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Posts Tagged ‘Scripture’

Today one might often hear folks holding to the “authority of scripture” or Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) as proof of their Reformed (or more broadly, Christian) orthodoxy. The concept of biblical authority is considered that “safe all” category sufficient to always guide one home to truth. As long as we maintain Sola Scriptura, (it is assumed) we’ll be good. And we’ll always be reforming the church (semper reformanda).

But this is a dangerous misunderstanding, both of the Reformed distinctive (Sola Scriptura), as well as the nature of theology itself. And we see this mistake played out in history.

Carl Trueman observes how in John Owen’s day, “the Socinians appear to hold to a basic scripture principle in a formally similar manner to the orthodox.” That is, they held to a form of Sola Scritpura: Scripture alone was the sole and final authority in determining truth. For some odd reason, however, the Socinians couldn’t seem to find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity anywhere in Scripture!

What Owen labored to demonstrate, therefore, was that sola scriptura was not enough. It was not merely scripture’s authority that was all-important, but also its interpretation.

Trueman explains the difference between the two approaches:

The differences, in fact, are significant, and go straight to the heart of why Owen can see scripture as teaching the doctrine of the Trinity and the Socinians reject such a conclusion: the point at issue is not simply whether scripture is the authoritative noetic foundation for theology, but how that scripture is to be interpreted, a point which draws in matters of logic, of metaphysics, and of how individual passages of scripture are mutually related to the act of interpretation…

The radical biblicism of the Socinians was, in effect, cutting the very ground away from under the traditional doctrine and forcing its exponents to greater degrees of precisely the kind of conceptual and linguistic subtlety which the Socinians decried as betraying the straightforward teaching of scripture. – John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, 48-49.

Notice the irony. And yet this is very helpful for us today since we often hear people arguing for a form of “biblicism” which lays claim to the Sola Scriptura principle, all-the-while ignoring the larger philosophical challenges inherent to scripture’s interpretation.

Theology free from metaphysics is impossible.

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Today, it seems many Christians think of the word “tradition” only in a negative light. It brings up a bad taste in their mouth which they’d rather do without. Tradition often connotes something merely “old-fashoned”, people set in their ways, or even “dead orthodoxy.”

This is unfortunate since, for one reason, this is not the attitude we get from Scripture. Surely, Christ rebuked the Pharisees for their “holding to traditions” of the elders as opposed to the revealed word of God (Mark  7 comes to mind). But note the fact that it isn’t tradition per se that is the problem but the fact that they are un-scriptural tradition:

“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Mark 7.8

For many Christians, it probably comes as a surprise that this isn’t the only thing Scripture has to say about tradition. In fact, later on in the New Testament, we find the Holy Spirit inspiring Paul to admonish the saints to “hold to the traditions” handed down to them.

In 2 Thessolonians 2.15 the Apostle writes,

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

Likewise in 3.6 he says,

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

In 1 Corrinthians, he says something similar:

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. [11.2]

So we see then that, according to Scripture, not all tradition is bad. Certainly, all “traditions of men”, since they’re not founded upon Scripture, are to be avoided as worthless before God. However, on the other hand, the Apostolic tradition handed down from the Apostles themselves and established in God’s word is to be affirmed whole-hearteldy.  This tradition of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” [Jude 3] is the one tradition different from all the rests. And we as Christians are called to remember, cherish, and defend this tradition with our very lives.

Michael Horton writes on this in his book A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship. The following is an excerpt:

In the past, people used to convert to other religions or even political parties with great inner turmoil. Even consumer products were marketed on the assumption of brand loyalty. But today, one is expected to morph many times within a given lifetime. Sociologist Peter Berger has appealed to the notion of heresy to describe this widespread phenomenon:

The English word “heresy” comes from the Greek verb hairein, which means “to choose.” A hairesis originally meant, quite simply, the taking of a choice…. Thus, in Galatians 5:20 the Apostle Paul lists “party spirit” (hairesis) along with such evils as strife, selfishness, envy, and drunkenness among the “works of the flesh.” … The heretic denied…authority, refused to accept the tradition in toto. Instead he picked and chose from the contents of the tradition, and from these pickings and choosings constructed his own deviant opinion.

The problems today,  says Berger, is that there is no sense of an overarching authority that would measure deviance. In this environment in which personal choice reigns, heresy–cutting one’s own path apart from everyone else–is now normal. Accepting the authority of someone else, even God, is abnormal. “Modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.” Everyone has to be eccentric, and every successful enterprise, including the church, must cater to each person’s (or at least generation’s) eccentricities. Why should we “postmoderns” be expected to think and worship in continuity with “premoderns”? A nation that gets its nose out of shape when someone suggests changing the rules of baseball (“It won’t be baseball anymore!”) takes it for granted that God must get over his own personal tastes in order to accommodate ours–and that his church must either surrender or be left for dead. (The only real apostasy is being left behind in the sweep of progress.) – Michael Horton “A Better Way” pp. 47-8.

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Having spent considerable time and energy over the last weeks and months reading John Calvin, that great Genevan Reformer, I now have the splendid opportunity to study Martin Luther as well.  And oh what a joy! It’s as if someone should’ve said to me: “If you liked Calvin (for all the right reasons, of course, not the wrong ones) well you’re going to love Luther.” And they would’ve been right of course.

The same theological, hermeneutical, homiletical, and pastoral insight which made Calvin such a dear and shining light to many, is there in its brash and bold (and yet foundational) form in Luther. And is it ever encouraging to read.  Indeed I can think of few things as delightful to the soul. However, enough already… Let’s get to some Luther quotes.  From his “What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” (1521).

After explaining how some confuse the Gospel as merely referring to the four first books of the New Testament, Luther wrote:

There is, besides, the still worse practice of regarding the gospels and epistles as law books in which is supposed to be taught what we are to do and in which the works of Christ are pictured to us as nothing but examples. Now where these two erroneous notions remain in the heart, there neither the gospels nor the epistles may be read in a profitable or Christian manner, and [people] remain as pagan as ever.

The stout German is obviously off to a good start. But one can leave it to the ‘wild boar’ to run a royal rampage across deception and unbelief. He then defines Gospel per se:

Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered–a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, on this way, another that way.

There you have it. The gospel is a story about Christ.

He then goes on to show that this same gospel is the one we get in the Old Testament as well:

Thus when Isaiah in chapter fifty-three says how Christ should die for us and bear our sins, he has written the pure gospel. And I assure you, if a person fails to grasp this understanding of the gospel, he will never be able to be illuminated in the Scripture nor will he receive the right foundation.

Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws. Therefore you should grasp Christ, his words, works, and sufferings, in a twofold manner. First as an example that is presented to you, which you should follow and imitate. As St. Peter says in 1 Peter 4, “Christ suffered for us, thereby leaving us an example.” Thus when you see how he prays, fasts, helps people, and shows the love, so also you should do, both for yourself and for your neighbor. However this is the smallest part of the gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called gospel. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not as yet contribute anything to you.

In short this mode [of understanding Christ as simply an example] does not make Christians but only hypocrites. You must grasp Christ at a much higher level. Even though this higher level has for a long time been the very best, the preaching of it has been something rare. The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. [emphasis mine] – Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2005). 93-95.

Well, I don’t know how one could ever strike any more deftly at the very vitals and heart-beat of unbelief.  This penetrates to the core of all false teaching and apostasy which teaches us not to believe in Christ as everything for our salvation, but rather someone and something just shy of it.  Some thing (no matter how small or seemingly reasonable) must be left outstanding.  And just as surely one believes this then all one’s glorying in Christ and his cross falls faint to the ground.

And what’s more, the human heart, in its pride, ever resists such a free gift from our Gratuitous Benefactor and Heavenly Father. And as much as we might think we can today find evidence to the contrary, there’s nothing we like less than a free handout — and from God, least of all. It restlessly tugs against such an offer of absolute and unconditional grace. And of course our sinful hearts are joined in a distorted chorus by the world and the devil, ever providing a relentless deluge of resistance.

And yet the Gospel truly is good news… the best in the world…in all creation. May God by his mercy grant us ears to hear, and hearts to understand, how great and marvelous his love is toward us. Amen.

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Over the last week I’ve been digging in more deeply to our understanding of baptism, particularly in light of covenant theology.  However, one of the issues that comes up is that of baptismal regeneration.  Of course, it is generally those who hold to a ‘higher’ (or more potent) view of the sacrament who are labeled with the term.  Lately (in Reformed circles) this issue has come up in response to the Federal Vision movement.  Some critics of the movement claim its proponents hold to some form of baptismal regeneration. Of course, this is generally denied.

Today, I was reading through Josh Moon’s defense of TE Lawrence (Siouxland Presbytery PCA). And in it I found much to think about. Moon argues that Lawrence’s position on baptism (and the benefits it confers) is well within the bounds of our Reformed tradition.  To support this claim he points to Calvin, Ursinus, Owen, Bavinck, Hodge and others. All these great men are then cited as affirming the basic idea that all who are baptized into Christ are indeed “Christians” — and at least should be considered as such by the Church. Now, does that sound all that controversial? Well, I suppose it depends on what one means by  “Christian.”

However, as Moon moved to the ‘Testimony of Scripture’ I think I would have some questions. He writes:

We are told by the complainants that you cannot attribute forgiveness of sins to the potential reprobate. But that is clearly wrong. The unmerciful servant, Jesus says, was “forgiven his debt.” He moved from a state of condemnation to true and real forgiveness. This was no pretended forgiveness. Yet the servant was finally apostate. He failed to live up to the grace shown to him, and so the privilege of that forgiveness was revoked. And that, Jesus says, is how my father will treat each of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. This, remember, is addressed to Peter and Christ’s own disciples. It is a parable about forgiveness and apostasy, and gives the complainants no ground at all for their complaint.

Moon claims that one can indeed have “real forgiveness” and yet, in the end, be damned. He says that this parable (found in the Gospel of Matthew ch 18:21-35) actually teaches about apostasy. My question is whether our Reformed theologians have understood this passage to be teaching what Moon believes it is.

On this passage (Mat 18) Calvin comments:

[I]t is foolish to inquire how God punishes (“how it is possible for God to punish”) those sins which he has already forgiven; for the simple meaning is this: though he offers mercy to all, yet severe creditors, from whom no forgiveness can be obtained, are unworthy of enjoying it.

So it seems Calvin wouldn’t go as far as Moon would in interpreting this parable.

Francis Turretin writes:

Although remission of sins ought to be applied often to daily sins, yet falsely would anyone thence gather that sins once discharged revive and return again by subsequent sins (as some of the Romanists hold), since it is a unchangeable gift of God. Nor does the parable of that ungrateful servant (…[Mt. 18]) prove this. It pertains to nothing else than to show that the remission of sins proposed conditionally does not belong to him in whom the condition is lacking. The design of the parable (which is to be regarded here simply) is no other than to teach that the mercy of God is not exercised towards the unmerciful; nor are sins pardoned by God, except to those who forgive the offenses of others. (Inst. 2.687)

Furthermore, one can read Matthew Henry on this passage who states:

We are not to suppose that God actually forgives men, and afterwards reckons their guilt to them to condemn them; but this latter part of the parable shows the false conclusions many draw as to their sins being pardoned, though their after-conduct shows that they never entered into the spirit, or experienced the sanctifying grace of the gospel.

All of these men interpret this passage in a particular way — and it appears — in a way at variances with Moon. Now, a little later Moon further writes:

We are told that the language of union with Christ cannot be attributed in any sense to the baptized indiscriminately – that it cannot be true for the reprobate. Yet John 15 and Romans 11 both use the language of being “in Christ”, which is union with Christ. And they use that language in speaking of those who might finally be (or have been) cut off. In both cases it is covenantal union in Christ that is then broken. And in both cases the possibility and the reality exist of apostasy. Paul in Romans 11 even speaks of those branches who are being “nourished by the root” who are then cut off.

But on these passages as well, I am curious as to whether our Reformed divines would have agreed with his interpretation. On Romans 11 Calvin writes:

Let us remember that in this comparison man is not compared with man, but nation with nation. (v. 16)

(v. 20: Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.) But it seems that he throws in a doubt as to salvation, since he reminds them to beware lest they also should not be spared. To this I answer, — that as this exhortation refers to the subduing of the flesh, which is ever insolent even in the children of God, he derogates nothing from the certainty of faith. And we must especially notice and remember what I have before said, — that Paul’s address is not so much to individuals as to the whole body of the Gentiles, among whom there might have been many, who were vainly inflated, professing rather than having faith. On account of these Paul threatens the Gentiles, not without reason, with excision…

And here again it appears more evident, that the discourse is addressed generally to the body of the Gentiles, for the excision, of which he speaks, could not apply to individuals, whose election is unchangeable, based on the eternal purpose of God. (v. 21)

But as he speaks not of the elect individually, but of the whole body, a condition is added, If they continued in his kindness I indeed allow, that as soon as any one abuses God’s goodness, he deserves to be deprived of the offered favor; but it would be improper to say of any one of the godly particularly, that God had mercy on him, when he chose him, provided he would continue in his mercy; for the perseverance of faith, which completes in us the effect of God’s grace, flows from election itself.

Otherwise thou also shalt be cut off, etc. We now understand in what sense Paul threatens them with excision, whom he has already allowed to have been grafted into the hope of life through God’s election. For, first, though this cannot happen to the elect, they have yet need of such warning, in order to subdue the pride of the flesh; which being really opposed to their salvation, ought justly to be terrified with the dread of perdition. As far then as Christians are illuminated by faith, they hear, for their assurance, that the calling of God is without repentance; but as far as they carry about them the flesh, which wantonly resists the grace of God, they are taught humility by this warning, “Take heed lest thou be cut off.” Secondly, we must bear in mind the solution which I have before mentioned, — that Paul speaks not here of the special election of individuals, but sets the Gentiles and Jews in opposition the one to the other; and that therefore the elect are not so much addressed in these words, as those who falsely gloried that they had obtained the place of the Jews: nay, he speaks to the Gentiles generally, and addresses the whole body in common, among whom there were many who were faithful, and those who were members of Christ in name only.

But if it be asked respecting individuals, “How any one could be cut off from the grafting, and how, after excision, he could be grafted again,” — bear in mind, that there are three modes of insition, and two modes of excision. For instance, the children of the faithful are ingrafted, to whom the promise belongs according to the covenant made with the fathers; ingrafted are also they who indeed receive the seed of the gospel, but it strikes no root, or it is choked before it brings any fruit; and thirdly, the elect are ingrafted, who are illuminated unto eternal life according to the immutable purpose of God. The first are cut off, when they refuse the promise given to their fathers, or do not receive it on account of their ingratitude; the second are cut off, when the seed is withered and destroyed; and as the danger of this impends over all, with regard to their own nature, it must be allowed that this warning which Paul gives belongs in a certain way to the faithful, lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh. But with regard to the present passage, it is enough for us to know, that the vengeance which God had executed on the Jews, is pronounced on the Gentiles, in case they become like them. (v. 21)

It seems abundantly clear that Calvin is not applying this passage to the elect in the same way as Moon, but deliberately makes a distinction: Some are in the covenant in a way different than others. Some can’t be ‘cutoff’.

On John 15 Calvin similarly won’t go where Moon goes:

(v. 6) Not that it ever happens that any one of the elect is dried up, but because there are many hypocrites who, in outward appearance, flourish and are green for a time, but who afterwards, when they ought to yield fruit, show the very opposite of that which the Lord expects and demands from his people.

To be fair, I am not saying that these interpretations are necessarily diametrically opposed or incompatible with each other (although maybe they are). However, there might be overlap. But, if so, it’s not clear. It seems there is at least a substantial differences between the way Calvin (and others) interpret these texts and how Moon and Lawrence do.

Now, I’ve met Pastor Moon, and have no ill feelings toward him at all. In fact, this December, I heard him preach on the ‘Preservation of the Saints’ which I thought was very good and which blessed me tremendously. However, I’m writing this because I find this language concerning, and frankly, contrary to what I have heretofore held to be correct.

Is there such a thing as ‘temporary forgiveness’? And if there is, is it based on ‘temporal justification’?  Is there any forgiveness without justification? Any forgiveness without atonement? Any atonement without the blood of Christ? And is there any blood of Christ spent on damned reprobates? May it never be.

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For all you young men and women struggling to learn the ancient languages, here’s some encouragement from one Martin Luther. Your battle is not in vain.

Without languages we could not have received the Gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit; they are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine; and as the gospel says, they are the baskets in which the loaves and fishes are kept to feed the multitude.

If we neglect the literature we shall eventually lose the gospel . . . no sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages the Christendom declined, even until it fell under the undisputed dominion of the pope. But no sooner was this torch relighted, than this papal owl feld with a shriek into congenial gloom

. . . In former times the fathers were frequently mistaken, because they were ignorant of the languages and in our days there are some who, like the Waldenses, do not think the languages of any use; but although their doctrine is good, they have often erred in the real meaning of the sacred text; they are without arms against error, I and fear much that their faith will not remain pure.” – Luther

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Here’s a statement from “the Doctor” Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his view of Scripture. Pretty interesting, (and solid) I think.

The Bible is not a book which tells us what we’ve got to do to put ourselves right. The Bible is not a book with just an appeal to us to do this, that, or the other – to accept certain ideas and put them into practice. It’s not a book teaching morality or ethics or anything else. I’ll tell you what it is – it’s not a book, I say, that asks us primarily to do anything – it’s a great announcement of what God has done! It’s God acting! It’s the God who comes into the Garden, to man in his utter hopelessness. What if He hadn’t done that? I’d have no gospel, there’d be no light. The world would be in darkness at this moment. There’d be nothing to say, there’d be no hope. But God has come, and God has spoken, and He’s revealed a plan and a programme. It’s revelation, my friends! It isn’t what man thinks; it isn’t what man aspires after. It isn’t what man proposes. It is entirely from God. It’s God announcing His programme, revealing it. I know nothing about it apart this Book. – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, True History? Gen 3:15, available from the D. M. Lloyed-Jones Recording Trust (www.mlj.org.uk) Quoted from The Imperative of Preaching by John Carrick, p. 17.

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