Hermeneutics and the Creation Wars

Hermeneutics and the Creation Wars

You have heard by now of the worship wars, i.e., the contest between the competing claims about how we ought to worship. There is another battle stirring in our churches, over the proper interpretation of Genesis 1. One of the most frequently sung battle hymns concerns hermeneutics. This is a very important term but one which often goes undefined. Louis Berkhof, defined hermeneutics as the “science that teaches the principles, laws and methods of interpretation” Hermeneutics is a science, but as the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, hermeneutics is both a science and an art. It is science because it does involve a body of accumulated learning but it is also involves art, i.e., the practiced, skilled and even intuitive application of principles. If it did not, theologians and ministers would have much less work to do.

A Reformed hermeneutic requires the skilled application of a set of principles which accounts for the following:

  • * The original setting (author and audience);
  • * The original language (vocabulary), grammar and style;
  • * The original intention of the human and divine authors;
  • * The narrower (immediate) and broader (canonical) context of a passage.

Thus we believe that the clearer passages help us to interpret the less clear and the newer passages teach us how to interpret the older (this is the analogy of Scripture). Christian interpretations of Scripture must fall within the confines of our “catholic, undoubted Christian faith,” which we call the analogy of faith (HC 22).

So there are objective principles on which we have agreed to operate. The business of interpretation is not completely subjective — sitting in a small group asking one another “what does this passage mean to you?” is a good example of a poor hermeneutic.

Though we should learn from unbelieving interpreters of Scripture, there is a difference between believing and unbelieving Bible interpretation. Those who rightly understand and accept the Bible’s testimony about itself are more likely to pay attention to what Scripture says elsewhere. Christians, having been redeemed by grace alone and united to Christ through faith alone, are given the Holy Spirit who helps us understand the Word of God.

Some, however, seem to think that the practice of hermeneutics is mechanical, as if one drops a penny into a machine and out comes the correct interpretation. Bible interpretation simply does not work this way, because all Bible interpreters are sinful. Further, since no one reads Scripture without preconceptions or without a theology, there is a subjective element to Biblical hermeneutics. The good news is that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear (perspicuous) about the essentials of the faith and, they are God’s Word written, so that they change us, rather than the reverse (Hebrews 4:12). Yet, Scripture itself (2 Peter 3:16) teaches us that, as Westminster Confession 1.7 says, “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”

This brings us to sola Scriptura. Sometimes this great slogan is quoted as if to mean, “I believe in sola Scriptura, this is my interpretation, therefore if you disagree, you are denying Scripture.” To disagree with an interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily the same thing as disagreeing with Scripture itself. To be sure, it is possible to deny Scripture; this is why we have a Confession and Consistories, to prevent and correct mistakes in Biblical interpretation. It does not follow, however, that because one believes in the unique and primary authority of Scripture, that therefore one’s interpretation of a given passage is necessarily correct.

By sola Scriptura our Reformed fathers meant to teach that Scripture alone is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, not the traditions of men or even the Church. Scripture is that “norm which norms all other norms.” We confess that the Scripture forms the church, not the reverse. We must then reject those radical Bible interpreters who teach that the Bible has no fixed meaning or that the reader controls the meaning of the text.

Sola Scriptura does not mean that we do not look at any other books than Scripture when interpreting it. We need history books and grammars to teach us the background, culture and language in which the Scriptures were originally given.

There is another book which we must learn in order to interpret the Scriptures properly. Indeed our Confession teaches that God’s creation “is before our eyes as a most elegant book” (Art. 2). We cannot ignore “the book of nature” when interpreting the book of Scripture. This was Calvin’s practice. In his commentary on Genesis (1554), he recognized that the Bible uses observational language. He acknowledged that though “Moses makes two great luminaries” (the sun and moon) astronomers “prove” that Saturn is greater than the moon. He resolved the tension by teaching that Moses wrote in a “popular” not technical style. The study of general revelation is “not to be reprobated” nor is this “science to be condemned” simply because “some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them.”

There is little doubt about how the books of Scripture and nature should be ordered in our study. We may discover wonderful things in the book of nature, but Scripture (special revelation) must have the priority over general or natural revelation. It is Scripture which interprets nature for us and teaches us what those discoveries mean. Psalm 19:1 declares that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” So do the seas, and all that is under them (Ps. 148:7). Romans 1:19-20 teaches that God has revealed himself in nature so that no man is without excuse. In this way natural revelation is Law, not Gospel. So, the Bible alone teaches us the doctrines of the Trinity, predestination, the two-natures of Christ and the Gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

The history of science, however, is replete with examples showing how students of the natural world have changed their minds in fundamental ways. They too come to God’s book of nature with presuppositions. Many approach it rebelliously, intent on denying God’s authorship or repudiating the Christian faith. Anyone who reads a book this way, whether nature or Scripture, is wasting our time. The Christian faith has not fundamentally changed since the close of the Biblical canon. Though our understanding of Biblical teaching has developed, we still affirm the catholic creeds and the cardinal doctrines as we did in the 2nd century.

For both sides in the creation wars, there is no doubt that it was the triune God of Scripture, who created “from nothing” (ex nihilo) by the power of his Word. There is no doubt that our God made Adam from the dust of the earth, and Eve from his side, as real historical persons, “in righteousness and true holiness;” (Catechism Q. 6) that God made Adam to be the federal head of all humanity, that God entered into a covenant of works with Adam (Hosea 6:7) which he failed, depriving himself and all his posterity (Catechism Q. 9) of the blessings he would have earned by his obedience. We all agree that the same God who made Adam and the covenant of works, also made a covenant of grace, a gospel promise (Genesis 3:14-16) to send a second Adam, a Redeemer who would keep covenant for his people and triumph over Satan (Romans 5:12-21).

We also agree on the moral implications of the creation account. We agree that God has instituted a work-rest pattern, in which we are to work for six days and rest for one; that there are creational laws, patterns and structures to which all humans are bound, e.g., that the family is a basic human structure, that worship of our Creator and Redeemer is basic to human existence, that human beings are significant and human life sacred because we are made in God’s image.

Even applying the hermeneutical principles on which we all agree, it is harder to see that Moses, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, intended to teach us the exact length or nature of the days of creation. Certainly we are to think in terms of days, but does God’s Word intend to teach us that each of the days was twenty-four hours? When we ask this question of Genesis 1, are we asking a question which arises from the text itself, or are we asking a question Scripture never intended to answer? This seems likely to me.

Though some argue that the “obvious” or “plain” or “simple” meaning of Genesis 1 is that God created the world in six twenty-four days, these are not tests which Reformed interpreters of Scripture have historically used. In the 16th century, the Socinians argued that it was obvious to anyone with sense that the plain and simple meaning of Scripture is that God is one person, not three.

Others have proposed that we interpret Genesis 1 the way any child might. This would not seem to be a very sound path since we could not use this hermeneutic elsewhere in Scripture without jeopardizing the doctrines of the Trinity, predestination, the two-natures of Christ and justification.

Early in my Christian life I was taught that the obvious, simple and plain meaning of Scripture required that we believe that God’s plan in history was not first of all the redemption of his people, but the formation of a national people (Israel), that Jesus came to offer them a kingdom, that they rejected him, that, as a result he was crucified. I was further taught that the plain teaching of Scripture is that one day Jesus will return secretly to rapture his people, institute a seven-year tribulation, followed by an earthly reign for 1000 years, during which priests will offer sacrifices before the Lamb of God.

As I matured, I learned that, based on the principles sketched above, this most complicated scheme (it apparently requires films to explain it) is not the right understanding of Scripture, precisely because it uses a wrong hermeneutic. We reject the fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture because it does not pay attention to the history, context, grammar and literature in which Scripture was originally given, therefore it misunderstands the theology of much of the Bible. Therefore, the “obvious, simple and plain” approach failed to produce good results.

So how do we bring the creation wars to a peaceful resolution? Surely careful application of our principles of interpretation is a good first step. Listening carefully and charitably to those who affirm our Confession with whom we disagree is another necessary step. A third step is to bring the teaching of Heidelberg Catechism Q. 88 to bear on this debate. The Catechism defines conversion (sanctification) as the “dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.” The work of Bible interpretation, perhaps more than any other vocation, calls for dying to self and the renewing work of God’s Spirit through the Gospel. We must not ask ourselves what we want a passage to teach, but what the passage wants to teach us. In the spirit of Q. 88, we must commit ourselves to work together, to bring our own minds and wills into submission to the teaching and intention of the text of Scripture at hand. There is a great deal at stake in the creation wars; such good works will repay us well.

This Christian Life

[Published originally on the Westminster Seminary California website]

Next to The White Horse Inn, one of my favorite radio programs is This American Life starring Ira Glass. I stumbled across this show several years ago, and for a while I did not understand why I was so attracted to it. Glass does not have a classic “radio voice” (it has been described as “adenoidal”). The production is good but not extraordinary. Indeed, some of the stories are completely mundane. For example, they once broadcast a show recorded over 24 consecutive hours in a local diner. They edited those American lives to broadcast length, added a narrative, and voila!  A national radio show was born.

Sometimes the topics are even uncomfortable and more than once I have tuned out. Still, I keep coming back. Why? It is the stories (they usually have the ring of truth) and the way they are told. They have a formula and they follow it quite strictly. Every story has an introduction, characters, tension (dramatic, tragic, or comedic), a resolution (sometimes unexpected), and an epilogue.

This formula is not new, so why is it so compelling? I think it is because humans were created to hear and tell stories, and it is by a story that we are redeemed and changed. As many writers have pointed out in recent years, Scripture is a story and contains stories. In our Christian Mind course, we spoke of “the one and the many.” The one great story, which contains hundreds of smaller stories within it, is the story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

The word “story” can connote a narrative that is not true or bears little relation to reality. When I say “story,” however, I do not mean something that is untrue or unhistorical, especially regarding Scripture. Though true and beyond doubt, Scripture is nevertheless a story and contains stories.

Presently I am preaching through the gospel of Mark and I’m influenced by Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Guardian, 1944). He was ahead of his time in noticing the way Mark tells his story of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Though true and historical, the accounts of the healings and of Jesus’ interaction with the disciples and the crowds are stories. The crowd and the disciples serve Mark’s literary purposes as he paints his fast-moving portrait of Jesus’ movement north away from Jerusalem and then his descent back to Jerusalem and the cross. For Mark, even geography serves a literary purpose.

The gospel writers were following a well-established pattern. At the beginning, God walked in the garden with Adam and told him a story. He told him how He had created everything from nothing by His powerful Word. He told Adam how He had created him from the earth and how Adam had it within his power to experience more than his present life in the garden; that there was before him a consummate, glorious existence of intimate, perfect, and endless fellowship with God and man; if only he would pass one test.

God was, however, not the only one telling stories. Before Adam, one of God’s creatures had decided to tell an alternative story about a defection to an alternative power, about another way of life. So Adam had a clear choice between competing stories.

Tragically, he chose to believe the false story and did not pass the test and enter into the consummate state. Nevertheless, despite Adam’s disloyalty, God graciously told him another story: about the coming long war between the serpent and the Son, which the Son would win finally but at great cost to himself. The original test–the path to the consummate state–remained to be fulfilled. The promise, however, was that it would be the Son who would pass the test for us.

God repeated the ancient story to Noah, who proclaimed the impending judgment on all those who had failed the test in Adam and He proclaimed deliverance for all who believe the story and the Son whom it promises.

Upon entering into a covenant with Abraham, God told him the story of the Son and the serpent, the test and the promise. He told him about what would be and about what He would accomplish through him. By grace, Abraham believed the promise of the sSon.

When Yahweh redeemed his adopted son Israel from slavery and made him a temporary, national people, he told and retold the story of how Israel had been enslaved in Egypt and how Yahweh had graciously and sovereignly delivered Israel from “the house of bondage.” The whole national existence was premised on that story. As with Adam, as part of the story, God entered into a covenant with Israel and gave him a test, not as a condition of entering the consummate state, but as the condition of remaining a peculiar national people. If Israel obeyed, the land and its material blessings would be his. If he did not, however, like Adam, he too would be expelled and experience curses of equal magnitude.

Israel’s history itself became a part of the great story. Within it were dozens of stories, some of them tragic, some of them comic, and many of them sobering; stories about kings and prostitutes, liars and truth-tellers, the greedy and the righteous. One of Israel’s great sins was that she forgot the story of God’s faithfulness, the promised Son, and consequent test for the land. Like Adam, Israel lived as if she had written her own story so that she finally received the curses rather than the blessings.

Of course, like Abraham, some of Israel’s children remembered the test and the promised Son. They understood that neither they, nor Moses, nor David, nor any of the prophets had passed the test. Those who heard and believed the story lived gratefully, looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Finally, the time for the climax of the story arrived. The battle raged for more than thirty years as the serpent attacked the Son repeatedly, sometimes subtly and sometimes violently. A few times it seemed as if the Son might fail. Indeed, when the enormity and finality of the test became completely clear and near to him, he asked if it might be possible for someone else to undergo the ordeal and finish the story. Nevertheless, the Son finished the great war and endured the bloody attack until the end when the battle took its toll. When it was over, a few of his friends laid his cold body in an even colder tomb.

As you know, however, the story does not end there. The Son remained in the tomb just long enough. As had been evident in his life, he was too good for the tomb and too powerful for death. So he walked out of the tomb, alive and full of life. The Son was not just Adam’s son, as we are; it was he who walked with Adam and who told the story in the first place. The Son, who killed the serpent by giving his own life, was the One through whom all things had been made, God of the same deity as his Father.

Lots of folk saw him going about, and for several days he explained the story and his role in it. When he finally left, he sent his Spirit, the third divine person, to equip his friends to tell the story to others. The Spirit was no stranger. It was he who had hovered over creation, who had been with the Son in the garden, who had led the adopted son Israel through the desert, who had been with him during the long war, and who had, as it were, gone into that cold, dark tomb to give life again to the obedient Son.

Now the Son communes with his friends by His Spirit and the Word he left to them. As it has been since ancient times, the story of the test and the promise and its fulfillment is still being told and believed and lived by believers even today.

Like all the characters in This American Life, everyone has a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Each of those particular stories finds its significance relative to THE story. Until and unless, however, they embrace THE story of the Son, they remain under a test that they can never pass. Those, however, who believe the story and the Son, begin to experience some of the blessings he promised to Adam and to Abraham.

Like Ira Glass, we who stand in the pulpit are story tellers. Our story has a beginning, middle, and an end. At their best, those stories are pale reflections of THE story. Because we were created to respond to stories, we who tell stories for a living should have confidence that God’s elect will be drawn to THE story itself. We must have this confidence because He who wrote, told and fulfilled the story has promised to use and bless its telling.

May the Lord bless our faithful story telling.

Hermeneutics and the Creation Wars

You have heard by now of the worship wars, i.e., the contest between the competing claims about how we ought to worship. There is another battle stirring in our churches, over the proper interpretation of Genesis 1. One of the most frequently sung battle hymns concerns hermeneutics. This is a very important term but one which often goes undefined. Louis Berkhof, defined hermeneutics as the “science that teaches the principles, laws and methods of interpretation” Hermeneutics is a science, but as the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, hermeneutics is both a science and an art. It is science because it does involve a body of accumulated learning but it is also involves art, i.e., the practiced, skilled and even intuitive application of principles. If it did not, theologians and ministers would have much less work to do.

A Reformed hermeneutic requires the skilled application of a set of principles which accounts for the following:

  • The original setting (author and audience);
  •  The original language (vocabulary), grammar and style;
  •  The original intention of the human and divine authors;
  •  The narrower (immediate) and broader (canonical) context of a passage.

Thus we believe that the clearer passages help us to interpret the less clear and the newer passages teach us how to interpret the older (this is the analogy of Scripture). Christian interpretations of Scripture must fall within the confines of our “catholic, undoubted Christian faith,” which we call the analogy of faith (HC 22).

So there are objective principles on which we have agreed to operate. The business of interpretation is not completely subjective — sitting in a small group asking one another “what does this passage mean to you?” is a good example of a poor hermeneutic.

Though we should learn from unbelieving interpreters of Scripture, there is a difference between believing and unbelieving Bible interpretation. Those who rightly understand and accept the Bible’s testimony about itself are more likely to pay attention to what Scripture says elsewhere. Christians, having been redeemed by grace alone and united to Christ through faith alone, are given the Holy Spirit who helps us understand the Word of God.

Some, however, seem to think that the practice of hermeneutics is mechanical, as if one drops a penny into a machine and out comes the correct interpretation. Bible interpretation simply does not work this way, because all Bible interpreters are sinful. Further, since no one reads Scripture without preconceptions or without a theology, there is a subjective element to Biblical hermeneutics. The good news is that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear (perspicuous) about the essentials of the faith and, they are God’s Word written, so that they change us, rather than the reverse (Hebrews 4:12). Yet, Scripture itself (2 Peter 3:16) teaches us that, as Westminster Confession 1.7 says, “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”

This brings us to sola Scriptura. Sometimes this great slogan is quoted as if to mean, “I believe in sola Scriptura, this is my interpretation, therefore if you disagree, you are denying Scripture.” To disagree with an interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily the same thing as disagreeing with Scripture itself. To be sure, it is possible to deny Scripture; this is why we have a Confession and Consistories, to prevent and correct mistakes in Biblical interpretation. It does not follow, however, that because one believes in the unique and primary authority of Scripture, that therefore one’s interpretation of a given passage is necessarily correct.

By sola Scriptura our Reformed fathers meant to teach that Scripture alone is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, not the traditions of men or even the Church. Scripture is that “norm which norms all other norms.” We confess that the Scripture forms the church, not the reverse. We must then reject those radical Bible interpreters who teach that the Bible has no fixed meaning or that the reader controls the meaning of the text.

Sola Scriptura does not mean that we do not look at any other books than Scripture when interpreting it. We need history books and grammars to teach us the background, culture and language in which the Scriptures were originally given.

There is another book which we must learn in order to interpret the Scriptures properly. Indeed our Confession teaches that God’s creation “is before our eyes as a most elegant book” (Art. 2). We cannot ignore “the book of nature” when interpreting the book of Scripture. This was Calvin’s practice. In his commentary on Genesis (1554), he recognized that the Bible uses observational language. He acknowledged that though “Moses makes two great luminaries” (the sun and moon) astronomers “prove” that Saturn is greater than the moon. He resolved the tension by teaching that Moses wrote in a “popular” not technical style. The study of general revelation is “not to be reprobated” nor is this “science to be condemned” simply because “some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them.”

There is little doubt about how the books of Scripture and nature should be ordered in our study. We may discover wonderful things in the book of nature, but Scripture (special revelation) must have the priority over general or natural revelation. It is Scripture which interprets nature for us and teaches us what those discoveries mean. Psalm 19:1 declares that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” So do the seas, and all that is under them (Ps. 148:7). Romans 1:19-20 teaches that God has revealed himself in nature so that no man is without excuse. In this way natural revelation is Law, not Gospel. So, the Bible alone teaches us the doctrines of the Trinity, predestination, the two-natures of Christ and the Gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

The history of science, however, is replete with examples showing how students of the natural world have changed their minds in fundamental ways. They too come to God’s book of nature with presuppositions. Many approach it rebelliously, intent on denying God’s authorship or repudiating the Christian faith. Anyone who reads a book this way, whether nature or Scripture, is wasting our time. The Christian faith has not fundamentally changed since the close of the Biblical canon. Though our understanding of Biblical teaching has developed, we still affirm the catholic creeds and the cardinal doctrines as we did in the 2nd century.

For both sides in the creation wars, there is no doubt that it was the triune God of Scripture, who created “from nothing” (ex nihilo) by the power of his Word. There is no doubt that our God made Adam from the dust of the earth, and Eve from his side, as real historical persons, “in righteousness and true holiness;” (Catechism Q. 6) that God made Adam to be the federal head of all humanity, that God entered into a covenant of works with Adam (Hosea 6:7) which he failed, depriving himself and all his posterity (Catechism Q. 9) of the blessings he would have earned by his obedience. We all agree that the same God who made Adam and the covenant of works, also made a covenant of grace, a gospel promise (Genesis 3:14-16) to send a second Adam, a Redeemer who would keep covenant for his people and triumph over Satan (Romans 5:12-21).

We also agree on the moral implications of the creation account. We agree that God has instituted a work-rest pattern, in which we are to work for six days and rest for one; that there are creational laws, patterns and structures to which all humans are bound, e.g., that the family is a basic human structure, that worship of our Creator and Redeemer is basic to human existence, that human beings are significant and human life sacred because we are made in God’s image.

Even applying the hermeneutical principles on which we all agree, it is harder to see that Moses, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, intended to teach us the exact length or nature of the days of creation. Certainly we are to think in terms of days, but does God’s Word intend to teach us that each of the days was twenty-four hours? When we ask this question of Genesis 1, are we asking a question which arises from the text itself, or are we asking a question Scripture never intended to answer? This seems likely to me.

Though some argue that the “obvious” or “plain” or “simple” meaning of Genesis 1 is that God created the world in six twenty-four days, these are not tests which Reformed interpreters of Scripture have historically used. In the 16th century, the Socinians argued that it was obvious to anyone with sense that the plain and simple meaning of Scripture is that God is one person, not three.

Others have proposed that we interpret Genesis 1 the way any child might. This would not seem to be a very sound path since we could not use this hermeneutic elsewhere in Scripture without jeopardizing the doctrines of the Trinity, predestination, the two-natures of Christ and justification.

Early in my Christian life I was taught that the obvious, simple and plain meaning of Scripture required that we believe that God’s plan in history was not first of all the redemption of his people, but the formation of a national people (Israel), that Jesus came to offer them a kingdom, that they rejected him, that, as a result he was crucified. I was further taught that the plain teaching of Scripture is that one day Jesus will return secretly to rapture his people, institute a seven-year tribulation, followed by an earthly reign for 1000 years, during which priests will offer sacrifices before the Lamb of God.

As I matured, I learned that, based on the principles sketched above, this most complicated scheme (it apparently requires films to explain it) is not the right understanding of Scripture, precisely because it uses a wrong hermeneutic. We reject the fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture because it does not pay attention to the history, context, grammar and literature in which Scripture was originally given, therefore it misunderstands the theology of much of the Bible. Therefore, the “obvious, simple and plain” approach failed to produce good results.

So how do we bring the creation wars to a peaceful resolution? Surely careful application of our principles of interpretation is a good first step. Listening carefully and charitably to those who affirm our Confession with whom we disagree is another necessary step. A third step is to bring the teaching of Heidelberg Catechism Q. 88 to bear on this debate. The Catechism defines conversion (sanctification) as the “dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.” The work of Bible interpretation, perhaps more than any other vocation, calls for dying to self and the renewing work of God’s Spirit through the Gospel. We must not ask ourselves what we want a passage to teach, but what the passage wants to teach us. In the spirit of Q. 88, we must commit ourselves to work together, to bring our own minds and wills into submission to the teaching and intention of the text of Scripture at hand. There is a great deal at stake in the creation wars; such good works will repay us well.

The Two Witnesses and Lampstands in Revelation 11

Bill asks,

[C]ould you give me a quick answer to who the two witnesses are in Rev 11:3, and the identity of the two olive trees and two lampstands in verse 4?

Dear Bill,

I understand the Revelation to have been given c. 93 AD as an encouragement to the suffering church (under the cross, as we used to say) between the 1st and 2nd advents and I see in the book a series of cycles, which a roughly parallel (after chapter 3). I also read the symbolism in light of the original context described in chapters 1-3, where we see the visible church suffering from informal persecution from the broader culture, from Roman authorities, from non-Christian Jews, and from spiritual, doctrinal, and moral corruption from within.

I take the Revelation, after chapter 3, as a highly, intentionally symbolic book. I doubt that the Apostle John wanted us to identify these figures or images with particular people but to understand what they represent.

The two witnesses of Revelation 11 are also the lampstands (light) and olive trees (anointing by the Spirit). They recall the OT legal standard and the pattern of the suffering of the prophets and the conflict between believing testimony to Christ and its opposition. The style and rhetoric of the book is very much colored by the OT (Hebrew) pattern of parallelism, i.e., saying the same thing in different ways. Remember, the book was initially meant to be heard. Most people could not read and wide-spread literacy was more than 1500 years in the future at the time the book was given.

Thus the witnesses/lampstands/olive trees represent those who are approved by God, speaking his Word, in a sin-darkened world that opposes Christ and his spiritual kingdom.

I hope this helps a bit.

Grace and Peace to Aliens and Strangers (1Peter 1:1-2)

GRACE AND PEACE TO ALIENS AND STRANGERS: 1 PETER 1:1-2

This sermon was originally published in Modern Reformation in the Ex Auditu section in the January/February 2000 issue and is republished here by permission.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance (1 Pet. 1:1-2).

If there is one religion which has defined our time—that is, postmodern, pluralist, post-Christian America—it is the religion of prosperity and success, progress and self-fulfillment. This religion has become particularly fervent at the turn of the twenty-first century. It is not new, however. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many were convinced that life was getting better in every way, every day. Efficiency experts were gaining control of the workplace. Political scientists advocated centralized government as part of the new era of universal prosperity. The go-go American religion did suffer a temporary setback, as European and American youth choked on poison gas on the battlefields of World War I. But the religion of prosperity and progress returned, with even more vigor after World War II, and it has probably not yet reached its apex.

Evangelical Christians have not only been deeply affected by the prosperity religion; indeed they have been among its most ardent proponents. Of those several pieties and theologies which have synthesized Christianity with the religion of progress, the “health and wealth” Pentecostalism and triumphalist, postmillennial, theonomic-reconstructionism are perhaps most notable.1

The Apostle Peter would have nothing of this sort of “power religion.”2 Rather, throughout his two epistles and the entire New Testament a different set of assumptions are at work. For example, in the teaching of our Lord, there is no higher privilege than to be so identified with the Son that the unbelieving world has virtually no recourse but to hate and persecute the Christian (Matt. 5:11-12, 10:22-23; John 15:18-25). And in the book of Acts, even though the Spirit of power had been given to the Church, she still suffered greatly for the sake of “the name” (Acts 5:40-41; chap. 7). The Apostle Paul considered suffering for his risen Lord a high honor (Rom. 5:3-5). So united are we to Christ that Paul said that his sufferings overflow into our lives (2 Cor. 1:5-7). As a result, suffering persecution for Christ’s sake becomes a down payment on the Christian’s future glory (Rom. 8:17-21). In short, suffering for the cause of Christ is part of what it is to be a Christian. “For it has been granted to you, on behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29).

Against that background, it is no surprise that the Apostle Peter greets the Christians of Asia Minor with those two most important words, “grace and peace.” The Christians of the five cities in central Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) needed very much to hear these words, as do we.

To Strangers and Aliens in “This Age”
Written from Rome in the early 60s, sometime after Paul had left the city, the Apostle Peter was addressing five Christian congregations which had recently become strangers and aliens, even though they had not changed location.3 These congregations were largely composed of Gentile Christians. (Some scholars, lacking imagination, wrongly assume that when Peter says “strangers and aliens,” these must therefore be Palestinian Jews who had been displaced in the dispersion. Such a hypothesis is overly literal and makes this text unduly difficult. In fact, Peter is quite clear that these were Gentile Christians to whom he was writing).4

These young Christians were undergoing a culture shock in their own towns and provinces. They were struggling to understand the fact that being united to Christ makes one a stranger from, as Paul puts it, “this age.” Because they belong to Christ they were unjustly accused (1 Pet. 2:12). They suffered unjustly (2:19). They endured daily insults and petty humiliations for the sake of the Gospel (3:14, 4:3-4). At some points, their conflict with the prevailing culture became so intense that the apostle described these informal persecutions as “fiery trials” (4:12-14).

Surely committed Christian people still suffer in ways very much like this. Local zoning committees occasionally forbid the building of churches or the holding of Christian meetings. Sometimes believers are fired from their jobs for refusing to compromise Christian principles. And in our daily lives, it is common for us to be mocked for attempting any Sabbath/Lord’s Day observance or even the smallest acts of piety and obedience.

The same tension is at work on a grander scale as well. Militant Protestant confessional belief and practice are not often rewarded with access to the corridors of power. For example, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), when he was driven from the mainline Presbyterian Church in the inter-War period, found himself exiled with a small remnant which became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.5 Marginalized for the sake of the Gospel, Machen was mocked as a “fundamentalist” as if he were no more intelligent than they thought William Jennings Bryan to be. More recently, the late Robert Preus (1924-95) suffered great personal loss for daring to stand for historic Lutheran theology over against both liberals and evangelical pragmatists in his Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Many other Christians have suffered a similar fate.6 Examples of overt and covert hostility to historic Christianity are so many as to defy cataloging.

As strangers and aliens, we are part of God’s remnant people (see Gen. 45:7, 1 Kings 19). We live on God’s good earth, but as good as it is, it is not our homeland. Our ultimate allegiance is to that heavenly city to which Abraham (with all believers in all ages) looked (Phil. 3:20, Heb. 11). On the one hand we are “seated with Christ in the heavenlies” (Eph. 1:20, 2:6), and at the same time we are not there yet. We live in a twofold state: We are justified, but we are not yet glorified.

Christ himself is the chief stranger and alien. Though he made the world (John 1:1-3), the world did not accept him (John 1:11). Thus he said that “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man [God the Son incarnate!] has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

Even though he was (and remains) the second person of the Holy Trinity, he was crucified “outside the city gate” where the bodies of the sacrificial animals were burned. In an even greater way, the cross was a shame and we have the high privilege of being associated by grace, through faith, with our disgraced Savior (Heb. 13:11-14). To these heirs of Christ’s humiliation (and us), Peter pronounced “grace” and “peace.” The former refers to God’s eternal, unchanging, undeserved favor which is grounded in his own unconditioned freedom and will. The latter refers to the cessation of hostilities between God and man. In short, this benediction means, “never mind the way folks are treating you; remember God’s attitude toward you.”

From Our Triune God
This Apostolic benediction is not just sentimental blather but an official declaration of the actual state of things by Christ’s ordained, authoritative representative. Peter could so speak because it is our Triune God who has made things so. Each person of the Trinity has been active in our salvation. God the Father willed from all eternity that we should belong to the Son. The Son willed from all eternity that he should redeem us, and God the Spirit willed from all eternity to gather (through the preaching of the Word) and sanctify us for whom the Son would and did come. God is one, his will is one, and because it is God’s will, it is irresistible. These are among the great facts of the Christian faith.

According to Peter we are more than just “strangers and aliens”; we are “elect strangers and aliens.” We are at odds with “this world” or “this evil age” precisely and only because we are “elect.” We are more than elect, however. We are foreknown. As we read Scripture, we learn that “knowledge” and, more intensively, “foreknowledge” describes a type of intimate awareness the best analogy for which is the marital union.7 Thus God did not have mere advance warning that we were going to believe, but rather we believe because our Triune God has always known us intimately—can God know us in any other way?—as his chosen ones.

God has not simply foreknown and loved us his people from all eternity in the abstract, but he elected us to live out his will in a very specific context—that is, “in the sanctification of the Spirit.” We are elect to be morally renewed by God the Spirit himself.

In God’s sovereign administration of our salvation and Christian life, we are to think of the Father as having willed our lot, but we’re to think of the risen Christ (communicated to us by the Spirit) as the means, the sustenance, and the power of our life. The life of an elect alien may be lonely, but it is not barren. When we are not friends with the culture, “the World” (Jam. 4:4), then we are friends with God. The very essence of that friendship with God is the union we have with Christ through the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is he who draws us to Christ, who writes the Word on our hearts, who teaches us the Word, who transforms our minds, who sanctifies our hearts, who communicates to us God’s abounding graces.

So our alien status in the world is the result of the Father’s providence. Here Peter deftly unites perhaps the two greatest and most difficult facts of the Christian faith. It is impossible for sinners to earn God’s favor, and it is impossible for sinners to live outside of God’s providence. Whatever are circumstances in which we find ourselves, they are the result of God’s good and perfect will. Wherever we are, there God the Spirit is at work in us.

For Two Purposes
It is the Spirit who enables us to realize—that is, to manifest our alien status—in Christ. Thus, Peter says that the purpose of the Father’s election and the Spirit’s ministry is our “obedience” and “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus the Messiah” (1 Pet. 1:2). As one of the great sixteenth century Reformed theologians, Caspar Olevianus, said: Christ died not only to justify us, but also to sanctify us.8 In this life, the purpose of God’s election is that we might not just enjoy our status as those identified with Christ, but that we might actually begin to live as those with whom Christ identified himself and who are in turn identified with him.9

In the early Church, as for the apostles, the privilege of martyrdom was considered the greatest and highest which could be granted a Christian. This teaching may be difficult for us to receive with joy, but such suffering could not have been far from Peter’s mind as he wrote these words. Remember, the Lord Jesus had promised him, “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). Jesus predicted Peter’s martyrdom and Peter was predicting suffering, if not martyrdom, for his readers.

In this way, Scripture says, Jesus is not finished bleeding. Paul says, “I fill up in my flesh” Christ’s sufferings (Col. 1:24). What the world is not able to execute directly on the ascended Christ, it aims at us. At the same time, our sanctity is bound up with Christian suffering which becomes, as it were, a sort of seal of that identity with Christ.

When we live in Christ, in this hostile world, we will inevitably face the hatred of the enemy, sometimes even to death. This is almost certainly the force of this powerful shorthand: “obedience of the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” Such language evokes the myriad Old Testament sacrifices, finished by the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus himself.

With this language “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ,” he was invoking a very specific episode in the history of salvation.10 In Exodus 24, we read that after Moses read God’s Law to the people, they cried out, “We will do everything Yahweh has said” (v. 3). The terms of the covenant having been spelled out, the people swore an oath before their Redeemer God. The next day Moses, acting as the federal head of the people, went before the Lord and bu

ilt an altar where appointed Israelites offered sacrifices. Afterward, Moses took half the blood of the offerings and put it in bowls. The rest he sprinkled on the altar and then read “the Book of the Covenant” to the people. Again, they responded, “We will do all that Yahweh has said; we will obey” (v. 7). In response, Moses took the blood of the covenant and sprinkled the people of God with it (v. 8).

According to Peter (like the writer to the Hebrews), we are to understand that it was with God the Son with whom the Israelites made covenant that day, a covenant they could not and did not keep. It was left to the true Israel of God—Jesus—to keep it, even to the cross (see also Heb. 12:18, 24). Therefore, in our services, we have a very similar sprinkling ritual. Ours is the holy sacrament of baptism in which all of God’s people are sprinkled not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with Christ’s blood. In response, we too swear covenant oaths, “We will do all that the Lord has said.”

When Peter says, “unto obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ,” he is invoking both Moses’ sprinkling of the Israelites and our baptism into Christ. Just as their baptism entailed death, so ours also requires our deaths, first ritually in the act of baptism, second spiritually in mortification, and third, if Christ wills, even a martyr’s death.

“May Grace and Peace Abound”

The obedience for which Christ calls now is the same obedience to which he called the Israelites. Yet we have two great advantages. First, we live in the “last days,” the days of the fulfillment of God’s great promise. God the Son has taken upon himself our nature. He has borne God’s wrath and redeemed us from it. Second, we have the privilege of living after Pentecost. The Spirit has been poured out upon us in the measure promised by the ancient prophets.

By our baptism, we are now identified with that suffering Savior. We have been marked, sprinkled by his blood. It is to us bloody Christians that our Triune God pronounces the blessing, “May grace and peace abound to you.” They can abound to us because Christ has earned them for us.

Now as heirs of such mercy, we must rejoice if it pleases God to bring our baptism to fruition, not only by saving faith in Christ, but in the privilege of suffering for his sake. May God the Spirit, through the Word, grant us that same abundant grace and peace now and when the time comes. Amen.

ENDNOTES

1By triumphalism I mean the attitude which tends to think of the church as “irresistibly conquering throughout the centuries…seemingly more interested in upholding its own rights and privileges than in promoting the salvation of all” P. F. Chirco, s.v. “Triumphalism,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1967). Classic postmillenialism (e.g., the Princeton theologians C. Hodge and B. B. Warfield) affirmed that the church will endure a great apostasy before the second advent of Christ. Some recent advocates of versions of postmillenial theonomic reconstructionism seem to deny the necessity of suffering for the Christian. Instead they argue that the suffering described for the church was actually completed prior to A. D. 70. This new postmillenial school is now advocating a version of triumphalism

2For a critique of some of these movements see Michael S. Horton, ed. Power Religion (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992). See also idem, ed., The Agony of Deceit (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990); idem, Made in America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).

31 Peter 5:13 says, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings” (NIV). Babylon is best read as a cryptic reference to Rome.

4The sorts of behaviors listed in 4:1-4 indicate clearly that the congregations to whom Peter wrote were composed primarily of Gentile converts.

5 See D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

6Much of the German Reformed Church (RCUS) was absorbed into what became the United Churches of Christ. Those who continued to believe and confess the historic Reformed faith found themselves cut off from their institutions and even their church properties. More recently the newly formed United Reformed Churches are confessionally committed exiles from the Christian Reformed Churches.

7This sense of the Hebrew verb “to know” is captured well in the Authorized Version (1611) of Genesis 4:1.

8Caspar Olevianus, In epistolam ad Romanos notae (Geneva, 1579) 207.

9See Heidelberg Catechism Q.114.

10See also Hebrews 12:18,24.

This sermon was preached in March 1999