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Posts Tagged ‘Scripture’


“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” A.A. Hodge

I came across this years ago when reading Hodge’s The Confession of Faith, a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: he wrote this in a commentary on a confession of faith.

Since I’m currently putting together SS material on the Westminster Standards I saw the red ink underlining and exclamation points in the margin. John Calvin expresses similar sentiments in his chapter on The Power of the Church in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541). I decided to run an experiment. I put it on my FB page, and in a closed group I belong to connected to Calvinism. I was curious if there would be any difference in responses.

On my FB page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few questions, but no big deal.

In the group, it was overwhelmingly negative. There were a number of misinterpretations of the quote. People were fairly unreasonable. I know, shocking conduct on the internet.

Here is a sampling:

“I disagree. attendance and membership are two different things. …theology is as important as doxology.. we are there to preserve both.. as a group we draw lines in the sand.. as an open group we do not.

“…maybe we should eliminate membership and just gather together without running church like a business. … If you expect the rent/mortgage on your church’s building to be paid, your pastor to be paid, the facility clean and in good repair, and your favorite ministries to be funded, then yeah, church needs to have a business component to it. Some churches take that too far and forget they’re a church, but churches have to run like a business to some degree.”

I also disagree. The elders are responsible to guard the flock, and you can’t keep the wolves out if you just admit members indiscriminately. Membership lists also have a use in determining who is eligible for church discipline. Just because a person sits in the pews doesn’t mean the church has authority to discipline them.

I would not expect a Pentecostal to accept me as a member since I do not accept their core beliefs about how the Spirit works and manifests itself. There should be some basic doctrinal agreement and some kind of pledge to serve to be a member.

“In order to worship in unity you need to agree on some things that aren’t salvation essentials. I don’t doubt the salvation of my Presbyterian brethren even though I doubt the legitimacy of their baptizing infants. They don’t doubt my salvation either but they would view my refusal to baptize my kids before conversion as disobedience to Christ’s command. Baptism is definitely not an essential doctrine but is practically speaking pretty important in fellowship and worship. …Messianic Christians and seventh day Adventists worship on Saturday, and think we’re misinterpreting the New Covenant when we worship on Sunday. They probably don’t doubt our salvation and in many cases we don’t doubt theirs, but it’d be pretty difficult to worship together weekly because they wouldn’t want to gather on our day nor we on theirs.”

“Nobody has to attend our church regularly in order to be saved, nobody has to agree to our church’s confession and member’s covenant to be saved, even baptism is not a requirement in order to be saved. So obviously this statement as it appears is false. But I wonder if it is explained in context in a way that might show it to have a true meaning.

We see an avalanche of erroneous assumptions, worse-case scenarios and oddities marshaled to reject Hodge’s premise.

What does Hodge mean? What doesn’t he mean?

These words begin that paragraph:

“In all Churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling.”

Hodge is writing a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. He believes in the use of Confessions and Creeds. He believes churches should have and use a Confession of Faith. He held to the Westminster Confession.

So, Hodge is NOT arguing that churches shouldn’t have a confession.

Hodge recognizes the distinction between members and officers. Members are held to a higher standard. He is speaking of the Confession, not extra-biblical conditions (keep reading). The Confession must be accepted, and taught, by the leadership of the church.

What the quote is saying, in part, is that holding to (subscription) the Confession (or any confession) should not be a requirement of membership. There are some denominations, wanting to limit doctrinal controversy. I used to be a pastor in the ARP and the membership questions included: “Do you accept the doctrines and principles of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God?”  A confusing qualifier to be sure. The URC requires membership subscribe to the Three Forms of Membership. I was surprised upon joining the PCA that there was no similar vow. Many wish there was one, but I tend to think there shouldn’t be.

This does not mean that Hodge didn’t think members didn’t have to believe anything. They had to believe anything necessary for saving faith. The Westminster Confession includes things necessary for saving faith, but has far more in there. The additional topics are for our well-being rather than our salvation. We should require faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate & part of the Trinity, who died and rose again. We should also require repentance as well. And baptism as included in the Great Commission. In other words, as far as we can tell, comunicate members should be Christians.

The other thing Hodge is (may be) saying is that membership should not bind the conscience in any way not required for salvation. Some church membership vows include abstinence from alcohol, smoking or dancing. These are not requirements for salvation (or sanctification).

In speaking about “church constitutions” Calvin argues in this way:

“So we must rapidly conclude as we argued earlier that, where God is concerned, our consciences are in no way compelled or obligated by any such constitutions. Their aim is to bind our souls before Go and to lay duties upon us, as if the things which they commanded were essential for salvation. Such today are all those constitutions called ‘church constitutions which they say are necessary if God is to be truly honored and served. They are countless in number, and make for equally countless bonds which keep souls imprisoned.”

If you think it wise not to drink alcohol, or dance or have the occasional cigar, you are able and free to make that decision for yourself. What you are not free to do is to bind the conscience of others to the same extra-biblical command. No church is free to so bind the conscience of its members. The doctrine of Christian Freedom needs to be taught in churches so members won’t fight over these matters (like the discussions I’d had as a young Christian with people who hated Christian rock, or secular music). You don’t resolve the argument biblically by binding consciences. “So you won’t fight about a beer with your pizza, we’ll just prohibit drinking altogether.” Too many churches take this very route and sin against God and their members.

Back to Confessions. Church members should know that the church has a confession, and that the teaching of the church will conform to that confession. I cover this in our membership class. I give them a copy of the Westminster Standards.

Some members will already agree with the Confession. That’s great! But I hope that many members are younger Christians. We are not a Reformed refuge where you need the secret password (John Calvin Owen & Newton). I see holding to the Confession as one of the goals of my teaching. I want people to move toward the Confession, understand it better and increasingly affirm it as a summary of Scripture. We can’t demand that as a condition of membership, however. We should never say to a Christian, you can’t be a member here. We may say, this is what we teach. If you are willing to discover more about this great. But if you fight about it, this may not be where your membership should be. Just as we offer Christ’s Table, this is Christ’s church. We may be Presbyterians, but can’t restrict membership to Presbyterians. I want people to grow in & into their faith in my congregation.

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If you are like me your experience with and knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy is limited. I grew up Catholic so I understand Roman Catholicism. To many Protestants the Eastern Church is quite mysterious. Rare are the books by Protestants about Eastern Orthodoxy. Robert Letham has written a good book to help people like me understand our brothers and sisters from the East. In this day, with increased persecution in places like Iraq and Syria we hear more about Eastern Orthodoxy. The vast majority of them are not Protestant but either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, is not a polemical book. His purpose is not to expose the errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. He does compare and contrast its teaching on various doctrines with both Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology. Why just Reformed Theology (and a bit of Luthernism)? Like Roman Catholicism it is a confessional faith. Much of evangelicalism shuns creeds and confessions therefore exhibiting a wide variety of beliefs. Letham himself also comes from a Reformed perspective and therefore compares it to what he knows and loves best.

Letham structures the book in 3 sections: history, theology and evaluation. The third section is not very long. In it he seeks to point out areas where we could learn from them, where they could learn from us, gross misunderstanding and divergence.

The section on theology spends much of its pages dealing with the ecumenical councils. How they do theology is quite different than how we have done theology. Since the Scholastics and particularly since the Enlightenment theology in the West has been done in the universities, and not necessarily in the church. There have been numerous confessions and catechisms to lay out theology as well as many systematic theology books. Theology in the Eastern Church is grounded on the Councils (which we also affirm for the most part), communicated in their liturgy and is done mostly by church men: pastors and bishops. Their dependence on the creeds reflect their understanding of polity: there is no hierarchical structure. The Patriarchs do not function like archbishops or the Pope. How their theology developed is interesting, at least to me.

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Devotional books can be funny things. The author can have a sense of an overall purpose and flow which can be lost on the reader. Or perhaps the author doesn’t have a flow. John Piper has put together a few devotional books over the years and I have appreciated the ones I’ve read, particularly Life as a Vapor.

His latest, culled from various writings in other places is A Godward Heart: Treasuring the God Who Loves You. The stated theme is cultivating a Godward heart. It is tough to put pre-existing material into a book and expect it to fit a theme. In this case, I’m not sure the theme holds. Don’t get me wrong. There is some great material in this volume. It just doesn’t feel cohesive (yes, that is quite subjective.

The book begins in startling fashion with The Morning I Heard the Voice of God. At first you think he’s having some sort of charismatic experience (well, he is charismatic) but he’s talking about “hearing” God speak in the Scriptures (Ps. 66 in particular). It seems unnecessarily provocative, maybe. Piper wants to remind us that the real power to change us, the real words that should move us, are the Scriptures as the Spirit works in us to apply what Christ has done for us. A Godward heart is one that loves the Scriptures.

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I appreciated John Currid’s commentaries on Exodus (vol. 1 & vol. 2) when I preached through it a few years ago. He has others that I intend to purchase. I appreciated the dimension he adds with regard to archeology. A friend of mine went on a dig and tour of the Holy Land with him back in the late 90’s. He is not an ivy tower academic. He has gotten his hands dirty as an archeologist and a pastor (an ARP church in the Charlotte area).

His latest book, Against the Gods, is a good addition to a pastor and teacher’s library. In this book he examines the relationship between biblical texts and similar texts and stories from neighboring people. The main focus is on Egypt, but he includes a chapter on Canaanite mythology.

This is a big issue in academia. The issue is who influences whom? Many assume that the biblical writers borrow the stories from other cultures and “cut” the names of the other gods and “paste” in YHWH. As Currid notes, that is a way to look it. But he proposes a better way to understand what is going on: polemical theology. The idea is not that the biblical authors, usually Moses (though he seems reluctant to say that), stole their stories. The point is that God works in such a way as to reveal their gods are nothing and He is the real God they need to know.

“While Thompson may be considered radical in his views, the reality is that modern scholarship commonly views biblical history as invention and propaganda. In other words, it was written by post-exilic authors who had limited access to true historical resources.”

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Any conversation about homosexuality inevitably will turn to what the Bible says. There are bound to be many misunderstandings about what the Bible says, and attempts to say that it doesn’t really say what it says. This is where Peter Hubbard turns his attention in the 4th chapter of Love Into Light.

It is just a chapter, so it is a survey that focuses on a few key texts. There are whole books devoted to this singular topic. This is intended to hit the highlights.

“Real Bible study is an act of corporate execution as we die to our preferences and together stand in the counsel of the only Person Who embodies and defines life.”

Studying the Bible is painful for all of us because it doesn’t say what we wish it would. Each of us may have a different topic with which we disagree with the Bible. But, as he notes here we have to wrestle with it or we have made ourselves to be autonomous.

Many, like Matthew Vines, will accuse us of misinterpreting the Bible. They will accuse us of mishandling them to issue a blanket, absolute condemnation of something the Bible never condemns. I think Hubbard makes a good point about this.

“Who wants to misinterpret the Bible at the expense of hundreds of thousands of people who feel condemned to lives of shame and loneliness? Who has the time and the desire to dream up sexual prohibitions that God hasn’t created?”

In other words, those with whom we disagree seem to paint us in the worst possible light: homophobes, bigots etc. I understand the desire to avoid guilt and shame. I ran from God for awhile, wanting to enjoy activities that the Bible says are immoral. We all have those things, and they are pretty important to us at the time.

The first charge made is that the prohibitions against homosexuality were temporary. Some of the prohibitions are found in Leviticus with a number of other immoral sex acts (Leviticus 18). People like Jay Bakker and Jack Rogers say it was wrong for the Israelites, but not for us today. Jay, like many today, will point out that Leviticus mentions they shouldn’t eat shellfish, wear clothing made of wool and cotton, getting tattoos and other such far less important things. The argument is that we have evolved past things.

Okay, some of those things were about how Israel was set apart ceremonially from the nations around them. What you won’t find is a penalty for eating shellfish. At most, you wouldn’t participate in corporate worship as being ceremonially unclean.

The penalty for all those sexual acts (which they neglect to mention include incest and bestiality) is death. This are how Israel was set apart from the nations morally. This was a severe penalty. We are talking about two fundamentally different things. Are we to assume that we have evolved enough to say that incest and bestiality are okay too? Or are they the only permanent prohibitions in that exact context? See how misleading their argument is?

Hubbard argues (the above was mostly mine) that Jesus affirmed and fulfilled the Old Testament. He fulfilled the ceremonial laws in such a way as to render them obsolete (read Hebrews for example). He fulfilled the moral law for us, but not in a way that renders it obsolete. We see that the New Testament affirms the Old Testament prohibitions on numerous sexual sins, including homosexuality. That brings us to one of the controversial texts in this debate: 1 Corinthians 6:9.

That passage includes an original term by Paul- arsenkoite. It is a debated term, claimed to mean “male prostitute.” How does Hubbard respond? “The Apostle Paul coined this term from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. He was pointing back to Leviticus 18:22.”  It is the combination of arsenos  and koiten. It is not connected to rape, or prostitution, but of having intercourse with another man as if he were a woman. He is restating the OT prohibition against homosexuality.

Another claim is that the prohibitions are misunderstood. The claims regarding 1 Corinthians 6:9 is such a case. Another is Sodom and Gomorrah. They, supposedly, were judged for being inhospitable. Yes, they were that. But the original story in Genesis 19 makes clear that they wanted to engage in homosexual activity with the men. As Jude 7 notes, they were immoral. That it manifested itself in attempted homosexual rape is pertinent. Both Philo and Josephus interpret this to mean it refers to homosexual acts, not simply sexual violence.

A third claim is that such prohibitions are rooted in ignorance. Mel White is one man who puts this forth, as though the homosexuals then were very different from the loving, committed homosexuals today. This argument is a form of chronological arrogance, for there were committed gay and lesbian relationships in Paul’s day. It assumes we are more enlightened and wiser than those blood thirsty primitives. If only they understood that some are homosexual by nature. Romans 1, they claim, refers to those who are heterosexual but engage in homosexual activity. The point of Romans 1 is not to isolate homosexuality, but to show homosexuality as one of the results of exchanging the truth for a lie. Sin manifests itself in many ways, as Paul mentions in Romans 1. Homosexuality is one of them.

Others, like Luke Timothy Johnson, place our experience above Scripture. The commands of Scripture, he argues, are fallible. Paul was subject to his personal prejudices and preferences. It assumes that the Bible is merely a human document and that it also is fallible when it says that the Spirit inspired Scripture. The Scriptures are authoritative, my experience is not. I am to judge my experience by Scripture, not Scripture by my experiences.

In fact, it would appear that the claims are merely projections of their own arguments which take texts out of context, misunderstands the words used and are filled with ignorance of history as well as Scripture. If we have the opportunity to talk through these texts with a homosexual or an advocate for them, we can use the material here to address those concerns and show that the problem is not the Scriptures or our fundamentalist interpretation.

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In my second year of seminary, John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God became required reading in the first year. Oh, well. It has only taken me about 20 years to read the book.  I began to read it 2 years ago, I think, while I was home “watching” the kids while CavWife taught a group exercise class on Monday afternoons. Last year I spent that time studying and developing a curriculum for the Book of Revelation. Though I no longer watch the kids on Monday afternoons, I resumed reading the book this Fall as time permitted. It was worth the work.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (an interesting title) is the first in Frame’s A Theology of Lordship series, of which I have already read The Doctrine of God (Salvation Belongs to the Lord is a shorter version that is quite readable). The title of this book suggests the main concern of the book- how can we know God. This is a book about epistomology, the study of how we know. We often take this for granted and never think through it. Those presuppositions drive many of the debates and arguments we have with people. We often fall into bad argumentation (logical fallacies for instance).

“Our criteria, methods, and goals in knowing will depend on what we seek to know.”

Frame wants to examine our presuppositions, and argue for a presupposition understanding of how we know what we know and what we can know.  He starts with knowing God, as Calvin did in The Institutes of the Christian Religion. But he starts with God as Covenant Lord. As Covenant Lord, He made us to think and understand as receivers of revelation. As Covenant Lord, he determines what is revealed to us.

“We do not come to know God, or anything else, in a vacuum. … Still, one has to start somewhere; he cannot relate everything to everything else at once, for otherwise he would be God.”

He touches on subjects like transcendence (God as head of the covenant) and immanence (God’s nearness or involvement with creation), authority,  control and presence, knowability and incomprehensibility etc. He moves out of the theoretical at times to show how these tensions reveal themselves in theological debate, particularly the disagreement between Van Til and Clark. In other words, he examines many of the implications of the Creator-creature distinction.

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In his book Children at the Lord’s Table?, Cornelius Venema includes an appendix on the issue of baptism. This appendix, he notes, is his chapter in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism edited by Gregg Strawbridge. This is an interesting irony since Gregg is one of the people mentioned who advocates for infant communion in the PCA.

“The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.” B.B. Warfield

Venema rightly goes after the presuppositions that operate in this discussion. The case is not won on the basis of proof-texts because each side brings different presuppositions regarding the nature of the covenant of grace in its varying administrations. This appendix is here because Venema also sees this problem as the basis for the infant communion debate. He uses the appendix to spend more time explaining the proper relationship between the various administrations of the covenant of grace.

Venema admits both sides have arguments from silence. Just as there is no statement explicitly keeping children in the covenant community (no command to baptize them), there is no statement explicitly removing them from the covenant community. If there was, the would have been a serious battle in the church shortly after Pentecost.  We don’t see this. Rather, we do see, from the beginning, the repetition of the phrase “this promise is for you and your children”. Peter continues to expand it to the Gentiles. Peter is speaking the language of Genesis 12, 15 & 17 in the context of the sign of initiation into the covenant community (just like Genesis 17). But, I get ahead of myself.

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