Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Should We Rejoice At the Death of Christopher Hitchens?

Since the death of the renowned atheist, Christopher Hitchens, the Christian blogosphere has been a-buzz with pronouncements of hate for him and literal delight at his demise.  To justify their attitude of inner pleasure people point to Psalm 139:21-22, which declares, “Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?  I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.”

It is also being said that Jesus’ words “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) comport with David’s words this way: when your enemy hates you, you must love him, but if he hates God, then it is permissible to hate him.

This answer only raises more questions. As a Christian how can a person hate me but not hate God? Jesus said “You will be hated by all because of My name” (Mark 13:13). According to Jesus’ view of things, people hate me for being a Christian because they first hate God. Their hatred of me is a byproduct of their hatred for God. So the possibility of somehow surgically loving others who hate me while simultaneously hating those who hate God is problematic, to say the least.

But perhaps the more important matter is the meaning of Psalm 139:21-22 and its relationship to Matthew 5:44. In ancient times, suzerainty treaties were struck between rulers and vassals. Such treaties date to the 2nd millennium B.C., and have been discovered among ancient Hittite kings.

Without going into the intricacies of such treaties, it will be sufficient here to note that the dominant entity is called a suzerain. Among other things, he provided his vassal(s) lands and limited self-rule. In return, the vassal paid a form of tribute to the suzerain. The treaties were often convenient ways overlords kept potential enemies mollified. In medieval times the practice continued, though modified greatly in form, to include feudal lords and vassals. Here the giving of lands and titles by Kings to powerful gentry was a hopeful means of keeping the peace.

Central to the covenant between the suzerain and the vassal was also a pledge of loyalty on the part of the vassal. This most often took the form of a vow to be on the right side of warfare should the suzerain be attacked. A typical pronouncement of such loyalty was “With my friend you shall be friend, and with my enemy you shall be enemy.” Another way to put this is “Your friend shall be my friend and your enemy my enemy.”  The customary pledge of fidelity did not call upon the vassal to sit around all day hating those whom hated the suzerain. It simply meant that should the King or Lord be attacked, the vassal was prepared to spring to his defense.

What does any of this have to do with whether or not we should hate Christopher Hitchens? Returning to Psalm 139:21-22, we find here the inclusion of covenantal terms that mirror the ancient and customary pledge of vassal loyalty. Now we wish to be brief so here is the point. In the New Covenant, Jesus is the vassal “servant” who fulfilled all of the stipulations of that covenant. In essence, at the cross he went to war for the King. There he overcame all haters of God, including the devil, and freed his elect by giving himself an atoning sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 2:14-15). Indeed, “For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.  For HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET” (1 Corinthians 15:25-27). 

Now that God’s righteous demands have been met in His Son, we are instructed to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The surgical interpretation of Psalm 139:21-22 and Matthew 5:44 is simply unnecessary and confusing.

The loyalty pledge of the Psalmist is a prophetic indicator of Jesus’ Messianic mission. Its completion in history means that by his obedience we are free to love our enemies. By way of analogy, it also means that should our God and his gospel be attacked we are not to stew in hatred of God’s enemies but are always to be ready to spring in defense. We are to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

John Barber, PhD

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Immigration and the 6th Commandment

The western nations in particular are struggling to keep pace with the implications of increased immigration of foreigners coupled with lax immigration policies. Anders Breivik’s July 22nd 2011 murder spree in Oslo, Norway was fueled largely by anti-immigration fury. Problematically, his perspective was endorsed by Francesco Speroni, a leading member of Italy’s Northern League.[1] 

Jacques Coutela, a member of France’s National Front party, referred to Breivik as an “icon.”[2] Clearly, immigration of Muslims throughout Western Europe, and of Hispanics mainly to the U.S., is fostering a new cleavage in societies in the move toward globalization. As the protectionist mindset of mainly the nativistic “right” entrenches itself in ethno-nationalistic and cultural fervor, the national and cultural identity of “outsiders” is viewed suspiciously if not contemptuously. If some reports are correct that the drift toward multiculturalism and religious syncretism is actually helping groups such as The Muslim Brothers of Europe in their quest for “Eurabia,” and the Reconquistas to take back part of America’s great Southwest, then suspicion is warranted, but not contempt.[3]

What can the sixth commandment offer Western countries that are to a greater extent worried about this issue?  Theologian John Frame goes right to the Scriptures to say that “The Mosaic law does extend the commandment of love to ‘strangers,’ people sojourning within Israel (Lev. 19:34). But it is the New Testament that extends the covenant community to all nations. The Great Commission mandates love to all peoples as we bring good news to them.”[4]  Frame does not mean to diminish the need for strict immigration policies. He means to augment our mandate by divine law to share the Good News of Jesus with strangers, regardless of their legal status or motives. 

In our haste to criticize illegal immigrants, let us remember, as Frame has said, that the commandment, because it speaks universally to all “sin and righteousness” and thus to all life and death issues, points first to our own sin; that we were all at one time without life in God, “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (italics added, Eph. 2:12). The human response ought therefore to be one of shard identity with our Lord: I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in” (italics added, Matt. 25:43). 

Moderns see the biblical remedy as a castle in the air. But history proves that the gospel alone can tear down walls of suspicion and contempt between severely divided people groups. Can anyone reading this present a comparable solution from history?

[1] John Hopper, Ex-Berlusconi minister defends Anders Behring Breivik, (July 27, 2011).

[2] Associated Press, French party suspends man over Oslo suspect praise, (July 27, 2011).

[3] On the motives of the Muslim Brotherhood, see Brigitte Maréchal, The Muslim brothers in Europe: roots and discourse, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008). For a general overview of European perceptions of the Muslim advance across Europe, see Raphael Israeli, The Islamic Challenge in Europe (New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers, 2008). A book that includes a large section on the Reconquista movement is Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization (New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2002), esp. 123-146.

[4] DCL, 691.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sin and Grace

Sin enslaves several ways. Let’s look at just two. First, sin enslaves us by producing compelling desires. The Bible declares, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness” (Rom. 6:16).
Sin enslaves by making anything look more desirable than Jesus. That's what sin is: desiring something above Jesus and then acting on it. And the second way sin enslaves is that it eventually damns us. In Mark 9:46, Jesus Christ says about hell, “Where their worm does not die not, and the fire is not quenched.” Unless something intervenes, it leads to hell. I call this slavery because someone might say, “I'm fine with desiring things more than Jesus. Sounds free to me.” But you wouldn't say that if you saw clearly that the end of that road was destruction.

But thank God freedom comes in two forms. First, he frees us from the desire for sin by changing our nature through the new birth. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8) And the essence of it is that he gives us eyes to see that our Savior is more to be desired than anything in the world.  Second, He frees us from the damnation of sin by being condemned for us. Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). When our sins are forgiven, and God's wrath is taken away, and we see Jesus as a greater Treasure than all the world, we are freed from both the desire and the damnation of sin. We are free indeed. By grace, that’s what Jesus holds out to you today.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Socrates and Christianity

What, exactly, did Socrates teach? Well, among other things, he
fervently believed that everyone should be serious about the
question as to what sort of life a person should live. Plato
recorded the teachings of Socrates in his DIALOGUES. At the very
end of GORGIAS, one of these dialogues, Socrates said, "You may
let anyone despise you as a fool and do you outrage, if he
wishes, yes, and you may cheerfully let him strike you with that
humiliating blow, for you will suffer no harm thereby if you
really are a good man and an honorable, and pursue virtue. . . .
This is the best way of life--to live and die in the pursuit of
righteousness and all other virtues. Let us follow this, I say,
inviting others to join us." Socrates lived these truths and he
did so even unto death, thereby causing the truths which he
taught to make an indelible impression upon his society, and upon
all future societies that would be influenced by Hellenistic

The story of the life and death of Socrates, as described by
Plato, Xenophon, and others, was therefore of vital importance in
shaping the values of Western civilization. Justin Martyr, the
ancient Christian Father who had been a student of philosophy
before he became a Christian, continued to wear the pallium, the
philosopher's cloak, for the rest of his life, because he saw in
Christianity the fulfillment of the very things that Socrates had
stood for. By the time of the Renaissance, people were still
talking about the life, trial, and death of Socrates as though
these were among the most important events of history. Northern
Renaissance Humanism placed a high premium upon these values, and
for that reason, sought to collect, study, preserve, and publish
the manuscripts of ancient Greek philosophy, of the New
Testament, and of the early church fathers. The primary concern
of these scholars was to return to the high values of ancient
classical civilization, and to the teachings of the Bible. The
work of these humanists laid the groundwork for the Protestant
Reformation in such an obvious way that it was soon said of one
of them, Erasmus of Rotterdam, that he had laid the egg that
Luther hatched.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Vos Against Two-Kingdoms Mentality

*Perhaps you already know that the surname of one of America’s premier twentieth-century Reformed-Presbyterian theologians is the Dutch word for “fox.”

“Vos” was his name. Geerhardus Vos.

A friend supplied me this “foxy” quote as an encouragement in clarifying the issues surrounding NL2K (a modern construal of Natural Law + 2 Kingdoms):

[87] From this, however, it does not necessarily follow, that the visible church is the only outward expression of the invisible kingdom. Undoubtedly the kingship of God, as his recognized and applied supremacy, is intended to pervade and control the whole of human life in all its forms of existence. This the parable of the leaven plainly teaches. These various forms of human life have each their own sphere in which they work and embody themselves. There is a sphere of science, a sphere of art, a sphere of the family and of the state, a sphere of commerce and industry. Whenever one of these spheres comes [88] under the controlling influence of the principle of the divine supremacy and glory, and this outwardly reveals itself, there we can truly say that the Kingdom of God has become manifest.

But “the Fox” has just begun. Read on:

[88] And what is true of the relation between church and state, may also be applied to the relation between the visible church and the various other branches into which the organic life of humanity divides itself. It is entirely in accordance with the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to subsume these under the kingdom of God and to co-ordinate them with the visible church as true manifestations of this kingdom, in so far as the divine sovereignty and glory have become in them the controlling principle. But it must always be remembered, that the latter can only happen, when all these, no less than the visible church, stand in living contact with the forces of regeneration supernaturally introduced into the [89] world by the Spirit of God. While it is proper to separate between the visible church and such things as the Christian state, Christian art, Christian science, etc., these things, if they truly belong to the kingdom of God, grow up out of the regenerated life of the invisible church.

For your files, the complete bibliographical reference is: Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1972 [repr.]), 87-89.

*Thanks to Nelson Kloosterman for this information from Geerhardus Vos. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Resolving Life's Paradoxes

Central to Reformed theology is its proper commitment to the authority of Scripture. The role of Scripture is not tangential, but is a prima presupposition upon which Reformed theology is predicated. The predominant concern given to the importance of Scripture is set forth in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, titled, “Of Holy Scripture.”

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

Despite the fact that God has revealed His will and ways to us in the Old and New Testaments, there exist a whole series of issues in theology, which are almost universally accepted as “tensions.” These tensions include such areas as particularization and abstraction (in older theology this tension is called the “one and the many”), the age-old question of the relationship of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, the catholicity and individuality of the Church, the dual natures of Christ, and the three persons of the Trinity

In the history of theology these tensions have sometimes been made to stand out even more as theologians have superimposed on the Bible intellectual frameworks, which themselves are dualistic in nature. Here I am thinking of the inherent dualism of reason and revelation in the nature/grace schema of Thomas Aquinas, the mechanical philosophy/theology of Descartes, and the view of Wittgenstein that religious language need not be True truth.  In addition, there is the alleged dichotomy of reason and metaphysics as seen in modern theology and philosophy, and the mental split in post-modern thought between individualism and multiculturalism (the emergence of this problem is more recent but actually predates Lyotard by centuries as it has appeared in different forms).

These tensions, regardless of how they are framed by the jargon of Western theology and philosophy, have, in many cases, provided a helpful set of qualifiers and quantifiers for the direction of cultural beliefs and values. Yet, upon closer analysis, these same helps are largely responsible for creating more unanswered questions. In modern times, the Dutch Reformed theologian, Cornelius Van Til, for example, attempted to settle the issue of dualisms in Scripture and in theology generally arguing that they represent a series of unexplainable “paradoxes.” Despite my high regard for Van Til as a theologian, his explanation reminds me of the proverbial dog chasing its tail. It provides a direction without really taking us anywhere.

Contra Van Til, other theologians insist that the Bible does not contain paradoxes, but only the “appearance” of paradoxes, which can be resolved by spending more time in the study of Scripture. In other words, this group argues that the persistent claim to paradoxes in the Bible is simply the lazy man’s way to justify his poor hermeneutic. 

Problematically, both groups of theologians have ventured down the wrong tracks in their attempts to address the problem of supposed theological tensions. The fact is that there is no such a thing as a theological tension arising out of the Bible.[1] The thought that such exist is the result of a long-held deficiency in Reformed epistemology. Once this deficiency is addressed the tensions are resolved.

Hebrews 11:1 records, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here the writer presents us a biblically-based, intellectual framework for one’s thoughts. Already a clue has surfaced regarding how best to solve theological riddles. The fact is that theologians who refer to theological tensions do so out of a misguided commitment to the high role of natural reason in the work of theology. In other words, they begin with the wrong intellectual framework. What theologians have a tendency to see as theological tensions are not tensions at all, but the implications of looking at Scripture from a far too temporal and rational viewpoint.  Theological tensions are understood quite easily when we enlist a different intellectual framework: faith, grounded in the very Word of God. This is not to suggest that faith is a-rational or anti-reason. Faith enables us to see all of life itself from God’s supra-temporal perspective, a place where intellectual tensions do not exist.

These facts have far-reaching significance for Reformed theology. They suggest that the faith is not of secondary concern in theology, but is of principle importance. In fact, faith is intimately connected with what it means to have “the mind of Christ.” To have the mind of Christ results in many good things, but for our argument the mind of Christ enables us to see life as God sees it: as a unity rather than as a set of paradoxical pieces of a puzzle that reason cannot solve. This is not to disregard the diversity of the universe; but it places such diversity in the context of a created world of meaning without the problem of internal disassociation.

This last point should be of special interest to Reformed theologians who are skittish about faith in abstractio, which is not our point. Faith is always dependent on its object and as such maintains the key to resolving the so-called paradoxes or dualisms that typically confront us in the ongoing work of theology.

[1] Note that I am not referring to alleged textual discrepancies in the Bible such as the several accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as recorded in the synoptic gospels, and which theologians have tried to harmonize. The issue at hand is theological and includes areas already mentioned: the sovereignty of God vs. human responsibility, the dual natures of Christ, the catholicity of the Church vs. the particular church, and more.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Can Christians Eat?

In 1 Cor. 8 Paul discusses meat sacrificed to idols. Here we find that some immature believers were concerned that to eat such meat engaged them in idolatry. Paul’s main point is that there is no such thing as an idol; they are only wood and stone. Thus our consciences are at liberty to eat the meat. However, should there be present a “weaker brother” who has not yet grown beyond the point of superstition (v. 9-13), one should defer to him or her and not eat. 


A theological term that arises in connection with Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 8 is adiaphora. It comes from the Greek, ἀδιάφορα— “indifferent things.” Adiaphora in Christianity refer to matters not regarded as essential to the faith, but nevertheless as permissible for Christians or allowed in church. What is specifically considered adiaphora tends to depend on the specific theology of a Church in view.

In our day much is said about foods, especially in America, where a growing movement is a foot and that teaches abstinence from meat. People say that since God created Adam to eat food from the ground, and we are restored in Christ through salvation, and thus to our pre-fall condition, that the consistent Christian will eat only foods that come from the ground, as did Adam.

The argument is flawed on more levels than I will take the time to innumerate. However, the Bible, rather than restrict our diets, permits foods of all sorts (Acts 10-11; Col. 2:16; Gal. 4:9-10), bearing in mind that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit—a fact that ought to caution us against over indulgence regarding food. The world imposes many rules on us. But Christianity liberates our conscience. Nonetheless, our freedom ought not to be used as an opportunity for the flesh. If the choice is between acting according to our freedom of conscience and offending a brother or sister, we must decline the use of our freedom and think more highly of others (“Love your neighbor as yourself”).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Romans 1 and Covenant Breakers

In a comment on Facebook (1/14/11), I made this observation: “Most of us have misunderstood Romans 1:18-21. The unbeliever not only knows THAT God exists but WHO God is; his covenant head. Suppression of the truth therefore takes on a far deeper meaning."

The passage in view teaches that fallen men know THAT God is. But their knowledge is also knowledge of his “invisible attributes” and “divine nature” (v. 20). And it should be added that they also have a personal knowledge of God—i.e., they know HIM, not just information about him (v. 21). And of course this includes knowledge of God’s ethical standards (see the rest of chapter, esp. v. 32).

Like Van Til, I think it is silly to say that someone knows THAT God is but is completely ignorant about WHO he is. How can you know the existence of something without knowing anything at all about its nature? On that premise, you can’t even specify what it is that you know the existence of. If I say I believe in the existence of mountains in Alaska, my belief certainly includes a claim to know what a mountain is.

In the language of Romans 1, the non-Christian denies the existence of mountains in Alaska. Yet his denial of mountains in Alaska still assumes that he knows what a mountain is (via negative). Likewise, the unbeliever’s denial of God assumes who he is denying.

So if someone says he believes in God, he must have some idea of what he means by God, what sort of God he believes in. For someone to say he disbelieves in God, he must have some idea of what he means by God, what sort of God he disbelieves in.

So the question amounts to “how much do fallen people know?” Or “what specifically do they know about God?”

“Eternal power,” “invisible attributes,” and “divine nature” (v. 20) are each very comprehensive phrases and Paul explicitly says the unbelievers’ knowledge includes these things, that is, God’s omnipotence and eternity. God’s love/justice is also implicit in what Paul says about the moral standards of God. And certainly the whole chapter pictures God as knowledgeable about what is happening in the world, giving up people to unbridled lusts, and so on.

But referencing the Facebook statement above, can we go as far as to say that fallen men know “deep down inside” that they are in covenant with God and therefore covenant-breakers? Paul never uses the term “covenant” in Rom. 1, although Isaiah 24:5 may allude to that. In any case, it’s important here to formulate some understanding of what “covenant” means. Covenant is a Lord/servant relationship, and clearly the sinners of Rom. 1 understand that. Further, covenants in Scripture all have the same essential elements: God’s name, historical prologue (grace), stipulations, sanctions, and administration.

In Rom. 1, fallen men know who God is (the name). They have the responsibility (stipulations) to obey and worship God—always a covenantal responsibility in Scripture. Those responsibilities are accompanied by blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience (covenant sanctions). Clearly what happens in Rom. 1 is that God administers curses for disobedience.

Now there is no “historical prologue” in Rom. 1, but interestingly Paul brings in something like this in Acts 14:17 and 17:24-30: the historical prologue (previous grace) is the fact that God has given to people the benefit of living in his world within fixed “bounds of habitation” and “fruitful seasons.” They ought to be grateful for such unmerited favor and should worship the true God alone.