Apostasy Was Doctrinal in the Formation of the Old Covenant: Part I

Doctrine and Division, II.1.1

We have mentioned in passing that one of the modern objections to systematic theology is that it is inherently opposed to the way that the biblical authors expressed themselves. This comes to mean that biblical theology is more narrative than systematic and that we run counter to that dramatic flow of the story to the degree that we dig our logical circles down into the soil of the text. Leaving aside that false dichotomy for the moment, we should at least say that biblical revelation is a story. It is more than a story, of course, because every story is also a system and a true story must also be history that can be seen and experienced once the book is closed. But the sense in which the Scriptures are a narrative is just that there is a beginning and an end, a rhyme and reason, an Author with a creative imagination and a motive, a main Character and his antagonist, a tragedy and a hope and a plot with a climax on which everything turns, and, in this case, it really is everything that turns! Now what is the place of doctrine and division in that story? That is what these next three chapters are about. It was Dorothy Sayers who said that “the dogma is the drama,”[1] and, in an instrumental sense, we will see that she was right.

Let us then look, from Genesis to Revelation, in the order in which the books of the canon appear, to see the divine-to-human activity where the vision of his communication (doctrine) both creates the new life of his people and divides the old life of those who are deceived about being his people (apostasy). The Word creates and gathers and raises up to heaven; and the same Word hardens and repels and scatters in the other direction. That is the sense in which Sayers meant that the dogma is the drama; or that the story of redemptive history moves, like the continuous cycle of new birth and the shedding of old skin in nature, to the creative and apostatizing rhythm of doctrine and division. What we will see is that this view from the divine to doctrine to division is just what we have always meant by the supernatural view, and any lesser view as a naturalistic view.

Creation, Fall, Redemption and New Creation as the Template

The first eleven chapters of Genesis form a unity of the Lord’s initial work of creation and dealing with the generations of Adam. And this initial account of the divine relationship to the fallen race provides a template for the rest of redemptive history. He creates man in a covenant relationship to himself; man sins and is separated; the Lord saves a few in a narrow strip of wood upon a sea of judgment; He begins anew. When the cycle of rebellion and exile recurs at the Tower of Babel, the new creation is anticipated in the calling of Abram from the land of the Chaldeans. This is a template not least because it is at the beginning of the story.

The word Genesis means beginnings. This first book of the Pentateuch gives us the beginning of the cosmos, the beginning of history, the beginning of social institutions and, most centrally, the beginning of the redemption story: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” [1:1]. This encompasses the whole of the old world, with each molecule and graviton being spoken into existence by the decree “Let there be light…an expanse…vegetation…lights in the expanse…Let the waters swarm…birds fly…Let the earth bring forth living creatures” [1:3, 6, 11, 14, 20, 24]. But notice that the decree also issues forth in a division: “God separated the light from the darkness” [1:4], “the waters from the waters” [1:6], “the day from the night” [1:14], separating the genomes of plants and animals, “each according to its kind” [1:12, 21, 24, 25]. So the Word gives and the Word takes away: the creative Word separates and subordinates, it presses down even as it raises up. At first division is diversity and it says something good about God. Everything God communicates is a happy communication. He is busy with positive creativity. Even where the light and darkness are separated, as they must be, He pronounces the goodness of light but doesn’t bother to mention the evil of its absence.

It is a divine algorithm that expands forth into all diversity and yet each command is what it is and not it’s contrary. In other words at the beginning of Genesis we see the beginning of information informing, the beginning of the doctrinal helix that issues forth into the dividing lines that form every detail of the story. And that includes the conscious reaction of individuals and groups. So the climax of the six days of creation is the forming of a being a little like himself: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” [1:26], then just as in the Godhead there is unity and diversity, the Lord says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” [1:27]. Man and woman, coming together, reproducing more image bearers are a triune reflection of glory. Even as He joins them as one flesh, He divides them as to sex. The tasks they are given are to multiply [1:28], have dominion [1:28], cultivate [2:15] and to name [2:19] and to know [2:20, 24], so all of the elements of human culture are set forth. All five of these vocations come from the call of God (vox Dei) and what they call forth is division through doctrine. What man and woman multiplies is life against death, what they have dominion over maintains the distinction between good and evil, what they cultivate will bring order out of what would descend to disorder, what they know is set against ignorance, and what they do is love rather than hate. At every point man is both a lens of God and a damn against the blood-dimmed tide of anarchy that would be loosed upon the world, to steal a line from Yeats.

The first glimpse we have of apostasy in the Bible is the contrast between the command in the second chapter and the disobedience in the third. This falling away is doctrinal in that there are two competing truth claims vying for the first couple’s attention. First it is God who says to the man, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” [2:16-17]. Second it is the serpent who says to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” [3:1]. When Eve had corrected the serpent’s misquotation only by adding one of her own, he continued, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” [3:4-5]. Here we have two diametrically opposed visions of the nature of truth, freedom and goodness. The consequences were more than simply life or death, but of fellowship with or separation from God. And those who were affected were not simply Adam and Eve, but all who would be born to their race. This is the nature of doctrine and division. Everything is at stake and it is always at stake for everyone who comes after.

In the curse and the fallout after Eden we see the origins of two seeds. To the serpent the Lord decrees, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” [3:15]. The build-up and the climax of this cosmic struggle are a divine decree on the one hand—“I will put”—and unfolded throughout the written word of God on the other. Divine words are dividing worlds. One city is being raised up and the other city raises itself in jealousy against it. The first generation of the offspring live this out as Cain murders his brother Abel. Both are summoned to the Lord for a worship offering, yet, “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell” [4:4-5].

It was not only the face of Cain which fell, but his whole line formed cities and culture which further defied the God who made them. But “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, ‘God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” [4:25]. It was in his line that “people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” [4:26]. We can see the generations of Adam, through Seth, placed in contrast to “the wickedness of man” [6:5] accumulating up until the time of Noah.

The fact that Noah “did all that God commanded him” [6:22, cf. 7:5], while those who heard the righteous man preach scoffed and fell away from the ark into the flood, tells us that two ultimate views of reality issued forth into judgment and salvation. Noah and his family did not seek the destruction of the wicked. They sought obedience. The destruction of the wicked was simply the necessary consequence for their disobedience. It was the Lord who closed the door of the ark and “shut him in” [7:16]. Likewise on the other side of the flood, when the creation mandates are reaffirmed to Noah and his descendants, it is not primarily against disobedient mankind that the man or woman of God pursues obedience, but it is for the glory of God.

Now when the Lord judged the rebellion of the Tower of Babel and dispersed the ethnos along with their languages, this division comes from God. Moreover there is a judgment against the attempt to ascend to the heavens by the will of man and there is a mercy in the boundaries between people groups. One of the basic lies of the modern world is that secular man is for diversity and against division. But that only tells half the tale. The modern social planner is only for a diversity of cultures that divide the population so that they can be easily controlled, and he is against a solidity of cultures that would keep political entities smaller and independent of his control. What happened at Babel was nothing less than a one-world government rooted in a singular demonic cult. The word ‘babel’ originally meant “the gateway of the gods.” God kindly drew boundaries against sinful man’s globalizing aspirations of total power. The formal cause of that division was cultural-linguistic, in other words, a division of doctrine.

The very form of Genesis divides between the nations in Adam (Chapters 1-11) and the new nation in Christ (12-50). It is necessarily the beginning of the story of a God-wrought division. Once the rebel race is put back into their place, they have still learned to be idolaters. Ur of the Chaldeans was one of the most notorious such pagan cities. However, “the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” [12:1]. The word of the Lord moved Abram to divide from his homeland and kindred. He did not seek division, only the blessing that he was promised. Division was a necessary byproduct. Likewise when he and his wealth divided from Lot and his wealth, the two men saw different visions when it is said that “Lot lifted up his eyes” [13:10] to the secular city, and the Lord said to Abram “Lift up your eyes” [13:14] to the everlasting promise. The two opposing doctrines made the division, and the way of Lot may be called an apostasy which was judged most severely in the fire that fell on those cities. He escaped only by the sheer mercy of God in response to Abraham’s prayer.

What follows is a family line where the inheritance is at stake. It may seem to the newcomer to the Bible that these events are no different than in any other ancient patriarchal family. But we will notice that in three successive generations, the heir to the family wealth is always upset by an unlikely replacement. First the reversal of the natural order is undone by the miraculous birth of Isaac; then this reversal is accomplished by neglect and treachery in Jacob; then finally by even worse sins than that. If there were not something deeper going on, the reader would chalk all of this up to vicious twists of fate. But the truth is that God was raising up to himself a supernatural seed out from the dust of the old age. And when the new life emerges, the old moves aside and is often cast down altogether. Ishmael and Esau were pushed aside as mere topsoil; Simeon, Reuben and Levi remained with the root yet pointed upward to the fourth in line, Judah.

This was no dead word that failed to make its hearer alive. As far as Abraham, who was beginning to think that the Lord’s promise depended upon nature:

And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness [15:4-6].

There was no distinction that this man sought but to see the promise of God come true. This is the distinguishing mark of the believer—namely, belief—and this simple trust in God is what separates one offspring from another. Whether Abraham understood it or not, God’s plan was to recreate humanity in these descendents of Abraham: “I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” [17:6].

Circumcision was the sign of the covenant. It was an act which symbolized cutting off as unclean, so as to mark the separateness of the people. Indeed whoever did not keep the sign of cutting off would himself be “cut off from his people” [17:14]. Thus the very community that would usher in God’s new people of everlasting love would be characterized by their separateness from other people groups. This is frankly a stumbling block that emerging forms of “Christianity” attempt to recast as Israel’s failure to embrace others. No doubt Israel would fall short of that evangelistic component of their calling. But it is a serious error to miss the fact that separateness was also crucial to God’s plan for his people. Fire, sulfur and salt would mark the final work of division of that which Abraham turned from and Lot did not.

Now when the Lord fulfilled his promise and Isaac was born, what was the source of the division which ensued? Was it any pressure that the child of promise intended to bring upon the child of the flesh? Not at all. Ishmael would oppose Isaac, and Paul goes as far as to call his mockery “persecution” [Gal. 4:29]. It was that enmity spoken of way back in Genesis 3:15 between the two seeds, and there is no escaping it. Consequently, Sarah’s demand to cast out the slave woman and her son was from God [cf. 21:10-12]. The man of faith’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, his seeking out a bride from among his own, and his choice of burial grounds for his wife and himself, all this separated him from everyone around him. Yet all of it was done to gain God, and not to make himself a stench to his neighbors.

The most descriptive form of abuse against the chosen seed is appropriately enough when the sons of Israel oppress the type of Christ. Joseph’s brothers are set against him because he is the father’s favorite, clothed in royalty and authority, and coming from afar to supervise them, they conspire to hand him over to Gentiles for pieces of silver. He came to his own with a word from their father, but his own did not receive him. He was condemned to die between two prisoners in the place of bondage. Both men dreamed, but the interpreter’s word sent one to the palace and the other to die.

Even in the midst of the greatest power on earth, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do” [41:25]—“the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” [41:32]. Consequently when Joseph was exalted from his death to the throne, the most powerful man in the world said to him “all my people shall order themselves as you command” [41:40]. “Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain” [41:57], but only his chosen brothers would be welcomed into the royal house. The word of God summoned a great famine to the Middle East [cf. Ps. 105:16], dividing supply lines, then the family, and once in Egypt they are put to the test by the clever word of the king, which divides them again. Each event was orchestrated by the eternal decree over global climate patterns and over the evil intentions of the previously jealous brothers, so that they are surprised to hear in the end, “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” [50:20]. The divisions of doctrine are ultimately meant by God for a perfectly good end.

[1] Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (Harcourt and Brace, 1949); p. 3

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