In this way we can admit not only that there is a partial righteousness in works (as our adversaries maintain), but that they are approved by God as if they were absolutely perfect…. There is much less to trouble us in the name of righteous which is usually given to believers. I admit that they are so called from the holiness of their lives, but as they rather exert themselves in the study of righteousness than fulfill righteousness itself, any degree of it which they possess must yield to justification by faith, to which it is owing that it is what it is.
–John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.17.10
And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the grace [Greek charis] of God was upon him. –Luke 2:40
This verse is one of the rare descriptions of Jesus’ childhood found in the New Testament. Many English translations (ESV, NIV, etc.) render the Greek word charis here as “favor,” although the standard translation of this word in other contexts is “grace.” This is understandable, given that it is hard to see how the sinless Savior could have received grace from God. The meaning of grace is a contested issue, which is complicated by the fact that the Bible nowhere gives it a precise definition. Exactly what is grace?
In truth, I don’t think we need to limit ourselves to a single definition. Within the Reformed tradition, it has been taken in the broad sense of God’s loving and benevolent posture toward all his creation. On the other hand, it has also been taken in the narrow sense of God’s redemptive response toward sin. If we limit ourselves to this narrow definition, it would be inappropriate to speak of “grace” in God’s original covenant with Adam. But if Christ as the Second Adam was able to receive grace from God (which was surely not “grace” in the sense of mercy toward a sinner), could not the first Adam have as well?
This was the perspective taken by many of the early church fathers, including those in the Alexandrian tradition like Athanasius (On the Incarnation of the Word 1.3) and Cyril (Commentary on John 1.32-33). These men acknowledged that Adam was originally created in a state of grace, although his continuation in that state depended on his perfect obedience. This in turn might have important implications for how we derive our systematic and hermeneutical categories from the text of Scripture.
Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013). This is not an easy read. At 413 densely-worded pages, it took me the better part of a month to finish. However, I am glad that I persevered. This is a remarkably well-written, well-researched, and well-argued companion to Meyer’s previous volume Signature in the Cell. Whereas his earlier work made the case for intelligent design based on the complexity of the cell and the inadequacy of materialistic origin-of-life hypotheses, Darwin’s Doubt focuses on the origin of animal life, and the particular challenge posed by one feature of the geologic record: the so-called “Cambrian explosion.” The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 deals with the fossil evidence of the Cambrian explosion, Part 2 deals with the biological information necessary for animal life, and Part 3 argues that intelligent design provides a better explanation of all the evidence than any naturalistic alternatives. I will examine and evaluate each part in turn.
Part 1 begins with a history of the early reception of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. It is hard to overstate the significance of this little book, which became the foundation of modern evolutionary theory. The scope of Darwin’s theory was vast (after all, he was trying to explain all life as we know it!), and he personally believed that he had solved every problem—save one. The budding discipline of modern geology had unearthed a piece of evidence that did not fit very well into Darwin’s gradualistic schema. Fossils indicate that about 530 million years ago—or what has come to be known as the Cambrian period—there was an extremely abrupt proliferation of different forms of animal life. These animal fossils showed no signs of evolutionary predecessors in earlier layers, leading to the apt description of the “Cambrian explosion.” Darwin himself was aware of this problem, and indeed it gave him some doubt as to the veracity of his theory (hence the title of Meyer’s book). However, he was confident that the problem would one day be solved—either it would be shown that Precambrian animals had not been fossilized for some reason, or their fossils had not yet been found. Meyer evaluates these two possibilities, and argues that subsequent history would have greatly disappointed Darwin.
Both of these efforts at explaining away the Cambrian explosion are variants of the so-called “artifact hypothesis.” According to this hypothesis, Cambrian fossils are merely “artifacts” of an incomplete record. Some have suggested that paleontologists need only to look in other places around the globe to uncover Precambrian ancestors, while others have suggested reasons why such ancestors could not in principle have been preserved—perhaps, for example, their soft body forms did not lend themselves to fossilization. Unfortunately, neither solution appears to match the observed evidence. Paleontologists since the time of Darwin have examined geologic layers across the globe, with the conclusion that there are plenty of Precambrian layers, but zero evolutionary ancestors to Cambrian animals. Moreover, there are plenty of non-animal fossils in the Precambrian strata—even those with only soft body parts. But if these soft non-animal fossils could have been preserved, why not also their animal counterparts? Darwinian Theory does not provide an adequate explanation, nor have subsequent complementary theories to Darwinism (such as punctuated equilibrium).
In Part 2, Meyer moves the discussion from fossils to genetics/anatomy. The fundamental challenge in building an animal from scratch is that you need to be able to create novel “protein folds.” This is one of the most basic units of mutational change that can lead to new function. And yet protein folds require a significant number of coordinated DNA mutations in order to come into being. Think of genes as letters strung together to form words, phrases, and sentences. If the genes are not precisely coordinated, the sentences will quickly degenerate into meaningless gibberish. This is the known as the problem of “combinatorial inflation.” Consider the example of a combination lock: each time you add another number to the lock, the resulting combination becomes exponentially more difficult to unlock. So it is with animal evolution—it becomes probabilistically prohibitive.
In Part 3, having concluded that Darwinism isn’t up for the job, Meyer surveys some of the other naturalistic explanations on the market. But these are also shown to be inadequate for various reasons. It is only at this stage of Meyer’s argument that he finally puts forward his own theory: intelligent design. Animals bear all the marks of “specified complexity” that we find in the products of intelligent agents. We easily recognize design in the world of engineering, for example. Why should it not be so in the world of biology? In essence, Meyer is making his case as an inference to the best explanation—taking into account the entire range of data, and ruling out any hypotheses that lack sufficient explanatory power. Meyer is quick to point out that the theory of intelligent design is scientific and not necessarily religious in nature (although it would certainly have religious implications).
And this brings me to my only possible critique of the book. Meyer’s reasons for wanting to distance intelligent design from religious creationism are political. His concern seems to be to allow the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. However, in my judgment the debate over public science education rests on the mistaken separation of “fact” from “value,” as if it were possible to teach religiously neutral science. This might be where my own neo-Calvinist sympathies come to the surface, but I believe that all education is inherently religious education. It all depends on what religion you subscribe to. And that means that fundamentally, all education will be either Christian or anti-Christian (although there will always be overlap, due to God’s common grace). So in the end, I don’t really have a problem saying that intelligent design is creationism. But that minor quibble aside, this is an outstanding book. It does get pretty technical pretty fast, so its audience will probably be limited to those with a college education. But this will be essential reading in debates over intelligent design in the coming years.
If you are confused about recent discussions involving the covenant of works, this reference guide can help you. I’ve listed some of the most significant theologians who have written on the doctrine, including a brief bio for each theologian, a summary of their position on the covenant of works, and recommended further reading. Enjoy!
John Calvin (1509-1564)
- Who was he? A French lawyer who led the Protestant Reformation in Geneva. He is best known for his systematic Institutes of the Christian Religion.
- What did he say? Calvin did not have an explicit covenant of works, although he affirmed Adam as the unique progenitor of the human race, whose sin brought about the universal corruption of human nature. It is debatable whether Calvin affirmed Adam’s federal headship, as would later Reformed scholastics. He referred to Adam’s state in the garden as a “trial of obedience” (later called “probation;” Inst. 2.1.4) leading to a heavenly perfection, but denied that the terms of this probation were meritorious.
- Further reading: Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 276-304; Aaron Denlinger, “Calvin’s Understanding of Adam’s Relationship to His Posterity: Recent Assertions of the Reformer’s ‘Federalism’ Evaluated,” Calvin Theological Journal 44 (2009): 226-250.
Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583)
- Who was he? Early German Reformed theologian and coauthor of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the Three Forms of Unity (the confessional standards of the Continental Reformed churches). Studied under Philip Melanchthon, successor of Martin Luther.
- What did he say? He (with Caspar Olevianus) is credited with being the first to explicate the idea of a pre-fall covenant (credit for the exact term “covenant of works” probably goes to Dudley Fenner). Drew the distinction between the pre- and post-fall covenants along the lines of law and gospel, but also saw the gospel as empowerment to observe the law as a rule of gratitude.
- Further reading: Lyle Bierma, “Law and Grace in Ursinus’ Doctrine of the Natural Covenant: A Reappraisal,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. R. Scott Clark and Carl Trueman (Wipf & Stock, 2007).
Robert Rollock (c. 1555-1599)
- Who was he? Early Scottish Reformer, considered to be foundational in developing the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (bi-covenantalism), and in bringing covenant theology to the British Isles.
- What did he say? The covenant of nature/works promised life to Adam under the condition of good works proceeding from his nature (this excludes works proceeding from grace). This works principle is restated in the Mosaic Covenant (Lev. 18:5) to expose sin. Not a meritorious arrangement, since Adam’s works were obligatory and merit is supererogatory. Consequently, Christ’s active obedience was not meritorious (nor is it imputed), although his passive obedience was meritorious.
- Further reading: Aaron Denlinger, “Robert Rollock’s Catechism on God’s Covenants,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 20 (2009): 105-129.
Westminster Divines (1643-1649)
- Who were they? The Westminster Assembly was appointed by the English Long Parliament to reform the doctrine, polity, and worship of the Church of England. It consisted of 30 laymen and 121 divines (clergymen). They produced the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism, which would all become the confessional standards of most Presbyterian churches.
- What did they say? The divines affirmed a covenant of works (WCF 7) but had differing views as to its precise nature. All affirmed the federal headship of Adam. The majority view (e.g., Samuel Rutherford, William Bridge, and William Gouge) was that it was a gracious covenant, and Adam’s obedience was not strictly meritorious. Nevertheless, “life” was promised upon condition of Adam’s perfect and perpetual obedience. Such life was either understood as continuation in the blessings that Adam already enjoyed in the garden (Thomas Goodwin, William Gouge, Jeremiah Burroughs), or as a future heavenly reward (William Bridge, Anthony Burgess). No explicit mention of a garden probation.
- Further reading: Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012).
Francis Turretin (1623-1687)
- Who was he? A Swiss-Italian theologian who wrote at the height of Reformed scholasticism. He is best known for his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, which summarizes and refines the covenant theologies of his day.
- What did he say? Adam’s relationship to his posterity is both “natural” and “federal,” and his fall led to both the corruption and guilt of humanity. The covenant of works is understood in contractual terms. Adam’s obedience during his probation was a condition for blessing, leading to a heavenly reward/inheritance. It was meritorious not as a matter of strict justice, but because God graciously called it so (congruent/nominalist, not condign/realist).
- Further reading: Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology 2:263.
John Murray (1898-1975)
- Who was he? Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
- What did he say? Adam’s pre-fall relationship with God was an “administration” but not a “covenant,” since covenant is defined as an unconditional, redemptive arrangement. This administration included provision for Adam’s passing from a contingent, probationary state to confirmation in perfect obedience (indefectibility). This provision was still a gracious condescension on God’s part, and not earned as a matter of strict justice/merit. Adam is federal head for humanity. (Identical to Anthony Hoekema’s view.)
- Further reading: Murray, “The Adamic Administration,” available online here: http://www.the-highway.com/adamic-admin_Murray.html (accessed October 7, 2013); Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth, 1991), 2:49, 130.
G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996)
- Who was he? Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at the Free University in Amsterdam. Best known for his 18-volume Studies in Dogmatics. Followed in the thought of S.G. De Graaf (1889-1955) and Klaas Schilder (1890-1952).
- What did he say? Affirmed a “covenant of creation” or “covenant of God’s favor” but rejected the perceived legalistic implications of a covenant of works. He argued that a merit-based arrangement with Adam would erroneously imply a “nomological ur-existence of man,” which undermines the priority of life in fellowship with God. Adam’s relationship with God was primarily filial rather than legal. Denied probation, diminished federalism.
- Further reading: Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), 332-46; idem, Studies in Dogmatics: Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 206-8; Cornelis Venema, “Recent Criticisms of the Covenant of Works in the Westminster Confession of Faith,” available online here: http://www.grebeweb.com/linden/Venema_Criticisms_of_Cov_of_Works.htm (accessed October 6, 2013)
Meredith Kline (1922-2007)
- Who was he? Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His approach to covenant theology is often contrasted with John Murray’s approach.
- What did he say? The covenant of works was strictly legal. God’s original disposition toward Adam was gracious in a broad sense, but the administration of the covenant itself excluded grace (“grace” being narrowly defined as the substitutionary application of the merit of Christ’s active/passive obedience). Adam was in a state of probation, and would be confirmed in a glorified state of indefectibility by the merit of his perfect obedience. This reward is not graciously bestowed, but is earned as a matter of strict justice.
- Further reading: Kline, “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” available online here: http://www.upper-register.com/papers/ct_under_attack.html (accessed October 6, 2013)
- Who is he? Former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, who provoked controversy in the 1970’s over his covenant theology. This controversy reverberates today.
- What does he say? Acknowledged a pre-fall covenant with Adam, but flattened the distinctions with the covenant of grace, leaving him open to the charge of “monocovenantalism.” The conditions for every covenant involve the “works of faith” or “obedient trust.” Rejected not only Adamic merit, but also the merit of Christ. Denied probation.
- Further reading: http://trinity-pres.net/study/normanshepherd.php (accessed April 24, 2014); “A Critique of Professor Norman Shepherd’s Theology,” available online here: http://basketoffigs.org/NewPerspectives/Jones.htm (accessed April 24, 2014)
O. Palmer Robertson
- Who is he? Taught Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, and Africa Bible Colleges in Malawi and Uganda.
- What does he say? Prefers the term “covenant of creation,” which has a general and a focal aspect. The general aspect concerns Adam’s responsibilities as vice-regent and image-bearer (creation ordinances), while the focal aspect concerns the probationary test which leads to confirmation in indefectibility. Believes that emphasizing the focal aspect at the expense of the general aspect leads to a reductively anthropocentric/ecclesiocentric understanding of redemption. Adam is federal head.
- Further reading: Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), 67-92; Robertson, “Current Reformed Thinking on the Nature of the Divine Covenants,” Westminster Theological Journal 40.1 (Fall 1977): 63-76.
- Who is he? French evangelical theologian. Taught Systematic Theology at Wheaton College.
- What does he say? Rejects the imputation of Adam’s guilt (federalism), but acknowledges the transmission of a corrupt nature (habitus) from Adam to all his posterity. Adam had free and regular access to the Tree of Life in the garden, which sacramentally signified continuing communion with God. Rejects a “garden eschatology” (along with accompanying ideas of probation and merit) as counterfactual speculation, but affirms a gracious Edenic covenant.
- Further reading: Blocher, “Old Covenant, New Covenant,” in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, ed. A.T.B. McGowan (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 240-70. Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001).
- Who is he? Principal of the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland, where he lectures in systematic theology.
- What does he say? Prefers “headship theology” to covenant/federal theology. There is an Adamic Administration and a Messianic Administration in an overarching covenant of grace, but no covenant of works. Highlights the priority of grace. Law did not exist pre-fall (in starkest contrast to Kline’s denial of pre-fall grace). Adam was created in the singular knowledge of God’s will (indwelt by the Spirit), but his fall into the knowledge of good and evil brought “law.”
- Further reading: McGowan, “In Defence of ‘Headship Theology,’” in The God of Covenant, ed. Jamie Grant and Alistair Wilson (Apollos, 2005), 178-199.
- Who is he? Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Best known for his book Far as the Curse Is Found, an introduction to covenant theology.
- What does he say? Like Robertson, he prefers the term “covenant of creation” and emphasizes its general aspect (Adam as vice-regent for all creation). Unlike Robertson, he ascribes a much less prominent role to its focal aspect, questioning the existence of a garden probation. Grace, blessing, and life take precedence over law. In the covenant of creation, law-keeping serves the purpose of nurturing prior relationship, but it does not merit further reward—relationship is the reward. Affirms Adam’s federal headship.
- Further reading: Williams, “Adam and Merit,” Presbyterion 35/2 (Fall 2009): 87-94.
This week Dr. R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California wrote a post on the exegesis of Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” He gives an overview of the verse’s literary context and describes its “magisterial Protestant interpretation,” quoting Calvin himself as an example of this supposed historic consensus.
The upshot of Clark’s interpretation is this: when Paul says that the “doers of the law” will be justified, he is actually referring to an empty set. Hypothetically, one could gain justification by perfect, sinless law-keeping, but since no one is sinless, this verse is merely intended to present the law’s impossible standard, which drives readers to despair and trust in the gospel alone for their justification. In other words, there are no “doers of the law” except Christ. Clark contrasts his own interpretation with that of Norman Shepherd’s, who taught justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness.”
Reading his post, one would get the impression that only two alternatives are available: either you side with Clark, or you side with Shepherd. And if you side with Shepherd, you sacrifice Protestantism’s fundamental distinction between law and gospel (for my own thoughts on the law/gospel distinction, see my post here). However, I would suggest that these aren’t the only two options open to us. And not only that, but Clark’s own interpretation—though amply attested in the Reformation tradition—was not as monolithic among early Reformed interpreters as he suggests.
In Justification: Five Views (IVP, 2011), Michael Bird presents a “third way” of reading this text. Along with an increasing number of scholars, he suggests that this verse refers to Gentile Christians, who fulfill the requirements of the law by walking according to the Spirit (p. 142; cf. Rom. 8:3-4). Whether such law-obedience constitutes the basis of a future justification (as N.T. Wright argues—mistakenly, in my opinion) or merely its evidence (but see Bill Evans’ comments here), the point is that we do not need to read the phrase “doers of the law” as an empty set, and we don’t need to import artificial categories like hypothetical works-righteousness.
Bird’s position is labeled the “Progressive Reformed” view, to which Michael Horton responds with his own “Traditional Reformed” view. To be sure, Horton agrees with Clark’s reading of Romans 2:13. But Horton admits, “Even so, I’m open to Bird’s interpretation, and his distinction between a judgment according to (kata) works rather than through, much less on account of (dia/ek) works is well attested in classic Reformed treatments” (p. 159). Although Horton does not specify which classic Reformed treatments he has in mind, he is likely referring to Samuel Rutherford, one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. In his famous treatise against antinomianism entitled The Spiritual Antichrist, Rutherford writes, “Holy walking is a way to heaven… and Christ maketh a promise of life eternal to him that doth his Commandments.” (2:37-38). In his exegesis of Romans 2, Rutherford argues that works, though not the condition of our justification, are nevertheless required of those who are saved (2:40).
So it turns out that there might be “doers of the law” after all. And I don’t think this confuses law and gospel. Rather, I believe that the proper way of understanding the law/gospel distinction (which Clark rightly argues is Protestant, not merely Lutheran) is not as a distinction between two valid ways of justification—one hypothetical and one actual—but between an invalid way and a valid way. The law was never intended as a means of justification. As Paul himself writes, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). The law does indeed promise life, and it gives it to those who obey it (which we can actually do, by the Spirit’s power). But the “life” promised by the law is not forensic justification, but rather the abundant life of blessing for God’s children. This is what Moses meant when he wrote, “The one who does these things shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5).
I recently came across the Twitter feed of Dan Haseltine, front-man of the Christian band Jars of Clay (one of my favorites in high school). Over the past few days, he has been tweeting a lot on the subject of same-sex marriage. He raises some thought-provoking questions, and also voices skepticism over the validity of some conservative/biblical arguments against it. His tweets generated a lot of negative feedback from evangelicals, and he has since posted an apology/clarification on his blog. I applaud him for taking the time to work through the arguments on both sides, and I hope that he continues to do so.
In an effort to help fellow believers (and also nonbelievers) reach clarity on this admittedly difficult issue, I’d like to humbly offer my own thoughts. My concern here is mainly to address the underlying presuppositions that give rise to the debate over gay marriage. In particular, I would like to explore the proper relationship between faith and politics by proposing the following points:
- There is no such thing as a secular ethic. Another way of stating this is that every ethic is in some sense “religious.” This is not the same as saying that secularists are unethical, or that they have no knowledge of right and wrong. Rather, it is to say that all valid ethical judgments ultimately derive from the character and will of God, whether or not one acknowledges it. To claim anything as a moral absolute is to appeal to an authority higher than any individual, culture, or nation. Therefore, we should not suppose that the realm of civil government is an ethical “neutral ground.”
- Every law is a moral law. Related to the first point, it needs to be acknowledged that no laws are morally neutral. For example, laws against murder or manslaughter are intended to uphold the value of human life. And laws against stealing or copyright infringement are intended to uphold the right to personal property. Therefore we should dispense with the argument that it isn’t the job of the civil government to “legislate morality.” Nor is it helpful to appeal to the libertarian principle of a supposed “right to self-harm,” as I have discussed here. Choices that harm ourselves will inevitably cause harm to those around us (just ask any family member of an addict).
- Bringing faith into a political discussion is not the same as wedding the institutional church to the state. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This clause has set the foundation for our separation of church and state. And rightly so. It shouldn’t be the job of any church or denomination to run the state, or vice versa. But it is one thing to respect the distinction between these two institutions, and another to press that distinction into the realm of one’s convictions about ultimate reality and justice. On a practical level, no one can do this. And on a theoretical level, no one should have to. Many secularists talk as if we must assume the role of an atheist before entering the political sphere. But I fail to see how this is not a double standard.
- There is no such thing as a “right to love.” Love (as well as sex and marriage) is a gift, not a right. As a matter of fact, I think we should impose a moratorium on such emotive buzzwords as “love,” “bigotry,” etc. in this debate. When we use these terms without first defining them, we commit the logical fallacy of poisoning the well, which has the effect of prejudicing the whole discussion.
I offer these thoughts as the beginning of the discussion, not the end. I am still working through them myself, and I would welcome any feedback.
How does God order history?
|History is divided into dispensations, and God deals with humans differently in each dispensation.||History is divided into covenants (with Abraham, David, etc.), and each covenant builds on the previous ones.|
How many peoples does God have?
|Two peoples: Jewish Israel and the Christian church.||One people: the Christian church today is the true Israel.|
Who receives God’s promises?
|Jews (even if they don’t believe in Jesus) receive God’s physical promises, including the land of Israel in the Middle East. Christians receive the spiritual promises of salvation.||Only those who believe in Jesus receive the promises of God, and these promises are physical and spiritual. One day, believers will inherit the whole earth. But Jews who deny Christ have forfeited the promises of God.|
Who is the Old Testament for?
|It is for Jews, whose laws and promises are different from those of the Christian church.||It is for Christians, who receive the laws and promises of Israel, but these laws and promises are understood and applied differently in light of their fulfillment in Christ.|
What about the modern nation-state of Israel?
|The modern nation-state of Israel is protected by God and will fulfill biblical prophecies.||Modern Israel has the same rights as any other nation, but it is not directly fulfilling biblical prophecies today.|
What about the biblical prophesies about the Jewish temple, like Matthew 24?
|The Jewish temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem before Jesus returns.||The prophecies about the temple were fulfilled in AD 70, when the Romans destroyed it.|
Who is the Antichrist?
|He is a future leader who will deceive the world and persecute believers for 7 years.||He is a figure of every false teacher in history who tries to deceive the church. He is sometimes distinguished from the “Beast” of Revelation, who represents every political leader who persecutes the church.*|
What is the Rapture?
|The Rapture is the “secret” return of Christ to rescue believers from the earth before the 7-year tribulation. After that, Christ will come again.||The Rapture is no different from the Second Coming. Believers will not be taken away from the earth, but will rule on earth with Christ.|
What is the Millennium?
|The Millennium will be when Jesus returns and rules on earth for 1,000 years before the final judgment.||The Millennium represents the entire time between the Resurrection of Jesus and his Second Coming. We are living in it now, as we witness the expansion of God’s kingdom across the world when we preach the gospel.**|
Who are leading advocates of this view today?
|David Jeremiah, Tim LaHaye, Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock||R.C. Sproul, Michael Williams, Michael Horton, Vern Poythress|
*There are actually a variety of views on the Antichrist among advocates of covenant theology. Some believe that there will still be a future individual who will oppose the church just before the Second Coming.
**Some advocates of covenant theology believe in a future millennium. Their position is generally called “historic” premillennialism, as opposed to dispensational premillennialism.
According to the Bible, Jesus was born of a young Jewish virgin named Mary, who was told by the angel Gabriel that she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. But the Virgin Birth isn’t mentioned very often in Scripture. We find it recorded just once in the Gospel of Matthew (1:18-23; quoting Isaiah 7:14) and once in the Gospel of Luke (1:34-35). By comparison, Scripture gives a lot more attention to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. With so few biblical references to the Virgin Birth, one might be tempted to conclude that it’s just not that important for Christians to believe in it. But there are several reasons why Christians should confess this truth. In fact, while Christians may have disagreements on some peripheral issues of doctrine, a proper understanding of the Virgin Birth should lead us to see the central, nonnegotiable place that it should have in our theology.
The first reason why the Virgin Birth matters is because it is tied directly to the authority of Scripture. The Bible may not mention the Virgin Birth very often, but 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is inspired by God, while Proverbs 30:5 says that every word of God proves true. Some portions of Scripture might be more confusing or open to interpretation than others, but no one doubts that Matthew and Luke intended for us to believe that Mary was truly a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. If we deny the truth of the Virgin Birth, then we undermine the reliability of Scripture as a whole, and cast a shadow of doubt on everything else that it teaches.
Another reason why the Virgin Birth matters is because it shows us how the entire Trinity was involved in the Incarnation of Christ. It demonstrates Jesus’ unique origin from God the Father, for Jesus says, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me” (John 6:57). It also points to the Holy Spirit as the means of Jesus’ Incarnation. This is explicit in both Matthew and Luke—Mary was said to be “with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18) and that the Holy Spirit “came upon” her and “overshadowed” her (Luke 1:35). Without a Virgin Birth, we have a separation of the Father and Holy Spirit from the saving work of Jesus in the Incarnation.
The Virgin Birth also safeguards the preexistence of Jesus. Scripture tells us that Jesus was “with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2) and then took on “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” when he came into the world (Philippians 2:6-7). But if Jesus was born by purely natural processes, how could he have existed before his birth? Some sort of supernatural intervention is necessary to affirm Jesus’ divine origins, or we are left with nothing but a human Jesus who at most was somehow “adopted” as God’s Son during his life.
A Virgin Birth also protects Jesus from the effects of original sin. This Christian doctrine teaches that all humans have inherited the guilt and moral corruption of our first parent Adam. The apostle Paul writes that sin and death came into the world through “one man” (Romans 5:12), and that his “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18). For this reason, we are all “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). But if our descent from Adam is the cause of our sin and guilt, how can Jesus be said to have been “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15)? Some kind of divine intervention was necessary to interrupt the ordinary transmission of sin from parent to child if Jesus was to be born into this world uncorrupted.
All of these reasons taken together should lead us to the conclusion that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is a vital, nonnegotiable truth of the Christian faith. Without it, Jesus could not possibly have been the eternally preexistent Word who came in the flesh without sin, and whose saving work was intimately connected to the work of the Father and Holy Spirit from beginning to end.
But while we confess the truth of the Virgin Birth, we must be careful not to jump to the wrong conclusions from it. For one, the Virgin Birth does not imply that sex in itself is somehow sinful. The Bible clearly describes sex as a gift of God and part of his good creation (Genesis 2:24-25; 1 Timothy 4:1-4). For another, the Virgin Birth does not imply that Mary was herself sinless or remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. While these teachings are found in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, evangelical Protestants generally agree that Mary was a sinner saved by grace, just like the rest of us who confess Christ as our Savior.
Machen, J. Gresham. The Virgin Birth of Christ. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930.
Rayburn, Robert G. Is the Virgin Birth Essential? Wheaton, IL: College Church of Christ, c. 1960.
Witherington, Ben. “The Birth of Jesus.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel Green and Scot McKnight, 60-74. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.