Friday, July 21, 2006

Rev. Meyers and Development

Jeffrey Meyers has a post about Sola Scriptura in which he has hit the nail on the head, at least concerning the main point of contention, in my point of view. I believe the central tenant of any of these controversies, whether it is New Perspectives on Paul, Padeocommunion, or the Federal Vision, is Theological Development. Rev. Meyers states,

the reason so much of this is resonating with people is because the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century confessions and catechisms are no longer sufficient guides for the modern church.

Rev. Meyers outright admits that the Reformation Confessions are not good guides for modern believers, that the 21st century Christian is lost without a sufficient guide if he follows the 17th or 16th century creeds. (By "lost," I mean theologically, not eternally.) Let us look at an example of this theological lostness that results from dependence on old, outdated creeds:

The chapter [in the WCF] on the covenant, for example, is filled with problems. So much progress has been made in the last century on the biblical theology of the covenants. There are still things to be learned from the Bible, which necessitates updating and correcting our theological formulations.

Here is the assertion that we cannot miss. The new views on covenant theology are "progress." The reason we should abandon the Reformation creeds is we have progressed beyond them. New insights from new ideas about epistemology or new theories about Judaism or new outlooks on the world from our modern technology have made the old 16th century mindset a problem. The point is clear. John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Peter Vermigli, and Ulrich Zwingli did not understand the covenant rightly because they did not know enough. Part of the Bible was closed to them because they had not progressed sufficiently. Or maybe the world had not developed enough, and the Reformers were victims of the times. Either way, Meyers’ point is that the Bible is going to hold new truths for every generation, and usually it will hold new truths that were considered errors in previous generations. This view of history is fundamentally Hegelian and evolutionary: truth develops, progresses, or unfolds as history moves along. In Rev. Meyers’ worldview, we can stand on the shoulders of those who came before, but we can never stand with them.

This, I believe, is the main point of contention. This is why Bishop Wright is so popular, as well as Norman Shepherd and anyone else that comes up with a new view of things. We should be debating whether or not the new views of covenant are a progress/evolution or a devolution. Is it possible that a 1st century Jew could read the gospel of John and discover the same truth that a 21st century Christian could discover, are they differing truths or even tangential truths because the world they lived in was different? Do we believe God’s truth is the same to any and every generation, or do we believe it unfolds a little more for each successive generation?


Todd said...

Lee, do you believe that any "theological progress" was made by the church between the time of the Nicene creed and the Westminster Assembly?

Lee said...

No, not really. Do not get me wrong there are new challenges that are met with ‘new’ applications, but no real ‘progress.’ For example, no one refuted Darwinian Evolution before Darwin propounded Darwinian Evolution. So you cannot expect to find Basil or Thomas Aquinas to be refuting evolution. However, we did not ‘progress’ theologically when we began to refute evolution. It is still 6-day creation, but it is now applied to a new attack on the same old doctrine. But I do not believe that qualifies as theological progress since the 6-day creation doctrine is still the same.

Can you name a doctrine that has developed or progressed since Nicaea?

Todd said...

Covenant of works?

Lee said...

I do not think the Covenant of Works has come into existence or developed since Nicaea. People held to a covenant of works even back then. Now, I do admit that names sometimes change, and that the standardization of the title Covenant of Works does not occur until the time of the Westminster. Before that one can see titles such as Legal Covenant, Covenant of Nature, and the like, but it is still the same idea. It is easy to see the ideas in the Reformed Covenants, since it is specifically listed in the WCF. The idea of the Covenant of Works is also not all that hard to find in the Medieval theology. Anslem held to it rather plainly teaching that Adam could have merited eternal life, and we all fell with him, when he sinned. A fairly clear teaching of the Covenant of works in 12th century. But, I need to get further back to show that this was a belief closer to Nicaea. Systematic theology was almost non-existent in those days, so one must look through commentaries. Chrysostom’s commentary on Galatians is an excellent example of the Covenant of Works. He out right states that all men are under the curse of the law until Christ exchanges himself and becomes a curse for us by hanging on the cross (commentary on 3:13 is one example). He also states that the law was the "Old Covenant" and it was a covenant of bondage. He goes on to say there are "two covenants" one of bondage and the other of promise (commentary on 4:24-28). This is the modern theory of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. Chrysostom takes us back to the 4th century. One can also see glimmers of the covenant of works in other places like Dialogue with Trypho of Justin Martyr. Chapters 94 and 95 of that works speak of all men being under the curse of the law, both Jews and Gentiles, and only through repentance and faith in Christ can one be removed from this curse. Only Christ can do it because he took on the curse upon himself. Now this appears to be fairly close to the modern Covenant of Works. Admittedly in Justin one cannot tell if the covenant of works that condemns all goes back to Adam and Eve, but it clearly goes back to the law and Moses. Christ comes and by fulfilling it as well as the curses of it, gives a new way to people, one from the Father’s grace. Justin takes us back prior to Nicaea to the 2nd century. Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 115) in his work to Autolycus tells us in chapter 27 of book 2 that Adam was created and if he had obeyed would have inherited immortality, but instead he turned to the things of death; thus, becoming the cause of mortality and death in the world. A very Covenant of Works approach to Adam and Eve in the Garden.

I think there is more material but this should be enough to show that the Covenant of Works did not appear in the Reformation for the first time or even for the first time during the Middle Ages. Rather it was something that many people held even prior to Nicaea.

Can you think of any other doctrines that developed?

Todd said...

Lee, which of the writers you mention call the arrangement between God and Adam before the fall a covenant?

Lee said...

I believe I freely granted that the terminology was not always around. Thus, you do not always see people refer to Covenant in the early church whether it be the Covenant of Grace or the Covenant of Works. However, you do see Augustine (not mentioned above, but should have been) refer to God’s relation to Adam as a covenant. You see Chrysostom refer to a covenant of bondage, but that passage does not specifically cite Adam. Although in Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans 5:12 he states Adam is related to those under him in the same way Christ is related to those who spring from him. Now this cannot be anything other than a covenant since Christ has no physical offspring, only those in the covenant. It is not a stretch to hold that Chrysostom held Adam was in a covenant of works, but he does not use the word. Again this is not a problem since I freely admit that phraseology is often nailed down over the centuries, but the content of the doctrine remains unchanged. Not many of the apostolic fathers used the phrase Trinity, or substance, but they still clearly held to a Nicene orthodoxy. Nicaea just cemented in a wording, not a development of a new doctrine. So too it is with the Covenant of Works. The word covenant was not used a lot in the first centuries of the church, but the idea was held. Even using Douglas Jones’s elements of a covenant (Back to the Basics pg. 72): mutually binding relationship, sovereign administration, conditions and promises, the early fathers held that Adam’s relation to God was a covenantal one. Everyone I mentioned exhibits these traits as existing between God and Adam. Anselm, Augustine, and Chrysostom clearly hold that Adam covenantal transmitted his sin. This evidence for the Covenant Works cannot be dismissed because it did not have the proper title. A rose is still a rose even if you call it a red thorny flower.

Besides, the mere fact Augustine openly calls the relationship between God and Adam a covenant should convince us. Augustine was seldom contradicted in the early church, and even less often openly contradicted. Plus it gets us all the way back to the 4th and 5th centuries.

Jay said...

I think it's important to maintain a distinction between the idea of "progress" in our understanding of Scripture and "progress" in a Hegelian sense. The latter, as you point out, involves the belief that truth itself changes over time. The former, it seems to me, can refer to the continual hope for a better understanding of truth revealed once for all in Scripture. (Set aside whether "progress" is the best term to describe such a view; I believe that is what at least some of the people you mention are saying.)

Every age has its blind spots. The authors of the Westminster Confession may have been more careful than a group of theologians writing today, but I fail to see how they have a stronger claim to truth than human beings writing in the 21st century or the 4th century. We have "progressed" since then in some ways that help us understand Scripture better. For example, it is my understanding that we have a much firmer grasp on the ancient Hebrew language than people 5 centuries ago did. I suspect this is the sort of "progress" that Meyers is referring to in connection with the WCF chapter on the covenant --- a better historical understanding of what the Scriptures mean when they refer to covenants.

Does this mean that truth itself, as taught in Scripture, is changing? I don't think so. The quotes you chose make it sound as if Meyers believes the authors of the WCF were simply wrong about the truth on some points. That's different from the truth having changed since the Confession was written.

I guess my point is this: God's truth is the same in every generation, but we aren't. Sometimes we may understand better than a prior generation, and sometimes they may understand better than us. It seems unfair to me to reject an argument based on Scripture simply because it involves a criticism of the WCF or some other, more ancient, doctrinal statement.

Any thoughts on this distinction?

Lee said...


I agree completely with your statement that the WCF does not "have a stronger claim to truth than human beings writing in the 21st century or the 4th century." I also think that the 21st does not have a stronger claim than the 17th, 4th, or 1st! I hope that we can all agree that Hegelian Progress should be rejected, although I do believe many of the Federal Vision proponents follow a Hegelian model. As for your other sense of ‘progress’ I am still not sure I can agree. It depends on how you qualify what you are saying. I agree that some generations are going to have blind spots, and maybe even be wrong in many areas. I personally think the original WCF is wrong about the role of Civil government. That should not be called progress. In fact, one does not have to look far in the early church fathers to see they too disagree with the WCF on that point. No man nor generation is perfect, and we can hope for Scripture to show us our errors. I can agree with that. What I have trouble with is the idea that we know more now, whether it be about Hebrew or Covenants in Near Eastern Cultures or more about Second Temple Judaism, and thus we have ‘progressed’ in our understanding of Scripture. I do believe that this is the sort of progress that Rev. Meyers is arguing for in his article. My argument is not based on the superiority of any century or generation, but rather on II Timothy 3:16-17. Those verses fairly clearly state it is Scripture that is God-breathed. It is Scripture that is useful for doctrine, and it is Scripture that thoroughly equips us for good works. One can argue all day about whether or the differences in the King James’s translation of Hebrew and modern texts translation of Hebrew is enough to actually count as progress. In the end, if the ‘progress’ is based on extra-biblical ideas, such as a new found understanding of Second Temple Judaism, then the meaning of II Timothy 3:16 is destroyed. Twenty centuries of people relied on Scripture to be sufficient for their understanding of Justification, Covenant, or any other doctrine, but it was not enough. What they needed to get their doctrine right was a better understanding of non-biblical material in order to inform their understanding of the Bible. That idea troubles me. Progress in that sense, whether based on Hegelian dialectics or not, I cannot support.

Jay said...

We do agree on our rejection of Hegel's view of history, so we can set that aside. But I have trouble with your reading of II Timothy. It does not follow from the fact that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for doctrine that "non-biblical material" cannot also "inform [our] understanding of the Bible." I would say that non-biblcal material necessarily informs our interpretation of the Bible.

I tried to come up with an example. I searched an on-line Bible for the term "Caesar." I found basically 9 passages that mention the name (including parallel passages in the gospel accounts and a lengthy passage in Acts 25-28). It would be difficult to know much about Caesar from those passages alone, other than that he was some sort of Roman ruler. What we know from "non-biblical" history about the extent of Caesar's rule, and the effect of Rome's rule on Israel, gives us a better understanding of what Jesus meant when he said "render unto Caesar", and what Paul did by appealing to Caesar based on his Roman citizenship, doesn't it? If so, how is that different from gaining understanding through a deeper knowledge of Second-Temple Judaism? As long as the "new found understanding" of these things is accurate, it seems like a good thing to me.

Andrew Duggan said...

Jay -- Wow, are you serious about using non-scriptural sources to give you a better understanding about what Scripture actually teaches? On what basis do you decide the accuracy of extra-scriptural sources when you say, "As long as the 'new found understanding' of these things is accurate, it seems like a good thing to me"?

Only Scripture can be used to understand Scripture. Extra-scriptural history is to be understood in the context of Scripture not the other way around.

As for me, I trust Jesus Christ. I trust His Word, because it's His Word! The trustworthiness of everything else get's evaluated in contrast with His Word, and that which doesn't agree I reject. We have the witness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit to the trustworthiness of Scripture. Does any reference that you can produce for anything extra-scriptural come anywhere close to credentials like that?

So why would you want to try to understand God's word in the light of someone else's understanding?

For example, very reliable people (the secular and religous governments of Judea circa 30 A.D.) say that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Should we understand the resurrection in light of them?

Mr. Baggins said...

I think what Jay is trying to say here is that, in our exegesis, even non-biblical sources can be introduced to the table. He didn't say that they would be accorded the same status as Scripture, or that what one needs to know for salvation would be dependent on those extra-biblical sources. But we would use non-biblical sources the same way we use commentaries, or dictionaries, or encyclopedias, or anything else. Discernment is required, since some sources are definitely better than others. Non-biblical sources could definitely obscure some Scriptural teaching, while it could help with other teaching. That, of course, would depend on the source. But, for instance, would any scholar today deny the worth of the Dead Sea Scrolls to help us understand the historical context in which the Bible was written? In this very narrow sense, I believe that Pete Enns has a point: the Bible is both divine and human. In its humanness, it was given in a context. Its ultimate meaning depends only on itself. I would hope that all would grant that. But we are imperfect human beings, and need all the help we can get from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works not only through us, but also through other sources. We cannot deny that the Holy Spirit can help us know things by what other people say. Hence, I believe that extra-biblical sources, though not determinative for exegesis, do have a place at the exegetical table. I think if one has these safe-guards in place, then one will use them with discretion, and with wisdom, like any other human source.

Lee said...

I do not think anyone is denying the use of extrabiblical material such as dictionaries. Remember the context of this discussion is ‘progress.’ One may need to look up what Caesar means in a dictionary or even a history book, but has anyone throughout the ages not been able to do that? This debate is about ‘progress’ in theology. What I believe Rev. Meyers is arguing is that because of our discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hittite covenant treaties, or insights in Second Temple Judaism we have substantially changed our understanding of the Bible and the theology it teaches. For example, having some argue that Second Temple Judaism teaches us that when Paul speaks of justification he is not speaking about salvation, or about how one enters the covenant with God, but rather he is speaking about badges of membership in the covenant instead, substantially changes one’s theology. In this example some would argue that our theology has progressed exposing 20 centuries of men, who knew nothing of the Dead Sea Scrolls or other such things, were substantially wrong. I am not criticizing how it may be helpful to know more about Roman governmental structures. It may even help our understanding of the relationship between Pilate and Herod in the crucifixion story, but does it substantially alter theology. When Paul penned II Timothy 3:16-17 he wrote it not only to us, but to first century readers. Those first century Greeks reading those words may have known nothing of the Essenes in the Jewish wilderness that we now know about thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Was their understanding of the bible then substantially different than ours because of it? Were those second century Romans who read the Bible in the catacombs misinformed about justification or covenants because they did not understand Judaism prior to the fall of the temple? I do not think so, but Rev. Meyers theory of progress seems to imply so. That is the focus of the debate.

Jay said...

OK, I think Lee, Mr. Baggins and I are basically on the same page with respect to the use of extra-biblical materials. But I still have a question about the "substantially changed our understanding of the Bible" line that Lee is drawing. Doesn't this really come down to a disagreement about the substance of what the Bible teaches, and not about the use of extra-biblical material? If Rev. Meyers (I still haven't read his original piece) is right about Second Temple Judiasm (I have no idea whether he is), then it seems to me that one should address his interpretation of Paul on those terms. If he's wrong about Second Temple Judiasm, then explain why. Isn't appealing to the understanding of 20 centuries of men just as much an appeal to extra-biblical sources? The question should be what did Paul mean. The context in which he wrote, if we can rightly understand it, deserves weight, and the opinion of 20 centuries deserves weight. It seems to me that we shouldn't exclude the former as "extra-Biblical" and we shouldn't exclude the latter because we think we've made "progress."

Andrew Duggan said...

My point was that the teaching of Scripture regarding what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man (WSC 3) especially concerning that which is necessary for salvation can and should be derived only from scripture. I think Westminster got it right, and I am unapologetic about that.

The word of God which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him. WSC 2. [Emphasis mine]

Now Jay may not subscribe to the Westminster Standards, but for anyone who does, there is no wiggle room in the that language. When WSC 2 & 3 are taken together, one can only conclude that the use of extra-biblical sources as means to understand what he is to believe concerning God or his duty to God is outside the pale of Westminster orthodoxy.

As Lee pointed out, extra-biblical sources that are required for the understanding of language by which the scriptures are communicated (e.g., dictionaries, etc.) are obviously necessary, and so no reasonable person would exclude them. However when it comes to extra-biblical knowledge or understanding such as second-temple Judaism, why is it that those who traffic in such things are trying so hard to get Christians to change what they believe concerning God and the duty God requires of man, especially concerning salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ?

While the human authors of the scriptures wrote within the context of a particular time and place, the message of the scriptures as the word of God transcend both time and space. Everything we need to know about that context as it relates to what is being taught or communicated is sufficiently contained in the scriptures themselves. In other words, the scriptures themselves are contextually complete, and there is no need for extra-scriptural context to understand anything they teach concerning what we are to believe concerning God or our duty to him, especially concerning redemption.

I think Lee is absolutely correct regarding theological development/progression. Reformed Christianity is Apostolic Christianity. There has been a lot of progression in the precision of terms and in phrasing because of the assault of heretics through the years, but not any theological development or progression as such.

Andrew Duggan said...

Why is it so unreasonable to base one's understanding of second-temple Judaism on passages like Luke 18:9-14, Matt 9:9-13, John 8 (esp 8:24,39-45), Matt 19:15-22? The parable in Luke 18:19-14 does not sound like is being directed to people that had a religion of grace, but rather to those who trusted in themselves that they are righteous, both personally righteous as brought out in Luke 18:9ff and Matt 19:15ff and corporately righteous as brought out in John 8:33.

If second-temple Judaism was so great why did those who practiced it reject Christ? Couldn't it be because they thought they were righteous themselves and had no need of him? After all, Christ came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (cf Matt 9:13) It seems to me that the context of second-temple Judaism that is present in the scriptures of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, doesn't really fit with the alternative offered in the name of theological progression.

Lee said...


Rev. Meyers piece is about theological progress. In the end it does all come down to a disagreement about what the bible teaches. But, the Federal Vision controversy involves a complete re-working of orthodox Christian theology. Not a stone will be left unturned. Men are already redefining the Trinity, justification, covenant, sacraments, eccliesiology, you name it, they have a new take on it. I believe the reason such a radical revision of Christianity is being suggested is because of the FV proponents belief that theology should progress. If one believes theology should be progressing remaining still is sinful. This why I believe a discussion about whether or not theology should progress is important. One can refute their ideas from the bible, but if they still think they should be coming up with new ideas, then the cycle will never be broken.

Jay said...


Your point is well-taken. Progress for progress' sake has no place in Biblical theology. I'm just fearful that we may reject what seem to me to be the potential benefits of better understanding the historical setting in which God acted in Scripture based on the misuse of those historical settings. I'm no expert, but I'd much prefer it if the Federal Vision arguments could be refuted on their own terms --- i.e., by criticizing both their historical and biblical basis, as appropriate. I think your valid critique of progress for its own sake goes more to motive than to substance.

Andrew Duggan said...

I think it might be helpful to realize that the proper way to refute error and the temptation to follow after it is not to do on the errorist's own terms. You can draw whatever conclusion you like, but remember Jesus didn't argue with Satan when being tempted of him in the desert, he answered not on Satan's terms but on God's terms (i.e., Scripture).

Adam and Eve made that mistake in the garden. Instead of answering with what God did say, they attempted to deal with the serpent on his own terms. We all know how well that turned out.

In his temptation, Christ not only overcame and was obedient (of which we share by imputation by grace through faith in our justification), but he also showed us how best to deal with those who would lead us astray theologically – quote scripture.

Mr. Baggins said...

I would hasten to add to the discussion that I don't believe that any major doctrine has progressed in terms of change since the canon was closed. I agree with Andrew and Lee very strongly on that. And we all seem to be agreeing that the introduction of heresies spurs the church to clarify the doctrines *which she has always held*. Lee's point in weighting 20 centuries of church history is not in itself an appeal to extra-biblical sources, actually. It is an appeal to the fact that God will always reveal His truth to *every* generation of Christian. Thus, an appeal to 20 centuries of church tradition has as its basis an appeal to Scripture, which does say that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. The church has *always* had the truth available. Hence, when NT Wright comes along and says that 20 centuries of interpretation regarding justification are wrong, we can say, "Wait a minute, you're denying that the truth has been given to all other generations of Christians." I think what Jay is trying to preserve is the simple process of exegesis. Surely, some passages do become clearer as the church meditates constantly on the Word's meaning. However, some passages become more obscure, as well, over time. But none of *this* process affects any of the major Christian doctrines as handed down in our creeds and confessions.

Todd said...

"Hence, when NT Wright comes along and says that 20 centuries of interpretation regarding justification are wrong, we can say, "Wait a minute, you're denying that the truth has been given to all other generations of Christians.""

Isn't this the way Luthers critics answered him?

pelicanus neoaureliensis said...

I think there's a difference between saying that the Westminster Standards are not "sufficient guides" and that they are not "good guides." Your equating the former with the latter puts words in Pastor Meyers' mouth that I don't think he would agree with.