Monday, August 30, 2010

The Important Discipline of Difficult Reading

For a number of reasons I have been giving some thought this week to difficult books. We all appreciate it when we find an author who is able to simply explain difficult ideas and clear, well written books are a great blessing but then there are also those other books. The other kind of books are those that require a lot of work and discipline to finish and even more to understand.

There is a general intellectual reward for working through difficult reading materials in that it trains our minds and builds up a discipline in our thinking that enables us to think more clearly and rigorously. In addition to this there are benefits to stretching our attention spans. Sometimes modern readers find some authors hard to read simply because we are so accustom to being bombarded with stimulation that we have lost the ability to concentrate. We want all of our problems solved in 30 minutes minus commercials but there are certain depths of understanding that can only come by painstakingly working through a complex argument to its conclusions. Challenging reading can provide the mental exercise necessary to this kind of growth. In addition to this general benefit it is also a great blessing to read an author who so thoroughly handles a biblical doctrine that when we fully understand their argument we wonder why we had not seen the truth so clearly ourselves.

It is true that there are many cumbersome books that have little or no payoff for the hours that must be invested in them. There are writers whose moments of brilliance are so sparse that wading through their writings is probably not worth the effort unless you have a compelling reason to do so. I’m convinced that some writers obfuscate in order to protect themselves from criticisms of weaknesses in their arguments. It almost seems as though some academics try to intimidate others with their style and vocabulary in the hopes that nobody will boldly announce that the emperor has no clothes! Many others are likely just poor writers.

There are, however, many authors that are not easy to read but whose work I think is well worth the effort. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but challenging oneself with substantial authors such as Jonathan Edwards, Francis Turretin, and John Owen will be a great benefit to many Christian’s who are ready to tackle them. There are few modern authors who can match the depth and breadth of these older writers and yet they are too often neglected. There has been a revival of these older authors of late but still many people read books about their books rather than tackling them directly. Older authors aren’t necessarily better than newer ones by virtue of their age but the ones that have held up over centuries deserve our attention. You won’t necessarily agree with everything that these authors say (at least I don’t) but if you can acclimate to their style you will certainly be challenged to think deeply about the subjects that they are writing on.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Until Shiloh Comes

The Old Testament is full of interesting phrases, titles, and allusions. Often there can be differing opinions on precisely how some of those should be understood. One of the more interesting is the phrase found in Genesis 49:10 as Jacob is blessing his son Judah.

"The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (NASB)

The business about the scepter seems easy enough but what of this curious phrase “until Shiloh comes”. This phrase is rather important because this event, the coming of Shiloh, is connected inseparably from the promise of Judah’s rule. So what exactly does “until Shiloh comes” mean?

Most Christian commentators agree that this is a messianic prophesy pointing to Christ but there have been a number of different opinions on what precisely is meant by the phrase. Some, point out that in every other case in the Old Testament the term Shiloh refers to the name of a city and that the exact same rendering is given in 1 Samuel 4:12 where it clearly refers to a place. On this basis they insist that this phrase also has that meaning here. They argue that it should be rendered “until he comes to Shiloh”. I am told that the grammar can support such a reading but what would that mean exactly?

Various explanations have been given. Some claim Judah came to Shiloh when all the tribes gathered together there in Joshua 18 to build the tabernacle. This is seen as a potential fulfillment because the land was being apportioned at that time and so Judah is blessed then. My problem with this explanation is that the Genesis passage seems to imply a particular blessing on Judah rather than a general blessing on all of the tribes but the apportionment and tabernacle event is not particular to Judah. It also doesn’t seem to fully account for the kingship implied in the blessing. Others see this fulfillment in the removal of the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh when the tribe of Judah, in the person of David, replaced the tribe of Ephraim as the most important tribe in Israel as recorded in the books of Samuel and summarized in Psalm 78:59-72. This explanation provides a much closer link between Shiloh and royal power and seems to be an improvement. Some holding to this kind of Davidic interpretation argue that phrase can be rendered “until tribute comes to him” again seeing it as a reference to a blessing of Judah through the kingdom of David which culminates in the rule of Christ.

Others do not believe that this is a reference to the city of Shiloh and see it rather as pointing to the peace of Israel. A strong case can be made that the term Shiloh means rest or peace and if this is correct then the phrase implies that the scepter will not depart from Judah until rest or peace comes. That is to say that Judah will reign until God fulfills the promise of the “golden age”. Others who agree with the link between Shiloh and “peace” argue that the grammar indicates that it is better understood as a proper name and therefore combine the idea of Judah ruling until the promised age by correlating the arrival of that age with a distinct person, namely Christ. In this view the term would be understood roughly to mean “until the Prince of Peace” comes. This is perhaps the most common view that I am familiar with. It fits nicely from a theological perspective and it preserves neatly the messianic character of Jacob’s blessing of Judah. The thing that always bothered me about this explanation was the presence of the word “until”. Christ is of the line of Judah and so the reign of Judah actually continues with Christ. I suppose you could understand that line to end with Christ in that He is the final king but for some reason it seemed odd to me that it didn’t just say that the line of Judah would rule forever without the “until” part.

This leads me to the final possible explanation that I want to look at. It is my understanding that with slight amendments to the vowels the phrase can be interpreted to mean “Until he comes, to whom it [the scepter] belongs”. That reading maintains the integrity of the messianic promise and does not confuse the temporary earthly blessing with its eternal culmination the way the previous view seems to. Of course, we can’t just go around changing vowels because it results in an interpretation we prefer. Is there any reason to hold to this reading? According to Walter Kaiser Jr. this form is found in 38 Hebrew manuscripts as well as the rendering in the Septuagint and various other ancient texts such as the Babylonian Targum. This is apparently a well attested ancient variant from the MT Hebrew text.

If this is in fact the meaning of “until Shiloh comes” then that the scepter will not depart from Judah until Shiloh comes means simply that Judah would reign until the one to which rule, authority and judgment rightfully belong arrives. There is no need to try and find a fulfillment within the activities of the Judean kings prior to Christ or to connect it to any particular city. There is also no complication regarding why the line of Judah isn’t still ruling since the age of peace hasn’t been ushered in yet. It just means that the line of Judah would lead to the one to whom the scepter belongs. Shiloh is a title implying the authority of the messiah, the True King, the Lord Jesus Christ who is now seated in the heavenly places, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”  (Eph.1:21 ESV)

Praise God that Shiloh has come and that as Christians we rely upon no steward, no earthly king, but rather that through His grace our hope is fixed upon the very King of Kings.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Where Do Babies Come From?

It is the simple question of a child that can provoke feelings of nervousness and fear in the hearts of most parents. The answer we give obviously differs depending upon the maturity of the person asking. I assume that most of us know by now where the bodies of babies come from but what about the rest of them? As Christians we understand that human beings are more than simply the result of biological processes and babies are more than the sum of their genes. Science has been able to describe a great deal of what happens when human bodies are formed (though many mysteries remain); however, science is incapable of explaining the development or creation of the other essential element required for a human being to exist, namely the soul.

Throughout church history there have been two main explanations for the origin of the soul. There have been a few people who have argued for a third view that God originally created all of the souls that will exist and when a new body is formed God attaches one of those pre-existing souls to it. This view, however, has no clear biblical support and is generally considered to be unorthodox. Of the two orthodox views the most prominent has been the Creationist view. This view is that God specially creates each new soul ex nihilo and attaches that soul to the body at some point, usually conception. The second orthodox view, known as Traducianism, is that human beings proceed as whole beings with both body and spirit deriving from the parents.

Both views have some compelling arguments as well as weaknesses. The Creationist view is supported by scriptural passages that seem to indicate that the soul has a separate origin from the body (Zechariah 12:1, Ecclesiastes 12:7) as well its logical support for the distinction between body and soul. The major weakness of the Creationist view is its implications for the doctrine of original sin and total depravity. If God creates a new soul each time a person is conceived then either He is creating a sinful soul (which is problematic for various reasons) or He must create a “good” soul and then impute it with sin prior to or along with attaching it to a body. For that reason it is virtually always the case that those who hold to a Creationist view of the soul also hold to a Federal Headship view of sin. Other minor complications involve the fact that many Christians hold to a view that God ceased direct creation activity on the sixth day. Most Catholic and Reformed theologians hold to the Creationist view although there have been notable exceptions on both sides.

The Traducian view, which derives its name from the Latin verb traduco (to transmit), is supported by scriptural passages that seem to indicate that children are in some sense within the loins of their forefathers (Hebrews 7:10), and the fact that God breathed life into Adam but all his progeny came forth alive and in his likeness (after his kind) without such special activity on the part of God (Genesis 4). Those who hold to a Traducian view claim that if the soul itself is derived from the souls of the parents then doctrines such as total depravity are easier to understand because the sin nature would be the result of spiritual inheritance going back to Adam. Some who hold this view postulate that this progression of the sin nature comes through the line of the father thus explaining how Jesus could be wholly human (seed of Mary) and yet sinless (no sinful inheritance from a human father). The Traducian view therefore tends to fit well with a “realism” view of the transmission of sin. The major weakness of the Traducian view seems to be finding a biblically consistent explanation of how a new human soul can be derived from the souls of other humans. Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, and certain Baptist Christians have typically supported the Traducian view.

This is one of those theological positions that I am reconsidering. I have historically held to the Creationist view mostly as a result of the fact that it was what I had been taught. As I grow in my reading and study of the Word there are a number of doctrinal assumptions that I find I have to reconsider. This seems to be an example of one of those things worthy of more attention. I am not sure I will change my mind just yet but it certainly deserves more study. It turns out that even now I cannot confidently answer the question “where do babies come from?”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Church (not) at Ground Zero

A few weeks ago I posted an article about the proposed Islamic visitor center and mosque that will be built near the ground zero site. In the weeks since city leaders in New York cleared the way for the mosque to be built a number of conservative news outlets have claimed that there is a double standard at work when it comes to these kinds of approvals. They have supported this accusation by comparing the case of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church and the recently approved Islamic center. The St. Nicholas congregation has been trying to get approval to rebuild their church, which is the only house of worship destroyed in the September 11th attack, but have not been able to clear the necessary administrative hurdles. The fact that the city would approve a mosque to go forward with development plans while holding up necessary approvals for a church to rebuild does raise questions especially when the church was already there prior to the attack. Most of these stories have been reported in such a way as to imply that there is a pro-Islamic or anti-Christian agenda not just in New York but also extending to Washington and the Obama administration.

First, let me be clear that I do not doubt that there are anti-Christian agenda’s at work at many levels. As a Christian, however, this doesn’t surprise me. I expect that the world is going to be constantly working against the gospel and I also recognize that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers in the spiritual realm. We have a powerful enemy who is able to advance his anti-Christian agenda by working through people who have no conscious interest in undermining the faith. They are blinded to the fact that they are working against the very kingdom of God.

Second, the purpose of this blog is not political so I am not going to discuss the relative merits (or demerits) of the leadership of New York, the Obama administration, etc. My reason for raising this issue is much more basic. As Christians, whether politically conservative or liberal, we should be champions for the TRUTH. We should not look the other way when people who agree with us twist facts, leave out important information, or spin things in a misleading way. Unfortunately this often happens on both sides. I happen to be politically conservative and am often ashamed at the way that some conservatives use information to scare and manipulate people. Oversimplification, false associations, and unsupported innuendo are often standard fare on both sides and it seems to be getting worse. As a Christian I find this to be reprehensible but what is even more unfortunate is when we participate in that process either wittingly or unwittingly. We need to be informed and be honest. Being informed does not mean just watching CNN or Fox News. We often need to dig into the “facts” a bit before we become participants in their news agendas by repeating their information.

Is the approval to build the mosque and the refusal to approve the building of the church proof of a pro-Islamic agenda? Perhaps, perhaps not, but there are important differences between the two cases that have not been highlighted very well. For example, the Islamic center is privately funded while the money to reconstruct the church was to come from public funds. This means the mosque only needed to get basic zoning approvals while the church needed to get multiple levels of approvals. Also, the buildings are very close to one another (see photo… the circle is the mosque site, the square is the church site) but the Islamic center is technically not located at ground zero and the church is. This exposes the church building plan to all sorts of complexities related to building on the ground zero site. For example, there is a planned underground vehicle center which will run under the church location which introduces all sorts of security, building, and logistical complications. The Port Authority offered the church 20 million dollars to rebuild on an alternate site that is close by to make handling these and other issues easier but the church refused the deal.

Over the past few days I have had a number of outraged brothers and sisters ask me my thoughts on this matter. Most were apparently under the impression that the approval process for these two buildings were similar and that the city simply approved one and denied the other. It seems to me that it might be a bit more complicated than that. I also think that many media figures that are pushing this story are less concerned about Christianity than they are with weakening certain political figures with key voting blocs. There is no question that there are powerful forces at work against the church in our country. Some of those forces are deliberately against Christ and others are working against Christ simply as a result of their blindness (they don’t even realize it). Whether this decision was the result of an overt attempt to advance an anti-Christian agenda or if it is the result of normal bureaucratic hurdles it is unfortunate because the enemy will have yet another base from which to spread his lies. As a Christian (not as an American) I support the building of bible believing churches and oppose the building of mosques in any neighborhood.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Consultants and Church

There was a funny but insightful article in Christianity Today that parodied what it might have sounded like if a marketing consultant advised the early church leaders.

I thought I would share...

How to Become a Successful Religion | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: John Piper, Finally Alive

504212: Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again

By John Piper / Christian Focus

What does it mean to be "born again?" Many Christians aren't even sure what it means, and those outside the church often equate it with judgement and hypocritical behavior. In Finally Alive, John Piper argues that this term has lost it's true meaning. To that end, he takes you back to what the New Testament says about being born again, and shows you how powerful, transforming and radical new birth in Christ really is.

Virtually everyone is familiar with the term “born again” but unfortunately many people have no idea what it really means. The biblical doctrine of regeneration is perhaps one of the most neglected teachings in the church today. Even many of the people who identify themselves as “born again” are not always able to explain what it is. There are plenty of churches that tell people that they need to be born again but far fewer spend much time working through the scriptures to help people understand what exactly it means and how it happens. In this book John Piper does exactly that.

I often find Piper’s books to be hit and miss. I have found many very insightful things in his writings that have benefited me greatly and many other things that I thought were cumbersome and less than helpful. My opinion of his previous work aside, Piper is one of the most popular and influential Christian leaders of our time, particularly within the Reformed tradition. This book shows why.

Piper works through passage after passage of scripture focusing on answering practical questions without sacrificing depth or precision in his explanation. The book is organized around the following five questions:

1. What is the new birth?
2. Why must we be born again?
3. How does this birth come about?
4. What are the effects of the new birth?
5. How can we help others be born again?

There are few questions that are as important to Christians as these and Piper does us a service in the way he handles them. There are many insights drawn from the biblical text and applied in a practical way. The book is written from a pastoral perspective and Piper’s concern and passion for people comes through on virtually every page. I think this is the most concise and valuable book of Piper’s that I have read. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about what it means to truly be born again.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

What is Bible Study?

I had a conversation recently with a brother in the Lord who was excited about the “bible study” that he had been attending. I am always encouraged to hear about good bible studies so I began talking with him about the class. As it turned out the group was working through a book about developing Christian character. I have no reason to assume that it is not a good book and it probably includes many worthwhile observations but the fact is that it is not the bible. I thought it was curious that this kind of class would be referred to by those attending as a “bible study”. It also bothered me to learn that this was the only class offered at the moment since the entire church was going through the material together. It occurred to me that we have so many bible study resources available to us today that in some ways they can distract us from actually spending time in the Word of God itself.

I am certainly not opposed to reading or even studying Christian literature. Book reviews and reading recommendations are an important part of what we provide on this site, however, reading books about the bible is not the same as studying the scriptures themselves. It is important that we never confuse reading or studying those resources with “doing bible study”. Christian books or topical teachings may be perfectly appropriate at times in our churches but they should always be understood as supplementary to the primary ministry of the Word. Bible study should be one of the primary functions in any church and there are a few things that must be included in order for it to truly be a bible study.

The first is direct interaction with the text of scripture. This means that the students are working to understand the words of God directly. While commentaries, study bible notes, and other tools can be valuable they should be used to support the primary work in the text. Those resources should not be relied upon to provide the interpretation of the passage but rather to provide observational information related to grammar, word use, historical references, etc. as the student works through the interpretive process. Like commentaries and study bible notes, class lectures from the teacher should be seen as a tool to support the student’s engagement with the text. If a teacher has studied the text and simply comes and tells a group of students what he or she learned that is not a bible study from the student’s perspective. There is a difference between preaching or declaring the Word and teaching a bible study. Bible study should involve the class directly engaging the living Word of God through at least an observation of the purpose, structure, and context of the text leading to the development of an interpretation that can be defended from the text.

Secondly, in addition to direct engagement with the Word a bible study should include a consideration of how the teaching in the text applies to the student. We should move from the details in the text to an interpretation that includes timeless truths which we can then apply directly in our own lives. Scripture is clear that one of the main purposes of God’s revelation is to renew our mind so that we might be changed, maturing into the likeness of Christ Himself. Bible study isn’t about simply imparting knowledge of certain facts. It is about the Holy Spirit working through that knowledge to grow us and equip us for every good work. A lesson that is understood but not applied is of no value.

Sadly, there are a great many Christians today that have never experienced the growth and joy that can only come from wrestling with God’s word through real bible study. There is a confidence and depth to convictions that are formed by working with the text that simply cannot be matched by reading someone else’s work. I am not suggesting that everyone needs to be a theological expert but I do believe that God gives teachers to the church precisely so that they may help others to understand His Word. Teachers should be helping students gain skill and confidence through spending time in the Word rather than separating the student from the Word. Unfortunately there are a great many Christian students that think that they are getting something that they are not getting. There is no substitute for the power of God’s word wrought upon the life of the believer by the Holy Spirit. To have a bible study is a tremendous privilege and a great blessing and we should be very clear about its unique value. If there were more churches leading their people directly into the study of the Word corporately and teaching people how to study it on their own individually I think we would see a reformation of our churches that would rival that of the 16th century.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Invisible Giant: Gordon H. Clark

In the last post I shared a list of books that Dr. R.C. Sproul considered the most influential on his thinking. It was an interesting list in many ways but one thing that stood out for me was that two of the books on the list were written by Dr. Gordon H. Clark.

Gordon H. Clark was one of the most interesting Christian thinkers of the past century. He has such a unique and penetrating way of looking at things that once you finish reading or listening to him you often have to go back and check to see if he really said what you thought you heard or read(and in most cases he did). It is almost impossible to think about things the same way after experiencing him. On virtually every subject of which I have read his work he has pushed me to think more clearly and to become more precise in my own view, regardless of if I agree or disagree with him. Many of the people he influenced became leading bible scholars, theologians, and apologists in their own right and conservative Christian teaching over the past 60 plus years would have been something different had it not been for Dr. Clark. It is for that reason that I find it strange that even many theologically educated Christians have never heard of him.

Dr. Clark was born in the summer 1902 and died in the spring of 1985. He taught at a number of seminaries and colleges during his 60 year teaching career and authored over 40 books on a diverse range of topics. He was a professional philosopher who specialized in critiquing secular philosophy from a Christian perspective. He was a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society and was an actively engaged academic. Just a brief glance at the names of some of those who have been influenced by him demonstrates the wide influence that he has. They include John Gerstner, C.F. Henry, R.C. Sproul, Ron Nash, and Robert Reymond, just to name a few. Given this range it is remarkable that his work is not better known among Christian teachers.

Dr. Clark had an impact in a number of areas in Christian ministry and thought. He is the primary developer of the rational school of presuppositional apologetics. Although the term presuppositionalism is most often associated with Van Til’s system a strong argument could be made that it is Clark’s version that has had the biggest practical influence on modern evangelical apologetics.

His rigorous Calvinism was an important influence on a number of people who went on to become scholars and teachers within the broader conservative evangelical movement within a number of denominations. That his work contributed to the current resurgence of Calvinism in American evangelicalism is certain. He represents a bridge between the stalwarts of Old Princeton (Machen, Warfield) and some of the modern leaders of Reformed theology in America (like Dr. Sproul).

His most important contribution, however, was his philosophical work. He was known as a tireless and ardent defender of rational epistemology against all forms of empiricism. His philosophy is built upon the view that all human knowledge is dependent upon God’s revelation. With rigorous logic he argued that the Scripture should be taken as the starting point for every kind of knowledge and that all things should be deduced from the propositions contained in the bible. He applied a logical process to the bible similar to what is used in mathematical fields such as geometry where biblical propositions are accepted (axioms) and then all other truths are logically deduced from them. He was unwavering in his application of these methods and had the courage to follow the logic to its ends even if led to rather unpopular positions and he did not shy away from defending his views against those who disagreed with him. He was a devastatingly effective debater who would start with the assumptions of his opponent and then argue logically from them to absurd conclusions that they could not accept. Once he exposed contradictions within their system he would argue for the acceptance of his dogmatic Christian view.

As I have already mentioned, Clark argues in such a way that even when you do not agree with him you are forced to think much more carefully about your own position. No Christian student interested in philosophy or apologetics should consider themselves sufficiently well read until they have spent some time thinking about the arguments in Clark’s works:”Thales to Dewey, A Christian View of Men and Things, and Religion, Reason, and Revelation).

Given the importance of some of his ideas and the influence that he has had on many influential teachers we have to wonder why Clark is seemingly absent from the libraries of so many Christian teachers. I do not know the answer and we can only speculate. It is true that a great many people differ from Dr. Clark on many of his ideas and even many of those who agree with him on fundamentals would hesitate to go as far as he did in articulating certain things.

Regardless of the reason for the neglect, Dr. Clark is a teacher that should not be ignored, especially by Christians with an interest in philosophy or apologetics. Any concerns about his views pale in comparison to those of some other popular teachers such as Finney, Barth, and Schleiermacher who are widely read and discussed despite their blatant unorthodoxy. You may not agree with all of his conclusions but Dr. Clark will challenge you to think more critically about Christianity and how it applies to your worldview. If you don't believe me, ask R.C. Sproul!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Books That Most Influenced Dr. R.C. Sproul

I just stumbled across a list put together by R.C. Sproul of what he considers the books that have been the most influential in shaping his thought and ministry. Dr. Sproul has been teaching and preaching for over 50 years and he has obviously read many books. It was interesting to see which ones stand out in his mind.

1. The Freedom of the Will, Edwards
2. The Bondage of the Will, Luther
3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin
4. God in Modern Philosophy, Collins
5. A Time for Truth, Simons
6. Charity and Its Fruits, Edwards
7. The Person of Christ, Berkhouwer
8. Gospel Fear, Burroughs
9. Gospel Worship, Burroughs
10. Institutes of Elenctic Theology (3 Vol.), Turretin
11. Principles of Conduct, Murray
12. A Christian View of Men & Things, Clark
13. Thales to Dewey, Clark
14. Here I Stand, Bainton
15. A Simple Way to Pray, Luther
16. The Coming of the Kingdom, Ridderbos

I also posted this list in a comment under the post "Advanced Study". If you find a similar list from another teacher or if you have your own that you would like to share please post it in the comments of the "Advanced Studies" post (listed under reading materials).

The Septuagint Question

Do you ever notice how once you begin thinking about a particular topic it seems to pop up almost everywhere you look? I was reading a book this evening and came across a passage that touches on a topic that keeps popping up for me recently. I suppose that I am like many other people in that I will be drawn to study a particular topic or subject for a few years and then once I feel comfortable with it I will move on to something else. Over the past year or so I have been increasingly curious about the New Testament use of the Old Testament and I keep experiencing little prods to delve into this more deeply.

Awhile ago I spent a few years studying various philosophies and processes of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) and I also majored in history and literature for my undergraduate work at a secular school so I have spent a lot of time thinking about written texts and how people interact with them. The one area, however, that I always felt like I neglected was a thorough study of the use of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. I know what other many other people have said and written on the topic but I haven’t put in the time to solidify my position based upon my own work. That brings us back to the book I was reading.

The book is John Owen’s Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ. Owen includes in this book a very brief section on the Septuagint (LXX). The Septuagint is an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into the Greek language. It was completed at least 130 years before Christ was born and was the primary bible for many of the Greek speaking Jews living outside of Palestine from its completion well into the Christian age and it was the version of the Old Testament that was most commonly used in the early post-apostolic church. Owen sees the Septuagint as less reliable than the Hebrew versions and without much argument suggests that little weight should be assigned to it. It seems to me that it deserves a little more attention than Owen gives to it (though admittedly this isn’t the main point of the book). There is a significant question here and it ties in with my burgeoning interest in the way the New Testament writers use the Old Testament text.

Virtually every English translation of the bible uses a form of the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT), completed around 1,000 A.D., as the source text to translate the Old Testament. I don’t question the accuracy of the MT but there are a number of slight differences in wording between the MT and the older Greek LXX. It isn’t surprising that there would be some differences when we consider the fact that different languages are used but what is interesting is that quite often the New Testament writers quote from the LXX rather than the Hebrew. I have seen some estimates that claim that as many as 2/3rds of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are from the LXX rather than the Hebrew. Many of the quotes are very short so it is difficult for me to always determine which is being quoted from but I have noticed some instances where I found that the N.T. quote did not match the O.T. reference in my bible only to find that it did match the LXX rendering.

Most translators prefer the Hebrew text because the LXX is itself a translation from Hebrew so the thought process is that rather than translate a translation they should go back to the original donor language even though the LXX is older than the MT manuscripts (although I understand that the Greek Orthodox Church does use the LXX). Another reason why the LXX is often not used, especially in Protestant circles, is that it contains some of the apocryphal books that are not accepted as Scripture by Protestants. There are many complicated issues related to which texts to select for translation and I am certainly not suggesting that the LXX should be used in preference to the MT or that any apocryphal book should be accepted simply because other books from the LXX are quoted by the apostles.

I am simply pointing out that it is interesting that so much of the N.T. is quoted from the LXX and yet I know few people, even among teachers, who have spent much time with it. My interest in the N.T. use of the O.T. has much more to do with the way that the passages are interpreted than with these kinds of textual issues but it is interesting to me that the Holy Spirit chose to have the N.T. writers quote from the Hebrew O.T. on some occasions and the Greek O.T. on others. It is also interesting, given that fact, that English translations of the LXX are so scarce.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Book Review: Bryan Chapell, Christ Centered Preaching

27987: Christ-Centered Preaching, 2nd Edition Christ-Centered Preaching, 2nd Edition

By Bryan Chapell / Baker

This complete guide to expository preaching teaches the basics of preparation, organization, and delivery; the trademarks of great preaching. With the help of charts and creative learning exercises, Chapell shows how expository preaching can reveal the redemptive aims of Scripture and offers a comprehensive approach to the theory and practice of preaching. He also provides help for special preaching situations.

The second edition contains updates and clarifications, allowing this classic to continue to serve the needs of budding preachers. Numerous appendixes address many practical issues.

I often read or re-read books that are older and wonder if it is worth it to post a review of a book that has been out for a number of years. I just finished revisiting this book, Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell, and decided that even though it isn’t brand new it is worth sharing.

I read this book (and a couple others) some years ago because I wanted to get more information on how preachers prepared and delivered sermons. I was bothered at the time (and still am) by the overuse of rhetorical devices in many of the sermons that I heard from a wide range of pulpits and wanted to know more about how preachers were trained to deliver their sermons.

In the years since reading those books I have had the humbling privilege of delivering a number of sermons of my own and realizing that I may likely have other opportunities I wanted to revisit some of those sources with a more practical focus this time around. I remembered that I thought the Chapell book was pretty good so I purchased the 2nd edition and just finished it.

It is a well organized textbook but it also flows well and is quite readable. There are lots of good examples and insightful descriptions that I thought were helpful. It is quite extensive in its coverage of issues related to preaching, preparation, and delivery of sermons and addressed just about every issue on the subject you can think of.

In my opinion, however, the most valuable lesson in the book is Chapell’s teaching on what he calls the Fallen Condition Focus. He reminds preachers that the purpose of the sermon goes beyond simply imparting information. He encourages them to identify the human concerns that the hearers will share with the people in the text (or to those whom it is addressed). In this way the preacher can draw the main points out of the text in a faithful expository sermon while also directly addressing the application of those truths to a relevant experience in the lives of listeners. He reminds his readers that “It is too easy to preach on a doctrinal topic or an exegetical insight without considering the spiritual burden of the text for real people in the daily struggles of life.” The application portion of the sermon shouldn’t be simply tacked onto the end of the exegesis as if it were an afterthought. The power of the sermon is in its application of God’s Truth to the lives of God’s people. His explanation of this was worth the price of the book for me.

I recommend the book to anyone who desires to learn the basics of formal sermon preparation and delivery. Much of what is in the book is practical but Chapell also discusses the theology of preaching in ways that challenge the reader to think about the role and task of preaching in ways that they might not have before.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mosque Near Ground Zero

Earlier today a city panel in New York voted unanimously to deny historical landmark status to a building located just two blocks from the World Trade Center site that developers plan to convert into an Islamic community center and mosque. This vote effectively clears the way for the developers to continue with their plans and is a huge setback for opponents who claim that building a mosque so close to “ground zero” is disrespectful to the 3,000 people killed at that location by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001. They claim that this amounts to a victory monument, a metaphoric finger in the eye of New York City and the United States of America.

Although the plan is supported by mayor Bloomberg and many other prominent politicians there are plenty of people and organizations that are lining up in opposition, including The American Center for Law and Justice and the Anti-Defamation League. This is potentially an emotionally charged issue for many reasons but for our purposes it raises the interesting question of the relationship between commitments to our faith and those to our country.

There are many American Christians whose American ideology is intertwined with the doctrinal commitments of their Christian faith. They view it as practically unchristian to disagree with the philosophical premises upon which Americanism rests, especially the ideas as expressed in the writings of the federalists who founded our country. I do not have the space here to develop in detail the dangers inherent in making the assumption that Americanism as an ideology is wholly derived from, or perfectly consistent with, Christian doctrine but I would like to focus generally on one question that the vote on this mosque brings into sharp focus.

There is perhaps nothing considered more “American” than the freedom of religious expression. It is this right that is the first and most prominent right articulated in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States. Nearly as foundational to the American system are speech and private property rights. The rights of private citizens to express their political or religious views as well as the right to be free from excessive government intrusion when using private property are essential to the American ideal. On the face of it there would seem to be nothing more anti-American than for the government to refuse private citizens the right to peaceably worship in the way that pleases them inside a building they own or to express their religious views. The arguments that allowing this Islamic center in that location are hurtful or tasteless and should therefore be prevented seem (at least to me) to be insufficient in the face of the broader constitutional principals involved even if they are correct.

From a Christian perspective, however, a mosque on any corner is a victory monument of The enemy of the Gospel because Islam denies that Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity, and the only savior of mankind. As Americans we have many reasons for opposing the particular placement of the mosque in Manhattan including the pain that it may cause to those whose loved ones were killed but the more important foundational issue for us as Christians should be the souls of those who will worship there.

What should the role of government be in these cases? The governmental structures of the United States are decidedly unreligious (I didn’t say anti-religious). When the U.S. was founded it was perhaps the most secular country in existence and it continues to have a more secular governing apparatus than most countries. Many concepts that are foundational to the American ideal are influenced by Christianity but find their root in the philosophical systems of the Enlightenment rather than any particular Christian understanding. In many ways the American founding was a purposeful departure from the Christian concepts of government prevalent up to that time.

The Roman Catholic Church has historically held that the ecclesiastical and civil authorities are distinct powers exercising authority in different spheres that nevertheless work toward a unified “Christendom”. In early Protestantism (apart from the Anabaptists) the concept was that church and state should be combined. The old Protestant ideal was that the governmental authority was to be a servant of God, bearing the sword to bring God’s wrath to those who oppose Him. Civil power was an extension of the ministry (even to this day it is technically illegal for a non-protestant to wear the English crown and the British sovereign is the head of the Anglican Church). There was no such combination of ecclesiastical and political power in the U.S.

Are the events of September 11th a compelling enough reason for the government to intercede to prevent this Islamic center from being built simply because of its particular religious nature?

Is there any biblical reason why this mosque should be more disturbing to Christians than any other mosque?

Should we be uncomfortable with the fact that our patriotic commitments incline us to support the right of establishing places of false teaching within our communities or can we, as Christians, support the building of this mosque as consistent with a higher Christian priority, namely separation of political and ecclesiastical authority?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Romans 7: Converted or Unconverted?

Conservative bible scholars debate many issues among themselves but few have the practical importance as the question related to the condition of the speaker in Romans chapter 7, particularly verses 13-25. There is a long history of disagreement about whether Paul is speaking here as a believer in Christ or is describing his condition prior to conversion. If he is speaking as a believer then Paul is telling us that the struggle with sin remains with the believer even after conversion which has important theological consequences.

[13] Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. [14] For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. [15] For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [16] Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. [17] So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. [18] For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. [21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

(Romans 7:13-25 ESV)

The Pre-Conversion View

Paul’s language in this section is inconsistent with the way he normally speaks of believers. Chapter 7 is part of a teaching segment that begins in Chapter 6 where Paul explains that Christians are under grace and not under the law (6:14) and are therefore no longer slaves to sin (6:17). This teaching segment culminates in Chapter 8 which describes the victorious life of the Christian. The person described in 7:23 is still a captive to the law and is intended to be a contrast to the Christian experience.

There are various clues in the language of chapter 7 that support this view. For example, references to the Holy Spirit are virtually absent from the entire chapter (mentioned only once in verse 6) but abound in chapter 8 when he returns to a discussion of the life of the believer. The key transitional verse is 7:13 where Paul shows that the law brought death to him as an unbeliever, unable to attain righteousness on his own. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (ESV) When a person compares their life to the perfect law of God they realize that the judgment is death.

Much has been made of the fact that Paul is writing this passage in the present tense, however, it is not necessary that the present tense imply that Paul is describing a current state of affairs. Greek allows for the use of the present tense in what is known as the “historical present” to emphasize the significance or intensity of past events. Paul is emphasizing that as an unbeliever it is impossible to overcome the condemnation of the law. He is recounting the experience of an unsaved person who encounters the law and realizes that they are incapable of fulfilling it.

Romans 7:13-25 is a description of the futility, angst, and impossibility of trying to be justified through the law. It is a contrast to Paul’s description of the victory of Christ whereby sinners are given victory over sin through His sacrifice. To view this passage as post-conversion undermines the reality of the power of the Gospel in this life and opens the door to a complacency with sin in the life of the believer.

The Post-Conversion View

Rather than view 7:13-25 as a digression it is better to view it as part of the main argument extending from chapter 5 through chapter 8 showing that to walk in the flesh is to be subject to the law. Paul is illustrating that there is a continual struggle between the spirit of God and the desires of the flesh within believers and encourages his readers to overcome the flesh through the power of Christ. The tense shifts in 7:14 from the past tense to the present tense and the most natural reading of this is to assume that Paul is describing his present experience.

It is grammatically possible that this section is an example of the use of the “historical present” but there are a number of other indicators in the text that would support a plain present tense reading. First, he pauses after making the statement that “nothing good dwells within him”, adding the explanation, “that is, in my flesh”. Paul does not wish to denigrate the work of the Spirit in his life so he provides this caveat for clarity. Secondly, he explains that it is his desire to do what is right and that he hates his sin even saying that he delights in the law of God. It is not consistent with Paul’s normal way of speaking to say that an unbeliever delights in the things of God or that they hate sin. In fact, in the next chapter he says ”For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.”

If this passage is meant to highlight the tension of living under that law that exists prior to conversion then verse 25 is strange. In the very same sentence, in the present tense, we see Paul stating clearly that he is thanking God through Christ the savior because he is serving the law of God with his mind and also makes a distinction between that and the struggle of the flesh. This distinction between the mind and the flesh is not confined to verse 25. Paul makes a repeated distinction between himself "I" and the flesh developing the theme that Christians have died to sin which was introduced much earlier in the book and is present throughout chapter 7 (including the example of law and marriage). If this were not a description of a believer then it is difficult to understand Paul’s statement, Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me., because the unbeliever has not yet died to the law. Assuming that the indwelling of the Spirit is unique to believers then it is difficult to understand this dichotomy in an unbeliever.

Although the language of Romans 7 is more personal than we find elsewhere the concept is not unique. Paul’s teaching in this section is not inconsistent with the way he normally speaks of believers. It is essentially the same message that he gives to the Church in Ephesus:

…put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24 (ESV)

And in even more similar language to the church at Galatia:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Galatians 5:16-26 (ESV)

Romans chapter 7 is the description of the struggle with sin in the life of a believer as the spirit of God works in their life against the desires of the flesh. This does not free us to simply accept sin in our life but rather gives confidence that if we trust in Christ and rely upon his sacrifice, yielding to the Spirit, we will persevere. It is Paul telling us that he knows we have struggles but that Christ has overcome them in us. We are to pursue holiness not in order to be justified by the law but as a result of the justification we have freely received.


What I have provided here is just a summary of the most common and compelling points on each side of this issue. There are strong points on both sides and I can understand how people come to either conclusion. Personally, I find the support for the post-conversion view to be more compelling and that is how I currently understand it. As always, I am open to changing my view if it can be demonstrated to me from the Word of God that I am wrong but I think that the post-conversion view fits better with the overall argument of Romans, Paul’s teaching on sin and the law, and the grammar of the passage.