A Guest Post on Racism

It is fascinating to me to hear the vastly different perspectives even of non-racist people, which ranges from outrage at the passing of Overture 43 as amended (the outrage is thoroughly non-racist), to folks who think we probably haven’t gone far enough. Here is a voice definitely in between these relatively extreme positions.

A Guest Post from Rev. Billy Boyce

Considerations Regarding Racial Reconciliation

As the PCA takes up the discussion about racial reconciliation this week at General Assembly, the ultimate path to finding accord and compromise is sure to come through personal interaction rather than Internet publication. Nonetheless, I wanted to offer a few brief considerations in response to some more recent posts and comments on the subject. I’m grateful to Lane for sharing his space with me and for the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion within our denomination.
Given limited time and space, I offer here three considerations for those voting this week at GA:

Consideration #1: The Insufficiency of Institutional Documents

It has been frequently observed that the PCA expressly desired to include all races and ethnicities in worship, as indicated by the founders of the denomination, something we should all applaud. Also, a number of further institutional documents address racial reconciliation and repentance for past sins. According to the institutional record, the PCA looks pretty good regarding racial reconciliation. However, these institutional documents alone are insufficient for judging the record of our denomination. It is true that our institution has expressed the desire to grow in racial and ethnic pluriformity. At the same time, our institution has not lived up to that desire, but has had barriers to the welcoming of others. The documents themselves are insufficient for weighing the existence and effect of these barriers; personal testimony is needed to flesh out the record. Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to “be true to what [we] said on paper.”

Consideration #2: The Weight of Personal Testimony and Community Witness
If institutional documents are not enough to assess institutional health, we need to listen to personal testimony. Yet, these testimonies are sometimes disregarded as being merely anecdotal. It is important to state here that there are two types of personal testimony. There is the type of testimony that only represents the individual witness; these testimonies are not enough to develop precedent. However, a second type of testimony exists whereby the witness’s testimony expresses both the individual’s experiences and gives a glimpse into the experiences of a community. These testimonies represent a community of witness and bear much more gravity than mere personal stories. It behooves listeners to discern which type of testimony is offered, and in the case of the PCA’s history of racial reconciliation, the multiple voices coming from across generations and ethnicities are enough to indicate a community of witness. This community of witnesses tells us that we have not lived up to our aspirations—what we have said on paper—and we ought not ignore it. This community testimony offers the PCA two points of witness: 1) the need for the PCA to confess and repent, and 2) the desire to confess and repent! Numerous PCA minorities are willing to participate in the corporate confession and repentance called for in some of the overtures. They offer a profound embodiment of the ideal of corporate repentance by participating in the repentance for sins that directly impacted their forefathers. Those who assert that it is impossible to repent of something that they personally did not do ought to pause and reflect on the willingness of our minority brothers and sisters to confess and repent. After pausing and considering, individuals may disagree. But in the spirit of Christian charity, it behooves everyone to ask, “might I be wrong on this?”

Consideration #3: The Primacy of Theological Faithfulness
In considering the community of witness testifying to the need for corporate repentance and modeling the desire to participate in corporate repentance, presbyters must allow the conversation to remain focused on theological faithfulness. Too often, I have heard presbyters invoke the specter of “political correctness” as the aim of these overtures. This is a harmful temptation, because these overtures aim at a much loftier goal: biblical, theological, ecclesial, Christ-honoring faithfulness. They seek to aid the pursuit of, quoting TE Lance Lewis, “redemptive ethnic unity.” To replace theological categories with mere political posturing is to rip the teeth out of this conversation and reduce it to another partisan squabble. This reduction guts the conversation of its eschatological vision: the ideal of redemptive ethnic unity, which is driven by the commands of Christ and the vision of the New Jerusalem.

These three considerations could be summed up as the encouragement to listen deeply and discerningly, which is itself simply a call to exercise wisdom. Wisdom hears and listens; wisdom is teachable; wisdom craves purity; wisdom longs for the beauty of peace and unity. Listen to those calling for corporate repentance. Listen to those opposing these overtures. Then listen again. May God grant us wisdom as we weigh all of the considerations before us this GA, and may he give us peace.

Facts and Myths for the PCA on Racial Reconciliation

Posted by Bob Mattes

The PCA will consider a host of overtures at the 44th General Assembly that purport to deal with racial/ethnic reconciliation, although most merely parrot Overture 4.  I believe that all but a couple of the reconciliation overtures are seriously flawed. I hope to briefly explain a few of the issues.

Let me make clear up front that racism is sin. Exegesis that states or implies that ALL men do not equally bear God’s image is wrong and self-serving, not God honoring. Not loving ALL of our brothers and sisters in Christ as John admonished in his first letter is sin. Let’s get that off the table up front.

The Ninth Commandment

Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 144 says that the 9th Commandment requires in part:

A. The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever…and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth…studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.

I contend that in regard to the duties required by the 9th Commandment in the WLC Q/A 144, all overtures requiring the PCA as a whole through “covenantal and generational involvement” to repent of events related to or following the Civil Rights Movement causes the PCA as a whole, presbyteries, and the bulk of the current PCA particular churches and members to violate many, most, or all of the above excerpted requirements in regard to their own history and sins, depending on individual circumstances. And while anecdotes and stories are interesting and tug nicely at the emotional cords, it is hard data that should inform all decisions and votes.

The PCA did not exist during the Civil Rights era to which many overtures refer, commonly pegged as 1954-19681. The PCA’s first constitutional assembly was in December of 1973. How can the PCA confess and repent of something that happened before its founding? How could the PCA as a whole be complicit in something that happened before it existed? Individual churches in existence during the Civil Rights era that later joined the PCA may or may not have something of which to repent, but not the PCA as a whole as called for by these overtures. To do so would fail to tell and uphold the truth, maintain the good name of the PCA, or practice what is true, at the least.

According to Dr. Sean Lucas’ book on the history of the PCA2, the PCA was explicitly created to be open to all races and ethnicities3. There were no organizational, polity, or policy barriers raised to prevent reconciliation4. That’s not to say that individual churches could not or did not raise such barriers, and we know that some certainly did so, but such was not and is not the PCA’s either informal or formal policy. In fact, Dr. Lucas points out that there was a significant contingent of younger pastors who joined the PCA that actively opposing segregation5. Many proposed overtures appear to do these men, their congregations, and the overall design of the PCA a serious injustice.

Further, the PCA had 260 congregations with around 41,000 communicants at the initial founding in December of 19736. Many of those early officers and communicants have gone to glory. By God’s grace, the PCA has grown to 1,534 churches with over 370,000 communicants as of the 44th GA7. In 1973, the PCA was primarily a regional denomination. Today, by God’s grace, the PCA has spread throughout the entire country. The bottom line is that – without passing any judgement whatsoever – the PCA of today is quite literally not the PCA of 1973, and even that PCA did not exist during the Civil Rights era. Even if all the original communicants were still with us, they would constitute just 11% of the current PCA. Just 11%. These are hard facts.

The PCA membership today is significantly different than at its founding. For example, God graciously placed my church, and indeed my presbytery, in an ethnically diverse community. Our membership literally spans the globe. Our annual Lessons and Carols service features readings in Urdu, Lingala, Spanish, Mandarin, Dutch, German, and others as well as English. We have first and second generation legal immigrants from around the world who and whose ancestors had nothing to do with the 60’s Civil Rights issues in this country. To ask them to confess and repent as a church of such issues amounts to asking them to bear false witness to their and their families’ history and sins, and fail to preserve their good names or the truth.

Corporate Repentance and the Continuing Church

While there are a few examples of corporate repentance in the Old Testament, recall that only a tiny fraction of Israelites remained faithful to God at those times, 7,000 out of at least several million in Elijah’s case. That’s clearly not the case in the PCA according to our own statistics.

Yet even in the Old Testament just prior to the Exile, when faithfulness was at an all-time low in Israel, God deals directly with so-called “sins of the fathers” in Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31. The issue in those passages bear similarity to the bulk of the proposed overtures. From Ezekiel 18:

The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

God’s sums up His admonition, which covers all of Ezekiel 18, with His declaration in Ezekiel 18:20:

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.

In Jeremiah as well, God clearly states that each man will be judged for his own sin, not for those who came before. That’s black and white Scripture, not anecdotes or convenient interpretation. I believe that these passages negate the corporate and/or covenantal argument as applied in most of the overtures.

We are a “continuing church” in regards to Reformed doctrine, missions, and church government as TE Jack Williamson made clear at the first General Assembly8, but God makes it clear that sins are individual unless that sin is encoded in our governing documents and/or policies, which demonstrably isn’t the case in the PCA. Anyone who sins against their brother or sister is violating our constitution and should be challenged, and if appropriate, brought up on charges in accordance with BCO procedures. That negates any “institutional racism” by policy or construct. To say that the PCA as a “continuing church” bears the sins of those from which it separated says more than most would want. That would make us liable for the sins of rejecting the authority of Scripture, which led the old church to a host of fatal theological errors. Does the PCA bear the guilt of those sins as well? Where do we draw that entirely arbitrary line? Who gets to decide?

One advantage, of course, of the corporate approach is that it diffuses the responsibility away from individuals and courts who actually did sin. Just like the old saying “Be a team player, it diffuses the blame.” If we blame everyone, practicality speaking, we blame no one. It takes courage to hold individuals, sessions, and presbyteries specifically accountable, but it’s easy to make broad pronouncements that make us feel good but ultimately hold no one accountable. That’s exactly what the bulk of the reconciliation overtures do.

Burden of Proof

I was blessed through my military service to live and travel across our great country, worshiping with many congregations. Although trained through 30 years of military leadership to spot and address these kinds of racial and ethnic issues, I’ve not seen widespread evidence of a systemic or institutional racial or ethnic problem in the PCA. The burden of proof – not personal anecdotes or catchy liberal buzzwords – falls on those making these accusations – the 9th Commandment demands it – but I haven’t see any hard data offered. It is easy to make broad-brush claims, but where is the evidence of wide-spread racism in the PCA? Any argument using statistical demographics must be accompanied by evidence of malfeasance at their root as opposed to cultural or sociological patterns unrelated to wrongdoing by anyone in the PCA. Sociology can not usually be boiled down to a few numbers.

Though there may be some individuals and churches now in the PCA who have something along these lines of which to confess and repent during their previous membership in other denominations prior to the PCA (I’ll mention one shining example later), they are a very small minority in the current PCA as the numbers clearly show. Even if ALL the founding officers and congregants of the 1973 PCA were still in the 2016 PCA, which we know isn’t the case as many have gone to glory, and if ALL of them required such repentance, and we also know isn’t the case, they would only make up only 11 percent of the current denomination. Should an entire denomination repent of the sins that something much less than 11 percent of their members MAY have committed before the denomination even existed? That doesn’t make sense to me, nor does it agree with God’s explicit commands in Ezekiel and Jeremiah.

I know that there continue to be racial/ethnic issues in isolated cases in the PCA, just as there are in society at large. Those involved must repent of these sins and rely on Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins, as do we all. That’s what the disciplinary processes coded in the BCO should be used to address where necessary, as it was in Western Carolina Presbytery a few years back. The process was painful for the faithful, but it worked. But, it hardly seems appropriate for an entire denomination to repent for the sins of a relatively few – at most way less than 11%. Again, God’s commands in Jeremiah and Ezekiel relative to the sins of the fathers clearly argues against this.

Back to the Ninth Commandment

The 9th Commandment issues come clearly into focus when using set theory and logic to examine the overall situation. Every communicant member of the PCA falls under the shepherding of their session, their local court. Every PCA session is wholly contained within the set of its presbytery. Similarly, all presbyteries are collectively and wholly contained within the set of the PCA. Think of this as a set of concentric circles with the individual communicant in the smallest inside circle, wholly contained in the larger session circle, itself wholly contained in the presbytery circle, and the largest PCA circle wholly containing the presbytery circle. So, when the PCA as a whole confesses and repents, as most of the overtures require, the entire set of the PCA includes successively every presbytery, every session, and every communicant member. When the PCA repents of anything, that carries through to the every communicant in the pews, which causes them to violate the 9th Commandment when they have not sinned in that way. It’s logically a package deal.

Where do we go from here?

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as observing that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome. The PCA passed overtures and personal resolutions in 20029, and a pastoral letter in 200410 at the GA level, a 2002 paper in Potomac and Chesapeake Presbyteries, and others as well. Yet, there we were in 2015 and here now in 2016 proposing to do the same thing. Such overtures are not binding, but considered deliverances of the Assembly, to be given due and serious consideration in the denomination according to BCO 14-7. How did that work out in 2002 and 2004? Apparently not so well since here we are again.

The PCA needs a different approach, which Potomac Presbytery has proposed in Overture 45. We believe that it is time to break the cycle of overtures and resolutions based on emotional anecdotes and generalities – called information-free decision making by my boss – and approach the subject of racial and ethnic reconciliation in a deliberative manner to garner specific facts and issues to be resolved, resulting in specific actions to be taken as we saw in Western Carolina. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the PCA must address specific sins with specific measures which presbyteries and sessions may implement without ambiguity. The Civil Rights Act didn’t just say “Stop that,” it addressed specific wrongs with specific, implementable solutions. That’s exactly what Potomac’s overture recommends that the PCA do.

After all, how can we solve problems if we cannot state specific, identifiable, perhaps quantifiable issues that must be addressed? How can we learn about those specific problems if we do not take the time to ferret out the details and perform something like a root cause analysis? And how can we reach a final resolution and put these issues behind us if we don’t propose specific, implementable solutions? How can we know what success looks like unless we make the effort to define a measurable and achievable desired end state? The answer to all these questions is that we cannot, as recent PCA history demonstrates.

Specific Recommendations

Potomac Presbytery has put forth an alternative overture which corrects the defects in most of the other related overtures to the 44th General Assembly. Potomac’s Overture 45 asks for specific, concrete actions to affect lasting change, something that most of the overtures lack. I say this with an eye firmly on the peace and purity of the PCA, basing my position on Scripture, hard data, verifiable history, and logic, while seeking analytical rigor. I encourage the commissioners to the 44th General Assembly to perfect and approve Overture 45.

At the same time, I also encourage the commissioners to approve Overture 53, as it puts forth specific, concrete actions to be taken in accordance with our polity to hold those guilty of racial/ethnic sins accountable. The men of the First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS, set the bar by taking concrete action to repent of specific past actions of the church and deal directly with specific issues in specific past session minutes. This leading by setting the example by taking concrete steps to repent of specific past actions, is also true of First Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, AL, and Independent Presbyterian Church, Memphis TN11. Every church court and individual who so sinned must do the same.

The commissioners of the 44th General Assembly should reject any and all overtures that purport to address racial/ethnic reconciliation, yet do not hold anyone or any church court accountable under BCO procedures. Let us not repeat the errors of the past by passing feel-good overtures that diffuse the blame, sounding pious but accomplishing nothing. Otherwise, we’ll be back here in 10 years doing the same thing all over again. It will be déjà vu all over again.

Posted by Bob Mattes


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1954–68). Accessed Dec 13, 2015

2 Lucas, Sean M., For a Continuing Church, The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015

3 Lucas, p.296

4 Lucas, pp. 307-308

5 Lucas, pp 323-324

6 PCA Administrative Committee website, http://www.pcanet.org/history/. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

7 Administrative Committee Report for the 44th General Assembly of the PCA, p. 253

8 Lucas, p. 313, Derived from Jack Williamson’s opening sermon at the first PCA GA: “We have committed ourselves to be the rebirth and continuation of a Presbyterian Church loyal to the Scripture, the Reformed faith, and committed to the spiritual mission of the Church as Christ commanded in the Great Commission.”

9 PCA Historical Center, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/race.html. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

10 Ibid, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/racism.pdf. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

11 Haynes, Stephen R., The Last Segregated Hour, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.228-245.

An Overture to Racial Reconciliation

Review and Comparison of PCA 2016 GA Racial Repentance Overtures

by Reed DePace

UPDATE#2: Overture 43 has passed. Read about it here.

UPDATE #1: The Overtures Committees has overwhelmingly passed a resolution regarding these overtures. 85-3, they are recommending to the General Assembly that Overture 43, as amended, be approved.  See here for details: OC Recommendation.

It appears that the amending includes three parts:

  1. Adding a list of sins (copied from the Whereas section).
  2. Referencing Overture 55’s “presbytery letter” as advice on how presbyteries can help local congregations involved with these sins.
  3. Referencing the local level action overtures’ (#50, 53) direction toward the use of BCO provisions (31-2, 38-1) for the procedure for handling repentance from these sins.

As with any combination overture, I do not expect this will satisfy all. Indeed, I am a bit concerned about the charge that this will all turn into nothing more than another meaningless expression of (empty) words. If passed by GA, it will be up to Presbyteries and local churches to implement this Overture.

I’ll listen to the floor debate that is sure to follow, and will most likely learn some things of value from the fathers and brothers gathered. At this point, my initial reaction is that maybe there is some sound wisdom at play in the Overture Committee’s recommendation.

As a pastor who has no personal racial sins to repent from, and who is shepherding a congregation whose history is full of some of the most heinous of these sins, I am grateful for the advice and direction. I pray God will lead us all to see His wisdom and find His blessing in these things.

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I’m getting ready to head to General Assembly (my denomination’s annual meeting where all our churches discuss/decide on issues relevant to our denomination). In preparation, I reviewed the overtures (requests for action) that will come before us. The big topic this year is repentance for racial sins in our denomination going back to the Civil Rights era. This is not a discussion about the civil (secular) matters of this subject (although they are related). Instead it is a discussion about how to repent of these sins, sins which impinge upon or outright deny the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such issues are ALWAYS the purview of the Church as they deal with the honor, integrity, and glory of our Lord God and Savior.

This is an issue particularly relevant our church and me. We have such a history. Last year, our elders led our church to express repentance for the sins of our fathers in this regard. We are now seeking the Spirit to lead us in bringing forth “fruits of repentance,” acts consistent with our verbal profession (see Matthew 3:7; for details on our repentance, see: http://www.firstpreschantilly.com/repentance).

There are sixty-three overtures before us at this meeting. Forty-two deal with the topic of repentance for racial sins. Clearly this is the topic most pressing in our hearts.

You can find the overtures listed here: http://www.pcaac.org/general-assembly/overtures. Click on the title of each to read the details.

I haven’t been able to find a summary and guide for all these, so I thought I’d put together one myself. Some of these overtures are simply affirmations of support for another overture. Yet others include particular details, different from all other overtures on this topic. Without going into too detailed an assessment, I found it helpful to arrange these into three generalized groups:

  • Those (mostly) calling for denomination level action: four (#s 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18, 17, 19, 23, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 35, 34, 41, 42, 43, 46, 47, 51, 52, 57, 58, 60, and 63. Note: most of these are the same or similar to Overture # 4. The italicized are more or less different.),
  • Those (mostly) calling for local church/presbytery action: two (#s 50 and 53), and
  • Those calling for both levels of action: seven (#s 1, 16, 48, 49, 55, 56, and 59).

Overtures calling for denominational level action follow the pattern of repentance seen in the biblical teaching on corporate-generational repentance (Leviticus 26:49; Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 1:3-10; 9:1-10:39; Daniel 9:1-20). Rooted in the continuing application of the Ten Commandments (see C#2, Exodus 20:4-6) and the trans-temporal and trans-spatial nature of biblical covenants, these overtures propose our denomination acknowledge and express repentance for the racial sins in view.

Overtures calling for local action follow the pattern of repentance seen in the biblical teaching on personal repentance (Psalm 19:13; Matthew 26:75; Luke 19:8; 1 Timothy 1:13, 15). These overtures propose that churches and presbyteries apply the discipline procedures from our Book of Church Order (see particularly BCO 31-2, and 38-1).

Overtures calling for both propose we take action at both the denominational level and the local level. I find myself in favor of this approach. Admittedly without offering an extended defense of my opinion, let me briefly highlight the key considerations persuading me. First, I believe the covenantal considerations found in Ezra and Nehemiah’s examples are still applicable. Second, I believe the personal repentance considerations are still applicable. In other words, I believe the Bible teaches that, when and where appropriate, God’s people are to express both corporate-generational repentance AND personal repentance.

There are two overtures don’t quite fit into this scheme (#s 32, and 45). Let me draw your attention to Overture #32 in particular. If we did nothing else, given the circumstances of our church in our nation, I believe this overture is in order. My prayer is that we will do both: take action regarding racial sins and join together in asking God for deeper and wider repentance and its fruits. Our members, churches, presbyteries, denomination, the Church in America, and America herself are in desperate need of such salt-and-light gospel ministry (Matthew 5:13-14). I pray we will not prove worthless (Luke 13:34-35).

by Reed DePace

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Distractions

When it comes to work and various forms of non-work, there are two, rather obvious extremes to avoid. The first is the lazy bum who can’t be bothered to get off his couch in order to stop being a potato chip. The other is the workaholic who works himself into an early grave. Both are rather common in America. The latter was more common when there was a better work ethic, which ethic has all but disappeared recently. However, it is the workaholic that I am addressing in this post.

There are at least two aspects to being a workaholic. The first is simply never taking a break. They would work 24/7 if they could, but they get as close as they can. Sometimes, they are motivated by thinking that busyness equals holiness.

The second aspect, which usually but not always accompanies the first, is obsession over certain parts of the job. Maybe it is a negative relationship that has the worker obsessed. Maybe it is an obstacle to doing the work correctly. Workaholics usually obsess in some way or another over their work.

This is why I believe that distractions are vitally important for the person who is tempted to be a workaholic. What do I mean by “distractions?” I don’t mean the five minute interruptions of work when a colleague drops by, although those can be welcome breaks as well. I am talking about having some form of distraction that takes a person out of the world of their work, and places them in an entirely different realm.

Just to take an example, I do not read much fiction that is about pastoral ministry. Why? Because that does not take me out of the realm of pastoral ministry. I might read such fiction as part of my regularly scheduled work, if that fiction were valuable enough (usually it gets buried at the bottom of the reading list, though). If I am going to read fiction, then I want to read something that takes me out of this world, so that I can come back to this world more refreshed, and with a less cynical eye. Epic fantasy usually does the trick for me in this regard. It is quite literally another world.

Another example from my personal life will help. 2015 was an extremely difficult year for my wife and I in many, varied ways. In fact, I can confidently assert that it was the worst year of our lives. Obsession about the church was always lurking right around the corner, wanting to grab me and ruin my work days, and keep me from sleep. If it hadn’t been for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I think my wife and I would both have gone insane (2016 is proving to be FAR easier so far, with many of the issues of 2015 resolved). It didn’t always work completely. Sometimes I would go back to obsessing over the church after watching STDSN. However, even the break was still helpful.

Remember this, however. Any distraction that might be healthy in itself can become unhealthy if it becomes itself a new obsession. This blog post is not addressing lazy people, but obsessing people. The dangers of becoming enslaved to entertainment are many, and many have pointed them out.

So, what kind of distractions would help fill the bill? Hands down, the most important thing about your chosen distraction is that it be full of humor. The cliche “Laughter is the best medicine” is not less true just because it is a cliche (to use another cliche).

So, stop obsessing, and take a break. I will close with a story of two woodcutters who decided to have a wood-chopping competition. One woodcutter started with his axe, and took no breaks whatsoever. The other one took frequent breaks. At the end of the day, the one who took no breaks was astonished to find that the other man had cut much more wood than he had. So he said, “I didn’t take a single break. How come you cut so much more wood than I did?” The other man replied, “Ah, but you may not have noticed that when I rested, I was sharpening my axe.” Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Reply to Dave Armstrong

by Ron Henzel

It is always a good thing when we stand corrected and are able to muster the humility and courage to admit that the correction is right. It is always a commendable thing when anyone is able to not only properly receive such correction, but to do so in a public forum where egos are vulnerable and—especially in these days—frequently subjected to merciless attacks. The value of such acts should not be minimized.

It is in this spirit that I gratefully acknowledge Dave Armstrong’s retraction of his assertion that “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon.” I commend him for changing the title to an unambiguous “John Calvin Did NOT Pray to Philip Melanchthon,” and I thank him not only for citing my blog post of May 2 as providing the reason that persuaded him to make that change, but for actually thanking me for that input.

I have been in Dave’s place before. I have made glaring misstatements of fact that others have called me on, and I have had to publicly retract them. I know how that felt for me, and that is why my admiration for his concession precludes any victory dance on my part. The victory here is his, not mine.

Having said that, however, I wish I could also say that this is where the whole matter was put to rest. If it were up to me, that is what would have happened. In such a circumstance, this blog post would now be ending with this paragraph, and I would be moving on to other things. But it seems that Dave cannot let the matter rest where I think it should.

He referred to “some significant ways in which [I] misrepresented [his] original argument,” and said, “In conclusion, I wish to clarify a few secondary things that Ron got wrong about my view: even my mistaken one.” (Italics his.)

So apparently, even when I’m right, I’m far more wrong than I am right, and Dave thinks I’m so significantly wrong about several things that he has gone to some trouble to call them to everyone’s attention. Since these all constitute objections to my previous post, I will enumerate them as such—at least the ones I think are worth mentioning, which is the majority of them—and respond to them in order.

Objection #1: I Exaggerated What Dave Actually Argued.

This objection comes in response to my claim that apostrophes can be distinguished from prayers with relative ease by the fact that the latter include requests and the former do not, which makes it a bit confusing, since that makes the exaggeration about something I wrote rather than something he argued.

In making this objection, Dave first appeals to the fact that that Calvin’s use of the word “appeal,” makes it sound like he’s offering a prayer. (Note: in case anyone wonders, the original Latin text of the sentence in view here reads: “O Philippe Melanchthon! Te enim appello, qui apud Deum cum Christo vivis, nosque illic exspectas, donec tecum in beatam quietem colligamur.”­­ Corpus Reformatorum 37 [Braunschweig, Germany: C.A. Schwetschke and Sons, 1870], col. 461. “I appeal” is a perfectly good translation of appello.) He goes on further to cite Matt. 26:53, where Jesus speaks of praying to His Father and the RSV and ESV both translate παρακαλέω (parakaleō) as “appeal.” Thus his point here seems to be that calling Calvin’s paragraph a “prayer” was not unwarranted given Calvin’s wording.

Again, the problem with this objection is that Dave has not shown how I have exaggerated anything he argued. If anything, he is simply reiterated my summary of his thesis, which was effectively summarized in the (former) title of his blog post: “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon.” How I exaggerated the meaning of this statement eludes me.

On the other hand, it seems that what Dave’s new point here actually argues is that I have exaggerated how easy it is to distinguish an apostrophe from a prayer. This would explain why he submits as evidence the use of the word “appeal” in other prayer-contexts.

Also, in apparent support of his “exaggeration” objection: based on comments he made after his original post, Dave’s revised post now argues that he “was not dogmatically declaring that it was necessarily prayer, and could see other possibilities.” But that does not change the fact that he was essentially arguing that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon, as the title of his post trumpeted across the Web. The word “possibly” was not in that title.

In any case, to the charge(s) inherent in this objection I confidently plead, “Not guilty.”

The word “appeal” does not automatically denote a request, and Calvin made the exact nature of his particular appeal clear in his subsequent text: viz., he was appealing not for present help from Melanchthon, but to Melanchthon’s prior example in dealing with the apostate Staphylus and his encouraging words to Calvin during his controversy with Nicolas Le Coq. This is consistent with Merriam-Webster’s definition 3a for the word “appeal:” “an application (as to a recognized authority) for corroboration, vindication, or decision.” In this case Calvin was making application to statements that Melanchthon had made while alive which corroborated what Calvin was now saying.

And even if Dave was being something less than dogmatic in his declaration (whatever that may mean), he was still declaring that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon.

Objection #2: I Accused Dave of Saying That Calvin Engaged in a Completely Roman Catholic Practice.

As Dave himself put it (the italics and bold are his):

Too often, Protestant debaters or apologists assume without proof (i.e., begging the question) that the Catholic must be equating some noted Protestant similarity of belief or practice with the Catholic counterpart, as if the two are absolutely identical in all respects and aspects.

This is a classic case of this error.

This is in response to what I wrote here:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

The first thing I would point out in response is that I anticipated this objection, and it was because I did that I included my parenthetical qualification: “perhaps a Protestant version of.” This was my way of allowing for the possibility that Dave was not saying that Calvin’s alleged prayer was “absolutely identical in all respects and aspects” to the Roman Catholic intercession of the saints. I thought the qualification was sufficient to head off this objection, but apparently not. And yet, why not? I would think it is obvious that “a Protestant version of” a Roman Catholic teaching would be assumed to differ in at least some respect or aspect from the aforementioned Roman Catholic teaching. After all, versions are, by definition, forms or variants that automatically differ from each other at various points.

Therefore, I once again enter a plea of “Not guilty.” I was not saying what he was accusing me of saying about him.

Objection #3: I Contradicted Myself When I Characterized His Quote from Calvin as Being Made with “Cynical Brevity.”

In order to understand this objection, one has to understand how Dave has chosen to represent my assertion that his allegation that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon is comparable, at least on some level, to Roman Catholicism’s intercession of the saints. He initially characterizes my remark as a reference to “an imaginary argument that I never made,” later implying that I viewed it as “an elaborate argument of the intercession of saints.” He further declares that this “elaborate argument” is a “fanciful myth” that I “dreamt up.”

Now, if anyone reading my previous post is confused because they can’t find the place where I posited that Dave had made any kind of “elaborate argument” in his original post, the reason for that is simple: I never said any such thing. In fact, as Dave himself points out, I followed up my “cynical brevity remark” by noting that his post essentially consisted of his Calvin quote “with no substantive comment.” Where is there room for an “elaborate argument” in a post that has “no substantive comment?” I never said there was, and so to this off-the-wall charge I also plead, “Not guilty.”

Objection #4: It Was Unfair of Me to Suggest that He Should Have Checked His Source’s Introduction Before Making His Allegation.

Now, Dave did not actually use the word “unfair,” but I don’t believe there is any other way to understand point when he feels compelled to defend himself by writing that “it was not obvious that Reid would have mentioned this one citation in the Introduction.” And, of course, he’s right about that: it’s not obvious. You never know what an introduction is going to cover and what it is going to omit. But how does that excuse his failure to check it?

Besides, not only did Dave miss the fact that Reid called his quote from Calvin an “apostrophe,” he also missed Beveridge calling it the same thing in his index to the other source that he cited. Checking introductions and indices is one of the things that separates thorough research from sloppy research.

“Not guilty!”

Objection #5: I Committed a Straw Man Fallacy by Critiquing the Doctrine of the Intercession of the Saints.

This little pearl of rhetoric deserves a full citation:

Ron goes on to an extended exposition / critique of the full Catholic notion of intercession of saints. But since I never claimed that Calvin engaged in that, all of it is an extended version of the straw man fallacy; perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute.

[Italics and URL link his.]

I would hardly characterize what I wrote about the intercession of the saints either “an extended exposition” or a “critique.” I only mentioned the term three times.

In my first reference to it I wrote:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

Here I simply defined it; I did not at all expound on it (let alone extensively expound on it) or critique it.

In my second reference to it I wrote:

In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” …and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” …

There is more, but it’s all from Calvin, not from me. It includes no exposition, but only critique, and I did not include it in order to make a case against the intercession of the saints, but simply to show the absurdity of saying that Calvin would have prayed to a dead person.

In my third and final reference to it I wrote:

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

Again, here one finds neither extended exposition nor critique of the intercession of the saints, but simply a reference to its purpose. For Dave to object that he himself never equated what Calvin did to the doctrine of the intercession of the saints is a red herring. The doctrine in view here is flawlessly summarized as the Roman Catholic church’s teaching that Christians should pray to dead saints so that they might intercede on their behalf. In the church’s own words:

Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.

[Catechism of the Catholic Church §2683, (New York, NY, USA: Doubleday, 1997), 707.]

So in point of fact, instead of referring to “the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints,” I could have simply written, “the whole purpose of the church’s teaching about praying to dead saints,” and it would have meant precisely the same thing. There was no need to explore the details of the doctrine, and I did not explore them. Its purpose is that the saints pass our requests on to (i.e., intercede for us before) God.

An extended exposition is by definition a discourse, and I gave no such thing. I merely gave a simple, two-point definition. And while I did pass on some very select details of Calvin’s critique of the doctrine in question, it was (a) not mine, (b) hardly a full-blown critique, and (c) only for the purpose of establishing Calvin’s position.

“Not guilty!”

Summary Judgment

I have been accused of exaggeration, misrepresentation, self-contradiction, imposing an unfair requirement, and committing an informal (straw man) fallacy. I believe that my replies to each of these objections has demonstrated the same pattern that I noted in the title of my previous post: “jumping the gun.” Each objection is a shoot-from-the-hip overreaction to a cursory reading of what I wrote. He is simply treating me the way he originally treated Calvin.

Granted, Calvin’s prose in the article Dave cited is rather involved. It requires that the meaning of his sentences and paragraphs be assembled from his broader context. Thus it rewards thorough, careful reading while penalizing any “parachute drop” method that presumes to understand isolated statements. And that’s exactly where I think Dave went wrong from the outset of his original post. If one cannot exercise the care requisite for plodding through the writings of 16th century authors (and Calvin is among the more lucid of them), one has no business commenting on them.

“No; I Pray Thee, Speak in Sober Judgment.”

Thus said Claudio to Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 171, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, eds., [New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911], 136).

No doubt most of us know that the word “pray” can refer to a question, request, or plea made by any given person to any other given person. It does not have to be a question, request, or plea addressed to God. (Although according to the Oxford English Dictionary, such usage is now rare. See its definition 2.)  And most of us also know how to distinguish the horizontal, human-to-human prayer from the vertical human-to-God prayer in everyday speech. As someone once spoofed, it’s not rocket surgery.

And so with all due respect, I have to say if there is ever a point in Dave’s rebuttal where he seems to be making much ado about nothing, it comes when he launches into his (according to Microsoft Word) 1,054-word critique of “the typical Protestant conception of the word prayer” (italics his). I shall do my best to charitably summarize it as follows:

  1. Dave asserts that “confusion” has been generated by the fact that Protestants typically limit the concept of prayer to petitions and intercessions made to God.
  2. Dave then asserts that Roman Catholics are justified in expanding the definition of prayer to include dead saints because not all prayer must be addressed to God.
  3. Dave further expands the definition of prayer to include “something as simple as communication.”
  4. So Dave concludes that “when I stated in my title that Calvin ‘prayed to Melanchthon’ all it had to mean was that he communicated with him. Period! He could have said, “Hi Phil! Wish I were with ya. I miss all our old Lutheran vs. Reformed fights . . .” and that could be called a “prayer” in this larger meaning of the term. It’s that simple.
  5. Not content with his own conclusion, Dave feels the need to cite an online dictionary which confirms that “prayer” can refer to requests made to human beings, as well as nine biblical examples designed to show the same thing (Isa 5:3; Mk 5:23; Lk 14:18-19 (twice); Acts 8:34; 24:4; 27:34; 2 Cor 5:20; Lk 16:27—the first from the RSV, the rest from the KJV). The New Testament examples of these are in turn compared to three references (Jn 14:16; 16:26; 17:9) that establish that (at least in the case of the New Testament) the same word that applies to prayer to God and also apply to requests to men.

Now this is truly an elaborate argument, especially as we see how it unfolds! I will not take as long in replying to it as Dave took in making it.

Turning this into a semantic issue is a red herring. Even so, regarding the semantics:

  1. The meaning of “prayer” depends on the context in which it is used, not on whether one is assuming an allegedly “Protestant” or “Roman Catholic” meaning of the term. (Though perhaps someday Dave will share the raw data on which he bases his thesis that a “typical Protestant” doesn’t use the word “pray” to refer to human-to-human requests.)
  2. The precise meaning of the original title of Dave’s post is not ambiguous. No verbal can of worms was opened at any time to cause “confusion” among Protestants readers. Praying to the dead is naturally understood as a living human praying to a dead human. The example of the dead Rich Man pleading with the dead Abraham is not relevant to this discussion.
  3. It is ironic that after defending his original error that Calvin was praying to Melanchthon on the basis of the word “appeal,” since he obviously mistook his appeal to Melanchthon’s writings as an appeal for something from him (he said it seemed to imply “some sort of petition”), that Dave is now strenuously arguing that a prayer does not have to include a petition, and that all his previous title “had to mean” was that Calvin “communicated” with Melanchthon. (“All it had to mean?” Notice how these words skirt the issue of what he actually meant!) So what he previously granted with his right hand (that it looked like a petition and therefore a prayer) he has removed with his left (it didn’t have to be a petition to be a prayer).
  4. Even according to the dictionary definitions Dave has supplied, prayer always involves requesting or asking for something. A specific prayer can include other things, but even in the Lord’s prayer, everything after “Hallowed be Thy Name” is a request for something specific.

The bottom line here is that now that Dave has conceded that he was wrong for accusing Calvin of praying to Melanchthon, not only does it strain credulity for him to now assert that he was not talking accusing Calvin of something similar to the intercession of the saints, it is utterly beside the point. He accused Calvin of praying to the dead Melanchthon, and he admits to being wrong about that. Now he wants to deny that such an accusation is sufficiently equivalent to saying Calvin was petitioning Melanchthon and seeking his intercession, but he’s wrong about that, too.

So Is the Intercession of the Saints Really Irrelevant?

Once Dave finished responding to my post, he addressed a response I gave in the comments following my post. I was replying to a reader who asked about my view of the communion of saints, and I indicated that the Reformed teaching on this subject certainly includes spiritual communion between believers on earth and in heaven, but (quoting from volume 4 of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics) I stressed that this does not include praying to believers in heaven, since that would be impossible. After quoting Bavinck, I wrote the following:

Even though saints who have died are included in the communion of saints, one of the “dividing walls” that remains to be leveled is the fact that their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living. Bavinck does not mention it here, but he goes into it at length in 4:620-627. His position is that “Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends,” (ibid., 625).

Dave’s response to my post came the next day (about four and a half hours prior to his retraction), and the first thing he homed in on was this paragraph from my comment. He quoted the first sentence of it back to me and then wrote:

Really? Why, then, did Moses and Elijah appear at the Transfiguration? Why did Samuel appear to Saul and tell him he was to die the next day? What about the Two Witnesses of Revelation (commentators think they may be Moses and Elijah, or maybe Enoch and Elijah)?

The physical deaths of all these men did not prevent THEM from “communicating with the living.”

Yet you claim that this is not possible and forbidden by God. So what gives? I go with Scripture, whenever traditions of men contradict it.

[Note: this version is slightly edited to include a correction to a typographical error that Dave supplied in a follow-up comment.]

I had to ask a question at this point: why would someone committed to Roman Catholic doctrine be so quick to challenge the assertion that the dead cannot hear the prayers of the living? If the intercession of the saints is “perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute” (emphasis Dave’s), then why is it that the first thing he did was attempt to provide counterexamples of this particular point from Scripture? Is there some other Roman Catholic doctrine that requires that the living be able to communicate with the dead?

No. Roman Catholicism is just as much opposed to séances and other forms of conjuring up the dead as are Protestants (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §2117, ibid. 570). There is no reason to cite these counterexamples other than to defend the doctrine of the intercession of the saints. And yet if that was not the issue to begin with, why did Dave choose that as his first field of battle?

The only answer can be that at that point in time, four hours prior to his retraction, that was what he believed to be at stake here because that was his motivation for writing his hit-piece on Calvin to begin with. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. Only after Dave realized that his original position (that Calvin had prayed to Melanchthon) was untenable did he seek to deny the implicit premise of that original post (that Calvin’s “prayer” constituted a practical endorsement of the intercession of the saints) in order to salvage whatever remaining coherence for that post that he could. Unfortunately, that ship had sailed.

So What About Samuel, Moses, and Elijah, etc.?

The most obvious problem with Dave’s counterexamples is that none of them are examples of prayer to the dead. That’s what this has been about from the moment he gave the title “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon” to his original post.

Now, I anticipate that Dave may object that he provided his counterexamples not as specimens of prayer, but in response to my comment that physical death is a “dividing wall” that prevents the dead from communicating with the living. But such an objection depends on an obfuscation designed to confuse the occasion of Dave’s counterexamples with the contextual reason for them. The occasion was my remark; the reason was that he was defending praying to dead saints.

I can hardly believe that I feel compelled to say this to literate people who are familiar with the Transfiguration account, but it is more than obvious that the appearance of Moses and Elijah was a miraculous event (Matt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-9; Lk 9:28-36), and that miraculous events are, by definition, exceptions to natural norms. There is nothing in the Synoptic accounts to suggest that either of these prophets from heaven were even aware of the presence of Peter, James, and John while on the mount with Jesus, much less that they regularly heard the prayers of those living on earth.

As for Saul consulting with the medium from En-dor (1 Sam 28:7-20) in violation of the same Mosaic laws (Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27; Dt 18:10-12) that he was supposedly enforcing (1 Sam 28:9): it is obvious from the text that the medium was shocked that she had actually brought up a spirit (28:12), and so this is another miraculous account, similar to the Transfiguration event, in which God overrode the normal order for His purposes. Outside of such divine intervention, the Lord Himself forbade attempts to communicate with the dead (cf. previous references in Lev and Dt).

Meanwhile, Dave’s counterexample of the two witnesses in Rev 11:3-12 is purely speculative. They are introduced suddenly and prophesy for 1,260 days (Rev 11:3) during which time they work miracles of judgment (11:5-6) until they are killed by “the beast from the bottomless pit” and their bodies lie in public as the world celebrates (11:7-10). Then God resurrects them and they ascend into heaven (11:11-12). None of this provides support for the practice of praying to dead saints.

The Biblical Teaching

Not only is there no reference anywhere in Scripture to praying to the dead, let alone authorizing it, but Scripture contains clear and repeated declarations that a dead person is “cut off” from “the earth” (Ex 9:15), from “among his people,” (Ex 31:14), and from “the land of the living” (Isa 53:8; Jer 11:9), and no longer shares any knowledge with those who remain in this “under the sun” plane of existence:

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun….for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

[Ecc 9:5-6, 10b, ESV]

When a man dies, he loses all contact with the world of the living: “His sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not,” (Job 14:21, ESV). He is no longer aware of the things that happen to his people or his home (2 Ki 22:20) because the dead dwell in “the land of forgetfulness” (Ps 88:11-12).

Texts such as these demonstrate the futility of praying to the dead, but other texts demonstrate its presumptuousness. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Ti 2:5, ESV). No one other than the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate can intercede on our behalf before God. It is foolish to pray to any dead saint, because “No one comes to the Father except through” Christ (Jn 14:6, ESV), and “since he always lives to make intercession for” us (Heb 7:25, ESV).

We have many commands and directions concerning prayer in Scripture. None of them direct us to pray to another human being, much less to a dead human being, even when premised on the notion that we are simply asking such departed people to pray for us, as if they could even hear us, when in fact they cannot.

Registered Parliamentarian

I finally passed my registered parliamentarian test this morning. It is without a doubt the single most grueling test I have ever taken in my entire life. The pool of questions is 1400, divided into 5 sections. Many of these questions seem designed to try to trick you. Fortunately, you can take the exam in parts now. I took part IV this morning as the last one.

On Jumping the Gun and Missing the Apostrophe

by Ron Henzel

In Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad, the Achaeans weep over the corpse of Patroclus, the beloved comrade-in-arms of Achilles, who had been killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. Achilles is particularly distraught, since he had promised Patroclus’s father, Menoetius, that he would bring him back home safely. In his grief he addresses the dead Patroclus, promising him vengeance.

So then, Patroclus, since I too am going below, but after you, I shall not hold your funeral till I have brought back here the armour and the head of Hector.

[Iliad 18.330, E.V. Rieu, translator, (New York, NY, USA and Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1950; 1981), 345.]

Although The Iliad is filled with the supernatural, the question of whether Patroclus could actually hear Achilles’ promise does not come up. There’s a good reason for that: Achilles was employing a rhetorical device for the benefit of the living who overheard him; he was not trying to communicate with Patroclus.

Toward the end of Act 3, Scene 1, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, and company had just departed, leaving Marc Antony alone with the dead body of Julius Caesar.

Antony addresses the corpse,

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers! / Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times. / Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!

[William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911), 965.]

His soliloquy goes on for another 17 lines, speaking to the dead Caesar. He pronounces curses on his murderers and predicts that Caesar’s spirit will return to “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,” but there is no reason to assume that Antony believes that Caesar can actually hear him.

A Manner of Speaking

When people try to communicate with the dead, we call it “necromancy.” That is not what is going on in these two scenes from our Western literary heritage. Rather, these are two examples, widely acknowledged in literary circles, of the rhetorical device known as “apostrophe” (yes, it’s spelled and pronounced the same as the punctuation mark). Apostrophe occurs when someone speaks to a person who is absent as though that person were present, and it occurs throughout ancient, medieval, and modern literature. We also find it in Scripture. When King David cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, ESV), he was engaging in grief-stricken apostrophe.

With apostrophe, the addressee does not have to be dead, nor does it even need to be a person. It simply needs to be something that is not actually present to the speaker—such as, for example, death itself, as when John Donne wrote “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.” It is even at work when the speaker mistakenly believes that the addressee is absent.  So when Juliet, thinking her lover was absent, cried out, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” she was employing apostrophe.

By its very nature, apostrophe obviously does not intend actual communication between the speaker and addressee.  Nor is apostrophe difficult to spot, or easy to confuse with something quite different: say, for example, the act of praying to the dead. Distinguishing between these two is not complicated. Unlike the act of praying to the dead, in apostrophe no petitions are given; the absent (or in this case, dead) are not asked for anything. They are merely addressed as if present.

Simple, right?

At Least, So You Would Think

Just a few days ago (on Friday, April 29, 2016), Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong accused Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) of “praying” to his friend and fellow Reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) the year after Melanchthon had died. In a blog post titled, “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon,” Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

With a cynical brevity that is breathtaking for its sloppiness, Armstrong simply posts an incomplete quote from one of Calvin’s theological treatises, with no substantive comment, as if that were all the proof necessary:

O Philip Melanchthon! for I appeal to you who live in the presence of God with Christ, and wait for us there until we are united with you in blessed rest . . . I have wished a thousand times that it had been our lot to be together!

The citation is from page 258 in Calvin: Theological Treatises, edited by J.K.S. Reid (although Armstrong does not cite Reid’s name properly), and reprinted in 2000 by Westminster John Knox Press.

Slam dunk, right?

In case we don’t believe him, Armstrong links to an image of the page on Google Books. But then he provides another link, this time to a volume containing a 19th century translation of the same source, also on Google Books. He prefaces this second link with the words, “The same prayer (or whatever one thinks it is) is found in…” as if to disclaim that he is not absolutely saying that this is what the bold-lettered title of his blog post declares it to be: a prayer from Calvin to the late Melanchthon.

Yeah, right.

Ready, Fire, Aim!

As it turns out, at this point in his very real and ongoing war against Protestantism, Armstrong was not using real ammunition. Nor did he have a clear view of his immediate target.

Not only is there nothing in the words he quoted from Calvin to suggest it was a prayer, but if Armstrong had bothered to check Reid’s introduction, he would have found those words referred to as Calvin’s “moving apostrophe to Melanchthon,” (Reid, ibid., 21). And if he had checked the index of his 19th century source, he would have discovered it listed as “Calvin’s solemn apostrophe to [Melanchthon],” (Henry Beveridge, translator, Calvin’s Treatises on the Sacraments [Edinburgh, UK: Calvin Translation Society, 1849], 2:587). What has been obvious to readers for at least the past 167 years was wholly lost on Armstrong.

The notion that Calvin would lapse into a prayer to Philip Melanchthon so soon after publishing the final editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Latin: 1559; French: 1560) is analogous to the idea that Bernie Sanders would endorse Donald Trump for President the day after he loses the Democrat nomination. In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” (Institutes 3.20.21, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans., [Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press], 2:879), and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” (Institutes 3.20.22; ibid., 2:880). Any kind of communication with the dead is impossible, since “when the Lord withdrew them from our company, he left us no contact with them [Eccl. 9:5-6], and as far as we can conjecture, not even left them any with us.” (Institutes 3.20.24, ibid., 2:883.) And yet Armstrong would have us believe that a year after Calvin applied the final tweaks to the extended section of the Institutes in which he thoroughly denounced this practice (3.20.21-27) he engaged in it himself!

As a former Roman Catholic, I find it somewhat shocking that a zealous son of the Vatican cannot distinguish an example of apostrophe from a genuine prayer to a dead saint. It was never difficult for me. All one need do in order to find out what real prayers to dead saints look like is to consult an authentic historical source, such as the prayers of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109).

When Anselm prayed to the Virgin Mary, he made specific requests. He asked her to cleanse him from his sins: “let this filth be washed from my mind, let my darkness be illuminated, my lukewarmness blaze up, my listlessness be stirred,” (The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion, Benedicta Ward, ed. and trans., [London, UK and New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 1973], 116). When he prayed to the Apostle Peter he begged for assurance “that I am received, healed, and cherished,” (ibid., 138). He asked the Apostles Paul and John to intercede for him before God: “St Paul, pray for your son,” (ibid., 155); “John, whose intercession I ask,” (ibid., 167). He pleads with St. Stephen that if he will only speak up for him, “I am sure the most loving God will remit the whole of my evil deeds,” (ibid., 177). He asks St. Nicholas to “stir up my spirit, excite my heart, move my mind according to my need,” (ibid., 188). To St. Benedict he prays, “Help me! I beg you to be my protector,” (ibid., 199). To Mary Magdalene he implores, “in my darkness, I ask for light; in my sins, redemption; impure, I ask for purity,” (ibid., 202).

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

But nothing like this is found in Calvin’s address to Melanchthon. It lasts all of a paragraph, and it ends with a quote from a letter that Melanchthon had written to Calvin. Calvin does not ask Melanchthon to intercede for him before God, or apply some of his own merits to Calvin, as we find in Anselm’s prayers. He simply recalls the support Melanchthon had given to him during his lifetime, and moves on to the next paragraph where he recalls his own response to what Melanchthon wrote. The apostrophe is already over by this point, and it includes no petitions, no request, no pleas. The reason for this is simple: it’s not a prayer.

Epilogue

When I first began writing this, I did not see any comments on Armstrong’s blog post. That has changed, and I notice that the issue of apostrophe has been called to his attention. He is not responding very positively to it.

Go figure.

Is the Federal Vision Gone?

Since the internet debate has died down quite a bit from its heyday about a decade ago, many people have assumed that the Federal Vision is gone and dead. A highly erroneous conclusion. It is not dead. Every one of its proponents is still out there, spreading their false doctrine industriously, now under cover of darkness, since they no longer present themselves as targets online. The missions field is especially problematic, with the FV gaining ground in Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. Even in the PCA, the issue is not dead. Jeff Meyers is still at large, as is Mark Horne. They are influencing many Covenant Seminary grads through their internship programs. Douglas Wilson is basically the only FV proponent still visible much on the internet, as we might expect, since he is the one who presents the public persona of the FV. If anything, the battle concerning the FV, while it has practically disappeared from the internet, is still very much alive and well in churches.

Enter now my friend Dewey Roberts into the field. He argued the Leithart case before the SJC. The SJC had determined that Dewey had not proven his case. A large part of that, I suspect, is that Dewey was probably using early drafts of his book to argue his case. When I talked to him about it on the phone, he was saying many of the things that came out in the book. Before the SJC, the way to win a case is to compare the teachings of Leithart (or whoever is on trial) to the Westminster Standards only. Here is what the defendant believes, in his own words, and here is what the Westminster Standards say. Dewey’s purpose in this book is much, much broader than that. He is comparing the Federal Vision to historic Christianity, and his findings are that they are two different things. The main thesis of the book is that the Federal Vision is either Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian in its system, and is therefore not Christian doctrine.

Knowing as I do the history of the Leithart case rather well, I think I made the same mistake Dewey did, actually, but from the reverse direction. Dewey argued his book in front of the SJC, while I expected his performance in front of the SJC negatively to impact the book. Neither of us was right. This book is quite well done, carefully argued, and theologically perceptive. I thought, over the course of some 350 blog posts, and countless comments, that I had considered the FV from just about every possible angle. Dewey showed me wrong. He has many angles that I had not thought of before. If the peacefully slumbering PCA (at least on FV concerns) will read this book, they will find that there is still work to be done, and that we need to do it. The gospel really is at stake, and the Federal Vision really is heresy, not just heterodoxy.

I have a couple of things I would criticize, one very small thing, and one more substantial thing. The small thing is the chapter endnotes. I hate endnotes. I have made no bones about the fact. One has to twist one’s hand in very awkward positions in order to be able to flip back and forth. If the purpose of footnotes is to avoid distracting one from the main line of argumentation, then endnotes fail miserably, because the added time of flipping back and forth makes it very difficult to keep on the thread of the main argument. But chapter endnotes are even worse than book endnotes, since you are constantly losing your place. Why couldn’t we have had footnotes on the same page as the text?

The more substantial criticism I have is the number of times Dewey quoted Guy Waters’s book on the FV as an original source. Now, Waters’s book is truly excellent, and one of the most important publications on the debate. Nevertheless, I prefer to see sources quoted first-hand, rather than second-hand. That way, if one wants to follow the paper trail backwards, one can examine the quotation in its original context much easier. The FV proponents will, of course, cry foul because they, like so many artists, are being misunderstood, boo hoo. The Ninth Commandment is often abused as the last refuge of the heretic. This criticism does not, I think, affect the validity of Dewey’s arguments.

I learned a lot from this book, and I hope that my readers will buy the book and read it, as well. Federal Vision proponents, know this: Dewey has your number, and he got it well. We know what you’re trying to do, and we are on guard.

How Does Jesus Work?

I came across this delightful quotation in J.C. Ryle’s work on John (volume 2, p. 145). Ryle is quoting Christopher Wordsworth, and Anglican bishop who wrote an entire Bible commentary:

God loves to effect His greatest works by means tending under ordinary circumstances to produce the very opposite of what is to be done. God walls the sea with sand. God clears the air with storms. God warms the earth with snow. So in the world of grace. He brings water in the desert, not from the soft earth, but the flinty rock. He heals the sting of the serpent of fire by the serpent of brass. He overthrows the wall of Jericho by ram’s horns. He slays a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. He cures salt water with salt. He fells the giant with a sling and stone. And thus does the Son of God work in the Gospel. He cures the blind man by that which seemed likely to increase his blindness, by anointing his eyes with clay. He exalts us to heaven by the stumbling block of the cross.

God always seems to use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, doesn’t He?

History, Bias, and the Historian

I was reading in Carl F.H. Henry’s massive 6-volume God, Revelation and Authority this morning, and came across a fascinating little quotation: “What places the historian under obligation toward events is that his own judgments of importance do not in fact constitute the external situation; actually, if he is to be worthy of professional respect, he must be concerned with a response to historical evidence” (volume 1, p. 162). Henry assumes, of course, that no historian can be free of bias. Henry is instead concerned to point out a very important point of self-awareness: what historians think of as important is still distinct from the actual situation. Every historian has to be selective. If the historian attempted to be completely comprehensive, then his work would take longer to read than the actual series of events, since nothing would be left out from any perspective. The historian’s principles of selection, then, become the points at which the historian’s bias comes into view. We can readily see this bias in the news media today. The news media function as a sort of immediate historical writing of contemporary events. They will choose to recount an event at which a few LGBT folks are present to protest, but will not comment on a pro-life rally at which over 100,000 people are present. The principle of selection reveals their bias.

Now, all people have biases, assumptions, presuppositions. The question for historians is not whether they are going to be biased, but (as Ken Ham would say) which bias is the right bias to be biased with in the first place. Secondarily, it is equally important to be self-aware of those biases, and, in the interests of full disclosure, relate those biases to the reader, so that the reader can properly evaluate the historian’s account. All too often, the historian pretends to have a complete objectivity, thereby seeking to gain an indomitable and unassailable ground on which to define history. It comes to light in the sometimes not-so-subtle claims that other historians may be biased, but he is not. Flee from such historians as from a plague.

The most pernicious form of the lack of self-awareness on this point is the mentality of many (most?) news media that they actually create reality, and that nothing exists but spin, and whoever controls the spin controls the world. There are several problems. First of all, events can happen which are objectively outside our points of view (i.e., we don’t know that they happened at all). Those events can have a huge impact on the significance of other events of which we do have knowledge. Secondly, such lack of self-awareness is usually connected to a certain claim for power. Control the language, control the definitions, control the perspective, and you control the world. The news media understand this exceedingly well.

Ultimately, there is a correct bias, as well as many incorrect biases. The correct bias is God’s perspective on history. God, after all, defines reality, both in general and special revelation. Any bias that does not seek to line up with God’s perspective is doomed to fail, ultimately. The problem comes when secular or postmodern advocates come to us and tell us that any claim to line up with God’s perspective is itself a power play, a grab at arrogance and condescension. Our response is two-fold, one answer being defense, and the other offense. On the defensive side, we can say that if God really does exist, then it is actually a sign of humility not to oppose this God by setting up our own autonomous principles of knowledge. Secondly, the postmodernist does not escape the very problem he criticizes. What kind of knowledge does he possess that guarantees his own freedom from power hunger? By seeking to eliminate the possibility of lining up with God’s perspective, is he not, by virtue of that very act, making a power play at stifling the Christian worldview?

On the one hand, events happen of which we have no knowledge. Nevertheless, just because we don’t know about them, we cannot therefore infer from that fact that they are unimportant. Our understanding of history is not the same thing as history itself, the chain of events that make up our timeline. On the other hand, when it comes to events of which we do have an awareness, we must be aware that our presuppositions will always play a role in how we interpret the level of importance, as well as the significance, of those events.

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