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Posts Tagged ‘accommodation’


I’ve said it before, I’m glad Sinclair Ferguson retired.

I miss listening to his sermons, so I wish he hadn’t retired too. But his retirement has meant a steadier stream of great books. One of those books is From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible.

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4

This is not a new book such much as a revised and expanded version of Handle with Care! which was released in 1982. It was written to fulfill a commitment he’d made to provide a book on the Trinity. Unable to prepare that manuscript, they were willing to receive Handle with Care! Hopefully we will see that book on the Trinity some day.

In some ways, From the Mouth of God reminds me of Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word. They cover much of the same territory. Their styles are different due, in part, to differences in age and cultural background. Both are very good books and worth reading. Both are relatively short and accessible to lay people. I intend you use both in the teacher training, and officer training, that I am in the process creating and revising respectively.

As you might realize from the subtitle, the book is divided into three sections: trusting the Bible, reading the Bible and applying the Bible. The middle section is the longest. Unfortunately the section on application is the shortest. As one who can struggle with this aspect of sermon preparation, I would have liked this to be explored more thoroughly.

His opening chapter It Is Written covers the Bible as God’s self-revelation. He brings our depravity as expressed in a darkened understanding into the equation. Ferguson uses passages like Hebrews 1 to affirm that the Bible is historical, verbal, progressive and cumulative, and Christ-centered. He discusses the dual authorship of Scripture as an expression of the doctrine of concurrence. He also covers the doctrine of accommodation, that God speaks in such a way that we can understand. The second chapter, Getting It Together, focuses on questions of the canon. This includes the OT canon and Jesus’ view of that canon. He addresses inerrancy and infallibility, as well as finality. Inerrancy is often misunderstood. For instance, it includes the lies of men. It accurately reports those lies in some historical accounts. Faithfully communicating those falsehoods and errors does not mean the Bible itself errs.

He wraps up the first section with Is It God’s Word?, which evaluates the claims of Scripture to be God’s word. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also illumines the Scriptures for us. We see the depth of our dependence upon the work of the Spirit in knowing God.

Ferguson opens the section on reading the Bible with an example of how not to read it: allegory. Christians have struggled with how to read, and therefore understand, the Bible. The priest of my youth told us “Don’t read the Bible, you’ll get it wrong.” And many do. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t Do-It-Yourself. We have a responsibility, and need, to read the Bible for ourselves. We aren’t saved by implicit belief in what the priest or pastor knows & believes. We must explicitly believe saving truths, and we know them through the Scriptures.

Explaining Paul’s statements, Ferguson discusses rightly handling the Word of God, thinking in the hopes the God grants understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). He then turns to the Westminster Confession of Faith to explain some principles for interpretation. He contrasts this with the medieval church’s 5-fold interpretation.

In Keys, he notes the 5 keys to interpreting Scripture: context, Christ, the unfolding drama, and gospel grammar. These keys help us by helping us grasp the historical and literary context, the redemptive-historical context, its connection with Christ and reminding us that the indicatives (facts) of the gospel precede the imperatives (commands) so we live by grace. In Prose, Poetry, Wisdom, and Prophecy focuses on the different literary genres in the Old Testament. He briefly provides the basics needed to understand each of these genres. He includes brief examples of how to interpret each. Similarly in Gospels, Epistles, and Visions Ferguson looks at the genres in the New Testament. In For Example, he interprets the book of Ruth. He repeats one of the keys he noted earlier: “in reading Old Testament narrative we must always have in mind the way in which the promise of Genesis 3:15 unfolds in terms of God’s covenant promise working out through deep conflict to establish his kingdom in Christ.”

Ferguson moves to application with What’s the Use?. Here he returns to 2 Timothy 3 to help us understand the use of the Scriptures in making us wise for salvation. This chapter will find its way into my officer training.

In Seed Needs Soil he addresses the condition of hearts that hear the gospel. This is one of the few places I disagree with Ferguson. It is a minor disagreement. I believe the parable is told to explain the different reactions to the ministry of the Word for the disciples. I don’t think it is meant for us to be self-reflective as if we could prepare our hearts. Still, he does a good job explaining the nature of those hearts.

He concludes with Speaking Practically, which is about how to implement the material you have read. He discusses the role of discipline to develop a routine, and a method for reading the Bible. We have to actually read the Bible, consistently and repeatedly, to bear great fruit. Each of the first 5 years or so that I was a Christian (until I went to seminary) I read the Bible through once a year. I gained a good working knowledge of the Bible as a result. Unfortunately it was the NIV, and many key phrases in my head don’t match up with the ESV. Even after 20 years in ministry, while reading the Bible for my own devotion I continue to see new connections points (I just read Exodus 22:28, noting its connection to NT texts about honoring the king).

Though Ferguson is done, the book isn’t. He includes two brief appendices. The first is John Murray on The Guidance of the Holy Spirit, and John Newton’s letter on Divine Guidance.

This is a good book that leaves you wanting more. I recommend it for all those interested in teaching others, and people interested in why they should trust the Scriptures and how to read them.

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I’ve only read one book by Herman Bavinck. That book was The Doctrine of God, and I read it thanks to Doug Kelly while in seminary. I enjoyed the book and found it helpful, but until recently not much was available in English. I’ve got a copy of a biography on him, but I haven’t read it yet.

His influence, despite this handicap, is evidenced as I read the first few chapters of Bavinck on the Christian Life by John Bolt. I have been greatly influenced by people who have been greatly influenced by Bavinck. I saw much of my personal theology on display in those chapters, much of which is reflected in my approach to marriage in my forth-coming book.

For those who aren’t familiar with Bavinck, he was a Dutch theologian alive in the 19th and 20th centuries. He was a bit younger than his contemporary, the more well known Abraham Kuyper. The book begins with a brief biographical sketch.

Bolt begins the meat of the book with Foundations for Christian Living. The three chapters there cover Bavinck’s theological process so to speak. The first is about creation, Created in God’s Image. We can’t understand the Christian life if we don’t understand ourselves as created in God’s image. Redemption makes us whole humans, not into something altogether different. Bavinck takes a “trinitarian” approach to what it means to be in God’s image: creation, sin & redemption, and eschatology. Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 figure prominently in Bavinck’s thought: Adam as a type of Christ. They are the two covenant heads that govern humanity. As a result, Bavinck affirmed the “covenant of works” as vital to Christian theology. He saw this as “a divinely imposed relationship between God and humanity, a relationship under sanctions: obedience leads to blessing; disobedience results in death. (pp. 43)” And so “we are Christian in order to become truly human, not the other way around. (pp. 43)”

“This theological insight implies that in a Reformed understanding of Christian discipleship the creational, natural vocation of human beings is basic and primary.”

This this point, Bolt provides a critique of the more “radical” approaches to discipleship from Bavinck’s prospective. If he were alive today, Bolt (rightly I think) imagines Bavinck having something to say to people like Claiborne and Platt. He would affirm Christian discipleship in the ordinary callings. Some today sharply criticize the ordinary (creational!) and produce unnecessary and unproductive guilt. There is no hierarchy of callings so that one is better than another. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 7, serve God where you are whether rich or poor, slave or free, male or female. Your vocation- butcher, baker, candlestick maker or household engineer- is the context of your discipleship. It is not to be seen as a hindrance to it. The creation mandate is not opposed to the great commission (see pg. 44-45 in particular).

Bolt then brings us into common grace. He notes that the term is often misunderstood, and should not be used to excuse worldliness in Christians. It “is the confession that God continues to providentally watch over creation and fallen humanity and that this care is not restricted but extends beyond the elect. (pp. 48)” Bavinck, like Calvin, distinguishes between a grace common to all humanity, and special or saving grace. Common grace provides the stage for saving grace. His continuing to uphold the creation despite our sin & rebellion is gracious.

Bolt then moves to The Law and the Duty of Christian Obedience. The law is understood within the context of covenant. Our discipleship, occurring within the context of creation also occurs within the context of the law which guides us in a life which pleases God. Bavinck follows the Reformed confessions and catechisms in this expression of grateful obedience.

Bolt spends more time discussing the covenant of works (pp. 56-63) particularly since some prominent Reformed theologians are critical of the doctrine. He notes some of those criticisms, but brings us back to Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 again. We see that their roles as covenant heads are revealed matters. For Bavinck, religion is a revealed matter. Apart from revelation we don’t have true religion. Bolt notes the temptations of moralism and legalism. The law is intended to be kept within the context of covenant. The Ten Commandments are given in the context of redemption. They are to obey because they have been redeemed, not to gain salvation. The enjoyment of that salvation, and remaining in the land, hinged upon obedience (and repentance when they disobeyed) while looking forward to the greater Redeemer who would obey perfectly for us, and work in us by the Spirit to grow in obedience and restore the image of God. For Bavinck “covenant is the essence of true religion. (pp. 60)” It is intended to guide our discipleship as the words of a father are to guide the life of a son. We are to submit to the “living covenantal God with whom we are in fellowship. (pp. 61-2)” Our submission is not simply a matter of His Lordship, but also our love in response to His love toward us.

This means that God does not coerce us, but counsels us thru “admonition, warning, invitation, petition. (pp. 63)” This also takes place in the context of community. Not simply alone, or as a couple, but the whole of humanity (or the new man in Christ) is the fully developed image of God (see pp. 65). We also find that the reality of progressive revelation implies the reality of progressive understanding.

One of the interesting applications that Bolt makes is politics. As imitators of God, “we are always to conduct ourselves in way that enhance our neighbor’s liberty and responsibility (pp. 67)”

“And it suggests that Christians evaluate public social policy in terms of the same principles. It also implies, finally, that when it comes to matters of social policy and political actions, Christians have an obligation to respect each other’s freedom on matters that either are adiaphora (things indifferent) or require application of agreed upon moral principle. The example of poverty and poverty relief come to mind. The Bible is quite clear about the responsibility of God’s children to help those who are poor and needy. Whether or not this commitment to the poor demands support for higher taxes or greater government welfare is quite another matter. It is a mistake for Christians to treat their policy preferences as self-evident applications of biblical principle. Christians need to respect the liberty of those who take their Christian responsibilities in directions that are different from their own.”

Bolt then quotes an interesting section from the 1891 Christian Social Congress on general principles. “Therefore, it is entirely in keeping with Holy Scripture to: … oppose the accumulation of capital and landed property. (pp.68)” Not exactly where I would go with applying Scripture, but in Israel there were limits to wealth accumulation.

Bolt then moves to the third foundation: Union with Christ. This is the longest and most complex chapter, as Bolt confesses. But our redemption is “in Christ” and this concept must be understood. It plays, obviously, a big role in Bavinck’s understanding of Christianity.

Here Bolt talks about Bavinck’s dualities, not the same a dualism. He doesn’t operate with a dialectic: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. But two realities, held in a kind of tension: “earthly calling and eternal destiny; general revelation and particular revelation; common grace and saving grace. (pp. 69)” They are not to be set against one another: we experience both. We are pulled by competing, legitimate longings. These tensions don’t disappear, and we shouldn’t try to eliminate them. But … often we do.

Bavinck’s understanding of union is more than redemptive. Christ is the mediator of creation, a common theme in Bavinck. He “bridges the ontological distance between humanity and God.” We not only have the moral obstacle of sin to deal with, but the metaphysical obstacle to fellowship or communion with God. In light of this he speaks of accommodation like Calvin does. All revelation is tied to the work of Christ, whether pre or post-incarnate.

“He has brought creation, redemption, and eschatology all into the doctrine of Christ without in any way blurring the distinction between nature and grace or sacrificing the gracious character and preeminence of Christ as our Redeemer.”

Bolt then discusses the two dangers of discussing union. The elevation of humanity to divinity or bringing God down to us and losing all sense of transcendence. Bavinck warned about shifting back and forth between deism and pantheism. The former is helpful as we think about moralistic, therapeutic deism. The other is helpful as we think about theosis, and avoid the dangers of divinization and neo-Platonism. (pp. 78-80).

Bolt, in light of all this, discusses what the Chalcedonian formula did and did not do. It marked out boundaries for our contemplation of the hypostatic union. It didn’t really define it. He brings this into the disagreement between the Reformers and Roman Church on justification. Rome emphasizes union through sacraments. The Reformers emphasized a covenantal union.

Bolt then gets into Dutch Reformed church history with Arminius and the two seceding groups connected with Kuyper and Bavinck that eventually united. Some in Kuyper’s group held to presumptive regeneration. Bavinck argued that ordinarily the Spirit used appointed means for regeneration, though the Spirit can regenerate someone directly. We should recognize that as extra-ordinary, not ordinary. Therefore, the presumption regeneration regarding our children, as immediate and extra-ordinary, should not be affirmed.

In terms of our union itself, Bavinck joined together “the covenantal, legal and forensic dimensions of justification with the believer’s mystical union in Christ” (pp. 91). Bavinck also takes us to the “covenant of redemption” between the Trinity. Our union with Christ is built on the work of all three members: the Father electing, the Son providing redemption, and the Spirit applying it in union with Christ. Our union is not something considered apart from Christ’s objective work of redemption. The latter is the basis of the former. We receive the benefits of redemption in our union, particularly justification and sanctification. With regard to the latter, Bavinck notes it is both the passive gift of God, and our active responsibility. While not mentioned, this is helpful to keep in mind in the recent sanctification debates within the Reformed community.

Bolt did a great job laying the theological foundation by which we must understand Bavinck’s view of the Christian life. Without grasping creation, law and union with Christ, there is really no proper understanding of the Christian life.

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About a year ago I realized I had no books on the subject of our union with Christ. I decided to go on a buying binge. It didn’t last long because there are not many books on that subject. Since then I read Robert Letham’s excellent book on the subject. Since I was on study leave, I decided to take J. Todd Billings’ book Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church.

The phrase reframing theology can often be a bad sign, sort of like ‘repainting the faith”. But here it is not. Billings is a Reformation scholar, with particular emphasis on Calvin. This book oozes Calvin, along with others. He utilizes “retrieval theology”, which was a new term for me. You look to the theology of the past to address problems of the present, and to renew our vision. We tend to be culturally captive, and see theology in light of the problems of our day. This looks to the past to gain a theological foothold to examine the problems of our day, sometimes to even see them. I hope that makes sense, and that I did it justice (I suspect some Ph.D. candidate out there could take me to task). Billings wants to reframe our thinking, so we look at things like salvation, justice, communion and ministry in light of our union with Christ.

When I taught a Sunday School class, one congregant took issue with Packer’s assertion that one only understands Christianity to the degree that they understand adoption. His assertion was that union with Christ as the most important unifying principle or doctrine that we must understand. So, I found it ironic that the first chapter is entitled Salvation as Adopted in Christ. The point is, that they are connected to one another. You can’t have one without the other. But one way we can better understand union is thru understanding adoption. Much of the book keeps our current context in mind, and explores how Christianity really differs from MTD, or moralistic, therapeutic, deism. Odd in that some of the other books I’ve been reading have dealt with that as well. Salvation as adoption is so different than MTD. God, who is transcendent (great & glorious) draws near to us in salvation. He draws near to us to save us.

“The prospect of adoption in this sense is an offense. It is too much closeness– it is the sort of closeness that requires giving up one’s own identity.”

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Some time ago I had told a commenter that I planned on reading Van Til’s chapter in Introduction to Systematic Theology on the Incomprehensibility of God and blog on it.  I never seemed to find the time.

Since my computer was “resting” on Tuesday, I was flipping through my copy of the book.  Lo and behold, I have already read that chapter.  Silly me.   So here I go!

Van Til starts with the problem of knowing the “living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise…” as our Confession summarizes the Scriptures regarding God.  Such a God, according to Kantian epistemology is beyond our experience.  In their view, God is not just incomprehensible, but unknowable.  The theology of Van Til’s day often embraced such views.  God become unknowable, and faith became irrational.  It was no longer a faith seeking understanding since there is nothing we can understand about an absolute God.

Aquinas put forth the “way of negation” by which we know God negatively instead of positively.  We speak about what God is not rather than what He is.  His dependence on Aristotle means he embraces a non-Christian epistemology that descends into a similar irrationalism.

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I took a stab at the Controversy a few years ago after reading (or trying to read) Herman Hoeksema’s book.  That post remains quite popular.  I’ve been meaning to read Van Til on the incomprehensibility of God, but more important matters have hindered me from investing the time necessary.

But I finally began John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.  Early on in the book, he interacts with the Controversy and makes what I think are some helpful comments on it.  I’ve been meaning to blog about this, but have been (yes) busy.  Since today is something of a sick day, I’ve got a bit more time.

“We should be gentle with those who differ from us; they may not be rebellious or sinful in their disagreement, only immature (in other respects they may surpass us).  And, of course, we must always recognize the possibility that we may be wrong, that a brother or sister who disagrees with us may have something to teach us.”

Frame asserts that this controversy was not the highlight of either man’s career, and that they seriously misunderstood one another.  As the first, such controversies tend to bring out the worst in us.  This is why many godly men offered warnings about how to conduct themselves in theological controversy.  It is quite easy for pride to deceive us and distort our thinking, motive and goals.  Part of that deception ties into the misunderstanding of the other person’s actual views that takes place.  As I mentioned in the earlier post, controversy tends to move us to further extremes in the quest to be right (as opposed to understanding truth).

Both, however had valid concerns.  Van Til wished to preserve the Creator-creature distinction in the realm of knowledge, and Clark wished to prevent an skeptical deductions from the doctrine of incomprehensibility, to insist that we really do know God on the basis of revelation.  Van Til, therefore, insisted that even when God and man were thinking of the same thing (a particular rose, for example), their thoughts about it were never identical– God’s were the thoughts of the Creator, man’s of the creature.  Such language made Clark fear skepticism.

Here is how they were talking past each other in some ways (there was a real disagreement, but not as vast as either made it out to be perhaps).  They wanted to protect different ideas in their discussion of the topic.  Different agendas or concerns, which led to different expressions and therefore misunderstanding.

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As I read the first chapter on how to Recover the Reformed Confession in Scott Clark’s book on the subject, I have a funny feeling.  I get the distinct impression he wants us to be a Reformed ghetto.  You know, the place where we sit around and discuss all our theological distinctives and pretend that we alone are really Christians.

Why do I think this?  Well, he again criticizes John Frame for thinking that we are part of Evangelicalism.  As a broad-based movement, I think we fit under the tent.  We are, after all, evangelical meaning we believe the good news should be made known.  We certainly have a more defined theology than most Evangelicals, but if all we do is push our distinctives we fail to see our connection to the rest of the Body of Christ with whom we disagree on some points.  Or are we all there is?  I’d hate to think we are THAT arrogant.

In discussing the reality that our theology is analogical- we only know God as He has revealed Himself to us- Clark sets his sights on Frame again.  Frame can defend himself, and has, regarding much of what Clark asserts about his theology.  I will agree with Frame that Clark seems to want us to use particular vocabulary that is not itself found in Scripture, nor in our Confessions.  One of his complaints about modern Reformed Theology is that we have redefined our theology rather than speaking it so people will understand it.  Easy to assert, but difficult to prove.  He really doesn’t try.

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W. Robert Godfrey’s book God’s Pattern for Creation: A Covenantal Reading of Genesis 1 is a short, fairly easy to understand book that wrestles with some of the issues regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1.  Godfrey, from Westminster West, focuses on the theological and is not trying to integrate the scientific.

Godfrey was a student of Meredith Kline’s, and the book (mostly) teaches the Framework Hypothesis (FH).  He has some mild critiques of the FH, but the vast majority of what he says fits quite well within the FH.

My beloved professor, Roger Nicole, jokingly called his friend Meredith Kline “covenant crazy.”  It is appropriate that Godfrey’s book focuses on a covenantal approach to Genesis 1.  He sees it as a covenant prologue of sorts for the Exodus generation (and all who follow).

“It is a covenant history focusing on what the people of God need to know about their God and themselves.”

Godfrey often frames God’s act of creation as preparing a suitable environment for humanity.  God is also revealing who we are and what we are supposed to do.  God subdues the chaos (tohu) and fills the void (bohu), even as He overcomes the darkness (the 3 problems Godfrey highlights in verse 2).  The creation mandate is to fill the earth & subdue it.  As God’s vice-regents, Adam and Eve were to act like God on God’s behalf.

“Genesis 1 presents creation as the progressive ordering of the earth to be a home for man in fellowship with God and to teach man how he is to bear God’s image.  Genesis 2:4-4:26 begins with the creation of man in fellowship with God and then presents the formation of a place for man to live.”

Godfrey is also highly dependent on Calvin’s method of exegesis (his principle of accommodation- God speaks so we’ll understand).  While Calvin does not do it with his work in Genesis, he often recognized that many historical accounts in the OT were not in chronological order, but in topical arraignment.  He attempts to take Calvin where Calvin did not go.  And this, I think, is the weakness of the book.  He argues that Days 1 & 4 were the same day since sometimes Hebrews were not as concerned about chronology as we are.

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