Sunday, June 18, 2017

Why Covenant Theology?

   As is readily apparent, the majority of content on this blog to date has either been explicitly about covenant theology of all varieties, or touching on that theme in some respect.  For those who know me best, or read this blog the most zealously (two categories whose Venn diagram I suspect resembles a circle), the question why that is the case is probably settled.  In the interest of reaching out to those who may have only just happened across "Notes", or visit infrequently, I'd like to try to answer that question in my own words.  Why covenant theology?  In the whole wide world of theology and the Bible, let alone all other things, why devote time and energy to internet posts on God's covenants with man?
 
   The answer to that why is threefold in nature.  There is the hermeneutical significance of CT: how our reading the Bible influences our view of the covenants, and, in one of the feedback loops common to the Christian walk, how our view thereof influences our reading of the Bible.  There is also the historical-theological significance: the role CT plays in being Reformed, or, for those non-Calvinists or non-CT adherents in the audience, the self-identity and place in history (that is to say, among and in relation to our fellow men) lent to you by your place outside the CT camp.  Finally, we have what I will term the personal/practical significance (although if you ever walk away from this blog feeling that hermeneutics and history have no personal or practical meaning, I will close up shop now).  How does our view of God's covenants with man influence our day-to-day walk with God in terms of growth in holiness, spiritual maturity, the sacraments, or prayer?  How (if at all) does CT shape how we as individual Christians relate to God?

  
Hermeneutics shape the Christian life as much or more as nearly all other theoretically "abstract" disciplines.  While there is much truth to the old saying Lex Orandi Lex Credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), in our literate age, it is just as true, if not more, that how one reads (specifically the Scriptures) shapes ones belief system.  Specifically, CT answers the following questions: 1) What is the law?  Does God has one law, or more than one?  How do Christians relate to the law today, and what parts of it, if any, are applicable as a canon for Christians?  2) What is the nature of progressive Revelation?  How does the Old Testament instruct the Christian today. and why?  How and why does the Bible abrogate or republish itself working from left to right?  3) To what degree does typology play a role in the grammatical-historical reading of Scripture?  What parts of the Bible have more than one application?  4) Perhaps most importantly, what story, or stories, is the Bible telling?  The first application for the answers to this question, or at least the most readily apparent, is eschatological, but there are other ramifications.  Simply put, without hermeneutics, the Christian walk is left as unshaped by Divine revelation as it would be if God remained silent.

   Covenant theology has been the underpinning of Reformed systematics at least since Witsius, and arguably dates all the way back to Calvin's Institutes.  The Reformed Confessions, particularly, but not exclusively the Westminster Standards, place CT at the heart not only of Reformed hermeneutics, but also, Reformed identity.  How one relates to the nature and place of the New Covenant in the historia salutis forms ones place in the often complex and turbulent denominational landscape of American Christianity, provides a link to one's historical forebears in theology, and in doing so, lends weight to one's standing as a member in the church Catholic, both living and historical.  At least in the Reformed camp, having, and being able to articulate, a position on CT is the most important part of being able to place oneself in history, feel truly connected to the history of the Church, avoid invention a personal hermeneutic at the price of lost consistency, and enables us to truly "stand on the shoulders of giants".

   Last but not least, CT, even apart from strictly heremeutical considerations, shapes how one lives and thinks and acts as a Christian.  It is worldview forming.  CT alters how we view the law, and therefore our approach to sanctification and holiness, how we view the OT, and thereby what parts of it we apply to our lives (and in what ways), how we view and practice the sacraments and their roles in the church, and can even shape how we deal with important issues like church and the family, apostasy, how we approach God in prayer, the role of elders and form of church government, and many other issues.  In other words, CT, as much as any discipline of systematic theology, touches the everyday walk and experience of the Christian and his local congregation in intimate, holistic ways.  This is no mere dry collection of rote facts to memorize, but part of growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord.  Few "abstract" theological fields will prove to touch as diverse elements of your life as you study them.

   Hopefully this brief survey has shed light on the emphases of this blog to date.  Hopefully posts will be coming with more regularity in the near future, many of them will be centered on, you guessed, studies and book reviews in comparative CT.  On the imminent docket: the next entry in my series on Federal Visionism, part one of a book review regarding the topic, and the beginning of may be a series introducing the issue of Republication of the Covenant of Works, and the ongoing controversy at Westminster West and East regarding that subject.  Prayer for diligence in writing would be appreciated, as I have much to do, and seemingly not enough time to accomplish it.

In Christ,

~JS

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Institutionalized: Calvin on the differences between the Mosaic and New administrations.

  "Let us now explain the apostle's contrast step by step.  The Old Testament is literal, because promulgated without the efficacy of the Spirit; the New spiritual, because the Lord has engraved it on the heart.  The second antithesis is a kind of exposition of the first.  The Old is deadly, because it can do nothing but involve the whole human race in a curse; the New is the instrument of life, because those who are freed from the curse it restores to favor with God.  The former is the ministry of condemnation, because it charges the whole sons of Adam with transgression; the latter the ministry of righteousness, because it unfolds the mercy of God, by which we are justified.  The last antithesis must be referred to the ceremonial Law.  Being a shadow of things to come, it behooved in time to perish and vanish away; whereas the Gospel, inasmuch as it exhibits the very body, is firmly established forever...When we consider the multitude of those whom, by the preaching of the Gospel, he has regenerated by his Spirit, and gathered out of all nations into the communion of his church, we may say that those of ancient Israel who, with sincere and heartfelt affections embraced the covenant of the Lord, were few or none, though the number is great when they are considered in themselves without comparison."~II.11.VIII

     Calvin having recently concluded his chapter on the similarities of the Old and New Testaments, in which he continues to lay what would later become the foundation for the WCF's "One Substance, Multiple Administrations" formula of CT, and establishes the Abrahamic as a promissorial administration of the Covenant of Grace, he goes on to write on the five "heads" of difference between the Testaments.  Whereas his chapter on similarity focused on the typical/promisssorial blessings on Abraham and the Patriarchs, his differences emphasize the Covenant of Law, e.g., the Mosaic administration, and that in the blood of Christ.  Specifically in section eight, Calvin outlines: 1) the contrast between the Mosaic Covenant as "literal" and the New as "spiritual".  Not that this is the juxtaposition the modern dispensationalist would have: there is no tension here for Calvin.  There is a spiritual reality in shadowy form in the Mosaic, and a "literal", in the sense of "real", element to the New (indeed, for Calvin, the New is more "real" than the shadowy/typological Old).  Rather, Calvin's emphasis is on the "do this and live" presentation of the Law, which does not, in itself, offer either unconditional promise, or gracious aid in seeking the reward (typologically represented in the Land promise, as Calvin explained earlier in the chapter).  This is contrasted with the pouring out and post-Pentecostal indwelling of the Spirit and it's writing of the moral law on the hearts of men.
2) The "deadly" element of the Mosaic administration is contrasted with the "life giving" promise of the Gospel.  Here we see the smallest germ, perhaps, of a republication concept long before Owen or Kline: the curse of the Law is a representation of the curse already borne by the descendant of Adam, the breaker of the Covenant of Works.
3) The eternality of the Gospel covenant in contrast with the temporary obsolescence of the Law.
4) The extent of the Gospel promise, not to one chosen nation, but in great numerical abundance to all the nations of the earth.

    Thus, Calvin sets the foundation to many of the arguments of Westminsterian CT long before the existence of the Standards, as the eternality, numerical superiority, Spiritual power, internalization, and life giving promise of the Gospel Covenant are set forward, contrary to the assertion that classical Covenant theology flattens the Covenant of Grace out into an undifferentiated admixture.

~JS

Thursday, March 31, 2016

On Suicide, Culture, and Self

"Q. 135. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any.
Q. 136. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others..."~Westminster Larger Catechism


   I wrestled for a significant period of time with mentioning that I have contemplated (not practiced) self-harm in the past.  Aside from the fact, which I should think obvious, that it is intrinsically something that is difficult to talk about for people who shun pity and embrace emotional privacy, there were a variety of reasons not to begin there.  The primary reason is that I personally consider it irrelevant.  Derivation of facts from personal experience is Gnostic, ergo, non-Christian.  Running parallel to this, a defining feature of post-modernity has been prefacing every commentary on a given topic by stating that one is privy to just such "personal truths", gained from experience, thereby filling the well with the concentrated arsenic of "don't you dare presume to tell me about (x), I have lived it."  As this is one of the many features of post-modernity I loathe with ever fiber of my being, please take my word at face value and accept that this is not a tactic I am employing.

   Reservations to the contrary aside, I decided to start there, because I do believe that while one does not need to be hit by a brick to know that it hurts, knowledge of the specific sort of pain we are discussing is, in fact, gained most readily from experience.  Therefore, I raise the issue to assure those who might read this who can't quite shake the impression that I am speaking to this issue from a place of pure and clinical detachment, that no, in fact, I am familiar with the experience of poor emotional health.

   Having thus presented my credentials at the threshold, I stride boldly into the room to announce to those within that the primary reason that I have never deliberately harmed myself (the adverb of volition playing an important role there) is that it is sinful.  There are many sinful things that I have done, including many heinous ones.  However, I believe that suicide, attempts thereunto, and physical self-harm exist on a moral plain that I shrink back from in fear.  This fear is nothing of me, and all of God: I would fear nothing in the realm of evil were it not for the hand of grace in my life, so do not think that I am looking to exalt myself over other people in this.   I have friends that have harmed themselves.  I have friends that have killed themselves.  I am no better than they.  I am no worse.  Sinners all, we are dependent on God for deliverance from the body of death.  Self-identifying as a sinner, however, even one touched by the struggles with depression, loneliness, or alienation that have affected countless others, is not going to stay my hand from speaking here as to why I believe that self-harm is wicked, to be repented of, and why it is a product of a dying culture.  For any who have stuck with me thus far who are offended, I do not demand you change your mind, only that you allow me to attempt to expose a fruitless deed of darkness without feeling that I am a hypocrite.


   Firstly, it must be said that self-harm is murderous, in the proper sense of the term, that is to say, a violation of the sixth commandment. The violation of the sixth commandment, when done pertinent to other people, is a derogation of God's right to be God, as all the Decalogue.  Specifically, it strikes at the precious gift of life that God has given to men, and it seeks to unmake what God has made in His own image.  In the case of self-harm and suicide, this impulse is wedded to a larger and more palpable expression of ingratitude, in that the gift and the image-marring are uniquely personal.  To harm oneself is to tell God that He was mistaken in making you, that His gifts are worthless, that His creative act is wrongheaded.  Like all violations of the law of God, it echoes the Garden impulse to believe that one knows better.

   Like all sin, this means that self-harm and suicide are acts of the ego, in other words, fundamentally selfish.  However, because these sins are viewed from the outside as negations or assaults on self, the selfishness is wrapped in a far greater degree of paradox than other categories of sin.  In order for one to violate God's law, to attempt to sit on His throne and say that it is our will that will be done, one must believe in the moment, however wrong-headed it may be, that one stands to gain from it.  How is selfishness visible in an attack on self?  Simply put, the person who commits suicide has already located self somewhere other than God's decree has.   The final act of rebellion may be an act of despair in that the person does not believe the act itself is gain per se, but the origin of the despair has been a transfer of one's self-worth, how what defines oneself, and what one lives for to something other than what God wants.

   One can see this pattern in the increasing number of tragic deaths in the West of recipients of "gender reassignment surgery", a process which is named for an impossibility from the decretal perspective of God.  Who and what God created a person to be has been exchanged, as in the first chapter of Romans, for a lie.  However, such a dramatic, and perhaps therefore, more obvious, example is merely a greater trend writ large.


   My generation is said to be the most anxious, most depressed, most medicated, and most suicidal generation of Americans to date.  While we did not unlock some secret category of sin, or transgress in some quantitatively different degree than our parents or ancestors, the worldview in which America, and the West generally is deluged has brought us to this.  Despite being more obsessed than any past people on Earth with "self-esteem" and "self-realization", objective metrics can demonstrate that Americans hate themselves more than ever.  And this is because the subjectivity of moral relativism has detached the anchor of self from the sea floor of objective truth.  Americans run hither and yon seeking identity in people, places and things.  Social media floods with stories of teenage girls who pop pills and slash wrists over social slights, and men who risk their lives with steroids to appear attractive to people they barely know.  For myself, it took a great deal of effort in high school to reconcile myself to not fitting in with peers, and another great deal of effort to transition to a single life after college.  Neither period was without temptations in the arena of self-destructive behavior.  Neither period was without outright sin in that regard either.  As fresh millions of adults embark on what are supposed to be the most stable years of their lives, they have left educational and recreational institutions fully sold out to the idea that there is no Creator God who values them and has a plan for them individually, and increasingly, self-conception becomes attached to money, sex, or, in my opinion most insidiously, the approval of others.

  It is there that I want to conclude, because the thing that grieves me most about the selfishness of self-harm, and the thing that I think needs to be impressed upon people who struggle with despair, is that it sets a terrible example.  This is leaving aside the already extreme impact that suicide or self-harm will have on a person's friends, family members, and significant others (and I have never met a person who was not loved by someone, if you are reading this, that includes you).  No matter what you are dealing with, to hurt yourself over it is to tell other people who may go through the same thing, including people who may be younger and weaker, that it is acceptable to give up.  In a world with an increasingly demagnetized moral compass, suicide is to tell someone else that their idols of prestige, insecurity or circumstances are worth giving up God's gift of life.  Other people do not define you.  Your faults and unfulfilled aspirations do not define you.  Your Creator defines you, and if you are a Christian, that definition cost more than you can know.  Repent.

   To those who read this all the way through, thank you.  I appreciate if it was less than fun to do so.  It was less than fun to write.  The "usual schedule" of Notes will resume tomorrow, God willing, with the scheduled Institutes column that was supposed to run today.  God bless.

~JS




Saturday, March 26, 2016

Institutionalized: The Resurrection and Cross indivisible.

   "Our salvation may be thus divided between the death and the resurrection of Christ: by the former sin was abolished and death annihilated; by the latter righteousness was restored and life revived, the power and efficacy of the former being still bestowed upon us by means of the latter...Let us remember therefore, that when death only is mentioned, everything peculiar to the resurrection is at the same time included, and that there is a like snecdoche in the term resurrection, as often as it is used apart from death, everything peculiar to death being included.  But as, by rising again, he obtained the victory and became the resurrection and the life, Paul justly argues, 'If Christ be not raised your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins"(1 Cor 15:17)...Then, as we have already explained that the mortification of our flesh depends on communion with the cross, so we must also understand, that a corresponding benefit is derived from his resurrection."~Institutes II.16.XIII
   Here, Calvin points out that it is impossible for the victory over sin and death to be accomplished without either the death of Christ, or His resurrection.  To such degree does Calvin believe these to be two sides of the same coin that he states that each could be said to be fully concealed in the mention of the other in the text of Scripture.  Why this is, Calvin outlines: the destruction of death and the power of sin can properly be said to belong to the domain of the Cross, as in Owen's famous "The Death of Death in the Death of Christ", while righteousness and newness of life can be said to be consequent to resurrection (Calvin goes on to note in this passage that Christ is the forerunner of resurrection on behalf of the redeemed).  This is not a pure split, however, and Calvin cites Paul to the Corinthians to remind us that the final triumph is not possible without the resurrection.

   The Christian faith in the work of Jesus cannot be divided piecemeal, so as to make him only the final and perfect sacrifice, or only the resurrected Lord of life.  While no groups I am aware of claim to do so to an exhaustive degree, there have been times when the emphasis in Rome has been too greatly on the Cross (as witnessed by the continued and widespread use of the crucifix), whereas the various emergent groups denying penal substitution appear to want, as best as they can manage, a bloodless gospel.  The irony in the former case is that the eucharistic theology of Rome empties the Cross of its power by making it a repetitious, non-perfecting work incongruent with a Savior who is ascendant and seated; the failure of the latter is an emergent unwillingness to deal with the reality of harsh realities of sin and the law brought to us by the Cross.  Calvin reminds us, on this Holy Saturday, that Jesus has offered a complete Gospel and a finished work.  As Paul said to the Corinthians before his proclamation of the resurrection's necessity, Christ is not divided, and neither is the atonement by His blood.

~JS

Internet Roundup: Politicized Evangelicalism, Gay Christianity, and more resources

In today's Roundup, we feature two databases of "free stuff", as well as a few specific pieces on topics of interest.

1) The Heidelblog wrote an article recently on infant baptism in the Reformed tradition and the notion that all baptism of very young children is Romanist in origin and theology.  I link to it less because I believe that my current readership believes this, but pretty much every American knows someone who does.

2) An old professor of mine linked to a very interesting article on the faiths of Republican presidential contestants this year, and what the demographics in American "evangelicalism" indicate about their support base.  While I hardly agree with all the conclusions drawn by the article (at the end, it strays into "pro-Rubio editorial" territory), my primary concern is to highlight a conclusion I think most practicing Christians could have drawn on their own, but has poll data to support it: the overwhelming burden of "evangelicals for Trump" can't be bothered to do things like regularly attend local churches.

3) Already linked on the Facebook page of my life group, I re-post here a thirty-minute sermon by Dr. John Piper on the abiding nature of the Sabbath.  Particularly relevant to the earlier post here on the Sabbath in the Reformed confessions, I was surprised, given Piper's Bapist and post-Pentecostal leanings, to have agreed with the content of Dr. Piper's message as much as I did.  While he did not use the words "single in substance, multiple in administration", his conclusions largely align with application of that principle to the cross-covenantal validity of the Sabbath.

4) Covenant Theological Seminary has a bunch of free resources that they want just an email address for (and they don't send a bunch of spam).  The majority of lectures for several of their courses are available on audio free of charge.

5) Monergism.com remains one of the most useful, and still updating, data-mines for Reformed reading online.  If you haven't visited already, now's your prompt.

6) Finally, we have a link to the (lengthy, no visuals) audio of Dr. James White's response to a talk given by pro-"Gay Christianity" presenter Matthew Vines.  As this may be the issue confronting the American church today, and Vines is representative of a wide swath of readings in the "non-traditional" camp, I highly recommend this audio response as a place to start for the bemused, confused, befuddled, or those running low on ammunition.

Hope you have a blessed Resurrection Sunday.  In addition to today's post, stay tuned for a minor glut of additional content presently in the works.

~JS

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Internet round-up: Rushdoony, Racism, and Romans.

   Time for another of Notes' internet round-ups, in which I share things that interest me from across the web.  In no particular order, then...

1) I may have already linked to R. Scott Clark's monthly webcast, the Heidelcast, before, but it's full archive is located here.  I started listening to episode 58 and following yesterday, on the topic of Nomism (legalism) and Antinomianism (the belief that the abiding validity of the moral law of God for the Christian today), and think that that series will be of great practical impact to believers (particularly as episode 58 contains a fairly comprehensive presentation of the Gospel in Romans), and also has a lot of tie-ins with material previously covered on this blog.  Check it out.

2) There has been a dust-up over accusations of racism in the wake of a (now-deleted) tweet and accompanying facebook post by James White on a particular millennial of minority descent that Dr. White observed in public.  Like moths to a flame, Joel McDurmon's involvement in the matter drew counter-accusations on the part of Pulpit and Pen including a firestorm of tweets and at least one blog post on racially charged statements made by the primary forefather of Reconstruction, RJ Rushdoony.  I would like to relink the statements cited by P and P here so as to demonstrate the source of the controversy, but I would also like to link to at least one piece by Rushdoony from the American Vision to attempt to demonstrate that the issue is not as clear-cut as either side, perhaps, would like it to be.  I'm going to stay out of the issue, at least for the time being, except to say that it is brutally damaging to the Reformed community to allow the rhetoric around race and racism typically harnessed by secular interests to divide brother against brother in the church.  I would also encourage folks who haven't actually read anything by Rushdoony to do so before jumping into Reconstruction-related issues.

3) Princeton has a multi-lingual library of the writings of Abraham Kuyper available online for free.  While the bulk of this material will be obscured from folks who don't speak Dutch or Latin, there is a wealth of English material available also, including several lecture series and his entire book "The Work of the Holy Spirit". 

Have a restful and holy Lord's Day.

~JS

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Wednesday feature column: "Institutionalized"

   Not only has post frequency dropped off recently, but I completely missed Saturday's installment of the round-up.  Which may be for the best, as I hadn't really happened upon anything fascinating that week anyway.  However, making up for this somewhat, I am launching a Wednesday evening tradition here at Notes that I will be calling "Institutionalized", wherein I will go over a passage from Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, and talk a little bit about it.  With no further introduction necessary, today's passage comes from the second book, "Of Christ the Redeemer".

"The saying of John was always true, 'whosoever denieth the Son, the same has not the Father' (1 John 2:23).  For though in old time, there were many who boasted that they worshiped the Supreme Deity, the Maker of heaven and earth, yet as they had no mediator, it was impossible for them to truly enjoy the mercy of God, so as to feel persuaded that He was their Father.  Not holding the Head, that is, Christ, their knowledge of God was evanescent; and hence they at length fell away to gross and foul superstitions, betraying their ignorance, just as the Turks in the present day who, though proclaiming, with full throat, that the Creator of heaven and earth is their God, yet by their rejection of Christ, substitute an idol in his place."  II.6.IV


   It has often been said that the Institutes are a book in which the ink appears not yet dry, and the number of times one can find things relevant to our day and time continually astonishes.  In chapter Six of the second book, Calvin has just given a brief overview of the various administrations of the Covenant of Grace, including Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic, and illustrated the need for the people of God for a Mediator, whether in the types and shadows of the sacrificial system, or the prophesied reign of the future seed of David.  Calvin states that this need of a Mediator was so central to the understanding of Israel, that although it was obscured by the machinations of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus assumed its importance.
    Calvin concludes that this centrality of the Mediator, and Christ's exclusive claim to that office of Mediation, is the background to 1 John 2:23.  He ends chapter Six with the Biblical death blow to two common intellectual ailments of postmodernity: firstly, the idea that Christ is one acceptable path to God among many, and secondly, the idea that Rabbinical Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, worship the same God.  Wheaton faculty protestation and Vatican II posturing to the contrary notwithstanding, to seek the Father without the Son is, for Calvin, the substitution of an idol in the Father's place.

~JS