The Scope and Purpose of Theology

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series We're All Theologians

We're All TheologiansTheology is a science. Many disagree vociferously and claim that there is a big gap between science and theology. Science, they say, is that which we learn through empirical inquiry and investigation, whereas theology springs from those inflamed by religious emotions. Historically, however, systematic theology has been understood to be a science.


The word science comes from the Latin word that means “knowledge.” Christians believe that through God’s divine revelation, we have real knowledge of God. Theology could not rightly be called a science if knowledge of God were impossible. The quest for knowledge is the essence of science. The science of biology is a quest to gain a knowledge of living things, the science of physics is an attempt to gain knowledge about physical things, and the science of theology is an attempt to gain a coherent, consistent knowledge of God.

All sciences use paradigms or models that change or shift over time. A paradigm shift is a significant change in the scientific theory of a given discipline. If you were to come across a high school physics textbook from the 1950s, you would see that some of the theories presented then have been demolished. No one takes them seriously because there have been significant shifts in the theories of physics in the years since then. The same thing happened when Newtonian physics replaced earlier theories of physics. Then Albert Einstein came along and created a new revolution, and we had to adjust our understanding of physics again. A paradigm shift occurs when a new theory replaces an old one.

That which usually provokes paradigm shifts in the natural sciences is the presence of anomalies. An anomaly is a detail or a minor point that does not fit into a particular theory; it is something for which the theory cannot account. If one attempts to fit ten thousand details into a coherent picture, much like working with a ten-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, and can make all the pieces fit except for one, most scientists consider that to be a good paradigm. The assembled structure that fits together in 9,999 ways will make sense of and account for almost every bit of data explored. However, if there are too many anomalies – if a significant amount of data cannot be tied into the structure – the theory falls apart.

When anomalies become too numerous or too weighty, the scientist is forced to go back to the drawing board, to challenge the assumptions of previous generations, and to construct a new model that will make sense of the new discoveries or pieces of information. That is one of the reasons why we see constant change and significant progress in the sciences.

When it comes to understanding the Bible, the approach is different. Theological scholars have been working with the same information for two thousand years, which is why a dramatic paradigm shift is unlikely. Of course, we do gain new nuggets of precise understanding, such as the nuance of a Greek or a Hebrew word that earlier generations of scholars did not have at their disposal. Yet most of the shifts in theology today are not driven by new discoveries from archaeology or from the study of ancient languages; they are most often driven by new philosophies that appear in the secular world and by attempts to achieve syntheses or integration between those modern philosophies and the ancient religion revealed in Scripture.

That is why I tend to be a conservative theologian. I doubt I will ever come up with an insight that has not already been worked over in great detail by greater minds than mine. In fact, when it comes to theology, I am not interested in novelty. If I were a physicist, I would try constantly to come up with new theories to satisfy nagging anomalies, but I consciously refrain from doing that when it comes to the science of theology.

Sadly, many are quite willing to pursue novelty. In academia, there is always pressure to come up with something new and creative. I recall a man who sought to prove that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but was instead the mythological creation of members of a fertility cult while they were under the influence of psychoactive mushrooms. His thesis certainly was novel, but it was as absurd as it was new.

Of course, this fascination with novelty is not unique to our era. The Apostle Paul encountered it among the philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). We do want progress in our knowledge and growth in our understanding, but we have to be careful not to be lured into the temptation to come up with something new just to be novel.


The principal source for the systematic theologian is the Bible. In fact, the Bible is the primary source for all three theological disciplines: biblical theology, historical theology, and systematic theology. The task of biblical theology is to consider the data of Scripture as it unfolds over time, and this work serves as a source for the systematic theologian. A biblical scholar goes through the Scriptures and studies the progressive development of terms, concepts, and themes in both the Old and New Testament to see how they are used and understood over the course of the history of revelation.

A problem in seminaries today is a method of doing biblical theology called “atomism,” in which every “atom” of Scripture stands alone. One scholar might decide to limit himself to studying only Paul’s doctrine of salvation in Galatians, while another focuses exclusively on Paul’s teaching on salvation in Ephesians. The result is that each comes up with a different view of salvation – one from Galatians and another from Ephesians – but there is a failure to examine how the two views harmonize. The presupposition is that Paul was not inspired by God when he wrote Galatians and Ephesians, so there is no overarching unity, no coherence, to the Word of God. In recent years, it has been common to hear theologians claim that we find not only differences in theology between “early” Paul and “late” Paul, but also as many theologies in the Bible as there are authors. There is Peter’s theology, John’s theology, Paul’s theology, and Luke’s theology, and they do not fit together. That is a negative view of the coherence of Scripture, and it is the danger when one focuses only on a narrow piece of the Bible without at the same time considering the whole framework of the biblical revelation.

The second discipline, another source for systematic theology, is historical theology. Historical theologians look at how doctrine has developed in the life of the church historically, primarily at crisis points – when heresies emerged and the church responded. Theologians today become frustrated when so-called brand-new controversies arise in churches and seminaries, because the church has experienced each of these seemingly fresh theological disputes time and time again in the past. The church historically has met in councils to settle dis-putes, such as at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). Studying those events is the function of historical theologians.

The third discipline is systematic theology. The systematician’s job is to look at the source of biblical data; the sources of the historical developments that come through controversies and church councils and their subsequent creeds and confessions; and the insights of the great minds with which the church has been blessed over the centuries. The New Testament tells us that God in his grace has given teachers to the church (Eph. 4:11-12). Not all teachers are as astute as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Jonathan Edwards. Such men do not have Apostolic authority, but the sheer magnitude of their research and the depth of their understanding profit the church in every age. Thomas Aquinas was called “the doctor angelicus,” or “the angelic doctor,” by the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics do not believe that Aquinas was infallible, but no Roman Catholic historian or theologian ignores his contributions.

The systematician studies not only the Bible and the creeds and the confessions of the church, but also the insights of the master teachers that God has given throughout history. The systematician looks at all the data – biblical, historical, and systematic – and brings it together.


The real question concerns the value of all such study. Many people believe that theological study holds little value. They say, “I don’t need theology; I just need to know Jesus.” Yet theology is unavoidable for every Christian. It is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us – something every Christian does. So it is not a question of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound. It is important to study and learn because God has taken great pains to reveal himself to his people. He gave us a book, one that is not meant to sit on a shelf pressing dried flowers, but to be read, searched, digested, studied, and chiefly to be understood.

An important text in the writings of the Apostle Paul is found in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). That text should put an end to claims that we do not need doctrine or that doctrine has no value. There is profit from a careful study of the Bible. Because the Bible is inspired by almighty God, it gives us a valuable and profitable asset, and that asset is doctrine.

The Bible is profitable also for reproof. The academic world devotes much energy to biblical criticism, sometimes called higher criticism, which is an analytical critique of Scripture. However the biblical criticism in which we ought to engage renders us the object rather than the subject of the criticism. In other words, the Bible criticizes us. When we come to the Word of God, the Word of God exposes our sin. The biblical doctrine of man includes us, as does the biblical doctrine of sin, and we are reproved for our sinfulness when we come to the text of Scripture. We may not listen to the criticism of our peers, but we are wise to heed the criticism of God as it comes to us in sacred Scripture.

Scripture is also profitable for correction from both false living and false belief. Not long ago, at the request of a friend, I read a New York Times best seller about how to become a medium and communicate with the dead. I got about halfway through the book and had to stop reading. There was so much spiritual filth in that book, so much falsehood, that those with even a simple understanding of the law of God in the Old Testament would have been able to detect the lies. Such is the profit of correction from false teaching and false living that we can gain from Scripture.

Finally, Scripture is profitable “for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects but to instruct us in the ways of God, so that we can grow up into maturity and fullness of obedience to him. That is why we engage in theology.

Eight questions to ask when discussing Christian liberty


John Feinberg suggests eight tests for moral decision-making in matters that are not absolutes:

The first question is, am I fully persuaded that it is right? Paul says (Rom 14:5, 14, 23) that whatever we do in these areas, we must be persuaded it is acceptable before God. If we are not fully persuaded, we doubt rather than believe that we can do this and stand acceptably before God. If there is doubt, Paul says, there is sin (v. 23). So if there is any doubt, regardless of the reason for doubt, one should refrain. In the future, doubt might be removed, and then one could indulge; but while there is doubt, one must refrain.

Second, can I do it as unto the Lord? Whatever we do, Paul says, we must do as unto the Lord (Rom 14:6–8). To do something as unto the Lord is to do it as serving him. If one cannot serve the Lord (for whatever reason) in the doing of the activity, he should refrain.

Third, can I do it without being a stumbling block to my brother or sister in Christ? Much of Romans 14 (vv. 13, 15, 20–21) concerns watching out for the other brother’s or sister’s walk with the Lord. We may be able to indulge, but he or she may not have faith to see that the activity is morally indifferent. If he or she sees us participate, he or she may be offended. As much as possible, we must avoid giving offense in these areas. This, however, does not mean one must always refrain. Paul’s advice in 14:22 is helpful. For one who believes he can indulge, his faith is right, but let him have it before God. In other words, he need not flaunt his liberty before others. It is enough for him and the Lord to know he can partake of these practices. In sum, if one truly cares about his brother’s or sister’s walk, sometimes he will refrain, and at other times he will exercise his liberty privately.

Fourth, does it bring peace? In Rom 14:17–18 Paul says the kingdom of God is not about things such as the meat we eat or what we drink. Instead, it is about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Thus, believers should handle these matters so as to serve Christ. How would one do that? Paul instructs us (v. 19) to do what brings peace. Certain practices may be acceptable for one person, but if others saw him indulge, it might stir up strife between them. Hence, one must do what brings peace.

Fifth, does it edify my brother? The command to do what edifies is in the same verse as the charge to do what brings peace (14:19). By juxtaposing the two demands, Paul makes an important point. Some activities may not create strife with another Christian, but they may not edify him either. One must choose activities that both bring peace and edify.

Sixth, is it profitable? In 1 Cor 6:12 Paul addresses the issue of Christian liberty, and he reminds believers that morally indifferent practices are all lawful, but they may not all be profitable. They may be unprofitable for us or for our brother. For example, no law prohibits moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages or social dancing, but if my indulgence in either of these activities causes a brother to stumble, it is unprofitable for me to indulge. If the act is unprofitable, I must refuse to do it.

Seventh, does it enslave me? (1 Cor 6:12). Many activities, wholesome and valuable in themselves, become unprofitable if they master us more than Christ does. As John warns, Christians must not love the world, but are to love God instead (1 John 2:15ff.). It is not that everything in the world is evil and worthless. Rather, our devotion and affections must be focused first and foremost on God. If we are to be enslaved to anything or anyone, it must be Christ.

A final test is, does it bring glory to God? Paul discusses Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians 10, and in verse 31 he sums up his discussion by saying that whatever we do in these areas should bring glory to God. How does one know if his actions bring God glory? We would say at the least that if one answers any of the other seven questions negatively in regard to a particular activity, he can be sure he will not bring God glory if he indulges. Conversely, if the activity is acceptable on those other grounds, it should be acceptable on this ground as well.

In sum, Scripture distinguishes between actions covered by moral absolutes and those that are not. Believers must make up their own minds (under the Holy Spirit’s leading) on what to do in matters of Christian liberty. Personal preferences must not be imposed on others. In deciding what to do, one should use these eight tests taught by Paul. Each one must answer those questions honestly before God. Whatever decision stems from that process of questioning, each must have the integrity to obey.

From the second edition of Ethics for a Brave New World.

I think this quote from Doug Wilson gets the difficult balance of legalism and liberty largely right: “The way others are to view your liberty is not the same way that you should view your liberty. Other Christians should let you do what you want unless the Bible forbids it. That’s how we guard against legalism. But you should use your liberty differently—you should be asking what the reasons are for doing it, and not what the reasons are for prohibiting it.”

A few misconceptions about Calvinism

Calvinism is a system of theology in Christianity that primarily pertains to biblical soteriology, anthropology (doctrine of man), and theology proper (the doctrine of God). It is well established as a part of historic Protestant orthodoxy that finds its theological roots in many of the developments of St. Augustine. It is named after John Calvin, a sixteenth century Protestant reformer, due to his responsibility in systematizing its thoughts. In essence Calvinism believes that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign and man is completely depraved. If man is to be saved, God must save him unconditionally. The only thing that man contributes to his salvation is sin. God, before the beginning of time, elected some people to salvation and not others. This election is based on God’s mysterious sovereign will, not anything in man.

After this terribly brief definition, I would like to cover some misconceptions concerning Calvinism by giving you a list of what Calvinism is not:

Calvinism is not a system of theology that denies God’s universal love.

While there are some Calvinists who do deny God’s universal love for all man, this is certainly not a necessary or a central tenet of Calvinism. Calvinists do, however, believe that God has a particular type of love for the elect (an “electing love”), but most also believe that God loves all people (John 3:16). It is a mystery to Calvinist as to why he does not elect everyone. (More on this here.)

Calvinism is not the belief that God does evil.

Because of Calvinism’s high view of God’s sovereignty, many mistakenly believe that Calvinists hold God responsible for sin and evil. This is not true. God is certainly the creator of evil (for if he wasn't, then who, or what, created evil?) and he does decree evil to happen (both moral and natural evil), however, he does so in such a way that he is not morally culpable for the evil.

As John Calvin put it:

“. . . the Lord had declared that “everything that he had made . . . was exceedingly good” [Gen. 1:31]. Whence, then comes this wickedness to man, that he should fall away from his God? Lest we should think it comes from creation, God had put His stamp of approval on what had come forth from himself. By his own evil intention, then, man corrupted the pure nature he had received from the Lord; and by his fall drew all his posterity with him into destruction. Accordingly, we should contemplate the evident cause of condemnation in the corrupt nature of humanity-which is closer to us-rather than seek a hidden and utterly incomprehensible cause in God’s predestination. [Institutes, 3:23:8]”

Calvinism is not a belief in fatalism.

A fatalistic worldview is one in which all things are left to fate, chance, and a series of causes and effects that has no intelligent guide or ultimate cause. Calvinism believes that God (not fate) is in control, though Calvinists differ about how meticulous this control is.

Calvinism is not a denial of freedom.

Calvinists to do not believe that people are robots or puppets on strings. Calvinists believe in freedom and, properly defined, free will. While Calvinists believe that God is ultimately in control of everything, most are compatibalists, believing that he works in and with human freedom (limited though it may be). Calvinists believe in human responsibility at the same time as holding to a high view of God’s providential sovereignty. (More on this here.)

Calvinism is not a belief that God forces people to become Christians against their will.

Calvinists believe in what is called “irresistible grace.” This might not be the best name for it since it does not really communicate what is involved. Calvinists believe that people are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), haters of God, with no ability to seek him in their natural state (Rom. 3:11; John 6:44; 1 Cor. 2:14). Since this is the case, God must first regenerate them so that they can have faith. Once regenerate, people do not need to be forced to accept God, but this is a natural reaction—a willing reaction—of one who has been born again and, for the first time, recognizes the beauty of God.

Calvinism is not a belief that you should only evangelize the elect.

No one knows who the elect are. I suppose that if there was a way to find out, both Calvinist and Arminians (the other primary option to Calvinism) would only evangelize the elect (since Arminians also believe only the elect will be saved even though they understand election differently). Since we don’t know, it is our duty to evangelize all people and nations. Some of the greatest evangelists in the history of Christianity, such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards, have held to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Calvinism is not a belief that God arbitrarily chooses people to be saved.

Calvinists believe that God elects some people to salvation and not others and that this election is not based on anything present or foreseen, righteous or unrighteous, in the individual, but upon his sovereign choice. But this does not mean that the choice is arbitrary, as if God is flipping a coin to see who is saved and who is not. Calvinists believe that God has his reasons, but they are in his mysterious, secret will.

Calvinism is not a system of thought that follows a man, John Calvin.

While Calvinists obviously respect John Calvin, they simply believe that he correctly understood and systematized some very important Apostolic teachings concerning election, man’s condition, and God’s sovereignty. However, much of this understanding did not originate with John Calvin, but can be seen in many throughout church history such as Aquinas, Anselm, and Augustine. Ultimately, Calvinists will argue, they follow rightly-interpreted Scripture.

Calvinism is not a system that has to ignore or reinterpret passages of Scripture concerning human responsibility.

Calvinists believe that all people are responsible to do what is right, even though, as fallen children of Adam, they lack ability to do what is right (in a transcendent sense; see below) without God’s regenerating grace. Therefore, God’s call and commands apply to all people and all people are responsible for their rejection and rebellion.

Calvinists do not believe that no one can do any good thing at all.

Calvinists believe in what is called “total depravity” (so do Arminians). However, total depravity does not mean that people cannot ever do anything good. Calvinists believe that unregenerate people can do many good things and sometimes even act better than Christians. But when it comes to people’s disposition toward God and their acknowledgment of him for their abilities, gifts, and future, they deny him and therefore taint all that they are and do. An unbeliever, for example, can love and care for their children just as a believer can. In and of itself this is a very good thing. However, in relation to God this finds no eternal or transcendent favor since they are at enmity with him, the Giver of all things. Therefore, it might be said, while all people can do good, only the regenerate can do transcendent good.


A Calvinist’s understanding of “free will”

There are many words and concepts in theology that suffer from misunderstanding, mis-characterization, and misinformation. “Predestination,” “Calvinism,” “Total Depravity,” “Inerrancy,” and “Complementarianism”, just to name a few that I personally have to deal with. Proponents are more often than not on the defensive, having to explain again and again why it is they don’t mean what people think they mean.

The concept of “free will” suffers no less with regard to this misunderstanding. Does a person have free will? Well, what do you mean by “free will”? This must always be asked.

Do you mean:

  • That a person is not forced from the outside to make a choice?
  • That a person is responsible for his or her choices?
  • That a person is the active agent in a choice made?
  • That a person is free to do whatever they desire?
  • That a person has the ability to choose contrary to their nature (who they are)?

Calvinists, such as myself, do believe in free will and we don’t believe in free will. It just depends on what you mean.

When it comes to the first three options, most Calvinist would agree that a person is not forced to make a choice, is responsible for their choices, and is the active agent behind those choices. They would reject the fourth believing that a person is not free to do whatever they desire (for example, no matter how much one desires, he or she cannot read the thoughts of another person, fly without wings, or transport from one location to another just by thinking about the desired location).

It is important to note at this point, there is no conflict. No matter what theological persuasion you adhere to, most of historic Christianity has agreed that the first three are true, while the fourth is false.

It is with the fifth option there is disagreement.

Does a person have the ability to choose against their nature?

This question gets to the heart of the issue. Here we introduce a new and more defined term (hang with me here): “Libertarian Free-will” or “Libertarian Freedom.” Libertarian freedom can be defined briefly thus:

Libertarian Freedom: “The power of contrary choice.”

If you ask whether a person can choose against their nature (i.e. libertarian freedom) the answer, I believe, must be “no.” A person’s nature makes up who they are. Who they are determines their choice. If their choice is determined, then the freedom is self-limited. Therefore, there is no “power” of contrary choice for we cannot identify what or who this “power” might be. I know, I know . . . slow down. Let me explain.

First, it is important to get this out of the way. To associate this denial of libertarian freedom exclusively with Calvinism would be misleading. St. Augustine was the first to deal with this issue in a comprehensive manner. Until the fourth century, it was simply assumed that people were free and responsible, but they had yet to flesh out what this meant. Augustine further elaborated on the Christian understanding of freedom. He argued that people choose according to who they are. If they are good, they make good choices. If they are bad, they make bad choices. These choices are free, they just lack liberty. In other words, a person does not become a sinner because they sin, they sin because they are a sinner. It is an issue of nature first. If people are identified with the fallen nature of Adam, then they will make choices similar to that of Adam because it is who they are. Yes, they are making a free choice, but this choice does not include the liberty or freedom of contrary choice.

What you have to ask is this: If “free will” means that we can choose against our nature (i.e. the power of contrary choice), if “free will” means that we can choose against who we are, what does this mean? What does this look like? How does a free person make a choice that is contrary to who they are? Who is actually making the choice? What is “free will” in this paradigm?

If one can choose according to who they are not, then they are not making the choice and this is not really freedom at all, no? Therefore, there is, at the very least, a self-determinism at work here. This is a limit on free will and, therefore, a necessary denial of true libertarian freedom.

Think about all that goes into making “who you are.” We are born in the fallen line of Adam. Spiritually speaking we have an inbred inclination toward sin. All of our being is infected with sin. This is called “total depravity.” Every aspect of our being is infected with sin, even if we don’t act it out to a maximal degree.

But even if this were not the case,—even if total depravity were a false doctrine—libertarian freedom would still be untenable. Not only are you who you are because of your identification with a fallen human race, but notice all these factors that you did not choose that go into the set up for any given “free will” decision made:

  • You did not choose when you were to be born.
  • You did not choose where you were to be born.
  • You did not choose your parents.
  • You did not choose your influences early in your life.
  • You did not choose whether you were to be male or female.
  • You did not choose your genetics.
  • You did not choose your temperament.
  • You did not choose your looks.
  • You did not choose your body type.
  • You did not choose your physical abilities.

All of these factors play an influencing role in who you are at the time of any given decision. Yes, your choice is free, but it has you behind them. Therefore, you are free to choose according to you from whom you are not able to free yourself!

Now, I must reveal something here once again that might surprise many of you. This view is held by both Calvinists and Arminians alike. Neither position believes that a person can choose against their nature. Arminians, however, differ from Calvinists in that they believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, which essentially neutralizes the will so that the inclination toward sin—the antagonism toward God—is relieved so that the person can make a true “free will” decision.

However, we still have some massive difficulties. Here are a couple:

A neutralized will amounts to your absence from the choice itself.

Changing the nature of a person so that their predispositions are neutral does not really help. We are back to the question What does a neutralized will look like? Does it erase all of the you behind the choice? If you are neutralized and liberated from you, then who is making the choice? How can you be held responsible for a choice that you did not really make, whether good or bad?

A neutralized will amounts to perpetual indecision. Think about this, if a person had true libertarian freedom, where there were no coercive forces, personal or divine, that influenced the decision, would a choice ever be made? If you have no reason to choose A or B, then neither would ever be chosen. Ronald Nash illustrates this by presenting a dog who has true libertarian freedom trying to decide between two bowls of dog food. He says that the dog would end up dying of starvation. Why? Because he would never have any reason to choose one over the other. It is like a balanced scale, it will never tilt to the right or the left unless the weights (influences) on one side is greater than the other. Then, no matter how little weight (influence) is added to a balanced scale, it will always choose accordingly.

It must also be noted that there is no such thing as a “neutral” will towards God. Our wills are either good (i.e., in line with God's will) or bad (i.e., not in line with God's will). There is no middle ground.

A neutralized will amounts to arbitrary decisions, which one cannot be held responsible for.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that libertarian choice could be made. Let’s say that the dog did choose one food bowl over the other. In a truly libertarian sense, this decision cannot have influences of any kind. Any decision without influences is arbitrary. It would be like flipping a coin. I chose A rather than B, not because of who I am, but for no reason at all. It just turned out that way. But this option is clearly outside a biblical worldview of responsibility and judgment. Therefore, in my opinion, the outcome for the fight for true libertarian free-will comes at the expense of true responsibility!

In conclusion: while I believe in free will, I don’t believe in libertarian free will. We make the choices we make because of who we are. We are responsible for these choices. God will judge each person accordingly with a righteous judgment.

Is there tension? Absolutely. We hold in tension our belief in God’s sovereignty, determining who we are, when we live, where we will live, who our parents will be, our DNA, etc. and human responsibility. While this might seem uncomfortable, I believe that it is not only the best biblical option, but the only philosophical option outside of fatalism, and we don’t want to go there.

Thoughts? Do you believe in free will?

(HT Parchment and Pen)


Q&A: Reincarnation and the Challenge of Jesus

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Questions & Answers

Can we live multiple lives? Do our actions in this life affect what we come back as in the next life? Douglas Groothuis discusses the doctrine of reincarnation versus the Christian doctrine of eternal life.

Karma and Its “Justice”: The Claim

People have always wondered what — if anything — lies beyond the grave. Is death the end of existence, an entry into eternity, or an intermission between earthly lives? Some Eastern religions — such as Hinduism and Buddhism — teach that the soul reincarnates in many different bodies, and a significant percentage of Americans now believe it. Why are so many people drawn to the doctrine of reincarnation?

Reincarnation offers hope for many who would otherwise fear their own demise. If we don’t “get it right” in this life, we will have another chance the next time around — and the next and the next as well. Some worried souls even consult therapists in the hope of learning the details of their past lives, which, they believe, may help them solve their present problems.

Reincarnation also claims to insure justice on a cosmic scale. We each get what we deserve in every life. In Eastern religions, reincarnation is connected with the law of karma, which teaches that our good and bad deeds produce good and bad results from lifetime to lifetime.

The law of karma is an unbending and impersonal rule of the universe. By “working off” one’s bad karma over many lifetimes, a person can finally escape the process of rebirth and attain enlightenment in a realm beyond this life. But can reincarnation realistically offer hope and a sense of justice to a troubled world? Can it answer the nagging and perennial problems of death and injustice?

Karma and Its “Justice”: The Letdown

Even those who believe in reincarnation admit that the vast majority of humans do not remember their supposedly previous lives. But how can we learn from our past mistakes if we cannot remember them? We seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.

While world history reveals the development of science and new technologies, humans do not seem to be progressing morally, all things considered. War, racial prejudice, hatred, rape, child abuse, prostitution, and even slavery refuse to go away in our blood-soaked and tear-stained world. Given the moral failure rate of human history, do we any have reason to hope that we will get it right in a future lifetime — or in any number of them? But there are more intellectual problems with the teachings of reincarnation.

According to reincarnation, the innocent do not really suffer. Suffering is real, of course, but all suffering is deserved on the basis of bad karma. The baby born without legs deserved it, as did the woman who was raped and the man who is enslaved in the Sudan. There is no injustice — and there is no forgiveness. None are innocent, and there is no divine grace available for restoration.

This is not good news for humanity.

Moreover, this claim should rub our conscience the wrong way. The innocent do indeed suffer around the world and in horrible ways throughout human history. It is nothing less than cruel to claim that children who are abused by parents “had it coming” somehow.

Where Mercy Is Found: Karma vs. Forgiveness

The law of karma is unmerciful. The message of Jesus Christ is quite different. He taught that no one can keep the moral law that is written on the heart (see Romans 2:14-15). By nature, we know the basics of morality, as C.S. Lewis argued and illustrated so powerfully in The Abolition of Man. Yet our response to what we know is something else again. The human heart (the core of the person) is impure because of wrong attitudes and actions. Thus it is no surprise that human beings have struggled with guilt through all time and in every place. Jesus saw to the heart of the matter.

For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’ (Mark 7:21-23, NIV).

This inner and outer wrongdoing is an offense against a loving and absolutely good and holy God (see Isaiah 6:1-8), and no self-help program will undo its effects. Jesus warned, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). He informed the most devoted religious leaders of His day that “not one of you keeps the [moral] law” (John 7:19). Yet Jesus never spoke of reincarnation as a way out of this prison. Rather, Jesus affirmed that people would receive either eternal reward or eternal punishment according to how they responded to Him during their one lifetime on earth (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Hebrews 9:27). Reincarnation is ruled out. But Jesus has offered Himself as the way of escape.

Jesus proclaimed that He came into the world “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Through His ministry of teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, He demonstrated a sinless and perfect life, as well as the power over death itself by raising the dead (see John 11). He said that He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The Apostle John declares that in Jesus Christ, God himself entered space-time history. He did not leave us to determine our own fate.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:1-5, 14)

Defeating Death, Not Repeating Life

Jesus offered eternal life to all who would accept Him on His terms. As John goes on to say, “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).

Jesus showed his forgiving love even on his own blood-stained cross. A thief on the cross next to Jesus confessed his sin and asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus responded, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Only a contrite faith in Jesus was required for paradise, not lifetime after lifetime of working off bad karma and building up good karma so that one could be released from this “wheel of suffering,” as the Eastern writings put it.

Jesus defeated sin and death through His death on the cross and His miraculous and historical resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Nothing less could secure our deliverance from the graveyard of our “transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).

God’s plan for rescuing erring mortals has nothing to do with their own efforts — in this life or from lifetime to lifetime. On the contrary, Jesus affirmed: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

That, indeed, is good news — for this life and for eternity.

I am not a hyper-Calvinist!

Before the average believer today learns what Reformed theology (i.e., Calvinism) actually is, he first usually has to learn what it’s not. Often, detractors define Reformed theology not according to what it actually teaches, but according to where they think its logic naturally leads. Even more tragically, some hyper-Calvinists have followed the same course. Either way, “Calvinism” ends up being defined by extreme positions that it does not in fact hold as scriptural. The charges leveled against Reformed theology, of which hyper-Calvinism is actually guilty, received a definitive response at the international Synod of Dort (1618–1619), along with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

Is God the Author of Sin?

The God of Israel “is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4–5). In fact, James seems to have real people in mind when he cautions, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).

Scripture sets forth two guardrails here: On one hand, God “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:15); on the other, God does not — in fact, cannot — do evil for which he is morally culpable. We catch a glimpse of these two guardrails at once in several passages, most notably in Genesis 45 and Acts 2. In the former, Joseph recognizes that while the intention of his brothers in selling him into slavery was evil, God meant it for good, so that many people could be saved during this famine (vv. 4–8). We read in the same breath in Acts 2:23 that “lawless men” are blamed for the crucifixion, and yet Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God….” The challenge is to affirm what Scripture teaches without venturing any further. We know from Scripture that both are true, but not how. Perhaps the most succinct statement of this point is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (chap. 3.1): “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;” — there’s one guardrail — “yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creature; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established,” and with that, the second guardrail. The same point is made in the Belgic Confession of Faith (Article 13), adding that whatever God has left to His own secret judgment is not for us to probe any further.

I must confess though, that through the years my position has evolved on this issue. Much like John Frame, I see no reason why we cannot answer in the affirmative when asked if God is the author of sin. The English language does not require us to define author as the doer but merely as the creator. As long as we continue to affirm that God is not morally culpable for sin then we remain within the revelation and clear teaching if Scripture.

Is the Gospel for Everyone?

Isn’t it a bit of false advertising to say on one hand that God has already determined who will be saved and on the other hand to insist that the good news of the Gospel be sincerely and indiscriminately proclaimed to everyone?

But didn’t Christ die for the elect alone? The Canons of Dort pick up on a phrase that was often found in the medieval textbooks (“sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect only”) when it affirms that Christ’s death “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” (Second Head, Article 3). Therefore, we hold out to the world “the promise of the gospel … to all persons … without distinction ….” Although many do not embrace it, this “is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves” (Second Head, Articles 5–6).

Here once again we are faced with mystery — and the two guardrails that keep us from careening off the cliff in speculation. God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardly through the Gospel, and yet God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spirit inwardly through the same Gospel (John 6:63–64; 10:3–5, 11, 14–18, 25–30; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–30; 2 Tim. 1:9). Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists ignore crucial passages of Scripture, resolving the mystery in favor of the either-or: either election or the free offer of the Gospel.

Grace for Everybody?

Does God love everybody, or is His kindness simply a cloak for His wrath — fattening the wicked for the slaughter, as some hyper-Calvinists have argued?

Scripture is full of examples of God’s providential goodness, particularly in the Psalms: “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made ….You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 145:9, 16). Jesus calls upon his followers to pray for their enemies for just this reason: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44). Christians are supposed to imitate this divine attitude.

The doctrine we are talking about has come to be called “common grace,” in distinction from “saving grace.” Some have objected to this term (some even to the concept), insisting that there is nothing common about grace: there is only one kind of grace, which is sovereign, electing grace. However, it must be said that whatever kindness God shows to anyone for any reason after the fall, can only be regarded as gracious. Once again, we face two guardrails that we dare not transgress: God acts graciously to save the elect and also to sustain the non-elect and cause them to flourish in this mortal life. While it is among the sweetest consolations for believers, election is not the whole story of God’s dealing with this world.

When we, as Christians, affirm common grace, we take this world seriously in all of its sinfulness as well as in all of its goodness as created and sustained by God. We see Christ as the mediator of saving grace to the elect but also of God’s general blessings to a world that is under the curse. Thus, unbelievers can even enrich the lives of believers. John Calvin pleads against the fanaticism that would forbid all secular influence on Christians, concluding that when we disparage the truth, goodness, and beauty found among unbelievers, we are heaping contempt on the Holy Spirit himself who bestows such gifts of his common grace (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.15).

Is Calvinism a License to Sin?

The first thing we need to say, with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, is that if we are never accused of preaching antinomianism (that is, grace-as-license), we probably have not preached the Gospel correctly. After all, Paul anticipates the question, “Shall we then sin that grace may abound?” precisely because his own argument from Romans 3:9 to this point has pressed it: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (5:21). At the same time, some Reformed Christians, especially those liberated from legalistic backgrounds, seem to end Paul’s argument at v. 21, concluding, in effect, “God likes to forgive, I like to sin — the perfect relationship!”

The difference between being accused of antinomianism (literally, anti-law-ism) and being guilty as charged is whether we are willing to follow Paul on into chapter 6. There the apostle answers this charge by an announcement of what God has done! At first, this would seem to favor antinomians, since they place all of the emphasis on what God has done and reject, or at least downplay, the importance of imperatives. Yet in fact, what Paul announces is that God has accomplished not only our justification in Christ, but our baptism into Christ. His argument is basically this: being united to Christ necessarily brings justification and regeneration, which ushers in sanctification. He does not say that Christians should not, or must not, live in sin as the principle of their existence, but that they cannot — it is an impossibility. That they do continue to sin is evident enough, especially in chapter 7, but now they struggle against it.

The fathers at Dort recognized the charge that the Reformed doctrine “leads off the minds of men from all piety and religion; that it is an opiate administered by the flesh and the devil,” and leads inevitably to “libertinism” and “renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please” (Conclusion). Yet they would neither surrender the comfort of justification by Christ’s righteousness imputed nor of sanctification by Christ’s resurrection life imparted. Perfection of sanctification in this life is impossible, but just as impossible is a condition known today as the “carnal Christian.” One is either dead in Adam or alive in Christ. Again, some wish to resolve this mystery: either we can be free from all known sin, as John Wesley taught, or we can be in a state of spiritual death, as antinomianism teaches. However satisfying to our reason, such an easy resolution in either direction ignores the clear teaching of Scripture and robs us of the joy of such a full salvation.

So the two guardrails on this point emerge from the fog of legalism and antinomianism: justification and sanctification are not to be confused, but they are also not to be separated.
In addition to these other charges, Reformed theology is often regarded as “rationalistic” — that is, a system built on logic rather than on Scripture. However, I hope we have begun to see that the real rationalists are the extremists on either side of these debates. The wisdom of the Reformed confessions is that they refuse to speculate beyond Scripture and insist on proclaiming the whole counsel of God, not simply the passages that seem to reinforce one-sided emphases. It is not a question of where the logic should lead us but where the Scriptures do lead us. It might be easier to resolve the mystery in simple, either-or solutions, but such a course would certainly not be safer. So let us too strive to read all of the Scriptures together, keeping a sharp lookout for those guardrails!

(HT Ligonier Ministries)

Q&A: What is Covenant Theology

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Questions & Answers

I’m hearing a lot about a doctrine called “Covenant Theology”. Can you explain that briefly?

Covenant Theology isn’t so much a ‘theology’ in the sense of a systematic set of doctrine as it is a framework for interpreting Scripture.  It is usually contrasted with another interpretative framework for Scripture called Dispensational Theology, or Dispensationalism.  Dispensationalism is currently the most popular interpretative grid for Scripture in American Evangelicalism, and has been so from the latter half of the 19th century on through to the 21st century; but Covenant Theology remains the majority report for Protestantism since the time of the Reformation, and it is the system favored by those of a more Reformed or Calvinistic persuasion.

Where Dispensationalism sees the Scriptures unfolding in a series of (typically) seven ‘dispensations’ (a ‘dispensation’ can be defined as the particular means God uses to deal with man and creation during a given period of redemptive history), Covenant Theology looks at the Scriptures through the grid of the covenant.  Covenant Theology defines two overriding covenants:  The Covenant of Works (CW) and the Covenant of Grace (CG).  A third covenant is sometimes mentioned; namely, the Covenant of Redemption (CR), which logically precedes the other two covenants.  We will discuss these covenants in turn.  The important thing to keep in mind is that all of the various covenants described in Scripture (e.g., the covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and the New Covenant) are out workings of either the CW or the CG.

Let’s begin to examine the various covenants detailed in Covenant Theology beginning with the CR.  As mentioned previously, the CR logically precedes the other two covenants, so we will look at this covenant first.  According to Covenant Theology, the CR describes a covenant made within the Trinity to elect, atone for, and save a select group of individuals unto salvation and eternal life.  As one popular pastor-theologian has said, in the CR, “the Father chooses a bride for His Son.”  While the CR is not explicitly stated in Scripture, Scripture does explicitly state the eternal nature of the plan of salvation (e.g., Ephesians 1:3-14; 3:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:9; James 2:5; 1 Peter 1:2).  Moreover, Jesus often referred to his task as carrying out the Father’s will (cf. John 5:3, 43; 6:38-40; 17:4-12).  The salvation of the elect was God’s intention from the very beginning of creation cannot be doubted; the CR just formalizes this eternal plan in the language of covenant.

From a redemptive historical perspective, the CW is the first covenant we see in Scripture.  When God created man at the end of creation week, he placed him in the Garden of Eden and gave him one, simple command:  “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).  We can see the covenantal language implied in this command.  God sets up Adam in the Garden and promises eternal life to him and his posterity as long as he is obedient to God’s commands.  Life is the reward for obedience and death is the punishment for disobedience.  This is covenant language.

Some scholars see in the CW a form of what is called a Suzerain-Vassal covenant.  In these types of covenants, the suzerain (i.e., king or ruler) would offer the terms of the covenant to the vassal (i.e., the subject).  The suzerain would provide blessing and protection in return for the vassal’s tribute.  In the case of the CW, God (the Suzerain) promises eternal life and blessing to mankind (the vassal represented by Adam as the head of the human race), in return for man’s obedience to the stipulations of the covenant (i.e., don’t eat from the tree).  We see a similar structure in the giving of the old covenant through Moses to Israel.  Israel made a covenant with God at Sinai.  God would give the Promised Land, a reconstituted ‘Eden’ (“a land flowing with milk and honey”), and his blessing and protection against all enemies in return for Israel’s obedience to the stipulations of the covenant.  The punishment for covenant violation was expulsion from the land (which occurred in the conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC and the Southern Kingdom in 586 BC).

When Adam failed in keeping the CW, God instituted the third covenant, called the CG.  In the CG, God freely offers to sinners (those who fail to live up to the CW) eternal life and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  We see the provision for the CG right after the fall when God prophesies about the “seed of the woman  in Genesis 3:15.  Whereas the CW is conditional and promises blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience, the CG is unconditional and is given freely on the basis of God’s grace.  The CG takes the form of ancient Land-Grant treaties.  In a land-grant treaty, a king would give land to a recipient as a gift; no strings attached.  One can argue that faith is a condition of the CG.  There are many exhortations in the bible for the recipients of God’s unconditional grace to remain faithful to the end, so in a very real sense, maintaining faith is a condition of the CG.  But the bible clearly teaches that even saving faith is a gracious gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We see the CG manifested in the various unconditional covenants God makes with individuals in the bible.  The covenant God makes with Abraham (to be his God and for Abraham and his descendants to be his people) is an extension of the CG.  The Davidic covenant (that a descendant of David will always reign as king) is also an extension of the CG.  Finally, the new covenant is the final expression of the CG as God writes his law upon our hearts and completely forgives us of our sins.  One thing that should be apparent as we look at these various OT covenants is that they all find their fruition in Jesus Christ.  The promise to Abraham to bless all the nations was fulfilled in Christ.  The Davidic King who will eternally rule over God’s people was also fulfilled in Christ, and the new covenant was obviously fulfilled in Christ.  Even in the old covenant there are hints of the CG as all of the OT sacrifices and rituals point forward to the saving work of Christ, our great High Priest (cf. Hebrews 8 – 10); which is why Jesus can say in the Sermon on the Mount that he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).  We also see the CG in action in the OT when God spares his people the judgment that their repeated sin deserves.  Even though the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant (an application of the CW) promised God’s judgment upon Israel for their disobedience to his commands, God deals patiently with his covenant people.  This is usually accompanied by the phrase “God remembered the covenant he made with Abraham” (cf. 2 Kings 13:23; Psalm 105; Isaiah 29:22; 41:8); God’s promise to fulfill the CG (which by definition is a one-sided covenant) oftentimes overrode his right to enforce the CW.

That’s a brief description of Covenant Theology and how it interprets Scripture through the lens of the covenant.  A question that sometimes arises regarding Covenant Theology is whether or not the CG supplants or supersedes the CW.  In other words, is the CW obsolete since the old covenant is obsolete (cf. Hebrews 8:13)?  The old (Mosaic) covenant, while an application of the CW, is not the CW.  Again, the CW goes all the way back to Eden when God promised life for obedience and death for disobedience.  The CW is further elaborated in the Ten Commandments, in which God again promises life and blessing for obedience and death and punishment for disobedience.  The old covenant is more than just the moral law codified in the Ten Commandments. The old covenant includes the rules and regulations regarding the worship of God.  It also includes the civil law that governed the nation of Israel during the theocracy and monarchy.  With the coming of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah of the OT, many aspects of the old covenant become obsolete because Jesus fulfilled the old covenant types and figures (again see Hebrews 8 – 10).  The old covenant represented the “types and shadows” whereas Christ represents the “substance” (cf. Colossians 2:17).  Again, Christ came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17); as Paul says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

However, this does not abrogate the CW as codified in the moral law.  God demanded holiness from his people in the OT (Leviticus 11:44) and still demands holiness from his people in the NT (1 Peter 1:16).  As such, we are still obligated to fulfill the stipulations of the CW.  The good news is that Jesus Christ, the last Adam and our covenant head, perfectly fulfilled the demands of the CW and that perfect righteousness is the reason why God can extend the CG to the elect.  Romans 5:12-21 describes the situation between the two ‘federal’ heads of the human race.  Adam represented the human race in the Garden and failed to uphold the CW; thereby plunging him and his posterity into sin and death.  Jesus Christ stood as man’s representative from his temptation in the wilderness all the way to Calvary and perfectly fulfilled the CW.  That is why Paul can say, “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

In conclusion, Covenant Theology views the Scriptures as manifestations of either the CW or the CG.  The entire story of redemptive history can be seen as God unfolding the CG from its nascent stages (Genesis 3:15) all the way through its fruition in Christ.  Covenant Theology is, therefore, a very Christocentric way of looking at Scripture because it sees the OT as the promise of Christ and the NT as the fulfillment in Christ.  Some have accused Covenant Theology as teaching what is called “Replacement Theology” (i.e., the Church replaces Israel).  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Unlike Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology does not see a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church.  Israel constituted the people of the God in the OT, and the Church (which is made up of Jew and Gentile) constitutes the people of God in the NT; both just make up one people of God (cf. Ephesians 2:11-20).  Given this explanation, the Church doesn’t replace Israel; the Church is Israel (and Israel is the Church; cf. Galatians 6:16).  All people who exercise the same faith as Abraham are part of the covenant people of God (cf. Galatians 3:25-29).

Many more things can be said regarding Covenant Theology, but this should suffice as a brief description of this doctrine.  The important thing to keep in mind is that Covenant Theology is an interpretive gird for understanding the Scriptures.  As we have seen, it is not the only interpretive grid for reading Scripture.  Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism have many differences, and sometimes lead to opposite conclusions regarding certain secondary doctrines; but both adhere to the essentials of the Christian faith:  Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone; and to God alone be the glory!