Wednesday, August 3, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Covenant - Our Story (Part 1)

Narrative and History

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant (WCF 7:1)

Narratives have a beginning and an end. History likewise starts somewhere and has an end. The history of World War I normally begins at the flashpoint of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, although historians will look further back for causes that led to the war. The end of World War I is at the signing of the Versailles Treaty that formally ended the war. Narratives, stories and histories — all these give us a sense of what is happening and why, and place people and events in the stories in context.

When we ask question about who we are and why we are here, these questions can only be properly understood from the viewpoint of our Creator God. And the Creator God is the Lord and Creator of all things, and thus He is Lord of history. History is His story, and we living in our times situated in this story. The small narratives of our lives, from our births to our deaths, intersect with the far grander scale of God's big story from the beginning of this universe to its end.

God is God, and as such He is infinite. How can we finite creatures understand an infinite God? The Scriptures of course is God's revelation to us, and through that authority, we can come to know Him. But how about God working in history? To just have the Scriptures without the stories in Scripture is to make Christianity about absolute principles only, and God is thus a remote deity of laws and rules. The narrative in Scripture however shows us the greater story of the world we live in, and help us to know our place in it. It shows us how God works, and how we are to relate to this God who has shown us who He is and what He has done.

Covenant - Structure of the story

Inherent in Reformed doctrine is the view that the notion of "covenant" is the thing that holds the story of God's working in history together; God works and relates to the world through the making of covenants. "Covenant" can be described as an agreement made by one or more parties that describe how the parties are to relate to each other. As God's story, all covenants are unilaterally imposed, which is to say that God alone makes up the rules of how the relationships between Him and others work. But each covenant can be either unilateral or bilateral in the conditions each side has to fulfill to continue the relationship. Through a succession of covenants, God's story and the history of the workings of the universe unfolds.

The true story of the world

In this world, many people have a view of history, the "secularist" view, that omits God out of the picture. The history of the cosmos for them starts with the Big Bang, followed by billions of years of star and solar system development, then about 4.5 billion years of changes on the earth. Humans evolve from primordial apes within the last million years, human civilization started a few thousand years back, complete with religions, arts and sciences. The universe will continue to develop and atrophy a few billion years more, and the ultimate end of history will either be the heat death of the universe, or a big crunch destroying the universe (and perhaps starting a new one). In this view of history, each human individual lives a life that has no true meaning, only creating meaning for him or herself. Joining a cause (social, political, philosophical, religious) in this scenario has as much to do with, or even more than, creating meaning in life as it is about the exact details of the cause. Or one can focus on getting wealth and on personal pleasure and enjoyment in this life as one's meaning in life. One's personal story in the secularist view is subjective, and for the most part function independently of the story of our universe.

Over and against this view of the world's history is God's view of history, which God asserts to be the only true account of history. In God's view of history, it begins with God in eternity, then God creates the universe, and then mankind. The first couple Adam and Eve however disobeyed God, causing disruption to happen to the world, following which they were removed from God's presence. Until the time of Christ, humanity were living in darkness and sin, until Christ came and the Gospel is being proclaimed to the nations. As people repent, they are saved from their sins and wickedness as the Gospel goes forth. This time between Jesus' first and second coming is our time. When Christ comes again in the future, there will be judgment of the wicked, and the burning up of the current universe leading to the renewal of the universe into the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness and peace will once against rule the earth from the throne of Almighty God.

As it can be seen, the secularist view of history and God's view of history is in conflict with each other. Both cannot be true. Granted, there are lots of places where overlap is possible, but on the major events, the two contradict each other. Which account is true? The Scriptures, being our ultimate authority, say that the biblical story is the true one. How are we then to understand why the secularist story is false?

The question is which one is true ultimately stems from which authority do we believe in. On the Christian side, we have God and the Bible. On the secularist side, we have what is known as empiricism, that is the study of the world through scientific experiments. Science of course has been a great tool to understand the world and to improve our lives. But is it competent to understand the history of the world and is future?

To this question, we must say no. In order for science experiments to proceed, two of the three conditions must be known: the initial conditions, the final conditions, and the process or law that affects the thing being studied. When it comes to history, we have the final conditions, we guess the initial conditions, and we assume the processes are either uniform or that there are no changes along the way to the system being studied. Only the final conditions are known, while the other two can be guessed but cannot be proven as fact. When it comes to the future, we have the initial conditions, and we assume a close system for our experiments, which on a cosmic scale might not be true. Basically, when it comes to history and the future, science has insufficient evidence to prove anything definitively. What we have at best are theories based upon good guesswork.

Even that is insufficient however, for we note that science, due to its method, must assume the workings of God to be absent. That is good for dealing with normal processes in the world, but not if God has actually intervened in history. If God is excluded on a matter of principle, then of course any act of God cannot be comprehended by science.

The problems with the secularist narrative of the world should be plain by now. First, it is incapable of proving anything definitely, and the assumptions it makes to produce its narrative might be, and some of them are, false. For example, if God actually caused a worldwide flood in the time of Noah, then the assumption that the current rate of erosion and deposition of soil cannot be extrapolated into the past to derive an age of ancient geological structures. Second, it assumes a closed system where God does not work, but God does work in miracles, and therefore science by definition cannot know if miracles have or have not happened.

The Christian view of history thus stands on the authority of the all-knowing God, and Reformed Christian believe in God's authority more than the fallible interpretations and sometimes unwarranted conclusions of those who abuse science to create secular meta narratives of the world. In the end, the question is: Who do you trust? Do you trust in the words of God, the One who claims to give eye-witness account of history, or do you trust in the guesswork of men? The Reformed church, while not denigrating science, keeps science to its proper sphere and believes in God's view of history above the world's view of history.

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