Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Seven Common Misconceptions Corrected

Read it first. Granted, the author teaches Old Testament at Brandeis, so he’s not just a journalist working with material he doesn't really know. But it appears to me that some of his misconceptions are views that no one holds anyway. Hence his “corrections” are either irrelevant or represent a liberal/critical scholarly consensus that does not hold outside of those circles.

Misconception 1: The Ten Commandments are the most important part of the Bible. Since I don’t know anyone who actually holds this view, and I have never seen this view expressed in print, it appears to me unlikely that this is a “common” misconception. The rest of his comment draws attention to the fact that the 10 Commandments (or 10 Words) are differently enumerated by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. (Maybe the topic for another post.)

Misconception 2: We know what the original text of the Bible is. This he denies. But, within certain parameters, I think he is wrong. Texts in the Old Testament period tended to be copied and preserved with a fair amount of care. He vastly overstates his case here, and the Dead Sea Scrolls undercut his case severely. Though there is some variation between the Dead Sea Scrolls texts of Old Testament books, and the modern Hebrew texts that we have, the differences are actually fairly minor, as any standard textbook on Old testament text criticism makes clear.

Misconception 3: The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are different names for the same books. Granted, as he observes, the Old Testament of the Roman Catholic Church contains a number of books that are not contained in Protestant Old Testaments. Once we get past that, however, the common conception is correct. I will agree, to some extent, that order matters, but the fact remains that Protestant Old Testaments contain exactly the same books as Hebrew Bibles contain. It may be a bit of an oversimplification to say that Old Testament and Hebrew Bible are different names for the same books, but it is not wrong, hence not really a misconception.

Misconception 4: We know the order of the biblical books. If he means by this that we know the original order of the biblical books, then of course it is a misconception. The Hebrew Bible does not have a set order (different printed editions have different orders of books in the Writings section). But in a certain sense, so what? He doesn't really indicate why this might be a bad misconception.

Misconception 5: Everything in a prophetic book is by that prophet. That view is not held in the liberal academy. So in Brettler’s mind, it is a misconception. However, the view that the books of the prophets hold the writings of those prophets was the common view of both Judaism and Christianity until less than two hundred years ago. The fact that we don’t have the original books written by the prophets is beside the point. To Brettler, there is evidence that indicates the some (if not large) portions of the Old Testament prophetic books are by authors other than the named prophets. I have never found that evidence compelling.

Misconception 6: The Bible is history. Well, again, Brettler has something of a point, but it is also overstated. The Bible is not history as history is written today, since history as written today does not allow for explanation of events being orchestrated by God. But the Old Testament does tell us about historical events. Archaeology neither proves nor disproves biblical events. Archaeological discoveries can either lend support to the biblical account, or raise questions about the biblical account, but whether the biblical account stands or falls is generally determined by the author’s views about the Old Testament itself. For example, there is currently debate in scholarly circles about whether the kingdom of David actually existed as it is described in the Old Testament. Archaeological discoveries to date cannot tell us that. But those who hold that it didn't, hold that view, not on the basis of archaeology, but on the basis of their views about the Old Testament.

Misconception 7: All the Psalms are by King David. Again, I don’t think anyone actually holds that view, so Brettler’s objection is irrelevant. The real question is whether David wrote those Psalms that are referred as “of David” in the psalm titles. I see no good reason to deny those to David. Saying that “scholars do not attribute any of Psalms to King David!” is simply not true, unless you automatically define as “no scholar” anyone who holds that David wrote some of the psalms. Again, Brettler has overstated his case, and has done so based primarily on the basis of his presuppositions about what the Old Testament is.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Little Fun for Christmas, Suggested by Andy Webb

After the immaculate conception[1] of Jesus, Joseph was instructed by an Angel to take his pregnant wife Mary[2] to his hometown of Bethlehem[3] where he was told Jesus would be born. Mary and Joseph, and their little donkey[4] all set off for Bethlehem led by a star[5]. When they reached their destination they hoped[6] to stay at the inn in Bethlehem but they was no room so they stayed in a wooden stable[7] surrounded by all sorts of animals[8]. Then on the still and snowy evening[9] of December 25th[10], Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him on straw[11] in a manger. Mary immediately noticed that something was very special about this baby because he didn't cry when he was awakened by the noises made by cattle in the stable[12]. Later that evening[13], 3[14] kings[15] from the east who had followed the same star all the way to where it had stopped over that stable in Bethlehem[16] arrived by camel[17] to give Jesus presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Shepherds also came to play music for him[18]. A poor little boy also arrived to worship Jesus and because he had no present fit for a king to give, Mary said it would be fine if he played his drum for him.[19]

[1] The immaculate conception, a doctrine not taught in the Bible, refers to the conception of Mary, not that of Jesus.

[2] Joseph was instructed by the angel not to put away Mary. She was at the time not his wife, but his betrothed.

[3] Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census, not because he was told by the angel.

[4] There’s no mention of a donkey.

[5] The star only occurs in reference to the magi.

[6] This hope may be implied, but it is not explicit, so it is ruled out of order.

[7] No mention of what the stable was made of.

[8] No mention of animals in the stable. There may have been some there, or they may have been moved out.

[9] There is no mention of either “still” or “snowy.” We are also not told what time of day it was when Mary gave birth.

[10] The date is a later invention. No date is given, or even clearly implied, in the text.

[11] No mention of straw in the text.

[12] This whole sentence is confabulation, so it’s hard to tell how many errors are in it.

[13] The kings arrived some time later, though we do not know how much later.

[14] The number of persons is not mentioned.

[15] They were not kings, but magi.

[16] Well, sort of. The magi had seen the star, and on that basis headed to Jerusalem. After being sent out by Herod, they followed the star, which “stood over where the child was” (NASB). We presume that the family was still in Behtlehem.

[17] Their mode of travel is not mentioned.

[18] Shepherds came, but to worship, not to sing.

[19] This whole sentence is confabulation, so again, the number of errors is difficult to determine.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Some Thoughts on Reading the Bible in 2015

This is not another post on Bible reading plans. There are about a thousand different reading plans out there, and I have no intention of adding to the list. What I will say first is that if you really want to read through the Bible in 2015, use a plan that takes you straight through from the beginning to the end. The Bible is one great big fantastic story, and if you’re reading a little here and a little there every day, you lose the plot.

Second, get yourself a Bible for reading. What I mean is that most Bible publishers do everything they can to make it hard to read the Bible. They print it in two columns. They put cross references in there. They put notes at the bottom of the page. They print in different colors, and add pictures and drawings. All of this can be helpful if you’re studying the Bible. But if you’re reading the Bible, it all distracts. When was the last time you picked up a novel that was printed in double columns, or had footnotes, or was printed in different colors, or had cross references? Of course you wouldn't expect cross references or footnotes in a novel. But the point is that those things distract from the task of reading. The ESV and the NIV are both now available in what is called a reader’s edition. While I don’t much care for the NIV as a translation, if you do, look into it. What both of these editions do is eliminate the verse numbers, the cross references, and the footnotes. And they put the chapter numbers in a place where they don’t intrude on the reading.  If you don’t want to buy one of those, at least get a plain text Bible (no cross references or footnotes). You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to simply read when you don’t have all those distractions on the page.

Third, read the whole thing. By that, I mean don’t skip over the annoying parts, such as the rules for sacrifices in Leviticus, or the censuses in Numbers, of the long lists of names in 1 Chronicles. Don’t puzzle over them trying to find some secret meaning in them, but don’t ignore them either. However obscure they may be, they are part of the story. Having those things in the Bible is a little like having accounts of dish-washing and vacuuming in someone’s biography. Maybe they don’t seem important, but they constitute a regular part of daily life. So these seemingly unimportant things in the Bible have a place.

Fourth, if you miss a day or two, or even a week or two, don’t beat yourself up. Just pick up where you left off. If you don’t quite finish in a year, that’s okay.

Here’s to getting the big picture, reading the whole story in 2015.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Persuasive Preaching. R. Larry Overstreet.

When I read a book such as this one, I am reminded of the real diversity that exists in American evangelicalism at both the theological and at the practical level. Dr. Overstreet writes to an evangelical context in which the invitation, which used to be the standard close to the worship service, is disappearing. Overstreet laments this loss, attributing it to the loss of the view of preaching as intended to persuade. According to him, that view has been replaced by the view that preaching is merely to inform. If there is no persuasion, there is no need for commitment.

Overstreet aims to correct this “informing” view of preaching by demonstrating that the biblical view is that preaching lies between manipulating and informing in the region of persuading. Overstreet devotes the bulk of the book (Part 2) to demonstrating this. His approach is what I would call “word study exegesis”—that is, the point is proved by studying every word that is relevant to the issue in its every occurrence. The result is, perhaps, convincing, but it is also repetitious and tedious. It strikes me that he would have been better advised to select two or three key passages and deal carefully with them, rather than to heap up verses.

He devotes Part 3 of the book to presenting different ways of structuring a persuasive  message. Again, it seems to me that these suggestions are particularly aimed at a distinct evangelical subculture, with its own distinct view of preaching. Certainly the material is helpful, but it is available in almost any introductory book on preaching.

Before reaching his conclusion, Overstreet does have a helpful chapter on the Holy Spirit in preaching. The conclusion brings us back to the invitation. Apparently Overstreet thinks that persuasive reaching will be ineffective without a concluding invitation to seal the deal. Here, I fundamentally disagree.

This is not a bad book. Nor is it a good book. It aims in part to restore a practice that the church is better off without. The more helpful material in the book has been said innumerable times elsewhere, so it’s not clear to me why the book was necessary. But maybe that’s just because I don’t share Overstreet’s evangelical subculture.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November 19, 2014 at ETS

I had the privilege of hearing four excellent papers this afternoon related to Old Princeton.

The first was from Annette G. Aubert, titled "Old Princeton and Transatlantic Theology." She dealt with the German connection that Old Princeton had, as several of the Old Princeton faculty studied in Germany, and in the seminary journal introduced many of the German developments to American audiences. For this paper, she focused on the influence of E. W. Hengstenberg. This paper was related to her recently published book, The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century American Theology, which is reviewed here: http://www.academia.edu/6441465/Review_of_Annette_G._Aubert_The_German_Roots_of_Nineteenth-Century_American_Theology_New_York_Oxford_University_Press_2013_. Anyone who has read Hodge's systematic theology knows how often he references German theologians. This provides a corrective, and new areas of exploration, for those who think Old Princeton's sole connection to Europe was Scottish Common Sense realism. Aubert is a lecturer in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The second paper was by Bradley Gunlach of Trinity International University, titled "Adam and Eve at Old Princeton." After dealing to some extent with Hodge and Warfield, he focused on three lesser-known Princetonians: George McCloskey, C. W. Hodge, Jr., and William Brenton Greene. He outlined their struggles with trying to determine what views regarding evolution and the origins of Adam and Eve were allowable within an orthodox doctrine of Scripture. It is clear that while they were more sympathetic to evolution than some of their conservative Reformed descendants, there were yet bounds that could not be crossed. It was also suggested that many of today's Reformed folks who lean toward theistic evolution really find very little to no support from Old Princeton, contrary to what you might read.

The third paper, titled, "Charles Hodge on the Separation of Church and State," was by Gary Steward, a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was a helpful presentation, showing some of the difficulties that Hodge had in trying to maintain a "spirituality of the church" doctrine along with a commitment to a Christian America.

The final paper, "Warfield's Doctrine of Scripture Revisited," was by Fred Zaspel, already well-known for his book The Theology of B. B. Warfield. It was a clear and helpful presentation of Warfield's doctrine, sprinkled with plenty of quotes. Zaspel also commented that while Warfield is perhaps best known today for his statement and defense of inerrancy, that was not his primary area of interest. While he published some 1,500 pages dealing with the doctrine, he published considerably more on Christology and soteriology.

All in all, it was a profitable afternoon.

Those interested in copies of the papers (only Steward distributed copies of his full paper) should contact the authors directly.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

John V. Fesko, Songs of A Suffering King

This is a brief devotional book that deals in sequence with the first eight Psalms. The treatment of each psalm follows the same order. First, Fesko presents the psalm in its original context: “What was occurring in the life of David to occasion the psalm?” Second, he considers the connection of the psalm to Christ: “In what way does the psalm speak of Christ?” Finally, he considers the connection of the psalm to the church. In this last section he primarily considers the application of the psalm to the individual believer, as can easily be seen by reading the conclusion to each discussion. Fesko also provides each devotional with some questions for further study, and a metrical version of the psalm so that it might be sung.

For the most part, it is a helpful set of devotions. I do have some concern with a statement he makes in the Introduction. He says, “First, the entire Psalter is connected to the person and work of Christ” (2). He defends this by an appeal to Luke 24:44. Such an appeal (and it is common among Reformed thinkers today) strikes me as reading too much into Jesus’ statement. Jesus is not saying here that each and every passage in the Old Testament refers to Christ, though that seems to be how Fesko takes it. It’s also the reading that David Murray in his book Jesus on Every Page takes. The result of such an approach, however, tends to produce a certain amount of fanciful exegesis in pursuit of the goal of finding Jesus in every text. Fesko effectively admits this, for example, in his comments on Psalm 3. In drawing parallels between David and Christ in this psalm, he says, “The parallels are not precise—they usually are not—but it was Jesus who was the  Messiah, and throughout his life there were those who sought to kill him” (41). The fact that the parallels are usually not precise should caution us about an undisciplined eagerness to find Jesus in each and every Old Testament text. 

I can give this book a limited recommendation, urging the reader to read with care. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reading Through the Psalms in 30 Days

This plan gives the reader about the same amount to read each day. The reader will also notice that I have divided Psalm 119 so that one section of the psalm is read each day for 22 days. It seems to me that this gives the reader time to savor the psalm a little bit at a time. Otherwise, the variations get lost in reading through it in one or two days.

Day 1: Pss 1-7; 119:1-8                                 Day 16: Pss 74-77; 119:121-128
Day 2: Pss 8-14; 119:9-16                            Day 17: Pss 78-80; 119:129-136
Day 3: Pss 15-18; 119:17-24                         Day 18: Pss 81-85; 119:137-144
Day 4: Pss 19-22; 119:25-32                       Day 19: Pss 86-89; 119:145-152
Day 5: Pss 23-28; 119:33-40                      Day 20: Pss 90-95; 119:153-160
Day 6: Pss 29-33; 119:41-48                       Day 21: Pss 96-102; 119:161-168
Day 7: Pss 34-36; 119:49-56                       Day 22: Pss 103-105; 119:169-176
Day 8: Pss 37-39; 119:57-64                       Day 23: Pss 106-107
Day 9: Pss 40-44; 119:65-72                       Day 24: Pss 108-112
Day 10: Pss 45-49; 119:73-80                    Day 25: Pss 113-118
Day 11: Pss 50-55; 119:81-88                     Day 26: Pss 120-129
Day 12: Pss 56-60; 119:89-96                    Day 27: Pss 130-136
Day 13: Pss 61-66; 119:97-104                   Day 28: Pss 137-142
Day 14: Pss 67-69; 119:105-112                  Day 29: Pss 143-146
Day 15: Pss 70-73; 119:113-120                  Day 30: Pss 147-150

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Biblical Portraits of Creation, Walter Kaiser and Dorrington Little

This is a very useful little book. It is taken largely from sermons by the two authors. Kaiser, of course, is the well-known Old Testament scholar and emeritus president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Little is the senior pastor of the First Congregational Church on Hamilton, MA. In the book, they trace the theme of creation (and new creation) through Scripture by focusing on selected texts. Obviously Genesis 1 is included, as well as such other passages as Proverbs 8, Psalm 29, and Psalm 104. With regard to new creation, Little deals with Matthew 1 and 2 Corinthians 4 and 5. Kaiser deals with Isaiah 65 and 66.

The author gives an exposition of each passage, ending each chapter with a restatement of the conclusions and a list of study and discussion questions for small group use. The chapters are directed primarily to the non-professional, and are written accordingly. Contrary to what some might think, it is much more difficult to write for a popular audience than it is for a technical one, as a great deal of attention has to be paid to keeping the language clear, and explaining any technical terms that must be used. Both authors are to be commended for meeting this exacting standard.

The book concludes with an appendix, which is essentially a reprint of Kaiser’s article “The Literary Genre of Genesis 1-11,” which initially appeared in 1969. In this article he argues for reading Genesis 1-11 as straightforward “historical narrative-prose.” I think the article is convincing. However, such self-identified evangelical scholars as Peter Enns (formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia) and John Walton (currently at Wheaton College) are currently insisting that Genesis 1-11 (especially Genesis 1-3) is really myth. I think the article would have been strengthened if Kaiser had rewritten it in order to take the views of Enns, Walton, and others into account. But that is a relatively small complaint.

By and large, I have no hesitancy in recommending this work for personal and/or group study on the doctrine of creation as set out in many key biblical passages.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Christian Reading List for Atheists

In a day when Christian bookstore shelves are loaded with the likes of Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen, it is not surprising if atheists tend to think of Christians as either non-intellectual or outright anti-intellectual. However, it is somewhat surprising that the new apostles of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are so profoundly ignorant of the Christian intellectual tradition. In the spirit of enlightenment, I offer the following admittedly eccentric and selective bibliography for the study of atheists (and under-educated Christians) who need to be more familiar with the Christian intellectual tradition.

Many other books could be added, and no doubt better selections are available. I deliberately avoided systematic theologies (except in the case of Aquinas) and tried to stick to more readily accessible material (except for Edwards, which is a tough read). I have also tried to reflect the broadness of the Christian intellectual tradition (though I haven’t included anything from Eastern Orthodoxy, simply because I am not familiar with that tradition). So if I didn't include your favorite book, make up your own list.

The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. No atheist critic of Christianity has earned the right to be taken seriously if he hasn't read the Bible cover-to-cover at least once. I’m recommending this particular edition for two reasons. First, it is the King James Bible, which is still a foundational piece of English literature. Second, it is really a reader’s edition; no commentary, no cross-references, just clear, single-column text.

Augustine, The City of God. Cultural criticism, systematic theology, biblical exegesis and more under one cover, by one of the finest minds of the Western tradition.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. I recommend the Concise Translation edited by Timothy McDermott. Aquinas summarized in 600 pages. Aristotle placed into the service of the medieval church.

Dante, Divine Comedy. Thomistic theology in the form of epic poetry. There are many good versions available, but I particularly recommend that done by Dorothy Sayers, originally published in the Penguin Classics series.

John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress. Puritan Protestant theology in allegory. Perhaps the greatest allegory in English literature. Available in many editions.

John Milton, Paradise Lost. “Justifying the ways of God to men.” Protestant theology in the dress of epic poetry. One of the greatest works of English literature.

Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will. Perhaps the finest philosophical theologian America ever produced. Here, a close and careful analysis of man’s choosing. Many editions are available, but the Yale University Press edition, though exorbitantly priced, has a very useful introduction.

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. One man’s journey from status quo British theological liberalism to the Roman Catholic Church. One of the great spiritual autobiographies.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. Classic Chesterton. Perhaps a favorite of mine because his tale so resonates with mine.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

More Thoughts on a Delegated PCA General Assembly

My previous post suggested four men (two TEs and two REs) from each presbytery as delegates to the Assembly. Responses have wondered about other ways of determining the number of delegates; for example, determining the number of delegates by the size of the presbytery or suggesting a much larger number of delegates. Also some suggested that one of the problems with preceding proposals for a delegated assembly was that men simply enjoy having the time to meet with other elders that they haven’t seen in a year.

While I recognize that some would like a larger attendance, even at a delegated assembly, four from each presbytery struck me as the right amount. It is a small enough number to enable the GA to function as a committee of the whole (in other words, no more “Committees of Commissioners”) and is sufficiently representative. In dealing with the “more representatives for larger presbyteries” question, it seems to me that the four per presbytery also avoids the problem of larger presbyteries having too much sway. In addition, the delegates from each presbytery would be instructed that they are going as representatives of the entire presbytery, thus perhaps giving greater representation to small churches.

In addition to the above, I would suggest that GA meet biennially. There is, as far as I can tell, no good reason for annual meetings. The reports and budgets of the denominational committees and agencies can be done on a biennial basis, as can review of presbytery records. In fact, having to submit records only every two years instead of every year may help some of our delinquent presbyteries come into accord with requirements.

As for the fellowship aspect of GA: if you take a look at the docket of GA, there is currently precious little time for fellowship, especially as each year the assembly seems to press harder and harder to get done before Thursday evening. As a result, fellowship takes place late, after the evening services, or it takes men away from the assembly itself, resulting in one-fourth to one-third of the commissioners commonly being absent from counted votes. My suggestion is that in the years between assemblies there be a “conference of presbyters.” It would be set up something like an academic conference. It would begin Monday evening with a plenary session presentation by someone picked by the GA on some topic relevant to pastoral work. Then, Tuesday through Thursday there would be smaller sessions, much like those currently done in the early mornings at GA. I would suggest two session periods each morning and one session period in the afternoon. There could be several alternatives at each of these periods, perhaps dealing with a general theme, but not required to. With only three session periods during the day, and with the evenings entirely free, there would be plenty of time for fellowship. Perhaps a final plenary session could close things out on Friday morning. REs would certainly be encouraged to attend, but since this is not a meeting of a court of the church, the presence or absence of REs would not be a problem. TEs could use this as a week of study leave, since the various presentations would be applicable to their pastoral labors.

This is admittedly a big-picture proposal. The devil is in the details, and perhaps these suggestions would not work. But unless we begin talking about alternative ways to doing GA, it is not going to improve.

Friday, June 20, 2014

It Is (Past) Time for a Delegated Assembly

As of 2012, the PCA had eighty (80) presbyteries, 1,474 churches, and 303 missions (church plants). Those numbers have not changed significantly in the last two years. This year, there were 867 Teaching Elders (TEs) and 256 Ruling Elders (REs) registered for General Assembly (GA). Those statistics also have not changed significantly in the last several years. In fact, if there is any movement at all, the trend seems to be to a lower number of attendees each successive year.

Every TE may attend GA. In addition, “Each congregation is entitled to two ruling elder representatives for the first 350 communing members or fraction thereof, and one additional ruling elder for each additional 500 communing members or fraction thereof.” (BCO 14-2). That being the case, attendance at GA could theoretically be in the range of 7,000-7,200 people. Yet the real attendance is about one-sixth of that number. In fact, the total number of commissioners is about two-thirds of the total number of the denomination’s churches and mission works. So it is obvious that not every church is being represented at GA. But a closer look at the numbers makes it even worse. Some of our larger churches are diligent about sending their full contingent of TEs and REs. They are to be commended for that. However, that results in the fact that these large churches regularly have more commissioners present at GA than some presbyteries do. Many (certainly dozens, if not hundreds) of the denomination’s small churches are not represented at GA at all, because the cost of GA is more than the church budget can bear.

The unofficial motto of the PCA is “we’re a grassroots denomination.” That may at one time have been true. But we need to stop lying to ourselves. The PCA is run by the denomination’s program committees and the large and influential churches and presbyteries. The only hope for a real grassroots PCA is the move to a delegated assembly. That would mean that each of the eighty presbyteries would elect delegates to attend GA. Every part of the church would receive equal representation. It would completely change the character of the GA, and would quite possibly change the character of the church itself.

Making that change would not be easy. It would probably take 3-5 years to implement. For one things, there would have to be significant changes to the BCO and RAO (Rules of Assembly Operation). Further, there would be any number of practical considerations. Here are some suggestions to begin with. Each presbytery would send four delegates (two TEs and two REs). Expenses for attendance would be paid by the presbytery. GA would be held at colleges, universities, or other relatively small sites that could host the four hundred or so people who would be attending. Meeting in such venues would considerably reduce costs. Location of GA could be rotated, perhaps something like this: first year, somewhere in the Northeast; second year, Southeast; third year, Midwest; fourth year, Southwest; fifth year, Northwest. That way, the more expensive travel costs are spread around each year. I have more ideas, and I’d be happy to talk with people who would be interested in seeing this come about.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Sabbath

Many who identify themselves as evangelicals in our day are opposed to the idea of the Christian having a weekly Sabbath. The Sabbath, in this view, is an Old Testament institution, part of the Law of Moses and not reiterated in the New Testament for the church. There is an extensive literature available dealing with the issue, and I have no possibility of adding anything new to the discussion. I do, however, want to deal briefly with one passage and make some application of it.

Hebrews 4:10-11 says, “for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” By the non-Sabbatarian, these verses are taken to be saying the following: when we believed in Christ, we rested from our works. Therefore, we have already entered that rest of which the Old Testament Sabbath was a figure. Since we have already entered that rest, there is no more need for the Sabbath.

In some sense, it is true that when we believed in Christ, we entered that rest. However, the passage is not speaking about our present enjoyment of that rest. It is speaking about our future enjoyment. Hence, the “there yet remains a Sabbath rest” of verse 9, as well as the “let us strive” of verse 11. My sense of this is that while we, by trusting in Christ, have entered into rest, we have not entered into that final rest which is in view here. We have, as it were, left Egypt, but we have not yet entered Canaan.

The Sabbath in the Old Testament had a three-fold consideration with regard to time. First, it made the believer look back to be reminded that he was God’s creature (Gen 2:1-3; Ex 20:11). The past fact was that God created. The present fact (for that Old Testament believer) was that God was his creator. The future fact was that God would be the creator of the new heavens and the new earth. Second, the Sabbath made the believer look back to be reminded that God was his redeemer (Deut 5:15). The past fact was that God redeemed a people. The present fact was that God was his personal redeemer. The future fact was that God would usher him into a redeemed new heavens and new earth. Third, the Sabbath was a sign that they were his people and he was their God (Ex 31:12-17). God had chosen a people going back to Abraham (in fact going all the way back to Adam, though the “I will be your God, and you will be my people” language goes back only to Abraham). They had been his people in the past. They were his people in the present, ad they would continue to be his people into the future.

We, as New Testament believers, have the same identity. We are God’s creatures. We are God’s redeemed people. God has given us a sign that these things are so. We still have the same need—to be reminded that these things are so. Yes, we have entered rest, but we have not fully entered it. Do you not find that your heart is often restless, worried, anxious? If so, you have not fully entered into that rest. This is right, because our redemption is not yet complete. We are being sanctified. We will be glorified. But that work is not yet complete.

Some say that there is no distinct holy time for the New Testament believer because all time is now holy. But we all know that when everything is special, nothing is special. We still need that weekly time; time that is not ours to do with as we please, but time for God. He has given it to us in the weekly Sabbath. Will we not take advantage of it, preparing ourselves for that full rest that we long for?

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Active Spirituality, Brian G. Hedges

Hedges is the Lead Pastor of Fulkerson Baptist Church in Niles, MI, where he has been since 2003. He blogs at brianghedges.com.

This book is a practical book dealing with the issue that sanctification, or growth in grace, is something that requires active obedience by the Christian. It is not a how-to book, which is to its author’s credit. Sanctification is something that looks different in every Christian, and proceeds individually, though the Spirit uses the same means with each person. It is written as a series of thirty-one letters to a young Christian making those first toddling steps in grace. Each letter is only 3-4 pages, so the book would make helpful devotional reading over the course of a month.

Hedges doesn’t say anything new here, but what he says is clear and helpful. The book is strengthened by the fact that Hedges has relied on some very reliable guides in charting his course. There are few better guides on this issue that John Bunyan, John Owen, and J. C. Ryle. In addition, Hedges makes judicious use of C. S. Lewis who, regardless of his theological shortcomings, was an astute student of human (and Christian) nature. The notes at the end of the book direct the interested reader to the works of the authors that Hedges has relied on. As a Presbyterian, I could wish Hedges had said more about the role of the church and sacraments. But the book is a solid piece of practical theology that will repay repeated readings.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Book Review: Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship

The subtitle of this book is Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship. It could also be subtitled: Modern Baptists Discover Psalmody. Though not all the authors are Baptists, the majority are, and the book had its origins in a conference that was to be held at Union University, but was prevented by a tornado that tore through the campus not long before the conference was to be held. The work is divided into two parts: Biblical and Historical Foundations, and Practice. A look at the book on amazon.com will give the table of contents. Overall, I was quite pleased with the book, though, as with any such collection, the essays vary, not so much in quality, but as in how they affected me. I found C. John Collins' essay thin and unconvincing. The most helpful is Leland Ryken's essay "Reclaiming the Psalms for Private Worship." The essays by Craig Blaising and Douglas Bond I found quite moving. The essay by James Grant on introducing psalm-singing to a congregation was full of helpful advice. The essay by Richard Wells on the Psalms and pastoral prayer is challenging, especially in this day of short or non-existent pulpit prayer. The bibliographical essay (Appendix 3) is very good, though Garrett missed William Binnie's very fine work A Pathway into the Psalter. All in all a useful guide for bringing the Book of Psalms more fully into the life of the church and the Christian.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

David Murray and Jephthah’s Vow, Part 2

Here is the link to David Murray’s original post. I forgot to put it in my last post: http://headhearthand.org/blog/2014/02/24/jephthahs-perfect-vow/

In the previous post, I dealt with the first eight reasons Dr. Murray gave for his opinion. I stopped at that point in part because I couldn't really figure out how to deal nicely with his ninth point. I’m still not sure I can do it nicely, but I’ll try. Murray’s ninth point is that Jephthah would have lost his leadership credibility if he had sacrificed his daughter. Really!? Let’s look at the Israelite penchant for choosing leadership: in the wilderness, the people wanted anyone but Moses. After the death of Saul, most of Israel spent seven years trying to follow Saul’s ne’er-do-well son Ish-bosheth. After the death of Solomon, most of Israel went after Jeroboam, who promptly led the people into idolatry and apostasy. Why wouldn't these people follow Jephthah? People throughout history have followed bad leaders: Hitler, Stalin, and Castro, to name a few. The fact that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter would probably have had little impact on Israel. Given the state of Israel during the period of the judges, there may have been more than one man in Jephthah’s army who had sacrificed his own child. As with Dr. Murray’s other points, this one simply doesn't hold up to examination.

Murray’s final reason for holding that Jephthah didn't sacrifice his daughter is the fact that he is listed in Hebrews 11. He says, “Given that Judges 11 is the only thing we know about Jephthah, he would hardly have been included in such exalted company if the only thing we know about him was a gruesome sacrifice of his daughter.” Except that really isn't all that we know about Jephthah. We know that he led Israel to victory against its enemies at a time when any leadership in Israel was in short supply. We know that he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord to accomplish that feat. We know that he was a worshiper of Yahweh, even though that worship was expressed in a horribly heterodox manner. And let’s look at some of Jephthah’s “exalted company” in Hebrews 11. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness (Gen 15:6). And in the very next chapter, he accepts Sarah’s half-baked scheme to get the son of promise through Hagar. Moses committed murder and spent forty years herding sheep in the wilderness for his father-in-law. Gideon made an ephod for the Israelites that they then worshiped. And then there’s Samson. It sounds to me like a Jephthah who sacrificed his daughter, thinking that he was doing God a favor, fits right in there.

We have to remember that Hebrews 11 was not written to exalt the persons named there, but to exalt the God who saved these people in spite of their weak, halting, and sometimes ignorant faith. Fundamentally, they believed God, and He credited it to them as righteousness.

It should also be noted that the idea that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter is a rather late development in the history of interpretation, not showing up until the Middle Ages in some of the Jewish commentaries.

In short, as awful a thing as it is to contemplate, it does appear that Jephthah indeed vowed to make his daughter a burnt offering, and after allowing her two months to mourn, did exactly that. Even true believers can be guilty of horrendous beliefs and practices. We need to remember this under two conditions: one, when we are tempted to abuse some Christian who has sinned in an obvious and painful manner; and two, when we are tempted to think that our sins are so bad that God couldn't possible save us.

I would also encourage readers to read Matthew Henry’s thoughtful comments on this passage.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

David Murray and Jephthah’s Vow. Part 1

David Murray and Jephthah’s Vow. Part 1
David Murray recently posted a discussion of Jephthah’s vow (Judges 11:29-40). Reading Murray’s post, one might be forgiven for wondering why anyone would ever have thought that Jephthah made a burnt offering out of his daughter. However, a closer look at Murray’s points, reveals that none of them is certain. In the following, I give Murray’s points, each followed by a brief critique. I'll deal with the last two points and give a final evaluation in the second post.
 Jephthah’s previously godly character. Murray’s proof here is Jephthah’s balanced dealings with opponents earlier in the chapter. But dealing rationally with an enemy is not godliness. It’s just good politics. Jephthah may have been godly, but this doesn’t prove it.
Jephthah knew the Bible, so he would have known that human sacrifice was prohibited. The proof offered here is Jephthah’s response to the king of Ammon in vss 12-27. But that doesn’t prove that Jephthah knew his Bible. It just proves he knew his history. They aren’t the same thing.
He was filled with the Holy Spirit. So? That doesn’t prove anything either. One of the odd things about men in the Old Testament is that they are filled with the Spirit of the Lord for executing particular tasks. See, for example, Samson killing a lion in the power of the Spirit (Judges 14:5-6), or the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Saul (1 Samuel 10:6-10). Neither of those episodes shows that the men were filled with the Holy Spirit in a New Testament sense of the word.
Alternative translation of vs 31, using “or” rather than “and.” Yes, that is a possible alternate translation. So is the translation: “it shall be the Lord’s: that is, I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” The existence of an alternative translation does not prove which translation is correct.
Common custom of women serving at the tent of the Lord (Exodus 38:8). That there were such women serving at the tent of the Lord in the wilderness is clear. They are also mentioned in 1 Samuel 2:22. However, it is not clear that they were virgins, which is essential to Murray’s conclusion. There’s no evidence to that effect either in Exodus or in 1 Samuel.
The consequences not being her death, but her being husbandless and childless. That is certainly possible, but it would strengthened if there was some indication that dedication to the Lord’s service required perpetual virginity. There is no such indication anywhere in the Old Testament. Furthermore, if she were killed, she would certainly die without husband or child.
Commemorate, not lament. In Murray’s view, the NASB is correct in vs 40 in saying, “the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah.” He then says, they were going with “worshipful joy.” That goes well beyond what the word might possibly say. The word occurs only twice in the Old Testament: Judges 5:11 and Judges 11:40. First, these are two very different contexts, so what the word might mean in 5:11 is not necessarily what it means here. Further, the ancient versions read “lament” here, which might be wrong, but it certainly is what the translators understood the word to say. The word may mean no more than to recount or retell.
Possibility of repentance. Certainly Jephthah could have repented of a foolish vow. But the text seems to indicate either that he did not think it was foolish, or that he could repent of it (see verse 35).