Thursday, August 18, 2005

An Introduction to Covenant Theology for Dispensationalists: Part 1: Relationships

In the biblical record, the relations that subsist between God and man are always bound by objective legal arrangements known as covenants. It is not enough to understand that God offers himself to be in relationship with us after our souls have been saved. We should bother to inquire what sort of relationship God wants, since there are licit and illicit relationships. Just as a sexual “relationship” outside of the marriage bond is an illicit relationship, so not all relationships that people undertake to establish are acceptable to God. Despite the fact that two members of the same sex may love each other, homosexual marriage will never be approved as lawful in the only court that matters, the throne room of Almighty God.

Human beings are required to commune with God and each other within the parameters that have been established by the divine authority. All attempts to circumvent the divinely approved means are illicit and hence, sinful. After the Lord destroyed Nadab and Abihu, Moses recalled the Lord’s word: “I will be sanctified in them that come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” (Lev. 10:3)

Vague talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus,” while heartwarming, tends to confuse people about how they should relate to God. The danger is that we will approach the great God casually without regard for his majesty. Let the reader agree with the Apostolic teaching: “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude whereby we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:28,29)

I have quoted from Hebrews because I believe it is the most important book of the New Testament for understanding the order Messiah established, and it is certain that it is the most crucial text for understanding how the early church interpreted the old covenant scriptures. I will be relying heavily on Hebrews to support my thesis that the New Covenant is the present governing order that Jesus Christ established at his first advent.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Church and Kingdom

This evening I'd also like to initiate a dialogue with my friend Joe Brancaleone who writes at Pensieri di Brancaleone. Joe and I have had a few talks on the subject of the relation between the visible church and the invisible Kingdom of Christ. As I see it, how one conceives the relation between these two "spheres" is the issue lying at the center of the current "justification controversy" that is troubling the Reformed world at this time.

The dilemma can be formulated in the following way: Is the visible church the elect people of God or is it a provisional community of believers awaiting the establishment of the kingdom? If the visible church is the elect, how can Calvinism be true, since it is the case that some fall away and demonstrate a reprobate status? To affirm the election of the visible company of believers seems to entail admitting that individuals may loose their election. Also, since election and justification are inseparably linked (Rom. 8:30) , it appears that on this view individuals may fall from a state of justification. Therefore, the affirmation of "church election" and the "objective covenant" must be a betrayal of the Reformation and the assurance of salvation that was hard won by it.

According to the reasoning of those who would defend the Reformation, it is better to make a sharp distinction between the present church and the future Church that will be revealed from heaven as the spotless Bride of Christ, than to compromise the doctrine of justification. My friend Joe falls into this camp as is evident from the following:

...the NT definitely makes a distinction in this present age; one the hand the elect who are justified, receive full forgiveness of sins, and covenanted a kingdom glory. They are ones for whom Christ is the mediator of an eternal covenant and intercedes for all those whom he came to save by praying that their faith may not fail, and all of whom will one day feast with the king in the full glory of his eternal kingdom.

On the other hand there is a visible community where the general invitation is given to enter this kingdom by faith and baptism, a place where the Word of God is proclaimed, the hope of glory, and warnings are given against falling away from the Word which saves. [1/4/05]

It is here plain that the eternal kingdom and the visible community of Christians, while containing some of the same individuals are actually two distinct entities.

A consequence of this is that the visible church is not really the kingdom of God. It is a provisional society that has been gathered by the preaching of the Gospel, and sojourns as a company of pilgrims while awaiting the kingdom yet to come.

This conception of the church is summed by Joe in another place:

God's people are no longer characterized as a sovereign theocratic nation like Israel was. We are scattered and mixed across the world where we often find ourselves in a pluralistic bazaar of religions and ideas in the public square. [3/30/05]

According to this understanding, the church may be a kingdom of priests, but it is a spiritual nation, corresponding only analogously to the old covenant nation. The messianic kingdom of Christ is a spiritual reign in our hearts, which will be established as a social polity at the second coming when the kingdom is delivered up to the Father.

I hope I have characterized Joe's position fairly. If I have done so, then I am quite certain that his covenantalism is identical in principle to dispensationalism. The original dispensationalists taught that the kingdom only exists in mystery form at present, after a spiritual manner. They also split the New Covenant into "letter" and "spirit." (St. Paul was minister of the covenant spiritually, not legally. see 2 Cor. 3). For dispensationalists, the new covenant has not yet been established.

Likewise, I'd like to challenge Joe that his covenantalism pushes the substance of the New Covenant into the future, so that we do not in fact possess it. The covenant community is only in the process of being called, and therefore cannot be said to be God's own possession at present. At best we have the New Covenant in principle, i.e., in name only.

Both views deny that the reality of the kingdom is here, and posit a kind of half-way anticipatory economy in its place. The antidote to this Almost/Not Quite eschatology is to read what blessings are promised in the New Covenant and to read of their fulfillment in the Acts of the Apostles.

Herman Ridderbos has characterized the exorcisms performed by Christ and his disciples as signs that manifested a victory over Satan which had not yet been realized. Jesus' other miracles were of an "incidental" character of "temporary significance" for the real accomplishment that would take place later. The miracles were illustrative of his message and not the subject of it. (See The Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 113, 115.)

I am afraid this construction on the biblical data has unnecessarily postponed the kingdom to a future consummation day. It is at best a partial truth, because the consummation is wherever Jesus is. It is a gift given with the right hand, but taken away by the left.

At present, Jesus is not convalescing in heaven awaiting the time when he will be able to get around to the real business of his messianic rule. In actuality he has entrusted a mission to his church on the basis of his own authority, an authority he has already been endowed with by virtue of completing the course of his earthly obedience (See Matt. 28:18ff.; Heb. 1:3ff.).

The cosmic victory of Christ is only hidden to us who are on earth. But to the heavenly powers it is already manifest. Let us walk by faith and not by sight, following the example of the Old Testament saints "who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises" while not shrinking from the persecution that will inevitably be aroused in opposition(Heb. 11:33ff.).

The Law and the King

I'd like to express my thanks to my fellow parishioner Russ Smith for his willingness to engage in a dialogue about the relative merits of monarchy and democracy. His latest post over at Jack of Clubs provides a convenient opener for our discussion.

Russ begins his post by citing Instar Adood, an Iraqi citizen, who contrasted the situation in his country between Sadaam's regime and the rule of law established by the U.S. In Iraq, law really didn't exist under Sadaam, the operative principle in the dictatorship was Sadaam's arbitrary will.

Here Russ has set up the problematic that is common to all Enlightenment thinking: either rule by a person or rule by law. Either dictatorship or democracy. But I do not accept these alternatives.

Russ writes, "The default political philosophy throughout much of human history has been that the will of the king is the law. The biblical view that the king should be subject to a higher law would have been seen as controversial if not insane."

As a Christian I could never object to the proposition that kings should be constrained by the dictates of God's Law. But let's be perfectly clear, the true import of this thinking is that there should be no king. The uncontroversial truism that human government is accountable to divine rule has been used as a pretext to overturn all human authority. The thought runs: authority is too dangerous to be entrusted to mere mortals, because "power corrupts", etc.

To verify my basic point, in the same article Russ also cites the illustrious biblical scholar Tommy Paine himself! Here is the full quotation:
But where, says some, is the King of America? I'll tell you. Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law OUGHT to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony, be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.
There is much that can be said in response to this rebel's rant, but I shall restrict my comments to address the possibility of rule by law alone. When we examine the substance of what Tommy Boy has actually said, we find there is nothing there. Rule by naked law does not, cannot, exist. The bottom line is that someone has to function as a final authority in human government since Jesus Christ has seen fit to reign from Heaven. In any situation, there are a number of laws that come to bear. In order to determine which law has priority in any particular case, judgment must be exercised, hence the need for judges.

As illustrated in the Schiavo debacle, judges are very powerful in this country. One county circuit judge can singlehandedly hold off the executive and legislative branches of his state, as well as the U.S. Congress acting in emergency session. Of course, backing this judge is the weight of the entire legal establishment.

Tommy Paine's ideal that law replace the king has been actualized in the real world as government run by lawyers, with all the attendant limitations of legalistic judgment, i.e., too much weight placed on the letter of the law, appeal to human law as ultimately authoritative, etc.

It may be reasonably asked then, are we not faced with choosing between either arbitrary judges or arbitrary kings? Isn't government a necessary evil, and shouldn't we opt for the system that disperses power among more rather than among few? Isn't decentralization preferable to concentration of power?

Not necessarily. A judge in our day is a lawyer and nothing else. But a king is more than a judge. He is also a father, and a father has more care for the well being of his own children than he does for someone else's. I would more readily trust my case to one who viewed me in some sense as a son than I would to someone who regarded me a stranger.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Schiavo Case: Judge Greer ousted from the Church

"You must know that in all likelihood it is this case which will define your career and this case that you will remember in the waning days of life... I hope you can find a way to side with the angels and become an answer to the prayers of thousands."

These words were written to County Circuit Judge Greer by his pastor William Rice of Calvary Baptist Church (SBC) in Clearwater, Fl. Shortly afterwards, Judge Greer withdrew from church membership.

Calvary Baptist and Dr. Rice have had a history of activism for the cause of life, which is evident from the letter he wrote to the Florida Baptist Witness. It appears that Judge Greer's way of life has taken a divergent course from that of his Christian association.

James A. Smith Sr., executive editor of the Witness, had the following to say. “It appears that Judge Greer has chosen to remove himself from the loving care of a biblically sound church rather than to submit to the biblical obligation to exercise his public duties in a manner that is consistent with his Christian faith. This is regrettable for Judge Greer because he could not be better served than to be under the teaching of Dr. Rice."

Such a perspective is diametrically opposed to that of Mary Repper, a long time friend of the judge. She told reporters that, "The people in that church should be ashamed of themselves, to demonize George and to ask him to leave for doing his job, for upholding the law. To me, that was the most offensive thing that has happened so far."

That the "honored" judge would allow his friend to make these kind of public statements is telling. It makes explicit what was already manifest in his unwavering refusal to consider new evidence. Terri was declared "brain dead" and the verdict was set in stone, never to be reconsidered.

These statements by Ms. Repper make abundantly clear that the judge recognizes no higher law than the state's. For him, as for all secularists, law is created ex nihilo by the exercize of the autonomous human will.

A few hours ago, Terri was administerd last rites by her priest. May God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son receive her into their presence at long last. Terri, you're almost home.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Sergius Bulgakov on Church Unity

I actually haven't read that many Eastern Orthodox writers. But last summer I discovered Fr. Alexander Schmemann (1921-1883) and Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944). These men are divine gifts for the whole catholic Church, and have much to say to all those who are burdened by the divided state of the visible Church.

Fr. Bulgakov stands in a tradition of Russo-Christian philosophers that had to cope with the destruction of Holy Russia in the Bolshevik Revolution. It became his task to reinterpret Orthodoxy apart from a nationalistic dependent mode, a problem that still bedevills the majority of Orthodox.

An excellent on-line resource for Bulgakov may be found at the Sergius Bulgakov Society.

The following is an excerpt from Fr. Bulgakov's essay "By Jacob's Well":

"There is no such priesthood in Protestantism, but the people of the Church, the 'royal priesthood', remains there, and the potential power of Holy Baptism is fulfilled and revealed there in other ways, in certain devout rites and prayers instead of in effective sacraments. But if these are ineffective, can we say that they are nothing? One cannot say this, for the priesthood is not a magical apparatus for the celebration of the sacraments but a ministration of the Church which exists in the Church and for the Church...

"A more direct and true communion in sacramraments with the Protestant world is hindered by the presence of a rightly ordained priesthood: this is the threshold over which Protestantism must pass, the re-establishement of an apostolically ordained hierarchy.

"These barriers do not exist, however, for those sections of the divided Church which have retained this succession and have therefore a correctly ordained priesthood. Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism belong to this category, together with the ancient Eastern Churches (as well as the Episcopal Church in Protestantism and Anglicanism, in particular in the case of a positive solution of the question of Anglican ordination). The Priesthood of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are mutually uncanonical owing to the existing schism, but this does not prevent their mutually recognizing each other.

"The following conclusion of the utmost importance follows from this: Churches which have preserved their priesthood, although they happen to be separated, are not actually divided in their sacramental life. Strictly speaking, a reunion of the Church is not even necessary here, although generally this is hardly realized. The Churches which have preserved such a unity in sacraments are now divided canonically in the sense of jurisdiction, and dogmatically, through a whole range of differences; but these are powerless to destroy the efficacy of the sacraments.

"What is required for complete communion, and where do we start? The predominant formula runs: sacramental fellowship must be preceded by a preliminary doctrinal agreement. But is this axiom so indisputable as it appears? Here on one scale of the balance we have a difference in certain Christian dogmas and theological opinions, and an estrangement which has been formed through centuries; on the other we have the unity of sacramental life. May it not be that a unity in the sacrament will be the only way towards overcoming this difference? Why should we not seek to surmount a heresy in teaching through superseding a heresy of life such as division? May it not be that Christians sin now by not heeding the common eucharistic call?

"...[T]he way towards the reunion of East and West does not lie through tournaments between the theologians of the East and West, but through a reunion before the Altar. The priesthood of the East and West must realize itself as one priesthood, celebrating the one Eucharist, and, if the minds of the priests could become aflame with this idea, all barriers would fall...

"A realization of our unity as something given and at the same time of our disunity as a fact which we cannot ignore is present as a vital antithesis in the soul of the modern Christian. This antinomy cannot leave him in peace. He cannot remain indifferent to it, for he must seek its resolution."

I think Fr. Bulgakov's words speak for themselves. They arise from a living faith in the reality of Christ's Church and Holy Sacraments. Part of my purpose here at UO is to provide resources that help us think "outside the box." All that lies between us and the blessed future is the dead weight of our sinful unbelief, an unbelief that says God is unable--the sacraments are insufficient--to achieve the unity for which Christ prayed in John 17.

"The liturgy is heaven on earth." -- Fr. Sergius Bulgakov

Friday, March 25, 2005

Terri Schiavo, Holy Martyr

It is now Friday night, the eighth day that Terri Schiavo has been deprived of food and water. She is going to die because her husband has an irrevocable power of death over her that has been sustained by the courts, on both the state and federal levels.

The amazing irony is that Terri may very well pass on Easter Sunday, the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. This irony will be lost on the "right-to-diers" who disavow the social relevance of God's Kingdom in the present age. Terri will die, but she will be raised to be with Jesus.

"Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years."

What a high honor Terri has been granted! She has been given the opportunity to be a martyr for the cause of life itself. Her frail life has become the focal point of a titanic struggle between two cities, two cultures, the culture of death and the culture of life.

The reality of this conflict cannot be obscured by the cynicism of the American populace. About two-thirds in an ABC News poll said the political leaders who are trying to keep Terri alive are more concerned with using her case for political advantage than with her or the principles involved in keeping her alive. Such a read on the intentions of the last minute efforts of Congress and our President to save her arises from a jaded worldview that is incapable of attributing virtuous motives to anyone. It is nihilism.

Despite the best efforts of the Enemy of life, Terri will live. And her perserverance and martyrdom will be a banner and insignia which will rally to itself a great army for the cause of the holy innocents.

"Verily, verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."

Unpopular Opinions is Back!

After an initial burst of enthusiasm last year around the election, the posts stopped coming. This is not because I stopped engaging the issues. Rather, I set too high a goal for myself. I was going to attempt an overview of covenant history starting in Genesis and going all the way through biblical history!

In a format such as this, the best approach is to write articles on various subjects and gradually work toward composing a comprehensive paper on the subject. Right now my religio-political thought is at the experimental phase. Now is the time to test my hypotheses by Scripture and by submitting them to a community of Christians who are interested in such things.

If you haven't already, please read my initial post which lays out the general theses I wish to demonstrate from Scripture and illustrate from history.