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Horatius Bonar, the Blessings and Curses, and Hermeneutics and Application

May 7, 2020 12 comments

It’s been ten years since I read Horatius Bonar’s Prophetical Landmarks, and it’s time to revisit it, a good refresher, now that my overall doctrinal views in other areas – from the last several years of study – more closely align with the 19th century covenantal premillennialists.  (For reference, here are posts from 2010 on Horatius Bonar:  On Interpreting the Prophets  and On the Millennial Question.)

While reading through the Westminster Confession and catechisms (a calendar year reading), along with the scripture references, I noticed WLC question 28

Q 28. What are the punishments of sin in this world?

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward,
as blindness of mind,
a reprobate sense,
strong delusions,
hardness of heart,
horror of conscience,
and vile affections;
or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes,
and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments;
together with death itself.

The highlighted phrase in the answer, includes as scripture reference, a large section from Deuteronomy 28, verses 15-68 — which describes the prophecy regarding the nation of Israel in its apostasy.

Now, as I understand, the Westminster Divines added the ‘scripture proofs’ only upon request from the Parliament, and their intent was for people to focus not so much on the actual scripture proofs, but as a guide to their commentaries on the scripture references.  That would be the next step in a study here, to find and read their commentaries on this passage.  I understand the general application purpose—from apostate Israel and the temporal evils that befell them, to the general precept of what can happen, temporally, to unbelievers.  That unbelievers, along with the godly, suffer affliction in this life is clear from many places; Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot (which I’m currently reading), an exposition of Ecclesiastes 1:15, explains well the type of suffering experienced by everyone, and the purpose of that suffering in unbelievers, as contrasted with its purpose in the lives of God’s people.

Deuteronomy 28, though, includes very specific prophecies, regarding what would happen to the Jews in the centuries and millennia after Moses’s speech – specific things that were later experienced, including drought, defeated before enemies, property being given to the nation’s enemies, cannibalism, followed by being scattered throughout the world and even to the point that they would offer themselves as slaves to their enemies, but “there will be no buyer.”  If Deuteronomy 28 could be used as an application and a scripture reference for the temporal suffering experienced by unbelievers generally, then Deuteronomy 7:12-14 and 28:3-14 should equally apply in a general application sense to believers.   As both sets of passages apply to the same people group (in this case Israel, the Jewish church), I see that a general application could be made:  the one part, curses, applies to the unbelieving part of Israel (the visible members of the covenant community, who do not have the true inward saving faith), while the other part, the blessings, to the invisible church, those who actually are saved.  Yet the specifics of these passages, the primary meaning, has reference to the specific nation of Israel and its history, with specific, detailed curse events as well as detailed blessing events.

Horatius Bonar was writing in response to 19th century spiritualizing amillennialists, and provided a great lesson on plain-language literal hermeneutics and the treatment of prophecy in scripture, such as this chapter on Israel.  Regarding the idea of literal curses upon Israel (which were fulfilled, the curses mentioned in Deuteronomy 28) versus “spiritual” blessings in Christ, Bonar observed:

Up to this hour, then, everything respecting Israel has been literally accomplished. Nothing in what has hitherto occurred in their strange history gives the slightest countenance to the figurative interpretations for which some so strenuously contend. Why is Israel still an exile, an outcast, a wanderer, if there be no literal curse? Why is Jerusalem laid in heaps, and Mount Zion ploughed as a field (Jer. 26:18)? Why is the crown of Samaria broken, its ruins rolled down into the valley, and its vines all withered from the mountain side (Jer. 31:5; Mic. 1:6)? Why is Lebanon hewn down, the oaks of Bashan withered, the roses of Sharon gone? Why do the fields of Heshbon languish? Why is the vine of Sibmah uprooted, the summer fruits of Elealeh faded, and why is Carmel bare? Why is baldness come upon Gaza, and why is Ashkelon cut off? Why is Ammon a couching-place for flocks, and the palaces of Bozrah swept away? Why is Moab fled, Idumea become a wilderness, and Mount Seir laid desolate? Why is all this, if there be no literal curse? And why, if there has been such a literal curse, is the literal blessing to be denied?

It is foolish to answer, as many do, “The spiritual blessing is far richer; why contend about blessings of meaner value?” Why? Because we believe that God has revealed them; because we believe that as God has been dishonored by Israel’s being an outcast from the land of promise, so He will be honored by their peaceful settlement again; because as we know He was glorified in leading up Israel, His firstborn, out of Egypt, from the tyranny of Pharaoh, through the wilderness into Canaan, so we believe He designs to glorify Himself by a second exodus, and a second establishment in the land given to Abraham and his seed; because as He magnified His name and power in the sight of the heathen by bringing His people out from Babylon after seventy years’ captivity, so we believe He will magnify that name again by leading them out of Babylon the Great, and planting them in their ancient possessions to inherit them forever; never to be disturbed by the enemy; never to hear the voice of war again.

Among the general principles that Bonar sets forth for the literal interpretation of prophecies regarding Israel, is this one:

When their scattering and their gathering are placed together, and when we are told, that as they have been scattered, so they shall be gathered. Very striking and explicit are the prophecies to this effect in Deuteronomy, where the plainness of the style precludes the idea of figures. How, for instance, could the most ingenious spiritualizer contrive to explain away such a passage as this,—“If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will he fetch thee; and the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers” (Deut. 30:4)

Horatius Bonar’s Prophetical Landmarks is still good reading, with Bonar’s rich prose style and use of scripture, and its explanation of solid hermeneutical principles.

Scripture Interpretation, and Occam’s Razor

April 6, 2020 8 comments

I’m continuing through Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, along with the Westminster Daily calendar readings.  In this first quarter of the calendar year, both of these teach about the person of Christ, the Trinity, and the Mediator, with some excellent material.

Along the way I have also discovered some additional online resources, as I continue to think through the implications of Reformed PaedoBaptism, and understanding its differences from the Particular Baptist/1689 Federalism version of Covenant Theology.  For one thing, though Facebook has a large, active group for 1689 Reformed Baptists, the best online forum for serious discussion of Westminster theology is the Puritan Board.  Though as some people have described, that its ‘heyday’ is past, 10-12 years ago — as Facebook has replaced it in sheer numbers and volume of group conversations — yet it still has good, in-depth discussion on a lot of theology topics.  Over the last several days, I’ve been reading through a recent lengthy thread in the Paedo-Baptism answers forum, learning a lot, and noting additional links to online material mentioned in the conversation.

A few other helpful resources I’ve found, for Paedobaptist articles interacting with and responding to 1689 Federalism:

One overall impression I now have, goes back to Occam’s Razor and the layman term description, that the simplest answer – the answer with the fewest assumptions – is generally the correct one.  Certainly it proved true for Copernican Astronomy (contrasted with Aristotelian), and I’ve seen that principle at work also in understanding Creation Science as contrasted with the complexities and ever-changing theories of old-earth/evolutionary views.

This same principle plays out in comparing the presentation of 1689 Federalism, with standard Reformed Theology.  As observed in the Puritan board comment thread — and I find agreement, from my reading a few years ago of several online articles as well as Denault’s The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (2013 Kindle edition) – the presentation is very difficult to follow and understand.  During my study of 1689 Federalism I grasped the basic idea, similar to the usage of terms by Charles Spurgeon, that “the Covenant of Grace = the New Covenant,” and that the New Covenant was ‘in promise form’ throughout the Old Testamant era, a separate promise running through yet distinct from the actual historical covenants (Abrahamic, Davidic, etc.).  Beyond that level, though, the explanations become verbose and tedious.  As one comment described, the writers of an RB essay seek to bolster their position from so many sources, and redefine so many terms (Old Testament, Old Covenant, New Testament, New Covenant, Covenant of Grace, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic or Sinaitic Covenant)—as does Pascal Denault in his, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, that one would almost have to write a book, or at least a lengthy essay in reply. And each of hundreds of points could then be argued and wrangled about! Also, “it is troubling to see the tortuous—one could almost call it labyrinthine—argumentation of their presentation on the covenants and the resultant disallowance of baptism for believers’ infants. Why can’t plain teachings of the Bible be presented simply?”

While granting that some paedobaptist explanations of Reformed Covenant Theology may also be presented in a complex way, overall I have found that online articles about Reformed paedo-CT are presented in a simpler, clearer way along with the scripture evidence.  The continuity and scriptures make sense, and without lengthy explanations to redefine terms. (It is also worth noting that not all Reformed Baptists follow 1689 Federalism; the third view, sometimes called ‘Modern RB,’ keeps the Westminster Standards version of Covenant Theology but with believers’ baptism instead of paedo.)

Further, the 1689 Federalism splitting of the Abrahamic covenant into two parts, to effect two covenants, one spiritual and one carnal/physical only, seems unnecessary complexity.  The attitude toward the Abrahamic land promises, the strong amillennial ‘replacement’ motif is also troubling; during my 1689 RB years, I identified instead with Charles Spurgeon’s beliefs, in the basic 1689 London Baptist Confession while strongly affirming the Old Testament’s prophecies regarding the future regathering of ethnic, national Israel and the land promises for Israel’s future.

As with science theories, and the plain language/normal reading hermeneutic applied to God’s word, the simpler explanation, “the answer with the fewest assumptions – is generally the correct one.”

Studying the Confessions: Chapter 1 and Scripture

January 16, 2020 1 comment

As I mentioned last month, one major study for this year is the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms.  Going through the Westminster Daily, the first few days’ readings are in the beginning questions and the first chapter, on Scripture.  I’ve added a few commentaries, including A.A. Hodge’s “The Westminster Confession: A Commentary” and Thomas Boston’s commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

I’ve also found out that many commentaries exist for the WSC, but very few (really only two) for the WLC; one of the two is reportedly suspect as having some Socinian tendencies; the other is only available in print, apparently no e-book.  Through some exploration of Sermon Audio for a few Reformed names I’ve heard recently, I came across one sermon series (with 104 sermons) on the Westminster Larger Catechism, from Daniel Hyde, which covers at least some of the WLC, and several other series from various Presbyterian churches posting to SermonAudio.

Along the way I’m also reading the ‘scripture proofs’ and noting any differences between the Westminster standards and the 1689 Baptist confession and catechism.  The scripture references remind me of what Carl Trueman has well explained: the Assembly was asked by the Parliament to provide these references, so the scripture verses were an ‘add on’; also, the scripture references there are to prompt the reader to go read not only the verses but the commentary books written by the Puritan Westminster Divines.  Well, at this point I am mainly reading the actual Confession and Catechisms along with the verses, as I don’t necessarily have the particular commentaries from Puritan authors on any or all of the particular verses.  Yet I find the Confession and Catechism commentaries helpful.  In reading some of the Bible verses, though, I am reminded of a few Charles Spurgeon sermons I’ve read and especially liked, such as Psalm 16’s ‘the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance,’ (referenced in the first question in both the WSC and WLC) and a verse that Spurgeon often referenced.

The Heidelberg Catechism also has a yearly plan, the Lord’s Day weeks 1 through 52 as outlined in the actual catechism, and Zachary Ursinus’ commentary is in the public domain and available at sites including Monergism.

The main focus of these first daily readings is on Scripture, and natural revelation as contrasted with special revelation.  Here, A.A. Hodge provides some interesting points, noting the difference between what natural man came up with in the early pre-Christian era, as contrasted with the supposed ‘natural theology’ of the German enlightenment rationalists of the 19th century, living in and experiencing the benefits of a Christianized society:

We must, however, distinguish between that knowledge of the divine character which may be obtained by men from the worlds of nature arid providence in the exercise of their natural powers alone, without any suggestions or assistance derived from a supernatural revelation — as is illustrated in the theological writings of some most eminent of the heathen who lived before Christ — and that knowledge which men in this age, under the clear light of a supernatural revelation, are competent to deduce from a study of nature. The natural theology of the modern Rationalists demonstrably owes all its special excellences to that Christian revelation it is intended to supersede. …

That the amount of knowledge attainable by the light of nature is not sufficient to enable any to secure salvation. ….    From the facts presented in the past history of all nations destitute of the light of revelation, both before and since Christ. The truths they have held have been incomplete and mixed with fundamental error; their faith has been uncertain; their religious rites have been degrading, and their lives immoral. The only apparent exception to this fact is found in the case of some Rationalists in Christian lands; and their exceptional superiority to others of their creed is due to the secondary influences of that system of supernatural religion which they deny, but the power of which they cannot exclude.

In the early questions, the Westminster and Baptist confessions and catechisms are very similar, yet I notice some interesting differences, particularly in the ‘scripture text’ references, with the WCF/WLC/WSC generally providing more scripture references including key texts such as Isaiah 59:21 and overall more references to Deuteronomy and the Old Testament.

Hodge’s commentary is good overall for the Westminster Confession, at a general level; it includes good explanations regarding natural and special revelation, and the difference between spiritual illumination and inspiration.  Hodge keeps to this basic level, though, not an expanded scope (or length required) for all details.  For example, January 10’s reading on WCF 1.6 includes the doctrine of ‘good and necessary consequences’.  (The LBCF equivalent has slightly different wording, ‘necessarily contained in Scripture’, which I wondered about–and from googling found the explanation for the different wording, that its writers held to the same concept just with different wording a generation later.)  Hodge provides a general overview of the paragraph, but nothing specific to the understanding of good and necessary consequences.  Online articles abound, though, on this specific topic, such as these helpful ones, which give interesting historical and scriptural explanation, including a few examples of this principle in scripture–such as Jesus’ inference, upholding the truth of the Resurrection from Exodus 3:6.

Thomas Boston’s commentary on the WSC is good and fairly in-depth, as far as I’ve read into the first volume and just the first three questions, as is Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg catechism.