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

Posted by on Jul 27, 2015 in Interviews | No Comments
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 Journal, Journal 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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Calvin’s Company of Pastors: An interview with Scott Manetsch

Posted by on Jul 22, 2015 in Interviews | No Comments
Calvin’s Company of Pastors: An interview with Scott Manetsch

Many things come to mind when you think of John Calvin. Is pastoral care among them? To bring that contribution closer to the top of our first thoughts, let me introduce you to Scott Manetsch’s fine new book, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology). Dr. Manetsch is Professor of Cpastoarl care 2hurch History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He also happens to be one of my top favorite and influential professors in seminary. He is the perfect scholar to tackle this subject, a man of impeccable theological insight joined with a pastor’s heart. I heartily commend this book to our Credo readers.

What drew you to this topic and what kind of work was involved in researching it?

More than a dozen years ago I had the opportunity to spend a summer reading through the published sermons of Theodore Beza (1519-1605), and I was impressed by the many pastoral themes and concerns that appeared in them. It occurred to me that this “pastoral” side of Theodore Beza was entirely missing from the scholarly literature, and deserved further study. In the years that followed, my family and I spent four summers in Geneva, where I had an opportunity to explore the entirety of Beza’s literary corpus. At the same time, these summers allowed me to work extensively in the city archive, reading church documents related to religious life and pastoral practice in sixteenth-century Geneva. What had begun as a monograph on Theodore Beza’s pastoral theology quickly mushroomed into a book on the pastoral company of 135 ministers who served the Genevan church between 1536 and 1609. As it turned out, most of the original research for my book was drawn from the minutes of Geneva’s Consistory, a disciplinary body created by Calvin that met every Thursday, beginning in 1542. City scribes were hired to produce detailed, hand-written minutes of each Consistory session. Most of my research time in Geneva was spent reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of these almost-illegible minutes preserved in Geneva’s city archive.

What was Geneva’s Company of Pastors and how did it change the shape of Christian pastoral ministry?

The Company of Pastors was a church institution founded by John Calvin and his pastoral colleagues in the mid-1540s. Its membership consisted of all of the ministers who served churches in the city-republic of Geneva, including Calvin and the other ministers who served the three large parishes within the city walls (St. Pierre, St. Gervais, the Madeleine) and the pastors who served around a dozen smaller rural parishes in the surrounding countryside. In addition, several professors from the Genevan Academy were members of the Company of Pastors.

The Company met every Friday morning to address concerns of the church both locally and internationally. In terms of local concerns, the Company examined students for ministry, filled local ministerial posts (with the approval of the city magistrates), addressed theological disputes within the city or Company, and negotiated religious policy with Geneva’s city council. Owing to Calvin’s theological stature, the Company of Pastors also soon gained an international role, providing support and theological advice for reformed churches and pastors in other parts of Europe. It was pretty common for foreign churches to ask the Company to send them promising ministerial candidates from the Academy. Moreover, as historian Robert Kingdon has shown, the Company of Pastors also recruited, trained, and secretly deployed more than 100 pastors into France between 1555 and 1562. Thus, the Company of Pastors played an important role in shaping the institutional form and theological content of pastoral ministry in Geneva.

It seems one of Calvin’s pastoral concerns was cultivating a spirit of ‘collegiality’ among the clergy. Why was this important to Calvin?

This was one of the biggest surprises that came from my research: the degree to which Calvin not only championed, but institutionalized a form of church government that promoted pastoral equality and collegiality. The caricature of John Calvin as the “dictator of Geneva” deserves to be put to rest once and for all. I think Calvin cultivated this spirit of collegiality for at least three reasons.

First, Calvin (and Beza as well) had a deep aversion to forms of church government that were hierarchical and autocratic. They believed that Scripture taught that, though pastors’ roles might vary from parish to parish, the pastoral office was a single office, and all pastors were equally servants of Christ and ministers of the Word of God. Second, Calvin recognized the need for ministers to be accountable to one another to preserve the health of the church. Hence, Calvin created the weekly Congregation (patterned after Zurich’s Prophetzei) where the city’s pastors met to study Scripture together and evaluate one another’s exposition of biblical texts. So too, four times a year in the Quarterly Censure, Geneva’s ministers met behind closed doors to air their differences, to address colleagues suspected of immorality or teaching wrong doctrine, and to promote mutual trust and common vision. Third, and this is related to the second point, Calvin valued collegiality among pastors because he recognized the dangers of individual interpretations of Scripture. Right doctrine depended on a community of pastors studying Scripture together. In a letter to a colleague in Bern in 1549, Calvin defended the work of the Congregation as “not only useful but necessary” for the health of the church. Calvin further stated that “The fewer discussions of doctrine we have together, the greater the danger of pernicious opinions… for solitude leads to great abuse.”

One of your main concerns is to challenge the notion that Calvin and his successors represented a white-tower approach to theology and pastoral ministry. What kind of evidence have you found to correct this assumption?

Having grown up in the reformed tradition, I was sometimes exposed to a portrait of Calvin that focused on his theological genius at the expense of his pastoral concerns and commitments. In this caricature, Calvin was little more than a reformed “brain on a stick.” When one studies the documents of the Genevan church, it becomes clear that this depiction misses the mark. I’m reminded of Calvin’s statement: “the office of a true and faithful minister is not only to teach the people in public, which he is appointed to do as pastor, but also, as much as he is able, to admonish, exhort, warn, and console each person individually.”

The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541), written largely by Calvin, laid out a plan for ministry that involved intensive pastoral care of God’s people through the Word. And this plan was enacted in practice during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. All of Geneva’s ministers preached multiple times each week. They were expected to visit sick people at bedside. Along with the city’s lay elders, they conducted pastoral visitations of all the households in their parish each year before Easter. Ministers also preached catechetical sermons to children every Sunday at noon to teach them the basics of the Christian faith. Furthermore, every Thursday the pastors and elders met in Consistory to interview, reprove, and offer spiritual advice to men and women guilty of a whole variety of sins, from adultery to drunkenness to spousal abuse. Although these consistorial interviews could be confrontational and were always intrusive, they constituted a form of spiritual counsel and pastoral care as the pastors and elders engaged people at their point of greatest brokenness and need, seeking to guide them to repentance and spiritual healing. On many occasions, the Consistory also intervened on behalf of the neglected and abused, seeking to protect the weak and poor as well as mediate conflicts between spouses and within households. I came away from my study of Geneva’s consistorial minutes with a deep sense of admiration for the amount of time and effort that Geneva’s pastors and elders devoted to this painful, yet important, aspect of spiritual care.

What did a typical week look like for a minister in Geneva circa 1590?

That depends on whether the minister worked in one of the three city parishes, or whether he served one of the dozen small rural parishes in the surrounding countryside. Countryside pastors usually preached 2-3 times per week, held weekly catechism classes, and visited members of their congregation who were sick or suspected of moral failure. Baptisms, weddings, and (quarterly) celebrations of the Lord’s Supper were performed during the regularly scheduled worship services. Many of the countryside pastors were responsible for two different congregations within their single parish, requiring them to travel on foot 3-4 miles several times each week to perform their pastoral duties. When possible, rural pastors were also expected to come to the city to attend meetings of the Consistory (on Thursdays) as well as the weekly meetings of the Congregation and the Company of Pastors (on Fridays). Because their salaries were usually inadequate to pay bills, at least some of the countryside pastors supplemented their incomes by raising cattle, farming a garden, or tending a vineyard. City pastors usually preached more frequently than countryside ministers.

Prominent ministers such as Calvin, Beza, and Simon Goulart usually preached twice on Sundays and every weekday morning, every other week. (That adds up to around 18-20 sermons per month!) In addition, city ministers instructed children in the catechism at noon on Sundays, performed baptisms, the Lord’s Supper, and weddings (in conjunction with regular worship services), and attended the meetings of the Consistory, Congregation, and Company of Pastors. Most city ministers had special assignments as an additional part of their vocations: some like Calvin or Beza taught at the Genevan Academy; others were part-time chaplains in the hospital or army; still others visited prisoners in the city prison, or were assigned to the plague hospital. Moreover, I discovered that nearly one-in-six of the ministers wrote books, whether theological tomes, works of poetry, historical books, or exegetical works.

How seriously did Calvin and his successors consider church discipline? How was it enforced and how did its enforcement change over the years?

Calvin and his colleagues believed that biblical church discipline was essential for the health of a Christian church, comparing it to ligaments holding the body of Christ together. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes: “as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place.” Thus, “all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration – whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance—are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the Church.” Practically speaking, Calvin and Geneva’s ministers insisted that the local Consistory (consisting of pastors and twelve lay elders) should meet weekly in order to address cases of moral failure and misbelief in their congregation. The Consistory met every Thursday at noon; its case load often included a dozen or more cases, including cases such as fornication and adultery, superstitious practice, dancing and lewd singing, public drunkenness, fighting and swearing, usury, Catholic behavior, gambling, and begging and idleness. Many offenders were scolded, counseled, and sent away with warnings. In more extreme cases, people were suspended from the Lord’s Supper for a few months, until they repented and were reconciled to the church and their neighbors. (Note that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated four times a year in Calvin’s Geneva.) In the five years following Calvin’s death in 1564, there was a spike in number of annual suspensions with more than 680 people temporarily suspended from the Lord’s Supper in 1568 alone. Thereafter, the number of annual suspensions declined significantly, reaching levels of 100-150 people per year during the 1590s and early 1600s. It is important to remember that Calvin’s Consistory did not have the power to impose any form of corporal punishment on offenders, i.e. imprisonment, banishment, fines, or capital punishment – that was the prerogative of the civil authorities alone. The Consistory could only impose spiritual penalties, namely warnings, rebukes, suspension, or, in the worst case, major excommunication (which involved a measure of social ostracism). With that said, Calvin lived in a city republic where the civil magistrates were willing to stand behind the Consistory, enforcing the church’s suspensions and, sometimes, imposing its own punishments on sinners who refused to repent and be reconciled to the church.

My investigation of church discipline in Geneva indicates a number of changes over the seven decades from 1542-1609. For one, as mentioned earlier, the number of annual suspensions increased significantly between 1542 and the late 1560s, peaking in 1568 at 681 suspensions, before declining rapidly to levels of between 100-150 suspensions per year. Second, the kinds of sins for which people were likely to be suspended changed over this period. Whereas in the early years, the single most common offense leading to suspension from the Lord’s Supper was fornication and adultery, by the latter decades of my study household and family quarrels became the most common reason for suspension. In addition, “sins” such as ignorance of the gospel and Catholic behavior become less common as the century progressed. What remains more or less consistent, however, was the sheer number of cases of conflict between spouses and within households in the Consistory’s caseload each year. Consequently, the ministers and elders regularly devoted a lot of time and energy seeking to reconcile husbands and wives, and pacify households that were torn by violence, mistrust, abuse, and hatred.

Were there any surprising revelations that you came across in your research?

A couple of surprises come to mind. First, I found it striking the degree to which church discipline served as a form of pastoral care in Geneva during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Second, I did not expect the degree to which Calvin encouraged, and Geneva’s pastors pursued a form of ministry characterized by mutual accountability, encouragement, and collaboration. Third, I was impressed by the degree to which Calvin’s liturgies (recited in Geneva’s churches several times a week) reinforced and institutionalized his vision of pastoral ministry in the city. Finally, I was greatly encouraged and blessed by the rich (and largely unexplored) collection of pastoral resources – prayers, sermons, Christian meditations, ethical treatises – produced by Geneva’s pastors during the decades after Calvin’s lifetime.

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 two children, Alec and Nora.

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Bound for the Promised Land: An Interview with Oren Martin

Bound for the Promised Land: An Interview with Oren Martin

If the political fight over the land of Israel weren’t bad enough, the role of the Promised Land in Scripture has often divided American Evangelicals. Are the Land Promises–so prominent in the Old Testament covenants and deeply embedded in the future hopes of the prophetic literature–simply allegorized in the NT church’s gospel mission or do they await a literal reincarnation in a restored ethnic kingdom of the Jews at Christ’s return? Perhaps, “allegory,” and “literalism” are the wrong choice of options, according to Oren Martin, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College, Louisville, Kentucky, and author of Bound for the Promised Land: The Land Promises in God’s Redemptive Plan. Dr. Martin offers a compelling reading of this theme in Scripture that seeks to transcend the traditional categories and places the discussion of the Land Promises on higher ground, namely, their “literal” fulfillment in the New Heaven and New Earth. We welcome Dr. Martin to Credo for this interview on his book.

In a nutshell, what is the thesis of your book?

Simply put, I argue that the land promised to Abraham picks up and advances what was lost in Eden, and serves as a type throughout Israel’s history that, at each point or fulfillment, looks forward to an even greater land—a new creation—that will come as a result of the person and work of Christ.

 At the beginning of your book, you survey various efforts in recent years to account for a biblical theology of the “Promised Land.” What sets your book apart from these other treatments?

I would describe my book in part as an attempt to “connect the dots” of previous works that deal with topics surrounding the promised land (e.g., OT theology, eschatology, kingdom, covenant). For example, there have been works that touch on the land theme in different ways and through various parts of Scripture (e.g., Stephen Dempster, Arie Leder, Gary Burge). Also, some Old Testament theologies that treat the land theme often limit their study to Genesis, Deuteronomy and/or Joshua (Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology is an exception, though in the end he tends to spiritualize the fulfillment). Moreover, New Testament theology has not, by and large, examined how the land theme enters into it (a notable exception is G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology, though it is understandably brief given the scope of his work). Perhaps the closest treatment of the land theme to mine is Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant. But again, given the scope of their work the land occupies a relatively small part. As a result, I thought a more comprehensive study was needed from the standpoint of what D. A. Carson calls a “whole-Bible biblical theology” that examined the land theme exegetically from OT promise to NT fulfillment, and then applied it to systematic theology. Bound for the Promised Land, then, is my effort to build upon previous treatments of the land theme in a more comprehensive way.

 Could you explain the textual, epochal, and canonical hermeneutical rubric you utilize in this book and how it helps us understand the role of the “Promised Land” within redemption history?

I learned these “interpretive movements” from Richard Lints in The Fabric of Theology, who admittedly learned it from the best of the Reformed tradition. This process has greatly helped the way I read, interpret and apply Scripture so that I don’t miss the forest for the trees and can see the parts in light of the whole. In what he calls the three horizons of redemptive interpretation, Scripture must be interpreted along its textual horizon (the immediate context of a book or passage, traditionally called grammatical-historical exegesis), epochal horizon (the context of the period of revelation in which the book or passage falls), and the canonical horizon (the context of a book or passage in the entirety of revelation). In other words, every text must be rightly interpreted within its respective context, with careful attention given to grammar, syntax, literary genre, etc., taking into consideration its overall place in God’s unfolding plan that moves from promise to fulfillment in Christ. When applied to the land promise, then, I examine how the place of God’s people in each epoch (e.g., Eden, Canaan) anticipates and is finally fulfilled in the new heaven and new earth won by Christ. And while each fulfillment is a legitimate one as history unfolds, the consummation of the land promises are finally fulfilled when all of God’s people—both Jew and Gentile—possess their inheritance, the new creation.

 How important is the context of the “Adamic covenant” for our interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant, particularly in regard to the “land promises” contained therein?

Whether or not it is explicitly called a covenant with Adam/creation, there is at least a unique and pivotal relationship with Adam that is picked up later in the biblical storyline (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15). But to answer your question: it is very important! After the tragic events of Genesis 3, Abraham is promised land, seed/offspring, and universal blessing. These massive promises begin to reverse the curse that had previously escalated since Eden. Put another way, through Abraham God’s edenic objectives resume. The significance of the land aspect of the promise must not be minimized. After the fall, Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden and sin escalates resulting in the judgment of a worldwide flood. And when Abraham arrives on the scene, to paraphrase Stephen Dempster, he is promised a commodity that has been in short supply: a land to call his own. This land would be the place of blessing where Abraham could exercise dominion and be fruitful and multiply. That is, this land would, in time, become the new place of God’s people. From this point on, then, the march to the promise land begins and will not stop until he and his offspring, both Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ (Gal 3), reach the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb 11:10).

 Where do you agree and disagree with Dispensationalists and Covenant theologians on their respective interpretations of the Promised Land?

I am closest to Covenant Theology (CT), though I would strongly emphasize that the consummation of the land promises is a physical (re)new(ed) earth. I emphasize this point because Dispensationalists (DT) have rightly criticized CT and/or Amillennialism for spiritualizing or “Christifying” the land promises. In response, some proponents of CT have recognized this weakness and have sought to correct it by emphasizing the physicality of the new creation (e.g., Anthony Hoekema, G. K. Beale, Sam Storms). Dispensationalists have also criticized CT for not providing sufficient OT warrant for their NT conclusions, which is why I spend a significant amount of time and space in the OT to show that it is within the OT itself that the type or pattern is developed. In other words, the NT does not reinterpret or spiritualize the OT promises. Rather, the NT demonstrates both when and how the Old Testament land promises are brought to fulfillment in Christ and his work, which culminate in a new creation inhabited by both Jew and Gentiles in Christ, though not in a way that reinterprets, spiritualizes, or contravenes earlier texts. Indeed the NT fulfills what the OT promises and anticipates from beginning to end, albeit in various ways and from different perspectives (e.g., Isaiah’s new creation that is coextensive with an idealized Jerusalem; Jeremiah’s new Jerusalem that is both expanded and different from the old; Ezekiel’s temple that encompasses the entire land).

At this point DT, though they agree that the land promised to Israel reaches its fulfillment in the new creation, still want to maintain that the literal (literalistic) fulfillment requires that Israel’s land be given to believing national Israel separate from Gentile Christians in the millennial and/or eternal state. But this view is incorrect for at least two reasons. First, all of God’s promises are fulfilled in relation to Christ and equally given to believing Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:11-22). Second, in considering other types such as prophets, Levitical priests, Davidic kings, circumcision, temple, and sacrifices, they do not await final fulfillment in the consummation but instead reach their fulfillment, terminus, and telos in Christ, thus bringing them to their divinely appointed end. In other words, when Christ comes, he as the antitype is the true prophet, priest, king, temple, sacrifice, and so on. So Scripture presents the NT antitype of the OT type as fulfilled and reaching its telos in and through Christ, which culminates in a new creation inhabited by all of God’s people in Christ.

This point distinguishes my proposal from so-called replacement theology. It is not that the church merely replaces Israel, but rather Israel finds her fulfillment first in Christ, the obedient Son and true Israel, who then bestows blessings to his people, believing Jews and Gentiles alike. Hence, the charge that Gentile inclusion means Jewish exclusion is not accurate, for all who are included in Christ receive every spiritual blessing in Christ as they await their future inheritance, the new creation.  In other words, believing Israel does not receive less, but more: the whole earth!

 How do you account for the less than precise boundaries of the Promised Land as described at various places in Scripture?

This question is a complex one. Specific geographical boundaries are given in a number of texts (Gen 15:18-21; Exod 23:31ff; Num 34:1-12; Deut 1:7; 11:24; 34:1-4; Josh 1:2-4), and the extent of the promised land is not identical in each (e.g., the boundaries in Deut 11:24 are significantly broader than those in Num 34), which has led some scholars to detect redactional activity. However, scholars such as Paul Williamson have rightly noted a weakness in this view, arguing that since there were no steps taken to impose uniformity, there is an element of flexibility that’s difficult to harmonize with rigidly defined boundaries. The interpreter, then, must seek another explanation for the varying accounts of the geographical boundaries. One solution is put forth by John Goldingay, who says that the boundaries of the land in the OT reflect political realities of different periods. Or, Williamson suggests that the boundaries of the promised land were never seen as permanently fixed, but were subject to at least some degree of expansion. I think this is a better way to go when the promises are traced across the canon. Of particular importance is Genesis 26:3-4, where the unique plural “lands,” when juxtaposed with Genesis 22:17-28, reveals that Abraham’s seed will possess or inherit the gate of his enemies. One can already see, then, that Paul is not spiritualizing texts when he says that Abraham would be heir of the world through the righteousness of faith (Rom 4:13). Rather, Paul is reaching sound exegetical and theological conclusions when he puts all three elements of the covenant together, for he now sees Abraham inheriting the world as all people—both Jew and Gentile—come to faith in Jesus Christ.

 Is the Promised Land an unimportant or neglected topic in New Testament?

I think so for a couple of reasons. First, the land terminology is used far less in the NT than the OT, especially as it relates to the promised land. Second, there is little emphasis on the land in the ministry of Jesus, and when he performs his redemptive work his followers do not return to the land. It appears, then, than the NT is silent when it comes to the land. However, I think this line of thinking is inaccurate for a number of reasons.

First, biblical theology has helped us see that concepts, not merely words, must be taken into account in putting together a theology of land. Second, the priority of the NT is reversed from that of the OT. That is, in the OT God created the place and then planted his people in it. But in the NT, God is making new people in Christ and then preparing a place for them. I think this point is significant. Finally, if the NT is the answer to God’s OT promises in which his saving rule would come through an Abrahamic offspring, Davidic king, and Spirit-anointed Messiah who would usher in a new covenant age, then it makes sense that the primary focus would be on the king who brings the kingdom and secondarily on the place of the kingdom (but praise God that the place is coming!).

What I argue, then, is that God’s highly anticipated Messiah arrived on the scene in Matthew and, true to prophetic form, he inaugurated the kingdom that awaits its consummation in the new earth (Matt 5:5; 19:28). Thus, the themes associated with land in the OT are now connected to Jesus, fulfilled in light of him, and in places like John enjoyed in relation to him (John 15:1-5). He performs a new exodus and saves his people out of sin and into the place of redemptive blessing—now centered in him (Col 1:12-13). Moreover, he gives rest to those who come to him (Matt 11:25-30). Life that once abounded in the land now abounds in him, for he is the vine, the resurrection and the life.

This fulfillment continues throughout the NT. God’s people now indwelt by the Spirit await their future inheritance (Eph 1:13-14), enter God’s rest through faith in the true and greater Son, Jesus Christ, and look for a better country (Heb 3-4). Though OT believers looked through the land of promise to God’s greater eschatological rest and city, by virtue of Christ and his work, new covenant believers now look to Jesus and confidently await their arrival in the new Jerusalem, homeland, unshakable kingdom, and abiding city that is to come (Heb 11-13), which is also described in the letters of Peter and Revelation as the new heaven and new earth. And the covenant relationship for which we were created will be realized in the new creation where our glorious triune God will dwell with us, and we will be his people, and God himself will be with us as our God (Rev 21-22).

Oren Martin (Ph.D, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College, Louisville, Kentucky.

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 Pastor and Counseling: An interview with Jeremy Pierre

The Pastor and Counseling: An interview with Jeremy Pierre

I would venture to guess that most men do not go into pastoral ministry with the enthusiastic expectation of patiently struggling with people’s sin. We prefer to be generals mounted on steeds directing the forward march of God’ Word, rather than grunts struggling in the fog of people’s circumstances and sins. But as we’ve learned all too well in the fight against ISIS, all the generalship and strategy in the world is no replacement for the moral courage and spiritual resourcefulness to hold the front lines against the world, the flesh, and the devil. To help ministers (and gifted laymen, for that matter) develop that moral courage and resourcefulness, Jeremy Pierre has co-authored a book with Deepak Reju entitled The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need. This is an incredibly practical and on-the-ground manual for ministers frightened and fumbling with the necessary call to pastoral counseling. Dr. Pierre introduces us to this call with this Credo interview.

What should be a pastor’s proper perspective on the place of counseling in his ministry?

We have to be case-specific when answering this question, since every pastor is called to a particular role in a particular church. If, for instance, he is over discipleship and family ministries, then counseling will probably be a larger portion of his role. If, on the other hand, he is called to be the preaching or lead pastor, counseling will be less a part of his role. Our point in this book, though, is that every pastor should be in some way walking with his people in the troubles of their lives. Counseling is just a good tool to help them do this well.

Every pastor should be willing to counsel, which means being willing to create some space to do it and to be better equipped to do it. How much time and resources are set aside is dependent on his particular role.

 Could you summarize what you envision as the three goals a pastor should bring into any counseling situation?

A pastor first addresses the presenting problem. If someone comes in because they’re depressed, a pastor shouldn’t jump to theological topics he’s more comfortable with. He needs to be willing to listen and explore the particulars of what a person is experiencing. This is why we have good questions outlined in the book.

The second task of the pastor is to show how the gospel is relevant to a person’s problem. They are looking to you as the pastor to help them see their lives through a biblical lens. They know generally that God cares about the way they think, what they want in life, and the choices they make throughout their day. But, they often have trouble with the specifics. They often don’t know what faith looks like in the context of their particular troubles. The pastor is simply helping them see what trusting Christ looks like in response to the problems they face.

The third task is to help them grow in Christlikeness. In other words, how is the person in responding in ways that hinder the health of his soul?  If we understand that being like Christ is the optimal state for the soul, then we see that his gospel is the only means of getting there, and that our efforts are necessary to cooperate with the gospels work in our lives. So, a pastor strategizes with a person about changes that need to be made first in his relationship with God, and as an outflow of that his relationship with everything else.

 Any ideas on when a counseling concern should be a church discipline concern? What sins can we forbear and which must we excise?

This is a very good question, and it takes a lot of sensitivity to answer. We should understand church discipline not just as the final stages of excommunication, but as a means by which we proactively care for and monitor our own lives and the lives of fellow members. So in pastoral care and counseling, it should be made clear to folks coming in for help that this counseling is part of a larger effort to care for a person’s soul in the context of a local church. So, whether you included in your consent form or verbally make it clear at the beginning of counseling, a person should be aware that counseling is a tool in the broader toolbox of church membership, and thus has implications for church discipline.

In terms of the final stages of church discipline, it’s really only practiced when there is clear and ongoing sin that a person is refusing to repent of. It must be substantiated by the evidence of others, and is used only after other forms of care have been exhausted.

Normally, the central criteria is not necessarily the gravity of the sin, but the presence or absence of repentance for that sin. So, a person could commit adultery and not be disciplined, while another person could be using pornography and be excommunicated—that is, if the adulterer is repentant and the pornographer is not. Even with second Corinthians 7 to guide us, genuine repentance is difficult to distinguish at times. But the greatest gauge is a pattern of seeking righteousness or of continuing to seek the sin. This is why discipline usually occurs after a period of time that allows for these patterns to be observed.

 How important is the practice of “listening” for pastoral counsel? How do you recommend a pastor hone and practice this skill?

Listening is one of the most vital skills of counseling, because we often give answers without understanding. He who gives an answer before he hears, that is his folly and shame, according to Proverbs 18:13. Unfortunately, pastors can be guilty of this in the worst way, because we are the Bible answer men. We tend to put things in the categories of our own thinking and experience, and this does not serve our people well.

Honing skill takes time, but here’s your guiding question: Are you able to understand and think from the categories of someone else’s perspective? A good way to hone this skill is to be a good listener in personal relationships, specifically with your spouse and children. If your wife thinks of you as a crummy listener, you probably won’t be much good in a counseling room. Also, reading literature about other eras or from other cultures often alerts us to worldviews and value systems that are very different than our own. It makes us sensitive to the fact that people see the world differently, and part of loving them well is understanding their particular read on the world.

 What do you mean by listening for folk’s “heart responses”?

Heart responses are simply the things we think about, the objects we want, and the choices we make. We have a deeply held beliefs that may or may not be accurate, we really want things that may or may not be God’s will for us, we are constantly making choices that show what we are pursuing in life. That’s the way the heart works. And the heart is constantly responding to the circumstances of life, other people, even ourselves these ways. Most importantly, they’re responding to God actively and constantly, whether they know it or not.

 When do you know the “problem” has been satisfactorily dealt with and requires no further intervention or counseling sessions? How many times should a pastor meet with someone before calling it quits?

This is a really good question, and requires a very detailed answer. We try to lay this out in our book so that a pastor has some guidance on when counseling has run its course. Generally speaking, there are positive and negative reasons for counseling to come to a close. Positively, a pastor may have the sense that a person may not have the problems solved, but they have the tools they need to respond well to them. In other words, they understand the gospel’s relevance and have demonstrated patterns of moving in the direction of God. Negatively, sometimes counseling just isn’t working. And the person maybe help better by someone else. But the encouraging thing even in the negative situation is that God may have used the pastor to plant seeds, or water seeds already planted, even if he was not the one to see the harvest come. There’s great encouragement in that.

 In the context of when seeking outside help is warranted, you state: “referral is not a handing off, but a problem-specific supplement to the biblical view of life you are responsible to instill.” Could you further elaborate on this statement?

What we mean by that statement is simply that you remain a person’s shepherd even if they end up seeing a specialist for unique problem. Your people always need help seeing life from an accurate biblical standpoint, and they need your help all the more went talking about the tender issues of who they are and why they experience what they experience.

So, for instance, a church member who’s a solider coming back from war may go through a significantly dark period of reacclimation—nightmares, flashbacks, unprovoked anger. They may benefit from talking to someone experienced with counseling PTSD. Specifically, they can benefit by that person alerting them to some of the common experiences of others who’ve gone through similar situations. This will alert them to potential warning signs they otherwise wouldn’t be aware to watch out for. It may else help them come up with some behavior-level coping strategies.

But only someone with a thoroughly biblical understanding of the nature of fear and death as the effects of the Fall, the current state of a world groaning for renewal, and the promises of eternal safety found only in the gospel can ultimately help this struggling person’s soul. What this church member needs is more than coping strategies. He needs help finding his Creator and Redeemer in this darkness. This is why a pastor is so important for the process of healing. The pastor is not satisfied with reacclimating a man into society as a mostly-functional citizen. A pastor wants a disciple of Jesus Christ clinging by faith to him, and showing the strength that comes only from a personal, ongoing relationship with the living God.

 What’s your advice to pastor’s gripped by the fear of failure when called into pastoral counseling?

My best advice is this: you’re going to fail. And your failure will not destroy anyone IF you clothe yourself with humility—that is, the willingness both to listen before speaking and to see your mistakes along the way. I frequently say to people, “I am not God and do not know everything about your life, but as I listen to your story, I think you may be missing something very important about whatever (about yourself, or about this particular relationship, or about God, for instance). Let me show you what God says about that in Scripture.”

The other thing I need to say is that God gives grace for every task he calls us to. If we are prayerful, if we are humble, if we are Word-saturated, these are indicators that God’s help is already with us and will be with us through the process. So I guess what I’m saying is, your confidence is not in yourself, but in God, who has given us his word to accurately understand the complexities of our lives.

Jeremy Pierre (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as chair of the department of biblical counseling and biblical spirituality as well the dean of students at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a pastor at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

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 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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