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How To Do Reformed Theology Nowadays (Parts 1-6)

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 192
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
February 2007

This month we begin by considering Alan D. Strange’s article, “Understanding the ‘Federal Vision'” published in the February 2007 issue of New Horizons, the official denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Mr. Strange is an OPC minister, a teacher at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, and was a member of the OPC Committee to Study the Doctrine of Justification, which looked into the “Federal Vision” and found twenty things wrong with it. Since I’m as much a “Federal Visionary” as anyone, I guess I need to say something about this.

Mr. Strange begins by saying that the “Federal Vision” (hereafter FV) has legitimate concerns about the low view of the church in America today, the low view of preaching and sacraments, the hyper-subjectivism in the church, easy-believism, and such like. Then he says “the solution to these problems, however, lies in the historic Reformed faith at its best.” That’s very true, and that has been the whole burden of the FV. It has been the men associated with the FV who have called the American Reformed and Presbyterian worlds to go back to their confessions and back to Calvin and Bucer. It is Mr. Strange and the OPC Committee who are out of step with the Reformers and with the Reformed Confessions.

Then Mr. Strange writes this: “The problem with the Federal Vision is its tendency to overreact to problems in broader evangelicalism and in certain Reformed circles. For example, subjectivism is rejected by embracing an exaggerated objectivism.” Mr. Strange leaves the impression that I and other FV men are just youngsters who have overreacted to things in the evangelical world. Well, at the age of 57, I am at least ten years older than Mr. Strange, and so are several other FV spokespeople. I’ve been a Vantillian Calvinist for 38 years. I’m not doing Junior High School theology. I get the impression that in some Reformed and Presbyterian circles, this is how theology is done:

– You’re too objective in your theology.
– Naw, it’s you. You’re too subjective.
– Nuh-uh. You’re too objective.
– Nuh-uh, you’re the one. You’re too subjective.
– Well, you overemphasize the forensic side of salvation.
– Gimmeabreak! You’re overemphasizing the relational aspects of salvation.
– Well, you’re not being true to the Reformed tradition.
– No. You’re the one who’s not being true to the Reformed tradition.
– Yeah, well you’re a theonomist.
– No, that’s not really fair, you pietist.
– Well, you’re just a crypto-Lutheran.
– Oh yeah? Well, you’re an Arian.
– Yeah, well, you’re a racist.
– Yeah, well you’re a holocaust denier.
– Yeah, well, you’re mama wears army boots.
– Yeah, well your secret agenda is rapprochement with Rome.

If you don’t believe me that this is how Reformed theology is done, you should go online and look at some of the infantile rubbish on the Reformation21blog (though not everything there is bad), the Warfield List (where idiocy abounds), and others of similar ilk. Or just read the OPC Report mentioned above, which is all about “overemphasizing” this or that.

Strange’s criticism is rather bizarre. The FV is routinely criticized on the one hand for saying that baptism actually and objectively does something, and on the other hand for telling people that they need to improve on their baptisms and guard their hearts lest they fall away. We are attacked both for being too objective and for being too subjective.

Strange says that the FV claims that the problems in the church require “theological reformulation,” while he advocates “faithful living within our already well-developed theological system.” Again, I wonder if this is for real. Does Strange think that there has been no theological development since the Westminster Assembly? Does he utterly reject the work of Cornelius Van Til, of Herman Bavinck? And here again, it is in fact the FV men who have been calling back to the Reformation’s confessions. It is the Westminster Confession of Faith that says that baptism is a “sign and seal of regeneration.” It says that because Titus 3:5 speaks of the “washing of regeneration” and the Nicene Creed confesses “one baptism for the remission of sins” (Acts 22:16).

Strange’s essay is just a summary report of the OPC Committee report mentioned above. That Report is one of the most amazing series of mindless misreadings and outright deceptions that I think I have ever encountered. It is not far from the kind of internet theoporn that oozes from the Warfield List and other cybergutters. There is no way I’m going to bore you with all the evil contained in this report: If you are really interested, go to, where you can read the Report itself and then numerous essays pointing out its stupidities.

I wrote a while back about “Misusing the Westminster Confession” (BH 166) and about the “Closing of the Calvinistic Mind” (BH 177). The OPC Report is about the best evidence of these two phenomena that I could ever imagine.

What is most telling about this Report, however, is not its attempt to foist upon the Reformed world a bunch of new notions (such as a meritorious covenant of works), presented (inaccurately) as if these were the historic Reformed doctrines. Rather, it is the deliberate misreading of the men they are reporting about, putting the worst possible interpretation on what they read, not bothering to read other things by the same author that he himself says clarify certain points, and at no time ever contacting any of the men being reported on to see if what the Committee thinks about him is accurate. The OPC Report treats the FV men with utter contempt. The fact is that you can make anybody look like a heretic if you only read a couple of things he’s written and then put the worst possible construction on it and then link it up with other things that you also put the worst possible construction on.

This procedure is, sad to say, not untypical. Dispensationalists who read books written by Reformed scholars about dispensationalism can seldom recognize their opinions amidst the distortions. Lutherans cannot recognize themselves in what Reformed people write about Lutheranism. What is noticeably absent from Reformed “scholarship” is just plain Christian love, which would mean taking the time to find out what others mean by the words they use. Individual FV writers have made it crystal clear what they mean by “covenant,” “election,” “regeneration” and other key terms. Ordinarily we are interested in finding out more accurately how the Bible itself uses these words, without denying the stipulated theological meanings employed in Calvinistic decretal theology.

What we have found, however, is a Biblophobic hostility toward any attempt to deal Biblically with the Bible. If the Westminster Confession defines “election,” for its purposes, as “elect to glory,” then we are not allowed to point out that in the Bible “election” is usually used in the sense of chosen to office, chosen for mission, or chosen to be baptized into the church.

Indeed, I recently listened to an extended interview with FV advocate Steve Wilkins. The questioner, himself a PCA pastor, said, “But brother Steve, don’t you think you confuse the people when you use words differently from the way the Confession uses them? Isn’t this dangerous.”

Steve replied, “If it’s a problem, then you have to charge Jesus and Paul with causing the problem, don’t you? I’m using these words the way they use them. I routinely explain that the Confession uses words differently.”

That did not get through. “But Steve, you’re going to have to stand before Jesus, and if you’ve gone off and confused the people by using words differently from the Confession, isn’t that a problem?”

As the interview proceeded it was apparent that nothing Steve Wilkins could say was ever going to get through. It surely seems that this man is an idolater whose religion is the Westminster Confession. As far as he is concerned, the Bible itself is a source of confusion. The Bible is not the word of life, the Confession is. The Confession is the lodestar, the touchstone, the foundation of truth. The Bible is confusing. And since the Westminster Confession only deals with about 0.001% of what is in the Bible, this man and the thousands like him have a very, very truncated religion.

I believe, and it is very, very clear from the whole FV discussion, that there are precious few men in the OPC, the PCA, or the URC who are capable of living out of the Bible. When the Bible is discussed, they react with horror and run to their confessions and traditions. The condemnation of the “New Perspective on Paul,” of John Murray and Norman Shepherd, of the FV, of Christian Reconstruction a few years back — every bit of it arises from a Biblophobic attitude that is ignorant of if not actually hostile to the Bible. How these three churches (and other even smaller ones) deal with these matters will demonstrate whether they are still Protestant, or have become merely outposts of Rome.

Of course, these tiny sects only represent about 0.00001% of the Christian world. Jesus is clearly not sending His children into these churches, which is why they remain tiny and invisible — true to their affection for an invisible church.



BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 193
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
April 2007

In our first installment in this series (February, 2007) we began looking at the way in which theological discourse is being carried out in Calvinistic circles in the United States and related nations today. As a specimen, we are using the way in which the so-called “Federal Vision” is being reacted to in several tiny denominations. While in some ways it is hardly important what these small groups have to say, yet it can be instructive to a consideration of present-day Christendom, and it is for that reason alone that we devote attention to it here.

Part of what we are addressing is style. In our first essay, we called attention to the amazing shallowness of some of the critiques coming from supposedly learned sources. “The ‘Federal Vision’ emphasizes this or that too much.” Wow! Now there’s a powerful criticism! And in fact that kind of criticism characterizes the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s report into the matter.

Or, “The ‘Federal Vision’ dares to use various words and phrases in their Biblical sense rather than in the way our groups and their traditions commonly use them.” Zowie, Batman! That’s really serious! I’m sure Jesus is up in heaven weeping buckets of tears over it!

Moving forward this month: Another matter than we can mention is a subtle kind of guilt by association. Some parts of the Calvinistic world are all steamed up these days about something called the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), associated largely in their minds with the writings of N. T. Wright. Now, the NPP has nothing whatsoever to do with the “Federal Vision,” other than as we shall see next time, “Federal Vision” people are guilty of reading outside of the prescribed lists, and have found help in some NPP writings — but then, everyone has. We who are in the “Federal Vision” have been saying what we’re saying for many years, and long before we ever heard of the NPP. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches and sects, however, have tried to lump both together in one study committee after another, so that any criticism of the NPP also spreads over onto the “Federal Vision”.

And yet another aspect of the style of these churches is that the study committee set up by the OPC never on any occasion spoke with any of the people it criticized, nor did any member of that committee. This follows the trend set by the study committee set up by the Mississippi Valley Presbytery of the PCA, which never met with any of the men it criticized, though it claimed to have done so. At least the OPC committee, however, did not follow the lead of the Mississippi Valley PCA committee in that kind of brazen lie.

The most recent remarkable example of style is the just-finished PCA report on this matter. Again, the “Federal Vision” is linked falsely with the NPP. Again, no one being attacked was contacted by any member of the committee. But what is significant is that every single member of the PCA committee was appointed precisely because he already was opposed to these things. This was openly stated by the people making the appointment. Although the “Federal Vision”-oriented men whose views were being addressed by the committee were and are pastors in good standing in the PCA, the committee was set up for the express purpose of proving them wrong.

Contrary to PCA rules, nobody representing other positions was allowed on the committee. Back when the PCA had a study committee on 6-Day Creation, people representing all the various positions were on the committee. Not in this case. All the members this time were chosen because of their commitment to a hyper-subscriptionist position regarding the Westminster Standards.

Now, the true agenda of this committee was to use the “Federal Vision” as a way of tricking the PCA General Assembly into taking a hyper-subscriptionist view of the Standards, thereby reversing the earlier “Good Faith Subscription” view wisely adopted by the PCA. To elaborate — and I write this as someone who is quite familiar with the early days of the PCA and who worked for a time in the Stated Clerk’s office — the PCA was formed in the early 1970s by conservatives who had given up trying to reform the old Presbyterian Church US (the pre-merger Southern Presbyterians). The dream of some of the leaders was to have a strictly Calvinistic and Presbyterian denomination that would be thoroughly and hardcore traditional in terms of Southern Presbyterianism, the return to a golden age as it were. In fact, however, the large majority of churches that left to form the PCA were either (a) racists who wanted to keep out blacks, or (b) broad evangelicals committed to Billy Graham, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the Navigators, or (c) Scofield Bible wielding dispensationalists. Hence, the dream of a truly Reformed denomination could not be realized.

But that dream did not die.

Over the years the PCA has changed. Racism is now gone, I trust. Dispensationalism was almost gone until it received a shot in the arm by the influx of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod) into the PCA in the early 1980s, but there’s not much “rapturism” left any longer. Other kinds of broader evangelicalism have emerged, including some of a more highly educated catholic sort. But the hardcore “Thoroughly Reformed” (TR) types have continued to be a minority.

But their dream has not died.

On more than one occasion they have tried to force the PCA into a very tight traditionalist mold, attempting to repristinate a cultural Calvinism that has been dead for nearly 200 years. They have failed so far. Now they try again. By filling the “Federal Vision” committee exclusively with such TR-oriented persons, and by making their report in fact a demand for strict subscription to the Westminster Standards, they hope to execute a coup. If they can frighten the PCA into thinking that some kind of “Federal Vision” monster is on the horizon, they may just succeed in pulling the wool over the General Assembly in June and get their way.

But why is “Federal Vision” such a threat? What is the “Federal Vision” anyway?

What is being called the “Federal Vision” today is nothing really new. To begin with, notice the word “vision.” The “Federal Vision” is a conversation, but it is a conversation carried on among people who hold to the theology and outlook of the Protestant Reformation. That worldview is almost totally alien to American evangelicalism and modern Calvinism. The Reformers to whom Calvinists and Presbyterians look, such as Bucer, Calvin, Knox, Beza, and the Westminster Divines, were theocratic (Christocratic; Bibliocratic), postmillennial, sacramental, and except for some of the Divines, liturgical (sung prayerbook liturgy and weekly communion). Those who think this way today are viewed as not much different from Islam by modern conservative Euro-American Christians. The history of “Christian Reconstruction” (the precursor of “Federal Vision”), in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrates this, as does the reaction against “Federal Vision” today.

Because the Reformation approach to theology and the church has been pretty much completely rejected by modern Calvinists, the “Federal Vision” cannot be understood. The most immediate reason for this is amillennialism. The amillennial understanding of God’s plan is that He is cherry picking a few individuals out of history, the “elect,” and putting them in a basket that will survive the fires to come. This is completely different from the Reformation understanding of God’s plan and of the nature of the gospel. Our next essay will explore this in more depth.



BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 194
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
May 2007

Why is the “Federal Vision” so controversial? Looking at the theological issues involved and how they are being responded to, it is clear that the response is out of proportion to the stimulus. Something more is involved than just particular doctrines or vocabulary.

What is different is that the “Federal Vision” holds to the historic Christian religion and its critics do not. Here is what the historic Christian religion teaches:

1. The Bible is given to help us mature and grow up as images of God so that we take dominion wisely over all of life.

2. The Bible is also given, because of Satan’s rebellion, to teach us holy war against principalities and powers.

3. The Bible is also given, because of Adam’s rebellion, to show us the history of redemption.

4. Because God is Three and One, so is human society, and so the history of redemption is not just about the salvation of individuals but also about the salvation of societies.

5. Jesus Christ has been given all power and authority, and has commanded His people to disciple all nations, promising to be with them and strengthen them by His Spirit until this has been accomplished. There can be no question that Jesus will successfully accomplish this programme, and at the end deliver all to the Father.

Now, these five aspects are rejected by many if not most modern Calvinists. Consider the following statement, which appeared on the “BBWarfield List” on the internet. One PCA pastor is here commenting on the remarks of his friend N–.

5. Disciple the nations? — Finally, N– writes, “If anything, what we need now is a recommitment to the proclamation of a simple, biblical gospel, and perhaps to finally acknowledge that the Gospel was not given for the redeeming of nations, it was given for the calling and perfecting of a godly remnant out of all nations.” I couldn’t agree more, N–, but as you know, one of the claims [of “Federal Vision” people] is that in the Great Commission, Jesus said to “disciple the nations,” not just the people of those nations, i.e. every institution of those nations. This exegesis is about as good as that which claims “until” in Psalm 110:1 means “after.” My answer is that Medieval Europe shows us what happens when we bring Christ into the institutions — men who love power more than Christ also find their way in, and what you get is Christendom, not Christ.

Let us consider this statement.

First, its appearance on a list named for Benjamin B. Warfield is fabulously absurd. Warfield is famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for insisting not only that all nations will be discipled before Jesus returns, but also for rejecting the notion of a final apostasy, taking Revelation 20:7-10 to be referring to something else. Warfield was the most radical postmillennialist in the history of the Church. And here we have Mr. N–, the director the “Warfield List” and his PCA pastor buddy completely rejecting what Warfield stood for.

Second, there can be no doubt about what Jesus meant in the Great Commission. The disciples were Jews who were fully acquainted with what we call the Old Testament. They knew that when Messiah came all the nations would stream to Jerusalem to receive the Law. This was prophesied over and over in the Scriptures. They also knew that God had divided the world into nations, seventy of them in Genesis 10, and had discipled one nation (Israel) as a light to the rest. When Jesus said, “disciple the nations,” they knew exactly what He meant.

Third, similarly the idea of baptizing the nations was something that they understood quite easily. Israel had been baptized as a nation at the Red Sea. The Messiah would baptize many nations (Isaiah 52:15). To be sure, the method of doing this today is by baptizing individuals and households, but the goal is baptized nations.

Fourth, the position of these men is Judaizing. The notion of a remnant is taken from the period before Jesus, when in-deed there was but a remnant. To persist in thinking in remnant terms in the New Creation times is to cling to the Old, and is a Judaizing evil. Since these men are Judaizers, it is no surprise that they spend their time seeking out reasons to divide from other Christians and to set up separate tables (Gal. 2:11-12).

Fifth, the position of these men gives Satan the last laugh, or at least the penultimate one. No wonder they reject N. T. Wright, author of Jesus and the Victory of God. God has no victory. Satan wins. At the end, Satan gets to stand up and sneer: “Well, Jesus! All power? All authority? And yet you still couldn’t pull it off, could you? Some Messiah! Ha! Hahaha!” That’s what these two chaps on the “Warfield list” believe is going to happen at the end of history. I don’t think so.

Sixth, the charge that “men who love power” might find their way into the Kingdom if we try to disciple the nations is so astonishing that one’s jaw drops to the floor. Do these men actually think that “men who love power” do not seek power in the PCA today? Do they think that their pietistic, remnant-amil, Judaizer-infested churches have no “men who love power”?

Finally, since Jesus has been installed as King of the world, Christendom is precisely what the kingdom consists of. This rejection of Christendom is a rejection of the entire history of the Christian religion from its beginning up until about 100 years ago. The victory of the anabaptist pietist dropout mentality is very recent.

Now, with this introduction, I think we can begin to understand the reaction against the “Federal Vision”.

Amillennialism is the default position in the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches today. As we have seen above, it was not always so. When Calvin did theology, his fundamental concern was with social order and the restoration of social order: the order between the triune God and human society, between people and people, etc. (See Benjamin Charles Milner, Jr., Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church. Studies in the History of Christian Thought 5 [Leiden: Brill, 1970].) Nor is this concern with order unique to Calvin’s overall theological approach. It was a characteristic of all Renaissance-period thinkers, and indeed had been how theology was done from the time of Irenaeus forward, including Eusebius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and all the Reformers. All were concerned with Jesus Christ’s restoration of order to all of life. The notion that Jesus came only to cherry-pick a few individuals out of the world and put them in a basket, leaving the rest of the world to flames, would have appalled them.

Doing theology in a context of social thought and with a concern for social order did not stop with the Reformation. The men at the Westminster Assembly were concerned with the same matters. After all, they met during the English Civil War, a time when they were trying to reorder all of society. Samuel Rutherford’s political treatise Lex, Rex; or The Law and the Ruler begins in its opening paragraph by referring to a whole list of Roman Catholic writers who were also wrestling with the same issues. I mention this because one objection to “Federal Vision” writers is that they dare to read Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox theologians and thinkers! Anyway, one need only read the literature of the Presbyterians and Puritans in England and New England to realize that they did theology in a context of postmillennial expectations and of concern with society.

This is not how amillennialists do theology today.

If you believe that the work of Jesus Christ is designed only to save some individuals out of the world, then what happens to the five characteristics of historic Christianity with which we began this essay?

1. The Bible is given to help us mature and grow up as images of God so that we take dominion wisely over all of life. No. We are not supposed to take dominion. That’s the wicked “Dominion Theology” and “Christian Reconstruction.” (It’s also the historic Christian faith.) Now, what this means for these amillennialists is that about 75% of the Bible disappears from relevance. All that is left may be, for some, a mystical thing called “common grace” or “natural law.”

2. The Bible is also given, because of Satan’s rebellion, to teach us holy war against principalities and powers. No. There’s no holy war. There’s no “covenant history.” There’s only “redemptive history.” Another big slice of the Bible disappears from relevance.

3. The Bible is also given, because of Adam’s rebellion, to show us the history of redemption. Okay, we can keep this part, but only some of it because we reject the next point:

4. Because God is Three and One, so is human society, and so the history of redemption is not just about the salvation of individuals but also about the salvation of societies. No. Salvation is only for individuals. All that matters is the ordo salutis, the so-called “golden chain” of how God elects individuals and then does certain things for individuals. Another hunk of the Bible just disappeared. We have reduced the whole of the Bible to nothing but how certain elect people get cherry-picked for salvation.

5. Jesus Christ has been given all power and authority, and has commanded His people to disciple all nations, promising to be with them and strengthen them by His Spirit until this has been accomplished. No. That’s not going to happen. Satan will get the last laugh in history..

Now, having reduced everything in the Christian faith to matters of individual salvation (for a few), the remnant-amils are compelled to force the entire Bible through this small hole. This is very important for considering the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” as well as “Christian Reconstruction” of old and “Federal Vision” of today. If someone says, “It looks to me as if in this or that passage Paul is really talking about the change in history and in civilization, and not about how individuals get saved for heaven,” this cannot be allowed. No. Paul must be speaking only about personal salvation, because that is all there is.

Now, this is relevant to the “Federal Vision” because the “Federal Vision” is a conversation carried out among people who hold to the five aspects of the Christian tradition that I’ve laid out in this essay. That’s why the “Federal Vision” smells wrong to today’s Calvinists, because today’s Calvinists by and large reject these five aspects and hold to another religious paradigm, a religious model consisting exclusively of ordo salutis (order of salvation) questions concerning individuals. “Federal Vision” people read a number of passages differently, and are open to other views of certain passages, because they have a large and wide paradigm and are not forced to take everything in an individualistic sense.

This amil paradigm is an aspect of Western liberalism. Individualism as a perspective has been developing in Western thought for a number of centuries. When Descartes says, “I can doubt that I exist, therefore I exist,” he reduces everything to the individual. When Rosenstock-Huessy counters, “Others speak to me, and that’s how I know I exist,” he is rejecting that individualism in favor of a Christian view of reality. But Descartes is still more with us than is Rosenstock-Huessy, and so is individualism. The gut-level individualism of Western thought is much involved in how remnant-amils do theology, and indeed, involved in why they are instinctively amils in the first place.

Now, I have to say that obviously there are people who take an amillennial view of Biblical prophecy who don’t really want to be hyperindividualists. They want to see God dealing with churches, at least, as well as with individuals. They may think that national discipleship is partly possible here and there, even if Jesus will fail in His attempt to disciple all nations. They may be optimistic-amils instead of remnant-amils. I’m happy for such inconsistencies, though I should like for all such people to return to the historic Christian faith.

Nonetheless, individualistic amillennialism is the order of the day in how Reformed theology is done and how the Bible is read and studied. This is “how Reformed theology is done nowadays,” and is a huge part of the reason why the “Federal Vision” is so controversial.



BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 195
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
June 2007

Last time we discussed the problem of amillennial individualism as it pertains to the FV controversy. This time I’d like to focus on one aspect of the amillennial problem: What it does to the Bible. To begin with, let me review the five aspects of historic catholic and Reformation theology that we took up last time. Many more things could be listed here, of course, but these are relevant to our considerations:

1. The Bible is given to help us mature and grow up as images of God so that we take dominion wisely over all of life.

2. The Bible is also given, because of Satan’s rebellion, to teach us holy war against principalities and powers.

3. The Bible is also given, because of Adam’s rebellion, to show us the history of redemption.

4. Because God is Three and One, so is human society, and so the history of redemption is not just about the salvation of individuals but also about the salvation of societies.

5. Jesus Christ has been given all power and authority, and has commanded His people to disciple all nations, promising to be with them and strengthen them by His Spirit until this has been accomplished. There can be no question that Jesus will successfully accomplish this programme, and at the end deliver all to the Father.

Now, what happens when the Bible is read individualistically and amillennially? For one thing, the Bible no longer displays the redemption and maturation of human societies as societies. Maybe if enough individuals are baptized and vote society may change a little, but an actual death, resurrection, and reconstitution of the order of society is not in view. The historical maturation of society through such crises, displayed in the Bible and articulated in the work of Rosenstock-Huessy, is not taken into consideration. Such things did perhaps happen in the history of Israel, but now in the New Age only individuals (and perhaps families) count.

Let us, however, switch to the other side and take a look at what the Bible shows us when taken the way the Church always used to take it. To begin with, the Church has always taken the chronology of the Bible as a strict and inerrant record of the history of the human race as the biography of Adam. Irenaeus, Eusebius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, the great bishop James Ussher, and everyone else until about 150 years ago read the Bible this way. Ussher’s magisterial work was called The Annals of the World, because he saw the Biblical history of Abraham and Israel as the core and center of world history and of God’s providential maturation of the human race toward Jesus Christ and then on to the consummation. Master Books has reprinted this book in a fine edition.

The chronology is not just a matter of this and then that and then that. It is a history of how the Divine Parent educated the core and center of the human race, and then of how He called all nations to be grafted into that Olive Tree history so as to receive the benefit of it. Exactly 1656 years after the creation of the earth, the starry firmament, and man, God put the entire human world through an intense death and resurrection in the Flood. In the year 2107, precisely 450 years after the new beginning after the Flood, God divided the human race in half, tearing it apart by having Abram circumcise his household. This tearing in half would have to be overcome, and was overcome by the death and resurrection of the New Adam, as Paul’s epistles are at great pains to explain.

God had told much to Abram/Abraham, and then had worked with Rebekah and Jacob as well. These revelations percolated in the minds of the faithful, and when they were mature enough, God spoke His law to them in the year 2513, 406 years after the division of humanity by circumcision. The conquest of the land was completed in the year 2560, and shortly thereafter the “true pentateuch” of Exodus-Joshua (which is one book by one author with one overall structure) was completed. What we have at this point is a deposit of revelation consisting of a faithful record of things Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Moses and Aaron together, the book of Deuteronomy written by Moses, and a Spirit-inspired history of all the events surrounding this deposit of revelation.

This deposit of revelation happened at this time. It did not happen later. Just as you did not learn addition and subtraction in the ninth grade but in the second, so God gave Israel this textbook when they were about 450 years old (from circumcision to the time of the Conquest). This deposit of revelation worked in the minds of the faithful over several generations until, about 400 years later, they were ready for another deposit of revelation.

At this time, David wrote the Psalms — David and Levites of his generation — all but a handful. This deposit of revelation preceded the building of the Temple, and was enshrined and symbolized by that building. We are in the ninth grade, and we have been given the book Algebra I. Then a generation later Solomon wrote the books of kingly wisdom (Algebra II): Song of Solomon, a book of “political eros”; Ecclesiastes, a book of “political struggle”; the bulk of Proverbs, a book of “political wisdom”; and probably Job, a book of “political failure.” After all, Song of Solomon is about the love of the king and of Yahweh for his people, using the imagery of Temple and Land to bring this out. And of course, Job is a king and his three “King’s Friends” are his chief counselors.

Political wisdom.

Books about social order.

Later on the same chronological time line we get the book of Isaiah, and then the other prophetic books. We know when each was written: shortly after the prophet expired, if not during his lifetime. We are told when each lived. In each case, we have a deposit of written revelation designed to stimulate the maturation and development of the Core People toward the time of the coming of the Messiah.

The Mosaic deposit (Exodus-Joshua) challenged the people to put away pagan gods. Throughout the ensuing period, they kept turning to those gods, but eventually they stopped doing so. The deposit had worked its work.

The Davidic/Solomonic deposit challenged the people to worship only in the ways God had taught, at His temple, without images. Throughout the ensuing period, they kept turning to high places and statues of Yahweh and his court; but eventually they stopped doing so. The deposit had worked its work.

The prophetic deposits challenged the people not to be hypocrites but to carry God’s Name throughout the world. Gradually they began to do so.

What we seen in this is that God was instructing Adam and bringing him up. By Jesus’ time, Adam was not worshiping other gods, nor was he using images of Yahweh on high places. Adam was traversing land and sea to make even one disciple, and studying the Scriptures all the time. The human race had matured to the point where it was fitting for Messiah to come, and come not only to save the race, but to bring the race to maturity.

Now let us break off this catholic and Reformational understanding of the Bible and consider what individualistic amillennialism does to it.

First, this kind of corporate history is not seen as relevant. God is not saving and maturing the race as a race, but just rescuing individuals. Because of this, Biblical chronology is seen as unimportant. And this is a radical change from the entire history of how Christians have read and understood the Bible. To be sure, you who are reading this are likely to be “modern” and thinking that ignoring the chronology is commonplace. It’s not. It’s very recent, and a radical change. It took me some years to overcome my American individualistic mind set and realize that the historic Church was right about the chronology.

Second, individualism means that the Bible history is reduced to moralistic stories. And because of this, heroes like Jacob and Samson (at the beginning of his ministry) and others are given the worst possible reading, so that we can make moral applications from them. And yes, this kind of moralism has been with the Church for a long time, but only of late has it overcome all other aspects of reading.

Third, this reduction to individualistic moralism means that the political and social aspects of the Biblical revelation tend to be overlooked and/or shrunk down to the level of personal piety. Song of Solomon gets to be either an allegory of the soul and Jesus, or else some kind of marriage manual. It is neither. Job is seen as an individual going through hard times. That’s part of it, but hardly the main thing.

Fourth, when people improve on moralism they go to typology. Far be it from me to reject typology, but if that’s all you have, then Jesus is merely fulfilling one interesting story after another. There is no real history. The stories may as well be myths. Consider: Surely Jesus as World Redeemer fulfills in His own way the stories of Oedipus and Theseus and Judith, though all these stories are allegories and myths. If all we have is moralism and typology, we don’t have history and maturation. We don’t actually have what the Bible gives us.

So, fifth, we come to what is increasingly common in educated Reformed circles: the notion that we can ignore the Biblical testimony of how and when various revelations and writings and books were given, and play games with it. Maybe the so-called books of Moses were written much later, but they are still “inerrant” for certain purposes — certain moralistic and typological purposes. Maybe Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes as the Qoheleth who “qahal”ed (gathered) the people in 1 Kings 8, but it was written much later by someone pretending to be Solomon. Maybe Daniel was written 300 years after it claims to have been. But none of this matters because there is no history of cultural maturation that we need to worry about; there are only various relatively timeless typological and moralistic snapshots. Whatever the Bible may “inerrantly” say, it does not provide us a history of maturation and cultural development, nor therefore can it teach us any wisdom about such matters.

Now, an orthodox historic approach the Bible can indeed provide such wisdom. We know when the Law was written and published and began to do its work. And we know what kind of people it initially addressed. We know when the Psalms and Wisdom were written and published and began to do their work; and we know what kind of people they initially addressed. We can begin to ask questions like this: “What is it about the Law as a literary form that particularly addresses the kind of people it was initially given to, and what was this literature designed to change them into?” And we can ask the same kind of question about the other deposits of revelation also.

And then we can notice that the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 are each associated with a particular time in Old Covenant history. We can begin to apply the societal wisdom we have begun to learn from Israel’s history to address the particular problems and issues in our own churches. Is your church most like Pergamum? Well, that’s the wilderness church. Perhaps your church is made up of people who need to be addressed in a Law-oriented fashion. If your church is like Thyatira, maybe a strong dose of Psalms. If like Sardis, you need Jeremiah. And so forth.

The amillennial individualistic approach, however, does not notice these matters. The Bible may include “mythical enhancements” of the history it records. The Bible books may have been written much later than they appear to have been. The author of a given book may be using a pen-name, and not actually be Daniel or Isaiah. There may be true contradictions in the historical accounts. None of that matters. All that matters is the ideas in the books as they apply to us as individuals, and as Jesus fulfills these stories.



BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 196
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
July 2007

We could write on and on about how theology is done nowadays, but we won’t. At the same time, there are some important issues that we need to think about as we examine this matter, and so we’ll stay with it for a bit longer. Here are the themes of this essay:

1. Theology today is done in the academy, by academics. The Reformed churches are pastored by academically-trained men, more than a few of whom wish they were seminary professors.

2. Almost none of these men has ever seen any military service.

Now, let us consider the men who wrote the Bible and the context in which the Bible was written. The Bible was written by warriors and by men engaged in warfare. It was not written by academics. The academy is not the right context for understanding the Bible.

I am not saying that academics are unable to put themselves into the shoes of warriors. Quite the contrary, in fact. Human beings have the marvellous ability to put themselves into the shoes of others by means of imagination. The Spirit enables this in a fulsome way. What I am saying is that academics must endeavor to do this or they will misread the Bible.

Abram? A warrior who led 318 fighting men, part of his sheikhdom’s army, to rescue Lot.

Moses? Clearly a trained warrior, son of Pharaoh, who led his people in conflict after conflict.

Joshua? A warrior.

The Judges? Warriors.

David? A warrior, and the psalms of David are all about warfare, especially the warfare of slander and “troublemaking” (mistranslated often as “iniquity”).

Solomon? Ah, not a warrior in the physical sense, but a man whose wrestling is revealed to us in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and if he wrote it, Job.

The priests? Dressed as warriors. The Nazirites when under their vow were the same as priests, which is why David and his men, when under the vow, were given priestly food (1 Samuel 21:5-6). Priests killed animals that represented people. The activities at the Temple were the activities of Holy War.

The prophets? Warriors of the tongue. Read them and see how tough they were!

Paul? Twice took the Nazirite Holy War vow (Acts 18:18; 21:24).

Now, this warfare context is very much different from the academic context, and rightly so. Paul did indeed come apart for three years before entering into his ministry (Acts 9:22-26; Galatians 1:18). At the same time, academic training for the Christian ministry should be training in holy war. Boot camp. By the time they graduate from seminary, men should pretty much know all 150 psalms by heart and be able to chant them. If they cannot do so, their teachers have grievously failed them.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was very insightful on the limitations of the academy. He said that the academy is of necessity a “Greek” institution, because it is cut off from life. The academy, he said, is a place where people learn to compare and contrast, but not a place where people learn to transform. He insisted that his students go into the military and serve for a few years before returning for any graduate study.

The academy is a place of a sort of perpetual adolescence, in essence. As Dorothy Sayers put it, the young child starts in the Parrot stage, delighting in memorizing. Then he/she moves to the Pert stage, delighting in challenging and contrasting. Rosenstock-Huessy points out that boys and girls become different at this stage of life, and that this difference has to be overcome. (Larry Niven’s novel A World Out of Time projects a far future when science has made it possible for Boys and Girls to stay preadolescent and live for thousands of years, becoming smarter and smarter but never wooing. The result is a million year on and off war between the Boys and the Girls.) Hence, going back to Sayers, we move to the Poet stage, where men (and women) learn the arts in order to woo and overcome the differences. (This is, by the say, what Paul is about in Romans: The maturity of humanity means that Jew and Gentile can woo one another back into one body.) [For more, see Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, “Liturgical Thinking,” reprinted by Biblical Horizons as Views and Reviews No. 22.]

The academy, however, is a place of learning data and differences, not a place of learning how to transform. Because of “academic freedom” it is not a place of learning to guard, and guarding is the first phase of transforming. The warrior guards that which is non-negotiable — and that which is non-negotiable is his daughter, mother, sister, or bride — and this has to precede any negotiation and attempted transformation. If David does not guard as warrior, Solomon cannot transform.

Oddly enough, the inability of the Academy to understand war is reflected in the fact that it is a place of perpetual warfare. If all one can do is compare and contrast, and never woo and transform, then war is the result. Homer wisely shows us that the Greeks are no different from the Trojans: In both societies the powerful go around grabbing pretty women and causing trouble. But Homer cannot provide any resolution. Peace can happen for a night, and men can eat together, but then the war starts again. Greek thought, the realm of making distinctions, cannot escape conflict. Plutarch’s Lives, a series of contrasts and comparisons, is as far as Greek thought can get. Justice is a blind woman balancing scales; in the Bible justice is the transformation of the situation into a new situation.

We see this all around us today in how the Federal Vision Conversion is regarded by academics. A conversation is a process of wooing that takes place among adults. The adolescents of the Academy cannot go to this place (or are unwilling to do so) and hence are able only to attack the conversation. All differences, however minor and unimportant, are made into life-and-death matters that must be condemned.

The fact is that real warriors and soldiers hate war. They’ve seen it. They know about it.

But academics love war. Savaging people who disagree with them over the slightest detail is a hobby for such people. Not all, of course; but far too many.

This is the first problem with the academy: It is hard for the sexless academy to be a place of guarding, let alone of transformation. If anything, conservative academies like conservative theological seminaries guard and conserve ideas, but are incapable to transformation. Guarding means hoarding the past, generally a mythic past (since in point of fact it is not easy for any person to think in the way earlier people thought). And it is not a woman that is protected, but ideas. Which leads us directly to the second problem:

The second problem is that since the academy is separated from the world, it is inevitably a gnostic institution. It is a place of ideas, not of life. For that reason it tends to become a haven for homosexuals (as it was in Greece, as Rosenstock-Huessy again points out in his lectures on Greek Philosophy). But apart from that problem, the separation of the academy from life means that the fundamental issues are seen as intellectual, which they in truth and fact are not. Clearly, conservative theological seminaries are not havens for homosexuals. But when what is protected is ideas and not women, then something is not right. Do academistic theologians protect the Bride of Christ, or do they protect a set of pet notions?

Consider: A man might say that when the Bible says that the waters of the “Red Sea” stood as walls and that the Israelites passed through, this is an exaggeration. What really happened is that a wind dried up an area of the “Swamp of Reeds” and the Israelites passed through. Now, this is a typical gnostic academistic way of approaching the text. The physical aspect of the situation is discounted. What is important is the theological idea of passing between waters. Human beings, for the academic gnostic, are not affected and changed by physical forces sent by God, but are changed by notions and ideas only.

The Bible shows us God changing human beings, bringing Adam forward toward maturity, very often by means of striking physical actions, such as floods, plagues, overwhelming sounds, and also warfare. It’s not just a matter of theology, or of “redemptive history” as a series of notions.

Now, some modern academics have indeed devoted themselves to social and economic history, and have seen that human beings are changed by physical forces that are brought upon them (though without saying that the Triune God brings these things upon them). This outlook, however, has not as yet had much impact on the theological academy.

The fact is that God smacks us around and that’s what changes history. Ideas sometimes smack us around, true enough. But the problem of the academy is that it is (rightly) separated from the world of smackings. From the academistic viewpoint, the actions of God in the Bible, His smacking around of Israel to bring them to maturity, are just not terribly important. What matters are the ideas.

This means the chronology is not important, and the events as described can be questioned. Did God really do those plagues in Egypt, smacking around the human race to bring the race forward in maturity? Maybe not. Maybe the stories in Exodus are “mythic enhancements” of what really happened. It’s the stories that matter, not the events. Maybe the Nile became red with algae, not really turned to blood. The blood idea is to remind us of all the Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile eighty years before.

Think about this. For the academistic, it is the idea that is important. Human beings are changed by ideas. And ideas only. Of course, it should be obvious that turning all the water in Egypt to blood (not just the Nile, Exodus 7:19) is a way of bringing back the murder of the Hebrew infants and of calling up the Avenger of Blood, the Angel of Death, because blood cries for vengeance. They had to dig up new water (Ex. 7:24) because all the old water was dead and bloody. An event like this changes people. The theological ideas are important. But the shock and awe of having all the water of the nation turn to blood is also important. It forces people to change.

The Calvinistic churches are virtual extensions of the academy, a matter we shall address next.



BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 197
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
August 2007

We looked last time at the problem of academic theology. Systematic theology tends to become paramount, a “Greek” discipline that specializes in comparison and contrast. LECTURE NOTES: I. THE CATHOLIC ERROR; II. THE LUTHERAN ERROR; III. THE DISPENSATIONALIST ERROR; IV. THE CALVINISTIC TRUTH. When this is how theology is done, the “errors” of those in error inevitably become magnified. The result is antagonism and warfare, whether emotionally hostile or not. Calvinists cannot recognize themselves in the writings of Lutherans. Dispensationalists cannot recognizes themselves in the writings of Calvinists. And so on.

Moreover, what the academic guards is not the woman, not the Bride, but rather ideas. Loyalty to ideas, and sometimes loyalties to the men who came up with the ideas, is more important than loyalty to the Church and to the Spirit. Does N. T. Wright not say things exactly they way Geerhardus Vos did? Then we might fight him. He must be put down. A spirit of churchly catholicity, of humility before the infinity of the Word and the long future of the church ahead of us, is simply absent, or certainly seems to be.

We come full circle now, for the timelessness of systematic theology, and its accompanying arrogance, is naturally reinforced by amillennial theological perspectives. Postmillennialism should lead to humility, since we know that 10,000 years from now people will do theology better than we do. The amillennial perspective, though, since it has a blocked future, is naturally inclined to believe that pretty much all truth has been grasped and enshrined in the arcane and often unBiblical language of its confessions of faith. It is this, not the Bride of Christ, that must be guarded. Or perhaps, since we know that only a handful of people are going to be saved, guarding the Bride of Christ means condemning everyone who does not say things just the way we do.

The conflict in the churches right now is over this very issue. The Federal Vision Conversation, of which I am happily a part, is postmillennial and catholic in its orientation. We don’t think we have it all sorted out, which is why we are a Conversation. We are within historic Calvinism, but not in the amillennial and sectarian part of it. We are attacked for reading too widely. We are attacked for not saying “shibboleth” the right way. We are attacked for being way too conservative when it comes to the Bible. Those attacking us have it all sorted out. They know it all. It’s all settled. There is no future. There’s nothing to discuss. Our Conversation is a scandal to them. Clearly, with our catholic outlook, we are on the road to Rome, or somewhere bad.

(And it does not help, of course, when unstable young men, tossed about by every wind of doctrine, drift through the Federal Vision Conversation and then move on to Eastern Orthodoxy or Rome or Anglo-Catholicism. But that cannot be helped. It is the risk we take for being Biblical and open to the future.)

Now finally let us look at the church, because the Calvinistic churches have too often reinforced all the problems we are talking about.

The Calvinistic churches are little more than extensions of the academy. The black robe is the robe of the scholar, not the angelic white robe of a worship leader. The heart of the meeting is the long lecture-sermon. Candles? No! Colored paraments on table and pulpit? No! Flowers? Maybe. The darkest part of the room is the center where the dark wood table and the dark wood massive pulpit and the black-robed preacher are. It’s like looking into hell itself.

Music is pathetically dull and dead, what little there is of it. Sometimes there is no musical instrument, let alone the cymbals, trumpets, and massed strings of Biblical worship. The most pious kind of singing is without instruments, and slowly to be sure. The Supper is not a festival, is done rarely, with precious little to eat and only grape juice to drink.

And in fact, the sacraments don’t actually do anything at all. They are just aids to devotion. Eating bread is nothing; it’s meditating on Jesus that matters. Water on the head is nothing, just a symbol that some day you might come to the right ideas about Jesus and be saved. In other words, touch and physical contact are completely unimportant. It’s all ideas. If you get sick, don’t expect to be anointed with oil. You might be, but it’s pretty rare.

So, the churches are miniature academies. People are not taught the Bible, but the confession of faith, over and over. When they go Back to Basics they study the book by that name and thereby get a course in systematic theology. I should have thought that the “basics” were learning to chant all the psalms, getting a real practical knowledge of the laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and coming to be able to walk through every book of the Bible. But not for Calvinists.

And what does the Calvinistic seminary-academy look like? Well, this is what I was taught: We start with exegesis, the grammatical-historical method of getting the data out of the Bible. Then we build Biblical Theology on top of that, learning Biblical themes. But the acme, the highest point, is Systematic Theology. There we have it all put together. So, what are sermons like in Calvinistic churches? They consist of “points” that are somehow related to some text. They do not consist of walking through the text and bringing the people as close as possible to how God wrote the text. Something as simple as walking through the text line by line and closing with some applicatory thoughts would just not be “sermonic” enough.

Now, what does this mean? It means that Calvinistic churches exist in a state of perpetual warfare. The Greek notion of truth as comparison and contrast reigns supreme. There is continual fighting over doctrine and continual suspicion of other Christians, especially those closest to us! The transformative purpose of the Church is virtually destroyed; hence pastoral counseling for damage control becomes an overwhelmingly large part of the church’s effort.

But let us consider what a Christian view of the Church would be. It would be a place of transformation, not merely of information. Marshaling the people into an army of psalm chanters would be at the top of the list. Indeed, in seminary several psalms would be chanted every day in chapel. The music in the church would be loud, fast, vigorous, instrumental, martial. There would be real feasts. People would be taught that when God splashes water on you, He’s really doing something: He’s putting you into His rainbow.

Because the church would be a place of music, it would be a place of wooing. The arts are how boys and girls woo after they move into adolescence and have to close the gap. The environment of music (and the Spirit is the Music of God, as the Son is the Word of God) would be a healing environment (1 Samuel 16:14-23); there would be far fewer occasions for pastoral counseling. Also, because the things that God holds important (music, sacraments, Bible) would be paramount, what passes for systematic theology would be kept on the back burner where it belongs. We need it to ward off errors, but it does not cause the Church to grow. Confessions of faith are neither soil nor fertilizer nor water. Laymen probably should not know that they exist.

(Systematic Theology is actually Polemic Theology. Every chapter of Systematic Theology is an argument against errors. This is important and necessary, though it can definitely get out of hand! The kind of systematics that asks what the whole Bible says about a topic, or that provides philosophical reflection on a topic, is not really what theological Systematic Theology does.)

And a truly Christian type of church, fighting the musical war against principalities and powers, will not wind up murdering other Christians by writing up lies about them and accusing them of heresy if they don’t dot every eye and cross every tee the “right” way.

Maybe some day the churches in the Calvinistic part of Christendom will wake up and realize this, and the continual savagery over matters of systematic theology will cease. But I don’t think I shall live to see it.