Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology Considered Again

We will take as our starting point the following well-known quotation from Vos’s Biblical Theology:

The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much as Systematic Theology makes the material undergo a transformation. the sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical Theology this is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology it is of a logical nature. Each of these two is necessary, and there is no occasion for a sense of superiority in either. (Biblical Theology, p. 14).

What can plausibly be laid against this claim by Vos is that the Bible is more inherently historical than logical, and that therefore BT is a “better fit” than ST. Even if didactic portions of Scripture are acknowledged to be less historically organized than other portions (Proverbs comes to mind), the historical framework of the Bible still remains in place. What I wish to do is to answer this plausible objection.

Firstly, it is clear that certain portions of Scripture are less historically organized than others. Proverbs, for instance, is better organized topically than historically. It has been shown in some recent scholarship that Proverbs presupposes the historical covenants. Fair enough. I agree that Proverbs is not “secular” wisdom, but holy wisdom, however much certain parts of it might resemble Amenemope. However, the organization of the text itself is still better done topically. This means that making Proverbs undergo an historical transformation in order to fit BT categories would require a greater transformation than an ST treatment would.

What this means for the broader question is just this: BT might be a smaller transformation of historically organized texts than an ST treatment would represent. However, an ST treatment of other texts, like Proverbs, would represent a smaller transformation than BT would. In other words, genre differences are a factor in how much transformation a given text would undergo in BT or ST guise.

Secondly, ST is not somehow incapable of assimilating historical change into a logical locus. Surely, ST treats the locus of covenant theology with reference to the historical progression of the various iterations of the covenants! As Dr. Richard Gaffin once said, ST is like a plot analysis of a novel, and BT is like a plot summary. BT cannot ignore the logical relations entirely. Nor can ST ignore the historical progression of revelation. Each has to take the other into account. As a result, BT and ST must be completely interdependent, even while they can be distinguished.


Theocracy and Typology

Geerhardus Vos had an insight into the typological significance of the Old Testament theocracy that I would like to share and expand vis-a-vis the discussion of theonomy. Vos writes:

The significance of the unique organization of Israel can be rightly measured only by remembering that the theocracy typified nothing short of the perfected kingdom of god, the consummate state of Heaven. In this ideal state there will be no longer any place for the distinction between church and state. The former will have absorbed the latter. (Biblical Theology, p. 126).

While the critics of theonomy have correctly pointed out that the modern church and state are distinct, what they often fail to do is tie back in the significance of the theocracy for the future. In other words, the present state of distinction between church and state is a parenthesis. One day in the future, a perfect theocracy (with no possibility of the people’s apostasy) will come into being in its fully ineradicable, eschatologically perfect state.

More can be said, however, since Reformed theology has traditionally also seen a subordinate, imperfect typological relationship between theocratic Israel and the New Testament church. Which aspects of theocratic Israel carry over typologically into the church has been up for debate for many centuries. However, assuming that some sort of relationship along these lines is appropriately biblical, what we wind up with is a double typology: theocratic Israel points forward to the church, and points still further away to the consummated state.

One last point must be made: this typology only works with the person and work of Jesus Christ being the hinge on which all the typology turns. What turns the type into the anti-type? No mere human can do this. Only the God-man can do it. Both transitions from type to antitype hinge, then, on the first and second comings of Jesus Christ, respectively. The typology of theocratic Israel turning into antitypical church promises comes into existence at the first coming of Christ, while the greater typological turn into the new heavens and new earth happens at the second coming.

Confessional Presbyterian Journal, Volume 14

Why Feminism Is Opposed to the Bible

Not only outside the church, but also inside the church, feminism has made itself felt. In most circles, it has completely taken over. Indeed, there are few intellectual movements in history that have triumphed in so short a time so completely. Move over baseball. The national pastime is no longer baseball, but man-hating. Many feminists will object already and say, “That’s not what feminism is about. Feminism is about equality for women.” Undoubtedly, there are many feminists out there who genuinely care about equality. However, that is not what drives the anger of the feminist movement. Feminism got its steam from grievances concerning the way women have been treated for millennia. Men have supposedly systemically oppressed women, and now it’s time for payback. The traditional roles of women as wives and mothers running their households well came to be seen, particular by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan (two women largely credited with the founding of the modern feminist movement, and many women have followed them since in their opinions) as oppressive. They wanted freedom from that traditional role, freedom to take their place alongside men in the work force. They even went so far as to label traditional wife/mother roles as bad for women. Incidentally, this is why abortion is so important to the feminist worldview: abortion represents reproductive rights that free women from the traditional role as mother. With abortion, they can control their own destiny. Never mind that the women’s consciences are being sacrificed on the altar of a supposed reproductive freedom.

The Bible cuts across all of these feminist worldview standpoints. Contrary to the feminist revision of history, the Bible reports that the role of wife/mother at home is the natural place for her. Titus 2 is quite clear on this point. Of course, that doesn’t mean that women cannot work in the work force. Widows will naturally work. Single women will naturally work. But a growing amount of scholarship is recognizing (again, contrary to feminist theories), that it is not possible to have a full-time job and be a good mother (of small children particularly) at the same time, at least not in most cases. This creates a situation of extreme guilt: nature tells women to be good mothers and wives, and to embrace that life at home. Feminism tells them to discard those roles as inappropriate, or else try to juggle everything in the air at the same time. Then, because that is impossible, women get hammered with guilt from both directions. If they fail at being fully in the work place, then feminism blames them. If they fail at home, then nature and conscience assault them. Depression is quite common in these types of situations, and oftentimes women don’t even know why they feel so depressed.

The Bible reinforces the natural revelation inherent in human nature and in nature at large. Look at animals. In the animal kingdom, mothers nurture their children and stick to them like glue. Yes, they are protective, and yes they feed the children, which involves work on their part. No one ever said that staying at home was easy (that pesky sin problem makes everything difficult, doesn’t it?). They don’t usually stray very far from home. And to let another animal be a surrogate mother is quite rare. That only usually happens if the biological mother dies.

Situations are very complicated in life, and undoubtedly, I have written generalizations. I am writing in this post about the large trends, not the exceptions. The large trends show that the Bible is opposed to feminism. It is not opposed to women. Of course, the sooner that people realize that opposing feminism is not the same thing as opposing women or hating women, the better. Feminism does NOT speak for all women at all. In fact, some of the most militant and eloquent opponents of feminism I have ever seen are women (Janice Fiamengo, Christina Hoff Sommers, Phyllis Schlafly come to mind). These women are not opposed to equality of women. Some of them would even own the title “feminist.” They are, however, opposed to gender feminists, and the actual war against men that has been carried on for some time now.

Super Excited to See This…

I have been hoping that this commentary would get an update to reflect changing discussion on the NPP (and discussion that now attempt to move beyond that), as well as a maturer mind that now accepts imputation as a vitally important part of justification. That revision will be on the way shortly.

Well, That’s Your Interpretation…

Used to crush any attempt at the utmost hubris of audacity that someone might actually understand a text from the Bible, the real intent of this excuse is usually to evade the plain meaning of the text. I am reminded of a story that my father used to tell of Francis Schaeffer. He was having tea with a young man who kept on saying, “I do not think we are communicating.” Finally, Schaeffer, in some irritation, blasted out, “POUR ME SOME TEA!!” The young man, somewhat shell-shocked, said, “Okay, okay.” Thereupon Schaeffer said, “I think we are communicating.”

There is another, deeper problem with this excuse, however. In implying that the text of Scripture never has only one interpretation, the postmodern is actually imposing his own monolithic multi-valency on the text. To put it another way, is not the postmodern imposing just as much of a uniformity of interpretation on the text (by saying that every text is a wax nose) as the person who claims that there is only one correct interpretation? Furthermore, is not the postmodern claiming that there is only one correct interpretation of any biblical text (“the only correct interpretation of the biblical text is that there are always an almost infinite number of equally valid interpretations”) just as much as the person who does not claim multi-valency?

Fortunately, even most postmoderns have a bit more common sense than this, and do not try to argue for an infinite range of possible interpretations for every text. Even the postmodern does not usually try to interpret “You shall not murder” to mean “You shall murder.”

I have no wish to deny that there are difficult texts in Scripture that admit of more than one possible interpretation that fits the analogy of faith. The “spirits in prison” passage in 1 Peter 3 comes to mind. However, that is still a far cry from saying that all interpretations of the biblical text are equally valid. While there may be more than one possibility for interpreting 1 Peter 3, there is still only one correct interpretation, even if we may not be as certain as we would like which interpretation is the correct one.

The Tragedy of Misunderstanding

Great tragedy can result from misunderstanding. Most people can probably point to times in which other people have misunderstood what they said or did. However, we are still so, so confident that we know exactly what other people mean by their words or actions. Other people need to be careful, but we do not. Shouldn’t it rather be the other way around, in a sense? By that I mean (lest I be misunderstood!) that we should make every effort to be crystal clear in our own communication, and yet be very cautious about what other people say and do? Should we not make every effort to prevent misunderstanding by clarity in our own words? And yet shouldn’t we also be very generous (or at the very least patient!) in how we read other people’s actions and words? Yet we live today in a society that tends to encourage people to put the onus of responsibility on other people: it’s their fault for misunderstanding us, not our fault for being unclear. We tend to assume that our own words were clear, and that it is other people’s fault for misunderstanding.

The other problem we have is that postmodernism has put the location of meaning within the reader instead of the author, or at the very least unbalanced the relationship between reader and author. If past generations ignored the reader, today’s people almost ignore the author.

Should we not always ask this question: what don’t I know about what I just heard? Should we not always ask: what extenuating circumstances might there be? Should we not always ask: have I heard both sides of the story? I do not get the impression that very many people are asking these sorts of self-diagnostic questions about their own interpretive procedures. Could this be one component of why America is so very, very angry today? We hear one side of an issue, and we rush to a judgment. How about slowing down a bit and listening, especially listening hard to those people we don’t agree with? We might even want to listen MORE carefully, not less, to the people we “despise.” If we don’t, then we run the risk of letting our emotions cloud our judgment of what was even said, done, meant, etc. High emotions are not conducive to understanding. They aren’t bad, but if our goal is to understand, then they can get in the way if we are not careful. Of course, many people simply don’t want to listen anymore. That is the real tragedy of misunderstanding.

Lessing’s Ugly Ditch

G.E. Lessing (1729-1781) is famous for his “ugly ditch” that he drew between the events of the past and the present. We supposedly cannot have any certainty about whether events of the past occurred, because of the chronological distance between us and those events. The main implication of this for theology and philosophy is that, “accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason” (see Lessing’s Theological Writings, ed. H. Chadwick; London: Adam and Charles Black, 1956), 51-56, quoted in Murray Rae’s article, “Creation and Promise: Towards a Theology of History” in ‘Behind the Text’: History and Biblical Interpretation, edited by Craig Bartholomew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, 267-299, esp. p. 274). This would, of course, also rule out any kind of historical foundation for faith. If not even reason can be historically founded, then how much less faith and theology! There are several answers to this ugly ditch.

The first answer is that, on this argument, Lessing could never be sure that he had himself said these words, because the ugly ditch exists between the time of his writing those words and the time when he seeks to implement that position. Total skepticism about the past must inevitably result in skepticism of the skepticism.

Secondly, as Murray Rae points out, “May it not be that the contingent truths of history are reliably mediated to us through the faithful testimony of tradition?” (ibid.). In other words, can’t something fill in the ditch? Why does the ditch have to be complete discontinuity from the past to us? Isn’t there a trail of people and writings that connects us to the past?

Thirdly, again from Rae, having knowledge about a thing does not mean that we have to be absolutely certain about that thing. To require such a rigid absoluteness of certainty forgets that we are very limited creatures, and depend a great deal on other things and other people. We depend on testimony all the time.

Fourthly, Lessing’s formulation rules out revelation by definition. If, however, God did in fact reveal to us things that He has done in history, then God himself bridges the gap between the past and our own time with all the certitude that the Holy Spirit can give us.

On Confessing Specific Sins

I have heard many people confess sin in an exclusively generic way: “Lord, forgive me for my sins.” While it is certainly a good thing to acknowledge that there are sins that we have committed that we don’t know about directly, either because of our ignorance, or because of an underdeveloped conscience, or for some other reason; nevertheless, it is not healthy at all to confess this way all the time. Confessing specific sins to God comes with the following benefits (which can also be viewed as reasons to do so):

1. It helps develop our conscience. The work of the Holy Spirit is a gradual one in the Christian life. He sharpens our conscience, so that sins that we were committing unwittingly before become conscious later on. This process can have the incidental effect of tempting us to think that we are worse sinners later in the Christian life, when what is actually happening is that we are becoming more sensitive to our sin. Confessing our specific sins is integral to this process of discovery. We start to see the interconnected nature of our sins, and how one sin leads to another. Confessing only generically will actually deaden our consciences over time.

2. We develop a far more accurate picture of who we are in relationship to God and to other people. Confessing only in a general way tempts us to think that we are far better people than we actually are. There is an epidemic of self-satisfied Christians in the world, who might, on a theoretical level acknowledge that they are sinners, but who become extremely perturbed when told of a supposed actual sin that they might possibly have committed. Whereas, if we are confessing specific sins to God, we will not be so surprised to find out that other people have noticed some of our faults. Confessing only generically will grossly distort our own self-portrait.

3. Confessing specific sins helps us to empathize better with other Christians and with those whose consciences have been awakened to a realization of their sin. All Christians struggle with sin. All Christians fight the good fight. Isn’t that fight hard enough without other people constantly telling us how inadequate we are? Of course we are inadequate! If we were adequate, it would be because we were in heaven. But it seems clear enough that one of the reasons why some Christian lack empathy is because they rarely confess specific sins, and therefore think of themselves as only theoretical sinners, and not actual sinners, and thus better than their struggling church family members. In this way, point 3 connects very closely with point 2. Confessing only generic sin will result in a serious lack of empathy and love for other believers.

4. Confessing specific sins will sharpen our understanding of the law and its requirements, which will in turn hone our understanding of the gospel. The gospel cheapens in our minds when we think we have less need of salvation.

So, with all of this in mind, how do we confess specific sins better? For this, a study of God’s law is indispensable. We must understand the proper rubrics that WLC 99 so eloquently lay out: 1. that the Ten Commandments always lay out the most extreme form of the sin or duty in view. 2. that all sins of the same category are included under the most extreme form (as well as all sins which lead to the most extreme form); 3. that not only outward behavior, but also our inner thoughts are included; and 4. that where the law commands something, the opposite is forbidden, and vice versa; as well as that if something is promised, then the opposite is threatened, and vice versa. It is only as we understand the perfection that the law demands that our consciences will become more adept at self-judgment.

However, a growing understanding of the gospel is also essential, because if we forget the gospel with regard to the confession of sins, then we will simply lose all desire to confess our sins. We will forget the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, and we will therefore think that it is better to live with the burden than to try to rid ourselves of it through Christ. The gospel is the promise of the clean slate, due to Christ’s blood and righteousness, and the promise that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

Thoughts on the Revoice Conference

There are lots of places a reader can go to get information on the Revoice Conference, to be held in St. Louis at a PCA church in late July. The conference website is available here. Rick Phillips’s opinion, Denny Burk’s opinion, Kevin DeYoung’s opinion, Al Baker’s opinion, Greg Johnson’s response to Al Baker, Chuck Williams’s opinion, Robert Gagnon’s opinion, and and a lengthy PB thread including more links to more articles should give readers a basic perspective on what’s happening.

I want to point out a couple of things, mostly in summary of things that have already been said. As Rick Phillips pointed out, there is no need to get hysterical over the conference. I have no doubt that many good and helpful things will be said. I also have no doubt that the intention of the conference is to promote biblical understandings of sexuality. They have said that their purpose is to uphold an orthodox Christian biblical ethic of sexuality. We should believe that.

However, questions remain, most especially about terms and phrases. I have grave concerns over some of the descriptions of some of the workshops, concerns that overlap with what has been said by others. I agree with Kevin DeYoung, for instance, that the phrase “sexual minority” implies something that is not very helpful. Robert Gagnon unpacks that a good bit in his post: by putting homosexuality in the same category as racial minorities, the term can leverage the same amount of emotional reaction against opponents of the LGBTQ agenda as it can against those who are deemed racist, whereas racism and LGTBQ are not even the same kind of issue. What race someone is born into is a genetic and providential thing controlled by God, having precisely zero moral agency involved with the person in question. Homosexual desires are not genetic, and are the result of choice and lifestyle. I agree with Rick Phillips that the desire for same-sex relationship is in itself sinful, not just the acting out of those desires. Therefore, since words can convey identity, I agree that this is an identity issue, and that some of these terms are being used in ways that make those of us versed in the biblical narratives and commandments very uncomfortable. They are being used in ways that incorporate LGBTQ in the very identity of the person. For Christians, this is not an option.

As several of the authors have noted, identifying oneself as gay or lesbian has serious consequences. Rather than saying, for instance, that a person is a Christian struggling with same-sex attraction (which is my preferred way for such people to describe themselves, acknowledging that it is a war against ungodly desires), to say that a person is a gay Christian is to affirm that their gay identity is just as important to them as their Christianity is, or that it is just as irrevocable as their Christianity is. This is just as problematic as saying that a person is a Christian adulterer, or a Christian pedophile, or a Christian rapist. It implies compatibility between Christianity and sin. It implies that Christianity and sin can work together to accomplish some great treasure that will last for all eternity. The simple answer is no, and whether people believe it or not, that is actually the most loving thing a Christian can say to the LGBTQ community. How can we encourage people along a path that is so self-destructive?

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