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Tuesday, October 6, 2015


With my pastor's direction and instruction I have begun studying Biblical Hebrew. I have found language, and learning foreign languages, very fascinating since I was young. I can't claim to be fluently bilingual yet or anything like that, but I thoroughly enjoyed several years of Spanish in high school, and even enjoyed tinkering a tiny bit with Arabic and with New Testament Greek. But I intend to make a fairly thorough, ongoing study of Biblical Hebrew for the sake of biblical and theological studies. There's really no way to become conversant in advanced theological material without getting to know the original languages, so Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, here I come!

I want to share some thoughts I have had recently related to the original language of the Bible, specifically Hebrew. I also want to share some thoughts eventually regarding my experience trying to learn the language. But that will probably be another post. In this post I want to reflect on and give my opinion about the question of whether ancient Hebrew should be regarded as intrinsically uniquely or "mystically" privileged, in light of its use by God in the inspiration of the Old Testament Scriptures.

My answer in brief is that I do not believe it is intrinsically privileged, in its ability to be used by God to communicate truth about Himself or about the world, or as a "more direct route" to eternal truth than translations of it. Let me give a couple of reasons why I don't think this is the case.

1) As I defended in my previous post, God, in order to relate Himself to creatures and successfully reveal His character to us, has "condescended" in creation, providence, and especially in covenant relationship, taking upon Himself ad extra attributes of His creation without sacrificing His essential deity (quintessentially in Christ's taking on a human nature without ceasing to be the eternal and divine Son of God). Nothing in created reality is identical with God's essential divine character, because it could never be; it is limited, finite, historical, and in flux, while He is unlimited, infinite, unbound by time, and "unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth" (WSC). Therefore in order to relate with and communicate to mere creatures, God has "stooped," "lisping" as a mother to her children (as Calvin expressed it), in ways that we can comprehend.

The expressions of God to us in limited human language are not untrue, but are given for us as creatures to know in a dependent, reflective way as divine image-bearers. Moreover, the things God tells us about Himself in limited human language are in fact literally true of God in terms of His voluntary condescension to relate with us; they simply do not convey comprehensively His infinite majesty--and we could not comprehend such if they did! God's knowledge and being are original and infinite; our knowledge is derivative and image-like; and God establishes the connection fully by "coming down" to us to literally fit our "image" categories--just without abandoning the fuller realities of His infinite divine nature!

Christ is, as always, the ultimate example. Let's focus on the idea of human language as we consider Christ. The eternal Son of God, with no vocal chords or birth into a particular human family speaking a certain language in eternity past, nevertheless took on human flesh, was born of the virgin Mary in 1st century Palestine, and grew up speaking likely both Aramaic and Greek, and knowing some ancient Hebrew as well. At such point He was not emptied of His mysterious, divine communication with the Father in some heavenly "language" unknown to us (see how our language is stretched to the breaking point here!); rather He added to Himself, contingently, the human realities of cultural and linguistic situatedness.

It seems to me no different with the condescension of the "angel of the LORD" in the oldest recorded redemptive history, or in the inspiration and inscripturation of the Old Testament in (mostly) Hebrew. God made use of human-historical realities (by His plan, of course, not haphazardly) and by His infinite wisdom and power "translated" the eternal truths we needed to know in such a fashion that the ancient Israelites were able to apprehend them sufficiently to believe and obey.

2) The empirical failure of the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis--the linguistic theory that language fully limits and determines cognitive categories--in studies since the 1980's shows that language should not be understood as a mental "straight jacket." The importance of this for the question under consideration is just to underline the fact that even in human terms God was not "restricted" to the use of the Hebrew language in order to convey the meaning of the truths He desired to communicate. In theory other languages could have been fully adequate for the expression of His will. This is also a strong theological-linguistic justification of Bible translation (as if a missional impulse weren't enough in itself).

I do want to make one clarification, though. In terms of our Reformed confession of inerrancy, the doctrine applies strictly only to the original manuscripts, in the original languages (see WCF 1.8). Derivatively, all faithful transmissions and translations of those lost autographs are also inerrant. But what of this technical distinction in light of everything I've said above denying the intrinsic uniqueness of Hebrew as a divine means of communication?

First, I think there is a major distinction between the ability of God to communicate effectively to human beings through different languages, and the fact that God inspired the Old Testament in mostly ancient Hebrew. While Hebrew has no intrinsic divine uniqueness, there is a sense in which it has received a kind of divine privilege in being used in Holy Scripture.

I don't mean that people who used to go around speaking that language sounded more beautiful than others because they spoke it, or were understood more clearly, or that the words "tasted" better on their lips. What I mean is simply that because God as a matter of fact chose to inspire the Hebrew Scriptures in the ancient Hebrew tongue, the semantic range of the Hebrew wordings and cognitive categories of the syntax and grammar have unique authority in our biblical interpretation and therefore should have an effect on the whole of our worldview.

This becomes a bit of a balancing counterpoint to the point above about the propriety and sufficiency of translations of Scripture into other languages. If the final court of appeals is always to the original manuscripts in the original languages, so far as we can reconstruct them (quite far), and if semantic ranges and syntactic/grammatical thought patterns always differ in some degree between languages (and they do), then all the world must in some sense become, to a certain degree cognitively "Hebraicized!" And pastors of new churches all over the world should eventually, if possible, become at least somewhat familiar with the original languages so that they can teach the Word of God as accurately as possible.

None of this threatens the (godly aspects of) unique cultural trappings of various people groups in terms of the way in which they express the faith. If God overcame the divine-human, subject-object barrier by "translating" Himself into "image" without sacrificing His essential "I AM" nature, various human cultures need not abandon their unique cultural-linguistic heritage whole-sale in adopting the uniquely privileged (extrinsically, by God's decree) categories of biblical Hebrew thought!

This reminds me of the statement of Jesus that "Salvation is from the Jews" in John 4, and Paul's assertion that the "oracles of God" (speaking specifically of the OT Scriptures and covenant-historical privileges) belong to Israel. As it is God's character to do, in bringing diverse things together, glorifying Himself by imaging the Trinitarian nature of His eternal existence, He is able to bring not only divine and human "language" together and reveal Himself, but also to, by the Spirit, unite peoples of diverse human languages together in the language of mutual love and service.

The redemptive-historical solution to the Tower of Babel "scattering-judgment" was not the reduction of human languages back to one language, but rather the ingathering of the people of God and the filling of them with the Spirit on Pentecost, to speak in diverse languages, though united in Christ.

Likewise the Messiah came as a 1st century 2nd-Temple Jew, and yet peoples from every ethnic background are called into His fellowship. And these people must learn certain aspects of ancient Jewish faith (namely, the principles of the OT).

Praise the God of the One and Many!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Great Immanuel: Defending Oliphint's Theology Proper Thesis, In Response to Dr. Richard Barcellos

Dr. Richard Barcellos is a wonderful Reformed Baptist scholar who has written great work especially in Reformed covenantalism and nomology, critiquing the so-called "New Covenant Theology" movement, and recently, editing a book specifically on the covenantal heritage of the Reformed Baptist tradition. I, on the other hand, am a pre-seminarian, theology-crazed "know-it-all" (or I can be). However, I thought I would offer some thoughts and push back a little bit, from my own very limited and less-than-formally-trained-yet perspective, against Dr. Barcellos regarding some of the things written in a post recently published at (some material from which is supposed to appear in an upcoming title, No Wrinkle Upon the Brow of Eternity: Confessing God Without Passions).

In the post I'm referring to, Dr. Barcellos interacts briefly but lucidly with some concepts found in the theology proper work of Dr. K. Scott Oliphint (a professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA), criticizing Oliphint's basic understanding of how God relates to the world by way of covenant condescension, understood a very particular way, because of what he sees in Oliphint's work as some untoward implications and category confusions.

I'm writing this brief response to Dr. Barcellos not because I think I will successfully convince anyone, by my own doing, of Oliphint's views, but rather because I think I have at least some worthwhile things to say about Dr. Barcellos' arguments, and whether the wider theological discussion going forward is helped in the direction of affirming Oliphint's thesis, or is helped in the direction (unwittingly on my part, at this point) of discrediting his thesis, I hope to be part of the process of clarifying the issues and bringing out the best arguments for each position. Even if I successfully show the insufficiency of some of Dr. Barcellos' arguments in this short piece of his, it may very well lead the way to better-refined arguments that do suffice to show the (for now, alleged) bankruptcy of Oliphint's conception of covenant condescension.

In the background of all of this current discussion, at least in great part, is the unique contribution of K. Scott Oliphint in the last five or so years to the area of Reformed theology proper. In his important book Reasons for Faith and as the main focus of his book God With Us, Dr. Oliphint promotes a relatively novel articulation (opponents might say a novel conceptualization altogether) of God and the way in which He relates to the world, in time and space, in dynamic relationship with His covenant people, while all the while remaining the a se, independent, absolute, simple, and impassible God of heaven.

Oliphint takes for his model of theology proper in general the incarnation of Christ, and the categories and limits placed on and associated with it in the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries of the Church--and in specific, the incarnation as the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation distinctively (as over against Lutheran Christology, at least) understands it, with the affirmation of the so-called extra Calvinisticum. God, according to Oliphint, particularly in the person of the Son, the Logos, throughout redemptive history and then climactically and eschatologically in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, takes upon Himself, ad extra, contingently, and without changing His essential nature as the eternal "I AM," "covenantal" attributes, or attributes of creation, in order to relate truly and dynamically with His creation, especially His covenant people.

With this kind of theological underpinning, texts that speak of genuine relational dynamism and covenantal "discoveries" and "changes of mind" in God can be taken with greater force, and swept away less easily by facile appeals to "anthropomorphism," even while we retain a conception of God with His essential attributes intact as classically understood (aseity, simplicity, absoluteness, impassibility, omniscience, etc.) Another way one might sum up the exegetical and homiletical results of Oliphint's theology proper is that the incarnation of Jesus Christ teaches us to understand such "covenantal" texts that anticipate incarnational realities, as in one sense "anthropomorphic," yes, but as reified anthropomorphisms ultimately fulfilled in the incarnate Christ, who is truly "Immanuel," "God-with-us."

Dr. Oliphint refers to this theological dynamic as "covenant condescension," and connects it with the seventh chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the chapter that speaks of God overcoming the distance between Creator and creature by means of "voluntary condescension." It is specifically this connection that Dr. Barcellos takes issue with in his recently-published online article, as a programmatic way of attempting to show some of the more general weaknesses of Dr. Oliphint's conception. So with this background, let us take a look at some of the specific arguments found in the article, and assess whether they reveal a sufficient grasp of the fullness of the Christological-incarnational analogies employed in Dr. Oliphint's theology proper (as I have found, in my limited experience, few of the initial attacks on Oliphint's thesis have done), and whether they truly constitute a devastating blow to it.

Dr. Barcellos' main point throughout the short piece is that Dr. Oliphint's utilization of Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1 in establishing the "covenantal condescension" activity of God in creation is inappropriate because, as his five initial observations spell out: 1) WCF/2BLCF 7 comes long after the sections on theology proper and creation and before the section on Christ as Mediator; 2) 7.2 relates to 7.1 as a kind of expansion of 6.1, regarding the Fall of Man into sin; 3) the phrase, "The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures [cf. 4.2] do owe obedience to him as their creator" is about what man as a creature owes to God as Creator simply by virtue of being a creature, and apart from any institution yet of the Covenant of Works, which covenant is the focus of 7.1 and 7.2; 4) the "reward of life" or "fruition of God as his blessedness" is in reference not to the bare Creator/creature relationship but... 5) it is in reference to the Covenant of Works which is that which the Confession(s) says was the result of God's "voluntary condescension."

Before going on to Dr. Barcellos' "Musings section" in which he integrates some of these ideas and aims them as an attack on Dr. Oliphint's overall thesis, let me say three things in brief, initial response (mere rebuttal, really) to the "five observations" above:

1) Even though the concept of "covenant condescension" does not appear explicitly in the Confession(s) until chapter 7, long after the sections on God and Creation, that in and of itself does not logically preclude a similar, analogous, or even identical principle or dynamic from functioning even back in those chapters, in describing the general way in which God always relates to His creation.

2) We must be careful, in fact, that we do not too sharply separate creation from covenant in the way we look at God and the world; and Dr. Barcellos acknowledges this by saying that Adam was created for (but not in) the Covenant of Works. In other words, Adam was created for the purpose of participating in God's covenant offerings and, on condition of perfect/perpetual obedience, would have inherited eschatological life and glory not only for himself and his posterity (as a "public person"), but for the whole of creation. Therefore we may say not only that creation (of Adam especially) was for the purpose of instituting the Covenant of Works, but also that the Covenant of Works was made ultimately (and even in Christ's person, in the layered covenant of grace) for creation.

Another consideration along these lines, which I am not 100% sure how to tie in, or if it ties in helpfully at all ultimately, is that even created man qua creation cannot really be considered utterly separately from all the terms of the Covenant of Works; for although the Covenant of Works included positive Law regarding the "cultural mandate" and the prohibition of eating of the one tree, the terms also include the moral law in general, which according to Romans 2 is found written even on fallen Gentile hearts. I think all this is just to say that the dynamics of Creator and creature, and Covenant Lord and covenant subject, are so integrally related, that it is not necessary--indeed not desirable, to overly sharply distinguish or differentiate the kinds of dynamics at play in each relationship.

3) The fact that the phrase about the "distance" between God and creature in 7.1 is concerned with what man as creature owes to God simply as a creature, apart from covenantal considerations (and therefore apart from at least the explicitly-mentioned "covenant condescension" in this chapter of the Confession(s)), still leaves in our theological wake an ontological discrepancy that must be overcome even in the pre-covenantal situation of man in the Garden (however long or short that period was)--that is, even for the sake of the success of general revelation (more on this later).

In the beginning of Dr. Barcellos' "Musings section" which follows, he basically repeats in a number of different ways his central argument for why he thinks Dr. Oliphint's application of WCF 7.1 to creation, in terms of God taking on "condescended, covenantal" attributes, is misguided: the Covenant of Works itself, which is spoken of explicitly in 7.1 and 7.2 (taken together) in terms of covenantal condescension, involves no change in God or addition of attributes, but is simply a matter of revelation to man. Let me list several of the different ways Dr. Barcellos states this, and make discrete comments along the way:

Dr. B: The Covenant of Works is a revelation to man, and does not involve a change in God in order to reveal Himself

My comment: Dr. Oliphint, of course, claims no essential change in God; the change is all ad extra and involves God's relationship to creation, acknowledging that apart from an incarnationally-patterned, ontological "stooping," interaction with creation would threaten God's essential attributes like aseity (God cannot be the "eternally-relating-with-creation" God, essentially, as so many philosophy of religion arguments have persuasively made clear over the decades).

Dr. B: The institution of the covenant produces a change in the created realm but demands no change in God.

My comment: Unless the change of relationship is understood as affecting God's being, at least ad extra, in some way (and by His own eternal, sovereign decree back of it), so many passages of Scripture that speak of true dynamic relational activity on God's part are emasculated, muted, silenced, and sucked dry of their homiletical force by this kind of paradigm. There's a passage somewhere in Turretin, Bavinck, or Calvin (sorry, it's obviously not that well-known to me yet) in which God is compared to a pillar, and it is expressed that whenever it is said (in Scripture) that the "pillar" moves, in fact, it is only really describing a change of the creaturely observer of the pillar in its position with reference to the unmoving pillar.

I apologize, but when I think of the literal glory cloud that came to dwell in the tabernacle, and when I think of a series of tweets Dr. Oliphint sent out a while back saying, in effect, "that kind of stuff won't preach," I have to wonder if that kind of approach truly constitutes submitting to the words of Scripture the way we Reformed pride ourselves on attempting to do consistently (and the difference between this claim and that of, say, open theists, is that Dr. Oliphint's approach upholds all the classical attributes of God, ad intra (where it counts), rather than jettisoning or radically redefining them.

Dr. B: The condescension/accomodation in the giving of the covenant of works is revelational only, not ontological or existential at all.

My comments: As I said, these statements mostly repeat Dr. Barcellos' main point a number of times in different ways. But when I read this particular statement, however precisely it is put in the original article (the above are paraphrases, I don't believe ever exact quotes), I couldn't help but to realize that the very language of "condescension" itself, utilizing a kind of spatial metaphor for God's activity in establishing covenant, very obviously presupposes some kind of ontological (in the sense of relational, if not "substantial") change. If God's activity creation-ward were solely revelational with regard to creation and the institution of the Covenant of Works, there would hardly be any need whatsoever for the language of "condescension."

"Condescension" and the establishment in time of a new relationship between God and His creation (namely, man) simply cannot be construed as a revelation of a relationship or arrangement that always existed! That's true on the face of it, but it implies, more directly than opponents of Dr. Oliphint want to acknowledge, a necessity of ad extra, ontological change on God's part.

Another thought that came to my mind when I considered this statement of Dr. Barcellos' assertion was that the incarnation of Christ, itself involving an existential, ontological "change" in the Logos' assumption of a human nature (whatever else we say about the Son's ontology in previous redemptive history), is explicitly spoken of in the New Testament as the very means of revelation itself! In other words, we may say that fundamental as revelation is to our "fruition of God as our blessedness," ontology precedes that revelation--and specifically, redemptive, Christological ontology precedes it. Consider John 1:14: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (my emphases).

Also consider 1st John 1:1-3: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life--the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us--that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (again, my emphases).

As even Geerhardus Vos acknowledges in his biblical theology, the eternal Son appearing as the "angel of the LORD" in the Hebrew Scriptures makes use of created media (contingently and temporarily) in order to interact with His covenant people; should this not be understood as pointing ultimately to the permanent, sui generis event of the incarnation, wherein a created human nature is taken on contingently but permanently? And should this not be used as a paradigm of God's relationship to creation in general, since in Christ (the locus of epistemic authority for New Covenant believers [1 Cor. 1-2]), even God's self-revelation is founded first upon some kind of ontological condescension?

A little later in the "Musings" section, Dr. Barcellos turns to what he evidently sees as a problematic result of Dr. Oliphint's thesis in presenting us, in a way, with two modes of God's existence--one eternal, one temporal; one "condescended" and one which is God "in se." There seem to be two "orders" of being: one temporal/contingent, the other eternal and non-contingent. A further result of this, according to Dr. Barcellos is that "what gets revealed" in this scheme is "the condescended, covenanted mode of God's being which is not co-extensive with who God was prior to creation." In other words, Dr. Barcellos finds a revelation of a less-than-divine God in the logical outcome of Dr. Oliphint's paradigm.

I want to take great issue with this section, because it is consistent with the central thrust of a number of other early critiques lodged against Dr. Oliphint's theology proper that I have read, and I don't believe it fully accounts for the Chalcedonian-Christological analogy employed in Dr. Oliphint's work. Specifically, I think every attempt to construe the outcome of Dr. Oliphint's theology proper as "two irreconcilable kinds of gods," or, as Dr. Barcellos' seems to at least almost be claiming, a revealed God who is less than the classic God of Reformed/Protestant scholastics/(and dare I say, Thomas), fundamentally ignores the analogical application of the twin Christological doctrines of enhypostasis and anhypostasis to theology proper.

These twin doctrines basically teach that the human nature of Christ (the ontological set of "created attributes" contingently taken on ad extra by the Logos in the hypostatic union, if you will) has no personal (and obviously no divine) identity apart from the Logos itself; and, to state it positively, gains personal (and divine) identity in the hypostatic union with the eternal Word, the Logos.

The application of this Christological principle to theology proper, in Dr. Oliphint's system, is to say that "God-as-condescended," or God as He reveals Himself to His creatures through "covenantal attributes" He takes upon Himself ad extra, is no other than the eternal, infinite, a se God who is "I AM," and indeed His "covenantal attributes" have no divine or divine-personal identity apart from God's essential attributes (which are all one) of infinitude, incomprehensibility, etc. To put it another way, enhypostasis/anhypostasis applied to a Christological-incarnational paradigm of theology proper constitutes the protection of a kind of orthodox Reformed version of "Rahner's rule" (God is no other God than His self-revelation reveals), taking into account the extra Calvinisticum the Reformed (and the catholic church apart from Lutherans?) have historically insisted upon.

So God as condescended and then revealed is the revelation just of the eternal, a se God, albeit on an "image" level comprehensible to creatures. Is this not the trajectory of thought involved with the Reformed scholastic notion of the "archetypal" vs. "ectypal" knowledge of God? If so, given simplicity (entailing as it does the identity of God's being with God's knowledge), is Dr. Oliphint really so far off track here?

Skipping ahead a little bit here, because this is already longer than intended or than may be useful to many people, I want to address one more discrete statement of Dr. Barcellos', and then two more of his initially powerful arguments from his article.

Dr. B: God does not take upon Himself the attributes named in Rom. 1:20 (eternal power and divine nature) in order to reveal who He is. He has eternally had these attributes, obviously, and simply reveals them to us.

My comment: a) I would say that in the first place, these attributes are revealed to us in and by virtue of the created order which is itself a contingent reality, so it seems necessary to me to say that even in God's revealing to us of His essential attributes like eternal power and divinity, there is condescension involved in general revelation (or else we are forced to say that creation is necessary or inevitable and God's being, to be what it is, is in some sense, then, dependent on His creative activity [a theological absurdity for Christians]); b) even the words revealed to us which point beyond our limited comprehension to God's essential being are, in and of themselves, still "condescended"/"image" in a sense (we can only conceive of "eternity" in terms either of the succession of an incredibly large number of, or allegedly infinite, moments of time; or at best, in an insufficient abstraction of timelessness, depending on the precise sense of "eternity" which is in view).

Dr. Barcellos brings up the issue later on of creation ex nihilo and wonders whether, if we define God's "covenantal attributes," as Dr. Oliphint does, as "created," the doctrine can stand: "Was there a creation of covenantal properties prior to the creation of 'the world, and all things therein' in order for creation to occur? Or did the creation of covenantal properties occur subsequent to creation, since they, being created, would be part of the 'all things therein' (i.c., in 'the world')? If they did, who created them, the eternal or the covenanted God?"

I think this is a good question, and because of its weight, I might shy away from the precise language of calling God's condescended, "covenant" attributes "created," although I don't think that terminology is wholly improper or unworkable. My general response would be to say that a) (at least many of) God's covenantal attributes came into being by virtue of creation; it was neither a wholly prior thing to "creation" proper, nor a much later reality; b) the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is designed to protect from the idea that God used anything outside of Himself, especially creative substances, in order to carry out creation; it protects His absoluteness and the greatness of His creative work by fiat; I don't think it is really threatened by saying that God ontologically changed ad extra by taking on a new relationship to the created order right away, by virtue of creation itself.

I might go even further and say that at this point, unless there is an alternative to Dr. Oliphint's thesis yet to be articulated, his paradigm alone truly protects that which ex nihilo is designed to protect, namely, the absoluteness and aseity of God in se despite the things He does in carrying out creation and redemption in relationship to things outside of Himself. If there is no ontic-relational change in God ad extra when He decides to enter (that is, create and then enter) time and space, then we have a God who essentially is fluid, changing, and dynamically related to something outside Himself; such a God cannot be said to the be "I AM" of the un-burning bush of Exodus 3 (to use Dr. Oliphint's favorite biblical illustration of his view).

A final concern Dr. Barcellos raises in his short essay is that of Trinitarian creation. On Dr. Oliphint's reading, the "covenant condescension" by taking on creational attributes throughout redemptive history is primarily if not solely predicated of the Son. Dr. Oliphint spends a good bit of time in both books named above giving a convincing "old exegesis" reading of John 1 to say that the Son, the Logos, is the primary Person of the Trinity who has always "come into" the world to relate in covenant with the people of God. But if covenant condescension in this alleged sense is unique to the Son, Barcellos wonders, how can we say, as we must say biblically, that the act of creation itself was a thoroughly Trinitarian act?

I have three basic responses to this final question/concern.

1) We need to admit right up front our very limited knowledge, and in some ways outright ignorance, of the mechanics of Trinitarian creation as the Bible presents it. We are simply not given very much information about how it is that the Father created all things "through" the Son, or what it precisely means that the Spirit was "hovering over" the waters in the early Genesis account. Therefore let us be slow to place a lot of weight on arguments depending on a specific conception of Trinitarian creation, whatever it is we are arguing for or against.

2) I don't remember whether Dr. Oliphint admits this anywhere in his works, but I think it's clear from certain passages like those describing the baptism of Jesus that there are times when any or all three Persons of the Godhead "condescend" in certain ways for the sake of truthful and useful revelation to us: at Jesus' baptism, the vocal-chord-less Father speaks audibly from heaven, declaring Jesus to be His Son in whom He is well-pleased; at Jesus' baptism, the Holy Spirit (a spirit) also descends upon Him in the form of a dove. Therefore, might all three Persons of the Trinity at various stages of redemptive history, or even possibly throughout engage in some kinds of the covenant-condescension activity Dr. Oliphint describes? I've yet to see any powerful reason why not.

3) Nevertheless I think the admission in #2 above is fully consistent with maintaining a redemptive-historical focus on the Son who, as the One who comes into the world and "enlightens every man" according to Oliphint's "old exegesis" of John 1, and as the One who eventually becomes the eschatological Prophet and final Word Himself from God (Heb. 1:1-3), who takes on created, human flesh forever as our Great High Priest and Mediator, is the One whose name was prophesied to be "Immanuel," which means "God with us" (Matt. 1:23).

If this response of mine accomplishes my humble goal of causing parties on all sides of this current hot-button debate to sharpen up their arguments and understand one another better, I shall be eternally grateful. I'll even be grateful if, in light of the fact that I've yet to study the Reformed scholastic writings on theology proper in depth for myself, or even participate in any formal, seminary education, some of the more "T.R." camp on this issue "slap me over the head" with some obvious things I've missed in my studies or overlooked in my reading in this area thus far.

So for now I humbly submit this to whoever decides it worthwhile to read and maybe even consider its contents, and I'll consider myself a centimeter further in learning about this topic as I have spent time thinking and meditating on it in order to write this piece and interact with Dr. Barcellos' thoughtful criticisms. May God bless him, Dr. Oliphint, and all faithful ministers of the gospel, many of whom have taught me so much in the Reformed faith already, and built me up, for which I will be literally eternally grateful. I can only hope to leave a legacy some day like unto that which these two men and many of their faithful colleagues will be leaving.

Amen and Amen! Soli Deo Gloria.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Eschatological Referent of 2nd Peter 3:1-13—Weighing Two Views


The second epistle of Peter includes an important passage regarding a promised “coming” of the Lord Jesus, which is interpreted as referring to different events not only across the board of major eschatological interpretive schools, but even within certain schools—perhaps most especially within orthodox or “partial” preterism. Some preterist interpreters believe the primary or sole referent is the glorious Second Advent and attendant events, whereas others see the passage as referring to first-century events leading up to and culminating in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman armies in 70 A.D.

This short study will give a brief exposition of the text in English, weigh and compare the main arguments given by one important representative of each of the two views, add a couple of arguments for one of the views (relying on some observations that are, to the author’s knowledge, independent, but surely not “original,” as well as one argument learned from a personal mentor), and finally, draw a tentative conclusion. The two representatives are Kenneth Gentry, Jr. and the 17th century Puritan, John Owen. Gentry, although a preterist, defends a futuristic interpretation of 2nd Peter 3 in his book on postmillennialism, He Shall Have Dominion. Owen, on the other hand, defends a first-century fulfillment interpretation of the passage in his sermon writings. The arguments critiqued here come from these sources alone.

In order to most efficiently present some brief analyses of the various arguments, it should be said from the outset that this study will henceforth tacitly rely on several major theological and exegetical presuppositions that deserve independent justification: 1) partial preterism (in some form) is the correct interpretation of Scripture—namely, that many (not all) of NT eschatological prophecies and teachings refer not to the Second Advent or the consummation of the kingdom on the Last Day, but rather to the climactic historical judgment on Jerusalem in the first century; specifically 2) the following passages refer to first-century events only: Matt. 24 at least vv.1-34 and parallel passages in Luke 21 and Mark 13; and 3) the following passages clearly refer to the Second Advent or the bodily resurrection on the Last Day: Rom. 8:11, 21; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; 1 Cor. 15:22-26, 51-55.

Context and Exposition

2nd Peter continues many of the themes of the apostle’s first epistle to the churches of the “dispersion,” almost certainly composed of both Jews and Gentiles. In Ch. 1, after the greeting, Peter writes to his audience by way of “reminder,” before his apparently imminent death, to confirm their calling and election by continually growing in godly characteristics, and he grounds the truth and authority of the apostolic witness on their eyewitness experience of Jesus’ life and ministry (the mount of Transfiguration is the example he gives here). In the second chapter, Peter warns his audience extensively of the danger of false teachers—past and future—but assures them that their end is a dark one indeed.

Finally, in the third chapter, Peter comes to the issue of last-days “scoffers.” He reminds his audience that according to the predictions and teachings of Jesus and the prophets, the “last days” would bring with them “scoffers” who follow their own sinful desires and make light of the promise of the Lord’s coming in judgment. They look at redemptive history all the way back to the patriarchs and think that “all things” have continued just “as they were from the beginning of creation,” and therefore—it is implied—they do not believe there is any rational basis for expecting the Lord to intervene in history.

Peter counters the errant thinking of the “scoffers” with two main arguments. First, they err in that they overlook both the dramatic event of creation itself, as well as the great flood judgment in Noah’s day. Both are clear instances of divine intervention in history, and together establish great precedent for the Lord to fulfill His promise by intervening once again in judgment. Peter draws an analogy between the pre-flood “world” which was then destroyed in the great deluge, and the “heavens and earth” that “now exist,” saying that the latter are being reserved for a great fire-judgment, after the pattern of the former’s water-judgment. He refers to this event as “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (also later, the “day of God”).

Peter’s second argument against the “scoffers” is that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” He asserts that the Lord, in delaying to fulfill His promise of coming (from the human perspective) is exercising gracious patience, so that all of [Peter’s audience] would reach repentance and be saved. Nevertheless, Peter says that the “day of the Lord will come like a thief,” and then the heavens will “pass away” and “heavenly bodies” will “be burned up and dissolved.” The emphasis of the judgment depicted is clearly on divine, retributive justice, for Peter says that the “works” done on the “earth/land” will be “exposed” in it.

Before the letter’s final paragraph, Peter exhorts his readers, in light of the judgment he has described in vivid language, to live lives of godliness and holiness, patiently awaiting for the reception of their inheritance of the new heavens and new earth, wherein righteousness dwells, according to divine promise.

Owen's View

As mentioned above, Owen takes the view that 2 Peter 3 refers to first-century events, not Last-Day-consummative events. In his sermons he advances five main arguments for this view:

1) In the example of the flood that Peter gives, it is not that the world or whole earth was itself literally destroyed, but rather, the inhabitants of the whole [known?] earth were the ones who were destroyed. Therefore, the fire-destruction to come upon the whole heavens and earth need not refer to cosmic geo-hydrological upheaval, but rather only need refer to a massive judgment of people.

2) Lest the idea that the language of “heavens and earth” refers to people or a certain universal world order, and not necessarily to the surrounding environment itself, sound strange, Owen cites Isaiah 51:16 as a precedent, which speaks prophetically of the [New Covenant] establishment of Zion in terms of “establishing the heavens” and “laying the foundation of the earth.”

3) Moreover, Owen cites the apocalyptic use of “heaven-rolling-up-like-a-scroll” imagery found in Isaiah 34:4 (also compare the “soon-to-take-place” events of Rev. 6) in order to demonstrate that such language was not only permissibly—but indeed commonly—used to refer to such political upheaval in Isaiah and similar prophetic literature.

4) The principle of audience relevance makes it much more likely that Peter is warning his readers of relatively imminent events, not events to take place thousands of years in the future like the Second Advent and general resurrection—events which simply all Christians generically need to be aware of.

5) The language of “new heavens and earth” need not apply only to a consummated kingdom, but may rightly be applied to “gospel times,” the interadvental period of the Church in her growing experience of Messianic blessings. Isaiah 65 and 66 are examples of places in Scripture that use such language for the time of Messianic blessing inaugurated by the First Advent. Hebrews 12 speaks of New Covenant believers (even pre-AD 70!) having already arrived at a “heavenly Jerusalem.” Similar language appears in Revelation 21-22, which is to be viewed as inaugurated if the time indicators book-ending the Apocalypse in Chapters 1 and 22 are to be taken seriously.

Possible responses to the above five arguments, and then further counterarguments, could be as follows:

1) In the flood, the old “world” was destroyed in the sense that the inhabitants were destroyed, but the destruction of “heavens and earth” does seem like much greater in cosmic scope. It may be hard to see how A.D. 70 could qualify as more catastrophic than the ancient flood.

a. However, covenantally speaking, it was much more catastrophic. God’s Old Covenant people (as a whole, save for a believing remnant) committed final apostasy by rejecting the Messiah and were judged as spiritual harlots, receiving a decree of divorce from God (Rev. 5:1; cf. Ez. 2:9-10) and then, as it were, capital punishment (Rev. 16:21).

b. Moreover, the point remains that it is consistently the inhabitants of a land who are judged according to this kind of cosmic de-creation language. Therefore, “heaven and earth” need not be understood as referring to land or space greater in literal surface area or volume than that over which the flood was released, in order to be understood as a much greater judgment.

2) Sure, “heaven and earth” language can refer to Israel, because Israel—as is obvious from the temple design—is to be understood as a sort of “microcosm” of the whole world. But it also refers to literal heavens and earth in places in the Psalms and in Genesis 1-2. Why assume that it necessarily refers to Israel here?

a. It is not an assumption, but rather a likelihood based on the apocalyptic tone in which the language is set, whereas “heaven and earth” in Genesis is described, with the other categories of creation, in relatively plain language (even if one takes the view that the material there is organized in a relatively stylized way).

3) The language of 2 Peter 3 differs from Isaiah in that it focuses on fiery judgment (common description of final judgment in Scripture), and on judgment coming upon all individuals. Scripture’s warning of cosmic conflagration will surely include at least a fiery purging of the literal heavens and earth.

a. The language is different in some respects, but is still has a heavy tone of apocalyptic symbol and utilizes mixed metaphor (the elements/heavenly bodies variously burn, melt, dissolve, or simply “pass away”).

4) Christians from the beginning of the spread of the movement would know of both Jesus’ prediction of the downfall of the temple within a generation, as well as His promised bodily return, even if they didn’t yet understand the precise relationship between the two events (which we are still working toward understanding better today)! Therefore, within the early Christian community, it is entirely possible that Peter’s audience could have had to deal with scoffers raising doubts with regard to the Second Advent, as much as those regarding Jerusalem’s doom.

a. True enough, but given the “imminent” time statements surrounding the eschatological events focused on by 1 Peter (like 1 Pet. 4:7), and given that 2 Peter claims to be speaking of the same thing as the first letter (cf. 2 Peter 3:1-4), and given that the overwhelming eschatological emphasis of the gospel accounts and of the occasional epistles of the NT is (arguably) on the imminent events of AD 70, such is most likely the event doubted by 2 Peter 3’s “scoffers.”

5) While Isaiah 65 may refer to interadvental realities, some of the descriptions of long-term prosperity near the end of the chapter seem to fit better as depicting a consummated kingdom rather than our current New Covenant age. Therefore “new heavens and earth” should not be lightly taken as probable references to our current experience.

a. However, eschatological prophecy is often idealized and schematized (see Rev. 21-22) such that pictures of full consummation can be used as general images of an inaugurated and progressing kingdom. Moreover, Hebrews 12 definitely, in context, describes present New Covenant experience as an arrival at the “heavenly Jerusalem” and almost certainly refers to the imminent historical changes of 70 AD in vv. 26-28. Therefore, “new heaven and earth” rightly describes the inauguration of New Covenant blessing.

Gentry's View

Over against Owen, Gentry views the eschatological referent of 2nd Peter 3 as the Second Advent and attendant events. Following are five of his arguments:

1) The thrust of the book of 2nd Peter is encouragement to spiritual perseverance until the fullness of New Creation.

2) Peter’s “scoffers” are scoffing due to the very long wait associated with the coming of the Lord in view. Peter’s words seem to indicate that it could even take thousands of years, which would be strange if, written around A.D. 66, the book were prophesying about events of A.D. 70.

3) The Lord’s patience in delaying His coming must be viewed as fully “interadvental” in order to call “all” to repentance (3:9).

4) The great “conflagration” Peter describes seems expressly tied to the whole of material creation, and therefore must be referring to the consummative judgment, not A.D. 70.

5) The detailed language of decreation seems to go beyond apocalyptic imagery.

And now for some possible responses to Gentry’s arguments, without any further counter-argument for now, perhaps tipping my hand a little early as to which view I find more plausible:

1) Although the necessity for spiritual perseverance certainly extends to the Church and indeed to all Christians beyond 70 A. D., 70 was historically a very important “goal date” or marker for believers living through those events. Surely even Gentry would agree with this.

2) Actually it would make more sense for scoffers to be scoffing if the event in view had been promised to happen within a short time like a generation (not a long time), and it had not yet happened. Moreover, while Peter says that a thousand years are as a day to the Lord, this does not demand that the Lord tarry over a thousand years to fulfill the promise in view; it only highlights that the Lord’s patience (for the sake of saving the elect of Peter’s audience, v. 9) is greater than we realize and therefore distorts our perception of time as it relates to His fulfilling His promises.

3) If “all” here is limited to the elect among Peter’s audience of the diaspora (and with the second-person pronouns used from the beginning of the letter, this is surely the best way to interpret it), then it is not necessary that the period of patience in view is the whole interadvental age. The pre-70 age is sufficient to account for Peter’s words regarding the purpose of God’s patience here.

4) The very same could be said of the intense de-creation language in the Olivet Discourse, like stars falling, no? The language in both passages is very heavy with tones of apocalyptic symbolism, even if the symbolism itself is based on denotatively physical, literal realities.

5) By what standard? The 2nd Peter passage just seems to repeat the idea of conflagration and dissolution a few times, in different ways—language which is wholly appropriate to a first-century referent given what actually happened to the temple.

Before concluding, there are a few more observations to be made:

First, let us consider a couple of related intertextuality issues between Synoptic gospels, and between the gospels and 2nd Peter. Preterists are divided among themselves with regard to whether (and where), in Matthew’s account of the Olivet Discourse in particular, Jesus transitions from prophesying of imminent events to happen within a generation of His own contemporaries to prophesying of the Second Advent. Usually the question is whether there is such a transition after vv. 34-35 in Matthew 24.

There are many good things to be said about the strengths of the “transition” view. One of its major weaknesses, however, is that in Luke 17, it seems clearly that some shared material from the first half of Matthew 24 is conjoined with material from the second half, with no remote possibility of topical transition in the text. For this reason, among others, many preterists (such as Gary DeMar) reject the “transition” view and believe that the whole of the Olivet Discourse is referring, at least primarily, to the imminent covenant judgment of 70 A. D. (although they might say it is a type or shadow of final judgment).

The relevance of this to the question of 2nd Peter 3, though, is this: Luke 17, the latter portion of Matthew 24, and 2nd peter 3 all make reference to the days of Noah before the great flood judgment, as an analogy to what believers can expect the days to be like just prior to the great Day of the Lord in view. This lends support to the idea that 2nd Peter 3 is referring to the same judgment as the whole of the Olivet Discourse refers to in the Synoptic gospels, namely, A. D. 70.

Second, let us consider the “clear” passages I mentioned at the beginning of this study. I believe there is a very detectable pattern when comparing texts which clearly speak of the Second Advent and bodily resurrection of all the dead with texts which are surely about the first century judgment on Jerusalem and the temple.

What I have noticed is that the texts which, in my opinion, are fairly certainly referring to first century judgment events, tend to be filled with symbol and apocalyptic overtones, whereas texts that are certainly about the resurrection and Second Advent are generally relatively straight-forward and in plain language, although describing an extraordinary event. Given what has been noted above about the heavily apocalyptic language of 2nd Peter 3, this pattern lends further support to the preteristic interpretation of the passage.

Finally, and this may be one of the most important arguments in deciding between these two views, if one looks at 2nd Peter and the book of Jude together, noting what they both say about the activity and imminent fate of false teachers and “scoffers,” it becomes clear that the prophesied “last-times” scoffers and false teachers, predicted by Jesus and the holy prophets, had already arisen among God’s church in the first century.

Most notably, the very wording of “scoffers will come in the last days/time” is used in both books. In 2nd Peter, it is repeated as a prophecy, and followed by Peter’s great eschatological predictions of a “heaven-and-earth” conflagration. In Jude 18, the same thing is quoted, “They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.’” Then immediately, Jude continues, “It is these who cause [present-tense] divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19). Then he urges his audience to persevere in faith, prayer, and love, waiting for the mercy of Christ that will surely give them relief from such ungodly persons and their influence in the Church.

In sum, it would seem that 2nd Peter’s “last-times scoffers” were alive and well in the first century Church, and therefore the “last days” in the sense intended by the NT authors were present at that time, as well. So the terrible judgment prophesied and awaited at the end of those “last days” (the “last days” of the historical Old Covenant order, as it turns out), in the leveling of the temple and the “great city” at the hands of the Romans in 70 A. D. —God’s first-century “Assyria”—is likely the referent of Peter’s famous eschatological passage, rather than the consummation of all things, as most interpreters (even some preterists, like Gentry) believe.

Unlike the “meaning” sections of each article of the Apostle’s Creed in Luther’s Small Catechism, I cannot end this study with the words, “This is most certainly true.” 2nd Peter 3 is too difficult a passage for anyone to handle too dogmatically, and the details of biblical eschatology are multitudinous and very difficult for us finite, sinful thinkers to put together perfectly. But given all the exegetical, theological, and historical evidence examined here, I believe Owen’s to be the most likely view at this time.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review of Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, ed. Don Kistler

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book for free in .pdf format from Reformation Trust, and am told that I will receive a free hard copy upon completion of a thoughtful review. They have also asked for a review at

This is a multiple-contributor book explaining and defending the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, "scripture alone." This is the idea, as confessed by the early church and recovered by the 16th and 17th-century reformers, that Scripture is the only final and infallible authority for the Church in matters of life and doctrine. It does not teach that there are no other authorities for the Church or for individual Christians, nor does it teach that individual Christians can come to an accurate and whole understanding of Scripture apart from the rest of the body of Christ. It does not depreciate history or the great traditions of Christianity.

Rather, it seeks to exalt the written Word of God to its proper place as the unique self-revelation of the one triune God, the center of which is the self-revelation of God in Christ the Son, in history. The Word is unique as "God-breathed," infallible and without error in anything it asserts. Therefore all tradition, experience, and other sources of truth claims must be measured by God's perfect written Word in the Old and New Testaments.

In my estimation this book accomplishes what it was seeking to do. It is fairly strong in its definition and qualification of the doctrine of sola scriptura. It is strong, if relatively brief, in its handling of the most common objections from Roman Catholic theologians and apologists. That includes objections in the areas of canon, the witness of early church fathers, the proper interpretation of NT passages about "tradition," as well as exposing a number of inherent problems in the Roman Catholic position itself. In the way of negative critique, I only have a couple of nit-picky things to say, and I'll reserve them for the end.

The book opens with a foreword by Horton, who suggests that the book is aimed as much at Protestants who are tempted to capitulate to the claims of Rome (or Eastern Orthodoxy), as it is aimed at challenging Roman Catholics themselves. I did note one editing issue here, in the .pdf format I received at least: the verse cited as Romans 1:18 is actually 1 Corinthians 1:18, although the two passages are thematically related.

Next is a preface by Bickel, who suggests that the Church ought to be unified around truth, after the model of the Trinity. It is better to be divided for truth's sake, than to be united in error. When in comes to the central truths of the faith like the place of Scripture and the precious doctrines of the gospel, I am in full agreement here.

Chapter one, written by Godfrey, is called "What is Sola Scriptura?" In it, he lays out basic categories, definitions, basic Roman Catholic objections, and basic Protestant answers to said questions. This chapter functions almost like an overview for the rest of the book in its brevity yet relative thoroughness. I'm particularly happy with the emphasis here of interpretation of Scripture belonging in the Church, in community with other believers.

After some introductory remarks, Godfrey speaks first of Moses giving the Law, and how the people were to hear it and heed it, apart from any "authoritative" interpretive institutions (priests and prophets merely applied the Law; the Law itself was clear enough to understand and obey). Then he gives some exegesis of 2 Timothy 3-4, emphasizing how even though Timothy had received much oral apostolic tradition, still he is repeatedly pointed toward the Scriptures as that which will make him wise for salvation and equipped for every good work.

Then Godfrey quotes Augustine, talks about Jesus' victory over temptation in the wilderness through reliance on Scripture, and then moves to answer (very well, in my opinion) common Catholic objections, such as:

1) Other revelation than that which is inscripturated can be referred to as the "Word of God" (answer: yeah during the apostolic age, but not today, revelation having ceased);

2) "tradition" is clearly important according to the early church and according to Scripture itself (most important answer: usually in the early church fathers, "tradition typically referred to the standard interpretation of the Bible with their community, and we Protestants value such traditions," the key point being: "tradition" did not historically refer to extra revelation apart from that given in Scripture);

3) "Scripture, Church, and Tradition" are together the authority (answer: functionally for the Roman Catholic Church, since the Church both determines what is Scripture & "sacred Tradition" as well as interprets it, the Church itself becomes the final authority. Note the words of Pope Pius IX at Vatican I: "I am tradition." Also, the reformers found obvious contradictions between Scripture and official tradition, as well as between various official traditions of the Church);

4) Infallible Church authority is necessary to establish a canon of Scripture (answer: then how did the Church function before AD 382, or 1546, for that matter, when the Roman Church dogmatized its canon? The same can be asked about the Jewish canon of Old Testament Scriptures, for which there was not an official statement for hundreds and hundreds of years. Canon is not a matter of official Church declarations, but is self-authenticating and recognized passively by the people of God as a whole);

5) Just look at Protestant disunity (answer: we must compare Roman theory with Protestant theory, not Roman theory with Protestant practice. Rome is not actually unified theologically the way it claims. Moreover, Paul himself predicted divisions in the Church, and these divisions make it all the more necessary to have an external, objective standard like Scripture by which to solve disagreements, whereas Rome's claims to infallible authority here become very circular and unhelpful).

To end this chapter, Godfrey refers to the majestic Psalm 119 and the noble attitude of the Bereans of Acts 17, who tested even direct, apostolic oral teaching according to the Scriptures.

The next chapter is by James White, and he takes on the question of sola scriptura and the early church. First he contrasts a statement from Cyril of Jerusalem, which speaks highly of Scripture compared to other sources of authority/revelation, and contrasts that statement with a paradigmatic statement from the Council of Trent. Then White treats some important passages from early church father writings, from both Irenaeus and Basil. The heart of White's argument is that the use of the word "tradition" in these passages does not even come close to bearing the weight that many Roman Catholic apologists want to place on it: in Irenaeus, in context, it refers to obvious biblical truths like monotheism and the coming of Christ; in Basil it refers to early Christian practice and piety--and indeed some practices with which the Roman Church would not even agree! Moreover, White points out that Basil makes claims elsewhere that sound very much like the assertion of sola scriptura.

The third chapter is written by Sproul, wherein he tackles the thorny issue of the canon of Scripture. He makes a distinction, quoting his teacher Gerstner, between the Roman Catholic view of the canon as an "infallible list of infallible books" versus a "fallible list of infallible books." He goes on to briefly critique the Roman Catholic claim to infallibility, noting the problem that individuals still must interpret the so-called "infallible" teachings of the Church, and will inevitably do so fallibly.

Sproul makes the same point that Godfrey did above, namely, that there was a functioning "canon" prior to formal church councils declaring a list of books: just consider the OT Scriptures and their function during the apostolic era; also note the NT's witness to a growing recognition of the apostles' writings themselves as Scripture. Moreover, early church father quotes of the NT abound and most NT books functioned as canon from the earliest days of the post-Pentecostal Church.

Sproul also deals briefly with the question of the OT apocryphal books and gives several traditional Protestant arguments against including them as canonical: 1) while some Hellenized Jews included the apocrypha with their OT writings, there is no evidence to show most Jews regarded the deutero-canonical books as authoritative; 2) the books are never quoted by Jesus or the apostles as authoritative (although alluded to obliquely a couple of times in the NT); 3) Christ's typical threefold division of the OT ("Law, Prophets, Writings") affirms the traditional Jewish canon; 4) Scripture itself points to a unique prophetic silence in the era between the testaments.

Sproul summarizes the Protestant view of canon by saying (again, much as Godfrey stated) that the canon isn't created or given authority by the Church; the canon has inherent, self-authenticating authority.

After these rather typical discussions, impressively, Sproul goes on to argue that certain anti-supernaturalistic (Bultmannian) approaches to Scripture, as well as certain weak or antinomian views of Scripture, as well as certain neo-Pentecostal beliefs about new revelation continuing, are, in effect, damaging changes to the extent of the canon of Scripture itself!

Sproul's final word here on the canon is that the Church needs to trust in God's special providence for her, in that He has preserved and given to us all we need for faith and life in the 66 books of our Old and New Testaments.

Next, Derek Thomas spends a chapter describing and qualifying the nature of the authority of Scripture. He says that as a corollary of inspiration, the authority of Scripture extends to all of faith and practice, including difficult questions of ethics--for the principles of Scripture must be applied with wisdom to varying detailed situations of life. But, he says, we must always apply the authority of Scripture in the context of 1) an adequate sense of the distinctive features of various epochs of redemptive history; 2) and within proper hermeneutics.

In the next chapter, John MacArthur speaks of the sufficiency of Scripture. He actually makes a lot of the same points here that James White did with regard to passages that speak about "tradition," although he focuses more on the NT passages rather than early church father statements. His main argument there, though, is not (like White's) that tradition almost always means central gospel truths found in Scripture as well, but rather that even in these NT texts there is no reason to believe this apostolic tradition has the kind of authority or infallibility claimed for it by Rome.

MacArthur says that sufficiency is really, at the end of the day, the main point of the doctrine of sola scriptura. And he defines it thus: all truth that is necessary for salvation and spiritual life is found in Scripture, whether explicitly or implicitly. He then finishes his chapter by referring to the Bereans of Acts 17 (again) and noting that Roman Catholic believers today would be forbidden from approaching the relationship of Scripture and apostolic tradition in such a fashion. A powerful point.

Next up is Sinclair Ferguson, in his chapter simply titled "Scripture and Tradition," which title is a bit inappropriately broad for the contents of the chapter--and this is a shame, because in my opinion the contents of this chapter are worth the price of the whole book. The focus of this chapter is on the question of the functional relationship between Scripture and tradition for Roman Catholic theologians today, with one particular theologian, Fitzmeyer, as the main example.

This chapter is absolutely amazing because Ferguson picks Fitzmeyer as a representative, well-received theologian in the Catholic community, and begins expositing his theological method, as he shows us some of Fitzmeyer's initial exegesis of crucial verses in Romans 3, and then his later comments relating his exegetical findings to later Roman Catholic doctrines. Ferguson is trying to show that it is not an unfounded admission on the part of some Roman Catholics that, "there is in our day a clear recognition in Roman Catholic biblical scholarship that there is a gulf--or at least a distance--between what the text of sacred Scripture states and the teaching of the sacred tradition of the church."

The thing is, Fitzmeyer sounds like a party-line-towing Protestant when he exegetes Paul regarding the mechanism of justification. But, as he explicitly states in his Romans commentary, it is not possible to simply identify the teaching of Scripture with the teachings of sacred tradition. Rather, there is a kind of "open" character of Scripture, such that it is subject to the traditional and dogmatic handling of the Church. So Fitzmeyer does not embrace the sola fide he seems obviously to have found in Paul. In Roman Catholicism, it just goes to show, there is a necessary, logical priority and supremacy of the Church over both Scripture and tradition.

Thus Trent declared that no one was allowed to interpret Scripture in a way contrary to either the teaching of the Church or the "unanimous consent of the fathers" (as ridiculous as an idea as that is on its own). The claim is that any conflict of dogma and exegesis is due to unfaithful exegesis (note the circularity: we must start with good exegesis, but dogma/sacred tradition delimits what the results of "faithful exegesis" can be).

Ferguson goes on to assert that Roman Catholicism is not monolithic: there are clear conservatives (who tend to hold to the more historic meanings of exclusivistic dogma), and there are liberals (who by contrast interpret sacred tradition in a more ecumenical fashion)--after all, sacred tradition itself (which is often interpretations of Scripture or of still older traditions) still has to be interpreted by the living community of faith in one way or another (remember?). Ferguson gives the example of one Geiselmann fellow who tried to interpret a statement from Trent so as to allow basically for sola scriptura. The response to him from Cardinal Ratzinger is rather telling and direct: he basically told Geiselmann he was wrong because he was bound to believe all kinds of Church dogma that could not be found in the Scriptures!

With this kind of insistence on bowing at the outset to the ultimate interpretive authority of Rome, the reformers even in their own day argued that the "gap" between the teaching of Scripture and sacred tradition was not merely a relationship of dynamic tension, but rather there was often a chasm--blatant contradictions with regard to central doctrines of the faith.

So we see with Ferguson's chapter that still today, Scripture has no functionally supreme role of authority in the Roman Church, although she gives lip-service to it as an ultimate authority alongside tradition and the magisterial proclamations of the Church/the Pope. And I would just note if a Roman Catholic apologist were to complain that Dr. Ferguson only used on example of a faithful Roman Catholic theologian going about his work and methodology, that would just give weight to the Protestant argument (based on observable fact) that Rome is unified only formally and artificially, not really. Will a Protestant be convinced of the superior unity of Rome if he dissects the theological methodology of two different, celebrated Catholic theologians?

In the final, full-length chapter, Beeke and Lanning speak in practical-theological terms of the transforming power of Scripture. They emphasize that it's not enough to have academic debate about the nature and role of Scripture, but rather the purpose of having and esteeming Scripture so highly is for God to work His transformative, saving, sanctifying work in His people. They talk about four images the Bible gives for itself: a lamp, a hammer, a sword, and a seed; and they explain the significance of each image as it relates to our encounter with the Bible. They then go on to discuss the different ways in which we were meant to engage with Scripture: reading, hearing, meditating, preaching, and singing (especially the Psalms, which I really appreciated!). Toward the end of the chapter, Beeke and Lanning just focus for a while on the great centrality of the Word in the life of the Church, most especially in its being preached.

In the afterword of the book, we are exhorted to fight for the rightful place of Scripture in the Church, and reminded that we dare not either add to or take away from the written words of God.

As I said, all-in-all, I believe this is a good book which accomplished a lot. I think it would be a perfect book to introduce older high school students in the faith, younger college students, or newcomer evangelical/Protestant believers to the biblical and truly historical view of the relationship between Scripture, tradition, the Church, experience, etc. That said, I have some very minor words of critique before wrapping up this review:

1) There are advantages and disadvantages to having a multi-contributor book put together on one large, over-arching topic. One of the disadvantages is that, depending on the editing process, there may be significant overlap--and this is indeed the case, in my opinion. MacArthur reiterated a number of points already made by White in a previous chapter, and some of Sproul's points on canon were already addressed by Godfrey's chapter. The advantage, I suppose, is reinforcement and a demonstration that multiple well-known church leaders and theologians agree on these very important matters.

2) I don't think this book defined or nuanced the doctrine of sola scriptura, at least not all in one place if it did, in quite the way done by Keith Mathison in his great book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (which I would recommend to older or more theologically-inclined college students or seminarians). In the book edited by Kistler, we do get an emphasis on the importance of the church (not as an infallible institution but as a fallible body of Spirit-indwelt and Spirit-illuminated believers reading Scripture together) as the necessary context of faithful interpretation; but we don't hear much about an early regula fidei regarding the most central truths of the apostolic gospel, which functioned as a (fallible but important) set of boundaries on scriptural interpretation. Mathison fleshes out this consideration more in his own book.

Again, though, I have to remind the reader that I am nit-picking here, for the contributors to this book do a much better job of nuancing the doctrine than many rank-and-file Protestant Christians who think sola scriptura is just about "my Bible and me and the Holy Spirit, figuring out all doctrine for ourselves."

3) Once or twice, there were a couple of statements regarding tradition and authority that are not overstatements if and only if you assume that the word "authority" is being used in the absolute sense of "final, infallible authority." For example, one time MacArthur writes, "...tradition had no legitimate place of authority in the worship of Jehovah." Obviously tradition does have some kind of authoritative role in the life of the Church, even Scripture clearly transcends it. Surely Dr. MacArthur realizes such and intends "authority" to be read as "absolute, infallible authority."

4) In the Beeke/Lanning chapter on the transforming power of Scripture, there is a passing reference made to Sabbath observance, in terms of taking up the whole day in religious and devotional activity, particularly as makes use of the Scriptures. While the Westminster Confession of Faith encourages that view of Sabbath observance, I personally do not believe that physical or mental recreation is prohibited on the Lord's Day. I believe the fundamental thing enjoined in the Fourth Commandment, apart from the necessary "holy convocation" of God's people for public worship, is rest, not the multiplication of many "works"--religious "works" though they be.

These trifles of criticism out of mind, I am very happy with this book and will be recommending it to certain members of my own local Church in the near future, I'm sure. It does a good job of giving context and foundation to the most common issues brought up in discussions of whether sola scriptura is coherent, biblical, and historical--and what it is or is not, in the first place. I find the arguments and counter-arguments for the Protestant view compelling, and they make me want to sing Psalm 119 letter by letter this week, extolling the Law, the statutes, and the counsels of God, found in His perfet, holy, inspired Word.

Thanks to Ligonier ministries for Email and Twitter updates about opportunities like this, and thank you to Reformation Trust for providing the .pdf format gratis so that I could read and review it. I hope to do similar work in the future!

God bless!