Saturday, March 30, 2013

Our Day of Joy

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and he was buried. But that is not the end of the story, and tomorrow we will celebrate his resurrection. We will have both a sunrise service and our regular service, so let me post the songs for both of them.

Sunrise Service - 6:15 a.m.

Like the Golden Sun Ascending
Christ the Lord is Risen Today (Lianfair)
Now Let the Vault of Heaven Resound
I Know that My Redeemer Lives
The Strife Is O'er, the Battle Done

Main Service - 10:30 a.m.

Christ, the Lord is Risen Today (#156)
Christ Arose (#159)
Arise, My Soul, Arise (#174)
Thine Be the Glory (#162)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Psalm 118:19-29
New Testament: 1 Corinthians 15:1-28

The Incredible and the Impossible? - Acts 2:24; 26:8

P.S. Remember that there will be no fellowship meal or afternoon meetings.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Soldiers and Their Wages

Soldiers who heard John the Baptist's ripping preaching asked what they should do to show repentance. The Baptist replied, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages."

Be content with your wages.

There are a thousand differences between being a Roman soldier in early first century Judea and being an American soldier in twenty-first century Colorado Springs, but this is not one of them. Discontentment is the perennial temptation of every soldier. If you have ever been around a soldiers' gripe session, you know what I mean. But a mark of those who trust in Christ is contentment.

"Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.'" (Heb 13:5)

Being filled with all the fulness of Christ leaves little room for discontent.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sermon on a Milking Stool

Fathers ought to give their sons the wisdom needed for life. Here's a great example from Ralph Moody.

Then [Lucy] told me that smart men like her father never did have to work hard, because they knew the world owed them a living and there were easier ways to get it than doing hard work....

While we were milking that night, I told Father what Lucy said about her father, and asked him why he didn't try to do the same thing.

I only saw Father mad two or three times, but that was one of them. He jumped up off his milking stool and came around behind Brindle. His face was gray-white--even his lips were white--and his voice was shaky when he said, "Don't you ever talk to that girl again."

He just stood there for a minute, as if he didn't know what he was going to say, then he put the stool right down in front of me and sat on it. He reached out and took hold of my knee hard. His voice didn't shake then, but he talked low. "Son," he said, "I had hoped you wouldn't run into anything like this till you were older, but maybe it's just as well. There are only two kinds of men in this world: Honest men and dishonest men. There are black men and white men and yellow men and red men, but nothing counts except whether they're honest men or dishonest men....

"Any man who says the world owes him a living is dishonest. The same God that made you and me made this earth. And He planned it so that it would yield every single thing that the people on it need. But He was careful to plan it so that it would only yield up its wealth in exchange for the labor of man. Any man who tries to share in that wealth without contributing the work of his brain or his hands is dishonest.

"Son, this is a long sermon for a boy of your age, but I want so much for you to be an honest man that I had to explain it to you."

I wish I knew how Father was able to say things so as to make you remember every word of it. If I could remember everything the way I remember the things Father told me, maybe I could be as smart a man as he was.

Ralph Moody, Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pieces Coming Together

My dad enjoys doing large puzzles. He will work on them little by little in his spare time, and eventually what was once a mess of disconnected pieces turns into a beautiful picture.  In large puzzles, that process often takes place by piecing together smaller portions within the larger picture, and then merging those smaller pictures into the whole.

In our series of sermons "Worship, Wisdom, and Work" it is time for us to put together one of those smaller portions. We have observed each one of the five major offerings that the Lord gave to Israel and drawn out much wisdom regarding how men draw near to God. But now we need to piece these together and observe how these offerings worked together in practice. What was actually going on when God and man met together, and how does the structure of worship logically support that? In other words, what matters about the order of our worship?

As Evan McWilliams recently said,

In worship we do more than present our public service (leitourgia) to Him; we consciously re-order our whole selves- heart, soul, strength, and mind- and thus re-center our universe around Him. We do this by submitting to His guidance regarding the proper ordering of our worship. It is no small point to note that we are enabled properly to re-order ourselves because He first orders us to receive His instruction; the Lord is ever the prime mover.

Join us this Lord's Day to reorder your life according to God's holiness.

All Glory, Laud, and Honor (#11)
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (#87)
Joy to the World (#92)
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (#184)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Leviticus 18:1-18; Psalm 45
New Testament: Luke 11:1-13

Worship, Wisdom, and Work Series: The Order of Offerings and Our Worship - Leviticus 9

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dogmatic Love

Yes, the Trinity can be presented as a fusty and irrelevant dogma, but the truth is that God is love because God is a Trinity.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity

False Federal Gods

"These are your gods, O America, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt."

It's not too hard to hear this in the political discourse of our day.

Over at the Acton Institute's blog, Ray Nothstine asks, "Is the divinization of the Federal government complete?"

He writes, "Even throughout American history it has generally been understood by both parties that the federal government can’t or shouldn’t solve all of our problems. Instead, we see lawmakers almost ritualistically dancing on the dead bodies of innocent victims in their call for more spending and government involvement in our lives. It’s becoming a gruesome cult like practice." He goes on to cite Richard Weaver's classic Ideas Have Consequences, "It is likely that human society cannot exist without some source of sacredness. Those states which have sought openly to remove it have tended in the end to assume divinity themselves."

This is a serious issue which Christians should take seriously. It is increasingly important that we reject this idolatry root and branch.

We began to address this issue in this sermon:

It’s one thing for us to say, “We know that America is not a god. For us there is only one God. We know that freedom only comes from God and not from America.” But does that knowledge then make us free to eat meat in the idol’s temple? Not at all. Many people around us really do believe that America is essential to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. They really do put their trust in the American economy, American democracy, American educational system, or American military. These are the things that ensure real life for them. This is idolatry. As Christians, we cannot lead a brother into that as though he can hold fast to Christ and Americanism, too. That’s polytheism, and it is anti-Christ.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Greeting God with a Shout

And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.
Leviticus 9:24

Gordon Wenham comments, "These episodes show that the worship of God involves a total response of man to God. The presence of God was greeted with a shout, not silence. More than that, they fell on their faces (v. 24). God's greatness and holiness cannot be ignored; he must be acknowledged by our whole being. Nothing less is adequate."

Friday, March 15, 2013

Stunning Conclusion

When we review all this Old Testament material (the shedding and sprinkling of blood, the sin offering, the Passover, the meaning of 'sin-bearing,' the scapegoat and Isaiah 53), and consider its New Testament application to the death of Christ, we are obliged to conclude that the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice. 

Christ died for us. Christ died instead of us.

John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ

Sacrilege vs. Sanctity

The worship that changes the world is going to come from people who know God. To put that in terms of what we have been learning from old covenant worship, the worship that changes the world is going to come from people who, because of God's gift of atonement, are totally consecrated to God, giving themselves wholly to him as the firstfruits of the new creation. The worship that changes the world is going to come from people who delight in being at peace with God. It is going to come from people who are purified by Jesus' blood for holy service.

In addition, the worship that changes the world is going to come from people who know the value of the holy things of God. Sin not only defiles; it also desecrates. So, not only must there be purification of what has been defiled, there must also be consecration of what has been profaned. This setting apart to God takes place by means of payment. What was stolen from the Lord must be returned with payment for damages. How does that impact our worship today? Join us this Lord's Day to find out.

Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus (#81)
O Sacred Head Now Wounded (#139)
Hallelujah! What a Savior (#128)
Join All the Glorious Names (#182)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Leviticus 17:1-16; Psalm 5
New Testament: Luke 10:21-42

Worship, Wisdom, and Work Series: The Guilt Offering and Our Worship - Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Bible of the Enlightened Ones

I'd like to submit another post on the issue of using the Scripture in our ethical lives (see here and here). We want to live rightly before the face of God, pleasing him in all things. The Bible is our final authority on these matters, so it matters that we become skillful interpreters. This post will be a bit hefty, so if you have better things to do than read critiques and arguments, feel free to skip it. Nevertheless, it may help a few folks who have interests in these things and are asking some of these questions.

One book published over a decade ago seems to articulate an approach to the Scripture which is quite popular today. I speak of Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William J. Webb. Darrell Bock writes in the forward that this book "comes with many strengths." I'll let the reader judge that. In what follows, I have pasted in some lightly edited notes that I wrote down as my response to the book when I read it a few years ago. These are just notes; they need to be revised. But they are what I have at the moment. Here's the short version for those who don't want to read all that follows: this book is a textbook example of how to make our enlightened modern selves lords and masters of the benighted text of Scripture. If that sounds too harsh, I can only ask that you read on.


“ . . . the listener is being asked not simply to follow a valid reasoning form but to respond to some presentation of reality. He is being asked to agree with the speaker’s interpretation of the world that is.”
Richard Weaver

Webb has clearly done a great deal of research and thinking on the issues of how we apply the Scripture to slavery, women’s rights, and homosexuality. His position is clearly articulated, delineated in detail, and copiously illustrated. This is a great service to those who are trying to understand his position, and his book is a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion on how to apply the Bible today. His work has taken its place as a benchmark of contemporary discussions regarding culture and biblical interpretation.[1] He also states that he desires to uphold the authority of Scripture (56), and I take his affirmation at face value. Yet I judge his position to be a complete failure. Why do I render such a strong judgment?
Let me first of all note that I am not rendering any stronger of a judgment negatively than Webb himself endorses positively for his view. Although he writes with a tone of accommodation and dialogue, his conclusions are actually set in stone from the beginning. He believes that his approach is absolutely necessary, and he says so repeatedly.
“If we are to speak to our world today, we must first evaluate the role of culture in the biblical text” (24, underlining added).

What we should live out in our modern culture, however, is not the isolated words of the text but the redemptive spirit that the text reflects as read against its original culture….[W]e need to move on, beyond the text….Surely there is a more humane and just treatment of women POWs than what is reflected in the biblical text….Applications of the Bible in successive generations and different cultures must permit the redemptive spirit of the text to carry forward the unrealized or frozen-in-time aspects of a biblical ethic” (33, underlining added).

The Christian seeking to apply Scripture today should examine the movement between the biblical text and its surrounding social context….The alternative, of course, is to work with an understanding of the Scripture that is static. (36, underlining added).

“If the women’s debate is to make any progress in the years that lie ahead, evangelical leaders on the patriarchy side will need to emerge with one clear message: as with slavery, the patriarchy found within the Bible does not offer us an ultimate social ethic….Both patriarchalists and egalitarians must agree upon a hermeneutical framework that is grounded in an understanding of redemptive betters. Both sides must agree upon making the redemptive spirit in Scripture and its multilevel ethic a central, not peripheral component in the dialogue” (48, underlining added).

Only a view that utilizes the redemptive spirit within Scripture as its core can construct an enduring connection between the ancient and modern worlds” (51, underlining added).

Only a redemptive-movement hermeneutic deals adequately with these texts” (57, underlining added).

“In order to account for the impact of culture upon the formation of Scripture, we must embrace a redemptive-movement hermeneutic” (253, underlining added).

These are strong claims, but as I hope to show, they are unjustified. In fact, they reveal a deep irony that I see in this book. The author wants us to move beyond our own cultural categories, yet he seems hopelessly dominated by contemporary concerns. He appears to suffer from a great lack of imagination when he insists that his own approach is the only possible way to handle the difficulties he raises.

Christians and Culture

Webb begins with a discussion of the Christian and culture. As he sets up the problem, the Christian must to figure out what in our own culture reflects kingdom values versus what reflects cultural values. But it goes deeper than this. The Scripture itself incorporates into the text transcultural values and cultural values. As one example, Webb claims that the apostle Paul acted very pragmatically when it came to culture (22). Scripture was not written in a vacuum, and so it is written within the cultural grid of its day. Therefore the interpreter must distinguish between kingdom values and cultural values within the biblical text (23).
Webb then proceeds to offer a definition of a “cultural-component,” namely, some aspect in the biblical text that is culturally relative or culturally bound (24). He then states, “It is beyond my objective to pursue the finer nuances and philosophical differences in the definition and theology of the field of cultural/transcultural assessment. …[S]uch discussion…makes little persuasive difference in the final outcome of evaluating actual cases” (25).
Here I must stop and make some crucial observations. First, it seems significant to me that Webb feels no need to justify his cultural/transcultural construction of the problem of application. This indicates that he assumes that most of his readers will accept this way of looking at the problem. He has good reason to assume this, since this is a standard contemporary way of approaching the task of application.[2]
Second, this assumption on Webb’s part unfortunately allows him to simply gloss over a critical issue in contemporary discussions of culture, namely, what is this thing called “culture”? What are we talking about? The way one defines culture will have a decided impact upon the final outcome of evaluating actual cases. Although Webb never gives his definition of culture, his writing indicates that he starts from or assumes the anthropological idea of culture. Since the field of anthropological studies as a discipline has woven into its very fabric a naturalistic assumption about man,[3] this view of culture assiduously avoids any fixed, transcendent reference point and attempts to avoid any moral evaluation. Instead, it tries to adopt a purely descriptive focus on human activities.[4] To be fair to Webb, this is the conception of culture that is taken most often in works on biblical hermeneutics and in biblical studies in general.
The anthropological conception of culture is heuristically useful, as far as it goes. However, it fails to go far enough, and thus it ends up producing the false impression that culture can be religiously neutral. It gives the impression that cultural expressions such as law, architecture, or human institutions are morally benign. It fosters the incorrect notion that Christianity only applies to a small “sacred” realm while everything else is “secular.” It completely misses the fact that secularism itself is a religious position. Even T. S. Eliot recognized and argued that religion and culture cannot be separated.[5] The reality is that religious neutrality is a myth.[6] At the most fundamental level of existence, one is either for Christ or against him.
A much better definition of culture would be something like that advanced by Henry Van Til, in which culture is “the total human effort of subduing the earth together with its total achievement in fulfilling the creative will of God.”[7] This definition has the advantage of striving for a biblical perspective on reality. It keeps God in the picture as the standard of right and wrong who measures all human achievement. It correctly sees that culture is the outworking of the fundamental religious commitments of the human heart.
I am arguing here that Webb has made a significant error when he assumes a relativistic, anthropological view of culture. In a sense, he starts off his whole enterprise captured by the current cultural view of culture. It is not surprising, then, that his conclusions match with his controlling assumptions. After reading Webb’s opening chapter, I must honestly say that I had little hope that the rest of the work would produce any real progress in the contemporary hermeneutical debates. He simply showed no sign of challenging unbelieving thought at its root. Yet even this error would not in and of itself obliterate any value in Webb’s work. Thankfully, the Lord has so designed his network of truth that even if we are weak in some areas other sectors help to prop it up. Webb could have kept this error in check through a firm grasp of other important biblical information. Alas, he did not, which we will see as we move into his explication of his redemptive-movement hermeneutic in chapter 2.
But before I move on, I want to raise a third observation. I have misgivings about even framing the discussion in terms of cultural/transcultural values. This seems to me to be connected to an uncritical form/substance dualism, the idea that the form something takes has no intrinsic connection with its true nature. The wedge between form and substance which is characteristic of modern thought has not always ruled in Christian thinking as it does today, and perhaps discussions like Webb’s ought to make us rethink such a dualism. Truly conservative thinkers of various stripes that I have read all seem to resist such a separation, and I think we would be wise to listen carefully to them.[8] If I am on the right track, then quite a bit of the standard contemporary practice of application needs some retooling. Webb’s aberrant hypothesis only highlights the need for a more scriptural approach to Scripture.

A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic

Webb describes five key characteristics of his redemptive-movement hermeneutic: (1) redemptive movement, (2) a multilevel ethic, (3) a balanced perspective, (4) cultural/transcultural assessment and (5) the underlying spirit within a text. Before describing these characteristics in detail, Webb claims that his redemptive-movement has a long pedigree in the history of interpretation. But this claim is inaccurate. Webb says this is the same kind of a move as approaches which utilize the “analogy of faith,” a “canonical” approach, a “progress of revelation” approach, a “progressive dispensational” approach, a moderate “covenant” approach, a “Christological” approach, and even a “grammatical-historical” approach (35, fn 4). However, one major difference between all of these approaches, as handled by their better practitioners, and Webb’s redemptive-movement is that they all make revelation within the canon the controlling factor, while Webb explicitly and intentionally brings in extra-Scriptural factors (i.e. the original “culture”) on par with Scriptural revelation. Even the “intrascriptural” criteria which Webb puts forward assume a kind of dialectic between God’s revelation and human culture. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of these other approaches might be, they do not elevate extra-Scriptural factors to epistemological equality with special revelation. I believe Robert Yarbrough is correct when he says, “Historically, the ‘redemptive-movement hermeneutic’ in the particular form Webb constructs it…did not exist until a generation or two ago.”[10]

Redemptive Movement

This indeed is Webb’s fatal misstep which derails his whole project. He elevates the original receptor “culture” to an epistemological pole on a plane equal and opposite to the pole of Scripture. But such a move finds no sanction in the biblical text itself, and it destroys the sufficiency of Scripture as well as the finality of biblical authority. In Webb’s approach, the inspired text is no longer epistemologically basic. The “movement” we perceive becomes our actual authority, not the inspired text.[11] In effect, elevating the original culture to a privileged hermeneutical position domesticates the Scripture to our rationalizations. We become the authority, not the text as it was given by God. In the past, those who have submitted to the authority of Scripture used the historical context of the biblical authors to elucidate the meaning of the text, or to be sure that they understood precisely what the text was saying, but never to determine the application of the text. They believed that “Scripture’s doctrine of Scripture binds us to view its teachings as timeless truths intended ‘for our instruction, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.’”[12]
This step of elevating the receptor culture to a determinative interpretive position allows Webb to measure the “movement” between that receptor culture and the direct revelation in Scripture. He labels this movement “redemptive,” meaning that it is an ethical improvement on the receptor culture. But this label, to me, is another indication that Webb handles biblical concepts sloppily (although in his defense, he is following common convention). The term “redemptive” is often thrown around these days with little biblical precision. The Scriptures never speak of “redeeming culture.”[13] That way of speaking is so conceptually sloppy that it can mean almost whatever the user wishes it to mean. If words are nails, then using the nomenclature “redeeming culture” is like driving a 16d nail into a 3/8 inch hole and expecting it to hold. It simply won’t happen. In this case, it certainly doesn’t help Webb build a convincing case.
Allow me to pause here to make what I believe is simply a common sense observation. I believe this observation is pertinent even for those who may not agree with me that Webb has made an epistemological error. By trying to measure Scriptural teaching against the receptor culture of the day, Webb has actually raised far more questions than he could possibly answer. The reason is simply that we don’t know that much about the receptor cultures. Anybody who has ever studied history in any depth, especially ancient history, should realize that our reconstructions of history, especially our reconstructions of the reasons behind what people did or the attitudes of people toward various things, are always tentative. Let me give one example that is particularly instructive regarding Webb’s work – the history of the place of women in the family. Historians of the family during the 1960’s and ’70’s tended to read the history of gender relations in the family through thick ideological glasses, and their reconstructions are not holding up well under further research.[14] Yet their assumptions adversely affect thinking on family relations to this day. The point is, when Webb says that we must measure the redemptive movement of Scripture against the culture of its day, we actually don’t have much to measure against. We are always measuring against a moving target. We don’t really know that much about the why’s and wherefore’s of the cultures of biblical days. Consequently, Webb’s approach dooms us to perpetual uncertainty about how anything in Scripture applies to us today.

A Multilevel Ethic

            Webb’s proposal for a multilevel ethic in Scripture is completely unconvincing and is fraught with theological problems. He handles Matthew 19 very poorly, for he thinks that the problem with the Pharisees’ interpretation was that they held a uniform ethic. He writes, “the gospel writer portrays the Pharisees as having a wrong understanding of Scripture due to their expectation of a uniform ethic (43, italics added). In actuality, the gospel writer does no such thing. The problem with the Pharisees was not a uniform ethic but an ungodly, unbelieving, and, in fact, unscriptural ethic. They assumed that Moses commanded divorce, which is completely false. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is part of series of casuistic laws which regulated the hardhearted behavior of the Israelites. No Israelite in Moses’ day should have taken it as a statement of God’s ultimate ethical intentions, for it is abundantly clear that God never intended it as such. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day completely misinterpreted the OT law, and Jesus corrected them. But Webb assumes that the Pharisees were essentially correct in their interpretation while being stuck in an outdated application. For Webb to take it as such is to create a straw man in order to buttress his position. At the very least, Webb evidences a failure to interact with strong arguments that demonstrate genuine ethical continuity between Deuteronomy and Matthew.[15]
            I would like to make one broader point about Webb’s ethic, as well. His ethic fails to take Scripture as its starting point. Repeatedly, he appeals to ethical principles such as “equality,” “justice,” or “love” (36). But by what standard does he define these ideals? It is not by Scripture. He never builds any exegetical case for his conception of these ideals. Rather, I suppose that he assumes that these ideals are accessible through natural revelation or human conscience or reason. He does not reckon with the fact that natural revelation must be controlled by special revelation, nor does he sufficiently account for the twisted shape of human conscience and reason since the fall. Thus, he assumes some common modern ideas (sometimes verging on Marxist? p. 38) and imposes them on the biblical revelation. This leaves him without any normative ethic for mankind. For example, he claims that “we should not legally impose our sexual ethic on others” (40). But then we may rightly ask, “Whose sexual ethic should be imposed?” Someone’s ethic is always going to be given the weight of legal sanctions. Neutrality is not possible. Should it be some ethic that man has concocted? Should it not be God’s ethic revealed in Scripture? His labeling certain applications as “grotesque” (36) with no argumentation to back it up says more about him than about the Scripture. I conclude, then, that both Webb’s epistemology and his ethic are imposed upon Scripture, rather than built out of Scripture.
            The next two components of Webb’s hermeneutic can be quickly addressed. His “balanced perspective” does not add to the discussion. Every man thinks he has balanced perspective, as long as he is able to define the extremes or the poles which he is balancing against. Therefore, labeling one’s approach as balanced simply begs the question. The cultural/transcultural assessment is also key to the author’s hermeneutic. But I have already given reasons for not accepting the poles which Webb postulates and for questioning the cultural/transcultural construct.

The Spirit of a Text

            The last crucial aspect of Webb’s hermeneutic is a “focus on the spirit of a text” in contrast to the “isolated words.” He says that “in order to grasp the spirit of a text, the interpreter must listen for how the text sounds within its various social contexts,” namely, “the broader, foreign ancient Near Eastern and context and the immediate, domestic Israelite/church setting” (53). The interpreter then discerns what improvements are being made, and this helps him to sense the direction the wind is blowing, so to speak.
            Webb distinguishes the spirit of a text from principles which one abstracts from the text (53-55). I am glad that he makes this distinction, for it makes clear that he is arguing for more than a principlizing approach can provide. I actually believe that Webb is on to something important here, and that is that principlizing as a hermeneutical method is inadequate. Principlizing is good and perhaps necessary in some ways, yet in and of itself it cannot provide the complete methodological direction necessary for clear and consistent application of biblical truth. However, Webb’s medicine is far worse than the disease he diagnoses. “The spirit of a text” is vacuous in terms of substantive content. It is truly a phantom. When Interpreter A feels that the spirit of a text is “black,” Interpreter B emotes that the spirit of a text is “liberation,” Interpreter C is affected by the spirit of a text in a “feminist” way, and Interpreter D, the true heir of the hippies, just wants to love everybody, then it becomes rather evident that the spirit of the text is not the Spirit, unless it be that the Spirit really has become the author of confusion. Webb cannot show any biblical precept or example for the existence of such a spirit of the text.

Theological Rationale

            Yet, to Webb’s credit, he attempts to at least provide some theological rationale for his redemptive movement hermeneutic (55-66), discussing the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of God.
            Given what I have said above, it is clear that I came to this point in Webb’s argument with great anticipation. I had judged his position to undermine the authority of Scripture, so I was most anxious to read how he would defend his position. But once again I was disappointed. His defense of his position relative to the authority is Scripture is purely negative. That is to say, he does not develop any positive reason for how his hermeneutic upholds the authority of Scripture. Rather, his only reason for his approach is that he (along with others) cannot stomach what the Bible actually says, so he has to come up with some way to make the Bible plausible. This is supposedly upholding the authority of Scripture. A “static” hermeneutic, he claims, “cannot provide credible answers for the inquisitive seeker, the critical secularist, or the troubled Christian” (57). But everything here hinges on who gets to define what “credible” is. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). So the question here really is an issue of authority. When we come up against things in Scripture that rankle us or even revolt us, we are not at liberty to redefine them. The Bible is the most clear and credible revelation in the whole world, and if we can’t get that, then we are simply unbelieving (and we all struggle with this to one degree or another; cf Matt 16:8; Mark 9:24; Luke 24:25; John 3:12; 6:60-66). This section of the book would have been a great moment for Webb to “redeem” himself, but sadly he only dug the grave deeper.
            The second theological rationale Webb gives for his hermeneutic is the wisdom of God. But he makes a fundamental error in this section as well which undermines its value. Webb assumes that God is not in total control of “culture” as well as of direct revelation. Therefore God is not able to communicate precisely what he wishes to mankind. Rather, God is only able to take mankind as far as mankind will allow. If this were true, then the proper doctrine of biblical inspiration would crumble.[16] Thus Webb’s metaphysic is out of line with the biblical revelation. To Webb, God is wisely interacting with his creation, but he is not in control of it. Webb forgets that just as God was in control of the precise text that the biblical authors wrote, he was also in complete control of the cultural situation to which the text was addressed. God providentially set up exactly the cultural situation he wanted in order to communicate his truth to mankind. But since Webb omits this truth, it leads him to think in dialectical terms of balancing cultural with transcultural (24), or realism with idealism (65). But God has no need to triangulate like this, because he is in control of the receptor culture and all the people who produce it, the medium of communication itself, and the very effectiveness of the communication. Webb mistakenly locates the problem of communication between God and man in social constructs, when in reality it primarily lies in sin.
At this point I would like to go back to a point Webb made, although he failed to appreciate the significance of it. He wrote, “In one sense, all of Scripture is cultural” (24). This is exactly correct. And here is where we must acknowledge that the doctrine of Scripture controls the interpretation of Scripture.[17] Just as all of Scripture is divine and all of Scripture is human, so all of Scripture is cultural, and all of Scripture is transcultural. Just as we cannot decide what in Scripture is authoritative for us today by dividing up what came from God versus what came from man, so also we cannot decide what in Scripture is authoritative for us today by dividing up what is cultural versus what is transcultural. 

Method of Argumentation

Just to provide a little perspective, I would like to contrast Webb’s book with another book I read [around the same time]. These two books share nothing in terms of content; however, they both aspire to significantly influence the shape of the discussion about the topics they discuss. The book to which I refer is Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology.[1] O’Donovan’s book is a powerful work which requires the reader to grapple with its contents every step of the way. The reason it is such a strong work is that O’Donovan seeks to ground his concepts and system in the Scriptures. It is an exegetical, inductive work, and even if one disagrees with its conclusions, one cannot but admire its robust attempt to work out a scripturally controlled political theology. O’Donovan is clearly highly skilled in exegesis, philosophy, and the history of the discussion he tackles.
Webb’s book, however, commands no such admiration. He begins with a model which does not find its starting point in the Scriptures. The entire book, then, becomes an exercise in defending the truth of his settled conclusions. It is a deductive approach which virtually demands that the reader accept the author’s assumptions a priori. He engages in little exegesis, little philosophy, and hardly interacts seriously with the history of the discussion. No one who is unsympathetic to Webb’s assumptions is going to find the book even remotely persuasive, for Webb provides no ultimate grounding for the load-bearing points in his program.

Glaring Omission

            The author pays lip service to the historical movement brought about by the outworking of God’s plan and the historical progress of revelation that went along with it (whether one calls this redemptive history or dispensations). He incorporates it into a couple of his criteria. However, he severely underestimates its relevance for his project. Many of the difficulties he uses as springboards to launch his own approach simply vanish when seen in the light of progressive revelation.[2] If Webb had wrestled with biblical theology more, his project would have been immensely strengthened. It is remarkable to me that he simply does not engage in any serious way with the great deal of exegetical and theological work which has been done both on specific texts and on the use of the Old Testament in the New. Perhaps he felt that that would detract from his ability to present his entire view in a reasonable scope. I can understand this, yet I would also say that this omission seriously detracts from the persuasive power of his proposal.
            However, I think there is a deeper reason why Webb fails to seriously consider progressive revelation in biblical theology as a guiding hermeneutical principle. He honestly thinks that the concept of progressive revelation is an insufficient guide to application, calling it a “static” hermeneutic. His hermeneutic is not based upon what is actually in the text, considered in part or in whole. Rather, it is based upon the redemptive movement he purports to see. Thus, his omission is very revealing. The omission confirms that the inspired, canonical text is not the final court of appeal for Webb. This is a critical contrast with the orthodox approach to Scripture.

Conclusion on Webb’s Work

I have not taken the time here to work through all of Webb’s eighteen criteria, primarily because it is obvious that I consider his proposal so radically ill-conceived that it would just be an exercise in airing our disagreements. This is not to say that nothing Webb writes is of any value. I think we could salvage something from the wreckage. It is rather to say that the way he construes everything renders his valid observations useless at best and potentially dangerous at worst. His “cultural component” could be used to eliminate virtually any or all historic Christian doctrines and positions. For example, although Christ’s sacrifice was revealed in Scripture as a substitutionary atonement, we might now know that that was merely God’s accommodation to a world which was slowly growing out of sacrificial religions. The redemptive movement we see might show us now that Christ’s work was ultimately designed to give us an example of love. All that stuff in the Bible about a bloody, vengeful God is too grotesque. Speaking of that, what about hell? I’m sure there must be a cultural component somewhere to show us that the Biblical teaching on hell is a cultural accommodation to ancient peoples. It was merely designed to impress on people the need to avoid the damaging effects of doing bad things, but it has nothing to do with some literal place of torment. Of course, I’m being facetious here, but if we can so easily do away with clear statements of Scripture regarding women, it is not too hard to imagine that we will find a way to do away with anything else we might find objectionable.

[1] New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[2] Thomas Schreiner properly takes Webb to task for this in his review of the book. See his “William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: A Review Article,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 6:1 (2002).


[1] Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, s.v. “Culture and Hermeneutics,” by Elizabeth Yao-Hwa Sung.
[2] See some popular works on hermeneutics, such as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1993), 70-76; Walter Kaiser and Moises Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), chapter 10; William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 483-503; Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, rev. ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), chapter 17; Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor, 1991), chapter 4.

[3] See the analysis by Pierre Manent, The City of Man, trans. Marc A. LePain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), chapter 2.

[4] Roger Scruton attributes this idea of culture to Johann Gottfried Herder in the mid-eighteenth century (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2000), 1-2).

[5] Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1977).

[6] This position is persuasively defended on philosophical grounds by Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, rev. ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2005). In recent history Dutch Reformed thinkers, most famously Abraham Kuyper, have championed this position. This can also be seen in the apologetic approach of Cornelius Van Til. In my opinion, the basic truth of non-neutrality is evident in Scripture, quite apart from any particular philosophical elaboration.

[7] The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (reprint of 1972 ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 28-29.
[8] Just to pull out a couple examples I have thought about recently, see Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948); Peter Leithart, “Medieval Theology and the Roots of Modernity,” in Revolutions in Worldview, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2007).

[10] “Progressive and Historic: The Hermeneutics of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” in Women in the Church, 2nd ed., ed. Andreas J. Kostenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 122.

[11] This is the same judgment rendered on this point by Wayne Grudem, “Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47/2 (June 2004): 299-347; ibid., Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), chapter 7.

[12] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 52.

[13] Because Webb has never defined culture precisely, it is impossible to pin down what he intends by redeeming culture. If culture is taken to mean “what people do,” then there is a sense in which Christ’s work of redemption transforms culture (cf. Titus 2:14). Christ pays the price to set men free from sin to serve God. But in Scripture Christ’s work is always focused on people, not on an abstraction like “culture.”

[14] For a refreshing handling of this problem, see Steven Ozment, Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[15] Compare the treatments of these texts by D. A. Carson, “Matthew” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary or more recently by David Turner, Matthew, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008). Whether or not one agrees with all of his conclusions, David Instone-Brewer argues strongly for ethical continuity in Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), chapter 6.
[16] See B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. Samuel Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948). Warfield astutely notes that we must consider “the preparation of the material which forms the subject-matter of these books: in a sacred history, say, for example, to be narrated; or in a religious experience which may serve as a norm for record; or in a logical elaboration of the contents of revelation which may be placed at the service of God’s people; or in the progressive revelation of Divine truth itself, supplying their culminating contents. And there is the preparation of the men to write these books to be considered, a preparation physical, intellectual, spiritual, which must have attended them throughout their remote ancestors, and the effect of which was to bring the right men to the right places at the right times, with the right endowments, impulses, acquirements, to write just the books which were designed for them….If God wished to give His people a series of letters like Paul’s, He prepared a Paul to write them, and the Paul He brought to the task was a Paul who spontaneously would write just such letters” (154-5). I suggest that God’s preparation of “culture” precisely mirrors his preparation of the men who were the authors of Scripture.

[17] Of course, many people object to this kind of circularity and seek to avoid it, but when we are dealing with ultimates, there is no way for humans to avoid circularity. For a defense of this, see John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed), 130-33.

Secular Anti-Slavery

Abolitionists, more often than not, preached less from the Bible on slavery than from the Declaration of Independence and the secular ideology of the Enlightenment.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, 499

I have never read more honest and even-handed historians of American slavery and the old South than the Genoveses. Must reading for anyone who wishes to discuss this topic.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Real Thing

Here is a great article to read as a follow-up to our most recent sermon: "The Day of Atonement was a Copy of Christ's Atonement" by Sinclair Ferguson.

The conclusion:

Take time to meditate long and hard on this aspect of Christ’s priesthood and on its implications. Hebrews refers to at least four conclusions to be drawn. Since you have such a Great High Priest, who by His blood has opened a new and living way into the Most Holy Place (10:19–20):
  • Draw near to God in full assurance (10:22).
  • Do not draw back from running the Christian race (10:39).
  • Fix your eyes on Jesus since He is such a great Savior (12:1–2).
  • Be prepared to go outside the camp, sharing Christ’s humiliation (13:13–14).
This is the pathway on which Christ will lead you into the presence of God.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Not Small or Superficial

If you want to understand High Country Baptist Church, you must understand that we are not on a "Quest for the Next Big Thing." That's way too small to fit God's vision for the church.

We really are not after "radical Christianity," not because we are against being radical, but because we believe that what is called radical tends to be not well formed and hence superficial. We want to build a culture of faithfulness.

Jesus is Lord. That simple, radical, trinitarian, and churchly confession is the foundation for something much bigger and more radical than what is currently on offer in our community. Join us on our quest to know God and make him known.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Purified for Holy Service

Last week, the ugly reality came out...we are gross, disgusting, defiled sinners by nature. We cannot be in the presence of the holy Lord without cleansing atonement. Thankfully, God provides that atonement which purifies us for holy service. Picking up where we left off last week, we will see how the sin offering points us to Christ which in turn propels us to be zealous for good works.

Holy, Holy, Holy (#3)
How Sad Our State (#333)
A Debtor to Mercy Alone (#614)
Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart (#65)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Leviticus 16:20-34; Psalm 51
New Testament: Luke 10:1-20

Worship, Wisdom, and Work Series: The Sin Offering that Purifies Us for Holy Service - Hebrews 9:11-14

P.S. Do not forget to move your clocks ahead one hour Saturday night!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Bible Interpretation and Culture

It is impossible to distinguish 'timeless truth' from 'culturally conditioned elements' in the New Testament.

With these words Richard Hays strikes at an Achilles heel of contemporary evangelical Bible interpretation.

We rightly recognize that we must interpret the Bible in the context of history. This is why we talk about grammatical-historical interpretation. All the words of the Bible were written in specific historical contexts, and these contexts help us to understand what God is saying. We must not divorce God's Word from God's works.

However, there is a trap which we must avoid at this point. Moderns are conditioned to think of history as an automatic process that simply happens. It generates meaning autonomously. But the reality is that history is the outworking of God's decree, which he accomplishes in the works of creation and providence. He made the world what it is, and he directs it in the ways he wants it to go. Therefore, we do not first take history as a "fact" to which we must conform the Bible. Instead, we take the Bible as the authoritative revelation for understanding history. God's Word authoritatively interprets God's works.

History is not ultimate reality. God is, and he has revealed himself to us supremely in the Son, Jesus Christ. In the last analysis, therefore, the meaning of all of creation and providence must be seen in light of Jesus and God's uniting all things in him as the head of all (Eph 1:10).

This perspective influences our interpretation of the Bible when it comes to the issue of "culture." Walter Kaiser provides a good example of the standard evangelical approach today: "The interpreter must bridge the gulf of explaining the cultural elements that are present in the text of Scripture, acknowledge his or her own cultural baggage as an interpreter, and then transcend both in order to communicate the original message of Scripture into the culture of the contemporary audience" (An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, 173-4 [page numbers refer to the first edition]). (Another example would be the widely used book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

Although I am a distinct minority, I contend that this approach is deeply flawed. I believe it is consistent with a relativistic, man-centered view of culture which fails to grasp the biblical teaching that culture and religion cannot be separated. I believe it assumes an uncritical form/substance dualism (the idea that the form something takes has no intrinsic connection with its true nature) characteristic of modern thought. In other words, it assumes that the way God created and governs his world has no real meaning. It opens up the real possibility of conforming everything the Bible says to what we want it to say.

Instead, we should recognize that all of the Bible is "cultural" but that this is not an impediment to our communion with God. It is not something we have to get out of the way in order to figure out what God really wants us to know. Rather, these cultural elements are precisely what God used to communicate with us. Just as God was in control of the precise text that the biblical authors wrote, so also he was in complete control of the cultural situation to which the text was addressed (see B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 154-5). God providentially set up the exact cultural situation he wanted in order to communicate his truth to mankind. God is in control of the receptor culture and all the people who produce it, the medium of communication itself, and even the effectiveness of the communication.

Here we must acknowledge that the doctrine of Scripture controls the interpretation of Scripture. Of course, many people object to this kind of circularity and seek to avoid it, but when we are dealing with ultimates, there is no way for humans to avoid circularity. We can, however, avoid vicious circularity (see John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 130-33).

Just as all of Scripture is divine and all of Scripture is human, so all of Scripture is cultural, and all of Scripture is transcultural. Just as we cannot decide what in Scripture is authoritative for us today by dividing up what came from God as opposed to what came from men, so also we cannot decide what in Scripture is authoritative for us today by dividing up what is cultural versus what is transcultural. The Bible itself must direct how we respond to the "cultural" issues raised by the Bible.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

7 x 4

Since the Bible is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, how do we let it shine?

Following up on our post from last week, here's another example.

In Daniel Doriani's very fine book Putting the Truth to Work, he lays out seven biblical sources for application along with four aspects of application that responsible interpreters must bring out.

7 Biblical Sources for Application
  • Rules
  • Ideals
  • Doctrines
  • Redemptive acts in narratives
  • Exemplary acts in narratives
  • Biblical images
  • Songs and prayers
 Passages from the Bible can produce applications in one or more of these ways. As we read the Bible, we must pay attention to these things, and then respond to them with four aspects of application.

4 Aspects of Application
The four aspects of application can be stated as questions we ask ourselves.
  • What should I do? That is, what is my duty?
  • Who should I be? That is, how can I become the person or obtain the character that lets me do what is right?
  • To what causes should we devote our life energy? That is, what goals should we pursue?
  • How can we distinguish truth from error? That is, how can we gain discernment?
As Doriani says, "Duty stresses what we ought to do, character examines who we ought to be, and goals touch upon what we ought to seek; discernment explores the competing ideas about our duty, about godly character, and about suitable goals." We must learn to use these questions well, and thus develop the skill of living which is wisdom.

Friday, March 01, 2013

A Purified People

Jesus died to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). But what does it mean to be pure and what does it have to do with our worship? The old covenant sacrifice called the sin offering, or purification offering, has much to teach us. Join us this Lord's Day.

Hail! Thou Once Despised Jesus (#81)
Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness (#400)
Psalm 32b
Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus (#522)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Leviticus 16:1-19; Psalm 32
New Testament: Luke 9:46-62

Worship, Wisdom, and Work Series: The Sin Offering and Our Worship - Leviticus 4:1-5:13