Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Someone Else’s Quip

“ . . . we dispel the false notion that Christians are nauseatingly self-righteous people who are worried that someone somewhere might be having fun.” – Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church
This is plainly based on H. L. Menken’s definition of puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Dever replaces Mencken’s words with synonymous ideas, but the essence of the quip clearly originates from Mencken. Should Dever be expected to cite this sort of thing?

I’m only asking because of the recent controversy surrounding accusations that Mark Driscoll plagiarized some material in one of his books, which lead some others to write thoughtful pieces about what plagiarism actually is, and what it is not. In any case, I wonder if those who vehemently criticize Driscoll’s alleged plagiarism would also be willing to criticize Dever with equal enthusiasm for using the essence of someone else’s quip without giving any credit or citation.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Early Church Membership

A few comments on some statements in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
“If you read the story of the early church recorded in the book of Acts, you will find no evidence that any of them meant to have anyone other than believers as members.”
1. First off, searching Acts to find out what the early churches required for church membership is like searching Acts to find out their policy on baptistries (“You will find no evidence that any of them used anything other than a natural water source”) or the mode of the Lord’s supper (“You will find no evidence that any of them used wafers and Welch’s”).

The Acts narrative isn’t built to answer every question we might have about categories the earliest Christians didn’t operate with, or issues they didn’t face. Dever’s point assumes that “church membership” would have been a category as pivotal and axiomatic for the earliest Christians as it is for 9Marks ecclesiology. And in my mind, that’s a pretty large assumption.

This is not to say that church membership isn’t biblical. I believe it is, though I’m not willing to say that it jumps right off the pages of the New Testament. We get there by good and necessary consequence, along with perhaps a dash of sanctified cultural pragmatism.

2. Yet still, there’s evidence even in Acts that households were treated as covenantal units (Acts 16:15). A household was covenantally and socially joined to whatever the head of the household was joined to, which is unfriendly to Dever’s claim.
“When you read the letters of Paul, it seems clear that Paul too wrote as if the churches were composed entirely of believers; thus he addressed them as saints – those whom God has specially chosen.”
And yet Paul, in 1 Cor. 7:14, says that the children of at least one believer are to be considered hagios, the word frequently translated elsewhere as saint.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Inspiration of Unspoken Premises

A miscellany from February 23, 2014.

In Matthew 23:23, Jesus says this to the scribes and Pharisees: “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law.” For some reason, reflecting on this verse got me thinking about some of the commonsensical, and yet theologically-informed, hermeneutical principles that we often naturally apply when reading the Bible.

One thing Jesus teaches us here is that there are some matters of the law that are weightier than others. But strictly speaking, Jesus never says that. He does not say, “There are some matters of the law that are weightier than others.” But he does clearly assume that such is the case. Since Jesus was God, we know that he was never mistaken about anything; and this means that neither were any of his assumptions mistaken. So if ever we see Jesus assuming that x is true, we can confidently affirm that x is indeed true, based on God’s word. This is a basic example of one way that we arrive at biblical truths by good and necessary consequence. Scripture is not limited to teaching us things only through gift-wrapped propositions. It can speak in manifold ways, and it’s our responsibility to listen carefully.

What about when the one speaking isn’t Jesus? Are we likewise to say that all of the apostle Paul’s operating assumptions are true when he’s writing Romans, Ephesians, or 2 Timothy? After all, unlike Jesus, Paul was a fallible man, and throughout the course of his life, I’m sure he was mistaken about many things. I imagine he held all sorts of beliefs and assumptions that were in fact erroneous. Yet we believe that when he wrote his Spirit-inspired letters, everything he said was true. Infallible. Inerrant. But informal argumentation often contains unspoken premises – things that must be true in order for an argument to make sense, but are seen by the author as being unnecessary to express. And I think it’s important to recognize that inspiration extends not only to what Paul explicitly stated, but also to everything his statements assumed.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Much More Excellent

A miscellany from March 22, 2014.

I usually enjoy reading the New Testament more than I enjoy reading the Old Testament. If someone asks me why this is, I like to respond half-jokingly by saying, “Well, because the New Testament is better.” I say “half-jokingly” on purpose, because I fancy it’s a sentiment at least somewhat inspired by Hebrews 8:6: “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.”

Our English word testament comes from the Latin word testamentum, which is what the Vulgate uses to translate the word “covenant” in this verse from Hebrews. It’s also the word Jesus uses at the last supper: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant [novi testamenti] in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Testament is basically another word for covenant.

The New Testament gets its name from the fact that it is the part of our Bibles that concerns the new covenant. As such, it contains the clearest and fullest expression of the Christian faith; which is why I suppose I typically find it more enjoyable to read. It’s as much more excellent than the Old as the covenant of which it speaks is better. Of course, none of this is to say that the Old Testament is bad. Just inferior. Hebrews says so, kinda.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Fluid Prepositions

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for [eis] the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2:38).
It’s sometimes noted that the Greek preposition eis (here translated “for”) can mean “because of.” In which case, the point would be that these believers are baptized not in order to gain forgiveness of sins, but because they have already been forgiven. That’s a fair reading, but I don’t think it even requires an appeal to the Greek. The English preposition “for” can itself mean “because of.” For example, “It was impossible to concentrate for all the racket outside.” Prepositions are just fluid in that way.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

When You Have Nothing to Say

A miscellany from February 5, 2014.

In the course of a debate over a controversial issue, whatever it might be, you may occasionally receive a criticism of your own position that you don’t quite know what to do with. If this criticism is one that you routinely encounter, then one simple way to respond is to make the criticism itself seem tired.

So, for example, if you’re an atheist, you might try sighing dramatically the next time you hear yet another Christian point out that a naturalistic worldview has no way to account for objective moral norms. Or, if you’re a leftist, and some Bible thumper challenges your steadfast commitment to marriage equality by pointing out what consistency would require of you, try following up with something like, “Oh, great. Here we go again with that whole ‘gay marriage leads to polygamy’ mantra. Haven’t heard this one before.”

Treating such criticisms in this way is effective for a number of reasons. First off, if you can make the criticism seem overused, then it’ll create the impression that this is really all your opponent has in his arsenal, which will make his position seem hopelessly weak. But even better, it will distract everyone from the fact that you actually have nothing substantial to say in response.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Estienne’s Numbers

A miscellany from January 11, 2014.

Sometimes I regret that I often don’t remember the exact verse, chapter, or even book where significant passages of Scripture are found. But then I’m encouraged when I read the book of Hebrews, whose writer felt it was entirely acceptable to simply state that “it has been testified somewhere” (Heb. 2:6). Knowing precisely where a passage comes from is not the important thing. The important thing is knowing the passage itself, with its proper meaning and application. Hiding the word in your heart is not a matter of memorizing numerical citations. God’s words are infinitely greater than Estienne’s numbers.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What the Great Commission Did Not Mean

A miscellany from February 22, 2014.

Evangelicals who are missiologically zealous often claim that Jesus’s commission to the disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 is a command that every individual Christian must obey. But they can only pull this off by subtly reworking what Jesus actually said. Here’s what the Great Commission did not mean: “Wherever it is you decide to go, and whatever your station in life, always live in an evangelistic way, sharing the gospel with those around you.” Of course, this is by no means a bad thing to be teaching every Christian to do, but it isn’t what Jesus was telling his disciples to do. He was telling them to go disciple the nations, which effectively ruled out the option of staying where they were.

The Great Commission wasn’t a command to participate in the kind of day-to-day evangelism to which modern Christians are accustomed: sharing the gospel with family members, friends, co-workers, etc. Rather, it was a command to travel land and sea to reach various countries and people groups. In other words, it was a command to go and do the sorts of things the apostles historically went and did. And you might think that they didn’t get the job done, but Paul seemed to think otherwise (Rom. 16:25-26; Col. 1:6, 23).

Some might attempt a more nuanced approach and posit that the Great Commission had a specific historical meaning for the apostles, and yet also functions as a broader and more general command for each believer today. But that seems to me like an arbitrary and unnecessarily complicated perspective.

Perhaps some people worry that interpreting the Great Commission as a command that was contextually confined and historically fulfilled would lead us into the evangelistically frozen mentality of hyper-Calvinism. But I don’t see any reason why that should be the practical result. After all, surely the Christian’s responsibility to perpetually live in a way that promotes the fame of Jesus doesn’t stand or fall by this one passage. That’s a lifestyle you would simply expect from someone who knows the risen Lord of heaven and earth.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Necessity vs. Compulsion

A miscellany from May 17, 2014.

Calvinism is often criticized for destroying human responsibility, since it teaches that fallen man, apart from the new birth, is incapable of exercising faith or repenting of his sins. But Calvin, following Augustine, makes a critical distinction between necessity and compulsion (Institutes 2.3.5).

Consider this distinction, as Calvin does, with respect to the goodness of God. God is necessarily good and righteous, which means that these characteristics are part of his very nature. He thus cannot be anything other than good and righteous. But it does not follow from this fact that God is somehow forced to be good and righteous. That sort of language is simply inaccurate. Rather, these traits flow out of his own nature by necessity, not by compulsion.

Now consider this distinction with respect to the wickedness of man. Outside of regeneration, fallen man is necessarily sinful and rebellious, which means that these characteristics are part of his very nature. He thus cannot, apart from the new birth, be anything other than sinful and rebellious. But it does not follow from this fact that fallen man is somehow forced to be sinful and rebellious. That sort of language is simply inaccurate. Rather, these traits flow out of his own nature by necessity, not by compulsion.

And if this notion of necessity somehow means that fallen man cannot be held responsible for his sin (i.e. that his sin is not actually blameworthy), then it would likewise mean that God cannot be “held responsible,” as it were, for his goodness (i.e. that his goodness is not actually praiseworthy).