Literal Interpretation of Revelation?

I am currently preparing sermons on the book of Revelation. In reading through the commentaries, one finds much that is helpful, and much that is useless. An example of the latter category comes in Robert L. Thomas’s premillenial commentary. He says on p. 32:

The futurist approach to the book is the only one that grants sufficient recognition to the prophetic style of the book and a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation based on that style. It views the book as focusing on the last period(s) of world history and outlining the various events and their relationships to one another. This is the view that best accords with the principle of literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of Revelation is the one generally associated with the premillenial return of Christ and a view of inspiration that understands God to be the real author of every book of the Bible.

There are so many problems with this analysis that it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, he assumes that which must be proved in the first sentence. “Prophetic” must equal “future,” and therefore the futurist approach is the only possible approach that would sufficiently acknowledge the prophetic character of Revelation. He downplays apocalyptic features of the book elsewhere (the reason why is somewhat mystifying in its absence).

Secondly, his bifurcation of world history is extremely unhelpful. How could the book have been written to first-century Christians if the things described in Revelation have no relevance to the first century? Yes, Revelation is written to the entire church. That is why the events of Revelation happen all throughout history, having relevance to the entire church age between the first and second coming of Christ.

Thirdly, his view that only the literal interpretation of Revelation is consistent with a high view of inspiration is quite frankly ludicrous and offensive. According to Thomas’s view, God could not possibly reveal anything to us in a symbolic way without compromising inspiration. I might remind Thomas at this point of John 11, where the disciples take Jesus literally when He says that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and thereby misinterpret Jesus. Thomas might object at this point and say, “Ah, but John tells us that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.” To which I would reply that John does so again in Revelation 1:1, where the word “semaino” means to reveal by means of signs and symbols (see Beale’s commentary). Given that such a description is meant to describe Revelation as a whole, the default in interpreting Revelation must be symbolic, not literal.

To put this in a less abstract way, if I want to say that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, I could say it just like that. Such a statement would be objective, scientifically verifiable fact stated by a completely unbiased person. Well, maybe not, but it would be a very literal way of getting the point across. But I could say it another way, by quoting George Gordon, Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.” Now, Robert Thomas, which of these statements is more true than the other? Having trouble with that? Well, of course you are! That something is true is a distinct question from how that truth is stated. Thomas does not understand this, and therefore equates literal interpretation with a high view of inspiration. One can have a very high view of inspiration (I believe, for instance, that every single word of Revelation is inspired by God and is utterly infallible) and yet interpret Revelation symbolically because it is a symbolic book.

The real fear, of course, is that a symbolic interpretation would give license to the interpreter to say whatever he wants to about the text. This is a genuine problem with those who have over-reacted to the literal folks. The solution is to recognize that there are brakes on symbolic interpretation. Those brakes are called “the rest of Scripture.” For Revelation in particular, the Old Testament functions as the source of almost all of the imagery. John is either explicitly alluding to the Old Testament or (maybe even unconsciously!) simply lives in the aura of the Old Testament. John is saturated with the Old Testament. It comes out his pores. This is not surprising, given that Revelation pulls all the threads of the Bible together and wraps everything up.

JUSTIFICATION BY BELIEF

The following is a post from Ron DiGiacomo, expressing some reflections on the recent discussion here on the nature of faith. Is it assent alone, or assent + trust?


It has recently been argued by some that we are justified by belief alone and that receiving and resting in Christ unpacks what it is to believe. In other words, receiving and resting in Christ is considered a figure of speech by which belief in Christ can be defined. Trusting in Christ does not complete justifying belief because trusting is synonymous with believing. Accordingly, to add receiving and resting in Christ to belief is either (i) redundant, (ii) strips belief of part of its meaning, needlessly placing it somewhere else, or (iii) to add something additional to the instrumental cause of justification. The first deviation would be a matter of muddled thinking, but the gospel would remain intact although jumbled. The second would be purely a matter of semantics. Whereas the third construct would undermine the grace by which we are saved, appropriated by belief alone.

Those who promote the belief alone view are sometimes met with tedious rejoinders such as the false dichotomy “we’re saved by Christ not propositional belief.” Notwithstanding, more serious objections have been raised by Teaching and Ruling Elders against the belief alone position because of the group’s insistence upon equating belief with assent. This is where things get a bit dicey. Most of the things we assent to, whether a priori or a posteriori, are not volitional. One does not will to believe that God exists any more than a child chooses to believe he is being fed by his mother. These are mental assents that are not discursive; they are immediate and without reflection. The will is bypassed. However, the gospel always engages the will as the unbeliever counts the cost and by grace abandons all hope in himself while looking to Christ alone, finding rest in Him. Accordingly, it is inadequate to reduce justifying faith to belief alone when belief is reduced to assent without remainder.

It is at this point someone will assert that assent is synonymous with resting in or relying upon Christ. In this context is it is opined that to assent to Christ dying on the cross for my sins is to trust the proposition is true. Albeit the premise is true, this observation turns on a subtle equivocation over the word trust. Indeed, to trust a proposition is true is no different than to assent to its truth. So, in that sense trust and assent are synonyms. However, to trust that something is true is not the same thing as to trust in that something. The latter idea of trust carries the meaning of reliance upon, whereas the former use of trust merely conveys an intellectual assent that might or might not be accompanied by the reliance sort of trust. Accordingly, to argue that trust and assent are synonyms in this way is to implicitly deny the need to willfully trust upon Christ alone for salvation!

As a last ditch effort some have argued that it is impossible to assent to the truth of the gospel without justification following. They draw a distinction between (i) assent in non-spiritual matters (allowing for assent to obtain without trust) and (ii) assent with respect to the gospel (suggesting that assent is inseparable to trust, even its equivalent). They reason that true assent to the gospel is only granted at conversion. Therefore, assent is trust because the two are inseparable where the gospel is concerned. Rather than debate the premise, it’s much easier to concede it for argument’s sake in order to save time in refuting the conclusion that assent is trust. Even if assent were a sufficient condition for pardon in Christ that would not mean that assent equates to trust any more than assent is regeneration. It would merely mean that when assent is present pardon obtains, just like when pardon obtains regeneration is present. Since when may a sufficient condition be equated with the relevant components that comprise the state of affairs within which the condition operates?!

In sum, assent pertains to accepting something as true, even possibly with no reflection, whereas trust (or non-trust) pertains to the degree of relevance a person might assign to the “assented to” proposition. Assent is a mental act that need not be accompanied by volition; whereas trust in Christ is always volitional in nature. Assent always pertains to accepting the truth of a proposition, whereas how one might respond in light of assent (e.g. trust, rest, exuberance, etc.) is commonly classified under the philosophical heading of disposition (which is not propositional assent). Whereas trust and other dispositions can evidence assent, dispositions need not accompany any given assent since assents can be mundane, occur without reflection and, also, be subjectively perceived as inconsequential. (This is why philosophers consider disposition to be a poor indicator of the presence of assent.)

If assent and trust were synonyms under the gospel, then either they both would mean cognitive conviction or else volitional reliance. Conviction of truth (assent) could never give way to reliance upon truth (trust).  If assent and trust mean the same thing, then either we cannot rely upon our convictions or else we can only rely upon things that don’t convince us. Conviction without reliance leaves no room for trusting in Christ; whereas reliance without conviction paves the way to trusting in Christ while not assenting to the gospel.

Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

A Gentle Response to Clair Davis

Dr. Clair Davis has written a response to Gaffin’s piece (which I linked in the previous post). As always, Davis is humble and always wanting to learn more, something I have always admired about him. He does not think he has finished learning. And he is more than willing to listen to those who disagree with him. In this post, I do not presume to teach Dr. Davis. As I indicated in my last post, my own thought is also undergoing change. But I do have some thoughts about his response. Writing about them helps me to think through the issues.

The first point I wish to raise has to do with the variety of ways that Jesus can be seen in the Old Testament. As I mentioned in my review of Sidney Greidanus, there are a variety of ways to see Christ in the Old Testament. This does not mean that a given passage, however, has more than one ultimate meaning. Otherwise, we will fall foul of the first chapter of the WCF, which says that the true and full sense of Scripture is not manifold but one (I wonder if the “two readings” view can really agree with WCF 1.9). The two readings view seems to me to say that the OT text has two meanings: the original one and the Christological one, and that they don’t have to match up or even connect (usually taking the historical critical method for granted here). Both camps in this debate would agree that there is progress of understanding the OT text. Otherwise we would have no New Testament. But Jesus says that He IS the meaning of the Old Testament in John 5 and Luke 24. He is not an add-on, or an afterthought. Yes, in some ways, Jesus is a surprise. But not completely. Otherwise, Abraham could not have rejoiced to see His day. The real question is not whether there is more than one way to see Jesus in the Old Testament, but whether He is there in the Old Testament at all! The two readings view seems to suggest that Jesus is not properly there at all, but is read into the Old Testament by means of Second Temple Jewish hermeneutical means (i.e., rabbinical means).

The second issue that I wish to bring up is whether biblical theology is “greatly weakened” at WTS, as Davis says. Yes, Enns and Green are not there anymore. Neither is McCartney. Instead, they have Beale and Duguid. My question is this: how can biblical theology be “greatly weakened” at WTS when two of biblical theology’s greatest practitioners have just joined the faculty? Beale’s greatest strength is in seeing how the New Testament reads the Old Testament. And he has written a mammoth New Testament Biblical Theology that will, I am sure, prove to be a classic. Duguid’s OT commentaries are some of the very finest OT exegesis I have seen, and very much in the Vossian BT tradition.

The third issue is the perennial one of the relationship of biblical theology to systematic theology (BT to ST). Davis believes that the two are yoke-fellows. He looks at the statement of the affirmations and denials and wonders if they haven’t put systematic theology in the untenable position of being unanswerable to Scripture. Having sat under Gaffin for five classes and received about 50% exegesis and 50% systematizing, I can say that, for the Westminster ST faculty, ST is always answerable to Scripture! The WTS faculty would NEVER say that ST equals the Bible. I do not think the affirmations and denials are saying that, either. The affirmations and denials statement was aimed at the unnatural separation of BT and ST that the two readings view advocates. It does not actually address the place of ST in the theological encyclopedia. I have talked rather extensively with the current ST faculty about the questions of encyclopedia, and they are agreed that ALL the theological disciplines are inter-connected and mutually inter-dependent. My question is this: why would we want to set any of the theological disciplines in tension with any of the others? As Davis’s example of a sermon shows, all the disciplines need to come to bear on the application. The analogy I use is that of a very heavy drill. A heavy drill has a lots of different parts to it all aimed at one point: the drill bit going through whatever material is present. That point of the drill is like application: where the rubber hits the road. But the more we have in terms of the other disciplines informing that application, the heavier and deeper the drill will penetrate the human heart. I would argue that it is the two readings view which separates BT from ST. Enns and Green don’t particularly like ST. They are suspicious of something that might put a straight-jacket on exegesis. This is not how ST should be thought of in relation to exegesis or BT. ST provides the safe fence outside of which exegesis and BT will find danger, not creative freedom. The fence can be moved, but Proverbs warns us against moving the landmark. There is a faith once for all given to the saints. There is a pattern of sound teaching. BT draws a line, and ST draws a circle.

Fourthly, that Vos says what he says does not prove that the main hermeneutical method that the apostles and Jesus used was a Second Temple Jewish rabbinical method. Nor does it prove that Jesus was an imposition on the OT text. That Vos says what he says in the quotation, therefore, does not disprove WTS’s point, as it is not directly relevant to whether Jesus is natively present in the Old Testament or not, which is the issue under consideration. After all, Paul quoted from heathen poets and philosophers in the New Testament as well. Does that prove that his hermeneutic is pagan? Using the language and concepts of the day does not equal a hermeneutical method.

Fifthly, what is it about Green’s method that is contrary to the Westminster Standards? I have brought up one point (the true and full meaning of Scripture being not manifold but one). Another point that we must bear in mind here is the unity of the covenant of grace, as WCF 7 puts it so well. Were the types of the Old Testament intended to prefigure Christ? The WCF says that they DO prefigure Christ. Period. They do not prefigure Christ only in hindsight, only on a second reading. Davis actually grants this point in the movie illustration, when he agrees with Gaffin. The problem for Davis here is that Gaffin and Green cannot both be correct on this point. Davis tries valiantly to reconcile the two, but I believe he cannot do so.

The Real Issue at Westminster Theological Seminary

Dr. Richard Gaffin has written a knock-out piece describing what is at stake in the recent retirement of Professor Doug Green at WTS (hat tip Nick Batzig).

Now, I have known for a long time that there were two different appraisals of Vos’s contribution to biblical theology. One version says that the Old Testament needs to be read first as if no New Testament existed (the so-called first reading). Only then is it followed by a second reading that takes the New Testament into account. This second reading is usually compared to Second Temple Jewish readings of the Old Testament that are in most ways “surprise” endings to the story. This is called the “Christotelic” hermeneutic. I firmly believe that the Christotelic version actually distorts Vos. One way to ask the question is this: are there any dead ends in the Old Testament? Is there any passage that does not speak of Christ?

The answer is that there are no dead ends. John 5 and Luke 24 prove this. We do not mean by this that Jesus is the antitype of every single element in the Old Testament. Rather, we mean that Jesus is the culmination of the entire story, and that the entire story progresses to Jesus. This involves the correct balance between ultimate truth and progressive development. The true reading of Vos involves an organic inter-related holistic approach to biblical interpretation, where Jesus is the natural outworking of the progressive nature of the Old Testament development.

However, I realized only recently that I still had some remaining shackles of the Christotelic interpretation, as I had until recently still thought of the “2 readings” of the Old Testament as valid. “Christocentric” is ultimately a better word for the true Vossian version of biblical theology than “Christotelic.” Read the article. You will be glad you did. The reports of the death of biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary have been greatly exaggerated.

How Jesus Runs the Church

No More of Man’s Ideas,
Instead Only Christ’s Rule!

by Reed DePace

My completing seminary included a move to a new denomination, the PCA. Coming from a denomination whose tradition was rooted in German pietism and Dispensationalism my understanding of how God works through church government was decidedly uninformed. My advisor, Dr. Richard Gaffin, thought it a kindness to recommend to a man just finished with all the hard reading of his seminary classes, a relatively easy work on this subject, James Bannerman’s two volumes: The Church of Christ: a treatise on the nature, powers, ordinances, discipline, and government of the Christian Church.

And yes, if you’ve had opportunity to consider Bannerman’s work, you know I am having a little fun. Sincerely though, I remain grateful for Dr. Gaffin’s recommendation. Working through Bannerman over the next two years was fundamental to my current understanding and security in my church government practices.

ImageYet, for many a reader, especially elders, Bannerman is just going to be a bit too much. So what to do? For a class I am taking this summer I just finished reading Guy Prentiss Waters’ How Jesus How to Runs the Church. This IS the book you should read. Dr. Waters covers all the ground of Bannerman, if not in as much detail then certainly as effectively in greater simplicity.

The greatest thing about this book is how clearly Waters roots the points he makes in the Scriptures themselves. Rather than a technical book on church government, this reads like a theology book, explaining, well, exactly what the title declares, how Jesus (actually) runs the (His) Church. This Scripture-rooting strength means that applying what Waters teaches easily becomes an expression of faith. And it is only through faith that Jesus is present to superintend a church.

This book is going in our church’s officer training course. I am urging our present elders to read it. I urge you as well.

by Reed DePace
[I receive no remuneration for this recommendation.]

Anthropocentric Moralizing?

Our Sunday School is going through the book of Daniel, with the ruling elders doing a fine job of teaching the text. I preached through Daniel while I was in North Dakota, but I wanted to freshen up and sharpen up my understanding of the book, so I got two newer commentaries to read through as we went through the book. One of them is by Sidney Greidanus, and it is entitled Preaching Christ From Daniel. Now, I have benefited greatly from Greidanus’ careful and nuanced approach to seeing Jesus in the Old Testament. The various ways in which a reader can do that are very helpfully spelled out by him in all his books. However, there can sometimes be a hesitancy to apply the text. It can be so much about Jesus that it is not about us much at all. This is a bit of an over-generalization, I realize, but I am merely pointing out what I see as a trend.

For my prime example, I will point out that he does not seem to like Iain Duguid’s commentary on Daniel much. Now, when I was preaching through Daniel, I found Duguid the most helpful commentary of any that has been written. I haven’t finished Dale Ralph Davis’s commentary yet (that’s the other one I got to read through), and it is outstanding as well. However, when I was preaching through Daniel, I found the most help in Duguid. Duguid is well-known for a Vossian progressive-revelation approach to Scripture that sees Jesus Christ as the climax of the story, and the main point of the Bible. However, Duguid, unlike Greidanus seemingly, also believes that the text can be about us precisely because it is about Jesus. In other words, if we are in Christ Jesus, then the text will always apply to us precisely because it applies to Jesus first. Greidanus, however, accuses Duguid of nudging “preachers toward anthropocentric moralizing” (84). After a quote from Duguid, Greidanus says, “This be true enough, but it is not the point of the passage.” If there were anyone out there less deserving of this censure of “anthopocentric moralizing,” that person is surely Iain Duguid. Furthermore, Greidanus is guilty of reading Duguid uncharitably and out of context. Duguid was not making his point the main point of the passage. It was an application of the text. I have not found much in the way of application in Greidanus. He gets to Jesus responsibly and well, but what to do after that or because of that, he does not seem to make clear.

The question really boils down to this: can we apply the text to our own lives even if we do not explicitly mention Jesus every time we make an application of the text? On one question at least, there would surely be agreement: the main point of the Bible is Jesus. Greidanus and Duguid would both whole-heartedly agree with that. The disagreement surfaces when we ask the question of whether the Bible also talks about us. Surely it does, since God did not just give the text to the people to whom the writing was originally given. The Bible was given to the entire church of all ages. Yes, historical context is important. But so is the fact that God gave the whole Bible to the whole church. Greidanus is rightly reacting against a mentality that bypasses Christ entirely, since this means there is no exegetical control over the application, and the application is usually wrong when we yank a text out of its progressive salvation-historical place. However, if we place the text correctly in its time and place, and correctly and carefully get to Christ, there still remains application, which flows from that whole understanding. If we cannot do this, then preaching is hamstrung. Greidanus seems to me to be throwing out the correct-application baby with the moralizing bathwater.

An Irenic Conversation

by Reed DePace

Last year after GA I made a post expressing concern about the apparent unwillingness to discuss differences. Here is a post from TE James Hakim making the same point in a gentle and peaceful way:


An Irenic Conversation

Husband: as you know, I like to hear your concerns and address them.
Wife: I’m so glad, because I have this list of concerns, based on our current situation
Husband: I’ve reviewed your list, and note that we addressed some of these things 37 years ago and others 15 years ago. Since we said the correct things at those times, it would be out of order for me to reaffirm similar things again. Besides, if we talk about it again, I might get into trouble for saying the wrong thing this time.
Wife: Oh… well… I’d really still like to talk about
Husband: [interrupting] I’m sorry, that discussion is out of order at this time
Wife: Well… there’s this other issue that matters much to me. There is a wrong decision that we have made that threatens our marriage entirely. Here’s my report on that…
Husband: I see. Yes, that might have been the wrong decision, but we made it in the right way.
Wife: Well, can we revisit it?
Husband: No, the right way of making decisions like this is to never revisit them.
Wife: I’d like to change what we call “the right way” of making decisions. Here is my proposal…
Husband: Even though this is something totally new, it incorporates one element of the way we used to make decisions, which I didn’t like back then. Besides, this would be very inconvenient.
Wife: But if doing things rightly in a way that saves our marriage is inconvenient, isn’t it worth a little inconvenience?
Husband: If we talk about this more we’ll be late for lunch. This part of the discussion is over.
Wife: It is? Well, could we thank God and pray together?
Husband: If we do that, you might think that I was approving what we were thanking God and praying for.
Wife: Is that bad?
Husband: Well, if we approve things that God approves of, but the people that hate Him disapprove of them, we might offend those people, and then they wouldn’t like us enough to stop hating God.
Wife: But… isn’t it the point that we thank God and pray to Him because He is the One who makes people stop hating Him, not they themselves?
Husband: No. It makes it hard to get a hearing from them.
Wife: Are you really against thanking God and praying to Him?
Husband: uh… er… ok, let’s do it real quick
[short prayer]
Husband: I’m glad we could have such an irenic conversation. I feel great about how good our marriage is.

Disclaimer: any apparent resemblance to recent ecclesiastical events is intentional, but the author is grateful for any discrepancies between the analogy and the reality. In fact, the author hopes that there are many, many more of these discrepancies than he has so far been able to identify.

We are Salt & Light, Yes?

If the PCA says NO! to Child Sexual Abuse,
Why Not NO! to All Sexual Immorality?

by Reed DePace

The latest general assembly (GA) of my denomination, the PCA, passed an overture (no. 6) that: 1) resoundingly condemning child sexual abuse, and 2) urging member churches and denominational bodies to take this issue seriously and address it in their day to day practices. Given that this horrifying expression of the dominion of Satan is indeed sweeping our nation, I wholeheartedly support this condemnation and admonition.

Yet this same GA struggled to pass another overture, even more mildly worded, with less stringent condemnation and less sweeping advice. This overture, no. 43, addressed two additional satanic horrors capturing the hearts of our nation: abortion and same-sex marriage. It only offered one small and insignificant call to action: expressing prayerful thanks for those striving to bring the gospel to bear on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.

The GA committee assigned to pre-review and advise on how to respond to overtures before GA, recommended that Overture 43 be declined (by a vote of 45-28). This is the same committee of men who recommended the GA approve the Overture no. 6 on child sexual abuse. It was only upon the significant efforts of a minority of this committee to bring an alternative recommendation (to affirm) that Overture 43 had opportunity for some consideration. (I’m pretty sure current assembly rules only allow for GA for an up or down vote, no debate, on the committee’s recommendation.) This substitute motion from the minority of the Overtures Committee reads:

“Be it resolved that the Presbyterian Church in America expresses its gratitude to the Lord for sustaining by His grace ministers of the gospel, chaplains, and Christians serving in the public sphere who are experiencing ostracism, penalties, and persecution for taking a Biblically faithful stand for the sanctity of human life and declining to participate in the cultural redefinition of marriage;

“Be it further resolved that the General Assembly pause and offer prayer to the Lord on behalf of such ministers of the gospel, chaplains, and Christians.”

And even then this rather mild expression passed only by a small majority.

If this leaves you scratching your head, I understand. Let me offer some explanation (informed by similar “decline” decisions of previous general assemblies).

The Overtures Committee (i.e., the majority) gave a list of four reasons for recommending to decline Overture 43. The first reason appears to be the most substantive:

“This overture is not needed. There is no lack of clarity regarding the PCA’s stand for the sanctity of marriage or the sanctity of life, biblically or constitutionally (WFC 24.1). Furthermore, we do not need an overture such as this to pray for, or encourage, those who suffer unjustly.”

This reason applies to the subject of Overture 6 as well. In fact, remove the words “sanctity of marriage or the sanctity of life” from the reason listed and substitute the words “child sexual abuse” and you can see what I mean. Indeed, the remaining three reasons given for declining Overture 43 could also be applied, with little tweaking, to Overture 6. So why was the latter easily passed and the former barely?

I expect the difference is to be seen in the application of a doctrine called the spirituality of the church to Overture 43 but not to Overture 6.  While a sound and wise doctrine, it can be easily co-opted for use in denying the Church’s responsibility to speak prophetically to the nations in her witness of the gospel. “We’re not supposed to get involved in politics,” ends up becoming an excuse (even unintentionally) to defend an unwillingness to obey God in speaking as:

A watchman to the Church:

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. (Ezk 3:17 ESV)

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.  (Col 1:28)

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  (1Th 5:14)

And prophetically to a nation:

But if any nation will not listen, then I will utterly pluck it up and destroy it, declares the LORD.” (Jer 12:17)

If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. (Jer 18:7-8)

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything excepx to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mt 5:13-16)

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Ps 2:10-12)

I get not issuing political opinions. I agree completely that this is not only NOT the Church’s calling, to engage in it actually diminishes Her calling to proclaim the gospel.

Yet I fear we can become misguided in our efforts to apply this doctrine. I sincerely cannot quite fathom why the GA would speak clearly, “child sexual abuse is wrong!” and then hesitate to speak clearly, “abortion and same-sex marriage are wrong!” Neither is a statement of political policy. When intentionally connected to the gospel (something without which we should not speak), both are expressions consistent with the command that we love our neighbors as ourselves and warn them of judgment to come.

For the record, I’d be grateful to see some Presbytery propose an overture which simply:

  1. Identifies a laundry list of sexual immorality that is defining our national character,
  2. Affirms that the Scripxures are clear on the condemnation of these,
  3. Reminds that the only hope for the rescue from the deadliness of these soul honey-traps is the gospel,
  4. Acknowledges in repentance and faith that we ourselves are not without guilt save Christ in these sins,* and
  5. Admonishes our churches to prayerfully re-affirm our calling and commitment to go and rescue those trapped in sexual immorality through the ministry of the gospel.

For those who will admonish me, “but our standards ALREADY (in effect) say such things; there is no need to repeat ourselves,” my response will be a simple, “and where would you and I be if God did not repeatedly, page after page, remind and admonish us of our sin and need of Jesus Christ?” If God sees fit to repeat Himself, why should not His Church follow His example?

[*Edit: a friend in a comment below brought up the concern of the appearance of hypocrisy. Sexual sins are so potent in terms producing guilt and shame that speaking openly about them immediately provokes all in hearing to respond, in force. Unless one has a good grip on Jesus and His cleansing the tendency is to marshal one's own fleshly resources to a defense marked by attack (often all out). It helps them if the Christian identifies his own culpability. Then they have hope you are not just a hypocrite, but one who does indeed love them.]

by Reed DePace

A Very Disturbing Book

Today I read this book. It was extremely disturbing to me. It was disturbing, not because I disagree with it, but because I was so shocked by it. I had been used to thinking about the reasons our children leave the church in this way: we haven’t trained them in apologetics, and so when they leave for college, their faith is attacked, and they do not have the weapons at hand to defend their faith, and actually share the gospel. To a certain extent, I think the previous analysis is still partially correct, but it has received a large wake-up call corrective from Ken Ham. His thesis, based on the research of Britt Beemer, is that very few people who leave the church do so because college started them on the road to doubt. In fact, they were already gone! Their doubts started (in 88% of the 20-year olds who were interviewed!) in middle school and high school. Folks, we are losing our children long before college.

I received a further shock upon reading his statistics on Sunday School, and his analysis of why Sunday School, even when conducted by faithful, truth-telling folks, is not helping in this matter. The problem with many Sunday Schools is that they tell a story that is not really addressing the narrative they receive from the secular world even in middle school. Sunday School winds up being about faith, whereas school is about life and facts. In other words, our middle and high school Sunday School curricula, while often faithful to the texts, do not teach the texts apologetically! They hear from scientific teachers, and are typically unable to distinguish between the science of present phenomena and the science of origins (if there even is such a thing!). If science is correct in matters related to rockets, cell phones, robots, organic chemistry, mathematics, and biology (to name only a few fields), then mustn’t it also be right in matters of origin? Certainly not. However, our children are not receiving the message on these matters. The other problem with Sunday School is that parents are often abdicating their home responsibilities with regard to spiritual matters because “the children will learn it in church.” Ken Ham is not advocating the abolishment of Sunday School, and neither am I. But we do need to rethink what we’re doing in Sunday School. Ham argues that we need apologetics much earlier, and that the apologetics needs to address human origins in ways that directly challenge what our kids are hearing in school.

We need to talk about origins, and here’s why. An erosion of faith in the authority of Scripture is taking place. Ken Ham argues that it starts with the age of the earth. If science has proved that the earth is old, then in the minds of most folks, that disproves the Bible’s account, which then must turn into myth. Yes, yes, there are the day-age view, the framework view, and the analogical day view of Genesis 1 and 2. Most people are not able to make such fine distinctions in their head between interpretation and fact. Their minds will not typically jump to the idea that their interpretation of the Bible must alter. Instead, the Bible must go. The erosion starts in Genesis, but never stops there.

Now, Ham’s analysis is much more sophisticated than I have here laid out (and the complete results of the survey are included in the back for the benefit of statisticians). I am simplifying to give people a flavor for the whole. It is a very quick read (I read it in less than 2 hours). I think we need to heed its warnings, and its proffered solutions.

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