Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘John Calvin’


Confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the culture war.

I’m torn in two. I have strong convictions on some things that I think are important. But I’m weary of how we as a culture, including the church, discuss these matters. I’m becoming more concerned with ministering to struggling people than trying to be right. I do want to explore nuances on some issues.

The subtitle of one of Scott Sauls’ books interested me. That book is Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides. Sauls is a PCA pastor in Nashville who used to work with Tim Keller in NYC. In many ways he is like Keller, making distinctions and exploring nuance. He tends to tick off both the left and the right. If the Bible is true, Keller notes, it will critique every culture and every person. That means that everyone will be annoyed by something it says. The same will be true for faithful pastors. The left thinks you are too right and the right that you are too left.

In his introduction Sauls puts it this way:

“Are we known by what we are for instead of what we are against? Are we less concerned about defending our rights- for Jesus laid down his rights- and more concerned about joining Jesus in his mission of loving people, places, and things to life?”

While we believe in truth, we also believe in grace and peace. This means a Christian should be pursuing all of them, not just one. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he calls them to end what we’d call their tribalism in light of the fact they’ve been baptized into Christ. Their union with Him and one another takes precedence over the divides that kept people apart in their culture. In light of this we keep truth and love together, as Paul notes in Ephesians 4. Sauls wants us to see beyond the polarization to affirm what is true about each side of an argument in the process of finding the truth in the middle so we can love both sides and hopefully bring them together.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first addresses issues between the various “Christian tribes”. The second addresses some of the issues that polarize the church and the world.

The first issue he addresses could be in both sections of the book: politics. Reflecting Keller he argues that no political system or party is fully aligned with Jesus and therefore subject to critique. Politics is like a religion in America. There seems to be no middle ground.

God has instituted government, and raises up and casts down leaders. Those governments and leaders don’t serve Jesus. In our own context the two parties grab hold of part of what Jesus says. As Christians we can think they have the whole (or none in the case of THEM). We each have agendas and choose the candidate or party that best represent them. And one of those agendas tends to be political power. It is not just the evangelical right that courts earthly power, as the evangelical left would have you believe. Both sides have made compromises to gain cultural power so the current dust ups are largely disingenuous to me.

“Kingdom politics reject the world’s methods of misusing power and manipulating the truth.”

As we consider politics we should recognize that Christians should be involved in terms of voting and also holding office. Yet we should do this understanding the limitations involved. No candidate or platform is perfect. We are not electing pastors, and being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make one wise or beyond corruption. This is another way of saying that politics is not a means to usher in the kingdom of God. It is, however, a means to help human flourishing so the work of the kingdom can take place in and through the church.

Sauls notes that Christianity tends to be healthier when it is part of the minority, not the majority. As the minority we are generally less conformed to the world, and less likely to trample other groups. As the majority we tend to cling to power and can abuse it. We are fallen humans after all.

He also notes that “Christianity embraces both conservative and progressive values.” It is neither. Christianity teaches that women are made in the image of God. As such it should embrace equality for women. Christians have long had a prevailing ethic of life contrary to many an earthly government and culture. If we treat women well, the pro-life movement is not assumed to be a war on women.

I don’t want to spend as much time on the other polarizing viewpoints. But in discussing politics with some from the evangelical left recently I’ve heard the accusation that I’m actually pro-birth and don’t care about the poor. That’s a nice talking point, and the second chapter: For the unborn or the poor? Oddly, I’ve found many conservatives at the forefront of care for the poor through groups like the Salvation Army, Compassion International and through funding soup kitchens, pantries and homeless shelters.

It is difficult to discuss this topic without getting back into red state-blue state. But the question is not a new one: who should care for the poor, the church or the state? Calvin argued that church should, and Luther thought it was the state. We have a similar divide between the evangelical right and left. It isn’t really about whether to care for the poor but who and how. Our problem is we tend to see the other side not caring because they don’t do it the way we think it should be done.

Sauls brings us back to the reality of both the unborn and the poor bearing the image of God. This should lead us to have a comprehensive ethic of life. Mine would go something like this: The state should protect the unborn while the church/Christians should provide for the unborn and the poor. The state should protect the living by bearing the sword against the wicked who forfeit their lives for certain heinous crimes.

The section also addresses personal faith or institutional church, money guilt or money greed, racially the same or racially diverse, and him or her. These are important issues that we tend to take extreme positions on and fight about in the church. These, of course, are false dilemmas for the most part. We should value both personal faith and the institutional church. One tends to be dead without the other. Sauls notes that the early church was FAR from perfect, so the problems of our churches shouldn’t mean we reject “organized religion”. Rather, the church is a place where we learn to love people who are very different from ourselves. As he argues, we need the church and the church needs us.

In discussing money he reminds us that the underlying issue is contentment. Most people are not content with their wealth. This can manifest itself in either hoarding or spending. We inevitably have to see the God-man who was rich but became poor to enrich others. As we consider Him He makes us people who also enrich others.

Racial questions are difficult because we have such a hard time moving beyond our experience. We tend to normalize our experiences and can’t see other people’s experience (especially minorities) as valid or true. People in the majority need to begin listening to minorities. Privilege, I’ve found, doesn’t have to do with having an easy go of things so much as there are things you never have to think about. For instance, when I get in my car I never wonder if I’m going to get pulled over by the police. Many blacks and Hispanics do, and that is because they are pulled over far more frequently than me. When I get pulled over I don’t think that I’d better record it just in case things go south. I’ve always been treated with respect by the police. But many blacks and Hispanics are viewed with more suspicion by police than I am. Their experience is so different than mine. There are negatives I don’t experience due to my race, social status or both.

The same is true regarding men and women. I don’t go for a jog (when I used to) and wonder if I’ll get jumped and raped. I don’t pay attention to the cars on my walk to see if the same one keeps going by. I don’t pay more for a car or repairs because of my sex. Studies show that women are often taken advantage of by sales and repair men.

Where Sauls goes is inequality in the church in both chapters. Minorities often feel forced to fit in with the white culture of a church. They feel like a token instead of someone who has a seat at the table with decision-making power. Women also have decisions made for them without seeking their wisdom and counsel. God gifts women for ministry too. They don’t have to hold office to exercise those gifts like egalitarians think. Some complementarians need to remember that this is true and not unnecessarily restrict the ministry of women.

In the second section he discusses affirmation or critique, accountability or compassion, hypocrite or work in progress, chastity or sexual freedom, hope or realism, self-esteem or God-esteem and then provides some quick pointers on living outside the lines in the epilogue.

He spends time discussing our need for affirmation and encouragement. He also distinguishes critique and criticism helpfully.

“Because an affirming critique always comes from the motive of restoring and building up, unlike criticism, which aims to harm and tear down.”

We all been victims of criticism. You feel worthless, humiliated and exposed. Critique is not focused on fault-finding and assigning blame. It is concerned with how we can do better. Affirmation should not be devoid of critique, but it should be devoid of criticism. In this context he shared a story of a bad relationship with another pastor that brought out the worst in each of them, and how it turned the corner into a healthier relationship when they considered how God was sanctifying each thru the other.

He invites to consider both the justice and compassion of God that is revealed in the cross of Christ, as well as the final judgment. This is not a book whose message is “can’t we just get along.” It brings us often to the gospel while reminding us that divine truth is not simplistic. Our positions may have elements of the truth but not the whole truth. As we interact with people of differing opinions we may discover they have some of the truth too. Sauls is not selling relativism, but is reminding us that the truth can be more complex than we want to make it in our quest to be right. Seriously, who wants to be wrong?

There is much to make you think and move beyond the false dilemmas we find in life. There are also some great stories. I loved the story about Doug and how Scott struggled with a competitive spirit with a man he hadn’t been in contact with for over a decade. Scott is vulnerable in this book. He’s not the hero who has it all together. He comes across to me as a guy who’s trying to figure all this out and shares a few of the things he’s learned. See this as critique instead of criticism and you’ll benefit from the book. See it as criticism and you’ll just get ticked and retreat to your own tribe within the lines. It might feel safer, but then so is a prison cell sometimes.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


With the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordt, there have been a number of books about this important 17th century document of the Dutch Reformed Church (though there were a few members from other nations present).

Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God Kevin DeYoung cover imageAt the recent RTS alumni and friends lunch at General Assembly, I was given a free copy of Kevin DeYoung’s book Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400 Year-old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God. This was fortuitous since I had considered buying a copy but didn’t get around to it. I actually cut back on my book buying for the first part of this year. I didn’t just get free books at General Assembly, but did actually buy some.

Over the last two afternoons in upstate NY, I read the book. This means that it is not a very big book, and it was very interesting. At least to me.

Since I am a Presbyterian as opposed to Continental Reformed, I’m much more familiar with the Westminster Standards than the Canons of Dordt. I’ve referred to it at points but haven’t spent much time studying it. I thought this was a great opportunity to begin wading into this important document.

Image may contain: tree, plant, table, grass, outdoor and nature

Day 1 view

DeYoung’s book is an excellent place to start. He is succinct in his approach so it is quite accessible to lay people but interesting to pastors. DeYoung is generally not overly-wordy. I would rather be left wanting a bit more than finding a book tedious (I have to remember this as I edit my own manuscript). As I noted above, it does not require a huge time investment. Over the course of those afternoons I enjoyed two cigars, so it will take about 3 hours.

The book has 4 chapters and 4 appendices. The text of the articles of the Canons of Dordt are in the text of the 4 chapters. He lays out a few articles and then comments on them, majoring on the majors. The appendices include the Rejection of the Errors By Which the Dutch Churches Have for Some Time Been Disturbed, which summarizes the errors they believe the Remonstrance (Arminians) had fallen into; the Rejection of False Accusations; the Opinions of the Remonstrance given in response to the initial presentation of the Articles; and the Scripture Proofs of the Canons of Dordt (DeYoung uses the alternate spelling of Dort throughout the book, but I’m used to Dordt and will use it with apologies to Kevin). He makes these original sources readily available for ease of use and to provide a proper context. He states a few times that you can’t always understand what they are arguing against apart from the Rejections and the Opinions. We can sometimes misinterpret them. One example is the use of “common grace” which in this context refers to the “light of nature”.

Image may contain: people sitting, tree, plant, outdoor and nature

Day 2

His introduction is called In Praise of Precision. He refers to the common notion that all opinions are equal. Due to changes in culture including the internet, we can think we know more than those who have studied a subject for years or decades. We often prefer passion over precision. Theological debate should not simply generate heat, but also light (all thanks to Jonathan Edwards). The shedding of theological light requires precision. I have been frustrated in recent debates in our denomination over the lack of precision. I should have asked more people for clarification when I thought precision was lacking.

Often we refer to the acronym TULIP as shorthand for Reformed Theology. While we embrace TULIP, Reformed Theology is more expansive than these views on salvation. The Canons of Dordt are therefore more precise than an often misunderstood acronym.

He very briefly outlines the history of the debate in the universities, churches and nation. It was more than a theological argument, but not less than one. Other forces were at work as well. The liberation of the Netherlands from Spain is in the background. Some saw the Remonstrance as favorable toward a friendly relationship with Spain (many of the merchants concerned about trade). The political class, clergy and lower classes tended to be critical of the Remonstrance as a result. This doesn’t mean there weren’t real and important theological issues at play, but just some non-theological reasons people may have had to embrace or reject theological positions. We are not always logical or driven by truth.

Arminius was a “Calvinist” and studied under Theodore Beza who was asked to refute the divergent theology of Dirk Volkertszoon Coornhert. He ended up embracing his theology and was so popular in articulating them that these views were named after him instead (Arminianism is easier to say than Coornhertism).

After he became a professor at the University of Leiden, his colleague Gomarus opposed his views. While both espoused a doctrine of predestination, they differed greatly in what they meant by it. After Arminius’ death, a number of his followers met in Gouda and produced a document called the Remonstrance, outlining their protest against the official doctrine of the Reformed Church. This was in 1610, and they expressed these in the Five Arminian Articles. The distinctions were often vague, but would become more clear as time went on.

After some political controversy, a national synod was called by Prince Maurice. Some might think the government should not be involved but this was a state church and they had a vested interest in the debate being resolved. As noted above, not all the members were Dutch. 26 were from Britain, Switzerland and Germany. The synod met in 1618 and 1619. This means that the controversy was nearly 20 years old- far longer than many of the tempests in teapots that I’ve seen in the last 30 years of ministry.

The Arminians were given an opportunity to respond to “first drafts”. The canons were adopted on April 22, 1619. They responded to the 5 points of Arminianism, with 5 points of their own (subsequently expressed in TULIP by English speaking people).

The first chapter concerns the first main point of doctrine, God’s Purpose and Good Pleasure in Predestination. The heart of the controversy revolves around the question of whether God chose the elect so they would believe or because they believed (foreseen faith). The Reformed held to the former, and the Arminians the latter. The Reformed began with the reality of original sin. Our fallen condition required God’s election of some to salvation, the sending of the Son to live, die and be raised for sinners, and the sending of messengers with the gospel message.

Contrary to many accusations I have heard, the Canons are clear that we are chosen in Christ, our redemption is through Christ and we trust in Christ. This is a Christ-centered document for a Christ-centered theology.

They also upheld a single decree of election, while the Arminians held to two. For Arminians, the first is unconditional, that God wills the salvation of all sinners. The second is conditional, that only those who believe receive that salvation. We see the beginnings of neo-nomianism in Arminianism. Not only did they have a different view of predestination, but a different view of justification. They held that faith is righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe.

DeYoung also quickly discusses the issue of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. The Canons assume an infralapsarian position, that God elects to save sinners from destruction. It is not election apart from our sinful condition. People aren’t condemned because they are “reprobate” but because they are sinners who have sinned and refused to believe in Christ (another sin).

In many places DeYoung notes the pastoral concerns raised in the Canons. They sought to help struggling Christians. This is not intended to be dry theology, but also to meet pastoral needs. This is a good example for denominational study committees. This was one of my complaints about the Nashville Statement. As one of my preaching professors would say, “Where’s the gospel?”. Part of this is the articles regarding how to properly teach and respond to these doctrines. Another aspect was the salvation of the infants of believers. The Arminian opinions connect that to the age of reason, such that children are innocent. The Canons connect it to the gracious covenant and promises of God. This is because people are fallen, even infants.

The second chapter moves to the 2nd point of doctrine, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This is the doctrine of limited or particular or definite atonement. Commonly this is conceived of as the extent of the atonement. It is that, and the nature of the atonement. DeYoung notes that the emphasis in the Canons of Dordt is “about how God’s justice can be satisfied.” Scripture connects the cross with both God’s love and justice. If we are sinners, and we are, justice must be satisfied.

His atonement is of infinite value. It could sufficiently atone for the sins of the whole world. But Dordt argues that this was not God’s eternal intention. They did not believe a universal atonement  was necessary for universal gospel proclamation. To understand Dordt’s position, he backs up to explain the Arminian position. The Arminian view is rooted in God’s “will of intent” to save all, and neo-nomianism. They hold that Jesus made people saveable. The Reformed view is that Jesus actually saved people. God’s will, not man’s, is what makes the atonement efficient or efficacious.

DeYoung then moves in to a (too) brief discussion of the meaning of “world”. It can mean “the world as the sum total of all created things”, “the dwelling place of man, earth” and “fallen creation in subjection to the evil one.” Jesus died for all kinds of people, not every single person.

“Most often, world refer to badness instead of bigness, and when it refers to bigness, world means everyone without distinction, not everyone without exception.”

These distinctions were taken seriously. Gomarus challenged another delegate to a duel for expressing a divergent view. That would make presbytery meetings a little too interesting.

Also entering his discussion was Davenport’s “hypothetical  or conditional universalism”, an attempt to find an acceptable middle ground between Lutheranism and Anglicanism. The particular atonement of Dordt is meant to magnify Christ as the Savior of sinners.

DeYoung addresses the 3rd and 4th points of doctrine in his 3rd chapter, Human Corruption, Divine Conversion. The reality of our corruption necessitates divine conversion. They reject any Pelagian notions of imitation. We inherit corruption from our first parents. We have “an inherited guilt and an inherited depravity.”  We need more than a little help and assistance. We need God to convert us.

Dordt distinguishes between the general earnest call of the gospel, and a saving effectual call. The preaching of the gospel is not restricted, but it is not effective apart from the sovereign, irresistible, call by the Spirit. This despite the frequent drumbeat of human responsibility by Dordt. We are to blame for rejecting the gospel. The Spirit does more than persuade us. Regeneration precedes and produces faith rather than following faith. Arminian loses sight of this because they lose sight of the distinction between union and communion. They lean on the passages speaking of communion to “prove” faith precedes regeneration as a result.

The last point of doctrine is found in the 4th chapter which covers the perseverance of the saints. It affirms that the saints struggle with sin in this life. They can fall into serious sin, being “carried away by the flesh, the world and Satan.” We are in need of God’s help to stand firm in the faith.

“The doctrine of perseverance does not negate repentance; it leads to repentance.”

DeYoung and Dordt goes into the doctrine of assurance. We can truly be saved but not be assured of our salvation because while we are positionally holy (having Christ’s righteousness) we are not personally holy yet. A holy life helps assurance. Some of the means for salvation and assurance are Word and sacraments.

“We need a God who does the unconditional electing, a God who does the effectual dying, a God who does the supernatural resurrecting, a God who does the unilateral gifting, and a God who does the unbreakable preserving.”

DeYoung has produced a great little and helpful book. It is worth the investment of time to understand the controversy and how the Reformed Church responded to it. It is well-worth reading.

Read Full Post »


A Christian's Pocket Guide to How We Got the Bible (Pocket Guides)Another free book I got at the RTS Alumni and Friends lunch was How We Got the Bible: Old and New Testament Canon and Text by Greg Lanier. It is part of the Christian’s Pocket Guide series by Christian Focus books.

As the title indicates this is a brief introductory study into understanding why the books in the Bible are in the Bible and whether we have an accurate text. Modern scholarship and the media have been busy to undermine our confidence in the Scriptures, and Islam has also been at work to distort people’s view of the Scriptures.

Lanier briefly summarizes the need for this information. He addresses these questions in 6 chapters, though the last is just a few pages as he offers concluding thoughts. He wanted to provide a brief, non-academic book so lay people can have answers they need when challenges to the canon or the texts arise, and they do.

Canon has to do with which books belong, and don’t belong in the Bible. Textual criticism has to do with understanding which texts are the best, or most accurately reflect the original manuscripts.

He begins with understanding the Bible as a Divine Deposit. There have been books that have been discovered that some argue should be in the Bible. Novelists like Dan Brown have had popular stories that argue that the Church has conspired to keep these books out of the Bible. How can we know that these “lost books of the Bible” aren’t really part of the Bible?

Muslims often argue that the Church has changed the Bible since the rise of Islam since they think Muhammad is one of God’s prophets. They want their understanding of the Bible to supplant historic Christianity’s understanding of the Bible.

He defines Scripture as:

“the inspired deposit of writings received as divinely authoritative for the covenant community.”

This is an important definition. We believe they are writings that have been inspired or breathed by God. They were received by the covenant community. This is a distinctively Protestant view. We do not think the Church formed the canon, but rather received it. Scripture is also a covenant document intended for God’s people to know who He is, who we are with respect to Him, what He does for us and also what He requires of us. The first chapter unpacks these ideas in a succinct and clear fashion. It provides the foundation for the next 4 chapters in which he addresses the canon and then text of the Old and then New Testaments or covenants.

The question of the Old Testament canon identifies differences not only regarding “lost books” but differences between Protestants, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox with regard to the Apocrypha. Protestants recognize the Jewish canon, those books recognized by Jews as divinely inspired covenant documents. He explains the three-fold shape of the Old Testament: Law, Prophets and Writings. Law, or Torah, came first and relates the giving of the Old Covenant. The Prophets apply the covenant to the people in later times, and hold out the promise of the new covenant. These cite the Law as divinely inspired. Many of the prophets will also affirm the message of earlier prophets as divinely inspired, as well as often claiming such inspiration for themselves in prophetic formula. The writings contain sections also found in the Law and Prophets.

In terms of the Apocrypha there is little evidence that those books, or additional chapters were understood by Jewish communities as divinely inspired. In the early church there was little agreement about them. This means a few people may have included some of them but most did not. Augustine, for instance, affirmed all found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Eastern Orthodox Church followed his lead. Jerome used them as helpful but did not admit them as authoritative. This view held in the Roman Church until the Council of Trent which declared they were part of Scripture.

The Protestant churches have followed Jerome in finding them (possibly) helpful but not authoritative for faith and life. Some, like Calvin, thought they could be helpful. Most Protestant Bibles don’t contain them, and they are not generally read by most Protestants.

Moving to the text themselves, Lanier discusses the kinds of manuscripts we have and how they compare with one another. Another factor is the translations of the Old Testament we have, which themselves are over 2,000 years old. Those would be Greek, Samaritan, Aramaic, Latin and others. As a result we have many manuscripts and fragments to compare and find the best to form the texts that serve as the basis for our modern translations. The God who inspired the Old Testament texts also preserved them sufficiently for us.

Lanier then moves on to the canon of the New Testament. Contrary to Dan Brown’s fictional assertions, there was no council to form the canon. The canon is those books that were used and recognized by the early church. In this he discusses the centrality of the gospel, or new covenant, eyewitnesses, oral and written records. Unlike the books we find in our Bibles, these “lost books” were not received and recognized by the early church. Those who affirmed them we recognized as heretics. There are some books that the early church did use, like the Didache, which they found helpful but never recognized as inspired and authoritative. We see this from how the church fathers write about them.

from NT Bad Arguments

We then move into the question of whether we have the right words. He brings up former Christian and current skeptic Bart Ehrman. He can’t thoroughly refute Ehrman’s arguments, but generally refutes them. He mentions the Muslim doctrine of tahrif al-nass which states that “Jews and Christians have intentionally corrupted the text. As a result the NT doesn’t mention Muhammad (let’s ignore that it was written 500+ years before Muhammad). The text that Muhammad affirmed in 600 is older than many of the manuscripts we have today. Their doctrine is an illogical red herring.

He begins with discussing where our English Bible comes from. This refers to the formation of the Greek texts used in the vast majority of translations. We return to the large number of manuscripts available to us that have been found in archeological digs and copies by scribes. The relative number of differences is small, and largely insignificant. He discusses scribal errors and corrections, as well as how the better copyists provided marginal notes which help us as well. We also have ancient Latin, Syriac and Coptic translations.

He does all of this efficiently. He doesn’t ignore issues or sweep them under the rug. He instead shows how we’ve worked to find the oldest and best manuscripts to get closest to the autographs using a variety of sources. Integrity is revealed in our footnotes where the most significant issues in our translations are there for all to see. Lanier handles the task well and understandably. You won’t be an expert after reading this, but you’ll have a good idea of how to address many of the most significant objections raised.

I will close with his closing thoughts.

  1. We should be clear on what Scripture is in the first place.
  2. We should have confidence that we do have the ‘right’ OT/NT books.
  3. We should have confidence that we have the ‘right’ words of the OT/NT.

“How did we get the Bible? The answer to this question driving this book is clear. ‘Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,’ and the written deposit has been transmitted in the covenant community with high integrity, by the providence of God, ever since. Through these Scriptures, we are all, now, witnesses of these things: Christ suffered and died and on the third day rose again, so that repentance and the forgiveness of sins may be proclaimed to all the nations.”

Read Full Post »


A Christian's Pocket Guide to Growing in Holiness: Understanding SanctificationThis year at GA I went to the RTS Alumni and Friends luncheon. They gave those who attended a gift box that included some books by professors at the various campuses. One book was by J.V. Fesko, Growing in Holiness: Understanding Sanctification, which is part of the Christian’s Pocket Guide series by Christian Focus.

This is the first installment of the series I’ve read, and I’m encouraged to read more. This is a succinct volume on the subject of sanctification that should appeal to those in our congregations who aren’t big readers. It is a mere 3 chapters and 64 small pages. I read it in 3 sittings of less than an hour each.

Fesko does a good job in laying out the material. The 3 chapters are Sanctification Defined, Sanctification Applied and Sanctification Undermined. At the beginning of each chapter he charts the course for the chapter. He interacts with Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The one thing lacking is the use of illustrations from everyday life. This results in a more abstract book than some may be comfortable reading.

But what he does is provide a theologically rich summary of the Reformed understanding of sanctification.

Fesko begins with, and often returns to, union with Christ. This is the distinctive view of Reformed Theology. This is rooted in Paul’s theology, not just Calvin. He does explain the “double grace” of justification and sanctification that we receive in union with Christ. We actually receive all spiritual blessings in union with Christ, but these two in particular complement each other and were the focus on the dispute of the Reformation.

Fesko defines each and distinguishes them from one another. But we can’t one without the other. Logically, justification comes first and is the foundation for our sanctification (wherein He make those He has declared positionally righteous personally righteous as well).

Image result for justification and sanctification

(chart source)

Union with Christ is the ultimate basis of sanctification as Christ works in us by the Spirit to make us like He is. This means that like justification, sanctification is by grace alone through faith alone. In Christ we have a new identity that we begin to live out.

In living out that new identity, Fesko discusses the two parts of sanctification: mortification and vivification. Big terms he defines. We put to death that which is associated with Adam our old covenant head because it is corrupt. Sanctification is more than putting sin to death, it is also giving life to virtues or godly character. Both putting the old man to death and bringing then new man to life done in the power of the Spirit. It is a work of God’s free grace, not man’s ceaseless effort.

In Sanctification Applied he goes more fully into the “nuts and bolts” of how this happens. He lays out the means of grace, and therefore the centrality of the body of Christ. Prominence is given to God’s Word: read, preached and in the sacraments. In other words, the church offers us the Word spoken and sacramental. He discusses how we are to pray for God to work so we will understand, believe and obey the Word as revealed in the worship of the church.

In temptation we flee to Jesus in prayer, recalling the Word in its promises and warnings pertaining to our particular need. We are active, not passive, in sanctification. But it is always God who works first: for us and then in us.

In Sanctification Undermined, Fesko identifies the predominant false views of sanctification. He does this briefly, indicating how each of them leads us in the wrong direction. He begins with self-renewal which is rooted in Pelagianism but popularized by Charles Finney as one of his many errors. Sins are habits and we can just stop through the power of our will. It is rooted in self, not grace through faith and our union with Christ. Sanctification without Christ is no sanctification at all.

He then highlights imitation of Christ, particularly the mystical form of Thomas a Kempis. This looks in, not out to Christ. Meditation seems to be separated from the Word of God. (I’m not sure he’s entirely fair to a Kempis, but it has been a number of years since I’ve read him.)

He then outlines Roman Catholicism which has a very different understanding of grace and how that grace is received in the sacraments. Grace is mystical and magical, received through the simple receiving of the sacraments rather than the Reformed understanding of received by faith in the promises of the sacraments.

He then moves to legalism which rightly sees a place for the law, but wrongly depends on the law. This is his opportunity to begin introducing the proper place of the law. But he also shows the weakness of the law. While it reveals, it contains no power in itself. It reveals my sinfulness but cannot change it. I need to be united to Christ!

It’s evil twin is antinomianism which in its various forms indicates that the law has no significant place in our lives after conversion. It is a neglect of the law’s role in revealing righteousness to God’s children. It provides guard rails for us as we grow in Christ. How we lives does matter. The Holy One is making us holy ones.

He includes some book recommendations for further reading. He’s includes some important ones including Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Walter Marshall The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification and Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity. I also recommend these great books for better understanding how the gospel is at work in our sanctification.

Fesko provides us with a clear, succinct volume to help us understand sanctification. This could be a useful book to share with new(er) Christians and to aid conversation about this great work of God in us.

Read Full Post »


This time last year the internet and FB groups were abuzz with discussion and disagreement about Revoice. Now we have the sequel as a number of PCA presbyteries are putting out their reports evaluating the Revoice conference. Unlike last year there is evidence to go on instead of speculation and fear.

One of the more weighty reports is the Central Carolina Presbytery report. It is relatively brief, focused and generally fair. I don’t say that last thing to impute wrong-doing. I’ll explain it as we go through.

For those who say “What is Revoice?” that is a complicated question. The answer can sometimes seem like the old proverb about blind people describing it based on the one part they hold. “A tree!” “No, a snake.” “I am holding a rope.” It is an elephant but those individuals have partial knowledge.

It does refer to a conference held at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in July of 2018. After the initial planning of the conference, Revoice was formed as an organization. This order of actions may explain some (not all) of the lack of clarity regarding their purpose(s). They have scheduled another conference in 2019, which will not be hosted by a church. They also have a new advisory board.

In addition to hosting the event, the pastor of Memorial was a speaker at the initial event. A professor from the denominational seminary was the speaker for a workshop. He was asked because he is particularly qualified to speak to his topic based on his Tyndale Commentary of the Old Testament volume on Leviticus. Dr. Sklar spoke about the continuing relevance of the laws against homosexuality from Leviticus 18 and 20. These connections to the PCA created the false impression that it was a “PCA event”, sponsored or authorized. The church was a host sight, and hosted many events from outside groups. As the Missouri Presbytery ruled, they should have used more discernment and wisdom when approving this.

Their stated goal was misunderstood, as well as other elements of their language or vocabulary. Here is their recently updated purpose:

To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

They observe the historic doctrines of marriage and sexuality. This is an important thing to keep in mind. This means that they believe and teach that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sexual activity is to be limited to the marriage relationship.

But the controversy comes with “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians”. Their use of those terms creates lots of heat and very little light.

Let’s pause for a moment because I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The Central Carolina study committee limited their work to the main speakers and their sessions. I understand, there were too many workshops to exhaustively examine. The downside of that is that Dr. Sklar was not vindicated as I desired to see happen. I did see one of the more controversial workshops having to do with “queer treasure” being brought into the kingdom. That workshop didn’t address that topic until the last few minutes, and I was still confused. It most mostly a sociological history of homosexuality in America.

They examined messaged by Matthew Lee Anderson, Ron Belgau, Brother Trout, Johanna Finnegan, Eve Tushnet, Nat Collins and Wesley Hill. Wesley Hill is one of the keynote speakers based on how influential his book Washed and Waiting was to the Revoice Founders.

As the Committee notes, this is a very diverse group of people. It is ecumenical in nature. Therefore they don’t speak from a unified set of beliefs beyond basic Christianity. I think this explains some of the lack of clarity as well. But they do represent a diverse set of opinions on topics like sanctification.

Anderson, for instance, talked about “sanctifying our illicit desire”. It would be much better to say we mortify or put to death our illicit desire. Illicit desires are those that we more and more die to. We more and more live to righteous desires.

I wish they had explored his talk more to see if he’s saying this in a way similar to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sanctification, or as those those “illicit desires” somehow become good.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Belgau sees same sex attraction as a produce of the fall and needing to be mortified. Brother Trout focused on seeing oneself in the Story such that we have value and direction about how to live beyond the “do’s and don’ts”. Finegan touched largely on issues of language and identity. She also addresses what change a gay person should normally expect to see as they are drawn closer to Jesus. For her, the reality of SSA is part of God’s sovereignty to experience their weakness and seek Him. She also spoke about learning to agree with God when He speaks in His word.

Tushnet sought to provide wisdom for same sex friendships from some of the friendships we find in Scripture. This means she isn’t viewing them as romantic relationships. These become a goal for people. Secondly she wanted to comfort people from God’s love for the marginalized.

Nate Collins’ message was about lament, and touched on some potentially controversial areas when he talked about church leadership. Both Jesus and Jeremiah lamented the corrupt leaders of God’s people. Surely, many pastors and elders have not treated repentant people who struggle with SSA well. Surely some have made the nuclear family into an idol. Many have heard these things and been quite upset. But he does call those who have SSA to suffer with Jesus, to take up the cruciform life.

Hill spoke about the woman caught in adultery to address hope in the midst of shame. He noted that Jesus was not soft on sin. Jesus sees all sinners as needing grace, not some more than others. But Jesus frees her to live a new life.

The Study Committee organized their analysis around five themes:

  • Desire and temptation
  • Labels and identity
  • Spiritual friendship
  • Homosexuality as a gift
  • The pervasiveness of pain

The section on desire and temptation is the longest and most complex.

The Revoice speakers we heard were all united in their belief that the Bible does not allow for gay marriage and that sexual activity between persons of the same-sex is forbidden by God. Given the mood of our culture, not to mention the many revisionist theologies clamoring for our attention, Revoice’s affirmation of certain aspects of biblical sexuality is to be highly commended. We thank God for their commitment to an orthodox, Christian understanding of marriage, especially when such a commitment comes at a personal cost for many in the Revoice movement. (pp. 6)

They turned to the question of: desire for sin or sinful desire? Some may wonder about the difference. Are they desires to do something that is sinful, or are the desires sinful in themselves? The speakers seemed to give different answers to that question. Some spoke of permissible forms of same sex desire. Others spoke of redirecting or redeploying those desires. Others about mortifying those same desires. This is a key area where the ecumenical flavor wrecks havoc.

This is a key area of disagreement among Christians who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage: are same-sex desires sinful, or are they merely disordered desires that become sinful when acted upon? (pp. 6)

TImage result for do not enterhis is a key area, and has large implications for how to care for people as pastors (and elders). One critique that I have of this report is that it polarizes this question. In other words, there are more than two answers to this question. Is temptation sin from the get go, or only when acted upon? fits the two pole theory. But some would argue that temptation is not sin but can become sin in thought (aka lust in this case) even though you don’t act upon it.

One way of looking at this is that temptation is a door. You can see the sin in the other room. Do you close the door and walk away, mortifying that desire? Or do you “enter into temptation” and become carried away. by your lust so you are sinning in thought, and may then sin in deed as well?

This is a difficult question. I reject that idea that it is only sin when acted upon (unless you mean entering into temptation). To lust is clearly sin.

Back to the report.

Most of our disagreements with Revoice start with the theological conviction that the desire for an illicit end is itself an illicit desire. (pp. 6)

They begin with the use of “covet” particularly in the tenth commandment. They then discuss sinful desires or lusts. I prefer the term inordinate desire since the word seems to indicate uppermost desires. The question is: are temptation and lust, or inordinate desires identical? The study committee is answering yes.

Question 18: Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
Answer: The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

They rightly note that we are guilty not only for our sins, but also for original sin. We are corrupt in Adam and our sinful desires flow out of that original corruption. Or as the Catechism says “actual transgressions which proceed from it.” There is a distinction made between indwelling sin or the remnant of sin and the actual transgressions. Is temptation transgression?

The Report brings us to the difference between Roman Catholic Theology and Reformed Theology. In Catholic theology the inclination to sin is called concupiscence. It is to be wrestled with but does no harm unless consented to. Our disordered desires are a result of the fall, but do not become sin (actual transgressions) without our consent (though this is not necessarily defined in the report).

The Study Committee call upon John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and John Owen not only as representatives of Reformed Theology but also to indicate the uniformity of Reformed Thought in disagreeing with Rome AND saying these “inordinate desires” (Calvin) are in fact sin.

I would say that inordinate desires are sin as well. But I’m not identifying temptation with inordinate desires. Using James 1, they ask if ‘temptation’ provides that moral space.

On the face of it, this passage seems to indicate that it is possible to be tempted by evil desires without sinning. Only when the will consents to the temptation does the alluring and enticing desire become sin. Although a plausible reading of the text at first glance, the Reformed tradition has consistently interpreted James 1:14-15 along different lines. (pp. 8)

It gets murkier as we seek to separate bone from marrow. I will confess, my head starts to hurt.

For Calvin, there is indwelling sin (the temptations caused by desire in v. 14b), actual sin (the birth of sin in v. 15a), and—mentioned in the next paragraph in his Commentary—“perfected” sin (the deadly fully grown sin in v. 15b). When James talks about temptations leading to sin, he does not mean that the temptation (in this case) is itself morally neutral.(pp. 8)

TImage may contain: one or more people, people sitting and indoorhey rightly note that both “sin” and “temptation” have ranges of meaning. “Sin” can refer to both the condition and the transgression (want of conformity unto or breaking of God’s law). Temptation can refer to external pressure, such as Jesus experienced yet without sin (Hebrews 4:25). It can also refer to internal pressure, desire that arises from within, which Jesus did not experience because He did not have a sinful nature.

In reading Owen again for a recent sermon on this passage and subject, I wrestled with his nuance and distinctions. They do too!

The parsing of sin and temptation can be thorny, which is why Reformed theologians have typically explained these issues with careful nuance. A case in point is John Owen’s handling of temptation in The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin (1667). Once again, James 1:14-15 is a pivotal text:

“Now, what is it to be tempted? It is to have that proposed to man’s consideration which, if he close, it is evil, it is sin unto him. This is sin’s trade: epithumei—“it lusts.” It is raising up in the heart, and proposing unto the mind and affections, that which is evil; trying, as it were, whether the soul will close with its suggestions, or how far it will carry them on, though it does not wholly prevail.”

Up to this point, it sounds like Owen may consider temptation caused by lusts to be morally neutral, to be a kind of spiritual struggle that cannot be called sin until we acquiesce to its allurement. But notice what Owen says next:

“Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin.” (pp. 9)

As I considered Owen’s description phrase “enter into temptation” every example he used the person not only was tempted by acted upon that temptation. Yet, to be simply tempted is not inevitably to commit the act. Yet, they reach this conclusion:

What makes temptation a “temptation” is that it tempts us to actual, observable sin, but this does not make the temptation something other than sin. (pp. 9)

They continue with Owen distinguishing between passive and active temptation. The former is from without, and the latter from within. But here is their conclusion of this section:

Each step of the process is worse than the next. We should not think that the entanglement of the affections is equivalent to obstinately pursuing a life of sin. There is moral space to be found between each step. And yet, this process is not one that moves from innocence to sin, but rather one that sees indwelling sin move from the mind to the affections to the will and finally to the outward working of sin in the life (and death) of a person.

It sounds to me that while admitting moral space, each step is in itself sin (transgression) such that one is heaping up sins until the outward working of sin.

I may be misunderstanding, but they speak of the uniform rejection of the Roman doctrine (rightly!) and seem to imply this is also the uniform doctrine of the Reformed heritage. If that is the case, I argue this is the overreach.

For instance, in her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield writes:

The Bible is clear that all sex outside of biblical marriage is a sin. The Bible is also transparent that homosociality is not sinful. In addition, temptation is not a sin, but temptations to sin are never good. They are never from God. Therefore patterns of temptation can never be sanctified. (pp. 123)

Later on that page she does say that homosexual lust is a sin. Heterosexual lust as well. She’s drawing a distinction between temptation and lust, calling the latter a sin but not the former.

In his book Holy Sexuality, Christopher Yuan reads Owen a slightly different way as well.

“If you’re wracked with guilt for simply having same-sex sexual temptations, hear these words from John Owen: “It is impossible that we should be so freed from temptation a not to be at all tempted.” Being tempted doesn’t mean you have little faith because it is quite ordinary and human to be tempted. The truth of the matter is that temptations are not sinful.” (pp. 57)

You find similar statements in Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body and Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?. If we look at the North Florida Presbytery’s Study Committee Report on Same-Sex Attraction we read:

That said, it is important to recognize that temptation is always an inducement to do wrong (1 Corinthians 7.5; Galatians 6.1; 1 Timothy 6.9; James 1.14-15). While the experience of temptation does not incur guilt, the temptation it self is not neutral. Temptation entices the Christian to transgress God’s will. In our sinful weakness, there is a short distance between sexual temptation and lust (Matthew 5.27-28). Therefore, it is wise to exercise caution and vigilance with all temptations to sexual immorality and to set our hearts and minds to what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and praiseworthy(Philippians 4.8; Colossians 3.1-4).

They put moral space between temptation and lust, the later of which incurs guilt.

Before I leave this subject, Kevin DeYoung wrote a blog post in 2013 entitled Temptation is Not the Same as Sin. He is one of the members of the Central Carolina Presbytery study committee. He may have changed his views since it has been 6 years. But the whole article creates that moral space. Here is part of his rationale:

Debts and trespasses require forgiveness; temptation needs deliverance. They are not the same. Just because you are struggling with temptation does not mean you are mired in sin. The spiritual progression in the human heart goes from desire to temptation to sin to death (James 1:14-15). We are told to flee temptation, not because we’ve already sinned, but because in the midst of temptation we desperately feel like we want to.

To sum this up. Some of the teaching of Revoice embraces the Roman Catholic view of concupiscence which states it is not a sin until consented and acted upon. We believe this view to be wrong.

We believe that temptations do arise from our sinful nature. Those should be mortified. There is some disagreement as to whether they are “a sin” or transgression. But based on the 10th commandment, among other passages, we should recognize that lust, or covetousness, is a sin because it is idolatry or an inordinate desire. Whether that is homosexual lust, heterosexual lust or the coveting of my neighbor’s possessions, it is a sin. We add further sin if we satisfy that lust.

 

Read Full Post »


Recently new of the overture from Metro NY Presbytery has been burning up the internet and PCA pastor & elder groups on Facebook. I assume the same is true on Twitter and other social media.

Image result for phoebe in romansFor many this is a very controversial request for the General Assembly to consider this June in Dallas. The issue of women deacons has been churning since before I entered the PCA back in 2010. The issue has more layers than an onion, and just as many presuppositions that drive the (lack of) discussion. Sadly, the discussion quickly degenerates into accusations of being feminists or egalitarians, modernists, progressives etc. and people are told to leave for a denomination that permits women deacons. It is kind of wearisome for me as I grow older (wiser?) and read more John Newton. It is wearisome because we never really get to the root of the issue (those presuppositions) like the nature of ordination and authority, particularly in connection with the office of deacon.

My first decade in ministry was spent in the ARP, which allows each Session to decide if they will have women deacons. As a result, much of this overture is familiar with me. It is not forcing women deacons on churches, but permits those having that conviction to exercise it. This does not affect the courts of the church since women elders are not (and should not) be up for discussion. The issue of the courts of the church is precisely why most of these ‘women deacon-loving’ guys don’t go into denominations like the ECO and EPC as advised by some.

To the overture!

 

  • WHEREAS there has long been a sincere diversity of views among Reformed churches as to what Scripture says about the role of women in diaconal ministry…
  • WHEREAS conservative, complementarian scholars differ in their understanding of biblical texts that touch on the role of women in diaconal ministry, specifically 1 Timothy 3:11 and Romans 16:1…
  • WHEREAS there seems to be strong evidence that the word διάκονον in Romans 16:1 is used in a technical manner to describe an office Phobebe holds rather than in a general descriptive manner…
  • WHEREAS the Westminster Confession does not specifically address the office of deacon…
  • WHEREAS the Westminster Confession 20.2 does speak of Christian liberty and not unnecessarily binding the consciences of men…
  • WHEREAS it is in line with the historical spirit of the PCA to be a grassroots denomination and to defer to the judgment of local sessions in decisions regarding congregational ministry…
  • WHEREAS several conservative, reformed denominations within NAPARC allow women to serve as deacons (i.e. Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church, The Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ), and The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America)

The rationale for the overture begins with acknowledging that for quite some time there has been a diversity of opinion in the PCA and Reformed churches as to what the Scriptures teach regarding this issue. That is a key point, “what Scripture says”! This is not about culture, but about trying to rightly divide the Word.

The WCF in the first chapter recognizes the following:

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

This is an issue that is not as clear as whether or not women may be elders. To me that is crystal clear. Deacons is far less so, which to me means we should be less dogmatic. This is a topic that is not necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation. This hits the well-being, not the essence of the church. It is important we put this in the right compartment so we don’t treat those with whom we disagree as heretics or unworthy of our fellowship. This isn’t the hill worth dying on. But we can discuss it, challenge each other and see this in the ‘reformed and reforming’ category as opposed to the ‘faith handed down by the saints’ category.

Image result for r.c. sproulConservative complementarian scholars do differ on this question. Some live in some sort of denial on this issue. John Piper is surely not a feminist. R.C. Sproul was not a liberal (though he thought the PCA should not have women deacons because of its views of deacons and authority). There are others as well. For instance, you can read the OPC Minority Report on this issue. You can’t get more conservative and complementarian than the OPC (yes, it was a minority report and was not approved, but some there held to that view).

TImage result for john calvinhe rationale brings up Phoebe in Romans 16. It mentions that she may have held an office rather than merely being a servant of the church. This is because of a lack agreement in gender; Phoebe being feminine and the word for deacon being masculine. That great liberal egalitarian John Calvin (tongue firmly in cheek) says about Paul’s mention of her: “he commends her on account of her office, for she performed a most honorable and a most holy function in the Church…” (Commentary on Romans, chapter 16, verse 1). Chrysostom, according to the footnote, considered her a deaconess (as did Origen which isn’t so great).

In his practice, Calvin did have a separate order of deaconness to assist the deacons. Through most of church history they were separate, with the deaconnesses helping the widows, poor women and quite early instructing female catechumens prior to baptism. Some have mentioned this, and perhaps this is a better option that will result in less upheaval.

The PCA currently has provision for assistants to the deacons (9-7), both male and female to be appointed by the Session. I wonder how many churches utilize this provision. I suspect not many do. When I mentioned this as an option for our congregation, I heard crickets. It seems to be another layer of bureaucracy. And it reminds us of Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott going round and round about assistant to the manager vs. assistant manager.

Women deacons, this rationale asserts, is not contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith. We are not violating our confessional standards if we do this. We are merely changing our BCO which while is also part of our constitution is about how we enact our polity, not the system of theology to which we subscribe. As a result, while there are theological presuppositions at play this is a polity shift, not a move to reject our Confession of Faith, or Scripture (as noted above). This is a different category of disagreement.

The issue of binding the consciences of others is important. Currently, those congregations which believe the Scriptures permit women deacons are not able to practice their beliefs and convictions. Unlike issues like paedocommunion, this is not a confessional issue and perhaps more leeway and charity ought to be practiced. A solution similar to that of the ARP “principled compromise” may be a good way to move. Congregations opposed to women deacons don’t have to have them. Their freedom of conscience is preserved, though that of an individual may not. This argument can cut both ways, and should be only a supporting and not a main argument.

Because this issue is not directly related to the courts of the church- who gets to exercise judicial authority- it is about how a local congregation goes about its ministry (women elders necessarily affect the higher courts and aren’t simply about how a local congregation functions), it should be handled as a local matter. If your church has women deacons, it doesn’t affect mine unless people shift from one to another on the basis of that decision. As a grassroots denomination, this may be best made a local decision.

While not addressing the ‘slippery slope’ argument explicitly, they do by mentioning other NAPARC denominations which have women deacons. Those denominations have not slipped down the slope. Those that did previously rejected the authority of Scripture (for instance the CRC which rooted their decision in the giftedness of women despite what Scripture said) or just jumped off (the PC(US) which permitted both women deacons and elders at the same General Assembly). Yes, there are some in the ARP and RPCNA who would like to get rid of them.  Not too long ago, however, the ARP affirmed their ‘compromise’. We cannot know what will be, but only what has been and is. And those denominations have had women deacons for decades without slipping down that slope.

That is the rationale for the requested changes to the Book of Church Order. I’ll address those changes in future posts.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »