Results tagged “Westminster Larger Catechism” from Reformation21 Blog

A Historic Framework for Social Responsibility

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How shall the church think about social issues of race, justice and power? It is increasingly popular for these issues to be framed and discussed in the church using the categories of social justice and racial privilege as defined by the social sciences. In secular academic settings such categories find their genesis in and are tethered to Marxist systems of analysis. These systems emphasize the struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Marxist frameworks may have surface resonances with Biblical concerns for justice, equality and the poor. However, these frameworks emphasize the ongoing Hegelian struggle of thesis and antithesis without a clear pathway for resolution. Therefore, the insights gained from such analyses are not placed within a framework adequate to provide a healthy response to the social problems posed.

Rather than relying--almost exclusively in certain sectors of the church--on categories that find their genesis in systems hostile to orthodox Christianity, the church should rediscover the corrective guidance of its own tradition and draw upon its creedal and confessional resources. One such resource is the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), a document famous for its exposition of the moral law of God. The WLC offers a paradigm for social responsibility, a framework for robust ethical reasoning, and points toward the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A Paradigm for Social Responsibility

We don't need to rely on Marxist paradigms to teach us about social responsibility. The WLC's rules for interpreting the moral law make it clear that we are, in fact, our brother's keeper. WLC 99 states that "what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places." Similarly, rule eight sates "what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them."

The WLC does not envision a Christian unconcerned with the moral obligations of their neighbor. Loving your neighbor as yourself includes helping them obey God. In the WLC's exposition of the Ten Commandments, this concern extends to the physical welfare of our neighbors too (see WLC 141-142). Pietistic isolation is not an option. As human beings we are knit together in social relationships which incur moral obligation.

However, the WLC pushes past the simplistic collectivism of Marxist paradigms which posit blanket responsibility or victimization in collectives of race, class and gender. Accordingly, moral guilt or a claim to justice will accrue to these same collectives. The result is a powerful, yet vague and ultimately unhelpful, angst. By contrast the WLC goes further, providing a framework that has the capacity to yield particular pathways for repentance, obedience and advocacy. The WLC teaches that our moral obligations will also be informed by our places and our callings.

On the one hand this is freeing. The single mother working two low-wage earning jobs does share the same kind of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO for her neighbors, but she does not share the same degree of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO. On the other hand, it is morally challenging. True righteousness is measured by deeds not by angst. Marxist paradigms that call for awareness, angst and protest allow us to rest content with awareness, angst and protest. The WLC pushes further, calling for actual righteous deeds to be done according to your place and calling. When we stand before God we shall not be judged for how we felt, but for what we have done. Therefore, we need theories of social responsibility that provide particular guidance for obedience.

A Framework for Robust Ethical Reasoning

Pastors and historians alike can tell you that evil deeds are often justified through painfully atomistic readings of Scripture. Our sinful hearts are prone to suppress obvious moral implications from Biblical texts. Jesus summarized the ten commandments with two great laws of love. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind soul and strength. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus reasons even as he appeals to the heart.

The WLC follows Jesus and embraces a well-reasoned use of the law of God. Good and necessary inferences are drawn from the commandments, always with a view to the whole counsel of Scripture: "where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included." The WLC encourages a robust moral reasoning intended to give expression to the spirit of the law, lest our sinful hearts rest content with the letter of the law. Both the WLC's exposition of the commandments and the type of moral reasoning it encourages offer resources to fashion a Biblical response to issues of race, justice and power.

The Hope of the Gospel

The WLC makes it clear that the moral law of God binds all people at all times (WLC 91-93). It is the ethical standard that defines what Christians labor for in the public square as much as in the home. For example, the WLC reminds us that we are not to exercise "undue silence in a just cause" (WLC 145). We should "endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others" (WLC 142). In these matters the moral law of God will be our guide.

And yet, the WLC reminds us that ethics and morality are not social goods with which we can rest content. For love of God and neighbor we pursue earthly righteousness. But we accept that "none is righteous, no not one" (Romans 3:10). Therefore, there is no lasting hope without Christ. The law that guides our vision for justice will, if handled rightly, at the very same time convict us of our inability to keep it. For the regenerate this means that the law will "show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule to their obedience" (WLC 97). Here we see that the law moves us to worship and adore Christ when we realize that he kept it for us when we could not and bore its curse in our place. The WLC would have the law move our hearts to love Christ, and from that place of love to obey Christ.

For the unregenerate, the moral law is of use "to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ" (WLC 96). The law serves salvation by driving the unregenerate to Christ. We can never rest content with social transformation or the alleviation of earthly suffering. We will always be burdened to see spiritual transformation and the alleviation of eternal suffering. This is not to deny the God glorifying, neighbor loving value of alleviating temporal suffering. It is simply to remember that temporal suffering is temporal. Of course, to lean on the temporality of suffering as an excuse to ignore our neighbor's pain is wrong. But to forget that our neighbor faces eternal suffering is equally heartless, and with even greater consequences.

This understanding of the usefulness of the law for the unregenerate will inform how we exercise co-belligerence as Christians. Augustine famously coined the phrase City of Man to describe that realm of civil society where Christians labor with unbelievers for the common good. But, those with whom we labor in matters of social concern must take us as we are. We cannot make common cause with those who would demand we lay down the cross of Christ in order take up another cause. We cannot be silenced, for we must save both ourselves and our hearers.

Conclusion

In the spirit of avoiding what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery," just because the Westminster Larger Catechism is old (1648) does not mean it is old-fashioned. It remains relevant today. Nor should we presume that because it was not heeded in earlier days that it did not speak clearly enough to be heard. Hearing was not the problem, heeding was. Chad Van Dixhoorn has noted that in the late 18th century the American Presbyterian church removed the word "depopulations" from the WLC's exposition of the eighth commandment. This ban "was embarrassing given the ongoing European settlement of territory once belonging to native Americans." One might wonder whether 19th century Presbyterians were not similarly embarrassed by the prohibitions against manstealing, defrauding one's neighbor and enriching oneself unjustly.

The WLC is not our only Biblical resource to address concerns over race, justice and power, but it is an important one. Our forebears seemed to have heard the WLC without heading it in these areas. We may find that tomorrow's embarrassment is not that we deleted a word from the WLC because it made us uncomfortable, but that we never bothered to read it seriously in the first place.

   

1. The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

2. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), xxii.

The Public Reading of Scripture--Presbyterian-Style

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In 2011, the session of the church that I pastor sought to educate and assist the members of the church regarding proposed changes that we had decided to make to an important aspect of our corporate worship services. Prior to these changes, unordained men would regularly lead the congregation in the public reading of Scripture and prayer. Desiring to bring our worship into greater conformity with our doctrinal standards and historic Reformed practice, our Session passed a motion limiting the public reading of Scripture to the minister who is preaching.

Since we are a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America, some within the congregation rightfully and insightfully raised the question about the propriety of this change in light of Book of Church Order 50.2. That section reads: "The reading of the Holy Scripture in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God and should be done by the minister or some other person." Obviously, the phrase in question at the end of the statement is, "or some other person." So, are we to understand by this phrase that unordained men and women are allowed to read Scripture in a worship service in the PCA? Those who allow unordained men to read the Scripture in public worship appeal to this phrase, as do those who wish to allow women reading Scripture in the context of public worship.

What follows is not intended to be an exegetical wrestling with Scripture about the topic of women or unordained men reading the Scripture in worship; neither is it meant to be a substitution for that. That is, of course, most important and necessary. This is an attempt to investigate the background of BCO 50.2. Additionally, appeal will be made to the Westminster Larger Catechism and the Directory for Public WorshipAfter all, the BCO should be interpreted in light of those documents due to their respective provenances.

First, if "some other person" means, "anyone else without qualification," then there is clearly a contradiction between BCO 50-2 and WLC 156 where restrictions are placed around the reading of the Word. WLC 156 states:

"Q. Is the Word of God to be read by all? A. Although all are not to be permitted to read publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families: to which end, the Holy Scriptures are to be translated out of the original into vulgar languages."

We must ask the question, "Who is not permitted to read publicly to the congregation?" At a recent meeting of our Presbytery, one minister insisted that this was merely excluding five year olds. Aside from the obvious fact that the vast majority of five year olds don't read, such a suggestion is intellectually offensive and stretches credulity to the breaking point. Did the framers of the confession really only want to restrict young children from the public reading of Scripture in worship?

Contextually, the restriction should be understood in light of the encouragement. "...all are not to be permitted...yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves..." Those not permitted to read the Scriptures publicly, then, are the "all sorts of people" who are encouraged to read it privately. "All sorts of people" is most certainly, then, not a reference to age or to gender but rather to those who do not hold the ordained office.

Support for this is found in the Scripture proofs chosen to defend the statement that "all are not permitted to read publicly to the congregation"--namely, Deut. 31.9-13 and Neh. 8.2-5. In the Deuteronomy passage, Moses specifically tasks the Levites to read the Word of God to the people. Similarly, in the Nehemiah passage it's Ezra the Priest who gathers the people and reads and explains Scripture to the people. These passages highlight the distinction between the ordained and unordained ministry.

This is also the conclusion of Johannes G. Vos in his commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism. After citing the Scripture proofs he offers the following comment:

"Reading the Word of God publicly to the congregation is the duty of those especially called as ministers of the Word." (Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 438).

Later Vos asks, "Why are not all Christians people 'to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation?'" He then offers this commentary:

"Reading the Scriptures 'publicly to the congregation' is a part of conducting the public worship of God, and therefore it is to be done only by those who have been properly called to that office in the church. Of course in the absence of an ordained minister or licentiate, the elders of the church may properly appoint some person to read the Scripture and conduct a prayer meeting or 'fellowship meeting.' What the catechism denies is that any private Christian may lawfully take it upon himself to conduct public worship, without being appointed to do so by those whose office it is to rule the house of God (Vos, 439).

Since WLC 156 was written many years prior to the "some other person" statement of BCO 50-2, it should be clear that "anyone else without qualification" cannot be the authorial intention ofBCO 50-2, but is to be understood in light of the restriction referenced in WLC 156.

Second, the context of the question is important. WLC Q. 154 begins by dealing with the "outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of mediation." These means are all His ordinances, but especially 1) the Word; 2) sacraments, and 3) prayer.

From here the ministry of the word is taken up and divided into two subcategories: Reading (Q/A 156-157) and Preaching (Q/A 158-160). In this series of question and answers the catechism envisions the one who is preaching also to be the one who is reading because the reading of Holy Scripture is a ministry of the Word and thus a function of the minister who has been ordained to the ministry of the Word and sacraments.

Furthermore, from this it follows that all who are entitled to read are also entitled to preach because both reading and preaching are two aspects of the ministry of the word.

Third, the progression of the developed teaching of BCO 50.2 is important to understand. Consider the following:

  • The Directory for the Publick Worship of God; agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, 1645, III-1 & 2 

"Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.
 Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto."

  • PCUSA, 1786, DfW, 2d Draft
"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the Congregation, is a part of the public worship of God; and ought to be performed by the Ministers and Teachers."

  • PCUSA 1789. DfW, III-1
"The reading of the holy Scriptures, in the congregation, is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the ministers and teachers."

  • PCUS 1894, III-1

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCUS 1925, Directory for Worship, III-1

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCUS 1933, Directory for Worship, III-1 [§310] 

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and should be done by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCA 1975
"The reading of the holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God and should be done by the minister, or by some other person."

What is equally fascinating is the way that BCO 50-1 is so restrictive while BCO 50-2 is so expansive. In 50-1 reading is restricted to the minister alone.

"The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is performed by the minister as God's servant. Through it God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon. The reading of the Scriptures by the minister is to be distinguished from the responsive reading of certain portions of Scripture by the minister and the congregation. In the former God addresses His people; in the latter God's people give expression in the words of Scripture to their contrition, adoration, gratitude and other holy sentiments. The psalms of Scripture are especially appropriate for responsive reading."

How are we to explain this seemingly obvious discrepancy between BCO 50-1 and 50-2 and between BCO 50-2 and the WLC? In his commentary on the BCO, one of the founding fathers of the PCA makes the following statement:

"As already noted, this paragraph [BCO 50-2] is in contrast to the first sentence of the 50-1. The "or some other person" was added by the PCA by motion from the floor of the Assembly when it was adopted in the Book, and it is evident that it was not carefully compared to other portions of the Book. Without any qualifications as to the "other person" it nullifies all restrictions implied in both 50-1 and 50-2. This is one of those areas that needs further study" (Morton Smith, Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order, 408).

Conclusion

From these historical, confessional, and contextual observations, I am led to conclude that the phrase "or some other person" of BCO 50-2 can only be expanded to include visiting ordained ministers, ruling elders, and those who are not yet ordained as either a TE or RE, but are in training for that office and have been approved by the Session.

Moving forward those on both sides of the debate should insist that BCO 50.2 should be updated and delivered from its current opacity, which is neither promoting unity or clarity in our denomination.