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):

What I Wrote in 2018

These statistics are rather interesting. Yesterday, I revealed what I read in 2018. My total was 36 books, which beats the 30 I read in 2017. Today, however, I wish to reveal what I wrote in 2018. Here it is:

Sermons and adult bible study lesson

I know sermons are just as much about communication as they are about writing, but I decided to put them in this category, anyway. As best I can tell, I preached 84 sermons in 2018. This is far, far below what I had to do as a pastor in rural Illinois, where my preaching and teaching load was twice this amount. You can find most of them at the link, above. Some of them, however, were not recorded and you’ll have to take my word for it!

My own website

I became a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church on 20 May 2018, which is precisely two years after I left my previous pastorate in Illinois. This means I have much less time to write. Even so, I managed to write 46 articles this year. Many of them were excerpts from books I’d been reading. I wish I had time to write more.

SharperIron.org.

I write every week for a website called … (you guessed it) … SharperIron.org. I write two original articles per month, and post one article each week about a theological topic. On this last bit, sometimes I post heretical points of view, and other times just “controversial” stuff to generate discussion. This doesn’t entail any original thought; I just have to find something flashy from which to post an excerpt.

I see I wrote 69 articles for SharperIron in 2018.

Summing up

So, as I figure it, I wrote and preached 84 sermons, wrote 115 articles and read 36 non-fiction books in 2018. That’s not too bad. Not bad at all. And, I happen to be reading four books simultaneously right now! Perhaps I can make it to 40 in 2019 ..

What I Read in 2018

I read 36 non-fiction books in 2018. Most are theological, and the rest are mostly history or biography. Here they are:

The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity by Os Guinness

A wonderful book. I reviewed it here. This is a great book about religious liberty.

With Malice Towards None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates.

A great one-volume biography. Worth reading.

Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward.

Great book. Ward tackles the King James Version Only (“KJVO”) movement without wading into the quagmire of textual criticism. I interviewed the author here, at length. It strongly complements James White’s book, for those who are looking for answers to the KJVO movement.

1 and 2 Maccabees by Who Knows (RSV translation).

I think the Old Testament apocrypha is very important for pastors to better understand the background and context of the New Testament. Good stuff; especially 1 Maccabees.

1 and 2 Esdras by Who Knows (RSV translation).

More Old Testament apocrypha. These books is usually grouped with the Old Testament Apocrypha, even though that really isn’t accurate. It’s actually a composite book containing three documents. The first is a Jewish apocalypse from the late first-century (also known as 4 Esdras), likely written just after the destruction of the temple in the aftermath of the Jewish Wars. It’s book-ended by two, shorter Christians works; the first from the second century and the other from the third century.

It’s a fascinating work. There are many, clear allusions to New Testament texts in the Christian documents. And, the discussion of theodicy in the Jewish apocalypse is very, very interesting.

A few highlights from 4 Esdras section; (1) the author took a literal, creationist interpretation to Genesis 1-3; (2) the theodicy shows a high respect for God’s sovereignty and has echoes of Job, and makes some excellent theological comments as it summarizes Israel’s sin, and (3) there’s even a Daniel interpretation.

Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement by Owen Strachan.

Good stuff. If you’ve read George Marsden’s classic Reforming Fundamentalismthen you’ll re-tread some of the same ground here. This book takes a slightly different approach. It uses Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry and (to a lesser degree) Edward Carnell as foils to discuss the intellectual awakening which prompted the evangelical movement in the immediate post-World War 2 era. It’s a fascinating, quick read.

It’s also sad, as you see the seeds of the “Gospel-centric” approach to coalition building which inevitably produced a movement characterized by theological Jell-O. As we survey the vast theological wasteland that is “evangelicalism” in 21st-century America, and consider the lessons learned from Ockenga, Henry and Carnell’s naive idealism (particularly Henry’s), we see the necessity for a confessional approach to doctrine. Coalitions and movements cannot exist without a strong confessional center. If that means the movements are smaller, I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing.

Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation by Zane Hodges.

I only read 40 pages of this book. I have no problem reading folks I disagree with; I do that all the time. But, Hodges’ book is pure trash. No balance. No scholarship. No fairness. Just angry trash. Hodges position, that repentance isn’t necessary for salvation, is a heresy and it’s not the Gospel. It’s very, very dangerous.

Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by N.T. Wright

I don’t know what I think about this. I largely think Wright is arguing against Reformed straw men. I didn’t trace his textual arguments with my Bible open, so I’d have to re-read that section. My sophisticated opinion is that Wright is thinking way, way too hard. I know that makes little sense, but that’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution – 1764 – 1789 by Robert Middlekauff

A great book, from the Oxford History of the United States series.

Overlord by Max Hastings

A great book on the lead-up to D-Day. Hastings is a world-class historian; he brings history down to the popular level without dumbing it down. Outstanding book.

Tobit (RSV translation)

My favorite book from the Old Testament apocrypha, dating from perhaps the 2nd century B.C. I appreciate it because it’s a wonderful story. It’s also a great snapshot of one expression of the faithful Jewish life, in the time before the New Testament era.

Judith (RSV translation)

Judith was one dangerous woman, lemme tell you …

Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle by Henri Blocher.

I was disappointed with this little book. Blocher did have a good point that the common analogy “sin as a virus” unwittingly de-emphasizes the human responsibility for sin, as though it isn’t our fault. Sin is our fault, catching a cold isn’t, and that’s where the analogy breaks down.

Blocher also has problems with federal and natural headship theories about the imputation of sin. His solution is to offer what I perceive to be a sub-set of federal headship. He suggests Adam’s sin is imputed to all of creation, because he was the representative head of creation.  I’ve read this section three times, and I don’t understand how this is different than federal headship.

All in all, this is an academic tome which has little practical connection or value to pastors or, heaven forbid, ordinary Christians. It’s written for the academy and interacts extensively with scholarly literature. I’m temped to donate it to Goodwill straightaway, but … my opinion about this little book is so negative I feel I should read it again in a few months. Perhaps I’m missing something.

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough.

This was a delightful book. I enjoyed it more than perhaps any other I read this past year.

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870 – 1914 by David McCullough.

Another outstanding book. What an amazing story!

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.

This is the first of a three-volume biography Morris wrote about Teddy Roosevelt. This is a marvelous book. The sweep of Roosevelt’s life from birth to the Presidency is extraordinary. The man was a published naturalist, a published naval historian, a New York assemblyman, a rancher, the defacto leader of the U.S. Civil Service Commission for seven years, a Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy on the eve of the Spanish-American War, resigned to lead a volunteer band of cavalry in the war and posthumously earned the Medal of Honor for his exploits, returned and was elected Governor of New York, then became Vice President of the United States in William McKinley’s second administration.

When McKinley was assassinated barely six months into his second term, Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States. This volume covers all of this.

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris.

The second volume of Morris’ biography on Roosevelt. This doesn’t move along quite as fast, but it’s still excellent. Here, we see Roosevelt as a consummate statesman, negotiating an end to the Pennsylvania coal strike and mediating to help end the Russo-Japanese War. We see a portrait of a brilliant man who has come into full and absolute command of his powers.

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Wilken

Very interesting. The more background context a pastor can have, the better. I need to read it again.

Solving Marriage Problems by Jay Adams

Jay Adams is the best. His books are great, and very helpful. Pastors should get his material.

John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain Murray

This book is not worth the $25.87 that Amazon is currently selling it for. It’s more of a sketch than a full-fledged biography, as Murray admits. The book is hagiographic, with some gentle pushbacks from Murray about MacArthur’s dispensationalism.

Murray makes some unworthy comments about Lewis S. Chafer, and suggests MacArthur believes Chafer’s weak anthropology laid the groundwork for the easy-believism of 20th century evangelicalism. I’ve read Chafer’s systematic theology, and this is a false charge. Chafer’s anthropology, hamartiology and soteriology are first-rate, and are clearly Reformed.

This book is worth checking out from the library, not buying. Its main weakness is that its more a sketch than a biography.

Historical Theology In-Depth: Themes and Contexts of Doctrinal Development since the First Century by David Beale (2 volumes)

Outstanding set; indispensable. I reviewed it here.

David Beale was a professor of church history at Bob Jones Seminary for 35 years. This two-volume set presents key doctrinal themes from church history in chronological format, through 57 chapters. It contains extensive citations and excerpts from the key players he’s discussing. This is probably the best introductory-level historical theology book I’ve ever read. It’s outstanding.

Every pastor should have this set; it’ll be a quick and ready reference for his entire ministry. Beale’s discussion on the early ecumenical councils (e.g. Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus [though, to be fair, this wasn’t a “real” council] and Chalcedon) is particularly good.

Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture by David deSilva

Very helpful. Very good. I need to read it again.

Baptist History in England and America: Personalities, Positions, and Practices by David Beale

A first-rate, profound study of the Baptist story. It’s better than Leon McBeth’s book. It’s might be the best Baptist history in print.

The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez

I read the 175 pages (or so) that dealt with the medieval church, because that’s an area I particularly want to brush up on. It was excellent. This was my assigned textbook in seminary for a church history survey. It’s a very, very good book. I need to buy the revised edition.

Duty by Robert Gates

I have great respect for Bob Gates. He was Director of the CIA, President of the Texas A&M system, and Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama. This is an outstanding memoir.

Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey

A good book about the Christian worldview. I listened to about half of it, but I’ve heard all this before, so I grew bored about halfway through and stopped reading.

The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord

A great book. The story of Dunkirk must be told, and Lord did a great job.

Seapower by James Stavridis

A book about the role of oceans on geopolitics. It’s sort of an updated version of Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower Upon History. Excellent stuff. I have great respect for Stavridis, the former U.S. Navy Admiral and Supreme Commander of NATO.

Relevance by Os Guinness

Guinness specializes in worldview books, and this one is good. Unfortunately, I can’t remember too much of it, right now. I do remember it was good!

Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by John Meacham

I listened to this book after President Bush passed away. Very interesting.

Retribution: The Battle or Japan 1944-1945 by Max Hastings

Great book.

Jews in the Roman World by Michael Grant

Outstanding book that provides context to the New Testament writings.

Herod the Great by Michael Grant

This is an indispensable book for pastors who want to understand the New Testament world.

George Whitefield (vol. 1) by Arnold Dallimore

Whitefield was truly a great evangelist, raised up by God.

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

This is a terrifying book. I follow President Trump on Twitter, and I believe every word Woodward wrote. In light of James Mattis’ recent resignation as Secretary of Defense, and comments from Rex Tillerson’s (former Secretary of State) and John Kelly (former Secretary of Homeland Security and White House Chief of Staff), I believe it all even more.

One is not like the other …

The Septuagint (“LXX”) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, dating to sometime in the mid to early 2nd century B.C. It came about because many Jews living abroad, particularly in Egypt, had lost much of their ability to read and speak Hebrew. They need a translation of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) in their own language. The Mediterranean culture was heavily influenced by Hellenism at this time; a legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquests. So, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek.

This Greek version of the Tanakh was the version Jesus and the apostles used. The majority (but not all) of their Old Testament citations are from the Septuagint. This means the Septuagint is important.

I’m preaching from Zechariah 12:1 – 13:1 next week, as our congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper. This passage contains the famous prophesy about the Israelites looking to Jesus, whom they pierced (Zech 12:10). This “piercing” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, and echoes an earlier prophet, Isaiah (“but He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities …” Isa 53:5).

But, there’s an interesting problem. The LXX is different from the Hebrew!

One of these is not like the other

Here is the difference between the two:

To be sure, there are a lot of similarities. Both have a transition statement (“and”) to let the reader know a new, related subject is coming. Both have Yahweh declaring that He’ll “pour out” onto David’s house and those who are living in Jerusalem a spirit characterized by grace and mercy. These are things that describe this spirit; it’s merciful and full of grace.

But, here is the difference. The Hebrew clearly has a reference to someone whom the Israelites pierced. They’ll look at Yahweh, who they pierced, and they’ll be ashamed. This isn’t in dispute. Look at some other English translations:

  • KJV: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced …”
  • RSV: “when they look on Him whom they have pierced …”
  • NASB: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”
  • NET: “they will look to me, the one they have pierced …”
  • NIV: “they will look on me, the one they have pierced …”
  • NKJV: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”
  • NLT: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”

What does the LXX say? It says this:

Then they’ll stare fixedly at me, dumbfounded, because they treated me with hate.

The “look upon” part is still there; I just translated it in a more colloquial fashion (“stare fixedly at me, dumbfounded”). It’s the second part that’s different. The LXX says the Israelites will be astonished because they treated Yahweh with so much hate. How did they do this? Well, presumably, they treated Him with hate (or, despitefully) by rejecting Him for so long … until they didn’t.

The rest of the verse clarifies:

And they’ll grieve for Him, crying as for a loved one. And they’ll be in terrible, painful anguish, like for a firstborn son.

Because they treated Yahweh with so much hate, they’ll grieve for Him. You could translate the pronoun as it, but only if you believe the antecedent is an impersonal object, like the hateful treatment. But, if that were the case, the rest of the verse wouldn’t make too much sense. How can you mourn and grieve for an impersonal object like you would for a loved one, or even a firstborn son? The New English Translation of the Septuagint agrees, and so did Brenton’s translation. The Lexham English Septuagint, however, goes with “it,” but this deliberately a very literal translation.

The best way to understand this is as a third-person, personal pronoun (Him). But, who? Yahweh is talking in the first-person about Himself, but then shifts to third-person and says the Israelites will mourn for Him. This person is Jesus, who the Jews will turn to in the last days when the Spirit is poured out upon them, to convert them to the New Covenant.

Why the change?

The Greek text was clearly changed. The translators messed with it. The Hebrew reads “pierced,” and the Jews who did the translation altered it on purpose. They changed it to read “because they treated me with hate.” Why did they do it?

Maybe because they didn’t like what it said. How can someone “pierce” God? How does that even work? So, they changed it.

But do we know they being malicious? Not really! Perhaps it was more convenient to take this “piercing” in a more figurative sense. You know that feeling you get when someone you care about betrays you in an awful fashion? Isn’t it like having a stake driven right through your heart? Perhaps God felt that way when the Israelites hated Him, so this “piercing” was more metaphorical and poetic. In a colloquial way, the Israelites “cut God really deep” with their actions. Maybe that’s how they justified the change.

“Here, now,” they might have thought, “this is getting to the idea of being treated with malice and hate, so let’s just spell it out plainly, and drop the ‘piercing’ imagery!”

In a parallel way, the NET did a similar thing when it rendered Deuteronomy 10:16. See a comparison:

  • NET: Therefore, cleanse your heart and stop being so stubborn!
  • ESV: Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

The more literal rendering is to “circumcise” your heart. The NET decided that was too literal, and tried to get to the heart of the phrase by dropping the figurative imagery. That’s not necessarily a problem … unless you’re wrong about what that figurative imagery means!

In this case, assuming I’m right about why the LXX translators changed it, they were certainly wrong about what the imagery meant. It wasn’t imagery at all; Jesus literally was pierced (i.e. died). 

Am I right about the reason for the change? I’ve no idea. Nobody knows why it was changed, so I might as well speculate right along with the commentators. Their guess is as good as mine. When a good textual critical commentary on the LXX of Zechariah comes out, then maybe we’ll have a more informed opinion! After all, there is no monolithic “one Septuagint.” There are many versions of the Septuagint floating around!

Bottom line

The LXX is neat. The LXX is helpful. The LXX is necessary. If you’re a pastor, and you took two years of Greek, you can muddle your way through the LXX. If you took more than the two years of Greek, you can stumble your way through it, like I do.

The LXX of Zechariah 12:10 is different, but it still conveys the same essential meaning. There are two people in the verse; Yahweh and the Person the Israelites will mourn for when they come to faith. This verse is a small snapshot of our triune God.

Holy, Holy, Holy (Revelation 4)

This is a series of short articles on Revelation 4-21. 

This vision takes place directly after the well-known messages to the seven congregations (Rev 1-3). John sees a door open in heaven above; sort of like an open invitation (Rev 4:1), and it’s Jesus who invites him up to see something very special. We know Jesus is speaking to John, because John says “the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said …” (Rev 4:1). At the beginning of this book, this figure with the trumpet-like voice is Jesus, the Son of Man, glowing with an ethereal holiness (see also Ezek 1:26-28), who John falls down to worship (Rev 1:10-20).

Jesus beckons John to come see “what must take place after this,” (Rev 4:1). John has shown us the glorified and risen Messiah, and the state of seven contemporary churches. Now, he tells us about the future.

John feels himself being taken by the Spirit up to heaven, through this open door, to see the mysteries up above (Rev 4:2; compare Ezek 8:1-4). This is an ecstatic trance; John did not literally fly to heaven. Some dispensationalist commentators claim the “rapture” of the church occurs here, but the text suggests no such thing. Only someone with an agenda could make a dogmatic claim, here. 

Someone is on a throne in heaven (Rev 4:2). He sparkles and shines like a precious jewel, and his throne is encompassed with an emerald rainbow (Rev 4:3). This is very similar to what Ezekiel saw, in his own vision of God (Ezek 1:26-28). Surrounding this large throne are 24 smaller ones, perhaps in a circle. Upon each throne sits an “elder,” clad in white, with a golden crown (Rev 4:4).

Rumbling thunder and flashes of lightening come from the central throne, which suggests God produces this awesome sight (compare Ex 19:16-18). His throne is ringed with seven flaming torches. John says these torches are “the seven spirits of God,” but doesn’t explain (Rev 4:5). Before the throne, extending outward for an unknown span, is a clear, smooth surface likened to crystal (Rev 4:6). This naturally gives an impression of purity and “otherness;” any other meaning is (at best) a wild guess.

The lighting, the flaming torches, the emerald rainbow and the sparkling, jeweled appearance of Yahweh would all reflect and rebound off this crystal sea, adding to the otherworldly effect. This scene is where the hymn writer Reginald Heber found inspiration for his famous song, Holy, Holy, Holy! (“Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore Thee; casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea …”).

The number “seven” is notoriously common in the Bible, and many commentators rush to assign profound meaning when this number appears, especially in prophet literature. For example, Zechariah mentions a mysterious stone with seven eyes or facets, upon which He engraved a cryptic inscription for Joshua the high priest, who prefigured his namesake, the Son of God incarnate (Zech 3:9). In this case, John doesn’t tell what these “seven spirits” are. A good guess would be that the “seven spirits” are representations of the Holy Spirit (compare Zech 4, but that is a notoriously difficult passage). 

Four mysterious creatures are stationed around the central throne (Rev 4:6-8), and form the nearest of the two concentric circles of the heavenly host who praise Yahweh night and day. Their appearance (and their speech) are similar to those Isaiah described in His temple vision, as he was commissioned to preach (Isa 6:1-3). They’re also very similar to the strange angelic beings Ezekiel saw in his own visions, although Ezekiel had much more detail.

Too many commentators and too many Christians spend too much time wondering about the strange appearance of these creatures. John and Ezekiel don’t explain the significance of their features, so it’s pointless to guess. We do know they’re divine, angelic beings. That should be enough. It isn’t John or Ezekiel’s point to focus on them; John wants us to focus on who they’re giving worship to. He tells us these angelic hosts sing praises to God on His throne. “[D]ay and night they never cease to say” that Yahweh is holy (Rev 4:8). They also confess that Yahweh is eternal; He has always been, is, and will always be in existence (Rev 4:8). As John goes on to note, God “lives forever and ever,” (Rev 4:9).

As the angelic beings make this confession around the circumference of the throne, the 24 elders do likewise from their own thrones, which are arranged in the second concentric ring, further back. They fall down from their own thrones, remove their golden crowns, and bow before Yahweh in worship. They confess He is worthy “to receive glory, honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created,” (Rev 4:11).

Who are these elders? John doesn’t say, but they are seated on thrones around Yahweh’s throne, and give Him worship forever and ever. They are likely angelic beings, like the stranger ones Ezekiel also saw. Some commentators believe these elders are members of the Church, or Israelites. The text says nothing like this, and doesn’t even suggest. If we want to indulge in idle speculation, we may also suppose Marvin the Martian is present, too! No; these elders are angelic beings who, along with their winged brethren, exist to give glory to God.

What does it mean?

Why does John show us this vision? What does it mean?

Well, it shows us that God is holy. The winged beings praise God for who He is; they praise Him because He’s eternal and because He’s holy. He’s pure, perfect, righteous, just and noble. He is perfection, and epitomizes justice and righteousness – because He defines and gives these attributes shape and form.

The description of God in heaven is deliberately otherworldly; completely at odds with the pagan counterfeits of the time. The one true God is not a “god” of wood, or stone, or marble. He is not a venerated fertility goddess, or a Roman emperor of flesh and blood. He is unique and, as Dr. Henry Jones’ friend Sallah tells us, He “is not of this earth.”

Likewise, the elders confess God is worthy to receive glory, honor and power. What are these things? We’re used to seeing them in this context, but what do they mean? In a way, they’re near synonyms for one another. God is worthy to receive all the acclaim in the world because of who He is and what He’s done. The elders explain; “for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created,” (Rev 4:11). The only reason you exist is because God made you; your parents were only the intermediaries! This world, this galaxy, the solar system – the whole host of heavens and earth are God’s handiwork.

If that’s the case (and it is!), then the visions that follow are a comfort for John’s audience. The God who made the sun, the moon and the stars can handle the Roman Empire, just like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and the Seleucids before it. From our perspective in 2018, He certainly kept His promise, and He’ll continue to keep it! Jesus is the Savior who has already overcome the world (Jn 16:33).

And, we shouldn’t forget the implications for this scene (and the ones which follow) in light of the terrible judgments which are about to be unleashed on a evil, wicked and rebellious world. God is just. God is holy. The angelic host say so! This means God is justified when He brings divine judgment upon a world that hates and rejects His Son’s Good News. He loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, so that the one who believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). But, for the one who rejects this offer, the wrath of God abides on Him (Jn 3:36).

The angelic host also remind us that worship is not merely a cerebral, academic exercise. The strange creatures sing continuously, and the 24 elders prostrate themselves and cast their crowns on the ground in a show of honest humility. God makes us all different, and different people show their emotions indifferent ways. I’m a cerebral guy, and show little outward emotion. When I preach, you can tell I’m excited if I begin pacing a foot or two from the pulpit! The point is that we’re different, and it certainly isn’t a sin to worship the Lord in a way that expresses outward joy and exuberance, provided it’s reverent.

Of course, this brief glimpse of heaven is just the opening act. John continues his adventures in the next chapters, and we’ll follow right along with him … next time!

God and the Naughty Assyrians

maze_choicesIn his book entitled Chosen by God, R.C. Sproul spent a lot of time explaining why human freedom and God’s freedom are both true, and yet aren’t paradoxical. He wrote “God is free. I am free. God is more free than I am. If my freedom runs up against God’s freedom, I lose. His freedom restricts mine; my freedom does not restrict his.”1

This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which is really part of the doctrine of providence. I discussed this briefly in an article entitled, “A Guy Named Sihon.” The Scriptures show us people do what they want, but God works in and through our own innate, sinful desires to infallibly accomplish His will. Many times, we aren’t even aware God is using us!

He even uses unbelievers for His own ends, and they’re blissfully ignorant. People sin. People do wicked things. God doesn’t merely permit this activity; He directs and channels it. I don’t intend to present a philosophical case for this position. But, I will discuss a passage that shows us this clearly and unmistakably.

Israel and the Assyrians

God send Isaiah to the Israelites, even though they wouldn’t listen. God intended Him to be a prophet whose message hardened and repelled the people (Isa 6); just like Jesus (Mk 4:10-12; Jn 12:39-41). And, that’s what happened.

King Ahaz ignored Isaiah, who told him the Assyrians would destroy the Syrians and the northern kingdom of Israel (Isa 8:5-10). God warned Isaiah that He, their covenant God, would be a “stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” to the Israelites (Isa 8:14). Nevertheless, one day Yahweh would raise up a mighty ruler, descended from David, who would rule over the whole world (Isa 9:1-7).

However, as is his way, Isaiah turned the tables suddenly from this cheery future and unleased on his people. Soon, he warned, God would destroy the unbelievers among the Israelites; “for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly,” (Isa 9:17). And still, they won’t repent! With every rebuke, they dig their heads further into the sand. “For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still,” (Isa 9:17).

But, what of the Assyrians? What does this have to do the concept of compatibilism? Everything. Listen to what God says:

Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
the staff in their hands is my fury! (Isa 10:5).

The Assyrians are the instrument God intends to use to punish His people. Their staff executes His will and dispenses His fury. They act, but God is really the actor. They’re merely an intermediary to execute His will.

But, if that’s true, then why does God have Isaiah pronounce a woe upon them? Is it their fault? Why is it their fault? Are the Assyrians helpless puppets; pawns bent to do Yahweh’s will against their own better judgment?

Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets (Isa 10:6).

To God, the northern kingdom is “godless.” That’s rather harsh! They’re the people of His wrath, and God commands the Assyrians to “take spoil and seize plunder.” He wants them to trample the Israelites into the mud, like so much gutter trash.

You could get the idea the Assyrians are helpless to resist God’s command. Like soldiers following orders, how can they refuse Yahweh? Does God assign culpability and intent to the Assyrian’s actions? Does He absolve them of moral responsibility for the actions they’re undertaking at His command? This is the question, and the answer is profound. See what God says …

But he does not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few (Isa 10:7).

God commands, but the Assyrians are clueless. They don’t know God, and they don’t know what He wants them to do. What they do know is their own innate desire to destroy and conquer other nations. The Assyrians want to do this, and God is simply channeling and using their own sins to accomplish His holy will. The Assyrians don’t intend to do God’s will, and in their hearts they don’t think they are. But … they are! This is compatibilism.

for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
as I have done to Samaria and her images?” (Isa 10:8-11).

This is pride and arrogance. The Assyrians believe in their commanders, and they’re confident because of past military victories. What is Jerusalem? What is Samaria? They’re nothing. They’re nobodies. They’re pushovers. Again, they don’t know they’re being used. They do what they want. But, God does what He wants, too.

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes (Isa 10:12).

God does assign moral responsibility to human actors – even when He’s channeling, directing and using that evil for His own holy purpose. What have the Assyrians done? Why are they arrogant? Isaiah tells us:

For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
and plunder their treasures;
like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped,” (Isa 10:13-14).

They attribute their success to their own strength and cunning. Here is the philosophical paradox that confounds so many of us – people freely act, God directs and channels these wicked actions for His own ends, and still holds people responsible for those actions. It’s difficult to grasp. But, there it is.

Isaiah concludes:

Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! (Isa 10:15).

We’re the creations. God is the Creator. We can’t ever forget that relationship. The Assyrians did. Some Christians do, too.

Therefore the Lord God of hosts
will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
like the burning of fire.
The light of Israel will become a fire,
and his Holy One a flame,
and it will burn and devour
his thorns and briers in one day.
The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land
the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
that a child can write them down (Isa 10:16-19).

And, that’s the eventual end of the Assyrians. God won’t totally destroy them, but He will end their empire. He’ll use the Babylonians to do it. But, in the end, the Babylonians’ turn will come, too. “Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them …” (Isa 13:17).

This doesn’t solve the paradox of human freedom and divine sovereignty, of course. But, it does further explain it. Berkhof wrote, “The divine concursus energizes man and determines him efficaciously to the specific act, but it is man who gives the act its formal quality, and who is therefore responsible for its sinful character. Neither one of these solutions can be said to give entire satisfaction, so that the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery.”2

True, but we must not play the “mystery card” too soon, like some Christians do. We all do what we want. But, God works in and through our own sinful acts to accomplish what He wants. We’re often not aware of it. Judas certainly wasn’t. Neither were the Assyrians.

I’m glad we serve the one true God, who is in total control of this world, and our lives.

Notes

1 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1986), 43.

2 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 175.

 

Augustus Strong on the Existence of God

strongAugustus Strong has a good discussion on the existence of God. The last edition of his systematic theology text came out in 1917, so you’d think his material is a bit dated.

Kind of.

Strong doesn’t pin his discussion on the doctrine of Scripture, which may be a problem for some Christians. In other words, he doesn’t say (1) the Bible says God exists, (2) therefore God exists, and (3) we know this is true because the Bible says so.

To be sure, presuppositional, Reformed apologists argue convincingly and well that this isn’t necessarily a circular argument. After all, one has to start somewhere. You can read John Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God for more on this. But, Strong doesn’t start there. He says everyone intuitively knows God exists, there are various “proofs” one can examine which, compounded together, form a cumulative case for God’s existence, and the Scriptures tell us who this God actually is:

It is to be remembered, however, that the loss of love to God has greatly obscured even this rational intuition, so that the revelation of nature and the Scriptures is needed to awaken, confirm and enlarge it, and the special work of the Spirit of Christ to make it the knowledge of friendship and communion (pg. 67).

This makes good sense. Here, I’ll briefly explain Strong’s case.

First truths

We all know God exists:

Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning. Chronologically, only reflection upon the phenomena of nature and of mind occasions its rise in consciousness (pg. 52).

God’s existence is the foundation of  all true knowledge; “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7). This means that, in order to really understand the creation He created and the laws that govern its existence, we need to acknowledge who made it.

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
    by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
    and the clouds drop down the dew (Prov 3:19-20).

He’s the reason we see a world that’s designed, why we’re hard-wired with an innate sense of morality, justice and fairness. There’s no foundation for logic and reasoning unless we presuppose a Creator who defines and shapes the very ideas of “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong;” who defines “logical” and “illogical.”

But, are people usually introspective enough to think about this? No, they aren’t. That’s why Strong said this idea only rises in the conscience upon reflection. But, make no mistake, the very idea of “God” is a necessary “first truth;” something humans intuitively assume in order to make sense of the world. Strong explains:

A first truth is a knowledge which, though developed upon occasion of observation and reflection, is not derived from observation and reflection,—a knowledge on the contrary which has such logical priority that it must be assumed or supposed, in order to make any observation or reflection possible (pg. 54).

Something qualifies as a “first truth,” Strong says, if it’s (1) universally believed, (2) logically necessary for practical, everyday life and (3) presupposed by the mind. This sounds a bit heavy, but it’s actually pretty simple. If, on a practical basis, everyone assumes something is true in their day to day actions, and such an assumption is logically necessary for normal life, then it’s a “first truth.”

Now, someone might not be consciously aware of her presuppositions, but that’s irrelevant. A baby isn’t consciously aware of the maxim “oxygen is necessary for life,” but it surely depends on it and tries to get it!

Why God’s existence is a first truth

God is real, and cultures throughout history worship a deity of some sort. People know they’re dependent on a Being higher than themselves. Fact.

Even the fetich-worshiper, who calls the stone or the tree a god, shows that he has already the idea of a God. We must not measure the ideas of the heathen by their capacity for expression, any more than we should judge the child’s belief in the existence of his father by his success in drawing the father’s picture (pg. 56).

Even if people claim they don’t have or worship a “higher power,” the way they live their lives shows this isn’t correct.

This agreement among individuals and nations so widely separated in time and place can be most satisfactorily explained by supposing that it has its ground, not in accidental circumstances, but in the nature of man as man (pg. 57).

So far, so good. But why are people’s ideas about God so different?

The diverse and imperfectly developed ideas of the supreme Being which prevail among men are best accounted for as misinterpretations and perversions of an intuitive conviction common to all (pg. 57).

In troubled times, people instinctively reach for something high than themselves. That is, we’re hard-wired to worship God:

In times of sudden shock and danger, this rational intuition becomes a presentative intuition,—men become more conscious of God’s existence than of the existence of their fellow-men and they instinctively cry to God for help (pg. 58).

Have you ever considered why some people are driven to hate God so much? Why are entire organizations consumed with a pathological hatred of Christianity, Jesus and the God of Scripture (e.g. the Freedom from Religion Foundation)? I heard one apologist observe, “I don’t believe in unicorns. But, I’m not driven to write a book entitled, The Unicorn Delusion!” This is a reference to the atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.

Why, indeed! In fact, Strong argues, we implicitly acknowledge God exists in everything we do:

The validity of the simplest mental acts, such as sense-perception, self-consciousness, and memory, depends upon the assumption that a God exists who has so constituted our minds that they give us knowledge of things as they are (pg. 59).

This is an early version of the transcendental argument for the existence of God, an approach often employed by Reformed apologists. The late Greg Bahnsen wrote:

The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed there is no proof of anything (Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith [KL 1021-1022]).

This means that, if the unbeliever wants to be consistent and defend and establish what grounds he has for believing and understanding anything, without borrowing from the Christian worldview, he couldn’t do it.

The fool must be answered by showing him his foolishness and the necessity of Christianity as the precondition of intelligibility (Bahnsen, Always Ready, KL 1025 – 1026).

Why do you think it’s wrong to beat up old ladies? Why is it wrong to cheat on your husband? To kidnap little children? Are these social constructions that just so happen to be universal in every culture and society? Or, is there something deeper, here? If you don’t have God and His word, what is your logical foundation and basis for understanding anything?

[W]e can believe in the universal authority of right, only by assuming that there exists a God of righteousness who reveals his will both in the individual conscience and in the moral universe at large (pg. 61).

That’s what modern presuppositionalist apologetics presses home, and it’s what Strong was getting at here, too. It’s why he wrote this:

The more complex processes of the mind, such as induction and deduction, can be relied on only by presupposing a thinking Deity who has made the various parts of the universe and the various aspects of truth to correspond to each other and to the investigating faculties of man (pg. 60).

The very idea of “logic” presupposes order, rationality, and a unifying Being who gives shape and structure to these concepts. Where do “laws of logic” come from? Why can I read a theological text written by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and it “makes sense” to me – even though he lived about 900 years ago, in a different culture, with a different language?

In assuming that there is a universe, that the universe is a rational whole, a system of thought-relations, we assume the existence of an absolute Thinker, of whose thought the universe is an expression (pg. 60).

Proof?

Strong doesn’t believe you can “prove” God exists, in an absolute sense.

We cannot prove that God is; but we can show that, in order to the existence of any knowledge, thought, reason, conscience, in man, man must assume that God is (61).

Instead, God is a revealed reality. All the “arguments” and “proofs” in the world won’t get you anywhere; a cold intellectualism is not saving faith:

The arguments for the divine existence, valuable as they are for purposes to be shown hereafter, are not sufficient by themselves to warrant our conviction that there exists an infinite and absolute Being. It will appear upon examination that the a priori argument is capable of proving only an abstract and ideal proposition, but can never conduct us to the existence of a real Being (pg. 66).

Strong continues:

Knowledge of a person is turned into personal knowledge by actual communication or revelation. First, comes the intuitive knowledge of God possessed by all men—the assumption that there exists a Reason, Power, Perfection, Personality, that makes correct thinking and acting possible. Secondly, comes the knowledge of God’s being and attributes which nature and Scripture furnish. Thirdly, comes the personal and presentative knowledge derived from actual reconciliation and intercourse with God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit (pg. 68).

Indeed, the Bible never attempts to “prove” God’s existence at all; the authors presupposed Him and wrote according to that worldview. “The preacher may confidently follow the example of Scripture by assuming it. But he must also explicitly declare it, as the Scripture does,” (pg. 68).

Finis

With that, Strong finishes his discussion. He moves immediately to a discussion of four classical “proofs” of God’s existence, and stresses these arguments form a cumulative case that should direct the thinking man to Christ and the Scriptures.

Is Strong’s section on “the existence of God” worth reading, today? Not really, but that’s not Strong’s fault. The world has moved on, and our Western context is quite different today. The arguments have had to become more rigorous, as the attacks have become sharper.

His discussion about why God’s existence is a first truth is particularly weak. But, Strong lived in a different time. Theological revisionism was largely happening in the seminaries and, to some extent, in the pulpits. It hadn’t happened in the pews to great extent, yet.  Strong assumes a theistic worldview in his comments, and today’s future pastors need something more rigorous. They need a defense against the “new atheist” tactics. Again, this isn’t Strong’s fault – it’s just a different time, now.

The issue of “does God really exist” is really more about epistemology and worldview, than anything else. If this is something you want to read more about, you should start with these three books:

  • Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Doug Groothuis. This is the best most comprehensive one-volume book on apologetics a thinking Christian can get. It’ll make you more grounded in your faith at an intellectual level.
  • Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen. A classic and essential book on apologetics by a renowned Reformed scholar.
  • The Ultimate Proof for Creation by Jason Lisle. A wonderful, deep book on apologetics from a presuppositional perspective. Perhaps a bit more accessible than Bahnsen.

Strong’s discussion on God’s existence was good in 1917. It’s not bad today, but there’s better discussions out there.