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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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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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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

 

The Covenant in Classical Covenant Theology (1)

I think it is fair to say that the whole impetus for the covenants of redemption, works and grace in the Reformed Confessions stems from the assumption that the Old Testament must be read through the lens of the extra light of the New.  If that assumption is flawed, as I believe it certainly is, then the whole project is in serious trouble.

The release of the Westminster Confession of 1647, although it was preceded by over a century of formative thinking about the covenant, stands out as the principal document of what is known as Covenant Theology.[1]  Covenant is employed as a fillip to understand and arrange the “doctrines of grace”, and is central to the Confession’s portrayal of redemption.[2]  This means that the concept takes on a deliberate soteriological hue.  The WCF treats its concept of covenant as principally a gracious relationship; a condescension.  And there is no doubt that in this it is correct.  The Westminster Divines did not lay stress on a pre-creational ‘covenant of redemption’, although their anticipatory language of salvation for the elect in the ‘covenant of grace’ is in tune with it[3], and it is there in WCF 7:3.

Biblical Covenantalism is centered around the twin concepts of God’s words and God’s covenants.  To repeat what has already been stated, the present work calls attention to the relationship between God’s words (therefore thoughts) and His actions, and relates them to the covenant commitments which God makes in the Bible.  The motif of God’s words = God’s actions (the GWGA motif), segues into the covenants which He has made in that these covenants are an amplification of God’s promissory words to those to whom He commits.  Whatever else covenants are, they function as reinforcements of speech.  Thus, when a man marries a woman he does not only say words of promise to her on their wedding day, he enters into a committed relationship of promise with his bride.  The presence of a covenant amplifies and underlines the word of promise and binds them together.  It is the same with the covenant God.  This “binding of God” in covenantal obligation has to be carefully studied and traced out in Scripture.  It is not, please note, a theological “binding” first.  That is, we are not to deduce that God has covenanted with X because we have arrived at certain theological convictions.  Rather, the only way we know that and how and with whom God has entered into covenant is through the clear testimony of God Himself.

To set out this difference more plainly, let us think of the “covenant of grace” of covenant theology.  In Reformed theology this covenant of grace has specific content.

The “Covenant of Grace”, which is often simply called “the covenant” by CT’s, wields tremendous, we might say decisive hermeneutical power over CT’s biblical interpretation.  But before one gets to use such a potent hermeneutical and theological device, one needs to prove that it is actually Scriptural.

As Herman Witsius defines it,

The Covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God on his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and everything relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith.[4]

Witsius goes on to make it clear that the covenant insures that there is only one people of God, the Church, in both Testaments.  This means, for one thing, that whenever one comes across any passage which seems to point to a separation of, say, OT Israel from the NT Church, this must not be allowed to stand, since the “covenant of grace” will not permit it to stand.  Therefore, CT’s must first demonstrate if it is possible to establish a “Covenant of Grace” from the text of Scripture rather than from human reason, and then they must show that this covenant is the very same covenant as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants, which are very clearly found within the Bible.

So what is the exegetical basis for the Covenant of Grace?  Well, don’t hold your breath!  Even dyed-in-the-wool Covenant theologians like O. Palmer Robertson admit that there is slender exegetical apparatus from which to derive it (he thinks the “covenant of works” fairs better, expending much effort on making Hosea 6:7 refer to a pre-Fall covenant).  In reality I would say there is no exegetical justification at all!

Reformed theologian Robert Reymond, who boldly claims that “The church of Jesus Christ is the present-day expression of the one people of God whose roots go back to Abraham”[5], does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support this extra-biblical covenant.  He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures[6], but he begs leave to spiritualize the texts whenever it suits[7].  Reymond also insists that the OT be interpreted via (his interpretation of) the NT.  In having things this way he can still maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention”[8].  Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me.

Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages, often avoiding the specific referents within the context ( E.g. land, Canaan, Jerusalem, mountains of Israel, Judah, etc.), can be a mind-numbing experience.  One needs to try to keep in mind what they are attempting to prove: that God has made one covenant with the elect of both Testaments to guarantee that there will be one people of God, inheriting heavenly promises in Christ.  For example, Robertson says,

The covenants of God are one.  The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact… All the dealings of God with man since the fall must be seen as possessing a basic unity…Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants.  This diversity enriches the wonder of God’s plan for his people.  But the diversity ultimately merges inti a single purpose overarching the ages...The various administrations of the covenant of redemption [i.e. grace] relate organically to one another…[9]

That may sound okay, but what one has to realize is that this means that anything found in the biblical covenants which does not fit this preconceived picture (e.g. a physical land for the people of Israel, a literal throne of David in Jerusalem), is demoted to an ancillary and temporal place or is transformed into a “type” or “shadow” of a spiritual reality which comports with the requirements of “the covenant.”

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[1] See Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 15.  This is an excellent historical account.

[2] Ibid., 60.  Although the ‘covenant of works’ is not redemptive because it deals with man in his innocence, it nevertheless puts forth “life” as something to be achieved or forfeited dependent upon man’s observance of God’s “law”.  See WCF 7:2 & 19:1

[3] See especially the Westminster Longer Catechism 31.

[4] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1.165 [Bk. 2. Ch.1.5].

[5] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.

[6] Ibid. 528

[7] Ibid. 511 n.16

[8] Ibid. 513 n.19

[9] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63 (my emphasis).

Part Two

The Noahic Covenant and the Interpretation of Scripture

In his Commentary on the Book of Genesis the Reformer John Calvin notices that a reason for God’s covenant promise to Noah was to encourage him in the hard task of obedience in the building of the Ark. By way of application he writes,

For then do we freely embrace the commands of God, when a promise is attached to them, which teaches us that we shall not spend our strength for nought…It is especially necessary that the faithful shall be confirmed by the word of God, lest they faint in the midst of their course; to the end that they may certainly be assured that they are not beating the air, as they say; but that, acquiescing in the promise given them, and being sure of success, they follow God who calls them. – John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Vol. I, 258

Calvin is right to fasten on the encouragements to faith of a divine covenant (though interestingly, Calvin interpreted Genesis 2:17, a common proof-text for the “covenant of works”, negatively as requiring meritorious works and not faith.  (See Daniel P. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 181-182).  But note that his application is on target only if God’s promise means what it says; otherwise faith can find no assurance in what God said. It is a moot point, or ought to be. But it is routinely overlooked in biblical and systematic theology. Covenants become malleable in the hands of many writers. It is our opinion that this contributes in a major way to the disagreements between scholars over just where the biblical covenants function in God’s program.

We might ask, ‘How many people take Genesis 9:11, which include the terms of the covenant with Noah, typologically or spiritually or allegorically?’ The answer would be, ‘nobody.’ And that simple answer is very significant, because it means that this first covenant is interpreted uniformly in what we call a “literal” way. The words of verse 11 mean what they say:

The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. “While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” – Genesis 8:21-22

If this is compared with what God said to Himself in 9:11 we see a close correspondence:

I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth. – Genesis 9:11

This again shows that there is agreement between God’s thoughts (“the LORD said to Himself”) and God’s words in the covenant oath. This brings a certain welcome rigidity to what God says in His covenant. There are over sixty ancient Near Eastern covenants or treaties which have been discovered, and the terms all mean what they say (not that we take our lead from extra-biblical sources). In point of fact, many of these treaties specify in the clearest terms the cruciality of the words in the covenant oath, explicitly saying that the words themselves are inviolate.

To give just two examples taken from a reliable and accessible resource (The following are from Readings From the Ancient Near East, eds. Bill T. Arnold & Bryan E. Beyer, 97-98): From the first part of the second millennium B.C. there is a covenant between two brothers, Abban and Yarimlim pertaining to lands which includes the line,

Abba-AN is under oath to Yarimlim, and also he cut the neck of a lamb. He swore: I shall never give back what I gave you.

The central core of the oath which Abban made to Yarimlim is plain and clear. It cannot suffer typological or symbolical transfiguration into some other thing. Although this covenant is conditioned upon Yarimlim’s fidelity to Abban, the oath binds his successors, and therefore cannot undergo any alteration of meaning without being made void.

In another example (14th century B.C.), Hittite king Suppilulima makes a treaty with Mattiwaza, king of Mitanni, witnessed by a host of gods on both sides. It includes the warning:

If he breaks it or causes anyone else to change the wording of the tablet…, If you, Mattiwaza, the prince, and you the sons of the Hurri country do not fulfill the words of this treaty, may the gods, the lords of the oath, blot you out…

What is noteworthy about this is that the wording, and so the meaning of the wording, is sacrosanct. It is not open to reinterpretation, and the pantheon of gods is called upon to ensure against such a thing. This is standard procedure for ANE covenants, in fact, for all covenants. The reason for it is because the oaths must be unambiguous and must mean what they say. I might go further and say that the choice of words as conveyors of accurate meaning is a sine qua non of covenants and treaties.

Going back to the Bible, the well known example in Joshua 9 where the Gibeonites fooled Joshua and the elders into making a covenant with them makes this point well. As Golding correctly says,

When the Israelites discovered how they had been deluded, they were furious, but could not go back on their oath, which had been solemnly sworn with God as witness (v.19). – Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 70 (My emphasis)

In like manner, the covenant cut by Laban with Jacob in Genesis 31:44-54 makes the same point. The pile of stones (31:46) acted as “a witness” (31:48, 52) to the terms of the covenant (31:52):

This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. – Genesis 31:52

If after striking this agreement Laban would have rose up, strode past the heap and knocked Jacob to the ground, only one of two understandings of his actions would be possible. Either Laban would be knowingly violating the words he just agreed to keep, or, he would have dishonestly and disingenuously made an oath which he knew whose words he knew full well he would not keep. Either way he would have broken his bond. (more…)

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The Biblical Worldview (Against All Others) – Pt.2

Part One

2. The Place We All Stand: Everyone Stands within the Biblical Worldview

When I say that we all stand within the biblical worldview, I know that I have some explaining to do. I want to say right away that I am not claiming that we all acknowledge this. In fact, the Bible says we act to suppress the knowledge of God. But it protrudes here and there since it must. For God must be already there in order for anything else to be there. Cornelius Van Til called God “the precondition of intelligibility.” He meant that the existence of the God of the Bible was necessary in order for us to assert anything about anything – even if that assertion is false. Hence, the Christian-biblical worldview is the environment in which we all live, even though many of us wish it were otherwise, and try to construct other “explanations” for things like love, truth, justice, logic, number, information, good & evil, the external world, consciousness & personhood, etc., or even if that means throwing up our hands and saying (in something akin to blind faith) “it’s just there.”

Let me give a few examples of this suppression of truth:

  • A solipsist is someone who denies the reality of anyone or anything but their own existence. As such they are exceedingly rare creatures! I once spoke with someone who told me he thought that solipsism was the most rational philosophical position to take. I asked him who he thought he was talking to?
  • So, many Hindus believe the external world isn’t real. They believe all is one. Yet in propagating it and its central doctrine of reincarnation Hindus actually presuppose the objective reality of an external world to be re-born in to (e.g there is the cycle of samsara and there is the transcending of it). They believe their views are reasonable, although they must hold that the laws of reason are essentially unreal since these laws of logic make distinctions between things, which is a denial of the monism that undergirds much Hindu belief.
  • A church member called me last week after she had been talking with a friend who held Panthesitic New Age beliefs which deny the existence of evil. She told me she had asked her friend about the Holocaust and was told that it wasn’t evil, just necessary. I think a worldview which denies evil is obstinately myopic. It is a denial of the world.
  • Naturalistic materialists may tell us that we are mere bio-chemical machines with no freewill, just dancing to the music of our DNA, but they will take those “machines” to a graveside, to a Shakespeare play, or to the coffee house, or to the university (where they got this stuff from), or even to events like this; and they believe they are free to agree or disagree with other people’s viewpoints. They believe that their views are rational, despite the fact that they must hold that the non-physical laws of thought evolved as our brains evolved, and point towards, not truth, but merely pragmatic ‘aids’ to survival. Laws of thought require a mind to think them. The brain is not the same as the mind.  Intentionality and consciousness are not reducible to the laws of physics. As one of my favorite writers, David Bentley Hart, observes in showing up the obvious difference: “Software no more “thinks” than a minute hand knows the time or the printed word ‘pelican’ knows what a pelican is.” – The Experience of God, 219.

These are accounts of the world.  But as G. K. Chesterton put it, these worldviews are, “complete in theory and crippling in practice.”

I say that there is a cognitive dissonance here. Many worldviews just cannot be lived out in the real world. But this dissonance too is explained by the biblical worldview, namely, the sinful suppression of the knowledge of the Creator, and the replacement of the biblical-Theistic picture with another picture (an idolatrous one).

God is necessary:

Logic/Reason…..precondition ……. God who is immaterial perfect rationality

Morality…………..precondition ……..God who is righteous

Truth……………….precondition ……..God who is unchanging Truth

Uniformity……….precondition ……..God who upholds regularity (providence)

Love………………….precondition ……..God who is Love and demonstrates it

Personality………….precondition ……..God who is Personal

Relationship………..precondition ……..God who is social

Science………………..precondition ……..God who gives skills & conditions for analysis

History………………..precondition ……..God who created & guides with a telos in view

Hope……………………..precondition ……..God who raises Christ from the dead

Meaning & Significance...precondition ……..God who made us in His image

Now, you take God out of all this and all these things cry out for an explanation. They hang like half-inflated balloons, untethered from a central hub which lends them value and coherence (recall my quotation of Barthes earlier!). They are needing to be related to each other, and to us!
Therefore, it is not the case that deciding to disbelieve in God leaves a person with nothing to prove.
It is rather the case that there is an immense about of work to do to make sense of oneself and the world without the biblical God (a job which I say is impossible to complete – see Rom. 1:18-22).  The canvass must be completed, but how?

In Scripture Creation leads to purpose and order. I teach the Bible Story as “the Creation Project” – a project to be consummated; a project full of hope. There is a Creation Mandate for us to explore the world and to analyze it – to do science. All the founders of modern science believed this creation mandate. It is simply wrong to think you can exclude God and not pay the price.  For example, if you were walking down a dark alley and you saw a group of young guys coming towards you, wouldn’t you be relieved to see them carrying Bibles in their hands? (more…)