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The ‘Failures’ of the Reformation

June 10, 2021 Leave a comment

From my listening to various messages from Alan Cairns, here is an interesting one, from a 2004 ‘Reformation’ conference:  The Failures of the Reformation. Informative, and not quite what I had expected, Cairns here first addressed many supposed ideas that modern folks have, about the failures of the Reformation–in terms of the leaders and their actions and behaviors, judging from our 20th and 21st century cultural sensibilities.  These include the doctrine of infant baptism, their views of the State and the Church, and criticisms regarding the Reformers’ treatment of heretics.  After addressing these ‘supposed failures,’ with the details of the historical situation and the nuances often lost today, Cairns mentioned what he actually considered the failures:  the failed Reformation in France, as well as the failure of the Reformation in Poland.  More on that later in this post, after the supposed failures.

Of note, he does not address the more-recent ‘failure idea’ introduced by John MacArthur in 2007 (three years after this message), that the Reformers failed to reform their millennial view and just imported it from Roman Catholicism.  In light of what Cairns did say regarding these other supposed errors, my observation here would be that the Reformers did not ‘import it’ from Roman Catholicism, as they certainly had no great love for the Pope; more to the point, I would say, they continued it from the later views of Augustine.  And it is also noteworthy that premillennialism, or chiliasm, was already making a ‘comeback’ by the early 17th century (for example, Joseph Mede)–so not in the initial Reformation but soon after, and before the English Puritan era began.

Regarding all the supposed failures of the Reformation, Cairns provided the historical background and the nuances often lost today.  The Reformers’ view of infant baptism did not come from Roman Catholicism but their overall understanding of the continuity of scripture, Old and New Testament, regarding the covenants of scripture, and the continuation of the Lord’s working in household as He did in Genesis, and again in Acts (ref. Acts 2:39).  Cairns said this as a credo-baptist, in a Free Presbyterian Church.  (That’s another topic, that the FPC denomination does not emphasize the baptism method distinction, allowing for both, and that most of their preachers are actually credo-baptist — Michael Barrett as one notable actual paedobaptist, who was in the FPC in years past.  The credo-baptist preachers in the FPC hold to the Westminster Confession construction of covenant theology, a view that I see as what scripture teaches, as opposed to the 1689 Federalism view of the covenants.)

Regarding the Reformers’ church-state view, Cairns brings out the point that people today typically take a view (at least what comes out in practice, if not consciously realized) of the church and state being at enmity with each other.  Yet this is not a biblical view, and the Reformers saw these two entities as complementary, not opposed.  As to the Anabaptists, Cairns points out that the Anabaptist movement was very diverse and hard to define, embracing many different ideas and many differing types of people — similar to the rather neboulous ‘New Covenant Theology’ movement today.  He notes that it took historical researchers many years to fully document all of what was included in the Anabaptist umbrella, the many different beliefs and activities; and if it took that long for this to be understood, we can certainly understand that the Reformers had far less information.  The movement included extreme pacifists, a problem in a society that did not have a regular army, with its military defense as all able-bodied men who lived in the Swiss canton; the Anabaptist pacifists would not do their part in the defense of their own canton, when it came time to defend against the Roman Catholic army.  The movement also included dangerous, violent insurrectionists, and heretics.

Now, to some real ‘failures’ — of course these were not failures in the context of God’s Sovereign plan and providence, His decretive will.  Yet, from the human perspective of history, these could be considered failures:  the failure of the Reformation in France, as well as in Poland.  The story of France is better known, as one that started good, but was later suppressed by the French government, with the Huguenots fleeing France and dispersed over other European countries as well as the New World French and English colonies, and others martyred or force-converted to Roman Catholicism.  I was not familiar with the 16th century Reformation in Poland.  Here are a few links that give more details, regarding the Reformation movement that began well, but then fizzled and came to nothing: 

The historical reasons for these failures included the effects of weak leadership, and also a lack of unity among the branches of the Reformation.  In Poland, particularly, the Reformation movement occurred only at the higher social class, within a certain group of people and never reached the masses.  Cairns here reflected on the overall Reformation’s lack of unity, citing the well-known incident of Martin Luther dividing with Zwingli over the nature of “this is my body” and even refusing to shake hands with Zwingli afterward, and provided general application to the current-day believer’s life, from his own experience in different Christian “camps” such as the Fundamentalists who rejected him as “not fundamentalist enough” and the other extreme of people who would no longer listen to Dr. Cairns because of his association with Bob Jones University, that he would not “condemn” the BJU teachers.

It’s an interesting and informative message, beyond the usual content of “Reformation theme” messages.

2020 Reading in Review: Reformed Confessions Study

December 18, 2020 2 comments

A year ago I reviewed the 2019 books and looked forward to a year long study through the Reformed Confessions. Now I’m nearing the end of this study, which included reading through the Westminster Daily readings, a calendar schedule to read through the Westminster Confession of Faith and its two catechisms, WLC and WSC, along with:

From my original plan at the end of 2019, I completed Spurgeon’s devotional Faith’s Checkbook as well as Thomas Boston’s Crook in the Lot.  I added Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity as commentary reading along with some of the questions from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but found that I could not keep up with the Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God in addition to the Confession commentaries — so I plan to resume reading that in the near future.  I’ve also heard of Thomas Manton’s work on Psalm 119 as highly recommended, another to start on for 2021.

A few thoughts on these Confession commentaries:  A.A. Hodge’s is a straightforward read, covering the basic doctrine, and understandable, and not too lengthy; the reading can tend to the dry side, just basic academic reading, but at the layperson level.   This commentary includes a section of questions to be answered, at the end of each chapter of the confession — useful for a group study with assignments or discussion, or perhaps for family worship and use with children. 

Ursinus’ 16th century commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism is interesting in that it comes from the main author of this well-known catechism.  It is far lengthier (PDF over 1000 pages), and the writing style and content rather tedious; some of this is of course the older English writing of this edition, the public domain one available from Monergism and elsewhere (as far as I know, this one has not been recently republished in a modernized form).  The content includes statement of each Heidelberg question and answer, followed by an exposition of that question/answer; the exposition frequently includes a number of ‘objections’ and answers to these objections–some of which may be familiar to current-day readers (and many that are not as clear, from long-forgotten objections that Ursinus was familiar with).  Ursinus’ commentary has some good sections in response to, say, antinomians, Anabaptists, and a group called ‘Ubiquitarians’ (which I learned was the 16th century name for what we refer to as Lutheranism), regarding such things as God’s moral law and the Reformed interpretation of the Lord’s Supper (as contrasted with Lutheran / Ubiquitarian Consubstantiation).  The objection responses are phrased in terms of major and minor propositions, with terms such as affirm, deny, and syllogisms, and sometimes these objection-abswer sections are rather lengthy, providing ‘too much information’ for the average 21st century Christian, issues about particular doctrinal points not necessarily relevant to understanding the original Catechism question.  

One off-putting aspect especially of Ursinus’ writing, is his occasional references to eschatology, in which he states amillennial assumptions as though a given, assumptions stated in passing and as though not to be questioned — when a clear exegesis of the text clearly does NOT support that view. As for example, this section, at the beginning of section III. WHAT IS THE RESURRECTION, AND WHAT ARE THE ERRORS WHICH ARE ENTERTAINED CONCERNING IT? (page 513 in the Monergism PDF file)

The word resurrection sometimes signifies in the Scriptures man’s conversion, or his resurrection from sin, as, “This is the first resurrection.” (Rev. 20:5.)

Overall, the reading this year, the Reformed Confessions along with commentaries, has been a good study, covering the many different doctrines in the confessions and commentaries, and thus becoming more acquainted with the documents and the writings of these theologians from previous centuries.

Thoughts on John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon

July 30, 2020 2 comments
Going through my ChristianAudio collection of past free monthly offers, I recently read the audio version of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  It is also available online in text format, such as this one at monergism.  (The audio version ends with the Conclusion, and does not include the supplemental material, starting with the November 1660 imprisonment, continuation of the author’s life, through to the postscript.)  I’ve previously read short excerpts or heard about it, including — as for example, in several of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons — Bunyan’s time of great anxiety and fears, before God brought him to full sense and assurance followed by his later usefulness to the church in Bedford.

The audio book divides the work into chapters, different mp3 tracks; apparently such chapter division was not original to Bunyan’s work but added later.  The section dealing with his doubts and dark times of heavy conviction is here in ‘chapter 3,’ the longest section.  A few interesting observations:  from early in the book, Bunyan observes the idea of the clean and unclean animals, in reference to “chewing the cud” and people who “chew on” the word of God.  Bunyan also, in his early days, observed in people what we see in all ages: professed believers, who were very concerned with their fortunes in this world, and who also greatly grieved the loss of their loved ones,  who had their focus on this world rather than the next.

Bunyan shared his desire to read old books, from long ago and before his day–and then acquired a copy of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians which he especially liked.   It’s interesting that in his day, which we look back on as the golden era of Puritanism, he wanted to read books from an earlier time.  Luther’s time to his was still relatively recent, about 130 years past.  The Reformers evidently had access to the really ancient books, of Augustine and the early church–because they knew Latin.  Presumably, the writings of the Patristic and medieval years had not — at Bunyan’s time — yet been translated into the common language of English, and so Bunyan and other laypeople had limited access, to a few of the Reformers’ works translated into their own language.  What a blessing and privilege it is to us in our day, to have ready access to English translations of so many early authors, going back 1500+ years.

The audio book ‘Chapter 3’ is the section often mentioned by others, Bunyan’s years of dark fears and heavy conviction.  For a period of a few years soon after coming to salvation, Bunyan seemingly obsessed over various biblical texts, identifying himself with profane Esau, or Judas Iscariot, fearful of having committed the unpardonable sin, and finding that somehow every other godly character in the Bible who had greatly sinned at some point in their life — such as David, Solomon, Manasseh, and Peter — was somehow of a different case and classification from his, one that seems to have included some confusion (at the time) regarding the continuity of scripture from Old to New Testament:  “these were but sins against the law, from which there was a Jesus sent to save them; but yours is a sin against the Saviour, and who shall save you from that?”

This lengthy section recalled to mind the important teaching, that I’ve read from Charles Spurgeon and elsewhere, that God’s people have differing experiences, and it is not necessary, and indeed not at all to be expected, that every person who comes to Christ should have the same lengthy, dark and strong convictions as Bunyan had.  Spurgeon mentioned this in several of his sermons, responding to people who held off from coming to saving faith because they were waiting to have this special ‘preparation’ similar to Bunyan’s.  A few excerpts on this point, from Spurgeon:

From sermon #1490 (August 1879)
Upon certain strong minds God lays a heavy load of conviction, as, for instance, upon John Bunyan, whose five years of inward contention you will find mapped out in his, “Grace Abounding.” But these cases are not the rule and in such instances the Lord means to make a peculiarly useful and experienced man. In the formation of a competent leader and a spiritual champion, the Lord exercises the man to make him expert in dealing with others. But He does not do this with poor, weak minds which are rendered still weaker by the assaults of Satan and their inward fears. “He gathers the lambs in his bosom, and does gently lead those that are with young.”

From sermon #1555 (August 1880)
John Bunyan gives a long story in “Grace Abounding,” and I am thankful that he does, but he never meant that we were to imitate him in his unbelief and harsh thoughts of God. Those hideous doubts and horrible fears were not the work of the Spirit of God. They were the work of John Bunyan’s vivid imagination and the devil together. They had nothing to do with the pardon of his sin except that they hindered him from finding it month after month. Your business, poor guilty sinner, is to believe that mercy is dealt out by God to sinners, not according to their despair and remorse, but “according to the riches of His grace.” Where has God commanded us to despair? Does He not command us to believe? Where has He ever commanded remorse? Does He not bid us hope in His mercy? We are to come to Jesus just as we are and trust Him and we shall be forgiv all trespasses in a moment by our loving, waiting Father.
From sermon #1824 (March 1885)
Therefore do not judge yourself by any man’s biography. Do not condemn yourself if, after reading John Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding,” you say, “I never went into these dark places.” Be glad that you never did.

A similar point is made in the 1689 London Baptist Confession chapter 15.1 in the teaching regarding those of ‘riper years’.  As noted in this post from a few years ago, this paragraph (copied from the Savoy Confession) addresses the more outwardly noticeable salvation experiences of older believers.  Again, we are not to compare our own conversion experience to that of other believers, for God works in different ways.  Arden Hodgins here mentioned the example of David Brainerd, who like John Bunyan had an especially strong and intense experience of his sinful condition; all believers will experience something of this in repentance, but not necessarily to the same depth; or sometimes the understanding is unfolded later throughout the believer’s life of ongoing repentance.

Throughout, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is filled with scripture quotations, the evidence of a godly man fully acquainted with scripture, and a similar feature that I so love in Spurgeon’s sermons, the continual interaction with and use of scripture.  Bunyan’s Conclusion contains some excellent thoughts to consider, applicable to all of us in our walk with God:
I have sometimes seen more in a line of the Bible, than I could well tell how to stand under; and yet at another time, the whole Bible hath been to me as dry as a stick; or rather, My heart hath been so dead and dry unto it, that I could not conceive the refreshment, though I have looked it all over.
I find to this day seven abominations in my heart: 1. Inclining to unbelief; 2. Suddenly to forget the love and mercy that Christ manifesteth; 3. A leaning to the works of the law; 4. Wanderings and coldness in prayer; 5. To forget to watch for that I pray for; 6. Apt to murmur because I have no more, and yet ready to abuse what I have; 7. I can do none of those things which God commands me, but my corruptions will thrust in themselves. When I would do good, evil is present with me.
These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with, yet the wisdom of God doth order them for my good; 1. They make me abhor myself; 2. They keep me from trusting my heart; 3. They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness; 4. They show me the necessity of flying to Jesus; 5. They press me to pray unto God; 6. They show me the need I have to watch and be sober; 7. And provoke me to pray unto God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world.

Study on Baptism (Review: J.V. Fesko’s Word, Water, and Spirit)

July 18, 2020 Leave a comment

A book I’ve seen recommended in online discussions, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, by J.V. Fesko, is one that I have found very helpful and informative.  Its three sections cover a lot of historical theology as well as review of many scriptures and scripture themes related to the sacraments and especially baptism, and development of redemptive-historical/biblical theology of baptism, with exposition of New Testament passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 and 1 Peter 3:20-21.

The overall style is more scholarly and sometimes repetitive — yet the repetition, and frequent use of ‘in other words’ with a restatement in simpler words, assist the understanding.  The history section seemed too lengthy, with more details than I wanted, though the early history along with the section on the Anabaptist history were more interesting.  The chapters in parts II and III were well-written and helpful, a series of expositions on several biblical texts–and relating all the separate parts to the overall narrative flow of scripture, the covenants, and the continuity of the main themes in God’s word.  From the entirety of it, I now have a much clearer understanding of the different views such as the medieval baptismal regeneration and infusion of grace, and the different emphases and nuances of the Reformers regarding the sacraments, the roles of the sacraments along with the written Word, and the idea of the blessing and judgment “double-edged sword” sides regarding the benefits (to the true, invisible church of believers) versus judgments (to the professing but false visible-only church) within the overall covenant community.  As a scholarly-type work, Word, Water, and Spirit includes copious footnote references, and Fesko interacts with the views of past theologians including Luther, Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus (who wrote a Heidelberg Catechism commentary, which I am also reading through this year in calendar-week sequence), explaining where he agrees or disagrees with them.

One section addressed a question/comment from someone who had made a comparison between John the Baptist’s baptism and the later New Testament Christian baptism, wondering what type of participants (individuals vs families) were involved in each.  While a common idea is that Christ instituted baptism by His example of being baptized by John, Fesko contends that Christ instituted baptism in the Great Commission and not in His submission to John’s baptism.

Three key differences noted here:

  1. The redemptive-historical timeframe for John’s ministry: This baptism was not a perpetual rite for Israel but a special sign for that terminal generation  John’s baptism epitomized the particular crisis in covenant history represented by John’s mission as the messenger bearing the Lord’s ultimatum.
  2. John’s ministry was preparatory for the ministry of Christ; his baptism was also preparatory.
  3. John’s baptism was one of repentance, whereas the baptism instituted by Jesus was to be administered in the name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Fesko asserts that there is no textual support for Calvin’s claim that John baptized “into the name of Christ.”

Fesko here focuses on the typical (John’s baptismal ministry) and its fulfillment—Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit, as well as the significance of baptism into a name:  the triune God name (also referenced in the shortened form baptized into the name of Jesus, in some instances in the book of Acts), also Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians that the people were not baptized into his name, the name of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:13-15)

The book is comprehensive, considering many different scriptures and views, and even provides brief treatment (a full chapter) on the issue of paedocommunion, outlining the main scriptures against this idea.  Another book I’ve received (free from a book drawing) and hope to read soon, Cornelis Venema’s Children at the Lord’s Table?, addresses that topic in more depth.  It was interesting to read here, though, of the parallel between the Lord’s Supper and Exodus 24 (not Exodus 12)– The Passover was not an end in itself, but pointed to the covenantal goal of Exodus 24, worshipping and fellowshiping in God’s presence.

Finally, one more interesting thing I liked is that the author consistently and correctly used the scriptural term “last Adam,” rather than the frequent variation of “second Adam.”  As S. Lewis Johnson liked to point out, the scriptural terms Paul used are “the last Adam, and the second man.”  Johnson mentioned one of his teachers, perhaps Chafer, who had added his notes in a book he owned, that it’s “not the second Adam, but the last Adam.” SLJ then pointed out that the term “second Adam” would imply that a third could come along–no, Christ is the last Adam.  Yet I’ve seen it too often in current-day Christian books and articles, the mixing of terms to say “second Adam” rather than “last Adam/second man.”

Overall, Word, Water, and Spirit is a thorough and informative reference work, addressing many scriptures from the Old and New Testament along with historical theology and the views of many theologians down through church history.

 

Horatius Bonar, the Blessings and Curses, and Hermeneutics and Application

May 7, 2020 12 comments

It’s been ten years since I read Horatius Bonar’s Prophetical Landmarks, and it’s time to revisit it, a good refresher, now that my overall doctrinal views in other areas – from the last several years of study – more closely align with the 19th century covenantal premillennialists.  (For reference, here are posts from 2010 on Horatius Bonar:  On Interpreting the Prophets  and On the Millennial Question.)

While reading through the Westminster Confession and catechisms (a calendar year reading), along with the scripture references, I noticed WLC question 28

Q 28. What are the punishments of sin in this world?

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward,
as blindness of mind,
a reprobate sense,
strong delusions,
hardness of heart,
horror of conscience,
and vile affections;
or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes,
and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments;
together with death itself.

The highlighted phrase in the answer, includes as scripture reference, a large section from Deuteronomy 28, verses 15-68 — which describes the prophecy regarding the nation of Israel in its apostasy.

Now, as I understand, the Westminster Divines added the ‘scripture proofs’ only upon request from the Parliament, and their intent was for people to focus not so much on the actual scripture proofs, but as a guide to their commentaries on the scripture references.  That would be the next step in a study here, to find and read their commentaries on this passage.  I understand the general application purpose—from apostate Israel and the temporal evils that befell them, to the general precept of what can happen, temporally, to unbelievers.  That unbelievers, along with the godly, suffer affliction in this life is clear from many places; Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot (which I’m currently reading), an exposition of Ecclesiastes 1:15, explains well the type of suffering experienced by everyone, and the purpose of that suffering in unbelievers, as contrasted with its purpose in the lives of God’s people.

Deuteronomy 28, though, includes very specific prophecies, regarding what would happen to the Jews in the centuries and millennia after Moses’s speech – specific things that were later experienced, including drought, defeated before enemies, property being given to the nation’s enemies, cannibalism, followed by being scattered throughout the world and even to the point that they would offer themselves as slaves to their enemies, but “there will be no buyer.”  If Deuteronomy 28 could be used as an application and a scripture reference for the temporal suffering experienced by unbelievers generally, then Deuteronomy 7:12-14 and 28:3-14 should equally apply in a general application sense to believers.   As both sets of passages apply to the same people group (in this case Israel, the Jewish church), I see that a general application could be made:  the one part, curses, applies to the unbelieving part of Israel (the visible members of the covenant community, who do not have the true inward saving faith), while the other part, the blessings, to the invisible church, those who actually are saved.  Yet the specifics of these passages, the primary meaning, has reference to the specific nation of Israel and its history, with specific, detailed curse events as well as detailed blessing events.

Horatius Bonar was writing in response to 19th century spiritualizing amillennialists, and provided a great lesson on plain-language literal hermeneutics and the treatment of prophecy in scripture, such as this chapter on Israel.  Regarding the idea of literal curses upon Israel (which were fulfilled, the curses mentioned in Deuteronomy 28) versus “spiritual” blessings in Christ, Bonar observed:

Up to this hour, then, everything respecting Israel has been literally accomplished. Nothing in what has hitherto occurred in their strange history gives the slightest countenance to the figurative interpretations for which some so strenuously contend. Why is Israel still an exile, an outcast, a wanderer, if there be no literal curse? Why is Jerusalem laid in heaps, and Mount Zion ploughed as a field (Jer. 26:18)? Why is the crown of Samaria broken, its ruins rolled down into the valley, and its vines all withered from the mountain side (Jer. 31:5; Mic. 1:6)? Why is Lebanon hewn down, the oaks of Bashan withered, the roses of Sharon gone? Why do the fields of Heshbon languish? Why is the vine of Sibmah uprooted, the summer fruits of Elealeh faded, and why is Carmel bare? Why is baldness come upon Gaza, and why is Ashkelon cut off? Why is Ammon a couching-place for flocks, and the palaces of Bozrah swept away? Why is Moab fled, Idumea become a wilderness, and Mount Seir laid desolate? Why is all this, if there be no literal curse? And why, if there has been such a literal curse, is the literal blessing to be denied?

It is foolish to answer, as many do, “The spiritual blessing is far richer; why contend about blessings of meaner value?” Why? Because we believe that God has revealed them; because we believe that as God has been dishonored by Israel’s being an outcast from the land of promise, so He will be honored by their peaceful settlement again; because as we know He was glorified in leading up Israel, His firstborn, out of Egypt, from the tyranny of Pharaoh, through the wilderness into Canaan, so we believe He designs to glorify Himself by a second exodus, and a second establishment in the land given to Abraham and his seed; because as He magnified His name and power in the sight of the heathen by bringing His people out from Babylon after seventy years’ captivity, so we believe He will magnify that name again by leading them out of Babylon the Great, and planting them in their ancient possessions to inherit them forever; never to be disturbed by the enemy; never to hear the voice of war again.

Among the general principles that Bonar sets forth for the literal interpretation of prophecies regarding Israel, is this one:

When their scattering and their gathering are placed together, and when we are told, that as they have been scattered, so they shall be gathered. Very striking and explicit are the prophecies to this effect in Deuteronomy, where the plainness of the style precludes the idea of figures. How, for instance, could the most ingenious spiritualizer contrive to explain away such a passage as this,—“If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will he fetch thee; and the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers” (Deut. 30:4)

Horatius Bonar’s Prophetical Landmarks is still good reading, with Bonar’s rich prose style and use of scripture, and its explanation of solid hermeneutical principles.

Studying the Confessions: Chapter 1 and Scripture

January 16, 2020 1 comment

As I mentioned last month, one major study for this year is the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms.  Going through the Westminster Daily, the first few days’ readings are in the beginning questions and the first chapter, on Scripture.  I’ve added a few commentaries, including A.A. Hodge’s “The Westminster Confession: A Commentary” and Thomas Boston’s commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

I’ve also found out that many commentaries exist for the WSC, but very few (really only two) for the WLC; one of the two is reportedly suspect as having some Socinian tendencies; the other is only available in print, apparently no e-book.  Through some exploration of Sermon Audio for a few Reformed names I’ve heard recently, I came across one sermon series (with 104 sermons) on the Westminster Larger Catechism, from Daniel Hyde, which covers at least some of the WLC, and several other series from various Presbyterian churches posting to SermonAudio.

Along the way I’m also reading the ‘scripture proofs’ and noting any differences between the Westminster standards and the 1689 Baptist confession and catechism.  The scripture references remind me of what Carl Trueman has well explained: the Assembly was asked by the Parliament to provide these references, so the scripture verses were an ‘add on’; also, the scripture references there are to prompt the reader to go read not only the verses but the commentary books written by the Puritan Westminster Divines.  Well, at this point I am mainly reading the actual Confession and Catechisms along with the verses, as I don’t necessarily have the particular commentaries from Puritan authors on any or all of the particular verses.  Yet I find the Confession and Catechism commentaries helpful.  In reading some of the Bible verses, though, I am reminded of a few Charles Spurgeon sermons I’ve read and especially liked, such as Psalm 16’s ‘the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance,’ (referenced in the first question in both the WSC and WLC) and a verse that Spurgeon often referenced.

The Heidelberg Catechism also has a yearly plan, the Lord’s Day weeks 1 through 52 as outlined in the actual catechism, and Zachary Ursinus’ commentary is in the public domain and available at sites including Monergism.

The main focus of these first daily readings is on Scripture, and natural revelation as contrasted with special revelation.  Here, A.A. Hodge provides some interesting points, noting the difference between what natural man came up with in the early pre-Christian era, as contrasted with the supposed ‘natural theology’ of the German enlightenment rationalists of the 19th century, living in and experiencing the benefits of a Christianized society:

We must, however, distinguish between that knowledge of the divine character which may be obtained by men from the worlds of nature arid providence in the exercise of their natural powers alone, without any suggestions or assistance derived from a supernatural revelation — as is illustrated in the theological writings of some most eminent of the heathen who lived before Christ — and that knowledge which men in this age, under the clear light of a supernatural revelation, are competent to deduce from a study of nature. The natural theology of the modern Rationalists demonstrably owes all its special excellences to that Christian revelation it is intended to supersede. …

That the amount of knowledge attainable by the light of nature is not sufficient to enable any to secure salvation. ….    From the facts presented in the past history of all nations destitute of the light of revelation, both before and since Christ. The truths they have held have been incomplete and mixed with fundamental error; their faith has been uncertain; their religious rites have been degrading, and their lives immoral. The only apparent exception to this fact is found in the case of some Rationalists in Christian lands; and their exceptional superiority to others of their creed is due to the secondary influences of that system of supernatural religion which they deny, but the power of which they cannot exclude.

In the early questions, the Westminster and Baptist confessions and catechisms are very similar, yet I notice some interesting differences, particularly in the ‘scripture text’ references, with the WCF/WLC/WSC generally providing more scripture references including key texts such as Isaiah 59:21 and overall more references to Deuteronomy and the Old Testament.

Hodge’s commentary is good overall for the Westminster Confession, at a general level; it includes good explanations regarding natural and special revelation, and the difference between spiritual illumination and inspiration.  Hodge keeps to this basic level, though, not an expanded scope (or length required) for all details.  For example, January 10’s reading on WCF 1.6 includes the doctrine of ‘good and necessary consequences’.  (The LBCF equivalent has slightly different wording, ‘necessarily contained in Scripture’, which I wondered about–and from googling found the explanation for the different wording, that its writers held to the same concept just with different wording a generation later.)  Hodge provides a general overview of the paragraph, but nothing specific to the understanding of good and necessary consequences.  Online articles abound, though, on this specific topic, such as these helpful ones, which give interesting historical and scriptural explanation, including a few examples of this principle in scripture–such as Jesus’ inference, upholding the truth of the Resurrection from Exodus 3:6.

Thomas Boston’s commentary on the WSC is good and fairly in-depth, as far as I’ve read into the first volume and just the first three questions, as is Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg catechism.

Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Review)

January 6, 2020 2 comments

From free books provided (for this one, free copies provided at the local church), I recently read Mark Jones’ Antinomianism:  Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (from 2013).  Online articles at the time, including these two from Kevin DeYoung (this one and also this one), recommended it as one of a few books responding to the modern-day antinomianism error.

My study on this topic over the last few years has included some online sermon series including a 1689 confession series, Reformed articles and a few books such as Barcellos’ Gettting the Garden Right and R.C. Sproul’s Crucial questions booklet How Does God’s Law Apply to Me?.  Jones’ book covers a lot of similar Reformed understanding, with reference to the moral law and the third use of the Law and other doctrines that are taught in the Reformed confessions (and included in SermonAudio confession-study series).  Jones’ book is at a more academic level, with many quotations and footnotes, and especially looks at the historical situation in England in the 17th century.

Among the highlights:  discussion of Christ’s intercessory work and the importance of strong Christology, as well as the Reformed understanding of rewards (good works, chapter 16 in the 1689 LBC and the Westminster Confession of Faith), assurance, gospel threatenings (as different from Law threatening, the type to bring unbelievers to see their need of Christ, as the first use of the Law).  This book also covers the differences between Lutheran and Reformed views; though the Lutheran view includes the third use of the law, it emphasizes the first use, in contrast to the Reformed (Calvinist) emphasis on the third use.

Many good Puritan quotes are sprinkled throughout, such as this one from John Flavel:

I will further grant, that the eye of a Christian may be too intently fixed upon his own gracious qualifications; and being wholly taken up in the reflex acts of faith, may too much neglect the direct acts of faith upon Christ, to the great detriment of his soul.

But all this notwithstanding, the examination of our justification by our sanctification, is not only a lawful, and possible, but a very excellent and necessary work and duty.  It is the course that Christians have taken in all ages, and that which God has abundantly blessed to the joy and encouragement of their souls.

The discussion about law obedience versus gospel obedience reminded me of the first time I read this, and the encouragement in this explanation, well described by J.C. Ryle (excerpts from Holiness) — that the believer’s works (though imperfect) are yet acceptable and pleasing to God the Father:

Sanctification is a thing which cannot justify a man, and yet it pleases God. The holiest actions of the holiest saint that ever lived are all more or less full of defects and imperfections. They are either wrong in their motive or defective in their performance and in themselves are nothing better than “splendid sins,” deserving God’s wrath and condemnation. To suppose that such actions can stand the severity of God’s judgment, atone for sin and merit heaven is simply absurd. …

For all this, however, the Bible distinctly teaches that the holy actions of a sanctified man, although imperfect, are pleasing in the sight of God. “With such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Hebrews 13:16). “Obey your parents . . . for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). “We . . . do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22). Let this never be forgotten, for it is a very comforting doctrine.
Just as a parent is pleased with the efforts of his little child to please him, though it be only by picking a daisy, or walking across a room — so is our Father in Heaven pleased with the poor performances of His believing children. He looks at the motive, principle and intention of their actions — and not merely at their quantity and quality. He regards them as members of His own dear Son, and for His sake, wherever there is a single eye — He is well pleased.

This book includes a quote from Thomas Shepherd that well summarizes the difference between gospel obedience and law obedience:

the law calling and urging of it that so hereby we may be made just, it therefore accepts of nothing but perfection; but the gospel requiring it because we are perfectly just already in Christ, hence, though it commands us as much as the law, yet it accepts of less, even the least measure of sincerity and perfection mixed with the greatest measure of imperfection.”

The book is applicable to us in our day, in which antinomian teaching is quite common.  Jones interacts with current-day teaching, with quotes from and responses to Tullian Tchividjian (reference also old articles such as this one):

According to Tchividjian, ‘We’ve got work to do—but what exactly is it?  Get better? Try harder? Pray more?  Get more involved in church?  Read the Bible longer? …. God works his work in you, which is the work already accomplished by Christ.  Our hard work, therefore, means coming to a greater understanding of his work.’  How does this fit with Paul’s exhortation to work out our salvation with fear and trembling?  Paul surely did not reduce Christian living to contemplating Christ—after all, in 1 Thessalonians 5, toward the end of the chapter, Paul lists over fifteen imperatives.  But Tchividjian’s type of antinomian-sounding exegesis impacts churches all over North America.

The book covers many other interesting topics as well, even some quotes from Puritan writers about the ‘boring’ limited-selection preaching of the Antinomians.  The whole counsel of God includes so much more, the many doctrines set forth in the Reformed Confessions, beyond this limited issue that the antinomians wanted to continually ‘harp on’.  Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is another great and very informative book in the Reformed tradition, well researched and addressing this issue and how the Puritans responded to it.

Baptism as a Means of Grace

August 14, 2019 2 comments

From one of the earlier Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ PCRT conferences (1981) on “How to Grow your Faith” comes an interesting lecture from Robert Godfrey, on Baptism as a means of grace.  It’s a subject I’ve been considering lately, the scripture and reasoning for paedo (versus believer) baptism, and this lecture fits in along with other online articles I’ve come across.

In this post I want to look at this sacrament, baptism, as a means of grace (regardless of whether paedo or believers’ baptism); and a lot of the material comes from John Calvin’s writing in the Institutes, and referenced in this lecture.

Church history has shown two extremes to be avoided – first, the superstitious “magical” view of the Roman Catholicism, that the Reformers responded to in their day.  The current day evangelicalism – and just as true if not more so than in 1981 – has tended to the other extreme, of viewing the sacraments (sometimes called ordinances due to over-reaction again the Roman Catholic view of sacraments) as of no value, something to be neglected, as an “appendix” and an after thought.  There are the churches that only observe the Lord’s Supper once a quarter (every 3 months), or even once a year.  Then, too, are the cases of unusual practice, that remove the significance of the sacraments, where people don’t think about the symbolism and the purpose of the sacraments:  a church observance of the Lord’s Supper in which the bread is put into the bottom of the plastic drink cup and people “drink” the bread from the cup into their mouth; or, a church that wants to be culturally relevant and so refers to baptism as “coming out”–complete with online postings of testimonials from young believers who talk about their life and past problems and then they came to Jesus (more focused on the person’s experience than about the triune God and what He has done for us).

Yet as pointed out in Godfrey’s lecture (back to Calvin), the main point regarding baptism is not about us—but it is something that God has done.   Baptism should first be viewed as God’s pledge and promise to us as individuals, as a part of the “visible word” to us as individuals.  After all, sermons are given generally, to everyone in the audience, but each person has their own baptism experience to look back to.  Baptism is not to be seen as just a one-time event at the start of the Christian life, and then we go forward and forget about it; properly viewed, it is something we look back to, in relation to God’s purpose for me, something that brings assurance (as do the other means of grace).

Martin Luther referred to baptism in this way, that his baptism was something that told him he was a Christian:  not thinking of baptism in a legalistic way as though the baptism itself is what saves someone, the error of baptismal regeneration – but in this “means of grace” view, thinking about what God in Christ has done for us, of baptism as God’s sign of the covenant relationship with Luther as an individual.  Godfrey agrees that baptism also serves as a testimony of our faith, of each of us being one of God’s people.  Yet this is a secondary purpose, and we must never forget the primary purpose and meaning of baptism.

Martin Luther quote:

No one should be terrified if he feels evil lust or love, nor should he despair even if he falls. Rather he should remember his Baptism and comfort himself joyfully with the fact that God has there pledged Himself to slay his sin for him, and not to count it a cause for condemnation, if only he does not say yes to sin and remain in it.

Godfrey’s lecture used the “P” letter for the sermon outline – including the Prominence of the term baptism in scripture, then the Pledge and Promise of God, and the People (recipients) of baptism.  One section does address the Presbyterian-view scripture reasons for the paedo view, an informational part done with respect—observing that people rarely heard actual discussion about the paedo Baptist view in Presbyterian sermons, referencing even the Presbyterian scholar Charles  Hodge as one who said he had never heard a sermon on paedobaptism.

Godfrey’s lecture is very informative and helpful, a Reformed look at the sacrament of baptism and how baptism can be thought of in terms of our sanctification and assurance.  It is part of a set from the 1981 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and soon I’ll be listening to the other lectures from this conference.

Reformation History Reading, Continued: D’Aubigne’s Classic, Volume 2

March 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Librivox now has the second volume of History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century available in audio format.    Following up on the first volume which I read in 2017, this volume continues the details of Martin Luther, from 1519 through the Diet of Worms in 1521, as well as one ‘book’ within the volume on a lesser known topic, the Swiss Reformation.  (The full 5 volumes is also available in PDF format here.)

The basic story of these years in Luther’s life, and his summons to and speaking at the Diet of Worms, is well known, but D’Aubigne’s book brings out the details.  As in the first volume, one striking thing is the large cast of characters surrounding and supporting Martin Luther, the many minor characters that were used to assist in Luther’s cause and to provide him comfort and help along the way.

D’Aubigne’s commentary on the history brings out many interesting points, as in the description of the 1520 student rebellion.  Every age (some more than others) sees the uncontrolled zeal and fanaticism of youth, especially the college age set, in support of some “cause,” political or other.  (A well-publicized example I recall from the early 1990s, students at the University of Colorado setup their version of “shanty-town,” a protest that involved them living in cardboard boxes on the streets, to protest the then-prominent political issue of apartheid.)  After carefully describing the event of Dec. 10, 1520, when Luther (in response to the Catholics’ burning of his books) in a public ceremony at the University of Wittenberg burned the papal bull that had excommunicated Luther, D’Aubigne observes:

If Luther had commenced the Reformation in this manner, such a step would undoubtedly have entailed the most deplorable results. Fanaticism might have been aroused by it, and the Church thrown into a course of violence and disorder. But the reformer had preluded his work by seriously explaining the lessons of Scripture. The foundations had been wisely laid.

The detailed account of Luther’s decision to go to Worms is reminiscent of Acts 20-21 in which Luke describes Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem though all along the way people are warning him not to go to the great danger awaiting him.  At every town or village on Martin Luther’s journey (a time when travel was a much longer and more difficult task in itself) the people similarly warned him not to go to Worms; apparently even the Roman authorities there did not really want him to show up, did not really want to have to confront him; Luther was calm and resolute, prepared for whatever God had in store for him there.

Luther’s first response at the Diet — to allow for some time, to give his response the next day — has been considered by some as a weakness or cowardice on Luther’s part;  D’Aubigne instead sees this as a great move on Luther’s part; the delay and second day’s meeting brought great anticipation of recantation by his opposition, and brought a much larger crowd of people to hear his response.  This volume contains Luther’s full speech, of which the last part is best known:

Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, — unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, — and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.” And then, looking round on this assembly before which he stood, and which held his life in its hands, he said: “HERE I STAND, I CAN DO NO OTHER; MAY GOD HELP ME. AMEN!

After the exciting and suspenseful ending to Luther’s departure from Worms, the story abruptly leave Luther a prisoner in a secluded castle, and tells the account of Ulrich Zwingli’s life from childhood, up through the Swiss reformation up to the year 1522.  I enjoyed Volume 2 of this work even more than the first volume.  Since Librivox has now recorded two of the five volumes, I eagerly anticipate that volume 3 will be recorded at some point in the next year or so.

The Fourfold State of Man: Overview of a Thomas Boston Classic

December 3, 2018 3 comments

Another year is coming to an end, and the Challies 2018 Reading Challenge along with it.  I just finished an audio re-read of The Lord of the Rings, and  an interesting worldview book (from previous Kindle deals), Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews, with interesting material for some future blog posts.  For this time, though, a brief look at an interesting topic highlighted by Dr. Philip Ryken in a four part series available from Reformed Resources (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals): The Fourfold State.  In these four straightforward lectures, Ryken provides an overview of a classic early 18th century Reformed work from Thomas Boston, a book that in its day was “the” book to read for evangelical Christians, one read by the later 18th century preachers (the time of Whitefield and Wesley)–the equivalent of, for example, the late 20th century Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.  The original text of Boston’s work, over 500 pages, is now available in electronic format, such as at Amazon for 99 cents.

I first learned about Thomas Boston from reading Sinclair Ferguson’s The Marrow Controversy, a controversy in which Boston was a key player, followed by a section on him in Joel Beeke’s Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer.  Ryken provides additional material on this great preacher who spanned the time between the end of the Puritans and the later Great Awakening of the mid-18th century.  These lectures from Ryken provide additional information beyond the Marrow Controversy–more about Boston’s life and teaching, including an overview of Boston’s personal life and suffering (including losing six out of ten children in infancy, and particularly regarding two infant sons both named Ebenezer, among those six), followed by two lectures on the fourfold teaching itself, and a last lecture with great application of the four stages to several Christian truths.

Boston’s approach with these four stages of human nature serve as a type of systematic theology:  1) creation, man before the fall; 2) nature; the unregenerate, fallen human nature; 3) grace, the experience of regenerate believers in this life; and 4) glory, including the condition of all humans after this life, the eternal condition of both believers and the lost.  This fourfold approach did not originate with Boston — actually going back to Augustine – but Boston exposited it in great detail, with some variations from Augustine’s teaching.

Of course, our actual human experience involves primarily the second and third states, with the fourth one to look forward to, the glorification and complete removal of sin that will not occur in this life.  Yet Boston developed all four of these points from an in-depth study of scripture, starting with the pre-fall condition of Adam and Eve.  These four states can also be applied to our experience in this life regarding important doctrinal truths and issues in the world today, such as our work/labor and gender roles—both of which involve creation ordinances.

Work itself is what God planned for us:  the original work of Adam and Eve in the garden; then corrupted into the drudgery of stress and never-ending work in this fallen world – the curse was on the ground, not on work itself, but sin makes work more difficult and a burden. Ecclesiastes well describes this situation: people toil, yet “all is meaningless” and the value ends when a person dies, for all the wealth to go to whoever comes after us.  Yet as Christians, we can now bring the concept of work into a redeemed, biblical view, as Paul described regarding Christian daily life roles and how we do all our work, including our secular vocation, to the glory of God.  Our fourth state (for believers) will also involve work, much of that the work of worship; the Bible also tells us that we will rule and reign with Christ in the age to come.  A similar approach can be taken with gender, and society’s fallen views (the second state), versus the renewed understanding (third state) and in the future state of glory.

This is a good summary series about an interesting topic, as well as a good sampling of Ryken’s preaching, part of the “Every Last Word” series, from the years that Ryken preached at Tenth Presbyterian Church (1995-2010); he was also James Boice’s successor, from 2000 to 2010.  A good follow-up to this series, which I’ve just started listening to, is Ryken’s 26 part series on the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Note: Ryken’s teaching on Ecclesiastes is also available in book form, Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes.)