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Archive for January, 2008

When I was first introduced to Reformed theology, I encountered “the five points of Calvinism” and “TULIP.” I was told that these came from the Synod of Dort, which essentially decided that Calvinism would be the accepted religion of the Reformed churches in Europe. Calvinism and TULIP were for the most part equivalent.

As I moved from a Reformed Baptist to a Presbyterian, I began to hear pastors mention that Calvinism was more than the five points. I began to learn about “covenant theology,” which served as the basis for baptizing infants. Calvinism now included the TULIP as well as covenant theology and infant baptism. Still later in my studies, I began to learn about the Calvinistic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. My understanding of Calvinism broadened, but I still had a tendency to think of Dort when I heard the term Calvinist.

Given the central place of Dort in the history of Calvinism, I was surprised when I began to read R. L. Dabney’s Systematic Theology and his book The Five Points of Calvinism. He nearly dismissed the five points saying, “Historically, this title is of little accuracy or worth.”[1] As I continued to read in Dabney, I began to discover there were various schools within Calvinism, some of which disagreed in key places. Amazingly, Dabney, Charles Hodge, and William Shedd all distance themselves from theologians like Francis Turretin on the relationship between the decree of God and the cross of Christ, and even go so far as to explicitly reject key exegesis that underlies the “limited atonement” argument found in John Owen’s The Death of Death.[2] These 19th century Presbyterians were neither Arminians, nor Amyraldians though, but rather they represent what is called, for better or for worse, moderate Calvinism.[3]

How is it, I wondered, that I had never heard of this distinction before? Why have I been taught that the Five Points of Calvinism are the summary of Reformed theology? What is limited atonement? This brought on a bit of theological dizziness, and I was eager to learn more about the true history of Calvinism and the Synod of Dort. What did it teach concerning these matters, and what is its place in the larger Reformed church history? (more…)

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First John 5.16, 17:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life–to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.    

I think it is a mistake here to assume that the sin or sins leading to death is some version of the “unforgivable sin.”  I remember many years ago reading R. C. Spoul point out that the Chapter 21, paragraph 4, of the Westminster Confession is mistaken in using this passage as a rational for saying that it is forbidden to pray for those “for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.” He made the obvious point that John does not say that such prayers are forbidden.  But, if one thinks this refers to the “unforgivable sin,” then one can understand why readers would make that mistaken inference.My opinion is that John starts out making a point similar to Paul’s in Romans 14:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.   

Paul doesn’t want busybody lay “pastoring” to destroy the peace of the church and one of his tools of persuasion is to encourage Christians to be optimistic about one another.  Likewise, in encouraging real love for the brethren, John encourages Christians to respond to the sins they see in other Christians not by active intervention but through private prayer.  In such cases, John promises, God will give the person life.  However, when you see something more serious (like a spouse having an extra-marital affair, say), John cannot promise that God will respond to a private prayer by giving life.  That inability to be as positive about the outcome is why John says, “I do not say that one should pray for that.” The point is not that prayer is forbidden, but that he cannot make the same claim for such prayer that he made for lesser sins. Other action must also take place (i.e. Galatians 6.1ff).Thus, the various ways that Christians usually judge one another should not be used for interfering or for gossip, but for prayer.  More serious sins that are ultimately a departure from the Faith, however, require rescue attempts. 

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Homo sapiens. Thinking man. That is, of course, the Latin phrase often used to describe and classify the human race. But does this description reflect a biblical way of thinking? Jim Jordan says no.

In “The Case against Western Civilization,” Jordan argues that man should be described, first and foremost, as homo adorans. Says Jordan:

“Human beings are not, as the Greco-Roman tradition teaches, homo sapiens, ‘thinking man.’ Rather, we are homo adorans, ‘worshipping man,’ something the Bible teaches and which the older pagans had not yet forgotten. Sadly, the Greek assumption seems to underlie most Christian education. Worship is basically left outside, and if included at all, is not foundational. As a result, education winds up being contextualized along a Greek, ‘thinking man,’ model.”

That doesn’t mean that learning to think and reason has no value; nor does it suggest that our worldly callings are simply what we do to kill time when not engaged in more “spiritual” things such as worship. Not at all.

The problem arises when we think of worship (whether consciously or subconsciously) as something extra tacked on to our regular lives, like pin the tail on the donkey. As Christians, we start the week gathered as the body of Christ to offer to him our praise and worship, where we are strengthened and fed. Then we go out to continue our labors. “Homo adorans” reminds us of who we are, and of the reason we can and should pursue our callings with zeal and joy, in service to the Lord who created us for himself.

(more…)

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Mediated Authority

A few years back I read Lesslie Newbigin’s little book Truth and Authority in Modernity (Trinity Press, 1996). I was particularly impressed with his argument in chapter 2 “The Mediation of Divine Authority.” Now, maybe this is old hat to many of you, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put quite this way. The question concerns the kind of authority that modern people demand as justification for religious truth.

First, he asks about the intention of Jesus for the future of the Church, specifically the mediation of his authority to future generations. He identifies three important indications of Jesus’ intention: 1) He chose, called, and prepared a company of people to mediate his authority; 2) to them he entrusted his teaching; and 3) he promised them the gift of the Spirit to guide them in matters that were beyond their present horizons.

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Traditionally, the Anglican Church has viewed itself as the “Via Media” or “Middle Way” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But I want to suggest that a helpful way of viewing Reformed churches is seeing them, in some sense, as a “Via Media.” 

The recent controversy in conservative Reformed circles has generally run along the fault line between High Church Calvinists and those more influenced by a Revivalist tradition coming out of the Great Awakenings. The charge is often leveled against High Church Calvinists that their openness to historic liturgy and a higher regard for and practice of the sacraments leads to people heading to Roman Catholicism and, to a lesser degree, Eastern Orthodoxy. Perhaps this is true but for the sake of clear and honest dialogue, we will assume this is true. But on the other hand, it seems that there is a constant hemorrhage of persons leaving more Revivalist Reformed churches for Baptist churches (this has been my experience) and this should be equally disturbing to us. After all, these folks will be viewed with endless suspicion until they recant their covenant baptisms and submit to re-baptism, something our Puritan forefathers would find outrageous.  (more…)

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In recent years I’ve observed a number of Reformed-type churches trying to institute corporate handraising in certain sung parts of worship. This often does not seem to work very well. 1. Some people don’t do it. 2. Some do it half-way. 3. Some do it with one hand. 4. Some dramatically stretch to the ceiling with both hands. 5. Some put their hands out wide into the faces of their neighbors.

So I have some questions.

1. What is the Biblical basis for trying to institute this? Traditional Reformed/Presbyterian liturgical practice enjoins the pastor to pray with his hands raised. 1 Timothy 2:8 says “the men (aner)” are to offer prayer. Since this is a pastoral epistle, THE men are taken to be the pastors/leaders in worship, not all the men in the room.

2. All the instances I can find of lifting hands are either to place a benediction, or in prayer. I don’t see any instances of raising hands during song.

3. If we come to believe there is some value in corporate handraising, then it makes sense for it to be in prayer, or in sung prayer. Perhaps the reason it is not “working” very well in many churches is that the Doxology and the Gloria Patri are NOT prayers. They are not addressed to God. There’s no one to lift your hands to in the Doxology and Gloria Patri, so the act seems absurd at some level. Both songs (which are actually the same song) call on others to praise God, but are not prayers or praise directed to God.

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Baptism is not Christian circumcision. There’s a lot of loose talk to that effect in Presbyterian circles; but it’s not accurate. The old world rite of circumcision was fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism unites us to Christ and therefore makes us participate in the circumcision of Christ. Baptism is not, however, the new world equivalent or fulfillment of circumcision. The death and resurrection of Christ is.

Colossians 2, the only text that comes close to linking circumcision and baptism, actually links circumcision with the cross and resurrection of Christ. According to Colossians 2:8-13,

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by the putting off of the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your tresspasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him. . .

Baptism unites us to Christ so that we can be said to have died and to have risen with him. But the dying and rising of the flesh of Christ is the circumcision of humanity’s flesh.

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This is an exploratory attempt to plot the structure of the Jacob narrative. I have been working through the book of Genesis for a Sunday School class, and this section was inspired by the Biblical Horizons Newsletter 109, Crisis Time: Patriarchal Prologue, Part 1.

A. Naming of Jacob (25:19-28)
  B. Esau Despises his Birthright (25:29-34)
    C. Abimelech (26)
      D. Jacob is blessed and incites Esau to Murder (27-28:9)
        E. Vision of God at Bethel (28:10-22)
          F. Jacob vs. Laban (29:1-30)
            G. Leah vs. Rachel (29:31-24)
              H. God opens Rachel’s womb – Joseph (30:22-24)
            ’G. Speckled vs. White Goats (30:25-34)
          ’F. Jacob vs. Laban (31)
        ’E. Vision of God at Peniel (32:22-32)
      ’D. Esau turns from his anger and Jacob blesses Esau (33)
    ’C. Dinah (34)
  ’B. Jacob casts out the idols (35:1-8)
’A. Renaming of Jacob (35:9-15)

(more…)

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Most modern scholars recognize that behind Arius’s campaign to differentiate Jesus from God was the Hellenistic theological conviction that the high God cannot suffer. Rowan Williams argues that Arius had the right idea about divine suffering, but the wrong idea of God, which “puts the unavoidable question of what the respective schemes in the long term make possible for theology.” One must honestly admit, according to Williams, the “odd conclusion that the Nicene fathers achieved not only more than they knew but a good deal more than they wanted.” (Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition [London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 198]), p. 22). Now, what does that mean?

The Arians recognized the importance of the genuine sufferings and death of Christ as God. R.P.C. Hanson notes that “at the heart of the Arian Gospel was a God who suffered” (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988], p. 121). Unfortunately, they would not (or could not) go the whole way with this insight because they too were under the control of the Greek philosophical impassability axiom. The Arians argued that God must have suffered in Christ, but only a god whose divinity was somehow reduced could suffer. Therefore, the Son was god (theos), but not the one high and immutable God (o theos). He was something of a demigod: created by the high God, but not of the same substance or being as the impassible God.

Although Hanson praises the Arians for not “shying away from the scandal of the cross,” in fact, their own theological program was its own attempt to explain away the scandal of the crucified God. If the Nicene theologians, as Rowan Williams argues, did not fully understand the implications of contending for the homoousios of the Father and Son, they nevertheless rightly emphasized the unity of the one Lord Jesus Christ in such a way that eventually the question of God’s participation in the suffering and death of Jesus would have to be addressed.

We’re still addressing this issue. Many Christians are uncomfortable with affirming that God the Son experienced death as a man (the theopaschite formula). They feel the need to distance God from the suffering of the man Jesus. This is a huge mistake. It’s pretty close to Peter insisting that what Jesus had said about his suffering and death in Jerusalem would “never happen” to him (Matt. 16:22). Jesus pushes Peter aside as a Satan, saying that he does not have “his mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (16:23). Indeed.

God the Son lived as a man, suffered, and experienced death. There is no Gospel if this is not the case.

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Charismatics have been much maligned for constantly “praising the Lord.” They would say if you hit your finger with a hammer, you should instantly say, “Thank you Jesus that You let me hit my finger…”  This of course, as we all know, is stupid. 

There was once a lady who had lost her eye glasses, and she asked the Lord to help her find them. She was commended by the great preacher Spurgeon, and he defended her against detractors who said,  “We should pray about BIG things, not silly trivialities.  This is a debasement of prayer, which is high, holy, and majestic.”  “What, prey tell” asked the Great Preacher, “is BIG to the Lord?”  And then in that majestic and poetic Victorian prose, he went on to exclaim the God who flung out the starry heavens, and keeps all planets and suns rolling in their proper course.  “One is no more difficult than the other for the Lord, who is infinite.”  It is true that for us, one is far bigger than the other.  But, we learn to trust God for big things by beginning with the small, and our trust is to be for ALL THINGS.

If it is true that we are all eventually called to be good judges, then what that especially means in a fallen world is that we become co-workers with God in bringing good out of evil.  Do we believe Romans 8:28?  Do we believe that God is bringing this sinful world to a final and glorious end?  Does He work through war, and death, and mayhem, and destruction, and every sinful act that the human race is capable of concocting? 

It is one thing to say “yes” in the abstract, but even there it can be hard.  The world however, is not a philosophy class on “the problem of evil.”  When we are called to be judges in real concrete situations, it is no longer abstract and far away.  It is present and at hand. 

(more…)

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