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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. We have discussed his preserving and governing of his creation to bring about his purposes. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to examine today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to take a brief look at miracles. They belong in a discussion about God’s providence because they are related to it as John Frame points out. He wrote that “God’s ‘extraordinary’ actions are called miracles, and his ‘ordinary’ actions are called providence – although … those are relative terms.”[1]

Marc Roby: Miracles can be a controversial topic among Christians today.

Dr. Spencer: And that’s part of why I want to address it. It is an unnecessarily controversial topic. My purpose is to cause us all to think through our views on this topic biblically. We all, as modern people living in a western culture, tend to have serious prejudices with regard to the topic. So, the first thing we need to do is to define what a miracle is. And the minute we start to do that carefully we will begin to see the problem caused by our prejudices.

Marc Roby: Well, if I open my Webster’s dictionary, I find the following definition for a miracle: it is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a pretty common sort of definition, and we can immediately see that there is a problem from a biblical perspective because it talks about an event “manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” But, as we have been laboring to show in the past few sessions, God sustains and governs all of his creation, all of the time, to achieve his purposes, and this certainly includes all human affairs. From a proper biblical perspective, God intervenes in every event in this world, not just extremely rare events.

Marc Roby: I see your point, but it also seems reasonable to say that some events would manifest God’s action more cleary than others would, and the definition does speak of “an extraordinary event”, so we could assume that they had such events in mind.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and I’m not saying this is a terrible definition, but it implicitly implies that God very rarely, if ever, intervenes in his creation. Even as Christians our worldviews are affected by the culture around us and we need to be careful to take note of that effect and to consciously cast off the influence when it is contrary to the Bible. If we think that there any events over which God is not in control, then our thinking is, to that extent, unbiblical. Remember Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” [3]

John Frame does an excellent job discussing the subject of miracles in his book The Doctrine of God, and he mentions the “hermeneutical circle”[4].

Marc Roby: I don’t recall us talking about that when we discussed hermeneutics.

Dr. Spencer: Well, that’s because we didn’t use that terminology. But the idea is very simple. If we want to develop a proper understanding of something, in this case miracles, we first try to clearly state what we think is true and then we look through the Bible to see whether or not what we have said is consistent with the whole teaching of the Bible. If it isn’t, we revise our statement and then go back through the Bible again. By repeatedly applying this procedure, which is the hermeneutical circle, we should come closer and closer to a proper biblical understanding.

Marc Roby: That’s a reasonable approach. So, how does he apply that to defining a miracle?

Dr. Spencer: He first points out that biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have words that correspond directly to our English word miracle. And, further, there are passages that clearly speak about miracles without using any of the nouns used in the Bible to describe miracles. Therefore, a word study is not a very good way to look for a biblical definition.

As just one quick example, let’s examine a passage that you might think is a clear-cut example of Jesus speaking about miracles. In John 14:11 we read that Jesus told the people, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” But, in the Greek, what Jesus said could more literally be translated as it is in the English Standard Version (ESV), which says, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.”

Marc Roby: And the Greek word Jesus used there, which the ESV has translated as works, that Greek word is ἔργον (ergon), from which we get our word ergonomic, which is the science of making things so that people can work efficiently and safely. So Jesus may not even have been referring exclusively to miracles.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And the other Greek words translated in our NIV Bibles as miracle are words whose root meanings are power (δύναμις), sign (σημεῖον), or wonder (τέρας). Certainly, miracles in the Bible are used as signs to point to God’s power and to authenticate his prophets, his Messiah, and his apostles.

But, as I said, Frame argues that a word study isn’t a great place to start. Instead, he proposes a definition and then examines several popular modifications or improvements that might be suggested. His initial proposal for a biblical definition is that “miracles are unusual events caused by God’s power, so extraordinary that we would usually consider them impossible.”[5]

Marc Roby: That sounds reasonable. What modifications to this definition does he go on to consider?

Dr. Spencer: The first is the common idea that a miracle is, to quote the philosopher David Hume, “a violation of the laws of nature.” Frame first points out that there is a problem with using the word “violation” here. God created this universe and, as Creator, he has authority to do with it what he pleases. It is, therefore, impossible for him to violate the very laws that he himself established. If he created them, he certainly has authority to suspend, alter or do away with them as he pleases. But, even if you choose a different word, the idea that a miracle must somehow be an exception to natural law is a common idea.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is certainly one of the common ways you hear people speak about miracles, if they speak about them at all.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but Frame rejects this modification to the definition for four reasons. First, the Bible itself never indicates that this is what constitutes a miracle.

Marc Roby: That would seem to be sufficient reason to reject the idea all by itself.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should be. The second reason he gives for rejecting this modification to the definition is that there are no natural laws that operate independently of God. He writes that “The idea of a mechanism between God and creation that administers the universe in the absence of divine intervention is a deistic, rather than a biblical, model.”[6] When he says this, he is certainly not denying the existence of natural laws that we can discover and put to use in all sorts of ways. Science, as we have noted before, is enabled by the fact that God upholds the laws he has created, but the key idea here is that God upholds those laws. They are not independent of him.

Marc Roby: We spoke last time about the Bible’s clear teaching that God is in control of the rain.

Dr. Spencer: And Frame uses the same example, but there are obviously many more. Now his third reason for rejecting this idea is that no one knows all of the physical laws God has established perfectly and, therefore, no could identify for certain what is, or is not, a miracle.

Marc Roby: And if we couldn’t clearly identify an event as a miracle, that would prohibit it from being a useful sign, which the Bible itself tells us is one purpose of miracles as we saw a few moments ago from John 14:11.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, if we can’t identify when something is a miracle, it can’t function as a sign at all. In fact, I think this reason is again, by itself, a compelling reason to not add that restriction to the definition. Just suppose, for example, that we someday discover how to control gravity and we can make something akin to the hoverboard in the Back to the Future movies. Would that in any way negate the impact that Jesus’ walking on the water had on his disciples?

Marc Roby: I don’t think so.

Dr. Spencer: And neither do I. We can do things now that would almost certainly have been considered miraculous by virtually anyone at the time of Christ. Just consider jet airplanes, cell phones, and GPS systems as a few examples.

Marc Roby: It is impossible to imagine how someone of that time would have reacted, but I’m quite sure that you’re right in saying that most would have called them miraculous.

Dr. Spencer: The idea is fertile ground for science fiction novels and movies, but clearly something does not have to suspend the normal laws of our universe to be a useful sign. Now getting back to the topic at hand, Frame’s fourth reason for rejecting this addition is also compelling. It is that the Bible itself gives us examples of events that have clear “natural” explanations but are, nonetheless, miraculous in any meaningful sense of that term.

Marc Roby: Such as?

Dr. Spencer: Such as the parting of the Red Sea. In Exodus 14:21 we read, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.” There is no suspension of natural law in having a strong east wind, but it is certainly miraculous that it came exactly when Moses stretched out his hand.

Marc Roby: And it may very well have also required a suspension of the normal laws of physics for it to heap up the water on both sides of a path the way it did.

Dr. Spencer: That may be true, the strong east wind may not have been a sufficient cause. But there is at least some possibility that given a very specific geographic situation it was. So, I think Frame’s four reasons are more than adequate for rejecting this modification to the definition of a miracle, we should not in any way reference natural laws in our definition.

Marc Roby: What other possible modifications does Frame consider?

Dr. Spencer: He rejects the suggestion made by some that a miracle involves the immediate activity of God. And the word immediate here is not being used in the temporal sense, in other words it does not mean activity that occurs right away. Rather, it refers to activity that is not mediated by some secondary agent.

Marc Roby: That again is a very common idea about what constitutes a miracle.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but I think Frame’s reasons for rejecting it are sound. He points out that the Bible itself doesn’t distinguish between events in which God acts immediately or mediately. It is fairly obvious, as he notes, that the original creation out of nothing must have been an immediate act of God. After all, who or what could have mediated when nothing but God existed? He also posits, and I would certainly agree, that regeneration, or new birth, must be an immediate work of God. But what other events can we say that about with any degree of certainty?

Marc Roby: Well, I would say the virginal conception of Jesus, but I wouldn’t want to try and give an exhaustive list such events.

Dr. Spencer: Nor would I. Therefore, Frame points out two problems here. First, he writes, “If miracles are immediate acts of God, how could anybody ever identify an event as a miracle?”[7] And secondly, as we have been discussing for several weeks, God upholds all of creation, so in a sense, absolutely nothing occurs without his immediate action, at least in the sense of upholding the creation. As Paul said in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is, again, a compelling argument. Does Frame consider any other additions to the definition?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he considers one more. It is that a miracle must somehow be used to attest to the authenticity of a prophet of God.

Marc Roby: That idea is certainly present in Scripture. I think of the story about Jesus telling a paralytic that his sins were forgiven. Some of the people in the crowd starting thinking to themselves that Jesus was committing blasphemy because only God has authority to forgive sins, and then we read in Matthew 9:5-6 that Jesus said to them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’” So, Jesus himself used that miracle to attest to his authority.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, and Frame notes that this idea is biblical, but the problem is that not every miracle in the Bible has that purpose, so it shouldn’t be part of the definition of a miracle. Frame notes, for example, that the flood at the time of Noah was intended for judgment, not as a validation of Noah as a prophet.

Marc Roby: Very well, so what is Frame’s final conclusion?

Dr. Spencer: First recall that his preliminary definition was that “miracles are unusual events caused by God’s power, so extraordinary that we would usually consider them impossible.” And he rejected any of the additions that would normally be proposed. Therefore, there is a close link between miracles and providence, which is why we are considering miracles now. God rules as the sovereign Lord of the universe in both the miraculous and the ordinary. But Frame thinks, and I certainly agree, that it is still useful to distinguish between the two. Therefore, he slightly amends his preliminary definition to explicitly mention God’s relationship to creation as the covenant Lord and concludes by saying that “Miracles are extraordinary manifestations of God’s covenant lordship.”[8]

Marc Roby: That strikes me as a perfectly reasonable and biblical definition to work with.

Dr. Spencer: And I again agree. But Frame then addresses an issue that is controversial in the modern church. And that is the question of whether or not miracles occur today.

Marc Roby: There are many modern Christians who would say that miracles ended with the end of the apostolic age.

Dr. Spencer: Many do say that. And before we go any further, I want to be clear that this is not in any way an essential of the faith. Born-again believers can disagree on this issue. But, with that said, let’s very briefly consider the question.

And let me begin by saying that there are a couple of non-negotiable items. One of them is that the canon of Scripture is closed. Whatever we may believe concerning God’s revealing things to individual Christians, there is no new revelation on a par with Scripture. It alone is the ultimate authority for a Christian.

Marc Roby: And so, for example, the Roman Catholic idea that the traditions of the church are on the same level as Scripture is wrong.

Dr. Spencer: And so are the Mormons when they claim that God gave new revelation to Joseph Smith. The entire Old Testament pointed forward in a myriad of ways to the coming Messiah, who was promised to Adam and Eve in the garden immediately after the fall.[9] The New Testament tells us about the coming of this Messiah, what he taught personally and through his apostles, and it also tells us about the early history of the church. After that, God’s infallible revelation to man ended.

Marc Roby: And so, at a bare minimum, any guidance anyone thinks he receives from the Holy Spirit must be consistent with the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. We are told in 1 John 4:1 that we are to test the spirits.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. The Holy Spirit is the unchangeable God. If someone thinks that God has revealed something to him that contradicts God’s word given to us in the Bible, he is wrong.

The other non-negotiable item is that no one is given authority to perform miracles at will. There are many charlatans out there who will pretend that they can heal you of your diseases or provide some desired benefit on demand. But that is a lie.

Marc Roby: Alright, I agree with those two non-negotiable items. What then do you want to say about miracles occurring now?

Dr. Spencer: I think that God is clearly capable of doing miracles at any time, that there is no clear teaching in the Bible to indicate that he stopped performing miracles at the end of the apostolic age. There is also a lot of very credible evidence for God performing miracles of healing and so on in our day and age. For one thing, I would say that every time a person is born again, that is a miracle.

Marc Roby: And praise God for that miracle.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Without it, no one would be saved. But, in addition, God still provides for the needs of his church. And those needs did not end with the death of the last apostle. God calls us to approach his throne of grace with confidence. We are to pray for our needs and the needs of others. And prayer works. Including, sometimes, miraculous healing or miraculous provisions.

God is not a vending machine and we don’t have the power to cause him to do whatever we want, his answer to a prayer for healing may be “no”, as it was, for example, for the apostle Paul.[10] But God does still perform miracles for his people, although I agree with Frame that they are rare today. We are told that we shouldn’t look for them as confirmation of our faith because we have a sufficient basis for our faith without them. But they occur even today. We have a mighty God.

Marc Roby: I think that is a wonderful note to end on for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

[1] Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 275

[2] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Comp., 1979

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] Frame, op. cit., pg. 245

[5] Ibid, pp 245-246

[6] Ibid, pg. 250

[7] Ibid, pg. 253

[8] Ibid, pg. 258

[9] See Genesis 3:15

[10] See 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, we made the case in Session 88 that there are no chance events in this universe, God rules over every detail. And in our last Session, 89, we provided some of the Biblical data to support the case, showing that God controls every aspect of his physical creation and of human history. And we closed by noting that God’s providence is personal and moral, that it deals with specific individuals, and that it has a purpose. But all of this raises an obvious question, which we have dealt with before, but I think it bears looking at again in light of God’s providence. The question is this; if God controls every detail, what room is there for human freedom?

Dr. Spencer: Well, as you noted, we have dealt with this question before. In fact, we’ve discussed it twice; once in Session 65 when we examined God’s sovereignty, and once in Session 86 when we discussed God’s will. God’s sovereignty, will and providence are, of course, closely related topics since God brings about his sovereign will through his works of creation and providence.

Marc Roby: Which is again an illustration of God’s simplicity, that all of his attributes work together all of the time.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. In any event, the short answer to the question is that God can ordain every detail of human history without having to force us to do anything. In other words, he can control everything and still have us be really and truly free to make decisions for which we can be justly held accountable. The Bible does not tell us exactly how God does this, but as we noted in Session 65, unless we want to claim our own decisions are purely random, there is no logical contradiction.

Marc Roby: I remember that discussion, and as I said at the time, I certainly wouldn’t want to claim that my decisions are random, and I don’t think many others would either.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. We may not always make our decisions in the best way possible, in fact, to be honest I should probably say that we often don’t make decisions as carefully as we should. But, nevertheless, we do make decisions for reasons, and those reasons are based on our nature and all of the information available to us at the time, and all of our decisions are perfectly predictable by God since he knows us even better than we know ourselves.

Marc Roby: But, of course, predicting what we will do is not the same thing as controlling what we do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, there is obviously a radical conceptual difference between predicting what I will do and controlling what I do. But, in practice, this may be a distinction without a difference. Consider the following facts. First, God knows exactly what I will do in any and every possible situation. Second, although God will never tempt me to sin, he can place thoughts in my mind, he can cause me to remember certain things I have seen or heard or thought about before, and he can directly control any aspect of my circumstances if he chooses to. Given those two facts, it is pretty obvious that he can bring about exactly what he wants to have happen without ever forcing me to do anything against my will.

So, without going into the topic in depth, suffice it to say that there is no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, and they are both clear teachings of Scripture.

Marc Roby: The Westminster Confession of Faith says it well. We quoted this passage in Session 65, but it is well worth repeating. In Paragraph 1 of Chapter 3 the confession says that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful statement and, most importantly, it is completely biblical. But now let’s get back to specifically talking about God’s providence. Theologians have often divided God’s providence into three subtopics:[1] preservation, government and concurrence, which is sometimes called confluence,[2] concursus or cooperation.[3] Others have used only the two topics of preservation and government, in which case concurrence is considered under the topic of government.[4]

Marc Roby: We already covered concurrence, which refers to God’s will and our will both being operative in bringing about events, when we discussed God’s will in Session 86.

Dr. Spencer: And that is why in our present discussion I plan to break providence down into two topics, preservation and government. It is interesting to note that these two topics are those given in the answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

Marc Roby: That is a great short definition, well worth memorizing.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. So, let’s begin, by looking at God’s preservation in more detail. Wayne Grudem has a good definition of preservation, he writes that “God keeps all created things existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them.”[5]

Marc Roby: And when the apostle Paul was speaking about God to the Athenians at the Areopagus, we read in Acts 17:28 that he said, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” [6] Grudem’s definition completely agrees with this statement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. The reality is that God upholds all of creation all of the time. Job’s friend Elihu knew this. We read in Job 34:14-15 that he said about God, “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.” And we could add to Elihu’s statement that the dust itself would disappear if God didn’t uphold it.

Marc Roby: Yes, you’re correct in that addition, a more comprehensive statement is found in Hebrews 1:3, where we are told that Jesus Christ “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

Dr. Spencer: That is, perhaps, the best verse to make this point. But it isn’t the only verse. Another good one is Colossians 1:17, where the apostle said that Jesus Christ, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

The Bible clearly teaches that God upholds his creation. The whole of creation is completely dependent on him for its existence. He created it out of nothing, and if he ever ceased willing it to exist, it would disappear in an instant. But Grudem’s definition goes even further than saying that God preserves the universe, it says that “God keeps all created things existing” and here comes the additional part, “and maintaining the properties with which he created them.” In other words, things remain the same because God causes them to remain the same.

Marc Roby: And Grudem supports this contention, in part, by looking at the Greek for the verse I just read from Hebrews 1. Where our translation says that Christ is “sustaining all things by his powerful word” the Greek says, more literally, that he carries all things.

Dr. Spencer: And the Greek word used for carry in that verse is φέρω (pherō̄), which Grudem says, “has the sense of active, purposeful control over the thing being carried from one place to another.”[7] He also notes, as we have before, that the fact that God preserves all things provides the rational basis for science. We tend to take it for granted that the physical laws of our universe and the properties of materials stay the same from day to day, but why should they? We believe there is randomness in the quantum realm, why should there not also be randomness in the very laws that govern our universe?

Marc Roby: I don’t think anyone can give a reason why things should remain the same if they don’t believe in God. The best they can do is to simply argue that we believe they will remain the same in the future because they have in the past.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is the best anyone can say. And, of course, we can’t entirely dismiss that reasoning, it is proper as far as it goes. But there is a deeper reason why things remain the same. The verses we’ve quoted, along with others, show that God sustains things. He is carrying all things along to a specific end. We should never forget the point we made at the end of our previous session, that God’s providence is purposeful. He has a purpose for creation and he is guiding all things toward the fulfillment of that purpose.

Marc Roby: We see that in 2 Peter 3:5-7, where the apostle wrote about the great power of God’s word and about the flood in Noah’s time being a foreshadowing of God’s final judgment. Peter wrote that people “deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very clear teaching about the power of God and the fact that he has a plan for creation. We recently buried a woman in our church and, as always, the death of someone we know is a reminder to all of us that life is short. But death is not the end of life, it is just the end of life on this earth in this body. As our pastor likes to say, the important question is not whether she died, we will all die sooner or later. The important question is, where did she go?

Marc Roby: That is a sobering thought. God’s providence has an end in view. And we have clear biblical support for the idea that God’s providence includes his preserving, or sustaining, his creation.

Dr. Spencer: We certainly do. The theologian Charles Hodge went further and examined the nature of God’s preservation. He pointed out that there have historically been three general views held about this topic. The first view he presents is basically the view of most deists. He describes this view as believing that God “created all things and determined that they should continue in being according to the laws which He impressed upon them at the beginning. There is no need, it is said, of supposing his continued intervention for their preservation. It is enough that He does not will that they should cease to be.”[8]

Marc Roby: In other words, this view thinks of the world as a wind-up toy. God created it and set things in motion, but then backs up and watches without intervening in any way.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. The first objection that Hodge raises to this view is that it is opposed to the clear teaching of Bible. We’ve just read several verses that are simply incompatible with this idea.

Marc Roby: And that argument alone should be sufficient for any Christian.

Dr. Spencer: It should be, yes. But he also points out that this view, as he puts it, “does violence to the instinctive religious convictions of all men.”[9]

Marc Roby: In other words, people often speak and act in ways that make it clear that they don’t believe the universe is a big wind-up toy. Which is a point we made last time in discussing the sorts of things people say when a loved-one dies.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. The other views Hodge mentions are all types of what he calls continued creation. These views are certainly less common, especially today, and come in different forms, so I’m not going to examine them all or in any detail. Probably the most important one of them says that since God cannot be described by a succession of acts, therefore you can’t separate creation from providence. Another form of this view denies the reality of secondary agents altogether and says that God directly causes everything.

Marc Roby: Now that is a completely unbiblical view, and also not very appealing to logic and experience. It makes God the creator of evil and all of us just puppets.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, Hodge points out that it is indistinguishable from pantheism, it essentially makes God out to be the universe.[10]

Marc Roby: Which is certainly not a view to be taken seriously by anyone who has a meaningful conception of God, let alone by a Christian.

Dr. Spencer: No, we shouldn’t take it seriously at all. If it were true, which it obviously isn’t, we wouldn’t be able to seriously consider it in any meaningful sense since we wouldn’t really exist as independent sentient beings.

Marc Roby: Good point, the view is incompatible with true volitional creatures.

Dr. Spencer: That is why I will only consider the one form of continuous creation, which denies you can think about a succession of acts in God. This view allows for real secondary agents and attempts to deal with the fact that God is not subject to time in the same way we are. But it goes too far based on speculation and denies the clear teaching of the Bible. We can’t understand how God views time, but it is clear that independent of the fact he is, in some sense, outside of both space and time, he nevertheless acts in his creation in space and time.

Hodge correctly says that “It is the height of presumption in man, on the mere ground of our speculative ideas, to depart from the plain representations of Scriptures”.[11]

Marc Roby: It is, admittedly, difficult to understand God’s relation to time as we experience it.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but there is a good analogy presented by Wayne Grudem, which may help to understand this point.

Marc Roby: What analogy is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is the analogy of a human author writing a story. Grudem uses this to help understand the idea of concurrence, the fact that the free-will actions of secondary agents can work together with God’s will to produce his desired outcome.[12] The idea is simple. If you are writing a fictional story, you know all that is going to happen to your characters in the future and you weave the story together to produce the end that you have chosen. But, if you are a good author, you also make sure that your characters do and say things that are appropriate and fitting for their given natures and knowledge of events at any given moment of time. In other words, you, as the author, experience time – in the sense of the story – completely differently than your characters do.

Marc Roby: That is a useful analogy, although very limited given the fact that God has created real people, not just characters in a story.

Dr. Spencer: Obviously God is infinitely greater than we are, but the analogy is useful nonetheless. And with that, we have said all I want to say for now about preservation, and we are ready to move on to discuss God’s government.

Marc Roby: And that makes this a perfect place to end for today, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] E.g., Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 315

[2] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, P&R Publishing Co., 2006, Vol. 1, pg. 152

[3] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 275

[4] E.g., Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, pp 575-616

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 316

[6] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[7] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 316

[8] Hodge, op. cit., Vol. 1, pg. 576

[9] Ibid, pg. 577

[10] Ibid, pg. 580

[11] Ibid, pp 578-579

[12] Grudem, pp 321-322

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we gave a number of examples for how to properly use the context of a verse, including its historical context. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: We could go on giving many more examples about the use of context, but I want to keep moving forward. So, I’d like to take a look at a few key ideas that we need to keep in mind as we study the Bible.

Marc Roby: What ideas are these?

Dr. Spencer: The first one is that Jesus Christ is the focal point of the entire Bible. The Old Testament looks forward to Jesus Christ and the New Testament tells us about his birth, life, death, resurrection and then also tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead as we are told in Acts 10:42, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 2 Timothy 4:1. At that time the world as we know it will be destroyed and God will create a new heavens and a new earth. From that time on everyone will either live eternally in heaven or in hell.

Also, Jesus himself told us that the Old Testament testified about him. After his resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and we are told in Luke 24:44 that “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’”[1]

Marc Roby: And by listing Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, Jesus was referring to the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible, which is our Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. In other words, he was saying that the entire Old Testament speaks about him. In addition, the New Testament is entirely about Jesus Christ and his church. So, whenever we read the Bible, any part of the Bible, we need to ask ourselves, “What is this saying about Jesus Christ?”

Marc Roby: In other words, there is a Christological focus to the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In their excellent book A Puritan Theology, Doctrine for Life, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones demonstrate that the Puritans considered a Christological focus to be a major principle of biblical interpretation. They quote the famous Puritan John Owen, who wrote that “the revelation and doctrine of the person of Christ and his office, is the foundation whereon all other instructions of the prophets and apostles for the edification of the church are built”.[2] We must keep this Christological focus in mind as we read the Bible or we will not get a complete understanding of what God is teaching us in each section.

Marc Roby: How, in a practical sense, does our being aware of this Christological focus affect our Bible study?

Dr. Spencer: It affects our Bible study very deeply. When we say that the entire Old Testament points forward to Christ what we mean is that God controlled every event of human history during that time to reveal exactly what he wanted people to know. Not only is Jesus Christ the focus of the Bible, he is also the focus of all history. History is linear and God has a purpose in creation. The Bible is telling us real history, but that history is not a sequence of random events controlled by the whims of men. It isn’t that God let things run on their own and then sent a prophet to speak once in a while. No, everything unfolded according to God’s eternal plan, he providentially rules all of history.

Marc Roby: That probably sounds a bit fatalistic to some of our listeners. Do you mean that God determines every detail, or just the general scope or grand plan of history?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that God has sovereign control over every detail. But, if you think about it for a minute, how could he possibly control the grand scheme if he didn’t have control over every detail? Remember the old proverb that for the want of a nail the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; for the want of a horse the battle was lost; and for the loss of the battle the war was lost? The reality is that if God is not able to control every detail, he could never guarantee anything with absolute certainty.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that some of our listeners might be objecting at this point. After all, we live in a world with physical laws and people at least appear to have some kind of free will – an ability to make real decisions. How on earth then can God control everything without doing away with free will and physical laws?

Dr. Spencer: We would be getting too far off topic to discuss that at length right now but let me make two quick comments. First, with regard to the inanimate creation, God does use the fixed laws that he put in place most of the time, but he is free to overrule them at any time. I don’t think he does that very often at all, but he can. He also has the ability to perfectly predict exactly how everything is guided by those laws.

Marc Roby: Alright, you said you wanted to make two comments, what is the other one?

Dr. Spencer: The second one deals with living things, most specifically with human beings. Suffice it to say for now that there is no logical contradiction in saying that I make real decisions for which I can be justly held accountable and that, at the same time, God has foreordained exactly what will happen. God understands me perfectly and knows exactly what I will do in each and every situation, so he doesn’t need to force me to do anything.

Let me use a very unflattering analogy, but one that I think at least illustrates that there is no logical contradiction between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I used to have a dog that loved to chase a tennis ball. If I grabbed a tennis ball I could lead that dog all over the place without ever having to lay a hand on him. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do at that moment, and yet I was getting him to do exactly what I wanted him to do. There is no contradiction in saying that my dog was doing exactly what he wanted to do and that I was controlling the situation. You don’t want to take this analogy very far at all of course, we are not puppets, and God never leads us into sin, although he does allow us to be tempted, but it at least shows that there is no necessary logical contradiction.

Suffice it to say that God is infinitely more knowledgeable, wise, and capable than we are, and he is able to ordain exactly what will happen without, in general, overriding the free will of any creature, although he has the right and ability to do that when he chooses.

Marc Roby: That example is unflattering – I happen to remember that dog you refer to! But, I think it does give at least a hint of an answer, and I can see that pursuing that subject right now would get us way off track.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely would. But I would like to quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith because it contains a brilliant, yet succinct statement that deals with this topic. In Chapter III, on God’s eternal decree, Paragraph 1 the confession says that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Marc Roby: That is a great statement, although it certainly includes some very deep topics for further discussion.

Dr. Spencer: Further discussion at a different time. For now, I want to get back to hermeneutics.

Marc Roby: Very well, you were discussing how our being aware of the Christological focus of the Bible affects our study.

Dr. Spencer: And I made the point that God is completely in control of all history, so the events described in the Old Testament all fit into his eternal plan. He knew that he was going to send Jesus Christ into the world, to be born in the small Jewish town of Bethlehem to a virgin who was pledged to be married to a carpenter named Joseph. He knew everything about the life, death and resurrection of Christ and how he was going to use that to redeem a people for himself.

And in addition to revealing progressively more and more over time about this coming Messiah, he deliberately brought about certain events in the history of his people to serve as illustrations and precursors pointing to these later events.

Marc Roby: And we are told about many of these in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. For example, we are told in the book of Hebrews that the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was pointing forward to Jesus Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for sins. In Hebrews 10 the writer speaks about the Old Testament ceremonial law and says it was only a shadow of the true sacrifice, which is Christ. He points out that the sacrifices were repeated over and over again precisely because they were not effective; they did not truly cleanse people from their sins. He writes in Verse 4 that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” And then, in Verse 10 he writes that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: The writer of Hebrews also tells us that Jesus is our permanent high priest.

Dr. Spencer: Yes. In the Old Testament times, the high priest was the religious leader of the Jewish people. He was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses and he would go into the holy of holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, to make atonement for the people. In Hebrews 7:23-26 we are told that “there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”

Marc Roby: And, unlike the high priests in the Old Testament, Jesus is also the sacrifice of atonement.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In John 1:29 we are told that “John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” He was referring to the fact that the lamb was the most common sacrificial animal in the Jewish sacrificial system. In particular, it was a lamb that was to be sacrificed the night before God destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt. The blood from this lamb was then to be sprinkled on the door frames of the Jewish homes and God would pass over those homes when he destroyed all of the firstborn in the land. This is the origin of the Jewish Passover celebration.

We are told in a number of places in the New Testament that Jesus is the final sacrifice of atonement. For example, in Romans 3:25 we are told that “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” Then, in Hebrews 10 we this final efficacious sacrifice of Jesus Christ contrasted with the continual sacrifices of the Old Testament. In Verses 11-12, 14 we read, “Day after day every priest [this is talking about the Old Testament priests] stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [which is speaking about Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. … because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

Marc Roby: That is a glorious promise for those who have placed their trust in Christ. And it is very clear how much the Old Testament presents us with a pattern for things that are revealed in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they do. The word we use to describe this typology. The Old Testament events, objects and people who in some way point to New Testament realities are called types, and the realities that they point to are called the antitypes. So, for example, the Old Testament lamb is a type of Christ in his role as our sacrifice, and the Old Testament high priest is a type of Christ in his role as our permanent high priest.

We must be careful here however. Typology must be distinguished from allegorizing.  Allegorizing can be dangerous as we have noted before and can lead people into all sorts of fanciful interpretations.

Marc Roby: What would you say is the key difference?

Dr. Spencer: The key difference is that in typology we are not adding anything to the meaning of the text.[3] Mickelsen, in his book Interpreting the Bible, does a good job of explaining what typology is. He writes that “In typology the interpreter finds a correspondence in one or more respects between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament and a person, event, or thing closer to or contemporaneous with a New Testament writer. It is this correspondence that determines the meaning in the Old Testament narrative that is stressed by a later speaker or writer. The correspondence is present because God controls history, and this control of God over history is axiomatic with the New Testament writers. It is God who causes earlier individuals, groups, experiences, institutions, etc., to embody characteristics which later he will cause to reappear.”[4]

Mickelsen also goes on to contrast typology with allegorizing. He then quotes K.J. Woolcombe, writing that “Typology as a method of exegesis is ‘the search for linkages between events, persons or things within the historical framework of revelation, whereas allegorism is the search for secondary and hidden meaning underlying the primary and obvious meanings of a narrative.”

Marc Roby: So, the basic difference is between noticing certain similarities that are there as opposed to reading a bunch of hidden meaning into a passage.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And you can’t miss most of the clear typology in the Bible. The Jewish people were in slavery to the Egyptians for example, and were led out of that bondage, through Passover and the Exodus, into the Promised Land.  And Christians are led out of their bondage to sin, through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, into new life in Christ. The Israelites in the Promised Land still had to contend with enemies who were there and had to trust in God’s promises to deliver them. And Christians still have to deal with indwelling sin and enemies in this world, trusting in God’s promises that we will ultimately be victorious. There is much more than we have covered, but I think that gives the basic idea. And this kind of typology is often used in recognizing the many ways in which the Old Testament speaks of Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: But there are also many direct prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly are, and we went over a few of them in Session 20 when we were discussing external evidence that corroborates the Bible.

Marc Roby: Have we finished with what you want to say about the Bible’s Christological focus and typology?

Dr. Spencer: We have for now.

Marc Roby: Alright, you mentioned at the beginning that you wanted to look at a few key ideas, so what is the next one?

Dr. Spencer: The next idea is that of covenants. The Bible talks a great deal about covenants and by looking for them and thinking carefully about them we can significantly enhance our understanding of God’s word.

Marc Roby: And a covenant is simply an agreement between two parties.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but it is not necessarily an agreement between equals and it isn’t necessarily voluntary on both sides either. The Bible talks about a number of covenants; for example, God made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth by a flood, and the rainbow is the sign God gave us to remind us of that covenant. He also made a covenant with Abraham to make him the father of many nations. And he made a covenant with the people on Mt. Sinai, with Moses as their representative. There are others, but there are two major covenants that I want to discuss, usually called the Covenant of works and the Covenant of grace.

Marc Roby: I think we had better hold off discussing those until next time, because we are out of time for today. I’d like to encourage our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 31

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 252

[4] Ibid, pg. 237

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