Thursday, October 05, 2006

Owen's Eight Theses, Part II

Continuing in our response to Paul Owen’s Eight Theses. Once again, Owen’s statements will be in block quotation, followed by my response.
2. The boundaries of the Christian faith are entirely contained in the Bible, and are defined in the Ecumenical Creeds of the early Church. The first four Creeds mark out the limits of the Faith; the fifth and sixth Creeds rule out Nestorian and Monothelite interpretations of the Faith; the seventh Council applies orthodox Christology to a dispute over the use of images in worship.
This, again, is at odds with the Thirty-Nine Articles of Owen’s denomination, which states that only “three creeds” outline essential beliefs for the Christian, and that nothing beyond these beliefs can be binding on the believer’s conscience; namely, “Nicene Creed, Athanasius' Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed.” These “ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” But of ecumenical councils, the Articles (specifically Article XXI as we have already seen) have this to say:

“General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes. And when they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.”
3. The Old Testament Apocryphal books are useful for the promotion of piety in the Church, but are not to be looked to as a Rule of Faith for establishing doctrine.
Since I agree with this point there is no need to comment.

4. The “gospel” is a statement of the good news concerning what has been accomplished for the world through the Passion and the Glory of Christ. It is not to be identified with any particular interpretation of the mechanism whereby the good news is appropriated by believers. Justification by faith alone is a Protestant phrase which was intended to distinguish one interpretation of the meaning of justification from an understanding of the position of Roman Catholicism in the 16th century. Justification by faith alone is not the gospel; in fact, it is not even a part of the gospel, because the content of the gospel is what God has done for us through Christ, not what I must do to receive the benefit.

This is, at best, grossly overstated. The meaning of “gospel” in the New Testament, and all that meaning entails, depends entirely on the context of the passage in which the word occurs. On occasion, it is indeed limited to what Owen suggests above. But that is certainly not all it refers to. And to state categorically that it never refers to the appropriation of the benefits of Christ’s death to the individual is demonstrably wrong. First of all, an issue like this cannot be decided based merely on a bare lexical search of the noun euangelion (“gospel”). The verbal form euangelizo (“to proclaim the good news”) must also be taken into account. For instance, in Acts 14:15 Paul and Barnabas tell the people of Lystra: “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God.” Here the content of the “gospel” is personal appropriation of the death and resurrection of Christ; namely, to turn away from idols and toward God. Similarly, in Rom 10:15 Paul, quoting Isa 52:7 (“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news”--euangelizo), connects it directly with the act of believing with the heart and confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord (10:9-10). Indeed, this is the very “word of faith” Paul “preached” (10:8); namely, “Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved” (10:13). The very reason evangelists are sent out, according to Paul, is so that individuals can “call on his name and believe” (10:14-15). Far from Owen’s assertion, the act of believing and being saved is very much at the heart of the gospel--in fact, it is its goal.

The remote context in which both words are found must also be considered. According to Acts 15, a controversy had arisen over just how a man is justified before God (viz., whether or not one must be circumcised to be saved). It is in this context that Peter insists the “message of the gospel” was preached to the Gentiles through his own lips. Peter is here referring to the incident recorded in Acts 10 in which he as a Jewish believer had to be convinced by a vision from God that the Gentiles were to be included in God’s plan of salvation. Once he arrives at the house of Cornelius, the “message of the gospel” Peter proclaims to those in Cornelius’ household does indeed include the fact that Christ died and was raised on the third day, but it doesn’t stop there. It also includes the appropriation of that death and resurrection: “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (10:43).

In Acts 16:10, Paul concluded from a vision that God had called him to Macedonia “to preach the gospel to them.” Upon arriving in Macedonia, we find that one of the occasions in which Paul “preaches the gospel” is to the Philippian jailor, in which case the “gospel” is summed up in the simple command, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).

When speaking to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, Paul explicitly states that the ministry he has received from the Lord is “to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:25). Here the content of the “gospel” cannot be limited to the death and resurrection of Christ because it is described as the gospel of grace. The modifier implies that the appropriation of the benefits of Christ's death to individuals is in mind, and not merely a set of historical facts that have been accomplished.

But perhaps the most explicit statement on this score is found in Romans. In Rom 1:15, Paul says to the Romans, “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” Paul does just this very thing in the ensuing chapters of this letter. Hence, in the broader context of the book of Romans, particularly in chapters 3 and 4, the gospel does indeed include appropriation by faith to the individual: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (3:22). Indeed, “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "But the righteous by faith shall live" (1:16-17). The “gospel,” according to Paul, starts with the “wrath of God” against all mankind (1:18-32), moves to the attendant rendering of all without excuse and the consequent condemnation of all (2:1---3:18), concludes that the law has shut up all in sin and confined all under condemnation and that no one stands right before God no matter what they do (3:19-20), then culminates in the work of God in Christ in propitiating that wrath and providing atonement, and a clear proclamation of of just how that atonement is applied to the individual (3:21-31)—“righteousness through faith for all those who believe” (v. 22), “for we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (v. 28), “since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one” (v. 30).

For Paul, the proclamation of the work of God in Christ on the cross is inseparable from the proclamation of how it is applied to the individual--together, they make up the "good news." Hence Paul spends an entire chapter (4) elaborating on that application by appealing to the example of Abraham’s individual justification before God—indeed, not only to the example, but to the “mechanics” of justification (something Owen expressly denies). It is by faith and it excludes works (4:2-5)—that’s justification by faith alone. Any covenant work (in the case of Abraham, circumcision) is something that occurs after justification has taken place and is, for Paul, a sign and seal of something that takes place prior to that sign. That is the "mechanism" of the gospel that Owen denies is there.

Paul sums all this up in 5:1: “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is, in fact, just what the gospel is—the good news that we can have peace with God (cessation of hostilities) through faith in Christ, based entirely on the work of Christ. That is just how Peter characterizes it in Acts 10: "The word which [God] sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace (euangelizo eirenen) through Jesus Christ" (10:34-36; see also Eph 2:17 where Paul uses the same phrase).

In addition to this, Paul is concerned not to “empty the gospel of Christ of its power”; namely, “the power of God” to save us (1 Cor 1:17-18). If the gospel does not include appropriation of the benefits of Christ's death, what exactly is the “power” to which Paul refers? And what exactly does it mean to “hinder the gospel” in 1 Cor 9:12 if not to rob it of its opportunity to convert souls? When Paul proclaims that he does “all things for the sake of the gospel that [he] might become a fellow partaker of it” (1 Cor 9:20), it comes right on the heals of (and is in fact the summation of) his principle of “winning souls” in vv. 19-22, according to which he becomes a Jew to “win” Jews, becomes a Gentile to “win” Gentiles, becomes weak to “win the weak.” It is with this in mind that Paul proclaims he does “all things for the sake of the gospel.” In other words, “winning the weak,” and every soul he can for that matter, is not only included in Paul’s gospel, but is the direct outworking and the very goal of the gospel. Even in 1 Cor 15:1ff, where Paul identifies the elements of his “gospel” (Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, and was witnessed among men, vv. 3-5), the stated goal of all this is “by which you are saved” (v. 2).

Moreover, Paul emphasizes appropriation of the benefits of Christ's death in his phrase “the gospel of your salvation” (Eph 1:13), and characterizes it as something in which one actively participates (Phil 1:5). That “gospel” is further said to include as part of its content “the hope that is laid out for you” (Col 1:5). Again, appropriation of the benefits of the work of Christ is in mind here, not bare historic facts. Later on, Paul speaks of “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thes 1:8; cf. 1 Pet 4:17). What exactly is there to “obey” in the gospel if not the command to repent and believe, which is nothing less than appropriation to individuals? Hence, appropriation is part and parcel of the gospel.

Owen continues:
Galatians 1:6-9 does not turn justification by “faith alone” into a statement of the gospel, for Paul’s Judaizing opponents at Galatia did not deny justification by faith “alone.” They denied to faith any role in justification whatsoever, and insisted that it was through the Law, and not through the death of Christ, that justification was received (Gal. 2:16, 21). To deny that Christ has died for our justification would in fact be a denial of the gospel, but no orthodox Christian denies that.
Owen states this as though it is fact, when in fact no NT scholar I'm aware of holds it. I have addressed Owen’s reconstruction of the problem in Galatian vis-à-vis the Judaizers in the past, and will refer the reader there (the links I provide below will introduce it). More to the point, the “gospel” is nothing in Galatians if it is not precisely the mechanics of how a man is justified before God based on Christ's death—something that Owen has denied. Paul takes pains throughout this letter to insist that a man is justified before God by faith apart from works. It is this that he refers to as “the gospel which was preached by me” (1:11). The “different gospel” (1:6) is the addition of works (in this case circumcision) as a prerequisite to justification—which is really not “good news” at all, but is in fact a “distortion” of the gospel (1:7). The true gospel, the one the Galatians first received, is “that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, [and therefore] even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (2:16). Of those who would distort this, Paul insists he did not yield to their distortion “for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.”

Hence, to state, as Owen’s does, that (1) the gospel does not include anything about how a man is justified before God, (2) that the gospel does not specify the mechanics of that justification insofar as it is by faith alone to the exclusion of works, (3) that personal appropriation by faith is not part of the gospel, and (4) that Galatians has nothing to say about these questions is unequivocally false.

Owen continues:
5. Baptism by water is ordinarily necessary for salvation (John 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21). It both conveys and attests to our regeneration and forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Tit. 3:5). It is a sign of our spiritual renewal, and a reminder of God’s promises to all who belong to his family (Acts 2:39). It is the eschatological sign of the Abrahamic covenant which has been effectually ratified through Christ’s blood (Col. 2:11-12). Therefore, the sacrament of baptism should not be denied to the children of Church members (Acts 16:15, 31-33).
I have fully answered this point in a previous I had with Dr. Owen on this very issue. Here are the links:

Link 1 ; Link 2 ; Link 3 ; Link 4 ; Link 5 ; Link 6 ; Link 7 ; Link 8 ; Link 9 ; Link 10 ; Link 11 ; Link 12 ; Link 13 ; Link 14 ; Link 15 ; Link 16 ; Link 17 ; Link 18 ; Link 19

Owen continues:
6. The Eucharist is a covenant meal which is celebrated by members of Christ’s Church in remembrance of the benefits which were secured through the Passion of our Lord (1 Cor. 11:23-26). When the bread and wine are consumed through the mouth, with faith expressed in the heart, the souls of the faithful are nourished by the body and blood of Jesus unto eternal life (John 6:27-29, 35, 53-58).
I confess, I do not know just what this means. Statements like this are usually left vague for a reason. What does “nourished” mean? What does “unto eternal life” mean? Does the “soul of the faithful” forfeit eternal life if he does not partake for whatever reason? Is participation in the Lord’s Table necessary to be saved? Unless and until Owen clarifies what he means by these things, I can neither agree nor disagree with them. As for Owen’s points 7 and 8, I’m not sure my disagreement with him on those points (if there is one) is passionate enough to spend time examining them. I’ll settle for the points I’ve already addressed.