This is part 4 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.
Perhaps one of the most rhetorically effective arguments paedobaptists use against Baptists is as follows—
- Under the Old Covenant infants were admitted into the covenant.
- Covenant inclusion of infants in principle is never abrogated in the New Covenant.
- Therefore, it would have been assumed parents/clergy should continue administering the covenant sign to infants (baptism under the New Covenant).
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church states—
The living God himself embraced the children of believers as members of his church. Genesis 17:7—”I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”
Further, God nowhere rescinded this principle that the children of believers are church members. This is very significant. In order to maintain their position, those who oppose infant baptism have to prove that he did rescind this principle. Where does the Bible teach that? This is a question that demands an answer (emphasis added).
The baptistic view is built on this hidden assumption—the assumption that, in the New Testament, children of believers are no longer members of the church.
But when you read the New Testament you find just the opposite! The New Testament lines right up with the Old Testament in continuing to assume that children of believers are included in the church. 
I appreciate this argument since its core concern is to preserve the sameness of the gospel under both Old and New Covenants, a concern both Baptists and paedobaptists ought to share. However, it makes some fatal logical errors.
First, there are several texts we could use to prove a rescinding of circumcision. These texts will probably not rescind administration of the covenant sign to infants in the way paedobaptists might expect. But it is often assumed by paedobaptists that infant inclusion is never rescinded under the New Covenant. John the Baptist, for example, clearly points to an obsolescence of the genealogical principle of the Old Covenant in Luke 3:8, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”
Paedobaptists will no doubt quibble with our use of this text, retorting, “That’s always been the case in terms of the gospel if you believe in one way of salvation.” Absolutely. But it has not only been the case, and that is what John is getting at here. Under the Old Covenant, unbelievers and believers could be members thereof. Genesis 17 makes the covenant conditions external, e.g. circumcision of the flesh. But, under the New Covenant no longer will God tolerate those obedient to the letter (externality) of the law, but not the spirit (heart of) the law as He did under the Old Covenant (cf. Heb. 8; Jer. 31:31-34).
Moreover, the New Covenant does explicitly rescind the Old Covenant in places like Hebrews 8:6, 13. The rejoinder may be, “Yes, but by ‘Old Covenant’ Hebrews 8 is obviously only addressing Moses!” But Moses is none other than a development upon the foundation of the Abrahamic covenant, and both have the same formal basis, the fundamental tenet of which is fleshly circumcision. Moses governs the Abrahamic covenant and its members and is the covenant intended to bring Genesis 15:18-21 to fulfillment. This is why the author of Hebrews addresses Moses more explicitly than he does Abraham. Because the Mosaic covenant is the covenant out of which his audience was immediately called. If Moses is gone, so too is the covenant of circumcision.
Second, one major problem with the OPC’s argument is the assumed universalization of the covenant sign under the Old Covenant. However, circumcision was never administered to female infants, only male infants. This seems to remove their very basis for transferring the “infant principle” (for lack of a better term) into the New Covenant. If the goal is continuity between covenants, then this obvious point of serious discontinuity continues to exist. Under the Old Covenant, boys were circumcised, girls were not. Under the New Covenant, both may receive baptism.
Third, in the final analysis, this argument begs the question. It assumes the core Reformed paedobaptistic location of the substance/administration of the covenant of grace. For them, the Old and New Covenants are but outward administrations of the selfsame covenant of grace. Not two distinct covenants. Because the paedobaptist anachronistically imports this particular understanding of God’s everlasting covenant upon the earliest Christians, it is easy for them to allege: “Newly converted Jewish Christians would have been assuming infant inclusion in the New Covenant!” But this would not be the case if those newly converted Jewish Christians assumed the opposite presupposition as the Reformed paedobaptists, namely that the Old Covenant was growing old and becoming obsolete (Heb. 8), and the covenant of grace revealed had become the covenant of grace concluded (New Covenant) being formalized in the blood of Christ (Matt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).
The burden of proof, therefore, is on the Reformed paedobaptist to demonstrate that the Apostolic church was assuming their model of covenant theology. But if this cannot be demonstrated, then the Scriptural ontology of the covenants stands alone, and the New Covenant really is a new covenant as the plain language seems to suggest.
 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, https://opc.org/cce/tracts/WhyInfantBaptism.html
Some, particularly of the dispensational persuasion, take the temple and the accompanying sacrifices revealed in Ezekiel 40-48 as a literal temple and sacrificial system which will be established at the time of the future millennium. My goal is to show how this understanding of Ezekiel 40ff cannot coexist with what is clearly set down in Hebrews 10. And my presupposition is that the epistle to the Hebrews should interpret the related texts of Ezekiel 40ff for us. The New Testament is, after all, an inspired commentary on the Old. I want to also note something about the language of literal interpretation. Much has been made of the literal or the normative interpretive method. Every text, it is thought, must be interpreted literally.
Instead, I propose that the Bible often communicates literal truths through other-than-literal means. For example, the shadows of the animal sacrifices. Were the shadows literal atoning sacrifices? Absolutely not. They did not literally atone for sin. They were typological sacrifices. Yet, is the literal atoning Sacrifice of Christ revealed by means of them? Absolutely! Another example is found in the New Testament, when the church is called a temple. “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are (1 Cor. 3:17).” Does this mean that the church is a literal brick and mortar temple? No. But is this text true and thus literal? Absolutely. There is a literal meaning here communicated through figurative means. All the Bible is literal, but the means through which it communicates literal truths are not always literal, i.e. biblical metaphors always communicate literal (real) things, even though the metaphors themselves are not literal.
In many cases, God uses literal things to signify greater literal things, and this we call typology, e.g. David and Goliath, the temple, the priesthood, Solomon’s wisdom, etc. But in other cases, God will use literary word-pictures, usually given in visions or dreams, to signify literal things, e.g. Ezekiel’s temple, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:24-45), etc.
In Ezekiel 40-48, there are several things mentioned which, if taken literally in themselves, will create great conflict with the New Testament, and will end up destroying the gospel altogether if consistently followed through. I want to survey some of the many things mentioned in Ezekiel 40ff which requires us to see it describing a figurative temple, which I believe to be the revelation of Christ and His people (but that’s another article). The following are reasons why Ezekiel 40-48 cannot, in no wise, be taken for a literal, future, brick and mortar temple—
“In the vestibule of the gateway were two tables on this side and two tables on that side, on which to slay the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering (Ezek. 40:39).” Also see Ezekiel 46. However, Hebrews 10:18 tells us, “Now where there is remission of [sins], there is no longer an offering for sin.” One could make the argument that the “sin offerings” described in Ezekiel 40 are not actually offered for sins, but are only typological. However, that’s exactly what the Old Testament sacrifices were—typological. Hebrews 10:18 is telling us that typological sacrifices no longer exist since the fulfillment of those sacrifices are found in Christ Jesus.
The Levitical Priesthood
“The chamber which faces north is for the priests who have charge of the altar; these are the sons of Zadok, from the sons of Levi, who come near the LORD to minister to Him (Ezek. 40:46).” The majority of the epistle to the Hebrews has thus far belaboured the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over the Levitical priesthood. And it tells us, “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man (Heb. 8:1-2).” If Ezekiel 40ff were taken literally, then it follows the Levitical priesthood is to be reestablished, even though we have a better priest in Christ.
Animal Blood of Consecration
“You shall take some of its blood and put it on the four horns of the altar, on the four corners of the ledge, and on the rim around it; thus you shall cleanse it and make atonement for it (Ezek. 43:20).” Thus, the altar in the Ezeklian temple, if taken literally, is consecrated by animal blood, something Hebrews expressly tells us is but a copy of the heavenly things. Christ came, “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12).” Was His blood not enough?
Fleshly Temple Restrictions
“No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart or uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter My sanctuary, including any foreigner who is among the children of Israel (Ezek. 44:9).” To enter the temple sanctuary, circumcision in the flesh is required. But, according to Acts 15:10, James calles circumcision a “yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” And in v. 11, asserts that salvation will take place in the same manner for all who are in Christ, no matter Jew or Gentile. If some are circumcised and others are not, this being a gospel necessity for some people but not others, then salvation is different for some than it is for others, i.e. not in the same manner.
The Ceremonial Feast Days
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall observe the Passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened bread shall be eaten. And on that day the prince shall prepare for himself and for all the people of the land a bull for a sin offering (Ezek. 45:21-22).” The feast days, however, in the New Covenant, are abolished, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths (Col. 2:16).” And, if one were to say, “It’s only the Gentiles who are not to be judged, but the Jews will still keep these ordinances as a matter of conscience,” then they deny what comes after this text, that the new man—which all who are in Christ have put on—is “where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:11).”
The Old Testament Sabbath
“The gateway of the inner court that faces toward the east shall be shut the six working days; but on the Sabbath it shall be opened, and on the day of the New Moon it shall be opened (Ezek. 46:1).” The Sabbath has been changed in the New Covenant, “For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change in the law (Heb. 7:12).” But this Old Testament Sabbath, where the people work in order to rest, has been abolished as we learn in Colossians 2:16 and in Hebrews 4.
The Living Water
“And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes (Ezek. 47:9).” The living water which comes from the right side of the temple must be figurative. For Christ has declared Himself to be the living water, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water (Jn. 4:10).” And because the people of God are the temple of God, it is from their hearts the living water flows, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water (Jn. 7:38).” In John 4:13-14, Jesus says, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” How does one receive the living water? John 6:35 tells us, “He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly. ~ 2LBCF 1.9
The middle ages were, in some ways a golden age for the interpretation of Scripture, and in other ways a hermeneutical train wreck. Of course, by the time of the high middle ages (11th to the 13the centuries), the kind of authority eventually ascribed to church tradition had not yet become a canonical article of church dogma. It was first explained as dogma during Vatican II, held in 1962. Yet, the equality of church tradition and Scripture had already begun, to some extent, in the middle ages.
As Henri de Lubac notes, the authority of church tradition would play into the assumed medieval hermeneutic milieu, which has since been called the quadriga. All Scripture, it is said, is literal. But the literal sense gives way to three other senses, i.e. the allegorical (what to believe), tropological (how to live), and anagogical (what to hope for). Because the largely Romanist medieval theologians had a twofold principle of knowledge—Scripture and tradition—the quadriga was not confined to Scripture itself, but became an open system through man-made tradition. Allegory, then, didn’t have to result only from Scripture, but was also informed by the authoritative and subjective interpretation of the Magisterium.
I’m not including the whole story, but this eventually led the Reformers to reject the quadriga, at least in terms. But not necessarily in practice. Much of the post-Reformed Puritan theology reflected an assumption of the quadriga, though it was hardly, if ever, referred to as such. Moreover, the Puritans, such as John Owen, would affirm a single sense which itself would need to be plumbed in order to reach the full extent thereof. This was called the sensus plenior, or the fuller sense. For the Puritans, the single sense could be manifold. And thus the quadriga continued on into orthodox Protestantism, but not without qualification. It no longer consisted of four distinct senses, which might mistakenly be viewed as multiple, if not conflicting, truths. It consisted instead of one sense, the literal, which lent itself to a deeper or fuller meaning, the scope of which includes allegory, tropology, and anagogy. And these subsequent elements of the unfolding literal sense were to be confined to the Scripture itself and not the opinion of a Magisterium, monarch, etc.
So, 1.9 of the Second London Baptist Confession recognizes this fuller sense which derives from the literal, historical, or immediate terms. Puritans are often accused of allegorizing the text by hyper-literalists for this very reason. But the Puritans, in all reality, were the most prolific torch-bearers of the literal meaning of Scripture. Unlike the hyper-literalists of the 20th and 21st centuries, the Puritans understood that while all meaning began in literal or historical terms, it did not end there. There was a sensus plenior, a fuller sense.
John Owen (An Exposition of the Letter to the Hebrews), Benjamin Keach (Tropologia), and John Gill (Gill’s Expositor, vol. 9, on Hebrews 8) are all examples of theologians who understood the sensus plenior and employed it regularly in their thought.
I will close by giving one biblical example where a New Testament author engages this method of deriving the fuller sense from the literal or historical text. Speaking of Christ Jesus, Hebrews 1:5b says—
For to which of the angels did He ever say… “I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son”?
This is a quotation from 2 Samuel 7:14 in proof of Christ’s superiority. But in that place, the author writes immediately of the coming king Solomon, and there is no instance in the immediate context where the coming Messiah is mentioned. In 2 Samuel 7:14b it even mentions a chastisement for future sin, which means this passage must be immediately referring to someone other than Christ. The text, immediately, then, refers to Solomon, the son of David, who would build the temple (v. 13). Yet, as the author of Hebrews shows us, there is the sensus plenior, where Christ is the deeper meaning of the historical/literal event immediately in view in 2 Samuel 7:14.
In other words, the literal event points to a deeper significance. To put it in quadratic terms: the literal sense of 2 Samuel 7:14 is Solomon; plumbing that single sense, we see the allegory is Christ Himself; the tropology is to live unto Christ as our Lord and King; and the anagogy is the hope of the kingship or the rule of Christ.
I know, this is an odd situation to patent a novel term for a really old style of homiletics or method of preaching. When asked, I’ve been telling people I use an “adapted form of Peter van Mastricht’s preaching outline,” for nearly a year now.
For those of you who do not know, Van Mastricht was a Dutch, post-Reformed scholastic Puritan. I do not utilize a variation of his method simply because it comes from him. In fact, it is implicitly found in many, if not most, of the Puritans. Van Mastricht just happened to be most express about it, actually systematizing it as a methodology (Cf. vol. 1 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology). This is part of the reason Richard Muller, the church historian, refers to Van Mastricht as the height of Reformed orthodoxy in vol. 1 of his Post-Reformed Reformed Orthodoxy.
I am not a creature of innovation and tend to think the old ways are better (sometimes to a fault). But if updating nomenclature helps people understand where I’m at without changing the substance of the thing its designed to represent, I’m all for it. Instead of saying, “I use Van Mastricht’s preaching method,” I will just refer to my method as “4-D homiletics,” or “4-D theology.”
What Is 4-D Homiletics?
First, homiletics refers to the art and science of preaching. Second, 4-D refers to the four dimensions or aspects of theology which should be present in a sermon, but should also determine the form of doctrinal treatises and systematic expositions of the various loci in Christian theology. These four “dimensions” are the exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical.
In the exegetical part, the text is exposed or made plain as to its meaning or sense. In the doctrinal part, doctrine is concluded from the text of Scripture. In the elenctic part, objections to the doctrine are answered, usually through way of affirmations, distinctions, and denials. And in the practical part, application from all the above is made.
In my case, I usually have about three topics or points in each sermon, and then those points (which are derived from the text) have their own exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical parts.
However, the Puritans would often proceed through a sermon without three topics or points, and the entirety of the sermon or doctrinal treatise would simply be a survey of the text through each of those four principle parts of theology.
Tim Challies & Government
Throughout the coronavirus “crisis” many have sought to establish a near-absolute obedience of the Christian to the government based on texts like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13. In a recent article, Tim Challies says:
If we wish to submit to God, we must submit to the authorities he has established. Said otherwise, obedience to God manifests itself in obedience to government.
Christians may dispute the exact parameters of governmental authority, but surely we can at least agree that matters of public health fall under the jurisdiction of the state.
He also says in a later part of the article:
Of course there are times when obedience to a higher authority means we must disobey a lower authority. “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). But we may do this only when that lesser authority is overstepping its bounds or when obeying government would be disobeying God. For every other occasion, God gives us a sober warning: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” When government acts within its mandate, we must obey. When we fail to obey, we risk judgment—God’s own judgment as it is carried out by the state. But, conversely, when we obey, we gain joy—the joy that always comes with obedience.
Challies makes a few points here. First, we must obey government because God says so (I affirm). Second, matters of public health fall within the purview of government authority (I distinguish). Third, Christians can disobey government but only when the government commands Christians to do that which is sinful (I affirm).
In his first point, he’s not saying anything Christians actually disagree with. Every Christian believes we ought to obey government because God has commanded us to do so. The question has nothing to do with whether or not we should obey government, the question, at least for Americans, is what is our government? How is it defined?
In his second point, he suggests public health falls within the realm of governmental authority. This is a sweeping claim in need of further definition. If by public health Challies means the protection of the people’s life, liberty, and their right to pursue happiness (the language of our founding document), then sure. The government, according to Romans 13, wields a sword precisely to this end, the the image of God would be free or at liberty to live lives, especially lives unto God. But if by public health he means protection from every viral threat under the sun, then absolutely not. The American arrangement is not designed for such a nanny-like state authority. Otherwise, the government could legislate literally anything in the name of public health and safety.
In his third point, he states another obvious truth, that Christians are not to disobey government unless government enacts laws contrary to the law of God. Again, no Christian, that I’m aware of, disagrees with this in theory. The question is, How is it put into practice? And, more specifically, How is it put into practice in the U. S.?
Why 4-D Homilies & Theology Matter
You might be wondering, “What’s the relationship between preaching and what Challies has written?”
I thought you’d never ask!
Challies, at a fundamental level, is failing to not only divide the Word of God rightly, but he’s also failing to apply the Word of God, through the practical use of the Scripture he tries to interact with, to the lives of Western Christians. He has failed to exegete the text, he has failed to draw proper doctrinal conclusions from the text, he has failed to answer any kind of objections in any meaningful sense, and he’s most certainly and utterly failed to apply Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to our present situation, instead assuming without argument a particular, anachronistic application which may have applied to 17th century England, but does not apply to us in the here and now.
4-D preaching and 4-D theologizing presses the theologian to argue from the Scriptures, defend their claims, and then apply it all to life that the Christian may live more abundantly unto God in Christ. Unfortunately, Challies, I believe, does just the opposite.
He quotes some Scripture, assumes his exegesis instead of showing his work, and then makes a faulty application.
If he were careful, he would have noted that current elected officials (in the U. S. & Canada) are commanding Christians to disobey what God has commanded, that is, we are no longer “allowed” to assemble together. This is a clear contradiction to Hebrews 10:24, 25; 4:9, and Exodus 20; Deut. 5 with regard to the Sabbath commandments. But he doesn’t even address this. He goes on apparently assuming the government hasn’t commanded Christians to do anything sinful in this particular instance.
Moreover, if, in the case of the U. S., the Constitution is the principle of power for all elected officials, then obedience of U. S. citizens is ultimately determined by that document. In that document, we have the 1st amendment and also the 10th amendment, both of which guarantee the free exercise of religion and the terminus of the powers not given to the Congress in the states or the people. This means obedience to Romans 13, within the American context, could actually look like public dissent as a result of infringements upon the Constitution.
Challies considers none of these factors in his article. Why? Because the four-fold way or the four dimensions of theology are not carefully thought out. He’s not exegeting the text—he’s just quoting the text and assuming a meaning without argument. He’s also not drawing out a clear doctrine of government from the text (because he never exegeted the text in the first place). He’s not interacting with objections, but merely assuming the truth of his article. And he’s not applying the exegeted text to the reader where the reader is at (which is what the art of application is all about).
We need to bring back this comprehensive way of both doing theology and preaching theology, otherwise, several stones will be left un-turned, doctrinal knowledge will degrade even further than it has, the church will suffer, and people will actually end up disobeying God rather than obeying God, which is the whole business of the Christian in the first place.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. — James 5:14
For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. — 1 Corinthians 11:30-31
For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. — 1 Timothy 4:8
But if so much concern be discovered for the safety of the body, we may conclude, how much care and attention should be devoted to the safety of the soul, which in the sight of God is of infinitely superior value? — John Calvin
This is the article that I didn’t want to write. Some questions I’ve asked in carefully considering what I should say and how to say it are: Do I use names? What sort of rhetoric should I use? How can I obey and glorify God in this response? I do not take this response lightly, and I’ve carefully considered what follows. The purpose of this article is not to call people out, it’s not to be argumentative, but it’s to edify the brethren through fruitful discourse. My motivator here is love—both love of God and love of neighbor.
The men to whom I’m responding are close to me, not personally, but doctrinally. Therefore, they and I are united upon the truth of the gospel in Jesus Christ. Because of this, I was surprised to see implied charges of murder and wicked intent coming from some of these men, the charges being made against churches who have chosen to assemble during these perilous times.
Because of the approach I’ve elected to take, I’m going to paraphrase some of these statements without mentioning names or quoting them directly with the exception of one article, the author of which voluntarily made himself known and thus, I will go ahead in citing his material directly. I am not trying to be evasive. I’m only trying to protect the names of individuals I care about. I am also uncertain as to whether or not they would approve of their names being mentioned. Thus, I’ve opted to maintain privacy at this point.
Three Texts & Flimsy Rhetoric
Men throughout the ages have utilized Scripture within their rhetoric. Rhetoric is a good thing if used properly (cf. the apostle Paul in Acts 17). But rhetoric in which the Scriptures become nothing more than a rhetorical tool of persuasion is flimsy rhetoric. Flimsy rhetoric happens when a person takes a verse (say, John 3:16), and hastily misapplies it in their argumentation without regard to the actual meaning of the text itself. An example might be as follows: “In John 3:16, it says ‘whosoever will.’ Therefore, free will initiates our salvation!” Such flimsy rhetoric takes for granted an application that has yet to be argued for. This is to beg the question. More exactly stated, it’s a commission of the petitio principii fallacy, or circular reasoning.
There are three texts some have used in order to argue for the cancelation of worship services in obedience to governing authorities at both local and state levels.
Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
Some have drawn application from this text obliging Christians to cancel worship in order to look out for the welfare of their fellow brethren during the spread of COVID-19. But the context of this passage is within the context of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, at which point the Pharisees attempted to chide Him for performing work on a day of rest (Ex. 20:10).
It is impossible to get from “be willing to alter your worship pattern for the sake of your brethren” to “cease having a worship pattern altogether” without more information from the text itself. This text does not explicitly nor necessarily intimate such a wild conclusion. Jesus’ healing work of mercy happened within the context of worship, not instead or apart from it. Jesus’ works on the Sabbath always served to show forth the beauty of that Day rather than detract from it in any way.
Works of mercy serve to adorn what is already there, not abrogate it.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
With Matthew 12:12 in hand, Romans 13:1ff is then invoked as part of a cumulative case against holding worship during the COVID-19 outbreak. As we have just seen, nothing about Matthew 12:12 makes cancelling of worship necessary, let alone lawful (cf. Ex. 20; Deut. 5; Jn. 20; Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Heb. 4:9).
Therefore, it is a wide stretch to suggest canceling worship is an act of obedience per Romans 13. Romans 13 does not give the government the authority to alter or do away with what God has commanded. The church should make alterations according to the light of nature—insofar as God’s Law allows—if she perceives an imminent threat. But this is not the same as canceling services altogether.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.
I have seen this verse used to imply those who continue divine worship at this time are murderers at worst and Pharisees at best. The claim here is that this text provides precedent for suspending positive laws in order to uphold moral laws. But this isn’t Jesus’ point. Not even remotely.
The distinction here is not so much between positive laws and moral laws as it is between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The Pharisees were keen to fulfill external obedience, yet their hearts were far from God. They lacked sincerity in their worship because they had not been born again, a point Jesus elsewhere emphasizes during a discussion with—you guessed it—a Pharisee (Jn. 3:3). The Pharisees were hypocrites because they continued on with the external affairs of worship while neglecting the spirit of the laws they sought to uphold—justice, mercy, and faith. Thus, they should have obeyed the ceremonial laws under which they lived while not neglecting their substance.
Charges of Pharisaism
An article by David de Bruyn titled ‘Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship’, seeks to draw comparison from events following the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. to our current situation.
De Bruyn begins by saying, “When Israel lost its Temple in A. D. 70, you might imagine it would have prompted much soul-searching and repentance among the rabbis that had rejected Jesus as Messiah.” The destruction of the Temple, mind you, is supposed to be seen as analogous to the current restriction on worship imposed by the state during the COVID-19 outbreak. Much “soul-searching” was to be expected then as it is to be expected now. Yet, in and after 70 A.D., there was a lack of soul-searching just as there is now. These are the lines being drawn at the very outset of the article.
The general thrust of the text seems to be: Stop trying to continue your worship. Instead, understand that worship has been suspended for a season. Use this as a time to examine your own heart.
He continues by saying:
Instead of soul-searching as to why the central place of Jewish corporate worship had been removed, the Pharisees capitalized on the moment, knowing the Sadducees had lost their power. The synagogue would now become the center of Jewish religion, and the study of Torah a de facto form of atonement.
Was it bad for the Jews to want to continue worship as a result of the destruction of the Temple? Yes. But why? Because they had rejected the Messiah and, thus, were left without a lawful means of worship. This is not the case for many churches who have opted to continue worshiping during these trying times. New Covenant people are free to worship according to New Covenant ordinances unless God Himself changes or abolishes those ordinances through special revelation.
Pharisees were in sin while proceeding with Judaistic worship, not because they wanted to worship per se, but because they wanted to worship in the wrong way, that is, according to the Old Covenant instead of the New. They had rejected Christ, and with Him they rejected all lawful worship.
He goes on:
My argument was simple: we should mourn the loss of corporate worship, encourage home and family worship, pastor and disciple through technological means, but not attempt to create the impression that we are really still conducting corporate worship, in the truest sense.
He has just finished arguing against live-stream video “worship.” I would agree with his assessment on that point. Christians cannot worship through the internet. But what’s his alternative? Shut it down completely? If it’s a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship to live-stream a worship service under the pretence of that live-stream being an optional mode of divine worship, then surely it’s a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship to cancel worship altogether.
Where in the Scriptures are pastors given the authority to cancel worship? Historically, only God Himself has done this, not through natural means, but through special revelation in concert with providence (i.e. a pronounced or prophesied judgment). De Bruyn continues:
Instead of asking how God might be chastening us, we find a way to notice the crisis without pondering its meaning, to respond to its exigencies without responding to its existence. That’s exactly how you end up like the rabbis of the first century: use necessity to justify pragmatism.
Unlike the providential hindrances throughout biblical antiquity, today’s crisis has no specially revealed divine commentary. Thus, De Bruyn’s interpretation of current events may be different than, but just as valid as, mine. Why? Because God hasn’t told us what they mean. God may have sent COVID-19 to test His church, to see whether or not she would continue to worship Him despite adversity and affliction. Or He could’ve sent COVID-19 to cancel the worship of His people. Which speculative assertion is correct? We have no way of knowing unless God Himself were to tell us. But, God’s canon is closed, leaving us with one option: Obey what He has told us through His holy Word.
He concludes his article by asking multiple questions, the answers to which would be purely speculative. Though De Bruyn never indicts pastors for continuing worship, implied in at least two of his articles (this one included) is that the pandemic equals prevention of corporate worship. But this is not so. There are many good churches who continue to meet while taking necessary precautions to ensure the safety of their people. There is nothing providentially preventing God’s people from corporate worship, and many churches who continue to gather across the nation prove just that.
There is much more that could be said here. Unfortunately, I have run out of both space and time.
There are ways for churches to continue gathering according to the biblical ordinance of corporate worship.
I fear Christians are seeing only two options: (1) tempt God and, in a grand act of idiocy, continue services as if the virus isn’t a thing (this does happen); or (2) capitulate to the government and cease worship for the foreseeable future (this happens even more).
There is, however, a third option: (3) adapt and overcome through obedience to Christ. God has not taken away our worship. Only the Word of God could take away our worship. He has, however, set a trial before us through which He is working the good of those who love and fear Him (Rom. 8:28). We must obey God rather than men, and we must obey according to the wisdom of the Scriptures.
In their first podcast for 2020, Beeson Divinity School started the year off with a bang (transcript found here).
The hosts of the podcast, Doug Sweeney and Kristen Padilla, sat down to talk with Esau McCaulley and Osvaldo Padilla, both of which are professors—McCaulley at Wheaton, and Padilla at Beeson.
Their conversation spoke mainly to the issue of biblical interpretation and couched that discussion within the seat of what appears to be a more subjective, racialized approach to the interpretational endeavor. McCaulley states:
What I have in mind when I refer to African Americans are, the history, custom songs and experiences that have shaped the African American experience in the United States. And because of those experiences, we bring certain questions and issues and emotions to a Bible reading (emphasis mine).
Now, the assertion that we come to the biblical text with experiences, at first glance, seems prima facie true, and—in large part—it is. No one denies that we bring personal experiences to the biblical text. The question then becomes, What do we do with those experiences? He goes on to say:
And so when I talk about the African American tradition, I talk about all of those things. The way that our history, our experiences and our culture influences the questions we ask and the responses that we give to the answers the Bible brings back to us.
McCaulley, then, wants to encourage ethnically and culturally related questions to be asked by the would-be exegete as they interpret the Bible. But is this really how we ought to use experience in the task of biblical interpretation? Again, no one denies we have experiences with which we approach the text (such a denial would be absurd). The question is, What do we do with them?
I think the answer is largely found in the question that should motivate and shape all biblical interpretation in the first place. If you’ve been to seminary in the last fifty years, chances are you learned about the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. In fact, your head is probably still ringing from how hard the professor hammered it home. The fundamental question asked in that hermeneutical strategy is, What did the original author intend to say? Historically and most normally, however, the church has been motivated by the question, What does God intend by this or that text? I submit that the latter question ought to motivate and shape the way we come to the Bible. There is no more important question than, “What does God intend to communicate to us?”
So, when McCaulley talks about these questions with which blacks have supposedly approached the text he’s overcomplicating the interpretational task and he’s leading his followers and students down a dangerous road. They’ll be more prone to bend and mold the text into an attractive answer to problems arising from their experiences rather than ask and answer the question, “What has God said?” This is no way to discover truth. It’s only a way to put a bandaid on contemporary problems—what all forms of theological liberalism tries to do. Liberalism trades heaven for the here and now, and this is exactly what McCaulley is encouraging his students to do. McCaulley also says:
But we tend to say, “Well, okay, you have this one passage in Timothy, but let’s look at what the entire Bible reveals to us about God’s character and how that reveals what he thinks about slavery.” And so for that reason, we developed what I call the canonical instinct.
This just describes a tool Christians, black or white, slave or free, have been using for 2,000 years. It’s the analogia fidei or the analogy of faith. An interpretation of any given passage cannot contradict the whole of Christian teaching as it’s presented in the Scriptures. This prevents a-contextual readings of certain passages which people might use for wicked purposes.
If McCaulley wants to claim his subjective approach to the text has encouraged a canonical reading, he is sorely mistaken. It most certainly has encouraged men like James Cone and his Black Liberation Theology, but it has not encouraged a canon-centered reading of the text. That interpretational tool is as old as the Bible itself and is chiefly motivated by the question, “What did God say?” not questions arising from subjective experiences. Do not be fooled. McCaulley is not advocating for an objective reading of the Bible. He’s arguing for a reading of the Bible shaped by fluid experience; a reading that’s more Schleiermachian than orthodox.
The experiences McCaulley suggests his black students appeal to are constrained by their blackness. It’s the black experience that should motivate black Christians to ask certain questions which then motivates their biblical interpretation—interpretation designed to answer questions arising from experience. McCaulley’s suggestion gets it all backwards. We derive the doctrine first, from Scripture, then we apply that doctrine to our situation. Our situation should not determine the doctrine. Our doctrine should determine how we respond in any given situation.
McCaulley’s method sets up an unnecessary and unbiblical competition between black and white bible expositors. If a black theologian comes to a particular conclusion from Scripture using an approach shaped, at least in part, by his experience as an oppressed black man, then any white theologian who suggests his reading is wrong will, no doubt, be accused of racism or prejudice. The quest for truth will be completely interrupted. The black interpretation of the bible must be right because it grows out of an experience of victimhood. To call the victim wrong not only appears to be impious, but it smacks of insensitivity and racism.
Why not avoid all of this conflict by reading the Bible as it was meant to be read? Why not act like children of God, who are no longer Jews nor Greeks, but Christians, and learn at the feet of Jesus, asking the all-important question, “What do you want to teach me, my Lord?” Other questions can be asked and answered after we discover what God has actually said (Jn. 5:24).