The Sovereignty of God: Calvinism and Predestination

I don’t normally discuss in open public format my particular theological views that may perhaps insight strong disagreements for numerous reasons. For some, division to the point of costing unity may occur. It shouldn’t, but it does. In many cases, people would rather not talk about this at all, and rest on the motif “God is sovereign, we agree on that” and leave it there. I don’t think we can really do that. I do believe this is a gospel issue–not in the sense that it means that those who do not agree with me are not saved, but in the sense that if we don’t understand how God rules (to the capacity that our puny brains can) and what the nature of man is, then that will in fact govern how we do evangelism and how we do church. This subject touches on every aspect of our thinking and action.

Many people in modern, conservative evangelical and even in some forms of liberal evangelicalism love to talk about how God is sovereign, God is in control. I know many people who firmly hold to that conviction, and love verses like Romans 8:28, where Paul says that God works all things to the good of those who love Him. That is of course a great passage to cite when you want to comfort someone in times of sorrow. A favorite Christian cliche that I think even Joel Osteen would admit is, “God has a wonderful plan for your life”.

The simple fact is that the Scriptures show us a God who is absolute power, and so that is the God we want to portray. It is a good thing to want people to believe that God is “in control” of everything. Ask any evangelical Christian of conservative leanings if God can be stopped by any power outside Himself from doing what He wishes and I am confident the majority of them will easily say ‘no’ to that question.

But how many of them are going to take that saying to the necessary conclusion? I think if you begin to press deeper and deeper, people may still agree that nothing outside God can stop Him from controlling His purposes, but then they’ll begin to question just what exactly God is in control of. These views have consequences, and we must be willing to address them if we want a more biblical understanding of who God is, and who we are in that light. In this article, I am going to explain what predestination from a biblical standpoint means. I am a Calvinist who has studied this subject soberly ever since I became a Christian just under ten years ago. I’ve watched debates, read books and listened to lectures on the subject and have come to this conclusion after these studies. Looking back in hindsight, I did accept Calvinism long before I really began to understand it, but it took several years for me to truly grasp what it was actually saying. Even today, I am still in a process of learning.

But with that, it is my desire to explain what exactly it is Calvinism is saying regarding predestination and why I believe it is the biblical, consistent view for all of evangelical Christianity to hold to. I don’t write this because I want to drive a wedge between like-minded Christians. My own church does not accept the teachings of Calvin, and I imagine many of my congregates will read this. I hope that they do, and if they don’t agree with me, they will not find me attacking their positions. None of this is meant to negatively critique non-Calvinist perspectives, but rather to provide clarity on what Calvinism is saying and not saying. This is meant to edify and to help explain what it is Calvinism is truly saying.

God’s Sovereignty in Scripture

I think it is best to start where all Christians agree. We all believe that God is sovereign. That is, He is in control, that He is not taken by surprise, and that He is able to save to the uttermost. Therefore, we begin with showing how the Bible teaches this. The Scriptures are our epistemological starting point. We must begin with them to understand God, not on our own ability to make sense of things. Scripture teaches us that God is triune in His nature–one being in three persons; three persons in one being. It makes no attempt to explain to us how that works logically. In the same way, God’s sovereignty over all of time and space is not explained to us. We are called to believe it, and to start with this, not reason to it. That’s absolutely key in this subject.

[Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.] -Psalm 33:8-9 (ESV).

Here the psalmist, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declares that it is by God’s command that all the inhabitants have existence, and hence, continue to exist. This includes human beings. For this reason, the psalmist can say what he says next.

[The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.] -Psalm 33:10-11 (ESV).

All humanity derives its power and existence from God. Therefore they cannot do anything without God, in some sense, giving them the power to do it. We see here a form of determinism, wherein external factors provide the necessary grounds for certain entities to act. However, the external factor here is an omnipotent being, who is personal. Therefore upon the epistemological starting position of a triune, personal God, His deterministic attributes include personal, plural existences that are very real. This is why God can create real creatures that make real choices, that exist in a plurality of existence, all while being in a unity of existence, under God’s sovereign rule.

Hence God can decree in such a way that human activity, human consciousness is not cancelled out. You see how Yahweh “frustrates” the plans of the people. He cannot frustrate things that are robots who are not capable of rational reaction to God’s activity. The humanity is not sacrificed to God’s sovereignty. In fact, it is established on the basis of God’s sovereignty. An infinite, triune and personal God is able to make such a universe.

[all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”] -Daniel 4:35 (ESV).

Here we see Nebuchadnezzar declare by divine revelation God’s power over all time and space. See how the reality of humanity is not cancelled out by God’s ontologically superior existence, over and above man. Instead rather, Nebuchadnezzar defines man’s will and existence in light of the sovereign God. We will see more of this pattern throughout Scripture. But quickly here, man’s power is derivative from God Himself. That is, without God first acting, man is not able even to exist, let alone act.

[this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.] -Acts 2:23 (ESV).

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost to the Jewish people acknowledges that Jesus’s crucifixion was always part of God’s ultimate plan, and as Christians, we must affirm this. Otherwise God’s redemptive plan was only a possibility, so long as humankind went along with the plan. And if it must be this way in that God has to try and manipulate “free will” mankind, then God becomes a shadow conspirator, manipulating and hence distorting, in other words, sinning to bring about this plan. We will discuss the nature of this issue later, but for now, the context.

Nevertheless, Peter does not exclude responsibility upon the Jews for their killing of Messiah Jesus. They are still guilty of murder, despite the admission that their action was always part of God’s plan. The conclusion? That God can and does use sin for His own purposes, which are altogether good (Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28).

[for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.] -Acts 4:27-28 (ESV).

The believers here again show that they believe that God is in complete control of time and space, going so far as to say that God had predestined the events surrounding the crucifixion, and if God is going to predestine the crucifixion, that means God must be in control of everything that led up to the crucifixion. It had been God’s purpose all along to demonstrate the glory in the cross (Ephesians 1).

And yet, as before, the human element and responsibility is not cancelled out due to God’s predestinating act. In fact, it is God’s predestination that establishes the human activity.

Understanding God’s Sovereignty

These are but a few selected passages that demonstrate God’s absolute sovereignty and control over all time and space, and how God’s sovereignty does not diminish nor exclude human responsibility. But now the question is, how can we possibly make sense of this fact? How is it possible that God can be the primary means by which we make decisions, and yet those decisions are our own?

John Calvin’s name is often the one by which this doctrine is attributed (what we call Calvinism today), and his critics accuse Calvin of going beyond the Scriptures, into philosophical nonsense, deceiving many into a doctrine of devilry, and that consequentially his own followers delved into philosophical, Gnostic mysticism to develop this idea. How many of them have actually read Calvin on the subject of predestination, however? What did he really have to say in regard to the subject? I think that since he is the name by which this idea is originated to the most, it’s fitting to begin our attempt to explain election and predestination by his own words:

“But before I enter on the subject, I have some remarks to address to two classes of men. The subject of predestination, which in itself is attended with considerable difficulty, is rendered very perplexed, and hence perilous by human curiosity, which cannot be restrained from wandering into forbidden paths, and climbing to the clouds, determined if it can that none of the secret things of God shall remain unexplored. When we see many, some of them in other respects not bad men, everywhere rushing into this audacity and wickedness, it is necessary to remind them of the course of duty in this matter. First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let them remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter an inextricable labyrinth. For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within Himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which is His pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also His perfections may appear. Those secrets of His will, which He has seen it meet to manifest, are revealed in His word–revealed insofar as He knew to be conductive to our interest and welfare.” -Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Third; Chapter 21, Section 1.

Calvin then makes a conclusion on this disclaimer:

“Let it, therefore, be our first principle that to desire any other knowledge of predestination than that which is expounded by the word of God, is no less infatuated than to walk where there is no path, or to seek light in darkness.” -Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Third; Chapter 21, Section 2.

In other words, Calvin very plainly admits, before he attempts to tackle this subject, that he himself doesn’t understand how predestination works. It is mysterious to him. Calvin never claimed to have some special knowledge (Gnosticism) on this subject. This is important to note because many anti-Calvinist rhetoric argues against Calvinism under the idea that as we claim God has an electing purpose and predestination, we also know that. None of us have ever, ever made that claim. What’s being asserted here plainly is that God has a sovereign decree. We don’t know that decree, only that it exists.

[“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.] -Deuteronomy 29:29 (ESV)

Not all things are given to us. As Calvin says, God has given to us what He sees fit to give to us, for our good and benefit. He has not told us how His decree works, just like He has not told us how His triune nature works. He’s given absolutely no such explanation, nor attempted explanation in Scripture. We are not called to explain it logically through our human reasoning capacity.

There are a lot of bad understandings of the Trinity out there right now, and most of them arise out of the fact that people try to explain it in a way that is comfortable to their human knowledge. In the same way, there are a lot of bad attempts to explain God’s sovereignty in Scripture in a way that makes it comfortable for human capacities. This is what makes a mess out of the Bible. We are not called to understand how this works. We are called to be faithful to what God has revealed to us, and that is quite simply all Calvinism is trying to say.

God has a divine, decretive purpose, and the knowledge of that is supposed to bring us comfort in all the trials we face. It is not for us to try and philosophize away, and my contention is that it is most often my non-Calvinist friends who tend to drift off into non-biblical understandings of God’s foreknowledge (molinism for example) that causes problems, not Calvinism. Read God’s word, be faithful to what is plainly being taught to you on the text, and do not fear that God is in control. That God is in control of your life ought to bring you immeasurable comfort, not despair, and when we are troubled at this reality, I am very troubled. Are we saying God cannot be trusted with our destiny? I want God to be glorified in all things, including my destiny, whatever that means.

Compatibilism

But while we admit very plainly that we cannot truly wrap our minds around this difficult subject, does that mean there is no way in which we can use human reasoning to make some sense out of it? To make some kind of category distinctions? Not at all. After all, in the Trinity, while we cannot understand exactly the nature of God, nevertheless, we formulate categories and logical reasoning to explain, as best as our human understanding can grasp, what the truth is.

We are not attempting to provide a thorough explanation as to what it is. If we could, then analogies regarding God’s triune nature would work. They do not, because His nature transcends in every aspect these simple explanations. No single concept can grasp it, but it can help us to understand it. Another way to look at this is to think of doctrine and category development as guidelines, or guardrails. They aren’t there necessarily to teach you how to walk, but they keep you from falling out of bounds. The formula of one being and three persons is a basic formula to help us not fall out of orthodoxy and into heresy.

That’s what doctrine is. It’s not so much teaching us what it is, but rather what it isn’t. In this light, we can develop language that helps us to understand better what we cannot fully understand. Recognize here that what we are doing is humbly admitting that we are not able to comprehend this truth, but being faithful to its reality, we subject our human thinking to it, not it to our human thinking.

It is out of this that Calvinism attempts to develop doctrine and one such is called Compatibilism. What compatibilism is telling us is quite frankly what I was showing repeatedly above, that God’s will is over and above the human will, and it is because of this order in ontology that man’s will exists at all. If you start with the triune, personal and infinitely powerful God, this is very easy to grasp. But if you start with the limitations of human capacities, then either God’s sovereignty cancels out human will, or human will cancels out God’s sovereignty.

Epistemology and ontology are key here. Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, how we know what we know to be true. What is the starting point that enables us to understand all of reality? Ontology is the study of the nature of being. It’s almost an ecclesiastical idea, except the ecclesiology is not directed at titles, but rather the being itself. Ontologically, I am superior to my dog as a human being–by the nature of my very existence. God is the epoch of all ontology, Himself being the standard and absolute existence.

If the ontologically superior, triune God is your epistemological starting point, then you have the necessary grounds by which to have absolute, predestinating, determined, decretive sovereignty that is able to have meaningful, real, conscious creatures within it. You have, as it were, a unity for the plurality (the one and the many), just as the triune God Himself is one and many.

In his book, The One and the Many, R.J. Rushdoony explains this dilemma in predestination from a trinitarian perspective:

“The tendency of Mohammedan thought, when not arrested by statist action, to run into mysticism is an obvious and natural one. Since the one alone has ultimate reality, the proper goal of the many is absorption into that one. There is no Reformed or Augustinian distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. Indeed, if two ingredients are lacking in a system of thought, i.e., the ontological trinity and a distinction is bluffed, in that both proximate and ultimate causes, if the difference is made, are alike derived from a common well of being and are basically one.” (Page 12).

Rushdoony is demonstrating the failure of Unitarianism in Islam to explain the plurality of existence by the Islamic god. Since the Islamic god has no plurality in his being, plurality in the universe doesn’t have any real meaning, and hence Islam defaults to statism, and to hard determinism. Rushdoony continues,

“For Calvin, responsible proximate causes rested precisely on the total, all-comprehensive ultimate cause; that is, the Christian doctrine of free will rests on the eternal counsel of God, on predestination.” (Page 12)

In conclusion, if the ultimate being is Unitarian, having no plurality by which he or it can bring forth existence, then plurality simply is not a valid equation in whatever the ultimate being created. However, if the ultimate being does have plurality in its one being, then the plurality finds its wholeness, it’s origin within that one being, yet not without the plurality having true existence and true meaning.

Primary and Secondary Means

To this, we move on to explain, as best as human knowledge allows, how this works. Remember, that all that I explain is meant to help us develop categories to prevent us from going too far (such as preventing us from accusing God of sin). As much as it seems like we are drifting into philosophy, which we are in a sense, nevertheless, our philosophy is derived from biblical parameters; our categories are derived from biblical parameters. If God is predestinating all actions, then He must be doing it in such a way that does not disqualify human will (and its freedom insofar as Scripture grants it), as well as in a way that He is not the author of sin that humans commit, which they commit by their own, yet under God’s sovereign authority.

Hence we focus on the two words I underlined in quoting Rushdoony’s book, proximate and ultimate causes. The ultimate cause (primary) would be God, since it is by Him and through Him we have our being (Acts 17:25-28), and hence all action and all things that exist must first pass through His mind in some fashion before they ever come to exist. Then there are proximate causes (secondary) which are committed by the creation itself as a result of the primary cause.

It is in this way, through these definitions that we can best make sense of God’s interaction with His world. How is it that God is able to predestine, yet in such a way that He is not the author of sin?

[As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.] -Genesis 50:20 (ESV)

Here we have Joseph forgiving his brothers for the evil they did to him, and the evil their sin had brought upon Joseph all his life. Joseph acknowledges and fully believes that God was in control of all of it, right down to the very evil plot of the brothers. You see one action (selling Joseph into slavery) and yet two parties, two motives for the action. You have the brothers’ motive, and God’s motive, but yet God’s motive for the sin was over, above and greater than the brothers’.

[If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.] -1 Samuel 2:25 (ESV).

Eli calls his wicked sons to repentance. Yet they refuse to repent and listen to their father. And then we see that the reason they did not repent was because God had a purpose, God had desired this. Nevertheless, the refusal to repent is sin imputed to the sons; they do not escape responsibility. God’s will gives rise to man’s.

In each case here, we see a relationship between God’s will and man’s, that they are distinguished from one another, but yet have an inseparable relationship. More than this, however, it is God’s will that gives rise to man’s. It is God’s ontological nature that allows God to be the primary cause and use secondary causation and means to accomplish His ultimate desire. This is how we come to these conclusions, and how we make sense of the biblical data. As I said, there are more areas of Scripture we could go to, but I wanted to go to the ones I am most familiar with and I think best help flesh these things out.

Conclusion

I hope here that I have provided a meaningful argument on what Calvinism is talking about, and where we get the doctrine of predestination, and of compatibilism. We are not making this stuff up. We are not attempting to deceive people. Much criticisms of Calvinism that I discover attempt to critique Calvinism without going to the biblical texts that we use to make our arguments, as if we don’t derive any of our beliefs from Scripture itself. What I have shown here is that we do, in fact, derive our beliefs from Scripture.

Perhaps my interpretations are incorrect. If they are, then the non-Calvinist has to show that, not simply ignore our argumentation. Nor is it proper to tell others that we believe God makes people robots, and makes people sin. That’s slander, and it is not what we are saying. We believe that God is in control of all human activity, but not in the way that humans understand it. We believe it in such a way as God is ontologically capable of doing, not us. As I said in the opening, we all believe God is sovereign. We understand that sovereignty differently, and for me, I do not see how you can have a God who is sovereign who is yet not therefore the primary cause of all things. I don’t believe He is the direct cause of sin, but sin ultimately is allowed to exist and is used by God for His purposes.

I hope that this will help clear away any confusion on this subject. The best we can hope for is clarity. In this way, may we have real discussions on this issue, all to the glory of God.

Is Premillennialism Consistent With Calvinism?

A Review of Dr. John MacArthur’s “Why Every Calvinist Should be a Premillennialist” Sermon

A Preface First: One of the reasons I am doing this review of Dr. MacArthur’s sermon Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist is due to a good friend and sister in Christ who wished to challenge me on the subject of eschatology. We had met a short time ago, and she had questions about Calvinism (which I was happy to answer). Since such questions and a friendly conversation, she finds the Doctrines of Grace as glorious as they should be.

But while she was quick to accept the doctrines of grace once properly explained, she made it clear that eschatology was something she was not going to give up so easily. We have exchanged some dialogue (very friendly dialogue) over our differences on the subject, but have never truly gone into detail on it. I have been aware of this sermon for quite some time, as well as having been aware that Dr. MacArthur is a Calvinistic Dispensationalist/Premillennialist. But I had made up my mind on the subject a long time ago, and did not feel the need to look any further into it.

However, I had given my friend a fair number of things to look into regarding other subjects she was earnestly desiring to know more about. Therefore, the very least I could do would be to acquiesce to her request that I listen to something on her behalf that I did not fully believe in. That is what I have done. Additionally I told her that I would either make a video commentary on the sermon, or I would write an article of it. As you can probably tell by now, I have elected to write my review of it.

The other reason I wanted to do this was to show that you can have a genuine disagreement with fellow Christians regarding eschatology while remaining in fellowship. Only particular forms of eschatology (such as radical forms of preterism or radical forms of futurism) should be met with high skepticism. Otherwise, we should all be able to discuss this subject with great delight, admiration and beneficial means towards one another. There is far too much dissent on this matter, far more than is called for. In regards to the nature of Christ, there should be very, very little room for disagreement, and yet we are unwilling to discuss that important subject for the sake of “division”. At the same time, eschatology should be a subject we can have liberal understandings about (provided we end with Christ returning one day) and yet we are willing to fight tooth and nail with one another over the minutest points. This should not be.

So it is my desire to demonstrate that I can have important disagreements all while not having any personal qualms with my fellow believers. On numerous occasions I have been accused of cherry-picking, been called a full preterist, and slandered in other areas that are uncalled for. It’s one thing to say that I am missing the point, but it’s another to accuse me of cherry-picking. When you do that, you are actually accusing me of intentionally deceiving people, and that is a serious accusation. It is not, nor has it been my intention to deceive anyone (what do I gain with you agreeing to my eschatological view?). Let’s not slander, my friends. We should be able to discuss this subject with such open arms and grace towards one another. Not everyone sees eschatology the same way you do, that is the simple fact of the matter. And if you cannot discuss this subject without becoming zealously and personally invested in it, you need to step away. That’s a sign of dogmatism, and unhealthy forms of fundamentalism that threatens fellowship. Iron should sharpen iron, not chip and destroy.

Introduction

I feel utterly unfit and unqualified to attempt to critique Dr. MacArthur’s sermon, given his lifelong reputation I could never, ever match. I once walked into a Christian book store and found a huge book from MacArthur purely for the purpose of studying words and particular subjects found in Scripture. You find a key subject in the book, like imputation of righteousness, or the deity of Christ, much like you find words in a dictionary, and underneath the word was a plethora of biblical citations. It was a massive volume that overwhelmed me. Granted, Dr. MacArthur probably didn’t do that literally by himself, but nevertheless, that feat alone was truly impressive.

The point here is that this is not some young hotshot hoping to earn his day by knocking off a giant of the modern Christian faith. I have been raised to respect my elders, and never to talk back to your parents, even if they are in the wrong. Even with my own pastor, whom I disagree with on various subjects, my respect for him surpasses entirely my desire to be right, and I submit to the teaching of my church elders, including their premillennial eschatology, even though I do not hold to it.

My intention rather is to give an honest review of Dr. MacArthur’s sermon in respect to a dear sister, and to the body of Christ. Nowhere in my review here will I engage in ad hominem attacks, and nor is my intention to deceive anyone by misrepresentation. I may make some serious accusations even, but they are never intended to turn this subject into a bitter fighting match. I don’t normally discuss the issue of eschatology, and the reason mentioned above is one of those. Hopefully with this, I can help change that, and make eschatology a cool subject to debate in the church without threatening to anathematize each other.

My intent will have a single positive argument, in which I will attempt to present a model of interpretation that properly addresses the passages in question consistently with one form of exegesis that gives me all the essential Christian doctrines, and upon that demonstrate my position as the proper view, falsifying the opposing one. In addition to that, I will have a two-fold negative critique of Dr. MacArthur’s sermon. The first part of my negative critique will focus on showing his interpretive grid is inadequate and false. The second will be to show that his own negative critique of amillennialism is a straw man. If I can demonstrate this, I believe Dr. MacArthur’s position collapses completely.

On a final note, while I will take a stance against MacArthur (a stance I intend to explain in depth in this article), I wish to be upfront and honest that I do not have all the answers regarding eschatology and you will never see me pretend like I do. Hence I am not taking a dogmatic stance on this issue. In fact, I am not going to be arguing from a postmillennial nor an amillennial view. My approach may be more or less unique in this subject, and to that, I begin.

Covenant Theology

Before I actually engage the arguments, what I want to do is to establish from the outset my starting presuppositions. As Dr. Kim Riddlebarger has said (that name alone should give you a good idea where I’m coming from) in his lectures on eschatology, we have to establish our operating assumptions before we get into this subject. Unless we define our assumptions, we’re just going to shoot past each other. If I start critiquing Dr. MacArthur right away, I fear I will leave my own critics in a guessing game as to how my mind is functioning as we approach the subject, and hence may become confused as how to engage my arguments.

Therefore, I begin by establishing not so much amillennialism, nor postmillennialism, but rather Covenant Theology. I believe this conversation truly boils down to Covenant Theology vs Dispensational Theology–how you view the skeletal structure of the Scriptures. What is Covenant Theology? I feel inadequate to attempt an orthodox definition, and hence I will quote from the Reformation Study Bible:

“Covenant theology therefore serves as an organizing principle that shows how biblical history and theology form a coherent, systematic whole with the unified message from the garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem. As such, it views God’s relationship between two parties to each other, and whether it is negotiated (as in marriage or business contracts) or unilaterally imposed (as in all of God’s covenants), mutual obligations are accepted and pledged by both parties… Typically, three principal covenants are identified: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. The first is a covenant made between the members of the Godhead before time began; the second is a covenant made with Adam before the fall; and the third is a covenant made with those who receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation.”

What I really like and would like to focus upon briefly is Dr. Derek Thomas’s comment that covenant theology is “an organizing principle that shows how biblical history and theology form a coherent, systematic whole” all throughout Scripture. That is key. What is being claimed here is quite simply consistency. When we read Scripture, consistency is absolutely essential. As Dr. James White has said, inconsistency is a sign of a failed argument. We have to have a principle of interpretation that consistently addresses the whole of Scripture. If we must read, for example, the old testament in such a way that leaves no possibility for the New Testament to fulfill, that will be a problem. Both are different in their own ways, but both require a system of interpretation that does not separate them, nor confuse them.

The Abrahamic Covenant

We will now see how covenant theology gives us a consistent view of the Scriptures that provides to us the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. In the Abrahamic Covenant, which we find in Genesis 15:5-6, Yahweh promises Abraham a nation of offspring who will be related to him. In what way will be seen soon, but for now, we want to focus on the surface-level content of this promise of God to Abraham. The offspring is clearly seen to be Abraham’s seed, his children, and there shall be countless numbers of them. That’s the clear reference here.

Go into the New Testament, in Romans 4:3 and now with Christ, Paul sees the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. The righteousness that Abraham is being attributed to is the righteousness of Christ. Then in Genesis 17, God gives Abraham a new command, which is the covenant by circumcision. This was a sign of the covenant. In Genesis 17:4, again you see God say that Abraham will be the “father of a multitude of nations”. This is how the nation of Israel is established. Just as God made a covenant with man upon creation, and that first man is the representative of mankind and the covenant with mankind, so now Abraham is the representative of the covenant with Israel.

The child of promise for Abraham was Isaac, and Isaac being born, it would be the line of Isaac that would be blessed, as Yahweh had promised. In Galatians 3, Paul reinterprets Yahweh’s promise to Abraham of the blessed offspring as finding its fulfilled (as in, its completed) meaning in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:15).

The Mosaic Covenant

Then comes the Mosaic Covenant, made with Moses, which is the Law given to Israel as a command to obey (Exodus 34:28). After that, in Exodus 35, we have construction of the tabernacle, the making of the Ark of the Covenant, and the establishment of the ritual laws, the altar of incense, the altar of the burnt offering, all these commands for Israel to keep. It is the Law given to Israel as part of God’s covenant with them to remain in His blessing. This is where we get the whole idea of the atonement, sacrifice, and the priesthood (things which the author of the Hebrews “spiritualizes”). These all foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah who would perform all of these tasks perfectly. But of course, Israel is filled with sinners, unclean people, and mere humans who therefore not only have no power to truly satisfy the wrath of God for men, but neither have eternal life themselves to make such a payment forever. Why then does God give to fallen creatures something which He certainly knows none of them can truly fulfill?

Turn to the book of Hebrews chapter 10, and the author tells us the purpose of these things:

“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?” -Hebrews 10:1-2 ESV.

The point of the ceremonial and ritual laws was not to be themselves the end of our pursuit of righteousness, but were meant to point us to that end, which God was going to do in Jesus Christ. I also want to note from this passage that I am not sure how every dispensationalist sees how far the new temple in Jerusalem will be; whether there will be a return to the ritual laws and Day of Atonement and so I do not want to impugn to them all that belief. However, if such a view is held, Hebrews 10:1-2 refutes that idea strongly, as you see here, particularly in light of what Hebrews is arguing throughout, that Christ has finished the law once and for all, there are no sacrifices to return to. There is only looking to that one, which we remember in the Lord’s Supper now.

The Israel of God

The Old Testament is in many ways the search for that one promised prophet like Moses who would lead Israel to victory. How could any man truly do that, if that man dies, and that generation of Israelites die with him? Clearly our problem is not with physical properties, but with death itself. We need a greater fulfillment, which the patriarchs, as the author of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 11, were always looking for. That one servant of God who would be Israel’s champion. Who is that champion, then?

Go to Isaiah 42 and you see a picture of that perfect servant, who would perfectly fulfill the duties given in the Law. There’s no mistake that this servant is Christ. In Isaiah 43:3, the Servant of God is also called Israel.

In John 15, Jesus calls himself “the true Vine”. In the Old Testament, Israel is often described by illustration as a vine (Jeremiah 2:21, Exodus 15:17, Psalm 44:1-2, 80:8, Isaiah 5:2-5). Remember in Matthew 3:10 how John the Baptist is warning the Jewish leaders that “the axe is laid to the root”? The imagery is of trees being ready to be chopped down. The imagery describes Israel. Israel is God’s vineyard, and God has come and seen it is not bearing fruit, and so He is preparing to remove it. But is that saying God is ending His covenant with Israel? Not at all.

In Isaiah 11 is another prophecy of “The Stump of Jesse” which is obviously Jesus, who has the Spirit of Yahweh upon Him, and He will have a branch that bears fruit. So the trees of Israel of that day, bearing no fruit, are cut down, and thrown off. One yet remains, and it is the Stump, or Root of Jesse, who is Christ. Christ is the true vine, and hence what does that make Him? It makes Christ the true Israel. Right here, we have already a core issue with John MacArthur’s “Israel is Israel” presupposition. Because Israel is not always “Israel” in the national, ethnic sense.

Imputation of Righteousness

Having obtained that righteousness, He offers Himself as the lamb, the provision of Yahweh that Abraham spoke of in Genesis 22:8. Christ becomes the true Israel–the Servant of God, the one who would attain to righteousness that no one else could do. He is the Covenant Keeper, obtaining all the covenant blessings God made to Abraham and Moses in the Law.

How then does this benefit us? Again, Christ is the atonement, He is the Lamb of God. He therefore dies in the place of someone, and who is that? Isaiah 53:1-6 tells us, He atones for God’s people, i.e., Israel. See the language, “By His stripes we are healed”. Atonement, propitiation is taking place. One is taking another’s punishment, and not only this, but that one’s suffering is bringing the other healing. A transaction is what is being described.

Go back to Romans 4:3-8 and see that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the one who bears faith, and what kind of faith? The same faith as Abraham. That is to say, the one who is a child of Abraham by promise–by faith (Romans 4:16-17, Galatians 3:6).

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” -2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV.

This is what we call the doctrine of imputation–Christ’s righteousness, His blessings He obtained are transferred to the sinner, the sinner’s curse is to Him on the cross, and now the sinner is credited with Christ’s covenant blessings. That sinner now is seen by God as righteous on account of Christ. That sinner is now a covenant keeper by imputation, that is to say, they are now brought into the covenant of God that He made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Moses through Christ, who fulfilled it on their behalf.

God has promised to redeem them through the covenants fulfilled in Jesus Christ, making the true Israel the elect of God, which are Jews and Gentiles. The church then is not replacing Israel, it is fulfilling Israel through Christ.

On a brief mention, the Davidic Covenant is relevant here as well. I didn’t focus too much on it because I don’t want this to be too long (as it already is). The simple point here I want to make that no one disputes (therefore it bears little need to establish) that Jesus is the Son of David, descending the line of David, fulfilling God’s covenant with him to establish his line on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7). So Christ is King as well, and King of who? Israel, of course.

By Covenant, By Promise: Fulfillment

This is what Covenant Theology is all about. Throughout the Scriptures, covenantal language permeates the pages. You will notice how often, in the Old Testament, God or the prophets speak about a group of people in the name of Isaac, or Jacob, or even Abraham. This is covenant language. This is invocation of the covenant God made with Abraham’s seed. Look at Galatians 3:10-15 and see how Paul is appealing to the covenant. The one who does not trust in Christ is now obligated to obtain righteous standing with God through the law (the Mosaic Covenant), which condemns them instantly. It’s hopeless. Then in verse 15, Paul argues that no one adds to a covenant already made and complete (that is, fulfilled and held). Christ fulfills all things given to Abraham and Moses, and the one who is righteous before God is the one who believes that the Christ has done them.

The book of Hebrews is an overflow, pouring with covenantal language, and we want to finish this by showing an important, key element of Covenant Theology, and that is a small but absolutely essential word called: fulfillment. This is important because dispensationalists commonly accuse covenantal systems of replacement theology (a rather serious heresy, by the way, and hence a serious charge), arguing that we hold that God cuts off Israel and goes with “plan B” the church. But what is happening, of course, is not replacement, but fulfillment. You see the argument made by the author of Hebrews for fulfillment (Hebrews 7:24-28, 8:5-13, 9:11-15, 10:8-12). And having been fulfilled, something greater comes from the old (Hebrews 8:13).

Look for example in Matthew 2:15, where Matthew quotes from Hosea 11:1 about God drawing Israel, His beloved Son out of Egypt, who himself is recalling how Yahweh brought Israel out of the land of Egypt in the Exodus. That is to say, we have at least two levels of fulfillment going on here. The first is God literally bringing Israel, the nation, out of Egypt in the Exodus, but this fulfillment finds a greater one in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who again is called the Israel of God by implication in Matthew 2:15. This pattern is all over the Scriptures, and just as in the Matthew 2 case (that is, with the interpretive principle that the New Testament interprets the old) once fulfilled in Christ, there is nothing left to be answered. There is no say anywhere of something else needing to be done.

The New Testament itself, as we have shown in Romans and Galatians (which are only small parts of the New Testament demonstrating fulfillment), demonstrates fulfillment by way of covenant. The whole purpose of the covenants, as Hebrews says, was to foreshadow the coming Messiah, who would fulfill those covenant promises and laws and in doing so, reign in the new covenant (Hebrews 8:13).

There is hence no category anywhere in Scripture–anywhere–where God has said there is going to be a plan for national Israel and a plan for Gentiles, nor a return to the old covenant ways. In fact, Paul himself declares this in Galatians 3:28 when he says that there is neither Jew nor Greek; we are all one in Christ Jesus. If you follow Paul’s argument throughout Galatians 3, as we briefly visited, you see that Paul is speaking in a covenant system, in the way I just explained. Both Jew and Greek are one in Christ. The simple fact is that the Old Testament gives us the blueprint of redemption. The New Testament gives us that redemption in Jesus Christ, who fulfills and finishes it all, leaving no category, nor language anywhere in the New Testament of going back. In fact, one of the arguments of the author of the Hebrews in chapter 3-4 is that looking back to the old covenant ways is death. They were not to be the real thing, but to point you to the real thing, the greater fulfillment which was in Christ Jesus.

That is the essence of Covenant Theology, and that is what I firmly believe is being demonstrated as clearly as the Trinity is in Scripture. It is the system of Covenant Theology that I am operating on when I approach this subject. That is a strange approach, you may ask. What does Covenant Theology have to do with this? Everything. You see, you cannot simply have different approaches depending on your subject. You can’t look at Christ as fulfilling the Davidic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant and then come to eschatology and put that aside, or declare that any portion of the Abrahamic covenant (the land promise, for example) is still to be fulfilled when New Testament revelation does not give us any such language. Using different forms of hermenutics is a violation of proper biblical interpretation. It was not reformed tradition that made me abandon premillennial/dispensationalism, it was the need to be consistent.

If I am going to be consistent in believing that Christ is the fulfillment of the covenants God made in the Old Testament, then that has to tell me how to read the Old Testament, how to understand the prophetic imagery as not having specifically to do with the nation of Israel, but having to do with God’s ultimate plan of redemption for Jew and Greek. This is my operating principle by which I see this subject. Utilizing the same form of exegesis and hermenutics, I come to the essential doctrines of Christianity, which I just described above: imputed righteousness, propitiation, justification by faith alone. One form of exegesis brought me there, and that same one is going to tell me how to understand the eschaton (the last days). With that, we proceed to John MacArthur’s sermon.

The Literal Meaning

I don’t want this to be a commentary, so I am only going to focus on key parts of the sermon. The first thing I want to focus on is Dr. MacArthur’s hermenutic, or his interpretive grid he is using. As I said in the introduction, if I can show that his primary method of interpretation is not self-sufficient and/or consistent, it is false. I laid mine down above, and with that hermenutic, I got the essential, core doctrines of the Christian faith. Now Dr. MacArthur is going to briefly mention his own, and its important to do, as well as to examine to see if it actually is a sufficient grid to utilize when we come to the Scriptures. If we find that it is not able to answer the big questions, then that’s a red flag. If we find that Dr. MacArthur and dispensationalists have to essentially say that when it comes to eschatology, you have to use this hermenutic, but in the Trinity and other core doctrines, you don’t, that’s a red flag.

Dr. MacArthur makes a presuppositional claim that “the plain meaning is always preferred”. I completely agree. No one disputes that at all. But what Dr. MacArthur means (at least when it comes to eschatology) is the literal interpretation of the text. Kim Riddlebarger, among many, have rightly criticized this hermenutic, and I am certain my premill friends know about this criticism. The literal interpretation is not a valid interpretation, because there are in fact clear areas of Scripture where the author is not intending to mean a literal, plain interpretation. When it comes to historic moments of Scripture, absolutely. But when it comes to prophecy, when it comes to omens, and more poetic texts, obviously the literal interpretation is not going to work. Otherwise when you come to the dragons in Revelation, does that not mean you should be looking for a literal dragon coming out of the ocean with multiple heads? Of course not. Popular dispensational writers like to say that John, in Revelation when he sees locusts is really using locusts as a description of helicopters. How is it that after championing a literal interpretation of the text do they suddenly change the literal meaning to something else?

Dr. R.C. Sproul in a lecture titled “How to Study the Bible” jokingly remarked in a debate he observed with a futurist who argued that in a particular section of the Bible, giant locusts were prophesied and that that was referring to attack helicopters. Dr. Sproul replied, “No, if you want to interpret the Bible literally in the way you’re talking about literal, what you have to look for are not Apache attack helicopters, but giant locusts.”

I think you can see the point I am making here. What I want to emphasize right now is that while the plain meaning is preferred, when it comes to prophetic imagery, the plain meaning simply isn’t always going to work. The Root of Jesse, for instance in Isaiah 11, we see as Christ. A literal interpretation is going to make that very hard to see. The reality of the matter is that the plain meaning only goes so far, until you have to recognize that it doesn’t always work, and so you must therefore use clear passages to interpret the not-so-clear, and what principle is this? It’s the analogia fidei (The rule of faith; Scripture interprets Scripture). Hence, by a reductio ad absurdum (to reduce to absurdity), the concept of a literal interpretation collapses on itself as it is forced to default to a standard Christian principle of interpretation that, when followed through, would at best validate covenant theology, and at worst, invalidate a dispensational theology.

He goes on to say that “only when the context of a passage gives compelling reason to assume that the language is somehow symbolic or spiritual do we ever look for anything other than the obvious meaning”. Once again, I completely agree. The problem is that means that covenant theology is valid, because that is exactly what we do, that is exactly what I just did. Over and over and over again, Old Testament prophecies that the dispensationalist is going to limit to having only to do with national Israel are in fact reinterpreted in the New Testament by the Apostles in the Incarnation.

After this, Dr. MacArthur shifts to discuss where amillennialism gets its arguments from, and he focuses on the argument, from Scripture, that Jesus foretells in a parable in Luke 20 the cutting off of Israel and the grafting in of the Gentiles, which is shown in Acts as the apostles move their evangelistic focus to the Gentiles. Dr. MacArthur does not dispute this, and he is right not to. It is a clear reading of Scripture.

However, after this, Dr. MacArthur asks a rhetorical question, which is: Is the cutting off of Israel for the Gentiles a permanent cutting off? I think we all know his answer to that question. However, Dr. MacArthur misrepresents when he says that the covenant views answer “yes” to that question. If what Dr. MacArthur means is that God has completely abandoned ethnic Israel, then he would be incorrect. However, if what he meant is that God, in the Incarnation of Christ, has made a new covenant by which God is saving all kinds of men, including ethnic Israel, then absolutely, but the old covenant ways are finished.

Romans 11

This is going to need its own focused section, because Romans 11 is, I think, the strongest argument the premillennialist has. It is a rather compelling position, and I want to make sure I focus on this because if I were not to, it would be extremely dishonest of me and towards my premillennial brothers and sisters. I cannot claim to be a cogent defender of covenant theology if I don’t deal with the most significant difficulties of my view. At the same time, I must also remember not to violate my own principles, as well as an awareness of the other standard rules of biblical interpretation.

Dr. MacArthur makes his case from Romans 11:26 that all of Israel will be saved, and Paul then quotes Isaiah 59:20 to make his point. Now I am going to be honest, as I had said I would be, this is a passage that I struggle with in many ways. It’s difficult for me to make clear sense out of Paul, not in that Paul was not making sense, but in that my own mind struggles (likely due to my own personal presuppositions). At one moment, things begin to make sense, and then Paul goes into another section and it begins to shake what I was coming to from before. I admit that this is not one that is so clear for me to understand.

However, that does not mean this is the be-all, end-all of the discussion. I would still consider this to be less primary and more secondary, and perhaps tertiary to the real issue. I would like to provide a way in which to understand Romans 11:26 that makes sense.

If you go back to Romans 8:18, Paul is concluding the salvation of all the elect of God. He’s made his case, that all have sinned, salvation is faith alone in Jesus Christ, imputation takes place, we obtain His righteousness, He takes on all our sins, past present and future, and now in Romans 8, there is nothing left but glory for God’s people. If you are a Calvinist (as Dr. MacArthur is), there is really only one way to read Romans 9. If you are not a Calvinist, you’re going to turn Romans 9 into a book with different chapters in and of itself. Romans 9 is Paul answering the objection that if God has really done this for “His people”, who the objector is assuming are the Jews, then why do the Jews reject the Messiah? Paul spends Romans 9 answering this question.

He begins Romans 9 talking about how it is a tragedy that the Jews, the people of the old covenant, reject the Messiah they have been waiting for. Then in verse 6 is when things get very interesting. It is here that Paul takes on the objection with the claim that “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”. That is absolutely key to understanding the rest of Romans 9. It is the children of the promise who are the true offspring of Abraham (verse 8). Notice verse 6-8, how the covenant names of Abraham and Isaac are invoked. Covenant language once again.

Go back to Romans 4:16 and Paul declares that the true offspring of Abraham are those who have his faith. Paul also says this in Galatians 3:29 that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”. Romans 9 is all about telling us who God’s people truly are, where their faith truly rested. The ones who are offspring of Abraham by faith (i.e., by the promise of redemption, because that is what Paul is talking about in Romans, not land promises) are the true Israel of God. Notice please, this is not replacement theology; this is fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Jesus Christ and hence, the dispensing of that gift to God’s people, the elect, the Israel of God.

However, just because I took us back to Romans 9 does not negate Dr. MacArthur’s point. Paul does go back to talking about national Israel, but only in order to tell us that His promise was not to save every single genealogical descendant. Paul here is really explaining how the Gentiles are being grafted into God’s covenant. Dr. MacArthur is right, God does not go back on His promises. To do so would be treason on His part. So how then does God save Gentiles (whom He did not make the old covenants in Israel with)? A different way? That cannot be the case. It is by way of covenant, by being grafted in through Jesus Christ, which Paul is explaining in Romans 10:17-24.

So we then return to Romans 11:26 with a better context and we can say that all of Israel will therefore be saved. It is rather clear that in Romans 11:25, Paul is talking about ethnic Israel, but in verse 26, while one can say this is ethnic Israel, it doesn’t necessarily mean so. Paul says “in this way” all Israel will be saved. He’s concluding an argument, and what is that? Everything I was just explaining. All of God’s people will be saved, both Jew and Gentile, in Christ, the true Israel of God. How will they be saved? What have I been saying through this whole section of Romans 9-11? Who God’s people truly are, and how they are saved, which is in Christ–ethnic Israel will be saved, but in Christ, not in the old covenant ways.

The citation Paul quotes in Isaiah 59:20 is a key text, but go into the book of Hebrews chapter 8 and in particular verse 12, and you see the author cites a very similar passage as Paul in Romans 11:27, and the author makes the case that Christ has made a new covenant with God that results in God “remembering their sins no more”, exactly the same language in Romans 11:27. Given what we have already said about this being in a new covenant context in Christ’s work, we must understand that Paul is quoting Isaiah 59:20 to show the fulfillment of this, which has already happened, not that it will happen some time two-thousand-plus years into the future (something Paul never mentions anywhere in Romans 11).

Point being that every instance, including Romans 11:27 in the New Testament where this scriptural citation is referenced is always in the context of fulfillment and new covenant consummation. Going back to Hebrews 8:12, in this new covenant, the old is rendered obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), which means that when cross-referenced with Romans 11:27, the most probable way to interpret this is to say that God is going to save Jews in the new covenant, as has been with all people who believe in God through Christ (Romans 4, Hebrews 11).

Whatever may be the case, I can certainly tell you what is not found in Romans 11, any indication of a pretribulation context. Nowhere do you find in this essential passage of, in particular, dispensational theology, anything regarding a tribulation period, a rapture of Christians or anything that would suggest a premillennial model of the end. Yes, verse 25 alludes to an end, but that does not at all refute an amill or postmill model. Both views believe there will be an “end of the age” as we believe the Jewish old covenant age ended in 70AD. The ending of the church age, we believe, will come when a large number of national Israelites come to Christ in salvation.

This doesn’t do much against the covenantal views of eschatology, and one of the primary errors Dr. MacArthur commits is that he inappropriately defines the covenantal views in the beginning by saying God has turned His back on Israel completely. Missing the actual position means that wherever else you aim your guns will also miss the target, and it tends to miss badly.

Zechariah 8: God’s Redemption of Zion

I don’t think there needs to be a whole lot done in this section Dr. MacArthur moves on to. How you interpret this passage is based on your presuppositions. Are you going to presuppose that the literal interpretation will overshadow the analogia fidei? Or are you going to use the analogia fidei itself? If the former, then of course you see this fulfilled in a premillennial way, somewhere off into the future. You have to. Since you’re presupposing the position, you don’t allow new data to change that presupposition, and instead, you fit data into it, and so when you don’t see these grand fulfillment motifs happening literally, you push the events off into the future. When you have “Israel means Israel” as your overriding presupposition, you have to come to Romans 11:26-27 and see it has not been realized, which I think is a real shame.

Don’t we as Christians believe that in Christ God has “remembered our sins no more”? The consequence is that you can’t find this having any sort of fulfillment in the New Testament. I’m not disputing that, by the way, only to say that I think you have to pick which you will do. In other words, you can’t consistently argue that Romans 11:27 is only about Jews and use such a text in an evangelistic context for anyone but a Jew. Either Romans 11:27 is for believers (and therefore the church fulfills Israel) or for Jews. Pick one.

Having said that, if you look at Zechariah 8, in light of all that I have just discussed in the way of covenant theology, fulfillment and the analogia fidei, does this do anything to harm the covenantal view? Of course not. What about the clear imagery, you may ask? What about it? The premillennialist themselves grant that the plain meaning isn’t necessarily the most viable perspective. That grants a possibility to see this in a Christological way. If you go to, for example Revelation 21:1-2, John foresees the New Heaven and New Earth where the heavenly Jerusalem comes down.

In Zechariah 8:22-23, why can this not be seen plainly as the Gentiles coming to Christ? Remember, covenant theology is not saying that God has removed the old covenant from Israel. Rather, what we are saying is that Christ holds the covenant in fulfillment, and gives that fulfillment to the elect, which includes Gentiles (see my exposition of Romans 11 above, and my section on Covenant Theology). This is how “many nations” will come to Zion, a heavenly Zion. Dr. MacArthur is right, this is a glorious, beautiful picture of the consummation of the kingdom on earth. We don’t dispute that. The only contention at this point is if this is the premillennial/dispensationalist millennial age, and I contend it is not, and I do not believe that you can get any idea of those models. I do not think you can meaningfully connect this with Revelation 20 unless you presuppose premillennialism before you come to the text (circular reasoning fallacy).

Reading Zechariah 8 all depends on presuppositions, and if we are going to meaningfully talk about it, we need to go after our primary operating assumptions first. Nevertheless, I would argue that while a premillennial view can be seen here, you do not get any idea from here that this glorious kingdom picture ends in this chapter after a thousand years.

Is Israel Israel?

He moves on to talk about Galatians 6:16 as one of amillennialism’s proof-texts for their view, and I am rather surprised because I certainly never used this before. But, the real problem here is that Dr. MacArthur, especially in light of his overriding presupposition “Israel is Israel”, I have to say in all due respect, flounders significantly right here in really engaging in a twisting of the Scriptures. A standard biblical method of interpretation is violated because of faulty presuppositions, and that principle is simply context.

Nothing in the context suggests Paul is talking about the Jews here, except the Judiasers (Galatians 6:12-14), especially in any kind of premillennial, or even remotely eschatological way. Verse 16 Paul speaks of the Israel of God being blessed, so somewhere in between verse 14 and 16 Paul goes from talking about bad Jews to talking about blessed Jews. Of course, you’re not going to find that at all. The Israel of God are the people of God. I have to say, this is where you really see the faulty presuppositions of Dr. MacArthur really show their grave weakness. Again, I love Dr. MacArthur, but this right here is an elementary mistake and it is surprising to see him easily trip over it. Human traditions are overriding the text in a big way here.

He goes to quote Romans 9:6 and again with the presupposition “Israel is Israel” Dr. MacArthur once again shreds the clear context of what Romans 9 is all about, and this is very surprising coming from a Calvinist. It breaks up the entire flow of Paul’s argument from Romans 1 to 8. If you want to see how I explain Romans 9 as a covenantal Calvinist, go back to my exposition of Romans 11:26 above. What I wish to say here, and it must be said: if Dr. MacArthur is going to say that Romans 9:6 is about national Israel, then he has to explain why the rest of Romans 9 isn’t, because verse 6 is key to understanding what Paul is talking about. If you don’t get that right, and move on to Romans 9–as a Calvinist–to describing God’s sovereign election in salvation, you are left saying that God is saving according to His own wishes, and Jews by the way are Jews. That verse sticks out like a sore thumb and has no bearing whatsoever with the rest of Romans 9. Once more, the presuppositional errors are astounding.

The alternative, in an attempt to have a consistent interpretation of Romans 9 from verse 6 is to say that Romans 9 is speaking only about ethnic Israel, describing which Jews are going to be saved and which are not, as well as how they are saved. But doing that means that once again, Jews are saved in a completely different way than Gentiles are, and at that point, you can’t be a Calvinist anymore, because while Romans 9 is discussing unconditional election, it’s only related to Jews. You then have to say (again, if you’re being consistent) that God saves Jews in a different way than He does Gentiles. But this consistency only goes so far, since you also have to explain away verse 25-26 which are clearly talking about Gentiles being called into salvation by God’s electing grace.

I realize I am making this complicated, and I am trying not to. The point here is that when you have improper presuppositions overriding your approach to the New Testament, you are going to make a mess of the text. The simple point here once again is consistency. If you are going to start with the presupposition that Israel can only mean national Israel, then you can’t really be a Calvinist when you come to Romans 9. You have to simultaneously say that God saves whom He wills (Jew and Gentile) and at the same time that Romans 9 is only about Jews in light of verse 6. You have to pick one, because the two simply can’t go together.

Is Premillennialism Consistent With Calvinism?

I wish to get to the big question, and while Dr. MacArthur didn’t emphasize this point, despite it being the title of his sermon, this really is the big question. Is it truly proper to be premillennial to be a Calvinist? A few times, and particularly towards the end, Dr. MacArthur makes the case that if you are going to believe that God truly saves, and He never takes back His promises, then you have to believe that God will also save national Israel. The question I want to ask is, is that actually what Calvinism is?

I would introduce another reductio ad absurdum argument and ask (simply for clarity), is Calvinism the theology that God saves, and since God saves, He never fails in His saving? The answer is ‘yes’. God always saves all of His people, yes? Again, the answer should be ‘yes’. If yes, and then you believe that God will save Israel in John MacArthur’s sense, then that means every single Jew that has ever lived will be saved, because they are “God’s people” after all.

But of course, that is not true; no one will in their right mind ever argue that every Jew to live has been saved. The conclusion we are therefore left with is what? They were never God’s true people. They were not given the promise (Romans 9:6), which means that God will not, in fact, save all of Israel. But doesn’t Romans 11 say He does? It does. How do we make sense of that? If Israel in the sense Paul uses it in Romans 11:25 is only ethnic Israel, we have a problem. But, if Paul did not mean ethnic, national Israel, but rather Israel is the spiritual Israel–the elect–then that fits perfectly, which is exactly what Calvinism is teaching. Calvinism is teaching that God saves all of His people, all by Himself, for His glory, and here again, I have to say I am somewhat a loss for words that Dr. MacArthur–a Calvinist–actually misunderstands what Calvinism is. The only thing that can cause such a strong and respectable minister to make such a mistake is traditions forcing one to make inconsistent argumentation as he does in his sermon.

Replacement Theology and the Circular Reasoning of Premillennialism

I know my title here for this section is harsh, but once again, I want my premillennial brothers and sisters to read this not so much as an attack, but as a crucial form of constructive criticism. Again, my intention here is not to throw mud, but to show where there are genuine errors in thinking that needs to be fixed. I’m not asking you here to see a circular reasoning fallacy and therefore become amill or postmill. I’m asking that you realize a straw man, and how circular reasoning causes that straw man so that you can therefore correct it.

Dr. MacArthur starts to talk about the origins of amillennialism, and as one can expect, he is going to accuse it of replacement theology and even go so far as to say that the original amillennialists were anti-Semites. Now I do not believe for a single second that Dr. MacArthur actually believes the vast majority of amillennialists are anti-Semitic. However, it still needs to be said that this is a misrepresentation of what amillennialism is saying. I don’t think it’s really worth repeating over and over that it is not replacement theology, it is fulfillment. If indeed we were saying that God saw Israel’s disobedience and tossed them aside, took the promises from them (in effect, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and so on) and gave them to the Gentiles, that would be replacement theology.

I don’t know much about the Roman Catholic views of eschatology, so I cannot defend nor acquit them here, although I have heard a Roman Catholic priest once, during a mass, make an argument for replacement theology. I consider that to be a very serious heresy and unacceptable for Christian practice. But the point to be made here, and this is why I emphasized in the beginning the word fulfillment, dispensationalists, I have seen, are simply unwilling to allow that little word to fly in this discussion. Why is that? I think it’s because if it does, then the covenant view suddenly starts to make sense. That can’t be allowed, so the categorical establishment is simply denied. It’s not argued of, not debated of, simply denied, and I think that’s very uncharitable from my dispensational friends. Not all of them do this, of course, but to the ones that do, I do think that’s an unfair criticism.

How is this related to circular reasoning? I’ve hinted at it a few times already. Circular reasoning (the petitio principi fallacy) occurs when someone assumes the thing to prove before they prove it. Or, when they impose presuppositions of their own view onto another view that does not share those presuppositions and falsify said view in that way. It is a faulty use of argumentation that ultimately ends, once more, in arguing from an assumption that has not been proven true yet.

When, for instance, I critique the dispensational hermenutic, I am not doing so by imposing covenant theology principles onto it and then demand dispensational theology answer for it. That would be circular argumentation in the negative sense. What I do is attempt to show how the system, under its own principles, comes undone, which is what I have attempted to do here.

The primary reason this replacement accusation is circular reasoning is because the dispensationalist is assuming the “Israel is Israel” hermenutic Dr. MacArthur promotes in the sermon. Therefore, if you are going to assume a literal meaning as being the only meaning of Israel, then how else are you going to understand anyone talking about the church being the fulfillment of Israel? As replacement, literally. That is to say, you are assuming dispensational principles onto non-dispensational principles and calling them false on that basis.

Take for example a discussion with a Unitarian on the Trinity. The Unitarian’s primary accusation is that the Trinity is a belief in three gods. I like how John Calvin expresses the circularity of argument of the Unitarians when he says, “They falsely and calumniously ascribe to us the fiction of their own brain,” (I’m not ascribing that insult to my dispensationalist friends, by the way). Why would a Unitarian be unable to see how we can believe God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Because they reject the necessary categories that would make it work, which is the difference between being and person. If the categories we use to show how the Trinity is logical and biblical are allowed, then of course the Trinity works. But when you’ve decided from the outset that it can’t be, then you’re going to run in circles, attacking straw men due to your foundational errors.

But if you don’t use the Israel means Israel hermenutic, if you don’t use the literal interpretation as the dispensationalist does, then of course you’re not going to have that problem. It all fits perfectly. But you see, once again, many of our dispensational friends (not all of them, of course) simply are not willing to let the word “fulfillment” show them how this works, because at the end of the day, a tradition is being defended, not what Scripture is teaching as a whole.

Because if they were to allow fulfillment to fly, then whenever they quote Scripture that says that God will redeem Israel, I would easily be able to say, “Amen! And that promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and His church.” I think the well-experienced dispensationalist knows that, and so to combat that, they cannot let the fulfillment motif work in this subject. So it is presuppositionally denied, and replaced (no pun intended) with replacement theology. As I said, that is unfair, and I truly believe traditions are being defended by my premillennial/dispensational friends, because it’s not about allowing Scripture to speak, it’s about allowing dispensationalism to tell them how to read the Bible.

One for Israel and One for Gentiles?

Of course, if we were not talking eschatology, and rather the simple faith of Christianity, we all praise fulfillment together. My dispensationalist friends, I have seen over and over again, talk of Christ fulfilling the law, as they rightly should. But I do not see how you can say that, and then when we talk eschatology, no longer allow that to tell you how to view the eschaton, and the reason, I truly believe, is because it is a tradition that was taught, not Scripture.

A response may come in the form of, “We do love fulfillment, and Christ did fulfill the law, but…” I’m sorry, but you can talk about fulfillment all you want, as soon as the “but” or any form of it comes in, that means that there was something left unfulfilled. Did Christ, then, fulfill the law to graft in the Gentile age? That is a possible answer. But you have to understand that you are now forced to argue the gospel in a very different way. You’re forced (again, if you are being consistent) to assert that the current gospel is for Gentiles and then God goes back to Israel some time in the future, and that the preaching in Paul’s letters was meant primarily for Gentiles.

It’s no doubt that the evangelistic focus turns towards the Gentiles, but nevertheless, that is a serious misunderstanding of what Paul was seeking to do. The tension between Jew and Greek was running high all throughout Paul’s ministry, and even after Paul. He was constantly dealing with Judiasers who wanted Christians to become Jews to be true Christians. It is this that Paul is responding to in Galatians in particular, which we are going to focus on. And he does not do this by saying God has a plan for Jews and for Gentiles. What does Paul do?

“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” -Galatians 3:26-29 ESV.

Paul appeals to the gospel to reconcile Jews and Gentiles. If you believe God has a particular redemptive plan for Israel and one for Gentiles, then you have to turn this entire letter on its head. Notice how Paul references the law (verse 17-18, 23, 24). Which law is this? It’s the Mosaic law (verse 17). So Paul is appealing to the Jewish laws of the covenant. Now, either that is for Jews, or for Gentiles. Pick one. Or, you let all of Paul speak and realize he is talking to Christians–which are Jews and Gentiles. So how are Jews justified? By Christ through faith. How are Gentiles justified? By Christ through faith. Both groups held to the standard of God’s law, judged by the law, and redeemed by Christ who has done it on their behalf. Abraham’s offspring that God promised with a nation did not find its fulfillment in Old Testament Israel, it finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and hence His church (Romans 4:13, 9:6, Galatians 3:29).

Now here is the big point. Where here does Paul talk about God going back to deal with national Israel? I would think this would be a big, important place for Paul to make that distinction–if Paul was a dispensationalist, or a premillennialist after all. Where does he do it? Where does Paul say anywhere in Galatians that God is doing this for the present age, until the fullness of the Gentiles come in, and then will go back and finish with national Israel?

Remember, Paul is dealing with Judiasers, who believe that God saves men through the old covenant system. Why doesn’t Paul anywhere say they have misunderstood how God is going to do this, that He will eventually get around to going back to such times? Paul never does that. He pronounces a curse upon those men in Galatians 1:6-9, and that’s what he is rebuking in Galatians. These are what Paul calls the “circumcision party” (Galatians 2:12). That is, these are men who believe we must go back to Jewish practices to be Christians, i.e., Judisasers.

Perhaps that was just for Jews, not Gentiles you might say. Paul never argues that Jews have to do that anymore, since Christ is the completion of all the law. And once again, if Paul was making a premillennial/dispensational case, that would mean that somewhere, somewhere in Galatians it was essential for him to explain a doctrine of eschatology in some way similar to what is claimed of in Romans 11. There is none. What does that mean? It means that Paul’s theology has as its implication that the old covenant is fulfilled, held and put away in Jesus Christ, and any man who will be saved is to believe that He has done it.

Conclusion: History, Traditions and Scripture

I know that many might say to me, “Chase, you just have this view where you can shape shift and mold your eschatology or theology according to whatever you need to make it fit onto the Bible”. I would respond by saying that I wasn’t aware that was a bad thing. Aren’t we supposed to be changing and shifting our views in light of what Scripture is telling us? If I have a tradition, a presupposition that the Bible is telling me is incorrect, shouldn’t I abandon that tradition? Does it need to be tweaked? But when you see someone violate standard methods of interpretation, that is the clear sign of human traditions being read onto the text, and that’s my primary issue with my dispensational friends. It’s not a personal gripe or anything.

This is why we must be so careful, so cautious as to know the difference between our biases and presuppositions and what Scripture is teaching. I’m not saying I am immune to this at all. I just as much must be aware of my presuppositions, and be willing to change them according to biblical testimony. But when you cannot tell the difference between a human tradition and Scripture, that tradition becomes the lens, and Scripture is subjected to that lens. Biblical principles are made to accommodate that tradition, and the only way to test whether or not you are adhering to a tradition foreign to the text of Scripture is to test it for consistency. Can I use this same hermenutic to get the doctrine of Christ? of the Trinity? Of atonement, justification by faith alone, imputed righteousness? If you cannot get these with that same hermenutic, that’s the big red flag that your position is false.

That is why I do not hold to dispensational premillennialism in any way. There are many other reasons, however. Despite this being a very lengthy article, and I apologize for it, nevertheless, this only touches on the surface. I only quoted Revelation once in the article. That’s what many call the dispensationalists playground. I don’t typically use that terminology, because it may sound somewhat unkind. But the point is that Revelation is a huge hangout spot for dispensationalists mainly because of how they view Revelation.

The reason I didn’t discuss Revelation is because once again, unless we have our foundations set forth, we’ll run in circles around each other. It’s not a question so much of when does Revelation occur, but rather, how are you going to start reading Revelation? What’s your starting point? I interpret Revelation in a completely different way than my dispensationalist friends because of my hermenutic as well as historical factors, one of which being that I believe Revelation was written before 70AD. If that’s true, then that has to have a very poignant effect on how you read Revelation. Was John writing to Christians about how the Jewish age was going to end, using heavy symbolism as a code to protect those from persecution during that time? Many make a compelling case that John is borrowing Old Testament prophetic language and imagery, particularly in Daniel, to describe what his visions were. Any average pagan would not have a clue what was being read if they found it. But a Hellenistic Jew, however, would know exactly how to interpret it.

And these are things I honestly don’t think we in the 21st century ever consider. We are so far removed from that time period, and so we come to this text with little to no training in historical contexts and cultural contexts that we have to make these about us in the future to make them relevant to us. I remember as a dispensationalist trying to “decode” Revelation, and I remember watching dispensational thinkers talk in Revelation about how it was prophesying the end of the whole world.

But as I began to study more and more into history, into the things of that time, I suddenly realized there was a lot that I was never taught, that never crossed my mind, and which would dramatically change how I had to read these books. I could continue on with this, but as I said, this was only touching on the surface of this subject and why I reject premillennialism/dispensationalism and find Dr. MacArthur’s sermon, though interesting, an important example of how even the most sound exegete can allow traditions to cloud thinking and change terms and definitions even, particularly of Calvinism, to fit things together.

I have already made this review long enough. That is enough to have to apologize for. Now my only hope is that I do not have to apologize for misrepresentation, and for harshness. It was not my desire to demonstrate either characteristics, and if I have, I would genuinely ask my brothers and sisters on the other side of this issue to meaningfully show me where I went wrong here so that I may correct it. As I said, this was not intended to attack my dispensational friends, but to, in a brotherly, loving way, disagree but disagree strongly with their perspective on this point, and to show why I do. To the glory of God alone, Soli Deo Gloria! God bless!

A Case for the Supernatural

C.S. Lewis’s Peculiar Argument for the Supernatural

For my whole young adult life, I had struggled with the existence of God. I always called myself a Christian; I was raised in a Christian home. But my dad instilled into me from a very early age the idea of asking questions and having curiosity for the reality of existence itself. Though many trends came and had gone from me in my growing up, this one part of me was just always there. I have thus always had a love for philosophy to some degree–to a point in which my own theology was subject to my philosophy.

That has changed now. I don’t really give much in the way of philosophy anymore; I don’t find I really need to since the Bible speaks on all matters relating to life. And seeing Christ as the beginning and end of all problems answers the philosophical questions (this subject I will soon explore in a separate article). However, before now, when I did indulge philosophical wanderings, who is one of the most likely figures that such a young person like myself would flock to to satisfy my philosophical desires? There are many, but few so likely as Clive Staples Lewis (better known as C.S. Lewis). For what is likely the vast majority of my young twenties, C.S. Lewis’s thought dominated my own thinking. He does not play as prominent a role today in my faith, but he will always be treasured in my mind as a blessing from God to someone like myself.

Thanks to his Mere Christianity book, I was pretty much solidified (at least intellectually) into the Christian worldview on a basic level. It gave me such a rich foundation on the philosophical power of Christianity. Today, I take a far less philosophical approach to Christianity, coming from a reformed tradition, and so I wish to therefore take this time to quickly mention for the record that I do embrace what is called the Presuppositional approach to apologetics (an approach Lewis did not take) and am not here trying to promote a purely rational, philosophical approach to Christianity’s truth. Christian truth is founded on the conviction of God’s divine revelation in Scripture, and I rest in that.

However, though I am a presuppositionalist, that does not mean I cannot appreciate good, rational arguments for the truth of Christianity. It is always good to learn new things, especially things as thought-provoking as what I am about to explain here and that is simply C.S. Lewis’s peculiar case for the existence of the supernatural.

The Origin of Religion

This blog article may be understood more or less as a commentary of one of Lewis’s books since that is the book, and in particular one of its chapters, that I am going to be deriving the entirety of the material of this article from. It is chapter one of C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, one of his most underrated books, in my opinion.

Lewis begins the chapter asking himself a hypothetical question that if, when he was an atheist, anyone had asked him why he did not believe in God, what would his reason be? Lewis spends the next couple pages giving his answer. In short, his answer would be what the typical answer to doubt the existence of God is, which is the problem of pain and suffering (that is what the book is about, after all). There is too much death and evil and suffering in the world, the atheist Lewis argues.

When he’s finished with the answer, he then goes on to critique his own answer. How does he do this? Your standard apologetic reaction is probably that Lewis began pondering how he knew evil in the first place. While he documents in Mere Christianity that this was a huge reason why he could no longer support an atheistic philosophy, this argument is surprisingly not how he questions himself here. In fact, such an answer is not at all addressed throughout the entire book.

Instead, C.S. Lewis asks the question, “If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator? Men are fools, perhaps; but hardly so foolish as that.” on page 3 of the book.

That certainly is a strange question to ask. Is it not so obvious? Even I myself when I was surprised by that question thought it was silly to ask. How does simply asking how men, in their foolishness, would conceive of a universe so full of death actually be in the hands of a powerful and good spirit, offer a single foundation-shaking argument to the atheist question of evil and suffering?

But the more I thought and read his argument on the matter, the more it struck me that C.S. Lewis was onto something I don’t think most apologists, even in the strictly rational, evidential world are aware of. Lewis begins quickly by shedding doubt on the obvious rebuttal from the skeptic; that the simple answer is our ancestors were cavemen–buffoons with not even half the scientific and progressive discovery of life we have today. Of course when they see lightning bolts, they may attribute to it some kind of god activity. Today, we know better. Easy answer… Or is it?

Lewis’s response to this is to say that the ‘nightmare size and emptiness of the universe’ was already known then just as much as it is today. In other words, the skeptic’s argument depends on the cognitive understanding of death in relation to their scientific understanding. The less they knew of science, the more they delved into mythology, says the argument. But when we step back, we see that the scientific understanding is irrelevant since the entire argument rests on the fact that the universe is filled with cold, overwhelming emptiness and death and suffering. It was known then just as it is today. It is therefore too simplistic and inconclusive to come to this position.

Lewis further details that many modern science books (in his day at least) asserted that the men of the Middle Ages were foolish enough to think the earth flat, but he rebuts this by saying that Ptolemy disproved this theory during this time. Our ancestors were not so foolish as we like to make them to be. In fact, so much of what we know today is built on the foundation they built. One might even say they were far more sophisticated and perceptive than we are today. What Da Vinci was able to do without a calculator is demonstrative that they were likely far smarter than we are. They simply did not have the technology then to do what we can now.

Therefore to dismissively imply our ancestors were ignorant and foolish is simply inconclusive and ahistorical . Lewis furthers this point by saying that not only is this insufficient, but that in light of our medical technology today compared to what they had then, our ancestors were contrarily far more aware of the reality of the dense darkness of the universe and yet religion dominated even more then. Lewis hence concludes that “religion has a different origin”.

The main point to be taken from Lewis’s argument is that we live in a world dominated by a philosophy of materialism. That is to say that all of reality that we can know can be made sensible purely by material and not non-material means, including religion. Anything that is not material is non-existent. But if religion does have a different origin, it cannot be explained by the materialist.

If such a simple answer as this will not work, the answer must be sought elsewhere.

The Experience of the Numinous

Lewis begins, therefore, to delve into the origin of religion. We are going to focus primarily on the first stage (but inquire somewhat into the others). He lists three elements in all developed religion, but in Christianity there is a particular fourth one not found present in the rest of religion. The first one is what Lewis says, quoting a professor in his time, the “experience of the ‘Numinous’”. Lewis goes on to explain what this is. I will briefly explain it here.

There are essentially three stages of the Numinous, according to this. The first stage of the Numinous experience is merely the fear of physical danger, and this is not a true experience of the Numinous. The example used is that of a tiger. The natural reaction to the idea of a tiger in the vicinity is often becoming startled and fearful. This is what we may call the fear of physical danger.

The second stage is what Lewis describes as “the fringes of the Numinous”, and that is the idea of, instead of hearing of a tiger, you hear of a ghost in the vicinity. Assuming one believed it, one would feel fear, just like before, but yet different and Lewis describes this fear as ‘uncanny’ or simply as Dread. It is not of physical fear, since a ghost, having no physical form, cannot inflict physical pain. Yet one fears it simply because it is a ghost.

The third stage would be considered Awe, and it would be triggered by the feeling that instead of a tiger (Physical Fear) or a ghost (Dread) it was a mighty spirit that was so far beyond you in every way. It would strike you with awe.

What is Lewis getting at here? His simple point for this present moment is that this pattern of the experience of the Numinous has haunted man for his entire existence. Man, unlike the rest of the animals, has a peculiar “sixth sense” if you will, in which he concludes that the universe was haunted by spirits. Lewis traces a long history of poetic literature throughout all mankind, all the way down to the very holy Scriptures themselves, the evidence that men have been haunted by the Numinous experience.

What then is all this to prove? Remember, the materialist says that all that we know about reality, and all that is true is physical in nature. Anything that is not physical is not worth believing and cannot exist in reality. This is their fundamental reason for their rejection of religion and the supernatural (in other words, the Numinous). But if this is true, how then did the idea of the supernatural come into existence? How can what is purely material spawn what is inherently immaterial?

This is where things get truly interesting as Lewis deals with this issue. Lewis writes:

“Now this awe is not the result of an inference from the visible universe. There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous.”

Chap. 1, Page 8.

In other words, the “Awe” is not something you can infer from the physical, material world. The skeptic would agree, but far from favoring his view, it actually provides at the very least, a two-edged sword. Because insofar as it is not able to be explained by material means, it is likewise not able to be explained away by material means. It has no origin in the material, and hence the material has no claim to its truthfulness. As soon as the materialist tries to explain away the supernatural (the Numinous) he must rely on non-material means. If he does not, he is already presupposing some form of supernatural means or otherwise ‘non-material’ means of its existence. Lewis writes:

“Most attempts to explain the Numinous presuppose the thing to be explained–as when anthropologists derive it from fear of the dead, without explaining why dead men (assuredly the least dangerous kind of men) should have attracted this peculiar feeling. Against all such attempts we must insist that dread and awe are in a different dimension from fear.”

Chap. 1, Page 9.

Let’s remember that Lewis is approaching this case as if a skeptic himself, using materialist presuppositions to see if they are adequate to explain man’s experience of the numinous. But the very fact that man has any conception of the supernatural actually puts a wrench into the entire idea of it being false. If man is entirely material, man can only make material conclusions about anything. “Not true!” the skeptic may cry, “Human beings have always come up with absurd, supernatural explanations for things that are perfectly explained naturally”. I don’t doubt this as a reasonable statement, but the skeptic is missing the point.

If all there is, as we have described, is merely the physical danger and not the other two stages of the numinous experience, then that means it would be impossible to attain to the other two by the physical dangers. Hence they ought not even be conceivable. There’s no way to get from the physical danger to the uncanny and more still, to the awe. There’s absolutely nothing in a bolt of lighting–in itself–that suggests that it has supernatural significance. To a creature that has entirely materialistic properties and therefore no connectivity to any higher perceptions of such things like lightning, it simply cannot follow that any such creature would come to any supernatural conclusion at all. The other animals certainly do not do this. Only man does. Let us quote C.S. Lewis once more as he explains this:

“You may say that it seems to you very natural that early man, being surrounded by real dangers, and therefore frightened, should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but let us understand what we mean. You feel it to be natural because, sharing human nature with your remote ancestors, you can imagine yourself reacting to perilous solitudes in the same way; and this reaction is indeed ‘natural’ in the sense of being in accord with human nature. But it is not in the least ‘natural’ in the sense that the idea of the uncanny or the Numinous is already contained in the idea of the dangerous, or that any perception of danger, or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them. When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.”

Chap. 1, Page 9.

When Lewis speaks of “a sheer jump”, what he means is there is no purely rational reason, and therefore no material reason for why man would ever make supernatural conclusions in the first place. Hence, the question the materialist should really be asking is not, “Why are men religious?” in the skeptical sense of ‘why are we so stupid as to be religious?’ but rather he should be asking, “How can it be that if man is but a natural being that there is any conception of the supernatural at all?”

At first sight, it seems as though the skeptic has a substantial argument against the idea of religion and spirits and supernatural existences. But in further, closer examination, his very own question poses a serious problem for his claims. And once more, if there was ever a time in which the supernatural idea of a wise and good Creator was least popular in history, so far from it being modern man, it was ancient man that should have far less likely have believed such preposterous things in light of the overwhelming death he was surrounded by and so little technological and medical amendments to such illnesses.

Lewis finally concludes on this point by leaving the question open to interpretation (yet with a slight sarcasm towards the materialist conclusion):

“There seem in, in fact, to be only two views we can hold about awe. Either it is a mere twist in the human mind, corresponding to nothing objective and serving no biological function, yet showing no tendency to disappear from that mind at its fullest development in poet, philosopher, or saint: or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given.”

Chap. 1, Page 10.

The Moral Experience

Our primary point has been argued, but I thought it fascinating to look into the other parts of the religious or supernatural experience all humans encounter.

The next contention Lewis moves on to is the moral experience. Lewis’s argument is primarily the same. Firstly that if we assume man has no transcendent, spiritual Creator, man is merely the product of natural events, i.e., the physical universe. But if this is so, why is a purely natural creature, with purely natural features producing unnatural thoughts? The physical world itself is not able to explain these.

Just as with the Numinous, or the supernatural, the moral experience also has no physical or material existence and yet it is inescapable to us. It is so much embedded within our thinking that all men feel a sense of guilt within their conscience that they must try and sedate in some way. Here again we run up against any idea that men were merely flirting with wishful thinking and desires to give meaning to their meaningless lives. History records that so far from trying to be vastly virtuous people, mankind is plagued with men trying to escape the moral guilt of their wickedness, going so far as to try and banish morality from their thinking altogether. Lewis writes:

“The actual behavior which the Numinous haunts bears no resemblance to the behavior which morality demands of us. The one seems wasteful, ruthless and unjust; the other enjoins upon us the opposite qualities. Nor can the identification of the two be explained as a wish-fulfillment, for it fulfills no one’s wishes. We desire nothing less than to see that Law, whose naked authority is already unsupportable, armed with the incalculable claims of the Numinous. Of all the jumps that humanity has taken in its religious history this is certainly the most surprising.”

Chap. 1, Page 12.

Lewis then goes on to document the remarkable reality that even the pagan and pantheistic religions, such as Stoicism, cannot escape the reality of the Law. He once more makes a skeptical conclusion; providing two explanations to the phenomenon (while once more, offering a kind of sarcastic remark towards the skeptic view) by saying:

“Once more, it may be madness–a madness congenital to man and oddly fortunate in its results–or it may be revelation. And if revelation, then it is most really and truly in Abraham that all people shall be blessed, for it was the Jews who fully and unambiguously identified the awful Presence haunting black mountain-tops and thunderclouds with ‘the righteous Lord’ who ‘loveth righteousness’.”

Chap. 1, Page 13.

The Fourth Element: The Christian Distinction

Remember that Lewis, throughout this chapter, goes through what he identifies as three elements of religious development. The first being the experience of the Numinous, the second being the Law, the third being the identification and connecting of the Numinous (the supernatural) with the Law and we concluded this with the Jews taking that full step. But why must it only be the Jews, one might ask? Lewis takes quite a leap from that point to concluding it was the God of the Jews who is the true Numinous experience connected with the inescapable Law. Why not Horus? Why not Zeus?

It is indeed the fourth element that makes the Christian distinction and makes it of infinitely greater significance than the rest. The fourth element is what Lewis calls “a historical event”, which I will let him describe:

“There was a man born among these Jews who claimed to be, or to be the Son of, or to be ‘one with’, the Something which is at once the awful haunter of nature and the Giver of the moral law. The claim is so shocking–a paradox, and even a horror, which we may easily be lulled into taking too lightly–that only two views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way. If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, you must submit to the second. And if you do that, all else that is claimed by Christians becomes credible–that this Man, having been killed was yet alive…”

Chap. 1, Page 13.

The Incarnation of the Son is the fourth element of religious development, and only the Christian faith has this element. It is the historical reality of the man Jesus. What makes the Christian view so distinct, among other things, is it has historical significance. The prophetic fulfillment of holy Scripture, not only in worldly events, but in the Christ himself. He was prophesied centuries before His coming in Scripture and there He is. This reality should give any sane human being immediate pause. It was this that, later when I reflect on my Christian journey, truly caught me and changed me forever.

And as Lewis said, we only have two options about this man. Many want to make Jesus part of their cause, but His entire life, to be truly known, must be understood by those who were closest to Him. Those characters are the authors of the gospels and what they said about Him connect Him emphatically to the ancient Jewish Scriptures as the Messiah, Imanuel, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Logos made flesh. This in itself, the reality of the Incarnation is the end of discussion. His existence cannot be denied; He is the single most significant character in all of history and the truth about Him can only be found in the gospels.

If all that I have said is true, then every person in the world is absolutely under obligation to find out who He was, and more still, who He is. He is of eternal significance and He cannot be simply ignored.