Would the Real God-man Please Stand Up?

A Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith 

Chapter Sixteen –The Christ of the Early Councils

 Of the mysteries of sacred Scripture there are certainly few more difficult for the finite mind to reconcile than that of the God-man considered ontologically. How are we to understand the mingling of two immiscible natures – infinite, eternal deity and finite, temporal man – in one person? Having struggled through the first two centuries of church history with the questions – Who is God? Who is man in light of who God is? How can man be reconciled to this God? – we see the early church continuing by necessity to fine tune its theology leading to divisions, debates and heated rivalries; the furnace through which much theological gold has been refined.

 The earliest of these theologians after the apostles themselves are known as the apostolic fathers, as they are said to have lived in the age of the apostles – Barnabas of Alexandria, Herma, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias of Hierapolis and Ignatius of Antioch. In their post-canonical writings they shared doctrinal agreement regarding the truths of monotheism, the eternal preexistence of Christ, the full deity of Christ and the full humanity of Christ. What their writings did not elucidate, likely in part due to a lack of necessity, was the implications of these doctrinal understandings. It was the next two centuries that saw the development of aberrant stances regarding the nature of the person of Christ, frequently leading to heresy, that came to necessitate closer scrutiny of God’s revelation of this matter.

 Many of the writers following the apostolic fathers were entrenched in defending Christian truth claims to a largely pagan Roman empire. There were those, Justin and Irenaeus for example, however that did combat some of the Christianized Jewish sects, like the Ebionites, who denied the true deity of Christ, claiming instead that he was anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism thereby being elevated to the office of prophet subsequently earning the title “Son of God” through his piety. The ascetic Elkasites, a rather Gnostic form of Jewish Christianity, believed Christ to be an angel and the true prophet but again denied his deity. These and other “Apologists” further sought to assuage the hostility engendered by the claims of Christian exclusivity and other teachings among much of the populace. At the same time however they were jealous to defend the faith against such false accusations as cannibalism and sexual licentiousness. Despite their fervor for the defense of Scripture, the Apologists, no doubt products of their culture, themselves perceived Scripture in far too contemporary philosophical terms; namely through the lens of Platonism. This led them to an erroneous understanding of the eternal co-existence of the “Logos” with God as an impersonal force of reason. By this understanding it seemed reasonable that one can know God by reason apart from divine revelation which, on this basis, led Justin to assert that Socrates and some other Greek philosophers were Christians. Further, they offered a “confused Trinitarianism”. While holding to a three-in-one conception of the God-head, the Logos was subordinated to God in their thinking. This group of early church fathers, though missing the mark is many ways, did earnestly serve to advance our understanding of God’s revelation thereby providing the benefit of further ground work for future inquiry that they themselves lacked.

 The heresy of Gnosticism finds its opposition in the work of the “Anti-Gnostic Fathers” of the second century A.D. – largely represented by Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian of Carthage. The Gnostics drew a firm distinction, in fact, a firm antagonism between Spirit and matter; also seen as good and evil, respectively. In this tradition of thought there is a lesser “Demiurge” responsible for the material world and is the God of the Old Testament where God the Father, the Father of Jesus Christ, is the merciful God of the New Testament. As for the incarnation of Christ, the Gnostics offer two possible theories. Their sub-heresy – a heresy within a heresy if you will – of adoptionism argues that because of this insoluble division between Spirit and matter, Christ could not have been truly incarnate, rather he merely temporarily associated himself with the man Jesus. Docetism, the other sub-heresy of Gnosticism, posits that Jesus had no actual, physical form but rather only took the appearance of physical form; essentially an apparition. The primary means of salvation then is said to be the rescue, often through asceticism, of the soul from its bodily imprisonment. What remains of Christianity in Gnosticism is nothing resembling Christianity at all. It was the Anti-Gnostic fathers who stood firm for the biblical concept of one, unified God who is “Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer.” Irenaeus, insisting on a true incarnation of Christ and the One God as a Triad, rejected the Gnostic contention that the Logos departed from Jesus prior to his death. For his part, Tertullian was fully convinced of the eternally pre-existent Logos as well as the true humanity of the God-man. He carried the logical ramifications of the Triad propounded by Iraneaus a bit further and, while he ended up landing at a position that erroneously subordinated Christ and the Spirit to God the Father, he did speak of God as a unified Three, a Trinity.

 Origen, the greatest theologian of the third century, was also a Trinitarian whose Trinitarianism was also unduly informed by his Plantonistic worldview. He affirmed God’s aseity and, in an attempt to reconcile the “begetting” and the “eternal existence” of the Son and Spirit, he insisted that they had lain dormant in the Father from all eternity only to emerge when God desired to create the world. By this proclamation, perhaps inadvertently, Origen makes the second and third persons of the Trinity entirely dependent upon the Father, denying them the attribute of self-existence that is essential to divinity. Also inadvertently, out of this came much fodder supplied to heretical teachings over the next two centuries.

 Bolstered by Origen’s subordination of Christ and the Spirit, jealous to preserve Christian monotheism, Monarchianism arose. Under this heading were two schools: Dynamic Monarchianism (aka Samosatianism, after Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, and later spawning the Socinian and Unitarian traditions) and Modalistic Monarchianism (aka Patripassianism, from which Sabellianism emerged). The former school taught that rather than being a distinct person in the Godhead, which they argued would destroy monotheism, the Logos was an impersonal rational power within God. The latter school also taught that the Son was homoousia, one in substance with the Father, it was in their case a result of their being absolutely no difference whatever in person among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, each of these were simply “modes” (Modalism) of the one God as he acted at different times. Patripassianism refers specifically to God the Father himself being the one to condescend, suffer and die in his mode as the Son.

 The roiling cauldron that well describes the controversy that gradually emerged, largely between eastern and western Christians over the next couple centuries led to the great conciliar events of the fourth and fifth centuries. The church itself, apart from Roman government involvement, had held formal gatherings such as the Synod at Antioch in A.D. 268. However, prior to Constantine, from Nero in the first century through to Diocletian in the fourth, there were 10 major persecutions endured by the Christians at the hands of Rome with the express purpose of bringing about their extinction in the empire. In A.D. 312, during his 6th year as emperor, ostensibly as a result of his own radical conversion, Constantine established a policy of toleration for Christianity. From this time the state became involved in church disputes giving greater weight to the decisions of the councils that were held.

 It was during this time that Arianism (Arius, presbyter of Alexandria) emerged. Further perverting the errors of Origen and Tertullian and capitalizing on the rejection of the idea of homoousia by the Synod at Antioch, Arius came to the conclusion that the Son could not be eternally existent and unbegotten, as was the Father, and was therefore created and was also therefore something less than God. Further, the incarnate Christ could not have two undiminished natures but rather his nature as the Son took the place of the human soul. Arianism was vigorously opposed by Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria who accused Arias of Sabellianism. Their conflict gained such fervor that Constantine, concerned for the potential consequences of this dispute on the empire, ordered the First Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. At the council the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea proposed a compromise between the Arians and Alexandrians with a rather ecumenical confession with a decidedly Origenistic flavor. This did not set well with Alexander. Athanasius, the soon-to-be successor of Alexander, then proposed some Alexandrian refinements to the confession of Eusebius and capped off his revised confession with a direct attack on Arianism. It reads in part:

We believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, [of] the same substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on earth. But the holy and apostolic church anathematizes those who say that there was [a time] when he was not, and that He was made from things not existing, or from another [hypostasis], or [ousia], saying that the Son of God is mutable, or changeable.

After this became recognized as the Nicean confession the “debate over the Greek iota” regarding the substantial relationship between the Father and the Son continued. Were they homoousios (of the same substance) or homo(i)ousios (of similar substance)? A.D. 381 saw an end to this debate at the Council of Constantinople at which homoousia was affirmed and became the official position of orthodoxy when it stated what is today known as the Nicene (or Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed.

 While this creed settled the issue of Christ’s deity, at least in terms of orthodoxy, controversy raged-on concerning his humanity. An ardent defender of homoousia, Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea, an Alexandrian, held that Christ necessarily lacked complete humanity. He argued that while man is body, soul and spirit, the incarnate Christ was but human body and divine Spirit or Logos, the latter having displaced the human spirit. Apollinaris defended the necessity of this reasoning that for Christ to have taken on the human spirit he would have been subject to human variability and sin. In his well-intentioned attempt to exonerate Christ he, likely inadvertently, fell in to a modified docetism. Condemning the view of Apollinaris the council in the end agreed that to accept such a construction would be to make Christ impotent to the work of the restoration of man. As stated by Gregory of Nazianzus, that which “has not been assumed, cannot be restored”. So, carrying orthodoxy a step further than Nicea, which affirmed the necessity of the true deity of Christ, Constantinople affirmed also the necessity of his true humanity.

 Divine Providence, in its way of ferreting out heterodoxy in the temporal matters of the church, brought forth the next major debate which led to the calling forth of what became a very contentious Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 by Emperor Theodosius II. The headline issue of this council was related to the debate regarding Mary’s relationship to God. Was she theotokos (God-bearer) or Christotokos (Christ-bearer)? Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, who staunchly affirmed Christ’s true deity and humanity, was of the latter opinion. He argued that birth, suffering and death could only be said of Christ’s humanity, therefore the two natures, his deity and humanity, must remain distinct, that is, non-integrated and each retaining its own individual attributes. Opposing Nestorius was Cyril of Alexandria who, defending theotokos, declared, somewhat ambiguously, that to deny Mary as being the God-bearer is to affirm that “the way, the truth and the life” through whom we are saved is but a mere man. Two years after this council Cyril, along with John of Antioch, more clearly nuanced this confession stating in a “Formulary of Reunion” that “there has been a union of two natures; wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. In accordance with this conception of the unconfused union, we confess the holy Virgin to be Theotokos, because the divine Logos was incarnate and made man, and from the very conception united to himself the temple that was taken from her.” The Council of Chalcedon a few years later recognized and affirmed the position as orthodoxy that Christ is one person consisting of two (true human and true God) natures that are to ever remain undivided.

 Carrying this “undividedness” of Christ’s natures to extremity, Eutyches of Constantinople advocated a strict monophysitism, the complete integration, without distinction, of the two natures of the God-man. This position was opposed as heresy by Flavian, then bishop of Constantinople as well as Leo I (Leo the Great), bishop of Rome. Taking up defense for Eutyches was Dioscurus, bishop of Alexandria who, through malicious tactics, took hostage the A.D. 449 council at Ephesus that had been called by his ally, Emperor Theodosius II. When Theodosius II was succeeded the following year by Marcian a deposed Leo I – desposed by Dioscurus – was restored and a council at Chalcedon was ordered to be held in A.D. 451. This would prove to be the council to end all councils, vis-à-vis, Christological orthodoxy. Chalcedon was attended by a broad representation of Christendom of the time including Alexandria, Antioch and Western Christianity. The council reaffirmed the Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds – the latter specifically refuting Apollinarianism, Cyril’s refutation of Nestorius and Leo’s Tome over against Eutychianism.

 Though certainly with imperfection and not to be held to the level of divine revelation, Chalcedonian Christology has been vigorously scrutinized – consider its repudiation by the Second Council of Constantinople of A.D. 553 – rightly affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly – consider its reaffirmation at the Third Council of Contantinople of A.D. 680 – over the intervening centuries as a test of Christological orthodoxy. The sum of its tenets include its rejection of Docetism, Samosatian adoptionism, Sebellianism, Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism. It forced the tension between the “Word-flesh Christologists” (Alexandrians) and the “Word-man Christologists” (Antiochenes). Regarding the former, Christ indeed possessed two distinct natures, the divine taking upon itself the human. Concerning the latter, that Christ was not two persons but one person, one subsistence. In doing so the confession drew a distinction between “person”, being self-conscious substance, and “nature”, being the peculiar set of attributes. This divine person (one self-conscious subsistence) and nature (holy set of attributes) of the eternal Son has joined with the nature (all of the inherent attributes) of man while the single divine person remains unchanged. Jesus is to be understood as truly the God-man as opposed to God and man.

 Unfortunately there have been several departures from Chalcedonian Christology held since its original affirmation. By way of example, Lutheran’s affirm that the Son’s divine nature was entirely communicated to his incarnate human nature, sharing those divine attributes such as omnipresence, and the others, with the human nature; using John 20:17, 16:30, 4:29; Mat. 9:4 and others in support. Heading the opposite direction is the kenosis theory which, rather oppositely, argues, partly based on statements of Jesus such as that in Mark 13:32, that upon his incarnation Jesus divested himself of his divine attributes. Both of these fall short of the truth of biblical revelation. As for the first, it is by definition that the human nature cannot assume divine attributes without necessarily ceasing to be human at all – this is to deny the full humanity of Christ, which those who hold this view tend to self-contradictorily affirm. The latter renders the opposite extreme. If the Son divested himself of his divine characteristics he would necessarily cease to be God at all. This position is fraught with illogic. The divine attributes of God are not simply characteristics that he exhibits out of his deity, rather, these attribute are essential to his deity and if removed deity disappears. The other obvious conundrum with this position is the violence is perpetrates on the doctrine of the immutability of God as well as his inability to do anything that is logically impossible – in this case, his inability to deny himself. It has been well said that the Incarnation was not an act of subtraction but of addition.

 All of this considered we must in this case, as always, be very cautious to avoid an erroneous eisegesis of Scripture in order to protect our desired presuppositions, irrespective of good-intentions, thereby forcing an interpretation outside or beyond that which the whole counsel of revelation supports. Consistent with the light available the definition affirmed at Chalcedon affirms that Christ is one person, truly human and truly divine, consubstantial with the Father and with man, being of one substance (person) but two distinct natures whose individual attributes remain preserved. In conclusion, a balancing statement is here in order. Rather than viewing this definition as the absolute final word, as it is but from fallible, finite men, it should engender a passion to know this God and his revealed word more deeply. That said, to those who would question its validity, however incredible in the minds of some, this definition was the product of much labor, debate and controversy and thereby should not, without sound and exhaustive reasoning from the Scriptures alone, be easily dismissed. Be warned: Thus far, those who have done so, perhaps without malicious intent, have in every case chosen a path to heresy.

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GOD: Creator and Sustainer

A Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith

Chapter Eleven – God’s Works of Creation and Providence

 The historicity and veracity of the Scriptures, to include the first one-quarter of the Genesis account, was taken up earlier and concluded to be inspired and preserved by the oversight of the Holy Spirit. In the discussion of creation it is helpful to underscore this and note that the most common cause for opposition to the literal interpretation of this historical narrative is its supernatural character which many are simply unwilling to abide. Largely in this vein we are speaking of the ex nihilo creation itself and other miraculous occurrences such as the speaking serpent, the cherubim and flaming sword at the east entrance to the garden, the universal flood and the confusion of the languages at the tower of Babel.

 The concept of the “out of nothing” creation of the world has even fallen on skepticism among some bible translators. By way of examples, the New Jewish Version translates vv1-3 in this way: ‘1 When God began to create the heaven and the earth—2 the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—3 God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.’ The alteration from “God created” to “God began to create” shifts creation from ex nihilo to pre-existent or even eternally existent. Further, rûah elohîm rather than translated as is done here by “a wind”, it is translated in every other place it is found in Scripture as “the Spirit of God”.  In making such modifications to the translation the emphasis of these verses is then placed upon God’s calling forth light rather than on his creative power and the origins of matter.

 The Anchor Bible similarly modifies verse 1 with “God set about” also indicating a pre-existence of matter with the Genesis 1:1-3 simply describing a re-creation of the world already created prior to this account. A cultural and grammatical explanation are given for this argument. The cultural support argues that other contemporary cosmogenic accounts, in particular the Enuma Elish, speak of the preexistence of matter however the the assumption that this must indicate Moses’ understanding as well has no logical basis. Also used as support of “re-creation” is Genesis 2:4b-25. This however is most likely to simply be describing a parallel and magnified description of day six of creation and not a re-creations as supposed. Grammatically it has been posited that because the word beresît (lit.” in beginning”) is anarthrous that the noun cannot be construed as absolute, however we certainly see the absolute construction placed upon this very word (Isa 46:10), and others like it, elsewhere in Scripture. The disjunctive accent and its context with the finite verb bara (“created”) both favor the absolute state of the noun beresît. In addition, preexistent matter is no where else connected with bara.

 Also hotly debated among learned theologians is the interpretation of the length of a “day” (yom) in the creation account. Is a “day” a literal 24 hour rotation of the earth? An indeterminate “age”? With either definition, was there some gap of time between the days? The understanding of this informs ones view of creation and the possibility of the preexistence of life and matter, The view that “yom” in Genesis 1:1 represents an ordinary day is supported by the fact that the vast majority of instances of its use in Scripture designate this very application. Further, consistent with established hermeneutical principles, unless clear warrant is given from the context for a symbolic interpretation, it should always be interpreted ordinarily. Elsewhere in Scripture the phrase “the evening and the morning” are used and always indicate an ordinary sunset to sunset day (e.g., Exod. 18:13; 27:21). In all other occurrences of “yom” associated with an ordinal number, an ordinary day is indicated (e.g., Exodus 12:15; 24:16; Leviticus 12:3) especially in light of the fact that on the fourth day we are told that God commanded that the sun would “rule the day” and the moon would “rule the night”. Finally, every occurrence of the plural “days” (yamim) refers to an ordinary day and had Moses intended to speak of “ages” he could have rendered this as is done elsewhere using the word olam.

 Integrally related to the “days” debate is the age of the universe. Attempts have been made to use the biblical genealogies to calculate this date, perhaps most famously by Ussher who placed creation at about 4004 B.C. This theory however is fraught with flaws. Importantly, it must be taken into account that there exists frequent abridgment among the names and the total years of many of the patriarchs are not totaled in the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies. There are omitted names, such as Cainan (Luke 3:36) and literary symmetry in some cases that are irrelevant to a strict chronology for the purpose of illustrating the grandeur of the content of the genealogies rather than comprehensiveness. A stark difficulty of applying such a strict chronology is that is would mean the lives of all of the postdiluvian patriarchs would have overlapped with Abraham and place the flood in the third century B.C., only 292 years before Abraham, in contradiction to solid archaeological evidence of continuous Near Eastern cultures dating back to the fifth century B.C. Without employing a priori assumptions we have no biblical evidence to support an age of the earth in the millions of years.

 So, coming to an understanding that God is indeed the creator of the universe ex nihilo and that he did so in the relatively recent past we can search the Scriptures for his revealed purpose of creation. According to Psalm 19:1 God’s creation demonstrates his glory visually and experientially to man. Rom 1:20 says that we can know something of God’s attributes and character through observation of his creation and it is by this that Paul proclaims man to be “without excuse”. An empirical apologetic is not only unnecessary but it also establishes a faulty logical foundation for a discussion of a biblical account of creation. God’s glory is not only demonstrated in creation itself but also in his ultimate redemptive purposes in creation.

 Also necessarily related to creation is God’s sustaining and governing work discussed by theologians as his Providence. Two divisions of God’s work have been used to describe his engagement with his creation, namely, his “ordinary” (general) and “special” providence. The former has also been used to refer to what has been called his “common grace”; that is, the loving care and compassion he demonstrates in the sustaining of all of his creation. The latter is the “special grace” he extends to those he has elected for salvation. It should not be assumed that the first is God’s grace sans Christ while the latter is his grace with the work of Christ. It is God’s common providence, in cooperation with the Son and Spirit, that is the precondition of and sets the stage for the outworking of his special grace.

 God’s special providence, particularly relating to redemption, is then further subdivided into two covenants; the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The former, also spoken of as the covenant of life, occurred in the under the Adamic administration. It was during this probationary period that Adam in the garden was said to be posse pecarre (able to sin) but also posse non pecarre (able to not sin) and was responsible to obey as he was forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [Aside: Had he successfully navigated this probation he, and as a result all of his progeny, would have been established in righteousness.] As it happened however he disobeyed and fell making necessary and possible the latter, covenant of grace. This covenant was inaugurated by the protevangelium (Gen 3:15) and propagated by subsequent covenants (ex., Noahic, Abrahamic (Old), Davidic) in the history of redemption and reaching its culmination in the New Covenant under the mediation of and salvation purchased by Christ Jesus. The stages of redemptive history are revealed to man by God. It is God’s revelation that “makes known to us the mystery of his will” (Eph 1:9). These two ideas of Revelation and Redemption are integrally related. For it is the former that makes plain the latter and the interpretation of the latter then that sheds progressively more light on the former as events of redemption come to pass. Now revelation has ceased but the plan of redemption continues and will continue through until the glorification of God’s people. Those objective-central acts of redemption – the incarnation, the atonement and the resurrection of Christ – contain the occasion and the purpose of divine revelation. Because of these the subjective-individual acts of redemption – regeneration, justification, conversion, sanctification and glorification – are possible. That revelation ceased at the completion of the objective acts is not to say they cannot speak into, encourage and inform one’s individual redemptive progress. While revelation does not speak to our individual situations directly it does so representatively through having chronicled the individual redemption of those inscripturated. So, according to 2 Tim 3:16-17, Scripture is sufficient to clearly explain the objective-central events and, according to Heb 11, provide authoritative direction for the subjective-individual walk of faith.

 In addition to, and inseparable from, divine revelation as an instrument of special providence is the divine use of miracles. The miracles of Scripture occur sporadically throughout but are by far most concentrated in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Though sporadic, these occurrences are not random and they are not, as some suppose, inviolate of natural laws or processes. Consistent with the opinion of the Westminster divines – “God, in His ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure” – miracles are supernatural (above and against means) and serve the purpose of “authenticating the credentials” of the individual instrument of revelation through which the act is wrought (Mark 16:20, Acts 14:3, Heb 2:4). All of the miracle-backed revelation of Mosaism and Prophetism of the Old Testament (ex., Ex 4:1-9, 1 Kings 17:17-24 and others) typified the coming redemptive work to be accomplished by the incarnate Christ that was in turn also authenticated by miraculous testimony (ex., John 5:36, Acts 14:3 and other). Out of this discussion we see the redemption-revelation-miracle motif whereby redemption is interpreted by its revelation and the revelation is authenticated by miracles. Given that the historical redemptive events are non-repeatable, once they have been interpreted (through revelation) and authenticated (by miracles) as such there is no further need for the second and third elements. Thus, revelation and miracles have ceased.

 In summary, God’s providential dealings with his creation do not, again as some suppose, contain a “plan B” or a “back-up plan” just in case things did not work out as he expected. It is God’s ultimate purpose from creation ex nihilo, through the fall of man, to the redemption-revelation-miracle paradigm and every other sovereignly decreed occurrence in the “tapestry of time” that his glory be made known by the glorifying of his Son as “the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18) and “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11).

What Part of Supernatural Do You Not Understand?

Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith


Chapter Fifteen – The Supernatural Christ of History 

 The reality or existence of the historical Jesus Christ of Nazareth is rarely called into question in our day. However, what is often held up to skeptical criticism are those biblical claims of supernatural occurrences in the life of Christ. Specifically, those at which aim is taken include the virgin birth, his miracles, his transfiguration, his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of the Father in glory.

 Both Testaments provide biblical evidence of the fact of the birth of the Son of God to a virgin, Hebrew teenager. Isaiah in 7:14 proclaims, “the virgin will be with child”. Mathew taught that “before they came together (Mary and Joseph), she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit (1:18)…that the utterance of the Lord through the prophet (Isaiah) might be fulfilled (1:22). This understanding is implicitly and explicitly confirmed in the remainder of the gospels (Mark 6:3; Luke 1:27, 34-35; 3:23; 4:22; John 8:41; 9:29) as well as the epistles (ex, Gal 4:4). While Mathew and Luke are the only gospel writers to explicitly mention the virgin conception, they are the only ones to actually record the birth narrative at all but nowhere in the New Testament are their testimonies related to this contradicted by the other writers. Beyond this, the uniform testimony of the church over the past 2000 years has supported the literal, historical nature of this account. Thus, given the weight of evidence, this Jesus was certainly born out of wedlock and so was either virginally or illegitimately conceived, there are simply no other options left to us.

 Having planted this presuppositional stake in the ground we can attend to the question of the purpose of the virgin conception. Reymond sheds light on this issue by first emphasizing two theories that are not to be believed as foundational to the virgin conception. First, it must not be understood as the source of Christ’s deity. Second, it is not to be seen as the effectual cause of his sinlessness. As to the former, it is utterly beyond the humanity of man or woman, even prior to their fall, to donate anything of themselves in the formation of deity. As to the latter, it has been suggested that original sin is passed through the male line and therefore having no “male” human parentage permitted, and indeed was necessary to impart, Christ’s sinlessness. There is however no biblical warrant to restrict transmission of sin to the male. Mary herself in Luke 1:47 confessed her sinfulness and need for salvation. In Ps. 51:5 David proclaimed that “In sin did my mother conceive me”. It is mostly likely a divine protection of the Holy Spirit that served to leave Christ undefiled by his human mother. In any case, even if we were to concede the latter theory, it still could not be shown to be the primary goal of the virgin conception. Scripture is very clear that the chief end of Jesus’ virgin conception was to share in our humanity (Heb 2:14) becoming the “God-man”, becoming “Immanuel: God with us” (Isa. 7:14; Mat. 1:22-23) that “through his poverty, we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

 The Gospels’ accounts of the earthly ministry of our Savior, this “God made flesh”, are replete with examples and demonstrations of his divine, supernatural activity. [Aside: Given what we have considered to this point, a discussion in defense of the supernatural character of the ministry and miracles of Christ seems somewhat superfluous. If we presuppose the preceding arguments to be biblically sound, what supernatural occurrences, no matter how far removed from our natural experience and understanding, could we possibly call into question?! However, that said, it has indeed been necessary to provide such an apologetic, thus Reymond continues.] The practical effect of the Son of Man’s miraculous interactions were frequently aimed at the relief of human suffering – such as healing of illness and raising from the dead (John 4:46-54; Mat. 9:20-22; 27-31; John 11:1-54, and many others), demonstrations of his authority over the spiritual realm in the exorcism of demons (Mat. 8:28-34; Mark 7:24-30, and others) as well as his natural miracles – water to wine (John 2:1-11), stilling the storm (Mat. 8:23-27) and others. In addition to the Gospel writer’s accounts of these miracles, Jesus himself in Mat. 11:4-5 sends testimony of such to an imprisoned and somewhat forlorn John the Baptist. He even at times passed miraculous abilities to his disciples (Mat. 10:1, Luke 10:1) for the carrying out of his work.

 Of course, in contrast to the biblical testimony their have been, and are, skeptical theories and positions related to Christ’s miraculous ministry. Baruch Spinoza held that to permit a miracle God would have had to violate the natural law he himself had established thereby contradicting himself by violating his unchangeable order. Hume attacks the issue with loquacious confusion by positing that the only way for the evidence of a miracle to outweigh the evidence against is if the error of the witness affirming the miracle were a greater miracle than that which he is affirming. [Aside: What?!]. Some have tried to explain away the miraculous accounts as “relative” miracles. Rather than being de facto miracles, they were acts easily explained by as yet undiscovered scientific laws and natural phenomena that Christ had already grasped. Others have argued that the accounts of the “miracles” were never intended to be interpreted literally as such but rather were simply ordinary experiences colorfully illustrated. John 9:4, “I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day; the night comes, when no man can work”, is restrained from the eschatological metaphor Christ is intending and held captive as supposed evidence of Christ’s understanding of his own limitations. Still others ascribe the miracles as nothing more than “Hellenistic myth” while there are also those who ascribe psychic powers to Christ’s works as “psychogenous healing” or even as simply the tricks of a magician. Regardless the individual criticisms they all hold in common an a priori judgement of the nature of God and his activity in time and space. [Aside: Again, here the illogic appears to be more on the part of the skeptic. Why is it that one would expect one who presupposes by faith that God spoke the very universe into existence to reject as unreasonable the arguably lesser earthly miracles of Christ?]. Of more value than this debate is the understanding of the purpose and importance of these miraculous works of our Lord.

 There are two primary points of significance related to the miracles recorded (and those unrecorded) in the Gospels. The first is testified to by Christ himself in Mat. 12:28 regarding the arrival of the Messianic Age. The second is confirmatory evidence of Christ’s divine character as the Son of God (John 14:11), the one prophesied to come (Mat. 11:4-5), sent into the world by the Father (John 5:36), his messianic investiture (Mat. 10:25) and even is right to pardon sin (Mark 2:1-12, others).

 Once Christ had made clear to those with “ears to hear and eyes to see” that he is indeed God incarnate, he began to speak of his coming departure. The Jews at this time, including the disciples, based on their teaching and tradition, were anticipating a return to glory on the national level. Christ was intent on correcting this misplaced hope and turning there understanding to the universal and eternal glory of the kingdom of God. Jesus encouraged his disciples proclaiming that, “Some who are standing here shall not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Mat. 16:28). This cryptic statement has been dissected by many for an understanding of who are the “some”? the disciples alone? What is meant by “tasting death”? What is meant by “coming”? What is meant by “kingdom”? Many have argued that it refers to the Second Coming and that Christ erred in his prediction that this would occur in the lifetime of the disciples then living. However, Cranfield summarizes why this statement is actually referring to Christ’s transfiguration. The “some” referred specifically to the disciples as it was but 3 of there number – Peter, James and John – who were present for that spectacle of Christ in his divine “glory” (Luke 9:32), “majesty” and “power” (2 Pet. 1:16). Knowing that the transfiguration would occur in a matter of days, the phrase “Shall not taste death” could not have indicated physical death. Rather, Christ was making reference to his previous metaphorical call for his followers to “take up their cross” and “lose their life for me”. He noted that some would not yet have done so before the transfiguration. Christ had said that these would not taste death “before they see”. At his transfiguration scripture certainly describes a sight to behold. How else might one picture “seeing” Christ come into his kingdom? Given what the disciples saw, it is not unreasonable to understand the Mat. 16:28 statements as speaking directly of the transfiguration which momentarily showed Christ in his heavenly glory and pointing toward his Parousia (second coming).

 Opposing the traditional understanding of the transfiguration, Bultmann calls it “an Easter-story projected backward into Jesus’ lifetime.” C.H. Dodd has countered logically pointing out that the accounts recorded of the resurrection and the transfiguration seem to have nothing in common in themselves. Further, Peter’s behavior is markedly different at these occasions. The boldness and confidence of the chief apostle at Pentecost can be nowhere found in his timid and confused awe at the transfiguration. As to another objection, Mathew uses the term “το όραμα“ (ta horama, or the vision) in 17:9, which has been interpreted as simply a visionary experience. However, this type of vision is not generally a shared experience. Further, this term also has precedence in its use to indicate that which is seen in the literal sense (Deut 28:34). Finally, in Luke’s account, he clearly states that the disciples had become “fully awake” when “they saw his glory and the two men standing with him” (9:32). At this point, lest one think that there was an equality among the three “glorious” figures, God appeared theophanically proclaiming that this Christ “is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” and commanded all to “Listen to him” (Mat. 17:5-6). This appearance of Elijah on the mount with Jesus was confusing to the disciples (Mat. 17:10) since, according to Mal. 3:1, Elijah would come before the Messiah came. In verse 11 Jesus allays their concerns by explaining that “Elijah” had already come in the person of John the Baptist.

 As distinguished from the transfiguration we come to the historicity of the resurrection of this Messiah. There are two primary “strands” of evidence that support this biblical account: The empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances of Christ. Each of the Gospel accounts attest to the fact of the empty tomb. There have been posited several theories to explain this away. One such is that the women and later Peter and John went to the wrong tomb. This is most unlikely given that they found in the tomb his burial wrap. In addition, the Roman and Jewish authorities were quite eager to prove the body remained and would have likely been disposed to redirect the misguided seekers. Of all of the theories however, the two most common are the “stolen body theory” and the “swoon theory”. As to the first, one would need to explain how the disciples penetrated the fortification of the Roman guards. Further, assuming they successfully sneaked past – say the guards were sleeping on duty at risk to their own lives – how did the disciples move the stone undetected? For the sake of argument, allowing that both of these things indeed occurred, we are then left with believing that the disposition of the disciples suddenly changed from melancholy and disappointment to great enthusiasm and a willingness to sacrifice their very lives all for a lie that they knew to be a lie because they had aided in its dissemination. Even more incredibly it has been suggested that the Jewish leaders had the body removed. Recall, these were the very people adamant to prove Christ to have been a heretic and to disprove his claim to deity. An empty tomb is devastating to their cause. The “grave robber” theory meets with the same difficulty as the theory that the disciples stole the body. Further, why would they disrobe and carry from the tomb a naked Jesus? Then there is the swoon theory which suggests that Christ never actually died but rather had simply lost consciousness, awoke in the tomb and exited. This argument scarcely deserves rebuttal. We are to accept that this beaten, crucified, speared man pronounced dead at the hands of professional executioners, arose from a coma, remove his burial clothes, neatly folded his head covering, single-handedly removed the stone and snuck past the Roman guards unmolested while exsanguinated and naked with holes in wrists, feet and side and then proceeded, in this state, to convince his disciples upon finding them that he is indeed the Lord of life?! [Aside: This makes one question if some who hold this theory are among those who reject the veracity of Jesus’ other miracles].

 The second strand of evidence are the ten post-crucifixion appearances of Christ over the next 40 days to his disciples and then to many others. Upon appearing to his disciples, serving to dispel the theory that they were hallucinating or having a vision, Jesus invited them to touch him and he also ate with them (John 21:1-22). While the empty tomb is absolutely critical to the historic Christian faith, it is the post-resurrection appearances that prove that Christ actually rose from the dead. Even though one might perhaps conceive of the possibility, even though highly improbable, of a small group having a similar and simultaneous hallucination or vision, it stretches credulity to breaking to say the same for several separate gatherings of varying sizes in public and private over a 40 day period. Further, the gospel accounts of the empty tomb and the appearances lack the artificiality of a contrived conspiracy. Given the cultural value, or lack there-of, placed upon the word of a woman in that day, if concocted, would it make sense for the account to begin with two women claiming to be the first to find the empty tomb? Further, how do we account for Saul’s, the hater of “The Way’s”, later conversion? How do we account for the change of the day of worship from the seventh to the first day of the week?

 Historically, the first inscripturated mention of the crucifixion and resurrection was by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-5. This letter preceded the writing of the Gospels (about A.D. 56 from Ephesus) in which Paul speaks poetically as though proclaiming something that had become an early Christian creed. It can be well-argued that Paul received this “tradition” during his initial Jerusalem “counsel” with Peter and James 3 years after his own conversion. If this is so, this teaching is no more than 5-8 years removed from the actual events; hardly enough time for the development of legend and myth. In fact, it is not legend at all. Rather, it is the ministrations of the Spirit working in the elect of God faith in these as facts that have propelled the Gospel of Christ to every corner of the globe.

 Subsequent to the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, the Gospel of Luke alone records the account of Christ’s exaltation in his ascension to the right hand of God the Father, 40 days after his resurrection, as the Savior of the world. It is by this exaltation to come that Jesus spoke de jure in Mat. 28:18 that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, by which we get our “marching orders” in the Great Commission. In Acts 2:36 Peter subsequently proclaimed Christ’s de facto sovereign rule resulting from his earthly work by which Paul exclaims that “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). While only explicitly recorded by Luke, this event is affirmed by Peter (Acts 1:22) and Stephen (7:56), and presupposed by the other New Testament authors (Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; John 6:62; Heb 1:3; 2:9, and others) as well as Christ himself (Mat. 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69). By “ascension” Scripture is not referring to a literal “upward” movement. Rather than being a change of location, it is metaphorically referring to a spiritual change of state. Rejecting this idea are those, among others, who deny the resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances, opting instead that Christ’s ascension was carried out directly from the cross. As biblical support they use Phil. 2:6-11 (“even death on a cross. Therefore, God exalted him…”), John 12:23 and Heb. 10:2, explaining that these elements are not mentioned explicitly rather than appropriately interpreting – “death and ascension or glorification” – as Apostolic shorthand for the cumulative elements. This too is a stretch especially when one considers that each of these writers in the verses under consideration speak of the resurrection in these very same writings (Phil. 3:10; John 2:19-21; Heb. 13:20). Berkouwer in fact very aptly comments that “the glory of Christ in Hebrews minus Hebrews 13:20 equals the ascension “from the cross’”.

Suffice it to say, the historic, orthodox Christian position has the right of it exegetically and logically. It is through Christ’s miraculous works, temporary mediatorial role (1 Cor 15:24-28), sacrificial “once-for-all” death (Heb. 9:24-26), glorious resurrection and triumphal ascension that his eternally existent prerogatives by his very nature as the Second Person of the Trinity have been awarded him in reality. For it is alone our great High-Priest (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:24-25; 1 John 2:1) that pleases the Father. It is Christ alone that is the mediator and intercessor between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). For “he is the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and it is by his name and no other that we must be saved (Act 4:12).

A Unified Redemption

Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s
A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith 


Chapter Fourteen – The Unity of the Covenant of Grace 

 Traditional Reformed doctrine in concert with the Westminster Confession asserts that while the over-arching “covenant of grace” was administered variously in different eras of redemptive history, the central covenantal theme has remained as one unified purpose from its inauguration at the Abrahamic covenant. Contained within this is the understanding that all of God’s elect from all ages – before, during and after the redemptive work of Christ – draw salvific benefit from that same work. This idea of a unified covenant encompassing all of redemptive history is refuted by classic dispensationalism which defines a dispensation as “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” The people of God in earlier dispensations, it is argued, being privy to less revelation, were thus dependent upon the amount they did have and responsible only to the revelation of their dispensation in particular for their salvation. The number of distinct dispensations vary among dispensational scholars however all agree with the Doctrinal Statement of Dallas Theological Seminary that there are three predominant dispensations that “are distinct and not to be confused” – the dispensation of the Mosaic law, the present dispensation of grace, and the future dispensation of the millennial kingdom. By this view the Old Testament saint was, as are all believers, saved by grace through faith but for them the object of their faith could not have been the suffering Christ to come, as they supposedly had no such knowledge. Rather, the faith by which they are counted righteous (Heb 11), by necessity, remained vague and imprecise – “faith toward God…manifested in other ways” – as they could not have known of the Christ to come, they could not have comprehended the typological relationship between animal sacrifices and this Christ’s work, and they did not have the illumination necessary to understand even the prophecies of the Christ in their own day. Indeed, if these propositions are true then the Old Testament saint certainly could not have placed their faith for salvation in the person and work of the suffering Christ and, consistent with this, the believers of each dispensation are then not only saved by faith in a different object but also saved to a different destiny whether they be the “earthy people” of God under the law, or the “heavenly people” of God under grace. It is plain that the differences in these two camps are irreconcilable and mutually exclusive.

 Covenant theology sets forth five arguments for the unity of the covenant of grace. The first is the contention that the promises of the Abrahamic covenant provides the ground of salvation for all ages to come. The protoevangelium of Gen. 3:15 displayed God’s intention to save man but it is not until the call of Abraham (Gen. 12), his divine commission and the promise that through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” that we begin to receive details of the means by which this salvation would be wrought. From that point forward all things God has done has been in service to that promise. It is this very promise that is confirmed also with Isaac and Jacob throughout the remainder of the Genesis account (see 17:19, 28:13, others) and to the nation of Israel at large throughout the Old Testament (Exo 32:12-14, Deut 4:31, Psa 105:8-10, Micah 7:20, others). Mary and Zechariah, New Testament, “Old Covenant”, saints, associate the coming of Christ as the Incarnation of God and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Luke 1:54-55, 68-73). Later, Jesus himself confirms that he was the object of Abraham’s rejoicing (John 8:56) and that those redeemed would take their place at the “feast” along side Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Mat 8:11). Peter and Paul both declared Christ to be the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham as it relates to the Jewish nation (Acts 3:25-26) and to the Gentiles (Gal 3:8-9, 13-14). Further, Paul goes on to protect this continuity by affirming that the law of Moses, subsequent to the Abrahamic promise, does not in the least derail the covenant (Gal 3:16-17) but that Abraham is the father of “spiritual Israel”, that is, “all who believe” (Rom 4:11-12; Gal 3:29) and that the “new covenant” is indeed the unfolding of God’s covenant with Abraham.

 Secondly, through the rescue from Egyptian captivity God demonstrated to his people Israel the concept of salvation by grace through faith in a mediator (Exo. 6:6; 14:13, 30; 15:3, Deut. 7:8; 9:26; Acts 7:35). This “salvation” demonstrated God’s loving, electing, unconditional grace (Deut 7:6-8). It also showed that salvation is from the Lord alone (Exo. 3:19-20; 7:3, 10:1-2; 11:9). In this context the people of God would have come to understand that salvation comes through power – God’s gracious, electing decree – but also comes at a price – the substitutionary atonement of the paschal lamb as a covering for their sin (Exo. 12:27, 34:25; 1Cor. 5:7). Finally, the freedom purchased did not result in a partial or compromised freedom but an utter break from the dominion of their former master (Exo. 12:37; Rom 6:6, others).

 Third, the Old Testament writers anticipated the New Testament age and the atoning death and resurrection of the Christ. Jesus himself again gives testimony that the Old Testament scriptures related to this speak of him specifically (Luke 24:25-27, John 5:39, 46; 13:18; 19:24, 28, 36-37; 20:9) and that Isaiah 53 is fulfilled in him (Luke 22:37; Mat. 26:24, 31, 54, 56). Again, the New Testament authors support this as well (Acts 2:17-21, 3:22-24; 1 Pet 2:6-8). Peters goes on to say that it was because this very thing was prophesied that they, according to Peter in 1:10-12 of his first epistle, “searched intently” for evidence of the time and circumstances of the Messiah’s coming. By the prophecies, the Old Testament saints receiving them understood that the Christ would come and suffer. This is the very foundation, in fact, of Paul’s efforts to reason with the Jews from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2-3, Rom 28:23) about “the gospel concerning God’s Son” where “God promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scripture” (Rom 1:2-3, see also 1 Cor 15:3-4) and even to his trial before Agrippa (Acts 26:6-7, 22-23) when he testified to only teaching that which Moses and the prophets proclaimed. Referring to Amos 9:11-12, Peter too chimes in (Acts 15:15) stating that “the words of the prophets are in agreement with” (symphonousin) the unified mission of the apostles. Dispensationalists have understood Peter to mean by symphonousin that their Gentile evangelism was merely in accord with the future Jewish kingdom age. Such reasoning not only illogically imposes a non-sequitur into the context in which Peter is speaking, vis, the justification of contemporary evangelism as an unfolding of Old Testament prophecy, it further violates a major tenet of dispensational dogma – the confusion of the dispensations – in that it attempts to establish as foundational and normative the activity of an earlier dispensation with a later dispensation. A final nail in the coffin of this particular argument is that if James were interpreting Ezekiel 44:9 from the dispensational view he would necessarily have had to insist that Gentile converts continue to be circumcised. In fact, he drew the opposite conclusion.

 Fourth, it is the modern church that is the true “spiritual Israel”, filled with the spiritual children of Abraham who represent “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” in the “new covenant” prophesied by Jeremiah in 31:31-34 and spoken of by the New Testament writers (Luke 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:8-13, 9:15). This assertion that the New Covenant church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles, is the true spiritual Israel is assumed by Christ himself in his instructions related to church discipline – “If he (any member of the church) refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). This statement becomes unintelligible if Jesus regards the Gentile convert as remaining Gentile and not a member of the “house of Israel”. Paul’s teaching to the “Gentile” Ephesian church is in lockstep with this idea when he lists the exclusion criteria from citizenship with Israel in 2:11-13 and then in 2:19 proclaims to the former Gentiles of this church that they are “no longer foreigners”. He further teaches this truth stating that those who boast only in the cross are “the Israel of God”, “the true circumcision” and “grafted in” (Gal 6:12-16, Phil 3;3 and Rom 11:16-24, respectively) and of this New Covenant church he uses uniquely Old Testament language pointing out that they had become “slaves to righteousness” (Rom 6:18), that Christ is their “High Priest” (Heb 9:11), that the Christian is to offer “sacrifices” of praise (Heb 13:15) and live under the rule of the “elders” or “overseers” (1 Tim 3:1).

 Fifth and finally, all of the elect were, are and will be saved only by grace through faith, whether anticipated or accomplished, in the work of Christ. There is an undeniable thread that passes through all of God’s revelation that either promises, prophesies, typifies or describes his redemptive plan in the work of Christ. Reymond follows this thread in retrograde fashion. In 2 Tim 3:15 Paul ascribes Old Testament teaching to Timothy’s basis for faith in Christ. He also supports his teaching of justification by faith alone by appealing to Psalm 32:1-2 and in Rom 4:6-7 explicitly illustrates this as the basis also of Abraham’s righteousness. [Aside: Not only is Paul teaching a continuity regarding the means of redemption from Abraham to the church age but we know that Paul also excludes the possibility of “another” new salvific plan beyond the one he taught in his emphatic infrahortation to the Galatians (1:6-9)]. Throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus we also find no indication of a transition from the “old” plan to a “new” plan. While Jesus spoke more often of his imminent death and resurrection in the latter part of his earthly ministry, he taught its reality from the very outset (John 2:19). Even prior to this, John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet, alluding to the sacrificial death of the Messiah, when he refers to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) at a time when these “mysteries” should have yet remained “locked up in the secret counsels of God”. In his Nunc Dimittis, Simeon, another saint whose only illumination was that of the Old Testament Scriptures, invokes the promise of Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6 as he beheld the newborn Christ and proclaimed him to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”.

The writers of the Old Testament Scripture would have been assisted by anything God had said through their predecessors regarding the Messiah. Zechariah prophesied the crucifixion of Christ (12:10). In his day, Isaiah foretold the Messiah’s substitutionary atonement (20:2-3; 10:22; see also Jer. 13:1-11; Ezek. 4:4-8 and others) as well as the virgin birth and the Incarnation (Isa. 7:14). David prophesied the rebellion of the “kings of the earth…against (the) Messiah” (Ps. 2:2) and his crucifixion (22:16; affirmed by Peter in Acts 4:25-28 and by Paul in Acts 13:35-37). The entire nation of Israel, being guided by the Levitical institution, through the “scapegoat” on the annual Day of Atonement and earlier through the blood of the paschal lamb at the first Passover, was familiar with the concept of forgiveness by a substitutionary sacrifice. Hebrews 11:26-27 testifies of Moses’ knowledge of “the disgrace of the Christ”.  Jesus also affirms this in stating that Moses “wrote of (him)” (John 5:46-47, see Num. 21:9 and Deut. 18:15) and goes on to expressly say that Abraham “rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). In verse 14 Jude records that Enoch spoke of the “Lord”. This can most likely be taken to be consistent with Jude’s specific use of this title for Christ several times in the remainder of his epistle. Stepping back to the first generation, Abel understood the requirement of a blood sacrifice (Gen. 4:3-5, Heb. 11:4) as a representation of the promised “Seed of the woman” (Gen 3:15). Finally, this single thread that traces the unity of God’s people in all times under a unified, overarching covenant of grace and to a unified salvation is inaugurated in Gen 3:21 which demonstrated the need of a sacrificial “covering” in the animal skins turned clothing for Adam and Eve. It is precisely as a result of this thread that God’s people in all ages have, and have had, enough light, no matter how dim at times, to have their faith counted to them as righteousness.

The word “mysteries” throughout the New Testament is frequently invoked by Dispensational scholars to affirm the position that Old Testament believers could not have known anything of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. There are mysteries to be sure but there is no compelling reason to specify that these mysteries refer to this particular knowledge. In Christ’s “kingdom of heaven” parables of Mathew 13 and 17 the Dispensationalist distinguishes between the terms “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God”. The former they contend is the term used for the Davidic, earthly, millennial kingdom that Jesus gave the Jews a chance to restore, but they rejected him. This is distinguished from the “kingdom of God” which refers to the universal reign of God. If these are not in actuality interchangeable terms it seems to have been lost on the synoptic writers as this is how they use them (Matt. 13:11; 19:14; Mark 4:11; 10:14; Luke 8:10; 18:17), consistently referring to the sovereign rule of God. So, it is contradictory to speak of the hidden mysteries as referring to the eschatological kingdom of God coming in visible power that Daniel (2:34-35, 44-55) and others spoke of so clearly. Rather, the mystery, the astonishingly new revelation explained by Christ in his parables is that stage in the unfolding of the kingdom of God in which it comes invisibly and in humility to reign in the hearts of the elect, Jew and Gentile alike (Rom 14:17).

Ephesians 3:2-6,9 and Colossians 1:25-27 both speak of the “mystery” that was “not made known to men in other generations” and that “has been kept hidden for ages”. These are also used as proof-texts by the Dispensational camp to support the lack of knowledge held by the Old Testament faithful. In the Ephesians passage one should take care to note the rather crucial conjunction “as” (ως) Paul uses – “…which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed…” – to compare degrees of knowledge as opposed to drawing a distinction between knowledge now and an utter lack of knowledge previously. Similarly, in the Colossians passage Paul is making it clear that greater light has been shed upon a previously, more dimly lit subject. The shocking “new” information was that rather than Gentiles being permitted into the the house of the faithful simply as proselytes into the old Jewish theocracy, the Gospel would raise Israel out of the old theocracy and as Christians place the Jews and Gentiles alike on equal footing.

In the final analysis, it turns out that Dispensationalism foists two unintended and harmful consequences upon Christian theology. If, as their interpretation claims, Jesus’ modus operandi at the first advent were truly to establish the earthly, millennial kingdom then the charge of a Roman insurrection would have been accurate and his crucifixion would have been justified. Thus, the first consequence would have been that rather than being unjustly murdered Christ would have been served the appropriate justice for his crime. Neither of the Roman authorities, Pilate nor Herod, upheld such a charge. In addition, a doctrine that holds that the Christ offered forgiveness on the basis of his rightful rule and the overthrow of Roman rule to establish the earthly Davidic kingdom, if accepted by the contemporary Jews, would have left Gentiles out of the redemptive equation.  In the case of the Jews, there would be no necessity for Christ’s cross work and for the Gentile no plan in place for a perfect salvation; only the need for the perpetual institution of the old sacrificial system which Hebrews 10:4 charges as insufficient to “take away sin”. Even after this, if Christ had then been crucified at the hands of the Romans, the prophecy foretelling the rejection of the Messiah by his own would have been nullified. The solution to all of these quandaries is the God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, sinner-saving doctrine of the unity of the covenant of grace and all of the people of God throughout all ages.

The Potter and the Clay

A Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s 

A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith

Chapter Thirteen – God’s Eternal Plan of Salvation

God’s “eternal plan of salvation” is an oft verbalized expression that, rather than being thought of as “the order of the decrees” in the mind of God as it relates to soteriology, is most commonly distilled down to a rotely memorized list of Christian duties. Generally these include: the acknowledgement of one’s own sinfulness, the belief that Christ died for sinners, repentance, and the request to God for forgiveness through Christ and placing trust in him for this salvation. These “steps” are indeed important but in themselves are man-centered and insufficient. We do not have faith in a capricious God or the God of the deists who has set the universe in motion leaving man on his own with no providential plan for its care and order. Indeed, the precise opposite is Christian Theism’s God of revealed Scripture. 

 The discussion of God’s “eternal plan” is based in his eternal purpose. As we shall see, this purpose is brought to fruition through Christ’s work on the cross, God’s predestination of the elect and his election of men to salvation. Paul makes mention of this purpose (“prothesin”, singular) which he describes as eternal (“aionon”) in Eph 3:11. The intent is to give the idea of a single, overarching, all-encompassing plan (the object of the discipline of Biblical Theology) that God had for his creation. The plan is eternal in that it has, in it’s entirety, with regards to how it would be realized, never had a time when it was not. At the heart of God’s eternal plan stands Christ who is at the center of God’s salvific design. In other words, Christ is the centerpiece of God’s plan for the salvation of men, which is the issue that is the centerpiece of God’s unified eternal purpose. As this is an eternal purpose, those graciously elected (Rom 9:5, 11-13) – all men who have been, are or will ever be savingly in Christ – as his Church, have stood with him from all eternity to all eternity.

 It is not the “formula” (above), which wreaks of human decision and effort, that has paid the purchase price for the salvation of the elect that God “foreknew” (Rom 8:33). Rather it is through and by the atoning, sacrificial “Cross-work” of this centerpiece of the plan, namely, the eternal Son of God. This use of the word translated as foreknew (“proegno”) does not connote a superficial awareness but rather an intimate understanding of and affection for the object of the knowledge (see 2 Tim 2:19, Matt 7:22-23). God’s sovereign predestination to election (Rom 8:29-30) of those redeemed lay wholly in his sovereign will (monergism) without any assistance or cooperation from the one being saved (Rom 9:11-13), and not because he (God) had a prior knowledge of some intrinsic future righteousness they (men) would possess (Eph 1:4-5, 2 Tim 1:9) but solely on the basis of his own eternal plan. Setting his plan into action God “called” those he had predestined who were those he had foreknown.

 Understanding the elements of God’s eternal plan we can turn to its nature. Specifically, we are interested here in answering the questions: Who saves men? How are men saved? And, who is saved? First, the answer regarding who saves men has been divided into 2 major camps; Pelagianism (autosoterism or “the naturalistic vision”) and Augustinianism (“the supernaturalistic vision”). The former, named after Pelagius of the fifth century, held that man contains within himself the ability of obeying God in all that he requires of them for salvation. This view was formally condemned at the Sixteenth Council of Carthage in A.D. 418. The Augustinian position, upheld by the Council, posits that Scripture clearly teaches that man is, in his natural, fallen state, incapable of saving himself or in any way contributing positively anything to his salvation. Rather, all that is essential to the saving of the soul must come from God. Ironically however, while Augustine certainly had right the view of salvation through grace alone he slid away from pure biblical doctrine with regards to how exactly that grace was channeled to God’s people. Contrary to the biblical understanding of grace mediated through the Spirit directly, he opted for the notion that it was conveyed to man by the church through the sacraments. Subsequent to Pelagianism’s repudiation its future adherents reemerged with a thinly modified doctrine which rejected of the necessity of prevenient grace for salvation. This too, known as “semi-Pelagianism”, was rejected in A.D. 529 at the Second Council of Orange. Unfortunately, this same Council, ostensibly affirming the sovereignty of human free will, rejected the irresistibility of God’s prevenient grace.

 As to the second question, it is of course held presuppositionally by most that God in some fashion does the saving of man but the real question is by what means? This debate has raised the division between those holding a “sacerdotal” view versus the “evangelical” view of salvation. The former, most notably represented by the Roman Catholic Church, insists that God’s salvation to man is mediated through the sacraments (Mass, penance and baptism), which, having been supernaturally endowed, flow to the recipient and remove sin simply by their administration. John Murray summarizes well this position; “the church is the depository of salvation and the sacraments the media of conveyance.” The sacerdotal view in effect institutes a moralism not unlike Pelagianism into the doctrine of salvation by establishing man’s good works as the grounds for the remission of sin. Warfield further objects to sacerdotalism charging it with “distantiation” – the separation of the soul from the need for immediate dependence upon God, “depersonalization” – viewing the Holy Spirit as nothing more than an impersonal natural force [Aside: as with “The Force” in Star Wars], and “deification” of the priesthood [Aside: the “Jedi”] who use the Holy Spirit as a tool [Aside: the light-saber] that they control in effecting salvation. On the other side of this debate is evangelicalism, which rejects sacerdotalism and espouses that the Spirit works when and where he wills and by this the church finds its foundation and role and without whom there is no church and no salvation.

 In answering the question, “who does God save?”, protestants have divided among themselves. The camp founded under James Arminius in the late 16th century has become known as evangelical “universalists” or, more commonly today, Arminians. Arminius taught that God provides in all mankind the same work of salvation. The reason, they contend, that some are not ultimately saved is that they, by their free will, reject some of the saving work extended to them. [Aside: The Arminian cannot reconcile the truth of a loving God that would in any way constrain the will of his creatures. To the Arminian free will is contained within the definition of the love of God.]. Opposing the Arminian view is the “particularist” or Calvinist view. [Aside: Interestingly, what has become known as the “Five Points of Calvinism” was not some contrive recipe for salvation, rather it was simply John Calvin’s rebuttal of Arminius’s outline of soteriological doctrine he had laid out in five points.] This position holds that the salvific operation of God is absolutely efficacious. If God employed the same work in all men then all men would indeed be saved. One cannot ascribe to God all the glory and honor for his merciful salvation if at any point in its outworking, especially at the decisive point of its operation, man casts the deciding vote in cooperation with God in his salvific work. To insist such a thing is to share God’s glory with him and to fall back into semi-Pelagianism. Contradicting this principle, the Calvinist replaces this universalistic idea with that of “particularism”, which affirms that man owes not simply his opportunity to be saved but his salvation in its entirety to God and God alone.

 Out of this debate flows the logical corollary question regarding the precise objects of Christ’s work on the Cross. This is a conundrum for the Arminian. If God does the same saving operation in all men and Christ died for all men then how is it possible that any will perish? Would not God be unjust and unloving to exact punishment on one whose guilt has been cleared perfectly after already having punished Christ for this guilt? Would it not be unjust and unloving to demand payment for one whose debt has been paid completely? Or, just as repugnant, are we to believe the cross-work of Christ insufficient to “save to the uttermost”? Is it incomplete in its efficacy? Also, in the governmental theory of atonement held by Arminianism there is a mutual exclusivity placed between punishment and forgiveness. This poses a false dichotomy. The punishment-forgiveness paradigm is not an “either-or” proposition but rather a “both-and”. The forgiveness of sin does not eliminate the need for the punishment of sin. Does the child only receive discipline if he remains unforgiven? Is the forgiven child no longer eligible for the consequences of his misdeed? Quite the opposite, punishment is a necessity, it is just that in Christ’s substitutionary atonement he becomes the object of the punishment precisely so the child of God can become the object of forgiveness.

 An interesting amalgamation of particularism and universalism is the position held by those known as “Amyraldians”, after the 17th century French theologian Moise Amyraut. These have also been called “hypothetical universalists” or “four-point Calvinists”. They agree with universalists that Christ died for all mankind but also with the reformed idea of soteriological particularism. They attempt to resolve this paradox by pressing a specific order in God’s eternal salvation plan in which the decree for Christ’s cross work is for all men and precedes the decrees for election and the application of salvation to the elect. Calvinism rejects Amyraldianism most prominently on the basis that it necessitates the setting at cross-purposes the 2nd and 3rd persons of the Godhead. Further, it either turns God’s eternal decree into a chronology or introduces irrationality and confusion into God’s plan, either of which opposes the nature of God. Finally, to espouse an unlimited atonement ostensibly places the Amyraldian squarely in the Arminian camp thereby denying a real substitutionary atonement. One cannot hold that Christ’s atonement is of infinite saving value and also be extended to all men universally otherwise he would have to also affirm that all men (universally) receive salvation, which Scripture, pure reason and the Christian experience flatly rejects. The only other option would be to reject the infinite saving power and efficacy of Christ’s cross work. For if any to whom this power is extended is not in fact saved then its power is insufficient and in the end not only did Christ not die for all, he did not actually and effectually die an atoning death for anyone.

 Where the Amyraldian logically places the decree of election of some to salvation after the decree of the redemption of all, the majority of the others in the consistent Reformed tradition hold not only to a particular view of redemption but also place the decree of election above that of redemption. In the case of infralapsarianism (the historical principle), the election decree is third after the creation decree and the decree of the fall (lapse), respectively. The supralapsarian (the teleological principle) holds that the election decree is placed logically even higher and though there has been some variation within this position it always, by definition, exists above the decree of the lapse.

 One of the more important motivators for the infralapsarian is the protection of God’s character. They argue that if the decree of the election of some occurs before the fall then God is discriminating between men as unfallen man and not as sinners which at a minimum, by their contention, smacks of capriciousness on God’s part, and worse he then may even be culpable for sin. However, placing election chronologically after the fall in God’s plan ultimately does little to relieve the infralapsarian of their dilemma. For if God’s decree of election necessarily follows the decree of the Fall then the believer is thrust into the Arminian camp as reprobation and election becomes a conditional decree and rather than being based solely on the sovereign will of God from all eternity. Further, the distinction between divine discrimination of ‘men as men’ versus ‘men as sinners’ does not relieve the charge of capriciousness. If God were in a position to save every sinner but chose to leave some in their sin and then condemn them for being in their sin, it makes precious little difference if they were condemned as men or as sinners. The only relief from this quandary is the position that election and reprobation are not conditional but are purely acts of “God’s sovereign good pleasure”, which squares precisely with Paul’s answer to anticipated objections relating to divine fairness and human freedom in Rom 9:14-18 and 9:19-24. The “potter” has the sovereign right to do with the lump as he pleases irrespective of the prior condition of the clay. It doesn’t help to assert, as some do, that the “lump” is already viewed as fallen by God. If this were so God would only have had to make vessels for noble use as the the remainder would already be of common origin, however Paul specifies that both are actively created thereby implying that the lump started without character, neither good or bad [Aside: as demonstrated by Paul also relating to Jacob and Esau (Rom 9:11)].

The historical principle is also unable to show exactly why, in their ordering of God’s decrees, the former decree necessitates the latter. For example, it cannot be demonstrated that God’s decree to create necessitated the Fall and the decree of the Fall cannot be shown to necessitate the decree of election and so on. At this point the conundrum continues. The infralapsarian order, in its attempt to vindicate God’s character at one point only serves to impugn it at another. If election-reprobation necessarily follows as a result of the Fall, this sin entering the creation then represents a frustration of the original plan thereby calling into question God’s attribute of omniscience. Rather, it is clear that creation was not decreed as an end but as a means ultimately to the display of God’s full-orbed glory in the eternal purpose accomplished through Jesus Christ. Evidence of this is manifest in the creation rest as a symbol of the Sabbath rest, the original marriage ordinance as a type of the marriage relationship between Christ and his redeemed church and in God’s “subject(ion) of creation to frustration” as a result of human sin.

 It is argued, in particular by the supralapsarian, that all rational planning occurs in retrograde fashion. In other words, when any end is planned it had to be the initial thought in the logical order of the planning. In a series of steps (means) preceding a given goal (end) each step becomes an individual end to the mean preceding it. Since an end must be logically considered before we are able consider the mean(s) to its accomplishment then each step in the process must necessarily progress in reverse order, step-by-step, as compared to their chronological (historical) accomplishment. Interesting in its irony then is that the majority of notable supralapsarians, while placing the particularizing decree of election first, proceed from their to order the remaining decrees historically. From this perspective, some supralapsarians have modified this order maintaining election of “some” sinful men in the first position then reversing the logical order of the rest, as may seem appropriate, with the creation decree (accomplished first) being last. This logical order of planning of “the reasonable mind” becomes critical in the supralapsarian understanding of God’s eternal plan.

 Digressing briefly, the infralapsarian, using Ephesians 3:9-10, argues that the `ίνα (“so that”) that commences verse 10 refers not to the immediately antecedent participle, “in God who created all things” but rather to the penultimate participle, “the mystery hidden for ages”. There are two glaring concerns with this syntactical construction. First, it is the ordinary grammatical teaching to apply the connection of a clause to its ultimate antecedent (not its penultimate). In this case, failing to do so in fact leaves the ultimate clause without a purpose in the verse. Another significant concern related to this interpretation is the segregation of God’s creation decree from God’s election decree as if creation initially held an end purpose different from that which led to the decree for the particularizing election and that God’s redemptive purpose was not at the center of his plan from the outset. A second point of contention arises surrounding Romans 8:9-23. Supralapsarians are accused here of placing too great an emphasis on creation’s reaction to the condition of the church. However, according to Paul’s teaching in these verses it would be very difficult to overstate this relationship as the “groaning” creation indeed “awaits” the liberation of the church for its own liberation.

 These ideas considered we return to the discussion of the logical order of the decrees.. The consistent supralapsarian (teleological) position admits to an infralapsarian accomplishment of God’s decrees but the reverse with regards to its divine planning.

• First, God decreed the election of some sinful men to salvation in Christ for the ultimate purpose of the praise of his glorious grace and justice.

• Second, God decreed the application of redemption to the elect sinners by the Holy Spirit.

• Third, God decreed the actual redemption of the elect from all ages.

• Fourth, God decreed that men would fall in Adam.

• Fifth, God decreed that he would enter into a covenant of works with the first Adam.

• Sixth, God decreed to create Adam holy but mutable (posse pecarre et posse non pecarre).

• Seventh, and finally, to provide a context in which all of these things would occur, God decreed that he would create the universe.

 There are, of course, objections proffered related to this supralapsarian order. One such is that has been suggested is that it is logically impossible that the decree for the fall of man could precede the decree that man would be created. In other words, the object of a decree, some argue, must be real and not just potential before anything concerning it can be decreed. This objection is fallacious. If the object of a decree must have in reality, not just potentially, already been decreed before any characteristic or purpose for it may be decreed then its decree in reality is purposeless and would only serve to prove that there is no actual plan at all but only aimless decrees haphazardly and randomly being issued. [Aside: To illustrate, if I decide to build something on which to sit, I can and must begin to plan characteristics of what I might build that align with my goal of having a place to sit. At the logical (not chronological) penultimate stage of my planning I may then have planned to build a chair but I could just as easily have determined to build a stool or a couch or simply a mat. The ultimate goal, a place to sit, is in view during the entire planning process. While in time much of the planning may occur simultaneously, but logically I must necessarily plan what to build by deciding the characteristics of what it is I will, based on these decisions, plan to build that I might have a place to sit.] Again, as it relates to God planning, it should be stressed that in reality, since these are eternal decrees they have all always coexisted. What we speak of here is their logical order, not their order of operation.

 Another objection is registered by Roger Nicole regarding the idea that if God’s decrees are logically the reverse of their historical order, to place the decree for salvation prior to the decree for the means of salvation, namely, the cross work of Christ, then the logical order is not the mirror image of the historical order as it relates to those elect both before and after Christ. By way of example, Abraham and Augustine were historically saved on opposite sides of the actual, historical means by which they are saved. [Aside: Ok? So what!? So is Nicole saying that God would not have decreed the salvation of the elect, all of them, before he decreed the historical placement of the means of salvation? Is he saying that the application of the means of salvation could not occur in the midst of the needed salvation chronologically? Further, if his logic is accurate and enforceable, which I do not think to be completely so, would this not create the same dilemma for the infralapsarian order as well?] The issue for both positions is that to reduce the eternal decrees, which order all events down to the minutest historical effect, to a handful of overarching decree “categories”, if extended too far, will certainly strain its accuracy. In reality the eternal decrees are innumerable (Aside: possibly infinite?!] if we consider that we not only must consider the decrees as they relate to the logical and historical decree for the salvation of Abraham and Augustine but also individually to each and every person to whom the decrees of election apply.

 A third infralapsarian objection is that in placing the election decree at the beginning of God’s plan for man the supralapsarian “too severely construes the Fall of Adam” in that his rebellion brought about the misery and spiritual ruin of many. This objection only serves to “paint into a corner” the infralapsarian. To remain not only inside the camp of Calvinism but also the realm of historic Christianity one must acknowledge that God indeed ordered all of the decrees including the decree of the Fall. Secondly, he must acknowledge that God has a divine purpose for this decree. This purpose is necessarily part of God’s redemptive plan or it must be part of some other plan. If it is part of the redemptive plan then the supralapsarian has the better part of this debate. If it is part of another plan then whatever that plan is 1) cannot be elucidated and 2) is frustrated by God’s redemptive plan. Are we to believe that the logic of God is so man-like that he could decree a plan only to find it at cross-purpose with another of his decreed plans?

In the end, both positions affirm that sin is evil, that God is not the author of sin as it emanates out of the nature of second causes and that God decreed his particularizing purpose for the salvation of the elect from the effects of the Fall. Do not both affirm that the Fall and its effects provide the occasion in which Christ would redeem God’s elect? Understanding that fallen man, redeemed in Christ by God’s grace, occupies an “ultimately higher, more glorious, and more praiseworthy end” than pre-fallen man, is not God more glorified in it? These things being so, do not both sides of this debate actually find themselves on the same side?

 As a final objection, the infralapsarian contends that the supralapsarian, in his attempt to discern the mind of God, is engaging in “pretentious speculation”. This too appears to be a “grasping at straws”. How does the infralapsarian escape this same charge? It is simply a matter of who has the more right of it. The supralapsarian simply claims that theirs is, though possibly less tender and palatable to some, the more exegetically accurate deductions made by “good and necessary consequence” as we discover knowledge of the nature and character of God the he has revealed to us in Scripture.

 On whatever side of this debate one ends they should let the landing be on the basis of this “good and necessary consequence” and not on the basis of some discomfort or impingement on one sensibilities as it relates to God’s ultimate sovereignty over salvation which, to remain consistent with the clear teaching of Scripture, must be placed over and above the lives and destinies of individual men.