Reformed Theology Rocks!

Reformed theology rocks, for a variety of reasons. I am currently reading Jan Rohls book Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen. Columbia Series In Reformed Theology, which is a resource I briefly referenced in a chapter I wrote for our edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. As I have been reading this book I have been getting encouraged again about why Reformed theology is such a boon for the weary theological soul.

Primarily the thing that has attracted me most to Reformed theology over the years is of a dogmatic interest; i.e. the Sovereign reality of who the Triune God is, and the primacy of grace serve to shape the Reformed theological trajectory in ways that other theological approaches do not, in my view. Truly, there are different ways to emphasize this reality within the Reformed approach[es], and we as evangelical Calvinists have our own unique way of emphasizing who God is for us in Christ, but in the main there is a common thread that unites all instances of Reformed theology; that common theme, again, is an emphasis upon who God is, and the primacy of grace in a God-world/Creator-creature relation.

For example there is something very comforting that arises from the words found in the Heidelberg Catechism, in regard to who God is, and what our relation to him is. When you are reading the Heidelberg Catechism you will immediately be confronted with question 1 that says this:

Question 1.

What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer.

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, (a) am not my own, (b) but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; (c) who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, (d) and delivered me from all the power of the devil; (e) and so preserves me (f) that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; (g) yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, (h) and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, (i) and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him. (j) (a) Rom.14:7,8. (b) 1 Cor.6:19. (c) 1 Cor.3:23; Tit.2:14. (d) 1Pet.1:18,19; 1 John 1:7; 1 John 2:2,12. (e) Heb.2:14; 1 John 3:8; John 8:34-36. (f) John 6:39; John 10:28; 2 Thess.3:3; 1 Pet.1:5. (g) Matt.10:29-31; Luke 21:18. (h) Rom.8:28. (i) 2 Cor.1:20-22; 2 Cor.5:5; Eph.1:13,14; Rom.8:16. (j) Rom.8:14; 1 John 3:3.

This is a perfect example of the kind of riches available for the Christian person who takes advantage of the heritage provided for in the Reformed Christian faith. There is a hope and a warmth in knowing God as Father, and that we are related to him as a result of his love for us in the dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ, and that our relationship to this Father-Son God is assured and guaranteed to us by the person and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is this Triune reality that Reformed theology, from a Protestant vantage point, does such a good job of emphasizing.

On a personal note: One reason I find this so encouraging is that this heritage is such a harbinger to my weary soul as I engage with the world who rejects, by and large, thoughtfulness about life, and greater reality such as God represents. It is encouraging to know that I have somewhere to go to quench my thirst, theologically, and in a way that there is a depth dimension provided for in an through the people that God was ministering to centuries ago in his church in the Reformation period.

These are some reasons why I think Reformed theology rocks (there are many other reasons), and why I would like to commend it to you for your consideration, if you have never taken advantage of the deeper theological realities provided for in the Reformed angle of the Christian faith. soli Deo Gloria!

 

 

On Modern Biblical Exegesis

How did we get to where we have gotten theologically exegetically in our current state, whether ‘Liberal’ or ‘evangelical’ in the modern-post/modern period? How has a ‘reasonable faith’ impeded upon a revealed faith such kantthat either we must attempt to jump Lessing’s historical ditch by our own intellectual prowess, or acknowledge thus propping up revealed theology (i.e. what is given in the Bible) by our own rationales?

These are questions I will briefly deal with and sketch in the rest of this kind of abstract (an abstract without an essay).

As Murray Rae describes the impact of Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Kant upon where ‘modern’ exegetical practice is at today the above questions will be addressed, and then I will follow this up with my own reflection upon Rae’s observations.

Lessing’s troubled skepticism about whether the Gospel narratives—concerning events now inaccessible to our experience—could be sufficiently trustworthy to warrant the total submission of one’s life and intellect to the truth proclaimed by Christianity helped to generate among Schleiermacher’s contemporaries, at least in the universities, an impatience with theological claims—about Jesus in particular—that relied solely on the quotation of Scripture and that could not be confirmed by the deliberations of human reason. That mood was also given impetus by Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) insistence that we have no direct experience of things as they are in themselves but only of things as they appear to us. The way appearances of things are ordered into a coherent picture of the world depends upon the data of perception but crucially too upon the conceptualizing activity of our own intellects. With respect to theology, Kant contended that we have no direct experience of God, but our experience of moral obligation only makes sense if we postulate the existence of God (along with individual freedom and immortality). The existence of God is, in other words, a condition of the intelligibility of our moral experience.

Kant proceeded to explain that there are two forms of theology, the revealed or biblical theology of the church containing all the historical and symbolic material upon which Christian theology has been constructed, and the rational theology which Kant himself presumed to develop in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). These two forms of theology are related as two concentric circles: the outer being revealed theology, the inner being rational theology. The rational theologian, Kant argued, must “waive consideration of all experiences,” which is to say, the rational theologian must proceed without reliance upon the historical material of the Bible. There is, in revealed theology, a timeless essence with which the rational theologian is concerned, but it is discoverable in principle without recourse to the historical testimonies that attend Christian theology, as also the theology of other faiths. The essence of all faiths, allegedly, is their moral significance, which is derivable a priori from reason alone.[1]

Present in all proposals, whether Lessing, Schleiermacher, Kant, et. al. there is redolent a kind of dualism between history (linearly conceived), and a subject’s engagement with it vis-à-vis reason; and the more circumspect or reliable or accessible of the two is humanity’s reason. And so beyond the categories supplied by reason there is nothing reliable and thus anything beyond reason remains off limits and inaccessible toward being a ground upon which humanity can build anything stable and flourishing.

As Rae underscores, what this does, in particular with a Kantian accessibility to reality and ‘truth’ is that it subjectivizes it in a way that historical data, for example, no longer has the capacity to duly inform how we ought to conceive of God; instead that is left to our experience and ordering of reality through our own rationales. So God becomes subject to our subject, and Scripture is discarded as a husk that only reflects the kernel of other human being’s attempt to think God. God orbits in our world, we do not orbit in his, in other words.

Actually I made some assertions about ‘Liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ in my opening statements to this abstract, I am going to leave those dangling in light of what I just presented.

[1] Murray Rae, “Salvation in Community: The Tentative Universalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011),

Praying, a Sign of the Kingdom Come

Prayer conquers all fear except the fear of God! It is amazing, when you think about it, prayer is astounding! When we pray we are having dialogue with the living God, even better we are participating in the inner-Triune con-versation occurring between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we pray we get to demonstrate a reliance upon someone else outside of ourselves, and recognize that we don’t have all of the answers, or even any of the answers. It is prayer itself that, if nothing else, is one of the primary signs of the Kingdom come, where recreation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ rebels against the kingdom of darkness that believes that it has all of the answers in demonic self-reliance. It is a battle to pray, but try to do it, a lot, and just pay attention to the kind of distractions that start to compete with your attempt to pray. Prayer is where it is at.

Interpreting Robin Williams’ Death through the Heart instead of the Mind

Robin Williams’ death is tragic, and represents something of a surd to all of humanity. What Robin did flies in the face of the existentialistic philosophy that so many of us North Americans (if not the whole Western world) live robinunder, even if only loosely appreciated. Existentialistic philosophy as a philosophy of life basically is the idea that we only have the now to live in, and in order to experience life to the fullest we must press up against and essentially fight the other dominant reality of this life which is death. Existentialism as a philosophy of life says that humanity must do things that express our existence even in the face of the annihilation of our essence through death. Essentially, existentialism is an assertive philosophy of life that says that we only live if we assert our existence which then can collectively, as humanity, defines our essence as human beings. Here is how James Sire describes it:

Here is how an existentialist goes beyond nihilism. Nothing is of value in the objective world in which we become conscious, but while we are conscious we create value. The person who lives an authentic existence is the one who keeps ever aware of the absurdity of the cosmos but who rebels against that absurdity and creates meaning.[1]

Williams’ actions do not comport with a system of thought that places a premium on life lived in the face of death, who is rebelling, apparently against the cosmos’ depersonalizing call to non-existence. And yet this is exactly what Williams’ did, he rebelled against a dominant philosophy of life in the West, and he, at a more basic level, rebelled against the basic reality that God has recreated us through his image in Jesus Christ. So either way, what Robin Williams did causes all of us problems with processing his suicide.

And yet, there is a ‘beyond’ beyond all of this. Apparently Robin Williams suffered deeply with depression, and so this has become the way, the mechanism through which we as the human race are currently attempting to process and place what Williams did into an intelligible category (even if the category itself remains very subjective and even mysterious at a certain level). So he was deeply depressed, as are so many other folks in the world (I myself went through years of it); and this seems to be the way we have allowed what Robin Williams did to be intelligible. In our world today, in point of fact, what Robin did, people would say, was a result of him being mentally ill (and the language of mentally ill, which used to be rather taboo, has now almost become trendy); and I can accept that, to a degree, but I would like to press this further.

We have come to the conclusion so far that Robin did something that flies in the face of a major philosophy of life for the West, that he has rebelled against his humanity that he has from God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; and that he did what he did because he was mentally ill. But this conclusion seems somewhat hollow to me, I think the ‘mentally ill’ label shuts things down too quickly in the name of closure (even though we still remain shocked). Robin clearly was not thinking rationally, he obviously was not thinking spiritually (not rightly anyway), but really, as my last two points illicit, maybe the problem we are having with processing this adequately is that we have the wrong anthropology, that we are attempting to think of people as thinking/rationalist agents only. Interestingly the anthropology we get in the Bible is different. It does not define human beings by reducing them to rationalist thinking only agents, instead it talks much more about the most definitive component of human beings as the ‘heart’, as ‘affective’ beings who are motivated by certain desires, really as motivated by certain ‘loves.’

I think it would be interesting to attempt to think more about Robin’s suicide through a different anthropology, through a biblical anthropology, one that sees the affections as the core component of what defines humanity coram Deo (before God). If we did this it might reveal more about some of the deeper issues at play in the complex of Robin’s life, as well as in our own lives. This endeavor, should we undertake it, would probably not give us the ultimate answer to why Williams did what he did, but I am almost positive that it would reveal more than the current models being used by society and even Christians at large in attempting to make intelligible the unintelligible in the action of Robin Williams and of so many others among us.

 

[1] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1997), 100.

Update: Interpreting Culture through Christian Dogmatic Lenses

I am going to try and do something  a little different when I have the time and wherewithal, I am going to try and take dogmatic theological themes and attempt to do cultural exegesis through the lens of said dogmatic theology. My goal in doing this, at least one goal, will be to illustrate how theology actually is relevant for the every-day man and woman; that we do not live in a vacuum, and that whether at  conscious or unconscious levels we engage our daily worlds through intellectual and spiritual lenses whether we like it or not. Through postings like this I also hope to illustrate, at least, how I engage and interpret the culture around me on a daily basis through a theological lens, but I also hope to inculcate in others an inclination toward beginning to recognize how they and all of us interpret our surroundings through one lens or another everyday. Primarily I hope to call people, if they are not already, to be intentional about the way they think about God, themselves and others; with the result that our lives will be lived much more Christianly each day as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

‘Inheriting the Kingdom': A Theological-Exegetical Consideration of Galatians 5:21b, Salvation Maintained, Lost, or Never Present

Recently I heard reference in a sermon to Galatians 5:19-21, this passage:

penance16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness,self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (ESV)

Since I don’t have the space to do an exegetical analysis of this whole pericope (or unit of thought), I will focus on the last clause of verse 21, since that, indeed, is what I want to discuss in regard to the sermon that I heard just last Sunday, and how this was appealed to and applied. The following will be a brief exegetical consideration, and then a theological engagement with the implications of taking this clause a particular way.

The appeal, almost in passing, that I heard made to this clause (v. 21b), “… I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God …,” was troubling. If I were to give the pastor the benefit of the doubt I might conclude that he just passed through this too quickly without giving the necessary context for what he actually meant when he appealed to it. But since he indeed did move too quickly with this passage, and this clause about not inheriting the kingdom if there is sin in our life, let me take it the way, by implication, that it could have been taken in the way it was communicated. In other words, let me tease out the negative conclusion one might draw if they were to internalize and take to heart what this pastor said about the relationship of sin, and the inheriting of the kingdom have with each other. To be clear, the pastor claimed that if a person has continual sin (of the kind listed in Galatians 5:18-21a) in their life, that they will not inherit salvation. Left to itself, this pronouncement could be very troubling for the thoughtful and internalizing among us. Left to itself here is what this sentiment could sound like: The Christian Thinker: I have sin in my life that I struggle with daily, in fact I am sure that I have sin in my life that I am not even aware of because I am a born sinner, and if I have continual sin in my life and person, according to what the pastor just communicated I am not going to inherit eternal life, I am not saved, nor will I be saved in the future if Jesus comes back or I die in a moment of sin. I am hopelessly lost then, even as a Christian; I mean I have continual sin in my life, and it is constant, it is as if I move from one sin to the next.*

There seems to be, underlying the premise this pastor is working from, a doctrine of ‘perfectionism.’ In other words, if we logically play this out and reduce it to its conclusion, the sentiment pronounced by this pastor seems to require a level of perfectionism achieved in the Christian’s life. Or at least there seems to be a requirement on behalf of the would-be Christian to stay in a posture of movement toward God, driven by their own ‘will-power’ which ultimately is rewarded with eternal life (i.e. ‘inheriting the kingdom’). In fact what this pastor communicated sounds eerily close to the medieval Roman Catholic conception of salvation articulated by theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Gregory Biel. Aquinas provides the traditional Roman Catholic conception of salvation; Steven Ozment gives a summary of Thomas’ view of salvation:

1. Gratuitous infusion of grace 2. Moral cooperation: doing the best one can with the aid of grace 3. Reward of eternal life as a just due[1]

And here is William of Ockham’s and Gregory Biel’s variation of the traditional “Thomist” Roman Catholic view of and order of salvation:

1. Moral effort: doing the best one can on the basis of natural ability 2. Infusion of grace as an appropriate reward

3. Moral cooperation: doing the best one can with the aid of grace 4. Reward of eternal life as a just due[2]

Left to itself, without further explanation, I think this pastor’s pronouncement on Galatians 5:21b sounds most closely related to Thomas Aquinas’ view on the order of salvation. Knowing the pastor I do not believe what he said would fit well with Ockham’s or Biel’s variation of Thomas’ order of salvation (Ockham and Biel would both be a full Pelagian understanding of salvation, while Thomas’ would just be semi-Pelagian). Nevertheless, there is a deep theological problem with this; it has to do with number 2, in particular, vis-à-vis Thomas’ view. The way this pastor articulated what he did, ‘sounds’ like the idea that the person must cooperate with God in maintaining their salvation; ultimately rewarded with ‘inheriting the kingdom’ or eternal life. But in what way can this actually be said to be biblical when tempered with the weightier reality of what we know of God’s grace (ironically we know of some of this from the epistle of Galatians itself!)? If we can cooperate with God in our salvation with the aid of grace, what does this say about our concept of grace (it makes it sound like a thing a ‘created thing’ that we can manipulate per our own desire to have eternal life)?

I am going to have to end this post here; I will follow it up later with a part two getting further into some theological consideration, and exegetical analysis. But I wanted to bookmark this topic as it is on my heart even now, since I believe this is a serious issue, and not something we ought to gloss over or throw the mystery card at (we have too much teaching for that, in both the history of interpretation and with straight exegesis).

 

*A caveat is usually made here, the caveat is: “I am just referring to someone who habitually remains in sin.” But I will contest that this caveat, left to itself is too easy, and in fact is a cop-out, at least without further explanation. If the person/pastor is going to make this caveat (and I am not just referring to the pastor in my post), then they need to flesh out what this habitual continuation in sin means. It is too subjective to make such an assertion without explaining if there are certain thresholds of habituation in sin that must be met before becoming disqualified for eternal life or what. There is also the question here of whether someone believes salvation can be ‘lost’, or would Paul be talking about someone who was never saved to begin with? Or is there another way to understand this list of the ‘flesh’ up against the list of the ‘fruit of the Spirit?’ I think there is, and I will attempt to show what that looks like exegetically in a following post.

[1] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 125-1550: An Intellectual And Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven • London: Yale University Press, 1980), 233.

[2] Ibid., 234.

ISIS, Ethics and Humanity

Ethics and evangelical Calvinism are two things I really haven’t brought together here on the blog, so let me attempt to remedy that.

There is so much of concern going on in the world right now, of ethical import, it is going to be hard to narrow down on one issue; but let me try to do that. What has really been on my heart as of late, along with so many of you I am sure, is what has been going on in Iraq (and Syria) with ISIS and its persecution and slaughter of Christians and other minority groups. I have seen some of the most inhumane and immoral images coming out of this crisis that I have ever scene in my life. Such as the beheading of a young Christian man (live), the execution of four young boys, the blood letting from the neck of a bound and naked women, the mass slaughter of men (again execution style), and the list goes on and on; and my heart is in absolute turmoil!

There are various ways into considering ethical angles on this rabid scenario, but let me focus on one. I have heard many, whether they be news reporters, or personal contacts reflecting on the why and how question. People, when confronted with the type of evil we are being faced with as we look at the actions of ISIS can get overwhelmed. But I think the answer to these questions, like why and how can ISIS be so demonically evil, is provided for (of course) in Scripture. The Apostle Paul answers these questions in his correspondence with the Ephesians when he writes about people’s hearts that are severed from the light of Christ:

This I say, therefore, and testify in The Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind. 18. having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; 19. who, being passed feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. Ephesians 4:17-19

We could stop right here, and say ‘okay there’s the answer.’ But I would like to press a bit deeper, and this is where the anthropology of evangelical Calvinism will come in. As many of you know, we as evangelical Calvinists believe that the ground of humanity is found in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. As a result what we see happening in Iraq and among the ISIS fighters becomes even more perplexing. It is perplexing, because if the ground of all humanity is indeed present in the humanity of Jesus Christ for us then we could legitimately wonder at how in the world anyone could act in the way that ISIS is acting. But, as we just read along with the apostle Paul we understand that humanity’s heart is dark and beyond feeling without a subjective participation in the humanity of Jesus Christ. And so what we see happening in Iraq among the ISIS fighters, and their brutality can be attributed to the fact that what they are doing is acting against their humanity. In other words, they are living in the world of being past feeling, as the apostle Paul has intimated.

In conclusion, even the ISIS fighters still have humanity even if they are acting against it through their actions toward other people with whom they share a shared humanity objectively grounded in the humanity of Jesus Christ who is the very image of God. But I think the important thing to remember is that Jesus Christ is the point, the all-encompassing reality from which all of humanity finds its value. Without him as the center news reporters and whoever else would not have the capacity to make moral judgments about ISIS when they themselves live with just as dark of a heart as ISIS people (even if they are not currently acting upon that, at least not in the way that ISIS is).

This is how this whole reflection comes back to an anthropology that evangelical Calvinism endorses. In case you have missed what I am getting at, the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is what has funded my whole reflection.

How evangelical Calvinism fits with Calvary Chapel Theology Without Confusion

This post, at this point, almost seems petty to write given the absolute turmoil that is unfolding in Iraq and Syria, as well as in many other places in the world; in particular, the persecution of Christians. But I am going to go ahead and write this, with the caveat that I want all of those who read this to be in continual prayer for all of the people groups (in particular, as I write this, the Christians in Iraq) being persecuted by ISIS right now.

Apparently the fact that I am an evangelical Calvinist and attend a Calvary Chapel church has caused at least one person, if not more, some confusion. And so for the remainder of this post I want to clarify why my attendance at a Calvary Chapel church makes more sense (materially) than it does for Calvary Chapel pastors to use and employ material in their churches provided by Federal and Five Point Calvinists.

Someone has claimed that Calvary Chapel’s would look more critically upon my evangelical Calvinism, and reading of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, et al. than they would upon the employment (as I already noted) of classical Calvinist material within the walls of a Calvary Chapel church. This claim, though, misunderstands what in fact evangelical Calvinism represents (at least in the form it has taken through the theological theses Myk Habets and myself have articulated in our edited book Evangelical Calvinism), materially, and I think it also misunderstands how interconnected particular doctrinal and theological points are to the basic and general hermeneutic of Federal and/or basic Five Point Calvinism in contrast. Without going too deep (since this is a blog post), let me explain a fundamental reason why Calvary Chapel as a movement would fit better with evangelical Calvinism than it fits with classical Calvinism; it can be reduced to one theological point. The one theological point that makes evangelical Calvinism more coordinate with Calvary Chapel trajectory, more than classical Calvinism is, is that evangelical Calvinists believe in a universal atonement. Unlike classical Calvinism which argues for a limited, particular, or definite atonement, evangelical Calvinism holds to an unlimited, universal, intense atonement such that it argues that Christ died for, and then lived for (the resurrection) all of humanity. This point, all by itself, makes evangelical Calvinism an excellent fit with Calvary Chapel theology, if in fact Calvary Chapels had an overt stated theological grammar (which they don’t, and in fact avoid).

There are many other reasons why evangelical Calvinism fits much better with the Calvary Chapel trajectory, like the fact that we do intentional Trinitarian theology that emphasizes that God is love, we have a high theology of the Word, we eschew thinking apologetically about the Christian faith, we reject natural theology, and a whole host of other things, that again, fit much better with Calvary Chapel  than does classical Calvinist theology, even if that theology is only at an influential level within the walls of Calvary Chapel rather than in an explicit and overt level. So from a purely theological level, getting beyond caricature, and politicking, evangelical Calvinism is much more coordinate with Calvary Chapel theology than is the teaching of any classical Calvinist theology (since through and through that theology, at a hermeneutical level is riddled with the kind of interpretive keys that give us such things as limited atonement).

This is why I can usually attend a Calvary Chapel and fit in more there than I can with a Presbyterian church who might affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith (even if they try to soften that). So there should be no confusion about why and how I can fit in at a Calvary Chapel at a theologically sensible level. Whether or not a Calvary Chapel wants to genuinely engage with the theological material of evangelical Calvinism is another question altogether, but that is neither here nor there in regard to whether or not evangelical Calvinism can be a better fit with Calvary Chapel trajectory, in fact evangelical Calvinism could furnish Calvary Chapels with a theological grammar that it has never had, but in fact needs.

Some Cultural Exegesis: What It Means to be a Man in the 21st Century

I can’t help but recognize as I live my life in this world system that people, by and large, live in defeat, and out of this posture people construct personal-identities, socio-cultural systems, and other coping mechanisms. While this observation might sound like I am going to reflect from a psycho-analytic mode; come on, you know me better than that! The following reflection will be from a Christian theological vantage point. malboro-man-dies-ftr I think what is prompting this is the new environment I have found myself in as a result of my new employment. There is such a range of personalities and statuses (in the world’s way of thinking about this) at play, it would be too hard to try and talk about each one; alas, this is not what I want to focus on in this post. Given the range of personalities and identities represented by folks in the ‘world’ (me included), there is a common thread I have noticed among the male species, no matter what status he finds himself in. The male species, without Christ (in particular), must fight! He must fight to be a man, and a man set by the world’s standards. He must be tough, crude, insensitive, and downright aggressive; there is no time to rest. A man, in a dog-eat-dog world must constantly establish and re-establish his ego.

And yet the absolute irony of this is that what it really means to be a man involves the exact opposite. What it really means to be a man looks like Jesus. A real man puts others first; he lays his life down for the weak, he loves his enemies, he prays for those who curse him, and turns the other cheek. A real man looks at people like sheep without a shepherd, and he points them to the true Shepherd. A real man weeps; he is not quick to defend himself, he is vulnerable to the point of death. But a real man is not a door-mat either, he does and is all of the aforementioned with intent, and from a real power, a power that is ecstatic, and that reposes in the reality of God’s life as the reality of his life. This man fights, but not with carnal weapons, but with weapons such as prayer, and living a crucified life. The real man is Jesus Christ, if a man wants to genuinely be a man, he will live from the ground of all reality, of all of humanity, in the dearly beloved Son of God. If nothing else, this post is a friendly-reminder to myself. God’s grace.

Thoughts on Dispensationalism: Reading the Bible Through the Nation of Israel or Through the Person, Jesus Christ

*This post dovetails nicely with the post I just wrote below this one. I wrote this particular post back in November (2013), so it is a few months old, and I am reflecting, as you will see on my own view of things interpretive juxtaposed with the views of a few friend’s of mine.

The following is primarily intended to follow up on a discussion I had this last Wednesday with my pastor (Daniel), and other brothers from my church (Calvary Chapel, Vancouver/Downtown). We were talking, in general, gracejesusabout our views on “eschatology,” and attempting to articulate the lineaments of our various positions; or maybe, even, for some of us, trying to figure out where we are at (I know where I am at on this stuff, at this point). As most know, Calvary Chapels are as staunchly classical Dispensational, Premillennial, Pretribulational as they come; and usually (especially in Southern California) they hold to a rather idiosyncratic intensity in their application of classical Dispensationalism. My pastor, is dispensational (progressive, though … which is laudable), Pretrib and Premil. My other brother (at our meeting), Cameron, is pretty sure he is coming down as Historic Premillennial (good, Cameron! J ); and the other brother at our meeting (the Worship Pastor at our church), Chris, seems to be open and working towards his own view on these things. And, then there is me; I am currently an exegetical historical premil (which also means post-trib), and a theological amillennialist.

We covered a broad range of things in our discussion, and in our discussion, I attempted (in our short time we had together) to provide some historical background in regard to the setting in which the dispensational hermeneutic took shape (i.e. from Scottish Common Sense Realism, from positivism, from Enlightenment rationalism, etc.). And then attempted to explain how and why I reject the Literalistic, Grammatical, Historical approach on offer with classical Dispensationalism; and then briefly hint at why I jettison the ‘literalistic’ (which is rationalist) “L” in the literal for the classical Dispensational hermeneutic, and instead affirm an actual “Literal” understanding of Scripture in terms that are defined by the way the New Testament itself uses and interprets the Old Testament promises in light of Jesus Christ as their fulfillment. And so in this sense, I explained how I understand “Literal” interpretation (see Calvin’s sensus literalis, for example); and then along with this qualification,  how I attach this “kind” of literal to the grammatical-historical (I also like to see the “L” as literary).

Okay, so you have a better understanding now with what was going on in our conversation. With this understanding in mind, and with a kind of critique of my “L” approach, from my pastor (although, I would not say it was a critique, per se, just a concern that I was maybe moving too fast and ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ — meaning that I am probably adopting an allegorical approach or something), I want to share what would be informing the kind of thinking that might fear what I appear to be doing with my own (I would say, more historic) understanding of what being literal actually entails. Who better to provide this kind of insight, into this kind of apprehension (towards my direction), than Charles Ryrie (popularizer and stalwart of classical Dispensational hermeneutics)? The following is Ryrie critiquing Daniel Fuller, professor emeritus, from Fuller Theological Seminary; Fuller would maintain a more historical premil kind of view (which might as well be amillennial for Ryrie). Here is Ryrie on Fuller:

Thus, the nondispensationalist is not a consistent literalist by his own admission but has to introduce another hermeneutical principle (the “theological” method) in order to have a heremeneutical basis for the system he holds. One suspects that the conclusions determined the means used to arrive at them—which is a charge usually hurled at dispensationalists.

Fuller’s problem is that apparently his concept of progressive revelation includes the possibility that subsequent revelation may completely change the meaning of something previously revealed. It is true that progressive revelation brings additional light, but does it completely reverse to the point of contradiction what has been previously revealed? Fuller’s concept apparently allows for such, but the literal principle built upon a sound philosophy of the purpose of language does not. New revelation cannot mean contradictory revelation. Later revelation on a subject does not make the earlier revelation mean something different. It may add to it or even supersede it, but it does not contradict it. A word or concept cannot mean one thing in the Old Testament and take on opposite meaning in the New Testament. If this were so, the Bible would be filled with contradictions, and God would have to be conceived of as deceiving the Old Testament prophets when He revealed to them a nationalistic kingdom, since He would have known all the time that He would completely reverse the concept in later revelation. The true concept of progressive revelation is like a building—and certainly the superstructure does not replace the foundation.[1]

Ryrie’s fear is really an apologetic fear, and not a theological or even biblical one. The fear for Ryrie is that if we don’t follow a wooden-literal, and positivistic hermeneutic, that we will end up denying the inerrancy of Scripture, and indeed, in the end, undercut any space for a rational belief in God. So this is one thing (a category confusion, and illustrative of the Fundamentalist reactionary mode that so dominates Ryrie’s approach, and how that reaction stands in as a touchstone and shaper of his hermeneutic, in general).

Secondly, for Ryrie, he believes that a “theological” reading of Scripture means that we have carte blanch for interpreting Scripture “spiritualistically;” we see this in his critique of Fuller. But this is highly problematic, for Ryrie, and his view, because what he fails to appreciate is that his “literalist” approach comes just as loaded with “theological” freight as does any other purported “theological” method. It is just that classical Dispensationalism, in general, and Charles Ryrie, in particular, operate from a theory of language and reality that, again, takes shape from a naturalist, empiricist understanding of reality; such that, in the end, the linear march of history, and the usage of language by people that shapes that, becomes determinative for how reality “just is.” In other words, for Ryrie, it is as if a ‘normal, plain, and literal’ engagement with observable reality (inclusive of language itself) can simply be read in a way that theological presuppositions are mere abstractions of language itself; as if language is not innately theological in its giveness; as if language itself does not come from the sustainer of creation itself — which would or should make one think that language is thoroughly theologically charged, in general (especially when we are dealing with the language of the Bible). Ironically, Ryrie, just prior to the quote I shared above appeals to this same thing; i.e. that language is given by God. But then he uncritically presumes that if this is the case, that biblical language, then, ought to be as simple as reading Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which, again, is to actually abstract biblical language from its rich Christian and theological origination; and instead, to locate it in the realm of a pure nature that is abstract from God, in the end.

To be “literal” for me, when it comes to biblical hermeneutics, is to follow the way the New Testatment authors consistently engage with the Old Testament and its application and reinterpretation in and through Christ as its ultimate reality (just as Christ is the ultimate reality and purpose for all of creation cf. Col. 1:15ff.). This is not to change or contradict the original intent or meaning of the Old Testatment, instead, it is to fully appreciate that the New Testatment authors (under inspiration) used the various heremenutical approaches available to them in their second Temple context. It is to appreciate that they applied things that would “naturally” appear to be applicable to the nation of Israel, and expand those out to their actual and always referent in Jesus Christ. To be literal for me is to follow the demands expected by the various literary realties that govern the Bible as a piece of special literature: i.e. types, genres, and forms. To be literal for me is to assume that whenever we read the bible we are engaging in a theological exercise, par excellence. The Bible, itself, as read by Christians through the centuries, is governed by the theological concept that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and that God speaks (viva vox Dei, ‘the living voice of God’).

If we start out reading the Bible as Christians, and thus Christianly, we will not end up being a classical or even a progressive Dispensationalist. And this is because, again, we will read the Bible in a way that starts with Christ (cf. Gen. 1:1 with John 1:1, which is a very theological gloss on Gen. 1:1 by the evangelist, John), the son of David. If we start out reading the Bible with the nation of Israel, and then do so through a wooden-literalism (as I have describe it above), then we will end up reading the Bible as if it is primarily about the nation of Israel (with Christ included in the discussion, but not primary to it). So either way, it is a rather circular venture; the difference between what I would call the Christ[ian] approach versus the ‘Israel’ approach, is that the Christian approach has the space for someOne outside of the contours of natural history to break in on its understanding, and thus serve as history’s point and reality; whereas, the Israel approach takes its orientation from the closed and immanent orientation provided by natural history and its linear and progressive unfolding alone.

Obviously, Christians are on both sides of this equation (and it is certainly possible to frame this in less polarizing ways); but of course, I think the side I am on is the genuinely Christian one, and I am hopeful that you all might join me here (if you haven’t already). Good times!


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 84.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,009 other followers