Archive for the ‘Doctrine of Scripture’ Category

…they just go together.

How is it that we can recognize the Spirit of God? Do we do so by feeling or intuition? Do we simply *know* God’s Spirit? If so, why does John admonish believers to test the spirits? If believers *knew* the Spirit from false spirits, there would be no reason to test the spirits. What, then, is the believer to use to test the spirits? Maybe another way of asking is, by what means do believers recognize the Spirit of God? I think God’s answer to this question is actually quite elegant and simple, and it’s exceedingly workable. Let’s see if I can’t lay it out so as to be understood. (more…)

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Books! Read Good Ones.


I posted this list as a note on Facebook earlier today. That list was supposed to be short, but I wanted to elaborate a bit about why each of these books is so important to me. Here goes.

1. The Bible by God – the whole world hangs on this book. It is God’s self-revelation unto our salvation. I loathe when people (recalling my liberal professors at University) pay lip service to the Bible, but deny its teachings. This book must rule us.

2. The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin – The only people more influential on my thinking than John Calvin are my parents (God bless them). This book rocked my little world. It was my introduction into the vast cosmos of Christian thought. Calvin is one of the great masters of Christian thought. This work is his justly famous summary of Christian doctrine.

3. Luther the Leader by John L. Nuelsen (I think) – I was a sophomore at University. I wanted to know about the Reformation. I sat in my ignorance on one side of the apartment looking across at this book on the book shelf. I knew the end of my ignorance was in its pages. This was the first book I picked up as an adult, and I picked it up with the express purpose of learning. That was awesome. It sparked a deep desire in me to know the things of God and his people – a desire that continues to burn.

4. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – This is one of the books that my mom read to me before bed. Thanks, mom. I have not read it as an adult, but as a child it helped me develop an imagination and a sense of wonder at the way things are.

5. He Shall Have Dominion by Kenneth Gentry – This book brought just about everything together for me. It’s a book about Postmillennialism (the best book available to define and defend postmil theory), but it draws together so much: covenant, ethics, history, God’s plan of redemption, and much more. Gentry’s book helped me bring together a fulsome Christian view of all these things.

6. Theonomy in Christian Ethics by Greg Bahnsen – Bahnsen work on ethics helped me sharpen my thoughts about ethics. It’s very popular in Christian circles to be dismissive of large tracts of God’s law. Bahnsen helped me fine tune my commitment to divine law, even in the details.

7. Christian Apologetics by Cornelius Van Til – I have never worked harder to read a book than I worked to read this one. It paid off. In the words of Kenneth Gentry, Van Til helped me begin to *think* as a Christian.

8. The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul – This book helped me keep my mind in the great morass of happy-clappy Christianity that I was introduced to as an undergraduate. God’s holiness is rightly horrifying. Sproul taught me about the trauma of holiness. Thanks, R.C.

9. The Sovereignty of God by Arthur W. Pink – don’t read the abridged version of this. This work will rock you to your core. When I read it I was already convinced of the absolute sovereignty of God (call it “Calvinism” if you must). This book details how the Bible shows God’s absolute sovereignty in various areas of life, including salvation and reprobation. Pink is a great antidote to the poisons of Arminianism.

10. Westminster Standards (but especially the Shorter Catechism) – The Standards are always in my hands. They’re a consistent source of spiritual sustenance and guidance. I recall learning a great deal from the Shorter Catechism in one particular reading at an airport (LAX) in 1998.


Leo Tolstoy


11. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – I read this amazing book for the first time in 2000. Took a while, cuz it’s big and thick. That’s okay. Big books just take longer to read. Don’t be scared of them. W&P, itself, was vast and amazing, telling the story of many lives in the context of the Napoleonic Wars in Russia. Simply amazing. This book also kicked off a love affair between me and Russian authors, especially Tolstoy.

12. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – This book taught me that people could use words to paint pictures in my mind, that they would write words that could break my heart, that being an author is art. This book (along with others) convinced me of the necessity of reading fiction for pastors. Words are powerful tools. We gotta learn how to use ’em.

13. First in his Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton by David Maraniss – This may seem like a curious book to make the top 15. I suppose that it is. Let me put it this way: Before I read this book, I abhorred Bill Clinton. After I read this book, I abhorred Bill Clinton, but thought that there were many ways that I should be more like him.  Briefly, it opened my eyes to my narrow view or assessment of people. It didn’t make me think differently about right and wrong, but it did help me access people in a broader, healthier way.

14. Confessions by Augustine – This book, to some degree, taught me devotions. It demonstrated that a thinking Christianity can be a devotional Christianity. It is proof that not only can you have both head and heart, but that the heart is diminished without the head, and the head is diminished without the heart. Also, I like reading Augustine thoughtfully kicking around an idea, an idea with which all the greatest minds in history subsequently wrestle. Augustine is a wellspring of centuries and centuries of thought.

15. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament by J. Julius Scott, Jr. – I read this book at the end of seminary: wish I read it long before that. Scott shows how dependent the NT is on both the OT and intertestamental Judaism. This book helped me get a better view of the “historico” part of my historico-grammatico-theological hermeneutics.

Looking at my list now, I see that I should have added How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – this book’s title is cliché, but that’s only because of how successful it was. This book codifies how to treat people so that they like you. The simple version is *actually* be interested in them, focus on them, their desires and interests. Love them first, and, in turn, they’ll love you back. I think this book could be read annually with great benefit.

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Literalism don't fit this Book

Sometime last week (I think), I posted something on “literal interpretation.” I’d like to do a quick follow-up post to show how the modern literalistic hermeneutic (most often associated with Dispensationalism) is insufficient. I want to show that such literalism is simply not a biblical hermeneutic.


Take Genesis 15:5 – “And he [YHWH] brought him [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.'”

The NT picks up on this text a handful of times. I’ll confine my analysis here to two citations by the Apostle Paul. The first one is in Romans 4:18: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.'” Here, Paul interprets “offspring” as the spiritual children of Abraham, the heirs of the world (vs. 13). The second one is over in Galatians 3:16, Paul says this: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” Here, Paul interprets “offspring” in a singular fashion (appealing to the verbally inspired text, by the way), not the collective, plural fashion he did in Romans 4.

In short, we have at least two intentions in the text of Genesis 15:5, both attested to in the NT. One interpretation is a Christological one (Gal. 3) and the other is a something of a spiritualized, natural one (Rom. 4). In both cases, neither of Paul’s inspired interpretations are “literal” in the sense that modern literalists mean. Literalism as a hermeneutic, while it certainly accounts for different genres (poetry, historical narrative, didactic epistle, etc) cannot account for the Bible as a whole. Please get that. The Bible is a spiritual book which centers around Jesus Christ. In Luke 24, Jesus teaches his disciples on the road to Emmaus about hermeneutics: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (verse 27).  The Bible is to be read Christologically. Our hermeneutics should at least be historical – grammatical – Christological. Literalism cannot handle this; literalism simply cannot handle the Bible on the Bible’s terms. The Bible, in all of its richness, has far more to offer us than a literalistic hermeneutic is able to draw from the text.

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Kris Kord‘s post got me thinking. He’s been working through some of the issues that divided conservative Presbyterians in the early 20th century. His most recent post touches on the incomprehensibility of God and the overall difficulty of language (a creation, after all) to convey divine truth. The debate ‘twixt Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark is not an isolated one; that discussion (in one way or another) had been going on for centuries. Below, I’ll give a thumbnail of that extended discussion from Richard Muller’s PRRD and then float a couple questions out there for our discussion… here goes.

Muller traces the development of theological prolegomena to the early twelfth century. (Get a gander over here for a brief discussion of what prolegomena are.) The discussions of the nature of theological language came into their own in what’s called the High Middle Ages, and were tied in with the recovery and reception of many of Aristotle’s philosophical works (specifically his Metaphysics and Ethics). “The latter document,” according to Dr. Muller, “is of particular importance since it is the place where Aristotle delivered his arguments for the classification of the forms of knowing: understanding (intelligentia), knowledge or science (scientia), prudence or discretion (prudentia), and art or technique (ars)” (Muller, PRRD, 1:90). Science (scientia) must, according to Aristotle, rest upon its own self-evident first principles (principia). Thus, if theology is rightly to be called scientia, it also must rest upon its own principia. This notion caused successive theologians to place the discussion of these issues prior to the discussion of theology itself. It’s in this way that theological prolegomena were developed as a separate and, eventually, a highly technical collection of considerations.

The theological tradition handed down from Augustine preferred to call theology sapientia, or widsom, as it viewed theology as knowledge of goals or ends, specifically of God, the highest good. This terminology, however, didn’t jive the best with the revived Aristotelian terminology of the High Middle Ages, which preferred scientia to sapientia, as scientia tended more toward an academic discipline. Built into this development is the discussion of the nature and certitude of theological knowledge. Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), anticipating in some degree what would become the Reformed Protestant position, argued that theology was not properly called scientia, as it didn’t rest upon first principles (principia) in the same way as other human knowledge. Theological knowledge, he argued, was rational and experiential, but drew its certainty from neither of those sources, but from the Holy Spirit. Then along comes the Dumb Ox, who maintained that theology is scientia, but more properly scientia subalterna, or subalternate science, in that its principia were not self-evident to men. These principia (upon which scientia was built, you’ll remember) were self-evident to God, but had to be revealed by him to humanity and were found in the Scripture and the great creeds of the church. So, we see that by the time of Aquinas, theological knowledge is already quite distinguished from other human knowledge. Theological language and certitude is distinct from that of other scientia.

Duns Scotus

Okay, grab your socks and hose and pull, cuz it gets stickier with the late-Medieval theologians. Take John Duns Scotus (d. 1308). Scotus, based on the very rational concept that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, radically limited human knowledge of God. He did not like there Thomistic terminology of scientia subalterna, but preferred to call theology praxis, focusing on the practical instead of the theoretical. For Scotus, the principles apprehended by humans through divine revelation cannot approach God’s self-knowledge. Thus, for Scotus, there’s a radical disjunction between God’s theology (or theologia in se) and our theology (theologia nostra), which yields “no proportion” between the two. How, indeed, could there be “proportion” between infinite and finite knowledge? The theology following Duns Scotus was duly influenced by his thinking. William of Okham (d. 1348), for example, contributed to the discussion by reworking the definition of theology from a unified knowing of a single object (i.e., God) to a collection of knowings of various truths. Thus, our “theoretical” knowledge of the Trinity can substantially differ from our “practical” knowledge of how to love the triune God.

So, by the end of Medieval period, we have highly refined discussions of human knowledge of God and the relation of human language to the divine reality. The Reformation stands upon this Medieval foundation and the Reformed orthodox (and even some of the early Reformers) pick up these discussions again. To make full circle, these debates were revived in Presbyterian circles in the discussions between Van Til and Clark.

As to our discussion, how are we to think about the relation between God’s self-revelation in human language to God’s self-knowledge? Further, how about our knowledge of God (our understanding of his revelation) relative to his own self-knowledge? Certainly, we can agree that God’s revealed himself so that he can be known, at least insofar as sinners can be saved. We’d want to stop short of saying that we know God in himself, or as he knows himself. So, what are your thoughts?

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Scripture and Tradition... in one volume!

A while back I published a small ditty on Reformed Catholicism, in which I asserted that Reformed provincialism is dangerous, and that a correct catholicism is important. Well, I’ve been working (slowly) through Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (check out the great price!), which I still think is an awesome work. I happened upon this little passage that offers an assessment of the intent and effect of the Reformation:

The Reformation, in spite of its substantial contribution to the history of doctrine and the shock it delivered to theology and the church in the sixteenth century, was not an attack upon the whole medieval theology or upon Christian tradition. The Reformation assaulted a limited spectrum of doctrinal and practical abuses with the intention of reaffirming the values of the historical church catholic. Thus, the mainstream Reformers reconstructed the doctrines of justification and the sacraments and then modified their ideas of the ordo salutis and of the church accordingly; but maintained the Augustinian tradition concerning predestination, human nature and sin. The reform of individual doctrines, like justification and the sacraments, occurred within the bounds of a traditional, orthodox, and catholic system which, on the grand scale, remained substantively unaltered. (Muller, PRRD, 1:97)

All this is very near and dear to my little heart. The Reformation was not a revolt, but it was a reformation. The Reformers were reforming the church according to the Word of God, to be sure. That, however, was no reason to throw away the great ecclesiastical conversation. The interpretations and applications of the Scripture that the church had made through the ages were (and still are) important. Sola Scriptura is not a denial of tradition and history – we believe in the ministry of the church, but we hold to the primacy of Scripture itself. The Spirit speaking in the Bible judges our traditions, but does not erase them. Tradition hangs in the balance and is judged by Scripture, but tradition is still there, and it’s still important.

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Dr. White

The second essay in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible is by Dr. James White, the head of Alpha and Omega Ministries – give him a look.

Romanist apologists call the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura a novelty, and they insist that the notion of dual source authority: Scripture and Tradition is the ancient view of the Church. Dr. White is set to take them to task on this score. To do so, he first directs us to Rome’s official position, as stated in decrees of the Council of Trent:

[The council] also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following, then, the examples of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession.

Thus, we have written books and unwritten traditions, the latter plainly “dictated” by the Holy Spirit. Both of these are necessary and, together, form one single “Sacred Tradition.”

In my personal experience discussing doctrine with Roman Catholics, this issue of authority is the fundamental issue. But the question Dr. White seeks to answer is, “Has the Christian church always held to this two-fold notion of Sacred Tradition?”

Dr. White goes through some commonly quoted passages, which Roman apologists marshal in support of their position. He pays specific attention to Irenaeus and Basil of Caesarea, showing how the Roman Catholic scholars tend to quote selectively and out of context. Further, White compiles numerous quotes from Augustine and Athanasius, to show how they valued Scripture above tradition, especially in their polemical writings. This whole section, due to the format, is less than satisfactory. Selected quotations, even though they can be helpful and telling, are rarely satisfactory. One’s left wondering if one has a faithful view of any of the Fathers. Again, this is not Dr. White’s problem, but a problem with the format.

Dr. White concludes that the Roman apologists engage in “anachronistic interpretation” of the patristic materials. An honest assessment of those materials will demonstrate that sola Scriptura is not a novelty, but that the Roman Catholic notion of scriptural insufficiency and the necessity of the tradition for what we are to believe is the “theological novum.”

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Reformation Trust Publishing over at Ligonier Ministries has a blog-for-book offer. Check out the details more closely, but basically, if you write and acceptable review (that does not mean positive) on your blog, they’ll send you a free copy of the book. I’m gamer.

I have read the first couple essays in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, which have been good. I’ll probably review each essay and then the book as a whole. In any event, this post will review W. Robert Godfrey’s essay, “What Do We Mean by Sola Scriptura?”

Godfrey starts with a brief and able statement of the two major differences between Rome and historic Protestantism:

The theme of this chapter is one of the two main issues that still divides us: the source of religious truth for the people of God (the other main issue is the question of how a man is made right with God, which Protestants answer with the doctrine of justification by faith alone). As Protestants, we maintain that Scripture alone is our authority. Roman Catholics maintain that Scripture by itself is insufficient as the authority of the people of God, and that tradition and the teaching authority of the church must be added to Scripture.

This does not mean that we discount the necessary ministry of interpretation  that belongs to the church. Godfrey supports this by quoting William Whitaker: “For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.” This is an important thing to nail down. Sola scriptura doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t need the church to interpret it. I wish, however, that Dr. Godfrey had gone a little further and discussed the relationship between the authority of the text of Scripture and the authority and necessity of the interpretation of the church.

After presenting a scant scriptural defense of the Protestant position that “all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible with enough clarity that the ordinary believer can find them there and understand,” he turns to 2 Timothy 3. His handling of this text is wonderful. One point he makes in this section that was powerful to me is that Timothy had access to plenty of apostolic teaching and oral tradition. He’d rubbed shoulders with the Apostle Paul, don’t you know? But even after all that, Paul instructs him to preach the Scriptures (not any kind of oral tradition), as they contain what’s necessary to the perfecting of the man of God. Good stuff.

Dr. Godfrey

The remainder of the essay (really, the bulk of it) is profitably spend examining Rome’s responses and assertions in four areas: 1) the Word of God, 2) Tradition, 3) the Church and the Canon, and 4) Unity. The one thing I want to focus on from this section is Godfrey’s articulation of Rome’s view of the Word of God and the church. First, we have the Word of God, by which Rome means both the written Word and the unwritten apostolic Tradition (which is difficult for anyone to define). But over these Rome posits herself. Who, after all, is fit to tell us what the Word (written and unwritten) means? In case you came up with the wrong answer, the Catholic Catechism will set you straight: “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” Godfrey rightly comments that, “for Rome, the only real authority is the church: sola ecclesia.”

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