I finally passed my registered parliamentarian test this morning. It is without a doubt the single most grueling test I have ever taken in my entire life. The pool of questions is 1400, divided into 5 sections. Many of these questions seem designed to try to trick you. Fortunately, you can take the exam in parts now. I took part IV this morning as the last one.
Since the internet debate has died down quite a bit from its heyday about a decade ago, many people have assumed that the Federal Vision is gone and dead. A highly erroneous conclusion. It is not dead. Every one of its proponents is still out there, spreading their false doctrine industriously, now under cover of darkness, since they no longer present themselves as targets online. The missions field is especially problematic, with the FV gaining ground in Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. Even in the PCA, the issue is not dead. Jeff Meyers is still at large, as is Mark Horne. They are influencing many Covenant Seminary grads through their internship programs. Douglas Wilson is basically the only FV proponent still visible much on the internet, as we might expect, since he is the one who presents the public persona of the FV. If anything, the battle concerning the FV, while it has practically disappeared from the internet, is still very much alive and well in churches.
Enter now my friend Dewey Roberts into the field. He argued the Leithart case before the SJC. The SJC had determined that Dewey had not proven his case. A large part of that, I suspect, is that Dewey was probably using early drafts of his book to argue his case. When I talked to him about it on the phone, he was saying many of the things that came out in the book. Before the SJC, the way to win a case is to compare the teachings of Leithart (or whoever is on trial) to the Westminster Standards only. Here is what the defendant believes, in his own words, and here is what the Westminster Standards say. Dewey’s purpose in this book is much, much broader than that. He is comparing the Federal Vision to historic Christianity, and his findings are that they are two different things. The main thesis of the book is that the Federal Vision is either Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian in its system, and is therefore not Christian doctrine.
Knowing as I do the history of the Leithart case rather well, I think I made the same mistake Dewey did, actually, but from the reverse direction. Dewey argued his book in front of the SJC, while I expected his performance in front of the SJC negatively to impact the book. Neither of us was right. This book is quite well done, carefully argued, and theologically perceptive. I thought, over the course of some 350 blog posts, and countless comments, that I had considered the FV from just about every possible angle. Dewey showed me wrong. He has many angles that I had not thought of before. If the peacefully slumbering PCA (at least on FV concerns) will read this book, they will find that there is still work to be done, and that we need to do it. The gospel really is at stake, and the Federal Vision really is heresy, not just heterodoxy.
I have a couple of things I would criticize, one very small thing, and one more substantial thing. The small thing is the chapter endnotes. I hate endnotes. I have made no bones about the fact. One has to twist one’s hand in very awkward positions in order to be able to flip back and forth. If the purpose of footnotes is to avoid distracting one from the main line of argumentation, then endnotes fail miserably, because the added time of flipping back and forth makes it very difficult to keep on the thread of the main argument. But chapter endnotes are even worse than book endnotes, since you are constantly losing your place. Why couldn’t we have had footnotes on the same page as the text?
The more substantial criticism I have is the number of times Dewey quoted Guy Waters’s book on the FV as an original source. Now, Waters’s book is truly excellent, and one of the most important publications on the debate. Nevertheless, I prefer to see sources quoted first-hand, rather than second-hand. That way, if one wants to follow the paper trail backwards, one can examine the quotation in its original context much easier. The FV proponents will, of course, cry foul because they, like so many artists, are being misunderstood, boo hoo. The Ninth Commandment is often abused as the last refuge of the heretic. This criticism does not, I think, affect the validity of Dewey’s arguments.
I learned a lot from this book, and I hope that my readers will buy the book and read it, as well. Federal Vision proponents, know this: Dewey has your number, and he got it well. We know what you’re trying to do, and we are on guard.
April 11, 2016 at 12:18 pm (Christology)
I came across this delightful quotation in J.C. Ryle’s work on John (volume 2, p. 145). Ryle is quoting Christopher Wordsworth, and Anglican bishop who wrote an entire Bible commentary:
God loves to effect His greatest works by means tending under ordinary circumstances to produce the very opposite of what is to be done. God walls the sea with sand. God clears the air with storms. God warms the earth with snow. So in the world of grace. He brings water in the desert, not from the soft earth, but the flinty rock. He heals the sting of the serpent of fire by the serpent of brass. He overthrows the wall of Jericho by ram’s horns. He slays a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. He cures salt water with salt. He fells the giant with a sling and stone. And thus does the Son of God work in the Gospel. He cures the blind man by that which seemed likely to increase his blindness, by anointing his eyes with clay. He exalts us to heaven by the stumbling block of the cross.
God always seems to use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, doesn’t He?
April 6, 2016 at 10:54 am (History)
I was reading in Carl F.H. Henry’s massive 6-volume God, Revelation and Authority this morning, and came across a fascinating little quotation: “What places the historian under obligation toward events is that his own judgments of importance do not in fact constitute the external situation; actually, if he is to be worthy of professional respect, he must be concerned with a response to historical evidence” (volume 1, p. 162). Henry assumes, of course, that no historian can be free of bias. Henry is instead concerned to point out a very important point of self-awareness: what historians think of as important is still distinct from the actual situation. Every historian has to be selective. If the historian attempted to be completely comprehensive, then his work would take longer to read than the actual series of events, since nothing would be left out from any perspective. The historian’s principles of selection, then, become the points at which the historian’s bias comes into view. We can readily see this bias in the news media today. The news media function as a sort of immediate historical writing of contemporary events. They will choose to recount an event at which a few LGBT folks are present to protest, but will not comment on a pro-life rally at which over 100,000 people are present. The principle of selection reveals their bias.
Now, all people have biases, assumptions, presuppositions. The question for historians is not whether they are going to be biased, but (as Ken Ham would say) which bias is the right bias to be biased with in the first place. Secondarily, it is equally important to be self-aware of those biases, and, in the interests of full disclosure, relate those biases to the reader, so that the reader can properly evaluate the historian’s account. All too often, the historian pretends to have a complete objectivity, thereby seeking to gain an indomitable and unassailable ground on which to define history. It comes to light in the sometimes not-so-subtle claims that other historians may be biased, but he is not. Flee from such historians as from a plague.
The most pernicious form of the lack of self-awareness on this point is the mentality of many (most?) news media that they actually create reality, and that nothing exists but spin, and whoever controls the spin controls the world. There are several problems. First of all, events can happen which are objectively outside our points of view (i.e., we don’t know that they happened at all). Those events can have a huge impact on the significance of other events of which we do have knowledge. Secondly, such lack of self-awareness is usually connected to a certain claim for power. Control the language, control the definitions, control the perspective, and you control the world. The news media understand this exceedingly well.
Ultimately, there is a correct bias, as well as many incorrect biases. The correct bias is God’s perspective on history. God, after all, defines reality, both in general and special revelation. Any bias that does not seek to line up with God’s perspective is doomed to fail, ultimately. The problem comes when secular or postmodern advocates come to us and tell us that any claim to line up with God’s perspective is itself a power play, a grab at arrogance and condescension. Our response is two-fold, one answer being defense, and the other offense. On the defensive side, we can say that if God really does exist, then it is actually a sign of humility not to oppose this God by setting up our own autonomous principles of knowledge. Secondly, the postmodernist does not escape the very problem he criticizes. What kind of knowledge does he possess that guarantees his own freedom from power hunger? By seeking to eliminate the possibility of lining up with God’s perspective, is he not, by virtue of that very act, making a power play at stifling the Christian worldview?
On the one hand, events happen of which we have no knowledge. Nevertheless, just because we don’t know about them, we cannot therefore infer from that fact that they are unimportant. Our understanding of history is not the same thing as history itself, the chain of events that make up our timeline. On the other hand, when it comes to events of which we do have an awareness, we must be aware that our presuppositions will always play a role in how we interpret the level of importance, as well as the significance, of those events.
Robert W. Jenson wrote the Brazos commentary on Ezekiel in 2009. I am really going to enjoy reading this commentary, even though he is not a conservative in his theological outlook. The reason I am going to enjoy this commentary is that he doesn’t hold with the prim and proper divorce of theology and exegesis. Instead, he refreshingly allows (even demands!) his doctrinal categories to determine the direction of his exegesis. Of course, everyone actually does this. In fact, the more that people protest that they don’t, the more viciously non-self-aware those scholars are. Jenson also injects his commentary with humor. He says:
The proposition that exegesis of the Old Testament might call up points of Christian doctrine of course offends the modern exegetical academy’s chief dogma. That, vice versa, Christian doctrine should shape interpretation of Old Testament passages offends it even more deeply. But the exclusion of the church’s doctrine from interpretation of the church’s scripture is after all a very odd rule on its face; and it is indeed as Christian scripture that the church reads what she calls the Old Testament. How the academic community came to be committed to an antidoctrinal, and thus in this case ironically ahistorical mode of exegesis, is an often told tale that need not be repeated here.
The present commentary, like the others in the series, thus offers alternatives to the modern academy’s prejudices. I will not often argue theoretically the legitimacy of christological or trinitarian or ecclesiological readings I present, but will mostly allow them to convince readers by their own sense and appropriateness to the text at hand-or not. I do ask for suspension of a priori incredulity-who knows, the church might be right about how to read her own scripture (pp. 25-26).
Lastly, Jenson issues a serious (!) warning about reading his commentary:
The purpose of a commentary is to assist readers’ involvements with the text. Perhaps readers should therefore take warning before going further. Attention to a text can turn into experience of its matter, and the judgments and promises of God as given through Ezekiel are so extreme that they can easily undo ordinary religiosity-to say nothing of the disastrous spiritual adventures that might be ignited by his visions (p. 30).
I find myself wishing that more commentators wrote like this.
A very thorny question arises as to whether prophecies in the Old Testament are conditional or unconditional. Some of them appear to be one, and some appear to be the other. Problems arise whenever scholars seek to make one category that describes all prophecies. Hengstenberg, for instance, argues that all prophecies are unconditional. One wonders, then, how Hengstenberg deals with Jonah’s prophecy about Nineveh. Or, how does he deal with Jeremiah 18:7-10? I just finished reading Fairbairn’s chapter on this topic in his Interpretation of Prophecy. He has a taxonomy of prophecies that is well worth consideration.
Fairbairn has three categories of prophecies. Of these, one is completely unconditional, one completely conditional, and one that has aspects of both.
The first category he describes is one that has aspects of both. The prophecies of salvation that “disclose God’s purposes of grace to men” are unconditional with regard to their ultimate fulfillment. The only conditional elements have to do with “relations of place and time” (p. 63). The protoevangelion (Genesis 3:15) is an example of this type of prophecy. He writes, “[E]ven in this class of prophecies, as they do not proceed to their accomplishment in a lofty isolation from human interests and responsibilities, so the things belonging to them must be presented to men’s view as capable of being expedited or retarded by the line of behaviour they pursue; and while with God himself the end was seen from the beginning, and absolutely determined, yet particular issues might fitly enough appear to be suspended on the particular condition of the church or the world” (p. 64).
The second class of prophecies he mentions has to do with “kingdoms that stood in a rival or antagonistic position to the kingdom of God.” These prophecies “were mainly intended to assure the hearts of God’s people, that whatever earthly resources and glory might for the time belong to those kingdoms, all was destined to pass away; that their dominion, however arrogant and powerful, should come to an end” (p. 68). These prophecies were about the foreign kingdoms, but they were usually directed towards God’s people. These prophecies do not, as a general rule, address moral issues (see p. 69). Many, if not most, of the oracles against the nations, fall into this category (for examples, see Ezekiel 25-32).
The third class of prophecies is completely conditional. They are the prophecies about which Jeremiah 18:7-10 speaks. This class bears directly “upon men’s responsibilities” (p. 70). These are often directed towards the foreign nation. Jonah’s prophecy against Nineveh is a good example of this kind of prophecy. Jonah prophecies destruction, but Jonah obviously knows that this prophecy is conditional, because he did not want to give it to Nineveh, lest they repent, and then God would not bring upon them the destruction promised. Fairbairn comments on its seemingly unconditional form: “[T]he very absoluteness and precision of the form was the best adapted, it may be the only one actually fitted, to arouse slumbering consciences, and lead to serious repentance” (p. 73, emphasis original).
This taxonomy helps us to avoid three particular problems with Old Testament prophecy. One is that of open theism. God doesn’t change his mind. With the prophecies that have conditional elements, God immutably carries out His complex purposes, such that if the people change (of which outcome God already and immutably knows), then the outcome changes, humanly speaking. Secondly, this helps us to make sense of prophecies like that of Jonah that seemingly do not come to pass. As we know, one of the criteria for true prophets is that their prophecies must come to pass. Of course, liberals tend to use a very literalistic heremeneutic in order to “prove” that Old Testament prophecies are not fulfilled. This is another subject that Fairbairn addresses in this same chapter, incidentally. Thirdly, it also helps us to avoid the problems associated with extreme positions, like that of Hengstenberg, on the one hand, who argues that no prophecies are conditional; and other opposite positions, that argue that all prophecies are conditional. The problem with the latter position is that the criteria for prophecies coming true would be meaningless if the prophecies were always conditional. The prophet whose prophecy doesn’t come to pass could then conceivably always use the excuse, “Well, it was conditional.” I commend Fairbairn’s careful taxonomy. There might be tweaks that would be necessary to his categories (although I can’t think of any right off). But this is a helpful way of making sense of enormous swaths of Old Testament prophecy.
I received in the mail a copy of this little gem from my alma mater. It is a fast read. I read it this morning.
Normally, I wouldn’t expect to have about 35 endorsements on a book that is only 87 pages long. However, in this case, what you get is actually a snapshot of scholars who agree with the trajectory that WTS is establishing (and has established in the past). I found these statements interesting and, in some cases, revealing (see John Frame’s puff, for instance).
The book has four essays, by Vern Poythress, Iain Duguid, G.K. Beale, and Richard Gaffin, Jr, all preceded by a good little introduction by Peter Lillback. Also included are three appendices. The first is Machen’s essay on the purpose and plan for the Seminary. The second is the document of affirmations and denials that the seminary promulgated in response to the recent debates at the seminary. The third is Dr. Gaffin’s short piece on biblical theology at WTS.
Dr. Lillback can now say that there is a “harmony among the theological disciplines at Westminster” (p. 1). This wasn’t the case when I was attending. The exegetical departments were, in general, at odds with the ST, AP, and CH departments. I, for one, am grateful for the present unity among the faculty and disciplines.
Dr. Poythress’s point is that true biblical hermeneutics is a spiral, not a circle, that needs to start from a self-consciously Christian perspective. In this context, he says that God’s “presence and his special work in inspiration do not make human beings less than human. Rather, he transforms sinful humanity toward humanity as God originally designed it” (p. 13). Some advocates of other hermeneutical approaches seem to suggest that if God had anything to do with revelation at all, then that “interference” would make the humans automatons, and thus less than human.
Duguid’s point is that Christ is the whole point of the Old Testament. Period. It is a book about Christ (p. 17). Against the Christotelic interpretation, Duguid writes, “It is not that the New Testament writers were creatively assigning new and alien meanings to these old texts. Rather, the force of Jesus’s statement that it was ‘necessary that the Christ should suffer these things’ (Luke 24:26) suggests that a proper reading of the Old Testament expectation of the messiah necessarily compelled them to recognize Jesus Christ as its true fulfillment” (p. 21). While the OT prophets were not fully aware of the complete meaning of what they wrote (p. 20), we must not overstress their ignorance (p. 21). Again, taking direct aim at the Christotelic view, he says, “In other words, our astonishment will not be because the fulfillment differed from the promise, or because some parts of the promise proved to be dead ends, but because we had not begun to grasp the height and depth of the wisdom of God that is at work for our salvation in Christ” (p. 23).
Beale’s essay addresses New Testament hermeneutics. Context is king in Beale’s hermeneutics, but that context has to be defined as including more than the immediate literary and historical context. It also includes its canonical context (p. 26). Biblical Theology is given a thoroughly Vossian definition (pp. 27-28). New Testament interpretation of the Old is the correct way to read the Old Testament.
Gaffin’s article addresses the place of Systematic Theology in relation to Biblical Theology (a hallmark of his entire career). Some money quotes: “Systematic Theology, accordingly, does not have a ‘special’ hermeneutic of its own but one it shares with all other theological disciplines (p. 39). “Negatively, the difference (between ST and BT, LK) is not, as is too often maintained, that biblical theology considers the Bible purely in terms of its humanity and historically diverse make-up, leaving systematic theology to attend to whatever may be said about its divinely qualified unity (p. 49). Instead, biblical theology always presupposes the unity of God’s speech (ibid.). “At any one point in actual practice, the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology is reciprocal” (p. 50). I might add something here to Gaffin’s remarks, and note that it is always reciprocal, whether the interpreter realizes it or not, and even if the interpreter denies that it is reciprocal.
It is clear that Machen was a Vossian. No doubt this quotation is why the essay was included: “[A]n error should be avoided: it must not be thought that systematic theology is one whit less biblical than biblical theology is” (p. 57). This is pure Vos.
The affirmations and denials are available online here, but it is good to see them in print, as well. They are extremely sophisticated, and yet very clear. I commend them to your perusal, especially the parts about private interpretation (p. 68, for example). It has some very important things to say about Ancient Near Eastern background, as well (see p. 71, for instance).
Gaffin’s last piece is a response to Clair Davis’s lament over the supposed fall of biblical theology at Westminster Seminary. Gaffin says that the reports of biblical theology’s death at WTS have been greatly exaggerated. This is the money quote from that piece: “There can be no objection to ‘Christotelic’ in itself. But Scripture is Christotelic just because it is Christocentric. It is Christotelic only as it is Christocentric, and as it is that in every part, the Old Testament included. Or, as we may, in fact must, put the issue here in its most ultimate consideration, Christ is the mediatorial Lord and Savior of redemptive history not only at its end but also from beginning to end. He is not only its omega but also its alpha, and he is and can be its omega only as he is its alpha” (p. 86).
This short book clarifies the doctrinal issues surrounding the recent debates at Westminster like no other resource of which I am aware. Get a copy of it.
Psalm 16:8 has always been comforting to me. However, it just became even more so when I understood the imagery involved. One commentator has explained that this is military imagery. To be at someone’s right hand infers that the shield a soldier holds is in his left hand. He holds the sword with his right. This means that he is vulnerable to attack on his right side. However, if you have a good partner at your right hand, his shield (held in his left hand) can protect you from attacks coming from that direction. In other words, the Psalmist is saying that God protects you in those very places where you are most vulnerable to attack. This is immensely comforting to me, and should be comforting to all Christians.
This is especially relevant in terms of those sins that are habitual in us, to which we are most prone to fall. We need to stop thinking of God as adversarial to us in this struggle, and start thinking of Him as our greatest (and first!) resource to fight the sin. He is at our right hand. I know that I have had trouble thinking the wrong way about God in these kinds of situations. I am tempted to think of God only as accusatory, or disappointed. Now, God our Father does not like our sin, and He wants it gone from us. And he can be a stern Father, allowing us to face the consequences of our sins for our good through discipline. However, there is more to the situation than that. After all, there must be a reason why these sins are not completely conquered at conversion. There must be a reason why God does not wave a magic wand and all our sin is gone. There are so many layers to our self-reliance that God strips away throughout our Christian lives. A realization that all power to conquer sin comes from God is the goal here. Until we stop thinking of God as a last resort, we will still fall prey habitually to those sins. It is only when we run first to Jesus at the first sign of temptation that we can make any progress in fighting these sins. Run first to your Shield-Mate. When we run away from Him, our entire right side is exposed to the attacks of Satan. It is not wise, but it is all too often what we do.
If any of my readers have not seen this quotation by Thomas Watson, it is a real gem, and sounds shockingly modern (from The Godly Man’s Picture):
An idle person is the devil’s tennis ball, which he bandies up and down with temptation till at last the ball goes out of play.
With apologies to any tennis players out there (and maybe an apology to Shakespeare’s Henry V, which features tennis balls so prominently), this quotation blew me away when I first read it yesterday, quoted in the Reformation Heritage Study Bible on 2 Samuel 11 and the temptation of David. Of course, in the history of David, the author subtlely castigates David for staying at home when kings were supposed to go to war. Being idle was his first mistake.
Of course, Americans oftentimes have the opposite problem of being too busy that they have no time for meditation on God’s Word or prayer. Mere busyness is not a virtue, any more than mere idleness. If you are busy, be busy about the kingdom work. If you are resting, rest in order to sharpen your axe.
For those who have never been exposed to source criticism (you lucky dogs, you!), it is the attempt to find different sources in a given text. Sometimes, this enterprise is quite harmless. Finding out where Ronald Reagan got his quotes from during his Challenger Disaster speech can be fun and enlightening.
Sometimes, however, it is not quite so harmless. When scholars try to find four different sources in the Pentateuch (so-called J,E,D, and P sources, which stand for Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomistic, and Priestly), none of which are traced back to Moses, problems arise. The most serious problems have to do with applying an overly strict criteria for discerning the sources. For example, the so-called Jahwist and Elohist sources are so designated because the Jahwist used the name Jahweh for God, whereas the Elohist used the name Elohim for God. Are we seriously to believe that one author couldn’t possibly have used both names for God? Usually, this argument also depends on a manufactured contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and the order of creation. The argument goes that the order of creation in chapter 1 is plants, animals, man, whereas in chapter 2, it is man, then plants. Keil and Delitzsch answered this argument well over a century ago, but no source critic has ever listened, seemingly. Chapter 2 is not talking about all plants, only cultivated plants. The reason of chapter 2 is quite clear: there are no “plants” because there was no rain, and because there was no man to till the ground. In fact, chapter 2 cannot possibly be talking about all plants, because most plants, in fact, do not need man to till the ground. Chapter 2 is simply saying that cultivated crops did not really get going until after the creation of the cultivator, namely, man. Therefore, there is no contradiction whatsoever between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.
Another big problem with saying that basically nothing came from Moses is that Jesus said it did. The liberals will typically argue that Jesus was only saying what the people of the day said. That is quite a stretch. Jesus had no problem correcting the people when their notions were in error. On the question of who wrote the Pentateuch, why would we believe that Jesus wouldn’t have corrected the people on this important point? Isn’t it much simpler and easier just to say that Moses did, in fact, write it, and that Jesus and the people He talked to both believed it because it was true?
So, the distinction between the Jahwist and the Elohist is a manufactured one. The question I want to raise is this: what is the appeal of this kind of source criticism? A generous estimation would probably point to the desire to see the prehistory of the text. Where did it come from, and are there previous sources on which the writer relied? Of course, this is all speculation in the case of the Pentateuch, since no such sources actually exist in any recognizable form. For the historical books of the Kings and Chronicles, there are references to other works that are cited. It is debated whether these refer to sources of which we now know nothing, or whether they refer to sources that are already in the canon. If the former, then the Lord did not consider it vital for us to have those sources, for in God’s providence, we don’t have them (notice the free use of “God” and “Lord” in the same sentence there). If the latter, then it is simply a biblical version of footnotes!
However, there remains another much more negative possibility, one which I consider more likely as a general explanation (of which there could, of course, be exceptions). It could be that source critics desire to eliminate final contexts of specific statements so that the final authority of a given text is eradicated. A text without a context is a pretext. There are several reasons why I consider this more likely. Firstly, source criticism does have the effect of atomizing texts, fragmenting them into thousands of tiny contextless pieces. Secondly, source critics almost never give the editor any credit for meaning anything. Usually some form of stupid redactor is implied. Thirdly, a very woodenly literal hermeneutic is applied in order to “see” the fractures. If, however, a different hermeneutic is employed, no fractures exist at all. Fourthly, source criticism comes almost entirely from a liberal set of assumptions: the non-inerrancy of Scripture, the cultural relativity (and therefore non-abiding nature of its authority) of Scripture, and the position of man as judge over Scripture instead of vice versa. Fifthly, it is quite suspicious that the more foundational a text is to Christian theology, the more likely it is to be shredded to pieces by the source critics. The prime examples are the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and the Synoptic Gospels.
It is important to note here that not all those of a liberal or moderately liberal persuasion are in favor of source criticism. There are a few Brevard Childses out there, who advocate studying the text in its final, canonical form. Also, in more recent years, rhetorical and literary criticism has become far more popular and influential (and far more productive, too, in my opinion, in the realm of theology). I had hoped that the Documentary Hypothesis was on the wane, even in liberal circles. But it is still quite alive and well, and even assumed in many liberal quarters. This author, at least, hopes that it dies soon.