is not “a work” that contributes to our salvation but is simply a grace-based response to the good news of the Incarnation (life and work of Jesus).
This book is a sufficient answer for any of us who minimize or dismiss one side or the other of the gospel. It shows how that both the objective aspect of Christ’s work (what Christ has done on our behalf before we even believe it) and the subjective aspect of his work (the imperative call for our individual faith response) both are twin towers of truth in understanding His finished work.
Since toward the end of the book, Fowler mentions me by name, along with C. Baxter Kruger, Paul Young and Malcolm Smith, I will respond to what I believe are sincere but misguided understandings of what I teach. He wrote that, “When Steve McVey (who had been affiliated with the Exchanged Life Ministries group) began to share with his followers that he had changed his theology, a tempest in a teapot began to brew.” Apart from a minor detail, his observation about that period of time is fairly correct, but six pages later he incorrectly states a few things regarding our teaching that bears mentioning.
Fowler is troubled by the word, “Trinitarianism” and charges that “the movement has hijacked the orthodox terminology of “Trinitarian . . .” I disagree and believe that the Cappadocian Fathers as well as other early church leaders would be completely comfortable with our use of the word, “Trinitarianism.” Fowler prefers the phrase, “Evangelical Calvinism,” a phrase whose creation he seems to attribute to Myk Habets and Bobby Grow. While I believe there are many early Church Fathers who would have no problem with the word, “Trinitarianism,” I suspect it would be a needle-in-a-haystack-search to find a true Calvinist who wouldn’t be offended by labeling what I and others teach as “Calvinist” in any form. He also mentions the name “Trinitarian Universalist,” a pejorative phrase used primarily by those who oppose Trinitarian thought in an attempt to indict those who hold Trinitarian views with the label of “Universalists,” a blatantly false charge. (In the broader theological world, the phrase is sometimes used to distinguish "Christian Universalists" from "Unitarian Universalists.)
Fowler states that “the Evangelical Calvinists . . . might state that:”
"All humanity "is drawn into fellowship and participation with the Triune God via the humanity of Jesus." While I’m tempted to respond on behalf of the others mentioned by name, I will restrict myself to answering only for what I teach. I don't believe or teach that all are drawn into fellowship and participation with God via the humanity of Jesus.
What I do believe is that we are all within the perichoretic circle of the Trinity, but the only way we will personally experience the "fellowship and participation" in that Triune life and intimacy is through personal faith. In other words, while I believe the objective reality is already there, a subjective response must exist for fellowship and participation to be realized.
His suggestion that we teach all humanity "is relationally 'in Christ,' i.e. has a relation with God by the life and work of Jesus" isn't something I believe or teach in the sense he uses the phrase. While all the cosmos is indeed "related" to God through Christ, we must believe the gospel in order to experience relationship. Again objectively, yes- all things are related to God in the sense that he both created and sustains all things. All things are "in Christ" in that sense. (See Colossians 1:17) However, a "personal relationship" is only realized through faith in Jesus Christ.
The suggestion that Trinitarians teach that all humanity "had the choice made for them, when Christ chose to become Man and life 'as us'" is a statement that needs clarification. If the statement suggests that there is no choice to be made by us, then I deny and reject that view. Again, I believe everybody, without exception, must believe on Jesus Christ in order to be a Christan and/or go to heaven. It is "(His) faith unto (our) faith" (Romans 5:17). In other words, Jesus is our "faith source" but we must align our faith with His in order for the efficacy of the cross to have personal meaning to and transforming impact in us.
The suggestion that Trinitarians believe that all humanity "has exercised faith in God by 'the faith of Christ' - Christ is the faith-er for all mankind" is both a yes and no for me. Yes, I do believe it is the faith of Christ but I also believe that faith must be actualized in each individual. The faith of Jesus isn't a unilateral action toward the Father that automatically becomes personally efficacious apart from our "acceptance" of Him and His faith.
Perhaps the most disturbing statement for me personally is Fowler’s assertion that Evangelical Calvinists can disregard all the religious threats of hell - ain't no such place, and nobody's going there."
I have had this charge brought against me many times despite the fact that I have repeatedly said that I believe in hell. It seems that in the climate of Western Evangelicalism, if one suggests another view of the nature of hell than the traditional Augustinian, infernalist, retributive version of the nature of hell, we become suspect for not believing in hell. I can't speak for others but I do believe in hell and have done a teaching about my understanding of hell in my series "Important Things I Didn't Learn in Sunday School." My view is more of an Eastern Orthodox view and one that often doesn't set well in the conservative Evangelical world in North America. Do I believe hell is of the Dante/Augustinian order? No, but I do believe in hell nonetheless and teach that those who don't believe the gospel will experience that hell.
I appreciate Dr. Fowler’s honesty and fairness in the book and believe that one statement he made may account for the divergence of emphasis between grace teachers. He wrote on page 170: "I admit that I have had a tendency to "camp out" on the subjective-particular emphases of the indwelling presence of the Triune God. I still believe that is the missing element in Protestant thought that God has called me to teach."
That makes perfect sense. His experiences with the church world have led him to believe that the objective aspect of the finished work of Christ has been emphasized to the neglect of the subjective necessity of personal faith. Thus, he "camps out" on the subjective-particular aspect of the indwelling presence of God.
My experience is different. My opinion is that in the conservative mainline Evangelical church world (particularly non-liturgical churches), the emphasis has been unbalanced by an emphasis on personal responsibility to the neglect of the objective nature of the finished work of Christ. In other words, there's so much talk about the importance of "being saved," of "asking Jesus into your heart," of "accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior," that the objective nature of His finished work is largely unknown. That's why some people have falsely called me a Universalist. They are only familiar with the subjective imperative of believing but have little or no knowledge of the indicative biblical teaching that our belief doesn't cause God to do something but it simply aligns our experience with an eternal reality that already existed even before we believed.
Because of my experiences in the church world and my view that the objective aspect of the gospel isn't known by many (including those in the exchanged life community), I "camp out" on that side of the gospel.
Having identified these few areas that I think are honest misunderstandings on Fowler’s part, I want to end this review by stating that I wrote ‘Amen!” by almost everything else he wrote in the book. If you are one who has been caught up in the discussion of the differences between objective and subjective truth, I can’t overstate how valuable I believe you may find this book to be. Even if these concepts are new to you, I heartily recommend the book as a great introduction toward moving into a deeper understanding of the gospel.We will never plumb the depths of God's grace expressed in Jesus Christ, but for those who enjoy diving into the Scripture and going deeper, you will find The Extent and Efficacy of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ to be a guide toward greater wonder and amazement over the gospel message.
To buy the book, click this link: http://www.amazon.com/Extent-Efficacy-Life-Jesus-Christ/dp/1929541422/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344761092&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Extent+and+Efficacy+of+the+Life+and+Work+of+Jesus+Christ