“Knowledge systems claim totalitarian interpretive powers over their field of view. Such systems not only proffer positive meanings and practices that invite faith; they also assail competing systems, inviting committed disbelief…This is simply to say that attack and defense – polemics and apologetics – are intrinsic to prosecuting any claim to knowledge.”
— Competent to Counsel? Dr. David Powlison, p. 257
“Rhetoric, polemics, and apologetics often carry derogatory implications, as if they are synonymous with something at least vaguely unethical or intellectually disreputable, with sophistry, manipulation, prejudice, obscurantism, or bigotry. But I mean these words in their straightforward sense. Commitment to any reasoned position involves argument and persuasion, expositing a positive position, attacking other positions, and answering objections.”
— Powlison, p. 261
It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last post on Shadow Covenant Theology. Sorry about that; life outside of the blogosphere has taken a decent chunk of my attention of late. Hopefully I’m back on track now, especially since Biggest Loser is over.
I’m struggling though with the focus of this post, due to what we were discussing in Sunday School at Christ Covenant yesterday. For those reading this who don’t attend CCPC, Pastor Herzer started a series giving a (very helpful) view of one way that classic Covenant Theology and Amillennialism approach the book of Revelation. This is particularly helpful to me, because I started attending CCPC just after the last time he’d worked through the book, so I was never able to fully hear his take on it; hopefully this series should help stimulate my understanding of both the book and the amillennial perspective.
During the discussion, Pastor Herzer made several arguments in favor of an amillennial view of the book (apologetics), as well as several arguments against a dispensational view (polemics). Because my viewpoint benefits from some of the scriptural insights of Dispensationalism, and because I called myself a dispensationalist for many years during my stay at CCPC, I’m wondering if these arguments against Dispensationalism might also serve to discredit my system in the minds of some of the hearers. Certainly Pastor Herzer wasn’t targeting Shadow C.T. – his purpose was to address dispensationalism – but hearers could inadvertently transfer his arguments to my system.
So I’m struggling with whether or not I should provide a defense against some of the arguments that were made. I was intending to use this post as my last initial argument against classic Covenant Theology (polemics) before proceeding with my positive development of Shadow Covenant Theology (apologetics). And I’d prefer not to add a fourth post to this parenthetical; I really do need to get back to the main thrust of my argument.
I think I’m gonna try to do both, in one post. I’ll say a few comments in defense of Shadow C.T., then focus on bringing my parenthetical offensive to a close.
Shadow C.T. vs. Dispensationalism
Probably the most important thing that I can emphasize at this point is that Shadow Covenant Theology is not Dispensationalism, and it isn’t even close. Because of this, arguments attempting to falsify Dispensationalism won’t necessarily work when applied to Shadow C.T. We saw an example of this earlier, when Robertson tried to argue in favor of Covenant Theology by presenting an argument against Dispensationalism; I noted that…
…[Robertson] presents us with a false dichotomy, giving the sense that we have two choices – either the covenants replace one another (Dispensationalism), or they build upon each-other as a unified whole (Covenant Theology). This entirely ignores other possibilities…
…such as the model that Shadow C.T. puts forward. An argument against Dispensationalism does not necessarily equate to an argument against Shadow C.T., and that’s important to keep in mind as we sift through these issues.
Of course, Shadow C.T. does have some things in common with Dispensationalism; both viewpoints believe strongly in the perspicuity of scripture; both hold that there is a future for national Israel that is distinct from that of the church; both tend to be premillennial in their eschatology, etc. But the theological system that I use to undergird and explain these conclusions is fundamentally different from the system presented in Dispensationalism, and that does lead to some important disagreements. When looking at only the systems themselves (divorced from their conclusions and surrounding doctrines), in reality classic Covenant Theology has a lot more in common with Dispensationalism than my view; S.C.T. is something entirely different. So before we believe that an argument against Dispensationalism necessarily falsifies Shadow Covenant Theology, we need to first check to see if S.C.T. is resting with Dispensationalism on the same theological ground, the ground being disputed. If not, the argument will not apply.
Peripheral and Core Beliefs
I think the second thing I want to highlight is that there is a difference between arguing against the conclusions of a theological system versus arguing against the system itself. Yesterday for example, Pastor Herzer spent some time debating a common dispensational belief, that the term “last days” in scripture refers to the seven year period often called “The Tribulation,” or “Daniel’s Seventieth Week.” Instead of this, he alleged that it refers to the entire span of time between Christ’s first coming, and His second.
Now, I happen to agree with his assessment. Insofar as I can tell from scripture, we are in the last days, and have been since the time of Christ. I believed that when I was a dispensationalist; I believed it before I ever came to Christ Covenant – it just seemed to be the most natural way of understanding that phrase in scripture. My pastor (who granted, probably wouldn’t label himself with any theological system), also seems to use the phrase in this sense whenever he speaks of it, and he tends to be regarded as a dispensationalist. I have known several dispensationalists who would agree entirely with the idea that the term “last days” refers to this entire span of time after Christ; this is hardly something foreign to the realm of dispensational thought.
So while interchanging the terms “last days” and “the tribulation” etc. may be common practice among dispensationalists, it is hardly a core tenet of the system; plenty of dispensationalists would object to that use. There is therefore a difference – an important difference between arguing against a conclusion produced by a system, and arguing against the system itself. One can construct a thousand different arguments against doctrines commonly believed by adherents of a theological system, but if one does not attack the system itself, then he has only been treating the symptoms.
This is why in the last two posts, I have been addressing a core tenet of classic C.T., this idea that all of history should be framed as a succession of covenants that are one. The problems in that idea are subtle, and there are certainly plenty of other aspects or products of Covenant Theology that are easier to attack – things that offend more clearly against the perspicuity of scripture – but these are only symptoms of a deeper problem. If I want to produce a useful argument against classic Covenant Theology, then I need to be addressing the core tenets of the system before I look at the peripheral doctrines that it produces.
In the same way, if someone wants to present an argument against Dispensationalism, then he needs to be dealing with the core precept of the system, namely that redemptive history is to be segmented into different economies wherein God relates to humanity in different ways. Until that can be effectively undermined, Dispensationalism will remain a viable option no matter how many peripheral teachings and doctrines it might lose. Hopefully at some point in this series I’ll have the opportunity to produce such an argument against Dispensationalism; thus far my focus has largely been to distinguish Shadow C.T. From classic C.T.
In the case of Pastor Herzer of course, he isn’t striving to falsify the whole system of Dispensationalism; he’s only trying to address a common dispensational view of Revelation. But I just want to make it clear for the listeners that just because one might be able to argue against certain beliefs commonly held by dispensationalists, that doesn’t automatically undermine the entire system. And it certainly doesn’t falsify Shadow Covenant Theology.
As was brought out yesterday, one of the problems that dispensationalists (and I) have with classic Covenant Theology is the hermeneutic approach, or method of interpretation used to handle scripture that doesn’t seem to fit into its framework. Of particular concern are the many passages that speak about a future for national Israel and her mosaic covenant. We’ll look at this in greater detail in future posts, but I suppose it could be helpful to outline the basic conflict here.
The problem for Covenant Theology seems to surround the relationship between the old (mosaic) and new covenants, and how that relationship is understood within the covenantal framework. If all of history is to be framed as a series of successive covenants united as one entity, and if the new covenant has brought to a close many of the practices present in the old, then it would seem to be a step backward if any of those practices came back into use in the future. Here are a couple quotes from conversations I’ve had on the matter with covenantal friends:
“Every fiber in my being says that there absolutely cannot be animal sacrifices reinstated, as ordered by God, after the death of Christ. The scripture clearly teaches that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient. He himself cried out, “It is finished.” To reinstate animal sacrifice, is to add to Christ’s sacrifice.”
— Calvinism and Covenant Theology
“Yes, the ceremonial law with it’s sacrifices, feasts and such simply pointed forward to Christ. None of the sacrifices or feasts actually did anything to pay the debt for sin. To continue to sacrifice animals as sin offerings or keep the Passover after Christ has fulfilled them would be to deny that Christ has fulfilled them.”
— The Abolition of Ceremony
I’ve already addressed those lines of reasoning in the papers linked above, and it would be beyond the scope of this post to do so again here. But I’m bringing this out to develop what I believe to be the central tension between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Dispensationalists have a very poor and at times contradictory theological system, and often times they will recognize this. But they’re trying to honor what they believe to be the plain sense of scripture in areas that Covenant Theology does not, such as the building of a future temple, and the resurgence of the Mosaic covenant. Covenant Theology on the other hand has an excellent theological system, but (according to dispensational standards) their treatment of scripture is very lacking in these areas.
So my goal is to produce a theological system that has a great deal of explanatory power, and is highly consistent within itself, but which is also consistent with a plain reading of scripture. Yesterday this issue of literal interpretation was raised with regard to Revelation, and critiqued. I don’t have the space to fully develop my (ever-developing) perspective on hermeneutics here; that’s something I’ll hopefully work to address further down the line. But I do at this point want to clarify some of what is meant by a literal interpretation of scripture, because there’s a lot of confusion in that area. I found Ken Ham’s comments on the matter to be quite instructive.
“Do I believe the entire Bible should be taken literally? Well, remember in my opening address, I said we have to define our terms. So when people who are asking that question say ‘literally’, I have to know what that person meant by ‘literally’.
“Now I would say this: If you say ‘naturally’, and that’s what you mean by ‘literally’, I would say yes; I take the Bible naturally. What do I mean by that? Well, if it’s history, as Genesis is – it’s written as typical historical narrative – you take it as history. If it’s poetry, as we find in the psalms, then you take it as poetry. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t teach truth, but it’s not a cosmological account in the sense that Genesis is. There’s prophecy in the Bible, and there’s literature in the Bible concerning future events, and so on. So if you take it as written, naturally, according to the type of literature, and you let it speak to you in that way, that’s how I take the Bible; it’s God’s revelation to man.”
— Ken Ham, in his creation/evolution debate with Bill Nye (2:29:29 – 2:25:26)
In the case of Revelation, I certainly agree that while interpreting it, we have to take into account the fact that John is experiencing a vision; that affects our understanding of the genre. And I also concede that it’s sometimes difficult to be dogmatic in our interpretation of certain things in the book. But overall, it isn’t really that difficult to take Revelation in a straightforward, chronological manner, and it makes a lot of sense when you do just that.
Personally, I’m under the conviction that God wants us to understand the book; He isn’t going to speak to us in a way that would mislead us. So if, for example, He goes into painstaking detail to tell us that there were 12,000 people sealed from the tribe of Judah, and 12,000 from Reuben, and 12,000 from Gad etc., I kind of think that might mean that there were 12,000 people sealed from Judah, and 12,000 from Reuben, and 12,000 from Gad etc. But hey, who am I to suggest that God might speak clearly to us in His word ;-).
Elsewhere in scripture we are told that both Jew and Gentile have been united together into one body (Eph 2:11-16); it isn’t surprising at all to me that in answering the question, “who can stand under the wrath of the lamb,” God would present us with a collection of Jews (7:4-8), together with those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). Elsewhere Paul talks about how the hardening of Israel is only temporary, and she will one day turn to accept Christ at the time of His return (Rom 11:7-27). Viewing the 144,000 as Jewish believers in Christ seems entirely consistent with the natural sense of the text, and with other scripture.
In my various experiences discussing scripture, I have never been put to shame by taking God at His word, and taking His word at face value. People raise all kinds of objections to a plain understanding of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Yet I’ve found that the problems people find always have answers. We’re uncomfortable with the idea of stars falling to Earth? Very well, let’s delve into that, get at the original sense of the text, try to think about what a star would mean to the original reader. There are rational, entirely plausible explanations that people can find if they’re willing to research, explanations that don’t require undermining the plain sense of the text.
For me, any time that I feel tempted to depart from a plain, face-value interpretation of scripture, I ask myself the question, “What is driving me to leave?” Usually there is some prior theological commitment that doesn’t quite fit with what the Bible seems to be saying in a passage, and rather than change my beliefs, I’m desiring to change scripture. It’s a useful exercise I think for all of us to ask ourselves why it is we believe what we believe. Do we really strive to make scripture alone our one true foundation, or are we clinging to the doctrines of men?
The last thing I want to mention in my defense of Shadow C.T. is that overall, I actually did have a great deal of agreement with what was said during Sunday School yesterday. Probably I’ll have some greater differences next week, but Pastor Herzer’s treatment of the seal judgements really affirmed some of what I’ve been thinking over the last ten years or so.
I particularly appreciated his arguing that the seals happen outside the scope of Daniel’s seventieth week. That’s an assessment that I’ve been toying with myself, and it was really nice to hear someone else say it. In the theological company I generally keep, it tends to be looked down upon (in grace o/c :-)) if you believe that anything after Revelation 3 is not entirely future.
Holding to non-pre-trib viewpoints is also generally taboo, which saddens me. Pastors and teachers of course have their theological reasons for pressing for pre-trib, which I entirely understand and appreciate. But I think among the laity it’s less of a theological commitment, and more that they simply don’t want to consider the possibility that we might go through Daniel’s seventieth week. It’s funny how our desires, our history, and presuppositions can prevent us from considering other positions.
In this series, I’m actually intentionally trying to avoid having to say much about the judgement(s) found in Revelation. Partially that’s because of the scope of this project – I’m trying to provide an alternate, overarching structure to redemptive history, and there’s a lot more to talk about than one seven year period. But it’s also because I’m not really solid on where I stand in that part of my eschatology. I’m still forming my viewpoint, and I have been for ten years. Hopefully this series in Revelation will give me some fresh light on the subject.
Probably where I’m going to end up differing from Pastor Herzer will be in the way he frames the trumpet and bowl judgements. I could be misunderstanding things, but the basic idea seems to be that each series (seal/trumpet/bowl) is really a different view of the same set of judgements. In other words, the first seal refers to the same judgement as the first trumpet, and the first bowl, etc.
If that’s what’s being put forward, then my problem would be that the seven trumpets are born out of the seventh seal – in other words the seventh seal itself is what produces the seven trumpets. If they only come on the scene as a result of the final seal, then the first trumpet can’t be referring to the same judgement as the first seal.
Still, regardless of our differences I think that one of the most important points of agreement we have is that we all need to approach this issue – and all of our theology – in a spirit of grace and humility. As Pastor Herzer noted, there are good, intelligent, believing men of God on all sides of this issue, so we should always deal with each-other in the forbearance and love of the Holy Spirit.
“That certainly doesn’t exclude doctrinal debate – even vigorous debate. To me it simply means that any doctrinal debate among fellow believers should be marked by love and a rejection of unnecessary contention.”
— David Guzik, Thoughts on Reformed Theology, (49:52 – 50:19)
Hmm. This post is getting a little long; I spent longer on my defense than anticipated. Isn’t that always how it goes? :-P
All things considered, as I’m sitting back and looking at my two other objections to C.T.’s framework, I’m not so sure that they’re really that important. The most critical objection has already been developed in my previous two posts – the covenants of God are not one covenant, related though they may be. Perhaps at this point I should leave off my attack for now, and return to building my positive system.
One thing that might be important to discuss is my reasons for caring so deeply about this issue. We’ve talked a lot about different things, about some of the ways that people have tried to frame or understand God’s purposes in history, and there is really a lot of interesting intellectual development that has been done, and continues to be done in this area.
But how important is it, really, that we arrive at a correct conclusion on the structure of redemptive history? I did note in my first post that there are a lot of other doctrines hanging in the balance, that how you frame redemptive history has a deep impact on the rest of your theology. But for me, there’s an even deeper issue driving my passion on this subject. Perhaps an example from my history might help to illustrate things a bit.
When I was fifteen, we had a man who came to my father’s church to speak. Our church was Pentecostal and charismatic, so listening to someone prophesy on behalf of God was fairly commonplace. He said some interesting things about my Dad, that he was going to start playing a larger role in the community, and one day he was going to hold some sort of a public office or position. And all of that sounded very cool to an impressionable fifteen year old; my dad was going to be someone important.
The trouble is, a few months after the prophet came and left, my father died of a massive heart failure. I remember reasoning at that time, thinking through everything that I knew about God and what had been said about my father. I knew that God was good, that He was all-powerful, and that He wasn’t a liar. He had sent a prophet to our church who spoke about a future for my father, a prophecy that to date hadn’t come to pass. And I remember thinking then that the only possible way that all of this could work out was if God would bring my father back from the grave.
I’m not sure if it was faith or naivity, but of course in time it became increasingly clear that my dad was not coming back. I was forced to reason further, to recognize that the words of a man that I had trusted were nothing more than a lie. Nevertheless, even with that knowledge I still had hope – why? Because I knew that the Bible said that one day my father would rise, and I would rise with him.
You see, it wasn’t the word of a man that sustained me when I was in one of my darkest hours, it was the word of God. In every trial that the Lord has brought me through, the living word of God has always been the one constant that has held me in the storm.
My concern with Covenant Theology is that from my perspective, it seems to value the conclusions of its theological system over and above the natural, perspicuous, plain teaching of God’s word. I haven’t developed much of this yet, and I do intend to, Lord willing. But at this point, simply understand why I feel so strongly about this issue.
“There’s been a battle since Genesis 3 between God’s word and man’s word – it’s always been a battle over authority. Who’s the authority? God, or man? And down through the ages there’s been that battle; in fact in 2 Corinthians 11:3 Paul has a warning for us…that Satan’s going to use the same method on us that he did on Eve, to get us to that position of not believing the things of God. And what is the method he used on Eve? ‘Did God really say…’ What is it? To doubt the word of God, not believe the word of God, to make yourself the authority. You know what – that was the battle that played out on this stage.”
“And I think that’s one of the things that became very very clear, is that this is a battle over authority”
— Debate Answers. Ken Ham and Georgia Purdom. 20:59
Doctrines and theological systems are wonderful tools that help us to frame and understand the beauty that is God’s word, but they are all of them fallible, and subject to revision. If we are teaching the next generation of the Church to trust in a theology over and above the plain teaching of scripture, then we are not going to prepared for what’s coming in our nation.
As Pastor Herzer noted yesterday, the world that we are living in is becoming an increasingly dark place. In a recent sermon at Calvary, my pastor observed that the decline of morality in the United States over the last 60 or 70 years represents the fastest decline of a nation in the history of mankind. One writer put it this way,
“But the image I kept returning to, the one that haunted me, was the absence of light and power in Lower Manhattan. It struck me that this could be the perfect metaphor for what is happening in the Christian church today. Is the light of Jesus that we are to shine before people growing dark? Has another kind of storm cut us off from our power source? Is the church of Christ disappearing into a dark night?
“…I believe we are in the early stages of a storm that has the potential to damage our churches, our families, and ultimately the cause of Christ in the nation. I believe followers of Jesus in America are on the cusp of something horrible. I, and many others, see the early warning signs all around. You may see them too.”
— Storm, Jim Cymbala, pp. 9-10
My primary concern with Covenant Theology is that it sets a precedent regarding what can and cannot be done to scripture. Is it a critical issue? Probably not (although to my surprise, the author above actually spent an entire chapter expressing practical concerns about the impact of covenant theology on the church, and this debate wasn’t even the topic of his book). Should brothers on all sides of this issue extend the hand of fellowship to one another? Absolutely; the love and unity of the Spirit should govern all doctrinal debate and disagreement. Simply understand that the things we choose to believe in have an impact on our Christian lives, and on the life of the church.
All right, back on task :-). In the next post, I’ll work on sketching out the two covenants and how they relate.