Review: Defending Constantine

I used to be a fan of Leithart’s writing.   Even a few years ago when he openly attacked Reformed theology in *The Baptized Body,* his writing was cogent and impressive.   Something happened between the writing of that book and the writing of this one.    Admittedly, Leithart does accomplish a few useful ends in this book.   I will list where he is strong and where is his is either wrong, misleading, of inadequate.

Pros:
1) Leithart does a good job handling the disciples of Yoder
2) Leithart does a good job dealing with the secular scholarship that downplays the obvious persecution of Christians.   I like Gibbon a lot, but Leithart ably rebuts him.
3) There remains the fact of a Christian *polis,* and we see such in Constantine.

Cons:
1) While I side with Leithart over Yoder, it cannot be denied that there was a seismic shift in the Church’s praxis with the advent of Constantine.

2) Further, there was a seismic shift in the church’s eschatology.   While some have challenged the ubiquity of premillennialism in the pre-Nicene church, it was there and its eschatology was forward-looking to the reign of Yahweh-in-Christ upon the earth.    With the advent of a Christian Emperor over the known world, an emperor who was known as “Equal-to-the-Apostles” (which can still be heard in Eastern Orthodox litanies today), in whose person Empire and Sacras were united (cf Runciman, *The Byzantine Theocracy*), there is little point for the church to retain its premillennialism.  Yoder and Moltmann capably document this.   In losing its premillennialism, one must acknowledge it lost a lot of its original ethical thrust.

2a) This is a tangential note:  In *Against Christianity* Leithart attacks Eusebius for his postmillennial ethics centered in the Advent of Constantine, saying we should have a more Augustinian eschatology centered in the tension of already-not yet.   Now Leithart writes a book where he tacitly endorses Eusebius’ eschatology. One of them has to give.

3) Constantine was a bad Christian, if I may not judge.  I am willing to concede the point he was a Christian.   I can even buy, for sake of argument, the miracle in the sky.  But there are significant problems:   1) He put his family members to death (yes, I know it was realpolitik), 2) he postponed baptism based on very bad theology, and 3) He was not always friendly to Nicene Theology (yes, I realize he didn’t understand it, which further underscores my point).  These facts to not negate Leithart’s thesis, but they remain tough pills to swallow.

Conclusion:

My criticisms notwithstanding, this probably is the best work on Constantine in modern times.

Thomas Watson on the 7th Commandment

Watson’s treatment of it, like anything else he writes about, is stirring, convicting, and breath-taking.  I plan to outline the chapter (Watson, The Ten Commandments.  Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, reprint 1986, pp. 152-163).

  1. The thing implied is that the ordinance of marriage should be observed
  2.   The thing forbidden is infecting ourselves with bodily pollution and uncleanness.  There is a two-fold adultery
    a.  mental (Mt. 5:28)
    b.  Corporal
  3. The greatness of this sin:
    a.  breach of the marriage oath
    b.  Dishonour done to God.
    c.  it is committed with mature deliberation
    d.  It is needless, since God has provided men and women with spouses.
  4. Practical Uses of this Doctrine:
    a. The Church of Rome stands condemned.  How can they be holy when the city stews with fornications and uncleanness?
    b.  It is a most common sin of our times (and Watson wrote this 350 years ago!)
    c.  Exhortation on how to avoid this sin:
    (i)  It is the highest sort of thievery, since you are stealing a man’s wife.
    (ii)  Adultery debases a man and makes him brutish
    (iii)  Adultery pollutes
    (iv) Adultery destroys the body
    (v)  Adultery drains the purse
    (vi) Adultery destroys the reputation
    (vii) It impairs the mind
    (viii) It incurs temporal judgments
    (ix) Damns both one and soul and the other’s

You might be a dispensationalist, if…

This is not making fun of dispensationalism. I got these from Michael Vlach (who got them from Ken Gentry, who probably was making fun of them).

You might be a dispensationalist, if…

  • You consider jumping on the trampoline as “rapture practice.”
  • You get excited when you see “parentheses” in texts.
  • If you think general revelation is the Commander-in-Chief of the armies of Armageddon

Review of the HCSB Pew Bible

I used to review Bible editions a lot.  I am going to pick up that habit again.

(The ranking applies to the translation and format, not to the Word of God.)

Pros:
1. The HCSB is not as beautiful as the RSV/ESV, nor as literal as the NASB. Still, in communicating to those who do not know “church-ese” but not abandoning the text, it is very good. It is infinitely superior to the NIV in this regard.

2. The New Testament format does a nice job in setting apart and bold-facing Old Testament quotations. Oddly enough, they do not cite the references.

3. It’s surprisingly well-bound. I am not particularly gentle with mine and it is holding up very well. Many of the older pew bibles–the Gift Award Bibles–are simply trash in terms of paper and binding. This pew bible is much superior.

Cons:

1. The print is smaller than I would like. It’s readable, but at 4 AM in the morning not enjoyable. I realize this is a pew bible and its quantity over quality, but caveat emptor.

2. The margins are small, but some minor notes can be written them.

Lifeway stores had a dump sale and I picked this up for pennies on the dollar. I would not have paid more than $5 for it, but it serves me well enough.

Retractare: Israel, the promise and problem

If you ask an amillennialist (or some historic premils) how he reconciles two truths from biblical eschatology that are in tension between the already/not yet.   That’s okay though the problem is getting them to affirm anything specific about eschatology.  I see the same thing with respect to Israel.  In many ways the New Testament shows Israel as an enemy to the people of God.  Paul even says as much (Romans 9-11).    Further, we need to be careful in advocating a parallel covenants in the New Testament.   So this is one anchor in our hermeneutics.

Another anchor is that Paul also says they are ” concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28).  He also says in Romans 9:3-4 that to them belong (present tense) the oracles and the covenants.

If an amillennialist can chant “already/not yet” every time a tension arises, then why can one not posit a tension when dealing with actual biblical truths?  When I dialogued with the Russian nationalists and True Orthodox for several years, there was a lot of angry Jew-bashing.   Jews were accused of promoting all kinds of international banking corporatism and immorality.  And in a large sense that is true.   And we can apply the “they are enemies” anchor in this sense.  But the True Orthodox stop there.  They should have read the rest of Romans 11.  God has a future for them.

This is a forward-looking eschatology.   Whatever else one may think about the millennium or the Davidic Throne, positing a future plan for Israel (on the Messiah’s terms) gears both ethics and eschatology.  It keeps theology from circling the wagons and getting static.  It lets one draw a firm line in the sand with respect to the Jews (e.g., the Messiah commands repentance and faith and we must reject your immorality [Hollywood]), but understanding that the biblical time-line is moving forward.

And without getting too conspiratorial, this makes happenings in the Middle East very relevant.

And for my fellow Reformed, everything I have said would have been endorsed by John Murray, Horatio Bonar, and Robert Murray M’Cheyne.

Explorations in a post-dispensational theology

Blaising and Bock advanced (but did not develop) an interesting argument that weaves together Christology and Eschatology.  Its standard fair to charge one’s enemies of being Nestorians (EO never tires of this canard).  Usually it’s something along the lines of “Your theology separates Christ’s humanity and deity.”  Blaising and Bock took it a step further:  any eschatology or Christology that downplays Jesus’s Davidic Jewishness is more apt to be Nestorian (or more likely “Docetic”).  They call this the “Gentilization” of Christ (298).  Unfortunately, Google Books stops the page at that point so I can’t read what they said.  I have an idea, though.   The Alexandrian Christological argument (Apollinaris, Athanasius, Cyril, Origen) held that the Logos assumed the universal human form into union with his hypostasis.  While this makes for a beautiful metaphysics, it suffers from several problems:   1) Scripture never really says this and 2) what does a universal human form even look like?

Those are the typical responses to Alexandrianism.  I think Blaising and Bock are right to take it a step further:   the positing of a universal human form seems to negate the specific, Davidic Jewishness of Jesus.  I don’t want to say more because the free preview ends at this point.

Explorations

I think Blaising and Bock are going to suggest that any muting of the Davidic element in Jesus will lead towards a Docetic theology.  I think that is correct, but here is where we need to be careful.   I am all for embracing the Hebraic and Davidic Jesus.  That is the only way to read the OT with integrity.  But I don’t want to do so in a way that ends up with the Judaizing heresy.

Addendum:  This is in line with the above point but not developed by Blaising and Bock.  I want to ask another question:  in what way does the post-Constantian church (I am not using that term in the hippie Anabaptist sense) commit this error?

Of covenants and dispensations

I’ve been listening to a lot of interplay between covenant theologians and dispensationalists lately.   I think most covenant theologians, especially younger students, think all dispensationalists hold to the two-plans theory, works-salvation in the OT, and nuke ’em all for Israel.  Older dispensationalists probably did hold to some form of that.  But I am not seeing that emphasis as much in modern dispensational writers.  Below is a tentative pro-con survey of both positions:

  1. With dispensationalists and against covenant theologians, I hold that God has a future plan for Israel.  Of course, a number of postmillennialists have believed this and even Kim Riddlebarger conceded the point.
  2. With covenant theologians and against dispensationalists, I acknowledge that the NT does echo language of OT Israel towards the church.   Granted, this doesn’t actually imply “replacement,” but I don’t think dispensationalists fully own up to the point.
  3. With dispensationalists I reject covenant theologians’ neo-platonic hermeneutics.  This is a necessary inference for covenant theology (at least in its amillennial variety).   On a CT reading all of the land promises in the OT are “spiritualized.”  They have to be.  If they weren’t, then something like a millennial reign is inevitable as a hermeneutical move.   At least Augustine is explicit on this point:  he rejected premillennialism in City of God because he thought that matter in the eternal state was unworthy.
  4. With covenant theologians I affirm something like a Covenant of Works/Covenant of grace scheme.   Granted, it’s not as explicit as I would like it to be in the text, but I see it too firmly anchored to Christology and soteriology to immediately jettison.
  5. With dispensationalists I advance the charge that amillennialists cannot coherently and consistently speak about 95% of OT promises because of their spiritual hermeneutic.   Take Isaiah 19 for example on an amillennial hermeneutic:  exactly what does it mean if it is not literal?  How do you even know?
  6. With Covenant theologians I am not convinced of the dispensational reading of the Millennial Temple in Ezekiel 40-48.