In a box somewhere I have a book entitled ‘Faith of our Fathers’. It is a long while since I read it but, as I recall, it is a semi-popular history book describing the beliefs and exploits of some of our English forebears. It is the sort of book that Christians, especially lay people, should be aware of since it helps fill in the background needed to understand the church or at least the Churches. But while we might well admire and even emulate our forebears’ struggle of faith, it by no means follows that we should adopt all their doctrinal beliefs. To suggest that we should is to deem them infallible and regard the tradition they have bequeathed to us as unalterable. This is Pharisaism all over again and a betrayal of the reforming spirit (semper eadem, always the same, instead of semper reformanda, always in the process of reform).
It is worthy of note that in the Bible itself there is much evidence of progress in doctrine, for the early beliefs and practices of many of the forefathers are strongly reprobated (cf. e.g. Ezek. 20:7f.,27f.). Careful reading soon impresses on us the fact that heroes of the faith themselves grew in understanding and to do so they usually had to enter uncharted territory. Abraham doubtless left behind him some of the false ideas he had learned in Ur (Jos. 24:2); Moses, though well versed in the wisdom of Egypt, was willing to set it aside in obedience to God in order to lead his people towards the Promised Land (cf. Acts 7:22 and Ezek. 23:3ff.); Joshua had to challenge his charges with commitment and obedience to the Lord (24:14f.); and Rahab (cf. Jos. 2:11) and Ruth (1:16) had to abandon the faith of their forefathers in order to serve the living God (Mt. 1:5). The pattern is constantly repeated throughout Scripture. In the NT we have only to think of the apostles, Paul in particular (see e.g. Acts 22:3; 24:14f.; Gal. 1:13-16; Phil. 3:7f.; 1 Tim. 1:13-16), Cornelius (Acts 10), and, of course, the Gentiles in general (Col.1:13; 1 Thes. 1:9f.). So the lesson we are meant to learn is that progress is only achieved by abandoning what is false, or at least inadequate, and embracing what is true (Acts 26:18,20; 1 Pet. 1:18f.) bearing in mind that suppression of truth is not peculiar to pagans (cf. Rom. 1:18).
The Situation Today
In light of this it is hardly surprising that the forefathers or ancestors often get a very poor press in Scripture, and imitating them in their stubbornness is strongly criticised (cf. Ps. 78:8; Jer. 3:25; Zech. 1:2-4; Acts 7:51-53, etc.). It may be replied that much of what our forefathers believed is perennial truth and solidly biblical. Perhaps, but when we accept their teaching we need to be sure that this really is the case. It is imperative for us to avoid the situation described in Jeremiah where the Rechabites are commended for honouring the command of their forefather, Jonadab, while the Judahites in general are criticised for failing to accept the instruction of God himself (35:12ff.). So when many nowadays set up the Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, the Puritans, the early Methodists and others as a standard for our own times, we need to distinguish carefully between their justifying faith, which we rightly emulate, and their articles of belief, which may well need close examination before they are accepted. As Bishop Westcott once pointedly indicated, “And the sovereign pre-eminence of Scripture as the vehicle of spiritual knowledge lies in this, that it finds fuller interpretation from growing experience. The Scripture does not change, but the power of entering into its meaning changes” (The Epistles of John, London, 1883, p.305). Failure to recognise this principle may well mean that our predecessors’ faith becomes a serious stumbling block and a hindrance to us in our own day. In fact, it is precisely in this way that false traditions arise, which end up nullifying the word of God (Mark 7:7f.). If such traditions are not purged from our thinking, it is almost impossible for new light to shine. And this would seem to be the impasse confronting us at the moment. We must be prepared to consider that the possibly futile ideas we have inherited from our fathers are blocking or blurring our vision (cf. 1 Pet. 1:18). If this is so, the sooner we gain new lenses the better.
Jeremiah and Inherited Lies
Jeremiah’s standing as a true prophet was often in serious question. In the conviction that God had called him he bravely stood his ground and even went on the offensive. In 16:19 in a prayer to God he maintains that the nations will one day confess that they have inherited lies (cf. Jer. 14:14; Ezek. 20:18 and Amos 2:4 regarding Israel). He goes further, especially in chapter 23, and denounces many of his own contemporaries as false prophets, accuses them of knowingly telling lies and hence of perverting the word of God (see e.g. 23:31f.; 29:21,29, cf. Isa. 28:15,17). Jesus, of course, did the same at a later date (see e.g. Mt. 23; Luke 6:23,26; 11:37ff.). In fact, there is good reason for thinking that religious traditionalists proved his greatest opponents as they did of Paul (Mark 7:1-23; 2 Cor. 3:1-18). It was Paul, in fact, who warned frequently of false teachers who more often than not were fellow Jews, the self-proclaimed devotees of Moses. It is reasonable to conclude that if this was true in NT times, the same may well be true in our own day. So the question we must seek to answer is, Have we inherited lies? Regrettably, my response to this is an unequivocal yes, and some of them at least I will proceed to outline below.
Personal Difficulties with Received Covenant Theology
Nearly forty years ago I was irritated and somewhat puzzled by my failure to understand current teaching about the covenant. I read Calvin’s Institutes and the systematic theologies of stalwarts like Hodge and Berkhof and numerous smaller works to no avail. It seemed to me even at that stage that Berkhof’s assertion that the covenant with Abraham and the Sinaitic covenant were essentially the same was simply false (pp. 297f., cf. Murray, CW 2, p.50). In about 1965 I gave attention to Murray’s “The Covenant of Grace”, but received no help. The main problem here was that Murray seemed to be saying, especially with regard to the Mosaic covenant, what the Bible specifically disallowed. I was further disoriented by the title of Kevan’s “The Grace of Law”, and helped not at all when I read such comments, as “The outcome of the Puritan debate was that, on the whole, it was agreed that the Mosaic covenant was a form of the Covenant of Grace; and this view was embodied in the Confession of Faith” (p.117, cf. Heppe, p.399; Murray, CW2, p.50). It was not until the end of 1969 that a friend, who had a good knowledge of Reformed theology, confirmed what I had suspected, that is, that the Mosaic covenant was indeed considered part of the covenant of grace. In other words, Reformed theology regarded the law not simply as a gift of grace but as grace in itself – a Pelagian idea that my Bible forbade me to believe. I knew then that I had to try to understand exactly what the biblical view was. Strangely, it did not take me long to find out. It soon became clear that the ‘unity of the covenant’ (or one covenant in two dispensations) idea was impossible. Not only did some Reformed theologians reject it and opt for the federal view but, since the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were as different as chalk and cheese, the five divine covenants could not simply be merged in such a way as to eradicate their distinctive, even contrasting, features. Thus I concluded that there were three principal or dispensational covenants: the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Moses and the Christian covenant. On the basis of my reading of Luke 1:32f.,54f., 72f. and Romans 4:1-8 I saw the Abrahamic and the Davidic covenants as being essentially promises. In view of this I was led to believe that the covenants taken as a whole constituted a triad, a revelation of the Trinity in saving power. To date I have had no reason to doubt the validity of this. In fact, a more detailed examination of federal theology, which I undertook somewhat later, seemed to confirm my findings.
The Adamic Covenant
At the time I gave little thought to the so-called covenant with Adam, which does not appear in the Bible. However, I am persuaded that our forebears had good reason to consider it as having all the hallmarks of a covenant. The problem is that they treated it as if it resembled, even paralleled, the covenant of Christ, which is conditioned on faith. In fact, as I eventually came to realise, if the Adamic administration, as it is referred to by Murray (CW 2, pp.47ff.), is to be considered a covenant at all (and Murray denies this), it is clearly a precursor, or rudimentary version, of the later and fuller Mosaic covenant. And just as the latter, while it had a mediator who acted on behalf of God, had no head, neither had the Adamic arrangement. Furthermore, just as the Mosaic covenant of law promised blessing for obedience and curse for disobedience (Dt. 30:15-20; Isa.1:19f.; Jer. 21:8f., etc.) so did the Adamic covenant (Gen.2:9,17, cf. Rom. 7:9f.). This being so, the inference we are forced to draw from the notion that Adam acted on our behalf as our covenant head and representative and that we were ‘in him’ (apart from faith) as we are ‘in Christ’ (by faith) is that a ghastly error has been perpetrated.
This brings us to the second lie we have inherited, that is, the idea of original sin so enthusiastically espoused by Augustine and perpetuated so far as Protestants are concerned in the 39 Articles (9) and the WCF (6). The plain fact is that this iniquitous dogma is neither taught nor can be taught in the Bible, where it is made pellucidly clear that babies, who know neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f., cf. 8:4), cannot be guilty of sin (John 9:41; 15:22,24; Rom. 3:19f.; 7:1,7), least of all the sin of their fathers including Adam (Dt. 24:16; Job 21:19-21; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 3; 18; 33). Apart from any other consideration, and there are many others, if original sin were true, Jesus, the second Adam, being genuinely a son of the first (Luke 3:38), would necessarily have been implicated, and this the Bible rigorously disallows.
Thirdly, the dogma of original righteousness and of a fall from it is clearly a lie. How could Adam, who knew neither good nor evil, have ever been righteous when righteousness is attained only by keeping the law or commandment he so obviously failed to keep once it was given (Gen. 2:17; Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7, etc.)? Righteousness was, of course, the goal or end of his life, not its beginning (cf. 2 Tim. 4:8). Even Jesus as man had to attain his standing by keeping the law, for he also, like Adam, was born knowing neither good nor evil (Isa. 7:15f.). To start with perfection would have been logically to dispense with probation (cf. e.g. Dt. 8:2,16) and in effect to put the cart before the horse. If Adam fell at all, he ‘fell’ from innocence as we all do (Rom.3:23; 5:12; 7:9f.; 9:11). But whereas Adam had no predecessors to affect his moral conduct, unless we regard Eve as one, we are all affected by his, as Paul is at pains to teach in Romans 5:12-21 (cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Num. 14:18; Jer. 11:10; 14:20; 16:11f.; 32:18f., etc.), a passage which Augustine failed abysmally to understand, though it must be said in fairness partly through a bad Latin translation (see e.g. Needham, p. 50 n.4). He was, however, particularly blameworthy for failing to take seriously Pelagius’ insistence on imitation, or better repetition, for which there is massive support from Genesis to Revelation (e.g. John 8:39ff.; Acts 7:52; 3 John 11). At the end of the day we are all followers, first of Adam and then, as believers, of Jesus, the second Adam, as we are empowered by the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-49).
Original Perfection and Cosmic Curse
Yet another lie associated with the Augustinian teaching is the original perfection of creation, including man, and the notion of a cosmic curse. While Scriptural evidence for it is almost entirely lacking, unless more is read into Genesis 3:17-19 than is there and Romans 8:19-25 is quite unwarrantably dragged in, for sixteen centuries at least the church has taught it and as a consequence failed miserably to see that the very first words of Scripture give the lie to it. Since creation has a beginning (Gen.1:1) and hence an end (cf. Heb. 7:3,16), being temporal, it is ipso facto imperfect, i.e. incomplete and in strong contrast to the eternal God (Isa. 40:6-8) who alone is perfect (Isa. 57:15; Mt. 5:48). But if we have failed to recognise this by logical reasoning, we should have learnt it long ago by the simple process of reading it, for it is extensively taught in the Bible (see e.g. Ps. 90:2; 102:25-27; Isa. 34:4; 51:6,8; Mt. 5:18; 24:35; 1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:15-17; Rev. 6:12-17; 16:17-21; 20:11; 21:1-4, etc.). Once its harvest has been reaped, the present material creation will be dispensed with as was always intended (cf. Gen.8:22; Rev.14:14-20). While there is no denying that all sins carry curses (Gal. 3:10-13; Heb. 2:2; 10:28), the fundamental impermanence and imperfection of creation are intrinsic and largely, if not entirely, unrelated to them. This is surely what Paul is saying in that much abused and sadly paraphrased (see v.21) passage Romans 8:19-25.
A New Creation
This leads to yet another point. Under the influence of Augustine it is still widely held that having been born again spiritually we shall be fitted physically for a new material creation. Even though this is manifestly denied by Jesus (John 3:1-8) and Paul (1 Cor. 15:42ff.; cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-5:5), it is held tenaciously by those for whom tradition has compelling power. The truth is, of course, that we shall be given spiritual bodies like that of Christ to fit us for heaven and the presence of God (1 Pet. 4:6). When we consider that even the stars are not clean in God’s sight (Job 25:5, cf. 4:17-19; 15:14; Rom.3:19f.; 1 Cor.1:29), the idea that dust will somehow be immortalised or eternalised is a massive blunder. God has always intended to perfect us in heaven, that is, in his own presence and as his children. And since he is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29), the relevance of Isaiah’s question is beyond dispute: “Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” (33:14, cf. James 5:3).
Augustine’s manifestly unbiblical dogma of original sin necessarily gave rise to yet another serious heresy. For, on the assumption that we are born sinful, the need to be born again to counteract our dreadful condition becomes paramount. In other words, the cure for original sin becomes regeneration (cf. Needham, pp. 59,251, etc.). The falsity of this ought to be obvious. First, regeneration, if words mean anything at all, normally relates to ordinary generation, to our natural birth as flesh (cf. John 3:4). But just as Paul tells us that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven since it is perishable by nature (1 Cor. 15:50), so Jesus informs us that, biblically speaking, regeneration or being born from above (cf. Gal. 4:26) refers to the spirit. This is surely the meaning of John 3:6 where flesh and spirit are presented in antithesis. It is not surprising, however, to find our forebears, operating under Augustine’s influence, contrasting spirit with (sinful) flesh (see e.g. Hodge ST, 2:242; Ryle, p.3; Litton, p.191). How different is the exegesis of more recent commentators such as Morris (p.219), for example. Next, while regeneration has the effect of sanctifying our lives (Tit. 3:3-7), nowhere does the Bible suggest that it can purge our guilt whether original or personal (cf. Needham, e.g. p. 251). That is the work of the atonement (Rev. 1:5). And to confuse sin and grace on the one hand with flesh and spirit on the other has catastrophic theological implications. The plain fact is that rebirth was NOT instituted to counter original sin but to prepare us as creatures of flesh and blood for the presence of God (1 Pet. 3:18; 4:6, etc.) as was ever the divine intention (John 17:24; Rom. 8:15b-18,29; 2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:4ff.; 1 John 3:2). Regeneration is integral to perfection, that is, spiritual completeness and maturity (cf. James 1:4), and had Jesus himself, as one who was truly human, not attained to righteousness, been born again (Mt.3:17; 12:18) in accordance with the promise of Leviticus 18:5 (cf. Gen. 2:17) and then enabled to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15, cf. 19:21), he could not have been perfected (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28).
If my analysis of regeneration is correct and it relates primarily not to sin but to our natural condition which needs to be transcended to enable us to enter heaven, it surely follows that the idea that you can be born again before you are born naturally is, to put it bluntly, absurd. Yet many (including Packer, p.158) over the years, viewing Jeremiah (1:5) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), have drawn that conclusion even in spite of the fact that Jesus pointedly refers to John as the greatest of those “born of women” (Mt.11:11). But this idea arises inexorably from a false covenant theology, coupled with the dogma of original sin, which makes it indispensably necessary for even a baby to be born again. Since this cannot happen through faith engendered by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:17; James 1:18) and confession of sin, it is little wonder that Augustine laid great emphasis on baptismal regeneration which continues to haunt the Catholic wing of the church to this day. (I can sympathise to some degree with Needham’s opinion that Augustine’s motives were noble, but I am not at all impressed with his contention that baptismal regeneration “becomes a brilliant illustration of God’s grace in salvation”, p.34. In my view it reflects the inadequacy of his theology and a man-centred attempt to manipulate divine grace.) And though this dogma is widely denied in Protestantism, despite the terminology of the Anglican liturgy (see Australian Prayer Book, p.501), infant baptism is still regarded as fundamental to Reformed theology.
Our Heavenly Bodies
In these days when Islam and other world religions such as Hinduism are resurgent, it is absolutely vital for us to understand that our bodies in heaven will be spiritual and not physical/material. This is the point of what Jesus is saying in John 3:1-8 and of Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 15. If it is true that the physical creation will pass away, there is no place for physical bodies. Paul indicates that the flesh (earth) precedes spirit in God’s scheme of things (15:46,23) and that resurrection will also involve transformation. Jesus, in telling Nicodemus that he cannot re-enter his mother’s womb, implicitly denies the possibility of re-incarnation, which in turn undermines basic teaching of Hinduism, Buddhism and the Muslim idea of a sensual paradise in the next world. (It also undermines the premillennialist teaching that Jesus will return to earth in the flesh!) Regrettably for them the misguided young men who flew their hijacked planes into the twin towers in New York on 11 September 2001 have not been greeted by a bevy of virgins, despite Osama Bin Laden’s assurances. On the other hand, they would hardly have gathered this from the teaching of some Christians whose court of appeal is tradition but certainly not the word of God.
Of course, there are still more skeletons in the fundamentalist-traditionalist cupboard, but this is hardly the place to draw a bead on them. Perhaps it should be said by way of conclusion that failure to understand the covenant, the framework within which the teaching of the Bible is presented, is the most prolific source of misunderstanding. Error at this point is to put practically everything out of joint. Here, however, I have to make a confession myself. I originally worked out my own view of the covenant as explained above. And though I had seen odd references to ante legem, sub lege et post legem or sub gratia (before, under and after the law or under grace) in various places (cf. Gal. 6:15, etc.) usually historical works, I read with something of a shock that Pelagius of all people held to a similar view in his dispute with Augustine. The latter’s failure to be impressed by such “dispensationalism” (see Needham, p.88) has in the event been calamitous. (Calvin also failed to develop a covenant theology. For all that, the following comment from his Institutes is profoundly thought-provoking: “… if a householder instructs, rules, and guides his children one way in infancy, another in youth, and still another in young manhood, we shall not on that account call him fickle and say that he abandons his purpose”, 2:11:13, quoted by Ryrie, p.41. It is a pity some of those who claimed to follow in his footsteps later, not to mention the Dispensationalists of our own day, failed to read Galatians 3:23-4:7 and 1 Corinthians 10:32, for example, and come to similar conclusions.) It is still not too late to put matters right. But that would be to call for a new reformation and the end of the equation of fundamentalism with evangelicalism. Are we prepared for it? If we are not and persist in taking refuge in lies, we are making a covenant with death (Isa. 28:14-22, cf. 30:12ff.).
L.Berkhof, Systematic Theology, London, 1959.
C.Hodge, Systematic Theology, London, 1960.
H.Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, Grand Rapids, 1978.
E.A.Litton, Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, ed. Hughes, London, 1960.
L.L.Morris, The Gospel According to John, Grand Rapids, 1971.
J.Murray, The Covenant of Grace, London, 1954.
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E.F.Kevan, The Grace of Law, London, 1964.
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