When Hebrews Weren’t Funny

The post title takes inspiration from a recent documentary we saw about Greatest Generation Jewish comics and what made Jewish Americans funny. What’s not funny is the way that Joseph Pearce leaves the Israelites and the Old Testament out of his attempt to pull Christianity out of the pagan philosophical hat:

Classical paganism brought forth the golden age of philosophy in which giants, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, mused upon the meaning of the cosmos and the meaning of life within it. This pagan philosophy, once she had been impregnated with the truths revealed by the Bridegroom, brought forth a new generation of Christian philosophy, her children including such giants as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

It would be a sin of omission, however, to celebrate the golden age of pagan philosophy without also celebrating the golden age of pagan literature, which, preceding the philosophical golden age by several centuries, brought forth the genius of Homer, whose creative brilliance is unsurpassed in the whole history of human letters, with the possible and arguable exception of Dante and Shakespeare.

But if Jesus and Paul are more important to understanding Christianity than philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas, then isn’t the Jewish background to the Word incarnate (who was Jewish) and the apostles (who were also Jewish) way more important to the church and the gospel than anything Plato or Aristotle read. After all, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews seems not to have received the memo about the Greeks as forerunners of the gospel:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”


“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”

And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1 ESV)

By the way, all those quotes in Hebrews 1 are not from the Loeb Classical Library.

Of course, if you want a religion that is civilizational in scope, and one ready to underwrite Europe (read Christendom), then leaving out the Hebrews and writing in the Greeks and Romans makes sense. But if you take special revelation seriously, you may want to do a little more with the Hebrews than Pearce does.

Come to think of it, if the Mass, a ritual that points to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a death that only makes sense after reading about all those sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple, then you may want to spend more time with the Hebrews than the Greeks. If you want a pagan inflected version of Christianity, that’s on you.

Machen Day 2015

From “History and Faith“:

Suppose the critical sifting of the Gospel tradition has been accomplished, suppose the resulting picture of Jesus is comprehensible-even then the work is only half done. How did this human Jesus come to be regarded as a superhuman Jesus by his intimate friends, and how, upon the foundation of this strange belief was there reared the edifice of the Christian Church?

In the early part of the first century, in one of the petty principalities subject to Rome, there lived an interesting man. Until the age of thirty years he led an obscure life in a Galilean family, then began a course of religious and ethical teaching accompanied by a remarkable ministry of healing. At first his preaching was crowned with a measure of success, but soon the crowds deserted him, and after three or four years, he fell victim in Jerusalem to the jealousy of his countrymen and the cowardice of the Roman governor. His few faithful disciples were utterly disheartened; his shameful death was the end of all their high ambitions. After a few days, however, an astonishing thing happened. It is the most astonishing thing in all history. Those same disheartened men suddenly displayed a surprising activity. They began preaching, with remarkable success, in Jerusalem, the very scene of their disgrace. In a few years, the religion that they preached burst the bands of Judaism, and planted itself in the great centers of the Graeco-Roman world. At first despised, then persecuted, it overcame all obstacles; in less than three hundred years it became the dominant religion of the Empire; and it has exerted an incalculable influence upon the modern world.

Jesus himself, the Founder, had not succeeded in winning any considerable number of permanent adherents; during his lifetime, the genuine disciples were comparatively few. It is after his death that the origin of Christianity as an influential movement is to be placed. Now it seems exceedingly unnatural that Jesus’ disciples could thus accomplish what he had failed to accomplish. They were evidently far inferior to him in spiritual discernment and in courage; they had not displayed the slightest trace of originality; they had been abjectly dependent upon the Master; they had not even succeeded in understanding him. Furthermore, what little understanding, what little courage they may have had was dissipated by his death. “Smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.” How could such men succeed where their Master had failed? How could they institute the mightiest religious movement in the history of the world?

Of course, you can amuse yourself by suggesting impossible hypotheses. You might suggest, for instance, that after the death of Jesus his disciples sat quietly down and reflected on his teaching. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” “Love your enemies.” These are pretty good principles; they are of permanent value. Are they not as good now, the disciples might have said, as they were when Jesus was alive? “Our Father which art in heaven.” Is not that a good way of addressing God? May not God be our Father even though Jesus is now dead?

The disciples might conceivably have come to such conclusions. But certainly nothing could be more unlikely. These men had not even understood the teachings of Jesus when he was alive, not even under the immediate impact of that tremendous personality. How much less would they understand after he had died, and died in a way that indicated hopeless failure! What hope could such men have, at such a time, of influencing the world? Furthermore, the hypothesis has not one jot of evidence in its favor. Christianity never was the continuation of the work of a dead teacher.

It is evident, therefore, that in the short interval between the death of Jesus and the first Christian preaching, something had happened. Something must have happened to explain the transformation of those weak, discouraged men into the spiritual conquerors of the world. Whatever that happening was, it is the greatest event in history. An event is measured by its consequences-and that event has transformed the world.

It wasn’t the Bishop of Rome.

From DGH on Can Humans Merit Before God Submitted (2) on 2015 04 23 at 12:42 pm


We need to stop meeting like this. I am still unsure why you keep pushing the dogmatic boundaries on grace, merit, the covenant of works, and the satisfaction of Christ. Perhaps you’ll recall that Rick Phillips tried to moderate your views a year ago. But you persist in ways that might have even caused Norman Shepherd embarrassment. He was not someone to show off.

Since you and Rick have gone round and around again, I only want to add two cents (same in Canadian dollars).

First, you insist that words need to mean what they mean.

Professor VanDrunen does not define “merit”. He seems to make the argument that because Christ, the true image bearer, merited before God, Adam, as an image-bearer, also could have merited before God. In his quote there appears to be a one-to-one correlation between the merit of Christ and the merit of Adam. This is questionable ground, in my view. He needs to define merit, otherwise we are left guessing, at best, what he means. Is he departing from what the Reformed scholastics meant by merit or agreeing with them?

Great. O lexicographer define thyself’s words:

There are important Christological reasons why Christ could merit, but Adam could not. If our understanding of what constitutes a meritorious work follows the Reformed scholastics, then the answer is quite simple: the dignity of Christ’s person (as theanthropos) explains why he, and he alone, could merit before God.

Sorry, that’s not a definition. So why hold Dave VanDrunen (or the objects of your criticism) to a standard that you don’t meet? Are you special like Jesus? Sorry if that’s a bit snarky, but in previous posts you have compared Jesus to believers, so it’s both fair and snarky.

Second, “voluntary condescension” is not grace. If we are going to insist on the exact meaning of words, then again you can’t pour grace into that phrase from the Confession (though I guess you can because Canada is a free country like the U.S.).

What I particularly don’t understand (howl if you like here) is why you keep stating that the covenant with Adam could not have been meritorious because the reward would have been disproportionate to the work he would have performed:

Finally, the rewards given to Christ are proportionate to the work he performed. Adam’s reward would have been far greater, assuming we say that Adam would have been granted heavenly life, than what he “worked for”.

But following your logic, was Adam’s penalty, his condemnation along with the rest of the human race, proportionate to his merely eating a piece of fruit? Yes, it was an act of disobedience. But one strike and you and your children and your children’s children are out is not an arrangement that brings to mind grace, no matter how much Canadians struggle with baseball. It sounds more like a threat or a curse arrangement. In which case, if Adam could earn everlasting condemnation simply by one act, why not everlasting blessing for the work prescribed by a just and powerful God?

Comments are still open.

P.S. A word of advice — let others decide whether your response is gracious.

Is Grace Everywhere?

So Mark Jones keeps telling us and since we have no way to comment at his blog we will once again adopt the role of servants serving servers by opening up comments here.

First, Jones says that lots of Reformed theologians, backed up by Richard Muller — apparently Jones favorite strategy for finding room to affirm a contested point — said grace existed before the fall and that Adam needed grace to comply with the Covenant of Works:

Most seventeenth-century Reformed theologians understood grace in a more general sense than simply equating it with redemptive favor. But they did make important distinctions on the grace of God before and after the Fall, such as the way Adam possessed the Spirit in contrast to how we possess the Spirit.

Anthony Burgess argues that Adam needed help from God to obey the law and then notes, “Some learned Divines, as [David] Pareus…deny the holiness Adam had, or the help God gave Adam, to be truly and properly called grace.” Pareus believed that grace only comes from Christ to sinners. Burgess shies away from the dispute, but he does insist that Adam could not persevere “without help from God.” . . .

Richard Muller has suggested that not only does the language of “voluntary condescension” rule out human merit, but that the “presence of divine grace prior to the fall was a fundamental assumption of most of the Reformed thinkers of that era.” The evidence cited above sustains Muller’s contention.

“Voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1) was consistent with the idea, espoused by William (“Exception to WCF 7.1”) Bridge, that “out of free love and grace [God] was pleased to condescend to enter into Covenant with man.”

Great. But if Adam had the Holy Spirit then how did he sin? Did God remove the Holy Spirit and thus make Adam susceptible? If so, is God implicated in the introduction of sin among his creation?

Also, I wonder if Dr. Jones has considered what the Confession of Faith says about Adam in his state of innocency:

After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls [e], endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image [f]; having the law of God written in their hearts [g], and power to fulfill it [h]: and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change [i]. Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures. (4.2)

If you had to describe this as gracious or natural, I am pressed to understand why someone would choose grace. And why did the divines, some of whom did (I gather from Dr. Jones) talk about Adam being endued with the Holy Spirit, fail to mention that in the Confession? When you look at the proof texts (supplied by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church anyway), you don’t see much that would add support to Dr. Jones’ formulation on grace before the fall:

d. Gen. 1:27. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

e. Gen. 2:7. And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Eccl. 12:7. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Luke 23:43. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. Matt. 10:28. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

f. Gen. 1:26. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Col. 3:10. And [ye] have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him. Eph. 4:24. … and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.

g. Rom. 2:14–15. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

h. Gen. 2:17. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Eccl. 7:29. Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.

Yes, I do understand that the references to the Christian putting on the “new man” is a gracious work of the Holy Spirit. But surprise (and beware the valleys and mountains). I am not Adam who was without sin. I need grace and the Holy Spirit to live in a holy manner. If Adam did, what does it say about the inherent goodness of human nature at creation?

Jones’ flattening continues when he likens Christ’s experience to that of the believer:

Jesus was and is the man of the Spirit, par excellence. Christ’s obedience – all of it – was done in the power of the Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the “immediate operator of all divine acts of the Son himself, even on his own human nature. Whatever the Son of God wrought in, by, or upon the human nature, he did it by the Holy Ghost, who is his Spirit” (Owen). . . . The Second Adam, Jesus Christ, possessed the Spirit in greater measure and was, as far as I am concerned, the greatest believer who ever lived.

For good measure, he adds a quotation from Bavinck (on the virgin birth, mind you, not on Christ’s human nature):

At this point it is important to note that this activity of the Holy Spirit with respect to Christ’s human nature absolutely does not stand by itself. Though it began with the conception, it did not stop there. It continued throughout his entire life, even right into the state of exaltation. Generally speaking, the necessity of this activity can be inferred already from the fact that the Holy Spirit is the author of all creaturely life and specifically of the religious-ethical life in humans. The true human who bears God’s image is inconceivable even for a moment without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit…. If humans in general cannot have communion with God except by the Holy Spirit, then this applies even more powerfully to Christ’s human nature.

Does this mean, as one Old Lifer asked me by email, that the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s life is comparable to mine and that we can think of Christ’s life of sanctity like the work of sanctification in the believer? Remember what the Confession says about sanctification:

2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

3. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

And is Jones aware that he may be straying into Roman Catholic territory in the way he construes the two Adams and their natures? That may seem like a stretch but if you follow Bavinck on Adam’s original righteousness as the Reformers conceived it, you may want to counsel Dr. Jones back from the ledge. First, Bavinck acknowledges that Adam’s righteousness was a free gift of God and “only possessed . . . by and in the Holy Spirit.” But Bavinck is aware of the danger of flattening:

Granted, between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in man before sin and in the state of sin, there is a big difference. Now that indwelling, after all, is “above nature” (supra naturam) because the Holy Spirit has to come to humans as it were from without and is diametrically opposed to sinful nature. In the case of Adam that entire contrast did not exist; his nature was holy and did not, as in the case of believers, have to be made holy. . . (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 558)

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in systematic theology to think that the same contrast between Adam and us applies to Christ and us, or that Christ’s righteousness was not above nature but natural to the righteousness of an unfallen human nature.

To construe this original righteousness, furthermore, as gracious in the sense of having to right what was defective, is also a mistake of important proportions for Bavinck. He explains the nature of the dispute between Rome and Protestants over Adam’s original nature:

The dispute concerned the question of whether that original righteousness was natural or, at least in part, supernatural. . . . they used this term [natural] to maintain the conviction that the image of God, that is, original righteousness, was inseparable from the idea of man as such and that it referred to the normal state, the harmony, the health of a human being; that without it a human cannot be true, complete, or normal. . . . [Man] is either a son of God, his offspring, his image, or he is a child of wrath, dead in sins and trespasses. When that human being again by faith receives that perfect righteousness in Christ, that benefit is indeed a supernatural gift, but it is supernature “as an accident,” “incidentally”; he regains that which belongs to his being. . . (551)

For good measure, Bavinck adds that if Adam’s original humanity was incapable of obeying God’s commands, you wind up having to do what Roman Catholicism does and add grace to Adam’s original constitution:

From these two ideas, the mystical view of man’s final destiny and the meritoriousness of good works, was born the Catholic doctrine of the “superadded gift” . . . . The heavenly blessedness and the vision of God, which is man’s final destiny — and was so for Adam — can be merited ex condigno only by such good works as are in accord with that final destiny. . . . The righteousness that Adam possessed as a human, earthly being by virtue of creation was not, of course, sufficient to that end. So for Adam to reach his final destiny he too needed to be giving a supernatural grace, that is, the gratia gratum faciens (“the grace that renders one engraced or pleasing to God”), the image of God. (539-40)

Of course, simply quoting Bavinck doesn’t make any of this so. But what is instructive about Bavinck is the danger he sees in talking about grace before the fall or Adam in his original righteousness needing something extra to obey God (or by implication discussing Christ’s holy life as analogous to a believer’s sanctification). Would that Dr. Jones in his historical surveys would be that cautious.

A Secular Faith

I wish I had read more Bernard Lewis before I wrote a certain book:

Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teaching of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.

The older religions of mankind were all related to – were in a sense a part of – authority, whether of the tribe, the city, or the king. The cult provided a visible symbol of group identity and loyalty; the faith provided sanction for the ruler and his laws. Something of this pre-Christian function of religion survives, or reappears, in Christendom, where from time to time priests exercised temporal power, and kings claimed divine right even over the church. But these were aberrations from Christian norms, seen and reciprocally denounced as such by royal and clerical spokesmen. The authoritative Christian text on these matters is the famous passage in Matthew 22:21, in which Christ is quoted as saying, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Commentators have differed as to the precise meaning and intention of this phrase, but for most of Christian history it has been understood as authorizing the separate coexistence of two authorities, the one charged with matters of religion, the other with what we would nowadays call politics.

In this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. In imperial Rome Caesar was God, reasserting a doctrine that goes back to the god-kings of remote antiquity. Among the Jews, for whose beliefs Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” God was Caesar. For the Muslims, too, God was the supreme sovereign, and the caliph was his vice-gerent, “his shadow on earth.” Only in Christendom did God and Caesar coexist in the state, albeit with considerable development, variety, and sometimes conflict in the relations between them. (What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, 2002, 96-97)

Could it be that resistance to two-kingdom theology is simply the congenital human propensity to identify the sacred in the temporal, or to conflate cult and culture? Is it also a failure to grasp how novel Christ’s own claims are from the perspective of human history?

Forensic Friday: Christ’s Priestly Office

Priest is a strong and lovely word. There is no lovelier or sweeter name on earth. It is much better to hear that Christ is called “Priest”, than Lord, or any other name. Priesthood is a spiritual power which means no other than that the priest steps forth, and takes all the iniquities of the people upon himself as though they were his very own. He intercedes with God for them and receives from Him the Word with which he can comfort and help the people. It is lovelier and more comforting than “Father” and “Mother”, for this name brings us everything else. For by being a priest He makes God our Father and Himself our Lord. When I believe in His priesthood, then I know that His work is none other than to be seated in heaven as our Mediator, and that He makes intercession for us, before the Father, without ceasing, and all the time speaks on our behalf. This is the highest comfort which can be given to any man, and no sweeter sermon can be preached to our hearts. (Martin Luther, Exposition of Genesis xiv. W.A. 24. 480)

Forensic Friday: The cor cordis of the Gospel

It is, nevertheless, the very cor cordisof the Gospel that is here brought under fire. The one antithesis of all the ages is that between the rival formulae: Do this and Live, and, Live and do this; Do and be saved, and Be saved and do. And the one thing that determines whether we trust in God for salvation or would fain save ourselves is, how such formulae appeal to us. Do we, like the rich young ruler, feel that we must “do some good thing” in order to be saved? Then, assuredly, we are not yet prepared to trust our salvation to Christ alone — to sell all that we have and follow Him. Just in proportion as we are striving to supplement or to supplant His perfect work, just in that proportion is our hope of salvation resting on works, and not on faith. Ethicism and solafideanism — these are the eternal contraries, mutually exclusive. It must be faith or works; it can never be faith and works. And the fundamental exhortation which we must ever be giving our souls is clearly expressed in the words of the hymn, “Cast your deadly doing down.” Only when that is completely done is it really Christ Only, Christ All in All, with us; only then, do we obey fully Paul’s final exhortation: “Let you joy be in the Lord.” Only then do we renounce utterly “our own righteousness, that out of law,” and rest solely on “that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God on faith.” (Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Alien Righteousness” [sermon on Phil 3:9], in Faith and Life, pp. 324-25)

The Whole Christ

I keep hearing that justification is only a part of salvation and so falls short of yielding the “whole Christ.” I understand the desire to do justice to all the benefits that believers receive in this life from Christ – including adoption and sanctification.. But I wonder if this concern for all of Christ recognizes just how total his work is in the benefit known as justification and received by faith alone. Here is what the Belgic Confession says in Article 22, “The Righteousness of Faith”:

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.

For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.

Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God– for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.”

However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us– for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.

But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits.

When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.

I don’t know about others, but that sounds like a whole lot of Christ being affirmed in justification and our righteous standing before God. It also sounds like the Reformation’s insistence on justification as the material principle of our protest with Rome was precisely to do justice to the “whole Christ.”