Articles

A Reluctant Dispensationalist

Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist.  In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker as a title.   

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors.  They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals.  Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all.  And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.

For this reason, 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 doesn’t sorely 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, I reply, 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?

God has given us the Bible to understand Him, ourselves, and our world.  He has not just given the Bible to tell us how to get saved.  We understand from Scripture that we need a Savior and we discover who the Savior is and we discover our responsibility.  Therefore hermeneutics becomes extremely significant to the understanding of truth, reality, God, salvation, and destiny.  God invented communication in order for Him to communicate Himself to man.  From the beginning God created man to understand His revelation; even before the Fall.  God has done the same thing with His Word.  God has created man and given to him His Word in order for God to be understood.  Man has an automatic system of hermeneutics built inside of him in order to interpret God’s revelation.  Of course the affects of sin have perverted our ability to observe and understand revelation.  However, with the regeneration of the Spirit man’s ability is enhanced.  Without hermeneutics we cannot communicate whatsoever, whether reading, writing or speaking.  We need know the correct method of interpretation in order to distinguish between the Voice of God from the voice of man.

Craig Blaising, though identifying as a Progressive Dispensationalist, has shown that this straightforward way of reading Scripture is in agreement with the way performative language is understood (see his essay in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds, Darrell Bock & Mitch Glaser, esp. 160-161).  In my so-called “Rules of Affinity” I have tried to show that all the primary doctrines of the Christian Faith are drawn from either direct (word for word) affinities between biblical texts and doctrinal propositional statements or from “inevitable” conclusions based on the collusion of those direct affinities.  The Dispensational method of interpretation, which gives preference to these affinities, is therefore naturally geared to producing doctrines from one clear spring of vocabulary, not from a wider variety of murkier ones.

Personally, I am an avid advocate a “Dispensational” account of every aspect of Truth in theology and worldview.  But for this to become a reality I am convinced that it ought to stop defining itself by dispensations and begin opening up the possibilities of unifying itself around the biblical covenants and defining its system and procedures by them. Then a fully-rounded theology which includes all the corpora of theology, not merely ecclesiology and eschatology, will be created, with the result that a Dispensational worldview will be developed and proclaimed.  One may argue back and forth about the dispensations; their number and features, without abandoning “Dispensationalism.”  But one cannot ignore the biblical covenants without demolishing the whole project altogether.  I only wish the position that I love to be freed from the torpidity which is often the unintended outcome of defending a point of view rather than of strengthening it.  I am in sympathy with the Dispensational understanding of the Bible, and it has many advocates more able than I on its side.  My main qualm concerns its understanding of itself.  Many reflective dispensationalists will tell you that the dispensations themselves, both in definition and number, are not at the central core of what it’s all about.  But because the name has stuck it creates almost an apprehension to look beyond it.  The covenants stand there upon the open pages of the Bible but they are rarely heard outside of a prearranged ‘Dispensational’ recital.  Given their wings their power to organize, punctuate, and direct the eschatological movement of the Bible Story is unexcelled – and only “Dispensationalism” is in the right position to unleash their power.  But…those dispensations!

Mt plea is for the biblical covenants to be given their rightful place and dispensations to be made subordinate to them.  This will do nothing but invigorate the whole enterprise.  Nothing would be lost; much would be gained.  And I think the enemies of Dispensational theology would be harder put to disparage it.

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God of the Flood – Pt.2

Part One

Dimensions

Where did the waters of the flood come from?  The Gilgamesh Epic and similar flood stories (e.g. Berossus) say that the cause of the flood was a mighty downpour.[1]  There is no great stress laid on the “fountains of the deep” as in Genesis.[2]  But Scripture reveals not just rainfall but massive subterranean upheavals producing water gushes unfathomable in their strength.

In Gilgamesh the craft is a cube about 200 feet square.  Heidel gives its displacement at 228,500 tons.[3]  This is in contrast to Noah’s Ark which was a coffin-shaped craft with a displacement of around 43,300 tons.  The imagination roils envisaging Utnaphistim’s “block” tumbling over the waves!  What living thing, one wonders, could survive such a pummeling?

By contrast the Ark was approximately 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high.[4]  It was designed to float safely on the tumultuous one world ocean.  It was in effect a coffin bobbing on the waters of death.  The earth emerged once more from the waters.  It was a new planet.  As Peter would put it, “the world that then existed perished”.  It has gone, churned over by hydraulic and volcanic forces we can scarcely imagine.  We inhabit, “the heavens and the earth which are now” (2 Peter 3:6-7).  Adam’s world is no more, and we cannot get back to it.  When Noah’s family, together with all their live cargo emerged from their giant “coffin”, they bridged the two worlds, bringing life from death.

A Global Flood?

Sad to relate, but not a few influential writers, often affected by the requirements of scientific respectability, much prefer to propound a localized flood, targeted to one area in which mankind was concentrated.  As Custance has it, there would be too many difficulties getting the animals onto the Ark and then having them spread throughout the earth once off of it.  He thinks the “catastrophe… wiped out mankind still congregated in one area.”[5]  Heidel on the other hand, is forthright:

The impression which this [main Babylonian] story is intended to make obviously is that the flood was universal… The other Babylonian deluge traditions convey the same general impression.[6]

And after giving some of the Genesis account Heidel states,

This account, like the main Babylonian story, plainly asserts the universality of the deluge.[7]

The Bible is unequivocal about the extent of the flood.  It was worldwide.  And this is reinforced by the many flood traditions that have come down to us from almost every ancient culture, whether advanced or “primitive.”  Custance himself mentions traditions from Egypt, India, Peru, Mexico, New Zealand, and many more.  Even the Eskimos have a flood story.  Moreover, the important thematic use of the waters (mayim) in the Creation and Flood accounts, when considered with the uncreation language we have noted in Genesis 6 and the reusing of the “deep” (tehom) in Genesis 7:11, leaves the strong impression that the Flood is a re-immersing of the planet in the “cleansing” waters out of which it came.  If this theme has any credence the waters of the Flood would have to be global.

On a side note, the Chinese word for large boat is a pictograph is made up of characters depicting a vessel, the number eight, and mouth or person.[8]  The present writer used to hold monthly speaking engagements at a Chinese church in Arlington, Texas, and was told that these three symbols referred to a big boat or ship.

To Conclude

To believe in the biblical portrayal of a global flood is to give up on the humanistic ideal of proving the age of the earth using isotope-based methods and slow gradualistic erosion and deposition patterns.  Therefore, any attempts to uncover data to support an old-earth position via physicalist theories will always have to set themselves against the Word of God.  The Ark Encounter is not some corny theme park attraction built solely to impress.  It is a re-experiencing of God’s grace to humanity; of life arising out of death.  Some Christians feel embarrassed by it.  No doubt they feel less embarrassment about reading the Holy Bible with selective guidance provided for them by their unbelieving peers.  Sin will always scoff at God.  We are not much improved over those whom the deluge destroyed.  It is well to be reminded of it!

I have tried to imagine what it would have been like waiting with Noah for God to issue the command to leave the Ark (Gen. 8:15-17).  How sorely tempted he must have been to disembark prematurely.  How greatly his faith must have been tried!  Reason would have furnished him with many well sounding excuses for going rather than waiting for the words of God.  But if Noah had not heeded the words of God he would never have been saved.  And if the God of the Flood had not covenanted never to bring the cataclysmic waters back upon the whole earth we would not have a rational basis for our experience of uniformity.  Neither indeed would we have a hermeneutical basis to trust in the gracious promises of God (cf. Isa. 54:9).  The same God who said that He would never again destroy the earth with a flood also said that He would give life eternal to whoever casts his hopes upon the merits of His Son.  The God of the Gospel is the God of the Flood, the God of the Ark, the God of hope.

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[1] Heidel, 240f.

[2] Although the Babylonian account does mention the bursting of the dikes. – Ibid, 248

[3] Ibid, 236

[4] Custance throws some suspicion on these dimensions, thinking the ark too large for a few men to build. See Arthur C. Custance, The Flood: Local or Global?, 37.  He doesn’t consider that Noah might have employed many helpers.

[5] Ibid, 56-57

[6] Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic, 249

[7] Ibid, 250

[8] See C.H. Kang & Ethel R. Nelson, The Discovery of Genesis, xii

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God of the Flood – Pt.1

This is something I wrote for Dispensational Publishing House

God and the Waters of Creation

In the very first chapter of the Bible there is an awful lot of water.  It does not come from the sky, nor does it run off the mountainous slopes of Hermon.  The waters (mayim) which are mentioned first in Genesis 1:2 are just “there” after the initial act of creation.  These waters are there even before any land is present.  In fact, water is even prior to light. Extraordinary in its properties, it is necessary for physical life, for breathable air, for rain and cloud-cover, as a coolant, a solvent, and for cleansing.[1]  Perhaps the original presence of water at the beginning of things says something about the Divine good pleasure and delight in the physical?

The primitive accounts which have come down to us from the ancient Near East sometimes depict clashing gods and the overcoming of chaos.[2]  Biblical scholars of various stripes have interpreted the Genesis cosmology with reference to such ancient mythological accounts and have surmised scenarios which draw explicitly from them.  These influences are then incorporated into their interpretations of the early chapters of the Book of Genesis.[3]  This is done in spite of the fact that the creation account in Genesis acts as an obvious polemic against these pagan reconstructions.[4]

The fact remains, however, that the world was in a real sense “born” out of water (2 Pet. 3:5).  God created “the deep” (tehom).  There is good reason to think that the tehom and the mayim refer to the same thing.[5]

God and the Waters of the Flood

It is only natural therefore that Moses should employ these same words, prominent in the creation account, in his description of the great flood of Noah.  Even more is this the case when one considers the reason for God bringing the flood in the first place.  It was not for the petty reason given in pagan versions, such as that the powerful god Enlil thought men were too noisy, as recorded in the Atrahasis Epic.[6]  We owe it to ourselves to ponder the words of Genesis 6:5-7:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.  So the LORD said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.

Since God, who is revealed as being so concerned with the good, had taken such care to create a world for man and had endowed him with His own image (Gen 1:3-31), would be brought to think of decimating it is surely shocking.  That such a thoughtful God, who had made a special paradise for Adam and Eve where He would consort with them (Gen. 2:7-15; 3:8a) could utter words of sad regret[7] over the scene should make us wonder at human sin.  We ought to shudder that in such a comparatively short time wickedness had engulfed the race, and righteous Noah was surrounded by sin on all sides before Yahweh erased the picture using the same substance out of which it came.  What we have recorded in Genesis 6:7 is God’s desire to repeal His creative actions; an un-creation oracle.[8]   God was sick and tired of supporting that malicious prediluvial society.  The “waters” would come again.  But there would be grace.[9]

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[1] For the amazing dexterity and importance of water see G. Gonzalez & J. W. Richards, The Privileged Planet.

[2] Although it is well to reflect upon the fact that behind many polytheisms there was a great God.  This is hardly better brought out than in the fourth chapter of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.

[3] See for example John H. Walton’s influential book, The Lost World of Genesis One, 55-56.  Walton gives little attention to the polemical intent of Genesis 1.  G. K. Beale, who admits to being influenced by Walton, refers to God achieving “heavenly rest after overcoming the creational chaos…” – A New Testament Biblical Theology, 40.  See also, 247 n.44; 630 n.36.

[4] See John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament

[5] Jonathan D. Sarfati, The Genesis Account, 105-107

[6] So Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, 225-226.  “[T]hey became so noisy as to deprive Enlil of his sleep.”

[7] We must not philosophize too much about God’s impassibility and His imperviousness to emotion.  Did not God incarnate express exasperation at His disciples (Mk. 8:15-21), or anger at the hard-hearted Pharisees (Mk. 3:5)?  For a good treatment of the subject, see Rob Lister, God Impassible and Impassioned.

[8] A similar more extended un-creation oracle is found in Jeremiah 4:23-27

[9] “In the Gilgamesh Epic there was no thought of granting mankind an opportunity to repent.” – Heidel, 230.  It was the god Ea who went behind the back of Enlil to protect his favorite Utnaphistim.

The Cruciality of Christ – Pt. 2

Part One

We have been considering the centrality of the Person of Jesus for an understanding of ourselves in the created order.  We continue with a look at the Prologue to John’s Gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. – John 1:1-3

So again, this shows us that Christ is right at the very center of the creation. In fact, creation is made for Him, and not only through Him. It is not that God used the Second Person to make the world and then He had no further interest in it. No! These things were made for Him and nothing was made unless it was made through the agency of Jesus Christ and to the satisfaction of Jesus Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity.

As we told are told here in John 1:1, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, that Word is to be equated as it is by John with the words spoken by God in Genesis 1:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3

…that “saying” or “speaking” of God was not just in audible words; it didn’t require audible words anymore than the healing of the centurion’s servant required them.  In all probability there would not have been any other creature around other than God to hear them.  But the Word was the expression, the idea of God’s mind and will coming through the instrumentality of the Second Person of the Trinity, whom John calls the Logos.

With this introduction John insisted Jesus’ origin and nature are incomprehensible if seen solely in terms of this world. Only when we read it in the light of his pre-incarnate deity does Jesus’ story makes sense; that is why this prologue is here. It tells us who the subject really is so we can better understand his story. To show Christ’s preexistence requires that it identify the Word with Jesus, which the prologue does in John 1:14-17. – Douglas McCready, He Came Down from Heaven, 140

What McCready has said here is most important for us to get.  To repeat, we must start in our study of Jesus Christ by realizing who He really is: that He is God; that He is the pre-existent personal Deity.  Unless we do that, we don’t grasp John’s message.  Neither can we have a satisfactory Christology.  McGready continues in connection with John’s prologue:

Much of this passage has parallels in contemporary Jewish and Hellenistic literature, but when we get to verse 14, ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’, we find a statement that would scandalize both Jew and Greek. The extra-biblical parallels that do exist provide little more than points of contact for John’s message; none determined how John would describe Jesus.  – Ibid.

John does not rely either on the Greek concept of the Logos or on the Hebrew concept of theDabar-Yahweh – the word of the Lord.

The concepts of logos [Greek] and word [Jewish] both pointed to something of universal significance that had its home outside the temporal world, although each affected the world and played a role in its coming into existence. So when John wrote of the logospeople may not have understood precisely what he was saying but they knew he was talking about something very important. John’s key differences from these two traditions were to present the Logos as someone not something, to affirm his complete deity, and particularly for the Greeks, to proclaim he had taken up residence in this world. The ancient world had no trouble with supernatural beings and little difficulty with the reality of this world, to the Hellenists; however, the Divine could not contaminate Himself by entering into the physical realm. Jews were familiar with theophanies in the Old Testament but these were not incarnations; God was spirit and so could not become part of the physical realm.  The Hellenists could follow John until verse 14 when he would be horrified by the thought of the ‘word becoming flesh’. Conversely a Jewish reader would object to the anthropomorphism implicit in the claim that a man known to history was himself the revelation of the invisible God rather than an inspired messenger like the prophets. Only a few verses often introducing this Logos Word, John identified him as the man Jesus of Nazareth – Ibid, 140-141.

This is what we must grasp right off the bat!  We must fully ponder the great significance of the designation “the Logos,” but within the safe confines provided by Scripture’s own definitional framework.  The One “through whom and by whom and for whom all things were created and cohere” (as Paul puts it), enters our world, becoming flesh.

Therefore, the doctrines of the full deity of Christ and the personal preexistence of Christ are critical to a correct Christological outlook.  But further of course, because He is also our Creator, our understanding of the creation and our place in it should be Christologically conditioned.

We see this truth surface more once we connect the original creative work of Christ with the redemptive work of Christ (I know there is something anachronistic about referring to the Creator as “Christ” before His Incarnation, the anachronism is lessened considerably by the knowledge that the Second Person and the Messiah are identical).  As we’ve seen, He is the One for whom everything is created, and He is the One who upholds all things; even now upholding a fallen creation.  Because He continues to uphold a fallen creation, and especially a fallen humanity, the fact of the Incarnation – that He has become flesh and entered our space – to do noting less than allow Himself to be abused and humiliated and betrayed and murdered by His creatures in order to save them is indeed nothing short of astounding!  No wonder the angels desire to learn more of this: this “through Him and for Him”!

He is the one who takes away the sin of the world, and He is the One who will renovate this planet and restore it to Edenic beauty (Rom. 8:18-23), and rule on it until He has made it into something He can present to His Father (1 Cor. 15:20-28).  It was in the knowledge of this work that He instituted the Lord’s Supper (Mk. 14:22-25), and promised:

This is My blood of the new covenant,
which is shed for many.
Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the
vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

This One has entered this “present evil age” and has died on the Cross for the sins of mankind and has risen again for our justification and for our hope.  And He is coming again as the coming King to reign over this creation.  Indeed, it is precisely because this world is Christ’s world that I must reject any theology which would assert that the returning King will come only to dispense with it and replace it without making something worthy of it, and that despite the stain of Sin having penetrated into its very fabric.  Although the curse cannot be lifted from off of this earth, and it will eventually have to be replaced with a “New Heaven and New Earth” where “there will be no more curse” (Rev. 22:3), yet the stain of Sin will not prevent the Savior from delivering it up to the Father for His approval and blessing.  This is one important theological apology for premillennialism.

We can see therefore the cruciality of Jesus Christ!  It is not just an article of faith, but this is the way that history is…the explanation for why we’re here and where things are going and what is going to be the end of all things.  And the end of all things will be all about the Person of Jesus Christ!

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The Cruciality of Christ – Pt 1

Right now I am rather preoccupied with preparing for a surprise new one in August.  I posted this study some years back and thought it slipped through the cracks.  Anyway, here’s part 1.  Part 2 to follow soon. 

Introduction

For the Christian, without the Lord Jesus Christ life means nothing.  Whatever other people say; however the non-Christian tries to answer the question of meaning, the Christian sees no answer to the big questions of life; no remedy for the plight of man, without Jesus Christ.

In the Lord Jesus is truly the explanation for the way that life was originally, the way that it is now as a fallen creation, and the way that it’s going to be in the future. Everything resolves itself around the Him. Indeed, Christianity without the work and person of the Jesus is unthinkable. With Christianity, if you take out the Lord Jesus Christ then you are left with nothing. You are left with just a man-made morality and with nothing else. You are left with no transcendent point by which the world; ourselves included, can be understood.  In fact, what you are left with, as the unbelieving philosopher Feuerbach said, is mere anthropology; man musing upon himself – just using the metaphors of deity.  So, Christianity truly, as W.H. Griffith Thomas put it,” is Christ.”

Christ is the one who has been “set forth,” as Paul puts it in the Book of Colossians, “by the Fatherfor mankind.”  We have to view things through Jesus Christ in order to get them in the right balance and perspective.

When we study about Jesus the first thing that we have to realize is that it is a personal study.  Further, from a believing viewpoint, it is personal, both for ourselves as Christians, and also on the side of the Lord! He wants us to represent Him correctly.  He wants us to have correct thoughts and feelings about Him, and He wants these thoughts and feelings to be reflected in our worship and in our daily lives.  How sad it is that we can be such hypocrites in our representation of our Lord!  While hypocrisy does not logically destroy a truth-claim, it does nothing to endear that truth-claim to onlookers either.  Truth must be served both with fidelity in content and in practice.

I’ve already said that Christianity is Christ; without Jesus Christ there is simply no Christian faith at all.  I want to underline that point in the rest of this lecture.

Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist…

This is telling us that the Father is the source of all things and we have been created by Him and for His glory.

 … and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. I Corinthians 8:6

This means that Jesus Christ is the ‘Instrument’ of all creation. It is through Him that everything was made.

In the first part of the verse Paul says the creation is made for the Father, and that is certainly true.  But there are other passages which will claim that this world was also made for the Son.

 

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and forhim. And he is before all things, [that is prior to all things] and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:16, 17

 

Colossians is all about the preeminence of Jesus Christ. And here we are told quite clearly that byChrist everything was created.  (This can also be translated ‘through him’ but usually the preposition there is translated ‘by’).

So, everything that has been created, whether they are visible things or invisible things – because of course the Christian worldview includes invisible entities like angels, as well as visible things, – that these things in their respective hierarchies were created by Christ. But, not only were they created by Christ or through Christ, but they were also created for Christ. The preposition eis there, meaning “towards,” or “for,” or “unto” Christ.  Hence, the Lord Jesus Christ is the one through whom all things were created, and also the One for Whom they were created.  (more…)

Frank's place

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (pt.10)

Adam is Tested

In the next section (2:15-17) we read of God giving the man a straightforward command:

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an actual tree.  It is not called a symbol and need not be seen as one.  I agree with Merrill that we should not think of “good and evil” in this place as contrasting values so much as an idiom for comprehensive knowledge.[1]  Certainly, ethical knowledge would be included, since all knowledge bears an ethical stamp, but the innocence of our first parents does not at all lead us to think they were ignorant of the meanings of the terms “good” and “evil.”  God is communicating meaningfully to Adam, not speaking over his head.  Every word which God speaks to Adam presupposes his ability to receive and comprehend it.  Thus, the expression “to freely eat” was just as well understood as the designation “every tree of the garden.”  Again the warning “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” was God speaking to a comprehending and responsive creature.  He was not speaking into the air.[2]

Because this is so I wish to re-emphasize the communicative aspect of revelation.  Words which cannot be understood, either because the hearer does not have the tools to understand them, or because they lack the capacity for language itself, are very poor conveyers of meaning and intention.  We cannot, without veering close to blasphemy, predicate such a thing of God.  Adam and Eve understood God’s every word.[3]

Although these verses refer to a prohibition, they in no case speak of a promise for obedience, or any Divine commitment to grant anything to the man and woman.  There is no trace of covenantal language in this section.[4]  And any and every attempt to read a covenant into Genesis 2 (or 3) requires the interpreter to bring along far more speculative material than textual material to fill out the content of such a venture.[5]

But then, why the prohibition?  We are not told outright, but one reason which I find useful is to test and deepen the level of trust and love between the man and God.  Sometimes in life we allow certain trusted friends to know more about us than we vouchsafe to others.  We feel that they are able to understand who we are more deeply because a level of trust has been reached which was not present at the start of our friendship.  Seen like this, God’s warning and testing of Adam was a means of developing the relationship and of teaching Adam more about God as Lord.  It was a test of friendship as much as a test of obedience.

Adam under God’s Instruction

Genesis 2:18-25 features two episodes in which Adam names those brought to him by God.  At first sight the two episodes don’t appear to be related at all.  In fact, the second one; the naming of the animals, almost seems to cut across the first: the problem of the man’s solitariness.  But as the passage is pondered it becomes apparent that what is happening is that the Lord is using the exercise of describing the animals to teach the man about his own situation.  It is noticeable that God does not simply inform the man directly that he does not have a helper and companion.  He sets Adam a course of study through which Adam himself arrives at that conclusion.  Thus, under the guidance of his God, Adam was coming to knowledge through reflecting on what he was encountering in God’s world.  I have no doubt that this is the way all our knowledge (as scientia) was to be gained and used; that is to say, knowledge gained either listening directly to what the Creator said about His world, or indirectly through the process of accruing knowledge by examining and reflecting upon the world under God’s tutelage.  Today the only access to this tutelage is through believing God’s Word.  Yet we remain hugely privileged.  It has rightly been said: (more…)

Psalms3

Review: Allen Ross on the Psalms (Vol.3)

A Review of Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 3 (90 – 150), Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1042 pages, hardback 

Finally we have the third and final volume of the Kregel Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms by Allen P. Ross, Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.  This one covers Psalms 90 through 150 and brings the complete set to three thousand pages.  The first two volumes were outstanding.  I have found that I turn to them first for exegetical and even ques to homiletical material (alongside VanGemeren in the EBC).

Although this review is on Volume 3, I want to say something about the other volumes.  Ross’s introduction in Volume 1 is a very helpful orientation to the Psalter, its forms, its themes, and its theology.  As with his outstanding book on worship, Recalling the Hope of Glory, he concerns himself in these books with the Divine – human encounter.  Take a look, for instance at Ross’s comments on Psalm 8 and Psalm 23 in the first volume, and Psalm 42 in the second, and see how Ross brings you into the context of the human author.  The author is a Bible conservative.  He is not interested in winning friends in the critical academy, although he is a first rate Old Testament scholar.

But my job is to comment mainly on this third volume.  At 1042 pages it is the largest of the three.  The page count includes an Index of Word Studies and a Select Bibliography but no Scripture, Subject or author indices.  Why not?  For no good reason that I can think of!  It is my only complaint with the book and it is not Ross’s fault, it is the publisher’s.  When Kregel make peace with practical common sense and start including proper indexes I will stop moaning about their lamentable absence.

What kind of Commentary is this?  It is first and foremost an interpretation of the biblical text.  That is to say, it is quite single-minded in its basic intent.  If you want to know what the text says, with some insight into what is going on, this is the book for you.  Other commentaries will need to be on hand for those concerned with the theological teaching of each Psalm or with detailed interaction with critical opinions, although Ross does discuss various matters to do with motifs, classification, and ideas about dating and purpose, together with furnishing his own translation.

Usability marks this series overall, and this work doesn’t waste the reader’s time.  This is what makes these excellent volumes for the preacher.  The footnotes are many but they do not overwhelm the student.  They do their job of informing and authorizing certain statements of the author.

The interpretations are coined with an eye for what they would have meant for the Old Testament Jew.  Thus, with the great Davidic Psalm 132 stress is laid upon the faithfulness of God to His covenant with David and how belief in God’s promise leads naturally to confidence in God.  David knows that his descendant will reign on his throne one day.  It is good to find a commentary that takes these things seriously without making them heavenly types.  The troublesome imprecation at the end of Psalm 137 is treated head on as a righteous supplication from those who have suffered or seen great suffering.  Meanwhile Psalm 119 is given 140 pages of exposition.

Allen Ross is one of Evangelicalism’s best scholars.  He has brought to conclusion his Psalms Commentary, and has produced arguably the best exposition of the Psalms available.

 

This book was sent to me free of charge by the publisher.

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The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.9)

Part Eight

Adam, Guard or Keeper?

Genesis 2:15 has recently stirred the imaginations of a whole group of OT scholars.  The reason for this is that they think they observe intimations that all was not well with the good world which Yahweh Elohim had made.  For one thing, as we have already said, the garden of Eden was an enclosed garden (gan).  Why was it enclosed?  Well, maybe because it was the initial safe point of departure for the man within the Creation Project?  In this view the garden was started by God and was to be a laboratory model for Adam’s own gardening enterprises after his progeny had themselves begun to explore and subdue the rest of the good earth.

But there is another supposed “clue” in the passage that all was not well outside of the enclosure.  The Hebrew words usually rendered “to cultivate” (abad) and “to keep” (shamar), may also be translated as “serve” and “guard”.  If, as some surmise, evil lurked outside the enclosure, then the picture before us is of a park which God has separated off from the rest of the early earth, perhaps by a wall or fence; hence a sanctuary.  Adam’s role in this scenario would not be just pastoral and creative; it would also be; in fact, it would mainly be, to act as a sentry, stopping the repeated attempts of Evil from despoiling the island of beauty which the garden must have been.

A corollary to this would be to interpret Adam and his family pushing out the edges of the garden in stages as they brought the untamed outland into order for God.  Thus, Adam would be seen as an Empire-builder for the Lord.  This is attractive to some people because they construe this account typologically as the first of several failed attempts by representative “Adam’s” to spread God’s kingdom throughout the world.  The final successful King is Jesus, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45).  Depending on our choice of eschatology, either Jesus either subdues the whole world spiritually from heaven before casting it away and replacing it at His second coming (amillennialism), or else brings it to heel through the efforts of the Church before coming back (postmillennialism).  Still another view which would be amenable to this “Man as Guard” motif is historic or covenant premillennialism, although this would have Christ coming back to actually set up His kingdom reign on earth and finally driving evil out of the world like Adam (and many after him) ought to have done, though in double-quick time.

Let me provide a couple of examples of this kind of thinking.  The first is from G. K. Beale:

Adam was to be God’s obedient servant in maintaining both the physical and the spiritual welfare of the garden abode, which included dutifully keeping evil influences from invading the arboreal sanctuary…Thus, he was to rule over and subdue the serpent, which was reflective of God’s own activity in Gen. 1 of subduing the chaotic darkness of creation and ruling over it.[1]

Then there is this from William Dumbrell:

The Garden of Eden is thus a place separated from the outside world, which presumably is very much like our own world…the garden is a special place, separated from a world that needs to be brought under the dominion of the divine rule, for which Eden is a model… At the end of the canon, however, the new creation is presented in varied symbolism, but lastly and most significantly in Revelation 22:1-5 as a new and universalized Eden.[2]

Beale links the Genesis account directly to ANE creation myths and interprets the words “enclosed”, and “keep/guard” negatively, along with seeing only the Garden in Eden as truly reflecting the name God assigned to it.  Adam is somehow to subordinate the serpent[3], (whom we know is the immensely powerful being Satan), thus recapitulating what God Himself is said to have done in overcoming and subordinating the anarchic chaos.  Dumbrell adds to the picture by describing the world beyond the enclosure as anything but “very good.”  It is not under God’s rule, and man’s task is to bring it not only under his dominion, but under God’s dominion also.  He also betrays further theologized ideals about the last book of the Bible by calling the New Jerusalem a symbolic “universalized Eden.”[4] (more…)

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The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.8)

Part Seven

A Thematic Account

The second chapter of Genesis is clearly somewhat different than the first.  But it was not intended to be another variant account of it.  It follows up on the second half of Day Six and the creation of humanity, and throws theological light on it.  It is not as concerned with chronology as the previous chapter.  So Genesis 2 is not, as the more liberal scholars think, another creation story.  It is a thematic zeroing in on the creation of Adam and Eve.

It is possible that the making of trees in the Garden occurred separately from Day Three, and was witnessed by Adam.  But such speculation need not detain us.  I am happy to follow Sailhamer, who comments,

It is important to read chapter 2 as an integral part of the first chapter…It seems apparent that the author intends the second chapter to be read closely with the first and that each chapter be identified as part of the same event…we may expect to find in chapter 2 a continuation of the theme of the ‘likeness’ between humankind and the Creator.[1]          

The chapter introduces the theme of the completion of God’s creative work.  The zenith is reached in the second half of the sixth day with the creation of God’s image-bearers (Gen.1:26f.).  The focus in chapter 2 is switched to the seventh day, the cessation (shabbat) of the creative work and the hallowing of that day.  Discussions about whether the seventh day (which does not include the evening and morning formula of the other days), is twenty-four hours long, or is open-ended is not likely to be resolved since it is often theologically tethered.  If the seventh day is ongoing then we are still living within it.  But it is difficult to view the history of the world as “hallowed” and separated to God as the open-ended view requires.  Paul talks about the world as “this present evil age” in Galatians 1.  This abounding evil epitomizes what some would want to label “the seventh day.”  This seems to me at least to run counter to every meaningful conception of “sanctified.”  If, however, the Sabbath observance in the Mosaic Law is viewed as a reminder of Creation in correspondence to the literal seventh day, as well as a sign for Israel (Exod.31:16-17), the question of the contamination of the day does not arise.

Too, the stoppage of creative activity was not the end of God’s activity.  God’s activity changed from that of Creator-at-work to Provider and Governor over Creation.  So the completion of God’s handiwork in the first six days forms the prelude to the whole Creation Project itself, which includes humanity as vice-regent within a world held in providential care by the Lord of history: teleology and eschatology get underway in the atmosphere of providence.  Hence, as Exodus 20:11 appears to indicate, the seventh day was the day when God looked with pleasure upon His works before shifting into His role as Upholder of the world.[2]

Man in Eden

The fourth verse of the second chapter introduces the reader to  the special scene of man’s creation and placement in the garden of delight (“Eden” means “delight”).  Please note the enclosed garden is “in Eden”, and since Eden means delight it would be a strange interpretation to teach that things outside the garden were not delightful!

The phrase “when they were created” is perhaps further evidence for thinking that the seventh day is over and we are now entering into providentialist history.  Verse 5 tells us that “there was no man to till the ground.”  This indicates two things: that there is an intimate connection between humanity and the ground from which he is made.  God in Creation had man in view: man and his relation to his environment.  The “tilling” of the ground, then, is not a dark adumbration of what was to come in 3:23.[3]  In the second place, this knocks out any special pleading for the evolution of man.  Man was created to work the ground, even in his innocent state.  The connection is intentional and is original.

The creation of man in verse 7 is described as a twofold affair.  First God constructed Adam’s body from the soil.  Then He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.  One should not read more into these words than is there, but it does appear that these actions; especially the note about the impartation of “life” (chayyim) through breath (nephesh), is intended to set us off from the animals.[4]  Still, human beings are interesting creatures:

What a combination he is of grandeur and dignity (made in God’s image) and lowliness (formed of common dirt).[5] 

This “life” which was breathed into man denotes the “inward man” or “soul”.[6]  Mind/body dualism (of a particular kind) is a fundamental Bible teaching.  There are plainly two actions in the verse which correspond to this doctrine. (more…)

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The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.7)

Part Six

God’s Transcendence versus Continuity

It is very important to notice the links between the creation accounts and ethical accounts.  In one way or another all non-biblical systems of belief paint a metaphysical picture of reality that is at once unified and diverse.  The unity is found in the indissoluble connection between heaven and earth, between man and the “higher powers”, or between the human animal and the Cosmos.  The diversity is seen in the various ways this connection is explained.  It may be explained by saying that we are merely the consequence of blind, purposeless matter coming together and developing in a certain way.  This is the secular evolutionary explanation in which man is no more significant than a slug (to cite atheist moral philosopher Peter Singer) because men, slugs and stars are composed of the same stuff arranged in different combinations.  The same feature is found in ancient pagan depictions of reality.  There is a real connection between the gods and the earth.  There are no exceptions, everything is connected; nothing is truly transcendent.

Old Testament scholar John W. Oswalt, defines “continuity” in this way:

Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts that things are continuous with each other.  Thus I am one with the tree, not merely symbolically or spiritually, but actually.  The tree is me; I am the tree.  The same is true of every other entity in the universe, including deity.  This means that the divine is materially as well as spiritually identical with the psycho-socio-physical universe we know.[1]

The ancient myths reflected an outlook on the world, and they memorialized that outlook.  Thus, “myth depends for its whole rationale on the idea that all things in the cosmos are continuous with each other.  Furthermore, myth exists to actualize that continuity.”[2]

Oswalt demonstrates that this “continuity” or connection between gods and humans and rocks is the key difference between the biblical worldview and its rivals, ancient and modern.  Rituals, however debasing they became, were thought to affect the god for whose benefit they were performed.  Just as the rumbling of thunder was construed as something happening among the pantheon above, so a festival or dance or sacrifice was believed to be noticed by those same gods.  This is the ancient idea of “the Great Chain of Being” which unfortunately got introduced into Christian thought through a misunderstanding of the thought of Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics.

This “hierarchy of beings” is well described by David Bentley Hart:

God was understood as that supreme reality from which all lesser realities came, but also as in a sense contained within the hierarchy, as the most exalted of its entities.  Such was his magnificence and purity, moreover, high up atop the pyramid of essences, that he literally could not come into direct contact with the imperfect and changeable order here below.  He was in a sense limited by his own transcendence, fixed up “there” in his proper place within the economy of being.[3]

When Hart refers to God being “limited by his own transcendence” he is highlighting the incongruity of putting Him atop any chain of being.  In biblical terms, what we call God’s transcendence is His Lordship over everything He has made and upholds, together with His immanent working in providence.

Although there are things in common that the biblical creation narrative with ancient creation myths, these similarities shouldn’t surprise us once it is understood that these creation myths are partly derived from the original truths passed down from Adam and his descendents, twisted of course and corrupted as man rebelled against God and became polytheistic and superstitious, and lost the framework for true transcendence.

How different all this is from the creation accounts of surrounding nations!  Those all assume the eternity of matter in some guise.  This is why things like transcendental meditation, non-Christian prayer, voodoo, magic, sorcery, etc., are practiced in the belief that one can directly affect the world or the god in some way.  Even many atheists have a mystical side to them which reflects this idea.  Only within biblical spirituality does this continuity of being evaporate.[4]   God is the transcendent Lord over all He creates and He cannot be maneuvered or coerced to do anything which is contrary to His will.

So the doctrine of Creation as found in Genesis 1 and 2 sets up a theological and philosophical platform which ought to produce a way of looking at things which has radical divergences from those which are conceived of by the world.

In verses 28-30 we see that God the Creator makes everything, and then made the creature who was like Him.  Man had a vital role to play and a response to give in the project.  We see, then, an ethical dimension introduced at the start; the role and response were to be worshipful.

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[1] John W. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 43

[2] Ibid, 45

[3] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 203-204.

[4] Of course, where certain Christian formulations may be overly reliant on Greek thought (e.g. some Thomistic reliance upon Aristotle).  This is still a problem in some quarters.

Part Eight