Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Summary of Paul's Understanding of Salvation History

The table below is a summary of the major epochs in salvation history according to the Apostle Paul, and how he characteristically described the key soteriological aspects related to these epochs.

A salvation-historical covenantal approach to Paul suggests that Paul used different terms to describe the word of God, and the required response of covenant faith, in different salvation-historical epochs; but that underlying the differing terminology, salvation has always been through faith, i.e., through the reception of God’s word into the heart thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit.

In effect, Paul has reserved the language of faith solely to the faith of “Gentile” Abraham (on the basis of Gen 15:6) and to faith in the new covenant proclamation of the gospel (on the basis of Isa 28:16 and Hab 2:4). For the faith of godly people under the Mosaic covenant, he uses the term the works of the law instead of faith. He does this, reflecting the predominant way in which faith was denoted in the Pentateuch (i.e., it was spoken of in a holistic way as doing torah), in order to highlight how Mosaic faith was a temporary stage in salvation history, and that salvation in the new covenant age is opened up to the Gentiles, the implication being that it is not right for non-Christian Jews to reject Jesus Christ in the name of faithfulness to Moses, nor for Christian Judaizers to force Christian Gentiles to be circumcised (if male) and to keep the law of Moses, as if only Jews could be saved.

The point of Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans is that the Mosaic covenant compounds the problem of sin and death in Adam, but the fullness of blessing and life is made available only in the new covenant in Christ. The faith response in the new covenant age mirrors that of Gentile Abraham, meaning that in the new covenant age Gentiles can participate in salvation as part of the people of God, just as Gentile Abraham could. In other words, the new covenant doctrine of justification by faith means that the Mosaic doctrine of justification by the works of the law no longer applies. This means that salvation in the new covenant has nothing to do with following Moses, but with submission to the lordship of Christ.

The pattern of salvation history according to Paul is basically:

abAB

where a = disobedience and death through Adam, b = obedience and life through Abraham, A = disobedience and death through the old covenant, and B = obedience and life through the new covenant.

It also needs to be pointed out that abA has been turned into B only through the righteousness and obedience of the one man, Jesus Christ (Rom 5:18-19), so perhaps the pattern of salvation history is best written as:

abACB

where C = the cross of Christ.

SALVATION-HISTORICAL EPOCH

PAULINE TERM FOR THE WORD OF GOD

PAULINE TERM FOR FAITH RESPONSE

HISTORICAL RESPONSE

HISTORICAL RESULT

Adam in the garden

the commandment

obedience

disobedience

death for Adam and for all humanity born of Adam

“Gentile” Abraham

promise

faith

faith

inaugurated partial blessing

Israel
under law

the law

the works of the law

disobedience on the part of Israel as a whole

death for the nation as a whole

the church under grace

the gospel

faith

faith on the part of mainly Gentiles but more Jews after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in

inaugurated fullness of blessing and life now leading to consummated fullness of blessing and life for believers at the return of Christ

A Salvation-Historical Approach to Paul: A Response to Dave Woolcott

Thanks, Dave. I understand where you are coming from more now. But there are a few things to think about.

You say that you do not believe that there is more than one covenant (one covenant of grace, I presume you mean), so therefore you take law in Romans to be the issue of law generally. I think Galatians should help you here. Please note Paul’s argument in Gal 4:21-26. Here Paul speaks of two covenants. Now I’m assuming that for you these two covenants correspond to the covenant of works versus the covenant of grace. If I’ve understood you correctly, I can see why you might do that; but it doesn't fit with the exegetical evidence right there in Gal 4:21-26.

Paul takes Isaac and Ishmael as symbolic of two covenants. What are these two covenants? “One is from Mount Sinai” who “corresponds to the present Jerusalem” (Gal 4:24-25). Ishmael is symbolic of the covenant made at Sinai, i.e., the Mosaic covenant, the covenant that enslaves “the present Jerusalem,” i.e., the Jews of Paul's day in their devotion to the Mosaic covenant. Isaac symbolizes “the Jerusalem above,” the new Jerusalem of the new covenant (Gal 4:26).

Now perhaps you will say, “Oh, but the Sinai covenant is singled out here as representing the covenant of works.” But this doesn’t fit the exegetical evidence either. Have a look at Paul’s argument in Gal 3:15-19. Notice what Paul says in Gal 3:17: “the law which came 430 years afterward [i.e., after the promises given to Abraham], does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.”

Paul is contrasting law with promise, and he means by this: Mosaic covenant (law) versus Abrahamic covenant (promise). Maybe I should call my approach to Paul not simply covenantal (since you claim that your approach is too, and it is) but rather salvation-historical covenantal. Paul is interested in the various covenants of salvation history: the Abrahamic versus the Mosaic versus the new. He wants to compare and contrast them. Why? I’ll talk about that later on below.

So your system of slicing all of the particular covenants of salvation history into two parts corresponding to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is like obliterating the Lego blocks of salvation history originally put there by God. Your system is easy to follow, easily understood intellectually, but it’s not precise, and more importantly I think it gets in the way of understanding what Paul is on about.

But anyway, back to the rest of Gal 3. I can’t see with your view how you can interpret Gal 3:18 adequately. The law talked about in Gal 3:17 is definitely the Mosaic law, and it would be unnatural to change the sense of this term in the very next verse. Paul means in Gal 3:18 that the inheritance of eternal life cannot be limited to the law of Moses (i.e., the Mosaic covenant, which is exactly what the Judaizers were doing according to Acts 15:1, 5), otherwise the promise that God made to Abraham (the same promise of the inheritance of eternal life) would made void, and God would end up contradicting himself, and be seen not to be faithful to his promise to Abraham. The issue of the day, as Acts 15:1, 5 shows, was that the non-Christian Jews and Christian Judaizers thought that salvation and righteousness could only be obtained through the Mosaic covenant. Paul's argument in Galatians and Romans is directed at that specific issue. It's a salvation-historical issue. Is the Mosaic covenant the be-all-and-end-all of God’s soteric purposes?

Getting back to Gal 3:18, Paul is arguing that the inheritance of eternal life was promised to Abraham. The subsequent channeling of the promise of inheritance through the Mosaic covenant is a temporary narrowing, not a permanent narrowing of the stream of life to just Israel such that Gentiles can't participate in it unless they give up their Gentile citizenship to become Jews through circumcision and membership in the Mosaic covenant.

This salvation-historical approach makes sense, then, of Gal 3:19. The Jewish comeback to Paul would be: okay, if God already promised life to Abraham, what's the point of Sinai? Why the law of Moses and the Mosaic covenant? Isn’t that the pinnacle of God's purposes? No, says Paul. The law of Moses was given to Israel to increase the problem of sin, not to solve it, until the promised Messianic offspring arrived on the scene.

Jump over to Gal 3:23-29. How can you explain with your approach the fact that Paul could talk about a time before faith came except by sucking out of Paul’s words his intended sense of temporality? “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law” (Gal 3:23). The phrase the law here, following on from the discussion in Gal 3:15-19, is the law of Moses, not law in general. Notice also how the term faith is christologically defined in Gal 3:23-25. “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Gal 3:23), which parallels “until Christ came” (Gal 4:24). The coming of Christ historically means the coming of faith (by the way, just as Hab 2:4 prophesied).

In Paul’s way of thinking faith existed while Abraham was a Gentile, but the Mosaic covenant put Israel under the works of the law, but with a view to everything reverting back to faith with the coming of the Messiah. Paul’s law/faith distinction here is not anthropological, but salvation-historical. The law of Moses was “our guardian,” i.e., a guardian over Israel, “until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal 3:25). Paul is not talking about abstract theological concepts, but the flow of the covenants in the salvation-historical time-space continuum.

You say that every covenant has law. That is true as a theological statement. But we need to understand Paul on his own terms. His use of terms such as law, faith, works, grace, promise, etc., is typical of a Jewish rabbi who would take a key word in a passage of Scripture to designate the whole of that section of Scripture or a particular epoch in salvation history. You say faith always exists through history, that law always exists. That is true theologically, but not true of Paul’s usage. For Paul promise solely designates the Abrahamic covenant (even though theologically and in terms of literary genre God's revelation to Abraham contains elements of both promise and law). In a similar way law generally stands for the Mosaic covenant. Grace stands for the new covenant age. Faith is the appropriate response in the ages of promise and grace. Theologically speaking faith also existed in the age of law, but Paul in his Jewish rabbinical way doesn’t use his language that way. For him, works (i.e., Mosaic faith) are the appropriate response to law. He is actually taking key terms from Scripture to designate by them the salvation-historical epochs in which they occur.

Please also consider Rom 5:12-21. On your view, how can you say that “sin was in the world before the law was given” (Rom 5:13)? For you law has always been around, but that is not Paul’s usage. Clearly in Rom 5:13, the law in question is the Mosaic law. The period where there was sin but no law corresponds in Rom 5:14 with the period from post-fall Adam to Moses at Sinai. Notice how Paul is interested in the epochs of salvation history.

Please understand Rom 5:20. This is a key verse: “the law came in to increase the trespass” in order that grace might abound. The term the law here must be defined in the context of the law in Rom 5:13. In other words, the law is the law of Moses. The trespass in the context is the trespass of the one man, Adam. Paul’s meaning is this: the Mosaic law was given to Israel in order to compound the fall of Adam, in order to highlight the grace of God revealed in Christ. It's a salvation-historical argument.

I limit Paul’s use of the law to the Mosaic law in the vast majority of instances because the exegetical evidence points that way, as does the historical evidence of Acts 15:1, 5. Romans 7 is about fleshly Israel, i.e., old covenant Israel. Romans 8 is about how enslaved Israel (and the Gentiles) can be set free (the Gentiles set free from sin in Adam) by the new covenant in Christ. That is true to Paul’s own personal experience. The law of Moses that he was serving, which he thought was the way of life, actually “deceived” him and led him to oppose Christ. He thought he was serving God, but was doing the exact opposite. But then finally he saw the risen Lord Jesus, and realized that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the Jewish zeal for the law of Moses was leading the Jews astray.

Paul is primarily talking about the law of Moses, not law in general. But there is a connection between the two—somewhat. For Paul, there is a connection between the law and the commandment. For Paul the commandment (at least in Rom 5:12-21) stands for the law given to Adam. Paul in effect argues in Rom 5:20 and Rom 7:7-11 that the Mosaic law replicates and compounds the effect of Adamic law, so there is a connection, but we have to see the salvation-historical connections before we get to that point, otherwise we are not doing justice to Paul’s use of language and his teaching.

Why is Paul interested in comparing the various covenantal epochs of salvation history? Because Jewish devotion to the Mosaic covenant was getting in the way of them receiving Christ, and getting in the way of his ministry to Gentiles. More significantly, by sticking to Moses, the lordship of Christ, God’s word, and God’s sovereignty in having the right to structure salvation history in the manner of his choosing, were being denied. The problem that Paul was dealing with in Galatians and Romans is primarily the problem of Jewish zeal for the law of Moses: see Rom 10:2 and Acts 21:20.

Now having said all that, I strongly agree with you, however, concerning how we as Christians are made to be slaves of righteousness through Christ and the Spirit. Paul obviously believed that the promise of Jer 31:33 was fulfilled in Christians. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (eschatological torah, i.e., the gospel) has set you (Jews) free from the (Mosaic) law of sin and death (Rom 8:2). Just as Jer 31:31-33 prophesies, the law of Moses (which brought about the sin and death of Israel, which compounds the problem of sin in Adam) has been transformed by Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit, that with the (eschatological) law (of the gospel) written in our hearts, we have been set free to serve God as slaves of righteousness. And the same applies to the Gentiles in Adam.

It’s ironic that, in some ways, the situation for the Jews was worse than that of the Gentiles. The Gentiles were bound up in sin through Adam, but the Jews doubly bound: in Adam and also through the law of Moses! But “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ,” who sets us free from the commandment of sin and death in Adam, as well as the law of sin and death in Moses. Gentile and Jew, both equally set free through the new covenant in Christ!

Dave Woolcott's Covenantal Approach to Understanding Paul

This is a copy (in gray text) of main comment no. 7 by Dave Woolcott found in the comments section of my post entitled “A Response to Dave Woolcott's Critique of My View of Justification: Part One.” I thought I should repeat it here as I will interact with it in my next post. Dave has a covenantal approach to Paul, but I would want to contrast that with a salvation-historical covenantal approach.

Over to Dave:

Steve, sorry for any confusion but I was not meaning that a covenantal view of Romans is nonsensical, but rather holding to the law in Romans being only the Mosaic law. I will try and briefly explain my view to see if it helps. By the way, I have not gven up trying to understand you yet!

My understanding of Romans (I have not looked at Galatians as closely but see many similarities) is that Paul is not just dealing with the Mosaic law, but all ‘law’. I do not believe that there is more than one covenant and follow Bill Dumbrell’s understanding of God ‘causing his covenant to stand’ rather than beginning a new covenant at each new mention of covenant. As a result, Romans is to do with circumcision, the Mosaic law, the law written on the hearts of Gentiles (all people). So when I see Paul talk about the works of the law, yes I can try and narrow it down to speak of a specific covenant or law (e.g. Romans 7:7 would appear to be Mosaic), but if I say that the truth Paul is speaking is only relevant to the Mosaic Law, then I have reduced the impact of what Paul is saying too much. After all, Romans 7:7 is an example of how any law (be it written in our hearts or on tablets of stone) when combined with our flesh leads to sin and death.

To me, this is keeping a true covenant paradigm, because wherever there has been covenant, there has been law, and what Christ has done impacts all of this covenant (or covenants according to your view).

Now, to explain my view further, I think you are right when you say, “Paul presents a powerful and devastating argument that the Mosaic covenant was not able to bring the fullness of salvation to Israel. In fact, it made things worse, simply compounding the problem of sin in Adam that Israel also shared in.” I just do not see why you limit it to the Mosaic Covenant. Has there been any covenant (in your multi-covenant view) that has not made things worse? Paul also makes statements that are true for any law (Romans 7:14-20) and makes it clear that no one has been free from the impact of ‘law’ with flesh (Romans 2:14).

Paul makes it clear in Romans that no one will ever be righteous following the law (except Jesus ) because the law, combined with our flesh only brings sin and death. I believe that the wretched man in Romans 7 is not a comment on Paul or anyone else as a believer or non believer, but rather someone in the flesh. And being in the flesh, for Paul is something that is true for believers and non believers alike. As Paul says, the law increases sin, because of our flesh. BUT – in Christ we are released from the law (it is met in Christ). We are no longer slaves to sin, because the law, with its negative influence on us is dealt with. BUT – are we free to abuse this grace? No. Rather we are to take on the new commandment, the only debt that remains outstanding (Romans 13:8-10). As it happens, this new commandment is what has been at the heart of the ‘law’ since Adam was a boy! I find it rather ironic – we could not keep the law, so Jesus released us from the law – so we could keep the law!

This is why I so strongly stress that our ’slavery to righteousness’ comes as a result of what Christ has done. It is not helpful to say to believers that they must live out righteousness if it is not within the context of what Christ has done. To do so is to simply place them again under law, meaning that sin and death will have power again.

I also believe that my view is truly covenantal!

I would love you to explain your view as I have with mine above (I hope it was clear!). I would love to know from your perspective how you view law before and after Christ and how this interacts with living as a believer.

I hope this has been helpful!

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Response to Dave Woolcott's Critique of My View of Justification: Part Two

This post intends to respond to points 1-3 in Dave Woolcott's critique of my view of justification. Dave's critique can be found on my blog in the post entitled “Dave Woolcott's Critique of My View of Justification,” or on his blog in his post entitled “A response to Steven Coxhead’s ‘Absolute and Covenant Righteousness Reconciled.’”

In point no. 1, Dave states that I believe that "there is a fundamental difference between the law of Moses and God’s covenant with Adam." Yes, that is what I believe. God's law as revealed to Adam (before he was kicked out of the garden) effectively contained two laws that we know of: (1) the law permitting him to eat food from all plants and trees with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 1:29; 2:16-17); and (2) the creation mandate (Gen 1:28). There was also no provision built into these laws for the forgiveness of sin. The law of Moses on the other hand contained many laws (most of Exod 20–Deut 30), and a large number of these laws had to do with the sacrificial system that offered the forgiveness of sins to the people (e.g., Lev 1-7).

Dave states that I am seeking to reconcile God's covenant with Adam and the law of Moses, but that is not correct. The point of the 32 theses is to reconcile the Old Testament teaching concerning absolute righteousness and covenant righteousness, not the Adamic covenant with the Mosaic covenant. The focus is on the Mosaic covenant, and the two strands of righteousness that emerge there. The question that I am addressing in the 32 theses is: How does the need for the absolute righteousness provided through sacrifice fit in with the divine requirement for covenant commitment on the part of Israel?

The reason I distinguish between God's law in the garden and God's law to Israel is because many people fail to see the way in which grace was inbuilt into the Mosaic law as seen in the laws regarding sacrifice and atonement. Or to put things in terms of the Westminster Confession of Faith, our (i.e., Presbyterian Church of Australia) confessional standard: the Mosaic covenant belongs to the administration of the covenant of grace, not the covenant of works. The Confession teaches that "perfect and personal obedience" was required of Adam in the covenant of works (WCF 7.2), which contrasts with the requirement of faith under the covenant of grace. In other words, the Confession teaches that absolute obedience was required by Adam, which implies that there was no inherent provision for the forgiveness of sins under the covenant of works, otherwise the requirement would have been something other than absolute obedience.

Dave has understood me correctly in his point no. 2. The covenant with Adam did not contain provisions to deal with sin. That is why it is called a covenant of works (WCF 7.2). But the Mosaic covenant did contain provisions for the forgiveness of sin. That is why the Confession groups the Mosaic administration as part of the covenant of grace (see WCF 7.5). The Confession includes the laws that make provision for sin within the category of ceremonial laws: "God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ... ceremonial laws ... prefiguring Christ" (WCF 19.3). Notice that the Confession states that such laws were given to (old covenant) Israel. The Confession also acknowledges that grace was offered to Israel through the sacrificial system (and through other things, such as promises and prophecies), and that all of these were "sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit" for the "full remission of sins, and eternal salvation," because they foresignified Christ (WCF 7.5). In speaking of Mosaic law as including atoning grace to the extent that the sacrificial system prefigures Christ, and in distinguishing this from Adamic law, I believe I am being completely consistent with our confessional standard.

I also have to disagree with Dave's interpretation of Ps 40:6 and Hos 6:6. The Old Testament doctrine of obedience rather than sacrifice was used by the Old Testament prophets not to devalue the need for sacrifice, but to point out that offering ritual sacrifice without covenant obedience is hypocrisy. Concerning Heb 10:1-10, my response is: Yes and no to Dave's suggestion that the Mosaic sacrificial system couldn't deal with sin. In and of itself the blood of bulls and goats cannot bring about the forgiveness of sins, but (as the Confession teaches) to the extent that the sacrifices were a proleptic presentation or prefiguring of Christ to the people of Israel, the sacrifices were "sufficient and efficacious" for atonement. The only sacrifice that counts is the perfect sacrifice of Christ, but the benefits of that were genuinely offered to old covenant Israel through the Mosaic sacrificial system.

Regarding the issue of immediate death for Adam, what I am referring to there is what God says in Gen 2:17: that in the day when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. The death referred to there by God was primarily the spiritual death of separation from God. This death took place when Adam was kicked out of the garden, which happened almost immediately upon his being convicted of sin (Gen 3:21-24).

Regarding Dave's argument in his point no. 3, I think Dave is referring to thesis 16 when he says that "Steven believes that righteousness comes through works of the law ... but seems to forget that Jesus is the only one to whom this truth can be applied." I think further thinking is required on Dave's part here. He is using his either-or (more Lutheran-type) thinking to critique my (more Reformed) both-and type system. From the beginning of the Reformation, the Reformed side of Protestantism (as against the Lutheran side) has always acknowledged that there is a kind of righteousness that comes from obeying God's law in a genuine but imperfect way in the context of covenant grace. Calvin, for example, holds that after being justified by faith, when God considers our works he does so through the prism of Christ, and God's work of sanctification in us through the Holy Spirit, such that "the good works which are done by believers are deemed righteous, or, which is the same thing, are imputed for righteousness" (see Institutes 3.17.8). Calvin could actually speak of the imputation of good works as righteousness! I invite people to look it up for themselves if they don't believe it.

For anyone further interested in what is called Calvin's doctrine of double justification, you can read my two articles on the righteousness of works in Calvin's system: “John Calvin’s Interpretation of Works Righteousness in Ezekiel 18,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 303–16; and “John Calvin’s Subordinate Doctrine of Justification by Works,” Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009): 1–19; or else read Mark Garcia's book Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin's Theology. I am also working on a third article on Calvin's doctrine of double justification, and I'll let you know when and where that may be published.

Regarding Dave's comments on Paul's use of Abraham in Rom 4, I think that the salvation-historical or covenantal interpretation of Paul makes a lot of sense here. If Paul's argument here is salvation-historical, his point is that Abraham is an example of a person who was right with God before anything like the works of the law (i.e., a faith response to the Mosaic revelation) was on the scene. In other words, in Gen 15 Abraham was right with God when he was a Gentile! If Gentiles could be right with God before the Mosaic covenant existed (or anything approximating it, circumcision being the key identifier), then what is to stop Gentiles being right with God now that the Messiah has come? Covenant righteousness (i.e., the right response to God) in the new covenant age effectively reverts back to the kind of righteousness that Gentile Abraham showed as he responded positively to God's (non-Mosaic) revelation. The righteousness of a positive response to the law of Moses (i.e., the works of the law) is, therefore, seen to be a temporary kind of righteousness, a possibility that applied only as long as the Mosaic covenant was operative. What once was gain—notice that Paul claims in Phil 3:6 that he possessed a blameless righteousness according to the Mosaic law, and he describes such righteousness as gain in Phil 3:7, i.e., it was a true form of righteousness as long as the Mosaic covenant was in operation—what once was gain is, after the coming of the new covenant in Christ, then seen to be loss in comparison with the righteousness that we can possess through faith in Christ. Paul came to understand that the new covenant righteousness of faith in Christ far surpasses the righteousness that Moses was on about in Deut 6:25.

But even if you don't go for a covenantal interpretation of Rom 4, it is wrong to take verses such as Rom 3:10, 20 and make them contradict Rom 10:5, Deut 6:25, and Ezek 18:5-9. Please look at how Calvin interpreted Ezek 18. Calvin doesn't go for the covenantal interpretation of Paul, but he doesn't go for a Lutheran interpretation either. In other words, Calvin acknowledged that after justification by faith has been established, a legitimate form of justification or righteousness on the level of works also exists.

All in all, we who claim to be Reformed really need to understand that the Reformed side of the Reformation has a more nuanced or balanced view on righteousness than exists on the Lutheran side of the Reformation. Luther, for example, acknowledged the righteousness of faith, whereas Calvin acknowledges the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of works in a subordinate sense. In other words, Calvin acknowledged that righteousness language is used in the Bible of the covenant obedience of believers. Think about the righteousness of Noah (Gen 6:9), the righteousness of David (Ps 18:20-24), the righteousness of the author of Ps 119 (Ps 119:30, 56), the righteousness of Zecharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6). In Calvin's system, this is the righteousness of obedience, the righteousness of people who responded genuinely and positively, albeit imperfectly, to God's word in the context of grace, where the righteousness of faith is already presupposed. If we claim to be Reformed, we seriously need to make sure that we understand Calvin's doctrine of double justification before suggesting that someone's view of justification is deficient simply because it links righteousness with the good works of believers.

Calvin could speak of justification by faith alone and of the imputation of the good works of believers as righteousness. When Dave suggests, therefore, that I have forgotten that Jesus is the only one to whom the righteousness of works applies (because I admit that there a legitimate form of law righteousness under the Mosaic covenant to those who had torah written in their heart by the Holy Spirit), to be fair he should also accuse Calvin of having a deficient view of justification as well. In fact, Calvin doesn't just limit law righteousness as applying solely under the Mosaic covenant (which I think is Paul's preferred way of thinking), but he sees law righteousness as applying across salvation history!

Now if Dave really means to say in his point no. 3 that the righteousness of absolute obedience only applies to Christ, I thoroughly agree with him. But this does not rule out the fact that, in the Bible, covenant obedience (which is a genuine, albeit imperfect, positive response to the word of God that is worked in believers by the Spirit of God) is also called righteousness. Jesus came not only to be our righteousness, but also to make us righteous; and both of these types of righteousness are mentioned in the Scriptures.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Response to Dave Woolcott's Critique of My View of Justification: Part One

Dave Woolcott has recently posted on his blog a response to the 32 theses listed in my website article “Absolute and Covenant Righteousness Reconciled.” Dave’s critique can be found on my blog in the post entitled “Dave Woolcott’s Critique of My View of Justification,” or on his blog in his post entitled “A response to Steven Coxhead’s ‘Absolute and Covenant Righteousness Reconciled.’”

Dave is a student of mine from a few years ago, but I don’t think he has fully understood my views on justification. The best critiquers of a system are those who are can develop an empathy with the system that they’re critiquing. Otherwise there’s the problem of the straw man, and I think a bit of that is happening here. That Dave hasn’t fully understood my view is partly understandable, as I think my teaching of him was primarily limited to the Old Testament prophets and wisdom literature. The Old Testament concept of covenant righteousness would have been explained in that class, but the ins and outs of my view of justification would not have been explained there in great detail, as they are not part of the syllabus. Anyway, Dave has expressed in his post that he is keen to be corrected if he has misunderstood my view in any way, so I’ll respond to Dave’s critique bit by bit and point by point over the next few days or so, but I’ll start off with a response to his introductory comments.

Dave says that “[f]or a number of years students at the PTC have been confused by Steven’s teaching.” I’m not sure if he means by this that “all students” or “students generally” or “some students” have been confused by my views, but I am aware that there are some in the wider church who are suggesting that a disconcertingly significant number of students have been confused by my teaching. However, my experience, gleaned through interaction with the students in class, outside of class, through assessment tasks, and formal student feedback, is that the majority have had no major problem. Indeed, a significant number are keen to hear more. So if Dave means by his statement that “some students have been confused,” I’d agree with that as being accurate. If I come into the classroom with set views about certain things, which are then challenged by God’s word, then confusion can result; but it is always my hope and prayer that any reshaping or remoulding that takes place in my classes happens in accordance with the whole counsel of God. We could conduct a poll in relation to this point, but since it doesn’t lie at the heart of Dave’s critique I’ll leave the comments section below open to any former or current students of mine to comment upon as they see fit.

It should also be kept in mind that the 32 theses in question are not meant to be a comprehensive statement as to what I believe concerning justification. These theses emerged in the context of staff development at the PTC [Presbyterian Theological Centre] involving a paper of mine on the Old Testament, and were placed on my website for easy access for those students who wanted to find out more regarding righteousness concepts in the Old Testament. As I state in the introductory paragraph to the theses, they are primarily an attempt to describe the relationship between the righteousness of covenant obedience and the righteousness of sacrifice as they functioned under the Mosaic covenant. The 32 theses, therefore, are not a comprehensive statement regarding my views on justification; so I hope that is kept in mind.

Dave also asks the question: Is there a difference between a covenantal definition of faith and works, and an anthropological one? The simple answer is: Yes. The distinction has to do with understanding what the Apostle Paul meant by the term faith in contrast to the works of the law. In particular: what did Paul mean by the term the works of the law?

The classic anthropological definition of faith and works has been in operation since the time of the early church, but in Protestant circles it goes back to Luther. Luther effectively divides the human person into two parts: body and soul. Faith is the action of the soul, whereas works are the action of the body. See his discussion of this in the first few paragraphs of The Freedom of the Christian. It is a strongly dualistic distinction, akin to what is found in classic Greek philosophy. Perhaps most Reformed systematic theologians do not hold to such a crassly dualistic anthropological distinction between faith and works in the way that Luther does, but I would hazard a guess that for most of us the distinction between faith and works that we operate with is nonetheless an anthropological one. Faith is an action of the heart, from which works flow as fruit. This is a valid distinction psychologically and biblically. James’s teaching in Jam 2:14-26, for example, involves an anthropological distinction between faith and works.

But the problem we have is that we have assumed that that is how Paul was using these terms. It has not dawned upon the vast majority of Christian theologians that a covenantal reading of faith and works in Paul is a genuine possibility that deserves to be investigated and debated. This lack of awareness to the possibility of a covenantal reading of Paul is primarily due to the influence of Greek philosophical categories on our reading of Scripture, which have assumed the place of more organic Old Testament and Jewish ones. For example, how many people are aware of the idea that the phrase the works of the law solely denotes the requirements of the Mosaic law? Likewise, how many people are aware of the idea that doing the works of the law is Jewish idiom for faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant? Combine this with a face-value reading of Deut 6:25, Ezek 18:5-9, and Paul’s statement in Rom 10:5 that Moses spoke about a righteousness that comes from doing torah, and you start to get a different take on what Paul was on about. Is there actually a genuine concept of law righteousness in the Old Testament? And could it possibly be in the light of this that the issue for Paul was not primarily one of legalism, but the specific issue of Christian Judaizers trying to force Gentile Christians to submit to circumcision (if male) and to keep the law of Moses “in order to be saved” (see Acts 15:1, 5), all in the name of faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant, on the mistaken assumption that the Mosaic covenant continued on as is and was still normative for salvation as it had been since Sinai (despite the coming of Jesus)? Just imagine if Paul was arguing for the primacy of Christ and the new covenant over against the traditional Jewish commitment to Moses and the Mosaic covenant as the way of covenant righteousness before God? Is that not a strong possibility in the historical context of his day and the primarily Jewish nature of this dispute? I believe that this view deserves some genuine investigation. To find the accused guilty before the investigation has been finished and all the evidence has been tabled is not an honorable form of justice.

Concerning Dave’s last point in his introductory comments, it is true that Paul is not explicitly concerned to teach such a distinction, but this is not to say that such a distinction is not relevant to how Paul uses these terms. The main problem is that it has been assumed in Christian theology that the anthropological distinction is the only one that exists. In an effort to understand God’s word with greater precision, are we willing to investigate whether or not a covenantal reading of Paul makes sense, or do we think we already know all the answers? Dave says he’s willing to debate this, and that’s a good thing. But the best way to review a car is to take it for a test drive. You have to get in the system and see how it works, not just give an opinion as you see it driving by. Are we willing to seriously investigate this issue, and to grow in our understanding of God’s word as a result of the process? I say this not so much to Dave, but to others out there who (from my point of view) have come to radical conclusions about my orthodoxy without seriously investigating the possibility of a covenantal reading of Paul in an empathetic way. This may very well be the new wave in Pauline research; and my humble opinion is that we need to investigate it in a genuine, open, honest, and charitable manner.

I’ll endeavor to deal with points 1-3 from Dave’s critique in my next post, and I thank him for being willing to discuss the issue in a good spirit. I hope that charitable discussion will always be a hallmark of the debates conducted in the Berith Road Blog.

Dave Woolcott's Critique of My View of Justification

Dave Woolcott has recently offered a critique of how he understands my view of justification, and has suggested that we publish each others posts on this issue. So, the text below (in gray) is a copy of the relevant post from Dave Woolcott's blog: A response to Steven Coxhead’s “Absolute and Covenant Righteousness Reconciled”. My response to Dave's critique will follow in the next few posts.

Now for something completely different! This is a bit heavy, I guess, but I believe important to discuss.

Steven Coxhead has posted on his website these 32 Theses regarding what is essentially his understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith. Steven is a lecturer at our theological college, the PTC, and a link to Steven’s website can be found at the PTC Blog. For a number of years students at the PTC have been confused by Steven’s teaching, and I appreciate his attempt to publicise what he believes so that is can be weighed against scripture. You might like to read Steven’s Theses before reading my response, otherwise it will not make much sense!

My Response!

In his introduction Steven claims that he is not denying that justification is by faith alone. This is because he is using the terms “faith” and “works” covenantly, rather than anthropologically. The question needs to be asked though, “Is there a difference?” In my view, what Steven writes does undermine justification by faith alone, no matter how he claims to be using the terms “faith” and “works”, especially because he has not clarified the difference that this ‘covenant’ view has to the ‘anthropological’ when Paul does not appear to make such distinctions.

I believe there are a number of errors in Steven’s thinking. The major flaws are outlined below.

1 – Steven claims that there is a fundamental difference between the law of Moses and God’s covenant with Adam (pt 3). In many ways, this difference is at the heart of what Steven is trying to reconcile, but is there anything to reconcile? As we continue hopefully we will see that what Steven tries to reconcile is the same thing.

2 – The main difference that Steven is referring to is that the covenant with Adam did not deal with sin, but that the sacrificial system under the law of Moses did. The problem with this thinking is that the sacrificial system never dealt with sin (c.f. Psalm 40:6, Hosea 6:6, Hebrews 10:1-5). It should be noted that death was the result of sin for Adam, and Paul reminds us in Romans that the wages of sin are still death. At the same time, the Covenant with Adam did not refer to “immediate” death as claimed by Steven (pt 3).

3 – Steven believes that righteousness comes through works of the law (pt 6), but seems to forget that Jesus is the only one to whom this truth can be applied (pt 2). Paul himself uses Abram as an example against this very thinking. Abram, before the law of Moses (and after Adam), was considered righteous by God because he believed God (Genesis 15:6).

4 – Steven believes that there is more than one type of justification and more than one type of righteousness that need to be reconciled (pt 7). This is due to the difference Steven sees in the Adamic Covenant and the Mosaic law (pt 3, 4, 5). As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe the difference he claims is there, and in the same way I believe that Steven is mistaken if he believes there is more than one type of justification or righteousness. It is difficult for me to prove that something does not exist, and so the burden of proof is on Steven to produce evidence for this. My understanding of Scripture is that we are either absolutely of the light or absolutely of the darkness. We cannot be partially justified.

5 – Steven speaks as though it is our relationship with the covenant that is important in the OT (pt 8, 9, 10). In actual fact it is our relationship with God that is important. The covenant simply defines to some degree what the relationship is. It is a covenant relationship.

6 – Steven is under the impression that works of the law come before “absolute justification/righteousness” (pt 12, 22). Scripture gives a different understanding. Biblically it is always as a result of salvation that good works are performed. God certainly appears to work from this understanding in Exodus 20:2, when before the 10 commandments are given God reminds Israel that he is the God who has saved them. In Romans 12:1 Paul exhorts the church in Rome to be living sacrifices in view of God’s mercy.

7 – No one has ever kept covenant with God. Even Moses failed to enter the promised land. In point 19 Steven suggests that the key difference between the old covenant and the new is that the mediator was Moses in the old, and is Jesus in the new. Moses, however, was a failed leader, an unworthy mediator. Jesus is the perfect prophet, priest and king, and ultimately the prophet, priest and king that Israel, even Moses, was waiting for.

8 – It is not an issue of correctly balancing two types of justification/righteousness, or for that matter, balancing the right combination of works and faith in Christ (pt 32). Even if you say that greater weight should be given to righteousness through faith in Christ, it is not about a balancing act. Rather it is about one coming before the other (though in the reverse order to what Steven claims in pt 28). It is through what God has done in Christ that believers are empowered to do good works – to become slaves to righteousness. John reminds us that we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). In Christ we are taught how to love – how to fulfil the law (1 Thessalonians 4:9). With regards to the law, Paul says in Galatians 5:1 that “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Through Ezekiel God made it clear that he would work in our heart with a new Spirit and that this would incline our hearts to follow his commands (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

9 – Steven does not realise that being under the law increases sin. Steven is working with a paradigm that suggests that being under the law will increase good works and even play a part in the process of salvation. Paul is very clear in Romans 7:7-11. When the law is combined with our flesh, sin and death are the result. How can Steven say that the law will bring the opposite BEFORE salvation? As a result, there is no good pastoral reason to point people towards works completely outside of the context of grace (pt 30, 31, 32).

10 – Under the ‘system’ that Steven proposes I wonder who it is that judges the correct balance between faith in Christ and works of the law. How does one know if they have the balance right? What assurance is there when it is not simply salvation/righteousness/justification through faith in Christ alone? I ask the question from both a covenantal and anthropological perspective.

In Conclusion, if I have misunderstood Steven or been unfair to him I would love to be corrected. I believe that this whole topic is central to our understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and well worth discussing!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mosaic Covenant or Covenants?

One of the keys to understanding the bigger picture of the Bible is understanding the concept of covenant. And in order to understand the biblical concept of covenant, you really need to understand the nature and function of the Mosaic covenant, or should I say Mosaic covenants? For when we look at the biblical record, there are three covenant ceremonies associated with Moses.

The first one is the Sinaitic covenant, whose inauguration ceremony is recorded in Exod 24. The inauguration ceremony of the Sinatic covenant in Exod 24 is considered in Jewish tradition to be the marriage ceremony between God and Israel.

The sin of the golden calf was viewed by God (and Moses) as a breaking of the Sinaitic covenant (Exod 32:7-8, 19, 21, 25, 30-31), so serious that it put the whole covenant relationship between God and Israel under threat of virtual annulment (see Exod 32:9-10). It was only through the intercession of Moses that God relented from destroying the people (Exod 32:11-14), and only through the intercession of Moses again that God withdrew his intention not to accompany the people into the promised land (see Exod 33:1-3, 12-17). This commitment of God to go up with his people implied the re-establishment of the Sinaitic covenant, and this is recorded in Exod 34:10-33. This re-establishment is symbolized in the rewriting of the Ten Commandments on the replacement stone tablets (Exod 34:1, 4, 27-28). Nevertheless, the fact that Moses could no longer speak with God face to face (Exod 33:20-23), and that there was no delegation from the people invited to celebrate before the Lord à la Exod 24:9-11 (compare with Exod 34:3, 28) suggests that, despite the re-establishment of the covenant, the intimacy of the relationship between God and Israel had been "irrevocably" affected in a negative way through Israel's bovine rebellion. The veiling of Moses' face, which commences in Exod 34:33-35, seems to emerge as a consequence of Israel's rebellion, and presumably was also a symbol of the impaired state of the relationship.

The third covenant ceremony involves the Deuteronomic covenant. This covenant was a renewal and updating of the Sinaitic covenant appropriate for when Israel crossed the Jordan to take up her inheritance in the promised land. This was shortly to take place, and the whole of the book of Deuteronomy is basically a series of four sermons through which Moses is concerned to spell out to the people of Israel the nature of God's covenant relationship with them and their covenantal obligations in the light of this relationship. The inauguration ceremony of the Deuteronomic covenant is not narrated explicitly, but appears implicitly in Deut 29:1–32:47.

I think most of us tend to think about the Mosaic covenant in the singular. But it is interesting that Deut 29:1 distinguishes between the covenant made at Horeb (i.e., Sinai) and the Deuteronomic covenant made in the land of Moab. So should we speak of the Mosaic covenants (in the plural) rather than the Mosaic covenant (in the singular)?

My view is that both expressions are valid. Speaking more precisely, there are two covenants and one covenant renewal associated with Moses in the Pentateuch. So speaking of the Mosaic covenants is most precise. But the covenant renewal in Exod 34 is effectively a renewal of the first Sinaitic covenant, not a new covenant per se. And the Deuteronomic covenant is really just an updated and expanded renewal of the Sinaitic covenant. God only has one covenant relationship with Israel, so it is also appropriate to speak of the Mosaic covenant. Plus there is scriptural precedent for grouping a plurality of related covenants together under the singular term covenant. An example of this is found in the reference to the covenant made with the fathers in Jer 31:32. This verse refers back to the Exodus and hence the Sinaitic covenant, but "the covenant" in question obviously also includes the Deuteronomic covenant within its scope, as this later covenant was the major body of legislation that functioned to regulate Israel's life in the promised land.

By the way, a similar problem exists in relation to the Abrahamic covenant. Compare Gen 15:9-21 with Gen 17:1-14.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Significance of Berith Road

When I was a young boy, I lived in Carolyn Street, South Wentworthville, which is a suburb of Sydney. The area has now been classified as Greystanes. Carolyn Street lies off Berith Road.


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Before the M4 motorway was built, Berith Road was quite busy. After the M4 chopped it in two, its character changed completely. It's a shadow of its former self, which is good if you like your peace and quiet.

Little did I know, when I was a young fellow, the meaning of the word berith. It was only until I studied a bit of Hebrew at university that I finally realized that berith is the English transliteration of the Hebrew word ברית, which means covenant.

So Berith Road actually means Covenant Road. Given the childhood memories associated with Berith Road, given the importance of the concept of covenant as a key to understanding the Scriptures, and given that the word and concept of berith is a almost a daily acquaintance of mine as a teacher of Hebrew and the Old Testament, berithroad.com sounded to me like a good domain name.

As a little boy, I didn't understand the deeper significance of Berith Road; but now I do. I hope that you will grow in your understanding of Berith Road too! See www.berithroad.com/index.html if you're interested.

Welcome to the Berith Road Blog!

Welcome everyone to the Berith Road blog. I haven’t been keen to start up my own blog, being concerned about time factors; but there are a number of people interested in some of my views. Apparently I am a controversial person. I have always sought to be sensitive to God’s word in a determined effort to understand the word of God rather than put forward my own views. If anything is controversial here, I believe that it is God himself. It is easy to follow the crowd, to say what people want you to say, even in Christian circles. We might think that we’re at the forefront of evangelical ministry, that we understand the true meaning of grace; but all the same, despite the truth that we know, are we still guilty of limiting God to a box of our own making, guilty of turning the cosmos-transforming gospel of God’s grace into a nice neat set of evangelical truisms? When was the last time you felt the word of God deconstructing your own personal theological grid? As those who are committed to the Bible as God’s word, we have to be willing to examine all of our theological understandings in the light of Scripture, even those we cherish the most. So for the sake of friends, students, casual observers, and even those who would see themselves as opponents of mine, I have started this blog. Even if you don't always agree, I hope you will find my occasional musings helpful in your walk in life, which I hope is that of a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus.