Quote of the Week

Today, we hear from C.J. Wright, who wrote a treatise in 1950 entitled Jesus the Revelation of God. He writes:

[T]here are types of so-called religious apologetic, which, distrusting the intrinsic claims of religion itself, seek to put in its place ‘external evidences’ and ‘institutional safeguards.’ How can light convince us that it is light except by what it does for us? We do not demonstrate that light is light by treatises, or by analyses of its constituent rays. It is only light to us when it illumines and quickens us…Anyone can, to his own satisfaction, confute the claim which Beauty makes, by saying, I do not see it; or the claim inherent in Goodness, by saying, I do not hear it; or the self-evidencing nature of Truth, by saying, I do not know it. But man does not create Goodness, or Truth, or Beauty; and to say that he cannot see them is to condemn himself, not them (quoted from Morris’s commentary on John, p. 390, fn. 13).

I would be very much interested in hearing whether you think Wright has overstated the case or not.

The 144,000 and the Great Multitude

I would like, in this post, to look at Revelation 7, particularly at the two groups mentioned: the 144,000 and the great multitude. Many, if not most, Reformed commentators (see Beale especially) have argued that these are the same groups of people. It must be admitted from the start that this is a very respectable position with a long pedigree. Nor can the difference between a numbered group and an innumerable group be attested in support of the position that there are two different groups.

The number 144,000 is a symbolic number. This is obvious from several facts. That God would only seal some and not others implies two distinct classes of Christians, something which the rest of the New Testament takes quite some pains to deny. Whatever group the 144,000 represents, it cannot be only part of a group of Christians.

Incidentally, as the commentator Wilmshurst (in the Welwyn series) points out, the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation makes this mistake and several others. The JW interpretation states that the 144,000 is a literal group of people that are to be in heaven around the throne room of God, and that the rest of the “good” people will have a decent life here on earth. Both groups are interpreted eschatologically in JW theology. However, the text makes it quite explicit that it is the great multitude who are around the throne of God in heaven, whereas the 144,000 are sealed here on earth to prevent them from receiving ultimate harm from the seals (see the flow of context from chapter 6). So the JW’s get the location of each group wrong. They also interpret the number literally, when it should be interpreted symbolically as 12 X 12 X 1000 (possibly the OT saints plus the NT saints times the number of perfection, implying the entirety).

We are more on the right track when we remember that census numbers were usually taken for military purposes. The 144,000 is a fighting group of people. This is confirmed when we look at chapter 14, the other time the 144,000 make their appearance. They were those who had not defiled themselves with women. Again, this is usually interpreted differently to point to their spiritual purity (and, no doubt, that is included). However, while fighting, Israelite men were to keep themselves from women. The indications are that the 144,000 is a fighting group.

However, they are not Israelites, contrary to the appearances of verses 5-8. For one thing, there wasn’t a Northern kingdom at the time John was writing. Secondly, the order of names is very curious (including Joseph and Manassah, but not Ephraim, and completely excluding Dan; as well as putting Judah first, and the sons of the concubines are fronted over some of the other sons of Leah, which would seem to indicate Gentile inclusion, as several commentators note). The only other group they could be is the church.

The innumerable multitude are standing around the throne room (and hence do not need the seal, since they are already safe). They hold palm fronds (v. 9), which is a symbol of military victory. They have their white robes that have been washed in the blood of the Lamb (v. 13). They are out of the tribulation (v. 14).

The upshot of the whole here is to point to the logical conclusion: the 144,000 symbolizes the church militant; and the innumerable multitude symbolizes the church triumphant. This avoids the problem of seeing the 144,000 as part of a group (in the sense that the entire church militant is sealed, not part of it: I am not advocating a denial of the distinction between the church militant and the church triumphant). The indications of the military nature of the 144,000 are given full scope, as well as the triumphant nature of the innumerable multitude. This is roughly the same conclusion to which Dennis Johnson arrives, although I have fleshed out the arguments a bit more than he did.

John 1:15-18

15-16. Hutcheson argues that this passage (through verse 18 actually) tells us of the magnificence of Christ; that He has more magnificence than John (15), believers (16), Moses (17), and all men (18). Godet says that v. 16 is grace, v. 18 is truth, and v. 17 connects grace to truth.

15. Morris notes that “People were humble about their own generation and really thought that their fathers were wiser than they—incredible as this may sound to our generation.” John therefore indicates here a reversal of the normal pattern. The word “testifies” is in present tense, indicating that this doctrine is still in full force (Calvin). Ryle notes that it was John’s habitual testimony. Lenski calls this verse a riddle (not in the sense of incomprehensible, but in the sense of the form of a riddle). “The one who came after me has stepped ahead of me” (Augustine). Beasley-Murray notes that the status accords with priority in time. John understood Christ’s pre-existence. Some people tend to think ill of John’s level of knowledge, but John did know this (Ryle). Plainly the last clause of the riddle explicitly states the pre-existence of Christ. Christ is both before and after John, and therefore ranks higher than John.

16. Is John the Baptist still speaking, or is this John the evangelist? Who is the “we?” Probably the congregation (Bultmann).The “all” hints at the infinite resources (Morris). On the phrase “Grace for grace,” does John mean NT vs. OT, or grace piled on top of grace? Given verse 17, the former is more likely, as long as vs 17 is not understood in an adversarial way. Actually, both could be understood together. Keddie says that the grace acts “Like waves of the sea.” Kostenberger notes “It is as though, when the incarnation finally arrived, full of covenant love, the OT stood up and cheered.”

17-18. The connection of the two verses is well stated by Augustine: “And in case anyone should say, ‘Did not both grace and truth come about through Moses, who saw God?’ he immediately added, no one has ever seen God.” Moses did not have the law in and of himself, but Jesus does have grace and truth in and of Himself (Bengel).

17. Notice the contrast between “given” and “came” (Tasker). Carson says that there is nothing in this verse that requires antithesis. Schnackenburg notes the eschatological character of salvation pointed out in this verse. The revelation of Christ surpassed that of Moses because Moses did not really see God. Only Jesus has seen God (Kruse).

18. The first phrase of this verse “denies that God is directly accessible to men. At the same time it assumes that it is natural for man to wish to see God and to be able to approach him” (Bultmann). Only God can reveal God (Lindars). On the “bosom” of the Father: “So intimately close to the Father that He is reliably informed about the decisions of His Father’s heart” (Luther). Bultmann says it this way: “it stresses the absoluteness and sufficiency of the revelation, because the Revealer as the Son of the divine love stands in perfect communion with the Father.” Note the word “exegesato.” It means “narration” or “exegesis.” Jesus is the “exegesis” of the Father. He explains the Father to us.

A Biblical Theology of Clothing | The Christward Collective

A Biblical Theology of Clothing | The Christward Collective.

My friend Nick Batzig doing biblical theology right. Enjoy the feast.

Quote of the Week

Today we hear from Berkhof on theistic evolution, timely in today’s current theological climate.

Other evolutionists advocate what they call theistic evolution. This postulates the existence of God back of the universe, who works in it, as a rule according to the unalterable laws of nature and by physical forces only, but in some cases by direct miraculous intervention, as, for instance, in the case of the absolute beginning, the beginning of life, and the beginning of rational and moral existence. This has often been called derisively a “stop-gap” theory. It is really a child of embarrassment, which calls God in at periodic intervals to help nature over the chasms that yawn at her feet. It is neither the Biblical doctrine of creation, nor a consistent theory of evolution, for evolution is defined as “a series of gradual progressive changes effected by means of resident forces” (Le Conte, emphasis Berkhof’s). In fact, theistic evolution is a contradiction in terms. It is just as destructive of faith in the Biblical doctrine of creation as naturalistic evolution is (emphasis added); and by calling in the creative activity of God time and again it also nullifies the evolutionary hypothesis (Systematic Theology, pp. 139-140).

Vos on Creation

It is indeed wonderful to have available to us for the first time Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics. Vos is often co-opted (and misinterpreted!) by people who love biblical theology, but hate systematic theology. Unfortunately for them, Vos does not go along with them. It is starting to become better known (now that his Reformed Dogmatics is being published) that Vos taught systematic theology at Calvin Seminary before he went to Princeton to teach biblical theology. Does his Reformed Dogmatics give any ground to those who despise systematic theology in our day? Not an inch.

Vos would also be extremely uncomfortable to those (often the same people!) who want to relegate Genesis 1-2 to the realm of myth. The idea that these chapters are myth is not a new idea. It was around in Vos’s time. Here is what Vos says about the genre of Genesis 1-2:

How many kinds of interpretation are there of Genesis 1 and 2? Mainly three: the allegorical, the mythical and the historical. The first two views, however, are untenable because within the narrative of Scripture the creation narrative is interwoven like a link in the chain of God’s saving acts. God does not make a chain of solid gold, in which the first link is a floral wreath. If the creation history is an allegory, then the narrative concerning the fall and everything further that follows can also be allegory. The writer of the Pentateuch presents his work entirely as history (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 161).

Fancy that: the father of Reformed biblical theology (and who was the greatest precisely because of, and not in spite of, his unified encyclopedia) rejecting the mythical interpretation of Genesis! May those who are motivated by the desire to look respectable in the world of academia take note that Vos was not afraid of what others might say, and he feared God rather than men.

Quotation of the Week

This week we hear from Douglas Kelly, who is commenting on Revelation 6:9-11, the fifth seal wherein the martyred saints under the altar cry out to God, “How long, O Lord?” Kelly says,

Once the saints have been martyred, they do not lose their effectiveness in changing the course of world history…To rid themselves of the testimony of these believers, who were showing up the darkness of the evil works of sinners by their humble and holy lives, the world system said, ‘Let’s dispatch them. Then we shall be rid of their annoying influence, and our lives will no longer be disturbed by their Christian testimony.’ But look at what actually has happened: they have only dispatched them to a place of tremendous authority that they can now exercise near their heavenly father’s heart in heaven, as they are praying. (commentary on Revelation, p. 125-6).

This is a very interesting idea, and one that I have not really thought of before. One is reminded a little bit of what Obi Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader during their battle near the end of Star Wars that if Darth strikes him down, he will only become more powerful than he was before. If the world powers were smart about this, they would not martyr Christians for their faith, since they only help the Christian cause in the world through doing so. However, world powers have never been smart about this. In fact, they seem intent on killing as many Christians as they can. It is no coincidence that the greatest and fastest growth of the Christian church is happening hand in hand with the greatest number of martyrdoms the world has ever seen. Instead, if the powers that be want Christianity to die out, they should lure Christianity into the regions of comfort and sensuality, like what is happening in the West.

Quo Vadis?

In this new series of posts, I will look at where the PCA has been in the past, and then seek to show where we are headed in the future. I will be taking as my baseline the volume of Position Papers edited by Paul Gilchrist. The volume covers the years 1973-1998.

The first entry is in some ways the most important. It is “A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the World From the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church.” For those who don’t know, the PCA was originally called the National Presbyterian Church, but quickly changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in America.

The first main point the letter makes is that separation had become necessary. This is not something they rejoiced over, but rather mourned (“with great sorrow and mourning,” p. 7).

Secondly, it says that the basis for the authority of the Church is nothing other than the Bible. A standard statement of the Bible’s inerrancy follows. The view of the Bible they had was fundamental to all the other issues (see p. 8).

Then the letter states something very important about change. Change comes gradually, and it should not be permitted: “Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated” (p. 8). Notice the accent on confessionalism. It is highlighted even more clearly on the following page: “We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” (p. 9), and then again on p. 10 (quoting the earlier “Address to All Churches”): “We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian.”

Since the changes came to the PCUS, and those changes were not disciplined, the letter states this: “When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority. In order to proclaim the truth and to practice the discipline which they believe obedience to Christ requires, it then becomes necessary for them to separate. This is the exercise of discipline in reverse. It is how we view our separation” (p. 8).

The last major point the letter makes is that the church must be faithful to the Great Commission if it can expect the Lord Jesus Christ to be present with her.

Some reflections on this letter are in order. The first thing that struck me was the very strong emphasis on confessional Presbyterianism. Indeed, it was because the PCUS was NOT being confessional that the PCA (then NPC) emphasized it so much. This contrasts sharply with some recent attempts to downplay the confessional moorings of our forefathers.

Secondly, the entire paragraph quoted from page 8 on discipline and tolerating error creeped me out a bit, since it feels like confessional Presbyterians in the PCA are in a very similar position. I wonder if the surviving fathers of our denomination could ever imagine that the same thing that happened then is happening now. I heard from someone a while back that even at the founding, someone had predicted that we would get about 40 good years, and lo and behold, a prophet!

How to Reconcile the Immutability of God with “Repent” Passages

On the one hand, we have passages that tell us that God does not change (James 1:17, Malachi 3:6, Numbers 23:19, and Hebrews 13:8. These are quite clear: God does not change. God does not move on to plan B. God is not “open” in this sense to the future. Since these are the clearer passages, we should start with these, and not with the passages that are less clear, like the repentance passages. Going from the clear to the unclear is what the orthodox do. Going from the unclear to the clear (and imposing thereby their own pre-conceptions on to the texts) is what heretics do. This is the error of the open theists (read Socinians!).

So, if these passages are that clear, then what do we make of passages like Genesis 6, where God “repents” of making humanity? Is this a contradiction with the above set of passages? The answer is no. It doesn’t contradict at all. There is not even any paradox involved. What happens is this: God is utterly consistent in His treatment of human beings, depending on their state and their relationship to Him! Those who are God’s children and have a relationship to Him of child to Father (through adoption) can expect to be treated in a very consistent way. This would be a way that includes discipline, for the Lord disciplines those He loves. However, the Lord will never again treat His child the way a judge treats the defendant.

Similarly, those who are not in a right relationship with God can always expect Him to treat them as a judge treats the guilty defendant. God is long-suffering, and so sometimes that judgment takes a while. Nevertheless, the judgment will come. In other words, what changed in Genesis 6 was humanity, not God. It kept on changing for the worse (see verse 5). When that happens, the relationship changes, and God is always consistent in His treatment of people based on the state of that relationship.

The idea of covenant is heavily involved here. The first category of people we described above are members of the covenant of grace, and will always receive consistent covenant-of-grace treatment. Those not in that covenant are still condemned under the covenant of works, and thus, the more evil they do, the closer to judgment they get.

To sum up here, God does not change. He is always consistent with His character, and always treats people based on the state of the relationship that person has with God, a relationship that is covenantally determined.

One other thing must be mentioned here, and that is the “relenting” of the prophetic literature. Take the case of Jonah, for instance. After Jonah’s rebellion, he goes into Nineveh and preaches the world’s shortest sermon, (“40 days, and you’re toast”). The people repent and God relents. What is going on here? Take note of the 40 days. Why give Nineveh 40 days? Why not just say that it’s going to happen tomorrow? Because, built into every single judgment oracle in the OT, is the understood condition that if the people repent (i.e., their relationship with God changes!), the judgment will either be delayed or eliminated. So the relationship change works in reverse, too. If the relationship changes for the worse, God brings judgment. If it changes for the better, God holds off on judgment. God is rigidly consistent in this! In other words, God does not change, man does.

Narcissism in Ministry

I have been doing a little bit of reading on narcissism recently for various reasons, including a realization that I have some characteristics of this mental condition. There are many ways of defining narcissism, but probably the easiest way to define it is to remember the ancient myth from which the condition gets its name: Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the pool. Words like “ingrown,” “egotistical,” “selfishness” will readily come to mind in defining this condition. Being wrapped up in oneself might be the best single description we could use. Another definition I have seen goes something like this: the primary characteristic of narcissism is an inappropriate lack of boundaries between the narcissist and the other person, whom he will attempt to use in some way. The narcissist sees the other person as an extension of himself. So, the other person exists to fulfill the narcissist’s needs.

One of the things that has been interesting in the literature so far is that the authors I have read agree that our culture encourages narcissism. It is a respectable sin. We give huge amounts of both criticism and idol-worship to the rich and famous, and both of these things encourage narcissism. The fact of the matter is that pastors get this at both ends as well. We have people who love to encourage us, and we have people who love to criticize us. It is just as easy to get self-complacent with the adulation as it is to get defensive about the criticism. Without the grace of God, pastors will VERY often allow this two-pronged engine to drive us into full pathological narcissism. The ministry is all about the minister at that point. The minister usurps the place of Jesus Christ. He becomes the personal lord and savior of his flock. You know that your minister has a big problem with this if he both flares up at the criticism and practically fawns over those people who praise him. What is interesting about this mental condition is that the situation is usually encouraged, while the word describing the situation is feared.

However, it can actually be a relief to know that there is a name for this kind of malady. A lot of people cringe mightily when they hear the term “narcissism.” However, the term (in the literature) is used to describe a range of symptoms. Some people, like myself, have some but not all of the symptoms. It might therefore be more accurate to say that such a person has narcissistic tendencies.

For the pastor who has this, the hardest part is admitting it. Once it is admitted, however, in a very real sense, half the battle is over. Most pastors know from counseling others what needs to happen for people to become less wrapped up in themselves: things like attending the means of grace, service to others, evangelism, and simply making up one’s mind that they will be interested in other people’s lives for the sake of the other person, and not for what he can get out of it.

How do you know if you or someone you know is a narcissist? Here are some clues. 1. The person cannot receive criticism of any kind, no matter how gently phrased. Typically, the narcissist will turn the criticism back on the person offering it. The narcissist gets so good at this kind of deflection that the one trying to offer criticism will be made to feel extremely guilty. 2. The narcissist turns every conversation into something about himself. 3. The narcissist cannot converse on topics that do not immediately interest him. 4. The narcissist cannot understand why anyone cannot drop everything and do something for him.

What can a congregation do if their pastor is a narcissist? First of all, and most importantly, pray, pray, and pray some more. Constantly keep your pastor in prayer, especially about this issue, if it is known that he has a problem with it. Secondly, be very careful about how criticism and praise come to the pastor. Encouragement is very important to a pastor, so we cannot go to a position where the congregation decides it will never encourage the pastor, lest he “get a big head.” The Bible itself commands us to encourage and pray for our church leaders. So, this is not an option. The question is this: how do we do this in a way that will both build him up and not feed the narcissism? My suggestion is this: phrase the encouragement in terms of praising the Lord for how He has used the pastor instrumentally. That way the pastor knows that his labor is not in vain, but he is also reminded that God provides the growth and gets the glory. Start the sentence by saying, “The Lord has been using you to…”

Criticism can feed narcissism just as thoroughly as inordinate praise can. There will be times when a pastor needs to be brought up short. However, there is a way to do this and a way not to do this. Most of the time, when a criticism comes the way of the pastor, the congregant simply lashes out without any kind of thinking whatsoever. They are angry and upset, and so they just blast the pastor. The congregant needs to make a distinction in his mind between two things. Firstly, is the hurt caused by a difference in perspective about what the ministry is about? Or is it caused by a genuine offense? These are two very different things. No congregant should ever blast the pastor because they see ministry differently. Instead, they should take up the difference of perspective in a calm, reasonable conversation about it. If the hurt is caused by a genuine offense, then the proper course is to tell the pastor in as calm a voice as possible, what the particular action (or lack thereof) made them feel. Do not turn the pastor’s offense into an offense right back at him. This is done so often these days. The offended person escalates the conflict because they want to make the offender hurt as much as they do. The goal of talking about it is reconciliation. Nothing is accomplished by lashing back. Nothing is gained by attacking the personal character of the pastor because of just one offense. Remember to aim with a rifle, not a shotgun. Concentrate on the one issue at hand, and do not ever broaden the scope of the discussion beyond the one single issue. Oftentimes, when a congregant has a problem, they “pile on.” Everything they dislike about their minister comes out in one unhealthy deluge. This is not healthy, and will usually put a pastor on the defensive, which is best avoided at all costs, especially if the pastor is tempted to narcissism.

I believe that this issue is under-addressed in seminaries, and is certainly under-addressed by Christian authors. I did not find a single Christian book on narcissism. They are all written by secular psychologists. This is a very intriguing fact to me. Can it be that narcissism is so much winked at in our society (and even encouraged!) that the Christian church does not even see it as a problem? I believe, on the contrary, that it is a far more widespread problem than any of us imagine.

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