The Neatly Ordered Ordinary

(Posted by Paige Britton)

On Canon, Providence, and Robinson Crusoe

{Belated disclaimer: This is not a full-orbed defense or description of the Protestant doctrine of canonization. I could write that if I wanted to; in this case, I didn’t want to.}

It’s been remarked recently, in our discussion on the canon, that it is necessary for the supernatural gift of the Scriptures to have reached the church in nothing other than a supernatural way. This is, of course, the Catholic version of the story, which identifies the Roman Church’s divinely-appointed magisterium as the supernaturally endowed channel that protects the church from error. Ordinary means are good enough to transmit something natural or ordinary, like the Pythagorean Theorem; but the extraordinary must be delivered by the extraordinary.

Protestant appeals to “Providence” in this matter understandably ring hollow in Catholic ears, for how can the mundane course of historical events safely support or explain the holy? And isn’t “Providence” almost synonymous with “fate,” “luck,” or “chance,” since the outcome of, say, Roe v. Wade, or the formation of the biblical canon, are by this account equally matters of God’s incomprehensibly mysterious machinations? Surely something as important as communicating which books belong in the Bible would have been accomplished in a more obviously supernatural and officially authoritative way!

Now, I am sensing a sort of leitmotif in RC theology here. Those things and people that are considered holy are wrapped in a kind of protective glow, like a halo on a Christmas card, that sets them apart from the merely earthly. There is an intimation here of extreme tidiness; these things are clean and sparkly, unsullied by association with the common. This has a sort of spiritual, even biblical, logic to it: after all, a high and holy God would never stoop to deliver the supernatural by natural means! Too risky!

Or would he? What’s more fitting than that the God of the universe, who slipped into human history by way of a woman’s womb and a feeding trough, should so arrange things that his written word could be identified (yea, even identified as inspired!) by the ordinary expedients of time, text, and people? Why wouldn’t such a God intend that knowledge of the supernatural be mixed up cleverly with the stuff of earthly life?

There is a scene in Robinson Crusoe that is as nifty a parable about Providence and our expectations of it as anybody could write. Here’s Crusoe on his island, not yet converted, and one day he is floored by the discovery of a small stand of cereal grains growing in a corner of his compound. He knows he didn’t plant them, and he has seen nothing of the sort anywhere else on the island. The best conclusion he can come to is that he has been the recipient of a miracle of spontaneous germination! For days he walks around in the glow of a spiritual high – until it occurs to him that a little while ago he’d dumped a pile of old, rat-gnawed husks in that corner to free a feed sack for another use, and no doubt some overlooked kernels must have sprouted. Immediately the supernatural collapses into the natural, the extraordinary into the ordinary, and his spiritual glow is extinguished. It’s not till long afterwards, when the eyes of his heart have been enlightened by the Spirit and the Word, that he has sense enough to be stunned by the neat ordering of ordinary events that led to viable seeds scattered accidentally in the only place they could have safely grown, thus providing for him the stuff of life.

If we are looking for a tidy, safe way to know what we need to know, Roman Catholic theology offers a package deal, appealing to our preference for certainty over trust and our fascination with the otherworldly and the miraculous.

Trouble is, the biblical God doesn’t tend to live up to these expectations;

…and after all, it’s the neatly ordered ordinary that should bring us to our knees.

Is Van Til Orthodox on the Trinity?

This question has been a debated question in the blogosphere as well as in print. Van Til makes some startling statements in his An Introduction to Systematic Theology. In chapter 17 of that volume he makes the assertion that “God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person” (p. 363). This is not merely the same thing as saying that God’s essence has personality. Van Til says that “God is not an essence that has personality; he is absolute personality” (p. 364). In order to determine, therefore, whether Van Til is contradicting Trinitarian orthodoxy, the question that must be answered is this: does Van Til use the word “person” in the same sense in these statements of the uni-personality of God as he does in those statements concerning the tri-personality of God? If he uses them in the same sense, then he is unorthodox. If not, then he is merely guilty of difficult and confusing language (which is probably true regardless; I’ve never found VT easy reading!). Ultimately, I think Van Til is orthodox on this point, though I wish he had phrased himself more felicitously. My evidence is the following contextual clue that “person” does not mean the same thing in both contexts: “Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being and three personal subsistences” (p. 364). I believe that what Van Til means here is that the “specific or generic type of being” corresponds to the phrase “God is one person,” and that the phrase “three personal subsistences” refers to the tri-personality of the three persons. In other words, the distinction between “God is a person” and “God is three persons” is a distinction between a generic type of being (and therefore personality) as contrasted with the three relational persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What is Van Til trying to safeguard here? The difficulty with traditional formulations is not that they are wrong, but that they can be understood wrongly to separate the essence of God from personality. It is not as if we can say that the essence of God happens to be personal, as if personality were an afterthought. I think the best way to say this is that God’s essence is absolutely personal. God is personal as His essence is divine personality. This is true in a generic sense, therefore using the adjective “personal” in a different way than in the tri-personality of the three distinct persons, although, by definition, the three persons are “personal” as well (not in the same sense).

The problem with Van Til’s language here is the confusion that can result from using “person” in these two different ways. He didn’t exactly make it clear that he was using the term in two different ways. Only by a judgment of charity can we come to that conclusion. Some are not willing to extend that judgment of charity to Van Til’s thought. I will close by quoting Bill Edgar’s footnote on Van Til’s statement, a helpful reminder of what VT was trying to do:


This is one of Van Til’s most original contributions to theology proper. As he said at the beginning of the chapter, to speak of God as one is to speak of God as a person. This fits our ordinary experience, as, for instance, when we pray, we pray to one person. It also fits biblical data that constantly refers to God as a person. By this reminder Van Til avoids two errors. The first is the tendency, found mostly in Western theology, of separating God’s essence, which becomes a remote inaccessible being, from the persons. The other is the neoorthodox error of reducing personality to relationship, rather than regarding it as the foundation of ontological consciousness.

A Banner Year for Matthew Studies

This year has seen an astonishing array of outstanding studies in the Gospel of Matthew. If pastors could only have access to commentaries on Matthew published in this year, they would not be seriously lacking in content. First off the block is a republication of this commentary, originally published in 1893, just after the author’s death. It shows the author at full maturity. The commentary is not lengthy (only 442 pages), but it does have that quality that Calvin prized so highly of “lucid brevity.” Spurgeon always preaches. This is a newly type-set edition, published in a well-bound hardback. I don’t really need to press people to get this. Pastors will know that they should own it.

Next we have this excellent addition to the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. I have reviewed the other volume currently published here. I direct readers there for my initial thoughts about the series. The potential of this series for helping people to get a solid grasp of the flow of the text is enormous. I can only hope that they will start an Old Testament series along the same lines. This is a major series, and with forthcoming volumes on Ephesians and Galatians, it looks like they will be publishing steadily. Edit: they just became available at WTS today! Osborne teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a colleague of D.A. Carson. This volume is a heavy-hitter, weighing in at 1154 large-sized pages. He is a conservative when it comes to the text, and recognizes well the interdependency of history and theology. He denies neither in the text. This volume is full of insights, and is well worth the investment.

Speaking of Carson, he has revised his volume in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary for inclusion in the Revised Edition. Carson’s commentary has long been a standard in the field, and this revision brings it up to date. Carson’s work is by far the most bibliographically thorough of the four works discussed here. He even had the opportunity to interact with Turner’s volume (only published 2 years ago!). The value of Carson’s commentaries can hardly be overestimated. Obviously Osborne and Carson were not able to integrate fully the findings each of the other, although as colleagues at the same school who both wrote on Matthew, I’m sure they shared many thoughts together on Matthew over a cup of coffee. If pastors don’t purchase this volume, they are insane.

Last, but certainly not least, is the perfectionistic work by Knox Chamblin (volume 1 and volume 2). This is a simply massive commentary (almost 1600 pages in the two volumes!). The care that Chamblin took over this commentary is reflected in the amount of time it took to get these volumes to press. While as thorough as he could be (he spent more time in the books than in the articles), his bibliography is inevitably a tad behind (he could not even interact with France’s commentary, which was published 5 years ago). One should not view this as anything close to a substantial weakness, however, for the depth of treatment is unsurpassed. The only commentary that rivals this one for depth of treatment is Davies and Allison in the ICC. The advantage this commentary has over Davies and Allison is that Chamblin is a Reformed confessional author (he taught at RTS Jackson, where he is now emeritus). I need not spend any more time doing injustice to these magisterial volumes. Instead, I will quote Derek Thomas’s thoughts on these volumes: “If I were to be limited to only one commentary on Matthew, this would be the one.” As I said before, a banner year for Matthew studies. When one adds these four volumes to the ones recently published by France, Nolland, Turner, Wilkins, Bruner, Davies/Allison (1, 2, 3), Hagner (1 and 2), Blomberg, Doriani, Garland, and Keener, one will find all the modern help one could wish to have (one must not neglect older studies like Plummer and Meyer, of course).

Two Different Definitions of Tradition

One of the main difficulties in the debates between Protestants and Catholics is the differing definitions of tradition on offer. Muller, quoting Heiko Oberman, can help us here.


For Oberman, the question of authority in the later Middle Ages rests not so much on differing views of Scripture as on differing views of tradition. There was, in fact, an “encounter,” according to Oberman, “of two general notions about tradition.” In one view, Scripture is identified as the unique source of revealed truth and, therefore, as the sole norm for the understanding of Christian doctrine, but is viewed as standing in accord with, rather than in contrast to, an interpretive tradition. In the other view, tradition is more than the ongoing churchly interpretation of the biblical revelation-it contains truths handed down orally in the church from the time of Christ and the apostles, but never placed in written form. In particular, this view of tradition assumed that the apostles had written down all of the teachings of Jesus belonging to his earhly ministry between baptism and cricufixion but had not reported fully Jesus’ teachings between the resurrection and ascension. “In the first case,” Oberman writes, “tradition was seen as the instrumental vehicle of Scripture which brings the contents of Holy Scripture to life in constant dialogue between the doctors of Scripture and the Church; in the second case, tradition was seen as the authoritative vehicle of divine truth, embedded in Scripture but overflowing in extrascriptural apostolic tradition handed down through episcopal succession” (Muller, pp. 52-53, quoting Heiko Oberman, “Scripture and Tradition: Introduction,” pp. 54-55).

I want to point out one further qualification that must be kept in mind here. The Protestant position can generally be identified with position 1 (though with the qualification below), and the Catholic position with position 2. The qualification that needs to be made here is that Protestantism sees itself in continuity with tradition, but recognizes that tradition may err. This is usually misinterpreted by the Catholics as saying that Protestants throw off tradition altogether. This is, of course, not true. Just because we reject Roman Catholic traditions that they have invented out of thin air does not mean that we reject all tradition. Tradition has a subordinate, ministerial position to Scripture, not an equal, magisterial position in relation to Scripture. Herein lies the difference between Protestants and Catholics on the issue of tradition. The problem Catholics have had in the past is that they see Protestants subordinating tradition to Scripture, and interpret that move as throwing off all non-individual authority. We can illustrate this very well by speaking about the confessions of the Reformed church. The Scripture is the “norming norm,” whereas the confessions are the “normed norm.” The confessions have more authority than the voice of a single individual, since, obviously, the principles that govern a group of people are not necessarily the same as those that govern individual people. However, the authority of confessions is not equal to the authority of Scripture. So, rather than having three equal sources of authority in Scripture, tradition, and pope, Protestants acknowledge one supreme authority in Scripture, and then subordinate, ministerial authority in confessions (which yet have greater authority than individual voices).

Galileo, Copernicus, and the Condemnation of the Church

The common wisdom is that Copernicus and Galileo came along and proposed the theory that the earth revolved around the sun, and that the church condemned Galileo for teaching the Copernican theory. As it turns out, this is quite a stretch historically speaking. It is often used to condemn the church as being backwards scientifically. The reality is that heliocentricity was not actually the issue with Galileo. The idea of the sun being the center of the universe was proposed long before Copernicus by Aristarchus of Samos in the third century B.C.

Owen Barfield, in his book Saving the Appearances, argues that quite a different issue was at stake. The issue was the nature of scientific theory itself. He writes, “It was not simply a new theory of the nature of the celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth” (pp. 50-51). The importance of this can hardly be exaggerated, since the whole course of modern scientific inquiry has reached levels of hubris scarcely imaginable to the Medieval mind. Is scientific theory fact or theory, in other words? Galileo was the first to propose that scientific theory could be equated with fact, and for that he was persecuted by the church. And with good reason.

James Jordan on Deaconesses

Posted by Wes White

I thought this post was interesting, and I thought that this would be a good place to open it up for discussion.  James Jordan writes:

As I imagine you’ll point out, deaconnesses (not lady deacons, but a different function) are something the HC/LR have in common with the EPM/UR group. Deaconnesses are all over the Bible, and all over church history. Nowadays they are called nuns, and often have to take special vows; but there’s no need for us to take all of that over. Women served at the Tabernacle, at the Temple, served Jesus, and served in the early church. It is odd to me that there are people in the PCA who freak out over this, but I think you may be right that this is an issue that will finally split the PCA.

You can read the original context here.

Posted by Wes White

From Natural Revelation to Special Revelation

After a rather lengthy hiatus from Scripture studies, I want to come back with some Muller. I want to start with what seemed to me one of the very strongest arguments for the Bible being foundational to the church, rather than the church being foundational to the Bible. I would especially welcome my Roman Catholic readers to respond to this, because Muller doesn’t indicate what the standard Catholic response to this argument is, and I would like to know.

Muller goes to John Owen, in volume 16 of his works, in the work entitled Divine Original, for an argument that moves from general revelation to special revelation in a “how much more” fashion. Owen starts with something that Roman Catholics, Reformed and even Rationalists all agree on: the divine origin of natural revelation “declares itself to be from God by its own light and authority…: without further evidence or reasoning, without the advantage of any considerations but what are by itself supplied, it discovers its author, from whom it is, and in whose name it speaks…common notions are inlaid in the natures of rational creatures by the hand of God, to this end, that they might make a revelation of Him…, are able to plead their own divine original, without the least contribution of strength or assistance from without” (Owen, vol 16, p. 311). Muller’s comment on this: “If such a view of natural revelation is assumed, how much more ought its logic apply to Scripture!” (vol 2, p. 268). Then comes the killer quotation from Owen:


Now, it were very strange, that those low, dark, and obscure principles and means of the revelation of God and his will, which we have mentioned, should be able to evince themselves to be from him, without any external help, assistance, testimony or authority; and that that which is by God himself magnified above them…should lie dead, obscure, and have nothing in itself to reveal its Author, until this or that superadded testimony be called to its assistance (Owen, p. 311, quoted in Muller, pp. 268-269).

The substance of the argument, then, is that if natural revelation is acknowledged to be of divine origin and authority without the support of the church, then why shouldn’t special revelation also be acknowledged to have divine origin and authority without the support of the church, especially since the latter is much clearer than the former, and is given by God a higher priority and authority than natural revelation? Why would God not make natural revelation depend on humanity, but then make a more important revelation depend on humanity? Revelation is of God from first to last. God requires no human crutch to make His revelation authoritative. It is authoritative because of its Divine Author.

Are You Persuaded?

My recent post talked in part about my conviction that the Church in America is indeed in need of a new reformation, a new experience of the Jesus’ renewal promise to his Church (Rev 2:5). It occurs to me that my urging only registers to the degree that one is persuaded that the Church in America is truly seriously spiritually ill. In this post here I want to offer some of my reasons for believing that the Church in America is heading the way of the Church in Europe – all but non-existent.

To start off, let me clarify my understanding of “Church”. I am specifically referring only to the portion of the Protestant branch of the Church that still affirms what Machen identified as the fundamentals of the faith, especially the five solas of the Reformation. This definition is more or less coterminous with what is historically identified as Evangelicalism in America, those denominations for whom justification by faith alone is a sine qua non, an absolute essential.

(This definition of the Church does exclude the Roman Communion. Following the Reformers, I understand the Roman Church to be a broken branch, a part of the Church historic that no longer exhibits the essential marks of the True Church. Sorry guys, just the way I roll.)

Leave aside the question whether or not the Reformation has/had a terminal point (see Dr. Carl Trueman’s review of Noll and Nystrom’s, Is the Reformation Over?) That question is interesting, but ineffective in answering the question here. Rather than determine whether or not Reformation has ended (and therefore need to be re-started) I think a better way forward to look at what factors demonstrate the need for a Reformation. Insights into this approach can be gleaned from both the Bible and history.

From the Bible, Jesus’ message to the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7) I relevant. This church had lost their first love. That is, they had forgotten the basics of their doctrine and practice, summarized in the words Christ (doctrine), grace (practice), and the gospel (doctrine + practice). Their spiritual illness was so serious that this church was in danger of ceasing to exist (lampstand removal). To correct this Jesus offered the church a renewal promise (Rev 2:5), involving three parts: remembering, repenting, and recovering. In summary, this promise involved a recommitment to the ministry of the gospel (remembering, word-ministry-preaching) resulting in expressions of repentance and faith (repenting, doing first works).

Applied to the question here, we can gather from this that reformation is needed whenever there is evidence that a church has wandered/forgotten the core of its doctrine and practice. A church in need of reformation is one that has forgotten the Bible’s teaching about Christ, grace, and the gospel, a wandering/forgetting in both doctrine and practice.

From history the most obvious application of Christ’s renewal promise is the Reformation of the Church in Medieval Europe. Applying the biblical insights here, what were the signs present in this Church that demonstrated the need for reformation? What was the evidence that the Medieval Church had forgotten her first love? While there were many factors, I’m rather partial to the summary Dr. Harry Reeder offered in a sermon recently. He noted there were five characteristics marking this Church’s need for reformation: 1) Biblical illiteracy, 2) spiritual impotency, 3) compromised leadership, 4) devaluation of the word, and 5) devaluation of word-ministry, preaching. While longer, more detailed lists could be adduced, these five, it seems to me, offer an efficient summary of what it looks like for a Church to lose its first love, its adherence to Christ, grace and the gospel.

So, the question now is, does the Church in America evidence these or similar characteristics? Are these signs of spiritual illness present in our Church? I would argue that the answer needs to be a resounding yes! This post is already too long, so I’ll forgo making an argument relevant to each point. (More than happy to discuss this via the combox.) Maybe my point is simply made by your immediate response to this argument. Do you see these factors present across the Church in America? Are they dominant, that is common characteristics from one denomination to the next? Are they observable in most congregations? If you say yes I need say no more. (If not, might I ask you to pray about it?).

For me, I see increasing evidence of this week by week. In fact I believe that the spiritual illness in our Church is far advanced. While not unrecoverable, I believe it will be fatal if God is not merciful and soon sends the Spirit of renewal upon us. I’ve taken to telling folks in our congregation that that unless Jesus once again keeps his renewal promise in our city, we’re looking at the Church all but being nonexistent in twenty years – and we’re in the heart of the Bible Belt. I may be tad alarmist, but only like a doctor who gives a cancer patient three months to live, who then dies six months later.

I’m convinced – Jesus will remove the Church in America’s lampstand, unless she remembers, repents and recovers. We need a new reformation.

How about you, are you persuaded?

Posted by Reed DePace

Newest Pillar Commentary at 50% Off!

The volume on 1 Corinthians is now available. Ciampa I’m not familiar with, but I have seen some of Rosner’s work, and I would therefore recommend it. Of course, all the Pillar commentaries have been excellent. Right now, WTS bookstore is offering it for 50% off.

This Will Make You Smile

I would love to see this kid actually conduct a real orchestra. Maybe some orchestra will get off its high horse and let him. He’s a dead natural for this. 3-Year Old Conducting Natural

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