The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

In a previous article, I outlined a brief case for why the regulative principle of worship (“RP”) wasn’t a label worth owning. I still believe that. Here is a modified version of the argument I presented there:

  1. The basic premise of the RP is sound. The elements, or building blocks, of worship must be regulated by scripture.1
  2. This ship runs aground in discussion of the circumstances of worship―what it looks like, how it is done.
  3. Thus, application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. But, these often say less than advocates want them to say. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and to the RP beyond the impetus to define the elements. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not provide direct help in solving disputes about the circumstances of worship.
  4. Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.

I don’t like the RP label because it communicates little. It’s about as informative as saying, “I believe the bible!” I don’t like the RP label for the same reason I don’t like the term “fundamentalist.” Central Seminary, Maranatha Seminary and Fairhaven Baptist Bible College are fundamentalist institutions―but that label is pretty elastic. So it is with the RP.

One preacher declares that to conceive of worship (the entire service, not simply the music) as an “experience” is to surrender to mysticism out of a mercenary desire to escape the “banality” of Reformed worship.2 Another states that advent wreaths are sinful,3 claims the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation,4 yet the author is on session in a congregation which boasts a livestream service.5 Still another theologian reasons, “only the most self-absorbed congregation would say that it does not need to be concerned about making its worship relevant to the present generation.”6

Each one of these men agree with the RP. Each disagrees with the other.

So, I am unsatisfied with the label, even as I own its basic ethos. I don’t like the paradigm. I’ll own it when I have to use insider language, but (like “Calvinism”) it isn’t a t-shirt I’ll wear to Wal-Mart.

Rather than claim a label that communicates little, I prefer to say “scripture regulates how we do things on Sunday.” To identify the circumstances (the style and form of these elements), I prefer to use a rubric Dr. Larry Oats taught us (in a context I forget!):

  • Is there an explicit warrant for it? Go for it.
  • Is there an implicit warrant for it? It’s likely ok, if the interpretation is legitimate.
  • Is there a principle that guides us, here? Likely ok, but get confirmation from some trusted Christians.

To get down to brass tacks, I’ll present the “liturgy” from our service on 25 July 2021. I believe this will generate some helpful discussion. Though my headings here do not explicitly echo the standard Protestant liturgies,7 they contain the same ingredients:

Call to Worship

This opens the service. It’s meant to set our hearts and minds and ask God to bless our worship. If you have a good hymnal, it will have an index of suggested calls to worship in scripture or song that will be invaluable for your service planning. I have several resources at my desk for this purpose.8

Read Psalm 100

I recently began making a “Gospel connection” to each call to worship, so I know I’ve given the Gospel each and every service. This lasts no more than two minutes and is always keyed to the call to worship reference I just read:

Whoever you are, God’s loyal love endures forever. His faithfulness, His promises, are eternal―not like ours.

Serve Him with gladness. Come in from the cold and join His family. Jesus is the Revealer who tells about this world and ourselves, the Reconciler who came to heal our alienation from God, and the Ruler of the coming kingdom.

Jesus is the hinge of the Christian story. He explains this world and ourselves, and He calls us to repent and worship Him. In exchange, He offers us a place in His coming kingdom community―which is what He made us for!

I then offer a short prayer:

Dear Lord:

Comfort us. Strengthen us. Rebuke us. Encourage us. Accept our worship this morning. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen!

Scripture Reading

This reading is always keyed to the sermon. We alternate between solo readings, and response readings with the congregation participating. Every six weeks we recite a creed. This week was a solo reading, which any church member (man, woman, boy, girl) can do. This reading was done by a mentally handicapped woman. She struggles mightily to read aloud coherently, and I often help her. I feel her participation in worship outweighs the aesthetic “loss” of not having a “smooth” reader. I select all the readings in advance.

Read 1 Corinthians 13.

Worship in Song

We typically do a blended selection of songs. We have a song leader, with either a piano or guitar accompaniment. We rotate two song leaders (one boy, one woman), and two pianists (one boy, one woman). One of the pianists (the boy) also sometimes plays guitar in lieu of piano.

The songs, like the scripture reading, echo the sermon theme―in this case, brotherly love and community.

Sing “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”

Sing “Brethren We Have Met to Worship”

Sing “Come Thou Fount (I Will Sing).” This is a Chris Tomlin remix.

I do not select the songs. We have a living document with the sermon passage, the assigned reading, and the sermon “theme.” The song leaders choose songs based on the theme.

Pastoral Prayer

We don’t do a “prayer for the offering.” The pastoral prayer has subsumed that. Like the reading and the songs, this prayer is keyed to the sermon theme. I script every prayer, and almost never do extemporaneous prayer. This one is patterned after the scripture reading.

Lord:

All our gifts are nothing without love for one another. We may have knowledge, but without brotherly love we are nothing. We may give up our property and even our lives, but if we don’t have love, we gain nothing.

Lead us to bear all things, to believe the best about our brothers and sisters, and to hope that we can have the community you want us to have.

The offering then follows.

Worship in Song

Sing “Oh, the Deep, Deep Love” (Bob Kauflin)

Sing “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” (Peter Scholtes)

Here is one of the songs:

Worship by the Word

My sermon was on Acts 2:42-47:

Prayer of Confession and Petition

We don’t yet have a dedicated time for confession in the worship service. But, I have been using the “closing prayer” of the sermon as the prayer of confession, keyed to the sermon theme. Again, this is always pre-scripted. Today, I was supposed to lead into the prayer with the following preamble. But, for reasons even I don’t understand, I skipped it. But I’ll re-produce it here anyway:

God tells us that the sacrifice He most desires is a broken and contrite heart. Honest sorrow for sin and resolve to love Him more, rather than dead ritual

As we think of our community, of our church, of what it could be, and what it is, of what God wants it to be, and the distance we still have to go … let’s bring Him that sacrifice in our prayers now, and in our actions this coming week.

Now, the prayer of confession begins. The prayers are often paraphrases of scripture, with my own bridges as transitions. You saw that in the pastoral prayer, and the method continues here:

Lord, your word tells us that if you love us, then we also ought to love one another. That if we love one another, then we can know you abide in us. And your love is completed and perfected when we reflect it to one another in your family.

Forgive us for our bitterness, for our anger, for our “busyness,” for our self-centeredness, for our misplaced priorities.

Forgive us for the things our hearts are set and eyes are fixed on that so often have little to do with your Gospel and your community.

Lead us to find new ways, better ways, good ways, wholesome ways to reflect you in our community here.

Charge and Blessing

This is often a stanza from a relevant hymn, or the standard doxology, or perhaps a scripture reading (again, see the index in your hymnal for help, here). Today, the song leader was balancing another member’s toddler on her lap and motioned that the “last stanza” thing wasn’t going to happen.

So, I improvised with this:

Jesus loves us, and gave His life so that we might be free. Go and love Him and spirit and in truth, and let’s love one another, too. God bless.

That was the worship service. It took 77 minutes. The proper elements were there. It accords with the RP. We can quibble about what it looked like―the circumstances. But, I believe most congregations with a self-consciously conservative philosophy of worship would accept it. I hope our own small example is a blessing to you as you consider worship in your own context.  


1 Scripture shows us five elements: (1) we see the scripture in the ordinances, (2) we read the word, (3) we preach the word, (4) we sing the word, and (5) we pray the word.  

2 Jonathan Cruse, What Happens When We Worship? (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020), p. 6.

3 D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), p. 84.  

4 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”

5 See https://www.calvaryglenside.org/. Hart’s blog (https://oldlife.org/about-2/) identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.

6 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 137.  

7 Adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition and intercession, instruction, communion/fellowship, charge and blessing.  

8 These include, (1) The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration, ed. Tom Fettke (Waco: Word, 1986), (2) Baptist Union of Great Britain, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005), (3) Book of Common Prayer from the Episcopal Church (Feb. 2007), (4) Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Lifeway, 2008), (5) Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections, 2017).

The first church

The first church

Here is my translation of Acts 2:36-47. I’m doing a preaching series through the Book of Acts, and I try to translate the passages as I go. Sometimes that isn’t possible! But, for what it’s worth, here is my rendering of Acts 2:36-47, with some technical notes. I don’t claim to be a Greek ninja, but this is a representative effort from me …

Therefore, let the whole house of Israel know without a doubt that God has declared[1] Him to be both Lord and Messiah―this Jesus whom you all crucified. Now,[2] when they heard this[3] they were cut right to the heart[4] and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Men! Brothers! What should we do!?”

And Peter said to them, “Change your ways and your heart―each of you!― and be immersed in the name[5] of Jesus Christ[6] in order to have[7] forgiveness of sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, because this promise is for you,[8] and for your children, and for those who are far away―as many as the Lord our God calls to Himself.”

And with many other words he urged and pleaded with them, saying, “Save yourselves from this wicked[9] age!” So, then, those who believed and trusted his message were immersed in water. And about 3,000 souls were added [to God’s family] in those days.

They regularly gave[10] themselves[11] to the apostles’[12] teaching and to the community[13]―the breaking of bread[14] and prayer. Fear was coming upon every soul, because[15] many wonders and signs kept being done[16] by[17] the apostles.

All the believers were together,[18] and shared everything they had. They were selling their property and possessions and distributing it all to anyone who had need.[19]

Every day, by mutual agreement, they were meeting at the temple, breaking bread in their various homes[20] and sharing food together with joy and heartfelt sincerity. They praised God and had favor[21] with all the people. And each day the Lord was adding to the congregation[22] those who were being rescued.

Here are some of my friends who helped me with the translation:


[1] I can’t agree that ἐποίησεν here implies God “making” something (e.g. Louw-Nida, 42.29). The sense seems to be that God appointed Jesus to be both Lord and Christ (Louw-Nida, 37.106). The tense-form has a culminative flavor, where Christ’s ascension is the declarative event wherein Jesus assumes His throne (cf. Acts 13:32-33 and the preceding context). It could also be a gnomic aorist, in which case Peter would be emphasizing that Jesus has always been both Lord and Christ.

[2] The conjunction signifies a transition. 

[3] Ἀκούσαντες is an adverbial, temporal participle modifying κατενύγησαν.

[4] τὴν καρδίαν is an adverbial accusative of reference.

[5] The preposition expresses reference; they must each be baptized with reference to Jesus’ name.

[6] Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is a subjective genitive, but I kept this construction (rather than “Jesus Christ’s name”) because it just sounds … weird … to have it any other way.

[7] The preposition in μετανοήσατε … καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν expresses purpose.

It likely isn’t causal (“because of”), because this use of the preposition is debated. Richard Young (Intermediate Grammar, p. 93) and Dan Wallace (GGBB, pp. 369-371) caution against adopting its usage here. Dana and Mantey argue forcefully for the causal approach (Manual Grammar, pp. 103-104), but Young and Wallace specifically mention Mantey and state he is incorrect. Moulton and Turner (Grammar: Syntax, p. 266) also argue for causal. Even A.T. Robertson warns against hastily imputing a causal flavor to the preposition at Acts 2:38 (Grammar, p. 595). I greatly fear to tread where Young, Wallace and Robertson bid me not to go! I must take a rabbit-trail and point out that Eckhard Schnabel bizarrely claims Wallace is in favor of the causal construction (Acts, in ZECNT, p. 165, n. 22). This is insanity. Schnabel’s research assistant must have been sleep-deprived. Wallace was against it. 

One could argue it expresses reference; that is, they must repent and be baptized concerning the forgiveness of sins. This is odd; it would work with baptism but not with forgiveness. You would have to sever repentance and baptism, and make the “with reference to forgiveness of sins” be strictly about the baptism. You could justify this because the baptism is singular, whereas the demand for repentance is plural. I suppose you could make all this work, but it’s an awful lot of tap-dancing.

It’s simpler to see the preposition express purpose. Repentance + baptism is a unified act―action and symbol. Peter is not saying baptism is an instrument of salvation; he just couples the visible symbol of salvation with the act of repentance (GGBB, pp. 370-371). “Acts 2:38 is saying very little about the specific theological relationship between the symbol and the reality, only that historically they were viewed together. One must look in other places for a theological analysis,” (NET Bible Full Notes Edition, p. 2075, n. Y). See also BDAG, s.v. εἰς, p. 290 4.f.

[8] A dative of benefaction. 

[9] The literal meaning is “crooked,” and this figurative extension of the concept yields something like “wicked” or corrupt.”

[10] Ἦσαν is an iterative imperfect. 

[11] προσκαρτεροῦντες is a periphrastic present participle, and the subjects are the 3000 who just became believers. The word means to “attend constantly” (Abbott-Smith, p. 385), to “continue in, persevere in” something (BDAG, p. 811, §2b). Mounce says it means “to persist in adherence to a thing” (Expository Dictionary, p. 1258). The two datives are objects of the participle.

[12] τῶν ἀποστόλων is a subjective genitive. 

[13] We often think of “fellowship” as eating together. The real idea is much broader. Mounce declares it means, in this context, a “mutual interest and sharing of members in the community of faith,” (Expository Dictionary, p. 247). BDAG says much the same thing (p. 552, §1). Louw-Nida adds a very good twist when it says “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement,” (34.5; emphasis added).

So, I went with “community” as my translation. I think it’s best to emphasize the “involved” aspect of real community in the exposition, rather than the translation. The sense here is the “oneness” of the group, based on their shared brotherhood based on faith in Christ. Henry Alford also prefers the rendering “community” in his translation and commentary (The New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:42).

[14] An objective genitive. This last bit is epexegetical to further define “fellowship,” chiefly because there is no coordinating conjunction. There is dispute over whether this is simply a shared fellowship meal, or the Lord’s Supper. As A.T. Robertson puts it, “Perhaps there is no way to settle the point conclusively here,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:42).

[15] ἐγίνετο could be a descriptive imperfect which, in A.T. Robertson’s words, presents “a sort of divine panorama, a ‘moving-picture show,’” (Grammar, p. 883). But, it may well be iterative in the sense of “fear kept on coming upon every soul because signs and wonder kept being done,” (Robertson, Word Pictures, Acts 2:43). It’s a cycle. I split the difference by keeping the first verb descriptive, making the conjunction καὶ explanatory, and rendering the second ἐγίνετο as iterative.

[16] For the translation, see Abbott-Smith, s.v. “γίνομαι,” §3, p. 92. This is another descriptive imperfect.

[17] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[18] The pronoun is reflexive, and the preposition expression space or association.  

[19] This was likely an ad hoc response to a situation in Jerusalem. A.T. Robbsertsson remarks, “It was not actual communism, but they held all their property ready for use for the common good as it was needed (4:32). This situation appears nowhere else except in Jerusalem and was evidently due to special conditions there which did not survive permanently. Later Paul will take a special collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:44).

Henry Alford adds, “No trace of its existence is discoverable any where else: on the contrary. St. Paul speaks constantly of the rich and the poor, see 1 Tim. 6:17; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8:13, 15; 9:6, 7; 1 Cor. 16:2: also St. James, 2:1–5; 4:13.—And from the practice having at first prevailed at Jerusalem, we may partly perhaps explain the great and constant poverty of that church, Rom. 15:25, 26; 1 Cor. 16:1–3; 2 Cor. 8:9; also ch. 11:30; 24:17.—The non-establishment of this community elsewhere may have arisen from the inconveniences which were found to attend it in Jerusalem: see ch. 6:1,” (New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:44).

[20] I believe this refers to fellowship meals, not the Lord’s Supper. I also take the preposition in κατʼ οἶκον to be distributive of space (Bock [Acts, in BECNT, KL 4177],and Barrett [Acts, in ICC, p. 170) rather than an idiom suggesting they held circuit meals of some sort.  

[21] The phrase means “favor” or “goodwill,” (Abbott-Smith, s.v. “χάρις,” §2a, p. 479; Louw-Nida 25.89). It basically means the people respected them (cf. Phillips translation).  

[22] The personal pronoun is functioning as a switch-reference device, referring back to the company of believers Luke mentioned at 2:44. The “believers” there were plural, but now Luke refers to them as a singular group, to which new folks are being added.

The Regulative Principle Isn’t Worth It

The Regulative Principle Isn’t Worth It

This article was updated on 06 July 2021.

How should we worship on Sundays? The Church has often framed this as an argument between the “regulative” and “normative” principles. This is a simplistic grid―these approaches are more complementary than we realize. This article discusses the regulative principle.

Precis of the Regulative Principle Position

The Regulative Principle (“RP”) states “… everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture.”[1] Christians often distinguish worship by (1) elements (what we do), and (2) circumstances (how we do it).[2] RP advocates may apply it in two ways:

  • Track One: The RP applies to the elements only. The circumstances “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”[3]
  • Track Two: The RP applies to both the elements and circumstances. God’s will for worship “is either expressly set down or necessarily contained” in Scripture.[4]

RP proponents advance several overarching justifications:

  1. The 2nd Commandment says we must not worship the true God in a false way.[5] So, we must only worship the way He permits.
  2. Faith is response to God, and we only know how to respond to God from His word, so worship must be based on the word.[6]
  3. True piety means we do what God says, so we obey scripture.[7]
  4. If we worship God the wrong way, He may kill us (Lev 10:3).
  5. We wound the conscience of believers by forcing them to worship contrary to the bible.[8]
  6. The Church administers God’s rule for worship, and God’s rules are in His word, so worship must be based on the word.[9]
  7. We are all prone to idolatry, so we must worship according to scripture.[10]

The Regulative Principle Doesn’t Pass Muster

Application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. However,

  1. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and certainly to the RP.
  2. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not go beyond abstract principles that are not in dispute.

Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.

Analysis of Extra-biblical Warrant

Belgic Confession, Art. 32 proclaims “do not depart from those things which Christ, our only master, hath instituted.”[11] The confession’s citations are out of context and inapplicable.[12] It simply advises us to do what Christ says.

Heidelberg Catechism, Q 96 says we must not “… worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”[13] It cites 1 Samuel 15:23, where Saul disobeyed a direct command from God. Likewise, Deuteronomy 12:30 simply forbids disobeying direct orders.  

Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 108 explains the duties inherent in the 2nd Commandment, which are “the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word.”[14] The catechism mistakenly applies Exodus 20:4-6 to God―it is actually about idolatry. On its own, the catechism says nothing more than “do not worship God in a false way.”

Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 110 describes why we must keep the 2nd Commandment and refers to God’s “revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom.” This is a polemic against idolatry, which has nothing to do with the RP.

Westminster Confession, Art. 1.6 explains “[t]he whole counsel of God … is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”[15] It also mentions circumstances in worship need to be regulated “according to the general rules of the Word …”[16] This is the strongest support for the RP. However, because these are general statements about scripture, they are more hermeneutics for life than precepts for worship.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession, Art. 1.6 explains God’s will is “necessarily contained” in scripture.[17] Scott Aniol believes this is stricter than the Westminster equivalent.[18] However, a modern language version reads “or by necessary inference,”[19] and both versions explain “some circumstances” of worship are ordered by “Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word.”[20] Evidence indicates the 1689 Confession is not stricter than the Westminster equivalent.

Westminster Confession, Art. 20.2 says our consciences must be free from “any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.”[21] The scripture citations are irrelevant to the RP.[22] Application of the RP does not solve the matter of allegedly binding the conscience, because there is no “golden tablet” of RP implications―different congregations implement it in widely divergent ways. 

Westminster Confession, Art. 21.1 (cf. 1689 Confession, Art. 22.1) says God instituted the “acceptable way” of worship, and we cannot worship “in any way not prescribed by scripture.”[23] It cites Deuteronomy 12:32, which declares we cannot add or take away from God’s commands. This is a general principle, not a manual for worship. Other citations are out of context and irrelevant.[24] One wonders what Jesus thought as He worshiped in a synagogue, which is not prescribed by scripture.[25]

Analysis of Biblical Warrant

Appeals to Exodus 20:4-6 misunderstand the issue. For example, Mark Dever mis-cites this text and claims it is about how we worship. But, it is actually about who.[26]The passage is about idolatry, not worship.

At Exodus 34:13-15, D.G. Hart and John Meuther claim this proves God is jealous and those who contradict or thwart His will are “wicked, irrelevant and profane.”[27] However, this reference is out of context. God is telling the Israelites to drive pagans out because their presence will lead to idolatry (Ex 34:11-16). This has nothing to do with worship.

Leviticus 10:3 suggests worship must not be done improperly, but the text does not say what the men did wrong. This cannot go beyond basic principle.

Appeals to Mark 7:6-7 are specious. Here, Jesus criticizes Pharisees for zealously adding to God’s law and perverting what it means to have a relationship with God. RP appeals therefore cast rhetorical foes as damnable legalists. The text says nothing about worship―it is about the nature of a relationship with God.

At Colossians 2:22-23, Paul condemns asceticism as religion. This text is immaterial because RP opponents are not ascetics who teach a false religion. The issue in Colossians is false religion, not “improper” worship style.

In Matthew 28:20, Jesus declares we must observe what He commanded us. Fair enough, but every serious Christian would believe she does what God commands! This citation therefore proves nothing.

At Romans 1:21, Hart and Meuther declare “… those who are in Christ are incompetent to devise by their imaginations, even devout ones, any sort of worship that is appropriate or pleasing to God.”[28] This is an abstract point that is functionally meaningless. Without a “golden tablet” of infallible RP implications, it does nothing for us. 

Mark Dever declares John 4:19-24 tells us worship is regulated by revelation.[29] This principle is not in dispute. What is disputed is how to apply this revelation. This citation resolves nothing.

He repeats the same refrain at 1 Corinthians 14.[30] However, this is a passage regulating the use of apostolic sign gifts in corporate worship. The most applicable principle here is that worship must be done in an orderly fashion, but this is hardly in dispute.

Conclusion

Track Two of the RP is based on a faulty interpretation of the 1689 Confession. Track One, in its most distilled essence,[31] makes good sense but lacks scriptural and extra-biblical support when framed as a dogma.

RP is applied inconsistently and subjectively.[32] Ligon Duncan argues for a softer RP that is so generic it need not claim the label.[33] However, Hart and Meuther declare pastors are equivalent to Old Covenant priests,[34] we cannot do leisure activities on the Sabbath,[35] worship is not for our pleasure (mis-citing Calvin),[36] lighting an advent wreath is sinful,[37] horizontal worship is specious[38] (so much for brotherly love?), only pastors can read scripture aloud,[39] we must worship as if at a funeral,[40] believers who emphasize God’s love are evangelical Marcionites,[41] and only RP believers may claim God’s love.[42] They also claim the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation.[43] One wonders, then, why Hart serves on the Session for a congregation which boasts a livestream service.[44] However, no doubt his congregation reclines at table as it observes the Lord’s Supper and greets one another with holy kisses …[45]  

D. A. Carson correctly observes the New Testament does not furnish a positive example of a worship service,[46] RP advocates and their foes share much common content, and “[t]here is no single passage … that establishes a paradigm for corporate worship.”[47]

The RP is ripe for abuse as a cloak for ecclesiastical preferences[48]―a vehicle for traditionalism,[49] for mistaking dogma as Truth.[50] It can concretize liturgy in time,[51] or “justify” worship fences over top of revelation.[52] The concept is sound,[53] but one need not claim the mantle to apply what is otherwise known as good hermeneutical sense. It is not a position worth owning.


[1] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), p. 77.

[2] D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), pp. 85-86.

[3] “Westminster Confession of Faith,” Article 1.6, in Orthodox Presbyterian Church, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (2007).

[4] “Second London Confession,” Article 1.6, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised, ed. William Lumpkin (Valley Forge: Judson, 1969), p. 251). A modernized version of this confession has the words “or by necessary inference” (Founders.org. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/). This is a rather different interpretation that will not bear the freight Baptist RP advocates wish to see the 1689 London Baptist Confession carry.

[5] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 78.

[6] J. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice, ed. Philip Ryken (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 1183.

[7] “True piety manifests itself in humble obedience to God’s word in our expression of worship and thus urges us to worship that is wholly in accord with Scripture,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1237-1238).

[8] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 84-85. “The regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1222-1223). 

[9] Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1206.

[10] Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1229-1252. “… the liturgy, media, instruments, and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the ‘law of unintended consequences,’” (Ibid, KL 1334-1337).

[11] “Belgic Confession of Faith,” Art. 32, in The Three Forms of Unity (Port St. Lucie: SGCB, 2018).

[12] Colossians 2:6-7 is Paul’s exhortation to live life in communion with Christ, which is irrelevant to the RP issue. References to 1 Cor 7:23; Isa 29:13 (cf. Mk 7) and Gal 5:1 are likewise out of context and thus irrelevant to the argument.

[13] “Heidelberg Catechism,” Q 96, in Three Forms of Unity.  

[14] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.  

[15] Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Emphasis mine.

[16] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

[17] “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, p. 250. 

[18] Scott Aniol, “Form and Substance: Baptist Ecclesiology and the Regulative Principle,” in Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, JBTM 15.1(Spring 2018), pp. 30-31.

[19] Founders.org. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/. Emphasis mine.  

[20] “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, pp. 250-251.

[21] Westminster Confession and Catechisms. 

[22] Acts 4:19, 5:29; 1 Cor 7:23; Mt 23:8-10; Mt 15:9. In 1 Cor 1:24, Paul is saying he is not Lord over the faith of the Corinthian church members. The RP has nothing to do with this. Indeed it can easily be flipped against more hardline RP advocates, like Hart and Meuther, who claim their way is the only way.

[23] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

[24] Ex 20:4-6; Deut 4:15-20; Mt 4:9-10, 15:9; Jn 4:23-24; Acts 17:23-25; Col 2:18-23. 

[25] Derek Thomas criticizes this objection, but curiously fails to answer it. He seems to view the elements of the RP being present at the synagogue, while implicitly dismissing the synagogue context as a circumstance (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1757f). However, more hardline RP advocates like Hart and Meuther (who forbid even banners inside a church building; With Reverence and Awe, p. 78) would surely disagree. RP advocates are not made alike.

[26] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 78. Dever makes the same mistake at Exodus 32:1-10 (pp. 78-79). 

[27] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83. 

[28] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83.

[29] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.

[30] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.

[31] I interpret this essence as (1) the elements of reading, preaching, praying, singing, seeing the Word, and (2) the circumstances deduced by good and necessary inference. 

[32] D.A. Carson (ed.), Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 54-55.

[33] J. Ligon Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship?” in Give Praise to God, KL 583-587. “What is being argued here is that there must be scriptural warrant for all we do. That warrant may come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequences. These formulations of the Reformed approach to worship also acknowledge that lesser things about corporate worship may be decided in the absence of a specific biblical command but in accordance with faithful biblical Christian thinking under the influence of scriptural principles and sanctified reason and general revelation (e.g., whether to use bulletins, what time the services are to begin, how long they are to last, where to meet, what the ministers and congregation will wear, whether to use hymnals, how the singing is to be led, and the like).” Emphasis mine.

[34] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 44. 

[35] Ibid, p. 72. 

[36] Ibid, p. 79.

[37] Ibid, p. 84. 

[38] Ibid, p. 97. 

[39] Ibid, p. 105.

[40] Ibid, p. 127. 

[41] Ibid, p. 125. 

[42] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 86.

[43] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”

[44] See https://www.calvaryglenside.org/. Hart’s blog (https://oldlife.org/about-2/) identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.

[45] In Justin Martyr’s day (ca. A.D. 155), Christians still greeted one another in this fashion (Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961), p. 5). Consistent application of the RP in a manner Hart and Meuther suggest would also mean we must forego HVAC, microphones, electricity, indoor plumbing, piano, and any electronic devices for preaching.

[46] Carson, Worship by the Book, p. 52.

[47] Ibid, p. 55. 

[48] Derek Thomas declares those who believe application of the RP can be subjective because of the interpretive issues are “antinomian,” and remarks, “… it is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice. Citing the hermeneutical caveat is useful in order to extradite oneself from anything that appears to some to be shackling and legalistic. One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1698-1701).

[49] “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 1:9. Michael Bird rightly cautions against a fear of tradition, which is very different than traditionalism. He writes, “I am advocating instead for an approach to biblical interpretation that places Scripture and tradition in a continuous spiral of mutual interpretation,” (Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 64).

[50] Thus, Emil Brunner rightly warns, “Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which the eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the ‘finger,’ to the interpretive doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity,” (The Christian Doctrine of God, in Dogmatics, vol. 1, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), p. 54). 

[51] The historical horizon for RP advocates does not seem to pre-date the Reformation.

[52] Terry Johnson and Ligon Duncan crudely suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture. “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (“Reading and Praying the Bible in Corporate Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 2664-2666).

[53] Again, these are (1) the elements of seeing, hearing, preaching, praying and singing the Word, coupled with (2) circumstances deduced by clear implication.

On Ken Ham and Fundamentalism

On Ken Ham and Fundamentalism

I opened the mail the other day to discover a letter from Answers in Genesis (“A Note from Ken Ham”). This wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was what Ken wanted. A color brochure fell out of the envelope. A new “Statement of Faith” from AiG. What was this about?

Ken had a challenge for me. He asked me to review “our updated statement of faith.” Then, he asked me to compare it to “your church’s/college’s statement of faith.” Ken encouraged me to provoke a discussion with leaders about why the church’s Statement didn’t match AiG’s. To be fair, Ken warned me “this could result in some hostility.” But, he declared, such a sacrifice was necessary to “help uncover compromise.”

My first reaction was purely ecclesiastical. Why does a man who runs two amusement parks believe it’s proper to incite doctrinal strife within local churches? His parachurch organization is not an agent of the Gospel. His organization disciples nobody. It baptizes nobody. It marries nobody. It eulogizes nobody. Ken is not there when a marriage is on the rocks, or when a family has no money and needs a new washing machine. Yet, here his letter sits, inviting Christians to accuse their churches of “compromise.”

My second thought was that I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how fundamentalist AiG really was. The flashpoints are Genesis 1-11, abortion, evolution, and sexual mores. But, especially Genesis. The letter declared, “[t]here are only a few Christian colleges/universities that will stand with Answers in Genesis today.” If you don’t “stand” with Ken on Genesis, you’re a “compromiser.”

AiG’s isn’t “fundamentalist” because it believes what it does about Genesis. It’s fundamentalist because it has no room for generous orthodoxy. It engages in what Michael Bird calls “doctrinal mummification.”1 Its theology is frozen. Set in concrete, just like Reagan’s feet.2 No matter whether you have a different, well-articulated view―there can be no détente. Such would be weakness. These compromisers are “very liberal,” Ken warns. They must be crushed.

Fear sells. Nigh on 22 years ago, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote a sad book reflecting on their experiences with the Moral Majority. The issue of fund-raising letters came up. Thomas explained these letters always have the same four traits:

First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general. Second, the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or impose their morality on the rest of us or destroy the country. Third, the letter assures the read that something will be done: We will oppose these enemies and ensure they do not take over America. Fourth, to get this job done, please send money (and the letter often suggests a specific amount).3

This is precisely what dear Ken does. He suggests a $50 donation and promises a copy of his latest book in return. It’s regrettable to see AiG live up to fundamentalism’s worst impulses of “intellectual rigidity and obscurantism.”4 Scot McKnight laments that people often weaponize “inerrancy,” and “more often than not they are affirming some authority for a specific interpretation that is part of their tribe.”5 Thus, if you disagree with AiG, you’re surely not on God’s side.

Long ago, in 1980, journalist Frances Fitzgerald did a profile of Jerry Falwell and the then-new Liberty College. She observed:

For Thomas Road people, education—in the broad sense of the word—is not a moral and intellectual quest that involves struggle and uncertainty. It is simply the process of learning, or teaching, the right answers. The idea that an individual should collect evidence and decide for himself is anathema.6

That is the approach Ken displays in his letter. It’s also in the new Statement of Faith, which contains this declaration:

The concepts of “social justice,” “intersectionality,” and “critical race theory” are anti-biblical and destructive to human flourishing (Ezekiel 18:1–20; James 2:8–9).7

It provides no definitions for these terms. Ken just says they’re bad. This is troubling, because in his letter Ken assured me the new Statement was carefully worded to “stop people” from using it “to justify compromised positions.” He even declares AiG will “monitor” to see how folks “can get to justify not believing God’s Word.” To disagree with Ken is to disagree with God.

Again, the doctrinal mummification, the feet in concrete, the intellectual rigidity. Of course, one can be against all those things, but what does Ken think they mean?

Emil Brunner wrote about evil as a social phenomenon; an infection that spreads throughout society “and then breeds further evil … the evil which is incorporated in social institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms.” He declared, “Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated within institutions … is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”8

Surely Brunner has a point? Does not evil lurk in society at large as a force, an impetus, an orientation? Does it not shape-shift depending on context? If, as Carl Henry wrote, every society has its myth, and that myth is the framework in which the society chooses to invest its notions of meaning and value,9 can evil really be an individualized phenomenon?

Wolfhart Pannenberg rejected transmission of sin through a social nexus, but he acknowledged society was a vehicle that produced sin in the individual.10 Surely this is correct?

Donald Bloesch wrote that “sin has social as well as personal dimensions. It can appear in the form of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious bigotry, ecological pollution and genocide … sin can poison the structures of a society as well as the heart of individuals.”11 Even Millard Erickson has a discussion on “the social dimensions of sin” in the latest edition of his systematic theology.12

Are these men all too woke?

Like many people today, conservative Christians often exist in an information echo-chamber. They’re socialized into it by their particular media, their peers, their schools, their families13 … their churches. Perhaps social justice, intersectionality, and critical trace theory are “anti-biblical” and “destructive.” What the thinking Christian mustn’t do is take Ken’s word for it.

Michael Bird warns about a “naïve biblicism” personified by Wayne Grudem, who doesn’t interact with non-evangelical theologians (like, say, Brunner, Bloesch or Pannenberg) and seemingly has no awareness of the sociocultural factors that have shaped him. The result is a theology that’s “open to being press-ganged to justify political agendas of the far left or far right.”14 The dangers need not be politics masquerading as theology―they can also be an unwitting intellectual and cultural isolation.

This echo-chamber can make a certain kind of Christian smirk when he reads President Obama reflect on the struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act: “I saw no way to sort out people’s motives, especially given that racial attitudes were woven into every aspect of our nation’s history.”15 The assumption is this cannot be true. But … what if it is true?

The legacy of racist and evil Jim Crow laws throughout the South is real. It’s an unfortunate fact that de facto “segregation academies” sprang up across the country, particularly in the South, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision declared “separate but equal” un-Constitutional.16 Bob Jones University didn’t ban interracial dating until 2000, and then only after suffering embarrassing media attention after George W. Bush made a campaign appearance at the school.17

On the very day Brown v. Board of Education was announced, a Senate sub-committee held hearings on yet another proposed “Christian Amendment” to the Constitution.18 The fact that some of the same Christians opposed Brown, whilst simultaneously advocating for a Christian Amendment, and then later supported and established private Christian schools (read “white schools”) to avoid the implications of forced de-segregation … is quite bizarre. It’s almost as if social structures, systems and cultural mores produce individual sin in people’s lives.

Be that as it may. I’m not arguing for the “evils” against which dear Ken is railing. I am arguing against the theological populism and obscurantism that are fundamentalism’s worst impulses. The fear of something new. Something different. Fear of a doctrinal introspection that bursts the bonds of a very narrow orthodoxy. Something that might shake those feet set in concrete or disturb the doctrinal mummy.

One historian has observed that early white fundamentalists spent their time fighting cultural battles, while their black counterparts often focused on racial advancement.19 This mania for the culture wars continues today in Ken Ham’s letter. Fear is the key. Christian historian John Fea observed “it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear. Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.”20 William Martin has noted the same phenomenon.21 At least one historian has made this “evangelical fear” the subject of an entire book.22 Remember Cal Thomas’ remarks about the prototypical fundraising letter? He recalls one operative admonishing him, “You can’t raise money on a positive!”23 Evangelicalism has always thirsted for the man on horseback to destroy enemies and save society. Therefore, AiG declares “social justice” (whatever that means!) is “destructive.”

People live by stories. “The cultural enterprise rests invariably on a secret or explicit faith.”24 These shared stories are what shape a people and bind a society together. Henry warns us that Christians are foolish to reject other people’s stories “as mere myth-spinning.” They are, all of them, a “quest for a comprehensive overview of reality”25―a reflection of the “I-Thou” relationship we were all made for and want.26

So perhaps, rather than not defining competing “stories” then dismissing them as “destructive,” Christians should start telling our own story?27 Is that not what evangelism is about? Shall we be always on the defensive, sniping from the ramparts while calling for our brothers to bar the gates? If so, our message is simply “We hate you! Believe in Jesus or die a compromiser.” Mark Yarhouse rightly criticizes this approach in the context of evangelism to homosexuals.28 He calls for “alternative scripts” that tell a better story, the Christ story.

Clodovis Boff writes about a friend, a bishop, who cried as he recounted seeing a woman dying from hunger, unable to produce milk for her dying infant child.29 It’s experiences like these that gave rise to Latin American liberation theology―the quest to use the Gospel as impetus to change social conditions … social structures. Such a salvation is mediated by liberations “that dignify the children of God and render credible the coming utopia of the kingdom of freedom, justice, love, and peace, the kingdom of God in the midst of humankind.”30

Social structures, social justice―is this “destructive?” An unthinking Christian may reflexively dismiss this as babble from a “liberal.” He will turn to his trusted gatekeeper and receive assurance that, yes indeed, this is “liberalism” and therefore “bad.” He will look no further.

A thinking Christian will engage, push beyond the echo-chamber. Perhaps you’ll end up agreeing with AiG, but surely we must all raise an eyebrow or two when Ken Ham boldly tells us what truth is … without any evidence he himself understands what he maligns. We must do better.

Or I suppose you could just send Ken the $50 he’s asking for. After all, he’ll send you an autographed copy of his latest book.  


1 Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 41.  

2 If you appreciate this reference, 50 bonus points for you …  

3 Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 58.

4 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway, 1996), p. 16.

5 Scot McKnight, “Inerrancy or Inerrancies?” 01 June 2021. Retrieved from https://scotmcknight.substack.com/p/inerrancy-or-inerrancies.

6 Frances Fitzgerald, “A Disciplined Charging Army.” The New Yorker. 18 May 1981. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1981/05/18/a-disciplined-charging-army.

7 Answers in Genesis, “Statement of Faith,” § “Man.” Retrieved from https://answersingenesis.org/about/faith/.  

8 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.  

9 Carl F. H. Henry, God Revelation and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 156.  

10 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 255f.  

11 Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), p. 45.  

12 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 584-599.

13 Two sociologists label these as “agents of socialization” (Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein, The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology, 6th ed. (New York: Norton, 2018), pp. 109ff).

14 Bird, Evangelical Theology, pp. 88-89.  

15 Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown, 2020), p. 405.

16 “After the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, Southern public schools—sometimes entire school systems—shut down rather than desegregate. Private “segregation academies” sprung up to replace them. In some states, governments provided grants to subsidize tuition. The movement accelerated following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited segregation in schools receiving federal assistance and authorized the government to file suit in federal court to enforce Brown,” (Rick Perlstein, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn: 1976-1980 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), p. 346). See also Martin, With God on Our Side, pp. 168ff.

17 “Bob Jones University Drops Interracial Dating Ban.” Christianity Today. 01 March 2000. Retrieved from https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/marchweb-only/53.0.html.  

18 Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 95ff.  

19 Daniel Bare, “The Unearthed Conscience of Black Fundamentalism,” in Christianity Today. May/June 2021, p. 64.  

20 John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 66.   

21 Martin, With God on Our Side, p. 2.  

22 Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (New York: OUP, 2008).

23 Thomas and Dobson, Blinded by Might, p. 58.  

24 Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 1, p. 156.  

25 Ibid, p. 155.  

26 Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 55-56, and Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.1 (reprint; London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 184-185.

27 Joshua Chatraw, Telling a Better Story (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).  

28 “What the church can help people with—regardless of whether orientation changes—is identity. We can recognize that a gay script is compelling to those who struggle with same-sex attraction, especially when they see few options emerging from their community of faith. Therefore we can help develop alternative scripts that are anchored in biblical truth and centered in the person and work of Christ,” (Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2010), pp. 54-56).

29 Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. Paul Burns (reprint; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006), pp. 1-2.  

30 Ibid, pp. 8-9.  

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

Older English translations used the phrase “only-begotten” at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9. Newer translations don’t use that. Don’t take my word for it; just look at your bible of choice. Newer translations use “unique,” “one and only” or “only,” (etc.) depending on the context.

The phrase “only-begotten” is tied up with the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation is built on a conceptual framework that tries to explain how Father and Son can be distinct from one another, and yet have the very same essence/being. It is perhaps a great misunderstanding of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed to interpret it to mean Jesus and the Father each share the essence of “god like-ness.” That isn’t what it means. It says Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” or “the same essence as the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί).

Eternal generation says that:

  1. the Son was generated by the Father,
  2. in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”)
  3. and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”)
  4. in a way we can’t ever understand
  5. but this does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created

This doctrine is confusing to many non-confessional Christians. It’s likely most of these have never heard of the doctrine. It’s also quite likely few non-confessional seminary professors and even fewer seminary-trained pastors could coherently explain it. For proof, ask your pastor, “what does it mean that Jesus is the only-begotten Son? Does this mean Jesus came into being after the Father?” If your pastor does not reply by describing eternal generation, then he does not understand the doctrine. This doesn’t mean your pastor is a terrible person! It does mean he likely did not receive training in classical theology proper. I certainly did not!

Be that as it may … I say all that to tell you that the translations of John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 are inseparably bound up with this doctrine. It’s a third rail. The past several years have seen extraordinary pushback from certain theologians advocating a return to “Nicene orthodoxy.” Specifically, to the “same essence” doctrine that Nicea taught. Jesus and the Father do not simply share the same essence, like you and I share “humanness.” No, they share the same, identical essence. They are the identical, same being. Part of this pushback is a quest to re-capture “only-begotten” as a valid rendering at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9.

Are they right? How should the passages be rendered? What does μονογενὴς mean? Let’s see …

Lexicons

The lexicons conclude μονογενὴς has a range of meanings that do not require one to posit a timeless, non-physical derivation of divine essence from the Father to the Son.

  • BDAG: (1) “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” or (2) “the only one of its kind or class, unique[1]
  • Abbott-Smith: only, only-begotten; of sone and daughters and of Christ[2]
  • Moulton and Milligan: “is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique,’ not ‘only-begotten’ … the emphasis is on the thought that, as the ‘only’ Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.”[3]
  • Louw-Nida: “pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—‘unique, only.”[4]
  • LEH LXX: “the only member of a kin, only-begotten, only (of children) Jgs 11,34; id. (of God) Od 14,13; alone in its kind, one only Wis 7,22[5]

Septuagint Usage[6]

Here, I survey every use of the word in the LXX.[7] The basic sense in the LXX is special, unique, one and only. These are very close synonyms for one another, but they convey the same force. The one outlier is Psalm 24:16, which gives the sense of alone or lonely.

Judges 11:34: And Jephthah went to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter was going out to meet him with drums and dancing. She was his only begotten; there was not another son or daughter to him.

The sense here is “unique, one and only.” The girl is Jephthah’s precious daughter, which makes the consequences of his vow more serious.

Psalm 21:21: Rescue my soul from the sword, and my unique one from the hand of a dog.

Again, the sense is “unique, special, one and only.”

Psalm 24:16: Look upon me and have pity on me, because I am alone and poor

The sense here is different; more like monos than monogenes.

Psalm 34:17: O Lord, how long will you observe? Restore my life from their wrongdoing, my unique life from lions.

Unique, one and only, special.

Wisdom 7:22: … for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent …

Unique, one of a kind. This is in the midst of Solomon’s recounting of his ordinary origins, and the blessing of wisdom he received because he sought higher things than earthly accolades (Wisdom 7:6-7).

Tobit 3:15: … and neither have I defiled my name nor my father’s name in this land of my captivity. I am an only child to my father, and neither is there to him a young child who will become his heir, nor a close relative.

One and only. Sarah, the woman whom Tobit’s son eventually marries, is lamenting her misfortune. An evil demon has, in turn, killed her seven successive husbands and she is now without any hope.

Tobit 8:17: Blessed are you because you have shown mercy on two only-begotten children! Show them mercy, O Master, fulfill their life in health with gladness and mercy!”

One and only. Sarah’s father gives God praise because Sarah and Tobit’s son, her new husband, have lived through the night. The demon has been defeated!

Psalm of Solomon 18:4: and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the children of Israel. Your childhood is upon us like a firstborn unique son

One and only, special, precious.

New Testament Usage

The usage here tracks with the evidence from the Septuagint. There are no surprises.

Luke 7:12: As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 8:42: And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 9:37-38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child!

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Hebrews 11:17-18: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Usage Related to Jesus

With this foundation in place, from the LXX and every citation in the New Testament, we’re in a good place to determine how to take the word in reference to Jesus. Basically, the usage here fits perfectly with what we’ve seen in the LXX and the remainder of the New Testament.

John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth

The sense is uniqueness, a special “one of a kind-ness.” Jesus has a very special glory, a glory that can only come from someone in the closest possible relationship with the Father (v. 18). They share the same glory. To find implications about an eternal generation here are speculative and depend on an a priori determination to “find” the doctrine in the passage.

John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Again, context suggests uniqueness, one of a kind-ness. Jesus, as the one “in the bosum of the Father,” has the closest possible relationship with Him. Thus only Jesus, the very special, one and only God (or “Son,” if you prefer the variant reading) can truly make the Father known to the world.

John 3:14-16: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life

The force of the passage is God’s love. He has so much love that He sent His unique, special, one and only Son to die for His people’s sins. Abraham’s would-be sacrifice (the emotional force of giving your only son’s life) prefigures this event. Again, finding eternal generation here is eisegesis.

1 John 4:9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him

See the comments at John 3:16 (above).

Apostolic Father’s Usage[8]

There are no new surprises here.

1 Clement 25:2: For there is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This bird, being the one and only of its kind, lives five hundred years

Self-explanatory

Martyrdom of Polycarp 20:2: And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and gift, to his heavenly kingdom, by his one and only child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and majesty ⌊forever⌋. Greet all the holy ones

One and only. Older translation used “only-begotten” (e.g. Lake), but there is no need for this. A theological presupposition about eternal generation would have to drive this interpretation.

Diognetus 10:2: For God loved humankind, for whom he made the world, to whom he subjected all things, the things in the earth, to whom he gave reason, to whom he gave mind, to whom alone he allowed to look above to him, whom he made in his own image, to whom he sent his one and only son, to whom he promised the kingdom in heaven and will give it to those who love him.

This is an allusion to John’s usage (John 1:14, 18, 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9), and the same comments apply here.

So, What’s It Mean?

Charles Irons argues there is a “directional flow” in the lexical evidence to see the meaning of μονογενὴς expanding in “ever-increasing” figurative ways … ways that allow one to interpret it to imply Jesus’ metaphysical derivation from the Father (“A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only-Begotten,'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 111). Indeed, Irons contends it is a human metaphor to express an eternal timeless, non-physical derivation from Father to Son (Ibid, p. 115). He states “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated,” (Ibid, p. 116).

Irons is arguing for interpretation, not pure translation. In fact, if one took his approach to its logical implication for bible translation, the result would be a dynamic equivalent rendering so interpretive it might make even Eugene Peterson blush. Only an a priori commitment to the doctrine of eternal generation would make you render μονογενὴς as “only-begotten. This doesn’t mean eternal generation isn’t real. It just means the word should not be translated as “only-begotten.”

It would be as if I, when encountering Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο at John 1:14, rendered it as “and the Word kept His divine nature and added a human nature, and thus became fully God and fully man.” I smuggled a whole host of good stuff in there, but it isn’t what John wrote. He actually wrote “and the Word became flesh.”

In the same way, John did not write that Jesus is “only-begotten” in the sense that He derives His essence from the Father in a timeless, eternal manner. “Only-begotten” means nothing, in and of itself, when it comes to Jesus. It only engenders confusion. You may wish to guard the sanctity of eternal generation. Have at it, but support a rendering that communicates more than it confuses. Talk about the doctrine in exposition. Don’t smuggle it crudely into your translations.

The controversy about the meaning of μονογενὴς isn’t as difficult as some would like you to believe. Set aside the lexical essays. Just look at every usage of the word in the literature for yourself. It isn’t difficult. But, like so much else, it’s become difficult because of the freight the various interpretations pull with it.


[1] BDAG, p. 658.

[2] Abbott-Smith, p. 296. 

[3] Moulton and Milligan, pp. 416-417. 

[4] Louw-Nida, §58.52.

[5] Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).

[6] The LXX citations here are from Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[7] I do not include Ode 14, because it is clearly a Christian composition of some maturity. It is not properly a citation from before the time of Christ.

[8] My citations here are from Rick Brannan, tran., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012).

What is Pentecost About?

What is Pentecost About?

Pentecost is one of those events in the Christian calendar that hasn’t fared so well―so many people don’t know what to do with it! We know what happened, but the problem is what it means. Like so many discussions involving the Holy Spirit, Pentecost sometimes becomes a list of things that it doesn’t mean:

  1. Whatever else it is, it can’t be a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
  2. The gift of prophecy, the experiences of dreams and visions―it’s all good, but it has nothing to do with us, you see …
  3. The gift of tongues can’t be real foreign languages; they have to be ecstatic, other-worldly sayings that require an interpreter

Presuppositions drive interpretation, shutting out the actual words on the page. Pentecost gets submerged under 50 feet of controversy. Like espresso diluted with sugar, it becomes so much less than it’s meant to be. Its meaning is lost in all the noise of theological disagreement.

What does Pentecost actually mean?

Peter tells us. He stands up, facing a crowd of perhaps thousands in the temple courtyard, and simply says “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16). What happened that morning―the Spirit descending visibly, audibly, in deliberately dramatic fashion―was what the prophet Joel said would happen. Whatever the phenomenon of Pentecost means, Joel explains it―what does Joel say?

Peter quotes a long passage from Joel (2:28-32). It’s a mysterious passage―otherworldly. There are great promises, even fantastic ones. The run-up to Peter’s citation shows us Joel urging repentance. God wants us to return to Him. The day of the Lord is illustrated by an army of locusts that devour everything in their path. Judgment is coming.  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments,” (Joel 2:12).

And, once God’s people do that, He’ll make everything all right (Joel 2:18-27), and that’ll set the stage for something else. After God rescues and gathers all His people. After God makes us safe. After God destroys our enemies. After God blesses the land and gives us a booming economy. After He returns to dwell with us … then some important stuff is going to happen.

Acts 2:17: And in the last days it shall be, God declares

Peter is interpreting Joel, who said:

  1. after we repent,
  2. and God rescues, gathers, dwells with us,
  3. then something special is going to happen
  4. the Messianic age will be here, in some form,
  5. and it’ll come with some very specific bells, whistles and divine signs

Peter, by quoting Joel as he does, says “this is it―it’s here!”

  1. God has rescued!
  2. God has gathered!
  3. God has made His people safe!
  4. The age of the King is here!
  5. These are the divine signs Joel told us about, right here in front of us―God is striking up the band and shouting, “Here it is, guys!”

Some bible teachers don’t agree. They say “what happened at Pentecost is like what Joel said … it resembles what he said …” But, this is mistaken. Peter said, “but this is what was said by the prophet Joel …”[1] Pentecost is the fulfillment of Joel’s words.

How can this be what Joel said, if all the stuff Joel promised would happen beforehand haven’t fully happened, yet?

  1. We’re not all gathered
  2. We’re not all safe
  3. Christ’s enemies are still around
  4. God hasn’t given us economic peace and stability
  5. God doesn’t physically, visibly dwell with us here

But (and this is the point) it’s started to happen. The dominoes are starting to fall. The ones at the end of the line are still standing, but not for long. Peter says, in effect, that just as the Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of the first fruits of the agricultural harvest, so Pentecost morning is the first-fruits of God’s rescue harvest.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing (Acts 2:32-33).

God, to Joel’s audience, says: “Return to me, because the Messianic age is coming, and it’s really gonna be something!”

Peter says to the pilgrims on Pentecost morning: “This is what Joel said would happen! This is the first fruits of the Messianic age, when Jesus is the King!”

God’s message to a modern Christian audience is: “If you’re a Christian, you’re part of this new Messianic age, and what happened at Pentecost proves it!”

What did the Spirit do at Pentecost, that inaugurated the New Covenant? What does all that theater (tongues of fire, the rushing wind) mean? Peter explains, by continuing his Joel quotation.

Acts 2:17: that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh

All means all (young, old, slave, free, high society, low society). Peter says God just poured out His Spirit on all His people. Christians often wonder what the Spirit did that was so unique. Depending on your church tradition, you may have heard the following:

  1. It was salvation! But, surely salvation already existed. This is a mistaken view.
  2. It was indwelling! Some Christians believe the Holy Spirit never indwelt believers before the New Covenant. This is also incorrect;[2] how could you love God and your covenant brothers and sisters without the Spirit?

So, what did this “pouring out” of the Spirit do for them then, and what does it do for us, today? Joel tells us now.

Acts 2:17: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams;

People often want to know what “prophesy” means. It can either mean (1) inspired unveiling about future or heretofore unrecognized events, or (2) communicating God’s message for His people and the world; teaching, exhorting. In some contexts it’s a combination of both. Here, the emphasis shades over to the teaching aspect. We know this because, on Pentecost morning, the pilgrims said “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God,” (Acts 2:11).

The bit about visions and dreams tells us God will now communicate with His people in dramatic and very personal ways. He’ll draw us into His presence in a way so much more intimate, close and personal than when He hid Himself behind the veil in the temple.

Jesus pours out the Spirit on “sons and daughters.” Both men and women. Joel (and Peter) show us no gender hierarchy in God’s family, which is a pretty revolutionary statement in a patriarchal world.

Acts 2:18: even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

God doubles down. He won’t just pour out His Spirit on men and women, generically. But on men and women who are slaves. In Peter’s context, slavery is a class status, not the race distinction it became in America. Slaves are the lowest class in society. God’s promise to give the Spirit in equal measure to even male and female slaves is quite something. One wonders how the Pharisees would have reacted (cf. Jn 9:34).

What a revolutionary vision of men, women and class in God’s family! Each has gifts to exercise. Each has an equal and honored place in the community. No matter what label the world sticks on us about age, social class or gender, inside the family there is a collaboration, a sharing, a reciprocal exchange and harnessing of gifts. There are implications here for those who wish to pick up what God is putting down.  

What does all this mean?

It means every Christian has the supernatural ability to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) other people about Jesus (sons, daughter, young, old, slave, free). To tell people about the future, about how this story ends, about how and where this merry-go-round that is the world is going to stop. To look at the scripture the same way you peek at the end of a new paperback thriller, to see the end, and tell people about it so they can be sure their end will turn out all right. To teach people about Jesus. It also means that people can know God more personally, intimately, and experientially than ever before.

Do we believe, really believe, that God’s kingdom has broken into this world? The torn veil, the resurrection, the ascension―all of it was leading to this dramatic moment when God does everything but charter a plane to write in the sky, “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Violent wind, flames of fire, thousands of pilgrims gathering around, and then the realization that all believers (men, women, boys, girls, old, young) have divine empowerment to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) to people about Jesus the King.

He’s empowered you. He’s gifted you. He’s equipped you. He’s put you where you are. He’s given you the words of life to rescue captives from that future of fire, blood, smoke and doom (cf. Joel 2:30-31).

It’s not salvation. It’s not a first indwelling. It’s divine empowerment in service of the Gospel and community.

What would happen if we lived life like Pentecost had happened to us, personally? God wants you to be encouraged, inspired, energized, excited. He wants us to read about this, then go out and live like it’s real, not something in a book. To many of us (including me!) the reality of God’s empowering is atrophied, like a muscle that’s gone weak because it’s never used. The empowering has become abstract, academic, far away, maybe even almost a fable we pay lip-service to―something that’s not “real.”  

It isn’t that―it is real. What Joel said is here, right now. Jesus is in heaven, granting repentance, granting forgiveness (Acts 5:31), pouring out the Spirit on His people. What would happen if Christians exercised their “faith faculty”[3] to live like this empowerment was real, not words on a page or pixels on a screen?  


[1] ἀλλὰ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ εἰρημένον διὰ τοῦ προφήτου Ἰωήλ

[2] For an argument for Old Covenant indwelling, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 2 (Detroit: DBTS, 2009), pp. 267-276.

[3] John Phillips, New Testament Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1956), pp. 23-42.

Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood released on 20 April 2021. It provides a historical argument for egalitarianism and it has taken the evangelical world by storm. Many are not pleased. On 30 April 2021, one Twitter user who sports an avatar of John Calvin in a suit asked, “Why do all the anti-patriarchy chicks seem to cut their own hair?” James White liked the tweet.

The same day, Desiring God sallied forth with an article arguing that a man is a prophet, priest and king to his wife.

On Mother’s Day 2021, three Southern Baptist seminary presidents felt compelled to tweet about women preachers by quoting various 19th century theologians who supported slavery. Adam Greenway cited B.H. Carroll, who served in the Confederate Army for two years. Danny Akin replied to Greenway and declared, “He is correct my friend. 100%. The Bible is crystal clear.” Al Mohler quoted John Broadus, who was a Confederate Army chaplain. Beth Moore replied, “Happy Mother’s Day, Al.”

Barr’s book released not long after Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, and together they offer a formidable scholarly critique of complementarian theology.

Barr takes a risk by not making her book cold and formal. It is academic, but colored throughout by her very personal story. Early on she declares “my husband was fired after he challenged church leadership over the issue of women in ministry,” (p. 3). She lays her cards in the table and states “Complementarianism is at its root misogynistic … based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog …” (pp. 5, 6).

She recounts her years of quiet frustration as her own views on women in the church shifted. “I stayed silent when I wasn’t allowed to teach youth Sunday school because the class included teenage boys. I led discussions with special permission when no one else was available,” (p. 5).

Barr is not an angry “feminist” with a “radical agenda.” She is an evangelical Baptist who is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Baylor University. She holds both the MA and PhD in Medieval History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Barr spends little time exegeting biblical texts; there are many resources which fight that battle.[1] But, she is impeccably credentialed to speak to this issue from a historical perspective and that is her unique contribution to the discussion. “It was historical evidence that showed me how biblical womanhood was constructed—brick by brick, century by century,” (p. 10).

Barr uses the term “patriarchy” throughout her book, rather than “complementarianism.” Patriarchy is “a general system that values men and their contributions more than it values women and their contributions,” (p. 16). She observes that Russell Moore claims Christian patriarchy is different, in that women only submit to their own husbands. But, Barr says, this is a distinction without a difference―patriarchy is still patriarchy. “It cannot be peeled off suit coats like a name tag as evangelical men move from denying women’s leadership at church to accepting the authority of women at work or women in the classroom,” (p. 18).

What if, Barr suggests, we ought to flip the narrative? “Instead of assuming that patriarchy is instituted by God, we must ask whether patriarchy is a product of sinful human hands,” (p. 25). This is not a new question. Is female submission an original aspect of creation, or is it result of the Fall?  But how to move this conversation forward? Both sides are well-entrenched. Barr declares, “Historical evidence about the origins of patriarchy can move the conversation forward,” (p. 32). She then spends the rest of her book doing just that.

Patriarchy is not part of God’s good creation. The fact that some flavor of patriarchy has always existed is a clue for the Church. “Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t it be the other way around,” (p. 37)?

In her second chapter, Barr suggests we misread Paul if we see him upholding patriarchy. Rather, Paul pushes against that construct from within that world. “[W]hat if Paul was teaching Christians to live differently within their Roman context? Rather than New Testament ‘texts of terror’ for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy,” (p. 46)? She offers numerous quotations from medieval sermons to suggest modern evangelicals read Paul as they do because their ecclesiastical culture blinds them. She especially takes issue with attempts to interpret Ephesians 5:22ff as a separate paragraph from Ephesians 5:21 (p. 50f).

Barr’s third chapter is perhaps her most powerful, because here she is in her element as a medieval historian. She introduces the reader to several women preachers and their “cloud of witnesses.” Her argument is not, “See, women have preached before, so it must be ok!” Rather, she argues, “You’re interpreting the bible wrong. See, look at all the other voices from the Church that have seen it differently. Grudem doesn’t have the last word!” She observed,

I knew the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were (p. 84).

Patriarchal tendencies have always led church authorities to push back. “The problem was male clergy who undermined the evidence,” (p. 87). She then follows with a delightful chapter on the Reformation’s impact on women, and how the role of “being a wife” was redefined as the highest ideal. “As the household became more firmly established as a woman’s space, professional work became more firmly identified as a man’s space,” (p. 109).

Her fifth chapter tackles the issue of gender-inclusive bible translations. She notes the ESV had its genesis in a kerfuffle about “changes” to the NIV. “The uproar among evangelicals was instantaneous. Gender-inclusive language was no longer just an argument over proper translation; it was the slippery slope of feminism destroying biblical truth,” (p. 131). Barr writes:

The ESV was a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God.

As a medieval historian who specializes in English sermons, the debate over gender-inclusive translations amuses me. It amuses me because the accusers depict gender-inclusive Bible translations as a modern, secular trend fueled by the feminist movement. Yet, as a medieval historian, I know that Christians translated Scripture in gender-inclusive ways long before the feminist movement (pp. 132-133).

She then chronicles the rise of the cult of domesticity and its emphasis on saving men from sexual immorality by emphasizing female purity. Barr draws on work by other historians and summarizes this mindset as consisting of piety, purity, submission, and domesticity (pp. 165-166). Women are naturally more religious than men and are thus ideally suited to pass these values on to children. Women are not sexual creatures and must be protected from predators. Real women are not emotionally or temperamentally suited to be leaders and will want to follow a strong man. Women are not meant to work outside the home, so women’s education should focus on domestic skills (e.g. home economics).

“Indeed,” Barr argues, “doesn’t biblical womanhood just seem like an updated version of the cult of domesticity? Instead of biblical womanhood stemming from the Bible, it stems from a gender hierarchy developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution to deal with the social and economic changes wrought by work moving outside the home,” (p. 166).

Thus,

Instead of just being something that women usually did, domestic prowess in the home (centered on the family) now became something that good Christian women should do because it is what we are designed to do. It is our primary calling in this world. Domesticity, for evangelical women, is sanctified (p. 159).

In that vein, Owen Strachan, a theologian at Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, recently tweeted this:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I do not believe Barr would argue domesticity is bad. But, I do believe she would insist it does not have to be the only sphere in which women can meaningfully contribute to Christ’s coming kingdom.

Patriarchy, Barr argues, adapts to changing circumstances. “Like racism, patriarchy is a shapeshifter—conforming to each new era, looking as if it has always belonged,” (p. 186).

She identifies eternal functional subordination as heresy.[2] “Arianism, like inerrancy, proved the perfect weapon against women’s equality, the perfect prop for Christian patriarchy. Except it is still heresy. Arianism repackaged,” (p. 196).

This is an extremely well-researched book. Each chapter is replete with copious footnotes and historical examples. Indeed, perhaps her book’s greatest strength is its role as a tour guide to a world of scholarly historical monographs on gender roles in the West. Populist readers may dismiss Barr out of hand. More careful readers will see her arguments deserve careful consideration.

We all know pre-understanding clouds interpretation. I once had a woman tell me she believed someone who did not believe in the pre-tribulational rapture could be a Christian. This woman did not know other eschatological frameworks existed. Has our cultural heritage blinded our interpretation on the role of women in the Church?

I have two critiques. Barr’s definition of “patriarchy” is abstract, and thus I believe she erred by not using the “Danvers Statement” to better define her target. It would have been helpful if Barr had aligned herself with some mile marker in this debate. Perhaps CBE International’s Men, Women, and Biblical Equality Statement” would have been appropriate. Also, her attempt to tie the fundamentalist-modernist controversy to patriarchy is an unfortunate misstep,[3] and Barr seems out of her element here.[4]

Should you read the book?

If you are a conservative, theological populist, then you will probably not like this book. If you follow and enjoy Tom Buck, Denny Burk, Tom Ascol, Owen Strachan, and self-proclaimed “1689 Baptists” on social media, you will probably not like this book. This is why you ought to read it anyway.

If you want to hear a scholarly, reasoned, and formidable historical argument for egalitarianism, read this book.

If you want to explore a path less traveled than arguments about the grammar of 1 Timothy 2:12-14, read this book.

If you want to read some of the best of what the other side has to offer, read this book.

If you enjoy reading substantive arguments that challenge you, read this book.

If you believe women are called to do more than work in the nursery, teach elementary-age children, and teach younger women in the church, then read this book.

Notes

1 See (1) Ronald Price (ed.), Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005) and (2) John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, rev. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021).

2 For context to this issue, see Millard Erickson, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordinationist Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).  

3 “… the early twentieth-century emphasis on inerrancy went hand in hand with a wide-ranging attempt to build up the authority of male preachers at the expense of women. As we have seen, preaching women peppered the landscape of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America: they flooded the mission field as evangelists and leaders, and they achieved popular acclaim as preachers among Pentecostal and even fundamentalist denominations. As these women rose in prominence, so too rose inerrancy teachings. And these teachings buttressed male authority by diminishing female authority—transforming a literal reading of Paul’s verses about women into immutable truth,” (p. 189).

4 Barr admits she knew little about the fundamentalist-modernist battles and had to receive a crash course from a colleague at a conference (p. 187).  

Jesus and John Wayne: An Interim Report

Jesus and John Wayne: An Interim Report

Two female scholars have released books in 2021 that have caused a big kerfluffle in the evangelical world. Both books critique the brand that has become American evangelicalism. One of those books is by Kristin Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, in Grand Rapids, who holds a PhD from Notre Dame. She’s well-credentialed and knows what she’s talking about. The book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. You can watch a talk by Du Mez about her book here. The book jacket declares:

In Jesus and John Wayne, a seventy-five-year history of American evangelicalism, Kristin Kobes Du Mez demolishes the myth that white evangelicals “held their noses” in voting for Donald Trump. Revealing the role of popular culture in evangelicalism, Du Mez shows how evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism in the mold of Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and above all, John Wayne. As Du Mez observes, the beliefs at the heart of white evangelicalism today preceded Trump, and will outlast him.

I come to this book as an evangelical who:

  1. Regularly criticizes the American Church when it weds itself to a peculiar brand of American exceptionalism,
  2. Recognizes that some of the positions the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (“CBMW”) takes are less than biblical and heavily influenced by a particular cultural expression of Christianity. I have never recommended any resource from CBMW and never will.
  3. Believes women are called to serve in local congregations in roles beyond nursery and elementary-aged Sunday School.

So … I’m two chapters into this book. So far, I’m disappointed.

Du Mez’s discussion of Theodore Roosevelt as the archetype “manly man” is cursory and selective. She paints Roosevelt as if he set out to fashion a persona for mercenary motives. She doesn’t mention that Roosevelt was an intensely intellectual boy who only overcame crippling physical challenges by aid of exercise and a love affair with the outdoors. Du Mez skips this childhood context, mentions Roosevelt’s time “out West,” then skips right to San Juan Hill and the Rough Riders. She doesn’t mention his scholarly monograph on naval history, his time as NYPD Commissioner, his outdoors writing, or his stint at the Navy Department. It seems as if she strings selective anecdotes together to paint the portrait she wants. Barry Goldwater did try to resurrect Roosevelt’s ghost in a campaign advertisement, but that was hardly Roosevelt’s fault.

Du Mez’ breezy coverage of the evangelical marriage to conservative politics in the 1940s and 1950s is adequate, but very short.

If it doesn’t get more substantive, this book will be a major disappointment that doesn’t live up to the praise it’s received. If you’re looking to be confirmed in your preexisting animus towards evangelicalism, this book is for you. If you’re looking for a persuasive and scholarly critique as an aid to some introspection, it ain’t happening, so far … and I’m actually looking for it.

I hope things improve.

Sad about being fightin’ mad

Sad about being fightin’ mad

I’ve been slowly wending my way through Kenneth Latourette’s wonderful History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500. I began the book at the year 500 A.D., finished it, and have now circled back to the beginning to fill in the gap. I came across this observation from him just this morning:

Christians know they should be united, but they often are not. Because we are what we are, the quarrels are often about secondary issues―disagreements over how to express Christianity. The disagreements are rarely about the trinity, the Gospel, two-nature Christology, or original sin. It’s a sad disconnect, and it’ll never go away as long as we’re east of Eden.

Recent circumstances in my congregation make me read Latourette’s comments with sadness. We’ve had six people leave our church in the past two months because we had a wedding as the worship service on a Sunday morning.

  • I was told it was blasphemous to “usurp” the “proper” worship service.
  • I was told it was a “poor testimony” to unbelievers to see a wedding on a Sunday morning.
  • I was criticized for allowing decorations to be put up which “covered the cross” behind the pulpit … even though that cross is only two years old, and for 37 years there was nothing on the wall behind the pulpit.
  • I was told it was wrong for me to move our Wednesday evening bible study and prayer meeting to another room inside the building so we could stage wedding decorations in a convenient place.
  • I was told I allowed the building to be made to “look like a bar” because there was subdued lighting.
  • One (now former) member told me she didn’t believe I had made “Godly decisions” and thus no longer trusted me.
  • Another (now former) member suggested that, because the folks who did the lighting had the word “dragon” in the company name, we had somehow colluded with Satan (cf. Rev 12).
  • One (now former) member pointed his finger at me angrily during a public meeting and said I was wrong to remove the American flag from the platform for the wedding. I now plan to never return that flag to the platform.
  • Another (now former) member said I did not preach the Gospel, and suggested I received poor training.
  • Another (now former) member suggested I was wrong to point out during a recent sermon that Bob Jones University has a legacy of evil racism, and that the university didn’t drop its inter-racial dating ban until 2000. He explained Bob Jones University “had reasons for those policies.”
  • I was heavily criticized for allowing the wedding party to hold a private reception inside the church building afterwards, during which time they danced. I was told I allowed the building to be desecrated.

In short, my decision to hold a wedding for two church members as the worship service on a Sunday morning has prompted an exodus of six people. In each case, I interpret the wedding as the “final straw” and the trigger for a decision which was inevitable. I attribute it to three factors; the first two are often intertwined but are not quite the same:

  1. I do not model an “America exceptionalism” brand of Christianity.
  2. I do not hold to a second-stage fundamentalist philosophy of ministry which sees holiness as synonymous with a culturally conditioned and scripturally suspect set of external behaviors.
  3. I believe a church which fails to plan and execute corporate evangelism is derelict in its duties. Results are God’s business, but the responsibility to spread the Gospel is ours. This is non-negotiable. Thus a church which is purely insular is a useless social organization. One (now former) member complained that I spoke about the Gospel too much.

Local churches will always struggle to “make real” Jesus’ heart for unity. For me, this is a particularly sad blow because one of our congregation’s three “platforms” is to build community and love one another. This is a frequent emphasis in my sermons and teachings. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet a reality in our congregation. Like many churches, ours is small. Morale will suffer. It ought not to be this way. It makes me so sad, because I don’t know what these people think Christianity is. What have they been doing all their lives? How many others (in my congregation and yours) think the same way?

On original sin

On original sin

If you want to read about original sin, then this article is for you!

Why it Matters

Every orthodox Christian agrees “we’re born as sinners.” But, there are some important questions left to answer once we get beyond that:

  1. Is original sin a “thing” to be transmitted (a la a virus), or a status?
  2. How does it “get” from our first parents to us?
  3. Are we guilty because of our first parent’s sin, or our own?
  4. Are we born guilty, or are we in some sort of probationary state?
  5. Are we born corrupted, or (again) is this a probationary thing?

Two Generic Options

  • Natural headship: Sin is conceived of as a metaphysical “thing” that’s transmitted by some kind of vehicle from the father (especially in medieval thought), or from both parents. Often analogized as an “infection” that spreads from a host, or the fruit of a tree root, water from a fountain, or a “stain” which spreads like a malevolent inkblot. Medieval theologians (following Augustine, among others) believed sin was transmitted by semen from the male. Not that the semen itself was sinful, but that it was the vehicle for the corrupted human nature which, in turn, contaminated the soul.
  • Representative headship. There is little speculation about the vehicle for transmission, because sin is not a “thing” that travels about. Human beings (as a corporate body) are simply declared both (1) guilty, and (2) corrupt because of our first parent’s sin. It’s a legal declaration; a state of being. We exist, therefore we’re guilty and corrupt. Adam is our representative head in our default state, and Christ is the representative head for our rescue.

You can represent the most critical differences like this:

Summary

The basic essence of “original sin” is that, because of our first parent’s actions, mankind as a corporate body is both (1) guilty, and (2) corrupted. I deliberately do not use terms like “inherit” or “infection.” Representative/federal headship is the means of imputation.[1]

The two passages most clearly at issue are Romans 5:12-20, and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. Neither passage delves to the level of genes, chromosomes or semen to explain the exact vehicle for sin’s transmission―so neither should we. Paul states the brute fact that Adam’s sin constitutes all people as “sinners.” Adam brought lawlessness, and sin “passes through to all men — because of Adam’s headship everyone ‘committed lawlessness'” (my translation). By way of Adam’s trespass, there is a guilty verdict against all people. Romans 5:18 is the clearest text.

The descriptions of sin as a “disease,” an “infection” or a flow of “water from a fountain” are simply vivid (but mistaken) metaphors Christians have reached for in order to explain how this transmission happens. But, these metaphors go too far. Paul simply says Adam’s sin constitutes us all as sinners with a guilty verdict against us. Transmission is a fait accompli because we exist.

Our first parent’s sin is contracted and not committed―a state and not an act.[2] Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault … it is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …”[3] In other words, because of our first parent’s sin, we are all born both (1) guilty, and (2) morally corrupted by immediate imputation. Their guilt and corruption is our own, because original sin is a representative imputation, which is precisely how Paul framed the matter.[4]

Because it is a legal status, a verdict which brings both guilt and moral corruption, original sin is not a tangible, physical thing which can be transmitted. Thus, speculations about semen and references to “spreading stains” (etc.) are speculative and unhelpful. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith therefore has the best explanation of original sin, from the four we survey below. It rightly never mentions “inheritance” or any medical or water analogies.  

It is “original sin” in the sense that “from that, as the first guilt of all, there afterwards arose and went forth all its subsequent evils.”[5]

Survey of Selected Creeds

The Reformation era creeds emphasize original sin as a disease; a hereditary trait that’s passed down by generation―federal headship. More modern confessions downplay federal headship, and drop the infection/disease language

2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Art. 3

By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.[6]

This is an implied representative headship that’s a bit deliberately ambiguous about the soteriological implications. Sin entered the world by our first parent’s free choice. Our posterity “inherit” a nature inclined to sin. And, we don’t become “sinners” until we are “capable of moral action.” This is the infamous, Baptist “age of accountability.”

1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Art. 3

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker;[7] but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state;[8] in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners,[9] not by constraint, but choice;[10] being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin,[11] without defense or excuse.[12]

Our first parents chose to sin (“voluntary transgression”), and so we’re all sinners by choice because our nature is “utterly void” of holiness and we’re “positively inclined” to evil and thus without excuse. This is no discussion of “transmission,” and no “infection” language.

Westminster Confession of Faith, §6.3

They being the root of all mankind,[13] the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.[14]

Adam and Eve are the root, and their guilt is assigned to all their posterity. Death in sin and corrupted nature passed along by ordinary generation. There is no attempt to locate the vehicle for this transmission in the male’s sperm, a la Augustine and the medieval theologians.

Belgic Confession, Art. 15

We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them …

This confessions tilts to representative headship.[15] Original sin is a corruption of the whole nature. It’s a hereditary disease that extends to everybody. Infants are infected in the womb. Again, there is no attempt to drill down to specify the vehicle for the transmission. Sin issues forth from us like water from a fountain. It comes from Adam’s disobedience, like a root.

Scripture

Creeds are nice. They’re helpful guardrails to make sure you’re not leaving the reservation. But, scripture is the only infallible rule for faith and practice. Let’s look at the two key passages.

Romans 5:12-20

12: Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ διʼ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν ἐφʼ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον

My translation is thus:

  • Therefore,
    • just as lawlessness entered into the world by way of[16] one man,
      • and death by way of[17] lawlessness,
    • so[18] this is how[19] death passed through to all people―
      • because of Adam’s headship[20] everyone “committed lawlessness.”

Paul says sin entered the world by means of one man. The thought is that:

  1. Adam brought lawlessness,
  2. and lawlessness brought death,
  3. and, this is how death “passes through” to all men―because of Adam’s representative sin

The passage does not say death passes to all men because we each commit individual, volitional sin. The entire sentence is in the aorist tense-form, indicating a perfective aspect. The context shows us a chain of causation that happened entirely in the past, long ago:

  1. sin entered by means of one man (a historical event, in the past),
  2. and so death passed to all men (a historical event, in the past),
  3. because all men sinned (a historical act, in the past)

I wasn’t there, in the Garden. But, I “sinned,” somehow. Either I myself participated directly or indirectly, or my representative Adam did. Given my discussion in the rest of the passage, I believe my representative Adam did. So, I rendered it that way in translation.

It would be odd indeed if Paul broke the chain of historical events to introduce some kind of present action (“all men now sin”). You’d have to render the verb as a culminative aorist, and/or turn the verb into a predicate (“all men began to be sinners”). This does violence to the grammar. Erickson has a helpful, short discussion.[21]

It does not specify the precise means of transmission … because there is no “transmission” per se.  

13: for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.

Sin existed long before God gave the law at Sinai, but all the specific, individual violations didn’t count before it was given. I take this to mean that, before Sinai, people were guilty in a general way because they didn’t pledge allegiance to the one true God. But, after Sinai, there was a higher, sharper standard in keeping with the more specific revelation.  

14: Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

But still (ἀλλʼ), despite that, death controlled and ruled (ἐβασίλευσεν) from Adam all the way to Moses―even controlling those who did not sin like Adam did. Adam is a type for Christ, in that he’s analogous to Him in a representative way.

15: But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

But, Christ’s “free gift” is not like Adam’s sin―why not? Because where Adam’s sin brings death, much more has God’s grace and His free gift abounded for many. They’re both representatives, but the consequences of the “trespass v. free gift” are quite different. That is the contrast, as Paul now explains …

16: And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation [a guilty verdict], but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification [acquittal].

This is self-explanatory.

17: For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Paul explains (γὰρ) why he just wrote what he wrote. Because of Adam’s trespass, death controlled and ruled by means of him; that is, because of that guilty verdict. Even though Adam is dead he is the means by which, by extension, death still controls unbelievers. Death is the active agent.

But, turning the tables, those who receive salvation (the acquittal) will now reign with life through the man Jesus Christ! Believers become the controlling, ruling, reigning agents, by way of Jesus.

18: Ἄρα οὖν ὡς διʼ ἑνὸς παραπτώματος εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς κατάκριμα οὕτως καὶ διʼ ἑνὸς δικαιώματος εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς δικαίωσιν ζωῆς 

My rendering is this:

  • Therefore, then,
    • just as by means of[22] one trespass
      • we have a guilty verdict[23] against[24] all people,
  • so too,
    • by way of[25] [Christ’s] one righteous act
      • we have acquittal (that is, life!)[26] for all people. 

Again, Paul does not specify how the transmission happens. He simply says that, by means of one trespass, God renders a guilty verdict against everybody. This strongly implies Federal headship. Our volitional acts are irrelevant. We exist from Adam, therefore we are guilty.

19: ὥσπερ γὰρ διὰ τῆς παρακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἁμαρτωλοὶ κατεστάθησαν οἱ πολλοί οὕτως καὶ διὰ τῆς ὑπακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς δίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται οἱ πολλοί

My translation is:

  • Because, just as
    • through one man’s disobedience
      • many people became lawbreakers,
  • so
    • through the other man’s obedience
      • many people will be made righteous

Again, we have representative headship. Adam’s sin makes us “sinners” and assigns that status to us. Our volitional acts have no bearing because our nature has been corrupted. Still, Paul does not specify the precise means of this imputation.

1 Corinthians 15:21-22

ἐπειδὴ γὰρ διʼ ἀνθρώπου θάνατος καὶ διʼ ἀνθρώπου ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν τῷ Ἀδὰμ πάντες ἀποθνῄσκουσιν οὕτως καὶ ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ πάντες ζῳοποιηθήσονται.

My translation is thus:

  • Because,
    • since death [came] through[27] man,
    • resurrection from the dead has also come through man.
  • This means that,[28]
    • just as in association with[29] Adam everyone dies,
    • so also in association with Christ everyone will be made alive!

Again, there is no description of the exact means of transmission―just a statement that death came by way of Adam.

Theologian Survey

Of the theologians surveyed below, Emil Brunner is most biblical and helpful. Aquinas gives an assist by noting that original sin is a status or state, not a volitional act. The Catechism of the Catholic Church builds upon this edifice and expresses it better than Aquinas.

Emil Brunner

Unfortunately, at least two theologians seriously misunderstand Brunner or cite him without actually reading him.[30] “Adam” is not the single man Adam, but the “one humanity” represented by him. So, Paul when Paul refers to “Adam,” he means that man who is really all of us.

Before Christ we are one indivisible humanity. The act of rebellion which I see in Christ as my sin, I see there as the identical act of all. All particularization and calculation is impossible.[31]

The very idea of inherited sin makes “sin” a biological, natural fact―“[b]ut this is never the view of the Bible.”[32] The standard theory of “inherited” sin is “completely foreign to the thought of the Bible,” but the motivation behind the “inheritance” motif is quite correct―sin is a dominant force and humanity is bound together in a solidarity of guilt.[33]

The key passages are Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5:12ff, but they do not say what the traditional interpretation says they say. Psalm 51 simply suggests a common experience of sin binds everyone together.[34] Augustine mistranslated Rom 5:12, which actually “says nothing about the way in which this unity in ‘Adam’ came into existence.” It “does not say a word about an ‘inherited’ sin through natural descent, nor about a special connexion between sin and conception.” It simply states Adam and his descendants are involved in death because they commit sin.[35]

There is a corporateness to our sin because of Adam. “In Jesus Christ we stand before God as one ‘Adam’ … we are not dealing with chromosomes and genes … every man is this Self, this sinner …”[36] If a man was “made this way” and “inherited” sin is a trait or quality, then “[m]an cannot help it, and he has nothing to be ashamed of in the fact. God has made him so.”[37]

Brunner sees sin as a relational stance; almost (but not quite) a state of being. Sin is “the very existence of man apart from God―that it means being opposed to God, living in the wrong, perverted relation to God … But sin, like faith, lies beyond the empirical sphere, in the sphere of man’s relation to God.”[38]

Robert Letham

He holds to a hybrid of the natural and federal positions, and sees great value in viewing humanity as a corporate personality. “To my mind, it is not necessarily a case of choosing between these interpretations; each sheds light on the other and thus on the connection with Adam.”[39] He sees a problem with imputing guilt to people before they commit a volitional act; it “is inherently unjust.”[40] So, “it seems clear that both the forensic and the natural relationships are mutually necessary.”[41]

Augustine (354 – 430)

Fallen humans pass their ruined nature on through the male’s sperm:

Therefore the whole human race was in the first man, and it was to pass from him through the woman into his progeny, when the married pair had received the divine sentence of condemnation.[42]

[H]e produced offspring in the same condition to which his fault and its punishment had reduced him, that is, liable to sin and death.[43]

Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 – 1141)

Original sin is “corruption or vice which we take by birth through ignorance in the mind, through concupiscence in the flesh.”[44]

  • Ignorance: “On account of pride the mind was darkened through ignorance …”[45]
  • Concupiscence: “… the natural desire of affection transgressing order and going beyond measure … [f]or the desire transgresses order, when we desire those things which we ought not to desire.”[46]

Original sin spreads to the soul by association with the flesh. Unless the soul is aided by grace, “it can neither receive knowledge of truth nor resist the concupiscence of the flesh. Now this evil is present in it not from the integrity of its foundation but from association with corruptible flesh. And in truth this corruption, since it is transmitted from our first parent to all posterity through propagation of flesh, spreads the stain of original sin among all men in the vice of ignorance and concupiscence.”[47]

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

Original sin is the privation of original justice and the inordinate disposition of the soul[48] and the nature.[49] In its essence, then, original sin is:

  1. privation of original justice in formal terms, and
  2. concupiscence (that is, inordinate lusts in general; “turning inordinately to mutable good”) in material terms[50]

We must view sin corporately. Just as a hand is not responsible for a murder, but the entire man, so Adam is our representative corporate head.[51] Thus, original sin is a sin of nature.

And just as the actual sin that is committed by a member of the body, is not the sin of that member, except inasmuch as that member is a part of the man, for which reason it is called a human sin; so original sin is not the sin of this person, except inasmuch as this person receives his nature from his first parent, for which reason it is called the sin of nature, according to Eph ii. 3 …[52]

Because sin came “by one man” (Rom 5:12), Aquinas declares “original sin is transmitted to the children, not by the mother, but by the father.”[53] Thus “the child pre-exists in its father as the active principle, and in its mother, as in its material and passive principle.”[54]

Therefore the semen is the vehicle which transmits the corrupted nature to the human soul:

… the motion of the semen is a disposition to the transmission of the rational soul: so that the semen by its own power transmits the human nature from parent to child, and with that nature, the stain which infects it: for he that is born is associated with his first parent in his guilt, through the fact that he inherits his nature from him by a kind of movement which is that of generation.[55]

“[G]uilt is not actually in the semen, yet human nature is there virtually, accompanied by that guilt.”[56]

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism strongly emphasizes the corporate aspect from Romans 5, then cautions “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand.” Their sin affected their human nature which they then transmitted in a fallen state, “by propagation.”

Original sin is “the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.” “And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’―a state and not an act.”[57] Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …”[58]

Wayne Grudem

Grudem speaks of “inherited sin,” which consists of “inherited guilt” and “inherited corruption.” Referring to “inherited guilt, Grudem explains “the sin spoken of does not refer to Adam’s first sin, but to the guilt and tendency to sin with which we are born …”[59]. He draws upon Romans 5:12ff and concludes “all members of the human race were represented by Adam in the time of testing in the Garden of Eden. As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam … God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us …”[60]

His treatment of children dying in infancy is outstanding,[61] and far superior to Erickson’s view.

Millard Erickson

Erickson holds to a natural, seminal headship (a la Augustine). This way he upholds the corporate aspect of Romans 5:12ff, thus “[o]n that basis, we were actually present within Adam, so that we all sinned in his act. There is no injustice, then, to our condemnation and death as a result of original sin.”[62]

There is only a “conditional imputation of guilt” until a person reaches the “age of responsibility.” At that point, “[w]e become responsible and guilty when we accept or approve of our corrupt nature … if we acquiesce in that sinful nature, we are in effect saying it was good.” In this way, Erickson concludes, “[w]e become guilty of that sin without having committed any sin of our own” ―that is, when we “become aware of our own tendency toward sin” and approve of it.[63]


[1] Rolland McCune has an excellent summary of natural v. representative headship, and argues convincingly for representative/federal headship, basically following John Murray (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), pp. 2:73-83). I didn’t rely on McCune’s arguments here, but instead based my conclusions on an exegesis of Romans 5:12-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22. But still, McCune’s survey of the whole matter is quite useful.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §404. 

[3] Catechism, §405.  

[4] “The perspective is corporate rather than individual. All people, Paul teaches, stand in relationship to one of two men, whose actions determine the eternal destiny of all who belong to them,” (Gordon Fee, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 315).

[5] Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith §1.7.26, trans. Roy DeFerrari (reprint; Ex Fontibus Co., 2016). I added some punctuation to make the point clearer.

[6] Retrieved from https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#iii-man.

[7] Gen. 1:27; 1:31; Eccles. 7:29; Acts 16:26; Gen. 2:16.

[8] Gen. 3:6–24; Rom. 5:12.

[9] Rom. 5:19; John 3:6; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 5:15–19; 8:7.

[10] Isa. 53:6; Gen. 6:12; Rom. 3:9–18.

[11] Eph. 2:1–3; Rom. 1:18; 1:32; 2:1–16; Gal. 3:10; Matt. 20:15.

[12] Ezek. 18:19, 20; Rom. 1:20; 3:19; Gal. 3:22.

[13] Gen. 1:27, 28; 2:16, 17; Acts 17:26; Rom. 5:12, 15–19; 1 Cor. 15:21, 22, 45, 49.

[14] Psa. 51:5; Gen. 5:3; Job 14:4; 15:14.

[15] Even the Heidelberg Catechism, Q7, does not clarify the issue. We must rely on the Belgic Confession’s wording, here.

[16] The preposition is expressing means. It cannot be reason, because it pairs with an accusative in that instance. 

[17] Means. 

[18] The conjunction expresses the logical conclusion of Paul’s argument. 

[19] An adverb of manner, explaining how something happened. 

[20] The preposition ἐφʼ ᾧ is explanatory. See C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: CUP, 1959), p. 50), Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), p. 139. A.T. Robertson refers to this usage as “grounds” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 3rd ed. (Nashville: B&H, 1934), p. 604). See also G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), pp. 166-167.

The explanation is that, because of Adam’s representative sin, everyone therefore “sinned.” It is not that every single person has committed a volitional sin (the unborn?), but that Adam’s representative sin has constituted us thus. For this argument, see John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 182-187). There is no good way to bring this out in translation without inserting half a sentence of interpretation. On balance, I decided I’d take a chance and do it (a la John Phillips).

[21] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 580.

[22] Means.

[23] This is my rendering, instead of the usual gloss of “condemnation.”

[24] Opposition. 

[25] Means. 

[26] A genitive of apposition. 

[27] Means. 

[28] This is a stylistic alternative to another bland “because.” 

[29] The preposition expresses association, also in the parallel clause.

[30] Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis seriously misunderstand Brunner and manage to quote him on everything but his actual discussion of original sin. Their treatment of him is embarrassingly bad (Integrative Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 2:189).

[31] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 97.

[32] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104.

[33] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 102. 

[34] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 103. 

[35] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104. 

[36] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104. 

[37] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 106. 

[38] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 106.  

[39] Letham, Systematic, p. 380. 

[40] Letham, Systematic, p. 396. 

[41] Letham, Systematic, p. 396. 

[42] Augustine, City of God §13.3, in Penguin Classics, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 512. 

[43] Augustine, City of God §13.3, p. 513. 

[44] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.28.  

[45] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.31.  

[46] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.31.  

[47] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.35.

[48] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 1, ad. 1.         

[49] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 1, ad. 2.  

[50] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 3, corpus.  

[51] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, corpus.  

[52] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, corpus.

[53] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 5, corpus.

[54] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 5, ad. 1.

[55] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, ad. 2.

[56] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, ad. 3.

[57] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §404. 

[58] Catechism, §405.  

[59] Grudem, Systematic, p. 495. 

[60] Grudem, Systematic, p. 495. 

[61] Grudem, Systematic, pp. 499-501. 

[62] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 580. 

[63] Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 582-583.