Saturday, June 22, 2013

Jonathan Edwards, The Westminster Standards, and Presbyterian Church Government

Jonathan Edwards pastored a congregational church in Northampton, Connecticut for many years. It would be easy to assume that Edwards was a congregationalist at heart or that he therefore did not hold the Westminster Standards in high esteem.

This would be a mistake. When it came to catechizing his children, says Samuel Hopkins, Edwards "diligently instructed his children in the Westminster Shorter Catechism." Elsewhere, in Edwards' letters he says that it is important to be "sound and clear in the great doctrines of the gospel." He then clarifies what he means: "we here intend those doctrines which are exhibited in our excellent Westminster Catechism and Confession of Faith." He then says that it is important to "boldly and impartially appear in the defense thereof" (Letters [Yale Edition], p.277).

Edwards also thought it was important, when he was living in Stockbridge, to not only teach the indians he was ministering to how to pray, but also to "teach 'em the Assembly's Catechism, and endeavor as far as may be to make 'em to understand it" (Letters, p.688). Elsewhere, he speaks of the Westminster Catechism "as containing an excellent system of divinity; and we purpose to preach agreeable to the doctrines of the Bible exhibited therein."

Finally, Edwards found himself presented with an opportunity to travel to Scotland and minister in a Presbyterian church. Although he, of course, did not eventually do so, his reply to the church in Scotland is perhaps most revealing:
“You are pleased, dear Sir, very kindly to ask me whether I could sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, and submit to the Presbyterian form of church government; and to offer to use your influence to procure a call for me to some congregation in Scotland. I should be very ungrateful if I were not thankful for such kindness and friendship.
"As to my subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession, there would be no difficulty: and as to the Presbyterian government, I have long been perfectly out of conceit with our unsettled, independent, confused way of church government in this land. And the Presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the Word of God, and the reason and nature of things, though I cannot say that I think that the Presbyterian government of the Church of Scotland is so perfect that it can't in some respects be mended" (Letters, p.355; my emphasis).
Some Presbyterians have suggested to me in the past that Edwards is not "one of us" because he was a congregationalist. It is worth remembering that each town often only had a single church, and the church in Northampton is where Edwards found himself and ministered faithfully until being removed in the course of the communion controversy. If this letter to the church in Scotland reflected Edwards' true feelings on the matter, then perhaps Edwards would have been a Presbyterian minister if the context had been different.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book Review: The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham

Gordon Wenham's book The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms is a collection of Wenham's writings from various sources, all collected into one convenient Psalm-centered volume. I chose to read this book because I need a new and fresh familiarity with the Psalms. I don't know them as well as I ought to, and much of the Psalter is strange to me. It is difficult to always know how to interpret or apply what we read in the Psalms to the readers, prayers, or worshippers who are utilizing them today.

In the first chapter, Wenham speaks of the importance of the Psalms. He talks of their historic pedigree and their importance throughout the history of the church. In the remainder of the chapter he discusses recent scholarship regarding the relationship between speech-act theory and the corporately spoken nature of the Psalms. Wenham essentially argues that there are important "similarities between taking an oath, making a vow, confessing faith, and praying the psalms." Singing the Psalms, says Wenham, actively committ the singer "to following the God-approved life" (35). It is not merely the repetition of an external series of words or merely an act of worship.

In Chapter two, Wenham argues that "we ought to pray the psalms regularly as Jesus and the apostles did, and as the Christian church did as well for about eighteen centuries" (40) Don't panic - he is not arguing for an exclusive psalmnody position. But he does at least note that the psalms have fallen into being used less than they were before the introduction of hymns in the 18th century and that this trend should be reversed. His argument is that the Psalms instruct the church in how to praise God and how to lament in times of trial and pain. They also help us in our repentance by modeling what true penitence looks and sounds like. Ultimately, the Psalms point to the Messiah. The chapter points out that the Psalms are all useful. "We should use all of the psalms, not just the cheerful or sentimental ones that take our fancy" (55).

In Chapter three and four Wenham turns his attention to tracing the modern developments in reading the Psalms canonically as well as Messianically. He concludes that (1) we should read the Psalms in the canonical context of the whole Psalter. (2) We should read the Psalms in the context of the Hebrew Bible. (3) We should read the Psalms in the context of the "Christian canon of the Old and New Testaments" (77). As for chapter four, he defends the idea that the psalms can (and often should) be read with a messianic expectation, and he argues effectively that the editors of the Psalms certainly had that expectation. Some very interesting hermeneutical discussion occupies this chapter.

In chapter five, Wenham explores the subject of the relationship between the law (decalogue) and the Psalms. The Psalmist repeatedly rejoices in the law of God (Ps. 119). "To rejoice in God's judgment on sin is to turn the spotlight on one's own life and behavior: will I pass muster with God?" Wenham's chapter brings out many insights as to what is really involved when a worshipper delights in the justice and holiness of God, which are revealed in God's Law.

Most readers, I suspect, will be most interested in Wenham's discussion of the impreccatory Psalms, which is what the sixth chapter covers. He gives an overview of various approaches to these Psalms - from Calvin to Kidner - but then offers Erich Zenger as offering the most helpful approach to understanding these Psalms. Zenger essentially approaches the Psalms by saying that Christians are functionally marcionite if they reject the impreccatory psalms as "sub-Christian" or as outdated Old Testament literature. According to Zenger, the impreccatory psalms serve the important purpose of giving voice to the very real human need for divine justice. "These psalms awaken our consciences to the anguish of those who suffer. They serve to waken us from the dreadful passivity that has overtaken the comfortable churches of the Western world. They make us long for the coming of the kingdom of power and justice" (135). He concludes this important chapter by reminding readers that although Western Christendom may not experience martyrdoms and injustice (and hence are offended by something like Psalm 109), much of the church around the world does experience such horrors and injustices as the Psalmists when they wrote the Psalms, and it is on behalf of such suffering brothers and sisters that we can appropriately pray the impreccatory psalms.

[As a side note, because of reading the sixth chapter, I ordered a copy of Erich Zenger's book A God of Vengeance?. I have no idea if it's a good book, but what exposure Wenham gives us in this chapter makes me very interested to see the rest of what Zenger does in that particular book.]

Chapter seven is a straightforward exploration of the concept of God's "steadfast love" as found in Psalm 103. Finally, the eighth chapter comes from an unpublished lecture of Wenham's where he discusses the subject of "the nations" in the Psalms, moving canonically from Psalm 1 through 150. Yes, the nations set themselves against God for much of the Psalms, but they also end on a note of hopeful expectation that the nations may yet come in to God's fold.

The greatest strength of this volume is that it immerses its readers in the world of the Psalms. You come away from this reading with the impression that the church today has undoubtedly neglected a rich source of material for worship and for her edification. The volume does have a weakness, however, and that is its disconnected nature. Because each chapter has its origins in separate projects that were collected together, there is some disjointedness. The last chapter in particular, feels tacked on and I certainly found it difficult to know why it was there in terms of the larger whole of the book.

All in all, this volume is for those who, like me, have neglected the Psalms and who have not thought deeply about the role that the Psalms are to play in the life of the church. Readers will undoubtedly be edified and benefit much from Wenham's work.

[I was given a free copy of the book in order to review it. The publisher did not require a favorable review from me.]

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Human Need for Divine Justice

In Gordon Wenham's fantastic book The Psalter Reclaimed, he has a chapter where he discusses, at length, various approaches to understanding the impreccatory psalms. Because of the often harsh language of these psalms, which long for the punishment of the wicked, some say these psalms are sub-Christian. Some say that they express a perspective that is unenlightened by the gospel of grace inaugurated by the coming of Christ and that they are not for the church to pray any longer. Wenham turns favorably to the work of German scholar Erich Zenger in his book A God of Vengeance? where he discusses at length the importance of the impreccatory psalms, and in particular the way that they address the human need for God's coming divine justice. Wenham then then offers an extended illustration:


[Gottfried] Bachl tells of an SS officer who commanded a squad who wiped out a whole village of some six hundred people in retaliation for the activities of the French resistance.  Later this officer settled in East Germany, where he became a much respected member of the community. When eventually in 1980 he was tried and condemned to life imprisonment, he agreed to an interview, during which he repeatedly broke down in tears.
When the reporter asked, "Why are you crying now?" he answered, "Because I have been so happy, and now it ends this way." The journalist continued, "Did you ever weep over the children, women, and men you killed that day?" "No," he said. "Did it never occur to you that you had done a terrible injustice to those people?" His answer: "No, not as long as I was free. Everything was quite normal. But now I often think that there must have been something wrong, that I was involved in it myself somehow, that probably the whole thing was wrong."
Bachl comments that it was judgment that made this man face up to his guilt. That woke him from his happy oblivion and self-satisfaction. It was judgment that prompted him to respond as a human being who recognized what he had done. Bachl continues:
 The current of our history does not issue in justice, but in the question: Where will it happen? Will it ever appear in its true, comprehensive form. No court...will be adequate to the things that people...are doing to one another...What happens in the world of humanity is from its very beginning a cry for God's judgment. And the first response to that cry that is found in the gospel, the good news is:
The stream of events will not run on forever, over blood and victims, goodness, evil, innocence and justice. God will put an end to the course of history and will make clear that there is a difference between justice and injustice, and that this difference must be demonstrated. God will seek out the buried victims, the forgotten, starved children, the dishonoured women, and God will find the hidden doers of these deeds. God will gather them all before God's eternal, holy will for the good, so that all must see how it stands with their lives.
Wenham, Gordon J. The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. 139-140

Wenham, echoing the work of Zenger, concludes: "These psalms can serve to wake us from our structural amnesia about God...They awaken our consciences to the anguish of those who suffer. They serve to wake us from the dreadful passivity that has overtaken the comfortable churches of the Western world. They make us long for the coming of the kingdom in justice and power."