Friday, April 17, 2015

The Puritan Files: John Owen

From the January 2012 E-Block.


Our next subject in the Puritan Files series is John Owen, a prolific generalist writer who was apparently quite comfortable in an age when writers felt free to say in 5000 words what could have been said in 500. Not that this is a criticism, as it often is when I say it: Such fecundity in exposition was quite the norm for 

Owen's lifetime (1616-1683), and it would be for many years to come.
What it does mean for our purposes, though, is that I was sorely limited by time in terms of how much of Owen's work I could read. I ended up reading two shorter works (one on faith, one on the Trinity) and half of a larger one (entitled Two Treatises) before my time for this issue ran out. With the Puritan Files series, though, this may not be too serious a shortcoming: We're not expecting a great many theological flaws (for the Puritans were far from unorthodox), but we are looking for anything which may be of interest to the current situation of Western Christianity. And this indeed is what we found -- just a bit of it.
99.5% of Owen's work reads as uncontroversial. But here and there we find spots which ring true to modern shortcomings. In his essay on faith, Owen properly describes faith in terms of loyalty (although he never uses the word "loyalty") and puts a stress closer to obedience than many modern writers, even some who make obedience their watchword. However, apparently concerned to finely tune faith, Owen says:

And this, as was said, is the greatest and the most difficult work of faith; for we suppose, concerning the person who is to believe, — [1.] That he is really and effectually convinced of the sin of [our] nature, of our apostasy from God therein, the loss of his image, and the direful effects that ensue thereon. [2.] That he has due apprehensions of the holiness and severity of God, of the sanction and curse of the law, with a right understanding of the nature of sin and its demerit. [3.] That he have a full conviction of his own actual sins, with all their aggravations, from their greatness, their number, and all sorts of circumstances. [4.] That he has a sense of the guilt of secret or unknown sins, which have been multiplied by that continual proneness unto sin which he finds working in him. [5.] That he seriously consider what it is to appear before the judgment seat of God, to receive a sentence for eternity, with all other things of the like nature, inseparable from him as a sinner.

There are two things that incite uneasiness in this analysis. The first is the way in which Owen finds it necessary to enumerate these steps towards faith, such that takes on the appearance of a legalistic process. Much of this reflects things that a first century Christian would not have had to think about; it would have been taken for granted as the way to be loyal to God. These are things that should flow naturally from loyalty -- not have to be laid out as a grocery list.
Second, Owen here places undue emphasis on the emotional involvement of the sinner in conversion. All 5 of these steps, to some extent, emphasize depth contemplation and thus serious emotional investment. This is seen to where Owen says:

The second way whereby true faith does evidence itself in the souls and consciences of believers, unto their supportment and comfort under all their conflicts with sin, in all their trials and temptations, is by a constant approbation of the revelation of the will of God in the Scripture concerning our holiness, and the obedience unto himself which he requires of us.

This inward frame of trouble, mourning, and contriteness, will express itself on all just occasions by the outward signs of sighs, tears, and mournful complaints, Ps. xxxi. 10. So David continually mentions his tears on the like account; and Peter, on the review of his sin, wept bitterly; and Mary washed the feet of Christ with her tears; — as we should all do. A soul filled with sorrow will run over and express its inward frame by these outward signs.

Owen here sets a rule that effectually says that if you do not show the proper emotional response, you may rightly question your loyalty (faith). But the problem here is twofold. The first is, as we have said in other contexts, that in an agonistic society, emotional displays are frequently artificial (yet honorable) responses; Owen would need to argue that the displays of David, and Peter, and Mary, are indeed coordinated inwardly and outwardly. Second, Owen takes as prescriptive passages that are merely descriptive. There is nothing which designates the reactions of David, Peter, and Mary as solely and uniquely appropriate for all persons. In this, though, we can perhaps see seeds of modern ideas that "worship" must involve the whole person, and be an emotional, heartfelt experience, rather than simply a practical outworking of agape love (which, in turn, can be invested with emotional involvement, but is hardly integral to it).

In terms of Owen's work on the Trinity -- which also goes into the doctrine of the atonement -- there were (as expected) no problems found, but some rather interesting points of note. For one, it is interesting to see Owen taking on heresies that have long since been consigned to the dustin (in particular, Socianism, though some say this does live on in the Jehovah's Witnesses, as a subset of Arianism). On the other hand, he also takes on more than a few objections we still see thrown in the ring, such as denying the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and objections that God could just forgive sin without needing Jesus' death. Owen also connects Jesus to the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, as we do, but makes no use of Jewish Wisdom literature -- rather a curiosity, since he makes extended use of secular (e.g., pagan) source material to explain ancient ideas about sacrifice.

Finally, his "Two Treatises," in addition to containing some of the same points noted above, contain other points of interest. Owen wrestles with Catholic claims regarding Peter as the "rock" in Matthew; we're still discussing that one today. There is also a brief anti-intellectual sentiment expressed when he says:

The more sublime and glorious, the more inaccessible unto sense and reason, are the things which we believe, the more we are changed into the image of God, in the exercise of faith upon them.

Owen later refers to reason as "corrupted and depraved," although like most who make this objection, he does not explain why his own reason -- used to arrive at this conclusion -- is not so corrupt that his conclusion cannot be trusted. However, to be fair, such sentiments are mild and infrequent by Owen.
In addition, we find that:
  • Owen shows a degree more understanding of the relevance of honor to the Biblical text than most modern commentators.
  • The undercurrent of overintimacy with God continues: The Song of Solomon is supposed to be a parable of the love of Jesus for the church, which I take to be a rather questionable attempt to explain its presence in the canon.
In sum, we find no unusual or serious problems in Owen, which is what we expected. Nevertheless it is interesting to observe what are perhaps the seeds of modern problems with overfamiliarity with God, in his work.

Friday, April 10, 2015

On the Binding of Satan

From the January 2012 E-Block.


Revelation 20:1-3 speaks of Satan being bound, and as a preterist, I regard that binding as currently in force. An interested reader recently requested an evaluation of an article arguing against this position, wondering how it might affect my views. 

The answer, as it turns out, is that it doesn't, although it does provide for a certain teaching opportunity. As it turns out, the article is directed towards a form of amillennialism which does not apply to my own beliefs, one which sees Revelation as a whole as describing the whole church age. And so we have then our chief teachable principle: As I once told a reader, all preterists are amillennial, but not all amillennialists are preterists. To that extent, the critique is inapplicable to preterism inasmuch as it seems unaware that there is more than one way to skin a millennium. a 

The critique specifically addresses the idea that Rev. 20:1-3 describes a binding that took place in the first century, and began the millennial kingdom. In my own view, this was prefaced by the binding of lesser demonic powers (as reflected in Jesus' ministry, as well as described in Paul's letters), with Satan himself bound sometime close to 70 AD. Some might place it earlier, around 33 AD (within Jesus' ministry), but I consider that unjustified, especially in light of 1 Peter 5:8 and other references to Satan still being active. Those that opt for a binding in 30 AD or so are compelled, as the article notes, to limit Satan's binding to particular activities (deceiving the nations in particular), a view I find rather insensible. So as we will see, the article actually makes the same arguments I would for a 70 binding as opposed to a 30 binding. 

Four points are offered, but the first is delivered against the broader reading of Revelation as descriptive of the broader history of the church, and so does not apply to my views. I would note for the record, however, that the critique again seems to think that there is no other way to be amillennial than to hold to this historical-perspective view of Revelation! In any event, the first point is centered on what is perceived to be the arbitrary treatment of chronology in Revelation by proponents of this historical-perspective view. 

The second point grasps on to a weakness we have already noted -- namely, the historical-perspective view doesn't do real justice to the language of binding. To limit Satan's binding to not deceiving the nations fails to fulfill the metaphors used of a chain, an abyss, etc. Mounce is justly quoted: 

The elaborate measures taken to insure his [Satan's] custody are most easily understood as implying the complete cessation of his influence on earth (rather than a curbing of his activities).
And so...that leaves us with the third point, which is that the NT depicts Satan as still active and not bound -- as I would agree, since I date all of the NT prior to 70 AD. We ought to note agreement with one point: 

What then of the amillennial argument that Matthew 12:29 teaches that Jesus bound Satan at His first coming? The answer is that this verse does not teach that Satan was bound at that time. What Jesus stated in Matthew 12:29 is that in order for kingdom conditions to exist on the earth, Satan must first be bound. He did not say that Satan was bound yet.
And we would say, of course, that 70 AD, marking Jesus; enthronement in heaven, also likewise signified the formal start of his kingdom. 

In the same way, the fourth point argues that Revelation depicts Satan's activity as ongoing. But again, if Revelation is to be dated prior to 70, this too is in accord with a preterist eschatology, although again, the critique shows no awareness of this option. 

And so, to answer the reader's query -- when the article closes by saying: 

To answer the question posed in the title of this work, "Is Satan bound today?" The answer from the biblical evidence is clearly, No.

The answer given, though, presupposes that the kingdom advent must have either begun in 30 AD, as the critiqued view supposes, or else has not yet begun as of today. And so, the critique remains without any bearing on preterist eschatology.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Two Interesting Links

For this week I'll just share a couple of interesting links I was passed by friends and associates.

Here we have a story from Indonesia about how public shame is being used to punish criminals. It gives you a good idea what the focus of punishment also would have been in Bible times.

Here we have a report on a study showing that people who use the Internet for research have an overinflated grasp of their own knowledge and understanding. Call the Net a virus that causes the Dunning Effect in humans.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Calling Christian Publishers to Account

The most recent Christian Research Journal has an item at the end that offers some particularly disturbing observations about the book The Boy Who Went to Heaven, by Alex Malarkey. I don’t mean revelations that the book’s account of a near death experience by Alex were fraudulent. That’s old news by now. 

The article is written by Hank Hanegraaff, who has been in touch with Alex’s mother, Beth, and reports some of the things she say about the book and its success.  Mrs. Malarkey is extremely regretful about the success of the book, and is doing all she can to erase its influence.  However, one of the saddest reactions she reports is from a pastor who balked at her news, because the book was “blessing” people.

This is not a new sort of reaction. I’ve seen the same thing said of Colton Burpo’s NDE account, and no doubt will continue to hear that about it even if someday Colton steps to the plate and declares that he, too, made the whole thing up. I’ve also seen and heard similar excuses for Hitler’s Cross, the execrable work of Erwin Luzter which badly misreports the truth about Hitler’s religious beliefs.

I wrote Hitler’s Christianity in part to correct such mistaken ideas as Lutzer’s. But the example of what’s happening with the Malarkeys confirms that I shouldn’t expect to see my analysis in print anytime soon. I did have one slight nibble from a reputable publisher, but was told, in effect, that they didn’t want it because they couldn’t see the point of it. That’s nice to know.

When the news about Alex’s story first came out a couple of months ago, it went everywhere. Secular outposts like NPR covered it. And there are some good indications that at least one major retailer knew that the book was false months before that; and that Beth Malarkey was warning the publisher of inaccuracies even years before now. You can see here how a Christian apologist tried to get people at Lifeway to answer some simple questions and got nothing but a stone wall in reply. 

I don’t expect I’d get anything much different if I approached Lutzer or Moody Press about removing Hitler’s Cross from bookstore shelves. But I’ve been inspired by Alex and Beth Malarkey’s gumption, and maybe it’s time I tried, and recorded the results publicly for all to see. It would also be nice to see the evangelical publishing award that Lutzer’s book got rescinded. If we have more people like the Malarkeys who take a stand on falsehoods in Christian publishing, and if we have more embarrassing revelations posted in secular sources, maybe we can get these popular Christian publishers to be less concerned about making a buck and more concerned about fulfilling the Great Commission. And maybe we can also get it so that popular pastors stop writing books about subjects they know nothing about.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Church in the Teapot

Previously on this blog I’ve made note of model church programs at First Baptist Leesburg (FBL) in Florida, the former pastorate of Dr. Charles Roesel (who, for full disclosure, I consider a personal friend, and whose son is my local ministry partner). FBL is a church that I see as doing the Gospel right – acting on the commission we have to not only preach the Gospel, but also help the poor and needy. They have a “ministry village” which includes services for the homeless, a thrift store, and much more.

They’re a church on target with their mission. They’re also dead in the heart of territory here in my home state ruled by those who complain that they have been “taxed enough already.” Many Christians have piled in to this movement for whatever reason; I have observed that in many cases, said Christians are very well off, and have a tax bill that is dwarfed by their expenses in other areas of their personal budgets, including travel and personal entertainments. 

Nevertheless, they say, we pay enough taxes and don’t need to pay more.

The church as a whole doesn’t seem too interested in stressing civic duty, and has all too often acceded to the attitude that government is always a problem. Well, now for FBL, the chickens are starting to come home to roost on that attitude.

A news story here refers to the basics. FBL has hanging over its head the very real possibility that they may have to pay some $55,000 in “fire assessment” fees. That would amount to 1/20th of their current budget.  And although they would no doubt spread the pain around to various programs, there’s no doubt that some of that would have to come out of the budget for the programs that are and always will be Dr. Roesel’s and FBL’s legacy. Other churches, smaller ones, would also have to pay large fees relative to their budgets.

I’ll frame the matter a little more distinctly with a past living example. As I said, the area FBL is in is radical “taxed enough already” territory.  Residents there are so stingy that one fire station had been housed in a motel for years because residents didn’t want to pay the taxes needed to build a real fire station. (More recently, they finally will be building one.)

Other stories of similar nature emerge from that and other counties under the same influence here. In the same county, residents have also been too stingy to fund the construction of sidewalks so that students didn’t have to walk in the streets mere inches from traffic.

I’ve heard of trickle down economics, but I thought it worked the other way.

Here’s the bottom line. One way or the other, essential services like fire protection have to be funded. And now churches like FBL may end up paying for the stinginess of that county’s residents. In turn, the poor and needy served by FBL will pay also, in their own way.

Now note, please, what I am saying and what I am not. 

I am not saying there is not government waste that could be cut. One of my favorite books some years ago was titled The Government Racket by Martin Gross. It was a catalog of outrageous government spending. But waste on the federal level is not a reason to deny funding to a local entity that may or may not need to trim expenses, any more than we refuse to feed one hungry person because another is wasting food.

I am also not saying that the situation is ideal in any event. In a perfect world, citizens would band together to voluntarily fund communal services like fire and rescue, without any taxation. Or, wealthy members of the community would step up and pay for those fire fees on behalf of local congregations. (I’ve been through Leesburg many times. There are citizens there who could wrap fish in $55,000 every year and still live in mansions.)

I’m disturbed by this for more than one reason, including some personal ones I will discuss in some detail later in a forthcoming e-book titled A Church Without Conscience. For now let’s just say that the Tekton ministry almost came to an end as a direct result of the same sort of attitude towards taxation. 

In the meantime, FBL and other churches will be asking for waiver of these fees, according to news stories, and it remains to be seen whether Dr. Roesel’s legacy as a servant of Christ will continue to receive the support it both needs or deserves – or whether the selfishness and stinginess of well-fed citizens will trump that legacy. That includes citizens who claim the name of Christ, but in their daily lives remain insulated from the troubles that Dr. Roesel’s missions were meant to address.

Are we sheep…or are we goats?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Unconditionally Deselected

From the January 2012 E-Block.
As we now move to the critic's treatment of the U petal in TULIP, we find that he has almost totally foregone dealing with the complex explanations I offer in favor of an excuse that he will only select certain foundation beliefs which he thinks undermine my whole argument. Unfortunately, in so doing, he manages to get my views mostly wrong as he tries to pigeonhole them into something with which he is familiar. 

As before, the representation of his replies are in bold, and any quotes from our original U article are in italics. 

You think that people have more of a problem with the idea of election itself than they do the unconditional piece. Actually most people consider “limited atonement” to be the most controversial point.
I don't "think" any such thing, nor do I indicate any such thing. I do say that the U is probably the most controversial point, and I base that on extended observation and discussion with those who oppose it -- and I might add that limited atonement, in terms of a category, merely describes what the election in the U amounts to; so in reality, what people find difficult in L comes of what is in U and is derived from it. So regardless, even if L offends most, it is because of U that it is controversial. 

It is not election that people find offensive, but rather the fact that the basis of election is wholly and entirely located in God, and not some outward work or decision or foreknowledge of some work or decision man makes.
That is merely the expected hyper-Calvinist response, which seeks to lay fault at the feet of human sin (rather than honest questions) for disputing Calvinism. In other words, even if you say it is election you find offensive, as most critics do, the Calvinist of this brand will simply say you are lying because in the evil depths of your heart, you are actually offended by the basis of election lying wholly in God. My experience and study shows that it is indeed election that causes the offense; but of course I will merely be told that every one of my sources is a liar refusing to acknowledge Calvinism's glorious truths.

From here the critic embarks on an extended critique of middle knowledge (Molinism). This was actually a considerable waste of time, because I have been told by several Molinists that my views are not in full accord with theirs. Not that it really matters, for despite my explanations indicating that God is fully sovereign, we are assured by the critic that I really do see the basis for election in human choice -- I just don't see it, or won't admit it. That's not an answer, of course, but once again, merely the same sort of pious hyper-Calvinist dismissal as the one above which simply calls people liars when no other option is available.

It is complained that I need to show how all this works with Romans 9, but apparently the critic failed to search my archives and locate that treatment when writing his critique. Additionally, the concept of free will is criticized under the premise that it is to be defined as "will that is free from any and all external causes." I did not offer any such definition, nor is what I offered in line with such a definition. Rather, I define free will as nothing more than the ability to choose among options. Externals may in some way influence the choice, so I would not say that it means "free from" such externals at all. Additionally, it is also assumed that I hold to the particular Molinist view that God cannot know what a free creature will decide, which I do not. And so the critic ends up criticizing, for an extended period, a view I do not hold.

Also falsely attributed to me is a view that "predestination depends on good works." It is said that I "say as much" when I say:

Is there unrighteousness with God? Hardly. "Why not choose me?" -- Esau. At the very least it may be said in reply, "Because look what happens if you do."

However, this overlooks the much larger picture I painted in the article, in which God has designed -- by His own sovereignty -- persons for specific purposes. It also overlooks the fact that my subject here isn't even salvation, but the larger practical picture of all of the created order and God's purpose in it. In essence, the critic fails to grasp the actual complexity of my thesis, and so tries to force-fit it into categories he understands (or thinks he does) so that he can offer a misdirected critique.

Next up: we approach my minimal treatment of Romans 9 in the U article (not my detailed treatment in a later article). My commentary on high and low context is dismissed as "obscure" (which I suppose to this critic, it would be!), which is unfortunate since it is a point that is quite critical to my explanation. It is then said:

You contend that the Hebrew would have no interest in issues of free will and predestination. I wonder how you reconcile this with the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen writing to a Roman church that had a predominantly Gentile composition with a Jewish minority?

I don't need to, because the point is that the Hebrew resolved this issue by simply pointing out that God acted in history and was real, so whatever solution there might be, there had to be one -- it was trumped, though, by the simple fact that the universe was real, God was at work in it, and so that meant it wasn't our place to act as though it were a problem. That Paul was a Roman citizen did not change this ( how could it??); but this is all of no matter anyway, because Romans 9 is a case of Paul giving precisely this answer, as we showed in detail in our exegesis of Romans 9.

From here, the critic refuses to substantially deal with points I raise from Marvin Wilson, under the premise that Wilson is too biased, has an axe to grind, etc -- which I take to be the argumentative equivalent of a no mas. The critic does try to defuse some of Wilson's examples of block logic, but in so doing, merely unwittingly confirms Wilson's actual points. Thus, concerning both Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and God hardening it, is is said:

There are two perspectives here: God’s perspective and man’s perspective. We see Pharaoh hardening his heart in fulfillment of God hardening His heart. Moses was told clearly that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart.

But this does not defuse the paradox at all; it merely explains it in another way. "God's perspective" and "man's perspective" are just as much at odds and the paradox remains intact. All the critic has done has assumed that if he attaches a "God said so" to the front of it, the paradox disappears. It does not.

Two other examples are offered, but since no citation is given for where these are found in Wilson, I am not able to comment as not enough details are give. In the end, it is no surprise the critic instead find it necessary to resort to loaded language (eg, "Pelagian nonsense"), once again force-fitting ideas too complex for him into categories more familiar to him.

The critic closes with his own extended exegesis of Romans 9, leaving all else I say far behind. Since he has done nothing to address my own detailed exegesis -- not having even looked for it -- our own treatment ceases here as well. 

The critic skips our brief treatment of L, so we will continue with I next time.