Tuesday, August 03, 2004

What's a Calvinist?

In defining Calvinism, or any other theological tradition, we need to distinguish between an inclusive and exclusive definition. Put another way, to distinguish between Reformed essentials and Reformed distinctives. For example, belief in the final authority of Scripture is a Reformed essential, but not a Reformed distinctive inasmuch as this belief is shared in common with all other traditional Protestants.

In terms of what sets it apart from other theological traditions, Reformed theology is often defined by the so-called five points of Calvinism, popularized by the acronym of TULIP (=total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints).

But although these are key ingredients, such a definition suffers from a couple of limitations: (i) it is rather reductionistic. One theologian (Leonard Coppes) offers a ten-point definition; (ii) it fails to distinguish between what is fundamental and what is instrumental.

In terms of its leading principle, we do better to paraphrase Wilhelm a Brakel: God, as the highest good, made a race of rational agents to share in his goodness. He foreordained the Fall of Adam and the cross of Christ so that his chosen ones would glory in his wisdom, mercy, and justice (Rom 9:17,21-22; 11:32; Gal 3:24; Eph 3:9-10; 2 Thes 1:10; Jn 9-12; Rev 11:13). From this there flows the five points of Calvinism, as well as other Reformed essentials and distinctives.

Vigilante justice

For some misguided believers, executing an abortionist is a case of justified homicide. After all, if we believe that abortion is murder, and we have a duty to defend the innocent, then we have a duty to intervene by any means necessary, up to and including the use of lethal force.

But this line of logic, however appealing, is specious and simple-minded. I've excepted a letter from Gary North to Paul Hill in which Mr. North exposes some of the fallacies of vigilante justice.

I'd add one more thing to his analysis. In Christian ethics, our social obligations are concentric. Paul Hill had his own children to care for. That takes precedence over the welfare of other children. By becoming a father, he had assumed a prior obligation. By becoming an assassin, he abandoned his own family. He was not a hero—much less a martyr, but a deserter.



Murder, Defined Biblically

The sixth commandment reads, "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13). The God who mandates this is also the God who ordered the total annihilation of the Canaanites (Deut. 7:16), so this verse cannot legitimately be interpreted as a defense of pacifism.

What is murder, biblically speaking? It is the slaying of a human being by someone who has not been authorized to do so as a covenantal agent.

A member of the military can lawfully kill a designated enemy during wartime. In Old Covenant Israel, the man eligible to serve in God's holy army had to pay blood money to the priesthood at the time of the army's numbering, just prior to battle (Ex. 30:12-16). This was atonement money (v. 16). So fearful is killing, even as a member of God's holy army, that God mandated a special payment. While we no longer are required to pay money to a priest, the implication is clear: killing is a very serious matter.

A man can defend his household against an unauthorized criminal invader (Ex. 22:2-3). He is the head of his household: a covenantal office. This is not self-defense as such; it is the defense of a legitimate sphere of authority, the home, by one charged by God through the civil government to take defensive action. But this right is never said to be universal in the Bible; it is limited to the protection of one's family.

A man can participate in the execution of a criminal convicted of a capital crime. "At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you" (Deut. 17:6-7).

In Old Covenant Israel, there was an office called the blood avenger, which was the same as the kinsman-redeemer. This was the man who was nearest of kin. When a man accidentally killed another, he had to flee to a designated city of refuge. If the blood avenger caught the suspect en route, or outside the walls of that city, he was authorized by civil law to execute the suspect (Num. 35). This office no longer exists because cities of refuge were an aspect only of Mosaic Israel.

When a corporate crime was so great that God's negative sanctions threatened the entire nation, the state could authorize corporate executions. The example here is the national sin of the golden calf. The Levites' lawful slaying of the 3,000 men after the golden calf incident removed the corporate threat (Ex. 32:28). But they had specifically been called into action by Moses, the God-inspired head of the civil government. Moses deputized them prior to their judicial action.

Under holy warfare conditions, a Mosaic priest was authorized to kill someone who was committing a moral infraction so great that it would have brought bloodguiltiness on the entire community. The primary example here is Phinehas' execution of the copulating couple during the war with Midian. The visible mark of the displeasure of God was the plague that had broken out immediately prior to Phinehas' action. This plague stopped after he executed the couple (Num. 25:6-14). The same was true of Samuel's execution of Agag: he was a prophet, and it took place under wartime conditions (I Sam. 15:33).

The point is, in each case, the distinguishing mark of the right to execute an enemy of God was the holding of a covenantal office: military, head of household, witness, deputy, or wartime priest or prophet. That is, the authorization to execute a transgressor under the Mosaic covenant was ordained by God and revealed in His law.

The Fundamental Issue

The grim fact of the matter is this: abortion is a universal practice. Estimates today indicate as many as fifty million unborn infants are aborted annually, worldwide. In the United States, something in the range of a million and a half pre-born infants have been legally aborted every year since 1973. But compared to the total number of abortions worldwide, the abortions in the U.S. are a small proportion of the total.

It is not just that there are many abortions being conduced worldwide today; it is that abortions by the millions have been practiced over the history of man. It is such a common practice and has been such a common practice that the original Hippocratic Oath of the classical Greek world included a promise by the would-be physician not to practice abortion. This clause was taken out of the Hippocratic Oath in the United States during the 1970's. The lure of income was too great for the physicians, so they removed that ancient traditional clause from the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath. The point is this: abortion is an ancient practice, and God has allowed it to go on without bringing immediate judgement against those societies in which abortion was practiced. Why should this be?

The main reason why God has tolerated abortion without bringing judgment against societies that practice it is that abortion has been illegal in most societies. In the language of the pro-abortionists, abortion has generally been performed in back alleys. This is where abortion should be performed if they are performed. Back alleys are the perfect place for abortion. They are concealed. They are difficult to seek out, for both buyers of the service and as civil magistrates seeking to suppress them. They are unsafe places, placing murderous mothers under risk. Back alleys are where abortions belong.

The covenantal problem comes when societies legislate to allow abortions to be practiced at a profit on Main Street. The problem comes when abortionists can lawfully advertise in the press for people to come in and buy an abortion. Main Street abortions are what bring a society under the judgment of God. Legalized abortions reveal a deep-seated lawlessness on the part of the community.

The Question of Judicial Representation

The biblical position is that there must always be judicial representation. Adam represented all of mankind before God in the fall. Jesus Christ represented all of mankind as well as His people before God in His death, resurrection, and ascension. There must always be representation. Moses represented the civil magistrates of Israel. Aaron represented the people as the high priest of Israel.

There must always be judicial representation, and it is established biblically through ordination. There are but three covenantal institutions that God recognizes: Church, State, and Family. Each of them is established by a vow taken before God. A self maledictory oath and we say in our marriage vows, "'til death do us part." In the Church, we are baptized, which symbolizes going through the death and resurrection with Jesus Christ. Death is always a possibility for covenant-breaking. This death is announced through excommunication. In the State, we take a vow, or at lease implicitly we do, to uphold the law. We are brought under the sanctions of God if we unlawfully violate an oath of subordination. The point is: there must be, in every covenant, a representative. This representative is ordained to his office.

The father represents his wife and his children before God because he holds high covenantal office to which he has been ordained. The minister represents the congregation because he has been ordained. The civil magistrate represents the covenanted nation because he has been elected or lawfully appointed by those who have been elected. There is no lawful covenantal office without ordination.

What you are talking about in your essay is the equal ultimacy of both the individual and the ordained civil magistrate in fighting crime. This position is utter nonsense biblically. There cannot be equal ultimacy of those two, for one of them has been ordained, and one of them has not. The officer has a covenantal responsibility before God that is unique, but the individual does not. The officer is oath-bound to enforce the law, while the individual is oath-bound to obey it. One of them is at the top of the hierarchy and is invested by God with the power to exercise the sword, while the other is not.

Community Standards

Your problem is a theological one. But you did address a real problem. The problem you addressed is the problem you would not admit. The problem is that the American community agrees with the Supreme Court of the United States. The general American public agrees that abortion should be legal.

Maybe it does not agree that the third-trimester abortions should be legal, but it is not going to throw out of office the civil magistrates who enforce the Supreme Court's ruling. In fact, the Supreme Court has authorized third-trimester abortion and any other kind of abortion, but the public will not fight it. A handful of people have fought it, but the public refuses. The voting public will not vote out of office a man who is pro- abortion. In fact, time and time again, the public re-elects those people to office.

So, the fact of the matter is this: your problem is not that Deuteronomy 21 is not being enforced just because it is an Old Testament law. Your problem is that the basic presupposition of that law is being manifested today. God is eventually going to bring corporate judgment against a society that approves of the slaying of the innocent. This is our problem. It is not some local doctor down in Florida who was practicing abortions. The problem is a majority of the community approved of the doctor in Florida who was practicing the abortions.

I have already said that abortions have been going on for a long time. Abortions have been universal. But God's wrath isn't universal because most societies in the past have had laws against abortion and have tried to stop the abortionists. So, God acknowledged that they were doing the best they could. He did not bring His judgment against those societies because they were at least trying to stop this terrible practice. The problem comes when communities decide that the murder of the innocent is a convenience worth legislating. When societies make abortion legal, God's wrath can be expected. And so I will put it in one phrase. The problem is not abortion as such, the problem is legalized abortion.

If you identify an individual abortionist as a murderer, you are saying that he is guilty of a terrible sin. You are correct: he is guilty of a terrible sin. Nevertheless, the Bible is silent on the systematic practice of abortion. The governing passage in Exodus 21 can be used and should be used to justify laws against abortion, but it does not deliberately talk about self-conscious abortion. It says that when two men are struggling, and one of them strikes a pregnant woman and the child is born, if the child is born dead, he should be executed. From the relatively narrow concept of abortion in this case, we can make legitimate judicial applications. If, as an accident, a woman has her child aborted, and this is a capital crime, then we can legitimately conclude that if it is a self-conscious effort to kill the woman's child, then abortion is still a capital crime. We move from the narrow case law to the broader application. This is the biblical judicial principle of "If this, then how much more that."

I contend that the Christian's focus of legitimate concern regarding the abortion law is the abortion law itself. The focus of God's primary civil concern is not with the practice of abortion as such, but rather with the moral character of the people. He wants to see if they will pass laws against abortion and enforce these laws against abortion. He wants to see if they will legalize abortion. When they legalize abortion, they subject themselves to God's corporate sanctions against bloodguiltiness.

This covenantal concern is not the focus of your concern. It is also not the primary focus of most pro-lifers. They are concerned with stopping individual abortions. The more radical their theology, the more they focus on the deaths of specific infants at the hands of specific abortionists. This is not the focus of the Bible.

I am not saying that abortions are right. I am saying that the practice of abortion as such is not God's primary focus of concern. It is the practice of legalized abortions that is the focus of God's concern and wrath. When abortion is legalized, this testifies to the depraved moral condition of the community. It is the moral condition of the community that concerns God, not the fact that this or that physician is practicing abortions. God can bring judgment in eternity, and will, against those who practice abortion and against the mothers who authorize it. Abortion is a crime in God's eyes. But the focus of God's concern is not with stopping the abortions by his representatives' individual actions. The focus of God's concern is to legislate against abortion and then to have the representative ordained agents, that is, the civil magistrates, take public action against the abortion. God's judicial focus, in other words, is corporate and judicial. This is the focus of God's concern in the question of abortion.

The local question -- whether or not babies are being killed by specific abortionists -- is a secondary matter judicially. In the eyes of God, the primary concern is corporate and judicial. This is what we are supposed to learn from Deuteronomy 21:1-9. This has not been understood well by the pro-life movement. And surely, this was not understood by you.

The problem is the community. The community approves. Let us not mince words: the United States electorate approves of abortion on demand. It will not bring political sanctions against those politicians who remain silent on abortion or who actively promote abortions. The problem is in the hearts of the people. This is our primary covenantal problem.

What can be done about abortion if the primary focus of concern is not abortion but the legalization of abortion? What has to be done is to change the minds of the people. Then, second, what has to be done is to enact laws against abortion, and to pass a constitutional amendment authorizing the law to legislate against abortion. The matter is judicial. The matter is civil-political.

Perfectionism and Unlimited Guilt

There are 50 million abortions conducted each year. Am I responsible to pick up a gun and shoot any abortionist anywhere on earth? Has God ordained me to cleanse the earth of abortionists? Your theology sets no boundaries on the use of violence. National borders have no judicial relevance for those seeking to cleanse by force the world of abortion. Evil is evil, wherever it is practiced. If the lone-gunner for Jesus has been given equality with the civil magistrate in protecting the lives of the unborn, this license cannot end at a national border.

Your theology offers no judicial boundaries. It offers no boundaries on the sense of guilt in the hearts of men. There are unborn babies dying today, all over the world. Where does my responsibility end?

The unbounded perfectionism of your theology leads to intense guilt and the deviant behavior such guilt can produce. I am not guilty for my refusal to kill abortionists. I have not been authorized by God to kill abortionists. Abortionists are not under my God-given authority. They have not invaded an area of responsibility for which I am responsible to the point of being authorized to kill them. But I am guilty if I do nothing politically to reverse the legalization of abortion. That authority has been given to me.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

The OT today

Many Christians who affirm the inspiration and authority of the Bible have a way, nonetheless, of practically decanonizing the OT. And that's because they don't know exactly where the moral law leaves off and the ceremonial law begins. For them, the law of Moses might as well be an electrified fence.

And, of course, if you ask the question that way, then you are condemned to moral paralysis, for only God knows precisely where the line lies at every point along the way.

But since Christian duty does not depend on our having divine omniscience, then that is surely the wrong way to pose the question. So let us approach the issue from another angle.

1. Assuming that God never does what is wrong or orders what is wrong, then how is what was right in the past wrong at present? Put another way, how far wrong can we go by continuing to do what was right in the past?

To take a couple of examples, Christians get hung up over the blue laws. Should we or should be not have blue laws today? Is this part of the moral law or the ceremonial law?

Now we could try to answer that question as stated. On the basis of Gen 2:2-3 it would be easy, I should think, to argue that this is a creation ordinance.

But I want to invoke a broader principle. If blue laws were commanded in the past (under the Mosaic law), then blue laws were right at that time. And if they were right way back when, then how can they be wrong today? How can they be morally wrong nowadays if they were not morally wrong in the days of yore?

Or, to take another example, consider the whole debate over queer rights. Now, under the OT, a sodomite did have rights: he had the right to die! Sodomy was a capital offense. So, if sodomy was a sin in the past, how can it be a right at present?

2. This brings me to another point. Even if something that was once morally mandatory in the past is no longer imperative today, it would at least be permissible today. If the greater was right, surely the lesser is right.

So even if we should say that homosexuals ought not to be executed today (and I'm not saying that they shouldn't be), yet if, under the law of God, sodomy used to carry the death penalty, then it is hard to see how we can do a complete 180 and suddenly say that homosexuals are now entitled to special rights or equal rights or civil rights or human rights. (This is even before we bring the NT witness to bear.)

One can extend this to other issues. If blasphemy and idolatry used to be capital crimes (under the Mosaic law), then even if we didn't believe that we are mandated to mete out the same sentence in our own day, yet how can the promotion of a false faith (e.g., Islam) become a civil right? If the greater was right (death for blasphemy/idolatry), surely the lesser is right, viz., expelling Muslims from the country.

Suppose that Sabbath-keeping figured in the ceremonial law. Yet how bad can it be to keep Sabbath? Is it a sin to keep Sabbath? Not even a Baptist believes that. Even if we said that Sabbath-keeping is no longer necessary, is it necessarily wrong?

But suppose that Sabbath-keeping figures in the moral law? How bad can it be not to keep Sabbath? That would be a sin.

In fact, you will notice that the Apostles continued to attend the Temple, keep Kosher, and observe circumcision—even though that was all part of the ceremonial law.

Not everything that is no longer prescribed is thereby proscribed. The ceremonial law was no longer binding on believers. But it was forbidden to believers. Rather, it was a point of liberty.

So, when in doubt, play it safe. When in doubt, be cautious and conservative rather than radical and iconoclastic.

3. And this brings me to yet another point: on issues over which the faithful may disagree, over which both sides are in some degree of doubt, over which either side could be mistaken, in what direction should we err?

Should we give the benefit of the doubt to God's past commands, or should we presume that they are null-and-void? It seems to me that even if the individual issue is not obvious, the presumption should be obvious. The onus is on continuity, in the absence of contrary evidence.

Given a measure of uncertainty regarding the present application, I'd rather bet on what God has said and done in the past than gamble on a change in God's modus operandi.

Put another way, even if I turn out to be mistaken, I can't go very far wrong with a burden of proof based on moral continuity. But it's easy to see how I could go very far wrong indeed by reversing the burden.

Of course, the question of how relevant OT ethics are to Christian ethics cannot avoid the debate over theonomy. I'll state a few of the major objections, and offer a few brief replies.

Objections to theonomy:

1. Theonomy is a prescription for big gov't.

i) Theonomy is often equated with a totalitarian big brother, big gov't, command-and-control apparatus. But theonomy is about the law, not the law enforcement mechanism, per se. Under the OT you had both a tribal oligarchy and a constitutional monarchy.

ii) The scope of gov't is directly proportional to the scope of the law. The more laws there are on the books, the greater the reach and power of gov't to enforce those laws.

Compared to our modern-day civil and criminal code, the Mosaic law is pretty minimal. So this is a recipe for limited gov't, not big gov't or big brother.

iii) But if the state is governed by man-made law rather than divine law, then that is a recipe for a totalitarian state, for the state thereby defines right and wrong. Rights are conferred or rescinded at the whim of the state.

2. Theonomy forces unbelievers to play at being believers.

Even under the OT theocracy, you didn't have the same law for everyone across the board. For example, uncircumcised resident aliens were not allowed to participate in the Passover (Exod 12:43-49).

3. Theonomy criminalizes sin.

Under the Mosaic law, not every sin is a crime. We can sin in thought, word, and deed, but the law is principally concerned with the third category, far less so with the second, and not at all with the first.

4. Theonomy is harsh, meting out the death penalty for adultery, blasphemy, sodomy, Sabbath-breaking, witchcraft, juvenile delinquency, &c.

i) We naturally flinch and squirm at some of these examples. This is owing, in some measure, to our permissive social conditioning, as well as our fellow feeling. But that has nothing to do with divine justice.

ii) And I don't see that what was once right now becomes wrong, or vice versa. It seems to me that our unease and discomfort is the same in their original context as it would be in a contemporary recontextualization.

iii) Adultery and divorce are extremely destructive to the social fabric, viz., children of broken homes.

iv) As to executing juvenile delinquents, there's quite a difference between a four-year old who refuses go to bed and a sixteen year old who assaults his father or mother. There is also a difference between an isolated incident and incorrigible delinquency.

Younger and younger kids are committing worse and worse crimes. It's a tragedy for a teenager, just entering into manhood, to throw his life away, but it's even more a tragedy for the victim's whose life he took.

v) When we talk about witchcraft we need, in some measure, to clear our minds of Salem or Bewitched or Malleus Maleficarum, and concentrate on what witchcraft consisted of in OT times. We also need to consider the toll on children raised in this environment.

vi) Organizations like NAMBLA, as well as the Catholic sex scandal, illustrate the predatory nature of sodomy. Sodomites regularly lobby for the lowering or abolishment of an age of consent.

Although the church ought to have an outreach ministry to the homosexual community, we should not be more merciful to the homosexual than we are to his actual or potential victim. The wellbeing of minors must take precedence.

In addition, to the extent that homosexuals are allowed to infiltrate the institutions of power, they will use their power to extirpate the church.

5. Theonomy is thin on due process, viz., rules of evidence, right to counsel, appellate process.

This really depends on how we define a fair trial. I define a fair trial as a trial in which the guilty are convicted and the innocent acquitted. It's not about due process, per se, but getting your due. Due process ought to be adapted to that end.

However, modern-day courts seem to define a fair trial as a trial in which a guilty defendant has a chance of getting acquitted. In addition, courts seem less concerned with guilt or innocence than they do with civil rights--as they define civil rights. If the civil rights of the defendant are violated, the court will sanction the police or the DA by tossing out probative evidence or letting the accused walk on a technicality.

Due process is a good thing when it serves the purpose of establishing guilt or innocence. I think it is a bad thing when it becomes an end in itself rather than a means to a just end.

6. Theonomy can't draw a bright line between the moral and ceremonial law.

i) Borderline cases are a problem, not only for theonomy, but ethics in general. For instance, we arm our police to defend the life and limb of the innocent; but if a policeman gets into a shootout, he may accidentally injure or kill and innocent bystander in the crossfire.

The first thing I'd say is that not all cases are borderline cases, and so the borderline cases do not invalidate the non-borderline cases.

ii) Where there's a gray area, I'd give the benefit of the doubt to leniency rather than severity.

iii) Ultimately, it would be up to the political process to draw the lines.

Sifting the evidence

The Secular Web has chosen "It Ain't Necessarily So," by Matthew Sturgis, as its book of the month. According to the review, " The book offers fresh, sometimes unsettling, perspectives on the Bible and its history—results which are not encouraging for Biblical fundamentalists as the author concludes that virtually all of the early stories of the Bible are fabrications. Not surprisingly, however, the later in history the more the archaeological evidence coincides with the Biblical accounts."

Such a sceptical assessment calls for a number of comments:

1. Stugis is not exactly a pro. He is not a field archeologist. He is not, to my knowledge, a student of the ANE languages. In this respect he stands in distinct contrast to writers like Currid, Kitchen, Millard, Mitchell, Thompson, Yamauchi, or Wiseman. Rather, his attainments in the field of historical studies are distinguished by such weighty contributions as "The English Cat at Home," and "Off the Lease: Memoirs of a Royal Corgi."

2. There is the preliminary question of what trace evidence we would expect to survive. Regarding the conquest of Canaan, Kitchen notes that "one may also cite the innumerable campaigns of Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian armies in the Levant, of whose encampments and battlefields almost no traces are ever found," On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003), 545, n.84.

Likewise, the Nile Delta is not conducive to the preservation of perishable materials. In addition, we would hardly expect Egyptian and Assyrian regimes on the losing side of a conflict with ancient Israel to memorialize their ignominious defeat in official inscriptions.

3. Liberals are duplicitous in their rules of evidence. If there's no corroboration, then a liberal will say that the Bible writer made up the story whole cloth; if there is corroboration, then a liberal will say that the Bible writer borrowed the story whole cloth.

4. The fact that the trail grows colder the further back in time we go is scarcely surprising. To the contrary, the evidential cone is consistent with, and even implies, the very reverse.

When someone invents the past, the result is not a lack of historical parallels. Rather, the problem is that the parallels are contemporaneous with the time of the writer rather than the period he pretends to be writing about. He can only write about what he knows, and what he knows best the present. It is the presence of anachronisms, and not the absence of corroboration, or—rather, the presence of corroboration from the time of the writer rather than the putative time of the history—that is the telltale sign of a historical forgery.

5. If, as the liberals would have it, the Pentateuch was written or redacted in the exilic or post-exilic or even Intertestamental period, then there'd be plenty of local detail and abundant corroboration, but out of historical sequence with the stated setting of the Pentateuch. But if Gen 1-11 records the period it claims to record, then, of course, the further back in time you go, the less artifactual evidence you find—especially if you throw in a global flood.