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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

ISIS, Holy War, and Apologetics (Part II)

In my previous post I argued that one of the keys to understanding Israel’s military and seemingly genocidal campaign against the Canaanites is to locate it in its proper historical context relative to the coming of Christ and the intrusion of the new creation which occurred at his resurrection. My contention is that the warfare of contemporary jihadist Islam bears some affinity to Israel’s conquest of Canaan because, largely through its defiance of Christ and the new creation, jihadist Islam is inextricably entrenched in the old creation.

Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites, in other words, is a mere chapter in a lengthy narrative that moves towards eschatological peace among nations and ultimately to the termination of war and violence. Already in the Old Testament one hears prophetic voices denouncing excessive violence and bloodshed (Ps 68:30) and lamenting life among war-hungry people (Ps 120).

Given the tradition in the Ancient Near East of communities rewarding conquering military captains with temples constructed to the gods who enabled their victories, it is striking that the privilege of building a temple is denied to David precisely because he was a man of violence and bloodshed (“You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood,” 2 Chr 28:3; NRSV). Instead, the house for God would be constructed by “Shlomo,” a man of peace, in whose name “Shalom” is reflected. There is evidently something about the temple of God which is seemingly incompatible with war and bloodshed.

The Old Testament, moreover, includes the vision Isaiah sees of the coming Messianic kingdom, of an eschatological age when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isa 2:4; cf. 9:2-7; 11:1-9).

Even though war was used an expression of God’s international sovereignty and as an instance of his historical justice, it is a dimension of the fallen world, the old creation, and will be transcended by peace.

The road to Canaan, in the words of Chris Wright, is “one small stretch along the road to Calvary.” At Canaan, God in his justice poured out his judgment on an evil community. I’m grateful that at Calvary God, in his mercy towards me, poured out his judgment for my sin on his Son.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

ISIS, Holy War, and Apologetics

The current campaign of ISIS, the jihadist Islamic rampage in Iraq and Syria, occasions a lot of interest in, and comparisons to, the military campaigns of Israel against the Canaanites and other ancient people groups. Some Muslims are quick to indicate that Christians lack the ethical capital to critique ISIS since the Christian faith, according to its ancient narrative, exhibits a military-violent dimension approximating ethnic genocide.

Our apologetic is neither to deny the violent and bloody warfare of the Israelites nor to indicate regret and embarrassment about it, but to situate it in the trajectory of God's redemptive purposes in history. Put differently, Israel's military campaigns were inextricably embedded in "the old creation" whose kingdom weaponry consisted of sword and spear and whose apostates were executed.

The notion here is not simply that God accommodated and inhabited the cultural furniture of the Ancient Near East to secure his purposes such that Israel advanced in the same way that any nation in the ANE did--namely, through something approximating genocidal warfare. It is, rather, that the world prior to Jesus was a world of bloodshed resulting from human sin, which sin Jesus came to conquer and which bloodshed Jesus came to end.

Whereas the Israelites conducted their kingdom campaigns in an old economy of bloodshed that anticipated, if not yearned for, the coming Messiah, jihadist Muslims are perpetuating this old economy in defiance of the Messiah who came.

Through the complex of his death and resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated a new creation with a different economy, a different military, and different weaponry. Our warfare is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the powers of this dark world, against the spiritual forces of evil (Eph.6:12) and therefore we do not fight with the weapons of the world (2 Cor.10:4); we fight with the weaponry of word, sacrament, prayer, and worship.

From its dietary restrictions to its circumcision rituals to its purity washings to its fasting seasons to its notions of civil religion and civil law to its preoccupation with real estate, Islam (in especially its jihadist manifestations) is inextricably entangled in the "old creation" worldview, for which very reason it has multiple affinities to Old Testament Israel.

Friday, June 24, 2011

N.T. Wright and Deathbed Counsel: Exposing a Fable

Recently a friend of mine retold a story he had heard in a lecture (precise date unknown) by Don Carson in which Carson alleged that when Dr. Wright was asked what he would say to a person on their deathbed, Wright said that he didn't know or would have to think about it. The implication, of course, is that Wright has no gospel left to preach to a dying person. That account struck me initially as highly implausible. If you know anything about Wright it's that he's rarely at a loss for words. Wright might say some wrong things occasionally, but he always has something to say!


As an admirer of Dr. Wright, I fired off an email to him asking about the origin of this story. Wright responded almost immediately and assured me that though he couldn't remember the exchange it was obvious that he would not have given such an equivocal answer, since as a long-time pastor he has plenty of experience of speaking with people near the point of death and has never had any hesitation in talking to them about the love of God revealed in Jesus and encouraging them to put their whole trust in that saving gift. He said that he had confronted Don Carson, some years ago, about telling and retelling such a slanted and slanderous tale, and that so far as he knows Carson no longer does so.


I'm posting this on my blog to help put this fable to rest. If you want to critique Wright or any scholar, do so in light of their published works and not anecdotes which may or may not be true

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Gospel Coalition (1)

I really enjoyed my recent trip to Chicago to attend The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition (hereafter, TGC), so far as I can tell, is an attempt to rally the troops in the movement called the New Calvinism or the Young, Restless, and Reformed and to offer guidance, to encourage and to warn. This movement, which arises out of American evangelicalism, prizes biblical, Christ-centered preaching that is simultaneously culturally relevant. It offers an alternative to young, predominantly white church leaders who may find themselves attracted to the emergent church movement --- another young, predominantly white initiative, but one intent on "doing church" in explicitly PoMo fashion. The obvious conservatism of TGC is neither stodgy nor traditional. The music at the conference was lively and contemporary, and the speakers, often wearing blue jeans, laced their presentations with appropriate humor. The underlying commitment to Reformed soteriology for these individuals does not preclude, for example, a preference for contemporary worship or a neo-Pentecostal embrace of the so-called charismatic gifts

What most impresses me about the TGC conference are its founders, Don Carson and Tim Keller. The other speakers at the plenary sessions were mediocre, especially in comparison to Carson and Keller. I found James McDonald to be genuine, but his props were entirely unnecessary -- it wasn't a gathering of children. Both McDonald and Alistair Begg, who preached on Ruth, were handed wonderful opportunities to preach Christ from their Old Testament texts, but in both instances the references to Christ seemed somewhat detached from their expositions, as an afterthought of sorts. Matt Chandler and Albert Mohler were sound, humorous, and entertaining, but not particularly profound or insightful. Mark Driscoll's workshop had the semblance of an angry rant, and this was particularly disappointing to me since I found Driscoll to be quite insightful at the last conference.

Part of this mild letdown can be explained by my upbringing. I've been extraordinarily blessed to be nurtured in my youth by faithful, redemptive-historical, Christocentric preaching. The important figures in my own church history, Klaas Schilder and Benne Holwerda, were pioneers in developing a homiletic for narrative texts that was explicitly Christocentric and non-moralistic. By the age of twenty, long before I went to seminary, I had read Sidney's Greidanus's Sola Scriptura. So what the New Calvinism is cutting its teeth on  has been my staple for decades.

And yet the conference was an immense blessing for me, and for several reasons: (a) the rousing music and faithful songs of the Gettys; (b) Tim Keller's brilliant lectures, (c) David Powlison's talk about the pastor's counselling ministry, (d) conversing with David later about the use of Scripture in counselling, (e) Don Carson's exciting talk about Melchizedek, (f) chilling with family and friends.

Next time, I'll return to Tim Keller. He is the reason I attended TGC conference, and he is the reason I will return.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Vonk on Genesis 1 (4)

God gets the credit

The person who recorded Gen.1:1–6 for his contemporaries was writing truth. To whom do all things owe their origin—the things that we see and the things that we do not (yet) see, those referred to in one way in this age and in another way in that way—to whom else do they owe their origin than to the Lord, our God, the creator of heaven and earth?

In what other way could the author of Genesis 1 make clear to his hearers and readers that the credit for creating everything they saw was due exclusively to the one true God, than by addressing them in their language and by making use of their notions and conceptions? For that reason he gave the name raqia’ to that which we still perceive today as a vault—a Hebrew word which was associated at that time with notions which we no longer share, even though the separation of waters above and waters below is still highly significant for us today.

In this way we understand the intention of the author of these verses perfectly well, just as we can understand his intention for all of Genesis 1 in a similar way. This is especially true if we take note of the conclusion and the sequel of this chapter, for then we can discern the underlying plan. From the very beginning the intention of Genesis 1 has been lead the Israelites in a subtle way to praise the One who had let himself be called Yahweh by them ever since Horeb. As they heard or read this chapter, they were to come to the conclusion that the honour and glory of all that exists belonged to the God of Israel.

The entire story is constructed in such a way that the Israelites could not help but break out at the end in a song of praise to Yahweh, who had spoken to his people on Mount Horeb and identified himself there as the Creator of heaven and earth, and even of the fearsome sea. With a mighty hand and sovereign ease he had made them himself, and afterward took a rest which nothing or no one could prevent, and which he now gave, indeed commanded, to his Israel in a day of undisturbed rest and relaxation.

Vonk on Genesis 1 (3)

Already harmonized

It has pleased God our Father to tell us something about the origin of the great realities which we see with our eyes and which cause us to magnify his name. He was not under obligation to anyone to do this. Nor was there any mortal to whom he could explain these things as to an equal. But he was pleased to do this because he wanted to be honoured by us as the only and almighty God (Rev.4:11). This is a lesson of Genesis 1 that no one may call into question.

Perhaps he also wanted to guard Israel against the foolish notion that things arose as the result of a struggle of fearsome primordial monsters, or against the mistaken conception that those things together constituted a second god, which had existed next to him from all eternity. Therefore God let us know something about the origin of all things, namely that they all owe their existence to his creative hand. It was his prerogative to make use of whatever language and time he pleased, and of whatever nation.

Naturally these things were of considerable influence on the manner of presentation. The Lord did not express himself about these things in the concepts of the 20th century. He would not have been understood if he had. The Scriptures sometimes speak of the earth as though it had four corners and rested on pillars (Job 9:6; Jet. 49:36; Rev.7:1 and 20:8), and sometimes as though the land floated on water (Ps.24:1).

Is it possible for us, who have now learned to speak in completely different ways, to dismiss these passages as untrue, or must we in some way or other seek to bring them into harmony with the exact results of science? Surely that is completely unnecessary; they already are in harmony. There is no question of conflict here. Each passage is simply speaking with its own purpose and above all in the language of its hearers and readers.

How would the prophets, the poets and the singers of Israel have been understood by themselves and by their contemporaries if they had spoken the language of our days? It is understandable that we do not have controversies about those pillars and foundations; it would be simply too silly.

But can we then say that we do have the right, on the basis of contemporary knowledge concerning the structure and history of the universe and the earth, to criticize what we are told in Genesis 1, and that we must then exert every possible effort to try to reconcile the one with the other? Let me give just one example.

In Gen.1:6-8 we are told that God made the firmament. In the Hebrew the word that is used is raqia’. We must not give this word the same meaning as our words “atmosphere” or “stratosphere” because these are modern concepts. If Old Testament scholar Brongers is right, the Israelites conceived of this as a vault, made either of cloth or flattened metal, having doors and windows in it, and water above it.

Now some people today will immediately say that such a vault does not exist at all, and that therefore it cannot have been created by God either. We would not be able to deny this. But does this mean that we have declared Gen.1:6-8 to be untrue? Or must we now exert ourselves to rescue this part of Scripture from the hands of the critics by reading our concept “atmosphere” into the Hebrew word in question? Both responses are illegitimate.

Vonk on Genesis 1 (2)

Much writing and controversy

These difficulties which seemed to many to be occasioned by the reading of Genesis 1 have given rise to an extensive literature and much controversy. Some decided, on the basis of supposed inaccuracies in this one chapter, to reject the rest of Scripture as well and to abandon their faith altogether, whereas others looked for a solution in harmonizing the Bible and science.

The most obvious way of doing this was to equate the days of Genesis I with epochs, possibly epochs of immense length, which could easily accommodate the results of astronomical and geological research. Perhaps there have also been those who thought to themselves: those days of Genesis I were just ordinary 24-hour days and those geologists and other scientist types are selling me a bill of goods. But, of course, to hide one’s head in the sand is not a satisfactory solution, not to mention the hard-line which this implies against fellow-believers who are also serious about their faith.

We do not wish to suggest that we are above all such debates among Christians about the interpretation of Genesis 1, but the question has occurred to us from time to time whether we are really dealing here with genuine difficulties resulting from a real clash between Scripture and science, and whether, consequently, the search for solutions is not superfluous. Is this a proper use of the Genesis creation story? Or is it possible that we can properly apply the following analogy, which we once heard someone use in a discussion of these matters?

Imagine a great industrialist, someone like Henry Ford, sitting in his old age surrounded by some of his grandchildren, who are 10 or 12 years old. They ask him how it came about that Grandpa created the large company which made him so famous. How will he answer his grandchildren in a way which will give them some insight into how he laid the foundations of his mighty enterprise?

He will tell a story, a story adapted to children. The story will be geared to children, not to adults. Making use of their limited conceptual possibilities he tells in sequence the story of some of the main components of his business, things that the children have some experience of at the present time. But now suppose that those same children go on to study economics and related disciplines, and then, armed with this academic training, begin to do research in Grandpa’s enormous business archives. Some of them, on the basis of certain items in Grandpa’s immense archives, will feel compelled to come to conclusions that are somewhat different from what they remember of the story they heard as a child and will question the truth of that story. Others will try by all sorts of solutions to vindicate Grandpa’s truthfulness.

Is it really necessary to do either of these things? Was that really the point of the earlier children’s story, to be subjected at some time in the future to the criticism of economic science?

Vonk on Genesis 1 (1)

Cornelis Vonk (1904-93) was a pastor in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands who initiated a multi-volume commentary on both the Bible and the Reformed confessions entitled De Voorzeide Leer (The Aforesaid  Doctrine). What follows is taken from Volume 1a (pp.98-102) which deals with introductory matters and Genesis-Exodus. It usefully illustrates how Dutch Reformed pastors and theologians commonly approached questions of science and Scripture without resorting either to liberalism or fundamentalism. The following translation is courtesy of Dr. Al Wolters, one of my beloved professors from Redeemer University College, and was first published in Calvinist Contact (January 18, 1991: pp 12-13).

* * *


The author of Genesis may have expected his readers to have little difficulty in understanding him, but subsequent readers of the first page of the Bible have had difficulties aplenty. This was already the case in a time and in a country that were not even so very far removed from the time and the country of the apostles.

The author and first readers of Genesis 1 were undoubtedly people of ordinary intelligence and therefore must have realized that the light which they enjoyed every day really came from the sun, which was not created until the fourth day; yet they had no problem with the fact that the creation of light is already mentioned on the first day.

Similarly, Christ and his apostles never issued any warnings against the first page of “Moses and the Prophets” because it contained something that didn’t quite fit. Nevertheless, as early as the Syriac church fathers there were those who had difficulty with Genesis 1 because they could not understand how there could have been evening and morning before there was a sun that rose and set. Consequently, they devised a number of different solutions to the problem.

However, in subsequent ages the problems have become more acute as a result of reflections on the age of the universe, especially that of the earth. As astronomers investigated the universe with its immense masses and volumes, distances, temperatures, numbers, its concentration here and its emptiness there, they became acquainted with such awesome dimensions, both of space and time, that their greatest astronomical yardstick, the so-called cosmic year (the time it takes for the sun to circle the centre of gravity of our galaxy) was hardly sufficient to measure these dimensions. As for geologists, especially the paleontologists among them, who did research on the earliest time of the earth’s existence, they could come to no other conclusions than that the length of time which had elapsed between the first life on earth and the arrival of the human race must have been by far greater than just a few days.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Contemplative Imperative: Are there healthy alternatives to smoking?

It was a pleasure of mine not so long ago to attend a Paidea event where (aspiring) scholars were invited to reflect on the promises and perils of Neo-Calvinism, the revival of Calvinism initiated by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck that was characterized by an acknowledgement of Christ's lordship over all of life and a corollary orientation to worldview thinking. Not only was I treated to stirring lectures by the likes of Craig Bartholomew, Michael Goheen, and Calvin Seerveld, I was blessed to dialogue with a variety of individuals with the interesting and engaging personalities you would expect to find at such a gathering. In a conversation with Rob Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, I shared my theory on why smoking is so attractive to academics.

Those of us who spend a good deal of the day buried in books need periodically to stand up or wander around and contemplate what we've been reading if only to determine specifically how it has relevance for the project with which we are busy. Any academic will concede the usefulness of such an exercise, and Rob and Alissa were no different. The problem is that the moment of contemplation has an awkward feel to it; one simply stands and stares, as if in a trance, and that looks funny, seems wrong, induces guilt, etc. We could be helped if there were something to do, or better, to enjoy, in this moment. Puffing on a cigarette fills the need perfectly: it takes the awkwardness out of the moment, and there's no longer a need for embarrassment if someone approaches and sees you in your trance-like contemplation. After all, you're doing something.

The problem, however, is that though smoking stimulates brain activity shortterm, it tends to do nasty things to other important organs without which proper human functioning is difficult. We need alternatives. Chewing gum won't do; it still looks silly. What would really help is a harmless cigarette which is non-addictive, nicotine free, etc. Is there anybody out there who can help us?

Friday, March 18, 2011

New Look and Outlook

In the coming days I'm going to resurrect this blog with a slightly new look and a definite new outlook. I was preoccupied in the past with theological debates, and though I'm still strongly convicted about the things I wrote, I'm disillusioned about the possibility of sincere, meaningful theological dialogue within the confessionally Reformed camp. In the future, therefore, this blog will be dedicated to more profitable ventures.