Less A Problem Of What The Spirit Is Doing And More A Problem Of What We Say

How Do We Assess What The Spirit Is Doing?
Since the early 19th century American Christianity has been largely dominated by a revival of the original Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. One can transpose much of what took place in the 19th century over the fist generation Anabaptists (1520s) and it matches up quite well. The original Anabaptists would have understood completely the Millerite eschatological fervor of the 1820s–40s. They would understand completely the claims of continuing revelation made by Joseph Smith and the Mormons in the same period. At least some of the original Anabaptists would have understood the bald Pelagianism of Charles Finney (1792–1875). The Cane Ridge Revival (1801) would have made perfect sense to the original Anabaptists as it fit their vision of piety almost perfectly.

Evangelical Christianity in America as it has been received in the 20th and 21st centuries is very much the product of that revived Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. The Second Great Awakening was a radically democratic, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, enterprise. Theologically, it was by turns mystical and rationalist. Further, the Second Great Awakening didn’t just happen out of the blue. It did not fall out of the sky like golden plates and magic spectacles. There’s a direct, organic connection between the 1GA and the 2nd but we’ll press on lest we move from preaching to meddling.

The enthusiastic (in the strict sense) piety of the 2GA faded in the second half of the 19th century but “fresh light” broke forth again in the revivals in Topeka, KS and Azusa Street (Los Angeles) at the turn of the 20th century. The patterns established in the earlier “revivals” have been formative for American evangelicalism.

One aspect of that revivalist pattern is the claim to renewed apostolic phenomena. Suggestions were made in the 18th century and proclaimed loudly in the 19th and 20th centuries that the apostolic phenomena had been restored to those with faith to receive and exercise them. Since the 19th century at least evangelical Christianity (defined broadly) has been divided between the “haves” and “have nots,” i.e., those who claim to have recovered the Apostolic gifts and powers.

As a consequence of these claims many evangelicals simply assume that when a contemporary leader claims to have the gift of “tongues” that what is seen and accepted as “tongues” is identical to what occurred in Acts and what is described in Acts. Such assumptions of continuity between the apostolic period and contemporary expressions of religious piety and enthusiasm have strongly colored evangelical assumptions about the nature of piety. It is a paradigm: it is assumed that spiritual vitality means reproducing apostolic phenomena. Any Christian who is not receiving direct revelations from the Spirit, exercising apostolic gifts and power is reckoned either to lack faith, to be missing out on a potential benefit, or to be making a false profession of faith.

Since the 1970s a somewhat milder version of neo-Pentecostalism has come to great influence in evangelical circles: the charismatic movement. This varied movement usually asserts less continuity between the Apostolic period and the post-canonical period. It has eliminated some of the more socially embarrassing aspects of neo-Pentecostalism (e.g., being slain in the Spirit) in favor of a moderated, more middle-class, suburban piety of direct revelations that are not considered necessarily equivalent to the canonical Scriptures and occasional exercises of prophetic gifts that may (or may not) be considered authoritative. When it comes to healing, the line separating the older Azusa Street piety from the Calvary Chapel charismatic piety is a little fuzzy.

Even in Reformed circles, which are typically cessationist, i.e., which typically do not accept the widely-held assumption of strong continuity between the apostolic period and the contemporary church, there are attempts to mediate between the neo-Pentecostalists, charismatics, and non-Pentecostalists by adopting the vocabulary of the charismatic movement. It is common for Reformed folk to say, “The Lord led me” or “The Lord showed me” or even “The Lord told me.”

Sometimes one suspects this is a defense mechanism. If we speak this way then perhaps we will not be accused of denying the ongoing work of the Spirit. In the neo-Pentecostal/charismatic paradigm, the assumption is that anyone who does not speak thus is implicitly denying the abiding presence, activity, and work of the Spirit. Some of this is cross-cultural or cross-paradigm communication. We’ve taken to speaking like charismatics in order communicate our conviction that the Spirit is at work in our communions and people.

The adoption of charismatic language to describe our experience comes at a cost, however, because we come to believe that what is being said is literally true. As Reformed folk read Scripture, the apostolic gifts and powers ended with the close of the apostolic age. As best we can tell, no one is actually speaking in natural foreign languages (Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12–14) by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. None of us is being carried about from place to place by the Spirit (Acts 8:39) or healing the lame (Acts 8 and 9). None of us is putting people to death (Acts 5) or raising people from the dead (Acts 20) and none of us is impervious to the bite of poisonous snakes (Acts 28). None of us even is so indwelled by the Spirit that others are healed merely by touching our handkerchiefs (Acts 19).

How Should We Speak?
Above I began to sketch a case that for a way between neo-Pentecostalism/Charismatic piety and a sterile piety. Genuine, confessional Reformed piety is warm, Spiritual, and vital but we understand that the Spirit works through means (Word and sacraments). This means that there are two distinct paradigms before us. Christ’s presence mediated v the unmediated experience of God (QIRE). In some cases, however, the issue is less a matter of genuine difference but rather about how we should speak.

Historically, even though the church has often and rather conveniently fuzzed the boundary between the canonical and post-canonical periods (e.g., the hagiographies of the early church) as a matter of doctrine the main Patristic writers tended to recognize a distinction between the apostolic and post-apostolic periods. The scandal of the Montanists was that they claimed to represent a revival of the apostolic phenomena, a claim that most rejected.

As Warfield showed in 1918, the so-called “miracles” claimed by the neo-Pentecostalists simply don’t measure up to apostolic standards. The apostolic miracles were of a different order than anything that is claimed today. It wasn’t a matter of “so and so said that he heard that in Pakistan in 1937 x happened.” That’s what passes for the miraculous in our day. There’s word for that: credulity. The genuine thing was obvious, public, and empirically verifiable. They had nothing to hide because they had real power. They didn’t need ear pieces (Robert Tilton) or camera tricks and the like. There was no agony of deceit.

The truth is that those leading evangelical proponents of gifts tacitly admit that they aren’t really apostolic. One leading advocate admitted to a gathering of theologians that his first attempt to heal failed because he lacked sufficient faith. That’s not apostolic. Paul shook off the serpent at Malta because he had apostolic power not because he had sufficient faith (as if he would have died had his faith flagged for a moment). Paul sustained several stonings and other attempts on his life. We would not. We’re not apostles.

Please hear me. I am not saying that the Spirit cannot do today what he did in the first century, in the Exodus, in the flood, or in the resurrection. I quite expect to see Jesus return bodily. I expect to see a bodily resurrection and a metaphorical flood (1 Peter) but we’re not there yet. God has not promised to do in our age, in the post-canonical time between the ascension and the parousia, what he did in the canonical age.

What happens is that contemporary evangelical and charismatic folk describe ordinary phenomena in extraordinary, apostolic terms. They identify non-apostolic phenomena as apostolic. That’s cheating but it’s rhetorically powerful and persuasive. Many evangelicals don’t want to live in the post-canonical, in between time. It’s a drag. People want a power religion. Judged against the neo-Pentecostal and charismatic claims, Reformed Christianity seems decidedly weak and powerless (see all of 2 Corinthians).

So, what should we do? I propose that we speak the truth in love. Instead of making claims that we can’t back up we should speak simply. Instead claiming implicitly that we know what the Spirit is doing just now (we don’t know where the Spirit comes from or where he is going) we should say what is true. Instead of saying “the Spirit told me” or “the Spirit led me” we should say what actually know to be true. “I had a strong desire to pray” or “in the providence of God it turns out that as I was praying x was happening at the same time.”

Does the Spirit lead us, give promptings? Sure. That’s not in question. What is in question is what we should claim about them. The Word tells us that the Spirit is constantly, powerfully, and actively accomplishing his purposes. Confessing that truth is one thing. Claiming that we know just what he is about at any given moment is quite another. We say, “The Spirit was really present” when what we know to be true is that “we had an intense experience.” In fact the Spirit is always present. We may become conscious of certain intense feelings or experiences and if those are good and holy, praise God.

Implicit in the claim to know what the Spirit is doing is an unstated knowledge and claim to power. “It’s not in the Scripture but I know what the Spirit is doing in this instance.” I say that doesn’t accord with what we believe about the immensity of God, the omnipresence of God, and our doctrine of the providence of God. He is always sustaining, governing, upholding all things. We know that he is with his covenantal people is a particular way. That presumes knowledge of the Spirit’s work that we don’t have. It’s powerful and seductive but it’s powerful precisely because it fills in the sorts of blanks we want to have filled in. It sounds and seems more “spiritual” to say, “The Spirit led me to do/say/think” rather than “after prayer and study I did/said/thought.” The latter is corrigible and the former is less so. It’s really a sort of implicit claim to power, authority, and knowledge that, as far as I know, in the post-canonical era, no one has.

Why can’t we simply do good, useful, edifying things without attributing it directly to the inspiration of the Spirit? Why do we have to know whether it was directly from the Spirit? Partly, I think, because we feel guilty for being cessationists because the non-cessationists seem to having all the fun.

Brothers and sisters, we are not charismatics or neo-Pentecostals. We have a different paradigm. We should learn to be content with Scripture and with our own paradigm instead of seeking to plunder the Pentecostals. We do not believe that God occasionally drops into history to do the spectacular but rather we believe that he is constantly with us. We believe that he accomplishes extraordinary things through the ordained and regular (Rom 10). Which takes more faith? To believe that the Spirit is knocking people over, inspiring them to make incorrect prophecies, or to believe that God uses the foolishness of the preached Gospel (1 Cor 1-2) to raise spiritual dead (Eph 2) sinners to new life and to grant them faith and through it union with the risen Christ?

This essay first appeared in 2013 on the Heidelblog.

Why the Mission Needs the Marks

Doubtless the one of the most significant movements within evangelicalism at the moment is the “emergent” or “emerging churches” movement. The adjectives “emerging” and “emergent” designate different wings of the movement. Generally, the “emergent” wing is more radical and the “emerging” wing a little less radical. Just as frequently, however, in the contemporary rhetoric from both wings of the movement no distinction is made and this essay will speak of the “emerging movement” (hereafter, EM). Like their older evangelical brothers and sisters, the EM also rejects (at least elements of) fundamentalism and revivalism. In their place, they are constructing a cross-traditional, eclectic synthesis. Christianity Today writer Andy Crouch describes the approach to worship and theology of Mars Hill Bible Church (Grand Rapids) as simultaneously “echoing and subverting a fashion-driven culture of cool.”1 This hip veneer covers an intentional theological synthesis. As pastor Rob Bell puts it,

We’re re-discovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don’t deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don’t speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God.2

An eclectic approach to Christianity, with somewhat different results, also marks Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, in which he describes himself simultaneously as a “missional, evangelical, Post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”3 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger characterize the EM thus:

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging (1) churches identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.4

Scot McKnight gives his own list of 5 characteristics. The emerging churches (which he distinguishes from “emergent” churches) are “prophetic (or at least provocative). They are “postmodern,” “praxis-oriented,” “post-evangelical,” and “political.”5

The Problem of Defining “Missional”
If the EM is hard to define, it is even more difficult to understand what they mean by the word “missional.”  Perhaps no single word in the EM is used more than the word “missional.” No single word is more central to their identity and purpose and yet it is not easy to find them defining the word “missional.”  They often use it as a crucial qualifier for their understanding of Scripture or the Christian faith. For example, on his blog, Scot McKnight has been publishing a series of studies called “Missional Jesus” wherein Jesus life and ministry are analyzed in “missional terms,” with the result that Jesus appears quite similar to the EM movement. Judging by the accounts by the EM and judging by their characterizations of the adjective “missional,” the two seem to be used as synonyms. In other words, if one will be genuinely “missional” one must agree with the EM theology. Further, if we compare the basic attributes of the EM’s self-description with the accounts given by scholars of pietism they are virtually identical.6 Thus, in other words, to be identified with the EM is to be missional and viewed historically, the EM/Missional movements, are simply contemporary ways of re-stating Pietism. For all the new rhetoric, what we have is, at bottom, an argument between those who value religious experience as the highest good and those who, while valuing religious experience—I call to the stand the Heidelberg Catechism, William Perkins, and John Owen—value an objective theology, piety, and practice above subjective religious experience.

What are confessional Reformed Christians to do with these movements and particularly with this adjective “missional”? This essay argues that we must do two things: First, if we are to apply it to ourselves, we must challenge the prevailing EM definition of “missional.” Second, we must recognize that the Reformed theology, piety, and practice presents a clear alternative to the EM definition of “missional” because, unlike the EM, Reformed theology has a doctrine of the church, which confesses that it is in and through the church that the Triune God is accomplishing his mission. For us to say “the mission needs the marks,” is to say that without the visible, institutional church, there is no mission. In order to have a proper definition of what it is to be “missional” we must have a proper definition of what the church is.

First, the definition of the adjective “missional.” There is a some controversy in the EM over whether the word “missional” is being “co-opted” by folk such as we who are not entitled to use it. Anthony Bradley asks whether the term “missional” was being “hijacked” by traditionalists of various sorts. He raises the question whether “missional” types need another adjective to describe themselves.7 He complains about the fact that “Church Growth” guys are now using the term. He cites a document by Tim Keller—who actually provides something of a definition of “Missional”8 and says the term is being co-opted by “the traditional/seeker/program oriented ‘ministries’ driven church”).9 The problem, he says, is that none of these folks are genuinely “missional.”  He asks, “Can you really be missional if your personal relationships are confined to the Christian shire? If your church has no non-Christians attending? If adult baptisms of the unchurched aren’t a regular occurrence, if the church is not serving the needs of the local community, etc?”  The folks at “Reformergent” define missional as:

Social action, community involvement, and sacrificial hospitality is primary in lifestyle living. There is once again an interest in being light and salt in a broken world. This involves primarily politics and culture. Although the emerging church sometimes lacks an emphasis on evangelism as part of missional living, there is still value in their approach to how we can be ‘in this world, and not of it.’10

They give three marks of what it means to be “emergent” and “missional.” Those marks are a concern for “social justice,” “authenticity,” and an “unstructured ecclesiology.”11

It should be clear by now that the definition of “missional” raises serious questions. What is at stake here is the very nature of Christianity. This is not simply my assessment; this is the assessment of leaders of the EM. For example, in response to Driscoll’s criticisms, Doug Pagitt says, “I think that we’re basically talking about two different versions of Christianity” and Tony Jones agrees.12 Spencer Burke, says that his goal is to radically re-shape the visible, institutional church. He says,

I challenge the institutional church, where are you spending your R&D [research and development] money now? … If it’s trying to figure out the next big church, I think you should not spend your money that way. … I actually believe that you will see major organizations in the next few years investing in R&D because of the missional question … because of the things they are discovering now…13

Confessional Reformed churches should share this concern. It is a fair question whether building mega-churches is the mission of the church. As he continues, the picture becomes clearer:

I really believe the institutional church will die to itself … even though it will destroy our Sunday morning event … even though it will mean no longer investing in training biblical teachers for the one-hour event … for the greater good, the greater cause, the missional opportunity….14

Let me be clear, if Reformed folk are to apply the adjective “missional” to themselves, it must be defined clearly and that definition must be quite distinct from that used by the EM. Indeed, if we are to use it to describe ourselves we must, to use Bradley’s terms, hijack it or co-opt it.

Let’s us begin doing so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this use as an adjective relating to missions or missionary work, but this is not what the EM means by it. According to the EM, Sunday mornings are no longer considered the Christian Sabbath or the Lord’s Day morning, the day of public worship, the divinely appointed time and place for the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Sunday morning is just an event and not even a “missional” event at that! Tripp Fuller says,

There is much to learn and keep from the Reformation, a movement that was thoroughly modern, but there is reason to give pause to returning to it with a clenched fist. Right now I think the last thing the Church needs are white dudes with clinched fists, especially when what they are clenching is ‘God’s Truth.’ Throughout modernity white Dudes have had God’s truth in their hands too much, and behind them are ditches filled with God’s and/or their enemies. (This confusion is easy when you have truth tightly gripped in a fist.) … I am confident that, as the Church finds its bearing in a new world, we don’t need any more clinched fists, for it is God’s world and God’s truth after all.15

We see a similar anti-ecclesiastical approach to mission in The Missional Church edited by Darrell L. Guder and co-written by five different authors.16  They agree with many of the EM writers who reject the “Western mission” as a “European-church-centered enterprise.”17 In its place they seek a “theocentric reconceptualization of Christian mission.”18 In the EM/Missional movements there is a turning away from the church as organization and toward the church as organism. They regard the institutional church as a remnant of “Christendom,” the medieval church-state complex.19 Many of the EM/Missional theorists seem to accept, to greater and lesser degrees, the nineteenth-century theory that the apostolic church was purely kerygmatic and charismatic and that organization was a later, post-apostolic corruption of authentic Christianity.20 On that premise they seek to recover some version of primitive Christianity. In the chapter on the church drafted by George Hunsberger, Missional Church contrasts the a missional approach to the doctrine of the church with the “heritage of a functional Christendom and forms of church life shaped by modern notions of voluntary association and rational organization.”21 This is at least partly true and helpful, but they continue by calling into question the very notion of the “marks of the church.” They write that, though the Reformers did not intend it, the result of speaking of “the marks of the true church” has been that Protestants have come to think of church as “a place where certain things happen.”22 The argument throughout the chapter is that we must move beyond a conception of the church as a “place where things happen” to a dynamic community caught up in the mission of God in the world. They are more helpful, however, when they note that the verbs most often used by the New Testament in association with the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of heaven” are “to receive” and “to enter.”23 That the kingdom is not something we can usher in through evangelism or cultural action is a truly important point.

Finally, in contrast to a good bit of the contemporary literature coming from the EM/missional movements, Christopher J. H. Wright provides one of the most helpful approaches to the question of a missional theology.24  He argues that we should use a “missional” hermeneutic on analogy with our Christocentric hermeneutic.25 Just as we read the Bible to see how it progressively reveals the person of God the Son in Christ through the history of redemption,26 so too we ought to recognize that the mission of God is also progressively revealed in redemptive history.27 Thus, e.g. he distinguishes between the missional character of Israel’s relation to the nations, inasmuch as they existed to fulfill the divine intention, and the Christian mission to preach the gospel to all the nations.28 In that respect, he argues that though it is true to say that the Bible teaches a mission, it is also true that the Bible itself is the product of God’s mission.29 The whole history of redemption is the history of the outworking of the divine plan moving from creation, to fall, to redemption, and finally to glory.30

What the EM/Missional Movement Gets Right
There are a number of fundamental disagreements between the EM/Missional movements and the Reformed confession. Nevertheless, there are at least five points about the EM/Missional movements that confessional Reformed churches should appreciate.

  1. Christendom was a mistake and more importantly we live after Christendom. Christians ought to engage the whole world with all of God’s revelation. The attempt to recapture or reconstitute Christendom is a great diversion from our true vocation and the mission of God at this stage in redemptive history. The gospel may not be safely identified with any particular political program (left, center, or right) and it may not be identified any particular cultural program.
  2. Christianity has always been and will always be a global phenomenon. As we think about our relations to the “mission of God” in the world, we need to reckon with the fact that we are part of a much larger enterprise. We, in North America, are not necessarily the center of world Christianity. For example, we can learn much from our one million brothers and sisters in the Church of Christ Among the Tiv (NKST) in Nigeria about what it means to be truly submissive to the mission of God as they live their faith before a largely hostile and often dangerous culture.
  3. The “mission of God” has very little to do with the contemporary evangelical obsession with programs. The “program-driven” church is probably much more about satisfying the social needs of middle class suburbanites than it is about the mission of the church.
  4. The modern church is too closely associated with particular cultural forms. We are not nearly as critical of our own debt to our own time and place as we need to be.
  5. The modern evangelical church is too easily reckoned as just another voluntary organization. This is why evangelicals shop churches. They do not think of the institutional church as a divine institution to which they have a sacred moral and spiritual obligation and connection. The local congregation has become just another service provider.

What the EM/Missional Movement Gets Wrong
As many things as there are to appreciate about the EM/Missional movements, there are at least nine points of serious disagreement between the Reformed faith and the EM/Missional movements.

  1. The EM/Missional movements are unhelpfully vague about exactly what the “mission” of God is and as a consequence they are unhelpfully vague about what the “mission” of the church is.
  2. When the EM/Missional movements do speak clearly about the mission of the church that mission has precious little to do with the mission of God and the history of redemption and revelation as Reformed churches have understood it. Almost invariably the mission is re-cast in activist, social-gospel, and even Anabaptist terms. This is not my judgment, it is the judgment of EM/Missional advocate Scot McKnight, who says of Brian McLaren’s new book, Everything Must Change: “Truth be told, Brian is an Anabaptist [sic] as I am reading him….”31
  3. The EM and Missional accounts of church history seem unaware of a century of criticism of the old and outdated “Kerygma to dogma” model of church history in which the EM and “Missional” groups attempt to re-capture or re-create the “authentic” “kerygmatic” and socially conscious apostolic communities in our time to get past the ossified “dogma” with which Christianity has been encrusted. I understand why they are attracted to it, since it is just a slightly more sophisticated version of the sort of evangelical and fundamentalist primitivism that they are offering now. The great problem with this model is that it just is not true. The whole Kerygma to dogma model assumed, a priori, that the apostolic church could have no institutions, offices, or organization. Any evidence of such organization only meant that portion of the NT could not be taken to be authentic.The repeated claim that the Reformation was a modern phenomenon has no basis in actual history. The Reformation occurred a century and a half before modernity began to dominate the West. The Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed churches were pre-modern people and they were hotly critical of modernity when it appeared. The leading critics of Rene Descartes were not Pietists, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. The leading critics of modernity, as it began to appear, were the orthodox Reformed. It was the Pietists, the forebears of the EM/Missional movements who conceded Christianity to modernity. The nineteenth-century German liberals who laid waste to the faith, who laid siege against the Scriptures were all the children and grand children of Pietists. The EM/Missional movements seem to be counseling us to drink more deeply from the very wells that brought about the destruction they lament.The great irony of the EM/Missional complaint about orthodoxy as “modernist,” is that the Modern creed had four great points, to which most segments of the EM/Missional movement give assent.
    1.  The Modernist creed confesses the universal Fatherhood of God. In the modernist religion, the utterly transcendent (or immanent) deity is everyone’s God/god in precisely the same way. It is not confessional Calvinism, but the EM/Missional movement that includes universalists in its midst.
    2. The Modernist creed confesses the universal brotherhood of humanity. In the modern religion, all human beings are all one great human family without distinction before the deity in any way. Of course, confessing as we do double predestination and limited atonement, it is unlikely that confessional Calvinism will be confused with modernity, but how distinct from the modern creed is the EM/Missional movement?
    3. The Modernist creed confesses human and social perfectibility. If you are of a certain age, you may remember the slogan, “we’re getting better every way and every day.” As dark Calvinists with our doctrine of the depravity of every human faculty we are not good candidates for alignment with the Modernist creed, but the same cannot be said for many elements of the EM/Missional movement.
    4. The most basic Modernist confession is that of human autonomy, the ability to will the contrary to all other wills, even God, is what makes one human. As confessors of human depravity and divine sovereignty, confessional Reformed theology utterly rejects this foundational Modernist doctrine, which is a significant reason we are seen as unreasonable and even anti-human by Modernists. It is far from clear that the EM/Missional movements find themselves with the same antithesis to Modernity on this basic point.
  4. The EM and “Missional” complaint about the close association of the church with cultural forms could be taken as a form of Gnosticism. Our Lord took on a true human nature. As a true man, born of a virgin, he entered human history, spoke a natural language, and was, as a man, completely embedded in a particular culture and time. He commissioned his apostles, also embedded in a particular culture and time, to preach the gospel that transcends all cultures and times, to every language, tongue, and tribe. The paradox of the mission is that the transcendent, triune God entered history to accomplish the great mission, to redeem his people in the fullness of time, and he committed the proclamation of the reality of that fulfillment to the visible church, which shall always remained embedded in time and history until there is no more time and history.Let us also remember that it was the Anabaptists, with whom the EM/Missional movements seem to be so enamored, who overtly and repeatedly denied the true humanity of Christ and who adopted the Docetic doctrine of the so-called “celestial flesh” of Christ. The Definition of Chalcedon better serves the biblical and holy catholic faith than the Christology of the Anabaptists does.
  5. Though the EM and “missional” movements often write as if they were distinctively post-modern, there is little evidence that they really are genuinely post-modern. In many ways it is not a modern movement, beginning with late modern assumptions. The first “modern” people were the Anabaptists and then the Pietists. It is they who made the faith wholly private and personal and who divorced it from history and made it chiefly about the Quest for the Illegitimate Religious Experience.By “modern” I mean they accept the premise that the subject of the verb is “I.”  This is the great difference between Christian antiquity, where the overwhelming consensus was exactly opposite that of modernity, and modernity. The pre-modern church assumed universally that God had spoken, that his revelation is objective and normative for all people, in all times and places. The great question of Christian antiquity was not whether God has spoken but what has God said.The great modern question is has God really said? Of course that question has ancient and diabolical roots, but never until the Modern period did it become the dominant question, the dominant assumption. It was in reaction to the ascendancy of the modern question and the accompanying assumption of personal autonomy that Christians began to regard the faith not about objective, verifiable historical truths such as creation, redemption, resurrection and return, but about the personal experience of the divine. Calvin and Luther are one thing, and Friedrich Schleiermacher is another. The EM and “Missional” movements have much deeper roots in the liberal Pietism of Schleiermacher than they do in the confessional, churchly Protestantism of Calvin and Luther.
  6. The EM/Missional movements are much to be faulted for their lack of clarity about what the gospel is. The Scriptures are unequivocal that the gospel is the announcement of deliverance from judgment and damnation on the basis of the righteousness of Christ and received through faith alone in Christ and his finished work. This is not the clarion call of the EM/Missional movement.
  7. The EM/Missional movements fail consistently to distinguish between the two kingdoms. According to God’s Word there are two kingdoms in this world, one from heaven and the other of this age. Christians live in both kingdoms simultaneously. The visible, institutional church, the “true church,” represents the spiritual kingdom, the kingdom of God as we confess in the Belgic Confession Art. 29. Here, we should credit the chapter in Missional Church that gets this aspect of the question right.32 Only the baptized live in this kingdom outwardly and only believers inhabit this kingdom spiritually. All humans, however, live in another kingdom, the civil or earthly kingdom and much of that to which the EM/Missional movements are calling the church actually belongs to the civil kingdom. Christians may and should work to alleviate suffering, but the visible, institutional church, as such, is called to only three tasks: To preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to administer discipline. We confess these as the marks of the true church. We confess:

    The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it (Belgic Confession [1561], art. 29).

    When we adopted the three marks of true church, we were in a situation very much like ours today. It was difficult for Christians to know where they should worship and to which institution they should give their allegiance. They needed clear, objective indicators of where the true church could be found. That need has never been greater than it is now. That is why we chose three objective marks that can be tested by empirical evidence. Listen to the sermons, is the gospel preached? That is not a trick question. Either the gospel justification through faith alone in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension is present or it is not. Are the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper administered? By our lights, if as often happens in our hyper-spiritual age, they are absent or fundamentally corrupted in favor of “new measures,” then the church is also absent. Finally, it will become clear soon enough if a congregation is disciplined. If the minister is unaccountable or if there are no elders or gross sin and error are winked at, then there is no discipline.

    It is often said that we should add a fourth mark, If we add to these marks then we gain nothing and risk losing them all. To be sure, there are subsidiary obligations in the church. For example, we must love one another, but there are good reasons why “love” or charity is not a mark of the true church. At first glance, the evidence for making “love” a mark of the church seems overwhelming, after all Paul is very clear in 1 Cor 13 that, whatever else is true of us, if we have not love, we are of little use to the kingdom. The chief problem with adding love or any other virtue to the list of marks is that the list becomes useless. If we make “charity” a mark of the visible church so that one can look at a congregation and determine whether it is a true church on the basis of whether it has love, then who gets to say “how much”? Who gets to define what counts as love and what does not? If we may add “love” as a mark of the church, then why should we not add holiness and if holiness then why not other virtues? On what basis do we stop adding virtues to the list of marks?  We know the answer to that question as soon as we answer another. Which congregation on the face of the earth has all the necessary virtues or even one of them in sufficient quantity to qualify as a true church?

    As it happens, the Reformed churches already considered this question. We assign the virtues to the marks of the Christian. Those marks are also in Belgic Confession Art. 29. “As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.”

  8. They love the true God and their neighbors, they love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. In our theology, piety, and practice, there is no question whether faith, hope, and love are necessary. We are not Donatists. The lack of perfection in the saints or even in the ministers does not disqualify the church. What matters most about the church—between Reformed confessionalism and evangelical pietism there is, on this question, fixed an unbridgeable gulf—is what the church confesses, what it preaches, whether and how it administers the holy sacraments, and whether it administers discipline. In our view, however, the visible church, i.e. the congregation of the saints in stated worship services where the Word is preached and the sacraments and discipline are administered are exactly “places where things happens,” and those assemblies are ordinarily the only such places where such things happen.
  9. To say that the mission needs the marks is to say that the mission needs the true church. One of the greatest faults of the EM/Missional movements is that they seem bent on destroying or circumventing the visible church. Perhaps this is because of their context? Perhaps they see the visible church as disposable or worse, as an obstacle, because they are in mainline churches where dead heterodoxy seems to flourish or they are in mega-churches where the main “mission” seems to be to fill the seats?The Reformed understanding of the Scriptures is that mission is impossible without Christ’s visible church just as the accomplishment of redemption was impossible without Christ’s human nature. In Matthew 16 our Lord gave the keys of the kingdom to his designated representatives, to the visible institutional church. He did not give the keys to any other entity. In that sense, then, the visible church is unique among all human institutions in that it alone represents the authoritative, official proclamation of the Gospel of the kingdom. To the visible, institutional church alone Christ gave the power to remit and to bind. In Matthew 18 we see the same pattern. When our Lord instructed his disciples to “tell it to the church” he did not have in mind the “invisible church” of all times and places. He had in mind the visible, local, congregation with officers. Indeed, the Apostles were deeply concerned with the local church as the center of the administration of the kingdom of God on the earth. The Apostle Paul devoted about half or at least a generous portion of most of his epistles to addressing the practical administration and life of visible, true congregations churches. He spent a considerable amount of energy seeing to the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and discipline. Those who denied the humanity of Christ, in the churches of Asia Minor, “went out” from actual congregations because they were never really, spiritually “of” those congregations.
  10. As the intellectual and spiritual children of Pietists and Anabaptists the EM/Missional movements seem to lack altogether a doctrine of what our forefathers called “the means of grace.” The EM/Missional movement seems entirely taken with the modern, pietist, autonomous, and individualistic approach to spirituality and piety. The candles and labyrinths of the EM/Missional piety are just medieval trappings over pietist individualism. The piety and spirituality of the EM/Missional movement is still Bonaventure’s journey of the mind into God or the piety of the ascent of the soul to the divine.Reformed piety is covenantal. It recognizes that God the Son administers his grace through visible means, that we are baptized into a community, that we are redeemed into communities, and that we are brought to faith by the public proclamation of the gospel (Rom 10:17) and that faith is strengthened and confirmed through our baptism and the regular use of the Lord’s Supper. Confessional Protestants confess that every day we repent and die to self and live to Christ and, in that way, we daily renew our baptism. Lord permitting, each week, after we hear the gospel in our ears, we receive it again with our mouths confessing that, as certainly as I receive the elements from the hand of the minister, so surely are the promises of God true for those who believe.

If the mission of God in history is to announce, accomplish, and apply salvation to all of his people in all times and places, in that case the marks of the church are absolutely essential to the mission. Throughout the whole history of redemption, the divine mission was always executed through his covenant people beginning in the garden, after the fall, through Noah, Abraham, national Israel, and finally in the New Covenant church. In every epoch there was always a visible representation of the kingdom and covenant. Nothing has changed. Our Lord Jesus cut a covenant with his people in his blood and he administers his salvation, which is the essence of the mission, through that people. The marks of Christ’s church have always been evident: Gospel, sacraments, and discipline.

Therefore, so long as we continue to accept the Reformed reading of redemptive history, we cannot accept the EM/Missional movement’s definition of “missional.” By these lights, in order to be “missional” we have to reject what we understand to be the gospel and we should have to reject what we understand to be the mission and finally, to embrace the EM account of “mission,” we should have to adopt an Anabaptist doctrine of the church.

Fortunately, none of this is necessary. We should take the EM/Missional movement as a challenge to reinvigorate our vocation to take seriously our doctrine of the church as the covenant community, as the visible representation of the kingdom of God, and the external administration of the covenant of grace. Let us agree with the EM/Missional movement where they remind us that the mission of the church is grounded in the mission of God and the mission of God is expressed in the voluntary submission of God the Son to his Father, whose “food” was “to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Our work is, first of all, to “believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29) and out of those missions, the institutional church must manifest the marks and so doing to go as we have been sent (John 20:21) by the him who was sent for us.

* This essay first appeared online in 2008.

1. Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique,” Christianity Today, November 2004, 38.
2. Ibid.
3. From the cover of Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). For a critique of McLaren’s attempted synthesis see R. Scott Clark, “Whosoever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church? Meet Christian Dogma,” in Reforming or Conforming, ed. Gary Johnson and Ronald Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).
4. This is condensed from Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating a Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 43–44.
5. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” Christianity Today, February 2007, 36–39.
6. For a more extensive treatment of this phenomenon and a confessional invitation to the citizens of the “Emergent Village” to visit Geneva and Heidelberg see R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007).
7. http://bradley.chattablogs.com/archives/060218.html (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
8. “adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community,
and service—so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it” http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Missional_Church-Keller.pdf (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
9. http://bradley.chattablogs.com/archives/060218.html.
10. http://www.reformergent.org/?p=4 (accessed 10 October 10, 2007)
11. http://www.reformergent.org/?p=4 (accessed 10 October 2007).
12. http://theoblogy.blogspot.com/2007/10/different-versions-of-christianity.html (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
13. http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/missional-has-it-been-shrink-wrapped-too (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
14. Ibid.
15. http://pomopirate.blogspot.com/2007/09/driscoll-acts-29-and-demerging-church.html (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
16. Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
17. Ibid., 4.
18. Ibid.
19. See e.g., ibid., 5–6.
20. The writers of Missional Church recognize that a missional church must be “historical” (p.11) but it is not entirely clear what this means.
21. Missional Church, 77. Remarkably, the chapter calls us to do exactly that which William Willimon has charged us not to do, i.e. to continue doing theology in “translation mode.” On this see William H.  Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 9.
22. Missional Church, 79.
23. Ibid., 93–97.
24. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006).
25. Bearing in mind Richard Muller’s recent caveat about the difficulty of using this adjective. See Richard A. Muller, “A Note on ‘Christocentrism’ and the Imprudent Use of Such Terminology,” Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 253–60.
26. See R. Scott Clark, “What is the Bible All About,” Modern Reformation 16 (March/April, 2007): 20–24.
27. See, e.g., 26, 30–32.
28. Ibid., 24–25.
29. Ibid
30. Ibid., 62–63.
31. http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=2917 (accessed 12 October, 2007).
32. Missional Church, 102–09.

Three Things Dispensational Apologists Should Stop Saying

There are varieties of Dispensationalism, e.g., classic (Darby, Scofield), modified (Chafer, Ryrie), and progressive (Bock, Blaising). To be sure there are varieties of covenant theology, e.g., classic e.g., that taught in the classical period that taught the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the covenant of works (foedus operum), and the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae) and revised (which omits the covenant of works and/or the covenant of redemption). Nevertheless, despite the significant differences between revised and classic covenant theology, they are united in their conviction that the history of redemption is united by a single, typological, covenant of grace progressively revealed in the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 3:15 and ratified by Christ’s obedience and death.

For a century, beginning in the 1870s, American evangelicalism was heavily influenced by Dispensationalism. Advanced through Dispensationalist prophecy conferences, Bible Colleges, seminaries and perhaps most of all, through the Scofield Bible (1909), it became the dominant paradigm for the interpretation of redemptive history among those influenced by revivalism and fundamentalism, which is to say most evangelicals in the period. Dispensationalism appeared to be at the peak of its influence in the 1970s with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s, The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970),  John Walvoord’s Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis (1976; rev. 1990), and the Ryrie Study Bible (1976) seemed to signal that the influence of Dispensationalism, especially the modified Dispensationalism was only continuing to grow.

In retrospect, however, it appears that 1970s were not a staging ground for further growth but the zenith of Dispensationalism. Its influence began to wane through the 1980s. In 1990 Bock and Blaising  published Progressive Dispensationalism, which signaled a movement away from the Dispensationalism of not only of Scofield but also of Chafer, Ryrie, and Walvoord. There are bastions of modified Dispensationalism, however, that are continue to hold the fort but they seem to feel beleaguered not  without and within.

I. Covenant Theology Began in the 1640s?
Perhaps in reaction, some defenders of modified Dispensationalism are prone to make certain exaggerated historical and theological claims as part of their defense. One of them is that covenant theology arose in the 1640s (or 1670s).

C. Fred Lincoln made this claim in a series of articles published in Bibliotheca Sacra beginning in 1943. His work has been further reduced to the bald claim, as one pastor puts it on his website: “Covenant theology is a system developed by two men, Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) and Hermann Witsius (1636-1708).” I have heard this claim repeatedly.

However comforting such a narrative might be to Dispensationalists it is demonstrably false. Covenant theology did mature in the 17th century but the very system of a prelapsarian (pre-fall) covenant of works and a postlapsarian covenant of grace, which allegedly arose in the 1640s, existed explicitly as early as 1561 and implicitly much earlier than that. In the transitional period from 1561 until 1600 one sees multiple writers doing explicitly what some Dispensational apologists claim did not exist until the 1640s.

Further, there is good evidence to think that the roots of the explicit covenant theology of the early 1560s were in in the magisterial Reformers as they worked out an account of redemptive history from the 1520s. forward By the early 17th century the Reformed themselves believed that the roots of their covenant theology were in Oecolampadius (1520s). Certainly Zwingli and Bullinger were working out a covenant theology in response to the Anabaptists. The latter published a treatise on the covenant of grace in 1534. Ursinus taught the covenant of works or a covenant of nature in 1561. Caspar Olevianus published a series of treatises on covenant theology in the 1560s, 70s, and 80s culminating in his work, On The Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585). Arguably, Olevianus taught a legal, prelapsarian covenant between God and Adam which was substantially identical to that found in Ursinus and later in Rollock and Perkins. He also taught something very much like the pre-temporal covenant of redemption. See Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant for a survey of his theology.

Long before the Reformed developments in the late 16th century there had been covenant theologies current in the medieval and patristic periods. Much of what the Reformed argued in their account of the substantial unity of salvation was influenced by those earlier responses, e.g., to the Albigensians in the 13th century and to the Gnostics and Marcionites in the 2nd century. Among the second-century writers Barnabas, Irenaeus, and Justin were clearly proponents of a covenantal explanation of redemptive history, which the Reformed would repeat in the 16th century against the Anabaptists. In short, the evidence that a developed covenant theology pre-existed the mid-17th century is overwhelming and claims that Reformed covenant theology arose as a system in mid-17th century are not tenable.

Part 2: Is Reformed covenant theology a “replacement theology”?


R. Scott Clark, “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

R. Scott Clark, A Brief History of Covenant Theology.

Here’s the syllabus for my course on the history of covenant theology (with a bibliography).

II. Covenant Theology Is Replacement Theology
Our English word canard is actually a French word for duck (the noun, not the verb). Used figuratively in both French and English it signals “an unfounded rumor or story” (Oxford American Dictionary). In this brief three-part series I am addressing three canards, i.e., three unfounded claims that Dispensational apologists make about Reformed theology. This series should interest those more irenic Dispensationalists who seek to build bridges between the Reformed and Dispensationalists. It should also interest those who, though they have been raised in Dispensational congregations, are investigating Reformed theology or who are in transition between Dispensationalism and Reformed theology, piety, and practice. In part 1 we looked at the claim by some Dispensationalists that covenant theology arose in the mid-17th century.

The second thing that Dispensational apologists should stop saying that Reformed theology is a “replacement” or “supersessionist” theology. According to this criticism Reformed theology is supposed to teach that whereas the Jews were God’s visible people under the Old Testament, under the New Testament, they have been replaced or superseded (hence supersessionism) by the New Testament Church. This is a gross mischaracterization of Reformed theology and it begs the question, i.e., it assumes what it must prove.

The charge is loaded with a premise that we do not accept: that “Israel” and “the church” are two distinct or parallel things. As we understand redemptive history the church has always been. There was a church, of sorts, even before the fall. The garden was a temple, a holy place, which Adam as prophet, priest, and king was to rule, guard, and administer. He failed. There was a church after the fall, beginning with Adam, then Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, etc.

This is not some theory that the Reformed impose upon Scripture. The doctrine that the church has always been is a biblical idea. According to Deuteronomy 4:10, when Israel was gathered at the foot of Sinai (Horeb) they were gathered, before the face of Yahweh (‏לִפְנֵ֨י יְהוָ֣ה) as the covenant assembly (‏קהל). The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which was highly influential upon the vocabulary of the Greek NT uses the expression “on the day of the assembly” (τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῆς ἐκκλησίας). The noun that the LXX uses there and in Deuteronomy 9:10, 18:16. In Deuteronomy 23:3 (LXX) the same noun is used for the “assembly (‏ (קהלof the Lord” (ἐκκλησίαν κυρίου). Deuteronomy 31:30 speaks of the “assembly of Israel” (ἐκκλησίας Ισραηλ). This is the noun which, in the New Testament, is translated “church.” When our Lord says, in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church” he uses this noun (ἐκκλησίαν). In v. 17, when he says “tell it to the church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ), he is saying, “tell it to the covenant assembly.” It is the very same idea, the very same sort of assembly in view in Deuteronomy 4, 9, 18 (as surveyed above) that is being invoked in Matthew 16. Here is a longer, more detailed explanation of the biblical doctrine of the church as the Christ-confessing covenant community. The Biblical understanding would be clearer if we used the same terms in both cases. We could speak of the church gathered at Sinai etc or Jesus building his covenant assembly.

In the Reformed understanding, the church gradually became predominantly and distinctively Jewish with the institution of the sacrament of circumcision, as Paul says in Rom 4:–12. Abraham believed before he was circumcised, i.e., while he was a Gentile and he believed after he was circumcised, when he became a Jew. So it is with the history of redemption. God had his people under Noah and Abraham but, in the providence of God, the focus of redemption gradually narrowed, like a funnel, through redemptive history as it became focused for about a millennium, temporarily, on national Israel. From Israel would come the Savior of the world. So, for a time the church was predominantly Jewish. In no way do we diminish the importance of this administration of the church or the outward administration of the covenant of grace under national Israel. We agree with Paul who wrote, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Rom 9:4–5; ESV). In Ephesians 2:12 Paul says that to national Israel was given “the covenant of promise” (διαθηκῶν τῆς ἐπαγγελίας). They had the highest privilege.

The very notion of a “replacement” or “succession” assumes that God is no longer saving Jews. This is contrary to Paul’s teaching in Romans 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace (Rom 11:1–5; ESV).

Paul appealed to himself as a proof that God was still honoring his promise and still saving his people, his elect, from among the descendants of Abraham. Further, it is held by many faithful Reformed theologians, on the basis of Romans 11, that there will a future, great conversion of Jews to new life and true faith in Jesus as the Messiah. That would be a glorious thing indeed.

We must also remember, however, that Paul also says that, in Christ, the dividing wall erected by the 613 commandments (of the Mosaic law) has been broken down. It’s worth quoting at length:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:11–22; ESV).

According to Paul, though there was a temporary dividing wall, under Moses and David (for about 1,000 years). That dividing wall has been demolished by the death of Christ. Now, for those who are in Christ there is only “one man,” as it were. Peace has been made. Reconciliation has been accomplished. Even under the Mosaic and Davidic administrations of the covenant of grace (the church) there were some Gentiles grafted in to the body as a foreshadow of the future ingathering of the Gentiles. Remember Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5)? He was a Gentile but he was received by the prophet as a member of the covenant community. Rahab is another case (Matt 1:5; Heb 11:31).  In the NT we see that the Old, Mosaic covenant (2 Cor 3:14) was fulfilled and cancelled (Col 2:14) by the death of Christ. In the New Testament the nations, Gentiles, would be called to faith in Jesus the Messiah just as the Jews had been (Isa 52:10, 15; 60:3). Indeed, the actual inclusion of Gentiles into covenant communities (into the church) created a crisis that had to be resolved by a formal assembly (Acts 15). Paul had to address the problem repeatedly (e.g., in Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians to name but a few).

Now, in Christ, there is no longer any distinction between Jew or Gentile (See Rom 10:12; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). The wall, erected in the temporary national covenant with Israel, has been destroyed never to be rebuilt. God is saving all his elect, Jew and Gentile alike (See Rom 11) and shall continue to do so until Christ returns. Reformed theologians and the Reformed churches have always believed this. The very category “replacement” is alien to Reformed theology. Like all Christians we pray for the conversion of Jews and Gentiles by the sovereign, gracious work of the Holy Spirit. With Paul, we pray for the conversion of Israel to saving faith in the ascended and glorified Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.

We reject the idea that there are two peoples, an earthly and a spiritual people. God’s spiritual promises were temporarily administered through an earthly national people but, as Paul says in Galatians 3:17, the Mosaic covenant was 430 years after Abraham and the Mosaic covenant did not change the Abrahamic. Agreeing with Paul in Galatians is hardly “replacement theology” or of “supersessionism.”

If Dispensationalists are genuinely interested understanding Reformed theology and it representing it accurately to others, they must stop saying that Reformed theology teaches “replacement theology.”

Here are some resources on the so-called “replacement theology.”

III. Reformed Covenant Theology Allegorizes?

“For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6b)

It was widely held in the early church that 2 Corinthians 3:6 intended to distinguish between the literal sense of the text of Scripture and its figurative sense. The literal sense is that sense the text had in its original context, to its original readers (or hearers). The figurative sense referred to metaphorical or symbolic truth contained in the text, which might take a variety of shapes. There was never any doubt, even by that most prolific scholar of the figurative senses Origen (c. 184–c.254), that the literal sense is always present and most basic. What varied, however, was the degree to which a writer was interested in one category or the other. Thus, whereas Origen was much more interested in the figurative (theological and moral) senses, John Chyrsostom (347–407) was much more interested in the literal sense.

Over time, the figurative sense developed. Initially it was said to contain the doctrinal (allegorical) and the moral (tropological). Eventually, by the 7th century writers were speaking of a third sub-category of figurative meaning, the eschatological (analogical). Together, these 4 senses came to be known as the quadriga. The development of the three sub-categories of the figurative sense was not arbitrary. It was driven by two impulses. First, there was a correlation with 1 Corinthians 13:13, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Faith refers to the doctrinal sense (allegory) or what is to be believed (credenda), hope refers to what the text teaches about heaven (eschatology) or what is to hoped (speranda), and love to what is to be done (agenda). Each of these correlated to a cardinal, basic, pivotal (cardo = hinge) Christian virtue: faith (fides), hope (spes), and charity (or love; caritas). The medievals developed a song to help students remember how to keep the senses distinct:

Litera gesta docet, (The letter teaches of deeds)
quid credas allegoria; (allegory of what is believed)
moralis quid agas; (morality of what is done)
quo tenda anagogia. (anagoge of things to come)

Sometimes one is given the impression that users of the quadriga sought to find every sense in every text. This is not likely. In his commentary on Job (Moralia in Job), Gregory the Great (c. 540–604) wrote,

Let it be known that we survey some passages with a literal interpretation. Other passages we examine by means of allegory in a figurative interpretation. Still others we study through the exclusive use of moral comparisons. Finally, some passages we investigate with greater care through the combined use of all three ways. Thus, we first lay a foundation of literal meaning. Then, through the figurative sense, we raise the structure of the mind into a citadel of faith. Finally, through the moral interpretation, we clothe our building with an additional shading.

The second driver of the expansion of the figurative sense was the influence of the spirit/matter dualism of middle and neo-Platonism. In this scheme the material is less real and less significant than the spiritual. To the degree this bias influenced Christians, it is not surprising that they (e.g., Origen) came to see the literal sense of the text as superficial and the spiritual (or figurative) senses of the text as more significant. Thus, for Origen, the literal narrative about the ark in Genesis 6–9 was undoubtedly true (contra critics like Celsus) but the literal sense was obvious. What was less obvious, what required more skill, more insight was the figurative (spiritual) senses of the narrative, particularly the theological (or allegorical) sense of the narrative. Origen was most interested in the theological sense of the ark because it suited his apologetic program. For Origen, Celsus and the critics missed the point of the ark by focusing on its size and the number of animals on board. We see analogous use of Scripture by apologists today in the way some make us of “every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5). In context Paul does not mean to teach immediately what that text is often used to say. If there is a connection, it is via the theological implication of the text.

By the fourth century, under Origen’s considerable influence—Origen was not condemned until 553—it became fairly commonplace for interpreters to assign multiple senses to an important term such as Jerusalem.

Literal = the actual city
Allegorical = Christ’s church
Tropological = Human souls
Anagogical = The heavenly city

In this approach, Jesus did not get into a boat to teach (Luke 5:3) for practical reasons but in order to send a symbolic message about the centrality of the visible institutional church. The boat was said to represent the visible church. Again, we recoil against such a reading (or we should) because it is arbitrary, because it ignores the context and the grammar but one can see how, under the influence of Platonic dualism and the ordinary pastoral need to try to impress God’s people with the significance of the narrative, or to apply the text, or even to maintain the congregation’s interest in a sermon—it is not as if evangelical pastors do not allegorize in precisely this way every Sunday across the globe for precisely these reasons—such an approach would have been attractive. Again, this approach, however misguided it might seem to us, it is not as if Paul did not invoke allegory (in some sense) in Galatians 4 in his explanation of the flow of redemptive history. Add a little Platonic dualism to one’s hermeneutic and voilà and the text becomes, in the tropological sense, about the journey of the soul to God. We would be less than honest if we did not recognize at least a little popular contemporary evangelical preaching and teaching in the very approach that many have been taught to condemn.

By the 13th century Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) recognized the excess to which the quadriga had been taken and attempted to rein it in by leading a sort of back to the Bible movement wherein the spiritual senses were said to be embedded in the text itself, rather than derived outside the text and imposed upon it but he continued to read the text in ways that the Reformation would ultimately find unsatisfying and arbitrary.

In The Reformation the Protestants not only affirmed the primacy of the literal sense but they rejected the quadriga as an abuse of Scripture. This is not to say that they did not themselves find “spiritual” or figurative senses from time to time but that they were so committed to the notion that the text has one intended sense that rhetorically and in practice were highly critical of the quadrigal system. When the text was intended by the divine and human authors to be taken figuratively, they sought to do so. When the text was intended (as in the case of Luke 5:3) to be taken as a straightforward historical narrative), they did so. They certainly made theological and moral applications of the text but that was a rather different thing than finding multiple senses in the text.

I offer this narrative to help our Dispensationalist friends understand why it is so wrongheaded for them to continue to criticize Reformed covenant theology for “allegorizing.” What the Dispensationalist critic typically means by this criticism is not that the Reformed are guilty of looking for the doctrinal sense of the text, as the fathers and medievals did, but rather that the Reformed have reached a different conclusion than the Dispensationalist. In my experience with Dispensationalists there is not a great awareness of the history of hermeneutics, the quadriga, or even of what the allegorical sense really was. “Allegory” is used a synonym for figurative or even as a synonym for typology. In the classic and modified dispensational schemes, the promises made to national Israel are central to the unfolding of redemptive history. By contrast, in classic Reformed covenant theology, Christ is said to be at the center of the unfolding history of redemption. According to some Dispensationalist critics, any scheme which fails to read the divine promises to be chiefly about national Israel (e.g., in a millennial kingdom including the institution of the memorial Levitical sacrifices) is said to be guilty of “allegorizing.”

This charge is false. The reality is that Reformed interpreters are committed to the original, intended literal sense of Scripture. Historically, however, we have recognized that Scripture intends to use a variety of forms of speech and genres and we interpret Scripture in light of the human and divine authorship of Scripture. We let the clearer interpret the less clear. The prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel are manifestly less clear insofar as symbolic language is inherently less clear than didactic and narrative discourse. We let the newer teach us how to interpret the older. Thus, when Jesus said, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25, 26; ESV) and Luke adds, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; ESV) and further that when Christ “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45; ESV) it was to see that the central message is, as Luke writes, “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46, 47; ESV). In other words, it is not “allegorizing” to see all of Scripture chiefly pointing to Christ as the fulfillment of divine promises but rather it is the intended sense of Scripture understood as Jesus and the Apostles would have it. That this is so seems abundantly clear to those who are not burdened with the a priori that God’s plan for national Israel and its restoration must be at the center of redemptive history and therefore the hermeneutical key to Scripture. As we understand the literal sense of Scripture, Jesus said, “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56). Abraham literally believed in Jesus. Contra Dispensationalism, the “content” of faith has not changed throughout redemptive history. Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David all believed in Jesus. That is the literal, intended message of Hebrews 11 and Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “all the promises of God are amen in Christ Jesus.” Paul literally teaches in Ephesians 2 that Christ figuratively tore down the dividing wall that separated Jew and Gentile and that all those who believe in Christ form one, new covenant, man.

Scripture uses “types” (τύπος) and shadows (σκιὰ). Paul says that Adam was a “type” of Jesus (Rom 5:14). Paul teaches that the 613 Mosaic laws were a “shadow” of Christ (Col 2:16–17). Hebrews 10:1 says exactly the same thing in exactly the same terms. They were anticipations of the reality. They prefigured the coming of Christ. Heaven is a reality. Arguably, in John and Hebrews, it is the reality. After all, the true bread comes from heaven (John 6:32). On this see Geerhardus Vos, “True and Truth in the Johannine Writings” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation).

Hebrews 8:5 says that the Levitical priests serve at a copy and shadow (ὑποδείγματι καὶ σκιᾷ) of the reality, i.e., of the heavenly temple, where Christ is now. In other words, unless we are to accuse Hebrews of Platonism, which charge is nothing but rationalism, then we must say that the earthly temple was only and ever intentionally an illustration of something else. Thus, it is not allegorizing to recognize, as the fathers and the Reformed did, that when Jesus said “destroy this temple, and in thee days I will raise it up” (John 2:19) he was speaking figuratively, he was saying that he is the temple. He was saying that he is the fulfillment of the temple. This is not Reformed allegorizing. It is the patent teaching of God’s Word: “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). The true sense of Jesus’ words is a figure of speech. It is on the basis of our union with Christ that believers become corporately and individually, figuratively, the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16, 17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16). The dividing wall having been broken down by Christ’s death, Jewish and Gentile Christians are being made into one figurative temple (Eph 2:21). The Spirit of God and of Shekinah glory rests upon us corporately (1 Pet 4:14).

As Hebrews says, he is our high priest (Heb 2:17; 3:1; 4:15, 15; 5:5, 10, 6:20; 7:26; 8:1, 3; 9:11). That is why Jesus “once for all” (ἐφάπαξ) offered himself up as the sacrifice for sin (Heb 7:27). He entered “once for all” into the holy of holies (Heb 9:12). He appeared “once for all” to put away sin by his sacrifice (Heb 9:26). Believers have been sanctified by his “once for all” offering (Heb 10:10). There were literal sacrifices, priests, and temples but they prefigured the literal reality of Jesus’ perfect, active suffering obedience, which he accomplished for all his elect (Jew and Gentile) and which has been graciously imputed to all who believe by grace alone. His literal obedience made him figuratively the “lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36). He is the lamb who was led before its shearer (Acts 8:32). He is our Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 5:6).

In short, as Hebrews teaches, Moses and the entire typological system, worked for (i.e., pointed to and was fulfilled by) Jesus:

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope (Heb 3:1–6; ESV).

Jesus is the literal Son, the literal heir, and the literal owner of God’s figurative house. Moses was a worker, a servant in that house. The whole Israelite arrangement was never anything but a type and shadow of the reality to come: Christ. That is not allegorizing. That is the way holy Scripture itself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, inerrant in every syllable, intends to be interpreted. Fidelity to Scripture requires that we distinguish properly between the literal and the figurative, that we recognize literary devices, that we recognize what is a type and what is a fulfillment. Fidelity to Scripture requires that we not only see where Scripture explicitly finds a fulfillment but that we learn from Scripture how to interpret Scripture. J. Dwight Pentecost was wrong (Things to Come, 17). The rabbis did not have the right hermeneutic but the wrong conclusions. Their system meant that Jesus could not be the Savior because he did not meet their expectations. The question we might ask, in light of the clear, repeated, and abundant testimony of Scripture is whether the hermeneutic of our Dispensationalist friends is more like that the Pharisees than it is like that of Jesus and the Apostles?

Further Reading
My understanding of the history of the quadriga is influenced by a number of sources beginning with the work of Beryl Smalley (e.g., The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 1940). The Song of the Exegete is taken from Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v., “Quadriga.”

Understanding Evangelicalism: A Select Bibliography

Organized Chronologically
Updated 2016

Henry, Carl F. H. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947.

Packer, J. I. Fundamentalism and The Word of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958.

Nash, Ronald H. The New Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963.

Van Til, Cornelius. Karl Barth and Evangelicalism. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co, 1964.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

— Evangelicalism and Modern America. Grand Rapids, 1984.

Horton, Michael S. Mission Accomplished. Nelson: 1986.

Marsden, George M. Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Hunter, James Davison. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Armstrong, John, ed. The Compromised Church. Wheaton, 1988.

Bebbington, David. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

—ed. The Agony of Deceit. Chicago: Moody Press, 1990.

Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Dayton, Donald W., and Robert K. Johnston. The Variety of American Evangelicalism. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991.

Horton, Michael S. ed. Power Religion. Moody Press, 1992.

Wells, David F. No Place for Truth Grand Rapids, 1993.

Horton, Michael S. Made in America . Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.

— Putting Amazing Back into Grace. Grand Rapids, 1994.

— Beyond Culture Wars. Chicago, 1994.

Wells, David. God in the Wasteland. Grand Rapids, 1994.

Hart, Darryl G. Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. Grand Rapids, 1994.

Hart, D. G. Reckoning with the Past: Historical Essays on American Evangelicalism from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1995.

Horton, Michael S. In the Face of God: The Dangers and Delights of Spiritual Intimacy. Waco: Word, 1996.

Boice, James Montgomery and Ben Sasse, Here We Stand: A Call From Confessing Evangelicals. Grand Rapids, 1996.

Armstrong, John ed. The Coming Evangelical Crisis. Chicago, 1996.

Horton, Michael S. We Believe: Recovering the Essentials of the Apostles’ Creed. Waco: Word, 1998.

Wells, David. Losing Our Virtue. Grand Rapids, 1998.

Horton, Michael S. ed. A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times. Wheaton: Crossways, 2000.

— Where in the World is the Church? A Christian View of Culture and Your Role in It. Philipsburg: P&R, repr. 2002.

Balmer, Randall Herbert. The Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

—and John R. Muether. With Reverence and Awe: Returning the Basics of Reformed Worship. Philipsburg: P&R, 2002.

— The Lost Soul of American Protestantism. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

— That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.

Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2011.

Worthen, Molly. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.