Book Giveaway: Winner

Jonathan Cook, youth pastor at First Baptist Community Church in Monte Sereno, California, won the book giveaway.

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Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 4a)

We come now to the heart of this series, viz., a discovery of the “received laws of language” that we as humans unconsciously use every day as we engage in ordinary communication with one another. The material here is not new with me, but rather is a distillation of an article published in 2002 by Rolland McCune, “What Is Literal Interpretation?” that he contributed to a start-up journal published by a missionary with whom he was acquainted, Sola Scriptura, issue #3. It is unfortunate that the study has not been circulated more widely.

The first of the hermeneutical rules he proposes is the Univocal Nature of Language. By univocal is simply meant “one voice.” By saying that the Bible speaks univocally we mean that its statements can have only one signification in any given context. To this I add the following qualifications: (1) while we must concede that many words have wide semantic ranges, we would insist that they bring but one meaning to any single propositional context; further, (2) while we admit that some people occasionally use double entendres or puns to deliberately connote two things at once, we would argue that such figures only “work” when hearers successfully incise the play on words: a communicator who uses puns that his audience doesn’t “get” is a failure. To summarize, no system of language/thought can survive solely or principally on such clever ambiguities. They are incidental exceptions that prove the rule.

As a transcendental rule, this seminal principle of language is axiomatic—it must be assumed true in order to be disproved. To assert otherwise would require words that follow this rule, or else the argument would fall apart into meaninglessness.

Applied to Bible study methods, this principle means that the Bible, since it is written in a “normal” manner with respect to grammar, syntax, genres, figures, etc., and was written for the express purpose of revealing truth, contains no additional, hidden meanings that were “missed” by the original writers/readers using standard grammatical and syntactical hermeneutical methods. A statement made in the OT had precisely the same meaning to its immediate readers that it has to its modern readers. To cite Fee and Stuart, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” True, later revelation often clarifies or expands what was known by earlier revelation, but it never divulges hidden messages unknown to the original communicators, much less those that resignify the text.

To affirm otherwise, I would argue, is to introduce uncertainty to the whole of Scripture. In Milton Terry’s words, “The moment we admit the principle that portions of Scripture contain an occult or double sense we introduce an element of uncertainty in the sacred volume, and unsettle all scientific interpretation.” Who knows? Perhaps the plain meaning of the precious New Testament promises of eternal life, heaven, and eternal reward will one day yield to some new meaning that rises to replace it! We surely cannot countenance this scenario, and so it follows that we cannot countenance any scenario that does this to any text of Scripture. To use transcendental terms, the Christian system cannot survive the implications of a Scripture that allows for the possibility of evolving, surrogate, or alien meanings anywhere within its leaves.

As such, a literalist resists hermeneutical models specializing in “mystery”—models that boast hidden meanings, whether they be twofold (the Apostolic Fathers), threefold (Origen), fourfold (Cassian), or the more domesticated typological/Christological school popular today. Instead, the literalist does not rest until he discovers an exegetically plausible and “normal” explanation for each difficult text of Scripture, viz., one that preserves the univocal nature of language.

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Book Giveaway and Some Summer Reading

In a few days, we’re going to give away a couple of books to one of our readers. The books we are giving away are Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy and Four Views on the Historical Adam, both in the Counterpoints series published by Zondervan. In order to enter the drawing for these books, you need to leave a comment below. In your comment, please list two or three books you are hoping to read this summer.

I’ll start the ball rolling by offering a few titles from my summer reading list:

Baptists in America: A History by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins

Nothing: A Very Short Introduction by Frank Close

Perspectives on the Atonement: Three Views edited by Andrew Naselli and Mark Snoeberger

In order to be eligible for the drawing, comments must be posted before 11pm (EST) on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. The winner will be announced on the blog the following day.

Posted in Miscellaneous | 28 Comments

Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 3)

This blog post is fairly ambitious, seeking to answer two questions:

  • How can we prove the existence of universally “received laws of language”?

And, assuming they exist,

  • Who gets to decide what those laws are in the absence of an explicit biblical statement of those laws?

My answer to the first question may seem a bit unnerving, but hopefully I can make a recovery with the explanation. My answer, simply, is that we can’t prove the existence of universal laws of language. That’s the nature of a transcendental—it can’t be proven, only assumed. But what we can do is to demonstrate that people universally observe certain laws when they use the medium of human language; in fact, they cannot cogently do otherwise. This is what logicians sometimes call “transcendental” argumentation.

The idea of transcendentals is often traced to the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, who ostensibly coined the term and established “the one” as their principal and only absolute transcendental. Plato also developed, however, several subsidiary transcendentals that flow from “the one,” viz., “the good, the beautiful, and the true.” (Other transcendentals have been floated over the years, but these have proved the most resilient proposals.) We err, however, if we conclude that the idea of transcendentals is of Greek vintage. The Bible itself makes certain transcendental assumptions. First among these is the ontological assumption of God’s existence with which both testaments begin (Gen 1:1; John 1:1). The Scripture writers nowhere seek to prove that the Christian God exists; rather, they assume that he exists. Further, they demonstrate conclusively that humanity universally presuppose, indeed must presuppose, God’s existence for their very survival (so Acts 17:24–28; Rom 1:18ff; etc.): God alone supplies the requisite preconditions of intelligibility in our universe, and no one can survive the absurdity of a universe without God. In short, since the creation of the world, everyone everywhere knows and needs God. Humanity needs no “proof” of God beyond this demonstration.

The Scriptures also assume ethical transcendentals subsidiary to the principal fact that “God is.” These transcendentals are no less true than the fact that “God is,” but they are subsidiary in that their truth exists only because of the more primary fact that “God is.” The Apostle Paul weaves certain of these transcendent ethical principles into his broader demonstration of God’s existence in Romans 1­–2, assuming certain inescapable standards of morality, known by all, without which the natural order will fail—laws written upon the heart and universally understood to be the basis by which judgment will occur.

I would argue that there are other transcendentals that may be known the same way. For instance, we know that there is an epistemological transcendental of “truth” that flows from God’s being and is expressed in his revelation. And in order for mankind to receive that truth, there must be some universal medium whereby that truth may be transmitted and received: the received laws of language and logic often headed by the label Hermeneutics.

The difficulty with this final category of transcendentals is that God never explicitly defines them. This puts it in a class slightly different from the transcendentals of God’s existence and moral law, which God does not leave in the realm of assumption. Knowing that depraved people will attempt to exchange these transcendentals for incongruous alternatives, God offers an enormous amount of explicit, propositional data about his ontological nature and ethical perfections in the Bible. But when we start to talk about transcendentals in other spheres (epistemics, aesthetics, etc.), the absence of explicit revelation leads to controversy. There are three basic approaches to this dilemma:

  • Some conclude that hermeneutical transcendentals do not exist or are subject to change, and that human language is thus an inadequate vehicle for revealing God. At best, God may be known by an existential encounter “above” the text. This most serious error is beyond the scope of this series.
  • Others suggest that hermeneutical methods are not universal/transcendental, but are instead provincial and utilitarian expressions of diverse cultures to which God’s method may or may not conform. This error is not so serious as the first, but still quite troubling, suggesting that even when the Bible is available, its message is inaccessible to anyone who has not learned (by some sort of illuminating work) its mysterious hermeneutical key. Perhaps the most obvious example here is Gnosticism, a movement ostensibly quashed by the Ante-Nicene Church, but the ideas of which certainly live on.
  • A third response affirms that universal hermeneutical principles exist as shared transcendentals, rendering the Bible a “normal” book accessible to all without distinction via the received laws of language. This response leads to the grammatical-historical model. But until the various proponents of this ideal define these laws, they remain vulnerable to fragmentation—not all grammatical-historical hermeneuts are literalists.

So who determines these rules and how? For many, the answer is that exegetes learn these rules discursively: we learn how language works by the analogy of subsequent Scripture or by the hermeneutical example of Christ himself. IOW, the treatment of earlier Scriptures by later Scripture-writers (with priority sometimes accorded to Christ’s own use of earlier Scriptures) divulges the hermeneutical paradigms by which we read Scripture as a whole.

In many senses, this approach is quite reasonable—surely God in Christ or God via inspiration will not violate his own laws of language! And we would be fools to abandon the value of the analogia fidei in our study of the Scriptures (although privileging later Scriptures is not so easily defended [see Kaiser]—and more on this later). But in another sense, this approach leaves serious holes: first among these is the fact that God communicated to humans quite successfully long before they had the NT Scriptures ostensibly necessary to discovering the laws of language. In short, since the creation of the world, everyone everywhere knows and needs these laws apart from their exegetical demonstration. They need no “proof” of these laws beyond this. But second, this approach (which in keeping with my last post, is a correspondence approach) offers no check for coherency. That is, it does not ask whether  tentatively proposed hermeneutical rules, gleaned by exegesis, can survive the rigors of ordinary communication. It does not demand that we demonstrate that we can live credibly with the implications of those derived laws in our everyday use of language. It is this problem, I would argue, that the “literalist” is best suited to surmount.

Next time: A summary delineation of the seminal laws of language and the means of testing them.

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Learning from History: Orwell’s (Prophetic) Proposed Preface to Animal Farm and Freedom in Society Farm, George Orwell’s satirical story criticizing Stalin and the Soviet Union, was first published in 1945. What may be surprising to some is the difficulty Orwell had in getting the book published. At the time, many in Britain were enamored with Stalin and the USSR, especially those who worked in the publishing industry. Orwell’s manuscript was rejected by multiple publishers, in large part because of its message. When it was finally published, Orwell prepared a preface to the work that, for some unknown reason, was not included. The preface was discovered in 1972 and published as an essay titled “The Freedom of the Press.” I’d like to highlight some portions of his essay as they bear on our current situation (that I noted recently) where it is no longer acceptable to state certain ideas that are deemed intolerant.

In discussions about freedom today (including both freedom of religion and freedom of the press), it is common for people to excuse the acts of silencing and oppression by arguing that the oppression is not coming from the government. Thus, there is no violation of freedom. Orwell begins by noting that it was not the government that was threatening freedom in his day but the fear of public pressure.

But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion…. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.

The problem was not government censorship but self-censorship. Though secular media like to give the impression that they are objective, they bind themselves to certain ideas that they deem true. Then they refuse to consider an opinion that contradicts their widely-held truths.

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it…. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals. (emphasis mine)

Orwell noted the hypocrisy and intentional blindness created by this rabid devotion to the current ideals. Any piece of information that fit the prevailing narrative was championed, while evidence to the contrary was suppressed.

The English intelligentsia, or a great part of it, had developed a nationalistic loyalty towards the USSR, and in their hearts they felt that to cast any doubt on the wisdom of Stalin was a kind of blasphemy. Events in Russia and events elsewhere were to be judged by different standards. The endless executions in the purges of 1936-8 were applauded by life-long opponents of capital punishment, and it was considered equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in the Ukraine. And if this was true before the war, the intellectual atmosphere is certainly no better now.

Their devotion to the orthodoxy of the day led them to violate their professed allegiance to freedom of speech. They gave lip service to the idea but rejected it in practice when it violated their cherished beliefs.

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular—however foolish, even—entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes.” But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?”, and the answer more often than not will be “No.” In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure. But freedom, as Rosa Luxembourg [sic] said, is “freedom for the other fellow.” The same principle is contained in the famous words of Voltaire: “I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of Socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. Our Government, as I have already pointed out, still makes some show of respecting it. The ordinary people in the street-partly, perhaps, because they are not sufficiently interested in ideas to be intolerant about them-still vaguely hold that “I suppose everyone’s got a right to their own opinion.” It is only, or at any rate it is chiefly, the literary and scientific intelligentsia, the very people who ought to be the guardians of liberty, who are beginning to despise it, in theory as well as in practice. (emphasis mine)

In a sad irony, those who claimed to champion freedom and tolerance sought to promote and defend it by crushing those who seemed to oppose it. The campaign against the enemies does not only address actions but also targets ideas that are deemed harmful.

One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal. Over and above the familiar Marxist claim that “bourgeois liberty” is an illusion, there is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought (emphasis mine)

Orwell’s essay also points to two truths that are important to grasp in combating the present moves to destroy freedoms. The first is to recognize the danger of buying into a current cultural orthodoxy. We look back and find it appalling that people supported Stalin and excused his crimes, whose brutal dictatorship led to the loss of millions and millions of lives. But isn’t it shocking that those who had the willingness to stand up and warn about the coming danger were marginalized and silenced? The world needed voices to cry out that Stalin’s regime was not progress but was destructive. It needed voices to challenge the current orthodoxy. It needed unpopular opinions to be expressed.

And this tolerance or [sic = of?] plain dishonesty means much more than that admiration for Russia happens to be fashionable at this moment. Quite possibly that particular fashion will not last. For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet régime may be the generally-accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

We can look back now and be baffled at how people could support Stalin. But what widely held opinions in our day will people be baffled at 80 years from now? And how are we suppressing opinions that are unpopular in our day but will eventually be shown to be right?

How can we guard ourselves against becoming captive to such a widely-held but horribly wrong opinion? Because Orwell is making a secular argument, the most he can stand on is western tradition.

If I had to choose a text to justify myself, I should choose the line from Milton: “By the known rules of ancient liberty.” The word ancient emphasises the fact that intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist.

Orwell is correct that liberty is a foundational truth of western culture. And, as he goes on to say, “if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

But the ultimate solution for wrong-headed group-thinking is not western tradition but biblical truth. We must not allow the current cultural opinion to move us to discard the truth of the Bible when it conflicts with the current orthodoxy. We have to allow the Bible to move us to discard current orthodoxy and hold fast to biblical truth when they conflict. If we are not going to fall into horribly flawed ideas like supporting Stalinism, we have to let the Bible challenge our current way of thinking. Only if we allow our thinking to be challenged by God’s Word can we be sure we are not bound to the cultural winds of the day.

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Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 2)

When evaluating the truth or error of any proposed theological statement or system, there are two primary questions that the theologian asks: the question of correspondence and the question of coherence. In using these two terms, I am using two recognized philosophical categories, but not necessarily as all users would define them. In suggesting that we must test a given theological statement or system for its correspondence, I do not mean, as many do, that we ask whether or not it corresponds to “reality” as variously defined in the marketplace of ideas; instead, I mean that we ask whether or not it corresponds to God’s reality as he has defined it. In short we ask, “Does this theological statement/system agree with what God has said in the Christian Scriptures?” In developing any truly biblical system of theology, we spend the lion’s share of our time answering this question. That is because the Christian Scriptures are the Norma Normans non Normata, the governing norm of truth that may not be subjected to manipulation or modification. Bottom line: If a given theological statement/system contradicts the Bible, then that statement/system, however clever, is invalid.

The question of correspondence is not, however, the only question that concerns the systematic theologian. He must also establish the coherence of his system: the system must agree with itself. If a theological system can survive only by patching up its violations of the received laws of logic and language with appeals to “mystery,” then it is compromised. For example, assuming a non-equivocating definition of the term omnipotent, a valid theological system cannot countenance a God that is mysteriously both omnipotent and not-omnipotent at the same time. Or, assuming again a non-equivocating definition of the term justification, a valid theological system cannot permit justification to be simultaneously both by works and by faith alone. Any system that permits such absurdities breaks at least one and often several fundamental laws of logic (in this case, viz., the law of identity [A = A] and the law of contradiction [A ≠ not-A]). For this reason, a systematic theologian must spend time harmonizing texts that seem to contradict (e.g., Job 42:2 with Titus 1:2 and James 1:13 for the issue of omnipotence; Galatians 2:16 with James 2:24 for the issue of justification). At times he is obliged to scuttle his theories; sometimes, however, he is able to tweak and strengthen them by exploring exegetical options and by crafting out carefully nuanced definitions that render his system coherent. Bottom line: If a given theological statement/system contradicts itself, it is invalid.

The question of record for this blog post is whether the theologian’s hermeneutical method is a matter of correspondence or a matter of coherence: are hermeneutical principles (1) something to be discovered in the Bible itself and constructed inductively from what I find there? Or are hermeneutical principles (2) something to be settled as a matter of transcendental presupposition before I can even start reading the Bible? My answer (and what to me stands at the centerpiece of the concept of “literal” interpretation) is that the latter option is of necessity true. The laws of language are received by divine grant and are a priori axioms necessary to the coherent, intelligible reading of anything: they must be assumed before they can be demonstrated. Apart from this axiomatic premise, coherent communication would fail us and linguistic anarchy would prevail. In fact, in order for someone to disagree with this position, I would submit, he would have to assume the position in order to express his disagreement with it (which is why I have labeled it a transcendental argument).

Those who use a non-literal (typological/allegorical/spiritual) hermeneutical method do not make this assumption, or at the very least not to the same degree I do. Instead, their hermeneutical method is in part a matter of exegetical discovery. So, for instance, when a non-literalist sees in Matthew 2:15 and 18 the use of a fulfillment formula in connection with two improbable Old Testament historical narratives (Hos 11:1 and Jer 31:15, respectively), he stands quite ready to humbly allow exegesis to correct his presumptive hermeneutic. What’s more, the non-literalist can also argue that since Matthew has validated this appealing new hermeneutic under inspiration, the contemporary reader now has exegetical warrant to interpret other texts in the same way.

The literalist, on the other hand, while not unmindful that depraved minds can distort the received laws of language, is much more disposed, based on his view of the transcendental nature of those laws, to think that his interpretive errors will be resolved by exegetical adjustment than by a radical overhaul of his whole hermeneutical method. And so, rather than acceding quickly to unique hermeneutical models unknown outside the biblical corpus, he will expend enormous effort exhausting all the possible exegetical options available to him within the bounds of a “normal” hermeneutic. And even if he fails, he is reluctant to concede the existence of a whole new hermeneutical method, much less a prescriptive one. He is reluctant because he knows that appeals to exegesis as a precedent for a unique and non-literal hermeneutical method potentially undermines not only (1) the received laws of language, but also (2) the accessibility of the Scriptures to all who are not apprised of the special method, and (3) perhaps even the integrity and authority of the Bible itself.

This, I would submit, is the heartbeat of literal interpretation.

Next time: What are these “received laws of language” of which I speak? And if we cannot trust Matthew or Luke or Paul to delineate these laws, why should we accept the doodlings of some 21st-century chump (yours truly)?

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Adoniram Judson and the Question of Baptism

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the country of Burma was almost 100% Buddhist, but such is no longer the case. According to the 2010 edition of Operation World, Burma (now called Myanmar) currently contains a sizeable minority of Christians including about 1.7 million Baptists, making Baptists the largest Protestant denomination in the country. The reason for this significant pocket of Baptists is in part due to a voyage that took place in 1812 and the doubts that began forming in the mind of a young missionary as he translated the Scriptures.

In August of 1788, Adoniram Judson was born in Malden, MA to a Congregational minister and his wife. As an infant he was sprinkled, and he grew up assuming that infant baptism was the NT pattern. Upon reaching early adulthood, Judson was determined to become a missionary to the East, and in 1812 Judson and his wife, Ann, set sail on the Caravan headed for India just a week after their wedding.

Salem_Harbor_CaravanDuring the four months’ voyage, Judson translated parts of the NT, and as he did so, he began to suspect that immersion was the correct mode of baptism. He had been sent by the (Congregational) Board of Commissioners, and he would soon be interacting with William Carey and other Baptist missionaries in India so he knew this was an issue he needed to resolve in his own mind.

Upon arriving in Calcutta, Judson continued his study of the subject. He read books both for and against infant baptism, and his wife joined him in studying what the Scriptures say about the subject. Within a short time they both became convinced that the Baptists were correct about both the mode and the proper recipients of baptism. As Judson put it,

In a word, I could not find a single intimation in the New Testament, that the children and domestics of believers were members of the church, or entitled to any church ordinance, in consequence of the profession of the head of their family. Everything discountenanced this idea. When baptism was spoken of, it was always in connection with believing. None but believers were commanded to be baptized; and it did not appear to my mind that any others were baptized (Letter to Third Church, Plymouth, MA, 20 August 1817).

Shortly after concluding this, Judson and his wife declared their belief that scriptural baptism is the immersion of a believer in water, and they requested baptism from the Baptist missionaries serving in India. Before continuing on to Burma, Judson preached a message on baptism that Carey described as the best exposition of the subject he had ever heard, and, in fact, Carey encouraged Judson to have it published. That sermon together with a letter to the Third Church of Plymouth and an additional address on the mode of baptism were eventually published as a book titled Christian Baptism (Kindle). This little volume remains an interesting account of how an early American missionary changed his mind about the question of baptism.

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Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal

If you notice the header of this blog, you will see a tab marked “Journal,” which if selected will take you to the web page for our seminary journal. Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal began in 1996 and is published annually in the fall of the year.  At the web page you will find the table of contents for all the back issues as well as free pdfs for all articles prior to 2013.

Here are links to a few of the articles from 2007–2010 that you may find of interest:

The Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14–16 and Its Use in Matthew 1:23: Harmonizing Historical Context and Single Meaning

Weakness Or Wisdom? Fundamentalists and Romans 14.1–15.13

The Meaning of Fellowship in 1 John

D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited: A Reflection and a Response

Tongues: Are They for Today?

“His Flesh for Our Flesh”: The Doctrine of Atonement in the Second Century

An Old Testament Sanctifying Influence: The Sovereignty of God


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Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 1)

For decades it was assumed, by both sides of the debate between dispensational and Reformed theology, that the primary distinction between the two models (there were really no other viable evangelical options in the early days) was hermeneutical—dispensationalists held consistently to a “literal” reading of Scripture (and most importantly the OT prophetic portions of Scripture), while the Reformed were comfortable with a nonliteral (e.g., spiritual or typological) interpretation of those same texts. Anthony Hoekema, for instance, reflecting this understanding from a Reformed perspective, wrote in his chapter of The Meaning of the Millennium, “Premillennialists, particularly those of dispensationalist persuasion, are committed to what is commonly called the ‘literal’ interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.… Amillennialists, on the other hand, believe that though many Old Testament prophecies are indeed to be interpreted literally, many others are to be interpreted in a nonliteral way” (172).

The reasons that non-dispensationalists felt comfortable reading the Scriptures in this way are manifold, but much of the argument rested on the premise that the Bible was not a “normal” book. Unlike ordinary books, the Bible is inspired, the Bible has a unique sort of dual authorship (God and the human author), and the meaning of the Bible is in some sense mediated through the Holy Spirit, who alone knows the mind of God perfectly. For these and other reasons, the Bible cannot be boxed in by the so-called “received laws of language” that seem to govern other literature.

As time has passed (and as mediating positions have multiplied), the argument has changed. Rather than seeing two fundamental hermeneutical approaches, it is common for all of the multiplied parties debating this issue to concede that the “grammatical/historical” method is the common property of all, and then for each to demonstrate that its distinctive application of this shared method is more exegetically defensible. The new leading distinction between theological systems is thus no longer about hermeneutics, but is rather about exegesis and biblical theology. Consequently, the only piece of Ryrie’s trifold sine qua non of dispensationalism that survives, for many, is its distinction between Israel and the Church in the unfolding of biblical theology.

It is my contention in this blog series that this concession has weakened dispensationalism. Specifically, it has barred from debate the transcendental discussion of the “received laws of language” as presuppositional to the exegetical task. This topic is too complex to unfold in a few paragraphs, so if the reader is willing to receive this argument over the course of weeks, I will attempt to complete it in a short series of posts. Many thanks in advance for your patience.

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A New Devotional Resource

Church Works Media has produced a number of devotional works over the past few years. Each has a special emphasis (e.g., missions, prayer, suffering) that focuses on unpacking biblical texts and helpfully applying them to life. I was asked to participate in the writing of a new edition entitled Gospel Meditations for the Church along with Chris Anderson (Pastor, Killian Hills Baptist Church) and Joe Tyrpak (Pastor, Tri-County Bible Church).

Here’s a description of the work from the introduction written by Chris Anderson:

Motivated by a deep love for Christ’s church—flawed as it is on this side of heaven—it is our pleasure to provide 31 devotional lessons that focus on the nature, mission, and corporate life of the local church. The book’s target audience isn’t leaders, but entire congregations. We’re praying that the Lord will use these lessons to increase the love of Christians for both our Savior and His church. Read them with an open Bible and an open heart, praying that the Lord will work in your life and in your church. That’s a prayer he will surely answer, for his glory!

I believe this devotional will be helpful to God’s people and to your congregation. It would make a nice gift for a special occasion (e.g., Mother’s Day) or serve well as a tool to help build consistency in Bible reading. It could be a great discipleship emphasis for the summer months, inviting people to read it together and grow in their love for the Lord and His church. You may order this devotional (or any of the preceding editions) here.

For the sake of His name,
David M. Doran
President, DBTS

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Celebration, Affirmation, or Rejection: What Happened to Tolerance?

There have been two subtle but significant developments in our society in recent years in our response to people and ideas. The first is a growing inability to distinguish between ideas and the people who espouse them. Rather, debates about the merits of a particular position in public discussion quickly moves to discussions of the persons who espouse those positions. One potential reason is the growing confusion, aided by public education, about objective facts. If there are no objective truths, then ideas are not truly distinct from persons but are instead vitally connected to the person or community that holds to a position—that is what subjective truths are.

The second development concerns how we react to ideas/persons. Some ideas/persons are viewed as valuable and praiseworthy. We want to celebrate these ideas/persons, setting them forth as models for others to embrace. Other ideas/persons are recognized as being different from a position we might hold but are still seen as good positions. We may not celebrate or promote them, but we can certainly affirm the person/idea. It’s not for you, but it’s still good. But what if we encounter a bad idea/person? Our response in these situations is to reject them. We point out that there is no place in a modern society—in this day and age—for people/ideas like that. We shake our heads in disdain. “How could someone still think that?” “Shocked that this could still happen today.” We don’t want to allow these wrong ideas/people in society. This new development means that if you hold a position deemed wrong by society, people now work to exclude you from society.

Perhaps you might notice that a reaction that has historically marked Western society is missing from the previous paragraph: tolerance. People still talk about tolerance, but their understanding of tolerance is indistinguishable from the response of affirmation mentioned earlier. Today, tolerance means to accept or approve different opinions.

Historically, though, tolerance included disapproving something. In fact, the very term implied that something was disagreeable or abhorrent. (E.g., if I invited you to an opera and you replied “I guess I could tolerate it,” I wouldn’t conclude that you would enjoy it.) If you didn’t think an idea was wrong you couldn’t tolerate it. Tolerance meant you disagreed—even strongly—with something but you would not use coercion to suppress the idea or the person who held the idea. Though you may find the idea completely foolish, you think a healthy society must not stamp out all ideas you believe to be wrong. As the saying often (improperly) attributed to Voltaire goes: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

But today we no longer seem to have the option to agree to disagree—we either have to agree or reject. People can’t be wrong, unless they are so wrong they must be rejected. What are some of the negative consequences of this approach?

No Basis for Evaluating Ideas. Even under the historic understanding of tolerance there were limitations to what might be tolerated. Some ideas should be rejected, or at least never promoted or acted upon (e.g., genocide). But how do we decide which ideas should be rejected? Since our society largely rejects objective truth, what is the standard for determining whether an idea is acceptable or not? Currently, it seems that popular opinion has become the standard. Once an idea is no longer held by the majority, it should no longer be allowed in society (and woe to those who do not change their stance quickly enough!)

Another potential candidate for evaluation seems to be people’s feelings. Positions are considered wrong if they offend someone. It doesn’t matter whether or not something is true (because how could anything be true), it only matters whether or not it bothers someone (except, of course, WASPs. Since they already enjoy the privilege of a favored status it is no problem to offend them).

Condemns People Rather than Ideas. When we are able to distinguish ideas from people we can reject ideas without rejecting the person. For example, two people might disagree about whether or not the minimum wage should be raised without claiming the other either hates the poor or wants to promote sloth. But today disagreements quickly move from evaluation of ideas to labels of the opponent. People who disagree on an issue are now labeled as bigots, intolerant, narrow-minded, judgmental, etc. Now the merits of particular positions can be conveniently ignored since the person who espouses the view is seen as unloving.

Trivializes Everything. This new approach trivializes issues in one of two ways. We could add a fourth category to the responses of celebration, affirmation, and rejection—indifference. It’s ok to be wrong on a position that doesn’t matter. So, while you might think that cats are better than dogs, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t care that you are wrong since it’s not an important issue. Thus, in order for differing opinions to be allowed in this society, the opinion must be about insignificant matters.

But if there is no objective truth, does anything really matter? That’s why I can affirm your position if it is different from mine. I don’t have to see it as wrong, because nothing is wrong. Which means nothing is right. Which means nothing should really matter. (As a side note, perhaps one of the reasons people are so virulent in their rejection of “wrong” ideas/people is they are trying to convince themselves that something matters, even though their worldview does not allow anything to matter).

Harms Every Position. Because contrary opinions are so quickly stamped out in our society, people are dissuaded from offering an idea or an opinion that might not fit with the current status quo. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill points to a significant benefit of tolerance (and conversely, the significant danger of suppressing contrary opinions).

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion, is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It Promotes Intolerance. Since we have lost the ability to believe people should be allowed to be wrong, we no longer have a real category for tolerance. That means that those who are wrong are threats to society and should be punished. Unfortunately, we don’t need government to enact that punishment. We now have social media mobs that can destroy people who transgress the court of popular opinion. We have become skilled at stamping out diverse opinions in the name of diversity.

Leads to Totalitarianism. Since there is no objective standard to evaluate things, those with power are able to set the standards. The position with the most backing gets to stomp out the other positions. Unfortunately, that rarely stops with the positions with which you currently disagree. As George Orwell said in his proposed preface to Animal Farm: “If you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you. Make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists.”  Or make a habit of destroying those who are “wrong” and perhaps the process won’t stop with those who are currently considered “wrong.”

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Three Differences Between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism

St. Michael's MonasteryIn the West, most Protestants are at least somewhat familiar with Roman Catholicism. Many of us have Roman Catholic friends, neighbors, and even family members. And many believers have been saved out of Roman Catholicism. Much less familiar to most westerners is the other main branch of non-Protestant Christianity—Eastern Orthodoxy.

Many differences exist between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Some of these are more significant than others, and many of these ostensible differences belie an underlying similarity between the two church traditions. I’d like to briefly discuss three areas in which Eastern Orthodoxy differs somewhat from Roman Catholicism while reflecting a common disagreement with evangelical Protestantism. These areas have to do with the Lord’s Supper, the use of images or icons, and religious authority.

1. When one walks into an Eastern Orthodox church, one of the first things a non-Orthodox person will notice is a large screen or iconostasis at the front of the nave or auditorium. This often beautiful structure is not merely decorative. It serves an important purpose within the Orthodox system by marking off the boundary between the common area and the sanctuary. Whereas the Roman Catholic mass is usually celebrated in full view of the congregants, Orthodox priests pray over the elements on the altar which is located in the sanctuary behind the iconostasis and therefore set apart from the congregants. The sanctuary is sometimes compared to the “Holy of Holies” in the Jewish Temple. Another difference between the Roman Catholic practice and that of the Orthodox has to do with the reception of the elements themselves. Whereas Roman Catholic laity often only partake of the bread, in the Orthodox service congregants consistently partake of both elements (bread and wine, usually served together in a spoon).

On the other hand, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches view the Lord’s Supper as a Eucharist, a sacrament, and a sacrifice. In general, the Orthodox are less interested in precise theological theories, and so they do not usually use the term transubstantiation. However, for all intents and purposes the Orthodox Church holds to a form of transubstantiation. They see the elements of the Eucharist as becoming the real body and blood of Christ, and they see it as having sacramental value in the sense of providing reconciliation or healing (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed., 283–85; John McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 291). In both church traditions, the Eucharist is not simply a memorial or even an ordinance involving the spiritual presence of Christ. It is a means by which one enters into the sacrifice of Christ in some (rather mysterious) way.

2. Another thing one is quickly struck with when walking into an Orthodox church is the pervasive presence and use of icons. In some cases, the beauty of such icons is awe-inspiring, and in fact, that seems to be the point.

However, the icons in an Orthodox church are usually quite different from those found in Roman Catholic churches. Whereas Catholic churches often include statues and carved or otherwise 3-dimensionally shaped crucifixes, within the Orthodox tradition religious imagery is carefully controlled and for the most part is produced on a flat surface using paint or something similar.

As in Roman Catholicism, within Orthodoxy icons are viewed as means that can assist people in their worship. Both traditions make use of images or icons as aids to worship. And so, church goers in both traditions often venerate and pray to images of Jesus as well the apostles and other saints. Both church traditions also make use of relics for similar purposes.

As a side note, with just a little background outsiders can learn to distinguish between a Roman Catholic church and an Orthodox church based on the appearance of the interior of the building by looking for an iconostasis and/or altar and by noting the kind of artwork or icons used in worship. One can also frequently distinguish between the two based on what is heard. In Orthodox churches singing (or chanting) usually takes the place of organ or other instrumental music.

3. Less obvious perhaps to the casual observer is another difference between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy centering around the question of religious authority. Within the Roman Catholic Church, Scripture and tradition are held up as twin sources of revelation or authority (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation 9–10). While certainly recognizing the authority of tradition, the Orthodox Church views the relationship between Scripture and tradition somewhat differently. Consider, for example, the following explanation of religious authority in Orthodoxy:

The fundamental bulwarks of the Orthodox faith are: the lives of the Spirit-filled elect, the Holy Scriptures, the ancient traditions manifested in the sacred liturgy and the church’s ritual practices, the creeds and professions (ektheseis) of the ecumenical councils, the great patristic writings defending the faith against heretical positions, the church’s ever-deepening collection of prayers that have had universal adoption and enduring spiritual efficacy and, by extension, the wider body of the spiritual and ascetical writings of the saints of times past and present, the important writings of hierarchs at various critical moments in the more recent past which have identified the correct response that ought to be undertaken against new conditions and movements prevailing after the patristic period (McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 100).

St. Sophia's CathedralIn the midst of that one, rather long sentence the reader could easily miss the fact that the Orthodox Church looks to the Scriptures for religious authority. However, within Orthodoxy Scripture is just one of many religious authorities. Or perhaps it would be better to say that tradition is the real source of religious authority within Orthodoxy, and Scripture is viewed as one part of that tradition. McGuckin further explains the relationship between Scripture and tradition this way: “The Scriptures stand as far greater in moment, and richness, than any writing of the saints. But there is not a profound difference in order, and not a dissonance of quality, for it is the same Spirit who inspires his saints in each generation, and inspires in them the same mind of the self-same Lord…. Scripture, for the Orthodox, is one of the purest manifestations of tradition. It is constitutively within sacred tradition, not apart from it” (McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 101). So within Orthodoxy, Scripture is inspired, but it is inspired in the same sense that the writings of many saints are inspired. Like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy rejects the full sufficiency of Scripture and necessarily reduces the actual authority of Scripture by making it one of several sources of religious truth. And like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy regards the Church as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation 2.10; Ware, The Orthodox Church, 199–200).

Although Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are different in a number of ways—some superficial and some substantial, they both set up human priests (and saints) as intermediaries between God and humans. They both encourage the use of images as aids to worship and prayer. And both see their respective Churches as fulfilling the role of authoritative interpreter of Scripture. More anecdotally, they both seem to encourage a great deal of religious ritualism and activity but very little actual study of the Bible.

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