Tag Archives: Reformed theology

Exploring Reformed Theology: The Fallacy of Covenant Equality Between the Church and Israel

On Monday, I published an article I wrote called “Exploring Reformed Theology: Why the Church is Not Israel,” which was an extension of my previous blog post R.C. Sproul, Jesus, and the Doctrine of Active Obedience.

All this was started because a video snippet of Sproul’s teaching on “active obedience” was posted by someone I know on his Facebook page. He responded to my putting the above-mentioned link to my “Exploring” blog post in the relevant Facebook conversation thread thus:

Doesn’t bother me that you don’t agree entirely with how Reformed theology characterizes Israel… I don’t either. I was simply trying to point out that the objections to Sproul’s position–as expressed in the video snippet, and not expanded beyond it–was based on a misreading. I wish I had time to engage the two things you’ve written recently, as I believe there is much I could point to that would remove the necessity to see yourself as so “other.” B’ezrat HaShem, I may…

Frankly, I wish he would. I’d love to hear how Christianity and Judaism could be reconciled relative to the covenants and understand how he comprehends this process working out. But I just don’t see it in the Bible. I just don’t see how Church= Israel and Israel = Church, particularly without totally devaluing Hashem’s covenant relationship with national Israel and the Jewish people.

Reformed Theologians, as far as my meager understanding of them goes, don’t believe they are involved in Replacement Theology, the idea that the Church replaces Israel in all of God’s covenant promises. They believe, since Church = Israel and Israel = Church, that they simply become participants of those covenants equally with Israel. Israel doesn’t lose its identity as such, but if I comprehend what Sproul was teaching correctly, once Jesus “fulfilled” all of the Torah commandments perfectly, and had the righteousness he gained by doing so transferred to all of his believers, there was no need for Jews (or Gentiles for that matter) to make any further attempts at performing the mitzvot.

In other words, post-crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the entire Torah goes “poof” and vanishes in puff of metaphoric smoke.

The problem with that is the significance and uniqueness of Israel and the Jewish people goes “poof” as well. They either have to convert to Christianity in order to gain righteous standing before God, or they vainly continue Jewish religious practice after Jesus made it obsolete.

And as my regular readers will attest, I have a real problem with that idea.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a multi-part review of David Rudolph’s and Joel Willitts’ book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations (by the way, it’s a fabulous book offering up a wide variety of perspectives, both Christian and Jewish, on the Messianic Jewish movement, so if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do).

One of those reviews is called Introduction to Messianic Judaism: The Silo Invasion.

trespass
Photo: sialicencehub.co.uk

Basically, it goes like this. Let’s say that I believe I am my next door neighbor and my next door neighbor is me. Keep in mind that my neighbors have different jobs, lead different lives, have a different family constellation, are of a different age, and aren’t a lot like me at all.

But if I believe I am them and they are me, then everything I have belongs to them and everything they have belongs to me.

Except they don’t know this, only I know this.

So one evening after work, instead of going back to my house, I go into their home. Without so much as a by-your-leave, I breeze into their kitchen, make myself a sandwich, grab a beer, plop myself on their sofa, and start channel surfing looking for a show I want to watch (they have Netflix and I don’t, so this should be a move up for me).

I’m barely acquainted with my neighbors in real life, so if I actually did all this, I’m sure they would be astonished and outraged. Imagine how you’d feel and what you’d do if you were on the receiving end of this “visitor” acting like he owned your place and believing that he did.

Remember, I’m not replacing my neighbors. I’m not evicting them from their house. This is still their home. I just believe Jesus also gave me everything he gave them because I and my neighbors are now one in the same. God said so.

But he failed to tell my neighbors that, and they’re probably on the point of physical violence or getting ready to call the police and have me arrested for trespassing.

Now imagine how Jewish people feel when Christian Reformed Theologians say that Jesus fulfilled the Law and made it so that the Church = Israel and Israel = Church, that it has always been that way going all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, and that everything that ever made the Jewish people distinct, unique, and precious to God has been watered down to the point of non-existence by a worldwide population of Christians being thrown into the bucket.

Is it any wonder that Christians make Jews nervous?

I decided to go back to Theopedia.com and look up Covenant Theology, since that seems to be at the core of Reformed Theology’s claim of total equivalency with Israel:

Covenant Theology (or Federal theology) is a prominent feature in Protestant theology, especially in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and a similar form is found in Methodism and Reformed Baptist churches. This article primarily concerns Covenant Theology as held by the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, which use the covenant concept as an organizing principle for Christian theology and view the history of redemption under the framework of three overarching theological covenants: the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace. These three are called “theological covenants” because although not explicitly presented as covenants, they are, according to covenant theologians, implicit in the Bible.

Mount SinaiLet’s take a look at part of the last sentence of that paragraph:

These three are called “theological covenants” because although not explicitly presented as covenants… (emph mine).

You can click the link I provided above to read the entire content (it’s rather long), but I’m going to cut to the chase:

Criticism of Covenant Theology

Several primary weaknesses that are often attributed to Covenant Theology as a system are that, first, it requires an allegorical interpretation of many Scripture passages, including prophecy that relates to God’s future plans for Israel. Second, critics claim it does not draw a sufficient distinction between the conditional Mosaic covenant of the Law, the other unconditional covenants established by God for Israel, and the “better covenant” established by Jesus (cf. Hebrews 7:22; 8:6-13). Third, it equates the nation of Israel with the New Testament Church. Fourth, the two (and possibly three) primary covenants of Covenant Theology are no where named in Scripture as such.

Again, let’s look at part of the last sentence in the above-quoted paragraph:

the two (and possibly three) primary covenants of Covenant Theology are no where named in Scripture… (emph mine).

In order to make this system work, you have to use a lot of imagination, first by applying allegorical interpretations on various portions of scripture, and also substituting your imagination for what’s missing in scripture, since the so-called Covenant of Redemption, Covenant of Works, and Covenant of Grace don’t exist in the Bible at all!

Now I want to take a look on what this theology says about the New Covenant:

The New Covenant, predicted by the prophet Jeremiah in the eponymous book, chapter 31, and connected with Jesus at the Last Supper where he says that the cup is “the New Covenant in [his] blood” and further in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chapters 8-10). The term “New Testament,” most often used for the collection of books in the Bible, can also refer to the New Covenant as a theological concept.

I went nuts when I realized there was no direct connection between the New Covenant language we find in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 and the “Last Supper” (Mt. 26:17-30, Mk. 14:12-26, Lk. 22:7-39 and Jn. 13:1-17:26). None. I couldn’t figure out how to bridge the gap.

new heartIt took me months and months of studying and banging my head against a proverbial brick wall, but piece by piece, I finally put the puzzle together. I wrote nearly a dozen separate blog posts chronicling my journey of discovery, and how I finally came to a sort of peace about how non-Jews can at all participate in some of the blessings of the New Covenant.

I’ve summarized that journey in a number of places including in The Jesus Covenant: Building My Model (that’s what I called it, “The Jesus Covenant,” because it’s a covenant that, as much of the Church understands it, doesn’t exist).

Subsequent to all this, I got my hands on a copy of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series What About the New Covenant on audio CD, which filled the few small gaps in my knowledge base but otherwise mirrored my conclusions pretty closely.

Bottom line is that although Hashem has always intended the non-Jewish people to be part of His Kingdom, to worship Him, to honor Him, and to serve Him, apart from the Noahide Covenant (see Genesis 9), all of the significant covenants He made were with the descendants of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. Period.

The only connection the rest of us have is because of God’s grace and mercy upon the world. We can attach ourselves to Israel, specifically through Israel’s firstborn son, Rav Yeshua, and through faith, trust, and devotion, God allows us to benefit from some of the blessings of the New Covenant, without us actually being named participants in said-covenant.

That doesn’t make the Church equals with Israel, it makes believing non-Jews beneficiaries of Israel. Put bluntly, we are in the “one-down” position, subservient relative to the covenants, because we have no actual right to them. We benefit from God’s mercy upon us. We should be grateful.

So instead of just waltzing into someone else’s house, eating their food, drinking their beer, and taking over the TV remote, we should be thankful that we have been invited in as humble guests.

And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 14:7-11 (NASB)

If God wants to exalt us, that’s God’s decision. We don’t get to exalt ourselves by taking a place that doesn’t belong to us.

JourneyI can only imagine that Reformed Theology gives its followers a great deal of emotional and spiritual comfort, but in a way, it also doesn’t take much mental exercise (except exercising your Biblical fantasy life). What do we get from God? Just look at all the covenants He made with Israel. That’s what belongs to the Church, too.

Except when you dig a little deeper, you come up with a tremendous mystery, especially if you don’t let allegory and imagination get in the way of what the Bible actually says.

I know that what I’m writing will make some people unhappy and maybe even angry. I know if you take what I’m writing seriously and you start your own exploration, you will find your faith challenged and your “comfort bubble” popped.

Every spiritual discovery of worth is preceded by a crisis of faith. It’s really uncomfortable. Sometimes it leads to apostasy and walking away from God altogether. Other times, Christians (of one variety or another) decide Judaism is the better option, because we know the Jewish people, all of them, are named participants of the covenants. No mystery there.

But if you just hang in there and keep digging, you’ll find there’s a lot more of value in understanding who we are as “people of the nations called by His Name” than you ever would have imagined.

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Exploring Reformed Theology: Why the Church Is Not Israel

James, a lot of effort went into your response to Sproul’s video, and I’m kind of bummed about that because it was all based on a misunderstanding. Sproul’s perspective, as in most of Reformed theology, is that, “…the church has always been the Israel of God and the Israel of God has always been the church.” Rather than replacement theology as they are so often accused of, this is a Super Covenant perspective that accords well with Scripture.

So in your article (and in your listening to Sproul’s video) you make an assumption that Sproul never does. You ask, “So what’s all that got to do with the rest of us, that is, we non-Jewish believers?” But Sproul takes for granted that what Jesus does for the Jews, He does for all who believe, because there is one people of God, whether Jew or Gentile.

In this blog post called “R.C. Sproul, Jesus, and the Doctrine of Active Obedience,” I mentioned that my interest in this teaching was spawned by reading a Facebook post from someone I know virtually and have met once face-to-face.

After putting a link to my review of Sproul’s small sermon (actually a sermon excerpt) into that Facebook discussion, he responded (I don’t want to use his name without his permission) by writing what I quoted above.

He also pointed me to an article called The Church and Israel in the New Testament by Keith Mathison:

Dr. Keith A. Mathison is professor of systematic theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla., and author of “From Age to Age.”

Apparently, there’s supposed to be something about Reformed Theology that has a leg up on Biblical exegesis compared to other Christian theologies.

keith mathison
Dr Keith Mathison

The link I provided just above leads to a rather extensive write-up, and if I’m curious enough, I may go through it one day. But I needed something a tad more concise for the present and came across this resource:

Reformed theology is generally considered synonymous with Calvinism and most often, in the U.S. and the UK, is specifically associated with the theology of the historic church confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Three Forms of Unity.

I have a pretty dim view of Calvinism and consider the Calvinism vs. Arminianism duality (the link leads to part one of a four-part series) to be a totally artificial and false dichotomy. The Calvinism/Arminianism debate for me is literally a non-starter.

Nevertheless, the “theopedia” page provides a bullet point list of what it is to be “Reformed”:

  • It means to affirm the great “Solas” of the Reformation. (See the Five Solas)
  • It means to affirm and promote a profoundly high view of the sovereignty of God.
  • It means to affirm the doctrines of grace. . . to see God as the author of salvation from beginning to end. (See Calvinism)
  • It means to be creedal. . . to affirm the great creeds of the historic, orthodox church. (See e.g. the Nicene Creed)
  • It means to be confessional. . . to affirm one or more of the great confessions of the historic orthodox church. (see e.g. the Westminster Confession)
  • It means to be covenantal. . . to affirm the great covenants of Scripture and see those covenants as the means by which God interacts with and accomplishes His purposes in His creation, with mankind. (see Covenant Theology)
  • It means to take seriously the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. . . to affirm the primacy of mission and understand that mission.
  • It means to have a distinctly Christian worldview that permeates all of life.

Just on the surface, I don’t see that Reformed theology changed very much anymore than I think the Reformation 500 years ago changed very much about the basic anti-Israel, anti-Judaism platform of basic Christianity laid down by the “Church Fathers”.

Now let’s get to Dr. Mathison’s article:

The first to believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah are Israelites— Andrew, Peter, James, John. But in the Gospels, we also hear Jesus speak of building His church, and we see growing hostility between the leaders of Israel and Jesus. We hear Jesus speak of destroying the tenants of the vineyard and giving it to others (Luke 20:9–18). In the book of Acts, the spread of the gospel to the Samaritans and Gentiles leads to even more conflict with the religious leaders of Israel. So, is Israel cast aside and replaced by this new entity known as the “church”?

There are those who would say yes, but the answer is not that simple, for we also run across hints that God is not finished with the nation of Israel.

churchFirst of all, the word “church” is used anachronistically in this context, and the concept was completely unknown to Rav Yeshua (Jesus) or anyone else in First Century C.E. Israel. One night, nearly two years ago, in a bout of insomnia, I researched the word “church” and found, among other things, that the Greek word “ekklesia” cannot be directly translated as “church” within the context of the Bible. Anyone who does so is taking quite a few theological and linguistic liberties.

But we have a hint here that Mathison may not subscribe to “replacement theology,” at least as we commonly understand it.

Mathison goes through passages of scripture, focusing mainly on Rav Yeshua and Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul), but then he takes a quick left-hand turn into the Twilight Zone:

During most of the Old Testament era, there were essentially three groups of people: the Gentile nations, national Israel, and true Israel (the faithful remnant). Although the nation of Israel was often involved in idolatry, apostasy, and rebellion, God always kept for Himself a faithful remnant—those who trusted in Him and who would not bow the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). This remnant, this true Israel, included men such as David, Joash, Isaiah, and Daniel, as well as women such as Sarah, Deborah, and Hannah.

Wait! What? “National” Israel vs. “True” Israel? I can see this being abused pretty easily.

The problem is that nowhere in the Tanakh (Old Testament) is this distinction made. Mathison refers to Bible verses such as Luke 2:25-38, Romans 2:28-29, and Galatians 3:16, 29 to define the difference between these two “Israels.”

In a nutshell though, in the “Old Testament,” “true Israel” were those Israelites who did not succumb to idolatry, and in the “New Testament” (Apostolic Scriptures), “true Israel” are those Jews (and arguably Jews and Gentiles) who come to faith in Jesus.

israelI have a problem sub-dividing Israel into national and true, because when Israel was blessed by God, all of national Israel was blessed, and when Israel was cursed by God (such as being sent into exile), all of national Israel was cursed and sent into exile.

Consider the prophet Daniel and his companions. As he stated in a quote above, Mathison considers them to be part of “true Israel,” and yet, they were sent into exile along with all of the other Israelites.

Also, consider the destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the Holy Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. When the Jewish people were exiled from their Land, the “true Israelites” were not allowed to stay while the non-Jesus believing “national Israelites” were exiled to the diaspora.

Now let’s go to something that Mathison neglected to mention, the New Covenant:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NASB)

Notice, Hashem, through the prophet Jeremiah, doesn’t say that only “true Israel” will be participants in the New Covenant, but rather the house of Judah and the house of Israel. God calls them “My people” and says He will put “My Law within them” and that “they will all know Me” and that “I will forgive their iniquity.”

JerusalemWhile God has interacted with specific individuals among His people Israel, He generally acts toward Israel corporately, as a unit, not cherry-picking this Jew and that one as “true Israel”.

Further…

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.”

Ezekiel 36:22-28

If you read the above-quoted passage carefully, you will see that God mentions two general populations: Israel and the nations. He doesn’t subdivide Israel into “true” and “national”. Again, He addresses Israel corporately and nationally. He will cleanse Israel of her “filthiness,” give Israel a new heart, and put His Spirit within Israel, so that they will walk in His statutes and observe His ordinances. That is, with God’s Spirit within Israel, they will observe the Torah mitzvot as second nature. Their sins will be forgiven. Israel will be perpetually obedient in New Covenant times (which haven’t fully arrived yet, by the way).

OK, Reformists believe that when God said “Israel” he also meant “the Church,” and that everything He promised Israel was also promised to the Church, once it (the Church) was created in New Testament times.

Mathison’s article is rather lengthy (but hey, who am I to talk?) so I’ll cut to the chase. When Paul writes in Romans 11:25 that “all Israel will be saved,” who is “all Israel?”

Charles Cranfield lists the four main views that have been suggested: (1) all the elect, both Jews and Gentiles; (2) all the elect of the nation Israel; (3) the whole nation Israel, including every individual member; and (4) the nation Israel as a whole, but not necessarily including every individual member. Since Paul repeatedly denies the salvation of every single Israelite, we can set aside option (3).

And of these options, which one does Mathison believe represents “all Israel?”

The interpretation of “all Israel” that best fits the immediate context is that which understands “all Israel” as the nation of Israel as a whole, but not necessarily including every individual member of ethnic Israel.

Torah at SinaiThat’s good as far as it goes, but it also, in my opinion, somewhat misses the point. What makes Mathison think that this entity we refer to as “the Church” will exist as such upon the coming of King Messiah?

By stating that Israel and the Church are the same thing, Mathison denies the fact that the Sinai Covenant was made exclusively with the Children of Israel, that is, the biological descendents of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, and that non-Israelites could only be admitted to that covenant by assimilating into Israel, typically by intermarrying into the tribes (in modern times, we’d say that they would have to convert to Judaism).

If Mathison believes that Israel = Church and that Church = Israel, then all of the covenants God made with Israel must, by definition apply to Jews and Christians equally.

That means he is either validating the “One Law” proposition, and all we believing non-Jews are obligated to the identical set of commandments of Torah as are the Jews, or that after Jesus “fulfilled” the Torah commandments, they became null and void, since putting your faith in Jesus made it as if you had already fulfilled the Torah and thus, Christ’s righteousness is transferred to you.

That basically destroys the Jewish people as a people group and nation unique to God and effectively, any believing Jew at that point converts to Christianity.

Except that’s not what the New Covenant language in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 says. Re-read the text from those parts of the Bible I quoted above. They are worded such that Israel would literally observe the Torah commandments in the New Covenant era, an era which arguably was inaugurated with the life, death, and resurrection of Rav Yeshua, but one that will not be completely realized until our Rav returns as King Messiah.

In other words, this is all future tense. Israel will observe the Torah in the future when Moshiach rules Israel and the world from his throne in Jerusalem. If we are to live as if the King were already on his throne, even though he is still absent, a King in exile so to speak, then one might say Israel, national Israel, that is, the Jewish people, the objects of the Sinai and New Covenants, should observe the Torah commandments now.

This is especially true of Jews in Messiah since they have the “down-payment” of the Spirit, and thus there is greater emphasis to observe the mitzvot based on both Sinai and the New Covenant.

If Church = Israel, then it means Gentile believers in Yeshua should also observe the mitzvot in a manner identical to the Jews.

Abraham and the starsI don’t believe that’s true, of course, and I’ve written many times on why, including in this summary article about how it’s possible for we non-Jewish people of the nations who have joined ourselves to Israel through Rav Yeshua can benefit from some of the New Covenant blessings.

The conclusion of Mathison’s article reads like this:

The relationship between Israel and the church in the New Testament is not always easy to discern, but it can be understood if we remember the differences between national Israel and true Israel in both the Old Testament and the New, and if we keep in mind what Paul teaches in Romans 11. Israel’s present hardening has a purpose in God’s plan, but this hardening is not permanent. The future restoration of the nation of Israel will involve their re-grafting into the olive tree, the one people of God. The restoration of Israel will mean their becoming part of the “true Israel” by faith in Jesus Christ the Messiah.

In general, Mathison believes that national Israel (though not necessarily each and every individual Jewish person) will be “saved”, that is, merit a place in the world to come, along with the “Church”.

But if I don’t believe there will be a Church when Jesus returns, then who are we and what will we be?

“In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David,
And wall up its breaches;
I will also raise up its ruins
And rebuild it as in the days of old;
That they may possess the remnant of Edom
And all the nations who are called by My name,”
Declares the Lord who does this.

Amos 9:11-12

We will be the people of the nations who are called by His Name. OK, “Christian” is easier to say, but that term comes with a lot of baggage; a lot of anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish people, anti-Judaism, and anti-Israel baggage.

Judaism and ChristianityThat’s why people who think, believe, and behave like me tend to refer to themselves/ourselves by some other “label” than “Christian,” such as “Messianic Gentile” or “Talmid Yeshua”.

Ultimately, Mathison and those Christians associated with Reformed Theology aren’t replacement theorists, and they do believe that in the end all (or most) of Israel will be saved, but I don’t agree that there’s a “true” Israel vs. a “national” Israel. That totally invalidates the vast majority of the Jewish people over the past nearly two-thousand years who have lived and died having true faith in the God of their forefathers and who have declared in the Shema that “Hashem is One.”

It also invalidates the covenants, since every single Jewish person who has ever lived was born into a covenant relationship with God. Every single Jew, not just Jesus-believing Jews.

Mathison doesn’t say it as such, but the feeling I got reading his article was that the Church was at the top of the heap and Israel, because nationally they’ll only come to faith in Jesus in the end, is somewhat “lesser”. I think causality was reversed.

Even Rav Yeshua said “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), so it is the attachment of the non-Jew to Israel through Rav Yeshua that leads to salvation. Without Israel and her King and without the grace of God, the nations of the world are destined for destruction because we have no covenant status before Hashem (unless you consider Genesis 9 as a binding covenant).

Mathison flirts with some pretty good ideas, he just doesn’t take them far enough. He doesn’t flip the paradigm so that non-Jewish disciples are dependent on our relationship with Israel and her King rather than the Jews being dependent on Jesus and the Church.

I don’t think any body calling themselves “Christian” or “the Church” will ever truly admit that reality this side of the Messianic Era. I think many of those Christians who “get it” finally have to leave their churches, go someplace else, and do something else, while they/we are waiting for the return of the King (though there are those who do hang in there and are able to maintain their balance).

No, I’m not “church-bashing”. During my two-year sojourn in a local, little Fundamentalist Baptist church, I met quite a few men and women who really did have the heart of Jesus, who were doing good, who loved God, who went out of their way to take care of the needy, the hungry, the lonely, and the lost.

MessiahI admire these people greatly and aspire to be more like them, because they are more like Rav Yeshua (although they wouldn’t think of him as such).

I just think Christianity needs to go further back into the Bible and completely rethink and reinterpret scriptures while setting aside anything that “the Church” has taught them. This is why I read and understand the Bible from a fundamentally Jewish point of view (as best as I am able, that is). It’s the only way that the overarching message of the Bible makes any sort of sense.

The truth is coming.

The Challies Chronicles: Conrad Mbewe and the End of the First Day

Conrad-MbeweConrab [sic] Mbewe is a man who wears many hats and who fulfills many different responsibilities, but above all else he is a preacher of God’s Word. MacArthur introduced him by explaining that he wished to have Mbewe at the event because the charismatic movement has done devastating damage in Africa and he wanted an insider’s perspective. Mbewe titled his message “The African Import of Charismatic Chaos.” Here are some brief notes.

Mbewe decided to provide a brief overview of the charismatic movement in Africa. It is a movement he has observed for over thirty years and one that is of great concern to him. This is not something he has learned about by reading books, but something he comes across literally every day. He warned that some of what he would say would be somewhat foreign to a Western mindset, but he felt it necessary to speak from his African background.

-Pastor Tim Challies
“Strange Fire Conference: Conrad Mbewe,” October 17, 2013
Challies.com

Note: This was written before my meeting with my Pastor last night. More on this as developments occur.

I’ve been trying to figure out the logic of why certain presenters were scheduled and why their presentations were ordered as they were. I’m sure it was purposeful, but I don’t know enough about MacArthur and how he conceives of things to understand what the first day of the three-day Strange Fire conference was supposed to communicate beyond the obvious message that the Charismatic movement is undesirable and even dangerous.

Conrad Mbewe was the last of the speakers for the first day of the conference and he illustrated something for me that I’ve heard before. I used to think that when missionaries were sent to “the foreign field,” they transmitted a more or less generic message about Christianity to the unsaved in the various places on our planet. Now I realize that there is a sort of struggle between denominations and movements in Christianity to possess the minds and hearts of the people in all these nations and regions of the Earth. According to Mbewe, the Pentecostals pretty much “own” most of Africa.

As an African, there is a whole world in his mind that this invariably floods into. The word “breakthrough” is really saying to the common African man that if you are struggling in your marriage or struggling to conceive or struggling to maintain a job (and so on), it is because between you and God there are other layers that need to be dealt with. One of those layers is that of angels and demons and the other is that of your ancestral spirits. Until those layers are broken through, you will not get what you want. This is what the charismatic movement has taken on when dressed in African attire. The language that has already been there for centuries in Africa is given a thin veneer of Bible verses. You can understand, then, that if men and women are running in throngs to the witch doctor, they will rush in throngs to these so-called churches because it boasts the same power they are looking for.

I suspect that throughout the history of the Church, missionaries have encountered circumstances where what they preached, rather than replacing local beliefs and customs, have been integrated into existing beliefs, so that a sort of fusion occurs, as described above. The Pentecostal presentation of the power of the Spirit has been fused with local beliefs of ancestral spirits and witch doctors (or witch doctor substitutes), at least as far as what I can tell from this summary.

He proposes, “What’s to stop someone like me from coming up with irrational ideas because I’ve been empowered to do so?” He has counseled many, many people who are caught in these scandals—sexual scandals about spiritual husbands and wives, where a messenger from God, a pastor, steps in to be sexual partner with someone because of the authority that they have from God. These people keep God’s Word closed.

charismatic-prayerIf these events are indeed taking place, then serious abuse is occurring. The question is, should all Charismatics everywhere carry the blame, or only the people in those specific locations who are authoring this confusion? We have Mbewe’s commentary on what he’s witnessed in his area of the world. This is MacArthur’s building a case against Pentecostalism one brick at a time.

In no way do I defend the heinous practices Mbewe describes, and I can certainly support returning to scripture as a guide for right living. It very much seems, based on Mbewe’s report, that what many African people believe is “Christianity,” is a highly skewed and twisted version that has been heavily abused, to the detriment of many people. Unfortunately, that’s also a description of most of the history of Christianity, pre and post-reformation.

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.

John 17:17 (NASB)

He went to John 17:17 and said the charismatic chaos we see would never have been the case if this verse had been taken seriously.

As much as MacArthur and his peers, including Mbewe, tout the sufficiency and even primacy of scripture, I was a little surprised to see that Mbewe used only a single verse from John to support his presentation. It’s also true that all incarnations of Christianity (and most other religions) lay exclusive claim to “truth,” so isolating John 17:17 and serving it up can actually serve both sides of this debate.

His final remarks expresed [sic] his relief to see the Reformed movement growing on the African continent, though it is still in its infancy there. He exhorted us all: We have got to pray and get back to the Bible! Today we are not saying enough that this book is sufficient. It is sufficient!

This isn’t just a conference designed to expose the flaws and dangers MacArthur and others believe the Charismatic movement represents, but one that markets and promotes the Reformed movement as a replacement. The simple message I’m getting from the conference so far is that, “The Charismatic movement is wrong and I’m/We’re (MacArthur/Reformed movement) right.”

Challies wrote a separate summary of the first day of the conference which outlines the presenters and their messages, as well as the overarching message of that day. How Challies ended his summary told me how it was all impacting him, which showed he that he wasn’t entirely expecting to agree with everything being warmed up over this strange fire:

Until the day of the event, and really until the end of MacArthur’s opening address, I was unsure of whether or not I would give a lot of attention to the event. But I am glad I chose to blog about it as it really does seem to be making a big splash in the Evangelical world and especially among the Reformed crowd that tends to read this site. Like you, I am very interested to know what will come today and tomorrow.

What remains to be seen, and what may take quite a long time to see, is whether this event will call Christians to work to find greater agreement on the issue of the miraculous gifts, or whether it will polarize the camps even further. It is fast becoming my prayer that one way or another the Lord will see fit to use this event to bring greater maturity and greater unity to his church.

I’m reminded of the political polarization that has taken place in our nation, especially during the current Presidential administration. I’m also reminded of a prize-fight. I remember being very young and visiting my grandfather at his house in Omaha. I remember him watching professional boxing matches on a small, black and white television while smoking his pipe. I was more focused on visiting grandpa and my aunts and uncle than really watching the boxing, but it still left an impression.

boxing-matchYou have two sides battling it out, although the battle is actually happening in the blogosphere (it’s not happening in the conference because only one “boxer” is doing the swinging).

But is seeking truth and the Word and Will of God supposed to be combat? I suppose “spiritual warfare” sounds pretty dramatic and even heroic, but I don’t think MacArthur has that terminology in mind. If this were a legal case in court, then both parties would have a chance to present their evidence before a judge. There’s no way to truly burn away the dross and produce a pure product without all of the elements being present. A legal court has been called a crucible of fact. MacArthur is attempting to construct a crucible of truth.

But all of his critics, the “defendants,” are stuck outside the courthouse, looking in through the windows, with the Internet as their only means of response. Do the Charismatics ever get their “day in court?”

The Challies Chronicles: MacArthur’s Strange Fire Keynote

elephant-in-the-living-roomIt’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? We can’t all be right and we can’t both be right. Sooner or later we have to have a discussion about charismatic (continuationist) theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit remain in operation in the church today (or, if you prefer, about cessationist theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased in the church today). We have wanted to make sure New Calvinism is large enough for both, that it will not fracture along this particular line, and this has delayed the conversation. But at some point we just have to talk about it.

John MacArthur is forcing the issue with a book and a conference titled Strange Fire. The conference is still several weeks away and the book will not be widely available until a few weeks after that. However, I recently received an advance copy of the book and have read it a couple of times now. I want to begin a conversation today, and my purpose is really to get an idea of how people feel about the whole issue.

Tim Challies
“John MacArthur and Strange Fire” (September 26, 2013)
Challies.com

I want to be fair. I imagine that there are some of you out there who don’t believe me, who find me terrifically unfair because I don’t agree with you, but I really do want to be fair. That’s why I’m posting this.

Not to long ago, I aimed more than a little criticism at MacArthur, Strange Fire, and the battle to control the Christian mind on my blog. My Pastor felt I wasn’t giving MacArthur the benefit of the doubt or looking at the positive aspects of his conference. He recommended Pastor Tim Challies and his blog as a good counterpoint to MacArthur’s critics.

If found out that Challies had a lot to say about Strange Fire. As far as I can tell, I quoted from his first blog post on the topic, before the conference even took place. It helps to address this Pastor’s impressions of Strange Fire in a chronological order. I guess he attended the conference and live blogged the different speakers.

I won’t attempt to blog on everything Challies wrote, but I do want to try to get a representative sample, just to get the flavor of what was said. Of course (please forgive me), I don’t expect Challis to be entirely objective (who is?) so part of my analysis will be of Challies as well as of the conference and the presenters who offer their own “fire,” so to speak.

For me, the issue isn’t who is right and who is wrong, but whether or not MacArthur was “playing fair” for the sake of edification and education. Was he being fair or could there have been other motivations? It’s possible the “Challies chronicles” will reveal this, but I don’t know for sure.

Challies’s pre-conference intro to Strange Fire won’t reveal much except at the very end. After Challies wrote his missive, MacArthur reviewed it and asked him to append one brief statement:

Tempting as it might be for my Reformed continuationist friends to read the last chapter first, that would be a mistake. The points in that chapter might seem arbitrary to someone who has not read the preceding material. Those early chapters trace the roots of charismatic teaching; they show the biblical rationale for cessationist conviction; and they demonstrate why aberrant doctrines and practices are not minor, occasional anomalies but the inevitable fruits of charismatic presuppositions. Anyone predisposed to disagree anyway would probably find it easy to be dismissive if they skipped to the end first. The final chapter is simply the logical conclusion to the arguments set forth in all the others.

I suppose that’s also a matter of being fair to MacArthur.

John MacArthur’s Opening Keynote

john-macarthurIn reading Strange Fire Conference: John MacArthur’s Opening Address, I found out I was wrong. Challies did not attend, but listened via Strange Fire site. Unlike Challies, I don’t have time to listen to hours and hours of audio recordings, so I hope he took good notes.

When people ask MacArthur for his view on the biggest issue in the church, he always says it is the lack of discernment since, sadly, a great number of those who profess Christianity are lacking in discernment. The purpose of this conference is to be like the Bereans by looking at the work of the Holy Spirit through the lens of Scripture. He hopes to address it lovingly and compassionately, but in a straightforward way.

I can relate to that. I try to do a lot of studying and judiciously read the Bible. The interesting thing is that, even among people who all have the same intellectual and study emphasis, conclusions about what the Bible says vary, sometimes dramatically. And yet all parties say the same thing MacArthur said in his keynote. The desire to be like Bereans, using the Bible as a lens (then what lens do we use to look at the Bible?), addressing differences lovingly and compassionately…and in a straightforward way.

Why do the results of such words and intentions turn out badly so much of the time?

What is the scope of the issue? There are half a billion professed charismatics on the planet. He pointed out that we feel great freedom to confront Mormons and Mormonism, though there are merely 14 million of them. Yet we hesitate to address 500 million charismatics.

I live in Idaho and I used to live in Nevada. Both states have a large Mormon population. Even after I became a believer, I never felt drawn to confront every Mormon in my environment, which would be quite a lot. Is that what’s required?

He turned to Leviticus 10 to explain the name of the conference and the heart behind it, showing true and false worship from Leviticus 9 and 10.

The sons of Aaron had been given special privilege and were in line for the high priesthood. They seemed so godly and so secure, and yet God consumed them because they offered strange fire, worshipping in a way he did not sanction. What may have seemed like a minor matter was actually a serious and significant sin. This shows that the most serious crimes against God occur in corrupt worship.

I have to say that one thing about MacArthur that bothers me is that he seems so sure of conclusions he can’t possibly be that sure about. Look at his commentary on the sons of Aaron. Christian theologians have been trying to figure out exactly what happened with Nadab and Abihu (yes, they do have names) for ages, and Jewish sages have been studying the incident of these two sons of Aaron (he had four in all) a lot longer, but no one is sure what they did or didn’t do or what the “strange fire” was that resulted in such a dramatic and fatal response from God.

The fire they offered has been translated as “unauthorized,” “wrong kind of,” “strange,” and “unholy.” Most translations follow-up with something like, “which He had not commanded them,” indicating that whatever they did in making their offering, it was not what God asked of them…or maybe it was that they weren’t supposed to make any sort of approach at all right then. Maybe the problem was their timing was bad.

The Lord also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 19:10-12 (NASB)

nadab-abihu-fireThe long and the short of it is, “don’t get too close.”

I say all of this because MacArthur carefully chose the name of his conference and his book. In assessing intent, the symbolism involved and how it’s used can be revealing.

He paused to state that he is not discrediting everyone in the movement. He knows there are charismatics who desire to worship God in a true way. Yet the movement itself has brought nothing that enriches true worship.

That’s an important point. Naturally, discrediting anyone’s preferred method of worship is likely to elicit a harsh or hurt response, but that’s still preferable to naming names, so to speak.

In many places in the charismatic movement they are attributing to the Holy Spirit works that have actually been generated by Satan.

Invoking such a sentiment should be done with care because it’s only one small step from a statement such as that, to one saying anyone who is a charismatic is Satanic and even may be worshiping Satan. No, of course I don’t think MacArthur said that, but when addressing such an emotionally loaded topic, you have to pay attention, not only to what you are saying, but to how you know people will interpret (or misinterpret) your words.

I had to establish a comments policy on my blog recently in order to contain some otherwise negative statements being made. As part of my policy, I issued the following statement:

In Jewish religious tradition, Leviticus 25:17 which states “You will not wrong one another,” is interpreted as wronging someone in speech. This includes any statement that will embarrass, insult, or deceive a person or cause that person emotional pain and distress. Even statements believed to be true and factual but that cause another harm are considered wrongful speech.

You can’t hide behind, “but I’m only telling the truth” if you know that what you’re saying will directly result in injuring people. Something to keep in mind, although in both Judaism and Christianity, this mitzvah is not strictly observed for the sake of “truth.”

In the middle of recording the Keynote, Challies inserted his own commentary:

(Note: I am adding a clarifying note (3:57 PM EST). I do not take MacArthur to mean “nothing good has ever come out of the charismatic movement” but “nothing good has come out of the charismatic movement that is attributable to charismatic theology.”)

I found this part illuminating:

And despite this, Evangelicalism has thrown open its arms and welcomed this Trojan Horse, allowing an idol in the city of God. This idol has fast taken over.

MacArthur then contrasted Reformed theology with the charismatic movement and said that Reformed theology is not a haven for false teachers. It is not where false teachers reside or where greedy deceivers and liars end up.

charismatic-prayerCharismatics, Evangelicals, and Reforms all compared and contrasted in one fell swoop, with Reformed theology coming out on top. But then, anyone holding a conference is going to present their own point of view as advantageous, so I can hardly hold that against MacArthur. Although, being objective and outside of the Reformed theology framework, I wonder how MacArthur can know in absolute terms that there are no “false teachers” within his entire movement, right down to the last man? Also, what’s the difference between a “false teacher” and an erroneous one? Does he believe Reformed theology contains no teachers capable of making a mistake?

Once experience, emotion and intuition become the definition of what is true, all hell breaks loose.

In what seemed to be a brief aside, he called for the restoration of the true worship of the Holy Spirit in the church and said that it is zeal for God’s honor that consumes him here. As he sees and hears this false worship, he feels God’s own pain and wonders why the church won’t rise up to defend the Holy Spirit as it has done with the Father and the Son.

I was selected for jury duty in a drunk driving case many years ago. Part of the instructions the judge gave to the jury was to evaluate just the facts of the case without any emotional bias. And then both the prosecuting and defense attorneys did everything in their power to manipulate the emotions of the jury.

I put those two statements together in the quote just above (they don’t occur contiguously in the article) because I got the same feeling reading them as I did when I was on jury duty. Emotion can’t define truth (and I generally agree with this statement) but here, MacArthur seems to say, ” let me make an emotional appeal promoting my viewpoint by feeling ‘God’s own pain’ (I was also somewhat reminded of one of Bill Clinton’s iconic and often parodied statements) in order to evoke an emotional response from my audience.”

I’m sorry. I really didn’t intend to be this snarky and cynical when I started writing my blog post, but as I’m reading through the Challies report on MacArthur’s keynote, I’m “live blogging” my responses, which include emotional responses. I’ll try to end on an up note.

MacArthur concluded by saying we can see in Christ a picture of the perfect work of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit has committed to do in us what he did in Christ. The Spirit was the constant companion of Jesus; Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, matured by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, sustained by the Spirit in his temptation, empowered by the Spirit for ministry, filled with the Spirit so he walked in perfect obedience while displaying the Spirit’s fruit, perfected by obedience wrought in the Spirit’s power, raised by the power of the Spirit, and even in his post-resurrection ministry was in the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is to us as he was to Christ. If you want to know how he works in us, look at Jesus. Ultimately, the work of the Holy Spirit is to take corrupted image bearers and to restore in them the likeness of Jesus Christ.

He ended with this challenge: “I will start believing that the truth prevails in the charismatic movement when I see the leaders looking more like Jesus Christ and I see that they really are partakers of the divine nature.”

tim_challiesKeep in mind that I’m receiving my impressions from a blogger who, as far as I can tell, should see the world in general and Christianity in particular in roughly the same way as MacArthur, so I’d expect his rendition of his experience to be positive and supportive of MacArthur.

At the same time, I keep wondering that if I found it necessary to challenge the Charismatic movement as a matter of principle and truth, and to try to prevent millions and millions of people from being swayed by what I thought was a harmful and error-filled theology, what approach would I take?

The next blog post in this series is The Challies Chronicles: John MacArthur and Joni Eareckson Tada.