Friday, 31 October 2008

New Inscription Proves ...

You thought I had disappeared from the planet didn't you? Just thought I’d extract myself for a few minutes from the Kings commentary I’m immersed in writing to comment on this one.

Archaeologist Yossi Garfinkel claims to have discovered (well actually one of his volunteers) the oldest Hebrew inscription found so far on a piece of broken pottery unearthed at Hirbet Qeiyafa in the Judean foothills. While the text is impossible to read from the photo I’ve seen, and probably won't be published for months or years, I can confidently state that it provides irrefutable proof
1) that it is definitely Hebrew written by an Israelite, proving their literacy at around 1000 BC;
2) that the Hebrews were illiterate and it must be by a Canaanite or Philistine;
3) that we can read and translate the text with confidence;
4) that the text is too faded to do more than pick out a few letters;
5) that it is from the time of King David and proves the whole of the biblical account of the conquest, settlement and early monarchy;
6) that it could not possibly be from the time of David because no such king ever existed and the conquest and settlement are later inventions.

And that is only what the experts will say. As for what popular Christian apologists, Zionists, anti-Zionists and others will make of it, well that’s beyond me.

The commentary is going well, thanks for asking. I’m looking forward to the ETS and SBL conferences in a couple of weeks.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Blogging the Confession 9 - God's Decrees

We come to one of the controversial sections of the confession: its theology of God’s decrees, and I know that you’ve all been on tenterhooks waiting to see what I’ll say about it. I know this because daily, even hourly, I have been bombarded by emails pleading with me to post on chapter 3 of the confession. There must have been … well let me open the mailbox and count them … actually there has been (as Bluebottle used to say in the Goons “not a sausage”!). Still I’ll press on.

Here I’ll look at the basic claim of decreetal theology and the objections to it. In the next post (or two) I’ll look at the details of the confession’s exposition.

Chapter 3 opens with an assertion of decreetal theology, “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeable ordain whatsoever comes to pass”. This is a controlling theme of the confession which  goes on to focus on salvation and according to sections 5 and 6 that is particularly determined by God’s decree. John Murray says that “perhaps no chapter has been more distasteful to those out of sympathy with the system of doctrine set forth in the Confession than the third “ (The theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith” Scripture and Confession  P&R, 1973, 132).

George Hendry voices the objections of many. He argues that the term and concept of a decree rob the confession of the “exultant joy” of passages such as Ephesians 1:3-14 and Romans 8:29-30 and instead these sections “breathe an air of dread and doom”. He argues that the term and concept ‘decree’ are not found in the NT nor used in the OT with the absolute sense of the WCF. Further he argues that the idea of reprobation rests entirely on Rom 9:19-23 when Paul in fact hopes that “all Israel shall be saved” (Romans 11:26). He says that the Biblical presentation is that  “God is actively pursuing a goal which he has set before him rather than mechanically carrying out a decision which he took once long ago”. He accuses the confession of a deficiency in relating time and eternity so that the Confession views eternity as simply infinite time and God’s will and decree is located in “pre-temporal eternity” (G.S. Hendry The Westminster Confession for Today   SCM, 1960, 54).

We can deal with these objections in reverse order. The WCF stresses God’s transcendence and may not match that with his immanence, and that may suggest that there are better ways of conceptualising the relation of time and eternity, however the framers of the confession almost certainly used an Augustinian “timeless” view of eternity in which eternity is the absence of time and change. 17th century Reformed theology was only too aware of the distinction between God’s archetypal knowledge and our ectypal knowledge. Here it adopts the Biblical language of “before” but we should not assume they were ignorant of the metaphysical ‘problems’ that language entailed.

On this issues Bavinck comments that “God's decree should not be exclusively described . . . as a straight line to indicate a relation merely of before and after, cause and effect, means and goal; but it should also be viewed as a system the several elements of which are coordinately related to one another. . . . As in an organism all the members are dependent upon one another and in a reciprocal manner determine one another, so also the universe is God's work of art, the several parts of which are organically related. (Bavinck H.The Doctrine of God   Banner of Truth, 1977 – I have not checked the page references in the new edition).

Hendry’s claim that the Confession makes God’s work ‘mechanical’ is an over-reaction to the language. God’s transcendence is stressed but look at Chapter 5 sections 3 and 5 on providence to see the language of God’s involvement. Of course if you want the language of Open Theism in which God is working out a plan without knowing the future then you won’t find it in the Confession.

Rom 9:19-23 may not teach ultimate reprobation but it is too simplistic to exclude questions of ‘eternal individual salvation’ from consideration in Rom 9-11. Paul’s grief over Israel is about people and individuals not simply a group identity. I’ll say a bit more about reprobation in later posts.

Decreetal theology is one way of conceptualising and expressing God’s sovereign rule. It is usually admitted that  “the divine decrees … are not described in the abstract in Scripture, but are placed before us in their historical realisation” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 100). Bavinck has an extensive and impressive treatment of the Biblical material which lies behind the concept of ‘decrees’ (Bavinck H.The Doctrine of God   Banner of Truth, 1977, 339-44). He shows that this approach rightly affirms God’s prior purpose for his creation and for his creatures which will be achieved. It places God’s election of his people and his restoration of creation through Christ at the centre of all history.

There is a mystery about God’s sovereign working, but we do not help ourselves to think about that topic by seeking to delimit a certain set of events over which God does not have full control and so full knowledge from ‘before’ time.  Any conceptual framework which abstracts from the Biblical presentation runs the risk of distorting the biblical emphasis, in this case the danger is to put too great an emphasis on the decrees, over against their outworking in God’s mysterious sovereignty in the life of creation. However that is not a reason to abandon the framework unless a better one can actually be proposed.

There may be some change in mood between the Biblical material and the Confession, though mood is a rather difficult matter to judge. In any case the confession is a statement of confessional theology not pastoral theology and so does not aim to capture the mood of the Biblical texts.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Blogging the Confession 8 - Triune God


The doctrine of the Trinity is probably the most significant and distinctive Christian doctrine (the only other nomination would be Christology, but the two are so closely related). When the Westminster Assembly came to address the Trinity it had nothing new to say. The Reformation had affirmed the doctrine of ecumenical councils. (John Calvin does seem to have had a subtly different way of approaching the doctrine focussing on the persons in unity rather than God’s essence – that is reflected in the Confession).

However the doctrine of the Trinity did seem to be under pressure in the 1640’s in London. The movement was called “Socinianism” after Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) a radical theologian Italian who ended up in Poland. He subjected Christian theological tradition to a rational  and biblicistic critique rejecting the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the imputation of sin or righteousness, original sin, predestination, real or spiritual presence in Lord’s Supper. This was summarised in the Racovinian Cathechism (1605). This stream of thought was present in 17th C. England though it is hard to trace the relationship with

Socinus.  Certainly accusations of and warnings about Socinianism were  common in 17th C theological rhetoric. For a  well-informed positive assessment of Socinianism see here. His picture is right.

 So the Assembly made sure that it affirmed that there are three persons in the one God and each is fully God. It differentiates persons by internal relations following the Western tradition: the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. It is a succinct statement of classical orthodoxy, using the classic language  ‘persons’ and substance (i.e.  substantia.)

 John Murray commented on this section that “its brevity is striking and its simplicity is matched only by its brevity. Both surprise and gratification are evoked by the restraint in defining the distinguishing properties of the persons of the Godhead … Later generations lie under a great debt to Westminster for the studied reserve which saved the Confession from being burdened with such speculative notions as commended themselves to theologians … but to which the Scripture did not lend support.”  (“The theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith” Scripture and Confession  P&R, 1973, 132).

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Get to know the classics


It is great to announce a new series happening at PTC next year. It is not exactly a lecture series, so let's just call it a series of 'evenings'.  Get to Know the Classics will be a chance to get know some of these classic works written over the centuries which are part of our Christians heritage.  We have lined up a great group of presenters and each month we will have an interesting introduction to a classic piece of Christian literature and conversation about it.


This should be a refresher for theological graduates, a good summary for students and a great introduction for thoughtful Christians. So If you live in Sydney plan to come along and let people in you church know about it as well.


Get to know the classics  will be on once a month at 7:30 on a Monday evening starting in February.  Why not arrange to have dinner with a few interested people from church each month and then come and join us.


The books and presenters are listed below. You can get an announcement to email or print from the PTC website.


2nd  February   Athanasius,  On  the  Incarnation  of  the  Word – Peter Barnes

2nd  March  Augustine,  Confessions – John McClean

6th April  Anselm,  Cur  Deus  Homo – Murray Smith

2nd May  Luther,  Bondage  of  the  Will – Mark Glanville

1st June  Samuel  Rutherford,  Lex  Rex – Steve Chavura

6th July  Blaise  Pascal,  Pensees – Peter Moore

3rd August Jonathan  Edwards,  History  of  the  Work  of Redemption – Stuart Piggin

7th September Charles  Spurgeon,  Autobiography - Stuart Johnson

10th October Bonhoeffer,  Letters  and  Papers  from  Prison – Mark Mitchell

2nd November  C. S. Lewis,  Mere  Christianity – David Thurston