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?

On the “And’s”

For most translations that lie within the genealogy of the KJV (which would include the KJV, the RV/ASV, RSV, NKJV, NRSV, and ESV), the normal translation practice is to translate the Hebrew vav and Greek de and kai with the English word “and.” It was thought that the English “and” was the closest equivalent to those connectives. This has resulted in less than felicitous translation choices, the absolute worst being the ESV’s use of “and” at the beginning of the second table of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5. It reads:

You shall not murder. And you shall not commit adultery. And you shall not steal. And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s (emphasis added).

This is quite simply hideous English. Any English teacher will state unequivocally that starting consecutive sentences with conjunctions (especially the same one!) is not good English style. For some reason, however, the ESV translators and English style specialists believed that the practice was fine when it came to translation.

The problem is this: Hebrew vav and Greek de and kai have a far more flexible range of meaning and application than English “and.” We usually reserve the English conjunction for joining together two specific thoughts. However, the Hebrew and Greek conjunctions often say no more than, “I’m continuing the narrative.” Printing in paragraph form is often quite adequate for Hebrew narrative vav’s. What I could wish for earnestly is a new revision of the ESV that takes this difference between English and Hebrew/Greek into account.

New Book on Theistic Evolution

This book looks to be the definitive critique of theistic evolution. It is a massive tome, weighing in at just over 1 kilopage. It looks exciting for those of us who have been waiting for a more or less thorough critique of theistic evolution, which has begun to invade even the more conservative NAPARC denominations. The critique comes from scientific, philosophical, and theological directions. And it is on sale right now at 50% off!

The Covenant of Works in Isaiah 24

I used to think that Hosea 6:7 was the clearest passage outside of Genesis 2-3 describing the covenant of works as a covenant (hereafter CoW). However, I no longer think that is the case. Isaiah 24 now takes pride of place. For one thing, although I believe Warfield’s arguments on Hosea 6:7 are correct, it is still a disputed passage with more than one possible interpretation. I do not believe there is nearly as much wiggle room in Isaiah 24.

The key verse here is verse 5: “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (ESV). The question is simple: what is the identity of the בְּרִית עוֹלָם, the “eternal covenant”? Well, it cannot be the Abrahamic covenant, or the Mosaic covenant, since the scope of the people involved goes well beyond Israel. This is proven in the context by the repeated references to the earth in verses 1-4, capped by a reference to the תֵּבֵל (world). The use of this term in 1 Samuel 2:8 certainly points in a universalizing direction. While one could argue that the nations are involved somewhat in the Abrahamic (“all the nations of the world will be blessed through you”), this does not make the nations of the world direct parties to the Abrahamic covenant.

The only other universal covenant in the OT besides the CoW is the Noahic covenant. However, this possibility is ruled out by the presence of sanctions in verses 2 and especially 6. There are no sanctions in the Noahic covenant whatsoever. The only other possible reference, then, is to the Adamic situation. This has some very important ramifications.

Firstly, John Murray’s misgivings about the terminology of the CoW can now be put finally to rest. The Adamic administration is a covenant. Period. If it isn’t already clear in Hosea 6:7, it is now abundantly clear in Isaiah 24. Secondly, just because Adam and Eve broke the CoW doesn’t mean that the CoW is now somehow defunct. Surely, this is explicit in the use of עוֹלָם to describe the covenant: it is eternal. The sanctions are still being applied, and the nations are still violating the CoW. Thirdly, the CoW cannot be purely a covenant of grace if the sanctions fall on the earth because of the violations (and this is the implication of the move from verse 5 to verse 6). Obedience -> blessing; disobedience -> cursing. This is the very structure of the CoW. Fourthly, the terms of the CoW are here obviously so much more than refraining from eating an apple. The nations are not punished here for eating an apple. It is assumed that the basis for a just society on earth is tightly related to the terms of the CoW. This might relieve the misgivings of those who claim that Adam and Eve got more punishment than they deserved. For Adam and Eve had far more sin going on than merely eating a forbidden fruit.

What do you do with your guilt?

Lots of people have been raised on guilt like it was their bread and butter. If they didn’t measure up in any way, guilt! If they transgressed in any way (whether the Bible defined it or the parents defined it didn’t always matter), guilt! Guilt was made to seem like the way of the Christian. If you weren’t feeling guilt, then you wouldn’t stay in line. Guilt was the fence to keep people from going crazy.

This guilt came from fear, because Christian homes were afraid of the world out there, and the hedonism it advocated. They felt that they needed to erect barriers against the world’s influence. Guilt is a powerful weapon in the hands of scared parents. Of course, since many parents never told their children what to do with the guilt (since, if they did, they would lose their best weapon, and the children would go berserk!), the children learned to find ways to cope. Unfortunately, these ways of coping did not take away the feeling of guilt.

The various ineffective ways of dealing with guilt include distraction (food, entertainment, fun events, idealistic crusades, feverish workaholism), self-atonement (making oneself feel really bad, and even guiltier than before, even wallowing in it, so that one can atone a bit and feel a bit less guilty afterward), projection (if I make everyone around me feel guilty, then I will feel less guilty: one suspects this the real origin of the “Jewish mother” caricature), and ignoring it (this never works very well even temporarily).

Feelings of guilt can come from two sources, and these two sources must be handled quite differently. 1. Feelings of guilt can come from actual sin. There is only one way to deal with this kind of guilty feeling: take it all to the cross, to Jesus. Burdens are lifted at Calvary, as the hymn says. However, some people have a proud streak in them, and they won’t let go of their guilt feelings even if their actual guilt before God is gone. Here is it vitally important to make a distinction between actual guilt and feelings of guilt. After all, it is possible to feel guilty even when one has done nothing wrong. It is also possible, through a seared conscience, not to feel guilty even if one has actually sinned. If a person is not letting go of their guilt even after taking it all to Jesus and repenting, then the theological point must be made: this is pride speaking. The person is saying that Jesus’ blood isn’t really good enough to cover all my sins. I need to “double atone” by feeling guilty, even after I read that Jesus has forgiven me. This is a deep theological problem, which can only be answered by stressing the divinity of Christ, and hence the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice.

2. The second source of feelings of guilt arise out of things that are not sins, but which the person has been duped into thinking are sins. These would be man-made additions to God’s law. The answer is different: education must take place about what God actually requires and what He doesn’t. Here we can think easily of the questions of alcohol, smoking, and other things that fall within the realm of Christian liberty. Of course, Christian liberty is always bounded in these matters by the weaker brother: we never want to make someone else stumble. However, and teetotallers seem to be especially prone to instigating this, we can easily be made to feel guilty by someone who believes in “not a drop.”

The million dollar question that remains is this: if we were to shed all this extra, unneeded guilt, how in the world will we stay in line? Several things need to be said here. Firstly, guilt does not keep people in line! If a person feels guilty, they are most likely to think, “Well, since I’ve already done this, what’s a little more sin?” They are not likely to think that they do not want to become more guilty. Secondly, the cross of Christ has resources not just for forgiveness and the removal of guilt, but also the removal of sin’s power in our lives. we have the Holy Spirit! Remember our theology: justification never happens without sanctification coming along for the ride! Actually, what we need to know is that the beautiful feeling of a clean slate is much more motivating to holiness than guilt is. For then we can plug into the gratitude that we know when we are forgiven. We then have a good thing: we wouldn’t want to damage it. This is a far more effective way of dealing with guilt than the ineffective ones listed above.

Expository Preaching and Redemptive-Historical Models

A generally helpful post on what expository preaching is not led me to think particularly about redemptive-historical models. His seventh “busted myth” runs like this (quoted in full):

Expository preaching is not always historically-redemptive preaching. Biblical preaching proclaims the Person and Work of Christ. It also explains what the text means by what it says. Surveying the history of redemption may present the gospel and protect the sermon from moralism. But faithful preaching does not ignore the historical and literary setting of the text. 1 Samuel 16 is not primarily about how Christ slays the giant of sin for us. It is about how God helped David defeat Goliath to introduce the young shepherd as the newly-anointed king. We must preach the former without neglecting the latter.

The problem here is one of definition. Some, like myself, would see the the first two sentences as a contradiction. If we are to preach the person and work of Christ from the Old Testament, how can we possibly do that without historically-redemptive preaching? Other models would be closer to pure allegory. But the problem here is one of definition. If, by “historically-redemptive” (I usually reverse the terms to read “redemptive-historical”), we mean that the preacher stays inside the history of redemption, and never applies the text, then that isn’t preaching at all, but rather a lecture. If we mean an A.W. Pink-ish tendency to find Christ under every rock and cranny, that is not helpful, either (though some of Pink’s ties to Christ work quite well; we shouldn’t throw out the redemptive-historical baby with the allegorical bathwater!). If, however, we mean that every sermon on an Old Testament text takes into account the fact that the entire Old Testament is about Jesus Christ, and gives us a history that culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ, then all Old Testament preaching (and NT too, for that matter!) must be redemptive-historical. One of the most crying needs in our day and age is to put the Bible together for the person in the pew. How does it all fit together? So it depends on what Mr. Charles defines as “historically-redemptive” as to whether good expository preaching is or is not historically-redemptive.

Synchronic Versus Diachronic

One of the biggest debates in biblical scholarship today is the debate between synchronic and diachronic methodologies. Synchronic approaches read the text in its final, completed form. That is the only form that really matters, because it is the canonical form. It is called “synchronic” because it reads all parts of a given book of Scripture simultaneously, or synchronously. Diachronic approaches are determined to search out possible development of the text from earlier to later versions, hoping that this will cast light on the meaning of the text. The Documentary Hypothesis of JEDP (popularized by Julius Wellhausen) is a good (and famous) example of diachronic analysis.

Most Christians will not care very much about this distinction. However, what they don’t know could hurt them. It is important at this point to stress that not all diachronic approaches undermine the canonicity of a book. Consider, for instance, Kings and Chronicles, both of which are anonymous to us. We do not know who wrote them. It is theoretically conceivable that God could (through the Holy Spirit) have inspired a process of a developing book. Not every book of the canon need have been written all at one sitting. However, there is a great danger to the diachronic methods: atomization of the text. Context must be defined synchronically, since this is how God has providentially preserved His text. Diachronic methods often wind up destroying that context in favor of a completely different context. Furthermore, these methods are highly speculative and subjective. They rely on supposed stylistic differences to find “seams.” The problem with all stylistic arguments is that we do not have a large enough sample size, either in OT or NT, to determine different styles to such a nicety that we can base entire theories on them. Some stylistic differences are visible in the Bible. One can tell the difference between Paul and John, for instance. However, this has limited usefulness, because all the writers of the Bible could have written in a different style than the one they are known for, unless we want to posit the “stupid original writer hypothesis” (SOWH), whereby biblical writers are artificially limited to one and only one style.

In the Pentateuch, it seems important, biblically, to be able to say that Moses wrote it. That being said, we can ask the question of the last chapter of Deuteronomy. Is it possible that Moses wrote the account of his own death? Certainly it is possible. God could have revealed to Moses what would happen after his death. This is hardly difficult. However, isn’t it more likely that Joshua, also writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, added a final chapter to Deuteronomy? It is like Frodo and the red book, telling Sam that there is room for a little more, and leaving it to Sam to finish. It is also possible that there are minor editorial additions (in order to address a new context of living in the promised land) in the Pentateuch that Joshua could have added by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This would not preclude us saying that Moses is still the author of the Pentateuch. But it is possible that it is slightly edited. This should not cause concern among us. There is a difference between saying something like this versus something like the JEDP hypothesis, which essentially denies to Moses any hand in creating the Pentateuch. They will often answer that it is not necessary to affirm Mosaic authorship, since Moses is the main character of the Pentateuch, then we can say it is the book about Moses. This would not, however, seem to square with Jesus’ confident assertion in John 5 that Moses wrote about Him (Jesus). Surely a straightforward reading of John 5 would come up with Jesus making a claim that Moses did the writing. There is no evidence that Jesus is speaking metaphorically or symbolically. He is speaking of typology, but that is something else entirely.

A growing number of scholars believe that there need be no opposition between synchronic and diachronic approaches. In fact, some believe that the diachronic approach can help us appreciate the final synchronic reading better. Perhaps. I have read several authors who claim this, but are unconvincing so far. Separating out layers of a text is still going to run counter to seeing the final form as the ultimate context in which we read any given part.

Where I think we need to be as Christians on this matter is two-fold. On the one hand, we need not have as rigid a view as is sometimes held. Some people think that saying any word of the Pentateuch was written by someone other than Moses is heretical liberalism. Editing has been going on for thousands of years. Are we seriously going to suggest that God could not use it or inspire it? We can say that if there is any editing in Scripture, that editing happened by inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to address a new state of affairs. On the other hand, I think we need to reject the more radical, subjective, hypothetical forms of diachronic analysis. The final form of the text is what we interpret in the church. Period. That is the form God has decreed should be the norm and guide for the church. Diachronic analyses should not be confused with exegesis, for these analyses do not interpret the text. Rather, they dissect it.


It is quite the fashion these days in scholarly circles to find parallels between biblical texts and either Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts, for the Old Testament, or Greco-Roman texts, for the New Testament. Very confident pronouncements are then made about organic literary connections, even determining the direction of dependence. Samuel Sandmel, a rabbinic scholar, warned against extravagances in this direction in his address to the Society for Biblical Literature in the early 1960’s. The article was published in JBL 81.1 (1962), 1-13.

It is quite difficult to prove literary dependence. Similarity of verbiage does not prove literary relationship. Even if it did prove it, it does not prove the direction of literary dependence. Not even the relative age of manuscripts can prove literary dependence. What happens in the vast majority of biblical scholarship is that the foreign influence is always deemed to be prior, and the biblical text late and derivative. It is not difficult to detect a direct attack on the inspiration of Scripture: did the biblical ideas come from God, or did they come from humans?

One could argue, I suppose, that God could somehow use already existing human materials in a new way in the process of inspiration. However, that is not how parallelomaniacs argue. They argue that the biblical text is fully derivative. They start from an assumption that the Bible could not possibly be breathed out by God. It is merely a human document.

The problems with this position are two-fold: 1. it undermines the doctrine of inspiration; 2. it ignores the often apologetic tone of Scripture. What I mean by the second point is that if Scripture “sounds like” the ANE or Greco-Roman literature, it is usually done so as to reject those ideas, not appropriate them.

Old Testament scholars will immediately cry foul and point out the similarities of, say, the biblical book of Proverbs and the Egyptian Proverbs of Amenemope. To such scholars, I ask the following question: on what basis could one possibly prove that the scriptural book of Proverbs is dependent on the Egyptian document? The date of manuscripts? This is not conclusive in the least. Date of manuscript does not prove date of origin. Secondly, is it completely outside the realm of possibility that God’s common grace might reveal some wisdom to those outside the covenant? The covenant, incidentally, constitutes the major difference between the biblical book of Proverbs and the Egyptian document. The fear of the Lord in 1:7 and in chapter 9 is a covenantal fear, and this controls the whole book of Proverbs. In other words, the wisdom of Proverbs is not secularly derived, but rather from the fear of the Lord.

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