Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The real absence of Jesus from the pages of the Old Testament

Now I want to remind you, although you fully knew it, 
that Jesus, 
who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, 
afterward destroyed those who did not believe.
Jude 5 (ESV)

Most contemporary evangelicals adopt an approach to the doctrine of God in the Old Testament that is functionally modalist, or unitarian.  God is regarded as a person, with only a vague inkling, insufficient for its time, that within the Godhead there is a plurality of three distinct divine persons.

The Word of God and the Wisdom of God are taken to be personifications rather than persons, and the descriptions of the Spirit in personal terms (being grieved, instructing, and giving rest, see Neh. 9:20; Isa. 63:10, 14) are not given sufficient attention, even though they are every bit as important in establishing the personal nature and agency of the Spirit as the Pauline texts in 1 Cor. 2:13 and Eph. 4:30.  It is surely undeniable that in the Old Testament the work of the Spirit is the work of a divine person.

In the great Isaianic prophecies concerning the Messiah, who is he anointed with (11:1-3)?  Who sends the Messiah and the Spirit (42:1; 48:16; 61:1)?  Can we afford to think of this Spirit anointing in vague or impersonal terms when Isaiah also tells us that the Spirit give the people rest and that they grieved him in the wilderness (63:10-14)?

Is it not that case that Messianic Servant is described in terms reserved for deity ("high and lifted up" 52:13, see the use of this phrase in 6:1 and 57:15) whilst at the same time Isaiah tells us of his true and lowly humanity (49:1-7; 52:12-14; 53:2, 5, 9, 11 etc.)?

It may be more helpful to think of these great Isaianic prophecies as movie trailers for the gospels, giving us glimpses ahead of the release date, of the words and works of the principal actors in the drama of redemption.  The prophets were not telling a cryptic tale about the denouement of God's dealings with Israel, they were looking for the Christ, anointed with the Spirit and sent by God.  They had the privilege of projecting onto the screen the snapshots of revelation that foresignified Christ to come.

On the subject of Christ in the Old Testament here, again, is Irenaeus in Against Heresies:
For he who has brought in the end [of the law] has himself also brought in the beginning; and it is he who does himself say to Moses, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have come down to deliver them;" it being customary from the beginning with the Word of God to ascend and descend for the purpose of saving those who were in afflication. (4.12.4)
But when he terms the disciples "the friends of God," he plainly declares himself to be the Word of God, whom Abraham also followed voluntarily and under no compulsion, because of the noble nature of his faith, and so became "the friend of God" [Jas. 2:23].  But the Word of God did not accept of the friendship of Abraham, as though he stood in need of it, for he was perfect from the beginning ("Before Abraham was," he says, "I am"), but that he in his goodness might bestow eternal life upon Abraham himself, inasmuch as the friendship of God imparts immortality to those who embrace it." (4.13.4)
In this manner, therefore, did they also see the Son of God as a man conversant with men, while they prophesied what was to happen, saying that he who was not come as yet was present, proclaiming also the impassible as subject to suffering, and declaring that he who was then in heaven had descended into the dust of death. (4.20.8)
And the Word spake to Moses, appearing before him "just as one might speak to his friend." (4.20.9)
However, it was not by means of visions alone which were seen, and words which were proclaimed, but also in actual works, that he was beheld by the prophets, in order that through them he might prefigure and and show forth future events beforehand. (4.20.12)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Gospel Coalition and Irenaeus on Christ in the OT (1)

Over at the Gospel Coalition site there is an essential starter kit for preaching Christ from the OT made up of resources by contemporary and modern authors.  It is worthwhile to turn back the clock to the second century and to look at Irenaeus of Lyon's essential starter kit for knowing Christ in the OT as he wrestled with the Gnostic heretics.

Throughout the following extracts from Irenaeus two foundational points are being made.

1.  With regard to revelation, it is impossible to know God aright unless he is revealed to us in and by the Son.  This foundational truth is not something that holds true from the time of the incarnation.

2.  The Son appears personally in the OT to reveal God, to reveal the gospel beforehand through the prophets, to be the object of faith, and to rescue his people.

As far as Irenaeus was concerned the OT patriarchs could not have penned a volume with the title The Jesus We Never Knew.

Here are some extracts from his magisterial work Against Heresies (from whence this blog derives its title):
Here [Psalm 110:1] represents to us the Father addressing the Son; he who gave him the inheritance of the heathen, and subjected to his all his enemies.  Since, therefore, the Father is truly Lord, and the Son truly Lord, the Holy Spirit has fitly designated them by the title of Lord.
And again, referring to the destruction of the Sodomites, the Scripture says, "Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah fire and brimstone from the LORD out of heaven" [Gen. 19:24].  For it here points out that the Son, who had been talking with Abraham, had received power to judge the Sodomites for their wickedness.
And this does declare the same truth [Psalm 45:6-7]...For the Spirit designates both of them by the name of God--both him who is anointed as Son, and him who does anoint, that is, the Father. (Book 3: Ch. 6: Sect. 1)
And again, when the Son speaks to Moses, He says, "I am come down to deliver this people" [Ex. 3:14].  For it is he who descended and ascended for the salvation of men.  Therefore God has been declared through the Son, who is in the Father, and has the Father in himself. (3:6:2)
On John the Baptist's relationship to Christ and the OT prophets he wrote:
For all the other prophets preached the advent of the paternal Light, and desired to be worthy of seeing him whom they preached; but John did both announce [the advent] beforehand, in a like manner as did the others, and actually saw him when he came, and pointed him out, and persuaded many to believe on him, so that he did himself hold the place of both prophet and apostle. (3:11:3)
On the personal appearance of Christ in the OT Irenaeus says the following:
And the Word of God himself used to converse with the ante-Mosaic patriarchs, in accordance with his divinity and glory; but for those under the law he instituted a sacerdotal and liturgical service. (3:11:8)
Christ himself, therefore, together with the Father, is the God of the living, who spake to Moses, and who was also manifested to the fathers. (4:5:2)
[Abraham]...followed the Word of God, walking as a pilgrim with the Word, that he might [afterwards] have his abode with the Word. (4:5:2)
Since, therefore, Abraham was a prophet, and saw in the Spirit the day of the Lord's coming, and the dispensation of his suffering, through whom both he himself and all who, following the example of his faith, trust in God, should be saved, he rejoiced exceedingly.  The Lord, therefore, was not unknown to Abraham, whose day he desired to see; nor again was the Lord's Father, for he had learned from the Word of the Lord, and believed him. (4:5:5)
"No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; nor the Father, save the Son, and those to whom the Son shall reveal him" [Matt. 11:27]. For "shall reveal" was not said with reference to the future alone, as if then [only] the Word had begun to manifest the Father when he was born of Mary, but it applies indifferently throughout all time. (4:6:7)
With reference to John 8:56 he wrote:
For not alone upon Abraham's account did he say these things, but also that he might point out how all who have known God from the beginning, and have foretold the advent of Christ, have received the revelation from the Son himself; who also in the last times was made visible and passible... (4:7:2)
And here are some more extracts:
Therefore have the Jews departed from God, in not receiving the Word, by imagining that they could know the Father [apart] by himself, without the Word, that is, without the Son; they being ignorant of that God who spake in human shape to Abraham, and again to Moses, saying "I have surely seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and I have come down to deliver them" [Exodus 3:7-8]. (4:7:4)
"For if you had believed Moses, you would also have believed me; for he wrote of me" [John 5:39-40] [saying this] no doubt, because the Son of God is implanted everywhere throughout his writings: at one time, indeed, speaking with Abraham, when about to eat with him; at another time with Noah, giving him the dimensions [of the ark]; at another, inquiring after Adam; at another, bringing down judgement upon the Sodomites; and again, when he became visible, and directs Jacob on his journey, and speaks with Moses from the bush.  And it would be endless to recount [the occasions] upon which the Son of God is shown forth by Moses. [4:10:1]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Family fun with John Calvin

I discovered today, whilst reading a very popular book on the atonement (it's on page 170), that James Arminius was in fact the son-in-law of John Calvin.  I also discovered that Theodore Beza was Calvin's son-in-law too.

Just imagine the fun the three of them must have had debating limited atonement.  I bet they teased him a lot, "Go on old boy tell us what you really think, stop messing about with all that ambiguous use of 'the world', and 'all'."  But I am sure that John just chuckled to himself and said "Wouldn't it be funny if several centuries from now people debated what I really thought about the matter."

Taking an anachronistic approach to questions of historical theology really isn't that funny.  But claiming that Arminius and Beza married Calvin's daughters (not that he had any) is frankly absurd.  I don't think that there was much by way of checking sources on those two claims.

An uneasy bed for a dying man's conscience

In his letter vindicating 'The Doctrine of Justification from the Unjust Charge of Antinomianism', Robert Traill put forward four points tho recommend the Reformed doctrine of justification.  Consider what he had to say in his third point about it's suitability to the frame of mind necessary when we approach God:
Men may think and talk boldly of inherent righteousness, and of its worth and value; of good works, and frames and dispositions: but when men present themselves before the Lord, and have any discoveries of his glory, all things in themselves will disappear, and be looked upon as nothing. 
No man can stand before this holy Lord God, with any peace and comfort, unless he have God himself to stay upon.  His grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, can only preserve a man from being consumed.  Hence we see the difference betwixt mens (sic) frame in their disputes and doctrine about these points, and their own sense and pleadings with God in prayer. (p.269)
Traill's fourth recommendation is the litmus test of the death bed, that place where good works flee away and where a lifetime's sins of omission and commission are churned up in the memory.  Traill's observations are not only helpful in putting forward the need to rest and rely on Christ alone but also in spelling out the tawdry and unstable alternatives:
Consider how it is with the most holy and eminent saints when dying. Did you ever see or hear any boasting of their works and performances?  They may, and do own, to the praise of his grace, what they have been made to be, what they have helped to do or suffer for Christ's sake. 
But when they draw near to the awful tribunal, what else is in their eye and heart, but only free grace, ransoming blood, and a well ordered covenant in Christ the Surety?  They cannot bear to hear any make mention to them of their holiness, their own grace and attainments. 
In a word, the doctrine of conditions, qualifications, and rectoral government, and the distribution of rewards and punishments, according to the new law of grace, will make an uneasy bed to a dying man's conscience; and will leave him in a very bad condition at present, and in dread of worse, when he is feeling, in his last agonies, that, the wages of sin is death, if he cannot by faith add, but the gift of God is eternal life, through Christ Jesus our Lord. (p. 270-1)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Theology at high altitude

This post is a short addendum to the four previous ones on Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears' criticisms of the eternal generation of the Son (and procession of the Spirit).  Compare their words with those of W. G. T Shedd written in 1887.

Driscoll and Breshears
The whole attempt to define the eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided...God has given us no revelation of the nature of their eternal relations.  We should follow the command of the Bible: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God" and refuse to speculate...begotten unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten.  That would certainly lend support to the the Arian heresy that the Son is a created being and not the Creator God.
For these reasons it is best to omit the creedal terms "begotten" and "proceeds" from our definition of the Trinity.  Our authority is not in creeds but in Scripture. We stand with the universal Trinitarian definition of the church to confess that God is one God, eternally existing in three persons, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. (Doctrine, p. 27-28)
The following from W. G. T. Shedd shows us, at the very least, that there is nothing new about the proposal being put forward in Doctrine:
In some sections of Christendom, it has been contended that the doctrine of the Trinity should be received without any attempt to establish it's rationality and intrinsic necessity.  In this case, the tenets of eternal generation and procession have been regarded as going beyond the Scripture data, and if not positively rejected, have been thought to hinder rather than assist faith in three divine persons and one God.

But the history of opinions shows that such sections of the church have not proved to be the stongest defenders of the Scripture statement, nor the most successful in keeping clear of the Sabellian, Arian, or even Socinian departure from it.
"Introductory Essay" to Augustine's De Trinitate, in Philip Schaff [ed.], Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, p. 3 (Emphasis added)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The chief of sinners

Every believer's experience witnesses to this, that every one that believes on Jesus Christ, acts faith as the chief of sinners.  Every man that sees himself rightly, thinks so of himself, and therein thinks not amiss.  God only knows who is truly the greatest sinner, and every humbled sinner will think that he is the man.

Robert Traill, The Doctrine of Justification Vindicated, p. 262-3

Friday, February 11, 2011

We all preach justification by faith

One of the most basic lessons we need to learn about doctrinal errors is that they so often involve mutually exclusive interpretations of the same biblical and theological vocabulary used by the orthodox.  Before I illustrate this point it is worth teasing out some implications.

If a mutually exclusive interpretation of the word justification occurs, within the context of a shared ecclesiastical or para church basis of faith, then that body, organisation, institution or grouping has a verbal unity in appearance only.

There is no substantial agreement when parts of the whole mean different things by the set of words adopted as the standard for the whole.  On the surface you think that you are looking at unity.  But when you look more closely at what lies beneath you begin to realise that people really do mean very different things even when they have signed up to the same form of words.

An almost bizarre example of this doctrinal confusion is that of the Henry Sloane Coffin, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and associate professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York:
In subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith Coffin did not believe that he was accepting the doctrines stated in the Confession.  Rather, as he later maintained, "The formula [of subscription] means to me that under the supreme authority of Christ I receive the Confession as setting forth in seventeenth century thought and language the principle doctrines which have grown out of and foster the religious experience of protestant evangelical Christians, and which it is my privilege to teach in the best thought and speech at my command for those to whom I minister." (Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 85-6)
When conflict arises between opposing parties because there are real differences of interpretation despite the presence of an agreed set of words the most helpful way forward can take two forms.

1.  You have to ask whether a particular interpretation is a clear departure from the intended meaning of the framers of the original document.

2.  It may be necessary to ask if the wording of the original document needs expanding, not to add any new truth, not to move on in a direction contrary to the original, but as the best way to clarify the true meaning of the original by identifying and rejecting new errors.

Extra words and a fuller confessional statement may be needed because the original words have been hijacked.  As Augustine pointed out long ago, "It is underneath these few words, therefore, which are thus set in order, that most heretics have endeavoured to conceal their poisons" (A Treatise on Faith and the Creed, Chapter 1)

Whether the first or second of these routes is followed, and they are not mutually exclusive, they represent a desire to avoid the Humpty Dumpty syndrome:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
One of the effects of this kind of confusion over words is that it can make controversies drag on for much longer than they need to.  Another effect is to make the work of discernment by church members that much harder.  They hear sound words and need to discern whether those sound words are being used in unsound ways.

Here is Traill's assessment of this issue with regard to justification by faith alone:
That we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, is so plainly a New Testament truth, that no man pretending never so barely to the Christian name, denies it.  The Papists own it; and the Socinians, and Arminians, and all own it.  But how different are their senses of it?  
And indeed you cannot more speedily and certainly judge of the spirit of a man, than by his real inward sense of the phrase, (if you could reach it), A sinner is justified by faith in Jesus Christ.
Some say, that faith in Jesus Christ justifies as it is a work...as if it came in the room of perfect obedience, required by the law.  Some, that faith justifies, as it is informed and animated by charity.  So the Papists who plainly confound justification and sanctification.

Some say, that faith justifies, as it is a fulfilling of the condition of the new covenant...they will have this faith to justify, as it hath a principle and fitness in it to dispose to sincere obedience.
The plain old Protestant doctrine is, that the place of faith in justification is only that of a hand or instrument, receiving the righteousness of Christ, for which only we are justified.  So that though great scholars do often confound themselves and others, in their disputations about faith's justifying a sinner; every poor plain believer hath the marrow of this mystery feeding his heart; and he can readily tell you, that to be justified by faith, is to be justified by Christ's righteousness, apprehended by faith.
The Doctrine of Justification Vindicated, p. 259

Via media?

A pearl of theological wisdom from Robert Traill (1642-1716):
Usually such men that are for middle ways in points of doctrine, have a greater kindness for that extreme they go half-way to, than for that which they go half-way from.
A Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine concerning Justification and of its Preachers and Professors from the Unjust Charge of Antinomianism, in a letter from the author to a minister in the country, p. 253

What is and isn't at stake in a theological street fight

In a theological street fight we all know that what is at stake is the truth.

That is why those concerned to defend orthodoxy seek to make clear that there is a Truth War (MacArthur), No Place For Truth (Wells), that some views are Beyond the Bounds (Piper/Taylor/Helseth), and so on.  Of course what is at stake is never, strictly speaking, the truth.  God's truth is not vulnerable to the well meant or malicious assaults of those in error, it is simply impervious to attack.  Even in the face of overwhelming numbers one can afford to say "contra mundum? -- so what?"

The reality of God, Christ, sin, salvation, heaven and hell are never affected by the denials and distortions of heretics, false teachers and the theologically clueless.  What is affected is not the reality of these things but their perception and reception by those who in the face of truth ought to be humble receivers and not arbitrators of what is doctrinally acceptable.  Ironically as much as those waving a long goodbye to orthodoxy often complain about conservatives playing the part of the doctrine police, that is in fact exactly what those in serious error are seeking to do.

Objectively the status of the truth never alters.  It cannot be moved, shaken, disturbed or overthrown.  Subjectively, in the minds of men, it will either be affirmed, believed, taught, proclaimed, defended, clarified and made the rich fuel of devotion, or else it will be denied, hated, misrepresented, slandered, attacked, and kicked around as if it were expendable.

Does this make a difference?  Knowing that truth endures, despite the folly of it's detractors, makes a real pastoral difference.  In the thick of controversy you can afford to whisper to yourself "Don't forget, the Lamb wins, the earth will be covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." 

On this subject consider the wise words of Bruce Ware with which he opened his fine polemic book God's Lesser Glory:
Divine providence as a reality is ever steady, stable, steadfast, sure and strong.  Would that this were true for divine providence the doctrine.  Divine providence as a doctrine is in great turmoil.  Theological earthquakes shake its foundation.  This is no time for the weak-kneed and spineless to traverse its volatile terrain.  
As goes the doctrine of divine providence, so go vast portions of our entire doctrine of God and with it our conception of God's glory.  But again, do not fear.  The glory of God as a reality is vast, boundless, infinite, splendour-filled and wondrous.  As such, the glory that is God's alone is absolutely unshaken and undiminished by human proposals that would seek to make finite what is infinite, bounded what is boundless, and humanlike what is, eternally and uniquely, God's own.
Yet, our conception of the glory of God will be shaped largely by our understandings of his nature, his perfections, his sovereignty, his wisdom, his knowledge, his moral holiness and goodness, and through all of this his providence...while the turmoil over how best to formulate the doctrine of divine providence affects not a whit the actual greatness and glory of God (he is who he eternally is regardless of what anyone says of him!), this turmoil has an enormous impact on Christian thought and life.  To get it wrong here is to create a thousand related problems, both theological and practical. (p. 13)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Choosing speakers well (part the first)

This is a follow up to yesterday's tongue in cheek post about why it appears that there aren't that many good preachers in the former British colonies now known to all as the United States of America.  Tongue in cheek because I know that there are plenty of good preachers, but that isn't necessarily reflected in the remarkably small pool of speakers from which Reformed conferences fish.  In actual fact there are several pools, reflecting different shades and networks of the Reformed and Calvinistic world, and some speakers move more naturally than others from pool to pool.

At its best this does reflect the fact that whilst all word ministers are gifts of grace to the church we recognise that God raises up some men and ministries to become particular blessings to the whole church.  These men may or may not be the ones invited to all the conferences, but it would be wrong to despise such gifts and to succumb to the tall poppy syndrome.  Furthermore, not all ministers of the word have the gifts for such events, but some do and we benefit a great deal from God's work in them and through them. 

At its worst it is hard to see how a celebrity preacher culture is any different to the myopic vision about Christian leaders grossly exhibited by the Corinthians.  As the Puritan Richard Baxter once said "I am a pen in the hand of God, and what praise is due to a pen?"  Here in old Blighty whilst there is often little risk of an over the top appreciation of conference speakers I do think that we have something to learn from some of our American cousins about open warm appreciation of preachers. 

I have been in enough conference planning meetings to know that there are several factors when it comes to selecting speakers.  No doubt there is the financial risk and fear of small numbers if we don't go for the big name who will draw a crowd.  The fact of the matter is that many conferences can make decisions because of financial pressures.  The logical long term effect of this is to reduce the pool of well known speakers even further and to perpetuate the idea that the already recognised big names are the only ones worth going for. 

I also know that some conferences deliberately seek to give both opportunities to younger ministers and exposure to a wider audience, or to introduce some speakers known to the organisers to a new constituency.  One of the blessings of the latter is the fostering of real catholicity.  All of this is good.  The problem lies in the fact that so often our choices are coloured by our own prejudices and preferences, our spiritual immaturity and climate, and we run the risk of feeding unworthy agendas and missing out on real blessings. 

Whether we like it or not the danger of ubiquitous conferences, live streamed and available to download, is that a blessing can swiftly become a curse.  I am glad to live in an age where online riches are so freely available, but the big name, big budget, big audience conference has fast become the main event.  For all the antipathy Calvinists may feel about liturgical church calendars we have one of our own, the para-church conference circuit.  Is that a fair point?  Look at the coverage given to the matter in the blogosphere.

Besides which there are probably far too many conferences anyway, and far too many that subtly undermine local churches even if they say that their mission is to serve 'The Church'.  A feat that is easy to do in the abstract but which bears almost no relation to honouring real churches apart from mega ones.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Justification and the Law of God

What did Jesus obey?  For whom did he obey it?

If you deny that law has any reference to Gentiles, are you not forced to conclude that Jesus neither kept it for their sake, nor is his obedience imputed to them for their justification.

All of which makes me wonder whether varies stripes of New Covenant theology have the capacity to unravel the doctrine of imputation.

Why aren't there many decent preachers in America?

Can anyone answer that question?

I mean, it's a big country, but if you look at the Reformed conference line ups the preaching pool is pretty small because the same names appear all the time.