Theology

The Returning King

The Returning King; A guide to the book of Revelation, by Vern Poythress ★★★★

The book of Revelation has a multiplicity of commentaries. If one were to read the commentaries without actually having read Revelation, one would think that they were reading commentaries on vastly different books. The interpretations among conservative Biblical scholars has great diversity, as well as a diversity of fanaticism. I recall well as a teenager when Hal Lindsey produced his dispensational premillennial spin on the book. Of course, his books (Late Great Planet Earth & Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth) required multiple revisions and updates during the 20-30 years that the Lindsey books remained popular. Conversely, I recently read a postmillennial preterist spin on Revelation by Doug Wilson titled When the Man Comes Around which was a bit of scholarly trash, in which I never even wasted my time to write a review. Both the dispensational premillennialists and postmillennialists have used their eschatology as a litmus test for orthodoxy, though they tend to have enough disagreements among themselves as to suggest that perhaps we should all have a little bit of humility with our opinions. Perhaps the best book I´ve read so far, and I´ve read it more than once, is William Hendrickson´s More Than Conquerors. He takes an amillennial approach and considers Revelation to be a 7-fold retelling of the history of the world from the time of Christ to the consummation. This book has been the most scholarly and convincing to me.

In The Returning King, Poythress suggests an eclectic approach to Revelation, using all 4 so-called interpretive schemes, the historicist, the futurist, the preterist, and the idealist. He would label Hendrickson as a perfect example of the idealist approach. It seems on reading Poythress’s volume that he tends to concur quite strongly with the Hendrickson approach, viewing Revelation as a seven-fold telling of Church history, progressing timewise from the first accounts of church history as focusing on early events and later accounts as focusing more on future events. Hendrickson would divide the 7-fold accounts a little differently from Poythress, yet ultimately the end interpretive result is quite similar. Poythress is soft on the millennial issue, but his discussion shows a very strong leaning toward the amillennial position.

Like most commentaries, the first few chapters of Poythress’s commentary discusses sundry issues such as the author, the date of writing, and technical aspects of how the book will be interpreted. This is followed by section-by-section interpretive suggestions. What do the various colors of things symbolize? What is the meaning of an animal with 7 heads or multiple eyes? Why does a last battle occur a number of times in Revelation—were there multiple last battles, or is the Apocalypse pointing us to a recurring retelling of the same story from various perspectives. Who or what is the beast? The prostitute? The dragon? What is the meaning of all the numbers given? Why is 7 so frequently used? What is 666? What is the meaning of the 144000? Why are precise measurements given to the new earth, something that would be an impossibility in the physics of our current world? Thankfully, much of the symbolism of Revelation has reference to Ezekiel, Daniel, other minor prophets, the prophetic speeches of Christ, and the prophetic discussions of Paul in his epistles. Dangers exist—the most popular danger is to read much of the book as figurative and yet to force literal interpretations on selective items, such as the 1000-year reign of Christ. Poythress is wise in not forcing interpretations that he might later regret, a trait most associated with Hal Lindsey. Poythress’s strength is that of bringing the necessity of reading and heeding the warnings of Revelation to everybody, young and old, in all generations. The book is an unveiling, not an encryption of the past, present, and future, and should be read as such. It is as much a story of the present as it is a story of the future.

Poythress does not offer us a thorough scholarly review of Revelation. There is no shame in that, and his little volume is quite effective at conveying an overall method for approaching what might be termed an obscure book. Poythress is no light-weight in the academic field, and this little tome on Revelation can be regarded as a decent summary of the book, releasing Revelation from either fatalistic obscurity or from livid and wild abstractions, as might be found in the premillennial dispensational approach of Hal Lindsey. Thus, I would commend it as a worthwhile summary of the book of Revelation.

We are currently starting through the book of Revelation in Sunday School, with the idea of completing the book within the span of several months. They are using a text written by a Southern Baptist individual J. Scott Duvall, The Heart of Revelation: Understanding the 10 Essential Themes of the Bible’s Final Book Reading the first pages of the book on Amazon, it is difficult to sort out its orientation, something Scott seems to try to avoid, focusing instead on the thematic material of the book, i.e., as Henrickson has stated, that we are more than conquerors. Duvall has written a commentary on Revelation, so this book attempts to serve not so much as a commentary as a discussion of the relevant themes in the book. I probably will not be reading that text, mostly because I feel that further insights into the book would not be gained by reading it. I’ll be most interested in the ensuing discussions at church.

Introducing Covenant Theology

Introducing Covenant Theology, by Michael Horton ★★★

I’ve read a number of books by Micheal Horton, and have appreciated not only his theology but also his teaching style. In this book, my expectations were a touch higher than Horton delivered, as I’ll explain later. Horton writes well, so this book was not a challenge to read. It’s 194 pages long, yet Horton has been able to keep repetition to a minimum.

The book starts out with a definition of a covenant. Horton breaks down covenants into two types, suzerainty covenants, and promissory covenants. Covenants, by their nature, are one-sided events, with suzerainty covenants entailing obligations on the part of the covenant individual, and promissory covenants based solely on the trustworthiness of the covenant giver. As examples, the Noahic covenant was promissory, in that it did not demand obedience for God to promise never to flood the earth again; the Mosaic covenant is a suzerainty covenant that states essentially “Do this and you will live, don’t do this and you will die”. Much of his references in the first part of this book were to Meredith Kline and to O. Palmer Robertson. I’ve read Robertson, whose writings on the covenants are superlative.

After developing the nature of the covenants, Horton explores several other areas related to covenant theology. Common grace is mentioned, which is the blessings God bestows even on the ungodly. Evil people also enjoy good health, a good brain, sunshine and rain, as well as a society in good behavior. These are all a part of the promissory covenants which God makes with man. The people of the covenant are discussed, as well as the status of the Israelites. Here, Horton drives a strong stance for amillennial eschatology as best fitting a covenantal approach to Scripture. Horton discusses the Sacraments and develops support for the Reformed thinking of the nature of the Eucharist. He discusses the means and implications of signs and seals of the covenant. Finally, Horton closes with a chapter offering last words on the law-grace tension.

What are my misgivings with this book, why do I only give it 3 stars? Firstly, I believe Horton holds too heavily of a stance with Kline. Kline appropriately noted how the Biblical covenants strongly resemble many of the covenants of the Ancient Near East (ANE) kings. Such information is helpful but certainly not necessary in grasping the significance of a covenant-making God. It also leaves one in the lurch; did God model His covenants after the ANE kings, or vice-versa? If the latter, then Biblical covenants explain the secular covenants and not vice-versa.

Secondly, Horton does poorly in detailing the history of Covenant Theology. Was Calvin adherent to covenant theology? Where could you prove it in Calvin’s writings? Why is Witsius only mentioned as a footnote? How do the Heidelberg and Westminster Confessions promote the theology of the covenants? In what ways do the theology of Cocceius and Witsius differ? How is it that covenant theology was developed out of the Biblical Theology movement, and not the Systematic Theology movement? How did Reformed thinkers after Cocceius and Witsius further develop the theology of the covenants?

Third, Covenants, including the covenant of grace in which we are currently living, say something about the children of believers, yet Horton is totally silent in this regard. Why?

Fourthly, what are the main arguments against Covenant Theology? A chapter comparing and contrasting Covenant vs. non-Covenant theology would have been very helpful. Is Covenant Theology truly synonymous with Calvinism/Reformed thinking? Can one be a partial Covenanter, or a halfway house covenant theologian? How does one answer the individual who claims that they are in the Reformed (5-star Calvinist) camp and yet disavow Covenant Theology? Reformed Baptists offer a distinctive twist on the theology of the covenants which would have deserved a mention.

Fifthly, many of the Israelites from Moses to Jesus were saved, and the saved Israelites were all saved by grace rather than by keeping the law, though Horton implies that the Abrahamic covenant (promissory, by grace) was in action here. This is a weak argument since the Abrahamic covenant applied to the land but not for personal salvation. This is an issue that could have been more strongly developed.

Finally, Horton seems sufficiently concerned about not being confused with advocates of salvation by works, so he doesn’t deal adequately with the beauty of covenant theology in reconciling the tension between salvation by faith and salvation by works. This is a bit understandable. Many of contemporary Reformed theologians’ most fierce battles have been over the accusations regarding grace “vs” works (sola gratia)*, as though grace and works were competitive ideas. Recent attacks on Federal Vision (not to be confused with Federal Theology) bear witness to how brutal Christians can be in their accusations of heresy over this single issue. Please make no mistake, I am not a Federal Vision advocate, mostly because it has failed to adequately define itself precisely. Or, perhaps I am a Federal Vision advocate since it has no clear definition????

Though Horton argues against it, his tendency is to regard the law as solely deontological, that is, consisting of nothing but a list of duties with promise (the land and health) rewarded for obedience. The authors who penned the Psalms seem to mention the law frequently, and always as a source of joy, wisdom, guidance, strength, and delight. The Psalms destroy the notion that the law simply addresses our actions and not our thoughts. Psalm 119 is especially noted as an encomium to the law. The mistaken interpretation of the law by the Jewish community at the time of Christ saw the law (works) solely as a source of salvation without the necessity of faith and true love for God. In this, I believe the Reformers rather than NT Wright were right (no pun intended).

JI Packer’s short Introduction to Covenant Theology as well as Geerhardus Vos’s The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology were previously read by me in preparation for reading Horton. Packer was definitely the most insightful, selling Covenant Theology not as a particular theological movement, but rather as a hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture. This seems to make the most sense to me. Vos is erudite but sharp in his readings, offering good historical insights and not being afraid to be mistaken as a “legalist”. For example, “Thus, it is that in the covenant of grace, too, the participants are exempt from the demand of the law as the condition for eternal blessedness, but not from its demand as being normative for their moral life.” With both authors, the superiority of seeing Scripture in a Reformed covenantal fashion is a necessity. JI Packer notes, “1. The gospel of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame,… 2. The word of God is not properly understood til it is viewed within a covenantal frame”. I wholeheartedly agree with Packer on these points, and his short tome is valuable reading.

This was a worthwhile book to read, written in a scholarly but quite readable format. If Horton were to address my concerns mentioned above, the book would be awesome but also considerably lengthier. IMHO, I think it would be worth it.

-* moral law is not an arbitrary set of rules/laws given by God for man to obey, but is based on the very nature and character of God, ie, God is by his very being ontologically moral. Thus, any claim to be free from “the law” is a claim also to be free from God. Another way to say it, ontology and ethics are separate topics for created man, though with God they are a unity.

The Mortification of Sin

The Mortification of Sin, by John Owen, translated and adapted into Modern English by Aaron Renn ★★★★

Pastor Rayburn had recommended this book to the FPC in Tacoma, WA as an excellent treatise on dealing with sin. It has been a classic text regarding personally killing sin in one’s life, and quoted by JI Packer as an anecdote to the more casual or even “magical” ways in which sin is dealt with in one’s life. This book is now being reviewed in Sunday School at church, a chapter at a time. I opted for a modern rendition, very well done, by Aaron Renn. Owen could be a bit stodgy to read, partially because it is a language we don’t necessarily think with (King James English), and Owen’s academic accuracy sometimes clouds his ability to make clear what he is trying to say.

The book is 18 chapters long, Owen’s text being only 13 chapters long, but Renn turned one chapter into five, giving it a few more chapters. Owens makes very clear that Christians must always be engaged in a battle against sin, that there is no alternative for a Christian, and that the only victory against sin is accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit. Again and again, Owen stresses the necessity of the Christian not being lax against sin, and always battling for victory over sin. Though Owen doesn’t stress it in this text, sin will remain an enemy for life; there is no moment of absolute surrender and total victory over sin, that is, until we die.

Martin Luther had a different approach to sin, in part owing to his struggle to differentiate law from grace. Luther’s quote “Be a sinner and sin strongly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ”. Luther, like Owen, had a strong repulsion for sin in a person’s life, yet tends to approach sin by advocating the replacement of the sin act with an act of obedience. Both Luther and Owen need to be taken seriously in their appeal for a righteous life of a believer in Christ. They offer contrasting but complementary means of killing sin in our life.

Introduction to Covenant Theology

An Introduction to Covenant Theology, by JI Packer ★★★★★

Curiosity left me restless until I re-read Packer’s treatise on Covenant Theology, following my reading of Vos’s exposition of Covenant Theology (see my preceding book review). The contrast could not be more profound. If a dog comparison could be made, Vos was a raging pitbull and Packer a loveable golden retriever. Packer, in a much shorter space than Vos, elaborated more fully, replete with multiple Scripture arguments, the fundamental themes of Covenant Theology, while still giving it a historical perspective. Perhaps I have a bias because I took Systematic Theology from Packer. But it is his approach to theology that I have learned so greatly to appreciate; Packer is NOT a bull in a china shop like Vos. While Vos mostly held up the example of Cocceius as representing covenant theology, Packer takes issue and contends that Cocceius was “a stormy petrel” who “muddied his exegesis by allegorical fancies and… needless attacks on the analytical doctrine-by-doctrine approach to theological exposition”. For Packer, Witsius is the less tempestuous theologian who “manages to correct some inadequacies and errors that poor exegesis in the Cocceian camp had fathered”. Cocceius essentially fathered Biblical Theology, which attempted to separate itself from the then predominantly Systematic Theology techniques of doing theology. Witsius was able to calm a turbulent contention between the Cocceians and Voetians by showing the importance and necessity of both branches of academic theology. Witsius remains the text that Packer advises should one wish to go into depth regarding the study of covenant theology. Interestingly, while Vos tended to attack the Lutherans for having a substandard theology, Packer will frequently quote Lutheran theologians including Luther. The difference in styles could not be more plain.

This brings us to the topic under discussion… this book. After a brief introduction of Herman Wits (Witsius, 1636-1708), the question is first asked, “What is Covenant Theology?” The simple answer is that is really nothing but a hermeneutic or a perspective for reading Scripture. Packer would call a successful hermeneutic a consistent interpretative procedure yielding a consistent understanding of Scripture which in turn confirms the propriety of the procedure itself. He contends that covenant theology meets that description and then goes on to explain. I won’t detail Packer’s arguments as this book is easy to read and inexpensive on Amazon.

A covenant relationship is a voluntary mutual commitment that binds each party to the other. While many covenants are negotiated, God’s covenants are unilaterally imposed. Still, “the relationship depends simply on the fact that mutual obligations have been accepted and pledged on both sides”. God’s covenant promises are constantly repeated throughout the entirety of Scripture, the promise that God will be our God, and then the promise that God will supply our needs. The God-given covenant carries the obligation for a life of faith and repentance and obedience. Thus, the struggle that Lutherans had with salvation by faith alone is expanded to show how they are correct yet need not feel that obligations are in contest with sola fide.

Thus, Packer notes three things. 1) The gospel is NOT properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame. 2) The word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame. This is elaborated at length, concluding “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.” And 3) The reality of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame. Again, Packer elaborates at length on what he means by this. He ends this part of the discussion by quoting numerous hymns of the past that refer to the covenant that we live under. Quoting Packer, “One way of judging the quality of theologies is to see what sort of devotion they produce. The devotional perspective that covenant theology generates is accurately reflected in these (the quoted) lyrics. I can think of many hymns to serve this end, including “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (quoted by Packer), “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”, and even “Amazing Grace”, even though the word “covenant” is never used, it is the backbone to the meaning of that hymn.

Packer feels “that the Bible ‘forces’ covenant theology on all who receive it as what, in effect, it claims to be”. This is accomplished 1) by the story that it tells, 2) by the place it gives to Jesus Christ, 3) through the specific parallel between Christ and Adam that Paul draws, and 4) by the explicit declaring of the covenant of redemption.

Packer ends with a brief relapse to the history of covenant theology, arguing that it was a natural development in Reformed thought, starting with Zwingli, Calvin, Ursinus and Olevianus, etc. As a person convinced of the truth of Reformed thinking, I find nothing to disagree with in Packer’s treatise. I especially appreciate his thoughtful and always irenic process of presenting the case for covenant theology. I have left out much in this review, and any curious individual would be served best by downloading a digital copy of this short treatise which may be read within 1-2 hours’ time. I believe it would serve well both those for and against the covenant approach to theology to best understand what the hermeneutic is all about and how it can help in obtaining a better grasp of the riches of Scripture.

The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology

The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology, by Geerhardus Vos ★★★

This book was read by me on a Kindle device. I had read a concise treatise on Covenant Theology by JI Packer, and was hoping that Vos would offer more illumination. Vos actually muddied the waters. The strength of this short volume is how Vos elaborates on the history of Covenant Theology, beginning with Calvin, but focusing on the Heidelburg theologians Ursinus and Olivianus, and then moving on to Coccieus, and others in that time period. He spends much time distinguishing Reformed Theology from Lutheran Theology, suggesting that Lutheran theology starts from man as its foundation and works up, whereas Reformed Theology begins with God and works down. I felt that much of this argument was artificial and that contemporary Lutheran theologians would probably take issue with this. Vos labors much to identify the covenant of works that precedes the covenant of grace; thus, the book’s title should have been “Doctrine of the Covenants…” rather than the singular for covenant. Vos ends with a discussion of how the doctrine of covenants affects the position of paedobaptism.

The historical aspects of the book were interesting. His arguments for covenant theology were poor. His leaning toward supralapsarianism becomes quite plain. His intolerance for theological fine points that vary from his is remarkable. He does not present any Scripture argument for his position; I don’t believe I saw a single quoted Scripture verse. He is replete at quoting the voice of historical theologians, a strange approach for a man steeped in the sola Scriptura tradition.

So, I started reading the book with enthusiasm and ended with disappointment. Vos’s writing style is muddy. Most phrases needed to be re-read, even when he was stating simple theological premises. For this reason, I do not recommend this book to others. I’ve found that reading Vos is ponderous and thus left to theologically constipated folk. I welcome recommendations for a better text on this topic. Perhaps a recent book on the covenants by Michael Horton would be in order?