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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.

The Covenant of Redemption, and Covenant Worship: Online Sermon Resources

February 17, 2020 4 comments

For study in the near future, I have several lesson series queued up, including two series on the book of Job, and a few Reformed Conference series from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, these links:

Currently, though, I’m enjoying a new resource I’ve recently discovered online: pastor/preacher Dr. Mark Winder, at nearby Wolf River OPC church and one of the contributors at the Reformed Forum (a different contributor than the one referenced in a recent post about hermeneutics).  I’ve listened to a few of his sermons, including an informative 12-part series ‘What is a Presbyterian?’  The first messages address general Reformed theology and basics of interpretation, including a section on Good and Necessary Consequences, followed by a few on covenant theology and covenant worship, then to more specific topics such as the role of children within the church and the church leadership structure.

These messages take a helpful and interesting approach, teaching various doctrines from Old Testament texts and showing the link to the New Testament practice.  For example, the Covenant of Redemption explained from Zechariah 6:9-15 —  a great Messianic passage describing ‘the branch’, the Messiah who would be a priest and a king.   Yet I had not considered Zechariah 6 in connection with the Covenant of Redemption.  Previous lessons I’ve heard over the years, such as several from S. Lewis Johnson, provided a good overview with a look at the Davidic covenant passages and the Upper Room discourse, especially Jesus’ words about the work of the Father and the Son, and the importance of the overall purpose of the Trinity and that the three members of the Godhead work together in agreement.  This message adds to the teaching, with the events in Zechariah 6 — emphasizing the joining of the priest and king offices in one person, and especially verse 13, “and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”

The next message, on Covenant Worship, is an interesting take on New Testament church worship—from exposition of Psalm 95.  The Psalm is simple, yet expresses several good points regarding corporate worship, including the fact of corporate (plural, we), Who it is that we are gathering to worship, our great God and fellowship with Him; it’s not just about our casual fellowship with one another, but our great and holy God, and our attitude, to be joyful when we worship together.

It’s a helpful, informative series, that defines the important characteristics of Reformed and specifically (Reformed) Presbyterian churches — several topics and how they all relate together with biblical support and the unity of scripture in the Old and New Testament.  I’m looking forward to the rest of the messages, and then continuing on to the next Bible lesson series, from the several other series mentioned above.

The Lord’s Day, Household Baptism, and Good and Necessary Consequences

January 31, 2020 3 comments

Over the last few months off and on I’ve been studying the issue of baptism, and specifically paedo-baptism.  I grew up in a mainline Presbyterian church with minimal biblical instruction, and then walked away, an unbeliever for several years, until I was saved in my mid-20s while attending an Evangelical Presbyterian church.  Through God’s Providence, a few years later I came to a non-denominational Calvinist Baptist church–only knowing the basics of evangelical Christianity and completely ignorant of the Reformed Confessions and even of the 5 points of Calvinism.  In the following years, I came to understand Calvinism; in the last 10+ years, I studied through dispensational premillennialism to later historic premillennialism, then adding the Reformed Confessions and understanding of God’s moral law and the Lord’s Day Sabbath.

The issue of credo vs paedo- (or household) baptism is clearly a divisive one, and sincere, godly Christians have come to different conclusions on the matter.  A full study on the subject would take many posts, and many helpful articles can be found online.  My purpose here is to focus on one particular issue:  the doctrine of good and necessary consequences (WCF 1.6; see this previous post) and two Reformed doctrines that do not have direct, explicit New Testament verses, yet are inferred from the good and necessary consequences, and both of which involve the continuity of Old and New Testament practice.

The Lord’s Day Sabbath involves continuity: a practice observed in the Old Testament (back to creation), with changes in the New Covenant era that symbolize a new, greater meaning of the 8th day (1st day of the week) Lord’s Day observance.  Yet the critics respond with “Where is the New Testament verse saying that the Lord’s Day replaced the seventh day Sabbath?”  The doctrine is inferred, from a systematic study of the teaching in the old creation, through the Old Testament books, then Jesus’ stress on the day’s importance–He is Lord of the Sabbath, something He considered important and not just a Jewish ritual soon to be obsolete; then noted in the Resurrection accounts and the early church observance on the 1st day of the week, along with other NT references through to Revelation 1, where John mentions the Lord’s Day.

Household baptism similarly shows continuity and a pattern observed throughout the Old Testament, as early as Abraham and his household (long before Moses) as well as earlier references such as 1 Peter 3:20-22 in reference to Noah and the family with him in the ark during the flood.  The pattern continues throughout the Old Testament and the many references to households and the covenant community.  Then — like the teaching regarding the Sabbath — the gospels and Acts describe things that only fit within that Old Testament context, of continuing the covenant community concept.  Of the handful of baptism accounts in the book of Acts, a significant percentage of these are household baptisms, where the text states that the one person believed, and on account of that one person’s belief, the household rejoiced with him and everyone in the household was also baptized.  Verses in the New Testament epistles likewise reference the relation between Old Testament and New Testament symbols and their meaning (ref. Colossians 2:11-12), and also describe believers within the context of a covenant community which includes genuine believers alongside those who appear to believe for awhile, but later come out and depart from the faith (ref. Hebrews 10:28-29).  The household baptism is a “both/and” concept – both adult converts, and their household, those under the head of the family.

Again, this subject is greater than the scope of one blog post, and undoubtedly many would disagree with the teaching of household baptism, instead insisting on individual belief and individual baptism with belief required for baptism.  Yet as I clearly see it, both the doctrine of the Lord’s Day Sabbath AND the teaching of household baptism or “covenant baptism” are inferred in scripture, from the good and necessary consequences.  Both doctrines involve a systematic study and more continuity than discontinuity.  Both doctrines involve practices continuing from the Old to New Testament, with a change that symbolizes the truth in a greater, New Testament meaning.  Neither doctrine has any direct “proof-text” verse that explicitly states that the NT practice has continued with some change.  Both doctrines understand the relative silence (i.e., the lack of direct and explicit statements) in the New Testament, as indicating that the historic practice, as of the 1st century, did not radically change and was understood by the early church believers who had their Bibles, the Old Testament scriptures.  Both doctrines affirm that if the Old Testament practice was supposed to change (such as, to abolish the Sabbath concept, or the covenant changing from a community of families to only individuals) that the New Testament writers would have said as much; and therefore the silence instead confirms the original practice.

Historically, most “Baptist” Christians have been non-Reformed:  the Anabaptist groups, also the Southern Baptists and general Arminian Dispensational groups since the 19th century.  Yet among the Reformed, the Reformed Baptists are a relative minority in the larger group of Reformed paedo — and quite possibly this is the reason, or one major reason:  the inconsistency of accepting continuity on one Reformed issue (the Lord’s Day Sabbath) while rejecting the other continuity issue (household, covenantal baptism).

The practice of household baptism, including of young children, historically goes back very early in the church, as noted in the writings of Tertullian and others in the early third century.  This also explains and makes more sense of something I wondered about while studying medieval Europe history several years ago:  the early medieval practice of whole European nations being suddenly baptized, converted, Christianized, upon the profession of faith of the nation’s ruler.

A few helpful articles regarding household baptism:

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.

Conference Lecture Series: The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century

October 10, 2019 Leave a comment

Among the conference lecture series I’ve recently listened to are two “Westminster Confession into the 21st century” (from Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary) conferences from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ archive – from 2004 and 2007.  As noted in a previous post these are the readings of scholarly papers, and so the audio recordings provide a type of “audio book” experience on various topics concerning the Westminster Standards and covenant theology.  The lectures feature a variety of speakers: some regulars within the Alliance conferences, along with a few well-known names such as Ligon Duncan and Sinclair Ferguson.  Some of the lectures are more interesting (and easier to follow) than others; the delivery of some is “abridged” with selected readings, skipping over some parts and then continuing to other sections, within the time permitted (about an hour).

The more recent conference lectures/journal articles, back to the fall of 2014, are also available online here.  The audio archive has the benefit of earlier material, such as the two I’ve been listening to:  2004’s Conference “The Richness of Our Theological Heritage” and from 2007, “Systematic Theology: Informing Your Life in Christ.”

The lectures assume a basic knowledge of the Westminster Confession and Reformed theology, and provide introduction to several interesting topics which would be good for further study, including:

  • The Scottish Covenanters and the history of the different sub-groups
  • Good and necessary consequences
  • Christian Liberty
  • The roles of systematic theology and biblical theology (redemptive historical) and the value of both

I’m still listening to the “The Richness of our Theological Heritage” series, and find these lectures another great educational resource, for “seminary-type” teaching beyond the layperson / general audience level.  The full collection, from all past conferences, is available here.

Thoughts on Systematic Theology vs Biblical Theology, the Doctrine of God, and the Trinitarian Debate

April 26, 2019 11 comments

Lately I’ve been considering the issues of systematic theology, confessionalism, and the Doctrine of God and the Trinitarian Debate.  Over at the Mortification of Spin podcast, Carl Trueman has several recent posts in a series, Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

This is a recurring topic in recent years, one I often come back to, from frequent interacting with the errors from non-confessional Calvinist Baptists: minimalist doctrinal approach, overemphasis on biblical theology (and absence of any type of systematic theology) and the related anti-confessional New Covenant Theology.  For reference, see these previous posts such as these about Confessionalism (article 1, also this article, and this one).

In the above posts, Trueman is coming from the opposite perspective, of confessionally Reformed churches where people are redefining the words of the confessions to mean different things today than the 17th century Reformers understanding.  His points, though, are just as applicable to the anti-confessional group, as the basic issue of present-day evangelicalism (after pointing out the merits of biblical theology):

even with all of these important contributions, we need to remember that a narrow focus on the storyline of scripture has its limits.  If the danger with Systematic Theology is that it can so emphasize conceptual unities that it misses the particularities of the biblical text, then the danger with Biblical Theology is that it so emphasizes the particularities that it misses those underlying unities. The answer to missing the trees for the wood is not to miss the wood for the trees.

The importance of systematic theology relates to the more specific issue of the doctrine of God, including the controversies of recent years – the impassibility of God, and the “Trinity Debate” (Eternal Submission of the Son error) of 2016.  For further reading on the 2016 Trinity Debate, see this web page from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, with links to the many blog posts back and forth during summer 2016.

From browsing the Alliance’s collection here are some helpful sermon series from Liam Golligher (the current Senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) —  three sets of messages (the “Trinity” set in response to the 2016 Trinity Debate) from the early chapters of the book of Hebrews:  Trinity: The Eternally Divine Son (8 messages), Trinity: The Two Natures of Christ (8 messages), and Trinity: Christ the Mediator (6 messages).  I’m in the second half of the second set now, so more to report later.

From the content I’ve listened to so far, these messages emphasize the transcendence of God, the reality of a God that is different from and above us, the eternal God who does not change, the Creator/Creature distinction, and the big picture view of God’s dealings with His people throughout history.  The doctrine of God, and the Trinity, are things that our finite minds will never completely grasp, yet the Christian creeds and confessions set forth the truths that we affirm.

From the first set, one message specifically addresses the Old Testament theophanies as part of God’s plan to familiarize His people with their God.  Another message, ‘Mary, did you know?’ references the words in the Mark Lowry song along with many scripture references.  A later message in the first series mentions a not-so-well-known history fact:  hymn writer Isaac Watts’ later writings indicate that he was a Unitarian and viewed Jesus as a created being, as the archangel Michael.  Googling on the topic indicates that a lot of people question this (is it really so?), and provides further historical details regarding Watts and the New England slide from Puritanism to Unitarianism.  Certainly Watts, who disliked creeds, did not articulate Trinitarianism and left himself open to the charge of Unitarianism, leaving us the question ‘will we see Isaac Watts in heaven?’  For further reference, here are a few interesting articles about Isaac Watts’ Unitarianism:

The above posts and sermon series are very helpful for a good overview of the whole issue of the doctrine of God and proper, orthodox understanding of the Trinity.  The link between the historic creeds and confessions, and orthodox Christian belief, especially comes out when studying the doctrine of God, a topic/study that is not as easy from the human viewpoint.  It is all too easy for us finite humans, as creatures, to think of God as somehow an extension of ourselves, someone greater than us but like us (in ways beyond the “communicable attributes”).  In this modern anti-creedal age, a time of “no creed but the Bible,” some doctrines are still easier to ‘get’, such as the doctrine of scripture, of the authority and importance of God’s word; but taking the same anti-confessional approach to the doctrine of God, more often than not, leads to error and even heresy.  As stated in the above article (Implications from Isaac Watts’s Trinitarian Controversy):

Furthermore, claiming to have no creed but the Bible may sound noble and pious, but it is a fact of history that when individuals or groups completely reject confessional language, even with noble desires for Christian unity or biblical authority, they almost always end up with significant theological problems. And this is exactly the case with the Nonconformists in England following Watts: those who, like Watts, claimed to accept no human creed ended up fully denying the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and even the sufficient atonement of Christ.

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.

On Church Statements of Faith (and Historic Creeds)

April 27, 2018 9 comments

My appreciation for the Reformed confessions continues to grow, especially from interacting with the anti-creed, anti-confession attitude — and the consequent superficial, shallow and even false teaching — so prevalent in evangelicalism today.

As noted in Brian Borgman’s series (sermon audio here) from 18 years ago, the historic creeds and confessions provide valuable information to the church as Christ’s body, teaching preserved for future generations.  These statements were carefully developed to refute various heresies, and down through the centuries, the next generation of the church learned its doctrine from the wisdom of past ages.  Then, the 19th century American pioneering culture of ‘rugged individualism’ along with the bad part of the Second Great Awakening revival movement (Charles Finney and others) started us down the wrong path: a view that thinks what is new and modern is better than what came before, a view that does not learn from history, and instead proclaims “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” (originally said by Alexander Campbell of the “Disciples of Christ” group in the early 19th century).

Christians in the 20th century did provide several Christian declarations, often focused on particular causes/issues of our day, such as the 1974 Lausanne Covenant on World Missions, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and the 1980s Danvers Statement (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).  Then came the controversial, doctrinal compromising ECT and ECT II (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) in the 1990s.  Since 2000 we have seen more of the specific purpose statements such as the Manhattan Declaration  and now the Nashville Statement.  Borgman’s series from 2000 ended the final lesson (about modern day creeds) on a positive note: the Cambridge Declaration of 1996, the origin of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

In response to the increasing anti-creedal attitude prevalent today, Founders.org has provided a few recent articles that make the positive case for why churches should (still) use creeds and confessions, as with these two:

The problem that comes up in churches that do not reference the historic creeds and confessions can be seen when an independent church with a relatively small congregation attempts to come up with its own “statement of faith” — a (supposedly) simple, not complex or lengthy, original document.  In desiring to use their own statements – apart from the careful analysis and wording used by the large assemblies and church councils in years past – and trying to say things briefly in their own words, their resulting statements have a tendency to be incomplete, misleading, and in some cases stating actual error.  (I realize that this is not their intent; they believe that they are trying to be faithful in expressing Christian truth.  It is their method, and the underlying presupposition to not reference historic creeds, that is problematic.)

As an example, a local church’s statement of faith mentions the inerrancy of scripture “in the original writings” – yet is silent on the related issue of scripture in translations, leaving the topic open to be challenged by others.  Since the original writings are not in common use by most of us, the Reformed confessions, as well as the recent Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, felt it was important to address the attributes of scripture in our translations.  From the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X (emphasis added):

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

The Reformed confessions of a few centuries ago also expressed the point, in language less technical, for the purpose of the edification of the saints.  From the 1689 London Baptist Confession, chapter 1 (Of the Holy Scriptures, paragraph 8):

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.

More troubling is when a church’s statement of faith includes faulty hermeneutics, with sentences such as since all Scripture points to Christ, the Old Testament should be interpreted through the New Testament.  Such an idea has serious implications:  if the Old Testament cannot be understood on its own, apart from the New Testament, then no one who lived in the Old Testament age, or in the early church before the NT was written — when the Old Testament was their Bible – could possibly have understood God’s word on its own basis, since the ‘key’ to explaining what the Old Testament ‘really means’ did not yet exist.  Consider that the apostle Paul himself taught the truth of Christ and the resurrection by directly quoting from the Old Testament.  What about the believers in the book of Malachi (Malachi 3:16-18), or any of the other believers who lived before the New Testament was written?

Here again, we do not have to look back very far in history, as the Chicago statement also was clear regarding the hermeneutic of how we understand and interpret scripture.  As Article V explains (emphasis added):

We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.
We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. 

The 17th century Reformed confessions (including the WCF, the Savoy Declaration and the 1689 London Baptist Confession) were written by those who saw the importance of doctrine for all of life, those who saw the need to provide detailed answers to the many questions, and to provide instruction to the common people.  The first chapter provided many paragraphs on Scripture , and these hold up very well, to this day, as excellent summaries of the faith, useful for instructing local congregations in Christian truth.  The modern-day attempt to “reinvent the wheel” regarding definition of doctrine manifests the very problem with trying to do so – belief statements lacking in detail and with faulty doctrine.  We would all do well to remember church history, and learn our doctrine — and how to say it clearly and accurately — from those who went before us.

The Reformed Confessions: Balance and Structure

March 20, 2017 3 comments

Following up from the last post, some more thoughts concerning the use of confessions in understanding Christian doctrine.  As I mentioned last time, it is actually the person learning individual doctrines apart from the confessions (which are a type of systematic theology, doctrinal summary) who is more likely to become proud,  full of head knowledge, and to have an imbalanced view concerning Christianity.  For the confessions provide a balance and a structure, considering all the doctrines and the proper view of them.

One example of this is the doctrine of predestination, which is addressed in the third chapter of the 1689 Baptist Confession.  The Credo Covenant blog  provides a good daily devotional study, a new post every day in the series “A Little Time with the 1689.” Each day’s post provides a look at a phrase or sentence from the 1689 Confession, in sequence through each chapter.  Recent posts addressed the end of the third chapter, on the doctrine of predestination.  Here the confession even has a response, from hundreds of years ago, to the common modern-day problem of “cage stage Calvinism.” So many today learn the Doctrines of Grace (aka the Five Points of Calvinism), outside of its original context (Old Calvinism; the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms) – and thus this one doctrine, learned by itself without proper perspective regarding other doctrines, often leads to pride and arrogance.  Yet the confession itself, in chapter 3 paragraph 7 well summarizes how we should handle the teaching of predestination:

The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.

Other examples of this include the understanding of different measures/levels of faith, and the balance between man as a fallen sinner and yet made in the image of God.  Without the confessions as a framework, too much emphasis may be given to the teaching that we are such wicked, depraved sinners (LBCF chapter 6) – while completely ignoring that we are also made in the image of God (LBCF chapter 4), and what it means to be image bearers of God.  Another common imbalance, often seen in “Sovereign Grace” New Calvinist churches, is to over-emphasize the sovereignty of God to the point of hyper-Calvinism and a passive approach to the Christian life, which thus reasons that since faith is all from God, everything comes from God, then “how can there be any difference between believers, such that some have ‘little faith’ and others have ‘great faith’?”  Again, the confessions – which themselves affirm the highest priority to scripture (chapter 1), and provide the detailed summary of what scripture teaches – provide in summary form the details of saving faith.  From the 1689 Baptist Confession, these excerpts from chapter 14 on saving faith:

The grace of faith…  is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.

14.3 — This faith, although it be different in degrees, and may be weak or strong, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory, growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

Reference the full chapter, including scripture references for each point, here.

So, with the structure, balance and depth of the confessions as excellent summaries of Christian truth, we can heartily agree with and appreciate Charles Spurgeon, including what he wrote in his “Morning and Evening” devotional regarding faith (the March 7 entry):

The best servants of God are those who have the most faith. Little faith will save a man, but little faith can not do great things for God. Little faith is powerless to fight against the Evil One. Only a faithful Christian can do that. Little faith is enough to get to heaven most certainly, but it often has to travel the road in fear. It says to itself, “Oh, it is such a rough road, filled with sharp thorns and full of dangers; I am afraid to go on.” But Great faith remembers the promise, “Your shoes will be like iron and brass; and your strength will be with you all of your days,” and so she boldly pushes forward.

Do you want to be happy? Do you want to enjoy your relationship with Christ? Then “have faith in God.” If you don’t mind living in gloom and misery, then be content with little faith; but if you love the sunshine and want to sing songs of rejoicing, then earnestly desire to have “great faith.”

The Reformed Confessions and Evangelical Anti-Creedalism

March 15, 2017 4 comments

From my recent studies and conversations with others, I continue to notice and appreciate the amazing detail and depth in the Reformed confessions; these great statements of faith  encompass everything related to each doctrine, even our proper attitude towards the doctrines.  The anti-confession (really, a lazy and anti-intellectual) idea that people who know their confessions inside and out may just have a lot of head knowledge, and that we shouldn’t be so concerned about systematic theology – because it’s more important to have Christ in our hearts, and communion with Him – is misguided on several points.

First, we all have a creed.  The question is not whether to have a creed — but the content of that creed.  The earliest belief statements arose in response to heretics who said they believed the Bible, but who clearly did not have in mind the same definitions of basic orthodoxy.  The many statements of faith that have come down through church history contain excellent summaries of the Christian faith.  As S. Lewis Johnson well observed:

Now remember, everybody has a creed, and in fact the person who holds up the Bible and says, “I have no creed, I simply have the Bible,” well, that’s his creed; that’s precisely his creed. We all have a creed, but the Christian church has been characterized by some outstanding creeds. The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran church is an outstanding Christian statement. The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian churches is an outstanding statement. Other statements come to mind immediately such as the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican church, also an outstanding statement. The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reform churches is an outstanding statement. These are great Christian creeds, you should study them. You should know them. They are not creeds that were constructed by half a dozen fellows who met over the weekend in order to give us a statement, but most of those creeds were the product of the study, debate, discussion of outstanding leaders of the Christian church over, sometimes, lengthy periods of time. As you well know, some of those creeds are the product of years of study and labor by men who were very competent in the word of God.

Also, in response to the anti-intellectual idea that belittles serious study of God’s word, because it might lead to puffed-up head knowledge:  as Dan Phillips expressed (in his book on the Proverbs), our nature is such that anything can make us proud; he observed that he could just as easily become proud of nothing, of not knowing, as with having knowing.  As has also been observed by many: just because a particular doctrine (any doctrine, and including the study of systematic theology) has been abused or misused by others, is NOT an excuse for YOU to not study God’s word for yourself.  This view is actually a form of post-modernism/ deconstruction – here, as Dan Phillips describes it:

In God’s eyes, there simply is no greater arrogance than rejecting Yahweh’s viewpoint in favor of my own. It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think that he or she knows something from the Word. To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is certainly bad. By contrast, it is the height of arrogance to have a word from God and refuse to trust it by incorporating it into our way of thinking and living.

Thirdly, I would suggest that it is the non-confessional Christian – rather than the one who understands and has studied the confession statements – who is more likely to have his or her doctrinal perspective out of balance.  I’ll expand on this in the next post, but to state it briefly here:  the confessions themselves include statements about how we are to view certain doctrines.  Reference the LBCF chapter 3 paragraph 7, for instance, as an answer to the all-too-common “cage stage Calvinism” among today’s non-confessional “Sovereign Grace” Calvinists.  A full reading and study of the LBCF (or any similar confessions) will address all the doctrines, not just one’s own “pet doctrine” to the neglect of other doctrines.  God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and the distinction between justification and sanctification, are a few examples of this – where non-confessional Calvinists tend to go astray, emphasizing one doctrine and neglecting or simply not understanding the other.

More next time, with a look at specific doctrines and how they are explained in the 1689 Confession.