Thursday, February 25, 2010

Was Elijah Afraid?

This post was prompted by a remark that a friend posted on Facebook the other day. After events at Mt. Carmel, Jezebel sends a threat to Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-2). Verse 3 then begins, "Then he was afraid" (ESV). Or does it begin, "And when he saw that" (KJV and NKJV)? The difference here is as follows:

1) The Hebrew text was originally written with consonants only, as the vowels were understood. Later, as the knowledge of the language began to wane, a system was developed to mark the vowels so that the correct pronunciation of the text would not be lost.

2) The consonantal text at the beginning of 1 Kgs 19:3 reads vyr'. The standard Hebrew text with vowels has this as vayyar', which means "and he saw."

3) However, a few manuscripts of the vocalized text (i.e., the text with vowels) have it as vayyira', which means "and he feared."

4) This second reading is backed up by the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, which has ephobethe "and he was afraid." "And he was afraid" is also found in the Syriac version and the Latin Vulgate.

5) However, if the reading should be "and he was afraid," the expected consonantal text would be vyyr', which would be vocalized as vayyiyra'. This is not what the vast majority of manuscripts have.

6) It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the problem originated with the Septuagint, where a less than fully careful translator simply misread the text (not entirely uncommon in the Septuagint version of 1 & 2 Kings). This mistake probably also lies behind the Syriac and Vulgate readings, because both of those versions were affected by the Septuagint.

In my estimation, the KJV/NKJV rendering is more likely correct.

What significance does this have interpreting the text? First, it removes fear as the primary motive for Elijah's flight. That is, he appears (from what we learn later in the story) to have been motivated more by pride (I alone am left), frustration (the showdown had convinced Ahab, but not Jezebel), and disappointment, than by fear. It is the resulting sense of failure that then drives him to Horeb.

All that being said, most modern English versions reach the opposite conclusion from the one I have reached. Both formal equivalence translations (ESV, NASB, NAS(Update), Holman CSB, and NRSV) and dynamic equivalence translations (NIV, TNIV, NLT, etc.) have some variation on "Elijah was afraid."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Follow-Up on Infant Baptism

In response to my previous post, Arthur wrote:

So based on your line of reasoning, someone who is elect but not baptized by their believing parents is not part of the covenant community but someone who is not elect and will spend eternity in hell is part of the covenant community because their parents sprinkled them with water as an infant?

In short, yes. But in order to avoid possible confusion, let me add a word of explanation. By “covenant community” in the prior post, I mean the visible church. There are, as it were, two churches of God: the invisible church, “which consists of the whole number of the elect,” and the visible church, which “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and their children.” (For a fuller, but brief statement, see the Westminster Confession of Faith, ch 25, available with appended Scriptures at Baptism, as a sign of the covenant properly belongs to all those who are legitimate candidates for membership in the visible church; that is, those who profess the true religion and their children. The children have the right to the sign, which God considers very important. But if the parents withhold the sign from them, God considers them no part of his visible church. On the other hand, a child of parents who profess the true religion may be baptized. In that case he is legitimately a part of the visible church, with all the rights and responsibilities of its members, and subject to its discipline, even though he may not be elect. Nonetheless, because he has rightly received the sign of the covenant, God considers him to be rightly a member of the visible church.

Just to make it clear, the visible church is not identical to the invisible church. That there is overlap between them is certainly the case, as in those intersecting Venn diagrams that plagued us all as children in early math classes. But one may legitimately be a member of the visible church, even if non-elect. Likewise, an elect person, for various reasons, may not have received the covenant sign of baptism.

Now to give a couple of illustrations. Jacob and Esau both received the sign of the covenant, and were legitimately members of the visible church. Esau, however, was not of the elect (see Mal 1:2-3 and Rom 9:13), hence not a member of the invisible church. Judas Iscariot had received the sign of the covenant, and was legitimately a member of the visible church. He was even legitimately one of the twelve apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Matt 10:1-4). But he also was not elect, and his betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide proved that he was no member of the invisible church.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thoughts on Infant Baptism

Infant Baptism: The Advantage to the Child

A question often asked of those who argue for infant baptism is, “What good does it do the infant?” Those who ask this question generally think they have nailed the defender, as there is no obvious benefit to the infant. The infant hardly seems to be aware of what is transpiring, let alone being aware of any benefit. Many who were baptized as infants, coming to faith as adults, desire to be baptized as adults, rationalizing that their baptism didn’t mean anything to them.

Such an approach to baptism, however, fails to recognize the true character of baptism, and fails also to recognize the real benefit of the rite to the infant. As to its true character, baptism (infant or adult) is not a public profession of a faith in Christ already acted upon. This view of baptism is readily drawn from a mistaken examination of Acts 2, which is then imposed on other texts having to do with baptism. The main problems with this understanding of Acts 2 are that first, it makes the mistake of drawing doctrinal conclusions from narrative texts; and second, it fails to recognize the transitional character of the situation in Acts 2.

Baptism rather is a sign of the covenant. That baptism is a covenant sign follows from the identification of circumcision and baptism (Col 2:11-12), the continuity of the covenant in the church with the covenant with Abraham (Gal 3:9-14), and the identification of circumcision as a covenantal sign in Gen 17. Baptism is thus a sign upon the recipient that he or she is recognized as a member of the covenant people of God. (There is obviously more to it than this, but for the purposes of this short exposition, this is adequate.)

If baptism is the New Testament equivalent of circumcision, and thus a covenant sign, we must look to the Old Testament and its discussion of covenant signs in order to determine what the advantage there is for the infant who is baptized.

The first covenant sign mentioned in the Old Testament is the rainbow (Gen 9:8-17). In this passage, we learn that the covenant sign is not for man only. Certainly it is understood that man benefits from seeing the rainbow, and remembering that God has established this as a sign that he will not again destroy the earth by a flood. But the emphasis of the text itself is on the importance to God of the sign. “When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh” (Gen 9:14-15). That is, the sign functions for God. The same thing occurs in regard to the second covenant sign discussed in the Old Testament (circumcision—Genesis 17). “My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant” (Gen 17:13-14). That is, if God does not see the sign of the covenant in the child, he considers that child no member of the covenant people. This understanding is what lies behind the otherwise cryptic passage in Exodus 4, regarding Moses on his return to Egypt (vss 24-26). Moses was being sent to lead the covenant people out of Egypt, but he had not obeyed God in having his own sons circumcised. Thus his own sons were cut off from the covenant people. So Zipporah performed the circumcision, laying the foreskin at Moses’ feet, and calling him a bridegroom of blood. The involvement of Zipporah was probably due to her having opposed the circumcision in the first place. Thus also her exclamation to Moses, “You are a bridegroom of blood.”

God takes the covenant sign seriously. Thus a child, who would otherwise be a member of the covenant people, God considers him to be no part of the covenant people if he does not have the sign of the covenant. So a child of believing parents who is not baptized is considered by God to be none of his. It matters not how much care the parents may lavish on the child, or how much they may teach him the Bible. They have disobeyed God on one point, and their children are cut off.

The advantage to the child is thus two-fold. First, God considers that child a member of the visible church. Thus, according to his promise, he blesses all the parents’ efforts on behalf of the child. This is not to say that God may not bless the efforts of parents who are disobedient in the matter of the covenant sign. But such parents have no promise from God that he will bless in their labors.

[Just as an aside, it is curious to me that Presbyterians actually make more out of baptism than Baptists do. Baptists apparently, for example, see no problem with repeated baptisms, as long as the subject of the repeated baptism considers that he wasn’t really converted when he was first baptized. Second, Presbyterians talk about improving our baptism (LC Q 167), making everyone’s baptism important to us, whereas the Baptist sees baptism as of real importance only for the professing believer being baptized.]

Monday, February 08, 2010

Current Projects

Some of you might be interested in my current projects. First, I am working on two papers regarding Calvin's commentaries on the minor prophets, one on Micah, and one covering Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. These will be chapter in a book being edited by my friend Byron Curtis, who teaches at Geneva College.

Second, I am reading my paper "Englishing the Bible: English Bible Translation and Its Purposes." at the Spring Theology Conference. See the seminary website ( for details.

Third, I will be reading a paper at the Southeast Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (March 19-20 at North Greenville University), "'Uncovering the Nakedness of''; Is This a Euphemism for Sexual Intercourse, or is it Something Else?"

I have also submitted a paper proposal for the 2010 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (in Atlanta) dealing with the imagery on the Song of Songs. I hope that will be accepted, because the approach I am considering would radically re-orient the approach to the Song.