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Monday, March 23, 2015

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

Intro

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 Amazon.com.

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!