Friday, February 05, 2016

How the Enlightenment affected theologizing

This change [alteration in method -DHC] revealed itself in (among other things) the following tendencies, which exerted a profound affect on the theology of the Enlightenment.

  1. Theology came to be more or less dependent on philosophy and rational thought. Even in those presentations where the author did not wish to go so far as to replace revelation with natural religion, intending rather to stand fully within the Christian tradition, it was not uncommon to find rational arguments placed alongside revelation on an equal basis. The demand that reason be subjected to the testimony of Scripture was replaced by the firm belief that revelation and rational principles are in complete harmony, plus the desire to legitimize revelation in the presence of reason.

  2. Parallel with theology’s rationalizing was its tendency to moralize. Morality is a more immediate concern than religion to the modern, rational view of life. The promotion of good morals was looked upon as Christianity’s main objective, and ethical content as its very essence.

  3. The idea that religion was based in particular on principles inbedded in human reason supported an individualistic conception: religion became an individual, private matter, its certainty based on a person’s own experiences

  4. A basic characteristic of the theology of the Enlightenment was the tendency to “humanize” Christianity, to accommodate it to an anthropocentric frame. Theology was expected to promote human welfare, and theological truth was expected to harmonize with commonly recognized rational principles. This-worldly goals predominated: earthly happiness and a rational morality were the primary benefits that men expected from religion.

(Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology, 339)

Many of these trends are still with us today, even in supposed "post-modern" circles.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Lutheran Orthodoxy and the Usus tertius legis

[In Lutheran Orthooxy] Because man is unable to fulfill the Law's demands, it is not a rule for the conduct of his life. Instead, the Law serves to reveal sin, to accuse man, and to condemn all who are not released from the curse of the Law by the grace made available through Christ's atonement. [Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology (4th rev. ed.; trans. Gene J. Lund; St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1968, 2007), 318]

While Luther believed in the third use of the Law, it seems that Lutheran Orthodoxy does not do so. This should be interesting for those who are interested in Lutheranism, which I am unfortunately not that keen on.

Monday, February 01, 2016

WSC Conference 2016: The Holy Spirit in Our Confessions

The 2016 annual conference held by Westminster Seminary California had concluded and the audio and video files have been uploaded to the server. In the second talk, Dr. Fesko spoke about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in especially the Westminster Confession of Faith, weaving interesting historical facts in the process (and the obligatory Star Wars reference). The talk can be seen here.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Regeneration and the means of grace

If regeneration is an immediate act of creative power it cannot be said to be wrought through the instrumentality of the Word of God in the sense of the gospel. For when we use the term the Word of God in such a sense we mean the Word of God proclaimed to us, addressed to our consciousness, operative in our consciousness, and engaging our consciousness with the appropriate effects. In other words, we do not meant the word of divine fiat, for that we must posit as the action of regeneration. (John Murray, "Regeneration," in John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, 196)

In an earlier post, I pointed out the problems with trying to do away with the term "regeneration" by attempting to subsume regeneration under the category of effectual calling. But while I agree regeneration is a distinct (note: not separate) act from effectual calling, I agreed that it was through God's Word in effectual calling that regeneration happens.

In his article on the topic however, John Murray goes further, trying to distinguish between two types of regeneration. The first is unmediated by the proclaimed Word but purely of divine fiat. The second is mediated by the proclaimed Word (pp. 196-7). In a certain sense, we can say that some people seem to show signs of regeneration prior to the proclamation of the Gospel, but is that a real example of someone who is regenerated by divine fiat alone apart from the proclaimed Word?

It is my contention that Murray is wrong here. While certainly there is a distinction between the divine fiat Word, and the proclaimed Word, yet, inasmuch as the proclaimed Word is faithful to the Scriptures, it is the very Word of God. God has instituted means to lead people unto salvation, and those include especially the preaching of His Word (WSC Q89). Thus, in the matter of salvation, there is a tight relation between the divine fiat and the proclaimed Word. Certainly, equating them is ridiculous since no preacher is God, but since God is pleased to work through His ordained means, then the divine fiat always works in conjunction with the preached Word.

Seeing the tight relation between the fiat Word and the proclaimed Word, we can and should say that the divine fiat Word in the effectual call accompanies (either before, contemporaneous, or after) the divine fiat Word. Thus, contra Murray, regeneration is an immediate act of creative power (in the sense that God did it by fiat), and yet regeneration can be said to be wrought through the instrumentality of the Word of God (in the sense that God ordained the preached Word to accompany the fiat Word). Practically, we should expect regeneration to happen co-extensively with the proclaimed Word, with no particular choice in the temporal order of these events. Thus, we might see some people who were initially disinterested in the Christian faith yet they come to faith after hearing the proclamation of the Gospel, while others might show a tender heart and were already receptive to Christ even prior to hearing the Gospel.

There are therefore not two senses of regeneration, but one. God's speech is one, therefore there is one sense of regeneration. Regeneration is unmediated by creaturely agency, yet God is pleased to use the means of grace for it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Article: Some practical problems with Cheung's heresies

I have consolidated and improved upon what I have written on the practical problems with Vincent Cheung's theology into an article, and you can read it here. Here is the conclusion:

Cheung’s heresy has produced poison fruits: the twin fruits of emotional resignation, and distrust in God. These are not the fruits of a God-centered ministry, and should be rejected as what they are: the works of the devil. May God open the eyes of Cheungians and grant them repentance and faith. Amen

The meaning of "puritan"

In essence, the ‘puritanism’ of this selection of authors extends no further than their desire for further reformation of the protestant church within the three kingdoms – hence the identification of ‘puritanism’ with an ecclesiological trend [Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology, 1550-1682 (Studies in Christian History and Thought; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), 8]

What exactly is a "puritan"? In Crawford Gribben's work, the noun/ adjective "puritan" is defined broadly as a desire for further reformation of the protestant church, which historically is situated in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Wales. Thus, the word "puritan" can encompass both those who put a higher priority on the unity of the church and thus seek more gradual reforms, even the preservation of things they deem adiaphora (e.g. vestments), and those who put a higher priority on the purity of the church and thus agitate for quicker and stricter reforms. Over time after the Restoration of 1660, those who agitated for quicker and more radical reforms became known as the Nonconformists, who were forced out of the Church of England. Prior to 1660 however, all of them were within the young Reformed Church of England.

The word "puritan" therefore is descriptive more of a mood, or "ecclesiastical trend," than of fixed doctrines or even a certain type of piety. Now, in some modern day Reformed circles, "puritan" is associated with a certain type of inward piety and a striving after holiness. On pastoral practice, we have Richard Baxter's The Reformed Pastor, and John Owen's The Mortification of Sin is perhaps the most well-known work on self-examination and striving after holiness in mortifying the flesh. But historically, this understanding of "puritan" seems skewed. Oliver Cromwell can be considered a "puritan," but I doubt he would be a great example of supposed "puritan piety," at least not unless you are willing to contemplate massacring countless Irish as being a godly behavior. The more episcopal-minded James Ussher can be called a puritan, but a high church puritan doesn't exactly fit the modern Reformed mold of a "puritan," does it?

It is therefore better to use the more historically-based definition of "puritan" as a mood for ecclesiastical reform, instead of focusing on the more inward pietism-lite of a select few. No doubt a concern for inward piety and godliness is part of the 17th century puritan movement, yet its main focus is the reformation of the church. To be a "puritan" is thus to be discontent with the semi-Reformed status of the Church. It says no to the current ecclesiastical situation. It will not settle for the status quo under the partial truth that "there is no perfect church." Yes, there are no perfect churches, but there are churches reformed, and churches unreformed. What we desire is for churches to be always be reformed, going back to the Scriptures and confessing and practicing the historical Christian faith.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Another instance of Cheungian heresy

I have lost a friend to Cheungism, and blocked by him on Facebook. Recently, I was given a glimpse at what he had posted on one of the Facebook forums, and to some extent I was glad for the block, because I would have torn my hair out in frustration at such nonsense. Introducing the writings of Vincent Cheung to him to read is one of my biggest regrets. I am grieved by his fall from orthodoxy, and especially since he refuses to change. I was told however that perhaps I was too hasty in my denunciation of his Cheungian ways, but after seeing what he had posted, I think that my concern is at least partially validated.

The provocative nonsense he had posted in the forum was a statement that God actually deceives people. In the meta, there was a link to this article by Vincent Cheung, which states that God does tempt people, since God is fully sovereign and therefore he controls everything directly. Here we see an even more toxic fruit of Cheung's hard-shell determinism. It is bad enough that God is said to be the direct cause of evil, but now God actually deceives and tempts people? Just because He Himself is not the agent doing it, but He sent agents to do it, does not make any real differences at all. If I were to tell someone to murder X, does that mean that I am not guilty of murder since I did not personally commit the act?

There is nothing in Cheung's article that I have not refuted already, except the biblical texts. With regards to these texts, here we see Cheung violating a basic tenet of good exegesis: which is that clearer texts are supposed to interpret the more obscure texts, and narratives are to be interpreted according to didactic texts. Cheung cites the narrative texts 2 Samuel 24 and 1 King 22 and uses them to contradict what James 1:13-18 explicitly teaches, all in service to his occasionalist philosophy. This kind of bad exegesis is not surprising, for Cheung has an a priori dogmatic system which must be preserved at all costs; what the Scriptures say must be always re-interpreted to serve that philosophy.

For most people, it is enough to show that Cheungism holds that God deceives people. But, like every cult around the world, Cheungians seem willing to bite all the bullets their position entails. My only counter-argument is the same argument that I have used against God being the Author of Sin, namely, that it may exonerate God at the expense of compromising His nature. Besides that, I am totally at a loss how to refute this nonsense. It's almost like trying to refute someone who insists he is Superman and has just flown to and fro the Alpha Centauri system yesterday. Cheungism is a sickness of the mind and spirit, and God is using it as judgment to delude those who seek to be wiser than God Himself. May God in His mercy deliver them from this strong delusion Cheungians have.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

What practical differences does making God the "Author of Sin" have

“But you are full of the judgment on the wicked; judgment and justice seize you.
Beware lest wrath entice you into scoffing, and let not the greatness of the ransom turn you aside.
Will your cry for help avail to keep you from distress, or all the force of your strength?
Do not long for the night, when peoples vanish in their place.
Take care; do not turn to iniquity, for this you have chosen rather than affliction.
Behold, God is exalted in his power; who is a teacher like him?
Who has prescribed for him his way, or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?
“Remember to extol his work, of which men have sung. (Job 36:17-24)

Theologically, it makes a big deal whether God is or is not the Author of Sin. Yet, even if the dust will settle on this topic and my rebuttal to Vincent Cheung's rationalistic hypercalvinism, some might not see the differences between the two views. After all, God is the ultimate cause of sin either way, so does it matter whether it is "direct" or "indirect?" For Arminians like Roger Olsen, what difference does it make whether God directly caused sin, or indirectly superintends sin?

Theology is not merely abstract. Theology of course must start with the abstract, but it continues into the practical realm, for God is always immensely true and His Word always practical. So, if it is a big deal whether God is the direct cause of sin or the indirect superintendent of sin, then what practical differences would result from the two views? I suggest that it is in how one deals with trials and tribulations in life that the differences between these two views would be manifested.

In the wisdom literature, we read in the account of Job how he struggled with his unjust suffering. Job's three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) applied the retributive principle to Job's suffering, and inferred that Job must have sinned because he was suffering. Their dialogues are basically variants on the accusation that Job must have sinned against God and he needs to repent, while Job insisted on pleading his righteousness before God.

In contrast to Job's three friends, his fourth friend Elihu did not so rebuke Job. Rather, he rebuked Job for presuming he could demand an explanation from God, that God is answerable to him. When God finally responds out of the storm, God similarly rebukes Job for his presumption in questioning Him, exposing Job's total inadequacy in the areas of knowledge and power (Job 38-41). It is thus understandable that God did not rebuke Elihu, while Job's other three friends were rebuked (Job. 42:7-8). Elihu's rebuke of Job is fully in line with God's rebuke to Job, and thus it is to Elihu's words that we want to focus our attention here.

In Job 36:17-24, we see here that Elihu rebuked Job for letting his judgment of the wicked descend into a self-righteous exoneration of himself. In Job's bitter affliction, Job has crossed the line from pleading for justice to demanding justice. Job's affliction has turned in this sense into iniquity. Elihu's rebuke, and God's rebuke, is not because Job called for justice and pleaded his cause, but because in his vehement cry for vindication, he has elevated himself to the position of a judge instead of remaining the supplicant.

Thus, we see here that there is nothing wrong with calling for vindication before God. There is nothing wrong with facing trials and tribulations with anguish and calls for relief. All of these are not sinful unless they become demands where we become the judge demanding that God must act (or worse still, take matters into our own hands). But if everything is ordained by God, shouldn't the response to trials and tribulations be resignation and trust in God, instead of anger and anguish and cries for relief?

Here, we see one practical difference between Cheung's direct causation model of sovereignty, and the biblical Reformed model of full sovereignty through both primary and secondary means. Under Cheung's model, one should approach trials and tribulations with a certain sense of "resignation," trusting in God to bring good out of the trials and tribulations. Since everything is directly caused by God, to be angry at the means is to be angry at God, for the means are mere occasions for God to act. But in the biblical model, since the means are not directly from God, but that God superintends all things, then there is nothing wrong with being angry at the means. Anger at sin, anger towards oppression, anguish at suffering — all these are legitimate emotions to be expressed. Cries for vindication from God for what one perceives to be unjust suffering, like in the sufferings of Job, are not sinful in and of themselves. Of course, one has to have faith and trust in God that all things would work together for good (cf. Rom. 8:28), but this trust is not contradictory to having legitimate feelings of anguish and an attitude of questioning. We are after all not Stoics. In Job's case, Job's bitter anguish and suffering coexists with his own faith and trust in God as his redeemer (Job 19); the two are not mutually exclusive.

It is thus in this very practical aspect of life that the differences between Cheung's direct causation model and the biblical Reformed model can be in my opinion most clearly perceived. Cheung's model, while it might not lead to fatalism, certainly necessitates a certain soft form of resignation. After all, how can one be angry at the means if God is the one directly bringing about the means? Can one be angry at God? If I know that all things work together for good, then I would infer that persecution would work together for good, so should I be angry at the persecution of Christians around the world? Why should I if God is directly causing it for good?

Only in the biblical Reformed model that we can both trust God and yet have questions and anger at injustices. We live in a fallen world, not in the realm of God's decrees and sovereign will. Emotions of anguish and bitterness are natural. Instead of striving for artificiality in the Christian life, we should not have any issue with so-called "negative emotions," but rather cultivate faith in God as the deeper anchor for our souls in the many storms of life, so that our faith would bring us through the trials and tribulations that we face in this world.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Hail the Sun of Righteousness

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
(Beginning lines of 3rd stanza of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing")

One Christmas carol that is much beloved has been the hymn "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Proclaiming the glories of the incarnate God-man, this song has an upbeat melody appropriate for celebrating the birth of the Messiah, a tune which, unlike many older tunes, has managed to transcend the worship wars altogether.

It has however come to my surprise that some modern renditions of this classic hymn has subtly changed the lyrics. In the second line of the third stanza, the original wording is "Hail the Sun of Righteousness," while the altered wording has "Hail the Son of Righteousness." Obviously, the new wording is in some sense easier to understand, but that is rather besides the point. The point is that whoever did the alteration has given no indication whatsoever that he understands the original intent of the words and its allusion to biblical texts, which is sad considering how much richer the meaning of the original wording is.

The beginning lines of the third stanza allude to a certain verse in the "obscure" Minor Prophets, namely Malachi 4:2

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

As the third line in the third stanza states, Christ is risen "with healing in His wings," an expression that clearly comes from Malachi 4:2. The clauses in the beginning lines of stanza 3 were meant to point to Jesus as the "Sun of Righteousness" who fulfills Malachi 4:2. Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness bringing healing to the people. Jesus is the mediator who will bring salvation and healing in the Great Day of the Lord. Jesus is the one who will bring us along to tread the wicked under our feet and right all wrongs (Mal. 4:3).

By the slight alteration of one vowel, all of these are lost. Jesus is of course the Son of Righteousness, for He is perfectly righteous and God's only-begotten son. Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf. But Jesus is also the eschatological Lord of our salvation, and Malachi 4:2 reminds us of that. Jesus is not just the son of righteousness, but the Sun of Righteousness, bringing the rays of God's favor upon His people, in the day of wrath and judgment.

In any celebration of Christ's birth, let us not forget the "reason for the season." The climax of history is not the incarnation, but the cross. The goal of history is not the incarnation, but the Second Coming of Christ for His people. Both are important, so let us remember those even while others think only of the incarnation

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Glossary on some NAR terms

The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a third-wave charismatic movement, might be new, but is neither apostolic nor a reformation. Earlier in my Christian walk, being ignorant, I skirted around its edges, to the detriment of my spiritual health. Hungry for more of God and without direction or a firm foundation, I nearly wrecked my spiritual life as I was drawn into parts of the movement.

Thankfully, God in due time delivered me from that nest of vipers and heretics. Yet, I know that the Singapore churches continue to be awash in NAR nonsense, as a look at what's on offer in many a "Christian bookstore" would show. Books by heretics Bill Johnson, Kris Valloton, Dutch Sheets and Cindy Jacobs clutter the shelves, sharing space with books by Word-faith heretics like Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. To say that Singapore Christianity is sick is an understatement; terminal illness might fit the situation better. Or you could try "dead."

I have recently just read a book on the NAR, entitled God's Super Apostles by R. Douglas Geivett and Holy Pivec. While brief, this book does deal with some of the nonsense in the NAR. At the end of book on pages 143-7, they wrote a glossary for common NAR terms, and some of these I would like to share here with you all.

Activation: A NAR teaching that miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, such a healing and prophesying, can be activated (or released) in individuals who embrace new truths that have been revealed by NAR apostles and prophets

Dominionism: A NAR teaching that the church must yield to the authority of modern-day apostles and prophets to whom God has given new strategies to advance his kingdom

Manifest Sons of God: A NAR teaching that those who follow the end-times apostles and prophets will become manifest (or revealed) as sons of God, patterned after the original Son of God, Jesus Christ. They will work the same miracles—and even greater miracles— than Jesus did. Those who embrace extreme expressions of this teaching believe they’ll continue to grow in miraculous power until they execute God’s judgments on earth and overcome sickness and death

Many-membered man-child: A NAR teaching that the church, under the leadership of end-time apostles and prophets, will become a type of corporate Christ—a literal extension of the incarnation of Christ on earth

Workplace apostles: NAR apostles who govern what they call the church in the workplace—that is, they govern the Christians who work in various sectors of society, like business, media, and government

Monday, December 14, 2015

A failure in reckoning with theodicy

.... If one begins with the biblical drama, in which a broken covenant lies at the very center of a crime scene, the problem takes on deeply personal and historical overtones. According to this plot, God was in no way obligated to rescue the creature, ..

So when this drama is the context for theodicy, the tables are turned. Instead of God being on trial, it is the creature who is arraigned and questioned. ... And now the problem of evil, though not solved in our minds, is overwhelmed by the problem of good. (Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, p. 93)

As per my effort to finish Horton's 4-volume dogmatics, I decided to go back and scan through the first book in the series which I had read earlier as part of my MDiv course requirement, in preparation for an upcoming blog post. In the process, I found this discussion on theodicy, which I would like to comment upon.

Horton's reply to the question of theodicy is to thrust it back unto the questioner as not a question concerning evil but a question concerning good. In rhetoric, it is similar to how the Apostle Paul argues in Romans 9. This of course is a valid answer, but it is a valid answer to the question as to "why bad things happen to good people." It is a valid answer to anyone who think they deserve anything good from God. Unfortunately, it is not a valid answer to the actual question of theodicy, which this section is supposed to tackle.

The question of theodicy deals with the character of God as being one that is wholly good and pure and righteous. Answering that we as fallen creatures have the problem of good does not however addresses why God is only good. It might be that humans deserve evil, but at the same time God could be evil also. In other words, the two issues, while related, are distinct and independent of each other. Solving the question for humans does not solve the problem for God.

Ultimately of course, the origin of evil is shrouded in mystery, yet mystery only implies that it is impossible for us to fully comprehend the issue, not that it is necessarily impossible to have a partial solution. Since God is supremely logical, there are no contradictions and the problem can have a plausible partial solution. It seems to me that such a solution can be seen in this: God is good, evil came through the creature's free agency, which in its free prelapsarian state have the potential to do right or to sin. Since evil is the absence of good, sin comes about by the absence of God's strength to do right. God is not culpable because He is under no obligation to positively aid any creature.

This of course is a plausible theodicy, to be held tentatively as all inferences from Scripture into the deeper things of God are to be held. Yet this is a better explanation compared with the non-explanation in Covenant and Eschatology, which sadly does not reckon properly with the problem of theodicy.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Effectual calling and Regeneration: A pushback against a criticism

Therefore, why do we need to posit a distinct work of grace prior to an external Word, particularly when the New Testament typically relates the new birth to that Word? In my view, this distinction between regeneration apart from means and effectual calling through the Word is both exegetically untenable and theological unnecessary. Although the distinction between a general call and an effectual call (regeneration) can be easily sustained by exegesis, a further distinction between regeneration (unmediated) and effectual calling (mediated) seems to contradict the explicit references to regeneration by the Word cited above. (Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, 238)

Effectual calling is the term used to describe God's special calling to the elect that will bring them into salvation. Regeneration is the term used to describe the internal change within a person that results in the person having a new heart so that he can respond in faith to the Gospel. Dr. Horton in his book however argues that we shouldn't have these two terms as two distinct works of grace. Utilizing speech-act theory, he argues that Gods effectual call itself creates the internal change in a person. He denies the idea of regeneration as an infusion of a new habit (habitus), seeing it as a vestige from medieval errors on salvation.

Traditionally, some of the texts concerning regeneration are passages like Ezekiel 36:25-27. It seems that the text is actually saying that God will put a new heart and put His Spirit in a person to change that person. This of course does not mean that any habits are infused into the person, for the Spirit of God is NOT a habit.

If regeneration is understood as an infusion of habits, then Horton's critique just might have a point. But if one takes the language of Ezekiel and thus of Scripture seriously, it seems that the focus in regeneration is empowerment by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not an infusion of any habit whatsoever. It is, to use Horton's preferred term, koinonia, through the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, since these "acts" are only distinct in terms of their logical flow in the Ordo Salutis, there is no necessity that the acts are in fact separate from each other. Effectual Calling and Regeneration can and do operate side by side even simultaneously, for the effectual call goes out to the elect whom the Holy Spirit regenerates.

Effectual calling and regeneration describes two concepts, and Horton's criticism against the term "regeneration" does not hold. Instead of removing a legitimate term, perhaps it would be better to understand the Ordo is a logical ordering of concepts, not a temporal order of separate acts.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Covenant Ontology?

It is one thing to argue for a covenantal perspective on election, justification, and sanctification — perhaps even other loci in dogmatics. However, are we expecting too much of a biblical-theological motif by suggesting that it generates its own ontological framework? ... [Micheal S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2007), 182]

Nevertheless, this union that we enjoy is effected for and in us not by an impersonal process of emanations, by a ladder of participation, or by infused habits but by the Holy Spirit, who gives the ungodly the faith both to cling to Christ for justification and to be united to Christ for communion in his eschatological life. Mediation is not a principle or a process, but is located in a person. .... (p. 183)

In none of the New Testament contexts (including 2 Pet. 1:4) does koinonia (or its cognates) "refer to a mystical fusion with Christ and God, but to fellowship in faith." (p. 185)

As a result, the New Testament writers refer not to a general participation in being but to union with Christ as the locus of our redemption. ... (p. 186)

It is not as if Paul has no ontology; for him "the ethical is itself ontological," which requires a "covenant ontology." ... (p. 204)

One of the electives that I had audited in WSCAL dealt with the topic of 20th century Roman Catholicism, a topic which was truly mystifying. I had wondered then, and still do wonder, why there is such a need to reinvent ontology, as it were. Supposedly, the problems with the modern world came about because of extreme voluntarism and a rejection of a realistic Platonic ontology, where earthly things participate in heavenly realities. Thus disconnected, the modern secular world had arisen whereby God and the divine is pushed to the periphery of societal thought, or even rejected altogether.

The ontological project within the Nouvelle Theologie and Radical Orthodoxy points towards the idea of ontological participation as methexis. Under this scheme, the (particular) earthly thing participates in the (universal) heavenly form. The ontological participation is univocal, in the sense that there is a quantifiable difference and not qualifiable difference between the particular and the universal. As an example, the church participates in Christ's body such that it can be said that the church in its essence is always spiritual, holy and sinless just as Christ is spiritual, holy and sinless. That is one of the many reasons why Rome can never said that she has ever erred, for as Christ is sinless, so His body must be sinless. Individual priests may err, but the Church as a whole cannot err.

That modern society is essentially godless is true, but why is a flawed ontology the cause of such godlessness and wickedness? For children of the Reformation, we know Man's problem is sin and rebellion against God, which is an ethical not an ontological problem. Both Micheal Horton and Neo-Orthodox theologian Bruce McComarck agreed with that analysis. Yet, Dr. Horton attempts to come up with what he calls a "covenant ontology." But if we all agree that the problem with humanity and its alienation from God is ethical, not ontological, why do we even need to have this category called "covenant ontology" at all?

Horton calls for participation in the sense of koinonia, a Greek term often translated as "fellowship." Neoplatonist ontology speaks of ontological participation as methexis, while Christian participation is one of koinonia, and thus a sharing of life one with another. According to Horton, it is explicitly not a mingling of essences, but a communion from the divine energies. Thus, this idea of participation as koinonia is his version of "covenant ontology" which underlies the doctrine of Union with Christ.

Koinonia is indeed what Christians are called to. We are indeed called to have fellowship with God and each other. Yet, I do not see why koinonia is to be part of any supposed "covenant ontology." The idea of koinonia is ethical, not ontological. When I have fellowship with a Christian brother over a meal, there is no ontological "mingling" or change of my essence and his essence (whatever that is supposed to mean). Nothing happens ontologically when fellowship between Christians happen, unless one party decides to take a knife to the other party (for example).

I understand that koinonia is indeed the Christian answer to methexis, for our salvation lies in our union with Christ rather than any participation in ultimate being. But it is also for this reason that the answer is to reject ontology as the realm to seek out the answers to questions on salvation, and instead put forward ethics as the realm we should go to. If one wants to speak about Christian metaphysics, I think a clear case can be made for that from the doctrine of creation and the portion of the doctrine of the Fall that relates to creation (namely the curse upon the earth), without recourse to redemption. Creation is creation; redemption is redemption, and the two should not mix with each other.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Covenant as sacred and secular

The PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) has always defined "covenant" as friendship, which I have always said is a ridiculous step to make. Even if we were to agree that a covenant with God is only about friendship, that does not mean that the term "covenant" is to be defined as "friendship." The definition of words are not to be defined a priori according to theological presuppositions or dogmatic concerns, but rather through its usage historically throughout time (diachronic) and within its particular epoch (synchronic).

The term "covenant" in secular usage is normally associated with the Ancient Near-East or Greece, thus the terms berith (Heb.) and diatheke (Gr.) are defined as to their meanings in dialogue with the usage of "covenant" in the ANE and Greek contexts respectively. In the modern day, the word "covenant" is almost not used in the secular context, with the exception of politics, where its Latin equivalent (foedus) has given rise to the words "federation," "federal" as applied to a particular concept of governance, namely, that of an agreement between two or more parties for a political union (e.g. between the country and its states).

The words "federation," and "federal" refer to bilateral agreements. They need not be between equals, like states are not the same as the country. Yet, it is an agreement complete with stipulations and sanctions, and for the purpose of mutual benefit. Of course, for these modern usages, the concept is more along the lines of a contract, albeit a solemnly entered contract. Thus, it would fit more with the Greek term syntheke rather than diatheke because it truly depends on both parties honoring the contract. Regardless, we can see how even in its modern usage, the word has preserved some elements of what "covenant" has historically meant, which is a solemn agreement between two parties.

I guess since the PRCA with its denial of common grace focuses exclusively on dogmatics, I shouldn't be astonished about its rejection of linguistics for theological discourse. Yet, while certainly Scripture is primary, yet Scipture conveys its God-breathed revelation in human words, and God does not create two different meanings for the same human words: one as they are used in the immediate culture(s), and one for Scripture. God could always use the Hebrew and Greek words for "friendship" instead of berith and diatheke if he so chooses to convey that meaning of "covenant," yet He did not do so. The meaning of "covenant" as "an agreement between two parties" must therefore be the meaning God intends to convey when He uses berith and diatheke in the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament respectively, and we shouldn't think ourselves wiser than God as to what God intends to convey when He utilized those words.

Creation and relevance

In many an Evangelical church, there are difficulties with regards to the relevance of Christianity for living life on this world. Christianity is seen individualistically for personal salvation, almost as a hell insurance policy. The "struggle" then is to show how the faith is relevant for this world, through "life application" sermons on a variety of topics like marriage or ethical issues like abortion and birth control, or even intellectual through gaining doctrinal knowledge. Since it is viewed individualistically for salvation in the afterlife, Christianity seems to be remote from this world and the issues of this world

To combat this seeming irrelevance, some churches have moved into social activisim of either the left or the right (e.g. social justice, "Moral Majority"). Others have a more holistic solution of creating a Christian "world and life view," christening various spheres of society into spheres where God's grace works (neo-Kuyperianism). Similarly, the New Apostolic paradigm mirrors neo-Kuyperianism, but in a more triumphalistic and spiritual (Charismatic), as opposed to intellectual and artistic, sense. All of these movements, which in many aspects are opposed to each other, have in common the goal of relevance of Christianity for this world.

What is missing in all these movements is the actual way the Scriptures have shown themselves to be relevant, which is history. That is why the doctrine of creation and doctrine of consummation is so important, for it locates the world as we see and experience it in the narrative of God's story in real history. Notice that I listed it as the doctrine of consummation, not eschatology, although they refer to the same thing, because of the emphasis I want to make. The emphasis in the doctrine of consummation is not so much on the various millennium schemes, but on the fact that the physical world we live in will have an endpoint when Christ comes again. On that note, the doctrine of creation focuses on the fact that creation is an actual historical event in real history, as historical as World War 2 for example.

We humans live our lives in light of some narrative, telling us who we are and where we are going. There is a beginning, and there is an end. The secular narrative that is spun out for the consumption of many is that of the Big Bang event as the beginning of this reality, and either the Big Crunch or the Heat Death among other theoretical ends of the universe. Humanity, like other life forms on this planet, had evolved ultimately from non-life, and we are still evolving, albeit slowly. As our evolution is from the simple to the complex, from single cell organisms to ancient primates to humanity, the expectation is that we are evolving towards some form of glorified humanity, better than the current Homo Sapiens the same way Homo Sapiens are superior to Homo Erectus. While certainly Marvel Comics' idea of mutants with spectacular powers are rather implausible in real life, yet they have the concept of the optimistic view of evolution's goal of humanity's future right. Homo Sapiens would one day become some version of Homo Superius, or, in Nietzsche's words, the Übermensch. (That of course assumes evolution upwards, which is by no means guaranteed.)

The secular narrative provides a "scientific" way of understanding the "real world," as opposed to the "spiritual" world of Christianity. The first eleven chapters of Genesis have been relegated to "myth" through the "scientific" discipline of the the History of Religions (religiongeschichtlichschule), through comparisons to Ancient Near East (ANE) creation myths. So not only has secularism provided its own origin story as being the "real history" of the world, they have supposedly discredited the Bible's narrative of origins. Christianity has thus been relegated to the life and teaching of Jesus, and thus even if all that Jesus said and did were acknowledged as being true, Christianity would seem to a spiritual religion that historically begins with Christ (or Abraham for those who give credence to the Old Testament). Thus, the "real history" of the world follows the Big Bang Cosmology, and biblical history begins around 2000BC with Abraham.

As for the world's telos, Christianity with its doctrine of Christ's second coming can be acknowledged as being spiritual in nature, according to the world's viewpoint. It is after all for the afterlife in heaven, where the picture is portrayed of saints as being like the angels playing harps in heaven before God in worship. But secularism insists that for the "real world" the telos is that of the end of the universe. For humanity, the idea of continual evolutionary improvement gives rise to the project of transhumanism, a more practical project compared to the Marvel version of Mutants (or Inhumans). As humanity continues to evolve, we would slowly eradicate diseases and become more enlightened and live longer and better lives. Thus, we have the specter of terminally ill or dying patients subjecting themselves to cryogenic preservation with the understanding that they can be thawed and awakened in the future when a cure for their disease(s) can be found.

Now, much can and probably should be made of metaphysics in particular and philosophy in general. One can use the Cosmological argument to speak about the real existence of God, or whatever philosophical proof of Christian theism one desires to use. But all of these, no matter how valid or invalid they may be, are abstract and theoretical. For people living on this earth, we need something concrete. Jesus' death and resurrection is indeed concrete, but by itself it is like Mechizedek, without beginning and without end. Just holding on to the historicity of Jesus' birth, death and resurrection is insufficient, especially when wedded to the secular Big Bang and evolution narrative.

For Scripture to norm our narrative is to norm our view of this world. If this world is God's, then its history must be God's history of this world. Therefore, human history must be encompassed in the time between Genesis and Revelation. Genesis must be speaking of actual real history. There must be a real Adam and Eve, a real creation ex nihilo, a real Fall. The table of nations in Genesis 10 must be speaking of the origins of the various nations of the world such that it is theoretically possible for every ethnicity to trace its real history (not "myth") to one of the patriarchs in the Table of Nations, if they had the genealogical knowledge necessary to do so. This then is our true narrative, and any supposed "facts" or "theories" put forward in the name of "science" is either a false interpretation of the real data, or based upon false data. Similarly, the end of this world is exactly what is put forward in apocalyptic form in the book of Revelations. Christ would indeed come back to the earth and human history would end. There would be no heat death, no Big Crunch and no Homo Superius.

The modern strategy in Christianity is to situated the Christian message and make it relevant within the confines of the secular narrative. What we are to do however is the exact opposite, which is to situate the world and everyday life into the confines of the biblical narrative. Within this narrative lies the common realm, which is NOT a neutral realm which Kuyperianism hates, but a realm for everyday life. Neo-Kuyperianism treats the world as secular-needing-redemption, and therefore neutrality implies atheism, whereas the biblical narrative treats the world as God's by creation, being split into the ecclesiastical and the common realms.

Once we begin with the norming of the biblical narrative, then Christianity does not have to be proven relevant, for it describes the very essence of reality. Everything we see is created by God, everything we experience is providentially guided by God. We are living in God's narrative, not the other way around. God is the center, we are not. Is there anything more relevant about Christianity than this? But for all this to be the case, we have to recover the relevance of the real historicity of Creation and Consummation, and reject the supposed "findings" of modern science that say otherwise.