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Archive for August, 2019


A while back our Session was asked to consider whether or not we should say “he descended into hell” when we used the Apostles’ Creed as our confession of faith. This is the result of my work on the subject.

The Apostles’ Creed has been used as a confession of faith in the Western Church for approximately 1,500 years. It is a brief statement of orthodox Christian doctrine. There is one phrase, however, that many people stumble over. Unlike the rest of the Creed, it is not clear and open to a variety of interpretations. Some of those interpretations are theologically acceptable, but may not fit the context. Other interpretations are not acceptable. This leads some to a crisis of conscience when it comes to reciting the Apostles’ Creed.

 

The History of the Creed

In the early church, many churches developed brief symbols or rules of faith to be used in baptismal services. Catechumens would be instructed in the meaning of the faith through the symbol and recite it prior to their baptism. These symbols were necessitated by some false doctrines that had arisen, particularly Gnosticism.

Tradition, according to Rufinius, held that the Apostles’ Creed was put together by the Apostles before they left Jerusalem. They were alleged to have composed one stanza each. There is no evidence for this tradition. We do see that Irenaeus and Tertullian were familiar with rules of faith that greatly resemble the Apostles’ Creed. There was probably some “cross-pollination” between congregations as people traveled throughout the Empire.

Interestingly, the canons of Nicea established the Nicene Creed as the only creed to be used. In the Eastern Church, local symbols were replaced by the Nicene Creed.[1] The Western Church maintained local symbols. These Western forms were shorter and more simple. Schaff notes that they had less variety. He asserts that they were all merged into the Roman Symbol which became the rule of faith for the Western, or Latin, Church.[2] Historian Roland Bainton argues that as the emperors got involved they had wanted to unify or standardize the rules of faith. The local symbols began to be standardized in a cultural give and take.[3]

The first version that includes the phrase “descended into hell” (descensus ad inferos) is found in Aquileia, according to Rufinius in his commentary on the Creed dated in 404. Schaff thinks the church had believed this long before it found its way into the Creed.[4] We are not sure how it ended up there. Some, like Francis Turretin, believe that the phrase was taken from the Athanasian Creed.[5] The problem is that it is highly unlikely that Athanasius, a key figure in the Council of Nicea, wrote the creed that bears his name. The Athanansian Creed has a more developed Christology than that of Nicea and is estimated to be a product of the 7th century.[6] Therefore, it is more likely that its presence in the Apostles’ Creed influenced its inclusion in the Athanasian Creed.

Between the writing of Rufinius’ commentary and the Athanasian Creed, this phrase had spread to be found in the “final” version of the Apostles’ Creed.

 

The History of Interpretation

Unlike most of the Apostles’ Creed, this phrase has suffered from a variety of interpretations. While the Eastern Church did not use the Creed, they were familiar with the phrase. Herman Witsius says that Eastern Churches understood it to mean Christ’s burial. Herman Witsius quotes Vossius in this regard.[7] This would be redundant at best.

The most common understanding of the phrase in the West is that it refers to Jesus’ descent to the dead (infernos) based upon a common (mis)interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18 which has Jesus going to limbo to free the OT saints and bring them to heaven. Limbo is like a holding cell, not necessarily a place of punishment like hell or purgatory. They, unlike the unrighteous, would simply be awaiting release by the Messiah.[8]

Later versions would change the Latin to descensus ad inferna, descent into hell. This fits with another (mis)interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18. This view holds that Jesus descended to the unrighteous dead in hell to declare His triumph to them. We are unsure of why this would take place.

Both of these views would have this descent take place on the three days in which Jesus was in the grave. This aspect is asserted in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, Article 5.[9] They are inconsistent with the best understanding of Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross- “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

MCC-31320 Portret van Johannes Calvijn (1509-1564)-uitsnede.jpgThese interpretations are also common among Lutheran and Anglican theologians. However the most common Protestant interpretation follows John Calvin and is expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism (#44). It serves as a summary statement for the sufferings of Christ in that He endured the curse and wrath of God on the Cross. Therefore, His descent is figurative or spiritual in nature. His death is not an ordinary death, but to bear our sin. Calvin expresses it this way:

 

“If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No- it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.”[10]

 

The Heidelberg Catechism expresses it in this way:

  1. Q. Why is there added: He descended into hell?
  2. In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

The Westminster Larger Catechism takes a different approach to the infamous phrase.

 

Q 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?

  1. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.

 

This is a similar enough interpretation to the earliest understanding of the phrase in question. It is not simply being buried, but that for three days Jesus continued in the state of death and was under the power of death for us and our salvation.

 

Options for Moving Forward

The best interpretation of the phrase in question is that put forward by John Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism. But this was not the original interpretation. If we confess this phrase with this interpretation in mind, we are not confessing it with much of the Church over time. Or as originally understood.

  1. We could remove the phrase from the Creed when we recite it. This would “restore” the Apostles’ Creed to its original versions.
  2. We could no longer say the Apostles’ Creed but default to other creeds like the Nicene Creed or the Rule of Irenaeus. This is the recommendation of William Cunningham.[11]
  3. Continue to recite the Apostles’ Creed as is and clarify it with a notation to affirm the interpretation of our confessional standards.
  4. Recognize that we are but one congregation and have no right to alter the Creed and send an overture to General Assembly to either amend the Creed for our congregations or provide necessary guidance via a study committee. While this process takes place, we could apply one of options 1-3.

 

We decided to merely footnote that portion of the Creed to express the interpretation found in the Westminster Larger Catechism. At some point we may choose to present an overture to our presbytery, but right now there are more pressing concerns for us as a congregation.

 

[1] Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, pp. 530.

[2] Schaff, History, pp. 530.

[3] Bainton, Roland. Christianity. Pp. 150.

[4] Schaff, History, pp 601.

[5] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 362.

[6] Witsius, Herman. Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed in Two Volumes, Vol. 2, pp. 140.

[7] Witsius, pp. 140-141.

[8] Cunningham, William. Historical Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 92.

[9] Turretin, Vol. 1, pp. 357.

[10] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, book II, XVI, 9.

[11] Cunningham, Vol. 1, pp. 93.

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Faith. Hope. Love.: The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace By Mark Jones cover imagePaul speaks of faith, hope and love as the great triad of Christian living. The Christian life is a continual exercise of faith hope and love. Mark Jones wrote a book about them called Faith. Hope. Love. The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace.

He didn’t simply write a book but also a catechism. That’s pretty bold. The book is laid out according to this catechism of 58 questions. Each of the 57 chapters and the appendix is 3-5 pages long and explores the catechism question and answer in view.

The book is broken up into three sections covering each of the three virtues. These are of uneven length. Hope is the shortest section and love is the longest by far.

His preface begins with a quote by Augustine:

“Thus it is that love is not without hope, hope is not without love, and neither hope nor love are without faith.”

The preface is a brief history of how this triad of virtues has been handled by theologians. He indicates that this volume is geared toward laypeople. He also explains why he utilizes the method of catechism.

The first section, faith, is the one that the layperson will likely have the most difficult time. It is the most technical discussion, laden with distinctions. That doesn’t mean it is overly technical, in my opinion.

He begins with the question “what is the worst sin?” which brings us back to the Garden of Eden. They doubted God’s words to them, doubted God’s goodness and sought to become like God. Since then the foundational sin is unbelief.

“Unbelief remains at the heart of our sin and our love for sin.”

As he moves into the discussion of saving faith it gets more technical. Jones himself is grounded by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Saving faith is not merely assent, as some disciples of Gordon Clark want to assert. The power of our faith is not in the strength of our faith but the One we receive and rest in by believing. Saving faith produces obedience, but we are not saved by said obedience.

Jones dives into faith as a gift of God. God ordinarily gives us faith through the ministry of the Word. We truly believe, but are enabled to believe by God’s effectual call. He addresses whether we are saved by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone or simply by faith in Christ. He moves on to the enduring power of our justification. God’s judicial declaration in justification is unchanging, being grounded on Christ’s perfect obedience, and preserved by Christ’s on-going intercession for us. The next controversy concerning faith is neo-nomianism. Faith receives Christ’s righteousness, it is not itself righteousness.

“Faith exists as the antithesis of anxiety, fear, and doubt. Yet Christians still experience this trio of life struggles. Such difficulties do not nullify their faith but do highlight the weakness of it.”

Our faith is weak, and God strengthens it by the Spirit through the means of the Word, sacraments and prayer. Satan, on the other hand, is at work so we may forsake faith.

So we see that the section on faith takes us in a number of directions. These should prove helpful.

As Jones shifts to hope he necessarily begins with distinguishing biblical hope from what most people commonly mean by hope. I hope the Red Sox win the World Series each year, but that hope is often disappointed. Biblical hope is rooted in God’s promises. What we believe about God will affect our hope. As He notes, if our god is small, so shall be our hope. A great God produces great hope.

Jones looks at the connection between faith and hope. We must believe if we are to have hope. Faith, as he says, gives birth to hope.

“Simply put, faith believes, but hope waits patiently.”

He talks about the supreme object of our hope. Hope is about the return of Christ, our resurrection and all that comes with them.

He then takes us in an unexpected direction: the salvation of our children. He brings us the “you and your seed” passages that hold out covenant promises to us. Not guarantees, but they should prompt hope in us. Our children are raised among the means of grace though which God effectively calls us. This discussion moves into the salvation of infants dying in infancy. He avoids any thought of innocence, and the view of John MacArthur. God may be merciful and save all such children in Christ, but we should only hope for those whose parents are Christians because of the difference the covenant makes.

Love is what endures beyond the grave into eternal life. Love reflects God’s character. The Christian religion is rooted and grounded in love.

“Love is a virtue that seeks union, satisfaction, and goodwill.”

He defines love. It is an unusual definition but one that reflects the biblical data when we think about it. Love is made complete in union, as we see in marriage. It finds satisfaction in the beloved and wants the best for the beloved.

Jones brings us to the law, which we should understand as a law of love. The law is what love looks like. It is rooted in God’s love and righteousness. Love for God is expressed by obedience to the law. Love toward our neighbor is expressed in accordance with God’s law. It includes material from the Westminster Larger Catechism. It is a challenging section.

“Christianity is, of course, a heart religion- a religion of love.”

One interesting and potentially controversial view concerns the Sermon on the Mount. I happen to agree with Jones, and have been frustrated by the focus on justification by most. Yes, we need the imputed righteousness of Christ. But when Jesus speaks of our righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees, Jones discusses the lack of righteousness by the Pharisees because they did not act in faith and love. Jesus’ focus seems to be on the imparted or infused righteous that comes to us in sanctification. The gospel is about sanctification too, not simply justification. The whole Christ to whom we are united brings to us the double grace of justification and sanctification. We receive both imputed righteousness and imparted righteousness in our union with Christ.

This book is better than the cover art may indicate. It looks like it could be a spine, I’m not really sure. But the book itself is quite good. It is informative, encouraging and challenging.

He provides information which is important for disciples to know. This is not a sentimental, feel-good book. He brings truth to bear, as as mentioned provides plenty of proper distinctions to help us follow Jesus.

He encourages us with the truth as well. He wants us to find satisfaction in Christ as we mature in Christ.

It is challenging because it calls me to change. Faith expresses itself in love and we quickly see how little we love.

I see this as a helpful tool for discipleship. I am thinking about using it for personal ministry. I might try to adapt this for a SS class as a means to help our congregation grow in faith, hope and love. All three are rooted in Christ and necessary parts of our salvation.

 

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What Is Evangelism? (Basics of the Faith)P&R is one of the usual sponsors for the PCA GA (enough initials for you?). As a result, one of the freebies we all got was a booklet from their Basics of the Faith series. I’m assuming a variety of booklets were dispersed among PCA pastors. The one I got, in God’s providence which sometimes seems utterly random to us, is What is Evangelism? by George W. Robertson.

I’ve picked up a number of these for the congregation. One of the complaints I’ve heard is that we don’t do a great job explaining the faith to new Christians or the Reformed heritage to people new to it. So, these little booklets help us to provide easy to read and understand materials for young Christians to develop a basic understanding and vocabulary.

Obviously this is basic material. You can’t provide an exhaustive look at a topic like evangelism in 32 pages. That doesn’t mean you can’t say something meaningful. Robertson does.

He begins with the three P’s of Proclamation, Persuasion, Prayer. We have the good news of Jesus to proclaim, and if we find it to be good news we want to proclaim it. Robertson admits that most people who ask him about evangelism aren’t generally satisfied with the 3 P’s. We should make the simple message known, persuade people to believe it, and pray for them to believe it.

“Christians have a responsibility not only to tell unbelievers that the Lord has done great things for them, but also, like these pilgrims, to encourage one another with the same gospel.”

He moves us to something every Christian should have, a testimony of grace. We don’t need to be great story tellers, but we have a story that reflects the Big Story found in Scripture. We were once lost and we’ve been found by the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us, took it up again in the resurrection and came looking for us. He briefly explores Psalm 126 as an example. Our testimony can be boiled down to 3 minutes or expanded to 3 hours if the circumstances dictate it. If we aren’t moved by their condition, we won’t share this testimony (and we should pray that we become so moved).

He notes that the testimony isn’t the whole enchilada. There should be an invitation to come to the Savior. Robertson notes passages like Luke 14:15-24. As he talks about the excuses people use, he focuses on people and possessions. Okay, relationships. Those relationships and possessions seem too important to neglect or forsake to find out about or come to Jesus. It was the people without relationships and possessions to distract that came to the party: the disenfranchised.

If we recognize that people have excuses, we are able to remember that even if we do it all perfectly, they’ll still have excuses. We have to rest in His sovereignty.

He encourages us to invite children in particular. He talks about conversion rates. For kids between 5 and 13, that rate is 32%. It drops precipitously to 4% during ages 14-18. It increases to 6% for adults. Get them while they are young is the idea. This is simply noting how God ordinary works. I’m one of those rare 20 year-olds to convert.

Most people come to faith and walk with Jesus through personal evangelism and the second most common is being invited to an ordinary worship service (not special outreaches). Simple churches are more effective evangelistically.

He talks about intentionality. To be intention, “one must willing to place limits on his or her rights to win some for Christ.” To Jews Paul seemed like a Jew, and to Gentiles like a Gentile. He didn’t compromise morally. This is a hard thing to do, limiting your freedom.

In a culture like ours we may found ourselves in uncomfortable places. The people we mingle with may cuss like sailors and tell off color jokes. He’s not saying you should too, just that you aren’t going “Language” as Captain America did to Stark in the Age of Ultron (creating a movie long gag). It may mean going to movies or concerts you’d probably not attend to spend time with people. Reaching others means identifying the man-made rules you don’t need to follow in order to do it. Jesus often broke the man-made traditions of the Pharisees.

“Evangelism can be dangerous both inside and outside the walls of the church.”

He then moves to compassionate evangelism. “Compassionate and practical acts of service open doors for the gospel.” This means that evangelism can take some interesting forms. We begin to live as salt and light. It can look like “social justice” as the church has been instrumental in adopting children/orphans, abolishing slavery, education reform, workers’ rights and more. Some people aren’t interested in the gospel as an opiate for the masses, but begin to take notice when they see the impact it makes on people.

“By virtue of the Spirit who works by and with the Scriptures, every Christian has within his or her worldview the answers human need.”

Evangelism is also intellectual. Defending the faith from challenges by culture can challenge our minds at times. We begin by understanding the other person’s context. Robertson is thinking of both worldview issues and practical issues (financial, educational, medical, legal etc.). Like Paul we can find the point of contact with the gospel. Paul worked to understand the people he sought to win to faith. He also identified the point at which they were suppressing the truth. This is where he went to work. Then we call people to repentance.

“The Christian faith can withstand whatever question or attack is brought against it because the truth of the gospel empowered by the Spirit is able to penetrate, convert, and renew the will of any unbeliever.”

Robertson covers plenty of territory in only a little space. It is a good place for a new Christian to start to understand our calling to evangelize the lost.

 

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Sometimes the people you read champion a book that was influential on them. You make note of the book. You buy it and eventually you read it.

Because of R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer and John Piper I began to read the Puritans. Due to Tim Keller I began to read John Newton. Newton has been very helpful for me.

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching GraceBecause of Keller, and some others, I picked up Harvie Conn’s Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace. It was foundational for them in advocating for what I think is a healthy balance of seeing justice as an implication of the gospel. Transformed people will want to see their world transformed. As we grow in personal righteousness (sanctification) we will act justly and seek to love our neighbors. I seemed like I needed to read this little book when I found it in the internet “discount bin”.

Were my expectations too high? Would it exceed my expectations?

One important thing about when I read a book is how much red ink I use. That could mean either a great book with lots of “money quotes” or big ideas I want to keep track of. Lots of ink could also mean it is a book I take great exception to, as the writing in the margins argues against the authors point.

I didn’t use much ink in this book before I gave up in the midst of his chapter on prayer. It was meh to me. I was underwhelmed and found it too bound to its time.

In his preface he notes that it is not a “how-to” book. “Rather, this is an effort to look at the relation between evangelism and social questions as two sides of the same coin.” He uses the terms holistic evangelism and Lordship evangelism to describe this balance and interdependence. It was written as the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism was doing its work.

Time can prove that many of our fears and expectations are unfounded. History takes unexpected turns. He brought up the United Presbyterian Church’s steep decline in membership. If such trends continued, he anticipated one priest (?) for each communing member by 2000. Well, they were part of the formation of the PC (USA), which while continuing to bleed churches and members still has a fair amount of money and more members than pastors.

He does address the need for contextualization, “how to communicate the relevance of the gospel.” He faults, to a degree, the seminaries’ focus that has seemingly resulted in homogeneous churches instead. We forgot to be all things to all men while presenting the one message in a way those people can get. The doctrine of accommodation should teach us that we must shape our message to the people who are listening.

In his day (and more so ours) there is a skepticism to our message and the stories of those who bear it. Conn notes that Corrie Ten Boom is seen as a “woman with high ideals who showed remarkable resiliency under pressure” rather than recognizing the triumph of grace in her life. You see the times in the skeptical views of reports of the conversions of Charles Colson, Larry Flynt and Eldridge Cleaver. Clearly the 2nd proved false. I chose not to bring up his false conversion in a sermon, thinking it was a bit too edgy. Conn mentions plenty of such things in this book.

IHardcore Postern the context of accommodation and the message he refers to the movie Hard Core about the daughter of a pastor whose daughter leaves home and enters the porn industry. Oddly, I’d recently heard an interview with the writer & director, Paul Schrader, who also worked on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, 1st Reformed, American Gigolo, and Mosquito Coast. He grew up on the Reformed Faith and sees himself as a preacher, but not of faith though the “failures” of faith often show up in his movies. We speak into this skepticism, failure and scandal, whether we realize it or not. If we do, we can speak to it as well.

In the second chapter he moves to what we are calling people to: incorporation, humanization, celebration and justice. Our words should also be backed up with actions. We speak of love, and should show love.

“Evangelism must become gospel show-and-tell, showing mercy and preaching grace.”

This can be difficult for smaller churches, like the one I pastor. I agree there is an evangelistic aspect to diaconal ministry. But our first priority is to our members. With limited resources to help the household of God, the evangelistic bent to diaconal ministry gets lost.

10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5

He then moves into justice; setting things right as part of evangelism. “The doing of justice becomes the distinguishing mark of the people of God before the world.” Instead, we seem to either be afraid of doing justice lest we become social justice warriors, or go so far as to justify the injustice. Yes, there is a real threat to devolve in to a social gospel, which is not gospel at all.

As I think about things, I struggle with the whole concept of the culture war. Doing justice isn’t about embracing or resisting worldly agendas. We shouldn’t be either SJWs or oppressors/defenders. Our marching orders are from the Scriptures, not culture. We should be walking a tightrope instead of moving toward the extremes which tends to demonize people who commit one sin while excusing others. We need to hear the call to “love mercy and act justly” instead of thinking they are opposed to one another.

One way he puts this is in talking about publicans. Among the people we meet are those who sin and those who are sinned against. Actually, every person we meet is both a sinner and someone who has been sinned against. We should address both sides of that coin.

“A gospel that does not address people as sinned-against pose a lot of problems for the publican, the sinned-against. Either he rejects the gospel or sees it as an opiate.”

The prostitute is not simply a sinner, though we want to reduce her to that. She likely has been sinned against as a child. She is likely being oppressed in the present, a slave to a pimp, as well. (The same is true for male prostitutes though we don’t speak of them often).

We can’t turn a blind eye to past and present oppression of the black community in America. The gospel is often seen as a way to placate them and keep them in submission instead of offering freedom and hope. Doing justice opens the door for the message.

He then discusses a two-dimensional spirituality. We are to obey both the cultural and evangelistic mandates. We are not to pick and choose between them. Love for neighbor means not only proclaiming the gospel but also doing no wrong to our neighbor by our actions (or inaction). Into this he returns to the Lausanne Covenant. It speaks of “sacrificial service evangelism”.

He doesn’t want us to pick one, but to see them as “two stages in God’s covenant relationship with man.” Having failed in the cultural mandate, we now have the added evangelistic mandate. Continuing to fail in terms of the cultural mandate means that those fallen social, economic and political structures hinder evangelism.

At times, this chapter is less than clear. He uses terms without always defining them. Snooze at any point and you get lost. But here are a few parts I underlined:

“This kind of spirituality does not equip us for evangelism by taking us out of the world. It puts a new world into us, the world of the spiritual, that new lifestyle caused by the Holy Spirit, centered in the Holy Spirit, and possessed by the Holy Spirit.”

“Living in the Spirit is not an evangelistic escape from history, but a participation in the new reality of history brought by the redemptive work of Christ and the applying work of the Holy Spirit.”

I’d been trying to read this book alone with my sermon series on Mark. It seemed to fit the idea of following Jesus in terms of what it looks like to submit to the authority of Jesus. We act justly and preach grace. But this short book always seemed to get lost in the shuffle, and was far more theoretical than practical.

And so I started to read the chapter on prayer and gave up. His writing style was less then helpful to me. Perhaps I’m too dull to get it, but I lost my patience for the book. It was time to move on for me. There are other books crying for my attention, and it is time to heed those calls.

I was disappointed. Perhaps it is this particular juncture in my life and ministry. Perhaps it was just bad timing. I don’t want to write off the book as utterly unhelpful, but it was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Conn’s approach seems meandering at times, lacking focus. At least I coudn’t always tell where he was going, and the process of getting there was roundabout-ish.

There is it. Hopefully you get a few good thoughts to move you forward in thinking about justice and grace in the work of the church. Biblically, they are not opposed though we often move toward extremes of either the social gospel or spirituality of the church. This is a conversation worth having as we see the rise of the social justice warriors and their mirror reflection in conservative culture warriors. Jesus, I think, would distance Himself from both.

 

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