Tribal Congregationalism and future of the PCA

Posted by Bob Mattes

I have used the term “tribal congregationalism” several times in recent blog posts and comments. I stated the basic definition most succinctly in this post as:

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

I have been asked to expand upon that definition, hence this post.

Amongst the important elements of good leadership are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment includes the idea of delegation, wherein I assign a task or function to a person or group. When empowered, that person or group then has the tools and authority to accomplish the assigned task or function, along with clear expectations and desired outcomes.

With empowerment must also come accountability to the leader who assigned the task or function. Accountability can include things like deadlines, progress reports, specific intermediate goals, etc., as well as the actual final outcome. A good leader delegates tasks and functions, empowers those assigned to those tasks and functions with the tools and authorities necessary, provides clear expectations and desired outcomes, and holds the empowered accountable for the results.

We see these principles generally at work in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). We have three levels of church courts, each with specific tasks and functions assigned, specific expectations, and each empowered to carry out their tasks and functions as delineated in the BCO (BCO 1-1, 1-5, 3-2, 10-1, 10-2, 11-4). Through review and control (BCO 11-4, Chapter 40), each court is held accountable to the broader courts. That is, sessions are held accountable to presbyteries through the review of their minutes and general knowledge of their activities. Presbyteries, in turn, are held accountable via the same tools to the General Assembly. That’s Presbyterianism 101.

When that process breaks down, we have processes for church discipline (BCO Chapters 29 to 40). Individual courts hold their members accountable through investigations, counseling and, as a last resort, trials. Each court’s execution of the discipline process is reviewed by the next broader court for their fidelity to our Constitution – the Westminster Standards together with the BCO. That’s Presbyterianism 102.

Unfortunately, while the theory is sound, the execution is found lacking in the PCA these days. We created an outlier judicial commission, the SJC, which as constructed differs from the actual church courts (BCO 15-3) in that it is not directly accountable to the General Assembly (which created it) for its specific actions or decisions (BCO 15-5). Therefore, the three court structure, the courts being one (BCO 11-3), is broken in the PCA because of an unaccountable judicial commission (BCO Preliminary Principle 7).

The breakdown of the above basic leadership elements and processes that implement them has been manifest in recent decisions in the PCA. The Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records rightly called out a specific presbytery’s decision accepting officers who hold to paedocommunion (the unbiblical serving of communion to infants and toddlers in violation of 1 Cor 11:27-29; WCF 29, WSC 96, 97; WLC 168-177) to the General Assembly, but the latter decided not to hold that presbytery accountable. The General Assembly permitted, by inaction, officers that practice of intinction, which also violates the Scriptural model for communion (Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29) as well as the Westminster Standards (WCF 29.3; WLC 169) and the BCO (58-5). The SJC gave a pass to the teaching and practice of Federal Vision errors by church officers in the Leithart and Meyers cases by choosing to decide those cases based on technicalities rather than directly addressing the underlying heresies (Mt 23:22-24).

Perhaps just as bad, progressive political parties now operate freely but in secret in the PCA, outside of any accountability to the church courts. The National Partnership and Original Vision Network seek to turn the PCA into a “broadly Reformed” denomination without defining “broadly Reformed.” Given their tolerance of intinction, paedocommunion, female deacons, etc., I think that we can guess which way they lean. I sincerely believe that the word “confessional” is used as an byword in their secret emails and meetings. Secret hearts and sorry tales will never help love grow.

The net result of this lack of accountability for officers and presbyteries tolerating, holding, teaching, and/or practicing serious errors has been the creation of a system which I call “tribal congregationalism.”

The tribes refer to presbyteries that tolerate officers holding, practicing and/or teaching specific errors within their boundaries. I witnessed first hand that seminary graduates know which presbyteries are likely to accept their paedocommunion views, for example, and in which presbyteries to avoid even attempting ordination. Federal Visionists have a very good idea of which presbyteries they shouldn’t bother transferring into (Leithart obviously isn’t as smart as some folks think he is). And so on with intinction, theistic evolution, female deacons, etc. Each erroneous officer or candidate seeks out safety in his applicable tribe. Some tribes overlap or tolerate multiple errors, others do not. Safe conversations seek out supporting tribes.

The congregationalism part of the term comes from the lack of accountability outside the tribe. We nod and wink at specific presbyteries that tolerate officers who practice or teach Federal Vision, paedocommunion, intinction, female deacons, theistic evolution, et al. A majority of the commissioners at General Assembly have apparently consistently desired to avoid offending or judging deviant officers. Net result = no accountability. Specific errors thrive within the bounds of each tribe without accountability to the denomination at large. That’s what I call tribal congregationalism, and ultimately it will destroy the PCA.

Sound too drastic? Consider PCA congregants who travel or transfer around the country, which describes many in our mobile society. I have seen families bring their little toddlers up for communion, only to be refused by faithful officers who take the Scriptures seriously. Even when reached out to after the service, these families rarely return to a PCA church in a faithful presbytery, usually winding up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). On the flip side, I get emails from families traveling or moving to questionable presbyteries, wanting to know which churches are faithful to our Constitution, and hence to the Scriptures since PCA officers swear that our Standards contains the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Sadly, sometimes I point them to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) or other more consistent denominations because I cannot name a faithful PCA church in their area of interest. The PCA is sowing division and confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

I hear, especially from young officers, that the PCA must reach out to and welcome the diverse cultures in our country, because we won’t survive if we don’t do so. I agree. You won’t find a more diverse cultural settings than the greater Washington D.C. area in which God planted the church in which I am honored to serve. I see first-hand every week that the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no cultural boundaries. People around the world share one overarching characteristic – they are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as the only inerrant and infallible rule for faith and practice. That sentence is the most missional statement that you’ll ever see outside of Scripture itself.

That welcoming of sinners from diverse national, ethnic, economic, etc., backgrounds won’t break the PCA. Rather, by God’s grace that people-diversity will strengthen His Church. What WILL break the PCA is the diversity of theology and worship beyond the bounds of our Constitution and the regulative principle, both firmly based on Scripture, now found and growing in the PCA.

The empowerment and mutual accountability of Presbyterianism is fundamentally incompatible with tribal congregationalism. So, I’ll say it again: The PCA is sowing confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. We need to decide if the PCA will follow the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) or the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) and act now on that decision. May God give us the wisdom to take after that faithful church in Revelation 3:7-13.

Posted by Bob Mattes

A tale of two letters

Posted by Bob Mattes

The Founding

On 7 Dec 1973, a new denomination sent A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Througout the World from the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. The NPC changed names to the Presbyterian Church in America shortly thereafter. The PCA had split from the liberal-and-becoming-worse PCUS. The Message to All Churches laid out the reasons for the split (similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and served as a notice of the new denomination’s beliefs. At the top of the list stood the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and their role as “the only infallible and all-sufficient rule for faith and practice.”

Against the big-tent liberalism of the PCUS, our founders wrote:

We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity. [my bold]

Note the “without reservation” adherence to the Westminster Standards. There was no “good-faith” subscription in view there. The PCA has already headed down the PCUS road on this issue. More on that later.

On the subject of theological error and church discipline, our founders wrote:

Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.

Anyone watching the two most recent cases against blatant teachers of the Federal Vision errors (pdf file), both of whom are now fellows at the latest incarnation of an attempted Federal Vision seminary, knows that the PCA has already started down the PCUS road in that regard. The PCA has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

Please read that open message as it provides an anchor for the PCA as it considers its future. As the philosopher Santayana wisely observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The PCA is showing that it is not immune from that wisdom.

The Revision

A small group of 18 teaching elders who were around during the founding of the PCA in 1973 recently signed a letter (pdf file) to the new generation. I want to be clear up front that I respect these 18 elders for their sacrifices for, and contributions to, the church of Jesus Christ over many years. Nothing that follows is meant to reflect negatively on that respect. Nonetheless, my respect for them does not negate my critical thinking on the matters that they publicly present.

Early in the letter, the 18 signers endorse “good-faith subscription”:

Several years ago, after lengthy discussion, we affirmed “good faith” subscription which was a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.

So, since our 1973 founding, the PCA has “progressed” from “committed without reservation” to our Standards, to a “good faith subscription” approach that has opened the PCA’s door to paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution (e.g., Biologos), et al, all of which depart from the Scriptures and the Standards.

After observing that some think that the PCA is too strict and narrow while others think that the PCA is too broad, the 18 opine that:

…these differences of opinion reflect a healthy breadth of views and perspectives that produces an ever present need for love and mutual respect. It does, however, present the PCA with the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.

With all due respect to the 18 signers of this letter, that argument represents a significant departure from the vision laid out by the bulk of our founders in the Message to all Churches in 1973.

Keep in mind that only 18 men who were present at our founding signed this letter. Although many founders have gone to be with the Lord, many remain and did not sign the letter. Dr. Morton Smith comes immediately to mind for one. As our first Stated Clerk he had his finger on the pulse of the initial direction of the PCA. Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din provided a PCA manifesto in the months leading up to the separation. Please read Dr. Morton’s address at the link.

Connections

While I do not believe that the positions from the new letter accurately reflect the consensus of the bulk of elders who founded the PCA in 1973, and hope that I have demonstrated this from original documents, I do believe that the letter agrees well with the more recent Original Vision Network started by TEs Paul Kooistra and Larry Hoop. While I appreciate the contributions that these men have made to PCA missions, their network steers us back to the PCUS “big tent.” For instance, they revised our founders’ words in the Message to All Churches to a vision that would now have us believe that our founders wanted:

a denomination committed to a broadly Reformed theological position, steering clear of both a formless evangelicalism with sketchy theological commitments and a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress;

Please go back and read the Message to All Churches and see if you can find a vision for a “broadly Reformed theological position.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back? Couldn’t find it? That’s because “committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” doesn’t describe a “broadly Reformed theological position.” The latter represents a slide back to towards the old PCUS “big tent.” If the founders had really wanted a big tent, they would have stayed in the PCUS committed “to love and respect each other.” Instead, our founders left an apostate denomination that trampled on both the Scriptures and the Standards.

Conclusion

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics – the chief weapons buyer for the U.S. Department of Defense – has a great sign on his door. It reads: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” The point being that opinions are nice, but we need to see the data on which one based those opinions.

So, when I read the letter by the 18 elders, the first thing that I did was hunt up the original Message to All Churches and read it to see if the two documents were consistent. That’s what everyone should do whenever any assertion is made from history. History is best learned from original sources, not commentators decades or centuries later.

In this case, the recent letter by the 18 elders seems more in line with the revisionist and euphemistically-named Original Vision Network than the bulk of the PCA founders’ intent in 1973. The original vision is readily available for all to read in the Message to All Churches and Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din. Please take the time to acquaint yourselves with these documents if you have not already done so.

In closing, I again want to be clear that I respect these 18 elders for their contributions to the church of Jesus Christ over many years. That said, I am not prone to hero worship, so although their work and sacrifices earn them a hearing by other elders like myself and the denomination at large, it does not earn them automatic agreement without the original historical context being considered. In this case, I find that the original documentation does not support their thesis.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Retrieving the Lord’s Supper

A very common attitude that I have seen these days is that the Lord’s Supper is not a gospel issue. Therefore, issues surrounding the Lord’s Supper are peripheral, not central. I wish to challenge this assumption rather sharply. It came to a focus for me after reading this outstanding book on the Lord’s Supper. The fact is that the Lord’s Supper is gospel proclamation. Take 1 Corinthians 11:26 as proof of this: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” That word “proclaim” is a preaching word. The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the gospel every bit as much as preaching itself is, though the mode is different. Reformed theology has always tied Word and Sacrament together. Calvin believed that not only does the Lord’s Supper signify and seal the Word of God, but the preaching helps us to understand the sacrament.

A second swath of evidence is the myriad of books that the Reformers wrote on the Lord’s Supper. They wrote more books about the Lord’s Supper than they wrote about justification, Scripture, or worship. Obviously, the Reformers did not think of the sacraments as peripheral at all.

Mathison argues that one of the reason why the Lord’s Supper has become a peripheral issue for evangelicalism is that the true view of Calvin has given way to the early Zwinglian view. We have relegated the Lord’s Supper to something we do in our own minds as a pledge of our devotion to Christ, almost completely forgetting that it is a means of grace. Of course, the Lord’s Supper (abbrev. “LS”) is not something in which we are passive. However, the LS is a means of grace, not just a pledge. The LS is therefore in the same category as prayer and preaching, NOT in the same category as recitation of creeds, or profession of faith, or singing of hymns.

Mathison also posits that Calvin’s view is not something actually held much today (though he sees a resurgence), even by those who claim to hold to it. Calvin’s view can be summarized this way: 1. Jesus Christ is physically located in heaven; 2. Therefore we do not masticate Christ with the physical mouth (we don’t have bits of Christ floating around in our intestines), but the spiritual mouth, which is faith; 3. We feed on Christ’s actual body and blood, though not in the bread and wine; 4. The Holy Spirit bridges the distance between Christ and us through our union with Christ; 5. God communicates Christ to us through this means of grace; 6. The sign is connected to the thing signified, but is distinguished from it, such that unbelievers get nothing, but believers get Christ; 7. By “spiritual presence” Calvin does not mean that Christ is present to us only in a spiritual way, but rather that the whole Christ (including His physical body!) is given to us by the Holy Spirit through our union with Him.

Before you jump on this summary by saying that it is absurd, you should read Mathison’s book. It is an excellent cure for the incipient memorialist, pietist (as opposed to pious), non-means-of-grace understanding of the LS that is so prevalent today.

New Edition of the Most Important Book on Worship Ever Written

That’s kind of a long title for a blog post, but I feel that this book needs to be out there, and it needs to be read. The worship wars that are surrounding us on every side have their usual basis in the rejection of the regulative principle of worship, or its being (re)defined out of existence. This prepublication price is a steal, and I highly recommend that anyone wanting to know about Reformed worship pick up this book. The new edition has all the citations (over a thousand) carefully traced and confirmed, making this by far the best critical edition of this work ever published. Many thanks to Chris Coldwell for this labor of love. May it bear rich fruit in bringing the Reformed world back to its senses in the area of worship.

Hebrew Roots, Unhelpful Fruits

by Reed DePace

I first was compelled to examine the Hebrew Roots Movement (more broadly, Messianic Christianity) because of a beloved Christian father in my circles who had a relative drifting into the movement. This relative has a sincere faith, spending a part of life working for a reformed ministry of some renown. Circumstances in life led this relative to some understandable and rightly placed disillusionment with some reformed churches. In response to these hardships the relative sadly and unwisely in my view latched onto a Messianic congregation/ministry. Hence, in order to help this Christian father, I did some research on this movement.

I’ve concluded that MOST of the folks involved with what Lane has aptly titled the Hebrew Roots Movement are dissatisfied Protestants looking for THE explanation/interpretation that will bring to life the full realization of the promises for the Christian Life taught in the Scriptures. Rightly NOT satisfied with the experience of ordinary Evan-jellyfish Christianity that makes a great blasting trumpet sound but has no extraordinary follow through, these folks, motivated by a sincere desire to believe Christ, are looking for the answer somewhere other than the tradition they’ve come out of.

Thus they follow in a long line of similar seekers of the fulfillment of what Calvin called “Golden Jewish Dreams.” They are the descendants of the Anabaptists, the various movements into spiritualism, mysticism and pietism. They are the next heirs of the higher life movement, the Pentecostals, and late born cousins of Dispensationalism and prosperity gospel preachers. Like all such movements, they claim a “New” understanding of the gospel that is also recovery of the gospel as taught in the Early Church.

And, in a manner they do not suspect, they are indeed right. They do have ancient roots and they are the latest new version of an old error. These folks yet again, in the end, propose a relationship with God that is synergistic for its fulfillment. For them it is not Jesus + fundamentalism, or Jesus + sacerdotalism, or Jesus + mysticism, or Jesus + signs and wonders, or Jesus + prosperity. No, for them it is Jesus + a modern expression of the oldest form of fundamentalism known in the Church. They are indeed a new expression of the old Judaizers. Like some of the early profession-making Pharisees (the party of James), these folks in the end teach a Jesus + Talmudic-Torah-observance, a Jesus + the necessity of some sort of a Jewish informed lifestyle.

They don’t realize that they are making (at least) two tragic mistakes. First, like most imbalanced Jesus + something else movements, they have an over-realized eschatology. They are expecting the experience of things now that are reserved for the eternal state. Specifically they are expecting a fleshly experience of what is only a spiritual experience of the Christian life now. They mistakenly think that fleshly practices in some way secure the dramatically powerful experience of the Spirit’s work in day to day life. In this they are no better than the forms of Evan-jellyfish they left behind. Missing that the ordinary experience of the Christian life is one marked by fleshly suffering and weakness this side of eternity, they are pursuing just another expression of the “Kingdom NOW” lie so common in the Church today.

Second, these Hebrew Roots Movement folks unwisely are adopting practices and habits, accouterments of a “Jewish” lifestyle that actually are derived from a heretical source. These folks do not seem to realize that with the destruction of the Temple the practice of a Jewish form of Christianity ceased to be an option. The core of OT worship was the sacrifices; all of Leviticus, the key book in terms of Jewish life and worship (i.e., life = worship, worship is life), is built around the sacrifices. They were essential to the maintenance of even the smallest component of the law of cleanliness, etc.. Without sacrifice one CANNOT rightly practice any of the OT worship system.

And when the Temple was destroyed – that was it. All that was left was the Pharisaical/Rabbinical traditions. All that was left was the ethical teaching of the rabbis (the Talmudic tradition) coupled with the imitative worship practices, the “616” applicatory traditions of the Pharisees. Outside the book of Acts we actually do not have any Church exclusive sources of what first century Jewish Christianity was like. All we have are sources that at best seek to interpret what Jewish Christianity must have been like based on similarities with second and later century Diaspora Judaism. It is amazing that Messianic Christians think they are practicing a purer form of Christianity. In reality, they are practicing a form contaminated by unbelieving Jews who maintained their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

These modern day “Jewish” Christians fail to grapple with what Jesus said:

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mar 7:6-8 ESV)

Quite simply, those who would restore a Jewish form of Christianity are actually restoring the Pharisaical form at best, something condemned by Jesus and done away with at his express command (e.g., Acts 10, 15, the books of Galatians and Hebrews in total). All the practices adopted in Messianic congregations have as their source Rabbinic Judaism, that branch of Judaism that refused to repent of their rejection of the Messiah when in A.D. 70 God removed the earthly temple and left standing only the true spiritual temple, the Church of Christ.

Looking for the transformative power of the Christian life, these sincere but misguided folks ignore the warning of the Spirit who is the source of this transformation:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, (1Ti 4:1-3)

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)– according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col 2:20-23)

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. (Tit 3:9)

The Hebrew Roots Movement, Messianic Christianity, while well intentioned, is yet another deflection from the simple, pure gospel of Jesus Christ. It is based on the heresy of rabbinic Judaism, NOT first century Jewish Christianity. It in the end, like all forms of Jesus + me Christianity, teaches a defective gospel.

For more information, and helpful “inside” critiques of the movement, see the following resources:

Stan is a Jewish believer in Christ, former pastor, and lately a missionary with Jews for Jesus. Raised in American Judaism, he speaks from first-hand knowledge of the Messianic Christian movement. One interesting tidbit he shares: upwards of 80% of the members of Messianic congregations are NOT Jewish by birth. Instead they are Gentiles, mostly disaffected evangelicals attracted to the Hebrew Roots Movement by a promise of a restoration of “authentic” Christianity.

Baruch is a born and raised Israeli Jew. He grew up actually Jewish, served his mandatory term in the Israeli army, and lived a thoroughly Jewish life before being converted. And after conversion, he continued to live a Jewish lifestyle – but one that does not involve the restoration of rabbinic Judaism in the Church seen in Messianic Christianity. A reformed pastor, he has a long-term credible missionary-pastoral-writing ministry based in Israel. If anyone can speak with credibility to the non-Christian aspects of the Hebrew Roots Movement, it is Baruch.

In the end, I conclude on a sad but hopeful note. The sadness is that these folks have saddled themselves with the old law-slavery that Jesus lamented: 

And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” (Luke 11:46)

The hope is that it was to just such a people Jesus called out with this promise: 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-1)

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NOTE: significant in the misunderstandings of these folks is the role of the Levitical regulations. It is these that make up the bulk of the “Jewishness” that Messianic Christians strive to adopt in their worship and life.

Consequently, both to understand where these folks get off track and in order to help them, getting a handle on how Leviticus works is important. Consider the following sources:

For some really deep background and seminal thinking on the nature of clean/unclean, holy/common themes in Leviticus, one ignores Mary Douglas to their own hurt: The Forbidden Animals in Leviticus and Leviticus As Literature. While you may not agree with all she says, her insights are very helpful in rightly interpreting the meaning of these concepts.

For some thinking on the role of the Mosaic law in the Church/Christian life, see:

As well, one will find great help, simple and sound investigations of the Scripture via the Westminster Confession of Faith. See Chapter 19, Of the Law of God,  especially paragraph three (scroll down to page 83).

Reed DePace

Jon Payne on John Owen and the Means of Grace

Word, sacraments and prayer are the means of grace. Owen is needed, because our churches are losing their Reformed moorings because of an over-emphasis on urban culture, and a substitute of our own means of grace for God’s means of grace.

Owen was raised by a non-conformist father. His time at Oxford was long and fulsome. He went to hear Edmund Calamy, but, in God’s providence, Calamy was not there. Yet the Lord used the substitute’s message to work powerfully in Owen’s life. Married Mary Rook. Had 11 children, only 1 of whom lived to adulthood. Owen was an ecclesiastical statesman, as being chaplain to Oliver Cromwell.

Public worship and liturgy was a hugely controversial subject at the time, and figured large in Owen’s work. As Mohler would say, if you want to know what a church is really like, go worship with them and listen to the preaching. You will learn who they are by looking at their worship. Lex credendi, lex orandi: the law of belief is the law of worship. If there is such a thing as acceptable worship, then there is such a thing as unacceptable worship. The persons of the worshipers need to be accepted first. Secondly, worship can only be of God’s own appointment. Evangelical graces need to be exercised in worship. Getting worship outwardly correct is not enough. There needs to be a subjectively active and pious attendance on worship.

God’s means of grace are efficacious: they work! In our modern age where people no longer believe this, we hear from the Word that the means of grace work as efficacious for salvation. Owen didn’t write anything on preaching. The sermons we have are parliament sermons, not his normal week to week sermons. Owen’s sermons on the Lord’s Supper are rich sacramental theology (and are in volume 9).

Roundup Response

I don’t know whether this will be my last response or not, but I do want to thank Dr. Clark for his challenging and helpful posts. I am having a ball doing this, and I’m hoping he is, too. I’m learning a lot, and am being forced to think through many things about worship, which is always a plus. I plan on replying to both of his posts, so that we can sort of get back to one post, rather than potentially confusing 2-part responses. Part 1 of his reply is here.

The first part of his response has to do with the distinction between public and private worship. I must admit to being a tad confused here. I re-read my own post and was reassured to find that I hadn’t actually disagreed with that distinction. If I may ask, what was it in my post that gave rise to a feeling on Dr. Clark’s part that he needed to defend that distinction? Maybe some of the comments challenged that understanding. But I agree with his distinction, as long as it is understood that there is still at least some sort of organic connection between the two (a connection which does not require the same things of one worship as it does of the other). I do not see the same elements required in the one as in the other, and yet the covenantal context for both would suggest an organic connection. Moving on, then.

Regarding the question of consciences, specifically, the consciences of people who think that hymns are biblical, he writes:


The original Reformed understanding of Scripture and the original understanding of our confession was that God will have us praise him only with his Word. If that’s right, and no one has shown from Scripture or in principle that understanding was wrong, then that must be our goal.

Now, I can agree with this principle whole-heartedly, actually. The question is whether it is required that the Word be sung ipsissima verba only, or whether songs that summarize the teaching of the Word also sing the Word. I do not see in Scripture the principle that only the minister may summarize the Scripture and that the congregation is forbidden to do so. We both agree, of course, that worship must be biblical. However, I would ask what biblical warrant there is for saying that the congregation may not summarize in song, while the minister may summarize in prayers, preaching, etc. I am not convinced that this is simply an issue of distinguishing between the two offices. The question, it seems to me, revolves around what the content actually does.

Concerning biblicism, I would be the last person to accuse Dr. Clark of being, in general, biblicistic. I hesitated a long time before even using that word, given his rather vociferous objections to biblicism in other contexts. To focus the question a bit more, I would ask this: why are hymns that summarize biblical content not biblical? I suspect that he views this as his answer:


The response of God’s people to his Word in the setting of public worship is not primarily didactic (although it always has that function) but doxological and God’s Word is entirely sufficient for doxology.

To me, it is not clear why saying that the singing is doxological answers the question. For instance, there are many Psalms that are not doxological. There are many Scriptures that we might sing that are not (at least explicitly) doxological. For instance, Psalm 1 is most definitely a wisdom Psalm, is it not? Psalm 88 is hardly doxological, but is rather a lament. So, should all the congregational singing be classified as doxological? In order to do that, one has to broaden the category of doxology to include many things that are not typically regarded as doxology. How useful does the category become after that? Dr. Clark admits that the congregation’s involvement always has a didactic function, even though that is not primary. Admitting the various genres of biblical song, then, gets us to this point: if there is a didactic function (even though not primary), then why would summary be rejected? Didactic function always has an element of summary, does it not? If the singing of the congregation has any didactic function at all, then summary should be seen as part of that function.

As to my unintentional mis-characterization of his argument, I did not mean to imply in any way that our “wish” was determinative of worship. I was referring to the fact that God’s people desire to worship God in God’s way. God’s will is our command when it comes to worship. “What does God require in worship?” is certainly the essence of the question.

Moving on to his second post, he argues that my question regarding the metrical versions of Psalms and paraphrase overlooks the distinction between circumstances and elements. He argues that translation is a circumstance, and so, therefore, would meter be a circumstance. My response would be this: then why couldn’t the difference between ipsissima verba and summary be a circumstance? What biblical basis is there for relegating meter to circumstance and not summary or paraphrase? Again, I am assuming here that any hymn in question here is an accurate summary of Scripture. There are, of course, many hymns that are not accurate summaries of Scripture. These should never be considered for worship.

As to the next point concerning who chooses the music, I am not sure that we have gotten to the point here. My point in bringing up the fact that the pastor chooses the music is not to say that such an action confuses the two offices of minister and believer. My point is rather that if the minister chooses the music, then the office of the believer cannot be seen as the sole determining factor for the choice of music. The office of minister is also involved in the choosing of music. And if that is so, then it seems to me that summary is allowable, and Dr. Clark’s objections regarding the separation of office would not hold, since both offices are involved.

I found Dr. Clark’s discussion of creeds most interesting and revealing. He admits that he has been on both sides of this issue in the past (I’m not sure which side he is on now, though it seems like he agrees with Calvin on this). He regards creeds this way: “Calvin’s practice can be justified, however, insofar as the use of creeds by the congregation, in public worship, falls under the heading of “Word” (one of the two basic elements of worship).” Presumably, the singing of the congregation also falls under the same category of Word, does it not? So the question becomes this: if ecclesiastically sanctioned summaries of the Word in the Creeds are the Word, why not ecclesiastically sanctioned summaries of the Word in song?

As to liturgies, I agree that we should be ransacking the old Reformed liturgies of Geneva, Scotland, England, Holland, the Palatinate, and other places for their immense riches. I have been doing this recently, to my great profit and (I hope!) for the great profit of my congregations. They are wonderfully simple, aren’t they? And yet, they are the simplicity of majesty, not the simplicity of naïvete.

Response to Dr. Clark, Part 2

Just to be clear, this post is part 2 of my response to this post. Dr. Clark has already responded to my post of yesterday. So, to make sure that we don’t get hopelessly mixed up, I won’t respond to his most recent post until later.

So, to pick up where I left off yesterday, we will consider the two questions of paraphrase and office that Dr. Clark has raised. First off, paraphrase. On this question, I’m not getting the feeling that Dr. Clark actually answered my query. My query is this: are not metrical renditions of the Psalms themselves paraphrases? I have yet to see a Psalter that did not include a fair amount of paraphrase in order to make the rhyme and meter fit the strophic melody. The best poets/linguists in the world cannot directly translate the Psalms from Hebrew strophe (or Greek prose, for that matter, since Dr. Clark believes in singing the texts of Scripture, not just the Psalms) into rhyme and meter without some measure of paraphrase. Maybe we are operating under different ideas of what constitutes paraphrase. I would say that a paraphrase is any attempt to convey the meaning of the text in any kind of different words than the original, or than a word-for-word translation would do. By this definition, all Psalters are nothing but paraphrases, given the necessary constraints on rhyme and meter (not to mention the considerable editing that is often done!). If Psalters are paraphrases, and so is everything else that is Scripture set to strophic music, then what biblical basis is there for forbidding one further step, and allowing the whole counsel of God to be paraphrased, as many hymns attempt to do? Have we not already taken the necessary steps?

This leads us to the second question, that of office. To quote Dr. Clark directly, we have this:

The congregation is called to respond to God’s Word with God’s Word. Again, I address this in chapter 7 of RRC. The congregation exercises their priesthood in taking upon their lips God’s Word in praise, adoration, and worship not in taking over the function and nature of the ministerial office. So, it is one thing for the minister to paraphrase God’s Word in the discharge of his God-ordained office and quite another for the congregation to do the same.

Now, there are two issues with this argument. The first is that what the congregation sings is not usually chosen by the congregation from week to week. Usually the pastor chooses it. That kind of messes up the normal division of office as Dr. Clark formulates it (I agree with the distinction of office as he phrases it here, just not with the application of it). Furthermore, as has been noted in some of the comments, although the pastor prays, the congregation is supposed to pray along with him in such a way that his words become their words. The parallel with praying becomes a bit more obvious once we note that in both praying and singing, both the pastor and the congregation are fully involved. The only difference is that, in praying, the pastor is the only one actually vocalizing. So prayer is another place where the ipsissima verba of Scripture are not a limitation. As my brother-in-law Nels noted, many hymns are prayers set to music. These distinctions between categories then become a bit difficult to sustain, it seems to me.

Secondly, what about creeds? If the congregation may never say anything in worship that is not the ipsissima verba of Scripture, then they can never recite creeds. If it is argued that creeds are in a different category (or element of worship) than singing in terms of the content of what is said/sung, I would ask what biblical basis does that distinction have? Or, maybe Dr. Clark does not believe that creeds should be spoken by the congregation in the worship service. Of course, that could have problems, too, like cutting ourselves off from the church of history.

Response to Dr. Clark

I am so excited about an EP debate that doesn’t have advocates of each position at each other’s throats (see the many excellent comments on the previous post), that I want to continue this discussion. Dr. Clark has favored me with an excellent response on his blog, with many weighty arguments that will require careful consideration. And, if he wishes to leave me with that word as a sufficient reply, I will not complain.

Dr. Clark’s first argument is to this effect: there is no such thing as a “good hymn” (contrary to my assertion otherwise) for worship, any more than there is a “good” rendition of Jesus Christ in art. Dr. Clark doesn’t say this, but I presume that it is implied that he regards both as equal violations of the second commandment. Furthermore, he argues that public worship and private worship are different things. He would agree with the use of “A Mighty Fortress,” for instance, in the context of private worship, but not in public worship. These are, of course, two distinct parts of his response. We can boil it down to these two assertions: 1. There is no such thing as a good hymn for public worship, and 2. Public worship and private worship are distinct categories. Now, I agree with Dr. Clark’s position on pictures of Jesus. Why is it, then, that I would not agree with his position on hymns? Does his analogy hold? I would argue that it does not hold, for the following reasons. The debate is not about the difference between modes of portrayal of Jesus (we follow the Word’s portrayal of Jesus, not a pictorial portrayal), but rather about the content of the one element of worship, namely, singing. So the question could be framed in this way: if a hymn’s content is a summary of some aspect of the Bible’s teaching, or of some particular Scripture passage, why would that be in a different category from a verbatim singing of that same Scripture? Although Dr. Clark could never be accused of being biblicistic, does his approach come close to what we might call “singing biblicism?”

Secondly, in answer to my question of whether singing hymns is a mark of liberalism, he responds by saying that singing hymns is a mark of indifference to God’s law, and is oppressive to the consciences of those who do not wish to be bound by the consistory/session to sing anything other than the ipsissima verba of Scripture. So my response would be this: if someone, in their conscience, believed that singing hymns was not only biblical but mandated by Scripture, would the consistory/session be binding their conscience by forbidding the singing of hymns in worship? Could this binding thing, in other words, go in reverse? My congregations, for instance, love hymns. We sing Psalms, too, but they can’t get enough of hymns. If I ever tried to restrict the singing to Scripture-only, there would be quite the resistance. They would claim that their consciences were being bound. In RRC, Dr. Clark claims that “Where those who would ask worshipers to sing uninspired songs might think that they are exercising Christian liberty, in fact, they are impinging on the liberty of Christians” (p. 243). Now, this would be true of people who believe in Scripture-only songs in public worship. But how exactly is that true if the whole congregation believes that singing hymns is biblical? He would probably answer that it is a question of “time, pastoral care, and patient instruction to help elders and laity to understand the RPW once again” (p. 265). Perhaps. I’m not sure that’s very workable in most cases. I have not yet seen why it is that the ipsissima verba is required in all circumstances for the congregation as their dialogical response to God speaking to them. A hymn that summarizes what the Bible says is, it seems to me, in the same category as the ipsissima verba. I will address the rest of his post tomorrow, Lord-willing.

I’m Just Wondering

Scott Clark has argued that one of problems with the URC Psalter Hymnal that is coming out is a general resistance in the Reformed ethos to singing Scripture-only music in our churches. Singing Scripture only is a position that he advocates in his Recovering the Reformed Confessions. It must be clear here that Clark does not advocate Psalms-only singing, although he certainly loves the Psalms (as do I). He advocates that the only thing we should sing in worship is Scripture. His position is that the Regulative Principle requires this.

Now, this position has a very honorable pedigree in the Reformed tradition. It is not a position to be made fun of, or to dismiss cavalierly, as many are wont to do. I would certainly not wish to do so, even though it is not my position. Comments are closed on his blog, and so I thought I would write my question to him on mine. This question comes, it must be said, from a genuine curiosity, and not from any attempt at a “gotcha” argument. I do not remember Clark addressing this particular question in his book.

My question is this: we allow paraphrases and summaries of biblical doctrine in several places in the worship service. Usually, even the strictest advocate of the Regulative Principle believes this. Preaching inevitably involves this, as does prayer (at least, good prayer does!), and any reading of the confessional standards in the worship service. If we allow paraphrase of the text to occur in some places in the worship service, why not when notes are attached to the paraphrase? What biblical warrant do we have for placing good paraphrases of the Bible in hymns (and, of course, there are plenty of bad paraphrases in hymns which should never be used, but the bad does not in and of itself negate the good) in a different category from biblical paraphrases in prayer or preaching? If a service can have a made-up confession of sin, for instance, that paraphrases different biblical truths, why couldn’t that same confession be sung?

One other question I have arises from this quotation:


When our parent denomination was founded, one of the three principal concerns was that the older Dutch Reformed church in the USA (the RCA) had given up psalm-singing for hymnody. When the founders of the CRC came to North America they were shocked by such liberalism.

Now, no Reformed church should give up singing the Psalms. That is, after all, God’s own hymnbook given to us, and we should make regular and extensive use of it. However, is singing any hymns (even what I would call “good” hymns, which would be Scriptural in content with music that fits the words) a mark of liberalism? Clark, of course, is here talking about giving up Psalm-singing for hymns. I wonder if he would say the same for a congregation that sang Psalms, though not exclusively, but also sang hymns that paraphrase Scriptural truths well.

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