Friday, January 30, 2015

Biblical Reasons to Doubt the Creation Days were 24 Hour Periods

Justin Taylor had a great post yesterday outlining five reasons from within the text to doubt the authors intended the 'days' of Genesis 1 to be taken as literal 24 hour days.  Taylor isn't alone in his conclusions...he follows Augustine, Machen, Carl Henry, Gleason Archer, and many, many more.

Here's the points, but visit his site for the whole article.

1. Genesis 1:1 describes the actual act of creation out of nothing and is not simply a title or summary of what follows.

2. The earth, darkness, and water were created before 'the first day'

3. The seventh 'day' is not 24 hours long

4. The 'day' of Genesis 2:4 cannot be a 24 hours long

5. The explanation of Genesis 2:5-7 assumes more than an ordinary  calendar day

Taylor writes, "God is portrayed as a workman going through his workweek, working during the day and resting for the night. Then on his Sabbath, he enjoys a full and refreshing rest. Our days are like God’s workdays, but not identical to them.  How long were God’s workdays? The Bible doesn’t say. But I see no reason to insist that they were only 24 hours long."

There's the key - don't insist on something the Bible doesn't insist on; don't force others to believe something you may believe, but isn't required biblically.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: Four Views of Eternal Security

I am a fan of the 'Four Views' series - the give a reader a quick glimpse into different approaches to thorny issues - theological, biblical, practical, etc.  These books are not, nor are they intended to be, full treatments of the topics in question. Instead, they introduce the reader to various viewpoints which they can investigate more through further reading.

While I'm a fan, the series does have some drawbacks. For one, after reading a brief overview, some may feel they have a 'handle' on all the issues. That's usually not possible in the few pages given. The bigger drawback is, however, that the chapters are only as good as the authors, and sometimes you get some really weak sections in an otherwise good book.

That was the case with Four Views on Eternal Security . The book offers a Classic Calvinist view (written by Michael Horton), a Moderate Calvinist view (written by Norman Geisler), a Reformed Arminian view (Stephen Ashby), and a Wesleyan Arminian view (J. Stephen Harper).

Few readers will be surprised that I follow Horton and the Classic Calvinist view.  Horton articulates well the difference between the classic calvinist approach and the 'eternal security' approach that is common in evangelicalism.  In addition, he highlights the major disagreements between his view and a Wesleyan/Arminian view (though he doesn't really differentiate the two, and he should).  Horton's contends the way to make sense of the 'eternal security passages' and the warning passages is from within a covenantal framework.  For Horton, covenant theology succeeds because it introduces a third (biblical) category in addition to 'saved' and not saved, namely 'those who are in the covenant but not regenerate'.  These people experience the goodness of God, taste of the new age (the Supper?), are under the ministry of the Spirit who works through word and sacrament, yet are not regenerate and do not have faith.  For Horton, the question isn't 'will those who have entered God's kingdom and perfect rest be kicked out' but instead 'will those wandering in the desert persevere and find God's perfect rest and enter the kingdom in the end.

The Moderate Calvinist view was represented by Norman Geisler. This chapter was beyond disappointing; in fact, it was almost insulting. Dr. Geisler so badly misrepresented the Calvinist view it was almost laughable (kinda like Dave Hunt in What Love is This - the single worst book I've ever read in my whole life).  Geisler's 'moderate calvinism' is actually far more Pelagian than either of the Arminian chapters. I'm not going to waste my time critiquing it...I'll just say skip it. His understanding of Calvin, Arminius is actually no understanding, only misunderstanding (at the best, intentional misrepresentation is also possible).  His views of original sin and man's ability is bordering on heresy, and his teaching on eternal security lacks proper nuance (and his charts are awful).  The good thing about this section is that there were three others in the book that weren't awful.

The Reformed Arminian view was articulated by Stephen Ashby. This was my favorite section of the book, not because I agreed with all of it (but I agreed with Ashby far more than Geisler), but because it was so informative. I hadn't read of this viewpoint before and my understanding of Arminian theology is shaded by Wesleyanism and Finney (yuck).  There are many points of similarity between a Reformed Arminian approach and a Calvinistic one. For example, both affirm that man is incapable of responding positively to God or his offer of salvation apart from a prior work of grace (effectual calling/regeneration for the Calvinist; prevenient grace for the Arminian).  Also, both affirm the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer is the basis for justification. I do, of course, differ with some of his presuppositions and then, consequently, conclusions; but, I put down Ashby's section with a much greater appreciation for Arminian theology and their commitment to God's sovereignty and glory.

The final section, written by J. Steven Harper, represented the Wesleyan Arminian perspective. Other than the Reformed perspective, this is the one I was the most familiar with. I do like Harper's emphasis on the need for prevenient grace, but was troubled by Wesley's understanding of the atonement. Harper contends (contra Ashby) that Wesley did affirm imputation of Christ's righteousness; however, Wesley's words seem to betray a view that is more akin to 'infused' or 'implanted' righteousness (he uses horticultural language) that is closer to a Roman Catholic understanding than a traditional Protestant one. So while he uses the word 'imputation', he seems to redefine it in unhelpful ways. Harper did a commendable job in explaining the differences between apostasy (both species of it) and backsliding, as well as the differences between voluntary and involuntary sins. I have greater clarity on the Wesleyan position.  Harper's contribution is helpful, though I wish it was more concise. Reading the first section I kept thinking, 'get to it already'. I understand theology 'can't be chopped into pieces', but brevity in the introductory section would have aided his cause.

If you are interested in this doctrine, this is a good starting point.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Missional Reading of the Letter to the Church at Pergamum

In the letter to the church at Pergamum, several missionally related themes are repeated. As in the letter to the Smyrnan church, the theme of spiritual warfare is present – the church will be harassed by satanic forces as it strives to be faithful to its mission. Also, the importance of protecting the deposit of sound doctrine is stressed here as it was in the letter to the Ephesian church. If the church is to maintain its witness it must maintain its doctrinal purity, for doctrine is essential to its witness – Christianity is not a content-less faith.

However, a new principle emerges related to the missional nature of the church. In addition to waging a spiritual warfare and guarding her doctrine closely, the church must watch its manner of living too. The church must not allow itself to succumb to the immorality of its surrounding culture or yield to the licentiousness being promoted by certain false teachers.

Pergamum lies approximately seventy miles north of Smyrna atop a hill rising 900 feet above the plain below, giving the city an “imposing and dominating aspect.” Ramsay describes the city, “Other cities of the land have splendid hills which made them into powerful fortresses in ancient time; but in them the hill is as a rule the acropolis, and the city lies beneath and around or before it. But here the hill was the city proper…” The city of Pergamum was home to a famous library, a gymnasia, a theater capable of seating ten thousand, and numerous important temples.

Among the most important temples were those belonging to the imperial cult. Pergamum had long been allied with Rome and was honored with the first temple in Asia dedicated to Augustus. Later (after the time of John’s writing), Hadrian would build a temple to Trajan, and still later, a third imperial temple to Hadrian would be added, making Pergamum δὶς νεωκόρος, or “thrice temple-wardens”. The city also included important temples to Demeter, Athena, and Asklepios which became a leading healing center. Also of significance, Pergamum was home to the famed Altar of Zeus. Yamauchi gives detail, “The structure is a monumental colonnaded court in the form of a horseshoe, 120 feet by 112 feet. The podium of the altar was nearly 18 feet high. The great frieze, which ran at the base of the structure for 446 feet, depicted a gigantomachy, that is, a battle of the gods and the giants. It was one of the greatest works of Hellenistic art.”

Jesus’ self-identification to the church at Pergamum, “him who has the sharp two-edged sword,” is meant to remind this church that the ultimate power of judgment is in the hands, or mouth, of Christ. It is his verdict that truly counts, not that of the Roman proconsul who merely wields only the power of the state, not the ultimate power of eternal life and death.

Jesus assures the church that he knows their situation full well; he knows they live “where Satan’s throne is.” “Satan’s throne” has been taken by some as a reference to the Altar of Zeus or to Temple of Asklepios, by others as a reference to the city as a the center of Roman power in region, and by still others as an allusion to the general appearance of the city. Osborne considers all of those options as possible, but contends that the best option is the imperial cult, for “It was emperor worship that most directly occasioned the persecutions under Domitian and Trajan, and Pergamum was the center of the imperial cult for all of the province of Asia.”

As in Smyrna, Jesus reminds the church that it is a spiritual war they are in. The great distress the church is suffering for Christ’s name is not simply at the hands of human political or religious authorities, but it is Satan working through these human institutions who is persecuting the faithful. In fact, Satan does more than hold court in Pergamum; verse thirteen describes the city as the place “where Satan dwells.” Beale comments, “The concluding phrase of v. 13 (“where Satan dwells”) is a contrast with the first clause of the verse (“I know where you dwell”) in order to accentuate the idea that light and darkness cannot dwell in peaceful coexistence. Therefore, the witnessing church will be a persecuted church.”

Jesus commends the church for maintaining their faithful witness in the face of this satanic onslaught. The believers had not denied the faith, even when Antipas, whom Jesus affirms as “my faithful witness,” was killed. Again, some of the church are or will be martyrs in the sense that they were put to death, but this is because they are martyrs in the sense that they bore witness to Christ, which is the primary sense of the word in the New Testament.

Despite their holding up under persecution, Jesus does have a complaint against the Pergamum church, and a multifaceted complaint at that. First, Jesus points out that there are some in the congregation who “hold to the teaching of Balaam.” Also, Jesus reprimands the church because “they have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Some commentators have argued that the church was facing threats internally from two distinct groups – the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans. However, the grammar of the sentence, awkward as it is, points in the direction of identifying those who follow Balaam with the Nicolaitans. Verse fifteen could read, “and (καὶ) after this manner (οὕτως) you have some who likewise (ὁμοίως) hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” The piling up of words, including καὶ, οὕτως, and ὁμοίως tend to emphasis the similarity of the groups to the point of identification one with the other. Osborne is correct, “The best solution is to take this not as a comparison between two similar movements but as a comparison between a single movement (the Nicolaitans) and the Jewish tradition about Balaam.”

John will make a similar rhetorical move in his letter to Thyatira, comparing the Nicolaitans to the woman Jezebel in Israel’s past. Here, in connecting the contemporary false teachers with Balaam, he illuminates for the church the nature of the threat. John understands the Nicolaitans are a modern embodiment of the spirit of Balaam, who brought Israel into sin through seduction and compromise. Balaam first appears in the canonical record in Number 22 where he is hired by Balak to come and curse the Israelites. Balaam was, however, prevented from doing so by the angel of the Lord (and a particularly astute donkey). Yet, Moses blames Balaam for Israel’s treachery towards God, when “the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab” and worship Baal at Peor (see Numbers 25:1-9 & 31:16).

Apparently, the Nicolaitans were tempting the church at Pergamum with similar compromises, compromises that certainly promised to make life in the pagan city easier. The charge indicates that the Christians in Pergamum were being led into eating meat sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. Several interpretive issues need to be addressed regarding the nature of the Pergamum sin.

Regarding the meat sacrificed to idols, one must determine whether it was meat sacrificed to idols and sold in the marketplace or if it was meat served at pagan festivals and in an idol’s temple. Of the meat sold in the marketplace, that offered to idols and that which had not been were indistinguishable; thus, Paul instructs the church at Corinth that eating meat from the market poses no spiritual problem (1 Cor. 10:25). It seems unlikely that this is the issue at hand. The meat that the Pergamum Christians are improperly partaking in is, more than likely, meat at pagan festivals, meat served in an idol’s temples or meat served at a guild banquet. This then is a much more serious issue, involving participation in idolatrous worship.

The second interpretive issue relates to the meaning of the word πορνεῦσαι, “immorality”. Osborne rightly points out that in the Apocalypse “immorality” can be taken literally, as in sexual promiscuity, or metaphorically for idolatry. Beale and Keener are representative of commentators who take the immorality as a metaphor for idolatry. Mounce and Osborne, on the other hand, take the immorality in a more literal sense. Osborne argues convincingly, “That there is no need for such redundancy as a statement on idolatry followed by an OT metaphor for the same things.”

Thus, the Nicolaitans were leading the church into idolatry and immorality, both of which were common aspects of pagan festivals and guild associations. It is not hard to understand why a group like the Nicolaitans, teaching that participation in these feasts and guild banquets was permissible for a Christian, would be so dangerous to the church, as the temptation to compromise would have been incredibly strong as idol worship was central to the whole of public life in Asia. Of the Nicolaitan heresy, Stott writes, “They were insinuating their vile doctrines into the church. They were daring to suggest that the liberty with which Christ has made us free was a liberty to sin…This travesty of the truth was to ‘change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.’”

Not only was such participation in idolatry and immorality a travesty against the truth of the gospel of Christ, it is also a deep betrayal of the church mission. As Israel in the OT, so the church in the NT was to be a contrast people. Christopher Wright articulates this truth well, “The people of God in both testaments are called to be a light to the nations. But there can be not light to the nations that is not shining already in transformed lives of holy people.” By compromising core bastions of the faith (i.e. the uniqueness of Christ, God as the only true god, gospel as liberty unto holiness, etc.), the Pergamum Christians would be better able to fit into their surrounding culture. But, that was not their call! Central to their missional task was being a different unassimilated people. This aspect of their calling was being threatened by the Nicolaitans; therefore, Jesus calls for repentance and threatens judgment if they will not.

Jesus warns that he will come to the church and war against the heretics “with the sword of my mouth.” Beale draws attention to the connection between the threat issued to the Pergamum church here and the threat to Balaam in the book of Numbers. In Numbers Balaam was threatened with being “killed with the sword” in the hands of “the angel of the Lord”. This coming in judgment is imminent (ταχὺ, “soon”) if they do not purge themselves of this group who hold to false teaching. While “coming” in Revelation often refers to the Paurousia, here it “must be interpreted as ‘coming’ in judgment preceding the final and decisive coming of Jesus.”

To the Pergamum overcomers Jesus promises to give “some of the hidden manna” and a “white stone, with a new name written on that stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” There are several interpretive options for the phrase “hidden manna”, but the best seems to connect this phrase with the jar of manna that was placed in the ark of the covenant. If this is the proper connection, then this promise draws the church’s attention to the eschaton where the ark would reappear in the new eschatological temple, a temple which encompasses the whole of the new creation (see Rev. 11:19). The eternal blessing of eating of this heavenly food is not for those who have eaten of the earthly meat polluted by its association with idol worship.

In addition, the overcomers receive a white stone with a new name. The best possible options for understanding this reference include white stones of acquittal (versus black stones of conviction) used by jurors, stones as admission tickets to guilds and feasts, pagan magic amulets with secret names, and stones given to gladiators to mark their freedom.

Osborne concludes, “the manna and white stone are both eschatological symbols related to the messianic feast at the eschaton but also teaching the spiritual food and new name that God gives to the believer in the present as well.”

In this, the promise is once again connected to God’s mission and the participation of the church in it. If the church and her members will participate in God’s mission by faithfully living as the contrast society she was called to be, then, when God’s redemptive mission is complete, she will be blessed. Faithfulness meant avoiding compromise with the surrounding culture, avoiding its idolatry and immorality, and suffering for maintaining her witness.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A Missional Reading of the Letter to Smyrna

The second church addressed in Revelation is the church at Smyrna, a city a short distance north of Ephesus. Smyrna was a wealthy city, an important intellectual city, and a city well known for its beauty. It was a city, also, brimming with civic pride which stemmed not only from its wealth and beauty but also its history.

Smyrna boasted itself as the birth place of Homer and had a long history, believed by its citizens to have begun in the third millennium BC. In addition, Hemer notes the “liberal policy of Smyrna in granting its citizenship,” citing a treaty in 242BC which granted all free Hellenes residents citizenship in Smyrna. Certainly this added to the civic pride and it can be reasonably deduced that the Christian community included citizens who shared in the cities pride.

Smyrna also maintained a close relationship with Rome, siding with it on more than one occasion, being one of four cities to host the provincial assembly, and the first city in Asia to build a temple to the goddess Roma (195 BC). Smyrna also enjoyed the title of νεωκόρος for the imperial cult, a privilege given to it by Emperor Tiberius. Adding to, and likely instigating the pressures the church faced, was a large Jewish population.

 Hemer also makes an interesting connection between the cities name and the suffering of the Christians in the city. The cities name was believed to have been tied etymologically to the Greek word for ‘myrrh’, whether truly or only coincidentally. Myrrh was associated with mourning, death rites, weeping, etc. Hemer writes, “The name Smyrna was fitting and expressive to the ancient mind for a city which seemed to exemplify characteristics which myrrh symbolized.”

In a city whose name was metaphorically connected to suffering, the church knew suffering most intimately. As in all the letters, Jesus begins by identifying himself in a way that would be especially meaningful to the church in their specific situation (always drawing on aspects of the vision recorded in chapter one of the Apocalypse). Jesus affirms himself as “the first and the last”, emphasizing his sovereignty over history past, present and future. He adds, “who died and came to life”, a reminder that is incredibly significant to a church suffering and forewarned in this letter that some will suffer unto death. Beasly-Murray writes, “To a congregation, faced with the prospect of renewed persecution and death of some of its members, the reminder that Jesus is the lord of Easter serves as a welcome consolation.”

 The letter to the Smyrnan church reminds the reader that things are not always as they appear. The Smyrnan believers appear poor, but are rich. The Jews appear to be the people of God, but are of the synagogue of Satan. And death is not as final as it seems.

The call to the church in Smyrna is simple – be faithful in your testimony to Jesus through suffering, imprisonment and even death. In this letter there is no accusation and no warning about impending judgment. Jesus has found this church faithful to their calling to bear witness, and it is due to this faithfulness that they are suffering.

One aspect of this congregations suffering is her poverty. Hemer points out that several factors contributed to this material poverty. He summarizes, "It has often been observed that the poverty of the Christians may have been due to the despoliation of their property by mobs, whether Jewish or pagan. There may have been other contributory causes, the fact that converts were oftener made among the poorer classes, and the devoted Christians on occasion reduced themselves to penury by the liberality of their own giving, or that it was difficult for an uncompromising Christian to make a living in a pagan city."

Whatever the specific reason, their poverty was tied to their faithfulness to their missional calling. If it was because of hatred of the Jews towards them, stirred up by their uncompromising proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, or hatred of pagan mobs incensed by their lack of participation in the city’s cultic life, their poverty was directly connected to their unwillingness to compromise their message and mission. If their poverty was due, in part, to their incredibly generosity, it was for love’s sake they were poor and the cure for their poverty would have been a stinginess or greed that betrayed her mission.

Jesus warns that the suffering the church had known would be intensified in days to come. Having been ostracized from the Jewish community and slandered by them, they are about to be put into prison for a duration of ten days – symbolic of an intense period of persecution, yet a period that has a definite end. It is likely that the end of the persecution would not be release from imprisonment, but release through death (prison was typically a holding place for those to be executed, not a punishment in and of itself).

This persecution, though it comes at the hands of Jews and of Rome, is truly from the devil called Satan. The ten day period is a testing of their faith, and hence the call is to remain faithful in the midst of the testing, even unto death. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who suffered martyrdom in the early second century, would prove the truth of this warning and serve as a beautiful example of a faithful witness to Christ for the rest of the church.

This letter to the congregation at Smyrna reminds the reader that to be the church in this age will mean being the church militant and the church suffering. Being faithful to the call to bear witness brings the church into direct conflict with the powers of this age, animated by Satan and his spiritual armies. The church that remains faithful to her missional calling will be hated and persecuted. While on the surface this suffering may seem to come at the hands of the populace, the state, or false religions/philosophies, the reality of the spiritual dimension cannot be forgotten. The war she wages is spiritual.

Jesus’ words of promise to this beleaguered congregation point ahead to the church victorious. Conquering is equated with faithfulness, and though victory for the church may mean physical death, it also ensures that they will not be hurt by the second death. Instead, the God who will assuredly bring his mission to completion will reward those faithful followers with a crown of life.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Precious Church

This morning I was reading though the first half of 1 Corinthians (part of my goal of reading through the NT each quarter of the year). I came across some notes I had scribbled in the margin of 1 Cor 5 some time ago on the nature of the church.

1 Corinthians 5 is Paul's instruction to the church regarding a sexually immoral member of the church - a man was boasting about having his father's wife!  Paul tells the church that the man is to "be removed from among you," that the church is to "deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved," and that they should not associate with the sexually immoral person (in the church, not the world). 

This chapter shows how precious the church is in three ways. First, the church as they body of Christ is so precious it is to be protected from defilement. Paul say that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" just as a little immorality that is allowed to persist will pollute the whole body. The church was to protect itself from despoilment, much like one would want to protect a clean well. If the well gets polluted it is not longer useful and life-giving.

Second, the church is shown to be precious in that being put out of the church constitutes the greatest form of discipline. In the OT, the height of discipline in Israel was the death penalty. Excommunication is the NT equivalent in the New Israel, the church. In our house, electronics are precious and one of the greatest punishments we hand down is banishment from all screens.  We wouldn't take away, say, vegetables, because they aren't precious to our kids. The church banishes teh immoral brother from something that is important, something that ought to be precious. (Bizarre isn't it, how many self-excommunicate by neglecting the body and failing to participate in the life of the church). 

Third, the church is shown to be precious in that it is a safe haven from Satan. To kick someone out of the church is to remove them from the safe haven of the Kingdom's embassy and throw them out into the world, which is Satan's domain.

Do our attitudes towards the church reflect God's?