A few weeks ago I learned about a good church history series, posted at the “Domain for Truth” blog: a 33 part lectures series from Carl Trueman on the History of the Reformation.
I have now going through this series, past the first 5 messages, and am impressed with the level of detail including theological points, philosophy, and political factors. Most church history series do an overview treatment covering the highlights: Luther’s earlier life and the famous date Oct. 31, 1517, but then jumping forward to the Diet of Worms and then on to the next Reformer. This series spends more time in just the Reformation itself, with the first 15 messages mostly in Luther’s life, exploring Luther’s own development of theology and looking at actual Reformation-era doctrines.
Some interesting points: as SlimJim noted, that Luther was a medieval man – and the difference in overall thinking between medieval men (their rural background complete with superstitions) and the later Reformers who were of the Renaissance age and its scholarship and humanism (of the 16th century type humanism, not today’s “secular humanism”). Though the Reformation placed much emphasis on the doctrine of justification, another important issue was that of medieval sacramentalism — dealing with the actual issue of Roman Catholicism’s 7 sacraments. Luther’s early work, “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (1520) addressed this issue, and Luther reduced the seven down to two or three: baptism, the Mass, and penance (then, in the conclusion Luther added that penance wasn’t a sacrament either).
Also of note: the 95 theses were really not all that radical – Luther had an issue with the abuse of indulgences rather than the issue of indulgences themselves; true repentance (like John the Baptist calling people to true repentance before they came to be baptized by him) was to Luther a necessary part of getting an indulgence, rather than just purchasing something without any heart change. Trueman relates this to the issue of pastoral concern, and the problems that a church pastor observes going on with his local congregation.
In September 1517 Luther had put forth more radical ideas, yet no one took notice then: his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, “in which he critiqued the whole way in which medieval theology had been done for centuries. That disputation, however, passed without a murmur. Indeed, humanly speaking, it was only the unique combination of external factors—social, economic, and political—that made the later disputation the spark that lit the Reformation fuse.” In between Oct. 31, 1517 and the later Diet of Worms, several events took place, including the Heidelberg Disputation meeting in the spring of 1518, and this series spends several messages detailing these years.
Topics in the series include full lectures specifically about Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will,” (which I read several years ago, good reading concerning the nature of man’s will), and “Luther and the Jews.” Two lectures consider Calvin’s view of the Lord’s supper, which I have only heard briefly described (as in this post). I look forward to these upcoming lectures as I continue through the series.
A little over a year ago (summer 2013), a passing comment in David Murray’s blog post caused a bit of uproar from Calvinist Dispensationalists. Included in a list of 7 reasons why the Old Testament is neglected was this 4th reason: “Although unintended, the dispensational division of Scripture into different eras tends to relegate the Old Testament to a minor role in the life of the Church, and of the individual Christian.” The Cripplegate blog, and a guest post from Dan Phillips at David Murray’s blog addressed some reasons why dispensationalists do study the Old Testament.
From my studies concerning dispensationalism, and covenant theology (including Baptist covenant theology and covenantal premillennialism) and its contrasts with New Covenant Theology, here are some further reflections on the overall issue of people’s interest in the Old Testament – and how it relates to their theological reference system.
Murray’s original comment noted what was introduced with classic dispensationalism, “the division of Scripture into different eras,” and thus greater supposed differences between OT saints and the church age. Though current-day dispensationalists tend to downplay the specific number of dispensations, often they will emphasize the historical covenants that relate to the different time periods – especially the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and thus study that part of the Old Testament. “The division of Scripture into different eras” also includes, as with NCT (discussed below), the traditional definition of antinomianism (Christ taught a new “higher law” beyond the original Mosiac Ten Commandments, and regarding law, only what is taught in the NT is for “church age” believers). Generally, though, dispensationalists put more emphasis on the prophetic word – of which there is much content from the Old Testament. This includes study of the historical covenants, as well as all that the Old Testament scriptures say related to promises for Israel’s future. The dispensationalist’s interest in the Old Testament also overlaps with that of overall premillennialism in study of the many Old Testament prophecies regarding the future millennial age, an intermediate phase followed by the eternal state, as well as the prophecies that speak of a future regathering and restoration of the people of Israel.
The CT view sees much more unity (than the other two groups) in the Bible as one people of God, with much in common between the believing community of Israel and the NT church. Old Testament saints had the indwelling Holy Spirit to guide them (though in less measure) and we can learn from their examples, from what is often referred to as “the Jewish church.” Also, the moral law, the natural law which was summarized in the Ten Commandments/ Decalogue, goes back to creation, as law from God for all peoples living in all times – not just something that began with Moses and only for Israel through the 1st century. All believers, from all ages, understand the same precepts and delight in God’s law, and we learn from everything in God’s word, the unity of the scriptures. Within covenant theology, some teachers emphasize the law, grace, and sanctification, while others (such as covenantal premillennialists) teach on this issue as well as eschatology.
NCT (New Covenant Theology)
The third group, NCT, combines some elements from dispensationalism and other ideas associated with Covenant Theology, to end up with something that could be considered (as others have expressed it) “the worst parts” from these two systems. Here I refer primarily to the “majority view” within NCT, that seems to “get both things wrong” in reference to both the nature of law AND their eschatology. (There are a few exceptions; one well-known NCT proponent holds to historic premillennialism and thus more interest in the Old Testament for that reason.) It is this group that appears to take the least amount of interest in the Old Testament; and I have observed “hard-core NCT” proponents actually say this, that the OT has so little value and that from now on they only do their evangelism from the New Testament.
On the one hand, NCT teaches – and emphasizes — the discontinuity of dispensational theology: a sharp division between Old and New Testament believers. The Decalogue was only for Old Testament believers, and moral law for us is only true if it is repeated in the New Testament. This group further maintains (again, at least some of its adherents) that OT Israel was never really a believing community, apart from the very few characters set forth for us, essentially the prophets, King David and a few other godly kings.
NCT also takes very little interest in eschatology, as a secondary issue not worth much consideration, but a “default” position of amillennialism generally associated with extreme “partial preterism” (all prophecy except Christ’s return, the general resurrection, general judgment, and eternal state, was completed by A.D. 70). Given their view of OT Israel as not really a believing community, it is not surprising to hear the claim, as I recently heard at an NCT local church, that “Israel never had any sovereign election to begin with, it was only a type of our individual election in the NT age” – in complete ignorance of what even the NT teaches, such as in Romans 9:4-5 (They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.)
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In summary, both “systems” of covenant theology and dispensationalism can find at least some benefit in studying the Old Testament, whether from a viewpoint of continuity or an interest in the prophetic word. However, when both of these ideas (CT and DT) are rejected — in favor of sharp discontinuity regarding OT and NT saints and overall sanctification, law and grace, combined with very little (if any) interest in eschatology/millennialism– the resulting theological system becomes something that sees little if any benefit in studying the Old Testament.
Charles Spurgeon’s textual preaching style brought forth some rather interesting — and sometimes unusual — ideas that appear quite different from the result of expository (“verse by verse”) preaching of the actual text. And in some cases I agree with Spurgeon’s sermon points while thinking he could have preached from a better, more direct, text. Still Spurgeon often brings out interesting items for consideration. This weekend’s Spurgeon reading, number 499 (from spring 1863) dealt with an Old Testament Jewish law text: Leviticus 11:2-3, about clean and unclean animals.
Regarding the basic understanding, that the Jewish laws were especially meant to keep them separate from other people, as a unique people to God – and by application, a call for us to come out and be separate from the world, a wonderful summary from Spurgeon:
When the Jews were put away as the people of God for a time, then the Gentiles were grafted into their olive branch, and though we did not inherit the ceremonies, we did inherit all the privileges to which those ceremonies point. Thus all of you who name the name of Christ, and are truly what you profess to be, are solemnly bound to be forever separated from the world. Not that you are to leave off your daily dealings with men. Our Savior did not do so. He was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, yet, you know, He was always in the company of sinners, sitting at their table, seeking their good, and hunting after their souls. He was with them, but He was never of them. He was among them, but always distinct and separate from them—not conforming Himself to them, but transforming them to Himself!
Spurgeon expands beyond this with another interesting point about the Jewish man’s experience of life and the law, with an idea he notes is from Bonar (probably either Andrew or Horatius Bonar):
An Oriental Jew, sensible and intelligent, walks out in the fields. He walks along close by the side of the high road, and what should he see but a string of camels going along? “Ah,” he says to himself, “those are unclean animals.” Sin, you see, is brought at once before his mind’s eye. He turns away from the road, and walks down one of his own fields, and as he goes along a hare starts across his path. “Ah,” says he, “an unclean animal again. There is sin in my path.” He gets into a more retired place; he walks on the mountains; surely he shall be alone there. But he sees a Coney burrowing among the rocks—“Ah,” he says, “unclean. There is sin there!” He lifts his eye up to Heaven—he sees the osprey, the bald eagle, flying along through the air, and he says, “Ah, there is an emblem of sin there!” A dragonfly has just flitted by him—there is sin there. There are insects among the flowers; now every creeping thing and every insect, except the locust, was unclean to the Jew. Everywhere he would come in contact with some creature that would render him ceremonially unclean, and it were impossible for him, unless he were brutish, to remain even for ten minutes abroad without being reminded that this world, however beautiful it is, still has sin in it!
Additional ideas from this text: an analogy of how the animal “chewing the cud” is like our inward life of meditating upon God’s word; and the animal having a parted/divided hoof as like our Christian walk, our outward behavior. Just as the clean animals for the Jews must have both parts, so a true Christian must have both the inward life with God AND the outward walk:
You cannot tell a man by either of these tests alone—you must have them both. But while you use them upon others, apply them to yourselves! What do you feed on? What is your habit of life? Do you chew the cud by meditation? When your soul feeds on the flesh and blood of Christ, have you learned that His flesh is meat, indeed, and that His blood is drink, indeed? If so it is well. And what about your life? Are your conversation, and your daily walk according to the description which is given in the Word of believers in Christ? If not, the first test will not stand alone! You may profess the faith with in, but if you do not walk aright without, you belong to the unclean. On the other hand, you may walk aright without, but unless there is the chewing of the cud within, unless there is a real feeding upon the precious Truths of God in the heart, all the right walking in the world will not prove you to be a Christian! That holiness which is only outward in moral, and not Spiritual, does not save the soul! That religion, on the other hand, which is only inward is but fancy—it cannot save the soul, either. But the two together—the inward parts made capable of knowing the lusciousness, the sweetness, the fatness of Christ’s Truth, and the outward parts conformed to Christ’s image and Character—these conjoined point out the true and clean Christian with whom it is blessed to associate here, and for whom a better portion is prepared hereafter!
In my overall reading and research concerning the Lord’s Day/Sabbath and its historical development, I have come across some interesting material that also serves to show the existence of presuppositions and how we interpret historical data.
An example of this (and how our presuppositions distort our conclusions) comes from Samuele Bacchiocchi, a 20th century Seventh Day Adventist historian, whose book From Sabbath to Sunday does include some good historical data, excerpts from the writing of many early church fathers, following their writings from the 2nd century through the development of Roman Catholicism. The work does have some interesting points, including the development of a “spiritualized” sabbath beginning in the 4th century Constantine era and developed especially by Augustine plus further agreement from later Catholic Popes, to the effect that “This is why we accept in a spiritual way and observe spiritually what is written about the Sabbath. For the Sabbath means rest and we have the true Sabbath, the very Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ” (Pope Gregory I, late 6th and early 7th century A.D.)
Yet in closely reading both the actual early church ideas and this Seventh Day Adventist’s “explanation” or “interpretation,” the following erroneous idea comes out. “The fact that the typology of the eighth day first appears especially in the writings of anti-Judaic polemics, such as the “Epistle of Barnabas” and the “Dialogue with Trypho,” and that it was widely used as an apologetic device to prove the superiority of Sunday over the Sabbath,” therefore – according to this writer with a presupposition of seventh day worship, trying to prove that the early Christian Church really did not have a consensus on what day to meet for worship – this “suggests, first of all, that Sunday worship arose as a controversial innovation and not as an undisputed apostolic institution. The polemic was apparently provoked by a Sabbath-keeping minority (mostly Jewish-Christians) who refused to accept the new day of worship.”
Really? Justin Martyr and other early apologists were really trying to defend their own doctrines to fellow believers? Even basic encyclopedia entries (and not just Wikipedia) as well as article and book references readily acknowledge the basic audience of these writings: some to Gentile non-Christians, and other writing to Jewish non-Christians. False presuppositions (and forcing a predetermined outcome to agree with that presupposition) drive a modern writer to reject the plain and obvious audience of these works and instead conclude that a doctrinal issue was “controversial” within the Christian community itself. By that reasoning, everything they wrote about – including Justin Martyr’s statements about the then orthodox view of chiliasm – was really uncertain and controversial among Christians, and nothing of truth was decided except by the force of these 2nd century writers “decreeing” what the Christian Church “ought” to believe.
Here I recall also the difference (misunderstood by some) between what are considered “controversial issues” among Christians versus “controversial” for non-Christians, as in this previous post. An excerpt from what I wrote then – Are cultural issues in the world really debatable points to Bible-believing Christians? … The same goes for abortion, or any other social issue that the world is uncertain about: God’s word does not change, and the true Church of professing believers does not feel the need to debate these issues – surely also applies regarding the “issues” of the early church. An idea which may be considered questionable by unbelievers, or even something that unbelievers hold a different/opposing view about, does not at all mean that the same issue was a “controversial innovation” by the believers of that time.
As with this rather obvious example, of how a group outside of the mainstream Christian church (SDA) imposes their false presuppositions on historical data, it behooves us to carefully analyze what we read, especially as this material comes up easily in online search results and it is not always easy to tell, at first glance, the presuppositions of a particular writer. And when (as I have seen done at a local church) a church pastor/teacher casually references the “Christian Sabbath” issue and asserts for their own position that the Seventh Day Adventists have “proved” this one and they have it right about the seventh day Sabbath — well, “think again” and consider the source and their presuppositions.