XI. The Sum of the Matter: "This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him."
When Jesus was transfigured before the eyes of his terrified disciples, a voice from the bright cloud that enshrouded the mountain declared, "This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him" (Matt. 17:1-6; Luke 9:28-36). The God who spoke through the prophets in the past would now speak to his people "by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things" (Heb. 1:1). God's "Word" become flesh to dwell among men and usher in a reign of "grace and truth" that would supercede the administration of law instituted by Moses (John 1:14-18).
This was a truly momentous event, and its implications had a life-changing affect on the early church. Peter, one of the witnesses to Jesus' glorification, understood its significance when he stood before a crowd of his fellow Israelites and proclaimed,
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus . . . For Moses said, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people." Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on . . . have foretold these days (Acts 3:13, 22-24).
Jesus himself, after his resurrection, commanded his disciples to spread the gospel worldwide, and to instruct all who would believe to obey - not the law of Moses - but everything he himself had commanded (Matt. 28:20).
Sadly, however, less than two centuries passed before the visible church had all but lost its sense of a Christ-centered redemptive history.328 Alien Greek philosophy had infiltrated the church at a number of critical points that seriously affected the interpretation of Scripture. K. R. Hagenbach observes,
[Scripture verses] undeniably used in respect to the historical Christ [were] confounded with the metaphysical and dogmatic use of the schools . . . [Not satisfied] with the Logos, as historically manifested in the Messiah, [the early fathers] frequently yield to speculation . . . mixed up with foreign philosophies.329
Another critical juncture for the early church was when Constantine made Christianity the official state religion throughout the Roman Empire. The effect was an obfuscation of the once clear distinction between church and state. From then on, Christian doctrine and practice was colored by political interests.330 This religio-political melding, mingled with philosophy, resulted in a visible church with expectations quite remote from the original New Testament vision.331 Instead of a suffering church armed with the gospel, it was a conquering church armed with the sword. Abraham Kuyper saw Constantine's establishment of Christianity by force as a "complete triumph of the Christian religion."332 But it had become a theocratic institution modeled after the Old Covenant, and the entire thrust of church life was more Mosaic than Christic. John W. Montgomery notes how this same Old Testament based vision also dominated Puritan thinking:
The most influential factor in creating a legalistic tone in Puritanism was doubtless the Calvinist stress on a single covenant in Scripture . . . which elevated the Old Testament to a position of great prominence in Puritan theology. Old Testament laws were indiscriminately applied to New Testament situations . . . Puritan-Calvinist preoccupation with the history of salvation in the Old Testament gave a special cast to the New England colonists' western dream . . . consistent with their Old Testament interests, they went on to identify themselves with Israel, reading their own history as the story of a New Chosen People.333
Shaped by this theocratic mind-set, the church functioned as though "under law." This loss of sensitivity to redemptive history resulted in a view of gospel and law as mutually essential components of saving faith. Salvation was seen to move from conviction by law to forgiveness in the gospel. "The gospel took on legal characteristics" and ended up being a servant to the law.334
It was a perspective that effectively blocked any possibility of arriving at a true New Covenant ethic. It was believed that only the law could command and only the gospel could offer promise. But the law was given in the context of the Abrahamic promise, and the gospel indeed included its own ethical demands. In both Roman and Protestant theology, however, the gospel became rigidly defined "always as the promise of forgiveness, and never a demand."335
Recent studies have once again affirmed the significance of redemptive history,336 and that a specific redemptive event is the foundation for the moral imperatives enjoined upon saints of either the Old or the New Covenant. God first acts and then commands. Only when this historical-redemptive principle is understood can the gospel be seen to include an ethical demand.
328. Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963, p. 4.
329. K.R. Hagenbach, A Text-Book of the History of Doctrine, I, New York: Sheldon and Co., 1864, pp. 124, 117.
330. Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrine, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1978, p. 87; Ronald Hanko, "The Arian Controversy," Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, March 1981, pp. 51, 60.
331. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980, pp. 16, 17, 38.
332. Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980, p. 646.
333. John W. Montgomery, The Shaping of America, Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1916, pp. 44-45.
334. Warner Elert, Law and Gospel, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967, p. 47.
335. Richard Detweiler, "Luther and Menno," Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 1969, p. 212.
336. F.F. Bruce, "The Grace of God and the Law of Christ: Study in Pauline Ethics," God and the Good, Lewis Smedes, ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975, pp. 2234.
This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 87-88.