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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ecclesiology Debate: Opening Statement 1 (Tyler)

I am debating Beau Ballentine on Facebook, and thought I'd copy the posts to my blog here. Enjoy!

The debate resolution is: The "body of Christ" did not begin until Acts 9.

Opening Statement – Negative (My own opening statement...copied from Facebook so these will probably lose some italics and bolds, both in my own posts and in my opponents')

The debate resolution is “the ‘body of Christ’ did not begin until Acts 9.” I deny this statement, but it would probably be helpful, especially since I am starting the debate, to put in positive terms what my position is with regard to when the “body of Christ” started. So that’s how I’ll begin my opening statement: I’ll state my position with some necessary qualifications, and then begin to develop a scriptural argument for it. While there may be some anticipation of the other side’s objections inherent in this first presentation, I feel it is important to keep focused on laying out my own view positively first.

My own view, stated positively, is that the “body of Christ” began at Pentecost, in Acts 2. Now, I should define and explain a little bit more fully what that means and does not mean in my view. What I mean is that the community of believers united to the crucified and risen Christ, and to each other in Christ, both Jew and Gentile (that’s important for our debate), called the “body of Christ” and the “church” in various places in the NT, began at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. However, there are some truths that need to be added to that statement to nuance it. First, this specific group of people began to be gathered together during Jesus’ earthly ministry, long before Pentecost. One could point out as watershed moments in this regard either Jesus’ call of the first disciple who would become an apostle, or perhaps Peter’s confession of Jesus’ Messianic identity in Matthew 16:16, after which Jesus declares, “ ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it’” (Matt. 16:17-18, my emphasis). The idea here is that the apostolic witness and confession of Jesus as the Messiah (especially after His completed work in the cross and resurrection) is foundational to the church (cf. Eph. 2:20).

Second, from a systematic-theological perspective, there is a sense in which I would place the beginning of the “body of Christ” all the way back in the Old Testament. As any Reformed covenant theologian—one who holds to a relatively high degree of continuity between the major biblical covenants (especially the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New)—I see the people of God across redemptive history as essentially one. This theological perspective, in its weakest forms and presentations, is admittedly the most prone to the danger of flattening out too much the rich contours of the overall biblical narrative, and downplaying any and all discontinuity between the Testaments as redemptive history moves forward. However, in its best forms, which acknowledge important covenantal discontinuities which are really there in the text (and I’ll be mentioning one of those below if there is space), I believe a relatively traditional Reformed “covenant theology” perspective on the oneness of the gospel message and the people of God across the ages is the most biblical. There is a real sense in which Israel, brought out of Egypt and constituted a nation, was typologically (that is, in an anticipatory, pictorial way), the “body of Christ.” Beyond typology, though, the believers among them were even ultimately saved by the same spiritual realities as us, even though the outward expression of their faith looked different during that era, since they had faith in the coming fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ.. As Paul says, they “all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-4). Speaking of the wilderness generation specifically, the author of Hebrews says that “we have had good news preached to us [euńďngelismenoi; the KJV translates it as “the gospel preached”], just as they also” (Heb. 4:2, my emphasis). There is also a real sense in which the Patriarchs, personally called out by God into covenant relationship with Him, anticipated, and in a sort of trans-historical way, constituted part of, the “body of Christ.” In Romans 4, Abraham is given as the ultimate OT paradigm of faith, receiving the gracious promises of God which are all centered in the gospel. In another place, Paul can even go so far as to say that the Scripture “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8). One may even consider the proto-gospel, the gospel in seed form, in Gen. 3:15, and everyone who put their trust in that promise, and count them as members of the “body of Christ” in an anticipatory and also trans-historical way.

However, in the most common NT usage, and in a more biblical-theological sense—that is, the sense which has in view not so much ultimate, topically-arranged, trans-historical ideas, but rather the unfolding progression of redemptive history and the accompanying terminology in the inscripturated revelation—the “body of Christ” strictly only refers to those who have, in this life, experienced existential union with the risen Christ since His coming and the completion of His work. Old Testament saints had what at least one pastor and theologian has called “prospective” or “proleptic” union with Christ (they looked forward in faith to the time when Christ would come, accomplish redemption, and they would finally be existentially or “experientially” united with the risen Christ), such that “apart from us they would not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40). They were justified the same way as we are, through faith. Again, see Romans 4 for Abraham and David as examples. The only way God could have justly “passed over sins previously committed” was in view of the propitiatory sacrifice Christ was coming to make, the benefits of which are received by faith, then as now (Rom. 3:25). There is and only ever has been only one way of salvation, namely, faith in Christ, whether the explicit content of the faith was mere shadowy promises before Christ, or the fully revealed gospel after His coming, death, and resurrection. That’s really the main thing the covenant theology perspective on the people of God described above is concerned to protect—grace through faith in the promises purchased by Christ as the only way of salvation across all history; it is not intended to assert that there is absolutely no difference at all between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. There are real aspects of progression and discontinuity.

Still, my thesis in this debate, expanded to a fuller statement, is that beginning with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there is and will only ever continue to be one group of people with whom God is dealing in a savingly gracious way, and among whom all of His promises are being fulfilled. Another way I would state it as a distinct belief is: there is only one covenant people of God today, and that is the “body of Christ”—the body of believers in Christ who are united to Him in His death and resurrection by faith—which consists of both Jews and Gentiles in one body, and which began at Pentecost with primarily Jewish believers yet which is not fundamentally distinct from the groups of converts to Christ among the Gentiles which came into being under the apostolic ministry of Paul, after his own conversion in Acts 9. Beau maintains that the “body of Christ” came into being in Acts 9 with the conversion of Saul/Paul and the beginning of his ministry to the Gentiles, and is categorically distinct from the group of Jewish believers who received the Spirit at Pentecost. I maintain that this is an artificial and misleading distinction.

My understanding of the Scriptures (together with Luke’s account of Peter’s reading of Joel) is that the significance of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament Prophets’ whole teaching about the “last days” brought in by the Messiah: God would restore His people, include the nations/Gentiles at large in His covenant blessing, and all who would be united to the crucified, risen, and victoriously ascended Messiah through faith would be filled with His very own Spirit and enabled to enjoy full “sanctuary privileges” as priests together with Him. No longer would there be the necessity of merely human priests or animal sacrifices in order for the faithful to approach and worship God (Heb. 8:11/Jer. 31:34), because Christ, the one true high priest and ultimate mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5), will have made purification for sins (Heb. 1:3) and then entered within the heavenly veil as a forerunner before us, in the priestly order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6:19-20).

The whole book of Hebrews is designed to spell many of these things out in detail, but the author starts really getting to the climax of his argument in chapter 8 when he quotes Jeremiah 31. The main purpose of the book of Hebrews is to encourage a group of Jewish Christians during a period of intense persecution by other Jews, and to admonish them not to capitulate to their persecutors by returning to the old-era observance of the ceremonial Law and outward “holiness code” of the Mosaic Covenant. In view of Christ’s completed work and the present reality of the New Covenant (notice the pluperfect tense of “obtained” and “enacted” in Heb. 8:6), for the believers addressed in Hebrews to go back and live as if they were still relating to God on the basis of the Mosaic administration would be tantamount to apostasy (hence the buildup of increasingly severe “warning” passages in the book).

In Hebrews 8’s application of Jeremiah 31 (and in fact, in Hebrews 10:11-17’s application of it even more so), we see a direction connection between the “new covenant,” the outpouring of the Spirit, and the finished work of Christ. It is no surprise, then, that when we look at Pentecost in Acts 2, we see strong thematic and semantic connections with other passages in the New Testament which speak of Christ’s accomplished work, people receiving His Spirit through faith, and thereby being constituted as the New Covenant Church in fulfillment of Jeremiah 31.

While I don’t want to assume too much or put words in Beau’s mouth before he lays out his view, it is argued by some that Jeremiah 31’s prophecy of the New Covenant, because it is said to be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” has little or nothing to do with the Church in this present inter-advental era, but rather awaits fulfillment in a Millennium, among ethnic/national Israel alone. My view, in contradistinction to this, is that while there was a proximate fulfillment of the New Covenant and restoration promises in the partial return of the Israelites from exile prior to Christ’s coming, and while the ultimate consummation of the New Covenant blessings awaits Christ’s future return at the end of this age, the New Covenant has been inaugurated by the accomplishment of redemption in Christ’s death/resurrection/ascension/Pentecost. This is proven most directly by Hebrews 8 as I mentioned above. Note that the entire apologetic of the book of Hebrews would fall apart if the New Covenant and its attendant blessings were not a present reality; Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, and if such was not a present reality at and after Pentecost, the audience of Hebrews would have had every right to object to the author’s exhortation, and continue to fall back into observance of the Old Covenant’s types and shadows—things which became “obsolete…old…ready to disappear (Heb. 8:13), and which were ordained by God only “until a time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10). “For this reason [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant…” (Heb. 9:15, emphasis mine). Thus, Paul sees even his own Gentile-focused ministry as being one of “a new covenant,” a covenant “not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:9).

So what of this “house of Israel” and “house of Judah” business in Jeremiah? Was the author of Hebrews, or Paul in 2nd Corinthians, confused about the fulfillment of this majestic prophecy? Of course neither Beau nor I would say so, and we both have ways—presumably—of dealing with these texts together. The question for this debate will largely be: whose interpretation of the whole of Scripture on the nature and identity of God’s people(s) at Pentecost and today is the most consistent, and seems to artificially manipulate various texts of the Bible the least? Whose exegesis is demonstrating a more consistent message from text to text in Scripture, with the least special pleading? Additionally, whose message seems to fit better with the idea of Christ’s person and work as the sum total of God’s plan of redemption, and the locus of the fulfillment of all His promises (Eph. 1:10; 1 Cor. 8:6; 2 Cor. 1:20; Col. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:19; Jn. 1:12, 17; etc.)?

Now then, my way of understanding the application of Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy for the houses of Israel and Judah is that the “body of Christ,” the “Church,” and the “bride of Christ” (all terms which I take as synonymous with each other) was definitively born and began to experience the blessings of the New Covenant at Pentecost and beyond, in one body which includes Jews and Gentiles whether at the “mother church” in Jerusalem or through the missionary ministry of Paul and his companions to the Gentiles. It is in this one body, the Church, composed of Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ, that the fulfillment of all the New Covenant prophecies takes place, and nowhere else—not in any national expression of ethnic Israel, neither now nor in the eschaton. How may I justify this view in light of Jeremiah 31’s emphatic promise of the continuation of the “nation” of Israel (Jer. 31:35-36)?

My answer is simply the emphatic and repeated teaching of the New Testament that in Christ, Jew and Gentile are covenantally counted as Jews/Israelites, are incorporated into one body (the New Covenant Church) in Christ, and receive the fullness of OT Israel’s promised inheritance there. There are strands of both continuity and discontinuity with OT language on many issues related to this teaching.

One example of discontinuity is the shift from the geo-political/national expression of God’s one covenant people to a multi-ethnic, multi-national priesthood and kingdom. 1st Peter 1 bears this out in its application of Exodus 19:6’s language to the Christians “throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1) who are “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…” (2:9). We see here that Christians scattered abroad (no longer constituted as a geo-political entity!) are those who are identified with and receive the same blessings promised to the OT “nation” of Israel. I am aware that there are those who would restrict the audience of Peter’s letter to Jewish believers and thereby argue that their Jewishness alone justifies Peter’s language here, and Gentiles in the “body” which is the Church as distinct from Israel would not rightly be labeled thus. However, even considering Peter’s introduction with language like “scattered [Gk.: diasporas]” (1:1), language which makes one think primarily of the Jewish diaspora, it would seem an exceedingly odd thing to refuse to apply an entire book of the New Testament (which title, by the way, actually means “New Covenant”), which is admittedly probably largely written to Jewish Chrisitans, to all Christians—those who are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood…” (1:2). What Gentile believer does not fit this description?

Moreover, Revelation 1 declares that the “churches that are in Asia” (v.4) are among those whom God has made to be “a kingdom, priests to [Christ’s] God and Father…” (v. 6). Similarly, Revelation 5 speaks of men bought by the blood of the Lamb “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (v. 9) as men made to be a “kingdom and priests to our God…” (v. 10).

Can we be sure, though, that Gentiles in the Church are truly the ones who inherit every promise given to OT Israel? We can be, from the following lines of teaching in Scripture.

1) Galatians 1, written by Paul to the “churches of Galatia,” teaches emphatically that there is one gospel and that any gospel which differs from that which the apostle Paul taught must be rejected, even if it comes from an angel (1:6-8).

2) Perhaps the most powerful chapter for this debate, Galatians 3 speaks of those who are “of the works of the law” (those who maintain or revert to identification with Old Covenant ceremonial practices rather than recognizing the fulfillment of all of them in Christ, and/or depend on their own works in general for their justification) as being “under a curse” (3:10); and then Paul makes an extensive argument for the divine purpose of the Law and its proper place in a theology of redemptive history, and ends that whole discussion by arguing that all who have faith in Christ are true “sons of God” (3:25) and “Abraham’s descendants” (3:29). This is because Christ Himself is the true “seed” of the woman promised in Gen. 3:15 (Gal. 3:16), the one truly faithful—(and literal, physical, ethnic!) Israelite who alone would perfectly fulfill the demands of the moral law and indeed the whole Mosaic covenant. Therefore, all who are united to Christ by faith (see Rom. 6, Col. 3, etc. for different ways of speaking of “union” with Him), are counted—legitimately!—as true Israelites and therefore “heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). There is then, covenantally speaking, “neither Jew nor Greek” (v. 28).

3) Galatians 5 teaches that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything…” (v. 6).

4) Romans 1 teaches that there is one gospel “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (v. 16).

5) Romans 2:25ff relativizes physical circumcision and declares true Jewish identity as being a matter “of the heart, by the Spirit” (v. 29). The OT itself made the spiritual significance plain long ago! (Deut. 10:16 for just one example).

6) As regards justification by Christ’s work which bought the New Covenant (Lk. 22:20), after two and a half chapters indicting Jew and Gentile for sin, Romans 3 says that “there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified…in Christ Jesus” (vv. 23-24).

7) Very significantly, Romans 4 says that Abraham is the father of “all who believe” (v. 11) and “not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham” (v. 12). Therefore, the promise to Abraham and his descendants that he would be “heir of the world” (an expansion, not a denial, of the original land promise!), would be “not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham” (v. 16). Paul quotes Gen. 17:5 in support, showing how OT itself foreshadowed this reality.

8) Romans 9 explains with a number of illustrations (Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Hosea’s names of ‘My People’ and ‘Not My People’ (v.26) ) how it has always been the case that “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (v. 6); that is, only the believing remnant have inherited the blessings of God’s covenant promises. Faith matters, not ethnicity or nationality, and in this New Covenant era, until the eschaton, it is Gentiles who predominantly attain the “righteousness which is by faith” in Christ (v. 31).

9) Romans 10:12…again, “no distinction between Jew and Greek” with regard to salvific blessings of Christ and His New Covenant.

10) Romans 11 needs to be discussed, but I will leave it for now. I take the most common postmillennial view of this chapter, and reject the most common Reformed amillennial view.

11) Ephesians 2 spells out magnificently how the Gentiles in the flesh, once far off and estranged from Israel’s commonwealth and covenant promises, have been “brought near” in Christ, and incorporated with them into “one body” through the cross (vv. 11-16). They are “no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (v. 19).

12) Ephesians 3 declares the “mystery” of the gospel to be the inclusion of the Gentiles in the one “body” as “fellow heirs” (v. 6).

13) Ephesians 4 teaches that there is “one body…one Spirit…one faith, one Lord, one baptism” (vv. 4, 5).

Much more can and must be said and spelled out more fully, but I am close to or slightly over my word limit already. But my main argument is clear, hopefully: the NT teaches that faith-union with Christ—a literal, ethnic Jew who fulfilled the Law!—justly constitutes a believer, whether Jew or Gentile physically, as an heir of every last OT promise of God to His people, especially the New Covenant promises which sum up all the others. Thus, believers in Christ, whatever ethnic, national, or socio-economic background, are “fellow heirs” with Christ (Rom. 8:17). I personally own, by God’s grace alone, through faith, all the promises, because “as many as are the promises of God, in [Christ] they are yes [or ‘Amen’]” (2 Cor. 1:20). And by God’s doing (1 Cor. 1:30), I am indeed “in Christ” by faith. Hallelujah!

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