Friday, December 25, 2015

Hail the Sun of Righteousness

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
(Beginning lines of 3rd stanza of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing")

One Christmas carol that is much beloved has been the hymn "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Proclaiming the glories of the incarnate God-man, this song has an upbeat melody appropriate for celebrating the birth of the Messiah, a tune which, unlike many older tunes, has managed to transcend the worship wars altogether.

It has however come to my surprise that some modern renditions of this classic hymn has subtly changed the lyrics. In the second line of the third stanza, the original wording is "Hail the Sun of Righteousness," while the altered wording has "Hail the Son of Righteousness." Obviously, the new wording is in some sense easier to understand, but that is rather besides the point. The point is that whoever did the alteration has given no indication whatsoever that he understands the original intent of the words and its allusion to biblical texts, which is sad considering how much richer the meaning of the original wording is.

The beginning lines of the third stanza allude to a certain verse in the "obscure" Minor Prophets, namely Malachi 4:2

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

As the third line in the third stanza states, Christ is risen "with healing in His wings," an expression that clearly comes from Malachi 4:2. The clauses in the beginning lines of stanza 3 were meant to point to Jesus as the "Sun of Righteousness" who fulfills Malachi 4:2. Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness bringing healing to the people. Jesus is the mediator who will bring salvation and healing in the Great Day of the Lord. Jesus is the one who will bring us along to tread the wicked under our feet and right all wrongs (Mal. 4:3).

By the slight alteration of one vowel, all of these are lost. Jesus is of course the Son of Righteousness, for He is perfectly righteous and God's only-begotten son. Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf. But Jesus is also the eschatological Lord of our salvation, and Malachi 4:2 reminds us of that. Jesus is not just the son of righteousness, but the Sun of Righteousness, bringing the rays of God's favor upon His people, in the day of wrath and judgment.

In any celebration of Christ's birth, let us not forget the "reason for the season." The climax of history is not the incarnation, but the cross. The goal of history is not the incarnation, but the Second Coming of Christ for His people. Both are important, so let us remember those even while others think only of the incarnation

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Glossary on some NAR terms

The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a third-wave charismatic movement, might be new, but is neither apostolic nor a reformation. Earlier in my Christian walk, being ignorant, I skirted around its edges, to the detriment of my spiritual health. Hungry for more of God and without direction or a firm foundation, I nearly wrecked my spiritual life as I was drawn into parts of the movement.

Thankfully, God in due time delivered me from that nest of vipers and heretics. Yet, I know that the Singapore churches continue to be awash in NAR nonsense, as a look at what's on offer in many a "Christian bookstore" would show. Books by heretics Bill Johnson, Kris Valloton, Dutch Sheets and Cindy Jacobs clutter the shelves, sharing space with books by Word-faith heretics like Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. To say that Singapore Christianity is sick is an understatement; terminal illness might fit the situation better. Or you could try "dead."

I have recently just read a book on the NAR, entitled God's Super Apostles by R. Douglas Geivett and Holy Pivec. While brief, this book does deal with some of the nonsense in the NAR. At the end of book on pages 143-7, they wrote a glossary for common NAR terms, and some of these I would like to share here with you all.

Activation: A NAR teaching that miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, such a healing and prophesying, can be activated (or released) in individuals who embrace new truths that have been revealed by NAR apostles and prophets

Dominionism: A NAR teaching that the church must yield to the authority of modern-day apostles and prophets to whom God has given new strategies to advance his kingdom

Manifest Sons of God: A NAR teaching that those who follow the end-times apostles and prophets will become manifest (or revealed) as sons of God, patterned after the original Son of God, Jesus Christ. They will work the same miracles—and even greater miracles— than Jesus did. Those who embrace extreme expressions of this teaching believe they’ll continue to grow in miraculous power until they execute God’s judgments on earth and overcome sickness and death

Many-membered man-child: A NAR teaching that the church, under the leadership of end-time apostles and prophets, will become a type of corporate Christ—a literal extension of the incarnation of Christ on earth

Workplace apostles: NAR apostles who govern what they call the church in the workplace—that is, they govern the Christians who work in various sectors of society, like business, media, and government

Monday, December 14, 2015

A failure in reckoning with theodicy

.... If one begins with the biblical drama, in which a broken covenant lies at the very center of a crime scene, the problem takes on deeply personal and historical overtones. According to this plot, God was in no way obligated to rescue the creature, ..

So when this drama is the context for theodicy, the tables are turned. Instead of God being on trial, it is the creature who is arraigned and questioned. ... And now the problem of evil, though not solved in our minds, is overwhelmed by the problem of good. (Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, p. 93)

As per my effort to finish Horton's 4-volume dogmatics, I decided to go back and scan through the first book in the series which I had read earlier as part of my MDiv course requirement, in preparation for an upcoming blog post. In the process, I found this discussion on theodicy, which I would like to comment upon.

Horton's reply to the question of theodicy is to thrust it back unto the questioner as not a question concerning evil but a question concerning good. In rhetoric, it is similar to how the Apostle Paul argues in Romans 9. This of course is a valid answer, but it is a valid answer to the question as to "why bad things happen to good people." It is a valid answer to anyone who think they deserve anything good from God. Unfortunately, it is not a valid answer to the actual question of theodicy, which this section is supposed to tackle.

The question of theodicy deals with the character of God as being one that is wholly good and pure and righteous. Answering that we as fallen creatures have the problem of good does not however addresses why God is only good. It might be that humans deserve evil, but at the same time God could be evil also. In other words, the two issues, while related, are distinct and independent of each other. Solving the question for humans does not solve the problem for God.

Ultimately of course, the origin of evil is shrouded in mystery, yet mystery only implies that it is impossible for us to fully comprehend the issue, not that it is necessarily impossible to have a partial solution. Since God is supremely logical, there are no contradictions and the problem can have a plausible partial solution. It seems to me that such a solution can be seen in this: God is good, evil came through the creature's free agency, which in its free prelapsarian state have the potential to do right or to sin. Since evil is the absence of good, sin comes about by the absence of God's strength to do right. God is not culpable because He is under no obligation to positively aid any creature.

This of course is a plausible theodicy, to be held tentatively as all inferences from Scripture into the deeper things of God are to be held. Yet this is a better explanation compared with the non-explanation in Covenant and Eschatology, which sadly does not reckon properly with the problem of theodicy.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Effectual calling and Regeneration: A pushback against a criticism

Therefore, why do we need to posit a distinct work of grace prior to an external Word, particularly when the New Testament typically relates the new birth to that Word? In my view, this distinction between regeneration apart from means and effectual calling through the Word is both exegetically untenable and theological unnecessary. Although the distinction between a general call and an effectual call (regeneration) can be easily sustained by exegesis, a further distinction between regeneration (unmediated) and effectual calling (mediated) seems to contradict the explicit references to regeneration by the Word cited above. (Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, 238)

Effectual calling is the term used to describe God's special calling to the elect that will bring them into salvation. Regeneration is the term used to describe the internal change within a person that results in the person having a new heart so that he can respond in faith to the Gospel. Dr. Horton in his book however argues that we shouldn't have these two terms as two distinct works of grace. Utilizing speech-act theory, he argues that Gods effectual call itself creates the internal change in a person. He denies the idea of regeneration as an infusion of a new habit (habitus), seeing it as a vestige from medieval errors on salvation.

Traditionally, some of the texts concerning regeneration are passages like Ezekiel 36:25-27. It seems that the text is actually saying that God will put a new heart and put His Spirit in a person to change that person. This of course does not mean that any habits are infused into the person, for the Spirit of God is NOT a habit.

If regeneration is understood as an infusion of habits, then Horton's critique just might have a point. But if one takes the language of Ezekiel and thus of Scripture seriously, it seems that the focus in regeneration is empowerment by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not an infusion of any habit whatsoever. It is, to use Horton's preferred term, koinonia, through the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, since these "acts" are only distinct in terms of their logical flow in the Ordo Salutis, there is no necessity that the acts are in fact separate from each other. Effectual Calling and Regeneration can and do operate side by side even simultaneously, for the effectual call goes out to the elect whom the Holy Spirit regenerates.

Effectual calling and regeneration describes two concepts, and Horton's criticism against the term "regeneration" does not hold. Instead of removing a legitimate term, perhaps it would be better to understand the Ordo is a logical ordering of concepts, not a temporal order of separate acts.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Covenant Ontology?

It is one thing to argue for a covenantal perspective on election, justification, and sanctification — perhaps even other loci in dogmatics. However, are we expecting too much of a biblical-theological motif by suggesting that it generates its own ontological framework? ... [Micheal S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2007), 182]

Nevertheless, this union that we enjoy is effected for and in us not by an impersonal process of emanations, by a ladder of participation, or by infused habits but by the Holy Spirit, who gives the ungodly the faith both to cling to Christ for justification and to be united to Christ for communion in his eschatological life. Mediation is not a principle or a process, but is located in a person. .... (p. 183)

In none of the New Testament contexts (including 2 Pet. 1:4) does koinonia (or its cognates) "refer to a mystical fusion with Christ and God, but to fellowship in faith." (p. 185)

As a result, the New Testament writers refer not to a general participation in being but to union with Christ as the locus of our redemption. ... (p. 186)

It is not as if Paul has no ontology; for him "the ethical is itself ontological," which requires a "covenant ontology." ... (p. 204)

One of the electives that I had audited in WSCAL dealt with the topic of 20th century Roman Catholicism, a topic which was truly mystifying. I had wondered then, and still do wonder, why there is such a need to reinvent ontology, as it were. Supposedly, the problems with the modern world came about because of extreme voluntarism and a rejection of a realistic Platonic ontology, where earthly things participate in heavenly realities. Thus disconnected, the modern secular world had arisen whereby God and the divine is pushed to the periphery of societal thought, or even rejected altogether.

The ontological project within the Nouvelle Theologie and Radical Orthodoxy points towards the idea of ontological participation as methexis. Under this scheme, the (particular) earthly thing participates in the (universal) heavenly form. The ontological participation is univocal, in the sense that there is a quantifiable difference and not qualifiable difference between the particular and the universal. As an example, the church participates in Christ's body such that it can be said that the church in its essence is always spiritual, holy and sinless just as Christ is spiritual, holy and sinless. That is one of the many reasons why Rome can never said that she has ever erred, for as Christ is sinless, so His body must be sinless. Individual priests may err, but the Church as a whole cannot err.

That modern society is essentially godless is true, but why is a flawed ontology the cause of such godlessness and wickedness? For children of the Reformation, we know Man's problem is sin and rebellion against God, which is an ethical not an ontological problem. Both Micheal Horton and Neo-Orthodox theologian Bruce McComarck agreed with that analysis. Yet, Dr. Horton attempts to come up with what he calls a "covenant ontology." But if we all agree that the problem with humanity and its alienation from God is ethical, not ontological, why do we even need to have this category called "covenant ontology" at all?

Horton calls for participation in the sense of koinonia, a Greek term often translated as "fellowship." Neoplatonist ontology speaks of ontological participation as methexis, while Christian participation is one of koinonia, and thus a sharing of life one with another. According to Horton, it is explicitly not a mingling of essences, but a communion from the divine energies. Thus, this idea of participation as koinonia is his version of "covenant ontology" which underlies the doctrine of Union with Christ.

Koinonia is indeed what Christians are called to. We are indeed called to have fellowship with God and each other. Yet, I do not see why koinonia is to be part of any supposed "covenant ontology." The idea of koinonia is ethical, not ontological. When I have fellowship with a Christian brother over a meal, there is no ontological "mingling" or change of my essence and his essence (whatever that is supposed to mean). Nothing happens ontologically when fellowship between Christians happen, unless one party decides to take a knife to the other party (for example).

I understand that koinonia is indeed the Christian answer to methexis, for our salvation lies in our union with Christ rather than any participation in ultimate being. But it is also for this reason that the answer is to reject ontology as the realm to seek out the answers to questions on salvation, and instead put forward ethics as the realm we should go to. If one wants to speak about Christian metaphysics, I think a clear case can be made for that from the doctrine of creation and the portion of the doctrine of the Fall that relates to creation (namely the curse upon the earth), without recourse to redemption. Creation is creation; redemption is redemption, and the two should not mix with each other.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Covenant as sacred and secular

The PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) has always defined "covenant" as friendship, which I have always said is a ridiculous step to make. Even if we were to agree that a covenant with God is only about friendship, that does not mean that the term "covenant" is to be defined as "friendship." The definition of words are not to be defined a priori according to theological presuppositions or dogmatic concerns, but rather through its usage historically throughout time (diachronic) and within its particular epoch (synchronic).

The term "covenant" in secular usage is normally associated with the Ancient Near-East or Greece, thus the terms berith (Heb.) and diatheke (Gr.) are defined as to their meanings in dialogue with the usage of "covenant" in the ANE and Greek contexts respectively. In the modern day, the word "covenant" is almost not used in the secular context, with the exception of politics, where its Latin equivalent (foedus) has given rise to the words "federation," "federal" as applied to a particular concept of governance, namely, that of an agreement between two or more parties for a political union (e.g. between the country and its states).

The words "federation," and "federal" refer to bilateral agreements. They need not be between equals, like states are not the same as the country. Yet, it is an agreement complete with stipulations and sanctions, and for the purpose of mutual benefit. Of course, for these modern usages, the concept is more along the lines of a contract, albeit a solemnly entered contract. Thus, it would fit more with the Greek term syntheke rather than diatheke because it truly depends on both parties honoring the contract. Regardless, we can see how even in its modern usage, the word has preserved some elements of what "covenant" has historically meant, which is a solemn agreement between two parties.

I guess since the PRCA with its denial of common grace focuses exclusively on dogmatics, I shouldn't be astonished about its rejection of linguistics for theological discourse. Yet, while certainly Scripture is primary, yet Scipture conveys its God-breathed revelation in human words, and God does not create two different meanings for the same human words: one as they are used in the immediate culture(s), and one for Scripture. God could always use the Hebrew and Greek words for "friendship" instead of berith and diatheke if he so chooses to convey that meaning of "covenant," yet He did not do so. The meaning of "covenant" as "an agreement between two parties" must therefore be the meaning God intends to convey when He uses berith and diatheke in the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament respectively, and we shouldn't think ourselves wiser than God as to what God intends to convey when He utilized those words.

Creation and relevance

In many an Evangelical church, there are difficulties with regards to the relevance of Christianity for living life on this world. Christianity is seen individualistically for personal salvation, almost as a hell insurance policy. The "struggle" then is to show how the faith is relevant for this world, through "life application" sermons on a variety of topics like marriage or ethical issues like abortion and birth control, or even intellectual through gaining doctrinal knowledge. Since it is viewed individualistically for salvation in the afterlife, Christianity seems to be remote from this world and the issues of this world

To combat this seeming irrelevance, some churches have moved into social activisim of either the left or the right (e.g. social justice, "Moral Majority"). Others have a more holistic solution of creating a Christian "world and life view," christening various spheres of society into spheres where God's grace works (neo-Kuyperianism). Similarly, the New Apostolic paradigm mirrors neo-Kuyperianism, but in a more triumphalistic and spiritual (Charismatic), as opposed to intellectual and artistic, sense. All of these movements, which in many aspects are opposed to each other, have in common the goal of relevance of Christianity for this world.

What is missing in all these movements is the actual way the Scriptures have shown themselves to be relevant, which is history. That is why the doctrine of creation and doctrine of consummation is so important, for it locates the world as we see and experience it in the narrative of God's story in real history. Notice that I listed it as the doctrine of consummation, not eschatology, although they refer to the same thing, because of the emphasis I want to make. The emphasis in the doctrine of consummation is not so much on the various millennium schemes, but on the fact that the physical world we live in will have an endpoint when Christ comes again. On that note, the doctrine of creation focuses on the fact that creation is an actual historical event in real history, as historical as World War 2 for example.

We humans live our lives in light of some narrative, telling us who we are and where we are going. There is a beginning, and there is an end. The secular narrative that is spun out for the consumption of many is that of the Big Bang event as the beginning of this reality, and either the Big Crunch or the Heat Death among other theoretical ends of the universe. Humanity, like other life forms on this planet, had evolved ultimately from non-life, and we are still evolving, albeit slowly. As our evolution is from the simple to the complex, from single cell organisms to ancient primates to humanity, the expectation is that we are evolving towards some form of glorified humanity, better than the current Homo Sapiens the same way Homo Sapiens are superior to Homo Erectus. While certainly Marvel Comics' idea of mutants with spectacular powers are rather implausible in real life, yet they have the concept of the optimistic view of evolution's goal of humanity's future right. Homo Sapiens would one day become some version of Homo Superius, or, in Nietzsche's words, the √úbermensch. (That of course assumes evolution upwards, which is by no means guaranteed.)

The secular narrative provides a "scientific" way of understanding the "real world," as opposed to the "spiritual" world of Christianity. The first eleven chapters of Genesis have been relegated to "myth" through the "scientific" discipline of the the History of Religions (religiongeschichtlichschule), through comparisons to Ancient Near East (ANE) creation myths. So not only has secularism provided its own origin story as being the "real history" of the world, they have supposedly discredited the Bible's narrative of origins. Christianity has thus been relegated to the life and teaching of Jesus, and thus even if all that Jesus said and did were acknowledged as being true, Christianity would seem to a spiritual religion that historically begins with Christ (or Abraham for those who give credence to the Old Testament). Thus, the "real history" of the world follows the Big Bang Cosmology, and biblical history begins around 2000BC with Abraham.

As for the world's telos, Christianity with its doctrine of Christ's second coming can be acknowledged as being spiritual in nature, according to the world's viewpoint. It is after all for the afterlife in heaven, where the picture is portrayed of saints as being like the angels playing harps in heaven before God in worship. But secularism insists that for the "real world" the telos is that of the end of the universe. For humanity, the idea of continual evolutionary improvement gives rise to the project of transhumanism, a more practical project compared to the Marvel version of Mutants (or Inhumans). As humanity continues to evolve, we would slowly eradicate diseases and become more enlightened and live longer and better lives. Thus, we have the specter of terminally ill or dying patients subjecting themselves to cryogenic preservation with the understanding that they can be thawed and awakened in the future when a cure for their disease(s) can be found.

Now, much can and probably should be made of metaphysics in particular and philosophy in general. One can use the Cosmological argument to speak about the real existence of God, or whatever philosophical proof of Christian theism one desires to use. But all of these, no matter how valid or invalid they may be, are abstract and theoretical. For people living on this earth, we need something concrete. Jesus' death and resurrection is indeed concrete, but by itself it is like Mechizedek, without beginning and without end. Just holding on to the historicity of Jesus' birth, death and resurrection is insufficient, especially when wedded to the secular Big Bang and evolution narrative.

For Scripture to norm our narrative is to norm our view of this world. If this world is God's, then its history must be God's history of this world. Therefore, human history must be encompassed in the time between Genesis and Revelation. Genesis must be speaking of actual real history. There must be a real Adam and Eve, a real creation ex nihilo, a real Fall. The table of nations in Genesis 10 must be speaking of the origins of the various nations of the world such that it is theoretically possible for every ethnicity to trace its real history (not "myth") to one of the patriarchs in the Table of Nations, if they had the genealogical knowledge necessary to do so. This then is our true narrative, and any supposed "facts" or "theories" put forward in the name of "science" is either a false interpretation of the real data, or based upon false data. Similarly, the end of this world is exactly what is put forward in apocalyptic form in the book of Revelations. Christ would indeed come back to the earth and human history would end. There would be no heat death, no Big Crunch and no Homo Superius.

The modern strategy in Christianity is to situated the Christian message and make it relevant within the confines of the secular narrative. What we are to do however is the exact opposite, which is to situate the world and everyday life into the confines of the biblical narrative. Within this narrative lies the common realm, which is NOT a neutral realm which Kuyperianism hates, but a realm for everyday life. Neo-Kuyperianism treats the world as secular-needing-redemption, and therefore neutrality implies atheism, whereas the biblical narrative treats the world as God's by creation, being split into the ecclesiastical and the common realms.

Once we begin with the norming of the biblical narrative, then Christianity does not have to be proven relevant, for it describes the very essence of reality. Everything we see is created by God, everything we experience is providentially guided by God. We are living in God's narrative, not the other way around. God is the center, we are not. Is there anything more relevant about Christianity than this? But for all this to be the case, we have to recover the relevance of the real historicity of Creation and Consummation, and reject the supposed "findings" of modern science that say otherwise.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Against "Dogmatic preaching"

Preaching is the proclamation of God's Word by God's ambassador to people. True biblical preaching is the proclamation of God's Word from the actual words of God in the Scripture, for Scripture is the authority for the Christian mind and life. As such, it is very important how preaching is to be done, for, as the proclamation of God's Word, it is supposed to be authoritative, bearing upon all who hear it.

There are many ways preaching has been done throughout church history, some good, some not so good. But what I want to focus on here is a certain type of preaching that is practiced among those who focus on dogmatic theology, and thus the preaching can be called "dogmatic preaching." Such preaching often utilize a text of Scripture and exposit it based on theological concerns that have some relation to the text. In such preaching, the historical progression of revelation often takes a back seat, if taken into account at all. The text becomes a focus for theological consideration, and after the doctrines that have some relation to the text have been expounded, then application is made of these doctrines to its hearers.

Just as a caveat, this is not the same a preaching doctrines from the text. The difference is that dogmatic preaching downplays redemptive historical progression and concerns, if mentioned at all. Doctrinal preaching preaches doctrines that are shown to arise from the text, while dogmatic preaching uses the text like source material (if I may put it this way) for doctrines.

Just from the description and the contrast, it should be clear why dogmatic preaching is a problem. Assuming that the doctrine expounded is correct and orthodox, what is unclear is how the doctrine is actually biblically derived. The goal of preaching is to proclaim God's Word, but for that to be the case, what is proclaimed must be perceived to be from the Scriptures. But if one downplays the immediate context of the text, and omits the progressive nature of redemptive historical revelation, how can the doctrines being expounded be seen to be derived from the text, instead of being read into the text? If one flattens the text of Scripture such that there is no difference in kind when one preaches from the Old in contrast to from the New Testament, then the Scripture is used as a dogmatic source-book instead of revelation in history. Scripture loses its historical nature, and become transcendent (instead of revealing transcendent truths), as if the Bible were dropped directly from heaven to earth.

As a Westminster graduate, I obviously prefer redemptive-historical Christ-centered preaching, although not necessarily owning to anything and everything that calls itself by that name. I do not know if that is the best way of preaching, but what I do know is that, whatever style of preaching is used, the truths proclaimed must be seen to be derived from the text of Scripture. Failure to show how that is the case will at best not teach the hearers how to handle and interpret Scripture correctly, and at worst promote falsehood.