The Potter’s Freedom by James R. White

When engaging in a debate it is important–rather let me say–it is imperative to represent your opponent’s view fairly and accurately. After reviewing your opponent’s position, your opponent should be able to say, “Yes, that is exactly what I believe.” Many books have been written, contributing to the theological discussion of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in the doctrine of salvation. Is God free to choose men to salvation? Is man free to respond by faith to the message of the gospel? White, an apologist for Calvinism, takes issue with an older work, Chosen But Free, written by Norman Geisler, in this book of his own, The Potter’s Freedom.

White has two main problems with Geisler’s depiction of extreme Calvinism (as Geisler calls it), moderate Calvinism, and Arminianism. The first problem is that Geisler redefines the terms of the argument. He calls himself a moderate Calvinist all the while defending the doctrine usually referred to as Arminianism. Thus, he appears in a slightly better light, while pushing his opponent into the dark corners of extreme Calvinism. The second problem is that in redefining the terms he has misrepresented Calvinism as a system of doctrine as most theologians understand it.

White clearly accomplishes his purpose in his book. He takes lengthy quotations from Chosen But Free to demonstrate the re-interpretations and misunderstandings. He walks through the cardinal doctrines (TULIP) of Calvinism and also shows how Geisler misrepresents them on the one hand, and how Geisler himself does not hold to any of them, making it a misnomer to refer to himself as a moderate Calvinist.

I do not recommend White’s book, however. I would recommend that White hire an editor who is not afraid to fix the style and remove unnecessary repetition. It drones after a while. The tone and rhetoric are too much for me. I am not a big fan of emphasis! and there is a lot of it once you get past the Introduction. If you are still interested, read the Introduction–it is really all you need, and it is well written. White complains that Geisler’s book does not contribute to the conversation but muddies the waters. I would, unfortunately, say the White has not really contributed anything either. The world did not need a 375-page response to Geisler. White could have said it all in a blog post.

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The Flood of Gilgamesh

The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is one of the greatest of Ancient Near Eastern literature. It narrates the story of a hero, Gilgamesh, whose quest for eternal life takes him through many adventures. Along the way, he finds a man name Utnapishtim who reached immortality, and relates to Gilgamesh his story. Utnapishtim says that the gods told him to build a ship in order to escape a great flood. The gods gave specific instructions on how to build the ship. Then his family and the animals boarded the ship. The flood came as a great judgment upon the people. The mountains were smashed, and “the landscape was as level as a flat roof.” After the rains subsided, Utnapishtim sent out a dove, then a raven. When they did not return, he knew the waters had subsided. He exited the ship and offered sacrifices. Enlil was not pleased that humans survived his wrath. Ea intervened, and Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife giving them eternal life.

For Christians, the significance of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the parallel story of the destruction of the earth by means of a flood. Utnapishtim is the biblical character, Noah, who built the ark according to Genesis 6. The specific points of comparison between the biblical account of the flood and Utnapishtim’s story are reflected in the ship, the sending out of the birds, the sacrifices afterwards, and the blessing. Though this portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh does not prove the historicity of the biblical flood, It is an interesting, and very ancient, corroborating tradition passed down outside of Israelite tradition.

Baal Cycles

The Baal Cycles are a series of stories pertaining to the Assyrian god, Baal. He is known as the great conqueror, and he was one of the most well-known gods of the Ancient Near East. In this particular account, a great feast is held at the house of El in the middles of a great mountain. Sea and River, two gods, are sent to request of El the release of Baal. El refuses unless some ransom is paid. Kothar, chief counselor of the gods, gives two clubs to Baal. The two clubs are named Driver and Chaser. Baal takes the clubs and destroys Sea and River. The chorus then sings his praises as the conqueror.

Anat, Baal’s sister, sings the tales of Baal the Conqueror. She goes to El in order to request that Baal have his own house. Evidently, Baal, his wife and children, all live in El’s house. El does not listen to Anat, but sends her to Kothar for counsel. Kothar sends her to Asherah, El’s wife, requesting that she approach El on her behalf. Asherah does so, El listens, and El requests Kothar to oversee the building of a house for El. The house is the heavens, the skies, and it is through a special window in the house that Baal can thunder so that those on earth can hear him.

Baal eventually dies so that he can go to the underworld. El and Anat mourn his death, and El sets up a new god in Baal’s place. Anat, mourning her brother’s death, seeks death herself to ask if he will relinquish Baal. He denies her request, and Anat kills him, and she spreads his carcass throughout the earth, so that anything it touches, plant, animal, or person dies. Anat, unable to locate Baal, goes to the Sun, who sees all. The Sun tells her where Baal is located. Baal and Death fight, and their strength was equal. Just as Death was about to gain victory over Baal, the Sun arose, frightened Death. Baal was once again exalted as Baal the Conqueror.

The significance of the Baal Cycles for biblical studies is that they give a clear picture of the mythology of the Ancient Near East at the time Israel was settling in the land. Baal and Asherah are well-known names in the Old Testament for the gods the Canaanites worshipped, and whom the Israelites were to stay away from. The fact that Baal thunders from the heavens is especially revealing in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, where Baal was the god of the rain and Asherah the goddess of fertility. Yet, Israel’s God was more powerful than either of them in withholding the rain for three years.

Enuma Elish

The Seven Tablets of Creation are more commonly known as the “Enuma Elish,” which receives its title from the first couple of words of the text translated as, “When on high.” It is an important document for Mesopotamia in that it explains the creation of the universe, mankind, and the rise of Marduk as the god of gods. OT scholars find the story important on account of its age and its description of creation.

The story line depicts the rise of Marduk to the highest ranking god by means of his defeat of Tiamat. Tiamat is the goddess of the seas or waters that are on the face of the globe. In ancient myths like this one, the god or goddess and their physical representation are often conflated. In this case, the Akkadian word tiamat means seas, but it is also the proper name of the goddess of the seas. Tiamat, however, is not the only god. Apsu, (land?) is her husband. Another god couple consists of Ea and Damkina who are the parents of Marduk.

As with many cosmogonies, the gods begin to fight with one another, and in this narrative, Tiamat is the antagonist. She raises an army from her own children in order to take by force the highest position amongst the gods for herself. Ea learns of her schemes, and seeks counsel from Anshar, evidently the eldest of the gods. Anshar asks for Marduk so that he might persuade him to fight against Tiamat. Marduk agrees to fight against Tiamat for a price–that he be exalted as the god of gods. Anshar agrees to the terms.

Marduk, then, marches off to battle Tiamat, and again we see the conflation of the seen and unseen worlds, for how can one do battle against the sea and gain victory. Marduk brings with him seven winds to assist him. As he approaches Tiamat, all of her children shrink back in fear of Marduk so that Marduk and Tiamat are left alone in hand-to-hand combat. In order to defeat her, he uses one wind to hold open her mouth, and a second wind to open her throat. With her distended, he then shoots an arrow down her throat, killing her instantly.

After the death of Tiamat, Marduk begins to arrange the world to his liking. He first splits Tiamat into two parts, placing one in the sky, and leaving the other on the ground. Thus, there is an expanse of water above the sky, and one on the earth, which is similar to the description found in Gen. 1:9-10. Then Marduk places the images in the sky, which would be the constellation of the stars. He also puts Ea and Enlil in the sky to dwell there. Finally, he creates mankind to serve the gods and to worship Marduk, the god of gods.

Marduk, when he created humankind, actually performed two wonders at the same time. He took Kingu, the chief of Tiamat’s army and her counselor, and he killed him. The reason for killing Kingu was to atone for the sins of the gods who rebelled. Then, with the spilled blood, he created mankind. On account of the fact that he redeemed the gods, they created a heavenly shrine to worship him. Marduk enjoyed the worship so much, that he asked them to build him an earthly shrine for mankind to worship him, and he called the shrine Babylon. At the dedication of this new temple, the gods praised the 50 names of Marduk, and so also his parents, Ea and Damkina came and worshiped him.

The significance for Old Testament studies is found in the parallels in the creation story: the dividing of the waters from above and below, the creation of the stars, the sun and moon, and of humankind. The long section of praise to Marduk also parallels passages in the Old Testament where God’s people exalt him and praise his name. The Enuma Elish does not correct the biblical narrative. It corroborates the creation account in Genesis, and the parallels perhaps help us to understand better the details of the biblical text.

Kingdom (Part II)

In Matthew 13, Jesus taught his disciples about the Kingdom by means of parables. The interpretation of these parables, as noted previously, has been debated, even amongst dispensationalists. The reason for the debate is the phrase “the mysteries of the kingdom” in verse 11. The question rests on the meaning of the term mystery.

Many dispensationalists interpret mystery as that which was not previously revealed. For example, in Ephesians, the church is called a mystery. In this context, it seems that Paul is indeed making this distinction. In the Old Testament, God did not reveal any teaching about the Church. That is, reading the Old Testament, no one will find any prophecies about the Church age.

If the word mystery has the same meaning in Matthew 13, then Jesus is teaching something about the Kingdom that was unknown in the Old Testament. Some dispensationalists understand this new thing to be a spiritual form of the Kingdom during the Church age. The spiritual form does not preclude the future, literal Kingdom, however. Instead, what Jesus teaches about the Kingdom is fulfilled during the Church age in his absense, even though the Kingdom and the Church are not equated. The true church is one part of his over-arching spiritual Kingdom.

For an example, the parable of the weeds is about a man who plants a field of grain. A villain plants weeds in the man’s field so that the grain and weeds grow up together. The grain and weeds must coexist until harvest because any attempt at removing the weeds early will destroy the grain. During harvest, then, the weeds and grain are both harvested, the grain brought into the barns and the weeds destroyed. If this parable refers to the Church age, then the grain refers to true believers, while the weeds refer to those who pretend to be believers. At the end of the dispensation, a judgment will separate the two groups.

Alternately, if the word kingdom has the same meaning that it has in the Old Testament, then these parables are not describing the Church age, but the Kingdom age. In this case, the interpretation is similar, but it departs on two points. First, the timing of this parable is during the future, earthly Kingdom, not during a mysterious form that takes place during the Church age. Secondly, the Judgment that separates the weeds and grain takes place at the end of the Kingdom age, not at the beginning of the Kingdom.

The Old Testament speaks often about the Kingdom of God to come. Because it does so, much of what is taught in these parables could be understood already; Jesus is not necessarily giving new information about the Kingdom. What he is doing is clarifying the misunderstanding the disciples had about the Kingdom and about the role Jesus plays in establishing his Kingdom.

There are two problems with the view of the mysterious form of the Kingdom. The first problem is that it is simply unnecessary. Interpreting the Kingdom parables as modern day Christendom is not a necessary interpretation. A valid (and better) interpretation could be had (i.e., the parables refer to the future, earthly Kingdom.).

The second problem is that it puts dispensationalists into an uncomfortable corner. One of the primary characteristics of Dispensationalism is consistent interpretation. It is one thing to say that Jesus is adding additional information to the Jewish doctrine of the Kingdom. It is another to say that the word kingdom has completely changed its meaning. It once was a physical Kingdom where Jesus sat on a particular throne over a particular people. Now it refers to the entire earth, both saved and unsaved, where Jesus reigns in some invisible manner. This inconsistent interpretation should not be allowed.

In conclusion, the best interpretation of the word mystery is that it has more than one possible usage. It does mean something newly revealed (as in Ephesians 1), but it could also mean something misunderstood, the true meaning of which is now being made clear. Thus, the parables of the Kingdom describe in more detail the nature of the coming Kingdom.

Kingdom (Part I)

The Kingdom is the subject of many passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Many of the prophets, particularly Daniel, discuss the coming Kingdom of the Messiah. Jesus also preached the Kingdom of God, as recorded in the Gospels. In Revelation 20:1-6, John reveals that the Kingdom lasts for 1,000 years.

The Kingdom is also a subject of much debate, even amongst dispensationalists. Some hold that the Kingdom is in some kind of spiritual form now. This teaching is based on the parables that Jesus relates in Matthew 13. On one hand, the dispensation of the Kingdom and the Kingdom itself are not necessarily equitable. On the other hand, the parables which Jesus spoke are about the Kingdom. So the question is whether the Kingdom is present or yet future. Is there such a thing as a spiritual Kingdom at all? The view presented here is that there is not a spiritual Kingdom and that the Kingdom is yet future.

The beginning of the kingdom is the coronation of Jesus Christ in the Kingdom. After the Tribulation and the Judgment, God will then make the New Covenant with his people Israel. Jesus Christ will fulfill the Davidic Covenant when he sits on David’s throne in Jerusalem. This will mark the beginning of the 1,000-year reign of Christ
(Rev. 20:4). Throughout the thousand years, the Kingdom will grow until eventually it encompasses the entire earth (Dan. 2). At the beginning, the Gentile nations will be in tribute to Israel, but by the end, the Kingdom will encompass the entire world.

The revelation given about how men and women on the earth will live during this time is quite abundant. Food laws will evidently change again, at least for animals. Worship shall be conducted in a new Temple, including a sacrificial system (Ezek. 40-48). Jesus Christ is the only one who will be worshiped on the earth. Christ will rule with a rod of iron, and righteousness will be upheld throughout the world.

The Kingdom ends with a final judgment and the destruction of the earth. Revelation 20:7 describes the great cleansing of the earth at the end of the Tribulation. People who are alive entering the Kingdom will marry and will have children. These children will grow, and they will need to be redeemed like any one else. Many of them will live in conformity to the laws of Christ, but they will not believe in him as Savior. Thus, one final rebellion is allowed to finally cleanse the earth from all evildoers, even Satan himself.

The cleansing is known as the Great White Throne Judgment. During this judgment, those who rebelled and those who have been living in hell the past 1,000 years, the Antichrist, Satan, and the fallen angels will all be cast into the Lake of Fire. Then God will destroy the known universe, and he will begin again with a new heaven and new earth—a new universe, untainted by sin.

The Kingdom, then, is God’s means of managing the affairs of mankind. His mediator is Jesus Christ himself. Therefore, man’s  responsibility is to live in service and obedience to the King. For those who do, long life and rich blessing await. For those who do not, swift and righteous justice await.

Tribulation

Dispensationalists wonder whether the Tribulation period is a dispensation of its own. If the definition adopted in the “Introduction” is applied to the Tribulation, then a distinction can be clearly made between the time of the Tribulation and that which comes before and after. The dispensation of the Church ended with the Rapture; therefore, the Tribulation is not part of that dispensation. On the other hand, the Kingdom is yet future; thus, there may be a distinction between the tribulation and the Kingdom.

Ryrie lays out three possible options as to whether the Tribulation is a dispensation in its own right. The first option is that the dispensation of Law is resumed, but of the verity of this option he is not convinced. It is true that an Israeli nation will build a Temple, and they will institute a sacrificial system. Those things in themselves, however, do not make a dispensation. One passage that is used to support this view is Daniel 9, which describes the 70 weeks that are appointed for Israel. Sixty-nine weeks are fulfilled, and the 70th is yet future. It should be noted, though, that the 70 weeks do not make a dispensation either. The first 69 weeks were part of the dispensation of Law—in fact, a small part of it. Moreover, if Christ completed the dispensation of the Law, then it does not seem reasonable that it would be resumed in the future.

Ryrie leans toward the view that the Tribulation is actually the end of the dispensation of Grace. This view is plausible if the emphasis is on the Gospel itself and not on the Church. Ryrie believes that God’s managing principle during the current dispensation is grace. He also believes God is gracious in other dispensations; he believes that men and women are saved in every dispensation. Yet, when he reads the New Testament, he finds an overwhelming emphasis on grace. He sees this same grace extended into the Tribulation period. For though the Church is no longer on the earth, and in spite of the great tribulation upon all mankind, multitudes are coming to Christ as Savior. For this reason, the concept has some merit.

In contrast to the idea of grace as the managing principle, this work has proposed that the Church is the managing principle. If this is the case, then the dispensation of the Church must end at its Rapture, and the Tribulation must be part of something other than the present dispensation. If the Tribulation is its own dispensation, then it must meet the characteristics of a distinct dispensation as put forth in the “Introduction.”

First, the Tribulation period has a beginning. It begins when the Antichrist makes a covenant with Israel. According to Daniel 9, the Antichrist will make a covenant of Peace with Israel at the beginning of the 70th week. It seems reasonable to assume that a short space of time will occur between the Rapture and the making of the covenant. The Antichrist will need some time to set himself up as a world ruler. After doing so, he will probably give to Israel a piece of land, make a covenant of Peace with them, and allow them to build a temple. In doing these things, the Jews will be deceived into thinking that the Antichrist is really the Messiah (See Ezekiel 34, 37).

Second, revelation will be given during the Tribulation in addition to that which is already revealed in both the Old and New Testament. Half way through the Tribulation, many of the Jews will be saved and will speak in tongues and prophesy (Joel 2). There will be 144,000 preachers sent out to preach to the nations around the world (Rev. 7) as well as the two witnesses (Rev. 11). Though there will be revelation, the question remains, does it speak to a new managing principle and a new responsibility?

Third, just as the Tribulation has a marked beginning, it also has a marked ending—that is the Coming of Christ and the Judgment. Revelation 19 describes Jesus as descending to earth from heaven to finally end the rule of the Antichrist on earth. Similarly, Daniel prophecies of the Kingdom of God that will destroy the kingdoms of men. The end of the Tribulation is demarcated by the coronation of Jesus as the King of the Jews.

Last, is God managing the affairs of mankind on earth in a new and unique way? If so, what are man’s new responsibilities? It is possible that the ruling principle is judgment or tribulation itself. After all, during the first half of the Tribulation, God’s wrath is poured out upon Israel. Once they repent and turn to God by faith, God turns his wrath toward the Gentiles. Even though he protects his people, there will be a great number of martyrs also. Thus, tribulation would characterize God’s managing principle. This leaves man’s responsibility, perhaps best described in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

One other view is possible. Similar to Ryrie’s view that the Tribulation is the end of the dispensation of the Church, it could be the beginning of, or the transition to the dispensation of the Kingdom. Two reasons support this view. First, the message of the witnesses and angels is the gospel of the Kingdom which parallels the preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself. The second reason is the close tie in Old Testament prophecies of the Day of the Lord and the Kingdom. In some cases, both are inferred by the phrase, “Day of the Lord.” Therefore, the empasis on the Kingdom during the period of time could tie the Tribulation to the Kingdom sufficiently. In this case, the Tribulation would not be its own dispensation.