Monday, October 4, 2010

An Update

I know it's been a long time since I have updated, and I figured I should let everyone know what is going on in my life. I stopped posting simply because my area of study went away from the Lutheran/Calvinist or Lutheran/Roman Catholic debates into other realms which would not be as helpful to write blog posts on. I spent a considerable amount of time reading the Neo-Orthodox theology of the early 20th century including Barth, Bultmann, Brunner, Neibuhr, etc. Between this study, working full time and planning a wedding for this December, I simply have not had time to post here. I was recently accepted into the MTh program at the Wittenberg Institute which will lead me into a very different area of study. I will be writing a Masters thesis on the doctrine of justification in the early church fathers, primarily to vindicate Luther's reading of Paul in light of the New Perspective on Paul. I hope to begin writing on here again, though probably not as regularly as I had previously. My focus will most likely shift to Patristic studies at least for the time being. Though I will of course deal with Calvinist or Roman Catholic issues if asked.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Calvinism and the resignation to hell

A reader of my blog asked me what I thought about a question Calvinists sometimes discuss: would you still love God if He were sending you to hell?

The idea of this question is to cause one to evaluate his or her love for God and its purity. If one says he/she would not love God if they knew He was going to send them to hell for eternity, would it not then mean that the love one has is not truly for God but for His gifts? Thus the Christian who truly loves God for God's sake would love Him as the highest good regardless of His dealings with the individual in question.

So what do I think of this discussion? It is useless, and harmful, only leading the Christian to despair or boasting.

This question is useless simply because it is not addressed in scripture. Scripture nowhere says "love God regardless of His gifts." This is to separate God from His gifts which is impossible. The God who is to be loved is Himself a God of love and mercy. Our motivation for loving God, like all other Christian acts, is Christological. As the apostle John states, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." (1 John 3:16) He states again, "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19) The very basis for our love of God in scripture is that He saved us. To ask whether or not we would love God if it meant resigning ourselves to hell is to say the very opposite and to take Christ out of the equation. Scripture does not contain the abstract command "love God above all else" as an Aristotelian "highest good", but commands this only within the context of our redemption in Christ. A Christless, speculative discussion is not a Christian one.

I say this question is harmful because it will make the Christian doubt or make him proud. It is harmful because the honest Christian must look at his own heart for his assurance. "Do I really love God? Is my love of God sincere? Is it sincere enough?" Since one must love God to be saved, one then wonders if he truly has been regenerated by God's Spirit, and if God indeed truly loves him. This question is actually not new within Calvinism but was often discussed in the middle ages. It appeared commonly within the late medieval German mysticism that Luther was steeped in. This may have in fact been one of the reasons Luther was so often in despair about the state of his soul. This question can do nothing but drive ones assurance inward, and when he looks inside himself, he will see a sinner with impure motives.
If one answers this question in the positive, I submit that he is lying. To say that one would suffer eternal damnation for the sake of Christ's glory out of total love for God is to say that one has actually fulfilled the first commandment. Well here's some news for you: no one has. If you think you have, you need to repent of your pride and ask God to reveal the sin that still lies within your heart.

Ultimately, this question is speculative. Scripture does not ask us to even think about these concepts. When thinking about love of God, don't just focus on God in His eternal glory, but upon the cross of Christ where He revealed His love for us. Only through the lens of the cross can we truly love the God who sits on His throne controlling the universe by His sovereign power, because only through the cross can we approach Him and begin to see His gracious character.

Monday, May 17, 2010

An Overview of the New Perspectives on Paul Part 6: Criticisms

Criticisms of the New Perspective
Though this perspective has been highly influential, it has not been whole-heartedly accepted through out New Testament scholarship. Many reject the movement altogether, while some accept some aspects as furthering our understanding of Paul within his first century context, at the same time rejecting other aspects of this perspective as exegetically unfounded. Sanders opinion that there was enough unanimity in Judaism to construct a basic soteriology has been hotly contested. Many have still found the so-called “Lutheran” Paul to be exegetically convincing.

When viewing the overwhelming amount of second temple literature, it seems as though Sanders idea of covenantal nomism fits much of the evidence. However, it does not necessarily fit all of it. Sanders admits that 4 Ezra contains a legalistic understanding of salvation where God weighs ones merits against his demerits. This he takes to be one exception to the rule. Richard Bauckham shows that this type of legalism was not foreign to apocalyptic literature. 2 Enoch has a similar picture of a weighing of deeds which will determine one’s final salvation. He also believes that in 2 Baruch, the author does not teach a theology of grace which then leads to good works as Sanders claims, but quite the opposite. “With reference to 2 Baruch, it would be more accurate to say not simply that God bestows mercy on the righteous, but that God has mercy on the righteous because of their good works.” (Justification and Variegate Nomism Volume 1 pg. 182)

It is worthy of note that there are a couple major figures within the period that Sanders does not extensively analyze: Josephus and Philo. Philo, Sanders does discuss to an extent, though not in my opinion as much as is deserved. Sanders simply concludes that Philo must held to covenantal nomism. It is understandable why Sanders would not use Philo as representative of Judaism simply because Philo’s ideas come from Greek philosophy. However it is unlikely that Philo was the alone in his Jewish/Platonic syncretism. In a Hellenized world, as first century Palestine was, there is bound to be some influence of Greek philosophy within ordinary religious life, at least in the minds of some. If this is the case, this type of Judaism does not fit Sanders categories. While Philo did have some idea of a national covenant, the importance lay, not on this covenant, but on the acquisition of virtue.

Josephus is surprisingly absent. Sanders utilizes him for historical purposes but never once seeks to analyze his theology. Josephus does see that there is a special covenant with the Jews. God chose Moses to be the mediator of his covenant rather than Pharaoh. As Spilsbury explains, “this trust gives the Jews privileged access to God’s favor, but only to the extent that they obey the law faithfully.” (ibid pg. 259) This is not to say that Josephus’ depiction of God had nothing to say of grace, or that God required complete perfectionism, but that God’s blessing to a man still did to some extent depend on obedience to the Torah.

These and several other examples prove that Sanders’ treatment of Judaism is lacking. It is not so much that Sanders was completely wrong in his evaluation, but that he went too far than was necessary. Scholarship of the second temple period had often been sloppy and too simplistic. Sanders proves sufficiently that there certainly is more to the picture than mere Pelagianism. That does not mean, however, that this grace centered approach to Judaism was universal. It is not right to speak of a universal “Judaism”, but of “Judaisms” in the second temple period.

Even if it were sufficiently proven that Sanders thesis was correct, would this negate a “Lutheran” interpretation of Paul? I do not think so. A Andrew Das argues that in Judaism, there was a place for forgiveness through the sacrificial system. However, without this system, Judaism became inherently legalistic. Paul, when coming to the realization that Jesus was the messiah, saw that his death negated all other sacrifices as atoning. Therefore, Paul saw only a legalistic system left in Judaism. Das supports his thesis by showing that when the temple was destroyed, this type of legalism predominated such as in 4 Ezra and Josephus. It also seems that the system of covenantal nomism itself does not negate legalism. If one is in the covenant from birth, and must remain in the covenant by works, can this not also become a legalistic system? Who is to say that entrance into the covenant constitutes salvation rather than one’s eschatological vindication? Martin Luther in the 16th century was not fighting against a system which denied grace altogether. The medieval church believed that one was in the church by baptism, thus not by ones own choice, and remained in this state of grace through keeping with penance. In all the effort to separate Paul’s situation from Luther’s, similarities between the two basic soteriological systems have become even more apparent.

The crucial exegetical points argued by Stendhal, Sanders, Dunn, and Wright have been contested by several New Testament scholars of varying backgrounds. Righteousness has been defined as God’s ‘covenant faithfulness’ by New Perspective proponents. Mark Seifrid analyzes the Old Testament background of righteousness, showing that it does not often appear in covenantal contexts. Though the word ‘righteousness’ is used 524 times, and ‘covenant’ 283 times, “in only seven passages do the terms come into any significant semantic contact.”(ibid pg. 423) God’s righteousness cannot be so narrowly defined. It is essentially a creational category. It signifies God’s justice and vindication, not necessarily though possibly connected to covenant. God is often seen as righteous in his acts when dealing with the gentile nations, with whom he had no special covenant. His righteousness vindicates and punishes.

So what does Paul mean when he argues that justification is not by works of the law but by faith? Are these works boundary markers, or legalistic attempts to earn salvation? It seems that Paul is arguing against both conceptions. The law is opposed to the gospel because it requires works, whereas the gospel requires faith. It also opposes the gospel because it was given in some sense to Jews alone while the gospel is universal in scope. Paul makes this contrast clear when he states in Galatians 3:18 that the law does not rest upon faith. Law and faith are contradictory messages. One requires works, whereas the other accepts that one can do no works. Paul does not say here that a distortion of the law does not rest on faith but the law itself. The argument of Romans 4 contrasts one who tries to earn and one who does not work. Clearly the one who does not work is the one who does not try to earn his wages, but accepts the reward as a gift. The definition of law as a mere boundary marker simply does not fit the argument. The gospel is opposed to all kinds of boasting, whether it is in one’s meritorious deeds or in one’s nationality, or in one’s own wisdom. Is it not probable that Paul was arguing against all of these conceptions at once? Anything that puts one’s trust into something that is not God’s vindication in Christ is opposed to the gospel.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Final Note on the Irresistible Grace Controversy

Some of you know I had a debate with an LCMS pastor over the issue of irresistible grace. I made the claim that as Lutherans we must believe in the doctrine in some sense, though without denying the universalis gratia. See my post on immutable election to see what point I was trying to argue. I emailed Dr. Robert Kolb amidst this controversy on this issue with this specific question:

Dr. Kolb,
I have been having a conversation with an LCMS pastor on the subject of election. I made the point that Lutherans agree with some of what Calvinists are saying when using the term irresistible grace. What I mean by this is that God's election will always result in the salvation of that individual. One who is elect cannot become non-elect, thus in that sense election is "irresistible", though I realize it is not the best term to use. I also made the point that election is particular and does not extend to everyone as does the universalis gratia. Not everyone is elect.
This pastor seemed to think that I was espousing Calvinistic doctrines when saying this. However, when I read through Pieper, Walther, and Hoenecke on the topic, they all seem to be saying the same thing that I am. Am I being faithful to Lutheran theology by making the points that: 1. election will always necessarily result in final salvation and 2. not all men are elect?

This was Dr. Kolb's response:

Your reading of Pieper, Walther, and Hoenecke is correct, I believe. Under the proclamation of the law, Lutherans clearly believe with Luther in the Smalcald Articles III,4,43-45, that believers can lose the faith and fall from grace. Otherwise, as the Formula of Concord strives to make clear, the distinction of law and gospel disappears, and we fall into either an antinomian arrogance and false security, or despair. But under the teaching of the gospel Lutherans teach that God’s gospel promise in the means of grace is sure because it is God’s promise. What, I think, John Calvin did not grasp, much less his followers, is how Luther understood the doctrine of election only in the context of distinguishing law and gospel in delivering God’s Word to his people, and how God actually is present and working with his saving power in the means of grace. The Calvinists who have become Lutherans – the ones I know, at least – point especially to the second point and the insecurity they had when there was no certain place to look, only to one’s own life, for assurance that God loved them in Christ.
I have gone into this in some detail in my book Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method (Eerdmans, 2005, I think). That may help some.

This should settle the issue as Dr. Kolb is a competent scholar and has written on the subject.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Defense of the Omnipresence of Christ's Human Nature

One of the main bones of contention between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches has been the doctrine of the omnipresence of the human nature of Christ. This doctrine is not isolated for Lutherans and is not merely promoted to support our view of the Lord's Supper as is often claimed. We come to this position because of an overall conception of the incarnation itself which differs from that of the Reformed.
When Christ became incarnate, the human and divine natures were united in one person. These natures were not mixed into one, nor were they completely separated from one another. They interpenetrated one another.

Because of this union of the two natures, the Lutherans talked about a communicatio idiomatum, meaning communicating, or sharing, of attributes. This doctrine states that, due to the unity of the person, the attributes of the divine nature can be attributed to the human nature. For the sake of organization, Lutherans have typically put the communication of attributes into three classes, or genera, though sometimes four.

The first class is the genus idiomaticum. This means that what is attributed to one nature can be attributed to the whole person. Thus one can say "the Son of God died" without having to clarify by saying, "the human nature of Christ died."

The second class is the genus maiestaticum. This is where the real controversy arises. According to this doctrine, the attributes of Christ's divine nature are communicated to his human nature. They are not attributed to the human nature through necessity or nature, but by the free attribution of the divine nature. So what are some of these attributes?

1. The majesty of divinity. Any time scripture talks about majesty, power or authority being given to Christ in time it must be talking about His human nature. If one does not confess this, he is admitting that Christ indeed did not have full power and majesty according to His divine nature before this point.
Some examples in scripture are:

"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.'" (Matthew 28:18)
"All things have been committed to me by my Father." (Luke 10:22)
"So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs." (Hebrews 1:4)
"You made him a little[a] lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
and put everything under his feet."
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him." (Hebrews 2:7-8)
"And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church" (Ephesians 1:22)
"For he "has put everything under his feet."[a] Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:27)

2. Omniscience There are several times in the New Testament where divine knowledge is attributed to the human nature of Christ.
"He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man." (John 2:25)

3. Omnipresence Here is where the controversy usually arises. Lutherans claim that Christ is omnipresent as a person, thus both natures are omnipresent. The Reformed have historically argues that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father according to His human nature, and omnipresent only according to His divine nature.

Does the Scripture teach the omnipresence of Christ's human nature? The most clear verse on this subject is Ephesians 4:7-10:

"But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)"

The text seems clear. Christ descended, ascended, and now fills the whole universe. This cannot be according to His divine nature because it describes a point in time wherein He began to fill all things. His divine nature always filled all things. Ephesians 1:23 also states that He "fills everything in every way." These verses have been interpreted by the Reformed to mean either one of 2 things.

1. The "filling all things" refers to his accomplishment of redemption, or his fulfillment of prophecy. However, the context has nothing whatsoever to do with salvation or Christ's work on the cross. It has to do with cosmology. It describes a place He was from, went, and now is.

2. This refers to his sustaining and ruling the whole universe. This simply is not in the text. Filling the whole universe simply means filling the whole universe. There is not any way around it except to explain away the clear meaning.

Christ's promise in Matthew 28 is that He will always be with His church. The man Jesus standing in front of His disciples said this. Was there any reason for them to think He only meant according to His divine nature? No, of course not. The one speaking was the God-man.

Christ shows that He has power over normal spacial constraints according to His human nature. In John 20:9 Jesus walks through a locked door. Even before the resurrection He vanished from sight. (John 8:59, Luke 4:30)

Is it really taking scripture seriously to say that the "fullness of deity" (Colossians 2:9) dwelt in bodily form if indeed the deity of Christ is mostly separate from the human nature? If the incarnation really means that the second person of the trinity is both God and man, we must say more than that He is only man in one specific location.

To be Biblically consistent and to affirm that the fullness of Christ's deity was and is incarnate, one must confess to communication of omnipresence.

The third class of communication is the genus apotelesmaticum. This doctrine states that all of the functions that Christ performs as prophet, priest, and king are performed by both natures. The entire person accomplishes every part of redemption, not simply one nature.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

I have just finished a website which features my blog, helpful articles on various theological topics, a place to discuss theological and apologetic issues, and a podcast. Hopefully this website will be a helpful resource. Please go to the "Listen" section to hear my first podcast. It is on the subject of justification.

An Overview of the New Perspectives on Paul Part 5: NT Wright

N.T. Wright
Bishop N.T. Wright, one of the most prominent New Testament scholars of today, did much to bring this “new perspective” to a popular audience. His volume What Saint Paul Really Said in 1997 was a compact treatment of Paul’s beliefs as influenced by expectations of the second temple period. Wright accepts Sanders’ idea of covenantal nomism as generally applicable to the theology of the second temple texts. He believes that as Protestants we have become too stuck in our Protestant traditions and must be open to a fresh look at the Pauline material.

For Wright, Paul is essentially working within a narrative structure. This narrative is the story of God’s dealings with man through Israel, now fulfilled through the coming of Christ. God created Adam as the first of all humanity to live in obedience to himself. Adam rebelled, as did all men after him. This is the beginning of the story. God called out Abraham so that he might be a light to the world and undo the problem that came through the sin in the garden. “The canonical Old Testament frames the entire story of God’s people as the divine answer to the problem of evil: somehow, through his people, God will deal with the problem that has effected his good creation in general and his image-bearing creatures in general.” (Paul in Fresh Perspective pg 109) Israel is chosen out of pure grace, and is given the Torah and temple as a means toward redemption. However, rather than fixing the problem of sin and evil in the world, Israel became a part of the problem.

Wright promotes the idea that when the exile in Babylon ended, and the Israelites were brought back into the land, the majority of Jews still believed themselves in exile. Wright particularly defends this thesis in his 1991 volume the Climax of the Covenant. Israel, after the exile, had not gained all of the land that was expected by the prophets. They were still under foreign oppressors. The real ending of the exile would occur when Israel once again became an autonomous nation, and God directly ruled over them through a Davidic king. This idea was in Paul’s mind when he wrote his epistle to the Galatians. Galatians 3:10 has historically been used to promote the doctrine of penal substitution. The curse Christ paid for was the penalty of breaking God’s perfect law. Wright takes this verse in a different direction by seeing the curse Christ paid for as the exile. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, Israel’s exile has finally come to an end. The kingdom has been inaugurated.
Perhaps Wright’s most controversial contribution to Pauline theology is his attack on the Protestant definition of justification as promoted by Martin Luther. He contends, along with Stendhal and Dunn, that Paul was not fighting against legalism in Galatians and Romans. The ‘justification by works’ Paul writes against is not “individual Jews attempting a kind of proto-Pelagian pulling themselves up by their moral bootstraps”. (What St. Paul Really Said pg 119) Rather it is that Jews excluded gentiles from fellowship within the kingdom. Justification for Paul is a legal term. However, it is not a term about ‘getting in’, but it is a term about ‘who is in’ the covenant. “Justification in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong to the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final creation.” (ibid pg 122) When God declares one to be justified, he is declaring them to be among his people. It does not involve the imputation of righteousness. “If we use the language of law court, it makes no sense whatever to say the judge imparts, imputes, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either plaintiff or the defendant.” (ibid pg 98)

For Wright, the righteousness of God is his covenant faithfulness. It is not an abstract attribute which all men are required to live up to. It is not something to be imputed to man. It is his faithfulness in dealing with and saving his people. This underlies Wright’s redefinition of justification. It is founded in the Jewish idea of covenant. This is why several Psalmists are able to ask God to deliver them in his righteousness. In this context it certainly means deliverance, not imputation.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Response to Nick on the Doctrine of Justification

This is a response to the comments from Nick of "Nick's Catholic Blog" on my post on Roman Catholicism.

I'm not denying Paul could have used other words to espouse the concept of "Christ's Righteousness" - but the burden is on the Protestant to demonstrate that when Paul uses a term like "righteousness" it must be "Christ's Righteousness" as opposed to any other possible meanings of 'righteousness'.
Looking at the 5 passages you cite, only one of them even mentions the term "impute" - Rom 4:3 - and that text is under dispute by us - so to say they 'clearly' make case for imputation is quite a leap. Just taking one of those texts, Phil 3, and reading in it context (3:8-11) I say it's espousing the exact opposite of imputation.

The Apostle Paul first of all makes it clear that there is a righteousness that is given based on faith:

"Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works" (Romans 4:4-6)

This righteousness is likened to a gift which is not earned.
How do I know that this righteousness is the righteousness of Christ? Paul makes this clear in several places:

"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21) Note that the righteousness of God is described as the righteousness in him.
He makes the same point in Philippians, "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." (Philippians 3:8-9) This righteousness comes from outside of himself, from God and only through being in Christ. I don't understand how you can say imputation is not meant here. This is a righteousness that he claims is not "a righteousness of my own."

This is why Paul can say in passing to the Corinthians, "It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption." (1 Corinthians 1:30) Notice again that this righteousness is in Christ and from God.

If Paul is at all consistent in what he means by the righteousness that saves, he need not say "impute" and "the righteousness of Christ" right next to one another for us to understand his meaning. Putting all the texts together, we can see that:
1. There is an imputed righteousness (Romans 4:6)
2. This righteousness is apart from our own works (Romans 4:5, Philippians 3:9)
3. This righteousness is only found in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:9)
If we are to discover doctrine, as we do the Trinity and several other Christian teachings, on the basis of the text as a whole rather than on simple proof texts, it is clear that the imputed righteousness of Christ is a Biblical and Pauline concept.

You then mention the locus classicus for your claim: Romans 4:5
The main problem here is that too much weight is put on this passage with too many assumptions supporting it. It's simply dangerous to build one's theology upon a single verse.

So much weight is put upon this passage simply because it is so clear. It is not just a single verse, it is a key passage for understanding the entirety of Paul's argument in this section.

(A) You said "The man who is ungodly is counted as righteous," but the actual phraseology is "justifies the ungodly, faith credited as righteousness". These two phrases are not necessarily identical in meaning.

The "crediting of righteousness" is an explanation of what justification is. This is further shown by the fact that Paul uses justification in Romans 8 as being the opposite of condemnation. Clearly this cannot mean "making one righteous."

(B) You're assuming the term "ungodly" means "unrighteous," but that's not necessarily true. Paul could have simply used the term "unrighteous," negating 'righteous' in this case, but he didn't. The term he used was a negated form of "worshiper", and thus more akin to "non-worshiper" (especially in regards to not worshiping according to Jewish Law standards). The "non-worshiper" (from the Jewish point of view) is none other than the Gentile, and thus Paul would be saying "God justifies the Gentile." This fits with Paul's theme/context (that God is also the God of the Gentiles, and justifies the uncircumcised, 3:27ff). To Judaizer ears, Paul would be uttering blasphemy, God justifying the (second class) Gentiles?...and worst of all Paul calling Abraham a 'non-worshiper' (justified *before* being circumcised 4:9ff)!

This just shows the great lengths one has to go to defend a Roman view of justification in the book of Romans. The ungodly are gentiles? This is an absurd mishandling of the text. The examples Paul uses within this same chapter of justifying the ungodly are Abraham and David, the very representatives of Judaism. What is so offensive here to the Jews is that Paul includes Abraham among the ungodly. What would the whole language of debt and payment in 4:5 have anything to do with being a gentile as opposed to a Jew?

(C) Even if "ungodly" means 'sinner', you'd have to assume "justify" here were a bare declaration. But we both know it's not, and that it includes forgiveness, thus it can be rendered "God forgives the sinner [who genuinely repents]." This would fit perfectly with Romans 4:7-8 and a similar situation of Luke 18:9-14.

Justification is not a "bare declaration." It is a declaration based on the fact that we are in Christ, and thus are given a righteousness from God based on faith. Read the whole argument Paul is making.

(D) The term "justify" ("declare righteous") is not a synonym for "impute righteousness" - 'declare' and 'impute' are not the same. If the passage is rendered "God declares righteous the unrighteous," you have a problem, namely God's honor is at stake, for that is a flat out injustice/contradiction. If you argue the man is truly forgiven and a real righteousness is set to his account, then God isn't really "declaring righteous the unrighteous" anymore, but rather "declaring righteous the righteous".

Paul defines justification as including the imputing of righteousness (Rom 4:6) and the non-imputation of sin (Rom 4:8). Paul is using all three of these concepts synonymously.
God's honor is not at stake because the status of "righteous" is based upon the righteousness of Christ, in whom we are included. The idea that a whole group can bear the guilt or blessings of one individual is common in scripture. For example, we are all sinners because of one man: Adam. Also, the blessings of Israel were often based upon the obedience of the king. In the same way, having a perfectly righteous king, we, as his subjects, receive the blessings he earned.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

An Overview of the New Perspectives on Paul Part 4: James Dunn

James Dunn
James Dunn differs from Sanders in that he claims to be a devout Christian. He is important to the movement because he is the first writer to produce commentaries of Paul’s epistles through this framework. He also formulated the term “the new perspective on Paul.” He essentially agrees with Sanders’ view of second temple Judaism by seeing it as a religion of grace rather than a Pelagian type of legalism. He accepts Stendhal’s criticism which sees the Protestant doctrine of justification as having forced Luther’s own controversy back into the text of Paul. However, agreeing with earlier writers on certain points, he still sees Sanders’ Paul as inadequate. “I am not convinced that we have yet given the proper reading of Paul from the new perspective of first-century Palestinian Judaism opened up so helpfully by Sanders himself.” (The New Perspective on Paul pg.95)

From here, Dunn formulates his own opinions about what Paul is saying in Romans and Galatians. Dunn centers his argument around Galatians 2:16 which is the earliest explicit reference to the doctrine of justification. In this passage, Paul is primarily dealing with the issue of Jew and Gentile fellowship. Justification was apparently seen as something that belonged to Jews but not gentiles since Paul calls them, rhetorically, “sinners.” Paul argues against this notion, showing justification to be valid for both Jews and Gentiles since it is by faith. Dunn does not accept the historical understanding of justification as a term which describes the beginning of a man’s relation toward God. “Justification is rather God’s acknowledgement that one is in the covenant-whether that is an initial acknowledgment, or a repeated action of God (God’s saving acts), or his final vindication of his people.”(pg.97) Dunn sees Paul as working within a Jewish framework. Those whom Paul is countering in Galatia see their Christianity as an extension of Judaism. As such, justification by faith is a Jewish teaching which his readers already understood. Both Judaism and Christianity saw their salvation as based upon God’s gracious initiative.

Dunn, accepting Sanders critique that Paul was not arguing against Jewish legalism writes that “works of the law” in Paul refer to “works related to the covenant [and] works done in obedience to the covenant.”(pg. 98) Thus, when Paul speaks of works of the law he does not refer to good works in general, or even good works as conforming to the Decalogue. These works are primarily those which separate Jews from gentiles which would include the Sabbath, food laws, and other boundary markers that differentiated Jew from gentile. The phrase “works of the law” itself is nationalistic in focus, “the law and the Jewish people are coterminous; the law identifies the Jew as Jew and constitutes the boundary which separates him from the gentiles.”(pg. 118)

Paul does not invalidate the Covenantal Nomistic soteriology of the Judaism of his day. However, he redefines this in light of the resurrected messiah. The question Paul needed to deal with was, “How do we Jewish believers relate our Covenantal Nomism, our works of the law, our obligations under the covenant to our new faith in Jesus as the Christ?”(pg.103) The elect were, in the national covenant, those who had the marks of circumcision, food laws, Sabbath, etc. After Christ has come, Paul sees the elect redefined as those who have faith. The mark or “badge” of those in the covenant was now faith in Christ only.

Like the other writers embracing this new understanding of Paul, Dunn argues that the law/gospel or faith/works contrast as traditionally understood within Protestantism is wrong. “Paul is not arguing here for a concept of faith which is totally passive because it fears to become a ‘work.’” (pg.105) Dunn also argues that there is not a necessary dichotomy between ritual and faith. He is not arguing against ritual as such, but that which excludes gentiles from the covenant. “What he is concerned to exclude here is the racial, not the ritual expression of faith; it is nationalism he denies not activism.”(pg.105) What Paul sees as new about the covenant is not that now an alternative to legalistic works has appeared making salvation a matter of passive faith, but that gentiles are now included within God’s people.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Three Reasons Why I am Not a Roman Catholic

One poster asked me to give three reasons why I am not a Roman Catholic. Since I try to answer all questions I am asked by my readers, I will briefly explain why I will not join the Roman Church.

1. The denial of Sola Fide
This is the most important reason why I have not and will not ever join the Roman church. As a Lutheran I see it as the center of the Biblical gospel. Trent erred in defining justification as a process and anathematizing its Biblical formulation. Justification is clearly judicial. Paul contrasts "justification" with "condemnation." Justification, being the opposite of condemnation, is clearly a legal term. It means "not guilty" and as Paul in Romans 4, quoting David defines it, the non-imputation of sin, as well as the counting of righteousness. Paul also uses it in the past tense in Romans 5:1 and other places, denying the understanding of justification as a process.

2. Unwritten tradition as a source of authority
I do not see scripture teaching that there is another source of authority which is unwritten and carried on by an infallible magisterium. This is problematic because several of these "traditions" are contradicted by scripture itself. Also, just as clearly, several traditions now claimed by the Roman Church are the opposite of teachings in the fathers. For example, the immaculate conception, now a "dogma of the church" was condemned by Pope Galacius. The Roman Church has not stayed consistent in defining its own infallible tradition. This is why Trent could anathematize Protestants while Vatican II refers to them as separated brethren. This is also why the entire medieval tradition of purgatory as involving an actual period of time can be contradicted by the current Pope. There is simply no consistency.

3. The sacrifice of the mass
Simply put, I believe the doctrine of the re-sacrifice of Christ or "representation of the once for all sacrifice" or however one wants to put it, is a denial of the nature of Christ's atonement. The book of Hebrews makes the point that what is greater about the New Covenant as opposed to the Old is that the propitiatory sacrifice is once for all, and cannot be repeated. The text is clear, and to explain that it is the same sacrifice now as the one on Golgotha is just to skate around the issue and ruin the author's argument.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Overview of the New Perspectives on Paul Part 3: E.P. Sanders and Paul

Sanders gave a much fuller treatment of Paul in his 1983 book Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. In this book, like in the previous, Sanders contends that contrary to Protestant ideas Paul did not see the law as impossible to fulfill. The usual proof text for this idea has been Galatians 3:10, “Cursed is the man who does not continue to do all things written in the book of the law.” According to Sanders, Paul, after connecting blessing with faith, looks for a verse in the Old Testament that he can use to connect “curse” with “law.” This happens to be the verse he finds. The focus is not on “all” rather, it is on the fact that the law brings a curse. This reinforces Paul’s main idea that salvation comes by faith in Christ and not the Jewish law. Paul at times upholds the possibility of perfection under the law, but at other times makes it clear that all men in one way or another do sin. Paul never understood that these ideas might be mutually exclusive.

In Galatians 5:3, Paul does make some use of the word “all” in Deuteronomy 27:26. The point that Paul is making is that if one is circumcised, as the Judaizers demanded, he must obey the entirety of the ceremonial law. What Paul sees as wrong with the law as a way to righteousness is not that it is impossible to fulfill, but that it is not the correct kind of righteousness, which is faith in Christ.

Sanders agrees with Stendhal’s reading of Romans in seeing it’s theme as the relation between Jew and Gentile rather than individual salvation. He agrees with most Protestant exegetes in viewing Romans 1:16 as the theme of the rest of the book, however Sanders “would put more emphasis on the second part of the verse (to all who have faith, the Jew first and also the Greek)”(pg 30) While righteousness is an essential aspect, it is essential because it expresses the unity between Jew and Gentile. Sanders evaluates Romans 3-5, which is usually used to defend the “Lutheran” idea that the law leads to boasting because, in a Pelagian sort of fashion, one thinks he can save himself by his own obedience. Sanders believes that this boasting is not connected to any sort of legalism, but to status as a Jew. The law leads to boasting in one’s ethnicity and status as among the covenant people of God. Romans 10:3 had often been used to support the legalistic understanding of Judaism where Paul contrasts a righteousness of “their own” with that “of God.” Sanders sees “their own” righteousness not as something they did to merit salvation, but the righteousness of Israel which excluded gentiles. Sanders sees Paul’s righteousness of “my own” in Philippians 3 in the same way. It was Paul’s righteousness as a zealous Jew who believed himself to be of the covenant people of Israel, separated from Gentiles.

With all this being said, it might seem as though Paul did not have a view of universal sinfulness. To the contrary, Paul does believe in universal sinfulness and does use it in his argument. However, it is only used as a backdrop to explain why righteousness comes through faith to both Jew and Gentile. “Yet it is apparent that the argument is based on the conclusion, rather than the conclusion on the argument.” (pg 35) Paul contradicts himself in Romans 2 and 5. In chapter two he assumes that it is the same law that judges everyone, yet in Romans 5 he sees the law that condemns only the Mosaic Law, as sin was not imputed until the Mosaic Law came. This inconsistency can be explained because Paul’s purpose was not primarily to explain the plight of man, but the solution.

All of this shows that Paul was in a dilemma about the role of the law in salvation history. He attempted to somehow connect the law with sin and the curse, rather than salvation. Though he recognized that in the sense of the Old Testament, Jews would not have been considered sinners, “observant Jews are not in fact sinners by the Biblical standard” (pg 68) He sought to explain the law as serving a pedagogical purpose for the Jewish people. Paul, after explaining that gentiles are imprisoned by stoicheia, beings they worshipped which are not gods, shows that the law did essentially the same thing. This is why in Galatians, he can discuss the “we” and “us” that have been imprisoned, including both Jew and Gentile. All of this shows that Paul rejected his covenantal nomistic past as he did not see righteous, law abiding Jews as among the people of God, but saw them in the same predicament as gentiles.

With all this negativity toward the law in Paul, how do his positive statements about the law fit into his own theology? He sees the law as something that both Jew and Gentile must die to. He does not carefully distinguish the categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial law, as did the medieval scholastics. Christ is the end of the whole law. Paul therefore, sees the law as given purposefully by God, never as a means of salvation, but with a view toward the faith to come. In the end Sanders states, “All Paul’s statements cannot be organized into a logical whole.” (pg 86)
Paul does see Christians as having a duty to fulfill the law. Though he did not “work out a full halakic system,” (pg 95) Paul does give ethical commands in his epistles, which are often connected with Old Testament principles. However, it is not so simple as to say that Paul was urging his gentile converts to adopt a Jewish lifestyle apart from certain rituals of course. Not all the ethical principles Paul adopts are necessarily Jewish, although he does use Old Testament references to defend himself. So which of the Old Testament laws does Paul expect Christians to follow? The distinction between moral and ceremonial law does have some merit in Paul, as he seems to reject those aspects of the law that, “created a social distinction between Jews and other races in the Greco-Roman world.” (pg 102) This again goes back to his central conviction that salvation comes only by faith in Christ through Jew and Gentile alike, thus any barriers between these two people groups must be removed.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Overview of the New Perspectives on Paul Part 2: E.P. Sanders and Second Temple Judaism

E.P. Sanders
In 1977, E.P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which agreed with the central thesis of Stendhal and developed it through looking at sources from second temple Judaism. In this volume, Sanders briefly overviews the different evaluations of second temple Judaism which scholars have promoted in the recent past. In the 19th century, due to the work of F. Weber, it was generally understood that Judaism of the second temple period was a religion of "works righteousness." Jews supposedly believed that God would weigh one's good deeds against his bad to determine the fate of that man. One could gain extra merit through a "treasury of merits" of sorts. Sanders concludes that Weber's evaluation was deeply flawed, though remained somewhat unchallenged in his day. This same view of Judaism was promoted by Bousset, Schurer, and Bultmann. Many Jewish scholars refuted Weber's claims, and Sanders believes successfully, yet their work was not of much effect. Weber's view still was the majority opinion.

Sanders attempts to prove that Weber's view is flawed by evaluating the writings of the second temple period extensively. According to Sanders, there was an overall coherence of a "pattern of religion" in Judaism. “A pattern of religion does not include every theological proposition or every religious concept within a religion. The term ‘pattern’ points toward the question of how one moves from the logical starting point to the logical conclusion of the religion.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism pg. 17) This can be loosely placed under the rubric of soteriology. Though there were certainly diverging views of Judaism in the second temple period, there was an overall basic soteriology which permeated the majority of second temple literature. Sanders labels this soteriology "covenantal nomism." Covenantal nomism is the idea that the Jews believed themselves to be in the covenant by grace, but maintained their status in the covenant by obedience. In other words, the emphasis was on God's electing grace rather than on strict law-keeping. God chose the nation of Israel to be His own, thus one was in the covenant by God's choice, not by works. The role of law-keeping was one of maintaining status, rather than gaining status. One could lose "salvation" by breaking the commandments, yet one could not gain "salvation" by keeping commandments.

The question naturally comes as to why God elected the nation of Israel. Sanders posits that there were three different answers to this question in second temple literature. One answer was that the covenant was offered to all nations, yet Israel was the only one to accept it. The second opinion was that the nation was chosen because of the merits of the patriarchs. The third was that God elected the nation simply because he chose to; it was a matter of pure grace. The first two answers still put the covenant in the hands of human merit, yet Sanders does not see this as harmful to his thesis. It does not matter how or why the covenant was initiated in the first place. What matters is that those in the covenant in the second temple period were personally initiated apart from what they had done.

In the second part of this book, Sanders evaluates the theology of Paul in light of the pattern he has uncovered in Second Temple literature. Sanders works from the epistles of Paul which he sees as undisputed. These include: Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians. In Sander's view, Paul argued from solution to plight. Paul saw Christ as the solution, thus realizing that there must be a problem that man needs to be saved from. First came his conviction of redemption in Christ and then came his view of the law. “Paul’s logic seems to run like this: in Christ God has acted to save the world; therefore the world is in need of salvation; but God also gave the law; if Christ is given for salvation, it must follow that the law must not have been.” (pg 475) Agreeing with Stendhal, Sanders observes that in his description of himself in Philippians 3, Paul calls himself "blameless." Under the law he did not have a deep inward struggle with sin. When Paul preached, he most likely did this the same way. The content of his preaching was not the conviction of sins and then redemption in Christ, but instead began with the message of salvation through Christ.

Salvation in Paul is predominantly seen as a future event which he mistakenly thought to be soon. “It is further to be observed that the verb “save” in Paul is generally future or present but only once past (aorist) tense.” (pg 449) Sanders sees Paul's motifs of salvation as more participationist than juristic. The reformation overemphasized the judicial categories of forgiveness and escape from condemnation, while ignoring the real heart of salvation, which is a mystical participation in Christ. Paul shows this in his argument in his first epistle to the Corinthians when arguing against sexual immorality. It is wrong because it affects one's union with Christ by uniting himself to a prostitute. Sin is not merely the violation of an abstract law. This participationist language is also used in Corinthians in the discussion of the Lord's Supper wherein one participates in the body and blood of Christ.

Unlike many later proponents of the New Perspective, Sanders sees justification as transfer language. It describes one’s entrance into the people of God. However, this is not so much about one's legal status. Paul indeed adopted the earlier Christian view that Christ's death was expiatory and that man was forgiven of his sins. However, when Paul uses this language he is only expressing accepted Christian tradition, not his own point of view. Paul's own thought emphasizes the death of Christ as delivering us from the old aeon and bringing us into the new. His death involves a changing of Lordship and causes us to die not to the penalty of sin, but to the power of sin. “Christ came to provide a new Lordship for those who participate in his death and resurrection.” (pg 499)

For Sanders, Paul did not see the law as something which was impossible to fulfill. As previously mentioned, he said himself that he was blameless under the law. The problem with the law was not that it did not offer righteousness, but that it offered the wrong kind of righteousness. Paul came to the realization that man must be righteous by faith in Christ, thus all other righteousness is excluded, meaning it cannot come by the law. He saw the problem that both Jews and Gentiles were to be “righteoused” by faith, purporting that law could not make one righteous, since it excluded gentiles.

Paul believed, as is evident in Romans 6, that men are under the Lordship of sin. He did not come to this conclusion by any inner struggle, rather by the fact of the lordship of Christ. Since to be saved one must come under the lordship of Christ, he must have previously been under the lordship of something else; that something else is sin. This takes him so far as to overemphasize man's sinfulness in Romans 7 which almost equates the law itself with sin.

Does Paul accept the covenantal nomism pattern which he had received as a Pharisee? Sanders says in some sense yes, and in some ways no. In many ways, his categories were much different. For example, he discusses the new exodus, not in covenantal categories, but instead as the escape from one aeon to another. Paul does accept the basic idea that in the new covenant there is salvation, and those outside of the covenant will not receive salvation. One enters into the new covenant by baptism, through grace, and must keep with repentance to stay within the covenant. This is seen as he often talks about justification by grace in the past tense, but in Romans 2 is able to speak of a future justification by works. However, he differs in his description of personal transgression. Transgression for Paul is not seen as something which will exclude one from the covenant, but as something which affects one's mystical union with Christ. While Paul does sometimes speak in covenantal language, the covenantal nomism category does not fit his emphasis on the new creation. Essentially, while Paul accepts some aspects of Jewish soteriology, it is inconsistent with his participationist categories, “the primary reason for which it is inadequate to depict Paul’s religion as a new covenantal nomism is that the term does not take account of his participationist transfer terms, which are most significant terms for understanding his soteriology.” (pg. 514)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An Overview of the New Perspectives on Paul Part 1: Krister Stendahl

I want to thank everyone who has been giving me suggestions and encouraging me in my search for a Lutheran church body. I am going to discuss the issue with my pastor this week. I would appreciate your continued prayers. I am going to do a series of posts giving the historical background and brief refutation of the "New Perspective on Paul."

The latter half of the twentieth century saw a major shift in Pauline studies, particularly in Paul’s relation to Judaism and the law. From the 16th century throughout much of the 20th, Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul was widely accepted by most within Protestantism. While not always agreeing with Luther completely, exegetes had accepted his basic premise that Paul in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans was fighting against Jewish legalism of sorts. Paul’s argument was primarily soteriological. Going back even farther, the entire western church had accepted Paul’s polemics against the Judaizers to be soteriological since Augustine’s controversy with the Pelagians in the 5th century.

The so-called “Lutheran Paul” of the west stressed justification by faith alone as the center of his gospel. This doctrine was ultimately aimed at the comforting of the conscience of the man, who, being struck by the perfection required in God’s Holy law, needed a means of forgiveness. This idea of Paulinism was certainly not universal, as men like Herman Ridderbos found the center of Paul’s thought, not in justification, but in the broader theme of union with Christ. Geerhardus Vos sought to emphasize the narrative aspects of Paul’s thought rather than the mere systematic categories that had often been applied. The “Lutheran Paul” found its ultimate expression in the writings of Rudolph Bultmann. Bultmann, using existentialist philosophy as a backdrop saw Paul as answering the plight of everyman which emphasizes the complete dependence of man upon God. This complete dependence was not rooted in the historical figure of Jesus, but in a universal principle which answers man’s existential plight. Paul spoke unilateral truth, not necessarily grounded within history. Paul distanced himself from the Judaism of his past, seeing it as nothing more than pure legalism. In Judaism, God weighed one’s merits against his demerits in order to determine final salvation. Bultmann emphasized the distinction between the law and the gospel farther than Martin Luther himself would have imagined. Luther saw the law and the gospel as both given by God, present in the old and new testaments, and as good things which both aimed at the salvation of God’s people. The law showed the need for salvation, and the gospel provided it. Other writers saw Paul as much more consistent with historical events and his Jewish past, as even Bultmann’s student Gunther Bornkamm showed the necessity of the historical person of Jesus in Paul’s theology while agreeing with Bultmann on the centrality of the doctrine of justification in Paul’s thought. W.D. Davies showed convincingly that Paul’s theology was largely influenced by Judaism and the break between Paul and Judaism was not as great as many had assumed it to be.

Krister Stendhal
In 1963, Krister Stendhal published an influential article which challenged previous views of Paul and his relation to the law. Stendhal argued that since the reformation we have read Luther’s experience back into the writings of Paul, rather than seeing Paul on his own terms. Our conception of Paul is a product of medieval thought in the western world that would have been completely foreign to those in the period of second temple Judaism. Paul himself did not have a troubled conscience as did Augustine, Luther, or Wesley. He in fact had a “robust conscience.” In Philippians Paul described his former life in Judaism as one of “blamelessness,” not of a failing struggle to obey the law. When Paul talks of the perfect obedience required in the law, it has a more corporate than individual meaning. The nation of Israel of a whole failed to keep the law that was required of them as Paul describes in Romans 2. Paul’s discussions about the failure of the law are not to provoke the conscience of his readers, but are aimed at defining the relationship between Jew and Gentile.
It has been assumed that Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was a conversion to a new way of life. He was a Jew who struggled to obey the whole law, realized he could not, and then converted to faith in Christ. This idea comes from the autobiographical reading of Romans 7. On the contrary, Stendhal believes, “There is not-as we usually think- first a conversion, then a call to apostleship; there is only the call to work among the gentiles.” (“The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” In Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays, 78-96. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.Pg.84-85)

Paul’s break from Judaism was not much of a break at all, but instead it was a new understanding. Paul’s purpose from this point forward was to work out the relation between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. For Luther, Calvin and other exegetes, chapters 3 and 4 were the central discussion of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. The theme was seen as the righteousness of God expressed in justification. This incidentally led to the discussion of the relationship between Jew and gentile in chapters 9-11. On the contrary, according to Stendhal, the center of Paul’s epistle to the Romans is chapters 9 through 11. The discussion of justification served only as a backdrop for this part of Paul’s argument. The protestant idea of justification has been a non-historical one which sees Paul’s doctrine as solving a universal problem for men of all times, rather then understanding the context of Paul preaching to a Jewish audience of the Messiah. The law Paul speaks of is the Mosaic Law given to Israel, not a set of universal rules to be obeyed by everyone. The so-called “second use of the law” as applied to converting all men, Jew and Gentile alike, to faith in Christ, is a complete misuse of Paul.

Paul certainly does talk of sin in his epistles. When he writes of his own sin, he is not discussing his burdened conscience. Rather, he speaks of the sin of persecuting the church of God which he had now made up for. All of this does not mean that Paul held the view that after baptism man becomes sinless. He accepts that Christians do struggle. However, the focus of his discussion of struggle is not one of despair but of victory over that sin. After his so-called conversion, Paul was not troubled in his conscience as he testifies in Acts 23:1 among other places. He does speak of “weakness” as the thorn in the flesh, but these weaknesses are unconnected to indwelling sin. “But there is no indication that Paul ever thought of this and his other “weaknesses” as sins for which he was responsible.” (ibid pg 91)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Looking for a new direction in the future

This entry is not primarily theological, but a personal note. I just received word from the LCMS that I will be ineligible for ministry due to the fact that I do not hold to a literal 24 hour view of six day creation. This leaves me unsure of where to go from this point. Most of the other Lutheran bodies are either in agreement with the LCMS on the necessity of this issue, or ordain women and/or deny Biblical inerrancy. I do not believe that ordination of women is a Biblical concept. I also do not want to align myself with a denomination which denies the inerrancy of the Biblical text. Thus, it seems I am left with nothing.
The only other conservative denomination I have found which would allow me to preach so far is the AFLC. However, they have pietistic roots and only hold to the Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism as confessional documents.
Any help here would be appreciated. I ask for your prayers in this matter as I seek God's guidance which so often works contrary to our expectations.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Response to James White on 2 Peter 2:1

"But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves." (2 Peter 2:1)

This verse, as claimed by Michael Brown, is saying that these false teachers, according to Peter, deny Jesus Christ who bought them through the cross. This seems to be the obvious meaning of the text. Dr. White initially had two responses to this interpretation of the text.

1. The word despotes is not used in reference to Jesus Christ. It is a term referring to the Father. While I admit that this is a common term in reference to the Father in the Septuagint, it is false to assert that this is never a reference to Jesus. There is another reference in the book of Jude, "For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord." (Jude 4) The word translated as "Sovereign" is despoten.
It is worth pointing out that Peter and Jude have almost identical language in many places. They are likely writing against the same group of false teachers. All New Testament scholars agree that either Jude relied heavily on the text of 2 Peter, or 2 Peter relied on Jude.
Not only is this word used in an epistle addressing the same or a similar matter; it is in fact in a parallel statement. They are both writing an introduction to these false teachers who have secretly introduced heresy into the fellowship. Peter refers to those who "deny the Lord who bought them", while Jude refers to those who, "deny Jesus Christ our only sovereign and Lord." If Jude wrote after Peter, which is most likely, he had Peter's epistle in front of him as he used the same term. If Peter was referring to the Father, Jude most likely misread Peter.

2. It is claimed that the term "bought" is a referencing to the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. Deuteronomy 32:6 refers to God as the one who "bought" them. However, the term used in the Septuagint in this verse is not agorazo, the term used by Peter. There is no direct parallel here. Observe the other instances of this word through out the New Testament:

1 Cor. 6:20 - you have been bought with a price
1 Cor. 7:23 - you were bought with a price
Rev. 5:9 - Thou . . . didst purchase. . . men from every tribe, tongue and people
Rev. 14:3 - who had been purchased from the earth
Rev. 14:4 - These have been purchased from among men

These verses refer to the atonement, not to deliverance from the Exodus. The argument that James makes regarding this, is that all the other times the word is used in reference to the atonement, there is a price included. This argument does not hold water. It would not be necessary for Peter to include "for a price" for his readers to understand his meaning. They would have automatically thought of the redemption bought by Christ. Here are three reasons why:
1. Peter's audience was not exclusively Jewish. Thus, the Jews redemption from Egypt would not have been on their mind.
2. Exodus language was now used in early Christian tradition to refer to the death of Christ and the age of the church. Peter for examples refers to Christians as exiles, priests, etc. Paul uses the crossing of the Red Sea as a symbol of redemption bought by Christ.
3. The heresy that these men brought does not seem to be "denying the Father" but denying Jesus. This is why Peter has to remind his readers that what he told them about Christ was not a "cleverly devised myth." (1:16) They apparently denied the majesty of Christ. (1:17) He also needs to defend the fact that Christ is actually coming back in chapter 3, thus they also denied his return.

There is simply no reason to assume that Peter was making a reference to the Exodus here. It can only be read into the text because of a preexisting theological system. We all come to the text with presuppositions Dr. White, even you.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lutherans and immutable election

I made the comment that Lutherans in some sense agree that there is such a thing as "irresistible grace." What I mean by this is that election will result in one's actual salvation. Thus in some sense, God will "irresistibly" save his elect. This is a poor term to use because of its Calvinistic connotations, meaning that saving grace is given only for the elect. Someone challenged me on this stating that my words, "God will infallibly convert and preserve His elect in the faith" were Calvinistic. I put together some quotes from the Confessions and American theologians to show that election is particular, immutable, and cannot be lost.

SD Article XI. 8. "God's eternal election does not just foresee and foreknow the salvation of the elect. From God's gracious will and pleasure in Christ Jesus, election is a cause that gains, works, helps, and promotes our salvation and what belongs to it. Our salvation is so founded on it that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18), as is written in John 10:28, "no one will snatch [My sheep] out of my hand." And again, "and as many as were appointed unto eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48)

SD Article XI. 22. "Finally, He will eternally save and glorify in life those whom He has elected, called, and justified."

Early Missouri and Wisconsin synod theologians were very clear on this as well:

Pieper, Christian Dogmatics Vol. III pg. 479, "The elect are only those actually saved, for Scripture teaches that without fail all elect enter eternal life."

Hoenecke, Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics Vol. III pg. 52, "The immutability of election has clear proof in Matthew 25:34, 24:24; John 10:28, Daniel 12:2; and Romans 8:29,30. Our Confession expresses the Scripture doctrine very clearly and plainly. And when our confession says that God 'ordained it [salvation] in his eternal purpose, which cannot fall or be overthrown,' then it is asserted very definitely and clearly that no elect person finally remains in impenitence and unbelief and thus is lost."

None of this is to say that God does not truly give grace and offer salvation universally. However, God has not elected all men unto salvation. As Walther even says, "He gives everybody enough grace to enable him to be saved, but he does not give everybody the same amount." God's grace alone the cause of man's election. In The Theology of American Lutheranism pg. 178

Some try to say that because grace is given to all men through the gospel, whoever resists God's grace less than the other would then be saved. Walther replies to this idea, "If my non-resistance were the real and ultimate ground, then I would be my only savior." ibid. 188

The Lutheran Confessions, and the Confessional theologians during the American predestinarian controversy agreed that election is infallible, thus irresistible. An elect man cannot simply choose to be non elect.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Historicity of Luke's Nativity Narrative

I have been having an interesting, thought provoking discussion in my comment box in an old post. I am posting it here because several of you may be interested in this discussion. Feel free to add any thoughts, disagreements, etc.

Dustin said...
I wonder if you're notified about comments on articles this old. Anyway, one of my biggest problems with the idea of Matthean priority is that Luke seems entirely unaware of Matthew's nativity story. Luke has no mention of Herod being alive during Jesus' birth, no slaughter of the innocents, no Magi, and no flight to Egypt. In addition, Luke places it during the governorship of Quirinius, which was in 6 AD, long after Herod's death (though his later comment that Jesus was "about 30" in Luke 3 may contradict this, indicating some confusion on his part). I find it really odd that if Luke had Matthew as a source, he seemed to completely ignore Matthew's nativity and give a new account that he specifically dates to a later period. I find it more likely that he was unaware of Matthew's Gospel, or at least this part of it.

April 7, 2010 4:22 PM

Jordan Cooper said...
I don't think Luke needed to use the nativity story which was present in Matthew for him to have been aware of it. Matthew used these elements of the story for the purpose of showing Jesus as the "new Moses." Thus, he included the slaughter, paralleling the slaughter of children during the infancy of Moses. He included the flight to Egypt to show Jesus as paralleling the Israelite's captivity and wandering before entering the land of Palestine.
The primary purpose of Luke, unlike Matthew, was not to point to Christ as the fulfillment of God's covenantal dealings with Israel. Thus, he did not need to include these details. Luke worked from several sources including Matthew, Mark, possibly the gospel according to the Hebrews and maybe other early documents. He could not have included everything.
Regarding Luke's dating, it is not clear that Luke is indeed talking about the time period when Quirinius was governor. He uses the term "hegemon" (a general term for a ruler) as opposed to "legatus" (governor)to refer to Quirinius. Thus, though he was in charge of the census, he was not necessarily governor at this time.

April 7, 2010 7:59 PM

Dustin said...
Well part of the problem with the census is that it simply doesn't really make any sense before 6 AD, and we have no record of one happening before then. Before 6, Judea was a client kingdom, not a province. To my knowledge, Rome never took a census of a client kingdom. It wouldn't really make much sense to do so, since a major point of having it be a client kingdom was so that it would handle its own affairs itself.

In addition, we have no record whatsoever that I am aware of of Quirinius governing Syria in any sense before 6 AD. Josephus also made no mention of such a census despite making a big deal out of the census of 6 AD. This either means that the Jews didn't care about the first census, which would be weird given their reaction to this later one, or Josephus for some reason decided that such a thing was irrelevant for some reason, which is also very odd considering the content of his works.

Finally, Luke clearly thought that his audience to be familiar with whatever census he was referring to. We don't have any record of any pre-6 AD census, which indicates to me that any such event was much more obscure. Why refer to an obscure event in such a way that would be easy to mistake for a slightly later and much more famous event? This would be an unusually poorly put passage for Luke if this were the case. Luke also gives indication in Acts 5:37 that he expected his audience to only think of one census when someone referred to "the census," and that's the one of 6 AD.

As far as I can tell, the main reason that people think there was an earlier census comes from the idea that Luke and Matthew had to have agreed about the date. If one doesn't assume that from the outset, what evidence is there of any earlier census?

April 8, 2010 3:19 PM

Jordan Cooper said...
Justin Martyr does mention Quirinius as having been procurator, an office different from governor. Where he got this information from is uncertain. Even without this reference however, just because no other source mentioned Quirinius as procurator does not mean that he never was. It is bad historiography to assume that because something cannot be verified in another source, it must be false. Much of what Josephus said is not in other sources from the time. Does that mean we cannot believe these parts of what Josephus says? No, of course not. The standards for applying historical scrutiny are always harsher upon the New Testament documents than other historical sources. Just because they are religious does not mean they are not reliable history. All history has an agenda behind it. Josephus clearly does.
Luke does mention that this is the first census under Quirinius. Thus, he assumes that there were two different census taken under Quirinius. Perhaps his role in the first led to his being elected governor. If Josephus mentioned a census calling it the "first census", it would probably be assumed that there was a second. Why not with Luke?
Luke mentioning the other census as "the census" in the book of Acts points to the fact that this was the most obvious of the two. This was most likely because it stirred the Jews up, hence its being recorded in Josephus unlike the first.
The fact that Luke refers to it as "the census" only helps point out that he is talking about something different in Luke. This is why he qualifies himself by calling it "the first."
It was not a poor choice of Luke to mention this census just because there was a more famous later census. His readers most likely knew of both. This is why, to avoid confusion, he mentions it being the first. You ask what evidence there is for being an earlier census. My answer is the book of Luke.
You are right that I assume Matthew and Luke agree on the date. I come to the text with the presupposition that it is free from error. I openly admit that. You also come to historical texts with certain presuppositions. For example, you presuppose that reading historical documents can show you actual past events, you presuppose that a text can err, you presuppose that what you perceive on the page you read corresponds to what is actually there. None of us are free from presuppositions. Mine include the inerrancy of the Biblical text.

April 8, 2010 4:15 PM

A Response to James White on 1 John 2:2

Last week James White had a radio debate with Arminian Pentecostal scholar Dr. Michael Brown over the subject of Calvinism. Through out most of the debate, I found myself cheering on Dr. White. However, when Dr. Brown presented a couple of texts, 1 John 2:2 "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." and 2 Peter 2:1 "But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves."

Dr. Brown brought up the point that the term world never means "the elect" in the many times John uses the word through out this epistle. While I don't think Dr. White was saying that world means specifically "the elect" Dr. Brown made a good argument. Through out the epistle, the word "world" means either the sin of the present age, the present evil age itself, or the people belonging to this evil age. Thus, why, in this one place would John mean "all ethnicities" or "many people through out all time?"

When presented with this argument, Dr. White said that the definition of the word "world" was irrelevant for his argument. This is because the term propitiation means the turning away of wrath, thus it must refer only to specific people, or else God has no wrath toward anyone and ultimately everyone will be saved.

I was disappointed that Dr. White did not deal with the term "world." I do not believe it is irrelevant to the argument, and I would like to hear how he, in the context, would interpret this term as meaning only some people of all ethnicities. In the text, "world" is contrasted with "us." Thus, the "world" must be different from the "us." So who is John writing to? One argument says to Jews. Thus, John would be saying that Christ died not only for the sins of Jews, but for the sins of gentiles. However, there is no evidence in the text that John was writing to only Jews. This is why it is considered one of the "catholic epistles." David Wells argues that "world" means "Christians of all times." However, I see no evidence that kosmos could have this type of meaning. If this is really a catholic epistle, the "us" must refer to all believers, thus "world" must refer to unbelievers.

As for Dr. White's argument for the term propitiation; I do not believe that it would necessitate universalism. Can one have Christ as their propitiator and yet be under the wrath of God? I would argue yes, and that Dr. White believes this as well. I would like to ask Dr. White, before the Spirit created saving faith in his heart, was he under the wrath and curse of God? Unless he believed in eternal justification, which he does not, he must admit that he was at one time under God's wrath. Was God's wrath against him propitiated? If he is one of the elect, then he must answer in the affirmative. I would ask Dr. White, how can Christ propitiate the wrath of God for you if you were at some point still under the wrath of God? Is this just because you did not have faith? But isn't unbelief one of the sins that Christ died for?
My point is, even Dr. White must admit that the redemption accomplished by Christ must be applied through faith before it benefits the one for whom it was paid. Thus, in the same way, Christ propitiated the wrath of God for the sins of all men. However, the benefit of that must be received by faith. Thus, if one does not have Spirit created faith, he does not benefit from the work of Christ, though it may have been given for him.

Think about the sacrifices of the old covenant. The sacrifices were given for the nation as a whole. However, only those who drew near would benefit from its blessings. It was objectively given for the entire nation, however, it had to be received subjectively for one to receive the benefits. Now, with the death and resurrection of Christ, the objective work he performed on earth is given for all people of all nations objectively. However, as in the old covenant, one must draw near to God through faith to receive its benefits.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

For those of you who don't know

I was on Issues etc. today discussing Calvinism and Lutheranism. Check it out:

Friday, April 2, 2010

What exactly is the Lutheran view of baptism?

I have been asked to give a brief overview of the Lutheran doctrine of baptism. I have done many posts on the topic but none which includes a comprehensive explanation of the Lutheran view. I will attempt to do so succinctly if possible.

The best place to go for the Lutheran view of baptism is Martin Luther himself. His Small Catechism gives a brief yet profound explanation:

What is Baptism?
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God's command and combined with God's word.

Which is that word of God?
Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew: "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What benefits does Baptism give?
It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

Which are these words and promises of God?
Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."

How can water do such great things?
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God's word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus chapter three:
"He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying." (Titus 3:5-8)

What does such baptizing with water indicate?
It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?
St. Paul writes in Romans chapter six: "We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." (Romans 6:4)

What we believe about baptism:

Baptism is essentially a means by which He has chosen to bring us His Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. God often uses things which seem ordinary to do miraculous works. He speaks to us through a book. He came to us in human flesh. He even spoke through an ass! God often hides Himself in ordinary elements as He reveals Himself. This is the same with the water of baptism.
We believe in baptismal regeneration. This means that the Spirit has chosen to work through baptismal water in the same way that He works through His word. Reformed Christians often say that the preached word is a means of regeneration but baptism is not. We believe that both are means which God uses to bring His promise to us. Baptism is the gospel in visible form, thus it gives all of the benefits of the gospel.
We believe in infant baptism. Since infants cannot understand the word, God uses baptism as a means to regenerate them and bring them into the faith. Through it, God gives faith. If faith is truly a gift of God and not a human work, God can certainly do this for an infant. He can also do it through whatever means He has chosen.
We believe that baptism is a form of the gospel, not a form of the law. Baptism is an act performed by Christ, through the hands of the administer of the sacrament. It is His gift of life and salvation. It is not a work we do. It is not something we do to profess our faith, or to profess that we will raise our children in the faith. It is a gift of grace through the promise of the gospel.

What we do not believe:

We do not believe that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. Since God works through both word and sacrament, the word is sufficient to regenerate and save. However, if one refuses to get baptized, this is evidence that he was never saved since he is denying what Christ has commanded.
We do not believe the Roman Catholic view of baptism. The Roman Catholic church denies that faith is necessarily given at baptism. They also deny that sin remains after baptism.
We do not believe that everyone who was ever baptized will be saved. If one rejects God's offer through baptism, or does not continue in the faith given at baptism, his baptism becomes a means of judgement rather than salvation.
This does not mean that we deny justification by faith alone because we believe baptism saves. The issue is that baptism and faith are not separate things. Baptism gives and strengthens faith. Baptism also delivers the promise which faith clings to.

These are the main points of the Lutheran view of baptism and how it differs from both the Reformed and Roman Catholic teachings on the subject.

This is just really cool

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Review of "Longing to Know" by Dr. Esther Meek

Dr. Esther Meek in her book "Longing to Know" has sought to formulate a Christian epistemology devoid of any foundationalist presuppositions. I read this book when trying to figure out exactly how a Christian "knows." How do I explain to an unbeliever why and how I believe? How do I know that I can trust God's word and Christ's death on the cross?

In this book, Dr. Meek argues that knowing God is like knowing one's auto mechanic. One hears of the auto mechanic. One hears that this auto mechanic is reliable. One then brings their car to this auto mechanic and sees that his work is reliable. Whether or not one sees this auto mechanic, he has no reason to doubt this mechanic's existence or his faithfulness to his vocation.

Dr. Meek sees all knowing as relational. To know is to be in a subjective process with the object of knowledge. Knowledge is not "justified belief." One follows a series of "clues" and comes to the conclusion that he can have trust, and confidence in truth. This is like a "magic eye" puzzle wherein one puts the clues together and eventually comes to see the whole picture. This is the same with our knowledge of God. Knowledge is a skill which needs to be practiced. There is however, no certainty. Certainty is not possible, nor should it be sought for. For one to assume that he can be certain is to assume that his knowledge is inerrant. Doubt is good and necessary.

I have several problems with the epistemology Dr. Meek espouses in this volume. While several of the ideas she proposes are relevant to every day knowing, they are inadequate when coming to the subject of God.

Dr. Meek assumes, first of all, that man is an active subject when it comes to the knowledge of God. However, I would argue that man's pure passivity in justification and conversion is applicable to man's knowledge as well. This is why old dogmaticians used the term "illumination" as one of the steps of the ordo salutis. Man does not know God because he has "put the clues together" or had an epistemic experience, but because God, as the active subject, has freely illumined the mind of man, the passive subject.

Dr. Meek seems to have adopted something similar to the I-Thou epistemology of Martin Buber. Knowledge is personal and existential. It comes through an experience between two subjects. This is in opposition to the I-it relationship which has been promoted in modernism wherein man is an active subject who knows an abstract object. While I do affirm that there certainly is a relational aspect to our knowledge of God, it is not the whole picture. There is an objective gospel, objective doctrine which is the object of faith. Perhaps this could be described as an I-it-thou relationship, wherein one has a relational knowledge of God which comes through objective means, namely, the gospel (which includes certain doctrinal propositions) as delivered through word and sacrament.

The problem with the illustration of the auto mechanic is that the analogy does not completely work. Man is not born with a mind with hatred and utter blindness to the truth of the auto mechanic. However, this is his natural state with God.
The main problem with the epistemology espoused by Dr. Meek is its starting point. The subject is ultimately the starting point of his own knowledge of the divine. However, if the word of God is the ultimate source of truth it should be our starting point. The starting assumption should be that God's word is infallible and inerrant truth. Truth, as from a personal being contained in a book, should approach us. We cannot attempt to approach it. We should be that which is acted upon by truth. We cannot try to reach truth through our perceived truthfulness and reliability of God. His truthfulness and reliability should reach us and penetrate our minds and hearts.
If it is an infallible God working knowledge within us, there is no problem in our having certainty. The certainty then does not lie in our own epistemic efforts, but in the truth itself.

Ultimately, the book gives a good explanation of how knowledge of ordinary life works, however, it is inadequate to explain our knowledge of God. It is essentially an epistemology of glory, wherein our knowledge of God depends upon our own experience and perception of truth. We should adapt an epistemology of the cross, wherein we must admit our inadequacy to know at all and become passive receivers of the revelation which is in the person of Christ.

1 Peter and Baptism

"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him." - 1 Peter 3:18-22

This is one of the clearest texts showing that baptism does indeed save men. When dealing with this passage, I have heard several Reformed interpreters tell me that "this passage is just hard to understand" so that we should not base a doctrine off of it. However, the passage is clear to me.

Peter states directly that "baptism now saves you." These words should bear their obvious meaning. To make it even more clear, Peter gives an analogy from the old Testament. Noah was saved from God's wrath on mankind through water. In the same way, the Christian is saved from God's wrath through water. For those who say that baptism simply symbolizes our being saved I ask, did the water which Noah's ark floated on merely symbolize his salvation? No. Clearly, Noah, through the water, was actually saved. If the flood was a type of baptism, then was the type greater than its fulfillment? Was the water of the flood salvation from God's wrath yet baptism a mere symbol? This is not the way typology works. The fulfillment is always greater than the type. The water saved Noah from God's wrath, however, baptism is greater because it saves men from God's eternal eschatological wrath.

The argument most commonly used against the seemingly obvious meaning of the passage says that because Peter qualifies his statement by saying, "not the removal of dirt from the body", he must not refer to water baptism since water baptism does indeed remove dirt from the body. However, this is to miss the point of Peter's argument. The reason he uses the flood as an example is because water is what saved Noah. Would Peter be saying "God saved Noah through water which symbolizes your salvation through baptism, but not water baptism, baptism by the Spirit." This ruins the analogy. The point Peter is making here is that what saves us in our baptism is not the cleansing of the body, but the fact that through it our conscience is cleansed and we are united to the resurrection of Christ.

To say that what Peter means here is that though Noah was saved through water, we are saved by the resurrection of Christ which is symbolized by baptism destroys the argument.

If we are going to stick to the clear text of scripture it must be admitted that baptism does actually save the believer.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Christ's command to baptize infants

The most common argument against paedo-baptism is rather simple. The Bible does not directly command it. An explicit command to baptize infants is certainly not necessary to affirm the doctrine, as I think it is a clear implication of all of the statements about baptism in the New Testament when read together. However, I do see an explicit command in the New Testament to baptize infants. This comes from the famous story of Christ blessing children. Many have declined to use this in defense of infant baptism because they see it as a general principle about children or being childlike, and not a direct reference to the sacrament. Even Edmund Schlink denies that this passage should be used. However, I believe there are many implications in these texts of baptism.

"Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them and went away." - Matthew 19:13-15

" And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them." - Mark 10:13-15

"Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." - Luke 18:15-17

In the Matthew and Mark accounts, the word Paidia is used. This can refer to either infants or small children. However, Luke makes it clear by his use of the word Brefe That infants are in mind. The children being "brought" in Matthew 19 may also point to this. This story is important enough for all three synoptic gospels to include it. Thus, it should not be passed over lightly. But what does this story mean?

Option 1: It shows that all Christians should have child-like faith
This is a common interpretation of this story. Jesus is using this as an illustration. He is using infants to show us that we should have the same humble and trusting attitude in our relationship with God. While this is certainly in the text, the words of Jesus using this as an illustration are not even used in Matthew's account. Thus, this cannot be the primary purpose of this story.

Option 2: It teaches that all children will be saved
This has been a common defense for the idea that God will save all infants. Because he states that the kingdom of God belongs to them, Jesus is showing that all who die in infancy will inherit the kingdom of God. Whether or not this is true, it is clearly not the point of this passage. This text speaks of children being brought to Jesus, something which could be hindered. This clearly has nothing to do with the death of infants unless Jesus is saying "do not hinder the infants from dying. Let them die so that they can come to me." This is simply nonsensical.

Option 3: It teaches that children can be brought to Jesus and enter the kingdom
I see this as the most plausible option. Here is why:

In the beginning of the gospels lies the story of John the Baptist. John was appointed by God to preach the kingdom of God which was approaching. How does one prepare to enter this coming kingdom? Through baptism and repentance. The first time in the New Testament the kingdom of God is mentioned is in Matthew 3 in the context of John baptizing. Why would one assume that Matthew was not referring to baptism when referencing entrance into the kingdom of God in chapter 18 if entrance into the kingdom in chapter 3 is referring to the sacrament? Kingdom and baptism are linked.

There are two other references to baptismal terminology in this story as well.

1. the language of "not hindering"
Early baptismal liturgies often contained the question to the believer, "is there anything hindering you from being baptized?" This may point to the fact that these accounts are using language from baptismal liturgy. The question of course is, did this baptismal liturgy exist yet when the gospels were written? I believe it did. View this statement from the book of Acts:

"And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" - Acts 8:36

The same word koluo is used as in the synoptic accounts. The similarity of the language leads me to believe that this was most likely already a part of the churches liturgy.

2. the laying on of hands
More importantly, Jesus lays his hands on the children to bless them. In the early church, laying on of hands and baptism were connected.
"On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them" - Acts 19:5-6
The author of Hebrews even associates the laying on of hands with one of the elementary doctrines of the faith. "Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment" - Hebrews 6:1-2 Most likely, washings and the laying on of hands are referring to baptismal practices.

We must remember that the gospels were written to the developing church. They were not mere biographies of Jesus. This church was growing rapidly and baptisms were being performed every day. Many of the readers would have been newly baptized. Hearing this story of Jesus blessing children, laying his hands on them, telling parents not to hinder there children from coming to him, would certainly bring baptism to mind.

If this passage does not refer to baptism, what is it talking about? How can parents "bring their infants to Jesus" if not by baptism? How else can one be embraced by Christ himself and enter into the kingdom of heaven? Is this merely a narrative about how Jesus liked kids?

That this passage refers to baptism is clear when all the options are considered. This text is not necessary for a belief in infant baptism, but it is the only Biblical command which most likely refers directly to infant baptism.