Beginning in Twenty Minutes

Is a podcast on Covenant Radio with Dr. Cornelis Venema on paedocommunion. I thought my readers might be interested. Of course, if you miss it live, you can still listen to it as an archive. William Hill will be interviewing me at a later date, so stay tuned.

I’ve Decided

I’ve decided that the nested comments are more trouble than they are worth for a blog like mine. I think they would work great on a blog that only gets at most 20 comments on a post. But on the theonomy thread, I think the limitations were pretty obvious. I have therefore switched back to the older way. Currently I have it set on displaying 100 comments per page, with the last page (and therefore newest comments) being the first page you see when clicking on a post. Please let me know what you think.

Acts Commentary Now Available

This commentary is now available.

The Reformed Confessions and Paedocommunion

My apologies to Doug and the rest of my readers. It has been a rather difficult time, and I have had to put posting off for a while. Firstly, I will give a couple of thoughts on Doug’s response to the church history question, and then we will dive in to a discussion of the confessions.

There are only a couple of points that I feel need addressing with regard to Doug’s post. The first is that I believe Doug has slightly overstated when he says that Venema “also grants the widespread practice of paedocommunion in the West from at least the time of Augustine down to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).” I don’t believe that this is quite what Venema said. Venema said that there is evidence that PC was practiced in this time period (p. 20). It is difficult to say how “widespread” the practice was. Venema’s point, however, is that the practice was in decline even before the Fourth Lateran Council (p. 21). The practice was in decline throughout the church, and not just because of the Fourth Lateran Council. Venema allows that it may have been a widespread practice during some of that time. His exact words are: “What is clear from the history of the Roman Catholic Church is that paedocommunion ceased to be a widespread practice by the eleventh century” (p. 20). This statement makes no claim on when the practice was widespread. This is important, for we see PC advocates often saying that it was the norm of the church until the 4LC. This is more often asserted than proven.

Secondly, Doug says this near the end of his post: “The central good that I see coming out of the paedocommunion debate is the central place it gives to the question of ‘who makes up the body of Jesus?'” I would cautiously agree with this. However, there is the equally important question of whether the members of the body of Jesus always have to have access to everything in the church, or else they are in effect excommunicated. I really do like the analogy of citizenship here. A child born in the US is a citizen. Period. No ifs ands or buts. However, we don’t allow them to drive at birth. We don’t allow them to vote at birth. And we don’t allow them to drink alcohol at birth. Does that make them any the less a citizen of the US? Similarly, just because an infant is not allowed to the table has no bearing on whether they actually are part of the body of Christ. We call baptism the initiatory rite, because that is what initiates a person into the visible body of Christ (WCF 28.1). Nothing else is required to mark a person as belonging to the body of Christ. This is not to diminish the importance of the Lord’s Supper. But the importance of the Lord’s Supper lies in a different direction: that of confirmation of faith, and growth in grace. The Lord’s Supper is not the marker of who belongs to the body of Christ: baptism is what does that. Therefore it is a fallacy to argue that unless everyone in the visible church is partaking of the Lord’s Supper, they are in effect excommunicated. If a citizen of the US is not de-citizened just because he is 15 and cannot drive, then neither is a child excommunicated just because he may not be capable of participating in the Lord’s Supper yet.

To move on now to the confessions. Basically put, no major Reformed confession that is in use today allows for the practice of paedocommunion. This is generally acknowledged. However, the implications of that are not generally acknowledged. For instance, it is thought to be a relatively insignificant thing for a person to hold to an “exception” like this and be ordained in a denomination that does not practice PC. Let me put the argument this way: Baptists are our beloved brothers; we may affirm orthodoxy of them at almost every major point. We may have delightful fellowship with them. But they cannot be ordained in the PCA or OPC. Why is that? Because they do not administer the Sacrament of baptism in the same way we do. My question is this: why do many in the PCA and OPC view paedocommunion as somehow less opposed to the Westminster Standards than credo-baptism is? In my opinion, the errors are of a very similar but mirror-image nature. Both PC and CB (credo-baptism) err in the age requirements of one of the sacraments. Both argue that the Sacraments operate the same way with regard to church membership. CB argues that both have to be given to consenting adults (or folks who have achieved the age of responsibility), whereas PC argues that both may be given to passive recipients. I see not one single reason why PC may be more acceptable in a Westminster denomination (or 3FU, for that matter) than CB. To those who argue that PC is more covenantal, I respond that there are plenty of CB’s out there who are firmly covenantal and redemptive-historical (Mark Dever, for one). The above argumentation is why I personally cannot vote for a person who holds to PC in my Presbytery. This is not to say I think they are heretics any more than I would say that CB’s are heretics. And I would never refuse church membership on this basis either, since I believe a credible profession of faith is all that is required (though I do believe that it is helpful for a church to have a new members class in order to instruct the prospective members in what their membership vows entail).

Moving on to what Venema actually says, it is important what he says about the theology of sacraments as a whole:

The confessions’ position on this subject derives from a more comprehensive view of the sacraments’ role as means of grace that accompany the preaching of the gospel…Indeed, the notion that children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table, which is the principal interest of those who advocate paedocommunion, has more far-reaching implications than many paedocommunionists often admit. Whether these implications are consistent with essential features of the Reformed view of the sacraments remains to be seen. Here it need be observed only that the question of paedocommunion cannot be isolated from the broader framework of traditional Reformed teaching regarding the sacraments (p. 28).

I will have to take up further Venema’s comments in a subsequent post. For now, suffice it to say that I believe that believing in PC requires taking exception to a great deal more than WLC 177. The entire concept of worthy participation, which is laid out in WLC 169-175 are plainly meant to be taken as the way in which all worthy participants are to partake. There are many things in that whole series of questions which an infant is incapable of doing. It should also be noted that the interpretation of the Supper as an objective memorial, and not as the subjective remembering of the people, is counter to WLC 169, which says that the Supper is for a “thankful remembrance that the body of Christ was broken and given, and his blood shed, for them.” WCF 29.7-8 is also denied by PC, since section 7 uses the phrase “worthy receivers,” and section 8 says that ignorant men do not receive the thing signified. Section 8 forbids ignorant people from participating in the sacrament. It cannot be argued that an infant who can recognize that everyone around him is eating, and therefore he ought to eat too is not ignorant in the sense in which the confession means it here. A worthy participant is clearly defined as someone who understands section 7. It would furthermore be denying the influence that WLC 177 should have on sections 7-8 of chapter 29 of the WCF to say that a 3-year old can in fact pass muster in this respect. I think when I counted, there were no less than 13 places in the WS that a PC advocate would have to take honest exception to in order for his view to be properly pigeon-holed with regard to the confession.

Fear of Man, or Fear of God?

Matthew 14:1-12

4/26/2009

In the 1600’s, there was a great question in England and Scotland concerning the rights of kings to do whatever they wanted to do. Did kings have that right, or were they subject to the law of God? One of the great Scottish theologians of the day was named Samuel Rutherford. He wrote a book that almost everyone in Scotland purchased. It was named Lex Rex. Lex Rex is Latin for “Law King.” In fact, you could translate it “the law is king,” or at the very least “law and king.” The point is that the word “lex” was first, meaning that the law had priority and power over the king. This was Rutherford’s main point. He argued that the king was subject to the law, and that he was required to obey the law of God. In today’s world, we can see how many politicians think that they are above the law, that they are a law unto themselves. We see it in government corruption at almost every level. We see senate seats being sold for money. We see more votes in a county than there are registered voters. The question then is this: is law king, or is the person in power king? We might also put the question this way: should we fear man or should we fear God? This is one of the main questions that our passage raises.

In the immediately preceding passage, we heard that Jesus had been rejected in His hometown. In this passage we learn what Herod thinks about Jesus. The entire story about John the Baptist is recorded here not for its own sake, but as the necessary background information to explain why it is that Herod thought of Jesus as John the Baptist come back from the dead. Here we see John the Baptist being rejected in such a way as to lose his life. Every aspect of the story looks forward to an almost identical rejection of Jesus Christ. This is ironic, because in a way Herod was right. Jesus did look like John, and their stories were indeed connected. This story also looks back to the story of Elijah being persecuted by Ahab and especially by Jezebel. For instance, both this story and the story of Elijah have a bad king being influenced by an even worse queen to get rid of a prophet who had been telling the royal couple that they were doing something wrong. Elsewhere, of course, Jesus actually says that John the Baptist is the Elijah who was promised. So it stands to reason that John’s story would look something like Elijah. Of course Elijah did not die like John the Baptist. Nevertheless, the parallels are helpful for us in connecting the storyline of the Bible together. Things that happen earlier in the Bible foreshadow things that happen later. The storyline of the Bible is very much like an unfolding, growing flower.

Later in the flowering, we see that Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate have some similarities. They both have wives who work behind the scenes, even if for very different reasons. Both Herod and Pilate were reluctant to execute their prisoners. In both cases there was fear of the crowds, who held both John and Jesus to be prophets. Also, both John and Jesus were buried by their disciples after they died.

It is necessary to give some background information on Herod, so that we can see why he did what he did. Herod’s first wife was the daughter of a local king named Aretas IV. However, on a trip to see his brother Herod Phillip (both he and his brother were sons of Herod the Great), he fell in love with his brother Phillip’s wife, whose name was Herodias. Herodias divorced Herod Phillip, and Herod Antipas divorced his wife so that he and Herodias could get married. Now the law of Israel stated that a man could only marry his brother’s wife if the brother died. But in this case, the brother was still alive. Therefore, Herod Antipas was committing incest, not to mention adultery, by marrying his living brother’s wife. That, of course, is why John the Baptist was telling Herod that it was unlawful for Herod to have his brother’s wife. Politically, Herod’s divorce and remarriage caused enormous problems with Aretas, whose daughter had been Herod’s first wife. So the situation between Herod and Aretas was tense enough as it was, even aside from this well-known prophet named John the Baptist speaking his mind on the matter. In other words, Herod would have feared the result of John’s preaching, since the people were very much in favor of upholding the law, which he had broken. By some means, therefore, he wanted to silence John the Baptist. However, he did not want to kill John because he feared the people. The people considered John to be a prophet.

Herodias, however, has no such fear. She plotted and planned, and when her husband got a little drunk at the party he was throwing, she saw her chance. She got her daughter, whose name we know from the historian Josephus to be Salome, to dance for Herod. This was probably not on the order of ballet, but quite a bit more sensual in nature. It certainly got Herod’s attention. He gave an oath to give whatever she wanted. So Salome went to her mother, who told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This gruesome detail is added because Herodias wanted to make sure that John the Baptist was really dead. Verse 9 is really telling here. Herod is said to have feared breaking his own word more than breaking God’s Word. He was more afraid of offending his guests than he was of offending God Almighty. In fact, all through this story, Herod is acting out of fear. As one author puts it: “Throughout the story Herod acts in fear and cowardice; he fears John; he fears the Jews who approve John’s preaching; he fears to break an unholy oath; he fears to seem weak before his guests; and he fears Herodias. In fact, he fears everyone except the One Person he really should have feared, which is God Himself.”

As we have noticed, the story of John the Baptist looks a lot like the story of Jesus later in Matthew. This is no accident. What Herod thought of Jesus was not as far out as it might seem to us at first glance. For one thing, Jesus did have the power of the resurrection residing in Himself. This is why John the Baptist was content to obtain his reward in the next life rather than in this life. The reason for that is that he believed in the resurrection power of Jesus. Do we believe in that power? Do we believe that the miraculous resurrection power of Jesus is at work in us?

When we look at John the Baptist, two main applications present themselves. The first is that John feared God rather than man. He was not afraid to tell Herod Antipas that Herod was sinning and needed to stop sinning. Chuck Colson tells us about the fear of man in his account of the Watergate scandal, in which he was involved. Many people would say brave things about Nixon behind his back. They were free in their criticisms. However, as soon as they entered the Oval Office, they feared to say those same things. Something about the impressive carpet, the wood desk, and the imposing presence of Nixon himself made them fear him rather than God. No one had the courage to rebuke Nixon for the unlawful activities in which he was engaged. In our passage, however, we see John fearlessly proclaiming the truth of God’s law, and by implication he was telling Herod to repent for the kingdom of God was at hand. So also do we need to fear God and not man, and not be afraid to tell those in authority over us what the law states, and that they need to obey that law.

Secondly, we learn that we may not look for our reward in this life. John knew this. His entire life was one of poverty and the very opposite of comfort and luxury. He looked forward, however, to the reward he was to have in the next life, as he trusted in the power of the resurrection. I wonder how much we look to a future reward rather than present luxury and comfort? We sure love our comforts, don’t we? I know I do. I wouldn’t want to give up the warm home, the fast and economical transportation I have, the fine clothes, the great food that actually fills me up rather than merely keeping me alive, the music, the books, and so many other things. Life is extremely comfortable. Too comfortable sometimes, isn’t it? For how difficult it is to look forward to a future reward when we are so rich now! That is one of the reasons why Jesus said it is so difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. May we not be so blinded by present comforts that we forget to look forward to future rewards, and to value those far higher than our present comforts.

When we look at Herod, we can learn things from him as well. We can learn that we should never fear man more than God. Herod was completely blind to the one Person he should have feared above all others. In this respect there is a strong contrast between Herod Antipas and John the Baptist. Herod feared everyone and therefore did not fear God. John feared God and therefore did not fear anyone else. Herod was therefore blind to the law that that One Person had given to the world. He made a law unto himself. We must not do this. The Lord our God is the one whom we need to fear, and it is His law which must rule over our lives.

Furthermore, God wants us to keep His Word, rather than break His Word in keeping our own word. It does no good to say that we are keeping our own word if we are breaking God’s Word in the process. Here we learn then that there are times to break our own oaths if it means that we must break God’s law to keep them. Here we learn just how hideous it was that Herod broke God’s law because of his own oath and because he did not want to offend his dinner guests. He would rather commit murder than offend his dinner guests! It is better to break our vow if by it we are forced to sin. Normally, of course, we must keep our word. However, there may come a time, like Herod, when we promise too much, and it comes back to haunt us.

So let us fear God rather than man. Let us keep our word, but not if that means breaking God’s word. Let us trust in the resurrection power of Jesus, and thus look forward to our reward in the new heavens and the new earth rather than looking for our heaven here on earth.

Wayne Grudem’s 2008 Letter Regarding Pete Enns

Letter to Dr. Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, regarding Dr. Peter Enns:

 

Feb. 10, 2008

 

Dear Dr. Lillback,

 

I am writing, as a Westminster Seminary alumnus, to express deep concern about Dr. Peter Enns.

 

During my senior year as an undergraduate at Harvard (1970), I struggled to decide between doing an M.Div. at  Westminster or at Fuller.  After visiting both campuses I chose Fuller and attended for a year. But I found compromises on biblical inerrancy in class after class, and therefore, in order to learn more about a sound view of Scripture, I simultaneously read E. J. Young’s book Thy Word is Truth along with other books by WTS faculty. At the end of that academic year I left Fuller, disappointed with their departure from belief in inerrancy, and transferred to Westminster (1971).

 

At Westminster I received an incredibly rich grounding in Scripture and theology, and my years there as an M.Div. student (1971–1973) were more influential in forming my lifetime theological commitments than any other years of my life. I went on to get a Ph.D. in New Testament from Cambridge, but it was my Westminster training, more than anything else, that prepared me for the teaching and writing that the Lord has enabled me to do for the last 30 years.

 

Now I am writing to you because I have just finished reading the book by Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005). I find the book to be deeply troubling, for the following reasons:

 

Enns repeatedly delights in presenting interpretations of the Bible that make it appear more problematic and more filled with unresolved and irresolvable problems than it really is (pp. 72, 79, 92, etc.). He insists on translation options that make Scripture internally contradictory with itself (pp. 92-93), or simply false (pp. 54, 98).  He repeats the same kind of anti-inerrancy rhetoric that I heard at Fuller in the 1970s, characterizing belief in the Bible’s complete truthfulness as “defensive” or as coming close to “intellectual dishonesty” or as simply “preconceived notions” (pp. 14, 107, 108), but speaking of views that take the Bible as contradictory as “creative,” “refreshing,” and “listening to how the Bible itself behaves” (pp. 15, 66; see also 73, 108). He frequently represents conservative evangelical scholarship as unreliable and untrustworthy (at least pre-Enns), but, remarkably, he impugns conservative scholarship not by documented quotations but by using undocumented, straw-man arguments (pp. 47, 49, etc.). The overall result of this approach will be to lead readers to distrust both the Bible and much evangelical Old Testament scholarship.

 

He implies that he thinks there is no difference in the truthfulness we should ascribe to the Bible and to ancient Akkadian stories: “How can we say logically that the biblical stories are true and the Akkadian stories are false when they both look so very much alike?” (p. 40). It apparently does not occur to him that believing the Bible to be the Word of God (as I thought Westminster faculty we expected to do) is a very good reason for saying that the Bible is true, and the Akkadian flood stories are unreliable. He fails even to consider the possibility of God’s special revelation to Moses, and of his providential guidance and protection of the truthfulness of the records, so that the Bible’s stories of creation and the flood are absolutely truthful, historical and reliable. He gives no indication here that he thinks God was any more involved in the biblical accounts than in the Akkadian myths.

 

He says that “what makes Genesis different from its Ancient Near Eastern counterparts is that it begins to make the point to Abraham and his seed that the God they are bound to . . . is different from the gods around them” (p. 53). But this is in the context of discussing the category of “myth” (which he opposes to “historical,” p. 49), and so the implication seems to be that truthfulness or historical accuracy of the account is not something that makes Genesis different from other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths.

 

He says that “Genesis – as other stories of the ancient world – thus portrays the world as a flat disk with a dome above” (p. 54). But what is a reader to do with this? We know today that that view is false: the world is not a flat disk. But I do not see how readers then can avoid the implication that they should not believe what Genesis tells them about the world. Genesis according to Enns is simply untrue.

 

He claims that Hebrew (or an earlier version of written Hebrew) may not have even existed at “the end of the second millennium B.C.” (p. 51), and thus implies a chronology that makes it impossible for Moses (died 1400 or perhaps 1180 B.C.) to have written the Hebrew words of Genesis – Deuteronomy (p. 52).

 

Though the Bible directly quotes words that Nathan said to David, but with slightly differing accounts in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, Enns says, “What did Nathan actually say? . . . . I don’t know, and neither does anyone else” (p. 66). The implication (from his following sentence) is that the Bible is not written to give us this kind of historical information, and that doesn’t matter. I take this to mean that accuracy in historical details does not matter. And that to me is the same as saying that biblical inerrancy doesn’t matter. (I don’t understand him here to be getting into a discussion of ipsissima verba vs. ipsissisima vox, but to say that even ipsissima vox cannot be known, and it does not matter. If his meaning was other than this, he did not make that evident).

 

He questions the uniqueness of the moral commands of Scripture (pp. 57-58) without considering the possibility that God’s moral laws not only resemble but also correct, supplement, and differ with the moral standards of surrounding cultures, because they are the words of God himself.

 

He implies that the Bible affirms a false idea, the existence of multiple gods: “We may not believe that multiple gods ever existed, but ancient Near Eastern people did. This is the religious world within which God called Israel to be his people . . . . We should not be surprised, therefore, when we see the Old Testament describe God as greater than the gods of the surrounding nations” (p. 98; he then quotes from several Psalms that talk about other “gods”). But he says the Bible does this in the same way parents might tell their children, “Don’t be afraid of the dark. God is greater than the Boogey Man” (which the parents know does not exist, p. 99). In other words, the Bible affirms the existence of other gods but this affirmation is in fact false. It apparently does not occur to Enns that these “other gods” are demons (Deut. 32:17) that did exist, but they were not true Gods like the one true God.

 

He says that attempts to reconcile the apparent differences between Bible texts, which has been the task undertaken by some of the greatest professors in the history of Westminster Seminary, and by many of the greatest evangelical scholars in the world at least since the time of Augustine, is “close to intellectual dishonesty” (p. 107).

 

He says, “It is a distortion of the highest order to argue that Jesus must have cleansed the temple twice” (p. 65). What troubles me here is not that he holds to only one cleansing of the temple (which I think is possible but unlikely, because of internal evidence in John), but that he so condescendingly dismisses what is by far the dominant evangelical position in NT scholarship for centuries (Luther, Calvin, Westcott, Leon Morris, D. A. Carson, Hendricksen, Tasker, and Köstenberger, for example). Are all the evangelical world’s greatest Johannine scholars guilty of “distortion of the highest order”? Such a sentence indicates to me a man who is embarrassed by conservative evangelical scholarship and looks for opportunities to disparage it. That is not a healthy thing for an evangelical seminary.

 

The result of a book like this is to undermine the reader’s confidence in the truthfulness and moral excellence of Scripture again and again. No matter what subsequent explanations or “spin” Dr. Enns may want to put on these words and others like them, the inevitable effect of this book on its readers will be to undermine their belief in the truthfulness of Scripture. I do not think that should be the goal or the result of any book published by a Westminster Seminary professor.

 

Even if Dr. Enns were to disavow or reinterpret the specific sentences that I quote, the overall impression I have of him from this book is that of a man whose deepest attitude toward Scripture is not  reverence and submission and awe at God’s Word (Isa. 66:2), but rather delight in using his technical skills to baffle students and lay readers with problems that they cannot solve, all with the result of eroding their trust in Scripture. That is deeply disappointing. Such an underlying tone and attitude are not appropriate for a Westminster faculty member, nor for any elder in Christ’s church.

 

I have been recommending Westminster Seminary to prospective students for over 30 years. But now I have decided, with regret, that I can no longer recommend Westminster. The reason is that any seminary that continues to tolerate a faculty member with Enns’s views does not, in my understanding, uphold the strong commitment to inerrancy that persuaded me to transfer to Westminster in 1971, and that Westminster previously upheld throughout its history. In fact, beginning next week, I intend to incorporate a critique of Enns’s book into my lectures on inerrancy for first-year seminary students, along with examples from the writings of Fuller Seminary professors.

 

Nor do I find Enns’ views consistent with the position of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (I was at the first ICBI conference and one of the original signers). Nor does it hold to the view of inerrancy expected of members of the Evangelical Theological Society, in my judgment (I am a past president of ETS).

 

I have probably participated in around 100 interviews of prospective faculty members in my four years at Bethel College, St. Paul, my twenty years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and now six years at Phoenix Seminary. I have always asked candidates about their views of inerrancy. If someone with Dr. Enns’s views had come to interview at any of these institutions, I would have strongly opposed him both in committee and (if it got that far) on the floor of faculty, on the grounds that he clearly does not hold to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. My sense of the faculty at TEDS and here at Phoenix Seminary is that any motion to hire Enns would lose by nearly unanimous vote. Under the guise of treating the Scripture “honestly,” and “as it actually is,” he in fact denies its internal consistency, its historical reliability, and its moral excellence again and again.

 

I am sorry to have to write this letter. I have loved Westminster Seminary and all it represents for many years. I hope that you will take the appropriate steps to dismiss Dr. Enns and once again make clear to the evangelical world that Westminster Seminary remains a stalwart defender of “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

 

Sincerely yours,

 

Wayne Grudem, Ph.D.

(Westminster M.Div. 1973)

Research Professor of Bible and Theology, Phoenix Seminary

General Editor, ESV Study Bible

Hugely Important Journal Issue

The newest issue of the Westminster Theological Journal should be purchased by all pastors and seminary students. The reason for this is that the issue in question is almost entirely devoted to the issue of inerrancy, particularly the recent challenges to the confessional position in the work of Peter Enns and A.T.B. McGowan.

I find extremely telling what Enns, for instance, chose to respond to. Two main criticisms were leveled at him in this journal, one by Bruce Waltke, which was a very exegetically based challenge, and one by James Scott, which is far more theologically driven. Enns chose to respond to Waltke, but not to Scott. There is a certain irony to this, since Enns notes that the disagreement with Waltke is in fact on the level of methodology, not just on the level of exegesis (p. 97). In other words, there are more systematic concerns that Enns wants to address in Waltke’s critique. However, he responded only cursorily to Scott’s part 1, and not at all to Scott’s part 2, which does not appear in this edition of the journal. I assume it will be published in the Fall issue. Scott’s critique is massive, extending to 54 pages. His critique of McGowan is also extensive (24 pages). In short, in this edition of the journal, there are over 120 pages devoted to the issue of Scripture, particularly the Enns controversy (and related scholars).

Is God Good When We Suffer?

This book is the inaugural book in a new series that will seek to do theology in a context of community. What this primarily means is that each book will be written by a team of authors. It is based on the idea that theology should be done by the church for the church. I must say that this is not only intriguing as an idea, but I believe necessary if the church is going to reclaim the theological academy. The first book does not disappoint.

The introductory chapter is by Robert Yarbrough and lays out the book as well as some of the large-scale problems when dealing with suffering. There are four chapters on biblical studies, two by Walter Kaiser on the Old Testament data, and two by Dan McCartney on the New Testament data. Then follows a biblical theological study tying together the biblical studies. John Frame contributes a good chapter on theodicy, followed by a more apologetic chapter by Bill Edgar. The last two chapters tell individual stories of suffering and how God works through suffering, one by David Calhoun, who has suffered cancer for many years, and John Feinberg, whose wife was diagnosed with a debilitating disease that could have been diagnosed earlier.

All the chapters provoke thought. I found the last chapter the most compelling. The chapter by John Frame had some excellent philosophical-theological points. I found the chapters by Kaiser mostly good, although I strongly disagree with his assessment of God suffering (p. 66, 73). He does not take into account the nature of anthropomorphic language concerning God. Systematic theology has had little impact on Kaiser’s formulation here.

The chapter by Calhoun was also very helpful in bringing together many wonderful poems and hymns that deal with the question. Calhoun rightly notes that sometimes poetry has to be the language of suffering. All in all, I would recommend the book as being a very compassionate, pastoral, and biblical account of suffering (with the caveat mentioned above). The book is a very nice hardcover, bound in signatures.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Matthew 13:53-58

4/19/2009

Is there something of which you are so familiar that it seems boring? Maybe there is an amazing truth out there that you have heard so many times that you are now sick of it. Maybe a great song or poem that you have heard one too many times. Maybe a person who gets into your life just a little bit too much. In those cases, familiarity breeds contempt. We can certainly see that in the case of Jesus when He went back to His hometown, the people He grew up with were so familiar with Him that they thought they knew Him. They thought they knew his family and His place of origin. This put blinkers on their eyes so that there was no way they would accept Jesus or His works.

Jesus has just finished telling a whole bunch of parables. These parables are difficult to understand, and that is on purpose. Jesus does not speak primarily to unbelievers, but to believers. Unbelievers will not understand the parables unless the Holy Spirit enlightens him. For our purposes, we can remember that some of these parables talk about the fact that the kingdom of God is hidden. When Jesus goes back to His hometown, He is hidden indeed: He is hidden in the very familiarity with which His fellow townsmen view Him. He is hidden in plain sight, as it were. And this hiddenness causes rejection.

After Jesus finished those parables, He went on from there and went to His home town of Nazareth. He started to teach. Notice that Matthew says “their synagogue.” There is already some distance between Jesus and the disciples, on the one hand, and the Jewish establishment, on the other hand. And when Jesus started teaching, that distance grew even greater. They were astonished at His teaching. This is not the good kind of happy astonishment. This is rather the angry, upset, and disconcerted kind of astonishment. We need to explain why they were astonished.

Jewish society in that day was strongly hierarchical. That means that there were levels of society. There were classes of people, one above another. Most of the people of Nazareth, however, came from the same social class. They would therefore assume that Jesus also came from their class. Rabbis did not come from that particular social class. So when Jesus starts to teach, they assume that He is putting on airs and thinking of Himself as better than anyone else because He is teaching. A person who was trying to achieve a higher social class was often thought to be demon-possessed, or at least using black arts to get there. So they ask the question of where Jesus’ power and authority come from. They do not deny that Jesus teaches with authority or that He does all these great miracles. They rather question the source from which that authority and power originate. Did such authority and power come from God, or from Satan? The people made the assumption that a higher class of people obviously has closer access to God and to God’s power. Since Jesus did not come from such a high class, then obviously His authority and power come from a different source, a dark, black source. Their social expectations led them into a blind box. Jesus did not fit their categories, and so He must be rejected.

Matthew is telling us here that rejection of Jesus is an equal opportunity employer. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what social class you belong to, lots of people reject Jesus. And they had Jesus sitting there right in front of them! You know, people often think that if only they could see Jesus face to face, then they would have a great faith and they would believe in Him. This story tells us that such thinking is false. There is no way to believe in Jesus unless God gives you the faith. It doesn’t matter if Jesus was standing right in front of us, that would not guarantee that we would have faith. Our faith comes from a different source, a source about which these people obviously knew nothing.

A side note is necessary here. There are Christians who want to preserve the virginity of Mary, as if that somehow makes her more holy. And so they deny that Christ had any real brothers and sisters from the marriage of Mary and Joseph. They argue that James and Joseph, Simon and Judas are actually Jesus’ cousins. However, if the word translated here as “brothers” refers actually to cousins, then what does the word “sisters” mean in the immediately following sentence? The word “brother” in this kind of context refers to natural-born brothers. So also with sisters. It was His natural brothers and sisters who were well-known to the community, and were thus creating expectations that Jesus would be just like them. And since none of them have these gifts, then obviously Jesus could not be getting these things from a good source.

People can be so familiar with the Gospel that the truth of it falls on deaf ears. There are people like this both in the church and outside the church. “Jesus died for your sins, and you need to trust in Him” can sound so trite, obvious, and dull that its truth simply does not pound us into submission like it ought to do. Worship is another thing, especially for Christians, that can seem very dull. We come to church week in and week out. We get the same old Gospel, the same old Jesus, the same old truths, and it all seems very dull. Familiarity can easily breed contempt in such cases. We need to pray that the Lord will keep such old truths fresh and powerful in our minds. We need to pray that the Lord will give us an expectation of hearing the truth proclaimed in a fresh way in the sermon, that there will be something true that we have not heard before. Is that the excited expectation we have with regard to listening to sermons? Or do we think of sermons as dull and boring, going over the same material all the time with no variation?

People can also be so familiar with the duties of being a Christian that they become dull and boring as well. For instance, can we recognize Christ in the stranger who passes through our midst? We have so many strangers driving through sometimes that we fail to recognize those chances of showing Christ to these people. Are you looking, or has the Christian life become too jaded, too much of a rut?

What we have to realize is that Christ and Christianity are offensive to the sin nature. The word in verse 57 is a very strong word. We get the word “scandalized” from it. The people were scandalized at Christ’s Person and work. So Jesus says, probably with a wry smile on His face, that there is only one place that a prophet gets no honor, and that is the prophet’s own home town and household.

How often are we scandalized by the idea that certain people ought to be shown grace? How often do we catch ourselves thinking, for instance, that the Native Americans on the other side of the river don’t deserve any grace? They’re all just a bunch of drunken thieves, we think. That’s not to deny that there are drunken thieves among the Native Americans on the other side of the river. But does that not mean that they need God’s grace even more? Look at how lost they are! Of course, there are surely at least some Christians over there, as well. There are churches across the river. Some Native Americans make things very difficult by holding us responsible for crimes that we did not commit. And that is a severe problem, because racial profiling can create problems no matter who does the profiling. You cannot just assume that because a person is of a certain race that therefore they will behave in a certain way.

However, there are other ways that we construct invisible boxes around ourselves and thus deny access to any thoughts that might even remotely challenge our own mindset. Even as Dutch people, this can be a problem. As many have told me, change is sin, and we try to sin as little as possible. But that principle can be taken too far. Is not the Holy Spirit constantly working in us to change us? If change means becoming more like Jesus, then shouldn’t we welcome that? Change is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It is the direction of the change that is important. And for that we need discernment. Not all change is good. Not all change is bad. If God is working in us to change us to be more like Jesus, then woe to us if we resist such a change! If Satan is tempting us to change to become more worldly, then woe to us if we give in!

Matthew concludes this passage by telling us that Jesus did not do many miracles there because of the people’s unbelief. No wonder! Jesus does not want to cast His pearls before swine. The main lesson for us here is the danger of unbelief. We do not want familiarity to breed contempt. We want familiarity of Jesus to breed more and more love and submission to Him. And by God’s grace, we can do precisely that.

On Birthdays

Calvin has some interesting thoughts on birthdays in his commentary on the synoptic Gospels, volume 2, page 225:

The ancient custom of observing a birth-day every year as an occasion of joy cannot in itself be disapproved; for that day, as often as it returns, reminds each of us to give thanks to God, who brought us into this world, and has permitted us, in his kindness, to spend many years in it; next, to bring to our recollection how improperly and uselessly the time which God granted to us has been permitted to pass away; and, lastly, that we ought to commit ourselves to the protection of the same God for the remainder of our life.

« Older entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 342 other followers