Saturday, March 27, 2010

Myth: Continuity or Transcendence?

A Review of The Bible Among the Myths
John N. Oswalt, Zondervan 2009

By Benjamin Shaw
Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

In a brief book, Oswalt has done a good service for college and seminary students (and ministers) faced with the common assertion that the Bible is simply one other among the dozens of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythologies, whose only real difference is that it originated in Israel, and not in Babylon, Assyria, or Egypt.

In the first half of the book, “The Bible and Myth,” Oswalt first addresses the issue of definition. If we’re going to call something a myth, we have to know what a myth is. So Oswalt investigates the numerous competing definitions that have been offered, concluding that, when properly defined, the Bible is not myth. This is so because myth presupposes a particular view of the world and how it operates that the Bible does not share. He follows the chapter on definition with two chapters, one describing the worldview of myth, characterized by Oswalt as “continuity.” The next chapter then describes the worldview of the Bible, which Oswalt characterizes as “transcendence.” These two chapters alone are worth the price of the book. The first half of the book concludes with a comparison of the Bible and ANE myths, focusing on the similarities between the two literatures and the significance of those similarities for the overall discussion.

In the second half of the book, “The Bible and History,” Oswalt again deals with the initial problem as one of definition. As in the first part, Oswalt carefully examines various proposed definitions of history. At the risk of oversimplification, he concludes that the Bible is history, simply not modern secular history. He then considers the significance of the historicity of the Bible for the Christian faith, defending it against the existential treatment of the Bible put forth by Bultmann, and against the more modern treatment by process theology. The concluding chapters then deal with explaining the origin of the Bible as unique in world literature. He concludes that any explanation other than the one offered by the Bible itself (God revealed it) is inadequate to the task.

I heartily recommend the book, but I wish he had done two additional things. First, I wish he had made the simple point that, with all the attention being paid to ANE mythologies these days, it seems to have escaped the notice of most that these texts were buried in the dust of the Near East for better than two millennia and had no effect on the lives of people beyond, perhaps, their initial immediate audience. The Bible, in the same time span, has produced the most populous religious community in the world. If the Bible is really just another myth, that large fact needs to be explained.

The other thing I wish Oswalt had done is to have presented in an appendix the text of the Enuma Elish in parallel with the text of Genesis 1-11. The reason the Enuma Elish is so often referred to is that it is the only ANE “creation” myth that has reached us virtually intact. A simple presentation of the two texts in parallel would do almost as much as Oswalt’s discussion to make it clear that what similarities the Bible may share with ANE myth, they are incomparably different forms of literature.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Some Questions Regarding the Nature of Israel and the Church

By Ryan M. McGraw
One of the most troubling questions for many Christians is how they should regard the relationship between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. This is a question of great importance. The manner in which we answer it has tremendous implications as to how we view the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, our Ecclesiology, and our hope of what the Lord shall do in the future. In many respects, the manner in which we conceive of the relationship between Israel and the Church reflects on our understanding of the purposes of the covenant of grace and the substance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This also involves practical issues such as what we should make of the land promises and the place of so-called “Messianic Jews” in the Church. Many good works have been written exploring this question. However, sometimes there is great value in asking direct questions and letting the Scriptures themselves provide the answers. This does not deny the necessity of painstaking exegetical work and careful theological reflection, yet in order to help provide a starting point for addressing this vital question, I have provided the following short “catechism” in order to draw your attention to what the Scriptures have to say concerning some of the most vital questions connected to this topic.
Q.1. Who is a Jew?
A. “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart” (Romans 2:28-29).
Q.2. Is this a doctrine of the New Testament only or of the Old Testament also?
A. Of the Old Testament. “Break up your fallow ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your hearts, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.” “Behold the days are coming says the Lord, that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised – Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Amon, Moab, and all who are in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in their hearts” (Jer. 4:4; 9:25-26).
Q.3. How is one circumcised in the heart?
A. In Christ, for “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11).
Q.4. Was this true for Old Testament believers as well, even though Christ had not yet come?
A. Yes, for “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-4).
Q.5. How does God regard the status of ethnic Jews who have apostatized?
A. “You are not my people and I will not be you God” (Hos. 1:9), “they are not his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5), and “They are not all Israel who are of Israel nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham” (Rom. 9:6-7).
Q.6. Are ethnic Jews to be regarded as Abraham’s children?
A. “Know that only those who are of the faith are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 2:7) and “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do Abraham’s works.” “You are of your father the devil, and your father’s will you want to do” (John 8:39, 44).[1]
Q.7. Are those who are unbelieving ethnic Jews entitled to Abraham’s inheritance?
A. No, “for if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect” (Rom. 4:14).
Q.8. Is there more than one way that “Israel” is used in the New Testament?
A. Yes. There is Israel “according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3) and “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
Q.9. Which “Israel” is blessed of God?
A. “The Israel of God,” which is the New Jerusalem Church and the lamb’s wife (Rev. 21:1).
Q.10. What is the present status of Israel according to the flesh?
A. They “killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men . . . but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:15-16).
Q.11. Did Paul write these things out of prejudice or resentment towards the Jews?
A. By no means. “I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I would wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to flesh, who are Israelites” (Rom. 9:1-4).
Q.12. What should be our attitude towards Israel according to the flesh?
A. Like Paul, our “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved” (Rom. 10:1).
Q.13. Is there a future for ethnic or national Israel?
A. Yes. The Gentiles have been grafted into the church of Israel (the olive tree) by faith in Jesus Christ in order to provoke Israel according to the flesh to jealousy (Rom. 11:13, 17). But the blindness that has happened to Israel will be taken away when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in and “all Israel will be saved.”
Q.14. Is it proper to recognize a distinction within the Church between ethnic Jews who have believed in Christ and Gentile believers (so-called Messianic Jews)?
A. No. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek . . .” (Gal. 3:26-28).
Q.15. How did Abraham understand the land promises?
A. “By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise, for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:9-10).
Q.16. Did Abraham or his seed receive these promises, even though they entered into the land of Canaan?
A. No, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims in the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland” (Heb. 11:13-14).
Q.17. Did Abraham and his seed expect the final fulfillment of the promises in the land of Canaan?
A. No. “They desire a better, that is a heavenly country” because “God has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16).
Q.18. How is our situation similar to that of Abraham with respect to these promises?
A. Just as he was waiting for “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God,” so “here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:14).[2]
Q.19. What is this heavenly city that God has promised?
A. The new or heavenly Jerusalem, for the Scripture says, “but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22).[3]
Q.20. What are the geographical bounds of Abraham’s inheritance?
A. God promised that “he would be heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13).
Q.21. How does this apply to Abraham’s spiritual descendants?
A. “Those who wait on the Lord shall inherit the earth” (Ps. 37:9), “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5), and “he who overcomes shall inherit all things” (Rev. 21:7).
Q.22. In what way shall Abraham’s seed through faith inherit the earth?
A. Although “the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with a fervent heat . . . Nevertheless, we according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:12-13).

[1] Romans 4:11-12 is also important in this connection: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.” Remember in this connection that it was circumcision in particular that was a badge of identification for a Jew. This verse should be read with Romans 2:28-29.

[2] Note that “the city” here is to be understood in the same manner in which it has been used in the broader context beginning in chapter ll.

[3] Note that we already have access to this city and enjoy its blessings, but we also wait for it as “the one to come.” The New Jerusalem is the lamb’s wife or the bride of Christ, which is the church (see Rev. 21:9-10). It has already been established and we are members of it, but its final consummation and glory is stored up for the future.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Calvinism's Exalted View of Scripture and Life

By Ryan McGraw

A review of: Joel Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism. Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008. 396 pages.

When I first saw this book, I wondered why it was necessary to add to the overwhelming pile of books on Calvinism. I was particularly curious why Reformation Trust would publish another book on Calvinism, due to the fact that it had been less than a year since they published a useful book on the subject by Rick Philips. After reading this book, I arrived at the conclusion that the reason why this book is necessary is because it is what every other book on Calvinism ought to be. Joel Beeke demonstrates that the five points of Calvinism are merely a summary of the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation, but that Calvinism itself is a comprehensive world and life view that places the absolute sovereignty and transcendence of God at the center of every area of thought and life.

The first two chapters contain a useful summary of the history of Calvinism, both in terms of its major exponents and in light of seven confessional documents that are still used by Reformed Churches today. The remainder of the book is broken into five sections: “Calvinism in the Mind,” “Calvinism in the Heart,” Calvinism in the Church,” “Calvinism in Practice,” and “Calvinism’s Goal.” The first of these sections contains the “five points” of Calvinism in the order in which they are treated in the Canons of Dort, a chapter on the five “solas” of the Reformation, and a chapter by James Grier on “Philosophical Calvinism.” Beeke’s two chapters on “limited atonement” are particularly useful, and he presents the most thoroughly biblical and convincing defense of this doctrine that I have encountered.

Beeke’s chapters on the application of Scripture, evangelism, and marriage and family issues are worthy of special notice as well. If his prescription for the manner in which sermons ought to be applied to congregations were carried out by ministers, by the blessing of the Lord, the Church would be turned upside down.

Scattered throughout the book are chapters by several other authors. The last chapter, which is by Sinclair Ferguson and bears the title, “Doxology,” is itself worth the price of the book. Ray Lanning’s chapter on Reformed worship is also a needed tonic to much of what passes for Reformed worship at the present day.

The chapters are broken down into bite-sized portions of about 10 pages each, which makes the length of the book seem less daunting. Due to its pastoral character and devotional quality, this is one of the few “long” books that leave even modern readers longing for more.

This book caught my eye primarily because Joel Beeke had written most of it. Everything that Joel Beeke has written is well worth reading. He is a model scholar and a first-rate pastor, and his books are richly filled with driving application and encouragement aimed at the hearts of his readers. When I think of what the best of Puritans must have been like, both doctrinally and personally, I think of Joel Beeke.

If this book demonstrates anything, it is that the primary distinctive of Calvinism is not the “five points,” but an exalted view of the God of Scripture. The “five points,” along with every other area of theology and life, are merely the necessary consequences of the biblical picture of God. Above all else, this book accomplishes what its title promises: it teaches us to live for God’s glory.

GPTS Alumni President Ryan McGraw received a B.A. in History from California State University Fullerton in 2002, an M.Div. from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2005, and a Th.M. from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2008. Ryan is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Conway, SC. He is married to Krista and they have two sons, Owen and Calvin. Ryan has been blessed with the privilege of serving in various ministerial positions since 1998 and he has a particular love for the works of John Owen.