Why Imputation Is Not a Legal Fiction

A very common objection from Roman Catholics against the Protestant doctrine of imputation is that God declares someone to be innocent who is not, in fact, innocent. This is legal nonsense, to them. They believe that God would never declare a person to be righteous who is not, in fact, righteous. So, the Protestant idea that an alien righteousness, that of Christ, is reckoned to the sinner, is nonsense to them. It would be God declaring something to be true which is actually false. So, how do Protestants respond to this? There are a variety of responses, but the best one, it seems to me, resides in the metaphor of marriage union. We will also add a few things afterwards that will help us understand.

In most marriages, property entails joint ownership. Now, if a woman comes into the marriage with a debt (like a college debt), the husband assumes that debt. It becomes their debt (it can also be described as his debt), even though the husband did not incur that debt. Similarly, whatever money the husband brought into the marriage doesn’t belong just to him anymore, it also belongs to her, even though she did not earn it. So, by virtue of the marriage union between husband and wife, the debts and the assets are transferred.

In a very similar way, when the believer becomes united to Christ by faith, a new legal situation results with transfers happening. I think a lot of the problems that Roman Catholics have over the Protestant doctrine is that sometimes Protestants formulate the alien righteousness imputation idea as though there were no other accompanying-but-distinct salvific benefits happening at all.

Now, let us be clear here. The Protestant doctrine should never be formulated in such a way that union with Christ, for instance, has an internal change happening in the believer that thereby becomes the basis for the imputation. Christ’s righteousness is the basis for the transfer, not anything that happens in the believer. It happens by the instrumentation of faith.

What the marriage union does accomplish in justification has to do with the legality of the transfer. The new legal status we have as being part of the bride of Christ (our being married to Christ) means that anything Christ transfers to us happens legally whether we deserve it or not.

There is, of course, another concomitant salvific benefit that has equal power to explain how it is that justification is not a legal fiction. This benefit works on a different level, but it is still quite effective in combating the “legal fiction” charge, and it is just as biblical. When the believer comes to faith in Christ, he is adopted as God’s child. Adoption also confers a new legal status, this time with more reference to the Father through Jesus (whereas the marriage happens between Christ and the church, adoption is more the Father’s action, though it certainly has reference to the Son and the Spirit of adoption). When God declares us His heirs, then there is no reason whatsoever that God can not transfer anything to us that originally belonged to His Son. It would be no more difficult than imagining a father changing his will.

One last distinction can help us here. There is a difference between being a sinner as opposed to what our legal status before the law is. With regard to being a sinner, we are always sinners until God takes away our sin nature in death. However, with regard to our legal status before the law, God’s declarative action makes us legally innocent, even though that declaration does not change our nature. So when Luther says simul justus et peccator (simultaneously just and a sinner), we are to understand that we are still sinners (though we have been changed in regeneration such that being a sinner is not all there is to say) in our being, and yet we are actually just in the view of the law. Our legal status has similarities to a criminal who is acquitted of a crime that he did in fact commit. He is in his being guilty, and yet in the eyes of the law, he is not guilty.

While Roman Catholics will certainly not agree with these formulations, nevertheless, I believe that the above does put to rest the rather old canard that Protestants believe in a legal fiction in the doctrine of imputation. Marriage and adoption create new legal situations where transfers are not only easily accomplished, but are in fact rather normal.

A Great Book for the Burned-Out Pastor

The author of this book is a pastor in the same Presbytery where I labor. He is the chairman of the shepherding committee in the Presbytery, and this book certainly helps explain why. Clay is a warm, pastoral man with a heart for hurting people. I heartily recommend this book to any pastors who are discouraged and beaten down with the routine or with crises in the ministry. This book is also a good antidote to the almost universal naivete afflicting good-hearted young men as they come out of seminary ready to fix all the world’s problems (if only the stupid world would listen to them!). Heck, I would even recommend it to pastors who are doing just fine, so that they stay that way!

Clay is certainly honest about his own journey, which makes the book all that much more interesting and compelling. The first five chapters are diagnosis, and the last five are solution. The diagnosis section is painful but healing to read. Chapter 3 comes to mind. Here are a few things that zapped me: “It’s as if God has been saying, ‘Clay, let my people go!'” (p. 51). “Yet we often want to press fast-forward on our ministry remote and make people mature faster and our churches grow quicker because we so desperately want these things now” (44). “Constant conflict made me seek comfort anywhere I could find it, especially in a quiet office with a closed door in the safety of reading books” (60). “Resurrection power may heal the hurt, or it may simply give us the strength to endure. Either way, resurrection power meets us in our weakness” (85). “[T]he love inside of our hearts can be padlocked, whereas our anger often has a hair trigger” (89). The book is well-designed to make a pastor feel really, really guilty, and then really, really forgiven in Christ.

I don’t have any quibbles with what he says. There are a few things that I would like to see in, say, a second edition of the book, or a “revised and expanded” edition (or a second book!). Of course, one can’t say everything in one book, and this is Clay’s first book. One question that nagged at me throughout the book was this: how do we pastors get this grace, when we are the ones “dishing it out”? I don’t mean that we are the source of grace, of course. But how do we get the benefit, for instance, of the Lord’s Supper and of the sermon, when we are the ones presenting those things to the congregation? This goes along with a parallel concern: I would like to have seen more emphasis on the means of grace, and how those factor in to relieve the burdened pastor. A second thing I would like to see addressed is the day off. How do we see our roles on Sunday? As work, or as our part in the worship services? And then, what do we do for a day off during the rest of the week? A third thing is coordinated with the last chapter. He has an admirable and biblical emphasis on pursuing unity (unity achieved is a great stress reliever!). What I would like to see is how that relates to the pursuit of truth and purity of the gospel. How do we avoid burnout, for instance, when we are fighting wolves in sheep’s clothing? What about the temptation to avoid conflict about gospel issues for the sake of our own comfort and avoiding burnout? What is the difference between pursuing our own comfort versus avoiding burnout? I would love to see these questions answered, if not by Clay, then by someone building on what Clay has done here.

This is a great little book. It doesn’t take long to read (and it is, by and large, well-written). It lays a great foundation for thinking about the ministry in a grace-driven way. It deserves a very wide readership by pastors of all stripes. Tolle lege.

Is Faith Itself Imputed as Our Righteousness?

Arminians and Roman Catholics will typically argue that Romans 4:5,9 are talking about faith itself as the thing that is imputed, thus avoiding imputation of an alien righteousness. They will translate it something like “faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Sometimes they will use the word “for” instead of “as” while understanding it of identity. There are three insuperable objections to this understanding of the passage. Here are the two verses (translation mine):

4:5 “To the one who does not work but rather believes in the One justifying the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.” 4:9 “Does this blessing, therefore, come to the circumcised only or also to the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.”

The first insuperable objection to understanding faith itself as the thing reckoned is the context, especially verses 3-5. It goes like this: if faith is righteousness (in the eyes of the law), then it is a work. Then works justify us, the very thing Paul explicitly denies in verses 3-5, where he contrasts faith and works, and makes a point of saying that it is NOT reckoned as a reward, but rather as of grace. If in the situation of justification, there is anything in us that is righteous as a basis for justification, then it is a reward, and not of grace. There is no way around this problem. Limiting the scope of the works so that they are boundary markers or ceremonial aspects of the law simply doesn’t fly at all. The contrast is between the one working and the one believing. That is a general contrast.

The second insuperable objection is the nature of faith itself, which has to be determined from the rest of Scripture. The Scriptures usually speak of faith as being in someone. Faith is really not a thing inside us. It is rather our connection to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Triune God. Faith derives its meaning and substance from the object of faith, not from faith itself. Otherwise, we are saved by faith in faith. Faith is rather our connection to God. The analogy I like to use goes like this: if a person is canning something, then he is faced with a situation of having to get jars out of boiling water. Obviously, he cannot use his hands to do so. Therefore, he must use something to grasp hold of the jars. There are tongs manufactured for just such a purpose. They wrap around the lip of the jar so that a person can lift the jar out without any mishap. Faith is like those tongs. Faith is not the jar with the good stuff in it. Faith lays hold of Christ and all His goodness. It connects us to Him. It is another way of saying our union with Christ which the Holy Spirit creates.

The third insuperable objection (and something that is absolutely fatal to Roman Catholic understandings of justification) is the phrase “justifier of the ungodly” in verse 5. Roman Catholic theology NEVER believes that God ever justifies an ungodly person. Nevertheless, in all the ways that count at the time of justification, Abraham was ungodly in his actions (remembering that faith is contrasted with works in verses 3-5). If faith itself is the righteousness, then God would be justifying the godly, not the ungodly. But Paul says here that God is justifying the ungodly. In a future post I will argue the case that this understanding is not a legal fiction.

Is Imputation Taught in Romans 4?

Nick, over at Creed Code Cult, has thrown down the gauntlet (thrown many times before, of course) that Romans does not teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. I don’t think I will get to all the things he addresses, but I do want to address Romans 4 in particular, since that is the clearest place where Paul does teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

But let’s summarize Nick’s argument first. He notes that David, in Psalm 32, does not speak about righteousness being imputed. Paul, in quoting Psalm 32, mentions it as a “counting for righteousness.” Therefore, according to Nick, forgiveness of sins is the equivalent of being regarded as righteous. In fact, Nick goes farther than that to claim that this is the “only coherent explanation.” He then adds a reductio ad absurdam argument: “Realizing this, it’s impossible to interpret ‘reckoning righteousness’ with the ‘Imputed Righteousness of Christ’ (as Protectants typically identify it), because then you’d have to say forgiveness of sins refers to Christ’s keeping of the law in our place, which makes little sense.” This is a very brief summary of Nick’s argument, but it will do to be getting on with.

There is another equally coherent explanation of the way that Paul quotes David that does much better justice to the context of the early part of Romans 4 (which Nick ignores), and it is this: Paul regards the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of sin (with the accompanying imputation of our sin to Christ) as so tightly coherent that they always come together. In other words, to say that one happens is to say that the other also happens, because they are the flip side of each other. Let’s see how Paul does that.

Paul asks the question of whether Abraham was justified by works. Leaving aside for a moment the much-vexed question of the scope of these works, we merely note at the moment that positive works that obey the law are certainly in view here, obviously not works for which Abraham would need forgiveness. This is proven by the introduction of the boasting motif in verse 2. One presumably does not boast of sin. As opposed to this method of being justified, Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith instead. The key phrase here is “eis dikaiosunen” (“for righteousness”). Faith itself is not a fulfillment of the law. The very nature of faith is that it lays hold on Someone Else. So faith itself cannot be the righteousness here mentioned. The “eis” is a telic preposition. Faith, in laying hold of Jesus Christ, lays hold of His righteousness. Let me be plain: the righteousness here spoken of cannot be Abraham’s righteousness. Otherwise, he would be tempted to boast (as per verse 2). Verse 2 also proves that the concept of “righteousness” as used here in the passage CANNOT refer merely to the forgiveness of sins, which is not something about which a person would even be tempted to boast. It is further proven by the case of Adam in the garden. Forgiveness of sins wipes the slate clean. Adam started with a clean slate. So why didn’t he pass immediately into glory? Because he had to prove himself vis-a-vis the command that the Lord had given him. He had to be actively righteous to God’s command to multiply, fill the earth, guard the garden from Satanic intruders and not eat of the tree. Neutrality does not equal the blessedness of David by itself. What Paul is saying is that David’s explicit mention of forgiveness as constituting blessedness is half the picture, and imputation is the always-accompanying other half of the picture. Paul is saying that we need a righteousness. We cannot get it by working, because then it wouldn’t be grace (as verse 4 says so clearly). Faith is the only way to get this righteousness.

As Calvin would say, we need two things in justification: forgiveness of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness. An analogy I’m fond of using is the gears of a car. Having one’s sins forgiven is like being taken out of reverse gear and put into neutral. Imputation is like being put into a forward gear. You need both of them to be headed in the right direction.

Lastly, I need to answer Nick’s reductio argument. Christ’s keeping of the law results in two very important facts for the believer. Firstly, it constitutes Christ the perfect Lamb, who can take away our sins (so, you see, Christ’s righteousness is VERY closely tied to the forgiveness of sins: if Christ was not the perfect Lamb, then He could not take away our sins, and He couldn’t die in our place). Secondly, He earned our way to heaven. Nick’s reductio fails because he leaves out the step of Christ’s righteousness constituting Him the perfect Lamb, and thereby achieving our forgiveness.

I will answer also his claim about the phrase “justified by His blood” being absurd to talk about the imputation of righteousness. As I have already noted (and what is a commonplace in Reformed treatments of justification), justification is not just about imputation, but also about forgiveness. Sometimes one aspect is more in view, sometimes the other. In 5:9, plainly forgiveness is more in view, since he is talking about being saved from wrath. Wrath is upon us due to sin, so when that sin is taken away from us, so is God’s wrath. That will do, to get the conversation started.

Literal Interpretation of Revelation?

I am currently preparing sermons on the book of Revelation. In reading through the commentaries, one finds much that is helpful, and much that is useless. An example of the latter category comes in Robert L. Thomas’s premillenial commentary. He says on p. 32:

The futurist approach to the book is the only one that grants sufficient recognition to the prophetic style of the book and a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation based on that style. It views the book as focusing on the last period(s) of world history and outlining the various events and their relationships to one another. This is the view that best accords with the principle of literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of Revelation is the one generally associated with the premillenial return of Christ and a view of inspiration that understands God to be the real author of every book of the Bible.

There are so many problems with this analysis that it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, he assumes that which must be proved in the first sentence. “Prophetic” must equal “future,” and therefore the futurist approach is the only possible approach that would sufficiently acknowledge the prophetic character of Revelation. He downplays apocalyptic features of the book elsewhere (the reason why is somewhat mystifying in its absence).

Secondly, his bifurcation of world history is extremely unhelpful. How could the book have been written to first-century Christians if the things described in Revelation have no relevance to the first century? Yes, Revelation is written to the entire church. That is why the events of Revelation happen all throughout history, having relevance to the entire church age between the first and second coming of Christ.

Thirdly, his view that only the literal interpretation of Revelation is consistent with a high view of inspiration is quite frankly ludicrous and offensive. According to Thomas’s view, God could not possibly reveal anything to us in a symbolic way without compromising inspiration. I might remind Thomas at this point of John 11, where the disciples take Jesus literally when He says that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and thereby misinterpret Jesus. Thomas might object at this point and say, “Ah, but John tells us that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.” To which I would reply that John does so again in Revelation 1:1, where the word “semaino” means to reveal by means of signs and symbols (see Beale’s commentary). Given that such a description is meant to describe Revelation as a whole, the default in interpreting Revelation must be symbolic, not literal.

To put this in a less abstract way, if I want to say that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, I could say it just like that. Such a statement would be objective, scientifically verifiable fact stated by a completely unbiased person. Well, maybe not, but it would be a very literal way of getting the point across. But I could say it another way, by quoting George Gordon, Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.” Now, Robert Thomas, which of these statements is more true than the other? Having trouble with that? Well, of course you are! That something is true is a distinct question from how that truth is stated. Thomas does not understand this, and therefore equates literal interpretation with a high view of inspiration. One can have a very high view of inspiration (I believe, for instance, that every single word of Revelation is inspired by God and is utterly infallible) and yet interpret Revelation symbolically because it is a symbolic book.

The real fear, of course, is that a symbolic interpretation would give license to the interpreter to say whatever he wants to about the text. This is a genuine problem with those who have over-reacted to the literal folks. The solution is to recognize that there are brakes on symbolic interpretation. Those brakes are called “the rest of Scripture.” For Revelation in particular, the Old Testament functions as the source of almost all of the imagery. John is either explicitly alluding to the Old Testament or (maybe even unconsciously!) simply lives in the aura of the Old Testament. John is saturated with the Old Testament. It comes out his pores. This is not surprising, given that Revelation pulls all the threads of the Bible together and wraps everything up.

Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

A Gentle Response to Clair Davis

Dr. Clair Davis has written a response to Gaffin’s piece (which I linked in the previous post). As always, Davis is humble and always wanting to learn more, something I have always admired about him. He does not think he has finished learning. And he is more than willing to listen to those who disagree with him. In this post, I do not presume to teach Dr. Davis. As I indicated in my last post, my own thought is also undergoing change. But I do have some thoughts about his response. Writing about them helps me to think through the issues.

The first point I wish to raise has to do with the variety of ways that Jesus can be seen in the Old Testament. As I mentioned in my review of Sidney Greidanus, there are a variety of ways to see Christ in the Old Testament. This does not mean that a given passage, however, has more than one ultimate meaning. Otherwise, we will fall foul of the first chapter of the WCF, which says that the true and full sense of Scripture is not manifold but one (I wonder if the “two readings” view can really agree with WCF 1.9). The two readings view seems to me to say that the OT text has two meanings: the original one and the Christological one, and that they don’t have to match up or even connect (usually taking the historical critical method for granted here). Both camps in this debate would agree that there is progress of understanding the OT text. Otherwise we would have no New Testament. But Jesus says that He IS the meaning of the Old Testament in John 5 and Luke 24. He is not an add-on, or an afterthought. Yes, in some ways, Jesus is a surprise. But not completely. Otherwise, Abraham could not have rejoiced to see His day. The real question is not whether there is more than one way to see Jesus in the Old Testament, but whether He is there in the Old Testament at all! The two readings view seems to suggest that Jesus is not properly there at all, but is read into the Old Testament by means of Second Temple Jewish hermeneutical means (i.e., rabbinical means).

The second issue that I wish to bring up is whether biblical theology is “greatly weakened” at WTS, as Davis says. Yes, Enns and Green are not there anymore. Neither is McCartney. Instead, they have Beale and Duguid. My question is this: how can biblical theology be “greatly weakened” at WTS when two of biblical theology’s greatest practitioners have just joined the faculty? Beale’s greatest strength is in seeing how the New Testament reads the Old Testament. And he has written a mammoth New Testament Biblical Theology that will, I am sure, prove to be a classic. Duguid’s OT commentaries are some of the very finest OT exegesis I have seen, and very much in the Vossian BT tradition.

The third issue is the perennial one of the relationship of biblical theology to systematic theology (BT to ST). Davis believes that the two are yoke-fellows. He looks at the statement of the affirmations and denials and wonders if they haven’t put systematic theology in the untenable position of being unanswerable to Scripture. Having sat under Gaffin for five classes and received about 50% exegesis and 50% systematizing, I can say that, for the Westminster ST faculty, ST is always answerable to Scripture! The WTS faculty would NEVER say that ST equals the Bible. I do not think the affirmations and denials are saying that, either. The affirmations and denials statement was aimed at the unnatural separation of BT and ST that the two readings view advocates. It does not actually address the place of ST in the theological encyclopedia. I have talked rather extensively with the current ST faculty about the questions of encyclopedia, and they are agreed that ALL the theological disciplines are inter-connected and mutually inter-dependent. My question is this: why would we want to set any of the theological disciplines in tension with any of the others? As Davis’s example of a sermon shows, all the disciplines need to come to bear on the application. The analogy I use is that of a very heavy drill. A heavy drill has a lots of different parts to it all aimed at one point: the drill bit going through whatever material is present. That point of the drill is like application: where the rubber hits the road. But the more we have in terms of the other disciplines informing that application, the heavier and deeper the drill will penetrate the human heart. I would argue that it is the two readings view which separates BT from ST. Enns and Green don’t particularly like ST. They are suspicious of something that might put a straight-jacket on exegesis. This is not how ST should be thought of in relation to exegesis or BT. ST provides the safe fence outside of which exegesis and BT will find danger, not creative freedom. The fence can be moved, but Proverbs warns us against moving the landmark. There is a faith once for all given to the saints. There is a pattern of sound teaching. BT draws a line, and ST draws a circle.

Fourthly, that Vos says what he says does not prove that the main hermeneutical method that the apostles and Jesus used was a Second Temple Jewish rabbinical method. Nor does it prove that Jesus was an imposition on the OT text. That Vos says what he says in the quotation, therefore, does not disprove WTS’s point, as it is not directly relevant to whether Jesus is natively present in the Old Testament or not, which is the issue under consideration. After all, Paul quoted from heathen poets and philosophers in the New Testament as well. Does that prove that his hermeneutic is pagan? Using the language and concepts of the day does not equal a hermeneutical method.

Fifthly, what is it about Green’s method that is contrary to the Westminster Standards? I have brought up one point (the true and full meaning of Scripture being not manifold but one). Another point that we must bear in mind here is the unity of the covenant of grace, as WCF 7 puts it so well. Were the types of the Old Testament intended to prefigure Christ? The WCF says that they DO prefigure Christ. Period. They do not prefigure Christ only in hindsight, only on a second reading. Davis actually grants this point in the movie illustration, when he agrees with Gaffin. The problem for Davis here is that Gaffin and Green cannot both be correct on this point. Davis tries valiantly to reconcile the two, but I believe he cannot do so.

The Real Issue at Westminster Theological Seminary

Dr. Richard Gaffin has written a knock-out piece describing what is at stake in the recent retirement of Professor Doug Green at WTS (hat tip Nick Batzig).

Now, I have known for a long time that there were two different appraisals of Vos’s contribution to biblical theology. One version says that the Old Testament needs to be read first as if no New Testament existed (the so-called first reading). Only then is it followed by a second reading that takes the New Testament into account. This second reading is usually compared to Second Temple Jewish readings of the Old Testament that are in most ways “surprise” endings to the story. This is called the “Christotelic” hermeneutic. I firmly believe that the Christotelic version actually distorts Vos. One way to ask the question is this: are there any dead ends in the Old Testament? Is there any passage that does not speak of Christ?

The answer is that there are no dead ends. John 5 and Luke 24 prove this. We do not mean by this that Jesus is the antitype of every single element in the Old Testament. Rather, we mean that Jesus is the culmination of the entire story, and that the entire story progresses to Jesus. This involves the correct balance between ultimate truth and progressive development. The true reading of Vos involves an organic inter-related holistic approach to biblical interpretation, where Jesus is the natural outworking of the progressive nature of the Old Testament development.

However, I realized only recently that I still had some remaining shackles of the Christotelic interpretation, as I had until recently still thought of the “2 readings” of the Old Testament as valid. “Christocentric” is ultimately a better word for the true Vossian version of biblical theology than “Christotelic.” Read the article. You will be glad you did. The reports of the death of biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary have been greatly exaggerated.

Anthropocentric Moralizing?

Our Sunday School is going through the book of Daniel, with the ruling elders doing a fine job of teaching the text. I preached through Daniel while I was in North Dakota, but I wanted to freshen up and sharpen up my understanding of the book, so I got two newer commentaries to read through as we went through the book. One of them is by Sidney Greidanus, and it is entitled Preaching Christ From Daniel. Now, I have benefited greatly from Greidanus’ careful and nuanced approach to seeing Jesus in the Old Testament. The various ways in which a reader can do that are very helpfully spelled out by him in all his books. However, there can sometimes be a hesitancy to apply the text. It can be so much about Jesus that it is not about us much at all. This is a bit of an over-generalization, I realize, but I am merely pointing out what I see as a trend.

For my prime example, I will point out that he does not seem to like Iain Duguid’s commentary on Daniel much. Now, when I was preaching through Daniel, I found Duguid the most helpful commentary of any that has been written. I haven’t finished Dale Ralph Davis’s commentary yet (that’s the other one I got to read through), and it is outstanding as well. However, when I was preaching through Daniel, I found the most help in Duguid. Duguid is well-known for a Vossian progressive-revelation approach to Scripture that sees Jesus Christ as the climax of the story, and the main point of the Bible. However, Duguid, unlike Greidanus seemingly, also believes that the text can be about us precisely because it is about Jesus. In other words, if we are in Christ Jesus, then the text will always apply to us precisely because it applies to Jesus first. Greidanus, however, accuses Duguid of nudging “preachers toward anthropocentric moralizing” (84). After a quote from Duguid, Greidanus says, “This be true enough, but it is not the point of the passage.” If there were anyone out there less deserving of this censure of “anthopocentric moralizing,” that person is surely Iain Duguid. Furthermore, Greidanus is guilty of reading Duguid uncharitably and out of context. Duguid was not making his point the main point of the passage. It was an application of the text. I have not found much in the way of application in Greidanus. He gets to Jesus responsibly and well, but what to do after that or because of that, he does not seem to make clear.

The question really boils down to this: can we apply the text to our own lives even if we do not explicitly mention Jesus every time we make an application of the text? On one question at least, there would surely be agreement: the main point of the Bible is Jesus. Greidanus and Duguid would both whole-heartedly agree with that. The disagreement surfaces when we ask the question of whether the Bible also talks about us. Surely it does, since God did not just give the text to the people to whom the writing was originally given. The Bible was given to the entire church of all ages. Yes, historical context is important. But so is the fact that God gave the whole Bible to the whole church. Greidanus is rightly reacting against a mentality that bypasses Christ entirely, since this means there is no exegetical control over the application, and the application is usually wrong when we yank a text out of its progressive salvation-historical place. However, if we place the text correctly in its time and place, and correctly and carefully get to Christ, there still remains application, which flows from that whole understanding. If we cannot do this, then preaching is hamstrung. Greidanus seems to me to be throwing out the correct-application baby with the moralizing bathwater.

A Very Disturbing Book

Today I read this book. It was extremely disturbing to me. It was disturbing, not because I disagree with it, but because I was so shocked by it. I had been used to thinking about the reasons our children leave the church in this way: we haven’t trained them in apologetics, and so when they leave for college, their faith is attacked, and they do not have the weapons at hand to defend their faith, and actually share the gospel. To a certain extent, I think the previous analysis is still partially correct, but it has received a large wake-up call corrective from Ken Ham. His thesis, based on the research of Britt Beemer, is that very few people who leave the church do so because college started them on the road to doubt. In fact, they were already gone! Their doubts started (in 88% of the 20-year olds who were interviewed!) in middle school and high school. Folks, we are losing our children long before college.

I received a further shock upon reading his statistics on Sunday School, and his analysis of why Sunday School, even when conducted by faithful, truth-telling folks, is not helping in this matter. The problem with many Sunday Schools is that they tell a story that is not really addressing the narrative they receive from the secular world even in middle school. Sunday School winds up being about faith, whereas school is about life and facts. In other words, our middle and high school Sunday School curricula, while often faithful to the texts, do not teach the texts apologetically! They hear from scientific teachers, and are typically unable to distinguish between the science of present phenomena and the science of origins (if there even is such a thing!). If science is correct in matters related to rockets, cell phones, robots, organic chemistry, mathematics, and biology (to name only a few fields), then mustn’t it also be right in matters of origin? Certainly not. However, our children are not receiving the message on these matters. The other problem with Sunday School is that parents are often abdicating their home responsibilities with regard to spiritual matters because “the children will learn it in church.” Ken Ham is not advocating the abolishment of Sunday School, and neither am I. But we do need to rethink what we’re doing in Sunday School. Ham argues that we need apologetics much earlier, and that the apologetics needs to address human origins in ways that directly challenge what our kids are hearing in school.

We need to talk about origins, and here’s why. An erosion of faith in the authority of Scripture is taking place. Ken Ham argues that it starts with the age of the earth. If science has proved that the earth is old, then in the minds of most folks, that disproves the Bible’s account, which then must turn into myth. Yes, yes, there are the day-age view, the framework view, and the analogical day view of Genesis 1 and 2. Most people are not able to make such fine distinctions in their head between interpretation and fact. Their minds will not typically jump to the idea that their interpretation of the Bible must alter. Instead, the Bible must go. The erosion starts in Genesis, but never stops there.

Now, Ham’s analysis is much more sophisticated than I have here laid out (and the complete results of the survey are included in the back for the benefit of statisticians). I am simplifying to give people a flavor for the whole. It is a very quick read (I read it in less than 2 hours). I think we need to heed its warnings, and its proffered solutions.

« Older entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 337 other followers