Friday, September 29, 2006

The Charge of Romanism Recanted

The answer to our "Name That Exegete" quiz is (drumroll please...): Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI.

Please don't miss the irony (we Gen-Xers love this kind of thing):

Critics of the Federal Vision constantly claim that the so-called Auburn Avenue theologians are "on the road to Rome." But both contemporary Jewish and Roman Catholic theology, together with ancient Near Eastern archaeological studies, are all coming to the same conclusion, i.e., that there were two types of covenants operating throughout Old Testament times (suzerainty/vassal treaties and covenants of grant). Couple this together with the fact that FV and NPP proponents are arguing for the very opposite conclusion (that "covenant" is a kind of monolithic amalgam of grace plus obedience) and it suddenly appears that the charge of insipid Roman Catholicism against our FV brethren may be unfounded after all.

Since confessional Reformed theology has been arguing all along (echoing Paul) that law and gospel must never be mixed or conflated, it appears that both Jerusalem and Rome may be "on the road to Geneva."

Name that Exegete

Either out of homage to Riddleblog or just to balatantly steal Kim's idea, I'll post the following quote to see if any of you can guess who said it. And please: no Googling....

"[Paul] sees the covenant made with Abraham as the real, fundamental, and abiding covenant; according to Paul, the covenant made with Moses was interposed (Rom 5:20) 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant (Gal 3:17); it could not abrogate the covenant with Abraham but constituted only an intermediary stage in God’s providential plan....

"Thus Paul distinguishes very sharply between two kinds of covenants that we find in the Old Testament itself: the covenant that consists of legal prescriptions and the covenant that is essentially a promise, the gift of friendship, bestowed without conditions.... [T]he Sinai covenant in Exodus 24 appears essentially as ‘the imposition of laws and obligations on the people.’ ... By contrast, the covenant with the Patriarchs is regarded as eternally in force. Whereas the covenant imposing obligations is patterned on the vassal contract, the covenant of promise has the royal grant as its model. To that extent Paul, with his contrast between the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Moses, has rightly interpreted the biblical text (emphasis added)."

I'll post the answer later this evening. And yes, there's irony involved....

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Trickle-Down Missionomics

Does the emphasis upon (or infatuation with) "the city" that men like Tim Keller display strike any of you as odd? The city, so the argument goes, is the hub of culture, and if the city can be won, the ripple effects will reach the towns and villages.

It reminds me of President Reagan's "trickle-down economics," according to which the opulence of the wealthy will eventually benefit everyone else.

What should we make of this? Is our goal to transform society, and if so, is the city integral to reaching that goal? Why does the Bible use so much agrarian imagery if it's the city that is central to God's redemptive plan?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Isn't It Ironic (Don'tcha Think)?

Perhaps one of the sternest warnings in all the New Testament is found in Hebrews 6:4-8. I'd like to highlight the most common interpretations of this pasage, and then throw in an interesting take on it and get your thoughts.

One obvious way of tackling this passage involves biting the bullet and admitting that the people in question were once Christians, but that they lost their salvation (a view once associated almost solely with Arminianism, but which has been adopted, in a qualified form, by proponents of the Federal Vision).

The view that most Calvinists espouse is that the blessings mentioned (enlightenment, having tasted of the heavenly gift, having shared in the Holy Spirit, and having tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come) are common, rather than saving, blessings. In other words, all these things can be said about the hypocrite who, like Judas, progressed quite far in the Christian life but who never truly exercised saving faith.

But a slightly different interpretation has been suggested by R. Fowler White. His position is as follows:

The writer to the Hebrews is attributing actual saving blessings to actual apostates (which is the most natural reading of the passage), blessings that were legitimately ascribed when the apostate initially believed. Although at the end of the day, if the apostate remains in his condition, these blessings would never have been his true possession, we're not at "the end of the day" but in the middle of it. The writer, therefore, was not in a position to know the apostate's heart, only his original profession and his current state. He then takes these into account and employs "reproachful irony" in order to bring out the danger being flirted with (Mark 2:17; Matt. 8:12).

White argues:
"On the premise that the faith of their audiences was covenantally credible, the [New Testament] writers ascribed to them all sorts of blessedness.... On the premise that the faith of their audiences was undifferentiated, the writers exhorted their audiences to perseverance (and were covenantally bound to do so), with promise of everlasting blessedness for perseverance, and warning of everlasting curse for apostasy" (The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, 213, emphasis added).


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Threaten Ye, Threaten Ye My People

In his contribution to The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, PCA pastor Steve Wilkins, writing in defense of the Federal Vision, says of Paul's words in Romans 8:28-34:

"Paul is not stating promises [of divine foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification] that are true only for some unknown group called the 'elect.' ... Rather, he is applying these promises to all members of the Church who have been baptized and united to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6). Yet, in spite of these clear affirmations of their elect status, Paul does not hesitate to warn them against the possibility of apostasy."
Later in the same essay, Wilkins unpacks the last stament in this way:
"The elect are those who are faithful in Christ Jesus. If they later reject the Savior, they are no longer elect -- they are cut off from the Elect One and thus, lose their elect standing. But their falling away doesn't negate the reality of their standing prior to their apostasy. They were really and truly the elect of God because of their relationship with Christ" (emphasis mine).
My reason for highlighting these passages is to demonstrate what happens when we simply see the Mosaic Covenant as "the gospel before Christ." The precarious status of national Israel as God's elect people, which was contingent upon their keeping of the law, is made to be the normative paradigm for the New Covenant people of God (complete with the threat of disinheritance and forfetiture of adoption).

And if one responds by saying that, since all covenants are "gracious," we should see Moses as pre-Christian gospel, I would ask whether what our Federal Vision brothers are offering is really "grace" at all. When, under the guise of trying to alleviate the doubts of God's people, I am told that if I don't display sufficient covenant faithfulness I will lose the blessings of election and union with Christ, well, the "comfort" of the message is lost on me.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Danger of Monocovenantalism

The question I raised at the end of my last post concerned how the monocovenantalism of the Federal Vision can affect how we think about the danger of, and remedy for, apostasy. (By "monocovenantalism" I mean the idea that man, from creation onward, has been in one continuous, gracious covenant with God.)

As an example of warning against apostasy, the epistle to the Hebrews cites the unfaithfulness of Old Testament Israel as a challenge to us today. In 3:12 - 4:11 we are exhorted not to fail to enter God's rest through sinful unbelief like the wilderness wanderers did, for though "the good news came to them, the message they heard did not benefit them" because of their unbelief (4:2).

What is crucial to understand is that the "rest" to which Israel aspired in Old Testament times was a type of the true, heavenly rest that Adam sought. And further, Israel's gaining or losing of that Sabbath rest, like Adam's, was contingent upon their obedience to God's law (Deut. 28:1-6).

Or to make my point more clear: Both the Adamic and Mosaic covenants were administered according to the legal principle, "Do this and live."

The antitype of Adam and Israel, of course, is Jesus Christ, the second Adam and faithful Israelite (Rom. 5:12ff; John 15:1ff). As the fulfillment of all the types and shadows of Old Testament times, he succeeded where his predesessors failed and faithfully earned the right to enter into his Father's Sabbath rest as our Champion and Forerunner.

While the danger of apostasy is still present and very real, the difference between our situation and that of Israel's is seen precisely at this point. Their "covenant faithfulness" was the basis for their enjoyment of Canaan, while our enjoyment of our heavenly homeland is the covenant faithfulness of Christ. Even the saving faith that we must exercise is provided for us as part of the "grace-by-faith" salvation that comes to us by virtue of the Abrahamic promise (Eph. 2:8-9).

The mistake of our Federal Vision brothers, it seems to me, is that they collapse two things that Paul keeps distinct, namely Israel's enjoyment of the earthly blessings of the Mosaic covenant, which was precarious and uncertain, and our enjoyment of the "spiritual blessings in the heavenly places" that Christ procured for us, which couldn't be more secure.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Law, Gospel, and Apostasy

In his essay entitled "Why the Law-Gospel Paradigm is Flawed" Rich Lusk writes:

"... [T]he Mosaic law was simply the gospel in pre-Christian form. Or, to put it another way, the New Covenant is just the Old Covenant in mature, glorified form. The Torah is an earlier chapter in the same glorious Christ-centered story of grace and blessing."
And in his essay "The Tenses of Justification" he argues:

"... [W]orks do not justify in their own right since they can never withstand the scrutiny of God’s inspection. But we will not be justified without them either. They are not merely evidential (e.g., proof of our faith), but even causal or instrumental ("means") in our final salvation. Faith is the sole instrument of initial justification, but faith comes to be perfected by good works" (emphasis mine).

If "the Mosaic law is just the gospel in pre-Christian form" as our brother argues, then that would seem to have some pretty important ramifications for New Covenant living, not the least of which is the seemingly unconfessional idea that works play a "causal" role in our final justification.

As we begin to look at the (very real) danger of apostasy, my initial question is:

How may the notion that New Covenant saints are in essentially the same covenantal condition as the saints of Old Covenant times—particularly with respect to our need to keep the law to be justified—affect how we think about the possibility of, and remedy for, apostasy?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

We Can Work It Out

The more I consider the issues we have been discussing -- particularly the relationship of works to faith and law to gospel -- the more I realize the importance of properly distinguishing between the Mosaic and Abrahamic covenants.

Although many proponents of the Federal Vision see the same dynamic existing across the covenantal spectrum (a strange mixture of grace on the one hand and threat of curse on the other), the truth is that the works principle ("Do this and live") that characterized the Adamic and Mosaic covenants (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12; cf. Lev. 18:5) is in direct opposition to the grace principle that is found in the Abrahamic covenant. As Paul writes:

"Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.... For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void." Rom. 4:4-5, 13-14
Abraham's good works that he clearly displayed by "not staggering at God's promise through unbelief" contributed in no way whatsoever to his securing of the promised blessing, for if they did, "he would have something of which to boast" (vv. 20, 1-2). If Paul is at all coherent here, he is saying that the law, which did promise blessing for obedience, could not have been the means of the promise's fulfillment without completely overthrowing the graciousness of the arrangement (v. 16).

There is no question, of course, that all God's covenantal arrangements include an important place for works. But the specific role that works play in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants could not be more different. In the latter, they are the means to secure the (typological) blessing. In the former, they are the necessary result of Christ having secured the (eternal) blessing for us.

So here's my question: Which of these two covenantal arrangements most resembles the dynamic of life under the New Covenant?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Grace Everywhere = Grace Nowhere

I can certainly appreciate the irony displayed by a Calvinist (who is supposed to be all about grace) making such a fuss about the covenant of works. But what many don't understand is that, divine grace notwithstanding, the only way any person can be saved is by works.

You see, if it is wrong to insist that pre-fallen Adam's obedience would have entitled him to eternal life, then the same must be true of the second Adam, Jesus Christ. But if our Lord's obedience to his Father did not earn eternal life for his people, then this means that God's Law has yet to be satisfied, and at the end of the day, It is not "finished" after all.

Kline writes:
"The irony of all this is that a position that asserts a continuum of 'grace' everywhere ends up with no genuine gospel grace anywhere. An approach that starts out by claiming that a works principle operates nowhere ends up with a kind of works principle everywhere. What this amounts to is a retreat from the Reformation and a return to Rome."
The reason for so adamant a stance is due to the fact that if the works principle ("Do this and live") that summed up both the Edenic and Sinaitic covenants is still hanging over the heads of God's New Covenant people, then the "works" that confessional Reformed theology has insisted were meritoriously accomplished by our Mediator are now our resonsibility to perform.

So Kline is right: We are saved by works after all. But whose?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

From Lack of Plight to Solution?

I have a question that I'm hoping a lurking Federal Vision proponent can clear up for me:

If neither the Adamic nor Mosaic arrangements were legal covenants of works, then to which covenant is the covenant of grace the antithesis?

Our Reformed dogmaticians have been divided about whether the Old (Mosaic) Covenant was essentially gracious or legal, with divines at the Westminster Assembly holding to both positions. But even those who insisted that the Mosaic covenant was simply an administration of the covenant of grace clearly saw the Adamic covenant as being a covenant of works.

Thus, irrespective of whether the Law/Gospel antithesis was couched in Moses/Christ or Adam/Christ language, there was a Law/Gospel antithesis.

But if both the Edenic and Sinaitic dispensations were essentially gracious (because the creatureliness of [fallen and unfallen] man precludes his earning anything from his Maker), then where's the law, where's the bad news, where's the question to which Jesus is the answer, the problem to which he is the solution?

With all our talk of "relevance" in the Church today, one would think that if our cardinal message fails to identify a crisis to solve, then perhaps we're more irrelevant than we ever dared imagine.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Skip the Apple Tree, Go Straight to Heaven!

Another common objection to the idea that unfallen Adam's obedience to God would have earned him eternal life is from the so-called "disproportionality" between his obedience and the stipulated reward. How could gaining heaven by not eating an apple be a matter of simple justice? Surely grace must be involved, right?

There are a few problems with this objection....

First, it posits a standard of "justice" outside of God to which he is held accountable. Think about it: If he promises to bestow x upon man if he does y, who are we to insist that x is a disproportionate reward to the value of y's service? Shouldn't the fact that it is God who came up with the arrangement be sufficient to demonstrate that the ratio of obedience to reward is just right?

Secondly, if the promise of eternal life for conformity to God's commands is too good a blessing for the obedience rendered, then it must follow that the threat eternal death that Adam actually did earn was too harsh a curse for the disobedience rendered. If the prize is too "gracious" then the punishment must be too strict. And either way, God fails to live up to the standard of fairness that we subject him to.

And finally, if the first Adam's reward of eternal life for himself and his seed would have been too glorious a prize for his mere creaturely obedience to gain, then wouldn't it also follow that the second Adam's earning of the same blessing is also too magnanimous a reward for his obedience? Or conversely, if Jesus' obedience to his Father was indeed meritorious, then doesn't it seem like the "reward" he earned was something of a letdown?

In the first instance, the obedience of both Adams is insufficient to earn the heavenly crown. In the second case, the sufficiency of Jesus' work earned him a miserly inheritance that barely seems worth the hassle of being crucified for.

Friday, September 01, 2006

What Can You Give to the God Who Has Everything?

One of the objections mentioned in my previous post to the concept of a pre-fall "covenant of works" is from the impossibility of enriching God or adding to his own glory. Did not Jesus himself teach us to say, after we have done all our duty, that we are still "unprofitable servants" who deserve no praise or pats on the back (Luke 17:10)?

While it is true that we can never out-do ourselves or go beyond our covenant obligations (God doesn't need any favors), it does not follow from this that Adam's works could not have been meritorious or praiseworthy. After all, it is precisely by obeying God's commands that he is said to be pleased:
"By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit" (John 15:8).

If "the chief end of man is to glorify God," and if one of the ways we accomplish this is by doing what he says, then it would seem to follow that the objection that Adam could never have added to God's eternal blessedness is beside the point. If God says that our obedience makes him happy, then it would be a prudent course of action to just obey him rather than to ponder how an already-full glass of water can have more added to it.

Kline summarizes this well:
"Just as disobedience earns a display of God's negative justice in the form of his curse, so obedience earns a manifestation of God's positive justice in the form of his blessing. This is simple justice."

As I'll demonstrate in my next post, it's the opponents rather than proponents of traditional covenant theology that are often guilty of a subtle rationalism that gets in the way of the biblical text.

How's that for irony...?