Keith A. Mathison

The Purpose of Biblical Archaeology

Written by Keith A. Mathison |
Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Biblical archaeology serves the purpose of Christian apologetics, probably more so today than at any other point in history. In previous centuries, fewer people directly attacked the historicity of Scripture. Today—in the West at least—many people dismiss the Bible as legend or myth. Many individuals assume that the stories of the Old Testament were invented by the Jews of the postexilic period to legitimize themselves. The stories of Jesus found in the Gospels, it is assumed, were likewise invented by the early Christians to legitimize their beliefs. The stories of the Bible, so it is claimed, have no more to do with real history than the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Have you ever wondered why the Apostles’ Creed mentions Pontius Pilate? The Apostles’ Creed is very concise, and yet in its second article on the Lord Jesus Christ, it includes a brief statement about Christ’s suffering “under Pontius Pilate.” Why is that important? In a nutshell, it is because Christianity is a historical religion. The events narrated throughout the Bible occurred in real-world history, in real geographical locations, among real people such as Pontius Pilate.
The events of the Bible did not occur in an imaginary world like Narnia or Oz or the Shire. They did not occur in fairy-tale worlds. The world in which Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived is the world in which you and I live. The world in which Jesus suffered and died is the world in which you and I live. The rivers and seas, the hills and valleys, the cities and empires encountered in the Bible existed in real-world history.
It is because the events of the Bible occurred in the real world that archaeology is relevant. Archaeology is “the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains” (Oxford Languages). For many of my generation, our first exposure to archaeology was through watching the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The hero of that film, Indiana Jones, was an archaeologist with a knack for getting caught up in adventures that spanned the globe. I suspect that the lives of most archaeologists don’t involve quite that much adrenaline.
Real archaeologists look for sites where human beings lived and worked. A lot of preliminary research is involved in finding sites. Once a probable archaeological site is located, the dirty work begins. Preliminary surveys are done and test pits are dug. When those are completed, archaeologists begin the larger search for artifacts. Any artifacts that are found are later analyzed in an attempt to learn about the lives of the people who lived at the site.
Biblical archaeology is a narrower field in that it focuses on sites mentioned in the Bible. It is centered on Israel and the lands around Israel. The archaeologists who do this kind of work are looking for artifacts that can shed light on the lives of those who lived at those biblically relevant sites.
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The Three Uses of the Law

Written by Keith A. Mathison |
Wednesday, July 12, 2023
What are the three uses of the moral law? They are the political use, the pedagogical use, and the normative use. The first and second uses are found in a different order in some discussions. The third use of the law (Latin tertius usus legis), however, almost always refers to the normative use.

If you were to ask the average Reformed Christian to name the three uses of the law, there is a decent chance that the answer might be the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial. In short, some Christians confuse the threefold division of the law with the three uses of the law. The threefold division of the law has to do with the different kinds of laws that we find in the Mosaic covenant—namely, the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. The three uses of the law are something different. But before we get to that, let us briefly look at the threefold division of the law, commonly delineated as the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. This is necessary because the three uses pertain to only one of those divisions.
The moral law is contained in its most concise written form in the Ten Commandments, which concern our duties toward God and man. The ceremonial laws, such as those concerning the priests and the sacrifices, were typical ordinances that prefigured the person and work of Christ. These ceremonial laws are now abrogated since Christ offered the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Himself on the cross (see Heb. 7–10). Few today (outside certain strands of Messianic Judaism) argue for any continuing use of the ceremonial law, and even then, such arguments typically contend only for things such as the observation of Jewish festivals.
The civil law consists of those laws given to Israel as a unique political state (for example, the cities of refuge in Josh. 20:7–9). As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains, these laws “expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (19.4). The civil law has expired because it had to do with Israel in its unique place under the Mosaic covenant. Within the Reformed churches, however, there are some who argue for a continuing use of the civil law that goes beyond the “general equity” mentioned in the Westminster Confession. Those who hold to the view known as theonomy have often argued for an essentially twofold division of the law rather than threefold. In this twofold division, the civil law is effectively a subset of the moral law. Proponents of theonomy argue that the civil law should be enforced by every nation on earth (with qualifications related to different times, places, and cultures). There are a number of serious problems with theonomy, but the most serious has always been a failure to come to grips with the absolute uniqueness of Old Testament Israel within redemptive history.
The ceremonial laws prefigured Christ and His work, and we are still able to learn much about Him by studying these laws even though they have been abrogated. Furthermore, we can still make use of the general equity of the civil law even though it has expired. To say that the ceremonial laws are abrogated and the civil law has expired is not to say that these laws are worthless. When we discuss the three uses of the law in a technical sense, however, it is important to understand that we are specifically talking about the three uses of the moral law. We are not discussing the ceremonial law, and we are not discussing the civil law.
What, then, are the three uses of the moral law? They are the political use, the pedagogical use, and the normative use. The first and second uses are found in a different order in some discussions. Some will speak of the political use first, while others will speak of the pedagogical use first. The third use of the law (Latin tertius usus legis), however, almost always refers to the normative use.
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The Church Triumphant

In a number of cases, the word “church” is used to speak of Christians within a certain geographical region without specifying one particular congregation. In Acts 8:3, for example, we are told, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Saul was ravaging more than one local congregation. In Acts 9:31, we read: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” This had to do with believers in a number of cities in a large region.
Finally, some passages use the word “church” in a more universal sense, referring to all believers. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” He isn’t talking about this or that local church. He’s talking about the universal church. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:28, writes, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” God did not bestow gifts only on the local Corinthian church. He bestowed gifts on the entire church. In Ephesians 1:22–23, Paul writes, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The body of Christ is not limited to the local church in Ephesus. This, too, is a reference to the entire church.
Speaking of the universal church, Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1 explains:
The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.
When we consider the church in this larger sense, the Bible forces us to make several distinctions in addition to those between the local church and the universal church. The distinction between the visible church and the invisible church, for example, helps us understand the difference between those who profess faith and are regenerate and those who profess faith without having been regenerated. It is a way of distinguishing among the kinds of seed that Jesus speaks of in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; Luke 8:4–15).

Abortion and the 14th Amendment

Written by Keith A. Mathison |
Wednesday, July 20, 2022
We should be extremely grateful for the overturning of Roe v Wade. It is a true milestone that many did not believe they would ever see in their lifetime. But the fight isn’t over. Unborn children will continue to be killed in those states which continue to treat the unborn as less than human. We should prepare for the work that remains if we are to protect the lives of all unborn children in these United States.

On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark decision in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization and overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. It also overturned the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. In Dobbs v Jackson, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution “does not confer a right to abortion. Roe and Casey must be overruled, and the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to the peo­ple and their elected representatives” (Dobbs v Jackson, p. 69; cf. pp. 78–79). In short, the legality of abortion is now in the hands of each of the fifty states.
For those who oppose abortion, this represents progress for which we should be thankful. Prior to the Dobbs decision, individual states could not legally protect the lives of unborn human beings in any meaningful way. When attempts to do so were made, those laws were inevitably found to be in conflict with Roe or Casey or both and struck down. Now, after the Dobbs decision, such laws are possible. The immediate task now of those who oppose abortion is to work to enact state laws that protect the lives of unborn children.
The fact that Dobbs has made this a real possibility is good news, but it must be understood that it is not unqualified good news. Just as it is now possible for states to enact laws that protect the lives of unborn human beings, it also remains possible for states to allow unrestricted abortion on demand. Some states will move in one direction, while others will move in the opposite direction. In other words, the fight isn’t over yet. The United States still has a long way to go before the lives of the unborn are protected in every state.
The fight will not be won until and unless the status of the fetus is legally and permanently resolved at a national level. In the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court explicitly refused to address that question. The decision states: “The contending sides also make conflicting arguments about the status of the fetus. This Court has neither the authority nor the expertise to adjudicate those disputes . . .” (p. 65). In other words, the legal status of the fetus is in the hands of individual state legislatures. Some of these state legislatures will determine that the fetus is a human person deserving of the same rights as any other human person. Other state legislatures will determine that the fetus is not a human person and not deserving of legal protection.
In one sense, the United States is in a position similar to the position it was in prior to the Civil War with regard to the status of people of African descent. Before the Civil War, some states passed laws acknowledging the fact that people of African descent were just that – people, human persons deserving of the same rights as every other human person. Other states determined that they were property and denied them the rights of human persons. This issue was not resolved until the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution were adopted between 1865 and 1870. These amendments abolished slavery and mandated the same protection under the law for people of African descent as for any other human person. Obviously, the change in the Constitution did not automatically cause a corresponding change in the hearts of those who believed people of African descent were less than fully human, but it was step in the right direction.
Something along these lines is what is now required in the United States if we are to take another step in the right direction with regard to the abortion question. The current Supreme Court does not believe it possesses “the authority either to declare a constitutional right to abortion or to declare a constitutional prohibition of abortion” (See Dobbs v. Jackson, J. Kavanaugh, Concurring, p. 5). It appears that the majority of this Court believes the Constitution as it stands is silent on the status of the fetus.
I’m not convinced that this is the case. I believe that an argument can be made that something about the status of the fetus can be inferred from the wording of the 14th amendment. Section 1 of the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution reads:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The first thing that must be observed is that this amendment was originally written in the context of Reconstruction immediately after the Civil War. It is explicitly addressing the status of former slaves. This does not mean, however, that it cannot be applied to other related issues, such as the status of the fetus. In the first place, the Supreme Court has long acknowledged that the words of the constitution may extend beyond the matter they were originally intended to address. Second, the very use of the word “born” in the first sentence of the amendment invites such an application. When carefully considered, it can be seen that the words of the 14th amendment implicitly protect the lives of unborn children.
The first sentence begins “All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . .” These persons are then said to be citizens of the United States and citizens of the state in which they reside. In other words, those who are born or naturalized in this country are citizens of this country. At this point, then, we have a reference to “persons” and to “citizens.” The amendment goes on to say that no state “shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” This refers to those who have been born or naturalized in this country and have therefore become citizens. The amendment then continues, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The category of person is a broader category than that of citizen. It certainly includes people in this country who have not yet been naturalized and who are not yet citizens. In other words, a non-citizen is still a person who is owed protection under the law. The important question is whether the unborn are also persons who are owed protection under the law.
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When Will Jesus Return?

Written by Keith A. Mathison |
Monday, October 18, 2021
When we begin to read Revelation in the way the original author intended it to be read, we can begin to understand its intended meaning. We no longer read with the book of Revelation in one hand and a newspaper in the other. The newspaper will not help us understand Revelation. Knowing the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament will help us understand it.

When Reformed Christians are asked which millennial view they hold, some of the more cynical among them will sometimes answer: “I’m a panmillennialist. I believe it will all pan out in the end.” Much of this cynicism is due to frustration over the seemingly never-ending debates about the last things. It may also be due in some cases to exasperation with the endless train of falsified predictions of the rapture and/or second coming of Christ. For centuries, misguided teachers have repeatedly promised or strongly suggested to their contemporaries that they are the generation that will finally witness the end. I mean, isn’t it as plain as day that Napoleon Bonaparte was the Antichrist and that his exile was a sign that the end of the world was imminent? Some Christians who lived in that generation thought so. Their generation was not the first to fall into the trap of date-setting, and it certainly wasn’t the last. For centuries, numerous Christians have compared the headlines of their day with the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation and have convinced themselves and others that those books point to specific people and events in their time. This led to the mistaken belief that the end of the world was imminent.

Claiming that we know the specific (or even approximate) date for the second coming of Christ is foolish, but it can also be profoundly dangerous when it is accompanied by statements such as “The Bible guarantees it!” That was the slogan that was plastered all over billboards and the sides of buses in connection with Harold Camping’s prediction of a May 21, 2011, judgment day. As we know, that day came and went, and of course, Camping simply bumped God’s day of final judgment back a few months to October 21. But that day came and went as well. So, what happens when you spend millions of dollars advertising that the Bible guarantees a 2011 day of judgment? You make a mockery of Scripture, bring reproach upon the name of Jesus Christ, and provide skeptics with more excuses not to believe the Bible. If you tell the world that the Bible “guarantees” something and it doesn’t happen, then the world concludes that the Bible is wrong and is obviously not the Word of God.

The Desperate Need for Reformed Ethics

Written by Keith A. Mathison |
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Many [evangelicals] are looking to the culture for direction on ethical questions. A century ago, Christian liberalism did the same thing. It looked to culture for its categories, its definitions, its standards. Liberalism did this because it self-consciously rejected biblical authority. Antinomian evangelicalism is doing this inadvertently because its hermeneutical principles effectively render four-fifths of the Bible ethically irrelevant.

I recently watched a short video of a lecture by my mentor and former pastor Dr. R.C. Sproul. In it, he explained that his ministry from the early 70s to the early 90s had been focused on addressing the catholic questions of Christianity—the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Person and work of Christ, the doctrine of Scripture, and such. During those first twenty years, he wanted to minister to broad evangelicalism, and these were the foundational doctrines under attack everywhere. But having addressed all those issues over the course of twenty years, Dr. Sproul says in his lecture that he wants to begin focusing on the distinctives of Reformed theology. He believed that the broad evangelical church could never be truly healthy until it was Reformed. He made the point that “Unreformed Christianity has failed.”
One of the things he said in this lecture especially caught my attention. He said that the broad evangelical church has been “pervasively antinomian.” I’ve been thinking about this comment a lot since watching the video, and I believe it makes a point that we need to seriously consider, namely, the fact that there is a radical difference between broadly evangelical ethics and distinctively Reformed ethics. There is a difference in the way each addresses ethical questions, and there is a difference in the sources used to answer those questions.
One of the doctrinal issues that separates broadly evangelical theology from confessional Reformed theology is covenant theology. The majority of evangelicals reject Reformed covenant theology, often because of its implications for our understanding of the sacraments. Among those evangelicals who are dispensationalists, the differences are even greater. Why is this significant? Because a rejection of Reformed covenant theology results in a very different hermeneutical approach to the Bible. The impact of those covenantal and hermeneutical differences is evident when it comes to how each handles the Old Testament in general and biblical law in particular. And how we approach biblical law is enormously important for our approach to Christian ethics. This is where Dr. Sproul’s charge of “pervasive antinomianism” arises.
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