Saturday, 9 October 2010


Having just read the article of this title by Charles Hodge in 'Princeton vs. the New Divinity' (Banner of Truth, 2001) I have been struck again by the beauty, majesty, mystery and necessity of this wonderful work of God.

Hodge is arguing against a view of regeneraton that greatly reduces its radical nature and it impact on the sinner's life. It was this kind of view which was influential in the evangelism of such as Charles Finney. Hodge's arguments, which from an impatient 21st century viewpoint seem somewhat laboured, are nonetheless penetrating and weighty.

He insists that regeneration is not a 'physical' change in the substance of the soul, though there is in Calvinist orthodoxy the insistence that it is a real, immediate and direct work of the Holy Spirit producing a moral change. It is far more than mere moral persuasion on the mind. Behind this is a view of the depravity of man, something which characteristically Calvinists grasp more firmly than other evangelical traditions, and which the 'New Divinity' (and we might say modern evangelicalism generally,) has lost. Such a view of 'total' depravity means a monergistic work of God (i.e. God working alone) is essential, even though the soul becomes active in conversion, in repentance and faith. But the first work of giving new life has to be God's.

Hodge is also insistent that regeneration does not produce simply acts of holiness, but a holy disposition, or nature. Behind our acts, he argues, there is not just the substance of our soul (whatever that is) but a disposition to act in such and such a way. The heart that loves God is not made holy in the act of loving God, but has been made holy by a prior act of God and then it acts in a holy manner by loving God. Only if 'born anew' by the Spirit will the soul see God as lovely and as an object to be loved. No choice for God would ever be made without that prior, God- given disposition, which then controls in principle every act of the regenerate person.

How does God effect this new birth? There is mystery here which in a way we do not need to plumb. But if it is not a 'physical' change in the 'substance' of the soul then what is it? Perhaps we can think of what it means for the soul to be 'dead' in trespasses and sins. Unless it is dead it does not need to be made alive, yet 'made alive' is what we are told the soul is. 'Dead' is not a state so much as a relation to God. To be spiritually dead means to be under his wrath, turned out of his gracious presence, and potentially eternally punished in this existence.

To be made alive then would be a reversal of this. It is not a physical change so much as a moral one, a relational one. This is where the Scriptures point to our union with Christ, effected by the Spirit, as the source of our being born again. We are made alive together with him (Eph 2:5); we are born again through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3). It is this union which gives new life. Such union does not add anything new to the soul, and it certainly is more than a change of our actions; it is a renewal of our relationship with God, a renewal of our nature in Christ, so that our nature is now transformed in union with him and is conformed to his. This is the new life.

How could God stoop to do this to vile sinners? Grace. Election. Blood that cleanses from every sin. The sacrifice of Christ.

How wonderful is regeneration. How beautiful. How mysterious. How necessary.

Pooh, Aldenham and Ashdown

We had a family outing this afternoon, a warm, dry autumn day, perfect for a country walk. Aldenham country park is in Elstree, situated near the Haberdashers Aske's School and it was their Open Day so there were lots of Posh Cars around and it was not the best day to get to Aldenham but we made it.

We took the boys around the Aldenham version of the Hundred Aker Wood - Eeyore's Gloomy Place, Wol's House, Pooh Corner, the Heffalump Trap , Christopher Robin's House and other places familiar to Pooh fans. As we were coming away from that part of the Park (for there is much else to enjoy at Aldenham) a lady standing near me on the bridge from which her husband and I had been playing Pooh sticks, pretending it was our children who were playing, asked me 'Is this where Winnie the Pooh was set? I mean, did the writer live here?'

I swallowed hard, fairly sure that the Pooh books had been written in the first half of the last century (I have since checked - it was the late 1920s) and said no, I think A.A. Milne lived in Sussex and the books were set in the Ashdown Forest (which I am pleased to say I have since ascertained was correct).

Now there is no reason why people should know that - but I was a bit taken aback that someone should think that Aldenham Country Park's version of the Pooh landscape might be the original one and pre-date the books - which was the implication of the lady's question.

But then we were near Elstree; perhaps the influence of film studios is more pervasive than one thinks. The possibilities are endless. Did Margaret Mitchell base 'Gone with the Wind' on the filmset? Did T.E.Lawrence's writings come first or David Lean's 'Lawrence of Arabia'? Pasternak's novel, or Omar Sharif as Doctor Zhivago with Julie Christie? But then - we can always visit the real Coronation Street in Manchester. Real? There must be an Albert Square somewhere. And a Walmington on Sea waiting to be inhabited by a Dad's Army.

As for theme parks - the slate quarries of North Wales where real men sweated blood were surely modelled on the Llechwedd Slate Quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog. Perhaps the castle at Alton Towers is the real Camelot.

Is this the Disneyfication of history? Life and literature viewed through the lens of later attempts to capitalise on it and popularise it. There is a place in Florida, I'm told, where history lives and culture flourishes.

There is a lot to be said for the Bereans, isn't there? They checked the original (the Scriptures), 'to see if these things were so'(Acts 18:11). 'Ad fontes' - to the fount. Do not view Truth through any later lens. And certainly know which is which - the reality or the fake.

Pooh is only a story after all, but the tendency to confuse our Ashdowns with our Aldenhams is a rather characteristic 21st Century gaff. Blame Disney? I don't think so; each one of us has the responsibility for finding out what is true.

How wise of that lady to ask someone. That is not a bad place to begin.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Covenant of Works - revisited

In March I posted a blog airing my disagreement (I'm sure he cares!) with John Piper's view of the covenant of works - that is, his denial of it on the basis that it is quite unbiblical to think of God causing anyone to earn his/her salvation.

Since then (after a long delay caused by life, work and other hindrances to blogging) I have managed to do a bit of reading on the covenant of works and have re-read Piper's short piece in 'The Godward Life'. As a result I disagree with Piper, and with others who dismiss the idea of a covenant of works, just as strongly; and I am more convinced that the concept of such a covenant is necessary.

I really do not want to rehearse the evidence for a covenant of works - read Berkhof for a summary of the traditional arguments and then read James Henley Thornwell (Collected Writings, vol 1, Lecture XII)for theological arguments and then read John Murray (Collected Writings, vol 2, 'The Adamic Administration')for weaknesses of the traditional view. The strongest arguments are biblical-theological - the Adam - Christ parallel. Once this is established the evidence for a covenant in Genesis 2 certainly looks strong though it does not satisfy numerous biblical scholars.

From the theological perspective the covenant of works is the description of the relationship humanity in Adam bears to God, just as the covenant of grace is the relationship redeemed humanity bears to God through Christ. There is nothing artificial in working the Adam - Christ parallel through from texts such as Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 and seeing a covenant of works implied in Genesis. Much good theology is implied. Many would argue (see eg Michael Horton 'God of Promise' ) that the Genesis covenant is more than that and draws on the pattern of suzerainty treaties to strengthen the case for a covenant of works.

If Adam was our representative and was on probation in the Garden, is not a covenant the only understanding of the relationship with God that we can envisage? What else do you call it? Moreover it hinged on Adam's obedience and is best called a covenant of works.

Some comments:

1. John Murray, John Piper and others are zealous to preserve God's grace as the source of all covenants. Yet proponents of the covenant of works do not disagree with the source of this covenant being God's condescension and kindness, and Thornwell is even prepared to use the word 'grace' in Genesis, though many such as Horton prefer to restrict that word to redemptive covenants. But why should it not be gracious of God to establish a covenant of works with Adam? What does Piper mean by saying that this is obedience of 'trusting' as opposed to obedience of 'earning' ('A Godward Life, p 171-72)? What is that supposed antithesis supposed to mean?

2. The notion of merit is not a dirty word in itself, once we allow that no-one can earn from God by putting him in one's debt - any reward is of his grace. But that is admitted on all sides.

3. 'The Marrow of Modern Divinity' is a classic exposition of the gospel and the law and could be said to hang on the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. It demonstrates the hermeneutic possibilities of the two covenant scheme. We are under the covenant of works until we come under the covenant of grace. We are under the law as a covenant, then we come under the law of faith (the gospel - using the phraseology of Romans 3:27) then we are under the law of Christ as a rule of life (still the Ten Commandments as the moral law). That is, the same moral law applies though now under the covenant of grace in Christ; we are no longer under the covenant of works.

4. This schema gives a clear framework for understanding the negative and positive attributes of the law in Paul - for example in Romans 7. We are dead to the law as a covenant of works; but not dead to that which is holy and righteous and good in itself. The covenant of works is as it were the old marriage and the covenant of grace is the new marriage to Christ. The law for righteous living, the moral law, remains the same.

5. As others have pointed out, if grace swallows up justice in the covenant with Adam and in the relationship between Christ and the Father, so that merit is nothing, from where do we derive a perfect righteousness to be imputed to us? Our relationship to God in redemption is all of grace, but only because the Lord Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works for us.

I would heartily recommend reading 'The Marrow of Modern Divinity' for a practical model of how the covenant of works 'works' in terms of gospel preaching and in understanding sanctification. The covenant of works is extremely usefu! But it is useful because it is true; it is there in Genesis 2; it is necessary to give full expression to that most important of biblical 'windows' on biblical theology, the parallel between Adam and Christ.

How to read the Bible for all its worth

I am surprised I have not read this book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart before, considering it was first published in 1981. I recently bought edition three (2003) though I understand a fourth edition has recently come out.

It is a helpful book, taking one through some general exegetical and hermeneutical principles before looking at different types of biblical literature - the letters, OT narrative, the gospels, parables, the Law, the Prophets, Wisdom, Psalms and Revelation.

Good - but. Many of the helpful suggestions for interpreting the Bible at the 'micro' level are undermined by restrictive perspectives at the 'macro' level. For instance, on OT narrative we are told: 'The story of Abraham's securing a bride for Isaac (Gen 24) is not an allegory about Christ (Isaac) securing a bride (the church / Rebecca) through the Holy Spirit(servant)'. Try telling that to the people who have heard Iain D. Campbell's masterful and powerful series on the marriages of Scripture as typical of Christ and the church - Isaac and Rebecca, Ruth and Boaz, the Song of Songs (and needless to say there is not a whiff of Christ or typology in Fee and Stuart's handling of the 'Song' or Ruth). (For Iain's sermons visit www.reformationand

We do not want irresponsible allegorising, but what of sane typology? As a message for today's church, one comes away from hearing these stories treated in a Christocentric way thinking - yes, that is the real meaning of the text.

Then in the section on the Psalms, there is not a mention of finding Christ anywhere in them, even in the 'kingly' Psalms. This may be 'p.c.' but it actually flies against a majority view in handling the Psalms in church history - even if one does not, with Luther, see all the psalms as Christ-centred. But one could do worse than that!

As for the OT law - well, it was part of the covenant with Israel and of course is only law for us if repeated in the New Testament. Discontinuity and antinomianism rule OK.

There are other weaknesses - for example, the repetition of some of Jesus' sayings in the gospels but in different contexts in different gospels, is referred too easily to editing and 'context creating' by the evangelists rather than to Jesus having said things more than once.

So it is not a book I would lend or recommend to a young Christian. We are dealing with a Christian public who, it is often remarked, seem to know their Bibles less well than in the past. Doubtless there are many reasons for this, but I would have to say that books like this do not help. Following this book's principles would not help me to get the richness out of the text, and as over 500,000 had been sold by 2003, we must assume it is quite influential in the evangelical world. Is it any wonder people do not know how to use their Bibles when the divine unity of the text and the One who above all gives it that unity, is not taught as the centre and soul of what we should be seeking in all of Scripture - as he himself taught (Luke 24: 27)?

Piety and pietism

I have listened to a CD of a talk given by Joel Beeke at the Met Tab School of Theology this summer. It is on the Puritan view of sanctification and (inevitably) is very good. One thing however puzzled me slightly. He referred to the bad press 'pietism' gets in some Christian circles, and told the congregation that if anyone was to say in a pejorative tone 'you're a pietist', they should regard it as a high honour and say ' I am not worthy of such an accolade'.

Now I know we want true piety and few would disagree. But I have always distinguished between true 'piety' and 'pietism'; between being 'pious' and being 'pietistic'. Pietism I would define (and I concede we all may define it somewhat differently) as the unhealthy separation between spiritual and secular, so that religious life is focussed on a supposed spiritual realm of private spiritual growth and experience, with a consequent neglecting of the Christian's duty in public life, say in politics, the arts or what we call 'the public square'.

Now Joel Beeke certainly does not discourage Christian effort in public life, because his theme was largely on the comprehensiveness of Puritan sanctification; and who would say of the Puritans they were not anxious to live all of life 'coram Deo'? So my slight unease is not with Dr Beeke's main thesis as with the confusion of terms. Surely we do need to make a distinction between true piety (seeking God's kingdom and the knowledge of God in all of life) and that distortion of it which restricts the spiritual life to little more than my personal experience and private life. That kind of spirituality is precisely what the Puritans would not have approved of, but it is just what the secularism of today would love us to practice.

Piety yes. But 'pietism' - or whatever else you call its counterfeit - no!

Religion as Performance

The Pope left our shores on Sunday 19th September. His warnings against 'aggressive secularism' and against excluding or marginalising religion from public life were welcome. Yet it was all riddled with inconsistencies. In his Westminster Hall speech Benedict chose Thomas More, predictably enough, as a hero of conscience against an overweening state, but how many would have stopped to reflect on More's own refusal to allow religious freedom to Protestants? Benedict talked too of the role of religion in helping to 'purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles'. It is not easy to know exactly what this means, but his context certainly seems to be the traditional Roman view of the exalted ability of reason. Meanwhile kneeling with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the shrine of Edward the Confessor was a step forward in relations between the Anglican and Roman communions, apparently. Ho hum.

Perhaps the abiding memory of the visit was the sheer performance of it all. The Pope is the great celebrity, the great actor, the politician, even kissing babies. People seeem to think they are blessed by his touching them or stretching a hand over them. The 'mass' is performed by the priests - thousands of people attend but are observers. A mass is held for schoolchildren. What remote similarity has this to the Lord's Supper or eucharistic thanksgiving? How tragic in the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation to see so many of the people of Scotland kow-towing to the head of the Roman church.

But the Reformation is 'history'. All that is 'irrelevant' now. So we can return to medievalism and superstition in religion and that is 'progress', not seeing that the kind of religion the Bishop of Rome would introduce would be spiritual slavery and cultural primitivism .

I think the four days of the papal visit were the saddest I have witnessed in this country for a long time. Richard Dawkins is less of a threat to Truth and to the honour of God and of Jesus Christ than the Pope is. The elevation of this man (albeit ephemeral, no doubt, for most) surely speaks volumes for Britain's hardness of heart and utter blindness in spiritual things. How we need to pray for our land.