Friday, January 30, 2015

Panta ta Ethne

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [panta ta ethne], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
In order to better understand the Great Commission, John Piper endeavors to list and discuss every NT occurrence of the Greek phrase panta ta ethne – “all the nations” (Let the Nations be Glad, pp. 186-89).

But while Piper claims to include every occurrence of the phrase, for some reason he leaves out Romans 16:26, which incidentally uses panta ta ethne in a way that undercuts his understanding of the Great Commission as a perpetual mandate for all Christians.
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations [panta ta ethne]” (Rom. 16:25-26).
Not that he left this one out intentionally or anything. I’m just saying.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Salvation On Its Way

Charles Spurgeon gave this memorable summary of definite (i.e. limited) atonement:
“We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.”
Contrarily, advocates of general atonement argue that Christ’s death, strictly considered, did not actually save anyone. Rather, his death simply made all men savable. At this point, definite atonement advocates may struggle with how best to tease these things out. After all, what about our conversion in the here and now? Is the new birth somehow unnecessary if Christ’s death and resurrection effectively saved us?

I think the trouble arises because of our common tendency to speak of salvation monolithically. That is, we talk like salvation only means one thing, as if once you’re saved, you’re saved in every sense of the word. But I don’t think this is the way God wants us to think about salvation. Because in Scripture, salvation is spoken of not only with respect to the past and present (Rom. 8:24; 1 Cor. 1:18), but also with respect to the future:
“Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).
“. . . kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:4-5).
So right now, at this moment on January 29, 2015, I am indeed saved. And yet, at the same time, I’m not yet saved in the fullest sense of the word; because the Bible tells me Jesus is bringing more. I am saved, and I will be saved. There is no discrepancy here if we’re thinking biblically.

Now given that Scripture itself sets up this “already/not yet” category, I don’t have a problem rewinding the progression back a step and applying it to our original question. Did Christ’s death on the cross actually save anyone? Yes, it did.
“. . . having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13-14).
“Those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15).
When Jesus died, my sin debt was cancelled. When Jesus died, I was redeemed. So it’s hardly a stretch to say, with Spurgeon, that when Jesus died, I was saved. But even so, I had yet to be saved in a more complete sense. My salvation had been secured by Christ’s work, but I still needed to be converted. I still needed to be born again and brought from death to life on September 1, 1996. Once that happened, I was saved in a fuller and more realized sense. And even today, I understand that I’m still not yet saved in the fullest and most realized sense. That final salvation, though secure, is still on its way.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ironlinks 1.24.2014

C. S. Lewis On The KJV | Mark Ward
“God did not generally inspire the apostles to choose an elevated form of Greek, so an elevated form of English is not a truly accurate translation of the New Testament. God spoke in the respectable language of the contemporary common man, and so should Bible translations.”
Supreme Court to Hear Marriage Challenge: How Should Christians Respond? | Andrew Walker
“What should we do in the meantime? Continue to assault the foundations of the Sexual Revolution, love your neighbor who may strongly disagree, build strong families, vote, get connected to a local church, worship weekly, and remember that Jesus, not Justice Kennedy, sits at the right hand of the Father. Remember also that a church in exile is never a church in retreat.”
A Hint of Thermidorian Reaction? | Carl Trueman
“This highlights an ongoing acrimonious debate over the status of transgender women which is dividing the feminist movement. It is also proof of the old saying: The revolution devours her own children.”
To Parents: Keep Reading Out Loud | Mark Bauerlein
“A child can understand words read aloud more easily than words in a book. A parent’s voice adds tone, cadence, volume, and other non-verbal markers of meaning, elements a child has to create on his own when he reads. This means that a child can understand a more advanced book with more sophisticated words and ideas if he hears it.”
How incest exposes the emptiness of “marriage equality” | Denny Burk
“This story about incest exposes the fact that consent alone is not enough to ground a sexual ethic. Nor is it sufficient to define who should be allowed to marry. It also shows that when proponents for ‘marriage equality’ say that any two people who love each other ought to have the right to marry, they don’t really mean it. The possibility of state-sanctioned incest proves that.”
Lost knowledge | Steve Hays
“So even though a modern reader finds the relationship between [Matthew and Luke’s] respective genealogies puzzling, that doesn’t mean one or both are wrong. Rather, that means we are missing something that was clear to Matthew, Luke, and the intended audience. A bit of inside knowledge that was lost over time.”
One of the Clearest (and Earliest) Summaries of Early Christian Beliefs | Michael Kruger
“This is a surprisingly thorough and wide-ranging summary of core Christian doctrines at a very early point in the life of the church.  And it was this form of Christianity that was publicly presented to the Emperor. Once again, we can see that core Christian beliefs were not latecomers that were invented in the fourth century (or later), but appear to have been in place from the very beginning.”
Are You High? High Court Ruling On Same-Sex Marriage Won’t End Debate | Mollie Hemingway
“But hoo boy is it going to be a surprise to the New York Times and its readers when they learn that there is a fundamental conflict between Americans about what marriage is, how it’s defined, what its limits are, and what its aims are. And we haven’t even gotten to the part where people start thinking deeply about the issue.”
The Prodigal and the Cross | Peter Leithart
“The Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15) has been a favorite of liberal theologians for a couple of centuries. It seems to be a parable designed for liberal sensibilities: An indulgent, accepting Father; forgiveness extended without a cross; a surly older brother who might represent the ‘conservative’ face of religion who demands reciprocity and fairness.”
9 Myths About Abortion Rights and Roe v. Wade | Kevin DeYoung
“The fact is that abortion was rare well into the nineteenth century. Almost all abortion methods before then were ineffective or potentially dangerous to the mother. True, unwanted children were still terminated, but this was done by killing newly born children. If abortion is to be considered a common practice throughout history, the method was infanticide or abandonment.”
A few thoughts about “American Sniper” | Denny Burk
“In other words, there really is good and evil in the world, and that fact comes out clearly in the movie. You end up loving Chris Kyle because he looked that evil in the face and charged toward it without flinching. He was an unabashed patriot.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Disputed Texts and the Doctrine of Scripture

Regarding the doctrinal significance of disputed texts, Robert Plummer writes the following:
“Furthermore, no text in question affects Christian doctrine. That is, all Christian doctrines are firmly established without appealing to debated texts. Most unsolved textual issues have little or no doctrinal significance.” (40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, p. 48)
First, Plummer’s remarks here are incoherent. The first sentence, in effect, claims that questionable texts have no doctrinal significance. But the last sentence implies that some questionable texts do have doctrinal significance. Which is it?

But I think I understand what Plummer is trying to get across. Doctrines like the Trinity, or the incarnation, or salvation through Christ alone, are not dependent upon disputed texts. Nevertheless, I think it’s an overstatement to say that no text in question affects Christian doctrine.

In a way, disputed texts, by their very existence, affect Christian doctrine. Debating the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 or John 7:53-8:11 means that one Christian believes these passages are the inspired words of God, while another Christian believes they are not. Sometimes the latter group even disparages such texts, going as far as to say that the long ending of Mark is akin to witchcraft. Call me crazy, but that seems like a rather significant point of disagreement with respect to the doctrine of Scripture. This is a disagreement about what is Scripture and what isn’t.

It would be functionally equivalent to debating the canonicity of 2 and 3 John. If some Christians accepted these letters as inspired Scripture, while other Christians didn’t, then we’re talking about the difference between a 25-book NT canon as opposed to 27. Which is a significant doctrinal disagreement in and of itself, regardless of the actual content of 2 and 3 John.

Monday, January 19, 2015

3 Corinthians

What if a lost letter written by the apostle Paul had been newly discovered? For example, in 1 Cor. 5:9, Paul makes reference to another letter that he had previously written. We’ll call it 3 Corinthians. In the unlikely event that this letter were discovered today and determined to be truly authentic, what should Christians say about it? Is the letter divinely inspired? Should it be viewed as canonical?

Granted, these are only hypothetical questions, but hypothetical questions allow us to think carefully about how our systems work. In responding to a question like this one, if I answer affirmatively while someone else answers negatively, then it shows that our doctrine of Scripture is in some way different. And then we can work to find out what exactly those differences are. Hypothetical questions are useful in that way.

I’m also aware that some people don’t believe 1 Cor. 5:9 is referring to a separate letter that was lost, but that’s beside the point. This is a hypothetical enquiry. Work with me.

Personally, I’ve never quite understood why evangelicals, in my experience, typically argue that a newly-discovered lost letter of Paul should not be viewed as canonical. For starters, consider what Peter says about Paul’s writings: “Just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters” (2 Pet. 3:16). This verse is often cited as supporting the apostle Paul’s divine inspiration – and it’s an inspiration that’s present in all his letters. So why would this not include 3 Corinthians?

Some get hung up on the idea that God would allow his word to be hidden for such a long period of time. Why would God do that? Beats me, but at the same time, it’s not like this would be entirely unprecedented. In the Old Testament, God allowed the Book of the Law to be lost and forgotten for a significant amount of time (2 Kings 22). And when Josiah discovered it, he didn’t respond by saying, “Well, surely this can’t be authoritative, because God would never have allowed his word to be hidden for so long.” Instead, he responded by submitting himself to it.

Last week, I read a short article from Baptist Press by a guy named Rob Phillips. Citing Craig Blomberg, Phillips outlines three major criteria for canonicity: apostolicity, catholicity (i.e. universality), and orthodoxy. He argues that while 3 Corinthians could pass the tests of apostolicity and orthodoxy, it would fail the test of catholicity, since the letter was apparently not widely circulated among Christians.

And that’s a pretty fair point, but at the same time, I’m inclined to ask who in the patristic period ever said that catholicity was a standard for canonicity, and why did they say that? Whence came the assumption that a writing must be widely circulated before it’s to be considered divinely inspired? What’s the logic there? Paul’s letters were divinely inspired because of the God-given apostolic wisdom in which they were written, not because of how many Christians had read them. They were inspired as soon as they were penned and before they ever traveled a mile.

I’m using the categories of canonicity and inspiration interchangeably here, but Michael Kruger distinguishes these, at least with respect to the apostolic period:
“. . . it seems best to refer to these lost apostolic writings as ‘inspired books’ or perhaps even as ‘Scripture.’ In regard to the latter term, this would be the one instance, contra Sundberg, where there is a legitimate distinction between Scripture and canon. But this distinction is only applicable to the narrow foundational and redemptive-historical period of the apostles . . .” (Canon Revisited, p. 96).
But if Kruger affirms that the lost letters were “inspired books,” then I wonder what he would say about the canonical status of these letters in the event that they were newly discovered. Are they still inspired, or were they only inspired for a limited time? And if they’re still inspired – God-breathed – then why should they not be considered canonical?

A brief concluding thought: If apostolicity is an important criteria for canonicity, then it’s ironic that evangelicals would, on the one hand, reject the canonicity of a letter that was written by an apostle (our hypothetical 3 Corinthians), while at the same time accepting the canonicity of a letter that they profess to have no idea who wrote (Hebrews). To be clear, I do believe apostolicity is critical, and I do believe Hebrews is inspired. But I also believe that Hebrews was first recognized as inspired largely because it was held to have been written by Paul, which is a historic view that I’m happy to go along with.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ironlinks 1.17.2014

A roundup of stuff I read this week.

Playoffs Will Ruin College Football - But Not Yet | Rachel Lu
“But college football will only stay sweet if we can accept that it just doesn’t lend itself to perfect, NFL-style regularity.”
“Who are Reformed Christians, theologians, and pastors allowed to read? Or, more specifically, who are we allowed to cite positively in our writings and conversations? Are we allowed to speak positively of anything N.T. Wright has written, for example, without getting accused of all sorts of things?”
“In a world as broken and needy as ours—and with all the talent, privileges, and opportunities that God has granted us in middle- and upper-class America—church leaders should question the validity of believers giving 50 years of their working life toward creating new flavors of dog food or $1,500 sterling silver canisters for tennis balls or gold-plated staples. It’s time to admit that some things are just trivial, and if we can avoid them, we should.”
Is the Bible limited to 66 books? | Rob Phillips
“For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul alludes to an earlier letter to fellow believers in Corinth. We don’t have that letter, nor are we aware of its specific contents. Let’s say, however, that archaeologists unearth a clay pot containing a manuscript dating from the mid-first century and fitting the description of Paul’s letter. Should the church welcome 3 Corinthians as the 28th book of the New Testament? Not so fast.”
This article represents the standard way evangelicals typically answer this question, but I’ve never quite understood the reasoning. I intend to post some thoughts on it soon.

5 Reasons Why Young Leaders Should Cherish Parenthood | Art Rainer
“Parenthood should cause a change in priorities. Work does not become unimportant, but it does become less important. Having children adds another priority in your life that is more important than work. And this is good. You always thought there was more to life than work anyway.”
Salt of the Earth | Peter Leithart
“Jesus’s disciples are not salt on food, ice, or sacrifice. Disciples are salt on the land, and that juxtaposition is more threatening than reassuring. Yahweh’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah left behind a proverbial wasteland of salt.”
The Mythos of Neutrality | Mark Ward
“The myth of neutrality isn’t attractive merely because it’s false; it’s attractive because it tells a compelling story about the world—one in which man is the measure of all things. This myth, as commonly believed (at least with respect to science), even offers us a supernatural event: the Big Bang.”
Biblical Cosmos | Peter Leithart
“At some points at least we do still inhabit the universe of the Bible. For many practical purposes, the lived world is flat and that sky certainly does appear to be a hard dome over my head. I see the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening. I’m told that if I were standing outside the solar system, I’d see something different, but I’m not standing outside the solar system. So there seem to be many possible true descriptions of the world I inhabit, depending on the angle of observation: Who decided that standing outside the solar system is the only place from which to see reality as it is? Why does a scientific cosmology, whose proof I don’t understand, trump the evidence of my senses? (I could make the point more scientifically: We don’t believe in a geocentric universe anymore because we believe in a multi-centric universe; if any location can serve as center, why not earth?)”
Inside the Evangelical Fight Over Gay Marriage | Denny Burk
“Nevertheless, I’m skeptical about the young ‘evangelicals’ profiled in this piece. It is not even clear from the article whether we are dealing with bona fide evangelicals or those who are leaving evangelicalism. Can they in any meaningful sense be considered bellwethers for a movement defined by convictions that they have largely abandoned? I don’t think so. It is indeed telling that at Vines’s recent conference, ‘most of the panelists advocating change were not evangelical but from the mainline Protestant traditions.’ That says just about everything you need to know.”
Rome’s telling silence | Steve Hays
“On the day before Christmas Eve, Newsweek published a now infamous hit-piece on Christianity. It was, in part, an attack on the Bible, but it went beyond that to attack the Trinity, the deity of Christ, early church councils, &c. It has received rebuttals from Protestants like Michael Kruger, Dan Wallace, Darrell Bock, Robert Gagnon, Albert Mohler, Justin Taylor, Ben Witherington, Michael Brown, James White, Denny Burk, and Jeff Kloha. But there’s something conspicuously absent. Where is the authoritative response from the One True Church®?” 
The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage: Why This Matters for the Church | Russell Moore

Porneia | Peter Leithart

Monday, January 5, 2015

Just for Timothy

A host of hermeneutical questions have been nagging at me for some time now, so I feel as though I’ll inevitably have to write about it at some point. But for now, I just want to try and capture the precise nature of the questions that have been swirling around in my head. This is not Rob Bell-esque skepticism. This is faith seeking understanding.

When we read a command in the Bible, by what standard(s) do we adjudicate whether or not the command should be directly applied to us as individual Christians today?

For example, it’s common for many Christians to insist that the Great Commission is a command that every individual believer must personally obey. They see support for this in the fact that Jesus instructed the disciples to teach new believers to observe all that he had commanded them (Matt. 28:20). So in that light, if Jesus commanded the original twelve (eleven rather) to make disciples of all nations, then it follows that this commission should likewise be viewed as the task of every individual believer.

Yet those who make this argument will rarely, if ever, apply it consistently. Many of them don’t wash each other’s feet the way Jesus commanded his disciples to do (Jn. 13:14-15). Nor do they think it necessary for missionaries to abide by every detail of Jesus’s instructions to the disciples when he sent them out to preach (Matt. 10:5-14). And then on a more absurd level, certainly no one seriously maintains that Jesus’s command to fetch a donkey (Matt. 21:2) applies to every individual believer, and neither does his command to go fishing for tax money (Matt. 17:27).

So some of Jesus’s commands to the disciples are applicable to believers today, while others are not. And my question is, how do we tell which is which? When Jesus instructs the disciples to teach new believers to observe all that he has commanded them, this has to be qualified in some sense. So how should it be qualified?

Sometimes when faced with culturally and ecclesially awkward biblical commands, what we do is reduce the command to a more general principle. Thus, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16) becomes “Greet one another with some visible token of love and respect,” and so a good hug or handshake will do just fine. Or, “You ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14) becomes “You ought to serve one another and tend to one another’s needs,” making the command more easily applicable to any day and age. But where did we get the right to generalize biblical commands? Why should we assume we’re allowed to do that?

Paul said, “Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). This is an imperative. It’s a command that’s in the Bible. And yet it’s a command that I have no possible way of being obedient to. Now obviously, we seem to know intuitively that this is clearly an example of a biblical command that is contextually-confined. In other words, it was just a command for Timothy. But this sets a precedent that slightly perturbs me. Because if that’s the case, then what else in these epistles might have been just for Timothy? And by what definite standard are we adjudicating what’s just for Timothy versus what’s universal?

These are questions I feel like I should work through more carefully, because when, oh, say an egalitarian comes along and insists that those ugly commands about submission and working at home (1 Tim. 2:11; Tit. 2:5) are contextually-confined and non-universal, and then points to John 13:15, Matthew 10:5-14, Romans 16:16, and 2 Tim. 4:13 to remind me that I fully understand this hermeneutical category, I ought to have something to say that goes beyond my own personal intuition.

But note here that the egalitarian would also need to defend his own hermeneutical decisions just as carefully; because the mere fact that some commands are contextually- or culturally-confined doesn’t mean we’re free to assume that any one command is.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Lesser Light

I was reading this familiar section of Genesis last night:
And God made the two great lights – the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night – and the stars (Gen. 1:16).
So I got up to look outside my window. And there it was. The lesser light. The moon I had just read about. It was right there in the sky. And I smiled.

The commentary I also happened to be reading had a lot to say about intertextual connections – places elsewhere in Scripture that you can reference to find certain key words or phrases that parallel Genesis 1. It also had a lot to say about comparisons between Genesis 1 and other ancient creation accounts from pagan sources.

And there’s certainly nothing wrong with those sorts of enquiries, so long as we recognize that Genesis is more than just a text to be studied as such. Genesis doesn’t just invite us to compare it with other texts. It points us to things we can see right outside our windows. It sheds light on those things and tells us who they come from. So the next time you’re reading about creation in Genesis, be sure to go outside and look at it. Go look at the world God made.

Then maybe read a Wikipedia article about the sun or the moon, and keep marveling. Any hermeneutical system that would discourage this kind of thing is anemic.