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.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book Review: Serving with Calvin by Terry Johnson

Terry Johnson’s book Serving with Calvin is a follow-up to his previous book Worshipping With Calvin. In that book, Johnson made the case that a bare soteriological Calvinism would be an insufficient foundation for the new Calvinists to build upon. Rather, he argued, Biblical and Reformed worship was not only at the core of Calvin’s reformation in Geneva, but it must also be what captivates the upcoming generation as well. Taking this previous work for granted (while also not requiring that one has first read it), Johnson offers Serving with Calvin as a wonderfully practical rejoinder that essentially answers the question of how the ideals of Worshipping with Calvin can really be put into practice.

In Serving With Calvin Johnson helpfully lays out for the reader what an ordinary means of grace worship service looks like. The three ordinary means of grace that God has given, as explained in Shorter Catechism #88, are the Word, sacraments, and prayer. An ordinary means of grace ministry is a ministry where “these properly receive our focus, our attention, our energy, our resources, our emphasis” (329).

Johnson is self-aware of the abuses that are possible, even under the ordinary means of grace model. He mentions and addresses these in his next-to-last chapter where he discusses the possible errors that ordinary means of grace churches could fall into.

For example, he says, an ordinary means of grace ministry could end up mistaking presumption for faith. What he means by this is that “Trust in the power of God through ordinary means can become an excuse for negligence and sloth” (320). This is a realistic possibility that churches need to be vigilant to look out for. In the same section he cautions against looking at small or shrinking congregations as a “sign of faithfulness” (322). Rather, he says, shrinking does not always (or even usually) equal faithfulness. Rather, “There is a presumption of growth in the New Testament.”

Johnson also reminds his readers that ordinary means of grace does not mean only means of grace. Not only should ministers and churches be absolutely committed to administering the Word, prayer, and sacraments to the flock, but they should also do the work of a pastor. As he puts it, just because the pastor has preached his sermon, prayed, and brought the sacraments to his people doesn’t mean that his work is done. “Healthy relationships, or more to the point, our pastoral care, is crucial, if our ordinary means ministry is to be received” (329). It may be a temptation, says Johnson, for the pastor to “hide in their studies, and thereby neglect the kitchen table, the coffee house, and the counseling room.”

Johnson also cautions against neglecting church programs that could greatly benefit the body. Ordinary means ministry doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t have special programs focused on children, college students or families, for example. Of course, “none of these…should usurp the role of the public assembly on the Lord’s Day.” The Church, while having its focus on the right things, needs to learn to walk and chew gum, as it were. We cannot focus on the means of grace and think that neglecting other things that are helpful to our members will simply turn out fine. I appreciate the candor of a book that commends ordinary means of grace ministry while recognizing possible mistakes or errors that such a ministry can be prone to.

There is much to commend about Serving with Calvin. But there is also some that I disagree with. This is to be expected in a book that deals with such practical matters. Nearly every reader, I suspect, will find things that they simply do not agree with Johnson about. I like that — it’s a sign of conviction. Few things are more frustrating than reading an author who seems to want everyone to like them.

Johnson’s biggest blindspot is probably the seeming lack of cultural self-awareness. Nowhere in the book does he seem to realize or admit the cultural reality that the church services he describes and advocates for are most certainly a reflection of Western European worship forms, firmly rooted in the 16th century. While I love those worship forms and would (and do) embrace and utilize them in most cases, I find the lack of self-awareness to be just a bit glaring.

In his discussion of the importance of reverence in worship Johnson rejects hip-hop as unsuitable alongside of John Cage’s atonal monstrosities (102). This demonstrates what seems to be more of a misunderstanding of other musical traditions than it does some inherent defect or irreverence in hip-hop. I would have loved for Johnson to have said something like: "For most churches that follow anglo-european forms of worship and music style (such as our own), hip-hop would probably too irreverent or disruptive to include as part of the worship service. There may be some contexts when this sort of music would make sense."

This complaint about cultural blindspots is really minor in such a helpful book. Serving With Calvin lays out very well the biblical justification for the use of various elements of worship. It does so with brevity and never gets too deep into any of the issues (it is trying to cover a very broad range of topics). I think this book would make an excellent textbook for an introductory class on Worship. Even if the reader ends up disagreeing with Johnson from time-to-time they will find much to discuss and be provoked to consider the worship of God’s church in greater detail than most ordinarily do.

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,” (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.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 1)

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church emerged from a hotbed of conflict. This was a conflict that, as Darryl Hart and John Muether have argued, was to define the OPC[1] in nearly every area of its polity, doctrine, and personality even up to the present day.[2] This conflict from which the OPC emerged was not a conflict between two Christian groups who simply could not agree on some details, but — as J. Gresham Machen portrayed it — between Christianity and Liberalism: two entirely different religions.[3] The battleground of this conflict was the mainline Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) of the 1920s and 30s and the conflict arguably struck its zenith with the trial and ejection of J. Gresham Machen from its ranks. By June of 1936 the OPC was formed by Machen and a small group of conservatives who chose not to remain in the PCUSA any longer.

Because it was a child of war, the OPC was originally composed of an oddly mismatched (in retrospect) coalition that might be roughly divided into two: the Westminster group and the McIntire/Buswell group. On the Westminster side were leaders who were associated with Westminster Seminary such as J. Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Paul Wooley, Ned Stonehouse (the editor of the Presbyterian Guardian), and Charles Woodbridge. Those who occupied the McIntire/Buswell camp were those who eventually left the OPC. This group, of course, included among them Carl McIntire and J. Oliver Buswell.

In their battles with the modernists of the PCUSA these groups found themselves sharing a similar agenda and a common enemy. George Marsden puts it this way: “As long as conservatives were confronted with the presence of modernists within their own institutions, and as long as there was real hope of retrieving control of the church, there was little time for disputes on fine points.”[4] After the split with the PCUSA, of course, these two conservative groups now shared the same house. From the perspective of hindsight it seems like a marriage that was destined to fail, but at the time it did not perhaps seem so obvious. Why, after all, should it be so hard to remain together, now that the issue of an aggressive and militant form of modernism was off the table?

In the beginning there was what might be termed a “honeymoon phase” for the newly formed denomination. One detects it in the triumphant declaration by J. Gresham Machen that in forming the OPC “we became members of a true Presbyterian Church; we recovered, at last, the blessing of true Christian fellowship. What a joyous moment it was! How the long years of struggle seemed to sink into nothingness compared with the peace and joy that filled our hearts!”[5] That sense of joy was not to be long lived or shared by all. Less than a year later, however, some of those same people would choose to separate from this “true Presbyterian Church.”

It would be a mistake for anyone to think that the sole issue which caused the division of 1937 was the issue of the church’s relationship to the alcohol question. The issues were not at all simple. As Marsden summarizes it, there were at least three primary driving issues leading to the split: dispensational premillennialism (doctrinal), abstinence from alcohol (moral), and participation with non-Presbyterians in foreign missions (ecclesiastical).[6] It was never just one thing, and there were many factors and personalities at play beyond these three, as well (not the least of which was the death of Machen in January of 1937). In George Marsden’s analysis, however, the issue of temperance was certainly “the most emotionally charged of the issues that had been raised.”[7]

Through a series of upcoming blog posts we will look more closely at this “most emotionally charged” of the issues that divided the OPC. By the end, not only will we have explored a fascinating period in Presbyterian history, but we will really see that the issue which was most pressing in the division wasn’t ultimately disagreement over the wrongness of alcohol, but disagreement over two competing visions of how Christian Liberty ought to be put into practice.

In Part 2 of this series we will consider the developments that ultimately led to the division of the OPC in 1937.

[1] The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was initially called the Presbyterian Church of America until it was forced to change its name by court order. However, in spite of the anachronism and for the sake of continuity I will here refer to it by its later name, the OPC.
[2] D G. Hart and John R. Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee on Christian Education and the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995), 7.
[3] See J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), 2.
[4] 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), 299.
[5] The Presbyterian Guardian 2 (June 22, 1936), 110.
[6] Marsden, 296.
[7] Marsden, 308.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The PCA In the Horns of a Dilemma OR Why Does the PCA Have a Confession At All?

North Texas Presbytery and Tennessee Valley Presbytery have put forth overtures to the PCA General Assembly this year suggesting the creation of a study committee regarding the recreation clause of the Westminster Standards. Others have already pointed out that there is probably a hugely widespread misunderstanding among those coming into the PCA about what was meant by these clauses, and addressing that isn’t my purpose here today. Rather, I want to suggest that the PCA needs to be reminded of why it has a confession to begin with.

What is a confession? And why do we have them? R.L. Dabney defines a confession as “a summary statement of what some religious teacher or teachers believe concerning the Christian system, stated in their own uninspired words.” The case for the use of such confessions is two-pronged: a) It has biblical precedent, and b) it makes practical sense.

There are examples of creeds (albeit inspired creeds) in Scripture (Phil. 2:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:11-13). Joseph Pipa, Jr., in his article “The Confessing Church,” argues that confessions are not only biblical, but that they are commanded. He does so on the basis of 2 Tim. 1:13-14. While it is hard to see a specific command for confessions in this passage, it is easy to see how confessions might nevertheless be a means to keeping this particular command of Paul. In this regard there is something to be said for pragmatic arguments in favor of confessions. [1]

Samuel Miller makes his case for the use of creeds in his booklet “On the Utility and Importance of Creeds.” Miller makes multiple arguments in favor of creeds, but among his strongest is his argument that creeds play a practical role in the life of the church: namely, they make unity possible.  “Without a creed explicitly adopted, it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church, and more especially a large denomination of Christians, can maintain unity among themselves.” And so creeds are a means of keeping unity among the people of God. Because the practical purpose of the creed is to promote the unity of those who hold to it, Miller says that creeds “always ought to contain a number of articles besides those which are fundamental.” The result of this process is a creed that is not merely composed of the bare essentials of the faith, but also of those things that the creed’s adherents cannot live in harmony without clarifying.

The PCA currently finds itself in the horns of two problems: (I) the problem of “good faith subscription” and (II) the problem of common exceptions. As Overtures 2 and 9 before the 2015 General Assembly point out, exceptions regarding the “no recreation” clause are so commonplace as to barely register a reaction in most presbyteries.

With regard to the first problem (I), the PCA requires subscription to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, but it does so on the basis of “good faith” (BCO 19-2). This phrase “good faith,” of course, introduces a slippery element of subjectivity. The problem being that what one person might be able to affirm in good faith may be different than what another might be able to affirm in good faith. The result of this form of subscription is that doctrinal standards will actually have an unspoken, unofficial confession within the Westminster Standards, and that unspoken “good faith” confession, at the practical level, will effectively become the new de facto standard of the denomination.

The second problem (II) is the common-ness of exceptions in the PCA. Because the confession is held by its adherents to accurately reflect the teachings of Scripture, “An exception to the Confession, from the point of view of the Church confessing, is an exception to the teaching of Scripture.” [2] This implies that any exception with the standards ought to be regarded by the ruling body as a very serious and troubling issue. From the position of the confession’s adherents, the person who takes exception with the confession is taking exception with the teaching of Scripture and must now decide if the disagreement with Scripture is serious enough for them not to form a ministerial relationship. Currently exceptions are both expected (some men go so far as to question your honesty if you say you don’t have exceptions) and are seen as no big deal to many. This, of course misses the seriousness of an exception.

For some, the question of confessional subscription is one of looseness of subscription — of how closely a man may or may not hold to the written document. David Coffin, however, argues that this gets the dilemma all wrong: “the debate about subscription is really a conflict about which articles ought to be subscribed to, not the strictness, or looseness, of the subscription.” [3]

In light of this helpful point, perhaps the best and most practical thing to do in the PCA is to take steps that will make allowable exceptions to the Confession and Catechisms exceedingly rare or else difficult to get past the Presbytery. This can either be done by (A) moving to a form of strict subscription (instead of “good faith” subscription) while removing the parts of the confession that are the most common sources of exceptions. Or this can also be done by (B) moving to strict subscription while keeping the Confession and Catechisms just as rigid as they already are. The practical result of (A) would be a less robust confessional environment that makes room for a broader coalition of men (“A Big Tent”) who will presumably be required to take less exceptions and presumably will encourage greater unity in terms of confessional adherence. The practical result of (B) would be a smaller denomination that is more tightly bound together in terms of Confessional adherence but also, perhaps, with a greater claim to historic Reformed pedigree.

The answer as to what to do about the two problems mentioned above [(I) and (2)] will require soul searching on the part of the leadership of the PCA, and answering what to do is certainly above this writer’s pay grade. Many would argue that none of these options are viable and that the status quo should probably end up ruling the day. Whatever the case may be, the current environment is not conducive to the unity in truth that a creed is intended to promote.

[1] Carl Trueman argues that Paul, in 2 Tim. 1, is referring to something resembling a confession of his own here, though he doesn’t go so far as Pipa in arguing that confessions are here commanded. See Carl R. Trueman. The Creedal Imperative (Kindle Locations 1121-1122). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
[2] David F. Coffin Jr., “The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription,” in The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, ed. Peter A. Lillback (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 340.
[3] Coffin, 337.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

17 Ways To Glorify God

Most good Presbyterians know the first question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "What is the Chief End of Man?" The answer, of course, is that man's chief end is to "glorify God and enjoy him forever." If you read John Piper you've already gone over this hundreds of times before.

Thomas Watson, in his book Body of Divinity, offers a commentary on this question and its answer. In doing so Watson offers 17 ways in which the Christian glorifies God. I will give the bullet-point list of ways that Watson lists along with one quote and one Scripture reference that he mentions in his larger discussion. I do so in the hopes that readers will be encouraged to glorify God in their own lives and also to read the whole of Watson's answer in the book for themselves.

Watson says that we glorify God...

1. By aiming purely at his glory. "It is one thing to advance God's glory, another thing to aim at it." (see John 8:50)

2. By an ingenuous (innocent - unsuspecting) confession of sin. "The prodigal charged himself with sin before his father charged him with it." (see Joshua 7:19)

3. By believing. "It is a great honor we do to a man when we trust him with all we have, when we put our lives and estates into his hand; it is a sign we have a good opinion of him. Faith knows there are no impossibilities with God, and will trust him where it cannot trace him." (see John 3:33)

4. By being tender to God's glory. "When we hear God reproached, it is as if we were reproached." (see Psalm 69:9)

5. By fruitfulness. "Though the lowest degree of grace may bring salvation to you, yet it will not bring much glory to God. It was not a spark of love Christ commended in Mary, but much love." (see John 15:8)

6. By being contented in that state in which Providence has placed us. "When grace is crowning, it is not so much to be content; but when grace is conflicting with inconveniences, then to be content is a glorious thing indeed." (see Phil. 4:13)

7. By working out our own salvation. "God has twisted together his glory and our good. We glorify him by promoting our own salvation." (see Phil. 2:12)

8. By living to God. "The Mammonist lives to his money, the Epicure lives to his belly; the design of a sinner's life is to gratify lust, but we glorify God when we live to God." (see 2 Cor. 5:15)

9. By walking cheerfully. "The people of God have ground for cheerfulness. They are justified and adopted, and this creates inward peace; it makes music within, whatever storms are without." (see 2 Cor. 1:4)

10. By standing up for his truths. "God has entrusted us with his truth, as a master entrusts his servant with his purse to keep." (see Jude 3)

11. By praising him. "Praise is the quit-rent we pay to God: while God renews our lease, we must renew our rent." (see Psalm 86:12)

12. By being zealous for his name. "Zeal is a mixed affection, a compound of love and anger; it carries forth our love to God, and our anger against sin in an intense degree." (see Rev. 2:2)

13. When we have an eye to God in our natural and in our civil actions. "We glorify God, when we have an eye to God in all our civil and natural actions, and do nothing that may reflect any blemish on religion." (see 1 Cor. 10:31)

14. By laboring to draw others to God. "We should be both diamonds and loadstones; diamonds for the lustre of grace, and loadstones for attractive virtue in drawing others to Christ." (see Gal. 4:19)

15. When we suffer for God and seal the gospel with our blood. "God's glory shines in the ashes of his martyrs." (see John 21:18-19)

16. When we give God the glory of all that we do. "As the silkworm, when she weaves her curious work, hides herself under the silk, and is not seen; so when we have done anything praiseworthy, we must hide ourselves under the veil of humility and transfer the glory of all we have done to God." (see 1 Cor. 15:10)

17. By a holy life. A bad life dishonors God. "Though the main work of religion lies in the heart, yet our light must so shine that others may behold it." (see Rom. 2:24)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gyges' Ring is Real

Have you heard of Gyges' Ring? Plato spoke about it in his book The Republic. Here is how Plato relates the discovery of this ring:
According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
This isn't exactly the 'One Ring' from Lord of the Rings. It doesn't make you tired. There's no dark lord out to ruin you if you over-use it or anything like that. No horsemen are coming to get you if you have it. Nothing like that. It's a symbol of absolute freedom from responsibility for one's actions. Gyges' ring is Plato's own way of asking what a good person is like. Plato says that a just person is someone who would live their life the same whether they are wearing the ring or not. Such a person, says Socrates in Plato's dialogue, would be the kind of person who isn't a slave to their appetites.

Anyone who is reading this blog has probably been into the darkest, deepest, most horrifying depths of the internet. That place where the trolls come out to play and the monsters are real. That place where people actually behave like the disgusting monsters that they are on the inside. I'm speaking, of course, of the comments section on YouTube. Abandon hope all ye who read such a comments section - or nearly any comments section on any website, for that matter. It isn't just that people are irrational and mean, but they are frankly boorish, rude, uncaring, and cruel. It turns out that an anonymous citizenry really is as terrifyingly evil and irresponsible as we might fear.

A month ago, This American Life did a story about internet trolls, and one of the interesting things they talked about was a woman who was so tormented by trolls that someone actually found a picture of her father, started a Twitter feed in his name and with his picture and started tweeting cruel messages to her about what a failure and disappointment she was to him. Predictably she was totally aghast and heartbroken and brought to tears by this anonymous person's "joke." Anonymity allowed him to behave in a way that I trust he never would have behaved in the physical real world.

I am here to tell you (and you probably already know this) that Gyges' ring is real. And everyone with an internet connection has it. We now live in a society of where nearly everyone can behave as they want with virtual anonymity. Remarkably, the troll who tormented this woman I just spoke about on Twitter actually had a conscience and ended up apologizing over the phone to the woman with tears. He realized he had crossed a line and behaved like a ghoul. He took off the ring and realized that, at least in some sense, there is an obligation for all of us to treat one another with respect and kindness, whether we get caught or not.

How do you behave on the internet? How do you talk to other people online? How long do you pause before you push the "submit" button on a comment or before you push "return" after writing a Facebook comment? How big is the disconnect between the things you are willing to say to people face to face and the things you are willing to type to them? One definition of the word integrity points to the principle of undivided wholeness; I would suggest that having integrity with regard to the internet means that the person you behave as when you're wearing Gyges' ring ought to be the same person you are when you aren't wearing it.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"You Are Quite Wrong"

I used to celebrate that the emergent church has gone the way of the buffalo. With Rob Bell jumping the shark and Brian Mclaren's "marriage" of his son to another man it had outed itself as at best a reincarnation of old-school 20th century liberalism and at worst another vehicle for moving large numbers of people out of the church. But the reality is, the ethos and theologically unorthodox impulses haven't disappeared. Even more nefariously these impulses have been incorporated as a part of modern evangelicalism's already sickly emaciated theological assumptions. Perhaps the greatest lasting rhetorical aspect of the emergent methodology was its constant insistence that it was only asking innocent questions.

A few months ago one defender of emergent theological experimentation claimed that one of the godfathers of the emergent movement was publicly crucified. His sin?
  • "He deviated. He dared to ask questions. He challenged the status quo. He moved against the grain."
  • "He asked a ton of really natural questions about reconciling eternal punishment with a loving God."
  • "In the now infamous and pivotal volume that caused the Church to break-up with him, Bell didn’t give many answers. He only asked people, to ask the questions."
  • "He’s admitting the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith."
In all of these propositional assessments of how Bell was treated, of course, the author seems to assume that mere questions without propositions can be benign. Is it possible for mere "question" asking to be totally innocent? Certainly. You could be asking someone a genuine question and seeking an actual answer. But there is another kind of question-asking that is intended to expose absurdity and turn people away from a particular belief or series of beliefs. Jesus dealt with this exact method of questioning, and he saw right through it.

Near the end of the book of Mark during his confrontation with the leaders in Jerusalem Jesus is confronted by a series of adversaries, each with their own agenda. In the middle of this series of challenges, the Sadducees come to him and offer a challenge of their own (Mark 12:18). They want to argue that the resurrection is an absurdity, and they do it by means of narrative, telling the story of a woman who, for various reasons related to the levirate law (Deut. 25:5) has married a series of seven brothers, each of them dying and leaving her childless. The Sadducees ask Jesus whose husband she will be at this supposed resurrection that is coming. This is a hard question with a great deal of emotional and rhetorical force.

Notice the structure of the rhetoric employed by the Sadducees. They never once make a propositional statement (except when setting up the background of the story they're telling). Everything that they say is either story-telling or question-asking. They're just daring to ask "the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith," aren't they? They're only asking "a ton of really natural questions." And yet Jesus says to the Sadducees, "Is this not why you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?"

The Sadducees might just as well respond, "How can we be wrong? After all, we're just trying to start a conversation. We're just asking questions. How can a question be 'wrong'?"

It is also obvious to Jesus what the story is meant to accomplish. It's meant by these people who are "just looking for a conversation" to illustrate in vivid fashion just how silly or problematic the idea of someone being resurrected actually is. Of course, they have underlying assumptions (unstated) that Jesus has to deal with, and he does so first by reminding the Sadducees that heaven is not a place of marriage, and second by reminding them from the Scriptures that "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (12:27). Their problem, according to Jesus, is that their underlying, unstated theological assumptions are wrong and that they don't know their Bibles (v. 24). A truly deadly pair of problems that afflict far too many. Some even find it embarrassing that churches today still employ Jesus' methodology of quoting 2,000 year old Scriptures to settle theological and ethical disputes.

In spite of the supposed 'innocence' of such questions, Jesus responds to them that they are wrong. Contrary to the insistence of many, you can set forth a series of mere questions and stories and still be "quite wrong" (v. 27).

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Myth of the Gullible Ancients

One belief that is ubiquitous among those who write off Christianity is the suspicion that the persons who lived in biblical times were highly gullible. When I was an atheist teenager I looked down on the Biblical authors because I thought they didn’t understand the physical world and thought that it was inhabited by fairies and trolls at every turn. I found comfort in writing them off in this way. Richard Carrier in a recent episode of ‘The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ said that "The average person on the street would be like, 'Oh you saw God and he spoke to you? That must be for real!' That was the order of things.” It is common to hear the Israelite ancients referred to contemptuously as superstitious and gullible individuals. To anyone who knows the Bible this is, of course, a laughable generalization.

As I read the Bible each night with my kids one of the things I try to instill in them is that these are not stupid superstitious people, and this is easy to prove. It takes no manipulation of the text or reading in information that isn’t there; it rests on the surface and can be scooped up without any digging at all. Almost every time a miracle happens in the text I try to point out to them the amazement people have. Tonight in 2 Kings 4 we read about Elisha and the Shunnemite woman. We got to the part where he tells her she will get pregnant in spite of her husband’s advanced age and the woman says, "O man of God, do not lie to your servant." I asked them why she said this and my oldest daughter was very quick: "Because she knew that getting pregnant would have been a miracle, just like with Abraham's wife.”

My daughter was referring, of course, to Sarah’s unbelief (Gen. 18:12) — and Abraham’s unbelief (Gen. 17:17) — at God’s promise to give Abraham a child in his old age. He and his wife laughed at the thought that she would ever have a child. Why? Because old ladies don’t have babies, and Sarah knew this fact just like we do today. These were people who believed in the regularity and stability of the natural order. The sort of people who laughed when a miracle was promised. They didn’t believe that God’s existence meant that the universe was a place of pixies, fairies, confusion and flux.

Skepticism is a frequent response to the miraculous in Scripture. Think of Moses, who expects skepticism when he comes to the Israelites claiming to speak for God (Exodus 4:1). Or think of when Jesus healed the blind man and the text says “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight” (John 9:18). Or think of Thomas who famously said “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). Dead men don’t come back! These ancient, unsophisticated people which no knowledge of Newtonian physics or string theory react to the miraculous with the sort of healthy skepticism that we normally associate with Sherlock Holmes or Gregory House. Skepticism. From such gullible people! Perhaps they weren’t as gullible as modern folks cartoonishly imagine them. Perhaps people need to be educated on what gullibility really looks like.

Being sophisticated enough to know that miracles are weird and rare and out of the ordinary shouldn't preclude miracles.