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Posts Tagged ‘progressive revelation’


The previous decade was not a great one for Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Much of it seemed to be taken up with controversies over a few professors and their  theology of Scripture and hermeneutics beginning in 2006. Some may have considered it a tempest in a teapot but this is one of the elite Reformed seminaries that provides pastors for the PCA, OPC, ARP and far more.

By 2014 Peter Enns and Douglas Green were gone. Men like Iain Duguid and Gregory Beale would step in to help restore confidence in the seminary.

ISeeing Christ in All of Scripture: Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminaryn 2016 they produced a collection of essays by 4 of their professors in an additional attempt to restore confidence and help those of us on the outside to better understand some of the theological tensions. Retired professor Richard Gaffin, long-term professor Vern Poythress and the new additions Duguid and Beale were tabbed to write articles that were gathered into a little book called Seeing Christ in All of Scripture: Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary.

For such a small book, it sure has a ton of endorsements. There are blurbs by Packer, Robert Yarbrough, Wayne Grudem, Philip Ryken, David Wells, Kevin Vanhoozer, Cornelis Venema, Benyamin Intan, John Frame, Mark Jones, Liam Goligher, Richard Pratt, J.V. Fesko, Harry Reeder, and Julius Kim. There are more as well. They represent various nooks and crannies of the Reformed community here and abroad.

It begins with an introduction by WTS President Peter Lillback which discusses the history of hermeneutics at the seminary. He wants this book to show us a consistency of biblical interpretation at Westminster today. He quotes liberally from the 4 articles in question.

He admits that the previous few years had seen a struggle between a Christ-centric hermeneutic and a Christotelic hermeneutic. Is Christ the center and goal of the Old Testament or simply the goal of the Old Testament? This sounds kind of heady for some folks. Lillback doesn’t rely on his professors, but also draws on the Westminster Confession of Faith to explain why we hold to a Christ-centric method of interpreting the Bible.

Poythress, who teaches a hermeneutics course, begins the process. He brings in Cornelius Van Til to talk about presuppositions, our basic commitments, and how they shape our method of interpretation, not just our interpretation. We have to examine those basic commitments and compare them to Scripture’s commitments.

“There is no way to form sound hermeneutical principles in a vacuum, apart from religious commitments.” Vern Poythress

Poythress delves into the dual authorship of Scripture and its implications. He briefly looks at the progress of revelation and the nature of Scripture as the Word of God not simply containing the words of God. He then lays out a few principles that help us have biblical commitments for our interpretational method. That includes how the Spirit who gave us the Scripture brings Christ to us. Scripture speaks of Christ, and brings Christ to us because of the Spirit’s work.

Then OT professor Iain Duguid writes about … Old Testament Hermeneutics. Keeping things succinct, he goes right to the heart of the matter. The center of the Old Testament is Jesus. We aren’t looking for Jesus as if he’s Waldo. In a variety of ways Jesus is the thrust of each passage. Each passage (not individual verses but stories and sections)point us to our need for Jesus, the work of Jesus and the character of Jesus. The OT text had a message for the original audience, and it has such a message for us. While the human authors understood much of what they wrote, they didn’t understand all they wrote. We see Daniel and Zechariah struggling to understand their visions. They had true, real knowledge but not complete or comprehensive knowledge.

New Testament Hermeneutics is handled by Gregory Beale. He begins with the goal of exegesis- understanding the text and therefore God’s message through the human author using “genre, textual criticism, grammar, flow of ideas, historical background, word meaning, figures of speech, and relationship with other biblical passages through direct quotation or allusion.” The rest of the chapter is breaking that down. He makes a number of points about the way the NT uses the OT.

The next discipline is systematic theology and is handled by Richard Gaffin. Because systematic theology is founded on Scripture, you have to rightly interpret the Scripture in question. The hermeneutic used for both systematic and biblical theology is the same. It should not have an idiosyncratic method of interpretation. He addresses the Bible as God’s Word, the unity of the Bible, the meaning of sola scriptura, redemptive-historical unity, and the relationship between systematic and biblical theology.

The book also has a number of appendices. The first is J. Gresham Machen’s address at the founding of the seminary. He discusses the need for a seminary to replace Princeton which had recently fallen prey to liberalism. Westminster was to be a confessional seminary rooted in the Scripture. They would not avoid history but also not be bound by history.

The second appendix is a series of Affirmations and Denials Regarding Recent Issues by the board of trustees. They are affirming and clarifying the implication of the seminaries continued subscription to the Westminster Standards. In some ways this is helpful in briefly laying out commitments and what they reject.

The third and final appendix is an article by Richard Gaffin in response to some comments by D. Clair Davis on the retirement of Douglas Green. Davis worried that this indicated that Westminster was shifting its commitments. Gaffin argues that Westminster stands in the tradition of Vos. He then interacts with the Christotelic approach which the seminary has rejected. This part of the book is probably the clearest explanation of the differences.

I gave a few copies of this book away when it came out, hoping it would help them understand how to see Christ in all of Scripture. I finally got around to reading it myself. I’m not sure it helped the other people. There is some level of knowledge that is presupposed. This is not an introductory volume. I understand what is going on, but they probably didn’t. I didn’t realize the background of the book when I initially bought it.

So, if you are interested in the struggles of Westminster this is a helpful little volume to understand where they are on these issues now. If you are looking for a volume that teaches a Christ-centered hermeneutic, this probably isn’t it. Invest in Goldsworthy. It will stretch you but it is helpful.

 

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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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In my first pastorate, I served in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), which had a long history of Psalm singing. While they no longer practice exclusive psalmody, they still break out the Bible Song Books for Synod each year. It was always foreign to me, having not grown up in the ARP. The songs seemed more adaptations of Psalms than a true Psalter.

Recently someone gave me a copy of Psalm Singing Revisited: The Case for Exclusive Psalmody by Bruce Stewart. It is a short booklet, but I finally found some time to read through it. I thought I’d share my interactions with the booklet, and therefore his position as noted in the subtitle.

The Reformed heritage has a long tradition of singing the Psalms. This has long been understood to be necessary on the basis of the Regulative Principle of Worship as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as well as the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

1. The light of nature sheweth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture. WCF, XXI

The argument is that the Psalms are songs given to us by God. All other songs are the product of the imaginations and devices of men and therefore unacceptable for worship. The question is, is this a proper interpretation and application of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW)? Is it consistent with how we apply the RPW to other elements of worship prescribed in Scripture?

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This Sunday I’ll be preaching on Genesis 17.  It is a great passage, filled with a great many promises (as Paul Tripp calls gospel comfort).  It is also filled with the call to a newness of life (as Tripp calls gospel call).  God promises not solely justifying grace, but also sanctifying grace.

“walk before me and be blameless”

There is a great expansion of the promise, including identifying Sarah as the mother of the child of promise.  We see here the progress of revelation.  God didn’t just drop a revelatory bomb on Abraham.  He revealed his promises in pieces.  We do well to keep this in mind.

One of the phrases that comes up repeatedly is “you and your offspring”.  He will not only be Abraham’s God, but the God of his offspring (except Ishmael, which was surely a struggle for Abraham’s soul).  The covenant is not just for Abraham but his offspring.  The covenant sign was not just for Abraham, but for his offspring.  Sounds very similar to Peter’s statement in Acts 2:

37Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”  (ESV)

If we take Genesis 17, as well as Paul’s discussion of this in Romans 4 [he calls circumcision the sign that justification is by faith, not bloodline or obedience], seriously, we see that God calls the children of the covenant to faith in the promise through the covenant sign (see some of the books below, and my comments.  Our method of interpretation is what drives the differences in our understanding of baptism).

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