Does the Passover Demonstrate Definite Atonement?

At various point through the years, I have investigated the idea of “definite atonement.” As I’m now reading through From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective a few reactions have come to mind. I recognize the topic is broad, and takes in many different aspects of theology, so I don’t want to diminish the complexity of it by coming to some summary conclusions in this post. The book moves to discuss the scriptural evidence for definite atonement in the second section, and the chapter by Paul R. Williamson entitled “Because He Loved Your Forefathers: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch” considers (among other things) whether the Passover institution foreshadows it. I say foreshadows because Williamson forthrightly notes “while definite atonement is nowhere explicitly mentioned, [in the Pentateuch] there are certainly hints of the concept embedded within this body of literature.”[1]

One of the first he considers is the Passover. Williamson says:

“The amount of flock animal consumed was to be directly proportionate to the number in each household (Ex. 12:4), suggesting that each animal slain provided for only a limited number of individuals. Its apotropaic effects were thus restricted to a carefully qualified group of people within each household. Each lamb served a specific body of people and redeemed a prescribed household. Moreover, only those who actually participated in the Passover meal could find refuge behind the blood-smeared door frames (12:7–13, 21–23).15 There is thus no idea here of an all-embracing sacrifice, but rather one that served a specific goal for a specific group.”[2]

Williamson finds at least an impression of particularity, and limitation, but I wonder if he has imposed this on the text. The instructions to Israel were that they should be careful that there be no lamb left over, but the idea of limitation—there there is only so much lamb to go around—is not there. If a house had more people than a single lamb could feed, the instructions are, get another lamb, and create another family unit to eat that lamb. There is a natural limitation on how many people a lamb could feed, and Williamson seems to draw from this the idea that there is only so much atonement available in the Lord Jesus (?) But advocates of definite atonement have almost always agreed that any consideration of the idea is not because there is a lack, or an insufficiency in the death of Jesus. They almost always say that had God wanted to, he could have designed an atonement sufficient for all. The instructions are the opposite of Williamson’s suggestion. As many Israelites as there are, this determines how many lambs are needed. The distribution is “according to the number of persons.” Ex. 12:4.

Secondly, Williamson speaks of a “carefully qualified group of people within each household.” But where is this in the instructions to Israel? On the contrary, “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb.” (12:3) and “the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” (12:6) It is, rather, an indiscriminate group, an all-encompassing command—all the congregation and the whole assembly. What would fit here is an affirmation of the formula of Peter Lombard, the medieval theologian who is first credited with the explanation that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficient for some. It is easy to see in the command to the whole assembly a “sufficient for all” idea.

The other point Williamson makes is that “only those who actually participated in the Passover meal could find refuge behind the blood-smeared door.” Here, too, it is easy to see this as the exercise of faith, the very thing that those on the other side of the question from Williamson aver to be happening in the atonement. To partake in it requires faith. In the Passover, there is no merit in the Israelites, and there is no idea of election of some only. Later in the chapter, Williamson does expand on the idea that to be part of the nation of Israel alone was not enough to be truly elect. This comes as he discusses the covenant idea, and that there are those in the covenant, who are not truly elect. But whatever support there is for this in the history of Israel, it is not shown by the Passover. Why? Because the Passover is all-inclusive, and the distinction is not whether one is truly elect or not, but simply whether one is in the house. The Israelites who believed God’s Word were in a house with blood smeared on the door.

But we should also note that the Passover itself is not a general judgement, that is, it wasn’t all those in the house who were subject to death, but only the firstborn. Nor was it all the Egyptians who were killed, but only the firstborn. This further removes the rite from a one to one equivalency with atonement and redemption as Williamson wants to posit.

Finally, the New Testament clearly indicates the Passover as a type. “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.” One can run into difficulties in constructing doctrine from pictures, that is, from being specific about New Testament doctrines from Old Testament types. There is simply not this level of equivalency. In the establishment of the Davidic covenant, God tells David
“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (2 Sam. 7:12-14)

Solomon is thus a type of Christ. The Psalms contain this idea as well. But if we insist that the details of the type must reflect the antitype exactly, then we have this: “When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men.” (2 Sam 7:14) This was true of Solomon, but it is certainly not true of Christ. Seeking doctrine from types is thus fraught with challenges.

There are some arguments for definite atonement—but the Passover is not among them. Indeed, I think Williamson has, if anything, scored a basket in the other team’s hoop. The details in Exodus 12 would make a better case for unlimited atonement. I continue my study of the topic, and I know many writers and scholars I respect hold to definite atonement. I’m not there, and the Passover won’t get me there.

[1] Paul Williamson, “Because He Loved Your Forefathers: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton, Crossway, 2013), 228.

[2] Williamson, 231-232.

Is Holy Scripture Sufficient?

The expanse of 2000 years of Church history means that one is forced to be more precise and specific than some prior ages might have required, because as Thomas Schreiner has written, “controversy is the furnace in which clearer theology is formed.” Distinguishing between the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of it is one of those furnaces, and indeed, while both are doubted, there is a need to parse the implications of saying Scripture is neither primary nor enough for our knowledge of Jesus. I recently interacted with a few people on Twitter after something I said about Scripture. My statement was this:

Have you heard someone say that the incarnate Word is greater than the written word?   The only way we know about the incarnate Word is from the written word.

My intent with this was to counter what has become a common sentiment with some, that Jesus is greater than Scripture, and that the true Word of God is Jesus Himself, with an intent to downgrade the Scriptures as a way of knowing Jesus. Of course the Son of God is the fullest revelation of God to us—but this does not imply a contrast with Scripture. This is what I object to. I did get some questions asking whether Jesus is not known through the sacraments, or in the worship of the church. In these cases, it is still an appeal to Scripture, because the establishment of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are grounded in Scripture, as well as how we know how to worship. The person posing this question agreed that these do not represent different ways of knowing about Jesus, only derivative ways (from Scripture) of knowing.

An example of the position I am critical of is expressed by Brian Zahnd, in his foreword to Keith Giles book, Jesus Unbound. “With Sola Scriptura as a defiant battle cry there always lurked the temptation to place more weight on the Bible than it could bear, or worse yet, a temptation to deify the Bible and make an idol out of it… So while pretending to ‘take the Bible as it is,’ the fundamentalist reads the Bible through thick lenses of cultural, linguistic, political, and theological assumptions— interpretive lenses they are unaware of wearing.”[1]

(I cite Zahnd only because he has spoken publicly, but there are many others expressing the same or similar views.)

As one reads on, one sees that “placing more weight on the Bible than it could bear” seems to be interpreting Scripture in ways Zahnd disagrees with. Moreover, everyone comes to Scripture with many assumptions, including Zhand. Stating it as he has gives the impression that while others are blind to their own biases, he is not. If he believes this, it is as much hubris as he avers proponents of biblicism to hold. I am reminded of the illustration of the 3 blind men feeling their way around an elephant, each describing it differently. Every person only has a limited perspective on the truth, and we are blind to what we don’t see. What is needed is a perspective that sees the whole of it. Tim Keller exposes the folly of this, however. “The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?”[3] Are critics of “biblicism” alone able to see the whole elephant?

Identifying false dichotomies

Zahnd goes on to say, “we don’t start with the Bible; we start with Jesus and the church. Why? Because Jesus is Lord, not the Bible. Christians worship Jesus, not the Bible. Jesus is the head of the church, not the Bible.”[2] To say that Jesus is the true Word of God while Scripture is not, or is in some lesser sense the Word of God is to embrace a division that is both unnecessary and unhelpful. A variation on this theme is to say that it is the Spirit that guides us into the truth, and the Spirit was of course doing this before the canon of Scripture. Both of these positions create a false dichotomy that makes no sense. One wonders in saying, “Jesus is Lord, not the Bible” whether Zahnd means to affirm that the Bible does not carry the authority of Jesus, or that he is not, through the Holy Spirit, speaking in and through the Scriptures? The contrast Zahnd draws is a false one. The church he encourages us to start with has always believed Scripture to be the revelation of God not in contrast with Jesus,

Consider the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. At the conclusion of it, the rich man, in torment in Hell, begs Abraham to send Lazarus—dead as well—to warn his brothers. Abraham counters that they have Moses and the Prophets, “Let them hear them.” It isn’t too much to say that the rich man asks for a miracle, indeed, for a demonstration of the supernatural, of the working of the Spirit.

But Abraham again demurs, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:27-31) In other words, the Scriptures and the witness of them are able to convict and convert them, apart from seeing someone rise from the dead. The Scriptures are the means of conviction and indeed, conversion. What the rich man desires, the Scriptures are able to do, indeed, by the Spirit’s enabling.

The book which Zahn wrote the foreword to contains more such downgrading of Scripture. Keith Giles casts doubt on the idea the only way we can know God is through the Scriptures.

“If the Word of God is Jesus, and if Jesus now lives within me, then I have the Word of God inside of me. Maybe this means that we can know Christ the way we know our own voice, or our own heartbeat, because He is alive within us. The Scriptures also tell us that we “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) right now and that we can discern “the things that come from the Spirit of God…because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:15) and this Spirit is now alive within us.”[4]

Again the question is whether the voice we hear within us will lead us in ways that are contrary to Scripture? There have been many throughout history who have claimed to speak for God. Is Islam, with a view of God that is very different from what we read in the Christian Bible, an example of hearing God’s voice? Mohammed believed God revealed truth to him. Joseph Smith, too, received a revelation he believed to be from God. Is the Mormon view of God one we should embrace? What criteria would one use to determine this?

Giles also suggests, “not only can we all hear our Master’s voice individually, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit who “leads us into all truth” (John 16:13), as Jesus promised us.”[5]

But this is at odds with what Zahnd says in his foreword—that was start with the church. Starting with the church means listening to the witness of the church as to the truth of Scripture and of whom it speaks. Affirming that the witness of the Spirit within believers will work apart from Scripture runs counter to what the church has always believed.

The Edge Cases: We shouldn’t make the exception the rule

I want to say a word about those views which I believe are the edge cases, but don’t represent any kind of commonly held position among evangelicals, and which may in fact be little more than poor expressions of a truth. A friend tweeted that “the Bible is not God”—and promptly got a few people who did insist no, “the Bible IS God.” I think these people are, in the main, likely expressing a view on the authority of Scripture, but expressing it very poorly indeed. They know that Scripture is God’s Word, and want to affirm that, but to say the Bible is God is nonsense. Consider a legal affidavit that is signed and notarized, specifying the wishes of one who issued it. Assume it is for the disbursement of funds, yet the agent will not accept the affidavit, wanting to hear from the owner himself. We would say that the affidavit carries all the authority of the one who issued it, and in the affidavit, you do hear from the owner. I suspect those equating the Bible with God are trying to avoid such a situation—one, in fact, that Zahnd’s position can indeed lead to: Scripture is not as authoritative as God.

Moreover, I have doubts that those expressing this are in fact worshiping their Bibles, bowing down to them, praying to Scripture. It is as ridiculous as it is unlikely. This, too, makes me think that saying God is the Bible is but a ham-handed attempt to affirm Scripture. This is not to say we shouldn’t correct wrong thinking such as this.

The other edge case bears hardly a mention, but those who equate God’s word with only one translation of Scripture also fall into a kind of idolatry. It is foolish, but here, too, the solution is not to downgrade the authority or sufficiency of Scripture, but to correct this misunderstanding, while affirming what is true of the Bible.

Lord, To Whom Shall We Go?

When the disciples were with Jesus and he spoke some hard sayings, many drew back. He asked the Twelve if they also wanted to go away. Peter answered that they knew Jesus alone had the words of eternal life. How does one go to Jesus today for the words of eternal life? The eyewitnesses are long gone from the scene, and in their stead we have what Peter calls “the prophetic word more fully confirmed.” (2 Pet 1:19)  That Peter is speaking of the Scriptures is clear from what he next says. “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” (2 Pet 1:20)

Paul, also, speaks of the same sure ability of Holy Scripture to guide us when he says to Timothy, “you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:15-16) In both cases, Peter and Paul are speaking of the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament. If this power is there for that part of Scripture, does anyone believe it is not the case for the New Testament?

Perhaps the largest unanswered question with an approach that says Jesus is the Word of God rather than Scripture is this: Where does one turn to know about Jesus? Where do I find his promises, his warnings, his imperatives? How might I know him? Giles and Zahnd have no cogent answer if they dismiss the sufficiency of Scripture in the life of Christians. While they say Scripture is very important, they also repeatedly affirm Jesus is known apart from and outside of Scripture. But Jesus himself pointed to the Hebrew Bible as the foundation of what he did and said. On the Emmaus road,  he said to the two, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:26-27) The apostle Paul did the same, “I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass.” His ministry and message were ground in the Hebrew Bible. Here, too, we find no division, no false choice of Jesus or Scripture. Rather, Jesus through Scripture.

The approach that says we can or should know Jesus apart from the Bible, that we should demote its place in the life of the Christian, such an approach doesn’t solve any of the challenges in reading Scripture, and indeed, few deny the challenges are there. Rather, it shifts the locus where we look for truth to something other than God’s revelation in Scripture. Whether it’s the inner voice, or other people, these are ultimately not as trustworthy as God’s Word. This approach doesn’t clarify, it only adds one more voice to the interpretive din.


[1] Keith Giles. Jesus Unbound. Quoir. Kindle Edition., p. 11.

[2]Ibid. p. 13.

[3]Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 9.

[4]Giles, p. 43.

[5] Giles, Loc. Cit.


The Gospel is in Leviticus

“Moses and all the prophets” includes the 3rd book of the Torah.

It’s somewhat of an evangelical applause line to say that you’ve tried to read through the Bible in a year, but got bogged down in Leviticus. Brothers and sisters, I’d like to issue an appeal that we stop disparaging the book as some cryptic, impossible-to-understand work that we somehow tolerate because it’s part of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, let’s look at Leviticus as the rich trove of symbols and types of Christ that it is. A few things to keep in mind:

1. The book is not hard to understand.
Many give the impression that the words and language of Leviticus are so difficult, so hard, that understanding the book is almost impossible. It’s simply not the case. Our English Bible translations of Leviticus make it no more difficult than Genesis or Exodus. Are there cultural differences that we might not readily understand? Of course, but that’s quite different than saying the words make no sense. Much of the Old Testament is culturally foreign to us, yet there is blessing in reading, and striving to understand it.

2. Jesus himself ratifies our study of it.
In Luke 24, Jesus twice points the disciples to the writings Moses—which includes Leviticus—as christological.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 24:27

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 24:44

The offerings, which take up the first 6 chapters of the book, are pointing forward to the one offering of Jesus. He is the burnt offering, wholly given over to do his Father’s will, “a pleasing aroma.” (Lev 1)
The Lord Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses. (Lev 5, the trespass offering.) Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Lev 17:11) is gospel truth, and it is here in Leviticus.

3. Other parts of the New Testament reinforce Leviticus as christological.
By contrast, we learn that what the high priest does on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23), Jesus has done once for all.
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Heb 9:25-26)
Indeed, one can make that the case that a clear understanding of the book of Hebrews, and the truths it means to convey (all the “betters”) is only possible when we understand the things Leviticus sets forth.

There are certainly parts of the book that have to do with the life of Israel in the land, but even then, we can still draw lessons. God is interested in the holiness of his people, that they keep separate from sin.
If you stop reading once you reach the end of Exodus, you’re missing out on some truth the Holy Spirit wants to teach you.

How Much Does God Know?

A brief inquiry into the open view of God

I commented recently on the problems with open theism, and in response, someone recommended Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible as a good summary of the view. Having read the book, I want to interact with some of what Boyd says to explain that the future is partly settled, and partly open. First, I commend Boyd on dealing with the text of Scripture, rather than philosophical or confessional presuppositions. It is too often the case that people reject something because it clashes with what they’ve been told, with a received tradition, rather than with Scripture. Boyd attempts to honestly deal with the texts and to make sense of them.

I should also state that my understanding of God’s knowledge is not fatalistic or deterministic. (But I’m less concerned to align with the labels as they exist.) Boyd notes the implications of the extent of God’s control over every detail of life and history, and that few people actually live this way, despite what they say. If one says that God controls everything—every detail of every life that ever has been, ever will be, and that these details are eternally fixed and unalterable, then much of what we read in Scripture does not make sense. Why pray if nothing is changeable? What do we make of any exhortation or encouragement in Scripture to change, to repent, to believe? Some would say everything you do has been in God’s plan for you from eternity past, from the clothes you’ll wear next Tuesday, to what words you say on Friday, to who you’ll marry. It is all eternally fixed and no deviation from this predetermined path is possible. If that sort of determinism is the position of classical theology, then I, too, reject that as inconsistent with Scripture. I’ve had conversations with some who present a deterministic view of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination in these stark terms, and if one expresses doubt about that view, “you don’t believe in sovereignty.” I’m not leveling such an accusation against Boyd, nor calling him a heretic, because I think that’s too simplistic and, frankly, lazy.

But Boyd often conflates God’s foreordination with God’s foreknowledge, a conclusion that I don’t think is warranted. In other words, God’s knowledge of what will happen seems, in the open view, the same as God’s decision that it will happen, and the human paradox that God can know what man will choose, and yet not force that choice seems not to be a possibility in Boyd’s treatment of the material.

Boyd’s work is non-technical, and intentionally targets a popular audience. There is no problem with this approach whatsoever, but one can still bring in relevant material and arguments in a non-technical way. One piece of this evidence is “middle knowledge,” sometimes called Molinism for its first attributed proponent, Luis de Molina. Indeed, Boyd mentions middle knowledge, but only in a footnote in the final chapter. Middle knowledge is a complex topic in itself, and devoting considerable space to examining it here would, I think, take me off track. But this much is clear: middle knowledge brings a compelling perspective to the question of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination because it posits that God knows all possible avenues, while not affirming that God has foreordained the one that came to pass.

If, however, there isn’t Scripture to support middle knowledge, then we are back to the same philosophical presuppositions that mark much of the determinist position. One verse cited is Matthew 11:23:

“And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.”

Here, Jesus speaks about something that would have happened, had circumstances and choices been different. He gives an outcome, not theoretical, but presents it as factual, yet conditional. If Sodom had seen the mighty works Capernaum saw, it would have remained until this day. To the extent that this strikes us as a logical impossibility is part of the limitation we as humans have in our understanding of an infinite God. This is one reason I find arguments against middle knowledge (or whatever term we may want to use) not compelling. “How can God…?” is often a question that has no satisfactory answer for us, and when we do put forth an answer that satisfies, we often end up with a truncated theology.

One example is where Boyd addresses the age-old question of “why would God allow Adolf Hitler to be born if he foreknew he would massacre millions of Jews.”?  Says Boyd,

“The only response I could offer then, and the only response I continue to offer now, is that this was not foreknown as a certainty at the time God created Hitler. If you claim God foreknew exactly what Hitler would do and created him anyway, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the world must somehow be better with Hitler than without him. Think about it. If God is all good and thus always does what is best, and if God knew exactly what Hitler would do when he created him, we must conclude that God believed that allowing Hitler’s massacre of the Jews (and many others) was preferable to his not allowing it. If you accept the premise that God is all good and all powerful and the he possesses exhaustively settled foreknowledge, the conclusion is difficult to avoid.” (p. 98-99)

Boyd’s analysis makes some assumptions, but are they valid? Boyd must believe that the information we as humans have about this situation is exhaustive, or at least sufficient to make a summary judgment of the matter. But how do we know this to be the case? How do we know that our (admittedly limited) human knowledge of this situation allows us to make such a judgment and to pronounce it as the one that is inevitable or difficult to avoid?

Job’s three friends were similarly convinced that they had sufficient knowledge to declare the true cause of Job’s misfortunes, even though within the book itself we as readers see they were wrong, that they did not have all the information. It is not difficult to see cases in our own human experience where we jump to a conclusion we must later revise, precisely because we did not have all the information.

When human free agents are not involved, how are we to think of events? That is, when tornados, earthquakes or floods take lives, is this because God only knew these things as possible, but wasn’t aware they would actually transpire? The Psalms repeatedly affirm God’s control over the weather.

“By the east wind you shattered the ships of Tarshish.” Ps 48:7

“Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. Ps 135:6-7.

Apart from any possibilities in human agents, God controls events of nature. Seeing these as only possible, uncertain, is difficult to comprehend.

I readily grant the difficulty in making sense of the atrocities of human history and understanding how God is behind them—how, if sovereign, omnipotent, and omniscient, he allows them. Yet it is reasoning from effect to cause, and brings perils. Boyd’s view is that God is not omniscient when it comes to such things. He only knows them as possibilities, but he does not know them as facts. Scripture tells us of God’s knowledge and understanding, however.

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure. Ps. 147:5

He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable. Is. 40:28

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor? Rom 11:34-35

It is difficult to see these passages presenting God’s knowledge or understanding as limited, or consisting of the possible in some situations. Moreover, we as humans simply don’t have the eternal perspective that allows us to say unequivocally that we know what is eternally good.  We can import our ideas of what must be good and right into situations in an effort to make sense of things, but we can attribute things to God’s character that are untrue or unnecessary. We are uncomfortable with paradoxes, though Scripture gives us many. In the open view of God, things we as humans see as evil are not attributable to God, because God is good. Indeed, Scripture says

You are good and do good. Ps 119:68

but also,

Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it? Amos 3:5

How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory truths? I suggest that the open view limits God’s knowledge to an extent that Scripture does not support, but it is also likely that a resolution that ultimately satisfies us may be unobtainable here and now. One of the definitions of faith is the assurance of things not seen. A resolution to the question of how can foreknow everything, yet not foreordain it all as well is one of these unseens.

In Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the Temple, he prays this: “hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind).” 1 Kings 8:39.  Solomon affirms that God, and God only, knows the hearts of mankind, and that he knows them exhaustively. I see nothing in Solomon’s words that allows us to say God’s knowledge is limited, that he does not know what is, or what will be in the hearts of mankind.

One of the criticisms Boyd has for the “classical view” of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination is that it sees those passages that speak about God changing his mind or repenting as anthropomorphisms, only seeming to say what they do, while other Scriptures that declare truths about God are taken literally, at face value. This is a valid criticism. But, could it be that seeing God’s knowledge only as possible knowledge, not actual knowledge, is also a kind of anthropomorphism, an accommodation to our inability to reconcile that God can both know everything that ever will be or could be, while at the same time not having fatalistically determined these outcomes?

I’m sure some will read this assessment and say that I haven’t brought closure or clarity to the issue. That’s not an unfair conclusion. Given the information Scripture gives us, and the manifest limits of human understanding, I don’t think the degree of closure some affirm is possible. But given all of that, I’m also not prepared to say I know with certainty that God’s knowledge is limited. I believe Scripture testifies otherwise.

What Does Scripture Mean by the Word “Law”?

Context and salvation history help us see not all uses are equal.

The word “law” is an important one in the Bible, in the Old Testament, especially, but also in the New. If we read the word and always think it has a single meaning, we will be led astray from what the Holy Spirit is trying to say. Only by reading and comparing can we arrive at the various ways Scripture uses the word. What follows is a survey of these uses.

Law = Scripture.

One of the most general ways the word law is used is to designate God’s revelation in Scripture. Jesus spoke to the Twelve in his post-resurrection days and said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke 24:44.

The Law of Moses refers to the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible. Consider also what Paul says in Gal 4:21 “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” When he speaks of law, it’s clear Paul is not talking about commandments, for he goes on to discuss events in Genesis 17, long before the giving of the law. What we read later in the chapter solidifies this meaning of law as Scripture. “But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’” Gal 4:30. This is the continuation of the promise of Isaac as heir, again, long before the giving of the law at Sinai.

Finally, Paul writes, “In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’” 1 Cor 14:21. Paul says it is written in the law, but he quotes from Isaiah, one of the prophets. Clearly, then, he uses law in this broadest sense to mean Scripture.

Law = Commandments given at Sinai

We find a more constrained meaning of the word when it refers to the commandments given by God to the nation of Israel at Sinai. The Ten Words, or Ten Commandments, are the treaty stipulations between God and the seed of Jacob. Paul notes in Romans 2:12-13: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Here is doing of the law, and in the case of Gentiles, sinning apart from the law. Later in the same chapter, he asks, “So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” Rom 2:26. It is clear that Paul has precepts, commandments, statutes in mind when he uses the word law here. Finally, in chapter 7 Paul speaks of his own experience and says “I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” Rom 7:7. Paul does not say the Tenth Commandment, though this is the one he cites, but simply, “the law.” This demonstrates another important principle about the word, and its use. The law is a unit that cannot be divided in to moral, civil, ceremonial portions. Israel was on the hook to keep all of it, no exceptions.  “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.” Deut. 8:1.

Law = synonym for principle

Some doubt this use of the word, but there is a case to be made for it. Paul says, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”16 Substitute the word “principle” here, and it becomes clear what the apostle is saying. Think of the “law of gravity” and this is an analogy. Leon Morris affirms that, aside from the clear references to the Mosaic law, Paul sometimes uses the word in this more general sense: “In addition to these more or less straightforward uses of the term Paul has a number of other expressions. He can speak of ‘the law of faith’ and of ‘the law of works’ ([Romans] 3:27; NIV translates with ‘principle,’ and Hodge thinks the word here means ‘a rule of action’).”[1] Not all agree on the extent of this. Some, indeed, see references to the Mosaic law, where others assign this more general sense to the word.

Law of Christ = lowly service and self-giving sacrifice

Some want to make what Paul says in Galatians 6 as a kind of rehabilitated law of Moses, that being now sealed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are at last empowered to keep the law. But such a view does not make sense. Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Gal 6:2. Paul here links helping others, supporting others, bearing the burdens of others—not obeying the commands given at Sinai—with the law of Christ.  He can term it the law of Christ because Jesus’ death on the cross was the supreme burden-bearing. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” 1 Pet. 2:24 Indeed, even Calvin himself writes,
“There is an implied contrast between the law of Christ and the law of Moses, as if he said ‘If you desire to keep a law, Christ enjoins on you a law which you can only prefer to all others; and that is, to cherish kindness towards each other. He who lacks this has nothing.’ On the other hand, he says that when everyone compassionately helps his neighbor, the law of Christ is fulfilled.”[2] The law of Christ therefore implies no obligation to the commands at Sinai. If anything, it is a link to the new commandment of John 13:34.

What conclusions can we draw from this data? I offer a few.

  1. When we see the word “commandment” in Scripture, it does not always equate to law, certainly not the law of Moses. The Lord Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that we love one another as he has loved us. Two things we observe. Since it is a new commandment, it was not part of what God previously revealed at Sinai. Love of neighbor, even loving the sojourner was part of the Mosaic code, but loving one’s enemies, dying for those who were at enmity with you—this was nowhere in the Pentateuch. Secondly, it is standard that far exceeds anything we find in the law of Moses. Loving others as Jesus loved us is unprecedented, and it took the cross to reveal this kind of love.
  2. The law is not a standard Christians are bound to. Because the law as commandment, as treaty document, was given at Sinai only to the seed of Jacob, those who are part of the church, the body of Christ, are not bound to it. The New Testament makes this point repeatedly, though some still want to put Christians under obligation to the Mosaic law. Paul says that to be under the law is to be under sin’s mastery (Rom 6:14) and that we do not walk by the law, but by the Spirit. Paul says Christians have died to the law, and the place we now live (risen, seated at God’s right hand, in the heavenly places with our risen head) is a place where the law does not prevail.
  3. Those who are in Christ are under a new head, no longer bound to the flesh or to who we were in Adam. The law spoke to the flesh and to those in Adam. We can acknowledge with Paul that the law is holy and righteous and good, even as we acknowledge with the apostle that our life under the headship of Christ means that we have died to the law—both to its curses and commandments. The law still provides wisdom, and is part of God’s revelation in Scripture, so no one should think that it has nothing to teach us, but we need to carefully delineate what the law can, and cannot do in the lives of Spirit-indwelt believers in Jesus.

[1] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), 144

[2] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Calvin’s Commentaries 11. Edited by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Translated by T. H. L. Parker. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 110.

What Did the Jerusalem Council Decide?

Putting Christians under the law was wrong then, as it is now.

Acts 15 contains the account of the first council of the church, in Jerusalem. The topic was the law, and whether Gentile converts to faith in Jesus need to adhere to the Mosaic law. Despite the clear verdict of the council, there are still those who say that the Christian must keep the law. But just as it was wrong then, so is it wrong now.

The background to the council was that Paul and Barnabas had been in Syrian Antioch, preaching and teaching the gospel. Their work was not unnoticed.“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” At 15:1. Here we have an addition to the gospel, faith in Christ, plus the law of Moses. Circumcision came to be emblematic of law-keeping, even though it was given to Abraham. Paul was quite familiar with the law, and Barnabas was a Levite, so no doubt, he too was well-acquainted with the law. But they did not agree with these men teaching circumcision and adherence to the law as a requirement for Christians. “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them.” Acts 15:2. The matter had to be settled, and so Paul, Barnabas, and several others were dispatched to Jerusalem to ask the apostles and elders of the church there.

When the matter came before the council, “some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.’” Acts 15:5. Ethnically, these believers were Jews, and perhaps the weight of tradition, and of their life-long adherence to the law made them say that of course any who come to Jesus must obey the law he gave to the Israel. But the reply of the council was not along those lines. Peter, who was the first to speak the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10, arose and said
“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:7-11.

Peter says a few very important things. First, God made no distinction between us (Jews) and them, (the Gentiles), cleansing their hearts by faith. Indeed, one can see the argument the Pharisees were making as a similar one: no distinction between us and them. We keep the law, they, too need to keep the law. But Peter says the law has nothing to do with the salvation that believing Jews enjoy. It is not through the doing of the law, but through faith in Jesus that their hearts were cleansed. Just so the Gentiles, and God clearly demonstrated it by giving to them the Holy Spirit. Cornelius and all who were with him spoke in tongues as evidence of that.

Second, Peter asks why the Pharisees want to put God to test, by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we (Jews) have been able to bear. The Jews were given the law, a privileged position, but they could not keep it. No one can. Peter’s question is a rhetorical one, for the answer is, quite plainly, it would be wrong to put this obligation on the Gentiles since they cannot keep it.

I sometimes hear an objection that these Pharisees were trying to add the law for justification to the gospel; they were not addressing Christian living, walking in holiness at all. And for this, the law is still useful, still remains as something we should pursue and keep. But that won’t square with the text, nor with the rest of the New Testament teaching on the law. These Gentiles were already believers, they had already trusted in Jesus. The question was, having come to faith in Christ, must they now keep the law as a token of their discipleship? Peter and the Council answer in a resounding “no.” As James concludes his address, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” Acts 15:19.

The instructions that the council provides to the Gentiles aren’t stipulations of the Mosaic law per say, rather they fit more as Romans 14 issues. The Gentile believers should abstain from things that would offend Jewish believers. The four items the letter identifies fit into this category. But they certainly can’t be seen as law, or even as a summary of the law, because there is so much that is missing. One can make an argument that the Sabbath command is among the most important in all the law. “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations.” Ex. 31:13. Yet we find not one word about the Sabbath in the letter from the council. Not one word about ensuring that they at least keep the “moral law,” the Ten Commandments.

Whatever we may say about the place of the law in the New Testament (and there is much to say) one thing we cannot say is that believers in Jesus have any obligation to keep the law belonging to the Covenant with Israel at Sinai. Our discipleship in Jesus is not measured by laws that belong to the covenant with Moses, but by the example of Jesus—an example that went so far beyond the demands of the law, to love. But not love your neighbor as yourself, for that, also, is too low of a standard. Rather, it is to love one another as the Lord Jesus has loved us. Only when we contemplate this are we getting at the heart of what Christian discipleship entails.

Can Redaction Aid Interpretation?

Redaction criticism in gospel studies is a well-known discipline. It is the study of the selection and arrangement of the materials the evangelists used to construct their accounts of the life of Jesus. Redaction does not imply that inspiration takes a back seat, rather, that the Holy Spirit moved in the writers in a way that resulted in the gospels we have. The inclusion (or exclusion) of pericopes, the placement of them in the record, tells us something of the purpose the evangelist had. Redaction need not mean something nefarious, that the gospel writers suppressed something or changed things to make the events of Jesus’ life more acceptable. It is the Holy Spirit’s method of moving each of the gospel writers to record what God wanted to be set down. Redaction is a tool that allows us to consider the questions of “why this, why here?”

 Luke 13 as a “redaction as interpretive aid” case study

In Luke 13, there are pericopes that suggest redaction as an interpretive aid. The chapter begins with the story of “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” v. 1. Jesus replies with questions that point his hearers to an equality of judgment. That is, no one should expect their heritage or pedigree to count for anything. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” v 5. Any Jew, a descendant of Abraham, should not take comfort that this will mean they do not come under judgment.

From there, Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree. The fig tree and it’s fruit were part of an illustration God used in Jeremiah 24. The prophet saw good figs and bad figs, and God told him the good figs were the exiles whom he would bring back to the land, after the captivity, and he would again establish them. These were the Jews who humbled themselves under God’s discipline. The bad figs were Zedekiah and the other nobles who refused to serve the king of Babylon and rebelled. God judged them severely. When Jesus refers to the fruit of the fig tree in Luke, his Jewish hearers would think of Jeremiah, and if they are paying attention, draw the lesson of judgment for fruitlessness. Jesus includes this detail: “And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none.” v. 7.  Could this three year period refer to the earthly ministry of Jesus, the years he has sought for faith in Israel, but has not found it? The rulers and the Scribes utterly reject him and his message.  

After this comes wrangling with those in authority. Jesus heals a woman who had a disabling spirit, but it was a Sabbath day, and the ruler of the synagogue berates the people for “profaning” the day. Jesus rebukes him sharply. “You hypocrites!”  Again, official Israel is being judged, set aside. This is a “bad fig.”

Following this come two parables that appear out of place. That is, Matthew gathers parables of the kingdom together in chapter 13, where these two are found. By placing them here, after the material he has already included in the chapter, Luke is signaling their application.  He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” v. 18-19  

Some believe this indicates the growth of God’s kingdom to a great stature, and to have wide influence. But Luke has already signaled to us what the meaning is. In chapter 8, we have the parable of the sower, and Jesus explains its meaning to include “then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts.” 8:12. Birds of the air are not anything good, but they represent satanic influence, and evil. Having told us what the birds of the air signify in that parable, it is logical to see that same meaning here.

The parable of the leaven is the other brief one, and it, too reinforces the idea of evil influence in God’s kingdom, where good should have flourished. Leaven is always a symbol of evil in Scripture. I know some have tried to see this as the spread of the gospel, but the way Scripture consistently presents this rules it out.  Leaven is a corrupting influence. Jesus warns the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. At the start of Luke 12. He explains it to be hypocrisy. Recall the words he spoke to the synagogue ruler. “You hypocrites!” Here, then, in the parable, we shouldn’t expect leaven to mean something other than what Jesus has already told us; hypocrisy and an evil influence.  

By the selection of these parables here in chapter 13, Luke means to tell us something about their meaning. Not the spread of good and the permeation of the gospel, but a warning about evil and how Israel, which should have been fruitful, should have been true to her Lord, was not. The chapter ends with the lament over Jerusalem—a culminating event in the place of Israel as a people before the Lord. There is a setting aside coming, a judgment for their rejection of their Messiah, Jesus says. Indeed, it is not a final setting aside, God will again take up dealing with Israel as a nation, but the way Luke arranges his material in this chapter gives us important hints on what happens before that.

What are the Terms of a Covenant with Adam?

I previously looked at the idea of headship, and concluded that Scripture teaches we are under one of two heads: Adam or Christ. Jesus taught that his blood is the basis of the new covenant, and the book of Hebrews twice states that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant (“he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance”. 9:15, and “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” 12:24) A covenant of which Jesus is the mediator is uncontroversial.

When we turn to Adam, the picture is not as clear. Does the fact that Adam functions as the head of unredeemed humanity mean he must have functioned as a covenant head? I believe Scripture doesn’t insist on this. In Romans 5, Paul clearly draws the parallels between the actions of both Adam and Christ, but he doesn’t necessarily cast this in covenant terms. They act representatively, yes, but that has to do with headship proper, rather than with a covenant, or more specifically, a covenant whose terms have obligation beyond Adam himself. The question I want to investigate is whether seeing the covenant with Adam as a covenant of works which still binds all of mankind is a correct reading of the evidence.  To further define the question, some within the Reformed community see a covenant with Adam before the Fall, while some see one in place only after the Fall.

To consider the first case, many have pointed out that the language of Genesis 1-2 doesn’t state Adam’s position in covenantal terms. When God places Adam in the garden and tells him to dress and keep it, and says that of any tree in the garden he may freely eat, except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is not said “And God made a covenant with Adam.” The Hebrew word for covenant berith, is absent. But, the prophet Hosea gives us further information. God is speaking of Israel, but he makes a comparison with Adam.

“But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;
there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Hos. 6:7.

Does this verse teach Adam was under a covenant, and just as he broke the one he was under, so Israel has broken theirs? It’s not straight forward. One could read it thusly: “Just as Adam sinned, he transgressed the word God gave him not to eat of the tree, so Israel broke their covenant.” Stated differently, in transgressing the covenant, Israel acted like Adam: they sinned. The validity of the verse doesn’t require us to see Adam in a covenant relationship before the Fall to see comparison with Israel’s faithlessness.
Alternately, some believe “Adam” refers to a place, because of the second half of the verse. There they dealt faithlessly with me. Joshua 3:16 says “the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho.” Under this reading, the people of Israel dealt faithlessly with God at Adam. However, this view suffers from a lack of any other corroborating verses. There isn’t any mention elsewhere of a breach of faith at Adam, unless a rather loose interpretation sees Achan’s sin as occurring in the region of Adam. This seems to put too much weight on a paucity of evidence.

Still another view sees God entering into a covenant with Adam after the Fall, specifically when the protoevangel of Genesis 3:15 is spoken. Ulrich Zwingli’s understanding of the covenant reflects this view. Commenting on Zwingli’s Elenchus, J. Wayne Baker says that this is where Zwingli “most clearly stated his covenant idea. The new element here was that Zwingli commenced his discussion with Adam, with whom God first made the covenant, in the protoevangelium (Gen 3:15). The same covenant was subsequently renewed with Noah, with Abraham, and finally with the entire nation of Israel (Exod. 19:5), each renewal clarifying the contents of the covenant.”[1]

As it developed later within Reformed theology, the covenant idea became more refined, and took a different direction. Specifically, that God entered into a covenant with Adam before the Fall, in the garden. We find the stipulation of this in the Westminster Confession of Faith. “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.”[2] It is also clear that, after the fall (sometimes referred to as the postlapsarian era) and the promise of a redeemer in Genesis 3:15, the obligation to obey this law remained. The Confession again states, “This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables.”[3]

The point to note here is that the terms of this covenant with Adam are not the commandment to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The Westminster Larger Catechism sets this forth in question 92:

Q: What did God first reveal to man as the rule of his obedience?

A: The rule of obedience revealed to Adam in the state
of his innocence, and to all mankind in him, besides a
special command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, was the moral law.[4]

This comes with assumptions that have too often been taken as part of the biblical record. These include the “moral law” being equivalent to the Ten Commandments. Scripture never uses the phrase “moral law”, nor does it divide the law into portions such as the traditional moral/civil/ceremonial. Assuming that what God gave to Adam in the garden was the moral law, or the Ten Commandments, is to use historical theology to read into the text what is not there. Paul is explicit that the law came 430 years after the promise to Abraham. (Gal 3:17) Paul’s timeline makes it impossible to see the Ten Commandments prior to Sinai.

One problem with the way the Adamic covenant is usually defined in Reformed theology (as a covenant of works) is the way in which it flattens these covenant distinctions, importing into the new covenant what belongs to the Mosaic covenant, and making the law the basis of righteousness. Galatians 3 sets forth a time prior to the law, a time of the law, and a time when the law does not apply to us as believers. We are no longer under the pedagogue.

Insisting that the covenant terms God (putatively) gave to Adam are the “moral law” and are perpetual makes the law the basis of our righteousness when Paul explicitly says otherwise. “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” (Gal 3:21) I understand that the claim is not that our law-keeping is able to bring righteousness, but it is the law-keeping of Jesus—his active obedience—that is the basis of our righteousness.

But here, too, there is no Scripture to support this. The one verse that is often cited for this is Romans 5:19. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Reading “the one man’s obedience” as the lifelong obedience of Jesus to the law is problematic in two ways. The first part of the verse highlighted Adam’s disobedience—a single act. It is a parallel to see act of going to the cross as the obedience of Jesus. Indeed, Moo comments, “But the focus is rather on Jesus death as the ultimate act of ‘obedience.’ This is suggested by the parallel with Adam’s [one] act of disobedience, Phil. 2:8 (Jesus ‘became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’) and the consistent connection Paul makes between justification and Jesus’ death (Meyer; Dunn).”[5]

Secondly, it separates what God does not: forgiveness of sins and justification (or righteousness, since it is the same word in Greek.) They are viewed as one and the same in the New Testament. In Romans 4:25, Paul says our justification, our righteousness is based on the resurrection of Jesus. And in the next chapter, 5:9, we are justified, made righteous, by his blood. Nowhere in the New Testament is righteousness based on law, and Paul is frequently at pains to point out how it is absolutely not based on law. (Phil 3:9, to cite but one text: “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”) Not Paul’s law-keeping, to be sure, but also not Jesus’ law-keeping; his death and resurrection. This is what our righteousness is based on.
To be sure, Jesus sinless life of obedience is vital. But it is a demonstration of his inherent righteousness which makes him fit to be the lamb without blemish, not the acquisition of a righteousness he then imparts to us.

What then, can we say about a covenant with Adam? God bound Adam to terms in the garden, but the terms of it were only what he spoke to him there. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Gen 2:16) The promise of life upon obedience to the covenant terms isn’t as clear as Reformed theology has made it. Indeed, there was the promise of death upon breaching the covenant, but Adam already had life. It was not a new state to him, and prior to the Fall there was no death. As F. W. Grant writes, “If I open Genesis, I find no hope of heaven held out to him there, no idea of being raised above the estate in which he was created. I find no works enjoined for which he was to be rewarded; one prohibition only of a thing which would have had no moral character attaching to it, had it not been forbidden. Created very good, he was to keep his first estate, not seek a new one.”[6]

Whether we view Adam as in a covenant has implications for anthropology, but our view of what the terms of that covenant are has implications for salvation, righteousness, and how we understanding our position in Christ.

[1] J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Athens, OH., Ohio University Press, 1980), 3.
[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.1.
[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.2.
[4] Westminster Assembly, Larger Catechism, Q. 92.
[5] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1996.), 358.
[6] F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible (Neptune, NJ, Loizeaux Brothers, 1892), 220-221.

The Diversity of “Covenant” in Early Reformation History

Before there was Federalism, there was Bullinger

When one thinks of Reformed theology, it is usually the case that federalism, or covenant theology, is part of this heritage. But the history of Reformed theology isn’t as monolithic as some may think when it comes to the idea of covenant. Indeed, J. Wayne Baker’s work in Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant is subtitled, “The other Reformed Tradition.” What the other tradition shows is that what now prevails as Reformed orthodoxy wasn’t without its competitors.

Bullinger was a Swiss reformer acquainted with Calvin, but who’s views on the covenant were different than what later developed within Reformed theology. Calvin, and later theologians, conceived of the covenant between God and man as a unilateral pact. That is, that God is the ratifier of it, and the one who performs the stipulations of the covenant. Bullinger conceived of the covenant as a bilateral agreement between God and man, with man being bound to perform the covenant conditions.

How Bullinger worked this out in his own theology and how he viewed salvation history helps us understand some of what is behind the Second Helvetic Confession, a work that Bullinger mainly wrote.  It also helps understand the particularly Reformed flavor of Caesaropapism that Bullinger adhered to.

On the idea of covenant, Baker notes

“When most sixteenth-century theologians used the term covenant (foedus), they meant testament in the soteriological sense. Christ was the Testator as well as the promised inheritance, and the elect, the heirs. The idea of covenant as a bilateral, mutual agreement was often missing. Bullinger, on the other hand, used both terms, foedus and testamentum, to refer to a mutual pact or covenant. Although testamentum also carried the meaning of last testament and promise for Bullinger, God’s agreement with man included not only God’s promises but also certain conditions that man was obligated to meet. Thus, for Bullinger, testamentum was the broader term of the two: it included both the idea of promise and the meaning of foedus, mutual agreement or pact.”[1]

That Bullinger did not have the covenant as a primarily soteriological entity in his thought means that he viewed it as a way of administering society, a society where the boundaries of church and state were very porous indeed. So bound was he to the idea of a covenantal society that Bullinger believed everything needed to order society was to be found in the Old Testament, and in the law.

Marcion is notorious as a heretic of the early centuries who drew such a sharp distinction between old and new testaments, that he dispensed with the old as unnecessary, as antithetical to the ethics of the New Testament.

Bullinger manifests the opposite tendency. That is, he was convinced that the Old Testament contains everything Christians need, believing that God published no New Covenant, but only a ratification of the Old.

“Since all things become clear and complete in Christ, He spoke of a new testament. But he made no new covenant: ‘Now therefore when Christ calls this cup a new testament, no on shall imagine that God began a new covenant with the human race.’ Rather, it meant that Christ renewed and sealed the covenant with His death.”[2]

The other notable difference in Bullinger’s covenantal views is that he articulates no covenant of works with Adam. He does speak of a covenant with Adam, but it is a postlapsarian covenant, in Genesis 3:15, the proto-evangel. A covenant of works with Adam is a central feature of the Federal theology of later decades.  Weir summarizes the differences between what we now call federal theology and the “other tradition.”

Calvin and the Genevan theologians

  1. The covenant is unilateral.
  2. The covenant is God’s unconditional promise to man.
  3. The burden of fulfilling the covenant rests on God.
  4. The covenant is fulfilled in Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Rhineland theologians

  1. The covenant is bilateral.
  2. The covenant is God’s conditional promise to man and man’s response (a mutual pact or treaty).
  3. The burden of fulfilling the covenant rests on man.
  4. The covenant is fulfilled in the obedience of the individual.[3]

Point #2 among the Rhinelanders manifested itself in Bullinger’s great faith in godly magistrates, those who would rule society in a just and equitable way, but history—indeed, recent history—shows that putting faith in political leaders to do the just and equitable thing is naive and foolish.

Bullinger’s covenantal idea certainly didn’t win the day in Reformed theology, but he does demonstrate that uniformity wasn’t there in the beginning. I believe Bullinger fell short of the mark in his ability to properly interpret the history of redemption. If we fail to see that the law belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, then we bring elements of it into the New Covenant. Paul is explicit in 2 Cor 3 that the ministry of condemnation doesn’t belong alongside the ministry of righteousness—the New Covenant. Bullinger, along with others of his day, seemed to equate righteousness with the law, something Scripture does not do. Bullinger advocated a kind of Judaized society (and church) because he failed to see this distinction between Old and New Covenants.

The two-covenant idea (a covenant of works, and a covenant of grace) that developed shares something with Bullinger in that the covenant of works looks more like his idea of covenant. The law is central, it must be obeyed.  In other words, later federal theology imports the idea of covenantal obedience, but mitigates this by saying it is Christ’s obedience on our behalf. But, as Weir notes, the unilateral nature of the Genevan version ends up not being so different from the bilateral nature of the Rhineland version. “We see that the classical distinctions between the Old Testament and the New Testament (and the Mosaic Old Covenant and the Christian New Covenant) are subsumed under one covenant, the postlapsarian covenant of grace.”[4] Weir further notes that Christ took the place of Adam as federal head, faithfully obeying the first covenant of works where the first Adam failed: “The postlapsarian covenant of grace is really therefore the prelapsarian covenant of works in disguise, but a new Adam (Christ) was needed to keep the covenant which God had established with man at the beginning of the world. Once the prelapsarian covenant of works is established, it can never be broken.”[5]

What this means for our understanding of “covenant” is something I’ll take up in the next post on this topic.

[1] J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Athens, Ohio University Press, 1980), xxiii.

[2] Baker, 9.

[3] David A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990), 22.

[4]Weir, 5


Things Old and New in the Believer

“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Why urge no provision, if there is no flesh to be provided for?

Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation, while anthropology is the doctrine of man. Where these combine is in the question of “What does the Christian look like? What sort of person is she after becoming a new creation in Christ?”

Some affirm the Christian is a new creation in a way that nothing of the old nature remains. Verses such as 2 Cor. 5:17 seem to support this. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” If this is true, that nothing of the old nature, who we were in Adam, our unregenerate self remains within the believer, it does raise several questions.

  • Do Christians no longer sin?
  • Is there nothing within the Christian that responds to sin?
  • Are we now as holy and as sanctified in our life and deeds as we will ever be?

Scripture answers each one of these questions. It is possible to proof-text one’s way to any doctrine, and thus if we rely only on 2 Cor 5:17, indeed, one can say that nothing of our Adamic self remains. But other Scriptures have something to say about this as well, and the picture is not so simple as citing this single verse implies.

The Romans Road of Christian Anthropology.

In the latter part of Romans 5, Paul has set forth the two heads, Adam and Christ, and shown that all of mankind must be under one of these two. For the one who is not born-again, there is no choice, he is in Adam. We get there by birth. But we only get under the headship of Christ by new birth. Verse 17 describes the representative way in which both Adam and Christ function in biblical anthropology “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Death reigned in Adam because all of his children were yet in him when he sinned. But because of Christ’s death, all those who come to him by faith receive the righteousness that he grants as a free gift.

In chapter 6, Paul moves from identification to mortification. That is, he speaks of what occurred when Jesus died on the cross. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” Our identification (by faith) with him means we share in what happened on the cross. Here is another place where those who insist that the believer no longer has any sinful nature will point. We were crucified with him!
But if our co-crucifixion with Christ completely eradicated anything within us that could respond to sin, why does Paul go on to urge the Romans as he does? “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” v 11. If everything that belonged to Adam was done away with, why must the Romans do any reckoning, any considering at all? If it is all gone, then there is nothing within them to respond to sin anyway. What kind of death is it that Paul refers to when we were crucified with Christ?

The best way to describe what happened to the old man is that it is a judicial execution. That is, in God’s estimation we indeed died with Christ, were buried with him, and were raised with him, but we must consider these things, and act in faith upon them. Why? Because it is is a judicial death and not an actual one, there is still within us what belongs to Adam. The old man was rendered powerless, so that we need not be enslaved to sin, but by presenting ourselves to sin we can empower the old man again. Therefore, Paul exhorts them:
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” v. 12
“Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness” v. 13
“so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” v. 19.

Such exhortations make no sense if nothing in the believer can respond to sin anyway, if nothing remains of the old Adam.

In chapter 7, Paul goes on to talk about the 3rd step in his anthropology: emancipation.
The believer is freed from the law, and the condemnation it brought. His marriage illustration of a wife who is widowed, but then marries another shows that the believer is like one who has died. The former relationship is severed. The way, says Paul, to bear fruit for God is to recognize that it cannot come by the law. Indeed, in 6:14 he has said that the reason the Romans need not continue under the mastery of sin is because they are not under the law, but under grace. Those who do not reckon upon this, who do not realize the freedom from the law they have, will not enter into the freedom Christ’s death has brought. The law brings wrath, and the law actually aroused sin in Paul.

The rest of the New Testament confirms, through multiple exhortations, that believers should strive after holiness, but the corollary is that indulging the flesh is possible. Later in the epistle, Paul will say “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Why urge no provision, if there is no flesh to be provided for?
In the Ephesian epistle, he writes

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” 4:17

If there is only a new nature, and nothing of the old, how would it be possible for them to walk as they formerly did?
Later in this same chapter, he writes:

“assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self.” 4:21-23.

If the old self is utterly gone, why does Paul urge them to put it off?

The rest of the chapter is filled with exhortations to the Ephesians for them to walk in a way that accords with the new man—but it assumes the presence of the old man also. If not, then exhortation becomes superfluous.

A Distinction Without a Difference.

I believe that those who hold that the believer has no old nature whatsoever, are in fact saying the same thing as those who do believe Scripture teaches the believer does. That is, there are few people who would say that a Christian is now sinless, that there is nothing in him to respond to sin. They may call it something different, but it is the same thing. Some have referred to old habits or patterns of who we were before salvation, but this is just using different words for “old nature.”  For the rare person who would insist the believer becomes sinless upon being born again, both human experience and the witness of Scripture testify against such an idea. When John writes that if we say we have no sin, we lie and do not the truth, the underlying assumption is that there is a need for forgiveness, for an advocate at God’s right hand—because we do sin, and we are not yet what we one day will be in glory!

I have interacted with those who teach this doctrine, and when I ask whether they believe the Christian is without sin, the answer is no. Of course our walk is not perfect, of course we grow in our faith. Once again, if there is room for the mortification of sin within us, if there is the possibility of grieving the Holy Spirit, as Paul says, then it means we are not yet perfect. Call it what you wish, you may choose to not call it the flesh or the old man, or the old nature, but unless you believe sin is completely eradicated from the Christian, you believe as I do, and as Scripture teaches: the Christian is not yet entirely holy in life.

A belief that the Christian has no old nature, nothing of Adam left is an over-realized eschatology. It is the view that the kingdom of God in its fulness and plenitude has arrived here and now, and there is nothing that remains. The presence of sin in the world, the roaring lion that Satan is, the world, the flesh, and the devil all demonstrate that this is not so.

Embracing such an over-realized eschatology will do nothing to conquer sin in practice, or to produce fruit for God. The way to change my condition, is by continually going back to my position in Christ, to dwell on the accomplishments of the cross, and yes, as Paul says, “reckon yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God.”