Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Defense of Single-Fulfillment Christ-Centered Prophecy

And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me

Luke 24:44

            The entirety of Scripture centers on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is its Author and Scope, and plainly testifies that He has been revealed in the Old Testament thousands of years before His incarnation. Yet, the precise way He is revealed there has become a contentious issue in modern scholarship. Many scholars struggle to see Him in the texts that Christ and His Apostles declare to prophecy Him, and those scholars have come up with various ways of explaining how those texts may be messianic. Michael Rydelnik compiled a list of their various theories, which include sensus plenior (or dual fulfillment), typical fulfillment, epigenetic fulfillment, relecture fulfillment, and midrash fulfillment. All of these have advocates today in the evangelical academy.[1]

            Fortunately, we have not been left to ourselves to develop the best method of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit has testified, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tm. 3:16-17). As Sam Waldron shows, the phrase, “man of God,” is used in the Bible to designate a minister or spokesman of God, so these verses are especially stressing the sufficiency of Scripture to equip God’s under-shepherds for all their duties.[2] Therefore, we can trust that Scripture shows us how to preach Christ from itself, because rightly handling the word of truth to minister the Lord Jesus is one of the primary duties of the man of God. If Scripture did not equip the pastor to preach Christ from the largest part of the Bible – the only Bible Christ’s original disciples had to preach from – then its claims of sufficiency for the man of God would be moot.

            We, therefore, must reject out of hand those approaches that deny we should follow the hermeneutical method used by Christ and His Apostles in favor of methods grounded only in human reason. Graeme Goldsworthy rightly asks, “If we cannot determine our hermeneutics of the Old Testament from the way Jesus, the apostles and the inspired authors of the New Testament interpreted it, have we any firm basis at all on which to proceed?”[3] We must embrace the method that our risen Lord gave to His disciples that they subsequently carried out (Lk. 24:44).  This method is not fully consistent with either the grammatical-historical approach (as most commonly applied) or even sensus plenior, but rather is best identified with what is sometimes known as the pre-critical, direct fulfillment approach. This approach is not only what appears in the pages of the New Testament, but also is the consensus of Christian commentaries before the modern era and – in my experience – it still dominates the pews.

            The topic of Old Testament prophecy regarding New Testament realities is often prejudiced as a conundrum, as if the majority of God’s people struggle to find Jesus in the texts the New Testament finds Him in.[4] But a survey of church history suggests that it was not the norm to have such a difficulty, and even today, my own experience has found that laymen receive the Old Testament prophecies with joy. The difficulties, I believe, largely stem from certain unbiblical presuppositions that have crept into modern scholarship rather than any true difficulty in seeing Christ in the Old Testament. As such, this paper requires us to first approach those presuppositions, including a brief exploration of the nature of inspiration and prophecy. Next, a few examples of the New Testament interpreting the Old Testament using biblical presuppositions will be provided, demonstrating the precedent the Bible establishes for the direct fulfillment view. Finally, an example of what it looks like to rightly interpret messianic prophecy will be given and contrasted with other approaches.

Scripture as true revelation

            Today, the prophetic writings are often treated as if they were little more than theological reflections by the prophet under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, while not denying the role of the Divine, many evangelical interpreters nevertheless imply that the prophetic writings have a real genesis in the minds of the prophets, who have a personal intention in their prophecies with an eye to having a specific effect on their immediate audience. Some evangelicals, like Francis Foulkes, will even say that their predictive capability often largely depends “on the warnings, the promises of the covenant, and on the fact that prophets were convinced that, as God had done in the past, so He would do in the future.”[5] This heavy emphasis on the role of the human author is quite contrary to treatments of inspiration by earlier men like John Owen, who says,

“The doctrines they [the human writers of Scripture] delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the prophecies of gospel times they gave out and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasonings, not retained in their memories from what they heard, not by any means beforehand comprehended by them, (1 Pet. 1:10, 11,) but were all of them immediately from God … Their tongue in what they said, or their hand in what they wrote, was עֵט סוֹפֵר, no more at their own disposal than the pen is in the hand of an expert writer.”[6]

To modern ears, Owen’s heavy emphasis on the primacy of the Divine author may be so jarring that it sounds like mechanical dictation theory. But it cannot be rightly classified as such, because Owen’s view does not include a suspension of the writer’s faculties in the process of inscripturation – he says in the same spot that the process included “a passive concurrence of their rational faculties in their reception.”[7] Rather than suspending their faculties, Owen confesses that God “acted their faculties, making use of them to express his words, not their own conceptions.”[8] In fact, while he denies Scripture is ever truly a product of the writers’ memories, he does not even deny that the Spirit would use their memories in their writings on occasion (cf. Lk. 1:1-4).[9] Owen’s point is simply that Scripture is not a result of men plumbing their own memories and thoughts to get across their own message. Rather, Scripture is a result of God speaking immediately in His human authors to get across His ideas and His words, which may have sometimes involved the confirmation of their memories and the use of vocabulary suitable to His instruments.

Scripture’s own attestation to its origin confirms Owen’s view. Not every book or genre of books in the Bible is equally clear in how the Divine author crafted it, but the prophets – which we will mostly concern ourselves with here – are quite explicit. Suffice it to say for the other books, they are equally described as the product of the supernatural breath of God (2 Tm. 3:16).

 When we take the words of the prophets at their face value, they do not at all suggest that their message is their own theological musings meant to accomplish their own agenda. Rather, they repeatably say, “a vision appeared unto me” and “the word of the LORD came unto me,” emphasizing that their message came to them externally. It was no vague internal impression of being led to say something; it was so tangible that, for Jonah, the word of the LORD was like a physical location that he thought he could flee from (Jon. 1:1-3). This has led many to understand that the phrase, “the word of the LORD came unto me,” is actually a reference to the pre-incarnate Word speaking to the prophets. This interpretation is strengthened by the New Testament witness, which states that the prophets were communicated to by the Spirit of Christ Himself (1 Pet. 1:11).

Far from getting across their own thoughts, the prophets sometimes would express bewilderment over their message and their ministry. Daniel often did not understand his visions, and when he asked for understanding at the end of his prophecies he was denied, “for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9). Jeremiah had no motivation to speak himself, but God said, “whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak” (Jer. 1:6-7). The very structure of Jeremiah (and several other prophets) reflects what one would expect if he was simply faithfully recording the messages delivered to him rather than presenting his own work; scholars have had a notoriously difficult time constructing an outline for that book, with some giving up on the idea of making an outline at all.[10]  Ezekiel was forbidden to say anything on his own and would only be allowed to speak when God supernaturally opened his mouth and gave him words to say (Ezek. 3:27). He also clearly did not choose the way he would be used to express God’s message symbolically, which is proven by his petition to God to change what he was instructed to do (Ezek.4:13-15). That the prophets were not expressing their own minds is likewise confirmed by the New Testament, which says, “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The Bible denies that prophecy came in any way that would make it come by the will of man. Rather, the God of Scripture suddenly and powerfully makes Himself known to His prophets in various ways, instructing them what to write and what to speak through the influence of His Holy Spirit in them.

If the message neither came from the prophet’s mind nor was necessarily understood by them, it follows that the message was not necessarily given to be understood by the immediate audience either. This is rather explicit in Isaiah, where God tells Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not” (Is. 6:9). The message was not given to be understood by its hearers, but served as a testimony against them, revealing their hardened hearts and blind eyes until the coming judgement (Is. 6:10-12). Ezekiel’s audience likewise did not understand him and said of him, “Doth he not speak parables?” (Ezek. 20:49). Again, Daniel was told that his visions were sealed up until the end, and this was certainly no less true for his immediate audience than for himself. Aside from Moses and the One who would be a prophet like Moses, God said that some obscurity would be a trademark of prophecy (Num. 12:6-8). There is nothing indicating that it was normative for prophecy to be fully understood in the context it was given in.

The New Testament is unambiguous that the Old Testament prophecies did not fully reveal the subject matter they addressed. Scripture says it was revealed to the prophets, “that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Pet. 1:12). It further testifies that, without the light of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament was read with a veil on, and still is by those who do not read through the lens of His revelation (2 Cor. 3:14-15). It describes the revelation of Jesus Christ as a “mystery…which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:3,5). As the Expositor’s Greek New Testament notes, the “as” (ὡς) of Ephesians 3:5 has a comparative force,[11] indicating that while the mystery was given to the Old Testament saints, it was not revealed to them with the clarity of the New Testament era – it was a mystery.  These passages teach us both that the prophets were prophesying of New Testament realities and that those realities were not fully revealed to them. Each of their writings will be somewhat cryptic if viewed alone.

It has been necessary to defend these conclusions because they contradict what is taken for granted by much of contemporary scholarship: namely, the conclusions contradict the presupposition that Old Testament prophecies were given to be plainly understood by the original audience and that therefore an exegesis considering only the immediate, human context of each text is sufficient to determine its meaning. It is understandable that scholars who hold to this have difficulty finding Christ in the Old Testament, because that presupposition comes close to ruling out the possibility of Him being there in the first place, especially when it is combined with a tendency to almost reduce inspiration to a bare providential phenomenon. Scripture, however, presents its composition as a miraculous intrusion of the Primary Cause into the normal workings of the secondary causes to form a self-sufficient Book. Accordingly, we are free to give up the task of reconstructing what we think the prophet may have intended in his local context through the use of scant secondary material, because the rest of Scripture provides sufficient interpretive light. The Bible claims God – not the human instrument – supplies the meaning of the text, and that His concern is not for the immediate audience alone, but also for His Church in all ages, especially His New Testament saints reading in light of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. When we do this, we will begin reading the Old Testament like the Apostolic Church did.

Scripture’s interpretation of Scripture

            Having established that Scripture is fundamentally God’s words with a prophetic bent towards the revelation of Jesus Christ, we will see that Scripture indeed exercises those hermeneutics. Naturally, the New Testament provides us with the best and clearest examples of how to preach Christ out of the Old Testament, but even in the Old Testament we see the hermeneutical principles established, which we will first explore. We see, for instance that the typological events accompanying the message of prophecy were not seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy. Scripture teaches that the destruction and abandonment coming on God’s people because of the curse of the Law would be followed by Him bringing them out of all nations, circumcising their hearts, pouring out His Spirit on them, and causing them to obey His commandments under His peace and perpetual blessing (e.g., Dt. 30:1-6, Ezek. 36:24-27, Jer. 31:31-34). Given the emphasis on this message by the prophets prior and during the Babylonian exile, one may make the mistake of thinking that the exile and the return from it are the fulfillment of those prophecies. However, one can see in the post-exile prophecy of Malachi, for example, that these things have yet to be fulfilled. Far from having circumcised hearts, the prophecy bashes the corruptions of the Levitical priests, and the prophet hangs the threat of the curse over them and Judah (Mal. 3:4-5, 11-12, 4:6). The promise of the perpetual blessing still awaited fulfillment. Thus, when we see events near the time of the prophecies that in some ways resemble their fulfillment (but in other ways fall short), we should conclude that they are not true fulfillments of those prophecies, but rather types pointing to their real fulfillment.

While Scripture never acknowledges dual fulfillments when interpreting previous revelation, it does acknowledge types, which is another area where the Old Testament sanctions forward-looking, messianic hermeneutics. Like the New Testament, the Old Testament treats the events of B.C. history as absolutely historical, but nevertheless understands those events as foreshadowing the future. Psalm 78, for example, traces the working of God in redemptive history and shows how His previous works point to and culminate in the establishment of the throne of David (ultimately, the throne of the Messiah) and that at that throne we finally find blessing. In Jeremiah, likewise, God marks the redemption out of Egypt as pointing to the greater deliverance He will accomplish by the hand of the Messiah, and that only then would the prophesied deliverance of God’s people from all nations truly occur (Jer. 23:5-8). Thus, the Old Testament itself is sufficient to provide the Christological hermeneutics exercised in the New Testament.

            Turning now to the New Testament, the Old Testament prophecies likewise are never depicted as having multiple fulfillments – a near and a far one – but only one, centered on Jesus and His inauguration of the last days. This highly Christological hermeneutic follows from an understanding that the Old Testament is first and foremost God’s words. Since God is not chiefly concerned with isolated, historical events for their own sakes, but rather is chiefly concerned with magnifying His Son for whom all of history was created (cf. Jn. 5:20-23, Col. 1:16), it follows that all Old Testaments Scripture ultimately ties back to Him who is the true Apple of God’s eye. Thus, in the New Testament, even the precise choice of words is demonstrated to have predictive, Christological significance and Christ is shown to be the key to understanding otherwise obscure passages in previous revelation. An example of each of these will suffice.

            In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek is one of the many Old Testament events cited as prophesying Christ and His priestly work. The original passage in Genesis makes no explicit reference to the Messiah (Gen. 14:17-24), but Hebrews follows the already scriptural pattern of Psalm 110 in identifying the episode as Messianic. This follows because the Bible is about Christ, and so Scripture gives us the example that it is not so much a matter of proving whether a given passage relates to Him, but understanding how it relates to Him. In the case of Hebrews, there is an insistence that it is not only the subject matter of a passage that is important, but also the manner in which it is presented. Hebrews tells us, “[Melchizedek is] without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (Heb. 7:3). The author is not saying that Melchizedek literally had no father or mother, but simply that the way narrative frames him makes him “like unto the Son of God.” God here tells us, then, that it is significant that He did not introduce Melchizedek as “the son of [X]” in Genesis 14. He crafted the narratives of His people’s history in a precise way to point ahead to the fulfillment of everything in Jesus Christ.

            Acts 2 gives us the principle that when the words of the Old Testament do not fit a local referent, we should look to Christ as our hermeneutical key. Peter references Psalm 16, where the writer is said to have been delivered from Hades with his flesh saved from corruption. Rather than having a sensus plenior perspective, Peter bluntly points out that David “is both dead and buried,” and so it could not have been about David; it is a prophecy of Christ, who spoke through David (Acts 2:29-30). Many other psalms and several places in the prophets share that feature of no local referent sharing the characteristics of the subject speaking, with the characteristics only perfectly matching Christ. In such cases, the Bible uses prosopological exegesis.[12] This method was embraced even by pre-Christian Jewish commentators to recognize messianic texts.[13]

Case study: Accurately interpreting 2 Samuel 7:4-17

            Lastly, we will examine what it looks like to freshly apply the principles we have defended to an Old Testament passage, noting dissimilarities with other methods along the way. 2 Samuel 7:4-17 is a classic go-to text for establishing the Davidic covenant. In it, David is promised that he would have an heir to establish his throne forever and build God a house. But who is that heir? One perspective would say that Solomon alone is in view and that he simply typifies the Messiah, another would say that both Solomon and Christ are in view (the human author seeing an immediate fulfillment in Solomon with God intending a greater fulfillment in Christ), whereas the view defended here contends that Christ alone is the referent of this prophecy, and that Solomon only typifies the fulfillment. I take this perspective because it is aligned with the biblical hermeneutics already discussed and because Solomon frankly could not be said to fulfil several aspects of this prophecy. Most glaringly, Solomon did not establish David’s throne forever, as the Son in question is promised to do (2 Sam. 7:13,16). Some argue that “forever” (עוֹלָֽם) sometimes does not literally mean without end, but just like the English word, “forever,” circumstances reveal when this is the case. When we say something will last “forever,” there is an implicit exception if it subsists in a greater, perishable organism. This can be seen in the case of practices part of the perishable Mosaic Covenant and also in the case of the voluntary Hebrew slave, who is said to be his master’s “for ever” (Dt. 15:17). For the slave, an unspoken terminating condition of this “for ever” would be the perishing of a greater organism that the master-slave relationship exists in – e.g., the life of the master or slave. This unspoken condition is understood in Hebrew and English and should not lead us to assume that “forever” may merely mean “a long time” apart from the clear presence of similar unspoken conditions. Far from having contingency in a perishable organism, this promise for an everlasting throne was the latest step in God’s eternal, unconditional, and trans-covenantal promise to provide a Seed to permanently redeem mankind from the forces of evil, even using the same word as found in Genesis 3:15 for “seed” (2 Sam. 7:12). This promise was previously narrowed down to a Seed from the line of Abraham (Gen. 17:7), then the line of Judah (Gen. 49:10), and now it is further narrowed down to the line of David. But Solomon did nothing to establish this everlasting throne, but merely received his throne from David and passed it on to a son that he so ill-equipped for leadership that the kingdom was almost immediately divided afterwards, perishing altogether within a few hundred years. Hence, the prophecy advises us to look to someone in the future, to One who would only be set on the throne after David had died and gone to “sleep with [his] fathers” (2 Sam. 7:12). This is in contrast to Solomon, of whom David remarks, “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, which hath given one to sit on my throne this day, mine eyes even seeing it” (1 Kings 1:48). For these reasons and several others, Augustine remarks, “He who thinks this grand promise was fulfilled in Solomon greatly errs.”[14]

Conclusion

            The biblical presentation of inspiration helps to make sense of a passage like 2 Samuel 7:4-17. When we understand that the prophet Nathan was not expressing thoughts he had formulated beforehand, but rather was being a faithful ambassador of the Lord, it is understandable how the prophecy did not fit anyone in their lifetime but rather fits only the One the Father is committed to exalting in Scripture. These biblical presuppositions allow us to straight-forwardly preach Christ from the Old Testament alongside the Apostles and Christ Himself.

Note: the above essay was originally written by me for a class at CBTS.


[1] Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 28-32.

[2] Sam Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: EP Books, 2016), 57-58.

[3] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 106.

[4] For example, see Jonathan Lunde, “An Introduction to Central Questions in the New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 7.

[5] Francis Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 15-16.

[6] John Owen, Of the Divine Original of the Scriptures, in The works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 16 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 298. Logos.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Owen, Book III, in The works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 133. Logos.

[9] Ibid, 132.

[10] Peter Y. Lee, “Jeremiah” A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, ed. M. V. Van Pelt, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 280. Logos.

[11] W. Robertson Nicoll, “Commentary on Ephesians 3” The Expositor’s Greek Testament. (New York, NY: George H. Doran Company, 1897), accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/egt/ephesians-3.html.

[12] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018). 192-201.

[13] For example, see the messianic citation of Isaiah 61:1-3 in 11QMelch: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11” Journal of Biblical Literature 86:1 (1967), 28, accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3263241?seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[14] Augustine, City of God, ed. Philip Schaff and trans. Marcus Dods, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol 2. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. XVII.8, accessed August 31, 2021. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm.

The Provenance and Audience of Galatians

Note: The following is a paper I wrote for a course at CBTS, unedited besides the headers and a few grammatical touch-ups. My prayer is that it will be helpful for those seeking to form a more accurate understanding of the chronology of Paul’s ministry. I also pray it will help form a healthy skepticism of modern theories in biblical studies. This paper will defend the traditional view.

The date, place of composition, and intended recipients of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is a matter of great controversy in Pauline scholarship. The chronological anchors are few, and none so sure as to preclude rival interpretations. This has birthed a variety of opinions, with some defending the Epistle as being Paul’s earliest, latest, and virtually everything in between.[1] Time, place, and audience cannot be treated independently, and the likelihood of a conclusion for one of these factors will determine the likelihood of conclusions concerning the rest. So, to form the most plausible complete picture of the letter’s origin, we will have to analyze three issues in turn: the respective merits of the North and South Galatian hypotheses, the evidence for a pre- or post- Apostolic council date, and the evidence in favor of a specific place of composition. The uncertainty of the evidence forbids dogmatic conclusions, but we will argue that it is overall favorable to the ancient view: North Galatia is the audience, a late post-council date is the time, and Rome is the place of writing.

North or South?

Historically, the view that the South Galatians were the intended recipients of the letter is an anomaly. As one of the great defenders of the South Galatian hypothesis admits, “The ‘North Galatian’ hypothesis held the field almost unchallenged until the eighteenth century.”[2] The reason for the South Galatia theory’s recency is its proposal that the addressed Galatians were not true ethnic Galatians, but rather inhabitants of the Galatia’s southern province beyond where the ethnic people lived. This, coupled with the fact that the cities of South Galatia ceased to be part of the Galatian province within two centuries after the writing of the New Testament, made the notion that Paul was addressing people who merely lived in the rim of the province an unnatural conclusion for most interpreters. Even when 18th Century commentators first began to consider the South Galatian churches as a possible audience, their theories did not exclude the churches of North Galatia initially.[3] Few, after all, would argue that the Epistle’s terms themselves would more naturally refer to South Galatia than to North Galatia; the contemporary argument has been that the terms could also be appropriately used for South Galatian churches. Opponents of the North Galatian hypothesis argue that Paul cannot be referring to the churches of North Galatia because of other considerations beyond the terminology. Those other considerations tie into the arguments for a pre-Apostolic council date and will be dealt with later. We will first concern ourselves with explaining why it would, in fact, be strange for Paul to use the terms he does if he was addressing exclusively non-ethnic Galatians.

There is no evidence that non-ethnic Galatians would have been referred to as “Galatians” or that the biblical writers addressed the southern cities as Galatia, even if it was technically part of the same province. The province did not even have the official name, “Galatia,” but was only popularly called that because the ethnic Galatians formed a large area of it – an area that the churches in the South were excluded from.[4] Outside of the brief and inconclusive reference in 1 Corinthians 16:1, the other biblical references to the Galatia all decidedly point beyond the southern cities to the regions where the ethnic Galatians lived. Peter undoubtedly is including the inhabitants of ethnic Galatia in his first epistle’s greeting when he references it after Pontus and before Cappadocia; both border Galatia’s northern territory (1 Pet. 1:1). In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke mentions Paul’s visiting of Galatia in his second and third missionary journeys and appears to be referring to the ethnic territory (Acts 16:6, 18:23). Many defenders of the South Galatian hypothesis have insisted that Luke could have just as easily been referring to the cities outside of ethnic Galatia, but in context this is unlikely. Luke had already referred to the southern cities of that province multiple times and never referred to them as Galatia; the use of a new name usually implies a new place. In Acts 16, Luke had already referred to Paul visiting some of the very cities proposed to be the subjects of Paul’s Epistle (Lystra and Derbe) before mentioning Paul’s missionary work in Phrygia and Galatia, implying that Galatia was distinct from those cities. His use of Phrygia and Galatia in the same breath in both Acts 16 and Acts 18 also indicates that Luke is not speaking provincially, since Phrygia was not a province. And while it is possible that Luke had a different practice when referring to Galatia than Paul, it is more likely that Paul and his close travelling companion would use similar language when describing the places he visited on his mission trips, especially since Luke probably got the information he records in Acts 16 and 18 from Paul himself. The default conclusion should be that Paul’s nomenclature is consistent with the other biblical writers.

We must also consider the internal evidence that Paul is referring to ethnic Galatians in the Epistle. The very singling out of Galatia as the problem territory suggests both that Paul is not referring to the southern cities of the province and also that the controversy was not contemporaneous with the Judaizing addressed at the Apostolic Council. Luke records that Judaizers spread from Judea itself and then confronted Paul and Barnabas at Antioch (Acts 15:1). There is no indication that it even spread beyond Antioch by the time of the Council, which appears to have occurred soon after it reached Paul’s location. But even if it had reached the cities of South Galatia, it would have travelled there through Cilicia and doubtless would have affected the neighboring cities as well, since the cities of South Galatia had strong commercial and social ties to the regions surrounding it – indeed, more so than they did to the ethnic Galatians north of them. The problem would not have disappeared from Antioch either; the persistence of the problem at Antioch was the very reason Paul was sent to meet with the Apostles at Jerusalem. What reason, then, would there have been to single out the churches of South Galatia when they would have merely been one of the many regions assaulted by the heresy? The targeting of South Galatia becomes especially unaccountable when we consider that a frequently suggested place of Paul’s writing is Antioch itself, which – as we have said – would have been battered by the heresy at the proposed time of Paul’s writing. And even if one were to suggest that Paul was writing to the South Galatians at a later date (a rare view), the close connection to neighboring cities and churches make it difficult to imagine that such a heresy would ever be the peculiar problem of their churches. The singling out of churches in Galatia would suggest that the more isolated, backwater churches of ethnic Galatia are in view, because a truly local problem is considerably more likely to emerge in such a community. A more isolated audience also better comports with Paul’s perplexity about the culprits. He asks, “who hath bewitched you” (Gal. 3:1) and “who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Gal. 5:7), and says of the instigator, “he that troubleth you shall bear his judgement, whosoever he be” (Gal. 5:10). This perplexity better fits a problem that peculiarly sprung up, rather than the situation in Acts 15 where there is no mystery – those agitators came from Judaea.

Lastly, even if it would have been excusable for Paul to refer to the churches of Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe as “churches of Galatia,” would it have been appropriate for him to call them “foolish Galatians” if they were not part of the Galatian people? Is there any precedent in referring to non-ethnic Galatians as “Galatians” either in Scripture or any other works of antiquity? The Galatians were viewed as fickle and barbarous descendants of the ancient Celts, and the inhabitants of Lystra and Derbe would have surely shuddered to identify with them. Reymond responds to this objection by asking, “What other single term could Paul have used which would have more accurately covered all of the churches he founded on his first missionary journey if he had wanted to write a letter to all of them?”[5] But we reply by asking, “Why not simply ‘fools,’ instead of ‘foolish Galatians’?” It is no less strange to call them such an unfitting name simply because there is no good umbrella term for them. The very absence of a fitting alternative simply reinforces the point we have already made – the cities of South Galatia were not distinct enough from their neighbors to warrant a special name, which decreases the likelihood that there was a theological issue peculiar to their churches.

Pre- or Post-Council?

            Again, the South Galatian hypothesis is not so much fueled by the Galatian terminology itself, but by other considerations that would make an ethnic Galatian audience extremely unlikely. Those considerations stem from an insistence that the Epistle had to have been written before the Apostolic Council. If it was written before the Council, then the North Galatian hypothesis runs into the difficulty that there is no hint that Paul had gone to churches in that region yet, and it is unlikely that the Judaizer controversy would have extended that far by this point (as we have argued, though, the early date creates similar problems for the South Galatian hypothesis, too; it would merely be somewhat less difficult with a pre-Council date). We have already laid out evidence for a post-council date through the arguments in favor of an ethnic Galatian audience – whose churches appear to have formed in Paul’s second missionary journey – and through our argument that the Galatian controversy does not likely coincide with the controversy in Acts 15. But we must still reckon with the problems that South Galatian advocates insist are created by a post-Council date.

            One problem alleged by such a dating is that, if we agree with the South Galatian advocates that Galatians 2:1-10 refers to Paul’s famine relief visit, it is inexplicable that Paul does not mention the Apostolic Council of Acts 15. But if we believe that Galatians 2:1-10 is a reference to the Apostolic Council (as most North Galatian advocates do), then we run into the problem of Paul not mentioning the famine relief visit when his argument depends on referencing all previous trips to Jerusalem, and then there is still the problem of Paul not incorporating the Apostolic decree into his argument, which we are told would have been a powerful tool in the controversy. The only solution, they contend, is that the Epistle was written before the Apostolic Council.

            But we will contend that these alleged difficulties hang on a misunderstanding of Paul’s arguments in the first two chapters, and that the preponderance of evidence supports Galatians 2:1-10 being a reference to the Apostolic Council, not the famine relief visit. There are great chronological difficulties created by the insistence that Galatians 2:1-10 is a reference to the famine relief visit of Acts 11-12. The first issue is an unnatural interpretation of Galatians 2:1, when Paul says, “Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem…” To make this line up with their chronology, they insist that “fourteen years after” is referring to fourteen years after Paul’s conversion described in Galatians 1:16, rather than the more immediate chronological event of the first visit to Jerusalem described in Galatians 1:18. While it is possible that the event in verse 16 – as the pivotal moment – is the starting point of all Paul’s later chronological reckoning, it is normative that listings of durations pile on sequentially and have the most immediate event as the starting point of the next calculation. This is especially likely in this case because Paul does not simply say that he went up to Jerusalem after fourteen years, but that he went up “again” (παλιν) to Jerusalem, which tells us that he has his first visit to Jerusalem immediately in mind when he makes this statement. It is, therefore, the most obvious place to begin calculating the fourteen years.

            But this is not the only chronological difficulty of equating Galatians 2:1-10 with the relief visit. Even if we considered the fourteen years as being reckoned from Paul’s conversion, that would still place the famine relief visit at approximately 46 AD. The problem with this is that the death of Herod Agrippa – which Josephus fixes as having taken place after Claudius Caesar reigned three years[6] – occurred in 44 AD. But Acts 12 indicates that Herod was still alive at the time of the famine relief visit, only dying sometime after Peter’s miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12:20-23). Sensitive to this issue, defenders of the South Galatian hypothesis fix on the words of Acts 12:1, which describe the incident with Herod occurring “about that time [of the famine relief visit],” so it could have been somewhat before it. But to put it at least two years beforehand stretches credulity; the narrative strongly suggests that the events of Acts 12 overlap with the famine relief visit, because Paul and Barnabas are depicted as departing for Jerusalem immediately before Acts 12 and then are described as returning from that visit right after Luke finishes telling us about the events of Peter and Herod. It would be bizarre for Luke to sandwich his telling of Acts 12 in between his brief, five verse description of the famine relief visit if those events had no chronological overlap.

            Much more parsimonious is the view that Galatians 2:1-10 depicts events surrounding the Apostolic Council. Using the more natural way of chronological reckoning, we are left with Paul telling us that those events occurred 17 years after his conversion, which perfectly accords with the standard dating of the council around 49-50 AD. Furthermore, the principal events of this section correspond perfectly with what occurred at the time of the Council but are nowhere hinted at during the famine relief visit. On the contrary, Acts 15 presents the controversy as erupting for the first time then, beginning with men from Judaea coming down to teach the brethren while Paul is at Antioch and then having the controversy emerge again at Jerusalem. The “much disputing” at the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:7) and the need for an Apostolic verdict does not comport well with the notion that the chief Apostles already stood against such Judaizers three years earlier, but we would have to believe that if we accepted the episode in Galatians 2:1-10 to be the famine relief visit. The only superficial similarity with the famine relief visit is Paul’s statement that he went to Jerusalem by revelation (Gal. 2:2), which South Galatia advocates interpret as a reference to Agabus’ prophecy of the famine (Acts 11:28). But this in no way precludes Paul from having received a revelatory command from the Lord to go to Jerusalem in Acts 15 and then – after bringing the matter to elders at Antioch – being sent out with the other brethren as described in Acts 15:2 on account of the controversy. It is unreasonable to allow this single detail to cause us to identify Galatians 2:1-10 with an episode that otherwise has no described resemblance to it.

            But if Galatians 2:1-10 references the Apostolic Council, why does Paul not mention the famine relief visit? Critics argue that it would have been necessary to do so, because the point of Galatians 1:11-24 was to prove that Paul had a divinely given message, and that he had not received his commission even from the other Apostles. Therefore, he would have needed to list all his visits to Jerusalem to vindicate his true apostleship. But this is a non sequitur; Paul sufficiently demonstrated the divine nature of his apostleship by retelling how he was converted directly by God and did not so much as see any Apostle until three years afterwards – and even then, he saw just two of them for no more than fifteen days, which is hardly enough time to be mentored. Nor did he linger in Judaea; he immediately left for Syria and Cilicia where his ministry grew enough in reputation that those in Judaea glorified God because of him. The fact that Paul’s ministry was established before he had virtually any contact with the Apostles or disciples in Judaea (with even that contact not being until three years after his conversion) is all the proof he needed to give that his message was independently given to him from God, not from man. He had no need to mention a famine relief visit eleven years after his conversion because his ministry was well known by that time and had been vindicated as independently established. The visit could neither support nor detract from the verified independence of his apostleship and would have thus been completely irrelevant to his argument. The only way it could have been relevant is if – like the Acts 15 visit – it helped to vindicate the supernatural nature of his ministry, which is what he endeavors to prove in the first two chapters. The Acts 15 visit did this because he had an opportunity to meet with the pillars of the Church and hear that they preached the same gospel that he did. That the living disciples of Christ preached the same message he received by direct revelation was a powerful testimony to the legitimacy of his apostleship. But when he went to Jerusalem during the famine relief visit, the church there was experiencing the Herodian persecution, and the primary targets (the Apostles) likely were not accessible – Peter, for example, may have been in prison for part of the visit. There is no hint in Acts that Paul met any of the Apostles during the famine relief visit, which is understandable given the circumstances.

            The other difficulty alleged by South Galatia advocates is Paul not explicitly mentioning the Apostolic Council’s decree. In the eyes of some, its absence from a post-Council Galatians would be so inexplicable that it would threaten to undermine the inerrancy of Scripture altogether. Longenecker writes, “Paul’s silence in Galatians regarding the decision of the Jerusalem Council forces the irreconcilable dilemma of declaring that either (1) the Acts account of the Council and its decision in Acts 15 is pure fabrication, or (2) the letter to the Galatians was written prior to the Council.”[7] According to him, the decision is “the coup de grâce to the whole conflict,” and it is inconceivable Paul would have not mentioned it if he was aware of it.[8]

            But with all due respect, to call the decision of a council the coup de grâce when Paul spends much of the first two chapters treating the authority of men – indeed, even the authority of Apostles and angels – as utterly inferior to the divine revelation of the gospel is to entirely miss the point. Paul does not finish his greeting without stressing the divine authority behind his apostleship and message, saying he is not an apostle “of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1). He goes on to say that even if he (an Apostle with apostolic authority) were to preach another gospel, he should be accursed (Gal. 1:9), because his gospel “is not after man” (Gal. 1:11) but given directly by the risen Lord Himself (Gal. 1:12). Paul tells us that the authority of the Apostles makes no difference to him when it comes to this issue (Gal. 2:6), and he is perfectly willing to oppose Peter, the chief of the Apostles, “to the face” (Gal. 2:11) when his practice contradicted the truth of the gospel. Paul does not bring up his encounter with the Apostles at the time of the council for the sake of their authority – he goes out of his way to deny that his message depends on such authority; rather, he brings it up because the episode vindicated the supernatural character of his gospel. If the living disciples preached the same gospel that he received independently through revelation, this demonstrates that Paul’s experience was by no means a hallucination; it was a supernatural revelation possessing divine authority. Paul’s point is that the Galatians are striving against God, not man. If Paul were to appeal to the authority of a council against the Galatian heretics, it would effectively undermine all his previous statements about not depending on such authority, and worse, it would make him seem insecure about his message’s divine origin by implying that it needed the authority of others after all. Paul would show no such timidity. The coup de grâce against the Galatian heretics would not be the decision of the council, but the divine testimony that “if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal. 2:21).

            Space prohibits us from addressing every objection against a post-Apostolic Council date, but the above deals with the most major two. We will turn to considering the question of its place of origin. Our answer will depend on what we have already established as well as the consideration of a new piece of rarely consulted evidence: the colophons.

Place of Origin

            If one owns an older printing of the Bible, he will likely find the words, “Unto the Galatians written from Rome,” appended to the end of the Epistle. This is known as a colophon (or subscription) and can be found in virtually all English translations before the 20th Century in the Pauline letters, as well as the common foreign translations from the same period, like the Luther Bible. They are, however, lacking in the vast majority of modern translations as well as many modern printings of the King James Version, such as those put out by Thomas Nelson and Christian Art Publishers. What are we to make of these colophons? Where did they come from, and why do many contemporary Bibles not have them? These questions are intensely relevant to our subject, because if the Galatian colophon has credibility, it would make an early dating of Galatians impossible and render it as one of the latest of Paul’s epistles.

            The presence of the colophons in vernacular translations since the time of the Reformation is a direct result of their presence in the Greek texts they are based on.  Every Greek printing of what is commonly known as the Textus Receptus has them, including all the editions by Erasmus, Stephanus, Beza, and the Elzevir brothers.[9] Nor were they invented at the time of the Reformation; these colophons can be found in the majority of Greek manuscripts. They are included in many ancient copies, such as Codex Vaticanus,[10] and are there in truncated form in some other manuscripts, like Codex Sinaiticus.[11] Besides their presence in the Greek manuscripts, the colophons can also be found in the early vernacular translations, such as the two Syriac versions and the Coptic.[12] And while they are not found in the important witness of P46,[13] their presence in the manuscript tradition is much stronger than many variants noted in NA28, which makes the absence of any mention there conspicuous. It appears that their near complete disappearance from modern Bibles stems from more internal considerations than the manuscript tradition. Even the Trinitarian Bible Society – which is committed to printing the Textus Receptus and Bibles that derive from it – does not include the colophons found in all the Textus Receptus’ editions in its products.[14] Their rationale is not primarily based on manuscript evidence, but on the alleged unreliability of the colophons, which seems to be the chief basis for their removal from other modern editions.

            We will immediately concede that the colophons were almost certainly not part of the text when Paul first penned his epistles. They are clearly distinct from the main body of the text and indicate that they reflect on the letters sometime after their original compositions. Proof of this can be seen in the colophons of those pairs of epistles written to the same churches or people. For example, First Corinthians reads, “The first epistle to the Corinthians was written from Philippi by Stephanas, and Fortunatus, and Achaicus, and Timotheus” (1 Cor. 16:24). The colophons of Romans, Galatians, Philippians, etc. do not refer to them as the “first” epistles to those churches, which indicates that the author of the colophons knew there was only one epistle for each of those, but that First Corinthians would be followed by another inspired text. The case of First Corinthians is especially telling, because it is not the first epistle Paul wrote to them (1 Cor. 5:9), but only the first inspired one. While it is possible that Paul had a supernatural revelation that he would write further inspired epistles in such cases and that those were the first of the inspired ones, it is more natural to take them as subscriptions that were added at a later date. This would meant that the letters had already been circulating before the addition of the colophons, which would explain why some manuscripts either do not contain them or have truncated versions of them.

However, just because the colophons are not original to the letters does not immediately rule out their authority. It could be that, before his execution, Paul desired to make certain details about his inspired letters’ respective origins known. We know that he was allowed to continue writing well into his second imprisonment, writing to Timothy to bring him books and parchments (2 Tim. 4:13), so this is not an impossibility. And even if they do not originate with the Apostle or bear any sort of apostolic authority, at the very least they are our earliest historical witnesses to the origins of Paul’s epistles. The very fact that they appear only in Paul’s epistle testifies that they were not added after it was common to compile full Bibles, but rather emerged around the time when collections like P46 were popular. This is reinforced by the appearance of the colophons in the Syriac and Coptic versions (many scholars argue that the Peshitta Syriac dates as early as the 2nd Century[15]). While some may argue that certain variants of the colophons appeared later, it is difficult to date their general appearance after the 2nd Century. Space precludes us from considering all the objections levied against the accuracy of many of the colophons, but this is not necessary anyways; even if some proved to be inaccurate in certain details, this does not negate the potential accuracy of the others or their general reliability. Nor does it take away their standing as our earliest witnesses, therefore making each of them worth consideration.

Because of their antiquity, and because they have come to dominate the manuscript tradition by God’s providence to the point where they are contained in all Reformation-era Greek texts, we consider the colophons innocent until proven guilty. They are clearly distinct from the main body of Paul’s epistles and so we do not claim that they have the same authority or are theopneustos. We do, however, judge that theories of any letter’s origin that match with the witness of the colophons have a significant support that other theories cannot claim. We also find that the colophon’s assertion that the Epistle was written from Rome harmonizes well with several other facts about the letter. Dating the letter around the time of the first Roman imprisonment would make it about ten years after Paul first began church planting in Galatia. Some have viewed this as a great weakness of a Roman provenance because of Paul’s marveling that the Galatians had “so soon” fallen away from his gospel (Gal. 1:6), but we believe this later date is actually a more realistic appraisal of the evidence. As Lightfoot astutely observes, “The rapidity of a change is measured by the importance of the interests at stake. A period of five or ten years would be a brief term of existence for a constitution or a dynasty. A people which threw off its allegiance to either within so short a time, might well be called fickle.”[16] When the interest at stake is submission to the King of the Universe through obedience to His gospel, ten years is very soon indeed to go from enthusiastic subjects to rebels. When we look at some Christian writers over a hundred years after the Apostles, we often marvel how quickly many went astray from the pure teaching of the primitive Church. How much sooner, then, would it be for the Galatians to have departed from the true gospel only ten years after they began to hear it, when the Apostle who preached it to them was still alive? The language of “soon” is perfectly appropriate. And we will turn the tables – the other language Paul uses in the letter is not so appropriate for a date significantly earlier than what we propose. His language does not suggest that the Galatians had simply been introduced to the gospel at this point, but that they had some measure of success and fruit by this point, increasing the Apostle’s bewilderment. He says, after all, that they had “run well” (Gal. 5:7). Therefore, our chronologies must not only leave enough room for a sizeable number of Galatians to fall away, but also enough time for the gospel to spread, discipleship to occur, and for fruit to be produced. It is unlikely that this could have occurred by the incredibly early date of 49 AD, but it is plausible for a date in the early sixties.

            Additionally, there are a few hints in the letter that Paul may be writing during or slightly after his Roman imprisonment. He says, “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). The “marks” could easily be a reference to his imprisonment at Rome. In our estimation, though, the more significant part of this verse for our purposes is the first part, when he says, “From henceforth let no man trouble me.” He certainly did allow himself to be troubled afterwards if this is his earliest Epistle – he would go on to deal with the theological and practical problems of Thessalonica and Corinth! But if this were written late in his imprisonment or slightly after, all his polemical letters would have already been written, making this statement more explicable than it would be under alternative theories. If written in the sixties, the statement could be taken in a more natural sense: Paul is experiencing persecutions and senses his ministry is almost over, and therefore he can no longer be troubled with such matters. He would confine himself to little more than personal correspondence after this Epistle.

Conclusion

            Unless one were to accept the colophons as inspired, we have no canonical declaration concerning the place, audience, and date of composition for Galatians. We can, therefore, make no dogmatic conclusions. But not only are there no insuperable arguments for departing from the ancient view championed by the colophons, our research has suggested that there are good reasons for favoring it. We advocate, therefore, the traditional understanding that the Epistle was written to the North Galatians from Rome approximately 30 years after the resurrection of our Lord.


[1] J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (Andover, MA: Warren F. Draper, 1870), 42.

[2] F.F. Bruce, “Galatian problems. 2. North or South Galatians?” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 52 (1969-70): 247, accessed April 21, 2021, https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/api/datastream?publicationPid=uk-ac-man-scw:1m2967&datastreamId=POST-PEER-REVIEW-PUBLISHERS-DOCUMENT.PDF.

[3] Bruce, “Galatian problems. 2. North or South Galatians?” 249.

[4] Robert L. Reymond, Paul, Missionary Theologian. (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 107. Logos

[5] Reymond, Paul, Missionary Theologian, 107.

[6] Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 19.8.2, accessed April 21, 2021, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm#link192HCH0008

[7] Richard N. Longenecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), 48.

[8] Ibid, 49.

[9] “Parallel Bible: Galatians – Chapter: 6,” Textus Receptus Bibles, accessed April 20, 2021, http://textusreceptusbibles.com/Parallel/48006001/BEZA/TRS/ELZEVIR.

[10]  Codex Vaticanus, Vatican Library, accessed April 20, 2021, https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.gr.1209#, 1493.

[11]   Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Sinaiticus,accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx?book=40&chapter=6&lid=en&side=r&verse=18&zoomSlider=0, 84 f4v.

[12] Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 43.

[13] Papyrus 46, Institut für Neutestamentliche Textfurschung, accessed April 21, 2021, http://ntvmr.uni-muenster.de/manuscript-workspace, 1530 (086r).

[14] M. H. Watts, “Subscriptions to the Epistles, Trinitarian Bible Society, accessed April 21, 2021, https://www.tbsbibles.org/page/Subscriptions?&hhsearchterms=%22subscription%22

[15] Edward F. Hills, The King James Version Defended, 5th ed. ( Des Moines, OR: Christian Research Press, 2006), 156.

[16] Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 48.

Should You Dine Out on the Sabbath?

COVID has not shut the doors of our sanctuary since early 2020, but it has shut the doors of our kitchen. After the benediction and after-service catch-ups, the saints will by-and-large return home to sup with their families, while the hungry remnant plays hot-potato until someone gets stuck with choosing the restaurant. But after a few months of Sunday wings, our brother Sean came to the conviction that the new routine is not biblical. For the record, he has never made it out to be more than a personal conviction or insisted that we do otherwise, but because I take a potential violation of the Sabbath command seriously, I thought that it warrants a careful, systematic response. So, encouraged by the request of others, I will try to do that here. This practical issue is not its own island — it stems from our understanding of the scope, nature, and implementations of the Sabbath command. I pray that it will be useful even for those considering matters outside of this specific Sabbath question.

The Sabbath as Positive-Moral Law

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Exodus 20:8-12

The Sabbath command is moral law. God thundered it out from Mount Sinai as part of His perfect, righteous standard to the condemnation of His hearers. The Hebrews begged the voice to cease (Exo. 20:19) — the Law pierced their hearts and revealed their worthiness of death, because it confronted them with the law already written in their hearts (Rom. 2:15). The commandment, which was ordained to life, they found to be unto death (Rom. 7:10), because it was that moral law they knew demanded the judgement pictured by the burning, black mountain. The Sabbath commandment cannot be excised from the other nine and treated as purely ceremonial; it was given with the others for the undoing of the Israelites, so that they might fear and submit themselves to the mercy of the great God who spoke. God circumvents any attempt to treat it as ceremonial law by grounding it in creation itself, leaving no excuse for those who would separate it from the other nine.

Yet, though the Sabbath command is moral law, it is not simply moral law. In the words of the Confession, it is a “positive moral” commandment (2LBCF 22.7). “Positive,” when used in this sense does not mean “good” (although the commandment certainly is good), but rather refers to something commanded by God in addition to what is dictated by the law of nature. To quote Richard Barcellos, “Positive laws are those laws added to the natural or moral law.”1 The Confession uses the same language to describe Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as non-natural institutions — they are God-given institutions given for a specific people living in a specific age.

The Sabbath command is uniquely described as positive-moral. How can it be both? Consulting the Confession again, it tells us “it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, be set apart for the worship of God” (2LBCF 22.7). The law written on the heart of man teaches him three things concerning this commandment:

1. God should be worshiped.

2. Worship requires a proportion of time.

3. The time and manner of this worship should be determined by the One being worshiped.

The last of those three precepts of moral law obligates man to seek positive law — there is a universal, binding demand upon all men to discover when, where, and how God has commanded Himself to be worshiped in the age they live in. Positive and moral law, accordingly, are intimately linked in the fourth commandment. But although they are linked, they are also distinct. The positive law necessitated by the moral law may be (and has been) changed according to the good pleasure of God. We must learn what has and hasn’t changed to worship Him correctly.

The Purpose of the Sabbath in its Covenantal Administrations

There is a two-fold purpose for the Sabbath. God tells us the first reason immediately after giving the commandment: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exo. 20:11). This Sabbath was given (according to the One who gave it) to point to God’s work and His completion of that work. It was not given merely for the ceasing of our work — our rest from our labors is a means to an end, which is to worship God for His work. But the work of God we must acknowledge is more than His first creation — we must principally acknowledge the completion of His work for the new creation. It is impossible to enjoy God’s Sabbath rest apart from the completion of His work for His new creation:

For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest. Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief: … There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.

Hebrews 4:2-6,9-10

Those who enter into God’s rest are only those who believe and approach the throne of grace through the free salvation offered by the High Priest, Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:14-16). The true Sabbath, then, that our weekly celebration points to is the rest we have in Christ through His finished work of redemption. We dare not pollute this rest through our own works — by ceasing from our works and enjoying the fruits of His, we acknowledge that our rest was accomplished by the monergistic act of God. We cannot add to His work, because we cannot add to the perfection of Christ’s righteousness or to the infinite worth of His payment.

The second reason is implicit in the commandment and made explicit by the Lord: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Resting in God’s promises, meditating upon His work for us, and rejoicing in Him is for our good. God completed His works for our sake, and set His Son to be a propitiation for our sins because of His love for us. By observing the Sabbath, we proclaim the rest we have in our God to the whole world, modelling the fruits we enjoy because of His blessings in a small way. Contrary to a popular understanding, the Sabbath was not made for man because everyone needs rest. Scripture indicates no such thing, and God will give the wicked no rest day or night as the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever (Rev 14:11). Before God says anything about rest He tells us to keep the Sabbath holy, and any Sabbath-keeping that doesn’t involve holy rejoicing in God’s rest from His work is no Sabbath-keeping at all, and is no more worthy to be called a fulfillment of the Sabbath command than taking off work for St. Patrick’s Day. The rest is a means to an end, and that end is keeping the Sabbath holy by acknowledging the completion of God’s work and participating in the rest He bought us.

This will bring us to the meat of the matter — the Sabbath can only be kept by God‘s Covenant people. The Sabbath command, as we have said, is moral law and binds all men, yet it binds them by compelling them to seek the way God commands them to worship Him, and to join themselves to His Covenant people so they can do so. Covenant membership is an absolute prerequisite. The very framing of the commandment indicates this, with God telling Israel, “thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Exo. 20:10). There is no hint that the commandment is to be exercised outside of the Covenant nation and her members — the gates mark the boundaries of the cities of Israel (as a quick word study will bear out, it is never a reference to private property). In fact, this language indicates that it is only to be exercised by the Covenant nation. The same language is used for celebrating other Covenant holidays, like the Feast of Weeks: “And thou shalt rejoice before the LORD thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you” (Deut. 16:11). These, of course, were holidays only the Covenant nation could celebrate. It also parallels the language used to describe those who needed to be circumcised: “And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin … And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised” (Gen. 17:11-13). Every fourth commandment group that could be included in the circumcision commandment is found again (thou, thy son, and thy manservant). Only women and cattle are excluded (for obvious reasons), as well as the stranger in the gates, because — in the days of Abraham — there was only a Covenant house instead of a Covenant nation, and most people do not have unemployed strangers living in their house.

Although they are moral law, then, the Ten Commandments were couched in language peculiar to the Covenant they were given in, and could not be framed the same way in all other periods of redemptive history. In a small way, we see this in the fifth commandment when God promises long days “upon the land” for those who honor their parents (Exo. 20:12); when Paul repeats this in the New Testament, it becomes “on the earth” (Eph. 6:3), because the New Covenant people will inherit much more than the physical land promised in the Old Covenant — they will inherit the New Heaven and Earth. But as positive-moral law — as the universal, binding commandment to seek how God commands to be worshiped in the current age — the Sabbath command is more dependent on its covenantal administration than any other. Most obviously, the day has been changed from the seventh to the first. God having finished His work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His people no longer celebrate the Sabbath rest at the end of the week — as something at that we experience at the end of our toil. God has finished the work and plunged us into the Sabbath rest found in Christ, and this rest opens the new week — inaugurating the new work of the new creation. But another change has taken place: God’s Covenant community has progressed from a Covenant house, to a Covenant nation, and now finally to a worldwide Covenant people. No longer a mixed community of believers and unbelievers, the members of the New Covenant are only those who have the law of God written on their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). Gone are the days of a physical institution representing God’s people, with everyone in them participating in the ordinances, celebrations, and blessings regardless of whether they had a right to the reality pictured by them. Now, only those circumcised in the heart have a right participate in the Lord’s Passover, to receive God’s ordinances, and to celebrate the rest they have in Christ. Try as one might to import the second half of Exodus 20:10 lock, stock, and barrel, it’s an impossible task, because the Church has no gates for a stranger to be within (unless you’re a theonomist). Verse 10, above all, indicates that the Sabbath is to be celebrated within the Covenant community, which is now composed only of believers. Yes, it’s a command that binds all, but it binds all to first become believers so they can observe it.

The Issue at Hand

The argument against eating out on a Sabbath goes as follows: “It’s a violation of the Sabbath command to go to restaurants, because the commandment forbids us from forcing others to work on the Sabbath. And as a moral law, we sin by supporting others when they break it.” My answer to the first part follows from everything outlined above: the Sabbath is to be observed by the Covenant community, and cannot be observed outside of it. The language God uses in Exodus 20:10 is a standard way of denoting the entire Covenant community, which in those days was the whole nation-state of Israel. Even those who had no part in the object of our Sabbath rest points to had to cease from their labors, because the Covenant nation as a whole was designed to point to the rest God’s true people would have. It nowhere forbids people outside of the Covenant community from working, nor is there any place in where believers are worried about the Sabbath-keeping of foreign pagans in the Old Testament or neighboring unbelievers in the New Testament. Since the commandment only forbids the working of those living in the Covenant community, and since the only New Covenant community is the Church of believers, it goes beyond the commandment to forbid the working of an unbelieving waitress. It is certainly no part of the law of nature that unbelievers should benefit from the worship God institutes any more than it’s the law of nature that unbelievers should receive the ordinances of Covenant entry, which was then circumcision. Their involvement was part of the positive (as opposed to moral) aspect of the commandment, and was permitted only because of the corporate nature of the Old Covenant. Not only does it not logically follow for unbelievers outside the New Covenant to participate in a commandment meant to be exercised by the Covenant community, it is also the case that all positive law falls under the regulative principle of worship, and must be explicitly be given by each covenant to be validly practiced. Therefore, it is no more legitimate to enforce Sabbath-keeping for unbelievers than to baptize infants.

As for the second part of the argument, it presupposes something that will not be granted — that unbelievers are more guilty of a Sabbath violation when they work than when they don’t, and so we participate in their sins by paying for their services. The chief end of the Sabbath command is not to rest, but “to keep it holy.” The rest is a means to an end — a command to stop concerning ourselves with the things of the world so that we can focus on worshiping God in the way He has commanded, and enjoy the rest He has given us through Christ. If unbelievers are not working, they are certainly not worshiping God, but spend the day worshiping their idols — literal or figurative. If they take off the Sabbath as a way to share in its blessings while having no part in Christ, they violate two commandments: they profane the Sabbath and take the Lord’s name in vain. Those outside the Covenant have no right to share in the blessings of its rest, but will have their part with those who will never know rest — “There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked” (Is. 48:22). It was necessary for a time that those belonging only to the Old Covenant should enjoy Covenant holidays and Covenant ordinances, but that time has ceased. God was eager to make it cease, and never enjoyed the lip service of the pretenders. These are His words against them:

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.

Isaiah 1:11-15

Why should we compel unbelievers to do that which God has no delight in? Why should we encourage them to act as if they have a part in the Covenant blessings? Why should we affirm any attempt to keep the Sabbath without joining God’s Covenant, when Scripture no where tells us that this is possible? Our message to unbelievers should be this: repent and believe, be baptized, and keep the Sabbath — in that order. We should no more want them to keep the Sabbath before joining the covenant than we should want them to be baptized before professing faith. Until then, they will do more good preparing food for believers then taking the day off to engage in whatever sin their heart delights in. By making food, they at least give believers one less secular task to worry about, giving them a bit more time to keep the Sabbath holy.

[1] https://www.rbap.net/doctrinal-assumptions-and-technical-terms-of-the-confession-on-the-sabbath-22-7/#_edn7

A Systematic Defense for the Textus Receptus

Disclaimer: The Particular Baptist is evenly split on the issue of the Textus Receptus, with the hosts of the podcast having a debate on the subject here. As such, the following post does not represent the views of the blog as a whole. You can also read Dan and Sean’s articles here and here, respectively.

In the debate between the confessional text underlying historical Protestant translations of the Bible and the modern critical text underlying the majority of contemporary translations, it’s my opinion that the real substance of the debate can be lost in the sea of variants, manuscripts, and church father citations. By saying this, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of those facts. Rather, I say this because I contend the real reason for the disagreement is not the facts themselves, but how we interpret and weigh those facts. In other words, it’s the presuppositions we bring to the table that form the heart of this debate. My aim in this post is nothing less than to demonstrate that the presuppositions that lead to the Textus Receptus position are biblical, and that they are alone consistent with the tenets of Reformed Christianity, despite the good Reformed men who indeed disagree with us on the issue.

I will not be arguing in favor of the TR here per se, but rather in favor of the principles that would lead Christians such as myself to adopt it. Thus, there will be no discussion of the “Which TR?” question here. Even though I believe that a rigorous application of these principles would lead you to embrace a specific edition of the TR that you can hold in your hands as the very words of God, I will present the principles in a safer, more modest form, which – even if it didn’t lead you to adopt a single edition of the TR – would inevitably result in something that looks much more like it than the modern critical text offered as an alternative.

My argument can be summarized as follows: God’s promise to preserve His Word is more sure than our ability to reconstruct it. The reconstructionist presuppositions behind the modern critical text are incompatible with God’s promise of preservation. Therefore, the modern critical text must be rejected in favor of the text that the Church has organically received.

The rest of this two-part article will be a defense and an elaboration of the above.

Part 1 – Different Ways of Knowing and the Authority of Preservation

In order to properly evaluate the evidence on this issue or any other, we must know how much weight to give to the different types of arguments. For our purposes, we can divide the types of arguments Christians encounter into three broad categories.

  1. Appeals to the authority of Scripture. This is the highest and only absolute authority that can be appealed to. Scripture alone is given by inspiration of God, and is able to make the man of God perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It is breathed out by God, contains no errors, and – as the infallible self-revelation of the infallible God – grounds every assertion faithfully derived from it with an absolute certainty trumping the authority of all other claims. We can be more sure of the claims of Scripture than the color of the sky, because its self-authenticating authority generates a greater assurance than even our fallible senses can provide. When our eyes tell us that the tree looks good for food, the Word of God says with greater authority, “thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). If any position is truly grounded in the authority of Scripture, it can NEVER be overthrown by an appeal to any lesser authority, because no lesser authority carries absolute authority with it, and it is impossible to overthrow a claim that you are 100% sure of using evidence that is less than 100% sure. By its very nature as the only absolute authority, it is the only authority that can ever have 100% certainty associated with it.
  2. Appeals to Church tradition. Already, we have moved to considerably weaker ground. Those who would attempt to bind a man’s conscience by the authority of tradition alone are rebuked by the Savior Himself, decrying those “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). However, it must be said that when Scripture is silent, it is at least more authoritative than the third category, even if it already cannot be used to teach any sort of binding doctrine. The Scriptures themselves say, “in the multitude of counsellers there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14), and what is church history but a multitude of Spirit-led counselors? (Assuming the men we’re consulting are genuine Christians). [1] Again, Church tradition cannot bind the conscience or rival the authority of the Bible, but it can at least be helpful. I am here speaking only of Church tradition considered apart from the Bible itself, and not about the consistent exegesis of Scripture by faithful men of the past, which – when it can be demonstrated that they did it properly – carries the authority of the first category.
  3. Appeals to reasoning divorced from Scriptural truths and Church tradition. The weakest authority of all is reasoning that does not rest on the solid ground of Scripture or even the shaky ground of Church tradition, but rather on the quicksand of arguments unconnected to either of them. Over and over again the Bible throws water on merely human authority, admonishing us to “lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), calling the wisdom of the world foolishness (1 Corinthians 3:19), and warning us not to be taken captive by human tradition and philosophy that isn’t based in Christ (Colossians 2:8). In the context of rebuking those who had a conceited pride about their own knowledge/wisdom independent from divine revelation, the Bible says, “if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2). As feeble, fallen creatures who either abide in darkness or else are just beginning to become truly acquainted with the light, all of our thinking is corrupted, dim, inconsistent, and woefully incomplete, so that we cannot truly know anything unless it stems from the revelation of Him who alone knows perfectly. Arguments from this third category are suspect by their very nature.

It’s important to keep these categories in mind when examining the merits of any position, and that includes the textual issue. Arguments that can plausibly be grounded in the first category must always be weighed as having greater authority – indeed, infallible authority if conclusively proved – than any arguments based on the second or third category. Likewise, arguments from the second category should be favored over the third, but are unable to challenge the first. Frankly, the only place for the third category is when both the first and second are silent/when appeals to them are utterly baseless, leaving the third as the only option. Accordingly, the burden of proof always rests on those arguing from the third category to show that it is really and truly the last resort, and even then they cannot present their position as certain due to the nature of the authority they appeal to – independent, worldly reasoning. They cannot simply pit their arguments against an argument derived from Scripture as if they are of equal weight. In order to have a hearing, they must show conclusively that the position they are opposing doesn’t have the Scriptural basis that’s asserted of it.

The rest of this post will be dedicated to showing that the presuppositions behind the TR rest in the authority of the first and second categories, as opposed to the arguments for the critical text, which appeal only to the third and contradict the first and second. I will also show that the appeals to the third category – like all other appeals to it – are ultimately shallow, unstable, and are completely unable to generate the certainty that the proponents of the critical text often claim it can provide. To argue for the critical text is to become inconsistent with the biblical epistemology that the faithful Christians who support it would otherwise embrace. If we embrace this way of thinking in the fields of cosmology, biology, geology, archaeology, and ancient history whenever the current consensus (derived from the “preponderance of evidence”) of any of them contradicts biblical claims, what biblical reason do we have for abandoning that way of thinking in the field that just happens to be closer to the hearts of many modern, famous conservative Christians – textual criticism?

The Biblical Basis for the Promise of Preservation

A number of passages can be appealed to in defense of the preservation of the Scriptures; the doctrine is ubiquitously taught in the Book whose availability is a testament to its truth. The Westminster Confession cites Matthew 5:18 as a prooftext for the doctrine in chapter one paragraph eight, which paragraph is identical to our 2nd London Baptist Confession. The verse reads, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Many complain that this verse is taken out of context, and that the chief point is that the prophecies and teachings of the Law will be completely fulfilled. But while that might be the ultimate aim of the verse, such complaints are nevertheless unwarranted because 1) Jesus’ argument appears to be a classic example of an argument a fortiori, and 2) the prophecies and teachings of the Law depend on the jot and tittle, which Jesus explicitly says will not pass away. An a fortiori argument is an argument from the certainty of a stronger claim in favor of a claim that would be true by extension. In effect, Jesus would be saying, “of course God’s law will be fulfilled, because God’s Word is so precious in His sight, and so sure to continue, that not even the smallest letter of it will be lost.” Again, arguments of this sort depend on the stronger premise being true, so there can be no doubt that Jesus really meant that not even a jot or tittle would be lost, which is what He says. The cultural context strengthens this interpretation, because that was indeed the common view of the Jews Jesus was speaking to and is how they would have understood it. In John Gill’s (1697-1771) commentary on this verse, he refers to several different Jewish sources that clearly indicate as much. For example, Rabbi Meir (2nd Century AD) says:

“In the time of the prophets there were such who very diligently searched every letter in the law, and explained every letter by itself; and do not wonder at this that they should expound every letter by itself, for they commented … upon everyone of the tops of each letter.”

Clearly, every letter was considered sacred in the eyes of the Jews. They believed each letter was that which God chose to infallibly speak and commit into writing for His perfect purposes. Since they were treating their copies of the Scripture in this way, they also clearly believed the original letters God gave them were preserved for them in those copies. More explicit is Akiba ben Joseph (40-135 AD), who Gill references as saying:

“If, (say they,) all the nations of the world were gathered together, ‘to root one word out of the law’, they could not do it; which you may learn from Solomon, who sought to root ‘one letter out of the law’, the letter ‘jod’, in ( Deuteronomy 17:16 Deuteronomy 17:17 ) but the holy blessed God said, Solomon shall cease, and an hundred such as he (in the Talmud it is a thousand such as he) … ‘but, jod shall not cease from thee (the law) for ever'”

The similarity between the language used by Jesus and a Jewish rabbi from the same century cannot be missed. Akiba even tells us of an apocryphal story where Solomon attempted to alter one “jod” (or jot) of Scripture, but God didn’t allow it, because He decreed that not one letter should cease from His Word. There can be no doubt, then, that when Jesus said, “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law,” His audience would have understood Him to really mean that not a single jot or tittle would be lost. Frankly, there is no reason to believe that He just meant “no general concept would be lost” unless you’ve already made up your mind that He couldn’t have meant that, perhaps because your understanding of preservation wouldn’t allow it.

But a passage that I believe is even more relevant for supporting the view of preservation advocated by TR proponents is the classic text on the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”

There are two reasons this passage is relevant. First, despite the frequent use of this passage to say that the original autographs (the original manuscripts written by the human authors of Scripture) were God-breathed and sufficient, the passage never directly references the autographs at all. That Paul is here speaking about the autographs is an assumption brought in by those who already believe that only the originals are the true Scriptures referenced by Paul in this passage. But if we believe that words should be interpreted in their own context, we will see that Paul just told us what Scriptures he was referring to in the previous verse:

“And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

In other words, the God-breathed Scriptures Paul is referring to in verses 16 and 17 are the Scriptures Timothy has known from childhood referenced in verse . We must then ask, “did Timothy had the original autographs?” Since the answer is obviously no, we have two options:

  1. The copies Timothy had were given by inspiration again, or:
  2. Through the copies he had, Timothy possessed the original autographs which God had preserved through their faithful transmission all the way to Timothy’s generation.

The first option is obviously incorrect, because it contradicts Scripture’s presentation of inspiration as an event that happened in the past. Peter, for example, says, “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” in reference to the prophecies of Scripture (2 Peter 1:21). Therefore, that leaves us with option two: the copies of Scripture had been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation, and could be referred to as the authentic God-breathed Scriptures given by God. We have no biblical reason that this would cease after Timothy’s day, especially in light of the already discussed Matthew 5:18, which says that not one jot or tittle would pass.

The second reason this passage is relevant is its insistence that Scripture is able to make the man of God perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. As has long been recognized by Bible commentators, the phrase “man of God” does not simply refer to any male Christian, but rather refers to a minister of the Church in its New Testament usage (cf. 1 Timothy 6:11 and its Old Testament usage as a title for prophets – those who proclaim God’s Word). This does not diminish the sufficiency of Scripture for the Christian in the pew; rather, it confirms it, because a Christian minister has to be equipped for all the duties of an ordinary Christian as well as those only necessary for a pastor/elder/deacon.

But one of the most essential good works the Scripture equips a minister for is the pulpit ministry. As proponents of modern textual criticism are often not shy to admit, their view requires the minister to familiarize himself with the basic principles of textual criticism in order to handle the Word of God properly from the pulpit. It is essential, they say, for the minister to be able to distinguish the authentic from spurious textual variants using their principles as he encounters them in his preaching. The obvious problem is that, under this view, we have something necessary for the pulpit ministry that Scripture does not furnish us for. If it can’t be denied that the pulpit ministry is a good work – one of the most essential works for the man of God – and that an essential part of this ministry is identifying which variants can be preached as God’s inspired Word, then Scripture MUST equip us for it. Therefore, we must reject any method of determining the authentic readings of Scripture that cannot be grounded in Scripture itself. Otherwise, we risk denying the sufficiency of Scripture in an area it promises to thoroughly equip us for.

The difference between proponents of the Textus Receptus and the modern critical text is clear at this point. The methodology of the Textus Receptus follows the biblical example of organically receiving the Word of God. Like Timothy, who was able to know the Word of God from childhood, it proposes that all we have to do determine the true Scriptures is to look at what was received by God’s people. The only caveats is that the received text must be in the original language since inspiration was an event that occurred at the writing of the Scriptures, and so they cannot be reinspired in another form. The approach of modern textual criticism, however, is at odds with the biblical method of organically receiving God’s Word, and introduces unbiblical methods for determining the readings of Scripture using manuscripts that had been lost to the Church for over fifteen hundred years in some cases. This makes their approach at odds with the Bible’s teaching on preservation.

The Church’s Confirmation of the Doctrine

To prevent this post from being excessively lengthy (more than it already is), I will keep this section brief. An example of an argument from the Church’s traditional understanding would be an appeal to her confessions of faith. The 1689, for example, states that the words of God have been kept pure in all ages, and that the Greek New Testament they had and the Hebrew Old Testament they had “are authentic.” A modern critical text proponent will say that they don’t refer to any specific textual family here, and that is true. However, the whole of the Greek manuscript tradition they had was essentially that which is found in the Textus Receptus, and so unless one is prepared to say that the New Testament they referred to as being kept pure in all ages and presently authentic consisted of manuscript traditions they didn’t have access to in their age, it is clear that the NA28 is incompatible with their view of the text. This is especially certain in the context of who they were responding to, as one of the Roman Catholic arguments against Sola Scriptura was that the manuscript tradition had become too corrupted for the Reformers to use as their final authority. But if they were still unable to determine the authentic Greek text in their day, then this would have been a useless defense on their part. (see the section on the historical background of 1.8 of the Confession in Sean’s post for more on this).

The practice of modern textual critics is also certainly not in line with the Church tradition. They will often accuse Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza of doing work similar to theirs, but their practice differs in several vital areas. Most importantly, the manuscripts used for the TR had been in active use by the church in the East, and had not been altogether lost to the people of God. The manuscripts came to the West after Greek-speaking Christians were pushed out of their native territory, just in time for the development of the printing press, which would give the new Reformation Church a stable Greek text to be propagated and translated into the native languages of Protestants throughout the world. (The convergence of all those factors at one time and place seems almost providential, doesn’t it?). As such, the reformers were able to receive their Bible from a living tradition, rather than from an archeological site. For those interested in exploring the differences between the methodologies of the Reformers and modern textual critics more, I commend this article by Taylor DeSoto to you.

How the Modern Critical Text Position is Based Only on the Third and Weakest Form of Authority

That modern textual criticism is based neither in Scriptural truths nor Church tradition hardly needs to be proved. Proponents are quite open to the fact that it’s based in considerations such as the perceived development of text types, the plausibility that a scribe would make one sort of error over another, and an evaluation of the earliest extant copies. An easy proof of this is that some of the greatest textual critics even in the eyes of Christians in the field are unbelievers like Bart Ehrman, and that their scholars do not see the sharing of different theological commitments as any hindrance to their work.

But how could it possibly not be a hindrance? In a world where God has – with His singular care and providence – been working to keep His text pure in all ages, would we not expect a denial of that truth to have an impact on the work of the textual critic, and lead him to erroneous conclusions at least some of the time? Wouldn’t someone who believes God was working to give His Church His pure Word have a different standard of what’s necessary to overthrow the present text than someone who believes that the present text is just as likely to be inauthentic as not? We’d expect that someone who didn’t believe in preservation would overthrow the Church’s readings whenever the “preponderance of evidence” (according to the standards they’ve come up with) favored another reading by any more than 50%, but we hope the believer in God’s preservation would need something significantly more compelling than that. How then, could the believer and unbeliever come up with the same text, unless the believer was doing textual critical work with unbelieving presuppositions, or else the unbeliever was behaving like a believer? Considering the statements of some believing textual critics, such as Tommy Wasserman who once said, “I would like to work as a text-critic as if God didn’t exist, so to speak,” it’s not hard to say which of those two scenarios has happened.

In the last section, I will show how that – like every other argument grounded in the third category – the methods adopted by modern textual critics are far from able to provide the certainty they pretend to, and so do not come close to challenging a position built on God’s sure promises.

Part 2 – No Ability to Reconstruct the Text of the Early Centuries

One of the easiest ways to tell if someone has understood our position is if they accuse us of being inconsistent on the grounds that we have no consistent textual critical methodology to reconstruct the text. This would be much like saying to a young earth creationist (such as myself), “You have no consistent scientific methodology to determine the age of the earth! You use one standard of explaining fossils that exist in this strata, and another standard for fossils in a different one, etc.” Someone who would say this to a creationist clearly has not understood their position; the creationist position is that we should not use scientific inquiry to determine the age of the earth! The evidence is too fragmentary, the assumptions behind historical science are unfounded and untestable, and none of their efforts have the infallibility of God’s Word, which plainly teaches a young earth. Likewise, we proponents of the Textus Receptus say that the manuscript evidence is too fragmentary, that the assumptions behind textual criticism are unfounded and untestable, and that none of their efforts have the infallibility of God’s Word, which plainly teaches God preserved His Word.

The parallels between creationism and the arguments in favor of the TR are many, and the proponent of the modern critical text would do well to stop and ask himself before making a given argument: “Does this argument look a lot like the ones old earth creationists use against young earth creationists?” They complain that we shouldn’t discuss evidence if our position is theologically based. Well, is Ken Ham wrong to look at fossil evidence when his position is theologically based? It would be inconsistent of us to do so if we were saying our position was based on manuscript evidence, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful in bringing up the errors of our opponents’ viewpoint, and showing that the evidence is not as conclusive as they’d like it to be. Their view, in fact, has many problems.

1- Their evidence is fragmentary. Despite the often repeated trope that “we have earlier and better copies of the New Testament than any other work of antiquity,” the honest truth is we have nowhere near the number of copies necessary to establish the readings of the early Church with the level of certainty maintained by some modern critical text advocates. While its true that we have a greater number of New Testament manuscripts than other works of antiquity, and we have certain fragments that are nearer to the time of the autographs than can be found in other ancient works, none of these facts imply that we can have the kind of certainty we’d like to have in the reading of the Word of God. Most of the large number of New Testament manuscripts are late, and agree much more with the Textus Receptus than they do with the modern critical text. But there are some parts of Revelation, for example, that have only one extant Greek manuscript attesting to them for nearly the first thousand years of the Church, and it’s a sleight of hand to use the large number of later manuscripts to say that the early copies of the Church are well-attested to. Further, the Greek copies that we do have from the earlier periods are not geographically wide-spread, but simply come from a region whose climate was more conducive to their survival: Egypt. There is no good evidence that those manuscripts were representative of the text in Christendom as a whole and not simply the region they came from. This is especially probable because those texts (formally called “Alexandrian,” but that’s no longer recognized as a legitimate category) have been observed to contain more readings in common with the Textus Receptus the older they are. In the early 3rd Century Cheaster Beatty Papyri, for example, there are dozens of readings that are distinctly Byzantine (the family of manuscripts the TR belongs to), which surprised the textual critics of the time, who before only had Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus as the earliest Greek manuscript evidence [2]. In any case, the “Alexandrian” manuscript family that the modern critical texts mostly align with has little more than a handful of early manuscripts (mostly fragmented) from a narrow region of Christendom to support it. Considering the immensely larger population of manuscripts that no doubt existed at the time, the vast swaths of Christendom whose climate wasn’t favorable for the survival of manuscripts, and the apparent lack of influence these manuscripts had on many that came after them, can anyone say that this is sufficient to determine with certainty what the text of the Church looked like at this time? Especially when that “text” is so unstable, and its manuscripts so dissimilar from one another, that modern textual critics are abandoning the notion that its representatives could even be classified into a unified manuscript family?

For throwing doubt on the notion that the manuscript evidence is solid enough to reconstruct the text of Scripture with a high degree of certainty, TR proponents are often accused of a “hyper-skepticism” that would obliterate are ability to know anything about ancient history at all. The argument seems to be that since the standards for establishing the readings of other ancient works is even weaker than those for the New Testament, that therefore the small, disparate, regional manuscripts must be good and solid. This is a non sequitur. Poor evidence for one discipline doesn’t make evidence for another good. Further, TR advocates do not generally say that the scant evidence means you wouldn’t be able to know anything about the New Testament by the standards of secular history, or that you can’t know anything about Plato or Aristotle; rather, what we are saying is that it’s utterly insufficient to be able to establish individual readings with anywhere near the level of certainty that the opposing position pretends. Especially since – as the early, heretical corrupters like Marcion have shown – the authority that the New Testament demands over its hearers provides greater motivation for evil men to alter it than the works of Plato or Aristotle, and so if we are to appeal to the world’s standards of textual certainty, we would have greater reason to be suspicious of the copies of the New Testament than other works of antiquity. Therefore, our standard of evidence would need to be all the more stronger, and we cannot pretend that as long as it would be sufficient for another work that it would be sufficient for the NT. Most importantly, we can all rest easy if the standards for the Greek poets is only good enough to reliably establish their general content and not their exact words, but we can NOT rest easy if that’s all we can do with the Bible. God’s words are much more precious to the Church than the words of ancient pagans, and God has promised to preserve His words perfectly, not theirs. Every word of God is pure (Proverbs 30:5).

2- Their methods are unscientific. Despite often being referred to as the “science” of textual criticism, textual criticism is about as scientific as the social sciences. It’s essentially just guess work, and the principles for favoring one variant over another rests on little else than the opinions of a few men who pioneered the field. Sure, on the microscopic scale they may be able to reliably determine the spelling of a word, but whenever they encounter a translatable variant of significance, their “scientific” methodology is basically, “If I was the scribe in that circumstance, I think I’d probably be more likely to make this mistake instead of that mistake.” Examining their works, the language that appears is “probably,” “most likely,” “with little doubt,” etc. Unlike a real scientific discipline, they are unable to quantify those probabilities in any meaningful way. This is because they can’t conduct any sort of rigorous experiment to examine the success-rate of the “rules” they developed. Without knowing what the correct readings of a text should be, there is no way to determine if their methods have produced the correct readings, which is why they are unable to provide any hard numbers about the likelihood of their product. They are ultimately limited to their ability to imagine the different motivations for spurious readings, as well as their ability to reconstruct the circumstances of the unknown scribe, without any thorough way to determine if they’ve done a good job. Indeed, there must be many places where they haven’t done a very good job before, because as we speak CBGM (a computerized way of trying to uncover relationships between manuscripts) is overthrowing a large number of the readings that they claimed were established using reliable principles that could give us near certainty. So far, in fact, CBGM has been favoring Byzantine readings.

An example of the unreliability of their historical methods may be helpful. There’s a discrepancy in the opening of Mark’s Gospel between the TR and the modern critical text. The TR reads,

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:2-3)

However, in the modern critical text, instead of reading “As it is written in the prophets,” it reads “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” The problem with this reading is that the quotation that Mark immediately references is from Malachi, not Isaiah. But largely because one of the principles of textual criticism is to prefer the harder reading – i.e., the reading that’s harder for them to imagine emerging by accident – they ignore the vast majority of manuscripts which read “the prophets” in favor of “Isaiah the prophet.” They generally excuse the problem on the grounds that there was a custom to refer to the scroll of a major prophet that a minor prophet was attached to, but those who have looked into this have been hard-pressed to find a citation for that claim. But in any case, it’s far from inexplicable why “Isaiah the prophet” might have been tacked on later. I say that with confidence, because I once made a similar mistake myself. Earlier in my Christian walk, I had a conversation with two Jehovah’s Witnesses, and while witnessing to them I remembered hearing something about the citation in Mark 1:2 confirming that Jesus is Jehovah God. And so, I went to my King James Bible, which read “the prophets” in Mark 1:2, and recognizing the language of the quotation that followed, I went to the place I was sure it came from… Isaiah 40. Unfortunately, I found Isaiah 40 wasn’t nearly as clear in confirming Christ’s Deity as I was expecting it to be. The reason, of course, is because the passage Mark cites in verse 2 which proves Jesus is Jehovah God is in Malachi 3, not Isaiah 40, even though Mark references Isaiah 40:3 in verse 3. Because Isaiah is a more familiar book to most Christians than Malachi, and because I didn’t have the whole of chapter 40 memorized (believe it or not), I simply assumed that’s where the whole passage was from. Would it be shocking, then, if an early scribe who likewise didn’t have the whole Bible memorized but recognized the familiar language of Isaiah, wrote “Isaiah” in the margins, which was later confused as part of the text? This is especially probable considering that the scribe very likely wouldn’t have even had an Old Testament on hand to check the citation, and he couldn’t exactly Google the reference either.

Many more examples of their suspect conclusions could be given. I bring up that example not to say for sure how the error arose (I can’t mind-read the scribe any better than they can), but rather to show that it’s unwise to base our texts on the limited imagination of man. There is no guarantee we could come close to imagining all the possible ways one reading may have emerged over another, so it’s dangerous to place confidence in a reading simply because we think it’s less likely to be accidental. We are dealing with the Word of God, and we need a much surer ground for our confidence than what men can provide.

3- Their methods are inconsistent. The methods which they defend as the best way to reliably ground the preservation of Scripture can’t be applied to the whole Bible. Namely, they cannot be applied to Old Testament. A staple of their argumentation is that we can have confidence that we have the Word of God in the modern critical editions because it’s based on earlier and better evidence than other works of antiquity. However, the same people will usually insist that we can be confident about the readings of the Bible as a whole, but the OT would fail by those standards. The earliest material we have for the OT are the ~3rd Century BC Dead Sea Scrolls, which do include virtually the entirety of Isaiah, but otherwise little more than scraps of the rest of the OT. For the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we have the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex, which are from the 10th and 11th centuries AD. Considering that the Pentateuch was written c. 1500 BC, we’re talking about a gap of ~2500 years from the autographs to our earliest copies. To dodge this obvious problem, evidence-based apologists will appeal to how similar the material is in the Dead Sea Scrolls is to the later copies we have, and indeed this is a remarkable testament to God’s providence in preserving His Word. However, they have already rejected appealing to God’s providence to ground the text of Scripture, and so to fill in the massive gaps between the earliest copies and the originals they appeal to the rigorous copying techniques of the Jewish Masoretes, and say this is sufficient reason from a purely naturalistic perspective to trust that the OT we have is authentic. But this argument cannot withstand any serious scrutiny, because it relies on extrapolating the techniques of the later Masoretes (6th-10th centuries AD) all the way back to the time of Moses. The history given to us in our Bible makes this impossible. Are we to believe that the techniques of the Masoretes were employed during the Babylonian Captivity? If we insist on not appealing to the promises of God when establishing our text, what historical evidence would anyone bring to say those practices existed during that time? Further, we know there wasn’t any extensive copying during the early reign of Josiah, because the copy found in the Temple was the only one they had (2 Kings 22:8-10). You can say that it was faithfully transmitted before and after that event, which I do, but you must admit that our grounds for saying that with confidence can only be God’s promise to preserve His Word. And if you say that we can be confident about the readings of a text that’s removed 2500 years from its originals, how can you turn around and say we’re wrong for trusting a text 1500 years removed from its originals is authentic? Are we wrong to do that because you believe the evidence we’ve found since that time undermines the TR (despite the fact this evidence isn’t good enough to prove that a single reading of our TR is inauthentic)? If that’s the case, why can you be confident that the Hebrew Bible we have is authentic, and that we won’t find earlier evidence for it that undermines it, in the same way you believe the TR has since been undermined? You surely can’t claim that our copies of the OT are too near to their originals to make that impossible. You are left where we are, and where we will always remain by the grace of God: trusting in God’s providence for your Bible.

Conclusion

When there’s a conflict between the plain reading of Scripture and the “plain reading” of other forms of evidence, we must always let Scripture interpret the evidence, and not let evidence interpret the Scriptures. This, I contend, is the foundation of creationism as well as the TR. Scripture was given to us to read and understand by the infallible God, but extra-biblical evidence has no such promise attached to it, and we have no reason to believe the “plain reading” of the current consensus of any human field was meant to lead us into truth. When the choice is between arguments built on the infallible ground of Scripture and arguments built on the quicksand of man’s reasoning, latest archaeological findings, and favorite scholars, we hope the right decision is clear.

Footnotes:

[1] Proverbs 11:14, of course, is speaking of godly counselors – followers of the old paths whose wisdom is rooted in God’s Word, such as the old men who counseled Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:7. The verse is not speaking of counselors that may appear in the third category – those like the young men who counseled Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:10-11 out of their own fleshly wisdom. The latter type of counselors multiply only folly.

[2] Hills, Edwards. The King James Version Defended. Des Moines: The Christian Research Press, 1997. Pg. 225.

How Much Devil Should You Study?

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. For your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil

Romans 16:17-19

The above passage is one of many that deals with the topic of biblical separation. The doctrine of separation is unpopular enough as it is, but the verses of Romans 16:17-19 should be more unpopular still, because they take the doctrine a step further than places like 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, the Bible only applies the doctrine of separation to fellowship, but Romans 16:17-19 extends it to all the way to knowledge, so that we are instructed to be “wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.” In an age driven by information, it may seem foolish and even offensive to suggest that sometimes ignorance really can be bliss, yet this appears to be what the Apostle is saying here. However, the title of this post, “How Much Devil Should You Study?”, is also not completely rhetorical. While Paul is admonishing us to avoid familiarizing ourselves with error to some degree, we will see that this prohibition is not so sweeping that it forbids knowledge of any kind concerning false worldviews. But this concession in no way vindicates those who rush headlong into the other pit; this text indeed rebukes those who make an idol out of learning. To discern the narrow path between the two pits, we will examine this passage in more depth and then compare Scripture with Scripture to uncover the full meaning behind the Apostle’s words.

The Text

The most pertinent part of this passage for our purposes is verse 19b, which reads, “I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.” We must discuss this verse in a little depth, because its rendering by several popular translations obscures its meaning. What the KJV, NKJV, Geneva, and others translate as “simple,” many others translate as “innocent.” This doesn’t necessarily change the meaning of the text (which can be thoroughly established by the context in either case) but it makes it somewhat less clear, and opens the door for people to try to interpret it like the NLT’s paraphrase of a “translation” does, which renders 19b as, “I want you to be wise in doing right and to stay innocent of any wrong.” That is not what the text says, which reads identically in the Greek regardless of what underlying Greek text you use. The Greek word in question is “akeraious” (ακεραιους). The “a” in akeraious serves the same function as the “a” in ahistorical or atheist (both words have Greek origins) – i.e., the “a” is a negative prefix, and would be like placing a “not-” before the word. Keraious is believed to be a derivative of kerannymi, which means “mix” or “mingled.” According to its etymology, then, the literal meaning of akeraious would be “not-mixed,” which is indeed its primary definition given by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. In secular works, it was often used to describe things such as pure metals – things that were not mixed with other substances. But beyond this primary meaning, however, it also has a strong moral connotation. The word behaves in precisely the same way as the English words “pure” and “simple” do, both of which – in their literal sense – suggest something that’s “undiluted,” “uncompounded,” or “unmixed.” But, just like akeraious, they have moral connotations that often extend beyond their literal meanings, so that something can be described as “pure” that may in other respects be quite complex.

Given this information, is “innocent” an inaccurate translation of akeraious? Well, it’s not so much inaccurate as it is incomplete, or – at the very least – somewhat presumptuous. There may be contexts where it’s clear that only the moral connotation of the word is in view (Matthew 10:16 would be an example), but that’s not the case in Romans 16:19. On the contrary, the preceding verses are precisely about avoiding evil deceivers (i.e., not mixing with them), and as a consequence we are unmixed concerning evil. No doubt the moral connotation is also there, but it’s there on account of – not at the expense of – the literal, primary meaning. In other words, Paul indeed is saying that he wants the Romans to be innocent concerning evil, but they would be innocent by virtue of being simple concerning evil. Since “simple” already possesses both an analogous literal meaning and an analogous moral connotation to akeraious, it’s a perfect translation of the word in this context. This understanding is further supported by the fact that Paul is clearly juxtaposing akeraious with the word translated as “wise” (sophous [σοφους]) for the purpose of contrasting them and advising a contrary course of action. Rather than having the Romans to be wise concerning the evil (as he would have them be concerning the good), Paul wants them to be the opposite of that, because the opposite of good demands an opposite approach. But “simple” – and not “innocent” – is the opposite of wise, and so the contrast Paul makes would make little sense if we understood akeraious to only mean innocent.

The context might be even more decisive than the meaning of akeraious. In the 21st Century, it may be easy to imagine how we could mark and avoid those who cause divisions, and yet remain well-educated concerning their doctrine. However, in Paul’s immediate context (and the context of the vast majority of Church history for that matter), this would be an impossibility for nearly all of the Church. Most people in Paul’s days were illiterate, and couldn’t exactly Google the arguments of nearby heretics if they avoided them. In those days, to avoid a group of people would be to virtually guarantee that you would never hear their perspective except as reframed by those on your side. With this in mind, it almost doesn’t matter how one tries to bend verse 19, because the logical result of Paul’s instruction to avoid the Church’s enemies is that the people of God would be simple concerning false doctrine.

What he’s NOT saying

Paul is not saying that we should stick our heads in the sand and ignore the evil around us. He is not saying that we should be so intent on avoiding a confrontation with error that we retreat to our own bubbles that never interact with the world we sojourn in. On the contrary, Paul expressly denounces such hermit-like behavior in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, where he says, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.” As far as physical separation goes, Paul only instructs us to practice this when it comes to “any man that is called a brother” who is engaged in the above behavior (v. 11), but he does not encourage us to practice this in regards to those not numbered among us. We would need to leave the world altogether to do that. Accordingly, Romans 16:17-19 is likewise primarily directed at avoiding those who are falsely called brothers as well as their perversions of the Scriptures, even if the admonition to be simple concerning evil doesn’t seem to be entirely limited to that.

Paul is most definitely not advocating a total ignorance of the errors of this world. In regards to the Devil, the Apostle says plainly that “we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11). There are many sections of Scripture that refer broadly to the pagan practices around the people of God, as well as to the workings of the enemy himself. God, in His wisdom, has seen it fit that His people should be aware of these things, so that we might be able to anticipate the operations of the one who opposes us. We are warned expressly about certain heresies which beset the early Church, such as the proto-gnostics that denied Jesus’ humanity (2 John 7, 1 John 4:2, etc.). We also see the Apostle Paul himself quoting a pagan philosopher to prove a point in Acts 17:28. All this would be impossible if we were forbidden to know anything about the systems of unbelief around us. How could we even avoid those like the proto-gnostics if we refuse to investigate them enough to know that they deny Jesus’ humanity? The same could be said of all other groups that deny the central tenets of the Christian faith. We can’t know that they’re in opposition to us without learning something about what they believe.

What he IS saying

He IS saying that we should be “simple concerning evil.” To be simple about something doesn’t mean that you know nothing, but it does mean that you don’t overly familiarize yourself with it. You should have a general sense of what people around you believe, and you should understand where the unbelievers diverge from the Faith and why what they believe is damnable error. You should understand the risk they pose to you, especially if there is any chance that their deceptions might creep into believing circles. But you can do all this and still be simple concerning their errors, because none of this should necessitate a deep dive into their teachings. Concerning the intricacies of their doctrine, you have learned enough when you have learned that they do not preach Christ crucified, and that they deny the simple Gospel that salvation is by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, according to the merits of Christ Alone. You have learned enough when you learn that they deny the central truths about who God is, who Jesus is, and what the biblical way of salvation is. You have learned enough when it becomes clear that people in this group need the Good News of Jesus Christ preached to them, and at that point this is what you should be concerting your efforts to do. If this is your approach, you can very easily learn what the Bible tells us is necessary to learn about systems of unbelief while also following the apostolic admonition to be simple.

The best way to learn what it means to be biblically simple is to look at the examples the Bible gives us to follow. If we confess that Scripture is indeed sufficient, and that it is capable of making us “perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:17), and also confess that apologetics is a good work, then we can expect to find the principles directing us how to engage in it within the Word of God. And find it we do, with confrontations between believers and unbelievers appearing throughout the Scriptures. Yet, in none of these cases do we find evidence of the saints doing intense research into the positions of the children of darkness. When Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal, there is no hint of him studying the details of Baalic worship, their preferred “sacred” texts, or their favorite festival days. On the contrary, he lets the power of God speak for itself (1 Kings 18:36-38). In the New Testament, whenever we see Christians give an answer for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:15), the reason they give is always through the authority of God’s Word and grounded in the reality of the Lord’s Resurrection. The closest we see to familiarity of unbelieving thought is the already alluded to verse of Acts 17:28, but this doesn’t fall into the primary category that Paul is concerned with in Romans 16:19; Paul, in Acts, is referencing a nugget of truth contained in the pagan poet’s writings, and not to the heretical distortions of Scripture that would be made by those he is instructing us to avoid. Chiefly, it is the depths of those Satanic distortions that Paul wants us to be simple of – he is not telling us to be simple concerning anything that just isn’t explicitly Christian.

The biblical precedent is clear; the best defense is a good offense. Rather than exhorting us to study evil, Scripture exhorts us to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). We are told that the way “to stand against the wiles of the devil” is to “Put on the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11), which is composed of the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the preparation of the Gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:14-17). All of these things – which the Bible proclaims are effective against the Devil – are obtained from God through studying, applying, and receiving His truth into our lives. None of them stem from the study of evil.

Potential Objections

I anticipate that the greatest source of pushback against this post would stem from practical concerns. Perhaps one might ask, “How can we effectively persuade others to leave their errors without thorough research?” Or else they might say, “Will we not lose intellectual respectability with unbelievers? How will we be taken seriously if we timidly avoid those who disagree with us?” Neither of these objections are well-founded. The first one fails to understand the true means of converting sinners, which is the supernatural, self-authenticating authority of the Word of God, and not an exchange of ideas. To be sure, God often uses other means in the process and some of those means are legitimate. However, not all the means that God may work through in saving sinners are authorized for us to practice. As the saying goes, God is perfectly able to draw a straight line using a crooked stick, and sometimes those crooked sticks include seeker-sensitive worship services, charismatic revivals, and even “Christian” tarot cards in some bizarre cases. None of those are the least bit justifiable from Scripture. If you’re convinced that it “works” to thoroughly study evil when witnessing to the lost, you must show why this conviction legitimizes the practice anymore than Andy Stanley’s conviction would legitimize his unhitching of the Old Testament when he evangelizes, when both approaches are unauthorized. We must preach the Gospel after the pattern given us in the New Testament, which assures us that it is itself the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16).

The second hypothetical objection fails partly by misunderstanding the position advocated here, and also by striving for something the Bible repudiates as sinful. We do not avoid those who disagree with us, nor does the Apostle’s instruction demand that we run and duck for cover anytime we find ourselves in a situation where we begin to hear more about an aberrant view. Far from being timid, this position requires great boldness. It requires us to be confident that any detailed knowledge of the evil we face is unnecessary to overcome it, because our sword – God’s Word – is guaranteed to be more than sufficient to deal with any obstacle in our path. We are to be so confident in our General that there is no need to scout out the land of our enemies, for the battle is already ours. Whatever nuance, novelty, or sophistry the devil throws at us, we know that none of his adherents have an answer to one of the most simple questions: How will you stand before a Thrice-Holy God when you lie dead in your sins? The righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ and His death on the Cross for our sins remains the only means of abiding in the presence of the God who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).

However, the objector would be right in saying that – if you follow this example – you will be looked down on by the world and lose intellectual respectability. But this is guaranteed for any man who simply believes the Gospel, let alone any other biblical doctrines: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). You can never obtain intellectual respectability with the world, and we are never instructed to pursue it. If we were to neglect the commands of the Bible for the sake of appearing intelligent, we would ultimately have to abandon the core truths of Scripture altogether. We should be more concerned with what God thinks of us than what man thinks of us.

Practical Motivations for the Doctrine

Why does the Apostle want us to be simple? As someone who has spent much of my time in the past absorbed in false worldviews, it isn’t difficult for me to understand potential motivations for the doctrine. Ultimately, I believe we shouldn’t fill our heads with too much error for the same reason we shouldn’t fill our heads with too much crass TV; it pollutes the mind. Even when you know the content you’re absorbing is wicked and false, that doesn’t stop it from seeping into your mind and popping up over and over again without your permission. The more you expose yourself to heretical perspectives, the more you ingrain them as permanent “voices” in your head, accompanying you as you read every passage, enter into every argument, and face every trial in your life, hoping to prey on your weaknesses. Sure, all error can be refuted and shown to not be built on the foundation of Truth, but that doesn’t stop it from sticking with you and constantly reasserting itself, even when you’re trying to do nothing else but reflect on the Truth you seek to defend. Little can be so corrosive to personal piety than when you are ceaselessly engaged in combating error at the very moment you are seeking peace and respite – in the regular reading of God’s sacred Word. Yet, this is precisely what the obsession with error can lead to, and it can seriously impede your ability to rest in the peace of Christ on this side of glory.

My purpose in writing this is not to encourage intellectual laziness, but to encourage intellectual rigor in the area that is much more profitable – in the study of the Truth. Who reading this will say that they have mastered the faith and are now ready to move on to mastering unbelief? The Bible is a well without a bottom and its depths can never be sounded out. We find more than enough armory to withstand whatever the devil may throw at us in it, and unlike the evils that beset us, we are always spiritually edified by anything we learn from Scripture. Why not seek to be wise unto the good?

Leighton’s Ministry of Selfishness

In a twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan’s head spin, Leighton Flowers recently released an hour-plus long video on … Calvinism! In his latest installment of Quantity over Quality, Leighton joins his friend, Eric Kemp, in trying to smoke out the Hyper-Calvinist of John Piper’s doctrine by setting a stadium’s worth of strawmen on fire. They review a video where Piper warns against the dangers of Hyper-Calvinism, and they allege that no one’s sure who these Hyper-Calvinists are anyways, but, at the same time, Hyper-Calvinism is a great, looming danger, and Piper’s views would lead to Hyper-Calvinism if consistently applied!

If you were looking for compelling reasons why Hyper-Calvinism is the inevitable conclusion of biblical orthodoxy (also known as Calvinism), you’ll be disappointed. The same miserable, sunken-eyed arguments are again mustered to the front lines as the Chobham-armored Holy Bible steadily rolls through. Such arguments have been answered time and time again, including quite excellently by Sean and Dan, hosts of the Particular Baptist Podcast. Essentially, all Leighton’s points boil down to his inability to grasp compatibilism, and that the certainty of ends doesn’t diminish the significance (or culpability) of the means which accomplish those ends.

There’s no need for me to replicate the work of my brothers. Rather, the concern of this article will be the selfish, man-centeredness of Leighton Flowers’s position, borne out especially by several statements made by him and Eric in this video. Cast under the light of Scripture, the many miles of distance between their human philosophy and the inspired, God-honoring teachings of the Holy Spirit will be made patently clear. And, as a bonus, I will conclude by addressing that supposedly “unanswerable” objection that Leighton brings up towards the end of the video.

No doubt stemming from a bad conscience, Eric complains that Calvinists, like Piper, are “so polemical and pejorative” (1:10:00) whenever they rebuke their autonomous free-will, mini-gods theory. He asks, “Can popular Calvinist pastors and pundits make arguments without calling [people like me] a self-idolater?” Well, it’s hard to blame Piper when synergists like Eric tell us (in the same video) that one of his problems with Calvinism is that it results in God doing something that doesn’t depend on him or his skill as a preacher (32:15, 36:04). Oh, what a ghastly thought! The horror of thinking that the power of salvation might not rest on me and my abilities as a preacher, but on the message preached (1 Corinthians 1:17-21)! To think, as the Bible says, that the Gospel “is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), and not me and my ability to “meet people where they are … to come off as genuine,” as Eric affirms (36:10).

In contrast to Eric and Leighton, the only skill the Bible demands a preacher to have – when it comes to salvation – is the skill to get out of the way. This was the boast of the Apostle Paul:

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

While a pastor’s erudition, ability to convey information, compassion, and other gifts may serve him well in other areas of the ministry, the Gospel itself can only be hindered when one trusts in his own abilities to save souls. Accordingly, the Apostle Paul, and the greatest preachers since his time, such as Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon, took great pains to take themselves out of the preaching of the Gospel, trusting that the Holy Spirit works best when the means of salvation is laid bare in its pure form without admixture. Spurgeon says of his ministry:

“I have long worked out before your very eyes the experiment of the unaided attractiveness of the gospel of Jesus. Our service is severely plain. No man ever comes hither to gratify his eye with art, or his ear with music. I have set before you, these many years, nothing but Christ crucified, and the simplicity of the gospel; yet where will you find such a crowd as this gathered together this morning? Where will you find such a multitude as this meeting Sabbath after Sabbath, for five-and-thirty years? I have shown you nothing but the cross, the cross without flowers of oratory, the cross without diamonds of ecclesiastical rank, the cross without the buttress of boastful science. It is abundantly sufficient to attract men first to itself, and afterwards to eternal life!”

Charles Spurgeon. Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1888, vol. 34, p. 563

The Holy Spirit has thus testified, both in Scripture and in His planting of His Church since then, that the Gospel – not the eloquence of man – is what saves. And so the ministry of selfishness which cries, “Me! My! Myself!” will never save a tenth of the souls saved by the ministries of a Paul, an Edwards, and a Spurgeon, who proclaimed, “God! God! God!

Comparing the difference of attitude, we see that Piper’s charge of self-idolatry was not unwarranted. These are men who hear Paul ask, “Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? (Romans 11:35), and don’t think that the question is rhetorical.

The general man-centeredness of Eric and Leighton was exposed further when they criticized Piper for daring to ground our motivation for evangelism in the Bible. Piper rightly says in his video, “The Bible tells us: preach the Gospel to everyone! And the sheep will hear the Shepherd’s voice in the preaching and follow Him” (5:26). What’s the problem with this? Dr. Flowers explains: “The reason we preach [in Piper’s view], is not because we love everyone and desire everyone’s salvation, because God loves … and wants everyone’s salvation … that’s not the reason you preach, the reason you preach is because we’re told to. In other words, law, not love” (33:12).

No punches can be pulled here. This is one of the most perverted, man-centered, and unbiblical contrasts I’ve ever seen drawn up by a confessing conservative Christian. Leighton sets the commandments given by God, who is Love (1 John 4:8), as OPPOSED to love. How can he justify this odious distortion? True, the condemnation the Law of the Old Testament brings is contrasted to the salvation of the Gospel, but this is not a contrast between law and love. Rather, the Law is an indictment against our love, because we did not love God and neighbor enough to fulfill it. But to have fulfilled it would have been the perfection of love, as Jesus Christ did. To say that obeying the commands of God – even those given in the New Testament – is at odds with love is utterly indefensible. No squirming will get Leighton around the plain teaching of Scripture, which says, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS” (1 John 5:2). Far from being at odds with love, keeping God’s commandments is the highest way of showing our love for Him, and it’s impossible to love Him or even genuinely love others if we don’t strive to keep them. But in Leighton’s twisted worldview, whatever chemical fizz, effervescing sentiments, or passing indigestion we associate with feelings of love is a higher motivation than the command of Love Himself – the Perfect, Holy, and inexhaustibly Good God! I cast the “feelings of love” in such terms not because I’m a stoic, but because that’s all such feelings amount to if they’re divorced from true love, which is always manifested by obedience to the One who is Love. By making his own passing feelings towards others a higher motivation than “Thus saith the LORD,” Leighton erects his own feelings up as a god to be preferred over the true One. This is idolatry, pure and simple. And until he repents of pitting “love” against obedience, it’s appropriate to say as much of him.

The Unanswerable Challenge!

I would’ve wanted to end here, as I believe this is already more than enough material for one blog post. However, towards the end of the video, Leighton issued a challenge that I can’t resist. He issues a great, unanswerable challenge, concerning which he says, “I have not yet heard [Calvinists] actually engage on that point” (55:00). What is this challenge?

“But in a sense they’ve created a good and evil within God by saying there’s … two wills within God, the prescriptive one and the secret one .. within a view of One God you have competing desires” (53:40).

Yeah, that’s right. Never been answered. It’s so unanswerable, in fact, that the first Google suggestion that comes up when you search “God two wills” is an article by the very man they’re critiquing, who provides answers to this question. That article was written 25 years ago, and quotes other men who answered it hundreds of years before that. For a man who’s dedicated his online ministry to attacking Calvinism, you’d think by now he’d have done enough research on the view he consumes himself with that he’d have noticed that some of the most prominent Calvinists in history have addressed his “insurmountable problem,” especially when they can be found via a simple Google search.

So, what’s the answer? Different men have different ways of articulating it, but the “problem” basically stems from a category error on the part of the question. The synergistic challenger imagines that the prescriptive will and the secret will are two of the same kinds of things, and thus make for some kind of contradictory dual nature in God, when, in fact, they bear little resemblance to one another. The secret will is the unified, eternal decree of God which He accomplishes, but the prescriptive will is that which is given to His creatures to accomplish. Unlike His secret will, He does not decree to accomplish His prescriptive will except insofar as it overlaps with His secret will. Instead, the prescriptive will consists of the demands that His creatures must fulfill to live in His presence. God demands perfection – a perfection that was only satisfied in His Son, Jesus Christ – and He cannot allow sinners to abide unpunished who don’t attain it. Sin is loathsome in His sight, hence the Lord says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). There’s nothing inconsistent in God’s secret will not including our fulfillment of His prescriptive will, because there’s nothing inconsistent in God not willing a sinful creature to live in His presence. What’s more miraculous is that He has willed some sinful creatures to live in His presence by decreeing that they fulfill His prescriptive will to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him, justice is satisfied, and His fulfillment of the entirety of God’s prescriptive will is imputed to us without charge. And not ending there, His Holy Spirit gives us new hearts to desire what He desires, so that His will may be our highest delight – our greatest motivation – rather than our own subjective feelings. Truly, He enables us to make Him our God, that we may abandon the idols of selfishness for good, glorying in the One who has done all of the work, deserving all of our praise.

Soli Deo Gloria

THE TRINITY IN ETERNITY AND CREATION: How the Relations are Magnified in Redemptive History

In my last post, I dealt with the distinctions of the Persons within the Godhead, and explained how these eternal distinctions can exist in One and the same Being. In it, we saw that the orthodox, biblical view of the Trinity is that the Persons are distinguished only by their relative properties, and not by actual properties within the Persons. As such, each Person is One and the same God, and yet they are distinct within the Godhead. But last time we limited ourselves to exploring the nature of the Trinity as it is in eternity; how do these truths relate to the Trinity’s operation in creation and redemptive history? Much in every way, as will be borne out by Scripture. In God’s Word, we’ll see that the eternal distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit are beautifully magnified by their operations in the world, and that our God has mercifully given us insight into the great mysteries that we can’t see by the things we can see.

Creation is no an accident: “all things were created by him, and for him” (Colossians 1:16). All things were made according to God’s purpose, who has made the world and guided history “for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness,” as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith puts it (4.2). He has made space and time as the vessels to hold the radiance of His glory, through which He is able to contrast the wonders of His blessings with the places and seasons left in darkness. Likewise, space and time are able to magnify the beauty of the Holy Trinity by localizing what’s beyond all locality in the Godhead. Throughout space and time, we find the different Persons taking on specific roles that reflect the distinctions of their relations in the Godhead. Strictly speaking, a single Person of the Trinity is never confined to a space, time, or action that the other members are entirely absent from, but it’s nevertheless important to recognize certain doings of God as the specific work of either the Father, Son, or Spirit, as the Bible asserts. Because of the distinction of their relations, a given work will be more proper to one of the Persons than the rest. We will explore why certain works are ascribed individually to the Father, Son, and Spirit one Person at a time.

God The Father

In the last post, we discussed how the Father is “the from,” because the relationships between Him and the other members of the Trinity stem from Him (diagram reproduced above for your convenience). As such, He functions as the logical source of all else, even of the uncreated, co-eternal Persons. On this account, He is more frequently depicted as the Creator and given the appellation of God than the other Persons. To be sure, all three Persons are involved in creation, and all three Persons are the One same God in their own right, but He is most commonly referred to as the Creator-God because of His role as “the from” within the Godhead itself. Consequently, it’s most natural to refer to Him when speaking of God generically, since His relation models the source-hood aspect of God more than the rest. We shouldn’t be the slightest bit embarrassed that the Bible more often refers to the other members of the Trinity as the “Son of God” and the “Spirit of God” rather than “God the Son” and “God the Spirit.” Even though the latter way of speaking is manifestly orthodox, used by ourselves here, and is supported by Scripture itself (e.g. John 1:1, Acts 5:3-4), the Bible’s default way of referring to the Father when speaking of God reflects something meaningful about the relations within the Godhead, and is by no means accidental.

As “the from,” He is the most removed from everything else. He most preeminently displays the transcendent aspect of the Deity, occupying His throne in Heaven far above the earth. Hence the Lord instructs us to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9), not, “Our Father which art in the earth.” The Father’s actions always take place from Heaven where He remains, primarily using mediating forces to interact with creation, such as angels. Yet, the source of those mediating forces is always His will, and to Him are always ascribed the acts of predestination, calling, and drawing (Ephesians 1:3-5, Romans 8:29-30, John 6:44). As the source, it’s to Him that we’re ultimately directed, as Jesus does when He instructs us to pray to the Father (Matthew 6:9, John 16:26-27), and not to Himself. All three members of the Trinity are perfectly able to answer our petitions (e.g. Act 7:59, where Stephen sees the risen Lord and asks Him to receive his spirit), but Scripture is very consistent in only instructing us to pray to the Father – the ultimate source of the divine activity, and therefore the source of the will that fulfills our prayers. The only possible exception to this rule is when we are instructed to call on the Son in our initial act of faith (cf. Romans 10:13), and this is because Jesus is the One who provides the ground for our relationship with the Father as the “to/from.”

God the Son

As the “to/from,” the Son is the great mediator between God and man. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). The great analogy which models the role of the Son is indicated by His other title – The Word. The Word is that which reveals the One who speaks, The Father, much like language is the means whereby we communicate ourselves to others. We cannot see each others’ souls; if I know you, I know you primarily through the words you speak. Your soul, and the hidden character attached to it, would always remain aloof and intangible without the imminent and tangible means of language. This is why Christ is that chief and great Word: “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). Like our souls, the Father is invisible and cannot be seen directly. We need the Son, the Word, to reveal the One who is above comprehension.

While the theophanies of the Old Testament are undoubtedly proper to the 2nd Person of the Trinity, the greatest way the Word reveals God is by His human nature, through which He is the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s as the Lord Jesus Christ that the to/from nature of the 2nd Person displays itself most magnificently, whereby the ineffable God manifests Himself in flesh that’s like our very own (1 Timothy 3:15). Through Him, the righteous, holiness of God is seen in human form in His life of perfection. Through Him, the divine wisdom is manifest in His incomparable teachings. With the beams of the Cross, the fullest expressions of divine mercy and justice meet in Him, and are laid bare for all to behold. And what a revelation of the divine goodness! At the Cross, it was God Himself who satisfied His perfect sentence against sin, so that we (including you, reader) who are deserving of eternal hell could be delivered without charge. And in the mystery of the Trinity, it was both God Himself and yet One distinct from the Father who suffered, so that the pain of self-suffering and – even greater – the pain of One’s Child suffering were both accomplished at Calvary. Truly, the sorrow there was without rival. “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger” (Lamentations 1:12). Yet God, in His infinite love and mercy manifested in the Person of Christ, did not shun a drop of that bitter cup to save those He graciously calls, “My people.”

God the Holy Spirit

In addition to the Father and the Word, there is that final outpouring of Deity known as the Holy Spirit. In God’s work in creation, the Father is as the King on His throne, the Son as the Decree that goes forth from His mouth, and the Spirit as the Power whereby the decree is accomplished, through whom the Father’s Word will not return void. In our analogy of language, while it’s the words that reveal the speaker, the actual words themselves cannot be heard without another medium. The words must rely on the power of the air between the speaker and the hearer for communication to take place. And so, the Lord Jesus Himself did not become incarnate without the power of the 3rd Person, who served as His medium by forming Him in His mother’s womb (Luke 1:35). Nor did Christ manifest His divine power until after the Holy Ghost had descended upon Him at His baptism, before which He performed no miracles (John 2:11). It was this power of the Spirit that communicated the divine nature of the Incarnate Word to those around Him, and – outside of the physical signs and wonders – it’s still this power of the 3rd Person of the Trinity that enables anyone to see Jesus for who He is, providing us the medium for His Word to communicate with us. The Spirit must open the blind eyes, fill the deaf ears, and stir the dead souls for us to come to the Savior, much as it was only by the Spirit’s power that the physical healings of eyes, ears, and death were accomplished by the Lord. As that great outpouring of Deity, it is the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, uniting us to Christ and sealing us until that awaited day of redemption (Ephesians 4:20).

Taking a step back, we can see the great wisdom in the division of the duties of the Persons of the Trinity. As God draws His children to Himself, the relations of the Persons are reflected in this process. The Father, as the supreme “from,” is He to whom we’re directed. When He decrees to draw us, we are most immediately reached by the final outpouring of the Deity, the Holy Spirit, who melts our hearts of stone and reorients us from death to life. And yet, the Holy Spirit does not send us directly to the Father (who is transcendent and incomprehensible to us), but rather to the Father’s self-revelation – His Word [1]. The Word, as the Lord Jesus Christ, embodies the fullness of the Godhead (Colossians 2:9), and visibly portrays the invisible God. As the “to/from,” He both reaches down to give us the gifts of the Spirit (John 15:26, Ephesians 4:8), and brings us up to become one with Him and the Father (John 17:21). And so it is that He says, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). In this way, the deep mystery of the inner-relations of the Persons is echoed in redemption, so that that which passes all understanding may be partly grasped even by those who still see through a glass dimly.

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

Footnote [1]: This fits in nicely with the filioque clause acknowledged by the Western Church, since it’s to the Son and, through Him, to the Father that the Spirit directs us, which we would expect from the One who proceeds from both, as opposed to proceeding from His own independent link to the Father.

Errors About the Trinity: A Classical Defense

There is perhaps no doctrine more frequently misunderstood or more difficult to comprehend than the doctrine of the Trinity. A large amount of our errors stem from our refusal to acknowledge that we cannot fully grasp it, and that the inner-workings of our almighty, infinite God are far beyond the capacity of even the best and brightest minds of men. It is a doctrine that we must receive to be true and shun any hint of deviation from, regardless of how much an alternative view might appeal to our fallen nature. Fortunately for 21st Century Christians, we have an abundance of riches that we may inherit from those who came before us – precious understandings of Scripture that have been tried, debated, and hammered out for two millennia by our Bible-believing forebears who have proven them to be in accord with the entirety of the Divine Revelation. Unfortunately for 21st Century Christians, of late there has arisen the most acute epistemological snobbery to ever infiltrate the ranks of many of the Church elite. These men treat their heirlooms like worn-out clothes, which may have fit once-upon-a-time but are now well out of fashion. They view their ancestors as barbarians to be pitied for their simplicity, and whose entire enterprise needs to be recreated from the ground up. My aim is to familiarize the reader with the jewels trampled upon by many prominent figures of our day, and to steer them away from the doctrines which contradict orthodoxy. I also aim to show that – while above our understanding – the classical doctrine of the Trinity is coherent, beautiful, and logically sound in the truth it proclaims.

The Litmus Test

Here at the Particular Baptist, we subscribe to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, and hold it to be an accurate summary of Biblical teachings. Concerning the Trinity, our confession speaks as follows:

“In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

1689 LBCF 2.3

In this articulation of the Trinity, there is nothing peculiar to our confession. It’s merely an expanded form of the corresponding section in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which itself is little more than a summary of the Nicene Creed that has been universally accepted by the Church for almost 1700 years now. Rather than unpack the meaning of these affirmations at the outset, we will take the via negativa, and uncover their truths by examining the falsehoods that depart from them. Only in the context of the errors that prompted the development of our standard Trinitarian language can we fully appreciate the precision and depth found in our historic confessions.

Part I – Errors Concerning the Trinity

Aside from overt denial of the Trinity, there are only two primary ways of departing from the above truths among those who still insist to be “Trinitarian”: modalism and tri-theism. Anyone who explicitly adopted either of those views would immediately be labeled as a heretic by orthodox believers worth their salt, but there are many who hold to either modalistic or tri-theistic understandings of the Trinity who will still claim to be Trinitarian, and so they fly under the radar of many Christians. Indeed, there are likely even many genuine, born-again believers who honestly think they have orthodox views about the Trinity, but have conceptions that are more akin to these heresies simply because they have never been properly instructed. We must be willing to extend grace to those who struggle but are eager to learn, since a mature understanding of the doctrine is difficult to expect for babes in the Faith. Such Christians may believe in the Triune God of Scipture and simply fail to properly articulate Him. However, less gentleness is called for when dealing with seminary-educated men who make themselves out to be leaders. Those we will be rebuking in this essay are those who are fully aware of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and yet still deny it, all the while pretending to believe in the Trinity lest anyone call them what they are. We will first deal with the error of modalism.

1.1 – Modalism

Part of the reason why so many professing Trinitarians end up with modalistic conceptions is because they don’t really understand what modalism is. There’s a misconception that modalism is the belief that the Persons of the Trinity are one God taking on different roles at different times, and that He is never more than one Person at one time. However, this is indeed a misconception, and one that I’ve seen made even by popular teachers who should know better. There is nothing in modalism that precludes God from being different Persons (or, in their view, manifestations) at the same time. A Oneness Pentecostal who knows his stuff won’t flinch to see the Father and Son contemporaneously interacting with each other. What distinguishes modalists is their belief that the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity are not real, eternal distinctions within the Godhead, but are rather the distinctions between the roles God plays in creation. Accordingly, you can have real interactions between the manifestations of God within creation, because in their view these are simply the distinct roles of the one Person intermingling. The key difference between Trinitarian theology and modalistic theology is NOT the fact that the distinct Persons of the Trinity simultaneously exist in creation, but that they are simultaneously distinct in eternity, within the Godhead Himself. The Bible says that Jesus shared His glory with the Father as a distinct Person “before the world was” (John 17:5), and that, in the beginning, the Word already was God and with God (John 1:1), and therefore the Word was/is distinct from God the Father outside of creation. And so, if you believe that the Trinity is something like the separating of a single beam of light as it travels through the prism of creation, I humbly encourage you to repent, because that is not true Trinitarianism, but modalism. Creation may magnify the distinctions between the Persons, but they already exist within the Godhead. Simply confessing that the Father is not the Son, who is not the Spirit, and yet that all three are One God does not sufficiently distinguish you from modalism – you must confess that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct in eternity. This is why the LBCF stresses that “the Son is eternally begotten of the Father,” because this affirms that the distinction is not temporal, but eternal. And so, a heretic like T.D. Jakes can throw Trinitarians all the bones he wants by saying he believes in the distinction of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but until he confesses that they are distinct within the Godhead, this concession means little.

1.2 – Tri-theism

The bulk of our concern in this essay will be combating tri-theism. This is because, unlike modalism, latent forms of tri-theism have ample support in the modern academy itself. If modalistic conceptions are common among lay people, at least they usually won’t be encouraged in that error when they turn for instruction. However, when the teachers themselves teach heresy, the danger is much greater. Not many will be surprised to see T.D. Jakes called a heretic, but would you expect that someone like William Lane Craig has embraced a fundamentally heretical view of the ontological nature of God? Unfortunately it’s true, and – as we shall see – he and many other such men have fearlessly abandoned a core tenet of the Christian faith confessed with unanimity for over 1800 years.

This error stems from a Jesuit by the name of Theodore de Régnon, who in 1892 began to write of an alleged fundamental difference between Latin-scholastic and Greek-patristic Trinitarian ontology. This misconception has grown to become an imagined divide between Eastern and Western Trinitarian thought altogether, rather than the specific Greek/Latin subcategories that de Régnon theorized. According to de Régnon, the basic difference between the two camps was that the Latins started with the divine essence and then proceeded to the Trinity, while the Greeks started with the Trinity and then proceeded to the divine essence. This distinction (which stands on specious grounds to begin with [1]) may seem harmless, but modern heretics have abused it to frame their abominations with historical legitimacy. Straining this perceived Eastern tradition, they feel comfortable to assert that the individual Persons of the Trinity have an ontological priority to the essence of the One God (which even de Régnon does not say the Greeks believed). Or, to translate tradesman-speak into English, what these theologians say is that God is the RESULT of the three Persons coming together, and therefore NONE of the Persons are themselves the One God; He is simply the combination of the Persons. In this view, God is composed of three distinct Beings, and therefore there is not really one, but three Gods! Make no mistake, friend, this is not monotheism, but tri-theism. Lest anyone think I’m misrepresenting them, let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth:

“Father, Son, and Spirit must be regarded as tightly enough related to each so as to render plausible the judgement that they constitute a particular social unit … In such social monotheism, it will be appropriate to use the designator God to refer to the whole Trinity, where the Trinity is understood to be one thing, even if it is a complex thing consisting of persons, essences, and relations.”

Cornelius Plantinga, JR, “Social Trinity and Tritheism.” 68

Notice the author of that statement: Cornelius Plantinga, former president of Calvin Theological Seminary. This is not a theological liberal, but someone who claims to stand in the stream of historical evangelicalism. In Plantinga’s view, God is not One Being, but rather a social unit,” much like a cohesive community of like-minded individuals would be. The Father, Son, and Spirit do not each possess the whole, undivided Divine Essence as the LBCF asserts, but rather they are parts of the Divine Essence, and only the Trinity as a whole would rightly be called God. Therefore, Plantinga does not hold to a real, ontological monotheism, but rather a “social monotheism,” as he says. William Lane Craig is even more explicit in this:

“[My view] holds that while the persons of the Trinity are divine, it is the Trinity as a whole which is properly God … the Trinity alone is God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while divine, are not Gods”

William Lane Craig, A Formulation and Defense of the Doctrine of the Trinity

In Craig’s view, then, only the whole Trinity can be called God, and none of the individual Persons can be called God, but only divine beings. If only Dr. Craig was around to let the Apostles know this, who routinely refer to the distinct Persons as each God in their own right (e.g. John 1:1, John 3:16, Ephesians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:2, 1 Timothy 3:16, John 21:28, Acts 5:3-4, Psalm 45:7, etc., etc.)! And while Craig tries to dodge the label of tri-theist by insisting that each Person is not Himself God (which is already profound heresy), it is truly the height of semantic trifling to deny that his position imagines three Gods, especially when he and J.P. Moreland say that the three Persons are “distinct centers of consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will” [2]. Who cares if you call each Person God or not if you say each are distinct divine beings, who each have more of a right to be called God than any of the fictions dreamed up by pagans? In their attempt to fashion God after their own image, they imagine that the Persons of God are like the persons of men, and so each Person is an ontologically distinct being with His own mind and will (contrary to Scripture, which presents no division in the one Will shared by the Persons of the Trinity [e.g. John 5:19, John 16:13]). But in this pertinacity they plummet themselves into polytheism, since if the Persons of God were like persons of men in this respect, God would no more be one Being than three like-minded comrades would be one person, and no matter how tight their “social unit” might be, they would not be One God. And so with that, Craig, Moreland, and Plantinga have abandoned all Protestant confessions, Nicaea, the Apostle’s Creed, and the daily recited Shema, which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). They depart from the first thing Jesus says when asked what the greatest commandment is (Mark 12:28-29). To pretend that these men are orthodox, evangelical Protestants when they aren’t even monotheists is to make orthodoxy mean nothing at all.

Part II – Defending Orthodoxy

Piecing together what we’ve said so far, the philosophically-minded reader may think that our rebukes of modalism and tri-theism have put us in a predicament. On the one hand, we’ve dismissed modalism for not recognizing a distinction of Persons within the Godhead, and on the other we’ve attacked tri-theism for arguing that there are multiple distinct Beings in the Godhead. So, what are we saying? Are we saying that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father within the Godhead, and yet the Father, Son, and Spirit are each simply the same One, undivided God? Our answer: Yes, and any departure to the right or to the left of this is heresy. It’s no concern of ours if this doesn’t fit into your realm of philosophical possibilities; what’s impossible for man is possible for God. He is by no means like us or anything else we’re familiar with. However, while the inner-workings of the Trinity are far beyond us, it is possible to demonstrate that these seemingly contradictory affirmations are, in fact, logically coherent. To the best of my ability, the remainder of this essay will be dedicated to proving just that.

2.1 – Divine Simplicity

We cannot properly explore the Trinity without first discussing another crucial aspect of God’s nature: namely, His simplicity. When we say God is simple, we don’t at all mean the same thing as when we might call a man simple. God is simple in the sense that He doesn’t have parts, and that everything in God is God. As Irenaeus put it in the 2nd Century:

“He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good— even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God. He is, however, above [all] these properties, and therefore indescribable.”

Irenaeus. Against Heresies, 2.13.3-4

This truth, confessed by Irenaeus at a time when the Church was still relatively pure from the later errors that would seep in, has been recognized by all branches of Christendom, and retained even by those who have apostatized on other doctrines. It was recognized by all of the reformers and all the historic confessions of faith. It became a universal doctrine of the Church because it’s a thoroughly biblical doctrine, grounded on God’s repeated emphasis of His Oneness, His pure self-identification with His Being, and the utter independence He asserts from all that is not Him. I’ve gone into a little more depth explaining this doctrine elsewhere, but here I will simply say that it’s a necessary consequence of God’s self-existence. If God was composed of parts that were not simply God Himself, then He would be dependent upon those parts to be who He is. Therefore, He would not be the utterly independent, self-existing Being we see in Scripture, but rather He would be dependent on that which isn’t in and of itself God, much like a car depends on nuts and bolts that aren’t the car itself.

The universal recognition of this doctrine is one of the reasons why the appeal to the East to lend an air of legitimacy to tri-theism is so unconvincing, because all of the Eastern theologians embraced a doctrine of divine simplicity that is completely incompatible with the musings of Craig, Plantinga, and Moreland, all of whom openly reject divine simplicity. And it’s easy to see why they must do so, for there is no room to have God be the sum of three Beings who are not God in light of His simplicity.

But the doctrine requires us to be even stricter than this, making our job more difficult still; if all that is in God is God, and the three Persons are each God, then it’s not only the case that a shared divine essence is uncompounded, but also that there are no additional attributes in any of the members of the Trinity that may differentiate them. How, then, is the Father not the Son, the Son not the Spirit, and the Spirit not the Father? Boethius answers this dilemma brilliantly.

2.2 – Actual vs. Relative Properties

When we describe something, there are multiple types of predication (i.e., there are multiple ways in which we can ascribe a quality to something). For the purpose of this essay, we’ll distinguish three types of predication: essential, accidental, and relational. Essential predication deals with the essence of something: namely, that which determines what a thing is on a fundamental level. E.g., to describe Bob as a person would be an essential predication, because Bob wouldn’t be Bob if he wasn’t a person. Accidental predication, on the other hand, occurs when we describe something that isn’t fundamental to the thing we’re describing; it’s something that could change without changing the nature of the thing we’re describing. E.g., describing Bob as having white hair is an accidental predication, since Bob would still be Bob even if he had blonde hair. Finally – and most importantly for our purposes – there is relational predication, which doesn’t directly describe the thing itself, but rather its relation to something else. E.g., describing Bob as the father of Joe is a relational predication.

Why is this relevant? Because, unlike essential and accidental predication (which together may be described as actual predication), relational predication doesn’t necessarily say anything about the thing it describes, but only speaks of a relationship that exists between that thing and something else. It may sometimes imply essential and accidental qualities (e.g. Bob being a father implies something about his age, gender, and hopefully character), but – in and of itself – relational predication doesn’t demand to be associated with any essential or even accidental qualities in the thing it describes. An example Boethius uses is a person being on the right or left of someone else. “Right” can be predicated of one person, but this doesn’t distinguish any of the person’s essential or accidental properties from the person on the left. A proof of this is that we can stipulate the person on the left suddenly vanishing from reality, and yet the person on the right remains exactly the same. The only thing that has changed is that he now can no longer be called the person on the right, and has lost that relative property.

So, what if – as we must confess – the Persons of the Trinity are only distinguished by relative properties, but not by any actual (i.e., essential or accidental) properties? I’ll let Boethius answer that himself:

“Wherefore if father and son are predicates of relation, and, as we have said, have no other difference but that of relation, but relation is not predicated with reference to that of which it is predicated as if it were the thing itself and objectively predicated of it, it will not imply an otherness of the things of which it is said, but, in a phrase which aims at interpreting what we could hardly understand, an otherness of persons … since the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but God has no differences distinguishing him from God, he differs from none of the others. But where there are no differences there is no plurality; where there is no plurality there is unity … Thus the Unity of the Three is suitably established.”

Boethius. De Trinitate, V

Notice that this is precisely what was said by the LBCF, the framers of which stood on the shoulders of the giants before them. The Persons of the Trinity are there said to be “distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations,” i.e., not by any actual, objective properties, but solely by the relations existing between the Persons who are identical in essence, and not distinguished by anything else like space or time. And if there is no distinction between things, and they are not separated by either space or time, then they are indeed one and the same, yet this would not invalidate any relationship between them if one existed. Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit are indeed distinct from one another, insofar as the Father is distinguished as the Begetter, the Son is the Begotten, and the Spirit is He that proceeds from the Father and the Son, yet they are all One and the same God. In Trinity, Unity.

2.3 – How God Can be Related to Himself

Mockers of the Faith view the idea of God’s self-relations as nonsensical. How can One and the same God be related to Himself in different ways, especially a simple God who has no parts that could have relationships between them? It would be permissible to stop here on the grounds that we, who have no idea what the divine nature is like in itself, have no basis for saying that He cannot be self-relating. But I believe it’s possible to go further, and to show that it’s not only possible, but even logical for God to be self-relating.

When I studied modern physics, I vividly remember my professor calling the Bohr model – that famous depiction of an atom’s electrons orbiting neatly around its nucleus – “a lie, but a pedagogical lie.” It’s a lie, because electrons don’t orbit like objects might on a macro-scale (they’re more like “probability clouds”), but it’s still pedagogical, because the lie reveals something true about the nature of atoms which we can learn from (i.e., the existence of electrons at different energy levels, which is analogous to an orbit). Similarly, in order to better understand the Trinity, it’s sometimes useful to resort to what could be called a “pedagogical heresy.” Much like the analogies frequently used by Athanasius, the following picture will be inadequate, and even heretical if taken too seriously, but it may nevertheless be helpful in understanding something true about the relations within the Trinity. Specifically, we will imagine what it would look like if the relationships within the Trinity emerged over time, starting with the Father and then proceeding to the Son and the Spirit. To be clear, they did NOT emerge over time, and all three Persons are eternally co-existent, but – because of the limitations of our time-bound brain – we will have to consider how the relationships would look temporally, and then we may be able to better understand how they exist logically.

Let’s begin by imagining a time when there was only God the Father (again, there was no such time, and if there were He certainly wouldn’t have been a father, but I digress). Imagine then that He decided to beget another God exactly like Himself – what would happen? If it’s a clone of Himself that He begets, there would be no difference between them, and in the absence of anything such as space or time to distinguish them (as would actually be the case), the action of begetting would simply result in Himself. No new Being was generated. However, just because He didn’t generate a new Being doesn’t negate the fact that He performed the action to generate a new Being; it just so happens that the product of that action was Himself. Therefore, we are still left with One Being, yet there was an action that took place that related Him with Himself. For that action, there was an initiator (a Begetter) and a result (the Begotten). Both the Begetter and the Begotten are the same Being, God, but in respect to the action, there is a Begetter and a Begotten that are logically distinct from each other, since there are logically distinct start and end points of the action. Thus, there is One God, and yet two relations or – as we’ve come to call them – Persons.

What if there was another begetting? Well, from the perspective of a time-bound pedagogical heresy, God could keep begetting Himself an infinite number of times, producing an infinite number of Persons. However, without time to distinguish one act of begetting from another, there could necessarily only be the one begetting that took place in eternity. Keep in mind that the Begetter and the Begotten are not separate Beings; if they were, it would be possible for the Begotten to do His own begetting, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. However, when they are One and the same Being, then the Begotten is simply the result of the action of the begetting, and the Begetter is simply He who begets. And so it’s impossible for the Begotten to do any begetting, because for God to beget is simply to be God the Begetter (remember, the different Persons are only the relations, nothing more). In other words, the Father is simply God begetting, and the Son is simply God being begotten, so they cannot interchange their roles. If the Son could be imagined to beget (which the careful reader will see is a contradiction), it would simply make Him the Begetter, and the result would be the Begotten. And with neither actual nor relative properties to distinguish these new two Persons from the first two Persons, we’re still left with only the original two, and there wouldn’t even be any multiplication of relations.

BUT besides the relationship of begetting, there is an additional potential relationship in the Godhead which we’ll call procession. There are two feasible ways to replicate: one way is to beget from oneself, and the other is to use that which one has received. And so the One who has received, the Begotten, may take what He received from His source to overflow into a third Person, who again is One and the same as the Begetter and the Begotten. This would not be the Begotten functioning as a Begetter because – unlike the Begetter – He did not take from Himself but from a logically distinct source, and so it’s a different relation with its own logically distinct result. This third Person would properly be described as He who is “proceeding from the Father and the Son,” as the LBCF states.

This model was inspired by that found in Pavel Butakov’s paper [3]

And so we have three Persons: One who can be described as “the from,” One who can be described as “the to and from,” and another who can be described as “the to,” as far as the direction of their relationships goes. Laid out like this, it’s apparent that there can be no other Persons. This is the beauty of the Trinity. What other possibilities are there but “from,” “to/from,” and “to” for the Divine Essence? We cannot multiply any more Persons without making them identical to one of these three categories. Therefore, the Trinity is the fullness of the Divine self-expression, fully complete within itself. And this Trinity does not emerge from the speculations of any philosopher, but was revealed gradually by the Living God Himself through His inspired, Holy Word. Do not cast these precious truths to the wind, reader; cherish them, and become heirs to great tradition of Bible-believing Christians before you.

Footnotes:

[1] D. Glenn Butner, JR. For and Against de Régnon: Trinitarianism East and West

[2] Moreland and Craig. Philosophical Foundations, 583.

[3] Pavel Butakov. Relations in the Trinitarian Reality: Two Approaches. This work provides an excellent exploration of the differences that do exist in some Eastern and Western Trinitarian models which resulted in the great Filioque controversy. He somewhat draws from de Régnon, but makes plain the deficiencies of that paradigm. The reader will notice that the distinctions that do exist do not result in anything like the tri-theism posited by Craig, Moreland, and Plantinga. However, the Western model is undoubtedly superior, as the article shows, and the Filioque can be found to have been supported even by some of the patristics that de Régnon would like to pit against the West. And that’s not to mention the biblical support for it (e.g. John 15:26)

Against Postmillennialism’s Eschatological Feminism

No doubt many of you will think this is a sensationalist title, and that I’m just trying to aggravate and inflame emotions. Well, it is meant to pack a punch, but not without a good reason. The reason I aim to get your attention is to confront you bluntly with the perverseness of this doctrine, which I call Eschatological Feminism. What is Eschatological Feminism? It’s the usurpation of what properly belongs to Christ by His Bride, the Church, in much the same way as a feminist arrogates the privileges of her husband to herself. And if it’s perverse for a wife to steal the prerogatives of her husband in an earthly marriage – which is only meant to serve as a model of the heavenly one (Ephesians 5:22-33) – how much more perverse is it to distort the roles of that heavenly marriage itself?

This is the sin committed by the most popular forms of postmillennialism today. It hears God say to the Lord Jesus, “Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (Psalm 110:1) and somehow hears, “Sit thou at His right hand, until we make thine enemies thy footstool.” Instead of occupying till He comes, and waiting to rule with Him until He returns with the Kingdom (cf. Luke 19:15-27), they demand to reign now, to force His Kingdom down before His time, and to mix Christ’s Kingdom with Belial’s. And, as I will show, they have absolutely no Apostolic precedent for this affront.

But before I begin, I’d like to make clear that the title of this post is NOT Against Postmillennialism, but rather against its Eschatological Feminism which so often goes hand-in-hand with that perspective. I understand that there are pietistic forms of postmillennialism that make a clear distinction between Christ’s Kingdom and Caesar’s kingdom and do not propose mixing the two. Such postmillennialists do not advance the Kingdom by a theonomic takeover, but rather by faithfully using the means given to us by Jesus and the Apostles, which they use to gradually draw sinners out of Satan’s kingdoms and into the Lord’s. If that’s your view, brother or sister, you are a dear friend of mine, and we share the same end and means. Whatever differences we may otherwise have about eschatology, know that the harsh rhetoric is not aimed at you.

The Example of Jesus and the Apostles

The postmillennialists we speak of here are those who set their eyes on the present world, aiming to take it over via their own means and make a utopia for themselves. Rather than confess with Paul that “our conversation is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), they plainly identify as citizens of the earth, focusing a great deal of their energy in political and cultural “engagement” (usually the kind of engagement that ends in marriage). For this, there is no New Testament encouragement. The Lord Jesus instructs us to take our hearts off of an earthly inheritance, and to lay up our treasures in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:20). So unconcerned are we to be with this present world, that we are not even to care about societal reform when its injustice affects us:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also

Matthew 5:39-40

If an Eschatological Feminist were taken to court unjustly, it’s hard not to imagine them organizing a protest, appealing to lawmakers, and doing all in their power to conform this world’s standards of justice to those of the Kingdom. But there is not the least hint of any of that here. On the contrary, the Christian is instructed to let the unjust prosecution take more than they asked for. Why? Because our heart is not here, and the Christian – when thinking rightly – knows that the rewards stored up for him in heaven far exceeds whatever he may lose in this life. His sojourning on earth is but the tiniest sliver of his existence, and so he’s not concerned with how he fares here. The Christian knows he’ll be home soon enough, with or without his cloak.

This sentiment is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6. Far from engaging with the legal system of his day, Paul doesn’t want Christians to go to the law to resolve their problems with one another at all:

Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?

1 Corinthians 6:7

Again, undoubtedly taking cues from Jesus, Paul is utterly perplexed as to why believers would feel the need to go to court against one another. For starters, Christians are much better suited to judge their own affairs than the secular world, whom we will ourselves judge (v. 2). But beyond that, Paul doesn’t understand why believers would care about being wronged. This is an example of the principles laid out in the Sermon on the Mount put into practice, which causes us to ask: What thing of lasting value could they have lost? Are not their treasures laid up in heaven? Accordingly, if there is conflict among believers concerning things of this life, Paul advises us to “set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church” (v. 4). Far from desiring to create a perfect justice system to execute the decrees of heaven on earth, Paul doesn’t care if a judge of earthly matters is qualified at all. And if Paul is apathetic towards the earthly affairs of the saints, he is at least as blunt in the previous chapter about his indifference towards the rest of the world: “For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? … them that are without God judgeth” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). How this is compatible with theonomic Christian Reconstructionism is beyond me.

These are just a few examples of what is simply the New Testament spirit. What may speak louder than these is the otherwise deafening silence about societal issues altogether. In an empire full of corruption and wicked practices, neither Jesus nor the Apostles speak once about reforming the institutions that practice them. Even those under the bondage of slavery are told to “care not for it” (1 Corinthians 7:21). Why? Because such a one is already the “Lord’s freeman” (v. 22). The only time an issue such as civic rights appears is when it would open the door for Paul to preach the Gospel (Acts 22:25). Other than that, there is nothing but indifference and silence on the part of the New Testament authors who looked for another world, not the present one.

A Passover People

We’re indifferent to the institutions of the world because we are a Passover people.

Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us

1 Corinthians 5:7

The leaven we’re to purge from ourselves can represent many things (cf. v. 8), but the other evils it symbolizes stem from its root sin: worldliness. God established that this was the symbolic purpose of leaven when He first instituted the Passover feast. When the children of the Israelites would ask about the meaning of the feasts given to them, this is what God told their parents to say about it:

they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual

Exodus 12:39

Principally, the avoidance of leaven signifies that the Passover people are a sojourning people, who would not be around long enough to leaven their bread or have any other prepared food. For the Passover people to purge themselves of leaven is to purge themselves of any sense of permanence in this world. For us to be a Passover people is to confess – with the Passover people before us – that we are a sojourning people thrust out of Egypt, and who will be a sojourning people until we reach the Promised Land. It’s to confess that we are heirs of Abraham, Noah, and Abel, who likewise “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earthBut now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:13, 16) [And make no mistake, the Epistle of the Hebrews says it’s God who is preparing the city for us, not ourselves]. To purge ourselves from leaven is to be risen with Christ, to set our affection on things above, not on things of the earth. It’s to be dead and have our lives hid with Him (Colossians 3:1-3). The dead tend not to be very concerned about societal reform.

Thy Kingdom Come

The Lord instructs us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). It’s a passive prayer; Jesus does not tell us to pray that the Father would give us strength to bring His Kingdom down to earth. We are to pray as beggars – as those who acknowledge their inability to accomplish His will, and who must entreat Him to cause it to come to earth. And come it will, and we shall see “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2), quite apart from any of our own efforts. It would be sin for us to try to construct a tower to reach her, as if God hadn’t already promised to bring her down and wasn’t perfectly capable of doing so Himself.

So, what is our job? It’s not to be lazy, as we anticipate an Eschatological Feminist may accuse us of being (which is exactly the same accusation real feminists lay at the feet of faithful women). Rather, our job is to follow the marching orders of our King: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Our Lord is our breadwinner, and we are not to compete with Him. We are simply to proclaim His Word and live in accord with His commandments, trusting that God will work through the means He’s given us to accomplish His purpose. We are not to be defiled by the world, but to “come out from among them” (2 Corinthians 6:17) in such a way that we remain separate even when living in their midst. We are not to merge our city with theirs, but to be “A city that is set on an hill” (Matthew 5:14), and therefore to be a city set apart from the rest. We are to purify ourselves that we may be without spot, blemish, or wrinkle, and manifest that holiness which is becoming for the Bride of Christ. God forbid that He returns to find His Church committing fornication with the world, trying to prop-up kingdoms and causes dedicated to idols. With the present world, all institutions around us “shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat” (2 Peter 3:12). Let’s not waste time polishing a sinking ship; the cities belonging the prince of the power of the air will not fit on the Ark of Christ, but will be washed away by the coming flood of fire. And to those who resist the Gospel preached to them, we will by no means mandate their obedience, but repeat to them the solemn words of the angel: “he which is filthy, let him be filthy still” (Revelation 22:11).

Closing Remarks/Anticipated Objections

If you’re among those this article is targeted at and have made it this far, you may think that I’ve made you out to be a heretic and an enemy of the Cross. So, now is a good time for me to say that I don’t think that’s the case for most of you. Let me be clear: this doctrine of yours is aberrant, and inverts the New Testament’s emphasis on detachment from this present age. However, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and if you believe in that Gospel, you are my brother or sister regardless of your other views. It’s actually because I believe most of you are saved that I attack the doctrine as aggressively as I do. Partly, it’s because I hold you to a higher standard, but it’s also because – as members of the Church – when you defile yourselves with the world, you are actually entangling the genuine, born-again Church of God with its filth! This makes the error worthy of strong rebuke. And so, it’s with love that I implore you to cease from your worldly efforts, and focus your time following the example that Christ and the Apostles gave us.

Let me also stress what I’m not saying. I am not saying that it’s a sin to ever vote, or to engage in any behavior that might be classified as “political.” In fact, the confession I subscribe to says it’s even acceptable for a Christian to hold public office if that’s his vocation (LBCF 24.2). My chief concern is what the duty of Christ’s Church is, which on a corporate level is not to infiltrate and reform the institutions of Caesar, and on an individual level is not to have anxiety about the actions of the rulers over us or the quality of our earthly lives. Again, we can remind ourselves of the example of the Apostle Paul in Acts 22, which was briefly alluded to before. He raised his civic rights, but it was not for the sake of the rights or because he aimed to make the Roman government a better model of the heavenly one, but because it was a convenient thing for him to do for the furtherance of the Gospel. Similarly, there may be instances where it’s practical to represent the interests of the Church during a policy debate which could hinder the performance of her duties (such as the classification of her preaching as “hate speech,” or the forbidding of her assembling on account of a quarantine). However, even in these cases, it’s never permissible to view ourselves as anything but outsiders – as sojourners who politely ask to be left alone as we continue our journey home. While we’re here, we’ll be good neighbors – we’ll help wash your dishes, take out your trash, and invite you to join us as we head to a better world; but your affairs, O citizen of this world, are not our affairs. And while we mourn for the wickedness and injustices committed by your governments, we rebuke you as outsiders, not as your fellow-heirs. And when we rebuke, the remedy we offer is not a changed political system, but a changed heart through the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the Bridegroom who invites us into His own Estate. Who ever heard of a bride building a home for her husband?

There’s one objection to what I’ve said which shouldn’t be raised by Bible-believers, but, because I’m sure someone will anyways, I’ll address it before I close. There will be those who will dismiss everything I’ve said because the passages that deter us from societal engagement were written before 70 AD. If you raise this, then I’m more worried about your view of Scripture than your eschatology. The Bible isn’t merely a compilation of authoritative spiritual teachings, but is the Spirit-breathed Book that God decreed should be the guide for the Church throughout her generations, and it’s sufficient for all matters of faith and practice (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So, to say that the example of Christ and the Apostles doesn’t model how Christians should live today is to say that the Holy Spirit gave no example for post-70 AD Christian living. It’s also to say that huge portions of the New Testament have no practical relevance to any Christian who ever had a complete New Testament, which wasn’t assembled until after 70 AD! This is especially true for the Corinthian epistles, which are largely concerned with problems relating to the Church and her interaction with the world around them; is a huge chunk of their content irrelevant? Why did God see it fit to include those portions in a Bible given to the entire Church age? Maybe – just maybe – if your eschatology causes you to have a view of the New Testament more in line with hyper-dispensationalists than the rest of the orthodox Church, you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere.

Fix your eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ, be faithful to His Word, and wait patiently for His return. Leave everything else in God’s hands.

Shout out to Travis Rogers, who made a great post on the related topic of theonomy on this blog. You can read that here.

THE PERSPICUITY OF SCRIPTURE: An Antidote to Rome’s Epistemological Sophistry

Have you heard this argument before?

“Sure, the Bible may be infallible, but are you infallible? If you’re not infallible, how do you know your interpretation of the Bible is correct? An infallible Bible isn’t helpful without an infallible interpreter, and therefore we need the infallible interpretation of [insert authority here]!”

In most cases, the preferred “infallible interpreter” is the magisterium of the Catholic Church, but it could also be the Patristics, the Watch Tower Society, the teachings of the LDS prophets, etc. But regardless of the proposed solution, the problem raised against Bible-believers is the same: “how can you have certainty without an infallible interpreter?” Many Catholic apologists view this as their trump card, and boast it as the insurmountable epistemological weakness of Protestantism. How would you answer it?

The key to answering this so-called “dilemma” lies in what’s tacitly conceded even by the challenger: words have meaning. They must concede this, because if words didn’t have objective, discernible meaning, then their remedy (and the conversation altogether) would be as pointless as enforcing a 10-person-or-less quarantine policy at an Episcopalian church. If language was so utterly opaque and uncertain, then having an infallible interpreter would do nothing to solve the problem, because we would be in the same danger of fallibly interpreting the infallible interpreter as we would the infallible Bible. How can little ol’ fallible me have any certainty in correctly interpreting the infallible interpreter? I suppose I’d need an infallible interpreter to interpret the infallible interpreter, and then an interpreter for that interpreter, and so on ad infinitum.

But if that’s absurd, the obvious reason is because words have meaning. When someone says, “water is wet,” my confidence in understanding that doesn’t in the least bit hinge on having access to an infallible magisterium. I don’t have to be infallible to know the meaning of “water is wet” anymore than I have to be infallible to know that grass is green. Both of these I simply receive as facts of the world – facts that are self-evident independent of any subjective interpretation. Understanding the meaning of words doesn’t depend on the infallibility of the one who hears them; they can be grasped with confidence by anyone who has a minimal understanding of the English language.

So, if our interlocutor confesses that words have discernible meaning (as they ultimately must), what is it they’re asserting? Really, they’re not asserting that language in general is always unclear, but that the Bible is. And so, since the Bible is unclear, we need to consult an authority that is clear. Cutting through their epistemological sophistry, we now see the meat of their argument, and what it takes to answer it. The answer to Rome’s challenge is that the Bible is clear, and that – while we appreciate the gesture – we are not in need of their assistance. We have no need for man to add to what God made perfectly clear in the first place.

Perspicuity

The technical name for the doctrine expressed above is the Perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity is a word that’s ironically not very perspicuous, but it simply means “clarity.” When we say Scripture is perspicuous, we mean that it’s not dark or mysterious, and that it’s easy to understand for anyone who puts in the time and effort to understand it. This doesn’t mean that every doctrine is equally clear, but that all doctrines can become apparent through diligent consultation of the Word, and that the essential doctrines are especially clear to all. Concerning the latter, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith puts it as follows:

“…those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.”

1689 LBCF 1.7

No advanced degree, ordination by a bishop, or time in a monastery is necessary to understand what God says plainly; even “the unlearned” are perfectly able to see that the way of salvation is by Grace Alone through Faith Alone according to the merits of Christ Alone. The Bible says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7), and “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Psalm 119:130). If God’s words can give understanding to the simple and make them wise, how can you say they aren’t clear? The Bible also says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105). Could something dark and obscure be a light to us? And if that’s not enough, it says, “I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts” (Psalm 119:99-100). How could someone have more understanding than his teachers by studying the Word if he can only understand the Word through his teachers? When could a papist affirm these words of the psalmist, and say that a believer may know more than the ancients and his teachers through studying Scripture? In light of these clear, perspicuous statements in the Word of God, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would deny this doctrine without a motive to put themselves in the place of the Bible.

The “30,000” Argument

“But,” interjects the Romanist, “if the Bible is so clear, why are there 30,000TM Protestant denominations?” For starters, those numbers are wildly inflated, as even the more honest Catholics will concede. Secondly, not being under the ecclesiastical authority of another denomination doesn’t necessarily imply disfellowship or lack of a spirit of unity, and the reverse is also true. A Reformed Baptist and an Orthodox Presbyterian usually get along much better than a CCR participant would with a typical Augustinian monk. I’d wager that the range of beliefs among those who uphold the three pillars of Biblical epistemology (inerrancy, sufficiency, and perspicuity) is much smaller than the range of beliefs under the jurisdiction of the Pope.

But regardless of how much doctrinal unity there is among those with a Biblical worldview, we cannot deny the differences between us altogether. Do we disagree on secondary issues because the Bible is only clear about the essentials? While some doctrines may not be as immediately clear as others, and some things may take more effort to understand than others, we should not rashly say that this means the Bible’s not clear on those subjects, too. God forbid that we imply His Word is somehow at fault for our divisions! As Herr Luther so strongly says:

“…the notion that in Scripture some things are recondite and all is not plain was spread by the godless Sophists … who have never yet cited a single item to prove their crazy view; nor can they. And Satan has used these unsubstantial spectres to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of it’s value, so as to ensure that his own brand of poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church …. the entire content of the Scriptures has now been brought to light, even though some passages which contain unknown words remain obscure. Thus it is unintelligent, and ungodly, too when you know that the contents of Scripture are as clear as can be, to pronounce them obscure on account of those few obscure words. If words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another.”

Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. II.ii

God has given us the perfect Book to lead us into all truth. So perfect is it that – while it’s a great help to consult others who have spent more time in it than we have – we don’t need any help to understand it if we are willing to immerse ourselves in it.

“But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him”

1 John 2:27

The Holy Spirit is the infallible interpreter for the believer, and the primary means He teaches us is through His Word, which He opens our eyes to receive. Through His Word, He is perfectly able to teach us “all things.” If there’s anything that was at one time dark and uncertain, all is illuminated through Jesus Christ, the light of the world, whom we receive by His Spirit. So, again, why do godly Christians so often disagree? The answer isn’t God’s Word; the blame lies solely with us – 1) on our ignorance, and 2) on our flesh.

  1. Ignorance: Some doctrines are complex and require much study. There’s a difference between complexity and clarity; the Bible is perfectly clear on all its subjects, but the doctrine itself may be inherently complicated, and the Holy Spirit’s explication of it may span multiple books of Scripture. After putting all the pieces together, the doctrine will indeed be clear. But because most of us haven’t memorized the entirety of the Bible, and because most of us aren’t so attentive that we always recognize the relevancy of a passage to a doctrine, disagreement inevitably emerges among ourselves.
  2. The flesh: Oftentimes, even believers will resist a truth of Scripture. The Holy Spirit can lead you to water, and He can make you drink it, too, but in God’s wisdom He’s chosen to make sanctification a process rather than an event. And so, the Holy Spirit will always point the believer the right way, but our unsanctified flesh will resist until He subdues it. There are cases where we might not like the implications of the doctrine, where it might wound our pride to admit we were previously wrong about it, where the doctrine might go against the views of one of our favorite theologians – there are many possible reasons for resisting that none of us are exempt from this side of glory. As such, we must always remain vigilant.

No Christian is immune to either of these weaknesses, and this is why there can be doctrinal disagreement even among believers. But in neither case is the fault attributable to God’s Word or its clarity, and so the doctrine of perspicuity isn’t threatened by them. On the contrary, the doctrine of perspicuity gives hope that resolution is available, and that we can obtain certainty even on secondary issues, regardless of the many good, educated believers who disagree; it just takes work and humility. Because the Word of God does teach all of its doctrines clearly, whoever is willing to be humble, receive instruction by the Holy Spirit, and become devoted to thoroughly studying His Word is guaranteed to find the answers he or she is looking for. Our problem is that we seldom ever do this, and rely on the speculations of others and/or ourselves rather than properly consulting Him with a believing heart. But when our problem is a heart problem, none of the authorities our opponents proffer are of any help. Even if they had an infallible authority, there’s nothing they could add to the one God already gave us.
To Him be honor and glory for giving us a perfect authority for all matters of faith and practice!

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