Reflections on interpretation and education

The Best and the Worst of Tim Keller’s “Center Church.”

Tim Keller’s Magnum Opus, Center Church, is impressive.  You can find it here.  He has a comprehensive grasp on what is going on in the church and scholarship today.   Keller is a synthesizer. He draws from many traditions in order to present us with a church that is well-balanced in relation to the city and its culture.  He continually demonstrates both psychological and cultural savvy.

Keller’s Contextualization

Keller’s grasp of human psychology is the most valuable thing you will go away with.  It is particularly evident in the section on contextualization.  He argues that in any culture we can separate Christian beliefs into “A” and “B”  categories.  The “A” category are those beliefs that our culture will easily agree with.  The “B” category are those beliefs which offend our culture.  Different cultures will gravitate toward certain doctrines in the Christian faith.  This is not only true of cultures.  Persons with different backgrounds will find Jesus attractive in different ways, but they need the presentation of the whole Christ.

Quite simply, it is wise to start with agreement.  You don’t begin with conflict.  That will come.  If your friend does not confess the truth of Jesus Christ, the question of his existence will eventually come up. Find the “A” doctrines and work to the “B” doctrines.  Find out why Jesus is attractive to the people you are ministering to.  Why is it possible to do this?  It is because the gospel is cohesive. The teachings of scripture are united in the person of Christ.  If your audience, or your friend, find some teaching of scripture compelling, work from that to the rest of the doctrines of Christ.

For example, people in Canada, find the love and sacrifice of Christ compelling.  They don’t like the doctrine of hell.  But if Christ is truly loving, how can he ignore those who hate and ignore his church? You might try to get them to imagine a society where crime gets no punishment.  Some type of justice is necessary. In this way, you can bring the whole gospel to a person in a winsome and helpful manner.

Keller’s Movement

Keller’s comments on movement are also very helpful. He sets movement at odds with institutions. To keep it simple: movements are about growth and revival.  Institutions are about stability.  Keller argues that the church must always include both.

He applies this to church planting.  Church planting has to be a movement.  Church planting, after all, is about growth.  We plant a church in order to bring the good news to a new area.  Church planting itself gives the church an opportunity for how we do church.   As a byproduct church planting strengthens the institutions of other churches that are already in the area.

He also warns against institutions that are so rigid that they don’t allow for movement.  I think this is a helpful warning to the more conservative denominations of today. It is good for their own health.  It is very easy to use one’s power to hold an unhealthy control over churches within one’s own group.

Unfortunately, he assumes denominationalism.  This is helpful in so far as the church deals with the reality of denominationalism today.  However, Keller’s assumption seems to be more than a reckoning with the realities of today.  He is largely content with denominationalism.  Perhaps he sees it as a necessary evil in that denominationalism creates competition, which forces churches to produce effective ministers. It is hard to tell, since Keller rarely deals with denominationalism directly.  When he does he has a light touch.

He forgets that there are other models from the past such as the Medieval European church, the Anglican church and the state churches of Europe.  All of these have been effective as institutions and at the same time have had their renewal movements.   As an aside, I should add that I do not favor state churches.  But neither do I accept denominationalism.  I believe that the church may well take on new structures in the future that go beyond a simple dichotomy between state churches and denominational churches.

A Major Criticism: an ill-defined church

But I have a much harsher criticism of Keller’s book.  I believe this criticism applies to every part of the book.

Keller has an invisible center church.  His center church has faith, but it is hard to tell how exactly it is a center church.  Keller fundamentally downplays the marks of the church.  It may also play into how he downplays the institutional nature of the church.  He downplays the sacraments.  He seems to see them as merely an aid to faith, rather than ritual signs that create a fundamental boundary between the church and the world.  Throughout the book, he talks about the importance of sacraments, and of different metaphors for the church, but he does not have a strong sacramental boundary between the church and the world.  I believe we end up with a center church that isn’t really a center church.

Attention to the sacraments would reveal that the church is a counter-polity a counter-city to the city.  The sacraments give the Christian confidence in knowing that they are citizens of heaven.  Others have argued that Keller is compromising in the way he reaches out to the city.  A strong emphasis on sacraments would demonstrate that the church is a holy people.  It would demonstrate that the church is the truly just society.  It would also keep the antithesis between the church and the world strong, while allowing the members of the church to interact freely and graciously with all men.  This is because the members of the church would know their true citizenship.

One could argue that this is not the real concern of Tim Keller for he is dealing with the church relative to mission.  I would argue that this is impossible.  For a large part of the book, Tim Keller is talking about the sociology of the church.  He is defining the church in relation to the city and to society more generally.  His inattention to the role of the sacraments in defining the Christian community is inexcusable: especially for a Presbyterian minister. Yes, the essence of the church is important,  the church needs to be understood as the community of believers.  But sociologically, the church is a sacramental body.  This does not undermine the church as a movement.  The sacraments are such that they are easily done among believers wherever the Spirit moves.  You ignore that at the peril of the stability of the church itself.


As they say, “it is what it is.” Keller is a man of his time.  Our times are not times where sacraments are emphasized.  This is particularly true among the evangelical establishment.  In many ways, he is the best that contemporary evangelicalism has to offer.  His book is a gift to the Christian community and it should not be ignored.

Holy War and Exuberance in Worship

Let me begin with a general observation; one to which there are likely many exceptions.  In the worship wars, there seems to be a divide between those who push exuberance in worship and those who feel uncomfortable with what seems to be an excess of personal feeling in worship.

Think of things like raising or clapping your hands or moving around.  On the one side, people will point to the many passages in scripture, which support such actions.  There are calls to raise your hands in the scripture.  There are calls to shouts of joy. They will conclude that worship should be an informal expression of such feelings.  Worship should be a heart experience.

On the other side, many will point to other passages in scripture. These emphasize the Holiness of God and the sober reflection necessary to enter his courts on the Lord’s Day.  They will call for formal worship.  Worship is a heart experience, but they emphasize the heart in its role of confessing and learning. They will often dismiss the calls to demonstrate exuberance as cultural practices, which are not necessary to follow today.

In my mind, this is a very frustrating conversation because both sides are ignoring certain scripture passages.  I sympathize more with those who emphasize formal worship for reasons I will detail below (They have a better beginning than those who call for worship according to personal feelings toward God), but I am distraught that they often fail to integrate calls to exuberance in scripture in their worship.

In order to understand how to fit the calls to exuberance in scripture to worship, we need to examine worship in light of a theme that is often ignored in scripture: holy war.  As James Jordan has argued repeatedly, “worship is holy war.”  This doesn’t mean that worship is merely holy war.  Worship is also a drawing near to God. Worship is about renewal for the week ahead.

Why do we say that worship is holy war?

I want to work from three different passages in the Old Testament where Christ used the worship of his people in order to accomplish a victory for his people.  The first comes from Exodus 17. At the end of that passage, the Amalekites attack Israel.  In the war that ensues, it is the place of Moses’ hands that decide the victory.  While Moses’ hands reached up to God the battle went well.  When Moses let his hands down the battle went badly.  The battle depended on the worship of God.

Another passage comes from 1 Samuel.  In 1 Samuel Israel gathers to free herself from the Philistines.  In the midst of that battle, Samuel is offering a burnt offering.  By that burnt offering; by that holy worship, God accomplishes victory.

A 3rd passage is found in 1 Chronicles 20.  In that passage, King Jehoshaphat, obeying the command of the Lord, puts singers in front of his army to singpraises the Lord.  We are told that the moment they began to shout and praise the Lord, God set an ambush against their enemies.

A fourth passage confirms what we have seen in these other passages.  In Psalm 8, God tells us that it is through the praise of babies that he ordains strength.

We need to understand that the war is won in the worship that the Israelites offer, not in the actual war with swords and arrows.  The war is won through a humble expression of need for God.  And when God knows that his people believe in his promises and are seeking his righteousness that is when God acts in favor of his people. We should not hold to this in a simplistic way though.  Perhaps God wants to use dark times in order to accomplish his purposes.

The fact that worship is Holy War certainly affects the matter of our worship.  We emphasize that Christ is a king and through us he is fighting a war against principalities and powers (Ephesians 6). The church fight that war in worship. She wars against our own corrupt flesh in worship.  We are at war with Satan in worship.  We also fight the war as we go out from worship.

Worship trains us for war during the week.  Think of our last example from the Old Testament, the story of Jehoshaphat from 2 Chronicles 20.  In the beginning of the chapter, the people come together to worship God.  Later in the chapter, they go out to war worshipping God.  Through their worship, they have learned how to fight against their enemies.  It should be the same with us.  We need to learn to approach our big struggles in life with confession, with prayer, with praise and with hearing the Word of God.

At the same time, the fact that worship is Holy War affects the manner of worship.  If worship is holy war, then the church is an exercise room, where Christ trains us in the disciplines of following God.  Such an understanding demands formality in worship.

Type of exuberance

That formality is not without exuberance.  It must have exuberance.  God commands exuberance in scripture.  But this is not an informal exuberance.  Rather, it is an ordered exuberance. We might say, “a military exuberance.”  As we have said, when we go to worship we are in the training room of God.  That is why it is fitting for us to kneel, to stand to raise our hands because we do so as the mighty army of God.  We offer God our praise as the corporate body of God. Each individual adds his or her zeal within order that is given.

Jesus fulfills the law: He Creates a Spiritual People

The 3rd part of “Jesus fulfills the law.”

Christ fulfilled the law.  Now when Christ or Paul talk about the law they are referring to the entirety of the law, both the rules and the institutions which they are connected to. We’ve already shown how Jesus fulfilled other portions of the law here and here. I’m referring, more particularly, to the many rules that God gives in the Old Testament.

Christ obeyed those perfectly.  From the Ten Commandments to the laws concerning the clean and unclean.  When we come to Christ in faith, we receive everything that he did for us from the beginning of his life to the end of his life, so that we may have perfection in all that we do.  That is why our good works are pleasing to God.  We have his full righteousness, the whole Christ; so that he counts or sin-filled works as good.  God even gives a reward out of the mere grace of God. Knowing this, we cannot but respond with such a joy.  Our efforts feel so tiny, almost useless, but Christ is our righteousness.

How does he do this?  As we have already mentioned, he sends out his Spirit among us, to guide us and direct us so that as we read in Romans 8:, the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, so that we too may be holy, righteous and blameless, so that we may really do good things before God.

So how do we learn from all those rules of the Old Testament through Christ?  How do we order our lives after those laws?  We first need to understand, how Christ changed our relationship to the law.  Christ freed us from the law.  Paul teaches us in Galatians 4 that the people of the Old Testament were under a tutor.  That tutor had absolute authority over the Jews.  The law taught them and as their tutor demanded obedience.

In Christ, we are freed.  We are no longer under the law.  Yet we still use the law.  For example, Paul uses the law that you should not muzzle your ox to encourage his hearers to provide for their leaders in 1 Corinthians 9:9. You might say that the law is now a mentor. The Spirit teaches us how to apply it to our lives.  In Christ, we’ve grown up and now we look with affection to our old tutor, the law, in order to find advice on ordering our lives.

Of course the centerpiece of the law, written by the very finger of God, the Ten Commandments, continue to have an important part in our lives.  This is the law of love, the law of Christ, that Christ gives to guide our lives.  Christ’s call to live by the fruits of the Spirit cannot be followed without the guidance of the Ten Commandments.  This is what we might call the substance of the law.  But we do so under Christ and guided by the Spirit.  We do not do so under the law.

But other laws of the Old Testament can guide us in how we live our lives as well. We can the example of the Old Testament to bring order to the church and to our individual lives. We’ve already noted how Paul uses the law about muzzling oxen.  For example, the practice of daily sacrifices teaches us the practice of daily devotion. No Christian will deny that daily devotions are a good way to order our lives.

The church, as a whole. may decide to have two services on Sunday based on the practice of morning and evening sacrifices.  We can also think of the practice of fasting in the Old Testament.  A local church may decide to call a day of fasting in order to meet certain problems in the world around them or within the church itself.  These are Spirit-led, free choices that the Spirit calls us to do for the sake of destroying the sin that remains in us and for expanding the kingdom of God.

We can learn from the law, as long as we do bind one another’s consciences to the practices that the Spirit has led our church too.  We do not argue from the law in order to control one another but in order to encourage and edify one another.  As individuals and as communities we learn from the law, but we do so in freedom from the law.

We are not law-led, we are Spirit led. And the Spirit leads us through the word of Christ. The perennial temptation of the church is to go back to the slavery of the law instead of the freedom of the Spirit.  That betrays a desire for slavery.  Instead look to your wisdom, Christ.  He gives you the Holy Spirit.  As John teaches us in 1 John 2:20, through that Holy Spirit, you know all things.

Christ fulfills the law: He Inaugurates a Spiritual Kingdom

The Second Part of  “Christ fulfills the law.”

The Land of Israel is intimately connected with the tabernacle system.  If you pay attention to where men offered sacrifices in the scriptures after the time of Abraham, it is consistently in the land of Israel.  The land is special and holy to God. God commands Israel in Deuteronomy to set up two stones and write the law on them, then set them up on Mt. Ebal in the holy land.  These were witnesses between the land and the people of Israel.   The Israelites are told in Leviticus 18 that if they sin against God the land would vomit them out.   The land turns against Israel when she sins through famine and through infertility.  If God is going to dwell in the land it must remain holy.

The role of the land in the Old Testament helps us to understand Holy War in the Old Testament.  The Canaanites had thoroughly defiled the land, so God used the Israelites as a judgment against them.  The role of the land also helps us understand why so many sins received capital punishment, especially the reason why idolaters received capital punishment.  If the land was defiled it brought judgment on the whole nation of Israel.  We can think of the sin of Achin and how that affected the entire Israelite community when they attacked Ai.  Achin’s sin had defiled the camp. The sin of the people defiled the land of Israel. The land had to remain pure because God desired to dwell among his people.

To understand Christ’s fulfillment of the land, we need to understand what the kingdom of God is and further on, the church.

Christ comes to inaugurate the kingdom of God.  This is Christ’s opening announcement in the gospels.  The kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom.  We can see it visibly in members of the church of Christ, laboring in whatever position God has called them too. But the kingdom is also invisible.  In fact, it is primarily invisible.  It is the work of the Spirit in transforming the hearts of the regenerate so that they love and serve their king.  As Christ says to his disciples in Luke 17: 21, “Nor will they say, “look here it is,” or “it’s over there!” for the kingdom of God is already among you.

In the Old Testament, that kingdom had definite boundaries.  In the New Testament, that kingdom is wherever believers are.  Our king is Christ. Christ is the anchor that keeps us rooted from above.  Christ is the ark according to 1 Peter 3, who keeps us safe in the troubled waters of our own day. We are citizens of heaven.  We cannot defile the land in the same way.  There remains a promise that the saints will inherit the earth, but our orientation to the land is different.  God bound the Jews to the land and the purity of the land.  God binds us together by the Spirit of Christ, as the church of God, to Christ’s body in heaven.

The Jews furthered the kingdom of Israel through obedience to God’s call to holiness so that the nations would be blessed by her.  Christians further the kingdom of God by calling all the people of the earth to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We also need to understand what the church is in order to understand how Christ fulfilled the role of the land.  The church is the gathering of the citizens of the kingdom so that they may worship God.  The Greek word for church is a political word, referring to a gathering of citizens in order to make decisions for a city. The church gathers in Christ.  They come as men and women born of the spirit of Christ.  The purity of the church depends on the purity of her members.

Once again we can ask how the church is to order her life according to God’s law in the Old Testament.  This time his word about the land. The church is called to purity through the use of church discipline.  The church is the gathering of a spiritual kingdom.  That means that she doesn’t use the sword to punish her offending members as they did in the Old Testament.

Rather the church uses spiritual means.  She guards the purity of the church through the preaching of the word. There is a possibility he may have to remove members from the fellowship at the Lord’s Table. She needs to remove those members of Christ, not from the land. This is how the church keeps herself pure. If she does not, it’s not the land that vomits her out, but God.  Think of Revelation 3: 15, where God threatens to vomit out the church of Laodicea if she does not repent.

At the same time, the promise to the church is that she will inherit the earth. God calls the church to wage a spiritual holy war against the lies of this world. We heard that this. She is called to do this in her own midst in order to protect her people.  God also calls her to apply the redemptive work of Christ in rescuing people from the lies of the devil.  Just as the church is the temple of Christ, so the church is the land of Christ, where people can be safe from the wrath of God.

Christ fulfills the law: Christ changes spiritual geography

n.b. I recently preached a sermon on Belgic Confession 25.  This Article deals with how Christ fulfilled the law. This doctrine is not well understood today and so I thought it was fitting to publish the sermon. I’ve divided it up into blog-sized sections for easier reading:


The basic institution in the Old Testament was the tabernacle or temple.  This was the center of Israelite culture and religion.  It was even their political center. David ruled from Jerusalem. This was the city where the ark was and later where the temple would be set up.  The tabernacle was the place where God could dwell with his people.  God set up the system of the law around the tabernacle in order to protect the people from his presence.  God is a holy God. Out of his grace and love for mankind, God desired to dwell with his people.  But his people needed to be protected from him, his power, and ultimately his holiness.  So God gave his people the law so that they would protect themselves from his holiness.

The people of Israel were able to approach God through various washings, through sacrifices, and through keeping themselves clean when approaching the temple, or the tabernacle, of God.  God even instituted levels of holiness in Israelite society.  There was a division of labor.  Everybody in society wasn’t able to keep the law equally rigorously so God gave Israelites a High Priest. He was required to keep the greatest level of Holiness; then Priests, then Levites and finally the rest of the people. The Holiest men were able to come the closest to God for the sake of the rest of the people.  These are the ceremonies and symbols of the law, which the Belgic Confession is speaking of.   These ceremonies allowed men to approach the God of heaven and earth.  The coming of Christ brought an end to all of these.

Why?  There is a host of aspects of Christ’s work that we could look at in order to see how he fulfilled every element of the temple, the sacrificial offerings and the various offices that God set up in and around the temple.  I want to focus on two aspects.  Christ’s fulfillment of the tabernacle itself and his fulfillment of the sacrificial system.

John 1: 14 gives us a hint as to how Christ fulfills the tabernacle system.  We are told there that the word became flesh and dwelt among us.  The Word, God, came down and took on flesh.  He was in a human body.  Remember what we said the tabernacle was for?  It was a place for God to dwell with his people so that, we could approach him.   John gives us a further hint through the Greek word he uses for dwell.  The word literally means tabernacled.  God dwelt among us in the flesh.

But Jesus did more.  He fulfilled the sacrificial system.  The ancient Israelites and to repeat the commanded sacrifices again and again so that men could draw near to God.  Jesus, by his death, offered a sacrifice that covers all sin; all sin.  That means that all the laws of uncleanness no longer apply.  We don’t need repeated sacrifices, we don’t need repeated washings.  We all need one sacrifice: Christ’s, and we only need one washing: his baptism.  This is why God tore the veil of seperation on the night of Christ’s death.  Any man could approach God through Christ.  There was no need for the institutions of the temple.  As the Belgic Confession says, they are abolished.

Ultimately, what happens is that the spiritual geography of the Old Testament is changed.  We have a New Testament spiritual geography.  The tabernacle is no longer a building, but the flesh of Christ.  Because Christ has gone to sit at the right hand of his father, our tabernacle is in heaven.  There is more.  Christ unites us to himself so that we also change.  In Christ, we are a temple of the Holy Spirit.

That is why God destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.  After Christ died and sat down at the right hand of God, the temple was no longer necessary.  When the Jews, who had rejected Christ, continued to use the rituals and ceremonies of the Old Testament the temple became an abomination. According to Hebrews, Christ’s fulfillment of the Mosaic system means that we may freely and confidently draw near to the throne of Christ. Christ’s truly powerful sacrifice covers corrupt flesh with his blood.   Those who defended the temple were now defending a false way to God. In a sense, it was a false Christ, claiming to continue the work that Christ had already accomplished.   God’s dwelling was now in Christ and those who were, and are today, united to Him.

And yet the substance of these remain for us in Jesus Christ according to the Belgic Confession.  The book of Hebrews gives us a way to understand this.  We still have a sacrifice.  We still have a tabernacle.  Because of Christ’s work their nature changed.

But the Belgic Confession doesn’t stop there, the author adds these words, “We still use these testimonies taken from the law and the prophets.” They have two uses for us.  They confirm the gospel to us.  We can see a little bit of what that means in seeing how Christ fulfilled the tabernacle and the sacrificial system.  The second use is that they help us “order our life in all honesty, according to God’s will and to his glory.”

How does the tabernacle system help us to order our lives? Surely this must refer to the Ten Commandments or maybe some of the civil laws might be helpful for the ordering of the church? Paul’s words to Timothy would suggest differently.  He tells us that all scripture is inspired and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, and for training in righteousness.

How does the tabernacle system train us in righteousness?  There is a lot to say, but I will mention a couple things.  The tabernacle system teaches us about how holy God is and how sinful we are.  Most importantly it teaches us that we may only approach God through the means he provides, namely Christ and his Spirit.

Further, it teaches us that we are to approach God with humility and with the desire to seek righteousness in Him.  It teaches us that this is something that is lifelong.  It teaches us about God’s desire for purity when we approach him.   We can also argue from the law that in Christ we are sacrifices before God.  That is what Paul suggests in Romans 12: 1.  He tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.  We do so with the same purity and humility that God called his people to in the Old Testament.

Did God make a Covenant with Adam?

In attempting to answer this question, I use the definition of the covenant I wrote of in the past. A covenant is a formalization of a personal relationship.  This leads me to answer both “yes” and “no.”  It depends on how you approach the Adamic administration.  If you look at the creation of Adam in terms of paternity and sonship, the tendency is to say “no.”  If you look at the creation of Adam in terms of Creator and creature, the tendency is to say “yes.”

This question would be very easy to answer if the Adamic administration was referred to as a covenant in scripture.  It is not.  There is the possibility that Hosea 6:7 refers to a covenant with Adam.  It may also refer to a more general covenant with mankind, such as the Noahic covenant.  It is more responsible to prove that the Adamic administration fits the concept of the word covenant before we argue for one interpretation or the other in Hosea 6:7.

I want to argue first that the Adamic administration is revealed as a father-son relationship.  Though this relationship is covenant-like, it is not necessarily a covenant.   For this, I use the arguments of Jason Van Vliet in his graduate work.

He draws from a number of places in scripture to prove that the image of God is revealed in Adam’s sonship to God. Luke is most explicit.  In the genealogy that Luke gives for Christ at the end of Luke three, Luke refers to Adam as a son of God, just as Seth was the son of Adam.

Where did Luke get this from?  It is likely that Luke got this from his understanding of the image of God in Genesis 1.  God makes Adam in his image. When the genealogy of Adam is given in Genesis 5, we are told that Seth is made in the image and likeness of Adam.  The image of God seems to be about a father-son relationship.

Is a father-son relationship a covenant? I’ve already suggested that it is hard to call it a covenant.  I believe that an adoption can be properly termed a covenant. Adoption is a legal process, which allows two individuals to act as Father and son.  This is what happens in the covenant made after sin.  By Christ, God worked it so that we may have the relationship of son and father that Adam had lost.  There is no formalization to the relationship of a natural-born son to his natural father, however.  If it is a covenant, it is one that springs from the way things are and does not need a legal creation.  We could employ the distinction between nature and culture here.  The father-son relationship springs from nature.  Covenants are cultural, they build on natural bonds.

Compare it to marriage. In marriage, there is a creation of a new type of relationship, which the two type of individuals did not have before.  In the case of a son or daughter, there is not a moment of the son’s existence, where he does not relate as a son to his father.  One is natural.  One is cultural.  The father-son relationship is covenant-like.  Marriage is a covenant.

Father-son relationships are covenant-like in that the relationship can be broken.  The father or the son may forget their natural duties toward one another and betray one another’s trust. The father is called to rule well and the son to obedience and submission, at least in his growing years.  Again, there is growth in that relationship, but there are also duties according to what we might call the created order.   Thinking about Adam and God in this sense would suggest that covenant is not the best way to describe their relationship.

However, we must understand that this is an analogy.  This is obviously true.  God is God.  Adam is a man.  Adam is in the image of God. The children of Adam may even be referred to as gods, as they are in Psalm 82, but that means that they share the character of God, not the substance of God.  This means that there is another legitimate way to think about the covenantal character of the creation of Adam.

When we begin with Creator God rather than Father God, a dramatic distance opens between God and Adam. God is eternal, infallible and unfailingly holy.  Adam is none of those things.  God grants Adam the image of God. God is intentionally creating a relationship between himself and Adam, which is formalized by sharing his image with Adam.  From this perspective there is a covenant between God and Adam.

It is natural, or informal, in the sense that it springs from God’s imprint of his image upon Adam.  But it is also formal in the sense that God chose that this should be the nature of his relationship with Adam.  It is formal in the sense that God ordained that Adam should be in his image.  When men have children they do not choose to have children in their image.

It is ultimately because God is not bound by his own created order, that we can understand his relationship with Adam as a covenant.

How should we speak of the Adamic administration then?  Is it a covenant or is it not?  It depends.  Those theologians who wish to speak in Biblical terms as much as possible will be suspicious of calling it a covenant.  I would count myself as one of those.  However, it is important to recognize that there is a legitimacy in calling it a covenant as well, according to our philosophical understanding of what is happening in scripture.  Such a way of speaking is not anti-scriptural.  My preference is that covenant would not be the primary category for speaking of God’s relationship with Adam.  Instead, we should think of that administration in terms of a father and a son. That is how God chose to teach us about his creation of Adam.

n.b.  I’m not sure if the nature and culture distinction I mentioned works that well. The problem is Marriage is not merely cultural, it has a grounding in nature.  If culture builds on and is rooted in nature, however, that is not a huge problem. The problem is with the popular understanding of culture today.  We see culture as added to nature, not grounded in nature.

Tim Keller, Religion is not the Opposite of the Gospel.

In the 5th chapter of Center Church by Tim Keller, Keller sets up religion and the gospel side by side.  Religion is obeying in order to be accepted.  The Gospel recognizes that I am accepted so I obey.  I have no argument with the content.  Tim Keller is giving Biblical teaching.

Tim Keller’s problem is a problem of semantics. He is using the wrong words to teach us. The gospel is the opposite of merit, not of religion.  The gospel is the teaching that Christ has provided our righteousness so that we may follow the way of righteousness. Merit is the teaching that you must find the way the way of righteousness and God’s law helps us with that.

Religion is something else.  Religion is the practice of worship and good works according to James 1:27.  More popularly, religion refers to practices such as prayer and going to church.

Keller’s problematic division shows itself later in the same chapter when he speaks of “reorientation to Christ.”  How does that happen?  It doesn’t merely happen through thinking about the gospel.  It happens by seeking the means of grace.  You seek Christ through listening to his word and partaking of his sacrament with the saints. Where that is not an option you seek him through scripture-reading and prayer.   You use religion as a way to seek Christ.  It is true that you can seek religion through the gospel or through merit, but it is very unhelpful to simply conflate merit and religion.

Unfortunately, Keller’s way of speaking is all too common. It is something that deeply bothers me because I believe such a way of speaking undermines the God’s ordination of the means of grace as a way to seek him.

A Typology of Hyper-Calvinism

It is my belief that Hyper-Calvinism is more common than many Calvinists and Reformed folks are willing to admit.  However, I should admit that I define Hyper-Calvinism more broadly that most Calvinists.   Hyper-Calvinism is anything that distorts the positive claims of the Canons of Dordt.  Basically, Hyper-Calvinism distorts the sovereignty of God.  I want to identify a number of ways that Reformed people have twisted Calvinism. They twist it into something that would be unrecognizable to those who defended this system. Here is a Typology of Hyper-Calvinism.

  1. Missional Hyper-Calvinism or Traditional Hyper-Calvinism:  This is what most people think of when they think of Hyper-Calvinism.  This is the belief that God will save his elect with or without us. The result is that they question the use of mission work.  This attitude faced William Carey when he expressed the desire to go as a missionary to India.  The story is told that an old Calvinist confronted him. He told him that God would save the elect in India without his help.  Ultimately this undermines the call of the divines at Dordt to remember that God uses means (CoD III/IV.17).
  2.  Predestinarian Hyper-Calvinism:  This form of Hyper-Calvinism posits a strict parallel between God’s predestination of the elect and His predestination of the reprobate.  It ignores the Canons’ language of “choosing” the elect and “passing over” the reprobate, (CoD I.7, 15).  The language of the Canons teaches us that the decree of election and the decree of reprobation are accomplished in a different way.  Predestinarian Hyper-Calvinism denies this.  This is a particularly pernicious error because it undermines the character of our God.
  3. Ecclesial Hyper-Calvinism:  This form of Hyper-Calvinism holds that God makes a covenant only with the elect and denies or empties God’s covenant with the baptized. (The fact is, there are many explanations of what it means that God makes a covenant with the baptized.  I argue that a broad variety of answers still belong to Calvinism proper.  It is those who deny that God covenants with babies or empties the covenant of baptism by saying that God only covenants with elect babies that are guilty of this error. see my definition of covenant here.) It tends to diminish the importance of sacraments as marks of the people of God and treats them only as aids to devotion.    Further, It tends to deny that children of believers should be treated as Christians.  The Reformed Baptist position is a form of this error.  The emphasize God’s covenant with the elect to the point that they try to make the number of the baptized and the number of the elect the same. This form of Hyper-Calvinism doesn’t directly contradict the Canons of Dordt, but it does tend to undermine its assurances to those whose children die in infancy (CoD I.17) and its declaration that sacraments are means of grace (CoD III/IV.17).
  4. Hyper-Assurance Hyper-Calvinism: This form of Hyper-Calvinism demands full assurance of election before you can be certain of your election and before you can be certain you are actually a member of Christ’s body.  The Canons of Dordt clearly proclaims the gospel of full assurance (CoD V.9). The Spirit gives us this grace. It does not claim that you need that full assurance to be saved.  Instead, the Canons encourage us to use the means of grace to deal with this lack of assurance (CoD V.14).  In fact, this position directly contradicts the Canons, which claims that the elect vary in their assurance in their lifetimes (CoD V.11).
  5. Hyper-Grace or Antinomian Hyper-Calvinism: This form of Hyper Calvinism puts all the weight on God’s irresistible grace in converting the soul.  Man can sit back after salvation and the good works will come.  The responsibility of man to live out his salvation in fear and trembling is ignored or even denied.  This contradicts the call of the Canons to persevere (CoD V.13,14).
  6. Hyper-Depravity Hyper-Calvinism: This form of Hyper-Calvinism emphasizes the total depravity of man.  Man can do no good before God.  It tends to undermine or deny that the saved man can please God. Ultimately it denies the power of God in regenerating the will of man and the new life that he gives him.  (CoD V.16)
  7. Hyper-Glory or Hyper-Sovereignty Hyper-Calvinism: I use the term Hyper-Glory because this is the result of a false type of piety, which thinks that the glory of God is a zero-sum game.  God gets all the glory and nobody else gets any.  Rather, when God gets all the glory, he is generous that glory and shares it with his saints.  By the term Hyper-Sovereignty, I refer to a sort of fatalism or  Stoicism.  You might hear, “We should be happy with whatever God does.  We need to receive it as God’s will.”  There is a sense where we can’t really take joy in life.  They forget that God’s own son sweat blood, while he pleaded with God to “Let this cup pass.”  He didn’t receive the cross stoically or fatalistically.  The working out of God’s plan of salvation is more complicated than we are willing to admit. This is another form of Hyper-Calvinism that does not directly contradict the Canons of Dordt. However, it does contradict the tenor of that piece of work.

Some hold to one of these errors.  Many more hold to a combination of these errors.

Many will be quick to point out that many errors in Calvinism share space with the errors of Jacobus Arminius as well. We can think of neonomianism for example.  This is the idea that Christ came and justified us through faith and we need to add good works, alongside Christ’s work, in order to reach final justification.  This is an error. However, the point of this post is to demonstrate a certain category of errors.  Namely, how people misuse the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty, while claiming to defend it.

The Reformation’s Two Paths of Memory

I believe that there are two legitimate ways of looking at the Reformation.  These two ways create different paths for honoring the Reformation.  Further, these paths produce different memories of the Reformation.  These two paths of memory are the root cause of many of the fights we have in Protestantism over the memory of the Reformation. Many understand the reformation primarily as a re-vivification of witness to the authority of scripture. Others understand the Reformation primarily as a socio-political phenomenon.

The Reformation as a re-vivification of witness to the authority of scripture:

God used the reformers to remind his people of the authority of his word, the uniquness of Christ, and the inexpressibility of his grace.  When people think of the Reformation in this way, the naturally emphasize God’s work.  God displayed his glory in the work of the reformers.  Further, the reformation gave people the assurance of salvation again.  It gave people Christ.  The Church had hidden Christ behind saints and indulgences.  The Reformation opened that veil.  God, through the reformers, told the people when they heard the scriptures preached they heard Christ speaking. When they ate bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper they communed with Christ.

If that is what the celebration of the reformation is about then we don’t do enough.  We should be reminding ourselves again and again about what God re-taught his church in the reformation.  He re-taught because he had already taught it to his church in the scriptures.  We should be endlessly thankful, that God showed his grace to a church that was suppressing his truth in unrighteousness.  God calls us to exuberant celebration over these moments of great salvation in history.  You can look in the Bible how God called his people to celebrate their departure from Egypt in the book of Exodus.  God called his people to celebration again for their rescue from the machinations of Haman in the book of Esther.  If God called the Jews to a celebration, we should celebrate as well.

The reason we don’t do enough is simply in the fact that we have forgotten what God taught us in the reformation.  We have forgotten the glory of his word and we have forgotten the grace of his sacraments.  The Reformation500 is a welcome reminder.

But their is also another path of memory.

The Reformation as a socio-political phenomenon or we might say a historical phenomenon:

Here the celebration is much more mixed because it is focussed on human actors and their imperfect actions.  We still celebrate the good the Reformation produced.  As the reformed believed, living faith produces good works and those good works benefit ourselves and our neighbor. The Reformation produced a lot of spiritual good. The reformation produced a lot of social good. We should celebrate this.

But the Reformation also brought certain emphases to the fore that had unintended consequences.  Of course, it’s hard as a historian to prove cause and effect. To some extent its guesswork, especially when we are looking at social phenomenon, not only written texts. I believe that it is reasonable to say that the Reformation moved the centre toward some anabaptistic emphases, such as individualistic interpretation and the de-sacralization of the sacraments.

You can see this in the distortion of the solas that is so common today.    Sola Scriptura often means that scripture is the only authority, not the only unquestioned authority.  Sola Gratia means I don’t have to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, rather than God works even that fear and trembling in me.  Sola Fide means only faith is necessary for my salvation and leaves no place for the works that flow from true faith.  We could go on.  What I offer here does not exhaust the way the solas are corrupted.

This was only acerbated by fights between the reformers themselves.  This does not mean that this was in any way the position of reformers such as Calvin or Luther, or their heirs.  It does mean that we need to celebrate the Reformation in a way that guards against the excesses of our own day and with the knowledge that our fathers in the faith were fallible men.

This is to view the Reformation as the work of men, not the work of God. If we unconditionally celebrated the Reformation only according to the first pattern of memory, we wouldn’t have so many naysayers who point out some of the bad things the reformation produced.


Unfortunately, these two paths of memory are conflated and tend to create conflict.  There are those who have no desire to seperate the two paths and tend to sanctify everything the Reformation produced intentionally or otherwise as good.   Some ignore the first path and refuse to celebrate the Reformation.  There are many in the middle who confuse their friends’ use of the word “Reformation” with their preferred path of memory. I hope that my post is helpful for sorting those misunderstandings out.

As for me, I celebrate the reformation according to the first path.God used the Reformation to once again, in a unique and powerful way, remind people of the gift of grace, Christ, that he reveals in his word. The first path is more important, quite simply because, it is God’s perspective.  Secondarily, I conditionally celebrate the second path, the Reformation is something that produced unparalleled spiritual and social good; but I do so cautiously.

What is a covenant?

Theologians make a lot of the covenant.  Ministers always talk about the covenant.  But there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of what a covenant is.  God makes a covenant with his people.  Marriage is always a covenant and friendship is sometimes a covenant, though not always (In the Bible, Jonathan makes a covenant with his friend, David).  Is God’s relationship with Adam properly termed a covenant? Is a man’s relationship with his son properly termed a covenant?

I want to suggest a definition: A covenant is the formalization of a personal relationship.  The covenant may begin the relationship, but the relationship may also have existed before the covenant.  A covenant formalizes that personal relationship. If that personal relationship continues there are blessings and if that personal relationship ends there are curses.

I hope to write more on this in the future by both defending this definition and applying this definition to some of the arguments that exist in the Presbyterian and Reformed world.

Page 1 of 6

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén