Israel or Christ? Who Is God’s “Firstborn”?

Israel or Christ? Who Is God’s “Firstborn”?

The obvious answer to the question for any Bible-believing Christian is, “Jesus!” And while that is true, the answer could potentially be otherwise, which raises another question: How can there be more than one firstborn? A legitimate question in its own right. After all, politico-national Israel is also called the “firstborn” son of God in Exodus 4:22, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn.”’” Are there two firstborn sons? It would appear so. The question, therefore, is, In what sense(s) are either really ‘firstborn’?

The law of identity tells us that a thing cannot be what it is and yet another thing at the same time and in the same relationship. A door cannot be an elephant at the same time and in the same relationship. Could a door turn into an elephant? It would be highly unlikely, but at least framing the door-elephant situation in terms of transformation wouldn’t necessarily violate the law of identity since the door may become the elephant but would not be the elephant at the same time and in the same relationship. Can Israel and Christ both be the “firstborn son” at the same time and in the same relationship or sense? No. Otherwise, all reasoning, biblical and otherwise, would collapse upon the hypothesis that the law of identity does not hold. We would essentially be granting that anything could be anything. In such a case the very concept of “rationality” would explode into nonsense. “Coherence” itself would become ridiculous. To grant the violation of the formal laws of logic is to grant the reality, possibility, existence, and non-existence of everything and yet nothing at once. A foolish prospect to be sure.

So, what should we think about the relationship of Israel to Christ? If they are both called “firstborn” sons of God, in what sense is it so?

An Analytical Truth

An analytical statement occurs when the subject necessarily and definitionally entails its predicate. “All bachelors are unmarried men,” is the most popular example of an analytical statement. A bachelor just is an unmarried man. Likewise, “the firstborn son is primary in the order of filial relation,” is an analytical statement. To be “firstborn son” just is to be “primary in the order of filial relation.”

The Hebrew term used for “firstborn” in Exodus 4:22 is בָּכַר and means “firstborn” or “eldest” offspring. Jesus is likewise called the firstborn in Romans 8:29, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” The term πρωτότοκος, or “firstborn,” is the Greek equivalent to the aforementioned Hebrew term. These terms substantially carry the same meaning. And so, beyond the shadow of any doubt, we can affirm that both politico-national Israel and Christ are called “firstborn.”

It is important, therefore, to discover in what sense both can be “firstborn” given that to be “firstborn” just is “to be first in the order of filial relation. There can only be one. If both were “firstborn” at the same time and in the same sense, then a logical contradiction would appear in the pages of holy writ. And we can’t have that! To be “firstborn” just is to be “first in order of filiation.” So, who is really first? Israel or Christ? How should we overcome this dilemma?

An Important Qualification

Before we travel any further, I would like to avoid the risk of confusing the divine and human natures of Christ. There are two senses in which the Son of God is “firstborn.” Romans 8:29 calls Christ the “firstborn among many brethren.” And in Colossians 1:15, we read, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Romans 8:29 seems to link His “firstborn-ness” to His human nature in relation to the resurrection whereas Colossians 1:15 appears to link His “firstborn-ness” to His begottenness of the Father, which serves as a reference to the eternal relation of origin—of Son from the Father (cf. Jn. 1:18).

Our Lord, according to His divinity, is not “firstborn” in the sense of coming into existence, but only in the sense of eternal generation. According to His human nature, however, our Lord is a creature, born into this world through the womb of His virgin mother by the power of the Holy Spirit. These two natures, divine and human, are ineffably united in His Person “without conversion, composition, or confusion (2LBCF, 8.2).”

In this article, I speak about “firstborn” as it relates to Christ. And when I do this, I refer to both senses—that He is begotten before all ages, consubstantial with the Father according to His deity, but also that He is firstborn by special creation of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin by incarnation and then firstborn from the dead through His resurrection. These taken together signify Christ’s ultimate, true status as the firstborn of God the Father.

We might add at this point that if this consideration establishes Christ as the firstborn, we are then left wondering in what sense Israel was or is God’s firstborn son according to Exodus 4:22.

A Proposed Solution to the Dilemma

Remember the dilemma: Both politico-national Israel and Christ are called God’s “firstborn son.” But, as we’ve seen, the notion of “firstborn son” is analytical. There can only be one at the same time and in the same relationship. How do we break the tie?

First, it would be helpful to state at the outset that there is no tie. Israel and Christ are not in competition for first place. Rather, politico-national Israel is an historical institution whose divinely-appointed purpose was to reveal the true firstborn Son of God to the Old Testament elect saints. I do not merely mean that Israel is the earthly origin of divine revelation concerning Christ. That much is trivially true (Rom. 3:2). I rather mean that Israel itself is an historical institution that types forth Christ through its mission and movement. This is, perhaps, most clearly seen in the purposeful parallels between Jesus’ wilderness temptation in Matthew 4:1-11 and Israel’s wilderness temptation recounted in Deuteronomy 6-8. It is also made quite clear in Matthew’s record of Christ’s own exodus from Egypt where Hosea 11:1, a text about national Israel, is said to have been fulfilled in Jesus’ return to Israel (cf. Matt. 2:15).

This is the sum and substance of typology. A type is a person, place, institution, or event that figures another and greater person, place, institution, or event. Examples include the first Adam as he types forth the last Adam (Rom. 5:14), Israel as the land of rest as it types forth glory as the land of rest (Heb. 4), David as king as he types forth Christ as king (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 2:45), etc. The type is the thing that reveals, the antitype is the thing that is revealed. Adam is the type, Christ is the antitype; David is the type, Christ is the antitype, and so on.

But wait, there’s more!

It’s not altogether uncommon for the type to bear the names or titles of the antitypes to which they look. For example, Jesus is the King, but David is still yet a king. Jesus is the prince of peace, though Melchizedek is called the king of Salem (or the king of peace). Therefore, when politico-national Israel is called the “firstborn” in Exodus 4:22, it is actually bearing the filial title of the antitype to which it looks—the Lord Jesus. This especially becomes clear in the way in which Christ recapitulates the acts of Israel in His baptism, wilderness wandering, and wilderness testing. These three basic acts repeat Israel’s passage through the red sea, wilderness wandering, and wilderness testing. What is more, Christ successfully thwarted Satan’s agenda whilst Old Testament Israel failed time and time again.

Politico-national Israel, then, is the type of its other and greater antitype, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the true and only firstborn Son of God. Israel’s purpose was revelatory in nature. Israel revealed something of what Christ would do, but it also revealed man’s desperate need for Christ through its failure to attain that to which it was called—obedience and the land of rest promised as a result. Israel failed in its obedience. Christ succeeds. He is the new and greater Israel, the firstborn Son of God.

Conclusion

Typology is a valuable tool in the Bible-reader’s toolbox because it gives us a category to understand the way in which an all-sovereign God uses history itself for His own revelatory purposes. Scripture is not a document among other human-authored documents, like Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. As great as both those works are, they cannot touch Scripture. Scripture is the sovereignly-inspired record of sovereignly-affected events in history established by an all-sovereign God. God uses things to signify other and greater things. In this case, God has chosen the physical descendants of Abraham to reveal and signify our great need for Christ and what Christ would do. They further typed forth a people not born of genealogical descent, but by the Holy Spirit of God.

God has not only worked in history, but has molded history itself to reveal yet more glorious historical developments. Israel of old, as sinful as it was, has been employed under divine providence to reveal something of our Savior and what He would accomplish on behalf of the entirety of God’s elect.

The Biblical Basis for Creeds

The Biblical Basis for Creeds

The use of creeds really do not need to be proven, given the self-evident need for Christians to confess both that they believe and what they believe. As soon as someone articulates what they believe in their own words, they articulate a creed. The term creed simply means “I believe.” It is, in short, a statement of belief. Every time a baptism occurs, a creed is expressed, either by way of question and answer, or by way of a plain statement. If someone were to say, “Creeds should not be used in the church,” I would simply respond, “do you believe that?” If they were to say, “yes I do,” I would want to simply point out that they are using a creed, i.e. a statement of belief. In order to reject creeds one must use creeds. And to use a creed in order to reject the use of creeds is not only self-refuting, it is hypocritical.

Scripture is clear on the use of creeds. It is the apostolic pattern as can be seen in several places. One of the clearest examples where a creed is employed is in Acts 8:37. Philip has already evangelized the Ethiopian eunuch by explaining to him the gospel from Isaiah 53. In v. 36, the eunuch asks, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” What is Philip’s response? Philip states the requirement for baptism, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch’s immediate reaction is creedal in nature, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” In Romans 10:9, Paul makes creedal statements nothing less than a requisite to salvation, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” In v. 10 he even says, “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” In 1 John 4:1-3 we read:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.

The term used for confess in this passage is ὁμολογέω (homologeo), and it means “to say the same thing as another,” and, “to declare openly and voluntarily.” Historically, churches have recited creeds together in a congregational setting. It was thought that such a creedal recital was a picture of Romans 10:9 put on weekly display within the assembly of God’s people. Paul says, “You must confess and believe.” The church’s response from that time on is, “Here is our confession, recited together in unity with one another.” A most proper response to be sure.

First John 4:2 places the term ὁμολογέω in the present tense, meaning this confession is not a one-time event that occurs at a person’s baptism, but is a continual act that characterizes the Christian church. Furthermore, the text assumes it is a public act—an act done within the context of community. John is, after all, dealing with how we know a person is a fellow Christian. How do we know a person is of God, that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit? “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that is confessing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” And in v. 7, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Thus, creedal proclamations, or confessions, is the first line of evidence indicating a person is a true Christian. Whether or not that person loves in accordance with the spirit of that confession is another line of evidence.

Creeds and confessions weren’t new to the New Testament. Perhaps one of the oldest creeds is the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” Jesus recapitulates this creed in Mark 12:29. In John 17:3, Jesus refers once more to it when He says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” And Paul mentions it as well in 1 Corinthians 8:4, “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.”

In 1 Kings 18:20-40, when the prophets of Baal raised their arrogant voices to heaven in opposition to the one true God, Elijah called down fire from Yahweh to consume a sacrifice. Despite the altar being soaked in water, the Lord faithfully answered Elijah the prophet, incinerated the sacrifice, and licked up all the water in the process. This, of course, was to the great humiliation of the Baal worshipers. But when the Lord manifested His glory by means of such a stunning display, the people fell down to worship. And how did they worship? They uttered forth a corporately confessed creed, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God (1 Kgs. 18:37)!”

Rebuke, Refute, & Reprise: Three Themes of John the Baptist’s Ministry

Rebuke, Refute, & Reprise: Three Themes of John the Baptist’s Ministry

In Matthew 3:5-12, we witness a stunning display of righteous zeal in the face of religious and political corruption. Soon after John the Baptist began his public baptism ministry, the Pharisees and Sadducees formed an unrighteous alliance designed to assess the nature and effectiveness of John’s popularity, presumably in preparation for sabotage. We read, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ (Matt. 3:7).” The Pharisees and Sadducees set aside an essential component of orthodox confession, the bodily resurrection from the dead (concerning which the Sadducees denied altogether), in order to link arms for a common purpose. We can file this in the “how not to do ecumenism” folder. Ecumenism or communion must be formed on the basis of truth, not merely a common purpose or goal.

John, apparently playing upon the already dubious reputation of these two factions, issues a strong rebuke. He did not feel the need to engage them in dialogue. He was already aware of who they were and why they were there. He leads strongly, “Brood of vipers!” in v. 7. In v. 8 he continues the rebuke through issuing the means of restoration, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” And then, in v. 9 he anticipates and refutes what we might call “the argument from Abraham.” Finally, in vv. 10-12 he issues three statements of reprisal or judgment threats: (1) the threat of the ax; (2) the threat of Holy Spirit judgment; and (3) the threat of unquenchable fire. Below, we will briefly open the text under the headings of rebuke, refute, and reprise, making some contemplative remarks along the way.

Rebuke

John began his diatribe against the unrighteous alliance (Pharisees and Sadducees) with the phrase, “Brood of vipers!” Brood should probably be rendered “generation” (cf. KJV) due to the repeated use of “wicked generation” elsewhere in Matthew (Matt. 12:45; 16:4). Moreover, John’s purpose seems to be the same as Jesus’ in John 8, where these religious elites are identified as the offspring of Satan, the great serpent of old. There, Jesus makes the observation: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it (Jn. 8:44).”

We are shown here that there exists a proper time and place for rebuke. Of course, the whole of John’s personal intent behind the rebuke cannot be discerned with any measure of certainty, but it must partially have been motivated by a love for Christ and His people. Those who hate Christ and act according to such hatred, attempting to disrupt the people of Christ and demean their Lord, must be met with a sound rebuke, “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come! (1 Cor. 16:22).”

Refute

In v. 9, John moves to the refutation of an anticipated argument. Neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees actually make the argument in Matthew 3. But we can get an idea of what the argument would have been since a similar one is raised throughout the course of John 8. In summary, the argument there runs as follows:

  • If we are Abraham’s seed, we are not in bondage and Jesus is unnecessary
  • We are Abraham’s seed

Therefore,

  • We are not in bondage and Jesus is unnecessary

Of course, there are several problems with this argument. First, physical genealogical descent from Abraham never made a Jew a Jew, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh… (Rom. 2:28).” Ethnic Jews were but types of true Jewry that consists in a regenerate people—whether ethnic Jew or ethnic Gentile. This becomes clear in places like Galatians 3:29, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Second, physical descendants of Abraham were never told they were excepted from the bondage of sin in the Old Testament. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Psalm 14 tells us, “There is none who does good.” And in Romans 3 Paul interprets this as being applicable to all people notwithstanding their social status, genealogical heritage, etc. 

John the Baptist anticipates this argument and immediately refutes it by saying, “and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones (Matt. 3:9).” It was never physical birth, ethnic connections, or genealogical records that made a Jew a Jew. Much less was it the ordinance of fleshly circumcision. It was always a unilateral work of God in the hearts of people notwithstanding ethnic distinction which was according to the law. Hence, God, if He so chose, could turn rocks into true Jews. And indeed He has achieved something even more unexpected and difficult. He has turned Gentiles into true Jews by His Word and Spirit.

Reprise

Because of the hardness of their hearts, and those of their followers, John issues three threats. These threats are not original to John, but are grounded in the Old Testament. There is the ax threat (Mal. 4:1), the Holy Spirit judgment threat, and the threat of unquenchable fire (Is. 5:24).

In v. 10, he says, “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” If the repentance mentioned in v. 8 is not sought, the ax threat represents the demise of the Israelite nation. And seeing how this ax is laid to the root, this is not a mere pruning of the nation, but a wholesale destruction and removal thereof. The typological people, if they do not repent in and through Messiah, will be cut off and judged as God haters. If we were to fast forward to the end of Matthew, we would see that the people en masse solidify themselves in their rebellion, and they eventually opt for the capital death of the innocent Christ rather than that of the murderous Barabbas.

Judgment culminates in the destruction of the temple and removal of the Jewish nation in 70 A.D. Which had been a judgment predicted by Christ Himself in Matthew 24:2, when He says, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

The next threat is mixed with a promise. The promise, of course, must be referred to God’s elect, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit…” It’s the last two words of v. 11 that represent the judgment, “and fire.” Fire may be an allusion to Pentecost. However, in the immediate context, fire is only used for judgment in vv. 10, 12. So, I take the fire in v. 11 as referring to the judgment upon unrepentant Israelites whilst the baptism of the Holy Spirit applies to those whom God will graciously save in and through Jesus Christ.

The third threat is that of the wheat and chaff. The Lord will separate the two with His winnowing fan until all that is left is a truly regenerate people. Such corporate purity is a promise of the New Covenant in contrast to the mixed (corpus permixtum) nature of the Old Covenant, “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (Jer. 31:34).” If ethnic Jews are not true Jews through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, not only will their nation be destroyed (since the Old Covenant is now annulled, cf. Heb. 8:13), but they themselves will be cast into the fires of judgment along with all the unbelieving Gentiles, “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12).”

Conclusion

What a sobering reminder that the only distinguishing factor between Christians and those who will experience eternal judgment is the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot claim the faith of our parents at the judgment. Our family lineage will be irrelevant. And any pleas made upon the notion of our good works will be met with divine wrath. Only God can make children of Abraham. Only the grace of Christ can assemble a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). And only Christ, the final Adam, can bring His people back to God. We should, then, see Matthew 3:5-12 as a warning: Do not make the same fatal error of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous (Lk. 18:9).” The only proper object of our faith is God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

Though the three most influential Reformed confessions (Westminster, Savoy, 2LCF) begin with Scripture, it may surprise the reader to learn that neither confession begins with Scripture as a stand-alone authority. In contemporary discussion revolving around the doctrine of sola Scriptura, too often is the authority of God mixed up with the authority of Scripture. Unwitting or not, the consequence of such a confusion not only insinuates Scripture stands alone as a non-derivative source of knowledge, but it also obscures the influence of theology proper in accounting for the nature of God’s Word. God’s Word is authoritative precisely because it derives from the chief Authority, God Himself. But if Scripture is unhinged from its divine cause, then its very nature falls into question. Inevitably, we begin to subject Scripture and its meaning to various other prejudgments rather than understanding the doctrine of God as the seat and determining agent of what Scripture is.

The current fight for sola Scriptura appears not to be a fight for that doctrine classically understood, but a fight for a particular modern understanding which unwittingly blurs the Creator-creature distinction. Is Scripture creature? If it is, it has a Creator and thus must be understood in light of that Creator. Is Scripture not creature? Well, then, it would be Creator (and we will go ahead and assume this option is off-limits to all of us). Divorced from a robust theology proper, our doctrine of Scripture will slowly but surely erode. If Scripture is caused, then it must be viewed in light of its cause. If we perceive it to be uncaused, with no determining ontology (God) in the background, then it becomes anybody’s wax nose. If there is no immutable cause, then why think the meaning of Scripture is anything but fluid?

Appealing to Confessional Doctrine

At this point, it would be helpful to note that the Second London Confession (1677) explicitly grounds the doctrine of Scripture in God Himself. It reads:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God (1.4).

Noteworthy in this paragraph is the transfer of Scripture from the hands of men (or any church) into the hands of God Himself. The negative influence of the Papacy is, of course, behind this paragraph more than any other prevalent institution during the 17th century. Perhaps the church of England, controlled as it were by the monarch, falls within its purview as well.

The central detail is the sufficient reason for why the Scripture ought to be received, that is, because it proceeds from God. The explanation for why we ought to receive Scripture is not the creature but the Creator. The explanation of Scripture’s authority and thus our obligation to receive it is found outside Scripture itself, namely in the God who authored it. And though human institutions may serve as a means to increase our interest in and appreciation of Scripture (cf. 1.5), the sufficient reason for receiving Scripture is its divine Author.

Even though ch. 1 of the confession is purposed to elucidate the doctrine of Scripture, par. 4 can’t help but to bring the doctrine of God into it—a move which apparently anticipates ch. 2. Apart from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Scripture is rendered void—being detached from the cause that makes it what it is. This is why the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of God come first in the confessional order—they are the principles of the faith. Scripture is the principle of knowing God unto salvation. God, however, is the principium essendi, or the principle of Being which explains the nature or ontology of Scripture in the first place.

Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Because God is the cause of Scripture, we are automatically summoned toward a theological interpretation of it. All texts must be interpreted in light of the One who inspired them. Not a single biblical text stands in isolation from its divine Author. Moreover, there is no consideration of a single text in isolation from the context of all the other texts. Knowledge of God, therefore, will shape how we understand the shape of the biblical canon and its particulars. This knowledge comes from two distinct places. 

First, nature bears the inescapable fruits of divine knowledge such that all people know God. Genesis 1:1 resonates even with the first-time Bible-reader because they have been created with the habitus to know God. More than this, throughout the course of their lives, they have discerned Him through His works (Rom. 1:18-20). Hence, Francis Turretin enlists natural theology as a preparatory help in one’s approach to revealed theology. For Turretin, natural theology is useful, “as a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures.”[1]

More pertinent to our purpose, however, is the question of how to prioritize theological data derived from Scripture, and how the clearest parts of Scripture illuminate obscure passages. The Second London reads, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly (1.9).” Clearer texts help us to understand less clear texts. Similarly, the divine cause of Scripture should temper our understanding of the creaturely language utilized by Scripture. Texts about the creature should not determine the meaning of texts about the Creator.

This is not to say God’s works as recorded in Scripture teach us nothing about God. Certainly, God’s works reveal God to us. But in spite of God’s works acting as a medium of divine revelation, we must understand that neither these works nor our apprehension of them condition God as He is in Himself in any way. As Dr. Richard Barcellos notes, “Though we learn of God in the economy, God’s external or outer works, we cannot account properly for those works without a theology of the One who works prior to accounting for them.”[2] Quoting Dr. John Webster, he writes, “God’s outer works are most fully understood as loving and purposive when set against the background of his utter sufficiency—against the fact that no external operation or relation can constitute or augment his life…”[3] And finally, Barcellos helpfully observes, “Without allowing first place to theology proper, we cannot make sense of the cosmological assertions of Scripture, nor, in particular, its anthropomorphic language pertaining to divine action…”[4]

Divine sufficiency accounts of Scriptural sufficiency. Apart from distinguishing between the ontology of the Creator and the ontology of the creature, throughout our Scriptural exegesis, our Scriptural exegesis cannot be expected to either yield or preserve a consistent Creator-creature distinction. This is why Biblicist accounts of Scriptural meaning tend toward numerous forms of heresy—from pantheism to patripassianism to Arianism. On a consistent Biblicist hermeneutics, nothing should be allowed to influence biblical interpretation, not even God Himself who is the very Author of the Bible. On this account, the creature will inevitably have priority, and God will slowly but surely be recrafted into man’s image instead of the other way around.

Conclusion

The Creator-creature distinction is that in light of which we ought to read Scripture. If our exegesis yields conclusions which effectively drag God into His economy, we should retool our exegetical approach in order to avoid such a miscalculation. Scripture must be understood in light of its Author. And though Scripture reveals its Author to us, it also reveals His works. Biblical revelation of God’s works must be tempered by biblical revelation of God Himself. This theological interpretation will not only preserve theology proper, but it will preserve the integrity and objectivity of Scripture and its purpose. Moreover, it will protect us from ourselves. If left to ourselves, we would perceive Scripture to be a wax nose. But if accountable to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our biblical interpretation, seeing all of Scripture in light of its divine cause, we will be led to uphold an orthodox doctrine of Scripture as well.

Resources:

[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

[2] Barcellos, Richard, Trinity and Creation, (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2020), 13.

[3] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

[4] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

With the contemporary skeptical approach to natural theology has come an influx of Trinitarian and Christological errors. Why is this? Probably because a rejection of the natural truths God reveals about Himself through nature will inevitably lead to a rejection of those same truths even as they come through Scripture—or at least there will be a drastic reinterpretation of them. Immutability, simplicity, self-existence—all three may be known about God through natural revelation. This is what Thomas demonstrates in his Summa Theologiae, and it is what was understood to be the case in the first generation Reformers onward (cf. John Calvin’s Institutes, Book I).

What happens when the data of natural revelation falls by the wayside? The same data perfectly and perspicuously presented in the Scriptures is interpreted on the supposition of some other metaphysical or epistemological standard (admittedly or not). This other standard is what fills the vacuum left by the first principles given through nature. We are then left with the problem of biblicism. But with biblicism, one is not allowed to carry a natural understanding of God into the interpretive task in any measure. Scripture becomes the soul witness to immutability, simplicity, and self-existence. This is not in itself a problem, since Scripture ought to be received because it is from God—the highest Authority. But when the individual Bible-reader rejects the testimony of nature, Scripture becomes a wax nose formable to whatever philosophy he uncritically and unwittingly imbibes.

When Turretin says that natural theology functions as “a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures,”[1] he means that man, as imago Dei, possesses a natural intellect providentially direct by God to appropriate Scriptural data. God’s Scriptural appeal is made to rational creatures. And when, by grace, a rational creature is made to accept and trust in the truth of Scripture, his rational appetites are not extinguished but improved. 

Biblicism rejects the reality of the light of reason before and after regeneration. It’s not that the biblicist doesn’t use the light of reason; it’s that he uses it unacknowledged. And rather than critically examine his own philosophical assumptions using the light of reason, keeping the good ones while exiling the bad ones, he refuses to acknowledge he has any philosophical assumptions at all even though he does. This unexamined life then leads to an always-shifting understanding of biblical meaning. 

If a person’s philosophical assumptions change, so will their interpretational approach to Scripture. Just observe the historical-causal connection between the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the church’s interpretational method before and after that period of time. Or, if you like, look at the theological changes that took place from the pre-modern era into the modern era. If philosophical assumptions are never given a voice, they’ll always be changing. A person can only consciously hold their position in place if they are conscious of it.

There is no approaching Scripture as a tabula rasa (blank slate), even after regeneration. A person is going to approach Scripture with some kind of a philosophical precommitment. Classical theism offers a transparent, commonsensical philosophy. Simply put, the light of nature prepares for the introduction of the light of Scripture. The light of nature informs our understanding of Scripture, and Scripture turns us back to nature so that we can understand it to a greater and more perfect extent. And thus, the classical theist may employ natural theology in service to specially revealed theology derived from the Scriptures. Those who reject classical theism cannot see how natural theology may be used in service to supernatural theology.

As a result, they not only remain happily ignorant of the sophisticated expression of the faith, found in the terminology of the creeds and confessions, they actively combat it. It is one thing to remain in ignorance, it is quite another to be confronted with further truths and react by recalcitrantly rejecting those truths. While one may permissibly be ignorant of the more articulate expression of the Christian faith, they do not have permission to reject that articulate expression of the Christian faith should it be true.

Resources:

[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

Prudent Knowledge

Prudent Knowledge

The apostle Paul was an educator who deeply desired the intellectual growth of his brethren. A key reason for placing limits upon prophetic activity in the Corinthian church was, “that all may learn and all may be encouraged (1 Cor. 14:31).” He prayed for the Colossians church and disclosed his prayerful purpose in writing, “that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10).” Peter tells us that God’s “divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue (2 Pet. 1:3).” And it is to “virtue” that we are to add “knowledge (v. 5).” And this pays dividends in the form of growing in “the knowledge  of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 8).” Peter goes so far as to command us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2. Pet. 3:18).”

Maturity in theological knowledge, i.e. “the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10),” is a central imperative and admonishment dictated to the church in general throughout the pages of Scripture. This isn’t a trademark of the New Testament only. Such a thematic emphasis finds its background in numerous calls to knowledge in the Old Testament as well. For example, the supplication of the psalmist, “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, For I believe Your commandments (Ps. 119:66).” And in Proverbs 1:22 it is not the faithful who hate knowledge, but fools, “How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity? For scorners delight in their scorning, And fools hate knowledge.” Knowledge and the maturity therein is a pervasive concept in Scripture.

A Purposeful Ambiguity?

A quick read of the several “knowledge statements” found in both Old and New Testaments leaves one asking, “Okay, I know I should know. But, how much do I have to know?” Obviously, we would immediately want to include the essentials of the faith within the “things-we-must-know” category. But that’s not all we are called to know, and our first encounter with those precious doctrines is not to be our only encounter.

Such quantitative ambiguity appears to be intentional on God’s part. How much knowledge must we have beyond the essentials? The nebulous nature of this knowledge and the extent to which we are to know leaves room for a number of factors—from subjective aptitude levels to subjective levels of available information. Some people cannot learn the way others learn. First to fourth century Christians would have had severely limited access to a complete New Testament canon depending on their respective lifetimes and locations. Additionally, we live in a busy age, and most people are taken up with secular affairs and cannot afford to study like a seminary student, professor, or full-time pastor. Thus, Scripture doesn’t present us with a curriculum beyond the essentials of the faith which we are commanded to stringently teach and learn. Yet, we nevertheless know that the Christian is to yearn for more divine knowledge, and that such a love for God exists is clearly the spirit and goal behind the “learning imperatives.”

To Speak, or Not to Speak?

This raises an interesting question: Should we be content with the mere letter of the text of Scripture? In other words, isn’t it enough that we memorize Scripture, that is, the ink as it sits upon the page, rather than travel down deep theological holes? 

In light of the above biblical observations, the answer has to be, “no.” A man may memorize the entirety of Scripture, but that does not mean his learning has reached its end. The God Scripture reveals is infinitely glorious, and He has revealed Himself to us that we may know and unceasingly grow in knowing. Therefore, the text of Holy Writ boasts of fathomless depths which each and every Christian should desire to plumb. But this doesn’t mean every Christian must be equal in the extent to which they plumb. Jesus, in the parable of the talents, assumes God gives according to ability. Such language takes for granted not only differing abilities, but even various levels of the same ability, “And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey (Matt. 25:15).” And in Romans 12:6 Paul writes, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them…” And these gifts are given by God Himself, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven (Jn. 3:27).”

All Christians ought to press on to know God. Not all Christians will know God to the exact same degree. Some who know to a great degree will benefit others through the fruit of their intellectual labors. Others who do not know to a great degree may benefit from such fruits. Still, there are some who do not know to a great degree who desire to speak on things they do not yet understand to a sufficient degree. 

The first group is obeying God in seeking more knowledge. The second group is obeying God in seeking more knowledge. But the third group has a choice. It is not wrong to desire to teach that which is not yet understood by the would-be teacher. Teaching is a qualification for eldership after all, and the desire to be a teacher has to begin somewhere (1 Tim. 3:2). But those who speak publicly prior to first understanding the subject to be spoken of are disobeying God in speaking to things they do not yet understand. And this might result in a violation of the ninth commandment (Ex. 20:16), stumbling blocks in front of fellow saints (Mk. 9:42), slips into erroneous and dangerous doctrine, etc.

Therefore, while it is imperative we know God and grow in our knowledge of God, it is not imperative we all grow to the same degree. And it is especially not imperative we speak to doctrines we have not yet grown into. Quite the contrary. If we speak to that which we do not yet understand we may actually dishonor God, cause confusion among the saints, and fail to adorn the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Aquinas once wrote—

The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, A. 2).

In other words, while some men, endowed by their Creator, may take pains to explore the contours of divinity revealed through nature, those unable to do so—for any of the limiting reason mentioned above—may instead accept the same truths otherwise deduced according to the light of nature by faith in the divine Word set forth in Holy Scripture. Thus, those things which might be known of God through both nature and Scripture may justifiably be known by one or the other, but not necessarily both.

It is fitting that man should know God through wherever he might learn of Him—either through nature or Scripture. And though this is expected of those whom God has called and endowed to perform it, it is not required of man generally. This same principle might be applicable even to knowledge derived from Scripture. Not everyone will go on to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, or New Testament Greek. Not everyone will write a biblical theology like those penned by the hands of John Owen, Geerhardus Vos, or Greg Beale. Why? Not only are some not intellectually incapable of doing so, but some are providentially hindered by other God-given responsibilities.

Let us, therefore, humbly go forth according to the grace God has given each of us.