Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Coherence Of The Old Testament Covenants

I liked this quotation from a paper by Michael A. Grisanti on "The Davidic Covenant":
Every student of the Bible must realize that the various biblical covenants revealed in the OT are interconnected. One must not keep the promises they contain separate from each other as mutually exclusive sets of covenant provisions (like distinct post office boxes). Rather, throughout the OT God is weaving a beautiful covenant tapestry, weaving each new covenant into the fabric of the former covenants... The recognition of continuity or sameness and discontinuity or differences in God's revelation of the biblical covenants must accompany belief in progressive revelation. As God reveals His will for mankind and Israel in particular, He repeats certain features already presented and introduces other brand-new elements. Students of God's Word must take great care not to ignore either side of that coin. [MSJ 10:2 (Fall 99), 245]
Since Grisanti is from the Master's Seminary, he might perhaps emphasize more discontinuity than I would prefer, but overall I still think the above is a good statement. No doubt the overall message of the Bible is one of renewal and not revolution. Unity, continuity and development are more essential than discontinuity and brand newness. Also, while I don't think there is necessarily a strictly linear development of the 'covenant tapestry', certainly the whole is still teleological and only comes together properly and makes its complete sense in the person of Jesus.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Packer on Inerrancy and Hermeneutics

I was reading an article by J. I. Packer called "Encountering Present-Day Views of Scripture" (originally from a 1978 publication), in the book Honouring the Written Word of God: Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer Volume 3. I thought this quote was good regarding a common malpractice in hermeneutics because of a view of inerrancy. Genesis 1 being a particular flashpoint in relation to the creation-evolution/age-of-the-earth debates, as also OT prophecy as related to millenial views and the prospects of ethnic Israel and Judaism. If you don't read Scripture the same way as someone else, there can be too quick a jump to a charge or suspicion of doubting the trustworthiness, authority, or inerrancy of the Scriptures. Anyhow, here is the quote:
A warning should perhaps be voiced here against the psychological trap (for it is psychological, a matter of falsely associated feelings, rather than logical, a formal mistake in inference) of supposing that the confession of inerrancy involves a commitment to treat all narrative and predictive passages in Scripture as if they were written according to the conventions that would apply to ordinary English prose used today for these purposes, rather than the conventions of their own age and literary genre. Put thus, the mistake sounds too silly for anyone to make, but in fact it is made frequently: hence Pinnock's complaint that not enough care is taken to attach the necessary hermeneutical qualifications to inerrancy as an idea. And one can see how the mistake happens: people feel, sincerely if confusedly, that the only natural, straightforward way to express their certainty that the contents of Scripture are contemporary in their application is to treat Scripture as contemporary in its literary form. So, for example, Genesis 1 is read as if it were answering the same questions as today's scientific textbooks aim to answer, and Genesis 2 and 3 are read as if they were at every point prosaic eyewitness narratives of what we would have seen if we had been there, ignoring the reasons for thinking that in these chapters "real events may be recorded in a highly symbolic manner," and books like Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation are expounded in total disregard of the imaginative conventions of apocalyptic. But it does not follow that be-cause Scripture records matters of fact, therefore it does so in what we should call matter-of-fact language.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Calvinism is making a comeback?

In another one of the Yahoo groups I participate in, someone pointed out this article in Christianity Today:

Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback and shaking up the church

It is an interesting read about the resurgence of Calvinistic/Reformed teaching amongst the American Evangelical scene, particularly the young Evangelicals. For good and ill, I think this last quote captures some of the distinctive post-modern essence of contemporary perspectives of Calvinism today:
It's because the young Calvinists value theological systems far less than God and his Word. Whatever the cultural factors, many Calvinist converts respond to hallmark passages like Romans 9 and Ephesians 1. "I really don't like to raise any banner of Calvinism or Reformed theology," said Eric Lonergan, a 23-year-old University of Minnesota graduate. "Those are just terms. I just like to look at the Word and let it speak for itself."
Actually, this quote reminds me of something I read in a John Frame book, called Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the One Body of Christ (full version, with some updates, available online from this page). Here is some of what he says:
My wife once regularly attended a neighborhood Bible study, with women from Roman Catholic, Charismatic, Arminian, Dispensational, and Episcopal backgrounds as well as some fellow Presbyterians. However, it never became a doctrinal battleground, she says, because the study always focused on the text of Scripture. The women sought to avoid technical theological jargon and tried simply to do justice to what the Bible taught.

Certainly they studied some passages that were heavy with doctrinal content. Romans 9 was one. When the group read Romans 9, Calvinist and Arminian together marvelled at God's control of history including the his control of the human heart. When they got to chapter 10, all with one accord were challenged with the responsibility of human beings to preach the gospel. No one insisted on the dogmatic terminology of "free will" on the one hand, or of "unconditional election" on the other. Romans 9 and 10 spoke for themselves, as it were, and bound these Christian women together in praise and fellowship. All sincerely and warmly received the scriptural message.

Perhaps someone will say that they missed something! A Calvinist might reply that unless we bring in the theological concept of unconditional election, we cannot possibly understand Romans 9, and that therefore the ladies in question were rejoicing in ignorance. An Arminian might say the same thing about "free will." But if God did not inspire Paul to write the words "unconditional election," why should we insist that those precise words-- or the words "free will"-- are necessary to express his meaning?

I have no doubt that the women understood Romans 9 and 10. Would the theological terms have helped them get a better understanding? Perhaps in some Bible studies, but not in this one. In this particular case, introduction of technicalities would have produced unnecessary quarreling-- certainly not the response the Apostle Paul (and God, the ultimate author) intended the text to evoke. And the use of such terms might have exaggerated the extent to which Paul himself had a technical theological purpose in writing these chapters. I have no doubt that an avoidance of technicalities in this particular context gave the women a better understanding of the passages than they would have had otherwise.
Paul wrote these chapters at a time when the Calvinist/Arminian, even the Augustinian/Pelagian, debates were still future. He was not trying to persuade Arminians to become Calvinists, or the other way around. It is not wrong for us today to use these passages to help resolve the controversy. It is wrong to suggest that that is their only legitimate use, or even their chief use, or that the texts can be understood only in the context of that debate. Rather, there are other contexts too; other uses-- such as the ones Paul actually had in mind.

Certainly divine sovereignty and human responsibility are major themes of these passages. But one may appreciate both these themes without concentrating on the historical controversies over them. The ladies in the Bible study praised God's sovereignty, and they accepted the scriptural challenge to their own responsibility. And they did it without argument, without debate, simply listening to the word of God. For them, for an hour or so, the church was one.

Are there not times even in our local church life when it might be best simply to let the text speak (more or less! for we are still "explaining" it to one another) for itself? Do we always have to point out, in expounding Romans 9 and 10, how our party is right and the other party wrong? Does not that very emphasis keep us from appreciating certain nuances and emphases in the passage? Does not that practice exaggerate the importance of the historical controversy?

My wife (like me a good Calvinist) says that it is not hard to convince people of Calvinistic teachings when you avoid using Calvinistic jargon. I agree. Beyond this, there is a slogan among the Reformed that "anyone who prays for another's conversion is a Calvinist." I'm not sure where that came from; it has been attributed to Warfield, Van Til, Vos.. I agree with that too. If you pray for the soul of another, then you believe that person's decision is in the hand of God, not merely a product of the person's "free agency." But many pray like Calvinists, while proclaiming Arminian theology. That doesn't seem consistent to me, but I welcome their prayers, and I'll be happy to have them pray with me for the conversion of sinners. So perhaps my wife's point can be taken a further step: for there are people around who are Calvinists in one degree or another (evidenced by their words and actions), who would not use the Calvinistic jargon, who would, perhaps, even repudiate it.

It seems to me that what we call Calvinism is simply a spelling out of the heart-instincts of all believers in Christ. I can easily persuade myself that the whole church will be Calvinist eventually, if we allow people to read Scripture as it stands, without feeling that we have to rub their noses in historic controversy. There is a certain "smarty pants" theological attitude in wanting to show people of the other party that our team was right all along. We sometimes feel that we need to do that in order to make our case maximally cogent; but in fact that attitude detracts from the cogency of our case. We give people the impression that in order to acknowledge the biblical principle they must also acknowledge us, our denomination, our historical traditions. But no. Biblical principle deserves their allegiance. Our "team" does not necessarily deserve it.

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Latin and Greek Language Tools

For those whose Latin and Greek is as bad as mine or worse, here are some online language tools (or cheats!) I find useful.

Words by William Whitaker allows you to submit entire Latin phrases, and it translates each word to English, giving all possible parsing. Quite useful for reading those theological writings which have Latin quotes untranslated :-)

The Perseus Digital Library has heaps of useful tools and resources, and I particularly use it for Greek, though it also has Latin resources and more. The tools I use the most would be the Dictionary Headword Lookup (search for all dictionary entries which contain a certain string of letters) and even more the Greek Morphological Analysis (after submitting a word, generates possible morphological analyses and links to related dictionary entries). Amongst other things, the Library also allows you to look up all occurrences of words within the many texts stored in the database.

While I'm at it, another site I only recently found out about is http://www.zhubert.com/, a site by Zack Hubert, whose Bible Page has many useful tools, including hypertext information on parsing etc when you hover over words in the Greek text (works for LXX as well as GNT!). While you can also display Hebrew text, I think the Hebrew side of things is still much more a work in progress, and more underdeveloped than the Greek. But go and check it out for yourself!