An Interview with Vern Poythress on the “Big Questions”

An Interview with Vern Poythress on the “Big Questions”

Quick, can you think of any Evangelical scholar who has the intellectual credibility to single-handedly reconstruct several modern academic disciplines on a thoroughly Christian and biblicist foundation? The only name that comes to my mind is Vern Poythress. With books out on Logic, Science, Sociology, Chaos theory, and Mathematics this professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary has certainly proved his mettle beyond the strict confines of his teaching post. Dr. Poythress was kind enough to answer some questions about his newest book Redeeming Philosophy: A God–Centered Approach to the Big Questions.

The Bible is not, I would take it, in the genre of “philosophical discourse.” How then can it be our first resource for philosophical discussion and speculation?

The Bible provides answers to big questions about life and the world around us. Does God exist? Who are we? Are there moral standards and where do they come from? Parts of philosophy overlap with these biblical concerns by trying to answer similar questions. But because much of philosophy tries to answer the questions without recourse to what God says, but only through reason, it veers toward abstraction and unsettled opinion.

Though the Bible does not directly address many of the details about academic disciplines like chemistry, its teaching about big questions is intended by God to function as a guiding framework for understanding mankind and the world. This teaching has implications for every academic discipline.

 I don’t think it would too much of a stretch to say that you view the history of Philosophy as a series of reductionisms. Explain for us the contrast between your multi-perspectival approach to “the big questions” and the reductionist approach of everyone else.

9781433539466mFor Plato, “forms” like the abstract concepts of goodness, beauty, and justice serve as the “last thing back” in explaining the world. For Plato, the deepest key to understanding the world is the forms. For Immanuel Kant, the interaction of preformed categories of the mind with raw experience explains the world. For Karl Marx, the relationships of ownership and labor explain the human world. For Sigmund Freud, deep unconscious drives explain human action. For materialistic philosophy, the world is nothing but matter and motion. All these approaches are selective: they reduce the world to one or two key aspects.

By contrast, the Bible indicates that God made the world by speaking (Ps. 33:6). His speech is even richer than human speech, and specifies all aspects of the world. The world is a harmonious whole because of God, and therefore we do not need to explain harmony by trying to reduce everything to one final point within creation. We can profitably use multiple perspectives, because God intended that we should appreciate and enjoy all the dimensions of the world that he made. God not only made the world by speaking, but by his power. So his divine power also offers a perspective on the meaning of creation.

I should say that, although a lot of the history of philosophy has seen forms of reductionism, some philosophers have resisted it. I’m thinking particularly of Christian philosophers.

 You rely heavily on the “Trinity” to ground your multi-perspectival approach. However, many contemporary theologians are skeptical about commandeering the Trinity to justify philosophical, political, or social applications. What gives you the confidence that your multi-perspectival applications are genuine reflections of God’s Trinitarian nature?

God really is the Trinitarian God, as the Bible teaches. If so, we can expect that his work in creation will reflect who he is. And indeed, that is what Rom. 1:18-23 implies. At the same time, the created world is distinct from its Creator. Both principles are important. Moreover, God gives us fundamental instruction in the Bible. So applications to the world should work from its full instruction, not just from some minimal formulation of Trinitarian doctrine. I have tried to do that. But my work is fallible, and I hope that readers feel free to correct what is wrong and to grow more deeply into what is right.

The expression “commandeering the Trinity” contains an implicit warning. It is possible to approach the Bible or the doctrine of the Trinity with a set of political or philosophical goals that get imposed on the Bible. So all of us need to grow in submission to God and to his word. We need to guard ourselves against the sinful desire to have him say what pleases us rather than what he does say. We need Christ’s salvation and his purification to work in our minds and hearts. That is yet another reason why the Bible and its purifying power are important as a starting point for philosophical discussions.

 What difference does “regeneration” make to a philosopher’s character and trade?

Being born again, as described in John 3:1-8, produces radical, global change in a person’s life, and that change includes change in thinking (Rom. 12:1-2). We begin to try to honor God rather than self, and listen submissively to his instruction rather than imposing our own ideas. Such a change affects all of life and every academic discipline, including philosophy.

 I am very sympathetic to your multi-perspectival approach to “the big questions.” How can we avoid wielding this tool without people endlessly saying, “well, that’s just your perspective”?

In the last decades, the word perspective has come to be used in the way you describe, in order to dismiss anything with which a particular person disagrees. Typically, the larger context includes a worldview that has become skeptical about knowing the truth, because it thinks that God is absent and therefore there is ultimately no one to adjudicate competing claims. Having a Christian worldview or the beginning of a Christian “philosophy” is actually part of the answer.

We who know Jesus Christ need to engage this relativistic worldview in several ways. First, we can invite the proponents of such views to exercise critical discernment about the foundations of their own views. The foundations are rotten. If no one can adjudicate competing claims, neither can anyone adjudicate the claim that there is no adjudicator. It is just an opinion. The relativism of our day (and its lazy dismissal of “your perspective”) is just as much a special, social, atmospheric inheritance as is the religious commitment of people growing up in a radically Muslim culture.

Second, we need to explain the gospel in the context of who God is. God made the world and us. And he gives us guidance through his word. Jesus Christ came to open the way to forgiveness of sins, to heal our alienation with God, and to provide the truth. He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). His resurrection from the dead authenticates his claims. In Christ we have the answer to the radical relativism of our time.

When John Frame and I talk about “perspectives,” we mean something very different from the modern relativistic use. Let me illustrate. A perspective is like a window by which I look out at a garden outside my house. Let us say that my wife is outside, picking flowers in the garden. When she comes in, I observe that the roses have budded but not yet bloomed. Will she reply that that is just my perspective? Of course not. I do have a perspective: I am looking through the window. The window is what allows me to see the truth about the roses; it is not a barrier to the truth. It may be that my wife from her position outside observed one rose that had already bloomed. So then she can add to my knowledge. But her extra knowledge does not undermine what I could know by looking through the window. We use perspectives because of the richness of the availability of truth in God’s world, not because we can really know nothing.

One thing that gives modern philosophies such as scientism such plausibility is its “explanatory power” and success rate. Christianity, it seems to many, attempts to answer questions of little practical relevance in our technology-driven culture. How can Christians speak convincingly in light of science’s overwhelming success?

There are many sides to answering this question. People are still people. They hunger for eternal life and for fellowship with God, but at the same time they flee God and try to replace him with idols of their own making. Scientism is virtually the worship of science as a replacement for God. The lust for gadgets is similar. But the replacement does not satisfy. Christ as the Savior addresses whole human beings in their hearts, not merely one side of them.

At the same time, the Christian worldview explains why science works. We are made in the image of God, and we have the capacity for appreciating the world with the regularities that God ordained. We can praise God for the marvelous products of science and technology. Materialistic philosophy, by contrast, undermines science in the long run, because it can give no adequate account for the human mind, which is necessary for doing science. The same is true of scientism, if this means the view that only the issues that empirical science can investigate are significant. Scientism’s own principle that only certain issues are significant does not derive from empirical investigation, but is an unfounded philosophical opinion. Scientism cannot explain itself.

 I would like to know your opinion on the English tradition of Analytic Philosophy and Theology. What is this approach and do you find it a useful or helpful development?

I believe there are pluses and minuses. The desire to achieve rigorous thinking often brings into the open hidden assumptions and clarifies main routes for debate. One of the procedures of analytic philosophy, clarification of concepts, may be used either in considering more fundamental questions (the “big” questions) or in unclogging communication by paying attention to differences in word meaning between two partners in dialog.

The potential minuses are several. It is possible for philosophers to turn away from the big questions. They treat them as unanswerable because they cannot be answered merely by inspecting and reinspecting our language and communication practices. Instead, philosophers need to read the Bible and believe what it says. This one thing is the biggest thing needed, and one that is regularly left out.

It is also possible for them to overestimate what can be achieved by rigorous definitions. Rigor is often achieved by providing a technical definition of a technical term. But the technical term is in the end dependent on the many ordinary words used in the definition. And the definition could have been chosen differently.

Reasoning in philosophy frequently involves the hidden assumption that all rationality is on one level–human rationality. But the Bible indicates that God is the source and foundation for human rationality. There are two levels, not one. God’s knowledge of himself and of the world is infinite and original. Ours is derivative. Most philosophy, including analytic philosophy, is conducted in an atmosphere of resistance to this truth about rationality.

God did not make us with the design that we should use rationality in a vacuum, but in fellowship with him and his verbal instruction–which we have in Scripture.

 How do you recommend believers conduct conversations with unbelievers over philosophical matters? What do you think is the best way to get across to them that we operate on a different view for what counts as rational and reasonable?

My number one advice would be to be faithful to your own convictions. Don’t be embarrassed by the fact that you trust Christ and depend on Scripture. Continue to believe that the world is actually like what the Bible says it is. Unbelievers are not neutral, but are fighting God and suppressing the truth (Rom. 1:18-23).

There might be many ways of beginning the discussion. But at least one way is to bring up the issue of God. We believe that God exists, that he made the world, and that he made us. That has implications at a practical level for what a person thinks is reasonable. If God exists and is like that, it is reasonable to listen to him. But we are sinful creatures and don’t want to listen. We need Christ the redeemer. It is naive to think that such things have no effect on philosophy.

Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, Stellenbosch University) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for over 35 years. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books on biblical interpretation, language, and science, including Redeeming Science, Redeeming Sociology, Logic, and Chance and the Sovereignty of God.

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has four children: Alec, Nora, Grace, and Julie.

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Part 2: Interview with Matthew Barrett on Salvation by Grace

Posted by on Mar 4, 2015 in Interviews, Matthew Barrett | No Comments
Part 2: Interview with Matthew Barrett on Salvation by Grace

Books at a Glance has interviewed executive editor of Credo Magazine, Matthew Barrett, on his recent book, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (P&R). Yesterday we included an excerpt to Part 1 of the interview. Here is the start of Part 2 as well:

BarrettBooks At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
I understand that this book is the result of your doctoral thesis at Southern Seminary. How did you come to take up this subject? Is this area of study a matter of long-standing interest?

Barrett:
Two events/people stand out as instrumental. I remember walking through the halls of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary while Tom Schreiner told me to choose this topic because he had students in his classes asking questions about it. I also remember going out to lunch with Bruce Ware, my doctoral supervisor, and discussing a couple of different possible topics to explore. Monergism rose to the top of the list because it became clear that there was yet to be written a book-length, contemporary treatment of the topic that also dealt with the many recent Arminian, Wesleyan, and modified views. Plus, it became evident to me that Warfield was right; monergism is the hinge on which Calvinism turns! And yet, little attention has been given to the ins-and-outs of effectual calling and regeneration.
Books At a Glance:
One question that comes to mind concerns the need for such a book. This, after all, is not a subject Calvinists have ignored! After many centuries of Reformed soteriology, what distinguishes your work? What is the contribution you are hoping to make here?

Barrett:
While monergism is an old doctrine, its relevance today is apparent as the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries have been characterized by a resurgence of Calvinism, and with it a resurgence of predestinarian theology which exalts God’s sovereignty rather than the will of man. As J. Ligon Duncan III explains, “A fever for the glory of God has gotten into the bloodstream of a new generation.” The resurgence of Calvinism has occurred in part because Christians are famished with the small view of God they have been fed and are hungry for the “big view of God” portrayed in the Scriptures and systematically articulated in the doctrines of grace. The doctrines of effectual calling and monergistic regeneration are but a slice of this biblical view of God, and yet they may be the very hinge of the Calvinist position. So, my book is a real effort to feed the hungry!

On a more academic note, though, my book not only presents a historical, biblical, and theological case for monergism but also a case against synergism. Few books I know of actually interact at great length with the various Arminianisms as well as the recent modified views that have been proposed in the last ten years. These diverse viewpoints are taught both in academic institutions and in local churches, yet there has not been a robust reply. My book seeks to show the exegetical and theological problems with such views, old and new, and persuade readers to return to the Reformed heritage first and foremost because when it is most faithful to Scripture.

A more thorough and extensive treatment of all of this can be found in the unabridged version here. …

Read the rest of this interview at Books at a Glance.

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Books at a Glance Interview with Matthew Barrett on Salvation by Grace (Part 1)

Posted by on Mar 3, 2015 in Interviews, Matthew Barrett | No Comments
Books at a Glance Interview with Matthew Barrett on Salvation by Grace (Part 1)

Books at a Glance has interviewed executive editor of Credo Magazine, Matthew Barrett, on his recent book, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (P&R).

Today Part 1 of the interview released and tomorrow Part 2 will be published.

Here is the start of the interview:

In his Salvation By Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration Matthew Barrett provides a thorough discussion of this (as Warfield called it) “hinge of Calvinistic soteriology.” His work brings definitive clarity to the subject for all involved, and it demands a hearing from any who would take an opposing position.

Book pic with Schreiner quoteHere’s how I (Fred Zaspel) tried to capture its significance in my endorsement:

Barrett’s examination of this critical area of theology is historically informed, providing an accurate setting and perspective for the discussion. It is also theologically precise, providing definitive expositions of all sides of the debate. It is surprisingly exhaustive, treating all the primary arguments and related responses responsibly. And, most importantly, it is exegetically compelling, bringing God’s own Word to bear on a doctrine designed to bring him glory. A valuable resource indeed! Highly recommended.

Matthew, Executive Editor at Credo Magazine is a good friend of Books At a Glance, and we’re glad to have him talk to us today about his work – and about this doctrine that demonstrates so compellingly that salvation is by grace.

Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
First, what is your thesis in this book? Can you summarize for us the doctrine you are seeking to expound and defend? And while you’re at it, perhaps you could explain the terms “synergism” and “monergism.”

Barrett:
Salvation by Grace argues that in Scripture God’s saving grace is monergistic—meaning that God acts alone to effectually call and monergistically regenerate the depraved sinner from death to new life — and therefore effectual calling and regeneration causally precede conversion in the ordo salutis (i.e., order of salvation), thereby ensuring that all of the glory in salvation belongs to God not man. Stated negatively, God’s grace is not synergistic — meaning that God cooperates with man, giving man the final, determining power to either accept or resist God’s grace — which would result in an ordo salutis where regeneration is causally conditioned upon man’s free will in conversion and, in the Calvinist’s opinion, would rob God of all of the glory in salvation. As J. I. Packer states, “All Arminianisms involve a measure of synergism, if not strong (God helps me to save myself) then weak (I help God to save me).” And as John R. de Witt concludes, synergism essentially is “an attack upon the majesty of God, and puts in place of it the exaltation of man.”

Books At a Glance:
What passage or passages of Scripture would you think state or summarize your thesis most clearly?

Barrett:
There are so many of them! In fact, there are so many it might take a 400 page book to address them. But seriously, there are some that really stand out. Here is a short list for unacquainted readers to start with.

  • Effectual Calling: John 6:35-65; Romans 8:28-30; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 2:9-10.
  • Monergistic Regeneration: Jeremiah 31:33; 32:39-40; Ezekiel 36:26-27; John 3:3-8; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Ephesians 2:1-7; Colossians 2:11-14; Titus 3:3-7; 1 John 5:1; 1 Peter 1:3-4.

These are only a small slice of the pie, but they will whet your appetite for more.

Books At a Glance:
Explain for us how this discussion is related to the doctrine of total depravity.

Barrett:
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by picking on an analogy that is often used. Our salvation, it is said, is like a man who has fallen into the ocean and is drowning. Jesus comes along and throws a life preserver near the drowning man. However, as much as Jesus pleads with the man to take the life preserver, ultimately everything comes down to whether the man in the water will swim over and take it. Everything depends upon his choice.

In light of what Scripture has to say, this is a very inaccurate analogy. We are not trying to keep our heads above water. No, we have already drowned and our body lies dead at the bottom of the ocean. We don’t need a life preserver. We need a resurrection!

In other words, Scripture speaks of man as totally depraved, spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-3). To change imagery, we are enslaved to sin. As Luther said, our will is in total bondage. Therefore, as Calvin explains, “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace.”

These words are a lethal blow to the common man’s optimism concerning his natural ability in matters of salvation. Calvin’s words, however, parallel what Scripture says. For example, Jesus himself states in John 8:34 that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Likewise, the apostle Paul tells us that man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) and all of us are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). The sinner is very much like Lazarus, dead in the tomb, rotting away. As John Owen states, we have no more power than “a man in his grave hath in himself to live anew and come out at the next call.”

Therefore, what the sinner needs is to hear the equivalent of the resurrection words of Christ, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43) Only then, as Calvin says, will the sinner be converted to God entirely by God’s grace. …

Read the rest of this interview here.

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An Interview with Haykin and Robinson on Calvin’s Missiology

An Interview with Haykin and Robinson on Calvin’s Missiology

The difference between a mixture and a solution is that in the former two elements are mixed together but never joined in a complimentary way that produces a new chemical state. For some, the combination of Calvinism and missions can at best only be a mixed up arrangement. But in their recent book To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy, Dr. Michael Haykin and Dr. Jeffrey Robinson demonstrate that the elementary nature of Calvinism actually produces (and has produced) a solution that infuses missiology with new power, new motivation, and new confidence. To give us a flavor of how these things combined so well, both authors answered some questions for Credo.

What are the arguments for and against interpreting Calvin as a promoter of missions?

It is often said that the Reformers did not have an evangelistic vision and considered Matthew 28:19-20 to no longer apply to the church. And the fact that no cross-cultural missions were initiated by the Reformers is often cited as proof that they had no such vision. But Calvin saw his primary mission field to be Europe. He did not see the European Churches as Christian, but ones sunk in spiritual darkness and in need of hearing the gospel. So he did evangelize: but Europe. And then when he did get an opportunity to send a missions overseas—in this case to Brazil—he leapt at the opportunity by sending two missionary pastors on board the ships being sent to Brazil.

Its one thing to say that Calvinists did engage in missions, its another to say their theology was consistent with it. What is it about the distinctives of Calvinism that make missions a logical pursuit?

God claims sovereignty over the entirety of the earth, and as such wants all men and women to hear of his Son’s life and work. Christ died for elect men and women of every tribe and tongue, hence the need to take the gospel to every people group.

How does the Reformed teaching of the “two-wills of God” avoid charging God with duplicity or double-speak when it comes to the offer of the gospel?

The Reformed tradition as it flowed from the Genevan stream affirmed what is sometimes called the “two wills of God”—which is God’s so-called will of decree and will of command”—because it represents the full-orbed, nuanced way in which Scripture speaks of God’s will. Calvin’s debate with Albert Pighius (1490-1542), a Dutch Roman Catholic theologian, is a prime example of the Calvin’s deployment of this argument. In the debate in 1542, Calvin, rightly, accused Pighius of rationalizing God and recasting Him in the image of man. Calvin argued that the two wills of God takes seriously the full witness of Scripture without removing one side of the will of God as it is presented in the Bible. Calvin essentially told Pighius that we speak of the two wills of God because that is how God has spoken to us of His will. The reformer insisted that Roman Catholicism sought to remove a measure of incomprehensibility from God by seeking to solve the biblical tension between the two wills by rejecting God’s will of decree. For Calvin, as for many faithful biblicists in his wake, this teaching is by no means novel.

Could you provide some direct statements from Calvin that should put to rest any uncertainty over his mission-minded credentials?

9781433523540mHere are three excellent samples, but it’s clear throughout Calvin’s writings from the Institutes to the commentaries and polemical works.

Comments on Ezekiel 18:23 (“Have I any pleasure at all in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God? . . .”): “We maintain that God does not will the death of sinners, since he equally calls all people to repentance and promises that he is prepared to receive them if they only seriously repent.”

Comments on John 3:16: “And he has employed the universal term ‘whosoever,’ both to invite all indiscriminantly to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term ‘World,’ which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favour of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to faith in Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.”

Comments on 1 Tim. 2:4: “. . . the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake of salvation.”

 Tell us about how Calvin directed and spread the Reformation through his organizational genius. What might be some take-aways for modern missions?

First, he regularly prayed for the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Second, he trained church planters in his Geneva Academy for Europe, especially France. Third, he corresponded with and built relations with rulers throughout Europe, hoping that such friendships would lead to open doors for the Gospel. In doing so, he was following the 1 Timothy 2:1‑2. Finally, he cultivated Geneva as a missionary center with over 30 publishing houses pumping out literature in a variety of European languages.

 Its likely that not many are familiar with the ministry of Samuel Pearce. Tell us a little bit about his life and why you have featured him to support your thesis that Calvinism and evangelism go hand in hand?

Samuel Pearce was born into a humble Baptist home in 1766. After conversion in 1782 and baptism, he was sent by his local church to train for the ministry. He graduated in 1789 and his first and only pastoral charge was at Cannon Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, England. Here he began to labour for the conversion of many of the illiterate poor of Birmingham who had been drawn to the city because of work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. He saw some 335 converted and baptized during his ten-year ministry. His passion for the lost found outlet in other venues though: preaching in neighbouring villages, writing tracts for Muslim sailors and dock workers in London, ardently supporting the first missionary society, the Baptist Missionary Society that sent William Carey to India in 1793 (Carey was one of his closest friends), going on an arduous mission to Ireland for six weeks and preaching to Roman Catholics. In short, his friend Andrew Fuller saw him as a paradigm of missionary spirituality. No wonder Fuller prayed: “May the God of Samuel Pearce be my God!”

Michael A. G. Haykin (ThD, University of Toronto) is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He has authored or edited more than twenty-five books, including Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.

Jeff Robinson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He serves as senior research assistant for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. He is co-author with Michael Haykin of the book To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Mission Vision and Legacy. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children. They live in Louisville. You can follow him on Twitter.

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has four children: Alec, Nora, Grace, and Julie.

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An Interview with J.V. Fesko on the Westminster Standards

An Interview with J.V. Fesko on the Westminster Standards

The next best thing to reading a classic, is reading a literary guide that respects, explains, and inspires you to read again a classic with fresh eyes. My hope is that J.V. Fesko’s recent book The Theology of the Westminster Standards will do exactly that. We’ve invited Dr. Fesko to give us a brief guide to his guide of these classic standards of Reformed Orthodoxy.

For those of our readers not familiar with the Westminster Standards, could you give us a brief description of what they are, when they were produced, by whom, and why?

Seventeenth-century England was racked by significant political turmoil. The king, Charles I, wanted to solidify his political power by uniting the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland under his reign, which was political and theological. As head of the Church of England, Charles directed his bishops to impose the Book of Common Prayer upon the churches of Scotland. To say the least, the Scots would have nothing of it. They believed that Charles and Archbishop Laud wanted to force Roman Catholicism, popery, upon them. The Scots rebelled and started a war. Charles convened the infrequently gathered Parliament in order to secure funds to raise an army, but he did so in a highhanded wa9781433533112my, which created political rifts that resulted in civil war. In the wake of Charles’ departure from London with loyal members of parliament (MP) in tow, the remaining MPs knew they too needed to unite the three kingdoms, politically and theologically. The English needed the Scottish army to fight the king, and the Scots wanted Presbyterianism in the three kingdoms. The English were looking for a military and political alliance, and the Scots for a theological one. The child of this political and theological union was the Westminster Assembly. Parliament called an assembly of theologians, divines according to seventeenth-century terminology, to unify the worship and theology of the three kingdoms under one common confession of faith and church order.

The divines initially sought to revise the Thirty-Nine articles but eventually determined to write an entirely new confession, catechisms, and church order. They produced a set of documents, which we now know as the Westminster Standards. The Standards consist of the Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism, and Directory for Public Worship. From one vantage point, the Westminster Standards represent a failed project—Parliament was unable to unite theologically the three kingdoms. Charles I was executed, but Charles II eventually assumed his father’s throne and reconstituted the Church of England. Many of the Westminster divines were ejected from their pulpits with the restoration of the monarchy. Despite the dark clouds of failure that rolled over the theological landscape, there was a silver lining in these forboding developments. Today, many churches around the world confess and employ the Westminster Standards, and they have been translated into numerous languages. The history of the origins of the Westminster Standards proves an old medieval axiom: God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. Parliament may not have united the three kingdoms, but they provided Christians throughout the world with one of the best and concise statements of the Christian faith. Moreover, the Westminster Standards have found life beyond Presbyterian circles, with Congregational and Baptist versions of the Confession, and a Baptist version of the Shorter Catechism, edited by Charles Spurgeon.

The contemporary relevance of the Westminster Standards is demonstrated not least by the fact that it continues as the doctrinal authority of many confessional bodies. Yet what are the dangers of referencing them without taking into account the four hundred year gap between when they written and now?

We continue to profess the faith once delivered to the saints. The same gospel promises and justification, for example, that brought Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel, the forgiveness of sins and imputed righteousness of Christ, is the same faith outlined in the Westminster Standards, and it is the same faith we continue to profess today. But in spite of the substantive agreement throughout the ages, to quote the Bob Dylan song, “The times, they are a’changin.’” In other words, though we share a common faith, the church has spoken of it in slightly different ways. We all speak English, but seventeenth-century theologians have a different accent and use different words. I think all too often we gravitate to the portions of the Standards that we understand and recognize and skip over other parts. What, for example, is general equity (WCF 19:6)? What do the divines mean when they invoke the term contingency (WCF 3:1)? Why on earth would they confidently assert that the Pope is the antichrist? When we can answer questions like these, then we will be better equipped to employ the Standards in our own setting. We can only truly understand the Standards when we do our best to step back in time and read them in their original seventeenth-century setting. We have to walk in the shoes of a Westminster divine so we can accurately grasp what the Standards teach. When we do this, I believe we will gain a much greater appreciation for the clarity, concision, precision, and doctrinal fidelity of the Westminster Standards.

Whenever I read the puritans complain about how spiritually dark and theologically fragmented their times were, I used to be quite shocked and skeptical. Surely, they lived in an era of greater religious probity and unity than our own pluralistic and secular age. Are the similarities between our ages greater than the differences, or vice versa?

I think we moderns have a tendency to idealize the past. We look at the chaos in our own day and see the apparent green pastures and serenity of the seventeenth century. We think, “If only I could have lived during the composition of the Westminster Standards, a time when everyone was united in their convictions and theology.” We must realize that, as popular as such a notion is, it is rooted more in desire and imagination than in reality. Imagined ideals are calm and peaceful; history is chaotic, violent, and filled with sin. Every age, including seventeenth-century England, has been marred and defaced by wicked unbelievers and well-intentioned but nevertheless sinful saints. Yes, the Westminster Standards are a monument to doctrinal unity, a goal to which the church in every age should strive. But this unity was an acheivement, not of unity of conviction on every point, but out of love, compromise, and sacrifice.

The minutes of the assembly amply attest to the sometimes bitter and arduous debates that marked the efforts to birth the Standards. The divines knew where to draw lines in the sand and when to draw circles, when to say, “Thus far and no further,” and when to allow principled diversity on many different doctrinal issues. Many portions of the Standards are expressions of brilliant ambiguity—the Standards state a truth but in such a way as to allow men of different conviction to affirm it. For example, the Confession states, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam” (7:2, emphasis). We may not realize it, but this is an instance of principled ambiguity. There was debate among the divines as to whether the life promised to Adam and Eve was eternal life or prolonged life in the garden. Rather than declare one another heterodox, the divines worded this phrase in such a way so that both parties could affirm it. The divines exercised wisdom and knew what was essential and where the areas of disagreement were. We have much to learn from the divines in this area.

We must realize that there has never been a golden age in church history. We are just as sinful as previous generations. The divines conducted their labors in the midst of civil war, lived with threats of terrorism, the encroaching menace of false doctrine, even Islam, and regularly wrestled with questions regarding the proper limits of governmental authority vis-à-vis the church. In a word, their world was just as chaotic as our own. Once we recognize this, we can learn much from their own engagement of these complex and challenging issues.

Your survey of the Standards is selective, not comprehensive. What is your reasoning behind the selection of topics from the Standards you cover?

My dream was to write a comprehensive, line-by-line, commentary on the Standards, but I am also a realist. Such a project would take a decade or more and would likely fill many loquacious volumes. I wanted, therefore, to write a book that would be accessible and useful for the church, so I aimed for a much more modest project. I chose the topics that I did because, as I researched the history and theology of the Standards, they were the subjects that seemed to occupy much of the assembly’s time and debate. Topics like justification and sanctification sat on the front burner for the assembly, as did worship and the relationship between church and state. As you can imagine, if you have run off the king and are engaged in a civil war, you would want to deliniate the boundaries of political and ecclesiastical power and authority. In our own day we debate the question of whether the President of the United States is a Christian and whether his profession of faith is genuine. In the seventeenth-century, on the other hand, the debate was about whether the king was head of the church or simply just one of its members subject to ecclesiasitcal, not political, authority. I treated the topics, therefore, that, in my judgment, seemed to warrant the most attention.

I believe one charge you attempt to lay to rest at various point in this book is that the authors of the Standards may have been unduly influenced by some form of early modern rationalism. What are the typical examples of this so-called rationalist bent, and what would be your overall response to them?

Some historical scholarship in the mid- to late-twentieth century made the claim that the Westminster divines were given to speculative rationalism because they treat the doctrine of predestination in the earliest portion of the Confession rather than under the topic of salvation, where John Calvin treats the subject in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While such an accusation may be common, it rests upon at least two faulty reasons.

First, placement of a doctrine within a confession or theological work is not all determinative. One must take into account the different literary genres—a confession of faith versus an introductory doctrinal manual for theological students based upon Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. What do the respective documents substantively claim about the subject, in this case, predestination? Are there any substantive differences between Calvin and the Confession? We should also connect the doctrine of predestination with the rest of the theological system and related doctrines. When we do this, we quickly discover that the Confession advocates the doctrine of divine permission of the fall, a category that Calvin rejected. Moreover, Calvin advocates a fully double predestination, two separate decrees—election and reprobation. Whereas the Confession only speaks of single predestination, a decree of election, and preterition of the non-elect. The differences are minute, but certainly demonstrate that placement alone does not determine the significance or function of a doctrine.

Second, critics seem to ignore the fact that the Confession begins with the doctrine of Scripture, a topic that Calvin never treats under a separate locus in his Institutes. This does not mean that Calvin thought any less of Scripture than the divines, but it does point out that, contrary to the erroneous accusation of rationalism, the divines firmly believed that Scripture was the ultimate and chief authority in Scripture. All one needs to do is read the third question of the Shorter Catechism to grasp this fundamental conviction: “What do the Scriptures principally teach? A. The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” The Westminster divines were likely guilty of a number of sins but rationalism was not among them.

Could you give a brief biographical sketch of some of the most outstanding members of the Westminster Assembly and perhaps some works of theirs that we should be acquainted with to understand better the Standards?

There were over one hundred Westminster divines, so picking some standouts puts me in the place of the team with a limited number of first round draft picks! Decisions, decisions. While not wanting to slight the other luminaries of the assembly, two divines come to mind. The first is Thomas Goodwin (1600-80), one of the Independent (Congregational) divines at the assembly. Goodwin was one of the more notable contributors to the assembly’s debates and was one of the more outspoken proponents of the imputed active obedience of Christ. He often brought calm and insight to the sometimes turbulent discussions in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey. In addition to his contributions to the assembly’s labors, we can benefit greatly from his collected works, which cover a range of topics including sermons, christology, justification, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

A second noteworthy divine is Samuel Rutherford (ca. 1600-61), one of the Scottish representatives. He was highly esteemed and had a reputation for having a sharp theological mind. He too contributed greatly to the assembly’s work, but was especially a noteworthy participant in the debates over church polity. Rutherford was among those who wanted the lines between church and state clearly drawn. He was personally imprisoned by the king for his refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer in his ministry, so he was severely aware of the abuses of political power. In this respect, Rutherford’s work, Lex Rex, is an important contribution to understanding the Confession’s statements on church and state and the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Rutherford’s works on antinomianism and covenant theology, A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist (1648) and The Covenant of Life Opened (1655), are notably rich and insightful works well worth reading and studying.

An honorable mention, and one likely unknown to most, is Edward Leigh (1602-71). Leigh was an MP during the time of the assembly, though there is no record that he ever formally participated in any of the debates or efforts to compose the Standards. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly knew many of the divines and was part of the process of authorizing them. He lived the history. But Leigh was more than an MP; he was an insightful theologian too. He wrote a massive systematic theology, his Body of Divinity (1662). This is one of the most comprehensive and annoted systems of theology from the period. Leigh is both learned, practical, and theologically rich. His Body of Divinity offers a topographical map to the various doctrines, debates, and opinions of the day. Anyone who wants to learn about seventeenth-century theology would do well to devour Leigh’s work.

J.V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He served in church planting and pastoral ministry for more than ten years. His research interests include the integration of biblical and systematic theology, soteriology, and early modern Reformed theology. Fesko’s most recent publications include, The Theology of the Westminster Standards, Songs of a Suffering King, and Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology. His scholarly essays have appeared in various books and journals including Reformed Theological Review, Journal of Reformed Theology, Church History and Religious Culture, Calvin Theological Journal, Trinity JournalJournal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Westminster Theological Journal. Dr. Fesko and his wife, Anneke, have three children and reside in Escondido.

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has four children: Alec, Nora, Grace, and Julie.

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The Wonder-Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles (Interview with Jared Wilson)

Posted by on Oct 15, 2014 in Interviews | One Comment
The Wonder-Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles (Interview with Jared Wilson)

There is never any shortage of fascination with the supernatural. Be it in, or outside of the evangelical world, the miraculous is something we simply can’t ignore. For some it becomes an obsession, while for others it feels safer to pretend it doesn’t exist. For Christians, the subject of miracles is one we should seek to rightly understand, specifically in the context of the Gospels. To this end Jared Wilson has contributed a winsomely and worshipful work which helps us do just that. I was privileged to ask him a few questions about his latest title, The Wonder Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles and the all-important subject it explores. After reading this interview, I highly recommend you pick up a copy for yourself and wonder at our Wonder Working God

In what sense is your most recent book, The Wonder Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles, a follow up to, The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables, published earlier this year, and in what ways do Jesus’s parables and His miracles serve the same purpose?

The books are complementary works in that they cover these two unique features of Jesus’ ministry by examining how they function in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth. Both Jesus’ parables and miracles give us “windows” into the kingdom – snapshots, as it were, of what life under Christ’s Kingship looks like and what ramifications Christ’s work has for mankind. Additionally, both the miracles and the parables serve this unique function of simultaneously revealing and concealing. Depending on the heart of the person hearing or witnessing, the parables may reveal Christ’s glory or be utterly confusing. The miracles may strike someone as a signpost to the spiritual healing of the gospel or they may turn someone against it.

How should we define the word “miracle,” and in doing so do we need two separate definitions, one in relation to the time of Jesus’s earthly ministry, and one for our modern context?

My definition of “miracle” is somewhat counterintuitive, because we tend to think of miracles as a “bending” of the ordinary or a disruption of what’s normal for something supernatural. And of course that is true from the perspective of finite minds in a fallen creation. A miracle is a supernatural act that suspends for the moment the ordinary course of the natural. But the miracles of Christ are, properly understood, actually acts of bending the fallen world back into its original normalcy! The miracles are reminders of the world as it used to be, before sin came and corrupted everything, and of the world as it one day will be, when Christ returns to vanquish sin and death finally and set all things back to rights.

I do think we see more miracles in Jesus’ day, if only because Jesus walking around on earth is quite a special thing. We should expect extraordinary ripples in the Incarnational ministry, and even in the work of the apostles in the explosive dawn of the early church. So while miracles have never been common, they proliferated more in the life of Christ and the early church. And yet I would say the definition for the Christian miraculous today would remain the same. If and when God works what we call miracles today, they are meant to point us away from the miracle and to the glory of Christ.

Wonder Working God CoverWhy is it that miracles in our day are not as common as they appear to be in the New Testament, or is this simply a false perception?

It’s not a false perception. As I said, I think the specialness of Christ’s physical presence, the inauguration of the kingdom, and the launch of the church were all special things in history that should be expected to carry extraordinary signs and the proliferation of them. I think this is why most of the most credible reporting of miracles like we see in the Bible tend to come from the mission field where the gospel is brand new in the midst of unreached people groups.

Is there such thing as counterfeit miracles, and if so how are we to discern between real and fake, authentic versus feigned?

We certainly see in the Bible the working of miracles by ungodly means. Pharaoah’s sorcerers come to mind, as well as some of the pagan exorcists and miracle workers in the New Testament. The miracles themselves were legitimate enough, but they are not works that ought to be trusted because they are done through demonic power and therefore do not point us to Jesus. Even today, we can discern between legitimate miracles and signs sometimes performed in self-proclaimed Christian churches by seeing how much emphasis is put on the miraculous over against the Miracle-worker, how much emphasis is put on material goods or health, how connected the miracles are to the false gospels of prosperity or “word of faith,” and how interested in confession and repentance the miracle-enjoyers seem to be.

Though we only have one recorded instance where unbelief seemingly hindered Jesus’s willingness to perform miracles, what are we to make of this? To what extent does our faith, or lack thereof play a part when it comes to the miraculous?

Our faith plays a huge part, but we have to stay away from mathematical formulas. Sometimes God heals the doubter. This is an act of grace. Sometimes God does not heal the faithful. This is an act of grace too. So we let God set the requirements for how he will work, and we stay away from the idea that we’d see miracles “if only we’d believe.” That is a focus on the miracle rather than the Miracle-worker, and it is a rather common variation of the prosperity gospel that’s infected wider evangelicalism.

C.S. Lewis remarked that we can fall into two errors when it comes to our belief in devils; one being to disbelieve in their existence, and the other being an “excessive and unhealthy interest” in them. It seems the same two errors can be made regarding miracles. What is the danger of falling into either of these errors?

Well, the danger on the skeptical side is failing to take the biblical teaching at face value, but even greater, to assume that God can only work in certain ways. It is, ultimately, an attempt to hem in God’s sovereignty. On the other hand, of course, we see a host of abuses and perversions. And it’s typically these wrongs that push the skeptics further into their trench. We may be in danger of doubting God’s miraculous working today, but many are in perhaps a greater danger of obsessing over them too much, of in fact making an idol out of the idea of the miraculous. And we see in the Scriptures how eternally dangerous it can be to focus on the signs and miss Him who is signified by them.

Whenever Jesus’s miracles are brought up, it seems only a matter of time before the question of “how” arises. People want to know if Jesus preformed miracles as God or man, in his divinity, or his humanity. Some avoid asking this sort of question at all for fear of being irreverent or even blasphemous. Is this a type of question we should be asking, or in doing so are we “missing the forest for the trees?”

I don’t think we can partition Jesus’ dual nature out that way. He was both fully God and fully man. The writers and witnesses of the Gospels can only emphasize certain perspectives, so of course sometimes we see one aspect emphasized over another, but I don’t think this gives us safe ground to begin dissecting or categorizing Jesus’ works and words in this way. There are some clear delineations we can make – for instance, Jesus was killable because he was human, but he also could have prevented his own death through employment of his divinity, and of course God did not die on the cross. But when it comes to the miracles, I don’t think we are blasphemous to follow that train of thought, just sidetracked. Jesus, as the God-Man, performed miracles a man full of the Spirit of God. That may be as much as we can say.

In addition to the Bible Studies you have written and the books you have co-authored, you have published seven books in the last four years, including a novel. Do you see yourself taking a break from writing anytime in the future, or can we expect to see more in the years ahead? Are there any writing projects you have currently in the works we can be looking forward to?

I have always been a writer, even since childhood, so I’m always writing. I don’t think I could foresee a time when I might take a break from writing. Perhaps a break from publishing, but not any time soon. I spent almost ten years trying to get published before my first book, so in a way, I feel as though I’m making up for lost time. And I do see this work as an extension of my ministry and a service to the church.

I have two books coming out next year – a gentle critique of the attractional model of ministry called The Prodigal Church and a unique look at how the coming new heavens and new earth give meaning to everyday life tentatively titled God’s Plan for Everything – both from Crossway. I have also contributed some help to Matt Chandler’s next book, a look at romance, marriage, and sex through the Song of Solomon. And I have a Bible study resource coming out next year as part of a new series called “The Gospel-Shaped Church” from The Good Book Co. and The Gospel Coalition.

Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. His articles and short stories have appeared in a number of periodicals, and he has written the popular books Your Jesus Is Too Safe, Gospel Wakefulness and Gospel Deeps, as well as the curriculum Abide. Wilson lives in Vermont with his wife and two daughters, and blogs regularly at The Gospel Driven Church hosted by the Gospel Coalition.

David Livernois is married to Nicole, the love of his life; they have three amazing children, Riley, Sarai and Abigail, all of which are undeserved miracles pointing to the goodness of our Wonder Working God, Christ Jesus. They live in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina where they are active members of Missio Dei Asheville.

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Interview with Matthew Barrett on the Canons of Dort (Part 2)

Posted by on Oct 1, 2014 in Interviews | No Comments
Interview with Matthew Barrett on the Canons of Dort (Part 2)

Over at Books at a Glance, Fred Zaspel has interviewed Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, on his new book, The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort. It is a two part interview (and you can read Part 1 here).

9781894400527mHere is the start of Part 2 of the interview:

Books At a Glance:
Let’s talk about Assurance. The Calvinist will say that the Arminian has little room for Assurance, given its focus on the human will and the possibility of falling away. But the Arminian will wonder how the Calvinist can be assured that he is, in fact, numbered among the elect, those for whom Christ died! How would the pastor-theologians of Dort argue that their doctrines foster genuine assurance and not a mere presumption?

Matthew Barrett:
Dort recognizes that there are some Christians who have serious struggles with assurance, questioning whether they are numbered among the elect. This doubt usually creeps in when they are failing to overcome sin. What does Dort prescribe? To begin with, Dort points them to the objective work of Christ. The believer, especially when struggling with sinfulness, is to “flee for refuge to Christ crucified.” It is at the cross that redemption has been accomplished and secured, where forgiveness flows for all eternity.

Dort does not stop there, but turns to the subjective aspect of the Christian life as well. The sinner must mortify the flesh (John Owen must have read Dort!) and put on godliness. In doing so, the Calvinist, unlike the Arminian, is not left without the promise that those whom the Father has called, Christ will indeed keep to the end. God is faithful, mercifully strengthening his children in grace, powerfully preserving them to the end, even through valleys when all seems hopeless. Therefore, there is an assurance that not only comes from unconditional election but divine preservation as well. This assurance, warns Dort, does not derive from “some private revelation beyond or outside the word, but from the faith in the promises of God which he has very plentifully revealed in his word for our comfort, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are God’s children and heirs, and finally from a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works.”

It is on the subject of Christian assurance that I believe Dort is at its best. And so I would especially recommend chapter 6 to readers.

Read the rest of this interview at Books at a Glance.

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New Interview on the Canons of Dort with Matthew Barrett

Posted by on Sep 30, 2014 in Interviews | One Comment
New Interview on the Canons of Dort with Matthew Barrett

Over at Books at a Glance, Fred Zaspel has interviewed Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, on his new book, The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort. It is a two part interview. Tomorrow part 2 will be available.

Here is the start of the interview:

9781894400527mBooks At a Glance:
When I (FGZ) was working on The Theology of B.B. Warfield I was stunned that no one had done the work before me. I felt that way again as I read you’re The Grace of Godliness – how in the world was this book not written before now? Am I right in guessing that you have received encouraging feedback since its release? At any rate, the work was saved for you – congratulations and thanks on filling this gaping hole in historical-theological studies.

Matthew Barrett:
Thanks Fred. The book began as an article and at the outset I assumed there would be a multitude of resources on the subject. To my surprise, not only is there a very limited amount of studies on the Canons of Dort, but few draw the connection between Dort’s emphasis on the doctrines of grace and personal and corporate godliness and piety. As I argue in the book, Dort believed that the doctrines of grace do not undermine incentive to holy living and the pursuit of godliness, but rather these doctrines are actually the engine that drives our sanctification.

Books At a Glance:
First, give us a brief view of the setting of the Synod of Dort. What were the “sides” in dispute? And how did this gathering come about? More specifically, then, how did the synod come to address these specific points of doctrine? How was this agenda set for them? And by the way, maybe it would be helpful for some if you would tell us what a “Canon” is in this sense.

Matthew Barrett:
At the end of the sixteenth-century and beginning of the seventeenth-century what we see is a rising and growing number of Reformed churches. These Reformed churches were greatly influenced by John Calvin and his successor Theodore Beza, and especially the Reformed confessions. This is evident when we look at the Dutch Reformed churches in this time period. However, tension began to form when Jacob Arminius, a former student in Geneva, began to teach certain doctrines that deviated from the Reformed confessions. For example, he argued that God’s electing choice is conditional, based on the faith he foresees within man. He also believed that Christ did not die only for the elect but that his death was for all people without exception. Additionally, God distributes a prevenient grace which mitigates man’s depravity so that he now has the ability to cooperate with or successfully and finally resist divine grace no matter how hard God tries to save him. Naturally, many Reformed theologians believed that these beliefs, among others, deviated from the Reformed faith and, more importantly, were unbiblical. While Arminius died, his views did not, but were picked up by his followers who remonstrated against Reformed doctrine. Hence, they became known as the Arminian Remonstrants. So at the beginning of the seventeenth century Reformed theologians gathered together in order to respond to the Remonstrants. Their synod resulted in what we today call the five points of Calvinism. While the five points of Calvinism today are ordered in the acronym T.U.L.I.P., Dort actually ordered their points differently:

1 – Unconditional Election
2 – Limited (Particular) Atonement
3/4 – Total Depravity and Irresistible (Effectual) Grace (Dort treated these two together, showing how they are indispensable to one another)
5 – Perseverance of the Saints

These points were called canons. And no, not the type of canon you ignite and shoot! These were heads or rules of doctrine.

This all-too-short history is important because many assume that it was the Calvinists who drew up their five points only to have the Arminians respond. Quite the opposite is true, though I would argue that the theology found in the canons of Dort can be seen in the writings of theologians long before the 17th century.

There is far more that could be said, but you have to read the book!

And here is another excerpt from the interview:

Books At a Glance:
Is there a general characterization you can give us regarding the more pastoral concerns reflected in the Canons of Dort? What are some of the leading points of application?

Matthew Barrett:
I did not write the book strictly as a commentary on the Canons of Dort. While I do explain each of the canons, my main purpose is to show how those canons do not serve to undermine Christian piety but actually support evangelical godliness. In other words, the charge that is often leveled against Reformed theology is that the doctrines of grace destroy any incentive to holy living and pursuit of godliness. I argue the exact opposite because I believe the authors of the canons did as well.

So, unconditional election does not result in laxness and sloth in Christian living, but is the fuel that ignites Christian holiness. Similarly, predestination is not meant to result in doubting one’s salvation or, on the other hand, boasting that one is elect, but rather should lead to Christian assurance and humility. Or consider particular atonement. Christ substitutionary death is for his bride, whom he loves in a special, saving way, a way that he does not love the rest of the world. Therefore, the personal nature of substitutionary atonement is cause for personal and corporate worship, magnifying Christ, our Savior and Lord. Total depravity and effectual grace serve to kill pride. The Christian has no room to boast in himself, not even in the slightest. His salvation is not due to anything in him, but solely to the grace of God. The irresistibility of grace, therefore, fosters true humility. When we boast, we boast in the Lord, not in ourselves. Finally, the preservation and perseverance of the saints is an incentive to holy living. The God who saved us will sanctify us and he has given to us the means by which we are to pursue godliness. He will not let Satan snatch us out of his hand but by the power of the Holy Spirit he will keep us so that we persevere to the end, even in the midst of hardship. One might notice that it is in this fifth canon that Dort has the most to say about how God’s sovereign grace relates to Christian piety and godliness.

Read the entire interview over at Books at a Glance.

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Reading Job with Christopher Ash (Matthew Claridge)

Reading Job with Christopher Ash (Matthew Claridge)

I can’t think of a better introduction to Christopher Ash’s new commentary, Job: the Wisdom of the Cross, then this promotional video for John Piper’s poetic rendition:

Christopher Ash has put John Piper’s poetry to prose in this wonderful commentary.  I often found myself with a new desire to read and study Job as I worked through Ash’s commentary. This is what the best sort of “literary criticism” accomplishes; it inspires you, moves you, and takes you back to the original text with fresh insight and appreciation. This is even more the case here, as Ash not only takes us back to Job with fresh eyes, but draws our eyes to the Christ seen through Job.

Christopher Ash works for the Proclamation Trust in London as director of the Cornhill Training Course. In addition to serving on the council of Tyndale House in Cambridge, he is the author of several books, including Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job and Teaching Romans. He is married to Carolyn and they have three sons and one daughter.

What are the prosperity and therapeutic gospels, and how does the book of Job address both?

Well, thank you for asking. It seems to me that perhaps the most widespread distortion of the Christian gospel woJob Christopher Ashrldwide is the teaching that if I become a disciple of Jesus, then Jesus will make me rich and healthy. If I am poor, I will become rich; if I have no job, or a poor job, he will give me a better job; if I am single, he will get me a wife or husband; if I am sick, he will make me better. And so on. This is the so-called “prosperity gospel”. When I live in a society where, by and large, we already have riches (by world standards – enough food, clean water, and so on) and health, the prosperity gospel metamorphoses into its cousin, which I call the “therapeutic gospel”. This teaches that, in addition to health and wealth, if I come to Jesus feeling empty, he will fill me; not only will he give me objective good things (money, wife/husband, children etc); he will also give me subjective benefits, lifting my spirits, making me feel better about myself.

Job pulls the rug out from under both these gospel distortions. It sets before us a conspicuously righteous man (Job 1:1,8; 2:3) who suffers prolonged and intense loss and grief, the very opposite of what these gospel distortions would lead us to expect.

 Job could not, you claim, be just any one of us. His suffering and trials are in a class by themselves. What role does Job play in the drama of the human story?

Yes, indeed, it seems to me that Job cannot be “everyman” for several reasons. He is exceptionally righteous (1:1,8; 2:3), exceedingly great and successful (1:3), and his sufferings are intensely deep (1:6-2:10). Far from being a picture of human suffering in general, the book tells the story of a unique man suffering with unmatched intensity. In the big sweep of the bible story it is very natural therefore to see him as foreshadowing Jesus Christ, the one absolutely righteous man on earth, the greatest human being who has lived, and the one whose sufferings were uniquely deep and grievous. Job in his extremity helps us understand Jesus in his uniqueness. Only then may we legitimately see Job as prefiguring our experience in any way, as those indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus and experiencing in our lives some measure of suffering with him (e.g. Rom.8:17; Col.1:24).

 A classic conundrum of Job is the question of his own integrity. As we listen continually to his justifications, we are very tempted to think there must be something wrong or sinful with him. Are we supposed to be quoting to Job Rom. 3:10, “there is none righteous, no not one”?

There is a tension in Job. On the one hand, we are told repeatedly that he is a righteous man. The narrator headlines this (1:1) and God tells us twice (1:8; 2:3) before reinforcing it at the end (42:7). That is to say, Job is a true believer, one who is justified by faith, and who fears and walks with God. But, on the other hand, at the end he does repent of things he has said (42:1-6). So, is Job right or wrong? His three friends accuse him of hidden sins (e.g. 22:5) and they are wrong (42:7). The answer would seem to be two truths. On the one hand, Job’s comforters say that he is suffering because he has sinned and will not repent, and they are wrong. But, on the other hand, Job himself admits that his suffering has caused him to sin in some of the things he says.

Your quotation from Romans 3:10 sheds light on this. It is a quotation from Psalm 14, in which David laments the evil surrounding him and says of these people, “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good…” and so on. But David himself trusts God and is confident that there are others who trust God (e.g. Ps.14:6 “the Lord is his refuge”). So when he says, “there is none righteous, no not one” he means there is no human being who is by nature righteous before God; but, thank God, there are human beings who are righteous before God by faith! This was true in David’s day and it was true of Job.

 I find this thesis statement throughout your commentary: “the glory of God is more important than your or my comfort.” Why is that and why is it good news?

Yes, I was greatly helped by 1 Peter 1:7 as I grappled with Job. Writing to suffering Christians, Peter says that the “various trials” they are enduring will show the “tested genuineness” of their faith. That is to say, the trials will prove that they really trust God; it is easy to say we trust God when things are going well; it is when blessings are taken away that it is seen whether we really worship God simply because He is God. When we do and our faith is seen to be tested and genuine then, when Jesus returns, there will be “praise and glory and honour” to God. It is good news to know that your and my Christian sufferings have such an exalted purpose; that our sufferings will prove that in our hearts we honour God as God. Only when we suffer can this be publicly and convincingly seen to the watching world.

 Another challenge of this book is what to do with the speeches of Job’s friends. How do you recommend we read these speeches? Any rules of thumb for how Christians can exercise discernment while reading them? Is it ok to ever quote their words as “thus saith the Lord”?

Ah, yes, this is a tricky one. After all, God says these three friends have not “spoken rightly” about God (42:7) and so we would need support from elsewhere in scripture before being confident that any particular thing they say is true. And yet these speeches are part of scripture and ought to benefit us and promote faith in Christ (2 Tim.3:15-17). It is hard to give a short answer and really you need to read my book, in which we walk carefully through each speech! The comforters say many true things – true things about God, true things about justice, true things about sin and judgment. But they are not true of Job. The critical thing they deny is the possibility of unjust suffering, and therefore the flip-side of this, which is the possibility of undeserved blessing, or grace. I have included an introductory chapter about the comforters’ theology, and in the various speeches have suggested what we can learn from them. One of the main things I have learned is to be warned, because it is so easy for our Christian culture to slip into a Job’s comforters culture, and for grace to slip out of the window.

 The book of Job challenges our assumptions that suffering necessarily is the result of sin. But this leaves us in a conundrum, because sometimes it can be. Are we ever allowed or justified to suggest that unrepeated sin might be the immediate source of someone’s suffering?

Yes, Jesus himself suggests this when he warns the man he has healed to “Sin no more, so that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). But we need to be careful. Job’s comforters accuse him of secret sins for which they have no evidence (for no evidence exists). This is quite different from pastorally pointing out sins for which there is evidence. And yet even here, it is not given to us to know the individual connections between sin and suffering, any more than riches and health is necessarily evidence of moral goodness. We need to exercise great care. Above all, we need to search our own hearts more than we accuse others (Mt.7:3-5).

 The Book of Job famously ends with God actually never explaining to Job why he suffered. Indeed, God’s answer is itself a series of questions. What are we to make of this?

Job has spoken as if he could run God’s world better than God. God’s speeches focus first on the wild parts of the universe, the parts that are clearly outside Job’s control. And then finally on this strange and terrifying monster, serpent, beast called Leviathan (Job 41), who is a vivid storybook way of speaking of the devil or Satan. The central message is that God alone may be trusted to be sovereign even over supernatural forces of evil in the universe. This is a huge claim, that there truly is one Sovereign God who rules the universe and is so great and wise that he can even use supernatural evil as one of his agents in governing the world. The devil is, in Luther’s vivid phrase, “God’s Satan”.

 I really appreciated your commentary on each of the individual speeches in the book. You’re right. Its tempting to preach Job in just four or five sermons with one (maybe) covering all the speeches in the middle. Do you recommend spending more time on the speeches of Job?

Yes, I do! When I first preached Job, I think I took 7 sermons. By the time we came to the end, I wished I had planned for 10. I think it is not difficult to preach 10 sermons on Job without loss of momentum or interest. The advantage is that there is time to soak ourselves in some of the poetry and to have time to feel and engage emotionally as well as intellectually with the speeches. However, I am not recommending 42 sermons on Job, one for each chapter; that way, many people will never get to listen to Romans, John’s Gospel, or Isaiah!

 Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.

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Show Them Jesus: An Interview with Jack Klumpenhower (part 2)

Posted by on Jul 18, 2014 in Interviews | No Comments
Show Them Jesus: An Interview with Jack Klumpenhower (part 2)

We are glad to be back with the second half of our two part  interview with Jack Klumpenhower, author of Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids. Today he answers a few more questions for us, and reminds us of the great privilege we have in being entrusted with the gospel.

show_them_jesus_thumbnail__26699.1404693685.451.416Though definitely not the norm, with the ever increasing abundance of gospel-centered books and curriculum geared towards teaching kids to see Jesus in all of scripture, why is it not enough to simply read/teach from these resources verbatim as if from a script? Doesn’t this approach ensure the message won’t be obscured?

Discipleship is personal. Good material can help greatly, and I certainly recommend that teachers make use of lessons that help them teach the gospel. But in the end, the old maxim that students learn more from what we do than from what we say is true. Students also tend to remember those things their teacher is most excited about, and teachers get excited about truths they’ve studied and discovered for themselves. For these reasons, it’s at least as important to have gospel-saturated teachers as it is to have gospel-centered curricula.

You’ve included many practical helps for parents to implement at home in teaching their children the gospel, some of which are variations of the same tools you give that can be utilized in the classroom. It seems however that there can often be a disconnect between what kids are being taught at church in their youth classes, and what parents are (or are not) reinforcing at home. In chapter eight you layout a helpful framework for having good-news discussions that can help serve to bridge this gap. What other suggestions would you offer both parents and youth workers towards this end?

The gap exists because both parents and teachers easily get lazy, so that parents don’t bother to find out what’s happening in class and teachers don’t take the time to tell parents. It happens to me all the time, and the best solution I know is to make a habit of regular communication. When I teach I need to distribute lesson summaries to parents every week, even if most parents seem uninterested. As a parent I must ask about class even if the teacher seems too busy to be bothered.

Habitual communication not only builds relationships and keeps parents informed, it also encourages teachers to do their jobs well. I take more care with my lessons when I know I’m going to give a summary to parents.

Another good practice is to make classrooms and youth groups places where parents are encouraged to visit anytime. If it works with a church’s child protection policies, that kind of open classroom goes a long way to creating the feel of a group effort. Holding whole-family classes where parents are not just invited but expected to attend with their kids helps as well, as does bringing parents in on a rotating basis to help lead prayer time or contribute to class in some other way.

You write, “One test of any kids-ministry gimmick is to ask what we’d think if adult ministries used the same technique.” What do you mean by this statement? Shouldn’t we contextualize the gospel differently for adults and youth in a way that is age-appropriate?

I do many things differently when I teach kids rather than adults. I use age-appropriate language and concepts. I teach shorter lessons with more repetition. I’m careful to incorporate a variety of learning styles (visual, auditory, hands-on). I also use examples that fit kids’ lives. This is effective teaching that keeps the students in mind.

Gimmicks are different. A gimmick is something contrived to get kids involved for reasons that have little do with Christ: memorize verses to win a toy; bring a friend to earn a candy bar; come to Sunday school because we have a cool space station theme; attend youth group because the music absolutely rocks.

We must be careful with gimmicks. The subtle message in many gimmicks is that the toy, candy bar, space station, music, or whatnot is better and more interesting than Jesus. If Jesus were better, wouldn’t he be our motivation? And if you think about it, if someone suggested offering prizes to adults who brought friends to church we’d probably object that doing so not only is childish but also violates the spirit of why we ought to invite people. That Christ-first spirit is violated when we use the technique with kids, too.

That said, I’m all for having fun. Christians should be joyful people, so there’s nothing inherently wrong with fun activities or great music or little celebrations of achievement. We just need to include such things carefully so that Jesus remains our focus and our chief attraction.

In teaching children and in the context of youth ministry, why do you think there is a common tendency to want to teach a safe, sanitized version of the Bible, and not the scandalous message of redemption as narrated through the scriptures? Along those same lines; just as in your book you described teaching the story of Achan from the book of Joshua, how we can teach the “scary” parts of scripture to kids as opposed to skipping over them in the name of “playing it safe”?

I find that many teachers are uncomfortable talking about sin and the cross. I know I used to be. Even though I believed the cross was central to Christian faith and I had no theological problem with it, it felt weird to talk about it much—like venturing into somber territory that always increased the stress level in class.

Beyond that, practicing faith in the God who saves can feel uncomfortable too. Healthy faith begins with tons of prayer. It’s accompanied by things like confession of sin and accountability in repentance. None of this comes naturally to proud, self-sufficient people like us. So this too makes it more comfortable to skirt the gospel when teaching Bible lessons.

However, when we dare to embrace the gospel it actually ends up bringing great comfort. It allows both students and teachers to stop hiding behind appearances and instead rest openly in Christ. Once we get over the initial hump and start talking about the gospel regularly, it starts to feel more natural and becomes a delight rather than a source of unease. Studying Jesus in depth also helps. Jesus spoke directly and challengingly about the issues that feel uncomfortable to us, yet he also has compassion for struggling sinners. Getting to know him gives us the courage to talk about deep things too; sin, atonement, repentance, God as Father, death and eternal life—all the grand themes of the gospel.

As for Bible passages that are disturbing due to violence, it’s fine to shield the youngest kids from a few things they aren’t ready for yet. But in general, it’s good for kids to see that God is at work even in the most horrific and appalling events of life. The gospel comes to us in the context of such sin and misery, and there it gives us hope and life. We can’t sanitize the Bible without also reducing our wonder at the gospel.

Jack Klumpenhower, author of the new book, Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids, is a Bible teacher and a children’s ministry curriculum writer with more than thirty years of experience. He has created Bible lessons and taught children about Jesus at churches, camps, clubs, conferences, and Christian schools all over the world, including Serge conferences. He is currently working on his next publication, a middle-school gospel discipleship curriculum titled What’s Up? Discovering the Gospel, Jesus, and Who You Really Are. He lives with his wife and two children in Durango, Colorado. Check out Jackklumpenhower.com for more of Jack’s writing as well as resources from his latest book.

David Livernois is married to Nicole, the love of his life, and they have three amazing children, Riley, Sarai and Abigail. They live in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina where they are active members of Missio Dei Asheville.

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