What’s So Calvinist about Evangelical Calvinism?

If you’ve followed some of my posts about Evangelical Calvinism, you might have to wonder what exactly makes it deserve the label “Calvinism.” After all, we reject the defining U, L, and I of TULIP. Without the meaty bulk of the Calvinist system, what substance is left for the title “Calvinist?”

Without getting into too much detail either theologically or historically, here are a few basic ways that EC identifies itself with wider Calvinist tradition.

  • EC was born of Calvinist descent. The major influences which led to EC’s development were Calvinists or their students. EC draws from Calvin himself, John Knox, and the Scottish Reformation, for example. Karl Barth, a very important EC forerunner, studied extensively from the Reformed tradition, including especially Calvin. T. F. Torrance was a student of Barth and a Scottish Presbyterian. It likewise appeals to the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism not dogmatically but as helpful touchstones. This is in contrast with Arminianism, which may have begun within a Reformed context with Arminius but quickly morphed into a radically non-Reformed system, hardly similar or sympathetic to any of the Reformers, under the influence of people like Wesley.
  • EC stresses the absolute priority of God’s action in salvation. Both classical and Evangelical Calvinists agree that God’s active decision to reveal Christ to someone through the Spirit is the necessary condition for the event of salvation, not merely a generic “prevenient grace” enabling a “free will.” The Spirit who moves as He wills must choose to personally appear and present Jesus as Lord and Savior to us before we can respond to Him. It is only in this encounter that we become freed for faith in Christ. We simply differ as to whether our response is inevitable when this revelation takes place. EC actually takes the divine initiative a step further by holding that even our response when it does take place was originally created in the human faith of Jesus Christ, and only imparted to us by the Spirit, rather than awakened simply in ourselves.
  • EC emphasizes God’s free choice of election before anything else in salvation. While we do not agree about who the elect are or what exactly election entails, both of us agree that God’s decision to elect, to choose a people for Himself, plays a vital role in the history and cause of our salvation. While most Arminians tend to make election into a pretty pointless formality (“I know that Bob will believe, thus I will save him.”), Calvinists both classical and Evangelical agree that God’s decision of election plays an active and causative role in our salvation. We also agree that God’s election is unconditional, again in contrast to the conditional element of common Arminianism.  Even the corporate election of more modern Arminians is conditioned on the Fall, whereas some classical Calvinists and all EC agree on a supralapsarian election, a kind of election which comes before and apart from even God’s decision to allow the Fall.
  • EC makes good use of John Calvin. All Calvinists like Calvin, right? While EC doesn’t take up Calvin’s actual doctrine of predestination, EC does implement Calvin’s concept of the duplex gratia, double grace, of justification and sanctification flowing from union with Christ. This is key to the EC understanding of how salvation works and begins, using a framing that is more personal than legal. EC also makes use of Calvin’s work involving assurance and many similar themes.

I could perhaps address some other deep theological and historical connections between Evangelical Calvinism and classical Calvinism, but this should be a pretty good start. I also realize that most, if not all, of these points probably raise a handful of questions, so if you have them feel free to comment and ask.

What’s So Calvinist about Evangelical Calvinism?

Aaron Adorned by Christ: The Meaning of the Priestly Vestments

[This is my term paper for my Old Testament Backgrounds. Enjoy.]

Introduction

If a hundred people had to describe the text of Exodus 28, which covers the garments of the Aaronic priesthood, in a single word, “boring” would probably win a majority, or at least a strong plurality, of the votes. This is probably true even in many Christian circles. Yet this result would be the greatest shame, for “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness,”1 including the entirety of the Torah. Exodus 28 and the instructions therein for priestly vestment is actually breathed-out by God not only for a people thousands of years ago, but also for His people today. This old text to an old people is able to still be relevant today because, like all of Scripture,2 it was from the beginning inspired to point towards Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This paper will examine what the priestly garments both in their parts and as a whole represented in their original contexts and how this meaning finds consummation in the person and work of Jesus. To set the stage for the details of this examination will require looking first broadly at the meaning and purpose of the garments as a whole.

The Nature and Meaning of Priestly Adornment

While there would be little difficulty in taking the unique priestly vestments for granted, they actually pose many interesting questions. What is their purpose? Perhaps the best category for understanding their use is that of the priests as mediators. As mediators, the priesthood stood in a unique position in relation to God and His people. Gordon J. Wenham puts the point this way: “As mediators priests had a dual role: they represented God to Israel and they represented Israel before God.”3 This, he goes on to explain, is a key reason why God ordained such particular clothing for them, for “Their godly authority was expressed by their splendid robes, which evoked the majesty of God himself.”4 In fact, there are two sides for this. One the one hand, the glory of their vestments displayed before the people a representation of the glory of the God for whom they served as representatives. On the other hand, their vestments were also products of human creativity, craftsmanship, and culture, and as such they displayed before God a representation of man’s glory in His image. Thus by taking on their vestments the priests were enrolled as God to Israel and Israel to God.

The Christological significance of this should be abundantly clear. Jesus was (and is) able to serve as an eternal and final High Priest because He not only represents both God and man, as the priests of old did, but in fact is both God and man. In the priesthood of Christ there is no mere role-playing but an ontological reality in which the Priest by nature and not merely by appointment is the one who expresses the glory of God and of man.5 The garments which the Aaronic priests put on to become mediators foreshadow the flesh which Christ put on to become the one Mediator, set apart to save humanity.

On the note of “set apart,” another key purpose of the priestly vestments was to sanctify, or set apart, the priests for their work. After all, no one could merely approach God as himself on his own terms, for all have sinned,6 and God is a consuming fire.7 For this reason God told Moses that the clothes would be necessary to enable the priests to serve before God.8 By donning these clothes, the priests could leave their natural identities behind in order to act in a divinely appointed roll in a divinely appointed manner. Keil and Delitzsch said of this, “These clothes were to be used ‘to sanctify him’…Sanctification, as the indispensable condition of priestly service, was not merely the removal of the uncleanness which flowed from sin, but, as it were, the transformation of the natural into the glory of the image of God.”9 Without the priestly clothes, the priests would have been natural and unclean.

This need for external sanctifying aids also points antitypically to Christ, as when He stepped into the priestly service He needed no such help at all. The Lord Jesus had no sins to cover, and He was to be found clothed with a righteousness of His own work and merit, the very righteousness of God. Jesus’ holy life proved entirely sufficient to qualify Him for priesthood , even high priesthood, after He had perfected His work by persevering in obedience through suffering.10 Thus in Christian retrospect the need of the priests for divinely provided adornment prefigured in contrast Christ’s inherent perfection.

The Ephod: Wearing the Word

With a brief Christocentric account of the priestly garments as a whole established, the individual parts deserve their own examination. The first of these, both in the order of the description in Exodus 28 and in importance, would be the High Priest’s ephod. The exact details of what an ephod was and looked like are historically ambiguous, but the Biblical description includes a front piece, a back piece, and some kind of connection between the two across the shoulders.11 The ephod was to be made out of fine linen, gold embroidery, and blue, purple, and scarlet yarn. These are the same materials as the curtain of the Tabernacle, a point to which Peter Enns calls attention.12 Apparently there is an important link between the servant of God and the Tabernacle in which God dwells. The High Priest is set apart for a unique relationship to the presence of God.

There also appears to be a connection between the ephod and the revelation of God’s will. The ephod bears the “breastpiece of judgment,” which the HCSB translates “breastpiece for making decisions,” and in 1 Samuel the ephod is employed on multiple occasions to seek out God’s guidance.1314 This important strand, when combined with the note above about the link between the ephod and the curtain to God’s presence, seems to paint a picture of the High Priest as the one who is uniquely employed to bear the revelation of God’s will because he alone is authorized to enter the holy presence of God and return.

Once again there appears clear Christological import. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this unique revelatory role, something which the apostle John emphasizes in his Gospel account. He opens by saying of Jesus, “No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son — the One who is at the Father’s side — He has revealed Him,”15 and also records Jesus as saying to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven — the Son of Man.”16 Jesus takes up the role as the one who enters God’s presence to return with revelation, indeed the very revelation of forgiveness. The High Priest needed to don his ephod to bring revelation, but Christ revealed God in donning His own human flesh, clothing which was likewise bound up with the very presence of God.

One feature of the ephod of particular interest is the placement of two onyx stones on its shoulders. In these stones were carved the names of the tribes of Israel, six on each stone. The Scripture says that they were to be carried by the High Priest as a memorial for all the Israelites. This is very significant, for the whole concept of a High Priest performing atonement rests on what the stones symbolize: one man identifying with his entire people to act on their whole behalf. As John Calvin said, “That the connection between the priest and the people might be made more plain, God not only placed on his breast the memorials of the twelve tribes, but also engraved their names on his shoulders.”17 This absolute identity of priest and people was essential to atonement, so that the one could be for the many. All of Israel was carried into the Holy of Holies on the shoulders of the High Priest.

The unity of one and many represented by the ephod’s shoulder stones is naturally quite directly applicable to what Christ came to do. Jesus became the one who acted for the many not by putting stones on His shoulders but by taking on human shoulders.18 He identified (and identifies) fully with humanity in its broken state, and holding this identity in place He has entered the presence of God the Father Almighty, where He saves us and intercedes for us as one man for all men.19

Lights and Perfections

By this point the most obscure matter of the priestly clothing, the Urim and Thummim, comes to relevance. The last significant part of the ephod is the “breastpiece of judgment” or “breastpiece for making decisions,” which contained the Urim and Thummim. The breastpiece itself was just a square, double-folded fabric block made out of the same material as the rest of the ephod. Twelve different precious stones set in gold filled its surface in four rows of three stones each, and each stone was engraved with a name of one of the tribes of Israel.

So what were the Urim and Thummim? Their names translate to “lights and perfections,” but this is ambiguous. No one knows for sure what they were. One traditional view, accepted by James K. Bruckner, is that they were black and white stones used like lots.20 Enns suggests that they could have involved a luminous gem.21 Calvin argues that they are not distinct objects but some kind of patterns or markings or decorations.22 Whatever they actually were, the agreement is that they bear some relation, either symbolically or functionally, to the nature of the breastpiece as being for judgment/decisions.

The actual meaning of the Urim and Thummim, then, should most likely be understood in light of what was previously stated about the association of the ephod as a whole with the revelation of God’s will. They probably served to mark the High Priest as the authorized bearer of God’s word, the mediator of His will to Israel. They are called “lights and perfections” rightly, for whatever word from God they accompany will be a word of light and perfection. This word represents the justice and truth of God to which Israel was bound and from which she derived her Torah. Whenever the High Priest sought out the will of God bearing the Urim and Thummim, he would return with a message of true righteousness.

If the Urim and Thummim are to be understood in this way, then they should be understood to prefigure Christ Himself. He is the true Light and Perfection, the image of the invisible God and the fullness of divine revelation. As the author of Hebrews proclaims, “In these last days, [God] has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature.”23 In Christ God’s Word is revealed as a true, perfect light which enlightens everyone who comes into the world.

Lesser Parts, No Lesser Meaning

By this point the ephod has been fully examined, but under the ephod the High Priest had to wear a robe. This robe was to be made of solid blue, unlike all of the mixes met so far. In its solid form, blue seems to be Biblically associated with wealth or value in a way similar to purple.24 The bottom of the robe was to be decorated with small pomegranates, which Bruckner also says were associated with abundance or prosperity, and with gold bells.25 The significance of the bells is an issue of debate, with Calvin and some others arguing that they represent the sounding of God’s word of response,26 while Bruckner claims they were a reverential announcement of entrance, akin to quietly knocking on a door.27 Taking these elements all together paints something of a picture of Israel in their High Priest respectfully approaching God on His terms in order to receive from Him a word of abundant blessing and forgiveness.

Yet again, the light of Christ now shines brightly through the Old Testament types. Jesus is Himself both the Word of God28 Israel sought as well as the reverential human word spoken to God in response.29 By this perfect response He won for His people exactly what the High Priest sought to find: forgiveness of sins. His perfect response of faith overflowed to invite from God His blessed word of forgiveness, the righteous declaration of free justification, for all who share in His life as Israel did in their High Priest’s.

Topping all of these vestments in an additional glory was a bright, white turban. According to Keil and Delitzsch, the white color of the turban should be associated with the holiness of their profession.30 This would be in accord with the gold medallion that was also prescribed to the High Priest to be bound to the front of the turban. On this medallion was the inscription: “holy/holiness to the Lord.” Together these two symbols of holiness clearly marked out the High Priest as a sacred servant, claimed by God for His work. Only by this work of God sanctifying His priest could an otherwise fallible man “bear the guilt connected with the holy offerings that the Israelites consecrate as all their holy gifts.”31 He had to keep the turban and medallion on his head, or he would not be able to find acceptance when he served.

In a similar way to this, Jesus was Himself sanctified, set apart for God’s service, at priestly age when the white dove of the Spirit descended from heaven to Him and anointed Him for ministry. Quite relevantly, this happened at His baptism, precisely the moment when He freely identified Himself with needy human sinners. By creating solidarity with sinful humanity in a baptism of repentance, while also being unbreakably sanctified, He was also able to bear the guilt of sinners on their behalf. Without the artifice of any medallion or turban, He is Himself so sanctified that He finds and wins for His people acceptance with God.

Near the end of the line, finally, are the questions of underwear and footwear. All of the priests, High Priest and others, were required to wear special linen undergarments while serving in the Tabernacle. Keil and Delitzsch suggest that the purpose of this was to cover the symbolism of human frailty, corruptibility, and impurity exposed in a man’s most private parts. That side of humanity is not fit to serve as God’s representatives, therefore underwear was required. Footwear, on the other hand, is never mentioned. In the entire chapter, nothing is said about what to wear on feet, despite the detailed regulations for everything else. Obviously, nothing too conclusive can be drawn from such silence, but there seems a possibility that the priests actually served barefoot, as though the Tabernacle were portable “holy ground” like that which Moses had so recently encountered.32 This is, at least, a possibility which Enns is quick to mention. His comments are worth fully quoting:

What is conspicuously absent from the list is shoes, perhaps because of what has already been suggested in 3:5: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” These words were spoken to Moses as he approached God on Mount Horeb. As we have seen, the tabernacle is an earthly representation of a heavenly reality — a portable Mount Horeb/Sinai. Although 3:5 is not explicitly reiterated in chapter 28, this connection seems a fruitful avenue of approach. The priests stand in God’s presence and must conduct themselves appropriately.33

If this is correct, then the barefoot priests certainly would have found their feet to be entirely covered in blood, caked by the son, at the end of the day. This graphic routine would have undoubtedly created a strange and messy connection between priest and sacrifice.

With these thoughts in a mind, a few more Christological insights seem available. In regards to the undergarments, Jesus demonstrated the created goodness of even the most private human parts by assuming them to His divine person, and yet still overcame human impurity and corruptibility by His glorified resurrection. He also became the embodiment of holy ground, the walking presence of God, and made the unity between priest and sacrifice total and literal.

Conclusion

In the end, then, if even half of these observations are on the right track then the case seems to be that Exodus 28 and the priestly vestments described therein are not, as so many are certainly tempted to imagine, merely boring or unnecessary. Rather, the adornment of Aaron should be viewed as an essential part of God’s shaping of Israel’s life and pulling it ever forward towards the Incarnation of Christ. With these kinds of thoughts in mind, a vision of Jesus at the heart of every chapter of the Scriptures, then by no means should even priestly garments appear dry or dull. Instead let all Christians say that in the priestly code and clothing, in the vestments as a whole and in their parts, they were and remain a powerful testimony to Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, and the Savior of the world. Can anything be more relevant than that?


1 2 Tim. 3:16. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

2 John 5:39.

3 Gordon J. Wenham. “The Priests.” In Exploring the Old Testament: The Pentateuch. Vol. 1. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003.

4 Ibid.

5 Heb. 1-2.

6 Rom. 3:23.

7 Deut. 4:24.

8 Exod. 28:4.

9 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch. “Directions Concerning the Sanctuary and Priesthood.” In Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002.

10 Heb. 5:8-10.

11 Exod. 28:6-8.

12 Peter Enns. “Priestly Garments.” In Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.

13 Ibid.

14 1 Sam. 23:9-11, 30:7-8.

15 John 1:18.

16 John 3:13.

17 John Calvin. Harmony of the Law – Volume 2. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2009. Accessed 18 April 2016. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom04.

18 Heb. 2:17.

19 Heb. 6:20.

20 James K. Bruckner. “Instructions: Priestly Garments.” In Exodus (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012.

21 Enns, “Priestly Garments.”

22 Calvin, Harmony, comments on Exod. 28:30.

23 Heb. 1:2-3a

24 Num. 4:6-12, 15:28; Jer. 10:9; Ezek. 27:24.

25 Bruckner, “Instructions: Priestly Garments.”

26 Calvin, Harmony, comments on Exodus 28:31.

27 Bruckner, “Instructions: Priestly Garments.”

28 John 1:1.

29 John 17.

30 Keil and Delitzsch, “Directions Concerning the Sanctuary and the Priesthood.”

31 Exod. 28:38.

32 Exod. 3:5.

33 Enns, “Priestly Garments.”

Aaron Adorned by Christ: The Meaning of the Priestly Vestments

Thoughts and Questions about Transgender Stuff

With all the transgender issues on the news lately, I think we as conservative Christians need to take a step back. From there we must ask and then articulate what precisely it is that we find objectionable in transsexualism and why. For example, I assume that most of us do not agree that merely the psychological aspect of feeling or believing that your mind is aligned with the opposite sex that your body constitutes a sin. After all, we don’t usually agree that experiencing attraction to the same sex is a sin, either.

Likewise, most of us I believe would not consider a woman being into “masculine interests” (e.g. cars, football, fighting skills, hunting) or a man being into “feminine interests” (e.g. sewing, homemaking, childcare, chick flicks) as sinful. We would still agree even if someone was completely the opposite of the norm for their gender.

Then come the more ambiguous questions about appearance. Most Christians in my experience would not condemn a man with long hair or a woman with short hair, or a woman wearing a pantsuit. Yet a total conversion, say a man with long, braided hair, a short skirt, high heels, and a flowery pink blouse, would garner a less favorable response. Where is the line, if it both exists and can be defined, and why? (Remember: if we were to appeal to Old Testament law we’d need to show that it still applies, and why it does.)

Then what about calling yourself a member of the opposite sex? Is that the line? Is it a form of lying? Then again, maybe it’s not lying if you’re not trying to say that you’re physically that gender. Is it sinful for attempting to redefine yourself in contradiction to the bodily reality gifted to you by God?

On the other hand, I expect most of us would agree that it’s crossing any lines to go through a sex change operation. Yet if we want to hold this line, we will need to articulate why it’s wrong. What makes a surgery to fix this mind-body disorder different from surgeries to fix other non-life and death issues? Is it, as some might argue, no worse than problems your hair or toning your abs? Is it more like a cosmetic surgery, and are cosmetic surgeries appropriate? Why or why not?

Of course, I imagine nearly all of us Christians with conservative views on sexuality would also agree that it crosses the last line for a transgender person to have sex with someone of the same biological sex, even after surgery. The only way out would be to say that the transgender person actually counts before God as their chosen sex, which seems a difficult argument to make.

Yet what about a celibate transgender? Are they in the clear, especially if they forgo a sex change operation? Or are they still in sin for identifying with a gender which is not their biological sex? Yet the latter would seem to place a greater burden on transgender people than we usually affirm for gay people, whom we will not generally condemn if they remain celibate. Or are the issues in fact just that different?

For some of these questions I have fairly dogmatic answers, yet for others, I am less certain. I’m quite confident that sex between a transgender person and someone of the same biological sex is as sinful as any homosexuality. I also believe that sex change operations do great violence to the inherent aim and meaning of bodily sexuality. But the celibate transgender? I’m not sure what to make of someone who remains sexually pure while identifying with a gender which is not their own. I’m suspicious, but not dogmatically certain of sin. (I also realize that this situation is highly hypothetical since people who commit to celibacy are rare enough in the 99% of society that isn’t transgender, and even in the Church.) There are other ambiguities as well, such as how someone who had a sex change operation in the past, but since repented, should go on to live.

Despite the issues that arise, we must be clear, confident, and courteous on this matter. It is not enough simply to express outrage, or mere confusion or head-shaking. The changing world will most likely not respect us no matter how we handle this, but at least if we respectfully offer a full, rationally defensible, coherent alternative vision of gender and sexuality then we can stand before God and conscience as level-headed, innocent peacemakers rather than obtuse, contentious reactionaries. And maybe, just maybe, when we adorn the Gospel with such grace and wisdom, some folks out there will be drawn to come to the Light. Not the light of our right side, of course, but the Light who is Christ and makes all things new, even broken gender identities.

P.S. For really good further reading, I recommend this post by Alastair Roberts and the accompanying podcast.

 

Thoughts and Questions about Transgender Stuff

The Father Loves Baby Steps

As Christians, we will always, until our resurrection and glorification, still be growing up. We have been born again, and after every birth one remains an infant for quite some time. The thing about the new birth is that, being a reality of the Holy Spirit acting upon our minds and hearts, it doesn’t always lead to the same obvious, consistent growth that our first, bodily births do. It’s mixed and splotchy and inconsistent, not because of any fault on God’s part but because of our sinful absurdity. 

Despite our ridiculousness, our heavenly Father is good, loving, and patient with us. We have been adopted by grace alone, regardless of the sins which beset us, and because we stand by this grace in Jesus Christ, we are perpetually accepted before God. This means that He stands ready and waiting to encourage and accept our every move along His way, while simultaneously ready and waiting to forgive all our stops and tantrums along the way when we stop and confess them to Him.

This fact of grace has been something encouraging to me as of late while doing my personal evangelism class at BCF. I know quite well that I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to sharing my faith with other people (primarily because I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to conversing with other people). I have made little progress, but I have made some. I was able to share my testimony recently. It wasn’t very hard in the particular case, though I had expected it to be more difficult. This was nothing, especially in comparison to other, more mature Christians, or in comparison to Christ Himself.

Despite my slow and crawling progress, God is gracious. Having adopted me for Himself, He is not cruel to and ready to punish me, but a happy Father who loves His new son. He accepts and rejoiced over my baby steps without for a moment compromising His demands for perfect obedience. He is a kind Father, and He loves me more even than I love my own son.

So remember this in all your faltering obedience. Never deny and forget that you are still a sinner and imperfect and even rebellious, but likewise never forget that God loves your baby steps towards Him.

The Father Loves Baby Steps

Is God All This and All That? (Part 1: Omniscience)

God cannot be good, or He cannot be real. This is basically the thrust of the argument which uses the problem of evil against God, at least as He is traditionally understood. The Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

This dilemma, called in the above form the Epicurean Paradox or more generally just the problem of evil, has always been a difficult problem for Christians. Yes, there have always been answers, but not all of the proposed answers have been good, clear, and coherent. The most popular answer has usually involved free will, but even that idea has been fraught with questions and philosophical challenges (e.g. “Can free will truly exist alongside divine sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience?”). Another popular answer, though almost exclusively in Calvinist circles, is that evil was essentially imagined and decreed by God so that He could use it to glorify Himself.

Because of these difficulties, some people have attempted reevaluate Biblical teachings on God to see if we are getting something wrong in the start. This has led some people to startling conclusions.

What if God isn’t actually omniscience (all-knowing)?

What if God isn’t actually omnipotent (all-powerful)?

At first glance, both of these objections sound absurd. Yet there are people who charge that omniscience and omnipotence, at least as traditionally understood, are philosophical traditions imposed on the Bible from the outside, and not actually Biblical teachings themselves.

For those of us who seek to be true Biblicists, sola Scriptura Protestants, we should feel compelled to examine all such claims that our traditions are misleading us from Scripture. We must take them seriously and find out if they are true. Could we be wrong, misled by worldly philosophy?

If we are wrong, there are obvious implications for the problem of evil. If God is not truly all-knowing, and in this case usually people mean He doesn’t fully know the future, then the devastation of sin on the world may have been essentially a surprise to God. Maybe He didn’t mean for the world to turn out so bad, but He took a risk for the sake of love.

For some people, though, even this isn’t enough. Maybe God didn’t see it coming, but surely if He was omnipotent and good, He would have immediately responded to evil by wiping it out. He could have destroyed Satan, or found a way to give people free will without giving them the ability to do evil, just like He gives us free will without the ability to turn into sausage. So if God was not fully omnipotent, at least in the traditional sense, then it might make sense that God did not immediately stop evil in the beginning.

With such a solution to the problem of evil at hand, and with an accusation that full omniscience and omnipotence are unbiblical, it is worth a search to see what Scripture actually says. I’ll tackle the two questions, omniscience and omnipotence, separately.

Does God know everything? More specifically, does God know all about the future, or does He perhaps not know what free humans will choose to do every time? The Biblical evidence is interesting. There are some statements in Scripture which seem to indicate that God doesn’t know absolutely everything. God responded to man’s wickedness before the Flood with regret as though it were a surprise (Gen. 6:5-6), asked Abraham where Sarah was (Gen. 18:9), seemed to need to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah before He judged them (Gen. 18:20-21), apparently found out Abraham’s faith at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22:12), searched out the hearts of the Israelites for 40 years in the desert (Deut. 8:2), only said “perhaps” about Israel’s repentance from Jeremiah’s preaching (Jer. 26:3), and in many other places acted as though He did not know what was coming. Many people have argued that these narratives provide a portrait of a God who does not know all the future, or even necessarily the whole of the present.

On the one hand, there are statements to the effect that God knows everything. Examples include 1 John 3:20, Psalm 139, Hebrews 4:13, John 21:17, etc. One might argue, though, that in context none of these have anything to do with the important question about the future. It still might make sense to say God knows “everything” but speak loosely and only really mean the present, or perhaps be using hyperbole. Some people even argue that God knows absolutely everything, but that the future is literally nothing until it happens. God knows everything, but the future isn’t part of everything. So does the Bible offer any specific reasons to believe that God knows the future?

There is, to the best of my knowledge, no verse that specifically says that God knows the future exhaustively, but there is evidence that He must know at least some or most of it. A classic example is Isaiah 42:9, in which God declares that He speaks of events yet to come. In fact, in Isaiah God’s knowledge of major coming events is repeatedly brought forth as evidence that He, not the idols Israel and the Gentiles loved to worship, is the true God (Isa. 41:22-23, 44:7-8, 46:9-10). While one might respond that this knowledge seems to be limited to what God is planning to do Himself (e.g. 46:10), such a limitation is hardly compatible with the way this knowledge is used against the idols. Any false god could know what it plans to do, and there is nothing uniquely impressive about Yahweh knowing His own plans.

More evidence that God must know the future at least pretty fully is found in the prophecies of Daniel. Daniel prophesied the rise and fall of many empires in God’s power, and yet these prophecies cover a wide range of types of knowledge. They include God’s own plans, the actions of individual kings and leaders, and the larger movements of history and empire. Sense can hardly be made of the prophecies of Daniel unless God knows every, or nearly every, kind of future action, including the free choices of people.

That said, is there any Biblical “smoking gun” statement proving unambiguously that God knows absolutely everything about the future? No. So it is certainly possible to interpret the Biblical evidence in a way which leaves the future at least partially uncertain to God. Nonetheless, it seems far more likely, given the totality of the Biblical testimony, to say that God does indeed know the future to the same extent that He knows the present and the past. More problems are solved by acknowledging this than by denying it, or at least it seems so to me. This is further supported by the unanimous testimony of the entire Church throughout history up until very recently (for most of Church history no other understanding has existed at all), and by reflections on space, time, creation, and physics, though this latter line of evidence is beyond the scope of this post. If everything must be established by two or three witnesses, then the full omniscience of God seems well grounded.

Of course, I should not skim over the many Biblical texts brought against this view earlier. What of all of these references, mostly in Genesis, which make God sound as though He needed to find things out which He did not know? My answer on this must remain somewhat traditional, not out of any necessary loyalty to tradition but because it seems the most sensible explanation to me out of all the possibilities. I believe John Calvin got it mostly right with his strong notion of accommodation. To Calvin, we see in the Scriptures, and especially in the early Old Testament, God reaching down to speak to us in a way that we can understand, even if this is very limited and even perhaps not always fully accurate in translation. He likened God’s condescension in speaking to us to a parent babbling to their infant child.

I would, in fact, take this line even further. I believe that what we see in the early Old Testament is God revealing Himself first in a way which would simultaneously be understandable and subversive to the original audience, an ancient people steeped in primitive polytheism. They came from a religious culture where the gods were almost exclusively viewed in a very limited and human-like way. They had no other concept of what a deity might be like. So God showed Himself primarily in such terms, as though He were one of their tribal deities, but throughout this revelation also planted the seeds of fuller knowledge, so that the knowledge of God by condescending analogy and the knowledge of God as He truly is wrestled in tension until the fullness of revelation in Jesus.

On an additional note to this, I would suggest that in interacting with man God can do so most freely and easily when He interacts with us on our level, like a character in time rather than simply as the God above time. Just try to imagine the weirdness of interacting with someone from a strictly transcendent, timeless posture. For our comprehension alone, it was necessary for God to speak like one of us.

So, with a decent case for God’s comprehensive foreknowledge established with at least some strength, we will need to move on to look at God’s omnipotence, His all-power. After all, perhaps God knew what was coming, and knew that in the long run He could work all things out, but in the meantime did not have the ability to prevent all evil. Yet I have run wildly long so far, thus I will have to save the next part for another post.

Is God All This and All That? (Part 1: Omniscience)

A Quick Thought from Russell Moore: Something to Remember about People

Here’s something worth keeping in mind from Russell Moore’s new book, Onward:

The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. That’s a sentence I remind myself of almost every day, every time I feel myself growing discouraged about the future…That’s what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, “Does gospel Christianity have a future in this country at all?” He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.

But the Spirit of God can turn all that around, and seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8–16).

Remember this next time you have a problem with anyone, and next time you fear for the future of Christianity.

A Quick Thought from Russell Moore: Something to Remember about People

How Jesus the Messiah Conquered Rome

It is no secret that one of the major reasons Jesus got crucified is because He wouldn’t do the #1 thing that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to do: overthrow Israel’s Roman oppressors. Time and again they sought this of Him, but He refused to align Himself with not only any existing revolutionary movements but even any revolutionary sentiments. This certainly would have seemed to some of them as a dead giveaway that He couldn’t be the Messiah, for everyone knew that the Messiah’s most important job would be to topple pagan empire.

Of course, any doubts as to Jesus’ qualifications as Messiah had to be laid to rest when He was raised by God from the dead and therefore publicly vindicated. By no means could this happen if He was not who He claimed to be. So it would seem to be that the requirement to overthrow Israel’s enemies, especially Rome, was not actually necessary for His Messianic role.

Or was it?

The truth is that, although He redefined every element of that story in doing it, Jesus did in fact conquer His people’s pagan oppressors. When all the dust settled, the Lord Jesus stood victorious over Lord Caesar. What precisely do I mean by this?

The Jews expected from their Messiah a quick military conquest rescuing the nation of Israel from Roman rule. Jesus did not fulfill these expectations at all, but He nonetheless won the Messianic victory they were looking for. This victory was prophesied in Revelation, in which the Kingdom of Christ overcomes the kingdom of the beast, which (at least in the original instance) is Rome. This was fulfilled by reorienting each component of the Jewish expectation.

The very first reorientation was the nature of Israel itself. The ethnic Israel alive at that time was not suitable to be Kingdom people, for they were natural and fleshly. They had only a heart of stone, a word written on tablets, and needed a heart of flesh, the Word made flesh. They were bound to their natural lusts and needed the freedom of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus formed Israel anew around Himself. He made a new, reborn Israel beginning with Himself and His resurrection and expanding to the Apostles and their hearers, and He baptized them into the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This people, the Israel of God reborn in Christ, would be the one to stand victorious over Rome, not the original, dying, fleshly Israel cursed by the Law. Jerusalem fell, but so did Rome, and only the Church of these three remained.

Following this change was a change in the means of conquest. The Jews expected the Messiah’s conquest to be a military victory, in which by God’s power He would lead a new Israelite army like those of old to march on Rome with weapons of war. Jesus won, however, in a different way. His army did not win by killing, but by being killed as martyrs. They did not fight with swords of steel, but with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Gospel. By the power of the Spirit this unconventional warfare slowly overturned the forces which sought to crush Christ and His people. Millions of Romans found themselves crucified with Christ and then raised to newness of life through the proclamation of His Word.

Naturally, such a radically different conquest did not take place publicly in the short span of time which the Jews had anticipated, but rather worked slowly and secretly. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of Christ grew as person after person was baptized into a new allegiance which trumped their allegiance to Rome. It took hundreds of years, but eventually the rule of the beast fell to ruin while the rule of God continued to advance, and indeed still advances. The empire which crucified Jesus in the first century came to be ruled by His Church (albeit in a very imperfect way) in the fourth and fell to only a memory behind it in the sixth. Today, the Roman Empire is of but historical interest, whereas the Kingdom of God continues to march and claim a massive citizenry.

In the end, then, Christ did conquer Rome. That famous empire eventually submitted itself to His Church, and finally died while the Church lived on. Granted, the Church ran into problems of its own in both of these scenarios, but it lives on, unlike Rome, and the Gospel of Christ continues to be a powerful weapon conquering peoples of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

But what does it matter to notice this? Why should we care that, technically speaking, Jesus did defeat Rome? Two things come to mind. On the one hand, it is a reminder that no world system, political or cultural, will last forever, but God and His Kingdom in Christ will. His reign will never end. No matter what any government, military, or institutions throw at us, God reigns and will not be defeated. Rome proved it. Our currently immoral, broken, and failing American culture, for example, is no worse than Rome’s was, but in the long run its vices will perish while the will of God stands.

As another point, I think this conquest of the Roman Empire by Christ is actually a useful concept in Biblical interpretation, because I believe that it is a major prophetic focus in Revelation, and possibly even in the letters of Paul. If you understand the kingdom of the beast and Babylon the Great Whore as Rome, which is highly supported by both the text itself and the historical/cultural context of Revelation, then seeing this conquest is helpful in following along the point of the book, which to some extent parallels the point made above.

So remember: Jesus is Lord, and He wins every time. He even toppled the Roman Empire.

How Jesus the Messiah Conquered Rome