The Historicity of Adam & The Gospel: A Letter

Dear George,

Your question regarding the historical Adam is a question in desperate need of answering in our day. I am going to address your concerns, but let me tell you upfront where I am headed in this letter:  I will argue that a rejection of the historical Adam does damage to the Bible and the gospel message. In other words, the historical Adam is a central component to the Christian faith.

In your previous letter, you reasoned that it does not follow to admit non-literal interpretations of the creation account, only to demand a historical Adam. Not only is this an inconsistency, but you also believe a historical Adam is a peripheral doctrine that has no substantial import to the central issues of, say, being made in the image of God, sin, and redemption.  I will address your former objection first.

As you purported, there are indeed non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 that are considered orthodox (though, I personally disagree with those non-literal views). One example of this is the framework view held by Meredith Kline. In short, Kline maintains that the creation days are non-sequential and non-literal; that is, the days are structured in a literary framework and are not representative of twenty-four-hour periods.[1] Your question is natural: Given that the creation of Adam is found in a non-literal section of Scripture, on this view, why must one hold to a historical Adam?

To be sure, theologians have rejected a historical Adam, believing Adam was a myth or a “teaching device.” Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, dehistoricized the creation account. For Schleiermacher, he speaks of the creation account as “an ancient attempt to make good the lack of a historical account of the beginnings of the human race”; nevertheless, we can glean “inner truths” that perpetuate our feeling of “absolute dependence.”[2]

Others have continued to purport a non-historical view: Emil Bruner considered Adam to be a myth, Karl Barth taught that the story of Adam was saga, and H.M. Kuitert believed Adam was simply a “teaching mode.”[3] Regarding Barth, he considered Adam not as a historical person, but a symbol for humanity: “We are all Adam.”[4] Influenced by Immanuel Kant, Barth posited two “dimensions”: Historie and Geschichte. The former is what you find studied by academic historians, while the latter is more akin to a story (which does not have to be completely true) that is not bound or verifiable by professional historians.[5]  Geschichte is where redemptive-history take place.

Kuitert, on the other hand, believed there was a “time-bound dimension” to the biblical writers; thus, Paul is not concerned with history, but with a model by which he can teach about Jesus.[6] A teaching model contains two elements: first, it is a self-effacing illustration, and, second, its significance is bound solely to the illustration.[7] These are just some of the proposals offered by those who reject a historical Adam.

Something to notice upfront is that non-literal does not equate to non-historical, as Kline and others are eager to emphasize.[8] Just because one understands something to be non-literal, does not entail it being ahistorical. There are several reasons why a non-literal reading of the creation account is permitted, while a non-historical view is not.

Broadly speaking, the reason Adam is to be viewed as a historical person is because of the way the rest of the Bible speaks of him. “The other Scriptures,” writes James Petigru Boyce, “both of the Old and New Testament, endorse the correctness of all the facts stated in Genesis by frequent allusions to one or another of them as undoubted truths.”[9]

One of these passages is Romans 5:12-21, which compares Christ over against Adam: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (v.12).[10] Adam is pictured here as “a type of the one who was to come” (v.14). This τύπος is sometimes designated “pattern” (NIV), “figure” (KJV), or “prototype” (HCSB). J.P. Versteeg says the meaning denotes “impression,” “imprint,” or “statuette”; “The word also takes on the meaning of the ‘mold’ with which an impression, imprint, or statuette is made.”[11]

Given what Versteeg said above, the text of Romans 5 is significant because Adam and Christ relate to each other in a mold-statuette relationship, which involves a fixed correspondence.[12] E.E. Ellis points out three factors regarding New Testament typology: First, the type is not to be separated from what God is doing in history; second, the connecting point between type and antitype is determined by God’s plan of redemption; and third, the Old Testament type and the New Testament antitype, which occur in two different dispensations, can only be understood “within the framework of the divine economy of salvation.”[13] In a more concise way, David Murray defines a “type” as “a real person, place, object, or event that God ordained to act as a predictive patter or resemblance of Jesus’ person and work, or of opposition to both.”[14] Therefore, when Paul calls Adam a “type” of Christ, this speaks directly to the historicity of Adam. It would require significant textual justification to take Adam as the only non-historical type in the Bible.

Also, in Romans 5, Paul contrasts the differences between Adam and Jesus, as he teaches on the state of those in Adam juxtaposed to those in Christ. Herman Ridderbos captures this, writing, “Christ and Adam stand over against one another as the great representatives of the two aeons, that of life and that of death.”[15] Thomas Schreiner likewise affirms, “Adam and Christ are analogous in that the status of all human beings depends on the work of Adam or Christ. The contrast between the two comes to the forefront in that Adam’s impact on humanity was evil and Christ’s was good.”[16] Given what Paul is doing in Romans 5, positing a teaching model would damage the unique position of Adam, “namely the position of ‘the one,’ the representative head of the old humanity.”[17]

Moreover, the gospel is highlighted by the structure of vv.12-19: All of humanity have sinned in Adam, and therefore need redemption in Christ. Paul begins his argument in verse 12 by introducing the protasis (ὥσπερ), makes a few supportive comments, and then gives the apodosis in verse 18 (οὕτως καὶ). His argument is that the “one sin” by which “all sinned” (aorist active) is the “one trespass” of Adam. In other words, Adam’s sin, by way of immediate imputation, renders all of humanity guilty in Adam. This plight is that which is overturned and undone by Christ. Murray elaborates on the argument of the passage:

[T]he comparison introduced in verse 12, though broken off and not completed in the express terms which the protasis of verse 12 would suggest and dictate, is in essential thought identical with that which is stated in its completeness in verse 18 and 19. This means that the sin referred to in verse 12, particularly in the last clause, must be that same sin that is defined in verse 18 as ‘the one trespass’ and in verse 19 as ‘the disobedience of the one man.’ And when we go back to the three preceding verses (15-17) and bear in mind the close knit unity of the passage, we must conclude that the same sin is in view in verses 15, 17 where it is called the trespass of the one…. Hence Paul is saying that death passed on to and reigned over those who did not personally and voluntarily transgress as Adam did, and therefore the ‘all sinned’ of verse 12 cannot refer to individual personal transgression. [18]

“Christ presupposes Adam and succeeds him,” says Herman Bavinck.[19] This is evidenced by Luke’s Gospel where he caps the beginning of Christ’s genealogy, writing, “the son of Adam, the son of God” (3:38). Genealogies during the first century were carefully investigated, which casts doubt upon the notion that Luke saw Adam as anything but a historical person; in no way is this called into question by the theological import of the genealogy, for the theological character is based on its historicity.[20] That is, there are no textual reasons to understand some persons as fictitious and others as historical in Jesus’ genealogy.

Adam is, furthermore, mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. In Jude 14, Adam is again listed in a genealogy as being “seventh” from Enoch. Also, in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, Paul anchors his dual prohibition against women teaching and excising authority over a man in both the creation and fall narrative. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor,” says Paul. Versteeg notes that if Paul is using Adam as an ahistorical teaching model, then Paul is concerned with a “generally valid truth,” which is exemplified by the Adam and Eve illustration. But what “generally valid truth,” he asks? Is it a generally valid truth that men are superior to women, and women are more susceptible to temptation? He concludes:

So, in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 Paul does not start from generally valid truths which Adam and Eve illustrate, but from historical facts. Nothing is said about a generally valid truth of a natural priority of man over women, but certainly something is said about the fact that Adam was formed first.[21]

For these reasons, the Bible will not permit us to speak of Adam as a non-historical person; his historicity is presupposed by the other biblical writers down into the New Testament. Therefore, while one may side with Kline on a non-literal reading of the creation days, he cannot import non-historical features into the creation account if he wishes to remain orthodox. But who cares, you ask? Is not this debate a pedantic enterprise, unconnected from the central truths of Christianity? I will now turn to address your second point.

As hinted above in Romans 5, the historicity of Adam has direct consequence for how one views sin and redemption. This become equally clear in Paul’s contrast of Adam and Christ in 1 Corinthians 15. Here, Paul speaks of people being “in Christ” or “in Adam” (v.22). F. Neugebauer proposes that “in Christ” is to be taken historically rather than locally or mystically. That is, one is “in Christ” with reference to an event: “’to be’ in Christ does not mean an ontological condition but the fact of being determined by the once-for-all work of Christ and having involvement in that event.”[22] Given how “in Christ” is functioning, “in Adam” would function in the same manner: “in Adam” is “the fact of being determined by the disobedience of Adam, through which death came into the world.”[23] Just as the events of Christ are historical, so too are the events of Adam.

First Corinthians 15 gives another comparison of gospel importance. In vv.42-29, Paul compares a dead, sinful body to a resurrection body, and Adam’s pre-fall body (c.f., Gen. 2:7) to Christ’s resurrection body. Interestingly, Paul identifies the “natural (or “psychical”) body” (σῶμα ψυχικόν) of vv.42-44a with Adam’s pre-fall “natural (or “psychical”) body” (σῶμα ψυχικόν) in vv.44b-45. Adam’s pre-fall body, being sub-eschatological, is death-like in comparison to the resurrected body of Christ (and ours, by extension).[24] Here, the covenant of works comes into view. Had Adam obeyed God and kept the covenant, he would have brought humanity from the state of innocence into the state of glory. Though Adam failed (Hos. 6:7), the second Adam kept the covenant of works and will bring His own into glory. According to Richard Gaffin, Paul’s

interest is to show that from the beginning, prior to the fall, a higher or different kind of body than the body of Adam, the psychical body, is in view. Adam, by virtue of creation (not because of sin), anticipates and points to another, higher form of somatic existence. The principle of typology enunciated in Romans 5:14 is present here, albeit somewhat differently: the creation body of Adam is ‘a type of the one to come.’ This suggestion of typology helps illumine the use of Genesis 2:7 in verse 45, especially the addition in 45c.[25]

The connection to sin and redemption could not be more clear. Regarding sin, Strimple astutely notes: the question, “Was Adam a historical person?” is really asking, “Was the Fall a real event in human history?”[26] Without a historical Fall, we are left asking if sin is somehow natural? If sin is natural to humanity, what, if anything, can be done to remove this sin, which is, on this basis, intrinsic to creation? There is much at stake here, for “without a doctrine of the Fall there is no hope of redemption. There is no ‘good news’! There is no biblical Christianity!”[27] Thus the correct, i.e., biblical, view of Adam is that he was a person, in history, who, while representing all of humanity, sinned against God. Humanity, then, relates to Adam in two significant ways, namely, in a natural sense (all are descended from him), and in a forensic sense (his sin is imputed to every human).[28]

Regarding redemption, Strimple rightly observes, “[U]nless we really stand guilty, condemned to death on the basis of the disobedience of Adam, there is no reason to believe that we are justified, declared to be righteous, on the basis of the obedience of the Second Adam, Christ.”[29] The work and mission of the second Adam is incomprehensible if the first Adam was a literary fiction.

One final central doctrine affected by the historical Adam discussion is the image of God. The historical Adam preserves the special creation of man, not after his kind, but by divine counsel (“let us make”). Man, brought to life through formation (Gen. 2:7a) and impartation (Gen. 2:7b), is crafted in the image of God.[30] “So the whole human being,” writes Bavinck, “is image and likeness of God, in soul and body, in all human faculties, powers, and gifts.”[31] After the Fall, the broad image remained (Gen. 5:1; 9:6; Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9) while the narrow image (i.e., knowledge, righteousness, and holiness) was destroyed, only to be regained through union with Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).[32] Here again, the parallels between Adam and Christ are such that to throw out the historical Adam is to throw anthropology into confusion.

That this is beyond a slippery slope is seen in Barth, whose rejection of a historical Adam led him to posit a view of “built-in sin,” and thus of “built-in grace” and a symbolical Christ.[33] Given the identical structure between Adam and Christ, what one does with the former has consequence for what one does with the latter.[34] To be sure, science gives pushback on the historicity of Adam, but it would do good to keep the words of Cornelius Van Til in mind: “revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture are mutually meaningless without one another and mutually fruitful when taken together.”[35] As I hope my letter has shown, there is ample reason to believe the Bible requires—nay, mandates—a historical Adam.

Yours Truly,

J. Brandon Burks

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2017

Also See:

Sabbath Musings

Theological Conviction: Humble or Arrogant? Martin Luther and the Perspicuity of Scripture

Amillennialism vs. Historic Premillennialism

A Puritan View of Witchcraft

[1]Lee Irons and Meredith Kline, “The Framework View,” in The Genesis Debate, ed. by David G. Hagopian (Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001), 217-252.

[2]Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. by H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1976), 244, 250.

[3]Robert B. Strimple, “Was Adam Historical?” in Confident of Better Things: Essays Commemorating Seventy-Five Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, ed. by John R. Muether and Danny E. Olinger (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee of the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011), 215-216.

[4]Ibid., 215.

[5]John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 377-379.

[6]J.P. Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament: Mere Teaching Model or First Historical Man? trans. by Richard B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 1-3.

[7]Ibid., 4.

[8]Irons and Kline, “The Framework View,” 219.

[9]James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 1977), 190.

[10]Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[11]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 9.

[12]Ibid., 10.

[13]Ibid., 11-14.

[14]David Murray, Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 138.

[15]Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1975), 57.

[16]Thomas R. Schreiner, “Romans,” in Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 1998), 284.

[17]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 29.

[18]John Murray, “The Imputation of Adam’s Sin,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification, ed. by K. Scott Oliphint (Fern, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 2007), 221-222

[19]Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, ed. by John Bolt, trans. by John Vreind (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2004), 564.

[20]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 32-34.

[21]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 42.

[22]Ibid., 38.

[23]Ibid., 39.

[24]Lane Tipton, “The Context of Union with Christ:  The Resurrection of Christ as Life-Giving Spirit, Part I (I Cor. 15:42-49)” (lecture, Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA, 2017).

[25]Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1978), 82.

[26]Strimple, “Was Adam Historical?” 216.

[27]Ibid., 218.

[28]Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, ed. by James T. Dennison, Jr., trans by George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 577.

[29]Strimple, “Was Adam Historical?” 221.

[30]John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2: Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth, 1977), 6-7.

[31]Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 561.

[32]Ibid., 550.

[33]Strimple, “Was Adam Historical?” 222.

[34]Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament, 56, 66

[35]Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1967), 269; c.f., 267.

A Puritan View of Witchcraft

What follows is a section from a paper I wrote on the Salem Witch Trials. In the paper, I explore the theological context of the trials. Since this is a historical piece and not a writing in systematic theology, I will attempt to capture their understanding without evaluating the truthfulness of their understanding. The question I was wrestling with was this: In 1692, what would have been a general Puritan view of witchcraft in and around Salem Village?

To answer this question, I will survey the works of William Perkins (1558-1602), Nathaniel Holmes (1599-1678), Richard Baxter (1615-1691), Samuel Parris (1653-1720), and Cotton Mather (1663-1728) to form a general Puritan view of witchcraft during this time.[1] This section will, first, consider the nature of a witch, second, the affliction and power of the witch, third, ways the Puritans taught to fight against witchcraft, and, finally, how to detect and punish a witch.

The Nature of a Witch

“Witchcraft is a wicked art,” writes Perkins, “serving for the works of wonders, by the assistance of the Devil, so farre forth as God shall in justice permit.”[2] Or as Mather taught: “Witchcraft seems to be the Skill of Applying the Plastic Spirit of the World, unto some unlawful purpose, by means of a Confederacy with Evil Spirits.”[3] The witch, more specifically, is a “Magician, who either by open or secret league, wittingly, and willingly, consenteth to use the aide and assistance of the Devil, in the working of Wonders.”[4] The witch can be a man or a woman, though “the woman beeing the weaker sexe, is sooner intangled by the devils illusions with this damnable art, then the man.”[5]

Fundamental to the Puritan understanding of a witch is the covenant made between the witch and the devil. “THe Ground of all the practices of Witchcraft,” writes Perkins, “is a league or covenant betweene the Witch and the Devil: wherein they doe mutually bind themselves each to other.”[6] After Satan deceived humanities first parents in the Garden, he soon realized that man’s estate in the covenant of grace was better than before, and thus he covenants with men and women so that he “may testify both his hatred of God, and his malice against man.”[7]

Perkins taught that the covenant with Satan can be either expressed and open or secret and closed. If it is expressed and open, the witch binds himself by a solemn vow to Satan, promising to “renounce the true God, his holy word, the covenant he made in Baptism, and his redemption by Christ.”[8] The witch will also give the devil his signature or blood. In return, Satan

promiseth to be ready at his vassals command, to appeare at any time in the likeness of any creature, to consult with him, to aide and helpe him in any thing he shall take in hand, for the procurement of pleasures, honour, wealth, or prefer ment, to goe for him, to carry him whether he will; in a word, to doe for him, whatsoever hee shall command.[9]

The secret covenant is made between the witch and Satan when superstition is used: either superstitious forms of prayer or the use of superstitious means to bring about a desired result. This could be in the forms of charms or even the use of unknown or barbaric means of curing diseases. Such a person consents to Satan “in his heart.”[10] What is troubling about this latter sort of covenant is that one may not know he or she is evoking Satan’s help. Perkins maintains, regarding the ignorant, that “such persons have made as yet no league with Satan, but they are in the high way thereunto. And this course is a fit preparatiό to cause them to joyne with him in covenant.”[11] What is more, the superstitions and charms could be saturated in Scripture and yet be witchcraft nonetheless. Using Scripture or prayer in a superstitious manner, conducting elaborate, ritual exorcisms like the Church of Rome, or merely using the name of Jesus to drive out Satan are all unlawful forms of superstition.[12]

It is with regard to the covenant with Satan that the Colony diverges from Europe. On the Continent a league with Satan had an exotic twist. Baxter records:

 I think it most likely, that when Witches, Men and Women, confess their filthy Lying with Devils, that it is done more to exercise the Lust of the Witch than of the Devil: And that sometimes he doth it by a Body of gross Air, and sometimes may gratifie the Lust of one Witch on another, or on a tempted ignorant Wretch. He can bring a Witch in without opening the Door, can bring such an one (Male or Female) into another’s Bed.[13]

In another testimony, Baxter records that a twelve-year-old girl began sleeping with the devil and did so for thirty years. In fact, given the plethora of testimonies it is maintained that the “Concubitus of the Devils with Witches (Male and Female) hath so full Testimonies, as is not to be denied.”[14]

In the Colony, however, such testimonies were silenced. Increase Mather, the father of Cotton Mather, dismissed such testimonies as false memories and hallucinations planted by Satan.[15] “Continental witches had more fun,” commented Stacey Schiff, “The Massachusetts witch’s familiars—which she suckled, in a maternal relationship—were unexotic by comparison.” Schiff continues: “Even in her transgressions she was puritanical. She rarely enjoyed sexual congress with the devil.”[16] Thus, for the witches in Salem, eroticism was not part of the covenant bond with the devil.

The covenant bond with Satan was also enacted by ceremony and ritual. Just as God has his sacraments and seals of His covenant, so “the devil hath his words and certaine out ward signs to ratified the same to his instruments.”[17] Mather records that “Witches do say, that they form themselves much after the manner of Congregational Churches; and that they have a Baptism and a Supper, and Officers among them, abominably Resembling those of our Lord.”[18]

The devil is said to exhibit “himself ordinarily as a small Black man” and bids people to sign his book.[19] Mather records that over twenty people admitted to signing the book and entering Satan’s “horrid service” filled with “Hellish Randezvouzes,” and “Diabolical Sacraments” for the purpose of destroying the kingdom of Jesus Christ.[20] Normally, it is Satan who is said to initiate the temptation to sign his book, but sometimes Satan can be conjured. In one testimony from London, for example, the son of a minister read a book entitled Conjuration, which caused Satan to appear.[21]

As a corollary of entering into league with the devil, the witch was given a mark. The devil’s mark, Schiff describes, could be “blue or red, raised or inverted. They might resemble a nipple or a fleabite. They came and went. Essentially any dark blemish qualified, though a mark in the genital area was particular incriminating.”[22] It is unclear if the devil’s mark and the witch’s teat are the same mark, or if there are some differences. Regarding the latter, “anything raised or discolored could qualify as a teat.”[23] The purpose of the teat is not because Satan needs blood, but rather it allow the devil to enter the witch’s body and thus control it more efficiently.[24] Mather, recounting the evidence against Bridget Bishop, one of the women executed in Salem for witchcraft, recorded that a teat was found upon her body but disappeared within three to four hours.[25] What is more, many witches have imps, which are supernatural, demonic creatures used for the purpose of spying and carrying out diabolical acts. These imps would suckle a witch’s teat for nourishment. In one testimony, a woman came to take care of her sick mother only to discover her mother suckled an imp in the likeness of a mole (though she swore she was not in covenant with Satan).[26] Other reports in New England recount witches suckling yellow birds between their fingers.[27]

One might wonder, however, if this is the only sort of witch: diabolical and bent on doing evil. What about those “white” witches who claim to despise evil and want to do good? According to Perkins the good witch is the “more horrible and detestable Monster,” for the good witch will appear as a wise man or wise woman.[28] He or she is still in league with Satan, for this is how he orders his kingdom, “appointing to severall persons their severall offices and charges.”[29]  Suppose a man is afflicted by a bad witch only to be healed by a good one; while he was hurt by the bad witch, the good witch “hath done him a thousand times more harme, for

the one did only hurt the body, but the devil by means of the other, though he have left the body in good plight, yet he hath laid fast hold on the soule, and by curing the body, hath killed that. And the part thus cured, cannot say with David, The Lord is my helper; but the devil is my helper; for by him he is cured…. The good immediately accomplished his desire, by intangling the soule in the bands of errour, ignorance, and false faith.[30]

According to Perkins, there is still yet another distinction to be made with regard to witches. Not only are there good and bad witches—both being in covenant with Satan—but there are divining witches and working witches. The former are those witches who “reveal strange things either past, present, or to come, by the assistance of the Devil.”; the latter are those witches who are active and operative.[31]

The Afflictions Imposed by Witches

Having inquired into the nature of a witch, the afflicting power and capabilities of a witch will be discussed henceforth. Part and parcel with a discussion regarding a witch’s power, is an explanation of the devil, for it is believed that the witch can only work wonders by the power of Satan—and this only by the permission of God. According to Mather, the devil is a fallen angel, a spiritually wicked monster who works tirelessly to fight against the kingdom of God. And while he is more powerful and educated than any man on earth, God has him on a leash.[32]

Perkins highlights four reasons why God allows evil and witchcraft to occur: First, to punish the wicked for their sins, second, to avenge Himself of the ingratitude of those who have His word but do not obey it, third, to arise the godly who are slothful and living in sin, and, fourth, to test His people in order to see if they will cling to Him or follow Satan.[33]

According to Perkins, witchcraft is the chief ordinance in Satan’s kingdom. Through witches, the devil is able to work wonders toward the destruction of God’s kingdom. Satan’s power of illusion, his superior knowledge, the great number of his demonic army, and spiritual powers are the backdrop of the witch’s ministry.

Regarding Satan’s power of illusion, Holmes explains, “Then again, by his exceeding power and agility, he can either change the seeing power of the eye, or the condition of the air; or he can trouble the inward fancy, making it to take notice of phantoms present.”[34] By this power of illusion, witches have been seen to appear as wolves, lions, dogs, birds, toads, or other creatures, “but only in appearance, and phantasie corrupted,” for Satan, while powerful, cannot change the substance of a man into an animal.[35] It is by these illusions that Satan could appear in the likeness of Samuel when conjured by the witch at Endor.[36] The witch, by extension, has the power of juggling; that is, deceiving people by making them think they see things they do not.[37]

Moreover, it is by the devil’s superior knowledge that witches, of the divining sort, can come to know the future.[38] Satan knows the prophetic Scriptures and what is happening all over the world through the presence of his demonic informants; therefore, through the means of astrology, dreams, and other instruments the witch comes to know fantastical things. Satan is able to “frame dreams in the braine of a man,” and perform other such supernatural feats.[39] However, while Satan is skillful toward this end, “yet it is above his reach to determine of such things as these are, or to foretell them without helpe from God.”[40] In other words, while Satan is big and powerful, God is infinitely bigger and more powerful.

The great number of Satan’s demonic army, which is all over the world, allows a witch’s spells and charms to be made effective toward diabolical ends. The words she speaks have no power in and of themselves, but they are the Satan’s “watch words.” The charm or inchantment works by the power of Satan “who then is stirred up, when the charme is repeated.”[41]

Divining, charms, and juggling are the chief tools of the witch. By the spiritual powers of the devil, the witch can perform mighty deeds, to include creating storms or even sending her specter to do her evil bidding.[42] The witchs’ specter is commissioned by them and represents them in order to be “the Engine of their Malice.”[43] The specter has the power to haunt, bite, hit, or even kill, if permitted.[44] Mather records that the “learned Scribonius” was praying for someone afflicted by evil spirits when he himself received “an horrible Blow over the face” by an evil spirit.[45] “The people thus afflicted,” continues Mather,

are miserably scratched and bitten, so that the Marks are most visible to all the World, but the cause utterly invisible; and the same Invisible Furies do most visibly stick Pins into the bodies of the afflicted, and scale them, and hideously distort, and disjoint all their members, besides a thousand other sorts of Plagues beyond these of any natural diseases which they give unto them, Yea, they sometimes drag the poor people out of their chambers, and carry them over Trees and Hills, or divers miles together.[46]

Baxter warns, however, that it is hard to know when the specter is the devil, a witch’s specter, or a human spirit. He reasons that since “Angels can be here, and do their Office for us, without such Descent as shall abate their Joy and Glory; and why not blessed Souls too, if they shall be equal with Angels?” [See note].[47] Later, Baxter records of an event when a specter came to a woman in the likeness of her husband with appeals to enter her bed. She refused, but as the week progressed the specter became violent and afflicted those present by striking their faces with black smoke and their bodies with bruises.[48] Indeed, discerning whether the specter is Satan in disguise, a witch’s specter, or just that of a loved one has proven difficult.[49]

Before leaving the power and means by which the witch afflicts, the most prominent, albeit extremely odd, means must be discussed. In many cases, the bewitched are brought to vomit various objects: Stones, iron, nails, brass, crooked pins, blood, glass, white mercury, head-bodkins, nitre, dog’s hair, bone, veins, chestnuts, flesh, hen’s bone, horse’s teeth, cockleshells, horse dung, feathers, thread, knives, and straw have all been reported to have been vomited by the bewitched.[50] Baxter recorded an account of a woman who vomited over two-hundred crooked pins in one sitting, and then continued to vomit objects for nearly six months. Men inspected her mouth before and after the vomiting to insure there was no foul play.[51] In some cases, despite vomiting pins and sharp knives, there was surprisingly no blood [See note].[52] Some of the items vomited or voided were items that were previously seen in a witch’s basket.[53] As to how the items were placed into the victims, Mather records testimony of a bee flying into a boy’s mouth and placing penny nails into his throat.[54]

Fighting Against Witchcraft

Weapons against witchcraft range from the bizarre to the more conventional. Baxter records a remedy from Bartholomew Carrichters, who recommended mixing various greases and herbs together as a cure for the bewitched [See note].[55] This kind of “counter-magic” was condemned, however, by Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village. When Mary Sibley, a member of Parris’s church, attempted her own concoction to combat the present afflictions, Parris claimed she was “going to the devil for the help against the devil,” and setting up a satanic lightning rod.[56]

Perkins, taking a more conventional approach, taught that there are preventative and restorative means of combating witchcraft. If one wants to prevent from being bewitched, things such as becoming a member of the covenant of grace, partaking of Christ by faith, repenting of sin, living unto God in obedience and a newness of life, and sitting under the preached word are the prescribed means.[57] Restorative means of combating the effects of witchcraft are a bit more complicated. Perkins maintains that the apostolic gifts of casting out devils and curing witchcraft have ceased after about two hundred years subsequent Christ’s ascension.[58] Nevertheless, Perkins subscribes three restorative remedies to the afflicted: First, examine yourself and try to discover why God has allowed Satan to bewitch you, second, show forth your faith through prayer and fasting, and, finally, endure the affliction as discipline from God.[59] To this list, Mather adds that joining a church and consecrating your children are good means to prevent witchcraft, and when tormented by Satan, Mather suggests saying the following:

Satan, thy time with me is but short, Nay thy time with me shall be no more; I am unutterably sorry that it has been so much; Depart from me thou Evil-Doer, that thou would’st have me to be an Evil Doer like thy self; I will now for ever keep the Commandments of that God, in whom I Live and Move, and have my Being![60]

The Puritans repudiated the methods of Rome in the distinguishing of devils. The elaborate rituals, procedures, relics, and formulas were seen as itself an act of sorcery. “One great cause of the hardening of those Infidels, is, the frequent Impostures which the Romanists obtrude on the World in their Exorcisms and pretended Miracles,” records Baxter.[61] Since the casting out of demons has ceased with the apostles, “for any ordinary man now to command the Devil in such sort,” writes Perkins, “is meere presumption, and a practise of Sorcerie.”[62] The Papists, Perkins maintains, are heirs of Simon the Magician, have adopted satanic doctrines, and even some of their popes have been witches in league with the devil.[63] As was seen with Satan commissioning both good and bad witches to counteract each other, so the logic holds that some methods of witchcraft (e.g., Roman exorcisms) are able to combat the effects of witchcraft—as Parris stated: “going to the devil for the help against the devil” [See note].[64]

The Discovering and Punishing of Witches

In his book, On Witchcraft, Mather includes a chapter giving an abstract of Perkins’s way for discovering a witch, of which there are eight: (1) If there is presumption that warrants an occasion for examination; (2) If a man or woman is defamed for a witch; (3) If a fellow-witch has named the man or woman; (4) if after cursing a person, death or mischief follows; (5) if after quarrelling or threatening a person, death of mischief follows; (6) if the person is the child, servant, or friend of a convicted witch; (7) if the person has the devil’s mark; (8) if the suspect is inconsistent or argues from a guilty conscious.[65] It has also been testified that a witch cannot recite the Lord’s prayer, for Satan prevents those in covenant with him from doing so.[66]

During the interrogations, the Puritan’s sought to exercise care that innocent persons were not wrongfully charged with witchcraft. Perkins warns: “They [the jurors] would be carefull what they do, and not to condemne any party suspected upon bare presumption, without sound and sufficient proofes, that they be not guilty through their owne rashness of shedding innocent blood.”[67] Similarly, Mather explained, “[H]ow unhappy are we!” if innocent blood were to be shed.[68] Mather also warns that Satan, masquerading as an angel of light, can deceive people into thinking justice is being served when in truth it be only mischief. On the other hand, if only guilty witches are brought to justice then “How Happy!”[69]

Mather writes that the witch could confess and repent, at which time the authorities would rejoice “in a Soul sav’d from Death.”[70] Perkins shares the same sympathy: “All Witches judicially and lawfully convicted, ought to have space of repentance granted unto them.”[71] Though, Perkins maintained a stricter course: “wherein they may be instructed and exhorted, and then afterwards executed…. [T]he magistrate must execute justice upon malefactors lawfully convicted, whether they repent or not.”[72]

The Puritans held to theonomic principles wherein some of the laws of Moses were seen as being at work even in the new covenant church. Perkins taught that the law of Moses, which stated that witches were to be put to death (Exo. 22:18), was perpetual, for it seeks to maintain a perpetual moral precept and “hath in it the equitie of the Law of nature.”[73] In fact, Perkins ends his book, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, with this line: “Death therefore is the just and deserved portion of the good witch.”[74] Mather agrees with Perkins; he praises Constantine, believing all lands and nations are to be Christ’s, and that the magistrates promote holiness through the law.[75] Regarding New England, some Puritans referred to it as a “New England Israel,” and, as one historian noted, “Sin and crime were close cousins in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, which drew its list of capital offenses from the Bible.”[76]

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2017

 

[1]In these works, Perkins functions as the paragon, someone the rest appeal to. Baxter and Mather also show mutual appreciation, and Parris appeals to Baxter at points.

[2]William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1608; reprint Middletown, DE: Theophania, 2016), 15. The older works are filled with archaic spelling, capitalizations, and emphases. Unless otherwise stated, all oddities are to be assumed original.

[3]Cotton Mather, On Witchcraft (1962; reprint Mineola, NY: Dover, 2005), 131. The older works are filled with archaic spelling, capitalizations, and emphases. Unless otherwise stated, all oddities are to be assumed original.

[4]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 92.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid., 33. [Capitalization original].

[7]Ibid., 34-35.

[8]Ibid., 36.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid., 37-38.

[11]Ibid., 38.

[12]Ibid., 81-84.

[13]Richard Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits (1691; reprint Middletown, DE: Theophania, 2016), 14. In this volume, Baxter collects letters and testimonies of those who have seen, experienced, or heard about strange, supernatural occurrences. It can be difficult to locate where Baxter’s comments end and a collected letter begins. Thus, when using this volume, I will introduce a citation with “Baxter records” or “Baxter recounts,” as it is, after all, Baxter who is including these testimonies and letters into his book.

[14]Ibid., 71-72.

[15]Schiff, The Witches, 63.  Increase Mather (1639-1723) was raised in accordance to the strict puritanism of his father, Richard Mather. Attending Harvard at the age of twelve, Increase Mather would pastor Second Church in Boston for almost sixty-years. What is more, he had a leading role in various synods, to include the Boston Synod where he wrote the preface for their Confession of Faith, which was after the Savoy Declaration. He, further, vigorously upheld the older Puritan theocracy and establishment order in church and state. In 1691 when citizenship was defined in terms of property and not in terms of church membership, Mather became “deeply distressed.” Less mystical than his son, Cotton Mather, Increase Mather would write Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, arguing against spectral evidence. The book played a role in ending the witch trials. Joel R. Beeke and Randall J, Pederson, Meet the Puritans (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 421, 431-434.

[16]Ibid., 62-63.

[17]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 35.

[18]Mather, On Witchcraft, 130; c.f., 167.

[19]Ibid., 67; c.f., 103, 163, 165-166. The “Black Man” image of Satan is rich in Puritan literature, though sometimes Satan is said to appear as an “Indian”—the very people many in the colony feared. Although, Baxter record him as a “Big, Black Man.” Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 32.

[20]Mather, On Witchcraft, 16, 68.

[21]Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 46-47.

[22]Schiff, The Witches, 61.

[23]Ibid., 193.

[24]Ibid., 194.

[25]Mather, On Witchcraft, 112.

[26]Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 41.

[27]Mather, On Witchcraft, 161.

[28]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 95.

[29]Ibid.

[30]Ibid., 96.

[31]Ibid., 40, 73.

[32]Mather, On Witchcraft, 37-42.

[33]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 7; c.f., 30-31, 42, 117-118.

[34]Nathaniel Holmes, Demonology and Theology, ed. by Therese B. McMahon (1650; reprint Crossville, TN: Puritan Publications, 2014), 38.

[35]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 24-25; c.f., Mather, On Witchcraft, 92-93.

[36]Ibid., 64-66.

[37]Holmes, Demonology and Theology, 56-58.

[38]Mather elaborates, “Some of them that have been cry’d out upon a imploying Evil Spirits to hurt our Land, have been known to be most bloody Fortune-Tellers; and some of them have confessed, That when they told Fortunes, they would pretend the Rules of Chiromancy and the like Ignorant Science, but indeed they had no Rule (they said) but this, The things were then Darted into their minds. Darted! Ye Wretches; By whom, I pray? Surely by none but the Devils.” Mather, On Witchcraft, 19. [Emphasis original].

[39]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 59.

[40]Ibid., 61; c.f., 40-72.

[41]Ibid., 38, 80.

[42]Baxter records: “The raising of Storms by Witches is attested by so many, that I think it needless to recite them.” Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 73. Mather teaches that witches are made owners of specters by virtue of their covenant with Satan. Mather, On Witchcraft, 68-69.

[43]Mather, On Witchcraft, 68.

[44]Baxter records an account of an apparition bending down a boy’s neck until he died. Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 48.

[45]Mather, On Witchcraft, 5.

[46]Ibid., 68.

[47]Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 13, 15. Mather and other clergy surrounding the witch trials will believe similarly that the ghost of a murdered person can appear and name his or her murderer. Later Reformed theologians, however, shy away from the belief in ghosts. While the reality of angels and demons are affirmed, it is believed that the souls of the departed no longer have contact with the living. Herman Bavinck, for example, taught, “[N]owhere does it [the Holy Scriptures] teach the possibility or reality of the dead appearing…. Further, the whole of Scripture proceeds from the idea that death is a total break with life on this side of the grave…. Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends. The dead no longer have a share in anything that happens under the sun (Eccles. 9:5-6, 10). Nowhere is there any sign that the dead are in contact with the living: they belong to another realm, one that is totally separate from the earth…. Those who have died in the Lord are with Jesus (Phil. 1:23), stand before the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 7:9, 15), cry out and pray, praise and serve him (6:10; 7:10, 15; 22:17). Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume, ed. by John Bolt (Grand Rapids, Baker Academics, 2011), 711, 718. [Brackets mine].

[48]Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 25-26.

[49]Elsewhere Baxter records an account when the devil appeared in the likeness of someone’s dead husband. Ibid., 75.

[50]Ibid., 35-36, 45, 54-57, 66-68, 70, 76, 78.

[51]Ibid., 54-55.

[52]Ibid., 78. In still stranger tails, wood was found in a man’s rectum, and a woman voided a living eel in her stool. Ibid., 45, 66.

[53]Ibid., 78.

[54]Mather, On Witchcraft, 95.

[55]Baxter records the following recipe: mix 4 oz. of dogs grease (well dissolved and cleaned), 8 oz. of bears grease, 24 oz. of capons grease, three trunks of mistletoe of the hasle while green (cut into pieces and pound small, and bruised together with the wood, leaves, and berries) in a vial. Leave exposed to the sun for nine weeks. After such a time, anoint bodies of the afflicted with green balsam. Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 80-81.

[56]Schiff, The Witches, 26-27. Sibley mixed the girls urine into a rye-flour cake and baked it amid the embers on the hearth. She then fed the “cake” to the family dog. The counter-magic was supposed to, perhaps, draw the witch into the animal, transfer the spell to the animal, or maybe even scald the witch.

[57]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 9, 116, 118.

[58]Ibid., 121-125.

[59]Ibid., 121-122.

[60]Mather, On Witchcraft, 88.

[61]Baxter, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, 59.

[62]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 129.

[63]Ibid., 7, 18, 24.

[64]Frederick Leahy taught something similar: “Pagan exorcisms are simply a trick by which Satan brings people increasingly under his power. The stronger demon in the sorcerer will most certainly expel the demon in a possessed person. But the person is not healed. He has not been delivered from the power of the enemy. The expelled demon can and probably will return.” Joel R. Beeke, Fighting Satan: Knowing His Weaknesses, Strategies, and Defeat (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 27. It is interesting, however, that Jesus seems to suggest this is unlikely (Matt. 12:22-30). Commenting on Matthew 12:28 and Luke 11:20, Herman Ridderbos stated, “He [Jesus] shows the absurdity of the accusation by comparing the power of the devil with that of a kingdom or a town or a house, i.e., with an organically coherent unity. If one devil should cast out another, the kingdom of the devil would not stand but would fall asunder. But this does not happen. That is why there is only one explanation for Jesus’ power over the demons, viz., that by the Spirit (or the finger of God) he was able to cast them out.” Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1962), 61 [Brackets mine]. Admittedly, however, the matter gets complicated as those devoid of the Holy Spirit are still able to cast out demons (Matt. 7:21-23).

[65]Mather, On Witchcraft, 27-28.

[66]Ibid., 150.

[67]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 116. [Brackets mine].

[68]Mather, On Witchcraft, 132. [Brackets mine].

[69]Ibid., 133.

[70]Ibid., 23.

[71]Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, 132.

[72]Ibid. [Brackets mine].

[73]Ibid., 129-130.

[74]Ibid., 134.

[75]Mather, On Witchcraft, 36, 64, 78.

[76]Schiff, The Witches, 6, 45-46.

Theological Conviction: Humble or Arrogant? – Martin Luther and the Perspicuity of Scripture

According to Scripture, the word of God is “flawless” (Prov. 30:5) and, in its inscripturated form, “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). As stated by the apostles, the Scriptures pass down the inspired “tradition” (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15); accordingly, those following the tradition are to hold fast to the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). In fact, those who are gifted for public ministry of the word, should speak as one who speaks God’s words (1 Pet. 4:11). Indeed, being able to “exhort in sound doctrine” and “refute those who contradict” is a requirement for being a pastor/elder (Titus 1:9).

Throughout the history of the church, however, there have been like those in the church at Thyatira, who, while abounding in love and service, tolerated those with seductive teachings, i.e., those who led the sheep astray by falsehoods: the “deep things of Satan” (Rev. 2:19-24). While their ecumenism and devotion to love are commendable, Jesus said, concerning the one sowing false doctrine: “Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead” (Rev. 2:22-23). G.K. Beale elaborates:

However, the Thyatirans, like those at Pergamum, have given space to a false teacher (probably a woman) described here as Jezebel. Their sin—toleration—is the very thing commended in our postmodern culture as the greatest virtue. This new Jezebel, like the Jezebel of old (1 Kgs. 16:31; 21:25-26), stood for compromise with idolatrous practices, and so the teaching was probably similar to that of the Balaam party and the Nocolaitans at Pergamum.[1]

In modern times, this “hermeneutic of love” and meta-ecumenism have only been strengthened by post-modernism. Brian McLaren, for example, sees theological convictions as narrow, intolerant, overconfident, and naïve. “The last thing we need,” he writes, “is a new group of proud, super protestant, hyper puritan, ultra restorationist reformers who say, ‘Only we’ve got it right!’ and thereby damn everybody else to the bin of five minutes ago and the bucket of below-average mediocrity”[2] After defining “Orthodoxy” as “straight thinking” or “right opinion,” he says, “The last thing I want is to get into nauseating arguments about why this or that form of theology (dispensational, covenant, charismatic, whatever) or methodology (cell church, megachurch, liturgical church, seeker church, blah, blah, blah) is right.”[3] McLaren calls for a “generous orthodoxy” that includes elements of liberalism and evangelicalism, for in Jesus’ day, he maintains, to be “orthodox” one needed only to trust him (right attitude).[4] Thus, doctrinal distinctives are marginal at best—what counts is “doctrine-in-practice.”[5] The orthodoxy he recommends is one you internalize and hardly need to think about.[6] He goes on to say:

Sit down here next to me in this little restaurant and ask me if Christianity… is orthodox, meaning true, and here’s my honest answer: a little, but not yet…. We probably have a couple things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more spreads before us unseen and unimaginable…. To be a Christian in a generous orthodoxy way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be a loving (ethical) community of people who are seeking the truth (doctrine) on the road of mission…. [Orthodoxy is] a way of seeing and seeking, a way of living, a way of thinking and loving and learning…. doxa is orthodoxy.[7]

McLaren’s proposal seems to be clothed in humility. Orthodoxy is not in content, but in posture—a posture that allows one to be a “seed picker” (σπερμολόγος), finding “truths” through the grid of one’s own autonomy and ultimacy. Martin Luther’s proposal is different, entirely. It will be argued in this paper that, contra McLaren’s system, Luther maintained that to be humble is to have theological conviction. In this way, the McLaren-like method is merely cloaked in humility, abounding, rather, in arrogance of the highest order. For Luther, to sit at the foot of Christ, to receive His instructions, and to take Him at His word is the humblest way to live.

While he is known for his polemical tone and unfound courage, humility was also a central theme for Luther. “God has surely promised His grace to the humbled,” he wrote, “that is, to those who mourn over and despair of themselves.”[8] In his masterpiece, The Bondage of the Will, Luther engaged in a dispute with Erasmus over the notion of freewill. His closing remarks illustrate that, for him, debates over points of doctrine were not about his ego or his “system of thought,” but were about God and spreading the truth of Scripture:

By your studies you have rendered me also some service, and I confess myself much indebted to you; certainly, in that regard, I unfeignedly honour and sincerely respect you. But God has not yet willed nor granted that you should be equal to the subject of our present debate. Please do not think that any arrogance lies behind my words when I say that I pray that the Lord will speedily make you as much my superior in this as you already are in all other respects. It is no new thing for God to instruct a Moses by a Jethro, or to teach a Paul by an Ananias.[9]

Hinted at in Luther’s closing words is the belief that theological conviction comes from God.  In his debate with Erasmus, Luther pleaded for him to prove his case by Scripture,[10] and noted that theological conviction is not in his power to bring about, for “it is the gift of the Spirit of God.”[11] To despair of oneself is to be Christ-centered, taking all that he has said by faith. Luther’s belief in the ultimacy of Christ’s word looms large throughout the debate, even chastising Erasmus at one point, saying, “Your thoughts of God are too human.”[12]

It is this triumph of human reason over the revelation of God that Luther was concerned to guard against. “The Holy Spirit is not Sceptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions—surer and more certain than sense and life itself,” wrote Luther.[13] In fact, to take no pleasure in assertions, he maintains, “is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all.”[14] The opposite of making assertions is to espouse skepticism, which is unbecoming of one who loves both the Scriptures and the Church:

The Christian will rather say this: ‘So little do I like sceptical principles, that, so far as the weakness of my flesh permits, not merely shall I make it my invariable rule steadfastly to adhere to the sacred text in all that it teaches, and to assert that teaching, but also I want to be as positive as I can about those non-essential which Scripture does not determine; for uncertainty is the most miserable thing in the world.’[15]

Luther believed Erasmus to lack conviction, and summarized Erasmus as being someone who would not care what one believes so long as the world is at peace, and one who encourages people to “treat Christian doctrines as no better than the views of human philosophers.”[16] Promoting ignorance towards God is not praiseworthy, for, as Luther says, “If I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks, or serve Him.”[17] Knowledge of God is presented in the Scriptures and leads to proper worship.

Underlying Luther’s belief that theological convictions are central to Christianity, is the perspicuity of Scripture, both internally and externally. The former has to do with the indwelling Spirit of God who helps the Christian understand Scripture, while the latter maintains that “nothing whatsoever is left obscure or ambiguous, but all that is in the Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world.”[18] Luther ponders: If Christ and the apostles appealed to Scripture as a clear witness—as the light shining in darkness—“with what conscious, then, do we make them to be obscure?”[19]

Those who would side with the papists and shroud the Bible in obscurity are merely blinding themselves. Luther’s word-picture is priceless: “As little children in fear, or at play, cover their eyes with their hands and think that because they see nobody, nobody sees them,” so too do those who claim the Scriptures to be of a blurred character.[20] Besides their convulsive attempts to cover “the clearest words,” what makes them particularly dubious is that they “use every means to pretend that [they do] not see what the facts are, in hope of persuading us that our eyes are covered also and that we cannot see them either.”[21] This, Luther believes, is a sign “of a mind under conviction, recklessly resisting invisible truth.”[22]

Positing some sort of metaphysical weakness and finitude will not exempt one from theological convictions. Indeed, “there is nothing better adapted for grasping God’s words than weakness of understanding, for it was for the weak and to the weak that Christ came, and to them that He sends His Word.”[23] Unless otherwise evidenced, it is the natural and plain words of Scripture that must be maintained,[24] words given to the weak by their Creator. They are not bid to look to the doctrines of men, but to the doctrine that is from above. This has been Luther’s quest: “What else do we contend for, but that the simplicity and purity of Christian doctrine should prevail, and that what men have invented and brought in along with it should be left behind and disregarded?”[25]

What Luther has set forth is, to put it mildly, not apiece with that of McLaren’s proposal. McLaren says the way trumps content, but Luther says the way is built upon content; McLaren believes it is humble to be uncertain, but Luther roots humility in looking solely to Christ as He is revealed in His word; McLaren grounds the Christian life in the never-ending process of knowing, but for Luther, the perspicuous, sufficient, and complete inscripturated word of God acts as a “lamp unto my feet” (Ps. 119:105). Both MaLaren and Luther believe that God is incomprehensible and mysterious, but they are defining those differently. For McLaren, these categories are concluding assertions, but for Luther, this is not so. Scott Oliphint describes the biblical approach to incomprehensibility and mystery:

Here is the paradox: A true, biblical view of mystery has its roots not in a lack of understanding, but in the teaching of Scripture. As a matter of fact, it is just the teaching of Scripture that gives us the biblical truth of that which we hold to be mysterious. A biblical view of mystery, in other words, is full of truth. It is truth that has real and glorious content. That content includes truths that we must affirm as well as falsehoods that we must deny, statements that are necessarily a part of a biblical understanding of mystery as well as exclamations that point us to its truth. So mystery, if we understand it biblically, is infused through and through with the truth that is found in the Word of God. Mystery is the lifeblood of the truth that we have in God’s revelation; it flows through every truth that God gives us. [The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God (Bellingham, WA: Lexam Press, 2016), Kindle edition].

Commenting on what Luther would have said regarding postmodernism, Carl Trueman writes, “[H]is rejection of postmodern anarchy would be based on his belief that God is the supreme reality and ultimately the one who speaks and whose speech is therefore the ground of existence and of difference.”[26] “Reality,” he continues, “is determined not by the linguistic proclivities of any human individual or community but by the Word of God.”[27]

For Luther, childishly covering one’s eyes and claiming uncertainty and ignorance is a false humility; rather, to be humble is to read Christ’s word, believe Christ’s word, and live Christ’s word—with conviction. The true picture of humility is found in 1 Peter 2: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (vv.2-3). It is no wonder that at the end of their lives the apostles pointed the flock to the Scriptures as the “more sure word” (2 Pet. 1:19; c.f., 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Heb. 4:12). As pilgrims walking the narrow path to the heavenly city, the ancient words were designed to play a vital role in this pilgrimage. The written Word of God in conjunction with the Spirit of Christ and the Church of Christ is that which disciples and guides the sheep. Because of this, it can be said once more: “Denial of perspicuity is not humility; it is arrogance of the highest order.”[28]

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2017

Also see:

Sabbath Musings

Is Public School an Option for Christians?

Theological Study = Spiritual Death?

Amillennialism vs. Historic Premillennialism

Covenant Theology: Presbyterian or Baptist?

Spanking Children: 36 Thoughts

[1]G.K Beale and David H. Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), 72.

[2]Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am A Missional + Evangelical + Post/Protestant + Liberal/Conservative + Mystical/Poetic + Biblical + Charismatic/Contemplative + Fundamentalist/Calvinist + Anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + Catholic + Green + Incarnational + Depressed-Yet-Hopeful + Emergent + Unfinished Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 23.

 

[3]Ibid., 23-24.

 

[4]Ibid., 28, 33.

 

[5]Ibid., 36.

 

[6]Ibid., 38.

 

[7]Ibid., 333-334. [Brackets mine].

[8]Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. by J.I Packer and O.R. Johnson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 1957), 100.

 

[9]Ibid., 319-320.

 

[10]Ibid., 235.

 

[11]Ibid., 299.

 

[12]Ibid., 87.

 

[13]Ibid., 70.

 

[14]Ibid., 66; c.f., 67.

 

[15]Ibid., 68-69.

 

[16]Ibid., 69-70.

 

[17]Ibid., 78.

 

[18]Ibid. 73-74.

 

[19]Ibid., 127; c.f., 129.

 

[20]Ibid., 212.

 

[21]Ibid. [Brackets mine].

 

[22]Ibid., 212-213.

 

[23]Ibid., 133-134.

 

[24]c.f., Ibid., 263.

 

[25]Ibid., 117.

 

[26]Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 84.

 

[27]Ibid.

 

[28]David B. Garner, “Did God Really Say?” in Did God Really Say? Affirming he Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture, ed. by David B. Garner (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 135.

Sabbath Musings

For those not raised in a Sabbatarian home or in a Reformed Church, the issue of Sabbath-keeping is often perplexing. What is more, with the rise of Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology, many see nothing but turbulent waters—waters that even theologians have trouble navigating. Didn’t Jesus do away with Old Testament ceremonial laws like the Sabbath? If it’s part of the New Testament, how should Christians observe it? Are we still supposed to stone Sabbath-breakers? While I don’t claim to have the final word on Sabbath matters, I will attempt to answer these questions.

In this post, I will present some of my thoughts on Sabbath-keeping, which I consider to be a modified Puritan position. To illustrate my position, first, I will outline reasons why I think the Sabbath still applies to the Christian, second, I will survey the redemptive-historical progression of the Sabbath, third, I will unpack the main purpose of the day, fourth, I will discuss a tri-perspectival approach to Sabbath observance, fifth, the issues of recreation and commerce will be considered, sixth, I will comment as to the spiritual benefits of keeping the Sabbath, and, finally, I will conclude by giving a few thoughts on some of the Reformed confessional statements regarding the Sabbath.

Christ did not abolish the weekly Sabbath

Here I will list out a few lines of evidence in support of the continuation of the Sabbath under the New Covenant.

  1. The Sabbath Day is a creation ordinance, built into the very fiber of creation: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it he rested from all his work which God had created and made.” (Gen. 2:1-3). In fact, when Moses established the Sabbath ordinance under the Mosaic covenant, he appealed to creation (Exo. 20:11). Therefore, any attempt to see the Sabbath as originating at Sinai is faulty (c.f., Heb. 4:3).
  2. As the Baptist Catechism states, “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments (Deut. 10:4; Mt. 19:17)” Moral laws, as opposed to positive laws (e.g., temporal OT civil and ceremonial laws), are timeless. For example, the prohibitions not to murder or worship images is for God’s people under both the Old and New covenants. Therefore, since the Sabbath command is part of the ten commandments, they are still for the people of God under the New Covenant.
  3. Instead of abolishing the Sabbath (Matt. 5:17-19), Jesus simply uncluttered it from Pharisaical elements (Matt. 12:1-8), making the day a delight (Ps. 118:24; Mark 2:27). Thus, as Daniel Block advices, “unless the New Testament expressly declares the end of an Old Testament ordinance (e.g., the sacrifices), we assume its authority for believers today continues.”[1]
  4. Jesus originally gave the ten commandments (Acts 7:30) and bids people to keep them (Luke 18:18-22; John 14:15; 15:10).
  5. Jesus believed the Sabbath would continue after His death (Matt. 24:20).
  6. When Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), he was harkening back not to Sinai, but to Genesis 2:3.[2]
  7. The apostle Paul said, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19). What is of interest is that circumcision was a commandment, if “commandment” were being spoken of generically. Therefore, it seems more likely that here Paul is speaking of the ten commandments.
  8. The apostle John, likewise, exhorts: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
  9. Hebrews 4:9 says, “So, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” The word for “Sabbath-rest” (sabbatismos) is only used here in the NT. Why would the writer of Hebrews coin a new word and not use the more conventional word, katapausis? As Joseph Pipa argues, “The uniqueness of the word suggests a deliberate, theological purpose. He selects or coins sabbatismos because, in addition to referring to spiritual rest, it suggests as well an observance of that rest by a ‘Sabbath-keeping.’ Because the promised rest lies ahead for the New Covenant people, they are to strive to enter the future rest. Yet as they do so, they anticipate it by continuing to keep the Sabbath.”[3]
  10. If the writer of Hebrews did not have a weekly pointer to the ultimate end-times rest in view, then he essentially coined a word and linked it directly with Genesis 2:2-3. G.K. Beale notes the possibility, but says “it is more probable that he was influenced by the OT’s (Exod. 20:11; 31:17) own reuse of Gen. 2:2-3 to provide a basis for Israel’s weekly Sabbath rest. If so, it would seem that to some degree Israel’s weekly Sabbath rest came into the writer’s peripheral vision in Heb. 4:9-10, when he referred to ‘sabbath-resting’ in direct connection to God’s rest of Gen 2:2.”[4]
  11. There is an already-not-yet aspect to the Sabbath. The reason Christ fulfilled various ceremonial laws was because those laws served as types and shadows—as pointers—highlighting aspects of the coming Christ. While the Sabbath certainly pointed the OT saint to the rest intrinsic to the coming Messiah, it had an essential eschatological gaze. That is, the Sabbath pointed to the consummative, 7th Day rest. For this reason, the weekly Sabbath still acts as a pointer, helping the believer anticipate the eternal Sabbath. The Sabbath’s “eschatological goal pointed not only to Christ’s final resurrection rest and believers’ inaugurated salvific rest in Christ, but also to the final and complete rest of God’s people in the new heaven and earth, a goal that I have contended is embedded in Gen. 2:2-3 itself.”[5]
  12. Romans 14:5-6; Galatians 4:9-10; and Colossians 2:16-17 are not speaking of the 4th  Commandment. In the latter text, for example, Paul uses the plural “Sabbath days,” to denote “Jewish festivals, and those alone. The Christians’ festival, Sunday, is not here in question; because about the observance of this there was no dispute nor diversity in the Christian churches.”[6] Paul’s combination of “festival or a new moon or Sabbath days” is from the LXX, and speaks directly to the various ceremonial days Israel was to observe, including Sabbath years, etc. (c.f., 2 Chron. 31:3).[7]

The Redemptive-Historical progression of the Sabbath

Herman Hoeksema has rightly divided the progression of the Sabbath into four phases: Creation-Sabbath, Shadow-Sabbath, Resurrection-Sabbath, and Final-Sabbath.[8]

The Creation-Sabbath is the rest God entered on the 7th Day. The Sabbath was made for man; that is, man was to enter God’s seventh-day rest. But, as Hoeksema put it:

[T]he first man did not enter into the rest of God. He violated the covenant of God, denied his Sovereign-friend, and became a friend of Satan, the enemy of God. He fell, and the whole human race with him, into that which is the very antithesis of the Sabbath of the Lord, the labor and toil, the darkness and corruption, the guilt and unrest of sin, the wages of which is death. God had spoken of his rest to man, and the first man had despised the rest. And God had sworn that he should not enter into his rest. He was exiled and banished from God’s presence. The tabernacle of God had appeared in Paradise long enough to be shown as an image of glorious things, but in the first man Adam it could not be maintained and glorified. It was with man no longer.

The Shadow-Sabbath of the Old Testament was a type or a shadow of this 7th Day rest. Because the first Adam failed to enter that rest, a second Adam is needed to bring God’s people into this consummative rest. Therefore, in the OT the land of Canaan was that typological rest, pointing forwards to eschatological rest:

Hence, the very heart of that land was to be sought in the tabernacle and temple, where God dwelled with and among his people. Hence, too, Canaan was preeminently a Sabbath land, and in it the people must celebrate the weekly Sabbath, the Sabbaths of many special festivals, the sabbatical year, and the Year of Jubilee. Hence, too, the weekly Sabbath was a memorial in Israel to make them remember the great deliverance which God wrought for them when he liberated them from the yoke of bondage: “And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Joshua, therefore, had led the people of God into the rest which God had prepared for them.

In between the first and second coming of Christ, there is Resurrection-Sabbath. As God rested from His work on the 7th Day, which the Shadow-Sabbath was built upon, Christ rested from His work on the 1st Day. This Sabbath is for the NT believer until the return of Christ:

Yet, finally, even now, the Sabbath is not fully manifested. Spiritually and in principle indeed, the tabernacle of God is with men. We cease from works and have peace with God. But we are still living in a strange country. And though we do not battle to obtain, to merit the rest of God, yet we still must labor and fight because we possess the rest in principle. And in the world we shall have tribulation. Hence, while principally we have entered into the rest, the Sabbath is still presented to us in the light of the promise, and there still remains a rest for the people of God.

The Final-Sabbath is that 7th Day rest held out to Adam, but ultimately accomplished by the second Adam: “Then the work of God shall be finished and we shall enter with him into the eternal rest of perfect fellowship, the Sabbath of perfect activity to the praise and glory of him that loved us!”

Main Thrust of the Sabbath Day

Herman Bavinck taught that the Sabbath day is a symbol “of the eons of this dispensation that will in God’s own time culminate in the ‘day’ of eternal rest, the cosmic Sabbath (Heb. 4).”[9] This forward momentum of the people of God was present from the beginning: “[O]ur first parents did not yet enjoy the eternal heavenly Sabbath.”[10] The anticipation of the covenant of works, writes Meredith Kline, had a “sabbatical structure,” which evidences that we were “created in the image of the sabbatarian Creator.”[11] “By his Lord’s appointment,” Kline continues, “man was to experience the passage of time not as an indefinite, undefined string of mornings and evenings, but as a succession of weeks.”[12] Man is to work six days and then observe a Sabbath rest, just as God patterned to His people in Genesis 2. Kline continues:

From man God-ward the Sabbath was a sign of consecration; from God manward it was a sign of consummation. In giving man the Sabbath ordinance the Lord made a covenantal commitment, promising that triumphant royal rest was to crown the genealogical-cultural history of the family of Adam, in their faithful keeping of the covenant. As the garden of Eden was a space-sign, a replica of the whole cosmos as God’s dwelling, so the sabbatical week was a time-sign, a replica of the total history of man’s fulfillment of the cultural mandate after the pattern of God’s working in creation, with the Sabbath at the end of that week a promissory symbol of the hope of consummation. The Sabbath ordinance is covenantal privilege as well as covnantal duty, for it us always divine promise and divine demand together… To be like God was not just man’s duty, it was his very beatitude.[13]

God’s people are reminded that life is not meaningless or aimless, but that the goal “lies beyond” this earthly temporal history of weeks; we are moving toward what Beale calls “an eternal Sabbath of eschatological rest.”[14] To orient His people, God established a Sabbath day (Saturday in the Old Testament and Sunday in the New Testament), blessing and sanctifying the day. That is, God, in His moral law, set a day apart to be different from the other days of the week; its orientation is different, namely, eschatological.

The sabbatical stamp on history is seen in Daniel 9, as Daniel views both the Old and New Covenant eras sabbatically. Jeremiah prophesied (Jer. 25:11) that that there would be seventy years where God would force a Sabbath-rest on the land (Lev. 26:43; 2 Chron. 36:20- 21), because Israel failed to keep God’s command (Exo. 23:10-11). In this, each sabbatical year represented seven years. Daniel, perceiving the seventy years were almost up (Dan. 9:2), prophesies that another “Seventy ‘sevens’” (9:24, NIV) has been decreed, which is 490 years or 10 Jubilees. The symbolical seventy is broken down into seven, sixty-two, and one. That is, the seven weeks (of the seventy) represents the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-3; Isa. 44:28; Jer. 29:10), the sixty-two represents the time between the rebuilding of the temple and the coming of the Messiah, and the one week represents the time from the death of the Messiah to his second coming, when He will “bring in everlasting righteousness” (9:24). The sabbatical rhythm of history and the forward gaze toward the eternal Sabbath is seen clearly in this passage.[15]

“The Sabbath brings this principle of the eschatological structure of history,” writes Geerhardus Vos, “to bear upon the mind of man after a symbolical and a typical fashion.”[16] Vos continues, “The Sabbath is not in the first place a means of advancing religion. It has its main significance apart from that, in pointing forward to the eternal issues of life and history.”[17] Giving the purpose and structure of the day, Vos wonders if the church has been missing this thrust: “It is a serious question whether the modern church has not too much lost sight of this by making the day well-nigh exclusively an instrument of religious propaganda, at the expense of its eternity-typifying value.”[18] It is possible, he continues, to “crowd too much into the day that is merely subservient to religious propaganda, and to void it too much of the static, God-ward and heaven-ward directed occupation of piety.”[19] Indeed, it is a serious question as to whether our Sabbath-keeping is so stripped of any joyful anticipation of heaven, that it appears more boring and hellish than heavenly.

Given this, our definition of the Sabbath comes into focus. What else can the Sabbath be but a rhythm that joyfully anticipates the eschatological, consummative Sabbath yet to be enjoyed by the people of God? As pilgrims walking the narrow path to the heavenly city, the Sabbath’s heaven-oriented nature becomes all too important for our pilgrimage. “The pilgrim’s Sabbath,” writes John Muether, “becomes a symbol of heavenly citizenship, a sign of our true and only hope. It is a subversive tool to renounce the worldly idols of work, leisure, and consumption. It provides a weekly embodiment of the church’s pilgrim identity.”[20] By contrast, those who downplay the Sabbath often do so because of worldliness. Ryan McGraw gives this rebuke:

I am convinced that the modern aversion to keeping the Sabbath holy is, in part, a result of improper love for the world and a mistaken view of Christian living. The duties of the Sabbath serve as an irritant, aggravating the worldliness that has crept into the hearts and lives of God’s people.[21]

Tri-Perspectival Practice of the Day

The practice of Sabbath-keeping has looked dissimilar for the people of God under differing covenantal situation, with some circumstances under the Old Covenant not being applicable in the New (e.g., Exo. 16:23; 34:21; 35:3; Num. 15:32; Jer. 17:21). In the Old Covenant, the Sabbath had positive law built around it like scaffolding. In the New Covenant, writes Alistair Begg, “although the scaffolding disappears, the building remains.”[22] The difficulty, however, can be in determining where positive law ends and moral law begins, i.e., what was specific for theocratic Israel and what is applicable for the NT pilgrim church. In wrestling with the practical thrust of the Sabbath, some have taught that the day is merely a day of rest and replenishment. Others, have maintained that it is chiefly a day of worship. I, however, think it best to have a tri-perspectival view, for when one emphasis is permitted to overshadow the others, conflict ensues. For example, if rest is emphasized, laborious and tiresome service to others may well be avoided in the name of resting. If worship is emphasized above all others, those replenishing acts may very well be deemed inappropriate.

In the first perspective, the preponderance of early biblical data in the Pentateuch emphasizes physical rest from labor in order to “be refreshed” (Exo. 23:12). “The principle underlying the Sabbath is formulated in the Decalogue itself,” writes Vos, “it consists in this, that man must copy God in his course of life.”[23] As God worked six days and then rested, so too does man imitate God in this (Exo. 20:11). Besides works of necessity (e.g., health care, public safety, etc.), the people of God are to physically rest each Lord’s Day from their ordinary labors.

In the second perspective, the Sabbath is a day of worship: “From Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord” (Isa. 66:23). The people of God are to be involved in all levels of worship on the Sabbath: corporate (Heb. 10:25), family (Gen. 18:19; Deut. 11:19; Eph. 6:4), and private (Ps. 119:15; Matt. 6:6). As it is the Lord’s Day, so it is a day to set your minds on things above in a special way, different from the other six days. Attending both morning and evening services, Sunday School or Bible study, and fellowshipping with saints, are the ways in which the people of God are to worship throughout the day. Reading books, catechizing your children, singing hymns, and praying together are some of the ways the family can worship together in between church services. What is more, corporate worship is to be preferred to private worship; gathering with the saints to worship God should be prized over staying home and worshipping in private (Matt. 18:20; Heb. 10:25).

In the third perspective, the Sabbath is a day of service. When you look to how Christ spent His Sabbath, it was in serving others: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?  Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:11-12). The Sabbath Day is a time when the people of God can look for opportunities to serve both those in the household of faith, as well as those outside (Gal. 6:10). Some people advise having a routine of serving each Lord’s Day (e.g., praying with people at a nursing home, visiting the sick, etc.).

Resting, worshipping, and serving are the ways in which the people of God spend their Sabbath Day. The thread that runs through each perspective and unites all three is the joyfully anticipation of the eschatological, consummative Sabbath yet to be enjoyed by the people of God. As we rest, worship, and serve, we are anticipating the eternal Sabbath.

Question on Recreation and Commerce

If our first reaction to the Sabbath is to ask, “So, what am I not allowed to do,” then our hearts are not in the right place. But as we understand the principle of the Sabbath, and as our hearts wax warm at the thought of spending one day out of seven in increased communion with our Lord, then we can begin to set some boundaries. We should plan our Sabbath days before they arrive, asking of each premeditated item, “Does this promote the purpose of the day”?

But what about recreation and commerce? Can these ever promote the purpose of the day? In the Old Testament, Nehemiah spoke against buying and selling on the Sabbath (10:31), and Isaiah spoke against pursuing “your own pleasure” on the Sabbath (58:13-14). What are we to make of these texts?

Beginning with recreation, Richard Gaffin says that “there is Recreation and then there is recreation.”[24] That is, there is a recreation that would be inappropriate for the people of God, and a recreation that is conducive to rest-taking. If recreation is prohibiting corporate, family, or private worship, or if it is getting in the way of rest and service, it is inappropriate. For example, going to a sporting event that takes up much of the day would probably violate the fourth commandment; taking your family to the park to toss a ball or watching a television show with your spouse after the kids are in bed, on the other hand, would not. These latter forms of recreation can serve one’s rest-taking. Rather than seeing a blanket prohibition on all forms of recreation, Isaiah seems to be pointing to something more specific. Robert Gonzales explains:

So the “way” and “pleasure” from which the Israelites are to refrain on the Sabbath is not recreation in this context. Rather, it’s a hypocritical religious ritual on the Sabbath that’s used as a cloak to cover the pursuit of one’s selfish and sinful agenda…. The Sabbath breakers of Isaiah 58:13, when viewed in the larger context, are not those who toss frisbees or ride bikes or play volleyball. Rather, they are the “religious.” They are those outwardly engaged in the public and private worship of Yahweh but inwardly engaged in their personal agenda of greed, exploitation of others, and godless living.[25]

What about commerce? It is often argued that if a Christian stops at a restaurant after church, for example, that he is breaking the Sabbath by causing others to work. Underlying this belief is the desire to strong-arm unbelievers into externally keeping the Sabbath by forcing them to stay home. If no Christian went out, it is argued, then the unbelievers would have to stay home as well.

It must be asked, however, if an unbeliever could keep Sabbath in the first place. To this, I must give a negative answer. Whether he works all day or stays home, he breaks the Sabbath. Hoeksema seems to be of this opinion as well:

I must nevertheless maintain that this is quite impossible, that the keeping of the Sabbath is a highly spiritual matter, an act of faith and hope that can be performed only by the Christian that professes in word and walk that he has become a stranger in this world and is looking forward to the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, to the eternal Sabbath that remains for the people of God.[26]

Meredith Kline elaborates:

Whether the Sabbath is viewed as God’s promise of the consummation of the covenant order or as man’s pledge of devotion to the covenant suzerain, it is always a sign of the covenant…. However, if we appreciate this essential connection of the Sabbath with the covenant, and especially if we recognize that the Sabbath is always covenantal promise and privilege as well as duty, we will avoid thinking of it abstractly as at any time after the Fall a universal ordinance of general application to the world at large. The Sabbath belongs to the covenant community exclusively.[27]

The Old Testament was clear with regard to commerce as it functioned under a theocracy, but in the New Covenant, as a pilgrim people passing through strange lands, it would not necessarily be a sin to, say, grab a pizza on the way to evening service. The unbelievers in these foreign lands have no way of Sabbath-keeping unless they repent and believe. As the Christian interacts with unbelievers working on the Sabbath, it could be a great opportunity for evangelism in hopes that someday they will join the people of God in resting, worshipping, and serving on the Lord’s Day instead of working.

One must, nevertheless, make sure the day is sanctified (i.e., set apart). If you go to a coffee shop every day, it might be best to keep Sunday different. After all, Sunday is not an extension of Saturday, but a day marked by an eschatological outlook. Our posture of resting, worshipping, and serving will necessarily minimize recreation and commerce on the day. However, as seen, in small amounts and with strategic deployment, they can serve and promote the purpose of the day. With that said, one may still choose to abstain from recreation and commerce for wisdom purposes. While it may be lawful for one to do said activities, one may wish to avoid sending mixed signals to unbelievers who work on the Lord’s Day (c.f., 1 Cor. 10:23). In a word, one’s freedom cannot be evoked in ways that functionally make void the fourth commandment.

The Spiritual Promise of Sabbath-Keeping

The Puritans referred to the Sabbath Day as a “market day of the soul.”[28] It is a day that is meant to be a spiritual blessing to each pilgrim walking the narrow path to Zion’s gate. Pipa brings our attention to the blessings of observing the Sabbath Day, stating, “In addition to the promises of exquisite pleasure in the Lord and victory over our [spiritual] enemies, He [God] promises a practical enjoyment of the benefits of our salvation [Isa. 58:13-14]”[29] These are the promises of God for those who remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.

The believer joyfully anticipates the eschatological, consummative Sabbath yet to be enjoyed by the people of God by being restored through rest, by partaking in worship, and by sacrificially serving and loving others. Like any other commandment, the believer will often fail. We must avoid legalism on the one hand, thinking we can be justified by our Sabbath-keeping, and also avoid antinomianism on the other hand, thinking it doesn’t matter, that we can just do what we want. The people of God strive to keep the Sabbath, though imperfectly, because we long for Christ to come and bring us into the eternal Sabbath rest that awaits us.

Desiring to keep the Sabbath day, nevertheless, will be difficult for us because of sin. We like to be autonomous and structure our weeks per our needs and desires. God requiring one whole day is an imposition to us. Bruce Ray rightly noted: “Rebellious people do not want to rest in God’s work or celebrate his creation. Like our first parents, we each want to be our own god. We want to rest in our own works and celebrate our own accomplishments.”[30] Often our rebellion will highlight various relationship problems we have with God:

Sunday is “Father’s Day,” and we have an appointment to meet Him. The child who asks “How short can the meeting be?” has a dysfunctional relationship problem—not an intellectual, theological problem—something is amiss in his fellowship with God.[31]

But as we strive to “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isa. 58:13) and see each Sunday as a “Father’s Day,” as we long for the eternal Sabbath and for our faith to become sight, we will realize the spiritual, sanctification benefits of Sabbath-keeping.

What about the Reformed Confessions?

When it comes to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, a confession that I truly love, I believe 22.8 should be modified or stricken from the confession. Even if I thought it were true, I would still take an exception, for it goes far beyond merely describing what one ought to do on the Sabbath, even delving into what not to think about. As long as we can agree on 22.7, I see no reason to mandate a specific thought program for the Sabbath. Why separate from other Sabbatarian Christians who observe the Sabbath in slightly different ways, even while agreeing on many of its fundamental points?

Here are some of the more strict Puritanical confessional statements that, in my opinion, go beyond Scripture, and are thus in need of modification:

The sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering their common affairs aforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all day, from their own works, words and thoughts, about their worldly employment and recreations, but are also taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (LBCF 22.8)

The fourth commandment forbiddeth the omission or careless performance of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words or works, about our worldly employments or recreations. (WSC. 61).

The sabbath or Lord’s day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God’s worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day. (WLC. 117)

Conclusion

As seen, the Sabbath was not abolished by the coming of the New Covenant; rather, the Resurrection-Sabbath, a new redemptive progression of the Sabbath, was inaugurated. That Sabbath is a day of rest, worship, and service, joyfully anticipating the eschatological, consummative Sabbath yet to be enjoyed by the people of God. Whereas the more strict Puritan view prohibits all forms of recreation and commerce, we have concluded that in intentional forms, they may actually serve the purpose of the day. Instead of thinking about recreation and commerce in black and white sin/not-sin categories, perhaps it is best to inspect our posture. Are we posturing ourselves eschatologically, or just treating Sunday like another Saturday? The Christian, however, will find that when he “calls the Sabbath a delight,” there are spiritual blessings involved.

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2016

Also see:

Is Public School an Option for Christians?

Theological Study = Spiritual Death?

Amillennialism vs. Historic Premillennialism

Covenant Theology: Presbyterian or Baptist?

Spanking Children: 36 Thoughts

[1]Daniel Block, “Preaching the Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” Hiphil 3 (2006) [http://see-j.net/hiphil]. Accessed 21/12/2016. Also see: Alistair Begg, Pathway to Freedom: How God’s Laws Guide Our Lives (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 103.

[2]G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 782. Also: Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 79.

[3]Joseph A. Pipa Jr., The Lord’s Day (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1997), 115.

[4]Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 788.

[5]Ibid., 793.

[6]Pipa, The Lord’s Day, 104.

[7]Ibid., 96-97.

[8]This section is from Herma Hoeksema, “Proper Sabbath Observance: The Sojourner’s Sabbath,” in OPC (accessed 12/21/2016), https://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=163.

[9]Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume, ed. by John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 295.

[10]Ibid., 333.

[11]Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 78.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid., 80-81.

[14]Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 777.

[15]Meredith G. Kline, “The Covenant of the Seventieth Week,” https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/Kline,%20Meredith%20-%20The%20Covenant%20of%20the%20Seventieth%20W.pdf. Also: Vern S. Poythress, “Left Behind? Making Sense of the Days of Daniel,” in Westminster Theological Seminary Faculty Page (May 19, 2014), http://faculty.wts.edu/lectures/left-behind-making-sense-of-the-days-of-daniel/.

[16]Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth, 1975), 140.

[17]Ibid., 141.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Ibid.

[20]John R. Muether, “The Sabbath: Plausibility for Presbyterian Pilgrims,” in OPC (accessed 12/21/2016), https://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=599.

[21]Ryan McGraw, The Day of Worship: Reassessing the Christian Life in Light of the Sabbath (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2011), 65.

[22]Begg, Pathway to Freedom. 103.

[23]Vos, Biblical Theology, 139.

[24]See: http://media1.wts.edu/media/audio/ww204-copyright.mp3

[25]Bob Gonzales, “Does All Worship and No Play Make Jack a Holy Boy? Sabbath-keeping according to Isaiah 58:13,” It Is Written: Promoting the Supremacy of Scripturehttp://drbobgonzales.com/2011/11/19/does-all-worship-and-no-play-make-jack-a-holy-boy-sabbath-keeping-according-to-isaiah-5813/.

[26]https://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=163

[27]Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 81,

[28]Pipa, The Lord’s Day, 41-50.

[29]Ibid., 13.

[30]Begg, Pathway to Freedom, 101.

[31]Sinclair Ferguson, “Sabbath Rest,” in Ligonier Ministry, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/sabbath-rest/.

7 Books to Read in 2017

For those who enjoyed my recommended reading lists for 2015 and 2016, here is my recommendations for 2017 (just in time to put them on the Christmas list!)

  1. What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an by James White
  2. God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark 
  3. Christian Theistic Evidences by Cornelius Van Til
  4. Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God: A Handbook for Biblical Interpretation by Vern Poythress
  5. Revelation: A Shorter Commentary by G.K. Beale
  6. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln by Mark Noll
  7. The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God by Scott Oliphint 

 

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” – 2 Timothy 4:13

Theological Study = Spiritual Death?

Embarking on biblical and theological studies is vital, but it can also be very dangerous – especially in an academic context. We’ve probably all heard the joke that equates seminary with cemetery, as if to say deep biblical and theological study will mean the death of one’s faith. This is certainly a danger.

J.I. Packer, in his famous Knowing God, gives the following warning:

[W]e need… to stop and ask ourselves a very fundamental question – a question, indeed, that we always ought to put to ourselves whenever we embark on any line of study in God’s holy book. The question concerns our own motives and intentions as students. We need to ask ourselves: What is my ultimate aim and object in occupying my mind with these things? What do I intend to do with my knowledge about God, once I have it? For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us. It will make us proud and conceited. The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interests in it and grasp of it; and we shall look down on those whose theological ideas seem to us crude and inadequate and dismiss them as very poor specimens…. To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception…. [T]here can be no spiritual heath without doctrinal knowledge; but it is equally true that there can be no spiritual heath with it, if it is sought for the wrong purpose and valued by the wrong standard… The psalmist [Ps. 119:1-2, 5, 12, 18, 97, 103, 125] was interested in truth and orthodoxy, in biblical teaching and theology, not as ends in themselves, but as means to further ends of life and godliness. His ultimate concern was with the knowledge and service of the great God whose truth he sought to understand…. And this must be out attitude too. Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God himself better…. As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must himself be the end of it.” (21-23). [Brackets mine].

Much is said by Packer in this passage. First, he encourages us to take an under-the-hood glimpse into our motives and desires. Why do we want to learn more about God? Why are we spending hours pouring over Bavinck and Turretin? Why do we put ourselves through months of sleepless nights, kept awake by Greek and Hebrew homework? Is it in order to know God better? Is it to guide our worship of God? Is it that we might serve the church more faithfully? Or is it that we might make a name for ourselves, or be a boastful “know-it-all”? Are we learning more about God to glorify Him, or ourselves?

Second, Packer warns that studying God’s holy word with the wrong motive will go wrong for us. Do we want to know God, or just know about Him in order that we might cause the older lady in our Bible study to complement our erudition?

Scott Oliphint says that the “unending circle of our Christian experience goes from precepts to praise to practice, and back to precepts again — all to the glory of God.” The study of God’s word should elicit worship. But what about in an academic setting? When struggling through Van Til and Hodge, can we be brought to worship? B.B. Warfield, in his popular The Religious Life of Theological Students, stated very helpfully:

Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? …. [T]heology has as its unique end to make God known: the student of theology is brought by his daily task into the presence of God, and is kept there. Can a religious man stand in the presence of God, and not worship? It is possible, I have said, to study even theology in a purely secular spirit. But surely this is possible only for an irreligious man, or at least for an unreligious man…. Do you prosecute your daily tasks as students of theology as ‘religious exercises’? If you do not, look to yourselves: it is surely not all right with the spiritual condition of that man who can busy himself daily with divine things, with a cold and impassive heart…. Whatever you may have done in the past, for the future make all your theological studies ‘religious exercises.’… Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them (2, 5, 6).

This is certainly a good, albeit difficult, exhortation. When you are a hundred pages behind in your Calvin and Vos reading, awake at 3 AM, the temptation to study theology for its own sake (or for the sake of the class only) is real. But what can be done to maintain right motives?

Here are a few practical tips:

  1. Reflect and pause when weighty matters are being discussed.
  2. Read with a thankful spirit. Pray and thank God for his majesty and His mighty plan of redemption.
  3. Remind yourself often to check your motives for learning about God.
  4. Remember that you are dealing with incomprehensible mysteries (though not with mysticism).
  5. Research well with a view to service.

As one “climbs the latter,” so to speak, in theological knowledge, it is tempting to see the church—to see fellow saints—as a mere side note or ornament to the “main thing”: our own knowledge, reputation, or study. Cornelius Van Til was once asked why he spent so many years of his life in deep philosophical and apologetic study. We can all learn from his answer: “To protect Christ’s little ones.”

The final thing to note from Packer’s statement—and something that will provide us with balance—is that doctrinal and theological study is absolutely vital. It must be done. These cautions about theological study are not calls for anti-doctrinal attitudes or a less vigorous study of systematic and biblical theology. God and His word must be studied with intensity.

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” – John 17:3

“Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 9:24

“For I desire… the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6

“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” – Titus 1:9

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” – Hebrews 5:12-6:2

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” – 2 Peter 3:18

For the sake of “Christ’s little ones” and for the sake of your own soul, study God’s word diligently and with proper motives (1 Tim. 4:16). Publishing papers, writing books, memorizing catechisms, being well versed in Owen and Edwards, being able to answer tough questions are all fine things in and of themselves; but if we make them the main thing, we damage ourselves and our hearers. Will love for Christ and His sheep bring us to deep study, or will it be our own prideful and pompous arrogance? Will our hearers, by our example, breathe the air of love and humility, or of a professional haughtiness?

Indeed, every time we stop to study theology God asks us, “Pray, why do you study Me so diligently?” And every Lord’s Day we teach God’s word, God asks us, “Pray, why do you teach about Me this morning?” Let our answer be: “So that I might know You, worship You, live according to Your word, and encourage the same from others.”

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2016

Is Public School an Option for Christians?

Can a Christian parent send his or her child to a public school? Absolutely! To be sure, there are those who will sharply disagree, thinking there is only one path for the Christian, in terms of education. “It’s a sin for a Christian not to send their children to public school, for how else will the other children hear the gospel?” one might retort, dogmatically. I, on the other hand, hold no such assertions. Whether it’s public school, homeschool, or private school, all options are open to the discerning Christian parent.

While I will argue that homeschooling or Christian private schooling should be pursued and desired above public school, I in no way intend to bring guilt to, say, a single mom, struggling to raise her children in the godliest was as she knows how. To such a person, I want to encourage and confirm that she can indeed raise godly children, and that she is not necessarily in sin for her inability to provide alternative means of education. This post, rather, is for the Christian parent who has options—the Christian parent who could avoid the government school system.

As the somewhat gnomic expression among Reformed communities goes: raising a child is like a three-legged stool. Representing the legs are the home, the church, and the school. When all three work in unison, there is a firm foundation indeed. When one of the legs, however, is missing, the other two need to work harder to compensate. And when two are missing, the one stable leg will be stressed, perhaps, to breaking point. If able, one should strive to have all three components: The solid family life where family-worship is done daily and where the home is like a miniature church; a solid Reformed church life where the gospel is regularly taught, where people are catechized, and where good theology is expounded; and a solid school where every discipline—from math, to science, to art—is taught from a biblical and theological framework and foundation.

A seasoned parent might, nevertheless, rejoin that this is no guarantee that one’s child will continue walking in the faith when they are grown. As if to say the proverb might be proven wrong: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). But what happens if one’s child does in fact walk away from Christ? Two principles must be remembered at this point: First, the Proverbs contain general truths. That is, it is generally true that if you train a child up in the way he should go that he will not depart. Secondly, it should be observed that the parent’s job is faithfulness. This is to say that the parent is not the Holy Spirit; the parent cannot regenerate his or her own child (1 Cor. 12:3). Rather, the parent is to teach and discipline as faithfully as one is able, and the outcome (i.e., whether the child is born again) is left to God (John 6:44).

While there are political, constitutional, academic, and moral reasons for wanting to avoid the public school system, this post will focus on the most important reason, namely, the biblical and theological reason. It will be argued that in the public school, the Christian youth is taught to adopt three dangerous lines of thinking, and is not taught three vital aspects of life.

The first dangerous line of thinking comes from Immanuel Kant. Kant taught people to bifurcate their understanding of reality to the noumenal and phenomenal realms. The former contains things like God, and the latter contains things that can be seen and felt in the natural sphere. Taken into common practice, it is taught to children that there is a “normal realm” (i.e., life without God), and the “spiritual realm” (i.e., an optional category for those who want some sort of faith). By this bifurcation the Christian draws, functionally, distinct lines between Sunday and the rest of the week. That is, one can be a Christian on Sunday, but the rest of one’s life is “normal.” What is more, it is inappropriate to appeal to, talk about, reason from, or stand on those things that are not a part of the “natural sphere” when in public.

Flowing from the previous paragraph, the second dangerous line of thinking is with regard to a secular worldview. After having succeeded in “getting rid” of Christianity from everyday life, the youth is positioned to adopt whatever worldview is popular at the time. Most probable, the child will adopt a naturalistic worldview. Instead of seeing all of creation as personal—that is, revealing the personal God who created everything—he or she will view the world as impersonal and “natural.” There will just be brute facts out there functioning “naturally.”

The third dangerous line of thinking is that of autonomy. The child is not taught to depend on God and His word. Rather, autonomous, Eve-like thinking is encouraged. “You be the judge as to what you think is true or right,” they will be taught. Instead of resting firmly on Scripture—having a revelational epistemology—they will assume a god-like authority and place even God and His word under their scrutiny.

After being encouraged to put God in a category beyond daily life, to adopt a naturalistic and impersonal way of thinking, and to assume autonomy, the Christian youth will not be taught three vitally important aspect of life—aspects that must be taught and continually reinforced. Thinking about what is omitted in the public school curriculum can be somewhat difficult. We tend to focus on what is being committed. If students were forced to reject Christ, we would naturally be up in arms. But when there is a void, we often miss it. We see a similar thing with regard to television. If a show has sex, cursing, witchcraft, or clear demonic activity, those are easy to spot as antithetical to Christ. However, we often fail to recognize the impact of a moral but Christless television show. When you view a moral, Christless family who acts nice but is completely void of church, family worship, catechesis, and biblical thinking, you are viewing a pagan family structure that has more to do with Satan than with Christ. I’m not saying that all television must be abandoned—just as I’m saying the public school system is still an option—but know that you are not viewing a “normal” family on those television programs, nor are you getting a “normal” education by learning subjects divorced from a biblical and theological foundation.

The first missing element in a public school education is a biblical worldview. As Christians, we are called to view the world through the lens of Scripture—to think God’s thoughts after Him. Unless we know the contents of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and sound doctrine, we simply will not have a biblical worldview. While it is true that many churches and parents train their children in systematic theology, apologetics, biblical theology, church history, and biblical counseling, these topics would do well to be taught in a Christian academic setting also. God wants constant biblical instruction for our children (Deut. 11:19).

William Dennison stresses that facts have meaning given their situatedness to the “story,” and in according to their telos. In following Calvin, Cornelius Van Til “sought to show that ‘logic’ and ‘fact’ have meaning only in terms of the ‘story,’” which is to say that “one must operate within the ‘story’ of Scripture (the Christian story) in order to have a true epistemology.” Thus, history becomes all too important. In keeping with his mentor Geerhardus Vos, Van Til understood that epistemology belongs “within the eschatological status of history: either one is a member of the kingdom of God, with a knowledge of the truth (grounded in the triune God of the Bible), or one is a member of the kingdom of Satan, with the knowledge of a lie (grounded in the deception of Satan). In redemptive history, there is no other ground for human knowledge. One either stands with Christ as the source of all knowledge or against him.” In this way, one cannot approach facts as isolated unto themselves, but must see that the fact and the interpretation of that fact are linked together—and it is the God-interpretation of any one given fact that gives it its meaning as God places it within the context of the story of redemptive history with a particular telos. Put simply, no fact can have meaning apart from the Christian story, and thus educating a student about the very world created by God apart from God is nonsensical.[1]

Secondly, the child is not taught to view his life as a pilgrimage (1 Chron. 29:15; Ps. 119:19; 1 Cor. 10:1-5, 11-12;  Phil. 3:17-4:1; Heb. 11:10-16; 13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11-12) walking the narrow path (Prov. 4:25-27; Matt. 7:13-14) on his way to the heavenly city (2 Tim. 4:18; Rev. 21-22). As Jonathan Edwards taught, everything is subservient to this pilgrimage, not the other way around:

This life ought to be spent by us as to be only a journey or pilgrimage toward heaven… [The traveler’s] journey’s end is in his mind. If he meets with comfortable accommodations at an inn, he entertains no thoughts of settling there. He considers these things are not his own, that he is but a stranger… We should… part with all those carnal appetites which, as weights, will tend to hinder us… We should follow Christ; the path he traveled, was the right way to heaven. We should take up our cross and follow him, in meekness and lowliness of heart, obedience and charity, diligence to do good, and patience under affliction… Long journeys are attended with toil and fatigue; especially if through a wilderness…All other concerns of life ought to be entirely subordinate to this. When a man is on a journey, all the steps he takes are subordinate to the aim of getting to his journey’s end… It was never designed by God that this world should be our home. Neither did God give us these temporal accommodations for that end. If God has given us ample estates, and children or other pleasant friends, it is with no such design, that we should be furnished here, as for a settled abode… [Rather] labor to have your heart taken up so much about heaven, and heavenly enjoyments, as that you may rejoice when God calls you to leave your best earthly friends and comforts for heaven… [And] let it be considered that if our lives be not a journey towards heaven, they will be a journey to hell.[2]

Finally, the Christian youth is not taught how to engage non-Christian thought. “Neutrality” and political correctness will teach him that the only way to engage in public conversation is to abandoned his scriptural foundation and to let the other person set the blueprint for thinking and reasoning. He must be taught how one is to engage and converse publicly, being fortiter in re, but suaviter in modo. Propounding this problem is the secular school’s penchant for the practical arts over the liberal arts. In government schools, the lights of theology, philosophy, history, and classic literature have either been dimmed or extinguished altogether. Scott Oliphint explains the problem:

There seems to be far less emphasis on the liberal arts and much more emphasis on practical arts—arts designed to enhance the possibility of employment. This practical emphasis is understandable, even commendable. But one of the negative consequences of a practical emphasis is that one can proceed apace through every program of education, including a doctorate, and never undertake the type of study that used to be touted as foundational for any true, meaningful, and lasting education.

The current bent, it seems, does not bode well for any discipline, theology included, in which a premium is placed on the value of the word and thinking. An education that is focused on practice may produce employment, but it may also produce a society wherein reading, thinking, studying, meditating, synthesizing, and persuading are virtually absent. Witness, for example, any television political debate. No matter which side of the political spectrum one is on, to call what happens on television within an hour or two a debate is, from the perspective of history, laughable… In the “old days” (and by that I mean a few thousand years ago), a student’s curriculum would initially consist of three subjects called the trivium [grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric].[3]

Before leaving our current discussion, I wish to anticipate three common objections to, specifically, homeschooling.

First, it is often touted that homeschool children will lack the social skills necessary to navigate the world. This is a bad argument for several reasons. First of all, the claim is doubtful. Dr. Brain Ray, for example, found that, “Research… reveals a significant advantage in social development for home schooled children”; and Dr. Thomas Smedley, who wrote his master’s thesis for Radford University of Virginia on “The Socialization of Homsechool Children,” reported: “The home educated children in this sample were significantly better socialized and more mature than those in public school.”[4] The reason being, public school students have a tendency to socialize well within their own age-group, but are not as comfortable interacting with, say, adults. The opposite is true for the homeschool student. Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize Laureate in literature stated, “The consequence is that the ‘social’ skills acquired are those which may be essential for survival in school but have little applicability in the outside world. There is virtually no opportunity to relate socially to adults in school in order to learn wider social skills. Ironically, such skills can only be learned outside school hours.”[5]

This social problem with public school children has other effects as well. Historically, to master the present—to be educated—one must master the past. You had to know the writings of Homer, the ideas of philosophy, the great books of the past, and so forth. The apprenticeship model set the stage for appropriate adult-to-youth interaction. Today, we separate the youths from the adults and teach that one must master the future. We have little tolerance for the elderly, for knowledge no longer resides in the past but in the future we make for ourselves through technological advancements: Our model is a ‘Wayward Pines’ model. It’s no wonder US History and Constitutional studies are waning: to be unfettered from the past allows you to forge a new future.[6]

The second reason this claim is wanting is that, even if it were true, it shows the priorities of the parent is off. From a biblical standpoint, it would be better to know God, know your Bible, and be mighty in your church than to know quantum theory, be a quarterback, or a popular person among your peers. Thankfully, however, it is not an either/or scenario, and, as shown, it is the government school students who need to worry about socialization.

The second objection is that in order to homeschool the parent would have to know every subject. This claim, however, demonstrates the ignorance with regard to the homeschool movement writ large. In many areas the homeschool movement is well connected with numerous families, talents, and gifts. Also, there are a number of other outside places a parent could choose to augment instruction. For example, there are private schools that will allow a homeschool student to take a class or two in a subject the parent is not gifted in, or there are private tutoring agencies, such as Kumon, that give instruction in math and reading. What is more, this claim also underestimates the parent, as if the parent has been stagnated in terms of their education level. Why could a parent not read 5 or 6 books on a topic and then teach it to their children? One homeschool student recounts:

One of the greatest follies of the school system is to believe that everyone is at the same level and they have to know something at a certain age…. Many teachers don’t realize that pressing the child too early will only result in him or her hating school and learning…. I have been homeschooled practically all my life and I am glad I was. Homeschooling has many benefits and although it isn’t for every family, I do believe overall that it is the best way to learn. It allows the parents to be more involved in their children’s lives and to help them reach their fullest potential. Each child is unique and homeschooling gives the perfect environment for the parents to meet their child’s needs. Children are able to pursue their interests without being held back or pressed to learn material they aren’t ready to learn. Homeschooling brings out the love of learning and shows that learning can be exciting. It gives real world application and practice for material and skills learned. Of all the school options out there, homeschooling is the best choice for the education of the next generation.[7]

The final objection, which comes from Christian parents, is that their child will not be able to be salt and light to unbelievers at school. The problem with this notion is that you must first train a missionary before sending him or her out. If a missionary were going to, say, a Muslim country, you would want the missionary to be solid in sound doctrine and the Christian worldview before studying Qur’anic material and engaging proponents of Islam. The same for public school. There is no neutral worldview, and so when the student is learning in a public school, he or she is learning a pagan worldview. The first eighteen years of life is crucial for worldview development, and thus wanting to send your child to be indoctrinated for six to seven hours a day, five days a week in a pagan system of thought and pagan morality is inadvisable.

In conclusion, let us take up our task, with great fervor, to bring our children “up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4); to teach the words of the Lord to our “children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 11:19); teaching them to defend their faith (1 Pet. 3:15); and teaching them that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight (Prov. 9:10). A Christian private school or a Christian homeschool are simply the best options, if available. When the home, the church, and the school promote and teach a biblical worldview, we are giving our children the best possible foundation, in faithfulness toward the triune God of Scripture. Perhaps our churches could set aside funds for those in the church who are unable to afford Christian education?

After them another generation rose up who did not know the LORD or the works He had done for Israel.” – Judges 2:10

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2016

[1]William D. Dennison, “Van Til’s Epistemology and Analytic Philosophy,” in In Defense of the Eschaton: Essays in Reformed Apologetics, ed. by James Douglas Baird (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 18, 30, 32-33.

[2]Jonathan Edwards, “The Christian Pilgrim,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol.2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011; reprint of 1834 edition), 243-246. [Brackets mine].

[3]K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 124. [Brackets mine].

[4]As quoted in: Lily Swan, “Homsechooling is the Best Option,” in Writing.com, accessed on December 6, 2008 (2008, Lily Swan), http://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1494189/printit/1.

[5]Ibid.

[6]I once heard a news report while listening to the radio that the Center for American Progress advised the Department of Education to cease instruction in US history, Constitutional studies, and economics. I cannot find the news article any longer, so I just mention in here.

[7]Swan, “Homsechooling is the Best Option.”