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.”

A Gospel Contrary: The Danger of Grace Plus Law

If we say we are not saved by keeping the law, but once saved, we must obey it, we have fallen from grace.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of his most polemical, perhaps the most forceful of any. One of the prime things Paul aims to do is dispel the idea that Christians retain any obligation to the law of Moses. In the first chapter, Paul expresses his astonishment at the desertion of the Galatian believers, not just from the message he preached to them, but from God himself. These are the stark terms he uses to summarize the problem. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ. The gospel of salvation by Christ alone, apart from any deeds of the law, is the gospel Paul received by revelation of God himself, and which he preached.
Paul’s opponents are largely assumed, because reading Galatians is a bit like hearing one side of a phone conversation. We have to infer what the other person said. But the agitators (as they are usually called) come through at various points by the way Paul answers.

By works of the law, no one will be justified. (2:16)
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. 2:21.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 3:10.

These are a few statements he makes, demonstrating that his gospel is one of faith in Jesus, wholly apart from the law.

Most evangelicals agree with this, and affirm justification before God is by grace, through faith. The law plays no part in our justification. But even as they agree, some also want to bring the law back in as a way of demonstrating our justification, or as a response of love and thankfulness to God for saving us. Paul will have none of this. Indeed, it sounds reasonable to say that I want to demonstrate my love to God, and how better than by obeying his will in every way, and surely, the law summarizes his will?

These things rest on a priori assumptions, however. Paul elsewhere in the epistle shows that love, not law, is the mark of our obedience to God, and our right response. If I love, I fulfill the law (note, not keep, but fulfill) but if all I do is keep the law, I do not arrive at the place where the gospel delivers me: The new command to love others as Jesus Himself loved us. That is nowhere in the law.
In chapter 6, he even engages in a bit of word play by the phrase “the law of Christ.”
Ronald Fung notes that Paul “speaks of ‘the law of Christ’ polemically, if not almost playfully, as an antithesis to ‘the law of Moses.’ It is as though he said to his converts: if you must observe the law (as the agitators say), do so, only make sure that
the law you observe is not Moses’ law, but the law of Christ.”[1] Rather than commandments associated with the Old Covenant, the law of Christ is instead a principle of self-sacrifice, of loving others as Jesus loved us. This was most clearly demonstrated at the cross.

Secondly, it isn’t stated in Scripture that the law (specifically the “moral law”—the Ten Commandments) represent God’s will for his people today.( If you think I’m saying Christians are thus free to sin as they wish, I invite you to read my other posts on this topic.) In Galatians 3, Paul will contrast Law and Promise, and show that the promise preceded law, and that the law does not nullify promise. The law was added, says Paul, as a temporary thing, with the specific purpose of imprisoning everything under sin, until Christ came. To say that once justified, we now keep the law as a way of showing love to God, is to make Paul say that once the fulfillment of the promise has arrived, we are still under the pedagogue. Yet Paul says the opposite: “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” 3:24-26. Is Paul saying that once the promise has arrived, the pedagogue still commands believers? By no means. We are no longer under a guardian.

Later in the epistle Paul again makes clear that two covenants cannot coexist at the same time, that is, be in force, any more than both Isaac and Ishmael could both be considered firstborn sons of Abraham. Paul asks of those who want to insist on an obligation to the law, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” 4:21
Here would have been an opportunity for Paul to ensure his hearers understood him properly. That is, if he meant to say that justification is apart from the law, but the law remains their guide for holy living, their standard, he could have said so. But he does not. He says Abraham had two sons, one born of the slave woman (Hagar) and one born of the free woman (Sarah) He explains the two women as two covenants. Any Jew would likely have expected Paul to liken the glorious giving of the law at Sinai with Sarah, but shockingly, he likens the Mosaic Covenant to Hagar! “One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery” 4:24

Does Paul mean to say that the law (Sinai) can coexist with the the promise? Can the son of the slave woman inherit with the son of the free? “But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” 4:29 Here is one of the several places where Paul contrasts flesh and Spirit, and he aligns the law with the flesh. His language here is of contradiction. The flesh persecutes the one born according to the Spirit. They do not happily coexist. Indeed, nowhere in the epistle does he say we, by the Spirit, by faith, are now empowered to keep the law. In 3:12 he has said the law is not of faith. In 3:3, has asks, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” In other words, you believe you are justified by faith, apart from the law, and do you now think to bring the law back into the Christian life? In 5:1 Paul says “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” What is this yoke of slavery if not an obligation to the law?

How does this amount to a “gospel contrary?” It is such a gospel—a distortion as Paul calls it in 1:7—to say that we are justified apart from the law, but that we are obligated to do the things of the law once saved. No equivocation can blunt the force of this. If there is obligation to the law, there is condemnation by the law. It is a backdoor re-introduction of the law in the Christian life, and Paul is adamant: A little leaven leavens the whole lump. We can’t say we are saved by faith, but must live our Christian lives according to the law. That, says Paul, is to fall from grace. It is a gospel contrary to what he preached, to what was revealed to him.
Some believers have had their spiritual lives so formed by law, by an ethos of obligation, that they can’t think of another way. But Paul says “the grace of God training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” (Titus 2:12) Grace, not law, is the guide for believers in this age. And it is an entirely sufficient guide. The gospel of grace teaches as all we need to live in manner worthy of the Lord.


[1] Ronal Y.K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians. NICNT. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988), 277-278.

Salvation History and the Christian’s Understanding of the Law

Salvation history is the unfolding of God’s plan. It is an unfolding not because God is somehow making it up as he goes, but because in his divine counsel, he chooses to reveal aspects of it in time. As one example, Paul is explicit about such an unfolding regarding the church, when he says to the Ephesians, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:4-6) Gentile blessing was surely promised in the Old Testament, but that it would come through such a thing as the church, Jew and Gentile in one body, was not.

Similarly, it is a foundational aspect in Paul’s teaching about the Mosaic law that salvation history is progressive. In Romans 6-7, Paul links the seminal events in the believer’s personal salvation history (our death with Christ, our burial with him, our resurrection with him) to our relationship to the law. Having died with Christ, we died to any obligation to the law. Paul writes “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Rom. 7:4)

A survey of some of the other epistles shows this same progress: The law had to do with the Mosaic covenant, and with Israel. It has not to do with the new Covenant and the body of Christ by way of obligation In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul designates the law (specifically the 10 Commandments) as belonging to the Old Covenant, and calls it a ministry of death and condemnation. He says its glory cannot be compared with that of the New Covenant. As an obligation, it belongs to past salvation history.

In Galatians, Paul says the law was our pedagogue until Christ came, and until faith came. Some have said that this pedagogical function still prevails, that is, that the law still teaches us how we are to live before God. But Paul’s language is clear: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” Gal 3:25. The arrival of the promised seed of Abraham, Christ, means that our adoption as sons of God frees us from the enslaving and captivating power of the law. For, although the law is holy, righteous, and good, Paul says that “before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” Gal 3:23.

But the law is holy, and righteous and good!

Misunderstanding this progress of salvation history has led to inconsistent conclusions, but in fairness, we must consider and explain some of Paul’s other statements about the law that seem to imply something positive and enduring. Paul writes that the law is “holy, righteous, and good.” (Rom 7:12) How can something good be temporary, or done away with, especially if it represents God’s will? Paul answers this question by saying that when combined with our flesh, the law, though good, produces a fatal outcome: sin and death. Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment caused sin to revive, and, says Paul, “I died.” The law actually aroused sin in him!

As to whether the Mosaic law represents an eternal will of God for his redeemed people in this age, Paul has answered that also in 2 Cor 3. It does not. It is a ministry of death and condemnation. If something better has come, it certainly makes sense that the old has become obsolete.

Are we released from the curse, but not the commandment?

Others claim it is only from the curse of the law we are delivered, not the commandment. To be under the law, says Paul, is to be under a curse. (Gal 3:10) Such a division of commandment from curse is never contemplated in Scripture. If the commandment is stripped of any consequence for the law-breaker, then it ceases to be law. It may be the Ten Suggestions, but it is not law. Moreover, Paul doesn’t say it was fear of the curse that aroused sin him, he says it was that the commandment that awakened sin within him and killed him (Rom. 7:9) Paul never qualifies his pronouncements. He says we have died to the law, been released from it, and “through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Gal 2:19) Indeed, the way of living a life pleasing to God is to recognize we are dead to the law.

The unequivocal nature of these statements also precludes any understanding that says Paul only wished to clear up a legalistic understanding of the law. That is, that he was keen to insist no one can be justified by the law, but he never intended to dismiss the law as a rule of life, or as a way for believers to walk in a way that pleases God. Where Paul does cite the law, it is in support of his own apostolic instruction. In Romans 13:9-10, Paul cites several of the Ten Commandments “For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Rom 13:9-10. What’s as notable as including these is also what is missing. That is, he never says, “Keep these commandments.” He cites them as supporting evidence for his own teaching (and that of Jesus) that love is the chief thing, the fulfillment of the law. Love, and you needn’t worry about whether you’re “keeping the law.”

Does the Holy Spirit empower Christians to keep the law?

The final aspect of what salvation history implies is that with the coming of the Spirit, believers have all they need to live in a manner pleasing to God. That is, we serve in the new way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the letter. Being free from the law is in fact the way of bearing fruit for God. Far from providing help in overcoming sin, the law, (because of our sinful flesh) actually exacerbates the problem. Paul says in Romans 6:14 that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The corollary to this is that if we are under law—or obligation to law—we are still under the mastery of sin!

“Oh, but the Holy Spirit in fact empowers believers to keep the law.” I have heard this claim, but it is foreign to the apostolic teaching on the Mosaic law. It is again an attempt to reintroduce the law as a rule for those under the headship of Christ when Paul says it appeals only to those in Adam. When Paul says the law aroused sin in him, does he refer to the new man in Christ, or to the old man in Adam? “If you walk by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (Gal. 5:18) Earlier in Galatians Paul has made a couple of statements that preclude this view. In chapter 3, he has contrasted law with faith—that which characterizes the Christian life. They were justified by faith, apart from the law.

Paul asks, incredulously, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:2-3) Faith brought them the Holy Spirit, brought them into God’s family. Having coming into God’s family, would they now be perfected by the flesh? What could “by the flesh” refer to here except taking up the law? A few verses later, Paul again sets forth a contrast between faith and the law. “But the law is not of faith.” (!) If we, by faith, are to keep the law, why does Paul never say so? Why does he instead contrast the law with the Spirit? The answer is that in the progress of salvation history, we who are under the headship of Christ do not need the law to walk rightly, to please God.

While the law is holy, righteous, & good, when combined with our flesh (not holy!) the combination is always a fatal one. We are set free from the law to bear fruit for God, to walk by the Spirt. We are free from sin’s mastery because we are not under law (Rom 6:14)

A partial deliverance from the law (for justification) while insisting we are obligated to it for sanctification and holiness does what Paul warned the Galatians of. It is to begin by the Spirit, but strives to be perfected by the flesh. Gal 3:3. I can offer no better advice than the apostle himself: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)


The Use and Abuse of Church History

Church history is descriptive,  not prescriptive.

One of the main points of fissure between sacramental or hierarchical church traditions and those that are less so is the place of church history. Should history—tradition—play a definitive role in shaping the faith and practice for believers today? Or, should Scripture have the decisive function in our faith? If we decide that tradition and history must be set alongside Scripture as an equal authority, we are faced with the dilemma that history is not uniform, nor tidy. In the hierarchical traditions, history is sometimes treated as a kind of stare decisis, such as one finds in courts of law. What precedent do we find in prior decision, previous case law? Indeed, canon law is exactly this.

But history is the development of the church, how it grew and changed over centuries. It does not represent an authoritative body of decisions that should bind believers in our current age. That position belongs only to Holy Scripture. To be sure, history has great value, and should be studied, but there is a vast difference in observation and stipulation. Church historian Brian Tierney points out some of the difficulties in looking to the past as an authoritative guide. He considers the example of papal infallibility.

“Real issues of ecclesiastical power are involved. If popes have always been infallible in any meaningful sense of the word – if their official pronouncements as heads of the church on matters of faith and morals have always been unerring and so irreformable – then all kinds of dubious consequences ensue. Most obviously, twentieth century popes would be bound by a whole array of past papal decrees reflecting the responses of the Roman church to the religious and moral problems of former ages. As Acton put it, ‘The responsibility for the acts of the buried and repented past would come back at once and for ever.’ To defend religious liberty would be ‘insane’ and to persecute heretics commendable. Judicial torture would be licit and taking of interest on loans a mortal sin. The pope would rule by divine right ‘not only the universal church but the whole world.’ Unbaptized babies would be punished in Hell for all eternity. Maybe the sun would still be going round the earth.”[1]

What Tierney points out is that history is descriptive, but not prescriptive. It tells us what happened, but not what should happen. Tierney’s examples show the error of elevating tradition above or to a position of equal authority with Scripture.  Holy Scripture alone provides this rule, this canon. At once I hear the objection of “but whose interpretation?” Indeed, hermeneutics is not an easy task, but one can at least begin by acknowledging what is admissible evidence. We can look at how past ages interpreted God’s Word, while at the same time acknowledging that no interpreter can claim to be an infallible guide. Indeed, those who claim to listen to the magisterium for authoritative interpretation have made this decision as individuals.

Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers will sometimes chide evangelicals on this point of “individual interpretation” but it is not a strong argument. Recent polling of Catholics shows a large number dismiss what the hierarchy of bishops says on many points, and are making their own decisions. As Thomas Bergler observes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[2]

On the Orthodox side, the plea has been more to the “unanimous consent of the Fathers.” But as Jaroslav Pelikan points out, that consensus is less than unanimous, and subject to revision.

Such an exhortation as “let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers” seemed to assume, by its use of “confession” in the singular and of “fathers” in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic. When an orthodox church father such as Gregory of Nyssa appeared to be in agreement with a heretic such as Origen on the eventual salvation of all men, it was necessary to explain away this agreement. When it appeared that there was a contradiction between two passages in Gregory of Nazianzus, closer study would show “their true harmony.”[3]

Arriving at the true meaning of Scripture can be a challenge, but no one can hand this responsibility off to another. Indeed, read, study, consult as many sources as you can, but remember that the decision cannot be outsourced. And while history informs us as to how others thought, it must not be elevated to the same level of authority as Scripture itself.  The Protestant Reformers had regard for prior interpreters of Scripture. Luther accepted the first 4 ecumenical counsels, and but not subsequent ones. Calvin found value in the counsels, but would not assign them equal authority to Scripture. In the Orthodox tradition, they accept 7 ecumenical counsels as authoritative, and Rome has north of 20 at this point they put in this category. The question is thus not line-drawing, everyone does so. Rather, it is where the lines are drawn. It is often at the distance of several centuries that we see the value (or error) of conclusions from prior ages, but only by comparing these decisions with Scripture. G.L. Prestige aptly summarizes what has happened when history or tradition is given the same authority as Scripture.

“The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[4]

Those who appeal to tradition consider the verdict to have equal (or often greater) authority than the evidence, and this is a fatal flaw. God has caused us to be born again by his Word. (1 Peter 1:23) Can this same Word not sustain us, teach us, and guide us? Can we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us, as Jesus himself promised? Recognizing Scripture as uniquely authoritative within the Church does not necessarily make for an easier path of discipleship, but it does make for a clearer and more faithful one.


[1] Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350, (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1972), p. 2.

[2] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenalization of American Christianity, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[4] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics, (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.