Monday, February 28, 2022

Quote of the Week

"The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us."

- C. S. Lewis

Friday, February 25, 2022

Monday, February 21, 2022

One-week break (except Friday)

This week is "February break" in our school schedule, so I'm taking the week off from the blog while the kids are home. I'll still do my Friday devotional video, though. Normal posts will resume next Monday, Feb. 28.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Historical Theology: God's Plan through History - The Dispensational Interpretation

Question: Does God’s plan involve one single trajectory: the creation of a holy, redeemed, and chosen people, including his promises to ancient Israel which are now fulfilled in the Church—or does it involve two trajectories: (1) a covenant with the ethnic nation of Israel, with some Old Testament promises to them yet to be fulfilled, and (2) a parallel but separate covenant with the Church?

This is an important question, because it shapes much of what we believe about the end times, about what our current relations with the modern nation-state of Israel ought to be like, and, most importantly, about the centrality of the Church to God’s plan. The classic Christian position on this question was that God’s plan had one single trajectory: all of God’s covenants (with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and ethnic Israel, etc.) were fulfilled in Christ and his church. In the 1800s, however, a theologian from the Plymouth Brethren began popularizing the second answer as a possibility: that ethnic Jews, as God’s “chosen people,” are still heirs of their own separate covenant from God, and that some of the promises in the Old Testament aimed specifically at them are yet to be fulfilled. Jesus Christ is the Jewish Messiah and is the fulfillment of some elements of their covenant, but the Church is actually something different—it is a sort of parenthesis in God’s plan for Israel, aimed specifically at bringing as many of the Gentiles as possible into God’s covenant-kingdom before the final fulfillment of his covenant with Israel at Christ’s return. This answer, known as Dispensationalism, became wildly popular among American evangelicals (thanks to the advocacy of D. L. Moody, the Scofield Bible, Dallas Theological Seminary, and a host of premillennialist end-times teachers), and remains so to this day.

The Rise of Dispensationalism

In the 1830s, an Irish clergyman named John Nelson Darby (pictured above) became one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren and began expounding his idea that Israel and the Church constitute two separate peoples of God, with separate covenants and separate fulfillments. Dispensationalism views history as divided into a series of covenants between God and humanity—the most basic view has three separate covenantal periods: the Mosaic covenant, the Church covenant, and the final Kingdom Covenant when Christ returns (more complex schemes also include covenantal periods for Adam, Noah, and Abraham). In the Dispensational scheme, however, the Mosaic covenant is not superseded or fulfilled in the Church covenant—the two operate side-by-side throughout the present age, both linked to Christ and to the separate fulfillments he will grant to both at his second coming.

New Testament Teaching on Israel and the Church

Scofield Reference Bible
Though it is a hotly debated issue, the preferred position of many Bible scholars is that the New Testament teaches that there is only one people of God—the union of the faithful Jews of Old Testament Israel and the Church. This appears to follow from Paul's famous example of the olive tree in the book of Romans, a representation of a single covenant-community through the ages, to which branches may be added or pruned away. It is not so much that the church supersedes the place of Israel; rather, that in the New Covenant which the church represents, Gentiles have come to be added into the new dispensation of the true Israel of God.

Attitudes toward Israel in the Early and Medieval Church

Unfortunately, many people in the early and medieval church were blinded by racial prejudice, and forgot Paul’s teaching about Israel. They came to hold a belief known as “supersessionism”—the idea that the church did not fulfill God’s covenant with Israel, it replaced that covenant. Christians in these eras believed that because many Jews had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God rejected them and replaced them with the church. This idea is not well-founded biblically, and has since been rejected by theologians of almost every branch of Christianity.

The Reformation – Israel in John Calvin’s “Covenant Theology”

The Protestant Reformers, most notably John Calvin, helped to recapture the biblical sense of the fulfillment of covenants. Though he (like the Dispensationalists) divided biblical history into periods marked by God’s covenants with humanity, he saw Christ and the church as the fulfillment of all previous covenants. God’s plan for all people, from all time, has been the church of Jesus Christ. (It’s important to note, however, that the fulfillment of all the biblical promises includes what the church will be at the end of time, not merely what the church is right now.)

Israel and the End Times

This issue plays into the variety of beliefs about the end times. Dispensationalists believe that at Christ’s Second Coming, all the remaining promises to Israel will be fulfilled physically and literally in his reign as the Messianic King in Jerusalem throughout a 1000-year “millennium,” often including a rebuilt Temple (this position is part of the end-times system known as dispensational premillennialism). Non-Dispensationalists, however, either view the millennium as the reign of Christ and the church rather than as a specifically Jewish-focused part of God’s plan (historic premillennialism, postmillennialism) or as a symbolic description of the current church age (amillennialism).

What about the Nation of Israel?

If the Dispensationalists are correct, and the Jews continue to have an ethnic/national future fulfillment guaranteed to them in God’s plan, then Christians ought to be supportive of the current nation-state of Israel in any and every way we can. If, however, the classic Christian position is correct, then, while we honor Jews as our older brothers in the faith of Abraham, we do not need to treat Israel as being in a special class among the nations, because God’s plan does not hold a specifically ethnic/national future for them—rather, their future would be the church of Jesus Christ itself, which is not something foreign to them, but their own ancestral patrimony. The position of Israel, nonetheless, is one of special honor and affection in both views.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Photo of the Week

Still heavy is thy heart,
still sink thy spirits down?
Cast off the weight, let fear depart, and ev'ry care be gone.
For though thou rulest not, yet heav'n, and earth, and hell
Proclaim: "God sitteth on the throne, and ruleth all things well!"

- from a hymn by Paul Gerhardt

Monday, February 14, 2022

Quote of the Week

"After reading and studying the Bible for 50 years--and weighing all the criticisms of it--I am convinced it is the Word of God, completely true in all it teaches, beautifully cohesive, with the supernatural power to transform us and enable us to commune with God."

- Timothy Keller

Friday, February 11, 2022

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Historical Theology - Christianity vs. the Skeptics: The Rise of Deism, Unitarianism, and Universalism

(No lecture audio available due to technical issues with the recording)

Question: In a world in which we are becoming more and more aware of the scientific basis of natural cause-and-effect, what basis do we Christians have for believing in miracles? In an age when historical scholars have demonstrated that much of the substance of ancient literature is mythology rather than history, on what basis can we insist that our ancient Scriptures are historically true rather than a collection of myths? Finally, if there are myths and culturally-bound perspectives contained in Scripture, what’s to stop us from “modernizing” our theology to do away with distasteful ancient notions, such as eternal punishment in hell?

The traditional Christian answers to these three questions are fairly simple. In answer to the first question, it is logically demonstrable that one needs an “uncaused cause” at some point in the chain of cause-and-effect in order to begin the system—thus, it is essential to believe in “an Unmoved Mover” (in the words of Aristotle), such as God. And if God does exist, there is no reason why he couldn’t act beyond the bounds of simple scientific causation (in acts such as miracles), because he’s the one who wrote the rules of scientific causation, and is not himself bound by them. In answer to the second question, the Bible’s historical sections have held up remarkably well as being a plausible account of ancient history rather than mere mythology, as long as one understands that it was written according to the ancient genre of historiography rather than following our modern conventions. Therefore, in answer to the third question, there is no compelling reason to disregard Scripture as antiquated or mythological, and thus we do not have the freedom to simply rewrite it as we see fit.


In the 1700s, Western civilization was undergoing a massive shift known as the Enlightenment. Disenchanted with established religion after suffering through the “Wars of Religion” between Catholics and Protestants, many thinkers felt empowered by advances in science and in rationalistic philosophy to question the authority of Scripture and traditional Christianity. Gradually, there emerged a watered-down blend of Christianity and the religious beliefs of the old Greek philosophers. This blend was called Deism: the idea that there was indeed one true God, the Creator of all things, that he was all-powerful and all-good, that Jesus Christ was indeed inspired by him and delivered true moral teachings, and that the souls of the righteous would ultimately go on to an immortal existence. However, as Christian as these ideas sound, this new religious position did not insist on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, on the divinity of Christ, or on the inspiration of Scripture, and it rejected the idea that God ever works through miracles. This became the popular philosophy among many of the educated elite, including many leaders of the American and French revolutions. Thus many of the Founding Fathers can be quoted as saying things that sound remarkably Christian, when in fact many of them (but not all) were Deists.


Walking hand-in-hand with the rise of deism was a theological position known as Unitarianism. This developed out of a group of Polish Reformed Christians (that is, followers of John Calvin’s theology), who had thrown off a good deal of the Catholic heritage they had grown up with. A few of them decided to go farther and even throw off belief in the Trinity, favoring instead the theological views of Fausto Sozzini, who taught that only God the Father was truly “God,” and that the divinity of Christ was just a lesser derivation of God’s divinity. This belief spread from Poland to Britain and then to America, where it began to be preached in some New England churches, leading to the formation of a new denomination and the liberalizing of Harvard Divinity School (formerly a Puritan institution).


Universalism, in Christian theology, is the idea that all people in the world may someday, somehow, be saved by the grace of God. It actually has a fairly long and distinguished pedigree among the early church fathers, but in the 1700s a new form of universalism arose, now as an expression of liberal theology spurred on by a sense of falling confidence in the authority of the Bible. Rather than basing their arguments biblically and theologically, as some early church fathers had done, they went with the mood of their age and decided that the doctrine of hell was simply distasteful. This caught on with great popularity in New England, where several generations had suffered through the aggressive hellfire-and-brimstone preaching of Puritan revivalists (such as Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). Choosing to believe that God’s character of love simply would not permit such a harsh and violent destiny for his creatures, the universalists formed their own denomination.

Though both Unitarians and Universalists began as a form of Christianity, today they have merged into the Unitarian-Universalist Church, which is no longer considered Christian (less than 20% of UU attendees call themselves Christians) and which honors all religions as part of humanity’s path toward relationship with the divine.

Conclusion: What we believe about the Trinity and the Bible really matters—softening one’s stance on the traditional Christian doctrines has historically led to a new religion that is not Christian at all. Thankfully, we have a long tradition of scholarly work in theology, archaeology, history, and philosophy that argues that the Christian position is not irrational, but is rather grounded solidly in logic, history, and the evident work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Photo of the Week

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? [...] 
On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb [...] when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, 'This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt'?

- Job 38:4, 6-11

Monday, February 07, 2022

Quote of the Week

John Henry Newman's definition of God:

"I mean then by the Supreme Being...
that He is without beginning or Eternal, 
and the only Eternal...
And hence that His is all-sufficient, 
sufficient for his own blessedness, 
and all-blessed, and ever-blessed. 
I mean a Being, who having these prerogatives...
has all the attributes of Good in infinite intensity; 
all wisdom, all truth, all justice, 
all love, all holiness, all beauty; 
who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent; 
ineffably one, absolutely perfect; 
and such, that what we do not know 
and cannot even imagine of Him, 
is far more wonderful 
than what we do or can."

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Saturday Synaxis

Let me know You,
O You who know me.
Let me know You
Just as I am known to You.
Virtue of my soul,
Come into it
And make it over
For Your own use,
That You may possess it
Without spot.

- Augustine

Friday, February 04, 2022

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Historical Theology: How Baptists Changed the World

Roger Williams, early Baptist leader
(Click here for other installments of this series)

Question: Who makes the decision about what you can believe? Does a believer’s family, or their church, or society as a whole, properly define their beliefs? Or should each individual believer have authority to make their own decisions about what they believe?

The answer to this question may seem obvious to us, but that’s just an indication of how deeply Baptist influence has become a part of Christian practice, especially here in America. “Everybody should be able to decide for themselves what they will believe”—this is a peculiarly American statement culture-wise, and a peculiarly Baptist statement theology-wise. By the time the Baptists emerged in the 17th century, many Christians never really made the act of choosing to believe anything for themselves. They would be born into a Christian family and a Christian nation, and they would be baptized and confirmed as a Christian, and then they would be taught what they ought to believe from their bishops, priests, and catechists. There was very little freedom for the individual Christian to look through a Bible for himself and decide on that basis whether he would believe or not believe the doctrines presented to him by the church.

Freedom of the Individual – The early Baptists, emerging from a Puritan/Anglican background, were passionate about reading the Bible for themselves. What they discovered in the pages of the New Testament was the idea that every person was accountable for himself alone (Rom. 14:10-12) and that the call of faith to the world was a call for individual belief (John 3:16) instead of social affiliation.

Baptism – Because salvation is understood as a matter of individual belief, then a believer’s choice becomes the crucial element. In much of the traditional Christianity of the Catholics and Anglicans, believers would not choose their own belief; they would be baptized as babies on the choice of their parents. Baptists, following the example of the Anabaptists of Holland, did away with the practice of infant baptism. If baptism is the symbol of one’s coming to faith, then it could only be accomplished after that person was old enough to consciously decide to believe in Christ for himself or herself.

The Importance of a Pious Life – Baptists also emphasized the importance of a pious life. If your choice for Christ is a crucial element in your salvation, then that choice has to be manifest in every area of your life. It wasn’t enough anymore to think that the power of the sacraments would save you, as long as you received communion and went to confession—no, real faith was chosen faith, and that choice needed to be shown in every part of your life. If you weren’t at least trying to live a pious life, then there was question as to whether you were really a Christian at all, and you couldn’t be a member of a Baptist church. Baptist churches, unlike the Anglican parishes around them, included only those people who were visibly laboring to live a Christian life.

Freedom of the Local Church
Every church is “the Church” – While they were reading their Bibles, Baptists came to the startling realization that in the New Testament, each local church was treated as a manifestation of the whole church. Each local church, whether in Corinth or Philippi or Ephesus, was “the Body of Christ.” The Apostle Paul assumed that all of the necessary spiritual gifts and all of the necessary ministries of the Church would be present in each local body of believers. This means that each local church had the authority to read Scripture, teach theology, and practice ministry within its own capacities, without leaning on any outside churches.

No Hierarchy of Offices – Because of this biblical fact, Baptists did away with the stratified hierarchy that had developed in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. There would be no more popes, cardinals, or archbishops—there would simply be the church officers listed in the New Testament—deacons/elders, and overseers/pastors. The people filling these offices were gifted for ministry and service, but would have no more authority than the ordinary layman, because the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church, speaking to every person, meant that no one was considered to be closer to God than anyone else—we are all “a kingdom of priests.”

Separation of Church and State – Baptist churches also proclaimed their independence from the state. Most traditional churches were “established,” national churches, and the intersection of faith and political power had often turned the church into an unspiritual puppet of the government. Since no one could decide for an individual what they ought to believe other than the individual themselves, the same principle applied to churches—no outside government could impose beliefs or practices on the church. Thus Baptists were the early champions of “the separation of church and state.”

- Voluntary Associations – Even though Baptist churches were independent in authority, they made it a priority from the very beginning to maintain close partnerships with other Baptist churches. The biblical principles for this are clear, and the dangers of being a purely independent church so great, that it became a core element of the Baptist tradition. Without joining voluntary associations, “independent Baptist” churches become far less accountable to their brothers and sisters in Christ, far more isolated in ministry and mutual support, and far more prone to veer off into theological errors from the influence of a disconnected pastor or leader.

Conclusion: Baptist theology changed the world. Our once-radical idea, that everybody should be able to decide for themselves what they believe, is now commonplace.

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Photo of the Week

Oh, the peace forever flowing f
rom God’s thoughts of His own Son!
Oh, the peace of simply knowing on the cross that all was done!
Peace with God! the blood in heaven speaks of pardon now to me:
Peace with God! the Lord is risen! Righteousness now counts me free.

- from a hymn by A. P. Cecil