On Secondary Causes (and the First Cause)

October 9, 2018 5 comments

In our modern age at least some people tend to focus on the events that happen (as secondary causes) to the exclusion of the First Cause, the sovereignty of God.  Whereas the ancient pagans recognized that some type of deity lay behind unusual events, and the Puritans and Reformers saw God’s hand in everything, it is all too common in our age for people to look at an event from a naturalistic, “scientific” perspective without any regard to the God behind it all.

As I reflect on some unusual recent events in my own life and that of family, I first consider a great quote from a recently read Charles Spurgeon book —Life in Christ:  Lessons from Our Lord’s Miracles and Parables, volume 1:

When it rained, our good puritanical forefathers said that God had unstopped the bottles of heaven. When it rains today, we think the clouds have become heavy with moisture.  If the Puritans had cut a field of hay, they prayed to the Lord that He would command the sun to shine.  Perhaps we are too wise for our own good.  … These Puritans believed God was in every storm and in every cloud of dust.  They used to speak of a God who was present in everything, but we speak of such things as laws of nature, as if laws were ever anything if there wasn’t someone to carry them out and some secret power to set the whole machinery in motion.

A common response to anyone making a link between a tragic event and any moral issue, is to cite Luke 13:1-5, Jesus’ words, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Often times this is a valid enough point, especially in the face of a catastrophe involving numerous people in a certain geographic location.  Yet we all (believers) experience the chastening and discipline of the Lord, and unbelievers will experience suffering that includes temporal punishments in this life.  In 1 Corinthians 11 the apostle Paul described a situation in which the people at Corinth were experiencing sickness and even death as a result of their attitude regarding the Lord’s table.

The Bible actually supplies quite a few additional historical situations to expand on Paul’s application/example of this truth–and which also show that 1 Corinthians 11 is not an isolated and unique event.  As just a few examples I can think of:

  • Joseph’s brothers’ experience in Egypt (Genesis 42-44); they clearly linked their current misfortunes to their previous actions and guilt, their conscience disturbing them.
  • King Asa (2 Chronicles 16), an outward professed believer who in his last years turned away from the Lord, and was afflicted with diseased feet. As verse 12 notes, “Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but sought help from physicians.”
  • Unbelieving wicked men:
    • 1) King Jehoram, son of Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 21):  an outwardly ungodly and wicked man who killed his brothers.  Verses 18-19 describe his demise, from the secondary cause of an incurable disease in his bowels.
    • 2) King Herod in Acts 12:23.  Because he did not give God the glory, he was eaten by worms and died.
  • The pagan new residents of Samaria in 2 Kings 17, some of whom were killed by lions. They recognized a “first cause” — quite apart from the modernist mindset that would instead setup a campaign to control the lion population — that the people did not “know the law of the god of the land.”

At root, this modernism / naturalism excludes the work of the Creator and the Sovereignty of that Creator God.  Yet, why is it that certain people, in certain times and places, are stricken with what we now describe as bacterial infections – and yet the diseases are apparently not contagious, as only the one person is afflicted with it?  The modernist here will focus only on the secondary cause: where could I have gotten this infection?  It had to come from somewhere, it didn’t just ‘drop out of the sky’.  When one points out the reality of God’s sovereignty and God’s sovereign purposes,  the response is, “that is how ignorant people think,” as though that dismisses any discussion of the First Cause behind something that happens to one person.

But if we would be wise, as the Puritans and godly believers of old, we should learn the proper attitude with respect to the First Cause, to learn what God has to say to us – to make our afflictions truly “sanctified afflictions.”  When an unusual providence occurs — as for instance a particular sin involving what we say with our mouth, followed shortly after by an unusual illness that affects the voice or the mouth — instead of focusing on the secondary cause (where did I get this illness from?), the “sanctified affliction” perspective recognizes what God has to say, and what we should learn from the chastening.  From the above linked article (“Evidences & Results of Sanctified Afflictions,” posted at Grace Gems), those who benefit from the affliction:

  • recognize the hand of God in it
  • acknowledge His DESIGN in their affliction
  • recognize the principle from which this event proceeds.
  • Have their sins brought to remembrance (Job 34:31-32)
  • Humbly submit to the will of God

From the many quotes available from Reformed teachers, regarding First and Second causes, here is an instructive one from Charles Spurgeon (sermon #2830):

Well, if you are a child of God, I invite you, first of all, to trace your burden back to God. “But it comes from the treachery of Ahithophel, or from the rebellion of Absalom!” I grant you that it does, but those are only the second causes, or the agents–trace the matter back to the Great First Cause. If you do that, you will come, by a mystery which I will not attempt to explain, to the hand of Divine Providence and you will say of every burden, “This, also, comes from the Lord.”

You have probably seen a dog, when he has been struck with a stick, turn round and bite the staff that struck him. If he were a wise dog, he would bite the man who held the stick that dealt the blow. When God uses His rod upon one of His children, even a godly man will sometimes snap at the rod. “But, Sir, surely you would not have me turn upon my God?” Oh, no! I know you will not do that, for you are His child. And when you see that God is holding the rod in His hand, you will cease to be rebellious and you will say, with the Psalmist, “‘I was dumb with silence.’ I was going to speak, but I opened not my mouth because I saw that it was in Your hand that the rod of chastisement was held.”

James Montgomery Boice, Eschatology, and the Philadelphia Reformed Theology Conferences

September 19, 2018 1 comment

Another great Bible teacher I am coming to appreciate is the late James Montgomery Boice.  I had heard of him over the last few years, especially in reference to both dispensational and historic premillennialism, but had not yet listened to him or read any of his books.  Online discussions have considered the question of whether he left dispensationalism, and when he became historic premillennial, especially since his writings on the subject were more from the dispensational premillennial perspective.

Leaving that particular question aside, though, Boice provided some great teaching – and on other topics as well.  I’ve been perusing the archive of past Reformed Theology conferences available at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ Reformed Resources, and the early Philadelphia Conferences include many lectures from James Montgomery Boice, including an interesting set from 1986 on eschatology (MP3 download set available here).  This set of 7 lectures includes two from Boice as well as an interesting lecture from Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus.  Of interest here, Rosen, in ‘Does Israel have an Earthly Future?’ addressed the very same doctrinal points that have been more recently popularized by John MacArthur’s “Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist” and Barry Horner’s publication of Future Israel.  Over 20 years before these two events from 2007, Rosen taught the same:  God’s Sovereignty in Election, including national election of the Jews and God’s faithfulness to His promises; and the problem and inconsistency of appropriating the covenant blessings for Israel (from Deuteronomy) as spiritualized about the church while rejecting the covenant curses, such that the church only gets the blessings and Israel only gets the curses.

Boice’s lectures on “Where is History Going?” and “On Death and Dying” also were well-presented and very informative.  I especially appreciated his insights in the latter, in reference to three types of societies – death-affirming, death-denying, and death-defying.  The lectures address a timeless matter, and our society now is no different from a generation ago in its death-denial with emphasis on youth (even today as the famed “Baby Boomer” generation is no longer young but still trying to put off old age) and the euphemisms we use to refer to people who have died and no longer with us.

After starting off with a great Presbyterian joke for a good laugh, Boice described the three types of societies — the ancient Greeks an example of a death-accepting culture, and 1 Corinthians 15 the death-defying Christian view – along with exposition of the two deaths in Genesis 50, Jacob and Joseph.  The information about Elisabeth Eliot’s experience was interesting, how to cope with death, as she was twice widowed – the first case well-known, her husband Jim Eliot martyred, but also her second husband dying the slower death of cancer.   Genesis 50, especially Jacob’s death and the Egyptian burial customs, gives us great instruction as to how we honor the dead.  Joseph and family were in a pagan land, yet they still observed and showed respect to Egypt’s burial customs (embalming, and the lengthy time of mourning), as nothing objectionable for the people of Israel.  Yet Jacob was buried in the promised land, and Joseph’s remains left in Egypt provided them with the future hope of their later Exodus.

As noted in a recent online discussion in a historic premillennial group, Boice did not often speak on millennial views or Israel’s future, considering these as secondary matters, yet this 1986 Philadelphia Conference addressed some of these issues.  And the many other topics that Boice did address include good lectures and Bible study.  I plan to continue listening to more of James Montgomery Boice’s teaching, including his lectures at other Philadelphia Reformed conferences from the archives (available at ReformedResources.org, from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals).

Edwards’ ‘Religious Affections’, and Our Love To God

August 27, 2018 3 comments

Christian Audio’s free download this month (for a few more days) is an audio recording of a classic work I had planned to read this year, so the audio book special was providential, good timing; I’m reading this one in audio format:  Jonathan Edwards’ “Religious Affections.”  It’s a more serious and careful read for audio format, sometimes requiring to rewind and re-listen to the last few sentences, but overall it reads well.  As noted elsewhere, Edwards wrote this after the time of great revival in New England, the Great Awakening.

Religious Affections first presents 12 signs that do not prove (or disprove) that affections are gracious, followed by 12 signs of truly gracious and holy affections, as summarized in this article.  Edwards’ writing at times can come across as hard and difficult, to a self-examination that wonders ‘am I then truly spiritual/saved?’, since the unbeliever’s versus believer’s affections are described in the full form without consideration of the partial, imperfect experience of the believer with still remaining sin; as noted in the above-linked review:  some of Edwards’ words may seem blunt and appear not to take into account that even the best Christians are very far from perfect.  We need to keep the full picture in mind, and as Edwards continues – especially in the second list of 12 signs, items 3, 4 and 5 (which I have just read) — additional descriptions of the true believer’s experience come through clearly.  As Arden Hodgins explained it in a 1689 Baptist Confession series, we don’t look within for sin or perfection in our heart, but we look for grace, realizing that yes, I now have a love for God and God’s word, that I once did not have.

I’m still reading it, but so far I do find one point of disagreement and a topic to further consider.  Edwards described gratitude as something that is not a Christian virtue but something that is present in natural (unregenerate) man.  He argues this conclusion at least partly from his own idea (presented as fact) that Nebuchadnezzar (after Daniel 4) was not a saved man but was only expressing thankfulness for deliverance from his physical circumstances.  Yet this assertion itself is not a proven fact, and many believers, past and present, have viewed the account as showing that Nebuchadnezzar did come to saving faith.  Consider the words of Nebuchadnezzar’s confession in the account in Daniel 4, as well as Daniel’s own attitude toward Nebuchadnezzar – and as contrasted with Daniel’s later words in Daniel 5 to Nebuchadnezzar’s successor Belshazzar; the point is especially made in Daniel 5:22-23, “And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, 23 but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.”  Thus, Edwards reasoned that an unregenerate man is actually capable of the type of understanding, praise, and humbling, that Nebuchadnezzar expressed, and yet still ‘miss the mark’ and not really be a spiritual person.

The section on gratitude comes across (at least in this first reading) as somewhat unclear.  On the one hand, unbelievers can have a natural type of gratitude to God.  Edwards grants that some unbelievers are without thankfulness and gratitude — and some people’s own experience of their before/after conversion makes it clear that in their pre-Christian life they really did not feel true gratitude to others or to God, that such feelings were really due to self-love — yet he maintains that “just because” some unsaved people were that unthankful, yet that does not mean that others in their natural state could not attain to true gratitude and thankfulness.  He also references Jesus’ words in Luke 6:32-34 — If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? —which is indeed scriptural truth regarding the feelings that unbelievers can have toward others.   However, as Edwards soon goes on to say, these unbelievers are actually thinking about God according to their own ideas, and worshiping and believing in a god of their own making, and not the true God.

Thus, the conclusion of these conflicting ideas is that unbelievers’ “gratitude” is actually directed not to the true God, but either in reference to their own self-interest or to some other notion, some other concept of god.  As is often mentioned in Christian teaching, a false concept of God, one that is not in keeping with the scripture-revealed true God, is a form of idolatry.

Edwards does writes in detail about self-love as contrasted with true love for God, and another interesting section explains the difference between natural and moral perfections.  Yet in presenting the highest perfection of the Christian, Edwards emphasizes that Christians should only have love for God in its highest motive:  without regard to self, or to any reward, but to love God for who He is in Himself, apart from our own interest in Him.  Yet we all know our own hearts, how often we fall short of this; though we do love God for who He is, our motives are often mixed, with lower motives as well as the highest motive present at various times in our Christian walk.  Here too, I am reminded of Arden Hodgins’ observations (from his 1689 Confession study) regarding our motives for sanctification;  each of us individually cannot compare ourselves to any other great saint and then conclude that “I must be lost” in comparison with another believer’s expressed higher level of devotion and love to God.  A specific example that Hodgins mentioned was the reading of David Brainerd’s biography – and here I find that reference interesting, due to the personal connection between Brainerd and Edwards.

It can also be argued that loving God only for who He is in Himself without regard to our own interest, is really not the highest type of love.  Horatius Bonar, writing in the next century in response to this “over-spiritualized” idea, well expressed it in God’s Way of Peace (page 171, shown at this link):

It is not wrong to love God for what He has done for us. Not to do so, would be the very baseness of ingratitude. To love God purely for what He is, is by some spoken of as the highest kind of love, into which enters no element of self. It is not so. For in that case, you are actuated by the pleasure of loving; and this pleasure of loving an infinitely lovable and glorious Being, of necessity introduces self. Besides, to say that we are to love God solely for what He is, and not for what he Has done, is to make ingratitude an essential element of pure love. David’s love showed itself in not forgetting God’s benefits. But this ‘pure love’ soars beyond David’s and finds it a duty to be unthankful, lest perchance some selfish element mingle itself with its superhuman, super-angelic purity.  Let not Satan then ensnare you with such foolish thoughts, the tendency of which is to quench every serious desire, under the pretext of its not being disinterested and perfect.

In spite of these areas of disagreement, Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections is still a great theological work, a classic work on a timeless issue, discerning between true spiritual and carnally minded people.  It is not the easiest writing style, but worth reading (or listening to) at least once.  The MP3 audio book is still available for free for a few more days, the rest of this week.

Old Testament Stories, Life Application and Doctrine

August 14, 2018 9 comments

As I continue studies in Old Testament lessons, from Reformed sources such as Charles Spurgeon sermons and Tabletalk magazine monthly studies, I appreciate the depth of content related to so many biblical doctrines, and life application—from what seem, on the surface, as mere children’s stories.  In fact, one of the Tabletalk articles from July 2007 — a study through Genesis, now on the life of Joseph – points out this very fact, that the stories of the patriarchs are more than just tales for children.  They are accounts of actual, historical events that occurred in time and space history, involving real people and real problems that are applicable to us today.  The story of Joseph and his brothers teaches us many things:  about dysfunctional families and family favoritism, about the consequences of our sin; but above all, the truth of God’s providence and God’s sovereignty, and God’s purposes – and the hope that gives us:

Our mistakes and transgressions cannot derail God’s purposes. We do not take this truth for granted and use it to excuse our sin (Rom. 6:1–2), but we also must never come to the place where we believe we have fallen to the point where our Father cannot use us. Through faith and repentance we can be blessed as our sovereign Creator works out His will in history (Deut. 30:1–10).

Spurgeon took a similar in-depth approach of good application and even doctrinal instruction from the Genesis stories, the lives of the patriarchs.  A few recent examples from my Spurgeon sermon reading include these sermons from the 1868 volume:

  • Sermon #837, Jacob’s life, and his complaint of unbelief in Genesis 42:36

and this three-part sermon series links on the life of Abraham

In the first of these, Spurgeon connected the (King James Version) expression ‘all these things’  to point out: 1) the exclamation of unbelief (Jacob’s unbelief in Genesis 42:36), 2) the philosophy of experience (Isaiah 38:16), and finally, the triumph of faith (Romans 8:37).  From Jacob’s life w­e see the example of how we are all so prone to react to trials and difficulties:  bitterness, exaggeration, and anger towards God.  In Jacob’s case it was at most three things – Joseph, Simeon, and Benjamin, yet:

Jacob was, in the expression before us, even bitter towards God! There is not a word like submission in the sentence, nothing of resignation, nothing of confidence; he knew very well that all things came from God, and in effect he declares that God is, in all these things, fighting against him! God forbid that these tongues, which owe their power to speak to the great God, should ever pervert their powers to slandering Him! And yet if our tongues have not spoken unbelievingly, how often our hearts have done so; we have said, “Why has God dealt thus with me? Why are His strokes so multiplied? Why are my wounds so blue? Oh, why am I thus chastised?

The later two texts show the positive movement from Jacob’s unbelief, to enlightened experience:  “In all these things is the life of my spirit.”

Jacob would hardly have been fit for the luxury of Egypt, if he had not been trained by his griefs; that happy period before his death, in which he dwelt in perfect ease and peace, at the close of which, leaning upon his staff, he bore such a blessed testimony to the faithfulness of God, he would not have been fit to enjoy it—it would have been disastrous to him if he had not been prepared for it by the sorrows of Succoth. … Be of good comfort, and instead, from now on, of concluding that outward trials are against you, agree with Hezekiah in this wise sentence, “By these things men live.”

To finally the triumph of faith, the experiences of the apostle Paul:

The list is just as comprehensive in the best text as in the worst. No, poor Jacob’s, “All these things” only referred to three; but look at Paul’s list: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword—the list is longer, darker, blacker, fiercer, sterner, but still we triumph, “In all these things we are more than conquerors.”

Old Testament ‘Calvinism’: Election, Justification, and Sanctification from the Life of Abraham

Beyond life application of relational difficulties and resolution, Spurgeon also well-demonstrated that the important doctrines of the Calvinist, Reformed faith can be taught not only from the New Testament epistles, but directly from Abraham’s life in Genesis.  After all, Paul (such as in Romans and Galatians) referenced key points in Abraham’s life; thus, common exposition on these doctrines will focus on Paul’s writings directly.  Yet here Spurgeon departed from his usual style of completely unrelated texts from week to week, by teaching the doctrines of calling/election, justification, and sanctification, all from different points in Abraham’s life as told in Genesis.  Each sermon looked at the details and considered Abraham’s actual daily life experiences, with detailed descriptions of what Abraham’s calling, later justification and later sanctification looked like.   Thus, we see his calling/election in Genesis 12:5, justification in Genesis 15:6, and sanctification in Genesis 17:1-2.  Abraham’s calling included key features such as God’s sovereignty, divine application of it, and a call to separation; and similar expansion of details regarding his justification and sanctification.  Along the way Spurgeon even adds descriptions of related truths such as perseverance and assurance, that God will complete what He is doing:

If our text may very well illustrate effectual calling, so may it PICTURE FINAL PERSEVERANCE.   “They went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and to the land of Canaan they came.”  …

two or three thoughts in this text worth remembering. “They went forth.” Energetic action! Men are not saved while they are asleep; no riding to heaven on feather beds! “They went forth to the land of Canaan.” Intelligent perception! They knew what they were doing; they did not go to work in a blundering manner, not understanding their drift.

And

To close the whole, the Lord gave to Abram an assurance of ultimate success. He would bring his seed into the Promised Land, and the people who had oppressed them, He would judge. So let it come as a sweet revelation to every believing man and woman this morning, that at the end they shall triumph, and those evils which now oppress them shall be cast beneath their feet!

Of particular interest (in the second sermon), is the connection between Abraham’s justification and his understanding of sacrifice and the covenant – how much was revealed to Abraham, that he could and did understand; we need not dismiss the Old Testament people as being completely unaware of these doctrines such that the New Testament is required in order to understand the Old:

Abram, after being justified by Faith, was led more distinctly to behold the power of sacrifice. By God’s command he killed three bullocks, three goats, three sheep, with turtle doves, and pigeons, being all the creatures ordained for sacrifice. The patriarch’s hands are stained with blood; he handles the butcher’s knife; he divides the beasts, he kills the birds; he places them in an order revealed to him by God’s Spirit at the time. There they are. Abram learns that there is no meeting with God except through sacrifice. God has shut every door except that over which the blood is sprinkled; all acceptable approaches to God must be through an atoning sacrifice—and Abram understood this.

Perhaps even more important was the next lesson which Abram had to learn. He was led to behold the covenant. I suppose that these pieces of the bullock, the lamb, the ram, and the goat were so placed that Abram stood in the midst with a part on this side, and a part on that. So he stood as a worshipper all through the day, and towards nightfall, when a horror of great darkness came over him, he fell into a deep sleep. Who would not feel a horror passing over him as he sees the great sacrifice for sin, and sees himself involved? There, in the midst of the sacrifice, he saw moving with solemn motion, a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp answering to the pillar of cloud and fire which manifested the presence of God in later days to Israel in the wilderness. In these emblems the Lord passed between the pieces of the sacrifice to meet His servant, and enter into covenant with him; this has always been the most solemn of all modes of covenant.

…Know and understand that God is in covenant bonds with you; He has made a covenant of grace with you which never can be broken; the sure mercies of David are your portion.

The Tabletalk studies as well as Spurgeon sermons provide great insights into all aspects of the Christian life, from the details of the Old Testament narrative accounts.

Christian Life with Siblings

July 30, 2018 5 comments

Aimee Byrd’s just-published book, ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends? : Avoidance is Not Purity’ — a thoughtful response to the now widely-publicized ‘Pence rule’ — and recent podcasts and conference lectures, have addressed an interesting part of the Christian experience:  Christian life with family, especially with siblings—brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Mortification of Spin’s recent podcast and blog post article excerpts from Aimee’s book (this excerpt, June 19 and this one from June 27) consider, among other things, a holistic view of people, men and women, as friends.  We (our minds, our soul/spirit) are more than just physical bodies and physical objects intended only for the marriage relationship.  Instead, let’s consider the larger perspective:  the marriage relationship is only for this life; in the resurrection we will be ‘like the angels’ (Matthew 22:30); also reference this Spurgeon sermon on Matthew 22:30, from my recent Spurgeon sermon reading.  Friendship is what lasts for eternity; in heaven, and later in the resurrected state, we will continue to have friendships.

Aimee Byrd also expanded on the idea of Christian siblings (the word usually translated ‘brethren’ or ‘brothers’ in our English Bibles, though as often noted in the ESV footnotes, the Greek word has the meaning of sibling, both brothers and sisters) in her recent lecture at the 2018 Quakertown Women’s Conference, Women At the Feet of Jesus  (conference audio available here in MP3 download format).  The first lecture in this set, Mary and Martha, One Thing is Necessary, notes the sibling relationship between Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Here and in Aimee’s other lecture (Jesus and the Canaanite Woman) she describes the ancient Roman family, including the value of honor among the family members and the high regard that biological siblings naturally have for each other. Also of interest is Paul’s usage of various terms; it turns out that the apostle Paul used the term for siblings frequently, over 100 times in his epistles – more than other terms he used to describe believers and the church, such as ‘body of Christ.’    Children, siblings to each other in the family, care for one another; how much more should this be so among us, the Christian community, towards our spiritual brothers and sisters.  Further, how amazing is our adoption by God, that we are brought into the family of God, as children, with Christ our brother–and the future that we have, that we have been invited into this great communion with God.

It is an interesting study topic, friendship and the holistic view of our relationships with our spiritual brothers and sisters, and in communion with our elder Brother.  In closing, this Spurgeon sermon is another good reference on the topic:  Saints in Heaven and Earth One Family (Ephesians 3:15, “The whole family in heaven and earth”).

On Catechisms, VBS, and Teaching/Learning the Christian Faith

July 18, 2018 6 comments

Recently I’ve started reading through the Heidelberg Catechism, according to the weekly plan of the outline available in my phone app.  As I’ve heard before, the Heidelberg Catechism is a good devotional type study with questions that build on each other; also, that it’s a good one for children to memorize (done in Reformed, Confessional churches).

My childhood church experience at a small mainline Presbyterian church did not include any type of memorization, Bible or other, and I was unaware of the Reformed confessions and catechisms until a few years ago.  The only place I saw Bible memorization, of various verses, was one day at a VBS program at my grandmother’s large Southern Baptist church (she was one of the teachers) during summer vacation in Texas.  In my early Christian years as an adult, I briefly tried a Bible memorization plan and memorized a few verses, but didn’t continue after the initial set of verses.

All that to say, that at this point I find Bible reading, review and study something more achievable than strict memorization (which is best done when young, when memorization comes more easily to the developing child’s mind).  The Heidelberg Catechism provides a useful three-part outline:  The Misery of Man, Of Man’s Deliverance, and Of Gratitude.  The study plan features a few questions (usually two to four) for each Lord’s Day (for 52 weeks total, a full year):

Week 1 – questions 1 and 2                                     Week 3 – questions 6-8
Week 2 – questions 3-5                                            Week 4 – questions 9-11

and so on.  It makes a good devotional study, to spend several minutes each Lord’s Day afternoon at home, as well as a few minutes a few days throughout the week, reading through the set of questions for each week, and referencing the scripture ‘proof-texts’—as well as re-reading the previous questions back to the beginning.  (I’m now in week 4, so a long way to go.)

So far in this reading, I am (again) struck with amazement at the great wording, the way that the meaty doctrinal truths of the Bible are described with such detail, clarity and precision, here in the Heidelberg  as well as the other Confessions and Catechisms.  These really are excellent teaching tools to provide the doctrinal framework of a full-orbed, whole counsel of God robust theology for Christian living.  Yet further, the catechisms – especially the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) – are designed for teaching to school-age children.  As one Reformed preacher described it, the adults are not exempt either; the WSC is for the children, but the WLC (Westminster Larger Catechism) is for adults to study.

In sharp contrast to this, is the unfortunate reality that so many churches – including the many Calvinistic Baptist churches, which promote the Reformers and Calvinism but do not actually hold to Reformed Theology  — do not follow the Reformed pattern of using the confessions and catechisms for educational purposes.  Instead, classes and summer VBS programs tend toward a watered-down approach that may involve the children watching skits that portray Bible events, or learning Bible-story songs.

Here also are issues related to the Second Commandment.  As well explained in Ten Commandment studies, images and portrayals of Jesus are finite, and do not do justice to the attributes of God, to the awe-full, infinite reality of who Christ is.  When God revealed Himself to His people (Exodus 20 and throughout the Bible), what God provided was not pictures or any type of visual representation, but words.  A picture of Jesus just does not convey the great truths about Him.

Though not fitting precisely within the bounds of the Second Commandment, when people at a church (as for instance, as part of a Bible education program for children) dramatize certain scenes from the Bible, the drama, and pictures taken of it, come across in a light-hearted and humorous way.  After all, it’s the church leaders we know, and they’re in costume — a funny picture.  But the scene is depicting something of serious theology from the Bible.  The effect of the casual dramatized scene and picture is to laugh; the association to the serious and great truth behind it, tends to irreverence and lack of full appreciation of the teaching itself.  After all, it’s far easier to think about a funny picture, than to consider points of theology, to meditate upon God’s word, to meditate upon the doctrine of the fall, of man’s rebellion and sin and the awful reality of sin in the world.

Again, God taught His people with words and ideas – yes, in many different genres of literature including narrative stories and parables – but the words themselves are the communication of spiritual truth.  Certainly artwork (the full range of art including pictures and paintings as well as drama) has its place, regarding the created world, scenery, people, animals and so forth.  But a visual portrayal of a scene from the Bible — especially using people we see and know in our everyday lives, with costumes and hand-crafted props – is a very limited way to present biblical truth: a very superficial level that conveys a few basic facts of the Bible story but without the ‘meat’ and substance.  This pictorial approach at best only teaches a few basic facts.  Especially when we have the rich treasure of knowledge from Christians who have gone before us, including the framework of the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, it is mind-boggling as to why anyone would prefer that shallow visual presentation, ignoring and rejecting the far greater treasure.

In closing, a brief sample from the Heidelberg Catechism, regarding the fall of man and sin.  Questions 7 through 12 especially consider man’s sinful nature, and the remedy that we all need:

7.  Whence then comes this depraved nature of man? From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin.

8.  But are we so depraved, that we are wholly unapt to any good and prone to all evil? Yes; unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.

9. Does not God then wrong man, by requiring of him in His law that which he cannot perform? No: for God so made man, that he could perform it; but man, through the instigation of the devil, by wilful disobedience deprived himself and all his posterity of this power.

10. Will God suffer such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished? By no means; but He is terribly displeased with our inborn as well as our actual sins, and will punish them in just judgment in time and eternity, as he has declared: Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them (Deut. 27:26).

11. Is then God not merciful? God is indeed merciful, but He is likewise just; wherefore His justice requires that sin, which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul.

and

12.  Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, what is required that we may escape this punishment and be again received into favor? God wills that His justice be satisfied, therefore we must make full satisfaction to the same, either by ourselves or by another.

13.  Can we ourselves make this satisfaction? By no means: on the contrary, we daily increase our guilt.

14.  Can any mere creature make satisfaction for us? None: for first, God will not punish, in any other creature, that of which man has made himself guilty; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, and redeem others therefrom.

15.  What manner of mediator and redeemer then must we seek? One who is a true and sinless man, and yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is at the same time true God.

Worldview Suppression: Romans 1 and Apologetics

July 6, 2018 8 comments

From my recent reading (Challies 2018 Reading Challenge) and Reformed theology conference lectures comes an apologetics study of Romans 1.  What do general revelation and suppression really look like, in our 21st century post-Christian world?  This question is addressed in Scott Oliphint’s lecture from the 2018 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (theme Spirit of the Age: Age of the Spirit), Workshop 4: The Anatomy of Unbelief.  Oliphint is always interesting to listen to; I enjoyed listening to his lectures last fall, in Reformed Forum’s conference on the Reformation and Apologetics.

This 2018 conference lecture provides commentary on Romans 1 and suppression, and what that involves — what truth is suppressed?  His invisible attributes; His eternal power and His divine nature – and the wrath, the judgment that comes as a result (Romans 1 verses 24 through 32).  Oliphint also recounts his recent experience with a graduate level Hegel philosophy course.  Throughout the course, until the very end, the students were kept in suspense: what is Hegel’s “absolute”?  The expert didn’t know, and the expert admitted that he thinks Hegel himself didn’t know what it was.

Philosophers are nothing new, and Paul in Romans 1 was dealing with the same type of thing from the Greek philosophers of his day.  Yet their ideas about reality are only theoretical and do not work in the real world.  Objective truth is there, facing us every day in the external world.  We cannot arbitrarily ignore and re-interpret reality to decide that a red light means ‘go’ and a green light means ‘stop’.  A chair lifted up and about to hit your face is a real threat that cannot be ignored.

Another interesting point Oliphint noted, was observed by Jonathan Edwards.  We often hear that hell is the absence of God.  Yet this cannot be; by His very nature, God is everywhere, omnipresent–including in hell itself.  Instead, hell is the ever-continuous presence, in wrath, of the God that the people there despise and hate.

My recent reading includes a past Kindle deal that also addresses this subject of Romans 1, suppression, and the limitations of non-Christian worldviews which don’t work in the real world: Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes , by Nancy Pearcey.  Suppression involves focusing on one part of reality and making it the full truth – and ignoring the parts of reality that don’t “fit” within the box.  Following an outline of Romans 1, Pearcey presents five points to help Christians identify and respond to worldview suppression, with examples from Hegel, materialism and other philosophies.

  1. Identify the idol.
  2. Identify the idol’s reductionism
  3. Test the idol: does it contradict what we know about the world?
  4. Test the idol: does it contradict itself?
  5. Replace the idol: make the case for Christianity.

Many examples are provided (with the actual quotes) from secular scientists and philosophers who admit that they really can’t live with the ideas they come up with about reality, such as this section about materialism:

When it reduces humans to complex biochemical machines, what sticks out of the box? Free will. The power of choice. The ability to make decisions.  These are dismissed as illusions. Yet in practice, we cannot live without making choices from the moment we wake up every morning.  Free will is part of undeniable, inescapable human experience—which means it is part of general revelation.  Therefore the materialist view of humanity does not fit reality as we experience it.

When we see statements about how “we cannot live with” a view, that is worldview suppression.  Through the five principles, we can identify the specific type of suppression – and respond to it, to those who present such ideas, with the truth of Christianity.

Oliphint’s lecture is an excellent summary overview of apologetics related to Romans 1.  Pearcey’s book provides more details and examples, with special emphasis on the experience of college students who leave home as Christians and “lose their faith” when challenged by anti-Christians in the academic university setting.