In Which Stephen Fry Steps In It

If you would be so kind, I would like to ask you to view this brief bit of blasphemous cheek. It’ll just take a few minutes.

Now then, all set? Let’s break this down into two basic parts. The first part is that Stephen Fry is given a thought experiment, and we should take a moment to see how he thinks in thought experiments. He doesn’t believe in God, but he is nevertheless asked a “what if.” What if you were wrong, the questioner asks, and the whole thing turns out to be true, with you finding yourself in a conversation with God at the Pearly Gates. Fry takes that occasion to launch into his diatribe. Bone cancer in children? What’s with that?

But I want to note something really strange about this set up. When God and Fry take their places as these disputants, Fry undertakes to argue morality with Him. And in order to argue this way, he has to assume — and most certainly does assume — that there is a moral standard that overarches the two of them, and which is equally binding on both of them.

But what is that standard? Where did it come from? How does it come to be binding on both of them? In order for the standard to be authoritative, there must be an authority, correct? Who is that authority?

If the standard arises from within Fry, then why should it be in any way obligatory for God? That standard fails to overarch the two, so why the indignation? If the standard arises from within God, and yet God is inexplicably a hypocrite, not living up to His own standards, then the question becomes why the standard continues to bind God after He has abandoned it. Suppose God just changed His mind. Why should Fry be indignant?

Or, taking another option, Fry could think, should think, that since there is a standard that overarches the two of us here, then I must have gotten into an argument with a demiurge porter down at one of the lower pearlies. I must hasten to find the Most High God, the source of all that is moral and true and right. I must find Him because He alone is worthy of worship. He alone is the grounded source of my indignation. Funny — that’s not how this thought experiment goes.

After unloading his indignation on the questioner — who was clearly unaccustomed to blasphemy — Fry then coyly says that it is best to dispense with believing in this being’s existence altogether. But notice what happens now.

There is no God. What about bone cancer in children now? What about insects that make children blind now? You have abandoned God for the sake of the children, but for God’s sake, what does this do to the children? You cared about them a lot just a few minutes ago. Even though you have dispensed with God, you must still answer the questions you have posed. All right. There is no God. You have persuaded us. What is bone cancer in children? What’s that about? Please speak into the microphone.

The cosmic chaos around us doesn’t care what happens to children. All of that is just matter in motion. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it feels good, but there is nothing out of the ordinary here. There is nothing to object to, no reason to be indignant. Imagine there’s no heaven, above us only sky.

There is one step more . . . since we cannot change the inexorable law that we become like what we worship, and since Fry’s ultimate reality is a blind, impersonal, godless, materialist machine that grinds people up, not caring at all, indignant with nothing, let us take a look at the behavior of the kind of secularist society that Fry champions. We have rejected the God who decreed the existence of insects that eat children’s eyes, thus blinding them. We have done this so that we might become a pro-choice society, so that we tax-paying grown-ups might all become the insects that eat children’s eyes.

Stephen Fry has posed some questions that I believe have some straight-forward answers. I would like to hereby extend a cordial invitation to meet together with him in order to debate them in greater detail. I believe that we could put together an event that put the spotlight on these questions, along with our respective answers.

11 Theses on the Meaning of Scriptural Authority

1. Our starting point for all discussions of biblical authority should begin with an affirmation of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. More needs to said on this subject than was said there, but not less. Fruitful discussion can take place only among those who can honestly sign that statement. With those who cannot sign it, our duty is that of charitable debate and refutation.

2. Obedience is a key element in exegetical understanding. Obedience is the opener of eyes. Without obedient application, the text is not really being studied.

3. Affirmations of biblical authority are worthless unless we understand that the contemporary secular challenges to biblical authority create enormous pressure on those affirming inerrancy to develop interpretive workarounds, such that inerrancy can be formally affirmed while being practically denied. Examples of such pressures today would include biblical teaching on sexuality and human origins.

4. Scripture is given to us as seed, and is therefore intended to grow and flower down through history. The Word of God is living and active and this extends to more than just the personal conversion of individuals. The living Word is intended by its growth to shape and govern all of human history. The development of unbelief in history has no authority to dictate the contents of the seed.

5. The spirit of liberalism wants to detach this life and growth from the seed, in order to shape an autonomous direction for that life and growth. The spirit of blinkered conservatism wants to keep things orthodox by keeping the seed deep frozen in the shape of a seed. But the nature of the plant depends upon absolute allegiance to the seed, and the nature of the seed requires growth and development that is fully in line with the intention of the one who gave the seed.

6. This growth means that in addition to the autographic meaning of the text, there may also be additional (non-contradictory) canonical meanings to the text. The original Masoretic text says “my ear you have opened” (Ps. 40:6), while the New Testament citation of this passage, using the LXX, says “a body you have prepared for me” (Heb. 10:5). This latter meaning is a canonical meaning, fully consistent with the autographic meaning, while plainly not meaning the same thing.

7. While no “normative revelation has been given since the completion of the New Testament writings,” canonical meanings can be expected to develop in post-apostolic history as well. Examples would be the development of the Table of Contents of Scripture itself, the growth of Trinitarian understanding, and the gracious God-given knowledge that justification is by faith alone.

8. Dealing with such issues honestly and with theological and intellectual integrity is necessary to prevent young biblical scholars from coming to believe that they must choose between inerrancy and personal honesty. Presented with this false choice, too many have discovered that choosing “personal honesty” leads them straight into professional and personal dishonesty.

9. We must therefore reject a biblicist primitivism that regards it a higher way, for example, to “get back” to chanting psalms in Hebrew. If God had been all that enamored of Hebrew, He wouldn’t have switched to Greek for the New Testament. If you had two buttons in front of you, one which would make everyone in your congregation a superb Hebraist, able to chant the psalms just the way David chanted them, and the other button giving you a congregation that contained several Greek and Hebrew scholars to help keep things honest, but the congregation was acquainted with and well-versed in the history of Christian psalms and hymns, along with other songs from around the world, in various styles, and was also a congregation engaged in composing new music for the psalter that would make David go hmmmmm, which button would you push? And, just as an aside, which one did God push?

10. The Bible itself gives us the standards of truth and accuracy that we must use in judging all things. A false precisionist approach, in which words are believed to have decimal points, seeks to judge Scripture with a set of idolatrous standards. But the Enlightenment does not judge the Bible — rather the Bible judges the Enlightenment, in part by growing right past it.

11. The Word of God is absolute truth, the breath of God, silver that has been refined seven times.

Lord of the Slippery Roads

We all enjoy talking about the sovereignty of God, and sometimes we even enjoy it too much when we are talking with those brothers who happen to disagree with us on it. But how much do we believe it? How strongly do we believe it?

“Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, ‘The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.’ So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:21-23).

As Ezra’s example makes dear, for eons the saints of God have been seeking His protection as they travel. We instinctively look to Him for our safety as we travel. But there is more to it than this—we also should seek His rest as we go. In order to do this properly, we must act upon the Word. Much more is involved than a little pious whitewash—”Don’t worry. .. be happy.” Okay. Why? We should seek traveling mercies, but why?

Our Lord never blinks; He never looks away from us. The Bible is explidt about this generally, and we also find scriptural statements of His knowledge concerning our travel.

Nothing Coming Down the Pike

The question of assurance is a subset of epistemology. And that means Christians today who struggle with assurance are dealing with an extra factor that previous generations of Christians (usually) did not have to deal with. We live in a skeptical postmodern age, and so the question of knowing that you are saved is related to the question of how you can know anything.

This becomes even more challenging when we are talking about our own faith five years out. In Scripture, genuine faith in God now is necessarily related to faith in God in the future. Baptism binds the future.

“Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; And in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; Having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me” (Phil. 1:27–30).

Paul says that when Christians respond to persecutors with a calm and like-minded spirit, this freedom of terror is a token, a proof, a demonstration. The word is endeixis (ἔνδειξις — pardon — just testing WordPress fonts). When God gives such supernatural grace, it is a token, a sign, an indicator, that this group is going to be saved, and that one is going to be damned. This is not something that should be classed as infallible revelation (a persecutor might repent, and one of the Philippians might apostatize), but it should be classed as genuine knowledge.

So we are not talking about any kind of assurance that by-passes the need for perseverance. We cannot be assured of anything the way God is assured of things. God knows what He knows absolutely, and all our knowledge is contingent. All our knowledge is creaturely. But there are more options than having to decide between “knowing as God does” and “knowing merely that I am saved for the present moment.”

The Spirit works into us true knowledge about the future, not just the present. We know this future as we know anything else, as creatures, but we do in fact know it. This is why the Bible speaks of the Spirit as an earnest, as a guarantee (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14). But what good is a guarantee that guarantees nothing in the future? This is why we are encouraged to know that He who began a good work in you will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). And this is why Paul piles up challenge upon challenge, threat upon threat, in order to teach us to taunt those challenges with the knowledge that nothing coming down the pike can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:37-39).

In short, we need two things in this, and as I see it the FV dark beers thus far are only affirming the first of the two. The first is that as we work through the New Testament, we must find a class of Christian for whom it is absolutely true that nothing can separate them — whether things present or things to come — from God’s love for them in Christ. Because they affirm decretal election, the dark beers do affirm this, unapologetically. The dark beers have been repeatedly and slanderously wronged by those who maintain they are denying this. That mistake is made because people believe this controversy has to be an old issue in new clothing. No, it really is a new issue, and needs to be treated as a new issue. It needs to be worked through patiently, asking and answering the hard questions.

So the second thing we need is this. We must also find that it is possible for this class of chosen Christian to know this fact to be true about themselves, and to draw real assurance from it. And this, thus far at least, is what I believe is missing from this new proposed paradigm. And the ramifications of what we need to work through here extend from soteriology up to epistemology. It is a big issue, and a complicated one.

As for me, I hold that an essential part of our confession of faith has to do with our place in the future of God’s people. “And of this community I am and always will be a living member” (HC 54).

21 Theses On Assurance and Apostasy

1. There are only two final destinations for human beings after the day of judgment, those two destinations being the final damnation of the old humanity in Adam, and the final salvation of the new humanity in Christ.

2. Throughout all history, God has kept a visible covenant people for Himself, intended to declare, model, test drive, instantiate, train for, grow toward, and otherwise approximate that final redeemed humanity.

3. Depending on location and era, that visible covenant people has ranged between a grotesque parody of that final redeemed humanity and a genuine approximation of it. As history grows toward its glorious consummation, the historical progress toward that final eschatological goal will be more and more unmistakeable.

4. But in either case this means that the rosters of names involved, those of the visible covenant people, and the final redeemed humanity, the elect, are not identical rosters.

5. God has always given His visible covenant people visible covenant markers. In our time of the new covenant, these markers are gospel and sacrament. God is sketching His preliminary drawing of His final redeemed humanity in charcoal — Word and water, bread and wine. It does not yet appear what the final oil painting will be like.

6. The visible covenant people therefore necessarily contains two kinds of people, regenerate and unregenerate — lines that will be used in the painting forever and lines that will be erased.

7. Christ is always present and offered in His gospel and through His sacraments. When an unregenerate covenant member does not close with Christ, the issue is his absence, not Christ’s. With their lips they approach Him, but their hearts are far away. Christ was not far away, they were far away.

8. When covenant members who are not elect are erased from the preliminary drawing, this means there was something wrong with their presence there from the beginning. God is all wise, and so their presence was no mistake. At the same time, that presence does not function at all like the presence of the elect.

9. Because the covenant markers can be abused by unregenerate covenant members, these covenant markers cannot be a ground of assurance. True evangelical faith can and should use them as a means of assurance, but never as the ground of assurance.

10. Covenant markers can never be a ground of assurance because unbelief and/or apostasy can be hidden and secret. Countless hypocrites have had all their external papers in order. If externals were a ground of assurance, then hypocrites could have true assurance. But a true Christian is one inwardly, and real baptism is of the heart, by the Spirit.

11. Believers who struggle with assurance should constantly be encouraged by pastors, family and friends to look to Christ wherever He has promised to be — in the proclaimed Word, in His people, in the sacraments, in the reading of Scripture and prayer.

Down at the Pool Hall

Warfield’s little book The Plan of Salvation is one of the few books that I have read three times. The first time was in 1988 when I was first becoming a Calvinist, and it was no doubt part of that bumpy but wonderful process. I read it again the next year. I read it a third time just a few years ago, and this leads to a needed retraction.

I interact with that book in several of my own. The first book is “Reformed” Is Not Enough, published over a decade ago, and the second is Against the Church, published late in 2013.

In RINE, my assessment of Warfield is fairly critical. “But I do want to argue that Warfield was being inconsistent here…” (pg. 86). And then a bit later I say this:

“According to Warfield’s definition, to have the covenant dispensed in ordinances and to have them be spiritually efficacious, is sacerdotalism. But this is the Westminster Confession, which he claims is anti-sacerdotalist. And so it is, but the inevitable conclusion is that there is something wrong with Warfield’s definition” (pg. 88).

When I first read this book by Warfield I really appreciated it. But a little over a decade later, when the Federal Vision controversy was heating up, I had picked up a more jaundiced view of him on this point from my circle of friends down at the pool hall. Before letting that jaundiced view show up in RINE, I ought to have gone back to review Warfield’s book more thoroughly than I did.

Then, a few years ago, when various events conspired to make me go “wait a minute,” I went back and read Warfield through again. My retraction is this. I don’t believe that Warfield was being inconsistent with the Westminster Confession on this question of sacerdotalism and his view of “immediate” grace. I don’t believe that I was being inconsistent with the Confession either, in either of my books, but I do believe that I was not being fair to Warfield in RINE.

And so what you see in Against the Church is my attempt to vindicate Warfield against his critics on this point — which is obvious enough if you read that section. What is not obvious, unless you have a better memory than I did, and what should have been obvious to me, was that in print I had been one of those critics. There should have been a footnote or something in Against the Church, issuing a retraction then.

And so here are two retractions. I do not believe my assessment of Warfield in RINE was accurate, and I also believe that this retraction ought to have occurred in Against the Church, not a year later in 2015. My apologies.

Our Last Christening

A year or so ago, I read through Marilynn Robinson’s novels, which was a treat for the most part. I read all of them except for Lila, but there I had the excellent excuse that it had not yet been released. But now it has been, so it comes to pass that I have now read it also.

Robinson’s descriptive powers remain as great as ever, and she does what every novelist dreams of, which is to hold your attention page to page. What she does not do, however, is provide a compelling case for universalism. Robinson specializes in exquisite descriptions of broken characters, but here her theology unwittingly becomes one of those broken characters, lame and blind, and with no one to help.

In universalism, the human is constant. He or she does things, and those things can be good or bad. Universalism focuses on those things, and wonders whether God is so arbitrary or so irrational as to be unwilling to forgive such things. And it is also pointed out that someone else has been forgiven for those very same things, and if one person is forgiven, then why not all? Meanwhile, the perpetrator is standing off to the side, a constant subject whose role is to have done a list of bad things without having been transformed by them.

For the universalist, the question is “why cannot God forgive these things?” The person is always underneath, constant, and sins are what you wipe off. For the Christian, our actions define and illustrate what we are becoming. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Damnation is the ultimate gollumization of a man, and salvation is our last christening. We become what we worship.

For the universalist, there might be a goodish bit of pushing and shoving on the playground, but when the bell rings all the kids are still just kids and they all come in for cookies and juice. Everything comes into perspective, especially during sharing time, when teacher speaks to us all in that soothing voice.

But we are not constant. We are all in the process of becoming something, and Jesus teaches us that there is a tipping point in that process of becoming. Hell is hellish for those who are there, but for a damned soul, Heaven would be a worse Hell. The prospect of being there with Him is utterly loathsome.

Souls that will be damned and souls that will be saved — the only kind you will ever meet — are all of them, every last one of them, in the bud. We are not there yet. We are not the constant. Only God is constant, and as we look at the face of His constancy, we will either see — forever — justice or love.

Baby Oil on the Bowling Ball

If I may, I would like to ask your permission to go up the stairs three at a time here. Great. Glad that’s all set.

What I mean by that is that I want to assert a number of things together in order to indicate a pattern. The argument for some of these things has already been presented in this space, and the argument for others is likely coming up some other time. So bear with me.

I take it as a given that orthodoxy requires an affirmation of the ontological equality of all three members of the Trinity. I also take it as a given that in the economic order of the Trinity, the subordination of the Son to the Father is the way it has to be — otherwise, the Son is not eternally the Son. Given an Incarnation, which member of the Trinity was going to become incarnate was not up for grabs. So the issue here is an affirmation of the absolute equality of the Son with the Father, coupled with an affirmation of the economic subordination of the Son to the Father. In short, authority is an ultimate reality within the Godhead. Prior to the Incarnation, the Son was equal to the Father (Phil. 2:6), and in consenting to the Incarnation, the Son was obedient to the Father (Phil. 2:7).

On a second point, the Bible teaches in numerous places that we become like what we worship. This principle works with idols, with false conceptions of the true God, and with true conceptions of the true God. Idolaters become deaf, dumb and blind, just like the blocks of wood they worship (Ps. 115:4-8), and we, who worship the true God are being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18).

There are two points to be derived from this. The first is that I cannot see any way for someone to deny the economic subordination of the Son to the Father and still retain an understanding of the role relationships that God has assigned between husband and wife. In the older, more faithful Christian order of weddings, the bride vowed to obey her husband, and the husband did not take a corresponding vow of obedience to her. This was fully biblical — first because the Bible calls wives to obey their husbands (1 Pet. 3:6; Tit. 2:5), and secondly, see above, in a Trinitarian economy obedience to another in no way subverts ontological equality.

But what happens if you remove that ultimate Trinitarian pattern and example? And further, what happens if you remove it in an era when enormous pressure is being applied to the church to abandon that older, out-dated stuff, and get with the feminist program? I will tell you what happens — we already see it happening all around us, all the time. There will be no answer to those who charge faithful Christians with denying the equality of women. And because the equality of women is something that all Christians accept (but for some only because the pagan world is not currently pressuring us to abandon it), then we must resolve the tension by accepting the charge that obedience entails a denial of equality, and then disobediently abandon the marital requirement of wifely obedience.

There is another issue that is related to all this, although not directly. One of Calvinism’s besetting sins is the temptation to go Unitarian. Looking over church history, one does not have to hunt very far before coming across Calvinists scattered across the landscape who would become Unitarian for two cents. Heidelberg in the 16th century, New England at the beginning of the 18th century, and so on.

A denial of economic subordination within the Trinity is, I am afraid, a proto-Unitarian move. It is three chess moves back, and the thing is complicated, but if there is nothing but mutual submission within the Godhead, I do not see how you can keep this from flattening all distinctions within the Godhead. And when you have done that, what can you do when someone — and you know that someone will — proposes a merger of the three?

If Unitarianism were a murky pond, and you were standing in the canoe of orthodoxy, holding the bowling ball of economic subordination over the water, a denial of that economic subordination is baby oil that somebody slathered all over the ball. Sometimes these metaphors just come to me.

The way we can keep track of all this is pretty simple though. Just pay close attention at the next wedding you attend. If the word obey has vanished from the vows, then the chances are pretty good that some Trinitarian funny business is going on.