Monday, August 11, 2014

URGENT: Please Help a Persecuted Christian Sister

The persecution of Christians has become more visible lately. Please join in me in trying to help a Christian woman and her children. They are in danger of losing their lives. Your money is not necessary. The funds already exist for her transportation. But please petition the United Nations and your representatives. It will only take a few minutes of your time. Letters are provided below. The following information is from an email written by Rev. Thomas W. Bartzsch in Grand Rapids.

Pastor Afzal Masihs' daughter Tahseen and her children Rain and Trinity fled from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to seek asylum from religious persecution. They now have had their passports confiscated and have been given the threat that they will be deported from Sri Lanka back to Pakistan within the week. We have been praying for them, and now we also need to advocate for them with the authorities as the persistent widow before the unjust judge. It is sad, but these cases are often not decided on their merits but on "volume" - how many people step forward on behalf of the petitioner.

If you are willing, please go to the contact form on the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees website:
http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/contact_hq 
1) Under "Your Concern" - choose "Individual Cases" 
2) Under "Your Country" - choose "United States of America" 
3) Enter your first and last names and email address. You may choose to put in your city and state. 
4) Type in the Security Code - it is case sensitive. 
5) In the "Question" field you may copy and paste this: 
UNHCR Case number: 640-13C00464 
I am writing on behalf of Tahseen Kanwal, an asylum-seeker from Pakistan residing in Sri Lanka with her two minor children, son Rain (5) and daughter Trinity (4). She was interviewed by the UNHCR on May 26, 2014 regarding her religious asylum-seeking status and a decision has yet to be rendered. Her parents and sisters and brothers are members of our community here and we desire the family to be reunited. 
On Sunday August 3rd, the Sri Lankan authorities confiscated the family's passports and threatened them with deportation back to Pakistan within the week. The family has already suffered the loss of a family member for religious reasons at the hands of the Pakistani authorities, so we are justly fearful for the lives of Tahseen and the children. 
I am asking that you expedite the case and provide Tahseen and her children with the necessary travel documents to emigrate to the United States where she and the children will be welcomed and supported by her family and our community. 
Thank you very much for your help and consideration in this matter. 
6) VERY IMPORTANT - UNCHECK the box that says "I wish to receive informational emails" so that you are not bombarded by emails. 
7) Click on "Send" When the screen refreshes, you may or may not see a confirmation. Do not exit until you're sure the new page is done loading. 
Thank you and God bless you for your work on behalf of our sister Tahseen and her children.

Send and email to your senators and state representative using the following format:

Here is a subject line to use:  
URGENT: Religious asylum for 3 Pakistani refugees - family lives in Grand Rapids 
US CIS I-797 Receipt No. WAC-12-902-71043 
UNHCR Case number: 640-13C00464 
I am writing on behalf of Tahseen Kanwal, an asylum-seeker from Pakistan residing in Sri Lanka with her two minor children, son Rain (5) and daughter Trinity (4). Her father, Rev. Afzal Masih, is a naturalized US Citizen residing in Grand Rapids who has an approved I-130 immigrant petition for relative - see I-797 receipt no. above. Pastor Masih is a member of our Lutheran faith community here. 
In addition, she applied to the UNHCR for religious asylum. She was interviewed by the UNHCR on May 26, 2014 regarding her religious asylum-seeking status and a decision has yet to be rendered. Her parents and sisters and brothers are members of our community here and we desire the family to be reunited. 
On Sunday August 3rd, the Sri Lankan authorities confiscated the family's passports and threatened them with deportation back to Pakistan within the week. The family has already suffered the loss of a family member for religious reasons at the hands of the Pakistani authorities, so we are justly fearful for the lives of Tahseen and the children. 
I am asking that you do whatever is in your power and sphere of influence to assist in the expediting of this case so Tahseen and her children can be provided with the necessary travel documents to emigrate to the United States where she and the children will be safe, welcomed, and supported by her family and our community. 
Thank you very much for your help and consideration in this matter.

Feel free to call their offices if you'd rather. And again, forward to whoever you like. And we'll all say a prayer of thanks for where we live tonight.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

J.D. Hall and the Troubled Conscience

There's all kinds of stuff all over the internet regarding the suicide of Braxton Caner following his conversations with J.D. Hall. Unfortunately, I'm not incredibly surprised this kind of thing happened. I've only briefly interacted with J.D. Hall on Facebook in the past but he exhibited certain traits that I've noticed among certain types of pastors whom I've known in real life and on the internet that have resulted in scandals, church-splits, and even criminal charges. They exist across denominational lines but most of these types tend to be pastors of Baptist churches. I don't think most of these pastors would be allowed to continue or even be called into the ministry if not for Baptist church polity. Most of these pastors are also limited somewhat educationally. They have not had classes in pastoral care and taken the time to learn from the mistakes of others. They shoot from the hip and often make decisions that the average person regards as absolutely insane. They are often very kind and caring to those who praise them and hang on every word they say but personally attack anyone who questions or contradicts them. They develop a loyal following from those who regard their antics as courage and conviction.

But all of these crazy actions are the result of a troubled conscience. They do not embrace Christ's Words when He says,"Your sins are forgiven." And they do not preach these words to others. They tend to avoid preaching directly to the sins of those in their own congregation and instead preach about the sins of those (real or imaginary) of those outside of the church they serve head. They attempt to distract themselves from their own sins by preaching against the sins of others. Of course sometimes they will preach excessively about one particular sin and act as if that particular sin is unforgivable. Later it is discovered that they themselves are engaging in that very sin. Pastors who fail to deliver Christ-crucified in every sermon should not be tolerated. They are not Christian pastors. Constantly preaching against various sins is necessary but by itself will only lead to greater sin. The only real victory we kind find over our sin is in Christ-crucified and in His absolution. He washes of our sins in baptism and says, "Your sins are forgiven." In the preaching of the Word He proclaims, "Your sins are forgiven." In the Supper He feeds us with His very body and blood and says, "Your sins are forgiven."

Friday, January 24, 2014

A 72 Day Journey Through the Liturgy of the Apocalypse

From the time I was in fourth grade, I've found the Book of Revelation and all its imagery fascinating. When I went to Calvin College to get my B.A. in Greek, I became interested the uniqueness of the Greek in Revelation as well as the unusual textual variants found throughout the book. In my last year at Calvin, my adviser allowed me to put together a class in which I translated my way through the Book of Revelation from the Robinson/Pierpont Byzantine Greek New Testament and used G.K. Beale’s commentary to help me along the way. After I graduated, I revised and published my translation through Lulu. Since that time, I've developed a better understanding of verbal aspect and my understanding of how the text should be interpreted has changed. My plan is to revise my translation and also write a devotional commentary to go along with it.

The Protestant Reformers insisted that God preserves His Word through the church. Unfortunately, modern textual criticism makes its textual decisions based on the idea that the church has corrupted God’s Word and that the academy must reconstruct the text. Since I am approaching the text with the assumption that God has preserved His Word through the church, I will be using a text prepared by the Center For the Study and Preservation of the Majority Text based on a consensus from the Complutensian manuscripts. It’s a very uniform textual group and great care was taken in its transmission. 

The translation will seek to bring out more of the Greek nuances than mainstream translations do. In some sense it will be more literal but also more interpretive. I plan to post the first draft of my translations on Facebook in order to get some feedback. My translation will draw from what I’ve learned by reading Dr. James Voelz’s work on verbal aspect. I may attempt to provide a second translation that is more suitable to be heard.

The text will then be broken down into the 72 readings following Andreas of Caeserea’s division of the text. I will write a short devotional commentary for each section.  The devotions will assume that Revelation is structured upon an early form of the Paschal liturgy as found in Massey H. Shepherd’s The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse. I believe that this liturgical structure makes the hearer of Revelation a contemporary of the events described in Revelation. Within the devotional commentary I will pay special attention to liturgical, sacramental, and Christological aspects of Revelation and will attempt to distill what I consider to be the best insights I have found from the ancient church fathers, G.K. Beale, Louis Brighton, Charles Gieschen and others into a style and format that is accessible to the lay person. I do not plan to spend much time interacting with other interpretations but to simply put forth what I believe to be the best interpretation of the text.

I’m hoping to do this within a one year time period. When I get close to the end, I will look around for publishers.  If all else fails I will publish via Lulu.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Revelation: The Cure For Worship Wars and Millenial Madness

When the books of the New Testament Epistles were being written, the printing press did not exist. Like the New Testament Epistles, the book of Revelation was written to be heard in its entirety as the sermon for the day. It was written to be heard within a liturgical context in which the baptized gathered to receive Christ's body and blood.  If you drop a lion in the ocean or dissect him in a lab, your observations about what it means to be a lion will be skewed by the environment. Whenever the Scriptures are removed from the intended liturgical context, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are bound to occur, especially when dealing with something like the Book of Revelation.

The book of Revelation is not only intended to be heard within A liturgical gathering but actually has a liturgical structure. Other books of the Bible also have a liturgical Structure but the Book of Revelation has the most explicit liturgical structure and is more likely to be misinterpreted when the structure is missed by the hearer. Massey H. Shepherd has shown the correspondence between the Paschal liturgy and the book of Revelation. I don't think it's necessarily possible to determine whether the exact liturgical form came first or the book of Revelation came first, but the liturgy in its skeletal form seems to have already existed at the time that Revelation was written. Scott Hahn goes to far when he attempts to read the modern Roman mass into the Book of Revelation but that there is some form of liturgical structure is apparent to anyone who is familiar with the historic liturgy. Shepherd seems to be the most responsible and I'll be borrowing quite a bit from him in the rest of this blog post although he may not agree with everything I say.  For the sake of not making this even longer than it's going to be, I will steal much from Shepherd and also deviate from Shepherd without calling attention to my expansions and differences. I highly recommend Shepherd's book but don't agree with all that he says.

Revelation 1:1 tells us that what we are about to hear is the revelation of Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation unveils what is actually take place in the liturgy and what is actually happening in the world around us. The Book of Revelation tells us that Christ himself is present in the Divine Service. He is the Lamb on the altar. In the Lamb's Supper we partake of Christ's body and blood and it is also an eschatological feast and foretaste of that which is to come. Although the Lamb appears defeated and appears to be losing ground, he is conquering through the liturgy. Revelation 1:3 gives blessing to the one who reads out loud and to the hearers. The book of Revelation assumes a liturgical context where there is a designated reader or lector and hearers. In 1:10 John says he was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day or Day of the Lord. There seems to be a quadruple entendre here. The Lord's Day/Day of the Lord was used by Christians in reference to the 1) day of the resurrection, 2) the yearly celebration of the resurrection (Pascha/Easter), 3) the weekly Sunday worship done in celebration of Christ's resurrection, and 4) the second coming of Christ. John's sermon takes on the form of the liturgy used for Easter Vigil/Pascha as we find in Hippolytus and other writers. Shepherd lays out the correlation between Revelation and the Pashal Liturgy as follows:


The Scrutinies The Seven Letters 1-3
The Vigil The Assembly Before the Throne of God 4-5


(a) The Lessons The Seals, I-VI 6
The Initiation The Pause: Sealing of the White-Robed Martyrs 7
The Synaxis The Seventh Seal 8
(a) The Prayers The censing

(b) The Law (Exodus) The Trumpets, I-VI
= The Woes, I-II
8-9


(c) The Prophets The Pause: The Little Scroll; the Two Witnesses 10-11
(d) The Gospel The Seventh Trumpet = The Third Woe: The Struggle of Christ and Antichrist 12-15


The Vials, I-VII 16-18
(e) The Psalmody The Hallelujah 19
The Eucharist The Marriage Supper of the Lamb 19


The Consummation 20-22

The Scrutinies/The Seven Letters (1-3)

Easter is a traditional time for baptism and the the Scrutinies were delivered to baptismal candidates. They had been catechized and screened for heresy. There was also the danger that someone might attempt to join the church to persecute it and so baptismal candidates were screened. The baptismal candidates were brought together for prayer, imposition of hands, and exorcism. The letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation appear to be structured based on these scrutinies and are written to prepare the churches for the "baptism by fire" on the coming Day of the Lord as well as the baptism of blood that they experience in persecution. The half-hearted and negligent are warned. Every root of Judaism, paganism, and heresy is placed under judgment of condemnation. The promises given to the seven churches are both sacramental and eschatological. The seven letters find their place in the pre-baptismal section that comes before the actual Paschal liturgy and are prepartory.

Ephesus is warned but also promised the tree of life in the paradise of God. Smyrna is warned about coming persecution but if they remain steadfast they will receive the crown of life and they will not be harmed by the second death.

Pergamum is promised the hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it which no man knows except he who receives it. The manna is consistent with the references to Exodus found in both Revelation and the Paschal liturgy and refers to the Lord's Supper. The white stone according to Hippolytus is associated with baptism. The fact that nobody knows the name probably refers back to YHWH. In baptism the Triune name is placed upon us by Christ. The name in this case probably has reference to both the name "YHWH" and "Jesus" and points to the mystery that Jesus is YHWH.

Thyatira is promised power over the nations and the morning Star.

Sardis is promised white garments and Christ will confess his name before His Father and before the angels. The tradition of clothing the baptized in white garments dates back to the time of the Apostles. We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ in baptism.

Philadelphia is promised an open door. For a full explanation of the open door motif I highly recommend Charles Gieschen's article. But I will summarize. The open door is access to the heavenly sanctuary. We are given that access in the liturgy where we partake of the eschatological wedding feast ahead of time. We worship with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. The rest of the book of Revelation further explains what this means and the door motif will repeat throughout the book. The door to the synagogue had been closed to these Christians but they have been given access to a much greater door. Not only this, they are promised they will be made pillars in the temple of God.

Laodicea is given several warnings but here we find the door motif again using imagery from Song of Songs 5:2. This passage is often misapplied as some sort of evangelism tool where Jesus stands at the door of the heart and knocks waiting for you to let him into your heart. However, Jesus is standing at the door of the church and inviting them into the Divine Presence. Just two verses later we find the door of heaven and the voice of the Spirit calls John into the Divine presence. If the door opened Christ will sup with them which is pretty clearly a reference both to the Lord's Supper and the eschatological wedding supper of the Lamb at the conclusion of the book of Revelation.

The Vigil/The Assembly Before the Throne of God (4-5)

This is the beginning of the Paschal Liturgy/Easter Vigil. During the vigil, the Exodus narrative was read which is very prominent throughout Revelation. Christ the Lamb is the central figure. The scene is in heaven but reflects the Christian view that the worship of the earthly church is at one with the worship of the hosts of heaven. The scene in Revelation is very liturgical with a bishop, presbyters, and deacons depicted. And we find a sealed scroll which represents the Old Testament Torah. The scroll can only be unsealed by the Lamb. The Old Testament can only be understood when it is understood that they are all about Christ. We also find various liturgical anthems in this section that may find their origin in the Paschal liturgy of that period.

(a)The Lessons/The Seals I-VI (6)

Now the Lamb opens the seals. These six seals correspond to what is found in Mark 13. The Lessons in the Paschal liturgy contained the reading and interpretation of apocalyptic and prophetic material including non-canonical texts. This material being interpreted with reference to the Lamb is seen as the key to understanding the Old Testament.

The Initiation/The Sealing of the White-Robed Martyrs (7)

There is a pause that follows the breaking of the sixth seal and the servants of God are sealed upon their foreheads. This is the time of baptism in the Paschal liturgy but John uses it in reference to the baptism of blood experienced by the martyrs. In John's theology water and blood go together. They are sealed with the Divine name. The renunciation of Satan, profession of faith, the washing, the sealing with the Name, and the giving of the white garments all correspond to the ancient baptismal rite. It is also possible that the sealing has reference to chrismation and the laying on of hands in which the newly baptized were anointed with oil.

The Synaxis /The Seventh Seal (8)

(a) The Prayers/The Censing

There is now a half hour of silence that most likely refers to the silent prayers of the faithful as they conclude the Vigil and await the return of the newly baptized into the assembly. The prayers are equated with incense. It does not seem that incense was actually used at this time but that the book of Revelation led to the later incorporation of incense. The breaking of the Seventh seal does not result in turmoil but silence. There is a kind of Sabbath rest that marks a conclusion to the old order of the seven-fold week and suggests a new order that begins with the trumpets.

(b) The Law (Exodus)/The Trumpets, I-VI=The Woes, I-II (8-9)

Six trumpets are blown and two woes are pronounced based on the six plagues in Exodus. The last two are the first and second woe. This corresponds to the reading of the Law during the Paschal liturgy--particularly the book of Exodus.

(c) The Prophets/The Pause: The Little Scroll; the Two Witnesses (10-11)

Next in the Paschal liturgy we find the reading of the Prophets. The Little Scroll and the reaction of John brings to mind the OT prophets. The Two Witnesses are Moses and Elijah and stand as type-figures for the Law and Prophets that lead to Christ. The Paschal liturgy most likely included readings from Daniel 7 as well as other prophets. Included also in this would be Exodus 15--the Song of Moses.

(d) The Gospel/The Seventh Trumpet = The Third Woe: The Struggle of Christ and Antichrist, The Vials, I-VII (11-18)

In 11:15-19 the seventh trumpet is blown and we find a liturgical anthem based upon Psalm 2 and a prominent Psalm in the ancient Christian church that prophecies of the passion and resurrection of Christ. The early church understood all the Psalms to be about Christ since Christ said that all the Scriptures are about him. Heaven is opened which leads us into the Gospel lesson. The "Gospel lesson" should not be interpreted too narrowly. In the paschal liturgy at the end of the first century the "Gospel lesson" could have possibly been a reading from one of the Gospels or one of the Epistles. In this section we read about the persecution of the Woman by the Dragon. It's difficult to read this without thinking of Mary and I believe it's right to do so but she stands as the representative in this section of the church as a whole. The section ends with the Gospel proclamation of the triumph of Christ over Antichrist  and the final judgment.

(e) The Psalmody/The Hallelujah(19)

Next, we have the Psalmody as indicated by the references to Psalm 113 and following. These were commonly sung at major Jewish feasts and within the context of the Paschal liturgy invite us to the Eucharist.

The Eucharist/The Marriage Supper of the Lamb, The Consummation (19-22)

The Paschal liturgy then ended with the Eucharist in which Christ gives us his body and blood--the great wedding feast of the Lamb. It is the consummation of the age to come. It is the end of time ahead of time in which we are saved from sin, death, and devil and enter into intimate communion with Christ.


Concluding Thoughts

This is a very brief overview and does not even attempt to address all the interpretive issues in the book of Revelation. It is simply an attempt to create the proper framework for understanding the book of Revelation. I believe many of the symbols are purposefully ambiguous. Every detail is not intended to apply to a very specific event. It is intended to be heard as a whole within the liturgical assembly and not dissected in a lab. The 1000 year reign is to be experienced as a participant within the liturgical gathering and not to be placed with some kind of start and end date on a calendar. The number 666 may have reference to Nero but only Nero as representative. It is not so much the number of a man but the number of man. It is man who has not been washed in the waters of baptism. Revelation reveals to us what is going on in worship and what is going on in the world around us. The Lamb is conquering and we partake of the eschatological feast!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why Kloha Isn't the Problem: Inspiration, Inerrancy, Preservation, and other stuff.

Recently, there has been quite a bit of discussion in the interweb about an unpublished paper written by Jeffrey Kloha. The paper is about the release of NA28 and how it relates to the current popular understanding of the authority and inspiration of Scripture. Some have worried that this paper will result in a battle for the Bible similar to what the LCMS experienced in the 1970's. I believe what happened in the 1970's was really the result of what happened in the 1880's and that the major doctrinal shift was never really addressed.

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Lutheran and Calvinist theologians claimed that God preserved His Word in the church and that the text they had in their hands was the same take given to the Apostles. Rome was arguing that the Greek and Hebrew texts were corrupt and that the Vulgate preserved the authentic text. The Reformers were well aware of textual variants but still held to the belief that God's providential care preserved the Greek and Hebrew texts. The autographs served as a sort of touchstone for the authority of the extant manuscripts. Click here for further information regarding the historic Protestant position.

Within the wider body of Protestantism, the shift away from this position began in the 1880's. In the 1880's, Westcott and Hort published their Greek New Testament based on theories that continue to this day. There have been further developments since that time but the idea that the church was the corrupter rather than the preserver of the text remains a foundational principle. A reading which differs from the reading adopted and transmitted by the church is considered to be more likely to represent the original text. This is really an Anabaptist understanding of church history being applied to the Scriptures.

B.B. Warfield was educated in the methodology of Westcott and Hort and found himself in a battle with liberalism. When liberals began to point out "contradictions" in the Biblical text, Warfield would claim that these "contradictions" did not exist in the original autographs. Since nobody had the original autographs it was impossible to prove him wrong. Warfield also popularized the use of the term "inerrancy" which was originally an astronomical term used to refer to fixed stars. On the surface, Warfield seems to have done an excellent job in defending Protestant orthodoxy against liberal criticism. However, this radical move by Warfield resulted in a the placement of authority in something nobody has. Within Presbyterianism, Warfield shifted authority away from infallible apographa (texts we actually have) to inerrant autographa (texts that nobody has). Belief in God's providential care of the text was replaced with faith in the academy to reconstruct the autographs.

William Arndt popularized Warfield's position among Lutherans in the 1920's. It doesn't take too much imagination to see how placing all authority in a text that nobody has could ultimately lead to something like the Jesus Seminar where people vote on what Jesus said. The readings in Nestle-Aland are sometimes decided by a three to two vote. If the church is not the preserver but the corruptor of the text, how do we know that they didn't significantly corrupt the text prior to the earliest manuscripts that we have in our possession?
 
Westcott and Hort were very optimistic in being able to reconstruct the original autographs but modern textual criticism does not share that optimism. The editors behind NA28 are openly stating that they are not trying to reconstruct what the Apostles wrote but rather the source text that explains the many variant readings. Anyone who has kept up on this field of study knows that this has been going on for quite some time but NA28 is the first time this has been openly stated. NA27 adopted at least one reading (Acts 16:12) that was a textual emendation with no manuscript support. At what point will all the conjectures stop? Why should they ever stop if the church is the corrupter of the text?

If the assumptions that stand behind Nestle Aland text are applied to the Old Testament, I don't see how anyone can have any confidence in the Old Testament text at all. It's true that we have record of a very controlled method of copying the text but this process was not in place until a very long time after the texts were originally written. We also have evidence of a variety of different textual traditions that pop up in the New Testament. Most of the time, Jesus and the Apostles don't quote from the textual tradition behind the Hebrew Masoretic text but the tradition stands behind the LXX. Sometimes they do quote from the tradition that stands behind the MT and sometimes they quote from an unknown textual tradition. Jesus and the Apostles seem completely unconcerned with trying to reconstruct the original autographs. Instead, they quote the commonly used text in their day as God's inspired Word. When Paul said that all Scripture is God-breathed he wasn't referring to the original autographs. When Jesus said that not one jot or tittle of the Torah will pass away, he wasn't referring to the original autographs. He was referring to a Torah people really have.

I'm not arguing for a return to the Textus Receptus or even the use of every reading that has the fancy M next to it in Nestle-Aland. Instead, it seems that the church should take its task of preserving the text seriously and use those readings that have lived and breathed in the church, especially the lectionary readings in the Eastern Church. The 1904 Antoniades edition of the Greek New Testament is a good starting point although it has its own peculiar flaws. The Church should honor father and mother and make use of those readings that were preserved for us by the saints who have gone before us rather than acting like disobedient children who think we know more than our parents. Why should we presume to think that we know better about how to choose the correct reading than those who made the textual decisions in the first place? We can find localized examples of intentional corruptions of the text but the vast majority of the time people simply copied what was put in front of them or read to them making small, unintentional mistakes along the way. The idea of a massive, geographically widespread corruption of the text by the church smells like something you might see on the History Channel. Right now, we're waiting every few years to see what text the academy will give us and waiting in anticipation to see what readings our favorite commentator will adopt. The academy and the commentators are giving up hope. It's time to return to a belief that God preserved His Word and knows what He's doing.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Theology is For Constipation: Antinomian Homesick Blues

In both Calvinist and Lutheran circles, as the church goes through its liturgical menstrual cycle, various charges of antinomianism flow forth. In some circles this flow continues for 12  years. I would like to suggest some ways that we can better communicate with one another and stop the hemorrhaging. I'm going to limit my comments to confessionally Lutheran and Calvinist groups. I'm not going to deal with liberals or any of the various Baptist groups. All advice is unsolicited. I am not a pastor and hold no authority over anyone reading this.

Lutheranism experienced two major antinomian controversies in the 16th Century. Do you recall the most famous antinomian of all? Johannes Agricola (I prefer to call him Farmer John) taught that the Law should be used in the courts but has no place in the church and that repentance only comes about through the hearing of the Gospel. Luther and Melanchthon attacked. Farmer John recanted. Farmer John then sued Luther but ran away before trial. After Luther's death, Melanchthon and the Philippists began to teach their own brand of antinomianism. They taught that the Gospel alone works repentance, said that the Gospel itself is a moral law, denied the third use of the law as a guide for the life of the Christian, and turned Jesus into a new Moses.

Antinomianism is bad but it's hard to pull off. Typically, whenever our sinful human nature makes up its own religion it's legalism about 99% of the time. You can turn on your local Christian radio station and I can almost guarantee you that you will find plenty of legalism but antinomianism is nowhere to be found. However, the devil is always convincing us that the big problem is antinomianism. The Apostle Paul was accused of antinomianism. If nobody ever accuses you of being an antinomian you're probably a legalist. Keep in mind that legalism does not hold to a higher view of the Law but a lower view of the Law. The Pharisees were legalists. They devised various ways to make the Law doable and kept people from feeling the full force of the Law. The Law always kills. The Legalist wants to distract you from the fact that you are not keeping the Law and give you 7 easy steps that you can follow to keep the Law.

In confessional Calvinist circles anyone who holds to something that remotely resembles the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel gets accused of being an antinomian by those who don't. Part of the problem in confessional Calvinist circles is that we are dealing with consensus documents that were written to embrace a whole host of views on different topics but usually get interpreted more narrowly by different people within Calvinism. The Lutheran Law/Gospel position is one of many possible positions within confessional Calvinism. John Frame is opposed to the Lutheran Law/Gospel distinction. He doesn't say that in and of itself it is antinomian but worries that those who hold to it aren't sensitive enough to the dangers of antinomianism. Strangely enough though, John Frame will tell you that the Law is the Gospel and that the Gospel is Law which is one of the characteristics of Melanchthon's antinomianism. Among some of the R2K folks (if you don't know what this means you don't need to worry abou it) I have noticed a certain antinomianism when it comes to civil law but it would seem better to reacquaint such people with historic two kingdoms theology rather than just throw out the overused and abused title of antinomian. Words lose their meaning if we just throw them around especially when the word gets thrown around in reference to characteristics that aren't actually antinomian.

The situation is even stranger in Lutheran circles. I find pastors both accusing and being accused that I have a great deal of respect for. In Lutheran circles the attacks seem less direct. People generally are not called out by name. I think those making the accusations may be hoping to teach without making an example of someone but instead it just leads to confusion. Some people think they are being attacked when they might not be. Some seem to look with suspicion at anyone who reads Forde or Capon. And I think often the charge of "antinomianism" is mislabeled. If an error is mislabeled it's easy for people to dismiss it even if there could be some legitimate issues that need to be worked out. It doesn't really do much good to just keep telling someone who holds to Keynesian economics that he is a communist. I love Gottesdienst and I think they have a good point that should be made but I think it's mislabeled. I love Jordan Cooper's blog and I think he identifies some real issues but you can't just throw everything under the title of "antinomianism."

Words mean things and if you are accusing people of something you need to call a thing what it is. To call it "soft antinomianism" or to say that it shows "antinomian tendencies" gives you the ability to throw almost anything under the title of "antinomianism." When I was a Calvinist I found it irritating to see the various lists that would circulate around the internet that would tell you what it means to be a "hyper-Calvinist." Many of the things that would get listed were positions that the Calvinist confessions allowed for.

There's quite a bit of debate in Lutheran circles about whether or not you should include exhortations to good works after you've given people the Gospel. One party says you should, the other party says that you shouldn't burden someone with the Law after giving them the Gospel and since the person has already been told that they have broken God's Law earlier they don't need to be told not to do it again. But the strange thing is that if you listen to the sermons of both parties they are often very similar. You can find a number of very favorable sermon reviews that Todd Wilken has done of Will Weedon sermons and then you can Google and find a number of places where they are arguing about this topic on the internet. I think the pro-exhortation after Gospel people have the Pauline letters on their side but I don't hear them practicing it very often. It would seem much better to me for them to simply write sermons that have this exhortation at the end and then present them to the anti-exhortation folks for review and then have some conversation about the way they structured the sermon. When people hear anyone arguing for a "Law-Gospel-Law" structure, hundreds of bad sermons instantly pop into their heads. I've heard some really bad sermons where the pastor basically said, "You broke God's Law and you are worthy of God's punishment. The Good News is that Jesus paid for your sin." Then the pastor proceeded to gum everyone to death by trying to preach the third use of the law because that's what he really wanted to do all along.

So, first of all, call the thing what it is. Secondly, lead by example. Thirdly, never, never, never describe the problem as a lack of balance. The problem is not a lack of balance. You cannot preach the Law or the Gospel in a way that is too radical. Neither needs to be toned down. I recently listened to a Reformed Forum podcast interview with Dr. Mark Jones who wrote a book called Antinomianism. Both in the interview and from what I've read in the book, Jones says the problem is balance. Strangely enough, his solution seems to be the mixture of Law and Gospel found among the Philippists that was itself a form of antinomianism. Glawspel is not the answer. Dr. Jones views Luther as inconsistent and says he made some statements that were to extreme. However, if you read the writings of the Apostle Paul, Paul made extreme statements and said some very paradoxical things. The problem is that people have found ways to resolve the paradoxes and squeeze Paul into their theologies. Paul says that Jesus became sin for us. Theologians find ways to interpret Paul so that he didn't really mean that but Luther milks it for all it's worth. Pastors should preach as Paul did. The Law should be preached as if there is no Gospel and the Gospel should be preached as if there is no Law. And Luther even had exhortations at the end of many of his sermons. I think Luther and the Epistles of Paul provide excellent examples of what preaching should be like. If there is an absence of an exhortation the problem is the absence of the exhortation not some lack of moderation.

I have spent most of the time in this post complaining about the accusers and gave links to specific examples of the accusers but you can read the responses of those who believe they are being accused on those blog posts. There are egos on both sides. There are insecurities involved. I hate to see some of the pastors that I have the most respect for eating one another and acting childish. I really each side can learn from the other but unless people change the way they communicate it's not going to happen.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Conditional Immortality

A friend of mine asked me to review a section of a book called So Why Didn't They Tell Me That In Church by Steven Michael Owens. The section he asked me to comment on is a defense of conditional immortality. The author makes a number of claims about how various words should be translated but from his writing it's pretty obvious that he has no training in the Biblical languages. At one point, he cites Liddell and Scott's lexicon but refers to it as a concordance and the actual quotation is not from Liddell and Scott but from Cruden's Concordance. You're not going to find people who actually knows the Biblical languages using Cruden's Concordance as an authority for how a word should be translated. If someone is going to make a statement about how a word should be translated they should at least take the time to study the language. I will not make any claims about how a particular Russian word should be translated into English since I have no knowledge of Russian. I could continue pointing out the particular problems with this particular book but all I would prove is that Steven Michael Owens doesn't do a very good job defending conditional immortality. Instead I'm going to look at the major arguments for conditional immortality as I found them in a variety of sources. I read the arguments from people on both sides of the debate and often found that they were talking past one another.

There's a tendency among those defending conditional immortality to use the Old Testament as the lens through which to understand the New Testament rather than the other way around. They will bring up passages like Isaiah 66:24 and point out the fact that although it says that "their worm shall not die," the passages is speaking of "the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled" and state that these people are not suffering conscious torment. However, I would point out that both the rewards of the righteous and the punishments of the wicked as they are portrayed in the Old Testament are but shadows of the reality revealed in the New Testament. Canaan is a picture of heaven but not heaven in its fullness. In Isaiah 65:20, the reward of righteous in the new creation is depicted in such a way that involves extended life but not eternal life. Even the extended life that it prophecies is actually shorter than the lives of some of the Old Testament patriarchs.

Matthew 25:46 speaks of eternal life for the righteous and eternal punishment for the wicked. It would seem that if we are going to read the "eternal life" through the lens of the Old Testament then we would have to conclude that it really just means very long life. Those promoting conditional immortality understand the punishment to be eternal in the sense that the person is eternally unconscious and I when I listened to some of the podcasts from the Rethinking Hell website it often seemed like they were searching through lexicons to find the meaning they wanted. Thayer's was outdated when it was published but I heard them quoting from it in support of their views. However, when you look at a standard lexicon such as BDAG  and start working your way through the literature cited that uses this word it's pretty clear that some kind of torture is usually involved not just some judicial verdict with eternal consequences. 4 Maccabees 8:9 speaks of punishing someone through tortures and I think that the fear in 1 John 4:18 is the result of the fear of conscious torture rather than the fear of some judicial verdict. The same word is used in the LXX in Ezekiel 14 and 18 and seems to have the idea of conscious torment associated with it. The verb form of this Greek noun is found in other passages of Scripture and always seems to have the idea of conscious torture.

2 Thessalonians 1:9 is also commonly brought up in the debates and we find those who appeal to conditional immortality appealing to the Old Testament once again. I don't think it's entirely clear whether the eternal destruction is placing the person away from the presence of the Lord or if in fact the unbeliever is experiencing God's destruction in his presence but I do think it's pretty clear that the destruction is ongoing. The destruction is not annihilation. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul hands someone over to Satan to be destroyed in hopes that the person will come to repentance and be saved. The person pretty clearly was not annihilated.

One of the biggest problems in the debate is the use of the word "immortality." "Immortality" literally means to never die. In philosophy, immortality expresses the idea of continual conscious existence. However, in the Scriptures "immortality" is found only in Christ (1 Timothy 6:16, 1 Corinthians 15:53-54). Immortality is not mere conscious existence in Scripture but union with Christ. Also, death in Scripture does not necessarily mean a loss of consciousness. When Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he died. Paul says that in the unregenerate state we were dead in our trespasses and sins. From a scientific perspective we were alive and we maintained conscious existence but we were alienated from God. The Scriptures give the promise that the believer who dies will live but also says that he will never die. Medieval scholastics seem to have imbibed to heavily from Greek philosophy and developed all kinds of ideas about the inherent immortality of the soul but that does not seem to be the case among the early church fathers even though some adopted philosophical language while others did not.

In the following sections I provide quotes and summaries of the teachings of the various church fathers. You can click on the links to read these writings in their totality.

You can find different uses of the word "immortality" among the early church fathers. Some will follow the more Biblical way of speaking and say that only the believer possesses immortality and yet still speak of the unbelievers in eternal conscious suffering. Others will say that both the believer and unbeliever are immortal. Still others, alternate between the two ways of speaking. In seeking to understand what is meant by eternal punishment, I think it is important to consult the early church fathers. The Apostles taught others and I think it's foolish to not take the writings of the early church fathers into account when we interpret these verses. Some simply repeat the language of Scripture, but among those who give further explanation there's a very strong consensus that the unrighteous will suffer eternally and consciously. The only clear exception I could find was Arnobius writings in 305 who spoke of the annihilation of the wicked.

Arnobius was an outspoken critic of Christianity who then converted to Christianity. The local bishop demanded proof that Arnobius and so Arnobius wrote an apologetic work against the pagans. Throughout his work he seems to intend to be orthodox in what he says but lacks a grasp of true Christian doctrine. In this work you can also find him arguing as if the pagan gods are real gods but subordinate to the Biblical God. It's somewhat ironic that those embracing conditional mortality will claim that belief in eternal conscious torment is result of Greek philosophy when Arnobius says that God did not create souls but they were the work of an inermediate being. It seems like Arnobius was pretty heavily influenced by gnosticism.

On the other hand there are host of writings and church fathers that teach eternal conscious torment. The Epistle of Barnabas written between 70-130 speaks of "the way of eternal death with punishment." Justin Martyr writing around 160 says that "Sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up." Justin Martyr tends to only speak of the righteous as immortal but speaks of the unending torment of the wicked. Tatian writes in 160 and speaks of both the righteous and the wicked as immortal. Athenagoras writing in 175 says that those who fall will endure a life in fire and not be annihilated like animals. Theophilus writing in 180 speaks of people daily burning in fire forever. Clement of Alexandria writing in 195 says that all souls are immortal and says that there is no end to their misery. Tertullian writing in 197 speaks of the "secret fire" of God's judgment and says that it "repairs while it burns" and this is how it is eternal. Tertullian is the first instance I've seen of someone trying to provide some explanation of who the fire burns without annihilating and Tertullian's basic explanation is stated by later writers. Mark Minucius Felix writing in 200 makes very similar statements and speaks of the fire being nourished by the eating away of the bodies and also restoring as it burns. Hippolytus writing in 205 speaks of an unquenchable fire and a fiery worm that "continues bursting forth from the body with unending pain." Origen writing in 225 speaks of the resurrected bodies of the damned as being unable to be dissolved. Origen is known for his speculations that the damned would eventually be reconciled but he never stated this dogmatically. Commodianus writing in 240 speaks of people being tormented in Gehenna for all time. Cyprian does not engage in some of the speculations of others but simply speaks of the eternal punishments of Gehenna when he writes in 250. Lactantius writes some time between 304-313 and specifically says that the souls of the unrighteous are not annihilated but receive everlasting punishment.

This post is not exhaustive in dealing with the issue. Instead it addresses some core issues that don't seem to be addressed in the current debate. The idea of eternal suffering in hell even for your worst enemies isn't a pleasant one. It's hard to imagine being happy while you know that loved ones are suffering eternally. Of course, it's hard to imagine being happy knowing that loved ones were annihilated as well. It's disturbing to contemplate the idea of being born in a completely different location and never hearing the Gospel and then being sent to hell. The Scriptures are clear that we all deserve hell and on a certain level we can confess that to be true but I doubt there's anyone who fully grasps the concept this side of heaven. Scripture is pretty brief on the topic of hell and we don't find anything like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in Scripture." Scripture does not answer all the questions we might have about hell and it's for our own good. There are many secret things of God that are best left unknown to us. Instead, we must not look to the hidden things of God but to God as He has revealed Himself in Christ-crucified where God has revealed Himself in incomprehensible love towards us.