Jesus Wrote With His Finger

Posted by R. Fowler White

John 8:3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 6 They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. 10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” [NASU]

As we see above, the Evangelist reports that, when Jesus was responding to the accusers of the woman caught in adultery, He stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. … Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground (vv 6, 8). If you agree as I do with those who affirm the historicity of John 7:53–8:11 (even though ancient manuscripts and our English translations aren’t sure where it should appear in the NT text), we’ve all had to puzzle over those two statements in verses 6 and 8. We want to know, What did Jesus write with His finger?

Yes, there are texts in “the Law Moses commanded” (v 5) that applied to the woman and her accusers (e.g., Exod 23:1b; Lev 20:10; Deut 17:7; 22:22–24). It makes really good sense to say that those passages are at least relevant parts of this episode’s backdrop. Perhaps Jesus wrote out a quotation taken from among them. It remains, however, that the Evangelist tells us not one word of what Jesus wrote. So, we keep asking: since we’re not told what Jesus wrote, what is the narrator’s point? I have a suggestion, but it has to be only tentative since I haven’t found a presentation or defense of it yet in the commentaries (not least because they skip over the passage as inauthentic to the Gospel of John). If you have seen it somewhere (and especially if you’ve seen it developed better than it is here), please don’t hesitate to let us know.

I suggest that the Evangelist’s point is not what Jesus wrote, but that Jesus wrote and did so with His finger. The act itself might be seen, then, as an acted-out, unspoken reminder that “the Law Moses commanded” was written by the very finger of God (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10). Yet further, the fact that Jesus wrote with His finger was arguably tantamount to saying, “That Law cited by you scribes and Pharisees? It was My finger that wrote it.” For the narrator, it was the act itself that was revealing. After all, in keeping with the unfolding historical-canonical context, that finger was the very finger of God incarnate. In that light, we readers can recognize in Jesus’ act a pointed disclosure of His identity as God the Son to whom God the Father has committed all judgment (John 5:22-23, 27). In reporting, therefore, that Jesus wrote on the ground with His finger, the Evangelist wants his readers to know that Jesus is the Judge who frames His declarations and His questions to bring conviction of sin, to stir the conscience. His is the word that discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart, not just to punish but also to seek and save that which is lost. Writing on the ground with His finger, Jesus made known that He is the Judge who will punish or pardon all who appear before Him (cf. John 5:28-29), whether they appear as offenders, like this woman caught in adultery, or as accusers, like these scribes and Pharisees, who in passing judgment on others condemned themselves. 

One Race or Many? A Note on Acts 17:26

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Luke’s record of Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-34, we read that Godmade from one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:26). From this passage and our current historical and socio-cultural context, some are drawing various inferences about the Bible’s use of the term race. For the purposes of this post, three points stand out to me.

First, in discussions about the term race and the Bible, the term itself is usually not defined, but, as talking and writing continue, it becomes reasonably clear from the term’s usage that it refers to distinct groupings of human beings based on inherited physical and behavioral differences, with those differences sometimes extending to include language, religion, or nationality. Turning to a Bible concordance, however, it doesn’t take long to realize that the Bible doesn’t use race in quite the way we do. That observation leads us to our next point.

Second, these days, some folks claim that the Bible speaks only about “the human race.” The Bible, however, does express the concept of “races” in its references to various subgroups (otherwise known as nations, peoples) descended from a common ancestor within the human race. Right there, in the trait of “descent from a common ancestor,” the Bible sharpens our understanding of the term races. What I mean is this: at the least, we have to acknowledge that God’s covenant-making acts with Abraham and his descendants created and preserved a specific group of descendants from Abraham through Jacob for His divine purpose (see, for example, Ezra 9:2; Acts 7:19; compare Rom 9:5; 11:14). Though God’s acts were certainly not motivated by any superiority of those particular Abrahamites, His acts did make Israel, as descendants from Abraham through Jacob, a race distinct from other races, such as those descended from Noah’s sons, from Lot, or from others (e.g., Mark 7:26). Of course, Bible believers who claim that it speaks only about “the human race” are trying to make the good point that, despite our ancestral differences, we are also united in the first man Adam. Still, it seems to me that denials that the Bible speaks of “races” amount to word games that don’t help us reach a common mind with others. We do better just to say what we mean: God our Creator made us all from one man, just as Paul said at the Areopagus.

Third, perhaps you’ve heard, as I have, the suggestion, implied or expressed, that the Jew/Gentile distinction in Scripture is an example of racism. Some would cite the narrative in Acts 10 to make their point. There, God met Peter with his (holy) desire to obey the (holy) laws of separation that He had formerly but temporarily established between Jews and Gentiles. In that teachable moment, God re-educated Peter as to how in Christ He had abolished those laws and had expanded the reach of the apostolic mission to include the formerly unclean Gentiles. Now it’s reasonable to imagine or infer that the corruption of the fallen human heart would have led some to interpret God’s laws in racist terms. My point, however, is that the Jew/Gentile distinction itself was not an example of racism, for it was God Himself, with whom there is no partiality (Acts 10:34-35), who had set up the distinction between the one holy race and the many other unholy races in the first place. Attempts, then, to find a modern parallel to racism in the distinction that God made between Jews and Gentiles are misguided and at odds with the teaching of Acts 10 and the rest of the Bible. In that light, we should reserve the “racist” label for corrupt interpretations of that distinction, born in the unholy phobias and prejudices of us sinners.

Well-intentioned but misinformed efforts to address racism from the Bible remind us how important “the whole counsel of God” is both to right interpretation and to right application of individual texts of Scripture. In our striving against injustice, let’s be sure to build parallels and lessons from the Bible to our day on the foundation of that counsel.

Types and Sacraments

Posted by R. Fowler White

For those following the dialogue between Dr. Scott Clark and Dr. Sam Renihan on covenant theology among Reformed Christians and Particular Baptist Christians, it’s interesting to watch as apparent agreements surface in their efforts to identify and clarify their disagreement. One particular point of their discussion that has caught my eye is the relationship between old covenant types and new covenant antitypes. On the one hand, Clark tells us that “the New Covenant is the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant without the types and shadows.” On the other hand, Renihan tells us that “when the antitype to which they [i.e., the types] point arrives [in Christ and the new covenant], the typical sign[s] and [their] original significance and context are removed, having served their purpose.” In fact, when we read more of what these two advocates say, they seem to agree (applying Renihan’s words) that types point above and beyond themselves to a greater future reality (namely, the antitypical reality found in Christ). There is even apparent agreement that the benefits of Christ were made known to and received by OT believers specifically through shadows and types. Despite the formal agreement on these points, however, material disagreement persists. Clark and Renihan diverge as they apply these considerations to the sacraments. That divergence is worth closer scrutiny to see if we can get more light of the relationship of covenant theology and typology to sacraments.

Distilling the gist of WCF covenant theology on sacraments for the sake of this discussion, Clark cites Ursinus: “The sacraments of the Old and New Testaments differ in their [outward] signs, but agree in the thing signified,” that “thing” being Christ and his benefits. Renihan, by contrast, distills the gist of 1689 Particular Baptist federalism on sacraments by using typology to distinguish OT and NT sacraments. To appreciate Renihan’s appeal here, it’s important to understand that, for him, a discussion of the extent to which types are distinct from their antitypes and the theological implications that follow is a necessary part of accounting for differences between Reformed Christians and Particular Baptist Christians. With that in mind, Renihan doesn’t dispute the claim that the outward signs themselves differ, but he does dispute the claim that the two sets of sacraments agree in the thing signified. Specifically, he urges that, as types, the OT sacraments signified not one thing, but two: they signified both their initial reality as types (i.e., the ‘outward’ benefits God provided before Christ) and the future reality of their antitype (i.e., the ‘greater and other [more-than-outward]’ benefits God provides in Christ). The NT sacraments, by contrast, signify one thing only: the reality of the ‘greater and other’ benefits God provides in Christ. Notably, as Renihan argues it, the NT sacraments do not bring with them the outward benefits (i.e., the external administration) that the OT sacraments did. Now that the NT reality has arrived, the elect no longer have to look above and beyond the NT signs for a ‘greater and other’ reality to come: that reality is here. In Renihan’s own words: “All that remains is the reality, bringing with it its own signs that clearly and directly portray one thing, the antitype, and nothing else” (his emphasis).

So, how might we react to Renihan’s interaction with Clark? I’d suggest that we can accept Renihan’s acknowledgement that “typology deserves and demands a much more detailed treatment” than he can provide in his blog posts. Even so, it’s useful to ask if he has framed the contrast between OT signs and NT signs distinctly enough. We ask this question because at the heart of Renihan’s proposal is his claim that the arrival of the NT antitypical reality brings the end of the OT typical signs and their outward reality. In the broadest context, there is formal agreement between Clark and Renihan on that point, as we suggested in our opening paragraph. A key question remains to be answered for material agreement to emerge, however: what is “the NT antitypical reality” that has arrived? To be sure, it is “Christ and his benefits.” Yet we also know that “Christ and his benefits” is an “already and not yet” reality. Christ and his benefits arrive in two comings, not in either coming alone; they emerge both in this age and in the age to come, not in one age or the other alone. From that consideration, two observations come to mind. First, each NT sacrament signifies this twofold reality. For example, the benefits of death and resurrection with Christ, signified by baptism, are realized in two stages, original conversion-union with Christ in this age and final glorification-conformity to Christ in the age to come. Similarly, the benefit of fellowship with Christ, signified by communion, comes in two phases, at the Lord’s Supper in this world and at the Lamb’s Marriage Supper in the world to come. As such, it is clear that both sets of sacraments share the same already/not yet realization: the OT sacraments were signs of what was and what would be; the NT sacraments are signs of what is and what will be. Moreover, in both sets of sacraments, promises and warnings of the age to come attend their external administration, confirming that the final antitypical reality is not yet all that remains. In that light, a second observation seems justified: the payoff from Renihan’s appeal to typology is over-realized. Though we can join Renihan in his desire to prevent the flattening of types into outward reality alone and to protect the heightening of types in a greater-than-outward reality, we cannot join him as his take on typology prematurely ushers in the age to come. Instead, to avoid over-realization in our appeal to typology, we will calculate the extent to which types are distinct from their antitypes and the theological implications that follow by referring to the “already and not yet” stages of antitypical realization. With those two ages in mind, it seems clear enough that, during this age, the elect still have to look above and beyond the NT signs for the fullness of Christ and his benefits to come. In fact, it appears that the continuing presence of sacraments is itself an indication that NT antitypical reality is not yet all here.

On Finding Places for Priscilla Other Than Wife and Mother

Posted by R. Fowler White

While considering Rachel Green Miller’s question, “Is There a Place for Priscilla in our [Reformed] churches?” I urged that we should be able to agree to valorize the functions of wife and mother for today’s ‘Priscilla,’ just as the Reformers did. We should be able to do this because we confess the cruciality of those roles for the progress of reformation.

We’re liable, however, to miss the church-historical and theological importance of those functions unless we appreciate the linkage that the Reformers discerned between the priesthood of all believers and the sanctity of marriage and family. In that linkage, we have an indispensable, though basic, reference point for locating the places for ‘Priscilla’ in our churches. Particularly as Reformed communions, we affirm that she has a place in the general office of priest that the Lord Christ bestows on all believers. In fact, we also confess her place in the general office of prophet. We affirm these truths because to every believer—every ‘Priscilla’ and every ‘Aquila’—Christ imparts the Spirit of truth, and because common to believers as general officeholders is a Spirit-given ability to communicate to others at least the basics (“milk”) of God’s self-revelation in Christ (1 Cor. 2.6–3.3; 1 John 2.20-21, 27; Col 3.16; Heb 5.12). In addition, we affirm that, when believers grow in their understanding, they become better able to communicate truth to others (Rom 12.2; Eph 5.8-10; Col 1.9-10; Heb 5.11-14; 2 Tim 3.16 17). So, even though, as Miller herself has made clear, Scripture plainly grants the special teaching office only to men (1 Tim 2.11–3.7; Titus 1.5-9), Scripture also plainly grants the general teaching office to all believers, women and men alike. In that affirmation, then, we have an initial answer to Miller’s question: the places for today’s ‘Priscilla’ in our churches are in “the general teaching office.”

As much as that answer should mean to us, we can and should say more, precisely because we know that Scripture does. We read there of older women training younger women (Titus 2.3-5), of mothers teaching their children (Titus 2.4) and grandmothers their grandchildren (cf. 2 Tim 1.5), and of unmarried daughters who prophesied (Acts 21.9; 1 Cor 11.5; cf. Acts 2.17). And, yes, we read of Priscilla and Aquila who, while they were coworkers with Paul in his Gentile mission (Rom 16.3), took the well-spoken, well-versed OT expositor Apollos aside to explain to him the way of God more accurately after hearing him speak in the synagogue at Ephesus (Acts 18.26). As we ponder these texts, we shouldn’t miss their references to the various places where Priscilla and other women were serving in the general teaching office. Yet we should also ask, are the actions prescribed and described there integrated by a framework of understanding other than that of the general office? I maintain that they are, and that framework is the analogy between family and church.

That framework permeates especially Paul’s first letter to Timothy. The apostle even cites the principles governing relationships in human households as the model for our duties within the church as God’s household (1 Tim 3.15; cf. 3.4-5). In 1 Tim 5.1-2, he distills our duties to one another into a single catch-all command, saying, in effect, “when relating to fellow church members, treat all with the respect due them by reason of their gender, age, and household status.” From this command, it’s clear enough that, like Timothy, we’re to understand that the distinct roles of family members carry over into the distinct roles of church members: as gifted and mature as they may be, women cannot be fathers, sons, or brothers and should not be treated as such; men cannot be mothers, daughters, or sisters and should not be treated as such. Just as we’re not to treat family members as identical and interchangeable, so we’re not to treat church members as identical and interchangeable. In fact, significantly, the actions we see described in Scripture are consistent with the actions prescribed in the Pastorals (1 Tim 5.2; 2.11-15; Titus 2.3-5) and in 1 Corinthians (14.34-35). For example, in Acts 18, Luke contrasts Apollos’ speaking “in the synagogue” (v 26; cf. v 28, “in public”) with Priscilla’s and Aquila’s “taking [Apollos] aside” [ESV, NASB, NKJV; “inviting him to their home,” NIV] for corrective instruction. Luke’s description of Priscilla’s actions in Acts 18 very nearly mimics Paul’s prescriptions, whether it’s the substance of 1 Tim 5.1 or 1 Cor 14.34-35 that is in mind. On that occasion, there was a place (noticeably not public) for the communication of truth by a wife and husband to a man, and it caused no blurring of the distinctions either between the general and special teaching offices or between the genders.

Be that as it may, my overall point is that the phenomena we find in Scripture take into account not only the general teaching office shared by women and men but also the specific differences of gender, age, and household status. It seems to me, therefore, that we’re bound to support today’s ‘Priscilla’ as she fulfills the general teaching office in our churches in places where her actions produce no confusion about office or gender. Even at the intersection of family and community (cf. Prov 31.10-31), there are places where ‘Priscilla’ can use her gifts to benefit others, regardless of their gender, age, or household status: be a coworker in a church mission, speak at a conference; write a book, a commentary, or a blog; have a podcast. We should not, however, support actions that affirm or allow the interchangeability of office or of gender. We’ll commend women to use their gifts in the general teaching office as prescribed and described in Scripture, to devote themselves to functioning as mothers, daughters, and sisters in God’s household. These things we’ll do because we know that, though all believers hold the church’s general teaching office, they are not interchangeable, either in our families or in our churches.

One other thing in closing: as we engage Miller’s question, we can agree that our Reformed churches are always to be “working to ensure that our hearts and lives are being reformed by the Word and Spirit of God” (as Dr. Godfrey puts it). In addition, we can all “acknowledge that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church–circumstances common to human activities and societies–which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (WCF 1.6). Given that our prudence is finite and still in measure corrupt, we cannot presume to produce uniform, universally endorsed outcomes. We can, however, press ourselves not to settle for mere pragmatism but to work carefully to identify those “general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed,” those principles that should govern the full assimilation and deployment of today’s ‘Priscilla’ in our churches.

For further reading (without endorsing all that is said), see the following resources:

https://frame-poythress.org/may-women-teach-adult-sunday-school-classes/

https://frame-poythress.org/the-church-as-family-why-male-leadership-in-the-family-requires-male-leadership-in-the-church-as-well/

On Finding A Place for Priscilla

In her January 20, 2020 post on the White Horse Inn blog, entitled Is There a Place for Priscilla in our Churches? Rachel Green Miller addressed her closing appeal to the modern Reformed Christian community: “It’s time to consider, ‘Where is the place for Priscilla in our churches?’” To lead up to that question, Miller reviews the portrayal of Priscilla in the NT and in commentaries of church fathers and Reformers. Her presentation culminates with references to women of the Reformation era, linking them with Priscilla as women who used their gifts to benefit the church. It is a compelling picture, one that Miller supports by citing Kirsi I. Stjerna, Women and the Reformation (Wiley Blackwell, 2008; p. 214) as follows: “The movement(s) flourished and endured from roots that were both male and female: the product not just of the male theologians but of women, who as daughters, sisters, spouses, mothers, widows and as believers espoused the new faith and ‘taught’ it and ‘preached’ it in their own domains, so participating concretely in the Protestant mission.” To appreciate the full import of Stjerna’s remark, I went to her book itself to see it in its context. There, I found out more about the “domains” in which women participated in the Protestant mission. Let me explain.

Miller’s citation comes from Stjerna’s final chapter on “Conclusions and Observations on Gender and the Reformation” (pp. 213-22). A lengthy quotation from that chapter is necessary to understand the work of women during the Reformation. Stjerna writes (pp. 214-15):

A general conclusion can be made that the reformers’ teachings did not induce a deep cry for emancipation, liberation, or a class movement towards gender equality. The Reformation does not appear to have instigated any drastic changes in gender roles and expectations. Instead, Reformation teachings managed to give new meanings to the traditional roles of women while at the same time reinforcing a hierarchically ordered view of human relations with a theology that taught created equality with natural differences between the sexes, as well as spiritual equality within hierarchically ordered gender roles. The reformers’ convincing positive interpretation of the importance of the family and their promotion of the religious value of motherhood (the role that was consider the most ‘normal’ – and creation-based – but which, until then, had not been theologically valorized) may be one of the reasons that there was not initially a greater outcry for more options. … The hierarchical ordering of family and societal relationships was not seen as contradicting the gospel of liberation, but rather as being instrumental in its successful realization.

… The Reformation needed the continuity provided by hierarchical gender relations. Marriage was of central importance; “the institutionalized Reformation was most successful when it most insisted on a vision of women’s incorporation within the household under the leadership of their husbands” ([Stjerna citing Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Clarendon, 1989), p. 2]). …

It is possible to draw the conclusion that, on the one hand, the Reformation incorporated a vision about spiritual equality and the liberation of consciences from religious oppression, and on the other hand, it harnessed itself to a patriarchally arranged societal system and opted for continuity in social structures rather than abruptions. …

Within the context rehearsed above, we can sharpen our understanding of Stjerna’s remark that Miller quoted. Case in point, we should not miss how Stjerna sums up the Reformers’ ideas about women: “what women heard from the reformers was the reiteration of dogmatic statements excluding them from the ministry of the Word and sacraments and from places of public voice and authority, and affirming the traditional virtues of women and good wives” (p. 219).

Qualify Stjerna’s summary as we might, I, for one, am eager to join Miller to consider the place for Priscilla in our churches. I will come to that consideration remembering that the Reformers ‘theologically valorized’ the roles of wife and mother in the service of the Protestant mission. As heirs of the Reformers, we should be careful to do no less. This is not to foreclose on consideration of other places for Priscilla. It is to commend to her what women of the Reformation era did: they espoused the faith, ‘teaching’ it and ‘preaching’ it in their places as wives and mothers, indeed as daughters, sisters, and even widows.

 

Posted by R. Fowler White

Historical Novelty and Re-reading 1 Cor 14:34

Posted by R. Fowler White

‘Not all historical phenomena that manifest themselves as doctrinal are necessarily immediately doctrinal in cause or origin.’—Carl Trueman (citing a mentor of his)

The relevance of the quotation above came to mind as I was reading a post over at www.reformation21.org by William Castro, pastor of Emmanuel Upstate Church in Greenville, SC. He served as an advisory member of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry in the Church, and his essay, entitled 1 Corinthians 14:34: Did God Really Say … ? was highlighted as a Ref21 post from 2019 that “you may have missed” (and indeed I had). I’ll just summarize it here as a popular-level reflection on four interpretations of 1 Cor 14:34, the most recent of which is what Castro calls the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation. (For those who don’t know, according to that exegesis, the apostle required women to be silent at the time when prophecies were evaluated in the churches’ worship services.) What struck me most about Castro’s discussion of the four views was not his criticisms of those opinions, but his identification of the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation as not just “increasingly … more prevalent” and “more and more accepted and less and less questioned,” but also as “new” and “novel.” As it turns out, this view first showed up in “the literature” in the published work of W. C. Klein (1962) and of Margaret E. Thrall (1965). Today, it is arguably the most popular view of 1 Cor 14:34 among evangelical scholars, having been amplified by James Hurley (1973/1981), further elaborated by Wayne Grudem (1982), and embraced by others such as D. A. Carson (1991).

Speaking for myself, when I realized that this view is new and novel, it gave me pause. Though I no longer hold this view, I realized that, thirty-five years ago, I did hold it and teach it without ever considering its historical novelty. I could have and should have known better. I ought to have handled my adoption and presentation of the exegesis of that text with greater humility and respect toward the history of interpretation. In admitting this, I don’t mean at all to say that a new interpretation is necessarily wrong. Nor do I mean to exaggerate the importance of a novel exegesis of a single text on one’s overall doctrinal conclusions: the interpretation of relatively few individual texts has the power to alter the way we construe the broader teaching of Scripture. I only mean to point out that the historical newness of an exegetical conclusion requires that the evidence put forward in its favor must be weightier than usual. So I agree with Castro when he writes: “I certainly am not advocating for a rejection of all possible solutions to interpretive difficulties. I do, however, believe that we should follow the humble attitude of the divines of Westminster, who—before affirming an interpretation—considered the history of exegesis of the texts.”

One way to apply the concerns of Castro (and Trueman in the quotation above) is to reckon with the fact that exegesis is inevitably and decisively influenced by existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding. Doubtless most who read this blog see themselves as familiar (and comfortable) with the controlling factors that influenced the adoption of the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation by able scholars like Hurley, Grudem, and Carson. Yet the history of interpretation, at least as those scholars and we know it so far, tells us that that view of 1 Cor 14:34 is new and novel. In that light, I’m constrained to ask myself, what can I learn about the existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding in the 1960s that influenced Klein and Thrall to put forward the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation? To answer that question seems a sounder way to proceed than to hold it and teach it without ever considering its historical novelty.

A Scandal at the Core of the Christmas Story?

Posted by R. Fowler White

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. (1 John 1.1-4, NASB)

Some might say that there is a scandal at the core of “the Christmas story”–otherwise known as the account of the nativity of Jesus. It is the scandal that explains why non-Christians celebrate Christmas as they do. While they party with a fictional Santa, they scoff at the truth of Jesus, particularly the scandalous truth of His Incarnation. The fact of the Incarnation scandalizes the unbelieving world.

According to the Bible, Jesus of Bethlehem is the Eternal Son, the Christ, who is now and always will be fully God and fully man. He has not always been man; He has always been God. He is God with God, God the Word, God the Son, who has permanently taken to Himself human nature. Jesus Christ was not first a man upon whom divinity descended for a time. No, He was first God who then became the God-man, and that forevermore thereafter. That is, after the Incarnation, He is now and will forever be one person with two natures, divine and human.

Apart from the Incarnation, Jesus’ life is outstanding and His death obscene. Because of the Incarnation, however, His life and death are unique: in fact, they are both part of His unique saving work for sinners. The apostles of Christ made that clear in the good news that they heralded. In His life, Jesus the God-man was entirely faithful to His God and Father where sinners are entirely unfaithful; in His death, He bore the penalty sinners justly deserve for their unfaithfulness. Just so, in Jesus the God-man alone, through faith alone, sinners find the joy of life with God.

To deny that Jesus of Bethlehem is God-who-became-man is to disbelieve the authentic Christian gospel; it is to believe a lie. So we’ll be careful not to settle for anything less than God the Son Incarnate, Jesus of Bethlehem. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess Jesus Christ coming in the flesh. This person is the deceiver and the antichrist! (2 John 7, NASB)

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 5 (Section 2)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In this final installment of our review of Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we take up the book’s second division, consisting of eight brief essays devoted to a systematic presentation of the relationships between the Abrahamic, old, Davidic, and new covenants. (For good measure, Johnson also offers an appendix on how the law of Moses relates to the law of Christ. “In short,” he concludes, “the Law of Christ is nothing less than the Law of Moses fulfilled in the life of Christ” [p. 253].) Overall, his stated goal in the second section is “to explain the continuity and discontinuity of the old and new covenants by revealing the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant” (p. 207, emphasis original). That dichotomy (i.e., “dual nature”) refers to the two distinct dimensions (i.e., “sides”) of God’s one covenant with Abraham: the natural-earthly-conditional side and the spiritual-heavenly-unconditional side. For Johnson, this dualism is the key to understanding the continuity and discontinuity of God’s covenants. Let’s summarize his main points.

As for Abraham, God pledged to give the patriarch seed and land (among other things), and He fulfills those promises in two forms. There was a provisional fulfillment in the form of a natural seed and an earthly land. These were shadows and types of the permanent fulfillment to come in the form of a spiritual seed and a heavenly land. Significantly, the fulfillments differed as to their basis. The provisional fulfillment for Abraham’s natural seed was conditioned on their faithfulness to God; the permanent fulfillment for Abraham and his spiritual seed was not conditioned on their faithfulness to God, but on God’s faithfulness to them. In light of these factors, says Johnson, God’s covenant with Abraham had a dual nature: it was both conditional and unconditional.

So, how does the Abrahamic covenant relate to the old and new covenants? The old and new covenants are the two sides of the Abrahamic covenant enacted consecutively in two separate covenants. Specifically, the old covenant was an extension of the conditional side of God’s covenant with Abraham, elaborating the works God required to fulfill His promises. The new covenant, on the other hand, is an extension of the unconditional side of God’s covenant with Abraham, elaborating the grace God provides to fulfill His promises. Going on to relate the old covenant to the new covenant, Johnson argues that the old covenant was the conditional covenant of works that had to be satisfied so that the new unconditional covenant of grace might be fulfilled. In light of all this, Johnson says, we understand better how the Abrahamic and old covenants relate to Christ. That is, the conditional side of the Abrahamic covenant, and its extension in the old covenant, were a covenant of works that Christ had to satisfy in order to become the mediator of the unconditional side of the Abrahamic covenant, namely, the new covenant of grace. Thus, the dichotomous Abrahamic covenant, the conditional old covenant, and the unconditional new covenant are all fulfilled because of Christ’s faithfulness.

For the sake of completeness, Johnson also has us ask how the Abrahamic covenant related to the Davidic covenant. Johnson’s answer: the Davidic covenant had the same dual nature as the Abrahamic. God promised David seed and throne, and He fulfills those promises in two forms. There was a provisional form of a natural seed and an earthly throne, the fulfillment of which was conditioned on the faithfulness of David’s natural seed to God. That form foreshadowed the future permanent form of a miraculous seed and a heavenly throne, the fulfillment of which was conditioned on God’s faithfulness to David and that miraculous seed. In this way, Johnson urges us to see that the conditional side of the Davidic covenant, elaborated in the old covenant, was a covenant of works that Christ had to satisfy in order to ascend the heavenly throne and fulfill the new covenant of grace, which is the unconditional side of the Davidic covenant.

In response to Section 2 of Johnson’s book, three (more or less) quick observations. First, it’s hard not to read these essays without wondering if they should have appeared much earlier in the book so that the reader could see better the whole picture into which Johnson fits the pieces of his argumentation. Second, Johnson needs to explain more thoroughly how the historical covenants are an outworking of the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son. For many, that exercise helps to clarify how individual election is a narrower circle within the broader circle of the covenant community polity that has been in effect from the beginning. Third and last, there is profit in Johnson’s comments on the dual nature of God’s covenant with Abraham when he says that to fulfill His promises, the old covenant elaborates the works God requires, while the new covenant elaborates the grace He provides. Johnson is mistaken, however, when he posits that the two sides of the Abrahamic covenant were enacted separately and consecutively in, respectively, the old covenant of works and the new covenant of grace. Rather, they are both administrations of the two sides of the one dichotomous covenant of grace. Yes, we can agree that the old covenant was continuous with the covenant of works (with Adam) in that it effectively (and no doubt more elaborately) republished the demands and sanctions of the first covenant of works. The old covenant, however, was not merely continuous with that covenant of works; it was not merely a reissuance or a republication of that covenant. It was also discontinuous with that covenant in a key way that points to a crucial flaw in Johnson’s thesis: it was discontinuous in that it also republished the promises of the Surety who would satisfy the covenant of works. Significantly, those promises, introduced only after the fall (Gen 3.15), were themselves formalized and elaborated in subsequent administrations of the one covenant of grace, not least in the various prophecies, shadows, and types of the old covenant. In the old covenant, then, along with the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the new covenants, God has consistently discipled His people, teaching them both about the works He requires and about the grace He provides in the Surety. That being the case, old covenant discipleship was covenant-of-grace discipleship, instructing and building up the elect in their faith in Christ, so that the salvation received under the old covenant was the same in all respects as that received under the new covenant.

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 4 (Chs. 12-16)

Posted by R. Fowler White

We turn now to part 4 of our review of Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw (2010), looking at chs. 12-16. Together these chapters conclude the first division of Johnson’s treatment of the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted. (He’ll devote the second division to what he calls “Covenantal Dichotomism.” In it he’ll discuss the relationships between the Abrahamic, old, Davidic, and new covenants.) The focus here is on a) four key differences between the old and new covenants, b) the nature of the new covenant, c) the meaning of circumcision, and d) the error of integrating the flesh and the spirit. From this brief summary, the reader will sense some intentional repetition in Johnson’s presentation, as he collates and, to a degree, sharpens his lines of argument.

In chs. 12-13 Johnson reminds us that the old and new covenants differ as to their participants, substance, duration, and efficacy. First, he insists once more that the new covenant guarantees the salvation of all its participants, whereas the old covenant did not (as OT history shows). In response, we emphasize once again that his claim is predicated on the false premise that, even before judgment day, the new covenant is meant to separate the elect from the reprobate and to define the community formed under it as coextensive with individual election. Historical covenant and individual election, however, are not coextensive. Second, Johnson moves on to represent paedobaptists as mixing old covenant shadows with new covenant realities by connecting infant circumcision with baptism. No, it isn’t old covenant shadows to which we cling; instead we cling to the creation ordinances of family and parental authority that have been constitutive of covenant polity from the beginning. Third, despite Johnson’s odd claim to the contrary (p. 158), paedobaptists don’t deny that the old covenant is obsolete (cf. Heb 8.13). What we deny is that the covenants’ difference in duration annuls their sameness in substance: both covenants set forth the gospel of the promised Surety, the old in types, the new in antitypes. Fourth, Johnson repeats his claim that, unlike the old covenant, the new covenant is effectual for justifying, regenerating, and sanctifying all who are brought into its membership. We can agree that the two covenants differ in power, but Johnson’s claim about all new covenant members does not follow unless he can show 1) that the new covenant is only an administration of salvation to the elect, and 2) that the people brought into its membership, before judgment day, are only the elect in Christ. This he has not done.

Moving on to ch. 14, Johnson again discusses the nature of the new covenant, restating his position that the old covenant principles of parental headship, theocracy, racial distinctiveness, and racial perpetuity don’t apply in the new covenant. Though we agree that certain old covenant principles that preserved Christ’s lineage have ended, we cannot agree with Johnson’s assertions, quoting Jer 31.29-30, that “under the Mosaic Covenant children were not viewed independently” of their parents’ headship and that parents’ headship over their children “would be completely eradicated” under the new covenant (pp. 175-76). Both assertions are demonstrably false. On the one hand, under the old covenant, children were in fact “viewed independently” of their parents’ headship (Jer 31.30 echoes Deut 24.16). On the other hand, under the new covenant, it’s not that parental headship ends; rather it’s that, as people confess that each person suffers for his own sins, they stop complaining that “innocent children” (present generations) suffer unjustly for the sins of their “fathers” (past generations). Far from being eradicated under Christ’s new covenant lordship, parental headship continues to be constitutive of covenant polity.

In ch. 15, Johnson revisits the topic of circumcision, this time to debunk the paedobaptist teaching that circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace for all of Abraham’s biological seed just as it was for Abraham. Johnson contends that, according to Rom 4.11, circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace only for Abraham and for those who shared his faith, but it was a sign of the (old) covenant of works for those who received circumcision without or before faith. Here again, Johnson begs the question of what counts as a covenant of grace, presuming that the covenant of grace is only an administration of guaranteed blessing and thus that circumcision is only an index of faith. This construct, however, misses the two sides of circumcision in the context of the two-sided covenant of grace. As we’ve been saying, the covenant of grace is not just a guarantee of blessing, but is an administration of both curse (Gen 12.3b; 17.14) and blessing (Gen 12.2-3; 17.4-8). Within that context, circumcision presented both sanctions to sinners. To be sure, circumcision signified the blessing of justification (Rom 4.11) to sinners who by faith (Gen 15.6) found righteousness in the covenant’s Surety, Abraham’s true Heir, who would obey God’s demands (Gen 17.1b). Yet circumcision also signified the curse of judgment to sinners who would (and could) not obey God’s demands (Gen 17.1b, 9-14), and to them circumcision became uncircumcision (Rom 2.25). Overall, it’s not, as Johnson claims, that circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace to those who received it in faith but a sign of the covenant of works to those who received it without or before faith; rather it’s that circumcision was the two-sided sign of God’s two-sided covenant of grace, signifying to sinners—parents and their children alike—especially His promises of justification and life and also His threats of judgment and death.

In ch. 16, Johnson turns his attention to discrediting the paedobaptist teaching on the genealogical principle, of which Gen 17.10-13 is a key expression. To realize his aim, Johnson evaluates what he identifies as three paedobaptist beliefs: 1) what was true of Abraham’s seed must be equally true of every new covenant believer’s seed; 2) what was true of the covenants before the new covenant must be true of the new covenant; and 3) what was true of covenant households before the new covenant must be true of new covenant households. In these claims, Johnson says, paedobaptists persist in combining, as the covenants before the new covenant did, what the new covenant requires them to separate: flesh and spirit (the physical/natural and the spiritual/supernatural). Sounding like a broken record, we point out once more that Johnson again presumes that, before judgment day, the new covenant is intended to separate spirit from flesh and to identify all members gathered under it as siblings reborn of the Spirit. Though we join Johnson in his desire not to depreciate the progress of covenant history, we can’t join him as he falls for the opposite error of prematurely ushering in the world to come. That is, by arguing for baptism and the covenant of grace as he does, he would have the final separation of flesh and spirit already being realized, even while the member-branches of Abraham’s covenant family tree are still weighing the kindness and the severity of God (Rom 11.17-22).

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 3 (Chs. 7-11)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Continuing with part 3 of our review of Jeffrey’s Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we come to chs. 7-11 where Johnson carries on with what he calls his “direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Our focus here is on his arguments devoted to the problems of conditions and covenant breakers (i.e., apostates) in paedobaptist covenant theology (chs. 7-9) and to the deficiencies and purpose of the old covenant (chs. 10-11).

As Johnson discusses in chs. 7-9 paedobaptist attempts to solve the problems posed by integrating conditions and apostates in the covenant of grace, his aim is to put a challenge to paedobaptists as follows: they should just admit that their every attempt to integrate conditions and apostasy into the covenant of grace (as they conceive it) destroys the grace of that covenant. Any covenant of grace worthy of the name must secure the grace needed to bring all its members in and keep them in, else membership in it is meaningless. With that challenge to paedobaptist covenant theology in mind, Johnson takes up the deficiencies and purpose of the old covenant. He tells us in ch. 10 that the deficiencies of the old covenant at fulfilling God’s promises were evident in that the bulk of its heirs were merely carnal, its blessings merely this-earthly, and its duration merely temporary. Having presented in ch. 10 what God’s purpose for the old covenant was not, Johnson explains in ch. 11 what His purpose was. That purpose was fourfold: 1) to expose the guilt and inability of sinners; 2) to point sinners to Christ; 3) to foster the nation’s political, moral, and genealogical security and purity; and 4) to reassert the standard to be satisfied for the ungodly to be justified (true heirs of Abraham).

In response to Johnson’s arguments in these chapters, let’s take the content of chs. 10-11 first. His treatment of God’s purpose in giving the old covenant is useful, especially in ch. 11. Even so, his primary interest is to show that, because God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was not to fulfill His eternal and spiritual promises, it cannot be a covenant of grace. This conclusion does not follow, however. We can agree that God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was not to fulfill His eternal and spiritual promises in their full and final form. We can agree that the old covenant was not intended to produce the true Heir of God’s promises: that Heir would not come through the old covenant tribe and order of Levi, but through Judah’s tribe and Melchizedek’s order. We can agree the old covenant was not intended to produce the true heirs of God’s promises: those heirs would look beyond Sinai and follow in the footsteps of father Abraham’s faith to find a righteousness better than their own and an inheritance better than Canaan. We cannot agree, however, that God’s purpose did not fulfill His promises in a temporary and physical form that instructed and built up the remnant in faith in the eternal and spiritual form available through the Surety to come. In other words, God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was to fulfill His promises in shadow and type, their deficiencies notwithstanding. For that reason, we can affirm that the justification of believers under the old and new covenants was one and the same, and that the old covenant was a covenant of grace sufficient and efficacious, through the Spirit’s work, to administer God’s eternal and spiritual promises to the remnant.

Turning back to chs. 7-9, is Johnson correct to say that paedobaptists should admit that their attempts to integrate conditions and apostates into the covenant of grace (as paedobaptists conceive it) destroy the grace of that covenant? As I see it, Johnson’s analysis is incorrect, and for reasons that he himself discusses. Focusing first on the issue of conditions, conditions are compatible with the grace of the covenant of grace because, but only because, both envision the true Heir of Abraham, the Surety of the covenant. Under both the old and the new covenants, it is the Surety’s obedience to the law’s conditions that guarantees justification for those of Abraham’s faith. Moreover, true believers in that Surety are not under the law as a covenant of works by which they are justified or condemned. In other words, the law is for believers a rule of life—the law (yoke) of liberty—training them in the holy character and conduct that are inseparable from justification as the fruits and evidences of justifying faith. In sum, then, because the Surety of the covenant of grace satisfies the law’s conditions and thus secures justification for believers in Him, conditions do not destroy the grace of the covenant.

Well, is Johnson correct to argue that any covenant of grace worthy of the name must secure the grace of justification and perseverance for all its participants, else participation in it is meaningless? Again, in my opinion, Johnson is incorrect. For him, what counts as a covenant of grace is only that which ensures the salvation of all its participants. We have to ask, however, from where does he get this definition? Not unexpectedly, time and again, Johnson appeals to Jer 31.31-34 (Heb 8.8-12). That text is certainly relevant to a discussion of the new covenant, but Jeremiah’s focus is on the promises of the new covenant. Elsewhere, the threats of the new covenant come into view. For example, in Rev 2-3, Christ addresses His church(es) with threats of judgment for apostasy as well as promises of salvation for perseverance. In Matt 7.21-23, He declares His intent on judgment day to disavow disciples of His who confessed His name as Lord but despised His law. In Rom 11.17-22 (cf. John 15.1-8), Christ’s apostle warns the church that all unnatural Gentile member-branches who fail to persevere will be broken off from Abraham’s covenant family tree, just as all natural Israelite member-branches who failed to persevere were broken off. In all this, the point is not, as Johnson alleges, that apostates, as portrayed by paedobaptists, cause Christ to suffer reproach as a poor federal head. Instead, the point is that, according to the new covenant, Christ is Judge of apostates as well as Head of the elect in His church. Yes, by their defection, apostates do bring reproach on Christ’s name. They will not, however, have the last word. Rather, in keeping with the retributive principle of the covenant, Christ will bring reproach, in final measure, on their names. Nor is the point, as Johnson claims, that the covenant itself, as conceived by paedobaptists, is faulty. Instead, the point is that the covenant of grace is not to be reduced to its proper purpose of grace, nor are the people gathered under Christ’s lordship to be reduced, before judgment day, to the elect given to Him by oath. Yes, salvation is the new covenant’s proper purpose. Before judgment day, however, the new covenant, like all other administrations of the covenant of grace, does not ensure the salvation of all in the covenant community. (That distinctive applies to the eternal covenant transaction between the Father and the Son.) The new covenant does, however, gather a community under Christ’s lordship for discipleship according to His promises of salvation and His warnings of judgment. In the experience of the historical, visible church, His promises are not always embraced; His warnings are not always heeded. Despite the faith some confess at the beginning, and despite the blessings they have in common with the remnant in the meantime, they prove in the end to have an evil, unbelieving heart and fail to persevere in faith (Luke 8.13; 1 Tim 1.19-20; 4.1; 1 John 2.19). So, even though the new covenant does not guarantee the salvation of all in the covenant community, it does afford them all the blessings of discipleship under Christ.

« Older entries