Results tagged “scripture” from Reformation21 Blog

Reason, Revelation and the Resurrection


I recently read a short article on Biologos entitled On What Basis Should A Scientist Accept The Resurrection? A composite piece written by a number of Biologos contributors, the article sets out an argument for the basis for and authority upon which the scientist should accept an historical resurrection. The authors encourage the scientist to "evaluate data." They explain, "an open-minded person will find impressive historical evidence consistent with the resurrection." Again, "But for those who are open, such evidence provides a reasonable basis for belief, so that, as the Gospel of John says, 'believing, you may have life in His [Jesus's] name' (John 20:31)." The article purports to assess and evaluate the historical data for the resurrection. This available data is the ground upon which scientists and "open minded" people should believe in the resurrection and thus follow Christ. While all of this sounds reasonable, several methodological and presuppositional problems arise from the arguments make in the article.

First, the presupposition that some are "open minded." Given its view of origins, Biologos is not known for its rigorous biblical anthropology. Thus, its designation that some are open- minded enough to be swayed by good historical evidence really misses the Biblical mark. We see here the bent of these brethren: seeking to make the gospel palatable and credible to a reasonable but unbelieving mind, they have, in Bultmann-esque style, stripped the Bible of anything that might cause modern man an offense (can you say 'resurrection'?). In place is a presentation of independent, historical evidence, which will sway the open-minded. Excising the supernatural work of Father, Son and Spirit in the resurrection of Christ, they direct the reader to simply look at evidences to the resurrection, as if by independent and reasonable examination of such, one will come to saving faith. Scripture's diagnosis of man is just not that positive (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Eph. 2:1; 1 Cor. 2:14ff). That is the first problem. 

The second problem is that the authors' historical evidence, in some cases, is exceedingly weak. Said weakness is revealed in arguments from silence and conjecture. These arguments are, by no means, persuasive: "Had the body been stolen, it would have been relatively easy to locate the body but that never happened;" and "The quickest way to discredit the new Jesus movement would have been to produce physical evidence that Jesus had indeed remained dead. No one did this." The article argues that reasonable people, open-minded people will respond well to such arguments for the resurrection. I am a Christian, and speaking frankly, I don't respond well to such arguments. If those in essential agreement with the historicity of the resurrection do not think the argument sound, how much less the skeptic? Is this really reasonable evidence for reasonable people?

The third problem lies in the fact this historical evidence is derived from, and more frequently goes by a different name: Holy Scripture. The data in the article is called "historical" but it is largely derived from Scripture itself! Details concerning expectations of the Messiah, of the death process of crucifixion and of the empty tomb are all "biblical" data! Now while Scripture is historical, in the article these biblical examples are largely presented as independent sources. However, they do not come to us independent of Scripture, much less independent of God, yet they are held out as "historical" facts without any concession to or apparent realization that they are fundamentally Scriptural evidences. It doesn't take a genius to get past this rhetorical sleight of hand.  

Granted there are some arguments in the article which appear to be genuinely historical: "Virtually all historians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person in 1st Century Palestine." This is grand claim. Which historians believe this? I seriously doubt that a survey of the academy would justify this claim, but at least it is a claim independent of the authority of Scripture. It is, in fact, one of the article's rare historical claims.

Rather, the "evidence" presented in the article is Scripture itself. Why not just say so? Why not simply state, and state boldly that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is chiefly found in Scripture, which in the hands of the Holy Spirit will transform the lives of sinners?  Simply put, for Biologos to base their argument on the authority of Scripture opens them to the mockery and ridicule of a skeptical world, the very same they are trying to avoid.

This seems, rather too much, like having one's cake and eating it. One cannot, with any credibility before the believing or unbelieving world, cite Scriptural evidence for the resurrection while doing everything to avoid using concepts like the authority of Scripture . By all means we may use historical evidences to assist in our understanding of Scripture. We may use archaeology, geology, and the like to assist our interpretation of Scripture. However, Scripture, inspired by God as it is, cannot be made subject to general revelation.

Biologos, as an institution has firmly enthroned their interpretation of natural revelation over that of special revelation. This article is itself historical evidence of the subjugation of special revelation by these kinds of arguments.

I applaud Biologos's attempt to reach the lost and declare truth to them. I hope it is true that their motivations for such are honorable and God-honoring. Yet, attempts like this do not help their agenda; rather, they hinder it. In short, they, and we - the church - must do much better than this. Allowing Scripture to be Scripture, trusting what God has said He can and will do in it and through, seems to me a far better platform upon which to base our apologetics and evangelism.

A Horror of Theology


The noisy gongs of acerbic and judgmental discernment bloggers, podcasters, vloggers and conference speakers are scattered throughout our social media feeds...and they're here to stay. The uncharitableness with which such individuals speak online immediately ought to leave a bad taste in the mouth of Christ's true lambs. After all, the fruit of the Spirit in the life of believers is an inextricable constituent of doctrinal truth. No amount of insistence that one is speaking the truth in love (when, in fact, he is speaking the truth in anger) will mask the fact that he is actually speaking in loveless pride. As Jesus said, "A tree is known by its fruit." The bitter fruit of an acrimonious "truth speaker" will inevitably be the bringing forth of disciples more fractious than himself. Nevertheless, the root of the problem does not lie in a love of the truth and a desire to trumpet forth sound doctrine--it is rooted in pride and self-love.

In Scripture, God everywhere charges us to be lovers of biblical truth. The early believers "continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship" (Acts 2:42). The Apostle Paul teaches us to be lovers of truth and practicers of love when he wrote, "Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1:13). It is often, on account of a loveless defense of truth that many Christians succumb to the opposite error, namely, the embrace of the diminution of sound doctrine. One doesn't have to scroll through his or her social media feed for long to come across an influential pastor or teacher warning his followers about the dangers of an overemphasis on sound doctrine. It sounds quite pious to sophisticatedly downplay truth in order to up play love. Nothing, however, could be more fallacious and factitious. It is impossible to love the truth and to speak the truth too much or too often. In fact, where there is no truth, there is no love. Christians have been redeemed in love by the One who said, "I am the truth."

Of course, the danger of swinging from one error to another is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the fall. Though it comes in new sociological and philosophical packages, the human heart has always revolted against embracing, loving, propagating and defending the truth about God. Throughout the early decades of the 20th Century, J. Gresham Machen warned about the destructive dangers of the theological liberalism that had stealthily yet persistently crept into the church and the academy. The strength of the theological liberalism of Machen's day is that it downplayed doctrinal truth under the guise of up playing love--much as it seeks to do in our day. In his The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History, Machen wrote, 

"Many Christians today have a horror of theology; they suppose it must necessarily be a cold and lifeless thing. As a matter of fact, theology is merely thinking about God. Every Christian must think about God; every Christian to some degree must be a theologian. The only question is whether he is to be a bad theologian or a good theologian. If he contents himself with his own preconceived notions, or gives free scope to his own natural feelings, he will be a bad theologian; he will soon find himself cherishing a miserable, imperfect, unworthy conception of God which makes God a mere creature of man's fancy. If, on the other hand, he makes himself acquainted, through patient study, first with the teaching of the Bible about God, then with the mighty acts of God that the Bible records, then with the Bible's explanations about these acts, he will soon be in possession of a 'theology' which will give backbone to his who religious life. There need be nothing technical about such a theology; it may not even be called 'theology' at all; it may be expressed in language that a child can understand; but whatever it is called and however it is expressed, it is absolutely necessary for a genuine Christianity. Christianity is based, not upon the shifting sands of human feeling, but upon solid facts; and the apprehension and understanding of facts inevitably requires the use of the intellect."1

Christians today, no less than in Machen's day, desperately need to come to terms with the fact that we are all theologians--whether good ones or bad ones. While we must be zealous to guard our hearts against embracing the ethos of the vitriolic doctrinal voices around us, we must equally avoid giving ear to those who, under pretense of love and charity, have functionally encouraged "a horror of theology." As Machen rightly noted, "Every Christian must think about God; every Christian to some degree must be a theologian. The only question is whether he is to be a bad theologian or a good theologian." 

1. J. Gresham Machen The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth, 1976) pp. 374-375.

The general contours of the doctrine of Scripture are familiar. Orthodox Protestants confess that Scripture has God as its primary author and is self-authenticating, supremely authoritative, necessary for this age, clear enough to be understood by the masses, and sufficient as a rule of faith and life. The word of God is also the primary means of grace. As such, the visible church is born of the word, now written in Scripture, not the other way around.

Protestants on the Efficacy of Scripture

Lutheran and Reformed theologians differ somewhat, however, on the efficacy of Scripture. Lutherans argue that the word has an inherent power to save; Reformed critics suggest this view is a little too close to Rome's more magical notions of sacramental efficacy. Some of those same critics can also claim, however, that "Lutherans are completely correct" in at least one respect: "always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit." God's word, Bavinck continues, "is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective,...continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by that Spirit" (RD, 4.459).

So, Protestants agree on the efficacy of Scripture but disagree on how to construe its saving efficacy. By insisting God's word always operates to save, Lutherans appear to reduce the Spirit's activity to something like an impersonal power. They must then explain the apparent failure of the word to save some people by arguing that "God, working through means, can be resisted" in a way that "God, working in uncovered majesty, cannot" (Pieper, CD, 2.465). Reformed theologians, on the other hand, deny the Spirit always exerts the power of God's word to save all people indiscriminately. They instead restrict the saving power of Scripture to the elect and argue it is efficacious to this end only through the personal, particular, and irresistible work of the Spirit.

The Universal Scope of Biblical Efficacy in Reformed Theology

In their discussions of the point, Reformed theologians are primarily concerned with the efficacy of God's word as the primary means of saving grace. This does not prevent them, however, from recognizing a wider, variegated, and universal scope to the efficacy of Scripture. Consider two examples from the Dutch tradition.

First, Petrus van Mastricht, who defines the efficacy of Scripture, its "eighth property," as the "moral and instrumental...power" it has "from the Holy Spirit" to "work effectually" in the world. Scripture is therefore said to be both "able" and "active," penetrating the soul, exposing its secrets, working on the spirit, illuminating the mind, regenerating and converting the heart, kindling faith, and sanctifying, strengthening, consoling, and preserving the saints. "Indeed, people the world over sense the efficacy of the Word when they are converted by the mere preaching of the gospel." But he describes a common and non-saving efficacy of Scripture too, since "even reprobates themselves experience it when they lose their speech (Matt. 22:46), when they yield (Mark 6:20), when they fear (Mark 6:20; Acts 24:25),...and when they are hardened and blinded (Isa. 6:9-10)" bit God's word (Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1.131).

Second, Herman Bavinck, who argues that "the word of God, both as law and gospel, . . . concerns all human beings and all creatures and so has universal significance." Unlike the sacraments, therefore, which are only for the visible church, "the word of God also has a place and life outside of it and also exerts many and varied influences" (4.448-49). So, "this power of the word of God and specifically of the gospel must, with the Lutherans, be maintained in all its fullness and richness" (449). Again, the word "is always efficacious; it is never powerless" (459).

The efficacy of Scripture is not, therefore, one-dimensional. "Both Scripture and experience teach that the word does not always have the same effect." On the contrary, it has many diverse effects that can be organized into two general kinds: "If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down" (459). And so, "the word that proceeds from the mouth of God is indeed always a power accomplishing that for which God sent it forth."

This is not only true of "the gospel but also of the law." When Paul says "the letter kills" (2 Cor. 3:6), Bavinck claims, "he is saying as powerfully as he can" that the law "is not a dead letter. Instead, it is so powerful that it produces sin, wrath, a curse, and death" (458). So also, "the gospel exerts its effect" not just on the elect and unto salvation, but "even in those who are lost; to them it is a reason for their falling, an offense and foolishness, a stone over which they stumble, a fragrances from death to death (Luke 2:34; Rom. 9:32; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:8)" (458).


Of course Scripture would produce none of these effects apart from the Spirit but it never is apart from the Spirit. It is "perfectly adapted to accomplish the end of man's sanctification and salvation" but by the Spirit it "always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish." It may raise the hearer up to God or strike the reader down in the dust, but it always has its divinely intended effect and it "never returns empty" (458).

Tripping on Scripture


Humans are amazing pattern finders. We detect patterns everywhere in the world around us: contorted faces in the wood grain, mythical creatures in the clouds, phantom ailments in our aches and pains--there's no end to the patterns our vibrant and active minds discover in the world around us.

Detecting and Projecting Patterns

The curious thing is that many of those patterns are not really there, not in the things themselves in the same way that the pattern or form (in philosophical jargon) tree is in the massive pine specimen in my front yard or even the way the moonlit sky is in Van Gogh's The Starry Night. This is because the face in the wood grain and griffin in the clouds is a projection of our mind--something we impose on the raw material of reality.

The grain in the wood is certainly there and is given to the mind in all its particularity. That particularity is telling too. A dendrologist can discern not only what kind of tree it came from but how old it was, which way it faced, how many fires or hurricanes it endured, and so on. There is much for science to ponder and sort out in the wood's grain.

That same particularity, however, becomes the imagination's fertile field as our pattern-detecting minds turn to it. If the grain of the wood were not just as it is, and if the plank had not been cut and planed and erected just as it is, then our minds would never see that eerily drawn out Munchian face. The wooden plank is not an empty canvas and the face we see in the grain is both there--ready for us to see; seemingly impossible to un-see--and yet it is not really there at all. There is nothing for dendrology in that face; there is a great deal for the artistry of our pattern-projecting imaginations, however, and perhaps also for psychology's interest in this imaginative knack we have.

The Problem with Projecting

If we swap out the wood grain for the text of Scripture the exegetical problem becomes clear. Responsible exegetes and biblical theologians devote significant energy to justifying the patterns they detect in the pages of the canon. They aim to demonstrate that their interpretations are actually there in the text like the moonlit sky is in The Starry Night--as an intentional creation of its author rather than the mere projection of their active imagination on the grain of the text.

It is not enough to demonstrate the possibility of seeing this or that supposed pattern of meaning in the text. We are capable of seeing all sorts of things in a text. Just because we see it, and see it so vividly we find it nearly impossible to un-see it, does not mean it is actually there by authorial intent. It really could be nothing more than a face in the grain.

What we want to expound is just what is there to be known and understood by science, if you will.

Not Just a Postmodern Problem

This is what divides Augustinian exegesis, which aims at the divine author's intended meaning, from that family of postmodern approaches that locate meaning in the interplay between the raw material of the text and the reader's pattern-detecting and often pattern-projecting imagination. Though we can never eliminate our subjectivity in the act of reading--ought not even to try to do so if we would read the Bible as God intends--we can certainly do better than reduce Scripture to a Rorschach ink blot or muse for pious psychedelics to trip on.

But this is not just a postmodern problem; we are all inclined to project our own meaning onto the grain of the text. Augustine understood this and warns us about it:

"Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture...For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author whom he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one: and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself. And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him" (De Doctrina, 1.36-37).

Destroyed, that is, by the meaning we "put upon Scripture" that is not actually there-not there by authorial intent--however much the grain of the text might suggest it to our pattern-projecting minds. Destroyed, we might say, by loving the meaning we supply, with all its false intricacy and novel insight, more than the meaning God intends.

Dr. Bruce P. Baugus is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. He is the editor of China's Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom

Know When to Hold'em


As any poker player knows (and I am not a poker player--I tend to steer clear of competitions where the victor takes home a bracelet), the hand is over when all the cards have been dealt, all the bets have been called, the players' cards are turned over and they reveal who has won the pot.

The image of that poker moment came to mind in a discussion I once had with some church members about the role and value of ecclesial creeds for the Christian life, especially when it comes to meaningful theological exchange between two professing believers. I remembered a friend who resides in a church tradition that rejects any notion of creeds. He saw creeds as man's conscious or unconscious attempts to bend Scripture to suit his own desires. Indulging another metaphor, I assured my friend that, although the historic creeds of the church are not infallible, they provide a deep theological stream of carefully articulated doctrines that have contributed through the years to unity, health and honesty in the church. I told him he was in the current of that stream whenever he claims that God is triune, that Christ is divine, that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, or when he claims any other orthodox tenet of belief.  And I warned him that to claim "No creed but the Bible" would, itself, be creedal, but, by comparison to the historical creedal stream of the church, his would be but a shallow and muddy ditch. It would be to show only some of his cards.  It would identify the basis for what he believes, but it would not reveal what his beliefs are.

Creeds help us lay our theological cards on the table for all to see. They differentiate our hand from the hands of others around the theological table. They tell all who would look at our cards not only that our beliefs are grounded in the Bible, but that "these are the truths revealed in the Scriptures as the Word of God." They tether our confession of Scripture to the content of Scripture. They do not leave anyone wondering what we mean when we claim the Bible is God's very Word. Indeed, many through the ages, and even today, who call for creedal revisions deploy words like "inspiration" and "atonement" only to inject those words with unorthodox content. Poker, then, has an advantage over some of the theological hands being played today. In poker what the cards are and what they mean cannot be subverted.

At least two lessons are ready for the taking: First, holding to the enduring creeds that present the truths of Holy Scripture is akin to holding a royal flush. Second, should anyone entice us to abandon the historic creeds of the church, we should remember The Gambler's adage, "You've got to know when to hold'em...and when to walk away."

Rev. Dr. R. Carlton Wynne is assistant professor of systematic theology and apologetics. He has served as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, and has co-edited with Derek Thomas Zeal for Godliness: Devotional Meditations on Calvin's Institutes.

*This post is a slightly adapted version of a post originally published at Reformation21 on October 2, 2010. 

He Won't Be Silent Forever

6 years ago this week, John Piper posted, "We Know They are Killing Children--All of Us Know." 6 years later, New York has passed and celebrated a bill that would allow a mother to abort her baby up until the point that the baby was born. CBS actually posted an article with the title, "New York Passes Law Allowing Abortions Up Until the Baby's Born," only to change the title to, "New York Passes Law Allowing Abortions At Any Time If Mother's Health is at Risk." It appears that the conscience of the members of the editorial team awoke momentarily. However, instead of lamenting the hellish evil of abortion and calling for national repentance, they merely tidied up their wording. 

After passing the legislation of the slaughter of more children, New York lit up the spire of One World Trade Center to celebrate the demonic evil. At the bottom of One World Trade Center is a memorial with the names of the unborn children who lost their lives in the 9-11 attacks. This strange twist further shows that our country knows that we are slaughtering children--the most morally reprehensible act imaginable. Yet, we keep marching forward, protecting and legalizing a social evil that surpasses just about every other genocidal monstrosity in human history. It is estimated that under Stalin, 23 million men, women and children were brutally murdered, under Hitler, 17 million were tortured to death; but, under the red, white and blue, close to 60 million helpless, unborn children have been ripped apart in the womb--which, as we all know, is supposed to be the safest place for a child. 

When I was a boy, my father used to say, "Our country has got to stop slaughtering babies. It's only a matter of time before God judges this country for all the innocent blood we have shed." He said that 30 some years ago. So, Why hasn't God overthrown us yet? Why has He allowed this demonic evil to persist? 

The Scriptures teach us much about the silence of God in the face of persistent and widespread evil. In Psalm 50:21, after rebuking Israel for their wickedness, the Lord said, "These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you." As Habakkuk the prophet looked at the violence and evil in Israel, he cried out, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong" (Hab. 1:2). God responded by reminding Habakkuk of the judgment he was about to bring, 

"Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own" (Hab. 1:5-6). 

If there is one thing that we learn in Scripture it is that the Lord will not stay silent forever. God will rise up against any nation that practices the wickedness that we have practiced in America. No veneer of moral rectitude will stay the hand of the infinitely holy Judge of all the earth. While God seems to have remained silent in exercising judgment, He has not remained silent in Scripture. Whatever judgment He withholds and whatever judgement He will send, Scripture teaches us that we are meant to turn from the evil of our ways and trust in Him for the mercy and grace that He offers in Christ. 

In 2 Peter 3:9, Peter took up the question about the ultimate silence of God. Why has God delayed His return to consummate His purpose in human history, exercising eternal judgment on the ungodly and bestowing eternal salvation on those He redeemed in Christ? Simply put, He is giving men and women, boys and girls time to repent of the evil of their ways. Peter wrote, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." So the proper response to the silence of God in judgment is to rend our hearts before Him over the wickedness of our personal sin and over the sin of our nation. We should cry out to Him to overthrow this Satanic evil; and, we should cry out to him to grant repentance to our nation. If we don't, it won't be long. Scripture and history both bear witness to the fact that He won't be silent forever. 

Let's Make Wisdom Great Again


Fake news. Social media outrage. Political polarization. Ideological bullying. These are just a few of the centralizing characteristics of our current social climate in the US. It should not surprise us, then, that our collective cultural head is spinning as we simultaneously attempt to hold together a persistent insistence on ideological tolerance and a call for radical justice outrage. One of the clearest examples of this problematic yet ever increasing norm in our society came last week when a group of Roman Catholic High School students--who happened to be on a pro-life trip--became the objects of social bullying and bigotry--and, all under the faulty lens of social media manipulation and slander. There has never been a more opportune time for Christians to reflect on the significance of the truths of the Proverbs than there is at present. In fact, it is long overdue for us to learn how to handle ourselves with wisdom and prudence with regard to that to which we listen and respond--especially when it comes to what is streaming across our televisions, computers and phones.

The acerbic reaction and irreparable harm resulting from the Covington High School fiasco is an example of our dire need to learn to put the Proverbs into practice. The wisest man who ever lived--our Lord Jesus excepted--gave us the following wisdom principles from Proverbs: "The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps" (Prov. 14:15); and, "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him" (Prov. 18:17). While these truths ought to strike us as self-evident, our failure to implement them on so many levels proves why God breathed them out to us in His word. How could the Covington debacle have played out, if there were wise men and women in the mainstream media and on our social media platforms?

A blogger from outside the US propagated false information on a fake twitter account by means of a selective video clip and a punchy tagline full of caustic rhetoric. On account of the ease and speed with which one can do such things in our technological society, we have all the more reason to pause when we first hear any such controversial accounts and remind ourselves of the following questions:

  • Do we have all the facts?

This is, of course, the starting point to wise reaction to such stories. If I was not there, did not see the entire event unfold, have not read court documentation and do not have a double portion of the spirit of Elisha (2 Kings 6:12), then I probably should not be speaking about an issue. It doesn't matter how much i may have convinced myself of the depravity level of people who wear MAGA hats, it is foolish for us to speak without all the facts. Will we ever learn this wisdom principle?

  • Have both sides had opportunity to speak?

Related to the first wisdom principle is a second. In order to have all the facts, we must let both parties speak. Until Nick Sandmann pled his cause before the court of public opinion (the worst court in which to be tried), he was already convicted, judged and tried by the social media jury. Why not rather wait to respond to anything that we hear online until we allow differing parties to speak? What folly to rush to weigh in on matters that do not directly impact us, nor involve our personal witness in any way whatsoever. There are abundant reasons why God's word sets out the evil and harm of slander. It is for our own good. Would we want to be on the receiving end of malicious misrepresentation on a global scale? The reputations of the boys from Covington High School may never fully be repaired in light of what one Brazilian blogger did from the comfort of his living room under a deceitful pseudonym on a social media account. Multitudes contributed to the smearing of these boys' reputations by receiving the story without hearing the parties involved.

  • Is this a matter in which I must invest time or emotional capital?

This is the third wisdom principle that we must seek to apply. Does God require me to speak to each and every issue that springs up online. There is an account in the Gospel of Luke, in which some people had come to Jesus about a matter of social outrage (Luke 13:1-2). Pilate had mingled the blood of some Galileans with pig blood--a scandal of epic proportions among the members of the Old Covenant theocracy. Instead of speaking to that matter, Jesus appealed to two other accounts of injustice and then called everyone present to repent of their own sins. Jesus did not give in to every whim and fancy of the time. He was not lead by this news story or that news story. Instead, he was lead by a zeal to speak the greater truths of God to those around him. This serves as a model of that into which we should be seeking to invest our time and energy.

  • Have I been motivated by a desire to glorify God in my response? Or, am I simply jumping on a bandwagon of outrage because it seems like the thing to do?

This is a wisdom principle that only I can personally answer. Others may speculate as to what my motives are in speaking to any public news story. However, God calls us to examine ourselves and to know why we are speaking on whatever subject we may speak. As Jesus said, "for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36). This means that I must always pause and ask myself, "What is motivating my speech on a particular subject." Just because I believe that Donald Trump embodies every ungodly principle in Scripture doesn't mean that I should speak in emotional reaction to some news story about anyone wearing a MAGA hat. It may be that I am simply reacting to my feelings and emotions, rather than acting on principle and on a desire to bring God glory in my speech and writing. This also is not wise (Prov. 29:11). It takes time to examine our own motives. It takes wisdom to do so as well. This should, at the very least, slow us down as we seek to know how to respond--or whether we even should respond to some particular story of social outrage.

  • Am I truly seeking to better the society in which I live if I engage in lightening fast visceral reactions to each and every politically polarizing social media story that streams across my computer?

The final wisdom principle we ought to be seeking to implement in regard to our social media engagement is that concerning our commitment to build up those around us. Are we encouraging the fruit of the Spirit in our conversations? Are we building others up by pointing them to Christ and helping them grow into loving, joyful, peaceable, gentle, good, faithful and self-controlled men and women? If what we write or say is merely reflecting our own cynicism, sarcasm or disdain for others, we are simply passing that example along to those who read what we right and listen to what we say. This will not be long lived in a society that feeds on division and scandal. As David Brooks has noted, "It's hard to believe that people are going to continue forever on platforms where they are so cruel to one another. It's hard to believe that people are going to be content, year after year, to distort their own personalities in service to a platform, making themselves humorless, semi-blind, joyless and grim."

While we could ask a dozen other biblically formed questions to help guide us in the process of knowing how or whether we should respond to what we hear online on a daily basis, these principles should serve as a starting point for us to use social media in a more God-honoring way. The glory of God, the reputation of others, divine principles of justice and the good of society are on the line. That little snarky tweet in response to news coverage about a group of high school student in MAGA hats may have made your friends laugh and garnered you a few more followers, but it probably also aided in smearing the reputation of these young men--now putting them and their families in the threat of physical danger. Instead of getting outraged by MAGA hats, let's commit to making wisdom great again. We can start to do so by asking God for grace to put in practice the great wisdom principle of the Savior, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Singing from Mary's Sheet


"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever." (Luke 1: 46-55)

This familiar Christmas passage is often called Mary's Song or the Magnificat which is Latin for magnify. Mary sings this song in response to Elizabeth's exclamation of blessing to her when she arrived for a visit and when John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth's womb, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Mary sang this song to magnify or to extol God. When we magnify something, we make it bigger, so we can better see it. Like a magnifying glass. Or when someone is put up on the jumbotron at a ball game, so everyone can see their silly dance. In the case of this song, Mary is narrowing in on the greatness of God. She is filled with wonder at what God is doing and can't help but bubble over into praise.

What makes this song all the more remarkable is the challenges and trials she likely went through before her visit to Elizabeth. She had probably been ostracized by many in her community. We don't know how her family responded, but they had every legal right to reject her, or worse. We know from the book of Matthew that Joseph wanted to divorce her after he heard the news of her conception. We should also remember where Israel is in her history. Since the exile, they have not had a king on the throne. The prophets have been silent since Malachi. Romans rule the world and their land. So in many ways, it's a dark time, for Mary and for her people. Yet as we see, she sings a song filled with wonder and thanksgiving.

Magnifying the Lord in Thanksgiving

In her song, Mary shows us how to give thanks to the Lord. And we can learn a few things from her for our own songs of praise.

We praise God by rehearsing Scripture: Throughout her song, Mary references directly or indirectly many psalms and other Old Testament passages. One obvious one is Hannah's prayer from 1 Samuel. The first verse of her song mirrors Psalm 103:1 where the psalmist wrote, "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!" As an Israelite, Mary was steeped in Scripture; she knew God's word. And having sung the psalms in worship, she knew how to sing praises to the Lord. Singing praises to God for who he is and what he has done was natural to her and this song is spontaneous praise. She is overwhelmed by the goodness of God to her and ultimately to her people. Mary faced a significant turning point in her life. A huge event just happened. An event that was a mixture of both trial and hope. She learned that she would bear the Messiah, but that blessing also brought about difficulty and challenges for her and her family. She processed and prayed and praised by rehearsing what she knew from God's Word. Mary shows us how to respond to all the events in our life: whether momentous or hard, whether joyous or painful, by focusing on who God is and what he has done.

We praise God for who he is: Throughout her song, she weaves in and references God's character: he is her Savior, he is holy, he is merciful, he is mighty and strong. In our own praises to God, we need to tell of who God is, his character, his goodness, and faithfulness. We need to tell of his grace and mercy. On this side of the cross, we see all of these character traits Mary mentions on full display. He is our savior: he saved us through the death of his son on the cross for our sins. He is holy: his holiness requires payment for sin, a payment we could not pay, but Jesus Christ paid it for us. He is merciful: through Christ, we have not received what we deserve--death for our sins. He is mighty and strong: the grave could not hold our Savior, he conquered sin and death and rose in victory to sit at the right hand of God.

We praise God for what he has done: Mary praises God for two things in this song: what he has done for her and what he has done for Israel. She praises him for his grace to her in seeing her humble estate and gifting her with the promised Messiah. She praises him for remembering his promises to her people and to the promise he made to Abraham when he promised that all the world would be blessed through him. On this side of the cross, we praise God for what he has done in our own lives in choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world, in bringing us from death to life, in forgiving us of our sins, in giving us the gift of the Spirit, and in working in us to make us more like Christ. We praise him for meeting our daily needs and for keeping and sustaining us. We also praise him for what he is doing in the church, locally and around the world. We praise him for creating the church, for purchasing her with his blood and washing her clean. We praise him for his faithfulness, to fulfill the promise to Abraham by grafting us into the tree by faith.

We learn from Mary's song to turn our eyes and look upon God in his goodness and faithfulness, whatever the circumstances going on around us, and to sing his praises with awe and wonder. Mary did not yet know exactly how God would use her child to bring salvation. She knew the promises from the Old Testament. She knew he would bring redemption. But she didn't know the details. On this side of redemptive history, how much more should we rejoice and sing praises to God! How much more should we magnify our Savior for who he is and what he has done!

Mary's story of hardship mixed with wonder and anticipation is our own story as well. We all live with the hardships and trials of life in a fallen world. But we are not without hope. We have the fulfillment and the fruit of the promise given to Abraham and incarnated in Mary's womb. We have the gift of Jesus. We have hope forever. We have new life, peace with God, and a Savior who lives and reigns to intercede for us. So, as we spend this Advent season dwelling on the incarnation and gift of Jesus, even as we may struggle with our own personal trials and heartaches, like Mary, let us turn and marvel with wonder at who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.


Christina Fox writes for a number of Christian ministries and publications including Revive Our Hearts, Desiring God and Ligonier Ministries. She is the content editor for enCourage and the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope Through the Psalms of Lament  , Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ Helps Friendships to Flourish and Idols of a Mother's Heart. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two boys. You can find her at, @christinarfox and on Facebook.

Hit You in the Feels?


Not so long ago, a bit of internet clickbait urged me to view a slideshow of gay marriage proposals guaranteed to 'hit you in the feels' (or something akin to that). That such an appeal could be made at all testifies to the pagan decadence of American culture. But it underlined for me that the persuasiveness of the new sexual revolution has not been in reason or some new enlightenment, as its advocates would have us believe, but in 'feels.' The cultural shift of recent years represents the triumph of emotionalism over reason, of sloganeering over critical thinking, and of self-aggrandizement over wisdom. Hijacking the civil rights narrative, the advocates of change have declared themselves heroes, and prophesied that those who do not join the revolution will suffer the ire of history books to come.

Most problematic is that any number of Christians have been, to greater and lesser degrees, swept along by the emotional and aesthetic persuasive appeals of this revolution. The world has painted wickedness with a rainbow of bright color, and Christians have been moved to agree that it is beautiful. Every now and again we read that another pastor or Christian celebrity has gotten 'woke' and now considers a (growing) selection of sins holy. Christian institutions and denominations turn from Christ to culture. Nor is it only the mainline who fall in line; while the UCC surrendered as a matter of course (surrendered? Perhaps it would be better to say, 'led the charge'), and few will be surprised when the CBF gives in, the Revoice Conference was held at a PCA church. What we see in these situations is not merely the corruption of the broader culture, where emotionalism has overthrown reason; it is something much worse, emotionalism usurping the authority of revelation. I would like to suggest three stages in Christian surrender to pagan culture.

The first and subtlest form of this revolution against revelation is the willingness to be guided by culture and embrace unlikely and idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture that accommodate what one wishes to believe. Christians hear a traditional interpretation challenged by some ostensibly respectable pastor or scholar, who declares that new insight renders the passage irrelevant to the specifics of our context: 'Paul is not talking about homosexuality as we know it,' etc. Lacking the skills to investigate this novel interpretation, or simply because they desire it to be true, they accept it with a sense of palpable relief that Scripture did not contradict the world after all. In such cases it is still possible that careful and patient exegesis will turn the wanderer back when they see the accommodation they hoped for is not tenable; Scripture remains, at least in principle, their ultimate authority.

Next in line is an unresolved tension between the Word and the world. These Christians know, on the one hand, that the biblical sexual ethic is quite clear; on the other hand, their aesthetics and feelings have been affected by the sustained campaign for moral revolution. They feel caught in between, not wanting to reject the teaching of Scripture, but not understanding why something that seems to them perfectly good should be called abominably bad in the Bible. In this tension, the key question is whether they will default to biblical fidelity, even doubting the goodness of God's command (which is bad indeed), or default to the world's standards that snuck in by way of feels (which is worse).

The final and radical form of surrender to secularism is the dominant position of the religious left, a conscious rejection of biblical teaching when it goes against the culture's moral trends. There may be advocacy of implausible interpretations, there may be equivocation or struggle with some lingering respect for Scripture, but in the end biblical authority has been basically jettisoned. The human aspect of biblical authorship is highlighted and the divine authorship diminished. Jesus or the Holy Spirit may be pitted against the Bible. Paul may be cast as an innovative builder onto the Lord's simple teachings. Christians who hold to biblical authority can be accused of hermeneutical naiveté or even bibliolatry, ridiculed for replacing God with a book, surrendering themselves to the false magisterium of a 'paper pope.' At the bottom of all these slanders, secular culture has displaced Scripture as the true authority.

The first of these three stages in the revolution is only indirectly an attack upon Scripture's authority; it is only a predisposition to find the Word supportive of, rather than critical of, the world. The third stage has lost biblical authority all but in name, and could only apply to the far leftward fringe of those who call themselves evangelicals. But the second stage is a very present danger in evangelical Christianity, where sensitive souls are swept from the anchor of God's Word, and churches fall into step with the world.

How should the church prepare to face the world? How do we protect ourselves from being swept away by the aesthetics of a pagan culture? It would surely help to cultivate a Spiritual aesthetic and a sense of true beauty that will aid us to see things for what they are. But the more basic and fundamental response must be to denounce the revolution against revelation. The dike against this flood is that churches must firmly and deliberately maintain the authority of Scripture.

No Christian should doubt that the Bible is utterly authoritative over his life and doctrine. The authority of Scripture is an inescapable implication of divine inspiration. If the Bible has not only numerous human authors but a single underlying divine Author, if these are God's words, then the words of Scripture carry the authority of Scripture's God. God is absolutely authoritative. What He communicates is true, what He commands is obligatory. The good and proper response of a creature to the words of the Creator is "Yes, Lord." If this is so for all creatures indiscriminately, how much more so for the creatures re-created, the redeemed!

This shows the fallacy of all attempts to characterize those who hold to biblical authority as putting the Scriptures above the Spirit or worshipping a book in place of the living God. There is no replacement of God with the Bible in a high view of Scripture, only a proper reverence for the words of the Lord. God breathed these words (2 Tim. 3:16). The Holy Spirit inspired the authors of holy Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21). The Word of God bears witness to God the Word (Lk. 24:27). Submission to what God has said is submission to God. Anyone who worries that reverence and obedience to the Bible somehow dishonors the Bible's Lord should consult Psalm 119 and see the attitude displayed there to divine teaching. Accusations of bibliolatry are usually nothing more than a smoke screen, an effort to turn the tables by those who have put themselves above God's authority revealed in His Word.

The destructive effect of turning aside from God's Word is nowhere more powerfully shown than in Genesis 3. The Fall is a unique event, but it is also paradigmatic for all sin. The very heart of sin is disobedience to God, and that involves a denial (practically, at least) of the authority of what God has said. Sin says, 'listen to your heart,' and it gives the appeal--'once more, with feels!' Righteousness says, "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Ps. 119:11).

How did the crafty serpent do his work? First he questioned and distorted God's command, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Gen. 3:1). When Eve corrected him, pointing out that it was only the one tree which was forbidden (vv.2-3), he proceeded to directly challenge the truthfulness of God's word, "You will not certainly die" (v.4), and then to challenge the goodness of God, "For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (v.5).

There was, of course, truth mixed in with falsehood. They did gain knowledge of good and evil, and in that sense become more like God; but in a more important sense they became much less like God, for in coming to know good from evil they passed from good to evil. God's command meant life, and turning from it they found death. Challenging God's commands, challenging His truthfulness and goodness, the serpent turned them from the way of blessing. This is how temptation works.

Genesis 3 is so instructive because it presents sin in its raw and unadorned form, the basic act of disobedience. There is nothing violent or perverse about eating a piece of fruit. God gave no reason why it would be wrong to eat it; He told them not to, and He warned them about the consequences. We may speculate about reasons behind God's command, but the narrative itself only offers this: it was wrong to eat because God told them not to eat. And that is quite enough.

Nor do we have evidence that God spoke this command frequently or in detail. Sometimes challenges to a biblical imperative include mention that the command or topic is only found in a few places in the Bible--as though there were a magic number of times God must repeat something before it becomes obligatory! On the contrary, God need only say something once, and it is utterly authoritative. It is kind of Him to repeat so many of His teachings, it helps them penetrate our thick skulls and stony hearts, but repetition is not a necessary criterion in order for His words to require our obedience.

God has spoken, and what God has spoken is authoritative; His Word is the necessary and decisive element in Christian theological and moral reasoning. It doesn't matter if He has spoken only once about something; once is enough. It doesn't matter if He hasn't explained why He commands something; the fact that He commands it is enough. Scripture is God's Word and bears His authority. As God's Word, it has the last word and trumps the world's word.

It is a tragedy that biblical authority is so lightly cast aside, and that this doctrine needs to be defended as if it were burdensome. It is a sign of how badly our values have been disordered, for the gift of Scripture ought to inspire a most joyful and exuberant obedience from those who love the Lord. God has spoken! This is a wonderful, beautiful truth. When we struggle against the authority of God's Word we struggle against the blessed promise of fellowship with our Maker and Redeemer. The world's approval, which tempts us to turn aside from faithfulness to the Lord, offers nothing worth having. But God's approval is treasure indeed; and He has said:

"These are the ones I look on with favor:

those who are humble and contrite in spirit,

and who tremble at my word."

(Isa. 66:2)

Josh Steely is the pastor of Pontoon Baptist Church in Pontoon Beach, IL. Josh received his BA from Wheaton College and his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 3, Justice


[Editorial Note: This is the third post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]

Article 3: Justice

WE AFFIRM that since he is holy, righteous, and just, God requires those who bear his image to live justly in the world. This includes showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due. We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.

WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.

Justice is, of course, a major theme in Scripture. In fact, it's a much larger concept--and more central to the Gospel--than most people realize. In both Hebrew and Greek, the words translated "justice" and "just" are the same words normally translated "righteousness" and "righteous." No distinction is made in the original text of Scripture. The biblical idea of justice encompasses everything the Bible says about righteousness.

In English, when we use the word justice, we normally have in mind evenhanded impartiality (especially in the realm of law and civic affairs). The dictionary defines justice as "maintenance of legal, social, or moral principles by the exercise of authority or power--including the assignment of deserved reward or punishment."

Righteousness denotes virtue, uprightness, moral rectitude--godly character.

Because we differentiate between the words and use them differently, we tend to think of justice predominantly as a legal standard or civic paradigm, and righteousness as something more personal. Again, Scripture makes no such distinction. In the Bible, justice and righteousness are the same thing, encompassing all the legitimate connotations of both words.

How comprehensive is this idea? God Himself is the embodiment and the touchstone of true righteousness. The moral principles spelled out in His law describe what human righteousness looks like. In fact, when Moses delivered the tablets of stone from Sinai to the people, he said, "It will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us" (Deut. 6:25). Jesus exposed the rigors of this standard even more clearly when He said, "You ...must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).

But now you are talking about the law, you might protest. How can you say it's central to the gospel? Aren't you the guy who scolded preachers of social justice for mingling or confusing law and gospel?" Excellent question, and it requires a two-part answer.

First, justice is a vital gospel issue because the atoning work of Christ turned divine justice in favor of sinners who trust Him as Savior. "For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Having fulfilled the whole law to absolute perfection, Jesus (who "knew no sin" by experience) bore the sins of others (by imputation). Those sins were accounted as if they were His, and He fully paid the due penalty, so that His own perfect righteousness could be imputed to His people. The law has thus been perfectly fulfilled and sin fully punished in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. So God can "be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins . . . We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 Jn. 1:9--2:1).

Second, "social justice" is entirely different from biblical justice. It is a severely abridged and often badly twisted notion of legal equity--dealing mainly with matters like economics, social privilege, and civil rights. In recent years, a plethora of politically correct causes have been added to the menu, including global warming, animal rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, gender fluidity, war, immigration, socialism, and a cornucopia of similar issues borrowed from the political left.

Historically, social justice advocates have not concerned themselves much if at all with other vital aspects of biblical justice, including the moral content of the law (particularly biblical standards of sexual purity); condign punishment for evildoers (Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:4; Matt. 26:52); and the duty and privilege of work (2 Thess. 3:10).

To be clear, there is no single authoritative definition of "social justice." Definitions abound from those who are promoting the terminology. But there are common themes that run through virtually all of them. Here are a couple of typical samples: "Social justice is a political and philosophical concept which holds that all people should have equal access to wealth, health, well-being, justice and opportunity." And "Social justice is the equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society."

Those familiar with neo-Marxist rhetoric will recognize the themes. Indeed, the derivation and connotations of the expression "social justice" are rooted in secular political and academic dialogues rather than in biblical ideas about divine justice. The rhetoric of social justice has gradually migrated from the radical far left by a dialectical process. Early in that process, the language was baptized and the worldview was given a religious veneer replete with a name: Liberation Theology. The same language and rhetoric were brought into evangelical circles through groups like Sojourners and the Emerging Church movement. Then it was disbursed through student groups like InterVarsity. And most recently it has found its way into more conservative organizations like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, and it seems to have been accepted by large numbers of evangelicals with great enthusiasm.

Despite the claims of its proponents, however, the popular notion of "social justice" was not derived from Scripture. It actually began among people well known for their hostility to biblical authority--and the pedigree is not at all difficult to trace.

The dangers of this world-view's influence are not really hard to see, either. Read the chatter in social media and you'll regularly encounter young fair-weather evangelicals who say they have abandoned (or are in the process of abandoning) their evangelical convictions now that they are "woke." Even some of the respected evangelical leaders who have lately become enthralled with "social justice" seem to have fallen silent on the issue of abortion--an easily quantifiable injustice that is responsible for the deaths of more disadvantaged and defenseless children each day than all the unjust police shootings of the past fifty years combined.

When the Statement on Social Justice denies "that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture," it is referring to this fact: "Social justice" is not biblical justice.

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 1, Scripture


[Editorial Note: At Reformation21, we aim to offer a confessional Reformed perspective on contemporary issues. Many times contemporary issues are also controversial. We have never shied away from controversy. Controversial issues are sometimes also complex. We believe that in the case of things that are complex and controversial, we need to be even more careful that we are listening well and exercising biblical discernment. As the Bible instructs us: "Know this, my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:20).

Our friends at Founders Ministries have recently been involved in helping to produce "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel." It has caused quite a stir. It is a controversial statement on a complex issue. Some have said that the Statement is too broad and vague in its criticism. So we want to give the authors of the Statement a chance to elaborate further. Others have charged its writers with effectively implying that caring for the poor and caring about injustice should not matter to Christians (though the actual language of the Statement suggests otherwise). We believe the authors deserve a chance to explain what they were saying and what they intended.

The Statement on Social Justice was not produced by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Some of its defenders have close ties to the Alliance, while others have convictions that lie outside of the boundaries of the confessions to which we subscribe. While we are not officially endorsing the Statement, we certainly do believe its authors ought to be able to speak for themselves on these timely and important matters. We are mindful of the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17: "The one who states his case first seems right until the other comes and examines him." So we invite you to come and examine these important issues. And our prayer is that all of us can conduct this examination in a spirit of discernment, wisdom, and brotherly love.

Jonathan Master, 

Editorial Director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals]


Article 1--Scripture

WE AFFIRM that the Bible is God's Word, breathed out by him. It is inerrant, infallible, and the final authority for determining what is true (what we must believe) and what is right (how we must live). All truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by God's final Word, which is Scripture alone.

WE DENY that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority, and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture.

The first article in the "Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" addresses the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. This is highly appropriate for a document that that has been issued in order to defend and affirm the gospel of Jesus Christ. How do we know what that gospel is? To what source do those who profess that gospel look for their marching orders? The answer is Scripture and Scripture alone.

The classic passage in the Bible about its nature and authority is 2 Timothy 3:16-17. "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."

If the Bible is truly our final authority then other philosophies cannot be. This does not mean that there is nothing useful or true in such philosophies, but that we are only to accept what is found in them that corresponds to reality as revealed in Scripture. Biology, sociology, psychology, as well as other disciplines, can provide helpful descriptions of reality. Their claims, however, must all be evaluated in the light of Scripture.

This is precisely what God's people are required to do.

And when they say to you, "Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter," should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (Isaiah 8:19-20, my emphasis).

If the chirpings and mutterings that derive from various aspects of intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory do not accord with God's written Word, then we are to dismiss them as having no light in them. The Apostle Paul applied this prophetic assessment when he wrote, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).

The whole "Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" is an attempt to take Paul's admonition to heart and clarify key doctrines that are in danger of being undermined by worldly philosophies. These philosophies, if left unchecked, will undermine the gospel of Christ and lead people away from Him.

The statement asserts that "all truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by God's final Word, which is Scripture alone." Since Scripture is breathed out by God (θεόπνευστος), it is inerrant and, therefore, authoritative. What it teaches, we are obligated to believe. Where it leads, we are obligated to follow. When anyone tries to influence our faith or conduct, as believers we must evaluate what is being said by the Bible. If what is being taught is not explicitly stated or inferentially contained in the Holy Scriptures then Christians are not to be bound by it as if it comes from God.

What this practically means is that every time we accept teaching that tells us what we "must," "ought" or "should" believe or do as Christians it is because such teaching derives from God's Word.

The most faithful, helpful Christian leaders and teachers, then, are those who most clearly understand and simply teach what God has revealed in the Bible. A person's background or experience may provide peculiar opportunities for understanding Scripture in more personal or practical ways, but it is only competency in handling the Word of God that makes such a person a trustworthy spiritual guide.

Spiritual people--those who have been born of God's Spirit and are trusting Jesus Christ as Lord--want to grow in His grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). This is both a privilege and a responsibility and is what leads us on to spiritual maturity. Such maturity, far more than one's race, sex or life experiences, is what qualifies a believer to be helpful to others in knowing and following Christ.

Ours is a day when authority is perhaps the most crucial issue confronting us. We are like the servants in Jesus' parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11-27). Instead of carrying out his business as we await his return, too often our attitude says, "We do not want this man to reign over us" (14). Yet, Christ is our only King. Because of that, his Word is our final authority.

In Romans 12:2 Paul gives us the following straightforward command: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." The only way for us to obey this admonition and to avoid allowing ourselves to be pressed into the world's ways of thinking, feeling, and aspiring is by the continual training and renewing of our minds. We must keep growing in our understanding and application of Scripture. We must learn it, believe it, and submit our lives to it.

Only by such commitment to God's Word will Christians be able to distinguish between truth and error and avoid being led astray by false teaching that creeps into our churches.

Tom Ascol is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL and the Executive Director of Founders Ministries

It's Not About Kaepernick


To mark the 30th anniversary of its groundbreaking 'Just Do It' ad campaign, the Nike corporation recently announced a new campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, unarguably one of the most polarizing figures in America today, with the slogan: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

At first glance, the exhortation by the Oregon-based corporate behemoth seems rather harmless and innocuous. In fact, give it a quick perusal while you're busy making dinner, paying bills online, or toying around with your favorite smartphone app and the entreaty comes across as downright positive, affirming, and motivating. After all, we all believe in something, don't we? Who of us wants to be viewed as merely coasting through life with no sense of conviction or creed to help us navigate a world that all too often proves itself to be morally and ethically rudderless?

Notwithstanding the aesthetic significance of this advertising shibboleth as a successful marketing ploy or motivational axiom, what I find most concerning is the fundamental question the statement inherently begets. That is, should believing in "something," regardless of its veracity or legitimacy, be considered a virtue in and of itself (as Nike® seems to think)?

In Scripture, the word 'believe' first appears in Gen. 45:26. It is the Hebrew verb 'aman and denotes having a firm and settled assurance in that which has been established as objectively true. During His first trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus declared, "I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice (Jn. 18:37)", to which Pilate retorted, "What is truth (Jn. 18:38)?"


What is truth?

Throughout Scripture, the concept of belief is always presented within the paradigm of placing one's faith in something or someone against the backdrop of that which is objectively true (e.g. 1 Jn. 4:1).

Belief is not an abstract notion that embraces the open-ended idea that the principles and precepts in which we place our faith should be of no consideration with regard to fidelity or trustworthiness. In other words, if we are to believe in something, that "something" in which we believe should definitively convey truth.

The 15th century German reformer, Martin Luther, once said, "Every man must do two things alone: he must do his own believing and his own dying."

Luther is right.

But what makes Luther's truism so profound is that it is because each of us must do our own dying that what we believe is so eternally crucial. Which is exactly why the Nike® declarative must not get a pass. For the question must be asked and answered: why should I believe in something and why can't that something in which I believe be anything I choose?

Additionally, the 19th Century Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge once wrote, "No one truth is rightly held till it is clearly conceived and stated, and no single truth is adequately comprehended till it is viewed in harmonious relations to all the other truths of the system of which Christ is the center."

If you think the new Nike® campaign slogan is about Colin Kaepernick, I humbly ask that you think again.

Belief has consequences, both in this life and in the next (Gen. 2:17, 3:1-24, 3:36; Rom. 6:23; Gal. 6:7-8). So, if you're going to be believe in something, it should be what is true, not what is emotionally or egocentrically ambiguous or opaque. For as the Spin Doctors cautioned in the chorus of their 1996 release You've Got To Believe In Something:

You've got to believe in something,
It's a lonely universe.
Be careful what you wish for,
'Cause your improvement might be worse.

How One Book Changed My Life


Books are marvelously powerful. Thomas Aquinas is said to have feared the "man of one book," and no wonder: a great book has great power to transform the soul. And in my own life, the recently translated prolegomena volume of Petrus van Mastricht's late seventeeth-century Theoretical-Practical Theology has been such a book. I assisted with the editing, so I have carefully read and re-read this volume, as well as the next on the doctrine of God. And though I cannot claim that it has yet made me a man Aquinas would fear, I cannot deny that it has shaped me for the good.

There are three particular aspects of Mastricht's work that changed me, and my hope in describing them in these articles is that others might read the book and be similarly transformed. In this first part I will discuss his submission to the Word of God, in part two, his thinking about reason and theology, and in part three, his definition of theology as "the doctrine of living for God through Christ."

Mastricht models submission to the Word.

Jonathan Edwards called this book the best ever written after the Bible, and surely one reason is that it is thoroughly biblical. Consider, for example, the order of Mastricht's chapters: each begins with an "Exegetical Part," which carefully examines a particular text of Scripture in order to lay the foundation for the Dogmatic, Elenctic, and Practical Parts to follow. The very structure of his work shows that theology is rooted and grounded in the Word of God.

The same is shown in Mastricht's citations from Scripture, which are copious and carefully chosen to prove his theological points. Indeed, this is a book to be read with an open Bible. Moreover, he also makes abundant use of Scriptural language in quotation and paraphrase, especially in each Practical Part, where he marshals passage after passage to stir up his students to apply the truth that they have learned. Consider this excerpt (p. 111) in which he exhorts his readers with motivations to live for God:

(1) Because we are the children of the living God, should we not live also, and live for him, and for his glory, and by his precepts, since he is our Father (Mal. 1:6)? (2) We are members of Christ, united with him who lives in his people (Gal. 2:20). Will we not live in him? How can we be dead men in union with the living one? (3) We have in Christ the Spirit of life (Rom. 8:14). Should we therefore lie down like the dead? (4) We are, if true Christians, living members, living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5), trained in a living faith (James 2:17, 26). By this faith, then, should we not live? ... (5) We have God, who lives and gives life (Rom. 9:26; 1 Thess. 1:9). We have the Father, who grants life to us (Gen. 2:7), and that spiritual and immortal; the Son, who by his death acquired and restored life to us (Eph. 2:5); the Holy Spirit, who by regeneration confers the seeds of spiritual life (John 3:5-6), and that by a living seed (1 Peter 1:23). And why did the triune God do all these things, except that we might live for him, that we might render our life to him?

It is hard to read such sections and not be moved by the power of God's Word, and impressed by this teacher in whom that power was clearly at work. Mastricht's model in this way convicted and encouraged me, that I would be more faithful to demonstrate such submission to the Word in my own life and teaching.

Mastricht teaches submission to the Word.

It should be no surprise, then, that what Mastricht modeled he also he taught, that the Scriptures are the "perfect rule of living for God" (117). He begins his chapter on Scripture in the Exegetical Part (113-117) by explaining 2 Timothy 3:16-17, that all Scripture is divinely inspired, and given for the end "that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." In the Dogmatic Part (117-131) he explains this teaching in great depth, discussing among other things the properties of Scripture: its authority, truth, integrity, sanctity, perspicuity, perfection, necessity, and efficacy. In the Elenctic Part (131-181) he thoroughly defends the truth and divine authority of Scripture, and addresses at length the claims of Scripture's opponents, one after the other: Muslims, Jews, Socinians and Anabaptists, and Papists. And with these truths exposited, explained, and defended, in the Practical Part (182-201) he directs them in all their weight and power to the believer's heart and life. His ten applications include defending the Word, loving it, studying it, meditating on it, discussing it with others, and practicing it in our lives.

After reading his chapter on Scripture I was more convinced than ever that the Bible is God's perfect Word, and the perfect rule for living for God. And I was more convicted than ever that I must live in submission to the Word of God, and also that like Mastricht, as a minister I must teach that submission to God's people. Motivated by this chapter I recently preached 2 Timothy 3:16-17, explaining to the people that just as the Bible is the perfect rule for the minister of God, so it is for all men and women of God. And I exhorted them, as Mastricht exhorted me, to use the Bible for the end that God intended: that through Christ, they might live for him.

In the subsequent posts in this short series, we will consider the place of reason and the role of Christ in Mastricht's theological exposition.

Michael Spangler is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and assists with the editing of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. He lives with his wife and children in Greensboro, NC. 

Content to Know Enough

When addressing the subject of the inerrancy of Scripture in light of difficulties with which we are confronted in Scripture, E.J. Young would teach his students the following truth: "The believer," he said "will labor to reconcile seemingly contradictory details we encounter in various portions of Scripture. The unbeliever automatically insists that they are errors." Young suggested that we must labor to come to a settled position on attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions in Scripture; however, if while doing so, we find that we cannot come to an absolutely certain conclusion about how to reconcile those seeming contradictions, we should rest content in the fact that we know there is a solution though we have not been able to reach it. In short, we need to labor to know God's word as accurately as possible; but, in the end, we need to rest content that we will never know it exhaustively. Young developed this classroom advice in his important work on inerrancy, Thy Word is Truth, where he wrote:

"There are good Christian people who would like to believe in the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, yet who hesitate because they are convinced that there are mistakes in the Scripture. With such people we have great sympathy. In serious Bible study one often encounters difficulties, and the solution of these difficulties is not always readily apparent. Foolish indeed is the man who thinks that he has the answer to every problem in the Bible...If, however, it is rash to profess to solve all of the problems which the study of the Bible brings upon us, it is yet more rash to make the dogmatic assertion that there are actual errors in the Bible."1

After considering a few of the more significant "alleged errors" in the Bible, Young concluded: 

"The Bible is inerrant. The Word which the Holy God gave to man is a word that is to be trusted...He who dogmatically proclaims the presence of error in the Bible, has, as a matter of fact, arrogated to himself an amount of knowledge that he does not actually a result of further study and as a result of archeology much of what formerly was regarded as error has been demonstrated to be no error at all. There is no other document from antiquity which for accuracy can even begin to compare with the Bible. When therefore we meet difficulties in the Bible let us reserve judgment. If any explanation is not at hand, let us freely acknowledge that we do not know all things, that we do not know the solution. Rather than hastily to proclaim the presence of an error, is it not the part of wisdom to acknowledge our ignorance?" 2

It would do us a world of good to adopt this mindset when giving ourselves to a careful study of God's word. We will never err in undermining the faith of others if we are ready to say that we have sought out solutions to reconcile various passages while acknowledging that we may not have come to a completely settled conclusion. That is true humility that honors the trustworthiness of God's word, without proudly exalting ourselves to deny the divine superintendence of it or to act as though we have mastered everything in it.  

1. E.J. Young Thy Word is Truth (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997) p. 163

2. Ibid., p. 182

A Prayer for Persecuted Brethren


Dear Father in heaven, you know all things; you know of the great persecution which your church faces, the scattering of your people in regions of the world, and the lamentations of devout men and women over the loss of dear saints. You know by name the people who ravage your church, who enter house after house, and drag away men and women, committing them to prison. Show us your mercy, O Lord, and guard and defend your church, for you can do all things, and you can do this thing.

And yet Father, until you do bring an end to our suffering, we pray that your children who are dispersed through persecution would preach the word, and proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ. Be their refuge in each deep distress.

Until you bring an end to all things, we also pray for the many who seek comfort in this life, those who do not know that you are the only comfort in life and in death. Help the crowds of displaced people to be lifted up through deeds of mercy, and given life through your Word of Truth. Bring joy beyond our imagination to overcrowded homes and cities, to refugee camps and food lines. You can do all things, Lord; you can do this thing too.

And while your people suffer, help us to remember the One who suffered for us. We thank you for the One who like a sheep was led to the slaughter; for the One who opened not his mouth, who was denied justice in his humiliation, whose life was taken away from the earth. Lord you have done great things - help us to remember this greatest thing of all: the eternal salvation worked for us through your Son. Enable us by your Spirit to count it a privilege to be united to him not only in his saving benefits but in his sufferings and grief. And keep us in your care until we meet you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the new heavens and the new earth, where tears will be no more. AMEN.

*This is the eighth post in a series on "Praying Through the Scriptures."

Shortly before college I read Mortimer Adler's little classic How to Read a Book. That may sound like an odd title. After all, how could somebody read the book unless they already knew how to read? And if they did know how to read, then why would they need to read it at all?

How to Read a Book turned out to be one of the most important books I have ever read. Adler quickly convinced me that I didn't know how to read a book after all--not really. I didn't know how to ask the right questions while I was reading, how to analyze the book's major arguments, or how to mark up my copy for later use.

I suspect that most people don't how to listen to a sermon, either. I say this not as a preacher, primarily, but as a listener. During the past thirty-five years I have heard more than three thousand sermons. Since I have worshiped in Bible-teaching churches all my life, most of those sermons did me some spiritual good. Yet I wonder how many of them helped me as much as they should have. Frankly, I fear that far too many sermons passed through my eardrums without registering in my brain or reaching my heart.

So what is the right way to listen to a sermon? With a soul that is prepared, a mind that is alert, a Bible that is open, a heart that is receptive, and a life that is ready to spring into action.

The first thing is for the soul to be prepared. Most churchgoers assume that the sermon starts when the pastor opens his mouth on Sunday. However, listening to a sermon actually starts the week before. It starts when we pray for the minister, asking God to bless the time he spends studying the Bible as he prepares to preach. In addition to helping the preacher, our prayers help create in us a sense of expectancy for the ministry of God's Word. This is one of the reasons that when it comes to preaching, congregations generally get what they pray for.

The soul needs special preparation the night before worship. By Saturday evening our thoughts should begin turning towards the Lord's Day. If possible, we should read through the Bible passage that is scheduled for preaching. We should also be sure to get enough sleep. Then in the morning our first prayers should be directed to public worship, and especially to the preaching of God's Word.

If the body is well rested and the soul is well prepared, then the mind will be alert. Good preaching appeals first to the mind. After all, it is by the renewing of our minds that God does his transforming work in our lives (see Rom. 12:2). So when we listen to a sermon, our minds need to be fully engaged. Being attentive requires self-discipline. Our minds tend to wander when we worship; sometimes we daydream. But listening to sermons is part of the worship that we offer to God. It is also a prime opportunity for us to hear his voice. We should not insult his majesty by looking at the people around us, thinking about the coming week, or entertaining any of the thousands of other thoughts that crowd our minds. God is speaking, and we should listen.

To that end, many Christians find it helpful to listen to sermons with a pencil in hand. Although note taking is not required, it is an excellent way to stay focused during a sermon. It is also a valuable aid to memory. The physical act of writing something down helps to fix it in our minds. Then there is the added advantage of having the notes for future reference. We get extra benefit from a sermon when we read over, pray through, and talk about our sermon notes with someone else afterwards.

The most convenient place to take notes is in or on our Bibles, which should always be open during a sermon. Churchgoers sometimes pretend that they know the Bible so well that they do not need to look at the passage being preached. But this is folly. Even if we have the passage memorized, there are always new things we can learn by seeing the biblical text on the page. It only stands to reason that we profit most from sermons when our Bibles are open, not closed. This is why it is so encouraging for an expository preacher to hear the rustling of pages as his congregation turns to a passage in unison.

There is another reason to keep our Bibles open: we need to make sure that what the minister says is in keeping with Scripture. The Bible says, concerning the Bereans whom Paul met on his second missionary journey, "that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11; NKJV). One might have expected the Bereans to be criticized for daring to scrutinize the teaching of the apostle Paul. On the contrary, they were commended for their commitment to testing every doctrine according to Scripture.

Listening to a sermon--really listening--takes more than our minds. It also requires hearts that are receptive to the influence of God's Spirit. Something important happens when we hear a good sermon: God speaks to us. Through the inward ministry of his Holy Spirit, he uses his Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God's grace, and reassure us in the faith. But these are all affairs of the heart, not just matters of the mind, so listening to a sermon can never be merely an intellectual exercise. We need to receive biblical truth in our hearts, allowing what God says to influence what we love, what we desire, and what we praise.

The last thing to say about listening to sermons is that we should be itching to put what we learn into practice. Good preaching always applies the Bible to daily life. It tells us what promises to believe, what sins to avoid, what divine attributes to praise, what virtues to cultivate, what goals to pursue, and what good works to perform. There is always something God wants us to do in response to the preaching of his Word. We are called to be "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22; NKJV). And if we are not doers, then we were not hearers, and the sermon was wasted on us.

Do you know how to listen to a sermon? Listening--really listening--takes a prepared soul, an alert mind, an open Bible, and a receptive heart. But the best way to tell if we are listening is by the way that we live. Our lives should repeat the sermons that we have heard. As the apostle Paul wrote to some of the people who listened to his sermons, "You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:2-3; NKJV).

*This post was first published at Reformation21 in June of 2006 under the title, "How to Listen to a Sermon."

Pursuing True Unity


There is something transcendently unifying when a group is engaged together in a singular, heroic cause. For instance, historians have often highlighted the camaraderie and esprit de corps they have found among the members of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps embodies, perhaps more than anything else in American public life, a brotherhood--forged in the forest of Belleau Wood, on the sands of Iwo Jima, through the bitter cold of Chosin Reservoir, and in the streets of Fallujah. The Marine Corps represents an ethos which has gripped the American imagination since our nation's inception. And that ethos centers around the fact that Marines fight America's toughest battles. When I entered the Corps in 2007, it was at the height of our involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan War. As Marines we shared a common enemy and a common mission and our success depended on our unity as Marines. In this war-time environment, it was normal for Marines from every socio-economic background in America to forge close friendships with each other. I served with Marines who loved those of different ethnicities as much or even more than their own families, and they were willing to lay down their lives for each other. It really did not matter whether you were white, black, Asian, Republican, Democrat, poor, rich, or something in between (not that these identities and distinctions are unimportant), what mattered was that you were a Marine and that we needed each other to win the fight against a formidable enemy.

By way of contrast, our ethnically, politically and socio-economically diverse nation is currently rift with division. Rod Dreher and many others predicted that this is exactly where we would be, after President Trump was elected. It is also not surprising that the wider divisions in the culture have seeped down into the Church. What is surprising is that rather than seeking to maintain biblical unity by the means outlined in the New Testament, some in the Church are turning to secular social constructs and methods--advocating for their use in the Church. It seems that the sufficiency of Scripture is being compromised by many who continue to give lip service to its inerrancy and authority.

That being said, in the midst of all the political and ideological division in our nation, the Church has a golden opportunity to achieve and model true Christian unity. Our unity should be a central part of our prophetic witness to this culture. We need to turn back to the Scripture to discover how that unity was achieved and how it is to be nurtured and maintained among the members of Christ's body.

New Testament Unity in the Gospel

The New Testament emphasis, over and over again, is that true Christian unity is only built on a right understanding of the gospel. No matter our national allegiance, economic background, political party, or ethnicity, the gospel unites believers in one faith, one 'body' (1 Cor 12:12, 17). This is why Paul, a devout Jew, called Titus, a young Greek, "my true child" (Tit 1:4). To what does Paul attribute this close relationship (which, incidentally, contradicted the social boundaries of the ancient world)? He called it the "common faith" (Tit 1:4). It should not be lost on us that it is the gospel and a unity in orthodox doctrine which enables a once prejudiced Jew to call a former godless Greek his own legitimate son. It is also the gospel which enables Paul to write to the Romans, "For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you--that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mind" (Rom 1:11-12). Our common Christian faith is to bring us together above everything else and cause us to give encouragement to one another. The true gospel and the true gospel alone must be our primary focus--as Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasized so well at the height of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century.

It is our knowledge and love of God and the Lord Jesus Christ which transforms our relationships with one another. As Jesus taught, it is those who obey the gospel who are His true "mother and brothers" (Matt 12:49). The family of God outstrips all our other allegiances and affiliations. This includes our allegiance to a political party or ethnicity. Identity, and therefore unity, in the New Testament is almost always linked to the fact that we have been united to Christ in faith through the gospel. This is surely Paul's argument in Galatians 3:26-28, where the Apostle wrote,

"For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Paul was not insisting that these other identities do not matter (indeed he makes a great deal about Jewish identity in Romans 9-11 and male and female identity in Ephesians 5); rather, he is highlighting the fact that these identities are inconsequential when it comes to our standing in Christ. Nor should they be the primary emphasis in matters of Christian unity and fellowship with one another. This is also Paul's point in the second half of Ephesians 2, but I am not going to belabor the point.

On the flip-side, the gospel is also an equal-party offender. Paul's point in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians is crystal clear. Both Jews and Greeks were confronted by the message of the cross because it grated against their pre-conceived expectations of God--the Jews could not stand that their messiah could die the death of one cursed by God and the Greeks thought it foolishness that a powerful God would allow himself to be abused and killed. But the message of the gospel, "to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks" is "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:24). This is why it is a travesty if our local church congregations do not reflect the ethnic diversity of our surrounding communities. For example, an ethnically monolithic church in a diverse geographical community is an affront to the unity the gospel produces among believers. For God is also an equal party elector and Savior. I could say a lot more here, but I think the point is made. The gospel is meant to break into diverse communities and bring a united people together who, by the world's standards, are not supposed to be united.

The New Testament Mission of God

The second principle of New Testament unity is a resolute focus on the mission of Christ. Christ charges us to "make disciples" through the proclamation of the gospel (Matt 28:19-20). Paul emphasized over and over again the necessity of gospel preaching in cultures, rife with issues of injustice (e.g. 2 Tim 4:2, Tit 1:3). It was this focus and the spiritual battle against the forces of darkness, which oppose this mission, which united the Church together.

In our day, many issues of justice such as abortion, slavery and human trafficking, or the treatment of refugees are important...very important. But they are not the primary mission of the Church. Nor are those issues what the Church is to be united around. Not that the Church cannot speak to those issues or that individual Christians cannot engage those issues of injustice with great success, but cultural transformation is not the primary mission of Christ's Church.

In the pages of the New Testament we discover that the early Church rallied around its primary mission, which was and is the proclamation of the gospel. As Christ's Church we have been commissioned with the most important mission in history. It is Christ's mission. And this mission demands all of our effort and energies as well as our unity in the gospel. We also have the most formidable enemy that has ever existed: Satan himself. Satan would love nothing more than for Christ's church to be divided against herself arguing about privilege, power, and political affiliation. Such discussions, in light of our daunting mission, are like stopping to debate about who is holding the fire hose and who is cranking the ladder in the midst of a five-alarm fire. We can be sure that when the Church leaves her primary mission behind and leaves her flank exposed in division that Satan is rejoicing.

When We Sin Against Each Other

Even when we are unified in our identity in the gospel and thoroughly engaged in Christ's mission, there will be times when we sin against one another. Christians will inevitably offend, and sadly sometimes grievously hurt, one another. Sometimes we offend even when we do not intend to do so. This leads to the third principle of Christian unity. Believers are called by God to relentlessly love one another. 1 Peter 4:8, Peter says, "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins." Our love for one another is an overflow of Christ's love for us (1 John 4:7). Our hearts are to overflow with love for one another inn such a way that our "love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). We are to think the best of one another and we are to be quick to extend forgiveness to one another (Col 3:13). This is key to our preserving the unity that we already have in our mutual union with Christ.

There is no room in the Church for harboring bitterness against a fellow Christian. There is no room for demanding that wrongs be repaid or 'reparations' be made--as some have recently been suggesting. There is no room for continually harboring doubt and distrust towards those who indwelt by the same Holy Spirit. Rather, we should be defined by a spirit of love and forgiveness. This love for one another, even when wronged, is what will stun our embittered culture.

In our divided culture, unity in the Church will be only nurtured and maintained, using the methods and principles that Jesus and the Apostles have outlined for us in the New Testament. If all of the members of our churches would commit to holding fast to our unifying identity in the gospel, relentlessly engaging in Christ's mission of gospel proclamation, and being clothed in Christian love for one another, our churches will be those that effectively maintain unity. These bodies of believers, from diverse backgrounds and idealogies, will serve as beacons of unity in a divided world. I'm hopeful that the Holy Spirit will do a great work among us to this end. This is our time and our opportunity to maintain and model unity God's way.

Praying Through the Scriptures: Judges 2; Acts 6


Over the years it has been my practice, learned from others, to offer up praises and petitions framed by a passage of Scripture. Some of these passages were read in preparation for preaching, others offered material for meditation in daily devotion; still others were plundered specifically for the purpose of finding fresh material for prayer. As I continue to learn how to pray I have shared a few prayers with my family and friends for their use or adaptation. The Alliance has asked me to share some with you too. Here are the prayers we have considered so far followed by the next prayer in this meditative series:

Genesis 1

Genesis 2

Deuteronomy 3

Joshua 23

Joshua 24; Acts 4

Judges 2; Acts 6: The Covenant Maker

"Father in heaven, you are a covenant-maker. You offer promises that you always fulfill; what you give you never take away; you are utterly trustworthy, and I come to you in worship of your holy name.

But Father, I am covenant-breaker. I am often distracted by the inhabitants of this world; sometimes more loyal to them than I am to you. I try to manage sin, to "handle it," when I should flee from it. While you are ever faithful, I find myself on the edge of abandoning you, and serving the gods of this world. The fact that they are empty of any real promise only makes me ashamed that the temptation is so real. The fact that the danger is real only makes me more desperate for your help. Please forgive me Jesus's sake, for he is the one who resisted all temptation; please help me in your Spirit's power, for he is the one who can deliver me from danger.

I ask this, and then I am emboldened to ask more: in spite of my weakness, and the weakness of others whom I love, I pray that your Word would continue to increase, that the number of disciples would be multiplied greatly, everywhere, and that many who have struggles like my own would become obedient to the faith.  I pray that you would fill us with your grace and power, so that no one will be able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which we speak. And in all of this, may your name be lifted high above us, as we ourselves recede into the crowd of your worshippers.

In Jesus's name we ask this, AMEN."

Always Reforming?

The Latin phrase semper reformanda--usually translated "always reforming"--is the widely known slogan of the Reformed tradition. It has become quite popular. Authors conjure it. Theologians cite it. Trendsetters love it. But I have become suspicious. And my suspicions stem from seeing the phrase appear at all too convenient times for a person's point or agenda. My fear is that it is now regularly used as an excuse for novelty and innovation.

Let me illustrate my concern grammatically. The word reformanda in the phrase semper reformanda is what Latinists refer to as "gerundive."[1] This grammatical designation refers to the future passive of a word and is frequently signaled by the combination of letters "nd", both in Latin and English. For example, whereas an "agent" is someone or something through which an action takes place, the "agenda" ("things to be done") is the object upon which the action(s) will fall or take place. An agent is active, but an agenda is passive. Words like memoranda ("things to be remembered") and propaganda ("ideas to be spread") also illustrate the point. The upshot of this is that the passive of the Latin phrase semper reformanda implies more the idea of my being changed, than my doing the changing. I am the object and in the passive, "always being changed," more than I am the subject and in the active or aggressive role of "always changing" things around me, or seeking out changes to make. Hence, my preference for rendering the phrase "always being reformed" or "always being changed" over "always reforming" or "always changing."

The difference is rich with implications. When a Reformed Christian says semper reformanda, we understand that a higher authority, the Lord, is changing us. In the back of our mind is another Reformed principle called, sola Scriptura, "Scripture alone." This principle commits us to God's revelation in Scripture as authoritative and sufficient for the Christian in faith and life. We believe that the reforming in our lives is driven by Scripture's agenda, not ours. We are subservient to the Lordship of our Sovereign king. We are in the passive role, sitting under the authority of God's Word. The ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda is "the reformed church" that is "always being reformed" by the Word of God.

However, what I see and hear increasingly looks quite dissimilar. I hear semper reformanda being used as a convenient slogan to excuse innovation. For example, some post-modern evangelicals might be willing to assert that we must be "always reforming according to the Word of God," but then they quickly also add that we do so in order to preach the gospel "in the context of an ever-changing world characterized by a variety of cultural settings..."2 True, our changing world and times demand keen sensitivity if we are to proclaim the Gospel effectively. But it is quite another thing to believe that Christian doctrine should be revised as it navigates the world's numerous changing social and historical settings. 

Semper reformanda is not a slogan to excuse our changing the message or discovering new truth because we are taking our cues from the culture. It is a principle that provokes us to modify our confession because we are taking our cues form the Word of God. As some have noted, there is a huge difference between the Reformation and the Emergent Church at this very point.3 It wants to hitch its wagon to Reformed mules when it is convenient, but it is not really in it for the long haul. This reflects how opportunistic, superficial and eclectic evangelicalism can be.

But it is also intellectually weak to claim for a slogan what has been an important and sober principle for Reformed believers. It reminds me of a guy I heard of in the Army National Guard who thought it was no big deal to stitch an "Airborne" patch on his uniform until he ran into some bona fide ex-Jumpers who failed to appreciate his shallow regard for the real deal and expressed their displeasure quite tangibly. The Reformers earned their stripes--some with blood--by being faithful and humbly submissive to the Word of God, not by trying to discern the changing winds of culture. Semper reformanda does not mean, "always seeking innovation" when it suits the times or my fancy. It speaks of our "always being reformed" or changed because the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ require it. That is not novelty or innovation; it is the obedience of a servant.

1. The author speaks of Latinists in the third person. He is not a Latin expert, nor has he ever been accused of being one.

2. John Franke, "Reforming Theology: Toward a Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics,' Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003), 1.

3. e.g., D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With the Emergent Church (Zondervan, 2005), 42-43.

Editor's Note: This is an adapted version of an article which originally appeared in the Nicotine Theological Journal, and is used here with permission and gratitude. It was orig posted at Ref21 originally in February of 2006. 

Andy Stanley, the Ten Commandments and Jesus


I recently wrote about a sermon that Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the largest churches in America, North Point Community Church near Atlanta, GA, preached titled Aftermath, Part 3: Not Difficult (you can watch it here). In the sermon, Stanley argues that Christians should completely unhitch their faith from the Old Testament. You can read my broad critique here ( but in this article I want to zero in one Stanley assertion that his message to Christians is "Thou shall not obey the Ten Commandments."

Contrary to Stanley's admonition, Jesus does not diminish the Old Testament law or its summary found in the Ten Commandments one jot or title. Rather, Jesus declared that he fulfilled the law (Matt 5:17-20). Therefore, Christians must not reject the law that Jesus fulfilled, but rather embrace it, allowing it, through faith in Christ, to shape how we live. Christians are the only people who can truly live out the purpose of the law. The law was not, and is not, to be thought of as a ladder to climb for salvation. The Ten Commandments reveal the impossibility of our being justified by works of the law and point us toward the fulfillment of the law's demands for us by our Lord and Savior. The Christian does not abandon the law Christ fulfilled but rather abandons love of law as a Savior (Rom 10:4).

Prior to the coming of Christ, the law functioned as a kind of prophecy revealing our need of the true and only law keeper to come. Jesus kept the righteous law perfectly, including the Ten Commandments, and clarified the law's meaning and depth for us. Apart from Jesus we cannot have a right understanding of the law of God or its summary in the Ten Commandments. The ethics of the commandments are a reflection of the character of God. This triune God reveals himself most decisively in his son, Jesus Christ. The moral vision of the Ten Commandments plays a central role in both Old and New Testament ethics.

It is striking that when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glory on the mount of Transfiguration that they also saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Moses was the great law giver and Elijah was the representative of the prophets. Neither Moses or Elijah spoke but rather everyone gathered there heard the father's voice declare, "This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him!" Clearly, the point of this awe-inspiring event was not a rejection of the law and the prophets but rather a visual demonstration of fulfillment of them in Jesus. What was written by the very finger of God on tablets of stone would be perfectly fulfilled by the living Word of God, Jesus. As Sinclair Ferguson has beautifully written, "The law-maker became the law-keeper, but then took our place and condemnation as though he were the law-breaker."1

The law in the Old Testament was never meant to be understood as an abstract moral code. The Ten Commandments were given to a people who had already been chosen and redeemed by grace. They do not begin conditionally, "If you will keep the following commandments, I will be your God." Rather, they begin with a statement of saving grace, "I am the Lord your God" and then continue with a recollection of redemption from bondage in Egypt: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Ex 20:1-2). God's love gave redemption and God's love gave the summary of the law in the Ten Commandments. Through faith in Christ, the Ten Commandments provide Christians a path for enjoying God and living in the freedom he provides.

Whereas the Ten Commandments were the unbeliever's accuser; they become the believer's exhorter toward blessing. Before salvation they threatened and after salvation they provide loving direction. Only the gospel motivates faithful obedience but the Ten Commandments help guide the way toward obedience. Andrew Fuller wrote, "First, to prove that the ten commandments are binding, let any person read them, one by one, and ask his own conscience as he reads whether it would be any sin to break them Is the believer at liberty to have other gods besides the true God? . . . Every conscience that is not seared as with a hot iron must answer these questions in the negative."2

Martin Luther asserted that the Ten Commandments cannot damn one who has faith in Christ, but he also added,

However, the Ten Commandments are still in force and do concern us Christians so far as obedience to them is concerned. For the righteousness demanded by the Law is fulfilled in the believers through the grace and the assistance of the Holy Spirit, whom they receive. Thus, all the admonitions of the prophets in the Old Testament, as well as of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament, concerning a godly life, are excellent sermons on, and expositions of, the Ten Commandments.3

What the Ten Commandments teach about how we should relate to the true and living God (commandments 1-4) and fellow image bearers (commandments 5-10) has no expiration date. The Ten Commandments focus on permanent obligations for God's redeemed people. All of the commandments reflect the character and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not a reflection of the Ten Commandments; the Ten Commandments are a reflection of Jesus. Thus, Jesus alone perfectly kept the Ten Commandments in thought and deed. Christ's person and work were not a reaction to an unrelated law code but rather Jesus, the eternal word become flesh, fulfilling his own personal word as the King of the cosmos--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To honor Jesus as Lord, we must honor his word.

Let's be perfectly clear, detaching oneself from the Ten Commandments is detaching oneself from the words of Jesus. To know the God of the Ten Commandments is to know Christ. As Paul explained to those justified by faith alone in Christ alone, "Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8). Luther sums 1 Timothy 1:8 up well, "To sum up all of this: Use the Law as you wish. Read it. Only keep this use away from it, that you credit it with the remission of sins and righteousness. ... Good works are necessary and the Law must be kept, but the Law does not justify."4


1. Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2016), 178.

2. Andrew Fuller, (1988). "The Moral Law the Rule of Conduct to Believers: A Letter to a Friend," The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions--Miscellaneous, J. Belcher, Ed., Vol. 3 (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988) 585.


3. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4, vol. 22, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 38-39.


4.  Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 28: 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds., (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999) 231-232.


Private and Personal or Public and Ecclesial?


God calls His people to be truth-loving and truth-speaking people--which is why it's disheartening to see many self-professed Calvinistic and Reformed ministers downplay doctrinal teaching, preaching and transparency. Many years ago, a pastor of an Evangelical and Reformed Presbyterian Church intimated to me that the church he pastored reserved teaching on the doctrine of election for adult Sunday School classes. He said, "We believe that more mature Christians need to hear about those doctrines. The Worship service is for a much larger group of people, including a large number of new believers, seekers or unbelievers. We wouldn't want to run them off by teaching about doctrines that are for mature believers." Sadly, the doctrine of election was rarely--if ever--taught in an adult Sunday School class in that church. Not all that long ago, a pastor of a large community church--who professes to be a Calvinist--told me, "Our people don't need a sermon on limited atonement; they need to know how to have a better marriage." Statements like these reveal that for many pastors biblical doctrine is functionally a private and personal matter rather than a public and ecclesial matter. 

To be sure, there will always be stage-cage Calvinistic pastors who annoyingly manage to make almost ever sermon they preach fit a five point outline that follows the five points of Calvinism. There will always be those who, by the emphasis they place on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Heidelberg Catechism, functionally put them on par with Scripture. However, in the grand scheme of things, it is unfathomable that anyone who has spent any amount of time in any church anywhere on the planet could ever conclude that the great problem in most pulpits is that there is too much doctrinal teaching, preaching and transparency. I have never had a congregant visit another church while on vacation only to come back and say, "You know, they were just too doctrinal in their preaching there." In fact, the opposite has always been the case. 

In part, the phenomenon of a private and personal approach to Calvinistic doctrine belongs within the realm of what D.A. Carson calls "The Underbelly of Revival"--associated with the 'Young, Restless, Reformed' (YRR). Though a movement that gloriously helped fuel a God-centered view of the world, a Christocentric hermeneutic, Calvinistic and Reformed doctrine and the importance of local church membership, numerous dangers and undesirable consequences have accompanied the YRR movement. 

For many, the allure of the YRR movement and its related churches was the fact that "this isn't your grandpa's religion." The caricature that Calvinists were stogy old men in three-piece polyester suits who never evangelized went out the window. Myriads of hip young men with beards and flannel shirts--who had grown up in Arminian churches--zealously started flocking to professedly Calvinistic churches that had high energy, edgy praise bands. The YRR movement had as much a cultural draw as it had a doctrinal appeal. The problem? D.A. Carson has aptly noted, "when things seem to be going swimmingly, the church is likely to attract more people who want to go along for the ride." When that happens, there will always be numerous undesirable consequences. One such inescapable consequence is the relinquishing of widespread discernment. Many assume that if a pastor professes to be Calvinistic, his teaching and preaching must necessarily square with whatever others have defined as "biblically faithful preaching." Many rushed into church and put their imprimatur on self-professed Calvinistic pastors. They loved the pastor's personality and cultural normality; therefore, affinity and assumption started to cloud discernment. As Carson again concludes, "when people are eager to join the people of God and identify with them is precisely when more discernment is needed, not less." 

For many in YRR-related churches, a profession of belief in Calvinistic doctrine has begun to become more and more a private and personal matter and less and less a public and ecclesial matter. Add to this the fact that many of the YRR churches were associated with baptistic fellowships which were stridently opposed to Calvinistic doctrine. It has not been uncommon for Calvinistic ministers in these fellowships to convince their people that there was a need to be more careful about what doctrinal terminology was promoted from the pulpit. There was no need to "wear it on your sleeve when you can wear it in your underwear" (as one well known SBC pastor once told me). A culture of walking on doctrinal eggshells leaves the door wide open for pastors who keep most of their doctrine private and personal. In turn, many who think that they are sitting under Calvinistic and Reformed preaching and teaching are, in fact, sitting under preaching and teaching that is high on pragmatism and low on biblical doctrine. 

In many cases, those who have genuine concerns about the lack of doctrinal teaching and preaching in their church allow those concerns to be alleviated by the fact that their pastor claims to be Calvinistic or Reformed. I've repeatedly witnessed the process used to alleviate those concerns. Someone is bothered by the lack of doctrinal preaching in their local church. They talk with their pastor about it. He convinces them that they do not want to run out all the newer converts with hyper-intellectual preaching like that which occurs in tiny, confessionally Reformed churches. The concerned member then starts to think to himself or herself, "I really wish the preaching was more substantive, but the church is growing, people are being converted and we're not like those inbred, doctrinally nit picky churches full of homeschoolers and anti-vaccers." The metamorphosis from public and ecclesial doctrinal commitment to that of private and personal has begun. 

After one has begun to entertain the idea that the church's doctrine can be private and personal rather than public and ecclesial, they then become susceptible to being convinced that it is, in fact, actually charitable to keep doctrine a private and personal affair. It sounds sweet to the ear when someone insists that it is more important to be loving than to be right. It sounds warm-hearted to downplay what many see as "divisive" in favor of what seems to always makes for peace. However, Jesus wasn't crucified for downplaying doctrine. Everything that Jesus taught and did was doctrinal in nature--and was intended to be utilized for public and ecclesial purposes. When his opponents challenged him about his teaching, Jesus said, "I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret" (John 18:20). In what is arguably his greatest evangelistic sermon, Jesus boldly taught the doctrine of election (John 6:37, 39, 44). 

This is no license for ministers of the Gospel to be cold or brazenly mean-spirited in their presentation of biblical truth. A central teaching of Scripture is that pastors are to be "gentle to all," "forbearing," "patient," "nurturing" and "humble" in the way in which they propagate truth. However, this is not in opposition to the biblical call for ministers to be "sound," bold," "unwavering," "zealous," "unashamed" and "fervent" in their proclamation of the pattern of sound words that God has revealed in Scripture--especially in so much as it concerns the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. In fact, when the Apostle Paul was in prison, some were spitefully preaching Christ in order to "afflict him in his imprisonment" (Phil. 1:17). When he heard about their motives, he didn't say, "Guys, we need to be loving. Nobody cares about what you say about Christ. They just need to see how charitable you are." Instead, he wrote, "only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice" (Phil. 1:18). 

The best way for us to go forward in carrying out our doctrinal commitments in public and ecclesial ways is to go back to the Scripture and see the way in which God always calls His church to hold fast to the pattern of sound words in Scripture (2 Tim. 1:13). The consistent expositional, doctrinal and exegetical preaching of God's word in our pulpits is certainly one of the best ways for ministers to build into the minds and hearts of God's people the dire need that we have for public and ecclesial doctrinal commitment. This was the way of the Reformation and the Puritan movement of the 16th and 17th centuries. The great ecumenical Protestant Confessions and Catechisms (e.g. the Westminister Standards, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, etc.) were the fruit of the prayerful and diligent biblical study and preaching of those men who were zealous to see the people of God holding fast to the pattern of sound doctrine taught in Scripture. What might God again do in the church if we would commit to such an unashamed adherence to His word? All of this, of course, must be fueled by deep and persistent love to Christ and love for his people. May God give us the grace to be a people who are deeply committed to a loving public and ecclesial--not simply private and personal--propagation of His truth. 

Insider Language and the Mission of God

Through much of middle and high school, I woke up every morning and had my quiet time watching Craig Kilborn on ESPN's Sportscenter. I could tell you every stat about every baseball, basketball and football player. I knew the language of just about every major sport. When I would watch sports with friends who weren't that interested in whatever sport was being played, I would seek to explain the language of the sport to them (i.e. the rules, the terminology and the strategies). In my late teens, I lost interest with much of that--turning my attention to girls, music and drugs. I learned to speak the language of the world regarding those things. When I wanted to indoctrinate someone in any of those things, I taught them the language associated with those things. 

After I was converted, a seminarian welcomed me into his home and mentored me. He used the language of the academy and the church--language with which I was unfamiliar (words like epistemology, dialectichermeneutics, eschatology and homiletics). He spoke about the Westminster Assembly, the Auburn affirmation and Mercersburg theology. When he prayed he used biblical language with which I was not familiar (e.g. "Oh that you would rend the heavens," "put a hedge of protection around," etc). This was a strange new world for me and one with which I was not entirely comfortable. I felt like I was treading water to stay afloat miles out in an ocean of unfamiliar language. I went to a theological conference not long after I was converted and everything I heard flew 30,000 feet over my head because of the dialect. I left feeling discouraged--wondering why those I was around now weren't speaking language that my unbelieving friends could understand. I was zealous to see my old friends come to know Christ and I concluded that this was not the way it would happen.

Over the next two years, I grew in my appreciation for biblical and theological language because I was studying God's word and reading the great works of church history. I realized that there was a rich spiritual heritage to so much of the vocabulary of the church. Still, I wondered why there was a reticence on the part of some of those from whom I was learning to modernize the archaic language of older theological works and to break down theological concepts. I came to love the historic doctrinal statements of faith (e.g. The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Canons of Dort, etc.) but couldn't understand why we wouldn't modernize some of the language in order to make it understandable to new converts. I sensed something of a reverse chronological snobbery. For many of those with whom I was surrounded, older was better, historical was more spiritual.  

I labored to learn this language of the church throughout my time in seminary and continued to grow in my understanding of the value of theological language. After all, everyone packages knowledge; and, the more carefully we systematize truth, the more categories and words we will necessarily employ. I slowly sought to help bring others along to understand the language of the church. Occasionally, I would catch myself using insider theological terminology in order to impress others; but, on the whole, I was simply excited about being able to share biblical and theological truths with those who knew very little. 

When I moved to Philadelphia after seminary to be an intern at a church in the city, I sought to learn the language of my neighbors. I lived in an extremely multi-ethinic community and was surrounded by the educated and uneducated, as well as the rich and the poor. On account of much of my experiences in life, I have always been able to adapt to different cultural settings quite easily. My wife and I got to know many of our neighbors, invited them into our home and sought to share the Gospel with them. I would sit out on my front step and bind old theological works as a hobby. One of my neighbors introduced me to another neighbor who happened to use antiquarian book leather to make jewelry for Donna Karan. He and I struck up a friendship. I would give him antiquarian theological book covers and would seek to share the Gospel with him by means of sharing my testimony every chance I could. As we talked, I would mention things like the Westminster Confession of Faith and would use theological phraseology. He would sometimes stop me and ask me to explain the language of the church and church history. In many respects, it was very much like explaining the language of sports to someone who is not familiar with, but is desirous of learning, it. This particular neighbor came to Tenth Presbyterian Church to hear me preach and I gave him a copy of Tim Keller's The Prodigal God

One of my friends at Tenth Presbyterian Church was working in the IT department at the University of Pennsylvania. Eager to learn coding, I asked if he would teach me some basic formulas. I realized that coding was a language in its own right. I once told my friend, "I'm envious of the way in which you understand the language of coding," to which he responded, "Don't be. I'm envious of the way you know the language of God." He was, of course, referring to the Scriptures and the theological framing of biblical concepts. This was a helpful analogy for me as I wrestled with the right use of language toward those both within and outside the church. 

When I moved back to Southeast Georgia in 2009 to plant New Covenant, I had to learn the language of a culture with which I was now unfamiliar. It was a very different mission field from that in Philadelphia. I had to labor to break down biblical and theological truths in a distinctive cultural language. While not wanting to shy away from theological and historical terminology, I wanted to explain the words that I used in the particular cultural context. 

I still feel a tension between using insider language and methodically bringing others along in the language of God and the church. On one hand, theological and historical terminology can become Shibboleths that keep others uninformed and disengaged. On the other hand, the language of the church gives us the opportunity to share the language of God in thoughtful, educated and engaging ways. We need to labor to ask ourselves how we are employing terminology that is unique to the worlds of theology, philosophy and sociology as we seek to bring the Gospel to outsiders who don't speak the language of the church. Whatever else we do, we must be unashamed to teach the language of God from Scripture. Christians speak the language of God in a foreign land. After all, there is no greater language that any of us must learn to speak.

Formulating Doctrine


"It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 4.1)

The Savoy Declaration (1658) and the Second London Confession of Faith (1677/89) contain very similar statements. Our triune God is the Creator of all things (i.e., "all things" other than Himself, of course).

Formulating Christian doctrine, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity, is not as simple as counting texts which use the same words. Biblical texts ought to be weighed to determine their importance. Weighing texts is especially important when considering creation in relation to the Creator. If only one text of Holy Scripture informs us about a crucial element of the divine act of creation, that text is of great importance. This is the case because creation involves everything in relation to God. The doctrine of creation, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, is a distributed doctrine. John Webster's words capture what is meant by creation and the Trinity as distributed doctrines. He says:

"...the doctrine of creation is one of the two distributed doctrines in the corpus of Christian dogmatics. The first (both in sequence and in material primacy) distributed doctrine is the doctrine of the Trinity, of which all other articles of Christian teaching are an amplification or application, and which therefore permeates theological affirmations about every matter...The doctrine of creation is the second distributed doctrine, although, because its scope is restricted to the opera Dei ad extra [i.e., the external works of God], its distribution is less comprehensive than that of the doctrine of the Trinity. Within this limit, the doctrine of creation is ubiquitous. It is not restricted to one particular point in the sequence of Christian doctrine, but provides orientation and a measure of governance to all that theology has to say about all things in relation to God."1 

Because both creation and the Trinity are distributed doctrines, it is of utmost importance that we allow the Bible to speak on these issues, even if it does not speak as often as it does on other issues. We do not need a plethora of biblical texts indicating the work of the Spirit in creation, for example. One text would suffice, and its truth would extend to the entirety of Christian thinking on creation, conservation, re-creation, and consummation.

Formulating Christian doctrine is also more involved than a rehearsal of redemptive history. Though the study of redemptive history (i.e., biblical theology) is a vital aspect of the theological encyclopedia, it concerns itself with the revelatory process presented to us in Holy Scripture. Its method is not designed to conclude its work by presenting full statements on the various places of systematic theology. Unlike biblical theology, systematic theology is designed to collate various aspects of revelation under pre-determined headings (i.e., Scripture, God, creation, providence, etc.).[2] When systematic theology does its work properly, each topic's statements are formulated by a canonical consultation, a consultation of Scripture as a finished product of divine revelation, and in conversation with historical theology. Systematic theology reduces all the truths of Holy Scripture concerning given topics to propositional form. Similarly, confessional formulations seek to reduce large swaths of biblical truth into brief compass (e.g., 4.1 quoted above). In order to do this successfully, these formulations must weigh texts in order to ensure the formulations are brief, though comprehensive, enough to accurately convey the major emphases of Holy Scripture.

It is important to remember that the confessional documents mentioned above are confessions of faith. They contain, in summary form, what subscribers to them believe the totality of the Bible teaches on given subjects. The confession is not merely a reference point from which one subsequently develops doctrinal conclusions; it is the doctrinal conclusions on the subjects that it addresses. Because the confession summarizes what the Bible teaches on given subjects, this means the whole of the Bible is considered in the formulation of chapter 4. You can see this by noticing the Scripture references (and their order) at 4.1 in the WCF: Hebrews 1:2; John 1:2-3; Genesis 1:2; Job 26:13; Job 33:4; Romans 1:20; Jeremiah 10:12; Psalm 104:24; Psalm 33:5-6; Hebrews 11:3; Colossians 1:16; and Acts 17:24. Citing Scripture references indicates to readers that the members of the Assembly formulated the doctrines, in part, by the fruits of previous exegetical work in the biblical text. In other words, this is not some form of simplistic proof-texting. Stefan T. Lindblad helps us understand the rationale behind the practice of citing biblical references in the confession. He says:

...To call this a "proof-texting method" in the modern derogatory sense is misleading. By citing specific texts in support of their statements, the authors of the Confession were indicating their adherence to methods of biblical interpretation and doctrinal formation that was characteristic not just of Reformed orthodoxy but also of the whole sweep of pre-critical exegesis. The texts cited...are regarded as the primary seat of the doctrine, the primary (not exclusive) place in Scripture where the doctrine was either explicitly taught or "by just consequence deduced."3 By citing...texts the [Confession] was not arbitrarily appealing to texts out of context. Rather,...the [Confession] was drawing on the interpretation of these texts as argued in the biblical commentaries and annotations of the era. The statement of the Confession is thus a doctrinal result resting on the foundation of Scripture and its proper interpretation. The biblical texts cited thus point in two directions: back to biblical interpretation and forward to doctrinal formulation. Such texts, the dicta probantia or "proving statements," function as the necessary link between biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation. A confession was not designed to reproduce the work of biblical interpretation, but to affirm its fruit, given that Scripture was the only authoritative and sufficient foundation for every doctrinal topic and for a system of theology as a whole.4

The texts cited are not the only scriptural bases from which the confessional formulations were derived. Also, the formulations are not mere recitations of the words of Scripture. Doctrines taught in Scripture must be formulated into words other than Scripture in order to explicate their meanings for us.

Finally, WCF 4.1 assumes all that comes before it. It assumes the doctrine of Scripture (along with a working hermeneutic [cf. 1.9]), God's attributes and triunity, and the decree. These doctrinal formulations provide background and context for the statement in 4.1. For example, the Creator at 4.1 is the same triune God confessed in chapters 2 and 3. He does not refashion Himself in order to create or while creating. If that were the case, 4.1 would contradict previous assertions of the confession.

Far from displaying a simplistic proof-texting method, the confession evidences a careful methodological approach. This includes exegesis of texts and synthesizing various scriptural emphases, as well as the assumption of doctrinal formulations previously contained in the confession.


1. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 117.

2. We must not think that these pre-determined headings come from outside of Holy Scripture, imposed upon it to make sense of it. The doctrinal places of systematic theology come about due to contemplation upon Scripture.

3. This is a citation from Nehemiah Coxe, Vindiciae Veritatis, or a Confutation of the heresies and gross errours asserted by Thomas Collier in his additional word to his Body of Divinity (London: for Nathaniel Ponder, 1677), 9.

4. Stefan T. Lindblad, "'Eternally Begotten of the Father': An Analysis of the Second London Confession of Faith's Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son," in By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan, eds. Ronald S. Baines, Richard C. Barcellos, and James P. Butler (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2015), 338-39.


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.

Defending the Resurrection


Though age would be rapidly catching up with him, some people believe that Elvis Presley is still alive. Despite certified death certificates, a very public, photographed funeral, and no verified appearances after the date of his death, fans insist: Elvis lives.

How many people view the resurrection of Christ similarly to conspiracy theories about Elvis? Is there compelling evidence that Christ actually rose from the dead? Or, is the story repeated simply because people wish him to not be dead? The stakes are high. Without the resurrection of Jesus Christianity is empty and those who adhere to the faith "are of all men the most pitiable" (1 Cor. 15:14, 19).

Here are seven reasons to believe in the resurrection, not as a wish, but as a historical event.

 The Argument of the Supernatural

Those who dismiss all things supernatural "naturally" oppose the plausibility of Christ's resurrection. But honesty compels us to admit that our world, at many points, resists naturalistic explanation. Ruling out the possibility of supernatural phenomena is not a scientific exercise; it is an act of faith. Unless we begin with closed minds that dismiss the supernatural and resist the power of evidence, we will have no constraining reason to doubt the resurrection. Paul's question to the Roman skeptic Agrippa, is worth pondering: "Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?" (Acts 26:8).

The Accuracy of Scripture

If the Bible were a religious fable designed to persuade readers to trust in a made-up God, then why are certain (indeed, many) events included? Why would the Bible record the utterly despicable actions of Jacob's son Judah with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38)? Why would Moses (Numbers 20), Jonah (Jonah 1:3), and John (John 20:9) write about their own moral failures? God included these events in the Bible because they actually happened and played a meaningful role in the story of God's redemption. The Bible was written by eyewitnesses, historians, and recipients of reliable oral tradition (Cf. Luke 1:1-4), all inspired by God's Spirit, to record an accurate summary of God's rescue work (John 20:30-31).

The Apostles' Changed Lives

The powerful change in the lives of Jesus' closest associates is totally inexplicable apart from his resurrection. After Christ's death the disciples' dreams were dashed. When the women explained that they had seen Jesus alive, post-crucifixion, "their words seemed to [the eleven] like idle tales, and they did not believe them" (Luke 24:11). Before Christ's death the disciples scattered. Yet after seeing the death-wounds on Jesus' living body, most of the disciples sealed their faith in Christ by a martyr's death. Prior to Jesus' death and resurrection, Peter lacked the courage to speak about Christ, even to a servant girl (John 18:15-18). Afterward he boldly preached Christ before thousands of critics (see Acts 2; cf. 1 Cor. 15:9-10). During his earthly ministry Jesus' own brothers "did not believe in him" (John 7:5). Yet two of them--James, and Jude--later authored Bible books promoting the glory of the risen Jesus. Only the resurrection explains this change. 

The Abandoned Tomb

Critics have never solved the riddle of the empty tomb. By piercing his side with a sword the Roman soldiers guaranteed that Jesus was dead when they placed him in the tomb. Later rumors that this Jesus was alive and well would have been extremely simple to disprove; Pilate could have ordered the body exhumed and shown to witnesses. Christianity would have become a historical footnote that instant. But Jesus' dead body was no more.

Did the disciples steal the body as the Jews claimed (Matt. 27:62-66, 28:11-15)? That is, did a handful of fearful, doubtful, disloyal fishermen overpower war-hardened Roman guards, dislodge the huge stone from tomb's mouth, and steal a dead body without leaving any evidence? Even if so, it would have done no good. Jesus promised to rise from the dead as Jonah emerged from the whale; visibly and bodily. He never promised he would escape the tomb to remain forever incognito.

Jesus' Post-Crucifixion Appearances

Jesus' post-resurrection appearances debunk the theory of the stolen body. The Bible records seven different resurrection appearances in several locations over the course of forty days. Jesus appeared to over 500 eyewitnesses at one event. During Paul's day half of these witnesses were still alive (1 Cor. 15:6). Paul reminds us that the things concerning Jesus were "not done in a corner" (v. 26). Because of the testimony of witnesses denying Jesus' resurrection is as plausible as denying the holocaust.

The Advance of the Church

Jesus promised that he would rise from the dead, ascend into heaven, and pour out his Spirit; and that this would change people's lives. This prophesy is fulfilled every day. Each day, around the world, hundreds of people experience resurrection power for the first time; they become "raised with Christ" and start seeking "those things which are above" (Col. 3:1). It is impossible to explain--apart from the power of the living Christ--how the church has survived and grown despite frequent persecution and internal faithlessness.

The Affirmation of the Holy Spirit

A blind friend once challenged me to explain the concept of colors. I tried. But I could not cause him to see. Some people, by the practice of faith, believe God's testimony. Others do not, regardless of what they are told.

In the end, believers do not need to evaluate or test God's words. The Spirit proves them in our hearts. As Calvin wrote, "For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed with the inward testimony of the Spirit...Enlightened by [God], we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured...that [Scripture] came to us...from God's very mouth."

We have every reason to believe that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20).

Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?

One of my close friends was telling me about a recent interaction he had at a Reformed seminary with a student who was preparing to go into college ministry. In the course of their conversation, my friend and this seminarian entered in on the subject of sexual sin. This young man insisted that there is no sexual sin that is more heinous than another. My friend pushed back on that idea, explaining to him that the Scriptures and our Reformed Confessions teach otherwise. The young man then gave my friend the common rebuttal, "Jesus talked more about self-righteousness than sexual sin; and, he said that self-righteousness was worse than sexual sin." Ironically, this response only lends support to the idea that some sins are more heinous than others. However, it has sadly become the most common way in which many pastors have recently sought to downplay the severity of sexual sin. Contrary to the current narrative, the Scriptures, the Reformed Confessions and principles of nature teach us that some sins are more reprehensible than others.

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus references Sodom and Gomorrah in order to teach varying degrees of condemnation for the unrepentant. When he first commissioned his disciples to preach the Gospel to the cities in Israel, Jesus told them, 

"Whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!" 

Then, after the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum rejected His words and works, Jesus said to his disciples, 

"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes...And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you."

Commenting on Jesus' appeal to Sodom, John Calvin wrote: 

"Christ mentioned Sodom rather than other cities, not only because it went beyond them all in villainous crimes, but because God destroyed it in an extraordinary manner, that it might serve as an example to all ages, and that its very name might be held in abomination. And we need not wonder if Christ declares that they will be treated less severely than those who refuse to hear the gospel. When men deny the authority of Him who made and formed them, when they refuse to listen to his voice, nay, reject disdainfully his gentle invitations, and withhold the confidence which is due to his gracious promises, such impiety is the utmost accumulation, as it were, of all crimes. But if the rejection of that obscure preaching was followed by such dreadful vengeance, how awful must be the punishment that awaits those who reject Christ when he speaks openly!"1

The purpose of Jesus' appeal to Sodom and Gomorrah was not to lighten the sin of those cities. It was to heighten the sin of the cities in which he did his mighty works and wonders. When he wanted to find the most egregious example with which to draw a comparison, Christ appealed to those cities that were engaging in homosexual gang rape and violence. In Israel in Jesus' day, no civilizations were considered to be as far gone as those of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God spoke through the Old Testament prophets about the sin and judgment of Israel and the nations, He often did so by comparing them with Sodom (Isaiah 1:9, 10; 3:9; 13:19; Jer. 23:14; 49:18; 50:40; Ezekiel 16:46, 48, 53, 55, 56; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9). 

The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 83 captures the essence of Jesus' teaching: 

Q. 83. Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous? 

A. Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others. 

The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 151 explains that the aggravations of offense are based a number of different factors. The first of which has respect to the persons offending. When explaining what they meant when they spoke of "persons offending," the members of the Westminster Assembly wrote:

"If they be of riper (i.e. older) age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others." 

Certainly, no one would take issue with this explanation--at least, not in part. Our society unequivocally acknowledges that it is a heightened offense for men who hold positions of power to abuse that power in order to prey on women for sexual gratification. When God places men or women in positions of power or influence, such individuals have an increased responsibility to use that power for the glory of God and the well-being of others. When, instead, men or women chose to abuse that power for self-pleasing ends, God considers it to be a more heinous sin. This is just one small example of what the members of the Assembly mean when they refer "aggregations" and "aggravations" 

While there is a great deal more to unpack and glean from Westminster Larger Catechism 151, it is important for us to note what the members of the Assembly say in Larger Catechism 152

Q. 152. What does every sin deserve at the hands of God? 

A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserves his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.

Though some sins are most certainly more abhorent than others--and deserve greater judgment than others--"every sin, even the least...deserves the wrath and curse" of God and "cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ." There are no grounds for anyone to think that he or she is in a better spiritual position than others by nature. We are all, by nature, under the wrath and curse of God (Eph. 2:1-4). Just because we may not have fallen into some particular sin doesn't mean that we are, by nature, more righteous than others. The Scriptures level the playing field, so to speak, at this point. All of us are condemned by the Law of God, by nature, because of our natural depravity (Rom. 3:19; Gal. 3:22). Neither does this, in any way whatsoever, give us a license to make light of what we may deem to be "less heinous sin." We cannot, because of Jesus' teaching on varying degrees of judgment, downplay even the least sin in our lives. The same Jesus that teaches us that there are varying degrees of judgment teaches us that if we so much as look at someone to lust after them we have already committed adultery with them in our hearts; and are, therefore, liable to judgment--unless we repent (Matt. 5:28-30). Additionally, we must acknowledge that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover the sins of any, no matter what sins they have committed or what sinful lifestyles they have embraced. If men and women will repent and turn to Christ, trusting only in His blood and righteousness, they will be forgiven and redeemed. The blood of Jesus is of such infinite and eternal value that it covers every sin of those for whom it was shed, no matter how atrocious that sin. 

The Troublesome Doctrine of Biblical Authority


In the years 1518--1519, the Leipzig Debates were called and conducted between Johann Eck and Martin Luther, among others, in Pleissenburg Castle in Leipzig Germany. At the time, Luther would have presented the latest instance of the annoying humanists and reformers who seemed to be popping up across the theological landscape over the previous century.

Inspired by the classicalism of the Renaissance, and a general humanistic desire to original sources, innovative scholars had made headway into the study and interpretation of the biblical texts. New grammars of Hebrew, like the one published by Johann Reuchlin in 1506, modeled on the great Rabbi David Kimchi's grammatical work, opened up the Hebrew text to interpreters who previously had to go to great lengths to learn the ancient language for themselves.

In the midst of the renewal of interest in the original texts, Europe experienced a vast democratization of knowledge happening at every level of society, inspired further by the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. The significance of the printing press matched that of other leaps in informational technology like the alphabet in the late second millennium B.C., the codex around the time of Christ, and the internet in recent years. This new access to printed material fundamentally shifted intellectual discourse across the disciplines.

Interest and access to primary sources, including those of Scripture, fueled a theological awakening that questioned some of the most entrenched political and ecclesiastical power structures of its day.

This ideological revolution loomed in the background of the Leipzig Debates, particularly as it pertained to the authority of the Pope as head of the church and arbiter of Christian doctrine. It was a grand confrontation; think William Jennings Bryant vs. Clarence Darrow, but with habit and cowl. The two met on July 4 to commence debate. One attendee, the humanist Peter Mosellanus, described the two opponents in vivid detail. For Luther: "Martin is of medium height; his body is slender, emaciated by cares and study; one can count almost all the bones; he stands in the prime of his age; his voice sounds clear and distinct." How did Eck appear? "He has a huge square body, a full strong voice coming from his chest, fit for a tragic actor or a town crier, and more harsh than distinct; his mouth, eyes, and whole aspect give one the idea of a butcher or a rude soldier rather than of a theologian."1

For Eck, the debates substantivized the charge of heresy against Luther, because Luther admitted that he sympathized with the opinions of the followers of Jan Hus who had already been condemned by the church as a heretic. For Luther, the debates helped him clarify the raison d'etre of his early and fervent opposition to certain Roman doctrines. He was not merely dissatisfied with ecclesiastical corruption or errors made by the church authorities. Rather, his was a difference on the issue of authority itself, where it lay and what that meant for the world.

In the next year later, Luther would write, "But that we fight not with our own words, let us bring forth the Scriptures." His doctrine of biblical authority had developed further. Everyone, including the church leadership, should be held accountable by the teaching of scripture. To illustrate the point, Luther proposed a hypothetical situation of ecclesiastical corruption, and drew counsel from two biblical passages in which the authority of God's word trumps other hierarchies. He writes,

"If it were to happen that the pope and his cohorts were wicked and not true Christians, were not taught by God and were without understanding, and at the same time some obscure person had a right understanding, why should the people not follow the obscure man? Has not the pope erred many times? Who would help Christendom when the pope erred if we did not have somebody we could trust more than him, somebody who had the Scriptures on his side."

Never one to let a vivid illustration pass by without utilization, he goes on:

"Long ago Abraham had to listen to Sarah, although she was in more complete subjection to him than we are to anyone on earth. And Balaam's ass was wiser than the prophet himself. If God spoke then through an ass against a prophet, why should he not be able even now to speak through a righteous man against the pope?"2

The authority is not in the person (or ass) who teaches but in the divine word that undergirds and authorizes the teaching--so that no one may boast.

Even more, if Scripture is authoritative for all, from least to greatest, then it must be accessible to all. What value is the word of God to those who worship him, if its teaching is not made available to them? The technological innovations and spirit of the age coincided with this theological commitment of the Reformation.

For Luther, translation was the next logical step. He set about this work immediately if a bit begrudgingly. As he reflected on his translation of the Bible into German, he realized that the task was much greater than he had previously imagined.

"We are now sweating over the translation of the Prophets into German. O God, what a great and hard toil it requires to compel the writers against their will to speak German! They do not want to give up their Hebrew and imitate the barbaric German. Just as though a nightingale should be compelled to imitate a cuckoo and give up her glorious melody, even though she hates a song in monotone."3

For all of the literary and aesthetic offense he endured, he understood it was a necessary suffering so that the word of God could be communicated to the German rank and file.

The profound insight that Luther and the Reformers stumbled upon was the basic need to remove the wall of separation between the Word of God and the individual soul, to put the Scriptures' clarity on display for all to see, through translation, yes, but also through preaching that explained the Biblical text on its own terms, in light of the whole counsel of God, and testified to by the Spirit.

On this side of the Leipzig Debates, such an insight seems hardly profound, but it should be. In its day, the authority of Scriptures represented a radical change in direction for the community of faith, and the church has not been the same since.

The Reformed tradition offers a constellation of doctrines and insights drawn from the teaching of Scripture, but only insofar as they are clearly articulated and accessible to the those with ears to hear. As Reformed believers, we should be sure to steward well the rich biblical theology with which we have been entrusted. We must offer it to the world with clarity and generosity, even when it is painful to our sensibilities, preferences, and tastes. Just like Luther.

1. T. M. Lindsay, Luther and the German Reformation (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1900), 84.

2. Martin Luther, "Address to The German Nobility," in Three Treatises (2nd. ed.; trans. By C.M. Jacobs; rev. by J. Atkinson; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 20; 21-22.

3. Martin Luther, correspondence with Wenceslas Link, June 14, 1528.

Standing Firm on the Slippery Slope


A few weeks ago, the editorial team at Ref21 asked me if I would be willing to write something regarding Fred Harrell (pastor of City Church, San Francisco) and his recent postings in which he attacked the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. In doing so, I made a connection between Harrell's prior shifts (first, adopting the ordination of women and, second, endorsing homosexual relations) and his most recent movement away from the clear teaching of God's Word. My conclusion was to posit this as evidence of a slippery slope, further noting that in our cultural moment the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of ordaining women to office in the church.

It would be an understatement to observe that this post touched a raw nerve for some readers.* Two responses, however, were somewhat surprising to me. First, in commenting on Harrell's trajectory, I found it necessary to provide some context. In doing so I noted some of his former ministry associations, drawing an accusation that I was smearing particular people and groups--as if to suggest that they too must hold similar views to Harrell. This criticism seems to me to arise from a most uncharitable reading of what I wrote. But I am happy to clarify that my point was simply to note that Harrell is a product of reputable ministries and not a wild-eyed liberal whose trajectory bears no relevance to his former denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America). I do not mean to suggest that his former associates inevitably share his views. Likewise, if someone was to draw conclusions from my career it would be necessary to note my association with James Boice and Tenth Presbyterian Church. To do so would not be to tar Boice with my failings but simply to provide necessary context.

A second response to my post was to deny that there is validity to the idea of slippery slopes. My initial response to this criticism is to marvel that people can take this position in light of recent church history. Cue the Santayana reference! Still, the topic is important enough that I think it good to defend the position I took earlier.

First, let me define what I mean in referring to the slippery slope. The slippery slope simply notes that those who remove the restraint against worldly conformity place themselves in peril of further and more damaging accommodations. The slope becomes slippery when the source of friction is removed. Far from the logical fallacy of which it is charged, there is a logical basis for the slippery slope argument: when the authority of Scripture is yielded to cultural demands, the loss of that authority renders us vulnerable to further cultural demands. Herein lies the wisdom of Scripture: "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Ps. 11:3). Indeed, the very first Psalm begins with a portrayal of the slippery slope, charting a progression from "the counsel of the wicked" to "the way of sinners" and ultimately (one thinks of the so-called Jesus Box) to "the seat of scoffers" (Ps. 1:1).

In making these observations, I do not mean that anyone who changes his or her view in the direction of cultural preferences is irrevocably bound to further concessions. It is blessedly true that people and churches have taken a perilous step to the left (or right) and later reconsidered, and to note examples of this happening does not prove that their previous action had not been imperilled. It is because the slippery slope can be escaped by recommitting to Scripture that warnings of peril are of value. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that those who make any concessions to culture over Scripture have already abandoned the atonement of Christ. I am suggesting, however, that the slippery slope is...well, slippery. Those who remove traction from their feet may very well slide much further than they first thought possible. As Fred Harrell's progression illustrates (together with those of the PC(USA), CRC, RCA, Church of Scotland, and other denominations), the abandonment of clear biblical teaching at one cultural pressure-point (women's ordination), imperils us with further capitulations (homosexual acceptance), and if unchecked will find itself challenged to avoid "touching the Jesus Box."

Second, I noted that in our time, the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of women's ordination. This tendency is not surprising, since the assault of secular culture against the Bible is most tenaciously focused on gender and sexuality. To uphold biblical gender norms, including the Bible's clear teaching on male-only ordination (see the recent PCA study committee report), is the single most inflammatory position that Christians may hold in our culture. For this reason, it is hard to find an example in recent history when a Christian leader or church denomination moved from biblical conservatism to unbiblical cultural conformity when the slide did not begin with the ordination of women to church office. It stands to reason, then, that we should avoid thinking that we can conform to the worldly demands regarding gender and avoid further accommodations of greater significance.

This brings me to the topic of women deacons. Several critics accused me of asserting that to support the ordination of women to the office of deacon is to abandon the gospel. This response is noteworthy because I made no mention of women deacons in my post. I will admit, however, to being unpersuaded that the move to ordain women deacons is unrelated to a broader agenda of cultural accommodation. In saying this, I do not mean to question the sincerity of those individuals who advocate the position that women should hold the office of deacon. But I would note the growing tendency among these same persons to employ women in roles that are as associated with the office of elder. For example, in many churches pastored by ministers who are supportive of the ordination of women deacons, women are placed in the pulpit during worship services for the public reading of Scripture and to offer the congregational prayer. Women are assigned to distribute the elements of the Lord's Supper (an action historically associated with what the BCO calls "the admission of persons to sealing ordinances," i.e., church discipline). These are functions associated with the office of elders, not deacons. Moreover, it is a matter of record that increasing numbers of men are seeking exceptions from their presbyteries on the matter of women elders and pastors. Word has recently come that pressure is being exerted in one PCA presbytery to install a woman as its stated clerk, making her a member of a court composed exclusively of ruling and teaching elders. Where is the outcry against these tendencies from those who say that they are only wishing to ordain women as deacons?

In light of this growing body of evidence, and without wanting to question anyone's sincerity, I would suggest that unity and mutual trust are strengthened not only by assurances but by actions. The slippery slope runs in many directions, of course, depending on the cultural pressures. Everything I have noted about the gender pressures of the left, for instance, equally pertains to racist pressures on the right. If we are to have unity in the coming years, it behooves us all carefully to consider how our actions line up with our assurances. Moreover, since the sole restraint to all our sin and tendency to compromise is our obedience to the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Holy Scripture, the counsel given by Jeremiah at another moment of cultural of peril seems urgent: "Stand by the crossroads, and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (Jer. 6:16). In this way alone will we navigate the perils of our times, fortifying both our fidelity to Christ and our mutual bonds of unity and trust.


*One well-known pastor wrote me privately to accuse me of being schismatic. It is a feature of our times, I am afraid, that to defend the consensus on which we have built unity is to be labeled as divisive.

Double Black Diamonds: Navigating the Slopes


In his helpful blog post "The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box" Rev. Rick Phillips explains that there is indeed a slippery slope about which we must be concerned in theology.  I say indeed, because many will be aware that the slippery slope is typically considered a logical fallacy: one assumes that adoption of one position will lead to the adoption of another position, without showing causal relationship between the two.  However, if you can demonstrate a causal relationship then the argument becomes plausible.

In theology, it does indeed seem to be the case there is a valid concern regarding a weak doctrine of Scripture as a plausible slippery slope.  So Phillips writes: "It is the unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world's demands."

I would suggest that we label this type of slippery slope the Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.  The sin of our heart and the pressure of our culture place special tension upon those passages of Scripture that oppose them.  Jesus says, "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). But that does not mean that the world, our flesh and the Devil won't try.  As Phillips notes, in a culture hostile toward distinctions of roles based on gender, passages that restrict ordination to males will come under extreme pressure.  At the personal level, a person struggling deeply with sexual temptation may find special tension upon passages forbidding extra-marital sexual gratification.  When we are reading Scripture and feel this tension from without or from within we have three options before us:

(1)   In faith, we can let Scripture push back against the culture and the sin of our hearts.  Under the power of the Holy Spirit the living and active Word of God will wage war against the sin of our flesh and sustain us against the pressure of the culture.

(2)   In unbelief, we can reject the Scriptures entirely.  In some ways this is a position of integrity. Rather than twist the Scriptures, we own the reality that we no longer believe them.  It is ultimately foolish because we are rejecting the word of God, but it is an honest kind of foolish.

(3)   In self-deception, we could adopt hermeneutical strategies that allow us to yield to the flesh and the culture while attempting to hang on to our faith.  Unfortunately, there are a number of strategies to assist in this effort.  If one finds limits on women's ministry in Ephesus too restrictive (1st Tim. 2), emphasize the local and historical context in that city when Paul was writing while downplaying the normative aspects of Paul's argument which are intended to ground those restrictions in creation.  If clear prohibitions against homosexual sex are offensive, then look for local and historical reasons in Rome, Corinth or even throughout the Roman Empire that you may use to relativize what, on first reading, would appear to be normative for all people in every age.

Option three above is a Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.  It is valid to regard it a slippery slope because one cannot use one hermeneutic for one set of hard texts without applying the same method to other hard texts.  So we observe the slip and the slide: a change in one's view of women's ordination precedes a change in one's view on homosexuality. The hermeneutical strategies employed to arrive at those positions are very similar; indeed, in some cases identical. The slippery slope does not always materialize, but if it does not it is against the force of logic not with the force of logic.  This slip and slide won't stop at social issues either.  Miracles, the doctrine of the Trinity, and God's holy demand for justice will all come under the scrutiny of the world, the flesh and the Devil.  Indeed, we must be on guard against the Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.

But there is another type of slippery slope in theology and church life that is fallacious and spiritually dangerous.  It is akin to the way that the Pharisees read certain commandments, being sure to put a hedge around certain laws so as to not get even close to violating them.  We might call this slope the Slippery Slope of Fear. One may be tempted to react against a certain position for fear that it will lead to a more permissive position or action contrary to Scripture.  It is not the immediate position in question that is the concern, but fear of some future position that may come later.

On the Slippery Slope of Fear, however, Scripture is still not being honored.  Rather than breaking the Scripture, the one slipping down the Slope of Fear seeks to add to Scripture.  Some comfortable distance is located between his actual practice and what Scripture allows or encourages.  For example, one may choose to object to the Session appointing godly women to assist the deacons in ministry to the congregation not because it is unauthorized or unbiblical (it is authorized in BCO 9-7), but for fear that it will lead to women being ordained to the office of deacon or elder.  "Won't they just want to be deacons next, then elders?  Why get on that train?"

I have characterized this type of thinking to my own officers as the temptation to respond to error with its opposite.  It may feel right, but it is not right.  We don't respond to error by its opposite.  When the culture goes left we don't go right.  We go Biblical.  The Biblical response may be the natural opposite in some cases, but it is not always.  We must let Scripture guide us in responding to error or adopting policies and practices.  We should always endeavor not to add to God's word by placing additional burdens on people that God has not made clear in Scripture.

Discerning the Slippery Slope of Fear can get a little more complicated, however. The reason is that for some people positions that are a matter or wisdom can become Slippery Slopes of Fear when made normative for all people.  A common example is the consumption of alcohol.  There are those who cannot consume alcohol because they know that they will be led down a destructive path of addiction.  For them that position is a wise one to take. But to restrict all people from consuming alcohol because Scripture forbids drunkenness is to go down the Slope of Fear that any consumption of alcohol will lead to drunkenness.  Ultimately when we fail to discern the difference between matters of wisdom for individuals and matter of law for all we end up in a place of legalism: forbidding what God allows.  That distorts the gospel and creates an unhealthy church culture too.

Next time you are in a theological or pastoral discussion of whether an issue or decision is a slippery slope try to discern whether it is a Hermeneutical Slippery Slope or a Slippery Slope of Fear.  In both cases the Scriptures are not given the clear and final word in matters of faith and practice.

The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box


Over twenty years ago, while in seminary, I was present during a hallway conversation with a professor who then seemed to be moving toward liberal theology. A student asked how this man's higher critical methods would enable him to remain a Christian. The professor gave quite the revealing answer: "I have a Jesus Box that I never touch." By this, he meant that he had drawn a line of piety around his faith in Jesus to keep out the implications of his liberal scholarship. I remember thinking at the time how vain was this hope. Method always gobbles up message, and no pietistic zeal will ever protect us from our actual lack of faith. That professor has long since moved on, and from his seat in a liberal college he has not surprisingly revised his former evangelical faith in Jesus.

This conversation came to mind yesterday when I learned of Fred Harrell's tweet endorsing a denial of Christ's propitiation on the cross.1 He commented: "As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice." The article to which Harrell linked, written by Derek Vreeland on Missio Alliance, asks: "Is the Cross Even Necessary?" Informed readers will recognize the argument made here, which amounts to a blend of Abelard's moral influence theory and the New Perspective on Paul.

More interesting than Vreeland's standard denial of penal substitutionary atonement is Fred Harrell's endorsement. Trained in ministry under Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Harrell planted a high-profile and well-funded PCA church in San Francisco in 1997. His career charted a path that progressive ministers in the PCA long to emulate: RUF campus minister; associate at progressive-leaning urban church; pioneering church plant in a progressive city. In 2006, Harrell led City Church out of the PCA and into the liberal RCA on account of a change of heart regarding the ordination of women (which the PCA does not permit). At the time, defenders chalked up the change to the pressures of charity in an uber-progressive setting. In 2015, however, Harrell announced that City Church had changed its view on homosexuality, so as to "no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation." Harrell insisted that City Church had not abandoned its high view of Scripture. Yet it was clear from Harrell's explanation that the shift resulted from factors other than more careful exegesis: LGBT men and women were coming to the church, wanting to be Christian while also enjoying homosexual marriage; Harrell lamented hearing "stories of harm" resulting from the church's rejection of homosexuality; and based on "pastoral conversations and social science research," he and his elders decided to change their view of Scripture's teaching. Those who defended Harrell argued, "What's the harm if they are trying to reach people for the gospel?" Yesterday's tweet supplies the answer: the method of cultural accommodation in theology and Bible interpretation eats up the gospel and demands that it, too, accommodate to the doctrines of the world.

What are some of the lessons of Fred Harrell's progression from the ordination of women to the acceptance of homosexuality and now, apparently, to the rejection of penal substitutionary atonement and the propitiation of Christ? I can think of at least three:

  1. There is such a thing as a slippery slope in theology and faith. While this claim infuriates progressives, Fred Harrell serves as exhibit no. 4,742. What is the slippery slope? It is the unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world's demands.
  2. In the late-20th century and early 21st century, the slippery slope has tended to begin over the issue of women's ordination. The reason for this is not because there is something especially nefarious about women being ordained, but because this is the point of maximum cultural outrage at which progressives have tended to capitulate. "We will never accommodate homosexuality," they then cry, "and we will certainly never abandon an evangelical understanding of the gospel." Yet - let the PCA beware! - the fact is that the cost of abandoning the clear biblical teaching of male-only ordination is the abandonment of the authority of Scripture against all further demands of secular culture. As Paul Gilbert once wrote about Harrell: "The principles of biblical interpretation employed in embracing the ordination of women opens the door wide for these same principles to be employed in more devious ways in relation to the core doctrines of Scripture."
  3. Yes, the slippery slope will destroy your "Jesus Box." In short, it is not an aberration that Fred Harrell has tweeted in rejection of penal substitutionary atonement and the doctrine of propitiation. It was only a matter of time. And this will not be the end. Harrell's example adds just one more straw that is breaking the camel's back in proving where the slippery slope ends up: in a blatant rejection of the very gospel, on behalf of which well-meaning progressive Christians called themselves humble, gracious, and open-minded--when, in fact, they were proudly and callously abandoning the authority of God through his Word.

Natural Law and the Public Square


Being fully committed to the Protestant Reformed tradition--especially as it is represented at Westminster Theological Seminary--I have developed a basic understanding of natural law theories over the years. If by "natural law" we mean a moral order that is (a) revealed by God in nature, (b) stands behind conscience, (c) obligates all people to worship and obey Him, and (d) is sufficient to leave all without excuse and liable to divine judgment for sin, then I affirm it. However, one standard theistic account of natural law (NL) as a moral theory goes further. This account claims that all people can not only apprehend certain moral truths by unaided reason - apart from biblical revelation - but that people can, in principle, espouse and properly act upon those truths, again, apart from saving grace. It's this feature of NL theory--perhaps the critical feature, it seems to me--that allegedly opens up "common ground" for Christians to cooperate with people of other faiths (or of no faith at all) on issues pertaining to the "common good."

Now, I have learned to leave the majority of negative assessments to my colleague and resident pessimist, Carl Trueman. But I must say that, from a Reformed perspective, this additional claim by many Natural Law theorists runs into a number of obstacles. I wish to briefly mention two.

I believe this aspect of the Natural Law theory in view--that people can reason their way to actionable truths apart from God's special revelation--is too optimistic about the powers of unaided reason after the fall. The general revelation of God in nature and beneath conscience must be "carefully distinguished from the reaction that sinful man makes to this revelation" (Van Til). The apostle Paul says that unbelievers "suppress the truth" that they know (including the truth of their moral obligation to God), that they are, at root, "hostile to God" (Rom 8:7); that they have become "futile in their thinking" (Rom 1:21). They are, Paul says elsewhere, "darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart" (Eph 4:18).

These are hard words, no doubt. But they point to one side of what has been called the "antithesis" between belief and unbelief, a moral and spiritual conflict of basic commitments that touch all that Christians and non-Christians think about and discuss. According to this Scriptural principle, fallen man is slavishly committed to his own moral autonomy, while Christians are to view all things under the Lordship of Christ and the light of His Word. This means that, at the deepest level, there is no mutually acknowledged common ground between Christian and non-Christian. And this, it seems to me, leaves NL proponents calling for peace when there is no peace.

This is not to deny that by God's common grace, many unbelievers are immensely gifted and do morally upright things--often outstripping many Christians in good deeds. But such acts do not spring from an essentially unfallen rational ability, in principle, to discern and apply precepts of natural law. Rather, it is God who mercifully restrains the unbeliever's hostility against Him, so that the unbeliever is led, to some degree, to live inconsistently with his moral depravity. So common grace may facilitate a kind of formal agreement between the Christian and non-Christian. But common grace remains just that--grace. God gives it when and where He wills. You can't count on it as a foundation for public policy. This is a second reason why, I think, the NL theory I have in mind is a non-starter for programmatically advancing public morality.

To close on a positive note, Christians should confidently reason from Scripture in all of life, including life in the public square--rather than appeal to fallen unaided reason. We should do it because failing to do it leads, at best, to what we could call various forms of "well-articulated pragmatism." We should do it because God designed for us to read His general and special revelation together, never to separate the two. But Christians should reason from Scripture, above all, because it is there that we meet the Christ in whom are hidden "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:3), including wisdom for the public square. Such a Christ-centered theology for the public square, I think, better comports with what God says to us, and does not depend on what we say to ourselves.

*This post is a slightly revised version of the opening remarks Dr. Wynne offered during a panel discussion on natural law at a "Faith in the Public Square" conference at Westminster Theological Seminary in October 2016.

The Greek Orthodox Answer Man?

The news of Hank Hanegraaff's conversion to the Greek Orthodox faith has--not surprisingly--elicited a variety of responses from individuals online. On Twitter, one controversial progressive pastor welcomed Hanegraaff (quite ironically, I would add) to "a greater tradition than biblicism." Christianity Today featured an article in which the author drew the conclusion that "Hanegraaff's conversion gives evangelicals one more bridge to Orthodoxy." A Protestant blogger has sarcastically suggested that "Hanegraaff...should try doing his radio program for a month while relying strictly on Orthodox resources." The spectrum of opinions has been exceedingly wide ranging; yet, very few have dealt, in any substantive way, with what the Greek Orthodox Church actually believes. It seems to me that before any of us draw conclusions about Hanegraaff's "conversion," we should want to understand that to which he has "converted." 

Frank Gavin--the Anglican Priest and noted Orthodox scholar--has written a thorough and trustworthy Systematic Theology of Greek Orthodox dogma that goes under the title Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Orthodox Thought. The breadth of this work serves as a helpful resource to which one may turn when seeking to answer the question, "What does the Greek Orthodox Church believe?" While all pastors and seminarians should do themselves the enormous favor of working through the totality of this work, I want to limit this post to a brief consideration of what the Greek Orthodox Church believes about authority, justification and the nature of the Church. 

Under the heading "Sources of Dogma," Gavin noted that in the Orthodox Church, Scripture and tradition "are of equal weight." In the Orthodox Catechism, we read, "Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Apostolic preaching and is found in Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles." As the Greek Orthodox theologian, Chrestos Androutsos, has put it in his Dogmatics, "Holy Tradition is not only the continuation of the Word of God contained in Holy Writ, but also the trustworthy guide and interpreter of it." Just as the Roman Catholic Church places additional sources of authority on par with Scripture, so too does the Orthodox Church. This, of course, lays the foundation for the Greek Orthodox Church's deviation from biblical Christianity. 

Since human tradition is placed side by side with Scripture, it should not surprise us to discover that similarities exist between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of justification. In contradiction to the Protestant belief that Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the Orthodox Church teaches that "Justification as an actual change in man is both the doing away with sin and guilt, and the implanting of a new life...negatively, the remission of sins, and positively, sanctification." The implication of such teaching is found in the Orthodox belief that one may lose his or her justification before God. Androutsos noted, "no one may be sure of his own salvation nor may he predict with certainty that he will be able to keep himself from grievous sins in the future and remain in (the state of) justification." Such semi-Pelagian views of soteriology are consistent with the Orthodox Church's views of authority. 

The Greek Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, also embraces the idea that it is the "one true Church"--as over against all other visible organizations that bear the title "Church." Gavin explained:

"The notion of an invisible and ideal church, of which the various bodies of Christians formed into distinct organizations and calling themselves 'Churches', are partial and incomplete embodiments, is utterly foreign to Orthodox teaching and to historical and biblical authority."

In Orthodox belief, there is only one visible Church made up of the invisible Church of the faithful. "To be outside of the Orthodox Church," wrote Gavin "is to be outside of the sphere in which the Holy Spirit works through the sacraments. Orthodoxy acknowledges no sacraments as valid save those of the one true Church, that is, herself. To do so would be to acknowledge the parity and equality of heretics and schismatics with the Catholic Church, which, as will be seen, she may not do. But in cases where the Orthodox Church has deemed it for the good and need of souls, she may as 'the sovereign over the sacraments...according to circumstances change invalid rites into valid sacraments.' This she does by 'economy' when she deviates from her normal and strict manner of administration. It is impossible to discover the principle governing the use of 'economy' in this matter, nor is there a rationale to determine the exercise of 'economy' in any given case. Yet the Church exercises this right as mistress of the Grace of God, and has allowed as valid the baptism of heretics, which normally and regularly she pronounces entirely invalid. It is not a question of the due matter and form, or of the proper intention: a body even with formally valid orders outside the Church has lost the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by whose agency only the Sacraments become realities."

While there are striking similarities in their beliefs about the nature of the church, the Orthodox Church sees itself in strident opposition to Rome. Herman Bavinck has helpfully summarized the dissimilarities that exist between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox conception of the church, when he wrote: 

"The Greek Orthodox conception of the Church is closely related to that of the Roman Catholics, and yet differs from it in some important points. That Church does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church as the true Church, but claims that honor for itself. There is but one true Church, and that Church is the Greek Orthodox. While it acknowledges with greater frankness than the Roman Catholics the two different aspects of the Church, the visible and the invisible, it nevertheless places the emphasis on the Church as an external organization. It does not find the essence of the Church in her as the community of the saints, but in the Episcopal hierarchy, which it has retained, while rejecting the Papacy. The infallibility of the Church is maintained, but this infallibility resides in the bishops, and therefore in the ecclesiastical councils and synods."

The Orthodox Church asserts unique ownership of doctrinal infallibility--as Gavin explained: 

"All Orthodox formularies and pronouncements claim clearly and distinctly that the Orthodox Church has kept the Faith immaculate and intact, without addition or subtraction, without alteration or omission, as taught by Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Inasmuch as the holding to the Faith 'as once delivered to the Saints' constitutes one of the fundamental and essential notes of the Church, deviation from true teaching involves loss of continuity with the life of the Church.

Androutsos set out the rationale for the Orthodox Church's belief in its own infallibility when he wrote: "It is an obvious truth that this Church (the Orthodox Church) is now the only Church which remains faithful to the ancient Ecumenical Councils, and in consequence she alone represents the true Catholic Church of Christ, which is infallible." 

It is my hope that the citations above will serve to introduce our readers to a few, very basic elements of the dogma of the Orthodox Church. In regard to its beliefs about authority, justification and the nature of the Church, the Greek Orthodox Church differs very little from Roman Catholicism--though it has a longstanding commitment to the denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church. Now that it has an "Answer Man" who can serve as its media apologist, it is possible (though highly unlikely) that we will get a careful treatment of Greek Orthodox dogma. After all, laying bare its beliefs will not likely win many who are interesting in getting answers about what God has said in His word. 

A few weeks ago, I participated in a conference which explored the promise that careful attention to Protestantism's past holds for Protestantism's future. It was exciting to see scholars, students, and interested laypersons gathered around a common concern for the future of our various Reformation-based communions, and a common conviction that our past holds significant resources for navigating the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Too many of this years Reformation-themed events, I fear, will prove to be little more than Protestant pep rallies, championing slogans rather than critical engagement with the past. Such pep rallies will likely do more long-term damage than good to Protestantism, leaving folk enthused but neither informed about Protestantism's core convictions nor equipped to maintain those convictions moving forward. The pep rallies will draw large crowds and turn large profits for those hosting them. But the enthusiasm they generate will fade away (like the proverbial "camp high," or the applause at the end of a celebrity Christian's conference talk), and will leave the formerly enthused exposed to stock criticisms of Protestantism and susceptible to the siren call of communions with purportedly deeper roots, greater stability, more serious or beautiful worship of God, etc. The smaller events characterized by genuinely thoughtful conversation about where we've come from and where we're going will draw smaller crowds, but will serve the church far better in the long run. "C'est la vie," as Calvin never said at a conference he never spoke at.

In any case, one of the issues that generated much conversation among those who attended this conference last weekend was that of how Protestants should understand and properly relate to Protestant tradition as well as the broader (catholic) Christian tradition from whence Protestantism originated. How, in other words, can we respect and afford due weight to the theological ruminations and the practices of our forefathers in every age without turning those ruminations and practices into a doctrinal and/or liturgical straightjacket in our age? How can we steer a safe path between the Scylla of those who elevate Tradition to the status of an infallible voice in the life of the church and the Charybdis of the chronological snobs who would, without a second thought, gag the saints who have gone before us?

In chewing over these questions the past several days, it seems to me that a healthy understanding and appropriation of both our Protestant and our larger, catholic past corresponds with a right understanding of Scripture's authority and the respective roles that individual interpreters and ecclesiastical bodies play in the interpretation of Scripture's teaching. We need, in other words, to be clear on what the Protestant principle sola Scriptura means (and, perhaps more significantly, doesn't mean) before we can think clearly about how to approach tradition.

Fortunately, good resources exist for helping us understand precisely what sola Scriptura meant to the reformers who established that principle and the orthodox divines of subsequent centuries who upheld it, as well as what it should (but doesn't always) mean to us as present-day Protestants. Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura (2001) and Michael Allen and Scott Swain's Reformed Catholicity (2015) should, I think, be required reading for every person signing on the dotted line of Protestantism in our time. Both works do an excellent job of defining sola Scriptura, and of pointing us, in that process, towards a right way of understanding and appropriating "tradition" in its various manifestations.

But we would be remiss (particularly so, given the topic at hand) not to note older resources that might help us think carefully about what Protestantism's claim regarding Scripture's ultimate authority has and hasn't meant in Protestant history (and thus, should and shouldn't mean today!). One such resource, easily accessible online both in its original Latin and in English translation, is John Calvin's 1547 work Acta synodi Tridentinae cum antidoto ("Acts of the Synod of Trent with the Antidote").

Calvin wrote his "antidote" to Trent in 1547, one year after the Council of Trent had clarified Rome's understanding of the respective authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church's Magisterium. Needless to say, perhaps, Calvin was keen to discredit Rome's insistence upon granting Tradition an equal role with Scripture in speaking infallibly into the life of the Church, and her insistence upon naming the Magisterium as the infallible interpreter of both Tradition and Scripture. But he was equally keen to make it clear that he and his fellow reformers had no intent of disregarding insights into Scripture's meaning advanced by the church in the previous 1500 years. Indeed, they had every intention, he argues, of submitting entirely to the authority of those insights.

"In order to cast obloquy upon us," Calvin writes, "they are wont to charge us with arrogating the interpretation of Scripture to ourselves, in order that there may be no check on our licentiousness. [...] [But] there is none of us who does not willingly submit his lucubrations to the judgment of the Church. Therefore we neither contemn the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."

The force of Calvin's rather remarkable statement here is considerably lessened by the rather unfortunate, 19th century choice to translate the latin lucubrationes with "lucubrations," an obvious English derivative of its Latin counterpart, but a word that no normal person knows. Strictly speaking, "lucubrations" name the results of study by lamplight. In context, it's clear that Calvin is referring to insights into Scripture's meaning obtained by evangelicals, insights obtained not by facile appeals to Spirit-induced aha! moments but by Spirit-led labor late into the night. In other words, lucubrationes refer to careful and informed judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. And, remarkably, Calvin insists upon the willingness of all within the evangelical party to submit those judgments to the church's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning.

Of course, Calvin's comment raises the question "who or what is meant by 'church'?" Although he doesn't unpack the point in much detail here, it's clear that Calvin has a more expansive understanding of "church" than his Roman opponents. His opponents, he notes, include in their definition of "church" only those who acknowledge "Cephas as [the church's] head," and ultimately encourage all, in aiming to understand Scripture, to submit themselves to "whatever dreaming monks" determine Scripture to say. When Calvin speaks of the "church," he has in mind rather the "Church [that] Scripture itself portrays," a body that, for instance, includes the vast number of Christians through the centuries who would not have been able to give unequivocal support to the claims made regarding Rome by Trent.

In any case, I wonder how many Protestants today would be willing to admit Calvin's point regardless of how "church" is properly defined? How many Protestants today, that is, could (or would) insist upon their own readiness to submit their determinations about Scripture's meaning to "the judgment of the Church." Calvin's argument does not disallow individuals to obtain new insights into Scripture's meaning, nor to share them with others. It does, however, force the individual to bow before the authority of a collective majority in assessing such insights, a pill few individuals in our time will swallow easily. Self-idolatry in our day very often takes the form of every individual thinking that he or she knows best, even (or perhaps especially) in the matter of reading and understanding God's Word.

Perhaps, as Protestants, its time we got our lucubrations in line. Doing so might give us a more credible position against the extravagant claims of Rome regarding her right and ability to translate the Bible. It might, for instance, give us a more credible response to the charge that Protestantism creates 900 million popes over against Rome's one. The sooner we tame our lucubrations the better. The health and future of Protestantism may depend on it.

Why You Don't Read Your Bible

According to Søren Kierkegaard's analysis of spiritual despair in Sickness unto Death, in terms of faith (see the first post in this series) and consciousness (part 2 and part 3), despair is the universal condition of being without God and hope in the world (Eph. 2:12). It is crucial to note that this concept of despair is "psychological" in the older spiritual sense and having to do with one's soul and not in the more contemporary sense of having to do only with one's mental or emotional self-consciousness. One can be in spiritual despair, in other words, without presenting any of the symptoms we commonly associate with psychological despair.

Spiritual despair, he contends, just is the faithless posture of not resting oneself transparently in God. As such, despair is unbelief before God (coram Deo) which is both sinful in itself and integral to all other sinning insofar as "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23; cf. Heb. 11:6). Spiritual despair, then, is always present to some degree wherever faith is imperfect, no matter if one is conscious of being in despair or not. Since not even those under grace are perfect in faith, some degree of despair remains; what is more, in our weakness we continue to wrestle with a kind of false consciousness of despair insofar as we doubt the sufficiency of the saving grace of God for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, because Jesus Christ is an all-sufficient savior for us the believer's despair is baseless, which only makes it all the more perverse, offensive, and pernicious.

So far Kierkegaard's analysis of despair coram Deo; my point here and in the next post is that this same spiritual dynamic is at work before Scripture (coram Scriptura). Exegetical despair, if you will, is often just spiritual despair before God operative in the act of reading and handling his word. This is because whenever we come before this text we come before God, who is "speaking in the Scripture" (WCF 1.10): coram Scriptura, coram Deo. If we are in any degree of despair coram Deo, the spiritual dynamics of despair will certainly be intensely at work coram Scriptura.

Despair Coram Scriptura: Not to Read

For this reason, Kierkegaard muses, most people in Christendom never read the Bible at all (For Self-Examination, 33). This is not because they don't have access to God's word but because they willfully neglect it as it remains boxed up in the attic or sits on the shelf or end table or nightstand, or constantly loses out to the news or latest television program or novel, or whatever else people choose to do instead of ever taking up and actually reading God's word. The excuses to put off reading the Bible are apparently endless--and often astonishingly pathetic--but the underlying reason is often spiritual despair.

Not reading the Bible may be the practice of one who is oblivious to being in despair. Perhaps they even reason that it's only addressed to the despairing--those who need some kind of spiritual crutch to get along in life--which is not who they imagine themselves to be. They even imagine themselves to e happy enough for those who've found help in Scripture, but they don't need help at the moment or at least the Bible, they tell themselves, doesn't offer them the kind help they think they need. This, of course, is not just the ruminating of unbelievers, though it is certainly the ruminating unbelief; many believers also often think and act this way, only resorting to their Bibles when something seems amiss in life.

But not reading God's word also may be the preferred strategy of others who are actively trying to suppress their consciousness of being in despair, as we all do but for the grace of God. Some are so disturbed by this word that they become militant about eliminating every display or reminder of it--or try to undermine the ministry of faithful preachers and teachers of it. As Kierkegaard confesses: "To be alone with Holy Scripture! I dare not!" (FSE, 31). That is the secret stance of many non-readers, and not reading the Bible is, to this way of thinking, the safest way to avoid the consciousness of despair. It should not surprise us if not reading the Bible is by far the most widely adopted strategy before Scripture; it's a dangerous book to anyone who would be comfortable in sin.


While declining to read the Bible is hardly an exegetical strategy, it is still an act of despair before Scripture. Far more importantly, it is a temptation to every one of us--no matter how studied or long in the Bible-reading habit we may be. "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). God uses this word to strip away all our masks, pretensions, and illusions--all those ways we imagine ourselves to be or pretend to be but are not--and to show us our sin, our despair, all our faithless, hopeless, and joyless ways before him--how, despite the clarity of the gospel, we continue to live, study, and even minister as if we have no hope and are without Christ in this world. And when the Spirit does show us ourselves in the mirror of this "perfect law of liberty," as James writes, we have just two options: to turn away offended and try to forget what we saw or to persevere in faith, laying hold of the benediction in Christ.

Praying Through the Scriptures: Joshua 24; Acts 4

Over the years it has been my practice, learned from others, to offer up praises and petitions framed by a passage of Scripture. Some of these passages were read in preparation for preaching, others offered material for meditation in daily devotion; still others were plundered specifically for the purpose of finding fresh material for prayer. As I continue to learn how to pray I have shared a few prayers with my family and friends for their use or adaptation. Here is the fifth prayer--based on Joshua 24--in a series on Praying Through the Scriptures:

"Father in heaven, long ago you wrested Abraham from the grip of idolatry, delivered your people at the Red Sea, and preserved them in the wilderness. You reversed the curses of Balaak and issued blessings through Balaam. You gave your people a home they did not build, and food they did not earn. Surely, there is no one like you; surely there is no one who saves as you save.

And now in these latter days you have done even more. You have taken us from our idolatry, delivered your people at Calvary, and continue to preserve us in the wilderness of this world. When our accuser would curse us, you bless us. It is because of you alone that we are now destined for a home that is not our making, and that we will be welcomed at a feast that you yourself will spread. Surely, there is salvation in no else but Jesus; surely there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved and eternally blessed.

And so as we count our blessings, help us Lord to serve you in sincerity and in faithfulness. Help us to be able to say, "as for me, and my house, we will serve the Lord." Help us never to deal falsely with you who are so true to us. Help us to do what is right in your sight.

And as we recall our salvation and your sustaining hand, give us the grace to share what we have seen and heard and experienced. Grant us the grace to speak with all boldness. Please fill us with your Holy Spirit to that end. In Jesus name we give you this praise and ask you these favours. AMEN."

Praying Through the Scriptures: Joshua 23

Over the years it has been my practice, learned from others, to offer up praises and petitions framed by a passage of Scripture. Some of these passages were read in preparation for preaching, others offered material for meditation in daily devotion; still others were plundered specifically for the purpose of finding fresh material for prayer. As I continue to learn how to pray I have shared a few prayers with my family and friends for their use or adaptation. Here is the fourth prayer--based on Joshua 23--in a series on "Praying Through the Scriptures:"

"Lord, you are my God, and I know in my heart and soul that not one word has failed of all the good things that you have promised. All you have declared would come to pass has come to pass. But Father, I know that you are as faithful in your blessings as you are in your chastisements. And so help me to be warned and encouraged by the consistency of your character and by the reliability of your actions.

Lord, you have granted me an inheritance; you are the one who has fought for me. And so give me a grateful heart and the strength - make me very strong! - to keep and to do what is written in your holy book. Help me not to leave the straight path that you have appointed, but to focus on your promises and then your precepts. Help me to cling to you at the end as I did at the first, for I know that I too will one day go the way of all the earth. Help me to be very careful to love you. Keep me from the snares and traps which surround me lest I sin against you and bring shame on your name and grief on myself. Help me by your Holy Spirit we pray.

Father, forgive me - and all your people -- for the sins that we have already committed. Forgive us for conforming to the world around us, for drifting towards what you call evil, for not treasuring what you call good. Forgive me for your Holy Son's sake I pray. Amen."

Note: This short prayer has an earnest, even desperate tone to it - as does Joshua 23. Some attempt has been made to capture the serious warnings of Scripture at this important juncture in the history of Israel. Perhaps it is just what some of us need to pray too, at this point in our lives.

Nothing Like It in All the World

Recently, in my Bible reading, I came to the book of Jonah (I've been working through the Minor Prophets). It struck me how remarkable this message is compared to everything else in the ancient world. Homer was a contemporary of Jonah (mid 8th century b.c.), and his epic books of the early Grecian world fascinate readers today with themes of war and peace, honor and disgrace, love and hatred. A few decades later, Hesiod would put down the definitive version of Greek mythology, starting with the god Chaos and ending up with the petty, self-absorbed deities of the pantheon. In such radical contrast, Jonah tells of the prophet's frustration with God amidst the terrors of the Assyrian threat to Israel. What is Jonah's complaint? That God has grace for the wicked. The Lord sends his prophet to preach judgment to the capital of the enemy nation. But Jonah knows the Lord intends mercy through repentance and faith. The final chapter of Jonah explores the pathos of a holy man who struggles to embrace the surpassing grace of a God who forgives the ungodly out of his own wellspring of love. As literature, where will you find something to rival this message, which is also the sacred revelation of the true and living God?

I wonder as we read our Bibles, returning to long-familiar books like Jonah, if we realize that we are encountering a message that is like nothing else in all the world. Where else will you discover that your own sin is the great problem of your life - not the sins of others and the petty squabbles about which you obsess - and that a God of love is working in you to surrender to his grace. Where else in all the world will you discover a message that tells you to rest in the mercy of God and spread his gospel of hope to all the world? The answer is that there is nothing like the Word of God in all the world. As Micah marveled right around the time that Hesiod was conjuring up tales of Zeus and his cronies: "Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing mercy" (Mic. 7:18). There is no God like our God. There is nothing in all the world so marvelous and true as his gospel of grace.

Subordination in Scripture: κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3

Perhaps the text that is closest to the heart of the ESS (eternal subordination of the Son) debate is found in 1 Corinthians 11:3. The prominence of this text is in large measure due to the manner in which it supposedly provides the basis for a connection between the relationship between the Father and the Son and that which exists between the man and the woman. While this apparent parallel has previously provided for some a helpful analogy by which to resist the charge that complementarian theology maintains the inequality of the sexes, more recently this analogy has come to assume a greater theological centrality and to bear more theological weight.

As this text has increasingly become architectonically foundational to the complementarian edifice for many, a great deal of effort has been required to shore it up against challenge. Wayne Grudem stands out as someone who has particularly worked to reinforce and tighten the bond between each element of this complementarian use of the text: he has written at length on the relations of authority and submission between man and woman, has argued for such relations in the Trinity, and has extensively treated the meaning of the Greek word κεφαλή (typically translated 'head') in this and other key verses, insisting that it has the import of 'one in authority (over)'.

At such points, the exegete is at considerable risk of being blown off course by the crosswinds of the gender debates. I do not believe it accidental that gender debates have increasingly come to focus upon the questions concerning the meanings, not just of particular proof-texts, but of isolated words and phrases. Slight differences in translation are used to justify remarkably different accounts of appropriate relations between the sexes. Different sides of the debates can construct vast theological edifices upon the slender pinnacles of terms such asכנגדו עזר in Genesis 2:18 or התשוק in Genesis 3:16, for instance.

This can occur for various reasons. For some, it accompanies the attempt to kick the debate into the long grass of hopelessly contestable exegesis, thereby preventing Scripture from playing a deciding role in our conversations. When so many interpretations are floating around, Scripture can no longer arbitrate and personal choice--with its tendentious, eccentric, and often wilful readings of particular texts and terms--steps in to take its place.

For others, it results from the desire for incontrovertible readings that can decide the gender debates in our favour, or for proof-texts that will serve as a foundation for our systems. When our reading of Scripture is framed by controversy, we can easily be tempted to focus our efforts upon looking for unambiguous and explicit scriptural propositions, proof-text pillars for the superstructure of our theological positions. This quest is frequently misguided and unhelpful. It has the tendency to concentrate weight that should be more widely distributed. The strength of biblical teaching lies less in a number of large and visible proof-text trunks than in the deep and extensive root system of scriptural narrative and intertextuality beneath them. Cut off from this root system, proof-text trunks can easily be toppled. Furthermore, Scripture rarely forces its meanings upon those wilfully resistant to it, even though those with ears and hearts to hear will do so.

The need for a sturdy proof-text pillar for complementarian theology can put considerable pressure upon a term such as κεφαλή. I believe that such scholars as Grudem unhelpfully downplay the multivalency of this term, a multivalency that is important to Paul's argument in the immediate context (where more metaphorical senses of the term in verse 3 are purposefully brought into connection with literal senses of the term in the verses that follow). Literary word play and expansive breadth of meaning may not be especially welcome when we are looking for clear theological propositions. However, multivalency need not entail ambiguity: multivalency can bring a different sort of clarity, as it establishes illuminating relationships between concepts, realities, and images, rather than detaching them from each other and analysing them individually.

I mention this pressure for singularity and extreme clarity in the meaning of terms in large part because this pressure can produce a secondary impulse towards theological univocity when interpreting the statements 'the κεφαλή of woman is man' and 'the κεφαλή of Christ is God'. Where this impulse exists, a far closer relation between the headship of God with respect to Christ and the headship of the man with respect to the woman may be drawn than would have been drawn otherwise.

I have been persuaded by Andrew Perriman and others (including Gregory Dawes and Anthony Thiselton) that, in the metaphorical uses of the term under consideration, κεφαλή does not mean 'one in authority over' or 'source', but refers to 'the dimension of visibility, prominence, eminence, social superiority' (Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, 33). Of course, in many of the instances of the use of the term, authority over may be contextually connoted, but this is not what the term itself actually means.

Even were we to take the description of the relationship between 'Christ' and God in 1 Corinthians 11:3 to apply to the eternal relations of the Trinity, this recognition may unsettle the ESS case at this juncture. Rather than claiming that the Father has 'authority over' the Son in the Trinity, it might be making a weaker claim about the priority of the Father, as the 'first person' of the Trinity, the one of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit proceeds.

This shift in translation/interpretation may suggest further changes in our understanding of the relationships being discussed. When κεφαλή is interpreted as 'one in authority (over)' it typically functions as a polarizing term, setting one party over against the other in each of the pairings in 1 Corinthians 11:3: one party exercises authority over the other, who responds with submission. For instance, 'the κεφαλή of every man is Christ' would mean that Christ hierarchically exercises authority over every man. However, slightly shift the meaning of κεφαλή and suddenly, rather than place Christ over against every man, Christ may be set forth as the one preeminent among us: the firstborn of many brethren, the firstborn from the dead, the one Man who works on our behalf, the one who represents us in human flesh in the heavenly places, the one in whose name and power we act.

Although it is not my intention to explore this point here, it should also be noted that such a change may have important implications for the way that we conceive biblical teaching concerning relations between man and woman.

There is still undoubtedly an authority involved, but this change is a very significant one: κεφαλή becomes a term describing an empowering union, not just a hierarchical relation. The temptation to read 1 Corinthians 11:3 in terms of a chain of hierarchies is a real one. However, this temptation, as Francis Watson has observed, is challenged even by the ordering of the text itself, which disrupts any such chain by listing the pairings out of expected sequence.

In my next post, I will continue to reflect upon 1 Corinthians 11:3 and some of the other texts under discussion.

Scripture, Slavery, and Social Activism

Last year I finished a short sermon series on the book of Ephesians. One of the sections of Ephesians which I approached with a sense of fear and trepidation was that which deals with the relationship between masters and slaves (Eph. 6:5-9). After all, in our racially super-charged culture, how does one even mention the subject of slavery without immediately losing his hearing? Nevertheless, we still have to face the thorny question of how the Apostle Paul seemed to accept slavery as an institution in his day--rather than insist that it is the responsibility of the church to overthrow it. While many related subjects on the issue of slavery in the Old Testament and in Paul's day deserve careful treatment (i.e. the Exodus, the deliverance built into the law concerning slavery in Ex. 21, indentured servitude vs man-stealing and the Apostolic teaching on abolition in 1 Cor. 7), I found Martyn Lloyd-Jones's sermons on Ephesians 6:5-9 to be among the richest and most carefully developed treatments of this subject that I came across. Of particular interest is the way in which he sought to balance the role of the church and the role of individual believers in regard to social activism. 

At the outset, Lloyd-Jones sought to explain the purport of Ephesians 6:5-9: 

"Christianity is not concerned to condone such practices as slavery, it is not here as a defense of the status quo....The Bible's concern, Christianity's concern, is as to how the Christian should react to these things, and how he is to live in such a world as this. That is the essence of the teaching, and we have it here. Paul, when he comes to 'servants and masters', does not begin to give his views as a Christian on the question of slavery. 'Servants', he says, 'be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye service...' In other words his one interest is as to how they are to conduct themselves as Christians in that situation. Likewise with the masters. 'You masters, do the same unto them, forbearing threatening.' He does not tell them to give up their slaves; instead, he says, 'Do not threaten them, do not be unkind, do not be cruel to them, "knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with Him".'1 

Anticipating the immediate reactions, Lloyd-Jones continued:

"Someone may ask, 'Well then, what about improving conditions? Are you not in reality simply taking up, after all, a defense of that status quo? You say you are not doing that, but in effect you are doing so. You are saying that the Christian is not be concerned about the conditions, but that he should concentrate on Christ-like behavior in the conditions'. The answer to this question is quite plain. It is not the business of the church to be concerned about improving conditions; her business always is to be laying down the biblical principles I have been expounding. She should never attack the circumstances and the conditions directly. But, at the same time, that does not mean that the individual Christian as a citizen of a country should not be concerned about improving conditions. There, it seems to me, is the dividing line. The individual Christian is never to take the law into his own hands, he is never to act as an individual. But that does not mean that as a citizen of the country to which he belongs he is not entitled to take part in improving the circumstances and conditions in which he and others live.2 

Of course, this still leaves the question opened as to whether or not Christians have a responsibility to work against the evils and injustices of a given society. Lloyd-Jones proceeded to answer this question when he said: 

"It works in the following way. The Christian message is primarily concerned to produce Christians. It preaches its Gospel, it convicts men of sin, it calls them to Jesus' blood, it brings them to this Word by which they can be born again by the power of the Spirit, it changes men. Then, having changed them in that way, it goes on to teach them these great principles. That is the direct task and business of the church. But as the church does that, she is indirectly doing something else; she is obviously influencing the whole personality of such people--their mind, their thinking, their understanding. And the moment that begins to happen to men they begin to see things in a different way and they begin to apply their thinking to daily living."3

Finally, Lloyd-Jones set forth William Wilberforce, the great 19th Century Brittish Philanthropists and abolitionist, as an example of this principle. He noted: 

"There is not a word in the Bible which tells men to abolish slavery; and yet we know that it was Christian men who eventually brought that to pass. And that is exactly in accordance with biblical teaching. There is no command to do it; the Bible does not deal with these things directly, and yet when men become Christians they begin to think, and they think on both sides of the question. I have given an example of how working men began to think. But on the other side look at William Wilberforce. He was a wealthy man, born in the lap of luxury. Why did he become concerned about the question of slavery? There is only one answer to the question. It was his conversion. William Wilberforce underwent a conversion as radical as that of the drunken miners outside Bristol. He was entirely changed, and from being a society fop he became a great reformer, and as his mind became more and more Christian, he began to look at the question of slavery and saw that slavery was wrong. Not because he found a specific command in the Bible but because of his general thinking and his general Christian outlook!...And so it has always happened! It is not the task of the church to deal directly with these problems. The tragedy today is that while the church is talking about these particular problems and dealing directly with politics and economics and social conditions, no Christians are being produced, and the conditions are worsening and the problems mounting. It is as the church produces Christians that she changes the conditions; but always indirectly."4

In these sermons, we find MLJ adopting what has sometimes been called a "spirituality doctrine of the church." In his thinking, the best way to reconcile the totality of the biblical data on this subject was to insist that the mission of God for the church as the church is more narrow in scope than the mission of God for the Christian as an individual believer and citizen. The principles that MLJ applied to the issue of slavery in the 1st and 19th Centuries can be equally applied to the role of the church and the individual Christian regarding social injustices of our day. Whether or not one is fully convinced of the precise application of the worldview espoused by the Doctor, it's important to acknowledge that, if anything, he sought to deal honestly and faithfully with the biblical exegesis of one of the most difficult of biblical subjects. 

1. Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1974). Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home and Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18-6:9 (pp. 323-324). Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.
2. Ibid., pp. 325-326.
3. Ibid., pp. pp. 327-328.
4.  Ibid.

Praying Through the Scriptures: Deuteronomy 3

Over the years it has been my practice, learned from others, to offer up praises and petitions framed by a passage of Scripture. Some of these passages were read in preparation for preaching, others offered material for meditation in daily devotion; still others were plundered specifically for the purpose of finding fresh material for prayer. As I continue to learn how to pray I have shared a few prayers with my family and friends for their use or adaptation. The Alliance has asked me to share some with you too. Here is the third in a series on "Praying Through the Scriptures:"

Deuteronomy 3: Life in Light of the Law

O Lord our God, we confess that when you speak, you speak clearly. The promises of your covenant are perfect; your rules are righteous; the law you have delivered to us is not hard to understand. We also confess, O Lord, that have every reason to study your commandments and follow them carefully - for you are not only the God who has made us for yourself; you are also the one who has redeemed us for yourself. It is the story of our lives that we were enslaved until you rescued us. We served other gods, we made our own idols, we honoured our names above yours, we took little time to be holy, and these are but a few of our sins. We thought we were free, but in truth, we were chained to our sins. 

 As if that were not enough, even after your deliverance, we are strangely drawn to dark places that we know too well. We still fail to give our parents their full honour, we've held hate in our hearts, and we sometimes lust with our eyes. The covetousness hidden in our hearts has leaked out into our lives: we want what is not ours, and then cover the sins we ought to confess. Sometimes we our greed comes out in our actions. Often it is evident in our speech. We have taken from the reputation of others in attempts to exalt our own. We have lied by exaggerating our abilities, and denying your work in us by failing to mention it. Forgive us, we pray, for our many sins. 

 Our Father, we confess that in ourselves we deserve to be under a cloud, to live in thick darkness, or even to die. What have we earned for ourselves, except a full measure of your judgment? And so how can we find words that measure our true thankfulness? How can we praise you enough for delivering us from such fears by sending your Son? It was He who endured the darkness. It was his soul that was consumed by the thunder of your wrath. An eternity of our punishment was rushed upon Him in our place and for our sakes. We bless you this day that we are allowed to taste the glory and greatness of your grace, because he was crushed under the awesome power of your anger. 

 But will you help us? Will you aid us by your Holy Spirit to be careful to do what you command, and not to turn away to the right hand or to the left? Will you help us to walk in your ways, and to live, to thrive in so doing? Will you give us a heart like this always? And then beyond all our deserving, will you give us many days to live for your praise, until our Redeemer returns, or until you call us home to that eternal land which we will possess through Jesus Christ our Lord?

Chad Van Dixhoorn is Chancellor's Professor of Historical Theology for Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM) and the University of Cambridge (PhD). In 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in recognition of his five-volume work on the Westminster Assembly, published by Oxford University Press. Chad and his wife Emily have five children. He organizes his free time by coaching little league, losing tennis matches against all comers, and reading NYT bestsellers.

[Editorial note: This prayer may be used or adapted freely and without authorial attribution. If printed in an order of service, simply cite the source of the prayer as "" As with other written material on Reformation21, it may not be reproduced for any commercial purpose without the author's written permission.]

Praying Through the Scriptures: Genesis 2

"We come to you this morning, our Maker, Redeemer and eternal Rest. You are the one who patterns the weeks of our lives, ordered by the work of your creation and the rest of your holy day. We praise you for giving us work for six days and rest for one day.

We know that every day belongs to you, but you have set one day apart. With your permission, we call this day a holy day. For your honour, we call this day the Lord's day. With your encouragement, we celebrate this day designed for our good. We bless you for this gift; we ask that you would give us on this day some of the rest that we crave, and grant us a Sabbath day's blessing, we pray.

We also know that the whole of the Christian life is to be a life of worship, but we know that you call us together to worship you as your gathered people, redeemed by your Son and our glorious Saviour, the Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. We ask that you will help us by your Holy Spirit, to worship you this day. Assist us in our prayers, speak to us through your Word, bless us through every gift and means of grace we ask.

Finally, O Lord, we admit today that even as we consider your goodness, we also see our failures. We find faults in our working, when we do too little, or do too much. We see wrongs in our resting, when we treat each day alike, or shrink your day down to a sixty-minute Sabbath. And so we come to you on your day, confessing that we are weary of our foolishness and tired of our sins. Lift our heavy hearts by your Holy Spirit, and give us the true rest we need. Pardon our sins because of the work of Jesus Christ. And then so bless us this day that we will show forth your Lordship every day, until we reach the promised rest purchased for us by Jesus Christ Our Lord, in whose name we pray. AMEN."

Chad Van Dixhoorn is Chancellor's Professor of Historical Theology for Reformed Theological Seminary. A former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, in 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in recognition of his five-volume work on the Westminster Assembly, published by Oxford University Press. Chad and his wife Emily have five children. He organizes his free time by coaching little league, losing tennis matches against all comers, and reading NYT bestsellers. 

[Editorial note: This prayer may be used or adapted freely and without authorial attribution. If printed in an order of service, simply cite the source of the prayer as "" As with other written material on Reformation21, it may not be reproduced for any commercial purpose without the author's written permission.]
The proper authority of dogmatic theology is legitimized through the regular demonstration of its truth and power. This can only occur as the authority of dogmatic theology is consistently and repeatedly shown to arise out from and practically to strengthen and actualize the Scripture's own authority. At its best, dogmatic theology proves itself as it brings into focus and clarity elements of the scriptural witness that are unclear. It proves itself when it enables us to grasp the grand unifying themes and fundamental truths that give coherence to the whole of Scripture and strengths the grasp of those great truths upon us. Where such demonstrations are absent, dogmatics will implicitly frame itself as abstract and abstruse, self-referential and largely absorbed in problems of its own creation.

What is required is, I believe, a marked shift of posture from many dogmaticians in their relation to Scripture, and most particularly in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity. The relationship that dogmaticians have all too often maintained between Scripture and the doctrine of the Trinity has been one overly mediated by the 'proof-text'. The purpose of the 'proof-text' is primarily and narrowly the justification of Trinitarian doctrine itself. The concept and the practical functioning of proof-texts can encourage a perception of Trinitarian doctrine as akin to a large balloon tethered to the earth by slender cords, each of which must be guarded at all costs.

Such an approach focuses our attention upon isolated texts and concentrates our efforts upon the task of finding the doctrine in the Scriptures, conceived of as a collection of individual texts. However, this is, I believe, the wrong place and manner to look. As I mentioned in a previous article in this series, the doctrine of the Trinity isn't primarily seen at odd points in the text, but through the text in its entirety. It is not so much about particular pieces in the jigsaw puzzle, as it is about the picture on the front of the box. Although reflection upon individual texts is a necessary part of this recognition process, they are, as it were, only footholds on a climb to a commanding vantage point from which the whole terrain of biblical revelation unfolds as a vast and glorious vista beneath us.

The 'proof' of Trinitarian doctrine is not principally found in self-regarding moments, as it catches a passing glimpse of its reflection in the text. Rather, its proof is found as, regarded from the vantage point it offers, the greater realm of the Scriptures comes into view, and, conversely, as the heights of the doctrine of the Trinity are discovered to be a landmark from which we can get our bearings wherever we find ourselves.

It is crucial to appreciate that enjoying the full significance of this vantage point isn't a possibility for the dogmatician who is simply airlifted onto it. Rather, this vantage point is properly reached through a lengthy scriptural itinerary, a difficult and often visually obscured passage through the territory that only later unfolds beneath us. Appreciation of the significance of the vantage point that the doctrine of the Trinity offers belongs to those who have trodden the paths that lead up to it--paths marked out, signposted, and fenced for safety by former travelers---and who pay close attention to the warnings at its summit, where careless steps may cause people to fall to their deaths. Only the careful traveller who walks the full path can appreciate the power of the mutually revealing perspectives they have enjoyed in their journey.

At its best, what dogmatic theology holds forth is the greater grammar of the entire biblical witness. Without some apprehension of this grammar, all interpretation will fall short, as the broader import of the Scriptures become less coherent. In my earlier post, I noted the contrast between the relationship that Francis Watson draws between Trinity and creation and that in John Webster's paper on the subject. Watson's approach takes its bearings from a reading of Genesis 1, noting that there are three different modes of divine creative work and relation to the creation within that text: transcendence (divine authoring of speech), bodily involvement (divine fashioning), and dynamic indwelling (the empowering of God's life-giving breath). He observes that particular creative actions are at various points attributed to each of these modes of divine action. However, what might otherwise be nothing but a series of narrative peculiarities or conundrums are given a greater coherence when viewed from the vantage point of the reality of the Trinity that enables us to perceive features from above that weren't so clear on the ground. Watson remarks:

Traditional Trinitarian terminology helps to clarify this situation. Specific appropriations of a divine act to a divine person may be made, but only within the constraints of the principle that opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa ... and we are not to think of three separate agents who sometimes work in concert and sometimes separately. Thus every act of creation involves the word of command issuing from God's mouth, the wisdom or skill ... and the strength of God's hands, and the dynamic indwelling of God's breath.

While I do not agree with all aspects of the reading that Watson offers, this is precisely the sort of 'proof' that Trinitarian theology needs: the kind of 'proof' that is found in the pudding of broader scriptural interpretation, the kind of proof that allows us to see new features of a familiar territory as we are granted a new vantage point upon it. The doctrine is proved by the light that it sheds upon our reading of Scripture and, in turn, the reading of such passages sheds light on the doctrine.

It is heartening to see various theologians who are currently pushing against the polarization of exegesis and dogmatic theology, establishing a fruitful, mutually receptive, respectful, and illuminating dialogue between them. Wesley Hill's recent work, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters, is one good example of a healthy dialectic of close historical reading of the biblical text and orthodox Trinitarian insight, in which both endeavors are enriched by their interaction.

The Trinitarian doctrines under discussion are significant precisely because, where they are misconstrued, the underlying grammar of the biblical narrative and of our faith more generally is distorted, whether subtly or not so subtly. What is really at issue here is not the legitimacy or accuracy of some artifact of dogmatic or creedal theology but, rather, the more pressing question of how we are to understand the relationship between the Son and the Father throughout our reading of Scripture and practice of our faith. Getting the doctrine of the Trinity wrong will lead us to tell the entire story incorrectly in important ways. It is quite unfortunate that this point has often been neglected or missed in the debates, leaving opponents of the eternal subordination of the Son position vulnerable to the charge of theological pedantry.

Within my next post, I will turn to some of the texts that have been at issue in the debate.

What Andy Stanley Has Forgotten

What Andy Stanley has forgotten is that conversion to Christianity involves a supernatural rebirth that requires the Word of God. Forgetting this essential truth has been the tendency of the seeker-sensitive church-growth movement. This vital truth is forgotten wherever sociology is given a higher priority in the church than theology--whether the church is Reformed or broadly evangelical. It is forgotten by pastoral search committees whenever they seek a charismatic personality in place of faithfulness to the ministry of the Word. And it is forgotten by churches that give the sacraments a higher place of priority than Bible preaching in the worship service. In reality, all of us forget that salvation takes place only by the grace of God through the Word of God when we neglect prayer as an essential component to our evangelism.

In case we have forgotten, let the Scriptures remind us of the necessity and centrality of the Word of God in every ministry of the church:

How are we to lead sinners to faith? Paul answers: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:10).

By what means are unbelievers converted? Peter states: "You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God" (1 Pet. 1:23).

How are churches revived? God commanded Ezekiel: "Say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. . . . and you shall live" (Eze. 37:4-5).

How do Christians grow in godliness? Jesus prayed to the Father: "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth" (Jn. 17:17).

How do Christians learn how to make wise and godly decisions? Paul answered: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2).

We may only pray that Andy Stanley's influence does not lead success-driven pastors away from the Word of God. For by following his lead, we may gather a massive following without saving a single soul. Stanley has argued that preaching the Bible is an impediment to the conversion of unchurched people today. He points out that most people in our post-Christian culture do not accept the authority of the Bible, so we should stop appealing to them on the basis of the Bible. What he forgets is that the Bible conveys not only information but power. The Word of God is "living and active" (Heb. 4:12), so that by the working of the Holy Spirit people are supernaturally changed by the Word in order to believe the Word. We may gather crowds to our movement without the Bible. But when it comes to gathering sinners into the salvation of Christ and his Church, we should follow Jesus' instruction over that of pragmatists like Stanley. According to Jesus, entry into his salvation requires not sociology or any other earthly methodology. Instead, Jesus declared: "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 16:17). It is through God's Word - the Bible - that God reveals his salvation to sinners today. "You must be born again," Jesus insisted (Jn. 3:7), through the power of the Spirit and by the Word of God.

The current debate surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) has highlighted a number of existing tensions in evangelical theological circles. Perhaps one of the most significant of these is the tension between dogmatic and biblical theology.

The dogmaticians and systematic theologians have principally made their case through appeal to the creeds, patristic sources, and other important theologians from the tradition. They have discussed the deeper logic of orthodox Trinitarian theology, and have shown the ways in which the ESS position departs from it. However, their engagement with Scripture itself has been relatively slight. By contrast, Scripture has played a very prominent role in the arguments in favour of ESS.

It is noteworthy that the egalitarian theologians with the greatest sympathies for an ESS position have been exegetes and biblical scholars, people like Craig Keener and Andrew Perriman. There have been accusations and counter-accusations. For instance, Perriman claims that theologians are attempting to 'retrofit their worldview on scripture under the guise of an epistemologically privileged Trinitarian hermeneutic,' criticizing such an approach for failing to attend properly to history, or to grant it its proper priority.

While I doubt any of the complementarian advocates will favour Perriman's broader approach, Perriman isn't the only person complaining about the role that systematic or dogmatic theology are permitted to play in these debates. Owen Strachan insists that the philosophical and historical Trinitarian arguments 'must ultimately kneel before exegesis-and-theology' and warns of the danger of a 'New Scholasticism', where doctrine becomes the preserve of 'arid scholars', leaving laypeople feeling unqualified to understand the Bible for themselves.

Mark Jones' response to Strachan pulls no punches. Strachan's criticisms of systematic and dogmatic theologians are comparable to the naïve 'anti-metaphysical Biblicism' of the Socinians. Appeals to the plain reading of the Bible have long been the refuge of heretics, who have pitted exegesis against the philosophizing of orthodox theologians. Besides, when actually examining the 'plain readings' that Strachan and others champion, one is all too often disappointed to discover lazy exegesis, which also departs from mainstream historical readings of the texts in question.

There is a palpable and not unjustifiable frustration on both sides here, a frustration occasioned by a breach between dogmatic and biblical theology and by an unhealthy relationship between systematic theology and exegesis. This frustration is particularly pronounced for the doctrine of the Trinity, which, on account of its dogmatic centrality, makes strong demands of exegetes, without seeming to be open to exegetical correction and clarification itself.

There appears to be a widespread sense among biblical theologians that the doctrine of the Trinity was propelled into a faulty dogmatic orbit through various miscalculations in the Church Fathers' exegesis and their failure to compensate for the gravitational pull of Greek philosophy. While ESS advocates may generally affirm and value the doctrine of the Trinity, they often seem to have a suspicion that the flawed trajectory of the doctrine must be addressed and that the coordinating function of the doctrine, while largely serviceable, is nonetheless somewhat compromised. Engaging with dogmatic theologians heightens their impression that the doctrine, unless its faulty course is corrected, is at risk of leaving the orbit of Scripture and spinning off into the deep space of speculative philosophical theology.

Of course, many of the prominent advocates of the ESS position are systematic theologians themselves. However, they typically lean heavily on the plain sense of Scripture in their arguments and, where they diverge from the stances of traditional Trinitarian orthodoxy, argue that they cannot see the doctrines in question within Scripture. Bruce Ware, for example, has formerly cast doubt upon the doctrines of the eternal begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, claiming that they seemed 'highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching' (Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, 162n3).

Whatever the merits of classic Trinitarian doctrine itself, Ware's claim has something of the sting of truth when applied to the arguments of many of its advocates. Dogmatic theologians--even the best ones--often don't do a great deal of helpful work with Scripture, perhaps especially on the subject of the Trinity. In a debate where scriptural texts like 1 Corinthians 11:3 have been prominently featured on the side of the ESS position, beyond highlighting the readings of key figures from the tradition, remarkably few of the defenders of classic Trinitarian orthodoxy have closely engaged with this and other texts or provided alternative readings. It is far more commonly insisted that the texts cannot mean what ESS advocates say that they mean, as such meanings conflict with orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

The neglect of Scripture is common even in the work of the most able dogmaticians. For instance, I recently read Webster's superb treatment of Trinity and creation, and was struck by how it largely functions in a manner independent of exegesis, or reflection upon the biblical narrative (I would have loved to have seen Webster engage closely with something akin to Francis Watson's suggested Trinitarian reading of Genesis 1 in Text, Church, and World). ESS is, more than anything else, about the reading of key biblical texts, rather than about the parsing of a theology of God that, no matter how orthodox, increasingly floats free of the text.

When readings of Scripture that have a prima facie plausibility to many readers are met with forceful objections from Trinitarian doctrine, but little by way of careful alternative exegesis, it is unsurprising that tensions will arise between exegetes and dogmaticians. Indeed, there is a danger that dogmatics may come to be regarded chiefly as the creator of obstacles, burdens, and Kafkaesque demands for interpreters of Scripture.

If this were to happen, it would be deeply unfortunate. Although the standard of orthodox dogmatics must be authoritative (even if not the final authority) for interpreters of Scripture, once again we face the question of how such authority is to be conceived and handled. Does the authority of dogmatics justify it lording over exegesis, or is its authority primarily given to serve exegesis, which will be empowered and flourish as it heeds its guidance?

In my next post, I will articulate a vision for the fruitful interaction of dogmatics and scriptural interpretation.

Praying Through the Scriptures: Genesis 1

Over the years it has been my practice, learned from others, to offer up praises and petitions framed by a passage of Scripture. Some of these passages were read in preparation for preaching, others offered material for meditation in daily devotion; still others were plundered specifically for the purpose of finding fresh material for prayer. As I continue to learn how to pray I have shared a few prayers with my family and friends for their use or adaptation. The Alliance has asked me to share some with you too:

Genesis 1: The Beginner

Our great and glorious God, creator of the heavens and the earth: We come before you this morning, for you are the beginner of all good things. All creation sings your praises. From morning light to evening shade, from the expanse of the sky to the breadth of the sea, all that you have made declares that you are God and that there is none like you.

You caused the earth to sprout, to yield, to bear sweet fruit of many flavors. You gave the sun to warm us with its golden rays, the moon to illume the evening tide, the stars to keep us wondering and to prevent our wandering. You made the secret creatures of the sea and the soloists of the sky. You alone fashioned cows to feed in the open field, lizards to leap across desert rocks, and great beasts to pad along the forest floor. For all these things we praise you. They are all of your design, your execution, and exist for your pleasure.

And yet as if all of this were not enough for you, you have done even more. You created man in your own image, male and female. You've called us to multiply ourselves, commanded us to exercise dominion over this world, and encouraged us to enjoy its food for our need. How easy it is for us at this moment to share in your judgment that this is all good, even very good!

And still we wonder. If the lights of our heaven are so glorious, how much more the lights of yours? If by your word alone you have commanded into existence a world of astonishing creatures, what have you commanded for the creatures around your throne? If this is the glory of the world that is seen, what will be the glory of a world unseen? If we are left breathless at the sights of a world that is tarnished by sin, what will be our wonder at a world where you have banished all evil? If we are stunned at the sight of your creation, how will we measure our amazement if we are granted even a glimpse of the Creator's glory?

And so we come to you this morning not merely to sing your praises, but also to bring our petitions. We confess that we have not respected enough your creation. We confess that we have not reverenced enough you our Creator! Forgive us Father, and fit us for the new heavens and the new earth. Forgive us, male and female, for all that we have done that is not good, and refashion us, in your mercy, into the image of your Son. Call the Spirit who once hovered over the waters to hold sway over our hearts. And hear us for the sake of our loving Savior, who for our sakes hung on a tree bearing the bitter fruit of all our sin. AMEN. 

Chad Van Dixhoorn is Chancellor's Professor of Historical Theology for Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM) and the University of Cambridge (PhD). Chad has taught theology at the University of Nottingham, and has held three fellowships at the University of Cambridge, where he has researched the history and theology of the Westminster assembly and taught on the subject of Puritanism. A former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, in 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in recognition of his five-volume work on the Westminster Assembly, published by Oxford University Press. Chad and his wife Emily have five children. He organizes his free time by coaching little league, losing tennis matches against all comers, and reading NYT bestsellers.

[Editorial note: This prayer may be used or adapted freely and without authorial attribution. If printed in an order of service, simply cite the source of the prayer as "" As with other written material on Reformation21, it may not be reproduced for any commercial purpose without the author's written permission.]

Two Words for Seminarians

Seventeen years ago this fall I began my studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. It feels like just yesterday, though the bare skin on my head and the gray in my beard would tell otherwise. Classes begin again in Jackson this week, and as I've had conversations with seminary students at our church recently, my mind has recalled several portions of Scripture that were indelibly engraved into my heart during those formative years. I share two of them here with the prayer that they might have the same impact on ministerial candidates, and even seasoned ministers, that they had on me those many days ago.

In one of our seminary orientation sessions in 1999, a professor asked us what passages of God's word we planned on using to fight against sexual immorality. These were still the days of dial-up internet and landlines, so internet pornography was nowhere near as insidiously prevalent as it is today. Yet the sin of lust resides in our hearts, not in cyberspace, and the question gripped me urgently. Many passages would have been fitting, but Proverbs 5:15-21 stuck out so clearly for my protection. "Drink water from your own cistern, and fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be exhilarated [literally, intoxicated] always with her love. For why should you, my son, be exhilarated with an adulteress and embrace the bosom of a foreigner? For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, and He watches all his paths..."

Sexual Purity

At the time, I was a single man longing to be married, and Solomon's words called me to a single-minded focus to reserve my sexuality for the spouse God would hopefully bring me, and once married, to find delight sexually in her and her only. Solomon teaches that one of the best guards against sexual immorality is a thriving sex life at home. My wife's breasts, and none other, are to be my joy and satisfaction; I am to be drunk with her love alone. This passage is not as familiar in the fight against lust and fornication as Matthew 5:27-28, I Corinthians 6:12-20 or I Thessalonians 4:1-8. But it ought to be, and I encourage any seminarian or pastor reading this to commit it to memory and meditate long on it - and if married, enjoy applying it often. Having been ordained now for fourteen years, I've lost count of how many times I have heard of ministers falling into sexual sin with secretaries or an elder's wife. Every new story strikes me with sorrow, anger and fear, for I know that there but for the grace of God go I, and I know the pain and cynicism that is sown among the people of God when a shepherd falls in this way. The prayer that must accompany our meditation upon Proverbs 5:15-21 is found in Psalm 69:6, "May those who wait for You not be ashamed through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; may those who seek You not be dishonored through me, O God of Israel." Satan will assault the minister sexually, and seminarians must not leave their training grounds without girding on armor for the battle. Have you treasured the Lord's word in your heart that you might not sin against Him (Psalm 119:11)?

Diligent, Experiential and Purposeful Study

Another passage that has been foundational for me is Ezra 7:10 - "Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel." Three things stand out from Ezra's example for the ministerial candidate in particular. First, you must set your heart to study. The three or four years you have in seminary are the best opportunity you will have to study God's word, the original languages, systematic and biblical theology, church history, and the host of other disciplines seminaries cover. To be sure, you should continue to study throughout your pastorate, but if you serve in the church, you'll never have as much free time, and as little responsibility, as you have now. Redeem the time. Like a squirrel with his acorns, store up food for the winter. Fill your mind with knowledge from which you can draw in years to come. Study holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.

Second, set your heart not only to study, but to practice what you learn. There is nothing more soul-deadening than filling your head with knowledge, and not using it rightly. The knowledge of the truth is according to godliness, Paul tells Titus (1:1ff). Godliness and good works are the fruits fitting for sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). We must embrace the truth, but we must do it in love. For love is the very goal of Biblical instruction (I Timothy 1:5). Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies (I Corinthians 8:1). Theological acumen must always be coupled with practical skill in living, or wisdom. Live out your robust theology in the most mundane matters of life, even as the apostle Paul sought to bring the glorious truth of the incarnation and the hypostatic union to bear on Christian relationships and Christian generosity (Philippians 2:1-11; II Corinthians 8:9).

Finally, set your heart not only to study and practice, but also to teach. In all your learning, make sure you have some sort of release valve. For the sake of the people of God (now and in the future), seek out opportunities to teach God's word wherever doors might open. Doing so will keep you grounded and will help you see how the truth you are learning is to be used. Being forced to explain the truth to those who could care less about it or struggle to comprehend it, will help you to understand it better, and will cement it into your mind. Preach the circuit, lead Bible studies at nursing homes, teach children's Sunday School classes. Receive constructive criticism. Begin to learn what makes for effective communication.

Other pastors would set other passages before you as influential and life-shaping. These are two that have formed me, and continue to form me. May the Lord use this upcoming school year to equip the next generation of pastors for His church with sexual purity, deep knowledge, rich piety, and homiletical skill.

An Authoritative Appeal to Tradition?

Reformed evangelicals sometimes speak and write as if they believe that we have little or no use for tradition. On the other hand, there are Reformed evangelicals who--while debating a subject--appeal to a renown theologian from bygone days and write in such a way as to insist that mere citations from such an author settles the matter. God neither needs our ignorance nor our intellectual arrogance. We should respect tradition but remember that all tradition is to be brought to the judgment bar of Scripture. We must also recognize that our tradition colors or flavors our reading of Scripture and that this is not always a bad thing. To deny that we read Scripture from a particular tradition or vantage point is naïve. To deny Scripture its right to evaluate a tradition is dangerous. It would be a good thing for us to remember that Scripture itself is a form of tradition - divinely authoritative tradition (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Thess. 3:6; 1 Tim. 6:3). 

Nevertheless, the question remains, "What do we do with theological tradition?" Perhaps it would be more helpful if we asked what is happening when someone cites a tradition (or, more specifically the teaching) of a bygone theologian as an appeal to authority? Having been a student of Jonathan Edwards for many years now, I find Edwards to be a helpful case study in the use of tradition. If I cite Edwards authoritatively, what I am actually doing is using shorthand for the longer expression, "Edwards says such and such and I have been persuaded that what he says on this point is absolutely biblical." At the end of the day, it is something like this or close to it that we intend when we cite a favorite theologian or tradition. 

If we remember that our Lord gave us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13; 1st John 4:6; 5:6) we will recall that Jesus did not give the Spirit to us as the first generation to lead. The Spirit has been working with his church for over two thousand years (not to mention his involvement in the old covenant era) and it may be that previous generations have learned a thing or two from their Spirit-directed study of God's Word. 

The Sacred Scriptures are infallible and inerrant. Historical theology isn't. But that does not make historical theology or more broadly church history useless. We must avoid the Scylla of utter rejection of tradition and the Charybdis of confusing post-biblical or extra-biblical tradition with Scripture. Another way to put this is to note that sola Scriptura is not nuda Scriptura. Scripture is the alone divinely authoritative source of doctrine and practice but it is not the only source of such. Scripture is the norming norm that is not normed by any other norm and all other traditions are norms that are normed by Scripture. 

Our favorite theologians, whether past or present, and our traditions, are not infallible nor inerrant. However, insofar as these are consistent with Scripture they share a derivative authority. Traditions are more or less consistent with the Bible. Take Jonathan Edwards as an example again. I am persuaded that Edwards was a fairly thoroughly biblical theologian. However, even I take exception to certain views that Edwards held. While I think his understanding of the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is stellar, as is his formulation of the concept of the affections, he is not infallible. Quite a number of Edwards scholars have suggested that he held to continuous creation, occasionalism and idealism.

It is arguable whether Edwards actually held to continuous creation and occasionalism. These ideas are often confounded but they are in fact distinct though conjoined concepts. Continuous creation is the idea that God creates anew at each and every moment. This appears to run roughshod over the standard distinction between creation and providence. Edwards himself pointed out that creation was the first instance and providence the second and following acts of the same divine act. This undermines the integrity of created matter in order to uphold the reality that God's powerful word undergirds all reality. 

Occasionalism is the idea that God is the only causal agent in the Universe. If this is the case, then those creatures who have been designed by God to be secondary causes would be an illusion. Rather than creatures being secondary causes upheld by God as the primary cause and bringing about effects, these apparent cause and effect relations would simply be occasions for God to act. Various Christian theologians and philosophers have embraced and advocated these ideas but it is doubtful that there is a biblical basis for either idea considered separately or conjointly. 

That Jonathan Edwards was an idealist is less controversial. To be more precise, Edwards is classified as a Trinitarian theistic idealist. Idealism is understood as a philosophical position that stands over against realism. Realism teaches that we humans know what we know because we come into contact with extra-mental objects that actually do exist in reality. I see a brown tree with green leaves because is just such a tree in the foreground which I perceive. Idealism suggests that in order for something to exist it must be perceived. There are different kinds of idealism in the world of philosophy but Edwards' form was that extra-mental objects are known truly by a human when the ideas in the mind correspond with the ideas in the mind of God. If I see a brown tree with green leaves it because God has the idea of the brown tree with green leaves and my idea is true if it corresponds or coheres with God's idea of the tree. I do not believe this theistic idealism is biblically necessary. 

I happen to believe that the Bible does teach a specific kind of epistemology, namely covenantal realism. God is original and everything else in creation is derivative. What I know truly I know because God has created me and my environment so that I might know things truly when my faculties function properly. The fall and the entrance of sin interferes with the proper function of my faculties (what we call total depravity) but God does and can communicate with his creation in nature and in Scripture. In other words, I believe this is a better description of biblical ontology and epistemology than what Edwards held to. The point of this example is not that I waste my time when I read Jonathan Edwards. Rather, it is that we need to find a healthy way to appreciate the good of our favorite theologians while at the same time being even handed in our willingness to disagree with them over and against the teachings of Scripture. 

Tradition can be a good thing. As I noted above, Scripture is divinely authoritative tradition. However, all other tradition must be held up to the standard of God's Word. We have seen how one example (i.e. of Jonathan Edwards) rightly held in high regard, was not infallible. God's Word is infallible. Don't trash tradition - but don't put it in the place of the only infallible rule of faith and practice (WCF 1.2, 1.9) either.

Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Waddington (PhD., Westminster Theological Seminary) is the stated supply of Knox OPC in Lansdowne, PA. He is the co-editor, with Dr. Lane Tipton, of Resurrection and Eschatology. Jeff is also a regular panelist on Christ the Center and East of Eden, podcasts of the Reformed Forum.

Why These Books and No Others?

Every year around this time you can no doubt find numerous documentaries on television or articles written about the "Real Jesus" or the "Lost Books of the Bible."  These are often little more than thinly veiled - or not so thinly veiled - arguments against Jesus as Lord and Savior and the New Testament canon.

What was once accepted in academia - Who wrote the New Testament? Who is Jesus? Why these books and no other? - is no more. And as the framework of scholarship has shifted, doubt about the authority and clarity of Scripture has led many in the Church to question. 

The 2016 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology addresses the topic of canon head on. We are greatly blessed to have our pre-conference seminar on the topic of the canon of Scripture, presented by two preeminent New Testament scholars today, Michael Kruger, president of Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) and a leading authority in this field, and by Charles Hill, the John R. Richardson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. Attending these sessions is sure to bolster not only your faith that the Bible is God's Word but also how it is God's Word.

We are excited to have PCRT return to Grand Rapids and Bryn Mawr. Our plenary sessions will feature the contributions of some of the most able preachers and scholars of our time, including Derek Thomas, Philip Ryken, and Drs. Kruger and Hill. We hope you will join us. Visit the PCRT web page for more information and to register.

Book Giveaway
InterVarsity Press has graciously sent us a number of copies of Michael Kruger's book The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate to giveaway.  The drawing closes on Thursday, April 21 so sign-up today. You can also order a copy at Reformed Resources.

Text links:

An Apostolic Case for Sola Scriptura

All historic Christians confess the Nicene Creed, which posits that we believe "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church." However, one of the crucial differences between the Protestant tradition and the Roman and Orthodox varieties is how we reckon what it means to be "apostolic." These different views frequently center on understanding how the canon of Scripture was formulated and consequently what relationship the Church has to Scripture. The Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura is often denounced as a sixteenth century innovation by Roman and Orthodox apologists, but the Reformers themselves insisted that their doctrine of Scripture was the ancient, catholic, and truly apostolic teaching. They insisted rather, that it was the Orthodox and Roman communions that had departed from the apostolic doctrine of Scripture in so far as they set non-scriptural traditions, church councils, or particular church authorities on an equal footing as Scripture or even as an authority above it.

This essay sets out to sketch an answer to the question: What role did the apostles themselves play in the canonization of the New Testament Scriptures, and what clarity does our answer to that question shed on the apostolic understanding of the relationship between Scripture, the Church, and Tradition? This essay hardly scratches the surface of the vast conversation on this topic, but I hope its thesis is at least thoughtful enough to suggest further study.

Let's begin with a sample Roman Catholic description of these matters:
The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tridentine Council (The Catholic Encyclopedia)
And here's a short representative summary of the Orthodox position:
It is from the Church that Holy Scripture ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church, which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority (Father Demetrios Serfes)
While there are no doubt differences in how the Roman and Orthodox traditions speak of the formation of the canon and the Church's relationship to Scripture (I doubt the Orthodox recognize Trent as the completion of the canon), there is enough similarity to speak of their doctrine of Scripture (in this regard) as largely the same, which I summarize as: The complete canon of Scripture was not determined until centuries after the apostles, and the Church (led by the Holy Spirit) determined what the canon of Scripture was. Therefore, the Scriptures derive their authority from the Church. And I take it as given if the Church determined the canon and Scripture derives its authority from the Church, then there is no reason why the Church might not also grant a similar authority to other "apostolic" or ecclesiastical traditions. 

The problem with this understanding is that there are strong historical indications that this was not the understanding of the apostles themselves or the first Christians who made up the early church (despite the Catholic Encyclopedia's claims to the contrary).

In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the apostles and first Christians knew what books would form the New Testament canon very early on. The reason they knew was because the task of writing the New Testament Scriptures was one of the central purposes of the office of apostles. A popular caricature of the process of canonization (a somewhat problematic phrase in its own right) is that tons of early Christians wrote tons of stuff and that it was only after the deaths of the first generation of Christians (or so) when the subsequent generations of Christians suddenly woke up and began scrambling to collect as many meaningful looking scraps as they could find, like grabbing flecks of confetti blowing around in the wind. And the Holy Spirit led the Church to find all the right pieces and paste them all together just right. The wind blows where it wishes, and so does the Spirit, and so on. While I certainly grant that it could have happened that way, all the indicators are quite the opposite.

The center of the evidence for a largely completed canon by the death of the apostles is grounded in understanding the office of apostle itself. All three synoptic gospels make a big deal about who the original twelve apostles were (Mt. 10:2-5, Mk. 3:14, Lk. 6:13-16), and the apostles themselves indicate that they understood that this was a big deal when they replaced Judas Iscariot with Mathias (Acts 1:13, 21-26). Luke says that after Jesus rose from the dead He spent most of His time teaching "the apostles whom he had chosen" (Acts 1:2). While all of the disciples gathered in Jerusalem to wait for the Spirit to be poured out, Jesus gave this command directly to the apostles because they were to be a unique body of testimony, witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). All Christians are witnesses, all Christians are sent out in some sense, but the twelve apostles were the first witnesses, the authorized witnesses, the authoritative witnesses. This is why the ordinary requirement of an apostle was that he be a witness of the entire ministry of Jesus from His baptism to His ascension (Acts 1:22).

St. Paul indicates this unique role of apostle when he says that the Church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Likewise, when John sees the New Jerusalem, the Christian Church, coming down out of heaven adorned as a bride, he sees that its foundation is inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles (Rev. 21:14). Of course many of the first Christians had been disciples of Jesus and they had witnessed His miracles and death and resurrection, but when the early church met together to fellowship, break bread, and pray, they gathered to hear the "teaching of the apostles" (Acts 2:42). Mary was there and surely her testimony played a significant role in informing the teaching of the apostles (cf. Acts 1:14), but nevertheless the church gathered to hear the "teaching of the apostles." This is very significant because as the early church grew and spread (which it did very rapidly), this "teaching of the apostles" would continue to be an essential element of Christian worship and life. And in order for that to continue and be preserved, there had to be some way of verifying and regulating what that "apostolic teaching" actually was.

In fact, this is precisely where the New Testament came from. This is hardly a controversial point, but what is contested is how conscious and intentional the apostles and first Christians were of this goal. Here, I argue that the apostles were quite conscious of this goal. Jesus had entrusted to them the "testimony" not merely for a small band of Jews in Jerusalem, but they were to be witnesses throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. How would that testimony reach the ends of the earth intact without devolving into an elaborate telephone game? The apostles and their assistants almost immediately began writing. This is because the apostles knew that their office was responsible for preserving and passing down the authoritative testimony of the gospel of Jesus. This is why every New Testament book was written or sponsored by an apostle.

This unique office of apostle is underlined by Paul's unusual apostleship, which he himself noted repeatedly throughout his writings (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:8-9). He saw himself as the "least of all the apostles" -- the apostle "untimely born." It's highly instructive and somewhat amusing that such a large portion of the New Testament was written by an "apostle" who was not part of the original twelve. His name is not on any of the lists. But far from negating everything we've just said, it's actually the sort of exception that helps to prove the rule. Everywhere Paul went he ran into controversy and accusations, and one of the most frequent objections was the fact that he wasn't a real apostle. He's constantly defending the authenticity of his apostolic calling (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12, 1 Cor. 9:1-5). Not only was Paul not among the original twelve, but clearly he had an inordinate influence in the early church. He "worked harder than any of them" (1 Cor. 15:10). And the real clincher in this is how Paul walked the very fine line between acknowledging the other apostles and simultaneously not needing their approval (Gal. 2:5-6). Paul did not need to get permission from the other apostles to preach Jesus to the Gentiles. He respected their apostleship and sought to labor alongside of them, but Paul insisted that he had been directly commission by Jesus Himself no less than any of the other apostles (Gal. 1:11-12).

Part Two...

This exception helps to prove the rule because Paul insists on a similar criteria for being an apostle (chosen by Jesus and a witness of His resurrection, e.g. 1 Cor. 15:8-9) and clearly insists on the exact same authority -- His words are to be received as the very words of God (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13). And here is where we dive right back into our apostolic case for Sola Scriptura. Paul says that what he received from the Lord (specifically here, the Lord's Supper), he delivered to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:23). First off, note that even though Paul wasn't at the Last Supper, he says he received the authority to pass the Lord's Supper on to the Corinthians from Jesus. This is startling, and yet ministers frequently read these words of institution at the Table of the Lord without reeling from the glorious irony of that claim. Particularly in Protestant contexts, this really is glorious. It's a standing apostolic claim that Jesus is free to work outside some kind of strict apostolic succession. Secondly, Paul insists that Jesus sent him specifically to the Gentiles to deliver that "tradition" by spoken and written word (2 Thess. 2:15, Gal. 2:7). Now the Roman and Orthodox like to make a big deal about this oral tradition that Paul refers to, but unfortunately, in my experience, few of them read Paul very carefully on this point. Of course the Thessalonians could remember specific oral instructions that Paul had spoken, but in the course of things, they were also receiving reports from others about other oral traditions from Paul (or other apostles or pseudo-apostles). Apparently, they had received prophecies purporting to contradict what Paul had said and even letters claiming to be from Paul or the other apostles. (2 Thess. 2:2). It's in that context that Paul insists that they must adhere only to the true apostolic traditions. But this begs the question: How do they know which ones are the "true" ones? Paul tells them: "If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed" (2 Thess. 3:14, emphasis mine). And not only that, knowing that there were other written letters purporting to be from him, Paul closes the letter very deliberately: "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write" (2 Thess. 3:17). In other words, Paul insists that his written words trump all other reports, and his written words can and should be verified by the mark of his signature (cf. Gal. 6:11, Col. 4:18). Paul insists that his written words are the gold standard by which all other received traditions must be tested. This is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

This phenomenon would have hardly been unique to Paul, and therefore, anything anybody heard about the "teaching of the apostles" would have needed to be verified and tested. And the apostolic standard or "canon" by which all traditions were tested was what they wrote. Given the messiness of the first century church, this is why there's good reason to believe that the New Testament canon was largely settled by the death of the apostles.

Another piece of the evidence comes indirectly from Randolph Richards' helpful historical study Paul and First Century Letter Writing. As the title indicates, Richards carefully explains the nature of letter writing in the first century, and among many gems, Richards notes that every letter of any significance would have been carbon copied for the author to keep for his records. Given distances and time, the opportunity for forgeries and corruption was high, and so precautions were taken to prevent it. Authors ordinarily kept copies of every significant communication so that all claims might be verified. When Paul begs Timothy to bring the parchments with him when he comes, there's a high degree of likelihood that these would have included his personal copies of his letters that would make up his corpus of the New Testament (2 Tim. 4:13). Given the fact that Peter ended up in Rome at around the same time as Paul, and Luke is there already with Paul, and Mark is on his way (2 Tim. 4:11), we have all the indications that one of the first apostolic New Testament canon committees was holding session there in Rome in the mid 60s A.D. And if all that weren't enough, don't forget the fact that Peter refers to Paul's letters as Scripture right around the same time (2 Pet. 3:15-16). In other words, the apostles knew what they were doing. Think about it. Luke apparently has access to the other gospels (Lk. 1:1), has written his own, and has just finished up the book of Acts, add in Peter's own letters, Mark's presence, Paul's personal copies of his letters, and we've got most of the New Testament accounted for. Peter or Paul might have easily had copies of James and Jude from their time in Jerusalem. Add in John's gospel, letters, and apocalypse, and we're there.

Two other pieces of evidence give this thesis even more credibility. First, an argument from Jewish tradition. Many of the first Christians were Jews who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. Jesus Himself was a Jewish rabbi who valued the written Scriptures as evidenced by the numerous times He began sentences with the statement, "It is written..." Jesus and his first disciples had a deep understanding of the significance of a written standard for truth. This went all the way back to the law given at Sinai, the Torah, the Testimony. If the pages of the Old Testament were full of the promises of Messiah, there's no doubt that the first believers understood that a New Testament had to be written as an official record that this had in fact come to pass. Nothing less than a written record and standard would suffice. Anything less would fail to match the high claims of the gospel.
And finally, the extra biblical historical evidence for this thesis is considerable. Despite some argument and variation in the early church on the exact table of contents in the New Testament, the astonishing thing is actually how unified and likeminded the early Christians were immediately following the death of the last apostles. The earliest post-apostolic indication that the canon of Scripture was well known and accepted very early on is seen in the rejection of the heretic Marcion who lived around 110 A.D. He rejected the entire Old Testament and accepted only a highly edited version of the gospel of Luke and a collection of ten letters considered Pauline. But faithful Christians objected to Marcion's deracination of the New Testament. It would have made no sense at all for Tertullian and others to object to Marcion's canon if the Church was still trying to decide what it was.

Irenaeus insists on the authority of all four gospels by around 160 A.D., and the Muratorian fragment is typically dated to around 170 A.D. based on the internal references to Hermas and Pius 1, the bishop of Rome. While the fragment omits Hebrews and 3 John, the rest of the canon is accounted for. Thus, by 170 A.D., we have record of a nearly complete list of the New Testament books. If the table of contents was so up for grabs, so disputed, so unknown, the historical record should indicate far more variation, but instead we have enormous agreement on most of the canon of the New Testament with a couple of exceptions, which, as in the example of Paul's apostleship, actually help to prove the rule. 

The primary argument will be over verifying the authenticity of those exceptions. Can they be proven to have been written by or sponsored by one of the apostles? And when they were, they were received as Scripture. But this indicates not that the Church determined the canon centuries after the apostles, but rather it was the authority of the apostles that conferred scriptural status on particular writings and not others. Of course the apostles were the foundation of the Church, and in that limited sense, the Church determined the canon. But this is hardly what is usually meant by that claim. It is more accurate to say that the apostles are the foundation of the Church through their permanently inscribed testimony in Scripture. In other words, Scripture is the apostolic foundation of the Church. The Church derives its authority from Scripture, and not the other way around.

Far from the New Testament canon being something that needed to be figured out over many centuries, all the indicators are that Jesus appointed twelve men to be His official witnesses, and it was their job to pass down an authoritative testimony of the essential gospel of Jesus. All other traditions and rumors, however helpful or contradictory stand or fall at the written words of the apostles. This is the apostolic faith, and this is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Those churches that yield true and humble submission to those words and instructions are the faithful adherents to the apostles.

Toby Sumpter serves as pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho where he lives with his wife and their four children. He's the author of A Son for Glory: Job Through New Eyes and Blood-Bought World: Jesus, Idols, and the Bible

The second-century Church Father Irenaeus's most famous work, Against Heresies, was principally directed at the contemporary heresy of Gnosticism, especially as that movement found expression in the thought of a teacher named Valentinus in Rome. One can discern in Valentinus's doctrine the two chief characteristics of Gnosticism: a strong distaste for the material world (and its captivity to change and decay); and bizarre speculation about how the world came into existence (which speculation generally served to reinforce distaste for the material world). Valentinus held that ultimate spiritual reality comprises a hierarchy of thirty gods (collectively known as the 'Pleroma'), the least of which (named Sophia) became consumed with illicit desire to comprehend her superiors and consequently gave birth (as it were) to a spiritual being called Achamoth. Achamoth, in turn, generated the "god" who created this world. 

Unlike his contemporary Marcion who simply rejected portions of Christian Scripture that didn't gel with his heterodox theological vision, Valentinus generally accepted whatever texts were being circulated as Christian Scripture and then tried to convince his hearers that such texts had hidden meaning that revealed his bizarre doctrine -- hidden meaning that others could only discover with the help of him or other select teachers who had inherited knowledge of such by means of a secret tradition stretching back to the Apostles. So, for instance, Valentinus discovered a reference to the Pleroma in the parable of the Laborers in the Field (Matt. 20.1-16), because the various hours at which the master sends out laborers into his field (1, 3, 6, 9, and 11) add up to thirty (the number of gods in the Pleroma). As silly as such a reading of Scripture might seem to us in the present, many people were led astray by such teaching, perhaps because it satisfied an innate human itch to have the one-up on others, to be in the know (or rather, gnosis) about what Scripture really means.

Valentinus's system, and ones similar to it, presented Irenaeus and other apologists of orthodox Christianity with perfect opportunities to reflect upon proper methods for reading and understanding Scripture. Thus Irenaeus advanced in his work the basic thesis that Scripture means what it says -- that is, that Scripture is clear in its articulation of the fundamental points of Christian theology, and that anyone of sound mind can actually pick up Scripture, read it, and grasp those points.

"A sound mind," he wrote, "and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind [i.e., power to understand], and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures." (Against Heresies 2.27)

Irenaeus was not naive. No matter how clear and unambiguous Scripture's teaching of Christianity's main points might be, "advancement" in understanding that teaching, to his thinking, still required eagerness, devotion to piety and love of truth, daily study, and meditation. He also recognized (as Peter did [2 Peter 3.14-16]) that Scripture contains some passages that aren't so easy to decipher. Thus he complemented his basic thesis about Scripture's clarity with guidelines for navigating the more difficult texts. He encouraged his readers to read and interpret those more tricky passages through lenses provided both by the clear texts (see Against Heresies 2.28) and the teaching of Scripture as a whole, which teaching can be summarized in creedal form (AH 1.10). He also reminded his readers that "the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ" (AH 4.26) -- that is, that one's understanding of a biblical text, difficult or otherwise, should conform and lead to Christ, whose person and work stands at the very center of God's Word to us through the prophets and apostles.

Irenaeus also insisted that one should rely on authorities within the Church whose very job description entails receiving, safeguarding, and passing along the Church's corporate and traditional sense of what constitutes biblical truth. But he was more cautious in this admonition than is sometimes claimed. He recognized that some persons lawfully holding office in the Church might be wolves rather than sheep, and such persons, rather than serving as guardians of the Word, would ultimately be judged by it. "Those, however, who are believed to be presbyters by many, but serve their own lusts, and, do not place the fear of God supreme in their hearts, but conduct themselves with contempt towards others, and are puffed up with the pride of holding the chief seat, and work evil deeds in secret, saying, 'No man sees us,' shall be convicted by the Word, who does not judge after outward appearance, nor looks upon the countenance, but the heart...." (AH 4.26) Christians must, then, exercise some measure of judgment regarding persons in authority; there can be no blind allegiance to the teaching of any man, no matter his credentials.

Against Heresies is a remarkable piece of writing. I reckon it could serve as a textbook on hermeneutics in most confessionally Protestant seminaries without too much qualification. It's certainly unambiguous in its assertion of Scripture's perspicuity (or clarity), that idea about the Bible that the magisterial reformers supposedly dreamed up in the sixteenth century. It's likewise just as nuanced as the magisterial reformers in laying out principles for navigating less than clear biblical texts and relating one's impressions of biblical meaning to traditional interpretation. As such, Irenaeus's work is a powerful reminder that the Reformation was not a reaction against 1500 years of getting it wrong, but a recovery of genuine catholic Christian beliefs and practices (and so a reaction against the perversion of catholic beliefs and practices in the immediately preceding centuries).

Most evangelical presentations of the doctrine of Scripture are implicitly trinitarian. They identify the Father as Scripture's primary author, the Son as Scripture's central subject matter, and the Spirit as the immediate agent of prophetic and apostolic inspiration. Scripture is God the Father preaching God the Son by God the Spirit, to borrow J. I. Packer's famous description. Moreover, evangelicals recognize that the gospel of Jesus Christ, the central subject matter of Scripture, is implicitly trinitarian. The gospel concerns the love of God the Father for elect sinners, the suffering and glory of God the incarnate Son, and the fellowship of the saints in God the Spirit. The gospel is trinitarian in its root and fruit. 

As salutary as this implicit trinitarianism is, there is more to be said about the relationship between the Trinity and Scripture. The Trinity is not simply the primary author of Holy Scripture and the organic structure of the gospel. The Trinity is the depth dimension of Holy Scripture, its principal subject matter and end. Matthew Bates's recent book, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and the Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament, opens an illuminating window into to the trinitarian depth dimension of Holy Scripture.

Bates's book focuses upon early Christian "prosopological exegesis" of the Old Testament. Prosopological exegesis is a "person-centered reading strategy" that seeks to resolve the otherwise ambiguous identities of speakers and audiences in Old Testament texts in light of the clear determination of their identities in the apostolic gospel. As Bates demonstrates, both the New Testament and early Christian interpreters engaged in this sort of exegesis. For example, Mark 12.35-37 clarifies the identities of speaker and auditor in Psalm 110 as God the Father speaking to God the Son regarding his eternal generation and messianic dominion. And it clarifies for us that David overheard this conversation between the Father and the Son "in the Holy Spirit."     

New Testament and early Christian prosopological exegesis overhears the story of "the conversational God" as it unfolds from its root in the Son's eternal generation and appointment as Messiah, through the Son's incarnate mission, death, and resurrection, to its ultimate triumph in the installment of the Son at the Father's right hand. 

In Psalm 110.3-4, we overhear the Father say, "from the womb, before the dawn-bearing morning star appeared, I begot you," and we overhear the Father appoint this eternally begotten Son as messianic priest-king, "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (compare with Psalm 2.6-9).

In Psalm 40.6-8, we overhear the Son speaking to the Father of the body he has prepared for him and of the Son's desire to do the Father's will in his incarnate mission (see also Heb 10.5-7). 

In Psalm 22, we overhear the Son's cry of agony from the cross (vv. 1-2) and we overhear the Son praise the Father in the midst of an "ever-expanding" assembly of peoples after the Father has raised him from the dead (vv. 22-25).

In Psalm 45.6-7, we overhear the Son being addressed as the Father installs him on his eternal throne after he has obediently fulfilled the Father's commission, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions" (see also Heb 1.8-9).

Such a reading strategy unveils the trinitarian depth dimension of Scripture in at least two ways. First, it reveals that Holy Scripture is not only God's Word to us; Holy Scripture is also witness to God's Word to God. How wonderful it is to read the Bible as a Spirit-inspired occasion to overhear God's intratrinitarian conversation! Second, this reading strategy helps us see that the great love story which unfolds in the pages of Scripture is not simply the story of God's love for elect sinners. It is the story of the Father's love for his eternal Son and of his desire to make him the head of a redeemed humanity, and it is the story of the Son's love for the Father and of his willingness to become incarnate and to endure suffering--to the point of death on a cross--out of zeal for the Father's glory among the nations (Ps 69.9; John 2.17). Prosopological exegesis helps us see that the story of God's love for us is but a modulation on the greater theme of the Father's love for the Son in the Spirit. 

Prosopological exegesis is a person-centered reading strategy that helps us see the person-centered subject matter and the person-centered end of Scripture. It teaches us that the purpose of revelation, and of revelation's inscripturation, is to unveil God's intratrinitarian life of communication and communion and to welcome us into that life's embrace--at great cost to the triune God himself (Matt 11.25-27; 1 John 1.3-4). Holy Scripture is the product of the Holy Spirit, who enabled prophets and apostles to overhear the lovely words of the Father to the Son and of the Son to the Father, and who enables us to hear the testimony of the prophets and apostles in order that, through their testimony, we too may have fellowship with the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

"I come to the right of interpreting [the Bible], which they arrogate to themselves.... It is theirs, they say, to give the meaning of Scripture, and we must acquiesce." Thus Calvin summarizes the fourth and final point of Trent's teaching on Scripture. Trent's words were as follows: "No man... [should] dare to interpret the Holy Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, has held and holds" (emphasis mine).

Few things annoyed Calvin and other reformers of the sixteenth-century more than Rome's repeated claim, in the midst of theological disputes, to own the exclusive right to determine what the Bible actually says about the matters disputed. The intent of that claim, of course, was to force an immediate stop to all conversation, let alone controversy, about what Scripture teaches regarding justification, the sacraments, religious images, indulgences, and so on. Luther expressed his frustration with such posturing on Rome's part thus: "Were this true" -- that is, were it true that sola Roma possessed the right and requisite spiritual gift to interpret Scripture -- "where [then] were the need and use of the Holy Scriptures" at all? "Let us burn them," Luther continued, "and content ourselves with the unlearned gentlemen at Rome, in whom the Holy Ghost dwells.... If I had not read it, I could never have believed that the devil should have put forth such follies at Rome and [have found] a following."

Nearly three decades after Luther wrote those words, Calvin sounds a similar note of annoyance and disbelief in his response to Trent's teaching: "What hinders them," he asks, "from raising a trophy, and coming off victorious to their hearts' content, if we concede to them what they have comprehended in [this] decree?"

To gain some sense of the reformers' frustration at Roman claims of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture, one might imagine how a wife might feel if, in the midst of a dispute about who said what and thereby broke the marital peace, her husband invoked his own infallible knowledge of what was actually said, as well as his own unimpeachable right to declare the same and level blame or demand repentance accordingly.

Calvin's actual argument against Rome's claim to own the right of biblical interpretation is similar to his argument against Rome's claim that extra-scriptural tradition, in addition to the Bible, constitutes a source of saving truth (see part one of this series). Calvin could, of course, have simply required Rome to prove that she alone was entitled to adjudicate competing readings of the Bible. After all, the burden of proof clearly rests upon those who would hazard such obviously dubious claims, just as the burden of proof would rest with the husband in our proposed analogy to prove his infallible knowledge of what was said and his right to interpret the same.

Calvin takes a different tack, appealing again, albeit negatively this time, to tradition. He recounts examples of official but clearly preposterous Roman interpretations of Scripture, which he reckons anyone endued with any degree of sense will see for what they are. These examples are all taken from the seventh ecumenical council in Nicaea which defended the existence and veneration of images of Christ, Mary, and the saints in places of worship. So, for instance, Calvin observes that this council cited Psalm 16:3 ("As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight") in defense of religious images, on the rather ludicrous assumption that the "saints" mentioned by the Psalmist were those depicted on the walls of some worship space.

As far as ridiculous Roman interpretations of Scripture go, I personally would have cited Pope Boniface VIII's use of Luke 22:38 in the papal bull Unam sanctam to establish his claim that ultimate ecclesiastical and civil authority are divinely entrusted to the papacy. But to each his own; Calvin's references do the job.

Calvin is, however, sensitive to a potential counter-charge from Rome -- namely, that each reformer rejected Rome's fallible interpretation of Scripture in favor of his own fallible interpretations of Scripture, and so failed to improve upon Rome's position (by effectively establishing as many popes as there are Protestants, and, in that process, destroying the unity of the faith).

In response, Calvin -- rather remarkably -- acknowledges the need for individual interpreters of Scripture to "willingly submit" their own judgments about Scripture's meaning "to the judgment of the Church." Calvin, in other words, unabashedly prefers a corporate, churchly interpretation of Scripture to any private individual's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning. "We neither contemn nor impair the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."

Remarkably, then, Calvin ends up asserting something like the position of Rome against which he argues -- that is, that "it belongs" to the Church "to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures." But Calvin's own view differs from Rome in three essential regards: First of all, he recognizes the Church (with a capital C) as the collective body of visible churches (lower case c) where God's Word is rightly preached and God's sacraments are rightly administered -- where, in other words, there is integrity of doctrine and practice. Calvin thus deems it doubtful that the institution which, under the authority of the papacy, answers to the name "Roman Catholic Church" is even part of the true Church, much less the whole of it.

Secondly, Calvin entrusts doctrinal authority in the visible Church to persons properly trained to study Scripture from every age and region of the church, rather than any given person (the pope) or ecclesiastical body (a council) at any given point in time. This makes corporate, churchly judgments regarding the meaning of a text rather more difficult to discern, and -- since the Church consists of believers yet to be born -- points to the necessarily open-ended nature of ecclesiastical judgments about Scripture's meaning.

Thirdly, Calvin freely acknowledges the fallibility of the Church, which once again points to the provisional nature of corporate, churchly judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. The Church, being fallible, must intentionally and constantly render itself correctable in relation to God's infallible Word.

Calvin's argument against Rome's claim of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture might surprise many Reformed believers today. In the final analysis, Calvin assaults Rome's claim to the title "Church" more than Trent's claim that biblical interpretation properly belongs to the Church. "I wish," he concludes, "they would shew us such a Church as Scripture itself portrays; we should easily agree as to the respect" -- and privilege? -- "due to it. But when, falsely assuming the name of Church, they seize upon the spoils of which they have robbed it, what else can we do than protest?"


Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"Thirdly," Calvin writes in description of Rome's teaching on Scripture, "repudiating all other versions [of Scripture] whatsoever, they retain the Vulgate only, and order it to be authentic." Thus Calvin summarizes the following words from the Council of Trent:

[This] Holy Council -- considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic -- ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.

The Latin edition of the Bible thus approved and privileged by Trent was that which Jerome produced in the late fourth century. Jerome's Latin Bible -- the Vulgate -- was rather controversial in its own time because Jerome chose to translate the Old Testament into Latin from the Hebrew Scriptures rather than the received Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). But, whatever qualms initially existed regarding Jerome's conviction that Scripture should be translated from its original languages rather than other translations, Jerome's Vulgate eventually became the Church's standard version of Scripture. As knowledge of Greek and Hebrew faded in Western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the influx of Germanic tribes, few biblical scholars cared enough -- or were, for that matter, competent -- to compare the Vulgate's rendering of Scripture to surviving manuscripts of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, those languages in which Scripture was originally penned.

But late-medieval Europe witnessed a rebirth of interest in the languages of antiquity and, correspondingly, ancient texts. Western European scholars re-learned Greek and Hebrew, and so stood equipped to evaluate Jerome's translation of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. In 1516, the prince of humanist scholars Desiderius Erasmus produced a new edition of the New Testament in Greek, having compared all the Greek manuscripts available to him in order to adjudicate textual variants and recover, as closely as possible, the original words of Scripture. In a parallel column in the same work, Erasmus offered a new Latin translation of the Bible based upon the Greek -- a Latin translation which highlighted quite a few points at which Jerome's translation was significantly flawed.

By the time that the Council of Trent got around to addressing the doctrine of Scripture in 1546, quite a few scholars had followed Erasmus's lead. They had, in other words, studied the Bible in Greek and/or Hebrew, highlighted flaws in Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, and offered superior translations in Latin or in vernacular languages (German, English, etc.).

The Roman Catholic fathers at Trent obviously found it rather unsettling that intelligent and highly skilled persons were consulting Scripture in its original languages, finding the Vulgate's translation of Scripture in its original languages wanting, and offering their own (perhaps competing) translations of the text. A reasonable response to such discomfort might have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical body to offer an approved, corporate critique of Jerome's translation and improved translation of the Bible. Calvin expected the Romanists to "make some show" at least, "of executing a new version," even if they assigned the task to "sworn adherents" of their own corrupt doctrine. Instead, Trent adopted the decidedly un-reasonable approach of authorizing Jerome's unquestionably flawed translation of the Bible over all would-be competitors.

This, of course, was a serious blow to biblical scholarship of the period, and one that was certain to raise the humanist hackles of Protestant and Roman Catholic intellectuals alike. Calvin describes Trent's "error" as "gross" and its "edict" as "barbarous." "Those," he writes, "who are acquainted with the [biblical] languages perceive that this version [i.e., the Vulgate] teems with innumerable errors, and this they make manifest by the clearest evidence." Nevertheless "the Fathers of Trent contend that although the learned thus draw the pure liquor from the very fountain [i.e., study Scripture in its original languages] and convict the infallible Vulgate of falsehood, they are not to be listed to."

Calvin offers numerous examples of mis-translation on the part of the Vulgate, particularly with regard to its rendering of the Old Testament, which proceeded from Jerome's somewhat dubious knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Jerome's failures in translation hardly need be rehearsed here; they are, just as Calvin noted, obvious to any and all who compare the original Hebrew to Jerome's Latin Bible. Perhaps the most famous of doubtful translations offered by Jerome is discovered in his description of Moses's "face" (faciem) as "horned" (cornutam) as the Prophet descended Mount Sinai (Ex. 34.29). Medieval and early modern artists read Jerome's description of Moses's "horned face" rather literally, and accordingly gave Moses horns in their artistic depictions of him:


One could, perhaps, place blame for the tradition of giving Moses' horns on medieval mis-interpreters of Jerome rather than Jerome himself. There are, however, plenty of passages in the Vulgate where Jerome cannot be so easily excused. So, for instance, in Psalm 2, a Messianic/Kingship Psalm where the Psalmist exhorts his hearers to "Kiss the Son," Jerome's translation of the Hebrew had Adprehendite disciplinam ("Embrace discipline"). "The former is clearly correct," Calvin observes. The former, in other words, clearly communicates what one finds in the Hebrew text. So "why," Calvin asks, "should the latter be held the more authentic?"

Trent's decision to authenticate the Vulgate translation of the Bible isn't as curious as it seems upon the surface if one remembers the historical circumstances surrounding the Council's meeting. Rome clearly felt threatened by persons who challenged traditional dogmas on the basis of Scripture's original words, and decided to stop the mouths of such persons by taking Scripture in its original languages (or superior translations) from their hands and replacing it with a text which was less threatening since it was familiar to them, and could -- following well-worn patterns of argument -- be more easily turned to the defense of traditional, albeit ultimately unbiblical, doctrines. Of course, purely reactionary measures, such as this decision by Trent was, rarely produce sound practice or doctrine. This particular move on the part of Trent -- rejecting every Latin translation of Scripture but the Vulgate (no matter its obvious flaws) -- was at best obscurantist, at worst completely ludicrous. Indeed, Trent essentially adopted a position akin to that of twentieth-century fundamentalists who argue -- if it can be called argument -- that the King James Version of the English Bible is divinely inspired and must, therefore, reign supreme over other (better) translations of Scripture.

In Calvin's concluding words: "were this edict of the Council sanctioned, the simple effect would be that the Fathers of Trent would make the world look with their eyes open, and yet not see the light presented to them."

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Follow the links to read the introduction and part one of this series.

"In forming a catalogue of Scripture," Calvin writes, "they [the Roman Catholic Council of Trent] mark all the books with the same chalk, and insist on placing the Apocrypha in the same rank with the others." Thus Calvin summarizes the second of the four points he discerns in Trent's teaching on Scripture. There is little need to repeat Trent's words in their entirety. The decree in question provides "a list of the Sacred Books" comprising those books that Protestants are accustomed to finding in their Bibles and some books, commonly called Apocryphal (or Deuterocanonical), that they are not -- namely, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The decree concludes by anathematizing any and all who "shall not receive these entire Books, with all their parts ... as sacred and canonical," thereby despising "the foresaid traditions" -- a reference back to those "unwritten traditions" which, alongside of Scripture, has already been identified by Trent as a unique source of Christian doctrine.

Calvin offers a two-pronged response to Trent's "admitting" of "all [these] Books promiscuously into the Canon." The first prong advances his preceding argument from Christian tradition itself against recognition of tradition as an infallible source of unique Christian doctrine. Calvin now observes how un-traditional the inclusion of these Apocryphal books in the Canon is: "I say nothing more than it is done against the consent of the primitive Church."

In support of this claim, Calvin references the writings of two late-fourth/early-fifth century Church Fathers: Jerome and Tyrannius Rufinus. Oddly enough, Calvin doesn't seem all that interested in the opinions of Jerome and Rufinus per se regarding the Apocryphal books. He's interested, rather, in the testimony these Fathers provide in their writings to even earlier Christian judgments about the canonicity of the books in question. Thus he cites Rufinus's assertion in about 408 that "our fathers" -- that is, Rufinus's "fathers" -- judged the books in question to be "not Canonical," named the same "Apocrypha," and "would not have [them] read in the Churches" (The Creed of Aquileia, para. 38). With regard to Jerome: "It is well known," Calvin observers, "what [he] states as the common opinion of earlier times." Presumably Calvin has in mind something like Jerome's observation that "the Church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures." Jerome made numerous, similar statements about the Church's historic stance towards the other Apocryphal books.

Calvin could, of course, have made further appeal to Jerome's own opinion. Jerome, after all, cited "the common opinion of earlier times" in defense of his own very clear denial of canonical status to the Apocryphal books (as seen, for instance, in the prefaces he drafted for his Latin translation of the Bible). Jerome did, however, include -- with a clear disclaimer regarding their non-canonical status -- the Apocryphal books in his Vulgate, presumably in deference both to the merits of said books as ancient and useful (albeit uninspired) writings and to the opinion of those who disagreed with him about the canonicity of the books in question.

And there were, as Calvin himself readily acknowledges, some who defended -- contra Jerome and Rufinus -- the canonicity of the Apocryphal books, among them the famous contemporary of Jerome and Rufinus, Augustine of Hippo. Calvin seems to think the opinion represented by Jerome and Rufinus has an older pedigree than that represented by Augustine, but he doesn't press the point. He concludes rather modestly with "let us assume that the point was then undecided."

The ambiguity in early judgments about the Apocryphal books ran substantially deeper than Calvin seems to realize. In fact, it pre-dated Christianity as such. The books in question were denied canonical status in the Hebrew Bible by Palestinian Jews, but afforded canonical status by Hellenistic Jews (Greek speaking Jews living outside Palestine) and so included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures completed in Alexandria (the Septuagint). In the second century following Christ's birth, the Jews finally reached consensus among themselves in favor of the narrower canon (that which excluded the Apocrypha).

Their disagreement lingered on, however, in Christianity, with Eastern Christians typically following the Palestinian Jews in denying canonical status to the Apocrypha, and Western Christians typically following the Hellenistic Jews in affording canonical status to the Apocrypha (Jerome and Rufinus constituting two notable exceptions). Those who defended the canonicity of the books in question, for example Augustine, typically bought the now largely discredited story about seventy 3rd-century B.C. Jews translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek independently of one another and -- miraculously -- arriving at the very same (inspired) translation. In other words, their preference for the Septuagint's canon was informed by rather misguided assumptions about the Septuagint's nature and origins.

Calvin, had he only known, could have included such Eastern luminaries as Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Gregory of Nazianzus among the ranks of Fathers who denied that the Apocryphal books belong to the Bible. In truth, however, ambiguity in early Christian judgments about the Apocryphal books is all that Calvin needed to discredit Trent's teaching on the issue. Trent, after all, in claiming that the "sacred and canonical" status of the Apocryphal books has the (infallible) authority of "unwritten tradition," presumes that some largely univocal tradition concerning the Apocryphal books actually exists. Either the Roman Catholic Fathers at Trent purposed to deceive in this regard, or they made a rather unfortunate historical blunder on the basis of their own ignorance. The implicit claim of a univocal "tradition" on the Apocrypha is a historical blunder not, perhaps, on par with the Book of Mormon's populating the Americas with horses hundreds of years before their (re)introduction there by European explorers, but it's not too far from the same. And, critically, it's a historical blunder in a place where no such blunder should exist -- the canons and decrees of an (infallible) ecumenical council.

Trent's apparent ignorance regarding those early Christians who -- in keeping with the more orthodox of Jewish traditions -- rejected the canonical status of the Apocryphal books, along with its subsequent anathematizing of all who reject said books as "sacred and canonical," has the further (and rather unfortunate) effect of damning such Fathers as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Jerome, among others. That seems a rather un-catholic (not to mention uncharitable) gesture on the part of the "Catholic" Church.

The ambiguity in early Christian opinions about the Apocrypha also highlights the ultimate need to evaluate claims of the Apocrypha's canonicity by some higher standard than tradition. Thus Calvin introduces the second prong of his response to Rome, showing how the Apocryphal books, unlike Sacred Scripture, fail to testify to their own inspired and infallible status. Calvin points, for instance, to the concluding remark of the author of 2 Maccabees: "I ... will here make an end of my narration," the author writes, "which if I have done... not so perfectly, it must be pardoned me." The Holy Spirit, Calvin observes, begs no forgiveness for errors or faults in His words.

The author of Maccabees' words, it must be said, do seem a far cry from the confidence informing the Apostle John's rather dire warning against making additions or subtractions to his inspired text, and by implication at least, making additions or subtractions to the entire canon as such (Rev. 22:18-19).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

For an explanation of what follows, see the previously posted introduction to this series.

Calvin discerned four basic claims in Rome's teaching on Scripture as discovered in the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. The first claim was comprised in the opening sentence of the first decree of that Council's fourth session (the 'decree concerning the canonical scriptures'). That sentence reads:

The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent -- lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein -- keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament--seeing that one God is the author of both--as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.

That sentence is a bear by anyone's reckoning. Calvin helpfully and accurately summarizes it thus: "First, they ordain that in doctrine we are not to stand on Scripture alone, but also on things handed down by tradition."

In responding to Rome's teaching, Calvin -- interestingly -- doesn't bother defending the authority of Scripture from Scripture. Presumably that's because he realizes that Protestants and Roman Catholics actually agree that Scripture constitutes the "Word of God" rather than the "word of man" (1 Thess. 2.13), and is therefore inspired and authoritative (cf. 2 Tim. 3.16). The Roman decree cited above, after all, acknowledges that "saving truth" is contained in the "written books" of Scripture, which books are thus deserving of our affection and reverence. Protestantism, of course, stops there. Rome carries on, and makes a positive claim about another source of "saving truth" -- namely, "unwritten traditions ... which have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand."

The burden of proof that something other than Scripture constitutes a source of "saving truth" -- whether that something be "unwritten traditions" or Chinese fortune cookies -- rests entirely with those making such claims. This is often overlooked by would-be Roman apologists who require Protestants to defend from Scripture their principle that Scripture alone is authoritative, and fail to realize that sola Scriptura is not a positive claim per se, but a denial of the positive claim that "unwritten traditions" or anything else deserve the moniker "Word of God."

Calvin could, then, have simply highlighted the failure of Rome to prove that "unwritten traditions" constitute a source of "saving truth" and called it a day. But he does one better. Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of the Church Fathers, he points out that the earliest Christian thinkers themselves recognized no infallible authority but Scripture. In other words, he argues from tradition against the view that tradition constitutes an authoritative word on par with Scripture: "In regard to Traditions," he writes, "I am aware that [frequent] mention of them is made by ancient writers, though not with the intention of carrying our faith beyond the Scriptures, to which they always confine it." Calvin supports this claim with a quote from the prince of Church Fathers himself: "We must ever adhere to Augustine's rule, 'Faith is conceived from the Scriptures.'"

For what it's worth (which is quite a lot, actually), Calvin's reading of the Church Fathers is supported by the best of recent Patristic scholars. So, for instance, J.N.D. Kelly notes that up until the fourth century, the Fathers were univocal in affirming Scripture as the exclusive source of Christian doctrine. The words of Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century might be taken as representative: "With regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith, no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures." Athanasius put it this way: "The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth."

When the Fathers did speak of tradition (as Calvin acknowledges they did), they typically understood it not as a source of unique Christian doctrine, but as the Church's universal interpretation of Scripture's most fundamental teachings, handed down from one generation of believers to the next. To put it another way, traditional teachings were considered necessary to be believed not because they were traditional, but because they were Scripture's teachings. It wasn't until the late fourth century, in fact, that Christian thinkers began to toy with the possibility that certain truths or (more commonly, at least early on) customs could be traced back to the Apostles even if they weren't reflected in Scripture. In the medieval period the notion of extra-scriptural apostolic truths became more common (though many medieval thinkers retained the earlier, Patristic perspective of Scripture as the solitary source of saving truth, and tradition as the means by which Scripture's truth is transmitted through the centuries).

When Trent, then, affirmed that "saving truth" is contained in both Scripture and "unwritten traditions," it canonized a view on the source(s) of Christian doctrine which was an aberration from the understanding of the earliest Christians.

Calvin's argument from tradition against tradition (understood as a source of unique Christian doctrine) constitutes a case of rather clever argument. He takes Rome to task on its own turf (tradition) and shows how un-traditional Rome's teaching is. But in the process Calvin also demonstrates his own profound appreciation for tradition properly understood; indeed, Calvin honors tradition much more than his Roman counterparts by actually following the Fathers in their own insistence upon the ultimate authority of Scripture alone to define Christian beliefs. The champion of sola Scriptura proves, ironically, to be the traditionalist, to be more catholic than his Roman Catholic counterparts.

As Reformed Protestants today, we would do well to take a page from Calvin's apologetic in defending Scripture as the sole infallible norm of Christian beliefs. We would likewise do well to follow his lead in listening carefully to the Church Fathers and letting their engagement with Scripture and theological reflection inform our own convictions -- not least on the matter of how much, or rather what kind of, authority ought ultimately to be imputed to the Fathers themselves and other saints who have gone before us. 

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

I intend to offer, over the next several weeks, a four part series on Calvin's response to Rome's doctrine of Scripture as discovered in the fourth session of the Council of Trent. It's my impression that very few Protestants today -- even the confessing kind -- have informed views on what Rome actually says about the most important theological issues of every age (namely, how we know anything about God and his ways, and how we sinners can be reconciled to the God whom we have offended by our sins).

The first and foremost purpose of this brief series, then, is to let readers see what Rome, in her own words, says about Scripture, and to let Calvin guide us in an intelligent (and, ultimately, biblically based and theological nuanced) critique of Rome's doctrine. Careful attention to Rome's teaching on Scripture (not to mention Justification, the Sacraments, etc.) and careful critique of the same will, I think, shed light upon the reason(s) that confessional Protestants remain, well, Protesters -- that is, why they refrain as a matter of principle from expressing doctrinal solidarity with Rome.

A secondary reason for offering this series is that I suspect Calvin's own teaching on Scripture in response to Trent might surprise -- even challenge -- Reformed folk at some points, and there's few things more beneficial to any confessional group than being surprised and challenged by the Genevan Reformer on matters where, perhaps, no surprise or challenge is anticipated.

A brief word of historical context: The Roman Catholic Council of Trent convened in 1545 with the express intention of responding to the teaching of both magisterial (Protestant) and radical reformers. It met on and off until 1563. Already by 1547, however, the Council had tackled some of the fundamental issues at stake in the Reformation -- namely, Scripture, Original Sin, Justification, and the Sacraments. By the end of that same year (1547) Calvin had produced his Antidote to Trent (in Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, vol. 3), and stood ready to administer the same to anyone who was foolish or unfortunate enough to confuse Trent's poisonous teachings for something nutritious.

Stay tuned for the first installment of our consideration of Trent's teaching and Calvin's response to the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Origen on Scripture

I've been doing a little reading in Origen's On First Principles today (written sometime before 225). It's a scandalous work on several counts, but is likely the first attempt at a systematic exposition of the faith in the post-apostolic era and not without its benefits. So, continuing my theme on finding help in unexpected places (see my last post), I offer the following quotes on the doctrine of Scripture.

Origen opens his exposition of the faith with a strong statement on Scripture as the absolute source and norm of theology:

All who believe and are assured that grace and truth were obtained through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, . . . derive the knowledge which incites men to a good and happy life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ (trans. by Crombie; preface.1).

He continues:

By the words of Christ we do not mean those only which He spake when He became man and tabernacled in his flesh; for before that time, Christ, the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets. For without the Word of God how could they have been able to prophecy of Christ? And [if space permitted] . . . it would not be difficult to show, in proof of this statement, out of the holy Scriptures, how Moses or the prophets both spake and performed all they did through being filled with the Spirit of Christ (trans. by Crombie; preface.1).

Though not perfect, Origen appears to affirm something approaching the plenary divine inspiration of Scripture.

Perhaps more fascinating, and satisfying, is Origen's statement on the clarity of Scripture:

The following fact should be understood. The holy apostles, when preaching the faith of Christ, took certain doctrines, those namely which they believed to be necessary ones, and delivered them in the plainest terms to all believers, even to such as appeared to be somewhat dull in the investigation of divine knowledge (trans. by Butterworth; preface.3).

A little over fourteen centuries later the Westminster divines would confess something remarkably similar--that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (WCF 1.7). 

But most striking of all, I believe, is Origen's comments on the positive aspect of the sufficiency of Scripture. After outlining those doctrines he believed to be most clearly taught and necessary to know, he argues that, 

by clear and necessary statements [one] may ascertain the truth regarding each individual topic, and form, as we have said, one body of doctrine, by means of illustrations and arguments,--either those which he has discovered in holy Scripture, or which he has deduced by closely tracing out the consequences and following a correct method (trans. by Crombie; preface.10).

In other words, "The whole council of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture" (WCF 1.6).

I am not suggesting Origen's view of Scripture lines up exactly with the one set out in the Westminster Standards, only that on a few points it is closer than I suspect some of you might have guessed and that is at least interesting and I hope quite encouraging.

(I suppose I should note that the only complete text we have of On First Principles is a Latin translation prepared by Rufinus, a defender of Origen against accusations of heresy, over the winter and early spring of 397-98. Jerome sharply criticized this translation and prepared his own, which is mostly lost to us. But that debate had nothing to do with the passages quoted above and besides, even if these lines have been corrupted, they still date back to the end of the fourth century--which is not too shabby.)

The Visible Word

Jason Helopoulos
Christward Collective

I was visiting a church once and heard an exchange between a pastor and one of his congregants that has stayed with me ever since. A woman asked the pastor before the service, "Is the video this morning going to make me laugh or cry? It always does one or the other." The pastor was quick to respond that he thought this one would make her cry. Apparently, immediately following the sermon in their worship services, this church showed a video every week. It set the tone for the closing song and the end of the service. It wasn't shown for mere entertainment, but was used to press home the truth the pastor had just preached from the Scriptures. Now, I want to be clear. This man was and is a brother in Christ and this particular church loved the Lord. It was my honor to worship with them. They were seeking to serve God, were obviously delighting in Him, and were desiring to give Him praise. Furthermore, I have no doubt that the pastor's heart was in the right place as he sought to show a video each week to his congregation. I am not doubting his love for God or his people, though I do doubt the wisdom of his approach.

Continue to Christward Collective.

Test link -

Carlifornia dreaming


Friends towards the west coast of the US of A might be interested in this year's Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors' Conference on "The Doctrine of Scripture" on the 3rd and 4th of November.

Dr. Carl Trueman is the keynote speaker and will be addressing the doctrine of Scripture from the late medieval period to 1700. He will have four lecture sessions and two Q&A sessions.

Dr. James Renihan will be lecturing on moral law and positive law in Scripture. He will provide exposition of key passages demonstrating how these two aspects of law function in Christian doctrine.

Dr. Richard Barcellos will be lecturing on hermeneutics and the formulation of the doctrine of the covenant of works. He will discuss some hermeneutical principles of seventeenth-century federal theology and how the doctrine of the covenant of works was formulated utilizing those principles.

More information is available at the conference site here or at RBAP.

"More light, Lord!"

Light is one of those commodities, like oxygen, much underestimated until one finds oneself in need of it. I am particularly conscious of this because my desk light - a quite splendid piece of kit - decided to pack up rather suddenly a few days ago. Being a sentimental type, I sent it off to the manufacturer in the hope of its being restored, but - having gone under the knife in some electronic operating theatre somewhere in England - it was recently declared most definitely deceased.

But it means I have been without light. To be sure, even in the UK in October, there's a smidgen of daylight that filters through the window from time to time. And yes, the general illumination provided by the main light in the room, and even some assistance from the angled reading light in the corner, alleviate the gloom somewhat. But there is nothing - I repeat, nothing - to compare with the vibrant beams of pure brilliance that not so long ago washed out of my much-missed and too-much-presumed-upon and sincerely-mourned desk light.

But good news! Today brought a matutinal delivery of light - not the watery gleam of a British sunrise, but a replacement desk light - and now I sit here in a pool of white brilliance, bathed once more in happy illumination, and actually able to work without straining the wearied eyes beyond the point of no return.

"So what?" I hear you cry. "What hath Walker's desk lighting to do with us?"

Well, nothing, at first glance, but remember, if you will, the record of that wonderful preacher, John 'Roaring' Rogers of Dedham, of whose preaching people exhorted one another, "Let us go to Dedham to fetch fire."

Several well-known anecdotes capture something of the fervency of Rogers the preacher, his self-forgetful earnestness in the pulpit. In one of them, Thomas Goodwin, himself to become a renowned preacher and scholar, went to hear Rogers preach before he was converted, not imagining that anyone would be able to touch his conscience. Goodwin reported his experience to John Howe, who recorded it in this way:
He told me that being himself, in the time of his youth, a student at Cambridge, and having heard much of Mr. Rogers of Dedham, in Essex, purposely he took a journey from Cambridge to Dedham to hear him preach on his lecture day. And in that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible [I am afraid it is more neglected in our days]; he personates God to the people, telling them, "Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it; it lies in such and such houses all covered with dust and cobwebs. You care not to look into it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer." And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it, and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, "Lord, whatsoever thou cost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible." And then he personates God again to the people: "Say you so? Well, I will try you a little longer; and here is my Bible for you, I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more, whether you will value it more, whether you will observe it more, whether you will practice it more, and live more according to it." But by these actions [as the Doctor told me] he put all the congregation into so strange a posture that he never saw any congregation in his life. The place was a mere Bochim, the people generally [as it were] deluged with their own tears; and he told me that he himself when he got out, and was to take horse again to be gone, was fain to hang a quarter of an hour upon the neck of his horse weeping, before he had power to mount, so strange an impression was there upon him, and generally upon the people, upon having been thus expostulated with for the neglect of the Bible.
Underestimated light. Nothing compares to the Word of God for true illumination. The faint gleams of natural revelation and human reason are light, to be sure, but they are distant candles to the present white light of God's holy Word. And yet how ready we are to wander around in the gloom, imagining that we see well and sufficiently while we are for the most part blind.

Would it bother you to be without your Bible? Could you preach without it? Live without it? Worship without it? Perhaps we have learned a casual neglect of that which is more precious than thousands of pieces of gold and silver (Ps 119.72)?

How little we value it, but what if it were taken away? What if the Lord deprived us of what is a gracious gift, not a natural right? How quickly would we learn the limitations of natural revelation and human wisdom, how soon would we cry out to God to restore to us again the pure brightness of his revelation, rising to its heights in the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness, that we might once more have a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps 119.105).

The story is told of a debate in the seventeenth century, I think it may have been among the Westminster divines. One man stood and was making a powerful address concerning some particular point. His opponent in the matter was observed to be writing fairly constantly on his paper. When his turn came, this opponent rose to his feet and delivered a magnificent oration, well-ordered and insightful, Scriptural and compelling, profound and persuasive.

When this tour de force was completed, a man nearby glanced at the notes that had prompted this outpouring of genuine and gracious eloquence, and found a single phrase repeated over and over across the page: "More light, Lord!"

May God grant that we should value in some appropriate measure the fact that he has spoken to us in these last days in his Son, and that his Spirit has moved men to record these saving and sanctifying truths in the Word written, and that "the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness . . . has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2Cor 4.6). How shall we see, how shall we walk, if the Lord does not give us his light? Let us not underestimate the illumination we have been given. Let us not neglect our Bibles. Let it be our constant and humble prayer, "More light, Lord!"

Did God Really Say?

By questioning what God really said, the serpent infamously enticed Eve to do more than simply assess whether God's Word was trustworthy. The serpent's question lured Eve, and Adam in her wake, into a radical reordering of their relationship with the One who had spoken. The question enticed Adam and Eve to attempt an autonomous empirical investigation as to what the past really meant and what the future might hold, to assume that they and God were equal partners in a fundamentally unpredictable world, to think they could become, as it were, "like God" -- all on the basis of the groundless innuendo that God had not spoken clearly and reliably to His creatures. The Spirit's recording in Scripture of the satanic question and its devastating consequences reminds the church today that postmodern suggestions of new ways to handle God's perspicuous Word may not be innocent exercises of a new intellectual humility, but rather latter day echoes of an ancient and insidious voice.

Happily, Reformed Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary, with editorial oversight by Dr. David B. Garner, have cooperated to provide the church with a new aid to resist that voice in Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture. This collection of essays draws on seminar papers delivered by scholars from the contributing institutions at the 2011 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. I had the privilege of attending nearly all of those seminars and knew then that this would be a book worth having. Here are some clips to give you a little taste of what you will find in this new volume:

"For the sake of the church, these studies present the historically Reformed understanding of the objective and inherent clarity and certainty of the Word of God" (Forward, Robert C. [Ric] Cannada, Jr., Bryan Chapell, Peter A. Lillback);

"To put it frankly, there is an unnerving sympathy within evangelical scholarship for seeking light in darkness, for synthesizing antithesis, and even for wedding belief and unbelief" (Introduction, David B. Garner);

"The confession is setting forth the notion here, radical in its context, that one determines what Scripture is not by going somewhere outside of Scripture, but by Scripture itself" ("Because It Is the Word of God," K. Scott Oliphint);

"To say it a bit differently, the doctrine of inerrancy is not only about the truthfulness of the Spirit-inspired Word but also about the trust a Spirit-led people invest in that Word" (B.B. Warfield's Church Doctrine of Inspiration," Michael D. Williams);

"The church's full affirmation of these books does not show that it created or constituted the canon, but is the natural and inevitable outworking of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture" ("Recent Challenges to the New Testament Writings," Michael J. Kruger);

"It is natural for the flesh to bridle when what we think is right is challenged. It is not so easy to care about the individuals and enclaves who are perceived or real opponents of Christian teaching" ("Grounds for Grace in the Debate," Robert W. Yarbrough);

"But we are made in the image of God, and the language God has given us as a gift is designed by God" ("God and Language," Vern S. Poythress);

"The question is simple. Given that God inspired the Bible, what effect did that inspiration have on the biblical text?" ("N.T. Wright and the Authority of Scripture," John M. Frame).

"Rather than viewing the Creator/creature distinction as an obstacle to understanding, we must rather see that our very creation in God's image establishes clear duty to God's Word, an ontological imperative, a religious obligation to obey the covenantal demands expressed in the perspicuous words of our Creator" ("Did God Really Say?" David B. Garner)

Let us feast on these essays, think deeply, and resolve to recognize and resist all echoes of the serpent's query.

This Lent I am giving up . . . reticence

I will make no bones about it: I am an Old World (for which please read 'continental European') Christian, of Puritan inclination, and a Dissenter - specifically, a Particular or Reformed Baptist. That means several things. By conviction and heritage I belong to those who left the Anglican communion as a matter of conscience, sick of its halfway reformation and unwilling to conform to the general shabbiness and unscriptural demands of the Act of Uniformity. My conscience with regard to the extra-Biblical trappings of mere religiosity is tender. My attachment to simplicity of worship as a gathered church is sincere. I am sensitive to those doctrines and practices over which my forefathers spent their energies and shed their tears and sometimes their blood, both from within and then from without the established folds of their day. I see things with an awareness tuned by walking the streets, graveyards and memorials of men and women who suffered and sometimes died for conscience' sake.

Out of such an atmosphere I cannot help but be sickened by the seeming obsession with Lent and Easter at this time of year, and Christmas at the end of the year. Please do not misunderstand me: conscience also demands that - where the cultural vestiges of a more religious society patterned to some extent on the significant events of the life of Christ provide for it - I take every legitimate opportunity to make Christ known. If an ear is even half-opened by circumstance, I willingly and cheerfully speak into it, and seek to make of it a door for the gospel. I do not see the point of making a point by not preaching about the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord if some benighted soul wanders into the church with at least some expectation of hearing about his humiliation and exaltation.

But what chills my blood is the unholy elevation of things not mandated by the Word of God. I find it odd that some of the very people who obsess about contextualization and resist 'religion' have swallowed hook, line and sinker the empty traditions of men, that the men who wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts (quite literally) all the year round besides dress in sombre suits every April, telling us with one breath that all of life is worship and so tending to level out our experience and the Biblical rhythms of our relationship with God (especially dismissing the one-day-in-seven pattern established at the first and the new creation), and with the next telling us that this is Holy Week, and we are somehow falling short if we do not build it into some unholy jamboree. Meanwhile, those who trumpet their credentials as the true heirs of the Reformation either seem willing to stop with the house half-clean or seem quite keen to redecorate it with the junk that their more enlightened forefathers were in the process of throwing out (establishing the principles of the matter even if they never quite got round to that corner of the attic themselves).

Whether or not it is a vestige of the Emerging/Emergent appetite for a range of 'spiritualities' or an enthusiasm for an over-ripe liturgical renewal, I cannot say, but I wonder if it is in part a matter of distance both of time and space. This alleged 'recovery' of Lent and Easter is not actually a matter of historical sensitivity and an inheritance regained but of historical unawareness and an inheritance lost. Whether or not it is the high-grade muppetry of entire churches being urged to tattoo one of the stations of the cross on some part of their anatomy, or some gore-drenched re-enactment of the unrepeatable sacrifice, or some spotlit image-fest in which a total insensitivity to physical representations of the Christ - the image of the invisible God - is displayed, or some be-robed priest-figure half a step away from incense and obeisance, it does not come from Scripture and it does not belong in Christ's church. It is a replacement of God's order with man's notions, a disruption of God's regular rhythms of true religion with the unholy syncopation of mortal religiosity. As John Owen somewhere says, where genuine spirituality is substantially absent, men will turn either to fanaticism or to ritual - or perhaps to both - in an attempt to fill the void. Whichever way you sniff at it, and whichever way the wind blows, to the trained nostril it all begins to smell a touch Romish.

But there is a solution. This year there are - if you wish to see it this way - fifty three Easters. Most years there are fifty two. Each is a high and holy day, an opportunity to remember and rejoice in the one thing that the saints of God are commanded to remember and rejoice in: the Lord of Glory - the incarnate Son - who was crucified but who rose again, in whom we live eternally, and for whom we perpetually look with eagerness, our eyes straining for the first glimpse of the one whom not having seen, we love, who will shortly appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. Each is a day of sober and grateful remembrance and recollection of his being and his doing. We have our regular (if not all of us a weekly) meal at which we remember the Lord's death until he comes, celebrated usually on the day of resurrection. On these days, putting aside the trappings of the world, we begin the cycle of time on our weekly peak, equipped by communion with God in Christ by the Spirit for the challenges and the opportunities of the days ahead.

Frankly, it seems odd to me that many of those who have proved very quick to abandon all manner of patterns and habits and convictions of Christians over decades or centuries, retain Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (Resurrection) Sunday as set in stone in the calendar, one of the high points of the Christian year (which pattern, we are informed, provides the central event in the church year - the climax of worship, expectation, and celebration, an exercise of the church's discipline). If you're not sold on Easter, you might be dismissed as one of the "diehard Reformed" for whom "this [Easter] Monday is like every other Monday because Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday." To say that Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday is not to suggest an upgraded view of Easter Sunday but a downgraded view of every other one.

I try not to be a Scrooge (although I cannot help but shed a silent tear that I am now literarily reduced to trying not to be a Grinch, but it's only a silent one and fairly dry, because Dickens' plotting makes many modern soap operas look like masterpieces of restraint and reason). I try not to be whatever is the Easter equivalent of a Scrooge or a Grinch (probably something that destroys bunnies or steals eggs). Again, for the record, I delight in the incarnation, and love to explore the excellence and wonder of Christ's coming into the world. I love to do so at any time of year, and find it grievous that I am sometimes not expected to handle those truths or sing incarnation hymns apart from at the dead of winter. Neither do I for one instant deny the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the only Redeemer of God's elect, in the glorious good news that the church of Christ declares.

But when we are told that this is the time of year when Christians begin to think again about the death and resurrection of Christ, does it not prompt the question of what we are supposed to be doing for the rest of the year? When men speak after their so-called Holy Week of the abating euphoria of the resurrection, surely they are explaining why a merely annual remembrance is insufficient? Christ Jesus is the risen Lord for 365 days of every year (plus the extra one when required), and we have a weekly opportunity for the distinct recollection of his death in an atmosphere conditioned by his resurrection. To flatten the whole year, perhaps rising only to a few unnatural annual peaks, is to miss so much, to lose so many things, to gain so little.

Christ died to set us free from empty things. Men died to liberate us from the rigamarole of unscriptural traditions and man-made routines and performances of religiosity. I hope that you will hear a voice from the blood-washed streets of the Old World, where those battles and the cost of their victory are ground into our consciousness, where the issues and enemies are neither distant nor tame, and where the lines remain clearly drawn in the collective memory of some of the Lord's people, and consider whether or not the prizes so hardly won ought to be so quickly abandoned.

Speaking of Preaching...

Last Sunday each of our slated morning and evening preachers had originally chosen the same text for his sermon--the song of Simeon in Luke 2. I know because I was the evening preacher. Now hearing two (hopefully) biblical sermons on the same text in a single day certainly won't harm a congregation. It might even memorably demonstrate the richness of Scripture. But it certainly runs the risk of being unnecessarily redundant. After all, a tasty breakfast need not be reheated for dinner when another meal could be prepared.

So I was thankful that our morning preacher--Dr. Carl Trueman, in fact--heard about the textual coincidence, spent half the week preparing a sermon on Mary's Magnificat instead, and kindly left Simeon's song to the mercy of yours truly. What struck me was that Dr. Trueman did not merely transpose his Simeon sermon onto Mary's song (as I might have done). He explained and unfolded the Magnificat in its own context, pointing to specific verses in order to extol the glory of the incarnation.

Which leads me ask, how many pastors preach essentially the same sermon no matter which text lies open before them? Of course, the central themes of God's character, sin, the person and work of Christ, and redemption ought to reappear week to week. But each of these realities is richly variegated and should lead the preacher, text by text, to an endless number of focused treatments and applications. By contrast, doesn't the sufficiency of Scripture take a hit when, by the end of the sermon, the average listener (a) can't remember which text was read at the beginning but (b) knows he has heard this sermon before?

Consider well the charge given by John Murray to the recent champion of Christ-centered preaching, Dr. Edmund Clowney, when the latter was installed as Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary on October 22, 1963. May it be a charge to all those who seek to honor Christ from the pulpit this Sunday:

"Your work is concerned with homiletics, the exposition and effective presentation of the Word of God. I charge you to continue to press home, as you have done in the past, the necessity of discovering, unfolding, and applying the particularities of each text or portion of God's Word. Few things are more distressing to the discerning, and more impoverishing to the church, than for a preacher to say much that is scriptural, indeed altogether scriptural, and yet miss the specific message of the text with which he deals. It is by the richness and multiformity of God's revealed counsel that the church will grow up into the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ, and the witness of the church will be to all the spheres of life and to all the obligations of men"  (John Murray, "Charge to Edmund P. Clowney," Collected Writings, 1:108-9; emphasis added).

Modern Debate Over Ancient Texts

[Editor's Note: This is the first post Rev. Wynne wrote in response to Dr. Evans, which was inadvertently removed last week. We repost it here in its entirety.]

Dr. Evans has recently graced this forum with some thought provoking comments on the Scriptural doctrine of perspicuity and the church's handling of her confessions, particularly as these areas might bear on readings of the Genesis creation account.  I appreciate many of his insights and have no desire at this point to send my dog into the fray of particular creation views. I do believe, however, that short of that larger issue, three (nearly identical) comments by Dr. Evans deserve comment. 
The first is the lament, cited from a previous Evans article, that some six-day creationists have "failed to take any stock of the enormous amount of data from comparative studies of ancient Near Eastern literature suggesting that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of a cosmology quite coherent to the ancients, but which we ourselves do not share." None of us, after all, he adds, "believes in a literal 'firmament,' or in 'pillars of heaven,' or in 'windows of heaven,' or in 'fountains of the deep,' at least as these biblical terms were apparently understood by the ancients."
The second and more recent comment was, again, that literal six-day advocates have given too little attention "to how this material [i.e., Genesis 1] would have been read in its original ancient Near Eastern context and to the implications of that ANE data for how we should read the text today."  Third, he adds afresh in the same article that the "ANE comparative data suggest[s] that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of an ancient cosmology that we do not share" and that "the mass of scientific evidence suggest[s] that the cosmos is much older" than the Westminster Divines imagined.
By this drumbeat of assertion that Genesis 1 is "framed" by an ancient and now discredited cosmology, Dr. Evans clearly (to me at least) is assuming that the Old Testament writers espoused this invalid cosmology as a reliable description of the physical world--that their appropriation of ANE mythical features led them to believe in "a literal 'firmament,'" "pillars of heaven," and so on, cosmic elements we now know do not exist.
Unless I am missing something, the message conveyed in the three statements I quote is that Christians cannot rightly accept the biblical writers' cosmology in every detail since an "enormous amount" of relevant ancient Near Eastern data has revealed that they (unconsciously?) absorbed mythical cosmological elements from surrounding pagan cultures, erroneously believed them to be true, and then wrote their erroneous understanding into the pages of Scripture. 
At the point, I am compelled to ask: Is it really the case that the Bible presents "an ancient cosmology that we do not share", because it is erroneous? Doesn't the Reformed doctrine of inspiration hold that the omnicompetent Spirit, who searches the unfathomable depths of God's omniscience (1 Cor 2:10), is the determinative agent who has issued the written text of Scripture down to its very words? And as the "Spirit of truth" (John 16:13), did He not guide the biblical writers into all truth--indeed, could He do any other thing--barring any speck of error that might have otherwise intruded into the text of holy Scripture on account of the writers' biases, confusion, ignorance, weaknesses, and, yes, exposure to faulty cosmologies? As I see it, Christians are obligated to receive the cosmology of Genesis in every detail as the inviolable truth that trumps any competing scientific claim and rebukes every pagan worldview because, as the Divines put it, it is the Word of God.
So what are we to make of the parallels between Scripture's teaching and the ANE literature? Aside from the profound debate that still rages over the nature and extent of such parallels, Reformed and evangelical scholars have suggested that they reflect the Bible's (1) polemical treatments of false worldviews; (2) infallible interpretation of general revelation that was partially grasped by pagan writers; (3) infallible appropriations of an older tradition to which pagan writers fallibly bore witness; or (4) demythologized elements of ANE concepts incorporated into Scripture as poetic idiom (see G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism [Wheaton: Crossway, 2008], 28-29). All of these options maintain the integrity of the Bible's inerrancy in that none suggests that the biblical writer unwittingly imbibed faulty elements from his pagan surroundings. Likewise, all of them appeal to the absolute wisdom of the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final authority on all matters, especially ANE myths. Readers may be surprised to know that even Meredith Kline, the functional patriarch of the controversial "framework hypothesis," called the pagan cosmogonic myth "a garbled, apostate version, a perversion, of pristine traditions of primordial historical realities" (Kingdom Prologue [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006], 28). The Bible, therefore, he said, "rejects the mythical cosmogony and cosmology root and branch" (ibid., 29).
The need of the hour, it seems to me, whether we are discussing the relative merits of competing creation views, confessional subscription and interpretation, or any other related issue, is to state as clearly and as boldly as we can that the authoritative nexus of meaning--the divinely sanctioned access point for the meaning of a biblical text--lies within the canon of Scripture itself and not in apparent similarities with extra-biblical ANE literature. This is an indispensable corollary of Scripture's authority and sufficiency that we lose to our epistemological and hermeneutical peril. On a related note, however informative ANE literature may be for studying isolated texts, we cannot allow it to norm our readings of Scripture nor determine what Scripture, as a whole, is. The book of Hebrews alone, with the scant authorial and extra-biblical contextual evidence available to us today, ought to check our dependence on background studies for interpreting the Scriptures and exhort us to read it, and every other biblical text, ultimately in light of its canonical perspective and place in the unfolding organism of special revelation.
Again, my purpose here is not to challenge Dr. Evans' view of Genesis or to criticize his helpful comments on the role of confessions. It is simply to issue a call for us all to put on the spectacles of Scripture, as Calvin put it, whether we are reading Genesis or the Epic of Gilgamesh, studying the Westminster Confession or doing some digging in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Doing so just might bring some needed clarity to debates over what God has said is an essentially clear Scripture.

ANE in an AC World

I want to thank Dr. Evans for his extended and thoughtful response to my recent post on Scripture and the ancient Near East. In that post, I expressed my concern that his appeals to ANE data for reading Genesis 1 imputed error to the writers of Scripture in their expressed understanding of the cosmos--error that we, the more scientifically enlightened, now recognize for what it is. I also suggested that this line of reasoning and conclusion are inconsistent with Scripture's inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority. I trust that the readers of this blog will indulge this clarifying response. By it, I mean to convey my abiding, and now, intensified concern regarding Dr. Evans' apparent position.

Dr. Evans perceives that my view of inspiration allows for "no hint of human limitation or error evident anywhere in the text of Scripture", nor even error (or limitations?) in the human writers' "underlying assumptions". Well, I certainly reject that Scripture contains errors. But nowhere in the quote Evans offers do I deny that the biblical writers were finite or occasionally ignorant (see, e.g., 1 Cor 1:16; Dan 12:8; Acts 1:6). As for faulty "underlying assumptions", how might any of us gauge this other than by examining what they wrote? (This question also echoes my original concern about Dr. Evans' use of ANE data, but more on that below). What I believe we must affirm, what I originally wrote, and what I believe Dr. Evans is on the verge of losing, if he has not already lost it, is that the Spirit who carried the original writers along (2 Pet 1:21) prevented any error from "intrud[ing] into the text of holy Scripture" on account of their finitude, biases, ignorance, pagan surroundings, and the like. The point then, as science intersects with Scripture, was not to pose an "antithesis" between the two, but to say that where they may diverge, science should not be allowed to find what it deems in Scripture to be erroneous.  Science should not be seen as the standard of whether what God has inspired is true. If anything, at those points, it is the other way around.
Later, Dr. Evans indicates that I said we must ascertain the meaning of a biblical text "without reference to 'anything extrabiblical.'" But what I wrote, what Dr. Evans himself quoted, what also relates to the heart of my concern over Dr. Evans views of ANE literature, and what I now fear he has functionally denied in his appeals to ANE literature for reading Genesis 1, is that we must find the "authoritative" guide for meaning and the "divinely sanctioned" locus of meaning within the canon of Scripture itself. This is just to say that the "infallible rule" for interpreting Scripture is...Scripture itself. It is to say that nothing extrabiblical--no matter how it may appear to "mesh well" with Scripture, and especially if what is being meshed is erroneous--may dictate the meaning of Scripture. For me to say that, is nothing but glorious, Westminsterian vanilla. Frankly, I struggle to see how Dr. Evans sees it any differently.

All of this brings me to my initial, very real, and now growing concern regarding Dr. Evans' view of the relationship between ANE literature and how we ought to read Genesis 1. In his most recent post, Evans reaffirms his belief that the biblical writers wrote like "primitive peoples" should be expected to write, using ANE terms to communicate ANE cosmological beliefs that we now, in our A.C. (After Copernicus) world, know were erroneous. In other words, what they wrote was wrong, and their error now lies forever exposed in the pages of Scripture, and we should try to read through, beyond, and despite its embedded errors. The key today, he says, is to realize the "limits on how literally we can interpret" the faulty details we now understand are recorded in Genesis.

As I see it, using a "non-literal" hermeneutic for the purpose of evading allegedly faulty cosmological descriptions in Genesis is like holding your nose as you cross the front yard of your residence because you believe the neighbor's dog has paid a visit. It may get you to the street without risk of olfactory offense, but it does nothing to solve the problem you perceive. I take Dr. Evans' point that Scripture does not read like a modern science textbook, and that reading it faithfully means taking its genre and other literary features into account. But that is far different from saying that Scripture speaks error. Interpreting Scripture and finding error in it are two dimensionally different things. And I fail to see how it "effaces common grace" to say that modern science is not qualified to find error in Scripture. To be sure, science informs our reading of Scripture, but it cannot countermand what Scripture teaches.

A Reformed doctrine of Scripture--a biblical doctrine of Scripture--does not "pit Scripture against human knowledge" or common grace. It certainly doesn't deny to Christian young women an opportunity to study biology (!), as Dr. Evans understands my view to do. Incidentally, it may surprise Dr. Evans to know that I was a pre-medical student in my undergraduate days and even considered majoring in chemistry for years before heading toward the ministry. I have a high regard for the scientific enterprise.

I include that autobiographical point as background to what I hope is a future encounter. Were I to meet the young woman Dr. Evans mentioned, I know what I would tell her, and would encourage her to shout from the rooftops: a Reformed doctrine of Scripture (more precisely, a Reformed doctrine of the God of Scripture) provides the only sufficient foundation for any scientific enterprise to proceed, including a proper evaluation of extrabiblical ANE texts. Go boldly, then, and put on a space helmet, an archaeologist's hat, or a snappy pair of Visorgogs, but be sure to put on the spectacles of Scripture first, not second.  

Home Repair and Hermeneutics (Part 3)


In a previous post (and here), I noted how sophisticated, Reformed evangelicals are both disclaiming the arrogance of Enlightenment rationalism and skirting the bottomless pit of postmodern relativism, contending that total human objectivity is an illusion and postmodernism is intellectual quicksand. Few would disagree. The trouble is, what do we do now?

According to the increasingly popular approach known as "critical realism" or "critical rationality", the most sure footing is found between the illusion and the quicksand--that is, coherent truth is out there, but, because our biographies and assumptions perpetually fog our respective lenses, we must realize that truth, absolute though it may be, will always lie just beyond our grasp. And it's not only our lenses. Our feet, too, stumble upon new and unexpected evidences that can alter the trajectory of our journey, turn us around, lead us temporarily astray, or put us on a new path altogether. But journey we all must, halting, listening, committing, reorienting, or meandering as the case may be. And yet, by a process of critical reflection and self-questioning, by opening up our religious beliefs and biases to enough voices, both past and present, and with a wide enough breath of experiences at our disposal, we can gradually orient our thinking correctly and approach truth through a series of ever-improving approximations. We can be sure, at least for the moment, that we are on the road that offers the best empirical fit, that makes the most sense of what we see, and we can even invite others to check out our way for themselves; but ever announce we have arrived at truth, itself, we must not.

One practical result of this approach for Reformed pastors and theologians, I have argued, is a gospel message that diminishes the character and clarity of Scripture, dilutes the intellectual strength of the gospel offer, and functionally introduces a subtle dose of provisionality into our theological claims. Scripture's hammer blows against sin, even humbly delivered, are downgraded to lashes with whip of linguini. Appeals to Christianity's "explanatory power" (as filtered through the minds of unbelieving hearers) begin to trump thoughtful, but direct, appeals to the Bible and the God who wrote it. Additionally, we influence our hearers into becoming confused Bereans, who read a text and then run out into the world to see if these things are so (cf. Acts 17:11). We start appreciating those with whom we disagree not because they force us to return to the sufficient Scriptures, but because they offer another opportunity to compare notes in our common quest for extant, though as yet unattainable, ultimate truth.

I submit that a better approach to preaching and teaching about the existence of God and His redemptive plan in Christ self-consciously acknowledges the self-sufficient Spirit who proceeds from the Father and Son in perichoretic unity and is, for that reason, the omnicompentent and successful Communicator of divine truth to all people (not despite, but rather within their own cultural contexts). As the sovereign Agent of revelation, the Spirit not only hears divine truth (John 16:13; 1 Cor 2:10) and infallibly delivers it (John 15:26), but also enables His people to receive with confidence, and therefore know (1 Cor 2:12), God's authoritative Word. In other words, because God is its ultimate Author and Teacher, Scripture is sufficently and savingly clear about the Christ it proclaims. That deserves saying again: the perspecuity of Scripture is not the product of the interpretive task (i.e., it is not delineated by what we can agree on), but its prerequisite (i.e., we may and should know what the Spirit has made plain concerning the Bible's integrating center, Christ crucified and raised; cf. Luke 24:25-27; 1 Pet 1:10-12). Under this approach, Christian claims to epistemic certainty regarding core revelational and redemptive truth do not constitute irrational fanaticism or entail, as one self-proclaimed "postfoundationalist" has put it, "absolutism and hegemonic totalization". Instead, they are part and parcel of the Spirit's sovereign authority and activity to reveal and illumine divine truth to those whom He has made alive.

A final plea of sorts, then: let us acknowledge our finitude, but revel in the infinite God. Let us acknowledge demographics, but trust that no obstacle will thwart God's communicative purposes. Let us listen humbly, but speak boldly. Let us hear again Martin Luther (no naive Enlightenment rationalist, in my view), who thundered, "To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart ... Away, now, with Skeptics and Academics from the company of us Christians; let us have men who will assert, men twice and inflexible as very Stoics!" (Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger [New York: Anchor, 1962], 167-8).

Proclaiming the gospel message with unwavering conviction of its truth hardly makes one a card-carrying Enlightenment modernist. It certaintly does not guarantee that all hearers will be persuaded, even intrigued. What it does do is show us to be unlike virtually anyone our unbelieving hearers have ever met: emissaries who know that even the most hardened skeptic cannot escape the voice of God in creation or in the Scriptures He has infallibly written through fallible men, that our very personhood is tuned to His frequency, that His Word never fails, and--most importantly--that the only solution to the moral disintegration and compounding guilt that marks every passing day of our hearers' lives is the glorious, clear, and sufficient gospel of the One who is Truth itself (John 14:6). If we hold to this message, in this way, we may also be the tools He uses to fortify, and thus adorn, the church in which He deigns to dwell.





Home Repair and Hermeneutics (Part 2)


In a recent post, I noted just how easy it is to pick up hermeneutical tools that are ill-suited for handling Scripture, if indeed Scripture is the Spirit-breathed, self-attesting Word of the sovereign, triune God. Like taking toy blocks and a screwdriver to a window that has been painted-shut (mine is still shut, by the way), pastors and theologians often pick up contemporary models of knowing and theories about the accessibility of truth (and therefore about the relative possibility of making absolute claims about biblical truth) without adequately considering the approach demanded by the sacred text itself. 


One growing hermeneutical approach to Scripture--or, better yet, one epistemology that undergirds a common approach--attempts to steer a middle path between a naïve objectivism ("What I plainly read in the text is what it means--period") and full-blown hermeneutical relativism ("We all understand what we read only according to how we are conditioned to read, either individually or communally"). This increasingly popular hermeneutic recognizes the limitations of the human mind, but ultimately declines to dissolve the idea of truth in an ocean of postmodern skepticism. Some will recognize that what I'm describing in broad strokes is sometimes called critical realism.   


If using that term hasn't induced you to click away from this discussion, maybe we can get a bit more philosophical, just for a minute. Critical realism recoils from the arrogance and exclusivist instincts of a bygone Enlightenment hubris (who doesn't?); but it has also read the obituary of radical postmodern hermeneutics and wants no part of it (who does?). In the hands of pastors and theologians, this newer approach believes, on the one hand, that a text of Scripture, to some degree, actually reflects its author's mind and refers beyond itself to a coherent and knowable reality. It asserts that the gospel isn't a made-up fantasy or simply a product of my deepest wishes. It is real! And yet, on the other hand, critical realism also recognizes that the reader, author, text, and extra-textual reality are all moving targets within their respective times and places, and that each dimension is unavoidably filtered through each of our unique, fallible (and often colliding or, better, "subverting") worldviews. In short, this approach assumes that there is real truth to be known, but that such truth can only be provisionally known by a series of ever-improving approximations. The "best" approximations, or narratives, or models, it is said, make the most sense of the relevant data currently available. Those that offer the most "explanatory power"--usually as determined by the deepest intuitions or experience of the one involved--take the lead and the rest of us are to adjust our worldviews accordingly.


This "critical realism" is a potent siren song for well-meaning, sophisticated, Reformed evangelicals seeking to make sense of Scripture (and make Scripture sensible) today. It calls us to listen long and hard to secular scientific conclusions regarding human origins before making final judgments about Genesis. It supplies an overall context for narratival construals of religious experience (e.g., "how-does-my-story-intersect-with-the-grand-Story" descriptions of the Christian faith).  For those keeping score at home, it is, in one way or another, the operating epistemological paradigm of scholars such as N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Thomas F. Torrance, and J. Wetzel van Huyssteen. It has perhaps become the unrecognized paradigm of many more.


This critical realist epistemology, however, comes with a huge ball and chain. Adapting the words of Colonel Jessup--this model can't handle Scripture's definitive truth claims. According to critical realism, all truth per se, especially truth about and from God, is unattainable and may only be approximated by progressively constructed models derived from human investigation and reflection: e.g., I believe there was a historical Fall because I sense there is something wrong with the world. I believe Jesus was resurrected because it best explains the worldwide explosion of the Christian church. I believe the gospel is true because it has changed my relationships at work, etc. These may be supplementary evidences by which the Spirit confirms Scripture's witness in our hearts, but should they be determinative for our faith or the centerpiece of our evangelistic witness to others?  

For now, let us consider whether the apostle Peter, for example, was acknowledging the provisionality of all truth claims when he said that we may "know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus" (Acts 2:36)? Or whether Jesus' bodily resurrection was the best explanation among many for the data of the empty tomb when he said that "it was not possible for him to be held by [death]" (Acts 2:24)? Was the apostle Paul resting the inexcusability of all men before God (Rom 1:20) upon a knowledge of Him that lies on the far side of a spiraling path of conversation between divergent voices?


If not--and here is the key question--is there an alternative approach to preaching and teaching Scripture that exhibits Christ-like humility, that hears the cry and questions of the world's unbelief, that avoids Enlightenment arrogance and postmodern quicksand alike, and yet lovingly stands upon the nothing less than absolute (and, sometimes, hard to repeat) claims Scripture makes about God, creation, sin and the redemption wrought by Christ? That way, and that way alone, I submit, will not be a meandering pathway to a comfortable conference table, but is the direct and narrow road to Spirit-fueled preaching and teaching that has the power to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

New Resource on the Canon

Since Trueman is showing some love to Cardinal Newman, click here for an excellent apologetics resource to answer the perennial questions Newman and his ilk raise against the Protestant canon - as well as more answers to other questions concerning this bedrock doctrine of Christianity.
HT: Triablogue

Statement on Scripture by Concerned Erskine Faculty Members


While some have thought that what has been termed the "battle for the Bible" was successfully concluded in evangelical circles almost three decades back, there can be little doubt at this point that the doctrine of Scripture is now a front-burner issue among American Evangelicals.  In particular, there is increasing interest in the formulations of Karl Barth, whose dialectical theology is thought by some to provide a more "dynamic" and satisfying view of the Bible and its authority, and whose polemic against "inerrancy in the original autographs" is increasingly influential in some quarters.   The recent reactivation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy is but one indication of the concerns that many have regarding such developments. 

The statement below addresses the problem of Barthian views of Scripture in a particular institutional context.  It has been signed by five esteemed colleagues and myself.  I am honored to join with these faithful men and to post the text of the statement on this blog. An exploration of issues related to the broader background for this statement can be found here on this site. 



The ARP Church has historically held to a high view of Scripture as inerrant in the original autographs (see Historical Addendum below).  It has consistently rejected Barthian and Neo-Orthodox refusals to speak of the inerrancy of Scripture and to affirm unequivocally that Scripture is, rather than becomes, the Word of God.  Furthermore, the clear lesson of history is that Barthian fuzziness on the inspiration and authority of Scripture has had a disastrous impact on the mission and witness of the Church in Europe, Great Britain, North America, and elsewhere.  

Despite these clear affirmations by the ARP Church, of which Erskine Theological Seminary and Erskine College are agencies, after decades of theological conflict between the Church and the Seminary over the inspiration and authority of the Bible, Barthianism continues to be tolerated at Erskine Seminary. In recent years, one faculty member has publicly and privately expressed his strong opposition to the stated position of the General Synod of the ARP Church regarding Scripture.  We are profoundly disappointed that some in the Erskine administration and board find it acceptable for those who hold Barthian views of Holy Scripture to teach their viewpoint at Erskine.   

Some may say that debates over the inerrancy of Scripture are nothing more than semantics, arguments among theologians who are more interested in precise definitions of words than they are the peace of the church. We regret that characterization of the issue. Pious-sounding bromides regarding Scripture are no substitute for a clear articulation of the church's historic doctrine of Scripture, especially when such bromides conceal positions that fatally undercut the church's confidence in our God-breathed book, the Bible. The inerrancy of Scripture is not a second or third order issue, but one of critical importance for the life and well-being of the church. As much as we dislike controversy, we are compelled to say that this is not a matter for equivocation or compromise. Rather, we must be clear in our articulation of the doctrine and resolute in our stance.

We rejoice that, Dr. David Norman, President of Erskine College and Theological Seminary, has publicly affirmed his support and acceptance of the ARP Church's statement on the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs.  By virtue of the actions of the 2008 General Synod, this statement has been added to the General Synod's definition of Evangelical belief, is now required of all new teaching and administrative employees of the General Synod, and will be added to the ordination vows required of all ARP ministers and elders. 

We, the undersigned, believe that, after almost half a century of resistance by some Erskine Seminary faculty members to the historic theology of the ARP Church (again, see Historical Addendum below), ongoing conflict over the doctrine of Scripture threatens not only the Seminary's reputation for orthodoxy and its relationship to the ARP Church, but the very well-being of the school--as prospective students opt for other seminaries that affirm a more consistent theological stance. As members of the faculty at Erskine College and Theological Seminary, we believe this situation is unacceptable. Therefore, we humbly call upon the Board and Administration of Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary to support and defend the position of the ARP Church on Scripture, and to work toward an Erskine Theological Seminary and an Erskine College that stand strongly and unequivocally for the authority of God's inerrant and infallible Word. We represent a wide range of theological specialties and different denominational affiliations, but we are united in our affirmation of the church's historic doctrine of Scripture.


Terry L. Eves, Ph.D.

Professor of Old Testament, Erskine Theological Seminary

Chair, Dept. of Biblical Studies

Presbyterian Church in America


The Rev. R. J. Gore Jr., D.Min., Ph.D.

Professor of Systematic Theology, Erskine Theological Seminary

Former VP and Dean, 1998-2003; Dean 2003-06

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church


Dale W. Johnson, Ph.D.

Professor of Church History, Erskine Theological Seminary

Chair, Dept. of Theology and Church History

Presbyterian Church in America


The Rev. Toney C. Parks, D.Min.

Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling, Erskine Theological Seminary

Chair, Dept. of Ministry

National Baptist Convention


The Rev. William B. Evans, Ph.D.

Younts Professor of Bible and Religion, Erskine College

Chair, Dept. of Bible, Religion, and Philosophy

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church


John Makujina, Ph.D.

Professor of Biblical Studies, Erskine College

Independent Baptist



 In an article entitled "What the Associate Reformed Church Stands For," in The Centennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans, and Cogswell, 1905), p. 694, James Strong Moffatt gave clear expression to the doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs: "The Associate Reformed Church stands stoutly for the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Its testimony is that the inspiration extends not merely to some portions of the Bible but to the whole Bible; not only to the words and sermons of Christ but to the Epistles of Paul and Peter as well. Its position is that not merely the contents, the body of truth found in the Scriptures is inspired of God but that the inspiration extends to the very words; that not only does the Bible contain the Word of God but the Bible is the Word of God. . . . The Associate Reformed Church does not contend that that there are no errors in the Bible as we have it today.  It would be strange indeed if having passed through so many hands, and so many casualties, and having been so often transcribed, some errors should not have crept in.  But the contention is that as originally given to the church there were no errors, and that the originals have been so guarded by the Spirit, and so reverently and carefully handled by godly and faithful men that whatever errors may have crept in through human frailty are slight and have not corrupted or changed in any particular the originally inspired documents."

The Church's doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs is also expressed by two 1979 statements by the General Synod. "We believe that the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us through the Holy Scripture which is the Word of God written.  While we do not have the original autographs as evidence, we believe on faith that God's Word in its entirety was accurately recorded by the original writers through divine inspiration and reliably transmitted to us" (1979 Minutes of the General Synod, p.76).  "Be it resolved that the General Synod of 1979 affirms that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God without error in all that it teaches" (1979 Minutes of the General Synod, p. 23, emphasis original).

In 1994 a controversy broke out at the General Synod meeting after a Barthian faculty member expressed reservation about the use of male language for God in a Seminary document.  A "Seminary Select Committee" of the Board was formed to examine all Erskine Seminary faculty members as to their views regarding the Standards of the ARP Church.  Faculty members were asked whether they affirmed "That the original writings of the Old and New Testaments are inspired by God, truth (without error), divine authority, and kept pure by Him through all ages" (1995 Minutes of the General, p. 51).  While the results of this examination were no doubt ambiguous, the nature of the question on Scripture itself is highly significant.  It demonstrates an understanding by the Church and Board that Erskine Seminary faculty members are indeed expected to affirm the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. 

In 2008, after controversy erupted when two Barthian faculty members at Erskine Seminary refused to affirm the 1979 General Synod statements regarding Scripture, the General Synod passed the following language and added it to the definition of Evangelical beliefs binding on new faculty and administrative hires at Erskine Seminary: "the position of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church on Scripture is that the Bible alone, being God-breathed, is the Word of God Written, infallible in all that it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts" (2008 Minutes of the General Synod, p. 514). 




Inerrancy From the Resurrection

In light of Prof. von Hoffman's stunning (but all too familiar) revisionist historiography, I thought it might be helpful to highlight an argument for the inerrancy of Scripture that I had not heard until Warfield--who else?--brought it to my attention:

"[Jesus'] testimony is that whatever stands written in Scripture is a word of God.  Nor can we evacuate this testimony of its force on the plea that it represents Jesus only in the days of his flesh, when He may be supposed to have reflected merely the opinions of His day and generation.  The view of Scripture He announces was, no doubt, the view of his day and generation as well as His own view.  But there is no reason to doubt that it was held by Him, not because it was the current view, but because, in His Divine-human knowledge, He knew it to be true; for even in His humiliation, He is the faithful and true witness.  And in any event we should bear in mind that this was the view of the resurrected as well as the of the humiliated Christ.  It was after He had suffered and had risen again in the power of His Divine life that He pronounced those foolish and slow of heart who do not believe all that stands written in the Scriptures (Luke 24:25); and that He laid down the simple 'Thus it is written' as the sufficient ground of confident belief (Luke 24:46)." (B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, pp. 143-44; my emphasis).

Not only does Jesus in his earthly ministry refer to every portion of the Old Testament, from Genesis to the prophets, as inviolable truth.  In Luke 24, the resurrected Christ claims to have fulfilled the constraints placed upon him by the entire scope of Scripture.  To the degree we diminish the inerrancy of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, with appeals to "he-was-a-man-of-his-times" reasoning, to that extent we detract from the trustworthiness and biblically-conceived significance of the resurrected Lord.      

Of Kenny Rogers and Creeds


As any poker player knows (and I am not a poker player--I tend to steer clear of competitions where the victor takes home a bracelet), the hand is over when all the cards have been dealt, all the bets have been called, the players' cards are turned over and they reveal who has won the pot.

The image of that poker moment came to mind in a recent discussion with some church members about the role and value of ecclesial creeds for the Christian life, especially when it comes to meaningful theological exchange between two professing believers. I remember a friend who resides in a church tradition that rejects any notion of creeds. He saw them as man's conscious or unconscious attempts to bend Scripture to suit his own desires. Indulging another metaphor, I assured my friend that though the historic creeds of the church are not infallible, they provide a deep theological stream of carefully articulated doctrines that have contributed through the years to unity, health and honesty in the church. I told him he was in the current of that stream whenever he claims that God is triune, that Christ is divine, that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, or when he claims any other orthodox tenet of belief.  And I warned him that to claim "No creed but the Bible" would, itself, be creedal, but, by comparison to the historical creedal stream of the church, his would be but a shallow and muddy ditch.  It would be to show only some of his cards.  It would identify the basis for what he believes, but it would not reveal what his beliefs are.

Creeds help us lay our theological cards on the table for all to see. They differentiate our hand from the hands of others around the theological table.  They tell all who would look at our cards not only that our beliefs are grounded in the Bible, but that "These are the truths revealed in the Scriptures as the Word of God." They tether our confession of Scripture to the content of Scripture.  They do not leave anyone wondering what we mean when we claim the Bible is God's very Word.  Indeed, many through the ages, and even today, who call for creedal revisions deploy words like "inspiration" and "atonement" only to inject those words with unorthodox content.  Poker, then, has an advantage over some of the theological hands being played today.  In poker what the cards are and what they mean cannot be subverted.

At least two lessons are ready for the taking: First, holding to the enduring creeds that present the truths of Holy Scripture is akin to holding a royal flush.  Second, should anyone entice us to abandon the historic creeds of the church, we should remember The Gambler's adage, "You've got to know when to hold'em...and when to walk away."

What sits on your Bible?


"It all comes down to authority, doesn't it?" Stretching out his hand across the coffee shop table and resting it atop the Bible in front of him, a recent college graduate confessed to pastor Todd Pruitt that he had lost the faith he once professed as a freshman. With heartbreak over those words, Todd, the pastor of Church of the Saviour in Wayne, PA, and host of the event, opened last night's beginning of Westminster's "Full Confidence" weekend conference on Scripture.


Dr. David Garner then powerfully exhorted the church to God-honoring vigilance for the authority and reliability of Scripture's own self-witness and rocked the room with admonitions against failing to do so.  "Passivity turns error into evil." "Rest reaps rot." Pastors are duty-bound, he said, to proclaim the authority, sufficiency, and clarity of God's word rather that "doggedly hold forth with milquetoast and muffins". The "serpentine question" of Genesis 3 is alive in our day and many have already been "snake-bitten" by the "slithering lie" that the Bible lacks relevance. He closed with an almost prophetic announcement that God and His Word would openly triumph on the last day.

Dr. Carl Trueman came through with the second connecting punch of the night, unfolding with his trademark clarity and humor the Early Church Fathers' seed-bed convictions concerning Scripture. Graciously donning (and doing battle with) a "Brittany Spears" earpiece microphone, he drove home the early church's views on the inscripturation, inspiration, and authority of Scripture. He added a few gems of his own as well, but seasoned readers of Ref21 may sympathize as to why I omit them from my first post. 

"It all comes down to authority, doesn't it?" By the Authority who came down for us, and by His Spirit, we can and should repose our full confidence in our Bibles as, indeed, bearing ultimate authority. 

More on inerrancy...

Iain D. Campbell, one of our new bloggers (who has yet to be able to sign in!  be patient with us), has posted a review of Andrew McGwan's book referred to below (the review by John R de Wit) on his blog.
 The recently published volume, The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan has been reviewed by John R. de Witt for The Banner of Truth and can be viewed here.

My Kind of Book

"That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort" (U2's Bono, in his introduction to Selections from the Book of Psalms [New York: Grove Press, 1999], xi). 

Results tagged “scripture” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 1.1

i. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation: therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

This first paragraph of the Confession makes it clear that Scripture is necessary if there is going to be a knowledge of salvation. The confession says that "it pleased the Lord." It does not state that it was necessary for God to reveal what He did; He decided to reveal that of His own good pleasure, or His own mercy.

For the framers of the Westminster Confession, Scripture is foundationally and essentially divine. It is worth noting that in WCF I, there is no mention of the human authors of Scripture. This is not an oversight in the Confession; it is not that the Reformers and their progeny did not recognize the human element of Scripture. It is not that they were not privy to extra-biblical sources and other cultural, contextual and human elements. Rather, it is in keeping with the  testimony of Scripture itself about itself that the WCF affirms that Scripture is foundationally and essentially divine (though contingently, secondarily and truly human).

For the Reformed, God is the author of Scripture, and men were the ministers, used by God, to write God's words down. Scripture's author is God, who uses "actuaries" or "tabularies" to write His words. Reformed thought has been careful to see God as the primary author, and men as instrumental, secondary authors.

This means that a doctrine of Scripture can only be constructed by way of what Scripture itself says about itself. We do not build a doctrine of Scripture by looking at the surrounding culture and intimating what Scripture is, based on that culture. To do that will involve us in hopeless confusion. We won't know, for example, how to compare certain creation narratives of a surrounding culture with the creation account given to us by God in Scripture. All narratives, including those in Scripture, become nothing but "literature."

While it is appropriate and important to seek to understand biblical passages in terms of their cultural context, it is inappropriate, in a Reformed, confessional context, to let those phenomena determine what the Bible is (i.e., a doctrine of Scripture). Such a methodology denies that we determine our doctrine of Scripture in terms of its self-witness alone. To let our understanding of the "cultural context" of the Bible determine its meaning denies that a doctrine of Scripture is gleaned, first of all, by virtue of what Scripture says about itself