Friday, November 30, 2012

Mercersburgism, John Frame, Theonomy, etc.


If Steven Wedgeworth is accurate (see when he writes, “Another difference [between Modern Theology and Mercersburg Theology] is in their central idea. Modern theology makes the atonement or death of Christ, Mercersburg the person of Christ or the incarnation, its central idea. The importance of this difference can be seen in the fact, for instance, that the atonement itself, or justification by faith, cannot be maintained successfully by adopting the former. According to it, the atonement is made to rest primarily on what Christ has done, not on what he is. It apprehends Christ as a mere individual, God and man in one person, it is true, but yet as a mere individual. Mercersburg theology apprehends Christ as the embodiment of the universal life of humanity, the second Adam or federal head of the race’ and his obedience and death receive their atoning merits from this fact.”

If accurate Mercersburg theology as well as “Modern Theology” comes athwart something I encountered in New Testament Introduction in regard to the Synoptic Problem, it was never a problem for the first generations of Christians. They didn’t have the whole Bible, the New Testament or very likely more than one of the gospels. Neither were they concerned about the theology of the atonement. They were focused almost completely upon the Resurrection, the Easter message: Christ is Risen. For if he is risen then he is as he is the first born among many brethren; which includes us.

Others I read seem to think that Mercersburg Theology was headed in the same direction as Neo-Orthodoxy. Barth took the wind out of their sails because he did it better than they did. I have nothing against Barth btw, one of my few criticisms of Van Til is that he was too harsh on some philosophers and theologians that I admire, R. G. Collingwood for example, but also Barth . . . but whenever I’ve dabbled at reading Barth he is saying something that bears out Van Til’s criticism.

I read Frame’s Evangelical Reunion, Denominations and the Body of Christ back in 1993 just at the time that my OPC pastor asked me  to teach a study on “The Church.” I was heavily influenced by Frame’s ideas on Evangelical Reunion no doubt included some of those ideas in my talk.  Afterward an OPC missionary who happened to be visiting took me to task: There could be no merging with other denominations because there was something wrong with everyone of them.

“What about Christ’s prayer that all those in his Church would be ‘one’?” I asked him.

“That’s all well and good, but we can’t sacrifice sound theology for the sake of a merger. Why not go all the way and merge with the secular world. A merger should never be accomplished at the expense of sound theology.”

This missionary didn’t convince me, but neither did I convince him. Frame seems to have met with the same reaction on a larger scale. His enemies seem to be taking him to task for the same sorts of things. I haven’t pursued Frame’s idea in recent years, but Christ’s prayer is still out there. Something is wrong with the Universal Church if it doesn’t pursue reunion.

I thought about this matter when I began attending the EPC. What, for example, would prevent the merger of the OPC and the EPC. As far as I could tell from reading the EPC charter and listening to the pastor, the only differences were the use by the EPC of modern hymns and women elders, both of which were left open to individual EPC churches.

In regard to Mercersburg, I have been impressed by some of the publications coming out of Princeton & so looked especially at (and finally ordered) the following:

Speculative Theology and Common-Sense Religion : Mercersburg and the Conservative Roots of American Religion by Linden J. DeBie (2008, Paperback)


Evangelicals in nineteenth-century America had a headquarters at Princeton. Charles Hodge never expected that a former student of Princeton and his own replacement during his hiatus in Europe, John W. Nevin, would lead the German Reformed Church's seminary in a new, and in his mind, destructive direction. The two, along with their institutions, would clash over philosophy and religion, producing some of the best historical theology ever written in the United States. The clash was broad, influencing everything from hermeneutics to liturgy, but at its core was the philosophical antagonism of Princeton's Scottish common-sense perspective and the German speculative method employed by Mercersburg. Both Princeton and Mercersburg were the cautious and critical beneficiaries of a century of European Protestant science, philosophy, and theology, and they were intent on adapting that legacy to the American religious context. For Princeton, much of the new European thought was suspect. In contrast, Mercersburg embraced a great deal of what the Continent offered. Princeton followed a conservative path, never straying far from the foundation established by Locke. They enshrined an evangelical perspective that would become a bedrock for conservative Protestants to this day. In contrast, Nevin and the Mercersburg school were swayed by the advances in theological science made by Germany's mediating school of theology. They embraced a churchy idealism called evangelical catholicism and emphatically warned that the direction of Princeton and with it Protestant American religion and politics, would grow increasingly subjective, thus divided and absorbed with individual salvation. They cautioned against the spirit of the growing evangelical bias toward personal religion as it led to sectarian disunity and they warned evangelicals not to confuse numerical success with spiritual success. In contrast, Princeton was alarmed at the direction of European philosophy and theology and they resisted Mercersburg with what today continues to be the fundamental teachings of evangelical theology. Princeton's appeal was in its common-sense philosophical moorings, which drew rapidly industrializing America into its arms. Mercersburg countered with a philosophically defended, churchly idealism based on a speculative philosophy that effectively critiqued what many to this day find divisive and dangerous about America's current Religious Right.

In regard to Kuyper, it seems to me he was a natural ally of both Theonomy and the Escondido Theology. He believed very strongly in the Christian’s role in modern States. I do as well, but could never embrace Kuyper, although he was urged upon me by the first OPC (sort of) pastor we had in Moreno valley. I can’t recall his name but he was ordained in some denomination not approved of by the OPC (or something line that); which didn’t bother him because he was semi-retired and when they cut him loose he retired completely.

In regard to Theonomy I was attracted to it initial and read Rushdoony’’s Institutes, for  if we considered a future in which the Postmillennial time arrived where everyone was Christian (some nominally but most sincerely) then we would be able to create laws consistent with Christianity. What sorts of laws should they be? 

However, I didn’t get very far with this before learning that the Theonomists thought they were in position to know what these laws should be and  furthermore had decided to urge them at once upon the Church and even the nation at large.

A failure Theonomy but also of several other points of view, including the Escondido School, is a lack of appreciation for the fact that God does not create language or societies out of whole cloth. He deals with people as they are and with what they know and believe. Thus, the Mosaic food laws, for example, were appropriate for the people that Moses led into the Wilderness but aren’t appropriate to subsequent social situations.

God deals with people where they are, using their language and their societies as they are. He does not urge a change of language or society. I read Dabney’s biography of Stonewall Jackson in which is a very well-reasoned defense of Slavery. The fact that Paul didn’t urge the abolition of Slavery, I believe, doesn’t mean that he, let alone God, was advocating that economic practice. God’s (and Paul’s) interests lay elsewhere.

The same sort of thing is true, in my opinion, of Paul’s injunctions against women in the Church in his day. That society was a patriarchal society in which women were not educated. But in these modern times women receive the same education as men; so in my opinion Paul’s injunction against women in the church was not intended to be a universal principle. In looking at Paul’s concern we might very well embrace a universal principle against poorly qualified people ascending to important positions of responsibility in any modern denomination.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ezekiel 18 and individual responsibility (2)

In my plain reading of Ezekiel, I took chapter 18 to be a milestone, a moving away from the earlier principle whereby the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the children without (apparently) reference to the children’s individual sins. See:

Deuteronomy 5:9 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

Exodus 20:5 "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

Here in Ezekiel we see the (apparent) change I am referring to:

“Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, 2 "What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel saying, 'The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children's teeth are set on edge '? 3 "As I live," declares the Lord God, "you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore. 4 "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die. 5 "But if a man is righteous, and practices justice and righteousness, 6 and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor's wife, or approach a woman during her menstrual period-- 7 if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing, 8 if he does not lend money on interest or take increase, if he keeps his hand from iniquity, and executes true justice between man and man, 9 if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully-- he is righteous and will surely live," declares the Lord God.”

Am I alone in assuming that there has been a change? I don’t take this to be precisely a changing of God’s mind but rather a sociological, societal, change whereby individuals are no longer “breeding true” in the sense referred to in Deuteronomy 5:9 and Exodus 20:5 – at least as I take these verses to infer. Individuals living in the days of Deu 5:9 & Exo 20:5 were moral duplicates of their fathers (it seems to me), but in Ezekiel’s day that was no longer the case.

Here is the ICCs G. A. Cooke writing in 1936 agreeing with me (p. 194) “The popular view is wrong; national misfortunes are not to be explained by the sins of the fathers, vv. 1-4. There can be no question of the divine justice. Each man will be treated exactly as he deserves; he is responsible for himself, and no one else can take his place, vv. 5-20. . .

“In a style which reflects the labour of his thought, the prophet is feeling his way towards a general principle . . . If we are being punished for the sins of the fathers, what avails the moral struggle? And is it just? A note of self-acquittal, fatalism, despair, can be heard in the people’s voice, and something deeper still, a question of God’s justice. Ezekiel detects the point at once, and argues it out.

“God deals with men as individuals responsible for their conduct; neither the sins nor the righteousness of others can affect the issue; the bad will ‘die,’ the good will ‘live,’ that is, forfeit or enjoy God’s favour, as each deserves. And similarly in the case of each man’s life: there is no such thing as a bondage which cannot be broken; each is free to renounce his past, whether for good or for evil. And the sinner can always repent; the door is open; God is ready to welcome the sinner who turns to Him. . .”

Does Ezekiel’s teaching appear elsewhere? Not exactly; Cooke writes “This line of teaching was not entirely strange. Jeremiah had seen that the old tribal conceptions must give way to a more spiritual religion, based upon personal relation to God (Jer. 14, 15, 17:10, 31:31-34). Both prophets quote the saying about the sins of the fathers; but whereas Jeremiah declares that it will cease to be uttered in the ideal future, Ezekiel says now.

Cooke goes on, “The nation was on the verge of ruin. According to popular beliefs, if the nation fell to pieces, the national religion would perish too; it was urgent, therefore, to insist that each man, however much involved in the general ruin, could enter into direct fellowship with God. Yet neither prophet dreamt of teaching a purely individualist type of religion; their aim was to build up a nation out of converted individuals.”

Still, “The responsibility and freedom of the individual lie at the root of all moral living; to have proclaimed this as the outcome of God’s justice and desire for man’s recovery was Ezekiel’s great achievement. . .”

That is, more or less, the way I understood Ezekiel’s eighteenth chapter, but Paul Joyce “one of the world’s leading scholars of Ezekiel” has a different opinion. In his Ezekiel, A Commentary (2009), page 24 he writes: “This chapter has been seen as a charter for individual responsibility. However, it is vital to see that the context of the whole discussion is one in which Ezekiel and his audience have already been exiled. The situation is one of national calamity, which has to be explained. . . Ezekiel cleverly manoeuvres [his fellow exiles] towards acknowledging that they are in fact sinful [that they are not unjustly being punished for the sins of their fathers] and the justice of God is vindicated. . . So not even these passages support the view that Ezekiel is the great exponent of individual responsibility some have portrayed. . .”

Surely we need a better explanation of the significance of God’s justice being vindicated by his not punishing the exiles for the sins of their fathers. Is God being just by punishing the exiles for their own sins rather than for the sins of their fathers? If so, was he unjust in the days of Exodus and Deuteronomy when he behaved differently? If Ezekiel had reiterated the Exodus & Deuteronomy principle and merely told his fellow exiles that they shouldn’t feel self-vindicated for they too had sinned, that would support of Joyce’s argument, but Ezekiel isn’t saying that. Going on at some length he describes individuals, some of whom behave righteously and some unrighteously. The righteous shall live, Ezekiel tells his fellow exiles, but the unrighteous shall surely die. No doubt Joyce is right in seeing Ezekiel stripping away his fellow exiles self-justification, but he is wrong, it seems to me, by not recognizing that in the process Ezekiel has abrogated an earlier principle whereby sins of the fathers are visited upon their children and replaced it with a principle of individual responsibility.

Neither Joyce nor Cooke wish this new principle of Ezekiel’s to be seen as advocating an individualistic religion, but I never took Ezekiel to be making that argument. The situation in Ezekiel’s day (I believe) was that the Jews had become individualistic through a variety of causes, e.g., exposure to the ideas of foreign nations, and through self-study of one kind and another. They were no longer like the generations of the days of Exodus and Deuteronomy; so a different law or principle was needed.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On studying Ezekiel (1)

Was it coincidental that Calvin died in the process of working on Ezekiel and never got past Chapter 20? Ezekiel has been for many one of the most difficult books to study. Thus, I was interested in what Brevard Childs had to say about this book in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. To Childs, and the commentators he references, Ezekiel’s perspective was complicated by the fact that he seemed to be in exile, preaching much of the time to Jerusalem, a thousand miles (or as Brownlee says, 700 miles) away. Why would he do that, many commentators have asked and then speculated about. Perhaps he was really in Jerusalem when preached to the people there.

This is what Brownlee (from Vol 18 of Word Biblical Commentary) thought. He subscribes to the view that “Ezekiel was either solely or initially a Palestinian prophet, but later editing has confused the issue” and made it seem as though he was preaching from Babylon.

Brownlee disparaged G. A. Cooke (who wrote the commentary on Ezekiel for the ICC) for “defending the supposed absurdity of ‘a prophet in Babylonia hurling his denunciations at the inhabitants of Jerusalem across 700 miles of desert’ by averring that ‘to a man of Ezekiel’s temperament the unseen was more vividly present than the seen.”

Brownlee also disparages E. C. Broome and G. Widengren for taking “Kittel’s idea of Ezekiel’s schizophrenia” and developing it “to absurd lengths” in their Literary and Psychological Aspects of the Hebrew Prophets, interpreting Ezekiel in the light of parapsychic experiences. But then Brownlee died. It is perhaps another coincidence that he also died before he finishing his commentary on Ezekiel. He got to only chapter 19. The remaining chapters were commented upon by Leslie C. Allen.

Over the years I’ve dabbled at understanding Ezekiel with commentary after commentary. The following are currently in my library:

Allen, Leslie C, Word Biblical commentary, Ezekiel 20-48 (1990)

Brownlee, William H. Word Biblical Commentary, Ezekiel 1-19 (1986)

Calvin, John, translated by John Owen, chapters 1-20 (1564)

Carley, Keith W., The Cambridge Bible Commentary, The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, 1974

Cooke, G. A., ICC, The Book of Ezekiel (1936)

Craigie, Peter C. The Daily Study Bible Series, (1983)

Eichrodt, Walther, The Old Testament Library, Ezekiel (1970)

Fairbairn, Patrick, An Exposition of Ezekiel (1851)

Fisch, S., Rabbi Dr, & Rosenberg, A. J. Rabbi, Soncino Books of the Bible, Ezekiel (1st ed 1950, rev ed 1994)

Greenberg, Moshe, Volumes 22 (1983) & 22A (1997) from The Anchor Bible

Jenson, Robert W., Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Ezekiel (2009)

Joyce, Paul M. Ezekiel, A Commentary (2009)

Keil, C. F. Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol IX, Ezekiel and Daniel (nd)

Stuart, Douglas, The Communicator’s Commentary, Ezekiel (1989)

Taylor, John B., IVP, Ezekiel, An Introduction and Commentary (1969)

Zimmerli, Walther, Hermeneia, 2 vols (1969), English translations 1978, vol 1, 1983 vol 2

I’m not counting Poole, Henry, church fathers, etc which are available online.

I was encouraged by Childs belief that Zimmerli was the best commentary available as of the time he wrote (1979). He also had a favorable view of Eichrodt.

Also, Joyce, described as “one of the world’s leading scholars of Ezekiel” has written in his own brief commentary, “There is no intention in this volume to address every critical issue in the book of Ezekiel, still less to rehearse everything of significance that has been written . . . These tasks are admirable handled, in their very different ways, by Zimmerli and Block.” Uh oh, I don’t have Block. However, further on Joyce shows immense admiration for Moshe Greenberg, so perhaps I can delay acquiring Block until I move further into Zimmerli and Greenberg and be satisfied with what I learn from them . . . or discover that they are just as confused (and confusing) as the rest.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Van Til's Fideism and Historical Criticism

In Classical Apologetics, Gerstner, Lindsley, and Sproul do a hatchet job on Cornelius Van Til. One of their criticisms, if I recall correctly is that Van Til was a Fideist whereas the Classical Apologeticists produced effective ontological arguments that are still serviceable today. The implication was that Van Til took a problem-avoiding Fideistic approach to all apologetic problems, but this wasn’t true and those students of Van Til should have known it. One of Van Til’s volumes is The New Hermeneutic in which Van Til critics a number of theologians whom he classifies as “New Hermeneuticists”, i.e, Fuchs, Bultmann, Ebeling, Dillenberger, Buri, Polman, Kuitert, Zuidema, Wiersing, Hartvelt, Koole, Baarda, and Augustijn. In the process he voices opinions on several philosophers including Kant, Ritschl, Collingwood, Gadamer, and Bonhoeffer. This book alone should make it clear that Van Til never refused to address the difficult issues. Van Til addressed them.

I was raised in a true Fundamentalist Fideism, one that didn’t deal with the difficult issues. Thus, when I was in college and encountered those issues I didn’t know how to handle them. If God created the earth in 6,000 years and Moses was writing “the very words of God,” then how does one explain The Epic of Gilgamesh which archeologists argue was written long before Genesis? My Fundamentalist mother believed that Satan planted false information in the earth in order to mislead future generations.

I wonder how many children fall away from Christianity each year because Fundamentalist teaching doesn’t prepare them for the real world. If they are taught that it was created in 6,000 years. When they later learn that isn’t true, what does that new knowledge do to their faith? Facing the evidence of science or the history of the Old Testament texts shouldn’t destroy a Christian’s faith. The facts of science and history pertain to how God operated, not whether he did. Fundamentalists who make it an article of faith that the world was created in something like 6,000 years (or even 60,000 – I don’t recall how far they fudge that number today) do young believers a tragic disservice.

Van Til’s Apologetics were “presuppositional,” meaning that he assumed God rather than needing to prove Him. He had studied all the material and arguments, but assuming God, he argued, was far more rational than assuming “Chance.” In fact it was the only stance that was rational. When one applies the laws of chance to the universe there is not enough time for it to have happened. The atheist can argue that while current laws of chance based on current scientific knowledge may not provide enough time for the creation of the universe, new evidence is sure to be found that will one day validate “chance.” The atheist is thereby expressing his “faith” that science will in the future validate his belief. The Presuppositionalist believes that he can safely “assume” God and that no “evidence” produced by current or future atheists will endanger that assumption.

The Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, also known as “Source Criticism” began what is called the Historico-Critical Method. Does believing in this method require that one become an atheist? Wellhausen himself seemed to think so in later life, but later theologians interested in “Old Testament Introduction” have not found their faith in God or in the creeds of Christendom threatened. What they are finding are the ways in which God created the Old Testament not whether he created it. But just as with the Young Earth thesis, if one is raised with a simplistic view of the creation of the Biblical Text and later encounters some of the difficulties non-Fundamentalist theologians regularly wrestle with, one’s faith is going to be tested.

In philosophy one hears the question “is it better to be a happy fool or an unhappy Socrates?” The young philosophy student will be expected to select the latter, but the Christian ought not to be forced to choose the former. Abraham Kuyper famously wrote that there is nothing in the entire world where Christ cannot lay his hand and pronounce “mine.” Perhaps the lazy or limited can’t wrestle with the difficult problems in science, philosophy and theology, but there are those in the Church world who can and have. It is not necessary to pull a fundamentalist blanket over one’s head to retain one’s faith. I am currently reading Brevard Childs’ Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Would that he were available to read when I was in college reading such books as James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.