Tuesday, October 6, 2020

"John Calvin" by Derek Thomas and John Tweeddale

When it comes to the life and teachings of John Calvin, of course there is no shortage of books. This means that all readers inevitably have choices to make: which ones will you read? Compounding the reader’s choice is the reality that edited books with multiple contributors can often be hit or miss. More often than not the reader has a few chapters or contributors that interest them while the rest inevitably end up being neglected.

Ultimately though, the quality of the book inevitably hinges upon the passion and expertise of the contributors. The quality of the book mainly hinges upon something besides the contributors that is less appreciated by readers, however, which is the arrangement of topics. I am pleased to say that Thomas and Tweeddale have done us all a great service by giving about a third of the book to the Life of Calvin (7 chapters), and then the other two thirds to the Teaching of Calvin (13 chapters). As somebody who has imbibed and appreciated the doctrine of Calvin for some time I benefited a great deal from much of Part 2 of the book (particularly Guy Waters’ chapter on the Law of God, Derek Thomas’ chapter on Knowing God through Adversity, and Ted Donnelly’s chapter on the Christian Life).

For me, however, the area where I inevitably, as a pastor, find the most nourishment and encouragement ends up being the biographical portion of books like this. I was especially captivated by Doug Kelly’s firsthand study of the minutes of the Genevan consistory and Steve Lawson’s discussion of the pulpit ministry of Calvin. These are simply my personal highlights, and I suspect different readers will have their own preferences. I really am not exaggerating to say that this book has something for everybody. Some books feel like a bit of a chore to read; they can be a lot of work and heavy lifting. This is not one of those books. It is rich but not overbearing. When it comes to a book that you can open, read, and just know you’re going to get something rich each time, this book is currently at the top of my list. I’m grateful that we have it.

FTC Disclosure: I received an electronic review copy in exchange for an agreement to provide a written review of this book.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Theology of the Westminster Standards, by J.V. Fesko

My own relationship with the Westminster Standards is one of a long sweeping love affair. I grew up in the Nazarene church and was exposed to very little theology that I remember. After coming to the Reformed faith and hearing about the Westminster Standards I knew I wanted to be part of a denomination that really believed in these standards. Fast forward to today, and I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. I see the Westminster Standards as my confession. I don't see it as a boundary or as a straight jacket, but as the confession of what I really see the Scriptures teaching.

Having said that, reading The Theology of the Westminster Standards is pure joy for me. Now, I must confess: I have been sitting on this book now for a couple of years. It isn't that I haven't been interested in the book whatsoever, but simply the result of my own completion of seminary and a consequence of the busyness of my own beginnings as a new pastor.

I remember that almost the same year Fesko's book came out, Chad Vandixhoorn also released his own commentary on the Westminster Confession through Banner of Truth (Confessing the Faith). At the time, given Vandixhoorn's work on the minutes of the Westminster Assembly I expected Vandixhoorn's book to be what Fesko's book ended up being, and I expected Fesko's book to be what Vandixhoorn's book ended up being. When I read both of them they were a pleasant surprise, each fitting very different niches. I can confidently say both books complement one another quite nicely.

The biggest difference I would note between these books is that Fesko's book gets far deeper into the background of discussions amongst the participants of the Assembly than Vandixhoorn's does. Fesko is interested perhaps most of all in making sure one understands the time in which the Westminster Confession was written, and even the debates which created the milieu the Divines inhabited.

Fesko is not exhaustive in what he covers. He doesn't deal with the catechisms' exposition of the ten commandments. He doesn't deal with other issues that are peripheral to the Standards' theology. Instead, Fesko intentionally focuses in this book on what he calls "key subjects." If someone is looking for a passage by passage commentary on the Standards I do recommend Vandixhoorn's excellent book Confessing the Faith.

What are "key subjects" in the Westminster Standards according to Fesko? One merely needs to look at the Table of Contents, but one could broadly say that they are the basic loci of theology: Doctrine of Scripture, Doctrine of God and the Decrees, Justification, Sanctification, the place of the Law in the Christian life, and Worship among other subjects.

I will mention that I especially found Fesko's exploration of Worship to be insightful and helpful. Having him explain the ways that the magistrates enforced and required attendance at worship services containing elements not commanded in Scripture was illuminating for understanding why the Directory of Public Worship was not and is not (with some exceptions) seen as binding on the church. I was not aware until I read this book that some opposed the writing even of the DPW for fear it would become another Book of Common Prayer.

One comes away from the book with two simultaneous reactions: on the one hand, gratitude for the clear explanation of the teaching of Scripture that we find in the Westminster Standards: on the other hand, a realization that the Westminster Standards were a consensus document signed by men, many of whom had quite a diverse range of views.

I did receive a complimentary copy of this book as part of my agreement to provide an honest review.

Monday, December 26, 2016

It Was a Very Good Year

Almost universally 2016 seems to be regarded by many in the broader culture as a very bad year. There were shootings and terrorists. There was a contentious election that offered Americans two dreadful choices. Peoples' lives fell to pot. There was a war in Syria that seemed to be less of a war and more of a holocaust. The list goes on. People seem to universally be ready to bid 2016 goodbye. I feel a little guilty I suppose, but I'm not quite ready to throw 2016 onto the trash heap of history.

As I write this post, I am listening to Frank Sinatra. And all I can think is that everybody else is wrong and Frank is right. It was a very good year. Of course, Frank is only right by accident the same way even a broken clock is right twice a day. For Frank a very good year was
Blue-blooded girls
Of independent means
We'd ride in limousines
Their chauffeurs would drive
When I was thirty-five
Personally, it was a very good year, but not because of girls and chauffeurs. I can only speak for myself, and perhaps for my family, but as this year ends I want to end it striking a note of gratitude and not of grumbling.

The time from when we were called to Pearl Presbyterian Church until now has been a whirlwind and filled with personal blessings. Not only do we have a church family that loves us and puts up with my odd fashion sense, preaching foibles, and clearly expanding waistline, but they seem to get me. The other day I was preparing to teach a Wednesday night Bible study and forgot I was wearing my converse sneakers with my dress pants and blazer. My wife said something about it, and one of our parishioners said, "Oh we knew what we were getting when we called Adam." It wasn't an insult in the slightest and I appreciated hearing it. It was the sound of someone who gets me.

Our family feels very loved by this congregation. Not only did they turn out in large numbers to help us move, but we have been welcomed into their homes, shared many meals, spent time over the holidays with their families, and become a part of their lives.

Materially, we have been blessed. We have our first ever home. After 16 years of marriage, my wife lives somewhere that she can paint the walls, hang up shelves, tinker with the landscaping, and customize to her heart's content. We have always lived in places where we couldn't have animals, and so my family now has a new kitten named Winter. She is soft and cuddly, but she scratches me and bites me a lot, and so our relationship is complicated.

In many ways, and on so many levels, this was a year of massive changes and improvements for our family. My wife is realizing that maybe she has a real gift for not only decorating her own home but also helping others to decorate their own houses. My children are all learning to deal with being in public school. I am learning what it is to be not only a preacher, but also a pastor (sure to be a long process, as my parishioners will tell you).

It wasn't all smooth sailing and salty sea air, though. January to July of this year was, without a doubt, the most stressful, difficult, and trying season I've ever personally endured. Once the last semester of seminary came, everything went from abstract and hypothetical to real and consequential. Our search for a new church home sent us on multiple flights to Chicago (our childrens' first time seeing skyscrapers in person). We traveled to the Tennessee countryside, and to the muggy swamplands of Georgia. At every stop we asked ourselves the very real question, "Could we see ourselves here? Could this be the place for us? Will this be our home?" (These can be exhausting questions if you consider them very seriously each time.) And of course, there is the added pressure of knowing that the churches are asking themselves similar questions about us. Travel took its toll on me physically, and it was a very difficult time. I experienced so much anxiety that I often found myself thinking I might need to see a doctor.

Looking back on this year I realize how much faithlessness and fear was intermingled with this season. Anxiety, paranoia, wondering what we would do if we didn't find a place to minister... all of these thoughts plagued me during half of 2016. Someone looking in from the outside might say, "Well Adam that doesn't sound like a very good year. Spending half of the year realizing how faithless and fearful your heart is sure sounds like a bad year to me."

Of course, we don't often see or feel it, but seasons like that are really a gift. It's one thing to acknowledge the providence of God. It's one thing to acknowledge and believe that you have been called by God to serve as a pastor. It's another thing to put those two realities - your calling, and God's providence - together and hold them in your heart and really believe them such that you can rest and sleep knowing that his plan is good and that his call is true. The reason this season was a gift was that, among other things, it exposed sin. There was no other way for this to be done! My family and I had to be tested, tried, and troubled so that the dross could rise to the surface. If I had sought a church and had something lined up in May as soon as I graduated I guarantee you I would have gone into a church situation as a smug new graduate, ready to lecture and teach, but lacking in tenderness toward those who struggle.

Instead, God saw fit to tenderize me over a period of six months, to show me my own heart, to let me be stung by the barbs of my own fear, even in the face of the promise that God truly does ordain and control whatsoever comes to pass (Eph. 1:11).

If you feel that 2016 was a very bad year, I won't try to persuade you that you are wrong. It may have seemed pretty awful. But I would encourage you to ask if God was using the darkness to purge you or show you your own sin. Often giving our children what they want is the worst thing for them. God used this season to show me that fear and failure can be sanctifying in the life of his people when met with repentance and pleading for divine grace. It was a painful year, but by the help of the Holy Spirit, God turned it into a very good year.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Adam's 10 Favorite Albums from this Year

It is customary, at the end of the year, for people to list their ten favorite albums that were released in the previous year. I enjoy this custom, but prefer to revise it slightly. I'm going to be listing my ten favorite albums that I listened to the most this past year. These albums could be from this year (most are, actually) but they could also be from another time as well.

Without further ado...

10. The Dig Soundtrack, by Michael Land
Nobody knows about this. It was the soundtrack to a computer game that came out when I was a teenager that I fell in love with. Earlier this year I discovered that someone posted an MP3 of the soundtrack on an obscure website and have rejoiced endlessly. I know hipsters like to share obscure music. I'm not sure you get much more obscure than this. So there...take that!

This album isn't just obscure. There's more to it than that. It's a beautiful electronic soundtrack that is ambient and at the same time otherworldly. I cannot listen to this album without feeling like another world may be just outside my study window.

9. Everything and Nothing, by Hammock [Apple Music]
This is an album that is very beloved by me. I love Hammock and have listened to Marc Byrd's music even back when he was in the Christian band Common Children. Now that he is making beautiful ambient/orchestral music, I listen to everything this band puts out..

8. The Wilderness, by Explosions in the Sky [Apple Music]
I never get tired of the music these guys produce. To me, this album is just different enough from what has come before that it feels like growth without alienating me.

7. Integrity Blues, by Jimmy Eat World [Apple Music]
This is a great comeback album for a band that I haven't listened to for years. This strikes me as unexpectedly mature music from a band that I had written off a decade ago.

6. Blade Runner Soundtrack (25th Anniversary), by Vangelis [Apple Music]
Ever since I first heard this soundtrack and got my hands on it, I've never stopped listening to it.

5. Every Open Eye, by CHVRCHES [Apple Music]
If you're looking for crystalline electro-pop music perfection, I'm not sure there's a better place to look than CHVRCHES. This new album is exactly what I had hoped a sophomore album from this band would be.

4. No Man's Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe (Soundtrack) by 65daysofstatic [Apple Music]
The game No Man's Sky may have been a massive disappointment, but that doesn't mean that the soundtrack was a dud. As a matter of fact, it turned out to be the best part of the game, as well as one of the best parts of 2016.

3. God's Highway, by Sandra McCracken [Apple Music]
This is among my favorite albums from 2016. A collection of Scripturally based songs that I have found tremendously good for my soul. I have found rest by listening to "Be Still My Soul." I have found great joy in being reminded that God is "Steadfast" while listening to this album.

2. Skeleton Tree, by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds [Apple Music]
This is an album that was forged in the depth of great pain as Nick Cave wrote it in the aftermath of his own son's tragic death. It is clear that Cave has struggled over questions of the goodness of God and the immortality of the soul. "I called out, I called out/Right across the sea/But the echo comes back empty." This is mourning of the first and most honest order.

1. Westworld: Season 1 Soundtrack, by Ramin Djawadi [Apple Music]
I am not recommending the TV series. I am, however, HIGHLY recommending this soundtrack. As someone who is always looking for interesting, quasi-ambient music to play while I work on sermons, this soundtrack is quite the treat. String quartet and piano renditions from artists such as Radiohead, The Cure, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, Soundgarden, and Radiohead delight the senses and bring pleasure to the soul. Yes, this soundtrack is filled to the brim with Radiohead covers.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sin is Irrational

It is human for us to want to make sense out of the worst of human actions. Almost every time there is a public shooting, pundits begin to ask: why did he do it? People start to hope that some holy grail diary will be found that will just say everything: how they planned it, what they hoped to accomplish, and most importantly: why?

If we cannot find a reason for why they did this thing, but the evil was especially heinous we will often conclude that the person was “sick” or “disturbed.” Why do we do this? Is it because deep down we think that sin can be made sense of? It isn’t that mental health problems aren’t real, but even average people with not a modicum of medical experience will begin to give evaluations of this person. They will say things like “that person is sick,” or “what a psychopath” or “this person is obviously crazy.” There are lots of reasons for this sort of response, but I think foremost among them is a desire to separate this person from us – from our own group. There is a comfort in declaring someone else "sick." We like to think that we would never do such a thing or that if we did it is because something broke inside of us that normally works.

But of course, all of these analyses presume something: that there are times when sin makes sense, or sin can be made sense of. There is this underlying assumption that if we only knew everything, this shooting would make sense, or we would know why this or that person left their spouse and children. The presumption is that this big stuff doesn’t make sense, but maybe the “little” sins can be made sense of – at least we can understand why someone would do those, right?

But even the “smallest” sins don’t make sense, and this is what we need to get into our heads. Sin doesn’t make sense, not in the smallest sense. If you go back to Adam and Eve and you were to look at their situation, the decision to eat the apple was just as “sick” as the wife who leaves her family so she can do meth in the trailer park with an abusive man. That first sin – “small” by our own standards today – makes as much sense as a guy shooting up a movie theatre full of people.

If sin really made sense as a cost-benefit value proposition, it would be reasonable for us to ask “why?” every time that it happens. If you had asked that woman who left her husband, in a clear-headed moment whether she thought it was a good idea to do the drug meth she would hopefully have said “no.” And if you had asked her if she wanted to lose her family she would hopefully have said “no.” And if you had asked her if she would like to never see her children again so that she could live in a meth-induced catatonic stupor while her body wasted away, she would surely have said, “Never!” If you had asked her, “do you wish to be under the wrath of Almighty God” and she were to answer rationally and truthfully she would have said, “Please no! I would never want that!” As we all would - if sin were rational

Adam and Eve were well aware of the results of their sin and yet they did it willfully. They had been told that the wages of sin is death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). And they also understood that they would be under God’s wrath when they sinned (hence they hid from him). And so if you asked the man and his wife, “Why?” they would have appealed to their appetite, but not to their sense of logic or reasoning. Logic and reason were completely against the sin of taking the fruit that had been forbidden.

Death and separation from God are still the consequences of sin, and yet we still do it. The wrath of God against sin hasn’t gone away. It still doesn’t make sense for our belly to be our god instead of Yahweh, and yet on a daily basis we continue to make irrational decisions that are personally destructive and which incur the wrath of God. But we still do it, don’t we?

No, sin cannot be made sense of. Sin is literally irrational.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Why No #JusticeForGators?

It would be difficult to argue that June was a good month for Orlando, Florida. From the horrible and nearly unimaginable evil committed by an ISIS-loyal terrorist, to the two-year-old child who was taken by the alligator in the lagoon at the Magic Kingdom, it was a month with a lot of bad news and very few bright spots. It is the sort of month that leaves all God-fearing people crying out for justice and the consummation that will come with Christ’s return.

The reaction to the alligator attack is of particular interest, because it is a nearly identical situation to what happened with Harambe the gorilla about two weeks before. In that event you may remember that a small defenseless child also stumbled into the habitat of a dangerous creature. In that event also the child was attacked. The difference is, of course, that in this instance the child’s life was tragically taken by the dangerous creature before something could be done about it, and in the other instance the gorilla was shot in order to save the child.

In the aftermath of the Disney alligator attack five alligators have been found in the lagoon and killed. Because the outcry on behalf of Harambe was so loud, I was certain we would hear animal rights activists demanding #JusticeForGators… speaking of the “murder” of these majestic, once endangered creatures as if it had been their brother or their uncle. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Twitter search for #JusticeForGators yields only an animated GIF of a child riding on the back of one of these lovely, hilarious, and not at all dangerous animals.

What accounts for the selective outrage? I suspect it is because, on the one hand, people have forgotten that only a few years ago these very animals were listed as an endangered species. It was only 1987 when the USFWS declared the alligator as “recovered” as a species. But that analysis assumes, rather charitably, that the public are somewhat rational, but simply forgetful.

On the other hand, I suspect that there are some creatures that are simply easier to anthropomorphize and imagine that they are your pet or your friend. When people saw Harambe, they didn’t see a one ton meat tank that could crush a coconut with its bare hands – they saw their hairy uncle (including the grey back hair). Cecil the lion was a deadly, dangerous predator whose species has terrorized humans living in the regions of Africa that they inhabit, but at least films like The Lion King gave them a humanized portrait of what the animal could be seen as (if they squinted right). But what of the gator? Well, the friendliest portrait we’ve seen of alligators is the crocodile who ate Captain Hook’s hand. No wonder no one is asking for #JusticeForGators! Perhaps what alligators, as a species, need is their day in the sun – a Lion King equivalent so that the capricious sentiments of the American public can be emotionally maneuvered into defending another killing machine as if it was their favorite pet.

I am not anti-alligator, nor am I anti-gorilla. I am, however, pro-sanity and pro-consistency. Until I see protestors outside Disney demanding that someone answer for the “murder” of these slimy, scaly, terrifying, majestic creatures, I will continue to wonder whether there is a species-ist selectivity among people who think that animals and humans are morally equivalent.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Trinity Controversy Omnibus

[Updated 7/8/16]
(*) = Essential Posts.

Earlier today I found myself trying to explain to a friend what has been happening in the Reformed world in terms of the latest discussions regarding the Trinity and the Eternal Functional Subordination of the second person of the Trinity. The trickiest part about explaining it to him was keeping all the different posts straight. In order to help out both myself and anyone else who is either trying to keep up, or get caught up I have compiled (chronologically) this list of links which I believe to be helpful to anyone who is interested. I plan to keep this updated as things progress. This will be an ever evolving post. The earlier entries are articles that have laid the groundwork for where we find ourselves now, and they are certainly relevant. As readers pass along more information and relevant pieces of information I will add them to the timeline, so this list may be worth checking in on periodically.

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2004
"Toward a Biblical Model of the Social Trinity: Avoiding Equivocation of Nature and Order" by J. Scott Horrell

Book: Jesus and the Father, by Kevin Giles

International Journal of Systematic Theology, April 2013
"The Obedience of the Eternal Son" by Scott Swain and Michael Allen

"'Eternally Begotten of the Father' An Analysis of the Second London Confession of Faith’s Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son" by Stefan T. Lindblad

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society:
*"Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will" by D. Glenn Butner, Jr.

May 22, 2015
Rachel Miller:

Review of One God in Three Persons by Steve Holmes

May 31, 2015
Alistair Roberts:

June 1, 2015
Response to Holmes' Review by Fred Sanders

May 28, 2015
Rachel Miller:

June 3, 2016
*Liam Goligher:

June 6, 2016
*Liam Goligher:

June 7, 2016
*Carl Trueman:

June 8, 2016
Michael Bird:

June 9, 2016
*Bruce Ware's Response:

*Carl Trueman's Rejoinder to Ware:

*Wayne Grudem's Response:

Carl Trueman's Rejoinder to Grudem:

Mark Thompson:

Michael Bird:

*Denny Burke:

Jeff Waddington:

June 10, 2016
John Calvin/Carl Trueman:

Mark Jones:

Darren Sumner (for a Barthian's perspective):

*Mike Ovey:

Scott McKnight
(read the comments section, especially for interaction between Alistair Roberts and McKnight):

June 11, 2016
Mark Jones:

Steve Hays:

*Donald Macleod:

June 12, 2016
Michael Bird:

Steve Hays:

June 13, 2016
*Michael Bird/Michel Barnes:

*Michael Bird/Lewis Ayres:

Todd Pruitt (Reflecting on Barnes/Ayres):

Andrew Wilson (a nice article summarizing the issues):

Owen Strachan:

Aimee Byrd:

Derek Rishmawy:

Denny Burke:

*D. Glenn Butner, Jr.:

Fred Sanders:

Mark Jones:

June 14:
*Liam Goligher Responding to Mike Ovey:

Carl Trueman:

Paul Helm/B.B. Warfield:

Mike Ovey:

Mark Jones:

June 15:
Alistair Roberts:

Andrew Moody:

Michael Bird (response to Fred Sanders):

Mark Jones:

June 16:
Darren Sumner:

Caleb Lindgren (Christianity Today):

Matthew Barrett:

John Stevens:

June 17:
Mike Riccardi:

Alistair Roberts:

Mark Jones:

June 18:
Keith Johnson:

June 20:
Andrew Moody:

Wayne Grudem:

Owen Strachan:

Mark Jones:

Liam Goligher:

June 21:
Carl Trueman:

Michael Bird:

Luke Isham:

June 22:
Wyatt Graham:

June 23:
Christopher Cleveland:

Mark Baddeley:

June 24:
Christ the Center Roundtable Discussion of the Trinity Controversy:

Jamin Hübner:

Carl Trueman:

June 25:
Matthew Crawford:

June 28:
Albert Mohler:

Carl Trueman (response to Mohler):

Ian Hamilton:

Liam Goligher:

June 29:
Bobby Grow:

June 30:
Matt Emerson:

July 1:
Lewis Ayres:

July 4:
Bruce Ware:

July 5:
Mark Jones:

Liam Goligher:

July 6: 
Mark Baddeley:

Andrew Wilson:

July 7:
Todd Pruitt:

Darren Sumner:

July 8:
Bruce Ware:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Letter to My Wife After Four Years of Seminary

Dear Arryn,

Five years ago when we were convinced of God’s call you agreed gladly and willingly to move to Jackson. You packed up all of your possessions. You packed up your children. You said goodbye to countless friends. You said goodbye to stability. You said goodbye to smooth roads (literally and metaphorically). You said goodbye to good customer service, to cool crisp breezy weather, and a nice big quiet front yard with birds chirping outside the window. You said goodbye to a cozy hometown where you could walk a block over to go to the bakery or a restaurant and a neighborhood where you felt you could walk around with your kids whenever you wanted. You said goodbye to clean air and water. You said goodbye to living near family. You said goodbye to a loving church family. You said goodbye to familiarity.

In a word, to pursue God’s call on our lives, you said goodbye to your life as you knew it. You died to yourself. Aside from Christ himself, you are the greatest model of dying to yourself that I’ve ever seen, and you do it over and over on a daily basis. I see you up close, and with a lot of people when you see them up close your admiration diminishes. I feel the exact opposite about you. The more I know you, the more I see your life, the more I observe you day in and day out, the greater my esteem for you becomes. To me, you are a hero.

For me, seminary has been a dream. Something I hoped about, fantasized about, dreamed about, for nearly 17 years. Two years after God planted this calling and desire in my heart I met you. It took 11 years together for us to get to a place where, as a family we were ready to move to Jackson for this. These last four years, with a couple of painful and difficult exceptions, have been everything I hoped seminary would be. God has used this time to prepare me, I believe, to pursue the call that I’ve sensed since I was just a 17 year old kid. In a word, seminary could not have been a better experience for me. I saw so much, learned so much, grew so much, and developed so much.

However, every day while I’ve been in class learning…every day when I’ve gotten to meet some theological hero…every day when I’ve been able to study and grow and work and write…you have been dying to yourself.

And your daily dying never stops. Whether it’s working multiple part-time jobs (taking up huge chunks of your week)…whether it’s homeschooling children who do NOT want to learn…whether it’s preparing a healthy meal for your family at the end of a long day when you’ve already been working at the clothes closet…whether it’s giving up your Saturday mornings every week so that you can clean Phil and Ginger’s house…whether it’s taking care of a whiny husband who can’t even handle a little cold…whether it’s the two years you spent on the WIM cabinet…whether it’s trying to corral four children in a little church with no nursery or anyone to help you keep them in line (all so that I can preach)…whether it’s driving a horribly crummy car that doesn’t even have a working driver’s side door lock or properly working rear door…whether it’s getting up at night with little ones who have nightmares because you know if it was me I’d never be able to get back to sleep…whether it’s the numerous challenges that every Christian faces, like living daily before the face of God and spending time with him…

You have died to yourself for the sake of me, for the sake of our children, for the sake of the Lord’s call on our family and on our lives. You have a level of honesty and integrity that I hope to aspire to. In a matter of days I will be receiving my Master of Divinity degree, and we will prepare to go to the church where God would have us serve. But you deserve an award that is more prestigious, more honorable, and that conveys my gratitude.

I believe that without exaggeration it can be said of you: “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.”

With all my Love,

Monday, February 15, 2016

We'll Figure This Out Eventually

I appreciate much of what Matthew Tuininga has to write and have read his work on the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms for years. His most recent post for Reformation 21, called "Rightly Defining the Spirituality of the Church," is commendable for what he identifies as what is often an abuse of the two kingdoms doctrine by those who are actually not consistently applying it. However, I believe that Tuininga’s proposed solution is a poor corrective:
Until advocates of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church (not to mention advocates of two kingdoms theology) come to grips with the social implications of the spiritual gospel they will not be able to make the necessary distinction between inappropriate meddling in civil and political affairs (which they rightly criticize) and the church's responsibility to proclaim the full scope of the gospel, with all of its social implications (which duty they avoid).
So Tuininga lays the blame for the abuse of spirituality of the church doctrines at the feet of those who are apparently in denial of what he says are the social implications of the gospel. He doesn’t seem to have a clear definition of “social.” On the one hand he almost seems to use the term to refer to any interpersonal interaction, but no two-kingdom or Spirituality of the church advocate that I know of is going to argue that the Gospel doesn’t change the way people live together. Instead, I take Tuininga, when he uses the word “social” to be “relating also to those outside of the Church.” Assuming that I’m working with a definition of “social” that Tuininga would find amenable, what are the social implications of the gospel? Well, Tuininga gives a few examples:
While Christ refused to take up the work of a lawyer or a civil judge in order to arbitrate a legal dispute over property (Luke 12:13-14), for instance, he had a lot to say about the way his disciples should handle their property (Luke 12:33; Cf. Acts 2:45; 2 Corinthians 9:7), demonstrate hospitality (Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 25), and reach out to various marginalized groups (Luke 5:30-32; 7:37-48; 14:12-14). While he insisted that his disciples may not use violence as do the political kingdoms of this world (John 18:36), he required them to recognize the authority of Caesar by paying taxes (Matthew 22:21), and he called them to exercise a distinctly different model of leadership (Luke 22:25-27). Likewise the Apostle Paul urged believers not to sue one another in the courts (1 Corinthians 6:7), but that did not stop him from requiring integrated worship and fellowship among Jews and Gentiles (Galatians 2) any more than it stopped James from condemning the practice of segregating worship between rich and poor (James 2:1-7). And this is to say nothing about the many things Christ and his apostles taught about social relations ranging from government and labor relations to marriage and parenting, all in light of the transforming impact of the gospel.
For the sake of clarity and simplicity, let me offer bullet-point summaries of the various social implications of the Gospel, according to Tuininga:

  • The Gospel speaks to how disciples should handle their personal property.
  • The Gospel speaks to how disciples should be hospitable.
  • The Gospel speaks to how disciples should “reach out to various marginalized groups.”
  • The Gospel speaks to how disciples should submit to the authority of the government.
  • The Gospel speaks to how disciples should lead one another.
  • The Gospel speaks to how disciples should treat one another in law-courts.
  • The Gospel speaks to how disciples should ethnically be brought together in worship.
  • The Gospel speaks to how disciples should treat one another despite economic class.

When one looks at this list, there is one thing that is glaringly absent: there is not one example of the New Testament telling the Church to speak to secular people about how to live or to the government about how to function. Every single one of these things is an instruction for the Church and for Christians, and many of them are predicated on believers’ union with Christ.

Based on the above list, the reader is able to understand what “the social implications of the spiritual gospel” are for the Church, but what are “the social implications of the spiritual gospel” for the person who does not love Jesus or who doesn’t belong to the church? For example, Paul cares a great deal about racial reconciliation within the Church, but is there any sense in which the dividing line between Jews and Gentiles has been torn down if someone isn’t united to Christ?

In the end, Tuininga’s solution leaves more questions than answers. For example:

  • Apart from calling unbelievers to repent and trust in Christ, what does the Gospel have to say to those who are outside of Christ?
  • What, exactly, are the political implications of the Gospel?
  • What particular policies or laws must the Church advocate?
  • Is there any distinction between the function of the Church and the role of an individual believer in society?
  • What, exactly, is meant by “social” and “political”?

For a post called “Rightly Defining the Spirituality of the Church,” I am left scratching my head. The article seems to leave things more nebulous and less defined. If I were to propose my own solution to the social confusion Tuininga observes, it would be fourfold:
a) A clear understanding of what “The Gospel” is.
b) A clear understanding of what “The Church” is.
c) A clear understanding of what is meant by the term “social.”
d) A clear understanding of what the mission of the Church is.
All four of these things are severely lacking in current debates over the Church’s role in society, and as long as they are undefined there will continue to be confusion, a lack of clarity, and a pattern of parties talking past one another.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Book Review: The Lord's Supper as a Means of Grace by Richard Barcellos

I have been eager to read Richard Barcellos’ book The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory for a number of years. It’s a pity it took me this long to get around to it, because I found it a great benefit to my own understanding of the Lord’s Supper and even a blessing to my soul. It is true that there are more comprehensive books on the subject of the Lord’s Supper from a Reformed perspective (Hughes Oliphant Old’s book Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church, weighing in at 900+ pages comes to mind). In contrast, however, to the thorough, historically oriented approach of Old, Barcellos’ book is short, nimble, and to the point. Rather than a hulking and intimidating juggernaut, Barcellos’ little book operates more as a special forces team intent on accomplishing one task, and I think it succeeds at that task. What that means is that Barcellos’ book is a book that I believe any pastor should feel comfortable sharing with their parishioners.

Barcellos’ readers do not have to wonder what the book is trying to accomplish; they need only read the cover. The title is repeated numerous times throughout the book, leaving no doubt what Barcellos intends to argue for. In the current evangelical context it is the overwhelming opinion of the day that the Lord’s Supper is only a meal of remembrance (though it is certainly that — 1 Cor. 11:24). But Barcellos argues that there is more to the Lord’s Supper than a pointing to the past. The Lord’s Supper also embodies elements of the present and future work of Christ (34). Instead of a past remembrance, Barcellos says, the Lord’s Supper is something God does. He quotes Bavinck to this effect: “Of primary importance in the Lord’s Supper is what God does, not what we do. The Lord’s supper is above all a gift of God, a benefit of Christ, a means of communicating his grace” (Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics, 4:567).

Barcellos spends the entire book making the case that “the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace through which Christ is present by his divine nature and through which the Holy Spirit nourishes the souls of believers with the benefits with the benefits wrought for us in Christ’s human nature which is now glorified and in heaven at the right hand of the Father” (103). This is Barcellos’ whole argument that he spends the book pressing upon the reader. This clear purpose lends the book a sense of laser focus.

Barcellos’ case begins with what he says is “the most explicit text in the New Testament…on the nature of the Lord’s supper as a means of grace” (104) — 1 Corinthians 10:16: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Barcellos spends time arguing that Paul is doing something more than adding meaning to a memorial meal; he is arguing that the meal effects the present enjoyment of the benefits of Christ’s work on behalf of the believer.

This leaves a legitimate question, which Barcellos turns his attention to: how does God do this? How do believers receive the benefits of Christ’s work by partaking of the bread and the cup? He rejects (for biblical reasons which he enunciates) an ex opere operato understanding of the Lord's Supper. There is nothing in the elements themselves that bring the Lord's Supper to effect. And so how does God work through the Lord's Supper? To answer this he turns his attention to Ephesians 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Barcellos offers a rigorous exegesis of the passage. He concludes that the work of redemption take place as a Trinitarian effort, but the benefits are brought to the believer through the work of the Holy Spirit. “Through the Lord’s Supper, communion with Christ and the benefits of his blood and body take place. This communion is effected by the Holy Spirit, the bearer of blessings from the Father because of the work of the Son. This is how the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace” (70). This really is the central claim of the entire book, and the remainder of it is focused on buttressing it.

Barcellos strengthens this claim by arguing (based on Eph. 3:16-17) that because prayer is also a means of grace and that “since prayer is offered during the Supper, our Father sends the Spirit in answer to prayer and he blesses the Supper producing further communion between the Redeemer and his people on earth” (105).

Among the most enjoyable parts of this book is Barcellos’ discussion of the practical implications of understanding the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. First, he says, this implies that we do more than simply remember Christ’s work. There are past, present, and future dimensions to the Lord’s Supper that are simply not enjoyed in a memorialist understanding of the Supper.

Secondly, Barcellos says, the Lord’s Supper isn’t only to be characterized by a grim funereal atmosphere. Instead, he says (based in a very brief discussion of 1 Cor. 11:28) that “though seriousness and reverence and awe are certainly appropriate, joy and hope ought to have their place as well because we are feasting upon Christ, further tasting that the Lord is good, and being helped along as pilgrims in a foreign land…The Lord’s Supper is a joy and hope-inducing ordinance. It gives us renewed confidence that our sins are forgiven, that Christ is ours and we are his, and an expectation of more of Christ to come” (110).

Third, he argues that the frequency of the Lord’s Supper really ought to be frequent. If, in fact, this is a means of grace, why don’t we observe it as frequently as the other means of grace (prayer and the preaching of the Word)? Put another way, Barcellos asks why we resist observing the other means of grace as infrequently as many do the Supper? He offers some answers of his own, but even the question itself gives readers something to ponder for themselves.

Barcellos’ final practical implication is that the Lord’s Supper’s connections with the past, present, and future means that pastors ought to point these dimensions out when administering the elements. The Lord’s Supper is a looking back to Christ’s sacrifice for his people. It is a present enjoyment of the benefits of redemption. It is also a foretaste of what Christ will usher in with the age-to-come. Partaking of the Lord's Supper by faith really is an all-encompassing, existential, and eschatological experience. Pastors should drive this reality home more often.

Among this book’s strengths are its focus, its refusal to get side-tracked, and its commitment to first and foremost reflect the Scriptural teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Barcellos is careful to spend a chapter showing that his position is also reflected in the Reformed confessions. He wants his readers to know that his view is no theological novelty. Ultimately, if there was only one book I could point a busy neophyte to, it would probably be this book because of its brevity (it is only 114 pages long), its focus, its Scriptural rigor, its Reformed confessional commitment, and its clarity.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I Give You Permission to Cry Over This Video Game

You’ve probably never played a game like That Dragon, Cancer. In fact, it definitely feels denigrating to call it a “game.” It’s really difficult to explain That Dragon, Cancer. The game was made by Ryan and Amy Green, and it was a project that began while their son Joel was going through cancer treatments. You can read about their story in many places (I hope you will do so), and there is even a documentary airing on PBS later this year about their family’s journey.

A few things you might be interested to know is that the Greens are Christians, and as you move through the game you play games with little Joel, you experience beautiful moments of light, but you also share in their hurt, in their fear, and their fight for faith and hope in God in the midst of hopelessness. The game portrays in a very authentic way the prayers and fears of very real human beings. There are no caricatures here. There are no stereotypes here. This is a game about real Christian people going through a real experience, and you are there with them almost every step of the way. In that sense, this game is almost an empathy simulator.

I am usually a stoic. My wife has probably seen me cry only a handful of times in 15 years of marriage. This game gave me my first real cry (very cathartic) in a long, long time. It happened sporadically throughout the whole game, but it really happened near the end of the game. Most of the time you believe this is a game about Ryan and Amy, about their grief and pain. But somewhere near the end, after Joel’s death there is this scene that they call “Picnic at the Edge of the World” and there is this moment where little Joel is sitting in the bow of the row boat, approaching the other shore, staring expectantly. The boat moves slowly. The stars are shining down and reflecting off of the water. You sit behind him in the boat and you see his little legs tucked under him as he stares at the other shore in anticipation. It is an utterly transcendent moment. It is something I have imagined for myself since I was a teenager who began to contemplate the reality that I too would someday die, pass from this realm into the next. And yet in this moment in the game, you realize this really is not the story of Ryan or Amy. No, this is Joel’s story. This is Joel’s journey. And the story has always been about his short journey in this life. A journey that was troubled and painful nearly from the very beginning.

It’s in this moment with Joel in the bow of the boat that I stopped for a moment thinking about Joel. I was suddenly thinking of my own two little ones, Titus and Tish. We lost them years ago, and if they were alive today they would be over a decade old now. A twin boy and girl. Sometimes I can see them running, holding hands, and playing. They’re there, but I can’t see their faces. I have to imagine it. But in this instance I was reminded that they had taken the same journey Joel was taking — two covenant children, beloved by believing parents, known for so short a time in this life, now watching from the other side, expectant, with an enlarged capacity for joy and made holy by the God who knit them together in their mother’s womb. Awaiting Mom and Dad’s arrival. I was struck with a sense that I will be there with them some day. As David said of his own child after the Lord took him, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:23).

But not yet. And here I am now, crying, wiping away tears, not at all feeling silly for crying at a video game. For me, That Dragon, Cancer was less of a video game and more of a transcendent reminder that death is coming for all of us, and overjoyed to know that Christ has given us full entree to think of That Dragon as a toothless, ultimately defanged enemy.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Seeking a Foundation in the Midst of Pastoral Failures

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s honestly been a tough summer. For me, it started with the news of high profile pastors (some in my own denomination, even) who had committed adultery. Then it seems like over the summer more and more news has emerged about various pastors and Christian leaders needing to leave the ministry because of serious moral failings. All that time, even through that news I kept my head up, I encouraged myself that these sorts of things are sad realities in our fallen world, even among Christian leaders, but I told myself that I would somehow remain untouched by it all.

However, in a very real sense, the whole house of cards came falling down for me when it was discovered that a close friend and mentor was part of this number of men whose sin had disqualified them from the ministry. At that point, I couldn’t keep up the ruse that everything was fine and the house would stay standing. The last week has been…upsetting and more difficult than I'd care to admit. I still love my mentor. I still love this man. And at first I thought I had no right to be upset…after all, he isn’t my spouse. It was his wife who had been betrayed, not me. I fought for stoicism and failed. The hurt started to leak in. It started to weigh on me, and I decided to just let the sadness and the tears come. The truth is, it hurts to see men falling around you like dominoes — especially when you’re about to become a pastor yourself. There’s no denying that it is encouraging to see men doing what you will be doing, fighting the good fight, standing up under temptation. But this experience has shown me that if you begin to feel secure and ready for what’s coming because other people are doing it successfully, you are setting yourself up for some serious pain. Such an attitude shows that you’ve lost your way; your emotional and spiritual compass is all screwed up.

The great thing about preaching lectio continua straight through the Bible is that you don’t get to pick the texts, the texts are given to you. That’s how it was for me this past Sunday. I traveled 2 1/2 hours to the far reaches of Mississippi, and it was a long drive. It was a hard drive. Here I was someone who was going to preach God’s Word, and I was so discouraged — I truly felt beaten down. I prayed as I drove, but was frankly having a hard time finding any reason for hope.

Now, I had prepared this sermon a couple of weeks ago and hadn’t looked at it much in the days before, so when I went into the pulpit and read the text, I was being fed by the Word in a way that I badly needed. The text was from 1 John 1:5-10. While there is so much in that text that ministered to me (v. 9 in particular is a verse I probably repeat to myself every day), the passage that stood out the most was verse 5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

This message is a message about God. God is light. Whereas the world around us is mixed and mingled with darkness and light, various shades of gray and ambiguity, moral failings mixed with successes, there is one who is untainted by it all, and it isn’t my mentor, and it isn't your pastor.

The failure of Christian leaders is sad; incredibly sad. There is destruction and sorrow and broken hearts and trusts that aren’t easily repaired. God is mocked by unbelievers and perceived to be insufficient to meet our greatest needs in situations like these. Churches are in turmoil, and no doubt some on the fringes will decide that church maybe isn't for them. But if you’re like me and you find yourself leaning maybe a bit too much on the faith and perceived spiritual success of others — including the leaders in your life — you need to hear this message from John. John says that the message that Jesus brought was not, at its core, a message about you and me. It’s a message that starts with God. This means that the anchor of your life, of reality, of your existence isn’t your pastor. Yes, he is important, he is used by God in incredible ways to edify and build you up (thank God for him!) but he isn’t your rock. He isn’t your salvation. He isn’t the one in whom you trust or rest on.

You know this, probably, but you might have forgotten it. I knew it intellectually, but over time it becomes second nature to lean on things that just work without being aware that you're doing it. If you are one of those Christians who find yourself deeply discouraged by the sins, failures, and failings of Christian leaders, let me invite you to be reminded of who it is that is at the center of all of this. I don't have the silver bullet to solve every problem when it comes to working your way through messes like this, but I do know where you need to start. There was one who came and led and stood up under temptation. There was one who, when faced with every form of temptation (Heb. 4:15), came away clean, but it wasn’t your pastor — it was Christ himself. Make him your rock. Make him the one on whom you lean and rest and find your hope. I know of no other rock (Ps. 18:31).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 4)

In the first three parts of this series we not only explored the centrality of Christian Liberty to the debates and discussions that led to the OPC’s division, but actually spent the third part focusing on the 3rd General Assembly, which was followed shortly by the exodus of the McIntire/Buswell group and the creation of the Bible Presbyterian Church.

Aftermath In The OPC
After the division of 1937 some began to speak of the OPC as a “wet church,” which for the time was a derisive term (as it was probably intended).[1] In a booklet called “The Presbyterian Church of America and the Liquor Question” Clifford Smith defended the OPC’s refusal to speak in favor of total abstinence. He argued that while drunkenness was clearly condemned in Scripture (something all parties were agreed upon), he also classified moderate liquor consumption as a “thing indifferent” — something that is neither morally virtuous nor evil in itself.[2] He referred to moderate alcohol consumption as “among things that are morally indifferent and is to be dealt with on this basis.” Although there were perhaps those in the McIntire/Buswell camp who believed alcohol consumption in any amount to be sinful, those who wrote and published publicly on the matter generally dealt with consumption of alcohol by classifying it alongside of those things that cause others to stumble but are not sinful in and of themselves.[3]

Smith expressed a common sentiment among those who defended the OPC’s refusal to take a stand on abstinence: “Just because a thing is morally indifferent in itself, it does not follow that every Christian has free license to do it.”[4] Nevertheless, he argued, that was not a sufficient ground to forbid the thing. Smith also went to great lengths to point out that the OPC’s refusal to move on the issue as the abstainers desired did not mean that the OPC was a “wet church.” They did not have a position on total abstinence, just as the Bible did not have a position on total abstinence.

Aftermath In The BPC
When McIntire, Buswell, and company parted from the OPC in 1937, they left to form the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). When the first General Synod met in September of 1938 they passed a resolution stating that “we deem it wise to pursue the course of total abstinence.” This statement was re-affirmed at the Bible Presbyterian Church’s fourth General Synod.[5] There the discussion was not framed in terms of clear prohibitions from Scripture but in terms of applied wisdom.

The Harvey Cedars Resolution, which the BPC passed in 1945, is worth considering at this point. Though the Harvey Cedars Resolution was passed eight years after the BPC split from the OPC, it arguably contains what may be the most mature and careful expression of the moral position that characterized the McIntire/Buswell party within the OPC prior to the split. In that Resolution, the call to personal moral separation is framed in terms of wisdom:
We deem it wise to pursue the course of total abstinence with regard to alcoholic beverages, and also tobacco; and furthermore we are unalterably opposed to the modern saloon, and the liquor traffic in general. We urge all ministers and Christian leaders among us to discourage these and other worldly practices among the Lord's people, and to give their testimony uncompromisingly against all forms of sin.[6]
In both of the preceding statements, spanning 1937-1945 the argument of the abstainers was consistent: based on the wisdom of abstinence, abstinence was the required lifestyle of the Christian.[7] The Harvey Cedars resolution stated that this call was “in conformity to the Word of God,” though it also said that this was “without adding thereto any rules binding the conscience.” They were careful to avoid framing the discussion in terms of biblical commands or prohibition, though it arguably became, in effect, a biblical command several steps removed. For the abstainers who left the OPC, this was a matter of prudence, and the prudent thing was to avoid alcohol altogether.

In Carl McIntire’s magazine The Christian Beacon, the separation of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Seattle and of California Presbytery from the OPC were characterized in strikingly heroic terms. The Beacon portrayed them as having left in order that they “might remain true to that purpose for which it left the apostate U.S.A. Church.”[8] If this sentiment accurately reflects that of those who left the OPC for the Bible Presbyterian Church then it becomes clear that the Westminster group and McIntire/Buswell group had, from the beginning, envisioned drastically different purposes in their departures from the PCUSA to begin with. The McIntire/Buswell supporters envisioned the separated life as essential to their purpose. As D.G. Hart explains it, however, Machen’s “purpose throughout the fundamentalist controversy had been to preserve a seminary that would train ministers in Old School Presbyterian theology and a church where those seminarians could minister.”[9]

In his own reflection on the division of the OPC, George Marsden argues that, ultimately, the cause of division cannot entirely be placed squarely upon either the personalities or the theological issues involved.[10] Neither of them, in and of themselves, would have been sufficient to effect the division. Rather, says Marsden, each side in the conflict represented competing visions of what a Presbyterian Church ought to be. The Mcintire/Buswell group represented a vision of Presbyterianism as “a Bible-believing church witnessing to the world both in the preaching of the Word and the ‘separated life.’” The majority, says Marsden, wanted “an orthodox church whose witness would reflect an informed study of the scriptural principles in the church and its work.”[11] Marsden concludes that these two compatible visions of the church — which could (in principle) be held in balance — became incompatible when the balance between themselves was lost. Perhaps the only man who could hold the factions of the OPC in balance was Machen himself, but his death in January of 1937 meant that such questions would belong only to the realm of conjecture and speculation.

If it is true that only Machen could hold these groups together, then the uneasy alliance that opposed modernism in the PCUSA could never have held together on their own in the long-term. The majority in the OPC chose a path that would eventually put them at irremediable odds with the desire for the separated life expressed by the McIntire/Buswell group.

Even if one granted that it was wise or expedient for Christians to abstain from alcohol, was the wisdom of abstinence sufficient grounds to constitute a requirement for such abstinence? Absent a Biblical prohibition, could the Church make such a statement in the confidence that they spoke with the authority of Christ Himself? For those who left form the BPC, the answer to these questions was “Yes.” For those who remained in the OPC, the answer was “No.”


[ ] Clifford Smith, The Presbyterian Church of America and the Liquor Question. (PCA Historical Center, Buswell Collection, Box 286, File 105), 1.
[2] Ibid., 13.
[3] J. Oliver Buswell, The Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937), 86.
[4] Smith, 16.
[5] Minutes of the 4th General Synod of the BPS (1941), 6.
[6] PCA Historical Center. “The Harvey Cedars Resolutions,” http://www.pcahistory.org/documents/harveycedars.html (accessed Jan. 2, 2015).
[7] This was true not only of statements in print but also in personal correspondence. For instance, in a letter to Charles Woodbridge, J. Oliver Buswell argues that this whole discussion was ultimately a matter of how wisely and carefully the believer exercises his freedom. Appealing to Paul’s words in Romans 14:15-22 he argues that the offensiveness of liquor is in itself sufficient reason to forbid ever drinking it. Letter from J. Oliver Buswell to Charles Woodbridge (April 24, 1937).
[8] The Christian Beacon 2 Vol. 23 (July 15, 1937), 1, 8.
[9] D G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 2003), 170.
[10] Marsden’s concluding analysis of the split makes for fascinating reading. See George M. Marsden “Perspective on the Division of 1937” in Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, eds., Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 321.
[1] Ibid., 322.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 3)

In the prior two posts we considered the importance of Christian Liberty to the division of the OPC in 1937. In this post we will focus on the events themselves as they played out at the third General Assembly.

Two months after Buswell’s clarification and exchange with Stonehouse was published in The Guardian, the third OPC General Assembly convened. June 1, 1937 was a unusually warm day for Philadelphia at that time of year, reaching a balmy high of 90 degrees. The heat outside of the General Assembly’s meeting at Spruce Street Baptist Church was matched only by the heated disagreements between those factions that had formed within the OPC over the course of the previous year. Soon after this assembly convened, and before the first session had even commenced, J. Oliver Buswell “openly declared his intention to withdraw from [the denomination] if the Assembly did not take what he considered to be the only proper action on the overtures involving the question of total abstinence.”[1] Everyone would soon discover that these were not empty threats.

In the course of the assembly, three proposed overtures called for the church to endorse abstinence from alcohol. The overture from Chicago Presbytery cited prior statements by the PCUSA from the 19th century where total abstinence was endorsed. This included statements from the 1812, 1818, 1829, 1865, and 1877 General Assemblies (among others).[2] Indeed, the McIntire/Buswell group seemed to have the historical argument on their side, as temperance does seem to have held the field in 19th century American Presbyterianism. Despite valiant efforts and strong arguments for historical pedigree, none of these overtures passed.[3]

On the other hand, a contrary overture calling for caution against man-made rules was also submitted, which was successfully passed.[4] This overture referenced the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 20, Sections 2-3 which read in part, “God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word…” This passage was a favorite of those who opposed making statements endorsing total abstinence.

In another failure on the part of the McIntire/Buswell group, overture no. 8 from Iowa Presbytery argued that the denomination ought to allow a broad latitude of eschatological views. This did not pass, which dealt a double blow not only to defenders of temperance but to the perceived future of dispensational premillennialism in the OPC. The McIntire/Buswell supporters in the OPC took these successive defeats as a painful signal that they were not welcome in the newly conceived denomination and that they would not have a voice in it.

Before the third General Assembly had adjourned, the McIntire/Buswell group presented and filed a formal protest. This protest was with reference to the Assembly’s rejection of Overtures 2, 3 and 6 and passing of Overture 1.[5] They offered as their reason for protest a “deep conviction that, in the interest of making clear the position on this matter which we hold, and which we believe is held by the majority of the members, of this Assembly, we should have declared that we deem it wise to pursue and to encourage the course of total abstinence.”[6]

After the Assembly convened, seventeen total Teaching and Ruling Elders left the OPC and announced their intention to form a new denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). They subsequently established Faith Theological Seminary — a seminary that corrected what the BPC men had seen wrong with Westminster Seminary while feeling powerless to change it.

In Part 4 we will conclude this series of blog posts by considering the aftermath of the split between the OPC and the BPC.

[1] The Presbyterian Guardian 4 (June 26, 1937), 88.
[2] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 5-7.
[3] The specific overtures were Overture No. 2 from the Chicago Presbytery (which failed to pass 24-65), Overture No. 3 from the California Presbytery, and Overture No. 6 from the Presbyter of New Jersey (the latter two of which were rejected without a vote).
[4] This was Overture No. 1.
[5] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 27.
[6] Ibid.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 2)

In the first part of this series of blog posts we talked about the environment from which the OPC emerged. We concluded by surmising that the greatest issue in the OPC was not necessarily the issue of alcohol itself, but rather the question of how Christian Liberty is to be practiced. In this post I want to focus on the events, arguments, and correspondence that drew out the importance of these issues, culminating in division.

A little over three years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, and six months before the division of 1937, J. Oliver Buswell published a book called The Christian Life in which he argued that moderate alcohol use eventually leads to drunkenness. Because of this sad reality—argued Buswell—and based upon Paul’s teachings of lawfulness versus expediency in 1 Cor. 6:12 and 10:23, he concluded in this book that total abstinence from alcohol is required for Christians.[1]

In the book, Buswell fully concedes that “the Bible does not explicitly teach total abstinence,” even granting the possibility of some hypothetical utopia where people do all things in moderation — a scenario in which he actually says drinking alcohol might be acceptable.[2] In one of the overtures that would come before the OPC General Assembly in June 1937, the New Jersey Presbytery would echo Buswell on this point, agreeing that moderate alcohol consumption is not condemned in Scripture.[3] What Buswell argued, however, is that there was such a tendency to drunkenness in Americans that they needed to abstain completely. This conclusion of Buswell was again echoed by the New Jersey Presbytery a few months later when they argued that the “tendency of the American people to go to harmful excess” with regard to alcohol was sufficient reason to condemn its use altogether.[4]

In The Christian Life, Buswell anticipated the claim that Jesus’ production of wine at the wedding of Cana was sufficient to demonstrate that its use was not completely wrong. His response was to claim that America is such a different place than first century Palestine that (even granting that the wine at Cana was alcoholic) this kind of reasoning is tantamount to saying we ought to walk in the middle of traffic because Jesus walked in the middle of the road in his own day.[5] “If it was alcoholic wine which our Lord drank in his ordinary fellowship with men, if it was alcoholic wine which he made at the marriage in Cana of Galilee (this is open to dispute), we are not at liberty to argue that he would use or approve of the using of alcoholic beverages in America today.”[6]

The majority group wondered how, absent a Scriptural prohibition against something, would one arrive at the conclusion that something was to be prohibited? At the end of the day, there was much agreed upon within the early OPC, but when it came to the alcohol question the two parties were deeply divided as to how Christian liberty ought to be put into practice.

The centrality of Christian Liberty became clear when Charles Woodbridge responded to Buswell against accusations that Westminster Seminary was a “wet campus.” Woodbridge (one of those who opposed taking a stand on alcohol) attached to his letter a lengthy quote from Charles Hodge that Woodbridge believed was relevant to clarifying the real issue. His inclusion of the Hodge quote indicates that for Woodbridge the issue was not the harmfulness of excessive alcohol use, but rather the danger of speaking as the Church of Christ on an issue where Christ Himself, in the Scriptures, did not speak.
When it is obligatory to abstain from the use of things indifferent, is a matter of private judgment. No man has the right to decide that question for other men. No bishop, priest, or church court has the right to decide it. Otherwise it would not be a matter of liberty. Paul constantly recognized the right (εξουσια) of Christians to judge in such cases for themselves. He does this not by implication only, but he also expressly asserts it, and condemns those who would call it in question. “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth.” “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:3, 4, 5.) It is a common saying that every man has a pope in his own bosom. That is, the disposition to lord it over God’s heritage is almost universal. Men wish to have their opinions on moral questions made into laws to bind the consciences of their brethren. This is just as much a usurpation of a divine prerogative when done by a private Christian or by a church court, as when done by the Bishop of Rome. We are as much bound to resist it in the one case as in the other.[7]
For the Westminster group, the issue was not whether alcohol could be destructive, but rather, the wrongness of the Church declaring prohibitions where the Bible had not. In many ways, Buswell’s response in his letter to Woodbridge seems to be utterly unexpected: “I agree with what you quote from Dr. Hodge.” According to Buswell, the issue was not man-made laws (which he didn’t think he was guilty of making). Buswell goes on to tell Woodbridge that for those advocating abstinence from alcohol, the real issue is how the believer is supposed to exercise his liberty, pointing to Romans 14:15-22.[8] Who are the “weaker brethren” of Romans 14:15-22, according to Buswell? “Converted alcoholics and the young people in the social swirl of today.”[9]

Following the publication of The Christian Life, the Presbyterian Guardian ran a response by Guardian editor Ned Stonehouse on Feb. 27, 1937, titled “Godliness and Christian Liberty.” In that article, Stonehouse argued that, in light of Christ’s own miracle of turning water into wine, Buswell simply went too far: “It is a serious reflection on our Lord to hold that moderate drinking inevitably leads men into a life of drunkenness, as Dr. Buswell seems to do in his recent book on The Christian Life, p. 88.”[10]

In April of 1937 Buswell responded to Stonehouse’s article not by appealing (as he had in his book) to a disjunction between Christ’s own day and modern America, but by instead arguing that he was being misrepresented. “If the reader will turn to chapter three in this book he will find that the argument is based squarely upon the scriptural doctrine of expediency.”[11] In the same issue, Stonehouse retorted that “the argument in his book goes beyond an appeal to inexpediency.”[12] To Stonehouse’s credit, pages 85-88 of The Christian Life did not make any references to Christian Liberty but rather to the raw destructiveness of alcohol, as well as the irrelevance of Christ’s own example to the modern context. This isn’t to say that inexpediency was not a part of Buswell’s argument (pages 88-91), but Buswell’s response does seem to have been an attempt to steer the debate towards what Buswell perceived to be the stronger elements of his argument.

In Part 3 of this series, we will look at the actual events of the 3rd OPC General Assembly.

[1] The Presbyterian Guardian 4 (April 10, 1937), 12.
[2] J. Oliver Buswell, The Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937), 86.
[3] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 8.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Buswell, 87.
[6] Ibid., 86.
[7] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 265.
[8] Personal letter from Buswell to Charles Woodbridge, April 24, 1937, 2. (PCA Historical Center, Box 285, file 14)
[9] Buswell, The Christian Life, 91.
[10] Guardian 3 (Feb. 27, 1937), 203.
[11] Guardian 4 (April 10, 1937), 12.
[12] Ibid.