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.

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).

A kingdom without borders

A kingdom without borders

This Sunday, I preached on Epiphany, which is when the Church around the world celebrates the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, often in the person of the magi who came from the East to worship the Christ child in Bethlehem. This precious event shows us that God’s kingdom is one without borders, where anyone who thirsts for righteousness can enter in.

Here, I’ll provide the sermon, along with the introduction and concluding exhortation.

Same song, different day

Picture three scenes. They have very different contexts, but they each have something in common. Try to figure out what that is:

Scene 1: A.D. 57:[1] Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, charged with bringing Gentiles into the inner courtyard (Acts 21:27-36)—this “crime” doesn’t exist in the Old Covenant!

Scene 2: A resolution from the Clarendon Baptist Church, in Alcolu, SC, in October 1957, in the wake of cultural backlash against the Brown v. Board of Education decision:[2]

We believe that integration is contrary to God’s purposes for the races, because: (1) God made men different races and ordained the basic differences between races; (2) Race has a purpose in the Divine plan, each race having a unique purpose and distinctive mission in God’s plan; (3) God meant for people of different races to maintain their race purity and racial indentity [sic] and seek the highest development of their racial group. God has determined “the bounds of their habitation

Scene 3: Post 9/11 America. Conservative evangelical Christians ramped up their anti-Muslim rhetoric.[3] You hear repeated statements about how Islam is bloodthirsty, a religion of hate. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared Muhammad was a “demon-possessed pedophile.” A church member gave me a book that argued that the antichrist will be a Muslim. There arose a cottage industry of evangelical charlatans who claimed they were former terrorists who knew “the truth” about Islam. I heard a missionary’s wife refer angrily to Muslims as “bastards of Islam.

What do these three scenes have in common?

The urge to exclude people “not like us” (whatever that “us” might be, it doesn’t matter what) from God’s kingdom—implicitly or explicitly:

  • Scene 1. There is no biblical warrant for a physical barrier between Court of Gentiles and the temple proper.
  • Scene 2. No biblical warrant for segregation in God’s family based on race.[4]
  • Scene 3. The implicit (and often explicit) message was, “Muslims are dangerous, Muslims will kill you, and President Obama is likely a Muslim who wants to impose sharia law.”

What does God say about this urge, this tendency of ours, that’s common to every culture? Who can join God’s kingdom?

Our passage today, from Matthew 2:1-12, tells us all about that. We’ll tackle it in two movements–(1) the foreigners arrive in Jerusalem, and (2) the foreigners arrive in Bethlehem.

Greek translation nerdiness

I translated two portions of the passage. I put that info here, just because I can’t think of another place they ought to go. If you know Koine Greek, and you’re interested in my translation and my syntax notes, then read on. Otherwise, skip this section.

Matthew 2:1-2 translation

Now, after[5] this Jesus[6] was born in Judean[7] Bethlehem in the days of Herod the King—listen to this, now![8]astrological scholars [9] from the East arrived in Jerusalem. They were asking everyone, [10] “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?[11] We[12] saw his star from[13] the East and we’ve come to worship him!”[14]

Matthew 2:9-11 translation

Now, after they heard from the king, they went out—and look![15]the star they’d seen in the East led them onward, until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When[16] they saw the star, they rejoiced with an unspeakable joy.[17] They went[18] into the house and saw the child with Mary,  his mother, and they fell on their knees[19] and worshiped[20] the boy. Then, they opened up their strongboxes and presented the child with gifts[21]—gold, worship incense,[22] and fragrant ointment.

Exhortation

Why did God bring these Eastern scholars to Bethlehem, that night?[23] Because the angels made the same announcement to them, that they made to the shepherds up to two years before, at the same time—it just took them nearly two years to get there!

Contrast that with what passed for the “Jewish nation,” at the seat of power in Jerusalem:

  • a dying, homicidal king—with delusions of grandeur!—who hatches a plan to kill the Messiah
  • scribes who are the worst example of civil servants = they can tell the scholars how to find the Messiah, but can’t be bothered to worship Him themselves![24]

Why did nobody else follow that star that dark night outside Jerusalem, to see what it meant? It’s possible these scholars from the East will rise up in judgment with the Queen of Sheba and the people of Nineveh (Mt 12:41-42)—because they believed when they had so little revelation. But the folks who ought to have known best … didn’t believe a word of it, or were too occupied with their lives to care

What is God teaching us?

  • That His kingdom has never had nationalist borders—it’s always been open to anyone who worships and obeys Christ. 
  • That sometimes the people who “know God” don’t Him at all.

What does God want us to do with what He’s saying—how can this make us more like Christ?

  • The church must accept anyone … if they come to worship and obey Christ. The shape of truth application depends on context. In Jesus’ cultural context, it meant non-Jews could actually be part of God’s family.
  • In a 2022 American context, it could mean many things. Think of a type of person (a cultural “other,” a true believer) with whom you’d be “uncomfortable” worshiping God on a Sunday morning, and then resolve to shove your discomfort aside.
  • Gentiles in Israel, black Christians in white churches, Muslims in American churches—who will be the next?

Epiphany teaches us that the only borders around God’s kingdom should be:

  • do I believe Christ is Lord and King?
  • have I bowed before Him in worship?   

And now, here is the sermon:


[1] My date here is from F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 475.

[2] Quoted in J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Support White Supremacy (New York: Oxford, 2021), p. 45.

[3] See Laurie Goldstein, “Seeing Islam as ‘Evil’ Faith, Evangelicals Seek Converts,” in New York Times. 27 May 2003. https://nyti.ms/3HO1M0A. “Evangelicals have always believed that all other religions are wrong, but what is notable now is the vituperation.” See also FBFI Resolution 02.02 “Concerning Islam.”

[4] On the sociological role of this issue as early as the antebellum era, Mark Noll has written: “It was no coincidence that the biblical defense of slavery remained strongest in the United States, a place where democratic, anti-traditional, and individualistic religion was also strongest. By the nineteenth century, it was an axiom of American public thought that free people should read, think, and reason for themselves. When such a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, that proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources,” (The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 34).

[5] The participle γεννηθέντος is temporal.

[6] The article with Jesus in Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ anaphoric. John Broadus notes, “Literally, the Jesus, the one just mentioned; ‘this Jesus’ would be too strong a rendering, but it may help to show the close connection,” (Gospel of Matthew, in American Commentary, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 15).

[7] A subjective genitive. There is more than one Bethlehem in the ancient world; e.g. Bethlehem of Zebulun (Josh 19:15). This “Judean Bethlehem” simply clarifies where Jesus was born.

[8] The particle ἰδοὺ is meant to draw attention to what follows. It’s a deliberate interjection to arrest the reader’s attention (BDAG, p. 468). Most EVV don’t translate it, which I think is a mistake. It might not make for smooth literature per se, but it’s what Matthew wrote, and we need to do something to catch the reader’s ear, in the same way.

[9] The terms “wise men” and “magi” communicate nothing. The term has its origins in the court magicians of the East (e.g. in the Babylon of Daniel’s era) who were experts in astrology, interpretations of dreams and visions, and other occult arts (BDAG, p. 608, 1). Later, into the NT era, the term broadened and referred to refer to a wide variety of men interested in dreams, magic, books, astrology, etc. (Carson, Matthew, p. 85).

It’s this last sense that fits best, here. “Matthew is probably using the word in a more general sense for the learned court advisers of Mesopotamia or Persian whose work involved studying ancient and sacred texts, as well as watching for movements of planets and stars that might be interpreted as divine messages,” (Mark Krause, “Wise Men, Magi,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016). The term could also refer to actual sorcerers or occultists, like the pre-conversion Simon (Acts 8) or the unfortunate Elymas (Acts 13). That is not likely, here.

So, I went with astrological scholars, because of the influence of the star. I could shorten it to “astrologers,” but that makes them sound a bit like New Age kooks.

[10] The participle λέγοντες is present-tense, and the context suggests they were asking repeatedly. Herod only “heard this,” they didn’t ask him directly. Herod sought them out. He could only have heard about their quest if they’d been asking many people, repeatedly. So, I translated this with an iterative flavor. It is attendant circumstance, contra. Quralles (EGGNT, Mt 2:1), whose preference for a purpose participle here would lead to an over-translated mess.

[11] A more literal rendering would be: “where is the one who was born king of the Jews?” (ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων). The participle is the subject (Christ), and “king” is a predicate nominative, denoting an attribute the infant had from birth.  

[12] I dropped the explanatory γὰρ completely. 

[13] The preposition is spatial. 

[14] On “worship,” see the discussion at v. 9. Why hadn’t Jerusalem and Bethlehem embraced the boy as the Messiah, in light of the shepherd’s testimonies (cf. Lk 2:17-18)? It’d been two years, after all! Probably for the same reason some Christians today are extremely skeptical at reports that God still performs miracles. For example, few people have heard about Ed Wilkenson and his son, Brad, whom God miraculously healed of an atrial septal defect, with two holes in his heart. The boy and his father prayed for deliverance, and even had special intercession from their church, but all seemed hopeless as the boy went in for surgery. They determined the holes had disappeared, which had not been the case on x-rays done just the day before. The doctors were flabbergasted, and had no explanation. Brad is still fine, is now an adult, and played baseball later that same week. There was no surgery. See the account, with footnotes from personal interviews and review of medical documentation, in Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 1:430-432.

What were these ramblings from these loser shepherds, anyway? Meh. Where’s the video evidence!? Away with them!

[15] Again, we have the particle of interjection, and it must be translated. “[L]ooking up to heaven as

they set out on their journey, they once more behold their heavenly guide,” (A.B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, in Expositors Greek Testament (6th ed.), ed. W. Robertson Nicole (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), p. 73.

[16] ἰδόντες is an adverbial, temporal participle, contra. Charles Quarles, who believes it is causal (Matthew, in EGGNT, Mt 2:10).  

[17] A literal translation would read something like “they were filled with very great joy” (ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα). The verb is passive, which is curious. It’s well-nigh impossible to replicate a passive sense of ἐχάρησαν, so in English we do an end-run around by changing the verb to something like “were filled,” or we drop the passive sense and do “they rejoiced.”

[18] ἐλθόντες is an attendant circumstance, following along after the exquisite joy they felt when they at last reached their destination, contra, Quarles (EGGNT, Mt 2:10), who thinks it’s temporal.  

[19] Πεσόντες is also attendant circumstance. 

[20] The word means “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure,” (BDAG, p. 882; see also Abbott-Smith, p. 386). It could refer to reverence and submission to a human authority figure with no implication of deity (cf. Mt 20:20). However, the context here is worship to the child as the Messianic King—this is their self-proclaimed mission (Mt 2:2), and Herod and his court know it (Mt 2:3-8). One could quibble whether worship to Christ as divine is in view, or merely as “the king.” Most EVV use “worship,” except for the NEB, REB (“paid homage”) and the CEB (“honored him”). Broadus preferred “do homage,” because the scholars appeared to only honor him as king, not as deity (Matthew, p. 18).

[21] The three gifts which follow are accusatives of apposition, explaining what these gifts are—hence the em-dash.

[22] Λίβανον is a balsamic gum from the Boswellia sacra tree, native to southern Arabia and northern Somaliland. When the material hardened, it produced exquisite resin which was typically used for burning incense in religious ceremonies—including temple liturgy (e.g. Ex 30:34; see James Knox, “Frankincense, in Lexham Bible Dictionary). It is better to render it as “pure incense” or something similar; cf. Jay Adams, John Phillips = “incense,” and Julian Anderson = “fine, sweet-smelling incense.”

[23] I believe we have a solid circumstantial to argue that (1) angels announced the Savior’s birth to these Eastern scholars at the same time as they did to the shepherds in the field (cf. Lk 2:8-20), (2) that they followed the star to find the boy, (3) the star acted as a divine GPS and was not a natural phenomenon, and (4) they just now arrived after perhaps two years journey, to worship the boy. This accounts for (1) how they found out about Christ’s birth, and (2) why their knowledge (i.e. a newborn king of the Jews, born somewhere near Jerusalem) comports so well with the announcement the angels made to the shepherds.

Speculation regarding the star is generally absurd, and Broadus sums it up rather well (for the argument seems to have advanced nowhere since his day!): “Taking Matthew’s language according to its obvious import, we have to set aside the above explanations, and to regard the appearance as miraculous; conjecture as to its nature will then be to no profit. The supernatural is easily admitted here, since there were so many miracles connected with the Saviour’s birth, and the visit of the Magi was an event of great moral significance, fit to be the occasion of a miracle,” (Matthew, p. 17).

[24] Broadus: “The scribes should be a warning to all religious teachers, in the pulpit, the Sunday-school, the family; they told others where to find the Saviour, but did not go to him themselves,” (Matthew, p. 21).

Thinking about Israel and the Church

Thinking about Israel and the Church

Here are some slides about a difficult topic. You shouldn’t mistake this presentation as a definitive assessment, or even fully representative of major positions. There are too many nuances, even within the same circles, to capture here. But still, these slides do a credible job of laying out some broad guardrails to think about this issue. I present three different options, and devote several slides to each one (check the headings).

Here you are …

On original sin

On original sin

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

Why it Matters

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

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

Two Generic Options

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

You can represent the most critical differences like this:

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survey of Selected Creeds

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

2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Art. 3

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

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

1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Art. 3

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

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

Westminster Confession of Faith, §6.3

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

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

Belgic Confession, Art. 15

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

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

Scripture

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

Romans 5:12-20

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

My translation is thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is self-explanatory.

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

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

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

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

My rendering is this:

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

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

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

My translation is:

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

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

1 Corinthians 15:21-22

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

My translation is thus:

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

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

Theologian Survey

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

Emil Brunner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Letham

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

Augustine (354 – 430)

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

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

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

Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 – 1141)

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

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

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

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catechism of the Catholic Church

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

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

Wayne Grudem

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

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

Millard Erickson

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

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


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

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

[3] Catechism, §405.  

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

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

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

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

[8] Gen. 3:6–24; Rom. 5:12.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Means. 

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

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

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

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

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

[22] Means.

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

[24] Opposition. 

[25] Means. 

[26] A genitive of apposition. 

[27] Means. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[39] Letham, Systematic, p. 380. 

[40] Letham, Systematic, p. 396. 

[41] Letham, Systematic, p. 396. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[58] Catechism, §405.  

[59] Grudem, Systematic, p. 495. 

[60] Grudem, Systematic, p. 495. 

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

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

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

New names for old covenants?

New names for old covenants?

Just yesterday, I preached about the New Covenant. Some church traditions celebrate Covenant Thursday on the day before Good Friday, which would be 09 April this year. I chose to hold our celebration before Palm Sunday, to kick off the Easter season. This way, before the Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter services … we remind ourselves what’s so special about the New Covenant.

If you come from a dispensational tradition, the New Covenant may not be important in your church tradition. It wasn’t a focus in my own seminary training. Instead, Dr. Larry Oats organized his systematic theology lectures around the dispensations. This is fine; Maranatha Seminary is a dispensationalist school. I personally think the biblical covenants are a surer foundation to form a framework for understanding God’s plan.

I decided to tackle the subject in two parts; (1) the roadmap that leads us to the New Covenant, then (2) what’s “new” about this new covenant. This sermon was one of the harder one’s I’ve ever prepared. It’s a sermon based on systematic theology, not a passage. Even worse, it’s a really big area of systematic theology. Perhaps worse still, I’m a very mild dispensationalist who believes in Old Covenant regeneration[1] and that the church is a full participant in the New Covenant, so many dispensationalist resources are of little use to me in this area.  

This brings me to the point of this little article. I believe the names of the biblical covenants are very bad. Useless. They communicate nothing. We should drop them. We should change them. These covenant names are largely theological conventions; not inspired. We don’t have to stick with them. Instead of labeling the covenants by the immediate recipient, we should label them according to their purpose.

Let me explain. I’ll briefly discuss the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and New covenants in turn.

The covenant of preservation (Noahic)

God didn’t make a covenant with Noah. He said, “I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you,” (Gen 9:9). In fact, the covenant was with all living creatures on the earth (Gen 9:9-10). So, if we want to label covenants by immediate recipient, we should call it the “covenant with the world.”

But, even this isn’t good enough.

In this covenant, God promised to preserve the world and His creatures intact. He promised to withhold judgment, even though after the flood He acknowledged “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” (Gen 8:21-22; 9:9-11). This covenant is the basis for common grace and the reason why a people even existed for Jesus to save.[2]

God started over knowing it would end badly (cf. Gen 9-10), and promised to withhold similar judgment indefinitely so His grace and judgment would be known for all time. He did it so Jesus could come one day and save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21).

I suggest we can communicate better with our congregations if we call this the “covenant of preservation.”

The covenant with His people (Abrahamic)

After promising to preserve the world, God then promised to save it through a very special people – the Jewish people. Along with the first, this covenant is the fountainhead for all of God’s promises.

It’s true that God did establish a covenant with Abraham. But, it isn’t really about Abraham. The covenant marks out the Jewish people as His special people. They’re the vehicle that brings forth the Messiah, who will bless all the nations of the earth with His gospel (Gen 12:3). The Jewish people are the ones who will evangelize the world during the Millennium (Zech 8:20-23). This covenant is the basis for Mary’s hope (Lk 1:55), for Zechariah’s hope (Lk 1:72-75), and for God’s grace even as He foretold the failure of the next covenant (Lev 26:42).

This covenant is with Abraham, but it’s not about Abraham. It’s about choosing a special people to be the conduit for divine blessings upon the whole world. This is why we have a Jewish Messiah.

It should be called “the covenant with His people.”

The covenant of holy living (Mosaic)

After choosing His people, God tells them how to live holy lives while they wait for the promises to Abraham to come true. Like an airplane orbiting, waiting for permission to land, God’s people were in a holding pattern waiting for Jesus to come. So, God tells them how to live holy lives while they’re waiting.

This is a conditional covenant; “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant,” (Ex 19:5). Like an arrangement with a troubled teenage son, it established rules and boundaries. Breaking the laws, in and of themselves, did not get you kicked out of the family but disciplined within it.

This covenant taught people about themselves – they were sinful. It taught people about God – that He is holy and righteous and punishes sin. The ceremonial laws were object lessons to teach us about Christ. The civil laws were general principles of righteousness applied to a specific context. The moral law was a mirror to show us our true nature, a general restraint on sin, and a vehicle for nudging His people towards greater holiness.

This covenant taught God’s people how to live and love Him while they waited for the promises of the previous covenant to come true. Their failure is ours, because we’d do no better. It tells us we’re not good people. It tells us that, even given divine promises with evidence, we still won’t obey. It tells us we need a permanent solution to our criminal nature. We need a divine intervention in our lives to make this happen.

Jesus is the one who came to do this.

Labeling it “the Mosaic covenant” tells Christians nothing. It ought to be called “the covenant of holy living.”

The covenant of the king (Davidic)

While they waited for God’s covenant promises to be fulfilled, God gave His people a king to rule over them. He established a dynastic line through a boy named David. He said a man from this line would rule over His people and be His royal representative on earth.

God promised David He’d subdue all his enemies (1 Chr 17:9-10), but this never happened.  But, Jesus (the “Son of David;” Mt 1:1) will do it (Ps 2, 110). He said He’d establish this dynasty through David (1 Chr 17:10), and this dynasty would last forever (1 Chr 17:11-12). But, the throne sits vacant. Jesus will fill it.

God said this king would be like a son to Him, and He’d be like a father to the king. There would be a familial closeness. Again, David’s throne is vacant and David committed many sins. His descendants were worse. Jesus is the “son of David” (Mt 1:1) who will fulfill this prophesy. Jesus isn’t God’s literal son; the “Father” and “Son” language expresses a closeness of relationship, not physical derivation.

This covenant isn’t about David. It’s about the promise of a good, perfect, eternal king descended from David who will be God’s perfect representative on earth for all eternity. That person is Jesus.

To call this the “Davidic covenant” is misleading. It’s really the “covenant of the king.”

Mile markers on the road to Jesus

In my sermon, I expressed these covenants as four, individual mile markers leading the Bible reader to Jesus of Nazareth. The fifth mile marker is Jesus.

  • preservation: it didn’t solve the sin problem, but instead God preserved the world so He could solve it through His Son
  • His people: God chose the Jewish people to be the vehicle for this new and permanent solution. Jesus is the descendant from Abraham who will bless people from all over the world, make it happen, and form a new family.  
  • holy living: God told His people how to hold the fort, love Him, live holy lives, and maintain relationship with Him through the priests and the sacrificial system until the new solution arrives. They failed; that’s why Jesus came to fulfill the terms of that covenant by being perfect for His people.
  • king: God chose a dynasty to represent Him, love Him, and lead people to do the same. Jesus is that king.

This all leads to Jesus, who enacts a new and better covenant based on better promises (Heb 8:6). These “better promises” are summed up with one word; peace! In the New Covenant, Jesus (1) gives His people a new and better relationship with Him, (2) has a pure covenant membership, and (3) permanently blots out their sins.[3]

For these reasons, while the “new covenant” term is biblical language, perhaps it’s best to call it “the covenant of perfect peace.”

I believe these name changes communicate better. They focus on the covenant’s purpose, rather than the immediate recipient. In this way, the new names mean something. They teach the reader. They tell a story.

The old names … not so much.

Here is the sermon. Note: I made a terrible mistake by moving the camera four feet from it’s normal spot and lost about 75% of the lighting. I moved it back now. Sorry for the poor lighting:


[1] But, then again, so did Rolland McCune (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. [Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009], 2: 267-280). Heh, heh …

[2] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 442-443.

[3] I am generally following F.F. Bruce here, while re-phrasing the first two points: “This new relationship would involve three things in particular: (a) the implanting of God’s law in their hearts; (b) the knowledge of God as a matter of personal experience; (c) the blotting out of their sins,” (Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed.,in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990; Kindle ed.], KL 2170 – 2171).

Christ and Sonship

I’m working on a catechism that I intend to self-publish. It’ll be an amalgamation of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Larger Catechism, Spurgeon’s catechism (itself an edited, not original, work), Keach’s catechism and a few odds and ends from me.

I intend to give it away to new members who join the congregation where I minister, and to have it available as a cheap, inexpensive resource I can point people towards. I self-published my last book, and I am very happy with Amazon’s self-publishing options. They produce a quality trade paperback that’s quite a bargain if you have the patience to do your own editing and layout.

I’m using the Heidelberg Catechism as my base, lightly editing some of the questions and answers as I go. Occasionally, I’m adding significant portions of material. One of them is regarding Christ and His Sonship. Compare the original material and my revisions, below:

Original

Q: Why is he called God’s “only begotten Son” when we also are God’s children?

A: Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God. We, however, are adopted children of God—adopted by grace through Christ.

My revision

Q: Why is He called God’s one and only (or “begotten”) Son, since Christians also are children of God?

A: Christ is not God’s “Son” in a biological sense, but in a different sense. It means He has the same nature as the Father, which means the same power, glory majesty and honor. Thus, Luke calls Barnabas a “son of encouragement,” which means he has an encouraging nature. This is the way in which Jesus is God’s “Son;” He is equal.  

Christians, however, are children of God by adoption, through grace, for Christ’s sake. We do not naturally belong to Him. Instead, He wrests sinners from Satan’s grasp, brings us into His family and clothes us in His Son’s perfect righteousness.

Differences

The original kept the unfortunate rendering “only begotten,” which really means “unique” or “one and only.” So, I changed it.

It also, I believe, retained a wrong idea of what “sonship” means. I don’t believe in the doctrine of eternal generation, and I don’t believe most people (even theologians) can really explain what it means in normal language without conveying the idea of derivation. I am certainly not alone here; no less a theologian than Millard Erickson (see his excellent Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?) criticizes the doctrine. See especially David Beale’s discussion of eternal generation’s doctrinal development (Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. [Greenville: BJU Press, 2013], 2:142-170).

So, I don’t believe Christ’s sonship has anything to do with an eternal generation from the Father. The very idea smacks of some kind of derivation. I believe Christ’s sonship refers primarily to His equality with the Father, and I made sure to bring this out.

Thoughts About the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is hard to teach, because there are so many ancient heresies to guard against and because, well … it’s complicated. But, the Scriptures present God as triune. That means we need to teach about Him. We need to teach Christians to know Him and love Him as He is; and He’s triune.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the doctrine of the Trinity; probably more than most pastors. That, and Christology, are my own hobby horses. Some people find joy in making complicated end-times charts. Others find fulfillment in being a Baptist fundamentalist. Still other Christians find their religious self-identity in a particular view of the doctrine of salvation. I like to study about who God is, and how He’s revealed Himself.

I just finished Millard Erickson’s God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity. It’s a very good book, but probably not the most engaging thing for the “average” Christian to read. It presupposes a lot of theological training. Erickson’s book is one of the most helpful works on the Trinity I’ve read. On balance, I’d say Carl Beckwith’s The Holy Trinity may have had a more formative influence on me, but this might be because I read it first. Beckwith is a good Lutheran, and Erickson is a irenic conservative Baptist, but they’ve both produced very fine works on this most important of doctrines.

As I think on the doctrine now, here is a non-exhaustive list of things (in no particular order) I think need to be emphasized if one wishes to teach the Trinity in a comprehensive way.

1: The “three foundations” James White mentioned in his excellent book The Forgotten Trinity

  • Monotheism; there is only one God
  • There are three divine persons
  • Each person is co-equal and co-eternal

I think the best way to do this is to walk through several passages of Scripture that support each foundation. The trick is to be comprehensive without being exhaustive.

2: The definitions of “Being” and “Person”

Both these terms have baggage, and were fought over during the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. We need to consider how the great creeds seem to use these terms, but we shouldn’t be slaves to, for example, 4th century expressions of theological categories. In other words, just because the 4th century creeds may not have intended to convey a more modern concept of “personhood” which includes self-consciousness, this does not mean this modern definition of “personhood” is wrong!

The terms “being” and “person” are good; but their proper definitions must always comport with Scripture. I am concerned with a kind of rote confessionalism that encourages an almost slavish devotion to old formulations of eternal doctrine. This isn’t a call to jettison historical theology; it’s simply a call to not be a slave to it.

3: The Trinity as a society of persons

This is Erickson’s term, and I like it. He wrote, “The Godhead is a complex of persons. Love exists within the Godhead as a binding relationship of each of the persons to each of the others,” (221). He explained:

… the fundamental characteristic of the universe is personal … The supreme person is indeed a person, with identity, thought, will and personality, with whom it is possible to have a relationship, conscious to both parties. This supreme being, however, was not content to remain solitary. He acted to create reality external to himself. This involved the creation of the material universe and all physical objects within it. It also involved bringing into existence other selves besides himself. These persons, to a large extent, exist for relationship with the creating and originating God. If, then, the most significant members of the creation are persons in relationship, then reality is primarily social. This means that the most powerful binding force in the universe is love.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 220-221.

This is good, but I think he could have brought more of the holiness attribute into play. God’s love is defined by His holiness. It doesn’t exist apart from it. I buy that God didn’t have to create creation (and, particularly, human beings), so clearly He desired worship and social interaction, so clearly He is social.

But, is “love” the best way to get this across? Probably. I struggle to express this without having to toss in caveats about how this isn’t narcissism on God’s part. He didn’t want us because of who we are; He wants us to worship Him because of who He is. In other words, we aren’t doing God any favors by being believers! God isn’t a harried middle-manager who’s “so happy to have us on the team,” so to speak.

4: Perichoresis as the guard against tritheism

I never heard about this doctrine at seminary; or, at least, I don’t remember. I first came across it in Carl Beckwith’s volume. Erickson echoes it here. Briefly, Erickson explains, “[p]erichoresis means that not only do the three members of the Trinity interpenetrate one another, but all three are intimately involved in all the works of God,” (235).

This is perhaps most clearly seen in Jesus’ promise about the coming of the Spirit, in John 14-16. In a recent sermon on that same passage, I described this interpenetration as an eternal, divine union between Persons. I was happy to see Erickson echo my own thoughts and state, “[t]he Godhead is to be thought of as less as a unity, in the sense of oneness of simplicity, than as a union, involving three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” (264).

The generic, conservative expressions of the Trinity (even in some theological texts) is often a functional tritheism. This doctrine of perichoresis was revolutionary to my own thinking, and I think it’s rightly the key to avoiding the charge of tritheism.

5: Analogies can be useful

There are lots of really bad Trinity analogies. Some theologians believe we should cast aside all attempts to make analogies, because they each inevitably fall short. Erickson disagrees, and sees them as useful symbols for pointing to a larger reality. Erickson explains:

It is simply not possible to explain it [the doctrine of the Trinity]unequivocally. What must be done is to offer a series, a whole assortment of illustrations and analogies, with the hope that some discernment will take place. We must approach the matter from various angles, ‘nibbling at the meaning’ of the doctrine, as it were.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 268.

What I’ve taken away from this is that some analogies are useful to get at different aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity.

  • for the idea of a composite union forming one entity, Erickson suggests the analogy of the brain, the heart and the lungs forming distinct but integral parts of a human body. Each is quite useless on its own, and by itself each could never be called “human.” But, combined together, we have a human being. Thus it is with the Persons of the Trinity; they do not exist and have never existed without each other. They are more than the sum of their parts.
  • for the concept of interpenetration as closeness of relationship, Erickson suggests a marriage.

6: There is no eternal subordination of function or nature

Most conservative evangelical pastors are taught that there is an eternal subordination of function in the Godhead. That is, Father, Son and Spirit are equal in power, glory, honor (etc.), but they have different roles in accordance with their functions. The Father is always “in charge,” as it were, because He has a particular role to play. This is why the Son always obeys the Father, etc.

Advocates for this position often reach to the analogy of complementarian marriage; men and women are equal before God, but the husband is in charge because he’s been assigned a superior role. There is equality in essence, but subordination in function.

I couldn’t agree less. I think this idea, variously called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or eternal subordination of the son (ESS), is terribly misguided. I disagree with EFS wholeheartedly. I’ve read Bruce Ware’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit (EFS) and I’ve read Erickson’s book against EFS. As far as I’m aware, only Erickson, Kevin Giles and D. Glenn Butner have written book-length works against EFS – the rest of the generically conservative evangelical folks seem to tilt towards EFS.

The issue of eternal generation is tied up with EFS; it’s advocates generally don’t hold to eternal generation. Interestingly, Erickson opposes EFS and dislikes eternal generation. J. Oliver Buswell Jr., who didn’t address the issue (‘cuz it wasn’t an issue in his day), presents Christ’s functional subordination as temporary and strongly suggests we get rid of eternal generation altogether. David Beale, a theologian and historian much closer to home, dedicated perhaps 30 pages of his historical theology to arguing against eternal generation. 

Speaking for myself, I don’t understand eternal generation and have never read an account by a theologian who seemed to understand it, either (including Beckwith, who is otherwise excellent). I think Shedd came close, but I forgot his reasoning one day after reading it – it’s very convoluted. It smacks of some kind of ontological subordination to me, no matter which way you slice it – and it doesn’t seem tied to the text.

Erickson writes:

I would propose that there are no references to the Father begetting the Son or the Father (and the Son) sending the Spirit that cannot be understood in terms of the temporal role assumed by the second and third persons of the Trinity, respectively. They do not indicate any intrinsic relationship among the three. Further, to speak of one of the persons as unoriginate and the others as eternally begotten or proceeding from the Father is to introduce an element of causation or origination that must ultimately involve some kind of subordination among them …

There is no permanent distinction of one from the others in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 309-310.

Erickson unpacked this at great length in his book examining EFS, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity, which I recently read and agreed with.

Now what?

I want to teach the Trinity in church one day, unpacking these concepts in a way average, ordinary Christians can understand. These concepts, mentioned briefly above, will likely form the backbone of what this teaching series will eventually look like. The problem, again, is how to be comprehensive without being exhaustive. I don’t think I can do that, right now.

So, for now, I nibble around the edges a bit, emphasizing what I can as the text suggests it. Right now, I preach a sermon on either the Trinity, or Father, Son and Spirit each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, which is monthly. In this manner, I’ll likely cover all of this eventually but I’d like to bring it all together in two sermon or two, one day. I don’t know if I can do that!

But, I can at least say that I’ve read (and continue to read) widely on the subject, and I’ve gotten to a point where I can accurately sketch out where I need to go. The latest three watershed revelations for me are that (1) the concept of perichoresis is extraordinarily helpful and biblical, (2) EFS is quite dangerous, and (3) the doctrines of eternal generation and the Spirit’s procession (i.e. some sort of taxis with the Godhead) are likely extra-biblical and can be dropped.

I plan to order Erickson’s book on God’s attributes, and his tome on the incarnation soon. It may not come as a great surprise that Erickson is my favorite theologian! I need to read Beckwith’s book again, and I plan to see what Moltmann and Brunner have to say about the Trinity, too. I also need to delve into the patristic authors more. There’s always more to read, but it’s always fun.

What is the Central Theme of the Bible?

There are lots of opinions on how to summarize the story of reality God gives us in the Bible. Mike Vlach argues “kingdom” is the grand theme of Scripture, which I first encountered at Seminary and through Alva McCain’s book. Indeed, Vlach’s new release is often seen as supplanting McClain’s tome as the premier biblical theological study on the Kingdom of God, from a dispensational perspective.

I agree that “kingdom” is the main theme of the Bible. Here is Vlach’s summary of the Bible’s storyline with “kingdom” as the theme (pg. 23):