No surprises here

No surprises here

Menachem Kalisher’s dissertation, Preaching Messianic Prophesies (soon to be published in book form), is underwhelming as a doctoral project. His hermeneutics are idiosyncratic, his defense of expository preaching lacks intellectual rigor, his measurements of project impact are ineffective, and his project goals (while surely valuable) are ill-suited to the expository preaching format.

Idiosyncratic Hermeneutics

Kalisher relies heavily on word similarity between passages to draw connections in a way that is not obvious to the reader. This procedure unwittingly creates a false perception of an intrinsic competence disconnect between the pastor and the congregation—the pastor is necessary, because only he can “see” these alleged links.

For example:

  • Kalisher claims Isaiah 52:8-9 alludes to Deut 32:43—but his only evidence is a similarity of a song for joy in the last days (p. 72). He offers no proof, no contextual indicators other than a similarity about eschatological joy.
  • He states Isaiah 52:10-12 echoes the Exodus motif (Ex 13:21, 14:20), and again cites nothing but word similarity in support (pp. 74-75). He says this describes salvation from Satan, but context suggests merely an eschatological ingathering.

In short, Kalisher does not appear to preach the text—he freights it with alleged context from outside the passage. This is not an effective way to model bible interpretation to a congregation.

Expository Discussion Lacks Intellectual Vigor

Kalisher’s definition of expository preaching (“EP”) lacks any reference to the Spirit (p. 31), which is a common oversight. Walter Liefeld’s discussion is more helpful.[1] Kalisher lists three alleged dangers of not conducting EP, for which he provides no support save some M.L. Jones quotations and unrelated charts (pp. 38-43). Correlation does not equal causation. Kalisher seems to rely on a sympathetic audience’s assumptions to carry his argument, rather than research. His depth of discussion here would be unpersuasive even for a blog post.  

Ineffective Metrics for Project Assessment

Kalisher’s pre- and post-project questions are unimpressive. His goals for the project are to enable his congregation to:

  1. understand and appreciate expository preaching
  2. appreciate roles in the economic Trinity
  3. learn to study God’s word, God’s way
  4. grow in Messianic self-identity

Here are his questions to measure two of these goals (pp. 38, 39):

Kalisher fails to define the doctrine of the Trinity in the dissertation, and his survey questions are not robust enough to measure comprehension. He fails to define what “biblical” means related to the term “Trinity”—a misstep, because the term itself does not appear in Scripture. Kalisher does not present other preaching methods, leaving the congregation little choice but to conclude EP is correct because he says it is.

Thesis in Search of a Degree

Kalisher’s project is ill-suited to an EP framework because it consists of him talking at the congregation, rather than with it. An interactive study format would better allow him to achieve and measure his four goals. As it is, Kalisher’s project seems less like objective research and more like a preconceived thesis in search of a doctoral degree.


[1] “… preaching that explains a passage in such a way as to lead the congregation to a true and practical application of that passage,” (Walter L. Liefeld, New Testament Exposition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 6).

Christ, Culture, and the Church

Christ, Culture, and the Church

This world is a mess. A few decades ago, Carl F.H. Henry wrote: “The West has lost its moral and epistemic compass bearings. It has no shared criterion for judging whether human beings are moving up or down, standing still, or merely on the move only God knows where.”[1] In the absence of a Biblical world-explanation, Henry argued, “[t]he search for an alternative model is beset with confusion, and Western society drifts indecisively toward chaos. Secular scholars seem unable to tell us where we are.”[2]

This is surely correct, even if (32 years hence) it prompts an eye roll and a muttered, “yeah, no kidding!” from the reader. My burden is to suggest what local churches ought to think about this situation—what we ought to do about it, what our posture towards this world ought to be.

First, I’ll define “culture” so we begin on the same page. Second, I’ll sketch[3] three helpful paradigms. The first is from the 1950s, the second from 1994, and the third from 2006. Each tries to answer this same question, in its own context. Each is inspired by the first. Finally, I’ll sketch out my own approach and confess with which paradigm my sympathies lie.

What is Culture?

The term “culture” means the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and way of life for a particular nation or people.[4] H. Richard Niebuhr suggests “culture” is a synonym for “civilization” or what biblical writers called “the world.”[5] In turn, the definition of “civilization” brings us back round to where we began: “the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area.”[6]

Niebuhr—Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book began life as a series of lectures in which he sought to consider the “double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis …”[7] Niebuhr’s writing sparkles with an academic vibe. He doesn’t write as a churchman confronting urgent problems, but as a scholar reclining in his armchair, puffing on his pipe, staring into an ethereal distance. There’s nothing wrong with academics, of course—I only mean that his discussion is dispassionate and abstract.

He lays out a five-fold taxonomy of how the church ought to relate to culture:

  1. Christ against culture. The church is always in opposition. There is a war footing. Christ is opposed to this world, its culture, and He calls us to come out from the world and be separate.[8]
  2. Christ of culture. He guides civilization to its utopian goal of brotherhood and value. Christ “confirms what is best in the past, and guides the process of civilization to its proper goal.”[9] There is no antagonism.
  3. Christ above culture. Only thru salvation will Christ lead us to utopia.[10]
  4. Christ andculture in paradox. We must obey both authorities in this life while we endure and wait for Jesus. There is duality and tension here that is admittedly a bit schizophrenic—many people are likely here.[11]
  5. Christ transforms culture. This is a conversionist position. Jesus is a leaven that works on society from inside out, spearheading the Gospel all about.[12] There is a positive view of culture—”a sort of Jesus will fix it now” feel.[13]  

Bloesch—Responding to Reality

Donald Bloesch was a longtime professor of systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary, in Iowa. In the inaugural tome of his seven-volume systematic, he described four possible responses to modernity.[14] His approach is practical, more “real,” and less theoretical than Niebuhr’s. He is less discussing a theory of Christ v. culture, and more describing how Christians choose to respond to the world as it is.

Here is Boesch’s typology, with some free paraphrasing from me. Not each response will contain all the traits, but the “feel” will be familiar:

  1. Restoration. There is a more insular focus on “rebuilding the walls” of the church. A “clear and hold” the line against the world ethos. A Christian counterculture mindset may produce a ghettoized outlook. There is impatience with dialogue with “the enemy.” Apologetics is largely defensive, to assure insiders they have “the truth.” There may be a scholastic fidelity to creeds, and a sectarian emphasis on the purity of a particular church. Empirical rationalism or fideism may be present.[15]
  2. Accommodation. We must update and revise the faith to reach people. We ought to forge a theology that can gain support from and connect with culture. This is essentially Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture.” Bloesch notes “the Christ it upholds is drawn from and shaped by the cultural ethos more than by the biblical revelation.”[16] This is traditional liberal theology. I would put Schleiermacher here, and perhaps some of Rauschenbusch and radical feminist theology like that of Rosemary Reuther, which locates authority in experience.[17]
  3. Correlation: This is a mediating, “Christ above culture” approach. Apologetics prepares the way for theology, and Christ will eventually reconcile culture with Himself. “[I]nstead of categorically repudiating worldly wisdom, they endeavor to assimilate it in a Christian world view or faith perspective.”[18]
  4. Confrontation. This is Bloesch’s position. It focuses on the antithesis between faith and culture. Its goal is conversion to the kingdom of God. The Gospel confronts and calls us to defect to God. It’s more about proclamation than apologetics—a “Christ transforming culture”-ish approach. The kingdom is leaven in the world, changing it from within. It is “not an apologetic that leaves the fortress of faith to engage in struggle with the world on its own terrain but an apologetic that finds its security precisely in the fortress of faith and calls the world to unconditional surrender by acknowledging the authority of the fortress of faith over its own domain.”[19]

Keller—All/And

Tim Keller re-shaped Neibuhr’s categories, helpfully critiqued each, and didn’t settle on either model.[20] Each of us, he suggested, is likely attracted to aspects of different models based on our gifts. We ought to treat these models and their attributes like a buffet—picking and choosing strategies based on our cultural moments and context.[21]

Here is Keller’s taxonomy:

  1. Transformationalist. We engage culture through an emphasis on pursuing our own vocations from a Christian worldview.[22]
  2. Relevance. “The animating idea behind the Relevance model is that God’s Spirit is at work in the culture to further his kingdom.”[23] This is Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture” and “Christ above culture.”
  3. Countercultural. The church is a, well … countercultural alternative society opposed to the world.
  4. Two kingdoms. “God rules all of creation through the ‘common kingdom’ in which people operate by natural revelation and the ‘redemptive kingdom’ in which Christians are ruled by special revelation.[24]
Keller, Center Church, p. 231.

My approach—Bloesch-ish

There is a reason why I defined “culture” at the outset. I’m skeptical that the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and ways of life for particular nations or peoples in Creation 1.0 will survive the jump to Creation 2.0. So, I don’t believe the church is called to “influence culture,” because this culture is scheduled to go up in flames. This doesn’t mean local churches must be isolationist. I don’t believe congregations exist to “influence culture,” but to push God’s counterculture into the public square as the ordained alternative. Supporting inner-city Gospel missions, crisis pregnancy centers, local schools (etc.) are not ends in and of themselves—they’re vehicles to show and tell God’s values and His Gospel to outsiders.

So, I’m largely unmoved by Keller’s framing (see his horizontal bar across the middle of the graphic), because “influencing culture” is not a goal. Getting people to defect from pagan culture and to God’s community is the goal. Churches must use innovative means to achieve that, motivated by love, compassion, and justice.

So, my framing is less “how do we influence culture” and more “how should we respond to culture.” Thus, I believe Bloesch’s discussion was more helpful. I have freely adapted and condensed his taxonomy and contextualized it for 2022. How should local churches respond to the disaster that is American culture? There are at least three different, contradictory ways Christians choose to answer that question:[25]

  1. The Alamo (defense). Fortify the walls, stock ammo, hunker down, and wait for Jesus. This is a defensive ethos—it’s about protecting the church. Even apologetics is less about engaging the enemy than about protecting Christians from being seduced by the Dark Side—like poor Kylo Ren. The mantra is to keep things pure and strong while we hold off “the enemy.” Despite protestations, it’s often less about evangelism and the Great Commission, and more about protecting church from danger. There is a pervasive “things ain’t like they used to be, and I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” vibe at work.
  • Play-Dough. Accommodation to cultural tastes, with rationalizations. God is not a gendered being, feminine pronouns for Her are fine, Jesus has no sexual ethics, do what makes you feel good, faith is about feeling, not doctrine, “you do you.”  
  • Confrontation (offense). This perspective is less about “protecting the church,” and more about winsomely confronting the world employing various innovative means, and calling people to defect from Satan to Jesus.

It might be helpful to picture these three ways in simple pictures:

  1. The Alamo. Fade in on a castle with its doors barred, its drawbridge raised, its moat filled with hungry crocodiles, snipers on the parapets,[26] people sheltering inside, archers deploying, knights with swords at the ready, anxious to charge if the door is breached. The villages round about are the enemy—and they want to destroy your kids.
  2. Play-Dough. Focus in on the same castle. The folks are burning it down. They sift through the rubble and donate the stones to local nationals to build a shrine to a Veggie Goddess—who is really just Jesus by another name, anyway.   
  3. Confrontation. The castle is the church’s stronghold in an unholy land—an embassy to represent Christ to folks who want to know more, and at the same time a forward operating base to push His message into the world aggressively, forcefully … and engagingly. It wants local nationals to join the castle community.

Your view of “church v. culture” will shape your posture towards the world:

  1. Alamo: Focus on holiness for defensive purposes, so you’re not seduced by the Dark Side (like Vader). Emphasis on bible reading, bible interpretation, defending the faith. A relentless, perhaps even unwitting “insider” focus—resources emphasize being educated about “dangers” facing the church, protecting your children, etc.
  2. Confrontation. Pushing the message and implications of the Gospel outside the church’s walls—spiritual combat with a winning smile.

I fear many of us are tempted to adopt the Alamo ethos. There is a time and place for defense. But, we mustn’t forget offense—and we certainly can’t confuse belligerent defensiveness with that winning offense. For example, June is Pride Month:

  1. Alamo. We preach defensive sermons from Leviticus 18 and tell our congregation that “homosexuality is bad,” and distribute free books to the congregation explaining why transgenderism isn’t Scriptural.
  2. Confrontation. We record several short videos telling a better story than the “sex as identity” message so many people believe, then spend several hundred dollars advertising these videos on social media platforms in our local community, and invite comment and discussion.

I believe churches ought to err on the side of Confrontation, which is really just evangelism. It’s easy to stick with the Alamo ethos. I think we must do more.


[1] Carl F.H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), p. 15.  

[2] Ibid, p. 16.  

[3] I cannot hope to do more than briefly sketch these approaches—consult the referenced works for more detail and do not assume my abbreviated discussion here captures all the nuance of each author’s position!

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “culture,” noun, 7a. March 2022. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/45746?rskey=Ztxhta&result=1&isAdvanced=false  

[5] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), p. 32.  

[6] New Oxford American Dictionary, s.v. “civilization,” 3, p. 317.  

[7] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. xi.  

[8] Ibid, pp. 40-41. “That world appears as a realm under the power of evil; it is the region of darkness, into which the citizens of the kingdom of light must not enter; it is characterized by the prevalence in it of lies, hatred, and murder; it is the heir of Cain. It is a secular society, dominated by the ‘lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life,’ or, in Prof. Dodd’s translation of these phrases, it is ‘pagan society, with its sensuality, superficiality and pretentiousness, its materialism and its egoism.’ It is a culture that is concerned with temporal and passing values, whereas Christ has words of eternal life; it is a dying as well as a murderous order, for ‘the world passes away and the lust of it.’ It is dying, however, not only because it is concerned with temporal goods And contains the inner contradictions of hatred and lie, but also because Christ has come to destroy the works of the devil and because faith in him is the victory which overcomes the world. Hence the loyalty of the believer is directed entirely toward the new order, the new society and its Lord,” (Ibid, p. 48).

[9] Ibid, p. 41.  

[10] “… true culture is not possible unless beyond all human achievement, all human search for values, all human society, Christ enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates men to a supernatural society and a new value-center. Christ is, indeed, a Christ of culture, but he is also a Christ above culture,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 42).

“These men are Christians not only in the sense that they count themselves believers in the Lord but also in the sense that they seek to maintain community with all other believers. Yet they seem equally at home in the community of culture. They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the Gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress,” (Ibid, p. 83).

[11] “Hence man is seen as subject to two moralities, and as a citizen of two worlds that are not only discontinuous with each other but largely opposed. In the polarity and tension of Christ and culture life must be lived precariously and sinfully in the hope of a justification which lies beyond history,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[12] “Christ is seen as the converter of man in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and no turning of men from self and idols to God save in society,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[13] “Hence the conversionist is less concerned with conservation of what has been given in creation, less with preparation for what will be given in a final redemption, than with the divine possibility of a present renewal,” (Ibid, p. 195).

[14] Boesch, Theology of Word & Spirit, pp. 252-272. 

[15] “A sectarian theology will do battle for the sake of the church or the elect, the gathered fellowship of true believers, not for the sake of the world for whom Christ died,” (Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 268). 

[16] Ibid, p. 257.  

[17] “If a symbol does not speak authentically to experience, it becomes dead or must be altered to provide a new meaning,” (Rosemary Reuther, Sexism and God-talk: Towards a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon, 1993), pp. 12-13).

[18] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 262.  

[19] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 271.

[20] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), pp. 194-243.

[21] Ibid, p. 240.

[22] Ibid, p. 197.  

[23] Ibid, p. 202.  

[24] Ibid, p. 209.  

[25] This is adapted from Donald Bloesch’s discussion in A Theology of Word & Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), pp. 252-272. 

[26] I’m aware modern snipers didn’t exist in medieval times, but just go with it …

Cold as Ice …

Cold as Ice …

Elliot Johnson’s book, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Academie, 1990), is a frigid text. There is no Spirit, no warmth, no piety—only the cold technician fretting over his syllogisms. Johnson says nothing other authors have not said better, clearer, more succinctly. A few examples will suffice.

Single, Unified Meaning

Johnson declares a text has a “single, unified meaning.”[1] He quotes J.I. Packer, who likens the interplay of divine and human authorship to the incarnation.[2] He rejects sensus plenior[3] (contra. Thomas[4]). The human author expresses the divine author’s single meaning—even if the human author is unaware of a deeper meaning.

Thomas rightly throws in the towel and admits there are many instances where the New Testament author “goes beyond the grammatical-historical sense in using a passage.”[5] However, Johnson seeks refuge in exegesis to justify “trouble passages.”[6] He writes: “… the shared single meaning of the text is the basis of and has control over any related fuller sense and reference.”[7]

This is unsatisfactory. Paul applied quotations from Hosea, out of context, to make a case for Gentile inclusion (Rom 9:25-26; cf. Hos 2:23, 1:10)—a technique which contradicts Johnson’s thesis.[8]

The “Meaning” of a Text

Here we have the great divide. What does a text “mean”? Johnson says significance is from the interpreter’s point of view based on his needs, while meaning is the Author’s perspective.[9] Significance is true if the interpreter has reasoned in a valid fashion, from the meaning, to derive application.[10] “[T]he message of the author/Author should determine the limits in the content of the principles to be applied.”[11]

Where is the Spirit? He does not seem to  exist in Johnson’s world[12]—even when referenced, He is merely depicted as a tool in service of rationalism.[13] Donald Bloesch suggests a better way: a distinction between (1) historical, and (2) revelatory meaning in a text—the Spirit brings significance of the text to bear on us in a personal way.[14] Scripture is the vehicle or channel thru which God speaks, by the Spirit[15]—reading Scripture by faith is a truth event.[16] For Johnson, however, meaning and significance are merely logical, rational—can it be critically defended?[17]

He speculates about probability determinations to validate meaning. In contrast, the Scripture suggests illumination is necessary (Ps 119:18; cf. Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.21)—a concept that has always been distasteful to rationalists,[18] which they give it lip-service or not.

Four Normative Acts

Regarding application, Johnson declares “a textual message may be applied in and to the extent that it expresses aspects of God’s normative acts toward the accomplishment of his purposes …”[19] These “normative acts” are (1) tragedy, (2) judgment, (3) salvation, and (4) blessing. “Based on these normative aspects, the textual message now continues to speak.”[20] He provides no justification for these categories, which are as shapeless as Jello. Ascension Sunday is five days hence—where would such a sermon application fit into this artificial rubric?

Summary

There is a horrid artifact from 1976 by Tim and Beverly LeHaye titled The Act of Marriage[21]—a Christian sex manual, complete with anatomical charts. It describes in mortifying detail the mechanics of intercourse on the wedding night, with topic headers like “the great unveiling,” “foreplay,” and “culmination.” It distills a very personal act into a series of prescribed moves. One imagines the unfortunate couple lying together, the book open before them like an illicit IKEA manual.

My point is that this is not lovemaking, and Johnson’s book is not hermeneutics. It’s mechanical. It’s cold. It has no heart. The Spirit has flown.  

This is an unhelpful text. Any alternative would be more useful.


[1] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1990), p. 52. 

[2] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 52.

[3] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 32.

[4] Robert Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), pp. 241—253. 

[5] Ibid, p. 241. 

[6] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 53; cf. Parts 2-3. For a more modern attempt to do the same, see Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018). 

[7] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 53. Emphasis added. 

[8] Alva McClain’s argument that the object of Paul’s quotations at Romans 9:25-26 referred to Jews is unpersuasive (The Gospel of God’s Grace (reprint; Winona Lake: BMH, 2010), p. 183). See (1) John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 38, and (2) Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 612-614.   

[9] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 228.

[10] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 228.

[11] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 237.

[12] Indeed, according to the index, Johnson only discusses illumination by the Spirit four times in this text, and each instance is pro forma.

[13] “As a believer can know that I know through Spirit-directed consistency of thought in interpretation,” (p. 284). The Spirit exists to ensure we think logically. There is no direction, here. No guidance. Johnson actually dares to suggest God must limit Himself to our forms of hermeneutical logic if He wishes to communicate to us (Expository Hermeneutics, p. 55). As Inspector Gadget used to say, “Wowzers!”

[14] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), pp. 188-192. See also the discussion by Henry Virkler and Karelynne Ayayo, Hermeneutics, 2nd ed.(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), pp. 27-29.

[15] “This object is the not the text in and of itself but the text as an instrument of the Spirit, in whose hands it becomes a mirror of the divine wisdom,” (Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 178).

[16] Bloesch, Holy Scripture, pp. 48-50. Millard Erickson suggests something similar, while issuing caveats against a neo-orthodox view of Scripture (Christian Theology, 3rd, pp. 220-222).

[17] Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 274. 

[18] Johnson would likely agree with Hodge that the Spirit is merely a guide to the text. “Although the inward teaching of the Spirit, or religious experience, is no substitute for an external revelation, and is no part of the rule of faith, it is, nevertheless, an invaluable guide in determining what the rule of faith teaches,” (Hodge, Systematic, 1:16).

[19] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 216.

[20] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 217.

[21] Tim and Beverly LeHaye, The Act of Marriage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976; Kindle ed.). 

Romans 1 isn’t “about” homosexuality

Romans 1 isn’t “about” homosexuality

Christian brothers and sisters often read Scripture in very different ways. I suspect it goes back to two things; (1) what theologians call “prolegomena”—how we “do” theology, and (2) what Scripture is—its nature. The latter will often inform the former.

Is Scripture a yet-to-be systematized “code book of theological ordinances?”[1] A “store-house of facts”[2] or a “transcript from God”[3] waiting to be classified by inductive reasoning?  Christian Smith calls this the “handbook model” of interpretation,[4] where the Scriptures are a compendium of teachings on an endless array of subjects—romance, politics, the 2nd Amendment, economics, and even dieting.

Did God give us the Bible so we could distill from it advice for dieting? Alternative medicine? Cooking? Gardening with biblical plants? Politics? I hope we can agree not. Still, some interpreters insist we can cull disparate facts from our store-house of Scripture and discern God’s thoughts on various topics.

This is an unwise approach. At best, it makes God “say” things out of context. At worst, it makes God “say” things He actually never said—like tips on “biblical strategies” for financial freedom.

This article will provide one example—is Romans 1 “about” homosexuality? To be sure, it discusses and condemns sexual deviancy, but is that what it’s “about”? Surely not. Yet, many Christians disagree because they have an implicit “handbook” or “store-house” view of Scripture. So, Romans 1 is “about” homosexuality, and 1 John 2:2 is “about” the atonement! 

What Romans 1 is really about

Take a stroll through Romans 1-3 with me, and I’ll show you what I mean. I’ll begin at Romans 1:18 …

God is upset at everyone who rejects Him, no matter who they are—we all “silence the truth with injustice” (Rom 1:18). Why the anger? Because we ought to know God is there, that He exists, and that must mean He holds us responsible for ignoring the markers in nature that point us to Him. Who made this? Who sustains it? How did this all get here? God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and Godhead—“have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made,” (Rom 1:20). We can catch glimmers of God from creation. So, we’re all without excuse.

The problem is that we don’t care, and so our “foolish hearts were darkened,” (Rom 1:21). Just like Fleetwood Mac, we go our own way. A spiritual incompetence and degeneracy sets in, growing ever worse with the passage of time. We worship other things—absurd things (Rom 1:23). “So, God abandoned them to their heart’s desires,” which results in a further spiral down the moral abyss (Rom 1:24).

God made us to be a certain way—to find purpose and solace in (1) our vertical relationship with Him and then, as the fruit of this communion, (2) in proper relationship with one another. The problem is that, when our vertical relationship with God is twisted (the most basic foundation for reality), then our most precious horizontal relationships with one another will be twisted, too (Rom 1:24).  

This is why God abandons us to our “degrading lust” (Rom 1:26, restating v. 24)—because we chose to worship things of this world rather than God (Rom 1:25). What happens is that we twist even our closest, most precious relationships—love and sexual union—out of all bounds (Rom 1:26b-27). Just as we didn’t acknowledge God, so God chooses in some circumstances to not acknowledge us (Rom 1:28)—to stop restraining our evil impulses, to walk away and leave us to destroy ourselves, as it were.

What results is akin to abandoning a garden for two seasons—a real mess (Rom 1:29-31). In all this, Paul has been describing the same consequence (not a compounding one)—we ignore God, so He lets us go our own way. Sexual deviancy is the penultimate fruit of that sad equation. There are others—all of which damage or destroy our relationships with one another. This is a knowing and willful insurgency, at least on some level (Rom 1:32; cf. Psalm 2:1-3).

So much for the “outsiders,” those who weren’t entrusted with God’s revelation. Surely “insiders” are in a much better state?

This is where Paul launches a broadside against proud externalism—against the same kind of glib smugness that Jesus criticized so powerfully (Lk 18:9-14). Gentiles are so awful, so degenerate, so messy in their sin—who can stand it? Some might be tempted to say (in their hearts, even if not aloud), “Thank God we Christians aren’t like those LGBTQ kooks!”

Well, Paul says, we so-called “insiders” aren’t necessarily better off at all. Don’t judge others when you commit some of the same crimes (Rom 2:1). See, for example, Ted Haggard. God’s love is meant to lead to repentance—to a real change in heart and life (Rom 2:4). After all, God will repay everyone according to their works (Rom 2:6; cf. Ps 62:12). This is the same warning John the Baptist gave (Lk 3:1-14). God can make even stones into children of Abraham—He wants loving obedience, not dead externalism.

Being an insider, being an Israelite, is meaningless in and of itself (Rom 2:7-10). “God does not have favorites,” (Rom 2:11). It’s the ones who actually do the law who are counted as righteous (Rom 2:13), and that means merely being “an insider” gets you no points. In fact, Paul suggests “insiders” will be judged more severely in the end because they had more information (Rom 2:12).

So, he declares, if you’re an “insider” who is an awful hypocrite and an embarrassment to God, you actually have nothing (Rom 2:17-23). “As it is written, ‘The name of God is discredited by the Gentiles because of you,’” (Rom 2:24; cf. Isa 52:5 LXX). The external marks of “membership” in God’s family are pointless in and of themselves—“circumcision is an advantage if you do what the law says,” (Rom 2:25; emphasis mine). In fact, if an ethnic “outsider” loves God by doing what He says, he is a truer believer than a fake “insider” (Rom 2:26).   

Paul says being “in the family” has nothing at all to do with being an Israelite. An “outward circumcision” that doesn’t touch the heart, the spirit, the affections, is nothing (Rom 2:28). “Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally” (Rom 2:29) who is a true “Jew,” that is, a true member of God’s family, a true child of Abraham (Gal 3:26-29). 

“So, what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Or what’s the benefit of circumcision?” (Rom 3:1). Paul knows Israelites will be tempted to scoff and demand answers. What’s the advantage, then? Well, plenty! Jews were trusted to be custodians of God’s truth (Rom 3:2). But, God’s faithfulness doesn’t evaporate because of an insider’s unfaithfulness (Rom 3:3-4). This doesn’t mean our faithfulness doesn’t matter, of course (Rom 3:5-9).

“So, what are we saying?” Paul asks (Rom 3:9). This is the heart of his message—the destination he’s been working towards since the first chapter of the letter—“both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin,” (Rom 3:9). Romans 1 isn’t “about” sexual deviancy. Romans 2 isn’t “about” pride and externalism. The letter condemns both in the strongest terms. But, Romans 1-3 is about something much simpler—no matter who you are (a homosexual, a trans individual, a proud Baptist, or an adulterous hypocrite), you’re a slave to sin right now unless you trust in Jesus. There is no “inside track” to salvation. No such thing as a “beyond the pale” outsider. We’re all born as outsiders (homosexuals, trans people, proud Methodists, and angry drunks alike), and we each need Jesus to rescue us from our own private hells.  

Paul then produces a catena of quotations from Psalm 14 and 53 to show this to us—“there is no righteous person, not even one,” (Rom 3:10). The law shows this to us, it unveils who we really are, it breaks us and makes us admit to ourselves (if nobody else) that we cannot be good enough (Rom 3:19-20).

So, we’re left with a problem—how shall this breach between us and God be reconciled? As the Dread Pirate Roberts once remarked, “if there can be no arrangement, then we are at an impasse …” But, God has made an arrangement. Righteousness doesn’t come from the law at all. It comes “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in Him. There’s no distinction,” (Rom 3:22).

This is the context for those famous words so many believers memorize: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus,” (Rom 3:23-24). Most English translations have “redemption” for the CEB’s “ransom,” but that’s a word choice that’s lost its power and become “churchy” and safe. The word means liberation from slavery, from a kidnapper, after a price has been paid. In this way, through the liberation Jesus effects, God both demonstrates He didn’t “forgive and forget” about all the sins we committed in times past (cf. Heb 9:15), or the one’s we commit now. Thus “he treats the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous,” (Rom 3:25-26).

Bragging has no place among God’s children, because our righteousness is predicated on faith in Jesus, not on “keeping” the law (Rom 3:27-28). Adoption into God’s family isn’t a Jewish thing—it’s for any and everyone. “Yes, God is also the God of the Gentiles,” (Rom 3:29). Whether you’re an “insider” or an “outsider,” God can make you righteous if you have faith in Jesus (Rom 3:30). Whoever you are, your only hope is to trust in Jesus. Not in your ancestry. Not in your head knowledge of the Scriptures. But, in Jesus.

This is what Romans 1:18-3:30 is “about.” Not sexual deviancy. It contains a discussion on sexual deviancy, but only in service of a more basic point—we’ve all (every one of us—“insider” or “outsider”) sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and only Jesus can make us righteous. Ironically, when Christians cry “Romans 1” in frustration and disgust, and shake their heads sadly at “what’s happening to our country,” they may well run afoul of Paul’s warnings from Romans 2—our own sins of hypocrisy or priggish self-righteousness may render us just as guilty

Can we do better than this?

This article is not a veiled proclamation of my own “deconstruction.” It’s an example of what I believe is a better way to read Scripture. It considers the text in its context, not as a repository of data to be molded according to taste into an a la carte buffet of categories. There are other examples:

  • 1 Corinthians 7 isn’t “about” how wives must give their husbands sex.
  • John 5:26 isn’t “about” eternal generation.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 isn’t “about” the rapture.
  • Genesis 10 isn’t “about” how mankind “failed” a “test,” making it necessary for God to initiate a new “dispensation” with Abraham.

You may sincerely believe the texts contain these things, but in no conceivable world are they “about” those subjects. And, if that’s true, then should we wrench these passages out of Hodge’s “store-house” to add them to a systematic casserole we’re cooking up to answer a question the writer wasn’t addressing, in that context?

No, we should not.   

Space is fleeting, so I’ll toss out some grenades for thought and retire into the night.

  1. It seems to me that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a more fruitful approach to doing theology. It guards against the frigid scholasticism Horace Bushnell warned about so passionately in his 1848 address “Dogma and Spirit.”[5] The Quadrilateral tempers a frigid rationalism and dogmatism with spiritual experience, reason, and historical theology. It promotes an evangelical catholicity, which I well know is not always reckoned as a virtue.
  2. Donald Bloesch is representative of a method which sees revelation as “truth + event.” We cognitively receive truth from Scripture, then God communicates and confronts us by the Spirit. “Revelation happened in a final and definitive form in the apostolic encounter with Jesus Christ. But revelation [in the sense of truth + Spirit-directed encounter-event] happens again and again in the experience of the Spirit in Christ.”[6] There is a conjunction between (1) the Word of God, and (2) sacred Scripture, (3) by the action of the Spirit.[7]
  3. In contrast, Hodge declares the Spirit has no true revelatory role; He only illuminates the bible.[8] Revelation is only static—an objective truth that is “there” on the page. There is no dynamic interplay of “truth + event,” where Scripture is the channel for God to speak.
  4. Many evangelical systematics follow Hodge’s “store-house” approach (e.g. Millard Erickson).[9] For example, Carl F.H. Henry declares that revelation is the (sole?) source for all truth, that we can only recognize that truth by exercising reason, that “logical consistency” and “coherence” (which I take together to basically mean “credible systemization”) are our truth tests, and that “[t]he task of Christian theology is to exhibit the content of biblical revelation as an orderly whole.”[10]

The “store-house” view of Scripture will produce a “Romans 1 is about homosexuality!” result. As you ponder that, remember this—Acts 15 is “about” Baptist polity, too!


[1] Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), p. 170. Quoted in Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), p. 632. McGrath was criticizing Carl F.H. Henry.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:10. 

[3] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), p. 65.

[4] Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), p. 5. 

[5] See the anthology titled Horace Bushnell, ed. H. Shelton Smith (New York: Oxford, 1965), pp. 43-68.  

[6] Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 50.  

[7] Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 58.  

[8] “Although the inward teaching of the Spirit, or religious experience, is no substitute for an external revelation, and is no part of the rule of faith, it is, nevertheless, an invaluable guide in determining what the rule of faith teaches,” (Hodge, Systematic, 1:16).

[9] Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 53-65.

[10] Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 215.

When is a Church Not a Church?

When is a Church Not a Church?

I want to talk about what “the church” is. This will be a high-level discussion, not a defense of a particular kind of church (Baptists v. Methodists, etc.). I want to talk about this because I fear we forget just how important it is to get this right. As sectarian battles light up social media and the news (with no end in sight), this deceptively simple issue deserves some consideration. 

There are different ways we use the word “church:”

  1. The building where the congregation meets. This is common language, and I get it, but it’s wrong.
  2. In a wholistic sense, considering the entire congregation of the faithful throughout the world. We’ll begin with this.
  3. In an institutional sense—a local place that exists somewhere. This is the sense which we’ll spend most of our time pondering.[1]

Wholistic Sense—Church as Brotherhood of Christ-followers

Three strikingly different theologians offer up similar definitions for “the church” in a wholistic sense.

Emil Brunner says the church is “a brotherhood resulting from faith in Christ,” and every “church” (viewed denominationally or singly) is but one instrument, vessel, or shell of that brotherhood that spreads that message of redemption.[2] I think this is a beautiful description.

Beth Felker Jones explains a church is “the community that rejoices in God’s gracious salvation … the church is the people of God, called out to bear visible witness, in the body and as a body, to the free and transformative gift of grace we have received in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[3] Again, simple and beautiful—especially the first portion.

Wayne Grudem writes “[t]he church is the community of all true believers for all time.”[4]

No matter what other sectarian loyalties we’re ready to defend, we must get this right—and these good definitions help us. God’s plan is to gather a community, through Jesus the King, to be with Him in His coming kingdom—forever. He’s been building that community since the Fall, adding to it all the while, across all that space and time. So, God’s congregation (i.e. assembly) is the community of all true believers for all time.

This is important, but now to something more specific—how do you know if you’re in a “good” local church, or a “bad” one?

Individual Sense—Ethos Pentagon + Tyler Heptagon

What I’m really asking is—how much has to change (i.e. go wrong) before “a thing” is no longer “that thing?” We’ll discuss the individual church by looking at it from two different angles:

  1. Ethos ≈ mood, characteristics, feel (etc.) of the church, and
  2. Practice—what does the congregation actually do? What are they about?

The Ethos Pentagon

This is a modification of the classic “four marks” of the church, which I’ll call the “Ethos Pentagon.” The Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381 A.D.) set the guardrails for “the church” a long, long time ago. Untold millions of Christians have found it helpful, so we ought to, also: “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”[5] Perhaps the most helpful controlling passage that expresses this ethos is Ephesians 4:1-5.

I’m adding “brotherly love” (inspired by Emil Brunner[6]) as the animating force which drives the four classic marks from Nicaea (cf. 1 Jn 3-4). So, we’re left with a pentagon that looks like this:[7]

Love. This is most clearly seen in 1 John 3-4, which I don’t have space to discuss in detail. “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love,” (1 Jn 4:8). If this ethos doesn’t animate everything a church does, then it’s nothing, worthless, a fraud (1 Cor 13:1-3; see also Col 3:8-17 (cf. Eph 4:1-5)). Love the fundamental mark of Christianity.[8] Emil Brunner writes:

The Spirit who is active in the Ekklesia expresses Himself in active love of the brethren and in the creation of brotherhood, of true fellowship.[9]

The one thing, the message of Christ, must have the other thing, love, as its commentary. Only then can it be understood and move people’s hearts. True, the decisive thing is the Word of witness to what God has done. But this Word of witness does not aim merely to teach, but also to move the heart.[10]

The song “Proof of Your Love” (by for KING & COUNTRY) sums up this “brotherly love” ethos that should drive the classic four Nicene marks.

A church is only a true church to the extent its attitude, mood, and vibe is one of love for one another, and for the lost. This suggests a congregation with a consistently pugilistic, angry, outraged face towards the world may not even be a “church” at all.

Oneness ≈ Unity. This is an attitude—all Christ-followers are part of the same community, the same brotherhood! Christ is the Head of one body, one community, one congregation—this is why the biblical references are sometimes to one particular congregation, or to all the scattered congregations considered as a whole.

The Church is “one” because Father, Son, and Spirit are One. The Church shares the same faith (Eph 4:5). The Church partakes of the same “loaf” of bread, and the same “cup of blessing” at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10:16-17; Eph 4:5). The Church shares in the same baptism (Eph 4:5). Perhaps it’s helpful to see Christ’s congregation as “one” in the sense that every true church or denomination is a distinct branch of the one tree that is Christ’s body.[11]

You only have a true church to the extent that it recognizes other groups of genuine Christ-followers as brothers and sisters in the same family. This suggests that, to the extent that your congregation is exclusivist, it may well be a false church.

Holiness. We want to “keep Christianity weird” by obeying God’s laws because we love Him. This means we think, live, and act differently than the world around us, because we’re guided by God’s values. Though it’s an anachronism to impute this to Nicaea, we’re essentially talking about the doctrine of separation (rightly understood). Christ wants His church to be pure when He returns (Eph 5:25-27).

A church is only a true church to the extent that it, as a local fellowship, shows God’s love to the world by the transformed lives of its members![12] If a church does not push an ethos of personal and corporate holiness—doing what His word says!—then it may be a false “church.”

Catholic. God’s family is bigger than your tribe—His community has existed since Adam and Eve, across space and time, encompassing millions of men, women, boys, girls—even today! See Revelation 5:9-10 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.

We learn from one another, across man-made geo-political, racial, cultural, and gender boundaries because we’re all part of the same family, with gifts to bring to the table! It also means this brotherhood in Christ is meant for the whole world—to be spread everywhere, not ghettoized in a particular area.[13]

Beth Felker Jones writes that we ought to:[14]

  1. Recognize that no one part of the church is the whole body of Christ.
  2. Rejoice in the shared doctrine and practice that belong to the whole church.
  3. Allow differences to flourish, without seeing it as a threat to unity.
  4. Humbly listen to and be willing to learn from other parts of the body.
  5. Look for and rejoice in God’s active work in the whole world.

You only have a true church to the extent that it learns from other genuine Christ-followers and works together to spread God’s message. If you believe only your tribe is a “true church,” no matter how finely you try to finesse it, then your “church” may be a false church.   

Apostolic. This means holding fast to the true and apostolic teaching about the Gospel and Christian life—Jesus and Peter wouldn’t think your message was crazy.[15] A continuity of belief with the past—built upon the apostles and prophets. Christianity has content—it isn’t playdough (Jude 3; Eph 2:20).

You only have a true church to the extent that it believes, teaches, and lives out what Jesus and the apostles taught. So, for example, the lower your church’s doctrines of major concern rank on Paul Henebury’s Rules of Affinity, the less “true” your church may be.

Who cares? A Methodist and an Anglican will tell us why. Beth Felker Jones explains:[16]

  1. Unity: in a world of strife, we show God’s love by our love for one another, and mirror God’s own unity.
  2. Holiness: we show the world the alternative to brokenness and wrongness—God’s holiness.
  3. Catholic: in a world with emptiness and despair, we invite anyone to the table to share in God’s goodness so we can learn from each other and grow, together—treasuring particularity and differences.
  4. Apostolic: in a world full of lies, we tell the truth about God and His message of love and forgiveness.

Michael Bird notes the following:[17]

Practice—The Tyler Heptagon

Now, what about practice? I’ve never felt the Nicene marks (even augmented by “love”) was enough to capture what a “true church” ought to be about. So, I’ve gradually developed what I call the “Tyler Heptagon” as a general descriptor for a faithful local church:[18]

The components are not difficult to follow:

  1. Christ life + death + resurrection: these must be major emphases!
  2. Scriptures: they’re given by God and are our supreme authority.
  3. Conversion: emphases on repent + believe + grow.
  4. Missional: Gospel message and its fruit expressed in a “conscience of the kingdom” ethos in society. This is a major failing for too many local churches. If you have no practice of evangelism, your church is derelict in its duties. I’m not referring to fruit per se—I’m talking about effort. Are you doing anything, or is evangelism a passive wish?
  5. Praise to God: this must be a major emphasis!
  6. Right practice: a reformation, “always reforming” mindset—not a faith expression and doctrine set in immobile concrete.[19] Whatever you might say, if your every reaction to anything “new” or “other” as related to your faith tradition is immediate hostility and a “run away!” mindset, your feet are set in concrete.
  7. Right heart and motivations: These are affections—an honest love for God must be behind everything we say and do … or else we get everything wrong.

What Does This Mean?

When you consider both ethos and practice, to the extent these things aren’t there, or are weak, your church is unhealthy or maybe even false. In a shadowy but indefinable way, at some point if enough of these things are weak or missing altogether, you don’t have a true church at all.

Think about it this way—at what point is a car a junker? When the seatbelt won’t buckle unless you slam it really hard? When the sliding doors on the minivan won’t open, anymore? When it won’t start consistently? In isolation, these aren’t deal-breakers. But, when they’re all persistently there, at some point you stand back and admit, “yeah … this car is a piece of junk!” You didn’t realize it until that moment, and maybe you can’t pin down the exact moment the car became a piece of junk. But, still … now you wake up and realize you drive a piece of junk car.

As you consider ethos and practice, it’s the same with a local church. The state of a church—at what point it “becomes” unhealthy or perhaps even false—is a totality of the circumstances assessment, and a number of factors could push it across the line. Perhaps these two metrics, ethos and practice, will help as you consider how to make your own church healthier.

Our churches will never be perfect. But, they can all be better. Let love inform your ethos. Doctrine without love is nothing. Purity without love is nothing. A church that doesn’t evangelize is derelict. A rigid dogmatism without heart is death. A closedmindedness to further reformation is no virtue. Let’s make our churches be more about Jesus than a reflection of our sectarian battlelines.


[1] Emil Brunner doesn’t like to consider the church from an institutional perspective, preferring instead to speak in a wholistic sense of a brotherhood of all who share faith in Christ. To him, the institutional church is the shell or instrument of the ecclesia. I get what he’s saying, but when it gets down to brass tacks, out of the clouds, people need to know when they’re in a true, bona fide, legitimate local assembly. We must speak of the church on the local, institutional basis, too. So, here I stand.

[2] Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, p. 128ff. 

[3] Beth Felker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), p. 195.

[4] Grudem, Systematic, p. 853.

[5] Πιστεύομεν … εἰς μίαν ἁγίαν καθολικὴν καὶ ἀποστολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν.

[6] See my article “Brotherly Love and the Church.” 23 October 2020. https://bit.ly/3qhLzdy

[7] For my discussion of the four marks, I’m generally following Michael Bird as a base unless I specifically note otherwise (Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020),pp. 833-842.

[8] The Cape Town Commitment (2010) reads: “The people of God are those from all ages and all nations whom God in Christ has loved, chosen, called, saved and sanctified as a people for his own possession, to share in the glory of Christ as citizens of the new creation. As those, then, whom God has loved from eternity to eternity and throughout all our turbulent and rebellious history, we are commanded to love one another. For ‘since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another,’ and thereby ‘be imitators of God…and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.’ Love for one another in the family of God is not merely a desirable option but an inescapable command. Such love is the first evidence of obedience to the gospel, the necessary expression of our submission to Christ’s Lordship, and a potent engine of world mission,” (Article 1.9, https://lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment#p1-9).

[9] Brunner, Church, Faith, and Consummation, p. 134. 

[10] Brunner, Church, Faith, and Consummation, p. 136. 

[11] This is what Alister McGrath calls the “biological approach” to oneness (Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2001), p. 497). 

[12] “When the church is holy, we bear visible and material witness to God’s love for the world,” (Jones, Christian Doctrine, p. 201).

[13] Brunner, Church, Faith, and Consummation, pp. 122-123. 

[14] Jones discussed this under a “ecumenical” heading in the introduction to her systematic theology (Christian Doctrine, pp. 4-9), but I co-opted it as a great shorthand to describe the catholic ethos a church ought to have. Hopefully, she’ll forgive me! This is quoted nearly verbatim—it isn’t my paraphrase.

[15] Michael Svigel helpfully suggests seven teachings that summarize the Christian message:  (1) the triune God as Creator and Redeemer, (2) the fall and resulting depravity, (3) the person and work of Christ, (4) salvation by grace through faith, (5) inspiration and authority of Scripture, (6) redeemed humanity incorporated into Christ, and (7) the restoration of humanity and creation (RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), pp. 175-176).

[16] Jones, Christian Doctrine, pp. 203-204. What follows are my summaries of Jones’ comments—they aren’t quotes.

[17] Bird, Evangelical Theology, p. 842.

[18] This began life as my own re-phrase of what I call the “Stackhouse hexagon,” which was itself inspired by David Bebbington (John Stackhouse, “Generic Evangelicalism,” in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, ed. Andrew Naselli and Collin Hansen (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), pp. 123-124). However, it’s been colored by so much reading, and I’ve added and subtracted and modified so much, that I feel free to give it my own label, at this point. Stackhouse (and Bebbington) used their models as theological descriptors of evangelicalism. In my modification, I use it as a model for a “generically faithful local church.”

[19] See especially Roger Olson on the perils of a “conservative” mindset that, in functional practice, believes the Spirit has nothing new to teach the church to better live out the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture (How to be Evangelical Without Being Conservative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), pp. 13-42).

A Blast from the Fundamentalist Past!

A Blast from the Fundamentalist Past!

When a used book arrived in the mail yesterday, I realized I had accidentally struck gold. It was George Dollar’s A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville: BJU Press, 1973). It was autographed by the author. It looks like it has sat on a shelf, unread and untouched, lo these past 49 years.

Tucked inside the inside flap of the dust jacket were two sparkling diamonds. First was a long list of “Influential Leaders in Contemporary Christendom,” compiled by Archer Weniger, a hard line Baptist fundamentalist leader of yesteryear. This list reflects the northern Baptist fundamentalist emphasis on secondary separation. You must categorize people and organizations, so you know from whom to separate. Note especially a category labeled “Blacks.”

Finally, I found a short pamphlet updated and published by Dollar in 1983 titled “Facts for Fundamentalists.” It provides a taxonomy of fundamentalist organizations, schools, radio ministries, camps, etc. The rationale for its existence is the same as Weniger’s list.

This is a fascinating and truly amazing time capsule into a flavor of Christianity that has largely passed away. Pockets of it still exist; you can find representative echoes of it in some corners of the Foundations Baptist Fellowship International.

Here are some pictures of these documents. Clearer, PDF versions of the same are at the hyperlinks, above.

Much Ado About Something: A New Christian Fundamentalism for 2022

Much Ado About Something: A New Christian Fundamentalism for 2022

A new fundamentalism has arrived on the scene in the evangelical world. It’s kinda like legacy fundamentalism, but also kinda not. I believe the various evangelical scenes are on the precipice of a newer fundamentalist-modernist split. In this video essay, I review components of generic, faithful Christianity, define and give examples of second-stage legacy Baptist fundamentalism, then make some observations of and connections to the 2022 evangelical scene.

If you don’t want to watch the video, you can find the notes from my discussion here. They include a bit more nuance than what I managed to convey in the video.

  • 0:00 – 00:45: Introduction
  • 00:45 – 03:57: Generic, bible-believing Christianity. The “Stackhouse hexagon”
  • 03:57 – 11:32: Brief survey of second-stage, “legacy fundamentalism”
  • 11:32 – 14:52: Introducing “fundamentalistic evangelicals”
  • 14:53 – 21:27: Pressures that have created this new fundamentalism
  • 21:28 – 26:07: Hamilton’s “political quadrilateral” and its implications
  • 26:08 – 28:07: The shifted battlespace for fundamentalism compared to 1920
  • 28:08 – 35:56: Observations about this new fundamentalism
  • 35:57 – 43:26: Sketching part of the new fundamentalist landscape
  • 43:27 – 45:23: A “convergence” between elements of legacy fundamentalism and the new?
  • 45:24 – 51:03: Why you should care

For the podcast version of this video, see here. The song “The Proof of Your Love” (by For King & Country) captures my fears about the danger of a militant ethos coloring the Christian faith—where is the love of Christ?

Is eternal generation a necessary doctrine?

Is eternal generation a necessary doctrine?

In the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, in the article discussing “the true God,” the text says: “in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; equal in every divine perfection, and executing distinct and harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.”

I’ll focus on that last phrase in this article. How do you tell Father, Son, and Spirit from one another? There are two ways to answer this question. I’ll begin with the older, more established option and close with the second, which I believe is more helpful.

Option 1—Distinguish by Eternal Generation and Procession

This option uses a framework that might be unfamiliar to you, and if so it might not make too much sense. If I’m wrong, then more power to you!

The Church’s classical position is that all three Persons are “the same substance,” which doesn’t mean they share the same nature of “Godness” the way you and I share “humanness.” No; the classical position says Father, Son, and Spirit are literally the same essence. They act together and have the same singular will and consciousness. One theologian explained this by way of a telling analogy: “I prefer to speak of one space with three dimensions – height, length and depth.”1 Do you see? According to this analogy, God is a space, and each Person is a different aspect of that space. Without some modification, there are no distinctions between Persons at all. Some theologians have even gone so far as to suggest any member of the Godhead could have become incarnate and died for the sins of the world, because they are each the same essence.2 

So, this classical position on the Trinity heavily emphasizes the “oneness,” perhaps to the point of collapsing the Persons into one another like a shapeless Jell-O blob … which is why the Church has employed the doctrines of eternal generation of the Son, and eternal procession of the Spirit. These doctrines are the Church’s traditional answer to “how do you tell ‘em apart?” Note that this “collapsing into a Jell-O blob” model of oneness is different from the alternative, “single society of persons” model I’ve described elsewhere.

To keep things simple,3 I’ll only discuss eternal generation—but what is it? In a nutshell, eternal generation says:4

  1. the Son’s Person (not the essence) was generated by the Father,
  2. in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”5),
  3. and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”6),
  4. in a manner we can’t ever understand,
  5. but this timeless (i.e. eternal) generation does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created

This doctrine is crucial to its advocates, because it’s their best way to distinguish the Persons—they distinguish them by their mutual relations to one another:

  1. the Father begets
  2. the Son is begotten
  3. the Spirit proceeds forth

Yahweh’s nature is singular and identical (the “same substance”), but the relations of the Persons are the key. Without eternal generation and procession, the idea goes, you’re left with a monad; a generic “oneness” without a way to distinguish Persons.

This doctrine is confusing because:

  1. we have no category for understanding Christ’s Person being generated in a non-physical, timeless manner,
  2. advocates cannot even describe what this means,7 and
  3. the notion of derivation (timeless or otherwise) seems to imply a subordination—the very thing the Church designed the Nicene Creed to combat.

Indeed, when an advocate of eternal generation attempts to explain the doctrine, he often:

  1. appeals to mystery,
  2. declares we must believe it on faith,8 and
  3. becomes icy when pressed to explain how derivation doesn’t imply subordination.

Gregory of Nazianzus, a famous Eastern theologian from 4th century Constantinople, explained that Jesus stems from the Father in a unique, non-physical way,9 and that the Father is, in some sense, Jesus’ parent or originator.10 He then frostily criticized those who suggested this made little sense.11 John of Damascus, a 9th century Syrian Christian, explains in unguarded terms that the Father “is the cause of the Son,” is the Son’s “origin,” and is “greater than the Son.” He employs an analogy of fire and light—the fire produces the light, but they are the same essence. The light is the fire’s natural force, just as the Son is to the Father.12 Hugh of St. Victor, a 12th century French Christian, declared the Son is divine because the Father “begat” Him, and the offspring always has the characteristics of the parent.13 Augustine declared Jesus is “from the Father,” in that He was “born in eternity.”14

The Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas explained this non-physical derivation by comparing Jesus to an “intelligible emanation” which proceeds from the intellect, like a spoken word reflecting an idea in the speaker’s mind—it remains inside him and yet proceeds out at the same time.15 An object of the intellect, Thomas declared, is a likeness of the object conceived,16 and Christ’s eternal generation from the Father is the same.

The biblical support for this doctrine is weak. Advocates offer three main arguments:

  1. The word “begotten.”17 They point to passages which say Jesus was “begotten,” and then reason (1) begotten means derivation, (2) but Christ is eternally divine, (3) so this can’t be a physical or timeless derivation, or else this would be heresy, so (4) this “begetting” or “generation” must be timeless and non-physical. However, the word which older translations rendered “begotten” actually means something like “unique” or “one and only—special.” This is why no contemporary English translation, except the NKJV or the NASB (1995), render it as “begotten” at John 1:14.18
  2. Jesus as Son.19 What else can “Son” mean, in conjunction with the “begotten” concept, if not some kind of derivation of Personhood from an “originator?”20 Hilary, a 4th century French theologian, explained the Father is the source of the Son’s life—“it is through the living Father that He has life in Himself.”21 God gave life to the Son as a gift.22 Each of these remarks implies Jesus is somehow inferior to the Father—no amount of caveats will wish that implication away.
  3. John 5:26.23 In this passage, Jesus is explaining about judgment. If people believe in Him, whom the Father sent, they will pass from death to life (John 5:24). The “dead” (i.e. the spiritually dead) will hear the Son’s voice (the Gospel) and live (John 5:25). How is this so? Because, just as the Father has “life in Himself” as a fountainhead to dispense to others, so He has given the Son the same gift: “Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself,” (John 5:26). But, some disagree. They say John 5:26 is really about eternal generation—the Father gave life to the Son eternally.24 Context shows this is absurd. In reality, it simply means that Jesus, as the representative person during the incarnation, received power to grant life to people—the same power the Father has always had.25

The scripture passages advocates offer in support of these three arguments say absolutely nothing about eternal generation and give no hint of the complicated doctrine I summarized, above. Where is a derivation of Person, but not essence? Where is any hint that Christ’s divine Person originated anywhere? Where is an eternal birth and grant of life from the Father? Search the scriptures in vain, for you won’t find answers.

Some conservative theologians today are keen to suggest this is the only orthodox framework one can hold in order to rightly distinguish the Persons from one another. That is wrong.26 What’s behind that claim is a dogged allegiance to a framework hammered out in a very different culture, using categories that are little known and perhaps unhelpful today. That framework insists on beginning with a very strong, almost unitary “oneness,” which requires them to depict the Father as a divine fountainhead or source of eternal, timeless life to Son and Spirit. If you come from a church tradition which affirms this framework for distinguishing the Persons, and you find it helpful and understandable, then that’s lovely.

But, there is a simpler way.

Option 2—Distinguish by Highlighting Different Roles27

The Apostle Paul said, “We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit,” (Ephesians 2:18). This suggests:

  1. Believers want access to the Father—but how?
  2. They have it through Christ in His incarnation, death, and resurrection for sinners—but by what means?
  3. By the Spirit, who applies the Gospel to our hearts and minds, and then connects us to the Father through the Son.

In other words, we “see” the Trinity in the Person’s “distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.”

In another place, the Apostle Paul closed one letter by writing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” (2 Corinthians 13:13). What does this mean?

  1. Jesus has grace in that He emptied Himself and left heaven to take the form of a servant, to be obedient to the incarnate Father’s will—even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
  2. God has love, in that He loved the world so much that He surrendered His only Son—His precious Son—so that every person who trusts in the Son won’t die, but will have eternal life (John 3:16; my translation).
  3. The Spirit provides fellowship, in that He’s the One who changes our hearts and adopts us into God’s family.

Again, “distinct but harmonious” jobs. In another place, the Apostle John wrote that Jesus showed him the Book of Revelation, because the Father had given it to the Son to show everyone what would soon happen to the world (Revelation 1:1)! John then declared that Jesus would soon come on the clouds to return to earth (Revelation 1:7), a reference to the strange human-divine figure from Daniel 7:13-14 who receives an eternal kingdom from the ancient of days (i.e. the Father). Again, different but harmonious roles.

The Apostle Peter explained, “God the Father chose you because of what he knew beforehand. He chose you through the Holy Spirit’s work of making you holy and because of the faithful obedience and sacrifice of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 1:2). This means:

  1. The Father chooses individual for salvation before they believe,
  2. and so the Holy Spirit purifies us, makes us holy, sets us apart as belonging to Him,
  3. and all this can happen because of Jesus Christ’s faithful sacrifice.

Jude, at the beginning of his short letter, addressed it to: “those who are called, loved by God the Father and kept safe by Jesus Christ,” (Jude 1).

  1. The Holy Spirit calls individuals to faith
  2. God loves them, which is why He rescued them
  3. And the Son keeps them safe, because no one can pluck His sheep out of His Father’s hands (John 10:29).

Distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption!

Because God is a single society of Persons, knit together by love and showing an inexhaustible unity, they do everything together. This is why, in one place Moses can write “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), and in another place one New Testament letter can clarify that the Father created the world through the Son (Hebrews 1:2), while Moses can also write that God’s wind or Spirit swept over the waters of the shapeless raw creation (Genesis 1:1). Jesus said the Comforter (i.e. the Holy Spirit) would come to believers (John 14:16-17), then immediately promised they wouldn’t be orphans, because “I will come to you,” (John 14:18). Then, Jesus explained He and the Father would both come along and “make our home” with believers (John 14:23). Apparently, when the Spirit comes, Father and Son come along with Him. Unity in action, not just unity in existence.

God, as this single society of Persons, acts in union and together. Scripture, as though holding a jewel aloft to the sun, simply turns the gem this way and that so our eyes can catch the differentiated facets. So, we “see” the Trinity in the way Scripture highlights each Person’s contributions in service of the one “team’s” mission28—the great work of redemption.

Notes

1 Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), p. 186.

2 The doctrine of divine simplicity is behind this insistence. I don’t have space to explain that doctrine in the body of this article. Suffice it to say that simplicity says (1) God is not composed of parts, and (2) he is the living unity of all His attributes (see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), pp. 130-132). Matthew Barrett writes, “In the purest sense, God is one; he is singular perfection,” (None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), p. 76).

There are divergent flavors of simplicity. For example, Henry is more moderate the Barrett, who so emphasizes the otherness of God that one could perhaps accuse Him of painting a picture of extreme impersonalism.

Millard Erickson has suggested this is unhelpful: “Much of the discussion has been carried on in terms of a substance metaphysic, in which reality is a substance possessing certain attributes. A better way of thinking may be to conceive of reality as fundamentally personal rather than impersonal. Thus, God is a subject, a person— and a very complex person at that. He is what he is, and is unique. If he did not possess the essential attributes we have discussed in this volume, he would not be the person he is. The attributes, then, are not qualities added to this nature. They are facets of his complex and rich nature.

It does not seem necessary, in order to preserve these values, to follow the full traditional meaning of simplicity with its attendant problems, such as God having but one attribute and being equivalent to that attribute, with the paradoxical conclusion that each attribute of God is the same as each of the others. The doctrine of divine simplicity need not involve all of the details it has sometimes borne,” (God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 230-231).

3 This is an intentional pun. Only the Trinity nerds who read this will truly understand …

4 See especially Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), pp. 114-121, for a good explanation. This excerpt from WCF 2.3 reads, “… The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.”

Millard Erickson explains, “The traditional doctrine is that the Father is in some sense eternally the basis or the source of the life or at least the distinct personal subsistence of the Son. This, however, is not in any sense to be confused with the doctrine of creation by the Father, as the Arians held,” (Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009; Kindle ed.], KL 1846-1847.

5 See the Nicean-Constantinople Creed of 381. 

6 Ibid.

7 One Anglican theologian said, “I have not the least idea of what is meant by either filiation or procession in respect of the divine Being,” (Leonard Hodgson, The Doctrine of the Trinity, Croall Lectures at Edinburgh University 1942-1943 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), p. 144. He stated much space along these lines in doctrinal statements contains “a great deal that I exclude as belonging to the realm of the imagination,” (Ibid, p. 143).

Ambrose is representative when he exclaims: “Dost thou ask me how He is a Son, if He have not a Father existing before Him? I ask of thee, in turn, when, or how, thinkest thou that the Son was begotten. For me the knowledge of the mystery of His generation is more than I can attain to,—the mind fails, the voice is dumb—ay, and not mine alone, but the angels’ also. It is above Powers, above Angels, above Cherubim, Seraphim, and all that has feeling and thought … Do thou, then (like the angels), cover thy face with thy hands, for it is not given thee to look into surpassing mysteries! We are suffered to know that the Son is begotten, not to dispute upon the manner of His begetting. I cannot deny the one; the other I fear to search into …” (Exposition of the Christian Faith, 1.10.64, 65, in NPNF2, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), p. 212.

Peter Lombard, in his Sentences, quoted this excerpt from Ambrose approvingly, influencing generations of medieval theologians (The Sentences, 9.3.1, vol. 1, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007, p. 53). It’s difficult to overstate the impact Lombard had on the Church’s thought.

8 Letham, Systematic, p. 119. “It is a matter of faith. This poses no problem, or else faith would be based on our own capacities.”

9 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 30.20,” in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). “I take the view that he is called ‘Son’ because he is not simply identical in substance with the Father, but stems from him. He is ‘Only-begotten’ not just because he alone stems uniquely from what is unique, but because he does so in a unique fashion unlike things corporeal.”          

10 Ibid, Oration 29.2. “In a serene, non-temporal, incorporeal way, the Father is parent of the ‘offspring’ and originator of the ‘emanation’—or whatever name one can apply when one has entirely extrapolated from things visible.”

11 Ibid, Oration 29.4. “You are incapable of understanding that one who has a distinctive fleshly birth—what other case of a Virgin Mother of God do you know?—has a different spiritual birth, or rather, one whose being is not the same as ours has a different way of begetting as well.”

12 John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 1.7, in NPNF 2:9, ed. Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 9. 

13 Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, §1.3.23, rev. ed., trans. Roy Deferrari (Ex Fontibus, 2016), pp. 52-53. “… the Father was named in the Trinity because from Him was the Son, who was of His substance. For he who begets and begets of his own substance, begets that which he himself is. And so He from whom He was and He who was with Him are the same as He himself was. He was called Father because the Son was from him.”

14 Augustine, The Trinity, 2.1.3, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1991), p. 99. 

15 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.27.1.co.

16 Ibid, I.27.2.co.

17 The 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith (Article 2.3) point to John 1:14, 18 on this point. 

18 My point here is highly disputed by eternal generation advocates, such as Charles L. Irons, “A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten,’ in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2007), pp. 98-116. If I may be so bold, Irons’ arguments are unconvincing and have more to do with retrieving a venerable doctrine than with lexical reality. I’ve catalogued every instance of μονογενοῦς in the LXX (including the Apocrypha), the New Testament, and the Apostolic Fathers. The sense of μονογενοῦς = eternal generation just ain’t there. In every instance, a more plausible interpretation is something like “one and only—special” or “unique.”

19 The Westminster Confession cites Hebrews 1:2-3, Colossians 1:15 for this point (Article 2.3).

20 “‘Son’ language tied to ‘Father’ language is one of the unavoidable hints that the relationship between the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’ is rightly conceived of in terms of generation—indeed, of eternal generation,” (D.A. Carson, “John 5:26: Crux Interpretum for Eternal Generation,” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, p. 87).

21 Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity 7.27, in NPNF1, vol. 9, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. E.W. Watson and L. Pullan (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 130.

22 Ibid. “And, moreover, when He said, ‘For as the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son also to have life in Himself,’ He bore witness that life, to the fullest extent, is His gift from the living God.”

23 No less a New Testament scholar than D.A. Carson calls this verse the “crux interpretum for Eternal Generation,” (this is the title of Carson’s article in Reclaiming Eternal Generation, pp. 79-97). If this is the best text this doctrine can offer, then it is pretty weak indeed.

24 See Augustine, The Trinity, 1.5.26; 2.1.3. See also Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith, 3.16.133, in NPNF2, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), p. 261.

25 See Alvah Hovey, Gospel of John, pp. 138-139. In his article, Carson lists three potential solutions to John 5:26, and opts for eternal generation. He does not mention Hovey’s solution, which is too bad, because it’s simpler, clearer, and more logical than any of the three Carson offers.

Henry Alford offers the same interpretation as Hovey: “The Father hath given Him to have life in Himself, as He is THE SON OF GOD. We have none of us life in ourselves: in Him we live and move and have our being. But He, as the Father is, is the source of Life. Then again the Father hath given Him power to pass judgment, because He is THE SON OF MAN; man is to be judged by Man …” (The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition, vol. 1 (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 508).

26 See anything Matthew Barrett and Craig Carter write on Twitter. Carl F.H. Henry warned, “While revelation supplies hints for solving philosophical difficulties, it does not provide a fully developed metaphysical system to which we can accord revelational status. Christians must therefore avoid claiming supernatural authority for one or another interpretation that seems to resolve the problem of persons and essence in the Trinity,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), p. 210).

27 I could be accused here of focusing on the Trinity ad extra at the expense of the ad intra. Perhaps I deserve some of that critique. However, Scripture does give us passages like Phil 2:5-11 which shows an ad intra distinction of Persons before the incarnation. Phil 2:6 even suggests discrete wills within the one God, because ad intra the Son distinguishes Himself from the Father by not reckoning His status of equality as something to desperately hold on to. Before the incarnation, the Son makes a distinct self-reflection and assessment of His own status as compared to the Father’s, and then acts accordingly. I don’t discuss that passage here, but I simply mention it to say that Scripture shows us “distinct but harmonious offices” ad intra and ad extra. So, I contend we don’t need the doctrine of eternal generation to distinguish the Son.

28 Lutheran theologian Carl Beckwith has written, “If the essential attributes, like the external acts of the Trinity, belong equally and indivisibly to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the church rightly confesses, why do Scripture and our creeds sometime assign them more particularly to one person? The explanation given by the Fathers and reformers has been that the external acts and essential attributes of God may be appropriated or attributed more particularly to one person in order to more fully disclose the persons of the Trinity to our creaturely ways of thinking. This doctrine of appropriation assists us conceptually and aims to focus our prayers and worship on the divine persons,” (The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics (Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 9433-9447).

Questions and Answers … about Scripture

Questions and Answers … about Scripture

I’m writing a short book about what Christians believe by doing an exposition of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith. This is a beautiful Baptist confession that’s the basis for the GARBC Articles of Faith, and the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message 2000, among others. My audience is the ordinary, interested Christian. I explain the Confession by asking a series of questions of each Article. Here’s the first section …

Article 1

We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction;[1] that it has God for its author, salvation for its end,[2] and truth without any mixture of error for its matter;[3] that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us;[4] and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true centre of Christian union,[5] and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.[6]

1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1

1.1. What does it mean that the men who wrote the Scriptures were “divinely inspired?”

The Apostle Paul said all scripture was “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), which means He gives it life, animates it, creates it. It means the Holy Spirit guided the authors to write just what He wanted, down to the level of individual word choice, while still retaining each author’s unique personality, style, and voice. God makes us as we are—shaping us from birth, molding our personalities and gifts. This means when He used, say, the Apostle John or Moses to write scripture, He was using special people He’d been preparing for a long time. The Apostle Peter explained spoken prophecy a similar way when he wrote that the Holy Spirit “led” people to speak for God (2 Peter 1:21).

So, this isn’t dictation, as if God seized the Apostle Peter’s hand and guided him like a robot, the way the rat Remy directed the hapless boy Linguini to cook, in the movie Ratatouille. Instead, it seemed to be an almost unconscious partnership, where God provided thoughts and impressions to people, who wrote what He wanted them to write, which is what He’d planned all along.[7] The Holy Spirit worked on people’s hearts and minds, moving them to remember and understand God’s truth, and to record it as He wanted.[8] This is why Luke tells us the Holy Spirit spoke through David (Acts 1:16), and the Apostle Peter referred to the Book of Deuteronomy and said, “God spoke long ago through his holy prophets,” (Acts 3:21).

1.2. In what way is Scripture a “perfect treasure” for us?

Because it has everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). A long time ago, one Baptist theologian wrote “[t]he Bible is the collection of writings which explains to him the life he has found in Christ.”[9] Like a fantasy epic, it slowly unfolds the true story of reality. It tells us how creation began, who we are, why we’re here, what’s wrong in this world, what’s wrong with us, how we find hope, and how this world will end. In this way, it’s a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction.

It is important to note that scripture does nothing in and of itself—it’s simply a vehicle for God to work. In order for this “perfect treasure of heavenly instruction” to work on us, we need a divine encounter + the message of the scripture + an honest reception and acknowledgment by a believing heart. In other words, the bible isn’t an IKEA instruction manual. You can’t read John 3, do what it says by rote, and “be all good.”

There must be an initial divine encounter. God must confront you for salvation in the person of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. He then confronts you for growth as you grow in the faith and read the scripture, applying the message to your life, enabling your heart to receive and be instructed by that message.  

1.3. What does it mean that the Bible has “salvation for its end”?

It means the Bible’s purpose is to tell us about the salvation God offers through Jesus Christ. There are many ways to sum up the Bible’s message. But, the basic “story” is that God is choosing and rescuing a special people to be with Him forever in His future kingdom community. Why is God saving or “rescuing” people? John 3:16 doesn’t exist for its own sake—it’s in aid of something more … something like a kingdom community. Revelation 21-22 shows us this.

Here is one way to picture the Bible’s story of “salvation for community” as an eight-episode mini-series:

1.4. Truth without any mixture of error? Is the Bible without error?

Solomon said God’s words were “tried and true, a shield for those who take refuge in Him,” (Prov 30:5). His promises are pure (Ps 12:6). The first thing to know about God’s word is that it’s true (Ps 119:160). Jesus said His word is truth (Jn 17:17). The Apostle Paul declared that God must be true, even if every person on earth is a liar (Rom 3:4).

Some Christians prefer to say the Scriptures have no errors and are therefore “inerrant.” But, as the passages above suggest, it’s more helpful to say the Scriptures are totally truthful in all they affirm, and are therefore His safe and reliable guide for His adopted children. This is more helpful because you’re framing it in a positive manner. You could say your child is “never bad.” But, it’s better to say “Peter is a nice, sweet boy.” It’s the same way with God’s word—it’s totally truthful and reliable.

The Scriptures came to us from many writers over 1,500 years. Each book came from the unique personality of its writer, each book uses the culture of its own time as the vehicle for revelation, and the writers used very different genres or styles.[10] This means we must take very good care to be sure we’re understanding it correctly, according to those personalities, cultures, and genre.[11]

For example, regarding personality, the Apostle Paul was a very educated man, which is why he wrote the Letter to the Romans and Peter did not. On culture, you’ll find it difficult to understand the prophet Hosea’s thunderous denunciation of the Northern Kingdom unless you know that he wrote it during Jeroboam II’s reign, when that kingdom was at its secular and economic zenith. When it comes to genre, if you understand that, say, Zechariah and Revelation were written in an apocalyptic style that’s intended to paint large, abstract pictures with startling imagery using figures that made sense to their own authors, in their own time … then you won’t spend time “decoding” the color of horses (Zech 1:7-17) or looking for a woman on top of a seven-headed monster (Rev 17:3f).  

The problem is when people confuse their interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself. If you do that, when you find someone who has a different interpretation, you might say, “he doesn’t believe the Bible!” Maybe. Or, maybe not! You must always remember two things; (1) your interpretation is not always the same thing as the Bible, and (2) some questions are really hard, and scriptural evidence may indicate more than one reasonable conclusion.

Finally, remember that the scriptures aren’t an encyclopedia, a geology book, or an astronomy text. They’re a collection of books which tell us how we got here, what went wrong, how God can rescue us, and what His plans are. God could have given us inspired texts about biology, physics, chemistry, and more. But, He didn’t. He gave us revelation that is “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction” which has “salvation for its end.” Evaluate its total truthfulness in that light.  “We must let the Bible tell us its own story and not hold it to false standards and tests.”[12]

1.5. What are the principles by which God will judge us all, one day?

There are two great questions every person will face: (1) have you repented and believed the Gospel, and if so, (2) have you served Christ with your life since your conversion?

You can think of the first question as a screening process—those who do not pledge loyalty to Christ don’t get the second question. The first question determines eternal destiny. The second question is about your faithfulness as Christ’s servant during the rest of your earthly life—your life will show what’s in your heart (Mt 12:33-35, 15:16-20, 16:24-25).

Jesus was clear about the first question. He told people to repent and believe His good news (Mk 1:15). His Gospel was about more than individual salvation; it was the promise to bring justice to a new society and liberate the oppressed (Isa 11:1-12; esp. v.4; Ps 72:4), to kill the wicked (Isa 11:4), to reverse the curse of the Fall (Isa 35:5-6; Mt 11:2-6)—all on the condition of loyalty, allegiance, of faith. It was the promise to fix this world and to fix each of us—everyone who comes for rescue. If you don’t believe the Son, God’s angry judgment remains on you (Jn 3:36).

The second great principle is about what a Christians builds atop the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:10-15). You’re a Christian—now what? What kind of “house” are you building on that foundation; a cheap one or a quality one? Do you use the cheapest materials, like wood, grass or hay? Or, do you use the finest ones—gold, silver, precious stones?

Christians often want to know what these “gold, silver, and precious stones” are! This isn’t the place to make a list, but surely things like (1) reading God’s word, (2) prayer, (3) a life of repentance, (4) a thirst for God to gradually change your heart, mind, and life to reflect Christ’s image, (5) membership in and service to your church community, and (6) sharing the Good News (which can take a whole lot of forms) must be on the list.

The scriptures tell us about all of this, in so many ways. It reveals these two great principles by which Christ will judge us.

1.6. What does it mean that the Bible is the “true center of Christian union?”

Christians can theoretically be on the same page, because we have the same book. The Apostle Paul said, “I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose,” (1 Cor 1:10). How do we overcome rivalries? By bowing down, together, under the authority of God through the scriptures. By evaluating our denominational traditions and habits through the filter of the Word.

In another place, Paul wrote this:

… make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

Ephesians 4:3-6

How can Christians from different traditions not see themselves as enemies, but as family? How to preserve unity? By remembering that we’re each part of one body, because God called us by the same hope. There is one, triune Lord to love, one faith in Christ to confess, one baptism by the Spirit that changes our hearts, and one God the Father of us all. Where do we learn about all this, so we can be brought back to these truths? In the scriptures. This is why the Bible is the true center of Christian union. It’s the reference point for all matters of faith and life.

The question inevitably comes—why, then, are there so many Christian denominations? Well, because we disagree about interpretations of that faith and life. These are inter-family disputes that don’t change the fact that all true Christians are family. It’s a sad thing that some believers forget that.

The next question—who is a true Christian? How do we know who is inside the family, so we know with whom we ought to seek union? If a person has repented, believed the Gospel, and has Christian fruit in her life as a mark of the new birth, then she is a Christian.  

1.7. Says who? The Bible as the “supreme standard.”

Teachers are good. Pastors are called by God. Books are a blessing. But, the only infallible source of authority for the Christian life are the scriptures. This is why the bible is the “supreme standard” by which you measure anything else.


[1] 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; 2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Sam. 23:2; Acts 1:16; 3:21; John 10:35; Luke 16:29–31; Psa. 119:111; Rom. 3:1. 2.

[2] 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 1:10–12; Acts 11:14; Rom. 1:16; Mark 16:16; John 5:38, 39.

[3] Prov. 30:5, 6; John 17:17; Rev. 22:18, 19; Rom. 3:4.

[4] Rom. 2:12; John 12:47, 48; 1 Cor. 4:3, 4; Luke 10:10–16; 12:47, 48.

[5] Phil. 3:6; Eph. 4:3–6; Phil. 2:1, 2; 1 Cor. 1:10; 1 Pet. 4:11.

[6] 1 John 4:1; Isa. 8:20; 1 Thess. 5:21; 2 Cor. 13:5; Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:6; Jude 3:5; Eph. 6:17; Psa. 119:59, 60; Phil. 1:9–11.

[7] See Augustus H. Strong’s discussion of the “dynamic theory” of scriptural inspiration, in Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), pp. 196, 211f. 

[8] Alvah Hovey, Manual of Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (New York: Silver, Burdett and Co., 1900), p. 63.  

[9] Edgar Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression (Philadelphia: Roger Williams Press, 1917), p. 153.

[10] For more on this, see especially Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), pp. 201-214. For specific principles at the intersection of science and scripture, see Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 17-117, 347-351.

[11] Donald Bloesch wrote, “The truthfulness of the Bible resides in the divine author of Scripture who speaks in and through the words of human authors, who ipso facto reflect the limitations and ambiguities of their cultural and historical milieu,” (Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), p. 37).

[12] Mullins, Christian Religion, p. 153. Blosech makes a similar point, “The biblical text is entirely truthful; when it is seen in relation to its divine center, God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ,” (Holy Scripture, p. 37).

Jesus v. Moses: a translation conundrum

Jesus v. Moses: a translation conundrum

At the end of Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, he makes a curious statement (Acts 13:38-39). It’s hard to figure out what he means. There’s no way a translation can be neutral, here. You have to interpret stuff to make it coherent. What does Paul say? I’ll quote the Common English Bible for a good, representative translation–pay attention to the areas I underline, because that’s where the question marks are:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, know this: Through Jesus we proclaim forgiveness of sins to you. From all those sins from which you couldn’t be put in right relationship with God through Moses’ Law, through Jesus everyone who believes is put in right relationship with God

Acts 13:38-39, Common English Bible

The two questions are this:

  1. What do the two words mean that the CEB translated as “be put in right relationship with God?” Your English version probably has “justified” or “made righteous.” What do they mean, in this context?
  2. Next, what exactly is Paul referring to when he refers to “Moses’ law”?

These questions don’t have obvious answers. I’ll briefly explain why and provide my own conclusions, in reverse order.

What is Moses’ law in Acts 13:38-39?

How is Paul seeing “Moses’ law,” here? There seem to be at least three options:

  1. If Paul is taken literally, then there was no salvation before Christ. If true, then Abraham wasn’t justified—but that is false (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3)—Old Covenant saints were justified by faith. This option is incorrect.
  2. If Paul is obliquely referring to the perversion of the law under which so many Jews groaned (cf. his own experience—Rom 7—that the law was the vehicle for righteousness), then it could make sense because Jesus fulfilled the law’s demands and taught a correct view of it (R.J. Knowling, Acts, in Expositor’s Greek Testament, p. 297; F.F. Bruce, Acts, in NICNT, pp. 278-279; Simon Kistemaker, Acts, p. 488; John Calvin, Acts, p. 572).
  3. Or, if Paul is referring Jesus making the final atonement and granting perfect peace in heart and mind (Schnabel, Acts, in ZECNT, p. 584), this could also make sense.

The second sense seems to be best because, as Bruce notes, that’s the way Paul frames the matter in his epistles! This is perhaps the most difficult bit of Paul’s argument to follow in Romans and Galatians. Paul generally didn’t argue against the Old Covenant law as it really was. Instead, he argued against the perverted form of it that was common in his day. Unless you get that, I don’t believe you’ll get his discussions of the law v. gospel in his epistles. This has been the source of endless confusion among both pastors and church members. The law was never a vehicle for becoming righteous. It was a prescribed code to regulate an existing saving relationship, and to bring awareness of your own sinfulness–so you’ll embrace the Messiah when he comes to fulfill the law’s demands in your place. Your children don’t do their chores in order to become part of your family. They do their chores because they already are part of your family, and are simply meeting obligations of that relationship.

So, I believe we should assume both that (1) Luke captured the sense of Paul’s words correctly (contra. C. K. Barrett, Acts, in ICC, 1:650), and (2) that Paul was consistent in the way he framed the law and the Gospel when he spoke to Jewish audiences. When he said Jesus could free them from the sins which the Mosaic Law couldn’t, he was in essence saying “you were taught you’d be made righteous by following the law, but you can’t do it right, and your sins always remind you of that! But, guess what? Anyone who believes in Jesus is set free from that never-ending treadmill of failure, that unending quest to earn salvation!”

What do those two words mean?

Look at your bible. What can Jesus do, that Moses’ law (properly understood) could not do? English translations vary. Here are some different usages (I paraphrase the sense but keep their word choices):

  1. ESV, NASB, RSV: Moses’ law couldn’t free you, but Jesus will free you.
  2. ISV: Moses’ law couldn’t justify you, but Jesus will justify and free you.
  3. NLT: Jesus will make you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
  4. NET, KJV, Jay Adams, CSB: Jesus can justify you, but Moses’ law could not.
  5. NEB, REB: Jesus can acquit you, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
  6. NIV: Jesus will set you free, which is a justification Moses’ law couldn’t achieve.
  7. Phillips: Jesus can absolve you, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t set you free.
  8. CEB: Jesus will put you into right relationship with God, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t put you into right relationship with God.
  9. N.T. Wright: Jesus can set you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t set you right (the same sense as CEB, above, but with different words).

As far as what on earth δικαιωθῆναι and δικαιοῦται mean (our two words), the most logical sense is “freedom” from the perversion of the law that Judaism too often championed. That is, freedom from the error that Moses’ law was a vehicle for salvation. That idea is wrong; it was never a means of “being made right” before God. Rather, it was the prescribed shape for one’s already existing relationship with God by faith in the promised Messiah! This is the same “freedom” Paul championed in Romans and Galatians.

I believe that, in his conclusion at Acts 13:38-39, Paul is calling them to believe in Jesus as Messiah and obliquely pushing against their false idea of salvation at the same time. He doesn’t stop to explain why their perverted view of Moses’ law was wrong. He assumes they hold this wrong view (he’s speaking during a synagogue service!), and that assumption is behind his statement that Jesus can free them from the weight of perfection they assume they must meet, according to their wrong view of Moses’ law.

As far as translation goes, here are my thoughts:

  1. You must strike a balance between translation and exposition. That is, if your translation veers off too far into explaining what it means, then you’ve lost your balance. That means a translation has to be willing to leave some ambiguity on difficult subjects, or it won’t be a translation. That’s why commentaries and sermons exist–to explain and apply.
  2. The renderings “justify” and “made righteous” are of little value. They communicate nothing to unbelievers. I think we ought to freshen the concepts up by setting these words aside, and choosing words that actually communicate.
  3. There are two good options for translating these words. First, it could carry the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).
  4. If you choose the sense of acquittal, you mean that Moses’ law could never do that for you, but Jesus can. But, the Bible doesn’t teach that Moses’ law was ever meant to do that, so you’ll have to assume that Paul is implicitly referring to the wrong version of Moses’ law that was common at the time. This is possible.
  5. If you go for the “freedom from *****” scenario, you’re basically saying the same thing, but you’re framing it more as a welcome escape from an impossible burden–“I can’t follow the law perfectly, so I’m always gonna be a failure, so how do I escape this unending cycle!?” So, Paul says, “freedom is here, and it’s in Christ!”

With either option, you have to assume a great deal about what Paul means when he speaks about Moses’ law. You can only get that from his epistles, primarily Galatians and Romans. This isn’t the place to “prove” a position on that score, so I’ll simply conclude with that. My answers to the two initial questions are:

  1. Both words give the sense of “freedom or release from a claim or obligation that no longer has any hold.”
  2. When Paul refers to Moses’ law, he means the wrongheaded interpretation of Moses’ law that was common at the time–that the law was a vehicle for achieving a right relationship with God.

After all that, here is my translation of Acts 13:38-39:

γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί ὅτι διὰ τούτου ὑμῖν ἄφεσις ἁμαρτιῶν καταγγέλλεται καὶ ἀπὸ πάντων ὧν οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε ἐν νόμῳ Μωϋσέως δικαιωθῆναι ἐν τούτῳ πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων δικαιοῦται

So, understand this,[1] brothers and sisters: forgiveness of sins is announced to you right now,[2] through[3] Jesus,[4] and[5] from all those sins from which you weren’t able to be set free[6] by Moses’ law—by Jesus[7] everyone who believes is set free!


[1] This is very odd grammar. In γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν, there seems to be an implied imperative subject (which could be rendered as “let this”), of which γνωστὸν is the predicate nominative. The result is something like “Therefore, let this be known to you …” I made it more colloquial.

[2] I take καταγγέλλεται to be a descriptive present, picturing an event unfolding at the time of speaking. The wording “right now” tries to capture that flavor. It’s very tempting to ditch the passive voice and render it as a present (e.g. CEB), but I resisted the urge.  

[3] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[4] Jesus is the pronoun’s antecedent.  

[5] This is καὶ, in an additive sense (cf. Tyndale; N.T. Wright, Kingdom New Testament). It could be ascensive (Barrett, Acts, 1:650), but I decided it was best as additive.  

[6] δικαιωθῆναι is a simple infinitive, complementing οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε. The word here, commonly translated “righteous,” carries the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).

[7] I take ἐν τούτῳ to be depicting personal agency (“by/through Jesus”), but it could be the object of the verb (“everyone who believes in Jesus,” cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:651).