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Study on Baptism (Review: J.V. Fesko’s Word, Water, and Spirit)

July 18, 2020 Leave a comment

A book I’ve seen recommended in online discussions, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, by J.V. Fesko, is one that I have found very helpful and informative.  Its three sections cover a lot of historical theology as well as review of many scriptures and scripture themes related to the sacraments and especially baptism, and development of redemptive-historical/biblical theology of baptism, with exposition of New Testament passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 and 1 Peter 3:20-21.

The overall style is more scholarly and sometimes repetitive — yet the repetition, and frequent use of ‘in other words’ with a restatement in simpler words, assist the understanding.  The history section seemed too lengthy, with more details than I wanted, though the early history along with the section on the Anabaptist history were more interesting.  The chapters in parts II and III were well-written and helpful, a series of expositions on several biblical texts–and relating all the separate parts to the overall narrative flow of scripture, the covenants, and the continuity of the main themes in God’s word.  From the entirety of it, I now have a much clearer understanding of the different views such as the medieval baptismal regeneration and infusion of grace, and the different emphases and nuances of the Reformers regarding the sacraments, the roles of the sacraments along with the written Word, and the idea of the blessing and judgment “double-edged sword” sides regarding the benefits (to the true, invisible church of believers) versus judgments (to the professing but false visible-only church) within the overall covenant community.  As a scholarly-type work, Word, Water, and Spirit includes copious footnote references, and Fesko interacts with the views of past theologians including Luther, Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus (who wrote a Heidelberg Catechism commentary, which I am also reading through this year in calendar-week sequence), explaining where he agrees or disagrees with them.

One section addressed a question/comment from someone who had made a comparison between John the Baptist’s baptism and the later New Testament Christian baptism, wondering what type of participants (individuals vs families) were involved in each.  While a common idea is that Christ instituted baptism by His example of being baptized by John, Fesko contends that Christ instituted baptism in the Great Commission and not in His submission to John’s baptism.

Three key differences noted here:

  1. The redemptive-historical timeframe for John’s ministry: This baptism was not a perpetual rite for Israel but a special sign for that terminal generation  John’s baptism epitomized the particular crisis in covenant history represented by John’s mission as the messenger bearing the Lord’s ultimatum.
  2. John’s ministry was preparatory for the ministry of Christ; his baptism was also preparatory.
  3. John’s baptism was one of repentance, whereas the baptism instituted by Jesus was to be administered in the name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Fesko asserts that there is no textual support for Calvin’s claim that John baptized “into the name of Christ.”

Fesko here focuses on the typical (John’s baptismal ministry) and its fulfillment—Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit, as well as the significance of baptism into a name:  the triune God name (also referenced in the shortened form baptized into the name of Jesus, in some instances in the book of Acts), also Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians that the people were not baptized into his name, the name of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:13-15)

The book is comprehensive, considering many different scriptures and views, and even provides brief treatment (a full chapter) on the issue of paedocommunion, outlining the main scriptures against this idea.  Another book I’ve received (free from a book drawing) and hope to read soon, Cornelis Venema’s Children at the Lord’s Table?, addresses that topic in more depth.  It was interesting to read here, though, of the parallel between the Lord’s Supper and Exodus 24 (not Exodus 12)– The Passover was not an end in itself, but pointed to the covenantal goal of Exodus 24, worshipping and fellowshiping in God’s presence.

Finally, one more interesting thing I liked is that the author consistently and correctly used the scriptural term “last Adam,” rather than the frequent variation of “second Adam.”  As S. Lewis Johnson liked to point out, the scriptural terms Paul used are “the last Adam, and the second man.”  Johnson mentioned one of his teachers, perhaps Chafer, who had added his notes in a book he owned, that it’s “not the second Adam, but the last Adam.” SLJ then pointed out that the term “second Adam” would imply that a third could come along–no, Christ is the last Adam.  Yet I’ve seen it too often in current-day Christian books and articles, the mixing of terms to say “second Adam” rather than “last Adam/second man.”

Overall, Word, Water, and Spirit is a thorough and informative reference work, addressing many scriptures from the Old and New Testament along with historical theology and the views of many theologians down through church history.

 

James Montgomery Boice, Eschatology, and the Philadelphia Reformed Theology Conferences

September 19, 2018 1 comment

Another great Bible teacher I am coming to appreciate is the late James Montgomery Boice.  I had heard of him over the last few years, especially in reference to both dispensational and historic premillennialism, but had not yet listened to him or read any of his books.  Online discussions have considered the question of whether he left dispensationalism, and when he became historic premillennial, especially since his writings on the subject were more from the dispensational premillennial perspective.

Leaving that particular question aside, though, Boice provided some great teaching – and on other topics as well.  I’ve been perusing the archive of past Reformed Theology conferences available at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ Reformed Resources, and the early Philadelphia Conferences include many lectures from James Montgomery Boice, including an interesting set from 1986 on eschatology (MP3 download set available here).  This set of 7 lectures includes two from Boice as well as an interesting lecture from Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus.  Of interest here, Rosen, in ‘Does Israel have an Earthly Future?’ addressed the very same doctrinal points that have been more recently popularized by John MacArthur’s “Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist” and Barry Horner’s publication of Future Israel.  Over 20 years before these two events from 2007, Rosen taught the same:  God’s Sovereignty in Election, including national election of the Jews and God’s faithfulness to His promises; and the problem and inconsistency of appropriating the covenant blessings for Israel (from Deuteronomy) as spiritualized about the church while rejecting the covenant curses, such that the church only gets the blessings and Israel only gets the curses.

Boice’s lectures on “Where is History Going?” and “On Death and Dying” also were well-presented and very informative.  I especially appreciated his insights in the latter, in reference to three types of societies – death-affirming, death-denying, and death-defying.  The lectures address a timeless matter, and our society now is no different from a generation ago in its death-denial with emphasis on youth (even today as the famed “Baby Boomer” generation is no longer young but still trying to put off old age) and the euphemisms we use to refer to people who have died and no longer with us.

After starting off with a great Presbyterian joke for a good laugh, Boice described the three types of societies — the ancient Greeks an example of a death-accepting culture, and 1 Corinthians 15 the death-defying Christian view – along with exposition of the two deaths in Genesis 50, Jacob and Joseph.  The information about Elisabeth Eliot’s experience was interesting, how to cope with death, as she was twice widowed – the first case well-known, her husband Jim Eliot martyred, but also her second husband dying the slower death of cancer.   Genesis 50, especially Jacob’s death and the Egyptian burial customs, gives us great instruction as to how we honor the dead.  Joseph and family were in a pagan land, yet they still observed and showed respect to Egypt’s burial customs (embalming, and the lengthy time of mourning), as nothing objectionable for the people of Israel.  Yet Jacob was buried in the promised land, and Joseph’s remains left in Egypt provided them with the future hope of their later Exodus.

As noted in a recent online discussion in a historic premillennial group, Boice did not often speak on millennial views or Israel’s future, considering these as secondary matters, yet this 1986 Philadelphia Conference addressed some of these issues.  And the many other topics that Boice did address include good lectures and Bible study.  I plan to continue listening to more of James Montgomery Boice’s teaching, including his lectures at other Philadelphia Reformed conferences from the archives (available at ReformedResources.org, from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals).

Old Testament Stories, Life Application and Doctrine

August 14, 2018 9 comments

As I continue studies in Old Testament lessons, from Reformed sources such as Charles Spurgeon sermons and Tabletalk magazine monthly studies, I appreciate the depth of content related to so many biblical doctrines, and life application—from what seem, on the surface, as mere children’s stories.  In fact, one of the Tabletalk articles from July 2007 — a study through Genesis, now on the life of Joseph – points out this very fact, that the stories of the patriarchs are more than just tales for children.  They are accounts of actual, historical events that occurred in time and space history, involving real people and real problems that are applicable to us today.  The story of Joseph and his brothers teaches us many things:  about dysfunctional families and family favoritism, about the consequences of our sin; but above all, the truth of God’s providence and God’s sovereignty, and God’s purposes – and the hope that gives us:

Our mistakes and transgressions cannot derail God’s purposes. We do not take this truth for granted and use it to excuse our sin (Rom. 6:1–2), but we also must never come to the place where we believe we have fallen to the point where our Father cannot use us. Through faith and repentance we can be blessed as our sovereign Creator works out His will in history (Deut. 30:1–10).

Spurgeon took a similar in-depth approach of good application and even doctrinal instruction from the Genesis stories, the lives of the patriarchs.  A few recent examples from my Spurgeon sermon reading include these sermons from the 1868 volume:

  • Sermon #837, Jacob’s life, and his complaint of unbelief in Genesis 42:36

and this three-part sermon series links on the life of Abraham

In the first of these, Spurgeon connected the (King James Version) expression ‘all these things’  to point out: 1) the exclamation of unbelief (Jacob’s unbelief in Genesis 42:36), 2) the philosophy of experience (Isaiah 38:16), and finally, the triumph of faith (Romans 8:37).  From Jacob’s life w­e see the example of how we are all so prone to react to trials and difficulties:  bitterness, exaggeration, and anger towards God.  In Jacob’s case it was at most three things – Joseph, Simeon, and Benjamin, yet:

Jacob was, in the expression before us, even bitter towards God! There is not a word like submission in the sentence, nothing of resignation, nothing of confidence; he knew very well that all things came from God, and in effect he declares that God is, in all these things, fighting against him! God forbid that these tongues, which owe their power to speak to the great God, should ever pervert their powers to slandering Him! And yet if our tongues have not spoken unbelievingly, how often our hearts have done so; we have said, “Why has God dealt thus with me? Why are His strokes so multiplied? Why are my wounds so blue? Oh, why am I thus chastised?

The later two texts show the positive movement from Jacob’s unbelief, to enlightened experience:  “In all these things is the life of my spirit.”

Jacob would hardly have been fit for the luxury of Egypt, if he had not been trained by his griefs; that happy period before his death, in which he dwelt in perfect ease and peace, at the close of which, leaning upon his staff, he bore such a blessed testimony to the faithfulness of God, he would not have been fit to enjoy it—it would have been disastrous to him if he had not been prepared for it by the sorrows of Succoth. … Be of good comfort, and instead, from now on, of concluding that outward trials are against you, agree with Hezekiah in this wise sentence, “By these things men live.”

To finally the triumph of faith, the experiences of the apostle Paul:

The list is just as comprehensive in the best text as in the worst. No, poor Jacob’s, “All these things” only referred to three; but look at Paul’s list: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword—the list is longer, darker, blacker, fiercer, sterner, but still we triumph, “In all these things we are more than conquerors.”

Old Testament ‘Calvinism’: Election, Justification, and Sanctification from the Life of Abraham

Beyond life application of relational difficulties and resolution, Spurgeon also well-demonstrated that the important doctrines of the Calvinist, Reformed faith can be taught not only from the New Testament epistles, but directly from Abraham’s life in Genesis.  After all, Paul (such as in Romans and Galatians) referenced key points in Abraham’s life; thus, common exposition on these doctrines will focus on Paul’s writings directly.  Yet here Spurgeon departed from his usual style of completely unrelated texts from week to week, by teaching the doctrines of calling/election, justification, and sanctification, all from different points in Abraham’s life as told in Genesis.  Each sermon looked at the details and considered Abraham’s actual daily life experiences, with detailed descriptions of what Abraham’s calling, later justification and later sanctification looked like.   Thus, we see his calling/election in Genesis 12:5, justification in Genesis 15:6, and sanctification in Genesis 17:1-2.  Abraham’s calling included key features such as God’s sovereignty, divine application of it, and a call to separation; and similar expansion of details regarding his justification and sanctification.  Along the way Spurgeon even adds descriptions of related truths such as perseverance and assurance, that God will complete what He is doing:

If our text may very well illustrate effectual calling, so may it PICTURE FINAL PERSEVERANCE.   “They went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and to the land of Canaan they came.”  …

two or three thoughts in this text worth remembering. “They went forth.” Energetic action! Men are not saved while they are asleep; no riding to heaven on feather beds! “They went forth to the land of Canaan.” Intelligent perception! They knew what they were doing; they did not go to work in a blundering manner, not understanding their drift.

And

To close the whole, the Lord gave to Abram an assurance of ultimate success. He would bring his seed into the Promised Land, and the people who had oppressed them, He would judge. So let it come as a sweet revelation to every believing man and woman this morning, that at the end they shall triumph, and those evils which now oppress them shall be cast beneath their feet!

Of particular interest (in the second sermon), is the connection between Abraham’s justification and his understanding of sacrifice and the covenant – how much was revealed to Abraham, that he could and did understand; we need not dismiss the Old Testament people as being completely unaware of these doctrines such that the New Testament is required in order to understand the Old:

Abram, after being justified by Faith, was led more distinctly to behold the power of sacrifice. By God’s command he killed three bullocks, three goats, three sheep, with turtle doves, and pigeons, being all the creatures ordained for sacrifice. The patriarch’s hands are stained with blood; he handles the butcher’s knife; he divides the beasts, he kills the birds; he places them in an order revealed to him by God’s Spirit at the time. There they are. Abram learns that there is no meeting with God except through sacrifice. God has shut every door except that over which the blood is sprinkled; all acceptable approaches to God must be through an atoning sacrifice—and Abram understood this.

Perhaps even more important was the next lesson which Abram had to learn. He was led to behold the covenant. I suppose that these pieces of the bullock, the lamb, the ram, and the goat were so placed that Abram stood in the midst with a part on this side, and a part on that. So he stood as a worshipper all through the day, and towards nightfall, when a horror of great darkness came over him, he fell into a deep sleep. Who would not feel a horror passing over him as he sees the great sacrifice for sin, and sees himself involved? There, in the midst of the sacrifice, he saw moving with solemn motion, a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp answering to the pillar of cloud and fire which manifested the presence of God in later days to Israel in the wilderness. In these emblems the Lord passed between the pieces of the sacrifice to meet His servant, and enter into covenant with him; this has always been the most solemn of all modes of covenant.

…Know and understand that God is in covenant bonds with you; He has made a covenant of grace with you which never can be broken; the sure mercies of David are your portion.

The Tabletalk studies as well as Spurgeon sermons provide great insights into all aspects of the Christian life, from the details of the Old Testament narrative accounts.

Spurgeon on the Christian Life (2018 Release)

May 31, 2018 2 comments

The topic of Charles Spurgeon — books published by him, and about him — continues to hold great interest, from the renewed interest begun in the second half of the 20th century and increased especially in our day via the Internet.  The distant future (from Spurgeon’s day) has arrived, and it has vindicated Spurgeon:

I am quite willing to be eaten by dogs for the next fifty years,” Spurgeon said, “but the more distant future shall vindicate me.”

Crossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series includes an offering, published this spring (2018), about Spurgeon’s theology:  Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ — a book I received from a free book giveaway (from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals; Meet the Puritans blog).  With a series preface by Stephen J. Nichols and Justin Taylor, this book considers Spurgeon as a theologian.  True, Spurgeon is known best as a preacher, with great evangelistic zeal and pastoral concern; he never wrote a systematic theology, and shunned speculation and peripheral matters.  Yet for all that, his many writings cover theology in its many aspects and its relevance and application to Christian living.

… Spurgeon was, quite self-consciously, a theologian.  Avid in his biblical, theological, and linguistic study, he believed that every preacher should be a theologian, because it is only robust and meaty theology that has nutritional value to feed and grow robust Christians and robust churches. … That combination of concerns, for theological depth with plainness of speech, made Spurgeon a preeminently pastorally minded theologian.  He wanted to be both faithful to God and understood by people.  That, surely, is a healthy and Christlike perspective for any theologian.

After a basic overview of Spurgeon’s character and personality (biographies have already been done on Spurgeon’s life), the focus soon comes to actual points of theology (on the Christian life), and Spurgeon’s views are described with numerous quotes from him, making this book also a great source for Spurgeon quotes on various doctrinal topics.    Spurgeon’s theology is presented in three parts: Christ the Center (the Bible; Puritanism, Calvinism; Preaching), the New Birth, and the New Life.  These sections include chapters on topics including the new birth and baptism, sin and grace, the Holy Spirit and sanctification, prayer, pilgrim army (the Christian as a soldier), suffering and depression, and final glory.

Much of the material was already familiar to me, from my ongoing chronological reading through Spurgeon’s sermons over the last several years (starting in volume 1, 1855, and now I’m currently in the 1868 volume) – presented in summary fashion rather than a complete exhaustive concordance of everything Spurgeon said on every topic.  Spurgeon’s textual preaching style is also well described.

Among the interesting points brought out — from previous sermons I had come across Spurgeon’s variation on trichotomy: that the believer has a soul, spirit and body, contrasted with the unbeliever having only two parts, soul and body.  Spurgeon on the Christian Life adds that Spurgeon’s view here, a unique one, is similar (probably unintentionally so) to that of Irenaeus of Lyon; Michael Reeves also briefly deals with the actual theology, noting the problem with Spurgeon’s idea here:

Yet, in order to underline human inability and God’s grace, he [Spurgeon] also developed a more peculiar opinion with greater similarities (almost certainly wholly unintended) to the theology of Irenaeus of Lyons.  As Spurgeon saw it, man naturally consists only of a body and soul, but when he is regenerated, there is created in him a third and wholly new nature: the spirit.  This is a higher nature, beyond anything in creation; it is a supernatural, heavenly, and immortal nature… Such a spiritual nature must be the gift of God.  Yet is this redemption?… To be sure, we gain more in Christ than ever we lost in Adam, but Spurgeon seems to overstate his case here, temporarily losing something of the restorative and reconciliatory aspects of salvation.

I especially appreciated the chapter on Spurgeon and “Suffering and Depression,” a feature of Spurgeon that has often been observed and discussed (reference, for example, this recent post and also this post).  This chapter includes a good summary of Spurgeon’s personal suffering, his seeking to understand theologically the reasons for his suffering —  along with explanation of the reasons for suffering, replete with many excellent Spurgeon quotes about suffering, including this selection (from sermon #692):

In your most depressed seasons you are to get joy and peace through believing. “Ah!” says one, “but suppose you have fallen into some great sin—what then?” Why then the more reason that you should cast yourself upon Him. Do you think Jesus Christ is only for little sinners? Is He a doctor who only heals finger-aches? Beloved, it is not faith to trust Christ when I have no sin, but it is true faith when I am foul, and black, and filthy; when during the day I have tripped up and fallen, and done serious damage to my joy and peace—to go back again to that dear fountain and say, “Lord, I never loved washing as much before as I do tonight, for today I have made a fool of myself; I have said and done what I ought not to have done, and I am ashamed and full of confusion, but I believe Christ can save me, even me, and by His grace I will rest in Him still.

The last chapter, “Final Glory,” touches on Spurgeon’s eschatological views, correctly noting that Spurgeon held to historic premillennialism and that he did not value the time spent on speculative matters of prophecy.  Here I would only add, from my observations of actual Spurgeon sermons, that Spurgeon did not consider premillennialism itself to be a matter of speculation.  It was his frequent practice (within the textual style sermon) to first speak to the literal, plain meaning of a text before turning aside to his own exploration of the words of a text.  So here, too, Spurgeon’s sermon introductions — to texts such as Revelation 20, and Old Testament prophecies about the regathering of national Israel — included very strong affirmations of his beliefs: a future millennial age, Christ’s premillennial return, and a regathering of national, ethnic Israel, to be saved at the time of Christ’s return.

Spurgeon on the Christian Life is another great addition to the collection of material about Charles Spurgeon, a good reference for quotes from Spurgeon as well as to showcase Spurgeon’s theology on Christian living.

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson (Review)

November 20, 2017 2 comments

My recent reading includes a book featured this year in both Kindle format (sale), and as an audio book free monthly offer (from Christianaudio.com):  Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ:  Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters.  A straightforward reading, this book delves into all of the topics included in the title, to bring out many interesting points of both history and doctrine.  The main point throughout is the historical setting of the “Marrow Controversy” in early 18th century Scotland:  the controversy between the “Marrow Men” including its main player Thomas Boston, and those who had twisted the essential grace of the gospel to the preparationist error.  I’ve briefly looked at this error before, including this post about Spurgeon’s response to it and this later post in reference to Spurgeon and preparationism.  Here we see a historical situation that had developed, among those from a Reformed, Westminster Standards background who yet erred in their confused ideas regarding legalism and antinomianism.

Many important truths are brought out in the subsequent chapters:  why it is that repentance logically comes AFTER faith, as a fruit, and not before faith/regeneration; that legalism and antinomianism are not complete opposites but actually closely related, as “non-identical twins” of the same root – not antithetical to each other but both antithetical to grace; and how to compare John Calvin and the Westminster Standards on assurance, seeing them as not in conflict but as coming to the same problem from different angles and arriving at the same middle-ground.

In reference to the initial Marrow conflict and preparationism itself, William Perkins (the beginning of the Puritan era) and John Bunyan (late 17th century) manifest the doctrinal shifts during the century between them. Perkins’ “golden chain” includes a “gospel spine” that links each aspect of the application of salvation …to a central spine representing Christ in terms of the various clauses of the Apostles’ creed. … But Bunyan’s map has no Christ-spine… the various aspects of salvation applied are related to each other, not directly to Christ.  Preparationism came about as a result of separating the benefits of salvation to be found in Christ, from Christ Himself.

The book includes many helpful analogies and illustrations, references to Thomas Boston, John Calvin and other teachers, as well as helpful quotes in poetic verse that describe the intricacies and detail of legalism and antinomianism, as with this wonderful piece from Ralph Erskine about grace and law:

Thus gospel-grace and law-commands
Both bind and loose each other’s hands;
They can’t agree on any terms,
Yet hug each other in their arms.
Those that divide them cannot be
The friends of truth and verity;
Yet those that dare confound the two
Destroy them both, and gender woe.

This paradox none can decipher,
that plow not with the gospel heifer.
To run, to work, the law commands,
The gospel gives me feet and hands.
The one requires that I obey,
The other does the power convey.

The beauty of this book is how it relates these doctrines to current-day questions and objections.  The heart issues underlying the “Marrow controversy” and the Westminster Standards are still with us today.  The chapters on legalism and antinomianism go beyond the surface level, of what many people suppose, to address the underlying issue and current-day issues such as doctrinal antinomianism and anti-confessionalism.  One such example is consideration of the “proof-text” mentality — of those who suppose that the Reformed Confessions came from proof-texting – by noting that:

First, the Westminster Divines were deeply opposed to producing a confession with proof texts and did so only under duress at the command of the English Parliament.  But, in addition, biblical theology itself is much older than its history as an academic discipline.  As C.S. Lewis well notes, we moderns can all too easily be like people entering a conversation at eleven o’clock not realizing that it began at eight o’clock.  The truth is that there is an intricate weaving of exegesis and biblical and redemptive historical theology behind the wording of the Confession, and this is nowhere more certain than in its treatment of the law of God.

The Whole Christ provides many quotes and insights into the doctrines of God’s law, such as this quote from B.B. Warfield on the topic of the law and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments:

The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what was in it but was only dimly perceived or even not at all perceived before. … Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but is only perfected, extended and enlarged.

Ligonier is now offering a full teaching series on Ferguson’s book, with the first lesson available for free.  As I near the end of the audio-book edition, while referring also to the Kindle version for rereading and reference (including the footnotes, not included in the audio book edition), I appreciate and recommend this book as a very helpful addition to my theology library.

 

 

Van Til on Presuppositional Apologetics

August 17, 2017 6 comments

Continuing in the 2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge, some books are more challenging and slower-going, such as a selection for apologetics:  Cornelius Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith,  about presuppositional apologetics.  The writing style itself is not always easy to follow, with a lot of abstraction and philosophy, though some parts are clearer.  Overall, though, I see the basic points of presuppositional apologetics, along with a detailed explanation for why classical/evidential apologetics is not the best approach for communication with unbelievers.

Throughout, Van Til contrasts Catholic and Protestant-Evangelical (Arminian) apologetics, with the understanding of Reformed Theology.  As well-pointed out, what it really comes down to is that Reformed folks should use the same approach for both preaching and apologetics; Reformed preaching proclaims the sovereignty of God in all things, including salvation, as well as the total inability of the lost sinner.  Yet often, Reformed Christians depart from this when it comes to apologetics, turning instead to lost man’s “reason” independent of the authority of God’s word.  The analysis of basic differences in the very definitions of concepts between unbelievers (even unbelievers of varying types, pagan polytheists versus secular), such as the concepts of deity and mankind, is quite interesting, all supporting the point that believers really do not share any “common” point with the unbeliever, in terms of the natural man’s thoughts and reasoning.

The Reformed Christian is often Reformed in preaching and Arminian in reasoning.  But when he is at all self-conscious in his reasoning he will seek to do in apologetics what he does in preaching.  He knows that man is responsible not in spite of but just because he is not autonomous but created.  ..  He knows also that the sinner in the depth of his heart knows that what is thus held before him is true.  He knows he is a creature of God; he has been simply seeking to cover up this fact to himself.  He knows that he has broken the law of God; he has again covered up this fact to himself.  He knows that he is therefore guilty and is subject to punishment forever; this fact too he will not look in the face.

And it is precisely Reformed preaching and Reformed apologetic that tears the mask off the sinner’s face and compels him to look at himself and the world for what they really are.  Like a mole the natural man seeks to scurry under ground every time the facts as they really are come to his attention.  He loves the darkness rather than the light.  The light exposes him to himself.  And precisely this neither Roman Catholic or Arminian preaching or reasoning are able to do.

Van Til points out that evidentialist apologetics does the first part of evangelism by appealing to the natural man’s thinking, and challenging the atheist/agnostic unbeliever with the fact, the existence, of God.  Only after this first part of “accommodating” the unbeliever, the apologist then “switches” to the Christian perspective and why one should believe the Bible, etc.  The unbeliever can certainly follow along at the first point, since nothing is being challenged in his fundamental human reason.  As Van Til observes, the result is a two-phase approach to Christian conversion:  first to Theism, then, later, conversion to Christianity.  This method obviously does ‘work’, as God’s sovereign purposes in calling His elect include even faulty apologetic methods; but Van Til makes the case for a true Reformed approach to the matter.

It helps to relate what Van Til is saying to real-world examples.  What Van Til described here, describes the conversion story of C.S. Lewis, who was an atheist when he met colleague J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford in the 1920s.  Much has been said on the negative side regarding the theology of both of these men – though as has also been noted, Tolkien converted Lewis to Christianity in general, not to Catholicism.  Yet as Lewis himself described it, his conversion was indeed a two-phase process: first, conversion to theism, and then – about two years later – to the Christian faith.  Van Til’s critique of classic apologetics provides the clear explanation for the very process/method of Lewis’ conversion experience.

Though the overall reading is not easy, I’m now over halfway through, and some parts are quite good, with insightful quotes.  In closing, here are a few great quotes from Van Til:

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. And it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work but it also tells us who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the Word of God that you can separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.

And

Time rolls its ceaseless course. It pours out upon us an endless stream of facts. And the stream is really endless for the non-Christian basis. For those who do not believe that all that happens in time happens because of the plan of God, the activity of time is like to that, or rather is identical with that, of Chance. Thus the ocean of facts has no bottom and no shore.

 

The Reformed Confessions: Balance and Structure

March 20, 2017 3 comments

Following up from the last post, some more thoughts concerning the use of confessions in understanding Christian doctrine.  As I mentioned last time, it is actually the person learning individual doctrines apart from the confessions (which are a type of systematic theology, doctrinal summary) who is more likely to become proud,  full of head knowledge, and to have an imbalanced view concerning Christianity.  For the confessions provide a balance and a structure, considering all the doctrines and the proper view of them.

One example of this is the doctrine of predestination, which is addressed in the third chapter of the 1689 Baptist Confession.  The Credo Covenant blog  provides a good daily devotional study, a new post every day in the series “A Little Time with the 1689.” Each day’s post provides a look at a phrase or sentence from the 1689 Confession, in sequence through each chapter.  Recent posts addressed the end of the third chapter, on the doctrine of predestination.  Here the confession even has a response, from hundreds of years ago, to the common modern-day problem of “cage stage Calvinism.” So many today learn the Doctrines of Grace (aka the Five Points of Calvinism), outside of its original context (Old Calvinism; the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms) – and thus this one doctrine, learned by itself without proper perspective regarding other doctrines, often leads to pride and arrogance.  Yet the confession itself, in chapter 3 paragraph 7 well summarizes how we should handle the teaching of predestination:

The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.

Other examples of this include the understanding of different measures/levels of faith, and the balance between man as a fallen sinner and yet made in the image of God.  Without the confessions as a framework, too much emphasis may be given to the teaching that we are such wicked, depraved sinners (LBCF chapter 6) – while completely ignoring that we are also made in the image of God (LBCF chapter 4), and what it means to be image bearers of God.  Another common imbalance, often seen in “Sovereign Grace” New Calvinist churches, is to over-emphasize the sovereignty of God to the point of hyper-Calvinism and a passive approach to the Christian life, which thus reasons that since faith is all from God, everything comes from God, then “how can there be any difference between believers, such that some have ‘little faith’ and others have ‘great faith’?”  Again, the confessions – which themselves affirm the highest priority to scripture (chapter 1), and provide the detailed summary of what scripture teaches – provide in summary form the details of saving faith.  From the 1689 Baptist Confession, these excerpts from chapter 14 on saving faith:

The grace of faith…  is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.

14.3 — This faith, although it be different in degrees, and may be weak or strong, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory, growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

Reference the full chapter, including scripture references for each point, here.

So, with the structure, balance and depth of the confessions as excellent summaries of Christian truth, we can heartily agree with and appreciate Charles Spurgeon, including what he wrote in his “Morning and Evening” devotional regarding faith (the March 7 entry):

The best servants of God are those who have the most faith. Little faith will save a man, but little faith can not do great things for God. Little faith is powerless to fight against the Evil One. Only a faithful Christian can do that. Little faith is enough to get to heaven most certainly, but it often has to travel the road in fear. It says to itself, “Oh, it is such a rough road, filled with sharp thorns and full of dangers; I am afraid to go on.” But Great faith remembers the promise, “Your shoes will be like iron and brass; and your strength will be with you all of your days,” and so she boldly pushes forward.

Do you want to be happy? Do you want to enjoy your relationship with Christ? Then “have faith in God.” If you don’t mind living in gloom and misery, then be content with little faith; but if you love the sunshine and want to sing songs of rejoicing, then earnestly desire to have “great faith.”

The Reformed Confessions and Evangelical Anti-Creedalism

March 15, 2017 4 comments

From my recent studies and conversations with others, I continue to notice and appreciate the amazing detail and depth in the Reformed confessions; these great statements of faith  encompass everything related to each doctrine, even our proper attitude towards the doctrines.  The anti-confession (really, a lazy and anti-intellectual) idea that people who know their confessions inside and out may just have a lot of head knowledge, and that we shouldn’t be so concerned about systematic theology – because it’s more important to have Christ in our hearts, and communion with Him – is misguided on several points.

First, we all have a creed.  The question is not whether to have a creed — but the content of that creed.  The earliest belief statements arose in response to heretics who said they believed the Bible, but who clearly did not have in mind the same definitions of basic orthodoxy.  The many statements of faith that have come down through church history contain excellent summaries of the Christian faith.  As S. Lewis Johnson well observed:

Now remember, everybody has a creed, and in fact the person who holds up the Bible and says, “I have no creed, I simply have the Bible,” well, that’s his creed; that’s precisely his creed. We all have a creed, but the Christian church has been characterized by some outstanding creeds. The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran church is an outstanding Christian statement. The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian churches is an outstanding statement. Other statements come to mind immediately such as the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican church, also an outstanding statement. The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reform churches is an outstanding statement. These are great Christian creeds, you should study them. You should know them. They are not creeds that were constructed by half a dozen fellows who met over the weekend in order to give us a statement, but most of those creeds were the product of the study, debate, discussion of outstanding leaders of the Christian church over, sometimes, lengthy periods of time. As you well know, some of those creeds are the product of years of study and labor by men who were very competent in the word of God.

Also, in response to the anti-intellectual idea that belittles serious study of God’s word, because it might lead to puffed-up head knowledge:  as Dan Phillips expressed (in his book on the Proverbs), our nature is such that anything can make us proud; he observed that he could just as easily become proud of nothing, of not knowing, as with having knowing.  As has also been observed by many: just because a particular doctrine (any doctrine, and including the study of systematic theology) has been abused or misused by others, is NOT an excuse for YOU to not study God’s word for yourself.  This view is actually a form of post-modernism/ deconstruction – here, as Dan Phillips describes it:

In God’s eyes, there simply is no greater arrogance than rejecting Yahweh’s viewpoint in favor of my own. It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think that he or she knows something from the Word. To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is certainly bad. By contrast, it is the height of arrogance to have a word from God and refuse to trust it by incorporating it into our way of thinking and living.

Thirdly, I would suggest that it is the non-confessional Christian – rather than the one who understands and has studied the confession statements – who is more likely to have his or her doctrinal perspective out of balance.  I’ll expand on this in the next post, but to state it briefly here:  the confessions themselves include statements about how we are to view certain doctrines.  Reference the LBCF chapter 3 paragraph 7, for instance, as an answer to the all-too-common “cage stage Calvinism” among today’s non-confessional “Sovereign Grace” Calvinists.  A full reading and study of the LBCF (or any similar confessions) will address all the doctrines, not just one’s own “pet doctrine” to the neglect of other doctrines.  God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and the distinction between justification and sanctification, are a few examples of this – where non-confessional Calvinists tend to go astray, emphasizing one doctrine and neglecting or simply not understanding the other.

More next time, with a look at specific doctrines and how they are explained in the 1689 Confession.

John Calvin and the Early Church Fathers

July 13, 2016 2 comments

I’m reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, now in book 2 (text available online here), the section on the issue of supposed “free will” and the true nature of the will.  The following observation from Calvin reminded me of a topic I have addressed before, such as in this post about Steve Lawson’s book concerning the history of the “doctrines of grace”  and this later post on historical theology:

Moreover, although the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will, yet all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings.

Throughout this chapter Calvin considers, at some length, what previous scholars believed concerning the human will, even addressing their sub-categories of different parts of what makes up the human will and mind.  After observing that the Greek (pagan) philosophers all held a high view of the human will and human reason, Calvin noted that the Greek early church fathers in particular held a high regard for Greek philosophy.  This agrees with what was brought out in an early church history (Reformed Theological Seminary iTunes University) lectures series, as summarized in this previous post:

Another factor was their background as Greek philosophers, pagan Greeks who only converted to Christianity as adults, and who highly valued Greek philosophy as what helped to bring people to Christianity.  They all had interest in knowledge, the “gnosis,” and at least some of the Greeks were influenced by gnostic and platonic ideas.

Yet, as another response to those who would project the extreme Pelagian view onto the early Church pre-Augustine, to those who bring forth Calvin’s quote about how they were all confused on the subject, later in this chapter Calvin does point out the positive contributions and overall understanding of the early church writers:

The language of the ancient writers on the subject of Free Will is, with the exception of that of Augustine, almost unintelligible. Still they set little or no value on human virtue, and ascribe the praise of all goodness to the Holy Spirit.

 

At one time they teach, that man having been deprived of the power of free will must flee to grace alone; at another, they equip or seem to equip him in armour of his own. It is not difficult, however, to show, that notwithstanding of the ambiguous manner in which those writers express themselves, they hold human virtue in little or no account, and ascribe the whole merit of all that is good to the Holy Spirit.

 

This much, however, I dare affirm, that though they sometimes go too far in extolling free will, the main object which they had in view was to teach man entirely to renounce all self-confidence, and place his strength in God alone.

For this topic, I still consider Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” as the main “go-to” book, one with great detail concerning the natural human will as not free (Erasmus’ view) but in bondage.  Calvin’s Institutes is another lengthy study of its own, regarding many doctrinal points, and this section contributes good information to the topic, including summary of the views of unbelieving philosophers as well as Christian teaching up to Calvin’s time.

Study: The Christian and the Moral Law

April 12, 2016 25 comments

The topic of the Law of God and its relationship to the Christian has come up frequently in my recent studies and daily life. Currently in the 1689 Confession Exposition series I’m in chapter 19, the Law of God, and now in the sixth commandment section of the “Ten Commandments” study from Tom Chantry.

Since last week, the blogosphere has been reacting to Stephen Furtick’s recent claim that “God broke the law for love.”  For reference here, I find Tom Chantry’s post the most helpful in response to the overall evangelical celebrity scandal issue.  His post includes links to several other responses, including the most helpful for the issue as this one from the “Mortification of Spin” blog, as well as Tim Challies’ response.

As I continue through the lessons in both the 1689 Confession and Ten Commandments series, studying various aspects in some detail, I am especially struck by the shallow and superficial (and just plain wrong) arguments and rhetoric of the New Calvinist / New Covenant Theology group, with its anti-Reformed view of the law.  As just a few examples, from a recent local-church NCT conference and some anti-Tim Challies / anti-covenant theology comments at a blog post:  1) rejection of any type of covenant made with Adam in Genesis 2, because “I don’t see the word covenant there” (really? is the word “Trinity” ever found in the Bible?), 2) dislike of Covenant Theology as “those baby baptizers” (will you ever consider that CT includes a credobaptist version, and decide to meaningfully interact with THAT form of CT?  No, it’s easier to resort to name-calling and broad-brushing about how CT is wrong because they’re baby baptizers…), and 3) the stated claim that the moral law was something that started (and ended) with Moses, and thus the only moral law for Christians is what is stated in the New Testament.

As just an aside on point #3:  I find this hermeneutic, that something can only be true for us in the NT era if it’s explicitly stated or “confirmed” in the New Testament, quite frankly, bizarre.  On the question of premillennialism and Israel’s future, dispensationalists (as well as classic/historic premillennialists) recognize the problem with this NT-priority hermeneutic and its implications: a God who changed His plan and changed His promises and His revelation, such that Old Testament believers did not have the same understanding of scripture as we do.  My problem with the NCT group is doubly-compounded in that they get both parts wrong: they apply the NT-only hermeneutic to the moral law (in agreement with dispensationalism) AND apply the NT-only hermeneutic to the question of Israel, rejecting anything of God’s future plans for Israel.  At least dispensationalists get half of it right; and confessional/CT amillennialists get the other half, about the moral law, correct.

Anyway… here are some interesting points from my studies on this topic:  scriptural considerations for why the Ten Commandments are different from the rest of the Mosaic law.

  1. The Ten Commandments were introduced before the rest of the law. They were given directly from God, literally inscribed by God onto the tablets.  These two tablets alone were placed into the Ark of the Covenant.  The civil and ceremonial laws were not put in the Ark.
  1. The summary content of the Ten Commandments is found in existence prior to Moses, going all the way back to creation.  The creation ordinances contain, at least implied, the basics of God’s moral law.  Marriage as a creation ordinance relates to the 7th commandment (adultery and other sexual sins), as well as the 8th commandment (not to steal another man’s wife) and the 10th commandment to not covet your neighbor’s wife.  Dominion over the earth pertains to the 5th commandment: God’s authority and our authority structure, in families and all of life’s social structures.  The seven day week pattern establishes the matter of a time for worship, which is the essence of the 4th commandment; and implied in the 4th commandment, of the schedule/time for worship, are the first three commandments about Who we are to worship, how to worship Him, and with what attitude.  The other part of the 4th commandment, the six days of labor, was also in place in the garden.  Adam was there to work the garden.  The part about working “by the sweat of the brow” was added after the fall, but work itself began before that.  Related to the labor part of the 4th commandment, comes the 8th commandment again:  work to provide your daily needs, and do not steal.  The 6th commandment is specifically referenced in Genesis 9, in God’s covenant with Noah after the flood, with the institution of capital punishment for murder.
  1. God’s moral law, as codified/summarized in the Decalogue, was always concerned about the heart. It was never just about the mere letter of the law.  Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was not adding anything to that law, but was expositing and restoring the understanding of the law back to what it had always been–away from the Pharisees’ mistaken notion of an external compliance only.

Note here:  when the Israelites had so apostasized that God ejected them from the land, as described in the later prophets including Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it was their violation of the moral law (what is summarized/codified in the Ten Commandments) that angered God.  In fact, the Israelites in the time of Jeremiah (and even earlier, Isaiah’s day also)  were fully complying with the ceremonial law—in outward form.  It was their outward performance of the ceremonial law, without having the right heart attitude, that was the problem.

This point can also be seen in the Pentateuch, in God’s application of the moral law to the Israelites and their civil law.   Immediately after the giving of the Decalogue in Exodus 20, comes Exodus 21 with an interesting, detailed section of laws for Israel’s government.  Exodus 21:12-36 contains specific laws regarding cases where one person  is killed by another – application of the sixth commandment —  and distinction is made between killings done where the one person meant harm to the other, versus truly accidental deaths, including the provision of the cities of refuge which a person who had killed another could flee to—before the avenger of blood killed the man, and for the priest to judge the situation.  Understood throughout this section is that Israel would need a system of courts and judges, and that they would need to be able to investigate a crime and its circumstances.  This investigation would need to involve considering motives:  the motives and thoughts of the person who had killed another, as this is necessary information for determining if a death was accidental, or a case of what we would call 1st or 2nd degree murder.

The above is but a sampling, of scriptural issues to consider regarding the question of the moral law: what it was in the Old Testament era, and why it is God’s unchanging moral law from creation–and not something “only for Israel and the Mosaic administration” and thus no longer relevant to Christians in the New Testament age.

More next time:  the different usages/meanings of the term “law” in the New Testament.