Monday, December 30, 2002

Dude, where's my carnivore?

In the Genesis Debate (David G. Hagopian, ed., Cruxpress, 2001), Hugh Ross and Gleason L. Archer make an interesting point about how the young-earther’s paint themselves into a corner in which they must, in effect, be hyper-evolutionists, which means that they must assume that evolution occurred must faster and hence much more efficiently (by far) than even the most optimistic natural evolutionists.

It is a two pronged critique. Part of the argument is just based on numbers. It goes something like this:

  • By most estimates, Noah’s ark could have carried at most 30,000 pairs of land animals.

  • At least 5 million species are alive today, and an additional 2 million existed after the flood, but have since become extinct. (The fossil record indicates a total of about 500 million species have existed throughout the history of the planet.)

  • Exacerbating the problem, we are told that shortly after the flood certain species that were on the ark became extinct, such as the dinosaurs.

  • Taken all together, we see that somewhere around ten thousand species that survived on Noah’s ark, and the extinction shortly thereafter, would have to evolve into millions of species in the span of a couple thousand years, a rate that makes the mind reel.

Of course, God could have just created the new species, but there is no mention of that in the Bible. As far as scripture reveals, all God’s creation of new kinds ended at the end of day 6, which obviously was well before the flood.

Another problem that Ross and Archer (and others) point out is that of carnivores. The usual argument is that there was no death of any kind, not even animal death, (Hey there Mr. Elephant, don’t step on that ant!) prior to the fall (which, again, means after God had rested from his acts of creation, inasmuch as they are revealed). No animal death means no carnivores. Carnivores are designed by God to hunt, kill, and eat. If God put Polar Bears on earth but had them eating plants, they would have to be very different from Polar Bears as we know them today—their metabolism and body type render them incapable of surviving by grazing. In effect, all the carnivores would have had to evolve rapidly (in the timescale of hundreds of years) after the fall.

So Ross makes, in my opinion, a good point. The young-earthers (among which I count almost all of my friends, except the other pointed-headed scientists like myself) need a more efficient evolutionary process than the naturalists would dare to hope for. Go figure.

Monday, December 23, 2002

A Pox on the Academy

This may be my only blog of the week—so I made it a nice rant against the academy. Just to get into the spirit of the holidays.

I recently reread the forward to R. C. Sproul’s book Faith Alone. Here are some excerpts from the pen of Michael Horton, who wrote the forward:
'It is also revealing (a) how little most Protestants know about their own convictions and (b) with what great ease they find the concerns raised by the Reformation to be irrelevant. How can this be? Has Rome’s position changed? In fact it has not. The Vatican II documents as well as the new Catechism of the Catholic Church reinvoke the theological position of the Council of Trent, condemning the gospel of justification by an imputed righteousness.'

'Today one can easily find theological professors at leading evangelical institutions who no longer find justification by faith alone to be true, much less necessary.'

'R. C. Sproul has rendered the church an enormous service at a critical moment. The Reformation was not primarily concerned with the issues evangelicals today often think of first: the papacy, superstition, and the cult of the Virgin and the saints. First and foremost, it was a challenge to Rome’s confusion over the very meaning of the gospel.'
I was especially delighted by Horton’s comment regarding theology professors.

It should go without saying that Horton is not "Romophobic", nor is he a bigot—he, as do I, simply thinks that Catholic church is very wrong when it comes to her doctrine of justification. Of course, in today's PC world there is often little distinction made between disagreeing with an organization or group and being an "anti-whatever" intolerant zealot.

There is no doubt that the doctrine of justification is under something of an intramural attack, and I hope to write about this in the coming year. But in truth, things are probably not as bad as they would seem. For a great deal of the challenge to what has been the standard reformed doctrine of justification comes from academics, and the professoriate is notoriously impotent and irrelevant. As history demonstrates, the dung heap of discarded ideas contains plenty of "challenges" to conservatism—stillborn "revolutions" that spent their entire life-cycle in the ivory tower. After all, the name of the game is tenure, and nobody gets tenure affirming that we pretty much have things figured out. Mop-up work, not matter how well done and how scholarly, is a ticket to the front door. Tenure, in the social sciences, is a reward for published radicalism.

When I was a professor, I recall being dismayed by a study (a study which now delights me) showing that the average number of readers (apart from the author and the referees) of a published academic research paper is one. Just one. And since every discipline has some papers that virtually everyone reads, the inevitable mathematical conclusion is that a great number of papers, though published in respected refereed journals, are not read by anyone.

In my own publication history, I have published in my native field (physics), in education, and in computer science. My out-of-field papers in computer science and education generated far more reprint requests that my physics publications, of which, no doubt, more than a few fall into the never-read category. (In fact, some of them I cannot even recall reading.) Far more people have read my blogs than any of my published research.

Do you really know how most universities work? Here it is in a nut shell, and keep in mind I am not a cynic:
  • Professors in certain departments, such as physics, computer science, chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine, vie for large research grants. If they don’t get them, they usually will not be tenured. The grants are taxed by the universities, ostensibly for "overhead", such as providing an office and heat for the dear professor, but in reality it is a form of profit, understood as such by all involved, that makes its way into the general coffers. If a professor gets a $500,000 grant, then something like $375,000 will be available for research expenditures. The other $125,000 goes to the university as overhead, to be spent, for the most part, however it pleases the university to do so.

  • Professors in the social sciences have a much harder time attracting grants. They tend to be evaluated more on the numbers of their publications and the journals in which they were published. They sometimes get in-house research grants from the university, funded in part from the tax on the "real" grants of the scientists and engineers. (Sometimes they buy computers with this money, and use them to send emails complaining that an engineering or physics professor shouldn’t get paid more than a philosophy or english professor. It’s called biting the hand that feeds you).

  • Everyone writes papers, most of which nobody reads. To be published in science, there are standards of precision and accuracy, but not (except in the most elite journals) of importance, originality, or creativity. In physics you can publish a paper that confirms a result that someone else obtained, improving only the accuracy, or demonstrating an alternative method. The social sciences do not have the equivalent of this type of publication, one which reports modest, incremental improvement. The goal is to make a big splash. The standard is radicalism.

  • Teaching ability plays little or no role in evaluating faculty, at least at a prestigious university or at a large state university. Are you a student at MIT, University of Virginia, or Stanford? Do you fill out teaching evaluations at the end of the semester? Do you know you are wasting your time?

Having been on the inside (and tenured), and knowing how disconnected the academy is from the mainstream, gives me hope that today’s ideas circulating about the seminaries and universities, purporting a new view on justification, finding nuances in scripture where none were intended, claiming enlightenment about scripture that proved elusive over two millennia, attaining heretofore unknown insights into what the reformers really meant, will suffer the same ignominious fate as most of their predecessors: they will be ignored. As long as they are naught but fodder for tenure dossiers, topics of discussion at faculty cocktail parties, and material for self-aggrandizing lamentations about the stupidity of the outside world, they will continue to be more amusing than harmful.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Doug Wilson, Evolution, and The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

I was google-ing around for articles dealing with science and Christianity when I came across something Douglas Wilson wrote for Credenda Agenda. If you want to read the article first, before reading my comments on it, the article is here.

I have read Wilson’s article at least four times, to make sure it is not tongue-in-cheek. I do not think that it is. I think it is Wilson trying to tell us that he understands the usual scientific comeback to the usual misuse of the second law of thermodynamics, and that he has discovered how to ratchet up the argument and catch science without an answer. (Why do I always envision him writing with a smirk? I have the same negative impression of Jonah Goldberg. I need to work on this.)

There are so many things wrong with Wilson’s argument I hardly know where to begin. (Oh Lord, save us from foolish Christians who think that science is your enemy! And save us from the well-meaning but self-deluded who think that they understand enough science to use science against itself.)

My problem is I don’t think I am a good enough teacher to explain why Wilson is wrong, because the second law of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy are not trivial. In physics they are defined in a precise manner, and if one applies the second law without understanding the details, then the results one obtains and the conclusions reached are meaningless. Still, I'll give it a go.

The Second law of Thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics was developed to tell us why certain things happen in a certain direction. For example, if you put ice cubes into a room temperature drink, heat flows from the liquid (resulting in a temperature reduction) into the ice (which then melts). Why doesn’t heat flow from the ice cubes into the drink, leaving the drink even warmer and the ice cubes even colder? This does not violate other laws of physics, such as the conservation of energy. Yet we know it does not happen. Heat always flows from hot to cold, never the other way around.

This "common sense" result is of little use to physicists, other than as a guide. We need something quantitative so that predictions can be made. The concept of entropy was developed to give some teeth to our common sense.

Entropy is not easy to define—in fact the second law really deals with changes in entropy, not its precise value. Yet we know it is related to order. Highly ordered systems have less entropy than disordered ones. And we know that ordered systems (low entropy) decay into disordered systems (high entropy).

If you clean up your bedroom, you put it in a state of high order and low entropy. From there, assuming you arrange it "perfectly", there is no place to go but downhill. Any change to your perfect arrangement, just removing one book from your bookshelf and placing it on your nightstand, brings in a small amount of disorder, and the entropy increases. As we all know, an ordered room will decay into a disordered one. Entropy will increase.

Here we see another way to think of entropy. In a sense there is only one, or maybe a few, "perfect" and highly ordered arrangements of your room, but a gazillion imperfect ones. So entropy is also related to the probability of an arrangement. If a tornado swept through your room, mixed everything around and deposited everything randomly, an ordered arrangement is highly unlikely. When related to probability, we see that low probability corresponds to low entropy (and high order), and high probability to high entropy (and low order).

A System and its Surroundings

One more concept is important, that is the idea of a system and its surroundings. A system is whatever we are studying. For example our room, or the earth. The surroundings are everything with which our system can exchange matter or energy. For our room, it might be the rest of our house. For example, I can alter the entropy of my room by taking the trash out of the room. For the earth, vast amounts of energy enters the earth from the sun. The earth also radiates energy out into space. Matter is constantly bombarding the earth.

If a system has no surroundings, it is said to be a closed system. The universe as a whole is a closed system (apart from God), and in some sense the only one. However, we can approximate a closed system by putting it in an insulated container so that no heat, energy, or matter can enter or exit the box. Since there is no perfect insulator, there is no perfectly closed system, but we can get pretty close.

In light of all this, here is how the second law of thermodynamics can be expressed:

The change in entropy of the system, PLUS the change in entropy of the surroundings, is greater than or equal to zero.

If we have a closed system, such as the universe, then it simplifies to:

The change in entropy of the system is greater than or equal to zero.

If the change in something, such as entropy, is "greater than zero", it means that it increases. If it is "greater than or equal to zero", it means it does not decrease.

So the fate a closed system is somewhat known. Everything that happens, every process in a closed system either leaves the entropy unchanged or increases it. It never decreases. Eventually a maximum entropy is reached, a state of maximum disorder, a state that is also called equilibrium.

The Second Law and Evolution

In Wilson’s article he first presents the most trivial misuse of the second law and then, properly, allows it to be shot down. This misuse of the law is:

Evolution represents increased order, but the 2nd law says order will decrease, therefore evolution violates the second law. (Note: Wilson uses complexity instead of order, which is imprecise and fraught with its own problems—but let’s ignore that.)

Wilson writes, if I may paraphrase, yeah, yeah but the earth is not a closed system so that does not mean anything, which is the usual response to this argument.

However, it is a misleading response, and only partially correct, because even if the earth were a closed system it (the second law) would not rule out evolution. Let us go back to the room example. Suppose my room was (a) a mess (high entropy) and (b) a closed system (no windows or doors, insulated walls) and (c) I was locked inside. Before I starved, I might decide to clean my room. I put everything away neatly. The stuff in my room "evolved" from disorder to order, entropy (appears) to have decreased, and yet I am in a closed system—doesn’t that violate the second law? No, because my room contains all my stuff and it also contains me. The entropy of my stuff may have decreased, but how did that happen? I worked. I picked things up. I moved them. To do that required energy. I got the energy by burning fat. To account for all the entropy changes in my closed system, I would need to include in the accounting all the complicated processes going on inside my body while I was ordering my stuff. The second law states that if I account for everything, the entropy as a whole did not decrease (and probably increased), even though my stuff "evolved" into an ordered state. That increased order came at the expense of a greater-or-equal increased disorder from biological processes.

Wilson’s Next Argument

Wilson then tries to ratchet-up the argument. He has a disassembled watch wrapped inside a handkerchief. He agrees that inside the handkerchief the pieces are in a closed system. So entropy cannot decrease, the watch components cannot reassemble themselves into a more ordered state.

Wilson then "opens" the system by smashing the handkerchief with a hammer, pumping energy into the system. Then he smugly notes that the pieces now look even less like a watch. Although we now have an open system, the watch is still not reassembling itself (not "evolving"), the entropy of the watch pieces is still increasing. Wilson concludes the article:
"Hmmm," I said, "It seems to be going in the wrong direction. Looks less like a watch."
"Hit it again," said Jocko.
Samuel (the scientist) muttered sullenly, "You don't understand. You creationists will never understand."
"You are right about one thing," I said. "I don't understand how energy input will do anything other than increase the rate (sic) of entropy. I mean to say, look at my watch."

Now it is possible that Wilson is just making a joke, but it does not smell that way to me. First of all, it is not funny unless it demonstrates how foolish the scientist (Samuel) is. It has to be a joke at his expense, or there is no joke. So even if it is a joke, it relies on the science being so "bad" that it can easily be used against itself.

The problems with Wilson’s arguments are many. He correctly points out that he now has an open system, namely the parts of the watch (which is the system proper) and the hammer (which is the surroundings). Thus we have the second law in the open system form:

The change in entropy of the system (watch parts) , PLUS the change in entropy of the surroundings (hammer), is greater than or equal to zero.

Here is the fatal flaw in Wilson’s logic: The fact that we have system and the surroundings in this equation allows the possibility that the entropy of the system decreases (to be at least compensated by the increase in entropy of the surroundings), but it doesn’t demand it. Both the system and the surroundings might experience an increase, or the surroundings might have a decrease at the expense of the system, but the second law does not say that either one must have a decrease, it only says that it is possible for one or the other to decrease.

To summarize: the second law, when applied to an open system, does not demand nor preclude the possibility that either the system or the surroundings experiences a decrease in entropy. It might happen, or it might not. Whether it does depends on the details of the overall system.

There is no violation of the second law. Wilson joins a long line of well-intended but ultimately harmful apologists whose misuse of science fosters the image of Christians as a bunch of bozos.


Evolution is wrong, but it is not so easy to dismiss, and the second law is not the way to attack it. Evolutionists will understand the flaw in both the trivial misuse of it, and in Wilson’s misguided "improvement".

What would make the watch parts "evolve" back into a watch? It requires something that the second law doesn’t deal with, something in the details of the processes. The second law speaks in broad terms and provides broad constraints, it says little about what happens under the hood.

Evolutionists argue that the complex molecules necessary for life resulted "not just" because the earth is an open system, but because of the details, which include a tendency in some systems to self-organize into structured arrangements. No time to go into what that means at length, but a simple example is sand dunes. From a purely entropy-style argument you might expect the wind to create an unordered bland distribution of sand in a desert. Yet from above, as viewed from a airplane, we see highly ordered and regularly spaced sand dunes. This is a form of self organization. The second law is not violated, and the second law does not demand that dunes are formed (that’s the Wilson mistake), but the second law does not preclude it. It is the details of sand dynamics that produces unexpected structure and order, within the bounds of the second law.

Evolution can be attacked here, but it requires much more sophistication than Wilson’s primitive and flawed argument.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Science is our Friend

Which of the following propositions do you suppose is true?
  1. The orthodox position of the church has always been that the days in the Genesis creation account are literal 24-hour days. Only since the advent of modern science and mounting evidence for an old earth has the "day-age" theory been invented in a fools-errand attempt to reconcile Genesis and science.

  2. The idea that the days in Genesis 1 reflect long periods of time was taught in the early church, and only since evolution was introduced has there been a major push in the church to affirm the literal 24-hour interpretation.
The answer is number two. The writings of many church fathers (you can find the references in the book The Genesis Debate) either ignored the question or explicitly taught against the literal 24-hour-day interpretation.

The push to the literal interpretation came, or at least achieved its critical mass, as a response to evolution theory. Both sides immediately understood that time is of critical importance. Evolutionists knew that they needed an old earth to give natural selection sufficient time to operate. The best way, so it was thought, to deny them that time they needed was to elevate the literal interpretation of day into the arena of essential doctrine.

This well-meaning change in what was considered essential has had disastrous consequences. It has made Christians enemies of science when we should embrace science as part of God’s natural revelation. As evidence mounted for an old universe and an old earth, Christians painted themselves in tighter and tighter corners in trying to explain away the data with bizarre theories about how accepted and independent scientific models, through a conspiracy of errors that is truly mind boggling, give consistent but incredibly wrong answers.

Occasional scientific blunders or routine modifications to theories, which is part and parcel of doing science, are displayed as proof-positive that science is unreliable. Scant attention is paid to the fact that the computers used to write the diatribes, the fiber optics used to transmit the anti-science webpages, and the satellites used to beam science-demonizing sermons around the world all rely on the same science that is being condemned.

The irony is that science is uncovering more and more information that points to an intelligent creator. If Christianity (even the usually enlightened Presbyterians: bad PCA, bad!) had not hitched its wagon to the young earth theory, we would be in a much better position to spread the gospel in conjunction with an acknowledgement of the obviously intelligent design that science has shown is so evident in our universe. At it is modern science that is uncovering these amazing facts—science that we should be embracing.

Ironically, the earlier complex life forms came on the world scene the tougher it is for evolution. Recent discoveries show that bacteria existed far earlier than previously thought. Since the age of the earth is rather tightly constrained, any discovery that pushes up the introduction of complex life makes evolution even less credible. Time is still a critical issue, and it is getting more so all the time. It is the evolutionists who should fear science, not Christians.

Christians used to worry about archeology, lest it uncover something in conflict with the bible. Over the years we have seen the opposite: secular archeologists, amazed at the accuracy of the bible as a history book, now use it to guide their searches. Archeology has done nothing except confirm the accuracy of the bible. (Which should make Mormons quite jealous—archeology has done nothing but refute Joseph Smith.)

We should apply that lesson to science. If we stop covering our ears and humming loudly when the topic of science comes up, we would find that science is no enemy of Christianity, but anti-science surely is.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Denominational Quiz

I just took this denominational quiz. My top five "best fits" were:
  1. Reformed Baptist
  2. Presbyterian (PCA) and Orthodox Presbyterian (OPC)
  3. Reformed Churches
  4. Southern Baptist
  5. Presbyterian (PC-USA)

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Fate of the Jews (part 3/3)

Lets us finish the discussion of Romans 11.
25For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
Here is where things start to get really juicy. Paul gives us an admonition that we should not be ignorant of this mystery (the fate of the Jews) lest we succumb to our own speculations (that is one mucho-ignored warning). Mystery doesn’t mean there is no answer, Paul is going to reveal the truth.

Pauls tells us blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. We need to exegete this phrase carefully. Note these points especially:
  • Paul talks about both Israel and Gentiles. This is further evidence that within this passage, Israel is used for the ethnic nation, not the church. Keep that thought in mind.

  • The partial blindness of Israel leaves room for Jewish converts (the remnant) to come to Christ at any time, but that is going to end, when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. What comes after that? Hold that thought too. The only thing we can be sure of is that it is something different from now, which might be described as a modest trickle of Jews converting to Christianity.

  • What is this "fullness of the Gentiles?" We read from Luke
    And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:24)
    What does that mean? Sorry, I don't know. Certainly the first part refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent diaspora. But the "fulfilling of the times of the Gentiles" is not clear. I more-or-less agree with Sproul who writes: 'When the last wild olive branch is grafted on to the tree, then God is going to do something again with the original tree.' Although I don’t think the "last" Gentile will be saved—and then no more, as Jews begin to convert. I look more to a successful (in God’s eyes) completion of the Great Commission. Exactly what it means, while quite interesting, is not very important. The important point is that something will happen to initiate a change of state—the word until in verse 25 demands it.
26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
"The Deliverer will come out of Zion,
And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;
27For this is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins."
Here we have the oft-quoted "all Israel will be saved". Again, allow me to itemize some points.
  • Paul has consistently been using Israel to mean the ethnic Jews, there is no reason to assume that he now switches usage to Israel meaning the New Testament church. Besides, that interpretation would make little sense—would it mean that all the invisible church is saved? We knew that anyway. Would it mean all the visible church is saved? That is contrary to the rest of the gospel.

  • Likewise it cannot mean that all Jews will be saved in situ. Now God can do anything, but I would certainly be surprised if this verse means that subsequent to the fullness of the Gentiles all Jews everywhere will convert to Christianity. I believe that all Israel means the nation of Israel as a whole. It will again be in favor with God, and that will include sizable conversions. The ungodliness of Jacob (Israel) will be turned away and their sins forgiven.
We continue:
28Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. 29For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, 31even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. 32For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.
As far as the gospel goes, at the present time the Jews as a whole are enemies in that they reject Christ. But they will be restored as a nation in God’s favor. This has been promised to the fathers. The Jews enjoyed special treatment, and then were condemned to disbelief because of disobedience. The Gentiles were brought in which fulfilled prophecy and (eventually, no sign of it so far) will provoke jealousy. Finally Israel will be restored and granted the same faith, repentance, and forgiveness of sins that we enjoy.
33Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
34"For who has known the mind of the LORD?
Or who has become His counselor?"
35"Or who has first given to Him
And it shall be repaid to him?"
36For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
Paul concludes by telling us what we should already know: We can never completely grasp the plans of an infinitely holy God. And how impertinent to assume that God owes us anything—even an explanation!

What about the current state of the world? Personally, and unlike my dispensationalist friends, I do not see the events in the middle east as a harbinger for a near term end of the present age. Present day Israel does not resemble the Israel that we have described here. It is a mostly secular state with no signs of an end to Jewish apostasy.

And as I said, I connect the fullness of the Gentiles with the completion of the Great Commission. To be sure that merely exchanges one unknown for another, as I can’t possibly know what constitutes that completion. But I see no reason to assume it is imminent.

The bottom line is that, as I see it, Romans 11 says enough about the restoration of Israel that it is a mistake to assume God’s sovereign plan is limited to the occasional Jewish convert. But it doesn’t say the church will be raptured followed by a preeminent Jewish theocracy.

Fate of the Jews (part 2/3)

We continue our reading from Romans 11:
11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. 12Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!
13For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. 15For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
In verses 11 to 15, Paul asks if the Jews have stumbled so far that they are utterly and totally lost. His answer to his own question is: certainly not! As Charles Hodge wrote: 'As a rejection of the Jews was not total, neither was it final.' The Jews have a future. Paul goes on to say that the salvation of the Gentiles is useful in provoking the Jews to jealousy. It serves no good purpose to provoke jealousy in the Jews if they are forever lost—jealousy only makes sense as a precursor to repentance. Paul adds that if the gentiles have befitted from the fall of Israel, how much more will they benefit from a restored Israel. Everyone in the kingdom benefits everyone else—this is not a zero-sum game. The Jewish restoration, such as it will be, is not at the expense of the Gentiles. To emphasize that the Gentiles are not solely used to provoke jealousy, Paul proudly declares himself an Apostle to the Gentiles, and adds, in effect, that arousing some of his own race is a fringe benefit of his ministry.
16For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, 18do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
In verses 16-18 we read of the olive tree metaphor. The tree has roots and branches. The roots are holy, the branches require cultivation. The roots are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc. They are not removed from the tree. Some of the branches of the tree have been broken off, these are the Jews that have rejected Christ. Some of the branches remain, these comprise the remnant. And now wild branches, the Gentiles, have been grafted onto the tree. In verse 18 we are reminded again not to boast, and not to assume we have replaced the Jews—our roots are not 1st century Christian Gentiles (They are but branches) but rather the Jews, viz., Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
19You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in." 20Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.
Verses 19-21 are quite interesting. First of all, I love that in verse 19 Paul tells his audience what they will say, and then in verse 20 tells them that it was well said! Seriously though, these verses are important. They demand that our response as Gentiles should be fear, not pride. And they also, taken together, warn against anti-Semitism, which sometimes uses verse 19 in isolation to support its hateful agenda.
22Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.
Here we (the Gentiles) are again told to seek humility. God has shown mercy to us, we have not earned it. And we must continue in faith. For if God was willing to break off the natural branches, He certainly will not hesitate to break off the wild branches should we slip into apostasy.
23And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
In verses 23 and 24 we are reminded that if God can graft the wild branches onto the tree, how much easier will it be to graft the natural branches, if they come to faith. Now with God, nothing is in the "if" category. Paul is merely using it as a rhetorical device. For, as we will see in the next installment, the question is not if but when.

Monday, December 16, 2002

The Fate of the Jews

One of the least understood biblical teachings is the fate of the ethnic Jews. The views on this subject are legion. In the Roman Catholic Church, there is a sizable ecumenical movement seeking reconciliation between Catholics and Jews. In addition to Catholic promises to refrain from proselytizing, or perhaps because of such promises, some Catholic voices involved in this endeavor hold that Jews can still be saved by their faith in Jehovah, apart from their rejection of Christ.

Among Protestants, there are those who hold that in the New Testament Israel always means the Christian church, and there is nothing remaining in God’s sovereign plan specifically for ethnic Jews. At the other extreme are the classic dispensationalists who view the church age as something of an unforeseen diversion in God’s dealing with the Jews.

I believe that the Bible teaches that none of these extreme views is correct. God, in His sovereignty does have a plan for the ethnic Jews. They are not saved apart from Christ. Israel, in the New Testament often but not always refers to the church. And there is nothing in scripture supporting the idea that God will remove the parenthetic church and install a Jewish theocracy.

In my opinion, a large part of the confusion stems from looking for answers in all the wrong places. It is not the classic prophetic books such as Daniel and Revelation to which one should turn to seek answers, at least not at first, for each of us has a tendency to conform biblical prophecy to fit our own doctrine. No, the place to start is in the book of Romans, specifically Romans 11. In preparation for a Sunday School lesson in this area, I will spend a few days looking at this text.

Let us begin with the first ten verses of chapter 11:
1, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, 3"LORD, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life"? 4But what does the divine response say to him? "I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.
7What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. 8Just as it is written:

"God has given them a spirit of stupor,
Eyes that they should not see
And ears that they should not hear,
To this very day."

9And David says:

"Let their table become a snare and a trap,
A stumbling block and a recompense to them.
10Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see,
And bow down their back always." (Rom 11:1-10, NKJV)
This passage describes the Jewish "remnant". Has God totally rejected His people? May it never be! Just like in Elijah’s time, there is a remnant preserved—how?-- by the election of grace. Paul could hardly be more direct: the elect includes not only the Gentiles but also Jews, which almost seems like a silly lesson given that it is coming from the Apostle Paul, himself a Jew, and an extremely rebellious one at that.

Later in the chapter Paul will go to even greater rhetorical extremes to warn the Gentiles not to assume that they have supplanted the Jews, but to acknowledge with humility that they have been invited to join the faithful.

So we see that, like Paul, Jews are among the elect. When placed in context with the rest of the New Testament, such as: Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:16) the most straightforward conclusion is that these (the remnant) are Jews who convert to Christianity. (Given that my maternal grandfather was a (Russian) Jew, I like to think of myself as part of this remnant!)

Those who would say that Jews can still be saved apart from Christ, as long as they are faithful, would have to conclude, it seems to me, that Paul would have secured eternal life had he remained the "faithful" Saul and never experienced his Damascus Road conversion.

In verse 6 we read: And if [saved] by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. Here Paul says the remnant is saved by grace, not works, and goes on to point out that the two are mutually exclusive. It’s grace, so it cannot be works, otherwise it’s not grace. We sometimes may dress them up as "works of grace", but those are not works at all, but rather grace working itself out, justifying to the world our otherwise invisible justification before God, which is based on the righteousness of Christ alone.

Paul is not criticizing the Jews for proclaiming they are saved merely because they are Jews. He is not scolding them for relying on their special favor before God. In other places Jews are criticized for this error, and are rebuked by John the Baptist: and do not think to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. (Matt. 3:9). No, Paul is criticizing them for a works based salvation.

Paul writes in verse 7: What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. Here we have a trivial example of a New Testament use of Israel that obviously does not mean the church: it refers to the ethnic nation of Israel. Paul tells us that the nation of Israel has been blinded, although the elect (by which we can assume he is referring specifically to the remnant, although it applies to all the elect) have obtained it (salvation). This conclusion holds whether you take elect to mean the predestined elect or the foreknown elect.

Friday, December 13, 2002

Evangelism and God's Sovereignty (part 3)

We continue our discussion of the "antinomy" of God’s Sovereignty and human responsibility. We return again to a previous discussion of the different types of God's will. Specifically,
  • God's Decretive or Sovereign or Efficacious or Hidden Will. (This is just one type with many different names.) These are things that God decrees; they most certainly will happen.

  • God's Preceptive or Revealed Will. This involve things that God will not do Himself, but that He desires of man, such as to obey His commandments. Man can and does disobey.
(There can also be distinguished God’s permissive will but that is not relevant for this discussion).

In other words, God’s efficacious will has to do with His plan, while His preceptive will has to do with His law. Scripture generally uses will without any attendant adjective, but it is nevertheless clear. For example, we read
Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. (Eph 5:17) and

Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. (Eph 6:6).

We understand that God does not decree that we understand his will, nor does he decree that we do His will (otherwise we would, in fact, understand it and do it perfectly), but he requires and desires that we do so.

On the other hand, we have:
he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—(Eph 1:5)
Where we have God’s Sovereign will in action.

We seem to grasp this conflict much better in prayer than in evangelism. We pray for someone to get well, while knowing that they may not. We pray for many things while acknowledging, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that we desire these things only if they are in accordance with God’s hidden will. (If we are praying for something in violation of God’s revealed will, something in violation of His commandments, we are truly in deep kimchee.)

We don’t very easily generalize this to evangelism. Yet in many ways prayer and evangelism are very similar. In fact, prayer is often tantamount to evangelizing (to) oneself. In both prayer and evangelism we try (imperfectly) to comply with God’s Law, and yet acknowledge that God has a plan (and it is a privilege that our prayer/evangelism be an acceptable part of that plan) which He will see to its conclusion, and to Him be the glory.

As I said, in prayer we have an easier time of this. In evangelism we struggle greatly. We speak in terms of our leading someone to Christ instead of presenting the gospel. (Note: we needn’t be sticklers about language—the phraseology "leading someone to Christ" is perfectly reasonable—though in our hearts we acknowledge that they were drawn, not led).

God’s Sovereignty does not affect the nature and duty of evangelism

First of all, we are commanded to evangelize:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them inthe name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matt 28:19)

We will be punished if we don’t:
Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Cor 9:16)

Clearly evangelism is part of God’s revealed will. And here is an important point: God’s hidden will can never, ever have an affect on how we respond to His revealed will. Oh how impertinent for the creature to say: You told me to do this, but that is for the "little people", I know what you are really about. I know that you have an elect that will be saved regardless of my efforts. I am in on to your little secret.

Woe to such a person—who goes by the unfortunate title Hyper-Calvinist.

There is a story about Spurgeon, perhaps apocryphal, that goes something like this: when asked why he didn’t preach just to the elect he responded something along the lines of he would if he knew who they were. It’s just a pointless what-if mind game, but if Spurgeon (who was a good Calvinist) did know who the elect were he would still be under orders to preach the gospel to everyone. So if Spurgeon did say this, in this context, then he was wrong in that instance.

Packer, in Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God, points out four specific areas where evangelism is unaffected by God’s sovereignty.
  1. The necessity of evangelism. As we discussed earlier, the normative process for anyone to be saved starts with hearing the gospel. This is independent of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. God not only ordains the ends but also the means. This is evident in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:1-14) which ends with the profound verse telling us that many are called but few are chosen.

  2. The urgency of evangelism. The scriptures treat evangelism with a sense of urgency, such as:
    "I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13:5).
    You believe in the elect? As Packer writes: It is wrong to abstain from doing good because it might not be appreciated. We are told to love our neighbor, not love the elect. Paul taught every man he could:
    We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. (Col 1:28)

  3. The genuineness of evangelism. God really, really, really does offer eternal life to everyone:
    We can debate over how one comes to call on the Lord, but nobody (but Hyper-Calvinists) can deny the offer is to everyone.

  4. The responsibility of the sinner. Scripture is clear that anyone who is lost has his own blood on his own hands. People are not lost because they are not of the elect, they are lost because they reject God (The Calvinist would only add "as would we all, apart from grace").
    For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:23).


It is hopeless to assume that we can understand an infinite God. Yet it is worthwhile to try. In the final analysis, antinomies, paradoxes, and mysteries abound. And not just for the Calvinist, but likewise for the Arminian (who must ask, why one chooses God while another, in a similar situation doesn’t, and what if nobody chooses God?). Yet we agree on the crucial point that God’s message must be told—Oh Lord, let ours be the beautiful feet that deliver it to the gates of a city desperately in need of good news.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

When was Revelation Written?

The postman just delivered a copy of Kenneth Gentry's Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Revised). I have to read this very carefully and critically: I really want to be convinced in the early-date theory of when John penned Revelation. That is a dangerous way to approach a controversial subject. It is easy to skew your analysis based on what you hope the answer is.


I am taking a break from serious blogging today. Just to post something, I am pleased to present the following for your consideration:
  • I received some additional hits recently because I was linked from a post on the erudite Joel Garver’s blog, Sacra Doctrina. Actually I was dissed, I think, but I am not sure—we humble reformed Baptists are a bit country-bumpkinish.

  • An important discussion of the merits of rival weather pixies started here, and was responded to here. You’ll never find a serious discussion of weather pixies on Sacra Doctrina, no siree!

  • Yesterday, on my Site-Meter referrals, I noticed three page-referrals from InstaPundit. Now I never read InstaPundit, although occasionally I’ll follow a link there, but I do know enough to realize that three referrals from InstaPundit makes little sense, you should either get zero or a gazillion. Out of curiosity I scanned his site and sure enough there are no links to me (nor any to Sacra Doctrina). So the mystery remains a mystery. I dinna ken 1 from whence came those referrals.

1 dinna ken is "Scottish" for don’t know. The name Heddle is Scottish. We were a peaceful, scholarly clan of weavers, poets, clergymen, vagabonds, weather pixies, and theologians, closely tied to the Knox clan, when we were overrun by the warlike and Arminian Campbell clan. The next thing the few survivors knew, when they awoke, was that they were in the hold of a boat to America or Australia and facing years of indentured servitude. That’s how my ancestor Dirk Struan Heddle made it to the New World.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

More on Dispensationalism

I have been thinking more about dispensationalism, and rereading Philip Mauro’s amazing book: The Gospel of the Kingdom (from which I will borrow). 1

As a reminder:

Dispensationalism is a system of doctrine which divides the history of God’s dealings with man into different time periods, called dispensations. In each dispensation, C. I. Scofield 2 writes:
A dispensation is a period of time 3 during which man is tested in respect to some specific revelation of the Will of God.

In classic dispensationalism, there are seven dispensations:

  1. Innocence. From creation to the expulsion from the Garden.
  2. Conscience. From the expulsion to the flood.
  3. Human Government. From the flood to the call of Abraham.
  4. Promise. From the call of Abraham to the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.
  5. Law. From Mt. Sinai to the crucifixtion of Christ.4
  6. Grace. The current gospel age.
  7. Millennial. This is Christ’s earthly post-tribulational millennial kingdom.

In previous posts, I stressed that dispensationalism is more that its pretrib, premill eschatology. It is about God’s plan for ethnic Israel. Its famous left-behind eschatology grew out of the necessity that God remove the church before turning his attention back to the Jews.

I am modifying my position somewhat. I now think that dispensationalism is inherently eschatological. This is related to its view of the present dispensation—more about that in a moment.

Dispensationalism is preeminent in American evangelistic circles. It is a new theology—newer than the theory of evolution. Being new always carries with it a heavy burden: why did this doctrine lay undiscovered for nearly nineteen centuries?

The questions that one must ask about dispensationalism are:
  • Is it fully supported by scripture? If so, we all should embrace it.
  • Does it have some scriptural support, such that reasonable people might agree to disagree? If so, it should not be an issue that endangers fellowship.
  • It is totally unbiblical, in which case is becomes a "various and strange" doctrine of which we are warned about in Hebrews 13:9.
The most radical aspect of dispensationalism is its notion that the current age, the dispensation of grace, was unforeseen by the prophets.

Here is the argument (according to dispensationalists):
  • The OT prophets foresaw the Messiah’s mission as a reestablishment of the Jewish state and a return of Jewish preeminence. This is the long awaited realization of the Kingdom of God: A real, earthly, political, Jewish Kingdom—a restoration of the Davidic throne.
  • Christ made the offer, but it was rejected by the Rabbinical elite.
  • God then postponed the Kingdom to some unspecified future, and quickly and parenthetically inserted the Church.
Notice that this view demands that 1st century Jews interpreted the prophets correctly, but rejected the offer. Having interpreted prophecy correctly, they inexplicably rejected precisely what they had been waiting for, (There is no scriptural account of the offer being given or declined) necessitating the postponement of the Kingdom. (One can only speculate what would have happened had they accepted the offer—no cross?)

Contrast this with the non-dispensationalist view, which is that the 1st century Jews misinterpreted the prophets. This is supported by such scripture as:
For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him. (Acts 13:27, KJV)
Which teaches, interestingly enough, that not only were the 1st century Jews mistaken in their understanding of prophecy, they unwittingly allowed themselves to become agents of prophetic fulfillment by their complicity in Christ’s death.

Non-dispensationalists also point out that scripture overwhelmingly teaches of the "nowness" of the Kingdom of God, such as: Matt 3:2, 4:17, 10:7, 12:28; Mark 9:1, 12:34; Luke 9:27, 10:9-11, 17:20-22; Acts 20:25, 28:31 (just to list a few).

Scripture also teaches of the Spiritual (or at least non-earthly) aspect of God’s Kingdom:
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." (John 18:36, NIV)

Mauro points out the (slightly chilling irony) that modern dispensationalists (at least of the classic flavor—when Marou wrote there were no "progressive" dispensationalists) are looking for the same thing that 1st century Jews looked for: The reestablishment of an earthly, Jewish kingdom.

Upon reflection, the fact that the current dispensation is an unforeseen "parenthesis" in God’s plan for mankind is what really makes dispensationalism inextricably tied to an eschatological viewpoint. One cannot imagine dispensationalism without its pre-trib, pre-mill expectation. In fact, although I know of many who claim to be pre-trib and pre-mill without affirming dispensationalism, I am finding it more difficult to understand how that view can be made self consistent.

1 The Gospel of the Kingdom, Philip Mauro, Old Paths Gospel Press, 1927.

2 The spread of dispensationalism throughout America is credited in large part to the Scofield Bible, which contains the commentary of the renowned dispensationalist C. I. Scofield.

3 This is in spite of the fact that the word dispensation is never used in the bible to denote a time period. It is used either in the “dispensing” of something (such as grace, in Eph. 3:2) or as an administration, stewardship, or economy (as in Col 1:25).

4 It is no small matter that the ministry of Christ, according to classic dispensationalism, occurred in the dispensation of Law, not grace. But that is for another day.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Evangelism and God's Sovereignty (part 2)

As we look at evangelism in light of God’s sovereignty, we must look at both the why and the how. Today we begin with the why.

We start with a familiar passage from Romans:
13 for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." 14How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" (Rom. 10:13-15, NIV)

There is a wealth of evangelistic doctrine in this short passage. Starting in verse 13 we read that Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. The Calvinism-Arminianism debate is not relevant here—that debate is about who will call. It is not disputed that all those who call will be saved.

In verse 14 it asks rhetorically how they can call if they do not believe? And how can they believe if they have not heard?

The message is as clear as can be: To be saved you must call, to call you must believe, and to believe you must hear the gospel. This chain momentarily sets aside, in an explicit sense, the issue of God’s sovereignty, and tells us that any hope for salvation requires that one must hear the gospel. The issue of how God’s sovereignty works in this process is debatable, but the plain fact is that without hearing the gospel there is no hope.

One can perform thought experiments about hypothetical elect who never hear the gospel, or those who die as infants, or "virtuous pagans", but none of these issues is relevant or even profitable to contemplate. We must at a minimum accept that in a normative sense, if you do not hear the gospel you can not be saved.

And that, is an obvious reason why we evangelize. Closely connected is the commandment to love our neighbor—what greater way to display love than to offer the message of eternal live?

We also evangelize because it is an unspeakable privilege. At the end of verse 15 we read How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!. The image is of the messenger of antiquity who ran from the battlefield back to the city to bring news of the outcome. If he brought the good news of a victory, the feet which delivered the message were said to be beautiful. And his job, strenuous and difficult as it was, surely felt like a privilege as he approached the gates of the city—assuming he brought a message of life and not a message of death.

And this is key—especially for the Calvinist evangelist: The point of evangelism is the message, presenting the gospel—that should be the goal. Having someone make a positive response is a wonderful thing, but it should not be the reason we evangelize. The message brings glory to God, the results are out of our hands. We proclaim salvation, but God alone saves.
21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:21-24, NIV)

That fact that God is sovereign relieves us of a terrible burden: God does not need us, and nobody goes to hell because of our failure to be convincing.

That God does not need us should be a simple lesson but it is hard to get it through our thick skulls. This may have been the message God was teaching through the unfortunate fate of Uzzah:
6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Sam 6:6-7)
God does not need us to prevent his plan from stumbling. He always succeeds in spite of us, not because of us. Yet it is His pleasure to ordain not only the ends but also the means, and means he employs to proclaim His good news is the preaching and teaching of the gospel, from the lips of the believer to ears of then non-believer.

Far from a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty rendering evangelism pointless, we find that just the opposite is true. Evangelism would be doomed to fail were it not for God drawing people near to Him. Left on our own, none of us would be successful evangelists. We are faced with two impossible stumbling blocks. One is man’s own fallen nature. Here is a little reminder of our condition prior to regeneration.

The intent of our heart is "only evil continuously". Gen. 6:5
Our "righteous" deeds are filthy garments. Isa. 64.6
Nobody is good. Luke 18:19
We cannot see the Kingdom of God .John 3:3
We are not righteous. Rom. 3:10
We do not understand; we do not seek God. Rom. 3:11
We have turned aside; we are useless. Rom. 3:12
None of us does good. Rom. 3:12
We do not fear God.Rom. 3:18
We are hostile to God. Rom 8:7
We are unable (not just unwilling) to submit to the law of God.Rom 8:7
We cannot please God.Rom 8:8
We were dead (not just gravely ill) in our sins.Eph 2:1
We walked according to Satan.Eph 2:2
We lived in the lusts of our flesh.Eph 2:3
We were children of wrath.Eph 2:3

The other little problem is that Satan himself is working on unbelievers
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.(2 Cor 4:4)

Man is totally corrupted. If that weren’t enough, Satan and his minions are preaching the gospel of this world to him. How could I, on my own, find an argument to persuade a non believer, given his terrible plight? I cannot. Yet I can be optimistic because I do not have to "win him to Christ". I hope to, but I don't have to. I present the gospel, God in his sovereignty moves the heart, and to Him goes the glory.
In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. (Is. 4:2, NIV)

Ironically, the Calvinistic evangelist can be optimistic. The Arminian evangelist has little cause for hope.

All questions about "who is elect" must be put aside. It is not our business, indeed it is impertinent to ask such questions. This is part of God's secret will. However, His glorious message is of His revealed will:
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deut. 29:29, NIV)

God is sovereign, man is responsible. God is our King, God is our Judge. God has a plan, God has given us His law.

Incomprehensible and indispensable. If we could understand God completely then he would be a god in man’s image.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD . (Is. 55:8, NIV)

To be continued.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Oaths and Vows

The Westminster Confession has a chapter (XXII) on oaths and vows. It defines a lawful oath as the occasion at which: the person swearing solemnly calls God to witness what he asserts, or promises, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he swears.

This almost seems anachronistic. Society certainly does not take oaths and vows very seriously. Recently I saw a commercial for an office product super-store. The actors were children pretending to be white collar adults in the workplace. An one point one of the "workers" laments that he can't do something fun (I don't remember what it was) during the upcoming weekend because "It’s my weekend with the kids". Divorce and kid-sharing are so mainstream that child actors use it as joke fodder, no matter that we are laughing at the breaking of a solemn oath, made before God.

The Westminster Confession goes on to characterize a proper oath or vow (I am paraphrasing):

  • It is only by the Name of God by which men ought to swear.
  • In weighty matters (marriages, court testimony, etc.) oaths ought to be given.
  • An oath should not be duplicitous, and should be understood by its plain reading or common sense interpretation. No fingers crossed behind the back or subtle loop-holes allowed.
  • An oath should never be taken to bind someone to sin.
  • A oath made to "heretics and infidels" is still binding.
  • No vow should be made requiring capabilities beyond that of fallen man. For example, you should not make an oath that you will never sin again. The WC gives this example: In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.

If you want to see the scriptural support for this view, follow the Westminster Confession link given above.

Society has so little regard for the seriousness of such things that, as I stated earlier, they (oaths and vows) do not even seem to be relevant in the modern era. They are made cavalierly, broken unhesitatingly, viewed derisively, and forgotten immediately.

Friday, December 06, 2002

Evangelism and God's Sovereignty (part 1)

In this recent post, I discussed an antinomy in physics, the wave particle duality. That was a segue into a discussion of a biblical antinomy (for the sake of our discussion, antinomy can be taken to mean the same as paradox): the sovereignty of God, and man as a responsible moral agent.

I will borrow heavily from J. I. Packer’s Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God. Packer begins his discussion by noting that everyone acknowledges the sovereignty of God when they pray. After all, it makes little sense to pray to a God that isn’t sovereign. Commenting on the ceaseless Calvinism-Arminianism debate, Packer writes: "on our feet we have arguments about it, but on our knees we are agreed."

He uses this famous conversation between Charles Simeon and John Wesley to "demonstrate" that on the matter of sovereignty we all are in agreement, even if we don’t think so:
(Simeon begins the conversation)"‘Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have sometimes been called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions, not from impertinent curiosity, but for real instruction... Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God if God had not first put it into your heart?’ "Yes, I do indeed.’ ‘And do you despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?’ ‘Yes, solely through Christ.’ ‘But, Sir, supposing you were first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?’ ‘No; I must be saved by Christ from first to last.’ ‘Allowing then that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?’ ‘No.’ ‘What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?’ ‘Yes, altogether.’ ‘And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto his heavenly kingdom?’ ‘Yes, I have no hope but in him.’ ‘Then, Sir, with your leave, I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is, in substance, all that I hold: and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.’"

Wesley’s reaction to Simeon’s declaration was not recorded.

God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are often apparent in the same passage and even in the same verse. For example:
39This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. 39And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:39-40) and

And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" (Luke 22:22)

The verse from Luke is particularly apropos: Christ’s death is according to God’s plan, but Judas is still responsible for his betrayal.

Packer’s basic argument is this: We must embrace the antinomy: God is sovereign; man is a responsible moral agent. God is our King, and our Supreme Judge. Deal with it.

He warns of the two errors associated with emphasizing one aspect to the detriment the other:

  • Deemphasizing God’s sovereignty results in Arminianism.

  • Deemphasizing man’s responsibility results in (a form of) hyper-Calvinism, leading to, in the extreme, a denial of the necessity to evangelize.
The latter error (rightfully) concerns Packer. Arminians are, to their supreme credit, zealous evangelists. Packer is worried about Calvinists neglecting their biblically mandated duty to evangelize.

The source of the hyper-Calvinism error is a deceptively simple argument: If God has an elect and all of them will be saved, why bother to evangelize? Why not simply trust in the sovereignty of God? Whatever happens none of the elect will perish.

One of the more famous examples of this error occurred when William Carey was rebuked in his desire to send out missionaries. The head of the missionary society denounced him, saying: “Young man, sit down: when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine”.

In this argument, God's sovereignty is properly esteemed. However God's commandment to envagelize is ignored.

This is hyper-Calvinism is in direct violation of scripture and leads to cold, dead churches.

Packer focuses on the how and why of evangelism in light of the Calvinist’s supreme regard for God’s sovereignty. He bases it on the sublime beauty of the dual message. In Chosen by God, R. C. Sproul says it a bit differently:
Evangelism is our duty. God commanded it. That should be enough to end the matter. But there is more. Evangelism is not only a duty, it is a privilege.
Sproul is absolutely correct. In the next installment, we will look at the nitty-gritty details.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Why are American Christians pro-Israel?

As long time readers (both of you, counting me and my son Samuel) know, one of my favorite topics is why Christians support Israel, or more accurately, I have taken exception to the widespread belief that we support Israel merely because of dispensational eschatology.

The current issue of World magazine has an article by Joel Belz entitled Why pro-Israel? that provides some data that are relevant to this discussion.

First of all, the data show that about 2/3 of evangelical Christians say their sympathies, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lie with Israel. (What is the other 1/3 thinking? I’ll leave that to the uber-pundits like Fuhrmann and Claybourn and Byron).

What is more interesting to me, is the reason behind the support for Israel. According to World, and citing data from Stand for Israel, by more than a 2 to 1 margin those Christians expressing support for Israel "tended to cite issues like military solidarity and democratic values rather than eschatological issues or Old Testament promises about Israel."

In his article, Belz also writes:
Indeed, American Christians' love affair with Israel is often much more intuitive than principled. Journalist David Aikman, formerly of Time and now at Trinity Forum, insisted that even dispensational theology has little to do with it. Noting how charismatic Christians worldwide-including perhaps millions in the house churches of China-tend to be highly pro-Israel, Mr. Aikman stressed that such people are almost always just following intuition.

Interesting point, especially about China, although I could nit-pick with Belz’s presumed distinction between intuitive and principled. Christian intuition is highly principled.

The article on cited from the Stand for Israel site is fascinating. Among the intriguing factoids:

  • 62% of conservative Christians who attend church regularly indicate that they support Israel, this figure jumps to 77% among conservative Christian men.

  • Evangelicals are most likely to indicate that they support Israel because of the strong relationship that Israel has developed with the United States – 56% point to the fact that Israel shares democratic values, is an important ally against terrorism, and is a safe haven for Jews from persecution.

  • 80% of Americans say that the enemies of the U.S., such as Saddam Hussein and Al Queda, are also enemies of Israel.

  • Jews are increasingly more likely to have a favorable view of George W. Bush, and 81% of Jews see Bush as a strong supporter of Israel.

  • 46% of Jews would be more likely to vote for George W. Bush based on the way he has been handling the war on terrorism.

  • The poll found that 46% of Democrats and only 45% of liberals– the political party most Jews identify with – support Israel. However, the number of supporters was significantly higher among evangelicals (62%) and Republicans (67%). Among those who oppose Israel’s policies, 38% of registered Democrats, 25% of evangelicals and 17% of registered Republicans stand in opposition.

This reminds me of one point that I always want to make with Jews and one question I always have.

The point: Do you understand that anti-Semitism in the U.S. is rare (compared say, with Europe) because of our strong Christian heritage and not in spite of it?

The question: Why do you [American Jews ] continue to support the Democrats?

Is some skepticism about the data in order? Perhaps—it may be politically advantageous to trumpet the notion that Christians support Israel for noble geopolitical reasons, not just for eschatological fodder. However, I suspect the data are accurate, and they much more accurately reflect my experience, in contrast to the simple explanations based on dispensationialism.

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Antinomy in Physics, Antinomy in Theology

The antinomy that is most clear to me comes from physics, not theology. It is the famous wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics. This is the bizarre fact that all matter, for example electrons, is both a wave (think of a water wave) and a particle (like a small bullet). That should surprise you, even if you hate physics as much as most people do. You would think that something, say an electron, is either a partcle or a wave, but not both. They are not, it would seem, compatible characteristics. Which is what makes it an antinomy.

Electrons (and everything else) are waves and particles—but not at the same time in the same relationship—no Law of Contradiction violation. Let me try to explain, using, as you would find in any physics book, the two slit interference experiment.

Suppose we have a source of electrons, called an electron gun. We fire electrons (keeping the gun fixed) horizontally at barrier with two small holes (slits). Behind the slits is a screen that can measure electrons. On the screen, we show a plot that records the number of electrons hitting the screen at that location. In effect, it gives the probability that an electron will hit the screen at a given spot. Where the plot is big, as near the peak, there is a big probability that an electron will the screen. Where the plot is small, there is little chance.

In the first round of experiments, we close one slit, fire electrons for a while, and see what happens. In the next round, we close the other slit and see what happens. We get the results shown in Figure 1. These should be reasonable. In the first case, the electron can only go through the upper slit, so we get a plot that is sharply peaked just behind the upper slit. In the second case, we get similar results when we open just the lower slit.

So far, electrons look like particles (bullets). Nothing wavelike is happening here. The electrons all go through the open slit and only found where we would expect, and are not found where we don’t expect.

Next we ask, what happens if both slits are open? In Figure 2, we show that experiment. The thin dashed red plot is what you might expect: just the combination of the two cases above. The thick blue plot is what you actually get. The result is very wave-like, as if the electron were a wave, and part of the electron (wave) went through the upper slit, and part through the lower slit, and then the two waves interfered (Figure 3), like if you drop two stones in a pond and circular waves from each stone collide and interfere. Note especially that you find a wave-like probability (called an interference pattern) that has peaks in places that no “bullet” could actually hit, i.e., no “line of sight”.

This cannot be, you say, each electron had to have gone through either the upper slit or the lower slit, but not both. But that is only true if the electron is a particle and not a wave. But maybe it is an artifact of the experiment—maybe there are so many electrons, some going through the upper slit and some going through the lower slit, and the so-called interference pattern is a result of complicated collisions among these many electrons. Alas, this is not the case, because we can reduce the rate of the gun to ensure that it fires only one electron an hour, giving each electron plenty of time to reach the screen. The experiment takes much longer, but if we wait long enough the same result, the wave-like interference pattern, emerges! In particular, as we watch the screen detecting one electron per hour, we notice that sometimes the screen records a hit where no "bullet" should have been able to reach. And other locations, which have line of sight back through a slit to the gun, never receive a hit!

Still we are not convinced that a electron can go through both slits at the same time, so we enhance our experiment by placing a detector behind the upper slit. We again fire the electrons slowly. If it goes through the upper slit, we detect it, if it goes through the lower slit, we don't. In either case, we know which slit the electron went through. Now what happens? Amazingly we have forced the electrons to resume behaving like particles (bullets), and the interference pattern is not formed, instead we get the particle like result of Figure 4!

This is all real. All these experiments have been done (in more sophisticated forms) and the results verified. It is said to be understood: If an experiment probes the particle-like nature of an electron, the electron behaves like a particle; if it probes its wave-like nature, it behaves like a wave. No experiment can probe both. An electron is a wave and a particle, but not both at the same time.

We say we understand it, but for me it is more accurate to say I accept it. In fact, at some level it is both incomprehensible and indispensable (J. I. Packer's description of a feature of a true antinomy). But that’s the way it is.

Does this have anything to do with anything?

Such is the case with God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. That too is an antinomy. As Packer writes in his wonderful book Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God (InterVarsity, 1961) God is both King and Judge, God is Sovereign and yet man is a responsible moral agent, man cannot choose God on his own, and yet is punished for his disbelief. Antinomy—incomprehensible yet indispensable. And, as Packer tells us, we must never set them at loggerheads.

As Spurgeon, when asked to reconcile human freedom with divine predestination, said, (as quoted by Packer) "I never reconcile friends."

So it is. This has been a prelude, more on this to come—I am working on a Sunday school lesson on Calvinism and Evangelism.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Catholic Calvinism

P. Andrew Sandlin has written many informative articles. This summer he published an article that was "all the rage" entitled Toward a Catholic Calvinism. I have been meaning to comment on this article for some time.

Sandlin attempts to describe three types of conservative, reformed Christians: Totally Reformed (TR), Barely Reformed (BR), and the newly emerging Catholic Reformed (CR). In the latter, Catholic refers to the universal church, not the Roman Catholic Church.

I appreciate that it is an impossible task to breakdown such a diverse group into three categories. However, I must say that Sandlin did a particularly poor job. Mainly, I think, because he wanted to spend most of his time describing the CR position, he created an inaccurate caricature of TRs, briefly stated how BRs differ, and then used the bulk of the article to explain Catholic Calvinism. That is understandable, given the purpose and title of his article, yet in describing CRs is where Sandlin truly fails, for, as I hope to show, he resorts mostly to empty platitudes. If Sandlin's article is your only source of information about CRs, you are left with absolutely zero insight in to what they actually believe. You will learn far, far more about CRs by reading some CR blogs such as this and this. (If by chance those I have identified as CRs object to the designation, I apologize.)

Sandlin starts with the TRs, beginning by describing the three avowed "enemies" of the TR: Arminianism, Protestant Liberalism, and Roman Catholicism. In the sense that he means enemy, namely as one whom the TRs believe is teaching an incorrect gospel, then he is of course correct.

Sandlin goes on to give this description of TRs:

TRs thoughtfully and rigorously fight the battle to preserve strict, confessional Calvinism; literal, six-day creation; male church leadership; the regulative principle of worship (only that which is commanded in public worship is permitted); Presbyterian church polity (government by elders); the soteriological doctrines of sovereign grace (the so-called Five Points of Calvinism);

In my experience, TRs are not monolithic about all these topics (although about sovereign grace, yes, even though the TULIP acrostic is so "last millennium"). In particular there is great diversity on preserving strict, confessional Calvinism (otherwise there could be no reformed Baptists), literal six day creation and the regulative principle. By this definition I am not a TR. Neither is Francis Schaeffer. Nor even the poster child for the TRs: R.C. Sproul.

He is mostly correct that TRs oppose dialog with Roman Catholicism (until The Roman Catholic Church revokes her anathemas of the solas). Even here, however, it is easy to find exceptions to his generalizations—for example, we think of J.I. Packer and his participation in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).

Sandlin writes that 'The TRs, it should be mentioned, are highly suspicious of any doctrinal or theological development later than the seventeenth century'. Again, true enough—although I would say this is a feature, not a bug. And TRs are not absolute about this—otherwise you would be hard pressed to explain the devotion to Jonathan Edwards and Francis Schaeffer (just to name two) that you find in many TRs.

I remember when Sandlin’s article first came out Joel Garver made a comment to me somewhat along the lines of "So I suppose you are a TR". I told him that I didn't know. A more accurate response would have been: yes, but not according to Sandlin's description.

On the BRs, Sandlin spends little time. He describes them as 'more interested in an irenic denomination and warm-hearted Christianity than in haggling over theological niceties'. In other words, they are not dogmatists like the TRs. Sandlin lauds the BRs evangelical zeal, but later adds 'we [the CRs] do not believe that the BRs often understand or at least preach and teach that gospel in its Biblical fullness'.

The Catholic Reformed

Sandlin then launches into what he calls a description of his own view, the recently emerging Catholic Reformed. Here the article deteriorates, for while Sandlin can be excused for stereotyping TRs and BRs, given the brevity of his essay, he at least ought to have something substantive to say about what CRs stand for—for example their view on justification and how it differs from a TR’s view. Instead we get platitudes such as:

  • we do not wish to throw overboard the great gains of the pre-Reformation period — the patristic and medieval eras. We do not wish to perpetuate the errors of those eras, but neither do we wish to perpetuate what we believe to be certain errors of the Reformation era.

  • CRs are committed to the fact of theological and dogmatic development.

  • We [CRs] do not believe that the Bible contradicts orthodox Christianity.

  • Part of that practicality is the calling to charity toward our brothers. And we CR’s believe that this has been grievously lacking in much of the Reformed camp, whether TR or BR.

  • We do not see Reformed orthodoxy as the foundation of Christianity. We see Jesus Christ as the foundation of Christianity.

  • We [CRs] do not claim to possess all of the truth, and we are willing to find Biblical truth wherever it is located. We do not believe that Calvinists hold a monopoly on Christian truth.

  • We are further Reformed in that we do not believe that the need for reformation ended in 1540. We believe in ecclesia reformata quia semper reformanda est — “the church reformed because it must always be reforming.”

  • The Bible alone is our final authority. We must champion — and practice — sola Scriptura.

These descriptions are essentially worthless—any person claiming to be Reformed-- TR, BR or CR would affirm each of them. (As for the paucity of charity, if Sandlin thinks that it is only a problem for TRs and BRs, I can show him a few uplifting comments on my blog and some below-the-belt posts on other blogs that should alert him to the fact that it can also be a problem for the CRs).

The bottom line is that Sandlin’s article is nothing more than a Goldilocks argument. The TRs are too cold with their dogmatism. The BRs are too hot with their commendable quest for souls-- as they suffer from preaching an abbreviated gospel. The CRs are just right.

I would like to offer another definition of TRs that Sandlin could have used, and from which he could have based an informative essay on the Catholic Reformed. Now, this is only my definition, no other TR may agree. I speak for no one—I get a measly 100 hits a day, the majority of which disagree with me.

I would say that TRs are those who elevate the solas of the Reformation: faith-alone, grace-alone, Christ-alone, and scripture-alone into the rarefied domain of Christian essentials, about which there can be no deviation without slipping into apostasy. This explains our general disdain for ecumenical dialog with Roman Catholics. And, up to now, we are unconvinced that anyone has demonstrated anything substantively incorrect with either the Reformer's teachings on the solas or with our understanding of what the Reformers taught. We are willing to listen (and yes, more charity is in order), but the burden of proof is on those who would say that our views are in need of an overhaul.

That is, I think, a fair description of TRs. Not the Ichabod Crane caricature that Sandlin presents. And I think it would be a great place from which to start a discussion of the CR position that was more than one dimensional.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Historic Premillennialism

There is a somewhat forgotten child in the millennial debates: historic premillennialism. This eschatology shares many features with its more famous competitor: dispensational premillennialism. In particular, the basic chronology is very similar:

  • The present age will end under deteriorating social conditions.
  • The antichrist will make his appearance on the world scene.
  • There will be a tribulation period.
  • The tribulation will end with Christ’s return, where the antichrist is judged, and the righteous are resurrected.
  • Satan will be bound, and an earthly millennial kingdom, ruled by Christ, will be established. This will be an unprecedented time of peace on earth.
  • At the end of the millennial kingdom Satan will be loosed. There will be a brief rebellion that will be crushed. This is followed by a general resurrection the eternal state.

The main eschatological difference, as we will discuss, is the question of when the rapture occurs relative to the great tribulation.

However, before looking into that, it is worth noting that the differences under the hood are far more important and substantive than differences in end-time chronology. Unlike dispensationalists, historic pre-mills generally do consider the church to be the new Israel, and see many Old Testament promises as being fulfilled in her. They do not view the church as a parenthesis interrupting God’s plan for the Jews. As such, they envision the (earthly) millennial kingdom much differently; as Christ reigning over a spiritual kingdom of righteous believers rather than a type of Jewish theocracy that more characterizes the dispensationalist’s perspective.

There is a well established trend in evangelical academic circles to move away from classic dispensationalism. Many of those "dropouts" are adopting historic premillennialism. This may be resulting in what is detectable-- but still too early to declare as an absolute: that dispensationalism has reached its acme, not just in the seminaries but also in the pews. It will take at least another decade to see if the trend is real or just a perturbation.

When is the rapture?

The main superficial differences between the two premillennial views comes in the timing of the rapture and its nature. Almost all dispensational pre-mills look for a pretribulational rapture, whereby believers are taken away, off to enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, while the earth endures the seven year tribulation. For the historic pre-mills, the rapture, which takes place after the tribulation (which may or may not have been seven years) is viewed more as a welcoming party sent to greet the king outside the gates, and escort him back to establish the millennial earthly kingdom.

Thus the dispensational pre-mills see the church as being spared from the tribulation, while the historic pre-mills claim the church will be present during the tribulation, but will be spared the brunt of it. (Rev 3:10, 7:15).

Historic pre-mills make this claim: Some of the Parousia texts obviously place the second coming after the rapture. None "obviously"place it before. The rest are neutral. The shoe-horning of the rapture in front of the tribulation is done, so they claim, to accommodate the dispensationalist’s view of God’s desire to return His attention to the ethnic Jews.

One passage used to support a post-tribulation rapture is from the Olivet discourse:
21For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again. 22If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. (Matt. 24:21-22, NIV)

The historic and dispensational pre-mills have different "glorious" hopes: The dispensationalists looks for the rapture to whisk away the faithful in glory and spare them of the tribulation. The historic pre-mill looks to the second coming to end the tribulation and initiate the millennial kingdom.

Now don’t shoot me about any of this, I’m just the messenger. I don’t agree with either position!

And yes, I know, there are also those pesky mid-tribulation rapture types…