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The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 8

“Rule” 7

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 8: Never ground a teaching on disputed, ambiguous or debated texts (e.g. Matt. 10:23).  At best they may serve to support a given position.  Doctrines should come from the strongest possible connections between text and teaching.

When one is setting forth a proposition, the cogency of it and the logical extent to which it may be propounded depends much on the quality of its substantiation.  The gauge of “quality” would include things such as clarity, context, directness, and of course, relevance.

The descriptions “disputed”, “ambiguous”, and “debated” are somewhat interchangeable, and I do not want to set anything in stone, but for my purposes I have distinguished between them.  Whether you choose to follow me is of little importance to the overall point that I am trying to make.

By a “disputed” text I have in mind the disciplines of textual criticism and Bible translation.  (I want to make clear here that what is considered as spurious by liberal scholars with all of their historical critical biases will be considered authentic by an evangelical Bible believer.  Disagreements with non-biblical forms of scholarship does not concern this subject).  But, for instance, repairing to Mark 16:18 to get biblical permission to handle poisonous snakes in a worship service is wrong-headed in at least two ways.  First, there is nothing in the context about church meetings.  But second, the passage itself is considered a variant reading.  Since the middle of the 19th century the last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel have been doubted by many good Christians as being a part of the original text of this Book.  Whether you think they ought to be retained or not (and personally I do), it would be unwise to try to settle a doctrine with a passage that many scholars and commentators are decidedly convinced shouldn’t be there.

In a related manner it would be imprudent to develop a (false) doctrine of a kenotic emptying of Christ’s divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence from the translation of Philippians 2:7 as “He emptied Himself” rather than the less literal but more advisable rendering, “He made Himself of no reputation” (see B.B. Warfield’s masterful article on the passage).

To the degree that there is some ambiguity in a selected passage it is wise to take such a text as a possible supporter of another clearer text.  So, for example, 1 John 1:1 speaks of “the Word of life”.  But is it referring to Jesus Christ or is it referring to the Gospel or the Scriptures?  The majority say that the phrase is speaking of Christ, and it may well be.  But the point here is that if one begins their doctrine of Christ with the verse, or even bases an assertion on the verse, that assertion is only as good as the argument for Christ as the subject of the verse.  Better to go elsewhere.

We are all familiar with the slogan about deriving “the right doctrine from the wrong texts”, and a more serious error still occurs when we get the wrong doctrine from any texts.  One should not start his teaching of any doctrine with a text which is disagreed upon among different Bible interpreters. Whenever setting forth what the Bible teaches (which is always loaded with the claim that this is what God says), one ought in every case to reach for the very clearest and least disputed passages.

If we wish to teach on the deity of Christ or the Trinity we should avoid the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7).  Similarly, we should not be going to 2 Corinthians 3:14 to assert that the OT Canon was closed at the time Paul wrote his epistle, since it is very likely that the Apostle had in mind the Mosaic covenant, which he contrasts with the new covenant of which he is a minister (2 Cor. 3:6).  The issue cannot be decided by such proof-texting.

This Rule also deals with what I have called “debated texts”.  A debated text here is a scripture about which there may be disagreements about who exactly is being addressed.  The text mentioned in Rule 8 says this:

When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matt. 10:23)

Once we allow the idea that Jesus is speaking about His disciples in this verse, then the coming of the Son of Man in the context has to be spiritualized as a figurative coming in judgment in A.D. 70.  (This will lead to a violation of Rule 9).

In Mark 11:23-24 Jesus makes a statement that has us all running for the hills:

For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.

What on earth is going on here?  The Mount of Olives is still in the same place it was when Jesus made this announcement.  Furthermore, we do not see flying mountains (or houses or people for that matter) unless we taking powerful substances which we should stop taking.  So using the verse to teach on the limitless possibilities of confident prayer rather than using it to underscore the power behind confident prayer in line with the purposes of God would be a violation of this “rule.”

The next Rule picks up where this one leaves off.

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Scientism and Naturalism

A follow up to Scientism isn’t Science

Naturalism is defined by Stewart Goetz & Charles Taliaferro in this way:

Naturalism – very roughly – may be defined as the philosophy that everything that exists is a part of nature and that there is no reality beyond or outside of nature. – Naturalism, 6

Something being “a part of nature” is here meant to exclude the supernatural.  Naturalism then is opposed to supernaturalism.  It is seeing all things as natural and nothing as being supernatural.  It is this view of the world which informs scientism, and it is this same view which informs modern scientific procedure.  Although it is important to say that the procedure does not lead every scientist to embrace scientism (the belief that all questions about reality can be scientifically determined), scientism certainly needs the procedure.  This procedure is what is called “methodological naturalism” (MN).

Make no mistake about it, the definition of naturalism accepted by most scientists is freighted into their understanding of MN.  This is to say the word “naturalism” in methodological naturalism bears the same metaphysical meaning as it does in secularist philosophical naturalism of the sort promoted by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne and the rest.  And this ought to surprise nobody.  For the method which leads to naturalism must be logically set on its course by naturalism.

We may wish to distinguish philosophical naturalism from methodological naturalism because we think they are separate things.  We may want to assert that the “naturalism” of methodological naturalism is different than the “naturalism” of philosophical naturalism (PN).  But that minority position is a weak one for the reason that it involves an equivocation.  If, for the minority, the “naturalism” of MN is not the same as the “naturalism” of PN then perhaps it would be better all round for these equivocalists not to use the term methodological naturalism at all.  From my point of view, I think this would be advisable so as to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding, especially for Christian supernaturalists who believe that the laws of nature do not hang in the deterministic ether, but are reliant every moment upon the powerful word of God.  They should not and need not be in denial of this central fact when pursuing science, but they may have to rename their method to better reflect a biblical position.  Perhaps something like “reasoned” or “critical empiricism”?

Is it all to no Purpose?

The ingredient which is supposed to be absent from MN is teleology.

If strict naturalism is true, then there is no ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of any event, let alone our actions, in terms of a purpose. – Naturalism, 13.

It can be admitted that science could not proceed much if “God did it” was the answer to every question. But that is a trivialization of the biblical worldview.  The question which leads to science and encourages its pursuit is “How did God do it?”  That leaves the scientist free to analyze the natural world without pretending that it is everything that exists.  God’s purpose would not then interfere with the accumulation of data and theorizing.

Yet teleology is not only essential to understanding basic truths (e.g. the heart is for pumping blood; a stick of chalk is for a chalkboard; a lab coat is for wearing in a laboratory), it is basic to many enterprises which are covered by the word “scientific.”  Detecting purpose is at the very center of archaeology, forensics, and other pursuits in historical science.

Michael Polanyi wrote,

Our vision of the general nature of things is our guide for the interpretation of all future experience.  Such guidance is indispensable.  Theories of the scientific method which try to explain the establishment of scientific truth by any purely objective formal procedure are doomed to failure.  Any process of enquiry unguided by intellectual passions would inevitably spread out into a desert of trivialities.  Our vision of reality, to which our sense of scientific beauty responds, must suggest to us the kind of questions that it should be reasonable and interesting to explore. – Personal Knowledge, 135.  

Every notion of guidance suggests a goal or purpose.  There are no guides on the road to nowhere.  And although we may not know where the road leads we surely wouldn’t travel down it if we didn’t expect it to bring us out in a fruitful eventuality.  Pretending to ignore teleology brings on scientific reductionism – a reductionism which will threaten to strangle the parent which gave birth to it.  Polanyi’s insistence in the inescapability of tacit or personal knowledge; what today is usually called “first-person” knowledge, is antithetical to the naturalist agenda.  Hence, MN is usually circumscribed within a false objectified disinterested or detached third-person paradigm: one which, as Polanyi and others show, is simply impossible.

What naturalists need for their metaphysical project (shall I say “goal”!) is a closed system of causation. As Goetz and Taliaferro explain, “A study of the literature about strict naturalism…leads one to believe that in the end strict naturalists appeal to one central argument in support of their view ‘the argument from causal closure.'” – Naturalism, 26.  Unsurprisingly, as we have already said, philosophical naturalists take firm hold of MN as the way to prove their philosophy.  Thus,

The philosopher Jaegwon Kim argues that a neuroscientist (indeed, any scientist) has a methodological commitment to the causal closure of the physical world. – Naturalism, 28 

And Kim himself is quoted as saying that,

Most physicalists… accept the causal closure of the physical not only as a fundamental metaphysical doctrine but as an indispensable methodological presupposition of the physical sciences. Ibid, 29   

Consciousness is not a physical thing.  But if one is a naturalistic materialist it has to be a physical thing. If physicalists cannot explain consciousness and intentionality they can at least kick the can down the street and tell us the explanations are on their way.  They can do this because in their world methodological naturalism resists, always and everywhere, non-natural and purposive explanations.

In the worldview of the Bible, the scientist should not invoke supernatural causes of natural phenomena, but for a very important reason: although God’s power and wisdom is understood to be the cause of the matter under investigation, the Creation mandate only requires – indeed dictates – that the natural world be examined to see what God did and to comprehend the mechanisms, physical and mental, which He uses to create and sustain a thing.  In this outlook the first person and the third person perspectives coexist in coming to knowledge.

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God Vindicated – A short review of Kaiser’s book on God’s actions in the OT

Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament by Walter C. Kaiser, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015, 176 pages, pbk

God Almighty will always have to suffer the inquisitions of his rebellious creatures, at least until He sorts out the waywardness epidemic of creaturely independence which is the bequest of the presence of sin.  It won’t do to answer these jibes with “God can do anything He likes”, we must be prepared to educate unbelievers about the justice which always lays behind God’s judgments.

This new book by veteran OT scholar Walter Kaiser nicely addresses the most important issues which are raised by the destruction of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel or the “deceptions” one reads about hither and thither, or the Bible’s view of women and other things.  Kaiser does so, moreover, in a patient, thoughtful and even pastoral manner.  He is careful to explain all-important backgrounds and context, while unlike some recent attempts in the same genre, not sidestepping the sticky problems which some accounts may raise.

A particularly helpful and relevant chapter deals with whether God was okay with polygamous marriages in the Old Testament.  Through clear exegesis Kaiser demonstrates that although there was polygamy, it was not pleasing to God.  The tricky passage in 2 Samuel 12:7-8, for example, is dealt with deftly (100-101).

There are one or two extras included in the book.  One which stands out to this reader is Kaiser’s caution about going “first to the New Testament interpretation as the source for the original and final meaning back into the Old Testament.”  Of course, this NT understanding is but an “alleged New Testament meaning” which “makes the Old Testament meaning dispensable and reduces it to mean the same thing as the most recent application of that text in the New Testament.” (13).

A good book made better by the author’s mature, almost devotional at times, reflections on the issues.

As with all recent Kregel titles, I have a big ax to grind against the decision not to include any indexes.  Really, who made such a dumb decision and why were they listened to?

 

My thanks to Kregel who sent me this book for review without charge.

 

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Scientism isn’t Science

These remarks stem from some interchanges I had with some believers about methodological naturalism.

Many a scientist will say they are simply looking for natural explanations of phenomena they come across.  If that really were the case, there would be no difficulty at all.  But that is not so.  Scientism is on a quest.  The goal is driven by a rigidly held belief that “Science” is a God-free edifice.  Hence, “looking for natural explanations” is actually “permitting only naturalistic explanations.”  Once we change the adjective to “naturalistic” we can see better what the project is that is being pursued.  It is an anti-supernaturalistic universe that is so urgently desired by these people, and the device used to insure the supernatural realm keeps out of the way is the philosophical procedure called “methodological naturalism” (MN). Every Christian is familiar with the problem of the strident dogmatism of many scientists and their disciples.  They love to poke fun at faith and the Bible, seeing themselves as having outgrown such myths.  They trust in Science.  Science and the declarations of its knowledge elites is their god.  In his book Monopolizing Knowledge, MIT Nuclear Physicist Ian Hutchinson has labeled Scientism, the belief that all knowledge comes from the natural sciences, as “a ghastly intellectual mistake.”  Yet it is a persistent and habitual mistake which shows no signs of abating.

In a strange twist of fate MN was actually introduced by Christian natural theologians embarrassed by the “awkward” or even “evil” design of things in the world.  These men did not wish to ascribe such things as disease and parasites to God.  But, as the Enlightenment came into full swing, the Bible was attacked and Christianity doubted and science as naturalism went its own way with MN to guide it.  Oftentimes today science is actually defined as MN, whether it needs to be defined that way or not.  It does not.  As Phillip E. Johnson notes,

MN in science is only superficially reconcilable with theism…When MN is understood profoundly, theism becomes intellectually untenable… A methodological naturalist defines science as the search for the best naturalistic theories.  A theory would not be naturalistic if it left something (such as the existence of genetic information or consciousness) to be explained by a supernatural cause.[2]

Or as Stephen Meyer describes it,

scientists should accept as a working assumption that all features of the natural world can be explained by material causes without recourse to purposive intelligence, mind, or conscious agency[3]

But true science need not be enclosed within a naturalistic paradigm; methodological or metaphysical.  Indeed, to do so is to close off purpose (teleology) to science.  That sounds good to the naturalist until it is realized that scientists routinely employ purpose in their theories, and expect to find it in the extended world (e.g. medical diagnosis, forensics, SETI, or archaeology).  Ah, but teleological answers are fine if we can confine them to the physical world.  They are not fine if they lead to God!

Scientism and Information

But as Johnson shows in the above quote, and as Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe, William Dembski, Werner Gitt and others have demonstrated, science so straight-jacketed is incompetent to explain informational systems.  And yet it is the presence of complex information which is confronting MN everywhere.

To say such a thing is not to say that science done by Christians is superior to science done in the non-Christian mode.  Non-Christians can and have made great scientific breakthroughs.  But as Cornelius Van Til stated:

Non-Christian science has worked with the borrowed capital of Christian theism, and for that reason alone has been able to bring to light much truth.[4]

Whether we acknowledge the fact or not, we function as image-bearers discovering things which inform us in some way about the Creation.  Claiming we can acquire knowledge about the world via methodological naturalism, which is a denial of the revelatory character of the world, leads naturally to the teaching that we should think independently of God (i.e. knowledge can be arrived at by NOT thinking God’s thoughts after Him).  But since all that is within the world is pre-known and pre-interpreted by God this position is anti-biblical.  Van Til said,
The knowledge of God is inherent in man. It is there by virtue of his creation in the image of God. God witnessed to them through every fact of the universe from the beginning of time… God made man a rational moral creature, he will always be that. As such, he is confronted with God, he is addressed by God. To not know God, man would have to destroy himself; he cannot do this. There is no non-being into which man can slip in order to escape God’s face and voice.[5]

As he said in another place, “Man is revelational to himself.”  The upshot is that whatever we do, whether driving a golf buggy or potting a plant or calculating the density of a star, or conducting a lab experiment, we are using God’s gifts in God’s world, and we should use them in ways pleasing to God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31).

Science certainly deals with the natural world.  But the natural world is revelatory.  MN denies this. Thus,

Holy Scripture teaches that God very definitely, consciously, and intentionally, reveals himself in nature and history in the heart and conscience of human beings. When people do not acknowledge and understand this revelation, this is due to the darkening of their mind, and therefore renders them inexcusable.[6]

This “inexcusability” does not cease when a person dons a lab coat or enters a university lecture hall. How could it?

Here is another quote from a Dutch theologian:

He is the Creator, to whom also the mountains belong, but in the light of his universal power as Creator, all things are revealed in their absolute creatureliness. Everything which is able to impress us deeply, partakes of this creatureliness. All variations of nature do not cancel the common denominator: creature.[7]

The “creatureliness” of the world, and our status as spokesmen for the world, will not allow us to employ any naturalistic outlook.  Scientism is not on a search for truth.  It is a highhanded and arrogant dismissal of God and His General Revelation in nature.  It is “a ghastly mistake” because it is so obviously the invention of intellectual pride.  Confessing themselves to be wise, they became fools (Rom. 1:22).

 

5 KEYS FOR YOUR 2016 SPIRITUAL TRAVEL GUIDE

I wanted to write a ‘Facing the New Year’ post to focus myself on the main things, but I came across this piece by Dr. David Allen which I don’t think I could improve upon.  Hope it blesses you.  Happy New Year!

 

Two things are important when you take a trip: transportation and discrimination. You must know how you are going to get there and you must determine what to take with you. If you want to ruin your trip, take too much luggage.

It is the same in your Christian life. Knowing what to take and what to leave behind is the critical issue. The Christian life is a journey. We are pilgrims just passing through. Travel light.

Some Christians have accumulated lots of stuff over the years. Spiritual pack rats they are. With every passing year, their spiritual luggage gets more cumbersome. Time to unpack that luggage and throw out the things you don’t need.

Backpacks of bitterness. Handbags of hurt feelings. Suitcases of self-pity. Trunks full of anger, fear, unforgiveness, and other assorted burdens and sins.

Philippians 3:12-16 is Paul’s travel guide for your Christian life and he lists five key points you need to know to travel light.

  • Develop a healthy DISSATISFACTION with where you are spiritually. (12)

Notice I said a “healthy dissatisfaction,” not a paranoid or morbid dissatisfaction. Picture a scale of spiritual maturity from 1 to 10 with 1 being very immature and 10 being sinless perfection. How would you rate your spiritual maturity? Are you a 3? A 6? Wherever you are, don’t be content to remain there in 2016. Don’t be addicted to spiritual mediocrity. If you are a 3, move to 4. If you are a 6, move to 7.

  • Develop a single-minded DEVOTION. (13)

Paul says, “one thing I do.” Jesus said to the rich young ruler: “one thing you lack.” He said to Martha, “one thing is important….”

One thing. Not two things or ten things, but one thing. The one thing that is the main thing in your life is being like Jesus; a mature disciple in Christ.

A laser is focused light. It can cut through wood or metal. When you get focused you will learn how to travel light.

  • Develop a dogged DETERMINATION to be like Christ! (14)

This is the content of Paul’s “one thing”: “I Press toward the goal of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Picture of the runner whose eyes are fixed on the goal. With every effort of physical and mental exertion, he “presses” for the goal. Our goal is Christlikeness.

In order to press toward this goal, Paul lists two absolutely necessary things you must do.

First, discard all DISTRACTIONS. (13b) “Forgetting the things that are behind.” You cannot erase the memory of the past, but you can live in the present no longer influenced by the past. Two things distract us: past failures and past successes. You can depend on neither for today’s Christlikeness. Get a spiritual waste basket and chunk those past failures in it. You break the power of the past by living for the future.

Second, develop DILIGENCE. (13c) “Reaching forth to the things ahead.” The best picture I know of this word “reaching” is a football receiver sprinting down field. The ball is in the air and is arcing down in front of him just short of the goal line. An ordinary reach will not do. So the receiver, taking no thought for his body, leaves his feet, stretches out his body until he is parallel with the turf, extends his arms to the limit . . . and comes down with the ball in hand over the goal line for a touchdown.

  • Develop spiritual DISCERNMENT. (15)

“. . . and if any of you on some point think differently, God will reveal this to you.” Discernment comes through knowledge of the Scriptures, prayer, and a lifetime of walking with God.

  • Develop spiritual DISCIPLINE. (16)

“Let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.” The Bible is filled with people who began well, but ended poorly: Lot, Samson, Saul . . . . Why? They lacked spiritual discipline. They disregarded the rules.

August 7, 1954. The Empire Games in Vancouver, B.C. The mile race. Roger Banister and John Landy, the two fastest men in the world in the mile run, were competing against each other for the first time. Each had broken the four-minute mile earlier in the year. Landy’s strategy was to get the lead and never relinquish it. Bannister’s strategy was to allow Landy to be just ahead through the first 3 laps, then in lap 4, kick in and pass him.

Bannister was surprised at the strength and stamina of Landy. After lap 3, Landy was pulling away. Bannister moved it up a notch and began to gain ground. Around the last turn, on the last straightway, Landy was in the lead. He did not know exactly how far behind Bannister was because he could no longer hear footsteps due to the deafening roar of the crowd. With less than 90 yards to go, Landy suddenly turned to look over his left shoulder. At that instant Bannister was on Landy’s right shoulder and as soon as Landy looked back, Bannister kicked in, streaked by him, and won the race in the last 20 steps.

Travel Light! And don’t look back!

 

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The Men Who Trained Me (and some books) – Pt.2

In the previous post I concentrated on men in England who helped me learn about the Bible and Theology.  Quite unexpectedly, in God’s providence I came to the States in 1996 to work at a Baptist Church in Fairfield, California.  That only lasted a year but I made some good friends.  I also met the future Mrs H. there!

Anyway, after leaving the church in Fairfield I started a church plant in Napa, which I pastored for over five years until the Lord made it clear that I was to go back to seminary.  After much debate, prayer and several conversations I decided to attend Tyndale Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.  I won’t here go into my reasons for not going to DTS or SWBTS, although I will say that I always try to live by conscience, and I have seen far too many people’s consciences seared by putting career prospects before truth.  That is not to say I think it is ungodly to attend either of these institutions.  Just that it would have been wrong for me.

The Founder and President of Tyndale was Mal Couch.  He was a stickler for biblical languages and and a clear and persistent voice for the importance of Israel in God’s plan.  Although his health was not good at the time I was there, Couch taught through the four volumes (actually seven) of Chafer’s Systematic Theology as well as Biblical Greek.  Personally he could be kind and generous, as he was to me (although he had a ruthless streak in him).  I think he was one of the most gifted men I have ever met.  That he established Tyndale to preserve “old Dallas” shows something of his heart and dynamism.  Quite early on he noticed that I was a devotee of Cornelius Van Til’s writings, and he asked me to conduct an intensive seminar on Presuppositional Apologetics for Tyndale.  I used Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis as my main text.  The success of that venture would lead to me teaching Presuppositionalism at Tyndale (previously they had hovered between classical and cumulative approaches), and to my eventually being hired as Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics there, although I also taught Church History, Romans, Philippians and Colossians and a few other courses.  Dr Couch also appointed me his assistant Pastor at Tyndale Bible Church.  I would teach the first hour and he would take the second.  Towards the end of his time at Tyndale I found myself on the opposite side of some of Dr Couch’s decisions.  Our unfortunate disagreement caused fallout that has made me persona non grata to some (although they have never asked for my side of the story).  Dr Couch has now passed to his reward, but I will always respect him as an educator.

John Cook was the Registrar at Tyndale for most of the time I was there, both as student as a member of the staff.  A former bull rider and oil worker, an enduring memory of Dr Cook was his realism.  His frankness and thoughtfulness in dealing with students made a real impression on me.  He always had their best interests in mind.  I took Greek (more Greek!) from him and found him concerned with the utility of the language, not so much on its rigid rules.  I found this refreshing and helpful.  After I had left Tyndale John contacted me to talk over some things he had heard I had said about him.  After some context and clarification (and rebuttal) I asked his forgiveness for anything I had said that had caused him distress and we drew closer as a result.  He would occasionally email me to ask me for book recommendations or opinions of what he was reading.  He felt that the strict Dispensationalist diet he had been taught was a bit restrictive and wanted to inquire about things dispensationalists don’t usually write about.  I was only too glad to help.  One day John called me and told me he had been diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer.  Sadly, due to circumstances, the next time I saw him was at his funeral.  The cancer had done its work on him, but the Lord had renewed his soul and will one day give him a resurrected body.  I will always be grateful to God that I could attend John’s funeral just before we left Texas for California.

Arnold Fruchtenbaum came and taught a couple of intensives while I was at Tyndale.  One was a course of Systematic Theology.  I had read and been impressed by his Israelology some years previously.  Although laborious reading, it makes an important contribution to Dispensational theology and is one of the few academic works of theology that dispensationalists have put out in the last 30 years.  While I simply cannot agree with Dr Fruchtenbaum’s “Pemberisms” (crystalline earth, gap theory, etc), I enjoyed listening to him and took note of his thoughtful way of dealing with students questions. (more…)

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The Men Who Trained Me (and some books) – Pt. 1

I thought I’d do something different for a change.  I seldom write anything about myself on this blog, but I had the idea of putting down a few words about the men who trained me and to whom, to one degree or another, I owe a debt.  None of them is responsible for how I turned out.  The monster was self-made. But I want to introduce you to these men:

The first man is David N. Myers M.Min., a knowledgeable Bible teacher who helped me principally by giving me good books to read.  He showed me the value of commentaries and introduced me to the six volumes of Explore the Book by J. Sidlow Baxter.  He also kindled my interest in manuscript evidence after an encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness demoralized me (when each time I tried to prove the deity of Christ from my NIV (1984), the JW just referred me to the footnotes which through the reading into question).  I borrowed from him Caspar Gregory’s Canon and Text of the New Testament, Dean Burgon’s The Revision Revised, F. W. Kenyon’s Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, F. F. Bruce’s The Books and the Parchments, and other works to help me understand what was going on.  Burgon in particular impressed me. He was very erudite, but could write clear prose.  His arguments for what he called “the Traditional Text” were more searchant (so it seemed to me) than the other scholars, who often parroted one another.  Anyway, Dave Myers was a great help in this and other areas.  Later I would read F. H. A. Scrivener’s massive Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the NT (2 vols), and the intriguing study by Harry Sturz called The Byzantine Text-type and NT Textual Criticism.  These served as balances to Bruce Metzger (whose hard to procure Chapters in the History of NT Textual Criticism is terrific), and Kurt Aland.

Unfortunately, I was also introduced to the work of controversial American Fundamentalist Peter Ruckman.  I say unfortunately, not because of his personal issues, but because for a while his sarcasm rubbed off on me.  While I still think Ruckman made some points which needed to be made, and he did make me laugh at a time I really needed to laugh, I’m afraid I came away from his books and tapes more negatively affected than edified.  Some years later I read Westcott’s Commentary on Hebrews and discovered what I had been missing.  When attending London Theological Seminary in the mid-1990’s I came across the Life of Westcott, which gave the lie to the nonsense then propagated by Gail Riplinger. She literally composed quotes from different parts of the book and cut and pasted them together to make new quotes!  Anyway, it was Dave Myers who drilled home to me the question, “what does it say?”  And in a circle of friends who looked upon non-dispensationalists with suspicion, it was he who, when I pointed to Matthew Henry’s Commentary, told me that he was a very godly man.  Funny what things stick with you.

Bernard Lambert was a former missionary to S. America and was a Baptist preacher who would fill pulpits in many Baptist churches in East Anglia, England.  For some reason Bernard, who was retired when I knew him, took a shine to me and we became friends.  Bernard was a dark-suited 5 point Calvinist bookworm with whom I spent many hours talking about books and churches.  Like me, he was a bit of a maverick who disliked the politics and brown-nosing rife within evangelicalism.  I remember him getting emotional about the ostentation he saw at a certain Reformed conference.  He thought monies gifted to an organization should not be spent that way.  Bernard is now with the Lord. I owe him much.  It was he who confronted me with the choice I had to make between remaining as a ladder-climbing Purchaser and going to Seminary.  Since I had felt the call of God to the ministry for years, I knew the road I should take.  This was confirmed when, despite all appearances, I was accepted at London Theological Seminary (who only accepted a handful of students per year).  One of my most cherished possessions is the set of The Works of John Murray (4 vols) which Bernard gave me when I was at a rather low ebb in my life.  The great thing I remember about Bernard was his belief that the people of God needed encouragement.  Through him God encouraged me.

Graham Harrison taught Systematic Theology at London Theological Seminary (LTS) when I was there in the mid 90’s.  He was a solid and rather two-dimensional Calvinist, and, having myself my own thoughts on that subject, he seemed a bit suspicious of me.  I recall him scrupulously avoiding answering my questions about New Evangelicalism; something I think is a rather important thing for a theologian to have opinions about.  Still, his erudition impressed me.

Philip Eveson was the Resident Tutor and taught Hebrew and exegesis at LTS.  He was a pious man, always cheerful and amusing. He had a pastor’s heart, and my chief impression of him was of his concern for the students.  He noticed me staying up till the early hours reading Joseph Hall’s works and old copies of the Westminster Theological Journal and asked if I would be student librarian of the D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones library.  I naturally said yes!  I kept finding Kit-Kat wrappers in the Doctor’s books.  Eveson informed me that it was sometimes hard to get the Doctor to eat anything, but that he would always eat a Kit-Kat. When I visited Mr Eveson a few years afterwards he told me that he thought I never quite understood the Five Points.  I rattled off to him a list of authors (e.g. Pink, Palmer, Gill, Warfield, Coles, Steele & Thomas, Berkhof, Owen, Boettner) and politely told him that he was mistaken, but that I believed (and still believe) that the formulation of TULIP was more deductive than inductive and that the doctrines needed reformulating. He wasn’t impressed.  But I remain convinced that the way these “doctrines of grace” are formulated is far too deductive.  So while I have Calvinistic leanings I feel little compulsion to be a card-carrying “Reformed” man. (more…)

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The Need for a trusted Dispensational Resource Center

A piece I wrote for a new venture: http://dispensationalpublishing.com/

 

The expression of theology known, for better or for worse as Dispensationalism, has always had important things to say to the Church, and to the world.  To the Church it has commended an approach to the text of the Bible which prioritizes what is properly called, despite some caveats, the “literal” method.  Taking this approach to the reading of the Testaments does not mean that there is a one-sided understanding of the text to which all must acquiesce: a kind of hermeneutical flatland which we should all find ourselves in if we are fully onboard with this school of thought.  No, although there are always small-minded people who will expect us not to break step; a vibrant and healthy theology will entertain the considered viewpoints of various contributors who, because they are less than perfect, because they cannot see everything, employ a prima facie interpretation and bring their best efforts before their peers and move the conversation forwards within its parameters.

Dispensationalism also speaks to the Body of Christ about the relative importance of the two Testaments.  In an era when more and more the voice of the Old Testament is being all but muted by theological pre-understandings of the New Testament in influential circles, a robust alternative which gives no preference to either part of Scripture is pertinent now more than ever.  What we need is a group of well-informed sophisticated yet humble contrarians to assure us that God means what He says in both to whomever He is talking, and that faith trusts that God will fulfill His Word despite the obstacles which finite reason and historical vicissitude use to fuel their objections to the plain-sense.  Faith cannot but resign itself to believing the words as they are spoken.  If it tries to reinterpret the words as different words it is never quite sure if it has gotten the translation right.  And so it is never sure just what it is to believe.  A vibrant Dispensational (but I would want to say “biblical-covenantal”) theology will always start us off with the plain-sense and will always return us there.

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors.  They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church via detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals.    Dispensationalists are not, or should not be, fixated on the defense of a system.  Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing – its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible.  We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right.  That is a good thing.  But the last word will not be said in this life.  We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know).  The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders.  Not that it does not need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.  We have work to do to make dispensational theology more prescriptive.  We like to call it a system, but we have often been less than adventurous in our proposals for a systematic expression of the Dispensational outlook in all areas of theology and its attendant disciplines (e.g. worldview and apologetics; biblical counseling).  “Why reinvent the wheel?” the satisfied objector complains.  Okay, but can’t we improve the wheel a bit?  Can’t we look the whole thing over and tighten things up here and iron out a problem or two there?  Can’t we make it run better and farther?

This is what I want to be a part of.  I want to read brothers and sisters with whom I agree.  But I need to be disagreed with, and I want to feel free to disagree and then explore our disagreements in a convivial setting.  That is what I hope this Dispensational Publishing House will allow us to do.  Perhaps then we may read about the relevance of the biblical covenants for the Christian understanding of God?  Or the debate about the New covenant will ask whether the same principles which attach it to the nation of Israel in Jeremiah 31 are being employed when attach it to the Church in 1 Corinthians 11?  Do we have any thoughts about the prevalent “Cosmic temple” motif which has galvanized amillennialism of late?  What are the limits of “literal” interpretation?  In fact, are we sure we comprehend any working definition of what “Dispensational-ism” is and should be?  And how can we be Christological without piously imagining we find Him in every verse of Scripture?  These are big questions and there are many more.

That there is a need for such a center as this is clear enough.  Speaking personally (as I have been throughout), I wish Randy White and Paul Scharf well.  May the Lord bless and be honored by their project!  Having had edifying correspondence with Paul Scharf in the past I am only too happy to recommend the Dispensational Publishing House.  I truly hope contributors will find the freedom to explore all the big questions from within the hermeneutical and theological scope provided by that oft maligned but comprehensive approach to Holy Scripture we have always called “literal”.

 

Paul Martin Henebury

President, Telos Ministries & Telos Institute

 

ComfortCommentary

Review: ‘A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament’

Review of, A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament, by Philip Wesley Comfort, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015, 443 pages, hardback, $29.99

Philip Wesley Comfort is well known to students of the text of the New Testament.  He has produced some informative works on the subject such as Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament, and Encountering the Manuscripts.  Both productions, as well as the one under review, are marked with a clarity of style which makes them accessible to interested readers.  He has produced, with David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, of which the present book is the companion.  Along with these efforts Comfort has edited several helpful books, of which the The Origin of the Bible is perhaps the most noteworthy.

This Commentary is divided into three main parts.  After an introduction and a listing of the earliest Greek mss. lying behind each verse in the NT, what I will call Part One deals with a brief survey of the manuscript tradition. Unsurprisingly, the author favors the Alexandrian tradition as found in the papyri; with special exemplar status given to P75 through Codex B (Vaticanus) (24-26).  In his list of “reliable copies” the author takes leave of the Aland’s classifications, noting that if a ms. is from the same codex and is clearly by the same scribe, it deserves to be seen in the same way.  He adds to the Aland’s list several mss. he thinks “largely preserve the original wording.” (27-29).  The chapter also includes a section on the nomina sacra (that is, the distinctive way the “sacred names” are written), which, as Comfort rightly points out, has not received the notice it should have done (33).  He notes, “The nomina sacra for “Lord”, “Jesus”, “God”, and “Spirit” must have been created in the first century.” (38).  An extended treatment of this significant phenomenon is appended to the end of the book.

“Part Two” (chapter two), is titled “An Annotated List of the Manuscripts of the New Testament.”  It is a lengthy chapter, running from page 43 to page 126.   Ranging from the papyrus mss, to the major uncials and minuscules, to the older versions, and, too briefly, the Church Fathers, the reader is provided with the essential information.  The most important texts are described in terms of sigla (designations), first transcription, present location, date (with discussion where needed), and a brief description of textual provenance.  The use of clear typeface making this section less of a chore to read than it might have been.

The main part of the Commentary, which covers chapters three through nine, is best described by the author’s introduction to chapter three, which is on the Synoptic Gospels:

In this chapter and those that follow, I list what I think is the original wording in a verse in bold type; variant readings follow.  Manuscript information is provided for each reading in the manuscripts (abbreviated as MSS.), followed by an explanation.  The names “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” are almost always written as nomina sacra (sacred names) in all the MSS; so these are not noted throughout.  There are notes for other nomina sacra (sacred names), and sometimes for “Lord” in certain contexts. (127) 

Comfort’s notations are conservative; as, for example, when he is dealing with Matthew’s use of parthenos (virgin) for the Hebrew almah in Isaiah 7:14 (129), or in his quite extensive handling of the original ending of Romans (312-316).  Not everyone will be enthusiastic about his preference for 616 over 666 in Revelation 13:18b, especially as he links it up with “Caesar Nero” (410-411).  Proponents of the importance of the Byzantine tradition, of which I am one, have their own arguments against the author’s conclusions regarding the ending of Mark’s Gospel (197-206, although Comfort’s discussion should be read carefully); the pericope de adultera (Jn. 7:53-8:11), or the better reading of John 1:18a or 1 Timothy 3:16a.  In such places it appears that the chosen slant, namely that “the readings of the earliest manuscripts are always followed” (31), will tend to prejudice his conclusions while relegating other counter-evidence to the sidelines.  The historical “accident” that preserved early Alexandrian-type manuscripts in the sands of Egypt needs to be viewed with a critical eye, as must the reality of 2nd and 3rd century heresies in the region, which even Kurt Aland called attention to.  Too, the fact that the favored methodology of “reasoned eclecticism” in NT textual criticism is often not followed by critics in other fields ought to be considered, as should the fact that this procedure does not present us with what Maurice Robinson calls “a running text” of the NT based upon a clear textual tradition.  This last tendency is, of course, minimized somewhat by Comfort’s onus on the earliest witnesses to a reading.

Keeping these propensities in mind, the student of the Greek New Testament has been given a most useful tool.  It does not replace Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, but it complements Metzger well.  I shall be referring to this book often in my studies.                

 

The Covenant in Classical Covenant Theology (2)

Part One

If we turn to Covenant theology’s own explanations of their system we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge.  I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says.  Likewise, by “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching.  Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ch. 8).  He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in.  He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way”[10], and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob through the Abrahamic covenant[11], does not last for long.  Needless to say the land promise to Israel withers under the flame of Reformed typology as Robertson’s book progresses (Ch. 13), and the Church becomes “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant[12].

In none of this does one find any solid exegetical demonstration.  Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (e.g. “if this, then that”) to lop off covenanted promises which contravene their theological covenants.  The land promise stated over and over in the Abrahamic covenant (e.g. 12:1, 7; 15:18-21; 17:7-8) and repeated in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 44; Jer. 25:5; 31:31-40; 32:36-41; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:26-36), is ushered into a room marked “obscurity” using the covenant of grace.  How ironic; the land promise is expressly stated and restated all over the OT, and the covenant of grace never once puts in an appearance!  But this maneuver can be carried out under the auspices of this brand of theology due to what Gerhaardus Vos called “a consciousness of the covenant”, meaning the covenant of grace.  I might humbly point out that there are other, more perspicuous covenants that ought to have our attention as Bible readers.

Another noted Covenant theologian who exemplifies the phenomena I have been referring to is Michael Horton.  His book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, takes back with one hand what it appears to give with the other.  Placing an enormous burden of proof on Galatians 4:22-31, which it was never supposed to bear, Horton sometimes seems to interpret the covenant passages at face value.  He repeatedly admits that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional.  He rivals any dispensationalist in his belief in the unilateral nature of these biblical covenants[13].  But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant, whence it can be safely dispatched.  As he says for example,

The Mosaic (Sinai) covenant is an oath of the people swearing personal performance of the conditions for “living long in the land,” while the Abrahamic covenant is a promise by God himself that he will unilaterally bring about the salvation of his people through the seed of Abraham.[14]

This is an amazing statement.  Although he is right to say that possession of the land was tied to obedience to the Mosaic covenant (e.g. Lev. 26), even the Mosaic covenant looked forward to a New covenant whereby God would circumcise the heart (Deut. 30:6), so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the existing terms of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).

What happened?  Is the Abrahamic covenant only about salvation as Horton claims?  I invite anyone to read Genesis 12-17, Jeremiah 33 or Ezekiel 36 and demonstrate such a single track in regards to the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patently false reading.  In fact, there is no provision for salvation at all in the Abrahamic covenant itself.  Although the Seed promise (singular) is there, it is developed through the New covenant, not per se the terms of the Abrahamic.  All the talk about typology (Horton’s book is also filled with it) cannot alter these facts.

That God must be gracious to sinners if they are to be saved is not at issue.  What is at issue is whether there is any such thing as the covenant of grace (I have focused on it since it is the main support for CT’s interpretations and theology).  I have no qualms in describing it is a figment overlaid on the biblical covenants.  It is the lens which makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants.  It is what encourages them to transform the NT Church into “new Israel”.  It stands behind many of the dogmas of covenant theology.  But the covenant of grace, together with the “covenant of works”, is nonetheless absent from the Word of God.

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[10]  O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 41

[11] Ibid. 42

[12] E.g. 289

[13] See Michael S. Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, 42, 45, 48-49

[14] Ibid. 48