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Archive for November, 2012

To that long line of classical Reformed theologians belongs Louis Berkhof (1853-1957), professor for almost forty years at Calvin Theological Seminary. His internationally renowned Systematic Theology is valued as a highly useful single-volume theology textbook. It has become a standard work both for training and for examining ministerial candidates among Reformed and Presbyterian denominations throughout the world.

Some today are saying publicly (and privately), wherever such a narrative may be useful, that “Louis Berkhof taught Two Kingdoms theology, too.”

Well, if what you read below defines that theology accurately, then there really exists no genuine debate. And the churches need not have been agitated by what has been presented as a “recovery” of something allegedly lost.

See what you think.

Since the Roman Catholics insist indiscriminately on the identification of the Kingdom of God and the Church, their Church claims power and jurisdiction over every domain of life, such as science and art, commerce and industry, as well as social and political organizations. This is an altogether mistaken conception. It is also a mistake to maintain, as some Reformed Christians do, in virtue of an erroneous conception of the Church as an organism, that Christian school societies, voluntary organizations of younger or older people for the study of Christian principles and their application in life, Christian labor unions, and Christian political organizations, are manifestations of the Church as an organism, for this again brings them under the domain of the visible Church and under the direct control of its officers. Naturally, this does not mean that the Church has no responsibility with respect to such organizations. It does mean, however, that they are manifestations of the Kingdom of God, in which groups of Christians seek to apply the principles of the Kingdom to every domain of life. The visible Church and the Kingdom, too, may be identified to a certain extent. The visible Church may certainly be said to belong to the Kingdom, to be a part of the Kingdom, and even to be the most important visible embodiment of the forces of the Kingdom. . . . In so far as the visible Church is instrumental in the establishment and extension of the Kingdom, it is, of course, subordinate to this as a means to an end. The Kingdom may be said to be a broader concept than the Church, because it aims at nothing less that the complete control of all the manifestations of life. It represents the dominion of God in every sphere of human endeavor.

From Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1941), pp. 569-570.

Berkhof’s point about the activity of the church as organism necessarily coming under the domain of the visible church is debatable.

Nevertheless, if this is what people mean when they claim that Louis Berkhof taught “Two Kingdoms theology,” then all could rejoice and be glad.

For the unwary reader, were the preceding sentence written in Greek, it would be a “contrary to fact condition,” of the sort: “If pigs had wings, then they could fly.”

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This essay written by Matthew Tuininga is the third in a series seeking to explain the heart of the new movement known as “natural law and two kingdoms” (NL2K, R2K, or simply 2K). It remains to be seen, however, whether his numerous qualifications designed to safeguard his position and to effect rapprochement with worldview Calvinism will offer genuine clarity or generate more confusion.

After describing ways in which the Christian witness to Christ’s lordship will affect our vocations, communities, and presumably our culture, Tuininga summarizes his point this way: “About all of these cultural affairs, in which believers engage in common with unbelievers, Scripture has much to say.”

In light of that summary statement, then, read carefully the following paragraph:

This point, of course, clashes with the rhetoric of some two kingdoms advocates who want to emphasize how little Scripture says about political or cultural engagement. And to be sure, there is distinct danger at both extremes here. On the one extreme are those Christians who find the need to seek explicit Scriptural justification for every little thing that they do, an approach that creates the enormous temptation to read into Scripture things that simply aren’t there, or to apply passages in ways they were never meant to be applied. But it is just as problematic to overreact to that mistake by pretending that Scripture has nothing to say about Christians’ vocations, social life, or political engagement, or by requiring pastors to refrain from teaching what Scripture clearly teaches (italics added).

I draw your attention to the italicized phrases, and offer the following observations.

1. It is clear that the author seeks to be even-handed in criticizing the extremes of the positions in question, almost to a fault. However, I have yet to meet any Christian participating in this debate who “find[s] the need to seek explicit Scriptural justification for every little thing that they do.” This statement constructs a straw man, and has the regrettable effect of diminishing the force of his correct observation that some users of Scripture misapply passages of Scripture.

2. The author appears to present a forceful repudiation of the position that tends to reduce what both Scripture and pulpit teach regarding the Christian’s cultural engagement. I hasten to remind readers, however, that we’re not out of the woods just yet. For by adding to the last sentence the phrase, “what Scripture clearly teaches,” the author has simply carved out for himself a refuge, an oasis, a safe place—since the debate currently raging involves precisely the scope of what Scripture clearly teaches about political or cultural engagement. As the author notes, some NL2K advocates insist that Scripture’s explicit teaching about these matters consists of very little. Others of us insist that in various ways (guide, guard, compass, and example) all of Scripture furnishes the child of God for every good work—including cultural obedience (2 Tim. 3.16-17; Ps. 119.105).

3. By the end of the paragraph, then, it is not at all clear that the author’s point “clashes with the rhetoric” of the extreme NL2K advocates he has tried to identify! In fact, his final sentence seems to echo rather clearly exactly what these advocates have been telling us on this blog.

This is why the author’s next paragraph is essential reading:

Far better is to determine (and preach!) the principles revealed in Scripture, some of which I have outlined above, while maintaining humility consistent with our call to be servants (and therefore refraining from preaching) about the way in which those principles might apply to concrete circumstances, organizations, or policies. All of the major Reformed confessions contain rigorous affirmations of general revelation or natural law, in part relying on the broad Christian consensus about the meaning of Romans 2:14-15. And while Christians should never seek to interpret natural law without using the lens of Scripture, they should also be careful not to confuse the lens with what we see through that lens. It is one thing to humbly seek to articulate a worldview based on Scripture. It is another thing arrogantly to assume that the worldview we have articulated is the teaching of Scripture itself. Most of what we know about mathematics, science, or history is not derived from Scripture, although Scripture shapes how we interpret it. We should expect the same when it comes to our understanding of culture, economics, or politics (italics and bold added).

Again, several observations.

1. Finally, someone has “picked up” on the difference between preaching and applying the Scriptures directly to our current culture, and preaching and applying the principles of Scripture to our current culture. This difference is crucial and essential to this part of the debate. Thank you!

2. It is not very clear, however, what is meant by “refraining from preaching about the way in which those principles might apply to concrete circumstances, organizations, or policies.” Does this mean that the church should never preach about the concrete application of those biblical principles? That claim requires far more nuance to be helpful.

Consider this example. In 1936, as German tanks were rumbling across Europe, the synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands declared that membership in the National Socialist Movement or in the Pacifist Movement was incompatible with membership in Christ’s church. From what this author has written, it would appear that such a decision, and preaching consistent with it, would be illegitimate. Similar examples could be cited, examples of the church speaking concretely to specific circumstances, organizations, and policies.

This very matter is becoming a pressing issue, in view of the current political restrictions of religious liberty in connection with nationalized health care.

All of which is to say: this qualification doesn’t supply the needed clarity.

3. We come next to the author’s comments on general revelation and natural law.

3.1 Surprisingly, the author identifies and equates these two, when he insists that the Reformed confessions rigorously affirm “general revelation or natural law.” This imprecision is unhelpful because it renders the issue unclear. For in identifying these two, what is being overlooked is that “natural law” is somebody’s formulation of the moral requirements embedded in creation. To follow the author’s own advice (this is tongue in cheek), we really should not identify the product of human reflection (natural law) with the object of that reflection (general revelation).

3.2 Finally, attention is being given, in this debate, to the role of Scripture as the spectacles through which creation revelation is interpreted. Thank you!

3.3 Unfortunately, however, what is given with the right hand is then retracted with the left hand. This exhortation not to identify what is seen through the spectacles (worldview) with the spectacles themselves (Scripture) is, well . . . a nasty boomerang! This is the very argument that has been used to disconnect the church’s dogma from Scripture, in order to denigrate the authority of “human formulations” (can you say Confessions?). To illustrate the point, substitute the word “confession” for the word “worldview” in the following sentences—“It is one thing to humbly seek to articulate a worldview based on Scripture. It is another thing arrogantly to assume that the worldview we have articulated is the teaching of Scripture itself.”

Would it be “arrogant” to assume that the confession we have articulated is the teaching of Scripture itself? If not, why is it “arrogant” to assume that the worldview articulated from Scripture is the teaching of Scripture itself?

Now, before anyone gets agitated, I understand the complaint about giving the so-called “Christian worldview” confessional status. I’m neither pleading for that, nor defending that. I am simply issuing the caution that the distinction being employed here, warning us not to identify what-we -describe-as-being-seen with the spectacles-through-which-we-see, is a knife that cuts more than one way.

3.4 Regrettably, like so many others advocating today’s version of NL2K, the author has chosen to ignore, while speaking enthusiastically about “general revelation or natural law,” the biblical and confessional teaching about the intellectual, moral, and spiritual extent of human depravity with respect to rightly apprehending and employing both general revelation and natural law. Amid all the strident huffing and puffing about this criticism of the NL2K position, perhaps people will settle down enough to examine rationally where the Confessions end up in their treatment of things “natural.” A good place to begin is with Canons of Dort 3/4.4—all of it.

*  *  *

Postscript: Lest you imagine that the NL2K/R2K/2K debate is a tempest in the North American Reformed/Presbyterian teacup, think again. This insightful interview from Australia will help you do that careful thinking.

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“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” they say.

Nowhere is that more true than with regard to the reach of grace, the power of the gospel, and the ongoing redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

There’s enough careless use, and criticism, of the word transformationalism, and the phrase transforming culture. Enough for us to acknowledge that these words and phrases need cleaning up.

But they definitely should not be abandoned.

It all depends, you see, on the subject of the verb, or better: the Subject. On who does the transforming. To be clear: if it is grace that transforms, the gospel that renews, and the Lord Jesus Christ who recreates relationships, character, and lifestyles, well then, we may speak jubilantly of this kind of transformation!

Would you like some proof?

Well, do take the time this weekend to review the website of Divine Hope Reformed Seminary (here). Recently, Professor Nathan Brummel paid a visit to Angola Prison, hosted by chaplain Burl Cain. If you would like to see the transforming power of grace that changes culture—in this case, a prison culture—you’ll want to read the Fall 2012 Newsletter (here).

Please consider prayerfully, this Thanksgiving season, supporting this gospel-powered enterprise, known as Divine Hope Reformed Seminary.

Real proof of the gospel’s pudding!

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Well, here we are, Friday evening, heading into what will, we hope, be an enjoyable week’s end.

Perhaps you’ve been following (or at least are aware of) the discussion prompted by the 30 October 2012 post on this blog. As a participant in this digital classroom, I’ve learned a lot this past week, and would like to share some observations, for what they’re worth.

1. Pending Questions: Throughout the week’s discussion of the blog post, a number of questions have been asked of me that I simply have not had the time to answer adequately and thoughtfully. I have kept track of them, and hope to respond as time and opportunity permit. I realize that such a delay might violate the usual protocol of this wonderful medium known as the Internet, specifically, the protocol of blogging. The delay is due to my having several presentations to research, prepare, and deliver between now and Christmas, in addition to my regular daily work of translating.

Here are the questions that I’ve “saved” for future response—probably on this blog rather than in the comments:

1.1 What about that First Table of the Decalogue, anyway? Do I really want that to govern the public square/political policies?
1.2 What do I mean by the statement that “creational structures benefit society by virtue of divine providence”?
1.3 What is natural law?
1.4 What is the relationship between Scripture and natural law?
1.5 Here is the cluster of questions I’d like someone to ask me, so I’ll ask them myself: It seems some are confused by the phrase “Scripture’s authority for all of life.” How is Scripture authoritative for all of life? Are there different ways in which Scripture is authoritative? How do this relate to our liberty in Christ?

2. Internet etiquette: As I become familiar with the blogosphere, I am learning a number of lessons that are either humbling or unnerving. Many people, more thoughtful and experienced than I, have put fingers to keyboard to share their take on this subject. Here are just a few thoughts for tonight.

2.1 I have always tried to picture this blog as my digital living room, which of late has become nicely crowded with participants—some sitting on the couch, others in various recliners, others sitting on the floor. Some are carrying the conversation along, most are just listening. The repartee is occasionally disorienting for me, though may be entertaining for some.

2.2 As the week wore on, I do believe that our manners improved (thank you!). I’m hoping we’re getting used to exchanging ideas rather than trading shots. I remain uncomfortable with participants talking about persons—with names—who are alive but not part of the conversation (though this may be required for the purpose of accurate reporting). Since I myself don’t appreciate that, I try to treat others in this regard as I’d like to be treated.

2.3 I don’t think I’ll ever come to appreciate unflattering, needling sobriquets, so as your host, I would respectfully ask that this stop. On all sides. Humor is always welcome, but not ever at someone else’s expense. I make this request because I know we have eavesdroppers—in the good sense, people interested in following the discussion with hopes of clarity, instruction, and even resolution. Some of us, and here I include myself, are heavily invested in this discussion. No one is more invested, however, than One of our listeners who Himself endured reviling without repaying in kind. Not a few who are watching this debate from the sidelines are expecting that we would follow His style.

3. For further study: Chalk it up to the teacher in me, but as this digital seminar may be winding down for the weekend, and will resume hopefully next week, I’d like to share some links to resources that I have found worthwhile. I don’t agree with everything these authors have written, but then I don’t even agree with everything I’ve written. 🙂

All of these materials discuss “the kingdom of God.” The first is a three-part series by Dr. J. Mark Beach, written for Mid-America Reformed Seminary (here and here and here). And for comparison purposes, you might enjoy this extended essay by Rev. David Engelsma (here). Finally, always worth reading is this classic essay on church and kingdom by Presbyterian Geerhardus Vos (here).

Enjoy!

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My friends know that I am the son of an immigrant father. Before I was born, my father came to the United States from the Netherlands. I think I was fourteen years old before I realized my father spoke with an accent, when a friend asked me, “Why does you dad talk so funny?” Ever since then, I have learned to appreciate the accents with which people speak English.

Of course, in this post I’m not really interested simply in a linguistic accent, but far more in a theological, philosophical, personal accent.

In this video presentation on “Principled Pluralism, South African-become-American Gideon Strauss combines, in an accent that is both winsome and welcoming, a clear-headed articulation of this core idea within whole life Calvinism. If you’d like to learn more about Gideon, check this out.

Enjoy!

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On 14 September 2012, Dr. Richard C. Gamble gave a public lecture with the above title, which was rebroadcast as part of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (RPTS) webinar series.

Since 2005, Dr. Gamble has served as Professor of Systematic Theology at RPTS, located in Pittsburgh, PA.

You can find the online video broadcast of Dr. Gamble’s lecture here.

If you have been following the discussion surrounding this contemporary movement, you will find Dr. Gamble’s lecture to be important and helpful. It is academic, structured, measured, and responsible. This lecture, together with the recently released publication, Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdom Perspective, clearly establishes the need for the churches to sit up and take notice of the implications of this movement for preaching, pastoring, and Christian living—all of these involving the gospel’s cosmic claim and relevance. One of the distinctive features of both resources is their detailed interaction with the published sources that set forth the ideas of this movement and its theology.

From my perspective, among the crucial differences that have arisen in this discussion, the following are most vital: the use of the Bible (a different hermeneutic); the understanding of particular teachings of the Confessions; and the view of Christian living in the world.

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