The Primacy of Revelation (3)

Part Two

In our present “postmodern” ethos, laden as it is with deconstructionism and hermeneutical suspicion, Christians have to ask how the primacy of biblical revelation does in such an environment.  Does it struggle for air or does it flourish?  Maybe it is better to ask, can it flourish as an idea among ideas?

The biblical outlook has set against it three formidable foes. These enemies of God’s Word are constantly at work chipping away at the foundations upon which Christian theology, and therefore Christian truth, rests.  Often working surreptitiously, these three foes are well-known.

First – the system of anti-Christian thought that pervades any society; the cosmos as John calls it or the world.

Second – the unregenerate heart and mind; the sin nature of the individual

Third – the god of this age and his cohorts

In biblical shorthand they are the world, the flesh, and the devil.

For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world.  – I John 2:16

Any theology worth its salt will constantly engage these powers, correcting and seeking to undermine their challenges and influence. True theology is a corrective to false ideas wherever it is found.

This is inevitably the case because the revelation of God, in the Word of God particularly, is the only authority that contains the power to realign man to the divine intention; that is the intention of God for man in the first place.

There is no more significant question in the whole of theology, and in the whole of human life, than that of the nature and reality of revelation. – G.C. Berkouwer, General Revelation, 17

He’s absolutely right! We live in a revelatory environment; that’s what this world is. Because it is made and upheld by God.

Therefore, Bible doctrine, which is the main reason that the Bible says itself it was given in 2 Timothy 3:16:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

The theology of revelation is not a subject to be learned; it is the disclosure of truth. If we know what it is then we will treat it appropriately.  We will prize it, and we will work it out and apply it to all areas of life.

Now, one cannot ignore the clear message of the Bible to the effect that “there is a way that seems right to a man” (Proverbs 14:12).  This fact must be taken under consideration when we expound our faith because our default setting, even as Christians, is independence from God.  Because we either do things God’s way or we do it our way. There are ways of doing theology, ways of thinking about theology, which do theology a great disservice.  They all tend to treat the Bible as a subject.

But man is a dependent creature.  Here is how he ought to think:

As man’s existence is dependent upon an act of voluntary creation on the part of God, so man’s knowledge is dependent upon an act of voluntary revelation of God to man.  Even the voluntary creation of man is already a revelation of God to man. Thus every bit of knowledge on the part of man is derivative and reinterpretative. Now, if every fact in the universe is created by God, and if the mind of man and whatever the mind of man knows is created by God, it goes without saying that the whole fabric of human knowledge would dash in pieces if God did not exist and if all finite existence were not revelational of God.  In any Christian pursuit therefore, the mirage of free and unhindered reasoning must be stopped at the outset. What we’re about here is to find out what God says. God has spoken, now what has he said? – Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 12-14

Van Til taught that God has flooded the creation with clear revelation of His Divine nature (theotes), and that man, as the image of God, is both revelatory to himself and is equipped – at least as he came from the hand of the Maker – to interpret the revelation which God puts forth.  Only we do not interpret autonomously, that is, outside our God-intended parameters.  We were made for exalted communion with Yahweh, the “I Am” (Exod. 3:14; Jn. 8:58), and this communion is predicated upon our sustained worshipful dependence on Him.

Our dependence on God is achieved when we realize that God has not created us to ‘go our own way and do our own thing.’  No, He has spoken to us.  Even in the Garden of Eden, God spoke to Adam and Eve, and they were to live together with Him in joyous subordination to the revealed verbal revelation they received.  We don’t respond as well-trained pets, but as responsible and free persons whose job it is to (as I believe Kepler put it), “think God’s thoughts after Him.”  This phrase pops up again and again in Van Til’s writings and summarizes much of his approach.

Hence, for us to think anything without reference to God’s Word is to cross into prohibited territory.  It is the prelude to sin, since it prepares us to “size things up” independently of God and to come to conclusions about God’s works which are out of sync with the Divine intention.  This is the position that Satan got Eve into in Genesis 3:6.  She was tricked, but Adam opted for the autonomous lifestyle knowingly and willingly (1 Tim. 2:14).  So, when God asks the man “who told you you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11), he is getting to the heart of the matter.  Did God tell them they were naked?  Did Satan tell them that?  No.  Well, who did then?  They told themselves!

From this stark truth comes all of our trouble.  Hence, the priority of revelation.  We will never know reality aright until we “think God’s thoughts after Him.” Even when we, like Eve, state true propositions about the world (see again Gen. 3:6), we will go awry because we will not relate them to their Creator and Interpreter and His purposes.  If we do that then we will lose our significance and, in so doing, we will lose ourselves.

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The Primacy of Revelation (2)

Part One

The Importance of a Prolegomena, and the Importance of Having a Christian Philosophy

There are all kinds of philosophies which the Christian should avoid.  The Apostle warns,

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. – Colossians 2:8

The reference here is probably generic, referring to the various ideas floating around in Asia Minor in the day: eclecticism, syncretism, idolatry, superstition, and neo-platonic moralism.  In the midst of it all there was and is a true Christian philosophy.  In fact, anyone who is a lover of real sophia (wisdom), is going to love the philosophy of Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, the one who discloses God par excellence.  Mature Christians become such, in part, by thinking biblically.

In one of his earlier books Francis Schaeffer made this pertinent remark about the reticence of Christians to think with their theology:

Christians have tended to despise the concept of philosophy; this has been one of the weaknesses of evangelical orthodox Christianity. We have been proud in despising philosophy and we have been exceedingly proud in despising the intellect. Our theological seminaries hardly ever relate their theology to philosophy and specifically to the current philosophy. Thus, students go out from theological seminaries not knowing how to relate Christianity to the surrounding worldview. – Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent, 297

Schaeffer was certainly not recommending philosophy above theology.  What he was drawing attention to was the serious lack of critical reflection by evangelicals and fundamentalists on a whole host of important intellectual matters to which theology ought to deliver the answers. The problem, as he saw it, was that theologians – and evangelical theologians more than most – were just not equipped to address these weighty matters, nor in many cases, were they even interested in them. Philosophy needs theology for its basic justification and proper direction.  And theology depends upon revelation.

Theology also needs a collaborative philosophy to unearth the kinds of questions that theology should meet. Otherwise theology becomes an exclusive discipline cordoned off from the rest of intellectual life, when it should in fact be guiding it. Theology needs a philosophy; therefore, theology needs to study first principles (prolegomena).

Schaeffer also mentions that in many seminaries the current philosophies of the day are not studied, or not related to theology. But we have to relate the truths that we are espousing in our statements of faith to the real world.  We have to use revelation to its full extent to cover all truths.

If Jesus Christ has indeed come into this world and died on the Cross in real time for fallen man, and if the Cross of Christ and the Resurrection of Christ indicate that Christ is coming back to rule the world, then there is a big story to be embraced.  It leaves nothing untouched.  This world will be transformed, and God’s people will be transformed and glorified to live in it.  So Cross and Crown impact a Christian view of history, the meaning of history, and therefore the meaning of human life.  And the content is revealed.

If God has created this world then we’re not here by cosmic accident, we’re here by divine purpose, and there is a teleology, a purpose or an aim, that is built into this world and into its forward trajectory.

Therefore, as saved human beings we need to find out what that purpose is and we need to be pursuing it in this fallen world. We can hardly shine like lights in this world if we do not think in a different way than this world, and our lives do not even slightly remind the world to a different way of thinking.

When New Testament Christianity met the non-Christian world, whether Jewish or Gentile, its characteristic response was not to collaborate but to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Lord and thereby to see a change in its hearer’s allegiance. – Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God, 33

Revelation, Theology and the Christian Mind

This really is what theology and the theological mind enables us to do. It doesn’t just do to preach the Gospel as an independent truth, just some other piece of information that we’re to add on to what we already know.  If we do that then the Gospel just doesn’t fit. Because the Gospel demands the transformation of our thinking about the world and our thinking about ourselves, and our thinking about our dependence upon the Sovereign God.  For most of the thinking of the people in the world it’s been built on an independent foundation, not one that depends on Scripture.  Therefore, this whole message, which demands humility and repentance and dependence….just doesn’t fit in with that framework.

So, there needs to be a theological setting, a theological framework or explanation, in which the Gospel is set, as a painting is set in a good frame, enhancing and deepening the encounter.

Now, from one point of view that is Systematic Theology come to its own, but using other language, but sticking to the truths of theology, it is really a Christian philosophy or worldview.  Therefore we have to be aware of the fact that the revelation of God demands that kind of treatment.

Unless Christian education publicly expounds its way of knowing God, strenuously proclaims universally valid truths, and clearly identifies the criteria for testing and verifying the knowledge claims we make, then the Christian view of God and the world will survive as but a fading oddity in an academic world that questions its legitimacy and appropriateness. – Carl F. H. Henry, Gods of this Age or God of the Ages, 93

When Henry talks about testing and verifying the knowledge claims that we make, he’s using language that goes back to a kind of verifiability criterion of his mentor Gordon Clark and people like E.J. Carnell.  I would disagree with that approach because it tends to be too rationalistic.

But from another point of view there are proper ways of testing and verifying our knowledge claims as long as the appeal is to our ultimate authority (the Bible), and that ultimate authority is demonstrated to be the only public authority that can actually make sense of any universally valid truth claim; this is where the great work of Cornelius Van Til and others comes in.

 

A Review of ‘Israel, the Church, and the Middle East’

A review of Israel, the Church, and the Middle East: A Biblical Response to the Current Conflict, edited by Darrell L. Bock & Mitch Glaser, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 296 pages, paperback.

This compendium of new essays follows the only occasionally stellar The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, edited by the same two men.  This book marks Israel’s seventieth anniversary.  It is divided into four parts, Biblical Foundations, Theology and the Conflict, Yeshua in the Midst of the Crisis, and Current Challenges to Peace in Israel.

This book takes a good look at these four issues through the various viewpoints of the authors.  There are few weak contributions (e.g. a surprisingly tame essay from Bock), the general standard is high.  Here are my thoughts on a few of the articles:

First, Richard Averbeck’s opening piece on the biblical covenants starts things off well.  He is clearly uncomfortable being identified either as a covenant theologian or as a dispensationalist, but he has no time for replacement theology (22).  More notable to me though was this line:

The system of theology known as “dispensational theology” describes the historical biblical covenants as subsumed under a set of dispensations in God’s program… (22)  

I have been saying the same thing for many years, but who sees it?  Well, at least one other man does!  The covenants are right there for all to see and read about.  The dispensations are nowhere near as prominently set out.  But dispensations are allowed to define the system instead of the covenants nonetheless.  The essay includes some good interaction with crucial chapters in Genesis relating to the Abrahamic covenant (i.e. chs. 12, 15, 17, & 22).  He shows how the land promise is just as permanent as the seed promise.  He also rightly notes that the Davidic covenant “adds a dynastic element to the covenant program.” (32).

I did not agree with everything in the article.  For instance Averbeck’s simple definition of a covenant as “a solemn and formal means of establishing a relationship” (24), badly needs another definition; that of “relationship.”  Some covenants in the Bible only establish a relationship in terms closer to “you stay away from me and I’ll stay away from you” (e.g. Gen. 21).  Moreover, God’s covenants incorporate great promises, so that it is well to include that when discussing Divine – human covenants.  Finally, the solemnizing oath is crucial.

Covenant also receives plenty of attention in Mark Yarbrough’s analysis of the Bible Story in chapter 3.  He warns of just seeing the Big Picture without the important details.  I thought he made some good points.  My one major disagreement is that Yarbrough refers to Gentile believers as “spiritual Israel” based upon Galatians 3:29.  Paul does not use that language.

Michael Rydelnik’s oddly titled “The Hermeneutics of the Conflict” is extremely good.  It is long enough for him to address several points, such as the clarity of the promises in the OT, the understanding of those promises in the NT (with its seeming lack of interest in the land promise), and the misuse of some NT texts to “expand” that promise.  He forthrightly says that analogies by supercessionists which try to make God more generous than His original promises by expanding them not only fail, they illustrate “betrayal.” (75).  I think he’s right, which is why expansionist explanations often neglect to switch out the promisees in the way supercessionism teaches.

Craig Blaising is arguably one of the most nuanced theologians writing today.  His piece entitled “A Theology of Israel and the Church” is a welcome inclusion.  It serves as a promo piece for “Redemptive Kingdom Theology”, AKA Progressive Dispensationalism, (87 n. 7).  Blaising is always worth reading, and I liked his essay.  However, his treatment of the Church as a communion of ethnes for future kingdom development left me wondering whether PD sometimes makes the Church look like a placeholder for God’s kingdom plans for Israel and the nations.  Despite his appeal for clarity (100), I found myself with some weighty questions at the end of this essay.

Mitch Glaser provides a useful look at the politicized side of supercessionist theology by focusing on the work of the pro-Palestinian Kairos document.  His piece dovetails well with Craig Parshall’s analysis of the UN’s hypocrisy over the rights of Israel as a nation in the book’s penultimate chapter.

I will mention only one more essay here, which is Michael Vlach on “Israel and the Land in the Writings of the Church.”  Vlach identifies four factors which steered the early church in the wrong direction on this issue (121-122).  The first was the almost universal Gentile complexion of the Church.  Second was the fate of Jerusalem and the land after the revolts of 70 A.D and 135 A.D.  Third was the pragmatic theological turn that became replacement theology.  Finally, the hermeneutical guardrails were erected largely through allegorization.

Nevertheless, there are many examples of “restorationism” throughout the periods of Church History.  Vlach furnishes many examples to show that Christians have not all wrested the promises to Israel out of their hands.

The book closes with data from a Lifeway Survey on Evangelical attitudes toward Israel and the Jews.  Good indices are also on hand.

I liked this book a lot.  I think it stuck to its task well and should be seen as a reliably informative defense of the nation of Israel in Scripture.  It is a worthy gift from evangelicalism to the beleaguered nation.

The Primacy of Revelation (1)

I thought I would adapt some of my lecture notes on Systematic Theology for my blog.  I am continuing to work on my book of Biblical Theology, and I thought it would do me good to change things up a bit.  The first group of posts will be on the Doctrine of Revelation. 

That God has spoken is the most important thing that can be said by a human being in this world.  Ontologically speaking, God must come first, and God must have priority. God is before all things, even before the Scriptures, which are given in time as a disclosure of God to man.  Not a full disclosure, but a sufficient one.

There are all kinds of epistemological, that is knowledge-based questions that arise when we deal with God’s disclosing of Himself, about the world, and about ourselves.  This epistemological triad comes to us from two sources; Nature and Scripture.

If we’re going to take a truly biblical approach to knowledge, we must understand the ramifications of stating the fact that God has spoken to us; and that therefore there are ways of operating, ways of thinking, ways of conducting ourselves, ways of doing theology, that are either commensurate with that great fact or in opposition to it.

Another way of putting it is that we will either respond to the truth that God has spoken and fall in line with that truth – position ourselves underneath it, depend upon it, and look to it to find truth, or we look down upon this fact from a perspective that is still independent of it; that analyzes it, judges it from the outside.  Even some theologies have done this.  Doing the latter simply encourages and promotes the big problem with mankind – our penchant for being independent of God.

The doctrine of revelation does not promote autonomy but dependence on God; dependence on God not just for our everyday needs, but also for our everyday thinking.  This outlook is inextricably bound to the Bible and our faith in it.

In the first part of these lectures I’m going to be setting the foundations for the way that we need to think about the Scriptures, and about the world we live in, and therefore about the God who has created us, saved us, and whom we serve.  This begins with a right approach to authority.  As one has stated it,

The Christian theological framework is not created by a masterful human imagination; in fact, it is not fundamentally a human construct at all. It is in the first instance discovered in the divine initiative of God’s own self-disclosure. If theology is the science concerning God, it is a science with its roots in God’s manifestation of himself. Thus, genuine theology listens before it talks. – Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, 64

We should always place the Scriptures in such a position in our minds.

The Final Authority?

Now, it is very common for evangelicals to say that the Bible is their final authority.  Many of us subscribe to statements of faith which say that very thing. However, saying that the Bible is your final authority, and actually making it your final authority in all matters, are two very different things.  For many people the Bible is their ultimate authority when it comes to ‘spiritual things’. However, when it comes to the way they do their jobs, the way that they pursue certain hobbies or ambitions, the way that they transact business, the way they go shopping, pay their bills, interact with people, the kind of decisions that they make, the way that they interpret the world, or the way that they allow the ideas of the world to penetrate their thinking, one often finds that the Bible is not only not the final authority in all matters, it is not any kind of authority at all!  It is used only for church, for church activities, Bible studies, maybe personal devotions, and when it is put down, the cogs start clicking and the mind changes its frame of reference, moving from a biblical mindset back to a worldly mindset, going about its daily duties without much reference at all to what God thinks and what God says.

What we want is a view of the Bible as the ultimate authority, to be consulted first.  Christians should let the Scriptures hold such a comprehensive claim on the mind and heart that they won’t be able to go shopping, drive their car, plan a vacation, or do anything else without thinking about what God, through His Scripture, says about how they should be approaching these things.  We are to bring all our thoughts into captivity to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).  We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Therefore, if we’re to do that we need to take seriously the fact that we must always, and in everything, be dependent upon the revelation of God so we can live a life of faith in this world.  Remember, without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).

The Demands of Revelation

The fact that God has not left Himself without witness (Acts 14:17) but has revealed Himself in the world by His Word, is such a stupendous thought that it pulls everything into its orbit; nothing is left unaffected by it.  Hence Systematic Theology might well be seen as the Christian worldview set out and unpacked. Systematic Theology therefore, is only at home in a truly Christian environment.

What this entails is an exclusivist approach to theology from a believing viewpoint, which requires a biblical viewpoint.  For a Christian to adopt a method of theology that is at odds with his duty towards his Lord, is for that person to deny what is said to him, and to mix incongruent conceptions of reality together in his mind.  There is only one reality and that is God’s reality. Other realities are made-up realities and we as Christians can make up realities as well as the next man, and we do that when we step outside of what God requires in his Word.

Surveying The Period From Joshua To David (Pt.4)

Part Three

Returning to chapter 7 of 2 Samuel, verse 13 speaks of David’s son building “a house for My name” with the addition of the pledge of an everlasting dynastic kingdom.  Walter Kaiser has commented on the connection between the establishing of a kingdom and the right to erect a temple.  He writes,

[A]ccording to 2 Samuel 7:13…the “house” of David had to be first established by Yahweh before a temple could be built.  Temple building could only be the completion and crowning effect of Yahweh’s creation of a kingdom.[1]    

If this is right then David could not begin his reign by ordering the construction of a temple to Yahweh.  Why not?  Because peace in the kingdom was not attained during David’s reign, either through having to impose his reign over dissidents, or through his own disastrous breaking of the law he was supposed to be upholding via the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11).

As Niehaus reminds us, the covenants of God,

…are unconditional and they are also conditional.  They are unconditional in that the Lord will not let any vassal disobedience annul any of “God’s covenants.  They are conditional in that every one of them contains one or more conditions for the vassal.[2] 

So King David was really in no state to build a temple on the grounds of God’s covenant with him.  But it is interesting that God Himself told David that he was not the right man to build the temple.  Such a temple to such a God had to be built in peace, since it symbolized ultimate shalom in Creation.

The Durability of the Davidic Covenant

As the history of the Davidic line unfolds it doesn’t take long until the wisdom of making it unconditional is confirmed.  The precariousness of making a covenant’s success depend upon men is once again established.  Solomon began so well, with all that a king might need to rule in line with the Law.  A man given wisdom who became the fool; what a commentary on the human race!

The division of the kingdom which followed was inevitable.  The result was a foregone conclusion so long as a son of Adam was in charge.  If God’s covenant was to mean anything in the long run then, just as much as the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Priestly covenants, it had to seek its fulfillment in the New covenant ushered in by the Promised One: the Seed, the Branch, the Servant, the King who is the also Prince of Peace.

Even though mercy was shown to David’s line (e.g. 1 Kings 11:39), the main point is this: so long as any of these covenants was linked to the Mosaic covenant, they were incapable of fulfillment.  They had to be allied to a different covenant; one that was free of demands upon the sons of men to rise to an ethical standard which they were simply powerless to attain.  Therefore the sustainability of the covenant with David would depend upon its association with the New covenant.

After the break-away of the ten northern tribes under Jeroboam of Ephraim (1 Kings 11 – 12), the northern kingdom (which kept the name “Israel”) had no kings who followed God.  These tribes went into Assyrian exile in 722 B.C., although representatives from them all trickled down to “Judah” both before and during those tumultuous years, as several passages make clear (see e.g. 2 Chron. 11:16-17; 19:4; 30:1, 5; 35:17-19).[3]

Again, God Means What He Says

There are numerous instances in the historical books where the two main foci of this biblical theology can be sampled.  Here are just a few examples:

Covenant Oaths Mean What They Say: Solomon’s recalling of Shimei’s oath in 1 Kings 2:41-43; Solomon reminds the people of God’s faithfulness in 1 Kings 8:1, 21, 24, 26 (with more to fulfill);

God’s Words Equal His Actions: 1 Kings 8:24; the naming of Josiah in 1 Kings 13:2, 3, 5; the death of Jeroboam’s child in 1 Kings 14:12, 17; Elijah’s doom upon king Ahaziah in 2 Kings 1:3-4, 16-17; Elisha feeding a hundred men in 2 Kings 4:42-44; the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:10, 13-14; Elisha’s promise of an abundance of food to the starving people in 2 Kings 7:1, 18; Isaiah’s prediction of Sennacherib’s defeat in 2 Kings 19:32-33.  All were fulfilled literally.  God means what He says.

What we might call “the code of the prophet” is found in Micaiah’s testimony in 1 Kings 22:14: “As the LORD lives, whatever the LORD says to me, that I will speak.”  This consistency in the pronouncements of God make Him worthy of our trust.

—————————————————————————–

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Promise-Plan of God, 118

[2] Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Biblical Theology, vol. 2. 415.  Perhaps it would be better not to refer to the recipients of God’s covenants as “vassals” since the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants are not strictly Suzerain-vassal treaties.  Only the Mosaic covenant is, although these treaties do “lie on a continuum.” – Ibid, 424-425 n.12

[3] “A subsequent attempt at religious and perhaps political unification of the whole people of Israel was perhaps also undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the northern kingdom, before Sargon II’s control over Syria-Palestine was fully established and the situation in the new province of Samerina fully regularized after 720 B.C.” –  Iain Provan, et al, A Biblical History of Israel, 272

Repost: Should ‘Presuppositional’ Apologetics Be Rebranded As ‘Covenant’ Apologetics?

Recently K. Scott Oliphint of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia has published a book which he has called Covenantal Apologetics.   I reviewed the book here and recommend it.  But I expressed reservations about the writer’s agenda of rebranding Van Til’s apologetic teaching in line with the book’s title.  Coming as it does from one of the foremost representatives of Van Til’s presuppositional approach around the thesis deserves attention.  As I said in my review, by “Covenantal” Oliphint means the ‘covenants’ of covenant theology.

Now nobody is going to disagree that Van Til often spoke about fallen man as a covenant-breaker.  And no one will dispute that by that designation he had in mind the theological covenants of Reformed Covenant Theology.  You cannot read Van Til very far before running into statements he makes about ‘the Reformed apologetic.’  For example,

All men are either in covenant with Satan or in covenant with God. – Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th edition, edited by K. Scott Oliphint, 300.

This is the kind of thing covenant theologians say (or used to say).  Van Til did not refer to his approach as ‘Covenantal Apologetics’, but I think he might not have minded too much.  Still, is it right?

Van Til’s argument for allying his apologetics with the resources of covenant theology should be seen against the backdrop of his conflating covenant theology with Reformed Calvinistic theology.  But any reader of the Jacob Arminius is well aware that he too was a covenant theologian.  This needs to be noted because Van Til’s point is mainly anthropological and soteriological.  He memorably observes,

We should add that according to Scripture, God spoke to man at the outset of history.  In addition to revealing himself in the facts of the created universe, God revealed himself in Words, telling man about what he should do with the facts of the universe.  Since the fall, all men, as fallen in Adam (Rom. 5:12), continue to be responsible for this twofold revelation of God given to man at the beginning of history. – Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 19

This is a point which can be made from the Bible through exposition of Romans 1:18-32 or Psalm 19.  Among his other contributions to theology Van Til stressed this revelatory nature of knowledge before and after the Fall:

For Adam in paradise God-consciousness could not come in at the end of a syllogistic process of reasoning.  God-consciousness was for him the presupposition of the significance of his reasoning on anything. – The Defense of the Faith, 113

But he did not always appeal to the Bible for his authority.  Like so many covenant theologians of the past and present he counted on the Westminster Standards to support his contentions.  So right after the above statement we read this one:

To the doctrine of creation must be added the conception of the covenant.  Man was created an historical being.  God placed upon him from the outset of history the responsibility and task of reinterpreting the counsel of God as expressed in creation to himself individually and collectively.  Man’s creature consciousness may therefore be more particularly signalized as covenant consciousness.  But the revelation of the covenant to man in paradise was supernaturally mediated…Thus, the sense of obedience or disobedience was immediately involved in Adam’s consciousness of himself.  Covenant consciousness envelops creature consciousness. In paradise Adam knew that as a creature of God it was natural and proper that he should keep the the covenant that God made with him. – Ibid.

Here, as Oliphint explains in a footnote in this edition, Van Til is appealing to the WCF 7.1.  The “covenant” to which Van Til is referring in this quotation is not any covenant found in the description of paradise in the first chapters of Genesis.  The “covenant” is the ‘covenant of works’ invented, along with the ‘covenant of grace’, by covenant theologians as a theological explanatory device to describe our relationship with our Creator.  No Scripture is provided to show the presence of this covenant, and for good reason: there is none.

In arguing for the name covenantal apologetics, Oliphint uses the same method.  In all his argumentation for the idea there is a noticeable dearth of scriptural appeal.  For instance, for his definition and understanding of the term “covenant” he does not go to the Bible but to the Westminster Confession (See K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 39, 49, 61-62, 93).  The Confession does indeed refer to God’s condescension in relating to us as “covenantal.”  But is that the way the Bible itself uses the idea of covenant?  I think not.

For one thing, it begs the question to have the Westminster Confession authorize the name-change from presuppositional apologetics to covenantal apologetics.  Without reinventing the wheel, I have tried to show in other places (e.g. here), that covenant theologians have misread biblical covenants, like the New Covenant, in fitting them into their extra-biblical inferential scheme.  Oliphint himself does this on page 59 of his book when confusingly quoting Hebrews 6:17-18, which refers back to the Abrahamic covenant (6:13), and forwards to the New covenant, of which Christ is the Mediator (Hebrews 8 and 9 go on to explain this).  But Oliphint’s quotation is not in reference to either of these biblical covenants, but (as we saw with Van Til) in service of a supposed covenantal relationship enacted at the outset of creation.

Covenant theology has often been criticized for making their theological covenants ride roughshod over the clear covenants of the Bible, effectively stripping them of any specifications not required by their approach.  The example just given is quite typical.

Like Van Til Oliphint wants man’s knowing to be covenantal (44, 82, 152).  But this is neither necessary nor particularly relevant.  It is not necessary because our relationship to God need not be viewed within the terms of covenant.  We would do better and would stay within the boundaries of the biblical text to speak of “creaturely obligations” or “image-accountability” than introducing covenant language.  Although covenants in the Bible do establish relationships and commitments, no one is free to read and then define the terms of a covenant for which there is scarcely any warrant.  And interpreting our knowing as covenantal is not relevant  for two reasons.  First because Arminians have often been adherents of covenant theology and Van Til was often at pains to try to show that only Calvinism could support his position (see, e.g. A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 81ff.).  Therefore, his real emphasis while using the Westminster Confession should more often than not be understood to be Calvinistic.  Second, because nowhere in the Bible is our knowing depicted this way.  While all assent that the new birth brings with it new outlooks (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:17-5:17), such things were hardly necessary in Eden.  Divine covenants obligate God to do something.  But in paradise we read of no such Divine obligation; still less do we read of a covenant oath!  In Scripture, all the covenants which are plainly discoverable come after the Fall: indeed, they come after the Flood!  Covenants are not required where the relationship is not sundered and in need of reconciliation.

In truth, while the genius of covenant theology may be brought to bear on Van Til’s apologetic, the real issue is whether his approach is supportable from the text of Holy Writ.  And the answer to that question is certainly Yes!  As Greg Bahnsen showed in his Always Ready, there is plenty of biblical justification for presuppositional apologetics, without the need to appeal to covenant theology.  While Bahnsen was a proponent of covenant theology, he wisely sought to establish his apologetics on a different and firmer foundation.  What we want to know is whether Van Til’s apologetic is biblical, and indeed it is.  Because that is so the question of nomenclature might be easily solved by calling it, as a recent fine exposition does, simply Biblical Apologetics.

The question of whether covenant theology is biblical is much harder to prove.                

It is my opinion that even Van Til’s insistence that his apologetics demands allegiance Calvinistic Reformed theology is also unpersuasive, and for many of the same reasons.  Van Til was rightly concerned with the “absoluteness” of God to be the ultimate environment of thought.  He did not think Arminianism allowed such a thing because of its idea of free choice.  Although I am not an Arminian I do think that Arminius has a very strong conception of God’s primacy in choosing.  Not all Arminians do.  But then again, many Calvinists have deferred to concepts akin to natural theology in their writings.  This opens the door to viewing men and women as operating in a revelatory and so accountable realm, and a (functionally) non-revelatory realm where they are free to decide upon matters of truth independently of special revelation.

What it all comes down to in the end is not whether or not Van Til or Oliphint would prefer it if their apologetics was referred to as “covenantal,” but whether it would be right to insist on the connection.  If we base our apologetics on the clear statements of Scripture, including the covenants of the Bible, our base will never crumble.  but if we seek to base our apologetics upon ‘covenants’ which we are unable to prove from the Bible, we expose that apologetic approach to the same heavy biblical criticism with which covenant theology has been assailed.  Presuppositional Apologetics might not be the best label, but it is far more satisfactory than an attenuated name like Covenantal Apologetics; especially when ‘covenantal’ refers, not to the biblical concept of covenant, but to the strained idea of covenant within covenant theology.     

Surveying The Period From Joshua To David (Pt. 3)

Part Two

God’s Covenant with David

David was the king that Yahweh had promised (Gen. 17:4-6, 16; Deut. 17:14-15).  His reign came some four centuries after God had said that He would “surely set a king over you” (Deut. 17:15), and not much shy of a millennium after the covenant made with Abraham.  God never seems to be in a hurry.

In many ways 2 Samuel 7 is the strategic point for understanding the covenants with Israel.  It pulls together the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, land and people and God-centered government, in a way that concretizes the one and shows the righteous yet temporal nature of the other.  In the person of the King the Lord’s creation goal will take shape.  That King is not David, but David, as Abraham, is granted the inestimable privilege of beginning the dynasty (cf. Matt. 1:1).

Scripture presents the Davidic covenant almost as a response from Yahweh to the relocation and veneration of the ark of the covenant.  Here is a man who will take the covenant seriously (even though he will sin grievously – Psa. 51).

The importance of the Davidic covenant is underlined by the fact that, as with all the previous Divine covenants, God Himself utters it.

When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men.  But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you.  And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever. – 2 Samuel 7:12-16

The first line of the promise speaks of Solomon, who began well but ended up destabilizing the kingdom through idolatry.  Clearly even giving wisdom to a sinful man is not enough to guarantee the high requirements of covenant fulfillment.  Wisdom can undermine sin, but it cannot stop it in its tracks.  But the promise has more to it than failure at the hands of sinners.  It is part of the web of covenant promises intimately linked with the Creation program of God.  The real intent of the promise comes only in verse 16:

And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.

This is the oath at the center of the Davidic covenant, even though the word berith does not appear in the context.  Yet there is ample corroboration of the oath as a covenant vow.  For example in his prophetic song at the close of his life David is sure that God,

…has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. For this is all my salvation and all my desire; will He not make it increase? – 2 Samuel 23:5        

Psalm 89 includes the elements of the original pledge in 2 Samuel 7, but it is unequivocal about the fact that Yahweh did enact a covenant with David:

My mercy I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall stand firm with him.

His seed also I will make to endure forever, and his throne as the days of heaven.

If his sons forsake My law and do not walk in My judgments, if they break My statutes and do not keep My commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.

Nevertheless My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from him, nor allow My faithfulness to fail.  My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips.

Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David: his seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before Me; it shall be established forever like the moon, even like the faithful witness in the sky. – Psalm 89:28-37

The expectation of King David as expressed here is that his dynasty will be perpetuated forever.  That expectation is fixed even when David himself lets his faith slip.  So in 2 Samuel 24 when at the end of his life he numbers the people we read,

Go and tell David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you.”  So Gad came to David and told him; and he said to him, “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land?  Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you?  Or shall there be three days’ plague in your land?  Now consider and see what answer I should take back to Him who sent me.” – 2 Samuel 24:12-13

I think it is significant that God linked a misuse of the crown to a plague on the land.  David is over the land as its king.  And indeed it hardly makes sense to begin a dynasty when there is no land to rule over.  King and kingdom must go together.  Therefore the covenant with David assumes a land – the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – over which the dynasty will reign.

SURVEYING THE PERIOD FROM JOSHUA TO DAVID (PT. 2)

Part One

Judges is best read as a chronicle of the fate of the separate tribes within the narrative.  There appears to be some overlapping of events within the Book so that a strict 410 year chronology from first to last is doubtful.[1]   Further, there is the sad report that summarizes the first two stories in the so-called “Bethlehem Trilogy” at the end of the Book[2], that,

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 17:6

This report, repeated for emphasis in Judges 21:25, does not come from the close of the era of the Judges, but most likely from the beginning.  Kaiser remarks,

The events narrated in these two appendixes to the Book of Judges probably fell early in the period of the judges, since a grandson of Moses, in one case, and a grandson of Aaron, in the other, would need to be contemporaneous with the generation that came after the Conquest.[3]

After Judges 17 – 21 the third story involving Bethlehem is the Book of Ruth.  Ruth 1:1-2 takes place within the era of the Judges, when there was a definite sense of dislocation between one tribe and another.  This sense of estrangement almost, is only overcome in the aftermath of calamity, such as the decimation of the tribe of Benjamin[4] retold in the last chapter of Judges (Judg. 21:1-5).   It is evident that the writer of this little book wants the reader to connect Bethlehem, the place that Elimelech and Naomi originate from (Ruth 1:1-2; 4:11), to the line of David (Ruth 4:17-22); David of course, being from Bethlehem (1 Sam. 16:1-13).

Samuel

Samuel is the spiritual giant who dominates the narrative at the close of the Judges period.  It is difficult to imagine David without the preparatory work which Samuel did in Israel in the previous two generations.  Before Saul was anointed its first king Israel,

…had no statehood, no organized government, no administrative machinery and, above all, no king.[5]

Yahweh was “its sole and sovereign Overlord.”[6]  Yet in Samuel’s day the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:11).  Since it represented the Lord’s side of the Mosaic covenant and it was superstitiously brought into the camp of Israel attended by the two godless sons of Eli, it was not surprising that God allowed it to be captured.  But by permitting such a thing God was in effect saying that since the people had defected from Him that He Himself would temporarily let the ark go to another people who at least would not treat the covenant disdainfully.

The Humiliation of Dagon

The story of the ark of the covenant in Philistine territory is instructional in itself.  It ended up being placed in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod.  Dagon was the fish-headed father of Baal and was the god of grain.[7]  The statue of Dagon did not fare well towering over the ark.  God would not have the symbol of His Presence humbled before an idol.  On two consecutive mornings the priests of Dagon came into the temple only to find the image of Dagon “fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD” (1 Sam. 5:3).  On the second occasion the possibility of an accident was completely discounted when “the head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it.” (1 Sam. 5:4).

Subsequently, the widespread suffering of the Philistine cities where the ark was moved persuaded them to give it back to the Israelites (1 Sam. 5:6-6:18).  Their experiences with the ark would have taught the Philistines that the covenant of Israel with its God was powerful when they were obedient to Him.  Sadly, Israel was in such a sorry state spiritually that they could not handle the ark of the covenant properly for many years (1 Sam. 7:2). (more…)

Surveying the Period from Joshua to David (Pt. 1)

After the death of Moses on the east side of the River Jordan the responsibility for leading the fledgling people of Israel into the Promised Land fell upon Joshua the son of Nun (Josh. 1:1-2).  The first indications were that Yahweh’s power would make them unstoppable.  The passage of the ark of the covenant over the dry bed of the Jordan demonstrated to the people that the Creator Himself was their God, and they were in covenant with Him (Josh. 3:17).  In a real sense the priests bore the covenant with them as they passed into Canaan.  There was every reason to be devoted to God.

The overthrow of Jericho and the way it was accomplished once again only underlined Israel’s dependence on Yahweh (Josh. 6).  But Achan’s sin cost the lives of thirty-six men (Josh. 7:1-5), as well as causing the name of Yahweh to be blasphemed.[1]  Defeat at Ai proved that without God conquest was not going to be possible.  Thus, from the very start of the campaign miraculous acts of God encouraged the Israelites to occupy the land.[2]  But they were also reminded that success depended on them going about it God’s way; that is, with an eye to the covenant.[3]

The deception of the Gibeonites takes up chapter 9 of the Book.  What is most noteworthy for our purposes is the finality of the covenant that was made with Joshua and the elders of Israel (Josh. 9:15).  The text places emphasis on the hope that was placed by the Gibeonites in the solemnizing oath that was sworn:

So Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them to let them live; and the rulers of the congregation swore to them.

And it happened at the end of three days, after they had made a covenant with them, that they heard that they were their neighbors who dwelt near them.

Then the children of Israel journeyed and came to their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kirjath Jearim.

But the children of Israel did not attack them, because the rulers of the congregation had sworn to them by the LORD God of Israel. And all the congregation complained against the rulers.

Then all the rulers said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the LORD God of Israel; now therefore, we may not touch them.” – Joshua 9:15-19 

If only they could persuade the Israelites to vow to spare their lives the Gibeonites knew they would be safe.  The wording of the oath that was taken was the crucial thing.  It would be hermeneutically decisive!

At the close of the book there is the famous fulfillment statement in Joshua 21:43-45,

So the LORD gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it.

The LORD gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers. And not a man of all their enemies stood against them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand.  Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.

This passage is often seized upon by amillennialists and postmillennialists to try to prove that the land promise has been fulfilled and that there is no good reason to teach that the nation of Israel still has an expectation of possessing the land grant of Genesis 15.[4]  For example,

This promise of a land was fulfilled when Joshua led the people of Israel back into Canaan (Josh. 1:2-9).  As Joshua himself later put it, “So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there” (Josh. 21:43; cf. 1 Kings 4:20-21).[5]

But any reflection on Joshua 23:11-12 and Judges 1 and 3 shows that the amillennial interpretation fails to take the wider historical context into consideration.  As Chisholm explains, “The land belonged to Israel, by title deed if not in fact.”[6]  To all intents and purposes, the land belonged to Israel, and possession of the remaining territory was contingent upon covenant faithfulness to Yahweh.

Yet there is a sense in which the land-grant of Genesis 15 must also be seen eschatologically.  The extent of that land promise still awaits final fulfillment.[7]  In light of this it is best to interpret Joshua 21:43-45 as a statement of God’s fulfilled promise in terms of His covenant faithfulness to a yet disobedient, willful and sometimes feckless people.  The land was now “Israel”, though not the promised Kingdom.

In the last chapter of Joshua we read about a covenant renewal at Shechem at which Joshua rehearses the Lords faithfulness to His people (Josh. 24:1-28).  This was the fourth time that the children of Israel had pledged to walk in God’s covenant Law.[8]  But from the human side, such pledges are never going to be kept.  Still, the speed at which the tribes faltered is alarming.  Within essentially one generation (see Judg. 2:10) the author of the Book of Judges could write of the almost total apostasy of the nation (Judg. 2:10-13).

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[1] It is not easy for the modern reader to understand the language of herem (indicating dedication to God through utter destruction), but it would have been fully known to Achan.  Whether Achan only is executed or whether his “sons and daughters” were also stoned is hard to tell from the text.  In light of Deuteronomy 24:16 (“children shall not be put to death for their fathers”) it seems more likely that Achan alone was killed.  See Adolph L. Harstad, Joshua, 328.  For a description of herem see e.g., Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, 110

[2] For Joshua himself, the greatest of these miraculous signs was when he was confronted by “the Captain of Yahweh’s army” in Joshua 5:13-15

[3] Harstad comments, “The covenant relationship between the LORD and Israel is implicit in every chapter of Joshua.” – Ibid, 751

[4] It is strange how “literal” they can get with some texts in their clamor to “spiritualize” many others

[5] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 46

[6] Robert B. Chisholm, A Commentary on Judges and Ruth, 119

[7] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. The Promise-Plan of God, 96-97

[8] The other times were in Exodus 24 and 34; and Deuteronomy 29.  See Elliott Johnson, A Dispensational Biblical Theology, 173.  Johnson seems not to view Deut. 29 as a separate covenant to the one at Sinai.

Some Notes on Daniel 7 (Pt.2)

Part One

A Time. Times, and Half a Time

The length of time that these saints are given into his hand is described cryptically as “a time, times, and half a time.” (7:25).  If we stand back and think a little about these words it will become apparent that the only possible way in which they can make sense is if we understand the plural “times” as designating “two times.”  If it can mean any more than two the whole revelation drops into irrelevance.  This is because if any more than “two times” is meant, it might be three or four, or twelve, or twelve hundred times.  Who’s to know?

No, the only way “times” designates anything for sure is if it is a simple doubling of a “time.”  This would mean that we have one unit (or “time”), and two additional units (“times”), and then a half unit (half the first unit).  Hence, whatever the units are we have three and a half of them.  Since we know that these units are units of time the best suspects are days, weeks, months, or years.  In Daniel 4:23, 32 it is most likely that the “seven times” in which Nebuchadnezzar was insane stands for seven years.  If that is correct then “a time, times, and half a time” in Daniel 7:25, and later in Daniel 12:7 stands for three and a half years.

In the later passage there is a reference to “a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation” out of which Daniel’s people (Israel) will be delivered (Dan. 12:1).  During this period of trial, “the power of the holy people will be shattered” (12:7), which conjures up thoughts of texts like that describing “the time of Jacob’s trouble” in Jeremiah 30:7, and that text also has Israel (Jacob) rescued in the end.

If we try to piece this together we get a persecution of Israel by a powerful and blasphemous potentate for three and a half years just prior to Christ’s second appearing to establish His earthly dominion.  Since the four kingdoms of Daniel 7 match those of chapter 2 we can identify the “stone” whose earthly kingdom will last forever (Dan. 2:44-45), is Christ, the “Son of Man”.  Additionally, Nebuchadnezzar was told that his dream concerned “the latter days” (Dan. 2:28), so it seems to fit together coherently.

Explaining that Interval

How is one to explain the exceedingly long interval between the fourth kingdoms and the arrival of the coming One?  From our vantage point in the twenty-first century after Christ, does it not stretch credulity to continue to look for this “little horn”, the grand persecutor in our future?  What about the long history of the Christian Church?  Is that merely a “parenthesis” between these events?  Should we not be well advised to seek a personage in the era of the first advent to identify as this “little horn” from the fourth kingdom?

The same kinds of questions may be asked about the “stone… cut out without hands” of Daniel 2:34.  If He smites the toes of the image, wouldn’t it be logical to locate this smiting at the first advent, perhaps spiritually applying it to the work of Jesus on the cross?

The first thing I would say in response to this understandable concern is that the text of Scripture must be permitted to say what it says, about whom it says it.  That last clause is most important.  The people in view in these visions are the nations of the world considered in terms of empires (Dan. 2 & 7), and, in chapter 7, the persecuted people of God (who in the historical context are the saints of Israel – 7:25, 27).  The coming of the stone and the Son of Man is, we have good reason to believe, the coming of Messiah to reign upon the earth.  This would be the second coming, not the first.[1]

We must take seriously the fact that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus was a rejection of the kingdom too.  This might have been foreseen had Isaiah 53 (especially when combined with Daniel 9:26) been comprehended for what it was.  We have already seen that the first and second advents are fused together in the Prophets (e.g. Mic. 5:2; Isa. 9:6-7; 61:1-2).  If there is to be a long interval between the two comings of Christ and that is what is envisaged in the Daniel then so be it.[2]

What this entails is that Daniel has supplied us with some important information about Israel’s fate just before the time of the second coming of Jesus.[3]  This information can be inserted into the developing picture of covenant promise as it emerges from progressive revelation in the Old Testament.

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[1] I shall have a lot more to say about the reign of Christ further on in this work.

[2] The fact that the Body of Christ, the NT Church is not seen in the visions of Daniel does not relegate the Church to a secondary “parenthesis.”  It just means that it is not the subject of Daniel’s prophecies.  Progressive revelation, when understood as an unfolding story, will bring the Church into the picture when the time is right.  In the sixth century B.C. the revelation about the Church would just complicate the prophetic picture.

[3] Of course, from the perspective of OT saints there is no time separation between the first and second advent.  This is why, e.g., Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7, 61:1-2, as well as Zechariah 9:9-10 include detail now known to belong to one or the other coming of Christ.